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. 


  1. 100 miles on a trainer, I can't even. Of course mine is a town cruiser mounted on a trainer so I have no idea how far I'm going but still. I can't get past the boredom which is why I am not as tough as you.

  2. "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."
    So true...
    I can get 32 to 35 miles on my exercise bike in 90 minutes. However, that is at Maximum Resistance :) I can't walk for an hour after that, so yes, still a stupid male teenage in that regard :)

  3. The thing that sold me on Zwift is the virtual reality simulations that trick the mind into almost believing we are zooming through this video game world — the image projected on a large screen, the resistance increasing and decreasing on hills, and the engaging — if not photo-realistic — graphics. We even went all in and bought a specific indoor bike that pitches up and down based on the grades. I usually ride "hills" on Zwift, so I'm not just spinning the same monotonous pace for however long I'm on there. And ultimately, Zwift is a fun video game where one can set PRs and win fun prizes (virtual prizes.) As I mentioned in my post, I still feel it offers the best of both worlds — much of the experience of "real" cycling, and almost none of the risks.

    Of course I still love being outside on its own merits. But the opportunity to work out indoors without a gym will be a boon for me during the smoky season, which I am dreading more than I can describe. (Really. I have started to have nightmare-like dreams about "summer" where the sky is black and I can't breathe.)

    1. I have a growing melancholy when using a simm world as we pass the one year mark of a slowly shrinking world. A defined end point has morphed into goal posts mounted permanently on wheels...the world on the other side of my screen is so alien to that outside my window.... My introversion grows as I avoid social contact in getting supplies for living, at the same time trying to resist the slide of normalization. Hard not to see people as the “other”….social trust….
      I always enjoy your stories of finding meaning and exploring your movement thru the world over the last 12 years of following you…it will be interesting the arc your path will take over the next decade as the world trys to find a “new normal”. Best wishes for adventure!

      Jeff C

  4. You are making me consider Zwift although I think that getting outdoors is probably better for me but it actually does sound fun. Hmm. . .

  5. I still can't quite fathom the "not stopping" with full bladder and empty stomach thing due to whatever.

  6. So have you gotten the shifter fixed and was it just wore out and needed complete replacement or something else? My first job at 14 was working in a bike shop and have continued off and on throughout my life of 68 years. I just wonder about these things. The inside of these shifters is more like a watch with all kinds of springs and little tiny gears.

  7. What a journey. I'm amazed at such endurance with such wind and sorry to learn about your mechanical issues that caused you to have to abandon the race. Toward the end of the time I lived in Michigan, I began to see such bikes way out in the woods where I was backcountry skiing. I will keep my bike for warmer weather.


Feedback is always appreciated!