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.


  1. 3 big days in a row. I'd say you are getting back to normal!

  2. Running oneself sick is just stupid. What a nonsense activity - is it for addicts or true obsessives or something? That's messed up behavior. For you, being sick for years and years and just keeping doing the same unhealthy stuff over and This is just cringeworthy to read.

    1. Anonymous, If you don't understand Jill's need to run, simply stop reading.

      Congrats Jill, great to see you back doing what you love!

    2. Thanks for the diagnosis, random Internet person. I will be sure to come to you for all of my future medical concerns.

      Meanwhile, "unhealthy stuff" is all I write about here. I agree that this probably isn't a blog for you.

    3. Dear Anonymous: If you think that long-distance running and biking is "unhealthy," then I "cringe" to think of what you deem as healthy. Plus running in not "nonsense." It's quite lovely, actually. But enough about you. Jill, I'm so, so glad that you had a great race, and that you had a chance to get out on the trails and run and run and run, and that you also took the time to appreciate the beauty and the bliss of the moment. Cheers and happy running/biking/writing.

    4. Being a troll on the Internet is just stupid. What a nonsense activity - is it for addicts or true obsessives or something? That's messed up behavior. For you, Anonymous, being a troll for years and years and just keeping doing the same annoying stuff over and This is just cringeworthy.

  3. Jill is back! Glad to see that you might be getting on top of your ailments. Hopefully the progress will continue!

  4. This post brings such great news. Congratulations on getting your "second wind."
    Save Long's Peak till mid to late July...for the flowers.
    Box Canyon

  5. Was Trail Ridge closed to motorized vehicles? That looks like fun! I'm glad to hear that you're feeling so much better.

    1. The road was closed at Rainbow Curve, 11 miles from the entrance. However, it's clear through the other side, and seems likely they'll open the entire road soon. Hope you're feeling better as well!

  6. Yeah, Trail Ridge! I will be out there in three weeks after riding Dirty Kanza. I'm hoping to take the Warbird up the dirt Fall River Road to the top, since it will still be closed to traffic. Glad you got out there finally, and congrats on the great run!

  7. Glad to read that you're back doing big days again! Also Colorado should be grateful for the excellent pr ☺️


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