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. 


  1. "But I also recognize it could fade away again, anytime, so I'm seizing each moment and relishing every step."
    Oh, as I push 70, how that resonates with me. It has long been a mantra and should be recited by all movement freaks, not just the your story of physical ups and downs reminds us.
    Never quit moving....
    Box Canyon Mark, currently "moving" through the sandstone domes and canyons of Southwest Utah.

  2. Beautiful Jill. Sure makes it hard to take a recovery day......

  3. Yes, moving is winning but don't forget that rest and recovery are as important a part of training as the training itself. Don't forget to take time to let your body recover and grow stronger!!

  4. What a fantastic training week you had. I can only imagine a week out in the mountains like that...your pictures really set the scene! It was a joy to read.

    Jeff C


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