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. 


  1. Hmm. That is an interesting theory. I have autoimmune disease and I rarely get conventionally sick either. A benefit, I guess? What is interesting is that because of your and the other Jill's experiences, I have also been questioning everything as it relates to my disease. I used to just think I was fat, slow, lazy. Now I wonder. Glad you had a good week! I can't even think of self comparison--it would make me too sad. I settle on being glad I can be out there in any form.

    1. I know thyroid issues are very common, treatable, etc. ... I still think thyroid disease is a particularly insidious one for the way it can affect nearly all dimensions of life, from muscle development to metabolism to brain function. And they're for life, nearly always. I suppose it can become more natural to live with it as time goes on.

  2. Glad it's been a good week for you. I hope they continue!

  3. Love those Front Range ponderosa forests.

  4. I'm curious if using Strava could provide good data as you and your doctors figure out how to normalize your thyroid. So happy for you that this week felt so great - a glimmer of hope for recovery!!

    1. I'm thinking it will be useful to track my progress. I do need to start wearing my heart rate monitor, and measuring my resting heart rate more regularly.

      This week was not quite as good as last. I've been sluggish, feeling "the sleepies" again. It will be interesting to see if I can adjust medications to deal with these swings.


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