Friday, January 27, 2017

Escape to Alaska

Last week in Fairbanks, Alaska, the temperature dropped to 53 below. It was more than 100 degrees warmer in Boulder, where I was mashing pedals through four inches of thick slush on top of mud. My speed stayed firmly lodged in the 2.5 mph range, while I fretted about the state of the world, geopolitical nonsense, and strong desire to not face a certain crushing expedition, now just a month away. I'm not ready for the Iditarod, again ... but of course I've never been ready, and I never will be. But I was desperate for a modicum of confidence. If I could just test my current and mostly non-negotiable state of fitness in real Alaska conditions — a place where the air is rich and cold, where the boreal forest stretches out for hundreds of miles, and I could possibly even tune out the news ... at least for a few days. 

That's how I ended up hovering over the Alaska Airlines Web site, debating mileage ticket possibilities, convincing Beat it was a good idea, and finally flying solo to Fairbanks on Tuesday night. By the time I landed, temperatures had risen to -12. They would be +12 before morning, and continue rising to +30 by Thursday. So much for true Alaska training conditions. But it felt right, all the same.

On Wednesday it was nice and bright by 11 a.m., which seemed quite early  — usually we visit Fairbanks over Christmas break; in comparison, late January seems like practically summer. Of course it does, when temperatures are in the teens when you've emotionally banked on 50 below. I put together my sled for the first time since 2015, and hauled it on a five-hour drag through a few inches of fluff over lightly traveled trails.

Why was I dragging a sled? Because I'm still considering it as a way to avoid that terrifying expedition by committing to a harder — but more predictable — effort on a shorter route. And, truthfully, I missed the quiet rhythm of hauling a heavy load through the snowy woods. The sled pulls me into deep but dispassionate concentration, breathing in and out, thinking only of forward motion and the tidy patterns of a monochrome world.

Five hours was enough to remind me that I haven't pulled a sled more than a few miles here and there since 2014. My hips became sore, my hamstrings screamed and my calves burned. Still, I can't help but appreciate the strain of sled-dragging. It's the only activity I've found where my (meager) aerobic capacity exceeds my (surprisingly inadequate) leg strength. Breathing was easy. Walking was hard.

On Thursday I returned to the familiar, borrowing my friend Corrine's bike for a six-hour spin that of course included hike-a-bike and multiple near-crashes while negotiating soft, rutted trail in flat light. It was interesting to find highly variable trail conditions in a short distance — from the perfect smooth singletrack of O'Conner Creek, to wind drifts on the ridge, to the aforementioned soft ruts and overflow on Eldorado Creek.

 I was breathing really well today, which may have been a result of difficult trail conditions that never allowed me to really "open up." Still, it was refreshing not to experience any constriction, wheezing, dizziness, or even brief bouts of shallow breathing. Lower altitudes probably played a large role in this. It's encouraging, though. I came to Alaska to search for confidence. I may not find it, or even need it, but I keep looking, all the same.

The gray, warm day cleared up and cooled down. I fish-tailed, mashed and crashed my way down Eldorado Creek, taking a multitude of breaks just to gaze toward the orange-frosted trees and think, "How did I get here? I'm so lucky to be here."

Even luckier is our plan for the weekend — a three-day cabin trip into the White Mountains, where there's no Internet and no way to hear whether the world ended while we were away. Yes, I may not gain confidence, but I've already found peace. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Running on 3 cylinders

My first car was a 1989 Toyota Tercel, which I bought the summer after I graduated from high school. I called the car "Terry." It was my loyal partner in adventure — trips to the Southern Utah desert, snowboarding at Brighton, New Year's Eve 1998 in Portland. For my 21st birthday, my friends and I drove to Wendover, Nevada — a hedonistic outpost on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The following day, while driving east on a long, flat straightaway of Interstate 80, I decided to test Terry's limits. Hot August sunlight shimmered across the white desert as I floored the gas pedal — 100 mph, 110 mph. All four of us in the car were screaming as I buried the needle beyond 115 mph for several seconds, until fear got the better of me.

I'll never know if that Salt Flats speed record was the catalyst, but after that, my underpowered, 12-year-old car with 190,000 miles went downhill fast. First the car started sputtering up hills, and then the gas mileage plummeted. Terry would vibrate horribly while idling, and then wouldn't start on its own. I had to park the car on hills and pop the clutch. While driving, I had to give the car gas at all times; otherwise the engine would die and wouldn't start again. It was quite a contortionist act to keep all three pedals pressed at stop lights. I quickly got used to Terry's quirks, but my sister borrowed the car once and is still traumatized by the experience. Finally I took Terry to see a mechanic, who told me one of the engine's cylinders had burned out. For a car that didn't have a lot of oomph to begin with, it was only going to continue to lose power. I'd eventually end up stranded, the mechanic said, unless I invested in a complete engine overhaul.

Sometimes I think about that Tercel when I am sputtering up a hill. I wonder whether, in the spirit of this seriously contorted analogy, I too have a burned-out cylinder. Maybe I buried my own needle one too many times. It was the death of Terry; I sold it to the Pick n' Pull for $150. Cars can be replaced. Humans have to work with their imperfect engines. Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful I'm still moving. But I need to reconcile the sputtering somehow, in case an engine overhaul never happens.

Since returning from Idaho, I've been mulling what to do about Alaska this year. The Iditarod is a hard thing to quit. I considered leaving my bike at home and starting with a sled and the intention to walk the 350. Perhaps I should delay attempting the Southern Route to Nome until I'm stronger and more ready, should that year ever arrive. If I was on foot, it would be easier to manage my pace and breathing. A 45-pound sled is often less strenuous to manage than an 80-pound bike. Hiking over the Alaska Range offers plenty of adventure without fretting about becoming dizzy and keeling over when I'm truly in the middle of nowhere, like the Shageluk Hills or the wind-blasted Yukon River. True, I've done no sled training and haven't run enough miles this winter to guess whether my body could handle that distance right now. By this point I had hoped to have at least one test sled run, but I haven't even found all of the pieces of my sled to put it together.

Over the weekend, we joined our friends Jorge and Wendy on a climb up to 12,000 feet on Niwot Ridge. Although I was the only one not dragging a sled, I still sputtered up the mountain in my snowshoes, and grumbled at Beat when he teased me for not keeping up. The sky was a dynamic mix of sun and cloud, and the snow was deep in the trees and scoured on the ridge. The weather was warm and almost eerily calm. It was a beautiful day that I probably would have enjoyed more if I wasn't trying to imagine it as "training." I mused about becoming a hobby hiker and never worrying how long these types of outings even take (for the record, 12 miles in just under seven hours.)

It's a strange experience, being so out of shape from a power standpoint, while subsequently feeling like I've never been stronger in terms of endurance. I wasn't sore after 19 hours on the Fat Pursuit course, wasn't tired after a night of sleep, and felt like I was just warming up when the seven-hour snowshoe hike ended. Sitting at home, I'm full of energy and feel like I could burst out the door at a full sprint. Of course the minute I set out, I start sputtering, and the negative feedback loop renews. But if I can avoid the sputtering, I genuinely believe I could just keep moving and not become weary.

So I'm torn about what to do about Alaska, as you can see, and wondering whatever happened to Terry the Tercel. That's the beautiful thing about the Pick n' Pull — parts can live on long after the car is gone. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The definition of insanity

I honestly don't know why I keep coming back here. There's invisible Velcro under my tires, just like there was in 2015, and I don't understand why my legs are burning. I'm just pedaling — as slowly as possible, really — while wispy clouds strain to capture fading light. The sun set and we're just getting started. I'm already lost in memories. I want to find new experiences, but I keep coming back here. It's inevitable that I'll relive the past. Island Park, Idaho — this is the place where I crumbled in this same 200-mile bike race last year. Two years ago, the Warm River gorge is where I stopped during the Tour Divide, crawled into a clammy sleeping bag, and alternately sobbed and coughed because I'd never felt so weak or hopeless. And yet I here I am. I keep coming back.

The pack fades into the distance and I continue spinning slowly, trying to ignore the tightness I already feel in my chest. This is how it is. This is who I am. I'm going to work with it, use it to find the same joy and awe I've always found on life's outer limit. Night is descending and the temperature follows. It was 2 degrees at the start; five miles later, it's already down to 5 below. I stop to put a fleece jacket on. My water valve is already frozen. Golden-tinted plumes of steam rise from Henry's Fork, billowing around a flock of geese. "Why don't they leave for the winter? I suppose water is warmer than air."

The course winds through Herriman State Park. I burn a few matches propelling myself up steep singletrack. My lungs burn as a mash the pedals. Hard surges are something I promised myself I wouldn't do, but I'm feeling good, and I am at the back of the race, so I can't dawdle too much.

Miles roll by, the Velcro snow becomes stickier, and the night more menacing. After two hours under my armpit, the water valve final opens. I greedily suck water and roll deep-frozen cinnamon bears on my tongue. It's minus 16, then minus 19. Around mile 25 I catch up to Beat, who is miserable in his vapor barrier shirt. He can't tell whether he's wet or cold, and can't strip in these temperatures. "It's minus 24 now," I announce. My feet and hands are toasty, but I can hear a quiet gurgle in my breaths. I know that's the thing that's really not good.

We reach the spur to Mesa Falls, dropping steeply into a gorge for no good reason, but it's part of the race. We walk gingerly along an icy overlook and glance across the canyon. Last year the night was overcast and I couldn't see anything at all, but this year the moon is out. Sheer cliffs are bathed in sliver light. "It's really beautiful," I say to Beat, and we stand a few seconds longer until shivering sets in. This isn't weather for standing still.

The long climb begins, and I'm hunched beside my bike, barely putting one foot in front of the other up impossibly steep slopes. I start coughing and spit up a gob of thick gunk. This is the point I know has no return. I can't recover from this. Perhaps it was inevitable, but there's always hope that I'll beat it. "This is just like the Tour Divide," I think. "Only different."

The night flickers and fades, muted by reduced awareness that I think of as "oxygen deprivation." I try to remind myself to eat, trail mix and cinnamon bears that I have to hold in my mouth for at least five minutes before they're malleable enough the chew. Beat sticks with me even though I'm moving slowly, perhaps too slowly to stay warm, but my head is fuzzy and it's the best I can do. We think the temperature will warm as we climb, but it doesn't feel that way. Finally I check the thermometer, and it's minus 30. Then minus 34. Minus 37. Beat has told me that when it's minus 40, there's always a devil lurking in the shadows. I'm warm but I can sense the devil, stalking through the trees, waiting for that single mistake to strike.

We pedal and walk, mostly walk, because that's all I can manage on even slight inclines. Beat prefers walking. Moonlight fades, and the sky is stars upon stars. The air seems colder. A stiff breeze pushes against us; on bare skin it feels like fire. The windchill is the coldest I've ever felt, but I don't dare check the thermometer. The devil tells me the temperature will just keep dropping, and I don't want to think about that. I can't fish the water hose out of my jacket, so I give up on drinking. I keep eating, as though food could somehow give me the energy I desperately need. I'm coughing. My breathing sounds horrible inside my face mask. It's obstructing the air, so I pull it down. "Nose frostbite isn't really that bad."

There are many quiet hours when I'm certain light will appear on the horizon. It never does. I don't think about the race or the miles ahead, only the need to keep moving, keep breathing. The night is long and expansive, the forest is drenched in frost, the snow is glistening with starlight, and it really is beautiful. It is so beautiful. How could I ever describe it? I cannot. I am oxygen- and sleep-deprived, addled, and know on an intellectual level that this intense beauty exists only in my imagination. But I am happy to be here. Through it all, this is what I came for.

Dawn appears. Beat has drifted ahead. It's still minus 32. Even as orange light dusts the tips of trees, it doesn't warm up. I've already put on my big coat because I wanted to feel toasty, but hints of lucidity return and I regret that I didn't preserve more of a margin for error. I'm coughing more, and in daylight I can see yellow mucous in the snow. I know it won't get better. I know I'll keep moving more slowly, struggling and possibly becoming more sick until time cutoffs force what is now an inevitable DNF. I know I have to stop. This is no sadness or relief in this, just stoic acknowledgement. I'm not really an endurance athlete anymore. I can keep pushing it and I'll probably keep having the same results, unless something changes. But there's no reason I can't keep hoping for change.

The descent is long and I feel like I have to work hard to move forward, even here. Beat waits for me at the bottom. We've both made peace with the fact we're going to stop at mile 80, again. The night was harsh, and most of the field of 25 or so either quit at this point or turned around earlier because of cold concerns or equipment failures. A handful pressed on into temperatures that swung 60 degrees into the low 20s, followed by a stowstorm. Of those, only one man finished. The Fat Pursuit is indeed a hard race, even without Arctic temperatures. Although I may have gone into it with a defeatist attitude, I really did want to finish, to prove to myself I can still be strong, I can still breathe fire, I can still seek intense beauty. But what is it they say about the definition of insanity?

I've said this before, but I really should do some soul-searching about my plans for this year. Regardless of what I decide, I'm not going to sign up for the Fat Pursuit in 2018. Hold me to that. If I want things to change, I need to change. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Out of shape and maybe okay with it

 Today I returned for allergy shots after a much-enjoyed two-week break while the clinic was closed. Before administering the shots, the nurses measure my peak expiratory flow rate (basically measuring how well I breathe out, a common way to monitor asthma.) Since I started the immunotherapy treatments, this number has been on a small but steady decline. The normal rate for a woman my age and height is about 430. The last time I went in for shots, my peak flow registered 290 — which is pretty much off-the-charts low. The nurse made me keep trying until I boosted it to 330, because if the number is too far below my norm, I can't get shots. I didn't tell her how light-headed I was feeling.

Today, however, I registered 410 on the first puff. This time, the nurse urged me to try a few more times to ensure it was a correct reading. Since my normal is in the low 300s, a 400 reading may lead to registering too low for shots the next time around. "If they ask, tell them you were having a good lung day," she said.

A good lung day. Why can't all the days be good lung days? Who knows whether this good lung day was a result of my allergy shot vacation, or something else entirely. (I've been having an interesting discussion with a blog reader about a chronic condition caused by c. pneumoniae.) Either way, my lung capacity is fairly low most of the time, and that may just be the way it is. It effectively means I'm out of shape, except for my muscles and joints are strong. So I can pedal or walk all day and not become tired, but ask me to pedal or run *relatively* fast, and I'll falter immediately.

In the afternoon, Beat and I set out for one last loaded bike test, including the task that is never fun — firing up the stove when it's snowing and windy and 5 degrees. Tomorrow I will drive out Idaho for the 200-mile Fat Pursuit, a snow bike race that I'm fairly certain I'm not fast enough to finish. For a winter race, its cutoffs are relatively stout. I've been on the course before, so I have a general idea of what conditions might be like, and an discouraging but more realistic understanding of my abilities. I'm not sure why I signed up for the Fat Pursuit or why I'm still clinging to this endurance racing thing ... but here I am.

The aspects of endurance racing I've always loved are the mastery of mind over matter, and the beautiful intensity one can experience when challenging the impossible. I suppose that hasn't changed. I remind myself that I can still do my best, still experience all the awe and wonder, and still have a great adventure — without fixating on the end result. I can muddle around in the snowy woods, listen to ice crystals chime in sub-zero air, take a nap under the stars, walk my bike for a while if I make it all the way to Sunday when 8-12 inches of snow is predicted — and if that's not enough to finish the race, well, I'll walk my bike to the highway and spin happily back to Island Park. I'm going to do the best I can, as slow as that may be. I'm not going to try to force it, like I did last year — with disastrous results.

So, I'm filled with dread, but excited as well. The Fat Pursuit starts Friday evening and will have live tracking here: http://trackleaders.com/fatpursuit17

At times like these, I'm reminded of scenes from the TV show "Arrested Development."