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. 


  1. Who needs an alpine start when you're running? You can have a cup of coffee and be on top of Long's Peak before noon. Truth be told, I wish I were better at it.

    Rollinsville is one of my go-to trailheads, simply because the parking is ample and the terrain is great once you get up there. Also good if you're into trains. Wave to the tourists on the Zephyr.

    "pastrami sandwich" > I ran a mountain and all I got was a tube of Clif Bloks.

    "Winiger Ridge" > Good tip, thx.

    1. I sure wish I was better at mountain running too. :)

      It's funny, because I took up running after I caught a glimpse of all of the amazing alpine terrain that was just out of my reach as a day hiker in Juneau. Seven years of trying to get better at mountain running has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Sometimes I envy that naive Juneau hiker who was relatively fearless and strong in comparison.

  2. Check out National Jewish down in Denver for your asthma. They're probably the best pulmonary disease hospital in the western hemisphere.

    I was living with what I thought was cold-induced asthma for years, using inhalers that never seemed to work and popping a daily pill which I hoped was doing some good. After a particularly nasty bout, my doc sent me to NJ. After allergy testing, and some lung capacity tests, they said I didn't have asthma at all. Rather I have a blockage in one of my lung lobes (likely scar damage caused from a nasty bout of pneumonia in college), which leads to my wheezing and shortness of breath at times.

    Just saying that after having two docs tell me I had asthma for years, it was great to have an answer to my lung riddle (albeit nothing I could do about it without a surgical procedure). And with NJ being in town, it was a resource I felt lucky to have as an option!

    Hopefully you'll find the answer to your lung riddle quickly as well!

    1. Thanks for the info! I still have some skepticism about a straightforward asthma diagnosis, and it would good to explore other probable causes. I'll look into it.

      So your case required surgery — does this mean you've opted to live with your condition rather than have the surgery? If so, are there any treatments that help? (I ask because I have suspicions of scar tissue as well.)

    2. My surgery would involve placing a stent into that bronchial tube, to keep it open. My issue is that the scar tissue in that bronchus made the opening smaller and the normal mucous lining closes it off. So that lobe of my lung can get air in, but can't expel air, and it's hyper-inflated (taking up half the space for that lung and effectively not usable).
      So for now, I've chosen to live with it. For me, it really only acts up during and for a few weeks after I get a chest cold. Sometimes it'll be aggravated by allergies. I think it's really whenever my body reacts to something by producing more mucous.
      Treatment-wise, they gave me a breathing exercise to do (3x day for 20 minutes each) with this apparatus that has a flapper in it which produces little backwaves of pressure as you exhale, to help loosen/dislodge gunk). That won't solve the issue, that's just what I'd have to do from now until whenever. So, yeah, that lasted all of two weeks... I use it whenever it acts up, but not for general maintenance.

    3. Thanks for your input. What you describe resonates with me — problems developed after a bout with pneumonia, and mucous production as a trigger. When I have a cold or allergies is when I struggle ... it still seems strange to me that I went 3 months without symptoms last fall, only to have it flare up again in the middle of winter. So I appreciate the direction. Hopefully I can find another doctor who won't just blow off my questions. The last one I found was good in this regard.

    4. That does sound similar to my problem. I too would go months and months between having symptoms, which was always the mystery for me and my regular docs. The CAT scan at NJ saw the issue right away, so maybe it will take going down that path before yours is solved.
      Dr. Rachel Zemans was the doc I saw at NJ.
      Dr. Mark Wisner is my regular doc (an osteopath), who practices in Boulder, and referred me to NJ.
      All the best! I know we all enjoy reading about your adventures, and it's hard to go adventure with a bum wrist and uncooperative lungs!

  3. Jill, National Jewish is a great hospital. I call them about complicated lung cases often. "Sometimes I miss those carefree days of winter where all I have to do is put on a coat to go outside." Love it! Looks like you have had some great days of hiking. Beautiful! Glad you are getting stronger.
    P.S. 2 weeks may not be long enough to know if the medications are helping. Might take a month.

    1. I know. One 14-day inhaler is all I have for now, but I hope to find another doctor soon. Once the monsoon season starts, I expect my allergies will diminish. It will also be interesting to see if I improve because of this.

  4. I know a runner who had a bad case of asthma for years. He finaly tried a gluten free diet and has had an amazing improvement. Just another thing to consider.

  5. Hi Jill, I've been reading your blog since your Juneau days but this may be the first time I comment? Your writing speaks to me and your pictures are always beautiful.

    Anyway,if you get desperate enough, look into NAET allergy therapy. Ask around, maybe there is a good therapist near you. It's a "worth trying" solution, not invasive and low cost (where I am it's $45 a treatment, double that for the initial consultation). Best part is that it works even if you can't explain why. My therapist is affectionately nicknamed Hocus...

    After years of Reactine use, it's been nice to go: allergy season? I hadn't noticed. We even got a cat. I'd always been allergic to them. Well, no more. :)
    Good luck!


  6. Wow amazing. Most of the people would like to move through this places. SO please keep update like this.

    SAS Training in Chennai

  7. Sriacha hot sauce will break up the phlegm.


Feedback is always appreciated!