Monday, January 18, 2021

Empty fitness

I've been somewhat of a space case this week — a combination of anxiety and ambivalence about the future, as well as fatigue from my most effective coping mechanism. The more energy I spend, the better I sleep. The more time I spend moving, the less time I spend doomscrolling. Sure, exhausting my energy cuts into creativity. But how useful are essays and books, really, when the world is burning? 

I still strive to be mindful of my body — aches, pains, potential injuries, the metrics I often track such as blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and recently, body temperature. While I retain permanent suspicion about the functionality of my thyroid gland, for the most part, I feel as healthy as I've been in years. Nothing has been nagging me; even sore muscles usually clear up within a day. My resting heart rate has dipped into the 50s, a number I thought I'd never again see when I was waking up to 85 bpm in 2017. I'll read articles with headlines such as "Yes the pandemic is ruining your body," and think, "My mental health is on the rocks and I'm probably not going to escape this virus ... but for now, the body's doing okay."

On Monday morning, fewer than 48 hours after I finished my fat bike 200K in Leadville, I was curious how my legs might feel during a recovery hike. About three inches of snow had fallen over the death ice that typically coats local trails this time of year, but I decided to give Green Mountain a go since I had many errands to complete, and this trailhead was on the way to town. I had no plans to push the pace, but as soon as I hit the trails in my microspikes, I found surprisingly "grippy" conditions — the kind of traction that somehow lets me move faster because I feel like I don't even need to think about where I'm placing my feet. It's a weird sensation, and makes me wonder if this is how more sure-footed folks feel most of the time. Either way, I didn't have to expend all that much effort to reach the top in 58 minutes, which is close to a PR for me. 

At the peak, I ran into local legend Justin Simoni, who joined me on the summit boulder to bask in warm sunshine for 20 minutes and chat about his incredible mountain projects over the summer. Justin is someone who I admire because he quietly takes on some of the most audacious local projects imaginable, such as riding his bike all over the state to climb the hundred highest summits in Colorado, all of them, in a single journey. I was eager to express my admiration for his "Vanishing Point Project," wherein he traversed the jagged spine of the Continental Divide from Milner to Berthod Pass, staying as high as possible — meaning literally climbing along the technical ridge — to summit more than 50 mountains in 75 miles. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be to gift body and mind with a similar ability to move freely through such daunting terrain without fear — although I recognize the danger in such endeavors, even for those with confidence and skills. Anyway, we both gazed longingly at Longs Peak while Justin described how he was going to ride his bike from Boulder and climb to the summit along the technical Cables route sometime later in the week. I admitted that in five years, I hadn't been the top even once, and it wasn't for lack of trying. 

"You can do it," he said breezily. "You can do anything I can do."

I laughed awkwardly because that is so far from being true that we can't even see one another across the gaping divide between us. Yes, I no longer believe in the "you can do anything you set your mind to" platitude. And you know what, that's okay. But I do intend to pursue more doable mountain projects with all of my heart this coming summer — if nothing else, to give my brain something on which to anticipate and focus on in a positive way. 

Developing "2021 dreams" that I can believe in feels important right now. Given the current trajectory of the pandemic and the slow rollout of vaccinations, it seems foolish to believe that we'll be gallivanting on carefree adventures by summer. I am braced for 2021 to be a lot like 2020, with limited travel and contact with friends, no official races, no social events, and mostly local excursions. Beat is more optimistic than me, having already signed up for PTL in France at the end of August. I deferred an entry to the Silk Road Mountain Race and have redirected my dreams to the backyard — should I thru-hike the Colorado Trail? Attempt the Pffifner Traverse? (This is a much easier, though not exactly Jill-friendly version of Justin's route across the Indian Peaks.) I have been strong on the bike lately, so perhaps I should consider something like the Montana Bike Odyssey, which manages to cover 1,800 miles in a single state. All of these could be self-supported, socially distanced, big and scary goals in a year when we're probably not going to wake up and find the pandemic magically ended. It does soothe my anxious mind to imagine realistic goals, rather than the uneasy void of nothing at all. 

If nothing else, I just want excuses to maintain this level of activity, because I am so fit right now! It seems a little more sad and pathetic when I admit I am running and cycling 20-plus hours a week because I'm terrified that insurrectionists are going to attack the Jan. 20 inauguration and plunge the country into violent chaos, and I can't handle the self-perpetuating stress. If I'm training for the Colorado Trail, well then — you go girl! Anyway, on Thursday I set out without water, food, or a wind layer on what I figured would be an hour-long neighborhood jog. Winds have been high all week, and on this day was gusting in excess of 40 mph when the high temperature was 35 degrees — so not exactly warm. But I was also donning a new pair of Kahtoola Nanospikes, which offer smaller studs that are less obstructive on rocks and yet still grippy on death ice. I was surprised when I started down an icy trail and found I could run, not just skitter as I often do to avoid slipping forward in studded shoes. Plus I was wearing my most comfortable running shoes, Hoka Speedgoats, and suddenly felt that I could do no wrong. With the fearsome wind shoving me to and fro, I turned onto the somewhat technical, hilly, 10-mile route that is the Walker Ranch circuit and logged my fastest of 27 matched runs (as per Strava) — despite the wind and frequent presence of hard ice and the fact that it's January and not trail-running season. A PR is such an individual, insignificant victory, but it never stops feeling good. 

On Friday, I had to put a little more money where my mouth is in regard to summer mountain dreams. Eldorado Mountain is a nearby peak on the southern end of the Flatirons. It's a mountain I gaze at from the dining room window over coffee every morning, but had never climbed. There's no established route to the top, and although the only public access point — the north ridge — never goes above class 3, it's still intimidating enough that I'd never attempted a route-finding mission from Eldorado Canyon. A friend recently showed Beat the way, and he invited his friend Daniel and me to join him on an afternoon excursion. 

It was probably the least windy day of the week, but still breezy enough to throw off my equilibrium at times. Daniel of course decided this was shorts weather. We made quick work of a direct ascent through the woods and clambered onto the ridge, which like most mountains in Colorado is a jumble of boulders with questionable stability and the occasional, unscalable cliff to work around. Beat did well with the route-finding. Although I complained about cutting off the trail too early, I did enjoy myself, even when the vertigo briefly kicked in. 

The trickiest moves came at the top, where we stood facing the huge radio towers that have an actual road leading all the way to the summit. The road winds up the mountain from the south on land that is entirely private and closed to the public, but it's still amusing to climb a relatively technical and remote-seeming mountain only to find an obstructive chunk of civilization at the top. I imagine this is how climbers in the Alps must feel. 

On Saturday I set out with my little vest and minimal spare layers to ride my gravel bike over to Coal Creek Canyon. My route followed a series of rolling gravel roads so steep and relentless that it's easy to rack up 6,000 feet of climbing in a 35-mile ride. The weather has been so dry that nearby roads have reverted back to late-summer conditions with loose and chunky gravel, washboard, and sand. Rough. Even though I was running well this week, pedaling still ignites a more deep-set quad soreness leftover from Leadville, so the ride was a bit of a struggle from the start. I was enjoying myself, though. It's just nice to get out for some alone time and listen to audiobooks. Right now I'm listening to "Collapse" by Jared Diamond. I'm pretty sure I first read this book back in 2004 or so — back when I was certain George W. Bush would bring about World War III and the end of civilization. Is it better to be a forever-disappointed optimist or pessimist capable of finding hope in less-than-apocalyptic outcomes? I think the latter is the way to go.

Enthralled by a historical account about the swift decay of Mayan civilization, I ground the pedals through the fearsome wind to a ridge above 9,000 feet. Gusts knocked me sideways and I couldn't even see the Continental Divide through a solid wall of blowing snow. Even though the sky overhead was clear, thick snow flurries tore sideways through the air. Predictably, a deep chill set in the moment I stopped climbing. I'd already put on my tiny wind shell and mittens, so my only choice remaining was to suffer. I was at least two hours from home. I left the house expecting mild temperatures, but a nearby weather station would later reveal it was 27 degrees here with winds gusting to 56 mph, for a windchill scraping single digits. The cold drove through my flimsy clothing, directly into my core. 

I have only myself to blame for poor choices. Even though advancing adulthood hasn't reduced the frequency of poor choices, time has at least made me more accepting of consequences and more willing to do what it takes to remedy these consequences. As my hands and feet went numb, I made random turns onto unknown streets in order to climb for a while, then turned again into a painful descent. With this method, I was able to stave off shivering for minutes at a time. I knew if I lost the sensation in my extremities entirely, I could always step off the bike, run for a while, make windmills with my arms, do jumping jacks if necessary. It would take forever to get home and my fingers and toes were guaranteed to hurt the entire time. But I wasn't worried. I knew it would work. And it was what I deserved, because dammit, I could have easily brought a coat on this ride if only I was willing to acknowledge that through it all, it's still winter. 

By the time I slumped into the door, reasonably rewarmed after a series of long climbs but deeply fatigued, I felt a rush of satisfaction. I made it! I survived! What an adventure. That it didn't have to be so harrowing, that it was never required to ride so close to the edge, was briefly lost on me. I put my experience and fitness to good use to boost myself safely through what occasionally felt close to life-and-death conditions. The difficulty of my ride was life-affirming — even if completely unnecessary. 

I suppose moments like this are reason enough to continue pursuing fitness even if I have no races or concrete goals on which to spend it. That, and it's worth it to blissfully live in the moment and forget about the future for an hour or five. What week is it again? 


  1. Yeah, I had never given Inauguration's much thought until this year, this sort of stuff does work at you in a lot of ways. Am not sure if I can do big things this year due to family health things, whatever happens with Covid, "can I do it", just a whole list of things. Enjoyed your post, you're always doing inspiring cool stuff. Have an awesome year!

  2. Thrilled you are feeling peak fitness! It's been such a long, harrowing time coming. Enjoy it...frolic, roll around in it, and then remember when there's a random "hick-up" (there will always be a few for athletes that push the edge) that you got into peak fitness before from some pretty low places, and you can do it again. Repeat after me: Gratitude and Patience, Gratitude and Patience...
    :) mark

  3. I always prefer to overdress and then shed layers as needed. :)

  4. I never think of fitness as empty. I realize I no longer compete but I enjoy the feeling of being fit. Someday I hope to have more hours to exercise.

  5. Love the picture of Redgarden Wall, it brought back the twinges of anxiety I used to feel hiking up to the base to do a climb.

  6. I was captured by the blog title….was it a question or a statement, just a zen thought or more of an existential metaphor. Really enjoyed your story of adventure layered upon internal reflection, especially you doing the math with your personal wisdom to take the changing conditions and the “here I am” moment of time and space to action a plan to maximize your survive-ability….I mean enjoyment :). That episode had a Sun Tzu vib to it. I think Justin is right in that you could do your version of what he chose to do. I believe your at a point in life where the harmony of mind and body will propel you to build a broader moral bedrock and deeper meaning of existence while dancing on the shape edge of life….empty fitness, I like it!

    Jeff C

    “The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it.”
    ― Thomas S. Monson


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