Sunday, May 30, 2021

Expect the unexpected

It was 10:30 p.m. and I'd refreshed Beat's tracking page for about the tenth time that hour. He and his friend Daniel were out running a 31-mile segment of the Colorado Trail. It was Beat's last long run to prepare for his first post-pandemic race on June 5. They'd started at Kenosha Pass on the Continental Divide and were making their way eastward to lower altitudes. They'd moved at a fast clip since their mid-afternoon start, but in the last hour, they'd slowed down a lot. Why? I found this uncertainty worrisome. If there was still any snow on the trail, it seemed like it would have been more of a problem earlier in their route. Was somebody injured? Had the weather taken a significant turn? 

Several hours before, I caught an early report from The Guardian headlined "Twenty-one dead as extreme weather hits ultramarathon in China." It seemed unfathomable, and information throughout the evening was sparse. Later reports would reveal complacency on the part of the race organizers, slow response, and the terrible bad luck of a large group of people in the wrong place at the wrong time when a particularly strong storm moved over the mountains. But on Saturday night, a lot of commentary from the ultrarunning community moved straight to victim-blaming — i.e., "why weren't they carrying better jackets?" 

I bristled at this reaction. Yes, runners travel light in these types of races, especially at the front of the pack. These runners know they're taking a risk, but they also maintain trust in the race organization that help isn't far away. I've witnessed this at well-organized mountain races in Europe. In my opinion, the army of volunteers, extensive communication, last-minute reroutes, and funding for helicopters and the like are what have prevented UTMB from experiencing a similar tragedy — not the meager mandatory gear. 

For my part, I'm slow and have trust issues, so I try to be self-sufficient at all times. I've carried large backpacks in well-supported California 50Ks because I thought it might rain and wanted enough gear that if I sprained an ankle, I could sit for two hours without developing hypothermia. Obviously, I have a long list of survival gear for my Alaska races, which seems to grow rather than shrink as I gain more experience. But I also accept that there are no guarantees. There are nonsurvivable weather scenarios. 

A personal experience that still gives me pause happened during a simple eight-mile training run in Nome, Alaska, in 2019. The weather in Nome is always harrowing — seriously, just try to convince me otherwise — so even for what I thought would be a 90-minute run, I carried my 30-liter backpack with extra layers, expedition down parka, vapor barrier mittens, goggles, a bivy sack, satellite messenger, and a GPS navigation device. My run was on a road — flat and straight for four miles toward the Nome River bridge and then back. The wind was so strong that the pavement was covered in several inches of spindrift. I was already pushing through a ground-blizzard whiteout when sleet started coming down hard. Suddenly I felt blind. I thought, "no problem, I'll turn around now." I had been running into the wind on my way out. But when I moved with the wind, the chaotic gusts seemed to knock me around even more. Sleet soaked into my windproof fleece coat and somehow needled through my rain pants. Visibility was so bad that I genuinely could not tell the ground from the sky. My disorientation became severe. I'd stumble through what had become knee-deep drifts until I smacked full-face into a six-foot-high snow berm at the far edge of the road. I had to squint at my GPS to follow my own bread-crumb track in order to stay on the road. If it hadn't been for GPS, I'm convinced I would have wandered off toward the Kigluaiks. Sleet froze to my goggles until I couldn't wear them anymore. My clothing soaked through and refroze in minutes. When I finally stumbled through the door of my apartment, my entire body was coated in thick ice. I'd already relented to put on the parka and mittens, and yet I was still shivering. I thought, "What would I do if that storm hit me on the Iditarod Trail? In a completely exposed and shelterless place like the Topkok Hills?" I still don't have that answer. 

Which is to say, all of this was weighing on my mind as I refreshed Beat's tracking page and wondered what was taking him so long. Finally, I sent him a message about how I was going to bed because I planned to get up early for a long ride. Despite the worry, I drifted off to sleep.

I woke up at 5 a.m. to find Beat safely asleep in bed and this response: 

"Got back late. Absolutely insane storm on the way home. Took forever. Roads might be in very poor shape. Lots of rockfall and debris. Not sure if it was as bad further north, but it was nuts until Golden for sure. Some of the worst weather I've ever driven in."

Sure enough, I checked a weather station in the area of my ride to confirm that it had been pummeled with nearly two inches of rain. The last segment of Beat's run was slow because of lingering snow on the trail, but they also caught the front end of this soaker of a storm. At least Sunday's forecast looked nice — a bit windy, and maybe I'd see some afternoon showers. It is spring in the mountains after all. I decided to go for it. 

It was, truly, the most serene morning. The air was still saturated but not exactly humid — more crisp and cool. There wasn't a breath of wind. Roads were indeed streaked with sand, small rocks, and flowing runoff. Earthworms slithered and writhed on the pavement. I remember seeing storm-washed earthworms on sidewalks as a kid, but I can't say it's something I've noticed as an adult. And everything was so green. As I climbed away from Golden and rolled onto the quiet roads surrounding the I-70 corridor, I was struck by how "California" this place felt.

I spun through happy nostalgia, breathing satisfying lungfuls of rich air and marveling at the seemingly tireless pep in my legs. In past years, spring has been a difficult season for me. Spring is when pollen fills the air. Late May and June bring the grass pollen explosion, when it feels as though the whole world is pinched somehow. After 4.5 years of allergy immunotherapy and finally starting on a maintenance inhaler in February, I almost feel like spring and I can be friends again. I powered up the rolling ascent from 6,000 feet in Golden to 11,200 feet at Warrior Mountain, where I caught my first view of Mount Evans. The popular road to the 14er is opening to vehicle traffic in June after remaining closed for all of 2020. I hoped to pedal up there before opening day. I had no clue how far I could ride before reaching impassable snow, but I figured it didn't hurt to see. This view of the skyline told me I was in for an adventure. Spindrift was ripping off the ridges with startling velocity. Here at 11,000 feet, the wind was merely a stiff and cold headwind. Up there? Probably a continous hurricane-force gale. 

I stopped at Echo Lake to pull on my hat, wind shell, fleece buff, mittens, and rain pants. All of these layers weren't quite needed yet, but I didn't want to have to deal with stopping above treeline. Shortly after the gate, a man on a mountain bike passed me. He was wearing shorts and a long-sleeved jersey. 

"It already feels like way more than a mile," he commented as we passed mile marker one. 

"It does," I replied, not adding that I started in Golden. 

Two miles later, just above treeline, the road wrapped around a bend and turned directly into the brunt of the wind. The front end of my gravel bike started to buck like a nervous horse. The air was breathtakingly cold, even though I could tell from the water running on the road that it wasn't that cold. The man had stopped to sit on the pavement and pull on some feeble-looking knee warmers. I nodded as I passed. The wind was much too loud for words. I did not see him again. Later I did a fly-by on Strava and found the above photo that he took of me. It looks like I'm wrestling my bucking-bronco bike, which is probably what I was doing.  

The accumulated snow continued to deepen. Since crews had recently plowed a path through deep snowdrifts, I knew this was all new snow, probably from the previous night's storm. But the traction underneath seemed decent. In this case, the gravel bike was more or less the right bike for the job, since it sliced through the alternately slushy and crusty snow. I tried to keep an eye out for patches of ice. I pushed my bike when I didn't feel secure. Some wind gusts made it impossible to move forward at all. 

It was all a bit silly, but I was really enjoying myself. First I had this great climb through a perfect spring morning, and now I was embroiled in a true winter adventure! Ground blizzards swirled around me and I imagined I was back in Nome, battling with all of my might for the faintest of forward progress, chanting the mantra that my Nome fat-biking friends taught me: "Moving is winning." With decent wind protection from my layers, the ambient temperature didn't feel so cold. I did start to notice more ice on the road, so it had dropped below freezing. But I figured if I could continue to coax traction from my tires, I could probably battle my way to Summit Lake. Since I could still see a jet stream of snow pouring off the summit, I had no delusions about reaching the top. 

After I pedaled past Goliath Peak, there was a mile-long stretch where the road was well protected by an east-facing hillside. The crosswind remained, but it wasn't so bad anymore. I pedaled hard through accumulated snow. I became complacent. Then, just as I was about to round the next bend, the most incredible gust of wind hit me broadside. Honestly, it felt like being side-swiped by an invisible vehicle. I toppled over and slid across the pavement. Then, most disconcertingly of all, the wind pushed my body along the road like a candy wrapper. All I could deduce was there was black ice I hadn't noticed, and now I was being pushed on my back toward a sheer dropoff. It was going to hurt if my body went over the edge and started sliding down the rock-studded snow. I scrambled and spun and somehow got up onto my knees. The wind was still too strong to stand. I had blown at least six feet away from my bike, which was anchored by a pedal to the road. I crawled to my bike, grabbed the frame with both hands, and scooted on my knees backward to the relative wind shelter around the bend. Phew! That's enough adventure for today. 

Returning with an unpredictable tailwind, now feeling skittish about hidden black ice, was an arduous and admittedly scary task. I walked much of the three miles back to treeline. But after that, the world quickly turned to spring again. I pulled on my puffy coat to descend to Idaho Springs — after more than an hour of slow descending on an exposed mountainside, I was quite cold, but the puffy did the trick. After that, I spent more time on gravel roads. By afternoon the gale found its way down to these elevations, and the headwind could be intense. A few showers moved in, but they were nonthreatening non-thunderstorms, and carried the rich aromas of spring that I'd enjoyed in the morning. The hills were green and gorgeous. Except for a bruise on my thigh from toppling over on my bike and a slightly sore hip, I felt energetic and alert for the rest of my century ride, which ended at 98 miles with 12,600 feet of climbing. It's always hard to quantify experiences since memory is imperfect, but I'd have to say this was one of my favorite solo day rides of all time. Like a spicy piece of chili chocolate, all the tastier for that zing of heat — or in this case, brutal windy cold — at the center. 

On Monday, still buzzing from this ride and the deep green spring beauty, I asked Beat whether he wanted to join me on an afternoon ride. Even though he's been in training for summer foot races and not riding all that much, he was game for one of our local favorites, Homestead Trail. We launched from the driveway and started down a steep descent of our road. The road had just been graded over the weekend, and I noticed the abundance of loose stones now littered across the dirt. This was the only thought I had time for, because literally 0.15 miles from home, Beat's bike suddenly catapulted forward. I watched as it flipped end over end several times. In the cloud of dust, I couldn't see what happened to Beat, but I did see legs in the air and knew he'd gone over the handlebars. When I pulled up, he was gapsing alarmingly. I thought maybe he'd just had the wind knocked out of him, but I feared he'd punctured a lung. When he finally caught his breath, he said he wanted to go to the hospital. 

The drive was pretty horrible. We live 35 minutes from town, all on winding mountain roads. I tried to drive carefully, but every switchback caused Beat to moan with pain. My mind was wracked with stress and becoming muddled. This is the kind of stress I don't manage well. Stress that only affects me, like 60-mph winds on Mount Evans = Fine. No problem. But Beat was hurt and I felt at least partly responsible; my anxiety was starting to shut down rational decision-making. I hate this. I need to work on this. In what felt to me like two minutes but was actually four hours, we were in and out of the ER, had confirmed that Beat had a broken clavicle and possibly broken or bruised ribs, gone to two pharmacies to find one that was open, and purchased snacks for Beat to ease some of the pain ... the drugs were for the physical pain. The snacks were for the coming disappointment of losing this part of the summer, just as post-pandemic plans were finally setting him free. 

Since then, it's been a week. Beat was able to quickly get in to see an orthopedic surgeon, but because of the holiday weekend and other factors, couldn't secure his surgery until June 4. He has a lot of pain on his right side, more so from the ribs than the broken clavicle. He has to sleep sitting up in a recliner. He needs help dressing and taking a shower. It shouldn't be surprising but always is, how quickly one can go from fit enough to run a 100-miler in the mountains to calling out in the night because they've slumped over too far and can't get up. Of course, Beat had to drop out of his June 5 race. I am feeling terrible about this.

I haven't wanted to leave Beat alone for long, so I dropped weekday plans to ride Trail Ridge Road and kept my rides and runs to two hours. On Saturday morning, I set out to run nine miles around Walker Ranch. Storms were forecast to move in around 1 p.m. and remain for most of the weekend, but the morning was clear and almost hot. I was feeling so good that I contemplated how I could extend this run just a bit. Near the end of the loop, I guiltily messaged Beat that I planned to drop down Eldorado Canyon and climb back via Shadow Canyon, which was going to turn my two-hour run into a five-hour run. I felt some shame, but at this point, I was willing to acknowledge that my guilt arose from being able to run when Beat could not, rather than the delusion that he needed me around at all times. 

I had an amazing run. 18 miles with 5,000 feet of climbing, and while I never pushed it hard, I genuinely felt no fatigue. And this is in spite of the fact I only had two packages of fruit snacks for an energy boost — about 180 calories total — and 1.5 liters of water. The water I did have to start rationing, but luckily for me clouds began to move overhead. I felt thirsty but acknowledged I would have suffered more if it stayed 70 degrees and sunny. As I made my way toward Bear Peak, the forecasted storm arrived right on target, 1 p.m. Fast-moving fog encircled the mountain, accompanied by thunderclaps and at least one bright flash of lightning. Why is it that I always find the thunderstorms on Bear Peak? This is my fault for staying out much later than planned. I also regretted that I was only carrying my light wind shell and a pair of thin fleece gloves after proclaiming in the post-China-ultramarathon-disaster chatter that I try to be prepared always. But this was my two-hour, close-to-home, Walker Ranch pack. I'll hadn't expected to end up on Bear Peak this lightly packed, and will try to avoid it in the future. My gear would get me through but it was going to hurt if it started hailing or raining heavily. Luckily the worst of the storm moved south. I shadowed this dude in a red hoodie, matching his steps as we danced over tricky terrain to safety.

Expect the unexpected ... always. 


  1. So sorry, Beat, just when things were getting back to "normal." Your spill has me questioning the rationality of my solo rides for over a month every spring in the Klondike Hills north of Moab. Yes, it gives me pause. Healing can't come fast enough, I know, so you can get back "out there." But it will be more of a rheostat than an on/off switch. A Peloton might help get you through this...but I know it's not the same as running free outdoors and racing.
    Listen to the Docs...

    1. Got Zwift, it will become my best friend for a while I'm sure :)

      After the surgery the shoulder should heal quickly enough for my fall races though - so thats good!

    2. On bad weather days I set a laptop in front of my exercise bike and watch youtube videos of thru-hikes on the PCT, CDT and Appalachian Trail, as well as bike races and 100 mile footraces...including some that you have done. It sure takes my mind off the grind and time. :)

  2. Best wishes for a speedy recovery Beat from being "body slammed"...ribs are the worst IMHO. No way to isolate your "core" from breathing, reaching to right yourself or eating...cough or a sneeze sent me over the top! I didn't have any medical leave so had to finds ways to work around the injury...broke out in a sweat gritting teeth a few times but eventually the "stabbing" went away and it slowly healed.

    "For an adventurous life, seek not security. Dance with uncertainty to create magnificence and beauty."
    Debasish Mridha

    Jeff C

    1. Super lucky I get good sick leave, and typing isn't difficult. Yeah there's not much you can do when your core is messed up. Together with only a left arm I'm about as useful as a wet noodle. It's already getting a bit better though. Still no coughing/sneezing and even clearing the throat needs to be done with utmost care, but still - progress!

  3. Best wishes to Beat for a quick and complete recovery.

  4. Good advice to always expect the unexpected. I love that you compared the ride up Mt Evans to a spicy bit of chili chocolate. Great metaphor! Keep up the great writing.

  5. My husband tore his Achilles in April, it is a 6 month recovery. I get the guilt feeling...since he can't walk, I've really had to curtail my adventures. Our bodies are amazing but fragile.

    1. Uff, way worse than the collarbone. It hurts right now, but should recover super quick, and if you use your collarbone much when running you're probably having bigger problems ... Hope your hubby heals up fine!

  6. Dang, I was hoping to see one face I knew from the life before. Heal up, man.

    1. Yeah downer. At least its one of the quicker to go back to running from. Have fun down there! I'd have come to watch but I don't think driving will be in the cards yet.

  7. When Beat can lie down again, hugging a pillow to your ribs really helps rolling over when trying to get comfortable. Speedy recovery!


Feedback is always appreciated!