Sunday, January 26, 2020

Momentum lost

 Monday morning, 12 hours after we finished the Fat Pursuit, we woke up to 18 more inches of snow that fell overnight. U.S. 20, the only road in and out of Island Park, had been closed in both directions with no estimate on when the highway would reopen. We were sharing a rental house with a half dozen other people, and the news that we were snowed in did not incite panic until we realized there was no more coffee in the house. Never mind that we also had no real food. Coffee was the real emergency. We made our way over to a nearby convenience store.

"Last time they closed 20 in both directions, it took a week to reopen," the store owner casually observed. I filled a 32-ounce jug with brewed coffee and bought them out of refrigerated burritos.

I hadn't slept well on Sunday night — my lungs were filled with gunk and I was up most of the night coughing. Still, despite having only slept a grand total of five hours in three days, I felt surprisingly okay. My quads weren't shredded as I'd expected them to be. My back and shoulders were hardly sore. My feet were in near perfect condition. My head was a muddled fog of sleep deprivation and my short-term memory was shot, but if I was forced to walk another 30 miles that day, I probably could have done it. This seemed a good place to be in terms of fitness for Nome.

Of course, I was grateful that no one was forcing me to walk 30 miles that day. Instead, I thought I'd get to spend the whole afternoon eating burritos, drinking coffee and swapping trail stories with my fellow storm refugees, several of whom finished the 200K course on bikes late the previous evening. But I forgot that my housemates weren't children relishing in an unexpected snow day; they're adults who had everywhere else to be. The house was filled with a low-energy panic, fretting, and a mass exodus when a short weather window opened.

A rumor spread that highway patrol was letting nonresidents who were stuck in the area travel south on the closed road. Beat and Daniel left first, followed by the 200K bikers, and then Danni wanted to go ... she was my ride to my car. The weather window looked tight ... yet more snow was on the way and it did seem possible we could get stuck here all week. Reluctantly, I packed up my uneaten burritos, and Danni and I made a run for it. She dropped me off at my car, which was again completely buried with snow, and we caravanned down the closed highway. The road was icy and eerily empty, with blowing snow obscuring visibility. A liter of coffee did little to slice through my brain fog, and I was convinced my own vision was blurring. It didn't feel remotely safe. The radio warned of more closures south on I-15. I made it as far as Idaho Falls and booked a hotel room.

 I managed to score more coffee and stayed awake as long as I could to finish up some work, which continued as I made my way farther south on Tuesday — driving for an hour, pulling over somewhere to work and drink caffeinated beverages for a couple of hours, repeat. My plan all along had been to return home via Salt Lake City so I could visit my family, because I have that thing in Alaska on the horizon and ... you know ... you never know. Sometime during a fitful sleep between Monday and Tuesday, congestion really clamped down and I couldn't stop coughing. I pulled over at a Subway and succumbed to a coughing fit as I was trying to order a sandwich. I had to run outside, nearly threw up, and then I was so embarrassed that I just left.

By the time I reached my parents' house, my voice was gone. I couldn't even regale them with the story of my race, which was endlessly frustrating. My mother rushed to heat up soup and set up a humidifier as my dad dug any possible flu remedy out of the medicine cabinet. I have to say, if you're already recovering from a 100-mile foot race and catch a virus on top of that, it's pretty wonderful to be in a spot where mommy can take care of you.

 I really thought this was just a simple cold — a few days' worth of laryngitis and coughing, and then I'd be fine. It may have turned out that way if I wasn't exposed to it while my immune system was suppressed by the Fat Pursuit effort. I also probably made some poor decisions with the stressful drive followed by a Wednesday morning outing, snowshoeing with my dad. But what can I say? I took Nyquil and slept like the dead for 10 hours, and when I woke up I felt amazing. My legs were a bit stale, but they didn't hurt at all. My voice was still gone, but the cough seemed to have loosened up some. And it was a most beautiful day in the Wasatch Mountains — bluebird skies, fresh snow, calm air and pleasant temperatures. Dad broke trail through knee- and thigh-deep powder along these steep side slopes that made me nervous, but he's been here many times before. I wasn't at my peppiest, but I didn't feel too bad. I was certain this was going to be a quick recovery.

On Thursday morning I opted to head home a day early, to try to beat another big winter storm that was forecast to sweep across Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. I didn't really start to feel bad until the drive was nearly over. But my condition made a significant turn for the worse on Thursday night, and by Friday I struggled to get out of bed. Walking up the stairs, I felt like I was carrying a massive pack up Mount Everest, struggling to breathe through blocked airways.

For the next week I grappled with one of the worse upper respiratory infections I've experienced ... coughing so much that the muscles in my chest and abdomen were wracked with pain, propping up my thousand-pound head on multiple pillows so I wouldn't drown in sputum, dosing with Nyquil just so I could sleep fitfully beside piles of tissue, and generally feeling like my world had ended, like I'd never be healthy again. Oh well; I had a good run while it lasted. Please spread my ashes on Lone Peak.

That over-exaggerated but still real despair also tore into any confidence I'd gleaned from Fat Pursuit. "Sure, I finished okay, but if a mere hundred miles could take me out so completely, what hope do I have for anything more?" I wasn't so bothered by the fact I couldn't exercise for a week ... I've been at this multiday endurance stuff a long time, and I understand well that once I'm about five or six weeks out from a big event, the buildup window has mostly closed. I was, however, alarmed by the sudden and near-complete helplessness. It became clear how fragile I am, and how weak I can be once this thin veneer of experience and determination peels away.

Similar to everything that has happened over the past few months, I tried to turn it around and determine what I've learned. Interestingly, this illness brought the same lessons I learned from a mud-caked ride outside Fruita in November, when my bike bogged down in wet clay and I had to carry and drag it through slippery slime for most of four miles. The death mud taught me humor in the face of frustration and rage, and it also taught patience. I must accept that this is just how it's going to be sometimes — I am going to be hopelessly bogged down and forward motion will seem impossible. But because forward motion is the only choice — in death mud, in death colds, and in life — I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. If it's not going to immediately kill me, then it's endurable. And if it's endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.

Finally, today — two weeks past the Fat Pursuit — I felt well enough to join my friends Cheryl and Kate on a Sunday morning fat bike ride on the Sourdough Trail. My chest and abdomen are still deeply sore from all of the coughing, so I haven't been able to muster for a run. But this was a good prompt to get back on a bike after two full months away. Yes, I haven't ridden a bike since I rolled to the finish of my White Rim tour in November. I have no regrets. This was an important period of buildup for Idiatrod prep. My lack of pain during the Fat Pursuit was a testament to solid conditioning, which can only be earned by hard time on my feet.

Still, it was fun to get out in the snow today. It was very windy — it's always windy here — but the 35-degree temperature felt downright summer-like in the sun. I'm still dealing with congestion and tried to keep a low-effort pace, to be nice to my lungs — easier said than done on a narrow, off-camber and steep rolling trail that is often inundated with snow drifts. My heart rate spiked on a few of the climbs, but it was good fun. It felt like my strength and energy was finally returning. I realize I've only been sick for two weeks, but this was still a relief.

It has been a dizzying shift of momentum, in the span of a mere two weeks, to go from a hundred miles of hard sled pulling, to barely able to climb the stairs without feeling faint, to spinning comfortably in the saddle after a two-month break. Life changes quickly. I am grateful for it all, really. 

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