Wednesday, November 27, 2019

When the prep is harder than the trip

 My friend Erika had an intriguing proposal: Four days of bikepacking through the Utah desert, averaging 75 miles each day, pedaling through beautifully corrugated and intimidatingly remote country along the eastern rim of Canyonlands National Park. Although long pedaling days aren't necessarily in my training plan right now, nor is my conditioning ideal for 300 miles in the saddle, I couldn't resist. It looked like the timing would be perfect as well, as I'd be traveling to Utah for Thanksgiving. "And the weather will be nice," Erika reasoned.

A harrowing winter storm warning in Colorado convinced me to drive out to Moab a day early. This extra day would also allow time to hike in a water cache for our third camp, at Murphy's Hogback on the White Rim. I schemed and planned and headed out, meeting the front end of heavy snow and then rain on the western side of the Continental Divide.

For the trip I borrowed Beat's Why Cycles Wayward, a 29-plus rig designed for loaded bikepacking and rugged terrain. It comes equipped with dynamo hub lights and a bulletproof frame bag, and is just an all-around fun and capable adventure bike. I've been eying it greedily since he got it, but never asked to borrow it, because Beat frequently accuses me of stealing and subsequently abusing his bikes (and he's not wrong about that.) But when I mentioned I was thinking about bringing the fat bike to deal with all of the sand, it was Beat who suggested I try out the Wayward. Of course I couldn't say no! I got all of 45 minutes of test riding during a hurried sunset ride on Tuesday, had Beat mount a wonky old rack to accommodate my many pieces of comfy cold-weather camping gear, and headed out Wednesday morning.

Heavy rain pounded the windshield for much of the drive from Vail to Grand Junction. This should have been discouraging, but I had fixated on taking one more test ride with the bike. I remembered from prior runs that Rabbit Valley was fairly sandy, and thought I might be able to find a short, rideable section of trail along the Colorado-Utah border. I unloaded the bike and started pedaling with a plan to turn around as soon as I hit mud. The rain had already tapered off, and the initial jeep road was fast and enjoyable, with hardpacked sand and relatively few mud puddles. From there I found the Western Rim trail, which was gleeful fun — a thin ribbon of sand and slickrock tracing the rim above the Colorado River. This trail had a few more mud puddles, but nothing terrible. My pants were barely splattered.  After 13 miles of smile-inducing riding, the sun came out and hubris set in. I scrolled through my map and noticed that this trail came out on the Kokopelli Trail, which I could use to loop back to another connector just north of the freeway. Loops are always better than out-and-backs. Plus, I figured the jeep roads would be a faster return than the singletrack.

 For two or three miles the Kokopelli was sandy and fast, but then a more clay-like surface took over. The tires began to bog down in gloppy mud, but it was still rideable, and I felt committed by this point. As the trail slowly snaked up the valley, conditions went swiftly downhill. Soon the road was covered in a white mud speckled with marble-sized pebbles that peeled off the tires as I rode, pinging me in the face. I fretted for the drivetrain, but my anxiety was unnecessary, as the mud began to clump against the frame until I could no longer spin the crank at all. The freeway was still more than three miles away. I pushed the bike all of a hundred meters, shoes slipping through the mud as they collected pounds of clay, and then the wheels seized up. Nothing left to do but hoist the bike onto my shoulders, hunch over, and hike.

 What a nightmare. I constantly had to pick up the bike and put it down, because my shoulders ached and I hoped to find a pushable surface (nope), and because my clay-caked shoes had less traction than a pair of skis smeared in butter. I slipped and crashed down onto my knees multiple times, crying out as sharp pain rattled through my kneecaps. Then the pain refocused to my lower back as I attempted to stand with the clay-coated bike still pressed against my shoulders. At one point I went down and thought about staying down — just curling up in the mud and waiting for it to harden again, even if it took days. I felt utterly stuck. It may have only been a couple of miles to the freeway, but if you're anchored in place, the distance might as well be infinite.

The hopelessness launched me into a dissociative trance, one of my deeper coping mechanisms usually reserved for tough endurance efforts. I imagined myself as an Egyptian slave hauling a sandstone block for the pyramids, hunched and strained with rope cutting into my shoulders, sweating in the heat. Through this haze I realized that I was actually quite cold, having gotten soaked in the rain, and now barely moving through the slop. It was too much effort to put the bike down and put on my rain shell, my only extra layer.

Somewhere in this haze, where I did manage a little bit of pushing and even some downhill coasting, I reached an underpass of I-70. My plan had been to access the pavement at all costs. It was nearly dark and I wasn't thrilled about riding the Interstate at night, but it was only three or so more miles, and even getting mowed down by a semi seemed preferable to the mud purgatory. But I found that the entire access point was lined with barb-wire fence — the standard in open cattle country. Plus, the jeep road had become somewhat more rideable. With renewed hubris, I continued on the dirt.

I actually did manage some riding, and a bit more pushing, when it started to rain again. The road pitched more steeply uphill, and the surface condition was almost quicksand — foot-sucking clay that swallowed a shoe and left me teetering on one leg with a wet sock suspended in the air, still trying to balance the bike. When I managed to get the shoe back on and take a single step, I'd slide backward the length of two steps, nearly dropping the bike as I flailed to keep my balance. Progress was truly, literally impossible. I put the bike down and stared bewildered at droplets falling through the sky, reflecting the light of my headlamp in a way that made them look like deadly icicles. I really was going to spend a night out here. Right next to a freeway. Two miles from my car. How weird is that?

This realization ignited a hot rage that renewed my flagging strength. Screaming like a crazy person, I put the bike down and shoved it through the grass. The wheels weren't turning; it was like pushing a dresser through the mud, but it was moving. The grounded bike gave me the leverage I needed to walk. In my headlight beam I saw the sign for the state line, "Welcome to Colorful Colorado," and scoffed out loud. Just as my rage energy began to fade, I reached the barb wire fence lining the freeway. Smooth, hard pavement was only 20 meters away. The fence was only waist high, but flimsy. It was risky.

"What's the worst that can happen?" I thought. "Tetanus shot?" I picked up the bike and attempted to lift it over my head, but my shoulders went limp. The muscles were done — too many repeats of lifting the bike over my head to balance it on my shoulders. If you do enough overhead presses, eventually you can just not do anymore, not matter how much you want to. I thought back to my experiences during the Race Across South Africa in 2014, when I was constantly convinced that the next 10-foot game fence was going the one that finally broke my failing arm muscles, but that never happened. I took comfort in that memory, growled and screamed some more, and finally lifted my bike to the other side of the fence. As I turned to lean it against a pole, my headlamp beam caught the most unlikely break — a California license plate, bent lengthwise in half, hanging over the top wire of the fence. It was just the thing I needed to balance my weight with one hand as I hoisted my legs over the wobbly spiky wires. Finally! Something goes right!

I still had to push the muddy dresser to the edge of the interstate, gauge the distance of the truck headlights barreling toward me, sprint through the cloak of darkness with my anchor in tow, cross the deep muddy gully of the median, stair-step the bike up a virtual wall, and sprint across more lanes of traffic to reach the shoulder of the eastbound highway. I stopped at the Welcome to Colorful Colorado sign and tore clumps of mud off the frame, flinging them angrily behind me. Let that shit stay in Utah where it belongs. Even after removing dozens of handfuls of mud, the wheels still barely rolled. Thankfully, most of the final two miles were downhill.

 I know a lot of this story sounds exaggerated for effect, but it's hard to overemphasize just how beaten I was by this recreational "just to break up the drive" jaunt before my big trip. Back at my car, alone in the dark in the Rabbit Valley parking lot, I stripped off all of my mud-caked clothing and slumped onto the drivers seat in my underwear, not wanting to deal with anything. But I knew I had to address the mud ASAP. That stuff doesn't just go away; the Ancestral Puebloans made pottery out of this mud, some which has been found intact 800 years later. I had four gallons of water that I planned to hike into Canyonlands the following day, so I dumped all of it on the bike while gently scrubbing with an old towel. That did absolutely nothing, besides coat other things in mud. All I could do was shove the bike in the car and continue onto Moab. "Beat is going to be so annoyed with me," I thought.

I was super bonked, having embarked on an expected 90-minute ride that turned into more than four intensely strenuous hours with no snacks or dinner, but the first thing I did was drive to a car wash. My hands were shaking as I picked up the hose and turned it on the low-pressure setting. There I spent the next 45 minutes working at all the moving parts with my towel and frequent three-minute intervals of spraying. I got the bike looking reasonably pristine, lubed things up, and rode it around the parking to check the shifting and brakes. All seemed fine, so I could turn my attention to my broken body. My knees were throbbing, and had become alarmingly swollen. My back and shoulders were deeply sore. What a great way to start a 300-mile bike trip.

 Of course, before that happened, I still had that water carry to complete. This didn't necessarily have to be done — our 75 miles from Moab to Murphy's Hogback would end at a dry camp with no water along the way, necessitating a two-day carry. But it's a cool time of year, and we could have been conservative by leaving stoves behind and skipping cooking and hot drinks. Still, that's all of the fun part of cold-season camping. So I washed my containers, which like everything else were coated in mud, and refilled them with 3.5 gallons of water. I started my 12-mile hike at Murphy Point, at the edge of Canyonlands' Island in the Sky. Along with my own supplies and a bit more survival gear — because you really never know when you'll have to spend a night out — the pack weighed a little more than 40 pounds. Could be worse, but with my sore shoulders and knees, it proved a particular burden. The trail off Murphy Point was precipitous, snaking down a veritable cliff with sheer drop-offs, occasional wooden platforms, and steep step-downs from boulders. Bruised knees were angry, very angry, but I took it as slowly as possible. I also took heart in the fact that it was a beautiful day and a rather nice hike, anchor notwithstanding.

I reached the Sunday-night campsite and placed my cache, along with my permit from the national park that required I return for it, lest I receive a fine. From there I looped back on the White Rim road connecting with Murphy Wash, which was also lovely. The climb out was steep but not hard, being mostly unweighted as I was. As I made my way back along the mesa, harrowing dark clouds gathered overhead. Driving back to Moab, I encountered heavy rain, than hail, then a thick and icy sleet as the temperature dropped to 33 degrees. Rainwater cascaded down the pavement like a stream. This did not bode well. Not well at all. Southeastern Utah hadn't seen rain in more than two months, and the sudden series of deluges were sure to mire our bikepacking trip in death mud. I couldn't even think about it; the memories from the previous evening were still too fresh and traumatic. I couldn't think about tomorrow. 
Monday, November 18, 2019

The goal — keep moving

“Let routine take command of feelings.”

I recently came across this quote by Antarctic skier Felicity Aston, and it seemed like another perfect mantra for someone like me, who is inherently motivated by emotions but also seeks to transcend self. If I’m going to make it to Nome, I will need a solid routine. I intend to strategize the details, but the broad picture is a minimum daily mileage. I won’t achieve those miles every day, but I will need to make up for them. This means banking distance when the going is good, but also staying in motion when it’s decidedly not. If I manage my rest well (and rest is always the most difficult thing for me to achieve during an endurance endeavor), then the only conditions that should stop me are those I consider too dangerous, such as thin ice on the rivers (waiting until daylight to look for a better way around), white-out windstorms along the featureless Bering Sea coast, or waist-deep snow similar to what Beat encountered in the Interior in 2015. My personal “danger zone” is not something I’m willing to compromise, so hopefully I’ll bank enough time for wiggle room.

New snow and a low cloud ceiling from Flagstaff Summit on Monday
The distance to Nome on the Northern Route is approximately 970 miles, give or take 30. The Iditarod Trail Invitational sets the maximum finishing limit at 31 days. This is both a hard cutoff as well as smart practice. With a March 1 start, 31 days stretches into April. By late March 2019, flowers were practically blooming in Nome. The melt rate was alarming. In the ITI, we’re not just racing a cutoff — we’re racing spring break-up. And break-up seems to come earlier every year, even as 2020 brings the latest possible start for this race.

The cutoff demands we cover 50 kilometers a day — 31.3 miles — at the bare minimum. I can scarcely contemplate this, as I drag my cart uphill at 2 mph. It’s so hard not to focus on failure math. My 2018 walk to McGrath is still too fresh in memory … all of the pain and struggle to slog out those miles, through the wind drifts and fresh snow, wheezing, straining and almost literally tearing my legs apart in the process (It’s true. It would take months to fully recover from the muscle soreness.) When I’m willing to be brutally honest with myself, I’ll admit that walking to McGrath in 2018 was physically more difficult for me than biking to Nome in 2016. I was destroyed, and I hadn’t even covered a third of the distance to Nome. What was my average distance per day that year? 35.8 miles.

A gorgeous, perfect day ... and I was on my way to workout indoors at the gym. 
Can I really endure three times what I had to endure in 2018, back to back to back? Well, no … truly no. Which is why I need to convince myself that I can and will be stronger. I do believe I’m quite a bit healthier than I was in 2018. My health stats are in a much better place — heart rate, blood pressure, thyroid levels, expiratory flow rate. My breathing has drastically improved since this date in 2017. My exercise tolerance is better as well. A glance into the Strava archives to see what I was doing on Nov. 18, 2017 revealed a “run” with Beat, where we planned to descend Bear Canyon and climb the much steeper Fern Canyon for an eight-mile loop. But I arrived at the bottom of Bear too weak and wheezy to risk Fern, so instead I turned around for a slow hike back up Bear Canyon. I can’t believe that was my fitness level at this point in ITI prep two years ago. Things are so much better now.

Of course I still need my mostly-the-same body to do the hard work. Training seems like a difficult balance of quickly building strength while shoring up mental and physical capacity for endless hauls. Grizzled veterans such as Beat and Tim Hewitt tell me that the walk to Nome is 90 percent mental beyond McGrath, that it gets easier. I’m a skeptic. They’re naturally stronger and more athletic than I am; their standard pace will get them much farther than mine. I’m working with a fairly basic engine and build. The Toyota Corolla who wanted to run the Iditarod.

Moonrise over the plains as I made my way home. I was stoked on my gym session, and happy I stuck to the routine.

And yet I still want to do it. I feel a zing of electric anticipation every time I think about how difficult and fully encompassing the experience will be … that is, before the focus on failure math kicks in. Still, to be that immersed in an adventure, for an entire month … and in an election year, no less. I can’t wait to tune out all of that.

Of course anything can happen. I recognize that no matter how well I try to prepare, the odds are still against me. My friend Cheryl has another good mantra — “you have to enjoy the process.” And I certainly do! It’s been several years since I’ve been so immersed in adventure anticipation, and I love it. My endurance endeavors may ultimately be frivolous, but they’re so meaningful to me. Everything about them — from strategizing gear to embarking on wild adventures in the name of training — inject new and satisfying purpose into my day-to-day routine. This week was another good week of training. I made a number of improvements during two strength sessions, and logged 67 miles on foot — all of them quality miles, in my opinion — either dragging the cart or tackling tough terrain.

With the exception of Monday's snowstorm, it was fairly warm all week. A plan to meet Beat in town on Wednesday gave me an excuse for a six-hour run on a circuitous route through the hills. I put in a Zone 4 effort on the climbs, knowing I'd probably end up foregoing my tempo run this week, but I felt strong. No real fatigue, only a little bonkiness toward the end because I only had three granola bars in my pack (just oversight on my part. I usually eat lunch before an afternoon run, but because I started at 10 a.m., the granola bars turned into my lunch, and then the tank was empty.)

I even had some time to kill when I hit town, so I veered up the Anemone Trail to explore an unmarked route up and over to Sunshine Canyon. The afternoon sun was in my eyes, so I missed a vital intersection and ended up dropping most of the way into Boulder Canyon instead. I've entirely avoided this canyon since a massive construction project began earlier this spring, so it was interesting to see the blasting zone and the changing shape of rock formations along the bike path. That path is now closed to pedestrians for the entire winter, blocking one of my favorite routes to town. I hoped I could use this secret trail as a bypass on foot, but was informed that it's blocked by private property at the western end. Boo.

On Saturday, Beat took some inspiration from my Anemone misadventure and promised to show me the correct trail by way of the entire Boulder Skyline. The Skyline is an iconic Boulder adventure showcasing the five dominant peaks over town. Anemone is more of a minor ridge and not usually included, but it does offer an opportunity for a sixth ascent. Beat drew up a route that only required one mile of out-and-back trail to access South Boulder Peak, so we could string together the peaks without repeat on a 24-mile, 7,300-feet-of-climbing loop. His route was even 90 percent singletrack, with only two miles of road-running along Sixth Street. The weather was again downright hot during the day, with 73 degrees for a high and a gusting breeze from which we were usually shielded. It was a grand day out. 

Since we were doing the Skyline, we of course had to document all of the peaks. Our first mountain was Green, via Green-Bear and West Ridge trails.

We donned the microspikes for a couple of miles of death ice on EM Greenman, then hit Flagstaff Summit. The actual high point of this flat-topped ridge remains elusive, but we're pretty sure it's the top of this boulder that lacks a great foothold to climb all that easily. When you're out for a leg-battering eight-hour run, a bear hug with the top is good enough.

We ran down Flagstaff Trail pretty hard — I think I got a PR, which isn't saying much, as I'm a painfully slow descender. But I was feeling a little woozy as we pressed toward Sanitas, so I crammed down half of a ham sandwich during the brief breather we managed while walking through Eben G. Fine park. Then it was another hard effort up a crowded Mount Sanitas in the heat of the day, drenched in sweat and using all of my free breaths to force down sips of water. Beat took off like a shot down Lion's Lair. I made my best effort to keep up, but I was feeling lightheaded. I caught my feet on rocks a couple of times, narrowly saving several falls. "Ah, I'm slurring. I need to pick up my feet," I thought. Just a few minutes later, while I was purposefully focusing on improving my stride, I again managed to catch a foot and this time launched into a full Superman — both feet in the air as I instinctively jettisoned my trekking poles down the precipitous slope. I smacked the ground hard but didn't skid, so I was spared from trail rash, or somersaulting down that steep and rocky hillside. It was difficult enough to climb down and retrieve the poles where they stopped at least 50 feet away ... I was grateful that I'm not a roller. So it wasn't as bad as it could have been, but my left leg and arm were throbbing. I felt like I'd run at full speed straight into a wall, which is what I did in a horizontal way.

Suddenly it felt like I had 80 miles on my legs rather than 12. I stumbled the rest of the way down the trail and slowly shook it off, semi-recovering just in time to meet Beat for a hard push up the secret Anemone ascent. It was indeed a fantastic ridge route with sweeping views of the plains and two canyons. I managed to cram down another half sandwich, and resolved to keep calories trickling in for the remainder of the run. Limited glycogen definitely affects my already precarious motor control.

The rest of the run was a good exercise in recovery after a crash ... both energy crash, and literal crash. I don't remember if there was ever a time in life when I took my hits well, but they certainly don't get easier with age. My left thigh and elbow were bruised, and a goose egg bulged from my scraped knee. But I limped along until the impact lessened and the bruises started to go numb, and then gained a satisfying second wind. We hiked and jogged the long, rolling approach to Fern Canyon. Then, with a mere four miles to go and yet two more peaks to climb, we faced the full punishment on a direct ascent that gains almost 2,000 feet in a mile. There's a kind of meditative rhythm in such a difficult march. "Hurts so good," I said to Beat. I meant it.

Beat on top of Bear Peak. A cold wind picked up as temperatures dropped into the 30s ... no longer so toasty out. We layered up as the sun set over ominous-looking clouds to the west.

And, finally, we tagged South Boulder Peak. That gash on my shin happened when I impaled myself on a branch while climbing over deadfall along the ridge between Bear and SoBo. Beat, ever the chivalrous partner, rushed back to stomp the dead trunk into the ground and break off excess branches as I hopped on one leg and moaned. That one hurt worse than the trail crash. Shin injuries ... ugh. Trail running is just so hazardous. Beat teases me about returning to the Tor des Geants someday to avenge my long-standing DNFs with Alpine mountain races ... but I fear I wouldn't even survive the training. 

Last light fading as we descended SoBo and turned toward home. It was a full, fun day despite the scrapes.

I woke up Sunday with that familiar "hard impact with ground" pain radiating from most of the left side of my body. It's good for the mental fortitude to make peace with that sensation, so I didn't hesitate on our plan to head to the higher mountains for a snow hike. I chose Heart Lake as a destination because it was "short" (nine miles round trip), "easy" (2,300 feet of climbing) and "popular" ... so perhaps we'd have packed trail.

These characteristics are all true in July, but things are decidedly different on a cool, blustery day in November. The recent weather patterns that create balmy conditions in town also draw gale-force winds from the Continental Divide, so this area was slammed with frequent gusts topping 60mph. Temperatures were just below freezing, as evidenced by the ice clogging my drinking water hose. This canyon held more snow that we were expecting after the long dry spell — probably because it had all blown down from the Divide. We passed more than a dozen skiers descending as we climbed, but all recent tracks stopped at a trail intersection only two miles from the trailhead. We located the summer trail and nice dust-on-crust conditions. But route-finding became difficult, and there were still several narrow bridges we need to find so we could cross over a thinly frozen South Boulder Creek.

Beat did well with the route-finding, but we both went deep into slog mode and sort of forgot to put on our snowshoes even as we post-holed through knee- and sometimes thigh-deep snow. The crust conditions would have made any sort of footing tricky. We could walk right on top of it at times, but when we broke through we crashed into deep rock hollows that might have trapped snowshoes.

Beat at Rogers Pass Lake.  I thought it was weird that none of those Sunday skiers made their way up here — there was no evidence of tracks anywhere. Then again, the fearsome wind was already erasing our deep postholes. They'd be invisible within a matter of hours.

I insisted on climbing the wind-scoured hillside to Heart Lake, "for photos." Beat insisted on only sticking around for a few seconds.

Still, he teased me about continuing up the steep hillside to Rogers Pass or James Peak. Along these scoured ridges, we could see streams of powder peeling off the polished and likely rock-hard snow crust. The flow rate convinced me that winds topped 100 mph up high. I imagined our tiny microspikes and dull-tipped trekking poles digging into the hard ice, our only anchor on a 40-degree slope buffeted by these blasts. "No thanks. I choose life."

One aspect of intense weather that I often appreciate is the way it distracts from nearly every other physical discomfort. I didn't notice how much my shin was hurting until we started the descent, where the wind was at our backs and I was constantly scraping against my own postholes. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. The November light was lovely, though, even if it is pretty much evening by 3 p.m.

For the hour-long drive home, we were bedazzled by the tumultuous sky. Snow-covered mountains reflected crimson hues as the setting sun painted wind-whipped clouds with mesmerizing light. It was gorgeous in all directions; we finally stopped the car to take this one photo, but it was a stunner throughout. So worth it, Beat noted, and I agreed. To think we could have spent Sunday sitting at home just because we were tired and trail-battered.

Just keep moving. It's always worth it. 
Monday, November 11, 2019

And then, third summer arrives

My mind has been so much more at ease this week than last, when I couldn't shake the jitters and couldn't conceive how I was going to survive four more months of pre-Iditarod anxiety. For my own purposes of coping with an unruly mind, I consider it just another shift in chemistry. Perhaps this week's mild weather helped, though. As usual, the typical structure of seasons just doesn't matter and Colorado weather is all over the place. It's not unlike my moods in that regard, and I find the wild shifts to be oddly comforting. Bring on third summer.

Training continues to go well. I did two cart-drags and two strength-training sessions this week, and feel like I'm making good progress. I especially enjoy the cart-drags for their meditative quality. I listen to podcasts, but in truth I probably only spend about 40 percent of the time actually "listening" to podcasts. More often, I'll pick up an interesting tidbit and run with it, creating extensive stories about these real-life characters or imagining myself in similarly far-sweeping scenarios — trekking across the thin ice of the polar ice cap or working in a grocery store in inner-city Chicago. Honestly, this is the aspect of walking to Nome that I'm most excited to explore ... the mysterious landscapes of the unruly mind. After just two to three hours of strenuous cart-dragging, it already starts to get a bit weird.

On Wednesday morning, Cheryl invited me to join her on one of her structured cycling workouts as she trains for the ITI 350. I've long resisted structured training ... I'd rather be free to do what I want and mediocre than restricted but slightly less mediocre. But I certainly understand the benefit of purpose-driven workouts. Where my goals require me to be a less mediocre version of myself — such as successfully reaching Nome on foot — I really do aim for more structure. I'm also coaching-curious, and perhaps interested in taking on such a challenge — working with a cycling coach — should I ever return to the Tour Divide. So I was interested in observing one of these workouts.

It was a gorgeous morning — 55 degrees and clear — when we headed to South St. Vrain Canyon for a couple of tough 45-minute intervals. My cycling fitness is still not superb after a two-month break, and I've been so focused on strength and long, slow, hard efforts that I don't have much of a high end right now. Cheryl just about shut me down during the supposed warmup. "I'm already in zone four," I gasped as I sped to keep up with her. "I'm going to have to slow down for the intervals."

We did our intervals, complete with coasting cool-down, all the way to the top of the canyon. Just as we started the descent, a frigid wind started to blow up-canyon — east winds are almost unheard of here — accompanied by ominous storm clouds and a stunning drop in temperature. Within minutes, 55 degrees became 35 degrees. We were pedaling downhill into a hard wind, but not hard enough to stave off a painful chill. Both Cheryl and I were silently but concurrently thinking, "If it starts raining, I think I might cry." The sudden change felt like a summer thunderstorm more than a winter storm, and I was on the lookout for lightning and "thundersnow." There was no electricity, but this storm was still highly unpleasant. You only get this depth of full-body cold pain from long coasting descents — I've never experienced such a sensation when running or hiking. As we neared Lyons and I could no longer feel my arms, I admit I was also silently thinking, "I'm so glad I don't have to cycle-train through a Boulder winter."

By late afternoon, temperatures were in the low 20s with freezing drizzle and heavy fog. Temperatures stayed below freezing through Thursday morning, and everything was covered in a sheen of glare ice. Road and sidewalk conditions were treacherous. Fog was still thick in town. But the sun was out over the clouds, and I thought it would be a beautiful morning for my weekly tempo run.

I headed to Mount Sanitas, wearing the too-big spiky shoes that Beat talked me into (because microspikes aren't so effective on verglas.) It was 28 degrees and foggy at the trailhead, but I could see the clouds beginning to break overhead, and was excited to climb above the inversion. I went hard on the steep climb, stooped over and using my hands much more than usual to boost traction on the ice-coated and unbelievably slick boulders. But I was — in the way I often am on Sanitas — single-track-minded with my speed goal, and subsequently fearless. It was so invigorating. I was sweating up a storm in my thin shirt and capris despite below-freezing temperatures. I managed to snag my second-fastest time on the climb, just 10 seconds slower than my PR, which for the record is 28:35. I'm trying to get it below 27 minutes before the season is over — not easy to do in winter conditions. #goals

Come Saturday, record heat was in the forecast and I was all in for this welcome bout of summer of November. I told Beat I wanted to ride my bike all day, but did my usual sleepy Saturday morning, after which I only had about seven hours of daylight to work with. Still, it had been so long since I embarked on a long solo ride, where I just turned pedals and daydreamed and aimed for the far-reaching landscapes where my legs could take me.

I targeted a hilly loop with 7,500 feet of climbing in 50 miles. Patches of ice and mud remained, but for the most part it was warm and dry, even at 9,000 feet. I didn't even need to put on a jacket for the 4,000-foot descent into Boulder, where the temperature at 3 p.m. was nearly 80 degrees (official high of 79F, a record.)

I was in bliss for all of the six hours I was out there, feeling only the slightest tinges of discomfort when it was time to pedal up The Wall on Flagstaff Road, my longtime nemesis. But it was a great ride — tapping my unruly mind's pleasure system with long grinding climbs and exhilarating descents, and waving at the hundreds of folks I saw out and about. I'm not even fully exaggerating here — I passed 13 runners and hikers on County Road 68J, which is this remote nowhere jeep track where it's rare to see anyone. The numbers of runners and cyclists only increased from there, and by Sunshine Canyon there were cars parked up the road for miles. There must have been 200 people on Mount Sanitas at once. Parked cars were blocking the lane on Flagstaff. As a cyclist, I sometimes had to throw a foot down and just wait for passing traffic to squeeze by. It was ridiculous, but in a good way. Everyone wanted to enjoy this beautiful summer day, and I can't blame them.

Temperatures were still toasty on Sunday, but Beat and I wanted to get out for a mountain adventure. We'd already observed most of the snow blown away from our favorite ridges, and I wanted to see something new, so I suggested Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park. To reach the upper portion of the basin, we'd need to hike 16 miles with about 3,000 feet of climbing, which can be a stout distance in winter conditions. Usually you're lucky if the first two miles of trail are tracked out, and trail-breaking in snowshoes is often a 1-1.5mph affair. As such, I created a GPS track to a far-away lake, but suggested a half dozen shorter alternatives.

Having frozen at least somewhat on every Colorado mountain hike I've embarked on since August, I overdressed and carried way too many layers. We could have done this entire route in T-shirts; I don't think temperatures dropped much below 40, and it was sunny with almost no wind. Trail conditions for the first four miles were good — well tracked by national park visitors seeking out Ouzel Falls. The first couple of miles were icy with bare dirt patches, followed by decent packed snow.

Of course, after the turnoff we still had four more of the steepest miles to go. Conditions deteriorated to punchy sugar snow, and then there was no trail at all. Beat was gung-ho to break trail, but lost enthusiasm when we realized we were dealing with a breakable, icy crust covering a seemingly bottomless vat of sugar — the kind of snow conditions where you punch shin-deep into icy shards and then the tips of your snowshoes become stuck under the crust. Awful stuff. I was at my strength limit just following behind Beat, usually punching in several inches deeper into the print he'd already broken. I'd also neglected to download the correct GPS track — which I had drawn up to begin with — so he had to do all of the navigating through this bewildering maze of wooded slopes and rocky outcroppings.

We were indeed moving at 45-minute-mile pace and drenched in sweat. The forest closed in, and beautiful mountains loomed just beyond view. It always seemed like the scenery goods were right around the next corner, though, so we kept moving.

I do love giving Beat a GPS track, because if there's an established "finish line," you can bet he'll reach it. And we made it to our outlying goal, Lion Lake. Yay!

Soaking up sunshine in front of a frozen Lion Lake and Mount Alice, which is on my list of peaks to climb ... someday. On this day, we couldn't linger long at our hard-sought reward. It was already nearly 2 p.m., and we had to beat feet downhill to race the declining daylight ... which disappears so quickly this time of year ... as well as rapidly deteriorating snow conditions. I struggled even more with the descent than I did with the climb, as the bindings on my snowshoes kept loosening when my feet became stuck under the crust, often throwing me forward into a face full of icy snow. By the time we returned to the lower elevations, a substantial amount of snow had melted in just the few hours we were up here, and even the well-packed trail had become punchy.

No worries about summer being the new winter here, as we're back to single digits and fresh snow on this Monday morning as I type this quick weekly training post. I hope to write a more substantial blog post about gear and race goals soon. But I know, whatever. No one reads blogs anymore, so putting all of that in writing is mostly for my own benefit. It does help me, though. My chattering mind would be all over the place, otherwise. 
Monday, November 04, 2019

Winter closes in

All of my favorite weather happened this week, and yet stoke fell flat. I couldn't quite understand the reason. Maybe fatigue? Is the strength stuff is starting to wear me down? Not enough protein? The skin on my upper legs and ankles broke out in a rash, which I've come to associate with an unidentified "flare" of sorts that brings other symptoms, including occasional breathing difficulty, moodiness and increased anxiety.

Whatever the reason, I was weirdly anxious this week. It started with the insidious polar vortex. You'd think I'd be a fan of polar vortex, but I'm really not. These atmospheric ridges that push Arctic cold down toward the center of the continent, where I live, create unseasonably warm weather for Alaska and the fire-stricken Pacific Coast. I empathized with friends in California affected by these wildfires, while more selfishly tracking weather systems over Alaska. If the cold doesn't settle in soon, Alaska rivers won't freeze properly, which could cause unworkable conditions along the Iditarod Trail. I'm already bracing for the probability of a warm and wet March across Alaska, which would carry a high likelihood of damp misery, wet-snow slogging and macerated feet.

I know it's useless to fret about such things at any time — especially in late October — but I almost couldn't help myself this week. My primitive brain was weirdly affected by nebulous negative energy, and not all that amenable to my conscious positive suggestions. One night I had an anxiety dream about one of the scariest places I know, which is the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, shrouded by pre-dawn darkness during the 2014 ITI. In my dream, like in my memories, I was walking over the black ice of the river and I could hear water rushing beside me. When I turned my headlamp toward the sound, I could see the cascade of black water, gurgling out of a lead in the thin ice. The crack was widening. It was about to consume me. Then I awoke in my bed in Colorado. My lower back and legs were damp with sweat. The bedroom was unbearably hot. It was 3 a.m., and only 2 degrees outside.

A few days later, I read a news story that unnerved me, about a school teacher from Colorado Springs who was lost on Mount Shavano during that same cold night that brought my anxiety dream. He wandered through the night, losing a shoe at one point, but kept walking because if he stopped, "my life went away from me." He made it down to his truck and called 911, so he did succeed in self-extracting and surviving. But by the time the news story came out on Friday, he'd already had both of his legs amputated below the knee.

"That is a severe case of frostbite, for just one night," was my first thought. But I continued to ruminate on the story, imagining the scenario that might have a person much like myself chasing a mountain a little too late into an early-season winter day, losing a trail normally familiar to me, being lost and confused after dark as temperatures dipped well below zero, and feeling the life force drain out of me as I stumbled along, losing hope. Margins are so thin in these environments, and one error can spiral out of control with alarming speed. As a maker of mistakes, I try to bolster my own margin for error  — beyond the obvious spare layers and emergency bivy gear, I carry a GPS with spare batteries to avoid getting lost, and a satellite messenger beacon with two-way communication. But any loss of self-sufficiency greatly reduces one's odds of survival. I could see myself in this scenario, and it was unnerving.

 This week had a whole lot of good in it, too — beautiful snowy scenery, lots of time outside, and all of my training efforts went well. I wrote the preface to this post because darkness occasionally persists, anyway. It casts a shadow over the most beautiful vistas, chattering away about everything that can go wrong — in my adventures, in my life and the whole world in general. Learning to recognize the nebulous shadow and make efforts to battle it will be an important part of my training, too. Because when it closes in while I'm alone and scared, it will be that much more difficult to vanquish.

With that, here's my week in training:

 Monday morning brought another fresh coat of snow and temperatures around 10 degrees. This is the best winter cycling weather, so I pulled out the fat bike purely for fun. No one had been out to break trail at Walker or Meyer Homestead, so this turned into a solid strength workout with an element of agility — often hidden ice or rocks underneath the powder caught me by surprise. It was so lovely, though, that I didn't mind churning along at 4 mph or swerving erratically until I finally threw a boot down to bike-ski for several meters.

 By Tuesday, the polar vortex had encompassed most of the flyover states, and the Denver-Boulder metro area was right in the center of its cold, snowy heart. All kinds of October temperature records were broken. By Wednesday morning, Boulder officially measured the most snowfall from the storm — 13 inches. Beat worked from home to avoid the commuter mess in town, so we headed out in the morning for a sled- and cart-drag. It was 8 degrees with light snowfall. In the absence of sunlight and accompanied by a stiff breeze, the humid air felt especially brisk. In the interest of training with something more realistic than 70-plus pounds of concrete pressing against a tiny surface area, I loaded up a duffel with six gallons of water in one-gallon jugs. This, sadly, is probably close to the weight that my Nome sled will hold. It was heavy.

 Beat dragged Allen the Taskmaster through the fresh snow. The road was recently plowed but had its own layer of glare ice underneath dry powder, which was incredibly slippery in unpredictable patches. Beat took two hard falls in a row (I didn't witness them, as he was way ahead of me) and turned his ankle, resulting in swelling and bruising. I slipped in the same spot and did a single-footed boot ski for at least ten feet before I caught some traction, amazingly without falling over.
 On Wednesday morning, October still wasn't over but our neighborhood was encompassed by solidly mid-winter conditions. The overnight low at home was -2.2F — and it's rare to see subzero here at any time of year. I planned to meet Beat in town at 4 p.m. and wanted to travel there on foot. There's a 14-mile route that's mostly trail with around 2,500 feet of climbing — most of that in the first four miles — which usually takes me about three and a half hours in dry conditions. How long would it take today? I gave myself five hours, but should have sprung for six.

 On the West Ridge of Green Mountain, not a soul had passed through since the 13 inches of fresh snow. This is a trail I know well, but it became difficult to locate at times. This was Wednesday and I didn't yet know about the man lost on Mount Shavano, but I'd think back to breaking trail on Green as I visualized his situation. You can believe you know a trail like the back of your hand, but when the facade of familiarity is buried, you realize you don't have a clue.

 The going was slow through the fresh snow, and I was frustrated about that. I found it almost impossible to boost my heart rate over 130, even as my quad muscles quivered and burned. My legs felt like they were on that edge of seizing up, yet my breathing was calm and I had plenty of energy to burn. I decided the endeavor was a good practice in patience for now, and limits for later. In a race like the ITI my legs will be just as tired, all of the time, and I won't have the excess energy to waste on feeling frustrated.

 The familiar view from the top of Green Mountain was so lovely. There was only one track descending the Ranger Trail, and it was the first of its kind I've ever seen on Green Mountain — an alpine ski track! Green almost never has enough snow coverage for skiing, and even when it does, it's a steep and heavily wooded slope with abundant boulders and drop-offs. Thirteen inches of powder over dirt with that many hidden rocks was difficult to navigate even with my slow and well-anchored feet. I was in awe of this person defying gravity to weave through every obstacle, threading their way down the hidden trail with improbable precision. Kudos to you, fearless skier with one hell of a pair of rock skis. Thanks for showing me the way.

 The trail-breaking continued for most of the miles to town ... Chapman had only old ski tracks, mostly buried under the fresh layers of powder. Tenderfoot was untrammeled, and Flagstaff was sprinkled intermittently with footprints ... probably because a lot of snow was raining down from the trees, amounting to more sunny-day accumulation. By Gregory Canyon I was wholly exhausted, and had only 15 minutes to run to Beat's office, which was 3.2 miles away. I called him about meeting up at Gregory instead, but I think he was worried about making me wait in the cold, and told me he'd wait for me at work. I made my best effort at running, truly. My legs were heavy and tired, and the sidewalk conditions were far from ideal — mostly they were a mess of stirred-up sandy snow, with the occasional ankle-deep slush puddle, or bumpy ice. I still arrived in 30 minutes, with ice cubes tangled in my untied shoelaces and a single base layer drenched in sweat at 20 degrees ... only to find Beat annoyed that I'd taken so long and didn't answer my phone, which I didn't hear, probably because I was breathing so hard.

Photo by Eszter
I front-loaded the week with too much snowy fun, so Thursday and Friday contained many chores and also two gym weight-lifting days in a row, which was probably a bad idea. Yet I still couldn't pass up an opportunity to ride bikes with Scott and Eszter, who were in town for an oh-so-brief visit before escaping to New Zealand for four months of Southern Hemisphere summer. They don't love winter the way I love winter, as you might imagine. Yet they were the ones who suggested a ride up Sunshine Canyon on this 35-degree day. This surprised me, because I can't imagine a more frigid activity than descending 3,000 feet over 9 miles on a low-geared mountain bike when roads are wet and temperatures are near freezing. Of course I agreed.

It was a fun ride up, and I hardly noticed the effort as we chatted about my and Scott's childhoods in Salt Lake City, as well as the latest endurance cycling gossip. At the top of Gold Hill, we stopped to add layers. A few seasons of winter cycling in Boulder have taught me to carry the kitchen sink for winter rides — coasting for 45 minutes with a 30 mph windchill in temperatures near freezing is truly the worst pain I've experienced in any workout here. There were times that I'd show up at Beat's office almost in tears, unable to move my arms, and he'd have to make me a hot cup of tea. Of course you can put on six or seven extra layers and it's still not enough. It's never enough. But after we suited up, this descent wasn't so bad. Eszter, who is originally from Boulder, called it "fairly to moderately miserable" and said it wasn't anywhere near the top of her list of worst descents from "Hypothermia Canyon."

By Saturday, temperatures were creeping back toward normal — 46 degrees, which is still below normal for November 2, felt unseasonably warm. I did a three-hour cart-drag. Soft mud and packed snow added to the resistance, and the effort was harder than I cared to admit to myself. I came home and couldn't find much in the way of mental energy for writing, but tried anyway, because I should not be so tired after three measly hours. Maybe I am pushing myself too hard in my strength workouts, and should try backing off for a bit. Still, I am just getting started, and I have less than four months now to become so much stronger than my current state of fitness. What to do. What to do.

 On Sunday, the plan was to head up to Brainard Lake for more wind training. The forecast called for 35-45 mph gusts in Ward, which usually means 60+ at higher altitudes. I was dreading this excursion. My state of mind was soured by thoughts of the man who lost both of his feet to frostbite because of a mountain, as well as a weird situation with a friend who posted a vague but alarming Facebook update and then went missing. As far as I can tell that situation still hasn't resolved, but there are indicators that he's currently all right. Still, I was thinking about this for much of the day. What if?

 It was, indeed, a brutally windy morning. I was having a tough time breathing amid the fearsome headwind as we trudged up the snow-covered road toward Brainard Lake. Temperatures were warm though, about 37 degrees at the trailhead, and all of my wind layers were doing their job by blocking so much of the chill that I was sweating heavily. But if I pulled down a zipper or face mask to vent heat, the result was instantaneous flash-freezing.

 Above Brainard Lake, we set to the task of breaking trail. Beat enthusiastically did all of the hard work, which was considerable with deep powder in the trees and a breakable crust near treeline. I remained grumpy, complaining about the stiff bindings on my "rock snowshoes" and proclaiming that I didn't feel comfortable with the force of the wind. Bracing against gusting crosswinds left me convinced that I wasn't leaving this mountain without taking at least one end-over-end tumble. Hopefully it would happen somewhere soft.

 As expected, the unobstructed wind above treeline was almost unworkable, a heaving and unpredictable force that I visualized as wrestling with a ghost. The tundra was mostly scoured, but there were still frequent drifts to contend with, so we tromped over the rocks in our purpose-intended, already-beaten-up snowshoes. We also didn't feel fully comfortable stopping to take off anything, even snowshoes, for fear that they would blow away before we could secure them to our packs.

 Such is the difficulty of managing anything in such strong winds — you can't stop. You really can't. I learn this in new ways each time I venture into the wind. One of the most enduring lessons was crossing the sea ice on the Iditarod Trail in 2016 — completely exposed to 35 mph winds at -5 to 0 degrees. First, I realized that stopping to drop my pants and relieve myself let the cold cut so deep that it left me in physical pain, so I stopped drinking water to eliminate this need. Also, during one of those excruciating bio breaks, I anchored a bike pedal in the ice and turned my back on my rig for about ten seconds, during which time the wind managed to spin the bike and capture a semi-loose bag of trail mix that must have weighed more than a pound, along with a Snickers bar, some fruit snacks and a chapstick, and whisked them all into oblivion. That was all of the food I had out for the rest of the day, but I wasn't about to open up my bike bags and risk losing anything else. I had to keep moving. Such is the demand of the wind.

 Here, on these wind-scoured Colorado mountains, my biggest fear is that I'll lose my balance and start tumbling over the rocks, or take a long slide down a snow field. Gusty winds moving at freeway speeds one moment and only half that speed the next are highly destabilizing, especially for someone who feels unstable in the best of conditions. So I did not want to continue beyond the lower ridge, and Beat agreed it would be a ridiculous mission. Earlier this week we had talked about summiting Mount Audubon. It seems doable when memories of August are still fresh, but becomes highly ridiculous in the face of reality just a few months later. It might as well not even be the same mountain.

 Instead we headed down toward Mitchell Lake, where the wind was relatively pleasant in the trees ... again, perspective is everything, because the wind hadn't improved much from the morning, when weather stations were measuring 57.5 mph gusts down in Ward.

Overall, I'm actually pleased with how this week of training went. It was difficult, I had some low points, and I'm tired ... but what training would be effective if I never felt tired? I know it's important not to overdo it, but there are limits I need to push. It probably is better to explore them now, still months out from the event. I'm already feeling better, because the Brainard wind training was an exhilarating adventure. My rash is clearing up, so I'm hopeful this short "flare" is also subsiding. I hope my friend is okay. I don't quite know yet, but I reached out in the only way I can right now. And I also believe the injured school teacher will be just fine, based on his last status update:

"Trying not to feel two defeeted."

If I ever survive an ordeal like that, I hope I'm still in high enough spirits to make Dad jokes. Or whatever it takes.