Monday, October 29, 2018

Thoughts on Unruly Bodies

Hiking above Heart Lake on Sunday. It's truly shoulder season here — warm, incredibly windy, and weird snow conditions

I know, I know, I said I wasn't going to write any more blog posts about slumps. This is only about that on the periphery. Also, I lied. 


Earlier this year, the wonderful author Roxane Gay compiled an online anthology called “Unruly Bodies.” In this series, 25 writers explored emotional, cultural and scientific connections with their bodies, with titles such as “The Body That Understands What Fullness Is” and “The Body That’s Too Asian and Too Sick for America.” Each essay offered new insight into the different ways individuals experience the world because of the bodies in which they reside.

A woman with a progressive neuromuscular disease, Kelly Davio, contributed “The Body That Can’t Run Marathons.” Kelly’s essay was about coping with chronic pain and disability. More broadly, it was about the fantasy of discipline.

 “I understand the temptation to look at the body as a thing that can be disciplined out of its unruly ways — something that, with the application of enough will or moral fortitude can be made to behave, to be quiet, to stop its complaining,” she wrote. “After all, I broke my own bones over the fantasy that I could will my body to be something that its very cells are incapable of becoming.”

Kelly didn’t even want to run marathons. She just wanted to run. Even after repeated warnings from her doctor about her porous bones, she stepped onto a treadmill. She jogged, just a little, to see how it felt. Then her ankle snapped.

“The body has its own rules," she concluded. "Its logic doesn’t hinge on America’s moral panic over pain, just as it doesn’t hinge on my daydreams about achieving transcendence on a treadmill.”

Wind and snow conditions on the Divide looked a little too iffy to risk ascending the headwall
I’ve been thinking about this anthology recently, because so much of it refutes athletic dogma: What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. Goals are not deserved, goals are made. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Pain is weakness leaving the body. We’re all capable, as long as we put in the work.

I’m guilty of embracing such dogma. “If I can do it, anyone can,” is something I’ve said, because I’ve never been an natural athlete. But I also didn’t fully recognize my own socioeconomic and health privilege that allowed me to invest the necessary time and energy into pursuing my goals. “I can do anything,” is also something I nearly believed, before life rightly trampled all over my ego. Now I agree with Kelly. The body has its own rules, and its logic doesn't hinge on self-righteous platitudes.

It’s not that I no longer believe we should strive toward goals — life is all about striving. But there’s a certain tranquility in accepting inevitable limitations, and in doing so, better understanding our uniquely unruly selves.

I told Beat I wasn't feeling strong enough to endure the wind. We still went for an off-trail excursion to a nearby ridge.

I’m a little tired of my unruly self. All of these new little problems build on past little problems, like compounding interest. There’s a little bruise on my right shin. It’s been there for more than two months, since I fell into a boulder on my birthday. The leg still feels tender when I run downhill, but the pain is minor, not worth fussing about. Still ... two months. I fell because of my rickety left ankle. It causes instability on the most benign terrain, but I become especially clumsy on the chaotic slopes of the mountains I love. I injured this ankle badly when I was 19 — probably broke it. Never had it set. Beat thinks I should have this looked at. Maybe it's a problem that can still be corrected.

Surgery for a 20-year-old injury seems absurd, especially when I can still take my wobbly body wherever I please. Still, the bruises and scars continue to accumulate. I feel them when it’s cold, when the wind blows, when I’m teetering on some ledge. I startle and struggle to catch my breath.

Sometimes my breathing is just bad. It’s so bad that I can’t even boost my heart rate out of zone 2 before I’m winded. I start gasping when I walk up the stairs. I become dizzy and despondent. For three years, this what I’ve invested in — dozens of hours and thousands of health care dollars — to find a solution. I agreed to be injected with what feels like poison to me — allergen immunotherapy — on average once a week since October 2016. Another doctor treats me for thyroid disease, with a liver-damaging drug. Am I measurably less thyrotoxic and less allergic to things now? Yes. But sometimes my breathing is still bad.

Recently, the distant but familiar anxiety episodes of my early 20s re-emerged. Do I need a psychiatrist now? More drugs? Maybe I just need more time to heal, but I’m losing faith that any treatment will solve these issues. At this point I’m just waiting to be diagnosed with functional illness, which is another way for the medical profession to tell me they can’t help me. At least then, I’ll be that much closer to acceptance of my unruly body.

I enjoyed the scenic diversion, but I was annoyed by how weak I felt, and embarrassed that I was holding Beat back.

As much as I want to discipline my mind toward acceptance, wild hope will likely persist. I may venture down the rabbit hole of holistic medicine, which is similar to athletic dogma in that it offers unconvincingly simple solutions to complex problems. But there is wisdom buried within.

Traditional Chinese medicine embraces an intrinsic connection between emotions and organs. This tradition teaches that people hold grief in their lungs. What would I need to grieve? Nothing right now. The people I love are mostly healthy and happy. My life is good. I’m undeniably lucky. But as I process current events, studies about climate change, and the increasingly volatile state of nature, I think, “This is what I’m grieving. The world I love has been given a terminal diagnosis."

The whole world is a big thing to grieve, and bodies can only hold so much grief. So I close out of news sites and promise myself limited exposure to online commentary for at least a week. Hopefully I’ll start sleeping better, stop sweating at night, start breathing with my whole set of lungs. I do recognize that my body still enjoys a lot of privilege, especially when I read essays like Kelly’s. But that isn’t the point of the Unruly Bodies series. It wasn’t created to help the normals feel better about themselves. It’s there to illustrate that none of us are truly normal. It’s futile to try to fit ourselves and our uniquely unruly bodies into tidy molds.

I’m tempted to toss all of my striving to the wind and just run free, as free as I can, for as long as I’m able.
Thursday, October 25, 2018

Attempts to define the slump

I feel like I'm crawling out of the bottom of my latest slump. Which, though predictable, is always a relief. I know there are worse things, and I don't want my blog to become a chronicle of this nothing ride on an endless loop. But I have been trying to summarize my concerns for a note to my doctor, and this blog has always been a good place to clarify my thoughts. I promise, blog, this will be the last I write about this ... for a few weeks at least ...

The best analogy I've come up with is a basin of water. My fitness and sense of wellbeing is the water that gradually fills up the basin, then drains again at intervals. When the basin is full, I feel strong and upbeat. Metrics I can measure — such as resting heart rate, blood pressure, the stats from my bike's power meter, and PRs on Strava — all improve. My outlook brightens, which I'll just clarify to mean my mind shifts from "crushing pessimism about the future of humanity" to "glimmers of hope boosted by beautiful things in nature." My sleep patterns improve. My concentration improves. My creative efforts open. I'm a happy person.

Then, slowly, the basin begins to drain. The first symptom I notice is more frequent instances of insomnia. Often a rash breaks out on my lower legs and feet during this time. My moods become more volatile, and this is where I experience random flashes of anxiety. Like a moody teenager, I have more difficulty concentrating and controlling distractions. I waste far too much time scrolling through Twitter and stewing in my crushing pessimism. I hate everything I've ever written, and admittedly slip into periods of not being all that productive, unless self-editing and liberal use of the delete button counts. When I check my resting heart rate and blood pressure, both have spiked, perhaps because of unfounded stress.

The breathing difficulties come last, and are really only at their worst for two to three weeks each time. But for me, they're bad. Hills that I could race up two months ago, I can now barely soft-pedal in my lowest gear and cadence. I become dizzy and need to take breaks. Fatigue is not how I would characterize this sensation. It's more like an obstruction in my cardiovascular system, removing most of the oxygen before it can reach my brain and muscles. This often results in gasping and trying to deepen each breath, but I suspect the straining does more harm than good. I don't test my moving heart rate nearly as often as I should, but when I check my pulse, it's usually not that high ... perhaps 140 or 150, when a true near-max effort for me should be above 180. But I feel maxed out. These efforts do not leave me tired afterward ... more like frustrated, because I can hardly get a good workout when I am fake-maxed-out. I still have all of this muscle memory and endurance in my body, but the perceived lack of oxygen makes me feel as though I'm suddenly, completely out of shape.

The pipe that moves this water in and out of the basin is an entity completely unknown to me. For a time I thought the force draining my health was asthma, but that doesn't quite fit, because I have good weeks in the spring and bad weeks in the dead of winter. My allergy treatments are going measurably well, my other symptoms are far milder, and yet I still struggle with breathing. In early 2017 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes overactive thyroid. This seemed like a perfect fit — all of the symptoms I experience during my slumps fall in line with symptoms of hyperthyroidism. But every lab test since I started treatment has shown steady improvement. Now my numbers indicate I am "euthyorid," i.e. normal. I like to believe that my experience of these slumps has improved since I started asthma and thyroid treatments — undulating toward normalcy. But again, the metrics don't quite bear this out. My resting heart rate and blood pressure have been similarly spiked in January-February, June and October since I started measuring regularly at the beginning of this year. My Strava stats during these months are similarly bad.

I acknowledge that I could focus on lifestyle changes, but I am a skeptic in this regard. It seems like the things I can control don't really matter. I have felt fantastic during an intensely strenuous week of hiking in Italy when I climbed 50,000 feet while subsisting solely on coffee, pizza and Snickers Bars. And I've felt terrible during weeks where I did two or three short runs while increasing my protein intake and limiting sugar. I've been on fire at 14,000 feet and sputtering at sea level. During every slump I try something new — quitting dairy, taking new supplements, renewing focus on weight-lifting over my favorite outdoor cardio exercises. These experiments never stick, because eventually I feel good again and lose motivation. My latest experiment is CBD capsules, to treat anxiety. I've felt significantly better and had no anxiety episodes since starting this, and since they seem to have no side effects, I'm a fan ... even if it's just placebo effect. But they're expensive, and I imagine my motivation for these will wane as well.

At this point, I'm inclined to believe I'm not going to solve the mystery of the slumps without significant hypnotherapy. If I am doing this to myself with the power of negative thinking, I really need to learn how to harness this mental energy toward positive abstractions, because I'd probably win the lottery. Taking the long view, though, my overall health is mostly fine. I can learn to live with these hiccups, even if I never learn how to control them. The problem is that I still have a desire to be an endurance athlete, and train for big events. Training hardly seems purposeful when my fitness just resets to zero every few months, and my best chances for success seem to hinge on the date I choose to start my adventure. These slumps also seem to strip much of the joy out of my life. On top of increased anxiety and pessimism, I lose my best outlet for peace — hard, meditative efforts in nature. When my breathing is bad and I feel dizzy, all of that joy is taken from me. I'll never find it no matter how long I battle, or how slowly I move. I have tried.

Anyway, I am going to attempt to condense these thoughts and present them to my doctor. I expect she'll just give me a quizzical look and suggest I see a therapist. And that's fine. It feels better just to lay it out there. And I'm looking forward to the next upswing. I enjoyed reasonable breathing and a beautiful morning on Rollins Pass Road with Betsy yesterday:

The weather this week has been warm — temperatures in the 70s most days. It was 45 degrees and calm when we started pedaling from Rollinsville at 9 a.m. I was overdressed with tights and gaiters, although I was glad to have them later. Even though we had some big storms earlier this month, I expected to see almost no snow left on the route. But some has held on, especially in shaded areas at lower altitudes.

The higher altitudes had been blown mostly clear, and we endured much bouncing on babyheads, which was jarring after all of the smooth if strenuous sailing on packed slush. I love the scenery on Rollins Pass Road, and it's the only bike-legal route amid hundreds of square miles of wilderness. But the combination of a gradual and interminable railroad grade with slow maneuvering over and around rocks makes for a tedious ride. I told Betsy that I'm good for one or two trips per year, once memory of the tedium wears off.

Only taking photos on the smooth sections were I could actually hold my camera while pedaling.
Rollins Pass Road does have good winter potential, and I'm open to testing out conditions throughout the season. Or returning on foot. Really, it's all about spending time in these mountains. We stood at the edge of an overlook, gazing out at a dramatic play of sunlight and clouds over James Peak, and mused that we could spend all day up here. Especially when it's warm, windless, and eerily quiet in the shoulder season. Then we raced down the mountain, as we both had tasks scheduled for the afternoon. Betsy was really running late, and we averaged more than 20mph on the final seven miles of gradual descent. I was riding a studded-tire fat bike at 8 psi with fairly low gearing, so I had to spin like crazy to keep up. It almost felt like sprinting, and it felt really good. 
Friday, October 19, 2018

The White Mountains 100 will live on

On top of Cache Mountain Divide in 2014

I want to diverge from my recent blog themes and indulge in some cathartic nostalgia about my favorite race, the White Mountains 100, which recently announced it will return for a tenth season next year. 

*****

It’s January 2010. I’m 30 years old and live in Juneau, Alaska. Night rain pummels the glass as I sit at my office desk with my back to the windows. It’s 1:30 a.m., which isn’t abnormal because I work more than 60 hours a week in an ill-suited managerial position for a daily newspaper with crumbling revenues and employee morale to match. Eventually I’ll wheel my long-suffering rusted Surly Pugsley into the rain and pedal home to the small room where I live with my cat Cady, ten miles away on an isolated beach called Fritz Cove.

Occasional bike commuting is all I do these days; I write disingenuous posts on my blog to make it seem like I still ride my bike, but I just don’t enjoy it anymore. Once I reach my room, even though it’s likely to be after 3 a.m., I’ll still strip off my mud-soaked clothing, take a rushed “screaming barfies” shower, curl up on a lumpy mattress, spoon peanut butter and jam out of a jar for “dinner,” and pour out my anger into the narrative I’m writing about the recent dissolution of my eight-year relationship. After a wise editor helps me cut out half of the words and most of the anger, this narrative will eventually become my book about the Tour Divide, “Be Brave, Be Strong.” But for now, it's my only outlet. My break-up distanced me from many of my friends in this isolated community. My job is frustrating. I can only afford to live in a cheaply furnished room within a large house owned by a fussy older woman who complains whenever I use the washing machine or the kitchen, so now most of my meals are spooned out of jars. My life is pretty sad, and my mood reflects this. I blame my bike, because I think obsession about endurance cycling led to this misery. I have no idea what the future holds, but I am certain that I will quit racing for good.

For now I’m still at work, reading through e-mails to my work account, when one comes through from Ed Plumb, who I know from another recent disaster in my life. The disaster was the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational, where I stepped through thin ice on Flathorn Lake, soaking and eventually freezing my right foot. Ed and I shared a room at the first checkpoint, where he snored away as I writhed through hours of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, thawing a frostbitten foot. In the morning, Ed skied away and finished the race. I dropped out and went to the hospital. Now, ten months later, Ed tells me he’s started a new winter race in Fairbanks, Alaska. The White Mountains 100. It’s a great course. You’ll love it. “Everyone signed up is from Anchorage or Fairbanks,” he writes. “We need at least one person from Juneau.” I don’t write back to Ed immediately. Eventually I do. I’ll think about it, I tell him. At some point, during one of my late-night bursts of rage, I sign up. But I still mostly hate my bike.

Snowstorm near the finish line in 2011

***** 

It’s March 2010. The race will happen in a week from now. I haven’t trained. I want to quit my job, and still don’t care about racing. A trip to Fairbanks with its expensive flight and time away from the office is just too much right now. I’m about to write Ed and let him know I’m dropping out of the race, when I receive a call from a “friend,” in Juneau — actually a man I briefly dated, but we are definitely no longer dating. He needs to drive to Fairbanks next week. Maybe I want to join him? 

Now it’s March 18. My friend and I are boarding the ferry in his old Subaru with my dismantled Pugsley stuffed in the back seat. After the boat docks in Skagway, Fairbanks is still 700 miles away, over the wind-battered summit of White Pass and through hundreds of miles of mostly uninhabited taiga. My friend has made a single mix tape for his tape deck, and we listen to it over and over. Each song is a hollow echo in my heart; eventually I will hear this tape in my dreams.

Travel is a two-day affair, so we take a break to ski along the flanks of Sheep Mountain and camp near the shoreline of the frozen Slim River in Kluane National Park, Canada. It’s -10F, and the wind pummels our down coats as we sit on the snow blocks we scooped up to protect the tent, and listen to the wolves howl. My friend-psuedo-ex shows me how to make a hot drink by melting a Snickers Bar in boiling water. I think this is the first time I’ve been truly happy this year.

With Beat at the starting line in 2012

***** 

It’s March 21. The first day of spring. I’m riding shotgun in Ed’s old truck, on our way north from Fairbanks to the starting line of the White Mountains 100. Although I had previously visited during the summer of 2003, my memory of the region is vague — images of boreal forest, flat and unbroken as far as the eye can see. I suppose the name White Mountains 100 was lost on me, but I’m surprised by all of the hills. The truck rumbles up a dome and drops into a river valley. Ed, a professional weather geek, has a thermometer attached to the hood and wired to a digital display on top of the dash. At the top of the dome, the temperature was 5 degrees. Down here, it’s -18F. Ed giggles with delight. I tremble. Frostbite is still fresh in my memory, and still painful in my toes. I’m deathly afraid of the cold.

A fierce wind greets us at the Wickersham Dome, where the salmon-colored sun is casting its first rays on the ice at 7:15 a.m. I hoist my bike out of Ed’s truck. The steel frame burns my hands. Up on this dome I can see a long distance — steep, rolling hills over every horizon. Nobody told me about all of these hills. I’m so afraid that I am physically shivering, although that may just be the cold wind. But I drove out here with the race director, so there’s no backing out now.

At checkpoint one in 2010
***** 

The race starts. I take my place near the back and gasp up the first hill, drenching my base layer in sweat. We drop into a deep valley, where the temperature plummets 30 degrees in an instant. I’m so cold that I’m convulsing. The process repeats, for seemingly endless steep climbs and descents. I’m too cold and strung out to feel the burning from my undertrained legs and lungs. I suppose this is a good thing. A couple other cyclists and I are close together; we frequently gather to negotiate long sections of bumpy glare ice, known as overflow. Neither my bicycle tires nor my boots are studded, so I have to tiptoe across the ice with utmost care. Because of my previous experience with falling through ice, every loud crack or change of color in the overflow is heart-stoppingly scary.

I reach the first indoor checkpoint at mile 38, housed in an adorable little shelter cabin at the base of fierce-looking mountains. The volunteers offer a baked potato. No, I’m far too nauseated. I drink hot chocolate and press into the unknown.

The Cache Mountain Divide is Just. Unbelievably. Steep. Or perhaps not, but I am shattered. I stumble along, dragging my bike through the soft sidewalls of the trail. Several skiers pass, justifiably gloating at my anchor. Eventually I reach an altitude of 3,500 feet, which feels like the High Himalaya in Interior Alaska. The wind is howling but the snow-bound mountains fill my heart with warmth. It’s so beautiful.

I drop into a long descent on heavily drifted trail. I crash my bike a few times, leaving perfectly-pressed impressions of my body in the snow. At one point I’m face-down on the trail when I hear the cries of a skier above me. I grab my bike and roll into a drift with a fraction of a second to spare before he whisks past, unable to stop.

Soon I reach the edge of blue ice that fills the entire valley. These are the famous “Ice Lakes” I’d been warned about. The skier who called out to me and another are also there, taking off their skies and putting on microspikes. I am going to have to walk across this ice without spikes, dragging an unruly bike. It could be miles. But I am stranded out here, I suppose by choice, so I’m just going to have to gulp down my terror and keep going. With every step, the ice cracks and moans. I almost want the Ice Lake to open up and swallow me, just so I won’t have to feel so terrified anymore. Logically I know these lakes are actually just overflow and only a foot or so deep. This should make me feel better, but it doesn’t, because that only means more frostbite or slow death by hypothermia if I break through.

Above Beaver Creek in 2015

 ***** 

A semi-stupefied state wrought by fatigue and fear follows me to the end of the ice and all the way to checkpoint three, which I reach as the sun sets and casts dramatic orange light on the limestone cliffs. The little cabin is stiflingly hot. A volunteer offers me a small bowl of rice soup with three meatballs. I ask for more, and she says I cannot have more. I feel a little like Oliver Twist as I stumble, still stupefied, back into the cold.

Night falls. There’s a slow descent into a valley, where the cold is otherworldly. Frost builds on my balaclava. My legs have virtually died, and I can barely climb out of the valley. From there, the trail feels like sandpaper. I can barely turn pedals. I pass a number of skiers who passed me earlier in the day. They are shuffling along as though stupefied themselves. The cold seeps into my lower body. My butt and thighs are numb. I think about stopping to put on all of my layers, but then I see a sign announcing it’s one mile to the checkpoint. I pedal. I pedal some more. It’s the longest mile in the history of distance. By the time I reach the cabin at mile 78, I can’t feel anything.

 “It’s cold out there for me,” I announce. “Yeah, I’m from Juneau,” explaining that all I know is temperatures in the 30s and rain.

“It’s 25 below,” the volunteer replies. “It’s cold for everyone out there.” I gratefully accept a cup of hot coffee, but as soon as the volunteer hands it to me, my upper body starts convulsing so badly that I spill all of the coffee, every last drop, in a two-foot radius around my feet. I put the cup down, embarrassed, hoping nobody noticed.

I sit down on a bunk and remove my boots to add warmers. A skier in the other corner eyes me jealously. It’s Chris Wrobel, a man from Anchorage with whom I’d spent several hours chatting the evening before the race, about his adventures on the Iditarod Trail. He accidentally washed with conditioner, and his hair is handsomely coiffed at mile 78 of an endurance race, which will lead to a permanent nickname from the White Mountains 100 community, “Perfect Hair Chris.”

I catch his eye and think about giving him my foot warmers. My feet aren’t really that cold, amazingly, because every other part of my body is. Because Chris didn’t ask, I don’t offer, which is something I’d still feel guilty about a decade later. Because of his cold feet, Chris would end up spending a long time at the cabin, as would most of the other folks trapped there at 1 a.m. I remember advice the previous evening, offered by one of my heroes, Jeff Oatley: “If you get cold on Beaver Creek, keep going.”

I decide to keep going.

Fossil Creek Valley, 2018

 ***** 

I climb out of Beaver Creek. It’s not 25 below up on the ridge, but it’s still very cold, the wind is again howling, and there’s overflow everywhere. As I tiptoe across a long patch of ice, a skier skitters past me, not remotely in control. He crashes into the snow and stands up to brush himself off. He comments about the horrible sandpaper trail and I agree. I’m plodding but tires are still faster than skis on such snow, and as the overflow dissipates, I pick up speed. I’m alone again. I feel very alone.

I drop into yet another valley. In a few years from now, I will know this place well as the Wickersham Creek Valley, but on this night it is a place beyond the end of the world. The entire rest of the course is uphill — at least it feels that way, but that’s also pretty much the case. I can barely turn pedals. I am beyond exhausted, perhaps more so than I have ever been — even when I had to walk for 30 miles in my first Susitna 100, and even I fell asleep on my bike during my first trip to McGrath, and even more so than any point in my emotionally fraught Tour Divide. Then again, our fresh emotions are always the most dramatic.

Amid exhaustion, I look up at the sky. Stars fill the black abyss, and the moon is a golden egg. I think I can see its yellow reflection on the trail, and this fills my heart with warmth. Suddenly I understand, intrinsically, that I will leave my job, and I will move away from Juneau, and I will strike out alone into the unknown. And I also understand, intrinsically, that everything will be okay. I’m filled with such gratitude I can hardly contain it. If you get cold in life, keep going.

The finish-line tent, 2010

***** 
At mile 90, I reach the Wickersham Wall. There are no emotions to contain the Wickersham Wall. It is an impenetrable fortress, an impossible divide, as terrible and soul-crushing as any physical barrier known to humans. In a few years from now, I will know this place as a reasonably steep snow climb that gains 800 feet in one mile. But on this night it is Everest. I take two steps and my leg muscles cramp. I take two more steps and stop to catch my breath. Every sinew in my body feels torn and ragged. I will never make it up this wall. But I have to. I have no choice. Keep going.

Time trickles by on a geological scale. The wall relents, and there are still some miles left to the finish. I am stupefied when I reach it, but I know it has happened, because suddenly there is artificial light and a trailer. A volunteer steps outside to point me to a propane-heated tent. Inside the tent is not really that warm, so wrap up in the sleeping bag I carried around the course. Checking to ensure the other person inside the tent is asleep, I burst out in a good cry. I’m so overwhelmed. The only way I can describe this emotion is love. I am in love with the White Mountains. I know I’ll never be the same.

With Beat at the start in 2015

***** 

Between 2010 and 2018, I raced the White Mountains 100 six times. Four times on a bike, and twice on foot. In 2010 I finished in 22:23, my slowest bike time. In 2011 and 2012 Beat and I started the race together (me on a bike, him on foot) and I rolled to 18- and 20-hour finishes. My fastest finish was 11:34 in 2014. My two foot finishes were 29:54 in 2015 and 33:59 on pre-tenderized legs in 2018. I skipped the race in 2013 because I didn’t make it through the lottery, 2016 because that was the year I rode my bike to Nome, and 2017 because I was sick, but I did volunteer at checkpoint one that year. My sub-30-hour finish in 2015 remains my best hundred-mile ultramarathon, much to my dismay (because the White Mountains 100 is absolutely a walking effort for me, and I have tried to run other hundreds.)

Still, physical challenge or accomplishment is not remotely the reason I keep going back. The White Mountains 100 is beautiful and hard and filled with friendly volunteers and interesting participants, but those are also not the only reasons it’s my favorite race. I have true affection for both the event and the region. This affection runs deeper than most of my experiences. The White Mountains 100 entered my life at exactly the right time. When I heard that the second race director, Joel Homan, was leaving the event after 2018, I surprised myself by feeling real despair. I believed the White Mountains 100 would go away, and it was disheartening.

Earlier this week, Fairbanks cyclist and previous winner Kevin Breitenbach announced he will take over race directing, and I was overjoyed. I don’t even know if I’ll race the White Mountains 100 again (I probably will, given the opportunity) … but the simple fact that the race will live on made my week. I love the White Mountains.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

It's the little things, in big places

Like most people, I find the big picture utterly overwhelming, and yet I seek to comprehend it anyway. Most of my efforts in life center around the intellectual pursuit of universal truths that I don't actually believe can be understood. The more I learn, the less I know, and lack of understanding creates a counterbalance of nihilism and pessimism. The pursuit of truth brings joy, the nihilism brings sorrow, and as the balance tips, my physical state follows. 

At least this is one working theory I have for my slumps. These downswings are very real to me, and I don't have a good explanation for them. But as I work through them, I realize each one has further eroded the tenuous confidence I spent years working so hard to build. I no longer believe I can finish a 100-mile summer trail ultramarathon before the time runs out. I'm nervous about the prospect of a thru-hike, because what if I have a breathing attack dozens of miles from anywhere? I feel somewhat okay about traveling to remote places in frozen Alaska, only because my joy there runs so deep, but I don't believe I can do so without curling up on top of my sled in a desperate bid to catch my breath from time to time. I fret about hiking in the mountains, because I don't want to feel dizzy in delicate places. I'm reverting back to my 22-year-old self, anxious and fearful about almost everything, and years of experience count for almost nothing. It sucks. 

 Last week, I contemplated taking an extended break from running and cycling, because these activities feel sort of bad right now. It seems difficult to explain, because what I feel during a slump goes far beyond what I experienced as a bad day on the bike when I was "healthy" (pre-2015.) I'm wheezy on hills and can't ride or walk slowly enough to curb the lightheadedness. I feel robbed of oxygen, dull, and foggy. An hour or four hours or six is the same; I'm not tired afterward, because my muscles are still strong and I didn't actually work that hard. I'm just grumpy, and feel a little bit hollow, because what is left of me if I can't joyfully move through the world? Still, I know there is a strong mental component, because I was fine after my snow ride with Betsy last week — the effort was undeniably strenuous, and I certainly didn't rock the uphills, but I was having so much fun.


If I stop recreating outside altogether, I suspect the mental component of my slumps would take over, and then I'll be a real mess. If I felt emotionally stronger, I might be willing to take this risk for an opportunity to test whether these wild swings could be caused by the nebulous "overtraining syndrome." I'll just admit up front that I've read extensively on this issue, and tried to keep an open mind, but the idea of a quantifiable overtraining outcome remains a hard sell for me — and not just because I don't want it to be true. There's just no pattern there, my experiences and symptoms don't line up with any standard, and the research is limited at best. Even anecdotal evidence points to a conclusion that if you've actually trained yourself into a years-long hole, you'll probably never climb out of it. So be it. I'll just keep running, until I truly can't.


On Thursday I headed out for a slow jog to Green Mountain. The weather was interesting, with persistent thick fog, several inches of new snow, and temperatures around 45, so trees were shedding clumps of ice and slush at an alarming rate. I was getting pummeled and soaked, and thus was quite cold. But as I climbed I could see streams of sunlight breaking through the fog, and knew I had to keep climbing. The summit of Green provided an oh-so-brief but spectacularly clear reprieve. I couldn't have been more than 30 feet above the fog ceiling, seeing blue sky for the first time in nearly a week. I crawled up the summit boulder and sat in the warm, calm sunshine, buzzing with renewed joy and gratitude. "It's the little things," I thought.

After 10 minutes, the clouds rolled upward and I was engulfed in cold fog once again. Nowhere to go but down, so I stood up and reluctantly returned to the slush gauntlet. But I did take the time to look up and say out loud to the unknowable universe, as I often still do, "Thanks for that."

My Friday ride was beautiful but not quite so fortuitous. I faltered on the spin up 68J — too dizzy — which has become a reliable indicator for me of "not being in great shape." Temps neared 60, which was nice but felt weirdly hot after the week of fog and snow, and there was quite a bit of mud on the road, so I opted to avoid the trails. I only made it up halfway up Caribou, despite giving myself what should have been ample time to climb over the top. I was annoyed and ready to take a break from everything again ...

... and actually had one coming. For a couple of years now, Loreen and Tim Hewitt have urged us to join them at their beach house in North Carolina. Finally an opportunity for a three-day trip worked out. A beach vacation could be viewed as a bit random for all four of us, who know each other from grueling adventures in Alaska. But I love (and very much fear) the ocean, and I'd never actually set foot in the Atlantic. So I looked forward to our weekend on the Outer Banks.

Even though I certainly have my preferences, I've always thought it a little sad when outdoor-enthusiasts proclaim they're "not beach people" or "not mountain people" or whatever. I'm a mountain person, tundra person, taiga person, rainforest person, desert person, prairie person, and certainly a beach person as well. Put me outside, and I will find something to love. Even in suburban strip malls, my eyes drift toward the trees in planters. I wonder how long they've been growing in that spot, and what life might be like for the squirrel clinging to the trunk. I find peace in the fact they're still here.

Being outdoors is especially rewarding in the company of interesting people. Here we are in 2014, out for a lovely afternoon walk on the Yentna River.

And again in 2018, on Rodanthe Beach. Actually not all that different! At least the terrain underfoot feels pretty much the same.

Anyway, it was a relaxing and fun trip with lots of sunshine, hot tub soaks, sunset and night cruises on the state ferry system, lighthouse viewing, good food and of course endless conversation about icy adventures. It's rewarding to spend time with folks who really "get you." Tim has grand ambitions for an out-and-back of the Northern and Southern routes of the Iditarod Trail — a 2,000-mile route that, to our knowledge, has never been completed human-powered or possibly at all. He wants to talk Beat into joining him. As you might guess, I'm not thrilled about the prospect of Beat being away on an arduous journey for nearly two months. Spread an Alaska wilderness trip over more than 48 days, and you're virtually guaranteed dangerous conditions.

But of course I'm envious, too, that Beat still has confidence in the possibility of such a glorious adventure. I'd like to get back to this point, someday, somehow. 
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Looking for my mojo

Last Friday I planned to embark on a long ride, but instead went back to bed. Of course I'm not proud of this. Lingering over my morning coffee left too much time to read too many articles about the erosion of democracy. This lead to hot takes on climate change and early rumblings about that landmark U.N. report. "Nothing can be done. Therefore nothing need be done." Soon I was wondering where I could find the nearest ice floe to float into oblivion before there's no sea ice left. My bed seemed like a safer option.

I also have selfish and slightly more rational reasons for ennui. After weeks away, I thought I'd be thrilled to reunite with my bicycles. But my ride last Wednesday was many levels less than great, even accounting for recovery from a cold and re-acclimation to altitude and "being out of bike shape." Sure, I hadn't been in the saddle for nearly six weeks, but 120,000 feet of climbing and equal, even harsher pounding from on-foot descents in that time period is not exactly idleness. Also, I spent plenty of time above 2,000 meters while I was away. So why do my lungs feel so compressed? Why are my legs so limber and yet hopelessly heavy? Why am I dizzy on climbs that I could crush two months ago? Why am I fantasizing about floating away into a partially frozen sea?

I went looking for something tangible on which to blame the latest slump. I requested another blood test, since it had been five months since my last. My doctor ordered the works, and everything turned up ship-shape. My TSH has nearly hit 2.0, which is right in line with the general population. I took my numbers to the self-proclaimed experts on my Graves Disease forum, and they pointed out that my thyroid hormone levels are likely too low. T3, the active hormone, has almost dropped off the low end of the acceptable range. We all have optimal levels, which are individual to us and much narrower than the general range, they said. They told me I'm overmedicated, and that's why I feel bad. But why would I be having the same symptoms? The breathing? The insomnia? The anxiety? My favorite endocrinologist blogger, who would vehemently disagree with most of what people write on that forum, would simply repeat his oft-repeated phrase: "It's not your thyroid."


Okay, then I just suck. That's fine. Only this month was to be the month I made important-to-me decisions about whether or not to race next year. I'd set my sights on the 2019 Tour Divide, to celebrate my 40th birthday with a glorious attempt to execute an ideal race effort, or at least something that's significantly less of a disaster than 2015. I'm not really interested in just riding the route. If I want an adventure, I know there's something out there to occupy my dreams and hopefully fill in the mental spaces that I tend to fill up with bad news. No, this is specifically about racing and whether I want to pursue that hard edge. If so, I need to commit and begin training, ideally with sharper focus this time.

But the Tour Divide is in June, which recent personal history shows is a terrible time for fitness. Why even bother training if you're just going to sputter out like you did on the Iditarod in February? Maybe you could ITT the route in late August/September? You've long believed that's a better time of year on the Divide, but enduring heat and wildfire season does make a late season ride more iffy these days. And what about March? If you're not training for anything, you could do just about anything. But I know, you really, really want to go to Alaska. Maybe you should look into the possibility of renting a room in Nome? 

I know, indecision about possible adventures is the definition of a first-world problem. It does take the mind off of lead legs and heavy lungs, ever so briefly.

While motivation was plummeting to new lows, a bout of cold weather moved into the region. For three or four days the world was a solid wall of fog. I went for a couple of short and really slow runs through the icy mist. I visited my gym and lamented how much ground I've lost in my weight routine. I took days off. Finally, on Tuesday, light snow began to fall. My friend Betsy and I had planned a ride on Wednesday morning. When we scheduled this a week ago, I suggested riding either West Nederland or the Sourdough Trail, "to ride in the high country one more time before shoulder season hits." Then shoulder season beat us to the punch. There was some back-and-forth texting about how much we wanted to ride in slop. Betsy pointed out that hard things are good for mental training. I had to agree, especially when my own mental fortitude is as soft as a melting snowball.

 All I'd seen of the storm so far was the lightest dusting at 7,500 feet, so I was a little surprised to see several inches of snow at 9,000 feet. We laid what appeared to be the season's first tracks on the Sourdough Trail, stirring up powder as we grunted over nearly-invisible rocks and roots now coated in ice. I was grateful Beat had graciously offered to swap out the wheels and tires on my fat bike the previous evening, as I was lazy and busy on Tuesday night, and would have happily showed up for this ride with the 29+ set-up. We needed the surface area, aggressive tread and studs. Conditions were treacherous ... and incredibly fun.

Above 10,000 feet there were six to eight inches of heavy snow covering the ground, and every pedal stroke was hard work.  The temperature was 18 degrees, and a brisk wind kept us grinding without reprieve. Thick curtains of snow fell at times, masking our tracks just minutes after we laid them. Betsy and I were all smiles, wrestling with bikes at 3mph through a winter wonderland. Betsy, who is training for a 60-kilometer fat bike race in December, fretted a little over failure math. "I can't ride 60K when five miles takes almost two hours."

"Three miles an hour is a great speed on snow," I assured her. "Fat Pursuit won't take you more than what, 12 hours? More likely you'll be done sooner. Also, the course has no rocks and roots, which makes a bigger difference than you'd think."

She asked me if I occasionally walk these winter races because walking is faster.

"Walking is never faster," I answered. "You'd think so at times, as slow as we're moving. The sled is even slower."

It is, truly, an exquisite slog. As crappy as you felt on the Iditarod Trail last February, you were still enamored with it all and dream about it frequently still. I can't believe you decided to skip a winter of racing and training. Maybe you can still plan a solo trip out of Nome. 

 I still have a ways to go to find my mojo, but this was a nice start.  
Thursday, October 04, 2018

11th Grand

Last week, I joined my parents for our 11th trip to the Grand Canyon together. After 14 years, our tradition is still going strong, although there have been plenty of hiccups along the way. It's always a fun timeline to piece together: 

2004: North to South. One year after completing his first scorching rim-to-rim with a group of his colleagues, Dad decides to join a large group of family friends and neighbors for their annual traverse. He invites me. I'm a little skeptical because it's a long hike, and also because one of the young men the group was my elementary school tormentor (he teased me for being bad at sports, which I really was, and the teasing was probably not as bad as I remember.) Still, I am going to show him. It's brutally hot; the thermometer at Indian Gardens reads 113F. The scenery is jaw-dropping. My childhood bully is nice to me, a surprise, although we are 25 now, and I doubt he even remembers the playground taunting. I love the "lemmies" at Phantom Ranch. The climb out is not as bad as I expect. My legs are toast for several days. I'm hooked.

2005: North to South. Just a month after moving to Alaska, I fly down to Utah to join the group again. 

2006: North to South. While negotiating a job contract with the Juneau Empire, I stipulate time off for my already planned trip to the Lower 48. My new boss agrees. Grand Canyon is officially a tradition. 

2007: South to North. My aunt Jan joins us. She trained all summer. It's extremely difficult for her, but she perseveres. While climbing the North Kaibab Trail, temperatures plummet and the sky unleashes a spectacular deluge. Red waterfalls gush off sandstone walls, an impressive sight that becomes one of my favorite memories of this canyon.

2008: South to North. My first trip down the Kaibab Trail. We are joined by Dad's friend Tom.

2009: Missed because I couldn't get more time off work after my Tour Divide furlough.

2010: Missed to attend my grandfather's funeral.

2011: North to South. Temperatures are in the low 20s with a skiff of snow on the North Rim. It doesn't even hit 60 degrees at the river. Dad hikes his first rim-to-rim-to-rim. I had intended to join him, but then I accidentally overbook my weekend. So instead I rush back to the North Rim to grab my dad's 1994 Toyota pickup and drive that to Moab to pace my friend Danni for 50 miles in the Slickrock 100.

2012: South to North. We're joined by Dad's friend Chad and his wife Ophie. I'm one week off of finishing the Bear 100, and have to hike with my feet wrapped in tape because they're still badly blistered. 

2013: Missed because of the Government Shutdown.

2014. Missed because of injury — recovering from a torn LCL I sustained in the Tor des Geants one month earlier. I still travel to the canyon with my parents and join my mom for the four-hour shuttle, hitting her favorite traditions along the way. It's a fun side of the trip I haven't experienced before. 

2015: North to South to North. Finally, I complete a two-day rim-to-rim-to-rim with Dad.

2016: North to South to North. Beat joins for the first time, along with Dad's friend Raj, for the double. 

2017: Missed because I managed to double-book a weekend again. I should really use a calendar. I feel intensely guilty about this. 

2018:

Dad planned our trip early this year; the last week of September was the latest he could find rooms on the South Rim. On Wednesday, still deeply jet-lagged from Europe (jet lag always hits me so hard after the return trip, especially after a month of insomnia), I headed west toward Salt Lake City. From the first hour onward, I felt sort of terrible, but I hate to waste a commute through the mountains. I mean, how often can you pull off the Interstate you're driving anyway, park within 50 meters of the humming freeway, and walk up two 13,000-foot summits? My aim was Mount Parnassus and Bard Peak.

Beat caught a cold on the Sunday flight home, and by Tuesday I'd picked up the sore throat. My congestion wasn't too bad on Wednesday morning, but within a half mile I was wheezing with every labored step. Out loud I blamed the sickness and altitude, but quietly I felt certain this was evidence of the severity of my current fitness downswing.  To top it off, the weather was really cold. I'd just come from Switzerland, where temperatures still topped 80F, and it had been a warm September in the Alps overall. While hiking, I think I only wore a jacket twice for an entire month there. Here, my car thermometer registered 41 degrees at 10,000 feet, and the wind was howling. I'd almost forgotten about this crazy Continental Divide wind. How could I forget? I'd brought some warm things but not enough. I had no face mask, no shell pants, and only thin gloves. So from the start I was shivering and sick and increasingly grumpy. Plus, I was putting my Grand Canyon hike at risk by pushing through these conditions with a sore throat. Why did I do it? Sometimes ... most times ... I don't make sense to myself.

Topped out on Mount Parnassus, elevation 13,574. Windchill, -30? (Okay, it wasn't nearly that low. But "feels like" matters for something.) Despite the wheezing and plodding, I made okay time to the peak, and Bard was right over there and it seems a shame not to go now that I'm here. It's not like I even really care. I'm never going to go for all of the Colorado Bicentennials or adopt any other goal that makes it matter whether I tag a peak or not. But I can be so stubborn. So I dropped into the crumbly traverse along the ridge, balancing atop loose boulders on a steep side slope. This traverse was much slower than climbing the tundra ramp to Parnassus. By the time I reached the saddle, I knew I was looking at an extra two hours at least, and regretted my decision. But I was committed.

The climb to Bard Peak, from 12,800 feet to 13,641 feet, finished me off. My sinuses filled with mucous and I was done. But I still had to re-gain Parnassus. It was awful. The kind of effort that left me pausing after every four steps to catch my breath so I'd stop feeling so dizzy. The kind of desperation that caused somewhat uncharacteristic involuntary swearing, f&*@ me. When I wavered, the endless skyline of the Continental Divide stood steady, taunting me. I hated feeling so unfit and close to helpless, and lashed out with anger. "Ugly Colorado mountains, look like @&$! piles of dirt," a surprisingly venomous exclamation that instantly caused me to laugh out loud. Ha, I don't believe that. People who don't care about mountains might believe that. European Alps snobs probably believe that. But not me. I love these mountains, in all of their late-autumn beige grandeur. It's not the mountains' fault that I feel like a pile of dirt.

"Yes, I will blame the altitude and cold," I thought as I continued west on I-70, pretending I was no worse for the wear. The following day, the three of us and my Dad's friend Chad made our way south. Around 3 p.m., we stepped out of the car to gaze over Glen Canyon Dam, where we were hit with the searing 90-degree air of Page, Arizona. I'd been napping (felt like midnight to me), and this hot air was just as shocking as the frigid windchill on Mount Parnassus. Temperatures for the canyon were forecast to be in the high 90s the following day. Dad guessed it would be our hottest trip across the canyon since the first, in 2004.

Still, we enjoyed a lovely evening on the South Rim, where even after sunset, it was so warm we could walk along the rim in our T-Shirts. We also spotted a California condor as it soared through the air above us and landed on a perch next to the yawning void. Without a telephoto lens, I couldn't capture much of a photo. But we conferred with folks around us, looked at the bird from multiple angles, compared its features to a photo on a plaque that just happened to be right there, and are quite certain it was a condor. Very cool.
 
Dad, Chad and I set out at dawn from the South Kaibab trailhead. I'd given Dad some warning about my potentially poor condition by describing my hike two days earlier as "a lot of huffing and puffing." Here at 7,000 feet, I did feel significantly better, although the sore throat and congestion were still bothering me. Chad has been injured and didn't think he was in the best condition, so I hoped for an easy-going day where no one would notice I was in such terrible shape.

I do love the morning light on the South Kaibab.  I felt at peace. I know this canyon. I'm comfortable here. There's little left that seems especially difficult or scary, but I should know better to expect the unexpected.

Crossing the Colorado River on the "Black Bridge." The suspension bridge was built in 1928, with men using spotlights and working through the night to avoid the heat of the day. Members of the Havasupai tribe carried the one-ton suspension cables down on their own backs. "Those were the days of hard men," Dad observed. The plaque didn't mention that the men doing the heavy-lifting were Natives. I had to look up Wikipedia for that information.

Temperatures did rise into the high-90s down in the canyon, but our timing was ideal. We wound through the box canyon in the waning shadows of morning, and climbed steeply along the canyon walls with the shade of afternoon. We only had to endure full exposure to the hot, hot sun for about five miles in the middle. Dad set a rapid place, and I surprised myself by more or less keeping up. I suppose lower altitudes do help my breathing.

Looking toward Ribbon Falls. Chad, who was feeling the sting of his plantar fasciitus, decided the skip the side trip to the waterfall. Dad and I agreed long ago that we'd never pass up a chance to see Ribbon Falls up close — after all, how often can you pull off a trail you're hiking anyway and sit beside a ribbon of bright green moss and cascading water in the desert? It seemed everyone else in the vicinity had the same idea. Although we saw relatively few people in the canyon on this hot Friday in September, there were more than a dozen folks at the falls, all wedged into a tiny slice of shade still available at high noon. We took extra time to crawl to an more open spot in the shade, and then had a group of three women come and plop down right between us. One woman set her poles down on top of my Dad's shoes, with his feet in those shoes. Another took off her pack and looked for a spot to set it down. She kept looking back at me expectantly, as though waiting for me to move so she could place her pack where I was sitting. Lady, I am not going to move for you. But we did cram down the rest of our lunch quickly so we could escape to freedom.

With sweat streaming down arms and legs, we climbed to the Cottonwood campground and pulled off our now-light packs. We planned to fill up our water here, as we have for more than a decade through this canyon. We turned on the spigot and ... nothing. Dry as a bone. A man nearby told us the water was off ... pipeline broke, he said, didn't you see the signs? We traveled here from the South Rim; we saw no such signs. Yeah, the man replied, no water, all the way to the top.

No water? For seven miles and more than 4,000 feet of climbing that remained? I nearly always hike with a small filter, but I purposely left it behind for this trip, because I anticipated heavy sweating and wanted to keep my small pack as loose as possible, and also because the piped water in this canyon has always been reliable. Dad and I both carried purification tablets — I actually only had enough to make two liters, with chlorine tablets that carry a recommended four-hour activation period. We were walking past the campground, complaining loudly about this, when man with a thick Canadian accent yelled from a hundred meters away. "Hey, you need to borrow a filter?"

The Canadians were from Prince George. "The far north," one said. Just as I was thinking, "I have friends from the Yukon who would probably disagree with you," he continued, "Not really. Everyone just thinks that because we're in the middle of nowhere." They had a brand new MSR filter, never before used because in British Columbia, they just drink directly from streams. Dad and I took it down to Bright Angel Creek and pumped five liters of water. As we worked, the nice young man came down and chatted with us. I told them about my drives up and down the Cassiar. He talked of his past trips to the Grand Canyon. "You guys are all right," Dad said.

We again caught up with Chad at Manzanita. He had waited for us there for nearly an hour, worried that we hadn't found water. He'd treated his own with iodine. The normally bustling rest stop was more or less a ghost town. No one cares to hang out where there is no water. Dad set a brisk pace for the final steep climb, five miles that always seem to go on forever. My congestion was building again, but my breathing was okay. It's impossible not to enjoy this section, carved into sheer sandstone up a seemingly impenetrable blockade of canyon walls. My legs felt especially heavy, and I decided that wading through this ankle deep sand — mule traffic erosion — was harder than hiking in the Alps. Dad didn't seem fazed.

Our first warning sign — at the trailhead, at the very end of our hike. I wondered how many other rim-to-rim hikers and runners were caught off guard by this. It's no small thing to go 14 miles uphill on a 90-plus-degree afternoon without water you'd been expecting. It would have been a small problem for us had we not met those nice Canadians.

But we banged another one out. This was my 10th year across the Grand Canyon with Dad. Eleventh trip, counting 2014. And twelfth crossing together, factoring in our two double-crossings. Dad is 65 now. I believe he's holding up his Medicare card for a fun photo op here. He only gets better with age. I get worse, but Dad gives me hope that the best years are still ahead.

Having nowhere to stay on the North Rim, we decided to drive all the way to Salt Lake that evening. A bit brutal, traveling eight hours in a car after a 24-mile hike, but the drive home had its own magic. We saw a bison herd on the Kaibab Plateau.

 The aspens were brilliant, and appeared near peak. We're usually here two weeks later, after the brightest leaves have dropped.

Arizona sunset. Does any other state have better sunsets? I have yet to see evidence to the contrary.

By Saturday morning, I was definitely sick. I had a "man cold," which is distinguished from a regular cold because you complain about it significantly more. Dad invited me out for a run and I turned him down. My 65-year-old father, still spry as can be after a rim-to-rim traverse, and I'm laying around in bed. I did have a chance to visit my grandmother, who is on hospice, so there's always that expectation that this visit may be the last. I was grateful for that opportunity. On Sunday, I headed home on Interstate 80.

I was feeling a little better. And since I was in Wyoming anyway, I decided to detour on the scenic route over Snowy Range Pass. While I'm at it, why not climb Medicine Bow Peak? The nearby Ryan fire had recently flared up, and the southern horizon was obscured with smoke, but overhead skies were clear. I couldn't smell anything anyway, so I just had to assume the air was okay. It was still quite hot — 72 degrees at 10,000 feet. The wind also was raging, but it was more of a blow-dryer wind, hopefully not blowing undetected smoke into my lungs.

I could barely breathe through my congestion. I went through an entire portable pack of tissues, and still failed to stem the steady flow of snot. My head was pounding, too. This man cold had not yet retreated. But unlike Wednesday, I was not a grumpy pants about it. The afternoon light was gorgeous and I was enjoying the wide-open landscapes of southern Wyoming. Clearly the Grand Canyon had healed my heart, just a little bit, yet again.

I was a little disappointed about how poorly I was breathing at 10,000 feet. But the boulder-strewn summit of Medicine Bow Peak is actually 12,013 feet, so that's probably okay.

Beyond the peak, three miles of wide-open ridge walking took me through a richly lit moonscape that I had all to myself.

Looking down at Lake Marie through the imposing gullies surrounding it.

Although I really was sick and probably should have taken it easier, it was satisfying to hike in three states, over high mountains and through deep canyons, in the span of fewer than five days. It was a needed "welcome home" for my soul.