Monday, May 04, 2020

A dozen months go by as you wait for a sign

I knew stay-at-home life was starting to get to me when I planned a grocery run on Friday and anxiously anticipated it all week. Don't get me wrong; I dislike shopping on a good day. The current social distancing mandate nearly doubles the amount of time and discomfort in these tasks — wearing a breath-obstructing mask, standing in long outdoor lines under the hot sun, stacking a cart full of groceries twice so I can bag them in my car, wiping down everything I touch, and seriously why are the toilet paper shelves still empty? 

However, this week was the first I didn't need to get a catch-up allergy shot, which meant I'd have the stamina for some sort of adventure. Since I returned from Alaska, every outdoor activity I've embarked on has started from my front door. This would be the first time in weeks that I ventured a bit farther, so even the prospect of setting out from town was exciting. I pulled the road bike down from its wall mount, pumped up the tires, lubed the chain, and checked the top tube bag for the same light rain layers I was using last spring (so that's where that hat ended up!) Nearly a year has passed since I last rode this bike. Grit from the sudden storms that frequently washed through the canyons in May 2019 still clung to the frame. I brushed off the sand as I wistfully remembered those rides. How simple things were back then. I had such big plans for summer 2020. Training for the Silk Road Mountain Race called for big days in the saddle, and I schemed wide-ranging road rides like double passes over Trail Ridge Road, climbing Mount Evans from Evergreen, maybe even a multiday nostalgia tour (riding up to Wheatland, Wyoming and tracing my 2003 route back to Salt Lake City.) So many possibilities! 

 That was then. Now I live in a world where a grocery run feels like an adventure. It's not necessarily a bad thing. When we adjust expectations to match reality, perspective quickly follows. A three-hour blitz from North Boulder was excitement enough — especially with the potential for an up-close view of the mountains.

After what felt like a prolonged recovery from the Iditarod, I've rapidly rebuilt strength and stamina in the past two weeks. This surge of energy has weakened my resolve to keep things easy for a while, and I'd already logged a reasonably tough week of runs and rides before Friday. My legs were rubbery and the 85-degree heat felt oppressive. I pulled my buff over my face, intending to keep it up the whole ride — mostly for optics —but I'd forgotten how terribly difficult it can be to breathe through hot, saturated polyester. I managed ten miles before I cracked, and then just pulled it up when passing other cyclists. But I was passing other cyclists, an admittedly exhilarating feeling. Soon my rubbery muscles loosened and the heat faded behind a stiff but cool headwind. The road bike became an undetectable feather underneath me, and I felt like I was running on air with turbo engines strapped to my legs.

 The climb from Boulder to Brainard Lake gains a cool vertical mile — 5,400 feet with minimal rolling. Just beyond the gate I encountered far too much snow to continue, although I fantasized about slicing the narrow road tires through slush, "just like a hot knife in butter." I was less than two miles from an incredible mountain vista, and I realized then how much I wanted that — just to sit on that solitary bench near the shoreline and gaze upward.

But on this day, I did not have the tools to gain access to such a paradise. I only had a featherweight bike, so instead I turned around and gobbled up a 20-mile descent, complete with one short climb, in 45 minutes. The bike hit speeds of 44 mph, which is a little recklessly fast for a squirrely rider such as myself, who only hops on a road bike a handful of times each year. It was pure bliss though, as close to flying as any sensation I've felt. Road biking probably is the most risky activity I engage in, and yet I didn't feel unsettled until I pulled back up to my car, changed into street clothes, and switched out my snot-soaked Buff for a cute patterned facemask that I purchased from a Boulder woman who typically makes bike-commuting gear. What was this strange dread?

A recent Tweet from Joe Simpson, who narrowly escaped death during a mountaineering accident in the 80s and wrote a brilliant book about it, "Touching the Void," summed it up well: "It's quite odd driving to a supermarket idly and wondering if this is the moment I pick up a fatal disease and die. Never thought I'd have that thought process again."

I've wondered why I feel so rundown after these trips to town. In earlier weeks I blamed the allergy shots. Perhaps this week I can blame the vigorous road ride. Either way, "town day" is often my most draining part of the week. I'll slump home, feeling vaguely out of sorts. I'll develop a headache, and become convinced my throat is scratchy. I'll pop a bunch of vitamin C and check my temperature and SpO2. Nothing's out of the ordinary. Just hypochondria again. Or is it? 

Consciously, I don't feel like I'm irrationally scared of COVID-19. I take it seriously, both because I want to be a good citizen, and also because I suspect I have a fair chance of serious complications. I contracted a simple case of pneumonia in 2015 that took me down several notches; things haven't been the same since. Now I'm a person with underlying conditions, asthma and Graves Disease. Still, I've spent years teaching myself how to embrace fears. I also believe the science that shows how most of us will likely be exposed to this eventually. I'm capable of acceptance and an "it will be what it will be" sort of attitude. As I move toward accepting that this is going to be with us for a while, however, despondency creeps in. If going to the grocery store feels this weird and arduous, how can travel happen again? Or racing? Riding and running with friends? Visiting my parents? I maintain a great deal of freedom and movement, and I relish these simple joys still. But it's difficult to let go of anticipation and future dreams that so recently were just an ordinary part of life.

Saturday dawned misty and gray. It was nice to see some proper spring weather, something I've missed since we skipped directly from winter to summer. Beat and I had a long run planned for Sunday, and I intended to rest up beforehand. I spent the morning cleaning the basement and chipping away at a writing project that currently feels like hammering a flimsy nail into stone. Malaise was building and I decided to combat it with a bike ride.

"I'll be gone an hour, tops," I told Beat. Heavy thunderstorms were forecast to hit at 4 p.m., and I was leaving at 2 p.m., so the motivation was there to keep it short. But as I pedaled into the cool afternoon, my legs felt amazingly peppy. With limited effort I could fly up the hills, feeling strong enough that I checked my watch near the start of a coveted 2.5-mile Strava segment. In four years I've posted 75 rides through this segment, so PRs are not easy to come by these days ... I haven't cracked the top ten since 2018. But I decided to for it. At mile two I dabbed in a muddy mess of ruts. I thought for sure I'd lost it, but my watch was still showing reasonable progress. I charged all the way to the top of the hill only to encounter a truck inching up the final pitch. The vehicle stalled on a sand-covered slab and stopped, blocking the entire road. There was no way around. After wavering a few seconds I threw my bike over my shoulder and sprinted up a side slope. The driver probably thought I was nuts. I was tempted to yell "STRAVA" as I ran past, but did not.

I missed my PR by two seconds. But I snagged a few other long-standing segments. I felt so pumped that I just had to continue riding. I descended the rutted county road and pedaled toward a usually quiet forest road that winds toward the reservoir. The road was still gated, and there were only a few cars at the trailhead on this cool and gray afternoon. Despite sandy conditions I managed a few more PRs on lesser-traveled segments. In doing so, I turned my relaxing one-hour ride into 20 miles of tempo with 3,000 feet of climbing. Beat said if I crapped out on Sunday, he would have no sympathy. I replied that it was worth it.

Beat and I have missed long runs. Even with potentially nothing to train for this year, we still long for a proper beatdown on rough and interesting terrain. We schemed a run that would allow us to both leave from home and explore new terrain. The route linked a couple of trails that until now had been dead ends to us, tracing remnants of social trails and old roadbeds. We try to avoid trespassing, so Beat cross-checked his track with a property map to ensure we stayed on county and national forest land. Even close to home, we can still find some lovely trails that see little use.

 "Little use" sometimes means lots of slogging. This shaded traverse held onto a lot of snow, and it took us a while to bust through. Shortly after I took this photo, Beat lost a shoe and bloodied his knee.

 Connectors also require some road running. Jogging toward this pasture, I thought, "those people sure have a lot of horses." As we passed by, I realized it was a herd of elk.

 We ran toward the trailhead for the forest road where I rode my bike the previous day. I was amazed at what an out-of-control zoo it had become on this sunnier and slightly warmer Sunday. Vehicles were parked up and down the county road a half-mile away in both directions, blocking driveways and obstructing the traffic lanes so much that it was barely passable one way. Cars passed constantly, and we occasionally had to jump onto steep side slopes to let them through. Thanks to a 4WD-only connector, this spot is essentially located on a dead-end spur off of a secondary dirt road — about as far from the beaten path as you can find in Boulder County. To see it so crowded, after years of appreciating its relative emptiness was ... strange. This scene also had a somewhat dystopian feel, like dodging a zombie mob with off-leash dogs. I'm not afraid they're going to pass around a virus; I'm afraid they're going to run us over in this seemingly blind rush to fill a void of time.  I concede that I can't criticize people recreating if I am also out recreating in the same place. It's just strange, that's all. Where do all of these people go when it's not the end of the world? Theaters and stores, I suppose. It's just as well that they're enjoying the great outdoors, but I wish it could be done in a less noxious way.

Anyway, we were grateful to leave the busy road and veer onto an empty trail, where we hiked and scrambled to the top of Twin Sisters Peak. The altitude of this peak is 8,700 feet, making it one of the highest in the region. It seems to be seldom visited. Access is limited by several miles of road walking on either side (or a decent 4WD vehicle) so even I don't come here often. This was Beat's first visit. He was impressed. The panoramic views here are incredible, stretching from the plains to a vast mountain skyline, from Longs Peak to Mount Evans.

Our original plan had us descending Flagstaff Road and returning via Walker Ranch, but we wanted to stay away from the inevitable crowds. Instead we made our way down a faint jeep road to another social trail, quickly reconnecting to the traverse to Meyers Gulch. Despite having to climb around frequent deadfall, wade deep snow and bash through thorny bushes that ripped my shins to shreds, we agreed this was an ideal sneak and vowed to return.

This detour lengthened our overall route just enough that we started talking about tacking on four more miles to round out the run to a 26.2-mile marathon. We did so in the hardest way possible, marching straight up a long-neglected old road behind our neighborhood. But we got it done, and I felt reasonably energetic and loose the entire time, despite the lack of long runs in recent weeks, and despite riding my bike a little too hard for two days prior. I did become dehydrated, having carried only three liters of water for seven hours in the hot sun (the transition from winter to spring always throws me for a loop, because with a seemingly minimal shift from 35 degrees to 65 degrees, I go from needing a liter of liquid to a gallon.) My payment for indulging in a long run has been a mild headache and a tight Achilles (argh, how I abhor my right Achilles tendon. This "touch of tendonitis" has been an ongoing issue for two years now. I can drag a sled 300 miles over deep snow with no problems, but will it let me climb hills or run a couple dozen miles? No!)

Also, today — Monday — I have been feeling emotionally down ... more so than I have in weeks, when I first began to come around from the shock of March. I could blame the latest headlines about bursts of new cases and deaths as states collectively decide to just get on with it ... that's part of it, sure. But I also need to consider a likely tipping point when I become a little too zealous with physical activity, especially after so recently recovering from such a hard Iditarod.  I took a rest day today, but I still feel down. That's just the way things are right now — such a rollercoaster of emotions, trying to balance wildly undulating uncertainties, even as day-to-day life slows down.

So it's funny, and maybe just a little bit sad, that when I ponder what might cheer me up, I immediately turn my thoughts to my upcoming trip to town, and where I might ride my road bike when that exciting day comes. 


  1. I also live in the foothills west of Boulder and have noticed that my normally deserted and rarely used social trails have seen an up tick in use and with that trail litter and poor self distancing behaviors...people everywhere....

  2. Masks: in addition to just complying with health policy requests, I like to think that by wearing one I'll be in better shape by blocking 20% of the oxygen that I normally inhale :D

    Boulder's just busy. It's densely populated, and it gets lots of visitors to its justifiably popular parks. These days I have to work hard to find wide, less-travelled trails and obscure rock scrambles to stay out of everyone's way. And it's not just me -- I've seen more climbers on obscure rocks than ever before!

    1. Yes, like Carey observed, more people are finding their way into the most obscure places around here. A few weeks ago, the Boulder City Council was talking about closing off Flagstaff Road to non-local traffic, and we were hopeful. It didn't happen, and the crowds parked up and down the road have only increased. Seeing the Winiger Ridge trailhead so crowded was stunning ... it's a 30-minute drive from Boulder, probably 45 with Boulder Canyon construction, and the only thing there is to do there is hike the one-mile trail down to the reservoir or hike along the road. It's just ... strange. And people are definitely not on their best behavior in these crowds. Personally I'd choose to be anywhere else, which is why I've done a lot more gravel road running than trail running recently.

  3. With my bike broken...awaiting new cassette, chain, and front sprockets...the lap pool still closed, along with the gym/weight room, I am reduced to living room burpees and pushing our local trails, which are surprisingly vacant. Today the Silvershield to Oak Creek loop...or if I can talk Bobbie and Ruthie into it, an early attempt on Twin Peaks. It's been warm and windy here. Snow's coming off fast.I feel your pain/frustration with cars and people packing trailheads and trails. As the snow disappears, we start ditching trails and just going cross-country...just pick-a-peak and try to find a way up there. Good post...and a reality check as to how important nature is to us. Can't blame 'em.
    Box Canyon Mark from Lovely Ouray

  4. Over the years I have noticed that you have a tendency to train yourself into a hole (as do I) so it's great to hear you have had an actual "rest day" (that wasn't the usual 30 mile slog with 8000ft vert!)
    The last thing I want to do is be displaying flu like symptoms so even though I am still training, most likely in vain, for the CTR I am definitely listening to my body this year and taking a few breaks when it is about to cry "enough"!
    Take care Jill (but I'm glad to see you still out and about)

  5. We do "curbside pickup" at the grocery store - order online and schedule a time for Pick Up, the wheel it out to the car and load it, no need to actually go into the store.

  6. In regards to the amount of people out: I have gone back and forth on this. At first I was like "why is no one out enjoying the outdoors?" Then they did and I was happy. Then more did and now I am seeing an increase in graffiti (who tags a tree??), and way more litter on the trails (a half eaten tray of takeout Mexican food? WTF?). I guess I assumed that everyone treated the outdoors with the same respect that I do. Hang in there, this shit will be over sooner or later.


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