Sunday, June 24, 2018

All downhill from here

I'm one of those weirdos who looks forward to the summer solstice because it marks the beginning of the descent toward my favorite season. The week before last was a difficult one for me, with poor air quality and asthma symptoms as a reminder that I'll likely never be entirely free of respiratory distress. I also had a flare-up of other symptoms that I've come to view as indicative of a thyroid slump (although notably mild this time around.) Amid the 90-degree temperatures and smoky air, I started to feel bummed out. My "summer S.A.D." Not a big deal, but it does seep into the enjoyment and productivity of everything I do. 

Last weekend brought a strong storm system, and a significant if temporary bout of relief. It was startling, when I set out for a run on Sunday, to realize how much stronger I felt compared to my sputtering efforts during the week prior. The air was clear. I could breathe! I loped down Bear Canyon and up Bear Peak in steady rain, became drenched as I splashed through the trail-turned-stream, enjoyed quiet solitude along Boulder's most popular trails on a Sunday afternoon, and felt warm and comfortable despite soaked clothing. Ideal! My breathing and mood continued to improve during the first half of the week, with cooler temperatures, fog, and afternoon showers. Yes, I live in opposite land as a former California resident now residing in the "300 days of sunshine" state, craving rain. With still-sharp memories of the sun-worshipping I did in Juneau, I conclude that I simply want what I can't have.

Summer does have its positive aspects. Near the top of the list is relatively easy access to the high country, which becomes an impenetrable fortress of avalanche terrain / death-slide steepness / 70-mph winds during the winter months. Mountain season is brief, and further punctured by monsoons and their accompanying lightning and hail. Like nearly every other outdoorsy person in Colorado, I always approach the end of summer with guilt that I didn't do nearly enough. I still haven't climbed Longs Peak, backpacked the Colorado Trail, run any of the 30-mile mountain loops on my radar, bikepacked to Breckenridge, pushed my mental limitations with a Class 3 ridge traverse, and on and on. I feel exhausted just thinking about all of it. The quiet, moody seasons can't come soon enough.
 Unsurprisingly, I operate best along the middle ground between "do all of the things" and "hide in the cellar with a glass of ice water." This weekend I was able to get out for two familiar favorites. On Friday, Wendy and I embarked on the High Lonesome Loop, a 16-mile ring of goodness through lush forests, around icy lakes and along high alpine meadows spanning the Continental Divide.

 We agreed upon an 8 a.m. start (I think in Wendy's ideal outing we would start at 6 a.m., and mine at 10, so compromise.) From Eldora we walked directly into a bank of ominous clouds and a temperature of 43 degrees. Less than a mile into our hike, the sky opened up with thunder, lightning, and frigid rain. I reasoned that we were well protected in the forest for the next five miles, and since the weather forecast called for a mere 10 percent chance of *afternoon* thunderstorms, surely it would clear up by the time we hit tree line. To bolster confidence in my own prediction, I stubbornly refused to add any layers as we climbed into wind and rain. After a couple of miles of seeing nobody, we encountered one of Beat's co-workers, who was descending. He too hoped to complete the High Lonesome Loop in the same direction, but was deterred by thunder and sleet just a few hundred feet higher. He'd taken a half day off work and gotten an early start to take advantage of a rare opportunity, and was visibly upset by the fact he'd been thwarted by weather. "Screw morning thunderstorms," he said grumpily.

 Our late-ish start and mellow pace paid off, as we arrived at the Divide just before 11 a.m. to clearing skies, along with a biting wind. I finally put on the light jacket I'd brought with me. Wendy looked like she was dressed for the White Mountains 100 all over again, bundled in a thick fleece, shell and gloves. This made me wonder if maybe my thyroid actually is acting up. Surely I should feel more chilled than this, when it's 40 degrees and I'm soaked with rain and sweat amid a 30mph wind? Well, best not to overanalyze it.

 Wendy celebrating on the big, scary cornice that we needed to downclimb (which turned out to be not that big or scary.)

 Temperatures warmed throughout the day, but the moody weather persisted, to the point where I brought my jacket to our late lunch at the pizzeria in Nederland, in case of patio seating and downpour. It was a great day.
 On Saturday I woke up with sore muscles — a reminder of my diminished "running" endurance following a low-mileage spring — and a plan to join Beat on a 20-mile loop around Rogers and Rollins Pass.

 Beat is training for his big summer races, and doesn't want to dawdle with me too much, so we agreed that he'd run to James Peak on his own for the first leg, and I'd turn around after meeting him on the descent. I did push the first six miles as hard as I could in a vain attempt to keep up. Usually it takes me three hours and change to hike from East Portal to the peak, and at 2:18 I was a mere half mile (and about 400 vertical feet) from the top when I met Beat coming down. Still, I could have done that in 15 minutes. It would have been a good PR! Next time.

 Descending James Peak.

 Between Rogers Pass and Rollins Pass is a five-mile traverse along the Divide. There's a route marked by CDT posts and an occasional faint trail, but for the most part it's a tundra walk.

 In several crossings I have yet to see more than a single other group of hikers along this traverse, and the views are stunning. Here Beat is looking toward our neighborhood.

 View of Arapahoe Peak.

 That looks like a cold place down there. My kind of place. Although skies were kind, the wind was still bitingly cold on Saturday. Where I had been underprepared on Friday, I was overprepared for this outing, and had to wear my thick shell to block the wind. It was a bit of a sauna in there.

 It will probably surprise no one when I admit that I am not so good at tundra walking — balancing atop loose boulders and grass clumps usually results in mishaps. I rolled my left ankle four or five times along the traverse — never badly, but as we neared the pass, my ankle was increasingly sore and I was annoyed. Why can't I dance along the mountains like those high-profile Boulder runners I admire? Or like Beat, for that matter? I suppose I could stop complaining about clumsiness, and instead work harder to combat it. But it's difficult not to be a skeptic. If I never get better at something while actively practicing that exact thing, for years, why would I believe that standing on a balance board is going to change anything?

 It was nice to reach Rollins Pass Road and jog for a while ... although I was again reminded that while I am not great at negotiating loose rubble and babyheads with a bike, I'm still more naturally suited to rolling over uneven terrain than running. It's difficult to explain this to my non-cyclist friends — that I need a bike to help correct my poor balance.

Here is one of our favorite not-so-secret spots in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Forest Lakes. It's a lovely spot, and I keep telling myself we need to return here with a tent. Perhaps this will be the summer I make good on that one promise, at least.

Yes, solstice came and went, and summer is here. As another promise to myself, I will try to make this blog post the last I openly complain about heat or bad air, or guilt about not cramming in more "epic" mountain adventures (admittedly fueled by social media), and embrace the goodness of summer. There is a lot of it, I know. 
Sunday, June 17, 2018

The scars we keep

With Katie Monaco and Lael Wilcox in Banff before the start of the 2015 Tour Divide

The other night I had that dream again: It's night on the unknown mountain. I'm clinging to clumps of grass on a steep shale slope. I can hear pebbles clinking down the face; they sound like marbles on glass. Rain pelts my face, a tumultuous stream reflected by my headlamp. I'm facing the wall, paralyzed by fear, because I can feel pebbles pressing into the soft rubber of my shoes. Unknowingly I'd scrambled up a rock face wearing roller skates, until it became too steep to manage. Now if I budge an inch, the pebbles will slip and I'll plummet down a wet chute into certain oblivion. My grip is weakening. I slowly turn my chin upward. In my dim and chaotic spotlight, I see the edge of a man's shoes — bright yellow Hokas, caked in mud. He's skirting along a narrow ledge about a foot above my head. His headlamp beam meets my face. With little faith in this stranger whose situation can't be much more secure than mine, I slowly release a neoprene-gloved hand from its grassy hold and stretch it toward him.

This is the part of the dream that startles me awake, although sometimes I reach the part where the benevolent stranger pulls me to safety. This time, the dream went dark too soon. I awoke drenched in sweat, sometime after 2 a.m. on Wednesday night. I kicked off the covers and walked to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. The thermometer beside the sink said it was 81 degrees inside the house. I took a single sip and held the glass to my forehead. A smirk curled around my lips. "I can't believe I'm still having the PTL dream."

"The PTL dream" is a replay of something that actually happened to me, or at least it's the way I remember the experience now. The stranger who pulled me by one arm to the ledge was a fellow competitor in the Petite Trotte à Léon, an extremely ill-advised 300-kilometer mountain race in France that I attempted in 2013. My race was a classic horror show — waltzed into a technical challenge far beyond my experience level and skill set, had some close calls, became so steeped in anxiety and paranoia that my strained eyesight remained blurry for six months, didn't sleep for four days straight, had what I think can accurately be described as a nervous breakdown, sprinted blindly through the woods and later through dangerous road tunnels, and was "rescued" by race personnel while catatonic on a bus bench. The short version makes it sound even worse than it was — clearly there are worse things, and there were good moments to break up the drama. But five years later, memories of the experience still cause me to break out in night sweats.

I'm hesitant to use the term PTSD to describe my voluntary participation in a recreational activity. But the bad dreams ... the visceral reactions to vivid memories ... the way I still shy away from mountain adventures where I can't guarantee myself a high level of control ... these are real symptoms. Recently, I've been thinking about the little traumas that accumulate in our psyche over the years, as real and permanent as the scars stretched across our skin. A recent acquaintance, another one of those crazies who thinks it's fun to run 100 miles in Alaska in the winter, posted a confession about racing that drove home some of my disconnected thoughts.

 He wrote: "Why the trauma? I realized what wasn't there was the weeks of nightmares and whirlwind of feelings that followed. The report didn't show the fear, the disappointment and embarrassment. (The race) left a scar, one that is still healing and worse yet it took away something I loved, something I was good at. I've continued to challenge myself physically and pursue adventure. But the game has changed. And I sit wishing my change wasn't so defined by this one race."

He was describing an incredibly difficult race that he finished, also five years ago. By anyone's standards, it was a huge success. But successes can't mask distress and heartache, emotional upheaval and paralyzing fear. We choose to participate in these events for their incredible rewards, but there's a dark side as well. Emotional highs and lows last long after muscles have recovered and injuries have healed.

Outside Whitefish, Montana, during the 2015 Tour Divide
I didn't start writing this post to rehash PTL or abiding phobias. But my bad dream and my friend's confession prompted thoughts about more subtle psychological strain and my complicated feelings about the Tour Divide. Since this year's Divide race started on June 8, I've been wholly distracted by it — following friends and also the race leaders along the map, visualizing the mountain passes they're climbing, imagining the places they stop to camp for the night, trying to remember where I was "on this day" in 2009 or 2015, dreaming up strategies "for next year." Next year? Am I really thinking about it that seriously? I've already mentioned it here once or twice, so I suppose I am.

But whenever I give more thought to racing the Divide "next year," the darker moments from 2015 creep in: The way my lungs filled with dust and yellow crud, until every cough felt like like shards of glass ripping through my airways. The way every breath felt and tasted like drawing air through a thick rubber mask. The overwhelming dizziness near the top of most climbs. The way mosquitoes would swarm as I lay in the dirt just off the road, crushed by weakness and unsure whether I could muster the stamina to move another thousand feet, let alone a thousand miles. The way the sun boiled my skin after I started taking antibiotics, and then boiled my brain when the fever set in. The way I could continue to turn pedals while staring into the horizon with such supreme indifference that I wondered if this was what it felt like, to lose the will to live. That sounds overdramatic, I know. It's an incomplete but succinct way to describe a complex experience — becoming sick, losing physical capacities, and the mental coping mechanisms that followed.

Why didn't I just quit? Or at least, quit sooner, since I was doomed to fail anyway? Similar to PTL, it was always a decision, and not one I can justify now. Hindsight is 20-20. It wasn't that I was trying to be tough or brave, or prove anything, really. I suppose I naively held onto hope that things would get better, strength would return, joy would intensify, and I'd feel whole again. It's difficult to let go of stories I've already told myself, to admit that I'll never be in control. But my hubris turned what had been an incredible life experience into something sour, something that turns my stomach when I think about it, makes me taste all over again the sickly sweetness of the hot blueberry Odwalla juice that I forced down when I could eat nothing else, makes me feel the bile that gurgled in my stomach as I plodded — on foot and pushing my bike — up the gentle incline of Ute Pass in Colorado. I finally shut down later that day in Silverthorne. I've regretted most of the 2015 Tour Divide ever since.

Looking healthy and chipper during the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Perhaps this is why I want to go back — I want to take a sour life experience and turn it into something incredible again. I want to reclaim the strength that's been compromised ever since 2015, and reignite the fire. I want to train hard, dance along the edge, feel fierce, and finish strong. But there's also a part of me that wonders whether it's a delusional pipe dream, because my potential has faded for good. Even if I regain all of my past physical stamina, perhaps my psyche is too scarred to prop up my weaknesses.

My experience on the Iditarod Trail this past March leaves me with these questions. Amid my ongoing health rollercoaster whose timing rarely fits my agenda, I had to start the ITI while I wasn't fully healthy or strong. A relapse of breathing difficulty was just one problem — there were others — and I barely muddled through it for days. Similar to past experiences where I went too far or pushed myself too hard, what kept me going was faith that the best was still to come, and incredible joy could still follow. Then the weather just kept getting worse, the effort more taxing, until I was spent. Utterly spent.

Then, on the final day, a small miracle materialized out of the depths of my weakness, and I found incredible strength. This ignited a high that I've only felt on these extreme margins, a beautiful state of bliss that I would battle to the ends of Earth to experience. Recently, most of my writing efforts have turned toward recounting my 2018 adventures in Alaska — yet another Iditarod race report, after I promised myself no more — just because I want to reconstruct the experience, if only for myself. Trying to construct an intelligible narrative hasn't been straightforward or easy. A lot of what happened makes no sense to me. Immediately after I experienced this incredible burst of energy and bliss — and accomplished my goal of finishing the 350-mile walk to McGrath — I went back to Anchorage and more or less cried for a week. This strange sadness is not something I'm sure I can or even want to process. Like my bout of strength, it materialized out of seemingly nowhere. The sadness left just as abruptly, and hasn't come back. I've been fine since we returned to Colorado. And yet, I suspect the scars remain.

Still, scars are not a reason to shirk away from the incredible potential and intensity of life. I used to say that if some kind of selective brain scan could completely remove my PTL experience from my memory, I would take that option. Now, I'm not so sure. The way that trauma still resonates has become meaningful — a kind of visceral jolt that breaks through doldrums. I may even value my bad dreams, which only seem to return when I'm anxious about something else ... perhaps too much obsessing about the Tour Divide.

Interesting that this is what I think about during a quiet week away from adventure. A boost in pollen followed by wildfire smoke from the west sparked some asthma reactions, and I avoided exerting myself outside this week. I did brave a couple of runs, where I felt wobbly and slow, somewhat wheezy and drenched in sweat. When I decided on a racing "hiatus" for the summer at least, I resolved to avoid my usual training traps — stubbornly adhering to plans or mileage goals among them. If I wasn't feeling it, I wouldn't push myself. Now that the rain has returned and my lungs have cleared, I'm sleepily blogging away a Sunday afternoon ... thinking I'll venture out for another slow run, in an hour or two, just to get outdoors for a couple of hours and breathe that clear, cool air before summer returns.

As much as I loved my long rides in recent weeks, I suspect I'm also capable of evolving into a mellow, mostly non-adventurous person — perhaps even happy that way. Should I extend my racing hiatus indefinitely? Walk away? The scabs from my Bryce Canyon crash a couple of weeks ago are sloughing away, leaving behind fresh pink scars. I look at them and smile, so perhaps I have my answer. 
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bracing for summer

Before leaving Utah, I noticed a bunch of 90s in Boulder's weather forecast and considered extending the road trip to escape north to Montana. If I was brave, that's what I would have done, but I also snagged some extra work for the week and knew it would be tough to hit my deadlines on road. Also, even though Beat was in Zurich on business all week, I wistfully just wanted to be at home, sip my morning quart of coffee while watching hummingbirds on the porch, go for sunset runs on familiar trails. Clearly I'm old, but this is as close to nesting instinct as I'll ever achieve, and I'm enjoying it. 

But summer, ugh. Even though most people expect Colorado to burn after our dry winter, fire season has launched with distressing fierceness. Near my neighborhood, there were three wildfires reported this week alone — small, but large enough to involve a hefty response from multiple agencies. Now when I see a smoke report on the Nextdoor site, I think about just heading to town, rather than staring out the window with anxieties I can do nothing about. 

Heat is its own energy drain. I do love our forest home, but it's almost impossible to keep cool, so the indoor temps generally match outdoor temps. When it hits 85 degrees inside, I move to my "cellar office," which is a camp chair in our dim but naturally temperature-controlled underground bomb shelter. I'm glad the previous homeowner included this strange space. Still, sitting in a sweaty stupor amid midday darkness is not the most inspiring environment.

By Wednesday afternoon I needed to run errands in town, and thought I could squeeze in a 50-mile ride on the cross bike around a new-to-me gravel and pavement loop. Driving slowly down winding Flagstaff Road, I heard a loud noise followed by ker-thunk, ker-thunk, ker-thunk. I pulled over at a precarious hairpin to find the front passenger-side tire in shreds. I did what I tend to do with almost every major bike mechanical I experience — brief panic, followed by fleeting fantasies about whether I could just abandon the bike (car) and walk (ride) to wherever I needed to go. Then I called someone in no position to help me — in this case, Beat in Switzerland. Finally — similar to all of my mechanical upsets — reality sets in, I remember that I am capable of dealing with this myself, and it probably won't even be so hard. Beat gave me helpful tips (location of a lock bolt, where to affix the jack, wedging rocks under the rear tires because I was parked on an incline), and I got it done relatively quickly. I was rather pleased with myself. Despite understanding how easy it is to change a spare tire, I celebrate all of my mechanical victories. 

Anyway, by the time I pulled into the parking lot where I planned to start my ride, it was 4:30 p.m. It's fully dusk by 8:30, and I had no lights with me. Could I finish my 50-mile ride with 5,000 feet of climbing in that time limit? I was going to try! I used all of the adrenaline and irritability left over from my flat tire debacle to mash pedals, and enjoyed settling into peaceful rhythm as I descended amid beautiful evening light through a canyon I hadn't before visited (no pictures, unfortunately.) When it was clear I was going to make it before dark, I didn't push as hard across the flat return, but still finished in 3:36. Most of my rides with their requisite climbing and careful descending rarely break 10mph average, and this was nearly 14mph. Again I was rather pleased ... but not as much as I'd been about successfully swapping out a spare tire on my car. 

By Friday afternoon I'd finished my project, so I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park to ride Old Fall River Road — another ride with 5,000 feet of climbing, this time in 40 miles at higher altitudes. For a person not training for anything in particular right now, I've indulged in several weeks full of big rides, and I was beginning to feel a bit rough around the edges. I blamed the green clouds of pine pollen choking the atmosphere, along with oppressive heat and general ugh-summer sentiment, for not feeling as strong. I also need to accept that I may be having a small lapse in my thyroid health; a few other symptoms are there as well. But no matter ... it was a beautiful afternoon, and there was no one on the road. 

 No one except for these elk bros, and also a red fox that slipped away before I could snap a photo.

 So beautiful, watching them gallop up the road. They didn't seem to care too much about me and trotted at my speed for several minutes while I shadowed them.

RMNP is such a nice place to be. I felt better as I climbed and indulged in fantasies about the Tour Divide — this year's race had just launched that morning. The act of just jumping on a bike and pointing it toward a place thousands of miles away is so appealing — to just breathe, and pedal, and briefly imagine there's no loaded past, no anxious future ... just individual moments and the immediate landscape. I am now thinking fairly seriously about lining up for that coveted 20-day finish in 2019, which is somewhat baffling to me — given my recent health and fitness struggles, aversions to summer things such as heat and pollen, and haunting memories of racing sick in 2015, which was mostly terrible and not something I want to relive. But I still have the incredible experiences of 2009, a 10-year anniversary and my 40th birthday to celebrate, and a joy that still resides there, buried now, but eager to resurface.

 Between all my big rides this week, I did get out for one five-mile run, which brings my June run total to three (counting the hike in Bryce Canyon that turned into a partial run.) Yup, I've been slow to get off the couch since my broken toe healed, and I can feel it. My running fitness has withered like a drought-parched flower; every step feels ridiculously fragile. It's clear I'm not remotely a natural runner, because even brief periods of time off usher me back to an awkward start. Sometimes I think back to my running heyday (2012) and how I breezed through 50Ks almost every weekend, and marvel. I thought I was just getting started in the sport, but I now see how I burned through my few available matches in a blazing bonfire. It was worth it.

Anyway, this was a short run, but eventful. I crossed paths with a black bear just beyond my neighbor's driveway. He was reluctant to step off the road, so I just stood there for nearly a minute, both of us unperturbed as I talked about my run plan and the fact I had bear spray, which I was actually carrying for the first time in Colorado. The whole time he had his back to me, looking sideways, when finally he lifted his snout as though rolling his head back in an exasperated motion, the sauntered into the grass. 

 It sure was a beautiful evening. Temps hit the high 80s at home, so I worked in my cellar office during the day and put off starting the run until 7:30 p.m. Nearly nixed it altogether, but I'm glad I didn't.

 On Sunday, temperatures in Boulder were forecast to hit 98 degrees. I decided to escape the heat by riding to 12,000 feet at Rollins Pass. I started at a dry and dusty Moffat Tunnel, where it was 86 degrees at 10:30 a.m. Four-wheeler traffic was thick for the first six miles, and then the rocky road funneled through a narrow passage that was still filled with snow. Trucks and four-wheelers were stacked up behind it in a bizarre backcountry traffic jam. Stuck in the drift was a small SUV that somehow became buried to the sideview mirrors. The driver was chopping at snow with his ice scraper. It looked quite hopeless. "That's a bummer," was all I could think to say as I sidled past with my bike hanging off my shoulder.

"Looks like you have the right tool for the job," the driver replied.

"Sometimes it pays to go with a lighter vehicle," I said. "Good luck to you."

Beyond there, Rollins Pass Road was as quiet as can be. This climb is lovely, but I tend to forget how tedious it is — a continuous surface of loose rubble and babyheads, on a meandering railroad grade that climbs interminably. Even in good conditions, the effort is always much harder than it seems on paper, perhaps because I am not that adept at balancing and efficiently turning wheels over loose surfaces. So I was already cooked when I encountered another cyclist at the iced-over lake near mile 10. He told me, "there's a lot of hiking past here. If I can do it, anyone can. But good luck following the road."

 The transition from dry, dusty chunder to frequent snowfields was abrupt. The snow was rotten underneath, and hiking was difficult. With every other step, I punched knee- and sometimes hip-deep holes into slushy puddles. The bike balked and sank and repeatedly smashed my shin and calves with its wayward pedals. After a mile, the other cyclist's tracks faded. Then I hit the snowfields that entirely buried the road, requiring me to cross laterally on a steep slope. Each time, I checked the runout and deemed it safe, but traversing the snow was another matter, psychologically. The bike was difficult to manage and my shoes slipped constantly. The snow was rotten slush in spots, and hard ice in others. In the middle of the last big snowfield, I slipped on a patch of ice and lost my balance to my knees. The bike served as a decent ice ax with pedals and handlebars digging in, but my nerves were shaken. I would do almost anything to avoid crossing that snowfield again. (I did not take any pictures of this snowfield. Suffice to say it is probably not that bad.)

 Surprisingly the last half mile to Needle's Eye Tunnel, along with the bypass, were mostly clear. The north-facing trestle corridor was almost completely filled with snow, but above that, a doubletrack climbing to the ridge also was clear. This also meant more steep hiking at 11,500 feet. After four hours of spinning through chunder, bouncing over babyheads, wrestling with my bike, punching through snow, flailing in mud bogs, burning up all of my adrenaline on a scary snowfield, then hiking some more, I reached Rollins Pass. I'd traveled 15 miles, and felt spent. But I wasn't thrilled about doing all of that again in reverse. I looked toward Winter Park on the western side of the Continental Divide and thought, "I could loop this."

Spanning Rollins Pass is the rugged spine of the Divide and a lot of wilderness. There is no quick way around with a bike. I knew this, but I'd never before descended into Winter Park. This was an intriguing prospect, and knew I could find a way back over Berthoud Pass and Idaho Springs. The western descent also was long, rocky and quite muddy, but at least it was clear of snow. Climbing busy Highway 40 on a hot Sunday in June is an experience I don't need to repeat, but there is a decent shoulder and the route is scenic enough. Idaho Springs was an inferno, and the lady at the gas station where I bought water and a sandwich chided me for coming into her store while I was covered in mud. The climb up Virginia Canyon Road was an oven but also lovely and quiet, and I was grateful to escape the highway corridor. From there I hoped to find a "shortcut" on jeep roads back to Tolland through Apex Valley, but private property signs and gates pushed me into the awful casino corridor of Central City at sunset. In Black Hawk, a cop pulled me over.

"Are you aware there's a city ordinance against cycling through downtown?" she asked.

"No, no I didn't know," I lied with an unintentional but possibly sympathy-inducing hoarseness in my voice. I did know about that law. I vowed I would always avoid the town and never give them my business because of it. But it was dusk on a quiet Sunday night, and I really just wanted to get through as quickly as possible. The police officer was nice enough, and let me go with a warning. Being a mud-covered solo woman on a mountain bike probably helped my cause. I can't blame her for the town's ordinance, but jeez.

I commenced the long climb to Rollinsville as dusk faded to night — luckily I was carrying good lights this time. It had been a long day — already 75 miles, and I figured I had 20 left. The first fifteen miles of the day almost broke me, but I kept going, all the same. After I turned onto Tolland Road, I lost myself in vivid memories about the night I pedaled into Koyukuk along the Yukon River during my 2016 Iditarod Trail ride. Somehow the white light on the road, the blackness of the surrounding forest, steep hillsides that resembled river bluffs, and other similarities put me viscerally back in the moment.

I love when this happens. The intensity and beauty of past experience stretched over the shadowy horizon, immediate difficulties faded into the background, and I was new again. I wanted to keep riding, but suddenly I was back at Moffat Tunnel and it was 10 p.m. Eleven and a half hours. 95 miles. 9,500 feet of climbing. A good day. I wished I'd planned it better, and found quieter corridors, but for a spur-of-the-moment decision, tacking on 70 miles and a bunch of engaging new scenery seemed like a wonderful way to avoid a snowfield. I felt wholly satisfied. I miss this feeling, when I take it easy for too long. 
Thursday, June 07, 2018

Reliving Snowy Range Pass

Driving long distances is a guilty pleasure of mine, right up there with cycling and running long distances — I just love covering ground. The best part about road trips is breaking up the drive with some sort of hurried adventure in a new-to-me place. The potential discoveries are seemingly endless. Driving from Salt Lake City to Boulder on Monday, I planned to take I-80 and check out singletrack trails in Laramie, which are popular with Colorado mountain bikers and must be for a reason. However, an afternoon ride through Corner Canyon on Sunday resulted in increased pain in my bruised elbow. I had to concede that I wasn't going to feel good on even remotely technical trail. So I shifted my focus to national forest lands just south of I-80 and west of Laramie, in the Snowy Range. 

I figured I could find some scenic jeep roads to ride. But after two miles of jack-hammering on rocky gravel, my elbow was giving me fits. I did not need this aggravation, so I turned around and gritted my teeth through a painful descent. Good decision to quit early. Since I'd already driven 30 miles off route and kitted up, I didn't want to waste the opportunity to ride. The smooth pavement of highway 130 seemed like a soothing alternative for my sore arm.

I was five or six miles into the road climb when the scenery began to look eerily familiar. This mountain village ... this roadside fishing platform ... those bald peaks in the distance. Where I have seen this before? It took about that long to realize, "Oh, this is the high pass we crossed in Wyoming during the cross-country bike tour!" This was 15 years ago, the last time I pedaled this road. Details have eroded to the point that I didn't recall the location or even the name of the mountain range, but the images of that day are still burned in memory, as clear as anything.

In the autumn of 2003, my then-boyfriend Geoff and I pedaled 3,200 miles from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, New York, on a self-created route (we tore state pages out of a Rand McNally road atlas before leaving Utah, and mostly made up the plan for each day as we went.) There are many stories I could tell from this trip, and may someday have to write a longer blog about it, but let's take a minute to look and laugh at my rig. The bike is an Ibex Corrida, an entry-level aluminum touring bicycle that I bought online for $300. The box arrived while Geoff was out of town, and although I knew nothing about bikes, I was so excited to try it out that I assembled the bike myself. My first ride was a predictable disaster — bent a derailleur hanger so the rear derailleur wrapped itself into the spokes, decimating the wheel and the drivetrain. Ibex, a now-defunct company run by good people, offered to take the bike back and send me a new one at no extra charge. They also sent me that cotton shirt, which I wore on the trip to display my Ibex pride. I considered them my "sponsor." (Ibex later sent me a slightly fancier $799 road bike after I wrote some Web content for them. I rode the red Corrida regularly until 2010.)

Anyway, this was to be a long tour, so I brought the kitchen sink. Among the contents of those panniers was a huge circa-2000 laptop computer and a full-sized frying pan (because camp pots don't work as well when cooking for two.) Also, non-foldable spare tire! I never weighed the loaded bike, but always guessed it to be in the range of 70-80 pounds. Starting the tour with limited training and experience, then pedaling that beast for an average of 50 miles a day for 65 days, left me with knee issues that persisted through my 20s. I also sustained at least 30 flat tires during that trip ... usually pinch flats. I could never figure that one out.

Mirror Lake, photo taken August 31, 2003
The trip began on my 24th birthday: August 20, 2003. We climbed out of Salt Lake City on Interstate 80 and followed Highway 40 through Eastern Utah and Colorado. North of Craig, we climbed into Wyoming via Baggs and camped in Savery — now part of the Tour Divide route. From there we climbed over the Continental Divide and another high pass whose exact location I'd mostly forgotten, until this week. I dug up the excerpt from my trip journal:

Tuesday, September 2, 2003: 
"We crossed the Continental Divide at 10,000 feet and the Snowy Range at nearly 11,000 feet. The morning we climbed the Snowy Range, southeastern Wyoming had dropped to record low temperatures. As we climbed into the clouds, the air hovered just above freezing and stinging rain pelted our skin. We rounded a small lake at 10,200 feet and proceeded to roll across the eight-mile summit beside 12,000 foot peaks of jagged granite, glacial black lakes and windswept pine. It was spectacular, but harder to see as the fog thickened and the temperature dropped.

We reached Libby Flats, the pass, just before 11 a.m. at 10,857 feet. At this point we had put on every piece of warm clothing we had, and still the cold wind cut through. Despite the rewards of climbing to the top of the world, the swift ride down to Centennial proved to be even more excruciating than the climb. The continuous 7 percent grade was merciless on my bike's burning brakes, and my meager coat and gloves proved useless against the windchill. Every part of my body went numb; my face froze in an expression of terror, and I screamed down the mountain until my knees buckled and my fingers turned gray.

Centennial, at only 8,100 feet, was a welcome sight, and we ducked into a tavern for a warm lunch and hot chocolate. From there, the flat high plains rolled us into Laramie - though not without a fight. We fought a prevailing 20 mph crosswind out of the southeast with no relief. By the time we reached the small city, the storm we had been running from all day caught up to us - and it poured. To compound things we got lost looking for a place to stay - impossible on a holiday weekend - and I lost a rear pulley which took over an hour to find and replace. It was nearly dark before we rolled into a KOA campground and crashed in frustration and exhaustion as the rain pounded down."

Geoff took this photo at the pass, dated Aug. 31, 2003. I remember much about this climb, because it was so hard. We got a pre-sunrise start out of camp because we anticipated a long day spanning a 4,000-foot climb. The morning was damp and gray; I remember beads of dew and sweat on my skin. My odometer regularly dipped below 4mph, and my calves burned with such intensity that I stopped pedaling involuntarily at regular intervals. The above journal entry was all I ever wrote about it, but I found this excerpt written by Geoff:

Thursday, September 4, 2003: 
"The thought though that people would actually ride their bike over the immense mountains of the American West didn’t enter my mind until the first time I saw someone doing it. As I recall I was in New Mexico, crossing through the southern Rockies in the ease of my Volkswagen when I saw a lone rider chugging up a winding mountain road. At the time he was probably only 3 or 4 miles from the top, but in my mind he seemed so much further than that. Driving past this rider, I imagined it taking him not minutes or even hours, but rather days to climb this last few miles. At that time the task of biking, fully loaded with gear, up and over the Rocky Mountains seemed as challenging and as intense as most anything I could imagine.

... Several days later I still find myself thinking occasionally of that first rider I saw biking over the mountains in New Mexico several years ago.  I coasted down from the mountains and out across the prairie having accomplished for myself what seemed to me several years ago like a nearly impossible feat.  The wind here on the plains is mostly at our back and the terrain is always dropping more than rising, but even a larger factor in making these past 150 miles seem so comfortable has been the gratification and momentum we gained by biking up and over the Rocky Mountains, an experience which for me will likely be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done."

Fifteen years later, the climb is not nearly so daunting, the feat more tame ... and yet the original experience is every bit as memorable. After about two and a half hours of mostly relaxed spinning on my mountain bike, I pulled up to the pass. The first thing I noticed was this sign, which I recognized so clearly that I was convinced I could take a selfie in the same position as the original photo (not quite, but ...) It's still exactly the same! 

Upon comparison with the original photo, I now see it's not exactly the same, and the differences are driving the typographer in me crazy. How did they squeeze in that "Nature's Final Production" line? None of the other text is squished. Removing the footprints from the bottom of the old sign doesn't add enough room for text that large. Everything else is the same. Arrrrgh!

The views from Libby Flats. This is something I love most about Wyoming — high alpine plains. This more than anything else reminds me of the Tour Divide. That nostalgia trip also had apt timing, as the 2018 race kicks off Friday.

 Medicine Bow peak. Similar to my first visit here, the weather deteriorated near the top. Temperatures dropped to the high 40s with gusts of wind and rain. The thunderstorms were short-lived, but I ended up descending all the way to the bottom of the pass wearing my puffy jacket. It was a quick trip and I was decidedly better equipped than I was in 2003, despite having about 50 pounds fewer supplies. 

Driving into Laramie with evening light. It was so beautiful. I was all kinds of stoked about planning another bike tour across the plains, until I stepped out of my car to take this photo, only to be attacked by dozens of mosquitos. Then I remembered the sand hills, and the stop-in-our-tracks Nebraska winds, the mean drivers of Missouri, the tornado warnings of Illinois, the vicious dogs of Kentucky, the endless rollers on 17 percent grades in Ohio, the cold October nights in Pennsylvania and New York ... little did we know coasting down this road into Laramie in 2003, our hardest days were still ahead of us. But it was blissful, at the time, to think it was all downhill from here.

Life may be linear, but it folds in on itself in the most interesting ways. There's really nothing like experiencing something for the first time, but the nostalgia trips can be satisfying, too — both for the lucid memories they evoke, and the perspective into how far we've traveled since we first climbed this mountain.
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Running around Bryce

This past weekend, Beat raced his fourth Bryce 100. It's an event full of punchy climbs, claustrophobic canyons, clouds of fine dust, thin air, daytime heat, nighttime frost — and endless incredible scenery. I've been wanting to go back for redemption since I timed out of this race at mile 72 last year, but I have resolved to not sign up for any more endurance events until I regain a higher degree of confidence in my fitness. Since my springtime running also has been nonexistent, I made an easy decision to DNS the Dirty 30 in Golden, so I could travel to Utah and play in Bryce Canyon (cough, crew for Beat.)

Beat anxiously anticipating the 5 a.m. start. With a 36-hour cutoff and sunset after 8 p.m., there's really no reason this race couldn't start at 8 a.m. rather than frigid darkness that requires runners to wake up at 3 a.m. I just don't understand these early starts. But I was filled with FOMO all the same. I had to remind myself that my Alaska adventures were not that long ago, because it already feels like it's been years since I clawed my way around a daunting swath of land, limbs throbbing and blood pulsing in pursuit of the divine.

The runners were off, so I headed into the national park to do some exploring. One (and only) positive of waking up for a 5 a.m. race start is arriving early enough to catch sunrise over the canyons.

The morning light was nice. But I'm still an a.m. grump. Bah humbug.

I set out for a hike along the rim, appreciative of the lack of crowds. (Okay, one more early start plus.)

Before the first mile was up, I became bored with my pace on an easy trail and launched into a jog. I did not set out with the intent of running — I'm not in great shape for that right now — but enjoyed the endorphin burst and decided to keep at it.

Descending along the Fairyland Loop Trail.

Not even 8 a.m. and I'm already drenched in sweat. To be fair, it wasn't that hot — 75 degrees for a high on Friday.

I believe this is called Boat Mesa? I'm indulging in many photos for this blog post, even though they are somewhat redundant and don't begin to capture the surroundings. Every corner revealed new and consistently breathtaking vistas, sand castles and stone sculptures. Stoke kicked in, and I ran faster.

So there I was, eight miles into my morning hike-run, clocking 7 or 8 mph — a pace that actually forces me to pick up my feet — on a perfectly smooth and nearly level trail at the bottom of the canyon. The tangerine- and salmon-colored fairy castle towered overhead, and I gazed upward in serene bliss. Then, suddenly, splat. I certainly didn't trip over anything and am fairly confident that I wasn't slurring my feet, so I couldn't even tell you why I fell. It's as though (and I genuinely believe this happens to me sometimes) my brain lost the plot and misinterpreted which way was up. I was even using my runner training wheels (trekking poles) to help keep my balance, to no avail. My body hit the hard dirt and skidded several inches. Most of the major joints on my right side — knee, hip, elbow, shoulder — felt like they had been smacked broadside by a 2x4. Every time. Every time! Well, it's good I didn't show up for the Dirty 30, because my running technique — already bad on my best days — has rusted to an alarming degree.

This was one of those hard hits where I had the wind knocked out of me, and had to drag myself off the trail and writhe around in the dirt for several minutes until I could breathe again. Assessment: Bloody knee, bloody wrist, throbbing hip and shoulder. My elbow seemed to have taken the brunt of the impact. In addition to road rash, it had already swollen to the size of a baseball. Ugh.

Happily, nothing was broken. I hobbled along for a mile (walk it off, walk it off), which turned into a more normal stride, which progressed into a determined hike as I climbed out of Fairyland.

Back at the rim, I had an opportunity to quit and grab the park shuttle, but opted to keep going. Descending into Queen's Garden, I was happy to run again, albeit at a much more timid, less thrilling pace.

The Bryce front country is rather compact, and I wanted to cover most of the major trails during this morning excursion. My elbow was hurting, so I put one of my trekking poles away and mostly walked. I wasn't worried about injury beyond the pronounced goose egg/bruise, but I was bummed that I had torn and blood-stained my favorite long-sleeve shirt. Every time!

Pretty hoodoos along the Peekaboo Loop. Does theis scenery ever get old? I doubt it.

By the time I returned to Bryce Point, I'd hiked/run/splat/hiked about 18 miles and stoke had fully returned. So I continued two more miles along the Under-the-Rim trail, until I heard that discouraging "slurp" from my Camelbak bladder, indicating I was out of water. Time to turn around. The final dry mile was quite steep — 1,000 feet of elevation gain in one mile. The one group of hikers I encountered on that climb looked concerned and asked me if I was okay. Well, I was bloody and dusty and likely weaving a bit from thirst and fatigue, but I thought I was doing okay. Since the trailhead was less than a half mile away, I didn't ask them for water.

Even though I was done with my 22-mile excursion by 1 p.m., the timing was too tight to make it out to the 32-mile aid station, my first point to meet Beat. He'd already told me he didn't expect to see me there, and our next point of contact was at mile 65. So I had oodles of time to take and shower and return to the park to picnic my way around the observation points.

I caught sunset from Rainbow Point, which sits above 9,000 feet.

I love sunset. It holds more intrigue than sunrise — the mystery of night, fading light and quiet, cool air and solitude.

At the Bryce Canyon village store, I waited in line for more than 20 minutes — behind a European woman buying what appeared to be dozens of glass trinkets that needed to be individually wrapped — to grab a sandwich and Frappuccino for Beat. He seemed grateful when I showed up at the dusty aid station with fresh food, as he'd been nauseated for most of the afternoon, and was just getting his stomach back enough to eat.

I was back up at 4 a.m. to catch Beat at mile 85. Well before dawn, temps had plummeted to 33 degrees with humidity. There was a definitive chill to the air, but Beat was in relatively good spirits despite an increasingly sore hip and nausea. I guess this goes with the territory in a hundred-miler, especially when one is nearing 50 (Beat has celebrated several of his recent birthdays in Bryce Canyon. He turned 49 on Thursday.)

As for me, well, I woke up after three hours of sleep feeling like I'd run my own hundred-miler, and also been beaten with a 2x4, and maybe crashed my car for good measure. Let's see — 22-mile run-ish after a month-plus mostly off my feet, big splat on the hard ground, continued running after big splat, sleep deprivation and picnicking with leftover race snacks. I'm really getting too old for this.

Besides general soreness and the goose egg on my elbow, I was physically okay ... as in uninjured. Although stiff and grumpy, it seemed a shame to waste this short, scenic opportunity when we had to return to Salt Lake that evening so Beat could catch a flight. After he took off toward the finish, I set out for a short morning hobble through Red Canyon.

Limping along the race course with my one trekking pole, holding my sore arm against my torso, and feeling a little disappointed that Beat probably ran through most of this beautiful place during the night. Night has its own beauties and mysteries, though. We recreational hikers miss so much.

There was an intriguing spur called Buckhorn Trail that I decided to follow. Following this narrow indentation over seriously loose scree in my compromised state with worn-out shoes was probably my most unwise decision in a weekend full of unwise decisions. My shoe slid out and I ended up on my butt, actually quite relieved that I didn't slide all the way to the bottom of the canyon. The scree under my foot kept giving out as I attempted to regain purchase, clawing at the trail with both hands despite radiating pain from my bad elbow. Arrgh! No more running/hiking for me for a while. For now, I stick to wheels.

Still, all of the mishaps were forgotten as I crawled onto a narrow plateau, plopped my now-bruised butt on a rock and breathed sweet, cool air as dozens of small birds darted over my head, in and out of their nest in a nearby hoodoo.

Beat finished the 2018 Bryce 100 in 29.5 hours. He was a little disappointed with his race, but I thought he did great for limited training following recovery from the 1,000-mile journey across Alaska. Plus, Bryce is a deceptively hard race. Someday, I would like to attempt something like this once more. But, really, I should first figure out how to simply run, yet again.