Thursday, May 12, 2016

Out of the fog

A near-home view of Denver, the city where I was born
I think I've finally emerged from the strange fog I slipped into over the weekend — the fog of becoming dizzy whenever I stood up, feeling fuzzy-headed and tired, and falling asleep unintentionally during the day. In hindsight, a cold virus may have contributed to this condition, but I blamed altitude and the possibility that I pushed my body just a little too hard during our first week in Colorado. I'm not as strong here as I was in California. I may actually acclimate to the elevation before I finally accept that reality.

I was annoyed about dozing off on the floor while working on projects, so I decided to go for a run on Monday evening. Usually when I'm feeling low on power, an outdoor excursion boosts my spirits and my energy levels. Beat was running home from work, so I planned to meet him on the saddle of Green Mountain, about 3.5 miles away. Just getting there proved to be more than I manage — my legs were weak, I became dizzy, and had to sit down on the trail twice to clear my head, even though I was hiking at a relatively low-exertion pace. It was going to be a long hike back, so Beat agreed to run ahead and meet me at the trail junction with the car. While continuing to attempt a jogging pace, I must have looked fairly pathetic, because a fast-moving runner stopped and asked me if I needed company. No, I replied, my boyfriend was coming to rescue me. It was a most horrible run — the kind where you wonder if you're permanently broken.

Tuesday was my appointment with the hand specialist, who basically performed the same examinations that my doctor friends conducted in Nome, then referred me to a physical therapist for a nerve conduction test — just like the one I had in Nome seven weeks ago — one week from now. Any further appointments will likely sprawl out for weeks or even months.

Effectively, I'm in the same position I was in mid-March. I haven't made that many gains in the healing process since then. I do have better dexterity and strength in my hand, but a lot of that is just becoming more adept at working around my limitations — using my ring and pinkie fingers to carry the bulk of the workload, and strongly favoring my left hand, which has led to muscle atrophy in the right. I can't put pressure on my hand without pain, and every so often it sends out sharp electric shocks that cause me to fumble dishes or drop my camera.

To be honest, I'm really frustrated with this injury right now. I acknowledge that it's minor in the scheme of things, but the near-constant low-level pain, its impact on nearly everything I do, and the fact I can't ride bikes, are all beginning to grate on my mood. Beat and I had dinner with Joe Grant Thursday night, and he joined the chorus of long-distance bikepackers who assured me that nerve damage is normal, and one day, suddenly, it's going to feel a lot better. It may take months, but it will happen. Don't get surgery, he urged. I remain a skeptic. To be honest, if I could find a doctor willing to cut into my wrist tomorrow, I'd probably sign on. I also considered deciding that since this injury is never going to heal on it's own, I'm just going to ignore it so I can ride bikes again. But I doubt I could ignore it. I'm too much of a sissy when it comes to pain.

Beat running at Walker Ranch. Can you find him?
I realize this is a whiny blog post. Sometimes it feels good to get these things out, because it's easy to feel guilty about feeling bad when everything is otherwise fantastic. Beat and I love it here in Boulder so far. We are settling into new routines and relishing the novelty of gazing at stars from our bedroom window and having deer, red fox, and elk for neighbors. There are so many beautiful trails right out the door that I could be a full-time runner here and never miss biking, except for I do.

Today the head fog seemed sufficiently lifted so I ventured out, relishing the warm sun even though my skin was coated in a thick paste of sunscreen — because that's another thing it's going to take to survive at 7,000 feet. But somehow, the miles came effortlessly today. For the first time in Colorado, I didn't feel like there were lead weights strapped to my ankles or a sling tied around my neck. For the first time in Colorado, I almost felt like a runner. Of course, after looping around the trail, I failed the find the turnoff to my own street, and had to take the long way around. All the better.
Saturday, May 07, 2016

Altitude crash

Just when I'd started to believe I might slip through this acclimatization period without detection, the altitude monster got its jaws around me. This happened near the summit of Bear Peak on Wednesday evening, halfway through the crux of the climb. The crux segment gains 620 feet in 0.3 miles, and I decided to go at this wall as hard as I possibly could, because damn it, if I can't ride bikes this summer, then I'm going to train myself into real mountain running shape once and for all. (I'm still hopeful I'll be able to ride bikes sooner than later. I'm going to see a hand specialist on Tuesday, and I'm expecting the doctor to recommend carpal tunnel surgery. This could require six to eight weeks of recovery, which would mean canceling hopeful plans to go bike touring with my friend Leah before her wedding in Oregon in June, which brings me sadness because CTS is such a stupid injury, but it's so persistent that I can't yet hold two trekking poles without pain, and single-poling makes me an even worse mountain "runner," so I vowed to improve on something I can at least partially control.)

So there I was, "running" up a slush-covered boulder staircase with the peak in sight, when I suddenly became very dizzy and nauseated. I don't often push myself through intense efforts, so I brushed off this episode and finished up the run more slowly, but I continued to feel out of sorts for the rest of the evening.

It was easy to blame unpacking, which in itself is a surprisingly strenuous effort, especially when it involves balancing weighty boxes up and down stairs with one bad hand. Beat and I were up late on Wednesday exploding stuff all over the house, and I decided I should lay off the mountain running on Thursday. But that was before Beat burst into the house just after 9 a.m., about two hours after he left for his run commute to work. He dropped his phone somewhere on the trail, and ran all the way home while looking for it. It remained missing, but he needed to get to work, so would I mind heading out to continue the search?

Thursday was a gorgeous morning, warm and bright, so of course I didn't mind an excuse to skip out on unpleasant chores and frolic in the mountains. Beat used the phone's GPS locator to figure out where it fell — just a few hundred yards from the point where he realized it was missing and turned around, which was nearly in town along the popular Mesa Trail. I thought I should hustle as best as I could manage since someone was likely to pick it up before I got there, so I threw on my pack and hurried out the door. Luckily, the person who did find it first was a good Samaritan and dropped it off at the ranger station, making for an easy retrieval (it also meant that Beat could have picked it up. But, you know — any excuse to climb a mountain!)

Since it snowed on Sunday, I didn't bank on the 80 degrees it was going to be by the time I circled back to climb Green, nor did I anticipate just how long the round-trip run was going to take (3.5 hours, because my downhill technical/rock running also remains poor so I move slowly and carefully.) Somewhere along the crux of the mountain — which is really all crux because it gains 2,400 feet in 1.9 miles — I again became dizzy and nauseated. Sweat was streaming down my face and I took long gulps from my water bladder, only to suck the thing dry. Oh, of course I ran out of water.

So there I was, sinking into the bonkiest of bonks, kneeling in a pile of wet pine needles a hundred feet off the trail and stuffing handfuls of snow into my mouth. The temperature suddenly felt like it was a 110 degrees; thank goodness there was still relatively fresh snow on the ground. Only eating snow made my face and good hand go quickly numb, and I already had a headache, plus a little bit of spinning vision/vertigo to go along with the dizziness.

This was physically the worst I've felt during any outdoor effort in a long time, and I can probably include the Iditarod in that assessment. Altitude is insidious like that. It doesn't steal my breath and leave me gasping the way illness and asthma do, aware of my compromised state — instead, it just slowly sucks life-giving oxygen from my blood, until my vitality has just drained away and I don't fully understand why. Am I suddenly horribly out of shape because I haven't ridden a bike in two months? Am I getting sick? Is this my lazy subconscious trying to masquerade as weakness? Either way, it was all I could do to dizzily stagger down the mountain and jog home.

As I walked toward the door, my legs buckled. They actually buckled. It brought to mind images of people who cross the finish line of a marathon and immediately collapse. I was completely spent. By a 12-mile run that was basically a hike! This was just embarrassing.

I intended to never speak of the phone run again, but I felt a need to explain (to myself more than anybody) why I've been so exhausted for the past two days. I took Friday and Saturday off from running. I continued to unpack, but at a much slower pace, with sit-down breaks. I fell asleep while writing, twice, in the middle of the day — and I am not a napper. My friend Danni was in town for one day and had exactly one free hour between 8 and 9 a.m. Saturday morning. I intended to drive down to town to see her and set my alarm, then slept through it. I actually managed to turn off an alarm in my sleep, the way I sometimes do during long endurance races. This brought me sadness, because it's such a stupid reason to miss out.

Beat at least had a productive Saturday, completing the build of his electronics work bench. Now he's hammering out a homemade bike rack. (He's building this stuff using 2x4s and a counter top he purchased at Home Depot. My book "Become Frozen" describes moving to a mountain-like location in Homer, Alaska, in 2006, and it's amazing how many parallels I can draw from that move to the present. It's downright eerie. I should write a blog post about the cyclical nature of life. The more things change ...)

Instead I wrote a rambling post to justify the fact that I'm a zombie walking up here at 7,200 feet. The altitude monster got me, and there's no going back. 
Monday, May 02, 2016

Winter drops by to say welcome

Winter is my favorite season. There are those who don't believe me, or who point out that I can only love winter because I spent the past five years living in a warm climate and visiting winter at my leisure, for fun, without the day-to-day cold-weather drudgery. Point taken, but I stand by my statement. I am a hopeless winter enthusiast.

When I moved to Colorado in late April, I assumed I wouldn't see winter for another six months. And that was okay, because I had a pretty good dose of winter this past season in visits to Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and two fantastic trips to Alaska. Surprisingly, except for a cold snap following a November snowstorm, I all but missed winter in Colorado during our two weekend visits in December and January. The week we closed on the house, it was 60 degrees in Boulder, and the backyard looked like this:

January 30

May 1!

Yes, winter returned for a spring fling, the way she often does in her turbulent on again, off again affair with the Rockies — a blast of snow and cold before slipping out the back door, and suddenly it's 65 degrees again. Beat and I wanted to make the most of this brief reverie, but he unfortunately hurt his back while chopping wood on Thursday (or perhaps the sore back was from sleeping on an air mattress. We are still without real furniture at home.) Beat was hobbled but still got out for a short hike into Walker Ranch. These were our first views of the Boulder Creek Gorge. "This is the new Rancho!" I proclaimed, referring to an open space preserve near our apartment in California, where I did most of my running over the past five years. Rancho is not bad, but it doesn't look like this.

Beat turned around but I continued making my way around the loop, mostly hiking because of the new snow, and also because the altitude is really clamping down right now. When dragging my sea-level-acclimated body to elevations above 5,000 feet, I tend to have a honeymoon period of two to three days where I can feel the altitude, but it doesn't necessarily drag me down. By day four, the accumulating oxygen deficit seems to reach a breaking point, and I start waking up with headaches and struggling noticeably more in physical efforts. One week out seems to be the worst. At least I hope this is the worst. It gets better, right? 

Anyway, a bit of headache and rasping is no reason to let this brief winter pass me by. I set out Sunday to meet a local runner who I've been in touch with for a couple of years now. She invited me on a morning run to Green Mountain, but it snowed enough overnight that I didn't feel comfortable taking the Subaru with its summer tires and California-conditioned driver down the steep, icy roads. We re-worked the plan so I could run from home and meet her on top of Green Mountain, then continue together down to town.

First tracks on the road.

The day's first ascent of Green. It was blowing snow and the temperature was about 28 degrees. Windchill and sweaty clothing made it feel brrrrr. I waited for Wendy for twelve minutes, until I was very cold. I'd already forgotten how difficult it is to re-stoke body heat after you've let yourself become that chilled.

I made exaggerated jumping motions on my way down Green, to stimulate blood flow. Wendy approached and I followed her back up the mountain at a pace that left me gasping for air, but at least I warmed up again.

At the top we bumped into semi-famous ultrarunning ladies Darcy Piceu and Gina Lucrezi. Just a typical day in Boulder.

Descending Bear Canyon in a winter wonderland. Everything was so quiet and tranquil. When I'm wading through powder at a 15-minute-mile downhill "running" pace, I feel only bliss. (When I'm on skis I feel only terror, which is the main reason I am not a skier.)

The Flatirons from town. Wow! Thanks for coaxing me down here, Wendy.

Back at home, I was completely exhausted by 15 miles of "running." I don't think I've been that tired since I finished the Iditarod. Perhaps I can blame the effects of the altitude rather than declining fitness. Beat was not too sympathetic and tried to coax me out on the exploration route he tracked out that morning, but I resisted.

Monday brought bluebird skies and rapidly warming temperatures. I made attempts to work through the morning, but spent more time than I care to admit staring out the window, watching the resident turkey peck bare patches of ground as clumps of snow rained from the trees.

 In the afternoon I planned to run into Boulder to meet Beat. Although I should have, I didn't bank on the six inches of slush now covering the trails, and just how slippery and difficult it can be to wade through this. The ten-mile run that I hoped would take 1:45 ate up three hours, and my feet were cold. They were so cold.

By the time I reached Boulder, it was spring! I suppose it had to come back eventually. Thanks for dropping by, winter! See you in October (or maybe next week.)