Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A tale of three rides

Recently, I've been struggling with the frivolity of my passions. Endurance racing has brought my life an actualizing sense of meaning, but what does that actually mean? Writing gives shape to my life through stories, but what truths have I uncovered in the process? A couple of weeks ago, as part of my resolve to reduce anxiety-stoking screen time, I picked up my high-school-era colored pencils and started sketching again. I no longer own a pencil sharpener, nor have I boldly ventured to a store that sells them, so I've been scrawling away with the nubs, using the odd colors that survived even my neon comic phase of twelfth grade AP Art, imagining great beauty while scowling at the muddled motions of my unruly right hand. Carpal tunnel didn't take away my ability to draw, but decades of disuse have done their damage. Does one ever get it back? Or are lost passions much like our teenage selves, a wholly different conglomeration of cells linked to the present only by memories and a trail of shifting convictions about what it means, to live a life?

Sometimes I feel like I'm just spinning my wheels. Wednesdays have become their own weird day. I have my morning meeting with my virtual therapist (she's a real person, but it's weird that we've only interacted through screens.) Then I pack up masks and insulated grocery bags for my weekly grocery trip to town. Last week I needed to schedule an allergy shot, and the clinic only had 11:30. After they pump me full of allergens, they always warn me not to exercise afterward, as stress can trigger a reaction. I admit I usually ignore this warning. But I try to avoid doing anything too strenuous because, at best, shots leave me feeling like garbage for the rest of the day. However, Wednesday feels like a rare escape, an opportunity to embark on a solo adventure from the far-away lowlands. I don't like to waste this opportunity. 

As I drove away from the allergy clinic at 12:45 p.m., my car thermometer read 91 degrees. Smoke from distant wildfires hung in the stagnant air, and the state issued an ozone alert for sensitive-lungs folks who react poorly to pollution (raises hand.) I'd skipped lunch but had no appetite, so I decided I'd start on an empty stomach but carry some snacks in case I felt peckish. The car needed gas, so I stopped at a gas station and gave in to the temptation to buy a 32-ounce bucket of iced Diet Pepsi. I gulped it in ten minutes on my way to the mouth of Lefthand Canyon, relished the rush of cold liquid surging through my system, and climbed on my road bike to begin the 5,000-foot ascent to Brainard Lake. 

Things were fine, for an hour or so. Despite the heat, I felt reasonably peppy and not overheated. The iced water in my bladder had stayed nice and icy while stored in a cooler, and I slurped it greedily. Then, suddenly, things became not fine. I felt dizzy. My heart was thumping. I thought it was a matter of oxygen deficiency, as exercise difficulties usually are for me. But when I stopped to catch my breath, my status did not improve. I kept pedaling, hoping it would pass, but a growing sense of desperation persisted. My hands started to shake enough that the front wheel shimmied somewhat. Finally, I decided I might just be on the verge of something terrible like allergy shot anaphylaxis — something I'd been warned about by my asthma doctor, but I'd long since written off the possibility. I turned the bike around and descended 400 feet to a large shaded pullout. My stomach was lurching but I forced down a package of cheese crackers and lay on my back in the dirt, watching puffy white clouds waft across the sky. 

The carbs and salt went down, and after I few minutes of resting, I began to feel more centered. Maybe this wasn't allergy-shot-related, I thought. Maybe this was an electrolyte imbalance. It might also have been hypoglycemia. However, like most people who have been involved in endurance racing for years, my body is well-conditioned to move for hours without calories. It would be weird for me to have such a severe reaction after a single missed meal. But drinking a bunch of liquid with minimal salt and then sweating like a snowman in hell is something I'm more prone to — and also a recipe for hyponatremia. 

The crackers revived me enough that I stubbornly continued to the lake and then descended without issue. Back at the car, my thermometer read 107 degrees — because it had been sitting in the sun, but doesn't that mean it's basically the "feels like" temperature? It felt like 107 degrees. I masked up, staggered around the grocery stores, and headed home. I felt off for the rest of the evening, even after eating dinner. Only when I finally took a couple of salt tabs did the hand tremors finally cease altogether. Mild hyponatremia seems a likely culprit, and I resolved to be more careful in the future — heat is so much scarier than cold. 

 A couple of quiet days passed. I tapped some words into the void and ignored my abraded colored pencils, reasoning that I need to buy a pencil sharpener and thus can procrastinate what was supposed to be a therapeutic outlet that became another source of disquiet. A storm moved into the region, driving the daytime temperature into the 40s and driving out the smoke pollution. It rained and rained, more than an inch of solid water in less than 24 hours. Beat and I went outside for a drenching run and I marveled at the sensation — to go for a run and not feel crappy. He asked me what I wanted to do on Saturday, and I suggested riding bikes to the top of Mount Evans.

 Every Coloradoan knows Mount Evans. It's often the only fourteener than many Coloradoans have visited. In the early days of Colorado tourism, the state envisioned a scenic byway that could carry motorists to the sky. Construction began in 1916, but wasn't completed until 1930 following almost insurmountable hardships, which included — according to Wikipedia — steam shovels performing poorly at high altitude, a flu outbreak in camp, damaging windstorms, the difficulty of hauling coal and water, horse suicide (?) and more. The last 600 feet were finally built by hand.

Thanks to the road, Mount Evans is a popular destination, even though the highest temperature ever recorded on the summit is 65 degrees, and the average wind speed is 30 knots (35 mph!) It's also a famous hill climb for cyclists. However, thanks to the aforementioned weather and oxygen-starved altitude, it often becomes a "one and done" endeavor. I, of course, love it, although I'd admittedly only ridden it twice before, once each summer in 2018 and 2019. I never expected that Beat would want to join me. If you start riding in Idaho Springs, the route climbs solidly for 28 miles — no reprieve — gaining 7,000 feet in the process. Long, grinding rides hurt his back, and this is a road ride with annoying traffic and no hike-a-bike to speak of. But this year, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and need for long-standing repairs, the state decided not to open the road to vehicle traffic. For the entire summer, Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the nation's highest paved pedestrian path. It's a boon for cyclists, and Beat has been weirdly into cycling lately. Riding on Saturday was practically his idea.

A friendly forecast lulled us into a late start Saturday morning. But as we drove south toward the higher summits, I was floored by the thick coat of white descending from the peaks, almost to treeline. Clearly, temperatures in the 40s and rain at 7,000 feet mean lots of snow at 12,000 feet. I'm not sure why this didn't occur to me sooner, but it was disheartening. I know, it's weird that I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of snow. But I had a gravel bike, and the possibility of several inches of snow did not bode well for reaching the summit. We decided to chance it, reasoning that turning around early was better than no Mount Evans at all.

I was coming off of a bad night, after I worked myself into an anxious lather over Saturday's Trump rally in Tulsa. My catastrophizing mind conjured images of false flags, violence, massive illness spikes, terrible things. I was still stewing over all of this as we set out, but the rhythm of pedals and my beating heart soon worked their meditative magic. Beat set the pace on his mountain bike. He's usually a stronger climber than me, and I wasn't able to hold his pace when we rode Trail Ridge Road together on similar set-ups. But he was having his off day for the week, and our shared speed was perfect. Not too fast. Not too slow. Just the perfect equilibrium of relaxation in motion.

We rode past the Echo Lake gate to enter the cyclists' haven — friends riding side by side, roadies pegging the descent, dozens of cyclists out enjoying a gorgeous morning. At Summit Lake we sliced through our first slush patches, and then they became thicker. Others began to turn around. We encountered a group of three young men who were torn on continuing. One seemed particularly unenthused, and we leapfrogged several times as we surged, swerved, and then trudged through the snow. Beat caught up just as they announced they were "calling it."

"You have to hike-a-bike to the summit," Beat urged them. "I'm going to stalk you on Strava, and if I see you didn't make it ..."

The threat of Strava-stalking seemed to do it, and the guys shouldered their road bikes and marched forward, pressing their awkward clipless shoes and thin socks into the snow. Together, the five of us trudged the final switchbacks, nearly two miles of hand-built road soaring from 13,300 feet to 14,200 feet, as our legs wilted beneath the cumbersome dead weight of our bikes and our lungs begged for oxygen. It was all so frivolous and silly, carrying a bike up a mountain buried in fresh snow on the summer solstice. I hoped the roadies wouldn't resent us for this, while simultaneously wondering if their hearts were soaring like mine. When we reached the empty parking lot, the guys looked elated. They thanked us for nudging them forward.

The true summit is about 150 feet above the parking lot, and the hike up those final switchbacks is always such a kick in the gut. Beat was feeling quite bad. He's usually good at hiding it, but I could tell he was flagging, and he complained of nausea and fatigue. I was briefly concerned, but then we approached a runner who was truly discombobulated, stumbling over small rocks and walking so slowly that I wondered if he was drunk. The man tripped on a boulder and toppled just as we reached the summit. We struck up a conversation with a woman, and I learned they had run the road all the way from Echo Lake, nearly 14 miles one way. He was from New York, but the woman assured me he didn't have coronavirus.

"Is he going to be okay?" I asked. "He doesn't look okay."

"He'll be fine," she laughed airily. Poor dude from New York, dragged all the way up to 14,000 feet with a long run ahead of him. I felt concerned, but at least he had a friend to help him.

Later I mentioned the altitude-drunk man and this conversation to Beat, and he didn't remember much of it. He was having his own issues, but he was happy to reach the summit. The views up there are incredible — to the east, a 9,000-foot drop into Denver. To the west, snowy summits rippling over the horizon.

We retreated to the shell of a burned-down restaurant to eat our lunch, where we shared space with this mountain goat who I believe was purposely striking a majestic pose. Beat only ate a few bites of his sandwich. All we had left was 28 miles of effortless coasting, back to the oxygen-rich, snow-starved real world. We gave in to the temptation to stop in Idaho Springs for another tanker of diet Pepsi, a decision I again regretted when the gas station was packed with people who were mostly not wearing masks. It was the least social-distanced situation I've encountered in three months, which I suppose is a mark of my privilege. But next time, I will just walk out. If the pandemic can continue keeping me away from the devil soda, that will only be a good thing.

None of my worst-case scenarios of the weekend came true, although the current state of affairs isn't great. I was again stewing and sleeping poorly on Sunday. This is just the way things are going to be for a while. 2020 is hard for everyone. I recognize that there won't be straightforward solutions anytime soon, so for now a few band-aids will have to do. Cycling. It's never the wrong answer.

Old Fall River Road is another classic, a gravel byway in Rocky Mountain National Park. I'd hoped to ride this with a friend, but our schedules didn't quite line up. So on Monday morning, I headed out solo with Beat's gravel bike, on which he just installed a light new set of Spinergy wheels. It's so snappy and fun right now.

I made quick work of nine-mile, 3,000-foot gravel climb to 11,700 feet. My legs felt strong and my mood was weirdly neutral. Maybe it was the haze of a sleepless night or the emotional fatigue following a volatile week. The kind of week where the weather I experienced outside swung from 90-plus degrees and hazy to 48 degrees with heavy rain to near-freezing in a stiff wind atop fresh snow. And the emotions I experienced swung from dizzy desperation to cool relief to soaring joy. On this morning, this beautiful morning in one of my favorite places, I felt mostly — nothing. Honestly, it was sort of nice.

After I turned onto Trail Ridge Road and joined the relatively light weekday traffic, I started to wake up a bit. I took some photos.

Elk grazing near the summit.

Views from Rainbow Curve.

It was nice. Just nice. I decided to turn around and ride the alpine zone again, a 12-mile out-and-back that added another 2,000 feet of climbing. I didn't ride hard, and it didn't feel hard, although the altitude was beginning to catch up.

When it was again time to return to the lowlands and real life, I did feel disappointed. My mind would be easier to manage, and my life probably easier as well, if I could just ride bikes and do nothing else. But life doesn't work that way. Bodies don't really work that way. Which is why we return to real life and continue toiling for mundane things. Turn in my ballot. Finally file my taxes. Mask up and buy more groceries. Make a donation. Call my parents. Scrub the counters. Realize that living a life entails all of this, and all of it is frivolous, and also none of it is.


  1. Thanks for a smile filled read on this perfect morning, in my neck of the woods :).

    Since all life is futility, then the decision to exist must be the most irrational of all.

    Emil Cioran

    Funny for me to hold both the futility and joy of life at the same time... lightly seasoned indifference with a dash of nihilism seems to temper my perceptions of seeming chaos around me. :) :) sending words into the void...

    Jeff C

    1. I am with you on all of that. I often scrutinize my flecks of nihilism to ensure I don't descend into fatalism and jump off a bridge. But no — I know joy, in itself, is enough. Life is an absurd but beautiful adventure.

    2. An examined life is so full of nuance and wonder....well most days anyway.
      That I have the freedom to pursue adventures, by road or trail cut thru the landscape by others before me, is a gift of living in this epoch. I think often of those who worked and sacrificed to make the world I exist in and then wonder how I can move the ball forward to a better tomorrow...even when I walk over the bridge of doom :).

      Jeff C

  2. Life in a nutshell, Jill. Well put...

    "if I could just ride bikes and do nothing else. But life doesn't work that way. Bodies don't really work that way. Which is why we return to real life and continue toiling for mundane things. Turn in my ballot. Finally file my taxes. Mask up and buy more groceries. Make a donation. Call my parents. Scrub the counters. Realize that living a life entails all of this, and all of it is frivolous, and also none of it is."

  3. Hi Jill, Thanks for another excellent post. BTW, just sharpen your pencils with a utility knife. The irregular angles give you varied line and shading qualities. Plus, maybe a photo of your work? Keep the meditation moving! Andy

    1. Thanks for the tip. I can be, ahem, clumsy with knives and other sharp objects, but I may give this a try. I've resolved to try again this week.

  4. Jill, I'm confused. Did you mean Colorado Springs? Or is there an Idaho Springs in CO? Just trying to clarify. Great post!

  5. Jill, nevermind. Google maps had my answer.

    1. Yeah, Idaho Springs is its own town, an old mining community now truck stop and tourism center just east of the Divide off of I-70.

  6. I did a short assignment at the Grand Canyon where we flew around in a helicopter and dragged people out who hadn't consumed enough electrolytes. It was scary and comes on quickly. Glad you were able to recover fast.

    1. Yeah, it's so interesting. Yesterday I embarked on a similar ride in similar conditions — it was 95 degrees in Longmont, and I started riding at 11:30 am, so also on a similarly empty stomach. The difference is I didn't drink a big soda first, and I didn't just gulp down my bladder of water indiscriminately ... I just took sips when I felt actual thirst. I definitely felt the heat more sharply than I did last week, but physically I felt loads better, even climbing up a steep canyon. Over the years, I've mostly written off electrolyte use, as I don't commonly experience muscle cramps. I just drink straight water and figure real-food snacks are good enough if I'm venturing out longer than a few hours. But every so often I venture over the line, and it's another wakeup call.

  7. I've been reading your blog since your Alaska days and have always appreciated the excellent writing, insights and adventures ... This post, IMHO, is one of your top posts, and captures much of what I've been feeling lately as I ride my bike and walk or hike with the pup. Thank you.


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