Sunday, February 09, 2020

Weather whiplash

We're three weeks out from the Iditarod, which means Beat and I are officially tapering. This final training block since the Fat Pursuit has been disappointing, to say the least. After more than two weeks of a death cold, there hasn't been a lot of time to squeeze in long runs. My gym visits lapsed for too long and I lost a lot of ground; now my twice-weekly weight sessions leave me quite sore the following day. Setbacks are bound to happen in a training effort this long, but I was a little discouraged.

Overall, though, I feel about as healthy and strong as I could hope. When I'm doing the thing I'm training to do, which is dragging a sled through the snow, I feel relaxed and energetic, not overly burdened or bored in the least. It's encouraging enough. It's funny, though, as the Iditarod approaches, I feel increasing reluctance to do anything hard. Go to Niwot Ridge and battle 70 mph winds, or sit at home by the fire? This weekend, I surprised myself by picking the sit-at-home option. I justify this with all of the many things I'm still trying to accomplish in the three weeks I have left. But there's also only so much comfort left, and I want to soak it up. Once February is over, I'm likely to be uncomfortable for a long time. 

Life at home has been interesting enough, as Colorado does its Colorado thing with amusingly bipolar weather. On Groundhog Day - 02022020 Palindrome Day - Superbowl Sunday, Boulder topped out at 75 degrees! We joined our friend Daniel for a real trail run on his home trails in the foothills west of Denver. At least, I showed up believing we were going for a summer-style trail run, because it sure felt like summer. But there was still plenty of ice and snow in the woods and along north-facing slopes, not to mention a lot of slick mud. Beat took a solid digger while we were side-hilling a particularly steep slope coated in bulletproof crust. Just as he was talking about how his shoe studs weren't all that effective and I was thinking about ice axes, both of his feet shot into the air and he landed on one side. After that, I was overly cautious. I slid down one icy chute on my butt. 

And yet, when we climbed up onto another ridge bathed in sunlight and a hundred percent dry, sweat streamed down our foreheads and it was easy to forget that it had ever been winter. I wholly enjoyed this 75-degree day, but running in those temperatures does skirt the edge of uncomfortably hot. 

It's no wonder that the Rocky Mountain marmot saw his shadow on Sunday, and thus no surprise that our six (probably closer to 12) weeks of winter returned with a 63-degree drop in temperature on Monday. It was 12 degrees with 3-4 inches of new snow when I set out to drag a sled from home. I loaded it up with 45 pounds and soon realized that breaking trail through fresh powder with a heavy sled is harder than dragging my 90-pound cart on gravel. When I was about 2.5 miles up the road, a neighbor came through with a plow and made two passes, scraping much of the road down to gravel. Argh. I mean, good for driving. But bad for me in that moment. I opted to veer down a faint old jeep road and make a loop. 

Soon I regretted this decision, because this route is littered with rocks, ruts and down trees that were covered in enough snow to hide them, but not enough snow to insulate against them. My sled was awkwardly weighted with a five-gallon jug of water and a few extra things. It must have tipped over ten times. Each time I had to wrestle with it to turn it over, and I wasn't wearing gloves because I'd been using pogies on my trekking poles. Predictably, my hands started hurting, started burning, went numb ... and still the sled continued to tip over. The hands became a concern. It was only 12 degrees ... definitely frostbite territory if I couldn't warm them up soon. I briefly considered abandoning the sled and coming back for it later, but managed to make my way back to a road, start jogging, and generate enough heat to writhe with screaming barfies most of the way home.

Important lessons were learned — things will go wrong when I don't expect them to go wrong. Always be prepared. And keep some damn mittens in close reach at all times. 

On Tuesday it continued to snow all day. At least, I think it did. It was one of those days where I was locked behind a computer screen for the better part of 14 hours. But Wednesday dawned as the most gorgeous, powdery, bluebird day. It was still quite cold for Boulder — the temperature at dawn was -5F. And it was breezy, with gusts to 40 mph in open areas. So ... yeah, actually it was very cold. Somehow it didn't feel this way when I set out to run to town, breaking trail through ten inches of snow along the relatively sheltered west ridge of Green Mountain. I'd been feeling stressed, and the run was everything I needed to calm down and enjoy being in the present.

"I so love running through the snow," I thought as I splashed through pillows of powder during the descent from Green. "If only I could just do this for a month and nothing else. Oh, wait ..."

It was downright hot again, close to 50 degrees, on Thursday while I ran chores in town and went to the gym. I did not feel like I was missing out on a slush slog. Then on Friday, it snowed again. More than eight inches came with this storm. Ski resorts and mountain passes to the west received as much as 55 inches. I-70 was an utter disaster before CDOT finally shut it down. Lift lines stretched across counties. Front Range avalanche danger climbed to 4 out of 5. Beat stayed home from work because roads in town were such a mess, and we did another sled-drag. This one wrapped up with less drama than Monday, although a neighbor's friend had gotten her car hopelessly stuck in a ditch, and we both separately spent some time trying to push her out. Beat ended up running all the way home (three miles) to return with his truck and plow, then successfully cleared a path to free her car.

Then, on Saturday, it was warm again! Forty-five degrees! Beat insisted on wearing shorts and gaiters for what I expected to be an awful slush slog to Bear Peak. The road was a muddy mess, but the trail was in great shape with mostly packed powder. The people who packed the trail apparently couldn't navigate to save their life. Beat, ever the rule-follower, did not want to tramp over their eroded path through this fragile burned area, so we ended up breaking some of the trail up the west ridge, wading through drifts that often swallowed entire legs. Despite the gaiters, Beat's legs still ended up a little bloodied.

Then, on Sunday, it was 18 degrees and snowing ... again! All of the muddy gravel that we ran on Saturday was covered in six inches of new snow. Most of the Front Range received only trace snow for the entire month of January, so three big storms during the first week of February has been a shock to everyone's system. The wind combined with bad roads and volatile backcountry conditions ultimately kept us away from the mountains, but it was nice to get several things done and go for a short sled-drag in the afternoon.

I was able finally try out my completed sled-pole-harness system, which I filled with most of my planned gear for the Alaska journey, as well as two gallons of water (16 pounds) to mimic the weight of food, fuel, and other things I'm missing. It all felt great. My Nome sled is smooth and has excellent tracking — it's going to take work to tip this thing over. Beat added a canopy to keep snow out, and also to be used as a head piece while sleeping in my sled. It's a great addition. And of course, I made sure Bernadette, my stuffed Siberian Husky, is strapped down so she won't be forgotten. I've been working on finally finishing up the thing I've been writing about the 2018 Iditarod, it it's helped me remember how much Bernadette meant to me when I was tired and alone and had the emotional stability of a 3-year-old.

I'm getting close to finalizing my gear list, so that will probably be my next blog post. If I find the time for one. So much to do! Such stress. February is often the worst month on my personal calendar ... and yet, I don't want it to end. 


  1. Sounds like your mental taper is as important as the physical taper. I enjoy gear use practice til it is automatic or subconscious like a mind flash card of critical steps with no wasted movements....for those times when seconds matter.

    "The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time."

    David Bowie

    Safe Journey's !

    Jeff C

    1. I admire people with the discipline to practice and practice until they get something perfect. I'm terrible when it comes to practicing with my gear. It just causes me so much stress ... Beat will confirm how agitated I become every time I need to do the simplest thing on my bikes. I am, of course, deeply ashamed of this aspect of my personality.

      One reason I like the sled and walking is there isn't a lot in there I need to fix, and the fixes are all pretty simple. I'm terrified of the thought of babysitting a bike across Alaska again, and can't believe I muddled my way through it once. And now I have aspirations for an ultracycling race in Kyrgyzstan in August, and I won't have a more mechanical-minded friend to help me out as I did in South Africa in 2014. The bike maintenance and repair scares me more than the riding. Haha! But I can't really think about that right now. One journey at a time. :)

      Anyway, my goal in these next few weeks is to practice more with my gear. It is important, I agree. As you noted, in cold or windy weather, all seconds matter.

    2. Knowing yourself is the foundation to make changes ..... especially when you have Lael level goals :) !

      There is a underlying confidence and autonomy, with some mental freedom thrown in, from boring practice...and also your gear becomes more "felt" as a extension of yourself. IMHO. :)

      Jeff C

  2. Colorado weather is insane.

    I'm with you on the lack of bike-fixing skills, which is super dumb considering the amount of time I spend alone with my bike. At some point my "hope for the best" strategy is going to let me down, so that's a hole I really need to fill.

  3. Colorado is just crazy. We were there for the Super Bowl Sunday summer day and the winter wake up that followed.

    Good luck with all the last-minute prep & details!! We're all routing for you!!


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