Monday, February 05, 2018

Mood swings

Winter is a volatile season in Boulder. Snow, then heat, then wind, then WIND, then sun. Even if you watch weather forecasts and travel outside nearly every day, it comes to a point where you walk out the door and really have no idea what you're going to get. Such was the case on Thursday, when it was 21 degrees and lightly snowing at 12:30 p.m. I'd failed to check online before I left, but the latest assessment from Boulder County Trail Conditions was somewhat dire:

"Rough conditions on Green today. The warm conditions from a few days ago created some pretty frequent holes where people had punched through in the melting snow. Now those holes are rock hard ankle destroyers. And there is a light coating of snow on top of all the ice so you can't really see it."

And from my friends, who ran part of my planned route in the morning:

"Note: Sunshine is best ascended. It's basically dust on luge. We had spikes, Kahtoolas, new and old, screws, and Yaktrax represented and everyone slipped. No major wipeouts."

Such conditions would have been endlessly frustrating for me, had I anticipated them, and had I been out for a short, focused excursion. But this was a "long" run, my second of four this week, near the end of a three-week "peak" before I head into a taper. I hoped to cover around 20 miles, ascending Green Mountain and Sanitas before making my way down Sunshine Canyon into town. For the first hour, I felt bad. My legs were leaden and the previous day's sled-drag lingered in my tight hamstrings. I noted glare ice under the snow as I plodded up the Green-Bear trail. "Better put on the spikes for the descent," I thought. But then I forgot.

My mood picked up as I shuffled down the northern ridge of Green in summer shoes with soles worn thin. I slipped a few times on the bumpy ice, but these near-misses were sort of exhilarating. "These shoes are good for ice because the lugs are worn down," I told myself. I didn't want to put on the spikes, because I knew I'd hit Chapman and the bike path for a long stretch of bare ground.

But then these places were even worse — bumpier ice, slicker snow, not even a hint of bare gravel or pavement. Stubbornly I left the spikes off, although this decision was never the right one. I was three hours into the run when head fuzziness began to kick in, and I floated up Sanitas in a pleasant reverie that numbed some of the effort.

By the time I hit the descent through Sunshine — the same trail where my friends had slipped while wearing spikes in the morning — I was riding a thrilling wave of invincibility. My legs were as light as snow, dancing along a narrow ledge that cuts across a precariously steep side-slope over Sunshine Creek. Running this trail makes me nervous in the summertime. But here, with the worst conditions winter has to offer, I felt blissfully care-free. When a foot slipped, I'd throw down a trekking pole and pivot my body back into place. With each tricky maneuver, my rhythm didn't break for a second  — a kind of Riverdance that in my imagination was more fluid than any movement my body has ever managed. The consequences of a misstep — not even a misstep, but a typical reaction to rubber hitting ice — were high. And yet, for a blissful 20 minutes, I did not care. More than speed, more than success, this sensation is more intoxicating to me than any other — the illusion of grace.

It wasn't until ten or so minutes after leaving the trail, while trotting down a wet sidewalk along Mapleton Street, that I thought, "Well that was really dumb." A huge smile spread across my face.

One day earlier, I was dragging my 40-pound sled along Fourth of July Creek in a gusty snowstorm. It was warm, so the snow hitting my skin felt like sharp pellets of ice, but I was sweating bullets and had to vent heat where I could. This had been a real grind for five full hours, and my head never entered the care-free reverie that I enjoyed the following day. I made the mistake of trying to continue from the heavily drifted, unmaintained road to the Arapahoe Pass Trail, which clearly hadn't been used in a number of days. The faint skin track was difficult to follow along a steep side-slope drifted with waist-deep snow. But I wanted to get my hours in, so I stubbornly continued, until I'd skittered in dull snowshoes across the glare ice coating a steep drainage. The ice formed veritable slide for at least 50 feet into the trees, which I didn't realize until I was on the other side. "Okay, that was really, really dumb," I thought. This realization did not bring a smile. I turned around right there, and spent 10 minutes scouting a safer way around the frozen waterfall.

As I made my way down the drifted road, moving much more slowly than I'd hoped, my legs were heavy and my emotions were raw. I was thinking about a wonderful film I'd watched earlier in the week, "The Frozen Road" — Ben Page's autobiographical documentary about riding through the Canadian Arctic in the winter as a complete novice. It captures so well the awe, isolation, terror and wonder of solo travel in the frozen North. If you haven't seen this film, I recommend you stop reading this rambling blog post and go watch it right now. (Vimeo link.)

After I watched it, the first thing I did was download music from the film and make a "Fourth of July Sled-Drag" playlist. "Go Solo" by Tom Rosenthal was playing as I shambled down the snow-covered road, hoisting my sled over drifts and picturing a terrifying scene in the film where Ben is lying alone in a tent flapping violently against a storm. Suddenly, the waterworks broke open. It was quite the bout of sloppy sobbing; I couldn't even guess where it had come from, or why I was so upset.

"Damn, the hormonal teenager is back," I thought.

Further evidence that I may be experiencing a bout of hormones — Moar Selfies. This from a warm and also very windy run on Saturday, when I was in a good mood again. To be honest, I have become a little more concerned about my current thyroid health. There are a few signs that not all is well: Nightly sleep interruptions, often waking up in a sweat. My resting heart rate and blood pressure is slightly high. A rash reappeared on my lower legs, which I used to have most of the time before I started taking medication, and since only have seen during "slump months." And then there's this moodiness — the exhilarating highs and inexplicable lows. This seems to be my hormonal cycle right now, and I'd worry less about it if the timing wasn't so awful. Thankfully, one area that doesn't seem to be affected right now is my breathing. I'm moving well enough, and I'm not about to complain just because I'm a bit slower than I was in December. All I can do now is try to blame some of this on heavy training, head into a taper, and hope for the best.

I felt good for our sled-drag on Sunday, joined by friends Wendy and Jorge. It's been a challenge to find consistent snow anywhere nearby, so I took some advice from skiers to follow the unmaintained and mostly untraveled Forest Road 505. Skiers only use this route for a short distance to access slopes nearby. Beyond that is an exposed plateau that has been scoured clean by the wind, which deters even the skiers.

Beat making his way across the plateau — it was another very windy day. In the exposed areas, the average wind speed neared 50mph, a few gusts over 70mph. The crushing weight I feel amid this kind of wind is no longer a surprise, but it's still shocking. Even in warm temperatures (around 30F), it still feels incredibly cold.

Forest Road 505 was at times scoured bare, and others covered in rolling drifts the size of railroad cars. Beat actually managed to navigate well, which impressed me, as I've even biked this road before (in summer conditions) and didn't have a clue where we were. We made our way deep into the forest, breaking trail through a thick wind crust that coated heavy, sticky snow. Conditions were challenging on the descent, and almost tear-inducing for the 1,600-foot climb. Fist-sized snowballs stuck to the cleats of my snowshoes, and the past three weeks' efforts weighed heavily on my legs.

Beat and I got a little ahead of Jorge and Wendy, but we just couldn't stand long amid the hurricane gusts and blowing snow. It was exhilarating, but not in quite the same way as risking a broken wrist to dance on glare ice. I was a little more genuinely frightened up here. We come expecting these conditions, prepared for them, but that doesn't make them any easier. Which I suppose is the appeal — to find, as Ben Page expressed in his film, these places were one can feel so small. Where all of the little things — and most things are little things — don't matter. You just walk, and breathe, and feel grateful for the privilege of being alive.

We reunited with our friends, and peacefulness again returned to the land. I hope to put in two more long efforts this week, complete most of my food packing and organizing, and then dial everything back and try to get my head in order. If nothing else, maybe I can tap into that "happy if a bit reckless" teenager emotion in Alaska. 


  1. Dang! I wish we had a "trail conditions" page here. Nothing I hate more than taking my lunchtime hour and packing up to go somewhere to run/ski and finding it a horrible sheen of ice, postholey, etc. Nice resource!

    My thyroid stuff isn't so great either. I'm wondering if I need a bump up. Droopy eyes, weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, this thyroid crap really sucks!

    1. You can always count on Boulder for endless beta! Even when I lived in the Bay Area with 7 million other people, I still maintained the illusion that I could think up a "new" adventure, a combination of routes or corners of places that were solely my own. Not anymore! Although I do have my backyard. One of these warmer days, I'm going to make good on my resolve to take my laptop out to the secret camp spot for a few hours.

      I hope you feel better soon. I'm approaching a year on anti-thyroid meds. I definitely have dips in health, but my endocrinologist is optimistic, and I trust her. Some ask me why I don't just have my thyroid carved out, but from everything I've read, I can hardly understand why this is a good solution. Hypothyroidism is no picnic.

  2. "Fist-sized snowballs stuck to the cleats of my snowshoes..."

    I just love when that happens!


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