Thursday, May 16, 2019

Bryce, again

Here are a few things that have happened in my active life since the last time I finished a summer-trail hundred-miler, which just happened to be the Bryce 100, in May 2013.

• Finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 on foot. (2014)
• Finished the Race Across South Africa — 2,400 kilometers carrying a mountain bike, with some riding. (2014)
• Finished my fifth White Mountains 100, first time in the foot division. (2015)
• Finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1,000-mile on a bike, setting a new women's record in the process. (2016)
• Finished another ITI 350 on foot. (2018)
• Finished another couple WM100s on foot. (2018, 2019)
• Fitness setbacks largely due to illness and autoimmune conditions. (2015-2019)
• A bunch of DNFs, mostly in summer trail ultras on foot.

That I can accomplish difficult things yet repeatedly fail at trail-running ambitions irks me to no end, as one may have gathered from my last few weeks of training posts. Yet I'm not the type to be motivated by anger, humiliation or ego. I may have monkeys on my back, but I've learned enough about myself to know they can't push me anywhere I don't want to go. My willful mind stubbornly resists pressure, self-imposed or otherwise.

 So I had to do some soul-searching before coming back here. Do I really want to return to this place, to beat my swollen feet into the sand of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, to breathe the dust and heat, or wallow in the cold rain, and have all those little lifetimes' worth of experiences that one has along the hard edge? Can I live with not finishing? Can I bare to continue with this foolhardy endeavor if I fail again? Because if I can't, I'd rather not try. I find joy in this foolhardy endeavor. Yes, I really do. I suppose that's reason enough. Because if there's one thing that's far from certain, it's finishing this silly race I've set out to do, yet again.

So I'm on my way to the Bryce 100. On Wednesday I drove from Boulder to St. George, Utah, so I can pick up Beat at the airport ahead of the Friday morning start. It's a 10-hour commute and Beat needs to minimize his time off work, thus the shuttle. We have a huge stack of drop bags that needed to be transported, which is amusing because both us of tend to prefer races with low-key support. The White Mountains 100 offers no drop bags, and it's refreshing to just have what you have in your backpack, and not worry about anything else. But the Bryce 100 offers drop bags, so of course I tried to prepare for just about any contingency I could imagine. I want to finish this thing, after all. 

Anyway, as much as I love long-distance driving, 10 hours is a long haul, so I planned a stop mid-way for a little jaunt into the San Rafael Swell. Black Dragon Wash starts directly off the freeway ... you just pull into the shoulder off I-70, open a gate, and park. The perfect roadside diversion. A pocket of hot air had settled into the San Rafael River corridor, and the thermometer on my car indicated it was 94 degrees. I stepped into the sand to slather on sunscreen and was blasted by a blowdryer wind — probably sweeping in that cold front that's supposed to arrive on Thursday. But it did nothing for the heat on this day.

I jogged toward the canyon, feeling rough from the start. The water in my hydration bladder was already coffee temperature, and the pound or so of road-snack strawberries in my stomach were doing me no favors. My gut lurched as I scrambled along the canyon walls, searching for petroglyphs. Back in the wash, I stumbled through the sand, flicking a thick film of sweat off my arms with stiff motions.

Before many of my ultra attempts, I have a habit of embarking on what I intend to be fun and easy taper outings that turn into confidence crushers. This run leveled me. I struggled with sand-running in the wash, lamenting the leg-sucking resistance that really does resemble running on snow. Deep in the oven canyon, the heat became unbearable. Wind whipped sand into my eyes and mouth until I was crunching on grits for the rest of the afternoon. When my throat felt so dry I could barely breathe, I forced myself to drink hot water. My water supply still ran out with about two miles to go. Back at the car, I felt out of sorts and just a little bit dizzy. The next services were still 100 miles away on I-70 West, so I scavenged cans of fizzy water from my own overstuffed drop bags to stave off a mounting panic. Hmmm, borderline heat exhaustion along with nausea after an hour and a half of running, just two days before 30-plus hours of running? That's a good sign.

The thing is, these conditions probably won't remotely resemble what I'm most likely to encounter in the desert on Friday. This graphic shows the latest forecast for the Bryce Canyon region: Mid-40s during the day. Mid-20s at night. Afternoon rain potentially switching to snow overnight. Cold gusting winds at the higher altitudes. Where have I dealt with almost the exact same weather conditions in a hundred-miler? Oh yes, it was the White Mountains 100, two months ago in Alaska.

Due to the cold and snow this spring, race organizers also had to drastically reroute the course. It used to follow an out-and-back along the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau to the Pink Cliffs, but now it will follow two loops of the 50-mile race, which sticks a little closer to the relative front-country. I was disappointed with this development when they announced it last week. A hundred miles is mentally difficult enough without the contrivance of loops. But the 50-miler does hit some beautiful segments, and it will be fun to see them at different times of day and night.

Whatever happens will happen. I can take heart in the fact that my training has been going well, my breathing has been good for the past couple of months, and recent health checks have been encouraging. The race begins at 5 a.m. Friday morning, which also irks me to no end. Seriously, 5 a.m. It will still be dark at that hour, and probably several degrees below freezing. Why runners are so set on starting exercise so early that everyone is guaranteed to start out feeling like crap, I will never understand. Mountain bikers rarely put up with such nonsense.

Ok ... I am done complaining. Really, I'm overall feeling strong and excited and ready to crush this cold and wet jaunt through the sand that may well be a lot like the White Mountains 100, but in Utah. Beat and I are both starting this year's race. For fun, he revamped his Slogtastic tracker, for friends and family interested in following along. The race doesn't offer official tracking, so this is just a personal page for the two of us.

Follow Beat and me during the Bryce 100 at this link
Friday, May 10, 2019

Thyroid update 5

 Almost a year has passed since I last posted about my progress with Graves Disease. I know the subject doesn't interest most people, but just this week I heard from a long-time reader who had a few questions. She, like many, skimmed my earlier posts with little interest. That is, until she received her own Graves Disease diagnosis. She appreciated reading the perspective of another active outdoor enthusiast, which is what I hoped to achieve with these updates. And it just so happened that today was my sixth-month check-in with my endocrinologist.

The verdict: I am officially in remission! (Currently. Autoimmune diseases can always come raging back with new issues in tow. I also carry antibodies for Hashimoto's Disease, so I am just as likely to swing hypothyroid. But for now, all is well.)

When I tested with mid-range TSH in November, my doctor advised me to try going off the drug I was taking to regulate my thyroid hormone production, methimazole. My TSH dipped again in December, but now it's up to 3.2 — well within the healthy range of 0.45-4.5 — and all on its own volition. In fact, I've been more or less drug free since last fall, as that was also the time my allergy doctor had me go off of Singular and daily use of Claratin. It's been really strange to not visit the pharmacy every other week. I had to find new stores to buy personal products and cleaning supplies.

I made a little chart of my 27-month progression for the few readers who might be interested. Everyone else should scroll to the end of this post, for pretty snow photos.

The purple line represents TSH levels, and the blue bars are T3 hormone levels. I also had T4 tested, but didn't include it, as those fluctuations are more or less redundant. The purple boxes indicate the amount of methimazole I was taking during each period, and the light blue box is the happy range for T3, the active thyroid hormone. The happy range for TSH is anything above 0.45. It's a little hard to discern on this graph, but I didn't reach this milestone until May 2018.

In February 2017, my T3 was off the charts, and I felt terrible. My resting heart rate was 85-95, my hair was brittle and breaking off, my cognitive awareness was blurring, my emotional state was deteriorating, and I was wired but tired all the time — sleeping poorly, anxious, and when I finally set out to exercise, I had no energy to do so. At the time I was so delusional that I thought I was training to ride my bicycle across Alaska, as I had done in 2016. There were a few rides where I'd set out, take as much as 45 minutes to slog to the end of the road just three miles from home, and decide that I was so wasted that I needed to turn around and go home. I'd cry about it in the privacy of my bedroom, but I'd still tell myself I was "just having a bad breathing day" and vow to try again the next day. I was in a pitiful state of try-hard delusion.

Whenever I complained about my symptoms, I mostly heard "overtraining" and "altitude" as reasons. It took my endurance-cycling Alaskan physician friend Corrine — who in 2018 finished the Tour Divide at age 59! — to first observe the bulge in my neck (a swollen thyroid gland, also know as a goiter) and ask me if I'd ever had my thyroid tested.

This was early February 2017. I went to see my primary care physician the following week. After lab work came back, I was fast-tracked through a specialist, more tests and ultrasounds to determine that under no terms was I capable of racing across Alaska in three weeks' time. Had I actually attempted the 2017 ITI, there's a reasonable chance I would have died. It sounds overdramatic to put it like that, and it is. But my odds of experiencing a thyroid storm or heart episode at any time or place, including the middle of frozen nowhere, were not low.

Instead, I dropped out of the race and began treatment with a thyroid-hormone-suppressing drug, whose main side-effect is that it can cause liver damage. As the chart shows, this worked quickly for me, and my levels were never dangerously high after I started taking methimazole. I did remain hyperthyroid for most of the following year, with wildly fluctuating symptoms that didn't necessarily coincide with my thyroid levels. Breathing difficulty — which I still consider my most prominent physical health issue — continued at intervals throughout 2017 and 2018. These slumps were frustrating, but did seem to lessen as time went by. Especially later in 2018, when I was drug-free and my levels were normalizing, my slumps were shorter and less severe. However, they were still concerning enough that I decided against racing the Tour Divide in 2019. I've had trouble breathing as recently as the first week of March, and I do expect to falter again. I'll likely never be all the way free of breathing difficulty. But the long-range perspective is "undulating toward normalcy," and it's heartening.

Because of my allergic asthma, the fact I live at 7,200 feet elevation, and the still-likely scenario that I'm a little too active for my own good, I don't know how much my breathing issues are caused by thyroid disease versus anything else. But I do know that I feel a whole lot better and stronger than I did two years ago. The only aspect of my lifestyle that has consistently changed in that time is traditional medical treatment for thyroid disease and allergies (via immunotherapy, which seems to have been quite successful in tamping down my body's overreactions to the green seasons.)

I've also written a little about mental health as it relates to thyroid disease. I believe this is a bigger issue than most specialists make it out to be, but I realize every person's experience is different. When I was embroiled in the darkest days of Graves Disease, in the winter of 2016-2017, I struggled with a depressive state that heavily reduced my creativity and capability for joy. I blamed this state of mind on the political climate that was bursting to the foreground at the time, as well as stress about life, my faltering fitness and the upcoming Iditarod race. I realize now just how much my mental state has shifted — when, again, little has changed in both my life or the state of the world. I've been treated for thyroid disease, and it seems for this reason alone, my mental health is considerably better.

I do still deal with mild anxiety, which infrequently flares up with little provocation into a low-level panic, considerable shortness of breath and some chest pain. At first I'd feel these symptoms and think "oh no, thyroid storm." There may be some connection still, as I probably experience occasional bursts of hormone overproduction caused by stress. I've been using CBD as a regular supplement since my last anxiety episode in September, and have had considerably fewer issues since. How much reduced anxiety coincides with CBD use or Graves Disease remission, I don't know.

 Okay, scrollers. Here is the photogenic part of the blog post. We received another spring snowstorm this week, and again, I was thrilled. By now, most of our friends and neighbors are tired of snow. Winter weather has already stretched across seven months, and this late-season snow isn't the recreational type. It has a high water content and covers long-thawed ground, which translates to sticky sludge on top of the sloppiest mud. Even trucks don't handle the conditions all that well (based on the number I've seen stuck in ditches recently.) But there's such beauty and novelty to a May storm. I watch each one with a sort of pensive longing, because this must be the last (and eventually, it will be. This storm, which was May 9, is a very likely candidate.)

I set out for a morning hike. My destination was Bear Peak, a six-mile route that I can usually "run" in 90 minutes. This excursion took almost three hours. Breaking trail through 6-8 inches of spring snow doesn't sound like much, but it was a mighty slog. Snowshoes wouldn't have helped, because the wet cement snow stuck to everything like, well, wet cement. I fumbled to find the route up the west ridge of Bear and ended up skimming a scary ledge. Back on the trail, I kept tripping over rocks that I couldn't see. My fingers throbbed with pain because of these frequent stumbles, grabbing bare handfuls of snow, while my core was still too warm and brain too stubborn to bother with the mittens in my pocket.

Still, I was so happy. Why? I don't even know. This is one aspect of my personality that I've stopped questioning. Let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. And hope my wonky hormones don't get in the way.

Frequently I stopped walking and stood in place to listen to the gentle hiss of snowflakes falling through an expansive silence. This must be one of the most beautiful sounds. I was so grateful for this opportunity to soak in the final snow of the season. Unless there's another. There can always be hope for another. 
Monday, May 06, 2019

The speciousness of spring

Hard training weeks are the best weeks. This declaration is pretty much meaningless from someone who has updated an outdoor training blog for the past 705 weeks (not an exaggeration.) But there are still weeks that are more intense than others, and I often emerge from the difficult efforts with a mental placidity that I haven't been able to reproduce with any other method. Because I siphoned so much intellectual energy into simple forward motion, I'm even more scattered than usual — but what remains is a quiet mind. I appreciate the brief respite. Eventually my physical energy will return and I'll go back to fretting about existential angst and the latest U.N. report on extinction. In the face of such disheartening futility, one might understand the temptation to just keep running.

Sorry; I didn't come here to be a downer. I suppose I'm just coming down from engaging in 20 hours of solidly difficult (for me) motions during my last big training week before Bryce. This week of relatively routine and close-to-home outings became its own exciting adventure — intense and exhausting, doused with snow and fog and even bright sunny heat. Spring in Colorado — like a teenager who has yet to figure out her identity, trying on all of the seasons at once.

On Monday I was so tired from the previous week. I could barely pull myself off the floor. I'd pre-planned a rest day, but was already wondering whether I should launch the taper a week early. Really, for my legs' sake I probably should have, but I thrive on mental preparation. Quitting my training plan would do no favors for my still-tenuous confidence. Of course Monday was a sunny, warm day that I spent inside. By Tuesday morning it was 28 degrees with couple inches of snow dusting the ground. Excellent. A rare spring day where I could simply pull on a shell and tights and hit the trail, rather than spend a bunch of time stuffing a hydration pack with ice and slathering on sunscreen, then adding a second coat because if I miss even patches of skin this early in the season, I will end up with a patchwork of blistering burns. Also, allergy medication and extra lube for chaffing. Gearing up for "winter" is so easy in comparison.

Wet snow on warm ground does make for sloppy running conditions. My only fall for the week came less than a mile into this first run, when my shoe slid out on a slimy switchback and I ricochetted off the trail. I tumbled at least twice and ended up several meters down the snowy embankment, which made me proud of the way I handled the fall — pretty much any fall where I don't slap the trail like a dead fish is a win for me. But my right knee still took most of the impact, and throbbed with pain. I limped it out until the joint stopped hurting and finished my 10-mile run, but paid for this with a tender goose egg and stiffness for the next couple of days. It wasn't my worst trail splat, but as I stare down 40, I notice all the ways these little collisions become more impactful with age. How much longer will I be able to withstand the risk?

Truthfully, when I gripe about being bad at running, I am largely referring to the management of my own body mechanics. As I make more concentrated efforts, I can say with some confidence that it's not as simple as remembering to lift my feet, or improving any single aspect of my form. Of course practicing better techniques will help, but I'm still so far behind that wonder how much can even be learned. I'm reminded of just how little faith I have in my running stride every time I run on a treadmill. On Wednesday I conducted my first breathing test since February — five miles of walk/run intervals at increasingly higher speeds while monitoring my blood oxygen saturation and perceived respiration. My breathing was great and oxygen levels good, but at faster speeds I occasionally skimmed the platform next to the moving belt. Somehow I was drifting sideways off the treadmill and didn't even realize it.

How? How hard is it to run straight on a treadmill? I doubled down on the self-reminders to focus. The time came to set the treadmill at 10 mph. Galloping in place, I felt that rush of endorphins. The ever-elusive runners' high. Soaring. The three-minute limit approached, my heart was beating 177, the dizziness was beginning to creep around the edges, but I felt this inclination to hold the pace for three more minutes. An official six-minute-mile. I'm fairly certain I don't have one behind me yet. Of course, just a few seconds later, my foot drifted laterally yet again. A stumble off a treadmill at 10 mph could be quite painful, not to mention so embarrassing that this probably would be the final straw to convince me to quit running forever. I mashed my palm onto the pause button, feeling defeated. Then again, it was a successful breathing test. I shouldn't try to do too many things at once.

On Thursday, we woke up to more snow! I was so excited. Really, all these spring snows bring is heavy slop and mud that isn't good for running, cycling, driving, or much of anything. But they sure are pretty. And fleeting. 

And peaceful. It was still 29 degrees when I set out for my run at 10 a.m., but I knew the spring warmth would arrive soon enough. I dressed in a lightweight long-sleeved top, capri tights, and a buff over my hat to keep my ears warm. It's pretty much the same outfit I'll wear in July to protect my skin from the searing UV rays of summer, but it's best suited for temperatures around 50 degrees, which I expected later in the afternoon. For the first few miles the cold held a razor-edged sharpness. I relished in the tingling in my fingers, and the raggedness of my breath. Even through the subfreezing temperature, sunlight warmed the fabric of my shirt. The air still tasted of sweet grass and mulch. The second of May. What a time to be alive. 

My plan for this day was a technical grind — my 11-mile route had 4,500 feet of climbing, and a lot of rocky maneuvering. Also snow and ice, at least early in the day, and mud later. The fatigue of a couple of high-mileage weeks weighed on my legs, and there were weird tinges of soreness from my speedwork the previous day. My bruised knee was still swollen and tender, and my hip was a bit tight, likely also from Tuesday's tumble. No matter. I was going to do this hard run in the slippery snow, and I was going to go for PRs. Just because. I have some fitness, and I want to use it.

I managed my second fastest time of 45 ascents on Bear Peak's West Ridge, missing my best by 11 seconds. I also snagged a second fastest time along the ridge from Bear to South Boulder Peak, missing my 2016 PR by 15 seconds, mostly because I stopped to chat with a local woman who signed up for next year's ITI. Then I scooted down Shadow Canyon, one of my nemeses, a 1,700 foot descent slicked with melted snow, just nine seconds off my best time. Spring warmth emerged as I trotted along the Mesa Trail, tearing away what excess layers I could shed and cramming down fruit snacks so I'd have some quick-burning energy for the queen of all of my cherished segments, Fern Canyon. With 1,800 feet of climbing in 0.8 miles, Fern's stats are just mean as Colorado's more famous Manitou Incline, without the benefit of human-built stairs. Instead you have stacks of boulders and 45-degree-angle slopes covered in loose dirt or mud. My goal has been to ascend this segment in under 40 minutes, and I've tried many times. My best recorded time is 40:18. This time I only managed 40:28, pressing my knuckles into the rocks as I lumbered up the final pitch, gasping in the suddenly searing spring heat. It was still my second best time, though, and I was ready to call this run a success. That would be enough hard "running" for this week, I thought.

Beat at Golden Gate State Park on Sunday.
 While I was crawling up Fern Canyon, Beat was on his lunch break, running the five-mile loop around the Sanitas Swoop. This was his first try on that route, and of course he crushed all of my PRs that I've been chipping away at since we first visited Boulder in November 2015. Because he's a better and stronger runner than me. No surprise. No big deal. But then, as I was preparing for another gym day on Friday, I thought, "Why do my strength workout on the elliptical when I can just run around Sanitas? I mean, it's pretty much the same thing. I can still go lift weights afterward."

The previous night, Beat and I had discussed Sanitas strategy. The climb is another steep one, gaining 1,300 feet in 1.2 miles, but it's short enough that I usually tackle the entire thing as hard as my VO2 max will allow. There are still a few flatter segments were I usually stumble along dizzily to collect more oxygen for the next steep pitch. This time, I aimed to go less hard on the steeps and attempt to run the flats, which aren't all that flat, but runnable enough. With this strategy I managed to expend noticeably less energy and still cut my best time from 29:55 to 28:35. This still didn't come close to Beat's 28:02, but I was stoked. I felt great, and I was proving to myself that I might just be in the best running shape I've been since I moved to Boulder. For good measure, I crushed my PR down Lion's Lair as well.

Hard running efforts do take it out of you, though. The time was coming to pay the piper. Beat and I had two more runs planned for the weekend, final back-to-back efforts two weeks before the Bryce 100. We did 10 miles around Walker Ranch on Saturday. The weather was nice and we took it at an easy pace, but I felt worked. Sunday was going to be interesting.

Sunday: 25 miles in Golden Gate State Park, undulating on steep and rocky trails so lacking in flow that it's difficult to focus on much else beyond where to place my feet. I can only take photos when I'm either stopped or running the rare smooth track, so I don't have an illustration of the terrain that I find difficult. But it was all coming together for this peak run: High mileage, hard climbing, puzzling descents, while managing sore and fatigued limbs. My quads had developed a lasting ache, which worried me enough that I spent most of Saturday night using Air Relax compression to squeeze blood through them, until both legs went went numb.

This is what the training is all about, though. My most cherished goal races aren't about soaring invincibility and PRs. They're about becoming comfortable with being broken. Strength, fitness, toughness, determination — these attributes will take you as far as the starting line. If the weather holds, if luck holds, if the trail holds, they’ll take you a bit farther. Eventually, though, it’s going to fall apart. The heat will bear down, or the cold will sink in. Maybe you'll get dust in your lungs, and after all of your careful attention to pre-race aches like a tight Achilles tendon and sore quads, something completely random will hurt, like hip abductor strain. In these moments you'll have to weigh your human weakness against a bewildering distance and choose: Sit down in the dirt, or keep moving.

Often you decide to keep moving, despite the difficulty. You keep moving, despite being weak and frightened and uncertain. In doing so, you realize that toughness doesn’t matter. Bravery doesn’t matter. All that matters is action. One step in front of the other. Drawing oxygen through ragged breaths. And as you move, a detached sort of placidity settles into your limbs. Beauty shines through the blinders of pain. You feel transcendent, free from everything, even yourself. You realize that this is the key to the worst parts of life — the unanticipated illnesses and losses, turns of fate, and drawn-out silence following spectacular implosions. When everything falls apart, you don’t need to be brave or strong. You need to be comfortable being broken.

On Sunday in Golden Gate State Park, I was far from broken. I was only mildly uncomfortable, and maybe a little tired. Okay, fine, I really struggled through the final climb, with twitching vibrations in my quads, and the blur of waning focus in my field of vision. It was difficult enough to give perspective for the difficult task ahead, which is preparation for even more difficult tasks ahead, which ultimately is preparation for life.

Now it's time to taper, and maybe get back on my bike once or twice before I head to Utah. I feel about as ready for Bryce as I could be right now, which is to say — relatively strong, still not all that competent, but mentally steeled for the storm.