Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pre-empting the springtime slump

Ahead of our move to Colorado in two weeks, Beat and I have been making the rounds to say goodbye to friends in the Bay Area. One of the first questions they inevitably ask me is, "When's your next race?"

"Dunno," I reply. "I don't have anything planned right now."

I realized it's probably been nearly seven years since I finished one big event and didn't already have designs on another. (Only about a month passed after the 2009 Tour Divide before my friend Keith asked me to be the other half of his 2010 TransRockies team. So I'm not sure even that counts.) Sure, there will probably be another Iditarod. But that's a year away, and not set in stone. Summer is still wide open.

This was intentional, given my recent breathing issues. In just a couple of weeks I'll move from 300 feet to 7,100 feet elevation, where I'll face a host of new allergens to which I may already be susceptible (Recent history has shown me to be especially vulnerable to allergies in the Rocky Mountains.) Training through the transition could be downright terrible.

Although the Iditarod went well and I had no major issues during the month I was in Alaska, I'm still concerned about asthma. Allergy season is in full bloom here in California, and I can feel it when I'm running. Every time I venture outside, I turn into a snotty mess with sneezing and watery eyes. This is quite different than wheezing and constricted airways, but paranoia causes me to instantly dial back my effort the moment I feel remotely winded. I am still unwilling to approach that elusive red line. So I run more slowly and walk up the steeper hills. It's still enjoyable, and it's not like I'm training for anything.

I do wonder when — or if — I'll feel that fire again. That fire that burns in my throat when I've reached the edge of my abilities. That fire to charge up a hill without fear that the air will run out before I reach the top. To take on a summertime challenge with heat and dust and pollen, and not feel resigned to weakness and failure from the start. Today I first learned about and finally watched the short video about Lael Wilcox, "Fast Forward." The part that struck me most was the sound clip of Lael's labored breathing before she decides to call it during her Arizona Trail time trial. The sound ... the look on her face ... the emotions in her eyes. I had to hit pause and look away for a moment. It hit too close to home.

I've not spoken with Lael about her experiences with exercise-related breathing problems. (Sadly, we just missed crossing paths in Alaska last month.) I empathize with her because I suspect we caught the same germ in Banff, both developed lung issues during the Tour Divide, and experienced recurrences afterward. She is younger and fitter than I am, and can do some amazing things while wheezing, but I relate all the same. I know she's training for the Trans-Am, and am excited to watch her progress in the race. Secretly, selfishly, I tell myself that if Lael can get through the Trans-Am without issue, perhaps I'm in the clear as well.

The asthma doctor I am seeing has speculated that my symptoms have been caused by reactive airways following my bout with pneumonia last June and July. Given the depth of the infection, she said it could take months to recover, but she believed I would recover. She does not think I have chronic asthma, but I may be more susceptible to allergy-related asthma attacks, bronchitis, and asthmatic symptoms in the future ... because some of the choices I made as an endurance athlete shredded my lungs (okay, she didn't actually voice this last part.) She put me on a maintenance inhaler because I was heading into the middle of nowhere frozen Alaska with uncertain symptoms. I'm of the opinion the medication helped, but I suspect she won't renew it when I go in for my final appointment. I'm healthy right now. The Iditarod went well. Springtime allergies have not stopped me from running ... yet. I suppose it's all good news.

 On the injury front, I still have carpal tunnel syndrome. It still hurts to hold a toothbrush, so biking remains unappealing on top of inadvisable. I am still not getting the sympathy from friends that I would like ("It's been six weeks! I'm in pain. I have to type with one finger. I pulled a muscle in my shoulder because I'm trying to lift heavy things with one arm. Please stop e-mailing fun bike invites and giving me FOMO on top of CTS.") I miss biking. Running has been fun, though. The second and third photos are from a jaunt I did at Windy Hill during the week. On Saturday, Beat and I ran up Rhus Ridge in the rain.

 Ah, Black Mountain. The round little hilltop with radio towers, odd rock formations, and an incredible panoramic view of everything I love about the Bay Area — from San Francisco to Mount Hamilton to the redwood-forested hills to the Pacific Ocean. On a rainy Sunday, the views were of not much. I think I will need to return here once more, to say a proper goodbye to my special place before I go. It's not the easiest spot to reach on foot.

On Monday I drove to Santa Clara to donate bike parts and my beloved commuter fixie. It was a sad parting, as the fixie was the last vestige of my life before California. Living 2,000+ feet above a town where I would actually do any commuting means I have no desire to ride a fixed-gear in Colorado, so I decided she should go to someone who can actually use her. My knees are happy, but my heart is sad.

I consoled myself with a run around a park I'd never visited, Saint Joseph's Hill in Los Gatos. The lupine were out. I started down the hill at a brisk gallop, taking deep gulps of the pollinated air and trying to ignore the rash forming beneath my wrist brace. My heart was happy, but then my shins were sad. Time for a rest day.
Thursday, April 07, 2016

Injuries are never fair

Ah, the post-adventure blues. I always experience them to some degree, but this particular bout has been both tempered by excitement about the upcoming move to Colorado (April 21!) and exacerbated by frustration about my hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome gets no respect because it's a "typing" (read: desk jockey/couch potato) injury, but it's more debilitating than I anticipated.

Unlike the other sports injuries I've had, CTS has managed to irritate all aspects of my life. With limited dexterity and almost no strength in my right hand, I have to sloppily use my left hand for eating, writing, cleaning, shopping. Driving is more difficult, typing is a mess, and don't get me started on my page design job at which I'm now at least 20 percent slower. Sleep has been fitful because I often roll onto my arm in some way that causes me to wake up with shooting pain in my three affected fingers. Although the throbbing and tingling comes and goes, there's nearly always a low level of pain, despite taking four Aleve per day (my "prescription" from a physician I consulted in Nome.)

It is getting better, slowly, which is encouraging. The Nome doctors urged me to wait a few weeks before taking more drastic measures, since my case seems likely to be an acute injury. Since we're moving to Boulder at the end of the month and I'd need to switch doctors/physical therapists/hand specialists anyway, patience seemed like the sensible choice.

More on the acute theory: One week before the start of the ITI, I went over the handlebars during a fast descent and landed hard on my right side. Most of the initial pain radiated from my shoulder, but there were cuts on my palm indicating that I also landed on my hand, which would have impacted my wrist. With plenty of other pains and pre-race anxiety to distract me, I may not have noticed any initial compression. It's possible I started the race with a minor acute injury, and handlebar throttling and stress exacerbated it. Further crashes on ice (I had a bad one in the Dalzell Gorge that left my whole lower arm swollen) also could have added to the inflammation. It's one theory. Overuse doesn't really explain why I had problems from the first day, or why I suddenly have such an advanced case when I've never experienced nerve damage from any other long bike ride I've done.

The bad news from Dr. Google is that a majority of people with CTS, acute and repetitive, don't recover from it without surgical intervention. Especially with more advanced cases where mobility is severely impacted. Dr. Google always manages to bring me down. First he got into my head with all the lung studies, and now this. I should stay away.

One aspect of this injury that I haven't mentioned yet, perhaps because it hurts the most, is not being able to ride a bike. Beat thinks I am being smart about recovery, but really my hand hurts when I touch anything, so the temptation to ride is not there. Beyond the CTS, I can't say I feel too many after-effects from the ride to Nome. My sleep is poor, but that's because of CTS, and I'm still more hungry (All. The. Time.) than is warranted. But my energy levels are normal and my legs feel great, which is why I'm glad to have running in my life. Running keeps me from sliding too deep into post-adventure blues.

Of course I don't want to end up with other injuries on top of my limpy hand, so I'm trying to be prudent about returning to an activity after a month "off." An hour or so a day, five to six days a week seems prudent. I cherish these hours, as that's always one difficult aspect of the post-adventure transition — going from a predominantly physical existence to a sedentary one. The fatigue is quick to wear off, leaving all that conditioning that makes it feel more natural to move than to sit still.

I took Tuesday off because both of my shins were sore after Monday's run (see, restraint.) Still, I was chomping at the bit to get out today, even though there was a heat wave and it was 93 degrees, and just one week ago I was overheating at 65. I went to San Francisco to meet an editor, and took advantage of the commute home to revisit one of my favorite spots in the Bay Area, Sweeney Ridge. In my long absence I'd forgotten about the 30-percent grades climbing out of Pacifica, and nearly fainted at mile six (Not exaggerating. I experienced dizziness and briefly blacked-out vision, and chose to sit down on the trail before it wasn't a choice.)

But it was a beautiful day, even in the hot hot heat. I intend to use these final weeks to revisit some of the places that I'll miss the most. California has been my home for more than five years — it's difficult to fathom, as it feels as though I just moved here, especially with Alaska vistas so fresh in my memory. This realization of "leaving home" was enough to cause me to tear up as I descended toward a sweeping view of San Francisco, the Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Crystal Springs Reservoir, and Mount Diablo. I was listening to a song by Darlingside that I'd played on repeat during my second day on the Yukon, when I was surrounded by the white expanse of the mile-wide river:

I stood above the Rocky Mountains
where Colorado touches New Mexico
And I could see a hundred miles
but I was many thousand miles from home.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Some of my Iditarod photos

 This will be my last Iditarod retrospective post, for a while at least. I realized if I don't write a long-winded race report for my blog, I may not have a chance to share photos. (I will not join Instagram. I will not.) Although I'd like to make a post with a hundred photos (I love them all!), I decided to stick to one favorite for each day of my race, with a short description, approximate mileage, and time stamp. (I used my own GPS data to come up with the mileage. Most agree this is an under-estimate of actual mileage.)

Day one: Squall over Flathorn Lake, mile 29. 5:05 p.m. February 28.

 Day two: Morning fog on the trail to Finger Lake, mile 110.  9:11 a.m. February 29

 Day three: Rainy Pass, mile 171. 2:36 p.m. March 1

Day four: The Farewell Swamps, mile 209. 9:07 a.m. March 2

Day five: Only five miles to McGrath!, mile 301. 9:13 a.m. March 3

Day six: Leaving Takotna, mile 329. 2:49 p.m. March 4

Day seven: The long and bumpy Iron Dog trail, mile 401. 5:14 p.m. March 5

Day eight: Mike, me, Sam and Katie at Innoko shelter cabin, mile 416, (Sam and Katie were not part of the ITI but rode the entire Iditarod Trail independently. The couple from Durango, Colorado, finished the Tour Divide on a tandem in 2014. 9:47 a.m. March 6.

Day nine: Miner's shack with a view on Poorman Road, mile 481. 11:45 a.m. March 7

Day ten: "I hope this Yukon River ice holds," mile 496. 8:45 a.m. March 8

Day eleven: Golden willows near Kaltag, mile 628. 6:36 p.m. March 9

Day twelve: Chasing Mike to Unalakleet, mile 690. 6:36 p.m. March 10

Day thirteen: Facing the wind tunnel from the crest of the Blueberry Hills, mile 734. 4:26 p.m. March 11.

Day fourteen: Mike at Reindeer Cove, mile 755. 1:19 p.m. March 12

Day fifteen: Passed by Brent Sass on the sea ice, mile 780. (Sass was leading the Iditarod Sled Dog Race at the time.) 3:24 p.m. March 13.

Day sixteen: Greeting my superiors on the flats west of Koyuk, mile 801. (I have high respect for sled dogs ... and I'm not even a dog person.) 10:09 a.m. March 14.

Day seventeen: Little McKinley, mile 852. 8:59 a.m. March 15.

Day eighteen: The coldest morning, mile 898. 8:44 a.m. March 16.