Monday, November 20, 2017

People find some reason to believe

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
About once a week, I carve out an opportunity for a moderate-length ride with no set direction and no real training purpose. Beat teases me for refusing to call six hours "long," but it's still a far cry from the way I used to ride my bike — seven days a week, several hours in the morning before work, and up to twelve hours on weekends. Still, I relish these "semi-long" rides, alone on seemingly abandoned county roads, grinding up a steep hill or into the wind or both for large majority of my time in the saddle, utterly zoned out — or, rather, "in the zone."

Riding my bike over the relentless terrain of the Front Range foothills is never easy, but it becomes significantly more difficult for me during physical downswings. Conversely, this is when I come to love riding the most. Engaging my muscles for steep climbs demands so much oxygen that there's little left for my brain. I fall into a meditative trance. Long minutes pass with no emotional engagement, observation, or recollection of what went by. I believe I'm aware on the sensory level where it counts, but nothing records to memory. I "come to" at points and feel refreshed, even though I'm still grinding up a hill. As a journalist and archivist at heart, I usually become annoyed at myself when I realize I haven't been paying attention. But for six hours, once a week, this vacation from my brain is a welcome respite. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner. 
Colorado is currently experiencing a typical November weather pattern, where "unseasonably" warm temperatures pull air over the Continental Divide like a power vacuum, causing frequently strong and occasionally hurricane-force downslope winds. If it's 70 degrees in Denver, there's a good chance of 70mph winds in the mountains. I know this, but there's still that lingering summer mentality/optimism that says "it's a beautiful day! Let's go for a hike!"

 I said this after I cut a run short on Saturday because my breathing was rough and I became dizzy enough to stumble over too many steps. Why would I pit this poor fitness against the insurmountable west wind? Well, earlier in the week, I had a brief burst of confidence when my name turned up on the roster for the 2018 White Mountains 100. This means I have two amazing races to look forward to in March. If I can somehow start in good physical condition, I believe I have the endurance, experience, and fortitude to do well. Plus, I am just itching to take on a tough challenge and break out of my slump. Because how long has it been since I had a good race? And then I realize ... how long has it been? What makes me believe I'll be strong enough to finish a race, ever again? Certainly not when I can't even stumble my way through a nine-mile run, that's for sure.

 It was in this state of mind that I joined Beat and Jorge on the Arapahoe Glacier Trail on Sunday — nervous, actually a bit terrified, but determined to figure out how well I deal with difficult and potentially dangerous weather conditions when I'm not at my best. Oxygen-sucking gusts greeted us at the trailhead, but the hike through the forest went well enough. Friday's storm left about six inches of powder — less snow depth than when I snowshoed the trail in early October, but honestly more than I expected to see. Beat took photos of dramatic lenticular clouds and we nearly strapped on our snowshoes, but I requested waiting until we rose above tree line, "to see how scoured it is."

Emerging from the last scraggly strands of spruce, we stepped into the gut of a wind funnel more intense than any I've felt in years. I say this often, but I believe when the Niwot Saddle data is finally updated, the numbers will bear this out. Although the ambient temperature was just barely below 32 degrees, the flash-freezing of skin happened in seconds. We huddled next to rocks and pulled on all of our gear, except for the snowshoes and ice axes and spikes that were completely useless on a slope stripped of even a base crust of snow. Upward we trudged. I was forced to use all of my hard-won weightlifting strength to brace my upper body against a roaring freight train of air. Beat seemed giddy. Jorge had his usual quiet stoicism. I was frightened. Even though it froze my lips, I had to pull down my face mask to prevent the feeling of being smothered.

For what seemed to be hours, I fought gnawing anxiety and desperate breathing as ever-increasing wind gusts forced me onto my knees. I wondered what it would feel like to tumble over the rocks. I imagined digging my ice ax into the tundra to stop the momentum amid 70mph winds. Eventually a gust pushed me down and I couldn't catch my breath. I was gasping, fading. Was I going to black out? This was the exact scenario I feared most during my trip across Alaska in 2016 — being in a position where I desperately needed to rest, in a place where I couldn't rest.

Beat saw me on my hands and knees, and possibly witnessed the few seconds where I laid my head on a clump of tundra and curled into the fetal position. He came toward me. Between long pauses for breath, I said that it was time for me to turn around. The wind was so loud that neither of us could hear the other even as we pressed our heads together, but he and Jorge followed me downhill. I thought they were retreating on my account, but later Beat told me that they'd reached an altitude where neither of them could stand upright. About 100 feet higher than my limit, they were forced to their knees as well.

We beat a quick retreat. Within the mile back to tree line, we were laughing about the adventure. But I felt ashamed. I'd certainly failed my own test.

 On the drive home, I asked Beat if he wanted to do a "bike swap" on Monday, where I ride to his office and take the car so he can run home. This is often how I justify my long rides, and emotionally I was in need. Of course I woke up on Monday to ongoing winds. Our weather station at home was recording sustained 35mph with 45mph gusts. I knew if I rode west toward the Divide, it was going to be just awful.

It would have been easy to talk myself out of it. But I set out just the same — mashing pedals to grind my way downhill, and pressed against an invisible wall at every climb. It was so hard that my thoughts shut down early. Occasionally a gust nearly blew me off the road, and I startled as I threw a foot down to brace myself. The grind continued. Even though temperatures were in the high 40s, I pulled on full face-covering layers. As I neared 9,000 feet, the wind was almost unworkable. I was at my limit, grinding so slowly that I could barely balance the bike, and then a gust caught my side and slammed me into the dirt. The sudden crash brought a surge of adrenaline and all of the ensuing emotions. Suddenly I was very frightened, again. I am too weak for this wind. I can't make it. I should turn around ... but descending all that altitude with the same wind at my side and back would probably blow me over repeatedly. I thought about calling Beat, maybe calling an Uber. Someone to rescue me. But then again ... no ... I don't really need that.

Instead, I continued west, upward, straight into the wind. Later I looked at weather stations along Gap Road, and one recorded a gust of 88mph. Even if that's not credible, other weather stations at possibly more protected houses along the road had 66, 71, 74mph gusts. I was still frightened, but resolved to control my balance and my breathing. This required thought, and I noticed all of the things I'd been missing — the dynamic sky, the swirling dust, the dramatic contrast of snow and rock on the mountain skyline.

When I finally started my long descent into Boulder, the wind was dying. Amid the coasting calm, I recaptured my confidence. "Everything's going to be great this winter," I thought. "I'm feeling better already." 
Monday, November 13, 2017

Wind is a difficult thing to capture

Since I began hyperthyroid treatment in February, my year has been a continuance of peaks of valleys. Fluctuations are far preferable to an ever-deepening valley. Still, this truth provides little comfort when I dip into another low. Suppressed by opaque shadows, I spend far too much time trying to see over the next rise. I type vague inquiries into Google. "Why is my coordination even worse than normal? Why can't I concentrate? What is the deal with this moody weirdness?" Answers are just flecks of snow tumbled by the wind, unable to attach to anything.

My creativity suffers when I'm in one of these valleys. My thoughts are muddled; my emotions seem flat — that is, until some teenage-like bout of angst tears through the fragile veneer, and I anxiously ruminate on realities that I can't control. How much of this can I blame on hormones? How much of this is rooted in mental health? Aging? How much is just my personality ... and what even is the difference? Between me and my hormones? Between me and the pills I take to purportedly correct the imbalance? Although I like to believe I control "who I am," this precarious biological symmetry reveals the vulnerability of self.

I'm not trying to make excuses or create a crisis where none exists. These are the ebbs of life, the necessary counterbalances to joy and exhilaration. I count on this equity when I look toward the next as-yet-unseen peak, and promise myself that soon, very soon, I'll bust out of these shadows and bask in the sunlight. The weather on that day won't really matter. What I'm doing on that day won't really matter. The balance will shift, and I'll be a new person, yet again.

In the meantime, just keep living life. Beat and I wanted to spend some time in the mountains this weekend, and invited our friend Jorge for a Sunday hike on Niwot Ridge. We expected a warm, marginally windy outing, but shouldn't have been surprised when the Continental Divide wind funnel delivered storm-force gales. Not all that far away in Boulder, it was a placid afternoon with temperatures in the 50s. But the mountains have their own systems. Chunks of ice clogged my hydration hose; the temperature was below freezing before windchill. And the windchill was fierce. The moment we cleared tree line, we were scrambling to throw on layers before our fingers froze.

Miles before we cleared tree line, I was already pressed against a wall. Trailing far behind Beat and Jorge, I focused on the rhythm of breathing. Inhale, long exhale, inhale, etc. I was trying to keep my breathing from becoming too shallow, trying to will it to pull more oxygen into my bloodstream, toward my muscles, which felt terribly underworked, but they needed more fuel to move any faster. It just wasn't there. I felt mildly dizzy. My breathing became more desperate. I slowed my steps, consciously calming everything down.

Beat and Jorge frequently stopped to wait for me. As soon as I caught up, they pulled away as though I was standing still. I watched them march breezily up the trail and fought a surge of resentment. How can this be so easy for them? But, really, it was just as easy for me, not even two months ago. Weird how much fitness I can lose, just like that. Like creativity, my physical fitness operates well at the peaks, less well in the valleys. It still works, though. I can still write a page or post here and there (under much strong-arming from my ego.) And I can still go for long hikes (slow but steady.) If and when I crawl out of this valley, I know I'll be strong again. The thought brings little comfort, though, when I realize how much of a mockery this illness has made of my training. In this regard, my efforts don't matter. Did they ever?

Beat heard me gasping and urged me to relax. We were at high altitude, he reasoned, and he was breathing hard, too. It's difficult to describe why these struggles are different. Then again, maybe they're not. I tried to remember how it used to feel, hunched in a 30-mph wind at high altitude, back when I felt normal. When would that be? I think my strongest years were 2012 to 2013, and then there were a few injuries and mental setbacks. The seismic shift I believe happened in June 2015, but really, everything ebbed and flowed long before that. Perhaps this normalcy I've been striving for doesn't even exist.

It's not unlike battling this wind. The initial steps into the gale are shocking — the force slams into my face and draws air from my lungs as fingers flash-freeze. I'm forced to press my chin into my neck and squint into a blast of blowing snow. The roar of the wind is deafening. But as I climb, the volume decreases. Blood flows into my fingers and toes. I can lift my head again. The wind is still blowing just as hard. The steps are just as difficult. But this has become the new normal.

For nearly three miles I slogged at a pace that can truly be described as glacial. Inevitably we topped out at a high point on the ridge, took a few photos, and turned our backs to the wind. The tailwind swept us downhill as I stumbled over a tricky surface of tundra and sastrugi, and then we were back in the forest. With the thick shelter of trees and an east-facing slope, the world was suddenly calm. It was a jarring contrast — similar to stepping through the doors of a loud concert venue and entering an abandoned parking lot. Back in August, I was trying to describe to a friend the physical shift I experienced on "good weeks" —when my breathing became better, my head was clearer, and even though it was hot and thunderstormy and one the doggiest days of summer, the world seemed remarkably brighter. I couldn't find the words then, and can scarcely remember it now, but I think the feeling was like this. Stepping out of the normalcy of gale-force wind, into sudden calm.

After the hike, I downloaded my photos and felt disappointed that they didn't better illustrate the intensity of Niwot's gale. Wind is a difficult thing to capture. But we keep trying. 
Wednesday, November 08, 2017


Over the weekend I had an opportunity to join a few friends on a camping trip in Moab. Car camping in the Utah desert always brings a flush of happy nostalgia for a segment of my life when I lived on almost nothing with nine other 20-somethings in Salt Lake City's Avenues, commuted to the hinterlands of Tooele to work 50-some hours a week, and when Friday night rolled around, we escaped to the redrocks. Every weekend. Even if it was January and the San Rafael Swell was coated in a half foot of snow, for backpacking trips that required crossing waist-deep rivers choked with chunks of ice, and my $40 Coleman sleeping bag didn't quite cut the chill, and expired Power Bars from Market Square turned out to be a bad idea, and all of my Nalgene bottles froze solid. 

Most of those trips ventured to quieter corners of the Colorado Plateau, so my experiences in and around Moab feel more limited. There was a time when I thought myself too desert-sophisticated for the tourists and mountain bike bros and sand-dyed T-shirts. Still, there's an air around this former uranium-mining town that feels like coming home. 

The occasion was an engagement of two members of my local running group, the Boulder Banditos. Since the gathering was a whole bunch of trail runners, I assumed the activities would involve running, and packed accordingly. As it turned out, nearly everybody had a bike and riding plans. However, even if I had known, I likely still wouldn't have brought my bike. In the same way I used to wrongly think of myself as a desert-wilderness-sophisticate, I also used identify as a mountain biker. Now I realize that I am a balance-challenged and adrenaline-averse bike tourist who prefers long, open tracks regardless of width, and actually doesn't enjoy jackhammering over miles of rocks. Of course, I still jackhammer over miles of rocks, as long as the ride is long and meandering and goes to interesting places. Which Moab trails do ... although really, it's nearly as efficient and much more relaxing to go on foot.

Had I known the group had no running plans, I would have put together my own, better routes. Instead, Wendy, Jorge and I found ourselves agreeing to run the shuttle for Porcupine Rim on Saturday — we'd park a truck at the river and plod 15 miles uphill while others in the group rode bikes downhill. I've never run or ridden Porcupine Rim before, and didn't quite conceptualize the barrage of oncoming bikes we'd be dealing with. I now believe this is not an appropriate route for a run, at least during an autumn weekend. However, moving against traffic is ideal in this setting, and I think we managed it well — we always veered out of the way so no one had to slow or stop for us. All of the bikers were polite.

The weather was warm and very windy — we shuffled and hiked into a 30mph sand blast for most of the climb. Wendy and I weren't in great shape — I'm currently in a down phase of the infuriating physical rollercoaster I'm riding these days, and Wendy was ill from what was later diagnosed as a kidney infection. So we plodded along with Scout the Border Collie on a leash while Jorge ran back and forth like a loose puppy. Despite gray skies, the scenery was beautiful and I was happy to be hiking, which is peaceful, undemanding and affords lots of time to look around. Despite giving them more than an hour head start and hiking uphill versus riding downhill, we were nearly halfway through the route when we crossed paths with our group. They're not regular mountain bikers, and seemed stressed by the technical nature of the trail. Later, Steve crashed over a 10-foot ledge, smashed his helmet, dented his bike frame, bruised his hip and broke several ribs. Mountain biking ... eh.

We camped close to the Slickrock Trail, so on Sunday I suggested a plod around the iconic loop. Sure, it's another popular spot, but the terrain is open enough to easily avoid cyclists. I also figured it would be less crowded on a Sunday afternoon, and that we'd see almost no one beyond the stem of the lollipop (both true.) Here are the non-bikers shuffling on Sand Flats Road. Look how happy we are!

The Slickrock Trail was my first-ever mountain bike ride, with my boyfriend in 1999. I was 19, so I followed him blindly around each terrifying curve and crashed my hard-tail rental bike many times. So many times. The crashes usually happened after I slammed into a patch of sand at the bottom of a steep descent —flying over the handlebars, ripping my jeans, mopping up a steady stream of blood from my shins and elbows. Look, I found a photo:

My First Mountain Bike Ride, Slickrock Trail, April 1999. I'm fairly certain this was taken as Mike yelled "Go for it!," seconds before one of my many sand-eating dives.

Oh, to be 19, unbreakable and fearless again. That original experience was harrowing enough, though, that I came home from Moab and renounced mountain biking forever. It took me three more years to get back on any bike, and I remember ride number two as the Jem Trail near Hurricane, on a borrowed 1986 steel Cannondale. Shortly after that I rode the White Rim over three days on the same ancient bike. These experiences were enjoyable, however, they were not special enough to embed themselves in my soul. It took seeing a guy on a skinny-tire bike with panniers in Spanish Fork Canyon ("people ride bikes long distances? With camping gear?") to spur me to go out and purchase my own set of wheels — a flat-bar road touring bike. I've always been a bike tourist at heart.

And the Slickrock Trail, well, I haven't been back since 1999. It was surprising to realize how many specifics I could still recall after 18 years. As usual, more intense experiences embed themselves in memory, while comfortable moments fade away. If that's true, memories of this outing will probably soon fade. But it was everything I needed. I loped along at an easy pace, blissed out on vistas, entirely content.

I wish I was in better shape, because this is a really fun running trail —custom-designed to encourage playful skipping and bursts of sprinting. I became overly winded a couple of times and backed off to mostly walking.

Toward the end we veered off trail to blaze a more direct route back to our camp site. Traveling cross-country in the Utah desert is the most fun. That is, until you reach the dead-end of a wash or the ledge of a sheer canyon. This is nearly always the case, but didn't happen to us here.

Back at camp, we burned steak burrito fixings and marshmallows over the fire, and mused about the state of the world. Some things never change. The much-too-early sunset arrived, so I strolled up to a sandstone fin to watch the light fade.

Looking toward the La Sal Mountains.

Every time I return Utah desert, I wonder why I don't spend more time here. A hundred weekends from age 5 to 25, and the trickle since, still seems like not enough. Like Alaska and California and everywhere since, these places are inextricably embedded in who I am.