Monday, March 01, 2021

Slog therapy

Since my recent bout of anxiety, recovery has been moving slowly. Mornings have been the worst. I wake up feeling strung out, as though something bad happened overnight and I can’t quite remember what it is. The morning coffee ritual strangely calms this surge of adrenaline, dissolving it into irritability that takes some focus to control — if I let down my guard, I’ll snap at Beat for no reason, and then feel guilty about it. 

By afternoon, my mind has settled into a more manageable flatness. I also call this state “beigeness” or lethargy. But it’s not fatigue, per say. It’s more like an emotional languor, an inability to access the usual joys and pleasures I take for granted when I’m not, well … depressed? I’m loathe to use that term, but this is probably what it is: a relatively mild and manageable cycle of anxiety and depression. These negative emotions aren’t anchored in any current reality that I can understand, as is usually the case with the many flavors of this condition. Things are improving, as they always do, but I sure wish I could expedite the process. 

I did go looking for biological scapegoats. I had my thyroid levels tested and learned that not only am I not hyperthyroid, I’m actually drifting father toward the hypothyroid spectrum. My T3 index is on the low end of the normal range, my T3 uptake is low, and my TSH spiked into the every-so-slightly high reference range at 4.52 uIu/mL. Back when I spent time commiserating with fellow sufferers in Graves Disease forums, pretty much everyone warned me to be wary of eventually swinging hypo. “Your body now knows how to attack your thyroid; you can’t expect it to function normally ever again,” was one memorable comment. So I guess I’m going to start tracking my numbers more closely after enjoying a couple of relatively benign years. (I sure had it good in 2019. Too bad I sort of wasted that year of peak physical health and freedom because I didn’t know what was coming.) Still, at least I’m not experiencing any overly concerning thyroid symptoms at the moment. 

 I also learned my asthma is slipping farther toward the “uncontrolled” range. This appointment with my asthma doctor was unrelated to my recent concerns. I didn’t seek it out because I’ve been having anxiety. It was my now-standard two-month checkup to test my lung capacity and adjust my allergy shot and medication strategy. My most recent skin test in July 2020 showed that improvements on my more serious allergies have stalled, and I’m developing sensitivities to new allergens. In addition, my spirometry test results continue to decline despite the fact it’s been winter (not my allergy season) for a while now. On Friday, my doctor detected wheezing in the standard stethoscope exam. This means my airways are likely inflamed most of the time. 

When I consider this, everything does start to make more sense: an irrational but genuine fear of the approaching summer season; bad dreams about wildfires; my recent allergic flare-up — sparked on Feb. 12 during my hard 100K ride in the smog — bringing on a more chronic state of asthma. Breathing difficulties spark anxiety. When I lie down at night I feel slightly short of breath, and this continues throughout the night, causing me to wake up feeling anxious. Later, when my body comes down from prolonged breathing-related anxiety, the “beigeness” follows. It all makes some sense. 

Anyway, this recent diagnosis gives me at least some hope that bringing my asthma under better control will improve everything else. My doctor recommended a new, stronger maintenance inhaler. Unfortunately, many asthma medications are backordered right now since they were found to be effective treatments for COVID (which I’m fine with, really. COVID patients need it more than me.) Still, like the vaccine, I’m not sure when this inhaler will be available to me. For now, I wait. 

Given my desire to avoid any stress that may exacerbate anxiety, shortness of breath, and the tedium of viewing the world through a beige lens, perhaps it’s unsurprising that my physical stamina and adventure motivation have been low. It remains true, though, that repetitive motion and beautiful scenery still release the happy hormones, even when they’re more deeply buried. My current state of mind means this release is fleeting — like a trickle from a pinched pipe rather than a dam burst — but it’s still been worthwhile to get outdoors for slog therapy. Here are a few photos from this week's attempts to “beat the beige.”


A week ago Sunday, I decided to take my fat bike for a ride through the tight web of snowshoe trails surrounding Brainard Lake. I knew before I left the house that it was going to be cold and windy. "I just need to get out of the house," I told Beat. Quietly, I hoped the weather would be even more thrillingly terrible than forecast, because "at least that will feel like something."

The weather was legitimately some of the worst I have experienced outside of Alaska. By the time I set out at 11 a.m., a nearby weather station was recording regular wind speeds above 60 mph, and gusts above 80 mph. In fact, a graph spanning the entire afternoon showed the wind never dropped below 45 mph, not even for a few seconds. Even relatively protected forest corridors were enveloped in a ground blizzard. The temperature hovered between 9 and 11 degrees, which might not sound too cold. But trust me, when the temperature "feels like" -18F, what that means is that it feels like -18F air is being forcibly injected into your body through every tiny opening in your clothing. I'd choose an ambient temperature of -18F over a -18F windchill any day. Brainard Lake is an incredibly popular recreation area, so there were still a fair number of folks out skiing and snowshoeing (I only saw one other cyclist.) I was getting a kick out of all of these fellow "poor souls" who either didn't know what they were getting into when they drove up from Denver, were way more hardcore than most snowshoe-owning Coloradoans would ever receive credit for, or, like me, were purposefully trying to tear through inner malaise with acute discomfort. 

Indeed, I was incredibly grumpy for the first hour of my ride. Fat biking is tedious, the Front Range is a hellhole, everybody out today is a complete idiot and so am I. But the longer the punishment lasted, the better I felt. Even after the water in my bottle turned to slush and prompted me to gulp it all down at hour 2.5, I still stayed out for another two hours, becoming increasingly dehydrated as I explored threads of singletrack. Spindrift would fill in tracks almost as quickly as they were laid down, so I was generally following a soft and cambered trail of fresh ski tracks along precarious slopes. Usually, I don't enjoy riding such technical winter trails because even the slightest handlebar shimmy results in a cold powder plunge and enough flailing that I bruise limbs and rip clothing. But on this day I didn't care much if any of that happened, and I ended up riding reasonably well. Everything tends to go so much better when I can just get out of my own head. 

The prettiest outing of the week was on Thursday, after a storm dumped 8-10 inches of snow at home. I was excited to break out the snowshoes and tromp fresh tracks up to Bear Peak, which is often ridiculously hard in new snow (deep drifts mask the chair-sized boulders that form a staircase to the summit, and it's tough to find footing. Snowshoes arguably just make things harder.) Still, it's such lovely spot for a four-hour, six-mile slog.

After the storm moved out, it was clear for a few hours, but then a thick fog moved in. I was glad about the fog. It infused everything with a soft grayness. Silvery wisps of frost clung to the branches of burned trees. A smooth blanket of snow masked a jumbled mess of rocks. The visual proved soothing, a sort of aspirational state for my own mind. 

Feeling out the route to the summit did prove much more challenging then I remembered. The final pitch covers 0.3 miles of distance and it took me 52 minutes to slog this out, pausing after nearly every step to brush snow from a rock and find the best spot to place my foot. It doesn't get much more tedious than that, but I was glad about the work. It was slow yet physically engaging, simultaneously mindless yet intellectually stimulating. I found myself pondering memories of my grandmother's house and the strange ways that the details are so much richer than memories of my own childhood home. Perhaps I've always struggled with familiarity, filtering it out in favor of novelty. Perhaps this is my weakness. 

The fog started to lift as I climbed, revealing a thick inversion and brilliant sunshine overhead. 

Clouds clearing to the west.

Frosty loveliness. It was much warmer above the inversion, and I didn't even notice that I'd become drenched in sweat despite moving at a snail's pace for nearly two hours.

Looking east toward the plains, still shrouded in fog. When I reached the summit there was only one other track punched into the snow from Fern Canyon and none from Shadow, so Bear Peak wasn't a particularly popular destination that afternoon. I wondered if the people down in Boulder knew how sunny it was up here, and posted something on Facebook just because ... somebody else needed to experience this. It was sublime, which I admit I am still only experiencing as "somewhat brighter than beige." But it's something. 

I climbed back to Bear just before sunset on Saturday. This is the same view toward the plains without the fog. The snow had consolidated and the same route that consumed four hours on Thursday only took a little over two, for much less effort. I was admittedly disappointed. For my brain, there's something special about slogging — efforts that are both difficult and slow, methodical and repetitive, that lull both body and mind into a pleasant numbness. It's not necessarily enjoyable all or even most of the time, but this week, it was perfect. 

Beat was game for a couple's slog on Sunday. This day was the start of the 2021 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Due to COVID concerns in rural villages, this year's race is running as a 350-mile out-and-back to the remote mountain outpost of Rohn, with no 1,000-mile race option. Beat had hoped to plan an Arctic adventure and was less interested in such a route, but he still wavered slightly on the ethical dilemma of travel in COVID times. It's the first year in ten that Beat didn't line up at the start. It's also the longest stretch of time since 2005 that I've been away from Alaska — I'm reminded now that nearly a year has passed. My failed race in 2020 has also been weighing on me ... there's a lot to unpack there. But Beat does not seem to mind missing out. He's been perfectly happy with the familiar and excited about summer. I envy him. I'm working on cultivating a better attitude to boost my mood. 

Anyway, it was his idea to hike to Niwot Ridge on Sunday, our favorite avalanche-safe mountain zone where geographical features funnel some of the strongest winds in the state. The weather forecast was colder but friendlier than the previous week, "only" calling for 10-20 mph winds in Nederland. That usually means 30-50 mph winds on Niwot. You could not climb up here on a day like last Sunday. If it's gusting to 80 mph at Brainard, the hurricane forces up here are almost unthinkable. But if Niwot is "only" gusting to 50 mph, that's about the best you can expect on a winter day on this fabulous ridge.

It was cold. Just 11 degrees at the trailhead. The Brainard weather station recorded single digits. It was probably close to zero at 12,000 feet, and that's before windchill. It was cold. 

My balaclava wasn't quite cutting it, and my windward cheek burned as my lungs started to feel scratchy. That was a concerning sensation, as it might signal as asthma attack, and I'd stupidly left my inhaler to freeze in a backpack pocket (I stuffed it down my bra after I thought of this, just in case.) These are things I'm worrying about just a little bit more since my most recent lung test, even though cold air isn't usually a trigger for me. Blah. Luckily I still had that fleece buff to pull over my face, and that seemed to do the trick. 

Blowing snow over the Continental Divide. Beat and I were both reasonably well-dressed, and once I solved the frozen cheeks and lungs issue, I wasn't uncomfortable. But the white fury is mentally difficult to endure, and even more difficult to choose to endure voluntarily. We tagged a high point on the ridge and skedaddled downhill. 

So this is where I am today — a skedaddle that looks and feels more like a trudge. I'm trying to move beyond the cycle of anxiety and depression, but I admit it keeps pulling me back in. I intend to do more slogging this week, perhaps jump back on my bike or trainer to see whether I've found some of the stamina I lost, spend more time on this writing project that brings me peace when I can focus on it, listen to good audio books, and track the Iditarod Trail Invitational but maybe not too obsessively, as there are admittedly triggers there. I know there is light at the end of this tunnel if I keep on trudging. 


  1. I just remembered that it is you who keeps reminding me when I lament my failed WM100 a few years back that having an asthma attack can really negatively impact your mood. I'm glad you're figuring things out and coming back.

    1. Yes, I just picked up my new inhaler today. Thank you friend!

  2. So my thyroid saga goes like this: recently I just felt awful, slow, sluggish, depressed. My level was a bit above 4. My doctor wanted me to keep it that way even though it had gone up quite a bit, but I bugged her to try a higher dose. That's when I became a tweaker, couldn't sleep, snapped, etc. Now I am at a medium dose in between the two and feel amazing. Highly suggest tweaking yours--4.52 is too high I think for most people. I love the pic of the people struggling with their trekking poles. Go Coloradans go.

    1. I'm glad you've found a good equilibrium. I'm not currently taking any thyroid medication, and back when I was it was an anti-thyroid. So starting on levothyroxine would require a hypothyroid diagnosis, and either way, I'd prefer not the mess with that system unless it becomes a problem. But I intend to keep tracking my TSH perhaps every four months now.

  3. I found some nuggets in this Dr K clip you might find as well. Still noodling your last post...lots of thoughts as I stottered thru it :).

    Jeff C

  4. Thank you for sharing. These photos are absolutely amazing. We've had a warm winter in Arizona and so this is the closest I'll get to seeing snow! Had a thought. I suffer from anxiety and IBS. Recently, I was told about the use of an app for hypnosis to manage the symptoms of IBS. Honestly, I thought there is no way this would help. However, no one had any better ideas. So I tried it for six weeks. I have to admit that my symptoms have improved by at least 50%. I've heard that hypnosis can help with the anxiety associated with asthma and thereby help with asthma symptoms. Just a thought that might help. Here's to hoping the beigeness transitions into full, bright, wonderful colors soon.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm in a phase of "I'll try just about anything and I'm totally susceptible to placebos so that may work for me." I have ordered some new supplements among other strategies. If you see this reply, can you let me know the hypnosis app that worked for you?

  5. Hi Jill- I just sent you an email. Let me know if you don't get it. Hope the information helps. Take good care-Victoria

  6. I know your asthma behaves much better in colder temps, and in general you love all this snow and I sort of channeled you yesterday on my Pikes Peak trudge through half a foot of fresh overnight snow. It wasn't cold (it was during my other ascends), but I tell you, trudging is not my thing for sure. I am ready for Spring and real running. Feel better!


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