Monday, July 16, 2018

I am so infinitesimal

Nearly 90 degrees at 10,000 feet, and a steady flow of sunscreen-saturated sweat reduced my field of vision to bursts of light between rapid-fire blinks. After a hard left the road shot skyward at a 20 percent grade, its surface a backward conveyor made of moon dust and loose rocks. With impaired vision and Jello legs, my path resembled a drunken meander, carved in the sand. As has been my recent habit, I conjured an obnoxious but catchy song in my mind to force better cadence. This time, it was "Infinitesimal" by Mother Mother. 

There’s a million, billion, trillion stars 
but I’m down here low 
Fussin’ over scars 
on my soul (on my soul)
on my soul (on my soul)
On my soul, I am so

The rear wheel bounced and skidded in place. I mashed harder. My heart pumped sludge, my blinking vision narrowed and my head spun, but this sensation felt right again — power-generating desperation, rather than poor oxygen saturation. Then I heard the sound that was my only fear in this tunnel-vision place: a vehicle rumbling uphill behind me. The narrow road forced me to veer to the impossibly soft edge, where I applied every last strand of strength to keep my line straight through inches of chunder. After an agonizing span of time, the small sedan rumbled past at 5 mph (meanwhile, I was clocking about 2 mph.) Finally free of the oppressor, my legs faltered. The bike's rear wheel skidded sideways and I was forced to throw a foot down. Gah! 

The road was far too steep to generate new momentum, so I commenced pushing. Even walking in this heat, under this harsh sun, up this steep chundery road, pushed the limits of my fitness. I barely had the strength to look up when I passed a parked truck flanked by an older gentleman — most likely 70-something — with baggy overalls and white whiskers. He was working on firing up a small chainsaw, and paused as I passed. 

"You're supposed to ride that bike, not push it!" he exclaimed with playful gruffness.

"I'm not strong enough to ride here," I panted in reply. 

"You've got another mile to walk before the top. Good riding up there, though. Worth it." 

The "top"
I thanked the chainsaw-wielding local and continued the upward trudge. I smiled at the thought of how pathetic I probably looked, because that morning, for once, I woke up feeling strong. So strong that I decided to launch my weekly long ride into Boulder on the hottest day of July so far, starting at 9 a.m. when the temperature was already 85 degrees, then head up high to scout new-to-me terrain. My route would require at least 70 miles and close to 9,000 feet of climbing, thus the early start (the goal in these weekday rides is to race the clock so I can cram as much mileage as possible before a sharp 5 p.m. deadline.) My interpretation of fitness vacillates so frequently that it doesn't even mean much to me anymore, to say "I feel strong today." But I try to embrace sensations of strength when they occur, even on the hottest day of summer. 

Since I spent four hours climbing up here, I figured it was time to head down, but vowed to return as soon as possible to explore higher. During the long descent on Sugarloaf Road, my speed topped 40mph as I approached two animals racing along the paved shoulder. Just barely moving faster than them, I soon saw it was a doe chasing a large coyote, with a bushy tail flicking rapidly as it darted into the grass and back into the road. For more than a mile this continued — the kind of thing I would have had time to photograph had I not been descending at break-neck speed myself. The doe was not relenting and none of the coyote's evasion tactics worked. Coyote didn't have a fawn in its jaws, so I figured the deer was winning this battle. I was rooting for her. Finally coyote spotted an escape route and took a hard right into brush, the doe still hot on its heels. 

I reached Boulder Canyon with an hour to spare. Even though I was by then well-toasted, I veered up Chapman trail for an extraneous thousand-foot climb as the temperature soared past 98 degrees. Usually this popular route is crowded with runners and cyclists by 4:30 p.m., but on this afternoon, sweat was my only companion. There were no cyclists on Flagstaff Road, either, which is downright eery. I felt fantastic. Usually heat is kryptonite, but eventually there's a tipping point where it's so bad that it taps into my ridiculousness ethic, and then I thrive (as long as I have access to four-plus liters of water, that is.) 

Our friend Gabi was in town all week, and Beat set up elaborate shuttles to guide her on all of his favorite run-commutes from work to home. My Achilles was tight after all of last week's mountain adventures, so I couldn't join the running fun, but was happy to help with the necessary one-way bike commutes. Thursday brought steady afternoon showers. I thought I'd be thrilled to beat the heat and ride in the rain, but I underestimated how cooked I remained after Wednesday's ride. Dust mixed with light rain turns into an irritatingly sticky paste that bogs down wheels, and I was admittedly a grumpy bear for most of the three-and-a-half-hour slog I'd chosen. 

Notable from this ride was the way I worked so hard to grind up a climb that has become one of my cherished Strava segments, then later learned I'd botched it more than 11 minutes off my PR — the slowest I've ever ridden this route outside the winter months between 2016 and 2017, which included slush and snow. Strava is known for its kudos and achievements and PRs, so I joked with Beat that someone should write an app to send an e-mail that plays sad trombone with the message "You really sucked this time" for every personal worst. I would pay for this app. One needs to have balance in life. 

On Saturday I swiftly made good on my promise to return to the Apex Valley/James Peak region with more time to explore a compelling maze of jeep roads. My body felt better but my bike kept dropping its chain during the slow churning climb — probably my fault for mounting the rear wheel incorrectly; it's always something simple like that. No matter, as soon everything would be solid granny gear terrain, no shifting necessary.

Next time I decided to go jeep road exploring, I will try to find a weekday to do so, as four-wheeler traffic was thick on Saturday. I stopped at this viewpoint to admire James Peak, where a family in a red jeep expressed amazement at seeing me, since they'd passed me near the bottom of the hill at Tolland and had barely arrived themselves. (That's another positive of rugged roads. With the exception of the occasional dare-devil motorcycle, most traffic is creeping along so slowly that they don't even kick up dust.) The man urged me to ride down the trail they were about to hike, and I explained that the trail entered a wilderness area where bikes weren't allowed. It was clear he didn't understand what I meant by this, and continued to express confidence that I could handle it.

"You rode all the way up here, that would be nothing for you."

Instead I pushed my bike up a gut-busting ladder of rocks (that I would later walk down as well.) I crested a saddle just below Kingston Peak. The weather up here was unbelievably perfect — no wind, few clouds, and 70+ degrees at 12,000 feet in mid-afternoon. Exploration possibilities on the other side seemed almost endless, but on this day I was racing daylight, thanks to a 12:30 p.m. start. I mostly doubted I'd make it around for a loop, but I was going to try.

I found a delicious piece of tundra singletrack to ride toward the town of Saint Marys. I could see dirt roads climbing hills in the distance and convinced myself I'd connect them, so I descended a long way.

Then the trail ended at the tongue of Saint Marys Glacier. The snowfield was surprisingly solid and icy for a hot summer afternoon, and it became clear I wouldn't be able to negotiate it short of butt-scooting with my bike. I stubbornly persisted, hiking along the boulder-strewn edge. But as this became more arduous, I also questioned the legality of dragging my bike down a glacier to the crowded access trails at the mouth. The prospect of breaking the law — not the slogarific hike-a-bike — eventually turned me around.

The steep return was nearly all bike-pushing. By the time I crested the Kingston Peak saddle again, it was after 5 p.m. The simple option would be to go back the way I came, but then I met some nice motorcyclists ("Wow," one greeted me. "You are a long, long way up here." ... after I'd descended a thousand feet) who described a way to descend into Central City, where I knew I could connect back to Apex Valley. I must have taken a wrong turn, because I veered onto a steep and baby-head-strewn doubletrack through a deep and buggy canyon, aptly named Mosquito Creek. This was slow, slow descending, and by the time I hit Upper Apex Valley Road, it was after 6 p.m. I used my brand new Garmin InReach Mini (which I love!) to text Beat. "Running really late. You should probably go ahead and have dinner without me."

At Apex Valley, I could have easily descended into Central City and taken the highway home, but curiosity drove me skyward, from 9,000 feet back up to nearly 11,000 feet in the rich evening light. The road surface deteriorated and steepened, until I was again churning on a bed of loose boulders, applying most of my upper-body strength just to maintain a minimally straight forward line. The air was still and utterly silent. I enjoyed gazing over the ripple of foothills and sprawling plains to the east, feeling dwarfed by the grandeur. Some people go to the mountains to feel they've conquered something big. I come here to embrace my reality as an insignificant piece in a big, spectacular world.

Of course, I am still human, and can't always prevent my useless ego from roaring back to life. The bumpy descent atop a primitive road bed filled with loose babyheads was so exhausting that I was on the verge of tears. I took increasingly extended walking breaks — while descending a hill I could technically ride — just to "rest." Finally at the bottom, I texted Beat again to let him know I was still alive. "Finally back at Rollinsville. That ride was so hard. 34 miles in seven and a half hours."

You can bet I'll be back for more.

Sunday was Beat's turn for a long effort — his last long training run before the Ouray 100 in two weeks. Beat has this thing he calls the "InFERNo Half Marathon," which is five times down and up Fern Canyon with a three-mile round-trip approach on the west ridge of Bear Peak. Those 13 miles include 10,000 feet of climbing, and it's difficult to emphasize how difficult the whole thing must be, spending hours negotiating a 40-percent grade either up or down. (I've only ever managed two Ferns, so I don't even know.) Beat thrives in this kind of ridiculousness, and did the whole thing — 10,000 feet of climbing — in less than seven hours.

Conditions were close to perfect on Sunday, with fog and steady warm rain that cooled the air, cleared out the crowds, and coated the dirt parts of the trail (admittedly rare between the rocks) in sticky hero mud. I set out in the mid-afternoon to do just one lap — still 3,000 feet of climbing in five miles — and noted the rarity of these ideal conditions. "PR conditions," I thought.

I descended from Bear Peak extra slowly, and bid Beat goodbye on his fifth climb, since I couldn't even keep up with him then. At the lower trail post, I dawdled in the warm mist until my watch hit 1:20:00, then launched up the muddy trail. With determined focus to keep a steady pace and not drift off the occasionally perplexing route, I marched in a near-red-lined daze until I hit the top, some 2,000 feet higher. My watch read 1:57:xx. 37 minutes! My old PR is over 40 minutes, so that was solid! I was giddy.

Then, at home, a downloaded my track and saw that my GPS had a major hiccup and instead recorded an erratic spider track all over the walls beside Fern Canyon, so the actual segment never recorded. I was mildly devastated, because if it's not on Strava, it didn't happen.

I suppose I'll have to wait for the next rainy afternoon to try it again. You can bet I'll be back for more. 


  1. Ha. I could care so much less about Strava, but this makes me think. After my last PCT endeavor, I came home pretty worn out. My recovery time has been long this time. Humbling to say the least. And made me really think about pushing myself to ridiculous (I say that on my own level of fitness, much less than yours) levels. Maybe I don't need to work that hard all the time. I only write this because it is something I am wrestling with. I know you and Beat will carry on!

    1. I know how you feel. My fitness still seems to be all over the map, but I definitely take longer to bounce back from hard efforts than I did ten years ago. I suppose you have to continue to weigh the costs versus the rewards.

      As for Strava, I think it's loads of fun and not something to be taken seriously, but I do experience tinges of regret when the historical data shows my downward arcs. Still, I am a fan of record-keeping in all forms.

  2. Totally agree with your thoughts on Strava having some sort of acknowledgment when you suck more than you ever have before on a segment! I call mine "UST"s...(U Suck Today). I personally think that would be as good an incentive as any PR's are. The Sad Trombone audio would be good...hadn't thought of an audio addition to a UST, that would be awesome! (note, I've never submitted my idea to Strava...I feel they don't listen anyway...the only idea I've ever submitted has been submitted THOUSANDS OF TIMES (likely MANY thousands) for many years....crickets from Strava (idea is to allow for you to designate rides/segments as either solo or group..the idea being I do many road rides solo and also in PR's are pretty much all based on the group rides and due to drafting there's pretty much no way I can ever come close on a solo ride, thus my PR's are pretty meaningless).

    Anyway, glad you are having strong days! Keep it up, and great pics as usual!


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