Thursday, May 16, 2019

Bryce, again

Here are a few things that have happened in my active life since the last time I finished a summer-trail hundred-miler, which just happened to be the Bryce 100, in May 2013.

• Finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 on foot. (2014)
• Finished the Race Across South Africa — 2,400 kilometers carrying a mountain bike, with some riding. (2014)
• Finished my fifth White Mountains 100, first time in the foot division. (2015)
• Finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1,000-mile on a bike, setting a new women's record in the process. (2016)
• Finished another ITI 350 on foot. (2018)
• Finished another couple WM100s on foot. (2018, 2019)
• Fitness setbacks largely due to illness and autoimmune conditions. (2015-2019)
• A bunch of DNFs, mostly in summer trail ultras on foot.

That I can accomplish difficult things yet repeatedly fail at trail-running ambitions irks me to no end, as one may have gathered from my last few weeks of training posts. Yet I'm not the type to be motivated by anger, humiliation or ego. I may have monkeys on my back, but I've learned enough about myself to know they can't push me anywhere I don't want to go. My willful mind stubbornly resists pressure, self-imposed or otherwise.

 So I had to do some soul-searching before coming back here. Do I really want to return to this place, to beat my swollen feet into the sand of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, to breathe the dust and heat, or wallow in the cold rain, and have all those little lifetimes' worth of experiences that one has along the hard edge? Can I live with not finishing? Can I bare to continue with this foolhardy endeavor if I fail again? Because if I can't, I'd rather not try. I find joy in this foolhardy endeavor. Yes, I really do. I suppose that's reason enough. Because if there's one thing that's far from certain, it's finishing this silly race I've set out to do, yet again.

So I'm on my way to the Bryce 100. On Wednesday I drove from Boulder to St. George, Utah, so I can pick up Beat at the airport ahead of the Friday morning start. It's a 10-hour commute and Beat needs to minimize his time off work, thus the shuttle. We have a huge stack of drop bags that needed to be transported, which is amusing because both us of tend to prefer races with low-key support. The White Mountains 100 offers no drop bags, and it's refreshing to just have what you have in your backpack, and not worry about anything else. But the Bryce 100 offers drop bags, so of course I tried to prepare for just about any contingency I could imagine. I want to finish this thing, after all. 

Anyway, as much as I love long-distance driving, 10 hours is a long haul, so I planned a stop mid-way for a little jaunt into the San Rafael Swell. Black Dragon Wash starts directly off the freeway ... you just pull into the shoulder off I-70, open a gate, and park. The perfect roadside diversion. A pocket of hot air had settled into the San Rafael River corridor, and the thermometer on my car indicated it was 94 degrees. I stepped into the sand to slather on sunscreen and was blasted by a blowdryer wind — probably sweeping in that cold front that's supposed to arrive on Thursday. But it did nothing for the heat on this day.

I jogged toward the canyon, feeling rough from the start. The water in my hydration bladder was already coffee temperature, and the pound or so of road-snack strawberries in my stomach were doing me no favors. My gut lurched as I scrambled along the canyon walls, searching for petroglyphs. Back in the wash, I stumbled through the sand, flicking a thick film of sweat off my arms with stiff motions.

Before many of my ultra attempts, I have a habit of embarking on what I intend to be fun and easy taper outings that turn into confidence crushers. This run leveled me. I struggled with sand-running in the wash, lamenting the leg-sucking resistance that really does resemble running on snow. Deep in the oven canyon, the heat became unbearable. Wind whipped sand into my eyes and mouth until I was crunching on grits for the rest of the afternoon. When my throat felt so dry I could barely breathe, I forced myself to drink hot water. My water supply still ran out with about two miles to go. Back at the car, I felt out of sorts and just a little bit dizzy. The next services were still 100 miles away on I-70 West, so I scavenged cans of fizzy water from my own overstuffed drop bags to stave off a mounting panic. Hmmm, borderline heat exhaustion along with nausea after an hour and a half of running, just two days before 30-plus hours of running? That's a good sign.

The thing is, these conditions probably won't remotely resemble what I'm most likely to encounter in the desert on Friday. This graphic shows the latest forecast for the Bryce Canyon region: Mid-40s during the day. Mid-20s at night. Afternoon rain potentially switching to snow overnight. Cold gusting winds at the higher altitudes. Where have I dealt with almost the exact same weather conditions in a hundred-miler? Oh yes, it was the White Mountains 100, two months ago in Alaska.

Due to the cold and snow this spring, race organizers also had to drastically reroute the course. It used to follow an out-and-back along the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau to the Pink Cliffs, but now it will follow two loops of the 50-mile race, which sticks a little closer to the relative front-country. I was disappointed with this development when they announced it last week. A hundred miles is mentally difficult enough without the contrivance of loops. But the 50-miler does hit some beautiful segments, and it will be fun to see them at different times of day and night.

Whatever happens will happen. I can take heart in the fact that my training has been going well, my breathing has been good for the past couple of months, and recent health checks have been encouraging. The race begins at 5 a.m. Friday morning, which also irks me to no end. Seriously, 5 a.m. It will still be dark at that hour, and probably several degrees below freezing. Why runners are so set on starting exercise so early that everyone is guaranteed to start out feeling like crap, I will never understand. Mountain bikers rarely put up with such nonsense.

Ok ... I am done complaining. Really, I'm overall feeling strong and excited and ready to crush this cold and wet jaunt through the sand that may well be a lot like the White Mountains 100, but in Utah. Beat and I are both starting this year's race. For fun, he revamped his Slogtastic tracker, for friends and family interested in following along. The race doesn't offer official tracking, so this is just a personal page for the two of us.

Follow Beat and me during the Bryce 100 at this link
Friday, May 10, 2019

Thyroid update 5

 Almost a year has passed since I last posted about my progress with Graves Disease. I know the subject doesn't interest most people, but just this week I heard from a long-time reader who had a few questions. She, like many, skimmed my earlier posts with little interest. That is, until she received her own Graves Disease diagnosis. She appreciated reading the perspective of another active outdoor enthusiast, which is what I hoped to achieve with these updates. And it just so happened that today was my sixth-month check-in with my endocrinologist.

The verdict: I am officially in remission! (Currently. Autoimmune diseases can always come raging back with new issues in tow. I also carry antibodies for Hashimoto's Disease, so I am just as likely to swing hypothyroid. But for now, all is well.)

When I tested with mid-range TSH in November, my doctor advised me to try going off the drug I was taking to regulate my thyroid hormone production, methimazole. My TSH dipped again in December, but now it's up to 3.2 — well within the healthy range of 0.45-4.5 — and all on its own volition. In fact, I've been more or less drug free since last fall, as that was also the time my allergy doctor had me go off of Singular and daily use of Claratin. It's been really strange to not visit the pharmacy every other week. I had to find new stores to buy personal products and cleaning supplies.

I made a little chart of my 27-month progression for the few readers who might be interested. Everyone else should scroll to the end of this post, for pretty snow photos.

The purple line represents TSH levels, and the blue bars are T3 hormone levels. I also had T4 tested, but didn't include it, as those fluctuations are more or less redundant. The purple boxes indicate the amount of methimazole I was taking during each period, and the light blue box is the happy range for T3, the active thyroid hormone. The happy range for TSH is anything above 0.45. It's a little hard to discern on this graph, but I didn't reach this milestone until May 2018.

In February 2017, my T3 was off the charts, and I felt terrible. My resting heart rate was 85-95, my hair was brittle and breaking off, my cognitive awareness was blurring, my emotional state was deteriorating, and I was wired but tired all the time — sleeping poorly, anxious, and when I finally set out to exercise, I had no energy to do so. At the time I was so delusional that I thought I was training to ride my bicycle across Alaska, as I had done in 2016. There were a few rides where I'd set out, take as much as 45 minutes to slog to the end of the road just three miles from home, and decide that I was so wasted that I needed to turn around and go home. I'd cry about it in the privacy of my bedroom, but I'd still tell myself I was "just having a bad breathing day" and vow to try again the next day. I was in a pitiful state of try-hard delusion.

Whenever I complained about my symptoms, I mostly heard "overtraining" and "altitude" as reasons. It took my endurance-cycling Alaskan physician friend Corrine — who in 2018 finished the Tour Divide at age 59! — to first observe the bulge in my neck (a swollen thyroid gland, also know as a goiter) and ask me if I'd ever had my thyroid tested.

This was early February 2017. I went to see my primary care physician the following week. After lab work came back, I was fast-tracked through a specialist, more tests and ultrasounds to determine that under no terms was I capable of racing across Alaska in three weeks' time. Had I actually attempted the 2017 ITI, there's a reasonable chance I would have died. It sounds overdramatic to put it like that, and it is. But my odds of experiencing a thyroid storm or heart episode at any time or place, including the middle of frozen nowhere, were not low.

Instead, I dropped out of the race and began treatment with a thyroid-hormone-suppressing drug, whose main side-effect is that it can cause liver damage. As the chart shows, this worked quickly for me, and my levels were never dangerously high after I started taking methimazole. I did remain hyperthyroid for most of the following year, with wildly fluctuating symptoms that didn't necessarily coincide with my thyroid levels. Breathing difficulty — which I still consider my most prominent physical health issue — continued at intervals throughout 2017 and 2018. These slumps were frustrating, but did seem to lessen as time went by. Especially later in 2018, when I was drug-free and my levels were normalizing, my slumps were shorter and less severe. However, they were still concerning enough that I decided against racing the Tour Divide in 2019. I've had trouble breathing as recently as the first week of March, and I do expect to falter again. I'll likely never be all the way free of breathing difficulty. But the long-range perspective is "undulating toward normalcy," and it's heartening.

Because of my allergic asthma, the fact I live at 7,200 feet elevation, and the still-likely scenario that I'm a little too active for my own good, I don't know how much my breathing issues are caused by thyroid disease versus anything else. But I do know that I feel a whole lot better and stronger than I did two years ago. The only aspect of my lifestyle that has consistently changed in that time is traditional medical treatment for thyroid disease and allergies (via immunotherapy, which seems to have been quite successful in tamping down my body's overreactions to the green seasons.)

I've also written a little about mental health as it relates to thyroid disease. I believe this is a bigger issue than most specialists make it out to be, but I realize every person's experience is different. When I was embroiled in the darkest days of Graves Disease, in the winter of 2016-2017, I struggled with a depressive state that heavily reduced my creativity and capability for joy. I blamed this state of mind on the political climate that was bursting to the foreground at the time, as well as stress about life, my faltering fitness and the upcoming Iditarod race. I realize now just how much my mental state has shifted — when, again, little has changed in both my life or the state of the world. I've been treated for thyroid disease, and it seems for this reason alone, my mental health is considerably better.

I do still deal with mild anxiety, which infrequently flares up with little provocation into a low-level panic, considerable shortness of breath and some chest pain. At first I'd feel these symptoms and think "oh no, thyroid storm." There may be some connection still, as I probably experience occasional bursts of hormone overproduction caused by stress. I've been using CBD as a regular supplement since my last anxiety episode in September, and have had considerably fewer issues since. How much reduced anxiety coincides with CBD use or Graves Disease remission, I don't know.

 Okay, scrollers. Here is the photogenic part of the blog post. We received another spring snowstorm this week, and again, I was thrilled. By now, most of our friends and neighbors are tired of snow. Winter weather has already stretched across seven months, and this late-season snow isn't the recreational type. It has a high water content and covers long-thawed ground, which translates to sticky sludge on top of the sloppiest mud. Even trucks don't handle the conditions all that well (based on the number I've seen stuck in ditches recently.) But there's such beauty and novelty to a May storm. I watch each one with a sort of pensive longing, because this must be the last (and eventually, it will be. This storm, which was May 9, is a very likely candidate.)

I set out for a morning hike. My destination was Bear Peak, a six-mile route that I can usually "run" in 90 minutes. This excursion took almost three hours. Breaking trail through 6-8 inches of spring snow doesn't sound like much, but it was a mighty slog. Snowshoes wouldn't have helped, because the wet cement snow stuck to everything like, well, wet cement. I fumbled to find the route up the west ridge of Bear and ended up skimming a scary ledge. Back on the trail, I kept tripping over rocks that I couldn't see. My fingers throbbed with pain because of these frequent stumbles, grabbing bare handfuls of snow, while my core was still too warm and brain too stubborn to bother with the mittens in my pocket.

Still, I was so happy. Why? I don't even know. This is one aspect of my personality that I've stopped questioning. Let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. And hope my wonky hormones don't get in the way.

Frequently I stopped walking and stood in place to listen to the gentle hiss of snowflakes falling through an expansive silence. This must be one of the most beautiful sounds. I was so grateful for this opportunity to soak in the final snow of the season. Unless there's another. There can always be hope for another. 
Monday, May 06, 2019

The speciousness of spring

Hard training weeks are the best weeks. This declaration is pretty much meaningless from someone who has updated an outdoor training blog for the past 705 weeks (not an exaggeration.) But there are still weeks that are more intense than others, and I often emerge from the difficult efforts with a mental placidity that I haven't been able to reproduce with any other method. Because I siphoned so much intellectual energy into simple forward motion, I'm even more scattered than usual — but what remains is a quiet mind. I appreciate the brief respite. Eventually my physical energy will return and I'll go back to fretting about existential angst and the latest U.N. report on extinction. In the face of such disheartening futility, one might understand the temptation to just keep running.

Sorry; I didn't come here to be a downer. I suppose I'm just coming down from engaging in 20 hours of solidly difficult (for me) motions during my last big training week before Bryce. This week of relatively routine and close-to-home outings became its own exciting adventure — intense and exhausting, doused with snow and fog and even bright sunny heat. Spring in Colorado — like a teenager who has yet to figure out her identity, trying on all of the seasons at once.

On Monday I was so tired from the previous week. I could barely pull myself off the floor. I'd pre-planned a rest day, but was already wondering whether I should launch the taper a week early. Really, for my legs' sake I probably should have, but I thrive on mental preparation. Quitting my training plan would do no favors for my still-tenuous confidence. Of course Monday was a sunny, warm day that I spent inside. By Tuesday morning it was 28 degrees with couple inches of snow dusting the ground. Excellent. A rare spring day where I could simply pull on a shell and tights and hit the trail, rather than spend a bunch of time stuffing a hydration pack with ice and slathering on sunscreen, then adding a second coat because if I miss even patches of skin this early in the season, I will end up with a patchwork of blistering burns. Also, allergy medication and extra lube for chaffing. Gearing up for "winter" is so easy in comparison.

Wet snow on warm ground does make for sloppy running conditions. My only fall for the week came less than a mile into this first run, when my shoe slid out on a slimy switchback and I ricochetted off the trail. I tumbled at least twice and ended up several meters down the snowy embankment, which made me proud of the way I handled the fall — pretty much any fall where I don't slap the trail like a dead fish is a win for me. But my right knee still took most of the impact, and throbbed with pain. I limped it out until the joint stopped hurting and finished my 10-mile run, but paid for this with a tender goose egg and stiffness for the next couple of days. It wasn't my worst trail splat, but as I stare down 40, I notice all the ways these little collisions become more impactful with age. How much longer will I be able to withstand the risk?

Truthfully, when I gripe about being bad at running, I am largely referring to the management of my own body mechanics. As I make more concentrated efforts, I can say with some confidence that it's not as simple as remembering to lift my feet, or improving any single aspect of my form. Of course practicing better techniques will help, but I'm still so far behind that wonder how much can even be learned. I'm reminded of just how little faith I have in my running stride every time I run on a treadmill. On Wednesday I conducted my first breathing test since February — five miles of walk/run intervals at increasingly higher speeds while monitoring my blood oxygen saturation and perceived respiration. My breathing was great and oxygen levels good, but at faster speeds I occasionally skimmed the platform next to the moving belt. Somehow I was drifting sideways off the treadmill and didn't even realize it.

How? How hard is it to run straight on a treadmill? I doubled down on the self-reminders to focus. The time came to set the treadmill at 10 mph. Galloping in place, I felt that rush of endorphins. The ever-elusive runners' high. Soaring. The three-minute limit approached, my heart was beating 177, the dizziness was beginning to creep around the edges, but I felt this inclination to hold the pace for three more minutes. An official six-minute-mile. I'm fairly certain I don't have one behind me yet. Of course, just a few seconds later, my foot drifted laterally yet again. A stumble off a treadmill at 10 mph could be quite painful, not to mention so embarrassing that this probably would be the final straw to convince me to quit running forever. I mashed my palm onto the pause button, feeling defeated. Then again, it was a successful breathing test. I shouldn't try to do too many things at once.

On Thursday, we woke up to more snow! I was so excited. Really, all these spring snows bring is heavy slop and mud that isn't good for running, cycling, driving, or much of anything. But they sure are pretty. And fleeting. 

And peaceful. It was still 29 degrees when I set out for my run at 10 a.m., but I knew the spring warmth would arrive soon enough. I dressed in a lightweight long-sleeved top, capri tights, and a buff over my hat to keep my ears warm. It's pretty much the same outfit I'll wear in July to protect my skin from the searing UV rays of summer, but it's best suited for temperatures around 50 degrees, which I expected later in the afternoon. For the first few miles the cold held a razor-edged sharpness. I relished in the tingling in my fingers, and the raggedness of my breath. Even through the subfreezing temperature, sunlight warmed the fabric of my shirt. The air still tasted of sweet grass and mulch. The second of May. What a time to be alive. 

My plan for this day was a technical grind — my 11-mile route had 4,500 feet of climbing, and a lot of rocky maneuvering. Also snow and ice, at least early in the day, and mud later. The fatigue of a couple of high-mileage weeks weighed on my legs, and there were weird tinges of soreness from my speedwork the previous day. My bruised knee was still swollen and tender, and my hip was a bit tight, likely also from Tuesday's tumble. No matter. I was going to do this hard run in the slippery snow, and I was going to go for PRs. Just because. I have some fitness, and I want to use it.

I managed my second fastest time of 45 ascents on Bear Peak's West Ridge, missing my best by 11 seconds. I also snagged a second fastest time along the ridge from Bear to South Boulder Peak, missing my 2016 PR by 15 seconds, mostly because I stopped to chat with a local woman who signed up for next year's ITI. Then I scooted down Shadow Canyon, one of my nemeses, a 1,700 foot descent slicked with melted snow, just nine seconds off my best time. Spring warmth emerged as I trotted along the Mesa Trail, tearing away what excess layers I could shed and cramming down fruit snacks so I'd have some quick-burning energy for the queen of all of my cherished segments, Fern Canyon. With 1,800 feet of climbing in 0.8 miles, Fern's stats are just mean as Colorado's more famous Manitou Incline, without the benefit of human-built stairs. Instead you have stacks of boulders and 45-degree-angle slopes covered in loose dirt or mud. My goal has been to ascend this segment in under 40 minutes, and I've tried many times. My best recorded time is 40:18. This time I only managed 40:28, pressing my knuckles into the rocks as I lumbered up the final pitch, gasping in the suddenly searing spring heat. It was still my second best time, though, and I was ready to call this run a success. That would be enough hard "running" for this week, I thought.

Beat at Golden Gate State Park on Sunday.
 While I was crawling up Fern Canyon, Beat was on his lunch break, running the five-mile loop around the Sanitas Swoop. This was his first try on that route, and of course he crushed all of my PRs that I've been chipping away at since we first visited Boulder in November 2015. Because he's a better and stronger runner than me. No surprise. No big deal. But then, as I was preparing for another gym day on Friday, I thought, "Why do my strength workout on the elliptical when I can just run around Sanitas? I mean, it's pretty much the same thing. I can still go lift weights afterward."

The previous night, Beat and I had discussed Sanitas strategy. The climb is another steep one, gaining 1,300 feet in 1.2 miles, but it's short enough that I usually tackle the entire thing as hard as my VO2 max will allow. There are still a few flatter segments were I usually stumble along dizzily to collect more oxygen for the next steep pitch. This time, I aimed to go less hard on the steeps and attempt to run the flats, which aren't all that flat, but runnable enough. With this strategy I managed to expend noticeably less energy and still cut my best time from 29:55 to 28:35. This still didn't come close to Beat's 28:02, but I was stoked. I felt great, and I was proving to myself that I might just be in the best running shape I've been since I moved to Boulder. For good measure, I crushed my PR down Lion's Lair as well.

Hard running efforts do take it out of you, though. The time was coming to pay the piper. Beat and I had two more runs planned for the weekend, final back-to-back efforts two weeks before the Bryce 100. We did 10 miles around Walker Ranch on Saturday. The weather was nice and we took it at an easy pace, but I felt worked. Sunday was going to be interesting.

Sunday: 25 miles in Golden Gate State Park, undulating on steep and rocky trails so lacking in flow that it's difficult to focus on much else beyond where to place my feet. I can only take photos when I'm either stopped or running the rare smooth track, so I don't have an illustration of the terrain that I find difficult. But it was all coming together for this peak run: High mileage, hard climbing, puzzling descents, while managing sore and fatigued limbs. My quads had developed a lasting ache, which worried me enough that I spent most of Saturday night using Air Relax compression to squeeze blood through them, until both legs went went numb.

This is what the training is all about, though. My most cherished goal races aren't about soaring invincibility and PRs. They're about becoming comfortable with being broken. Strength, fitness, toughness, determination — these attributes will take you as far as the starting line. If the weather holds, if luck holds, if the trail holds, they’ll take you a bit farther. Eventually, though, it’s going to fall apart. The heat will bear down, or the cold will sink in. Maybe you'll get dust in your lungs, and after all of your careful attention to pre-race aches like a tight Achilles tendon and sore quads, something completely random will hurt, like hip abductor strain. In these moments you'll have to weigh your human weakness against a bewildering distance and choose: Sit down in the dirt, or keep moving.

Often you decide to keep moving, despite the difficulty. You keep moving, despite being weak and frightened and uncertain. In doing so, you realize that toughness doesn’t matter. Bravery doesn’t matter. All that matters is action. One step in front of the other. Drawing oxygen through ragged breaths. And as you move, a detached sort of placidity settles into your limbs. Beauty shines through the blinders of pain. You feel transcendent, free from everything, even yourself. You realize that this is the key to the worst parts of life — the unanticipated illnesses and losses, turns of fate, and drawn-out silence following spectacular implosions. When everything falls apart, you don’t need to be brave or strong. You need to be comfortable being broken.

On Sunday in Golden Gate State Park, I was far from broken. I was only mildly uncomfortable, and maybe a little tired. Okay, fine, I really struggled through the final climb, with twitching vibrations in my quads, and the blur of waning focus in my field of vision. It was difficult enough to give perspective for the difficult task ahead, which is preparation for even more difficult tasks ahead, which ultimately is preparation for life.

Now it's time to taper, and maybe get back on my bike once or twice before I head to Utah. I feel about as ready for Bryce as I could be right now, which is to say — relatively strong, still not all that competent, but mentally steeled for the storm. 
Monday, April 29, 2019

Art in motion

 This past week of training went well. With 18 more days until the Bryce 100, I'm feeling strong and reasonably well conditioned for marching over rocks and sand for the better part of a hundred miles. Several nagging issues, such as a tight Achilles tendon and sore hamstrings, are now largely ironed out, and I can manage a difficult run and be ready to run again the next day. This isn't my usual state, as I usually spend so much time cycling that I'm not as well conditioned for the continuous impact of running. But I've spent precious little time on my bike this month, and I have to admit it shows. This week I filled my goal of twenty hours with 65 miles on foot and 16,000 feet of climbing — almost entirely on trail —and two tough weight-lifting sessions. My legs are feeling snappy, even if laced with the fatigue of these hard efforts.

 Despite zooming the focus on motion for the sake of training, rather than the other way around, I still managed a couple of adventures. On Wednesday I had to drive to Longmont for a windshield replacement. Since I was heading out there anyway, I looked into potential running routes nearby. I planned the standard loop at Hall Ranch, but in scrolling through the map, I noticed a blank-looking patch of green to the west between the popular tourism destinations of Lyons and Estes Park. A quick Internet search revealed the existence of semi-secret trails generally used by mountain bikers, but they were legal and public on National Forest land. I left the auto glass place with a plan to find my way to a knoll called Button Rock Mountain.

I felt extremely nervous about this run. I couldn't even say why, exactly, but I was so physically anxious while driving through Lyons that I asked myself whether this sick feeling might be intuition picking up the radar of unknown dangers, and perhaps I should just run at Hall Ranch as planned. But no, I thought, exploring the unknown is more rewarding than comfortable routine. Why, though? To this I also had no answer.

There was nowhere to leave my car in the small neighborhood of Pinewood Springs, so I parked two miles outside of town on a forest road where I hoped to close my loop, and jogged along busy Highway 36. The trailhead was delightfully nondescript — just a faded driveway across an empty lot in the middle of a neighborhood. For a secret trail, the first few miles were surprisingly well-defined. For a while I was convinced it would be fun to return at some point with my mountain bike. That is, until the secret trail did the usual Front Range Colorado thing of cutting across steep side slopes in and out of drainages, passing directly over sharp rock outcroppings and through a barely-shoulder-wide gauntlet of tree trunks. It was a little nerve wracking even without a bike, I admit, and I took to the exaggerated knee bends that I sometimes engage when I'm terrified of tripping.

The trail climbed to the top of a ridge, where it faded into rock outcroppings and vaguely branched off in multiple directions. I took wrong turns, picked my way up loose slopes, backtracked, and gave up on any semblance of running motions as I bashed through brush and checked my arms and legs for ticks. I felt like a small child, wandering through the woods for the sake of wandering, letting curiosity overpower a vague sense of fear. A patchwork of dark clouds billowed overhead, releasing a persistent drizzle. All the while, sunlight filtered through the falling rain, as it does here in Colorado. The air tasted like sweet grass and cedar. Spring.

Eventually I found my way to the top of Button Rock Mountain, with its dramatic views of the Divide and Longs Peak. From there was an established trail (at least, a trail drawn out on the map) that snaked down to a jeep road, where I met the only other humans I'd encounter in five hours — two older men, wearing big leather boots, flannel jackets and canvas pants, out for their own explorations. They asked me whether I was "one of those crazy 200-milers," as they'd already met an ultrarunner training for a 200-mile race. To this I could honestly reply "no." I told them I was "exploring" and gave a vague description of my route from Pinewood Springs, as the specifics were already lost to me. But I think they were more impressed with this than they would have been if I were a crazy 200-miler.

"Lots to explore," one said. "I've lived here most of my life." He followed with a speculation about a direct route to the top of the mountain, as he hadn't yet found one. I looked up at Button Rock, which from that stance loomed as a vertical wall rising out of the forested slope.

"I see what you mean. Looks very steep," I replied. They did seem disappointed that I hadn't descended directly from the mountain, but rather taken the same established trail as them — given I was "exploring" and all.

I imagined living my entire life among these foothills, and how even a lifetime of such explorations wouldn't begin to scratch the surface of the place. We become so hung up on ever-expanding horizons, but true intimacy with even our most familiar surroundings is almost impossible to achieve.

Beat and I set Sunday aside for our long run. A popular route in Boulder is the "Skyline Traverse," spanning the five most prominent peaks over the city: Santias, Flagstaff, Green, Bear and South Boulder mountains. We've long wanted to run all of these peaks starting and finishing at home, so Beat mapped out the shortest way to do so, which was still 23 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing. I planned to take full rest days on both Saturday and Monday, so I could confidently give my best effort to this outing. A winter storm was forecast to move in on Monday, so Sunday's weather was volatile: Strong gusting winds and thunderheads interspersed with blue skies and sunshine.

 Green was our first mountain, followed by Flag, where Beat located the random boulder that is (most likely) the actual geographical high point on this flat mesa of a "summit." He was feeling off with stomach issues and cramping, but didn't want to back down on our goal. If we were just out for a typical long run, I imagine he'd have been more likely to cut it short, but the "Skyline Traverse" gave the outing some intrigue.

We jogged over to Santias for Beat's first ascent of Boulder's most popular mountain, after three years of residency here. I climb Sanitas fairly often, as it makes for a good "lunch run" when I need to spend the day in town, and features my favorite aspects of hiking and running all condensed into a perfect five-mile loop: A steep and rocky ascent gaining 1,300 feet in 1.2 miles, followed by a four-mile descent on a gently graded singletrack winding through the woods. Here we planned to climb the South Ridge and drop down the steep East Ridge, so no swooping descent. Also, it was a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon, so as predicted there was a veritable Conga line all the way to the summit. My description of the climb up Sanitas as "short" may have thrown Beat off a bit, and he charged up the spine well ahead of me. We were sand-blasted by strong gusts of wind as we nudged around huge groups of hikers. At the peak, Beat appeared slightly shattered. As this was the furthest point on our route, we were both in for the long haul now.

 Our route back followed the always interminable Mesa Trail to Fern Canyon, our Stairway to Heaven. With 2,000 feet of climbing in a mile, Fern is always going to hurt no matter how fresh your legs might be, or how slow you take it. To me, Fern always hurts about the same whether I'm pushing hard or backing off, whether it's raining or blowing or there's several feet of snow burying the trail. Apparently Fern always meets my limit regardless. Beat has actually accomplished *five* Fern ascents and descents in one effort, during a self-styled "InFERNo Half Marathon" that has more than 10,000 feet of climbing. After all that, he still said this one was one of his hardest days in the canyon.

 I had a comparatively effortless run — started out feeling good, and as a downtrodden Beat set what for me was a stout but comfortable pace, I only felt better as we went. By the time we were trundling up Fern, I was thinking about how I need to attempt five of these someday, which is *never* how I envision my future in this canyon when I'm relatively fresh. Something about well-managed fatigue takes a soft brush to my thoughts and emotions, adding depth to the little discoveries along the way and scope to the memories and dreams on the horizons.

After my last blog post, friends weighed in with perspectives on "why spend so much time trying to be a runner?" Since then, I've thought about the ways that running is a creative act. Unlike most outdoor sports where one relies on equipment and therefore turns a lot of focus toward it — my first love, cycling, being the one of the most egregious among them — running is largely self-contained. Sure, there's still a ton of gear in running and runners can talk all day about the merits of different shoes and backpacks ... but by choice this gear can still be an afterthought rather than a necessity. Shock-absorbing shoes aside, every motion in running must come from within, and every body part must flow in harmony to prevent the pitfalls of injuries and mistakes such as trail splats. This flow is something I find only occasionally and with great difficulty, but when it happens, it's nothing short of magical. My body feels perfectly tuned and the miles unroll behind me, beautiful new brush strokes on the canvas of my life.

I could ramble on about "running as art" and probably will at some point, but that has become my current best explanation for the "why." Having fun is a nice perk but it's not my motivation. I need the difficulties to give weight to the magic — shadows contrasting color and light. When I think back to the most beautiful moments I've experienced, one of the first that comes to mind are the Northern Lights — ethereal and fleeting waves of light flowing across the expansive darkness of a winter night. I've endured much physical discomfort for never-certain opportunities to experience a few seconds of such beauty. Running, for me, is a similar pursuit.

This week I hope to put in two more longer efforts. After that I intend to respect the taper, as I'm still full of doubt about Bryce 100 and want to give myself the best chance there is. But I am pleased with how this particular "work" is shaping up so far. 
Sunday, April 21, 2019

Once a runner

"Why am I still trying to be a runner?"

This incredulous question pops into my mind with some frequency, still, as I near the decade mark of my running journey. I don't have a definitive moment when I decided to become a runner, but the first spark of genuine interest developed shortly after I finished the Tour Divide in the summer of 2009. I  wondered "what's next?" and gazed up at the mountains towering over Juneau. Everything beyond the jagged ridges was a mystery — fingers of rock stretching across the Juneau Icefield and beyond. I dreamed about the expanses I could explore in my limited free time, if only I were fast enough to cover the ground.

Unlike most adults who run on a regular basis, I have no running background. I was such an awkward ambler as a child that I failed the Presidential Fitness Test in seventh grade. When you're a striving tween who is given your first "F" because you couldn't break a 12-minute-mile, you're bound to take that failure to heart. Through my teens and twenties, I aggressively despised running. Then I entered a relationship with a man who was a collegiate cross-country star. Burnout led him to drop out of college, and by the time I met him a couple of years later, he was emphatically a non-runner. Several years after that, he picked up snowshoe racing on a lark. This progressed to mountain running after we moved to Alaska, followed by a meteoric rise in the ultrarunning world. I watched his progression to the top of the sport with some bemusement, because to me he was not a great athlete. He was the dude who went hiking and bike touring with me, and I could usually keep up. Maybe, I reasoned, running was not so hard.

He broke up with me before I ever gave running a go, so I can't credit him with much more than making the endeavor look entirely too doable. The Tour Divide led to some burnout with cycling, so after I returned to Juneau, I recruited my friend Abby to show me the ropes of trail running. We'd go out for slow jogs on the Treadwell Ditch Trail and other root-choked but flattish trails around town. Then I signed up for my first real foot race (at least the first one I intended to take seriously), the Mount Roberts Tram Run. The course was four miles up a muddy trail, gaining 1,800 feet. Abby and I lined up, and I asked her if we were going to race together. "Maybe," she replied, then disappeared into the crowd as the race launched. I'd go on to finish, red-lined and on the verge of vomiting, somewhere in the mid-pack, only to learn that Abby had won the race outright. As it turns out, Abby was a former elite cross-country skier. She'd been on track to compete in the Olympics before the pressure got to her and she walked away. She never shared this with me, her rank-beginner yet regular running partner. You might understand how spending all this time with elite athletes when I was young and naive might have skewed my perspective.

My enthusiasm for both running and racing faltered over the next year as I moved from Juneau to Anchorage to Missoula, but the following summer I fell in with another crowd of bad influences. A mutual friend introduced me to a Montana runner named Danni. She and I spent a weekend hiking in Glacier National Park, where I learned she was co-directing an ultra called the Swan Crest 100, slated the following weekend. On a whim I volunteered to help out with Danni's race. At the finish line, I met an enthusiastic Swiss runner named Beat. The rest, as one might say, is history. It becomes a long story to tell, but less than five months later I was in a new relationship and officially an ultrarunner myself, having completed my first 50K, en route to my "ultimate" challenge of finishing the Susitna 100 on foot.

That was early 2011, the start of my own meteoric rise. Although I would never venture anywhere near the top of the sport like Geoff or Abby, I enjoyed a fair amount of personal success early and often, and followed Beat's track of racing a lot. I finished 14 ultras in 2012, including another Susitna 100, UTMB (a shortened 110K course, still hard), and the Bear 100. I knew I would never be anything close to great, but I was still fairly certain I could go anywhere I wanted in this sport. My hubris hit fever pitch in 2013 when I enthusiastically signed up for and attempted La Petite Trotte à Léon. This spectacular DNF was the beginning of a slap-down that I might argue has continued, on some level, ever since.

"Why am I still trying to be a runner?" The angry voice echoed as I pulled myself up off the rocks and brushed dust and blood from my shin. It's @$%* 2019 and I'm still slapping the @$*! ground with some regularity. My crashes only seem to become more frequent as time goes by. I feel like I'm locked in a steady state of impact injuries, compounded by the embarrassment of being a middle-aged woman with scabbed knees and bruised arms. If tripping and hurting myself were the only indignities I had to endure, I could probably accept them. But I continue to rack up emotional failures as well. The reason I was out here on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, pushing my legs up the Betasso Link as fast as they'd climb until I lost control, is because I simply want to finish the Bryce 100 in three weeks. If I can manage this, it will be the first non-winter "A" race I'll have completed since I last finished the same race in 2013. In six years, my only breakthrough successes came from Alaska. And there were a lot of failures to fill in the gaps.

I write this as a confessional toward the deep emotional investment I've made in just finishing the Bryce 100, while simultaneously considering the endeavor to be foolhardy and a waste of time. Bryce is a beautiful course, and sure to be a memorable adventure regardless of the outcome. But I'm approaching the race with too much resentment and too little love. I've had ten years to become a runner, and feel the indignation of still being the same awkward ambler that I was in seventh grade, striving for a bare minimum that I might not meet.

It's been a tough week of training. I've posted about how my breathing has been good and overall I'm feeling strong, and that's still true. This week I pushed the volume; I wanted to log 20 hours of moving time, as I did in each of the two main training weeks leading up to the White Mountains 100. I managed 20 hours and then some with two weight-lifting sessions, 61 foot miles with 11,000 feet of gain mainly on dirt and technical trails, and a 53-mile road ride that had 5,300 feet of gain but actually was all enjoyment and no punishment, and did lead me to again ask myself why am I spending all this time trying to be a runner??

Beat and I logged our weekly long run in Golden Gate State Park on Saturday. Twenty-five miles with 6,000 feet of climbing, much of that on technical and rocky terrain. It turned out to be a bit early in the season for these trails. Most of the shady and north-facing areas were packed with snow and ice, with varying degrees of slipping and post holing. After my fall on Wednesday, I developed a little bit of what I call "trail vertigo," for lack of an official term. I was feeling wobbly, uneven, and vaguely dizzy for much of the run. To be fair I'd felt this way even before I took that hit. I think it's just something that comes on when I'm more fatigued. In the past couple of years I've associated my proprioception issues with poor breathing and low blood oxygen, but I had no breathing difficulties this week. I felt strong on the climbs, but weak and lightheaded on the descents. A friend visiting from North Dakota joined us for the final eight miles, and it was a nice distraction — slogging through shin-deep snow while talking about sled-dragging and layering for 30 below. These challenges are all well within my comfort zone. Trail running, on the other hand ...

So I ponder what, exactly, I'm trying to achieve. Way back in 2013, when I was arguably near the peak of my running success, I decided I didn't really love bike racing. Unless it was some sweeping adventure, such as the Race Across South Africa, the Tour Divide or the Iditarod Trail, I just didn't have the fire to focus on competitive cycling. Instead I wanted to ride bikes for fun, and test my limits in a way that was consistently difficult and enlightening — running. It is difficult to reconcile this zeal with the reality that there's absolutely nothing about running that comes naturally to me, and experience has arguably worsened my abilities as confidence continues to erode, and things actually could just keep getting worse, until I finally quit.

A hundred miles is a long way, and there's a lot of time for any number of issues to crop up that I might not be able to fix. It's silly and foolhardy to place so much pressure on my performance in this one race with which I already don't have a great history. Still, a success at Bryce, even the bare minimum, would be enough to justify positive answers to that nagging question ... why am I still trying to be a runner?

I have one more week of focused training before the taper. Hopefully I can get through it without meeting the ground yet again. 
Sunday, April 14, 2019

Clinging to winter

April is a gift that keeps on giving. That is, with the exception of tax day, when most of my disposable cash is set to be removed from my bank account. (I know; I could budget for this better. I just prefer to have some sort of excessive adventure like living in Nome for a month, then pay the piper when the time comes.) Beyond the small bout of pain that is April 15, this brief but blissful season of effortless PRs and snowy spring adventures continues.

The weather this week was volatile, with high winds, then rain, then snow, then more strong wind. Conditions weren't conducive to (fun) cycling, so I stacked the week with quality foot training. I'm recommitting to weight training and trying to hit the gym twice a week, but on Monday I managed to squeeze in a quick jaunt to Sanitas before the errands and iron pumping and allergy shots that usually leave me couch-bound (or wishing I was) for the remainder of the day. 

Mount Sanitas has become one of those routes that I hit about once a month, so I always try to climb as fast as I can, as a sort of "fitness test." The last time I ran Sanitas was Feb. 20, a couple of days before we left for Alaska. That effort went so poorly, with rough breathing and my slowest time since the "sick days" of 2017, that I actually became a bit weepy on the peak. I blamed these tears on "slump hormones," because my slumps dredge up as many overwrought emotions as they do breathing difficulties. Since I have nothing tangible on which to blame a multitude of symptoms (rash, insomnia, anxiety ... the list extends far beyond slow running) — hormones it is. 

Anyway, my April 8 Sanitas climb was fantastic. I spent three years trying to ascend the little mountain in under 30 minutes, and finally did it this past December in 29:55. Then, like clockwork, four months later I tagged the summit with 28:48 on my watch! 

On Wednesday, everyone along the Front Range was anticipating the second "bomb cyclone" of 2019. I missed Colorado's first round of explosive cyclogenesis while I was in Alaska, but gleaned much entertainment from reading breathless media reports and underwhelmed Twitter commentary while I cowered indoors amid a violent whiteout/windstorm that's just a typical Wednesday in Nome. I was glad to be around for this storm. Still, after the Santias PR and a solid sprint during my routine Tuesday run, I was more interested in putting in another fast effort than slogging around in wet snow à la Alaska. So I timed my run three hours ahead of the forecasted snow, setting out when the weather was still a friendly 35 degrees with wind and rain.

I did manage a good push for my four-mile route along the west ridge of Green Mountain, missing my December (2017) PR by less than a minute. The rain switched over to snow just as I was nearing the peak. Less than 15 minutes later, there was a solid half inch covering the trail. Snow continued to accumulate rapidly as I worked my way down my loop, soaked to the skin but warm enough as blissfully hard running continued to pump out heat. Within an hour there were nearly two inches of heavy snow blanketing the ground, and my motions had become much more slog-like. But no matter. I was still pretty stoked on the blizzard.

Thursday dawned cold and gorgeous, with six to eight inches of new snow. I had hoped to take my fat bike for a spin, but wet snow falling onto warm ground made for such a sloppy mess that I couldn't stomach the notion of pedaling through mud-swirled Slurpee. Beat was working from home that day, so we set out for my usual Tuesday run in the afternoon. He promised to coach me to a PR, and in doing so set a hard pace on the climbs and easy-going pace on the descents. I nearly maxed out while shadowing him through the sloppy mud, but surprised myself by keeping pace.

"When my breathing's good, nothing feels all that hard; it's strange," I panted when the pace became remotely conversational during a mile-long descent. Minutes earlier, I was running my heart rate near 175, on the verge of puking, and that was not remotely easy. But it is eas-ier than anything I attempt when I'm feeling wheezy, including and especially that sad Feb. 20 slog up Sanitas.

As promised, Beat did coach me to a PR — nearly a minute faster than my previous best, which isn't trivial for a run I do on a near-weekly basis. The PRs were stacking up, and I was feeling mighty.

Since I'd done all of this hard running during the week, I convinced Beat we should go for a fun outing on Saturday — snowshoeing at Brainard Lake. We'd aim for Mount Audubon if conditions were conducive, but otherwise just happily tromp along in the snow for five or six hours. Both of us had more or less put "winter" behind us when we came home from Alaska. My gear needed to be excavated from the boxes where I'd stashed it for summer storage. But we came prepared for full winter conditions — the Continental Divide had also been slammed with new snow this week, and Saturday's high temperature at the trailhead was forecast to be 25 degrees.

We wiled away the morning hoping for clearing skies that never quite materialized. It was 1:30 p.m. and still snowing heavily when we finally set out from the winter trailhead. Beyond Brainard Lake the route became tricky, with erratic and windblown ski tracks that didn't seem to head toward Audubon. We decided to trace the summer route as well as we could, which forced us to break virgin trail in heavy snow as we wound through the woods. It was hard, thirsty work, and the weather was January fearsome with temperatures in the teens and winds gusting to 35 mph. Low clouds and blowing snow streamed along the ridge.

An Audubon summit was not going to happen on this day. Such an attempt would have been high on the epic scale, with hours of full exposure to the fierce wind and cold, and a slow and difficult pace that would have kept us hiking well after dark. Perhaps we would have motivated if we were here before our trip to Alaska ... but Beat had already had more than his share of high wind adventure during his night and day in the Solomon Blowhole, and I spent nearly a month on the wind-swept Bering Sea coast, so ... we're wintered out, I suppose. We were happy to climb to a nice viewpoint, take a look, and turn around.

The formidable Mount Audubon. Perhaps we'll motivate for another snowshoe adventure with more time to spare next week. Or perhaps we'll settle into the speedy ease of the season and find somewhere warm and dry to run.

Wind and blowing snow continued to batter us on the way down. Beat was having trouble with his snowshoes that required several stops to fix, and I had to bundle up in most of my extra layers. I was, perhaps, willing to admit that I'm ready for spring.

I continue to place excess emotional importance on my ability to finish the upcoming Bryce 100. As such, I was resolved to put in at least a four-hour run on Sunday, and actually convinced Beat to do the same (he'll perform well at the race no matter how much or little he trains between now and then, and he and I both know it.) In order to avoid mud and slush conditions, we settled on a double loop around Walker Ranch — clockwise to start, then doubling back and running counter-clockwise for the return.

I just assumed I'd continue to feel great as I had earlier in the week, but the difficulty of the snowshoe slog weighed heavily on my legs. I was off to a slower start, and then we hit the fearsome West Wind. Wind gusts were hitting 50 miles an hour (as recorded by our weather station at home.) We crossed an open area running due west, and I couldn't breathe. The wind seemed to rip the air away from my mouth before I could draw it into my lungs. Meanwhile, the headwind pushed back so forcefully that I could barely walk, let alone run, and continued to stagger forward with my nose pointed at the ground so the wind wouldn't blow the hat off my head (but it did anyway, multiple times.) I felt a little despondent, as I do whenever I have difficulty breathing. But Beat told me that the wind made him feel exactly the same, and he struggled with breathing just as much.

This first Walker loop was much more difficult than last week, and then we had to do another. My legs felt heavy but my breathing remained manageable, and I had a fair amount of energy thanks to a bottle full of Beat's hummingbird food. (After my difficulties taking in food during the White Mountains 100, I've committed to using liquid nutrition during the Bryce 100 — even though I strongly dislike most drink mixes that I've tried. Beat's solution, a flavorless mix called Maurten, is pretty much straight-up sugar water, but with a magical gel that infuses long-lasting energy without gut distress. It made me wince when I first started using it, but now I appreciate its non-offensive non-taste.)

We completed our run with 17.5 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing. These are rocky trails — not my strength — and I took the downhills slowly to keep my no-tripping streak in tact. The wind continued to kick my ass, and I finished the four hours feeling pretty wrecked. But it's a good thing — if I didn't push a few boundaries, I wouldn't have as much mental strength to apply to my upcoming race.

A successful week of training, all around.