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." 


  1. That Front Range wind is crazy. I remember on year in the 70's we had a gust of 155 mph in Boulder, a wind speed that has since been topped I think. I saw a Dempsey Dumpster proceeding eastbound on Baseline Rd. at about 15 mph, and many of the houses in the foothills had their big windows shattered.

    1. I can believe that. I'm coming to terms with the Front Range Wind. It does put some teeth on what would otherwise be a mostly benign season.

  2. Wind is the worst. It just rachets up my anxiety. I know you have a higher bar, but I still believe if you can pull off the things you do, you have a very high level of fitness. That probably doesn't help since you remember other times. Believe me, I know the feeling, but mine is more age related due to pushing myself to the limits for years. You can do the race!

    1. I understand that wind anxiety. I appreciate the vote of confidence. I feel I'm developing a more pragmatic view of racing. I still want to do it for all of the same reasons, but I no longer throw up my arms and exclaim "You Can Do Anything!" No. Races have clocks. That's the aspect of them that makes them races, makes them a challenge, makes them desirable. But sometimes we do everything necessary to prepare and really try our best and still run out of steam as the clock runs down. Still, I continue to believe in the power of positive thinking, and miracles.

  3. Think about how far you have come! I never remember what years you did what but I do remember your last race on the Continental Divide and how so very sick you were. So many months of not knowing why. Since your diagnosis you keep getting better and better. Yes, you have your low times BUT who holds the record for Women's ITI. I just finished your book "Into the North Wind" and you rode every dang mile of that 1,000 miles and you did it on Beat's throw away food. Who does that?? Well, that would be Jill Homer. My opinion is that you will get this all figured out and will continue to have successes. I also believe age has nothing to do with it. You are young and you have many many years of experiencing the best adventures. Enjoy each day that you are out there. It's a true gift. GODSPEED Jill.

    1. Thanks Linda. Your enthusiasm and encouragement is always appreciated.

  4. I read this:

    "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."

    And now I much better understand why you like those long, grinding uphills. I have never zoned out like that going uphill. I'm jealous! I detest long, grinding uphills. If I could zone out like that, I'd probably like them a lot better.

    1. Slog is my path to Flow. Although there are many nuances to the term. When I'm struggling, the zone is more of a coping mechanism than an optimal experience. Still meditative, but lacking deeper awareness as well as the joy and satisfaction of a hill climbed well.

  5. I find that the mantra of "be patient" helps me with riding my bike into the wind, and I love laughing out loud as I ride uphill without pedaling due to the wind at my back. However, I am really scared to be on roads because I've been tossed around like an autumn leaf by it in the past. I wouldn't want to be tossed in front of a truck! One good thing about the wind - I love the clouds it makes.

  6. You wrote:

    "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."

    I'd call that a big success. You pushed yourself to your very limits, then quickly recovered on the way back. And made it almost as far as two people who I assume weigh quite a bit more, which does make a difference!

    I think that shows you almost certainly have the stamina for the WM 100. If conditions are slow you might miss a cutoff, but since it's a "short" loop and you have lots of friends close by, I doubt that would matter much for actual enjoyment.



Feedback is always appreciated!