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 ...


  1. Solid training there!!! Only delusional people are genuinely confident in the face of giant endeavors.

  2. I agree as well. I'm mainly aiming for confidence in my ability to make good decisions and take care of myself in frightening and difficult situations, which will then boost my willingness to approach them at all rather than just quit, as I nearly did before the sea ice crossing in 2016.

    Also, although I will never carry any delusions about certainty of finishing, I do want to gain more confidence in my physical abilities, so I don't travel down that spiral of "it's impossible anyway so why even bother?"

  3. Great post on multi levels! Confidence defined for myself lately is the intention I apply to a given quest knowing my abilities and listening to my inner feedback to make good decisions in real time as conditions change while exploring and trying to expand that narrow space between the bright edge and dark edge of experience.

    Jeff C

  4. As an endurance athlete, I have long been of the belief that confidence is overrated. Audacity is the quality we need. You have that.

  5. Those song lyrics are perfect.

    You're training is so impressive and well-rounded. It's funny because I totally see myself in all that you say about fear and lack of confidence, and then I look at what you're doing and realize how far apart our fears are! Thanks for always reminding me how much more there is to reach for.


Feedback is always appreciated!