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. 

7 comments:

  1. Wind typically increases the effort and decreases the 'fun' factor in most things (windsurfing/kitesurfing obviously excluded here). As always your pictures are fantastic! Love the Ptarmigan shot (that's what it is, isn't it?) Your pictures of the 'high country' remind me of my 2 years on Adak Alaska (an island about 1000 mi south-west if /Anchorage). No trees on Adak, just tundra. We had fierce winds out there too...but it didn't stop us from going out (the old adage there was "if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes, it'll change"). If you let the weather stop you from doing things up there you'd never do anything.

    I can't imagine what you're going thru, and how horrible it is for you to deal with...as a long-time reader it still blows my mind that it's "you" (superwoman) having this crazy health-issue. I vividly recall following your record-setting GDR ride (seemingly a lifetime ago). Trying to imagine myself being 'out there' all alone, riding a ridiculous amount of hours every day, self supported. And later reading your 2nd book (Be brave, be strong) about that race...the mud of New Mexico still stands out in my mind. How you got thru that (and the OTHER 2500 miles or so of challenges BEFORE that) and still managed to get on your bike the next day and continue blew my mind...I couldn't do it on my best day.

    Here's hoping you can sort out this 'thing' and start having lots more 'peaks', and that eventually the 'valleys' disappear altogether. It came on out of nowhere, maybe it will go away just the same. Life is strange and fragile and full of surprises.

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    1. My health issue isn't crazy; it's pretty common. It is helping me put everything in better perspective, though. As you said, life is strange and fragile. All the more reason to embrace every part of it.

      I actually sort of love the wind. It's the way I feel about most extreme weather ... that combination of fear and excitement and intensity that I prefer over bland days of 70 and sunny (not that I dislike 70 and sunny, mind you.) Battling the Niwot wind gave me a reason to feel strong when I otherwise don't feel strong, gave me a reason to feel exhilarated when my emotions have an otherwise gray pall. That's the overarching reason I keep embarking on these adventures, even though I no longer believe that my fitness is something I can control with a predictable arc of training.

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  2. But your words captured the wind...at least I felt it.

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  3. We crossed paths out there below treeline. I didn't realize it was you until I looked at the strava flyby. It sure was cold and windy above treeline, I didn't make it as far as you. Great photos! Hang in there with the health issues, I got Lyme disease in 2010 and it's been a cycle of ups and downs, but every year overall I feel better than the previous.

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    1. Was that your group with the little dogs? I'm always impressed at the hardiness of sub-20-pound animals in wind like that.

      Thanks for the note of encouragement. Lyme disease is awful; I'm glad to hear you're recovering.

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  4. Yes, that was us. Lola (12 lbs) has even been up a few 14ers.

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  5. I still love your writing after all these years.the struggle is real.

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Feedback is always appreciated!