Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I'll be something better yet

Well, the anxiety dreams have returned. In my latest, I'm pulling my winter sled up a steep dune in an endless red-sand desert. The drag is incredible; I can barely move my legs. When I look down, my skin is beet red, bubbling with beads of sweat. I'm following a parallel ski track, a very faint one, and I have to squint because the glare is so bad. It's hot; I feel dizzy. The sun becomes brighter. I'm blinded by white glare, sinking in the sand, gasping for breath, and then I jerk awake. Real sunlight is pouring through my bedroom window (because I slept in until 8:15 a.m., because I haven't been sleeping well at night), and I'm drenched in real sweat. It's 57 degrees inside the house, 20 outside.

Is this what I fear right now? Heat and sweat? Well, yes. What happens beyond my skin begins to feel more manageable than what happens within. I find comfort in the world around me. Saturday morning greeted us with a few inches of snow, and refreshing cold — around 10 degrees.

Beat and I set out for a hike up Bear Peak, with light packs and an easy "taper" pace. I couldn't regulate my temperature well — one minute I was overheated with my jacket unzipped and hat removed, the next chilled and bundled again. My breathing seemed far too labored. Later Beat saw my tracks in the snow and called me out for lazily dragging my feet. "I'm slipping," I thought.

It was a beautiful afternoon, though, with the city shrouded in fog and delicate rime clinging to the charred branches of skeleton trees. It's always worth the effort to spend time outside on a day like this, always. But I wasn't thrilled with whatever was happening beneath my skin. I did not feel exuberant. I did not feel strong. I felt beaten — far, far too soon.

When I come out in the open to admit my fears, people will reassure me. They'll tell me I'm just having pre-race jitters, that I'm tapering, that I'll be fine. And I'll smile politely and nod, because I want to believe it, too. But this is what it feels like to me — like my fitness is so much sand in my fist, slipping through my fingers, scattered by the wind.

On Sunday I took my sled up Niwot Ridge. Beat had a lot to do at home, so I went alone. A surprising amount of snow had accumulated since the last time I trekked up Niwot. The spacious and typically empty trailhead parking lot was bustling with skiers and snowshoers. I didn't want to maneuver my sled in crowds, so I veered toward the less-popular forest road. Surprisingly, only one or two skiers had broken a skin track on this route. At first I snowshoed outside of it, out of respect for skiers, but conditions were incredibly difficult for trail-breaking — a thin layer of fragile wind crust over shin-swallowing sugar snow.

Shamefully I drifted over to the skin track, and realized that my sled so perfectly planed my snowshoe tracks, that it left the trail smoother than before. Indeed, a couple miles later, a skier passed me and complimented my trail. "Ten points for the pulk track," he said. As I looked back at him, I saw that my sled was full of snow — I could barely see the duffel behind a foot-high pile of clumped powder. Because my sled was wider than the skin track, it scooped up snow from both sides, not unlike a plastic shovel. Damn. No wonder this climb was becoming harder and harder. "It's not just me," I thought. Even at this higher altitude, in much tougher conditions, I was feeling better than the previous day.

"Beautiful day," the skier commented.

"Yeah, but windy," I replied. "It's gonna be fierce above treeline."

"We'll deal with that when we get there."

Despite my heavy sled and stupid snowshoes, I more or less kept pace with the skier for more than a mile, shadowing a few hundred meters behind him. He had just left my line of sight for good when I saw him again, scooting toward me at a surprisingly slow rate of speed, for a descending skier.

"You're not going to the ridge?" I asked. He'd already surpassed most of the boring forest road skinning — the only terrain left was the steeper, open slopes above treeline.

"It's nasty up here. And I'm exhausted," he admitted. "You must be shelled, too."

"Yeah, this has been quite the slog. I'll probably only go another half mile, to that research shack."

The skier's track ended, and all that remained was deep, crusted powder. No one else had been up here, at least since wind-driven snow disappeared the tracks — which in the strengthening gale, seemed to be happening in a matter of seconds. I stopped beneath the last larger stand of trees and put on my knee warmers, overboots, wind fleece, balaclava, buff, and mittens. This was not my first Niwot rodeo.

I'd already been at this for three hours and hadn't even broken the five-mile mark yet. It thought about turning back, but the alpine zone is never an easy place to reach, and enduring these conditions is always good practice. I lifted one snowshoe up the 25-degree slope and punched through wind crust into a thigh-high hole. To garner the momentum necessary to move forward, I had to bend forward and thrust my hips against the backward force of the sled — not unlike the cable pull-throughs I do at the gym — then swing my leg sideways like an awkward ballerina so I could punch another hole a few inches ahead. Sometimes my leg anchor stuck, and sometimes the snowshoe slipped backward to where I started. My pace — were there any GPS sophisticated enough to measure such tiny increments of movement— no doubt dropped below 0.5mph. My heart rate shot to the maximum I'm able to maintain.

All the while, shards of snow blasted me in the face. All in all, this wasn't a terrible day on Niwot — sustained winds of 35mph, gusting to 55mph — but an abundance of blowing powder made it feel more intense. My breathing deteriorated quickly. I turned my back to the wind and took a few puffs from my inhaler. I concentrated on taking slower, less shallow breaths. I desperately wanted to turn around, and knew that on a typical endurance training schedule, any hard efforts at this point probably do more harm than good. But I don't have typical endurance fitness. At this point, what I mostly have are doubts. Anything I can do to boost my confidence is worth it. Again I turned to face the wind.

Thrust, punch, breathe. Thrust, punch, breathe, breathe, thrust. Occasionally I found a patch of crust that supported my weight, and walked almost normally. But this would only last a few steps, and then I'd crash through rotten Styrofoam into another thigh-deep drift. The crust was so thick that I'd struggle to pull my foot out of the holes, as though I was real-life sinking in the sand I'd dreamed about. When I couldn't quite extract a foot, I'd drop to a squat, paddle my arms through the snow and crawl-hop forward like a deranged rabbit. This is a situation where I will fully admit that skis would be far preferable to silly snowshoes, although I think skis would also stall out beneath the crust. Really, these were workable conditions for exactly no one, least of all me with my 40-pound sled. But if I could move forward here, and control my breathing here, well ... perhaps I can do it anywhere.

Half-blinded by blowing snow and drifting laterally in search of solid crust, I ended up too far left of the shack. Now with four hours on my watch, having traveled a literal half mile in one hour and 15 minutes, I decided to call it good. Despite engaging the most strenuous activity physically possible for me, at 11,500 feet, I'd maintained reasonable control of my breathing. My heart rate, while fast, hadn't reached concerning levels. I wasn't dizzy. But I was shelled. Truly shelled. I staggered with the wind and started punching a new trail down the slope — because even my deepest postholes were already partially buried in spindrift. It was going to be a long hike out.

Back where the skier had turned around, my beautiful sled track was already filled with snow, and the walking was somehow even more difficult — the slippery spindrift was off camber enough that my right snowshoe kept sliding sideways, which turned my ankle uncomfortably. I wanted to cry, but not in that emotional way that's caught me off guard recently, so I didn't cry. Anyway, being shelled after six miles of hiking just two weeks before you hope to do 350 is not something to cry about ... yet.

The emotions came anyway, though, as trail conditions became easier and I descended into rumination about the state of the world. For that sort of angst, as it often does, iPod helped — The Bleachers with a fitting reminder that we all have deep flaws, and no one is coming to save us. So go ahead and live your life anyway.

All my heroes got tired
All the days, they got short.
And a love that I dreamt of,
Came to me at my worst.

Yeah, the nights I don't remember.
Are the ones I can't forget.

When all your heroes get tired,
I'll be something better yet.


  1. Hopefully, maybe even probably, after the "gun" sounds, the dreams will be exhausted (literally), your body will cooperate with the task you've assigned it, and whatever training level not reached now as you taper can be gained on the trail. Though nothing like the Iditarod, I once did a started a week long, high altitude backpack trip along the Continental Divide with little preparation. About the third day my body began to rise to the challenge and everything fell into place. Also, it helps to inject a little "what's the worst that could happen" dialogue, and be Okay with the answer.
    Now go "break a leg" :)

    1. What's the worst that could happen? Well, I could have an asthma attack in a whiteout/windstorm on Rainy Pass with no way to rest safely. I could have a thyroid-storm-induced heart attack. Yes, neither of these are likely to happen, but I fear them all the same. I also fear falling into open water, whiteout/windstorms without the asthma attack, 50 below, etc., etc. ... I have so many fears! Which is, of course, why I seek these endeavors.

      Still, it's daunting put myself in an utterly self-reliant situation when I don't trust my body. I actually have sat down this week and contemplated whether I can accept the unlikely event of a heart attack. I had a blood test done to confirm that this is quite unlikely right now, but there are no guarantees. Of course, there never are. Ultimately we all have to accept our human fragility and live our lives anyway.

      Also, I take exception to the notion that I didn't prepare. This seems to be what most people assume when they hear me complain. That's fair, though. I suppose I'm not conveying why I feel like my personal level of fitness comes and goes on a biological whim. I'm not even comparing myself to others or long-ago selves. I'm comparing February Jill to December Jill. But I really did have a good winter of training —lots of strength-building, event-specific long efforts. Hopefully it will all come together for me when I need it to. Thanks for the well-wishes. I choose optimism.

    2. No doubt - you've prepared! I don't think that Mark meant to imply that you hadn't. He was relating his own experience.

      It's really hard getting used to your own fragility when you've been pretty healthy in the past. Not trusting your body is scary. It's been a huge challenge for me. I get scared when I'm just a day's pedaling from help by myself. I know that one wrong pedal stroke could leave me paralyzed due to my fragile spine and any random event might send me into a horrible migraine. I don't even contemplate the other things that could go wrong... because my psyche would be paralyzed if I did that.

      For me, the fundamental question was whether I was willing to let my fragility limit my life to the safe zone where I was risking nothing. The answer was "no" - and still is. The "edge" is less far out there for me now than in my past but I still seek my own edge of the comfort zone, perhaps for some of the same reasons that you do.

      Perhaps that's the question that you should ask yourself. Are you willing to live the super safe life that might prevent your nightmares from coming true? I doubt it. I certainly am not willing to do it (I must emphasize that I'm not taking on anything as big as the Iditarod).

      I'm so sorry that you feel that your health is heading in the wrong direction. I hope that you're wrong, and that everything comes together for the Iditarod.

    3. "but there are no guarantees. Of course, there never are. Ultimately we all have to accept our human fragility and live our lives anyway."

      Yes. As someone who carries a defective gene that causes blood clots and embolisms to lungs....and must take blood thinners to stay alive...I feel that fear every time I take on a rocky, mountain bike trail, climb a cliff face, and summit a peak, alone and out of cell phone range. One slip, one mistake, and I'm told that I will bleed out internally, externally, or, worst of all if I land on my head, have a brain bleed. My Blood Doc told me to sell my mountain bike and give up climbing. Ha!! I went out and bought a brand new fat tire Cannondale, went to the Klondike area north of Moab, alone, and rode my ass off. I sooo get and understand that it is difficult to remain athletically valiant in the face of disease. But choose, as you said, to "live my life anyway" and on my terms, not on the terms of what might well happen.

      I did not mean to suggest that you did not prepare for your upcoming Ididirod challenge...simply relating my experience that frequently my body rose to the challenge. I apologize if I wasn't clear on that point. You are more fit, bold, and tough than I ever was at my 30 something peak!

    4. You are both right. I'm sorry to sound like I was calling you out, Mark. At this point in life, most of my friends, both real-life and virtual, are athletes. Since the most succinct way I know how to describe how I'm feeling is "losing fitness" of course most of the responses I receive are "shoulda trainer harder" or "overtraining." I've become a bit overly defensive about this. And I try to remain aware of my own limited perspective — in the scheme of things, I'm still healthy, and capable, and hopefully still have plenty of adventures ahead of me. Yours' and others' experiences serve as important reminders and inspiration. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I have to giggle a little bit when you talk about your fitness slipping away and then the next paragraph is about a super long, super hard sled drag that 99% of the population couldn't do. You've lived in such athletic places that maybe that seems normal but nope, my little adventures here seem abnormal to folks. We all have our bars though. I think you're in the need for a taper phase!

    1. But I have dialed it way back! Would you like to see my Strava page to prove it? ;-P

      That particular effort was one of my hardest this entire winter — yes, in many ways, it was more draining for me than that 30-mile day in Alaska's White Mountains in December. The taper timing wasn't great, but I think ultimately it was a good "practice run." I recovered from it fairly well. I did a medium-long bike ride yesterday, but I really am tapering now.

  3. I love how you measure you against you, not others...and accept knowing you have prepared to be the best you can be. Your writing feels so cathartic.


Feedback is always appreciated!