Sunday, April 30, 2017

This really is post 2,000

If this blog were a child it would be in middle school right now, so it's probably not surprising that it has managed to amass 2,000 posts. But it seems like a milestone worth noting. Every once in a while I start typing in this space and ponder what it is, after all these years, I'm still trying to accomplish. The reasons I started the blog — to post photos, to connect with people online, to keep in touch with family and friends — all fall into the realm of social media now. I still enjoy writing long-winded (we journalists like to use the phrase "long-form") adventure reports, so I'm unlikely to dump the blog anytime soon (at least not before its high school graduation.) And I do need a place to post photos, because I will never join Instragram, never never, don't ask me again. 

Interesting, I've recently received a steady stream of requests from random PR people for gear reviews, sponsored posts, even a junket or two. I'm at a loss for why these started now, when this blog  has never been a gear blog, is far less popular than it was eight years ago, and the medium in general is about five years dead. "Jill Outside" must have ended up on some type of marketing list. Although I have to say no, I find it amusing nonetheless. This just isn't a commercial blog.

 This weekend, most of the Front Range was slammed by a frigid storm that raged for much of Friday and Saturday. Because it's so late in April, everyone treated the snow like an anomaly, but I have Facebook's "On This Day" feature to remind me otherwise. This storm was reminiscent of our first week in Boulder, except for we now have actual furniture to snuggle into, and a huge stack of firewood in the garage (last April we scrambled to chop downfall in the yard.) Yes, it's just Colorado's boring-old, annual, "Nearly May Blizzard."

My fatigue rollercoaster, thyroid or whatever it maybe, has been on the upswing. I felt much more perky than I had earlier in the week. The only annoyance was my left knee, which I had so graciously slammed into a rock on Wednesday. After the crash, an odd goose egg rose out of the top of my kneecap, which had also been scrubbed of its skin. The whole joint was painful and didn't want to bend much, so I didn't bother bending it for a couple of days. I limped into my allergy clinic, and when the nurse saw my right arm — which also lost a fair amount of skin — she asked, "What happened to you?"

"I fell," I said with the upmost derision. "I tripped over a rock, and I went down." Then, to emphasize how disgusted I was with myself, added, "I don't take my falls so well. I'm not 20 anymore" ... forgetting, conveniently, that I earned the nickname "Gimpy McStiff" in my early 20s precisely because I couldn't take a fall then, either.

 I also remembered advice from my mom, which she repeated the many times I bashed my knee as a clumsy little kid — "If you don't bend it now, it's never going to bend."

"But it hurts."

"Well, it's going to keep hurting until you bend it. Now try."

On Saturday, as temperatures plunged into the low 20s, fierce wind and snow raged through thick fog, and more than a foot of snow covered the ground, I decided it was as good of a time as any to try.

 It was 23 degrees when Beat and I set out in the late afternoon for the usual route to Bear Peak. This is the most snow I've seen up there yet — despite climbing Bear well over a dozen times during the winter — and it's always fun to view the familiar in such drastically different light. I was limping, but as expected the swollen knee began to loosen up as we slogged our way up the snow-covered road. I put my snowshoes on to hike through the deeper snow on the trail. Beat did not; it was the only reason I was mostly able to keep up with him.

 The scenery just got better as we climbed, where the burned forest was covered in hoarfrost.

 Thick hoar near the summit.

 An eerie apparition of Bear Peak.

 Beat on the rime-coated rocks. The wind was howling and I'd guess the windchill was zero degrees, at best. It was quite the exciting place to visit on April 29. It felt like we were standing atop a jagged 4,000-meter summit in the Alps, not lowly Bear Peak.

 My knee took a bit of a beating while making the hard bends necessary to complete the steep, snowy climb, so I was rather grumpy during the descent. I was definitely in pain. But at some point you have to decide if something is "valid" pain — as in the kind of pain that warns you injury is inevitable — or "erroneous" pain — as in the kind of pain your mother told you to ignore, lest your knee lock up and never bend again. I decided it was probably the latter.

 According to the closest official measuring station, 14.5" of snow fell in our neighborhood during this storm. Despite the colder temperatures, it was heavy, wet spring snow, so there's a lot of water ready to soak into the grass over the next two days. This is good news for the fire season, although if we don't continue to see spring rain, it's going to be a long summer yet.

 After the hummingbird feeder froze solid, Beat brought it inside. On Sunday morning, he made new sugar water and returned it to the balcony. Since it's so early in the spring, we currently just have a pair of hummingbirds, a male and a female — as far as we can tell. But the two of them attacked the feeder the moment it was back. They didn't even wait for us to leave. I wondered where those tiny birds went to sit out that storm. Wherever it was, they sure did come home hungry.

 My knee wasn't much better on Sunday, but it wasn't worse either, so I set out to hike the Walker Ranch loop while Beat ran. I figured a foot of new snow that was rapidly turning to slush meant that neither of us would be breaking any speed records.

 I was rather grateful for the slush, as it necessitated a slow pace whether my knee was working or not. Still heavy, shin-deep snow requires some hard maneuvering. My knee will bend when I make it bend, but it's definitely not the happiest knee.

Despite the soreness, I was stoked to just be outside and moving through the world. Mid-morning bliss.

Mule deer were out and about, nibbling on all the fresh greens. The resident elk herd also bedded down near this spot last night, leaving behind an impressive mess. It was strange to see these signs of spring, even though they've been around for a while.

 My favorite view from Walker, looking through the window of Eldorado Canyon toward Denver. After 3.5 hours of knee-raising marches and trudging to cover 9.5 miles, my knee had loosened significantly and I felt no pain. But it only took five minutes of sitting to stiffen up again. I think the lesson here is to just keep walking. 
Thursday, April 27, 2017

Another crash

My physical self has become a stranger to me recently; I don't really "know" my body anymore. I've mentioned the energy rollercoaster, the good days and bad, not quite knowing how much of this is adjusting to thyroid medications, how much is fluctuations of hormones, how much is psychosomatic, how much is just "me."

On one hand, I've struggled with real fatigue — feeling more sluggish in my daily routine, blinking against sleepiness at 3 p.m., sneaking off to take actual naps, and setting an alarm so I don't pass out for hours. This happens despite full nights of sleep and better morning alertness. I've learned that if I want to accomplish something mentally taxing, I'm better off attempting it before lunch. Jill one year ago would give a side-eye to this zonked-out person I'm becoming.

There have been other symptoms that one might ascribe to an underactive thyroid — I'm often cold in the afternoon and have to wrap up in my down comforter, as the thin couch blankets just don't cut it anymore. My fingernails are effectively falling apart, my skin is even drier than usual, and I've started noticing a bit more hair loss than before (not significant enough to worry yet.) Still, the numbers from April 11 wouldn't indicate hypothyroidism, so I have to assume this is just part of the adjustment.

On the other hand, I'm becoming stronger. Three weeks ago, I started back at square one with twice-weekly weightlifting, and I'm already ahead of where I was after four months of focused training over the winter. And I'm much more energetic when I'm in "active" mode. If I want to battle the afternoon sleepiness (and I've managed to resist the temptation to take a nap), all I need to do is go outside and start running or riding. On Monday I enjoyed a relaxing yet strenuous five-hour, nearly-50-mile mountain bike ride through the foothills. On Tuesday I stole an hour-long window between hail and snowstorms to jaunt up and down a 10K dirt road run with 1,100 feet of climbing. Running downhill through shoe-sucking mud, I managed to kick it up to that low-seven-minute-mile pace that feels so exhilarating. I could not run like that two months ago. No way. I would have been a gasping, dizzy, mucousy mess.

On Wednesday, overnight snow gave way to blazing sunshine. I had things to do in town, so I set out for a quick morning jaunt up Sanitas. My new thing with the steep ascent of Sanitas is to vie for new PRs in "all-hiking" mode, and see if I can keep up with runners in the process. (I've come close.) A friend had just sent me a nearly new pair of Altra Olympus shoes in the mail, and I was trying them out. After the breezy ascent (new PR! 26 minutes), I started down the winding, runnable descent feeling particularly light on my feet. Seven-minute-miles were fresh in my memory, and I picked up the pace to something just fast enough to necessitate total focus.

What happened next might seem inevitable to those who know me, but it all happened in such a strange fashion. I put my left foot down and something didn't feel right, causing me to lurch forward with my right foot and catch my toes on a rock. The terrain was a rock garden on a nearly level section of trail, so there was nowhere to roll, although I'm sure more graceful folks would have managed this. Of course I went down like a dead fish, slapping the rocks hard, really hard, and tearing up my right elbow and left knee in the process. Blood was gushing down my arm and leg as I crawled several meters off the trail into a cluster of trees, as I'm always terribly embarrassed when I fall and hope no one will see me. Then I curled up into a fetal position, writhed, and hyperventilated for at least five minutes, because I was in quite a lot of pain.

After I started to come around, I fished through my backpack for wet wipes, finding six (lucky break; I needed all of them just to slow the bleeding.) Instead of continuing in the direction I was heading, which would have necessitated a four-mile hike, I turned to limp back down the mile-long steep part. This proved incredibly taxing. Some trail runners seem to bounce right back from their crashes, but I am not one of those. Perhaps it's my dead fish landing technique, but I felt like I had been hit by a car. I managed the steepest parts by effectively crawling backward, trying to avoid putting any weight on my left leg, although that was unavoidable. The descent took 75 minutes (contrast that to 26 minutes of climbing.) My face was scrunched up in pain, my joints were still gushing blood, and it was just misery. I'm somewhat familiar with this state — the curse of a clumsy person who both doesn't get better and doesn't give up — but that never makes it any easier.

Now I sit at home on an early Thursday afternoon, with the afternoon brain fog beginning to seep in, and too sore to do much about it. Maybe happily, the rain is pelting down outside, and I can still curl up in my down comforter and attempt a blog post to see if that jogs the creative energy. Hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow. 
Sunday, April 23, 2017

One year in Colorado

On Earth Day 2016, Beat and I loaded up our Subaru Outback with our most prized bicycles (and not much else), then rumbled onto I-880 eastbound out of San Jose. We passed through heavy snow over Donner Pass, the verdant hills of central Nevada, 75-mph crosswinds across Utah's salt desert, then heavy rain and snow across Wyoming. The terrible weather ended almost the moment we crossed the Colorado border. The famous 300-days-a-year sunshine was out, hillsides were green and the trees were bursting with tiny green buds and blossoms. I remember smiling at Longs Peak and thinking, "I will climb you first."

I still haven't climbed Longs Peak. But we have enjoyed one year in Colorado, living in the forested hills behind the Flatirons — a home between the cliffy edge of the Great Plains and the towering Continental Divide. We love it here. Our "Ugh, Front Range" friends crinkle their noses, but really, anything that's not to love here, the Bay Area had times ten. With the exception of "people who are better than you at everything," of course. Boulder's sheer concentration of smart, fit, successful people is staggering. Still, the crowds are smaller, and traffic is negligible (of course it's still annoying.) Yuppies are prominent, but still greatly outnumbered by genuine, interesting people that you want to get to know. There are a lot of white people here. I rank among them so I certainly can't criticize. I do miss the cultural diversity of San Francisco.

Of course there are other things I miss about California. Sometimes I think back to my favorite places — the Marin Headlands, Black Mountain, Old Tree — and feel heartsick for all the days gone by. But I lived in California for five years, and I can't say I ever felt truly at home there. Our apartment always felt like the place were we slept between travels. The Santa Clara Valley was a place where I went to the dentist and the doctor, where I bided time until we could move back to Alaska. Now that I'm in Colorado, I'll probably still bide that time ... but I feel more authentic when I call this place "home." It does help to live in a beautiful house in the ponderosa forest, a place where I can both act like the hermit writer that I am at heart, and jet to town anytime to have dinner with friends, visit my cozy, locally-owned gym, shop at Trader Joes, steal a few hours of work at The Cup, eat a salad at Mad Greens (I love that place.)

It also helps that Beat is much happier in his work in Boulder. At home he has so much more space for his engineering, sewing, and gear-making projects. I feel like I should make more efforts in the gardening department (meaning, more than none.) But allergies are still a concern (I had a serious reaction last year while pulling cheat grass and never tried it again, although I can wear a mask and cover all of my skin.) Still, I can't let go of the conviction that any time spent outdoors is best spent on the move. Luckily, the daffodils returned again this spring, the columbines and humming birds are on their way, and the natural landscaping is beautiful.

Boulder has been good for my medical needs, which have become surprisingly many in the past year. I appreciate the medical professionals I've worked with here.

And of course there are the adventure opportunities. I haven't climbed Longs Peak, and sometimes I feel almost guilty for my relative neglect of the nearby mountains. There's just a lot to enjoy right outside the front door.

Similar to our first week here, the early morning greeted us with a skiff of snow. Beat wanted to go for a long run this weekend, and had designed a route from our doorstep that racked up 6,600 feet of climbing in 18 miles, on the kind of terrain where uphills are the easy part (for me at least.) Sunday was supposed to be 75 degrees and sunny. Saturday was forecast to be 55 degrees with morning showers. I lobbied for running Saturday. ("That's good running weather," I argued. "Sunday's going to be hot and the trails will be crowded. Wait and see.")

 I knew as soon as I woke up in the morning that today would be a "good day" for me. This perkiness surprised me, because I had an allergy shot on Friday and felt awful, truly awful, for the rest of the afternoon. I almost backed out of the long run before bedtime, but decided to wait and see. My pattern remains unpredictable; some days I feel mowed down; others, I feel like a bird set free. Since I take the same medications and do most of the same things every day, there's no way of knowing which it will be.

 Saturday was a "free day." On free days, everything feels relatively effortless. It's not that I can do anything amazing, it's just that the ordinary stuff isn't a battle. We set out in steady "frizzle" (fog-drizzle) with patches of slippery snow still clinging to the ground.

 The frizzle began to clear and we made our way to South Boulder Peak. Delicate ice formations still clung to the burned skeletons of trees.

 We made the steep, rocky descent into Shadow Canyon, which caused my only bout of grumpiness for the day. But I perked up on the even steeper, rockier ascent of Fern Canyon.

 In between the canyons, we made our way along a scenic stretch of trail neither of us had traveled before. The air was cool and humid, and Beat raved about the rich aroma of resin.

 The always-pleasing view toward the Plains from Bear Peak.

This was a rare section of smooth trail that made me nostalgic for California, although looking at this photo, I realize that these trees are quite small. After seven hours we were home again, soaking in the satisfaction of a hard, yet "easy" effort. It was a nice way to celebrate one year in this place. My continued physical rollercoaster means I can't reliably do any type of real training, but I'm all the more grateful for these great days.
Monday, April 17, 2017

So this is spring

Beat and I are nearing one year in Boulder, so we've experienced all of the seasons in high country. Of all transitions, spring is usually the most difficult for me. The quiet darkness of winter dissolves into a kind of uncomfortable mania; previously empty trails begin to feel crowded; new smells and sounds barrage the senses. My typical allergy season creates new weights, and the crushing heat, dust, and fire of summer feel too close for comfort. 

And yet I do enjoy the ease of mild weather, watching green return to the hillsides, anticipating the return of the hummingbirds, laughing at the antics of wild turkeys and watching a herd of elk graze in the back yard. Wildflowers and daffodils emerge from clumps and brown grass. That uncomfortable mania also breeds excitement. "Something is going to happen! I don't know what, but good things are coming." 

Even as I say this out loud, a larger part of me remembers that the state of the world looks dire, and it's difficult to veer away from this urge toward despair. I'm still haunted by my experience with the avalanche last month; I see blocks of snow tumbling toward me in wisps of dreams, before I awaken to early morning light, golden and rich in the springtime. It's all so fleeting, all of it, and it's infinitely better to appreciate the present than fear the future.

 My physical state still stymies me. Now that my thyroid levels have dropped, I'm sleepy much of the time. I catch myself dozing off while waiting in the dentist's chair. I steal the occasional nap during work sessions. I'm tired at bedtime, and usually sleep soundly through the night, which is strange. Perhaps this is just the way 37-year-old me is supposed to be, a trait that hyperthyroidism shielded.

Still, when I venture outside, I often feel more strong and alive than I did during my best season, winter. If I want to beat the fatigue and sleepiness, all I need to do is get out in the warm spring air for a ride or a run. Tree pollen has been bad lately — something for which I only have a "mild" allergy, so I haven't been treated for it — and I can feel pollen clogging up my sinuses and irritating my eyes. And yet, I can breathe. Sometimes I wish I could immediately recapture all of my former strength, but I'll settle for breathing.

 And the elk are here. Beautiful animals to watch from the comfort of the living room.

This one seemed enamored with the goldfish pond. Probably because of the water or his reflection, but I like to think he too appreciates the hardy little fish.

 On Sunday, Beat and I went for a long adventure "run." I call it an adventure and "run" in quotes because much of the route, for me, was a series of stumbles and careful footing over the rocky trails of the Flatirons. If I harbor any ambitions for summer, they lie in the realm of hiking and running. I wonder what I can still do with this sleepy, perhaps over-medicated body of mine. So I've been running, perhaps too much, and not as fast as I'd like. But every step feels freeing.

 We hit up South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, and Green Mountain. It was hotter than we expected, and we both had to ration water even after stashing some below Green. That caused a bit more struggling than necessary up the rock staircase known as Shadow Canyon. Still, despite believing I'd just completed one of the sloggiest slogs in my long history, I still set a "PR" for that climb. After 18 miles with more than 5,000 feet of climbing, my legs felt pretty spry, although my confidence had taken a hit after slipping and sliding too many times on loose dirt.

 I also used the weekend to redesign the blog, as you may have noticed if you're one of the few who still looks at this blog directly. I aimed to make it less cluttered and a little easier to navigate, as the thing nears 2,000 posts and becomes increasingly more unwieldy.

I also made a "best of" blog page, mostly for myself, to compile my favorite posts over the years. Scrolling as quickly as possible through 11.5 years of blog posts was an exercise in bewildering nostalgia — to watch it all slip by so quickly, and marvel at the sheer bulk of time that's passed. It's all so fleeting, all of it, and it's good to remember how much a gift every day has been. 
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Thyroid update

On Tuesday I visited my endocrinologist to follow up on treatment for Grave's Disease after seven weeks on an aggressive dose of thyroid-blocking medication. The results were encouraging. I'm responding well to the medication. My T4 levels have reached the normal range, T3 is close, and while my TSH is still very low, it's normal for that to take several months to return. The doctor is keeping me on the high dose of methimazole for now, but seems confident that medication will be an effective treatment against my hyperthyroidism.

One of my main issues is the presence of Hashimoto's antibodies, which means I've probably been hypothyroid in the past, and likely will be in the future. Controlling thyroid disease will be a matter of managing this rollercoaster, and its unpredictability. That will likely be a lifelong battle regardless of which treatments I eventually choose.

"Lucky you," my doctor said.

Still, it's good news. And I have been feeling notably better. This post is a quick (boring, I know, but helpful to me and hopefully others) update on my health progress.

• Breathing — I haven't experienced any significant breathing difficulties since February. I have been much more conservative with my activity levels. But the last major episode happened while I was walking up my staircase at home, perhaps too fast, and felt my airways tighten in the way that tends to induce panic. That was two months ago. Whether these episodes are "asthma attacks" or something else, I still don't know. There's evidence of Grave's Disease exacerbating already-existing asthma, and there's also evidence of "air hunger" as a symptom of an overworked heart. I am reasonably certain that bronchodilators improve my breathing when I'm having an "attack," so I probably do have asthma in addition to thyroiditis. Lucky me.

• Allergies — I do (did?) have a severe allergy to grass that has become worse over the years, and seemed to ramp up exponentially when I moved to Colorado. I've been treated for this allergy with immunotherapy shots since October. In the past two weeks I've been receiving catch-up shots to which I have not responded well — swelling, itchiness, fatigue directly afterward. Spring is coming, which I'm not looking forward to. Hopefully the treatment will curb some of my hay fever symptoms, and I won't go through the allergic asthma that I was dealing with last summer.

• Exercise — I've felt noticeably stronger during the past two weeks, although I still have fluctuations in energy levels, sluggishness while running, and mid-day sleepiness. Overall, though, I am much *much* happier while exercising. My breathing is better, my head is clearer, I'm more relaxed, and there haven't been any major bouts of dizziness or anxiety. I also have yet to "push myself" into a hard effort — similar to my efforts during the winter, when I was desperately trying to improve fitness for the Iditarod. Staying conservative is still my plan. All of my workouts since Alaska have been hikes and runs — mainly because I'm scared of riding bikes. It's harder to control my effort level on the steep climbs around Boulder. Since diagnosis, fear of provoking a thyroid storm has made me obsessive about maintaining control of my heart rate and breathing. In Alaska this proved necessary, as I had particularly poor reactions to situations where I failed to control my efforts, as well as stressful situations. But as my levels drop, thyroid storm, asthma attacks, and other poor reactions become less of a threat. It may be time to start testing the waters again — slowly and carefully, of course.

• Muscle building — My thyroxine levels are currently in the normal range, which means I'm less likely to experience the "thyrotoxic myopathy" that causes muscle weakness and breakdown. People with hyperthyroid conditions tend to lose weight, but a fair percentage of that is usually muscle tissue. One of the reasons I'm likely beginning to feel stronger is this slowing of muscle loss. I renewed my gym membership and am excited to work on building endurance in the weight room.

• Weight loss — I didn't experience weight loss with Grave's Disease, and I have yet to see a gain outside my normal fluctuations. This is possibly because years of endurance racing taught me expert-level calorie replacement, so as I was burning up muscle, I consumed enough food to replace it with fat (just a theory.) Now that I'm approaching normal, I'm trying to be more cognizant about my calorie intake — fewer snacks, fewer dairy products, more fruits and vegetables. There's still a lot I can do to improve my diet.

• The hand tremors that I believed were a mild neuropathy (I had carpal tunnel syndrome last year) have almost entirely disappeared.

• The swelling in my thyroid gland appears somewhat reduced (although still noticeable.)

• My resting heart rate is down — I tend to see numbers in the high 60s and 70s rather than 80s and 90s.

• The frequent skin rashes that I believed were related to allergies haven't returned in a couple of months.

• I still have what I consider to be a higher-than-normal heat sensitivity, but I can't really expect that to go away since I've always been adverse to hot weather.

• Mentally I feel so much better. The dull, gray fogginess that I had been experiencing is becoming more apparent now that I'm beginning to come out of it. My mood has overall improved. I hope these clearer thought patterns will improve my writing efforts this spring and summer.

I think that's about it for now. Now I'm heading out for my first bike ride of the spring. Wish me luck! 
Thursday, April 06, 2017

A good week in Boulder

Although I was excited to return to Colorado after five weeks of roaming around Alaska, there was a bit of apprehension as well. Home meant a more structured work routine, with attempts to write when my thoughts still resembled oatmeal tossed into a ceiling fan. Home meant living at 7,100 feet, when science showed that five weeks at low altitudes had been long enough to lose most of my mountain acclimation. Home also meant a return to a regular exercise routine. While I had no intention of launching into any kind of training, even the usual runs and rides at the easiest pace possible seemed overwhelming. 

During the autumn and winter, I'd been in a lot of denial about my fitness. Such was my desire to return to the Iditarod Trail. Although I did complain about feeling off, I wasn't honest with even myself about how unfit I'd become. Most runs were a gasping mess. In January, I told my friend Corrine — before she helped diagnose my thyroid issue — that I was looking forward to the Iditarod being over so I could become a couch potato. 

"I'm just tired of feeling bad every time I go outside." 

I also worried about the 80-degree days Beat described when he returned to Boulder in March, given that 20 degrees felt plenty balmy when I was in Fairbanks. Thankfully, Boulder eased the temperature transition with a snowy April shower.

Because the weather was so fantastic on Friday — well, it was 35 degrees and snaining — I decided to attempt my first "run" in more than six weeks. There had been a fair amount of hiking in Alaska, but only brief moments when both feet were off the ground simultaneously. I started out extremely slowly, padding through an inch of wet snow in well-worn Hokas. By mile 1.5, I was feeling surprisingly good, so I turned onto the Green-Bear trail and picked up the pace. Descending into Bear Creek on the wet, rocky trail involved fast turnover and high-kicking steps, which felt both strange and exhilarating after all of the slogging I did in Alaska.

"Running! I love running! It feels amazing."

I returned home after 7.5 miles, bemused by the experience. That run really shouldn't have been so easy. I'd become convinced that six weeks on an aggressive dose of anti-thyroid medication had finally pushed me into hypothyroid territory, given how difficult it had been to simply stay awake earlier in the week. Now this — running well during my first day back at high altitude. What does it mean? No matter, I'll take it.

On Saturday afternoon, my friend Wendy and I tackled the 10-mile Walker Ranch loop. I insisted on a super easy pace, and freaked myself out enough on the rocky downhill segments that I don't think I could have pushed it much faster.

Rocks and mud are hard. But runnable. I was in running love. Not overdoing it this week was going to be difficult.

Beat, in turn, had been quite ill since we returned to Colorado, and had to languish in bed. He finally went to the doctor and tested positive for strep throat. This is generally highly contagious, and since I hadn't been careful around him at all, I assumed I'd wake up one day with a throat on fire. But I never did. This reminded me of an interesting conversation with a friend in Alaska, who also has autoimmune diseases, and almost never becomes conventionally sick (cold, flu, etc.) Her reasoning was that because her immune system is constantly attacking her body, it manages to kill all the invaders as well. I'm not sure what science says about this, but it would be interesting to research.

Sunday and Monday brought pleasant temperatures in the 50s and 60s, along with intense April sunshine to make quick work of the snow. On Sunday I climbed up Bear Peak and again felt strong, which brought memories of many dizzy ascents in the recent past. It wasn't that long ago that I pushed myself hard enough to become unnervingly lightheaded, my vision flickered, my throat burned, and I'd gasp for air until I had no choice but to stop and rest. Steep hiking ascents are the only aspect of mountain "running" where I consider myself reasonably proficient, so this is the area where I always strived most to improve. I began to wonder how fast I could push this climb ... but no ... easy pace, steady breathing. I'm not going to overdo it right now.

So I went into a Monday Mount Sanitas loop with every intention just to saunter along at a conversational pace. The first mile ascends 1,300 rocky feet, and then there's a buffed-out runnable descent for four miles — the best of all worlds, in my book. The whole stress-free run seemed to go fairly fast, so later that day I caved and uploaded my stats to Strava. 

See, I sort of "quit" Strava a month ago, recognizing that the self-comparisons were an unnecessary source of angst. In truth I lost an old GPS watch during the first week in Alaska, but it was an opportune loss, and I didn't miss it. I swore that I wouldn't go back on Strava until my health was better and I was actually training for something again. Still, old habits don't go away easily. I guess I'm back for now.

Strava indicated I'd actually set a PR for the one-mile climb, even though my previous Sanitas runs were gasping efforts of striving for exactly that. This effort had been nothing more than a brisk hike, with calm breathing and a clear head. I looked back at the other recent Strava stats — more PRs or near-PRs on segments that I worked hard at during the winter. It was interesting to compare the actual numbers to perceived effort — as though suddenly, after a month of not running and being all over the map in terms of energy, I'd become considerably more fit. In reality, I think my thyroid levels are closer to normal. I'll know more about this next week. 

Tuesday brought more snow — 8 inches by dawn, and still coming down hard. You have to love spring in Colorado. I grew up in Salt Lake City, which has a similar climate, so 65 degrees one day and snow the next doesn't strike me as strange. But I could hardly ignore an opportunity for what might be the last snowy run of the season. Tuesday was a busy work day and I had to go in to town for a blood test first thing in the morning, but I still carved out a couple of hours for something resembling a run on the Ranger Trail of Green Mountain.

Okay, it wasn't even close to a run. The trail had only been "broken" by one person wearing snowshoes, which I did not have, nor did I have trekking poles or gloves. I went anyway, trudging through four laborious miles and sweating profusely even after I wrapped my puffy jacket around my waist. Four miles in 1:45. I didn't care. I love a good slog.

The morning was gray but lovely, with frost-tinged branches and thick flakes of springtime snow falling from the sky. I could have slogged along happily all day if I had the time.

By Wednesday morning, more than a foot of snow had fallen at our house. It was as lovely as an April 5 can be, 21 degrees and clear.

But the heat was coming. I knew it, so I opted for one last hike in the snow. I set out figuring this would be a hike instead of a run, but I was banking on somebody breaking trail on the West Ridge. It was not to be. High winds overnight had deposited drifts that swallowed my thighs. The snow was regularly knee deep, condensing quickly in the 45-degree sunlight. My lower body was entirely soaked; I felt like I was marching through a knee-deep Slurpee. Two hours of this became my most taxing effort of the week by far.

You gotta love spring in Colorado. I know I do. I really am happy to be home. A part of my heart will always reside in Alaska, but to be honest I think it becomes a little bit smaller with each passing year, each experience in a new place, and each connection with the familiarity we call home.

A visit to my endocrinologist next week should reveal how much of this (relatively) high-flying fitness is thyroid-related. It's interesting how many aspects of myself I question now — my moods, my thought patterns, my attention span, my fitness, some of my more extreme emotions. How much of this is "me" and how much is "Graves Disease?" Could I really be on a fast road to normalcy, or was this week just another spike on the long rollercoaster of recovery? The latter is much more likely, but it's encouraging all the same. 
Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Return to the Whites

It was late March and the weather was a manic rollercoaster — 20 below in the mornings, sun, wind, heat. By the time Beat's plane landed at 4:45 p.m.,  the temperature was 19 above. Beat was fresh from balmy Colorado, bundled up, and giddy about the upcoming White Mountains 100. I had stripped down to the one T-shirt I owned in Alaska, torn somewhere in my travels. Worn ragged and weary. 

Forty-eight hours had passed since the avalanche debacle, and although my head was finally switching to its normal settings as hormones settled, I had no energy for much of anything. I'd slept in the car during a break from my commute between Denali and Fairbanks (30 minutes, alarm set) and dozed off again while sitting at the airport. Beat was a bundle of excitement and I tried to absorb some of that energy as we went through the usual pre-race motions. The WM100 is my favorite race of all. Even though I couldn't be a participant this year, I'd be in the midst of the excitement while volunteering at checkpoint 1. I wanted to support Beat as he tried to recapture his mojo after leaving the Iditarod Trail. 

All of this I reminded myself, but in truth I was just weary. I wanted to go home. 

"Home is in the Whites!" I reminded myself as I packed my bike with the same gear I'd been hauling around for a month. Pieces were missing after all of the back-and-forth: Some clothing, straps, an old Garmin watch. The bike — Beat's old 2010 aluminum Fatback — made its own long journey from Canada to Fairbanks with a kind French woman who was planning to run the White Mountains 100. The frame was still coated in grit from a sloppy thaw during a miserable commute through Whitehorse, several parts were creaking, and had its own weary feel.

The plan was to leave Fairbanks after the pre-race meeting Saturday, drive to the trailhead, and ride 17 miles into Moose Creek cabin, where I'd meet four other volunteers to set up our checkpoint early the following morning. I planned to spend two nights at Moose Creek, then ride out a cutoff trail early Monday to greet Beat near the end of the course. It was a low-stress trip of minimal miles that would allow me to spend two-plus days in my beloved White Mountains. It was great to have one last adventure in Alaska, I told myself. But I was weary.

Although the pulled quad muscle was improving rapidly, my right leg was still sore, and neither leg had any spark at all. At 7:34 p.m. I finally trundled onto the trail, balking at the steady incline, stopping several times to adjust things on my creaking bike. Trail conditions had improved quite a bit since I was here two weeks earlier, but there was still a layer of sugary fluff that had been stirred up by snowmobile traffic, and the base wasn't quite "late March bomber."

Churning and churning, I thought, "I'm tired of pedaling a bike in the highest resistance setting," and "I wonder who else is going to be riding out this trail at four miles an hour tomorrow morning?" Just as I pondered the speed of White Mountains cyclists, a friendly Anchorage racer who was out for a shakedown ride approached. I'd chatted with him at the trailhead; he seemed relaxed there, but here he sped past me as though I was standing still.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes, just a heavy bike," I replied as I watched him race up the next hill.

"He'll do well tomorrow," I thought. Ultimately he would arrive with the lead pack at checkpoint one, then return two hours later to inform us that he'd blown up so he was heading back to the start.

After sunset, temperatures plummeted again. I guessed it was -10 or -15. Frost collected on the fuzzy blue fleece things that have become as much security blankets as they are cold-weather gear. I saw the tracks of the other checkpoint one volunteer who was riding out on a bike. He walked in many of the places I wanted to walk, which made me feel a bit better.

The trail undulated over steep hills populated by toothpick trees. Hints of green aurora swept over the northern horizon. To the south I could see the yellow aura of Fairbanks, and three headlights approaching me. The other volunteers were hauling gear out by snowmobile, and also told me they were getting a late start.

"Yay, I can catch a ride," I thought as I trudged up a mushy incline. The headlights disappeared into a dark valley and emerged again, seemingly on a different ridge. Minutes went by, miles went by, and they inexplicably never caught up to me.

"Maybe they're all riding bikes," I thought, imagining someone hauling out tables and snacks and 25 gallons of water via bicycle. Ultimately the lights were the three volunteers on snowmobiles, moving slowly across a deceptively expansive ripple of hills.

We all crammed into the new but diminutive cabin — me, four dudes, and three dogs, one of which barked through the night. We stayed up until 2 a.m. chatting about races, laughing, and drinking beer (I had a virgin hot chocolate.) One guy had stopped by Sams Club to pick up an army's worth of breakfast foods — two pounds of bacon, 18 eggs, 40 tortillas, a gallon of orange juice, a pound of shredded cheese, at least five pounds of ground beef, and two big jars of salsa. There were five of us. I looked at my little bag of oatmeal and laughed.

We woke up at 6 a.m. and headed up the trail to set up our trailside checkpoint — this would be the first checkpoint racers reached at mile 17. We provided warm water, drink mixes, chips, cookies, granola bars, soda, and fruit snacks. There was a small tent for a bucket toilet, tables, five chairs, a propane heater, ten liters of Coke, and only 15 gallons of water for this checkpoint — anything more would have to be generated by melting snow. The minimal offerings at this spot necessitated a surprising amount of stuff. I managed to pull a muscle in my lower back while yanking a snowmobile trailer to a different spot. This injury ultimately proved more annoying and longer lasting than my pulled quad muscle.

I believe this was the first skier to checkpoint one — a Swede named Christian. I would see him again the following morning after he bonked and slept for 14 hours at checkpoint four.

The first runners, Teri and Brian. Teri holds the women's record for this course, and was the overall winner this year. Even though I don't think I'll ever have the ability to run the White Mountains 100 in less than 24 hours, that's what I dreamed about for the rest of the day. Running over the snow in the same way one might float on a cloud, with none of the weariness or pain that my body was currently experiencing. That's what I want to do, I decided, if I ever recover my previous abilities — run, really run, the White Mountains 100.

Beat approached with a big group of runners about 45 minutes later. They were laughing and seemed to be in great spirits. I didn't tell Beat that in the minutes before they'd arrived, we had nearly run out of water. We were frantically shoveling snow into the big pot on the cooker in hopes they wouldn't arrive to a dry checkpoint. The Coke wasn't much help — even though I buried it in the snow for insulation, all of the soda was mostly frozen. Temperatures were still in the single digits.

I gave Beat some warm water and a kiss and waved goodbye. After ninety minutes, everyone else had come through the checkpoint. We had one cyclist drop out with frost-nip concerns, and the Anchorage rider who bonked, but everyone else made it through. My back ached as we packed up, and I bid everyone else goodbye. For my second night at Moose Creek, I'd be alone.

Although I planned to ride a ways out the trail, weariness took over, and instead I went back to the cabin and napped for two hours. By 5:30 p.m. there were still several hours of daylight, so I attempted to rally for a ride. Snowmobiles with massive paddle tracks had torn up the trail again — it really was mashed potatoes, according to Beat, it wasn't just me. I gave up after three miles, which still took me nearly an hour to "pedal." It was both a relief and discouraging to realize that I'm really not in any condition to be racing anything right now.

Dinner with a view. I was a bit relieved to be alone again. Still processing thoughts, still uneasy. Still ready to sleep as long as possible.

At 8 p.m. I stepped outside for a satellite phone call with Beat. Just after sunset, the northern lights erupted. Beat had the best views from Cache Mountain Divide. Despite my overarching desire for sleep, I still went outside four times that night to view the light show — standing on the porch in my underwear and booties at 5 below as the wind howled. The final time I finally suited up in my down stuff so I could attempt to capture a photo, but it didn't turn out at all. I preferred viewing the aurora in my underwear, with the exhilarating tremors in my body as light dances in the sky.

The following morning, I took a cut-off trail to pedal ten miles between Moose Creek cabin and the final checkpoint, a trail shelter at mile 90. The cut-off trail had only been recently groomed and there was no base. I could see footprints next to tire tracks from a rider who just the day prior found it not rideable at all (turns out that was Matt, the WM100 cyclist who dropped out with frost-nip concerns. He strangely decided to attempt to ride this trail back, even though the route is four miles longer and clearly in worse condition.)

Churning, churning, but it was a beautiful morning. I may be weary, but I'm always happy in the Whites.

Despite the soft trail, I found I really enjoyed this route — a scenic expanse of open hillsides and anemic spruce forests. Temps were again in the -10s, but warmed rapidly. Trail conditions also improved drastically once I returned to the main race course. I was able to ride six miles per hour, up gentle inclines! Then I hit the Wickersham Wall, the infamous ascent that gains 800 feet in less than a mile. At this point of weariness it didn't feel much worse than anything else.

I set up my "camp" at the top of the Wickersham Wall, boiled water for coffee amid the brisk wind, and walked around as it was too cold to sit still, even with a puffy coat. This photo is Christian, the fast skier who bonked, with his friend Patrick, who was one of the volunteers with me at checkpoint one. Because of his dismal performance, Patrick told him his punishment would be to double-pole all the way up the Wickersham Wall. I watched him do exactly this. I'm not a skier and don't even really know what double-poling entails, but it looked painful.

Twenty minutes later, Beat came up the hill, as limber and smiley as ever. He told me he saw temperatures as low as -28 overnight, and the northern lights were some of the best he's seen, which is saying a lot. This made me miss winter racing even more — the act of being up all night through that deep cold and darkness, watching the sky light up.

Six miles later, Beat sprinted into the finish. His finish time was 31:45, the fourth runner overall and third man. His mojo had returned.

We were both ready to return home to routine, comfortable beds, and springtime. I'm always grateful for the time I'm able to spend in Alaska. Even without the Iditarod, this March visit had been full of adventures, exhilarating highs and humbling lows. My body and mind were ragged, but my spirit was full, ready to pick up the pieces and sprint forward.