Thursday, August 16, 2018

High on my own supply

This feeling always trickles in around the beginning of the month. My mood begins to brighten. I read the morning news, and while it still bums me out, I don't feel utterly hopeless about the state of affairs. I scroll through horrors on my Twitter feed and think, "good can still come of this." The chronic rash on my shins and feet starts to clear. I check my blood pressure; it's down again, along with my resting heart rate. My gym visits are encouraging; I'm finally back to increasing my weights again after a little slump. Then the effortless personal records start accompanying my runs and rides — best Fern Canyon amid a long run; fastest-yet 68J climb on a fat bike. And I wonder, "why are things going so well? Oh yes, it's August."

Around here, August is generally not a great month for training. It's hot. It's dusty. The dirt roads and trails have been drying out since spring, and are now coated in wheel-sucking sand and loose gravel. Wildfire smoke fills the air every morning, leaving a haze over the horizon and an acrid sting in our lungs. The weather service regularly issues air quality warnings. The UV index is extreme. Historically August has been my least favorite time of the year. Even as a child. August is my birth month, so I feel rationalized in disliking it — the sun is hot, the air is noxious, and I've been languishing in summer doldrums for too long. 

Until recently, that is. Last August was a giddy, high-energy time for me, and this month is shaping up similarly. How do I make sense of it? It was about this time last year that began to notice this pattern — a rollercoaster of both mood and fitness that seems to top out every four months or so, and hit bottom at similar intervals. I started to dread late February, June and October. I looked for biological justifications, and found few answers, so I have to conclude it's self-fulfilling psychology. And yet, how can such wild fluctuations not be anchored in some type of hormone cycle? Today I revisited the thyroid forum I used to frequent (I was a lurker, as you can see by my post count) and found a somewhat useful thread titled, "Can my thyroid fluctuate?" I left this reply:

After posting this question, I wondered: Am I in effortlessly amazing (for me) shape right now? Could I just decide to go out and set a PR, and do it? I realize there's a lot of positive reinforcement in just trying, but this exact moment may not be one of my best. Last week was a 180-mile week (21 miles running, 159 miles cycling) with 25,000 feet of climbing. A fairly big week for me, and just yesterday I pedaled 7,000 feet up a 14'er and got a bit altitude sick in the process. My legs are tired. And I have to ride into town later today. Still ... what if? 

So at 10 a.m., I stepped outside to test the air quality ... deep breath ... not terrible ... and launched my mountain bike down the road. The Homestead Trail is always a solid effort for me — I'm not constantly trying to complete every ride or run as fast as I can, but when I hit the Homestead Trail, I am. This trail plays to my strengths, and it's close to home, so it makes for a great "tempo ride." The segment itself is a two-mile-long doubletrack climb that gains 800 feet in steep bursts. Springtime is PR season in Boulder — the dirt is still hero and the days are generally cool. By August the Homestead Trail is a sand pit, and the steeper climbs are littered with loose rubble. But I already snagged a PR here on Monday. Perhaps I could do it again. 

I cued up some Panic! at the Disco on my iPod an clicked the shifter a couple of notches above my usual granny gear. The power climbs flooded my legs with lactic acid, but I was amazed how much oxygen filled my lungs. Mash, mash, breathe, breathe. Last August I took my PR down to 21 minutes, and was proud of that number. I didn't see anything lower until early May, the last time I had a decent fitness surge. On Monday I nearly broke 20 minutes. Could I break that? A patch of sand caught my rear wheel. I spun furiously to get out of it. Mash, mash, breathe, breathe.

The final pitch is the worst of them all, and it almost broke me. My wheel spun in the sand and I dug deep for the power to climb out. In doing so, I felt of wave of nausea and nearly threw a foot down. How long has it been since I rode so hard I almost vomited? It's been a long, long time. Usually I can't take in enough oxygen to go hard. I composed myself as well as I could and soft-pedaled the rest of the way to the top, still feeling nervous about losing my breakfast. 

The final result: New PR! My three fastest times on this segment happened this week.

And most surprising of all: I snagged the fastest time on Strava. A real QOM! Homestead is a lower-level, less frequented segment among Boulder cyclists, but it's not nothing. I couldn't believe I (barely) surpassed Poot Sook's fastest time. I do not know her, but admit to Strava stalking her a bit when I figured out she lived nearby and rode many of my regular haunts. She is much faster than me. 

So I set out to try it and I did it! I will admit to taking much ego-boosting satisfaction from this little Thursday morning jaunt. 

 It's been a great week all around. On Sunday Beat and I headed out for what will likely be our last James Peak visit this year. I looked into a few different options for a mountain excursion, but Beat's big races in the European Alps are coming up soon, and we both wanted something predictable, with fewer opportunities for injury. Plus, the 21-miler with a loop around Rogers and Rollins passes is just endlessly amazing.

This time, I almost kept up with Beat (okay, he was taking it easy and waited for me at times, but still.) I hoofed my way to the top in 2 hours 33 minutes, and was stoked about that. At altitude my climbs are generally 100 percent hiking — I just don't feel a strong desire to spend limited oxygen intake on shuffling — and still snagged 10th woman on Strava.

 Between Roger's drop bags from Hardrock and Beat's from the Ouray 100, we have enough snacky junk foods in our pantry to last until 2019. For my summit treat I grabbed one of Roger's leftover Snicker Bars and didn't realize it said "Meh" until the peak. Yeah, this is pretty meh.

 The last time we visited James Peak, three weeks earlier, the tundra was still bright green and dotted with wildflowers. On Sunday, patches of crimson and yellow signaled autumn's swift approach. I'm starting to see golden leaves on cottonwood trees in my neighborhood. These signs of autumn always boost my mood, even when it's still 90 degrees outside.

 Between the peak and Rollins Pass are seven gorgeous miles where one can trace the actual spine of the Continental Divide. I love this section for its beauty and views, but find it mentally exhausting. The tundra walk is a patchwork of rocks and tussocks, with uneven footing for the duration. Paying attention to where I'm putting my feet is somehow extremely difficult for me, and I'm trying so hard not to roll my ankle. I've improved on this technique somewhat over the summer, but I still have a long way to go before I am even a proficient technical walker, let alone runner.  My right Achilles also has nagging pains, so I'm trying to limit my running and steep uphill hiking as well ... one 21-mile mountain outing a week is probably okay.

 It was an extremely hot day at 12,000-13,000 feet. Beat and I were begging for the appearance of an afternoon cloud, and there were none. Between the high-altitude UV rays and unbelievably windless conditions on the Divide, if you asked me to guess the temperature, I would have put it around 100 degrees. In reality it was closer to 75, but the "feels like" was intense. I couldn't take in enough water, and my head was pounding. But overall I felt great. I wish my Achilles would let me climb all of the mountains ... but I am trying to keep this from becoming full-blown tendonitis.

After two summers of failing to make time for this classic road ride, on Wednesday I finally rode a bike up Mount Evans. This 14'er has a paved road leading all the way to the top — it's bumpy, cracked and frost-heaved pavement, and narrow with tight hairpins. But it's well-graded and endlessly gorgeous. I'm surprised there aren't hoards of cyclists riding up this road every day of the summer, even though I purposely went mid-week to minimize exposure to car traffic (which wasn't bad, despite perfect weather — less hot than Sunday, with a surprisingly cold but not overly strong wind above treeline, and most importantly, no thunderstorms.)

 Steady, minimally technical climbing on a bicycle is my absolute favorite form of motion. We all have our quirks, and this is mine — I love all of the tedious bits and tolerate anything that requires skill or adrenaline. For this ride I started in Idaho Springs, just off the Interstate exit at 7,000 feet elevation, and pedaled up 7,000 more feet without a break. The road snaked up a narrow canyon, rising out of the pine forest into patches of scrubby spruce, and finally wide-open tundra. I slipped into a meditative rhythm, breathing steadily, oscillating between concentration on the sweeping surroundings, and happy recollections of the past.

The only thing that broke my revery was an occasional iPod moment — my favorite being a song I haven't heard in at least 20 years, "Mary Jane" by Alanis Morrisette (yes, I recently downloaded Jagged Little Pill for five dollars.) This song was on a mix tape that we listened to en route to my first-even snowboarding experience, of which I remember the date — Park City Mountain Resort, October 28, 1996. Wonderful and embarrassing memories of that day 22 years ago filled my heart, and I just had to belt them out, despite wasting a lot of oxygen to sing at the top of my lungs while climbing on a bicycle above 12,000 feet:

It's a loooooong waaaaay dooooown,
On this rolllllllercoaster.

 If there is such a thing as heaven, this will be mine. (And if there is such a thing as Jill Hell, it will involve terrifying whitewater and an eternity of fiddling with buttons on a duvet.)

I felt great as I snaked my way to 14,130 feet and pulled my bike up to the overlook beside the observatory. It wasn't until I hiked the final 150 feet up to the true summit that a wave of nausea overtook me, so intense that I had to lay down on a nearby boulder. And older woman in sandals walked past as I languished there, about 20 feet below the top. "I'm about ready for a break, too," she said.

 I ate a snack and walked around the observatory for a bit, but at that point I was really not feeling good — dizzy, foggy-headed, and still nauseated. I figured it had to be the altitude, and going down would help me feel better. But I was nervous about starting the descent in such a condition. I chose Beat's gravel bike for the ride because it had a beefier set of tires and disc brakes, but it still felt too squirrelly for the initial switchbacks. For all of these reasons, I had to take four or five resting breaks just to manage the 7,000-foot descent, when I needed none for the climb. At least there was incredible scenery and wildlife to make the breaks all the more worthwhile. Look, baby goat! Awwww.

And Summit Lake, adorned with autumn tundra. Ahhhhh. Whether the cause is biological or psychological or a futile attempt to make sense of a chaotic existence, I am going to ride this high for all it's worth. Yay, August. 


  1. Great to hear that you are on another high-point of your cycle! It's easy to see why you would be so jazzed, and your scenery is just FANTASTIC! Enjoy it while it lasts!

    1. Thanks! The thing I want most to happen now is for my Achilles to hold up so I can do a bunch of hiking in Europe when we head over later next week.

  2. I have to admit I don't get TSH. Yours is so low. Mine was recently 2 something. So what's "good"? I don't have faith that 0 to 4 is all the same. I would love to get mine lower and see how I feel but my doctor won't do it. I have to giggle at the QOM but maybe if I were younger I would care more. Now, I am just glad I can still do the things I used to, with only minimal extra effort. I don't take that for granted, for sure.

    1. TSH is a fickle thing. I spent a lot of time reading various forums, blogs, and medical research papers last year, and the best I can glean is that it's an individual metric, and that's why the reference range is rather wide. Most folks with Graves Disease who leave their thyroid in tact never see a TSH range higher than 1.0, unless we swing hypo, in which case much higher numbers — double digits — usually register. I still believe TSH isn't a great metric for measuring health once you've established you have a problem ... tracking T3 and T4 is more useful, and over time I've heard you begin to see consistency in your own TSH.

      Anyway ... Strava is just silly fun. If you took it seriously here in Boulder, your life would be hard. I find the site useful to track my own progress, and that's really the only part of it that I care about. Clucking about a random QOM is fun, but so was bragging about high Nintendo scores when I was a kid. It's all fleeting and meaningless in the end.

    2. I LOVE Strava! Not for all the fancy schmancy features that it has (that I don't use)...I just love that it compares older ME to younger ME! Am I getting better (stronger/faster)? THAT is what Strava is all about to me. Of course there are a TON of variables that interfere/mask whether I'm actually faster...wind, trails with lots of sand/rubble, heat...any of those can drastically change my times. But even so, segment by segment I can usually tell if I'm anywhere near my PR and know where I'm at in the big scheme of things.

  3. I have baby goat jealousy 🐐🙂

    1. Awwww, they were so cute Roger. You have to come back. ;)

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  5. So happy to see reports of kick-ass rides/runs/climbs! I pray it is not cyclical, but if it is at least you know the down days are numbered. Hang tough and go hard. It's obvious that this is what you were born to do.
    Box Canyon Mark

    1. Exactly! I was thinking this when I was in a low mood last month. If it's self-fulfilling prophecy, it's still probably more rewarding than being even-keel all of the time. Hang tough and go hard. Every experience is worth it.

  6. Unsolicited alternative hypothesis... Maybe rather than a hormonal cycle, it's a training cycle? Maybe the Graves amplifies it? I don't know how you plan your training, but I know even if I incorporate "mini" training cycles, at some point I will hit a peak of a long-phase cycle (and it will be awesome), and then my body will demand a recovery phase. That recovery phase can totally suck - especially if the peak wasn't timed right for a goal event - there's no willing a better performance. And, that recovery phase usually requires a month.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I've considered how this cycle might be connected to my activity level, but it's difficult to find a pattern. I don't incorporate training cycles, and never have. Instead I rely on being consistently active throughout the year, and maintaining solid base fitness for the mutli-day and multi-week events that I value most, rather than peaking for specific performance. However, I am considering working with a coach and following a real training plan for a future event ... part of an idea to try new things, rather than continuing to do what I've always done.

      That said, with my health issues and advancing age (don't laugh ... it is harder to be 40 than 30) it's highly likely I need more recovery than I give myself, even with no set goals in place, and thus experience occasional crashes. However, that doesn't really explain the cycle either. Before this month, my strongest weeks of the year were mid-April to mid-May, not long after I returned from two highly taxing endurance events in Alaska in March. Physically, I felt a lot worse going into these races than I did afterward.

      As you said, there's no willing better performance ... which is why I'm so perplexed that my performance level has become fairly predictable on what seems to be an otherwise arbitrary timeline. I really wish I could talk myself out of believing in something that is likely just superstition. Sadly, it's gotten to the point where I think, "well that goal race is in June, so I'll be in terrible shape no matter what I do. Why bother?"

  7. "It was about this time last year that began to notice this pattern — a rollercoaster of both mood and fitness that seems to top out every four months or so, and hit bottom at similar intervals."

    Biorhythms! It's just gotta be biorhythms!

    1. Out-of-fashion pseudoscience ... makes as much sense as anything else. :)


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