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. 


  1. Well you've done the hard work both physically and mentally , so enjoy the taper and stop fretting and just go and enjoy the Bryce. Go with the flow and just take whatever it throws at you, you've a wealth of experience behind you so take confidence from all that. Have a blast.

  2. You've done the work, things are looking good. Enjoy the taper and good luck in Bryce! And I'm still chuckling at your "pretty much any fall where I don't slap the trail like a dead fish is a win for me"...seriously...I LOL'd at the "dead fish" bit...that is hilarious! (the visual it evokes is really something). Keep the rubber side down Jill(that means both bike tires AND shoe-treads)!

  3. I love that you think 28 degrees is spring. I can really relate to falls feeling more catastrophic later in life. All of my current pains can be traced right back to a trail running fall in 2012. It's tragic because I am finding I need to adapt to less running miles. But I'm still out there, so that's something.

  4. To be comfortable when broken is serenity, at the edge of the void feeling the fullness of nothingness....

    "And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

    Friedrich Nietzsche

    Jeff C

    1. I knew the "comfortable when broken" mantra came from somewhere. I didn't realize it was Nietzsche. I do often think about what it means to "gaze into the abyss."

      Thanks for the comments.


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