Monday, January 18, 2021

Empty fitness

I've been somewhat of a space case this week — a combination of anxiety and ambivalence about the future, as well as fatigue from my most effective coping mechanism. The more energy I spend, the better I sleep. The more time I spend moving, the less time I spend doomscrolling. Sure, exhausting my energy cuts into creativity. But how useful are essays and books, really, when the world is burning? 

I still strive to be mindful of my body — aches, pains, potential injuries, the metrics I often track such as blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and recently, body temperature. While I retain permanent suspicion about the functionality of my thyroid gland, for the most part, I feel as healthy as I've been in years. Nothing has been nagging me; even sore muscles usually clear up within a day. My resting heart rate has dipped into the 50s, a number I thought I'd never again see when I was waking up to 85 bpm in 2017. I'll read articles with headlines such as "Yes the pandemic is ruining your body," and think, "My mental health is on the rocks and I'm probably not going to escape this virus ... but for now, the body's doing okay."

On Monday morning, fewer than 48 hours after I finished my fat bike 200K in Leadville, I was curious how my legs might feel during a recovery hike. About three inches of snow had fallen over the death ice that typically coats local trails this time of year, but I decided to give Green Mountain a go since I had many errands to complete, and this trailhead was on the way to town. I had no plans to push the pace, but as soon as I hit the trails in my microspikes, I found surprisingly "grippy" conditions — the kind of traction that somehow lets me move faster because I feel like I don't even need to think about where I'm placing my feet. It's a weird sensation, and makes me wonder if this is how more sure-footed folks feel most of the time. Either way, I didn't have to expend all that much effort to reach the top in 58 minutes, which is close to a PR for me. 

At the peak, I ran into local legend Justin Simoni, who joined me on the summit boulder to bask in warm sunshine for 20 minutes and chat about his incredible mountain projects over the summer. Justin is someone who I admire because he quietly takes on some of the most audacious local projects imaginable, such as riding his bike all over the state to climb the hundred highest summits in Colorado, all of them, in a single journey. I was eager to express my admiration for his "Vanishing Point Project," wherein he traversed the jagged spine of the Continental Divide from Milner to Berthod Pass, staying as high as possible — meaning literally climbing along the technical ridge — to summit more than 50 mountains in 75 miles. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be to gift body and mind with a similar ability to move freely through such daunting terrain without fear — although I recognize the danger in such endeavors, even for those with confidence and skills. Anyway, we both gazed longingly at Longs Peak while Justin described how he was going to ride his bike from Boulder and climb to the summit along the technical Cables route sometime later in the week. I admitted that in five years, I hadn't been the top even once, and it wasn't for lack of trying. 

"You can do it," he said breezily. "You can do anything I can do."

I laughed awkwardly because that is so far from being true that we can't even see one another across the gaping divide between us. Yes, I no longer believe in the "you can do anything you set your mind to" platitude. And you know what, that's okay. But I do intend to pursue more doable mountain projects with all of my heart this coming summer — if nothing else, to give my brain something on which to anticipate and focus on in a positive way. 

Developing "2021 dreams" that I can believe in feels important right now. Given the current trajectory of the pandemic and the slow rollout of vaccinations, it seems foolish to believe that we'll be gallivanting on carefree adventures by summer. I am braced for 2021 to be a lot like 2020, with limited travel and contact with friends, no official races, no social events, and mostly local excursions. Beat is more optimistic than me, having already signed up for PTL in France at the end of August. I deferred an entry to the Silk Road Mountain Race and have redirected my dreams to the backyard — should I thru-hike the Colorado Trail? Attempt the Pffifner Traverse? (This is a much easier, though not exactly Jill-friendly version of Justin's route across the Indian Peaks.) I have been strong on the bike lately, so perhaps I should consider something like the Montana Bike Odyssey, which manages to cover 1,800 miles in a single state. All of these could be self-supported, socially distanced, big and scary goals in a year when we're probably not going to wake up and find the pandemic magically ended. It does soothe my anxious mind to imagine realistic goals, rather than the uneasy void of nothing at all. 

If nothing else, I just want excuses to maintain this level of activity, because I am so fit right now! It seems a little more sad and pathetic when I admit I am running and cycling 20-plus hours a week because I'm terrified that insurrectionists are going to attack the Jan. 20 inauguration and plunge the country into violent chaos, and I can't handle the self-perpetuating stress. If I'm training for the Colorado Trail, well then — you go girl! Anyway, on Thursday I set out without water, food, or a wind layer on what I figured would be an hour-long neighborhood jog. Winds have been high all week, and on this day was gusting in excess of 40 mph when the high temperature was 35 degrees — so not exactly warm. But I was also donning a new pair of Kahtoola Nanospikes, which offer smaller studs that are less obstructive on rocks and yet still grippy on death ice. I was surprised when I started down an icy trail and found I could run, not just skitter as I often do to avoid slipping forward in studded shoes. Plus I was wearing my most comfortable running shoes, Hoka Speedgoats, and suddenly felt that I could do no wrong. With the fearsome wind shoving me to and fro, I turned onto the somewhat technical, hilly, 10-mile route that is the Walker Ranch circuit and logged my fastest of 27 matched runs (as per Strava) — despite the wind and frequent presence of hard ice and the fact that it's January and not trail-running season. A PR is such an individual, insignificant victory, but it never stops feeling good. 

On Friday, I had to put a little more money where my mouth is in regard to summer mountain dreams. Eldorado Mountain is a nearby peak on the southern end of the Flatirons. It's a mountain I gaze at from the dining room window over coffee every morning, but had never climbed. There's no established route to the top, and although the only public access point — the north ridge — never goes above class 3, it's still intimidating enough that I'd never attempted a route-finding mission from Eldorado Canyon. A friend recently showed Beat the way, and he invited his friend Daniel and me to join him on an afternoon excursion. 

It was probably the least windy day of the week, but still breezy enough to throw off my equilibrium at times. Daniel of course decided this was shorts weather. We made quick work of a direct ascent through the woods and clambered onto the ridge, which like most mountains in Colorado is a jumble of boulders with questionable stability and the occasional, unscalable cliff to work around. Beat did well with the route-finding. Although I complained about cutting off the trail too early, I did enjoy myself, even when the vertigo briefly kicked in. 

The trickiest moves came at the top, where we stood facing the huge radio towers that have an actual road leading all the way to the summit. The road winds up the mountain from the south on land that is entirely private and closed to the public, but it's still amusing to climb a relatively technical and remote-seeming mountain only to find an obstructive chunk of civilization at the top. I imagine this is how climbers in the Alps must feel. 

On Saturday I set out with my little vest and minimal spare layers to ride my gravel bike over to Coal Creek Canyon. My route followed a series of rolling gravel roads so steep and relentless that it's easy to rack up 6,000 feet of climbing in a 35-mile ride. The weather has been so dry that nearby roads have reverted back to late-summer conditions with loose and chunky gravel, washboard, and sand. Rough. Even though I was running well this week, pedaling still ignites a more deep-set quad soreness leftover from Leadville, so the ride was a bit of a struggle from the start. I was enjoying myself, though. It's just nice to get out for some alone time and listen to audiobooks. Right now I'm listening to "Collapse" by Jared Diamond. I'm pretty sure I first read this book back in 2004 or so — back when I was certain George W. Bush would bring about World War III and the end of civilization. Is it better to be a forever-disappointed optimist or pessimist capable of finding hope in less-than-apocalyptic outcomes? I think the latter is the way to go.

Enthralled by a historical account about the swift decay of Mayan civilization, I ground the pedals through the fearsome wind to a ridge above 9,000 feet. Gusts knocked me sideways and I couldn't even see the Continental Divide through a solid wall of blowing snow. Even though the sky overhead was clear, thick snow flurries tore sideways through the air. Predictably, a deep chill set in the moment I stopped climbing. I'd already put on my tiny wind shell and mittens, so my only choice remaining was to suffer. I was at least two hours from home. I left the house expecting mild temperatures, but a nearby weather station would later reveal it was 27 degrees here with winds gusting to 56 mph, for a windchill scraping single digits. The cold drove through my flimsy clothing, directly into my core. 

I have only myself to blame for poor choices. Even though advancing adulthood hasn't reduced the frequency of poor choices, time has at least made me more accepting of consequences and more willing to do what it takes to remedy these consequences. As my hands and feet went numb, I made random turns onto unknown streets in order to climb for a while, then turned again into a painful descent. With this method, I was able to stave off shivering for minutes at a time. I knew if I lost the sensation in my extremities entirely, I could always step off the bike, run for a while, make windmills with my arms, do jumping jacks if necessary. It would take forever to get home and my fingers and toes were guaranteed to hurt the entire time. But I wasn't worried. I knew it would work. And it was what I deserved, because dammit, I could have easily brought a coat on this ride if only I was willing to acknowledge that through it all, it's still winter. 

By the time I slumped into the door, reasonably rewarmed after a series of long climbs but deeply fatigued, I felt a rush of satisfaction. I made it! I survived! What an adventure. That it didn't have to be so harrowing, that it was never required to ride so close to the edge, was briefly lost on me. I put my experience and fitness to good use to boost myself safely through what occasionally felt close to life-and-death conditions. The difficulty of my ride was life-affirming — even if completely unnecessary. 

I suppose moments like this are reason enough to continue pursuing fitness even if I have no races or concrete goals on which to spend it. That, and it's worth it to blissfully live in the moment and forget about the future for an hour or five. What week is it again? 
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.