Friday, February 19, 2021

Out of the depths

I want to talk about anxiety. 

It’s a common issue, considered the most common mental health disorder in the world, and is thought to affect about 4 percent of the global population. It’s much more widespread in the United States, affecting 40 million — or 18 percent of Americans. Why has anxiety become so prevalent? Lots of theories. Social media addiction, poor lifestyle habits, excess stress, artificial lighting, underreporting in the past, lowered stigma, etc. Uncontrollable risk factors include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. Nearly every human is exposed to one of these factors, but not everybody considers anxiety to be a negative force in their life. 

Where does this negative force tip the scale from “stressed out” to “generalized anxiety disorder?” I can’t answer this question, because personally, I don’t consider stress and anxiety to be directly related. Stress can exacerbate anxiety, but it doesn’t cause anxiety. So what causes anxiety? This week, more than any other week in my life so far, I feel I am nowhere near to finding an answer. 

Where does it start? Genetics and personality, most likely. I was a mildly anxious child who enjoyed some respite as a self-assured if brooding teenager. In early adulthood, I started pursuing adventure and absorbed a few traumatic experiences that I believe shaped the trajectory of my outdoor life. These experiences include becoming trapped under a raft after it flipped during a whitewater rafting trip, cowering next to boulders near the summit of the highest mountain in Utah as an electrical storm raged overhead, sprinting down an inescapable slot canyon during a heavy rainstorm, and becoming lost for several hours and nearly running out of water during a hike in the desert. 

These were all valuable learning experiences for a 21-year-old who was just starting to explore the scope of her outdoor passion. But in the months that followed that formative period — the spring of 2001 — I noticed that I felt considerably more frightened in situations that hadn’t bothered me in the slightest just months earlier, such as vertical exposure. I started to have “freak-outs” at inopportune times, such as being caught in a July snowstorm on the wrong side of an exposed ridge below Mount Borah (this is a legit scary situation, but the panic was most unhelpful.) 

More generalized anxiety rose out of these depths during what was also a rough patch in my personal life: the summer of 2002. But it didn’t follow my worst fears; it was triggered by what I considered at the time — and still do — some of the dumbest scenarios. I had a panic attack during a thunderstorm even though I was inside my house at the time. I had another panic attack when I awoke one night and realized I’d left my bedroom window open while Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper was still at large (I lived a few blocks away in Salt Lake City at the time.) I wasn’t actually afraid of a window kidnapper or being struck by lightning on my couch. These were just random triggers, sparking a stress reaction that spiraled out of control. 

These incidents, among a few others in my “poison summer,” convinced me I had a problem. I believed my only two choices where to either be terrified of everything all of the time, or pull myself up by the boot straps and charge toward fear head-on. The summer of 2002 was when I decided to take up cycling and dove headlong into adventure by bike, completing a two-week-long, 600-mile tour by September. I was certain I’d cured myself. I could be fearless as long as I told myself it was so — “be brave, be strong.” 

I’ll have to fast-forward here, but that’s basically how I comported myself until the summer of 2015, when I got sick during the Tour Divide. It’s been a different sort of mindset since, now that I realize I definitely do not have all or even most of the control, and I’m not even solidly in the driver’s seat of my own mind. In the ensuing years, I accumulated two decades of life experience. My amygdala absorbed new traumatic events. I lost relationships and long-held assumptions. I gained security and wisdom. I should be a different person than I was then. I am different. But that same spiraling sea monster (this is how I visualize anxiety, similar to the way depression is a black dog) still lurks in the depths. 

A week ago Thursday, I was in a good place. Like everyone else in the U.S., I struggled with the stressors surrounding the pandemic, racial justice, and politics. But even the pessimist in me believes these issues are (at least for now) following a trend of improvement. I’ve been feeling fit and using hard efforts to stoke all of the positive brain chemicals. So I headed out for a hard 100K bike ride. When it comes to physical effort, “hard” is still relative for me. I engage a higher heart rate but I can still walk normally the following day, so how much did I really bury myself? 

Anyway, a few hours later I came down with a runny nose. It was pretty pronounced — a burn-through-half-a-box-of-Kleenex-in-a-night sort of sinus congestion. The air quality had been poor during my ride, so I blamed allergies. I felt fine otherwise but decided to isolate from Beat just in case I’d caught COVID. 

 The following morning, as quickly as it came on, the sinus congestion cleared and I felt mostly fine. Mostly fine … except for weirdly on edge. Like any little thing could set me off. I thought it was just basic irritability and blamed hormones — “that time of the month” sort of thing, even though it wasn’t that time of the month. 

On Saturday we woke up to my favorite type of weather — new snow and deep cold, 11 below zero. I respect how difficult the Polar Vortex has been for many people, but it was a blessing for me — finally, real moisture to put a dent in the drought, snow to add beauty to the drab sameness of pandemic life, and sharp, cold air to stimulate all of the senses. I eagerly anticipated a morning run with Beat. As we geared up, he questioned me about a hydration pack and it deteriorated into an argument. Amid the anger and perhaps remnants of sinus congestion, my respiratory rate spiked and “breathing difficulty” sparked a panic response. As the sea monster surged from its turbulent depths, my adrenaline skyrocketed and my mind went dark. All I could comprehend was running away from the monster. 

I rushed to a spare bedroom where I could lie in the dark in the fetal position and gasp for air. Beat, thinking I was merely annoyed with him, came downstairs about 20 minutes later and found me in this state. He worked to comfort me as I tried anything I could remember — grounding exercises, reciting a list of favorite songs, counting backward from 100 — to reign in the gasping and sputtering. I was frightened, deeply frightened, not only because I couldn’t breathe, but because I’d finally lost it. I’d gone crazy. I did regain control of my breathing, but by the time it happened, it was as though the monster had already clenched its jaws around me and drained my blood. I felt like I had never been so exhausted — not when I ran 100 miles that one time, or any of the times I ran 100 miles, or anything I ever did to pull my own bootstraps and prove I was brave and strong. 

I laid in the dark for a while longer and then decided I could do my mental health some good if I just got up and went for a walk. I was so exhausted that I would only commit to 15 minutes of walking. It would take me longer to get dressed for the subzero weather. But I got dressed anyway and ended up staying out for two hours. I felt weirdly blank. Not cold, not tired, not angry, not stressed, not relieved, not joyful. Just sort of … nothing. My life force was, in fact, emptied. 

My week since has largely been a lot of this: recognizing my exhaustion, trying to be gentle on all systems to encourage recovery, trying to enjoy the one week of cold weather we were probably going to see this season by getting out for walks, all while feeling baffled by my incapacity for joy. As a calming mechanism, I read a lot of Mary Oliver's poetry and even cried because I felt like I lost that part of myself — the self who never failed to find pure astonishment in the natural world. Meanwhile, as my body rebuilds cortisol and adrenaline, I’ve noticed that I feel “on edge” again. My respiratory rate and heart rate spike when I encounter tiny stressors. I’m terrified the monster will clamp down again, so I avoid anything that might cause unnecessary stress, including hard efforts while exercising. I dutifully keep my heart rate in zone one or two while slogging through shin-deep snow, reminding myself that I love this cold and snowy world. I know I love it on an intellectual level, but feeling this love is another thing altogether. 

It’s been a week since my panic attack and things are improving. I no longer feel deeply upset immediately upon waking up. I’m a little less irritable, a little closer to feeling joy again. I’m a lot less exhausted — my energy levels are almost normal, and I completed a moderately strenuous 90-minute effort on my bike trainer today without fallout. My attention span lengthened enough to read things longer than Mary Oliver poetry and start writing again … although this blog post honestly is the first remote success I’ve had with the effort. It’s difficult to talk about anxiety, but at the same time I feel the need to talk about it. As I repeated to myself multiple times while trying to reign in my panic attack, I rode my bicycle across Alaska alone in the winter once, for crying out loud. But the thing I fear the most is my own mind. 

Searching for answers — a reason not to fear — will be a difficult and possibly never-ending journey. My therapist believes in reconciling past traumas, which is why I’ve been thinking about the spring of 2001, among others. Since my Graves Disease diagnosis, I’ve wondered if there’s an autoimmune component to “flare-ups” of anxiety — that might allow me to pin blame on the short-lived sinus infection for this particularly inexplicable episode — but the autoimmune theory doesn’t have a lot of support outside the functional medicine realm. I plan to get my thyroid levels checked next week, as hyperthyroidism does have a direct link to anxiety. I’ve resolved to “take it easy” for a while, just in case I’ve been inadvertently overtraining and thus overstressing my body. I’ve made an effort to return to the meditation practice that I so dutifully cultivated last spring. 

I just want to feel joy again. To breathe deeply without fear that I’ll lose my breath. I believe I’ll get there, but I have to admit this has been one of my most difficult weeks in a while. The worst part about it is that it’s been difficult for no reason at all. There was no real challenge to overcome. There’s no satisfaction behind me, no reward in the future. It’s all drudgery, although perhaps I’ll emerge on the other end having learned something important, or gained a new appreciation for what I already have. 

 As Mary Oliver wrote, “so long as you don’t mind a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?”
Friday, February 12, 2021

I'm here live. I'm not a cat.

As we near one full year of pandemic life, I feel a deepening sense of living in a sort of ancillary reality. Like the before times, I still spend some of the day wading into the murky past, collecting seashells of memories for writing projects. But now so many of the remaining hours are immersed in a present that feels similarly distant — filtered through the many platforms of the internet, gathering outrage and grief as it floats past. I express condolences to a neighbor by e-mail because I know how inappropriate it would be to show up at their door. But I cringe when friends propose social hours on Zoom — why even bother? That meeting could easily be an e-mail. I even took some of my cycling online, thanks to Zwift. While I truly enjoy the Zwift and won't apologize for that, I ponder how this activity might contribute to increasingly blurred lines. 

Now that my days are filled with waking dreams, my sleeping subconscious has become increasingly visceral. Recent anxiety nightmares have taken the shape of tight lungs and a blackened sky. I'm walking on a dirt road, watching dark ash fall around my face, and struggling to breathe. Beat tells me I've started to snore during the night, which makes sense. I'm genuinely dreading summer — the fire season with its smoke and destruction and evacuation alerts. Air quality so poor it leaves me wheezing after a few minutes of strenuous exercise. My world already feels somewhat disconnected and insular, and now summer is coming. The season in which I can't even go outside. 

I know this view is overblown, but it's hard not to think in extremes these days. We're programmed with reactive attention spans. A choose-your-own-reality culture of viral memes and scrolling has us retrained in ways we don't really understand. We can't keep up. Our thoughts become garbled. We reach for strands of truth, only to watch them evaporate in an instant. So we reach for the next thing that comes up on the screen, the next shiny object in the rapid-fire news cycle.

When I set out to find a career in the late 90s, I chose journalism because I believed in its permanence. Observe the experiences of my community and record them for prosperity — truly a noble purpose. Now I understand that truth won't prevail simply because there's no market for it. Many humans will believe in Lizard People and space lasers while decrying decades of scientific research. And anything we create can evaporate as quickly as a Tweet. Just yesterday, I learned that shortly after new owners took control of the Juneau Empire in 2017, the Web site transfer was mismanaged and the entire digital archive was erased. More than a decade's worth of investigative reporting, cultural events, creative essays — poof. Out of curiosity, I plugged one of my old outdoor columns into the Wayback Machine and found I could still access it, but only because I had the URL saved. There's no way to search those old articles, no way to research those pieces of Juneau's history, no archive to show for the thousands of hours poured into all of those stories. It's just gone, as will happen to all of us, and then all memories of us, eventually. Smoke in the wind. 

Somewhat ironically, the column I randomly searched was about squeezing in one last mountain hike before the weather turned cold and snowy. My barely memorable 2009 self concluded, "Whatever you do, don't wait. Winter is coming."

Then there's lawyer cat, whose Zoom mishap went viral and brought joy and laughter to millions. The comedy of appearing in court as a kitten is classic and universal, but there's also something quintessentially modern about doleful eyes gazing through a screen to declare in a Texas accent, "I'm here behind this filter. I really am. I promise I am not the adorable but confused creature that I appear to be." 

Like — don't we all feel that way? Where is the line between the "real" and virtual worlds? Does such a thing even exist? When was the last time I spent more than a second looking at a mirror or considering my appearance in public? Can I be certain I am not a cat?

The oil light in our Subaru had been on for weeks, but I procrastinated taking the car in to get checked out — car repairs mean long waits, which often translates to time spent indoors, and isn't it better to just avoid driving altogether? Finally last week I caved and made an appointment, with a plan to just meander around Longmont on my gravel bike rather than risk the waiting area. The afternoon was extremely windy and also rainy, with tiny droplets flying directly into my face like icy needles. Blech. I wrestled with the handlebars while gusts pushed me backward. A white wall of snow hovered over the foothills. When I squinted through the misty curtain, I could see the blackened skeletons of trees — ominous scars of last October's Calwood Fire. Dread flushed through my veins like cold water. I looked away.

The diagnosis for the car was a severed oil sensor, likely chewed apart by the rabbits that like to hang out underneath our vehicles. (I used to find this cute. Now I admit I am rooting for the mountain lions that have also visited our doorstep.) If the rabbits had chewed a couple of millimeters to the left, the auto technician told me, it would have meant a $1,700 engine repair instead of a mere $200 for the sensor. I took this news without relief or irritation, having become desensitized to petty car troubles by the dreary plains, wildfire scars, and winds so strong they almost knocked me off my bike. 

Still, beneath the gloomy indifference was a spark of anticipation, a new little dream to pursue. While riding around Longmont, I came across several directional signs for the Old Man Winter Bike Rally, a 100-kilometer gravel event that's become a staple of bike culture in Boulder. I've been curious about participating in the race since we moved here, but it takes place during what's usually an inconvenient time of year — just a couple of weeks before the Iditarod, which for more than a decade now has been laser-focused on tapering and preparing to survive another adventure. I don't miss that February sense of doom, but then again I probably do, more than I realize. On the bright side, I have no obligations for training and nothing I do matters, so why not race Old Man Winter? The event went virtual this year, offering an opportunity to test the course on my own time while still enjoying the parameters and distant camaraderie of a race. 

My friend Betsy wanted to meet up for a ride on Friday, and I half-jokingly proposed riding the 100K course. She didn't have enough time for the distance, but was interested in riding through North Boulder and Longmont on a modified route. I rode thirty brisk miles with her, and then split off to explore the hilly second half of Old Man Winter. Amid this 60-mile ride, I basically explored the entire course and had no reason to pursue it further. Still, the idea of racing the course nagged at me. How fast could I go? The best women's times are around four hours ... could I do it in five? Five hours would have landed me in the top seven in 2019, the last time this race was held. 

No matter how I parse it out, I'm not a talented bike racer — I'm a timid descender, I have limited power on flat terrain, I insist on carrying my creature comforts, and I use platform pedals for crying out loud. I more or less quit bike racing back in 2013 when I realized I don't even like racing bikes all that much ... bikes are for fun, touring, and the occasional weeks-long endurance expedition. Using bikes as a vehicle to rank my mediocrity among other athletes is not that appealing ... and yet. And yet. 

Just as I began to scheme a time trial, a thick and unmoving inversion settled over the plains. The bad air that I fear from summer became a February reality. This smog was a mixture of vehicle and industrial emissions rather than wildfire smoke, but it's all a bit difficult for me to breathe. I noticed the brown layer on Monday while making my way into town for errands, and opted to stay higher for my morning run. This photo is from the summit of Green Mountain. 

The inversion persisted into Wednesday, when I had hoped to start my time trial. Smog flowed in and out of the neighborhood like waves lapping a shoreline — one minute it would be 25 degrees with the Air Quality Index above 90, and the next minute the west wind would push in 45-degree air with an AQI near 0 — good warm air and bad cold air, in a strange sort of dance. I avoided it all and stayed indoors, working out some of my jitters on the bike trainer while becoming increasingly agitated all the same. I needed to break out of this bubble. 

"Even if the AQI is bad tomorrow, I'm still going to try," I told Beat. "If I start wheezing I'll just quit."

By the time I started to get ready on Thursday morning, the temperature had already climbed to 42 degrees. The sun was out and the sky was a brilliant blue, a reflection of perfectly clear and pollution-free air. This was at my home at 7,200 feet — as in, the place where I actually live and could just walk out the door to enjoy perfect February weather. The wind was blowing to near gale-force, it's true, but when is it not? I checked the sensors in Lyons, where Old Man Winter begins, and saw that it was 12 degrees with an AQI of 94. Gross. An Air Quality Action Alert made it clear that the smog was not likely to clear up anytime soon. It would be pretty dumb to take my sensitive lungs down into the inversion and ride a bike at a tempo pace for five hours or more. And yet I wavered for only a minute, then packed up the car and headed down anyway.

The air had warmed to a balmy 14 degrees by the time I arrived. The sky was slate gray with the cloud ceiling just a hundred feet overhead. There was a skiff of powder on the ground and flurries wafting through the still air — "pollution snow," I thought. I decided not to check the AQI again; at this point, it's just better not to know. I didn't know when I was a young adult in Salt Lake City and used to ride my skinny road bike through smoggy inversions so thick I couldn't see five feet in front of me ... which is probably the genesis of why my lungs are so %&*! today. Anyway, I was surprised to find four other cyclists getting ready to embark on the same ride. My start time was a random 10 a.m. on a Thursday, so I expected to be alone, but I suppose Old Man Winter is pretty popular. 

"It's so cold!" the woman parked next to me exclaimed. "It wasn't supposed to be so cold today."

"I think it's going to be in the teens for most of the day," I said. "It's supposed to be colder over the weekend, though." 

"You look like you've done this before," she said, pointing to my feet. I was wearing oversized Gore-Tex hiking shoes along with knee-high gaiters. Meanwhile, the man opposite me was pulling the thinnest-looking pair of cycling shoe covers over his cleats. My toes cringed with a vicarious sensation of frostbite.

"Yeah, I wore gaiters," I said. "I don't like it when my feet are cold." 

"Well, you look prepared," she said. 

I had been rifling through a jacket pocket for my phone, and in pulling it out also pulled out the old KN95 mask I decided to carry just in case I started having asthma symptoms.

"I'm extra prepared," I said, holding up the mask. She regarded me silently with a confused look on her face. I forget that most people don't feel as strongly about air quality as I do, and that to her I was probably just advertising COVID paranoia ... which I also have, but not when I'm well distanced from others and also outdoors. 

I took off down the road and noted my start time after rolling past the Highway 36 intersection — 10:02 a.m. Pretty close! (I admit I had Beat change my official tracker to 10 a.m. from a planned 9:30 a.m., which I'd already changed from 11 a.m. Wednesday.) The gravel along the road was loose but less dusty than the previous week, so perhaps the pollution snow had done some good. I set into a solid tempo pace — heart rate 155-160 — and pretty much just hoped my speed wouldn't drop below a 15 mph average in the rolling hills. I'd decided not to watch my pace. I was riding my drop-bar gravel bike with studded tires, which are slow-rolling on non-icy surfaces but promised to help spare my old lady bones when patches of ice surprised me. I don't regret my gear choices in the least, but I sure had to work hard for 15 real miles per hour versus 15 virtual miles per hour on Zwift. I was glad it was 14 degrees, so I could pedal this hard and not even break a sweat. 

For the first hour, I was filled with irrational exuberance. I was racing my bike! How fun! I looked over my shoulders a few times to see if my random start time companions might catch me. I have no idea how much longer they took to get going, but they all looked fit and fast. My lungs started to feel raw and hints of wheezing escaped each exhalation, so I pulled up my fleece buff. I tried to take sips of water but my water bottle valves were already frozen. When I could afford to ride single-handed, I gnawed at them for several minutes until droplets of liquid escaped.

Fatigue began to set in with the mild dehydration as I made my way up Lefthand Canyon. My lungs felt raw and I resolved to back off this high-zone-three effort, but not before the end of the climb. No, have to at least try a little bit hard in the one discipline I'm reasonably good at — long, grinding ascents. The studded tires clicked on the pavement as I churned past the frosty trees and rose above the last wisps of haze. Above the inversion, the air was still brilliantly clear and warm. My bottles thawed and I took deep, refreshing gulps of water followed by equally refreshing gulps of air. The tightness in my lungs relaxed. I was feeling so much better, up here where the air is clear.

Rowena Trail seems to be the crux of this ride. I imagine it's as snowless as it's ever been during the race, but the trail was still a tricky mixture of bumpy death ice and large boulders. As that sign notes, there are also cliffs and ledges that can be unnerving. Heading into this, I'd decided I'd probably just throw the saddle over my shoulder and jog the full two miles at 4 mph, because it would probably be faster that way. By the time I arrived, buzzing on sunlight and oxygen and water, I was eager to rally this climb and attempted to ride most of it (except the cliffs. I hiked my bike beside the cliffs.) My time for the segment was 21 minutes, which is not blazingly fast for two miles of riding, but marginally more efficient than 30 minutes of running.

The rally riding was strenuous enough to work up a sweat in this warm air, just in time for the long descent into the frigid fog. It was painful. Or, perhaps another way to view the sensation, is that I felt fully alive and immersed in the harsh reality of my surroundings. My water bottles again froze by the second steep climb up Lindon. I even stopped to try to forcibly remove the lids. No dice. I hadn't yet eaten any of my snacks. My stomach grumbled uncomfortably because it was past lunchtime and I was hungry, but my throat was so raw that it was hard to force anything down, especially without water. Still, I wanted to have some oomph for the final segment of flats, so I gnawed on frozen fruit snacks until they dissolved. 

Climbing the 10-percent grades of Linden on sugar fumes with rigidly cold muscles half-broke me, and wrapped up the final twenty miles of the ride in a dream-like state of unreality. Occasionally I glanced over my shoulder and wondered how my 10 a.m. Thursday companions were faring. Did they regret using water bottles instead of hydration packs? Did they also find Linden to be an unmerciful bully? Were their toes cold? (Mine were not, thank goodness.) It's strange, when you think about it, how connected one can feel to strangers while racing. Maybe it's the comfort of shared misery. But there's also so much joy in these experiences. It somehow feels more meaningful when connected to the perspective of another person, even if this perspective is just as imaginary as anything else in a virtual world. (I don't know these people, and I don't know how they fared. I don't even know if they left Lyons. But in my mind, their stories parallel mine. Perhaps that's all that matters.) 

I pedaled through the dreamy fog in my own private haze, gasping occasionally when my brain fired off a signal to "pedal harder." I passed under the green light of Highway 36 and remembered just in time to pull out my phone. 3 p.m. on the dot! So that would make my ride ... 4:58ish. That was my goal! Five hours! But what did it matter, really? It was arbitrary. Old Man Winter had been an obsession of mine for all of a week, and now it was over. I'd earned nothing. I was probably going to pay for this hard ride in bad air with, at the very least, a day or two of lung congestion. Still, I went out into the world and I did something. That, in itself, felt refreshingly ... human. 

I'm here. I'm alive. I'm not a cat. 
Monday, February 01, 2021

The necessity and frivolity of personal challenges

I was nearly home after spending five hours crawling along snowy, vehicle-clogged roads in typical Colorado winter traffic, wrapping up a day where I woke up at 4 a.m. and drove eight hours round trip for what felt like frivolous, not-worth-it reasons. I was just grumpy, questioning why I ever bothered to leave the house during COVID times. All I had to show for it was an out-of-commission fat bike, a full bladder, and an empty stomach from hours of being trapped in a vehicle. (One of my personal moral codes for travel during COVID times is to avoid going indoors when I'm out on the road, which is a bit arbitrary when I still walk into grocery stores in Boulder County, but I chose to stick with it even though I would have died for a burrito. Okay. That's not true. Obviously, I'm not willing to die for a burrito or I would have definitely stopped at the Silverthorne Chipotle despite COVID times.) 

So I was a mile from my house and about as surly as can be when a song came on the radio that was my favorite song as an angsty eighth-grader in 1993 — "No Rain" by Blind Melon. Of course, I found myself singing along with the same wistful resignation I felt then. Even though we believe we grow up and move on from our volatile adolescence, deep down we're still just a conglomeration of hormones — the same ridiculous teenager, now worn around the edges by life. 

And I don't understand why I sleep all day, 
And I start to complain when there's no rain.
And all I can do is read a book to stay awake,
And it rips my life away, but it's a great escape. 

"That's what I'm going to do tomorrow," I thought. Since I couldn't ride my fat bike into the mountains surrounding Leadville for twelve hours, instead, I would just sit inside my own house and read.

The original plan wasn't too ambitious, just another little endurance challenge to calm my restless mind for a few more weeks. Two virtual races presented themselves as the perfect opportunity: A 45-mile informal fat bike race near Buena Vista on Saturday, and a global virtual fat bike race called the Fat Viking on Sunday. My plan for the solo effort was a 100-kilometer route in Leadville, covering everything I enjoyed riding so much three weeks ago as well as all of the spurs I was eager to explore if conditions allowed. I planned to camp along the Arkansas River on Saturday night, something for which I had to dig deep to drum up excitement about, given the forecast overnight low of -2F. Still, I appreciate the way COVID times have reawakened my inner dirtbag, the 20-something woman who used to sleep on a tarp at desert trailheads and hide a tent in a cluster of trees on the side of a Kentucky highway. Why did I start spending all that money on hotel rooms when I have a perfectly good sleeping bag I can roll out anywhere? (In my advancing adulthood, I strongly prefer it to be somewhere legal.) 

Still, winter camping can be a bit rough on the 41-year-old body. Instead of driving out Friday night, I opted to wake up early for the three-hour commute to the "Cottonwood Crusher." Although my inner 13-year-old is loathe to wake up at 4 a.m., it is nice to escape the Front Range on a Saturday and enjoy traffic-free roads. I was already in Buena Vista by the time the sun came up, revealing a mass of ominous clouds over the Collegiate Peaks. When I stepped out of the car to take a few sunrise photos, a breathtaking blast of cold wind warned me that the conditions for this ride would be "sporting." 

A group of about 30 riders gathered for a nice socially distanced start. This "race" was completely informal — no fees, no support, no cutoffs, no rules. The Cottonwood Crusher was little more than an agreed-upon route and an expectation that each person would be entirely responsible for themselves. It's the best of all worlds, really. I enjoy having all of the freedom and independence of a personal ride while still benefiting from the camaraderie and motivating parameters of a race. And my inner dirtbag enjoys paying no race fees. All of my recent "races" and "vacations" have happened for the cost of gas and groceries — usually less than $100 for as much as a week of fun. Yes, dirtbag life is a good life. 

Another photo of the start. It was blustery but warm — about 25 degrees. Still, the wind made the weather feel Arctic, as wind does. 

At 8 a.m. the group started up a steep grade toward Cottonwood Pass. Several inches of powder covered the packed snow surface. It was sugary snow that didn't consolidate well, so I was already dreading the first snowmobiles that were certain to tear up the trail. But the initial riding wasn't too difficult, except for the 25 mph cold headwind. 

After a couple of miles of slow grind, I joined up with Beth, a nurse from Crested Butte who completed the ITI 350 on a bike last year. Since 2020 Iditarod conditions were so difficult and slow, she and I actually spent quite a bit of time in close proximity during that race, despite the fact she was "riding" a bike and I was walking with a sled. We shared heaps of cathartic commiseration along the wind-blasted Iditarod Trail. I last saw her when she pedaled away from me for good about halfway through the ITI outside Rohn, so it was fun to run into her again in a humorously similar environment almost a year later. We worked hard to hold the thin white line drawn by the leaders, fought snow devils, and adjusted layers as switchbacks shifted our orientation to the brutal wind. She was cheerful and determined, which bolstered my excitement for the ridiculous challenge. 

The scenery along the climb to Cottonwood Pass was incredible. The effect of wind and cold made it feel like a high alpine mountaineering expedition. I'm told this is just a boring old paved road in the summertime. It's difficult to imagine. 

Conditions became even more sporting above treeline. By then we had been passed by enough snowmobiles that we could no longer trace a line that wasn't torn to shreds. The wind was amazing. These two guys passed and said they weren't up for the 12 hours this 45-miler was sure to take, and planned to turn around at the pass. I was thinking, "I don't mind if it takes 12 hours. I drove all the way out here to ride. The more hours of riding the better." 

We pushed through deep fluff to bypass an avalanche zone. When we returned to the road and started to ride again, I noticed I could no longer reach my shifter lever with my thumb. It seemed to have slipped back several inches. Strange. Maybe that was just an effect of having too-cold hands. I pulled on mittens and stuffed my hands back into my pogies. In doing so, I managed to knuckle-click the top shifter several times, moving the derailleur into nearly the smallest cog on the cassette. When I tried to downshift, the lever just spun free. No clicks. No leaving this impossibly hard gear. 

Well, crap. I pulled off the right pogie and fiddled with the shifter for several minutes below the pass as Beth disappeared over the horizon. The lever was definitely just spinning free, doing nothing, while the derailleur stayed locked in the hardest gear. I had even clicked the top lever a few more times, so now I was really screwed. I decided to push the bike the rest of the way to the pass, hoping I might find some wind shelter up there — maybe even an outhouse! — but it was not to be. I at least found a wind-scoured strip of gravel where I could potentially drop a screw or tool bit and maybe not lose it forever in deep snow. I spent another 15 minutes tightening and loosening a screw, spinning the lever, and hoping to find a magic tension where the likely stripped mechanism would click once again. I was so angry. Mechanicals make me so angry. I've joked before that I really shouldn't be a bike rider because I secretly despise bicycles (needy, time-consuming machines, grumble, grumble ... and I do neglect them to an embarrassing degree.) But I just love riding bikes too much to give them up. 

Several more cyclists reached the pass and turned around as I stood in the searing wind, straddling the teeth of the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet and freezing my ass off. Cheryl arrived and said she too planned to head back down. She asked if I would join her. But I wasn't ready to give up quite yet, even though I was already shivering and could no longer feel my fingers. She left and then a big group of friends showed up, including Erika's partner Cullen who is a competent bike mechanic and seemed eager to help. I felt guilty about everyone standing around at the coldest and windiest spot on the entire course while Cullen did his best to get me rolling again. He managed to adjust the derailleur to a lower gear, but agreed that the shifter was toast. The best I could hope for was single-speeding in this spinny gear ... although if I fat-knuckled the top lever again, which seemed likely, I might be in for an increasingly long walk out. 

I decided it was time to call it. I was terribly disappointed — not because I would have to DNF this race, which didn't even really exist, but because now I wasn't going to be out for 12 hours riding my bike up and over the Continental Divide on this day, nor would I get to spend 12 more hours riding my bike 62 miles the following day. I didn't even bring snowshoes, and I don't like the idea of leaving an expensive bike unattended in my car, so I didn't have a plan B. It was over before it even really started. Bummer. Cullen, Jim, and Pete continued down the cold and windy route west while the rest of us turned east to return to the trailhead. 

Classic fat bike technique: Straddling a bike while boot-skiing to descend a steep slope in squirrely conditions. Snowmo churn left the trail in much worse shape for the descent. Coasting often leads to swerving in such conditions, so I usually shift into my highest gear and pedal to help maintain traction. Since that wasn't an option, I swerved and boot-skied and occasionally twirled the pedals maniacally in an effort to keep the rubber side down while careening down the hill. It was actually a lot of fun. Erika, Betsy, and I stuck together, stopping often to admire the scenery. 

We spent the next couple of hours tailgating in the parking lot, standing in a wide circle, talking and laughing while waiting for the first finishers to come back. It was a great afternoon to spend with friends. Ultimately, I wasn't too disappointed about skipping the slow grind of the remainder of the course, especially after Beth returned to report worsening conditions on the other side of the pass that led her to turn around after just a few more miles. However, I was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to embark on my long solo ride in Leadville the following day. Erika and Cheryl urged me to take my bike into a nearby shop, sharing their connections to increase my chances of scoring a last-minute repair. I mulled it over but decided I didn't want to do this for a number of reasons, not the least of which was stepping inside an out-of-town business during COVID times and begging for special treatment when my motivation was dubious at best. So I decided I'd just cut my losses and drive home that day. 

Sitting in Colorado traffic makes me so angry. It's just so tedious and it's reliably consistent, every weekend from November to April, plodding to and from ski areas. Inevitably enough people crash to force one or more highways to close, which was the case on Saturday. So I had to divert through an alarmingly crowded Breckenridge downtown and ended up on the parking lot of I-70 anyway. I should have just camped and woken up at 4 a.m. Sunday to drive home, but it was too late to change my mind now. Saturday was just a long day in the car ... the fat bike ride already seemed like this strange dream. That's when I decided I didn't want to leave the house on Sunday, or maybe ever again. 

Reading all day sounded like a fine plan, but I was still hungry for good, hard effort to replace my ghosted 100K. I came up with a strange but appealing plan to ride a century on my bike trainer — the longest route and all of the hills in virtual Zwift world while listening to an audiobook. I thought it would take six or seven hours and it did: 6:54. I drank five full bottles of water and nibbled on trail mix from my fat bike stash. I enjoyed myself immensely. Trainer riding has the same meditative quality of summer road cycling without any of the stressors: No traffic, no sunburn, no harsh smoky air, no wind. I view Zwift as a relaxing pastime, although I tend to go hard and burn a ton of energy and feel exhausted at the end. For this reason, it's all-around perfect. I was enjoying my audiobook and lost myself in the zips and zooms of the virtual world. After finishing, I felt nicely satisfied with my effort. It wasn't 100 kilometers of snow biking at altitude, but it wasn't nothing. Still, like treadmills, trainers have a bad reputation for being instruments of torture. With this in mind, I flippantly titled my ride "Punishing myself for DNFs" on Strava. 

Photo from a Jan. 21 ride to Upper Apex Valley, a cool 60K with 5,500 feet of climbing that I completed as a pre-race shakedown to make sure everything was in order with the fat bike and legs.

In my view, the trainer century wasn't punishment at all. It was a salve for a restless mind — not quite the elixir I was seeking, but soothing nonetheless. Still, afterward, I received several messages from well-meaning friends and acquaintances that more or less told me that it was okay I didn't finish my race, these things happen sometimes, don't worry, you're still awesome. My reaction surprised me — I was a bit offended. Do I come across as a person who places all of my self worth in these silly sorts of challenges? Enough so to be devastated by failure in a relatively short non-race? Races are fun (they are!) and they're a useful path to self-renewing rewards thanks to daily training and recovery. But they're not an end-all. I can quit the endurance game anytime. I still have art and music and writing .... even if my writing has been unsatisfactory lately, and I'm only continuing to grind away at it out of habit, hoping it will take hold of my spirit once again, all while dreaming and scheming yet another new challenge — ideally something high and cold, or deep into the night, peering into the abyss while reaching toward the sublime. 

Beat on top of Niwot Ridge — so close and so very Arctic — on Jan. 23

My feelings about endurance racing have been all over the place since I left the Iditarod Trail on March 10, 2020 — everything from ambivalence to fierce renunciation to resigned devotion to renewed determination. It's both meaningless and something I think I might need nearly as much as I need love and shelter — if not physical endurance, then a mental endurance challenge such as reading "War and Peace" or finally finishing one of these fragmented writing projects. Hiking the entire Iditarod Trail was for me the crux of both physical and mental endurance — an ultimate challenge. Realizing a hard truth that it would likely always remain out of reach might have ruined my year were it not rapidly eclipsed by the grief of a global pandemic. Still, I never really processed that loss — the loss of my Iditarod dream. I just threw it like a sharp object into a corner of my anxious mind and soothed the scars with small but meaningful efforts. 

Amid the little challenges, I became physically and mentally stronger. I accepted what I had to leave behind in 2020 and gratefully embraced what remained. I still fretted about lots of things, but I took more control of my anxiety and sometimes harnessed that erratic energy into more productive ends. I continued to move through the world. It was a smaller world than past years, but it still possessed all of the same joy and wonder, and it still put me in my place — a speck on a speck in an expanding universe, reaching toward a truth I will never grasp. 

I guess what I mean to say is that purpose is subjective, that I will almost definitely ride 100 imaginary miles on my trainer again, and I'll continue to dream about far-off, improbable challenges that I almost certainly can't realize, but can visualize in a way that offers many of the same rewards. Maybe someday I'll find myself on a Baffin Island fat bike expedition after all. And if it happens in the real world, I will definitely invest in a full tune-up for my bike.