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.

21 comments:

  1. "Imposible" journey's always make me think of the book "Touching the Void". His just surviving a climbing fall in the middle of a storm wasn't enough, then left alone for dead he started dragging his broken body across the miles of cravas filled snow fields! He could not think of it as a whole because the futility of it all, to not be swallowed by the void he would pick a point that he felt he could get to in 20 minutes. That was the max horizon of his world.....only that next 20 minutes is all that mattered. ....I use that mind set in my own humble quests sometimes.

    Jeff C

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    1. So true ... one bite at a time is the only way to get through anything in life.

      "Try to keep your eye on the big picture, the picture just keeps getting bigger."

      "Touching the Void" is one of my favorites as well. I've had a few Twitter conversations with Joe Simpson in recent years. He is as sarcastic and curmudgeonly as anyone could be, even with such a life-shattering experience behind him. I'm a fan.

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    2. I kinda figured he would have to have some kind of personality like that to keep pushing till his last breath. But then that reminds me of another personality. When you wrote for Tim Hewitt on his 8000 miles across Alaska and he took a chance on crossing a stream on a weak snow bridge on his belly and just when he was almost across the bridge it caved in but his hand caught a piece of plane wreckage and saved him from going in the icy water.....that he didn't seem to reflect on the irony of what happened and his lack of situational awareness and just a relentless push forward.....well I lost interest in his story (not the writing ) and never finished the book. ....sorry. Just my opnion. Still it's awesome that he has done the journey so many times. It works for him.

      Jeff C

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  2. Impossible...that's funny Jill...you've been doing the impossible (IMO) for a LONG time now. Granted, the ITI full route is a big-un for sure...but it's no less impossible than the GD (which if I recall you set a new womens record on when you did it on a whim). I think it's the cutoff that makes the ITI so much more difficult and is what's in your head. I'm sure rooting for you, as it's something I KNOW you can do...but a lot of things would have to go right to maintain that pace for a month (most notably the weather). Maybe that's one of the draws...so much of what happens out there is out of your control, you just have to deal with it and move on (much like the TD...I'm still awestruck by your New Mexico MUD story from your book...can't imagine how you moved past that. Moving past impossible obstacles seems to be something you just do...you have a meltdown and then when it's over you deal with it and continue.

    I've never read the book "Touching the Void", thanks for mentioning that Jeff...sounds amazing!

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    1. Ha ha, thanks Matt. I was so green and young during my first run down the Divide. I admit I look back on parts of that experience now and think "I can't believe I thought that was so hard." We find our limits and build on them. Out on the Iditarod trail, I have reached the ceiling of my limits and still I had to continue, because the remoteness and conditions leave no choice. Of course that's a huge part of the draw, but it's also the reason for strong reluctance. So I wrestle with the side of me that can't live without ever-expanding adventure and self-exploration, and the side who wishes to survive long enough to see 41. ;-)

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  3. Oh my gosh. That just sounds awful. Ha. I'm trying to remember what I did for my 40th. Oh yes. Run a marathon. That's lot tamer than your plans. Btw the 40s are great. I never felt so strong.

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    1. I'll grasp at any excuse for a silly adventure. My late 30s have been bumpy, so I'm hoping for a resurgence in my 40s.

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  4. I think your doing cable lunges in the gym there?. I started with those for my right knee then moved to using exercise bands hooked overhead to unload some of my body weight on my one leg squats at the bottom and set it up over time so there was no help from the band half way up. I'm doing the same for my shoulder in pressing movements. Just a fyi, I know you have a Dr. Rehab plan going on so empathize with incremental progress.

    Jeff C

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    1. Cable lunges, yes. The forward facing stance is to work lats and triceps. I've been working on finding or modifying exercises to mimic sled-dragging as much as possible. Any suggestions are appreciated! I'm going to start incorporating more core strengthening as well. My knee-rehab routine already takes almost 45 minutes, but I can probably cut back on those exercises. I will keep the one-legged squats, monster walk and stability stuff.

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    2. I still do mobility and stability stuff every day (don't want to go backwards) even when I'm hiking. My 1/2" thick yoga pad is my best friend :). What sled dragging I've done, on winter camps, is pretty tame but I haven't found anything that mimics dragging a sled other than dragging something like a weighted sled, or a log,concrete block, etc, in the fall. A weighted vest ups the work out and gives more traction :).I use my chest strap to gage my exertion while I do a series of intervals. The variations of fun are endless plus you can set your "Die Empty" work out goal lower because your only steps away from the sanctuary of your home! One thing I found with the strap is my grind HR that I can maintain for hours and a rough idea of HR levels and the time I can stay there.....I find now that my mind can easily break my body, if not in the same day then no recovery the next....there is an internal "voice" now that warns me. There are still physical and mental barriers I'm breaking thru....small incremental steps.

      Jeff C

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  5. "Jill Outside" sounds like the title of your next book. You beat the great divide record now I anxiously await for you to break this record too, but I will still worry about you.

    NZ, 2021, I just might be there then. I would love to someday actually meet you if our paths cross.

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    1. Funny thing about "Jill Outside." "Outside" is the term Alaskans use to describe the Lower 48. I was basically taking a jab at myself for moving away from Alaska, back when I had to rename my blog, which was originally called "Up in Alaska."

      Also, seemingly little know fact about me is I still do hold the record for the women's bike to Nome. It's a tighter record than my Great Divide record ever was, mostly because I got incredibly lucky with trail and weather conditions. But I may try to go back and challenge it someday. The foot challenge still holds my heart, even though I hold no delusions that I can break that record.

      Perhaps our paths will cross in New Zealand! I maintain that I have to get this Alaska stuff out of my system someday.

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  7. Hey Jill, I've been following your adventures online since you were in Juneau and I was had just moved from Sitka to Sacramento, California (so almost 15 years+? Is that possible?). You've always been an inspiration and you still are. The way you handle the knocks life throws and the candor with which you talk about it is inspiring.

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    1. This blog will turn 14 in November. Eep! Thanks for sticking around. :)

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  8. Congrats on the milestone birthday. The 40s are ... different. But in some ways you've experienced the changes in perspective and changes in body throughout your 30s so maybe the 40s will be a kinder, more even-keeled experience. 4x 14ers sounds like a great challenge. Enjoy!

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    1. Yup. Life doesn't happen in a straight line. I've my expectations shattered enough to appreciate and even be grateful for the unexpected twists and turns. Will be interesting to see what the next year brings. (Every year is a gift, after all.)

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  9. I wrote that phrase down when I first read it in one of your books, and it's one of my favorite quotes.

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    1. Thank you. I looked it up, it's word for word in "Be Brave, Be Strong." I didn't even think about that fact until after I wrote the phrase in this blog post, then added the qualifier. Funny how we sometimes plagiarize ourselves.

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  10. This sounds awesome, awe inspiring and awful all at once! What happens if you get half way and spaz out with an injury in the wilderness? Have you got a satellite phone so you can facilitate a rescue?

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    1. Self-rescue is nearly always the only option. It would have to be more of a traumatic, accidental injury for me to call in for help. And even then, I'd expect to have to wait for hours or days for either paid help (in case I truly feel stuck, there are ways to throw money at the problem) or emergency help to arrive. Believe me, this is the issue I fret about the most. When Beat and others were snowed in during a long, remote section in 2015, and were out there alone for 10 days, I gave a lot of thought to exactly how I'd manage a similar scenario. Or if I had a debilitating but not disabling injury, like a sprained ankle.. Relentless forward motion, even at less than 10 miles per day, is sometimes all you can do. This is one reason I choose to travel heavier than others, with reserves of food and excess clothing, even at the expense of my own strength to complete the task. My goal, this year, is to try to start stronger.

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