Thursday, July 28, 2016

More on being allergic to summer

Beat's hummingbirds. There's so many that we've been going through 1.5+ liters of sugar water per day.
 The asthma doctor had great reviews and seemed very nice, but I could tell that he wasn't necessarily going to be sympathetic to my cause. He worked through the usual questions, but a slight frown appeared on his face as I explained my "problem."

"I just get winded so easily. Sometimes while walking up my stairs at home, I have to slow because my breathing feels so constricted that I become dizzy. I do twenty-mile runs, feeling like I can barely breathe for most of the time, holding back so I don't have an attack. Yet I don't feel tired or sore after I stop moving, so there's no indication that I'm overdoing it. I use my emergency inhaler at least once for most of my workouts. I think it does help. It was never like this a year and a half ago. Not before I had pneumonia last summer."

"You do twenty-mile runs?" he asked.

"Well, yes," I said. "I just have a lot of trouble with more intense exercise. Even moderate intensity. I really start to feel bad."

I could only guess what the doctor was thinking. Clearly I'm still capable of doing things that 95 percent of the population doesn't do, and that no one really needs to do, so what's the problem? A lung function test showed my lungs are operating at 102 percent of the average for someone my age and weight. A chest X-Ray turned up normal. My resting heart rate is high (78! High 70s are what I've seen a few mornings in a row when I checked first thing. In California, my resting heart rate was always in the high 50s / low 60s.) But my blood pressure is good.

I got the sense that I might get shoed away with only a renewed emergency inhaler prescription, but I pressed for a skin test by expressing interest in starting allergy shots after I return from Europe in September. I had one done last October in California, which was informative but somewhat unremarkable. This Colorado-based test was impressive enough that the nurse demanded my phone so she could take a picture.

Those middle rows pretty much say "grass is poison to you." The rest can be translated as "You're mostly okay with indoor allergens such as mildew and dust mites. You could languish away in a moldy basement for the rest of your life and be fine, but don't go outside!"

Anyway, the doctor agrees that I'm a likely candidate for allergic asthma that's mainly induced when I am exercising outdoors. He said it would be a good idea if I returned to using the maintenance inhaler I used from February to April, as well as a steroid nasal spray for my very bad nasal congestion. I'm glad to try these treatments as I believe they will help me feel better when exercising, although of course there are still many unknowns. I may not have asthma. For several reasons I hope I do, because although asthma can be a life-long disease, it is also treatable. What isn't necessarily treatable are birth defects like a patent foramen ovale (a hole in the heart, which one blog reader told me may effect as much as 20 percent of the American population, but who often experience no symptoms until they go to high altitudes, to which they'll never adapt), as well as lung scarring and other obstructions that can't be detected by an X-Ray (although my lung function is good.)

So ... there is hope! I recognize that I am quantifiably healthy and can't complain too much about this condition. Right now I am optimistic about medication, still looking into allergy shots, and also moving toward acceptance of working with whatever fitness I have if these treatments don't help. I also remain optimistic that mostly what I need is for summer to go away, and I'll quickly build strength the way I did last fall and winter (with relapses into asthma symptoms that I believe were directly related to respiratory illness.) There's still time to launch into "training season."

The plan is to get back on the bike tomorrow. Honestly I'm a bit scared of my bike right now — not only because of the weak arm/steering issue, but because you can't hide from more intense efforts on a bike. Running, you can always slow to a plodding walk if you need to, but keeping a bike upright on a steep hill requires a minimum of effort, even with a granny gear. It seems this minimum of effort puts me in the hypoxia cave. But yes, back on a bike tomorrow and most likely a long run into the high country this weekend.

I'm excited! Even if I am starting to think of summer the way other people view winter — an uncomfortable time to be endured until friendlier weather returns.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Adventures in hypoxemia

 I'll be honest. I thought getting back on my bike was going to be a more joyful experience than it's been. On Monday I set out for a four-hour ride that felt wonderful, at first. But as the miles wore on, I slipped into indifference, which deteriorated further into a dark mood not unlike despondency. I was pretty bummed out. Why? I had no idea. The ride had gone reasonably well. I wasn't particularly strong, but I didn't struggle, either. My hand didn't hurt at all. My breathing was steady and the faucet in my face turned down a few notches even though I've been off antihistamines since last Wednesday. It was a beautiful if slightly warm day, and my route was full of new and beautiful scenery. So what was wrong?

Shortly after returning home, I checked the measurements on our pulse oximeter. My blood oxygen saturation was at 88 percent, with a recovery heart rate of 115. After just a few more minutes that number rose to 90 percent, and within a half hour it was back at my more typical resting measurement, 94 percent. My mood had vastly improved as well.

 In general, blood oxygen levels below 90 percent are considered low. During exercise, dips below 90 percent can indicate a maxed-out effort, which is typically what forces people to slow or stop because they're "out of breath." I've experienced this, but I also seem to be adapting to lower oxygen levels. Now I wonder how much time I'm spending in the 80s, without realizing it. I don't feel great but I also don't feel terrible, so I keep going. But it can't be good. Less oxygen is never good.

After the weird bike ride, I set out today to test my blood oxygen levels during a six-mile run to Bear Peak. I realize this is an unscientific experiment, but I thought it would be interesting to compare the numbers to how I felt:

I checked the oximeter ten or eleven times during the run, and took photos of the readings. For some reason a dark strip obscured the screen in most of the photos. I'm not sure why. So I'm only posting the photos where I remember the numbers. This is from mile 1.5. Oxygen saturation was 89 percent, heart rate in the 150s. For the most part, I felt fine.

 This was the lowest reading I saw, and only briefly, about halfway through the steep climb. Mile 2.8. Oxygen saturation 86 percent. I was beginning to feel dizzy and would have stopped soon to catch my breath anyway. I don't remember my heart rate at the time.

 At Bear Peak, after resting for about two minutes. Mile 3. Oxygen saturation 92 percent, heart rate 136.

Shortly after returning home from the six-mile run. Again, I felt a bit down in the dumps immediately afterward. But this run was only 90 minutes long, so time spent at low oxygen levels was minimal. I perked up quickly. (A cold soda helped.)

Blood oxygen saturation is typically lower at high altitudes, so my resting readings of 94-96 percent are right around normal. Still, I worry about those dips during exercise. Operating at lower blood oxygen may be harmful to my organs and brain. But I'm already working at what I consider moderate intensities. My heart rate would indicate this as well. If I go much easier, I'll have to give up cycling and hill-climbing altogether. Maybe become one of those Nordic walkers clicking along a flat bike path with trekking poles.

Anyway, I am going to see an asthma doctor on Wednesday. Since I recently moved, I'm basically back to square one in regard to testing for allergies and lung function, then moving forward from there. I suspect these tests will check out as normal, as I don't have issues while resting. Exercise still seems to be where most of my breathing difficulties arise. So it may take a while to weed out all of the potential causes for shortness of breath and find any real solution. It does bum me out to realize that I can't be "happy" while exercising because I'm running low on oxygen. And it bums me out more to wonder whether hard efforts might have long-term health implications, and thus become something that I need to avoid.

In the short term, I'm considering working on breathing techniques to maximize my oxygen intake and CO2 exhalation. A combination of altitude, allergies, and past respiratory illnesses may all play a role in my problem. I feel like I did well when I was using a daily maintenance inhaler (I haven't since April), so I'll bring that up with my new doctor. I'm also looking forward to the departure of grass pollen and other allergens that are clogging up my sinuses to such a degree that I haven't had a sense of smell since early June.

On a positive note, after four months off a bike, I was able to ride for four hours on Monday and my butt didn't hurt one bit! It's my one superpower — iron butt — but it rarely lets me down. I'll get this breathing thing figured out. I may start posting about it more often, mainly because it's helpful to have that record to refer back. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Not-so-triumphant return

On Monday morning, I pumped up two completely flat tires, added lube to the dusty chain, tightened the stem, installed pedals, and sat on a bike saddle for the first time in four months. Although tentative as I rolled out from my driveway, a smile spread across my face as I coasted down the first hill. I was riding my bicycle. It's a simple but fathomless joy that I think only cyclists and 6-year-olds understand.

The smile admittedly faded some as I ground the pedals up a three-mile climb, with dust swirling in the hot wind and my underdeveloped quads straining under the workload. My right hand only recently became useful again, so my whole arm all the way to the shoulder is significantly weaker than the other. I've improved my grip with hand exercises, but that doesn't do much for biceps and triceps, which were burning by the time I reached the next descent.

My hand surgeon said I should be able to start riding again six weeks after surgery, and so July 18 was the date I'd been looking forward to since June. She told me to stick to flat pavement at first, but there's only a few miles of pavement close to home, and absolutely nothing is flat. Still, the gravel road climb went okay, and my grin returned on the second descent.

"I can probably ride a few miles out the trail."

The Homestead Trail is actually just an old doubletrack with a few eroded ruts, but for the most part it's smooth, evenly graded, and as non-technical as a "trail" can possibly be. I took that "yay bikes" selfie on the climb, and started downhill feeling rather pleased with the comeback ride. My wrist didn't hurt at all, there was no numbness, and I'd received the best confirmation that surgery worked. I was healed!

Old habits returned and I accelerated quickly on the descent, eyes wide and grin spreading when suddenly the bike flipped end-over-end. I still don't know why I crashed. There was nothing on the trail to hit. My best guess is that my brain hasn't adjusted to my arm strength imbalance, and I made some tweaky move with the steering that launched me over the handlebars. Or I'm just woefully out of practice. Whatever the reason, I was crumpled beneath my bicycle and struggling with my stupid bad arm to lift the damn thing off myself. Just like that, all of my joy flipped a complete 180 to crushing bewilderment.

This was one of those stories I wasn't going to tell anyone, because it was such a devastating emotional blow at the time. I had to tell Beat because my arm was torn up with new trail rash and there were several new bruises to add to the patchwork across my legs. But I didn't want to admit this to anyone else. I've had an inordinate number of running crashes in the past few months, and then there was the return of breathing difficulties, and now that I can finally ride a bike again, well, I can't even do that right. I pretty much suck at everything. Why do I suck at everything? I sat on the dirt for several minutes, crying and berating myself. I knew this was childish and unreasonable, but sometimes it's better to just let it all out, especially when there's no one else around to witness embarrassing meltdowns. Physical pain does help release the emotional stuff.

Now that it's five days later, I do feel better about it. I haven't gained much confidence, but I realize it's not going to come back instantaneously. Four months is a long time, especially since my last cycling experiences were in Alaska, and now that I think about it, my last dirt ride also ended in a crash (when the front rack came down on top of the wheel one week before the Iditarod.) I took the mountain bike out again on Wednesday and stuck more closely to pavement — specifically, the climb up Flagstaff Road. With 2,000 feet of climbing in 4.5 miles, Flagstaff closely resembles the profile of another road I used to ride regularly in California, Montebello. Flagstaff does differ in that it's more gradual at the bottom and becomes unconscionably steep for the most of the last 1.5 miles, but I figured it was a good place to compare performances. Well ... I don't really want to talk about that either. It was a little pathetic. There were some low-oxygen dizzy moments. Temperatures were in the low 90s and my face was oozing because I'm off antihistamines ahead of another skin allergy test next week. But I did it, and I didn't put a foot down. It's got to get better, right?

After Wednesday I needed a break from the ego bruising (plus my shoulder and arm are quite sore), so I've been running since then. I will get back on a bike soon enough. The universe approves, as evidenced by this double rainbow over our backyard.

South Boulder Peak, perfectly framed by the rainbows. I love afternoon thunderstorms — as long as I'm somewhere safe while they're happening — so I'm enjoying the arrival of monsoon season.

On Friday I traveled down to Colorado Springs to give a short talk about winter bikepacking during a "Bikepacking 101" event at Cafe Velo. My friend Dave Nice planned the event, and there was a great turnout. It was fun to chat with folks about cycling in Alaska, a subject of which I never tire. Several folks came up afterward and said they enjoyed hearing me talk about it so exuberantly, even though to them it sounded grueling and horrible. People have said this to me in the past. I once gave a video interview for an exercise science course at Stanford, and still hear from the instructor about how much her students love the segment. Joy is infectious. It's what sustains me when I'm down on myself for clumsiness and wheezing, counting the days until winter.

Anyway, since I was driving all the way to Colorado Springs but didn't have much extra time, I figured I should check out the iconic Manitou Incline. The incline is an old cable car track with the rail ties still in place, forming a staircase that gains 1,900 feet in 0.8 miles. I was not all that impressed with the steepness because in Boulder we have rocky trails that are just as steep (Fern Canyon), and most photos I've seen of the Incline were not that interesting. Still, when in Colorado Springs ... it seemed like one of those things I had to try once. I had to sit in Denver I-25 traffic and then pay ten dollars for parking in Manitou Springs, which made me grumpy. But all of that melted away once I started marching up the steps.

View from the top — actually, it was quite scenic and I was surprised. The climb was fun as well. Some of the steps are knee-high, but for the most part the steep ascent is evenly graded, which assists in steady breathing and focused forward motion. I took it fairly easy and stopped to take a couple of photos, but this would be a fun spot to return for PRs. Too bad I live two hours away.

Let's see how I can embarrass myself this week. It can only get better, right?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hard as rock

 This past weekend, Beat and I traveled to Silverton for his third running of the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run. This hundred-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains is particularly revered in ultrarunning culture for its "wild and tough" reputation, and also the family-like community that has formed around the annual event. Thanks to its desirability, Hardrock has a small army of volunteers to put together a race where runners enjoy extensive support and five-star service at aid stations that are only accessible on foot. But even more than that, Hardrock and its mountains have an ethereal quality that draws people back year after year, and makes it so appealing that the odds of getting through the lottery as a first-time applicant now border on hitting it big in Vegas.

 It was difficult to gauge how excited Beat was for Hardrock this year. He's had a somewhat rough few months of training, adapting to a new climate and altitude along with the demands of a new house and job. With his annual Alps 200-mile double-header coming up in six weeks, he grumbled about putting together the speed for a "sprint" race like Hardrock — mostly a joke, but with an element of truth. I imagined he'd put it together anyway, as Beat doesn't often fail — actually, I don't recall him failing even once in the six years I've known him. Even so, he was nervous after coming down with the stomach flu a week ago, with residual gut issues that were still bothering him the night before the race.

I was looking forward to crewing Beat and supporting other friends in Hardrock, which is a fun crowd to hang out with and a beautiful place to spend a few days. Still, I have my own health and fitness issues right now that are causing angst, which only amplifies when I'm around this environment. When greeted by friends who I mainly see at ultras, I always received two questions: "What are you training for right now?" and "Are you pacing Beat?" I'm not training for anything technically because the only event on my calendar is the 2017 ITI, and I'm not even back on a bike yet following hand surgery. And I'm not pacing Beat because I can't keep up. Really. Even for 10 miles at Beat's 100-mile pace. Don't tell me, "You can do it." I can't. Really.

Why can't I keep up? Because I can't breathe. I need to slow or stop after I become winded when my heart rate spikes into the low 150s, which is terribly frustrating because just two years ago I was running full 50Ks with an average heart rate of 162. So basically I'm in Zone 3, barely working my cardiovascular system, but I still can't breathe. Pushing harder doesn't improve my fitness — I actually think it's made things worse. But my endurance is still good so I no longer enjoy the satisfaction of tired muscles or fatigue, because really the only things getting much of a workout are my lungs. This is frustrating. I'm working on figuring it out — allergies and asthma are likely to blame. But for now I don't really know, so there's angst.

 Anyway, even with my pathetic fitness, I could still crew for Beat and squeeze in a few beautiful hikes in the San Juans. After the pre-race stuff on Thursday afternoon, I had four hours to kill before dinner, so I went for a quick jaunt up Kendall Mountain, a 13,000-foot peak above Silverton. Because of the time constraints, I put in a solid effort, scrambled the final 400 feet to the summit, and still made it back only seven minutes late. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I compared my time to my previous outing on this 12-mile "run" in 2012, when I was a full 38 minutes faster. Damn you, Strava.

 Crewing for a race like Hardrock is demanding, even though I was only planning to hit four of the five allowed aid stations. While runners traverse rugged trails, support crews without adequate off-road vehicles or driving skills are required to drive for two and a half hours all the way around the mountain range just to bridge two places that are 27 miles apart. Between the travel and the supply replenishing and the waiting, it's difficult to find time to eat or sleep. But I always make time for adventures. In Telluride, I hoped to hit the trail early and hike backward on the course so I could watch race leaders descend into town. As a hopelessly awkward person, I view the flowing strides of talented mountain runners as a dance, as beautiful as any human movement. However, the course into Telluride followed a different route than it did in 2012, and I didn't realize it until I'd hiked for more than an hour to the top of Bridal Veil Falls. This was very disappointing, but not enough to turn around.

 Instead I hiked toward Black Bear Pass, which turned out to be a rugged but heavily used jeep road. Stepping off the road for a steady stream of rented Rubicons, breathing their dust and finally just venturing overland to avoid them, put me in an admittedly bad mood. This all culminated after I turned around and had one jeep shadow me for almost an hour — nearly three miles — as I hiked downhill. I kept looking over my shoulder so I could step off the road to let them by, but they weren't moving any faster. Yes, it was a steep and rocky route and they probably weren't experienced off-road drivers, but still. Three miles an hour. I would probably go nuts if forced to sit in a vehicle moving that slowly.

 At least Telluride was a fun aid station. I sat on the grass with a group of friends and had a nice picnic with some of Beat's snack food and Perrier. Beat came into the aid station on schedule and looking strong, but said his stomach was already bothering him quite a bit. I anticipated a long night of force-feeding him chicken noodle soup, and got the stove ready at the next stop in Ouray, which Beat hit just before dark. He was still doing well — at least he wasn't yet barfing like he was in 2012, but continued to feel nauseated and unable to eat. I heated up coffee at a picnic table as an attentive volunteer came over to take orders, then brought several plates of food. When I praised the aid station service, he urged me to leave a positive review on Yelp. Hardrock is an awesome event.

 After Ouray I caught an hour and a half of sleep in our tent/homeless encampment in Silverton before I woke up in a panic, unable to breathe. This was actually my first experience with shortness of breath while sleeping, and it was a little scary. The inhaler does help quite a bit in these cases, which leads me to believe more and more that I am dealing with chronic asthma that may be worsening.

The drive out to Grouse Gulch is unfun, as I really dislike piloting a vehicle on narrow roads with dropoffs, ruts, and rocks. I decided that if Beat ever races Hardock again, I will bring a mountain bike and make it my personal challenge to reach the aid stations before him — although I wouldn't be able to carry a cooler on my bike. The temperature was in the mid-30s and there was a strong breeze, so I put on puffy pants and made all of the other crewpeople jealous. Beat came in around 4 a.m. looking pale, and I tried to coax him to eat soup and quesadillas. This photo is my friend Steve arriving with his pacer, Harry, around 7 a.m. He was having breathing problems, so I loaned him my inhaler. After the breathless episode while sleeping, I felt nervous about parting with it, but I really hoped it would save his race. Unfortunately, his breathing problems became worse and he decided it would be unsafe to go beyond the next aid station. This was a smart decision.

 After my California friends left, I spent a few hours languishing at Grouse Gulch while debating whether to hike to Handies Peak. My breathing was getting worse, I didn't have an inhaler, and with the limited sleep and lack of real food, I was feeling pretty lousy. Ultimately I decided not to go, and instead watched the back-of-packers leave the aid station close to the cutoff. It is inspiring to witness the determination and grit of the Hardrockers.

 I swung over to the final aid station, Cunningham Gulch, where I still had quite a few hours to kill. I decided I could hike slowly up the gulch toward an area called Highland Mary Lakes. My breathing was rough, and I didn't have the inhaler which made me anxious, but this was a fantastic place to visit. Pretty quickly this trail takes you into the high alpine, where one can traverse any number of high ridges along sparkling blue lakes with stunning views of the Grenadier Range.

 I hiked to a high point and sat for a while, enjoying the breeze at 12,600 feet. This year was the hottest Hardrock on record, and temperatures in the 80s can feel downright blistering at these altitudes. I remain amazed at all the folks who completed the race this year. I think managing heat issues for this distance is much more difficult than cold weather and rain (I am basing this opinion on my experience last year at UTMB, when temperatures hit 36C.) However, no one missed the lightning storms.

 Beat arrived in Silverton just after 3 a.m. Sunday morning., after nearly two days of nonstop traveling. He actually looked pretty fresh.

Kissing the hardrock is part of the tradition — rituals like these are another aspect of Hardrock that make it more of a community than other events. Proud of him! 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Fire season

 Beat and I decided to walk the two miles to our neighbor's house on Sunday evening, but about halfway through, I wondered if even this brief venture outdoors was a mistake. The acrid sting of smoke filled my nostrils, and my airways began to constrict. The Cold Springs Fire was flaring up ten miles away, and a refreshing but unwelcome breeze drove the smoke directly toward us. Presumably the flames were moving this direction as well.

More than a dozen neighbors attended the gathering that was held for our benefit as new residents on the drive. Thanks to recent events, discussion was filled with tips about fire mitigation and evacuation procedures. Most of the neighbors where around three years ago when South Boulder Mountain burned, and a few remembered farther back to the Walker Ranch blaze. It's scary, they agreed, but what can you do? Fire is a risk you take when you choose to live in the mountains.

We sipped cold drinks on the porch as a black plume of smoke billowed from hills not so distant. Just standing outside, each breath felt a little like inhaling hot shards of glass. I'd already decided that I wouldn't exercise for the rest of the week unless the air cleared up substantially. Of course, concerns were much greater for those who had already lost their homes, thousands of dead animals, and other tragic impacts that were creeping closer with every harrowing gust of wind.

Since my friends and I first saw the plume of smoke while driving home from a trailhead near Nederland on Saturday afternoon, the Cold Springs Fire has taken over my thoughts. I admit to obsessively refreshing the various Web updates. Effects of the fire are hitting increasingly close to home. The southeastern perimeter of the evacuation zone is only about five miles away, and as of Monday evening there was still zero percent containment. Beat and I have been discussing our own evacuation plan. If things don't improve by Wednesday, we'll have to reconsider traveling to Silverton for Hardrock.

Firefighters have been doing an amazing job battling this blaze, and the chances it will reach us are low. But with the Cold Springs Fire, recent flare-ups in my breathing issues, avoiding the outdoors because of asthma and smoke, bug bites, wind and heat, my disdain for summer has reached a disheartening high. Before I slip into full seasonal affective disorder, I am pulling up gentle reminders that summer is in fact beautiful here in Colorado — starting with the awesome run I enjoyed with Eszter and Elaine on Friday morning.

 My aerobic capacity has been on the decline since allergy season really revved up, and it hasn't improved yet. I'd been blaming altitude in part, but I didn't fare better with breathing in Portland last week, so that theory had to be discarded. For this reason and a few others, I currently have no business running with these highly fit ladies, but I was thrilled they wanted to include me on this big loop around Rollins Pass. But I went out a little too hard (at their conversational pace) and winded myself to the point of dizziness by mile two. While mildly dizzy, I tripped and fell three times before the third mile, skinning my knees and bruising my ego so badly that I nearly turned around and sprinted away without explaining why. It was very embarrassing.

 I was grateful they took my wheezing and bumbling in stride. Thankfully things improved as we climbed to the Divide and descended Rollins Pass Road on some intriguing but disconcertingly creaky old railroad trestles. From there we dropped into the greater Eldora area on crumbling jeep tracks and a maze of faint forest trails that had everyone, including the local Elaine and our guide Eszter, wondering where the hell we were. It was great fun. We wrapped up twenty miles by early (and hot) afternoon, and I felt better at the end of the run than I did at the start. Sometimes I wonder if it just takes a while for my lungs to "open up."

 All week long, our friends Steve, Harry, and Martina visited while Steve and Harry acclimated for Hardrock. Beat dragged Steve and Harry on a grueling high-altitude epic on Sunday — while I was sauntering along the beach in Oregon — and they were pretty tired for the rest of the week. We still went out for a few shorter runs during the week. By Saturday they were feeling better, so despite the fact they were technically tapering, I coaxed them on the 14-mile jaunt to James Peak, elevation 13,300. (This is the same peak Beat and I climbed a few weeks earlier. Since I was guiding a group with variable paces, it seemed best to stick to a route I knew.)

 Beat came down with a fever overnight and couldn't join. But it was a beautiful afternoon, not terribly hot at 9,000 feet and not cold at 13,000, with a few gusty winds on the ridge but utterly calm on the summit. We spent an hour up there after noon, with no thunderstorms in sight. In hindsight, knowing what I know now about the fire that sparked shortly after started down James Peak, an afternoon downpour would have been welcome.

Steve on James Peak. Today I'm thinking about the folks battling the fire and hoping for a quick resolution. I look forward to going back to enjoying summer in Colorado again. 

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

High Lonesome

 The day before I flew to Portland, I joined Eszter and Elaine for a morning run on the High Lonesome Loop. This popular sixteen-mile loop climbs along the south fork of Boulder Creek, swings around King Lake, makes a quick jump over the Continental Divide and returns via the drainage of Devils Thumb lake. Beat and I have a few friends visiting from California this week while they acclimate for the Hardrock 100, which Beat is also running. I thought I'd be able to coax them out on this loop, but they seem to think work and tapering is more important. So, I'm posting photos in hopes of changing their minds!

 I was intimidated by the prospect of running with these ladies, who are both very fit for this sort of thing. Meanwhile, I'm still battling these breathing issues that don't lend much in the way of predictability. Sometimes I feel great throughout long runs, and sometimes I become overly winded walking up my stairs. For this reason I won't push my own pace — out of concern that too much heavy breathing might invite an asthma attack — and feel self-conscious about trying to keep up with others.

When I apologized about being the caboose of the group, Eszter said, "Don't say sorry." Meaning don't submit to these trite apologies that we (as women) have been conditioned to mumble as a way of minimizing ourselves and others. Instead of saying "I'm sorry for being slow," one should say, "Thanks for waiting up for me. It's great to be out here with you. Morning runs in the high country of the Rockies are amazing!"

 King Lake — looks like a wonderful place for a swim. Really. I won't be able to call myself a Coloradoan until I take a dip in a high alpine lake.


The High Lonesome Trail itself. Following a ribbon of singletrack through a field of wildflowers at 12,000 feet is a wholly intoxicating experience. I'd gotten over all my self-consciousness at this point, and enjoyed the flow.

 That part of the outing where you stop to look out over distant mountains and add another extended entry in an already long list of places to visit someday.

 Elaine and Eszter at the looks-scarier-than-it-was cornice at Devils Thumb Pass. Thanks for the awesome run, ladies. I hope we have a chance to run another high, lonesome ribbon of singletrack together soon.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Defiance

Lately I've been feeling like 2016 will be the summer that I become old. I've actually had several summers that sparked this emotion; the first one hit at age 19, so I know it's not necessarily an emotion I can trust. But between the reemergence of asthma symptoms — which I can no longer convince myself were a one-time illness; the carpal tunnel thing — which my surgeon speculated might be the culmination of an old wrist injury I don't even remember, possibly while snowboarding as an indestructible teenager; and an upcoming birthday that will place me squarely in my late 30s .... maybe I'm not "old," but definitely living in a deteriorating body. We all do, every day, but sometimes the realization hits us more directly.

This weekend my friend Leah was married in Portland, Oregon. I was excited to come out as she enters a new chapter of her life, and witness the swirl of emotions connected to this — as she put it, "all the feels." I also was looking forward to visiting Portland — a city where I was convinced I would live out my days, back when I was 19 and "old" but still indestructible — but never ended up moving here. In fact, the last time I even visited Portland was seven years ago when was in the midst of a difficult break-up. Admittedly many of my memories from this region have been cast in distinctly negative light.

Beat wasn't able to join, and the time I'd be able to spend with Leah was limited for obvious reasons, so this would be a solo trip to Portland. I decided I'd fill it with a bunch of hiking, as much as I could squeeze in between wedding activities. My flight out of Denver was at 6 a.m. Thursday, which required waking up after less than two hours of sleep to drive out to the airport in a sleepy daze, go through the cattle corrals for a one-stop flight through Seattle, then get stuck in an aisle seat directly across from the bathroom, which is just unbearable on a morning flight. By the time I was driving a rental car out to Cascade Locks, my head was in full jet lag mode even though I'd only traveled one time zone away. It was 11 a.m. but felt like midnight when I arrived at the base of the mountain I planned to climb — touted on multiple Web sites as the "hardest hike in the Columbia River Gorge" — Mount Defiance.

Imagine my disappointment when I found out the trailhead was under heavy construction and closed weekdays. I jogged along the I-84 corridor for more than four miles out and back, looking for a possible side route to poach. All I could find were cliffs and waterfalls.

Since it was still technically early in the afternoon, I got back in the car and drove all the way around the gorge to the Mount Hood corridor. I parked at an obscure wilderness area trailhead with a plan to hike a 13-mile loop to a 4,800-foot peak called ZigZag Mountain. There was no one else there, which is a little disconcerting on a beautiful pre-holiday-weekend afternoon so close to a large city. But I set out with a GPS track, headlamp, jacket, and emergency water purification tablets, which is all you need when heading into unknown woods by yourself.

Sea level wasn't quite the magic elixir for my lungs that I had hoped, so a bout of hard-charging running quickly turned to hiking. After that, I decided to keep it comfortable. Trail conditions started out runnable but soon deteriorated to an overgrown morass strewn with deadfall and toe-catching debris. My pace was much slower than expected, and the day was growing late. Once the route dropped off a secondary ridge and headed toward the summit, I had a difficult time locating the trail among the brush and deadfall. The GPS track, which I'd drawn myself based on a trail map, was not accurate at all. The loop was committing and I was inclined to turn around, but I was enjoying the views of Mount Hood and wildflowers. And anyway, I had a headlamp and water purification tablets.

The GPS track only became less reliable, and while the trail was still well-defined in spots, there were enough overgrown sections to throw me off. At one point I followed my GPS track too directly and ended up on top of a cliff, then had to backtrack until I found the trail. It was never a case of being lost or not knowing where I needed to go, but there was more route finding than I anticipated, and thus everything took longer. Finally, at about 7 p.m., I reached the Sandy River only to discover the trail bridge had washed away in a flood.

The river was roaring. I started hyperventilating. I'd walked twelve tough miles to reach this spot, it was late, and my only choices were to either cross the river or hike all the way back around in the dark on that hard-to-find trail. Of course, if I'd waited for the panic to subside, I would have remembered that I'd first crossed this river on a road bridge, which was only a mile away in a direct line, and could have bushwhacked through the woods following the river until I found it. Anyway, I let the panic subside and hiked along the river bank until I found a wide spot that was only about thigh deep, where the current was more gentle and I could see the bottom (these are all requirements of mine for crossing a river alone, a task of which I'm extremely frightened.)

I made it across without incident, but my adrenal glands were drained and I was so very tired. Only fear can make me feel this tired. Becoming lost and immersing myself in rushing water rank among my most pervasive fears. Sleep deprivation doesn't help. Still, once it was all over I decided ZigZag Mountain is a rewarding hike, a beautiful route and not as tough as I perceived. It was certainly secluded.

On Friday I was still pretty tired, but this was the only day I had completely free. Leah and I walked to get coffee in the morning, and she recommended I check out Silver Star Mountain. This 4,400-foot peak is at the edge of a big swath of wilderness in Southern Washington. I had to park about three miles from the trailhead because I didn't know the area required a recreation pass (this is what bugs me about online registration. What am I supposed to do as a tourist when I show up at a trailhead with no cell phone reception and no pass? Drive three miles down the road and park just outside the recreation area, I suppose.)

I spent most of the road jog/trail climb feeling pretty grumpy, but the summit ridge completely shifted my perspective. Leah was right. The views are amazing up here.

The sky was clear and Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens were in view, as well as Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount Jefferson. I hunkered down and spent about 45 minutes on the summit, until I was shivering in the breeze.

Saturday was Leah's wedding. My original plan was to spend the day in the city and then head to the ceremony in the early evening. But I am who I am, so instead I set an alarm for 6 a.m., and by 7:45 I was back at the now-open Mount Defiance trailhead.

The reason Mount Defiance is touted as one of the toughest hikes in the region is because it gains 5,000 feet in 5.5 miles. But that's the worst of it. The Mount Defiance Trail is a good trail, winding upward through the trees in the cool morning mist with frequent glimpses of the Columbia River far below. I'm in my element in places like this, and because I'd already put eighteen hours on my feet for the week by Saturday morning, for the first time in a while, my legs were finally more tired than my lungs. This limited me to a hard but comfortable pace, with no wheezing or lightheadedness. I couldn't have felt more relaxed or content even though I was scaling a mountain.

The previous day, I was talking to Leah about the difficulty of finding flow. That's the one thing I miss most about riding bikes, because flow comes to me most effortlessly when I'm pedaling. Running and even hiking tend to cause more stress, and only rarely do I lose myself completely to the task. But I found flow on Mount Defiance, with my tired legs and happy lungs, marching upward through a loamy forest that reminded me of both Juneau and California, and helped me feel at home.

Mount Hood as seen from Mount Defiance. I again hunkered down on a rock, snacked on Goldfish crackers, reveled in this successful "defiance" of my sometimes broken, sometimes old body, and watched the clock in an effort to avoid being late for the whole reason I was in Oregon. It had taken me 2:45 to make the climb, and I fully expected to need at least three hours to get down.

I opted to return on a loop down the Starvation Ridge trail, which in hindsight I would not recommend. Although this route takes you along a rockier ridge with incredible views, then past a scenic lake, the final three miles are one of my versions of Hell. In this version, I'm standing directly over a place that I can see and really want to reach (in this case the I-84 corridor), but the only way to get there is a relentlessly steep slide of loose dirt, roots, and gravelly talus, and I can't stay on my feet. Even leaning forward and taking tiny steps, I slid onto my butt multiple times. After landing on my hand once and experiencing a horrifying shock of pain through my right wrist, I instinctively held it up every other time. No damage was done, but it was hard and frustrating.

What goes up must come down. This photo was taken at 1,200 feet, with more than a thousand feet to descend to the river. It looks like it's directly below, doesn't it? It is!

Still, I'm pleased that through it all I still made it to the summit of Mount Defiance. It was in many ways my own defiant victory, and a perhaps a preface to a new chapter of health and vitality. Leah's and Steven's wedding was great fun, although I was guiltily a little too tired to live it up. Congrats you two!