Thursday, October 19, 2017

Frittering away weekdays

After my forest road meltdown last Friday, I was hopeful I'd cleared my head enough to muscle through some projects this week. I'd felt unmoored. Last weekend was supposed to be my annual trip to hike the Grand Canyon with my dad. This is a tradition we've kept, with a few hiccups, nearly every year since 2004. Due to poor calendar-keeping, other travel plans overlapped those plans, and I had to cancel. Then the second trip fell through. So I ended up at home, feeling wistful about the passing of time, the unsettled world, and missed opportunities. Perhaps I should pour some of this angst into my work. Or, you know, do what I usually do, which is burn it off amid hard physical efforts. 

 First came Sunday, when Beat and I wanted to put in a solid six-hour "run." We like to pepper our "long runs" with 5,000 feet of climbing and a little ridiculousness, like this descent into Eldo Canyon.

 Remnants of autumn were hanging on in the meadows below Shadow Canyon.

 Beat secretly chased another dude up Shadow Canyon, then bonked. It was pretty cute. Our late-afternoon descent was accompanied by stunning light — a white glow on branches in the burn, and glistening snow on mountains in the distance. It must have been more subtle than my memories, because none of it showed up in this photograph. Long runs really are mood and sense enhancers.

 On Monday I was going to buckle down and write, really, but then my friend Wendy inquired about a hike on Niwot Ridge. Wendy recently "retired," by which I mean she left a many-hours-a-week position to pursue her own creative and entrepreneurial projects. I'm an avid supporter of such endeavors when they're feasible, so how could I say no to weekday fun? It was a beautiful and warm afternoon although quite windy. I'm becoming more of a connoisseur of wind thanks to living within a funnel of near-constant winter gales and a weather station to measure them. I'd guess Niwot's wind was steadily in the 30mph range — enough to knock you around and seemingly pull the air from your lungs. Wendy and I babbled away for miles through the woods, but above tree line, all of our strength was needed for breathing. We couldn't hear anything but wind, anyway.

 Wendy's dog, Scout, seemed unfazed although I have to feel for a ~40-pound animal fighting these gusts. The sastrugi was so wind-hardened that we didn't even leave footprints, except in the rotten places where we punched through to our shins.

 It was a great outing, although I was knackered from fighting that wind. This was a humbling reminder of what it means to fight wind all day, possibly for many days, in Alaska. Niwot Ridge is a great spot for winter training because of its position in a wind funnel and relatively low avalanche danger. I hope to return frequently.

Tuesday and Wednesday brought my normal weekday deadlines and many errands. On Wednesday the temperature hit 80 degrees and I stupidly went out right after lunch to run hard on Mount Sanitas. Unsurprisingly I crapped out early yet still fought for it, stumbling over rocks and wondering if I was going to rip open a knee on Sanitas' easy descent, yet again. After that I went to the gym and refilled my water bottle at least five times while grunting through a hard lifting session, because I felt guilty for missing my Monday routine. Anyway, after efforts that were unimpressive on paper, I was surprisingly shattered for my next slacker day, riding fat bikes up Rollins Pass with Cheryl.

I love riding by this old schoolhouse in Tolland. I always imagine I'm a miner's kid in the 1880s, sprinting across a meadow in my prairie dress with an armful of books. The interior has polished wooden desks and a stern teacher at a chalkboard, and then the illusion is shattered as I pass the building and see the boarded-up windows and flaking yellow paint.

 Cheryl and I weren't sure we'd find any snow up here, but there was still a lot of ice in the more shaded sections at lower elevations. I didn't take any photos in the frosty woods, but there was a lot of skidding and spinning and near-misses. Cheryl actually did crash twice, a fate I only narrowly avoided because of platform pedals and fast dabs to stabilize while actively spinning. Cheryl knocked her elbow hard, then cut her leg open and bled all over her frame bag. She seemed unfazed by these injuries.

 Near 12,000 feet we began to hit unrideable slush drifts, so we stopped at the collapsed tunnel. I insisted on hiking to the top of the next mound "for the views."

 The views.

As we descended the rocky road, my rear tire went flat. Hope springs eternal, so I tried pumping it up. We rode a few hundred meters, and it was flat again. I removed the rear wheel to change the tube, fumbling every part of the process because I haven't ridden the fat bike in eight months, and can't even remember the last time I actually had to swap tubes on any bike. Then I was stymied by the valve extender, which I couldn't budge with my bare hands. I really tried. I had no gripping tools with me (I almost always have a multitool, but it was on my mountain bike at home.) So I put the wheel back on, pumped it up again, and made it about a 100 more meters.

Cheryl decided she would ride ahead so she could "get the car." It happened quickly, I didn't really have time to protest. Rollins Pass Road is rugged and so much longer than it seems, even after you've climbed it. We were still ten miles from the nearest spot she could reasonably bring her car. After she left, I had a little panic because it was late enough in the day that running ten miles would probably leave me there after dark, although I had lights, and the wind was picking up and temperatures were dropping, although I had warm clothes. I didn't have much food. I ran a few hundred meters before deciding that I needed to give the flat my best effort, and removed the wheel again.

I was embarrassed about stranding myself with something as preventable as a flat tire, and concentrated my frustration and rage on that valve extender. In the process I actually managed to tear the tube, which was a fat bike tube and not exactly a flimsy thing. This angered me so much that I went ballistic on the tube and tore several shreds, then went for the valve extender with my teeth. Luckily I couldn't get my mouth around it, as I probably would have broken a tooth, but the next effort with my fingers was successful. Success! Actual success! I swapped with the spare tube, pumped, and continued on my way, so happy about rolling that all the frustration dissolved in an instant. But adrenaline took its toll, and I was again knackered.

I vowed to be less complacent and better prepared in the future, although I had everything I needed except a multitool, and a little more patience.

It has been fun to get out with friends on weekdays, a rare treat anyway. These slacker days have left me surprisingly tired. Perhaps I'll finally sit down and work this weekend. After playing in more mountains, that is. 
Saturday, October 14, 2017

Forest Road 509 made me cry

Those first groggy minutes of morning have never been my best, but lately they've become more difficult to face. I know I'm not the only one — waking up to a vague sense of dread, brewing a pot of artificially flavored vanilla coffee without shame because it's comfort food, and scrolling through the news. This has more or less been my morning ritual since I had to pay slightly less than my weekly food budget to have the New York Times delivered to my duplex doorstep in Utah during college. But now I can hardly stomach it, this ritual of sitting in a room and sipping comfort coffee as long-held convictions crumble. Is it because I'm nearing 40? The much-hyped middle-age crisis? Or is the world really so much worse than it used to seem?

The general advice is to step away from the Internet. Although I definitely need to limit my time on social media, I don't really benefit emotionally from sticking my head in the sand. Everything is still happening, and I'm just depriving myself of the means to try to understand. Sending in a few bucks to relief efforts or the ACLU feels like doing something, but not really. It's like seeing that boulder from "Indiana Jones" rolling toward you, stepping in front of it, and holding out your hands.

I'm a generally happy person with mostly sound mental and physical health, living in a beautiful and safe place that I love, and I enjoy lot of privilege. I understand this. But we all have our demons to battle. My most persistent is a nihilist who sits on my shoulder, shouting that nothing matters.

My hormones feel out of whack again. So I fear another thyroid "flare." Feel inexplicably anxious. Stare at blank documents on the screen for far too long. California is burning. It's the disaster du jour, but the ones that hit close to our experiences, hit close to our hearts. Life is alarmingly delicate, and fleeting. Why risk ... anything? Why bother ... with anything? Shut up, little nihilist. Just shut up.

Recently I read a blog post about mindful perception and downloaded the book it cited, "A Life of One's Own," published in 1926, about a seven-year period in which British psychoanalyst Marion Milner sought to discover a path to genuine happiness. Declaring that the things we pursue the most frantically are those least likely to bring lasting joy, Milner trained herself to focus on the quieter, more ethereal aspects of existence. I've only started to read her book, but the blog writer cited some compelling observations:

"So I had finally come to the conclusion that my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension…. Without understanding, I was at the mercy of blind habit; with understanding, I could develop my own rules for living and find out which of the conflicting exhortations of a changing civilization was appropriate to my needs."

On Friday morning I set out on my bike, feeling hormonal and unmotivated and vaguely anguished about world affairs. But I was armed with a few of these observations from Marion Milner to eschew my comforting habits and likely futile efforts to feign productivity, and instead do one thing that never fails to bring joy ... moving through the world.

Within my home range — meaning the places I can ride to in a few hours — there are still so many spots I haven't begun to explore. Before I headed into tranquil 60-degree weather — the early-week snow already a faint memory — I mapped out a route to trails surrounding Gold Lake. I chatted with my neighbor for a few minutes, then mashed pedals up the muddy road. With every hard crank, motivation surged and anxiety faded. It's just that easy. It was true when I was a nervous 23-year-old novice, and it's true now. We can yearn for many complicated things in life, with a sense of purpose or meaning at the top. But happiness, in itself, is fairly simple.

I blasted down one long hill and climbed another, sharing heart-felt pleasantries with other cyclists and walkers as we crossed paths. The music on my iPod was really good, my breathing and legs felt strong, and it was a perfect autumn day. "October is your favorite month of the year," I reminded myself. That actually hasn't been true for a number of years. But it was true when I was young, before the scars accumulated, and the world had endless possibility.

After turning right off of Sunshine Drive, the rest of the ride would be new territory for me. I discovered a surprisingly fun trail, wrapping around a hillside with cliffs on one side and steep-drop offs on the other. Then I crossed Lefthand Canyon and took a hard turn onto a dirt track, Forest Service Road 509.1. I'd done a modicum of Internet research about my route, and understood that this road had once been rated "moderate to difficult" by an off-road driving Web site, and was closed to motorized traffic after the 2013 floods. I expected it to be steep and eroded, but I really had no idea. It's barely a route now; more often it's just a chute of chunder and loose boulders, like climbing an avalanche gully. The kind of terrain where you have to hike on your toes, so pushing a bike is just heinous.

I averaged 1.4 miles per hour. My shoulders ached even though I've been working on my shoulders, back and arms at the gym, and really I've made a lot of improvements, but you wouldn't know it from my real-world abilities. I bent in to move some of the weight to my lower body, only to continually knocked my shin and calf on a pedal. It was brutal work. I tried to find the good. "Great training" is an appropriate fiction.

Then my foot slipped backward on the loose surface. With already poor balance that I blame on the awkward stance of wrestling a bike uphill, I toppled over. I stood up, fuming, and took a few more steps, only to slam my left knee into the pedal. For a second I only saw red. We all have our limits. Mine was apparently quite low on this day, and I lost it. I cried. Not just little whimpers that I indulge in occasionally, but the blubbery, snotty kind that I usually reserve for my most overwhelming difficulties and low points. I just sat on the rocks next to the bike that I angrily shoved aside, and let it flow.

I'm ashamed, of course, but privately I love a good cry. They're always followed by astonishing clarity. Most often these moments of clarity are variations of "you have no reason to be so upset." This was one such moment. I took a few satisfying gulps and looked toward Lefthand Canyon and the surprising elevation/perspective I'd gained while shambling up the road. A patchwork of yellow aspen dotted the evergreen slopes, and the sky was that piercing, October shade of blue. Sure, I had snot streaks on my face. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, I felt happy. Pure and simple. Yes, we humans can be unhelpfully complex and stunningly short-sighted in our thinking. But at our core, I do believe we have capacity for understanding — the understanding that Milner described, the understanding beyond intellectual comprehension, that can only be found through unhindered awareness.

Milner wrote, "By finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness."

Forest Service Road 509.1 climbed to the top of a ridge and faded in a grassy meadow. This was  the beginning of a network of trails that were so much better than I expected. Even at 9,000 feet they were mostly dry, surprisingly smooth for Front Range singletrack, and had great flow. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a little while focused only on the most immediate sensory inout — a narrow focus often demanded by trail riding. I didn't think about disturbing news reports or friends' Facebook photographs of incinerated neighborhoods or even my still-painful knee. It's useful to remind myself, once in a while, that sharp awareness of a moment is more fulfilling than all of my flinging efforts to understand the world. Which is why, after all these years, I still ride bikes. 
Monday, October 09, 2017

Nice summer-winter days

It was the perfect Colorado weekend, which is to say it was 70 degrees and sunny over the Front Range on Sunday, then dropped to 30 and snowing by Monday morning. Beat is still trying to ease back into training after hip and shin issues pestered him for most of the summer, so he didn't want try anything too ambitious. It seemed like a good opportunity for the High Lonesome Loop, which is a 16-mile, relatively mellow climb over the Continental Divide. I hoped we'd have a chance to do some running, but packed gaiters and spikes. Although it had been warm for most of the week since last Monday's storm, I didn't hold out hope that all of the snow had melted.

Beat at King Lake. Note the bare calves and rolled-up sleeves. We were both overheated. It felt downright summery in the forest below the lake, although I later learned the high in Nederland was 51 degrees. It was probably just 35 to 40 degrees at 12,000 feet.

Post-holing our way to the Divide.

Looking toward James Peak, feeling satisfied about deciding against this more ambitious mountain as the day's destination. It's a steep climb with the switchbacking trail, which was obviously buried.

An icy wind swept down the Divide. I'm used to the prevailing west wind, but this gale came from the north — the direction of the approaching storm. Upon cresting the ridge, the ambience quite suddenly shifted from summer to winter. I put on a shell and pulled a buff over my face. It seemed Beat only had his two-ounce wind jacket and no gloves.

Travel was slow and treacherous up here, with a breakable crust disguising sugary drifts of unknown depth (ranging from ankle- to knee-deep.) While slogging into the icy wind, my breathing became labored and I panicked a little about it. I really think I'm mostly healthy right now, but it's still difficult to gauge my breathing or trust a higher heart rate. I'm not sure how or if I'm going to rebuild that trust. Yes, when working hard, it's normal to feel winded. I know this. And yet even whispers of hard breathing or oxygen deficit set off internal alarms. I don't want to push too hard, yet winter conditions often leave no choice. It will be an ongoing battle, I think, this transition from "sucking wind and crawling" to "tranquil respiration while moving and happy about that" to "breathing fire and scorching ground." If I ever again reach the third step. I remain stoked about the second.

The view near Devil's Thumb Lake. On the slope you can see my and Beat's tracks where we scorched a deep-snow descent. Beat didn't have pants and his poor shins where torn and bleeding from the icy crust. But that was really the worst of the experience. It was a beautiful outing, not easy by any means, and took exactly the six hours that I estimated even though there was a fair amount more snow than I even expected. This may be our last Divide trip for the season, although this would be a decent place to snowshoe when regional avalanche conditions are well in the green.

On Monday morning, as forecast, we were hit with eight inches of heavy, wet snow. In the afternoon the temperature climbed a few degrees above freezing and there were blasts of sunlight through patchy breaks in the clouds. I headed out for a "run" that many times actually did involve a strained shuffling motion through slush. It still feels weird to call 20-minute-miles "running," although I tend to qualify most of my on-foot efforts as runs. Whether I'm pounding out the rare downhill 7-minute-mile or scrambling a rocky uphill 60-minute-mile, my effort level remains fairly consistent. It's the level where my breathing doesn't yet scare me.

Heading into Walker Ranch. Sure, it was Monday afternoon, but I was still surprised no one had been out yet. 

The leaves only recently began to change in this area. I enjoyed catching brief glimpses of color.

Snow makes everything so much prettier. I can't grasp why some people, maybe even a majority of people, don't like winter weather. No, the reality that there are people who don't want to put on gaiters and strain to move slower than two miles per hour up a hill is something I'll never understand.

South Boulder Creek.

Looking through Eldorado Canyon, toward Denver and the Plains. Looks like they got some snow, too!

Weirdly my legs were quite a bit more sore after these six miles than 16 miles in the mountains on Sunday. A good reminder that I don't have the slogging fitness dialed in just yet. But if we continue to have this perfect mix of heat and snow, I'll get there.
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Fog, leaves and thundersnow

I was laboring up a knoll near 10,500 feet when I heard an all-too-familiar crack of thunder directly overhead. Familiar, and yet so out of context that I stopped pedaling and did a double take toward the dark clouds billowing over a nearby mountain ridge. The temperature was just a notch north of freezing, and the rocky road was coated in ice-tinged puddles and patches of snow. 

"Aren't thunderstorms a summer thing? Maybe it was a fighter jet." 

Then I heard another boom, unmistakable. A flash above the clouds that happened seconds earlier was probably lightning. Although still below treeline, the 4WD road traversed a bald ridge, so I was completely exposed. "Babyhead" rocks littered the surface, and my riding had been so pathetically slow that I instinctively stepped off the bike so I could run faster. Near the top of the knoll, the clouds unleashed a barrage of icy precipitation, first in sheets of sleet, then sharp flakes of snow. 

"Thundersnow!" I'd heard of such a thing. I'd never experienced it. Really, I never wanted to experience it. I hate thunder and lightning even when the ensuing precipitation doesn't sting my face and blind me in a whiteout. The road surface angled downhill so I jumped back on my bike. This movement was instantly followed by another deafening boom. My hands were too numb to finesse the brakes and I could barely squint into the blizzard, so I just let the bike go and hoped for the best. There had to be tree cover somewhere close by. The bike bucked and lurched over unseen rocks. I held on for life, all but certain I was going to crash, but I was too frightened to weigh the odds of cracking my skull on a babyhead versus actually being struck by lightning. 

The swirling snow put a nice touch on those few chaotic seconds. I rolled beneath a thick canopy of pine and opened my eyes. At some point I must have bounced through a big puddle, because my entire lower body was coated in mud. Globs of ice clung to my tights. The snowfall was losing intensity and rumbling thunder already sounded far away. 

It was short-lived excitement, but intense. I'd say my brush with thundersnow was cool, but no, it was just frightening. And I was already bonked from battling babyheads to the top of a mountain. And now I was soaked and freezing precipitation was still falling from the sky. And I had a 5,000-foot descent in front of me. 

 Before that thundery Sunday ride, I had a couple of days that were completely different. I'd planned to do my long ride on Friday, but the day's thick fog and rain were wholly uninspiring. That was, until I coaxed myself out for a tough run over the home mountains, where the deep canyons and burns were nicely accentuated by spooky haze. Even though biking is killing me and regular running still hurts, I'm in fantastic shape for steep climbing right now. I went ahead and had fun with this run by smashing my PR on two tough segments, even though I was in the midst of a four-hour effort.

 My parents were driving home from a vacation in the Black Hills, and dropped into Boulder for just over a day. We did the obligatory leaf-viewing tour on Saturday. The aspens were a bit past peak on the Peak to Peak Highway — although they probably never had much of a chance given how wet the latter half of September had been.

 This is the best I could get for my Colorado leaf views this year. Oh well. No one can say I didn't try.

 Dad and I were going to hike on Sunday, but they decided to leave early after hearing Monday's weather forecast — calling for up to 18 inches of snow in the mountains and guaranteed road closures and chaos on I-70 (all of which came to pass.) So I set out in the late morning for the long ride I'd been avoiding all week. The day started out beautiful — sunny, warm, no wind, and classic Colorado singletrack through the autumn forests.

I had a chance to explore some new-to-me trails, but did grow weary of maneuvering with crowds of cyclists. Mountain bikers seem to concentrate in the area's small pockets of singletrack, which I suppose makes sense. It's not really for me, though. The trails can be fun, but they feel limiting. Give me the wide-open spaces and forgotten back roads rippling toward who knows where. That's where I long to be.

 Of course, the backroads are where I started to fall apart. Every time I explore new forest roads around here, I get so frustrated with the effort. What looks like a reasonable amount of climbing on a map is in reality an intermittent mix of horribly steep and mostly flat, all littered with loose babyhead rocks that require continuous bursts of power and make pedaling uphill all but impossible for me. I have hiked most of five miles to climb such roads in the past, but on Sunday I was feeling bold and determined to put my recent climbing strength to good use. The power bursts lasted a few good miles. I even impressed a jeep driver when I blasted through the woods to avoid his vehicle, causing him to comment through his open window, "That's some ride!"

Then I bonked, rather epically. Complete with lactic-acid-flooded legs, sore forearms, and dizziness. Then there was stumbling, and soft-pedaling, and more hiking, all while wondering if I'd ever reach the top of this apparently endless hill. And then the thunder came.

 Picture now a cyclist who's bonked, soaked to the skin, shivering from a lightning scare, at 10,000 feet, and it's snowing. There was nothing left to do but descend into town, nearly 5,000 feet lower. As I lost elevation, the road surface smoothed out and turned to gravel. The snow turned to rain, and then heavy rain. The wind picked up. I put on all of the layers I brought with me, having planned for the possibility of 35 degrees and rain. But nothing actually shields against 35 degrees and rain — short of a Helly Hansen waterproof fishermen suit, that is. I know this, but I still imagine that I can dress to stay warm when it's 35 degrees and raining, even if I'm coasting downhill for most of an hour. No, I cannot. I can only suffer. It was an exquisite misery, really. So encompassing that the only thing I could do was embrace it.

Finally I was in Boulder and the rain had stopped. I still had a 2,000-foot climb toward home. I've never been so without energy and yet so grateful for a 2,000-foot climb. I stopped at Chapman trailhead to replace my sopping mittens with a dry pair. It took me most of 10 minutes to unclasp my backpack and switch out the mittens, such was the numbness of my extremities. I was still shivering and heavily bundled up as I climbed, when I was passed by a guy wearing shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. I must have looked quite silly to him.

 By Monday morning, the snow storm had reached our house. Our last winter storm was May 18, so it had been four months and 14 days between snows. I joked that I thought the drought was never going to end. Actually, I enjoy living somewhere where I might only have to wait four months between snowstorms (Knowing, of course, that this is Colorado, and not only will be 60 degrees again in a few days, but also might be in February as well.)

 I wanted to take advantage of the big snowfall to launch true winter training with the best slog-fest I could muster. Wednesday offered such a chance, with 18 inches of new snow in the mountains and temperatures predicted to hit the high 50s. Do you know what it's like to trudge for six hours through slush that has reached roughly the density of liquid lead? Most don't, because most wouldn't bother. I didn't see a soul on the trail.

 It was an absolutely gorgeous day, though. Sure, I could have waited a few days for the snow to just melt. But what would be the fun in that?

Since I was breaking trail, I loosely followed the Arapahoe Glacier Trail to the saddle below South Arapahoe Peak. Conditions were iffy enough and the climb had taken long enough — six miles in four hours — that I opted to skip the tricky route-finding on the class 2 scramble to the summit. Instead I sat on a rock and enjoyed my "lunch" (an expired organic nut bar that Beat brought home from Google at some point, and a small Rice Krispy Treat.) I rested for at least ten minutes, still just wearing a light long-sleeved shirt, no gloves and no hat. My lower body was predictably soaked from the deep slush, but the afternoon was so warm that my legs were hot. At 13,000 feet. In October. After a major snowstorm. That's Colorado.

After I started down, a single cloud sank into the ridge, and then I was in an incredibly disorienting whiteout for a half hour. Light definition was bad enough that I couldn't make out my own snowshoe tracks on the ground, so I relied on staring at my GPS to find the way (I'm always fearful of stepping off a cliff if I wander "off trail," even though this is a gentle ridge.) Eventually I started having bouts of vertigo and knelt down briefly to re-orient my body — meaning reorienting which way was up toward the sky and which way was down toward the ground. Such a weird thing to experience on such a warm, sunny day. But these are the mountains.

 Where the ridges were wind-drifted and manageable, the trail below treeline had become incredibly slushy in the afternoon. It was basically a thin layer of snow atop six inches of Slurpee. Finding correct footing through the rocks while sliding all over the place was the true challenge for the day. But, I continued to tell myself, great training for the stabilizer muscles. First slog of the season is always one of the best.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Launching into the season

This has been a dreary week. Just a few days after we returned from Europe and I complained about 90-degree heat and red-flag fire conditions, a whole bunch of clouds moved in. It's been 40 degrees and drizzling/fog-raining/heavily raining ever since. I don't really mind. The clearer and cooler the air, the healthier and faster I become. Thanks to bone-chilling weather, my transition from living at 1,000-3,000 feet back to 7,200 feet happened almost flawlessly.

My Achilles stopped hurting much faster than expected (not really tendonitis; I suppose I should be grateful.) As soon as the weather moved in, I was off my bike and back on foot. Although I've missed bikes, there's really nothing worse than cycling when it's 40 degrees and raining. I endured this almost continuously for five years in Juneau. Now I'm over it for life.

Running has been going so well. A couple of tentative jogs helped loosen creaky over-hiked joints, and then I was loping along faster and more relaxed than the weeks before we left for Europe. After one or two hours I'd come home so drenched that I'd have to remove all of my clothing in the entryway to avoid dripping on the floor. This would come as a slight surprise; I hadn't even noticed the wet and cold because I felt so strong. It was liberating.

By Wednesday, the fog had been hanging low for five days, and my motivation was beginning to wane. Staring into thick gray soup gets old. I bribed myself into running by downloading new mp3s, which always boosts my mood. (If I wasn't one of those runners loping through the woods with an iPod, I'd be one of those adults sprawled on a couch and listening to vinyl on a turntable. I enjoy music for its own sake, but the experience is enhanced by outdoor scenery and motion. I never feel unaware of my surroundings. I'm not surprised by others on the trail. It is possible to keep volume low enough to also hear what's going on around you.)

Anyway, I was a half mile into this run when I realized I forgot trekking poles, which shook my confidence. I was heading into a favorite run-hike route, involving a rocky descent into Bear Canyon and a grunt up Fern Canyon, which gains 1,800 feet in 0.8 miles on a veritable staircase of rocks — steep enough that the women's course record (in Boulder, "the fittest city in the U.S.") amounts to a 29-minute-mile. So it's a tough route and I've become fiercely dependent on my crutches, which help improve balance and shift some of the workload off of my wobbly left leg. (Should I explain why I believe my left leg is wobbly? Well, when I was 19, I most likely broke my ankle after falling down a flight of concrete stairs and dropping a (rather large 1990s) television. I never had it checked, but it's more or less permanently swollen, unstable and susceptible to rolling. In 2014 I tore the lateral collateral ligament in my left knee, and the resulting scar tissue also affects stability. Okay, no more long asides.)

Along the trail were hints of autumn color, dripping with a wintry gray. I was listening to Tori Amos's new album, which is beautifully ethereal, when I commenced crawling up Fern Canyon. The fog was so thick that even the nearest rocks and trees were a soft blur. Behind the quiet purr of music was an encompassing silence. Without my trusty crutches I felt like I was oozing up the canyon, cold fingers gripped on rocks and roots, whatever they could find for support. I was in a tranquil mood and my breathing reflected this, so everything about this effort felt slow. And yet I later learned I'd set on new PR, by two minutes, on a route where I've pushed the pace on at least two dozen times. The effortless PRs always signal bouts of renewed fitness. How long will it last? I don't know, but I can hold out hope for permanence.

My next big goal is the 350-mile version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which I want to do on foot. The last time I put in a big on-foot effort was this same course in 2014. In four years I've only been able to finish one 100-miler, and have only gained more reasons to distrust my body and health. For that reason, I *really* want to do well in the ITI350. I want to feel stronger, and possibly move faster (conditions willing) than I did in a year when the trail was relatively good, and I was probably as fit and I've been before or since.

It's a tall order. My health isn't what it was in 2014. Sure, I've had a couple of good months recently. But what happens when I go back to feeling the way I did in June or July? Or worse, last winter, when I was training too hard through malaise and desperation, for a race I couldn't even start because I really was quite sick?

All of this is to say that I'm not really sure how to launch this bout of winter training. I've conditioned myself to feel grateful for whatever my body's willing to give, whether it's effortless PRs, 9,000 feet of climbing in the Alps, or a one-hour jog that doesn't leave me feeling like there's a plastic bag tied around my neck and face. Or even if I do feel that way, at least I can still jog. I'm grateful for that. But this does leave a lot of uncertainty about committing to the usual specifics of training. I suppose I'll continue to play it by ear, and hope that this positive pattern continues.

I didn't have any more pictures, so I'm posting a cute marmot that Beat photographed on James Peak a couple of months ago
Now that another European mountain bender is over and Beat and I are settling into an autumn routine, I've made attempts to return to writing. Ultimately I'm not thrilled with any of my current projects. I want to find something new, boundary-pushing perhaps, but I'm sputtering.

My friend and previous co-author Tim has been pushing hard for a potential research project on the "IT" factor for success in endurance sports. He's even sparked the interest of several behavioral scientists. I'm eager to be a journalist/observer in this project, but I don't feel comfortable taking charge in scientific research or bold declarations for "secrets of success." Take a look at my track record, and it's clear I do not have these secrets. I also have a chronic autoimmune disease that I largely blame on stubbornly refusing to quit a race until I had pneumonia, so I believe that our own conceptions of "success" can be critically misguided. Perhaps these reservations will add some depth to the project, and I hope to take part in any way I can.

I am still dabbling with subjects outside the scope of endurance racing. Biographies and historical narratives. Again, lack of confidence casts a large shadow. Social media exposes me to biographers and journalists tackling subjects that I'm interested in, with so much depth, and often without compensation. There's often no return for these efforts. Recently I put many dozens of hours of work into a compelling biography that ultimately didn't pan out, which is always a risk when you're working with others.

At the same time, I never lament all this time that I "wasted." I've been lucky to have the freedom to pursue projects that bring knowledge and fulfillment. Almost more than food, I crave an outlet for creative energy — whether cycling or running through interesting places, taking photographs, listening to music, or writing. I'm still amused when I manage to make a few bucks in the midst of these pursuits. I recently crunched some numbers and realized that I've reached a milestone, surpassing six figures in eBook royalties since I released "Be Brave" in August 2011. Spread over six years, it's not a lot. But it's staggering when I think in terms of physical value. It's just content, in a world inundated with more content than it can ever digest. Sometimes I feel silly adding to this glut, in the same way I feel silly riding my bicycle away from home and returning, again and again, accomplishing what? Then again, what do most people accomplish each day? We meet our basic survival needs and establish relationships to contribute to a larger community. Beyond that, meaning and fulfillment are largely what we believe them to be.

All of this is my typical long-winded way of appreciating those who enable my addiction to creative expression, whether you're a 12-year reader of this blog who has never left a comment, or someone who purchased all of my books in the more lucrative paperback form. I'm closing in on a year since the release of "Into the North Wind," which has been disappointing in terms of eBook sales (and an important reminder to branch out from this incredibly niche genre.) Yet, it many ways, it was my most fulfilling project, both in terms of the quality of the adventure that served as the subject, and the cathartic process of documenting the experience and preserving it for a vaguely distant future (at least until all of the digital remnants and paper decay, which happens a lot sooner than we'd like to believe. Okay. Last aside.)

Until then, less time basking in 280 characters in Twitter, and more time training and writing. And perhaps marketing, too. "Into the North Wind" is still available! ...

Friday, September 22, 2017

So long, Courmayeur

I recently learned that the Indonesian man rescued from Col Chavannes last week has died. Given the severity of his condition, the news did not come as a surprise. Still, I searched the Web every day for updates, hoping for a better outcome. Through these searches, I learned a little about his life. He recently earned his master's degree in chemical research from the University of Leicester in the U.K. He had a daughter. At one time he kept a blog with the title "give up on shelter." He was a self-proclaimed "jobless traveler" who wrote research papers on thermal degradation. He was 25 years old. Just another tragedy. I'm still torn up about it, ruminating on the clues he left behind, reconstructing scenarios in my imagination, acknowledging that in a slightly different set of circumstances, the person falling down switchbacks and freezing to near-death could have easily been me. Just another tragedy. Like Puerto Rico and Mexico City, there are degrees of separation, large enough to look away. If we ruminated on all of the world's tragedies all of the time, we would be clinically insane. But we do what we can. I e-mailed the Islamic Society at his university to inquire about donating to his funeral fund. 

But I didn't want to end my Alps posts on such a downer. There were so many great moments, and some of the best came at the very end, hours before we had to rush back to Geneva and a 6 a.m. flight. Beat returned to Courmayeur for our final day in Europe. Despite his still-swollen and squeaky shin, he'd been talking all week about climbing Mont Chetif. In turn, I had been dreading the prospect all week. Mont Chetif is regarded an easy "ferrata" route, but it still features stunningly exposed sections that are protected with a few cables and bars (and some of the cables are broken!) Its difficulty rating is "EE," which is defined as "a marked path over treacherous ground ... with open stretches that call for sure footing and no dizziness." 

Sure footing and no dizziness. Two qualities I do not possess. But I've been up Mont Chetif before, in 2016, as part of an ongoing campaign to overcome my mountain fearfulness. Still, with each passing year I only gain more reasons to distrust myself, not fewer, and in many ways experience makes me more fearful, not less. After spending much of Friday steeped in uncertainty followed by the horror of Col Chavannes, I was in no mood for pushing my limits. And that was before I woke up on Saturday morning with a rigid Achilles tendon. 

Before Saturday, my Achilles gave no indication that it was about to blow up. Still, I suppose these things happen when you've got the thing stretched to maximum capacity for most of a week ... 45,000 feet of climbing and 123 miles in just seven days ... when you haven't really trained for 40 hours of straining on your toes (unless you count that equally big climbing week in Chamonix two weeks earlier, and then running up the Thousand St├Ągli (actually closer to 1,150 stairs) every chance you got in Switzerland, driving your PR from 12 minutes down to 11 minutes and being quite proud of that.)

In a way I was sort of tickled at the prospect of a real overuse injury. Do you know how long it's been? For years now I've either been wracked with breathing problems that slowed me down enough to avoid straining anything ... or I've just hit the deck and torn something. Achilles tendonitis? That's something real athletes get! Then again, you do kind of need your Achilles for many activities. Climbing Mont Chetif is near the top of that list.

In addition to being a route that requires sure footing and no dizziness, Mont Chetif gains 4,200 feet in 2.5 miles ... and not in a nice, even way, but in a sort of staircase comprised of flat traverses above sheer ledges, followed by pitches so steep that calves will cry ... and I really mean cry. As I hobbled with Beat down Courmayeur's main street to have one last amazing espresso at Caffe Della Posta, I was highly tempted to chicken out. But I'd been playing in mountains all week while Beat dutifully worked and visited family and nursed his injury, so I felt I should rally for this one small hike with him.

There was a nice one-mile warm-up from Caffe Della Posta to the trailhead, and my Achilles started to flex enough that hobbling was no longer required. But as soon as we started up the first pitch, the tendon complained loudly. Then we did an airy section with cables and bars, and I was so frightened that I didn't think about pain. Then came the rebar "staircase" where my calf muscle on the same leg (right) suddenly cramped so bad that I yelped, which of course caused Beat to whip around because I was screaming in a section where falling would have been costly. Then my calf was pulsing, actually pulsing, like a phone set to vibrate mode. The Achilles gave up complaining during the extended calf cramp episode until we stopped for a snack break, and then I was back to hobbling before yet another airy cable section. I was a genuine mess, accompanied by whimpering. And yet I was in a great mood — the sun was out, it was somehow warm even as flurries of snow drifted from clusters of dark clouds, the mountains were singularly stunning, and I was alive. It is incredible, how we manage to survive each day to see another. Although I may come across as an occasional risk-taker, I never take life for granted.

At the summit, Beat enjoyed one last Rivella (a Swiss soda made from milk whey, which I — a hopeless soda enthusiast — think is awful. I also think most nationalities agree with me, because Rivella is only sold in Switzerland.) It was a wonderful moment, just the wind and snow flurries and the statue of Mary, holding her vigil over Courmayeur.

Beat's shin bothered him during the long descent (there's a wrap-around trail that features a horrendously steep chunder gully, but no cables), while I loped happy-go-lucky because my Achilles and calves didn't have to do anything ... and for once I was actually able to keep up with Beat on a descent. We had gelato with friends who finished or nearly finished TDG (Roger did 310 of 330 kilometers before he timed out.) And then it was time to head through the tunnel one last time. No matter how many times we come to Courmayeur or how long we spend in the region, I'm always sad to leave.

It's good timing for my Achilles, though. I'm back to weight training and bicycles and haven't felt any pain since Monday. I may even attempt a jog this weekend, although I ran so little while I was in Europe that I expect a return to actual running will hurt in new and exciting ways.

And, of course, autumn in Colorado is always nice. Unless it's 92 degrees like it was on Wednesday. Snow on Monday? I can't wait!