Sunday, November 18, 2018

Time capsule

This weekend a bike shop in Littleton hosted an event called "Winter Bike Expo." When my friend sent a link to the calendar, the whole thing seemed so odd to me. A whole expo dedicated to winter cycling? When did this become a thing? I seem to reside in a bubble where it's perpetually 2007, I own the only fat bike in a 50-mile radius, and hikers still scream and jump out of the way when they see a bike inching toward them on a trail. The reality of 2018, where there are dozens of fat bike models in production, a dizzying array of tires and wheels and pogies from which to choose, and hundreds of cyclists who ride such bikes in the far-away land of the Denver metro area... that reality is still so odd to me. So, of course I had to attend this version of bizarro world.

The Winter Bike Expo was a lot of fun. The day itself was terrible — gray and gloomy with freezing rain at 22 degrees and hard ice clinging to every surface. It was much better to sit inside a warm shop, drool over gear, eat pancakes, and talk about winter cycling. Jay Petervary gave a presentation about his 10 years on the Iditarod Trail, and I laughed knowingly at his Purple Puglsey antics in the long-ago era of 2007. This is my era! I'm not even exactly sure what I've been doing for the past 11 years.

I had a chance to chat with lots of local cyclists. One man and I talked for several minutes before he recognized me ... "Hey, aren't you Jill Up in Alaska?" My blog hasn't been called Up in Alaska since 2010, so I was intrigued. He recounted the post where I introduced my Pugsley. He shared details about rides that I could barely remember, but looking back through my archives, his descriptions were accurate. He lost track of my blog after that, which is understandable, because who reads the same stranger's blog for 12 (cough, 13) years? But the adventures of Pugsley were part of his inspiration to take up fat biking when it became more accessible to him, nearly a decade later. 

I forget that I have this persona online, capturing snippets of my life in these virtual capsules that stay frozen in time. I'm still a real person with this dynamic life who has changed a lot since 2007. But for someone who last read my blog in the late-aughts, I can still be Jill in Juneau, enthusiastic owner of the one fat bike in a 50-mile radius, wide-eyed newbie to all things Alaska, dedicated cyclist riding daily through the cold and snain. This version of me has faded into the past, and yet she lives on through archives and memories. It's a romantic notion — enough so that I didn't tell the man I was still blogging, because I didn't want him to catch up on my somehow less romantic stories of the present day.  

And if he does find my blog, well, look — I'm still riding fat bikes! Not as avidly or frequently, but I'm definitely rediscovering the love for winter cycling. A finisher of last year's Iditarod 130, Dennis, invited me to join him for a jaunt along the South Sourdough Trail on Friday evening. The ride sounded arduous. I admit I avoid riding bikes with others because I'm actually pretty bad at riding bikes, I know I should be a lot better by now, and I don't want them to discover my secret shame. I expected I'd fare poorly on the Sourdough Trail under current conditions — a steeply undulating singletrack that's been furthered narrowed to the width of two skis, surrounded by wheel-swallowing fluff, but the snowpack is still thin enough that if you fall into it, you will smack rocks.

A ride like this is not something I would seek out on my own, but it's good to venture outside my comfort zone. So I huffed and puffed to keep up with Dennis, pushing my heart rate into the 160s even though my bike was moving at walking speed. Soon both of us were wading through knee-deep, mashed-potato snow. We'd traveled a mere 4.7 miles when my two-hour turnaround time arrived. We didn't even make it to Brainard Lake Road. Despite this truth, Dennis was cheerful the whole time. His attitude surprised me ... even among the endurance crowd, I rarely meet somehow who loves a good, pointless slog as much as I do. It was fun to meet another kindred fat-bike spirit in a land far away from Alaska.

The evening was beautiful, with orange lenticular clouds stretching across the sky and a pink glow on the snow. Dark settled in and we switched on our lights, swerving and bucking downhill through the rutted snow. I crashed into a number of times, always hitting something hard and unseen on the ground. That evening I limped home with fist-sized bruises on my knee, hip, and butt cheek. My elbow was still stiff from Monday's crash. Everything else on my body was sore, too.

"I am getting way too old for this," I told Beat. Ten miles in four hours. Geez, I could walk that distance and speed with considerably less effort and pain. But in my head, I was grinning. That ride was great fun. 

 On Sunday, I returned to South Sourdough with Beat and Jorge and without my bike. The morning was gorgeous, with fresh snow and a temperature of 22 degrees.

We strapped on the snowshoes and set a fresh trail to Niwot Ridge. Niwot was our go-to spot for winter training last year. It's close to home, generally free of avalanche danger, and consistently — and I mean always — unbelievably windy. On a calm day in Nederland, the wind rips across Niwot at 45 mph. The ridge-top weather station recorded a 90 mph gust on Nov. 10. It's virtually impossible to venture up here and not have at least a small epic.

What better training for Alaska can there be than a subzero windchill while slogging along punchy drifts, exposed tussocks and sastrugi?

 The windswept plain at 12,000 feet was colder than it looks. I bundled up but neglected to bring goggles, so I had a continuous ice-cream headache from the wind hitting a thin strip of skin along my eyebrows.

 Jorge and Beat together again, where we took shelter beside the weather station. The arms on the windmill were shredded to pieces — clearly another victim of the Niwot wind.

Someday, maybe 10 or 11 years from now, I will look back on these trips to Niwot Ridge. The memories are going to all blur together in a cloud of blowing snow, but I know I'll sigh longingly with an affection only the past can contain. Or maybe I'll still be up on Niwot 11 years from now, and all of these memories will feel like a movie reel that spins years away in moments. I might be grateful I have this archive to scroll through, projecting my wistfulness with images frozen in time. 
Monday, November 12, 2018

Impressed with the winter so far

Halloween morning
Beat and I are winter enthusiasts. That was one of our incentives for moving from the Bay Area to Boulder — I mean, living near big mountains is okay and all, but winter. We weren't going to see the dark, cold, constant barrage of ice and snow that we might find in Interior Alaska. But I envisioned crisp, sunny, glittering snow days similar to those I enjoyed during my youth in the comparable climes of Salt Lake City.

Of course it was unrealistic to believe that after three decades of climate change, any winter could resemble my childhood nostalgia. But the winter of 2017-18 effectively never happened. I trained for my Iditarod race by towing a water-jug-loaded cart up and down a dirt road. I rode my mountain bike while wearing shorts up to 10,000 feet on the winter solstice. Beat and I dragged sleds across rocks well above treeline. There were bouts of snow and cold, but they were little more than whispers on the relentless wind. The day before we left for Alaska in February, we got a half foot of snow and temperatures dipped to -11F.

"This feels like the first day of winter," I thought at the time.

It's far too soon to guess how the winter of 2018-19 will turn out, but it's off to a great start. Our first snow at home come on Oct. 7, and there have been weekly storms since. In the past month I have probably ridden my fat bike through more miles of Colorado snow than the last two winters combined (considering I didn't take my fat bike out even once last season, which I know is a terrible thing to confess.) There have been plenty of warm days, too. Of course I don't mind. Colorado is its best idiosyncratic self when it's 60 degrees and sunny one day, 15 and snowing the next.

 We were able to enjoy the 60-degree weather on Saturday with our friend Daniel, who dropped in for a visit and a late-morning run. The sun beat down as we descended the rocky trail through Eldorado Canyon, scrambled a climber's access trail, then ascended the grassy foothills toward Shadow Canyon. This grassy section never fails to spark a mild asthma episode ... even now that pollen season is long over and I'm not as allergic to grass as I once was. But it's always like this here. I can sense my airways tightening, like tiny fists, and feel pressure building through each exhalation. This sensation is notably different from my more persistent breathing problems, which is why I don't believe exercise-induced asthma is my main issue. This is just my less frustrating, "grassy field problem." Here I can use my inhaler and instantly feel much better. I wish it always worked that way.

Still, besides the short bout of wheezing, I felt refreshingly good on this run. Beat and Daniel maintained a reasonably brisk pace and I was able to keep up with them, at least until they dropped me like a hot rock on the final descent. I think I'm starting to come around. I wish I could be more excited about this, but I fear it's just the upswing in an interminable pattern.

 On Sunday we woke up to temperatures in the teens and snow. I love just being at home on days like this — nowhere we need to go, nothing we need to do besides stoke the fire and enjoy the silent dance of snowflakes against a black and white landscape.

 We did go out for a hike in the afternoon, descending into South Boulder Creek canyon. 

 This is one of my favorite nearby destinations. We didn't stop long, though ... it was 10 degrees and the early evening twilight was rapidly approaching.

On Monday, Betsy and I had tentatively planned a mountain adventure. But the timing didn't work out — there was so much new snow that the roads were a mess and trails were likely to be buried. Our official snow total, recorded by the nearest NWS weather station, was 14.2 inches. The Denver Airport only saw two inches and even the local ski hill — 2,000 feet higher — reported eight inches. Clearly, this storm saved the bulk of its goodness just for me. Temperatures were still in the mid-20s, but the harsh Colorado sun was decimating the snowpack quickly, so I set out in the morning before it was all gone.

 Thanksgiving turkeys on the road.

 Sampling the trails at Walker Ranch. I took this photo after retreating from my go-to climb, which is sheltered in the shade and held onto a heavy layer of shin-deep snow. Pedaling near my limit netted maybe two miles per hour, which is one of my favorite aspects of snow biking: So much work, so little reward, which paradoxically becomes its own reward. I'd stripped off all of my insulation layers and still managed to drench my base layer in sweat. After about twenty minutes I decided that this glacier pace was perhaps too little reward, and turned around. The descent was steep enough to reel me in with the thrill of speed, then grab the front tire and whip me into the ground. My left elbow absorbed most of the impact, and continued throbbing painfully for the rest of the ride (and is now even more swollen and sore.) Grumble grumble grumble.

After crashing I didn't go home right away, even though that probably would have been best. You just can't waste a day like this. It might be the last big snow this season. Who can know?

Walker was a huge slog, though. Any uphill required bike pushing with a sore arm. Lots of effort. Some pain. Grumble grumble grumble. Still, it was a gorgeous outing. I was exhausted after 17 miles, and fairly bonked because I wasn't expecting my quick neighborhood ride to take nearly four hours, so I had no snacks. But I did feel strong. I'm trying to harness this feeling to shore up optimism — that it will be a cold, snowy, fierce and strong winter after all. 
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Self experimenting

 On Monday I went to the gym armed with a heart rate monitor, a pulse oximeter, a pencil and a sheet of paper. I walked past the weight room and stepped onto a machine I almost never touch — the treadmill. My own poor handwriting lined up my plan for the next hour: Three minutes at 2 mph, three minutes at 3 mph, three minutes at 4 mph, and so on up to 10 mph, with a three-minute walking rest between each faster interval. After 6 mph (which to be honest is about as fast as I ever run outside), I only bumped up a half mile per hour for each increment. It wasn't all that scientific, but I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity in a controlled setting. Could I boost my heart rate to something higher than 160 beats per minute? What is my blood oxygen saturation at a fairly typical aerobic pace? Can I run at six-minute-mile pace for any length of time? I felt as nervous as I used to at the start of races — anxious that I would either shoot off the back of the treadmill or pass out or both.

Standing there, nervous, at 5,100 feet above sea level, my SpO2 was 99 percent and my heart rate was 77 bpm. At 2 mph my heart rate climbed to 88, and my SpO2 dropped to 97 percent. During each interval the oxygen saturation reading continued to fall, in steady increments. 93 percent while jogging at 5 mph with a heart rate of 131 bpm. 91 percent at 6.5 mph with a heart rate of 152. 88 percent while galloping at 8 mph with a heart rate of 171. (171! I haven't seen that in a while.) By the end of the third minute, my heart was still beating strong and my legs felt fantastic, but dizziness was circling around the edges of my mind.

At 8.5 mph, sweat was spinning off my body like a rotating sprinkler. I felt bad for the lady wearing slacks and a nice blouse while walking on the treadmill next to me. At 9.5 mph my heart rate boosted to 181. This felt like an enormous victory. That's my generic maximum heart rate — 220 minus 39. I clasped my left hand around my right wrist to steady it as much as possible. The SpO2 reading was 84 percent. Droplets of sweat spun around me, defying gravity. Dark rings crept into my field of vision. I wasn't nauseated and I wasn't in pain, but damn it, I was definitely going to pass out. I pounded all of the buttons and blindly lowered my speed to 3 mph. For the next three minutes I hobbled along, smudging all of the pencil markings in sweat as I shakily recorded my findings.

"Probably the reason I always feel like there's not enough oxygen in my blood, is because there's not enough &#! oxygen in my blood."

After those three minutes ran out, because I am above all a masochist, I bumped the speed up to 10 mph. Six-minute mile! Six-minute mile! I was only able to hold the speed for two minutes. I couldn't hold my hand still to test my SpO2 with the pulse oximeter. It took every last ounce of concentration just to maintain my position. I mashed at the buttons until the treadmill slow downed down enough to gently nudge me off the back of the machine. I didn't even bother with the planned cool-down. I just stumbled around on the wooden floor, watching late afternoon sunlight stream through the windows, saturated with bliss. Was this hypoxia? The rapture of the deep? As warmth coursed through my blood, I decided I'd just received a dose of the hormone my body doesn't produce as much of as it once did, because there's no real need when my muscles are already conditioned for more than wheezy soft-pedaling ... endorphins.

 The best I can gather from recent research is that doing aerobic exercise with blood oxygen saturation in the 80s isn't the worst thing, but it's not entirely normal, either. The cause could be an exhausting number of things — obstruction in my lungs, an issue with my heart, poor breathing technique, and on and on. I want to gather a little more data and insight before I go down yet another medical road. My endocrinologist and allergist have helped improve important health issues for me, but this one — the one where I breathe poorly and feel badly while exercising — is still in place and as nebulous as it's ever been. I'm wavering between "Just ignore it and maybe exercise a bit less and try to stop complaining so much," and "Spend all the money, see all the doctors."

While I make up my mind, I'll continue to gather data, mainly for my own peace of mind. When it comes to delusions of control over a chaotic world, perceived patterns make a wonderful placebo.

 Boulder's local ski area opened on Wednesday, and I've been feeling a little FOMO for snowy adventures. Election Day was another frazzled mess of work deadlines and fretting, so I was in need of some hypoxic relaxation. I took the fat bike to Rollinsville and set out for what turned out to be a 26-mile, five-hour ride over two mountain passes. I felt refreshingly good — dare I say better than I have in about a month. The weather was sunny, almost calm, and 22 degrees. Just perfect.

 I continued to take SpO2 and heart rate readings along the way, although this outdoor ride at 9,000-11,000 feet with snow resistance is even less scientific than my treadmill test. Still, the readings fairly reliably measured my "feels like" status. When I still felt fierce and strong, I saw numbers in the low 90s. When I felt myself faltering, I started seeing 80s. My heart was working like a champ, though, with plenty of time in zone 3 and even zone 4. Grinding through several inches of snow up a 10-12 percent grade requires that level of effort, hypoxic or not.

 The descent into Pickle Gulch was the epitome of fun snow biking — a solid base masked by several inches of powder, so I could rip at top speed over a surface as soft and silent as water. I'd had a good climb and a fun descent, and was nearing cloud 9 of Jill Heaven, so I wasn't about to stop there. I turned up Apex Valley, a daunting climb even when it's dry summer gravel. There were moments when I thought I might black out or slip off the back of my bike as it crawled up the steep grade, but my heart kept beating, so I kept grinding.

 Near the top I encountered a California couple with a strange armored vehicle. They were standing outside in the sunshine and chatting with a fast-talking local man on a snowmobile. The man rattled off a barrage of facts about this luxury expedition RV he didn't even own, while simultaneously peppering me with questions about my bike. The California couple took this break in their part of the conversation as an opportunity to pack up their stuff and leave. Before they climbed into the cab, they told me they'd tried to drive over the hill, but the snow was too deep, so they turned around. I was surprised, as it seemed like only a skiff of snow covered the road, but I'd also been riding the very good trail that this heavy machine made for me. Apparently this EarthRoamer costs $1.5 million. Looks cozy. It's probably your best chance to survive the Zombie Apocalypse. But can it cover as much ground as a fat bike? No. No it cannot.

 Past the EarthRoamer track, the chatty local's snowmobile track went for another mile. This track was much less rideable, but I gave it my best effort. There was so little wind that it felt almost hot at this altitude, even though temperatures were in the 20s or lower. The air was crisp and dry, and I felt like I was back in Alaska, deep in the Interior, riding the Poorman Road to Ruby. So sublime.

Once I hit the descent, there was no track at all. All that remained was pristine snow, deeply piled in wind-driven waves. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting to have to walk three miles and 1,700 vertical feet downhill, nor was I expecting to continue to gasp for oxygen as I pulled my wheeled anchor and tired legs through thigh-deep drifts so late in my "short" ride. But this unanticipated effort didn't make me any less happy.

If anything, I was even more thrilled, and counted my blessings. When it's summer, this road is a river of babyheads. There is nowhere to look but down, while bouncing over a jackhammer of rocks and hanging on for dear life. When it's winter, walking at 2 mph, I finally noticed all of the stunning scenery. I glanced at my heart rate monitor. 151 bpm. When I was walking on the treadmill at 2 mph, my heart rate was 88. "When I mark this down on my spreadsheet, it's going to kill the pattern," I thought.

 Oh well. I need to get used to the reality that I may never find the answers I seek. The only concept I can easily grasp is that I'm happiest when I'm in motion. Even when I feel physically weak and bad, and even when an expected fast descent falls under some strange microclimate to be utterly buried in snow, I'm still happy. Is this another shot of endorphins? The rapture of high altitude? Maybe, just as some days are inexplicably bad, others are inexplicably exceptional. Just as some descents are effortless and flowing, others are deep and arduous. Maybe there's no logical reason for the difference. Maybe all the experimenting and questioning is meaningless. Maybe I should ... just ride.