Thursday, December 13, 2018

Coming up for air

By Monday I had surpassed my tolerance threshold for sleepless nights and coughing up green globs that were worryingly beginning to look and feel like lung tissue. It was the two-week mark, so I went in to see my doctor. She confirmed the lung infection was viral, so there would be no magic-bullet antibiotics. Besides lung congestion, my main complaints were crushing fatigue and daytime malaise. The doctor guessed this was a result of not sleeping, and prescribed some serious cough syrup to stifle the night hacking. Either the medicine or the two-week threshold seemed to do the trick, because I finally emerged from the crud on Wednesday. It felt like lifting my head after 17 days of floating face-down in a murky pond — a mucous-filled murky pond.

I did venture outside twice amid this mucous-filled muck. The weather was really nice over the weekend, so I braved a four-mile hike Saturday and six-mile jog Sunday. Predictably I felt as though I was breathing through an iron lung filled with motor oil, and just wanted to lay down on rocks and nap in the 40-degree sunshine. These efforts knocked me out so fully that I assumed there would be no outdoor exercise for another week. But after the miracle cough syrup, my energy levels bounced back dramatically. Wednesday's trip to the gym felt almost normal. So today, with late morning temperatures in the mid-20s and buffeted by a mild breeze, I wrapped my chest and neck in extra insulating layers, and set out on a run.

The plan was a standard six-mile jog. However, while bounding down the hill toward Walker Ranch, I felt so great that I decided to go for it — the whole 10-mile trail loop. During the run I had to stop twice to cough up some gunk, but beyond that I felt strong: Steady breathing, sharp focus to negotiate all of the patchy ice, springy legs, and the happiest of faces. I wasn't pushing myself particularly hard, which is an assessment I base on how I feel, rather than speed or time. So I was surprised when I came home to see I'd logged my fastest full Walker loop yet, and managed to maintain a high heart rate without feeling like I was about to keel over.

My heart rate graph from today:

And for comparison, here's the same loop in the same direction from a day when I was working really hard and actually trying to log a tempo run, Oct. 27:

You could say I'm well-rested after being ill more than two weeks. You could say I'm just really excited to be outside again. Both of these statements would be true. Still, I'm perplexed by seemingly random days when I emerge from beneath whatever unknown forces are holding me back, and bust out a good effort that would objectively qualify as a good effort. Then there are other seemingly random days when I sputter through a desperate haze and barely break out of zone 2. And I haven't found any reason for one or the other.

The ongoing uncertainty has spurred enough training ennui that I can't even get excited about the good runs or rides anymore. It doesn't mean anything. And the cycle continues. 

I realized this lost faith is the main barrier between me and fleeting dreams of adventure. Languishing in a sick bed often leaves only enough mental space for dreaming, and I continued to form hazy ideas about 2019. For a while I became mildly obsessed with the Silk Road Mountain Race — a bikepacking event in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I've long wanted to ride a bicycle through central Asia, and an organized event with an established route is just the perfect amount of (minimal) support I'd like for such an endeavor. But it is a race, with a difficult cut-off. During last year's inaugural event, nearly three-quarters of the field dropped out. The DNF list included women who I know to be stronger riders than me — Tracy Petervary and Lee Craigie. 

"I'm not likely to get strong enough to finish that race," I thought. And then I realized that registration closes at the end of December, which is not enough time to dig up courage from my severely eroded confidence bank. So I set Silk Road aside as another one of The Cold's feverish dreams. 

I gave up the 2019 Tour Divide in a similar manner, back in October. That was the month I intended to make the commitment and dedicate time to focused training. But October brought too many bad rides and runs — sputtering efforts that left me feeling distressed and depressed. "I don't want to spend all my time with training that makes me feel this way," I thought. "And I'm not going to magically become more fit by gasping my way through painfully slow rides." 

It's a contemptible first-world problem to have means and opportunity for an adventure, and let it slip away out of cowardice. Earlier this week, I e-mailed a friend for advice and admitted my adventure listlessness. 

"Maybe you should just commit to something for this next year and then put your heart and soul into training for it. It’s so easy to be wishy washy," she advised. 

My initial reaction to this statement surprised me — I was angry. "I don't want to put my heart and soul into this stuff," I thought. "I'm tired of having my heart and soul broken."

This reaction sparked an epiphany — I'm not broken. I'm scared. I know I'm not broken because I can still push through the depths of this malaise and find something incredible on the other side, which I proved to myself during my Iditarod race to McGrath this past March. But I struggled during the Iditarod. Oh, did I struggle. Out on those snowbound swamps, knee-deep in powder and anchored to a veritable anvil of a sled, I discovered new depths of emotional and physical lows. Truly terrible moments. Now I'm frightened of this possibility. More so, I believe, than I've ever been.

But I also emerged from these depths, on an exhilarating arc of strength and joy, the heights of which I thought were lost to my starry-eyed youth. This scope of experience is why I can't just walk away from endurance racing. It would be so easy, otherwise. I'm happy to do what I can to stay in good enough shape to enjoy fun desert bikepacking trips with my friends, hike in the Alps, visit the Grand Canyon with my family. "Adventure Lite" as my friend Keith would say. Type 1 fun.

I could be happy, sure. And I could dedicate extra time and energy to any number of activities deemed more productive. Learn Spanish. Draw. Volunteer. Find regular full-time work as a way of filling up time (because let's be honest, my skill set is not likely to land a high-paying job even compared to my current side hustles.) Time is going to fall away regardless, and I'm still a speck of dust on a speck of dust, hurtling through an infinite universe. 

While I'm here, I might as well have some experiences. It's good to have pleasant experiences. Better to have meaningful experiences. This is what endurance racing has been for me, ever since I stumbled into it 13 years ago — objectively pointless, yet intensely meaningful. Endurance racing once gifted me with confidence and courage to counter my natural tendencies toward neuroses and fear. Now I find myself crouching as fear closes in, blaming a nebulous health condition, a shadow, for my inability to stand. 

Thanks to The Cold and waking through the night with horrible coughing fits, I retained dozens of little dreams from the past two weeks. In one of these dreams, I invited all of my friends (California friends, who apparently remain my subconscious image of friends three years after I moved away) to a party on my yacht, which was docked at Aurora Harbor in Juneau (yes, the subconscious is a funny thing.) This party was an elaborate and weirdly materialistic affair, and even more strangely, I was proud of the gaudy display. But as soon as it started, all I wanted to do was walk out on the deck and stand in a raging wind to watch the sliver moon set over Mount Jumbo. In the dream I stood alone for hours, gazing up at stars. I was content. 

This was my favorite of the week's many bronchitis dreams. I suppose I'm rambling about it here because it felt meaningful, and I wanted to record the memory of contentedness and joy amid this objectively lonely and uncomfortable setting. 

Not that I've formulated any answers from the epiphanies and dreams. It's just good for me to admit my fears to myself, and on record here, where I can hold myself accountable. Being sick for 17 days was really trying in a way I think most people understand. Fewer understand my back-and-forth battle with my silly hobbies, but it's nice to have an outlet for this as well. 


  1. Glad you're over the hump. Love the picture of the Front Range clouds at sunset. I remember those sunsets.... Boulder, where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, has clouds like nowhere else.

  2. It is hard sometimes to transform from what was meaningful to what is. By Keith's definition my life is Adventure Lite. Which kind of bums me out, but some people have the ability to bust bigger moves than I do. You should definitely still adventure race if that's what does it for you. But I deftly understand the frustration because I am facing it with aging. Those weird aches and pains and slower times. The best thing is not to care but if you figure out how to do that, let me know.Fwiw, I still think what you can pull off is pretty amazing.

    1. You are right — a big part of this is accepting who I am now. I have a friend here in Colorado who is my age and just getting started in endurance racing. It has been fun to watch her progress, and also a little melancholy, because I remember so well the anticipation and excitement. I miss those days.

      I realized that I could benefit from embracing the beginner mentality and approaching the events I do have planned with that kind of focus and zeal, rather than wistfully pining after these grand adventures that I may just not have the heart and soul for right now ... hard as that is for me to admit.

  3. I am very glad to read that you are finally feeling better and that you're thinking about adventures. It is very hard to assess what you can do as your condition changes, and you'll find that out aging as well. I'd say that it's better to try to do something that you think that you'll love than to delay... because eventually you'll know that you can't even try. That's where I am with my many rods and screws in my spine but I can still do plenty to keep myself happy. I've adapted to my new reality by learning about new things to do that I love so much that I rarely miss my old life.

    1. I'm amazed how well you've adapted with all of your challenges. I realize I'm still high-functioning in the scheme of things, still in better shape than I was when I was 20. I suppose what I miss most is the confidence. There were a few years in there that I really believed I could do anything (pretty much 2011 to 2013 ... the PTL is what rightly ripped me off that delusional pedestal, and it's been mostly downhill ever since.)

      But it's true, we must constantly adapt. Life always changes. And you're right about grabbing opportunity when it's there, because that quickly changes as well.

  4. Good to hear you are over your recent issues.

    The mention of Fruita reminded me of having a coffee there in 2001 and hearing the company I worked for in the UK had gone into administration. Went and rode Joe's Ridge, nothing I could do about it.

    I can empathise with your dilemma about adventure racing. I also decided in October not to race the Tour divide again next year after promising myself to return when I was 60 which I will be in January. I am a bit scared of failure I think despite also thinking I could do so much better than when I was younger. Maybe I will return at a later date.
    I may be touring in Idaho or Montana next fall but need to do some serious riding in Europe beforehand. Last winter I booked a last minute ferry to Spain and cycled back to the North of France on cycle paths. Not particularly difficult but it did help with a crisis in confidence I had from the events of 2016.

    I said in 2016 I would give up anything vaguely racey or competitive but I cannot let it go that easily.

    1. Yes, it is hard to give up on the Tour Divide dream, especially when I'm feeling more chipper. Even as I made tentative plans that conflict with the June depart, I find myself thinking "what about an August ITT?" My fear isn't necessarily failure. I'm afraid of having a similar experience to 2015, which was downright traumatizing with lasting consequences in both a physical and emotional sense. So why would I want to go back at all? A question I still can't answer adequately, and yet can't deny the desire is there.

    2. I see more fully now how nieve I was when I was younger and thought as I reached a new goal that I could keep stair stepping up with the right training and pushing beyond my limit. But my body and nervous system took a big hit. I think we recover to a point but are also changed and my hesitation now I think comes from deep with in to try and protect me from myself.

      I came across a podcast that framed how I see myself now

      "Maximal Potential (meaning ) is dancing on the edge between Competence and Chaos"

      But of course that line seems to keep moving :) But I enjoy finding it each day that I'm able.

      Jeff C

  5. How much confidence do you have in your heart rate monitor? If it isn't a chest strap, maybe you could borrow one to do a comparison?

    I found this interesting:,review-2885.html


    1. Thanks for the link. I do use a chest strap, and recently acquired a new one after my older one was giving suspect readings (which is why I stopped monitoring heart rate on a regular basis for about a year.)

  6. Glad your feeling better, being sick is such a mental low of drifting for me. To much time to ruminate and find more questions than answers. Your writing is so easy to empathize with as you travel a trail of ontological quest. The Ying/Yang of the mind (Frontal Cortex vs Limbic System) is what I see in my self. They both are rarely on the same page.... Anyway, if you have not read Rollo May (Existential Physiologist)you may like his work, no absolute answers (if any really exist) but he does have a frame work that resonates with me. I found your dream contained a theme of Dualism. Made me think of "Mind-Body Dualism" and the "Mind-Body Problem" and as I was rereading some info I came across "The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind". Thanks for the spark! Wish you the best on planning some goals! I wish I could be that binary sometimes....I have more direction than destination now with my current self than I did with my younger self. I see more now, and life is more precious.

    Jeff C


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