Monday, August 19, 2019


I admit this is a birthday I wanted to ignore. I mean, 40. Phew. The number might explain why I was so dog-days-of-summer tired, burnt out on sun and heat, and dreading a commitment to upcoming months of intensive training. I suppose this would be the best time to submit to a much-needed reset. But what would that say about my impending senescence, if a milestone birthday brought the perfect excuse for a silly adventure, and I just let it pass me by?

I'd first imagined the adventure one year ago, as I was jogging down Old Fall River Road after summiting three 13,000-foot peaks that just happened to be a ridge I wanted to traverse in Rocky Mountain National Park. "I did three 13ers for my 39th, which means I need to do four 14ers for my 40th!" The math didn't actually work out, and I don't even care all that much about 14ers. Mountains are mountains. But I admit, there is transcendental draw to climbing as high as one can go. The air is rarified in more ways than simple lack of oxygen.

I’m not sure when I decided that birthdays were for adventure. It was probably my 12th, when I pushed to host my own party at Magic Waters, the rundown waterpark near the prison. Being a kid with a late-summer birthday was always sort of hard. Friends were either out of town or busy with back-to-school. It felt anticlimactic to become the age that my peers had been for months. Twelve is probably the hardest age of them all, but it marked my becoming a “young woman.” I wanted to acknowledge this as something special. 

 The day of my birthday proved bleak with threatening thunderstorms. Pools cleared out as thunder rumbled, and then one of the shoddy waterslides was shut down due to an unspecified failure. A wildfire burned in the foothills, and black smoke billowed overhead. I remember gazing at the ominous sky and feeling a kind of foreboding, a gloom that lingered as adult hormones began to take hold — a sense that life was always in the process of ending … not beginning.

For my Four-14er adventure, I schemed a fairly straightforward route. The knee I injured in May remains slightly unstable, and some lingering pain was enough to justify taking no big chances with difficult terrain. I researched 14ers with reasonable proximity and routes that didn't go harder than an easy class two, and came up with Huron, Belford, Oxford and Missouri — four rubbly summits in the Sawatch Range. Sticking to standard routes would require 34 miles of hiking with 12,000 feet of climbing. Some of this could be cut off by driving a road, but even in my contrived adventures I am something of a purist, so I planned to hike every mile. I considered trying to knock it out in one day, but didn't want to risk wrenching my wobble knee on rubble in the dark. Plus, it's my birthday. This didn't have to be a sufferfest.

The day I turned 18 was my first and last experience with bungee jumping. I was accompanied by my senior-year boyfriend, Eric, who was a few years older and attended community college. He won my heart by offering to pick me up from high school every afternoon in his Saab, which saved the indignity of walking. After graduation, I returned the favor by dragging him on difficult hikes in the Wasatch Mountains. He always obliged, even when it was clear he was terrified of exposure. (In hindsight, 40-year-old me is even more fearful that he ever was, and I miss the chutzpah of my youth.) 

The final straw was the Pfeifferhorn, with its razor-thin ridge and loose-scree scramble up a vertical-looking face. During the descent, I crossed onto the steep snowfield above Lower Red Pine Lake and pulled a gallon-size Ziplock bag out of my pack. “Easier way down,” I suggested, knelt onto my “sled,” and immediately plummeted into an uncontrolled slide. I attempted to kick my body sideways — the way one stops a snowboard — and began to spin. The world gyrated in a blue and white blur. I remember feeling confident that if I couldn’t stop before I hit the lake I’d just swim, not acknowledging that my body would probably be spinning at freeway speeds when I hit the shallow water. Eventually the whirling slowed, my head stopped spinning, and I staggered onto my feet. The summit ridge was now hundreds of feet overhead. “Made it!” I called out, although Eric was too far away to hear. I wasn’t surprised when he turned to climb down the rocky side of the ridge. He still swears that he watched my limp body bounce across an exposed boulder field. He was amazed when I stood and raised my arms, apparently unscathed. We would never hike together again. 

He did, however, agree to go bungee jumping. We drove to the Fun Dome, a tower that loomed almost directly over Interstate 15. We paid for three jumps each. I remember the experience being nothing like I expected, noting like hiking big mountains. There was no thrill, no affirmation of life — just pain and nausea. This was the day I realized that I wasn’t, and would never be, an adrenaline junkie.

Thursday and Friday brought an encouraging weather window. It was a few days early, but the days surrounding my birthday were busy, and I'll avoid weekends at any chance. I found a lovely campsite just a quarter mile from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, where I was packed and ready to start at 11:30 a.m. The campsite was ideal; it meant I'd get all of the road-walking — 12 miles' worth — out of the way on the first day. Although I'll admit that I quietly love boring, predictable road-walking. I don't have to watch where I put my feet, and there's no real concentration or effort to it. I can look up as much as I want, trace the contours of the mountains, wander through the landscape of my mind, and reflect on the past and future. Birthdays moved to the forefront of my mental reel. For a day of contrived importance during a month I never liked, I was surprised how impactful many of my birthdays have been.

If was lucky to survive to see 18, it was pure fluke that got me past 19. For the celebratory weekend, my friends and I went to the “beach” — the rocky shoreline of Jordanelle Reservoir. I had recently taken a short-lived interest in long-distance swimming, and announced plans to swim to the opposite shoreline and back. The water was cold, and I was relieved when my limbs adjusted to the shock. It took about 20 minutes of swimming to realize I was in a greater deal of trouble. My legs were so numb that I could no longer effectively kick, my shoulders were quaking, and my torso felt like a sack of refrigerated meat, too heavy to keep afloat. Survival instinct kicked in as I turned back toward shore. Fear was absent, but there was an urgency to my movements, and a primal understanding that sleepiness was my worst enemy. By the time I made it back to land, my core temperature had dropped substantially. I staggered onto the beach, feeling no relief, only numbness and blurred vision. My friends offered me a towel. There was a sharp electric jolt when my teeth finally started chattering. I huddled in direct sunlight amid 100-degree heat for the rest of the afternoon, shivering.

The jaunt up Mount Huron was fantastic. The trail cleared out by early afternoon, the skies remained friendly, and I made great time for relatively little effort. I even snagged a "CR" on a Strava segment out of 137 hikers — keeping in mind that women who label their ascents as runs aren't included in the hiking segments. Still, the recovery from my knee injury has been a little frustrating. There were times when I wondered if I'd ever be able to use it normally again. That I can still charge up a mountain at a reasonably fast clip is gratifying.

Huron is just barely a 14er at 14,003 feet. But it's high, and somewhere above 12,000 feet, I found myself wavering. After a number of years dealing with asthma and thyroid-related breathing difficulties, I've become well-acquainted with oxygen deprivation — both physical and mental effects. Low blood oxygen often begins as a mild euphoria, a feeling of transcendence, before plummeting into crushing fatigue and depression. But those early effects, I will admit, are magical. I floated through the rarified air, dancing through a semi-dream state. Such an empty, gorgeous place to have to myself, so unhindered. I can't believe this life has given me 40 years. What a gift.

The universe has often been kind to me when I didn’t deserve grace. My 21st birthday demanded a night of low-rent debauchery at the Red Garter, a rundown casino in Wendover, Nevada. My friends were at the bar when I snuck off to the roulette wheel. Empowered by my legal adulthood, I put two dollars on 21, which landed. Seventy dollars in hand, I was about to walk away, but a flutter of still-unappreciated adrenaline hit. I placed $20 back on the number 21, reasoning that the rest was more than enough winnings. To my utter astonishment, the number landed again. What I felt in that moment was less like an adrenaline rush and more like horror, as this was an obscene amount of undeserved money. 

Embarrassed, I didn’t tell my friends about the big win. A few months later, the saved money would go toward the purchase of a ’96 Geo Prism. I’d burned out the engine of my ’89 Toyota Tercel during the return trip from Wendover, while attempting to max out the speed gauge across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I wrapped up the first leg in about seven hours, which gave me all evening to cook dinner, relax, and read my Kindle in the tent. This felt like undeserved opulence during my supposed birthday vision quest. I slept poorly though, weirdly overheated at 9,000 feet, and a little anxious about the following day. Mountains do scare me. They didn't so much when I was 18, but the fear is worsening as I age, mistakes stack up alongside experience, and my understanding of consequences deepens. Just because lifespans hit 80 or 100 years old, doesn't mean we'll get another minute. The chaotic workings of the universe decide our timeline. We have some say, though, and it's counterproductive to take risks. Risk-taking may not be the best path to a long life, but few would dispute that risks are necessary for a good life. So I seek, and also I fret.

Anticipating a long day with more uncertainty about the weather, I was back on the trail by 5:30 a.m. The trailhead parking lot was already full, and dozens of people had set out in the predawn darkness. Colorado 14er culture is amusing. I can't say I fit in with this crowd, with their alpine starts and cardboard signs bearing the altitude of each peak, but I'm here, all the same. It was a lovely morning, but the wind was already howling by sunrise. I crossed a valley scoured by recent avalanches. It looked as though a bomb had hit, with massive trees littered like toothpicks down the slope. The power of mountains ... we underestimate it, all of us.

The day I turned 24 was the day I embarked on a 3,200-mile bicycle tour to New York. Having spent most of the summer driving around Alaska and only casually hiking and mountain biking, the weight and wobbly handling of my fully loaded touring bike was an unpleasant surprise. The rim brakes squealed as we descended out of the Avenues neighborhood. We merged onto Interstate 80, sadly the only way east out of Salt Lake City. For the rest of the afternoon we pedaled that unpleasant freeway shoulder toward Park City, under the hot August sun, with barely any training on my young legs. My heart soared with an exhilarating sense of freedom. This would be my greatest adventure. Life wasn’t just ending one day at a time; it was always in the process of beginning anew.

By 8 a.m. I reached the summit of Mount Belford, a tiny nipple on a broad ridge soaring 14,203 feet over far-away oceans, and closer to 4,500 feet over Clear Creek, where I'd camped. The ridge was windy and cold, and I didn't linger.

The steep descent to the saddle between Belford and Oxford brought a bout of dizziness. I'd been too high for too long. This segment wasn't going to be quite as effortless as the previous day, but I was resolved to keep up as strong of a pace as I could manage, because the "weather" was coming — and I can't always count on the universe to be kind.

Oxford is a little lower than Belford, 14,160 feet. I hit this summit at 8:45 a.m., and tried to stuff down a protein bar. My stomach was having none of that nonsense. Ugh, altitude. The rapture of the heights had faded. Gloom and doom crept into the foreground. "It's just oxygen," I told myself, a reminder that my perceptions were shaded by body chemistry, and reality wasn't nearly so dark.

By 26 I was embroiled in a quarter-life crisis. My parents visited me in Idaho Falls and brought a birthday gift, a cabinet set for my apartment. The furniture felt like a sign that I needed to stop being so wishy-washy, set better anchors, and focus on my career and future. Two days later, my long-distance boyfriend — with whom I believed I’d finally severed ties; I was even dating other people — decided to drive all the way down from Alaska and talk me into returning with him to the Last Frontier. Adventure lust took hold, an unstoppable force set in motion. Everything after that happened in quick succession, as though the universe was making decisions for me. By mid-September I had a newspaper job, an cabin high on a ridge above Kachemak Bay, and a whole new life in Homer, Alaska.

Descending just a thousand feet made such a difference. The ridge from Belford to Elkhead Pass was stunning — high basins and peaks over every horizon. I skidded down snowfields to return to Missouri Basin, where I'd connect with the final 2,000-foot climb to my fourth peak, Missouri Mountain. My emotions were in a brighter place, but I felt solidly nauseated by this point, forcing down applesauce to keep the glucose flowing. My calves started to cramp. At times I was forced to kneel down and wait for the gripping pain to release. The route snaked through a tumble of boulders beneath a cliff face, well-defined but far from easy. Clouds began to gather overhead. The steep side-slope made me feel uneasy. The 13,000-foot mark is where the mental darkness returned. Misery mountain. It's probably best I saved this one for last.

The summit ridge was longer than I'd expected, rolling ceaselessly toward never-ending false summits. The off-camber surface was loose and rubbly, and the footing was bad. As I neared the peak, exposure became more pronounced. At times I knelt low because I didn't trust my shoes not to slip off the side. I rounded a rock outcropping just in time to see a man I'd been shadowing for some time, scrambling on all fours up the seemingly vertical side slope. His motions were frantic. Dust swirled around him as he emitted a harrowing, guttural growl. I could only surmise that he actually did slip off the trail. He recovered his stance and looked up at me. I couldn't quite see his expression, but I could sense what he was communicating. Be very careful. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to be here anymore, on this high mountain with its poor footing, clouds already rolling in, stomach and leg muscles revolting. The true summit of Missouri Mountain was now less than 500 horizontal feet away. Could I really justify turning back now? Why are mountain summits so symbolic?

By the time I hit 30, the boyfriend had broken it off for good, and I was bitterly single, somewhat homeless, and stuck in a stressful and all-consuming job in isolated and rain-soaked Juneau, Alaska. Unsurprisingly, I took this milestone birthday hard. I planned a barbecue at the house where I was crashing, inviting the few friends who hadn’t shrunk away amid the awkwardness with my ex. I dreaded this party, and posted sad memes on Facebook about how I didn’t think anyone was going to show up. The night before my birthday, I spent hours after work preparing food in my friends’ kitchen, staying up well past 3 a.m., just so I’d have the time to check out for most of the following day. My new plan was to finally tackle Mount McGinnis — and thus, make my own way "over the hill." The nipple-shaped peak over the Mendenhall Valley was one of the most prominent summits in Juneau. The 4,000-foot ascent on muddy roots and tundra was exhausting, and it rained most of the way down. Near the bottom I took an hard fall that would prove to not be my last injuring accident on a mountain on my birthday. Still, I hadn’t felt so satisfied in a long time. There was a sense that the mountains would always be there. No matter what changed in my life, mountains would remain.

Symbolism, and the stories we tell, form the base of our lives. I knew I couldn't turn my back on four 14ers at this point. Cold wind buffeted my legs as I side-stepped off the crumbling trail and climbed onto the rock outcropping, hoping the scramble would go. It was such a relief to be back on solid ground, even ground that was somewhat technical and exposed. I scooted up a few pitches that proved more tricky to down-climb with heavy fatigue, knotted calves and a wobble knee, but nothing was terribly difficult. Suddenly I was standing on top of Missouri, elevation 14,075 feet. Mountains conquered — if not fear.

I looked back at the tiny nipple of Mount Belford. The profile reminded me of Mount McGinnis, which renewed reflections on a birthday adventure that's now a decade in the past. How does so much time just slip away? I suppose that's why we seek out these memorable experiences, these connections to the stories that go on. 
Monday, August 12, 2019

How I intend to spend my mid-life crisis

 In one more week, I'll be 40 years old. As the black balloon birthday approaches at breakneck speed, I also came down with a mild case of post-adventure blues, courtesy of the Summer Bear. Hammering solo through two sleepless nights drained more out of me than I cared to admit. My hormones were depleted, and tinges of sadness trickled into the void. As a general insomniac, sleep deprivation tends to cause more sleep deprivation, and by Tuesday I was in full zombie mode. So on Wednesday, I returned to the gym. I hoped a good session would help work out some of the crimps in my back and shoulders, left over from aggressive bike-pushing. But more than that, I really look forward to visiting the gym these days. Yes, it has air conditioning, and there's that. But also, there are few places I find such definitive purpose right now — in quantifiable ways I see myself building strength, and this sparks hope.

Lat pulldowns are the quickest cure for bike-pushing aches, and adventure planning is the quickest cure for post-adventure blues. It had to be right quick, too, because I needed an adventure in time for my birthday. I couldn't let 40 come and go without doing something. The week of my actual birthday is already booked, and this coming week I could only squeeze in a day or two, preferably close to home. Without too much rumination, I got it in my head that I needed to aim for four 14ers. I climbed three 13ers for my 39th birthday, and it was a formative and rewarding experience. So four 14ers for 40 just made sense. Never mind that, with the exception of the Decalibron (yawn), bagging four such mountains is no small effort. Especially given my tentative situation with my MCL, where abilities are still being tested. Chossy rock scrambles, steep slopes covered in loose talus, and boulder hopping would be several steps too far in anything but small doses. So I needed mountains with Class 1 to easy-2 approaches, which usually means climbing all the way up and then descending all the way down a popular mountain on its main trail. Finally, I settled on four peaks in the Sawatch, where a 33-mile route with close to 12,000 feet of climbing would suffice. Even if I spread that over two days, it's a big bite compared to any other foot effort I've made in more than three months. And I've only been legitimately free of injury for about three weeks.

So, let the training begin! I climbed the west ridge of Bear Peak on Thursday, logging an encouragingly fast time. On Friday I waited until 11 a.m. to start a run up Santias, set out on the fully sun-exposed ridge when it was 92 degrees, and completely cooked myself before I was even halfway up the mountain. It was bad. I stumbled onto the summit and sat down, feeling terribly woozy. My vision was blurring, my heart was racing, and when I held my hand to my face, I could see that it was trembling. That's when I noticed my shoulders were quaking, too. "Oh shit," I said out loud. Heat exhaustion? Not a serious case, but absolutely, this was a mild bout of heat exhaustion. I crawled into a pathetic square of dappled shade beneath a scrub tree, and after 10 minutes decided it would be best to just get myself off the mountain as quickly as possible. As quickly as possible turned out to be the slowest I've ever descended Mount Santias, but I did make it down. Humbled.

Things did get better. On Saturday I allowed for a short and relatively mellow bike ride to test out my new helmet, after the Summer Bear put the terminal dent in one I've been using for nearly five years. Beat found a deal for both of us to acquire the Giro Aether MIPS — lightweight, excessive venting, and superior protection, based on a number of reviews. Light roadie helmets are best for my propensity to ride long with a sensitive neck, so I'm a fan. On Sunday, I ran 15 miles at Walker Ranch and Eldorado Canyon. It was relatively uneventful, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Monday rolled around — my last chance at a training day before a short taper. (Ha!) I was going to return to Sanitas, but the trauma was still fresh enough to recoil at the thought of running that sun-blasted ridge again. The sky was blue and the forecast was refreshingly thunderstorm-free — and it was supposed to be 65 degrees at 10,000 feet versus 90 in town. Beat had spent Saturday night on an all-night training run around Buchanan and Pawnee Pass with his PTL partner Daniel, and I was envious of his mountain adventure. So I made a last-minute swerve to pack up my hiking backpack and head over to Brainard Lake for a jaunt up Mount Audubon.

 I felt good, encouragingly so. My knee wasn't sore or unstable in spite of the Summer Bear, followed without much rest by my highest-mileage running week of the summer (27 miles! Woo!) I was sleeping well again, and felt fully recovered.

 The wind above treeline was intense, blowing at least 40 mph most of the time. With an ambient temperature that was probably in the low 50s, the windchill was impressive. It felt legitimately cold. I relished in the thrill of shivering and goosebumps, and put off adding more layers for a long time. I eventually did pull on a hat and shell, after I'd reached the summit and my ears and fingers had long since gone numb. But before that, as I climbed into the blasting gale, I was mostly lost in a different world, only popping into the present to make mental notes of places I passed.

"The wind training here is probably just as good as Niwot, although I'll have to cross-check the slopes for avalanche exposure."

"This would be a decent place to hunker down and bivy."

"St. Vrain would be great for a long snowshoe loop."

I was thinking about the way this landscape would look in the winter, long after the lakes are frozen, the rocks are covered in snow, the windchill becomes more terrifying than thrilling, and any attempt to climb a 13,200-foot summit would be a whole lot more difficult than a four-hour hike in the summer. I find this is mostly what I think about right now — wistfully, when I have heat exhaustion, and a little more anxiously when I'm faced with the realities of a chilling gale in August. But it's my whole preoccupation: Winter training.

 As my black balloon birthday approaches, so does an important six-month deadline — the one I set for myself when I put my name on the list four months ago. "You have to decide for sure by the end of August," I scolded myself. I could get away with base-building before then, but training would have to begin in earnest when the event is just six months out. Now the date approaches. And it's time to take a dump or get off the pot, so to speak.

So what did I sign up for?

A thousand-mile walk along the Iditarod Trail, all the way to Nome.

Yes, I said walk. Ever since I completed the route with a bicycle in 2016, I've been certain that the Iditarod Trail on foot is something I wanted to do. The ultimate challenge. A most pure and raw way to experience a pure and raw place that I love. I was briefly planning to walk the route 2017, but then my health fell apart drastically, and I was diagnosed with Graves Disease. I managed a trial run in 2018, a walk to McGrath. This meager effort tore me apart so completely that I'm still trying to process the experience. I've been chipping away at writing a race report for the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational, if only to make sense of what happened, and to justify reasons why I could be better next time, if I allow myself a next time. But writing about it only leads to the same conclusion — "Walking to Nome is impossible."

 Here's the rub — one has 31 days to complete the 980-or-so-mile route. Thirty-one days is the race cutoff, yes, but it's also a necessary deadline to beat spring. Having spent most of March 2019 residing in Nome, I can say with some certainty that even 31 days isn't going to stay ahead of the more dangerous aspects of the melt, which arrive earlier every year (the Bering Sea shoreline broke up on March 15.) But for optimistic purposes, let's give ourselves 31 days. That's 31 miles a day, dragging a 50- to 60-pound sled, in all weather, in all conditions. One rest day, one day where storms inhibit progress, just a sprinkle of bad days here and there increase the mileage requirement substantially. And this isn't like running a 50K every day. The weight of the sled, weather challenges and variable-but-always-resistant snow conditions make it closer to hiking four 14ers with 12,000 feet of climbing.

It's not just the math that keeps me up at night, but the realities that math will bring. The necessary sleep deprivation that will drive me to those dark, discouraging places in the depths of my mind. Dealing with debilitating fatigue during storms and sketchy ice crossings, when I most need my wits to be sharp. Actually pushing limits for a month. A month! Just 1.5 days of Summer Bear gave me a terrifying taste. And the solitude — the deep and seemingly eternal solitude. This actually is one of the draws for me, but also by far one of the scariest aspects of walking to Nome. The entire field of the ITI will be ahead of me, the dog sled race will pass me by, and then I'm going to be all alone out there. Utterly alone. Encased in a depth of solitude and necessary self-sufficiency that few can grasp in the modern world.

Some will ask if Beat is planning to walk to Nome again. He is. But we won't plan to stick together. It's not what I want. The short answer is that Beat's pace would kill me, and if I forced him to stick to my pace, we might end up killing each other. I joke, but the whole reason I want to do this is for the unprecedented solitude and self-reliance. If I planned to have a partner, I'd rather that partner be my bicycle. Beat I can plan an actual fun adventure to do as a couple. I'm thinking, if I survive, New Zealand will be my demand for 2021. ;-)

But it's only been two years since I dragged my sled 312 miles in 8.5 days, which math says is just under 37 miles a day. That effort just about killed me, and the thought of trying to keep it up for three times as long is ... well ... it's impossible. As far as I know, the walk to Nome has been completed by only two other women in under 31 days. The first, Shawn McTaggart, competed the Southern Route in 2013 in 30.5 days, and the Northern Route in 2014 in 28.5 days. Loreen Hewitt, at age 58, set the record on the Northern Route in 2014, 26.25 days. I had the pleasure of accompanying Loreen for much of the route to McGrath when I first walked the short distance in 2014. I was able to observe her patterns and get a sense for her strategy. I know enough to know that Loreen is an incredible athlete, with endurance I can't match even though I'm 18 years younger than she was then. Also, her pace would kill me.

Still, I scheme. I imagine what my training will look like — strength training, and lots of it. I read reports about fastest-known-time attempts on thru-hiking routes, to get a better sense of what others do to push themselves to the limit day in and day out, without the benefits of a bicycle. And now I need to decide. Either I put my intentions out there and train as though I intend to achieve them, or withdraw my name from the roster and shrink back to lesser ambitions. I hoped the Summer Bear and its test of fortitude would help me decide, but it didn't. Perhaps four 14ers on my tentative two feet will do the trick.

The walk to Nome is impossible, though. It's still impossible. It will always be impossible.

I'm pretty sure I wrote this phrase in one of my books, but the fact that something's impossible has never been a good reason not to try.
Monday, August 05, 2019

Til the morning breaks

Few will understand the desire to straddle a bicycle in an unfamiliar place just a couple of hours before sunset, with every intention of riding 200 miles solo through remote country over two full nights, anticipating nothing at the finish besides a few handshakes and hugs, along with bruised legs, a dented helmet, macerated feet and dozens of mosquito bites. I'll never be able to explain it. I can only direct my thousand-yard stare toward the horizon, purse my lips at the intimacy I suddenly share with the dark contours of distant mountains, and repeat lyrics still echoing through my addled brain.

"What an empty, gorgeous place." 

But why go there when it's too dark to see much, enduring all of these rock-strewn trails that you've never found to be particularly fun. And why push into such deep fatigue that you've resorted to talking to yourself, scolding the inner toddler who always wins when the barriers are broken down?

"Because that's where the magic happens."

The Summer Bear looked like an ideal recipe for a small helping of magic. The event is the brainchild of Jon Kowalsky, a Steamboat Springs real estate agent who has worked hard to cultivate the winter endurance racing scene in Colorado. His Winter Bear was once a ridiculous thing that — mostly through attrition, I imagine — was whittled down to a 45-mile route on groomed snowmobile trails for its third year.  Through that fun event six months ago, I connected with several like-minded adventurous folks in Colorado. Many were on board for Jon's summertime freebie (meaning there was no fee to enter, but the field was capped) — a 200-mile self-supported race through the relatively remote forestland of northcentral Colorado. For months we only knew the general distance and elevation gain — 23,000 feet. The route was kept a secret until July 28, less than a week before the August 2 start. I learned relatively late that the race would start in the evening, at 6 p.m.

My own preparations for Summer Bear were somewhat lax. It's been a few years since I've taken cycling all that seriously — really, my 2016 ride to Nome was a pinnacle, and everything since just doesn't carry the same level of inspiration. It's easy to ride bikes for fun and adventure, but harder to push myself, especially since my health went downhill during that same time period. My health is now largely revived, and new ambitions are steamrolling toward the present. Regardless of the mode of travel, I needed a renewed test of mental fortitude. For that reason, I quietly planned to ride the route straight through, with only two predetermined stops that I hoped to hold to less than an hour each. The 6 p.m. start meant I'd almost certainly have to ride through two nights, which was its own intriguing challenge.

I loaded up my now-eight-year-old Moots soft-tail with equally dated bags — although I do like to brag to cyclist friends that my bags were all hand-sewn by the owner of what is now a major bikepacking brand. He even scrawled "Jill-Proof" in pencil on the interior of the frame bag, as I have a reputation for being hard on gear. The bags withstood the test of time, but my bike gradually fell into unnoticed disrepair. Beat has done a whole lot in the past few weeks to bring it up to date — installing a nearly new fork from one of his bikes, new saddle, new pedals, new brake pads and shifter cables. Two nights before the race I asked him to give the bike a once-over, and he found the chainring to be in such a sorry state that he went into his workshop and machined a titanium ring on his CNC mill, at midnight. With a new chain and cassette as well, Mootsy felt like a whole new bike.

The race launched from a private ranch along the shoreline of Steamboat Lake, a gorgeous setting where we could park our cars for the weekend and hang out when we weren't cycling. Quite the luxurious accommodations for a free race — Jon called it his "bachelor party," and was among the 18 riders at the start. I'd heard there would be 40, so I was surprised by the small field, but it was a solid group of endurance enthusiasts. Among the field were finishers of the ITI 350 and Fat Pursuit 200-miler, the woman's winner of Winter Bear, a race organizer from South Dakota, and a local woman who regularly podiums at major mountain bike races. There were relative novices as well, including my friend Betsy, who just wanted to ride her fat bike farther than she'd ever ridden it, and have fun. I felt in my element. 

It was an adventure from the start, as we jumped into the grass to go around a truck that had jack-knifed across the road.

Having spent only an hour or so reviewing the track after we returned from Ouray, I knew little about the course or what to expect. Jon used the phrase "lost singletrack" to describe parts of it, which I interpreted as "overgrown trail that I'll probably have to hike." Some grades topped 20 percent, and 23,000 feet of climbing in 200 miles was generally steeper than my usual rides around Boulder, which are already quite hilly. I anticipated a fair amount of downhill hike-a-bike, as I'm a lousy rider on loose rock, which puts me at a strong disadvantage in Colorado. I made my goal 36 hours — breakfast at Brush Mountain Lodge at mile 102, dinner at my car at mile 133, and a hopeful predawn finish. As it turned out, my expectations were fairly spot on, and yet the race was still so much harder than expected.

The route was clover-shaped with three distinct loops beginning near the ranch. The first loop was fairly uneventful. I went out at a conservative pace, sandwiched somewhere between the lead group of hard-driving racers and the folks who were planning to camp during the first night. The first climb was nice and steep, a thousand feet in three miles, and I broke enough of a sweat to spend most of 40 minutes with one eye clamped shut. I thought it was a good preview of the course, but I was wrong. This was a baby ascent. Nothing at all.

By 2 a.m. I found myself in blissful solitude. The fast racers were now far ahead, the campers were camping, and I was alone for miles, flying solo on the fast-rolling hills along the border of Wyoming and Colorado. The road dipped steeply toward the Little Snake River, and it was there I came across the lights of a cyclist hiking uphill toward me. It was Graham, previous finisher of the ITI 350, currently training for the thousand-mile ride to Nome. The New Zealander was wild-eyed and shivering. He told me he crashed into an antelope. He saw the animal grazing on the side of the road, and instead of running away, it took a run at him, collided, then darted off. Graham was tossed over the handlebars and ripped up his arm on the rough gravel. His derailleur was mangled. He removed it and tried the single-speed conversion, but the shortened chain jumped a cog and was jammed in place. His bike was unrideable. We were 13 miles from the nearest paved road and any hope of cell reception. Graham told me he got a non-emergency SPOT message out to his wife, so I wished him best of luck and continued west. I felt guilty for leaving him stranded while visibly injured, but there wasn't much I could do to help, and I know Graham is as tough as they come. He was fine, of course, and snoozed roadside for a few hours until his wife came to pick him up in the morning.

"Next year Jon should change the name of the race," I thought. "The Kamikaze Antelope has a nice ring to it."

The route dipped south, back into Colorado, and I made the long climb on County Road 1 just as the pink light of dawn crept across the horizon. This was my third visit to this segment of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. My first was ten years ago now, at sunset. Back then, I had no idea what I'd find out here. I was racing my first Tour Divide, recently single and terribly lonely. I stopped at every house along the road — there are two or three of them — and gazed longingly at lit windows, imagining the happy families residing inside. After nightfall, I arrived at a house with festive Christmas lights strung along the roof, but dark windows. Still, I lingered roadside for a long while, then continued pedaled into the dark. Fifty meters up the road, still in earshot but only just, I heard a quiet voice call out, "Jill?"

Kirsten, who had been watching my Tour Divide tracker, pulled me off the lonely road that fateful June day in 2009, back when I was not aware that her Brush Mountain Lodge was a place. She fed me cherries and showed me a depth of kindness, expecting nothing in return. And each summer she's done the same for hundreds of cyclists on the GDMBR. Still, she seemed to remember me well. She remembers our late night chatting about world news in 2009, which was the best cure for loneliness I could have possibly experienced. She remembers when I showed up broken with bronchitis in 2015. She remembers seemingly everything, and told me she is writing a book about the cyclists she has met. I can't wait to read it. It was fun to show up at 6:30 a.m. to a table full of Bear racers, eat a huge plate of breakfast sandwiches that she whipped up in no time, and talk about the Tour Divide drama of 2019. Kirsten regards me as one of the "old-timers" of bikepacking. I felt honored, and unworthy. But she has a way of making everyone feel like they're someone special.

Brush Mountain Lodge is regarded as "The Vortex" in bikepacking lore, so I was both surprised and not surprised to see the entire lead pack lingering at the breakfast table. They had slept a few hours, sure, but it was weird that I wasn't farther behind. A couple more in the mid-pack went into the bunk room for a rest, but I wasn't feeling sleepy, and it wasn't my plan anyway. The sun was out, the sky was bright, and I knew storms were on their way in the afternoon. Best to put in miles while the going was good.

The Summer Bear route turned off the GDMBR for a whole lot of bonus climbing, first on a steep forest road under the hot sun that really hurt with a stomach full of breakfast, then a seemingly endless traverse on faint double track as it dipped in and out of mosquito-infested drainages. At least the trail crossed through beautiful meadows full of wildflowers as it administered the pain. Then, many hours later under what were now darkening afternoon skies, I was back on the GDMBR, basically at the bottom of the long climb up the Watershed Divide, not far from Brush Mountain Lodge. WTF? It started raining just as I commenced the ascent, walking a bunch of the slimy mud and stumbling over loose babyhead boulders, just as I remember doing in 2009 and 2015. I met a couple of northbound GDMBR cyclists with medium-sized dogs in trailers, and warned them about the steep descent. They told me I was only the second racer they'd seen, and the first (likely Perry) was only a mile or two ahead. This was strange, as I was pretty slow, but most in the leading pack couldn't have been so far ahead that they wouldn't have passed them on the long descent into Clark. But the Summer Bear didn't take the direct route to Clark. Instead, it turned the WTF factor up a few more notches, turning off the GDMBR for more climbing on a bumpy jeep road, just so it could descend a loose-rock fall line that was so steep I had to walk a fair amount downhill.

I made it back to camp at 3:30 p.m., which was earlier than my predicted time of 6 p.m., but I was still rattled by the sudden difficulty of the route. Later I would explain the nature of the Summer Bear in a way only Beat would necessarily understand — the first 100 miles felt like the Tour Divide, with a few bumpy ATV trails sprinkled into was was mostly steep but well-maintained dirt and gravel. The final 100 miles leveled much more Race Across South Africa absurdity — cattle trails, tiger lines and all. All of the hard stuff was in the back half. I had no idea what was coming for me in the night. Still, miles 103-133 had administered a little taste of loop three, and several tired leaders were still resting in camp when I arrived, including Hannah, the semi-pro MTB racer. I set to work and stuck to my plan, cooking up a Mountain House meal and coffee for dinner, knocking back a few more Starbucks Doubleshots, resupplying snacks, changing batteries, lubing feet and butt, changing socks and shirt, and adding my bivy bundle to the handlebars. While I didn't necessarily plan on camping during the second night, it's difficult for me to try anything scary without some sort of security blanket. Sleep deprivation scares me, because I've had traumatic experiences with it. I'm normally quite cautious in this regard.

On my way out of camp I passed Derek, who confided that he was thinking of quitting. "This isn't even fun," he said, rubbing his hands to indicate pain from the jarring descents. Quite a few riders were on gravel bikes, which I regarded as knives at a gun fight, but then again I'm known to heavily favor too much bike over too little. I bought ice and Gatorade at the Clark store, the headed into the hot evening for yet another 1,500-foot climb on 13 percent grades (yawn.) There I encountered yet another racer riding toward me. It was local cyclist John Lawrence, who I think was probably too familiar with everything ahead. He told me he was done, just too gassed for the climb.

The evening was gorgeous, with lots of rich light, sweeping views into the Zirkle Wilderness, and a smooth gravel road where I could sit relaxed in the saddle and look all around. This segment is where most of the upcoming photos come from. I don't have any from the night.

This is my happy place — tired, really tired, and completely at peace. In recent years I've read more on mental health issues, specifically anxiety, and suspect that endurance efforts are a form of self-medication for me. It's effective at turning off the chattering part of my brain, being present in places that are so much bigger than myself, being scared of things that are legitimately scary, rather than the phantoms and ghosts in my mind. It's a profound way to experience life as well — exploration, observation, understanding and reflection — rather than sitting in place and numbing my chattering brain with medication. Endurance racing has its risks and flaws, but it's such a vast net positive that I can't imagine giving it up anytime soon.

Anyway, everything was going really well. I've participated in enough endurance events to know this doesn't mean anything for the future, but I was still feeling strong as the sun set, and surpassed mile 160. I was surprised Hannah hadn't passed me yet, and wondered if I might be able to hold her off. If I kept moving ... maybe, just maybe. The route turned off the road and followed an overgrown cattle track. I wondered if this is what Jon described as "the least-ridden singletrack in all of Colorado." Personally I don't consider the fact that no one rides a trail to be a ringing endorsement, but I'd expected this terrain, and I was mentally prepared.

Indeed, the trail was an often a barely-there thing cutting a pencil-thin line through grass that was nearly as tall as my head. It was almost impossible to find the trail in the low light of evening — visibility actually improved when it was finally dark enough to switch on my lights. Still, I couldn't see the ground at all, and rolled into endless invisible boulders and logs. The overgrown trail was too narrow to hike-a-bike. So I had to just ride, knowing that I might hit an unseen obstacle with wheel or pedal and flip over the handlebars at any time. It had to be done. Luckily, I had sleep deprivation on my side. Riding sleep-deprived is what I imagine driving drunk must be like. You are likely a whole lot worse behind the wheel, but your inhibitions are broken and you feel unstoppable. In my case, lack of confidence is my biggest enemy, so false bravado is far more effective than any of my meager skills. I rode my mountain bike like I used to ride, before the infamous crash of 2011 that seared an enduring nerve pain in my memory, before the scars accumulated and fear wore me down. I found a song on my iPod that I found to be exhilaratingly motivating, and did that thing I sometimes do with a song on repeat for far too long, but it's working. "Bad Decisions" by Bastille.

You said that maybe this is where it ends 
Take a bow for the bad decisions that we made 
Bad decisions that we made.

And if we're going down in flames
Take a bow for the bad decisions that we made
Bad decisions that we made.

So we'll make the same mistakes
'Til the morning breaks.

The focus that the faint trail demanded started to become tedious, and I grew sleepy. After the trail spit me out on a jeep road, I decided to experiment with something the fast racers call a "shiver bivy" — basically a trailside nap, snoozing for a few minutes until the cold wakes you up. It's not real rest; it's only meant to keep the sleep monster at bay without wasting a bunch of time with a real bivy. I don't usually try this, mostly because it means waking up cold, and I'm scared of being cold. I feel I've had enough cold-weather experience to be legitimately frightened of cooling my body temperature at any time of year. But ... I was on a roll of succeeding at things that scared me. So I curled up on my coat with my head on my pack, pulling my sore legs against my torso. I think I actually did doze, for anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes. And I indeed woke up shivering, and also feeling awful, like I'd been hit by a truck. I'm just not a napper. Shiver bivy was a mistake.

Newly nauseated and sore in all of the wrong places, I stumbled up the road. After a short stretch of steep climbing, the route crossed a thigh-deep stream and ended at a trail sign that seemingly led to nowhere. The sign contained a hateful name that I recognized from a ridiculous climb on the first night, "Wyoming Trail." I couldn't locate this Wyoming Trail, even when I turned my headlight on bright. Finally I noticed a faint bike track in the dust, and pointed my bike in a straight line until I hit the babyhead-strewn fall line, another 25-percent grade climbing toward the star-filled sky.

I would spend the next four hours covering eight miles of Wyoming Trail, wet feet burning with skin maceration, stomping through endless mud puddles, alternately shivering and sweating in my rain shell, resting every two steps because I was out of gas, forcing an M&M or two into my sour stomach and lecturing my legs to "find the energy." As I recall there were some rolling hills, and the descents were equally steep and loose, but I still had some lingering false bravado to try to ride. That is, until I skidded out on scree, managed to throw a foot down and stop, only to haphazardly run into a boulder when I started rolling again. The sudden stop tossed me into a slow-motion endo. My helmet cracked down with a loud thunk that I think was just an echo from my helmet light tearing away from the velcro, but the sound scared me something fierce. I was done being brave for the night.

Finally Wyoming Trail ended and I was back on a jeep road at mile 180. It was after 3 a.m. I couldn't quite recall the final elevation profile. I thought there was one more climb in there, but surely I had to be close to done. Sure enough, the route turned onto another ATV trail, all fall line and no switchbacks, strewn with loose boulders and tangled roots. By this point I was no longer remotely sleepy. My heart was filled with rage. "Jon should change the name of this race to something with more truth in advertising. Steep Babyhead Bullshit ... Bear."

Up and down, down and up. My legs still felt strong, but I was gassed in that way that allowed me to climb well for 10 or 11 pedal strokes, until I'd suddenly feel so faint that I feared I might pass out and fall off the sideslope into the black gorge below. I walked much of this section as well. I tried to hold my shit together. Really, I'd like to get through one race without a meltdown. That would be a true test of my mental fortitude. But I lost it on yet another 500-foot hike-a-bike descent. The narrow singletrack was rideable, but unforgivingly steep and loose, and crowded in with handlebar-grabbing tree trunks. I was making too many mistakes to take any more risks. I cried the entire hike down. The tears were a welcome release, the emotional equivalent of vomiting. Meanwhile, the adult inside me was lecturing, out loud, the petulant toddler who always emerges during these hard times. "You can cry, but if you're still crying at the river, you're going to have to stop and sleep." I didn't want to stop and sleep. I wanted to be done.
I stopped at the stream indicated on my map, gratefully filled my water filter bottle with cool water, and took my shoes off to soak my burning feet in the creek. I ingested a few more M&Ms. I was done crying. There was nothing around — utter silence. I'd expected to see city lights, but I wasn't anywhere close to the finish. Dawn light again appeared on the horizon. My GPS registered mile 183. Somehow it had taken me the entire night to travel just 20 miles, with a bike. I scrolled through my GPS and realized that in the next two miles, I would have to climb from 9,300 feet to 10,600 feet, with a bike. I honestly wasn't expecting any more climbing. Defeat crept into my heart, and then I remembered a helpful mantra from my friend Jorge, which I've adopted — "This will never end." When things feel awful, I tell myself they're permanent. If something can't end, then one must learn to live with it. Find the good. It's a Viktor Frankl "Search for Meaning" sort of philosophy that looks for purpose in all experiences. I like it.

So I started up the ridiculous jeep road, with grades that Strava would later register at 30 percent. My shoulders and arms ached too much to effectively hold the bike from rolling downhill, so I tried lifting it onto my backpack. But with the added awkward weight, my shoes (good trail-running shoes, old original Montrail Mountain Masochists) had no traction on the loose dirt and rocks. I slipped and fell onto my knees, which was alarming given my recent MCL injury, and knew I couldn't manage a carry. So I rolled the bike into the field and hiked cross-country — still steep, but at least the tundra wasn't a minefield of tripping hazards.

My pace dropped below 1 mph. Two steps, rest. Two steps, rest. This is never going to end. Find the good. What's the good? Crimson light stretched across the horizon. The views went on forever. There was no one else around. Why would they be? If you ever want to be alone for most of 36 hours in the Colorado mountains on a weekend in August, I recommend the Summer Bear route. I mean, I don't recommend it. But I do.

"What an empty, gorgeous place."

Emotions were still running high, and I feared I might break out in tears again, but only because I felt such a renewed since of peace. I told myself this wasn't going to end, and suddenly I didn't want it to. I was grateful for the opportunity to experience this high plateau at first light, a time of day I rarely experience because I am so far removed from being a morning person that no sunrise is worth waking up for. But staying up all night, making mistakes until the morning breaks ... that I can do. This little knob is probably Farwell Mountain. Yes, it's spelled that way. But I liked to think of it as my "Farewell Mountain." Thank you, for this gift.

Of course, both the morning and the moment had to end, and it was time for what was truly a last descent. True to form, Summer Bear kept things painful by descending the loose jeep trail followed by jarring river rocks all the way to the valley. I rolled back to the ranch at 8:34 a.m., for a finish time of 38 hours and 34 minutes. I was greeted enthusiastically by two guys who arrived during the night, as well as Jon, who like most of the field had decided to stop before the monstrous loop three.

I hadn't encountered a single human all night long. As the hours drug on at 2 mph, I began to wonder where everyone went. In the daylight I could see only two bike tracks, and wondered if there were truly only two racers in front of me. As it turned out, there were only two, but one had cut the course. I was the second official finisher, out of just four. I was the sole woman finisher. Hannah didn't leave camp, and my friend Betsy and two others stopped together at The Brush Mountain Lodge Vortex. I was surprised that the finisher rate was quite so low, but I think everyone underestimated The Bear, even Jon.

Am I proud I slogged it out? Yes I am. Did I pass my mental fortitude test? Mostly, although I'm not proud of the meltdown just because things were a little hard, nor do I think it was necessary to move quite as slowly as I was moving while I was battling my inner petulant child. I give myself a B+. Good enough to move on to the next level.

I'm excited.