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. 


  1. There are a few of us left who still read blogs. I for one would love to hear about your gear...I'm such a novice at solo outings and need any all the help I can get. And your adventures make me feel like a complete house plant! Cart drags, snowshoeing thru punchy sugar-snow, the things you do for fun! You and Beat are two in a hundred million for sure!

    1. Maybe I'll convince Beat to write the gear post. He'd be much better at it than me. But thank you.

  2. Spiky shoes? Tell me more. I too am sad nobody reads list of blogs I read is dwindling as people give up. I used to have lots of PCT ones to look forward to, but people are now vlogging. Which can be interesting if they show the trail and not just them holding a selfie stick, but most vlogs are so long. Who has time for that? I miss reading blogs.

    1. Studded running shoes ... there are a number of brands out there. I use an old pair of Salomon Spikecross. Now called the Speedspike, and Beat tells me they're still quite good. Microspikes are just too aggressive for a lot of the mixed ice conditions we get around here, although the studs aren't enough if you're on sloping glare ice. It's a balance as always.

      And yes, I continue to be bummed about the slow death of blogs as well. I don't do YouTube and don't have much of an attention span for podcasts either. Even as my own captive audience on a cart-drag with nothing else to distract me, I still manage to tune them out and daydream instead. I enjoy reading, and it's coming in shorter supply as more of the better publications put up paywalls (and I fully support paying for journalism, but I just can't afford to pony up several dollars for every single article I read.) There is still an endless supply of interesting books out there, of course.

    2. Now they're called "Snowspike" and something. I would recommend trying to get a hold of the SpeedSpike CS which are no longer made, but have more and more prominent spikes compared to the new ones.

      Here's a good review of the current model and mention of the old (IMO better) model:

      Alternatively put spikes in yourself. You can use either ice racing screws (great grip, come out eventually but they're cheap:

      or, much more expensive but reusable and won't come out (and are carbide):
      (they have multiple stud kinds but the 3000B are pretty good size and prominence).

    3. I use Icebug running shoes as they fit my feet a bit better than Salomons. I got mine pretty cheap on Sierra Trading Post. I also like the Kahtoola Nano-Spikes which are similar type spike to the ones integrated into shoes but fit over your regular sneakers like microspikes.

      Re: Paying for journalism I recommend checking if your library subscribes to some of the publications you enjoy. Our library in Juneau has a New York Times Digital subscription so everyone can read the Times online for free and many other newspaper and journal subscriptions can be read through the library website for free. A few you still have to go to the library to read for free but it's still a great way to cut down on a few of the costs and then you can pay for the ones you really want that the library doesn't have.

  3. I read every blog post completely and would seriously miss you if you quit!

  4. "We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect."

    Anais Nin

    “Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.”

    Louis L’Amour

    Jeff C

  5. I, too, read all your blog posts and thoroughly enjoy your writing as well as your photographs. Yours is the only blog I consistently follow and I would most definitely miss it if you stopped! Your writing inspires me to get outside at every opportunity and to plan my own adventures. Thank you for the gift of your writing!

  6. Jill, I found your blog when you were riding the Continental Divide Race in 2009. I rarely miss reading your posts. I am always blown away by your writing, photography and physical endurance, especially in the past few years. I usually feel too inadequate to comment, but I would certainly miss "Jill Outside", if you were to stop blogging.

  7. I still read you blog and drool at the adventures (I say adventures - you would likely say 'Tuesday'). The narrative and the photos are always amazing. Thank You and please never stop. I have been reading since Juneau.


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