The definition of insanity

I honestly don't know why I keep coming back here. There's invisible Velcro under my tires, just like there was in 2015, and I don't understand why my legs are burning. I'm just pedaling — as slowly as possible, really — while wispy clouds strain to capture fading light. The sun set and we're just getting started. I'm already lost in memories. I want to find new experiences, but I keep coming back here. It's inevitable that I'll relive the past. Island Park, Idaho — this is the place where I crumbled in this same 200-mile bike race last year. Two years ago, the Warm River gorge is where I stopped during the Tour Divide, crawled into a clammy sleeping bag, and alternately sobbed and coughed because I'd never felt so weak or hopeless. And yet I here I am. I keep coming back.

The pack fades into the distance and I continue spinning slowly, trying to ignore the tightness I already feel in my chest. This is how it is. This is who I am. I'm going to work with it, use it to find the same joy and awe I've always found on life's outer limit. Night is descending and the temperature follows. It was 2 degrees at the start; five miles later, it's already down to 5 below. I stop to put a fleece jacket on. My water valve is already frozen. Golden-tinted plumes of steam rise from Henry's Fork, billowing around a flock of geese. "Why don't they leave for the winter? I suppose water is warmer than air."

The course winds through Herriman State Park. I burn a few matches propelling myself up steep singletrack. My lungs burn as a mash the pedals. Hard surges are something I promised myself I wouldn't do, but I'm feeling good, and I am at the back of the race, so I can't dawdle too much.

Miles roll by, the Velcro snow becomes stickier, and the night more menacing. After two hours under my armpit, the water valve final opens. I greedily suck water and roll deep-frozen cinnamon bears on my tongue. It's minus 16, then minus 19. Around mile 25 I catch up to Beat, who is miserable in his vapor barrier shirt. He can't tell whether he's wet or cold, and can't strip in these temperatures. "It's minus 24 now," I announce. My feet and hands are toasty, but I can hear a quiet gurgle in my breaths. I know that's the thing that's really not good.

We reach the spur to Mesa Falls, dropping steeply into a gorge for no good reason, but it's part of the race. We walk gingerly along an icy overlook and glance across the canyon. Last year the night was overcast and I couldn't see anything at all, but this year the moon is out. Sheer cliffs are bathed in sliver light. "It's really beautiful," I say to Beat, and we stand a few seconds longer until shivering sets in. This isn't weather for standing still.

The long climb begins, and I'm hunched beside my bike, barely putting one foot in front of the other up impossibly steep slopes. I start coughing and spit up a gob of thick gunk. This is the point I know has no return. I can't recover from this. Perhaps it was inevitable, but there's always hope that I'll beat it. "This is just like the Tour Divide," I think. "Only different."

The night flickers and fades, muted by reduced awareness that I think of as "oxygen deprivation." I try to remind myself to eat, trail mix and cinnamon bears that I have to hold in my mouth for at least five minutes before they're malleable enough the chew. Beat sticks with me even though I'm moving slowly, perhaps too slowly to stay warm, but my head is fuzzy and it's the best I can do. We think the temperature will warm as we climb, but it doesn't feel that way. Finally I check the thermometer, and it's minus 30. Then minus 34. Minus 37. Beat has told me that when it's minus 40, there's always a devil lurking in the shadows. I'm warm but I can sense the devil, stalking through the trees, waiting for that single mistake to strike.

We pedal and walk, mostly walk, because that's all I can manage on even slight inclines. Beat prefers walking. Moonlight fades, and the sky is stars upon stars. The air seems colder. A stiff breeze pushes against us; on bare skin it feels like fire. The windchill is the coldest I've ever felt, but I don't dare check the thermometer. The devil tells me the temperature will just keep dropping, and I don't want to think about that. I can't fish the water hose out of my jacket, so I give up on drinking. I keep eating, as though food could somehow give me the energy I desperately need. I'm coughing. My breathing sounds horrible inside my face mask. It's obstructing the air, so I pull it down. "Nose frostbite isn't really that bad."

There are many quiet hours when I'm certain light will appear on the horizon. It never does. I don't think about the race or the miles ahead, only the need to keep moving, keep breathing. The night is long and expansive, the forest is drenched in frost, the snow is glistening with starlight, and it really is beautiful. It is so beautiful. How could I ever describe it? I cannot. I am oxygen- and sleep-deprived, addled, and know on an intellectual level that this intense beauty exists only in my imagination. But I am happy to be here. Through it all, this is what I came for.

Dawn appears. Beat has drifted ahead. It's still minus 32. Even as orange light dusts the tips of trees, it doesn't warm up. I've already put on my big coat because I wanted to feel toasty, but hints of lucidity return and I regret that I didn't preserve more of a margin for error. I'm coughing more, and in daylight I can see yellow mucous in the snow. I know it won't get better. I know I'll keep moving more slowly, struggling and possibly becoming more sick until time cutoffs force what is now an inevitable DNF. I know I have to stop. This is no sadness or relief in this, just stoic acknowledgement. I'm not really an endurance athlete anymore. I can keep pushing it and I'll probably keep having the same results, unless something changes. But there's no reason I can't keep hoping for change.

The descent is long and I feel like I have to work hard to move forward, even here. Beat waits for me at the bottom. We've both made peace with the fact we're going to stop at mile 80, again. The night was harsh, and most of the field of 25 or so either quit at this point or turned around earlier because of cold concerns or equipment failures. A handful pressed on into temperatures that swung 60 degrees into the low 20s, followed by a stowstorm. Of those, only one man finished. The Fat Pursuit is indeed a hard race, even without Arctic temperatures. Although I may have gone into it with a defeatist attitude, I really did want to finish, to prove to myself I can still be strong, I can still breathe fire, I can still seek intense beauty. But what is it they say about the definition of insanity?

I've said this before, but I really should do some soul-searching about my plans for this year. Regardless of what I decide, I'm not going to sign up for the Fat Pursuit in 2018. Hold me to that. If I want things to change, I need to change. 

Comments

  1. I'm hopeful you find healing and a way to pursue the activities you love. As a long time reader of your blog (since 2008) I'm also hopeful you'll keep writing about your experiences here.

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  2. Jill, this may seem like a weird question, but have you been tested for Celiac disease? I have a friend who wasn't aware she had celiac disease and overtrained for years for ultra-endurance events, and it ultimately created a litany of health problems for her. It has taken her years to get a handle on it and figure out how to eat and train so that she doesn't get sick. FYI--There are a few studies that show a link between celiac and asthma. I don't know you're ethnic background, but Scandinavians are at the highest risk for the disease. It may be nothing, but thought I'd pass it along.

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    1. Celiac is an interesting theory. Not all of the symptoms fit, and there are a lot of causes of shortness of breath and congestion, including chronic bronchitis (it's possible my sensitivities, combined with growing up around polluted air (SLC) combined with years of hard outdoor activities, have led to smokers' lungs.)

      There are a few conditions I'm interested in getting tested for, but I feel silly asking and actually chickened out when I went to visit my doctor for a pelvic exam today (true story. But I wasn't there for a full physical as it was.)

      Whether it's overtraining or disease, this may be a chronic condition that I'll have to learn to live with. If not, wonderful, but I'm trying to mentally prepare for the possibility.

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    2. In addition to the above mention of celiac, you might consider researching "adrenal fatigue." Most MD's are not well versed, or even believe this exists. Just an idea.

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    3. Jill--I have another friend whose daughter was diagnosed with celiac and her symptoms were not digestive in nature--they were more asthma and allergy based. It took over a year of testing for doctors to diagnose what was wrong with her. Please don't feel silly asking to be tested. It's your health and your life. You are not some half-crazed hypochondriac--something is amiss and you need to get to the bottom of it.

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  3. Damn Jill...I was REALLY rooting for you! I honestly can't even BEGIN to imagine being outside (ON PURPOSE) at 40 BELOW! (and I grew up in Wyoming and Montana). EIGHTY MILES in those conditions...I am bowing in your general direction, that is flat out incredible IMO! You and Beat constantly blow my mind at what you do 'for fun'! Even with your "defeatist attitude" you made EIGHTY HARD MILES! I've never EVER even DONE eighty miles on my MTB in ANY condition's! I'm hoping you can figure this out and get back to your super-woman condition...where nothing stops you (I think back to the GDR you set the ladies record in, riding it on basically a whim). I hope you can find this again, as I LOVE reading about your exploits. Here's to change...praying you find what you need!

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    1. Thanks Matt. Your enthusiasm is always appreciated. But honestly I don't really need to believe I'm strong or tough anymore. I'd settle for clear lungs. :)

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  4. Uhm, Jill..."tough" is gutting it out for EIGHTY MILES in LUDICROUS conditions when you can't breath! "Tough" doesn't even BEGIN to describe you.

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  5. You may not have won, may not have placed, may not have finished "the improbable/impossible"... but you had the courage, in spite the "demons," to show up, give it a go, test your limitations against all odds, and shared in the "experience." That is the definition of "spirit" and "triumph" in my book. We beat back "demons" the best we can... mine have to do with being an aging athlete, and they are legion. My "Life is Good" hat is off to you,
    Cheering,
    M.

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  6. It takes a lot of courage and strength to step away from ultra endurance racing and step towards increased gluttony and laziness. I can be your life coach if you think you'd like to follow in my footsteps.

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    1. Aw, thanks Danni! I may need your advice. However, I do still hope we can do another lazy glutton Susitna 100 together, someday. ;-)

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  7. Anonymous8:29 AM

    Hi Jill,
    I'm sure you have already thought of this, but I think you would really enjoy thru-hiking. You get to travel long distances at a low to medium effort and still get the mental and physical challenge/satisfaction that comes with racing. Seems based on your symptoms you wouldn't have very many problems since your heart rate would be fairly low 95% of the time. Maybe hop on the PCT this summer!! (That's my favorite trail overall)
    - Jason Reamy

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    1. Thanks Jason! Believe me I've thought of it. One thru-hike I would love to start with is the Colorado Trail. I do worry I'm affected my altitude despite living at 7,100 ft in Colorado. PCT Washington also is intriguing. I may contact your for advice.

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    2. I obviously can't make promises right now, but very interested to try to join you on at least part of PCT Washington!!

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    3. Leah — ha! Keep me posted. I can work around your schedule. ;-)

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  8. Tonya S.9:26 AM

    So sorry for your continued struggles! But you're still a badass for getting out there and trying--if you hadn't gone there again you might have been left with what-ifs for who knows how long. Even in defeat your writeup was a lovely read. Here's to hoping you can figure things out soon, or at least find acceptance.

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  9. ill, this was sent to me when I didn't complete by long sought after PBP in my cycling life. Theodore Roosevelt wrote it long ago but it is ageless:

    Slo Joe

    "It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly…" 1

    "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." 2

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  10. "I'm not really an endurance athlete anymore."

    Really? You didn't finish the Fat Pursuit last year and then you went on to set the women's record for biking the ITI. And only one person - one - finished the full Fat Pursuit this year. I think you're probably jumping to conclusions.

    Besides, if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, I would argue that a sample size of two is not enough. Attempt the Fat Pursuit two or three more times. If you continue to expect to finish and fail all those times, then you can declare yourself insane. ;-)

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    1. If I could count the number of races I've DNF'd since 2015 .... well, not counting the "training" 50Ks, it was more than I finished. Plus, the Fat Pursuit is a close-to-unfinishable race. 7/22 finished in 2016 when conditions were about the best they could be. 1/30 this year. Still, it lures you back. I don't know why! ;-)

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  11. Gorgeous essay! I'm sorry your 80 miles included so much suffering.

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    1. I wouldn't really call it suffering. It was a beautiful night. And after hours of shallow breathing, I have this ethereal feeling of peace. However, I always fight it because I know on an intellectual level that I'm not in a good place. And when it's 40 below, I know I need to remain lucid to survive. This is why I don't think I should do this type of endurance racing until I get my breathing under control. And yet, there's always that hope that I can manage it.

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  12. "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result". That's only true with simple, linear systems. With complex systems, like people for example, you can do the same thing over and get a different result.

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    1. I agree. I'm becoming tired of DNF'ing races, though. It does seem silly to keep entering races that I don't feel strong enough to finish, and hoping to somehow finish. Thus, the re-evaluation.

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  13. It's so odd to me that you've said you don't like to put on your last layer. Where did you develop this idea? It's always good to have emergency gear within reason, but appropriate clothing is correct gear, not emergency gear. If I am carrying a lot of stuff in my pack that I didn't use on a trip, I re-evaluate why I'm carrying it, and if I'm cold but am carrying another coat, you bet I'm going to put that coat on. If you "save" it for when you are WAY too cold, you're gonna get into trouble. If you got it - use it!

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    1. I agree. I like to keep my big coat completely dry for occasions where I may need to stop outside for longer than a few minutes — changing a tube, melting snow, making a meal. The sleeping bag of course is for emergencies. During this race, I never really needed to put on my big down parka. I got a bit nervous when I saw 37 below on the thermometer, and thought, "yeah, my shoulders are a bit cold." I may not have made the decision had I not known the actual temp. I wore it the rest of the night and proceeded to sweat into the coat. Not a lot, but it was damp when I pulled it out of the stuff sack the following day. I now know that for total comfort, I need one more layer when it's close to 40 below. My current system only uses three upper layers — base layer, soft shell jacket with hood, and a wind-shield fleece. For an extra layer, I was thinking a light down jacket or synthetic puffy. The parka was overkill, thus causing me to sweat more than I should have.

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