Tuesday, May 30, 2017

(Not) born to run

This weekend, for the first time since January and my thyroid diagnosis and dropping out of the Iditarod, I returned to a training mentality. Three runs over the weekend were less "gently test the waters" and more "visualize those far-reaching places where my body is laid bare and my mind soars, and assess whether I can thrive — let alone survive — on the journey to those places." There is still plenty of gentle experimenting in everything I do — I've conditioned myself to fear a fast heart rate and any form of stress, so I don't see myself charging up or down mountains anytime soon. But when I can lope along at a steady 150-160 beats per minute with strong legs and lungs, nothing feels better. I just want to do that forever. 

Eszter and Scott are in town for a couple of weeks amid their nomadic wanderings, and joined Beat and me on our long run in Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Golden Gate is a ripple of foothills — 7,000 to 9,000 feet — with endlessly steep and rocky trails, loose chunder gullies, and spring runoff surging through the creeks (luckily all spanned by some form of bridge, as my shaky phobia rears its ugly face amid rapids of any size.) Negotiating semi-technical terrain during a "run" is not a strength of mine by any stretch of the imagination, and I always feel a little intimidated when traveling with folks who are more athletic than I am, even if they're professed non-runners. This is especially true in my current state of fitness, when I never really know whether I'm going to have a "good day" or a "bad day" — the bad days being those when I might start gasping while walking 20-minute-miles. Happily, Eszter and Scott are easy-going and fun. The outing passed quickly amid good conversation about everything from religion to the ethics of cell phone use.

From Windy Peak, this is one of Eszter's classic photo genres: "people pointing at things in the distance." The four of us stopped at our looping route's "aid station" (a semi-frozen gallon jug of water in our Subaru) at mile 17, and then Beat and I continued for seven more miles into a more mysterious and quiet segment of the park. The granite crags and ponderosa pine forests reminded me of the northern Sierras, sparking happy memories of novice runs in the Tahoe area in 2011. Back then, my personal limits were still deeply obscured and anything felt possible.

Earlier in the day, while we hiked up Windy Peak, the four of us talked about how we got our start with active lifestyles. One of several writing projects I'm dabbling with right now deals with my running journey. A piece of the narrative puzzle came back recently when I read Mary's blog post about being a young runner. Why was I never a young runner? There was the time I followed a cute boy to cross-country tryouts during my sophomore year in high school, but only made it as far as waiting in the bleachers and watching girls race around the track for several minutes before slinking away unnoticed. For the most part I was fiercely anti-sport, writing articles for my high school newspaper about the insignificance of exercise, and forging a teenage identity around being part of a "punk" group at odds with the "jocks."

It went back to seventh grade, when students had their athletic aptitude assessed by the Presidential Fitness Test. One of these tests was the mile run, for which 12-year-old girls were given an arbitrary standard of 11 minutes and 5 seconds. For healthy, normal-weight girls — of which I was — an 11-minute-mile was supposed to be the bare minimum of what we could achieve with our basic training from gym class. I'd already experienced humiliating failures in pull-ups, tumbling, rope climbing, and other activities that may have been so bad they've now been completely purged from my memory. But I was going to run that mile. I knew I could run that mile.

I do not remember my time for the mile. The memory now comes in flashes, a sensation of my heart pumping sludge near the end of that lap around the grassy grounds surrounding my middle school. It was overcast in the springtime, and the scent of freshly mown grass made my eyes water. My legs ached as I sprinted toward my gym teacher, who was holding her watch and shaking her head. There were other girls sitting in the grass nearby, and in my memory they were smirking and giggling quietly. As a even younger child I'd always suspected, but now I knew without a doubt — I was desperately nonathletic.

I've been thinking more about these moments from my youth, and how my status as a "desperately nonathletic" person has followed me ever since. Of course the simplistic deconstruction of this narrative will assume I will always have something to prove, and my ego has driven many of the decisions I've made as an adult. If the standard is running a not-slow mile or completing an unassisted pull-up, I still haven't had much success. Because as the years pass, my limits become more predictable, and my body becomes less reliable — I realize that all of my running is not really about running. It never was, which is why I never cared to "race" until I discovered a race that could guide me 100 miles through the Alaska wilderness, and why I never cared to "run" until I watched friends travel light and fast into distant dreamscapes beyond Juneau's mountain ridges. Regardless of my capabilities and what arbitrary goals I can achieve, this will always be a journey. This weekend was a simple but good one, indeed. 
Thursday, May 25, 2017

Back to summer

 The seasons change constantly in the Rocky Mountains. For all those days of summer we had in February, we enjoyed our fair share of wintry days in May. I mostly dread summer and didn't want it to end, but last week's three feet of snow disappeared as rapidly as it came. 

There were three days over the weekend when everything was a mess. Luckily we plowed the road on Friday, so by Saturday at least that was available for running — albeit through many puddles and shoe-sucking mud. Beat wanted to venture onto the trails, but shin deep slush was too strong a demotivater. We only made it about 200 yards, and I was the one who cried uncle.

 Trail conditions were significantly better on Sunday, so we ran the Walker Ranch loop. There was still plenty of slushy, splashy fun to soak the shoes.

 I was in the midst of what I've come to think of as a "bad week," experiencing similar symptoms to my winter struggles — labored breathing, feeling tapped out at a low heart rate (140s), and also feeling more off balance than normal. There were also a few other symptoms unrelated to exercise — a rash across both shins reappeared for the first time in months, I woke up several times in the night, and my thoughts became fuzzier.

I know many of these symptoms could be "poor recovery," but it felt like I might be hyperthyroid again. When I asked a physician friend how likely it was to swing between too much and too little thyroid hormone on a weekly basis, she theorized that my body was just adjusting to new normals after being hyperthyroid for so long. It still feels as though I fluctuate between the symptoms of two extremes — one week I feel sleepy and cold and my hair falls out, and the next I'm having trouble breathing again. Always between the two are increasingly longer strings of "good days," where I feel much closer to my "old normal." I'm certainly not the only one on this kind of rollercoaster — I've found many such discussions online. Most of those people talk about fine-tuning medications, nailing down "triggers" — mostly food- and allergy-related — and removing stressors to avoid the downswings.

 Avoiding stressors — I recognize that I can and possibly should dial back my efforts during "bad weeks." In a way, I already do, since my breathing prevents me from pushing myself, and motivation tends to decrease as well. I still carry the "so be it" mindset that I forged during the winter, when I didn't quite know what was wrong with my body. Whatever it was affected the activities that bring me joy, but these activities didn't seem to make it any worse. I decided I was going to live my life through it, rather than around it. This still holds if "it" is thyroid disease. All of the medical evidence shows that my hormone levels have been consistently dropping and I'm in a healthy place right now. If the rest of my body takes more time to catch up, or even if it there's always these types of fluctuations, so be it.

 By Monday, as though by magic, I was already feeling better. This came after a night of poor sleep (also increasingly more rare), when I woke up at sunrise. (Which happens at 5:30 a.m. this time of year. Too early. Bah, summer.) There was a lovely skiff of new snow on the hillsides. It looked like snowline dropped to 8,000 feet overnight.

 I set out for a run toward Bear Peak, and it was a little too soon for that trail. Through the burn, a few more trees had fallen down, and I lost the trail amid slushy drifts that were occasionally thigh deep. On the way down, I wrenched my left ankle in the melted space underneath a concrete snow drift. It wasn't injured in any way, just sore, which made me grumpy. It didn't require hobbling, but I lost my desire. Any ambitions to make up for all those shorter snow days with a "long run" faded, and I turned around and mostly walked home.

For good measure I rested on Tuesday, and set out on Wednesday for a ride into town. One thing that summer always reignites is a strong desire to explore new places, which means longer and longer rides if I set out from home. I suppose if I can make the time, there's nothing wrong with this. The rear tire on my mountain bike developed a bubble. Rather than risk tire failure, I borrowed the fat bike that I rode to Nome, which is technically Beat's bike. The Eriksen had an unfamiliar handlebar setup and a saddle that I strongly dislike, but it felt right to be reunited with this bike. I never had a chance to ride "Erik" in Alaska this year, and I'd missed him. The temperature had warmed to 80 degrees, and there was a fierce downslope wind generating violent gusts. I was being tossed all over the road; eventually I just had to creep along the switchbacking descents, and then creep forward because much of the uphill riding was due west. Well, I chose this.

My body felt strong, which never fails to be an empowering sensation after these brief downturns. The 80-degree temps felt comfortable (A nice change from feeling overheated while running through the slush on Sunday, when it was sprinkling rain and the temperature was much cooler.) The wind buffeted me around, which was oddly motivating, like a boxer egging on his opponent. Without too much effort, I pedaled upward through the gales, eventually climbing onto a network of closed forest roads. There are so many of these roads in Colorado that I'd love to spend a summer exploring, if only I had the strength and the time — they're always rocky and steep, and this time of year they're little more than rutted stream beds. I hoped to sniff out a link to the West Mag trails and Eldora, but the snow was still unworkably deep above 9,000 feet. I trudged along for a half hour while closely watching the time (because I hoped to reach Boulder by 5 p.m.) My feet were numb and the icy snow cut my shins, which were still raw from the now-faded rash. Time moved too quickly, and I was getting nowhere. Finally, I conceded. "This probably isn't the best choice."

So I turned around, in time to catch a glimpse of the tiniest train approaching Rollinsville. It was 5:30 by the time I rolled into the Google parking lot, which would make this a 6.5-hour ride, 57 miles, 6,500 feet of climbing. That's about how far I need to roam to visit entirely new places now. With luck that will keep expanding. With more luck I'll continue to be up for such wanderings, even when I can't be as fast as strong as I think I should be. It's still my best way to live.
Friday, May 19, 2017

Thyroid update 2

Although not the most compelling subject to write about, I've decided to post regular updates about my dealings with Graves Disease, both for my own reference for others who lead active lifestyles and struggle with thyroid issues. I've found similar accounts to be helpful. 

Since being diagnosed in mid-February, I've taken a daily dose of 30mg methimazole — a drug that suppresses thyroid function. For about two weeks in April, I experienced what seemed like symptoms of an underactive thyroid — I'd become sleepy by noon and stay that way, even if I took a nap. I lost more hair than usual; knotted clumps would come out when I brushed my hair after a shower. My fingernails flaked off, down to nubbins. They've only now started to grow back. None of these symptoms were alarming enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, so I decided to wait for my May 12 blood test to see what was happening.

May came around and I hit another upswing. By May 12, I was feeling downright perky — that was the day before Quadrock. I even had an allergy shot in the afternoon — something that usually leaves me feeling more downtrodden — and it didn't make a dent. But the labs ultimately revealed that I had dipped into the hypothyroid range. My thyroxine levels were below normal, even though TSH was just about normal (last month, my endocrinologist told me it takes "many months" to bring TSH up. But it's been fewer than three.) 

So my dose has been lowered with expectation that it will be reduced further next month. Interestingly, this week I've felt what I've come to recognize as "hyper" symptoms again — some jitteriness, the weird itching on my shins. These symptoms are very mild if they're anything at all (beyond psychosomatic.) I now have several new questions to ask my doctor when I see her in June, including whether the rollercoaster is real — do I really swing between hyper and hypo in a given day or week? And if so, how do I manage this? 

Lifestyle and diet may play a role, but in this short time period, I haven't yet found a pattern or correlation in my personal experiences. I'm just as likely to feel fantastic after a long run as I am to succumb to "extreme sleepiness" at 9 p.m. on a rest day. As a side note, the sleepiness is an interesting experience. I expect it isn't extreme at all; this is just how normal 37-year-olds feel. But for the past six-plus years I've become increasingly more restless at night, with periods of true insomnia. Even during what I considered good sleeps, it wasn't abnormal to get up four or five times in the night to use the restroom. My father has sleep issues, so I figured this was just my lot in life. Then I went on thyroid meds, and now I have slept through the entirety of nearly every night since April. And I wake up just after sunrise, on my own. It's all so strange.

So I'm a sleepy morning person now. But this doesn't seem to affect my active energy levels. Because my breathing is so much better and my heart is stronger, *all* of my workouts feel significantly better than they did during the months prior to March. Regardless of how many miles I have on my legs that week, or how sleepy I was at home, it always feels like I can run and not be weary. Of course I know this isn't the case. Contrary to what my blog posts might portray, I am making efforts to tread lightly. 

However, as the recent blood tests show, I am now a person with normal thyroid levels — actually mildly hypothyroid levels. Thus, I am not in the immediate danger that I was always in, without knowing it, when I was hyperthyroid. The goal is to never go back there again, obviously. Since my body has been so responsive to medication, I intend to stick with it indefinitely. 

I'm thrilled about how significantly three little pills have improved my life. Although I mostly write here about my outdoor exercise and related struggles, easy breathing is almost a secondary perk. The most encouraging improvement has been a sharp reduction in "brain fog." Even when I'm sleepy, I'm usually still clear-headed enough to work, write, terrify myself with newspaper reading, etc. The brain fogs were nerve-racking. For a time, I wondered if I was developing early-onset dementia. I never said anything to anyone about these spells of listlessness and confusion — as much as I griped about my breathing — because they were truly terrifying. Even thinking about them directly made the possibility all too real. If anti-thyroid drugs are a cure for brain fog, they're worth any other negative symptom. 

 And now, snow photos! Three feet of snow was a pleasant thing to wake up to. The power was out again, the inside of the house had become downright frigid, Beat was out of milk, and we realized our Starbucks Vias had expired in 2015. I still thought it was an awesome morning.

 The goldfish ponds are frozen over again. Although I could live with endless winter and be happy as can be, I've been fretting about the goldfish. They've made it through much worse, so I'm sure they're fine. It is interesting how much emotional energy I've directed at the animals around here — the fish, the hummingbirds, the deer leaping through this concrete snow. I just hope they're all okay.

 An update from the power company told us that we'd likely remain in the dark until Friday evening. I was perfectly content to sit by the woodstove and read a paperback, but Beat seemed a bit panicked about his lack of milk. He also hoped to put in some hours at the office today. So we went on another plow adventure. Riding in this Silverado as it plowed through the concrete snow was like standing on the edge of an icebreaker in the Arctic, watching icebergs build to terrifying proportions before crumbling away.

 We managed to break an escape route to the main road, and decided to carve out an hour for another short snowshoe adventure before heading to town. And I do mean short. This was 1.8 miles in an hour and fifteen minutes. We even took turns breaking trail. Who needs a Stairmaster ... if by Stairmaster you mean a machine filled to knee level with loose sand, jutting upward at impossibly steep angles.

 Beautiful, foggy morning, though.

 Back in town, I went to the gym and realized I had strained some shoulder muscles, either from snowshoeing or shoveling this leaden snow out of the driveway. Life isn't quite as easy here as it was in California, but a mid-May snowstorm is one of the many things that makes it all worth it. 
Thursday, May 18, 2017

Snowmageddon 2017

The date was May 17, 11 a.m., and the temperature was a pleasant 58 degrees as I packed for a ride. Looking out the window at a hillside bursting with vibrant green foliage, it was more than a little difficult to believe the upcoming weather forecast — "a cold storm system is expected to track slowly eastward across the region into Friday night. Total snow accumulations of one to three feet possible." 

One to three ... feet? 

Of snow?

On May 18? 

When it was nearly 90 degrees just five days ago? 

Yeah, right. 

 However, I am one to be prepared, so I threw a rain jacket, fleece hat, and mittens into my pack, and wore tights — for sun protection more than anything. It was a beautiful afternoon and I wanted to put in five or six good hours, just in case Snowmageddon did happen to shut us down for the weekend. Looking toward the plains beyond Fourmile Canyon, there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

Bluebird day on Sugarloaf Mountain. I explored singletrack trails that didn't go anywhere, so I reluctantly drifted over to pavement. I had forgotten the ridiculous steepness of Sugarloaf Road, and plodded upward with steely displeasure. I suspected I was somewhat overdoing the "string of long rides" version of Quadrock recovery, and wasn't in the mood to push myself. Still, some places don't give you much of a choice.

A fierce headwind tossed sand in my face as I watched the weather approach from the west on the Switzerland Trail and Gold Hill Road. I'd ascended to nearly 9,000 feet, where the air was still warm. My extra layers stayed in my pack; I had long regretted the choice to wear tights. Snow? Bah.

 But there were rain clouds over Boulder. I somehow missed the sprinkles altogether as I descended nearly 4,000 feet into town to meet Beat at work. He was planning to run home from the office, where patters of rain were starting to hit the sidewalk. "Are you sure you want to run tonight?" I cautioned. "The weather's supposed to get bad." There was still a giant sucker hole — abundant blue sky — hanging out over the Flatirons.

"I'm scared," he said, mockingly.

 Then it was the morning of May 18, 6:30 a.m. Nearly a foot of snow had accumulated on our once-green yard. And the power was out. Thursday is trash day and the nearest collection point is a mile down the road, so we had to dig out the truck first thing. Then we went home to Starbucks Vias, mixed with water that Beat heated on a camp stove.

 Hummingbirds were battling the wind for breakfast, and Beat scrambled to make them more sugar water before he'd even had coffee.

 The power was out all morning and into the afternoon. Beat decided to work from home but needs to Internet to work, so he rigged a car battery to power the modem. This worked, but our laptop batteries were dwindling, and we were well aware of other inconveniences — we have electric heating, an electric stove, and a well with an electric pump, so without power we effectively have neither heat nor water. We do have wood stoves, though, and happily huddled around the small one in the bedroom. I vowed to be better prepared for the next Snowmageddon ... you know, that one that's likely to hit in June.

In the afternoon we set out for a short hike, but not before making an effort to plow the road, just in case a window opened to escape to town on Friday. I was amazed how much snow had accumulated since we took the truck out in the morning. Presumably the cars are under there somewhere.

Then we climbed our neighbor's driveway to borrow his plow. The driveway itself is a half-mile long and took us 20 minutes to ascend, wearing snowshoes. This broken trail was useful for finding our way back out with the truck.

Digging out the truck gave a sense of how much snow had accumulated — two feet, at this point, and still coming down.

 I was a skeptic about the capabilities of this old truck, but it made quick work of two feet of wet cement. Beat's driving skills did help.

 Contending with a broken tree branch across the road.

 We ran into a neighbor and Beat offered to plow her driveway, which became another ordeal that led to us pushing her vehicle out of a snow bank. At least we had an opportunity to meet another neighbor. By the time we finally started hiking, we'd already burned up two and a half hours of daylight. Luckily it's mid-May and there was still plenty of evening daylight left.

 We planned to plod to South Boulder Creek, which is about a ten-minute run when it's dry. The 2.5-mile out-and-back through a couple feet of wet cement took us an hour and fifteen minutes.

 South Boulder Creek looked mighty angry.

 The snow conditions were treacherous — a greasy cement that stuck to snowshoes but somehow not any other surface. The snow gave way under my snowshoes here — within seconds after I took this photo and put my camera away — and I fell all the way down  — seven or eight feet, atop big boulders. Miraculously nothing hurt afterward. At least this ludicrously wet snow lubricated my tumble. I was glad we hadn't attempted anything more technical (there was talk of climbing Bear Peak, mostly by me, but I'm grateful it didn't work out. I might have died.)

 Back at home, Beat battled the greasy snow to clear a path for truck, and the hummingbirds battled the blizzard to stock up on fuel.

 Usually they are not into sharing, but everyone knew it was going to be a cold, snowy night.

I took one more photo of the cars to try to get a sense of the accumulation. The official measurement for Eldorado Springs as of 6 p.m. was 26" — but the station is located at a lower altitude, to the southeast. My guess would be ~30"? And it was still coming down hard as gray daylight faded. How much more will fall overnight? No one can know, but one prediction is all but certain — temperatures will be in the 70s by next week, and the melt is going to be a humongous mess. 
Monday, May 15, 2017

The marvel of feeling normal

Beat's knee injury didn't improve in time to run the Quadrock trail race, so I woke up at 4:45 a.m. and headed north alone. Saturday morning was intensely beautiful, with a pomegranate-seed sunrise sprinkled across the periwinkle sky. Streets were eerily empty and farm fields shimmered with green and gold glitter. The hillsides were saturated with this exuberant light. 

"This race could be a disaster and getting up early for this drive would still be worth it," I thought. "Still, I hope it's not a disaster."

I used to run trail races on the regular in California, but I hadn't put a foot across a starting line since January 2016. At the time, these 50-kilometer trail races were my fitness gauge to see whether I'd recovered enough from the Tour Divide Plague to reliably breathe my way through the Iditarod. Seventeen months later, I was no longer curious about whether dizziness and desperation would hit. I'd mostly accepted this as my default for any remotely hard effort; the curiosity lied in more distant memories of "normal." 

The sun was already high and bright, the temperature topping 70 degrees as I rounded Horsetooth Reservoir at 7 a.m. Pre-race chatter centered on the hot, hot day in front of us. The forecast was for mid- to high-80s — warmer than most northern Coloradoans had seen yet this season. My freshest memories of spring trail races were all scorchers in California — Quicksilver 50-miler, Ohlone 50K — and running beautiful but shadeless singletrack beneath an unforgiving sun. My strategy for scorchers is to freeze a two-liter bladder full of water to a solid block of ice, which I gladly carry because it can propel me through up to three hours of intense sweating, if I sip.

The impressively fit pack of 250 runners shot off the starting line, while I loped at 10-minute-miles amid the sparsely populated rear. Geez these Coloradoans don't mess around. I had no idea what might happen, and I didn't want to burn all of my matches before we even hit the first steep and seemingly endless climb. Quadrock has three such climbs, countless punchy rollers, and so many rocks that I was lusting for my trekking poles before the first mile of singletrack was done. My proprioception becomes scrambled on chunky terrain, causing disorientation and increasingly more frequent, eventually injurious mistakes. I've become too reliant on "running crutches" to manage my balance and stability, but mechanical aids were not allowed in this race.

 By mile 10, the trekking poles were mostly forgotten as I settled into a comfortable rhythm. My heart was beating strong at 160, 165 even 170 beats per minute — a rate that long ago felt comfortable, but punched far into gasping territory after I became sick. I stopped at the aid station manned by my hometown running group, the Boulder Banditos, who were cheerfully attending to a crowd of salt-streaked runners.

"My watch says it's 93 degrees," one guy complained.

"It's probably the direct sunlight," I replied. It was easily in the mid-80s, though. My friend Wendy filled up my neck bandana with chunks of ice.

"That feels amazing," I thanked her, and started at a loping 10-minute-mile up the second endless climb. My heart and head told me I could run fast, but my quad muscles were already quivering. A winter full of dizziness and desperation didn't leave any top-end fitness to work with. But a more comfortable pace? I could do this all day.

There was a long, rocky traverse that caused a few stumbles, along with an unwelcome bout of frustration.

"Feet up, drink water," I reminded myself constantly. My quad muscles frequently spasmed. "Quadrock is a good name for this race," I thought. I watched other runners double over beside the trail with cramps and vomiting, or both. I offered help and sympathy, neither of which meant much. I thrashed my head because "Baby One More Time" was running a deafening loop through my mind, and it WOULD NOT LEAVE. This wasn't even the Britney Spears version; it was sung in an unfamiliar male voice, a high falsetto. It seemed highly unlikely this version even existed, but there it was. Finally I gave in, and matched my steps to the rhythm, "Feet up, drink water, oh baby baby, the reason I breathe is you."

The miles unravelled, and I felt better as I went. The final aid station had bakery peanut butter cookies, and I stood under the thin canopy shade and savored one while watching another runner double over nearby. A volunteer gave me ice for my now-empty bladder, and I was free. Nothing could stop me. There was a third endless climb to mile 20, stumbling along a narrow sideslope amid a crowd. At the top, the trail opened up beneath a cooling canopy of pine. My heart continued to beat strong and there wasn't a hint of desperation in my steady breaths. I couldn't believe how well this race was going, and it was almost over. Should I pound the final descent? Na, don't want to bloody my face now. Should I have run harder? Na — it's so much more fun to travel 25 miles over rugged terrain in an oppressive heat, and feel as revved up as a mullet at a Mötley Crüe reunion.

I strode into the 25-mile finish after six hours and 25 minutes, which is pretty slow even for me (in the good old days of effortless trail running, my 50K finishes were usually faster than this) ... but I wasn't last. I was actually in the top half of my group. 52 out of 117 women. Everything really is more difficult here in Colorado; it's not just me and my running crutches.

To keep the feeling alive, or perhaps prove to myself that I can return to a time where moderately difficult efforts are no big deal, I joined Beat for a tough ride on Sunday. Since he's not running, he's been putting in solid training miles on his mountain bike. We rode a 25-mile loop with 4,100 feet of climbing. My body was definitely more worn after Saturday. My heart was beating like the 140s were a better place to be, but it was fun to feel so comfortable amid so much climbing, again.

For Monday morning, my friend Cheryl invited me to check out Trail Ridge Road, the main road through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was closed until recently. We weren't sure of the conditions or how much snow, mud and gravel we'd encounter, so we brought our mountain bikes. (Plus, Cheryl is a kindred spirit who would rather just ride her comfy mountain bike all of the time, no matter how much slower it may be on pavement.)

The road was in great shape, cleared to the pass and beyond. We encountered impressive snow berms along the way. I'm glad there was no need to posthole through eight feet of slush.

The weather was strikingly different from Saturday, with temperatures in the low 40s and fierce cross-winds whipping along the tundra. I was back in a fleece hat and mittens, and I couldn't have been happier.

The high point of the road soars to 12,183 feet. Presumably there is not as much air up here, but I was breathing easy and quite stoked about that.

The Lava Cliffs.

Views, views, views.

Hello, Longs Peak. I'm sorry I haven't climbed you yet. I'll get around to it this summer. Really, I will.

This ride was 40 miles with more than 5,000 feet of climbing, but it was one of those outings where you're distracted by happy thoughts most of the time, and don't really notice any of the effort. And the best part — no Britney Spears earworms.

I still don't feel "normal" every day, and still can't say when that will happen, if ever. But these normal days, right now, are a gift that I never truly appreciated until they were gone. From now on, I will be grateful for every one.