Monday, August 15, 2016

Outside looking in

 Recently I had an enlightening e-mail conversation with another cyclist about self-defining tenets and the unsettling experience of losing these pieces of our identities. People who identify as athletes are endlessly vulnerable to health setbacks, injuries, changes in circumstance, and aging — while clinging to the belief that "there are no limits," "you can do anything you set your mind to," "you just have to work for it."

Reconciliation of desire and reality seems to be the key — of course there are limits, but our experiences are beautiful regardless. Over the years, I've observed this process in friends and acquaintances. There was always some hubris in believing it wouldn't happen to me, or if it did, I'd be fine because I was already secure in my belief that there's so much more to life than scaling mountains and riding bikes. But now I'm in a summer of discontent, losing fitness in spite of my best efforts, avoiding mountains because I've lost so much faith in my abilities, and imagining what life might actually look like on the other side.

It's interesting to consider the notion of "letting go," even if I haven't arrived there yet. People around me still insist "you'll get it back," and for the most part I still believe this, too. My recent bout with carpal tunnel syndrome provided its own perspective — I was rapidly losing function in my right hand, I was constantly in pain, and it felt like a permanent condition. If it wasn't for surgery, it likely would have been a permanent condition. Instead, it was a surprisingly simple fix, and two months later, my hand is almost back to a hundred percent — or, at least it would be if I was more diligent about strengthening exercises. Maybe in two months more time, I'll be breathing just fine, I'll spend long days outdoors while feeling great the whole time, fire will again rage where right now there are only fumes, and I'll wonder why I ever lost the faith.

For now, I still have good days and bad. The good days are starting to outweigh the bad. On Friday I embarked on an incredible bike ride — incredible only because it was the first ride since winter where I finally felt reasonably strong, didn't crash, didn't wheeze, didn't stop to take puffs from my inhaler, and propelled myself through forty miles of interesting scenery. I pedaled past beautiful rock formations on Magnolia, side-eyed strange characters in Nederland, stole glimpses of big mountains on the Peak-to-Peak Highway, breathed crisp air on the Switzerland Trail, and tucked into a screaming descent toward the plains on Sugarloaf Road. It was a satisfying ride, and reminded me that my identity isn't tied up in being an athlete. It's tied up in loving the outdoors. My vision of the "other side" doesn't contain imagery of working out in gyms and indoor activity. Instead, I imagine painting landscapes and going for walks — if necessary, finding less taxing ways to enjoy the outside world. Still, if I can engage my body in exhilarating activity while moving through the world, that would pretty much be having it all.

Of course, on Saturday I went for a ninety-minute run that went so badly, Beat had to come pick me up in the car before I made it home. This gasping dizziness I occasionally experience is exactly why I'm not willing to take any big chances right now — even hiking up a fourteener seems risky. So when our friend Chris Plesko invited us on a scrambling excursion in the Flatirons on Sunday morning, I dug for any excuse to get out of it. "My hand is still too weak." "What if I get dizzy on a wall?" These were legitimate concerns, but ultimately I decided to join.

Chris guided us on a short practice climb on the First Flatiron, and then we hiked over the the Second Flatiron for a classic route called "The Freeway." This 600-foot slab ascent is rated 5.0, and thus was one of my first forays into fifth-class terrain — but it's been a long time since my initial top-rope outings in Little Cottonwood Canyon back in 2002. What's beautiful about this route is that in addition to confidence-inspiring natural features, there are plenty of exits. It's a great route for beginners, which Beat and I undoubtedly are. We're both tentative on exposed terrain and I'm prone to vertigo, but Chris was a helpful and patient guide.

Near the summit, we arrived at a needle that required a four-foot jump onto a forty-five-degree slab. I couldn't bring myself to make the leap, so Beat and Chris offered their shoulders so I could lower myself down. In the process of putting all of my weight on a few curled fingers, my right hand cramped up badly and never recovered. There was one more pitch after the jump that was the steepest pitch of the climb, and I was reeling with muscle cramps in my hand and a beginner's unwillingness to trust friction to hold my feet. Chris offered a lot of support and I'm grateful for his guidance. This was a solid venture out of my comfort zone, and it was very satisfying to reach the top. Scrambling "The Freeway" and riding from home to the Switzerland Trail feel like big victories near the end of a rather disappointing summer.

Maybe I'll get it back, but even if I don't, life is still awesome. 
Thursday, August 11, 2016

Forcing my way through August

I was 1.5 miles into a bike ride on Wednesday when I stopped to take a couple of puffs from my inhaler and pull a buff over my mouth. It was 89 degrees with a strong wind. Dust was swirling through the air, which has become such a trigger that I've learned to viscerally react to it as though it were poison gas.

"I should probably turn around," I thought. But it was a rare occasion when I finally talked myself into getting on the bike. The previous days, there had been excuses. "I have too much work to do. I need to go to town today, so I should just run Sanitas. I did so well running up Bear Peak yesterday, so I should do that again."

As I lingered on the gravel road pullout debating how I could justify cutting this ride short at mile 1.5, another insidious thought popped into my mind:

"What if I'm becoming someone who just doesn't like riding bikes anymore?"

Yeah, so, that ... my fitness right now is poor for several reasons, and getting back into cycling after four months off has been tough. I know how lame it is to avoid something just because it's tough, but for so long the effort of cycling has felt so natural. Now that it's not, I've become bewildered and frustrated. I'm not having fun so why should I bother? It's interesting to observe these knee-jerk emotions through the scope of my wider experience.

With my current breathing issues, I have good days and bad. Over the weekend I did two runs up Bear Peak that went quite well. I've been monitoring heart rate to assess exertion levels versus shortness of breath symptoms, and both times on Bear Peak my heart rate hit the high 170s before I felt winded. On Sunday, I joined Beat for a two-hour ride that started horribly but improved toward the end — strangely, on the steepest pitch of Flagstaff Road, where my lungs opened up and my speed actually improved over flatter sections. On Monday I ran a five-mile loop over Mount Sanitas — which starts 2,000 feet lower than my Bear route — and became wheezy when my heart rate hit 151. I took a few inhaler hits and managed the rest of the run okay, but never saw anything near 178. During the Wednesday bike ride, I was also in the low 150s when I felt overly winded and needed to stop just two minutes into a climb.

So, it's been a little all over the place and I can't really blame biking. It's just disappointing to have such low motivation levels and find myself making all kinds of excuses for activities I used to love, in beautiful and exciting new places where I'm lucky to live — just because I don't feel great when I'm doing them.

For that reason I forced myself farther into the Wednesday afternoon ride, climbing and descending seemingly endless steep dirt roads while gasping through snot and tears. Oozy face is another reaction I have to allergies. Really, my sneezing, watery eyes and congestion were never this bad in California, even ignoring more recent asthma issues that also affected me there. Something here in Colorado just really doesn't like me. And I assuredly don't like it. I wasn't having fun on this ride, and wanted to quit. But that question — "What if I'm becoming someone who just doesn't like riding bikes anymore?" — was more disturbing than my symptoms, and propelled me forward.

I dropped toward Gross Reservoir as thunder rumbled overhead. This storm moved in quickly — just a half hour earlier the sky was blue. Clouds opened up and for five minutes it rained hard, tamping down the dust and cooling the air. It continued to sprinkle, and for the rest of the ride I felt considerably better. Drawing cool, moist air deep into my lungs felt incredible — I could actually feel a substantial difference between breathing deeply, and whatever it is I do the rest of the time. It's as though I subconsciously stifle my breathing when there's "poison gas" in the air, taking shallow little breaths that leave me feeling oxygen-deprived.

Anyway, between monitoring the pollen forecast and my heart rate, detecting absolutely no difference when altitude changes, and the considerable positive effect of rain — I'm now 95 percent convinced that my breathing issues are allergy related. Either that, or there's a strong placebo effect in believing they're allergy related. I'm now 14 days into my new allergy treatments, which need time to take effect.

I also only have one more week to endure August in Colorado. Beat and I leave a week from Friday for our annual trip to Europe. It will be quite interesting to test my fitness there. Beat is again racing both PTL and TDG, but I don't have anything planned this year. It will be the first time since 2011 that I don't have some crazy mountain race on my calendar (I have finally for the most part conceded that crazy mountain racing isn't really my thing, even if I were healthy and fit.) I was going to join an English acquaintance for a fast-packing-type hike around last year's Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc course. He recently sustained a serious knee injury, so we had to cancel the trip. I have been quite disappointed about it, even though I'm not sure I'm fit enough to attempt this 104-mile route in three to four days (the UTMB limit is 46 hours, which I discovered is a tight cutoff for me on this steep and often technical route. 72 hours when you're planning to sleep is not much more.) Still, it was the endurance element of this trip that really had me looking forward to it. Admittedly my friend did most of the planning and I don't have much to go on if I decide to head out solo. I'm still considering it — just download my GPS track and maps from last year's race, bring a sleeping bag and bivy sack in case all of the refuges are booked up, and hope for the best. After three years of trying (2012 finish on a shortened UTMB course, 2013 DNF in the PTL, and 2015 DNF at UTMB) I have yet to make a full loop around Mont Blanc, and I swear this will haunt me until I finally do it. But my odds aren't great this year either so ... we'll see.

Of course I'm still excited for this trip, even if I just dawdle around on day hikes. I'm hoping that by having no crazy mountain races in which to horribly fail, I will be stronger and more stoked when I return to Colorado in September. At that point, I need to really focus on winter training if I want to have any hope for my hardest endeavor yet — the Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail.

First, I need to get farther than 1.5 miles into a bike ride without feeling like crap. I remain uncertain, but cautiously optimistic.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Rollins Pass

 It's been a bad week for breathing. Just about on cue after I had allergy testing done last week, the weather service released day after day of allergy alerts, warning of very high levels of grass pollen. Of course I don't know how closely related my breathing difficulties are to my allergies, but despite new medications, it's been a low-functioning week. Two miles into a bike ride on Saturday, I experienced something close to an asthma attack and cut it short. The same happened two miles into a run on Sunday. This was after turning down invitations for fun mountain adventures because I didn't think I could handle anything more than a four-mile run (turns out I couldn't.) Who am I becoming?

The emergency inhaler helps temper the urgency I feel when I over-exert myself. But it doesn't quite open up my breathing. I still have that tight, breathing-through-a-straw sensation to a certain degree, and I don't seem to process the oxygen needed for even moderate aerobic efforts. If I become dizzy once, it's difficult to recover. When I speak of over-exerting myself, I basically mean exerting myself. Walking is fine. Running has mixed reactions. Biking, for which I'm out of shape and can't regulate my efforts as well, has been the most messy.

Although I feel somewhat assured that my rapidly declining fitness is linked to allergies that I am both working to treat and waiting to go away, I can't be certain. Lately, being outside leads to feeling bad, which is a strong de-motivator to engage in activities I love. It's a little scary, to be honest, and may have resulted in some crying in the shower after a horribly failed Sunday run. But there's also some acceptance about making it work if this is my new status quo. I realize that unless I feel a real risk of passing out (not usually), I can still muddle along in the outdoors.

 There's a long jeep road to Rollins Pass that I've looked forward to riding for months now. It's one of the few places nearby where one can ride a bike on dirt over the Continental Divide. Although I'd previously visited Rollins Pass on foot, I relished the beautiful views and was excited to return. Since there was some improvement to my breathing on Monday and Tuesday, I took an opportunity on Wednesday to take my long-neglected mountain bike on a tour.

 The road to Rollins Pass is winding and gradual, but also quite chunky. Finessing around all those rocks keeps speeds low, which also keeps exertion down. It's a pretty good route for an asthmatic person who's just getting back into biking after four months. The long, long railroad grade eventually climbed to a railroad tunnel that had partially collapsed. There was a nice trail around it to the left, which I didn't discover until I returned. Instead, I hoisted my bike up the slope to the right, where the descent was actually a bit gnarly. It involved skittering down on very steep, loose dirt, wedging my shoe against a rock for leverage and then nudging the overturned bike downward. There was an unnerving drop-off just a few feet away.

 From there, the track continued climbing up large chunks of loose gravel, which had the effect of riding on rollers that continually spun me backward. I walked most of this to avoid hitting the red line, but it was still hard. I'd taken a few breath-catching breaks earlier in the ride, but my breathing actually opened up as I climbed above timber line. Riding this ridge at 11,700 feet, I continued to feel stronger — even risking those deep, lung-filling breaths, which felt amazing. Perhaps all I need is more of this clear, thin, relatively pollen-free mountain air.

 Return on the old railroad trestles. I love old mining roads and mountain railroad grades. Maybe I'll make a future project out of touring a winding network of these roads across Colorado.

 The perfectly nice trail around the tunnel, which I missed the first time. This short piece of singletrack renewed interest in riding Colorado Trail. But no, I don't love rocky technical riding or mountain hike-a-bike (especially the downhill variety.) I would like to hike the Colorado Trail someday, though. Maybe fast-pack style if I ever get my fitness back.

The tunnel as seen from below. The descent down the eastern side Rollins Pass is tedious — a continuous grade perfect for coasting at about eight or nine miles per hour, but rocky enough that you can never really open it up. So basically I sat on a bike not pedaling for ninety minutes, while trying to protect my still-tender hands, arms, and shoulders, but taking a bit of a beating despite my best efforts. Not unlike riding a slow-moving jackhammer. I'm sure better riders blast down that road without fear of hitting a rock at the wrong angle or skidding out on the chunder, but I am not really there right now (nor do I think I ever was.)

Still, I enjoyed this ride and think I should do more of this, rather than fret about whether I'll ever be fit enough to race again.