Sunday, April 26, 2020

Figured out, I'm good

Note: Thank you for all of your comments on my last post. It was really fun to have a good old-fashioned blog comment conversation with you.  

This week, for the first time since I stepped off the Iditarod Trail on March 10, I started dreaming about a next adventure. It was a breakthrough. It meant that not only did I believe in *a* future (I admit, my mind really catastrophized the first weeks of COVID reality), but a future in which I could still move through the world and seek risky yet exhilarating experiences. It can't be so just yet, but someday, perhaps sooner than I imagine, more adventures will be had. This perspective has boosted my mood more than I even expected, and allowed me to acknowledge that I still have issues to work through regarding my recent Iditarod adventure.

 "You need to figure out how to forgive yourself," my counselor concluded after our online session this week. It's been nice to hear an objective assessment because I'd convinced myself I was totally fine with how my Iditarod effort turned out this year. Even if I'd continued beyond McGrath, I was never going to reach Nome before travel restrictions and community shutdowns ended my attempt. And the trip to McGrath alone left me so worn down that I spent the next month deep in a recovery hole, convinced that my autoimmune disease had resurged. I shudder to think how bad things could have become if I'd pushed my body any farther. And, anyway, there are more pressing issues in the world right now. Races are not important. But I'm disappointed. I am. And I'm angry with myself. I am. And it's good to just admit this and then figure out how to work through it.

Surrounding this acceptance is an acknowledgment that I need to let go. I'm not going back next year for another attempt — even if there is an Iditarod race next year, which I think will remain in question for a while yet. On Wednesday I joined a Zoom meeting with several of the women who raced the Iditarod this year, along with two dozen others who wanted to listen in and ask questions. It was a lot of fun to get together with all of these ladies again, especially in the context of our weird at-home quarantine lives across four time zones, rather than in close quarters on the snowbound trail. I laughed harder than I have in a while. But the meeting held a hint of sadness for me as well. The other women seemed so pumped about the future, whereas I'm not sure when or if I'll ever go back. The Iditarod has been such a huge part of my life, and Beat's life, that's it's extremely hard to imagine moving on. But moving on feels important for me ... which is why I was talking about 2020 being my last attempt months before the event itself. I need to envision a future with variables that extend beyond the cycle I've ridden a bit too comfortably for years — for more reasons than one, I now realize.

 I will admit, though — old habits and coping mechanisms do not go down easily. A couple of weeks ago, after it started to seem likely that we won't be traveling to Asia or Europe this summer, Beat mentioned he might try fastpacking the Colorado Trail with his friend Daniel. I've been talking about hiking the Colorado Trail for years now, but never too seriously because we travel so much during the summer, and a thru-hike is weeks if not months of investment in one thing. Amusingly, after Beat mentioned fastpacking, I looked up the fastest known times and discovered the women's self-supported record is still reasonably attainable — 15 days, 2 hours for 486 miles. This works out to about 32 miles a day on average. That's exactly what I was trying to do on the Iditarod Trail. Sure it's at altitude with more climbing. It's tougher terrain as well, but with a much smaller load. And no deep snow! And no snowshoes! And no 40 below! Hmm, I thought, there's a way I could try to avenge my DNF without going back to the ITI!

Ah, well. Well ... sigh.

Still, a solo hike across Colorado in September has been a nice dream to carry in my still-tired heart. On Thursday I got out for my first mountain excursion since I returned from Alaska, joining Beat for a quick evening jaunt to Bear Peak. The summit is just three trail miles from our front door, but I've continued to mostly avoid trails in order to remove myself from crowds. Leaving around dinnertime was a good move, as we saw one couple near the trailhead and then nobody after that. We had to peak to ourselves, a rare occurrence at any time. I felt uneasy as I teetered and stumbled over the rocks — it's been so long since I've done any sort of scrambling. Still, my heart was soaring. The jagged spine, the red rocks, the sheer scope of the plains 3,000 feet below our feet — all of it jaw-dropping, as though I'd never seen this view before. April 24 marked four years since we arrived at our new home in Boulder, so I did a quick glance through Strava segments to figure out how many times I've been to the top of Bear. The answer is at least 88 times. It had become this mundane thing, but now my perspective has been renewed. In some ways, stay-at-home mandates are similar to a creative writing prompt. You have these limitations to work with. What do you see in them?

And yes, I recognize the laughable nature of thinking of an 8,500-foot mountain as a "limitation" when some folks are confined to apartments and neighborhood streets. But it is interesting how — no matter who or where we are — each one of our "everyday lives" becomes mundane ... until it isn't.

 On Saturday, Beat was jazzed to join me for a bike ride. This too was a momentous occasion, as Beat doesn't really ride bikes anymore. Don't believe me? He's recorded 88 miles so far in 2020 and 149 miles for all of 2019. But while travel is restricted, bikes are the best adventure vehicle even for somewhat reluctant cyclists. Beat and I schemed a 50-mile loop from the front door, sticking almost entirely to dirt and trails — with one gut-punching pavement climb — and a potential off-trail shortcut to get home. The weather was cooler and breezier than ideal — about 45 degrees with 10-20 mph winds out of the west, so we usually had to battle headwinds while climbing. My comfort level alternated between shivering in the icy wind, and sweating because I was overdressed for 45 degrees.

 Beat routed us through the East Mag trails, which I've recently avoided during my long rides because I always seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere else. On this day we were racing only daylight, and singletrack seemed a good addition to the adventure. I thought we'd run into some snow, but not a foot of slushy sludge covering most of the trail system. Beat took it in stride because his bum was already hurting and he appreciated the hiking break. I had a visceral reaction to pushing my bike through the snow — something closer to anger than annoyance. I was over it before we even started. It was just too close to the arduous conditions on this year's Iditarod Trail, and I wasn't ready to confront them, just yet.

 But then we were riding bikes again and all was well. I showed Beat my dirt-road bypass around the Peak to Peak Highway, which I discovered sometime last year. He appreciated the scenic views and quiet, traffic-free corridor. "This makes it a totally different ride," he said. Even though we still needed to gain a thousand feet of altitude here, it did feel like a pain-free sneak around the drudgery of the pavement climb.

 Then we hit the Switzerland Trail, which I expected to be slushy and muddy. After seeing the snow conditions on East Mag, I worried it would be impassable. But heavy four-wheeler traffic kept it slushy and muddy.

 The slush proved arduous, and we rode and pushed hard to stay ahead of trucks that were plowing through the slop behind us. Even with the beautiful weather on a Saturday afternoon, we'd enjoyed relatively quiet riding — with the strange exception of this segment. As we dropped below the snow line, there seemed to be cars and people everywhere. One driver in a black jeep shot out from a side road, cutting me off so closely that I had to skid and swerve into a side ditch. He also cut off an oncoming red jeep. Both vehicles slammed on their brakes, and the black jeep stayed in place, blocking the entire road. Soon I heard yelling, so I swerved around the mess and beat a quick retreat to the Sugarloaf trailhead. I may need to put Switzerland Trail on my list of places to avoid during weekends until shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, and people find better ways to disperse.

 With 4,000 feet of climbing on our legs, we began the long ascent up Magnolia. It's a gut-buster from the start, with 17-percent grades that top 20-percent around a few switchbacks. It's been so long that I'd almost forgotten that sensation, where I'm grinding at red-line effort and still certain the rear wheel is going to stall and I'll topple over. We ground out another 2,000 feet to the point where my "Homestead sneak" met the road. I'd scouted this shortcut on foot in February. Like then, the hillside was completely snow-covered. I balked at cutting up the fall line like I'd done in February, when I was trying to escape post-holing and was no longer following what had already become an increasingly faint trail. In searching for a more obvious entrance this time around, we climbed too high. Then we bashed around in the woods for several minutes before I insisted we "cut our losses" and take the long way home. This meant trading five miles and two small climbs for 13 more miles and five small-to-medium climbs. But it involved no snow wallowing, no bushwhacking, and I was sure it would still be faster and easier than hashing out this shortcut. Beat, with his hiker-adventurer preferences and sore bum, was a good sport about my decision.

The sun was setting as we returned home — seven hours, 50 miles, and 7,400 feet of climbing in a perfectly timed ride. It was a gorgeous evening.

Sunday, in turn, was a chore day. After we finished gathering firewood last week, I mentioned to Beat that this hard-labor project was somewhat fun, and maybe we should consider harvesting more good pinewood for the coming winter. Careful what you wish for. Beat found two dead trees to fell, both located down a steep slope about 200 meters from the house. With the snow now melted, I had to employ Allen the Taskmaster to drag logs up the hill, then stack them next to the garage. Each log must have weighed 15-25 pounds, and I tried to take three at a time, huffing up the bumpy hillside as the 70-degree sun beat down. I was drenched in sweat and wobble-legged by the third haul, and I ended up doing about a dozen of these hauls.

 Beat cuts away at the "slash pile." He seemed to be having too much fun with his chainsaw, but I'm not pretending it isn't hard work, too. He worked for three-plus hours and I logged two hours of hauling. It was harder than riding a bike for seven hours. Originally I was going to run today, but not after this. I was knackered.

Beat hauled a few loads in the old sled, and it seemed to work okay despite the lack of snow. I wonder if we'll do this again next week. I should probably try to tear out cheatgrass from the flower beds before we have too much green-up. I enjoy the yard work and it's a nice excuse to spend more time outside, appreciating my surroundings. But this doesn't change the fact I'm still allergic to spring (less so than before, thanks to allergy shots, but not immune), and COVID times are not the best times to become a sneezy, red-faced mess. But it is nice to continue to pursue hard labor projects and long bike rides as simple yet effective ways to calm a restless mind. 


  1. YES to the CT! I wrote out a very ambition self-supported plan for summer 2018, but the fires and health issues kept me from realizing the plan. I'm hoping to do more segments this summer, but won't really have time to do the whole thing until August when the water source situation gets a little interesting. So much fun to be had on a long trail!

    1. Are water sources really that much more scarce in September than July? I don't have much experience in this regard, but where I hike in the Indian Peaks, most streams are perennial. I'm guessing there are a few longer dry stretches? I obvious have a lot of research I need to do if I take something like this on.

      If we have a bad wildfire season, a Colorado thru-hike will be a no-go for me. I really can't handle that much time in bad air, and I remember August-September 2018 being quite bad. Hopefully this will be more like last summer, which was beautiful and mild in that regard. Either way, it will still be fun to dream and scheme something like this.

    2. July is certainly when most folks start their thru-hike, but the typical thru hiker moves quite a bit slower than 15 days. Since we've had a good snow year, I bet the water will be reliable in September. There just may be some longer sections where you'd have to carry a bit more than comfortable for a fastpack, but not a deal breaker. I cut my teeth in the Appalachian Mountains so even considering water sources is new to me since moving here!

    3. September seemed ideal to me, as a tradeoff between dangerous thunderstorms, higher stream crossings, heat and bugs, for shorter (but drier) days, cold nights, potential snowfall, and as you pointed out, potentially dry water sources. I don't think carrying extra water would be too big of a deal for me. I'm already going to be fairly heavily loaded because I'm just not an ultralight packer. My "fastpack" idea is based more on the notion of hiking long days, rather than moving quickly. There certainly won't be any running, unless there's a storm coming in.

      Thunderstorms would be the crux for me. I know they can happen in September, but dealing with them every day in July when I'm hoping to be moving most hours of the day would be a deal breaker. I certainly don't mind dark, cold and even snow, although if there was a lot of snow accumulation, that would also be a hike-ending event. Lots of variables, for sure.

  2. I want to hike the CT but not as a fast pack. The older I get the more I want to force myself to ramble. I don't know who I'm kidding but I'm trying. The thunderstorms have kept me off this trail though. I'm thinking early Sept would be the best bet...maybe.

    1. Yeah, dealing with thunderstorms would be the hardest part of any Colorado thru-hike, or bike tour for that matter. I was terrorized by the thunderstorms I hit rolling across Colorado during the Tour Divide. That was the main reason I picked September as a target, although it also seemed that July or even August was too soon to assume I'll still be able to travel freely. Even September might be optimistic for a backpacking trip. But it's nice to dream, isn't it?

  3. Your adventure plan sounds awesome and your bike ride was impressive! We have too much snow to get that kind of elevation gain right now. Though I see snow didn't stop you!

    1. Our snow is mostly gone below 9,000 feet now, but there are still big stashes on north-facing slopes and unconsolidated trails. Wish you and I could go on a bike adventure one of these weekends! Before all this I'd schemed a Utah bike adventure for April, riding the White Rim in a Day and such, to launch my Silk Road training. I am missing all of that.

  4. I kept trying to post a comment to your last post but for some reason it never showed up. Anyway, I basically said I still love reading your blog and was excited for the escapism of your Iditarod writeup. I actually came across a TV show about this year's dog sled race, and it was cool seeing the stops and places you've talked about for so many years. I've been hunkering down here in Indy and doing rides most days when the weather permits. Even though I'm getting really tired of the same routes I'm still managing to keep mostly positive about things. All my spring gravel races have been postponed or cancelled, including my main focus of Dirty Kanza, so I've been pointing toward the Michigan Coast to Coast race (210 miles across Michigan) in late June to keep me motivated. I've usually made a trip to CO by this time of year but even my July trip out there is up in the air, so I've been living vicariously through several blogs and FB pages of the mountains. I sorely miss them right now. I'm glad you're feeling better about everything!

    1. Thanks for the comment! It is disappointing that all of these spring races had to be canceled. Hopefully you'll be able to make your July trip to CO. I'm really hoping we can return to the mountains by then.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Seven hours exercise in lockdown conditions? We're supposed to limit ourselves to one.

    1. Colorado is not under lockdown conditions. From the state Stay-At-Home order, which ended April 26 to lighter safer-at-home restrictions:

      "It is physically and mentally healthy to be outdoors. Stay close to home and choose times and places where you can maintain 6 feet of physical distance between yourself and others.

      Recreate locally. Keep recreational activities within your own county or within about three miles of it to prevent disease spread. This is important because our smaller communities have fewer resources, geared toward caring for smaller populations. Influxes of non-residents, particularly from large population areas, increase the potential for disease transfer within those local communities and increase the strain on those smaller health care systems
      If you are in the Denver metro area, don't travel to our mountain communities.
      Reduce visits to the trails and open spaces in the foothills.
      Similarly, if you live outside the Denver metro area, avoid traveling to Denver for recreational activities.
      Wear a mask when participating in outdoor activities."

      — The order also states that residents should stay within our own counties. We did so even on a 50-mile ride. I realize there's a greater chance of injury in a long road ride, such as being hit by a car. But my track record in this regard points to higher risk elsewhere. I haven't visited a clinic or hospital for a bike-related injury since 2004. I have sought medical care for injuries related to trail-running falls, running-connected overuse injuries and household accidents, such as breaking toes and falling down the stairs.

      — There's increasing evidence that the risk of infecting others and becoming infected outdoors is very low, if these precautions are taken. There's increasing evidence that time outside bolsters the body's biological defenses. I already live in a mountain community, something for which I feel incredible grateful, and there are a lot of people from outside the neighborhood coming to this area to recreate. It's a little annoying, especially when they cross private gates and park illegally all over the road. But for the most part, it seems to be a good thing. I will be interested to see how open space, bike paths, and other healthy parts of public life gain greater support in the future.

      — Finally, I'm leaving this long comment because it's interesting to see the level of shaming that happens for people who deign to recreate outdoors right now. There's so much evidence that indoor spaces are more dangerous, yet ire is rarely directed at the crowds in a Home Depot, whose customers are probably also conducting only marginally "essential" activities. There are lots of unknowns about this virus, and I too want to do my part to end the rise of infections. But I also genuinely believe that outdoor activity — hopefully with most people traveling minimally and practicing social distancing — will go a long way in creating a healthier population.

  7. A good insight: " is interesting how — no matter who or where we are — each one of our "everyday lives" becomes mundane ... until it isn't."

  8. Glad to see you guys doing some "real" work! I'll remember that and have you guys fill up our porch with firewood next time you come for a winter visit!


Feedback is always appreciated!