Monday, August 15, 2016

Outside looking in

 Recently I had an enlightening e-mail conversation with another cyclist about self-defining tenets and the unsettling experience of losing these pieces of our identities. People who identify as athletes are endlessly vulnerable to health setbacks, injuries, changes in circumstance, and aging — while clinging to the belief that "there are no limits," "you can do anything you set your mind to," "you just have to work for it."

Reconciliation of desire and reality seems to be the key — of course there are limits, but our experiences are beautiful regardless. Over the years, I've observed this process in friends and acquaintances. There was always some hubris in believing it wouldn't happen to me, or if it did, I'd be fine because I was already secure in my belief that there's so much more to life than scaling mountains and riding bikes. But now I'm in a summer of discontent, losing fitness in spite of my best efforts, avoiding mountains because I've lost so much faith in my abilities, and imagining what life might actually look like on the other side.

It's interesting to consider the notion of "letting go," even if I haven't arrived there yet. People around me still insist "you'll get it back," and for the most part I still believe this, too. My recent bout with carpal tunnel syndrome provided its own perspective — I was rapidly losing function in my right hand, I was constantly in pain, and it felt like a permanent condition. If it wasn't for surgery, it likely would have been a permanent condition. Instead, it was a surprisingly simple fix, and two months later, my hand is almost back to a hundred percent — or, at least it would be if I was more diligent about strengthening exercises. Maybe in two months more time, I'll be breathing just fine, I'll spend long days outdoors while feeling great the whole time, fire will again rage where right now there are only fumes, and I'll wonder why I ever lost the faith.

For now, I still have good days and bad. The good days are starting to outweigh the bad. On Friday I embarked on an incredible bike ride — incredible only because it was the first ride since winter where I finally felt reasonably strong, didn't crash, didn't wheeze, didn't stop to take puffs from my inhaler, and propelled myself through forty miles of interesting scenery. I pedaled past beautiful rock formations on Magnolia, side-eyed strange characters in Nederland, stole glimpses of big mountains on the Peak-to-Peak Highway, breathed crisp air on the Switzerland Trail, and tucked into a screaming descent toward the plains on Sugarloaf Road. It was a satisfying ride, and reminded me that my identity isn't tied up in being an athlete. It's tied up in loving the outdoors. My vision of the "other side" doesn't contain imagery of working out in gyms and indoor activity. Instead, I imagine painting landscapes and going for walks — if necessary, finding less taxing ways to enjoy the outside world. Still, if I can engage my body in exhilarating activity while moving through the world, that would pretty much be having it all.

Of course, on Saturday I went for a ninety-minute run that went so badly, Beat had to come pick me up in the car before I made it home. This gasping dizziness I occasionally experience is exactly why I'm not willing to take any big chances right now — even hiking up a fourteener seems risky. So when our friend Chris Plesko invited us on a scrambling excursion in the Flatirons on Sunday morning, I dug for any excuse to get out of it. "My hand is still too weak." "What if I get dizzy on a wall?" These were legitimate concerns, but ultimately I decided to join.

Chris guided us on a short practice climb on the First Flatiron, and then we hiked over the the Second Flatiron for a classic route called "The Freeway." This 600-foot slab ascent is rated 5.0, and thus was one of my first forays into fifth-class terrain — but it's been a long time since my initial top-rope outings in Little Cottonwood Canyon back in 2002. What's beautiful about this route is that in addition to confidence-inspiring natural features, there are plenty of exits. It's a great route for beginners, which Beat and I undoubtedly are. We're both tentative on exposed terrain and I'm prone to vertigo, but Chris was a helpful and patient guide.

Near the summit, we arrived at a needle that required a four-foot jump onto a forty-five-degree slab. I couldn't bring myself to make the leap, so Beat and Chris offered their shoulders so I could lower myself down. In the process of putting all of my weight on a few curled fingers, my right hand cramped up badly and never recovered. There was one more pitch after the jump that was the steepest pitch of the climb, and I was reeling with muscle cramps in my hand and a beginner's unwillingness to trust friction to hold my feet. Chris offered a lot of support and I'm grateful for his guidance. This was a solid venture out of my comfort zone, and it was very satisfying to reach the top. Scrambling "The Freeway" and riding from home to the Switzerland Trail feel like big victories near the end of a rather disappointing summer.

Maybe I'll get it back, but even if I don't, life is still awesome. 


  1. Maybe I'm fortunate in that my twenties and thirties were spent firefighting and clearing trails, so now every outdoor adventure I have feels like a bonus even if it isn't extreme. Of course I ran races and stuff but the opportunities for things like ultras just were not there. At any rate, I think you are on the right track. When I accepted that I wasn't going to run six minute miles anymore my runs got so much better. Not saying you need to accept at all, just that a new way of looking at things can help sometimes.

    1. Thanks. The main component of my angst doesn't arise from a certain activity or pace, it's from disliking and actively avoiding going outside. For example, we have a new wildlife cam that I want to set up on the property, but the thought of walking through tall grass keeps me from doing this very simple task — even though I'd enjoy the outcome. This avoidance compounds with strenuous activities, which not only trigger annoying allergy symptoms, but asthma. I guess what I'm getting at in these meandering blog posts is that I don't necessarily need "epic," but this strong aversion to "outside" is disconcerting.

  2. That's the spirit! Your love of the outdoors will never go away, and that will continue to inspire people even if your adventures become more "pedestrian" you will find a way to make them extraordinary in other ways. Trust yourself!

    I gave up running in 2009, and may never run again. That first year was hard - I cried a lot, and I cried *hard*. Embarrassing. But I can still hike, and I've seen things I never saw as a runner - mostly focused on pavement and running in circles and minutes per mile. While I respect the person I was back then, I have moved so far beyond her that the idea of covering distances at 8 minutes to the mile versus 15 minutes to the mile seems so utterly trivial and meaningless that I wonder why I was ever so frustrated. Then again, I do forget what "runner's high" is like - that helps - but man, that withdrawal period is not fun!

    You'll get through it, no matter where you end up on the "other side".

    1. Last year after my Tour Divide DNF, I was pretty sick for a month and did a lot of self-reflecting, and concluded that I don't need "epic" in my life. I suppose my actions since then haven't really followed this line of thinking, but even a year ago I was letting go of this notion that my body could handle whatever I set my mind to.

      I'm curious what led you to give up running. I admire your perspective. I don't necessarily feel broken ... more like my passion is being tested. Bad days happen to me whether I'm out for a four-mile run or a six-hour bike ride. The same with good days. Stepping out the front door is always a risk, but so far it's still one worth taking.

    2. Since your definition of "epic" has been set by some activities that are at the very edge of human ability (or at least, the edge of what most everyday athletes ever accomplish) I can imagine that even relatively major adventures would feel somewhat lacking and not worthy of being called "epic". Maybe your definitions will change (obviously, I hope they don't!) but that wouldn't be the worst thing. It takes time for brains to re-wire themselves, but they inevitably do. It might be enough that you *want* to want to get that fire back. Frustration is a good sign, I think! It's when you just stop caring that there's real trouble. (Then again, depression is treatable too).

      I gave up running due to chronic plantar-fasciitis that sometimes flares up to the point where I can barely walk at times. After a year of taking mega doses of Calcium and vitamin D it's finally improving to the point where I've been experimenting with trail running (er, ridiculously slow jogging) but running itself doesn't have any deep meaning for me any more. It's like realizing that you're dating an old ex again ... and then waking up and thinking what a strange dream that was. It doesn't seem real. To me, the definition of "epic" is whatever seems the most real, and figuring out what that is is my ultimate motivation.

  3. never put all thy eggs in one basket is key... I too thought I was indestructible, most people think that way until they hit limits/challenges in life (death of loved one, divorce, etc...). When I was racing plus working plus raising a family... I faced the biggest challenge of my life going through a separation and my mom dying the same day I was moving out of the house. Then having to train for La Ruta ( which was just a month away. That was damn tough. What ever doesn't kill yah though makes yah stronger. I'm glad I never took up racing full time, for those that I know that did are stuck now... many in debt for years etc... living off of credit cards as they tried to meet their dreams. Its best to get a good education first and a sustainable job then take up racing. Its tough doing both. Then add in a family in there, a challenge big time.
    Life is a challenge with bumps on the road, its how one handles those bumps that makes things count.

  4. My numbness in my fingers and dexterity finally just returned to normal in the past week from the iti.


Feedback is always appreciated!