Thursday, June 22, 2017

Love these adventures in roadtripping

Our trip to Utah was a brief one. I drove from Colorado on Wednesday and returned on Monday. Beat flew in and out of St. George — both to save vacation hours, and because I suspect he finds road trips as tedious as I find them exhilarating. I love long drives. Every time I'm out on the road, pausing in front of an immense soda fountain or flipping through garbled variations of NPR, I imagine my life in another universe as a trucker. There's not quite enough stimulation in driving (in my ideal alternate universe, I'm somehow a professional bike tourist.) But road-tripping is moving through the world, rather effortlessly, and thus is one of my favorite activities.

We spent Saturday night in a hotel near the entrance to Bryce Canyon, but were too tired to venture into the national park. By evening I was quite grumpy, having spent most of the day marinating in my DNF misery. Okay, it wasn't that bad. After spending four hours under harsh sun at the Blubber Creek aid station, I crowded into a pickup truck with four other runners who dropped out of the 50-miler, and three volunteers (two sat in the bed on a mound of stuff as the truck rumbled down the bumpy dirt road.) It was a good 45-minute drive to the finish, where more than 50 people were lined up — under direct sunlight — to board the shuttle van to the hotel, seven miles down the road. No shuttle showed up the entire time I was there.

I stood in line for about ten minutes until I felt woozy — I had yet to acquire any food or water since I dropped out of the race five hours earlier — and walked away to a thin sliver of shade to text Beat, who had finished the race a couple hours before. I wanted him to pick me up in our car, but a misunderstanding led me to believe that he wasn't coming, he just wanted me to collect all of our drop bags and bring them back to the hotel. This led to several seconds of stomping around in a silent rage before texting him that I couldn't take it any longer, I was going to buy a pita bread pizza and eat it as I walked the seven miles back to some form of indoor sanctuary. I'd had it with the sun and the desert and I never wanted to do this to myself again.

Luckily, in my sleep-deprived haze it took me a while to garner one of the personal pizzas being sold by a youth group at the finish line, and a can of generic ginger ale, which was lukewarm and somehow still tasted like the elixir of life. I felt markedly better after eating, and then Beat showed up in the air-conditioned car with a icy fountain soda. I thought I might cry for happiness. All was right in the world.

The sunset that night was beautiful, in part because of a wildfire burning near Brian Head. (The fire was started by an idiot using a torch to kill weeds. As of this post it had grown to 11,000 acres, and the town of Brian Head remains evacuated.)

On Sunday morning, we made the two-hour trip to St. George to drop Beat off at the airport. We had about an hour to kill, so we stopped at a park on the outskirts of town to scramble on rocks. The temperature was 98 degrees. It felt downright cool compared to my experience in the canyons at the Bryce 100, but I know it's all a matter of circumstance.

On our way to St. George, we stopped for coffee in Cedar City. Next to Starbucks was a place called "Sushi Burrito." It was closed until noon. But I knew I'd have to make my way back through Cedar after dropping Beat at the airport, and I was so excited about the prospect of a sushi burrito that I held off snacking until I returned. Sushi Burrito was open, not crowded (yes it was Sunday in Utah), and I was stunned that my purchase only cost $8.99, including a free fountain soda. The "burrito" was really just a giant maki roll, but it was amazing, so amazing. Words don't describe it, I mean, for $8.99 — the seafood tasted fresh, the rice was perfect, and there were sprinkles of tobiko to round out the deliciousness. It was everything I dreamed about. The perfect post-race meal.

Google maps told me to continue up I-15 to I-70, but I didn't really want to do that, so I crept through town toward Highway 14, which is just another one of those nondescript, incredibly scenic byways that are so prevalent in Utah.

Along the highway was a sign for Cedar Breaks National Monument, and I thought, "I don't think I've ever been there." I lived in Utah for 22 years, and as a young adult spent nearly every weekend traipsing around little-known corners in the San Rafael Swell, Grand Staircase Escalante, Uinta National Forest. But in all that time, I couldn't recall ever visiting Cedar Breaks. So I made it happen.

The views were, predictably, jaw-dropping. Within the small park was a four-mile out-and-back panorama trail that couldn't be left unhiked. I couldn't bear the thought of putting my running shoes back over my still-throbbing blisters, so I set out in my rather worn out gym shoes with a 44-ounce tanker of soda in one hand (you can probably see a theme here in my road trip love story. I allow myself to drink gallons of Diet Pepsi when I'm on the road.)

I paused at every overlook, but spent even more time lingering under bristlecone pines. Of all of the living things in this world, those I respect most are ancient trees. The oldest in Cedar Breaks is more than 1,700 years old — gnarled and stripped almost bare from centuries of turmoil and hardship in this harsh environment. But it's still alive. Incredible trees, the bristlecone pine. I think I would like to have my ashes spread in the shade of one of these trees, after I die. 

I still felt a bit short of breath while hiking. The rim is at 10,000 feet elevation, but I don't think I can blame altitude. My recovery from Bryce wasn't that swift, but my legs felt surprisingly nimble, and my mildly sprained ankle was only mildly sore. Still, the ankle remained unstable, and I had to pay attention to my weight balance with every step. I stumbled once, right in front of a group of hikers near the end of the trail.

"Maybe you should put that big drink away," one guy said.

After leaving Cedar Breaks I drove to Highway 12, rolling right past the Bryce Canyon hotel that I'd left eight hours earlier, and continued past the park entrance because I'd dawdled all day and needed to make some miles. Perhaps predictably, I only managed another 45 minutes on the road before I saw a sign for Kodachrome Basin. "I don't think I've ever been there, either," I thought.

The state park was named in 1948 with the approval of Kodak Film, and it's funny to think about a park that will long outlive its namesake and anyone who even remembers that color film was a thing. But Kodachrome is quite fitting for a name. It's a photographer's playground. 

The park is thousands of feet lower than Bryce Canyon, and the temperature was 101 degrees. I thought "no big deal," but within 0.10 miles of my car, I felt woozy and wondered if this was really such a good idea. I had yet to collect actual water for my bladder, so I sipped on an extremely hot bottle of sparkling water that I found in Beat's stash of snacks. The trail climbed to a small plateau with spurs out narrow sandstone fins. A blow-dryer-like wind blasted the rim, and it took a lot of bravery to coax myself out this spur. I actually did it, but then stood there so weak-kneed that I couldn't take out my camera for the intended photo.

There were some beautiful views, though. You didn't need to walk out the fins to see them.

The sun was beginning to slip toward the horizon (what? so early? I know that two days ago I said the sun spends too much time in the sky during the summer, but I take that back.) I headed out to the other side of the park to whittle away the magic hour.

Then I saw a sign for Shakespeare Arch, and managed to coax myself into another hike.

By now I was mostly out of liquid and my legs were protesting, finally. I was following a trail that wound around sandstone spires, and there was always something interesting to explore just around the corner. Shut up, legs.

Views of Rock Springs Bench. Out there is the BLM land where things really get interesting. But when you're on a time-starved road trip, quick front-country hikes more than suffice.

Early evening, magic light, still 90-something degrees.

Initially I had ambitions to drive into the night, but as the sun set I deflated rapidly, with a crushing exhaustion that can best be described as jet lag, or the post-75-miler crash. I stopped at a hotel in the town of Cannonville, which was so tiny that it didn't even have a restaurant or a store. The hotel had a small convenience store, so I enjoyed a Tour Divide-esque meal of microwave burrito, a banana, a Kit Kat Bar, and of course more Diet Pepsi, heavy on the ice.

The room was air-conditioned to the point of being frigid, and I startled awake a half dozen times during the night. Each time I awoke, my mind was racing not with memories of being back on the trail at the Bryce 100, but with all the possibilities for the following day. Grand Staircase Escalante! Petrified Forest! Hell's Backbone! Capitol Reef! Boulder, Colorado, was still ten hours away, and I knew I needed to dial back my mania if I wanted to make it home before I crashed again.

Mania is difficult to dial back on Highway 12. Yup, that's Highway 12.

Also Highway 12.

Still Highway 12.

Okay, Jill, you need to stop pulling over at every roadside pullout.

This would be a beautiful place for a bike tour, but there's no shoulder and I'm sure the road is very busy for most of the summer. Perhaps a winter bike tour? I wonder what these 9,000-foot passes are like in January.

Nearing Capitol Reef National Park. Highway 24 passes through Fremont River Canyon without requiring a park entrance fee, and I knew I wouldn't have the strength not to stop.

9 a.m. road trip math. How long can I hike and still get back to Boulder before dark?

Perfection landed right in my lap — Chimney Rock, a four-mile loop right off the highway. The temperature was a cool 82 degrees, and for my liquid I had a quart of Beat's Gatorade that I froze overnight. Sips of ice-cold purple drink gave me all the energy I needed to wrap this up in less than an hour ... well, more like an hour and twenty minutes.

Views from Chimney Rock.

This is definitely somewhere I need to plan a backpacking trip in the future.

I did manage to buckle down after Capitol Reef. Before long I'd collected bits of convenience store lunch at Hole-in-the-Rock in Hanksville, rumbled toward Green River and I-70, and the NPR-supported Interstate autopilot that carried me all the way home. It certainly was fun while it lasted, though. 
Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Keep the earth below my feet, still

These were the care-free days of last autumn, back when — although it was grasping at straws — I could still let myself believe anything was possible. Beat said, "Hey, do you want to sign up for the Bryce 100?" I still had the 1,000-mile Iditarod on my schedule — anything else seemed like a brisk jaunt in comparison. "Sure. Why not?" 

It's melodramatic to say that everything changed when I was diagnosed with Graves Disease in February, but it was the smack of reality that toppled the last bricks on my wall of fortitude. Suddenly my body was a stranger to me. It wasn't something I controlled. It controlled me. All of the gasping and straining wasn't just debilitating; it was dangerous. Those handful of times that I was sitting at home or in my car and my heart rate spiked and I thought I might be having a heart attack — those were actually happening. Connecting my lived experiences with a generic list of symptoms made it easy to concede. I was sick. Unwell. No longer capable of the things I used to do, possibly from now on. Was this the end of the world? No, of course not. I just needed to adjust my attitude. Shift my expectations. The key to getting through any change in life. 

 In truth I hadn't thought about the Bryce 100 in those ensuing months, until Beat brought it up again in April. By then I had sorted through mountains of materials and had several blood tests, and better understood what my illness meant. I dabbled with training — there's a reason I showed up for the Quadrock 25-miler, and initiated long weekend run-hikes through the foothills. The training just confirmed that I was not in shape to run a 100-miler — I still had wild swings in my physical condition. On "good weeks" I could run reasonably fast and far without distress. On "bad weeks" I'd start gasping after a plodding mile. There was no real pattern to any of it. But the training did reveal how to best temper my heart rate on a bad day. How to manage my breathing and slow my pace as necessary.

 A week before the race, I had an appointment with my endocrinologist. Sheepishly, I told her about the Bryce 100, qualifying it for my abilities — "It's two days and 100 miles. Difficult terrain, but mostly hiking."

My most recent bloodwork had been very good, enough so that I'd been taking a lower dose of medication for a month. "With these numbers, you will probably be okay," she said. "But I wouldn't expect you to feel very good."

I wouldn't feel good because I am still a long way from recovery, under-trained, and dealing with these wild hormone fluctuations that my doctor confirmed are really happening — not just in my head. By saying I would be okay, she was simply telling me I probably wouldn't die, which, when you think about it, is a reasonably encouraging expectation.

 The final week before the Bryce 100 was a "bad week." Even though I was "tapering," I could scarcely handle my meager efforts. My breathing was rough. I felt strung out. Indeed, I had new blood work on Monday that would reveal I'd swung back into hyperthyroid territory after my excellent May results, but I wouldn't find out about this until the following Monday, after the race was over. My body is already relatively inefficient at processing oxygen, but being hyperthyroid makes it much worse. There are layers of physiological effects, but the result is the equivalent of lost fitness ... being out of shape ... having a couch-sitter's circulatory system in an extremely difficult ultramarathon.

 But I do love my moon shots ... and there was no real danger. Heat stroke was far more likely than a thyroid storm. So I packed up my gear and made a plan — I'd keep my heart rate below 150 at all times, if I could. I knew from recent training that this would net a slow pace, probably barely enough to finish before the 36-hour cut-off. But it was likely my only chance to keep control of my breathing and maintain forward motion. If I succumbed to shortness of breath, I'd start needing long breaks, and then I'd be toast.

I first ran the Bryce 100 in 2013 with Beat and two other friends. That year I came down with high-altitude nausea and struggled to finish in 34 hours. It seemed like a terrible performance back then, but now, in 2017, I'd be over the moon if I could run that "fast." The Bryce 100 was actually the last (non-winter) 100-plus-mile ultra that I was able to finish. My track record with dirt and mountains has been terrible. Four years of failure — and it's not likely to improve anytime soon if ever. At what point do I finally give up?

Failure on this day was incredibly likely. If I allowed myself to fret about that, the angst would eat me alive. Why not just have fun? Why not be happy about what my body can do?

 This was my attitude heading into the 6 a.m. start, standing in an empty parking lot with more than 200 others as the glaring June sun rose over the Sevier River Valley (Beat and I mistook it for the "Sewer River" on our GPS map, and continued to call it that.) Since I'd spent months believing I wouldn't start this race, and knew that it was still folly, it didn't matter if I couldn't finish. I was going to calmly and happily lope along the desert sand for as far as my body would allow, and be content with whatever that number might be. Adjust my attitude. Shift my expectations. The key to getting through life.

 About three miles into the race I had some stomach upset and had to dart into the woods for ten minutes. By the time I crawled out, I was at the back of the race and presumed I'd stay there, which was fine. The air surrounding the Thunder Mountain Trail was utterly still, and suspended clouds of dust were all that remained of the 200 people who trampled through here already. I watched my heart rate monitor and slowed on every incline — 150 beats per minute was barely enough to even hike the uphills. Well. At least this was an incredible setting, surrounded by orange mounds of sand and crimson hoodoos rippling through Red Canyon. In photos these bands of sandstone look interesting, but to move among them is surreal, like dimension-warping into a cartoon or a ride at Disneyland. Earlier I told Beat about my childhood memories of "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad" and how I can never disassociate this scenery from the ride, even though I'm sure I visited Bryce Canyon as a child as well. Here I could re-live these memories in a visceral reality, with the swirling dust, the still-exhilarating descents, the parched air and the June heat.

 It was hot. Morning temperatures were already climbing into the 80s, with a forecast to reach 90 in the lower canyons by mid-day. Running at altitudes between 7,500 and 9,500 feet, these temperatures feel roughly like the surface of the sun. Beat and I had done some heat training in our sauna, but it was wholly insufficient for the reality. I drank all of my ice water by mile eight, and had to run two dry miles to the first aid station. I was parched by the time I got there — dehydrated already — and they had run out of ice, which resulted in loud complaining on my part (I'm not proud of this. I try to be pleasant at aid stations because I know people are volunteering their time and often can't control the variables. But they'd given away all of the ice, and I'd already accumulated a measure of desperation.)

 I filled up two liters of lukewarm water and continued to the next section, an oven of a canyon winding its way to the Paunsaugunt Plateau. I remembered from 2013 that this section was difficult — endless short and steep climbs and descents along loose sideslopes, deep sand, and rocky trail. Still, it was frustrating to watch my minutes per mile creep into the mid- to high-20s while my heart rate frequently spiked above 150 and even 160. I caught up to a man from Salt Lake City who told me he too was watching his heart rate, trying to keep it around 120. Sure, rub it in, healthy male. We wound through the canyon and sipped our hot water until it, too, was gone. Aid station two came at mile 19 and they also were out of ice. I tried to hold back but my temper got the best of me, and I stomped around ranting about "saving some of the ice for the back-of-packers, who really need it." Of course this did nothing to improve my situation.

Others withered in the heat, and I passed a fair number of people in the third section through the sandstone oven. I still managed to run out of water before the grueling climb out of the canyon — I had carrying capacity for two liters, refilled three times, so it seemed I'd managed to guzzle nearly six liters of water in less than 30 miles, without peeing once, and I still felt thirsty. We crossed a small stream where I soaked my buff and hat. I was tempted to fill my bladder with stream water, but I only carried chlorine tablets, and by the time those kicked in I hoped to be at the aid station. It was only about a mile and a half away? Maybe two. An hour? It was an eternity in this super-heated basement of Hell. 

I latched on to two others, a man and a woman, as we deliriously plodded up the canyon wall. My skin began to feel clammy and my head throbbed. I stopped watching or caring about my heart rate, but I could feel it pounding in my chest. A half-mile was pure desperation; I was genuinely worried I might be slipping into heat exhaustion. The others fared even worse and slipped back. The aid station was a meager oasis — just a tent under the mid-day sun, hardly any shade even beneath the trees, but they had water, and they had ice! I thought I might cry. I greedily guzzled the liquid as it flowed into my bladder, causing the volunteer to comment that it would never fill if I kept drinking. The aid station was overflowing with runners who had succumbed to the heat. More than a dozen would drop out of the race here. One man was lying on a cot, shivering profusely. "He needs to get to a hospital," I mumbled, because everyone already knew it. We were a long way from the highway, but I hoped help was coming. 
 Even with water, I was slow to recover from dehydration. The afternoon only grew hotter and the trail flowed along the high plateau, endlessly up and down, often away from shade, well above 8,000 feet. My head was still throbbing and I could feel blisters searing the skin on my heels. But I respected the clock and boosted myself in and out of aid stations as quickly as possible, only stopping long enough to collect more water, some fruit snacks for my front pocket, perhaps a quesadilla square or a handful of pretzels for "salt." I carried salt tablets as well, and took one every time I started to feel out of sorts, which worked surprisingly well.

 Just before the sun went down, I crossed paths with Beat on the out-and-back course. I was around mile 42, he was at mile 58, and somewhere in the top quarter of runners at the time. I was no longer last, but definitely in the bottom quarter. He looked great. I felt like road kill, and I was a lot of miles behind him, but at least the sun was going down. The oppressive sun would be gone for nearly nine hours, which wasn't nearly enough, but at least it was nine hours I could look forward to (no wonder I do so much better in Alaska ultras than these summer ones. The less sun, the better.)

 The night miles were enjoyable. There was a segment of dirt road where I zoned out and listened to music for a while, not caring who heard me when I sang "Thunder" by Imagine Dragons out loud, and putting "Home"by Field Report on repeat for a half hour:

Long-lived beauty; short-lived pain
Lust for wonder and hunger pangs.
Face your fear, not your shame,
In the end, it just wears you away. 

While jogging down the road, I rolled my left ankle badly and went down, scraping my right knee. The ankle throbbed but as I walked it off, the pain diminished. Still, the band beneath the joint had become swollen and my ankle remained unstable. A minor sprain, but a sprain nonetheless. I struggled with the next section of trail — badly eroded, overgrown brush, fallen trees and crumbling gullies. I made it to mile 51.5 just 40 minutes before the cut-off, but decided to take the time to change my shirt, tape my blisters, and eat a bowl of ramen.

 The night was so warm that I remained in my T-shirt and even rolled down my sun-sleeves at midnight. But as I babied my tender ankle down the ball-bearing rocks of the long descent into Straight Canyon, a switch flipped. Suddenly I began shivering, my hands went numb, my feet went numb. I hobbled into the aid station and grabbed every stitch of warm clothing out of my drop bag there — puffy jacket, mittens, beanie. I was dressed as though it was 10 degrees in Alaska, and still I continued to shiver. Temps could have been a little cool, possibly even the low-40s, but it seemed most likely that heat of the day had thrown my body temperature out of whack. I was very cold. My fingers could no longer grip my trekking poles, so I shoved them under my arm pit as I rubbed my mittens together.

 In an effort to generate warmth I tried to move faster, jogging as I climbed out of Straight Canyon. It didn't take long before my breathing became raspy, and the tell-tale chirping sound accompanied every exhalation. Shortness of breath had caught up to me. Whether I could have avoided it by more diligently watching my heart rate, I won't know. When I looked at my watch, my heart was only beating 140, but the wheezing became worse. I took hits from my inhaler, and while this remedy provides relief, it's short lived. Within five minutes I was wheezing again. My shoulders quaked with cold, and my chest heaved with growing desperation.

Just before the oppressive sun rose again, I had an asthma attack. What spurred it was just silly. I had been watching the cut-offs, and knew I needed to reach the mile 67 aid station by 6 a.m. Just over a mile from the aid station, I looked at my watch. I'd switched it over and thus restarted the timer at the 51-mile turnaround, which I left at 11:40 p.m. The watch said 5:51, which I assumed was the time, but it was actually the number of hours that had passed since 11:40. In reality it was about 5:30 a.m. I had plenty of time to make the cut-off, but I reacted to nine minutes as "I'm never going to make it!" I started running, as fast as I could. Amid that burst of anxiety, I just lost it. Gasping, panicking, finally sitting down and trying to breathe out the word "calm, calm, calm" so I could slow my breathing enough to take a hit from the inhaler. Then the crying started. Blubbering, mucous. It was a mess. It was my typical reaction to breathing difficulty, and the situation I promised myself I'd avoid by quitting before it happened. But some things just can't be avoided, no matter how much mind over matter we employ.

Since I'd missed the cut-off anyway, I took a long sit and got my breathing completely under control before I continued. By the time I strode into the aid station I believed it was 6:30, but it was actually only 6:10. The volunteer said I could have that ten-minute leeway and continue if I wanted to, and I was so surprised at the suggestion that I grabbed a handful of Swedish fish and kept going, not even stopping to refill my water. I anticipated beautiful dawn light over the pink cliffs, but on the first climb my breathing became rough again, and I lost interest in taking photos. Now I felt short of breath by the time my heart rate hit 130. It was scarcely enough power to propel my legs up anything.

The race wasn't over. Perhaps I could plod it out. But why? I already promised myself I was going to draw the line at the breathing difficulties I'd already experienced. But here I was, still going. Why? It's an interesting question to ponder amid the 70-mile fatigue and sleep deprivation, still huddled in a puffy jacket with the hood up as the oppressive sun that I fear casts direct light into my eyes. I took short stops to look out from the edge of the plateau, where the pink cliffs rose like fantasy castle spires out of the green river valley. I would just smile, because this felt good. This felt like the best life, the one I continue to seek in these increasingly futile endurance efforts — beautiful because it's difficult, difficult because it's worthwhile, because living is about moving forward, if it's about anything at all.

I was still listening to my iPod, and that would have to be the time that "Dig Down" by Muse came on, which was basically an anthem of aggressive motivation.

When hope and love has been lost and you fall to the ground 
You must find a way. 
When the darkness descends and you're told it's the end 
You must find a way.

I tried jogging again. It went about as you might expect. There was gasping, and inhaler puffs, and crying. This may have been the scenario I expected to experience, but it wasn't the one I was fighting for. I really didn't come here to dig down to angst and desperation. I came here for beauty and joy, until that was done. This meant I was done. It was fine. Despite the heat and blisters and rolled ankle, it had been a beautiful and enjoyable 70 miles. I didn't need to go any further.

Except for I did still need to plod out five more miles to reach Blubber Creek aid station, the place where I saw multiple runners with heat exhaustion the previous day. A half mile from the aid station, a runner came flying by me at a stunning clip. "Holy cow, that guy found the Jesus fire," I thought, thinking he was a fellow back-of-packer trying to make the cut-off. Actually he was the leading 50-mile racer — the 50-mile race started that morning from what was the 100-milers' halfway point. When I hobbled in, it was clear I wasn't the second-position 50-miler, and the aid station captain cut me off without sympathy. It was okay. If he had agreed to let me overshoot to cutoff and continue I would have been in a tough spot, with only 8.5 hours to cover a section of trail that took me nine hours to travel on the way in, before the asthma, tired legs, and second-day heat took effect. It was failure math that I could never justify away, no matter how much I tried to "dig down."

This was still the most remote aid station, with no way to shuttle me out for several hours. Despite the cranking heat my body temperature continued to feel cold, then pleasantly moderate. I even napped in a cot for a while, until a switch flipped again and my skin felt like it was on fire. There was still no shade. My own water bladder was empty, and the volunteers at the aid station were beginning to panic because they had nearly run out of water. Fifty-mile racers were pouring in, and they were down to ten gallons. I sucked on cubes of ice out of the cooler, and at one point said something off-handed about melting the ice to make water, similar to the way we melted snow when I volunteered for a White Mountains 100 aid station in Alaska in March. One volunteer actually started doing this, stirring a vat of ice on the propane stove. I fretted about the safety of the back-of-pack 50-milers and paced miserably — thirsty, hungry, and increasingly desperate myself. I wished I'd just continued. It probably would have killed me, poor breathing in the oven canyon, but it would have been better than this misery.

Of course I was just sleep-deprived and overreacting. Finally the supply truck arrived with more water and welcome extraction. I'd failed yet again, and again showed my propensity for making it about three quarters of a race before succumbing to it. But that's okay. I truly didn't feel bad about it. I am what I am. No miles will come so easily to me any more. But that only makes them all the more worthwhile.
Thursday, June 08, 2017

Ask me anything

In my last post I requested that readers "Ask me anything." I lifted the idea from an acquaintance, Mike Place, whose shared his own honest and introspective answers. It seemed like a great way to spur self-reflection — an indulgent but useful exercise. Thank you to everyone who posed a question. A few were quite difficult. I'm posting them in the order I received them. Along with the answers are photos from a "run commute" with Eszter, Scott, and Beat on Wednesday evening. We took the most direct route that would travel over three peaks to our home. It was just a little over eight miles and took four hours — tracing old trails, all-too-briefly running new trails, scrambling on boulders, crawling down loose rocks and chunky scree, and bushwhacking through a burn area. A fun outing! 

 1. Is there something you hope to accomplish during the course of your life? Some theme that you hope people will mention in your obituary or otherwise after you die? Or maybe a better question is "How do you hope to be remembered after you die?" 

It’s interesting that we view accomplishment as a path to immortality. I suppose that’s why writing a book that millions read is a great accomplishment, while writing a book that means a lot to you, but is only read by friends and family, is often viewed as a failure. I’ve given this thought and I’m largely okay with being forgotten soon after I die. Perhaps my great-nieces and nephews will be told about my ride across Alaska, but if they meet me, they’ll probably remember me as a quiet old lady in a weird-smelling house (the way I remember most of my elderly relatives.) At that point, I might not value adventure the way I do now. I might feel like I've become someone else entirely. The self is such a fluid notion; it’s hard to choose just one defining theme.

If I hope to accomplish anything, it’s to live a full life. That sounds like a cop-out, but I truly am grateful for every birthday. I want to continue to skirt the edge of possibility and explore everything I can, including the ever-shifting landscape of my mind. I want to continue to learn and better understand the structure of the world, far-away cultures and the people around me. I want to love and grieve and experience the depths of human emotion. And if one day I write a book that millions read, I certainly wouldn’t complain.

Beat guided us up Green on a saddle behind the First Flatiorn. The route gains 2,300 feet in 1.5 miles.

2. I think the question I want to ask is this — with everything in your life, how do you know when to ask for help? 

The simplest answer is that I do not know when to ask for help. There are so many wonderful people in my life, and too often I fail to reach out to anyone. I struggle with face-to-face conversation. I insulate and internalize difficulties. I can be uncomfortably personal in my writing, because the degree of separation in written words makes it easier for me to express my feelings. Running or biking alone is often the way I process thoughts and emotions, and writing is my cathartic release. Without these outlets, I fear I’d lose myself to bottled-up anxiety, sadness, and fear. I’m working on improving openness in my relationships, in no small part to find the strength to ask for help when I need it.

3. Obviously, dealing with illness will be the topic of your next book. What's the target date of publication? 

Chronic illness will NOT be the topic of my next book. I keep a hobby blog almost solely about personal outdoor activities, which my health directly affects. Of course I’m going to write about illness here, and I don’t really care if that’s not interesting to you. My books actually do aim for a somewhat wider market appeal, which is why I promised myself “no more books about the Iditarod” (although I’ll probably break that promise.) The projects I’m currently dabbling with involve biographies, adventure racing how-to’s, narrative history of places (more of an experimental writing exercise — pondering what places would write if they had consciousness), and one more memoir that explores the exhilaration of being a novice in love and running, set in 2010. No target dates for publication.

We dallied around on the summit of Green while the twilight clock continued to tick. Taskmaster Beat kept us in line.
4. With all of your solo adventures, how do you keep yourself from being scared of the dangers of the world, like animals, people, etc? Does this ever keep you from getting started? 

Back in the summer of 2002, I became almost immobilized by anxiety. It crept up on me, but by June I felt anxious every day. I was terrified of thunderstorms, terrified of my driving commute along the Great Salt Lake, sometimes trembling as I pedaled my new touring bike — which I purchased with daunting adventures in mind — on a routine hour-long ride up City Creek Canyon. I couldn’t define why I was so afraid. But it kept getting worse. One night my bedroom was stifling hot, and I couldn’t bring myself to open the window because I was afraid of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper. (Him specifically. He hadn’t been caught and was actually holed up near a trail about a mile from where I lived, but of course I didn’t know this at the time.)

Before the kidnapper-through-the-window delusion, I didn't realize how ridiculous my fearfulness had become. Shortly after that, I had a panic attack during a thunderstorm, while I was indoors. What I experienced that summer could have been the beginnings of an anxiety disorder that never fully developed. But I let it be the moment when I decided that I would not let fear rule my life.

 I am still frightened of the dangers of the world. In a way, understanding my irrational tendencies toward “fear of everything” has helped me overcome fears I probably should embrace, like freezing to death in the Alaska wilderness. But sometimes fears do keep me from getting started. Even though I’ve expanded my comfort levels enormously, I still avoid the things that make me uncomfortable. Joe’s suggestion for climbing in the Flatirons is a good example of this. I’m a clumsy person with relatively poor proprioception (the innate understanding of my body’s position in relation to the environment), and I don’t want to enter a setting where mistakes are costly. I could learn techniques that would improve my security, and in theory I’d like this. But I need to break through this fear to get started.

Stealing a few more moments on Green.

5. How do you keep clean during multi-day endurance efforts in regards to hygiene, and along with that, deal with waste? 

 Wet wipes! If I’m on a multi-day trip I always carry a package of 20 antibacterial wipes and use them generously, then put the used ones in a Ziplock bag until I have a chance to throw them away. Because I'm so sensitive to pollen and dust, I try to scrub most of my body at night before I crawl into the sleeping bag. 

And yes, while not quite as frequently, I still use Wet Wipes in subzero temperatures in Alaska. I keep individual wipes in an inside pocket to prevent them from freezing. Otherwise I am prone to rash, infections, sores, and other issues that can really derail a trip. Every time I hear that someone got “food poisoning” during a trip, I secretly wonder if they washed up after they pooped in the woods. It seems obvious, but when you’re hurting and tired, hygiene is usually the first task to go. 

Feminine products are another issue. Washing up with Wet Wipes and storing everything in a Ziplock trash bag is still the method, although I realize it’s not pleasant. Venturing into TMI, my own cycles are light enough that I don’t usually bother with products on bikepacking trips. Black synthetic underwear and Wet Wipes work well enough. And no, I no longer wear chamois during a multi-day bike tour. I’ve had enough horrors from those bacteria traps. 

6. How do you manage to take such consistently fantastic photos while in the midst of strenuous activity? 

If you ride long distances you tend to see lots of beautiful things, and then it’s easy to take beautiful photos. It’s just a matter of keeping a small digital camera accessible (in my case, the chest pocket of a hydration vest), keeping it in an automatic setting that doesn’t require any fussing, and pulling it out often. 

Top o'Bear, second peak of the evening.
7. Have you ever wished to funnel your energy through something else than running or cycling? What's your work / play ratio? 

 I’ll start with the work/play ratio. On any given week, I typically spend about 15 hours contracting for a media company in Alaska. I use about 5 to 10 hours a week, on average, to pursue and work on paying projects such as newspaper articles and freelance copy editing. The rest of my "work" time is spent on personal writing projects. I rarely write for more than 25 hours over the course of a week (I include my blog in this mix, as well as all the efforts that never see the light of day.) My mental energy is usually spent if I’ve honestly put in those 20-25 hours (honestly meaning I don’t count the time I spend playing Words With Friends while ignoring text documents on the screen.)

 According to Strava, my “play” time generally amounts to 10-20 hours a week. This play time is how I generate the creative energy I need to write. If I’m more physically active, I tend to be more productive in my book projects. I take more photos. Sometimes I sketch (these days mostly dabbling with computer software.) Recently, I even picked up a couple of freelance graphic design projects. When I'm less active, the creative side my mind quiets, and annoying anxieties become louder. If forced to become inactive, I’m sure I’d find a way to adjust. But for now, I view play as my way of generating energy, not spending it.

 Do I wish I could funnel the time into something else? I do wonder if I should make an effort to become more engaged in my community — join a trails committee, volunteer for a wilderness organization, go to city council meetings. When I did these things as a student activist and later as a newspaper reporter, I gained a rewarding connection to my communities. This was the whole reason I first ventured into journalism — in my view, engaging people on an individual and community level is the only realistic way for most individuals to “change the world.” Between my actual money-generating work, domestic chores, personally fulfilling creative projects, spending time with Beat, other (somewhat limited) social activities, and of course the running and cycling, I really don’t have tons of leftover time. Community activism would be one area I might like to redirect some of this time.

Scott and Ezter enjoying a swig of whiskey on South Boulder Peak
8. Is the (previous blog post) a sign of an existential vacuum? Do you think of yourself as self-actualized, fulfilled, happy through outdoor activities that only you experience?

In philosophy, I most directly identify with existentialism — the approach of finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Existential philosophers have posited that material desire is futile, and a person becomes their best self when they are pressed against extreme difficulty. By embracing their own existence, a person transcends the absurdity and oblivion of an irrational universe.

Throughout my college years, I was deeply engaged in a spiritual search. During this time, I drifted away from the religion of my youth, as well as other traditional paths (I was accepted to but never started law school, as one example.) At the time, I also devoured the novels by Thomas Wolfe. One passage from “Look Homeward Angel” stands out. The fictionalized version of the author asks the imaginary ghost of his dead brother:

“Where, Ben? Where is the world?” 

“Nowhere,” Ben said. “You are your world.” 

Inevitable catharsis by the threads of chaos. Unswerving punctuality of chance. Apexical summation, from the billion deaths of possibility, of things done.

... On the brink of the dark he stood, with only the dream of the cities, the million books, the spectral images of the people he loved, who loved him, whom he had known and lost. They will not come again. They never will come back again.” 

The author looks into this abyss and decides he must journey on. Why? Because this is life. It is beautiful, because we believe it is.

Coming up for air after this philosophical plunge, one of my core beliefs is that the meaning of life is to live. And I find self-actualization through creative expression and its power to break through barriers. I may engage in outdoor activities that only I experience, but I write about them. Other people, often complete strangers to me, have written back to share how they connected with the words, how their own perspectives shifted, how they were inspired to take a different direction, try something new. I believe humanity will benefit if people decide, collectively, that we are ultimately in charge of our own destinies, and take action — instead of treating life as something that just happens, or must be determined by someone or something else. No! You are your world.

Beat on South Boulder Peak, probably again stressing the imminence of darkness.
9. Have you considered alternate physical activities that are believed to have positive impact on human health (both physical and psychological), e.g. yoga? 

If you read my blog regularly or have made it this far in this post, it’s probably obvious that physical health is not my primary goal for outdoor activities. As for yoga, I avoid it because of predetermined fears. My inflexible body, balance struggles, introversion and performance anxiety would make me deeply uncomfortable even in the most basic beginner yoga class. That’s even more reason to believe it would be good for me, but my interest is low. If a doctor prescribed yoga as a treatment, I’d probably ask for a second opinion. However, I do lift weights. When I keep up a steady routine, I enjoy and look forward to my sessions, even though weight lifting doesn't include forward motion, the outdoors, endorphin stimulation, or anything that I actually like about physical activity. When I believed my thyroid levels might prevent me from doing any form of cardio, I decided I could be content focusing solely on weight lifting for a while. Perhaps I should give yoga a chance.

10. What are the top three bike rides you must do before you die? 

 I’m not really a bucket-lister type of person, so I won’t say I *must* do these rides (I like to keep my options open.) But the top three on the wish list are:

1. A winter fat bike excursion along the coast of Baffin Island.
2. A tour in New Zealand, possibly the Tour Aotearoa route.
3. Cycle across Mongolia (I picked up “Where the Pavement Ends” by Erika Warmbrunn at a library back in 2002, and that was among three books that inspired me to start cycling. If I ever end up going to Mongolia, I imagine it happening when I'm an older woman, revisiting the dreams of my 22-year-old self.)

11. What's the one adventure you keep dreaming about, but haven't yet done? 

 Referring back to the previous question, a bike tour through Mongolia. But if I could add another, I would love to embark on a long trek in Nepal. The Great Himalaya Trail is probably over my pay grade, but I dream about traveling the high route over 6,000-meter passes.

Descending the "Hairy Backside" of South Boulder mountain. Hopping loose boulders — always a swift mode of travel.
12. How do you stay so focused on outdoor adventures? Or do you have other hobbies that you just don't write about on this blog? 

I wouldn't say I am overwhelmingly focused on outdoor adventures, but they do take up a lot of space. My main hobbies are writing and reading. Occasionally I will watch movies with Beat, although it's been a long time since I saw one I really loved ("Arrival" was the most enjoyable in recent memory.) I also enjoy drawing, which I rarely do, sadly. I spend a lot of time reading — mainly newspapers, magazine articles, essays, and blogs. I do read 15-20 books a year, but like many people, I've killed my attention span with Internet garbage, and this has turned me into a slow book reader. I read almost exclusively nonfiction, favoring the genres in which I write (adventure narratives and memoir.) I spend too much time with social media, and fretting about the things I've read in newspapers. Beat has threatened to teach me about his engineering hobbies (he designs and builds his own gadgets), so I can be more productive in my downtime.

13. Are you perfectly content to have a small dedicated readership? I'm asking because it seems like your blog is a hidden gem, which I selfishly love because I managed to find it, but then I think how your talent for writing and photography has the potential to inspire so many more people. 

Aw, thanks. I think that my blog is wedged in a fairly niche genre, and it's only ever going to appeal to a small number of people. Occasionally a post on this blog will receive a huge number of hits — no doubt shared on social media by an influential person — but those first-time visitors almost never return. If I wanted my blog to reach a large number of folks regularly, I'd be better served turning it into a general-interest healthy living site. (Photos of beautiful people in front of pleasant scenery? Check. Instragrammable portraits of food? Check. Paleo recipes? Check.) The same goes for my books — in my genre, even books by "famous" people like Kilian Jornet sell just a few thousand copies. I am working to venture outside the adventure/outdoors genre, but I have no desire to labor through uninteresting projects or put up a front to become more marketable. I'd rather work in fast food.

I do appreciate the readers I've been able to reach, and enjoy the connections I've made through this endeavor. It's been more than worth it.

Beat found an elk antler in the grass.

14. Finally, what was the most memorable trail meal you've ever had?

Good question! I'm going to presume you mean an actual trail meal, and not a restaurant meal eaten during a trip. When I was 22 or 23, my then-boyfriend and I planned an overnight backpacking trip in Zion National Park with eight other friends. Geoff fancied himself a backcountry gourmet and promised he would make dinner for everyone. He recruited me to carry some of the supplies, but for everyone else, the specifics of our dinner would be a surprise.

The first day took us 15 miles through dry canyons and a high desert plateau on a brutally hot summer day. The group was exhausted and crashed out in the shade while Geoff and I commenced cooking dinner for ten people — spaghetti with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers and mushrooms (I cut up the vegetables using a Leatherman tool on the lid of the camp pot), pre-cooked garlic bread wrapped in foil, fancy olives for hors d'oeuvres, and two bottles of red wine (yes, in glass bottles. I carried those in and out.) In civilization it would have been a fairly basic meal, but the red canyon walls and unobstructed blue sky gave it a special flavor. Then I pulled out the pièce de résistance — chocolate and vanilla ice cream bars, packed on dry ice and stored in a small soft-shelled cooler. Our friends were floored. The reactions were priceless. Even though my shoulders ached from what must have been a 50+ -pound overnight pack, it was more than worth it. That's still one of my favorite food memories.

Those are all of the questions I received. Thanks to readers who went out a limb to ask challenging questions, and to the others who wrote e-mails to share their thoughts.