Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A perfect Pursuit

The first full week of 2021 tamped down any delusions that the new year might improve on its predecessor. In a news cycle that's happening at 16x speed, you might remember that January 4 was the day it was revealed that Trump attempted to shake down Georgia's secretary of state and a new Congress was sworn in with that "amen and awoman" prayer. Ah, those were quaint times. I had a full day of errands planned but stole a few hours of the morning to ride my fat bike around the singletrack surrounding Brainard Lake and Peaceful Valley. 

Trail conditions were challenging. These trails are difficult in the best of scenarios — packed by foot and ski, they're razor-thin. You can't throw a foot down without plunging into deep powder. This season's snowpack is still extremely low, so there are miles of exposed boulders and tree roots. The previous weekend blasted the region with wind, partially filling in the trail with spindrift, a sugary sort of snow that is both slippery and impossible to consolidate. And no one had been through since the overnight winds, so the packed surface was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding snow. 

I had a 20-mile loop ride planned and stubbornly stuck with it despite the beating these trails doled out. The bike washed out on a hidden patch of ice and I slammed down hard on my right shoulder. Ouch. I became tangled in the frame twice when I lost the trail and toppled into crusty snow, bruising knees and thighs. At lower altitudes, the trails rode similar to summer conditions but worse — a rock garden covered in two inches of snow, just enough to hide some of the most insidious obstacles. Ugh. I'd like to say fun was had, but I limped through the rest of the day and woke up so sore the following morning that I struggled to get out of bed. 

"I'm still too old for mountain biking," was a thought that I had. 

You might remember that Tuesday, January 5, ended on a positive note with the Georgia election, but then came Wednesday. Like most Americans, I watched in horror as the insurrection that everyone predicted would happen actually happened, and burst into tears when I saw the photo of a Colorado congressman comforting a terrified colleague as they took cover, because it illustrated just how close this came to becoming an unthinkable tragedy. Seriously, what have we become? Still stiff with a sore shoulder and fresh bruises blooming on both legs, I slumped onto the trainer and pedaled through a fit of rage up a virtual 3,000-foot mountain. At one point, Beat came downstairs to ask me if I was going to break the exercise bike. The physical pain was a welcome — if temporary — relief to the anguish that was coursing through my veins. This felt like a sharp turning point in history — like Sept. 11, but worse even, because the call was coming from inside the house. 

The Leadville gang at the start: Cheryl, Betsy, my fat bike "Erik," Erika, and Jim

Then came Friday, January 8 — the day of the Fat Pursuit 200K. Like most of the other winter races this season, the original race in Idaho was canceled due to COVID concerns and moved to a "virtual" event. Admittedly, I never signed up for the virtual race. I already completed my Wild Winter Way 160-miler three weeks earlier and got a good endurance fix there. I also buried myself in the process and was just coming around to feeling recovered when a plan with four friends to stage a similar event in Leadville gained momentum. It's difficult to connect 125 miles of rideable snow trails anywhere in Colorado, but Leadville has an enticing system of groomed multiuse paths, singletrack, and snowmobile trails in a stunningly scenic location. We put together a 41-mile figure-eight loop that I figured we could ride three times. A single lap had 4,000 feet of climbing, rolling between 10,000 and 11,500 feet. The stats pointed to something that was probably going to be even harder than the original Fat Pursuit, although laps did mean we could resupply often. 

I'm not sure any of us had our heads and hearts fully invested in the 200K. My headspace was particularly toxic for motivation, leaping over the usual qualms about pain and boredom to "why does any of this matter?" "what does it all mean?" and "maybe it's time to invest in that cabin deep in the Alaska wilderness and live out my days chopping firewood and wandering through the woods and waiting for the climate change wildfires to consume me." Yes, catastrophic thinking is a specialty of my hyperactive brain. My most effective method for tamping down anxiety is, of course, a long and physically demanding effort. Despite not signing up for the race and not caring whether I finished even if I did sign up, I remained motivated to seek that flow state and its foggy tranquility. The desire for escapism held tight even though my shoulder and knees were still tender following the Monday bike crashes and my quads were disconcertingly sore because I rode the exercise bike into the floor on Wednesday. 

We planned our virtual event to start at noon Friday, the time and day that the real Fat Pursuit 200K would have taken place. The late start also gave all of us time to drive from our various corners of the state, as I again planned to conduct this somewhat remote travel without venturing indoors. A larger group of 20 or so riders and several runners were starting a self-supported 200K on the original course in Idaho at the same time, which offered a fun feeling of solidarity. We enjoyed an auspicious start: bluebird skies, sunshine, and warmth. According to my car thermometer, it was 25 degrees. When the breeze died down, under direct sunlight at 10,000 feet, this felt like 70 degrees. Most of us were drenched in sweat before we'd ridden a mile. 

We made an effort to stick together for the first lap, but it's always difficult to manage a group ride in the winter. All of us predictably needed to stop at intervals to remove layers and adjust tire pressures. I stuck to my usual mistake of keeping all of my layers and became so sweaty that even a two-minute stop to wait for my friends left me wracked with shivering. When we got going again, I was out on the front like an impatient husky on an Iditarod dog team. That's how I felt, at least. Between the shivering and sprinting to warm up again, I burned up a lot of energy that I knew wasn't sustainable. But I was having fun. 

Jim riding the Mineral Belt Trail one switchback below. 

The Mineral Belt Trail forms a 12-mile loop around the town of Leadville, winding through several historic mining sites along the way. There were lots of plaques and I admit I didn't stop to read any of them, but it is intriguing to see relics of a time when tens of thousands of humans resided at the windblown cusp of treeline, gasping through long winters at 10,000 or even 12,000 feet while they scraped silver and gold from the barren mountainsides. Spotting the remnants of a cabin collapsed on an exposed ridge while shivering in a fierce midday wind really brings to light what a strange species we are — the miners with their futile gold fever, and me with my futile pursuit of The Truth. 

We turned onto snowmobile trails baking in the sunshine to climb and climb. Trail conditions were difficult, with most machines running mountain-worthy, deep-lugged tracks that tear up the surface. In warm temperatures, this stirred-up chunder resembles mashed potatoes, a common descriptor used by winter cyclists. Mashed potato snow will drain the strength from legs more quickly than the steepest climb, and these were steep climbs on their own. I reduced my tire pressure to 3 psi. It would stay there for the rest of the ride, adding resistance to the rare hardpacked-snow surfaces, but necessary to ride at all in soft snow. My point is — this type of riding is strenuous. It is why a seven-mile fat bike ride in Colorado is considered a long ride. Targeting 200K is a little ridiculous.

It was incredibly scenic above 11,000 feet in the East Mining District. Every time we stopped for layering and photos and snacks, the first words out of my mouth were, "What a day!" 

We crested the climb at "Ibex City," where I assumed there must be stone foundations of a ghost town underneath the snow. I was so cold here. And I knew a 1,500-foot descent into the west wind was not going to boost my core temperature. 

Descending on mashed potatoes is tricky — a squirrelly, swerving maneuver that often incorporates "boot skiing" to ensure the rubber side stays down. It's fun, though. It's okay to crash because often the worst consequence is a creating a bike-shaped snow angel, although one must be mindful of tree wells. I was a bit miserable because I was really cold. I just wanted to get back to base camp and change out of sweaty layers and put on the fuzzy wind-resistant fleece that I didn't think I'd even use on this ride, but brought anyway. Cheryl and I waited for about five minutes at the Mineral Belt Trail intersection, but then I couldn't take it anymore and we both took off. Notes to self for future winter group rides: Bring the big puffy. Don't sweat. 

I made a quick turnover at base camp, adding about the same number of layers that I wore when it was -45 outside McGrath last March and gulping down a peanut butter sandwich. Even with puffies and calories, it still took most of five miles before I felt warm enough to relax. The last hints of direct sunlight slipped behind the Mosquito Range skyline as I made my way around the dam. The loop around Turquoise Lake covers 16 miles of road that is groomed for winter use and typically sees heavy snowmobile traffic. As the temperature dipped, the trail began to harden. Typically this would be a good thing for wheels, but warm daytime temperatures followed by a rapid freeze create tiny frost crystals on an uneven and deeply corrugated surface. The effect is fittingly called "Velcro snow." Like mashed potatoes, Velcro snow will suck the strength out of legs faster than the steepest hills. 

I was grinding up one comparatively tiny hill when a snowmobile came puttering up from behind. Perhaps they were a novice driver ... they seemed reluctant to pass me on the wide trail. Finally, I pulled as far to the right as I could and put a foot down. Still, they seemed to be just idling in place. I turned to the helmeted driver and said, "You should pass. I'm pretty sure you have more horsepower than me." I'm not sure they heard, but they waved and continued puttering up the trail. Usually, fresh snowmobile tracks are softer and slower than a more set-up trail, but Slow-mo Snow-mo created a smooth, almost groomed surface that was a relief to ride. I followed them for a while, at a blistering 3 or 4 mph, until their lights disappeared around a corner and out of sight. 

I wouldn't see another person on a trail until daylight — 14 hours later. Sunset turned the thin cloud cover into a wash of pink and violet. I felt the same vague feeling of dread that I always feel when I'm outside and alone as night descends. With darkness my senses invert — as vision narrows, even the smallest sounds are amplified to an alarming degree. The crunch of snow — moose? The rustle of tree branches — lion? The distant whine of the lone snowmobile — is Slow-mo Snow-mo a murderous stalker? This only lasts a few minutes before then my senses adjust. Snow crystals sparkle in the faint glow of my headlight. The sky opens to a patchwork of stars. A mouse scurries across the trail. The vapor of my breath swirls in mesmerizing waves. This is just the world. Don't be afraid. 

Nighttime is my favorite time to be outside. I'm not out here often, because I am a lazy soul who also values sleep and warmth and varied scenery. But when I make the investment in a night ride, I'm always amazed by the expansiveness and silence of my surroundings. Even familiar places become mysterious. I relish in the unbroken solitude. I finished my first of three full laps and briefly chatted with Erika's partner, Cullen, who was heading out to meet the rest of the group at a campsite near the edge of the lake. Since I was still wearing most of my clothing I just left my layers on and set out on the northern portion of the Mineral Belt Trail, which circles the edge of town. It was freshly groomed, but the base was still soft, so I made painfully slow progress beside houses and their warm lights in the late evening.

I was grateful to leave the bike path and commence the steep climb toward the East Mining District. A harsh wind pressed through the trees and I could feel my legs losing steam. What I had easily pedaled up eight hours earlier suddenly sent cramps through my calves. My sore shoulder began to complain more loudly, until I adjusted my hydration pack straps to hang most of the water weight off my left side. As the grade steepened, I stepped off my bike to push. Despite the slow conditions I hadn't had to push my bike yet, and my whole body seemed to balk at the prospect. My overboot-clad feet slipped on the loose snow and my sore shoulders slumped in defiance. I really didn't want to push my bike. Funny how that works. 

I hopped back on and mashed the pedals, knowing I was spending more energy than I should. I didn't want to end up like I had during my 160-miler, at the end of my rope with nothing left to give. For a half mile, there was a section of trail that was badly torn up by a truck that was stuck earlier in the day. I had to lift my bike over some deep trenches, which was annoying, and by the end of the wrestling match I truly couldn't ride the bike up the hill. So I marched, and in marching almost instantly drifted into a deep flow state. I slipped away from a sense of place and time. I was back in Alaska, on the Yukon River, so it must be 2016. I looked up at the sky — wisps of clouds, patches of stars, a glint of orange light. I blinked with a startle of familiarity. Why do I always return to this place? What does it mean? It doesn't mean anything, of course. It's just a mechanism of the memory, a vacuum between waking and sleep where the mind fills the empty space with images. Mine is often the same. I recognize the place, but I don't understand its significance. It frightens me. 

This is just the world. Don't be afraid.   

I became more lost in these waking dreams during the descent, enough so that I ended up back at base camp mostly unsure of how I got there. I was feeling more energized, but I resolved to eat a big meal and take a short nap because that would set me up for a stronger second half. Erika was snoozing in her car and came out to say hello as I heated up a Mountain House meal and coffee for "morning." It was 1 a.m. and 4 degrees. I texted Beat. "It took me 13 hours to go 60 miles." My mind was too foggy to determine whether that was good or pathetic. I'd forgotten to bring a spoon so I attempted to fashion one out of the stove's windscreen, but ended up just gulping the meal directly out of the bag. Then I crawled into my fluffy sleeping bag and pulled the hood around my face, feeling a wash of gratification, as though I'd never been cozier in my life. Homer Simpson's voice popped into my head: "I'm just a big toasty cinnamon bun and I never want to leave this bed."

My alarm went off four hours later, at 5:30 a.m. Surprisingly, I didn't feel too reluctant about getting out of bed. Actually, I felt pretty good. I slept well — uncharacteristic for me after a long effort, especially one that had already resulted in muscle cramps. I put my boots on, drank a few sips of still-hot coffee, stuffed the thermos in my frame bag, and began pedaling toward the yellow glow of a nearby car wash. A tiny sliver of the crescent moon rose over the Mosquito Range. It was 3 below zero. I still felt like a big toasty cinnamon bun. I felt great! 

Next came another lap around Turquoise Lake. I decided to ride this round counter-clockwise, as descending in the opposite direction seemed long and gradual compared to the steep climb on the other side. (The road winds around the lake but there are three hills along the way, the longest of which ascends more than 800 feet.) The northern half of the loop had been freshly groomed, which did prove less "Velcroy" and reaffirmed my decision to climb in this direction. Dawn brought intensifying snow flurries until there was about an inch of fresh powder on the ground.  

I started to see people again — first, two skiers who offered me whisky even though it was 7 a.m., then recognized my bike and gushed about it because it's a custom titanium frame from Steamboat Springs. The sky cleared up and then clouded again. Snow flurries fell and faded. Time was running in a strange counter-clockwise direction as well. Even though I'd slept well for almost four hours, the rest wasn't enough to remove the strain of depleted glycogen and empty muscles. My mind continued compensating with waking dreams. I found myself singing quietly to the Iditarod Trail, as I sometimes do on the Iditarod Trail, even though I wasn't on the Iditarod Trail. A favorite from 2016, by Lord Huron: 

"I am not the only traveler.
Who has not repaid his debt.
I've been searching for a trail to follow ... again.
Take me back to the night we met."

I decided to make a third lap around Turquoise Lake rather than return to base camp, reasoning that it would be good to finish up this section while it was still somewhat early and traffic hadn't completely torn up the newly groomed segment. Truthfully, I was loving being "out in the wild" and couldn't stomach the thought of grinding out ten extra miles of road, even though the road offered what was more or less free miles compared to the snowy grind. Either way, I had to do the 200K. Of course, I didn't have to do the 200K. But by now I saw no reason not to complete the ride. It would be silly to quit when I felt fine and was having fun, mostly ignoring my audiobook and instead trying to remember all of my favorite songs from Iditarod 2016. "Think I'm Sick" by Icon for Hire:

"The night knows me by name.
It's a shadow trained to dull the pain.
All the black begins to blur.
Resist at first and then immerse."

I returned to 2021 in an abrupt arrival back at base camp, my mile 99, sometime around 1 p.m. Betsy was there preparing to head home. She'd ridden 70-something miles and was happy with that. I planned to complete one more lap around Mineral Basin, tacking on a bunch of groomed CMC singletrack at the end to make up for my missed road miles. I trundled up the trail as fresh cyclists zoomed past me. I made a turn on the road I thought led to the East Mining District, but I'd turned about three miles early. I ascended nearly 500 feet to a reservoir that I definitely did not remember before I realized my mistake. 

By the time I reached the correct climb, it was snowing heavily. Fresh powder masked the tire ruts, and I started washing out and crashing. I toppled into soft snow at least twice before I finally hit something hard with my sore shoulder and cried out in pain. I sat up, prepared to have a temper tantrum about the injustice of riding a bike poorly in a world where snow sometimes falls from the sky — and then I thought of it in that way, and broke out laughing. After everything that's happened during the first full week of 2021, why in the world would I cry about bicycling? I reflected back to the crash that hurt my shoulder, which was Monday ... only five days ago? It felt like a year. One of the reasons I love endurance cycling is the way it stretches out time, moves it forward and backward until you feel like you've endured a lifetime in the span of a day. Given the events of recent days, it seems that 2021 will do a pretty good job of that on its own. 

After that third or fourth crash, and with the steepest section of the climb still looming above me, I realized there was no reason I *had* to loop around the mining district. I could just return around Mineral Belt for the same number of miles and ride a whole bunch of singletrack without burying myself. Sore shoulder and fluctuating awareness of time aside, it was amazing how great I still felt after a century-plus of snowy grind. Still, my heart rate pegged with even the smallest climbs, and it was clear I wouldn't have much left without another long rest. 

Sunlight faded behind the overcast sky, shifting almost imperceptibly into night. I descended Mineral Belt to a point about two miles from base camp when I reached the singletrack intersection. My watch read 118 miles and I thought there's no way a trail system could fill that much extra space without out-and-backs, but it would be fun to try. I took Betsy's advice and turned left, wending through the dark woods around tight switchbacks and swooping curves. The trails were in perfect condition, with just enough new snow over the groomed surface to add traction. Fat bikers call this "Hero snow." I turned left and left again, and soon I was hopelessly lost. I couldn't have found my way out if I tried (note: there were trail maps at most intersections and I had a GPS, but I was in no capacity to interpret either.) All I could do was turn left, lean into the sharp hairpins, gaze up at the snow-covered pines and down at pillows of snow in this wintry gumdrop forest, and sing - loudly now.

I'd long since ditched the audiobook and was listening to music, an old playlist that I'd pulled up from dregs long enough abandoned to sound new again. The random song on my ancient iPod Shuffle could not have been more perfect. "Help I'm Alive" by Metric:

If we're still alive 
My regrets are few 
If my life is mine 
What shouldn't I do? 
I get wherever I'm going 
I get whatever I need 
While my blood's still flowing and my heart's still beating 
Beating like a hammer.

 I turned left and laid harder into the pedals. The narrow trail undulated up and down, cranking and coasting, leaning and breathing, ragged breaths and empty legs that in reality still had so much to give. I pedaled harder. My heart was pounding and I had no idea where was or where I might end up. Each turn seemed to push me deeper into the forest. The darkness intensified. The snow glistened. Hot blood coursed through my arteries, feeding a zeal that I could no longer contain. It seemed plausible to just turn left forever. Maybe I'd just ride in circles until the sun came up. I mean, I was nearly out of food and water, but why not? 

Finally, a trail spit me out onto Mineral Belt and I almost reluctantly pedaled back to my car, which was now alone in an empty parking lot. Everyone else had gone home. This was a little disappointing, I admit, as I'd hoped to hang out with the group and maybe recruit Cheryl into camping one more night. My watch read 124.5 miles on the mark, which is close to exactly 200 kilometers, but I rode another half-mile in circles around the parking lot for good measure. It was getting cold again — already just 8 degrees at 6:30 p.m., and accumulating snow portended a difficult drive back to Boulder. 

I made note of the time — 6:27 p.m. 30 hours and 8 minutes elapsed. 22 hours and 8 minutes of moving time. 125.01 miles with 11,693 feet of climbing. Too bad I never signed up for the reorganized Fat Pursuit, so it didn't actually count for everything. "This was too fun to be a Fat Pursuit," was a thought that I had. I've raced the real version four times and every time it's crushed me in different ways. To not venture close enough to an edge hard enough to be crushed is not really "pursuing" ...

Or is it? 
Sunday, January 03, 2021

2020 in numbers

Final ride of 2020 on Rollins Pass Road

Really, I couldn't think of a better way to end a difficult year that passed in a realm of surreality — hunched over a sweat-soaked towel in my basement, legs spinning wildly to boost the wattage of a bike trainer, watching the digital grandeur of a futuristic New York City pass by on a movie screen while listening to an audiobook about the Shakleton Antarctic expedition of 1915, all while chasing an utterly arbitrary goal of 4,000 pedaled miles in one year. 

When I reached my goal, I spun down seven miles to grow on, remembered it was Dec. 30, and schemed a snowy plod of a ride for the true final day of 2020. I've had a lot of fun with Zwift since we installed the bike trainer in mid-December, and will staunchly defend the stance that these miles are every bit as meaningful as outdoor miles — especially in this age of social distancing, poor air quality, road dangers, and time limitations for many people who just want to pursue fitness and virtual socializing with friends and strangers. My sore legs certainly agree that the 85 miles I rode on Dec. 30 are "real."  But my focus in training has never solely been on fitness. Any gains in this regard are a distant second to adventures, beauty, awe, and all of the little surprises of simply moving through the world. 

So I planned a New Year's Eve ride on Rollins Pass Road, where I knew I'd find deep snow, expansive views, and almost total solitude. That conditions were mostly terrible for riding a bike was, frankly, to be expected. 

It seemed the road hadn't seen much traffic since I was last here on Dec. 5. The jeep tracks were filled with drifted snow and torn to chaotic shreds where vehicles spun out in the deepening drifts. Where I could ride, I averaged about 3 mph and often had to stop pedaling when my quads were screaming. And I really tried to not stop, because the track was often only the width of a truck tire and hub-deep, so it was almost impossible to start rolling again. This slow, strenuous plod felt quite silly with my tired legs and no goals in mind. Still, the views were superb, the December sun at 10,000 feet was warm enough that I had stripped down to a sweat-drenched base layer, and, most enjoyable of all — the air was clean and still. 

The last of the truck tracks petered out around mile 7.5, so I turned around. This 15-mile, four-hour effort was a bit pathetic in the scheme of the numbers game ... but then again, it's never been about the numbers, has it? Still, numbers are fun just as games are fun. I've enjoyed keeping track of my stats over the years. 

My 2020 numbers surprised me somewhat. I haven't actively trained for anything since February, spent most of my moving time on really slow activities like crawling over mountain boulderfields, and took quite a few days off during the summer when air quality was horrendous. Still, when it was all over I logged a near-record amount of elevation gain — I realized all too late that I was only about 5,000 feet shy of my 2015 PR — and my most cycling miles in a year since the "Tour Divide training/easy-fire-road-spinning days" when I lived in California. Since then, I haven't broken 3,000 miles in a year. Through it all I was still primarily a "runner" in 2020, burning well over 500 hours on the activity. 

A part of me is embarrassed that my "moving time" was nearly 1,000 hours. Part of it is the relatively small number of miles for this effort. If I put in this kind of time on Zwift, I'd probably pedal 15,000 miles or more. Part of it is shame about wasting time. After all, an adult spending this much time on play not only has a hefty helping of privilege, she's also squandering potential for more "productive" endeavors. I won't take a deep dive into my philosophy on productivity here, but I believe any endeavor can only contain as much meaning as we assign to it. Thus, we all live our lives in line with what we value. Only those who don't live in accordance with their own values are wasting their "one wild and precious life." 

My 2020 Year in Numbers: 

Run: 1,780.6 miles, 338,599 feet climbing. 537 hours and 46 minutes. 
Ride: 4,022.2 miles, 507,070 feet climbing. 450 hours and 27 minutes.


5,802.8 miles
845,669 feet climbing 
987 hours and 13 minutes (41.1 days) 

Night run in Anchorage, Alaska, at -5F.


188.2 miles run, 18,509 feet climbing
25.6 miles ride, 4,449 feet climbing
67 hours

I like to tally these monthly totals for my personal records, but since none of the months had a specific focus after March, I don't intend to yammer on about training. In January, almost all of my miles stacked up while I was training in Anchorage during the first week of the year, and then dragging my sled across the mountains of Idaho and Wyoming for 100 miles during the Fat Pursuit. After Fat Pursuit, Beat and I came down with our annual death cold, which laid me low for the rest of the month. I even fretted that I wouldn't recover in time to participate in the Iditarod. Without focused training and with the social distancing necessitated by COVID, I haven't been sick or injured since January. If I make it through this month with health intact, it will probably be the first 365-day period of my adult life in which I could say this. (Please, universe, let me make it through January without getting sick ... I really don't want to get sick with what is likely to make me sick right now.) 

Sled-drag around Turquoise Lake in Leadville, Colorado.


132.5 miles run, 22,990 feet climbing
0 miles ride.
38 hours

I spent a fair amount of February time in the gym, which isn't reflected in time totals. The "running" miles were mainly sled-drags and cart-pulls. It's funny, though — in my memory I trained so hard leading up the Iditarod Trail Invitational, but that isn't reflected in my Strava numbers. One-legged squats and deadlifts feel like much more effort than they probably are. Ah, I miss going to the gym. I tried to launch home strength training in the spring, but my motivation has been dismal. 

The "road" to McGrath during the Iditarod Trail Invitational, -45F.


361.8 miles run, 23,156 feet climbing
26.3 miles ride, 1,175 feet climbing
133 hours

Nearly all of these miles happened during my march along the snow-swept Iditarod Trail. The rest of the month was filled with recovery, anxious downtime, stressful travel, and just trying to pick up as many pieces as possible after the pandemic scattered all hopes and plans to the wind. 

Using the last of some hard-earned sled-dragging strength to haul firewood back home


124.9 miles run, 24,229 feet climbing
220 miles ride, 34,390 feet climbing
54 hours

It's interesting to note that as of April 1, I had only logged 50 miles of cycling in 2020. It had been six months since I'd completed more than a handful of short rides. I remember that cycling fitness came back surprisingly fast — muscle memory is an amazing thing — when I finally took to the roads. I wish muscle memory could be so kind to my upper body, but after my gym closed, my strength quickly plummeted. Ah well. Perhaps that will be a project for this coming spring. 

Slowly getting my running legs back during the stay-at-home era


146.7 miles run, 37,270 feet climbing
452 miles ride, 59,728 feet climbing
86 hours

As trails dried out in May, I returned to running with more gusto. The 30-minute-mile cart-dragging slogs of winter left me with no leg speed, and I didn't do a lot to earn it back. Several times this year, I admitted to Beat that I am not a "runner," I am a "hiker," and that's okay. Maybe regaining leg speed would be a good project for another extended period without endurance racing ... although attempts to run even relatively fast will likely result in injury. Not overuse injury, mind you, injury because I will eventually, inevitably, smack the ground with a breakable body part.  

Carrying my gravel bike to the top of Mount Evans on the Summer Solstice


113.4 miles run, 25,903 feet climbing
560.9 miles ride, 65,134 feet climbing
84 hours

June was a fun month ... arguably the least volatile of the pandemic, when it briefly began to look like things might shift toward a better outcome. Our state's stay-at-home orders ended, and we could again venture into the mountains. The state also decided to keep the road to Mount Evans closed for the summer, which sparked a flurry of human-powered activity. In hindsight, it's like Zwift land — a beautiful, car-free world filled with cyclists and the occasional summit-seeking road runner, sweating and smiling in the sunshine. 

Trying and mostly failing not to blow away on Keyhole Pass


129.3 miles run, 34,626 feet climbing
463.5 miles ride, 58,039 feet climbing
90 hours

In July, Beat and I fell into our summer pattern of picking one huge mountain route to tackle nearly every weekend. These hikes were often near the edge of my comfort zone or slightly beyond, as is the case with this attempt on Longs Peak. Insanely high winds scared me off the summit ridge, which is an exposed class-three traverse. Beat made it to the top that day. The fact that I have yet to reach the summit of this 14er remains a source of shame, but I think I'll need true Goldilocks conditions to try it again. Mountains are scary. 

Climbing to the top of Colorado for my 41st birthday


190 miles run, 52,112 feet climbing
302.6 miles ride, 37,008 feet climbing
95 hours

In August, wildfire smoke began to take over the skies. At first, it arrived from far away — western Colorado and California, mostly — but the air quality index started regularly spiking into the hazardous zone. In my numbers tally, I noted that each week held three to four rest days — often because I simply could not exert myself outside without developing asthma symptoms. These rest days were interspersed with huge days in the mountains, which is how I racked up 95 hours of moving time. 

A much-appreciated summer snowstorm


139.2 miles run, 37,031 feet climbing
150 miles ride, 19,865 feet climbing
57 hours

Despite a brief breather in the form of a heavy snowstorm on Sept. 9, the fire summer continued almost unabated once the foot of fluff melted from the ground. Although Beat and I continued to plan big days in the mountains, I'd often need to take a day or two to recover from that ragged feeling in my lungs. 

That time I rode my bike 150 miles from home to the top of Mount Evans and back


112.2 miles run, 30,466 feet climbing
461.5 miles ride, 61,905 feet climbing
84 hours

October is when all of our big local fires flared out of control, and the fire summer hit closest to home. But I also felt the clock ticking on winter, and pushed to accomplish a few of the little adventure goals I'd set for a rather disappointing summer — the "Big Lonesome" loop along the CDT (we crawled over and around 20-foot-high piles of blowdowns for much of ten hours), the Pawnee-Buchanan loop, and riding to the top of Mount Evans from my house, which involved 150 miles and 18,000 feet of climbing. I picked one of the worst days to do this — it was terribly hot, breezy, and the AQI stayed in the 150+ "unhealthy" range for the entire day. I've decided I'm not going to do this to myself again next summer. I won't risk an asthma attack and potential long-term health effects just to play outside. That is the top reason I wanted a bike trainer, so I can stay indoors and still enjoy the benefits of a good endorphin session. 

November was still too warm, but I enjoyed putting in some big days on the bike.


62.1 miles run, 15,511 feet climbing
670.6 miles ride, 82,626 feet climbing
100 hours

November weather remained warm and dry, but we finally received just enough snow to tamp down the fires and restore air quality to breathable levels. Apparently, I rode my bike a lot. In the early part of the month, there was still some hope that I'd race the Fat Pursuit 200K on Jan. 8, so I focused my training on saddle time. I started to feel quite strong and knocked down a bunch of PRs on local routes. During the last week of November, I joined several friends for bikepacking in Utah. 

December was sort of a blur


79.8 miles run, 21,053 feet climbing
686.7 miles ride, 82,743 feet climbing
100 hours

December was the month of Zwift. I also logged a few good rides on Mount Evans and Rollins Pass Road (twice), and there was then of course the 160-mile, 24-hour Wild Winter Wind (erm, Wild Winter Way) solo ride on the Solstice. I'm grateful I can lean on my outdoor passions to make the most of a lousy year. Even though I've spent only minimal, distanced time with friends, didn't attend a cultural or social event (besides my own outdoor wedding), didn't race after the Iditarod, didn't travel outside the country, and didn't even visit a restaurant in nine months ... my life still feels adventurous and full. I ponder the ways I'd cope without cycling or hiking, and I have to say, I don't like this mental image. And despite the meandering nature of my outdoor pursuits, I accomplished a few things that I'm proud of:

1. Dragging a heavy sled through a few feet of new snow for 100 miles of the Fat Pursuit course even though it was a ridiculous slog that took 56 hours.

2. Making it to McGrath during the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It was the toughest year I've experienced in six starts. Even though I'm disappointed about quitting, and even though I was a Nome racer so it doesn't "count," reaching McGrath a fifth time was still an enormous undertaking and its own meaningful adventure. 

3. Taking my mountain pursuits farther than I have, and pushing my comfort zone a little closer to the proverbial and literal edge. I hope, given reasonable air quality and weather, to see plenty of new peaks in 2021. 

4. Climbing 845,000 feet. If only I knew I was so close to my 851,000-foot record, I probably would have pursued this goal. The million feet of climbing might come one year, but only if most of my ascending happens on a bike. The problem with running is that descending is hard work, too, and can be more taxing than climbing. That's the limiting factor.  

5. Riding to the top of Mount Evans from home.

6. The Wild Winter Way. My only virtual race this year. It was one I basically made up myself. I loved it! 

I hope you enjoyed your days on the move in 2020. Here's hoping that we can all move a little farther and wider through the world in 2021. 

Friday, January 01, 2021

2020 in photos

Well, so long 2020 ... it's been a year. I agree that we should drop the pretense that 2020 was a solely terrible year, or blindly celebrate that it's "finally over," because what has ended? That said, I think all of us can go back and laugh at our bright-eyed, hopeful predictions at the end of 2019. I certainly believed 2020 was going to be "my year." I had turned over that milestone of being 40 years old, I'd brushed away what seemed like the last strands of five years of ongoing health issues, and I was going to walk all the way to Nome on the Idiatrod Trail. My ultimate challenge! After that, the fun would only continue — the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgystan, big plans for big mountains in Europe, perhaps my most ambitious adventure year yet! 

That none of it worked out hardly seems worth mentioning at this point. I realize I am one of the lucky ones ... so far, at least. 

But we did make it through 2020, a feat in and of itself. Back in the spring, I watched a great YouTube video where a woman laments to her drunken alter-ego that she hasn't accomplished even half of what she set out to do. The alter-ego fires back, "It's pandemic. Any day spent not sick is good day."

Indeed. And on this first day of a brand new year, I'm going back through all of my 2020 photos and compiling my favorites — one for each month, plus the photo that best represents the year for me. The above photo of an Anchorage friend riding a fat bike beside the expressive icebergs of Knik Glacier evokes all of the feelings, so that's the one. 

It was Friday the 13th — March 13th. That was probably the last day that felt somewhat "normal" for most of us in the United States. I was just two days removed from the Iditarod Trail. My adventure became a 300-mile march through deep snow, relentless wind, and intense cold that utterly broke me. I'd never before felt so physically depleted. Emotionally, I was a wreck as well. Between training and focus and desire, this was as hard as I'd tried for any of my endurance goals this decade, and still I fell drastically short of finishing the thousand-mile trek to Nome. But I'd depleted everything in trying. I couldn't even find the energy to leave the depressed solitude of my hotel room in downtown Anchorage and walk across the street to the natural foods grocery store, even though I was so outrageously hungry. 

Still, when my Alaskan friends Missy and Jen invited me to tag along on this ride to Knik Glacier, I knew I could not say no. The early uncertainties of the pandemic were exploding, Beat was still somewhere out there on the Iditarod Trail, and I was an anxious mess. Even a 20-something-mile ride on snow had nothing on my energy-draining ruminations. It was refreshing — healing — to push my tired legs into the pedals of a borrowed fat bike and propel myself through a wonderland of ice and friends. That night, we went out to dinner at a crowded bar — the type of place where you're shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. We hugged when we said goodbye. It was the last I'd experience of restaurants or hugging friends for the remainder of the year. 

But it was a beautiful day to punctuate what had already been a life-changing journey. I look back on March with a warm nostalgia, to a time and place that will never quite be the same, regardless of what the future holds.  

January: Two Top

On January 10, Beat and I, along with our friend Daniel, participated as "beta runners" in the Fat Pursuit, a fat-biking ultra in Idaho that has always managed to be heinously difficult. Everything about the 2020 race was a slog — from barely making it home after delayed flights following a work trip to Anchorage, to a long drive diverted by avalanches and pummeled by snowstorms, to the fact that more than three feet of snow fell during our 55-odd hours on the course. At times we were wading through waist-deep drifts. If I dropped more than a hundred meters behind Beat and Daniel, all traces of their tracks would be erased by wind and snow. We actually found some of our best trail conditions on top of this famously stormy pass over the Continental Divide, although Two Top continued to be famously stormy. This photo captures the mood of the Fat Pursuit well.

February: Storms on the horizon

Shortly after the Fat Pursuit, Beat and I both became quite ill and remained under the weather for most of the rest of January. In February I played a lot of catch-up from that down time, engaging in my final strength-training sessions and preparing for the Iditarod. So I don't have many adventure photos, but this photo of sunset following a day of high winds also captures the moody aura of the month.

March: The last days of innocence

This photo captures the state of the Iditarod Trail in 2020 — buried. I was snowshoeing toward Finger Lake in the late afternoon, barely able to pick out trail markers amid the blowing snow, squinting into goggles, and feeling for threads of relatively packed snow through waves of spindrift. Temperatures dropped below zero. The wildchill was breathtaking. The onset of darkness brought out my worst phobias about angry moose, and I breathed shallowly, almost holding my breath so I'd hear the crunch of hooves over the wind. This was pretty much what I did for nine solid days until it broke me, and I quit the ITI in McGrath. Even though I wouldn't have made it to Nome either way — the pandemic effectively shut down the trail before anyone after the top three cyclists reached Nome — I remain deeply disappointed about quitting. Not that I believe I could have realistically completed the journey, which in its own way is even more disappointing. Still, the warm nostalgia of those final days before the pandemic filters into this experience as well. It was time to think, and space to move — so much expansive space. I miss Alaska deeply. 

April: Quarantine

Like most people, Beat and I were very much at home during the month of April. Beat's office closed before he ever had a chance to go back and collect his things — there are probably empty soda cans on his desk that will still be there in July 2021. I canceled appointments and set up virtual visits with doctors. We'd leave for runs from our front door and stayed within a small radius of our rural neighborhood. It was the month that the city streets and storefronts felt empty, but local trailheads were mobbed. We made efforts to stay away from the crowds, which caused me to feel even more cloistered. I brought my tired legs back to some semblance of life by running on gravel roads, which was physically refreshing but mentally tedious. Still, we were at least gifted a few April snowstorms to clear out crowds and blanket the world in a quiet tranquility that I cherished. 

May: Beat's birthday run

The first time I took my road bike along on a weekly shopping trip and ventured up a canyon more than a few miles away from my house, it felt like a vacation. Most of our adventures still started from home, and exploring new and unique local routes — ideally away from the increasing crowds — became Beat's overarching goal. For his May 31 birthday, he wanted to run a loop around the traditional Boulder Skyline Route — five peaks, 26 miles, nearly 8,000 feet of climbing — but overnight, when all of the other trail users would be home in bed. We started out about an hour before sunset under menacing skies. We were pummeled by rain and tormented by flashes of lightning for a couple of hours, and then the clouds opened to reveal beautiful night. Still, the mood remained unsettled. The end of May marked the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests. Again, it felt like there was much uncertainty in the world. As we traversed the skyline 3,000 feet above the city, I heard sirens and looked down at flashing lights. I wondered what might be happening in the volatile streets below, and what changes might finally begin because of the unrest. 

June: Venturing into the world

By June, some of Colorado's stay-at-home mandates had been lifted. I decided to join two friends on a bikepacking overnight outside of Breckenridge. It felt so strange to get in the car and drive for two hours away from home. But it was refreshing to ride a bike across the Continental Divide and sleep on a mountainside. It was a welcome respite. 

July: The proposal

All of my favorite days of summer were the big days Beat and I spent in the mountains — even with the 3 a.m. alarms, the wary weather watching, and my heightened anxiety amid long hours of managing movements that are most challenging for my blundering body. I'm more than a little ashamed that "hiking" is so difficult for me, and that almost five years as Coloradoan with technical trails in my backyard has only increased the frequency of my missteps and struggles — and yet, I love it. As with most aspects of life, the most emotionally charged moments are the most memorable. This July 12 traverse was one of our more ambitious trips. We climbed 4,500 feet to the top of James Peak and then picked our way along a jagged ridge with a few exposed maneuvers. Beat was kind about my misgivings, waiting at intervals and pointing out handholds and footholds along the way. The sky had become moody by the time we topped Mount Bancroft. I was feeling jittery but walked around the perimeter of the broad peak to take photos of the view. This was the final vista I captured before walking back toward Beat. There, as I pulled a sandwich from my pack and took a huge bite, he cleared his throat and asked me to marry him. It was the most beautiful and perfect moment I could ever imagine for myself and my partner in life. 

August: Mount Alice

The beautiful alpine adventures continued into August. I took advantage of Rocky Mountain National Park's new permit system — an effort to address COVID by reducing crowds — to enjoy relative solitude on incredible routes throughout the park. Mount Alice, in all of her dramatic cragginess, was one of my favorite mountains. 

September: A crush of 13ers

Beat and I were married on September 19 in a beautiful sunset ceremony on the summit of our backyard mountain, Bear Peak, with my family and several friends in socially distanced attendance. We have some great photos from the evening, but my general policy with these year-end photo posts is to choose images that I took. So I picked one more dramatic alpine photo of Beat standing on the saddle below Chief's Head, overlooking the spectacular upper cirque of Glacier Gorge. This was another tough day for me, and I remember thinking that I looked forward to the downtime of winter, when I wouldn't have to feel so anxious about my outdoor excursions. It was always rewarding, and always hard. Now that it's winter, I again find myself dreaming of these places, and of traveling on foot along craggy ridges and interminable boulder fields. There are so many mountains that that I consider out of reach given my insecurities about exposure, but still ... as long as I am living and loving mountains, there will always be a desire to go "higher." 

October: Fire summer

I am still angry about October. Colorado's fire season, which had scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and choked the skies with smoke since July, is usually winding down by the time the katabatic winds of late autumn arrive. But not in 2020. It was hot, it was dry, and a half dozen local fires exploded with a fury and level of destruction never before seen in this region. We experienced California-like megafires, roaring through more than 100,000 acres in a single day, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people. In total, more than 625,000 acres burned in 2020 — more Colorado acreage than burned in 40 years between 1960 and 2000. Yes, forest needs to burn to clear out sickly beetle-kill trees and make room for healthy seedlings. But a lot of the fires torched forests that some researchers believe won't recover in our lifetimes, if ever. As the climate warms, Colorado is likely to become more like New Mexico — grass and shrublands at altitudes where we currently have pine and hemlock forests. Wildfire is going to expedite this transition, and witnessing the conflagerations was more upsetting that I even imagined it might me. For much of the month, I watched the sky turn black. I choked on my own breath. I lost interest in going outside, for a time. It's not a global pandemic, but in many ways, watching the environment change before my eyes is similarly disheartening, less likely to turn around, and more permanent. Yes, I am still angry about October. 

November: A soul-warming — if bone-chilling — escape

Late-arriving November storms finally brought some relief to the fire season, and we could finally breathe easier — literally. My mood and outlook improved substantially as winter weather arrived. Some of this I credited to CBD supplements. Some I credit to the personality quirk that causes me to love winter most. Not a small amount is relief about the U.S. election, which was not wholly confidence-inspiring, but better than some of the alternatives. I also believe a lot of my well-being is based in the air that I breathe. When breathing is difficult, both body and mind slip into malaise. When breathing is clear, it feels like there's nothing I can't do. Thus was my experience in November — lots of biking, lots of local adventures, none of the struggles of summer. Toward the end of the month, I made my first "escape" since March, crossing the Utah border for a week of biking in Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and the San Rafael Swell. This was a wonderful trip, a chance to see friends and absorb stunning vistas in the gorgeous, empty desert. I was a little unprepared for the realities of camping every night when temperatures dropped to single digits and I had no indoor respites. So I froze. But I was in heaven. 

December: Keeping the long view

My gratitude for breathing easy and moving freely in the big world continued into December. After a few early snowstorms, the month was mostly warm and dry — admittedly, terrible for both the stability of mountain snowpack and our longterm prospects for avoiding another catastrophic fire summer in 2021. Right now I am not letting myself think about that, because I'm already saddened by the huge surge in COVID numbers, the lethargic nature of the vaccine rollout, and all of the travel plans I've already canceled in anticipation of a similarly cloistered 2021. Beat and I nixed a March trip to Alaska. And after maintaining hope that my friend Danni and I would pursue our Kyrgyzstan bike trip in August, we've already deferred our plans to 2022 — if ever. Sigh. I certainly am grateful for the opportunities I still have. But like everybody else, I too leave 2020 behind with a sense of loss. 

I took this photo of two mountain goats near the summit of Mount Evans, that hulking 14er with a controversial name and a road to the top that I pedaled a half dozen times in the second half of the year. Each ride brought new perspectives — the snowy optimism of June, the summery warmth of July, the smoky oppression of August and October. Finally, in December, the solitude and clarity of winter. It's been a difficult year, but I'm thrilled to have reached the proverbial starting point of another trip around the globe. Here's to more beauty, gratitude, and hopefully the more positive sorts of challenges in 2021. 

Photo posts from years past: 
2010 part one, part two