Monday, October 31, 2016

Eight years later

On this day in 2008 ...

On November 1, 2008, I sat in front of my clunky desktop PC in Juneau, Alaska, pondering what I wanted to do with this PDF file I'd spent a few months creating. It was a book I cobbled together from personal essays and blog posts, about this obscure thing I did earlier in the year — riding a fat bike 350 miles over the Alaska Range and into the frigid Interior — and a loose timeline of past events to provide some explanation about how a Mormon girl from Utah with no athletic talent and lots of fears could reach that point.

My blog was as popular as it would ever be, with nearly 100,000 hits per month, and I figured at least a small percentage of readers would be interested enough in the story to buy a book. But would anyone else be interested? Selling a book is a difficult prospect. In order to catch the attention of publishers, the story has to appeal to a larger audience than the few interested in esoteric outdoor sports. Even if the book did sell, the process could take years. I was a journalist, and the thought of "Ghost Trails" being released in 2011 or 2012 — when not even I would care about the story anymore — seemed like a pointless endeavor. So on that (likely rainy) November evening eight years ago, I wavered at a self-publishing Web site, contemplating the possibilities. Could it be that easy?

That's how I started down this path of writing and publishing adventure memoirs. It's been a sometimes bumpy but mostly enjoyable ride. I'm still a journalist at heart, and think of my own writing as such. It's not high literature and it's not painstakingly revised, but it's real, occasionally raw, and as honest as I can make it, within the confines of my own flawed memory. I want my stories to be timely, but I've been known to sit on a project for years (in fact, I'm trying to revive a 2012 project right now.) In the midst of the learning process, I've managed to sell tens of thousands of books. And this is a cliche, but my greatest reward has been comments from people who found inspiration and embarked on a new adventure. Overall, the results have been pretty good for a Mormon girl from Utah with no athletic talent, lots of fears, and exhaustive dedication to weird endeavors that will never appeal to the mass market.

Now it's November 1, 2016, a date I specifically chose to release "Into the North Wind." Today this "Ghost Trails" sequel becomes available on Amazon and other online retailers. I was planning to write something more to celebrate the release, but I've been feeling a little ambivalent about it as of late. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's this phase I'm going through. Today I was working on queries for the Guardian, and thought, "But I don't really want to be a writer. I should try to get more editing work. Maybe I can find a coach who will know a revolutionary way out of my breathing malaise, and I'll start training hard. Because if I was just a little more tired every day, I wouldn't spend so much time worrying about writing."

I am grateful to everyone who bought "Into the North Wind" so far. I've sold 150 copies of the photo book, which was more than I expected and more than made the project worth it. The best journalism combines photos and words, and it was fun to finally do this in book format. There are still a few more copies available at this link:
http://www.arcticglasspress.net/agp/?wpsc-product=into-the-north-wind

There's also a less expensive regular (black and white) paperback on Amazon:
Into the North Wind: A Thousand-mile Bicycle Adventure Across Frozen Alaska

And finally the Kindle version, which can also be read on phones and iPads using a free app from Amazon.
Into the North Wind

As always, I appreciate your support over all these years. Thank you!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Week 2

 Monday: Mountain bike, 3:53, 37.9 miles, 3,969 feet climbing. This week started out with a solid ride on Monday afternoon. I was still grumpy about my weekend fails, so I didn't take any photos, but enjoyed a beautiful autumn ride with bare trees, snow-capped peaks, and temperatures approaching 80. As I was descending the upper (gravel) section of Sugarloaf Road, I swung around a corner at high speed and encountered a cow moose standing on the right side of the road. I screeched my brakes and made a quick stop. She lowered her ears, bristled the hair on her back, and took a few steps toward me. I swung my bike in front of me and backed toward the trees, all but certain I was going to have to shimmy up one of them because she was about to charge. Just then a white car approached. The driver stopped and asked if I wanted him to accompany me past the moose. I nodded gratefully, and the moose went back to grazing on bushes as we rolled past. This was the third most unnerving moose encounter I've had. The first two were in Alaska of course, and one was just two years ago in Anchorage.

The semi that got stuck a week ago
Tuesday: Rest. I'd intended to go for a short run, but I only have about an hour to spare on Tuesdays, and this hour was taken up by failed efforts to dig out a large box truck that had become stuck on our dirt road. This was the sixth installment of Beat's CNC machine delivery saga, after one partial delivery, three no-shows, and one large semi-truck that also became stuck in the middle of the road for 13 hours. Anyway, we're learning more about life on a narrow mountain road, and we hope the delivery company is wiser now as well. The digging was hard work so this didn't really feel like a rest day. Beat eventually pulled the box truck out himself with a Toyota Tundra that he recently bought from a friend.

Wednesday: Treadmill, 0:30, 3.5 miles. Weightlifting, 0:40. My breathing struggles seem to have two triggers — being outside, and sometimes (not always), hard efforts. And "hard" effort isn't the right term, because my worst difficulties usually crop up during moderate efforts (heart rate 150-160bpm.) Anyway, a friend suggested trying a high-intensity workout indoors, which is a good idea. I set out to boost my heart rate to 185 on the treadmill by running two-minute intervals: two minutes jogging at 12:00-minute-mile pace, and two minutes increasing the pace 0:30 each time. I eventually boosted the speed to 6:00-minute-mile pace and got my heart rate up to 192. I made it through two minutes before I felt nauseated and had a horrible side stitch, but had no breathing issues. I think treadmill intervals work because it's a controlled, low-risk environment, which vastly reduces anxiety. As others have suggested and as I've suspected, anxiety about "not breathing" plays a large role in my attacks. So I plan to continue with these intervals during my gym sessions, to see whether I improve. At the very least, it's nice to know that underneath all of the mucous and anxiety, there's still a modicum of high-end fitness left in my body.

I should also talk about my allergy shots, which didn't go so well. I made it through two rounds of shots before I had a reaction — my left arm became noticeably swollen and I felt some chest tightness. The nurse noted some wheezing, so they cut the session short. This was disappointing, as I really want to continue with the cluster immunotherapy and get this over with (if I have one more reaction, I have to go to single shots, which will take months.) At the same time, I experienced breathing reactions when I wasn't exercising. This means it's likely I have allergic asthma. Maybe allergy shots will actually work. One can hope.

Thursday: Mountain bike, 1:41, 13.3 miles, 2,299 feet climbing. This was a medium-effort ride with no issues.

Friday: Treadmill, 0:30, 3.5 miles. Weightlifting, 0:40. I did the same treadmill intervals with the same results. This day I wore my own heart rate monitor and saw 197(!!) I'm not sure if this is accurate, but it was a surprise as I'd long assumed that my anaerobic threshold was in the mid-180s. I also didn't feel nauseated this time and really enjoyed running a six-minute-mile pace, but doubt I could hold it much longer than two minutes. The weightlifting session went well. I was already able to boost a few of the weights on my fourth session overall.

 Saturday: Mountain bike, 2:36, 18.6 miles, 2,948 feet climbing. I tried out this allergy mask, which I got in pink because it's a little less scary, and also felt a little less self-conscious because it's so close to Halloween. Anyway, I didn't love it. Even on my best days, my face is a nonstop faucet of snot, so constantly pulling it down to blow snot rockets probably negated its effectiveness. I don't see myself using it a lot in the winter, but I think it may be helpful in the spring and summer during high-pollen and wildfire smoke days.

 Sunday: Hike, 4:30, 8.5 miles, 3,253 feet climbing. This week was a scorcher, with temperatures climbing into the 80s nearly every day. One positive aspect of record high temperatures is clearing the steep and avalanche-prone mountains of snow, so I thought it would be fun to go hiking on Sunday.

 We headed to South Arapaho Peak. At 13,400 feet, it's one of the more prominent mountains in the Indian Peaks. As we expected, it was very windy and not warm, but in some aspects not all that different from the time my friends and I hiked up James Peak in July.

 Snow-filled wind shelter at the peak. Okay, it was a lot windier and colder than James Peak was in July, but with a soft shell and mittens I was perfectly comfortable. I did have difficulty breathing for the last 1,000 feet to the summit. Up here, my heart was beating 140-150 and I was gasping. I had to stop and take breaks to catch my breath. Beat asked why I was moving so slow, but I couldn't move any faster. It was perplexing. I suppose this makes some sense, though. I've tried to pretend that altitude isn't an issue for me, but I'm beginning to suspect that it may be a major factor. If I'm a poor breather in general, it makes sense I'd do worse at 13,000 feet. Either way, this theory will need more experimenting and I doubt I'll get too many more chances to hit 13,000+ feet before winter clamps down.

Despite gasping slowness, this was a fun hike, although I turned my ankle on the way down and collapsed onto my back, smacking my head. It hurt something fierce but thankfully didn't result in injury. My left ankle has been a bit of a liability ever since I broke it after tripping while carrying a television down a flight of stairs when I was 19 years old, and never went to the doctor (but it was definitely fractured at the very least.) The dumb things we do when we're young, eh? (Says the 37-year-old who's recently become quite bad at breathing.)

Total: 15 hours, 69.8 miles ride, 15.5 miles run, 12,479 feet climbing. All in all, this was a good week. I may have to do 1.5 rounds of allergy shots this week (I hope this works out.) So I'll have to continue to tread lightly. But I'm satisfied with 15 hours of effort. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

First week of something

It's been one week since I committed to winter training and posting workouts on my blog, and I'm already regretting it. This week was a mixed bag of fantastic and cringeworthy outings, with a return to weight training thrown in. I'm still grappling with the uncertainty of whether I'm healthy enough to train for the Iditarod, and this week was not confidence-inspiring. I'm not throwing in the towel this soon, but I will continue to tread carefully.

Monday: Trail run, 1:19, 5.8 miles, 1,472 feet of climbing. I intended to go for a short ride on Monday, but the afternoon brought winds gusting 40 to 50 miles per hour. One gust was so strong that it nearly knocked me off my feet while I was wheeling the bike outside, so I went back inside and changed into running clothes. The wind stayed fierce, and for most of the run I had a buff pulled over my face amid a swirl of dust clouds. I was even hit in the cheek by a fairly large object, which I didn't see because I was squinting against a 50-mph blast of wind. But I felt great. One of the happier runs I've had in a while.

Tuesday: Trail run, 1:10, 5.4 miles, 895 feet climbing. Beat was working from home and joined my usual one-hour Tuesday run. For all of the amazingness I felt on Monday, my experience was the opposite on Tuesday. By mile four I felt tightness in my chest and throat, which tends to scare me into hyperventilating, and then I was dizzy and had to walk it in. Why? I don't know. There continues to be few patterns in my breathing reactions, and the unpredictability is almost more frustrating than the reaction itself. Long ride, short run, medium hike, windy day, beautiful day, spring, fall, 5,000 feet or 13,000 feet — none of that seems to matter.

Wednesday: Weight lifting at the gym, 0:40. I finally joined a gym after seven months away, in which I didn't miss gym workouts one bit. This first session was mostly about testing my limits. The results were unsurprising — I'm a lot weaker than I was in February. But they're also encouraging, because that means my efforts last winter worked. Wednesday is also the day I go into a clinic for allergy shots. This makes for a strange afternoon. Over the course of three hours I receive 15 injections, and each week the dose increases exponentially. For the second session I endured a 1:1,000 dose, and for the first few hours I felt great — perhaps a response to my suddenly amped up immune system? By the evening I experienced the crash that results in itchiness, congestion, and what I interpret as flu-like weakness for the next ~24 hours.

 Thursday: Mountain bike, 4:13, 40.3 miles, 4,002 feet climbing. I woke up with a headache and flu-like weakness, but still went out in the afternoon for a medium-length bike ride. It should have gone badly, right? It didn't! For inexplicable reasons, again, I felt good and had no issues throughout. I've been exploring different ways to ride from my house to town via trails or Nederland or both. This was more of a dirt and paved road ride, but it included my favorite descent yet, Sugarloaf Road. I love smooth paved descents, and this one screams toward the prairie at what feels like warp speed. It was actually pretty cold on this day — low 40s in Ned, with a dusting of snow in shady spots. I was wearing short-sleeves and shorts, so I froze on the descent. But I secretly (or maybe not so secretly) enjoy this in small doses. Awesome afternoon.

Friday: Weight lifting at the gym, 0:55. I got back into my normal routine of 12 exercises, 12 reps, 3 sets at embarrassingly low weights. I also started out by testing how many pushups I can do before collapsing ... (four), and this time finished with 20 minutes on a wobble board doing various exercises. Will this help improve my balance? I doubt it. I'm pretty pessimistic right now.

 Saturday: Trail run, 4:46, 20.8 miles, 2,301 feet climbing. Boulder is home to a seemingly endless array of group outdoor activities, and since I moved here I've managed to avoid them all. The main reason I've avoided group outings is fear that I'll have some issue and be humiliated in front of all these people. Well, on Saturday I put this fear aside and joined the Boulder Banditos for their group run from Lyons to north Boulder on a series of trails I've never explored. It started out great. We hit the trails in Heil Ranch, the group was relaxed and I was feeling strong. It was a warm day — 83 degrees — but after 90s in the Grand Canyon last weekend, the heat didn't feel too bad. Half of the group stopped at mile 11.5, and several more left at mile 17. The group leader informed the remaining three of us that there were two or three more miles to the cars. I felt as fresh as I did at the start, so I continued.

Thing is, there wasn't actually a trail for two of what turned out to be four more miles. Instead, we schwacked through knee-high grass. Obviously not a problem for most people. But I am confirmed to be highly allergic to grass pollen, which I suspect extends to grass itself. Blades of grass were whipping against my legs and cutting my skin. My usual congestion worsened. After about a mile I started coughing and felt an unnerving tightness in my throat. To alleviate this sensation, I drank sips of water until all of my water was gone, and quickly felt desperately thirsty. We moved up a hill to parallel a fence, stumbling on uneven terrain. My throat became tighter, my coughing worse, and I was desperate to get out of the grass. The fence increased my anxiety, because even though I could see Highway 36, there was no quick escape. All I could think about was this epi-pen I now own, but didn't bring because it's not $%*! allergy season. But my doctor did warn me about increased sensitivity during allergy shots, and now I was going to suffocate out here on this grassy slope less than a mile from a highway.

Maybe it was the allergies and maybe it was anxiety, but I felt my throat close up and I launched into tearful, high-pitched gasping. Wendy, the woman who invited me to the run, sat me down and coached me through using my inhaler, because I was in full panic mode and not functioning well. The inhaler worked and she insisted on walking in with me. I'm very grateful for her help and patience. My nightmare about group runs had reared its ugly head. But if I had been alone in the wilderness and something like this happened, it would have been worse.

Sunday: Rest. I admit, I was despondent on Saturday afternoon. My limbs were quaking, I felt nauseated after rehydrating, and then had to rush off to a party at our neighbors,' where I was already late. The party was fun, but it was tough to meet new neighbors and describe past adventures while quietly thinking, "But I'll never be able to do that again." I'm not trying to be melodramatic, but this is the way it feels at times. Still, I woke up feeling much better on Sunday, and took a rest day anyway because this seemed best.

Total: 13:03, 32 miles run, 40.3 miles ride, 8,670 feet climbing. 

These training logs are about recording what I did and how I felt, so that's what I'll continue to do. I'll continue to tread lightly, and avoid grassy slopes like the poison I think they are. Although it was a discouraging week, I continue to hold onto optimism that I'll find a way to continue doing the things I love. And I know these reports aren't exactly upbeat. Earlier this week, a reader commented on the seeming self-destruction of all of this. I wanted to post the reply here:

"'Overtraining' is a possible diagnosis, but far from certain. I've seen two different specialists about my symptoms, described in depth my activities over the past 10 years, and suggested my own theory that over-taxing my body during the 2015 Tour Divide brought all of this on. Both doctors seem reasonably certain that my symptoms are more likely related to asthma than the nebulous overtraining syndrome.

Adults do occasionally have incidents that ramp up their allergies. The decisions I made during the Tour Divide may have sparked this, but I can't take that back now. There are still a lot of unknowns, of course. But I lack most of the other symptoms of overtraining — adrenal fatigue, injury, appetite changes, insomnia. My EKG, blood work, etc. is all normal. I'm still fine in my day to day life. Even my exercise symptoms come and go. They usually crop up during shorter efforts. I'd pretty much have to quit altogether, or take up non-cardio exercise.

I complain about breathing a lot here, because this is my outdoors/activity/endurance blog. Whatever issue I have is less of an obstruction in my daily life than I may make it seem. I'm going through a difficult round of allergy shots right now specifically so I can potentially be more comfortable and happy when I'm outdoors. I probably wouldn't choose this treatment otherwise.

"Rest for a few months" is an oft-cited solution, just like going gluten-free, dairy-free, drinking green tea every night, etc. There's just no concrete evidence that any of this will actually help. If it's asthma, it won't. Perhaps you can understand why I'm (as of yet) unwilling to make major lifestyle changes on a vague possibility. I'm not ruling out that my outdoor hobbies are all of the problem and quitting is all of the solution. Just explaining why I'm going this route for now."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Looks like it's the on-season

I'm back at the asthma clinic for weekly allergy shots, with three hours to kill ... always a good time to update the blog. Now that the Grand Canyon trip is over, I've committed to launching my winter training. Over the past few weeks, I've considered whether I should do this at all. Occasionally, I still struggle with relatively meager efforts. It's these times, when I stumble back home feeling beaten after a five-mile run, I think I should just withdraw from the ITI. Let it go. "Listen to my body" and become the couch potato I was clearly meant to be.

In the past, I remember having some level of high-end fitness that would allow me to run full-bore up a steep hill. Now the best I can do is a brisk walk before I become so winded that I begin hyperventilating, and everything goes downhill from there. But if I maintain a moderate pace, I rarely have issues — I can keep it up for ten hours, probably longer. I suppose I take comfort in this. My aim is to be strong and consistent, not fast. But I sure do miss that "fire." Where it went is still a mystery.

I cling to hope that one day I'll walk outside on a snowy afternoon, inhale a deep gulp of cold, sharp air, and feel it flow into the depths of my lungs. Then I will take off like a banshee, unhindered by any tightness in my chest or anxiety in my head. Someday, once again, I'll run so fast that my vision blurs and my quads burn and I can feel my pulse pumping in my feet. I'll run without fear of losing my breath, gasping and coughing and then feeling flattened for the rest of the day. Someday, even if only for few moments, I will sprint. I never thought I'd say this, but I miss that.

For now I'll continue to tread carefully, and work on becoming stronger. I don't need a lot of wind to lift heavy weights, go for long snowshoe slogs, or push a bike, so I'm going to work on that kind of stuff. I finally joined a small local gym today, after seven months without weight training. I only had a few minutes to try the machines, but I couldn't even do one rep of weights I was pumping at high volume back in February. Sad. I also can only do three or four full-body pushups before my right arm more or less fails. Sadder. Carpal tunnel syndrome definitely put me below even my usual base strength, but it's my intention to get that back.

I'm going to start tracking training weeks on my blog again, which in its own way helps keep me both motivated and honest. Breathing difficulties make outdoor play a lot less fun than it used to be. It's gotten to the point where I find myself making lame excuses to avoid working out. This is not what I want. So I'm fighting to get that back, too — that zeal. It goes along with fire and strength. All things I want. So I'll keep fighting.

It's true that the main thing I'm fighting for right now is the 2017 Iditarod adventure. Sometimes I wonder why I want to go back, yet again, to that cold, lonely, often brutal place. But then all of my memories rush in, with the squeak of wheels on cold snow, the soft chiming of subzero air, unbroken darkness, flares of Northern Lights, vast open space, and absolute solitude. I have to go back. Perhaps soon I'll feel differently, but for now, well — Mike Curiak said it best himself once, before he ultimately stopped returning to Alaska year after year. "If I wasn't here with a bike and a big bag of junk food at the end of February, the sun might not rise for me tomorrow. It's just that simple."

I suppose it can be that simple. Time to start training. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Grand Canyon 2016

After twelve years, I didn't know if there would be anything left to write about the Grand Canyon. It's become my favorite tradition — one I wouldn't trade for any number of adventures around the world. But that doesn't make it a story. It's like coconut cream pie. Every year for as long as I can remember, my mother made coconut cream pie for Thanksgiving. I've eaten dozens of pieces in my lifetime. Coconut cream was my late grandfather's favorite, and every bite brings a rush of nostalgia about riding on his lawnmower, or climbing the old walnut tree. I suppose that's why we have traditions. They're an anchor to something tangible as we drift over a sea of memories. 

It was autumn 2004 when my dad invited me to join him and a large group of his acquaintances on a "Rim to Rim" hike across the Grand Canyon. This was before I stumbled into endurance training, and the prospect was deeply intimidating. I was 25 years old, going through a difficult period in my life, and on the cusp of uprooting everything and moving to Idaho Falls. The weeks leading up to that trip were shrouded in anxiety and angst, but all those feelings faded as the sun rose over the North Rim and revealed sheer canyon walls bathed in golden light.

Completing that first Rim to Rim with Dad was empowering, and helped spur big life decisions. By 2005, of course, most of those decisions had already fallen apart. I was back in the relationship I'd attempted to leave, and surprised everyone (including myself) by moving with him to Homer, Alaska. I interviewed for an Alaska job in August, and one of my conditions was a week off in October so I could fly home for a second hike across the Grand Canyon. The tradition was born.

In 2007, Dad's sister joined us for an unusually early mid-September trip. Temperatures never climbed out of the 60s, and torrential rain and hail followed us up the North Kaibab Trail. Waterfalls gushed off the canyon walls, pummeling the trail in sticks and rocks. My aunt was struggling but stoic during the long march. A few years later she battled and defeated breast cancer, and continues to run half-marathons with her daughters.

 There were the years I missed — 2009, because I couldn't take any more time off work after racing the Tour Divide. 2010, because my grandfather died. His funeral was the day we would have hiked the canyon. 2013, because of the government shutdown. 2014, because I had a torn LCL, so instead I drove the shuttle with my mom. Looking back, Fall Grand Canyon isn't so much of an annual tradition, as it is something to strive for. It's not a given that it will work out, but when it does, it's amazing.

This year, for the first time, Beat joined us. It was his first-ever trip to the Grand Canyon. Driving from Boulder, his attitude was nothing like mine was during my first visit, when all I did was fret about whether I'd be able to haul myself out of the canyon. No, he was scheming rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rims and such, which never had a chance of working out because we were on a tight time crunch.

 Instead we stuck to the plan to hike from north to south on Friday, and south to north on Saturday. Also joining us was my dad's hiking buddy Raj, who Beat goaded into a sub-six-hour south-to-north traverse on day two.

 Not too much has changed in the past twelve years, but apparently the National Park Service recently placed some rather graphic warning signs. I think most ultrarunners would agree that this hiker is about to feel better.

 Friday evening on the South Rim. It's become tradition to head out to an overlook to watch the sunset (and in this case moonrise) before returning to the hotel cafeteria to eat traditional dinners (I always get the vegetarian chili bowl, and Dad orders chicken pot pie.)

 Morning on the South Kaibab Trail. Beat and Raj were already long gone on their run, while Dad and I enjoyed a more leisurely hike with a morning lemonade break at Phantom Ranch, and lunch at Cottonwood campground.

 We saw temperatures as high as 97 degrees on Friday, and it was still toasty on Saturday.

 It was a mere two years ago that Dad was intimidated by the prospect of two rim-to-rims in two days, but now he seems to take it all in stride. The water had been shut off after the Manzanita rest area, so we blitzed the last five miles and 4,000 feet of climbing without stopping. A decade ago, I remember wondering when Dad might start slowing down. He's 63 now and only getting stronger. I know he's stronger than me. But he insists that he will never attempt a nonstop rim-to-rim-to-rim. "That's when the fun-o-meter starts to go down," he said.

That's fine with me. I'm just happy to hike with my dad. Maybe soon we'll try the Tonto Trail. Maybe a few years down the road, we'll ride mules with my mom to Phantom Ranch. As long as the tradition continues, I'm grateful. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

High mountain air

Well, I'm at my allergists' office for my first round of "cluster" immunotherapy, where I'm subjecting myself to five courses of shots over the next three hours while monitoring allergic reactions. Should be fun! I figure while I'm waiting, I'll update my blog.

On Thursday morning, our neighborhood received its first snowfall of the season. Beat left before dawn to fly to California for the weekend. I was surprisingly jealous of his trip. The past few weeks have brought a higher degree of homesickness for the Bay Area. Perhaps this sparked after returning from Europe to Boulder and having it all finally sink in that this is where I permanently reside. Perhaps it's the way I feel when I'm exercising — a bit downtrodden, a bit anxious about my breathing — and remembering how effortlessly I used to breeze up hills in California (of course it was never actually effortless. Nostalgia is a liar like that.) Perhaps it's just sadness for the passing of time, an acknowledgement that all of my California experiences spread out across five years are now gone forever, and I'm never going to get them back. For whatever reason I'm homesick for a place where I don't even want to live anymore, but my friends there sent me photos of redwood groves, and this made me feel melancholy.

Instead, I set out on Thursday to follow the snow as it melted away from the lower elevations. The previous day I got both an pneumonia shot and a flu shot, and I was feeling especially downtrodden with a left arm so sore I could scarcely lift it to drive. But that early winter air tasted so good that I had to find some more, so I headed out to Eldora to hike up 4th of July Road.

It was a little silly to put all that effort into walking on a road, but mild flu-like symptoms made it too difficult to run, and there was too much ice to drive any higher. Instead I ambled along the quiet corridor as thick snow squalls blew in and then suddenly cleared, again and again. This made me happy. What is it about walking that makes everything feel more centered?


Just had my first round of shots. Suddenly my shoulders feel sore and I'm lightheaded. I wonder if this is an actual reaction or in my head? With my recent health issues, I'm conflicted about what's real and what's imagined. That uncertainty extends to most aspects of life, when you think about it.


On Friday, temperatures at home rose into the sixties, and I wondered whether I could find more of that tasty winter air. I set my sights on an easy 13,200-foot peak that I hadn't yet visited, Mount Audubon. The previous day I'd felt overheated while walking a mellow grade in 35-degree weather, so I admittedly packed too lightly — a softshell jacket, cap, mittens, and buff. I headed up to the trailhead in the mid-afternoon.

The temperature at 10,000 feet was 37 degrees, and the wind was breathtaking. It ripped through the parking lot as I stuffed a couple of granola bars into my pack. I knew I was a bit underprepared, but I'd driven all the way there and paid ten dollars to enter the park. I figured I could at least hike to treeline and see how things went. 

Predictably I heated up considerably while wading through thick slush in the forest, bolstering my confidence. At 11,500 feet, the wind hit gale force. It swept down the mountain with such ferocity that I could scarcely breathe when I faced it directly, and felt like I was pushing against a wall of ice. But I was intrigued. My experiences with cold weather have made me more bold than I probably should be, but I wasn't anywhere close to my limit and decided I could turn around anytime. So I continued to crawl upward with my chin buried in my light jacket, eyes squinted almost shut behind sunglasses, ears becoming slightly sore beneath a flimsy hat. The thin cover of snow was heavily drifted — bare in spots, knee-deep in others. I couldn't find the trail so I followed one set of tracks. I found the maker of the tracks reclining just below the ridge. He was heavily bundled up with his back to the wind, but looked comfortable. I asked him whether he went to the top. He had, but the upper slope was "very treacherous."

"It's snow around boulders," he said. "Easy to fall through."

I knew exactly the kind of conditions he described, so I told him I planned to go for just twenty more minutes before turning around. That was my time limit for returning before dark.

Still, I had a bit of summit fever, and continued up the mountain past my own cutoff. My strategy for the treacherous boulders was to hopscotch the exposed rocks, trying to avoid the snow of unknown depth. In my haste, I finally planted a foot into a drift, where it immediately plunged into a knee-deep hole and twisted painfully. I winced and pulled myself onto a boulder to take the weight off my throbbing ankle. It didn't feel sprained, which was lucky. But in the short time I sat there, the wind ripped most of the heat from my body and I started shivering rapidly. I was wearing all of the clothing I had with me, with only a space blanket as backup. The realization finally hit that if I hurt myself, things would become dire quickly. As soon as I stood up, I turned around — 200 feet shy of the summit.

On the way down, I moved extremely carefully to avoid twisting my ankle again. Without the heat-generating effort of the climb, I slowly lost feeling in my fingers. My shoulders ached with cold. But I felt as centered as the day prior. The frosted mountains were tinged with pink light, and a vast expanse of now-familiar hills and plains spread out in front of me. It was calming to be in this place in this moment, even with temperatures in the low 20s and a relentless wind pushing against my back. I should have brought a coat.

Just got the second round of shots. Now I feel a bit nauseated and my heart rate has increased, thought that may be because I'm writing about feeling very cold. Anyway, on Saturday temperatures were again in the 60s and I went for a bike ride in shorts, yet still longed for more of that high mountain air. My friends from Fairbanks, Corrine and Eric, arrived in the evening. Since my parking pass was good through Sunday, I suggested a short hike to one of the Brainard Lakes.

"Probably just four miles or so," I promised my Alaskan friends — who live at 1,000 feet. "We can take it slow."

We got a late start Sunday morning and traffic was heavy on the highway. This and the nice weather caused us to shy away from Brainard Lakes — one of the most popular trailheads in the area — because we feared crowds. Instead we veered toward Eldora, where we still had to park in town, a mile from the trailhead. I told Corrine and Eric about this fantastic run I did here in June, the "High Lonesome Loop."

"We should hike to King Lake," I suggested, knowing it would be 12 miles round trip. "It will be longish, but worth it."

Maybe predictably, when we arrived at the lake and looked up at the Continental Divide, Corrine and Eric wanted to go there. At the pass, temperatures were mild and the wind was nothing more than a soft breeze — shockingly different from Friday's weather. We saw two guys who told us they hiked from Devil's Lake, and the ridge was "covered in a few inches of slush." (I had expected deep, wind-hardened drifts.) Even though I was thinking, "the ridge walk would be awesome," I didn't say anything because we'd already hiked seven miles, the ridge skirted 12,000 feet, and my poor friends had just arrived from the lowlands. But I didn't even have to say anything, because it was Eric who suggested, "Let's just go around the loop. We know we all want to."

The ridge walk was fantastic. The Divide was inexplicably warm and windless, and snow-frosted mountains stretched out in all directions. My friends had to slow down in the thin air, but I felt the best that I've felt since I returned to Colorado. I'm pretty much convinced now that high mountain air is the cure for breathing woes, although friends and medical providers insist that allergy shots work better.

It did get late and we had to hike the last three miles in the dark with two headlamps between the three of us. The hike ended up being eighteen miles, which was truly not what I had in mind, but I think everyone enjoyed the long walk — even if I was perhaps the only one who really enjoyed the thin mountain air.

Third round of shots. They keep upping the dose and this one sort of burns. Well. It's all an experiment, or experience. Meanwhile, I'm scheming my next return to the high country. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

October already

As I tiptoe toward some semblance of training, I'm having a bit of déjà vu for last October. There's this realization that Winter Is Coming, I have less than five months to get my act together, and my workouts are still completely unpredictable. There are days I feel great and charge up hills. Other days I stumble along, convinced that I am irreversibly out of shape, and perhaps I should concede this fact and stop trying so hard. Embrace the sedentary life. What's so bad about that, really?

These episodes would be more disconcerting if I wasn't in such a similar place last year.

I followed up with my allergist today, and my lung function tests measured a fair amount lower than they did in August. The numbers are more similar to October 2015, which is when I first went to see an asthma doctor in Palo Alto. It's difficult to say why I haven't improved. Unfortunately I was bad with my medications in September, so there's no way to gauge whether they're working or not. I will start immunotherapy in two weeks, with an accelerated treatment that sounds particularly unfun. It requires sitting in a room at the clinic for three hours, writhing in discomfort with an epi-pen ready in case of anaphylaxis. BUT, the main treatment will be over soon enough that I can still go to Alaska for a month in March. Priorities.

So that's where I am in "training" right now. Since I'm still having difficult days, I've been taking it relatively easy. I think my dad is worried my fitness is so poor that I won't make it across the Grand Canyon for our annual rim-to-rim (and back the next day), which is just over a week from now. I don't think my fitness is that bad. But I do acknowledge that once these fun diversions are done, I really need to focus on the Iditarod. I'm going to join a small gym in town, with a plan to put more emphasis on weight training this year. If I am having "overtraining" issues (which seems unlikely, as this past summer has been my laziest in years), weight training will be a good way to build strength while minimizing impact on my weak little lungs.

Still, I'm glad I can manage regular outdoor outings. It has been a beautiful couple of weeks. Autumn color and light give everything a new richness. A cold winter wind has been blasting through the valley. Crawling up Bear Peak this evening, I could see a thick layer of snow on the Continental Divide. I guess I missed my window to climb a 14'er this year, but no matter. I'm excited. Winter air is the best air.

Also, thank you to those who purchased my photo book. I actually had a rush of orders and sold out my first batch, but have another on the way that should arrive by the end of the week. So if there's a small delay, I apologize. Sending another book into the world is always a little nerve-wracking. What if it's terrible? What if everyone hates it? You know, the usual concerns. This in conjunction with fitness angst is apparently bad for self-esteem, which is the main reason I've been mostly avoiding my blog and social media since I returned to Colorado (except for book promotions. Sorry about that. Necessary evil.)

But yes, October is here! Everything got a lot better around this time last year. I'm confident it will again.

There are still more books available at this link: http://www.arcticglasspress.net/agp/?wpsc-product=into-the-north-wind

Thanks again!