Sunday, October 27, 2019

Moving is winning

Beat accused me of being a glutton for punishment this week. “You’re going to start the ITI totally broken.”

"I am not. This isn't even close to overtraining. Conditioning is important. And it's still less time per week than I managed for most of the summer."

It's true, though, that most of my activity over the summer was closer to my comfort zone — not so focused on building strength, not purposefully seeking out the worst conditions, and not waking up every morning with delayed-onset muscle soreness.

But it's difficult to see any downsides, because I've felt so good. Nothing I do feels too difficult or overtaxing, compared to similar efforts in recent years. My health progression has been such a slow-motion rollercoaster that I don't often acknowledge the striking differences between now and then. A conversation with my Dad last month brought some of the low points back into the spotlight. We were talking about his visit to Colorado in July 2017, when we hiked nine miles to South Arapahoe Peak and back. What was a pretty mellow outing for my 64-year-old father was absolutely crushing for me. "Remember your heart rate was 180 and you kept stopping to rest?" he recalled. "And you almost turned around?"

I'd mostly forgotten. There's a lot about 2017 that I've shoved into the shadows of memory. But it's true — just a little over two years ago, I was at my limit doing the simplest things. By July, I'd been on medication for four months and would insist to anyone who asked that I'd essentially recovered from my thyroid condition. Sure, I was breathing hard. Sure, I'd max out my heart rate while hiking at 2.5 mph. But you should have seen me in January, when I couldn't walk around a grocery store without wheezing.

I fought, fiercely, for every minute of motion I achieved that year. As my health improved, movement became easier, but so gradually that I barely noticed — the same way I didn't quite notice how unfit I became as I grew sick, until I was struggling to catch my breath as I climbed the stairs at home. Thinking about that hike with Dad brought a flood of 2017 memories that I'd so effectively shoved aside — dragging my bike into a ditch off of Flagstaff Road because I genuinely didn't think I'd be able to even push the bike the rest of the way home, and didn't want passersby to see me crying ... planning an eight-hour ride and turning around after 45 minutes because I'd only traveled three miles and I was gassed ... grasping for acceptance that at age 38 I'd used up all of my endurance capital and would now spend the rest of my life straining for short distances at slow paces, and that was just going to have to be okay. I openly talked about finding an "old lady hiking group" to join and help ease the transition. Any motion is still motion, and it's still worth it.

March 2019 photo with Nome's Saturday morning fat bike club, riding through a stream of wind-driven snow.

These memories of battling so hard for motion ... any motion ... reminded me of a fun group I met in Nome earlier this year. During those few weeks when I lived at what to me felt like the edge of the world, I connected with a Saturday morning fat bike club. The leader of this club is a school teacher who had once been a talented runner. I write this in the past tense because he doesn't run anymore. During his first school year in Nome, he was training for the Boston Marathon. His training plan had him running six-minute miles through the Nome winter, in what I think anyone would agree was the worst weather imaginable. One afternoon he went out during a strong windstorm, but it was 10 degrees above zero, "not cold," he said, so he didn't have anything covering his face. The next day, his throat was sore. A couple of weeks later, when the sore throat had only become worse, he finally went to see a doctor. The doctor swabbed his throat and returned with an alarming mass of black tissue. Turns out, he had a frostbitten trachea. Yes, it is possible to literally freeze the inside of your throat.

His breathing has not been the same since. But he can still manage long slow distance and doesn't seem to mind cycling in the cold wind that dominates Nome nearly every day of the winter. We headed out for my first Saturday morning ride into the teeth of an east wind, which had buried the trail in at least a foot of powder. Mostly we pushed our bikes, until we reached a row of fishing shacks about four miles outside of town. I looked at my watch. It had taken us two and a half hours to get there. Beyond the buildings, the swirling ground storm looked like something out of an Everest disaster film — just white chaos into white infinity. We had to shout at full volume just to hear each other over the wind. Any hint of a trail had long since disappeared, and we were bashing through waist-deep drifts, searching for something, anything, on which to ride our bikes. I thought this group was by far the strangest Saturday morning bike club in existence. Who does this? When I voiced the reality of our ridiculous situation to the trip leader, he replied that it doesn't matter how far the group rides each week. Just as long as they ride.

"Moving is winning," he said.

And I thought, "That is the most perfect mantra ever. I'm going to adopt that."

With that, here are the Strava selfies from this past week of training:

On Monday I hit the gym aggressively, as I'm reaching that sweet spot of progression after a long break. But I'm back to pre-August numbers and improving, so I enthusiastically increased all of the upper body weights, then overdid the one-legged squats, lunges, leg lifts, blah blah. I was pretty sore for the Tuesday morning cart pull. But I'm still improving rapidly in this as well, and got my 6.2 miles under two hours this week.

Wednesday, my other town/gym day, is also good for a tempo run at the best loop in Boulder, the Sanitas Swoop (super steep climb, runnable descent.) It was another hot Wednesday morning, by which I mean it was 51 degrees. Despite overdressing for the relative heat, I managed to hold my tempo pace (over 160 bpm for the climb), and snagged a PR for the full loop. These once-weekly tempo runs and the strength training have been surprisingly fun. During the summer I overbuilt my endurance to the point where I receive relatively few endorphins from long slow slogs, but this short stuff generates a delicious hit of serotonin.

The sun set on the warm beige hues typical of late October, and rose Thursday morning to ten inches of fresh snow. Where did that come from? Yes, we're having a particularly bipolar shoulder season, and I'm here for that. I like when nature keeps me on my toes. One of my favorite things to do in fresh snow is trudge to the top of Bear Peak, and I figured I'd take advantage of snowy road conditions to drag a sled for the first time this season.

For ballast I used a bag of concrete that I found while clearing the driveway for our firewood delivery last week. It had been sitting outside in a paper bag, so it soaked up an unknown amount of rainwater and hardened to a nicely-shaped concrete rock, probably in the range of 70 pounds. When I tried to pick up the awkward mass, I could not. "Not to self — add deadlifts to the gym routine," I said out loud as I rolled the concrete boulder into the back of the sled and strapped it down. Seventy pounds is about the weight I drag in my cart, but it goes without saying that wheels on a hard surface are a lot easier to maneuver than a sled through deep, saturated snow. Just tugging that thing up the driveway made it clear that I was in for a tough morning.

The road to the West Ridge trailhead is 1.5 miles long, 1.1 miles of which are a steady and reasonably steep climb. None of my neighbors had plowed or even driven the road as of 10 a.m., so I made first tracks through the shin-deep sludge. The sled tugged so aggressively that I frequently looked back to make sure it hadn't snagged on something. No, that was just how it was going to be. My hamstrings and glutes were searing with rather alarmingly sharp pain. My lower back also strained to the point that I had to readjust the harness and take more on the shoulders. That hurt too. So slow. Such trudge. I put my head down and listened to "This American Life" until I was finally within sight of trailhead, at which time I looked down at my watch. One hour and fifteen minutes!?! This section usually takes 17-18 minutes on my routine runs.

Of course I hadn't even done the fun part yet and wasn't about to give that up, so I dropped the sled, shouldered my regular backpack, and continued the trudge for another 1.5 steep miles to the summit of Bear Peak. The trail had yet to be broken, and it's so rocky that it can be difficult to follow through the snow. I often need to "scout" a step with my hands so I don't slip off a hidden boulder. Which is to say this was all slow-going as well. I arrived at the peak with 2:35 on my watch, and was in disbelief at this point. I don't think this has ever taken me much more than an hour. But, oh, aren't the plains pretty when they're covered in snow?

As a final indignity, when I arrived back at the sled, I found the road freshly plowed by my neighbor. You know what puts up even more resistance than wet, early-season snow? Muddy gravel! At first I tried to drag the sled through the snow berm off to the side, but between the chunk ice and brush, it was impossible. I should have just ditched the concrete block and come back for it later. (Or discretely rolled it down the hill. Kidding, neighbors.) But I was stubborn. I made it home with four hours on my watch, half the day gone, and just incredulous about the whole thing. That was six miles. Six miles! My legs were dead, stiffening up before I even walked into the house. How should I even gauge this workout — fantastic, or so ridiculous that it's contemptible? I suppose for Iditarod training, outrageously ridiculous is the way to go. Moving is winning.

On Friday, temperatures shot back up to nearly 60 degrees. My legs were still so sore that I was zombie-walking around the house, which is what lead to the aforementioned conversation with Beat. But I was so full of energy. Interesting weather and adventure training is like crack for me; I need more, more. I spent the morning working on projects and letting snow melt just so I could go out in the afternoon and take a gritty mud bath with my long-neglected fat bike. The gravel roads were simply slimy and muddy, but the trail was buried inches deep in horrible slurry — think chocolate-colored Slurpee. This trail is doubletrack that drains well, so I didn't need to worry about making ruts, but even the fat tires had no grip. It was like trying to ride up a waterslide. So hard, yet so fun! Really, I wish this bike had a power meter, because even though I was moving slowly on sore legs, this felt like the fiercest 33 minutes I've ever spent turning a crank. The resulting descent was a predictable slush shower. I returned home looking like I'd lost a mud-wrestling match to my own bicycle. I had to hose both of us down before going into the house. Poor fat bike — so undeserving of such abuse.

On Saturday, the heat cranked up even more. The high temperature at our house was 66 degrees, and it nearly hit 80 degrees in Denver. We'd never know it, though, because we'd already made a decision to spend the day snowshoeing on Niwot Ridge. Yet another polar vortex was en route from the north, and the air flow resulted in an extreme temperature variation at altitude and subsequently bonkers wind.

The CU weather station on the ridge would measure this day's high temperature at 25 degrees. As for wind, I'm still waiting for the official data to come through, but from experience I'd say it was consistently blowing 40-50 mph, with gusts to 60 mph. Sixty miles per hour is the threshold where I have a difficult time staying upright, and need to stop walking to anchor both feet.

We knew this going in — we were actively seeking out such nastiness. Becoming more familiar with the wind is paramount for surviving any trip to Nome. The three most difficult conditions that Alaska can dole out are (in my opinion): consistently low temperatures, especially those that drop below -40; temperatures near freezing with heavy precipitation; and winds over 25 mph, which become exponentially more difficult to manage at lower temperatures. It's even difficult for me to rank which weather condition is the most daunting. I have relatively little experience with -40, but the coldest I've ever been was in a 32-degree rainstorm, and the most frightened I've ever been was in a 35 mph windstorm with the temperature just below 0F. Wind is not fun and will never be fun, but I intend to make peace with it, as well as I can. 

Note about this photo: I was not leaning on purpose.
This turned out to be the perfect setting for the season's first wind training, since temperatures were not that low but the wind was about as fierce as it gets. Beat tested out his new wind fleece from Columbia. I wore the old Mountain Hardwear windshield monkey fleece that has been my favorite piece of gear since 2013. It's both bulky and heavy, but it works. It always works. Forty below, 32 and raining, 60 mph winds ... it's always been there for me, shedding frost, expelling perspiration, keeping out wind. This coat is finally wearing thin, and I was bummed about that. This particular coat hasn't been manufactured since 2014 or so, but last year Beat found a new-with-tags replacement on Poshmark of all places. So the newer coat is going with me to Nome this year, and I want to keep it in top condition. The old coat is still impressively effective.

Beat liked his Columbia fleece, and I have to admit that the fact it lacks fuzzy fibers is a plus for scenarios with blowing snow. My jacket breathes well, and escaped moisture turns to frost, which I can easily brush off the "fur." But the fur also captures snow, and becomes quite wet during storms. So that's something to consider as I nail down my gear list.

All in all, this was a successful gear-testing trip. I didn't try anything new, but I was reminded how much I like my goggles, which Beat has retrofitted with a duckbill-like nose piece made of windproof fleece and silnylon. This attachment not only prevents the goggles from fogging, but also allows me to breathe freely without a face mask. I'm sensitive about what I put on my face. I can not do the Cold Avenger mask, for example, because after a few minutes I feel like I'm both suffocating and drowning in my own snot. I prefer to keep air flowing freely while protecting my lungs from the worst of the cold. This is tough to do with any face mask (balaclavas work well for me when it's not windy.) But the goggles are amazing. Seeing clearly and breathing freely into a 60mph ground blizzard — this feels like a superpower.

The upper ridge had been largely blown clear of snow, and I ended up bending the cleat on one of my good snowshoes (grrr) ... but the views were lovely on this bluebird day.

Meanwhile, I was frequently reminded of both the month I spent in Nome, as well as Everest disaster films. I never had my camera out to catch a proper image, but during larger gusts I would see Beat ahead, slumped over with his big backpack or looking back at me through his mask and goggles, surrounded by an apocalypse of blowing snow. The scene was so exhilarating and dramatic. Apparently, it was 80 degrees somewhere not far from here.

By Sunday, the third wintermission of autumn 2019 had closed in. It was 17 degrees with a dusting of new snow when we set out for a relatively quick and easy 10-mile jaunt around the loop at Walker Ranch.

It was a lovely morning with light flurries, softened vistas and silence broken only by the crunch of footsteps on fresh powder. This, truly, is magic. The ability to enter this world and breathe in its beauty without distress feels — these days — like a kind of superpower. I'm so grateful to have this source of strength ... which I can appreciate so much more because it wasn't there just two years ago. But I also recognize it could fade away again, anytime, so I'm seizing each moment and relishing every step.

Perspective is what matters. Moving is winning. Always. 
Sunday, October 20, 2019

Love too much

 As I ramp up training for the 2020 trek across Alaska, I have been focusing more on my "mental game." When approaching any endeavor that's intimidating and frightening and seemingly impossible, the two most important tools in our mental arsenal are confidence and motivation. I am sadly quite deficient in confidence. Motivation I find more easily, but I still need to sharpen my understanding of the "Why" so I can hold the course when things inevitably go off the rails.

Boosting confidence is going to be a long road, but I'm starting by owning my intentions and taking pride in what I objectively know to be absurd actions. When neighbors see me schlepping my heavy cart up the road and ask me what the heck I'm doing, I bypass my standard vague replies such as "strength workout" to answer honestly: "I'm training to drag a sled across Alaska in February."

"The whole thing? The thousand miles? Like Beat?"

"Yes, that."

Confidence is a shallow emotion, susceptible to fluctuations in the currents of life, and I realize I'll always need to work to keep it afloat. I prefer motivation and inspiration because those emotions run deeper, cutting to the core of our humanity and why we do anything that we do. As I go about the task of sharpening my understanding of my own motivations, I started writing down a few of the reasons I want to walk across Alaska in a mere four months:

"Because the thousand-mile on foot is currently the most challenging endeavor I can imagine that I both want to do and could realistically achieve." (Except for it's impossible. Wait, quit repeating that, stupid lack of confidence.)

"Because life on the Iditarod Trail is such an intense and immersive existence, a way to live an entire lifetime in just a month."

"Because Alaska's winter landscape is so heart-rending in its beauty. We all love what we love, but I've never loved a place more. I can't imagine my own life without it."

"Because walking is the slowest, most vulnerable, most self-sufficient and most intimate way to experience the landscape as well as the communities — both the Iditarod race communities, and the residents of this often inconceivably harsh region. Alaska is a beautiful and terrifying place peopled with the most stalwart and generous folks I've known."

"Because our world is changing quickly, and I want to immerse myself in a place that I love and that will likely look very different, very soon ... probably even sooner than I want to believe."

"Because I'm not ready for 2020 but then again I'll never be ready. It's a cliche but undeniably true reality: 'You think you have time.'"

"Because I'm tired of not believing in myself, and I'm tired of being afraid all of the time. I want to grab all of these 'health issues' and 'anxieties' by the throat and tell them they don't matter, that they don't define me, that I'm an autonomous soul driving an imperfect body — just like everyone else — and I intend to pursue that which moves my soul."

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving home from Leadville and listening to Keane's new album, "Cause and Effect," when I stumbled upon the most perfect theme song to use as motivation during training. The song succinctly captured much of what I feel about this endeavor. This truly is not about the shallow emotions. By this, I mean those common assumptions about the benefits of endurance sports that don't matter to anyone else and barely even matter to me — the chest pounding, being a "badass" or "winning," or even about earning anything I don't already have (which I won't.) Rather, the effort to walk 1,000 miles across Alaska is a grateful exploration of an intriguing part of the world, an excavation into the core of what I know as myself, and a simultaneously chilling and comforting embrace of the great unknown. It's about love. And if (when) it goes pear-shaped, that's just another piece of the beautiful and engaging puzzle of life:

From "Love Too Much" —

Only want to say 
that I gave it all I had 
That I felt afraid 
and I didn’t step back 
Whether right or wrong 
I did everything with love
Felt it all, gave it all, drank it all ...

And we make mistakes 
and they make us what we are 
And we jump right in 
Throw open our hearts 
And we catch a glimpse of something magical
Want it all, take it all, got it all ...

With that, here are a bunch of Strava selfies and photos from the past two weeks of training:

On Wednesday, October 9, it was 82 degrees. Weather in Colorado's Front Range is rather bipolar for most of they year, so unseasonable warmth or cold is never all that special. Although I do my share of complaining about the heat, when it becomes a more rare commodity I am known to embrace "second summer." (Doubtlessly there will be more second summers before the end of the month and probably a third summer in November. Hey, I'm here for it.) On this day, I enjoyed a particularly strong sweat on Mount Sanitas before one of my twice-weekly gym weightlifting sessions. One week later, on October 16, it was again 80 degrees. Despite the heat, I told myself I was going for PRs. This is notable because I haven't actually done all that much running since my knee injury in May. For more than five months, my workouts have been more than 90 percent cycling or hiking. So when I logged my third fastest overall time on this regular route, I was chuffed. This was a good confidence builder — to just decide I was going to do something like a fast Santias, and then do it.

On Thursday, October 10, it was 18 degrees. Forecasters had called for this massive cold front to blow in with several inches of snow, but the 65-degree drop in 24 hours was still a shock to the system. I excitedly started to put together my fat bike, but Beat discouraged this activity with reports of wet slush on top of black ice. Also, there were at least 300 car accidents that day in the Front Range alone. Instead I went for a slippy trail run that was a lot of fun, and only marginally dangerous. The strong west wind at 18 degrees felt like burning on my face. I was glad I wore that puffy jacket.

In two weeks I've gotten out for four sessions (soon to be five) with my towing cart, the cruel taskmaster I call "Allen." I'd prefer I was doing either this or sled-dragging thrice weekly, but it's hard when I still want to run and ride bikes and do long runs on rugged trails and lift weights at the gym ... even finding the time, let alone the energy, to do everything I want to do is unrealistic. But the cart-drag is my most activity-specific workout, and for this reason alone I've embraced it as satisfying and meaningful ... even if it is mind-numbing and tedious.

Right now I have Allen loaded with eight gallons of water, which including the weight of the cart is more than 70 pounds that needs to be schlepped up some rather steep grades along the gravel roads near my house. While climbing I'm not even yet capable of cracking a 30-minute mile, and it's still the hardest I force myself to work in any of my activities. I've started listening to podcasts, which is something I've never done during a workout before. I frequently use music, but that's more of a way to enhance the moments and add sensory input to my own thoughts and feelings. Podcasts and audio books really are all about shutting out the present and mentally going somewhere else, but I've been enjoying this activity as I slog through true tedium. Cart-drags have almost become my relax time, where I hunker down and shut off my brain entirely ... and then arrive two or three hours later utterly drenched in sweat with sore muscles everywhere.

The October 10 storm was the first of the season for this region, and Beat and I could sense that the mountains were closing in quickly. Due to avalanche danger and steep aspects that require ice axes and crampons at a minimum, the places we're willing to venture in the winter become much more limited. So the following Sunday, we headed for one last go at a favorite summertime route, the High Lonesome Loop — 16 miles through two lovely valleys with a three-mile scenic connector right along the crest of the Continental Divide.

Even though temperatures were in the 60s in town, this time of year begins the endless katabatic winds and much higher temperature variations in the high country. So even though it had been warm for three days, we weren't entirely surprised to find snow and ice covering much of the trail in the valleys, with a frigid blasting west wind and temperatures near freezing up high. As we battled the crosswind along the Divide, we spotted this adorable ptarmigan who sat right on the trail, looking up at us as though he expected we couldn't see him at all. He finally moved along as we veered around him. I found it cute that his half-changed summer-to-winter plumage still perfectly matched the brown and white landscape.

Conditions were tricky, with ankle-deep patchy snow and enough knee-deep drifts to mask but not prevent uneven footing on the rocky tundra. About halfway over the Divide, at exactly the farthest point from our start-finish, I punched into a drift and hit my shoe awkwardly on a rock, causing my left ankle to roll badly enough that my whole body toppled to one side. There I was, laying with my back in the snow, lower legs still wedged in the drift, knees bent uncomfortably and a horrifyingly sharp pain emanating from my ankle.

Even knowing that I tend to overreact to pain, I was frozen in terror, convinced I'd be crawling off this mountain as the cold wind drained away my body heat. After several minutes I found the courage to belly-roll and crawl out of the snow drift, slowly pulled myself to my feet, and took several tentative steps, gripping my knee with both hands for leverage in case the ankle collapsed again. It remained sore for the rest of the week, but amazingly wasn't sprained. The pain had been intense and I couldn't fathom how it managed to stay intact. The only reason I could extrapolate is that this left ankle has long been the weak one, and I roll it frequently. It's probably so over-flexed from these frequent wrenchings that my ankle tendons are stretched like taffy, and it would take a lot to tear them.

Thanks to the sore ankle, I got back on my bike again this week, and realized that cycling wasn't as hard or painful as the Leadville overnight led me to believe. Another big storm was headed our way on Sunday, so Cheryl and I decided to make one last go at Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, before the snow (The road isn't plowed and only minimally hiked and skied during the winter, so it isn't viable for snow biking unless one is willing to snowshoe in their own trail first.)

A "mini-storm" was forecast for Friday, which brought snow squalls, snain, and yet more breathtaking wind. Rocky Mountain National Park was already in the process of shutting down everything for the season, with most campgrounds closed and only eight miles of Trail Ridge Road still open. The elk and leaves are gone, and it's undeniably shoulder season here ... so we were surprised at the crowds in the park. I suppose many folks, like us, are just trying to get in one last mountain adventure before winter closes in. A man with a southern accent approached us: "It looks like you gals are fixin' to ride those bikes up Old Fall River," he said.

"Yup, that's what we're fixin to do ... if there isn't too much snow and the wind lets us through." So many ifs with me, all of the time. For confidence's sake, I need to just say, "Yup, riding all the way to the top."

The west wind raged through the morning. With the exception of the occasional switchback, it was nearly always a direct headwind with incredible resistance ... almost like riding into a screen door. In spite of this, Cheryl — who is training for the Iditarod 350 — kept a steady pace on her fat bike, and I did the best to follow on my skinny-tire mountain bike. (Admittedly I brought the smaller bike both because my fat bike needs work, and because I hoped for a small mechanical advantage over my better-conditioned friend.)

 Steering my bike into the wind and through snow drifts on the icy and rutted road proved tricky, and I was wishing for something more stable. As we cleared tree line, the hard wind became a full-blown monster, with biting cold and blinding blasts of snow. Later that night I skimmed through weather stations positioned nearby — all below 9,000 feet — and saw high wind speeds of 50mph with gusts to 65. Here are 12,000 feet, hurricane-force (above 70mph) is entirely plausible.

Cheryl and I were only about a quarter mile from the summit when I heard a disquieting roar. Of course the wind had been roaring all day, but this sound was more like a thunder boom, approaching from a distance. I looked up in time to see a wall of snow, almost solidly white, swirling toward us. I have seen such ground blizzards before — in Alaska — and instinctually hopped off my bike and crouched down as snow blasted over my body with astonishing force, scraping the exposed skin on my face and filling air pockets in the back of my coat with powder. When I looked up, Cheryl was on the ground, with her overturned bike just inches from a steep dropoff to the left. She said she "was tossed off the bike like a biscuit" (she recently re-relocated to Boulder from North Carolina, and feels free to keep the southern idioms she picked up in her time there.) Apparently the gust lifted her front wheel off the dirt and the bike reared up like an angry bronco, throwing her backward.

After that incident, Cheryl was justifiably spooked, and we both stopped to wait out the ongoing gusts. We found wind shelter next to the closed building, gobbled down a snack before our fingers froze (I have been on a peanut butter sandwich kick) and stumbled through the drifted parking lot to catch a quick view of the western side of the park. Originally we'd planned to loop back on Trail Ridge Road. We were already deterred by the fact the loop would require spending the next ten miles fully exposed to the fearsome wind, which would frequently come from worst direction (at our side.) Then, while walking across the road, my shoes slipped out on thick black ice that covered every exposed inch of pavement — meaning every inch that wasn't buried in deep snow drifts.

Skipping Trail Ridge Road was an easy decision. Some challenges are good for reclaiming courage, and some are only good for ensuring a concussion. We had a fun, fast ride with the monster at our backs for ten miles, although I lost the feeling in my toes despite wearing vapor barriers, thick fleece socks, waterproof shoes and gaiters.

On Saturday, despite continued assurances of wind and cold, I was determined to do my weekly long run in the mountains. Sunday's big storm was still on its way, and I thought this might be my last opportunity to make my way over the Continental Divide, which is mostly walled in by steep avalanchey slopes in the winter. Beat is nursing a hamstring injury and couldn't join. I'm always a little nervous about venturing into the mountains solo — I pack way more gear under the partial assumption that I will injure myself and have to bivy out a night — but I still left the house with an ambitious plan. Although it was strong maybe, I wanted to loop over Arapahoe Pass and return to the east side of the Divide via Devil's Thumb Pass, which would be 24 miles with 5,500 feet of climbing. On rocky terrain, for me, this would be a good full day in summer conditions. I had no idea what I'd encounter this weekend.

The Friday storm had dumped three to four inches of snow here. Wind continued to rage, blowing powder all over the place. The trail was sometimes scoured, and otherwise buried in knee-deep drifts. I was expecting warmer temperatures than Friday, but my car thermometer read 22 degrees at the trailhead, and it never felt warmer than that, right up until the end. Above tree line, gusts to 50mph were the norm, and I often had to clamp my eyes shut as shards of ice pummeled my face. I strongly regretted leaving my goggles at home.

Despite the show-stopping headwind and tricky snow conditions, I made reasonable time to Arapahoe Pass — four miles and 2,000 feet of climbing in 90 minutes. My loop still seemed doable, but then the western side of the Divide brought even deeper drifts and completely untracked snow. The Caribou Pass trail dropped off the saddle and followed an extremely narrow ledge flanked by cliffs and steep drop-offs. It was exposed, and doubtlessly would have scared me in summer conditions. Now I had to deal with deep, unconsolidated snow over invisible ice and uneven rocks.

I wanted to be brave. I needed to something, anything to add to the confidence arsenal. I assessed each footstep, envisioning where a slip might end up. When I worked to quiet the screaming anxieties and access the logical side of my brain, I could observe how these footsteps were mostly secure. But progress was truly glacial, and if I turned off this focus for even a second, the acrophobia screamed so loud that I felt nauseated. Meanwhile, the cold headwind never abated, adding to my instability and fear. And I was moving so slowly that my mittened fingers and well-insulated toes went completely numb. How do mountaineers do it? Climb so methodically in such cold and windy weather? This continues to baffle me.

Eventually, after this intense focus had softened, I had a mishap. My microspike-clad shoe slipped on an unseen rock beneath one of those off-camber drifts, and my body lurched sideways. I didn't fall, and it didn't happen on one of the more exposed ledges, but it was enough to shatter my weak courage and break the final straw of my resolve. If I lost my balance and fell over on an exposed ledge, focus and courage and confidence in my footing would mean nothing. It would be the end, either way. Not worth it. I'd also been sufficiently rattled by the wind and cold, and my eyes burned from being scratched by snow shards when I couldn't keep them shut amid the gusts ... because I didn't want to fall. Training in the mountains is scary. Can't I go back to dragging my cart?

I retreated and made my way back to the relative calm of the valley, but was still determined to continue my long "run." So I turned onto the Diamond Lake Trail that would take me over this minor ridge and down into Devil's Thumb valley. The wind continued to rage and temperatures remained low. This photo looks so nice, but there's no snow on the ground because it had all blown away, and it was very cold up here. I was in a constant battle with my layering, sweating and shivering and wheezing for air. Breathing into the cold wind without sufficient protection absolutely affects my lungs, causing asthma symptoms. I should have been more proactive about covering my face early on.

I did make it to Devil's Thumb Lake, which I had turned into a secondary goal for the day. It's interesting to recall how I felt as I stood here, crouching beside brush that I was using as an insufficient wind block and gazing over the new lake ice. I felt addled — drained of energy — and yet exhilarated, satisfied and happy. It's the way I often feel in Alaska, as though I truly reached beyond myself to reach this place.

Then I made my way back, as late afternoon and the all-too-early shadows of evening settled in. I still ended up with as much climbing as my loop would have necessitated, 5,500 feet in 18.5 miles, and this effort still required more than eight hours on my feet. The numbers are inconsequential. I gained far more training value from the mountains and from the wind — the tricks of the mind where I can find courage, but also the utmost importance of being "measured" in my decisions. Also, I gained renewed perspective from a full day in this cold wind: How I can embrace the harshness of it, find comfort in spite of it, and eventually feel at home. 

... Then we love too much 
Or we push too hard 
Or we fly too high 
Or we go too far 
For a moment I was all that you could see 
For a moment I was all that I could be
And nothing can take that away from me ...
Saturday, October 12, 2019

Bikes won't love you forever

 Over the summer, thanks to limitations brought on by an MCL strain, I developed a solid base of cycling fitness. This came together for me in a satisfying way during the Summer Bear race, where I held on for a finish when 75 percent of the field didn't. I stepped off the bike that warm and sunny morning in early August, still feeling strong even with 200 miles and 38 hours behind me ... and then proceeded to stay off the bike for 11 weeks. Okay, there were a couple of casual hour-long rides in mid-August. But by then, my knee was mostly recovered and I redirected my focus toward hiking ambitions, which led into three bike-less weeks in Europe, where I injured my wrist, followed by three weeks of recovery. Just like that, two whole months drained away, along with all of my cycling fitness.

 I wasn't all that confident that my wrist had recovered when Betsy and Erika invited me on an overnight ride to a high-mountain hut above Leadville, but the trip sounded too fun to resist. Betsy's route came in at 80-90 miles with a jaunt through aspen groves on the Continental Divide Trail, followed by a long climb up to Weston Pass. The following day we'd tour around Turquoise Lake and ride back toward Twin Lakes on parts of the Leadville 100 course. It sounded fairly mellow, and a great way to see some autumn color that I'd chased the previous week without much success, and that would soon be gone.

I arranged my stay at the hut while I was still en route from Wyoming, and stayed up past midnight piecing together my long-neglected bike and bikepacking setup. Shameful confession: Few things irritate me more than bicycle maintenance, and I nearly backed out of the trip when I couldn't coax the rear tire to hold air ("I'm not going on a bikepacking trip with tubes," I moaned to myself.) But, finally, around 8 a.m. the following morning, I gained tentative confidence that the sealant was going to hold. The bike still had clunky shifting and an irritating squeal from the front brake rotor during slow climbs (it would squeak frequently whenever I was moving between 3 and 4 mph, but never at any other speed, including slower speeds.) But during my extensive test ride, which took place between 8:07 and 8:13 a.m., my sore wrist felt fine. I was ready!

We met up at 1 p.m. and started our trip on the far side of Twin Lakes, hitting the singletrack first. This was a rude awakening on a loaded bike. The trail isn't terribly technical, but there are just enough rocks, roots and steep dips in and out of drainages to disrupt any sort of flow, which in my rusty state would have been tough to achieve on pavement. So I bashed into tree branches, swerved, dabbed and hiked a fair amount, holding everyone back — although Erika admitted she was also struggling to find a good flow. It took us nearly two hours to cover the first seven miles, after which it had become rather late in afternoon. 

"Interlaken! It's just like the one in Switzerland!" Well no, not really, but it's fun to see some of the mountain tourism traditions that crossed over the Atlantic in the late 1800s.

 We faffed around some more looking for dirt routes to bypass the highway, and it was solidly early evening by the time we began the 10-mile, 3,500-foot climb to Weston Pass. The late-day light cast a lovely glow on golden leaves and auburn rock. Temperatures were still warm, and a reasonably stiff tailwind remained to whisk us up the pass. Ten-mile climbs are normally my kind of thing, so I was looking forward to kicking back and spinning easy while enjoying effortless views.

 But the views were not effortless. I don't think we'd even done two miles of the climb before my right quad muscles began cramping. Soon this required stepping off the bike to remove pressure from the leg so I could shake out the cramp. As soon as the cramps started, all of my power drained away. I began to wonder whether my quads had slept all through the past 11 weeks. I suppose hiking up mountains mostly demands strength from glutes and calves. You engage your quads to brake during steep descents, but it's not the same kind of strength required to pedal a loaded bicycle up ten miles of steady grades above 10,000 feet.

 I struggled, and walked a lot. Dignity drained away with the fading remnants of leg strength. Stupid quads. Stupid bike. I was fairly good at pushing my bike, though. I'll give myself that. I usually gained speed when I finally gave up the battle to turn pedals and commenced marching with purpose. Thank you, hamstrings that I've been working to strengthen recently. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

 We arrived at Weston Pass Hut just as the last hints of sunlight faded from the tips of the mountains, around 7 p.m. Positioned just a notch below 12,000 feet, the hut has lovely views of the surrounding Mosquito Range, as well as full exposure to the fearsome gales of this altitude. Although the air hadn't felt cold until the final half mile (of hiking), I was close to frozen by the time I wheeled my bike inside the spacious building.

 Being used to more rustic accommodations at BLM cabins in Alaska, I wasn't expecting the luxurious amenities offered here. There were four bedrooms with beds and sheets, two wood stoves, two propane cooking stoves hooked up to a main fuel line, solar-powered electric lights and even a USB charging station. We'd carried up all of our water for the overnight stay and cooking, believing we wouldn't find any on the pass. But then the kitchen contained a half-dozen five-gallon jugs full of water. There was a winter's worth of firewood chopped and stacked in the back. I'd brought my 0-degree sleeping bag and a whole bunch of winter clothing that I wouldn't need, either. Ah well. Good weight training? My quads just balked.

 We had a fun night, drinking hot chocolate and ginger tea, and telling Alaska stories as we warmed our bodies by the wood stove. We were eventually joined by another party of five people who drove up the road in two trucks, bringing a huge cooler full of food and beer. They warmed up delicious-smelling chili, brownies and other goodies that they didn't share with us (not that we hinted or asked), but it did cast a bit of a sad pall on our bagged backpacking meals.

Morning was a little rough, after spending a night at 12,000 feet. I slept reasonably well, but woke up with a throbbing headache that I could only partially tamp down with three cups of coffee. Having frozen myself so unsettlingly on Timpanogos a few days earlier, I came massively over-prepared for cold weather, knowing the low in Leadville that night was supposed to be 21 degrees, and we were starting 2,000 feet higher and riding into the wind, which raged through the night. I shouldn't have fretted so much about this. Even without much leisure to our morning, we didn't get out the door until close to 10 a.m. By then the wind had calmed substantially, and temps were probably above 40 degrees. I was embarrassingly overdressed, and had to strip layers all through the long descent.

 It was a lovely Saturday morning, though. The autumn color was past peak but still beautiful. I was glad I at least caught a glimpse of it this year. For various reasons I've mostly missed out on Colorado's famous golden groves for the past three seasons.

 During the descent I noted that my hand was only slightly achy, and should be fine for another day of riding. More concerning was my backside, which was already emanating sharp "sit-bone" pains if I planted my butt in the saddle for longer than three or four minutes at a time. For this trip I'd gone with my usual — baggy hiking pants and no chamois cream — because I normally don't need special considerations for my backside, and don't like to deal with the moisture management that those considerations necessitate. But after two months out of the saddle, I noted that this was the wrong decision.

We churned into the wind through the wide-open valley for several miles before turning toward Turquoise Lake, which was another lovely spot with rolling climbs and descents. Normally this is my favorite type of motion, but any enjoyment was overshadowed by a growing amount of pain, as well as continuing creaky annoyances from my neglected bicycle. I thought back to a few past rides with Beat, and some of his struggles during these increasingly infrequent outings. I always brushed off his complaints because he's so much stronger than me in most situations, so I never understood why he'd lag behind on a bike, or why he seemed so miserable at times. Now I get it. You need to ride bikes to enjoy riding bikes. Otherwise, they feel like mostly unnecessary torture machines. I could be running this trail ... why do I have this bum-battering hard-to-steer heavy wheeled thing with me ... and is this actually me thinking this ... who have I become?

This was a 60-mile day, and the last 20 were rough. I chose to do most of my pedaling out of the saddle, which was deeply fatiguing to my already tired legs. I started complaining openly to my friends about how I was going to stash the bike in the woods and run the rest of the way. I went so far as to do some math in my head, but realized this remained a ridiculous proposition with 10 miles to go. In the end the final miles weren't as hard as I'd feared, and we made it back with plenty of daylight. We even had time enough for tasty dinner and future trip scheming in Leadville, although I was surprised how broken I felt at the restaurant — headache, sore lower back and shoulders, spasming leg muscles, wincing every time I had to sit on hard surfaces.

This trip was fun, beautiful and fully ego-destroying, and I appreciate everything about it. This has been a necessary reminder that I need to work every day for my passions. Love can't persist in a void. And fitness never lasts.