Monday, June 27, 2016

All drugged up to go outside

Beat and I planned to hit the high country on Sunday. I was excited about this, but oddly nervous, given the plan was a half-day hike on a non-technical trail. "Thirteen thousand feet? I wonder how that's going to go."

In the morning I gulped down coffee, then continued the self-medication with two Aleve for my hand, two Claritin for the horrendous grass pollen season, full-body coverage of SPF 50 sunscreen paste with so much zinc oxide it doesn't rub in, and since the high-altitude UV barrage charred patches of skin that I missed last week, another sweep with sunscreen spray. Arm sleeves, body lube, bug dope just in case. Frozen water bladder, buff (snot rag), hat, sunglasses. Rigid arm brace to protect my still-healing wrist in the likely event of falling, which has happened in 25 percent of my runs since I had surgery a month ago. Finally, one hit of the inhaler for pre-exercise airway prep. More inhaler hits were sure to follow later.

Sometimes I miss those carefree days of winter when all I have to do is put on a coat to go outside.

 Beat and I are not good at alpine starts. Terrible, actually. I realize that once monsoon season hits we'll need to be up at 4 a.m. to visit the high country. But for now, the weather is very forgiving of our habits: Ambling out the door at 8:30, getting stuck behind a train, and finally hitting the trail after nine. Our objective for the day was James Peak from the Moffat Tunnel trailhead, gaining about 4,300 feet in 14 miles round trip, topping out at 13,300 feet.

 The weather was nearly perfect — on the warm side at 85 degrees lower on the route, but breezy and clear above tree line. I struggled a lot. Beat and I did a little running lower on the route, which was fun and felt good. But this hard respiration tipped my breathing over the edge, and I didn't get it back. I wheezed and walked slowly from that point on. Another tipping point came after crossing below a raging waterfall on a sturdy but narrow and rail-less bridge. Whitewater is a strong phobia for me, and the rather benign crossing ignited panicked hyperventilating, from which I couldn't recover. I was dizzy the rest of the way up the peak, teetering on narrow switchbacks and leaning on boulders. It was all so beautiful, but I was so frustrated.

 These types of experiences are difficult to reconcile. Can't I just be happy about getting out to an incredible spot on a perfect day? Standing on the Continental Divide and gazing out over hundreds of miles of rugged beauty? Eating a pastrami sandwich in the sunshine and laughing at marmots as they watched us ruefully? I am happy, but I also need to acknowledge my health frustrations as well.

I'm now one year into this "asthma" journey, and beginning to swing back to suspicions that I do in fact have chronic — if hopefully seasonal — asthma. I was sick most of last summer, had a resurgence of lung strength from October to December, experienced a relapse in January, and then went on daily medication from February to April. Since nobody wants to be on daily medication for the rest of their lives, my asthma doctor in the Bay Area recommended going off the maintenance inhaler after moving to Colorado (she also strongly recommended getting allergy tested in Colorado and starting allergy shots based on the results.) Currently I feel like I'm slipping back into uncontrolled asthma, so I'll need to confront that. I have 14 days' worth of medication that I saved for this scenario. I plan to start a two-week trial after I return from a friend's wedding in sea-level Portland — so July 5. If I see improvements after those two weeks, I will make a bid to stay on the medication. Either way I need to find a new asthma doc here in Boulder. Even more than the thought of taking daily medication, I hate the idea of having three different types of doctors who I see on a regular basis (though hopefully I'll be able to walk away from the hand specialist soon.)

Another aspect of my health that I need to work on is my attitude. I do become frustrated, but it doesn't have to be that way. Although James Peak was incredibly scenic, perhaps my favorite run last week was a solo outing on Winiger Ridge, a nondescript trail above Gross Dam Reservoir. This was one of those runs where I had no real plan for the day. I was exploring. So it didn't matter if I sucked, or if I couldn't keep up with Beat, or if I ran this one segment significantly slower than I was able to run in April. Happily I jogged along county and forest roads until I came to a ribbon of singletrack along a broad ridge, so I followed it. The sky was cloudy and there was a strong breeze, so heat and pollen were both subdued. The trail spent most of the time in forest, but occasionally popped out into meadows with yellow wildflowers and mountain views. My breathing stayed in control, and I couldn't have been more content.

This reminds me of a proverb I came across while researching asthma: "Life is breath. He who half-breathes, half lives."

Only 86 days until autumn. 
Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lazy days of summer

I'm probably not the only one surprised that the summer solstice has already come and gone. It's been a quiet start to the season for me, with no big adventures or races planned anytime soon, the whole gimpy hand thing, and a disconcerting decline in my running fitness — possibly due to allergies, asthma, or just falling out of shape ... I admittedly have been a bit lazy.

I actually had a decent start with running in Colorado when I first moved here in late April — back when there was still some snow on the ground and I wasn't acclimated. Now, instead of improving, I'm getting worse. I wish I could see stats of my VO2 max now versus 13 months ago, because I'd expect to see a decline. Although I doubt that the whole "I ruined my lungs during the Tour Divide" theory has real merit, this continues to be my fear. Hard breathing doesn't earn me much these days. My legs remain bored with slow plodding, and yet plod slowly is all I can do before dizziness sets in. Because of this, three-hour runs don't leave me feeling tired afterward, but three hours is about the amount of time I can tolerate before frustration takes over the fun factor.

So it's difficult to get too excited about running. I'm hoping to carve out more opportunities for alpine adventures, where the plodding is slow and the breathing is difficult, but the scenery is so intoxicating.
Beat and I went for a 14-mile walk along Niwot Ridge on Saturday, up to 12,400 feet. Alpine ridge-walking is perhaps my favorite form of outdoor recreation. The gimpy hand makes it difficult because I can't manage much scrambling, which puts a lot of alpine terrain off-limits. But it won't be that way for much longer, I hope. Although until about a week ago I was pessimistic I'd ever recover, recently my hand has made some real improvements. Now I can grip a steering wheel without pain, which I haven't been able to do since before CTS symptoms showed up in March. I have one of those liberal surgeons who tells me the recommended recovery period is eight weeks, but it's fine to return to activities as soon as I feel comfortable. Since I still have pain, numbness and very limited strength, I don't feel comfortable with scrambling and biking yet. But I may be able to grab that second trekking pole soon.

This morning I joined Eszter for a jaunt up Green Mountain. She's visiting her hometown (maybe she doesn't consider Boulder her hometown ... so we'll say the town where her parents live) for the next two weeks, and it was fun to talk about bikepacking and the Trans-Am while out on slow run. 

She asked about my first impressions of Boulder, and I realize I haven't written much about that. My point of view is skewed because I reside 25 minutes outside of town and can live like a hermit if I want, and sort of do. I occasionally work in coffee shops and enjoy this, although this is a college town and the crowdedness of coffee shops reflect that. I've only visited a few local restaurants, and they've all been pretty good, but not "San Francisco good." I still do about 80 percent of my grocery shopping at Trader Joes ... habits die hard. Beyond that, there's a lot about Boulder that reminds me of my hometown, Salt Lake City. It definitely has a strong mountain west feel. The scenery from main street is hard to beat.

I've been following the antics of a running group that I joined, but I have yet to show up at a group run — mostly because of my location and scheduling, but also because of fitness insecurity. That's another thing about Boulder — the trail running scene can feel a bit intense. After living in the Bay Area with its seven million people, I grew accustomed to generally falling in the top 25 percent of women on most non-downhill Strava segments. Here, I'm working as hard as my lungs can manage and still struggling to crack out of the bottom half. Well, it's my fault. I was warned not to compare myself to Boulderites on Strava.

Anyway, someday I'll be able to ride a bike again, and then I'll just head out to explore miles and miles of forest roads, and none of this will matter anymore. Until then, I'm on the hunt for amazing routes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness that don't require use of hands.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Days at home

I was loping through tall grass on a fading forest road when it occurred to me what I miss most about cycling. I'd been pondering this since I walked past my mountain bike with its sad deflated tires that haven't been touched since January, yelled at my fingers while fumbling with the laces of my running shoes, and stepped outside into wind-blast of grass pollen and heat to go for a run that I felt strangely not enthused about, at all. I say strangely because nine days passed after my surgery before I felt stable and pain-free enough to venture back to trails, and I thought I'd be more excited about it.

I've been feeling down this week. It's not just about my hand, although I'd be lying if I didn't admit that pain and lack of instant-fix (which nobody expected) weren't a large percentage of my sour mood. There was also, of course, the latest batch of world news, mass shootings and this debacle of an election year. There was the onset of spring allergy season (my second of the year thanks to moving from California to Colorado.) There was some concerning news about Cady, the sweet cat who lived with me for 11 years and now resides with a friend in California. An acquaintance died. This woman and I were close in age and shared similar passions, so her candid writing about her battle with cancer over the past twenty months always struck a chord. Her illness had progressed to the point where the news might bring the platitude, "At least she's no longer suffering." But she remained grateful every day. She was never unrealistic, but she was also never resigned. She was grateful when she could hike; and when she could no longer do that, she was grateful when she could take her young son to the park; and when she could no longer do that, she was grateful when she could get out of bed; and when she could no longer do that, she was grateful she could still draw; and when she could no longer do that, she sent out a final goodbye. She was gone just over a week later.

So I was a bit sad and I was stuck at home, unable to drive to town with my bad hand, and canceling an interview and a meet-up with a friend because of this. I do love the place where I live, and enjoyed some beautiful sunsets and humorous interactions with birds, rabbits, and deer. I'd take my laptop outside, but the allergy fog would drive me indoors before too long. The heat ramped up to nearly ninety degrees. I ventured back into running slowly — 4, 5, 6 miles on the dirt road, extremely careful because tripping and falling would have been a disaster.

I did get a lot done with my Iditarod book project, which I'm happy about. The first draft is nearly finished. I just have one more chapter and a few details to add, and then it will be time to sort through it and determine whether it makes any sense. Thematically the storyline is quite similar to "Be Brave, Be Strong" — about failure, kindness, and overcoming self-doubt. I'm thinking about combining the story with a full-color photo book, because designing such a book would be a lot of fun — even if not so lucrative. After this I need to find less esoteric subjects to write about. Maybe. I'm not sure it's that important.

A follow-up with the surgeon brought a lecture about not using my hand enough. Although the nerve still has a long way to go toward healing, I can improve my strength and dexterity with hand exercises. Great. There will surely be more pain and mistakes down the road (I already broke the screen on my phone because I dropped it), but maybe someday soon I will stop screaming at my shoelaces.

The surgeon basically gave me the go-ahead to live my normal life, so I celebrated today by exploring a new trail near my house, Twin Sisters Peak (a small rocky outcropping in Boulder County, not to be confused with the popular summit in Rocky Mountain National Park.) The heat index was high but there was a nice breeze, and despite allergies I begin to feel more peppy after slogging out the first mile. By accident I veered off the main trail onto a disused forest road. After realizing this, I decided to keep following it all the same. Suddenly caught up in the prospect of new discoveries, I realized that this is what I miss most about riding my bike — exploration. There's a large scope beyond this small radius where I've run and hiked since moving to Boulder two months ago. Wheels give such an empowering sense of freedom, when it's possible to cover dozens of miles in a few hours. Sure, there's still tons of new space to explore on foot — including the mysteries of my own back yard. But I can't help but look out toward the snow-capped Continental Divide, and want to go there right now.

The old forest road largely petered out, but I did run into some no-trespassing signs, so I turned around. I hadn't planned to climb all the way to the peak, fearing a scramble, but upon return from my "adventure," I changed my mind. Tentatively placing my stiff, weak fingers around holds — but refusing to put any weight on them — I managed to gain the summit. Atop that rocky outcropping were incredible views of every space I've explored so far, and so many more I haven't. I may be down sometimes, but I'm still grateful. Every day.
Monday, June 06, 2016

Between injury and recovery

On Friday I had carpal tunnel release surgery in my right hand. The procedure required a long vertical slit through the palm, where the surgeon cut the transverse carpal ligament to relieve pressure on the median nerve, and also removed a fair amount of scar tissue from the area. The scar tissue was especially surprising. A majority of people who suffer from chronic CTS - many for years before they seek treatment - never build up scar tissue and have better nerve response than I did after three months of symptoms. Everything about my case points to acute CTS, except for I never had a damaging wrist injury. Or did I? The long tunnel of scars and bruises is becoming increasingly murky.

What the surgery did determine is that this was never going to get better on its own, and may not still. It's up to the nerve to heal now that the compression has been released. It was, however, badly compressed. As soon as the wound heals I can employ massage to prevent scar tissue buildup and hand exercises to improve strength, but most of the actual healing process is beyond my control. Knowledge of this has admittedly brought me down, but that sad feeling could just be the pain and fatigue from surgery, and dealing with what is currently an utterly useless right hand. I lost my temper today when I failed to wrap a band around my hair - so I threw my hat across the room and stomped all over it. Childish as it is, sometimes a temper tantrum feels good.

When my mom heard about my surgery, she offered to spend her birthday driving across Colorado with my dad so they could drive me to the clinic and stay by my bedside as I woke up in a recovery room, groggy and begging for apple juice. My mom was very sweet to take care of me over the weekend, and I feel lucky to have her. It was especially fun to show my parents our new home and the surrounding mountains.

The hat-stomping incident occurred after they returned to Salt Lake, when I decided to get some fresh air by walking up to my neighbor's house to deliver a check. The process of getting ready - changing into outside clothes, adjusting my new arm sling, writing and signing a check with my left hand to a satisfying level of third-grade-penmanship, applying sunscreen, and putting on shoes and socks - took a frustratingly large amount of time. By the time I got to the hair tie and hat, I'd had it, and let my hair whip and tangle in the wind. Dark clouds built overhead as I walked. After three miles I still hadn't found my neighbor's house (turns out he moved his street sign) but by then there was thunder directly overhead, and I needed to hurry home. When it started to rain I tried jogging, but that was far too painful and ill-advised. Then the sky opened with heavy rain and nickel-sized hail, and all I could do was duck beneath a pine tree and hold my good hand over my neck as hail pelted my head and back, and rain soaked the bandages I wasn't supposed to get wet.

"Mom would not be happy with me," I thought. (Sorry, Mom.) I felt like crying, but I'd already spent all my tantrum energy on a hat.

Instead I waited for the hail to subside, then walked the rest of the way home in a downpour to change my bandages and dispose of the disintegrated check that I'd spent such a long time writing and carrying up the road for nothing. Sometimes it just feels like there's a dark cloud hovering overhead. But things get brighter. I know that.