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. 


  1. I'm really hoping you can get it figured out, as I REALLY want to live vicariously thru you doing another TD (or was it a GDR, gosh I get those 2 confused all the time!) I am still working my way 'up' to some bikepacking and bike touring (have never done EITHER). Just need some more gear...and oddly enough after all the hiking/backpacking I've done, and solo day-long MTB rides, I'm kind of skittish about bikepacking solo for some reason. Hope to beat that irrational fear this winter/spring and do it!

    1. That's interesting to me that you haven't bikepacked before. I really need to get out more myself. I let a whole summer go by without a bike overnight. :(

  2. I can relate not to slumping but for some reason I feel more fearful than I ever have. The thought of a fall seems catastrophic, and hypothermia occupies my thoughts way more than it should. I also think about mountain lions. I'm not sure what is causing this angst, but I'm annoyed with it. As far as you, only you can know your an observer I would certainly say, well, you feel tired because most of your activities involve extremely long days and hard efforts. Sit on the couch and eat a sandwich! But I believe you that that isn't the case. I hope you can figure it out. You seem to be doing OK up me, but it's all relative to your own baseline.

    1. I don't understand my own fears either. I can only guess it's connected to broader angst about the state of the world, but it is a somewhat strange state.

      I don't think I describe my experiences with these slumps very well, based on others' response to my writing. I mainly talk about outdoor exercise in my outdoor blog, but the symptoms run deeper than this, including physical reactions such as an on-again, off-again rash, increased hair loss (yeah, that's still happening. I look at pictures of myself six years ago and think 'OMG, where did it all go?' and a few other things that exercise fatigue alone wouldn't cause. I can't get the thyroid numbers to explain it either, so mostly now I just throw my hands up and figure it will be okay eventually.

      I've done a lot of sitting around this month, which I mostly used to not write and instead read a lot of terrible news articles and essays. That's a habit I *really* need to curb. That will probably do more for my mental health than improving my diet and exercise routine, but it's so, so hard to look away. I want so badly to understand everything, and I understand nothing.

  3. Jill, sending you my best as you attempt to work through everything. When I do read about your slumps and fears it makes me feel a little more normal. I once was hauled off a mountain via a sled and that fear continues to haunt me. The “what ifs” will not go away. I think it’s great that you continue to move forward when you can on your daily adventures. In time you will make the right decision about the TD. It will be the right decision for YOU. Either way your still a hero in my world and I continue to enjoy and cherish every honest word you write in your posts. GODSPEED to you always.

    1. Thanks Linda! Those accumulating fears do weigh down as I get older. I was a fearful child and young adult, and I figure it's a lifelong battle. Being brave is an decision I need to make every day.

      Beat read this post and asked me if everything is as dramatic as I make it sound. It's not! I suppose I'm just trying to succinctly describe how I feel, and in doing so, make it sound as though I'm desperately short of breath and about to keel over. To be honest, this is close to how I perceive it sometimes, but logically I understand that it is not this bad. Breathing difficulties are *always* scary, even when relatively minor. I deeply sympathize with people who have major asthma and COPD.

      As always, I very much appreciate your support and encouragement.

  4. Maybe you actually have something other than thyroid issues? Autoimmune diseases often come in pairs or groups. It sounds like it might be worth seeing a doctor.

    1. That's a definite possibility. I am seeing my endocrinologist next month and intend to push a little harder on this issue, but it's difficult because I'm so bad at talking. If only doctors would accept a long-winded e-mail from me! Actually, I might try that this time.

      I just typed this in an e-mail to a friend, but it seems worth sharing here: "I sometimes wonder if I'm simply paying the piper for years of breathing bad air. Some people are more sensitive than others. We all have different tolerance levels. I grew up in Salt Lake City, which has terrible air, and tended toward respiratory infections when I was a child. I've also had a terrible grass allergy since childhood. Then I became an endurance athlete and spent large blocks of time outside. The bronchitis/pneumonia episode of summer 2015 may have just been the last straw. Perhaps I do have some COPD that flares up at intervals. I deal with a lot of mucous when I'm exercising, although I haven't had too many problems with coughing or sneezing. "

    2. Yes, discussing issues with your doctor thoroughly can be challenging for sure. Forgetting things or not finding the right words in the moment is my specialty! I really like the idea of writing it down. Just tell the doctor it's your preferred way of communicating. As long as you're concise, they should be okay with it.
      Wishing you the best, breathing issues are scary. You've struggled long enough and I don't believe it's in your head.

  5. You are a fantastic writer. Ive enjoyed your blog and books for many years as well as following your journeys. One of these days - hopefully - everything will come together physically and mentally....and Beat will be struggling to keep up with you!

  6. I appreciate you sharing what is real for you and being brave enough to speak about your mental struggles, nothing to be ashamed of, I think these struggles show us how strong we can be if not somewhat more exhausted from all the bloody over thinking and nervousness. I've had an anxiety disorder since a child, it ebbs and wanes in intensity, and it can make me feel miserable but being outside in nature and moving my body has been hands down the best remedy for me. I think the anxiety makes us vigilant and wanting to figure out what's wrong, what goings on, and sometimes there is no solution but to accept what is. Stay strong and savor those moments of joy and happiness.

  7. I love all the outdoors, but let's just say I love the mountains just a bit more than the beach :)

    Hair loss does sound like a symptom of Graves, even if the numbers don't show it I think there is still much we don't understand about how much of our lives are impacted by that little thyroid.

    I have gone through seasons of life that made no sense whatsoever while I was in them. One season it took me an entire decade to look back and start understanding some of it. It's complicated when your body plays tricks on you.

    To me you will always be brave and strong, no matter what your body tells you.


Feedback is always appreciated!