Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Going up, just 'cause

I think the thing I would miss most about big scary goal races is the training, and by "training" I mean "long solo efforts in somewhat arduous to very arduous conditions." See, as a mostly rational adult person, it is not practical to seek out these situations — not quite enjoyable, not quite purposeful — "just 'cause." When I discovered endurance racing by accident, what I really discovered was justification — "You're going to head outside after sunset to push a bike through deep snow during a December storm in Alaska? What's wrong with you? Do we need to stage an intervention? Oh, I see, you're training for the Susitna 100. This makes so much sense! Carry on!

Oh sure, I wanted to finish a difficult race ... it seemed like a good accomplishment to add to the life story. But what I really wanted to do was go out after work and wrestle with my bike in a snowstorm for a few hours. Why did it need to have a purpose? I still don't know — I suppose our search for meaning is the base of most human behavior. 

Right now, when I'm not physically fit enough for training or healthy enough to plan for big race goals, can I still justify spending a whole day alone, moving aimlessly through the world? I dragged my feet all weekend, doing little chores and working on writing projects. My health has actually been on an upswing for the past two weeks, which has improved both my creative efforts and outlook. Still, without justification I do lose motivation, and I've been beleaguered by inertia. Finally on Sunday night, I told Beat I wanted to go hiking on Monday. 

Originally I wanted to head out for a long hike to see if I could muster the capabilities to potentially pace Beat at the Ouray 100. When he decided he wouldn't start that race due to a minor hip injury and prioritization of his European races at the end of the month, even my pacing dreams no longer had purpose. However, I'd already figured that even a short section of the Ouray 100 at Beat's pace wouldn't be realistic. My problem is that I am laboriously slow right now. I genuinely can't change this. When I'm walking my 20- and 25-minute miles in the mountains, my heart is pounding and my breathing is taxed as though I'm running a brisk tempo pace. It seems most of my body believes I'm running. But my legs know better. They're convinced they are the most bored legs in the wide world of legs. The legs — along with my brain and the emotional personification of my heart — yearn for hard efforts despite the cardiovascular limitations. "What do you think about a 26-mile walk over a couple of mountains?" I asked my legs. "Would that make you feel better?"

I set out not-so-early on Monday morning. Despite the reasonable hour, my car was the only vehicle in an expansive Sourdough Trailhead parking lot. I actually chose this trailhead to avoid crowds — it generally sees fewer people because the region is filled with prettier options that don't begin on loose, rocky jeep roads that steeply climb to a fence-lined research area. But Niwot Ridge has become a winter favorite of ours, and I looked forward to heading up there when 60-mph winds and ground blizzards weren't ripping down the Continental Divide. The day's forecast did call for a high chance of afternoon rain, which is something we saw at home every day this week. So I figured rain was inevitable, and packed nearly enough clothing and safety gear for a winter trip, in case I needed to hunker down beside a boulder. I've been on the Divide in a storm; it becomes amazingly cold, even at the end of July.

From Niwot, I stumbled along overland for a while and found a trail that dropped down to the Brainard Lakes area, where I began to encounter crowds. Really it was just a dozen or so people, mostly older folks in canvas pants and leather boots, ambling around Long Lake on a Monday morning. One guy with tiny terrier on a leash pointed out a bull moose in the brush. We stood and watched for a few minutes as his dog nibbled lightly at my ankles.

I continued up the ridge toward Pawnee Pass, slowing considerably. I like to believe that since I live at 7,000 feet, most Colorado altitudes shouldn't bother me. But every time I climb above 10,000 feet, it feels as though the Earth's gravitational pull multiplies. By 12,000 feet, I'm pretty much a slug oozing along rock piles. My non-scientific theory is that my blood already isn't circulating enough oxygen at friendly paces and altitudes, and I can't work with less. This is why I wouldn't be able to pace Beat in Ouray — he wouldn't be able to finish the race with too many of these 45-minute-miles.

I oozed my way up to Pawnee Peak, just below 13,000 feet. It felt good to sit on a windless summit and snack on crackers for lunch. The sky was so bright I couldn't see the screen on my Delorme InReach to send Beat a text. It was here I remembered that it was July 31, the date we celebrate as our anniversary — the day we met in Montana in 2010. Seven years. Time does fly. I felt a bit guilty for spending the day hiking all by myself. It was indulgent, but satisfying.

I was stoked about the weather, which remained warm and dry into the afternoon. There were a few dark clouds and thunder booms to both the north and south, but my mountain was spared by a perfectly pleasant weather window.

While up there, I scoped out ridgelines for potential future traverses — maybe someday, if I gain my fitness back enough to not become dizzy and unstable at these altitudes, and can cover miles fast enough to achieve the necessary distances. And if I don't, well ... a future without big, purposeful, physical goals — a future of being excessively gentle with my heart and ignoring bored legs — is something I need to consider. Still, so what? I will find different ways, different excuses to spend entire Mondays in the mountains.

I nearly stepped on this ptarmigan while stumbling down Pawnee Peak. It's amazing how well-camouflaged these birds can be, and how resolutely they refuse to move (I've nearly stepped on them in the winter as well, when their feathers have turned white and they're huddled in snow drifts.)

I didn't fare that well as I descended to Long Lake — catching my toes on the boulders, rolling my ankle badly, wincing at the subsequent and persistent shooting pains, and stumbling frequently. My heart rate had been a little too high for too long, and I was dizzy and slightly air-drunk. I'd moved about as slowly as possible, and it was still unsustainable. Why can't I be like ptarmigan and rest quietly on the rocks? Ptarmigan only flies when he needs to, and probably is stronger for it.

The day grew late as I followed a ski trail toward Lefthand Reservoir. It seemed like this trail was mostly a winter trail. It was swampy and strewn with more obstacles and punchy climbs than I expected. I'd hoped to start doing more 18-minute-miles and maybe even run most of the Sourdough Trail back, but this wasn't to be. Instead I gazed through the trees for occasional views of the hazy plains far below, and tried to enjoy it for what it was — a beautiful stroll, harder than it needed to be, but easier than sitting still. 


  1. I really appreciate the high country pictures. I miss Colorado!

  2. Yes, enjoy it for what it was. Hiking is the ticket to contentment.


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