Monday, July 22, 2019

Pedal-powered rotisserie

I was having second thoughts about the Summer Bear. This is my off season. I've been in injury recovery and haven't sharpened much of anything. Then I received the e-mail offering a few details about the still-secret course: 205 miles with 23,000 feet of climbing, made up of chunky unimproved Forest Service roads, lost singletrack, found singletrack, county roads, as little pavement as possible. "You might want to pick up a fishing license so you don’t have to pay astronomical fees if Search and Rescue needs to haul you out." .

.. Hmm, that sounds like a little more than the overnight holiday that I had in mind. 

The way I see it, there's suffering, and then there's summertime suffering. The latter cuts deep. If I'm going to haul my delicate lungs and reactive skin through the dust and bugs and blazing sun, I'm going to have to really want to see what's on the other side. Is the Summer Bear too much challenge to be a holiday, but not quite enough to justify the phlegmy cough and inevitable heat blisters? Of course, how can I pass up a chance to get on my bike and ride it through the mountains for an entire day (or possibly three?) 

Of course, I can't make a solid decision until I've tested my resolve on at least a couple more training rides. I planned two this week, day-long endeavors where I was out the door at 9 a.m. and didn't return until evening. An eight-hour-plus block of time does open up more possibilities. I've never pedaled to the Continental Divide from my doorstep, to start. So on Wednesday I set out for Rollins Pass.

Temperatures were already climbing into the high 80s when I set out at 9 a.m. A blow-dryer wind was cranking out of the west — steady 17 mph, gusting to 22. Pedaling mainly due west into this desiccating wind caused my throat to feel raw, and sweat to evaporate before it left my skin. My shirt was bone dry and felt like it had just been removed from a dryer. Dust and tiny rocks buffeted my face as my pedals moved in slow motion against this convection oven.

Grind, grind, grind. Three highly taxing hours passed before I even arrived at Moffatt Tunnel, where I normally start this hard ride. Rollins Pass is a beautiful and scenic route that I tend to attempt only once each summer. One year is just enough time to forget how tedious it can be — for 14 miles, the route climbs interminably on a railroad grade littered with babyhead boulders and minefields of loose rocks. I spend most of my time weaving through babyheads and trying to maintain traction on the loose stuff, so the rare smooth patches of dirt are almost jarring. The grade is so gentle that it doesn't look like it's climbing, so the 5-6 mph pace I can manage at my best effort becomes aggravating. I was surprised to see snowfields lingering in late July, but stepping off the vibration machine and punching my hot feet into the snow felt good.

The west wind amplified as I neared treeline. Sometimes I'd look up from the rock puzzle and notice the way the trees beside me lingered, as gusts obstructed any hint of forward motion. Beat and I had plans to meet up in town, so I had my tracker running so he could watch my progress. Near Needles Eye Tunnel, I received a text from him. "Looks like you're still way out there. Maybe I'll just go home." I looked at my watch. Six hours! It was after 3 p.m. At this rate, if I didn't turn around soon, I wasn't going to be home by dark.

Still, I had made all of this effort just to get to this point. I climbed above the tunnel and observed the final mile to the pass. The trestles were still blocked with piles of snow, and the upper bypass trail promised another hour-plus of mainly hiking to reach Rollins Pass and return. I decided to save the goal of pedaling from home all the way to the Divide for another day. Of course, I still managed to faff around for another half hour: hiking along the ridge, enjoying the cooling wind when I didn't have to pedal into it, and admiring James Peak.

The return trip took less than three hours, which surprised me, because there's still a bunch of climbing through the foothills to get home again. I'm a careful and slow downhiller, but with the west wind at my back, I almost didn't have a choice but to be a little speedy on the tediously bumpy descent of Rollins Pass. En route, I passed three Jeeps and a burly truck that were creeping down the road at well under 10 mph. 

Thursday was a gym day. I've been moving up weights each week in an effort to build strength, while continuing to do my physical therapy recovery exercises. The one-legged squats were going well, so I did sixty of them — 40 on my bad leg, 20 on my good. Of course, when I woke up on Friday, much of my body was wracked with DOMS. The quad muscles were particularly sore. I was having a tough time walking. Oh, yay, perfect for another long ride.

This day was even hotter than Wednesday — 91 degrees at home, 103 degrees in Boulder, and honestly didn't feel much cooler at 9,000 feet. There was less wind, but I wasn't even moving as well as I had two days earlier. It was hot, and something was just off about my body. Snacks caused vague nausea, so I had avoided eating. Perhaps I was just bonked. I took quiet but rough back roads to Tolland and started up the inferno of Mammoth Gulch with nearly four hours on my watch.

Strangely, this horrible climb was my favorite part of the day. For me, there is always a tipping point of ridiculousness where I think "gah, this really is the worst," and it fills my heart with a perverse sort of joy. Dark comedy. The rear wheel slipped constantly as a battled through dusty chunder up consistent 13-15-percent grades, sweat pouring down my face with such a painful amount of salt that both eyes were often clamped shut, and only the hot, hot sun for company. Not a soul was around. Not even mosquitos or flies. I almost hoped I'd be forced to pull over for a jeep, so I'd have an excuse to throw a foot down and walk to the remainder of the steep pitch (I admittedly did take a short break and snapped this selfie, but only after the grade lessened significantly. There's another nice view of James Peak. Hi James!)

Instead I arrived at the Upper Apex Valley, 10,500 feet, briefly happy and utterly spent. I'd have been overjoyed if the remainder of the ride was downhill, but that was far from the case. My route had five more crushing climbs — the first a tear-inducing bump to get out of the Apex Valley, the second a thousand feet of gain on busy pavement, the third forcing another thousand feet of rolling climbs through the gap on Gap Road, the fourth a dizzying grind above Highway 72 to avoid the road closure, and the fifth on the unholy rollers of washboard beside Gross Dam Reservoir. Also, there were a few more bumps to get home. All in all, this mere 66-mile ride had 9,200 feet of climbing.

Anyway, I felt unwell. Not necessarily nauseated anymore; I had gotten some food down, and I still had plenty of water. But I felt out of sorts. A little drunk might be one way to describe my state — lightheaded and woozy. Over the years I've fallen out of the habit of using electrolytes. I drink plain water and tend to snack on a variety of bars, and there wasn't much salt in the mix I had on this day. But I hadn't thought about that. Most of my hard efforts take place in cooler conditions, and I've become complacent about such things — "placebo effect" I'd quietly think when running friends raved about pickle juice. (Of course, when I tried pickle juice on a hot day, I thought it was the most delicious drink.) As I weaved and faltered on the steep climb up Peak to Peak Highway, I had finally convinced myself I could use salt. I pulled into the Gilpin store, the only potential resupply on my entire route. The place was mobbed — weekend holiday types in RVs and on motorcycles, stacked at least ten deep at the cashier line. I didn't have patience to wait, so I refilled my water bladder with ice and left.

The rest of the ride was just awful. I've had worse, of course, but this was a long commute on the struggle bus. The muscles in my shoulders and calves felt like they were pulsing. My quads hurt like hell. My head was spinning at times. The ice water wasn't really helping. I regretted not waiting at the store long enough to buy some Gatorade and jerky. And the sun just beat down, and beat down, and beat down. By the time I reached the climb out of Gross Dam, I genuinely wondered if I'd make it. The tires had almost no traction on the dusty washboard, and if engaged the necessary effort to power through the slippage, I felt alarmingly faint. A steady stream of Friday evening traffic barreled past me, stirring up dust clouds. Things were bad. Outside sucks. I'm going to spend the rest of the summer indoors, working out at the gym. Stick a fork in me, I am done baking.

When I finally arrived at home, I wobbled through the door and braced myself several times to plod up the stairs. Beat took one look at me, walked into the kitchen, and returned with two chewable salt tablets. I ate them, and similar to the pickle juice, they tasted like the most amazing flavorful substance I'd ingested all day. Fairly quickly, I began to feel better. It was still 90 degrees outside, and 84 inside the house. A few heat blisters had formed on the back of my hands, even though they'd been protected with sun gloves. My core temperature still felt too warm. So really, the only reason I had to feel better was the intake of electrolytes. Another valuable lesson learned, yet again.

My resolve to stay indoors until autumn had already melted away by the following morning at 6 a.m., when Beat was waking up for a run to James Peak. No way I had that in me, but a casual hike to Rogers Pass was sounding pretty good.

The hike was still much harder that it should have been. Shoulder and quad muscles still ached, I continued to feel woozy and wobbly, my knee brace chaffed badly beneath my hiking pants, and this trail is always steeper than I remember it being. But it was a gorgeous morning — a bright blue prelude to a dark and thundery afternoon. It was fun to see all of the wildflowers blooming on the tundra.

Even ptarmigans enjoy the view of James Peak. Hi James! I had quite a bit of FOMO not going for the peak on this day, but indeed I had barely settled down to enjoy my late morning snack when I saw Beat loping down the ridge, already back from the much-longer-than-it-looks climb. I was bummed to have to get up and leave. I could have stayed all day ... except for the dark clouds that billowed overhead as we descended, and the thunder that rumbled ominously nearby. We barely beat the downpour that pummeled the car for most of the drive home. The descent didn't even take two hours. It continues to amaze me how quickly mountain weather changes.

Blistering heat or terrifying thunderstorms. After my hapless training efforts, I feel even less confident about the Summer Bear. And yet, I'm more excited than ever. 
Sunday, July 14, 2019

Summertime rolls

 Well, the rough season is here. I write this as I listen to thunder rumble outside. My body is a constant annoyance — legs, butt and shoulders peppered with inflamed welts (mosquito bite allergy), sinuses clogged with pollen, lips blistered and bleeding, skin blotched with sunburn (I can't miss a even of small patch of SPF 50 for an hour. The lips are a lost cause. Even pure zinc oxide rubs off too quickly.) The window air conditioner is rumbling in the enclosed bedroom as indoor temperatures climb into the 80s. I'm hung over because I spent way too much time in the sun this week. I'm scanning the weather forecast for a hopeful outing to the high country later this week ... lots of scary thunderstorm risk to contend with. Yes, summer is a challenging season, where every outdoor adventure must necessarily be accompanied by discomfort. I grapple for motivation, and occasionally force myself into the fearsome barrage of UV radiation, lest I come down with a real case of summertime S.A.D.

I imagine this is how the majority of people feel about winter. I empathize, people.

As I wait out the latest thunderstorm to embark on a muggy Sunday afternoon run, my outdoor moving time this week is already up to 22 hours. I'm stoked about that. Before this week, my summer was fairly low-key. During our 10 days in Germany, I made brief attempts to reboot my running. There were the early days when temperatures were in the high 30s Celsius with humidity, and I'd return after five miles, as drenched as though I jumped in a lake. There was the moment, a quarter mile into a run on a flat path with no obstacles, when my bad leg just crumpled and I hit the deck. There was the set of 106 stairs outside the technical college where Beat embarked on hill-training repeats. He'd do 20 while I did 15, for less than a thousand feet of elevation gain that left me feeling as worked as though I'd climbed a big mountain. There was also lots of touristing, visiting historic sites such as an abbey built in 1258 and a 60-meter-high boat lift for barges on a canal, and of course Beat's father's 80th birthday festivities with tons of good food and a relaxing boat ride. There was a proper vacation surrounding my pathetic attempts at running, and it was nice.

By the time we returned to Colorado, I was feeling some training guilt. I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about upcoming ambitions (will write about this soon.) More immediately, I signed up for a single summer race that is not necessarily a small thing — a 210-mile self-supported mountain bike race called the Summer Bear in Steamboat Springs. Spending 15 days off the bike during what should be peak training weeks wasn't ideal, so on Wednesday I carved out most of a day to make up for that. The weather was friendly, with temperatures in the high 70s rather than 90s, although climbing above 9,000 feet means I still need full leg and arm sun sleeves. I rolled out on some of my favorite local gravel climbs, washboarded and dusty, before turning onto Peak to Peak Highway near Ward. I thought about targeting Estes Park, not yet realizing that it was still another 35 miles of steep rolling hills away.

I managed 25 of those miles to Meeker Park before I hit a line of construction traffic. With people milling around outside their cars, it looked to be a long wait. I veered off the road to a take a break by Chapel on the Rock (built in 1936 - not quite the history of an 800-year-old abbey, but beautiful nonetheless.) I'd been battling severe jet lag for the past hour, and actually dozed off for a few seconds, just deep enough that I snapped awake to feel severely disoriented. Fearing the sleep monster would continue to haunt me if I waited around for too long, I decided to turn back. The ride still ended up at 103 miles with 9,600 feet of climbing. It occurred to me that I haven't ridden a "century" in some time ... perhaps years, since road-riding was a more regular thing for me while living in California (lots of tough rides in the Colorado log, but none quite topping a hundred miles.) Anyway, beyond the jet lag, I felt strong on this ride, which was heartening.

On Friday I joined friends for an overnight bikepack outside Eagle, Colorado. Betsy and Erika are also training for the Summer Bear, and Betsy organized the trip after asking local professional endurance cyclist Jeff Kerkove to suggest a route for her. We all had the GPS track and little else in the way of knowledge about it, but at least Erika had paper maps for later assessments ("is this really the right way? Really?") It was only about 80 miles overall, and we were all a little blasé about prep, rolling out for a crack-of-2 p.m. start. We actually ran into Jeff as were gazing at a map and he was returning from a training ride. He took this group photo for us.

Eagle is part of the region where the Rocky Mountains meet the Colorado Plateau, a stunning landscape of redrock cliffs rising toward the snow-capped summits of the northern Sawatch Range. It has been high on my list of regions to explore ... let's face it, I haven't seen that much of Colorado. So I was excited for the opportunity. Even if it meant a tedious I-70 commute to squeeze this trip into a 36-hour window.

Photo by Betsy Williford
Crossing Nolan Creek to reach Old Fulford Trail. Just 10 miles into the trip, we were already wandering back and forth, wondering where we were even going. This is why my physical therapist told me to wear the knee brace for this ride.

The first of several steep double-track climbs. Erika and Betsy performed impressively on their loaded fat bikes.

We descended to Fulford Historic District, elevation 9,860 feet, population "odd." This is another of Colorado's many semi-ghost towns, named after a miner killed in an avalanche in 1891. Now apparently more of a recreational community, Fulford wouldn't be an easy place to access in the winter, but it's hard to beat the setting.

More vistas at a bridge over Brush Creek.

Hat Creek Road, still blocked with a gate due to snow cover, took us 2,000 feet higher to a pass at 11,100 feet. Steep, rutted and dusted with loose pebbles, this climb was demanding yet "spinnable." Colors became saturated as shadows grew long, and I was in my zone. Contentedness peculated in my blood as I stomped through snow drifts and grunted around precipitous hairpin curves, gazing at mountains almost incandescent in the evening light. This is my heaven, right up until it becomes my hell. The duplexity makes me appreciate this zone all the more. 

Beautiful vistas awaited us just below the pass, with long views into the Holy Cross Wilderness. I rode my brakes, trying to prolong these fleeting moments next to the sky.

Betsy was fairly gassed by the top of Hat Creek Road, where we'd already climbed nearly 6,000 feet in a mere 29 miles. There was only one more hour of daylight, and it was clear we needed to keep rolling.

We descended all the way back to Brush Creek Road, the fast track to our point of origin. If we simply stayed on this road from the start, the ride to Crooked Creek Pass would have been a whole lot easier. But then it wouldn't have been nearly so late, nor the light so gorgeous.

Avalanche Peak made a stunning appearance as we raced the fading light to the end of a spur on Jeff's GPS track. I figured there was no reason for him to send us down here unless the camping was awesome, and I was eager to ride to the end.

Crooked Creek Reservoir. This did seem a nice spot to camp, but possible private. Plus, the bugs were bad, and it was surrounded by cattle. We continued to descend into the valley, watching a herd of elk gallop through the gorge.

The route ended at an intersection that was crowded with campers — apparently this is a popular spot for climbing, and also this is just typical Colorado in July. The crowds were a disappointment, but it was apparent that my companions felt an urgency to nail down a camp site before it was fully dark. Had I been alone, I probably would have kept riding until I could find more solitude. As the sky faded to deeper shades of purple, we wheeled the bikes through a bumpy marsh until we found an unoccupied fire pit. The woods only held open spots big enough for Betsy's tent and Erika's bivy, so I plunked down on the dewy shoreline of Lime Creek. It was a beautiful setting, though, with the sound of cascading water to lull me to sleep.

Wider view of camp in the morning, from where I enjoyed my peanut butter oatmeal and coffee at the fire pit. Yeah, okay, it was a nice place to camp.

Mist rising off the creek in the morning. I awoke to a thick coat of frost across the fly of my tent, so I guessed it dropped a few degrees below freezing overnight. I slept cozy in my brand new Sea to Summit Spark sleeping bag, my first new "summer" bag in 12 years, after a number of years freezing in a worn-out Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32. Such luxury, to camp in the mountains in a lightweight sleeping bag and stay warm! Since I tend to do the majority of my camping in the fall and winter months, my summer system still baffles me. It weighs almost nothing — two-pound tent, one-pound sleeping bag, and a 12-ounce pad. I may curse my holey Thermarest NeoAir to the sky and back, but when it actually holds air, it's wonderful.

Heading out to climb the long road we'd descended the previous evening. We ended day one at around 40 miles, and expected the same mileage for day two, but we naively hoped for a little less climbing and maybe more easy rolling descents.

After the climb out of the Crooked Creek Valley, there was only supposed to be one 2,000-foot climb and a few small rollers. But the 2,000-foot ascent proved to a tease, with endless rises and drops around drainages as the powerline road skirted a broad ridge between Brush Creek and Gypsum Creek. The heat of the day was beginning to crank, there was little shade, and the UV force at 10,000 feet made me feel like I was hunched over the surface of the sun. I slathered on more sunscreen and drank gulps of still-cool creek water, but I felt cooked. Summer is hard.

Beneath the first stand of aspens I'd seen in a couple of miles, I met another trio of bikepacking ladies. What are the chances? I suppose this whole bike-camping thing is becoming fairly popular. I learned the women were from Leadville, and were also fully cooked by what they viewed as low-altitude heat away from their high mountain home (our altitude at the time of meeting was 10,200 feet.) We compared routes and it was funny to learn they were on a similar two-day trip, even though our plans came from different sources. Their route was all downhill from there, and we both assumed mine would be the same. We agreed to meet up at a brewery for lunch in a couple of hours.

Of course, I had no idea where our route actually went from here. None of us did. Betsy was enjoying the views but seemed to be struggling with the climbing. We accidentally bypassed a ridge trail to instead take the parallel jeep track called Hardscrabble Mountain Road, which earned its name with jolty babyhead rocks and endless, pointless ups-and-downs.

From there we spent some time lost and gazing confused at Erika's map, but we managed to reconnect with the route with a long climb to the also-aptly-named Fire Box. This was a nasty, chundery descent, a downhill hike-a-bike even for my more skilled friends with monster truck bikes. Betsy had enough of all of this, and voiced this opinion to us. I too was wondering about bailouts, but at this point I'd spent a fair amount of time scrolling through the screen on my GPS, and understood that we were locked in a gorge surrounding Abrams Creek and fairly committed to whatever Jeff had in mind. That proved to be more doubletrack climbing and a long singletrack traverse through the oak brush along dry hillsides as all three of us ran out of water and thunderstorms bared down from the high country.

In the race to beat the rain to town, Betsy suddenly broke out of her funk and outpaced Erika and me, as we struggled with woozy dehydration and dizzy vertigo along the steep side slopes (the vertigo was probably just me.) It was fun to watch her bust out a strong ride when just miles earlier she was vocally insistent that she was going to keel over. Endurance does this for everyone, at some point. It's heaven to hell and back again. That's what makes it so addicting. We ended this day at 42 miles and 5,500 feet of climbing spread across 8.5 tiresome hours, and promptly hit the local saloon for massive plates of food.

All in all, a great overnight with a little something for everyone. 8/10 would ride again, although I still have a whole lot of Colorado left to explore. 
Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Glance under the hood

Beat and I are in Berlin, Germany, for his dad’s 80th birthday. It’s been a whirlwind week with lots of family time and less outdoor activity, so it seems a good time to post about the DEXA Scan I had on June 28.

Several weeks ago, I received an offer for a free scan in exchange for writing about the experience on my blog. I receive dozens of freebie offers on an annual basis, and usually ignore them because this isn’t a gear blog, and although I don't care to limit the content here, reviews rarely seem worth the effort. But I am a sucker for data … and it seemed like this data could be useful for planning my strength training for upcoming winter ambitions. So I signed up.

DEXA is an acronym for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. In a nutshell, this scan uses low-energy X-ray beams to measure body mass — parsing out lean mass, body fat, and bone. Most often these scans are used to measure bone mineral density, often in older folks with higher risk for fractures and osteoporosis. In recent years, DEXA has become more popular among athletes as one of the most accurate ways to measure body fat and predict muscle mass. I had my scan done at an office in Denver called Body Fat USA. It’s quick and painless — you just lie down on a table for six minutes, and then a technician spends another 20 minutes going over the results. The explanations only scratch the surface of the data, so if you don’t do much research before (as I hadn’t), you may walk away a little confused. However, it’s nice to have the data in hand for subsequent research.

I looked forward to learning my bone mineral density, as I carry several risk factors for early-onset osteoporosis — white woman with hyperthyroidism. So I had some concerns, but the news was good. My number landed me in the 91st percentile for women my age. Perhaps this is the reason why I can take so many hard falls but have yet to break a bone, besides toes. Typically people aren’t scanned for bone density until they have a problem, and by then there’s no way of knowing how much they’ve deteriorated from normal. I think this will prove to be useful baseline data to have on record as I grow older.

The most controversial information from DEXA Scan is body fat. It’s controversial because while DEXA is considered the most accurate test there is, it still has an error rate around 5 percent. It also measures all body fat, including hidden sources such as intramusclar fat and brain tissue, so the numbers read higher than your typical caliper test. I wasn’t expecting a great result, but it did prove discouraging — 29 percent. Discouraging, but not surprising. For much of my adult life, my weight sat near 135 pounds. Then, like many people with Graves Disease, I packed on weight after I started on anti-thyroid medication. In the past two years, I’ve been as high as 150 pounds — during “slumps” when I’m feeling less well, I also seem to skew heavier — and am currently sitting at 145.0. (Official DEXA scan weight. The scan also put me at 67.5 inches, which is a half inch taller than I thought I was.)

There was always hope that the weight was more muscle I was able to build once my thyroid hormone levels normalized, but now it’s clear that I’m carrying at least 10 pounds of fat I don’t really need. It’s also clear that not hauling that fat around will boost my long-range endurance. So, I should probably try to lose that weight. Grumble, grumble. I have historically been not great at dieting or restrictive eating, so I’m going to go the old-fashioned slow route of adding protein while cutting sugar and tracking calories through the rest of the summer, and then assess. (After we return from Germany. There's just too many delicious foods here. Look at me, I'm already making excuses.)

For me, the most interesting and useful part of the DEXA Scan was lean mass balance, which parses out the amount of muscle in each limb. Through the scan I learned I am carrying a full 1.1 pounds more muscle in my left leg versus my right — a severe imbalance that can lead to injury. My right leg is the one I injured during the Bryce 100, which I’ve been working to rehab since. However, I’ve also ramped up my cycling mileage, which allowed me to heavily favor my left leg in order to generate the power necessary to climb hills. Still, I wonder if I developed this imbalance in the short span of the six weeks I’ve been injured, or whether this is a problem I’ve had much longer. Such an imbalance could have indirectly led to my current injury — adductor strain and MCL tear. Either way, I now know I have work to do. One-legged squats, ugh. And I’ll be able to take this info to my physical therapist next week, to gain more insight from her.

Overall, the information from the DEXA Scan will be useful in planning my training for the next few months, and I’m glad I had this opportunity. The data is interesting enough that I will probably pay the $100 for another scan in six or seven months, to see whether I’ve moved toward improvements I hope to make.

To learn more about DEXA Scans, visit