Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winter training — sometimes ridiculous, never boring

The past couple of weeks since we returned from Alaska have been ... well ... they've been interesting. Similar to last winter, I've felt dubious about intentions to return to the Iditarod Trail yet again, but our trip to Fairbanks renewed my zeal for the endeavor. I'm actually sort of strong! I want to train well while I still can, before my next slump settles in. (Believe me, I am trying to talk myself out of magical thinking about a cycle of good health and bad health, but fear of an unavoidable pattern persists.) 

Since Colorado's Front Range (and most of the Intermountain West) still lacks snow, I talked Beat into putting our California cart back together. Beat originally designed this cart as a training tool to mimic sled-dragging on snowless trails in the Bay Area. Better than dragging a tire, the cart has some real weight to it, along with two disc brakes that can be partly clamped to add snow-like resistance to the wheels (the brakes also have levers attached to the pole, which are useful when you're about to be mowed down on a steep descent.) Officially, I despise this thing. I was surprised to learn it survived our move to Colorado, and has been languishing in the wood shed all this time. With six gallons of water plus the weight of the cart, the load is between 55 and 60 pounds. Once I engaged the brakes just a smidgeon, I could barely coax the cart (whose name is "Allen") to inch forward up our driveway. Perfect. 

 Since we only have one cart, Beat set up one of his old-and-busted sleds with 40 pounds of dumbbells. We made it out for four miles a week ago Saturday. I was feeling the initial symptoms of what turned into a crushing head cold. It was my first viral illness in two years (maybe this is a sign that my autoimmune disease is weakening, because my immune system is no longer so over-engaged that it torches everything in its path, including organs? I'll take hopeful magical thinking where I can find it.)

 The cold really put me on the floor for a few days. I usual disregard these types of illnesses (beyond being careful not to infect others), but the sore throat and head-clamping sinus headache were not to be ignored. Sunday passed in a congested daze; in training terms, I was "resting." On Monday the weather was irresistible, sunny and 65 degrees at 3 p.m. Warmer outdoors than in. What I should have done was take my laptop outside and sit in the sun. Instead, I thought, "I'll go for a bike ride!" 

My mountain bike still has pogies attached to the handlebars. Out of habit, I loaded my pack with mittens, a fleece cap, a thin shell, and a puffy jacket. Then I set out in bike shorts and a short-sleeved jersey, bemused about wearing such an outfit in January. By the time I reached the top of the road a half hour later, my head was pounding and I was shivering profusely. I stopped to put on all of the layers and continued around my planned route. The shivering worsened, and I realized that I was probably running a fever — either that, or feeling cold while wearing a puffy jacket and fleece hat in 65-degree sunshine is totally normal. I cut the route short and battled a throbbing headache all the way home.

Tuesday I again spent the day mostly sprawled on the floor, but by Wednesday, I really did feel better. Or so I told myself. Beat and I planned to meet at his office for a car swap. Usually when we do this I bike into town, but I felt guilty about doing relatively little running since we returned from Alaska. I didn't have a route planned when I left the house on foot, and surprised myself when I turned left rather than the usual right. "I bet it's not too much farther if I descend Eldorado Canyon," I thought.

It was farther. Ten miles for the usual route, nearly 20 veering all the way around the Flatirons. Well. At about mile 14 I was making my way up and down the steep rollers of Mesa Trail, grumbling about the interminability of Mesa Trail, when the sky unleashed a fearsome deluge. Rain pelted my back with impressive violence. Even wearing my good rain coat, shivering soon followed. My head was pounding, my shoulders were quaking, and then the trail turned to bacon grease, with a fresh coat of mud over patches of old ice. I slipped and skidded, tumbling forward and catching myself, only to soak my mittens in mud.

"I have never been this miserable, ever," I thought. Which of course wasn't true. Then again, every time we utter this statement to ourselves, it might as well be true.

The rain let up and I kept on the rain coat, hat and muddy mittens as I made my way along the bike path through town. Looking back, I realized that running pavement while remaining stubbornly overdressed on a warm, humid evening was even more miserable than anything I'd endured earlier. College-aged runners were out in their tank tops and shorts, giving me a bit of side-eye as I plodded past.

With weight-lifting and another cart-tug, that was pretty much my week. By Saturday I really was feeling better, so we invited Wendy and Jorge for a snowshoe outing on Niwot Ridge. As we drove along the Peak to Peak Highway, I was so enthralled with actual snow on the ground that I failed to look up at the ridge we'd be climbing. Wendy took this photo during their drive — looks a bit blustery. Just a bit.

 The early miles of the hike were fun and games. I had a 35-pound sled, which is so much more cooperative than a 55-pound cart. Beat tried hitching a ride on Jorge's sled.

As we approached treeline, things got real, fast. Temperatures plummeted from the 20s to low teens with a driving, 40-50 mph wind. Beat's feet were frozen. Wendy didn't have enough layers for the wind, and turned around at mile four. I put on my wind-shield fleece and primaloft shorts, and felt comfortable until we broke out in the open, where conditions were comparable to standing inside an industrial-strength vacuum filled with snow. Stupidly I did not put on goggles when we stopped to add layers, and had removed my sunglasses after they iced up. I pulled my hat down and buff up until I was viewing the whiteout through a thin slit of fabric. Snow shards still pelted my face until I couldn't keep my eyes open for more than a second at a time. During those single seconds I'd blink rapidly against a blast of white, and process nothing. I couldn't see at all.

 I stumbled and crawled through Beat's tracks until I was close enough to yell in his ear, and told him I was turning around. He and Jorge planned to continue. As I turned to face my sled, I realized that weather like this is something I need to handle. There won't always be opportunities to run away. So I anchored my trekking poles, pressed my harness pack as deep into the snow as I could, and lunged for my sled before it could blow away. With thinly gloved hands I pulled open the zipper a small amount and reached inside, rifling for the stuff sacks I'd packed haphazardly, because who thought I'd actually need any of this stuff? The first stuff sack was filled with books — the ballast I'd added to get the weight to 35 pounds. The second had to be emptied in its entirety before I found my goggles at the bottom. All of this rifling had to be done blind with my arms extended inside the mostly closed duffel, to avoid losing anything in the wind. Not that I could see much anyway. But as soon as I put on those goggles and blinked a few times, the raging whiteout became so much brighter, and the world so much friendlier. I strapped on my harness and continued up the mountain.

I didn't make it much farther before I saw Beat and Jorge descending toward me. Beat told me it was worse, so much worse, just a few hundred feet higher. I admit to feeling a little disappointed. With goggles, the blasting wind became manageable. I was surprised how warm I felt in my trusty fleece jacket. But I was not about to argue with the likely accurate assessment of "so much worse." We rushed down the mountain, barely able to control our sleds as the wind pushed us violently. I took this photo after we were well below treeline, back "out of the wind." Beat decided he wanted to take a break and eat his sandwich. I have to laugh at the image of Beat coated in spindrift, facing the driving gusts with a "whatever" look on his face. He was happy to have that sandwich.

Sunday returned to typical January (2018) conditions — warm and sunny. Beat decided he wanted to do "Fern repeats." The mile-long route gains or loses 1,800 feet of altitude on a relentlessly rocky trail. Beat once did an "inFERNo Half Marathon" in Fern Canyon, for 13 miles with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. I struggle mightily with these descents ... I consider the climb more restful. Thanks to slower climbing and much slower descending, I can only do two repeats in the time it takes Beat to do three (with the West Ridge approach, two repeats amount to 4,600 feet of climbing in 7 miles.) I put on the same outfit I have worn for many a summer run, and set out. I felt good. My hamstrings are finally calming down after Friday's extra-horrible cart drag. I think I'm officially recovered from that cold. No hints of a slump yet, but I bide my time. I don't take anything for granted. 


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  2. I could write so much in response to this post but I will simply say.... You are Brave & You are Strong! Your survival mode kicked in and you continued putting one foot in front of the other.

    I know it's hard to stop thinking that the slump will come back but I believe you are on the upswing and are figuring this all out. Keep those thoughts strong and positive. Trust and have faith in YOURSELF!

    You've got this!

  3. Ha, this makes my icy running woes look pretty pitiful.

  4. "I have never been this miserable, ever," I thought. Which of course wasn't true. Then again, every time we utter this statement to ourselves, it might as well be true.

    Thanks for another quote to add to my store of favorite quotes.

    I can't even wrap my head around the elevation you guys cover.


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