Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Nome alone

March 2016 was a particularly magical time in my life. I rode a bike across Alaska with a little tenacity and a huge helping of grace, to arrive in this wonderland at the edge of the world. For a week I basked in the afterglow and "recovered" — riding my bicycle under sunny skies along ice-coated roads and slickrock-like snow drifts. I watched mushers arrive under the burled arch, danced at bars, enjoyed dinners with locals and fellow Iditarod tourists, attended the Iditarod banquet, chased the Northern Lights, greeted other finishing cyclists and Tim Hewitt on his record-setting run, and later, after much of this had quieted down, watched Beat finish his third run to Nome. Pure magic. I knew this experience couldn't be relived for any cost. You know, "You Can't Go Nome Again." Still ... I think about this place often. I dreamed of a return.

Nome is a town of 3,700 residents along the Bering Sea coast. It's home to the turn-of-the-century gold rush that at one time made this the largest city in Alaska, but today Nome is best known as the finish line for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It serves as a hub for a vast region of Inupiat villages, with a large hospital, a library, and other amenities, but it still has the look and feel of a rural Alaska town. Life is quite different here than it is on "the road system" and the Lower 48. People drive the streets on snowmachines with rifles strapped to their backs, dragging cargo sleds full of chopped-up caribou. Children still forget their mittens when they walk to school at 20 below. Many of the houses appear weathered and worn, not necessarily due to age, but because life here is hard for humans and structures alike. Storm surges batter the beach. Snow piles against the leeward side of anything standing. The wind blows. Constantly.

It was about six months ago that I first came up with the admittedly strange idea to spend a month in Nome. I'd find an AirBnB, enjoy a "writing retreat" of sorts, and embark on small local adventures to finish training for the White Mountains 100. I suppose I didn't really believe an affordable opportunity would open up in what is by far the busiest month for tourism in Nome. Then one did. I took it, and though I wouldn't admit it to myself, felt instant regret. Was I really just going to go spend a month by myself in this inhospitable place? As March approached, I learned that Nome was experiencing one of its warmest and snowiest winters yet, with storm after storm churning up the sea ice and dumping feet of snow (much of it blows away, or else this place would probably look like an Alps mountain village under 500 inches of powder.)

I'm a pessimist by nature, but even my worst outlook underestimated the possibilities. My first run on Wednesday was a cold punch of reality, right to the gut. For my first two weeks here I hoped to engage in "peak" training for the White Mountains 100, with at least 20 hours of moving time, mostly on my feet. I figured that would be easy to do — even with regular work deadlines and writing goals, I'm still a lot less scheduled here than I am at home. It was snowing and blowing, so I put on my goggles and windproof fleece and set out, plodding east on the road. The wind was blowing at least 40 mph — I'm not trying to exaggerate this number; I saw 43 mph average on a nearby weather station later. I can barely breathe facing a headwind this strong, let alone run, and the road was hidden under shin-deep drifts. It was a full whiteout, with so little visibility that I felt dizzy, not knowing which way was up or down. I wandered off the road repeatedly, occasionally slamming into a snowplow berm that was taller than me. I genuinely couldn't see anything inside this visual ping-pong ball.

I took this selfie only a half mile into my "run." You can see I'm already coated in ice. The temperature was just a notch below freezing — warm enough that snow was wet and heavy, but cold enough that it froze to anything it landed on. Within four miles the ice layer was so thick that my arms had become stiff and motionless, my everything else I was wearing was soaked through. I'd taken two falls on powder-covered ice despite wearing microspikes, and felt dazed and shattered. I didn't even have the wherewithal to take another selfie, although I imagine I must have looked a lot like Jack Nicholson at the end of "The Shining." When I took off that jacket, it felt 20 pounds heavier.

Four miles. That was all I could muster. I was exhausted.

I went to bed that night genuinely believing I was going to drop out of the White Mountains 100 and purchase the first plane ticket back to Denver the following day. I'm not too proud to admit I've made a huge mistake. But then Thursday dawned with patchy sunshine through the lenticular clouds, and I walked into the kitchen and realized that I could see the Bering Sea — the wide, white, expansive ocean — from my window. The view is amazing. And although there was a ton of new snow on the ground and most trails were buried, there were still a few places I could venture out at a relative running pace.

I managed 20 miles on Thursday. I was pretty proud of this effort. The available surfaces were still tricky — icy wheel tracks, drifted side roads, ice-chunk-coated shoulders of main roads. On this day there was a north wind — which I'd embraced as the predominant wind direction of this region, but have since realized that the East Wind rules Nome. Anyway, I was genuinely glad to greet the North Wind, my old friend, who continuously threatened to push me out to sea even when I was miles inland, knocked me off my feet once as a surprise crosswind gust, and generally kicked the crap out of my legs and lungs. Just like old times.

On Friday I logged 11 more miles between "running" (battling the east wind and a misty freezing rain at a frustratingly strenuous jogging pace) and then walking in the freezing rain to the grocery store to buy $4 apples, oranges, green bell peppers, and other assorted mediocre produce that left me feeling grumpy. (I know, I was aware of the high cost of living before I arrived.) I made the mistake of buying too many heavy items, and it was quite the grunt to haul it 1.5 miles back to the apartment atop the rain-slicked ice roads. It's funny how reliant I've become on vehicle transportation. Living a month without a car will be good for me too, I can already tell.

By Saturday enough days had passed since the last big snow dump to attempt a ride. Yes, I have a bike with me, and no, I'm not optimistic it will be the most useful machine here if these weather patterns hold. This day was forecast to be partly sunny, but instead it was foggy and warm and gray. I churned through inches of slush on the paved roads and battled soft mush on the the snowmachine routes. I rode to the ends of several routes out of town — the "end" being the spot where it was clear I'd be pushing the rest of the way if I continued any farther. Three mean dogs chased me along Dexter Bypass Road, and one chomped down hard on my leg — which was luckily protected by my boot and gaiter, so no harm done, but I was rattled about being bitten by a dog. Also, Dexter Bypass Road is the route to Anvil Mountain, where I'd looked forward to snowshoeing, but I'm not sure I'll muster the courage to go back. I despise mean dogs.

Tough miles, those 40 miles, and I was back to being a bit grumpy. It struck me how similar this weather is to a typical Juneau winter, and how disconcertingly familiar that feels even after all of these years away. Meanwhile, Beat was raving about the Northern Lights on the Iditarod Trail, Anchorage was enjoying day after day of clear weather, and even Juneau is in the midst of a long sunny stretch with temperatures in the teens. I was trying to readjust my attitude, but I couldn't hold back the jealousy. "If I knew this was going to be Juneau without trees, I would have gone to Juneau."

By Sunday I had 17 hours for the week, and dreaded going out for three more. I think my breathing has been better, although it's honestly difficult to tell amid all the wind. My legs felt fairly fresh, but my feet were beginning to feel the strain of all this running on tricky surfaces. At night the muscles on the bottom of my right foot would cramp so badly that I'd wake up howling. But when everything settled down all limbs felt fine, so I had no reason not to run. I headed east, because I'd rather face the wind first, but things weren't nearly so bad as I anticipated. There was even a bit of sunlight through the clouds, and I could see more of the sweeping open space that led me to fall in love with Nome in the first place.

Temperatures were still warm, and eventually the trail became too soft to hold my weight. Without snowshoes, I was punching to my knees. Weirdly, the crust to the side of the trail was much firmer — still punchy at times, but good enough for walking. I wandered along the dunes, happy as could be. I was about seven miles outside of town at this point — not terribly far from a runner perspective, but to a couple driving their snowmachine along the coast, this solitary human figure in the middle of nowhere must have seemed alarming. They turned their machine and raced up the slope toward me, a deviation that took several minutes because I was more than a mile off the coast. On the snowmachine was a Native couple in their mid-40s. The woman was wearing a kuspuk and the man of course had a huge rifle slung over his shoulder. "Are you okay?" the man shouted.

"Great," I said with a big smile. "I'm just, you know, out hiking."

They both regarded me with a confused and incredulous smirk, and without another word whipped back around. "Thanks for checking on me!" I shouted as they drove off.

Yeah, just out wandering through the frozen tundra seven miles outside of town for no real reason. White people, am I right?

Nome is a unique place, and one I'm lucky to be able to experience. I reminded myself of this as I returned to the trail, enjoying the vast white expanses. My legs felt so peppy that I threw in a five-mile diversion to boost the day's total to 18.5 miles. I'd left the house with minimal gear and no food, so the final three miles were a struggle through a bonky haze. Still, this run was a turning point for both my White Mountains 100 confidence, and my desire to stay put for the duration in Nome. It was a good way to end the week.

On Monday, another winter storm arrived. This one is expected to bring 12-18 inches and another likely school closure — my friend told me they closed schools three times in February alone. A rarity for Nome, which even for a small town is well equipped to deal with snow — but not this much snow. Anyway, roads again seemed dangerous for running, so I strapped on a pair of snowshoes and went for a meandering hike along the shoreline. I finally visited the Nome National Forest, which is a spot on the sea ice where locals leave the Christmas trees they had shipped in from elsewhere — this is the only "forest" near town to speak of. And there's not much left of this one, as it too has been all but buried by snow. The tips of the trees barely rose to my knees, but I enjoyed a brief diversion through the "woods" all the same. 

I hiked a little too far from town, and became sufficiently disoriented by the whiteout that I had to lock onto smatters of landmarks — like this broken-down beach house — until I found my way to the airport. Yikes. There will be no more storm hiking without a GPS in hand.

I'm glad to be in Nome. I'm excited for the Iditarod festivities to begin. There are several interesting cultural events on the schedule. I discovered a local fat bike club, and hoping I can join them on Saturday (if trails are rideable on Saturday ... I'm not super optimistic.) Beat is doing well on the Iditarod Trail. He calls often, making his usual complaints of fatigue and some boredom, but he also speaks of the beauty and joy, and he's making great time. It will never be 2016 again, but the magic is still here. I'm looking forward to more explorations. 
Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Following the 2019 Iditarod Trail Invitational

Well, it's that time of year again — Beat's now-annual sabbatical on the Iditarod Trail. I'm not out on the trail this year, for a number of reasons, but at the top of that list is the harsh unravelling I experienced last year during my walk to McGrath. It's true I've been a long-time enthusiast of gutting my way through physical anguish to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but apparently I have limits, and those limits are drawn at about 85 percent blood oxygen saturation, I've decided. Whether or not I've improved on my ability to draw oxygen from the air and transfer it to my body remains to be seen, so this year I an trying to focus on relative "baby steps" back to my path to spiritual enlightenment. 

I came close to not even joining Beat in Alaska this year. Although always fun, bumming my way around the state amid the difficulties of winter brings its own stresses. As much as I hate to admit it, sticking to a routine seems to improve my overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, I'm definitely back in a slump right now. But the lure of the North is too much to resist. I came up with this strange idea to "live" in Nome for a month. More on that soon. For now, I wanted to post my photos from the start. I put these up on Facebook a few days ago, making this blog post somewhat redundant. But this is my digital log of record. 

 Beat and I arrived in Anchorage on Thursday afternoon, probably the earliest we've ever shown up here before the race. It felt like ample time to browse the aisles at the enormous new REI and see the folks we like to see while we're here. So much pre-race down time would be torture for me if I was racing, but this year I enjoyed soaking in the relief of knowing I would not be gasping my way up the Yentna River in a few days' time. I also had a chance to meet up with much of the Colorado contingent in this year's race. Dennis, Brian, Erika and I rode bikes along the Coastal Trail on the most perfect winter day Alaska has to offer — 18 degrees, sunny, no wind. Sublime.

On Saturday night Beat and I headed out to Wasilla for a quieter night closer to the race start. I secretly love the Mat-Su Valley and think Palmer would be a great place for us to retire. (Where we'll retire in Alaska is something Beat and I often talk about.) Wasilla is a little less great, and receives a justifiable bad rap for its most famous resident, but it's still surrounded by the stunning skyline of the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains, it's close to great adventure trails, and it has a nice, reasonably priced Best Western on the shoreline of Lake Lucille. While Beat napped in the room, I headed out for a slog-jog on the soft snowmachine tracks criss-crossing the frozen lake. My breathing was rough for sea level, flat terrain and no wind, but the scenery kept me moving happily.

 Despite a forecast of overcast skies, the weather remained beautiful as we made our way out to the start at Knik Lake. Beat and Tim set up shop right next to the race sign, probably not noticing that they were photo-bombing everyone's pre-race selfie. But it did seem an appropriate spot for the two most experienced veterans in the 2019 race. Tim is going for his 11th completion in Nome, and tenth on foot (I believe this is the number. He recently joked that he needed his ten-thousand-mile buckle — which doesn't actually exist, but is a nice idea — and "the bike doesn't count" — he finished with a bike in 2017, his last completion.) Beat is aiming for his fifth finish in Nome. He's been at this starting line every since 2012. His finishes go: 2012, hardest-ever trail to McGrath; 2013, Southern Route to Nome; 2014, Northern Route to Nome; 2015, hardest-ever trail from McGrath to Ruby, stopped in Koyukuk following a friend's family emergency; 2016, Northern Route to Nome; 2017, stopped at Puntilla Lake due to illness; 2018, Southern Route to Nome. This year they're back on the Southern Route.

 This year the Knik Bar, parking lot, and even the lake ice was crowded with spectators and participants in a snowmachine drag race. The racers had to divert around the rally action, and I didn't pick the best spot to wait for the walkers.

 I sprinted to catch a starting photo of Beat. He's such a giddy sled dog at the start of these events. He is completely in his element out here, which it the main driver that brings him back again and again. The Iditarod Trail is home. Those who get it, get it.

 I drove to Point MacKenzie Road to get a head-start and rode out Burma Road toward the official Iditarod Trail. I figured I would want more of a beater bike to ride around Nome, so I resuscitated Fatty Fatback, now almost a decade old. Fatty doesn't have quite the charm of my (now-sold) Pugsley and still has a number of old-bike problems, mostly because he's been maintained by me. He had to be heavily disassembled to fit under the 50-pound weight limit, dragged around airports, and reassembled three times. The words "I hate bikes" were uttered by me more than twice this week. But once I was out pedaling on the trail, I was back in love. Fatty and I rode out to the Nome sign, which is 18 miles into the official trail. I wrote this about the sign after my Susitna 100 race in 2007:

"At mile 16, I passed the famous — and usually missing —Nome sign. From that spot, Nome is only 1,049 miles away. I thought about the scope of the Iditarod trail, and the distant dream of actually riding a bicycle all the way to the end of the continent — to a frozen village locked against a frozen sea — and the sparse, starkly gorgeous landscape that would carry you there. A simple thing like a Nome sign makes those sweeping images that much more real, even if they never are anything more than a dream."

Those words are still true. I was filled with Nome dreams as I pedaled a short distance beyond the sign, churning through soft snow that had become even less consolidated at the trail split. The snow out here is deep this year. Trails were perfectly rideable, but every stroke was a small feat of strength. My quads were burning. When I think about the trail to Nome, I often think about my ultimate ambition of walking the entire distance. Still, the bike feels more like home, even if it's true that "I hate bikes" whenever I am not actively riding them (and when they break down, and when I need to deal with maintenance, etc., etc.) It's a tough decision, still — whether to go back at all, and whether to ride or walk.  I have to get these lungs in shape first. Legs also need a lot of work, apparently.

At my mile 13, I looked at my watch and did some quick math to determine where the runners might be. If I didn't turn around soon, I probably wouldn't see anyone before dark. Since my purpose for this ride was to take photos of Beat and the other sled-draggers, I had to turn around. Bummer. The sun had already set by the time I encountered the leading runner, Rob Henderson of Minnesota. Luckily, Alaska has long twilights, so I was able to pass everyone in daylight.

To my surprise, Beat was the third runner I encountered, only about a quarter mile behind Rob. He was leading a duo of Germans and speaking to them in German when he passed. I told him to keep walking, but he leaned in to kiss me, which caused the Germans to say, "Ahhhh."

"You're going out fast. Feeling good, I suppose?" I said to Beat.

"Pretty good," he replied. Beat came down with a cold the day before the race, and symptoms escalated quickly enough that he was asking when I left for Nome, just in case he needed to drop out and return to Anchorage that day. Beat is nearly always like this before a big race — strategizing his early exit points because he is convinced he will need to scratch due to injury or malady — and he usually does just fine. I was not worried.

Bye Beat! Unless he does drop out or I make some elaborate arrangements in the next couple of weeks, I will likely not see him again before he finishes.

The master, Tim Hewitt. He was a mile or so behind Beat, and knowing him, I imagine not too happy about that. Tim is dealing with a chronic knee issue. It's bad but at this point he can't really do any more damage; for now he deals with the pain, which must be considerable, knowing Tim. Every year he says he's finally retired, and he keeps coming back. The Anchorage Daily News published a great feature article about sled dog race champ Lance Mackey that delves into this mindset — "There's only one thing harder than racing. Not racing." Hoping the best for Tim. I can't help it. I worry about him.

Jeff Rock. I don't know him, but I liked the way his red jacket popped out of the wintry landscape.

Also one of my favorite photos — trail ninjas!

This is Pierre, who I initially met years ago at my favorite race in the Bay Area, the Ohlone 50K. I'm not exactly sure how he landed in Alaska endurance racing (there's certainly nowhere great to train for experience near San Francisco, believe me.) But he must be the happiest guy out there. I saw him on the trail last year, after he finished the then-130-mile short race at Winter Lake Lodge. I arrived at the checkpoint about a half hour later, and thought it was about the worst rest stop imaginable — a large and drafty canvas tent out on the lake ice, amid howling 40 mph gusts and windchill near -20F, heated only with a tiny propane heater and a wood stove that wasn't even lit. Pierre seemed to know nothing about stoves but was happily working on starting a fire with a cold cigarette lighter and some big chunks of kindling when I arrived. I didn't want to deal with anything in that moment; my breathing had gotten to me and I was horribly grumpy. I just wanted to grab my drop bag and go, but Pierre wanted to chat and chat. He was giddy about his experience and full of stories. Some of that joy finally trickled over to me, despite my foul mood.

"They're not going to be able to fly out today. It will be a cold night here," I warned him, by way of my own case of misery loves company.

"It's okay. We will persevere," he said with a gleeful tone and French-accented enunciation that prompted a hint of a smile from me. I've never seen someone so excited about finishing a big race only to spend a night on the floor of a cold drafty tent. Pierre is good energy. I'm glad he's back for the 150-mile distance this year.

More good energy from the 2018 trail, Klaus — an Austrian who finished in Nome I believe three times. He has this calm and steady presence that was grounding for me when I saw him at Puntilla Lake, Rohn, and again at Bear Creek cabin. He wasn't able to finish the race to Nome last year because he ran out of time, something I fear will always be a most likely scenario for me. More than the fast guys with their strong legs and high-wattage power, I look to Zen masters like Klaus for inspiration. Go Klaus!

Lars is another I've spent time with on the trail — on bikes in 2016, and on foot in the early parts of the race in 2018. Over the past year, he taught himself to cross country ski — going as far as to buy roller skis and ski around Anchorage all summer long — just so he could complete the 350 distance in the third discipline. He was struggling when I saw him on the first day, and said to me, "this is really, really hard." I said "Good luck," and he replied, "I'm going to need it."

Friends in Colorado often ask me why more people don't ski this trail. From my limited waxless Nordic ski experiences, I have my own theories — it's hard to glide while dragging a sled (just like it's hard to actually run while dragging a sled), but carrying a 40- or 50-pound pack isn't ideal either. The trail is often in rough shape with moguls, glare ice and snowless stretches. It's usually too narrow to skate. The snow is cold and windblown and creates a lot of resistance (I know this from dragging a sled.) Generally, the finicky technical requirements of the "misery sticks" (a term coined by other skiers, not me) create more issues than advantages. Lars is still out there at the back of the pack. I'm looking forward to hearing about his experience. In the future, when friends ask me about skiing the Iditarod Trail, I'll probably direct them to Lars.

Just behind Lars was a too-cute-for words duo, Melody and Dylan, presumably a married couple both registered in the 150-mile distance. Their pulks were a single plastic sled that they sawed in half.

Melody and Dylan ended up taking a wrong turn at the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna Rivers, a spot affectionately know as "Scary Tree," and followed the Susitna all of the way up to Willow, where they decided to scratch.

And finally, Thomas, the Tennessean with whom I also shared a brief time on the trail last year. He's a stereotypically polite Southerner who replied "Yes, ma'am," and "no, ma'am" to my questions. He seemed frazzled and when I said, "I'll see you in Nome!" he looked at me quizzically, so I don't think he remembered me at all. He ended up turning around and hiking back to Knik that night, also scratching from the race. I do not know the reason.

On Monday I had a ticket to fly out to Nome, and I was filled with regret about that. I'm not hugely enamored with Anchorage, but the weather here had been perfect, and the weather in Nome was unbelievably bad and would apparently remain that way for the foreseeable future. Bad weather in Nome is not unexpected — indeed, it's what I signed up for — but the juxtaposition was harsh. Also reality was setting in — being more or less alone for a month, with limited resources, and after crunching my budget, realizing that thanks to my upcoming tax bill, I'm just barely able to afford the high cost of groceries this month. I won't even be able to go out to eat or to the movies to pass the time. Yes, regret. I should have planned a close-to-home, shorter Colorado adventure and worked to grab a few more freelance contracts, but the decision has been made.

Nome will be good for me, though. It's good to step out of my comfort zone. Hopefully my inability to do much else will allow me to actually spend more time writing, which was my goal. Anyway, before I disassembled my bike yet again and headed out to the airport, I was able to squeeze in one more ride in the sunshine out the Coastal Trail and along some yummy Kincaid Park singletrack. I enjoyed views of Mount Susinta, Iliamna and Denali. Coming to Alaska always feels like coming home. 
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

I'm pedaling backwards

Of all the things to break me — five miles on a treadmill. 

Things were going well until Friday. I took it easy for a few days after the Golden Gate 50K, felt strong during a five-hour run on Wednesday, and put down some good power during a ride on Thursday. On Friday I conducted my twice-monthly treadmill test. My purpose for this series of intervals is to steadily boost my heart rate to near-maximum while measuring blood oxygen saturation, to see whether the readings correlate with my perceived symptoms (i.e. dizziness) and track how this changes over time. I've been on an upward arc since I started this test in November, and Friday was my best session yet — the lowest SpO2 reading I saw was 89 percent, and I felt perhaps only mildly lightheaded while sprinting. I even managed to hold out for all three minutes at 10 mph. My legs reached their lactic threshold before I surpassed my "hit the stop button before I pass out" lung limit. 

 On Saturday I joined Dennis, Dan and Betsy for an impressive adventure ride into the Apex Valley. I call this ride impressive because, even though I live in the large and sporty population center of Colorado's Front Range, I didn't imagine I'd meet others who volunteer for and even enjoy such silliness. The afternoon was gray, the wind was howling and the chill was deeply cold. We mashed pedals up steep grades until loose and wind-drifted snow became too deep, and then pushed our bikes close to treeline. Up there the ground blizzard intensified to a whiteout, and we agreed that it was rather silly to keep climbing without hope of rideable trail or views.

 I hate wearing my goggles, but it was good to try them out. I also made sure my beater fat bike — good ol' Fatty Fatback — was in working order for the trip to Alaska. See, next week I'm heading to Nome to spend most of a month on a "writers retreat" of sorts. I don't have big adventure plans; rather, I want to step out of my routine and spend real alone time in an inspiring place, to see whether this can spur some lost creativity. While in Nome I also hope to keep training for the White Mountains 100 and do a few exploration rides. When it comes to the weather in Nome, well, a day like this would probably be considered a nice day. Testing the gear — and my own resolve — is useful.

So this ride was a good test, but physically I felt rough. My legs were just empty. There was no power there, and when I tried to boost my speed, my breathing quickly became ragged. To my friends I speculated the cause was too little rest after the treadmill test — after all, there were enough high-intensity sprints in there to count as speed work. But I have to admit that there were hints of ragged breathing when I was climbing Green Mountain on Wednesday, and also while charging into "The Wall" on Flagstaff Road on Thursday, even before my "speed work." I could blame overtraining, but I'm not convinced. It's difficult to explain why I feel strongly that "bad breathing" has nothing to do with fatigue. It's easier to just shrug and say, "yeah, I'm sure rest days will help." 

 Anyway, Beat wanted one more gear test with his modified snowshoes before his upcoming Iditarod Trail trek, so we headed to Niwot Ridge on Sunday. He's done training, so no need to drag a sled. Without the anchor, Beat set a blistering pace that I could not hold. At least the snow underfoot was the best kind of powder snow — packable but not too heavy, good for holding our weight without sticking like glue.

 We expected strong wind and potential blizzard — Sunday's forecast was even worse than Saturday's. But incredibly, Niwot seemed to reside beneath a pocket of calm surrounded by dark clouds and storms.

 We hiked to the research station at 11,600 feet, which has an auxiliary box that serves as a welcome wind shelter to enjoy lunch with a view. My tuna sandwich was already mostly frozen. Based on the frost forming on my clothing, temperatures here were easily close to zero degrees. The breeze may have been relatively mild, but it was still chilly enough to be highly motivating. We didn't linger long.

I still stalled as long as I could, claiming a few minutes to wander up the ridge and enjoy dynamic afternoon light on this windswept landscape.

 Beat letting me know he's ready to head down.

As we descended the eastern slope, we watched ominous clouds boil upward from the prairie. Walking downhill into the storm was strange, but sure enough, within a couple of miles we were surrounded by fog and spitting snow. While I didn't feel strong, I didn't feel too bad. It was grateful for this dynamic and beautiful Niwot outing, probably my last before it's officially summer.

Niwot was fun, but my workouts only continued downhill from there. Monday brought a terrible run that I don't need to rehash. The best part about it was the 5-degree air, so there was a least a little cold to distract from the ice-stumbling and hard breathing. Tuesday was a rest day. Today I headed up to Mount Sanitas for a "quick" outing on the Swoop. Usually this loop takes me 1:15. Today, 1:30. Whenever my breathing feels stifled, it almost becomes a fight between my legs and my lungs. My legs say, "We're bored. We want to go faster." My lungs say, "Back off. We're working as hard was we can." Sometimes I even stop to take a few big gulps of air, to see if this helps. It usually doesn't.

From what I've observed in my breathing tests, whenever I feel this way — a little lightheaded, inclined toward rapid and shallow breathing, and sometimes outright dizzy — my blood oxygen  tends to drop. I've seen as low as 81 percent before reaching my "mash the stop button on the treadmill before I pass out" limit. When I'm having a slump, these lightheaded sensations start to happen at a relatively low heart rate — today I barely boosted myself into the 150s, which explains the bored legs. What I haven't figured out is why this happens, why it doesn't always happen, and why I'm still having good weeks and bad. My good weeks have definitely expanded, but apparently there are still bad weeks sprinkled in the mix.

So, I arrived at the top of Mount Sanitas feeling all kinds of frustration and sadness. "I'm never going to break out of this cycle. There's no reason to even bother training." These thoughts spiraled into an overreaction that I elect to blame on hormones, because these slump periods bring about all kinds of weird emotions that remind me of being a moody teenager. I remembered it was my half birthday — when I was in elementary school, summer birthday kids always celebrated their "half birthday" in class, so Feb. 20 used to be a real thing for me. "In six months I'll be 40. I can see why middle age is such a downer. I'm old but I still potentially have a whole lot of time left to feel like crap."

About three miles into the Swoop, I wondered if this run would ever end. My bored legs were restless and defiant, like children in the backseat of a car on a long road trip. "As soon as this is over, I'm really going to quit running forever. I will drop out of the White Mountains 100. Watch me."

Also my brain: "What are you so sad about? You're going to Alaska. You love Alaska. Pull yourself together, girl."

I realize this is all massive overreaction. It was not that bad. But my breathing issues are just so frustrating for me. I feel like I'm trying new things. I was happy with my recent experimentation with CBD capsules (which I just happened to run out of two weeks ago. Hmm.) My training volume is not that high or hard — 10 to 15 hours a week, mostly at medium to low intensity. If my body can't handle that amount of volume, I have no hope of returning to endurance races like the Iditarod or Tour Divide. Forgive me if I want to keep trying.

Anyway, I'm on track for more rest days in Anchorage. Hopefully I'll feel better by the time I arrive in Nome. If not, perhaps I'll at least get more writing done — after all, if training doesn't matter, then I'm really going to struggle to find the motivation in weather that requires goggles. Hopefully whatever I write won't read like the melodramatic missives of a moody teenager.