Sunday, January 28, 2018

Working the stabilizers

 This week was all about the type of running/hiking that I am inherently bad at ... and a lot of of it ... and not on purpose. Fourteen inches of snow is wonderful for a day or two, but after high winds blow it around and the sun comes out and snow thaws and freezes, thaws and freezes — you have a recipe for challenging surface conditions. I did get my 18 hours of motion this week, and none of those hours were cycling (Boo. But the road/trail conditions were quite awful this week.) In those 18 hours, I managed only 58 miles (16,000 feet of climbing.)

Still, I'm stoked about the outcome of this training week — if nothing else, that I somehow came out of it uninjured. My body is not to be trusted on technical terrain, and after seven-plus years of being knocked around on trails with little improvement, I'm nearing acceptance about this. (Although hope springs eternal.)

When I set out to run to town on Wednesday, I knew the snow conditions would be weird, and picked what I believed would be the easiest descent, Bear Canyon. However, it had been tracked by just one set of footprints since the storm (at least, people were just walking in that one set), and the postholes were surrounded by shin- to knee-deep wind-crusted Styrofoam. Even walking slowly, it remained a mystery whether a footfall would anchor my leg in place, or skid on a hidden layer of ice and send me sliding down the steep slope. I was so grateful when that flailing mess was over and I could climb Green Mountain for a while. But this necessitated another long descent.

Early in this second descent, I rolled my bad ankle (my left ankle) and toppled over. This launched a series of four ankle rolls that became progressively worse — shooting pain and loss of balance. Although the pain subsided each time, joint wobbliness persisted until I wondered whether I'd torn a ligament. But I still had to get down the mountain. I'd been moving so slowly that I wasn't going to make it to Google in time. I texted Beat. He said he'd meet me at Gregory Canyon. I'd already veered away from this trailhead, so I turned around.

Then, while hiking uphill, I placed my foot atop a shin-high boulder and somehow rolled my ankle as I lifted myself up. How? I couldn't begin to understand. I crumpled to the ground amid a shrill crescendo of pain. "I'm not getting up from this one," I thought. For a few seconds, I was convinced of this. A memory flashed into my mind, of an injured woman I once encountered in the Grand Canyon, with her foot turned 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Was my ankle broken? I couldn't bear to look.

Then, once again, the pain subsided. I leaned against the nemesis boulder to pull myself up, then hovered for several seconds, working up the courage to put weight on my left leg. When I finally did, there was no problem. So strange!

 There was never any swelling or reduced motion, but my ankle continued to vaguely hurt for the rest of the week. Normal people, especially people with races on the line, would probably just opt to play it safe for a few days. I did rest my lower body by engaging in my usual weight-lifting routine on Thursday, and then on Friday I headed out the road for a six-mile cart pull. I'd gotten into a rare writing grove during the morning and afternoon, and didn't look up from my laptop until 4 p.m. The temperature had already dropped to 24 degrees with a stiff wind, and my layers — a decent softshell but thin tights — weren't quite up to the task of keeping me warm. So I was mildly chilled and plodding up a dirt road at two miles per hour with a 60-pound anchor bobbing behind me. By all accounts this should have been misery, but I was in a great mood. Here was the absolute most mundane thing I could be doing — leaving all of my mental space open for unrelated ruminations. I continued to make good progress on the afternoon's writing as I shambled along.

 On Saturday, Beat had ambitions for a long run, and mapped out a difficult route that hit four local peaks with a lot of steep descending (and climbing. That too.) Trail conditions featured packed snow riddled with moguls (uneven bumps), sugar snow, bumpy ice, snow-dirt puree, mud, wind crust, and the usual boulder hopping. I fretted about my ankle and the rest of my awkward body, but everything held up well. It was always a relief to hit the bottom of a descent and move toward the next climb, where I could rest for a while.

 Beat on Green Mountain in the early evening — our final peak of the foursome. Technically, I didn't touch the top of three of the peaks, opting out of the final ten or so feet of scrambling on SoBo, Bear, and Green. But I did finally reach the elusive top of Flagstaff Mountain. Beat pulled out his phone GPS and insisted on punching through the snow until we found the rock outcropping that formed the highest point of a broad bluff.

The view from Green Mountain. We were out for seven and a half hours, and I was mentally fried by the challenge of maintaining my balance for that length of time. We hoped to spend Sunday dragging our sleds somewhere in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but the cold wind that blasted us all day was not promising. I checked the weather station on Niwot Ridge — Saturday brought winds from 50 to 65 mph with single-digit temperatures. Based on the forecast, Sunday promised much of the same. Our friend Jorge made it to the ridge on Saturday, and reported harrowing conditions. There's a tipping point where an activity is "folly, but decent training" and "folly, and actually quite dangerous." For me, 60 mph winds are at this point. We opted out of the mountains

 Instead, we set out for more balance exercises on the south side of the Flatirons, descending Eldorado Canyon and climbing Shadow Canyon. We got a late start — 1:30 p.m. — to rest the tired legs a bit, and also because Beat insisted that evenings are best for lack of crowds and enhanced scenery.

 Eldo Canyon is beautiful in the late afternoon. It's easy to become complacent about the places that surround you. Especially the places that surround me — where I spend so much time fixated on the ground while trying not to fall on my face or break my ankle. The week's efforts and good luck had worn away some of my inhibitions, and I took more opportunities to look up. I thought of a recent essay I read by a woman who viewed the total eclipse last summer. The experience was incredible, she wrote, but what really struck her was the way she viewed her world in the weeks following the eclipse — the intensity of shapes and colors surrounding previously mundane places. She wrote: "What I learned from the total eclipse was this: What wasn't phenomenal?"

I loved this jaunt through Eldo, but I was grateful when the unpredictable powder and ice of the canyon finally opened into the valley, and it was time for the relaxing haul up Shadow. Shadow is actually a bruiser — nearly 2,000 feet of gain in just over a mile. But traction was surprisingly okay, and I motored in semi-auto-pilot behind Beat, staying close enough to register my fastest time up Shadow — not a usual occurrence in January, on a vaguely wobbly ankle, at the end of a long week on my feet. I take my victories where I find them.

 I think Beat is pointing at the moon in this photo. He was right — it was much better to leave late and hit the summit ridge at sunset. Ominous clouds shrouded the view of the Indian Peaks. "Yeah, I can't say I'm disappointed that we skipped that," I said.

Four more weeks until the Iditarod. I think ultimately it was a good thing to mix it up this week, with some solid work on the stabilizing muscles, and a not-so-gentle reminder to be excessively nice to my bad ankle, because the prospect of being crumpled on the ground somewhere in the Alaska wilderness is daunting indeed. 


  1. I'm just not feeling this winter. It's the worst types of conditions: really good snow, then avalanche warnings, then warm-up and dreaded ice. Good for you for getting it done. Maybe this will motivate me to go out for a run instead of the Dreadmill.

  2. As someone who snapped their tib/fib while standing stationary on black ice chatting with someone, I share your apprehension of ice. Love the picture of the amazing Fountain Formation at Redgarden Wall, spent many hours hanging off those cliffs back in the day

  3. I used to have a lot of issues racing off road (orienteering and fell running) with my right ankle. After one particularly bad incident racing in the Scottish Highlands in 1985 I was advised to put about 8" of wide plaster under my foot and up the outside of ankle out over the ankle bone. This always worked really well for me although these days I can still go over easily on my ankle walking down an uneven path in the city. If you have not tried this then maybe worth giving it a try.

    1. Thank you for your recommendation. I have worked on strengthening exercises in the past, but I suspect my problem is more than just muscle weakness. If anything, all the rocky trails around home should be making my ankles stronger, but I roll it more than ever. Luckily I seem to have developed some flexibility to avoid injury. It's been a while since I had a real sprain.

      I badly injured this ankle when I was 19, and fell down a set of concrete stairs while moving a television out of my duplex (RIP TV.) It was black and very swollen for three weeks, but all I did was rent a set of crutches from Walgreens. Wish I could go back in time and get an X-Ray! I still suspect there is an underlying mechanical issue that stemmed from this injury.


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