Monday, January 16, 2023

When we cease to have nice things

Winter Solstice dealt a hard moment of self-awareness: I have a stunning lack of resilience. 

For two decades I’ve cultivated toughness, but toughness and resilience are not the same. In the past, I would have defined their differences as subtle, but now I see that they are stark. What helped me realize this was losing the tough thing I’d planned to do over the holidays and falling apart because I lacked the resilience to let go. 

Winter Solstice was the day we were set to leave for Alaska. Amid my mental health struggles in October and November, I clung to comforting daydreams about dragging my sled through the frozen stillness, with a silence so clear and deep that one can hear the faint wing beats of nearby chickadees. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of these tiny birds foraging through the snow — the only animal moving when it’s 40 below. When I see a chickadee, I’m always struck with reverence … and envy. What a life, to remain in constant motion just to survive. They forage all day and shiver all night. In the face of slim odds, they thrive. 

As the trip drew closer and the forecast called for colder and windier conditions, I only grew more excited. There was a good chance it was going to be 30 below with 25 mph winds. In such weather, the most any animal can achieve is to survive. Out there, all of my midlife crisis bullshit wouldn’t matter. I wouldn't have to endure my regular life of slogging through day after tedious day with a growing base of self-loathing and fading convictions about passions and purpose. Out in the roaring white silence, I would simply be a warm animal, one whose only job was to stay warm. I would wrap my body in a shield of its own heat and work hard to keep the furnace burning. I wouldn’t do this because I am tough; I would do it because I am soft and frightened. I am too tired for the life of a human being; I would like to be a black-capped chickadee. 

 Just a couple of hours before we were set to leave, Beat called out that Alaska Air had canceled our flight. You may remember the Arctic Blast that hit most of the Lower 48 just before Christmas. Seattle was buried in several inches of snow. The cold air was barreling toward Denver. There wasn’t another flight available for three days. We’d have to cancel our first cabin trip, and did we really want to battle backed-up air travel on Christmas Eve? What if our return trip was equally affected? Conceding to the nightmare that travel has become in recent years, we canceled the entire trip. 

“Doesn’t it seem like, since 2020, we can no longer have nice things?” I lamented to a friend. 

And yes, I realize that I have many, many nice things in my life. This is what I mean about lacking resilience. A resilient person would say, okay, we’ll postpone the trip and make the most of this vacation time we already scheduled. It’s Christmas! Let’s spend time with family. I said all of these things out loud, but the unmanageable part of my brain that controls my emotions was despondent. The mental house of cards that I’d so carefully reconstructed in recent weeks collapsed. 

My reaction was so strange. It’s not as though what I’d lost was all that important or irreplaceable. Intellectually I knew this, but my still mind plunged into a pit of unfocused grief. The brain fog was pronounced. Time contracted and expanded. Little made sense. Where am I? What day is this? Why am I pushing a cart through Safeway? Oh yes, we now need provisions for our empty fridge. The grocery store was overcrowded with shoppers in a pre-Christmas, pre-Arctic Blast frenzy. As I reached for an apple, a lady who had been blocking the narrow produce aisle for seeming hours turned and screamed at me, full-on screamed, to wait my turn. Did I time-travel back to March 2020? What year is this? I rushed to the checkout line with only half of the items I’d planned to buy and then rushed to my car while gulping down sobs. What is wrong with me? Am I actually losing my mind? 

The next few days did little to temper my fear that, actually, I might be losing my mind. The Arctic Blast arrived early on Dec. 22. The temperature at our house plunged to 23 below zero — by far the coldest we’ve seen in seven years in Colorado. I pulled the Alaska layers out of my suitcase and trudged two miles to South Boulder Creek, to what I’ve come to think of as my “mental health bench." I go there when I need to just cope; it's a lovely place to sit and listen to water flow effortlessly by. Only the water doesn’t flow so effortlessly at 10 below. The trickle under a thick layer of ice wasn’t audible. It was too cold to sit on the bench for long. It wasn’t Alaska, and it wasn't the same, it just wasn’t the same. 

Early the following morning, I left to drive to Utah. It was still 10 below and roads were snow-packed and icy. In spite of this, I-70 flowed surprisingly well. Brain fog softened my usual driving anxiety. But in more ways, the stupor was upsetting. For example, I managed to leave home without my laptop, which I needed for work. But I did bring my mountain bike, which — for a trip to snowbound Salt Lake City in late December — wasn’t all that practical. Several times I wavered on the edge of awareness while admonishing myself to pay attention to the road. 

“Maybe I should not be driving.”

I needed a break. Since I had the mountain bike, I decided to pull off the highway into an empty expanse of desert just west of the state line. My plan was to ride whatever random road headed north toward the Book Cliffs. There wasn’t an obvious place to pull my car off the narrow dirt road, so I kept driving — back and forth, back and forth. Without even realizing it, a full 45 minutes passed. I looked down at the clock and thought, “Wait? It’s already 11:54? Wasn’t it 11:10 just five minutes ago?”

This realization was, honestly, terrifying. Where was my mind? I immediately veered into a random strip of sand parallel to the road and pulled the bike out of the car. Having not exactly planned the ride, I didn’t have the best provisions in my backpack — just a light jacket, some water, and a few other items. Temperatures were no longer in the Arctic Blast danger cold range, but they were in the 20s. A stiff breeze blew from the west. I began pedaling toward the “Harley Dome Road” I’d pinpointed on the car’s navigation map and was now looking for on my Garmin. I was surprised to discover the junction was a full three miles from the point where I’d parked my car. How did I end up so far away? Where was my mind? Am I safe? Should I really just be riding alone into this remote and icy desert? At least I’d turned on my tracker so Beat would know where to locate my frozen body if it came to that. 

The west wind needled through thin tights into the soft flesh of my thighs. I wished for shell pants and a warmer pair of mittens. Why didn’t I bring those? It is winter. Should I turn around? I felt weirdly terrified and yet incapable of making decisions. Similar to when I was driving aimlessly while searching for a “parking space,” my awareness of the present pulsed and flickered. Time contracted and expanded. I just kept pedaling north as emotions gurgled to the surface. Tears began to flow. I was so scared. Why was I so scared? The only thing I could think to do was send a plea to the universe — to my dad — for help. 

"Please, please, help me,” I whimpered to the wind. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”


As I cried, I heard a high-pitched whine, punctuated by wind gusts. The sound wasn’t unlike the “dee dee dee” song of a chickadee. I jerked my head around. There was nothing for miles but sand and sage. Confused, I looked up. Directly over me, not more than 100 feet off the ground, was a small red airplane that I hadn’t noticed before. It had approached from the east where headwinds masked the sound. As the plane passed overhead, the pilot tipped one wing toward me — that unmistakable friendly maneuver. I waved back in awe. Where did this airplane even come from? We weren’t all that far from airstrips in Fruita or Moab, but in my fragile mental state, I felt like a marooned astronaut on Mars interacting with a spacecraft from Earth. 

 “Dad loved flying over the desert in small planes,” I thought. This image filled me with intense relief and joy. It doesn’t really matter what I believe about spirits or an afterlife; just telling myself this story helped me feel immediately better. Buoyed away from my slow-rolling panic attack, I continued pedaling north with purpose. 

 The bike ride didn’t cure me, though. Not by a long shot. I continued to make inexplicable choices. In a fluster of frustration after learning I’d forgotten my laptop, I didn’t end up buying anything for breakfast in Colorado and neglected to eat during my 32-mile ride in eastern Utah. Suddenly it was 5 p.m. and I felt alarmingly dizzy while driving down Spanish Fork Canyon. Just a half hour from my mom’s house, I pulled into an overwhelmingly crowded shopping center to buy a Subway sandwich. After ordering, I tried to ask for a napkin but forgot the word for napkin. It didn’t come to me in time. I finally just mumbled “never mind” and walked out the door in a fluster of shame. 

What I wouldn't give for this sort of focus.

Christmas with my family was good but hard. Holidays are hard. My mom wasn’t in a great place to celebrate, and I don’t blame her. My sister whipped up a fantastic fondue dinner. It was fun to be around the excitement of four children on Christmas Eve. We stayed up past midnight completing a puzzle; I mostly just stared off into space while my mom and sister furiously worked. My sister put me up in my 4-year-old nephew’s room, a warm and dark space with a miniature bed and a Jesus night light. There I collapsed into my best sleep in weeks, before or since. I slept through Christmas morning, which I regret, but also … I needed that sleep. 

My sister and I did hike to the top of Grandeur Peak on Dec. 26, which was really nice.

The sleep didn’t cure me, though. Not by a long shot. I realize weeks have passed since Christmas and I am still struggling. I have been taking steps to address my tenuous mental state. I reached out to a telehealth counselor and scheduled my first sessions (I had been holding out for a local therapist that I could visit in person, but it has become clear that no one is available now or anytime soon.) I joined a gym so I can work on my mind-body connection through strength training and yoga. I make time for at least some meditation and stretching during the day. I’m open to trying new things. I need to try new things.

Specifically, I need to work on building my resilience. I need better ways to weather life’s disappointments and losses. I need to let go of my reliance on novelty and excitement. I need to move away from using physical exhaustion as my best coping mechanism, and embrace more sustainable practices — gratitude, presence, and acceptance. I can’t bear to exist in a universe that has no purpose or meaning; the only way to muffle the siren call of nihilism is to create purpose and meaning for myself. 

 I don’t know what that is. If it were easy it would be … endurance racing. But this is life. There’s no straightforward beginning or end, no immutable achievements or consequence-free failures. It’s challenging and bewildering and painful and there’s no reward in the end … just an end. It’s accepting that the little joys are enough. It’s realizing that life is incredible and life is enough. I still have a long way to go to get there. 

I see why I imagine myself as a tiny bird, my dad as a tiny plane, bound to everything and nothing, soaring through the sky. It’s something beyond life to take comfort in. Sometimes it feels like the comforting things I once took for granted have gone away. I can imagine the perfect silence in Alaska but I can no longer rely on an airline to take me there. I can visit my family in Utah but can’t avoid an anxiety meltdown when I-70 closures trap me in standstill traffic. I can cultivate gratitude for the present but can't muster faith in a better future. I can resolve to fix my life but no longer trust my brain. I can’t even trust my brain to remember the word for napkin. I can ask my dad for help, but …

My dad’s birthday was Friday the 13th. He would have turned 70 years old. I was having a really hard day. I barely slept. My anxiety had spiked to the point that morning dread made it almost impossible to get out of bed. But I needed to get my monthly allergy shot. I hate allergy shot day. The shots make me feel lousy on my best days. I usually try to self-soothe with something. On this day, a hike seemed appropriate. 

 I pulled up to the tiny Cragmoor trailhead and stepped into a blaze of sunshine. It had been overcast for much of the morning, but the sun emerged nearly in line with the strike of noon. It was 54 degrees. Despite days of melting heat, the trail was still a friendly mixture of dry dirt along the mesa and packed snow in Fern Canyon. The type of conditions where one can strap microspikes to their shoes and fly. But I felt too heavy and sad to fly. I tried to focus on my favorite memories but found myself mostly just missing my dad. 

For a while my brain shut down as I trudged upward through the woods — slogging is my best coping mechanism. Suddenly I emerged in the sunlight on top of Bear Peak. There wasn’t a breath of wind. It was so warm. Dad would have loved this January day. The sound of his laugh came to me: A visceral memory from the evening Beat and I were married on Bear Peak in September 2020. Dad was dealing with a painful back injury for which he had surgery just two weeks later. I didn’t know the extent of his pain because I hadn’t seen him in nearly a year. He could barely walk. But he pulled himself all the way up this mountain just for me, so I could have the mountaintop wedding I’d dreamed of. He never showed a hint of pain … just an abundance of happiness. The memory of his smile evoked a sense of peace I hadn’t felt since that little plane over Harley Dome.

Two hours later, a nurse injected my arms with poisons I have been intentionally taking for more than six years. I sat in the waiting room for the mandatory half-hour it takes to ensure I wasn’t going to lapse into anaphylactic shock. While dizzying serum coursed through my blood, I wrote up a stilted Facebook caption on my phone so I could share my photo of Bear Peak with loved ones. I still can’t do a better job to describe the experience, so I’ll record it here: 

You would have turned 70 today. 
I carried your memory up Bear Peak. 
That heaviness on my chest, a weight so familiar now. 
50 degrees and sunny. 
You would have loved this day. 
Just like that day in September 2020. 
We were together again after so many months of resolve to stay apart. It was my wedding day. 
You were hurt; you were in so much pain. 
You didn't tell me. 
You wouldn't let us change our plans. 
You dragged yourself up this mountain. 
Sunset that night was stunning. The clearest evening in weeks. 
You looked so happy, so proud, your smile shining through the fading light, through all of your pain. 
I fear with each passing day I forget something else, but I will never forget that moment. 
We were together and full of hope. 
Now on your birthday I'm here alone. 
With all of life in front of me.  

Niwot Ridge — like Alaska, a place so harsh that it becomes comforting in its simplicity.

Maybe I’m past my charmed years, when nice things seemed to come more easily, and my greatest source of comfort was alive and climbing mountains for me. But it’s not over. There's still life in front of me.
Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Anxiety and endurance-racing platitudes

Niwot Ridge, Dec. 11, 2022

Thank you to everyone who commented on my last post. It means a lot to me that you’re still around. My hope is to continue using this medium to connect with people, which is the motivation for this post. Mental health is a difficult and complex subject. But I gain comfort and insight from the stories of others willing to share their struggles, so here it goes. 

I want to talk about anxiety and depression. Although mental health is nearly everywhere in public discourse right now, it still seems a somewhat taboo subject in endurance racing and outdoor adventure circles. After all, you can do anything you set your mind to and you can choose to be brave and strong and endorphins make you happy and nature is my antidepressant. End discussion. 

I want to talk about anxiety and depression because I used to buy into all of those ideas until anxiety came for me. It’s difficult to draw a clear origin because truthfully I’ve always struggled with some level of anxiety. As a young child, I had terrible separation anxiety. I was still in grade school when I started obsessively ruminating about the grief of the world (I still have nightmares about images I saw on the news after the 1989 San Fransisco earthquake, and television was the only way I experienced that disaster.) Young adulthood brought all of this to a head (strange fears at benign moments triggered panic attacks.) Then my mid-20s brought a lengthy reprieve that coincided with big life changes, leading me to conclude that confronting my fears was “the way.” 

These leaps of faith launched incredible life experiences that I may never have pursued if my brain had been in a worse spot. But they did not conquer anxiety. I understand this now. Anxiety isn’t something one can wish away or vanquish with the power of positive thinking. Endurance racers are too prone to magical thinking. Telling yourself your swollen knee isn’t a big deal and it’s only 50 kilometers and you’re going to finish the race because you’re brave and strong and can do anything you set your mind to … that isn’t going to stop a torn MCL from sidelining you for weeks afterward (ask me because I’ve been there.) We’re beholden to the same biological and physical laws as everything else, and yet we’re determined to feel special and powerful by feeding ourselves bullshit to the bitter end. 

I’m not immune to magical thinking, and I can’t resist a steady diet of shame: 
“You’ve crossed Alaska on your bike in the winter, why are you so scared to leave the house?” 
“No one cares if you do this or don’t, why are you so stressed?” 
“Today was a good day, why are you crying?” 
“You have it so good, what is your problem?” 

Indeed, this last question irks me the most. I am incredibly privileged. There are no big traumas in my past that I can blame. I was essentially born anxious but had an idyllic childhood and maintain positive and meaningful relationships with my family. I’ve looked into trauma therapies such as EMDR, but where could I even focus on said trauma? Here’s what I consider the top five traumatic events of my adult life, in chronological order: 

• A rock-bottom blackout during a brief stint with alcoholism, July 2005. This experience was the catalyst that led to “pulling my life together” and moving to Alaska to live happily ever after with no problems ever again. 
• My long-time boyfriend, Geoff, ended our relationship abruptly and unexpectedly one day before we were set to leave on a summer-long vacation, April 2009. 
 • A “psychotic break” after 96 sleep-deprived hours of navigating dangerous mountain terrain and team discord during an endurance foot race called Petite Trotte a Leon, August 2013. 
• The weeks leading up to my Graves Disease diagnosis, when I was quite sick and very much in denial (see endurance racers and magical thinking), February 2017. 
• Losing my father suddenly when he died in a hiking accident, June 2021. 

 There are other, more broad experiences I’d include, such as the 2016 election that burst the bubble around my understanding of the world, or when the Covid pandemic broke open in March 2020 — events that affected almost everyone and affected me relatively little (see, privilege) but that I still absorbed deeply. My point is that I believe my anxiety has no grounding, no justification. Lots of people go through phases of substance abuse, chronic illness, losing relationships, losing parents. Nearly everyone, when you put it that way. So what’s wrong with me? 

Though there were isolated incidents before then, I believe my anxiety waited until 2018 to move into the “generalized” category. It was a strange time to meet this monster. After a tough 18 months of adjustments, my thyroid disease was under control. I was again dreaming about big endurance racing goals after emotionally letting everything go during my health struggles. The political landscape was bad, but geez, I had no idea what was coming — in hindsight, the world was still somewhat sane. From a rational perspective, life was good. 

I was staying with a friend in Geneva after a stressful week of supporting Beat in a week-long mountain race called the Swiss Peaks 360. And the week was packed with stress — driving along precipitous mountain roads, meeting Beat at remote aid stations at all hours of the night, sleeping in the car, hunting for open grocery stores in tiny mountain towns because Swiss sandwiches were all Beat could stomach, and still hiking five to seven hours at a stretch because I’m not giving up that. 

Crewing Swiss Peaks was stressful, but not in a way that could remotely justify what happened when I left to meet Beat at his race finish more than an hour away — of course, in the middle of the night. I tried to use a code to get into the parking garage that held my rental car. When it didn’t work, I began hyperventilating. Then the tears burst out and I inexplicably started running. Round and round a city block in central Geneva, racing at a full sprint, stopping only to rattle locked doors and gasp, “Please!” 

 I felt as terrified as I would if being chased by a monster. My chest throbbed with a crushing pain that I thought might be a real heart attack. What was I so panicked about? Missing Beat’s finish? While my head spun, I wasn’t even thinking about the reasons I wanted to be inside that parking garage. There was nothing else, just anxiety, the red-eyed sea monster rising out of the depths, draping itself over everything with no discernible beginning or end. 

Sometimes I think about the security cameras that inevitably caught my parking garage panic attack and laugh at the ridiculousness they must have portrayed. Some minutes or even hours lapsed after I collapsed on the sidewalk, but I did get my head together and figure out how to access the garage. Then I drove for an hour around Lake Geneva, reaching the race finish line well after Beat had arrived. He was understandably irked and I couldn’t explain myself. I was deeply exhausted. Anxiety exhaustion, I’ve come to understand, falls far beyond any endurance-racing exhaustion I’ve known. It cuts even deeper than walking for 96 hours essentially without sleep, although in hindsight, my PTL “psychotic break” was actually an intense panic attack. 

The sea monster has lurked beneath my life ever since. Sometimes it’s just below the surface, and sometimes it's well below the surface, but it always seems to burst out when I least anticipate it. This happened two months ago. There had been flickers of shadows — usual life stress, really, but there were at least hints that the monster was surfacing. Then one night, I secured a Brainard Lake parking permit and went to sleep excited about the long mountain excursion I had planned for the following day. But when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t face it. Leaving the house felt impossibly hard. So I didn’t go. Then I didn’t go anywhere the next weekend or the next. I’d lost all interest. 

A few friends reached out during this time, and I replied that I was feeling “a little bit depressed.” I realize depression is not anxiety, but mental health is complex and these issues seem to be two sides of the same coin. I lamented my “mid-life crisis” and “unquenchable thirst for some sort of meaning.” These issues are a big part of my thought cycle right now, but truthfully they also have little to do with my acute state of mental health. 

Some days, I feel an overwhelming zeal for life and can’t wait to go for a 25-mile hike in the mountains. On these days, it’s not as though I’ve stopped ruminating about climate change and nihilism and the grief of the world. I’m just … normal me, unhindered me, not smothered by invisible sea monsters, and thus free to think about how amazing it is just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world. (Yes, I did steal that line from Mary Oliver.) 

The days when I think little about the broken world are my bad days. My emotional capacity has collapsed and there’s no longer space for engaging ruminations. I’ll actually spend less time with social media, stop reading the news (although I currently keep up with the news because it’s my job) and stop writing. I’ll listen to Tom Rosenthal’s “There is a Dark Place” for two hours on repeat while running my fastest-yet times on Green Mountain or Walker Ranch while caring little about success or scenery. I’m merely grateful for those two hours of relief from my exhaustion. Literal running is a great way to escape the sea monster, but it isn’t sustainable and it never lasts past the final step. 

I don’t know what to do. I have been in therapy before but left because therapy became another thing I couldn’t deal with after my dad died. Now I am struggling to find a way back in. I’m open to various strategies but also skeptical and even leery of talk therapy after my last experience, which ended badly. Even so, I submitted what amount to "I feel this level of bad" assessments and got myself on a few waiting lists. Availability is low right now. 

I have not yet tried medication beyond my favorite supplements (CBD capsules), which I believe do help but aren’t a cure-all. I’m open to medication, but admittedly also skeptical and leery of this sort of intervention. Either way, it seems moot if I can’t even find a therapist who could do the prescribing. Since I’m not in crisis, I’d rather try other time-tested techniques. My New Year's resolutions include participating in yoga classes, working daily on at least some type of writing, lavender tea, improving my diet, and committing to adventures — but maintaining a step back from racing. 

 Understanding that mental health is complex, I can’t help but speculate that my anxiety is just a chronic and likely hereditary twinge, not unlike the Achilles tendonitis that flares up from time to time. There’s not a lot I can do for my Achilles either, beyond strengthening the muscles around it and simply waiting for the flares to subside. I’m great about sticking with my physical therapy exercises when I’m in pain and less so when I’m not. But I've accepted that my Achilles tendonitis is always there, another scar on a meat sack that has the audacity to grow old. Are brains different? Yes, but perhaps also no?

Beat in the Ventana Wilderness, July 2013

Remember the sentence about tearing my MCL in a fall while running a 50K race? That happened in June 2013. One month later, I was still limping painfully and worried that I wouldn’t be able to participate in the big adventures I had planned for the summer: A 250-kilometer stage race in Iceland and the ill-fated PTL. Beat and I decided to embark on a weekend backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness, a rugged coastal range above Big Sur, California. For the first three miles, I dragged myself up an unbelievably steep slope, barely able to bend my knee and cursing my hubris. We descended the other side of the mountain through a recent burn. The dirt was soft and loose. The foot beneath my good knee slid forward and I fell onto my butt with the other foot wedged in place, forcing the bad knee to a full, high-impact bend. The burst of pain was excruciating, some of the worst I’ve experienced. For several seconds my vision blacked out and I was convinced I’d need a complicated helicopter rescue. After several minutes I attempted to stand. After several more, I tried shifting my weight to my bad knee. It held. When I attempted to walk, the pain dissipated. It did not return. I walked for two days through the wilderness without another issue. My knee was cured. 

A week later, I recounted the miracle cure to my massage therapist. He nodded knowingly. “You broke up the scar tissue,” he speculated. “Physical therapists sometimes try this when injuries aren’t healing. Hurts like hell.” 

I think about this experience frequently. My traumas are small, but they add up. Perhaps my brain is, in the proverbial sense, riddled with scar tissue. What if I could just get in and break it all up? Perhaps through meditation? Or meaningful suffering? Then I realize that I’m thinking about endurance racing again. No! This is not what I want! This is not the way. I need calm. I need peace. I need to quiet my mind, not inflict further trauma. 

It was interesting, though, how the rather awful running fall I took on Nov. 9 started to turn things around. Suddenly I didn’t have my best emotional outlet — exercise — and I was dealing with a decent amount of physical pain. I may have even asked Beat for a “mercy killing.” In my old, endurance-racing-focused mindset, my sternum and rib injuries would have been a big setback, worthy of having a big cry over. Instead, the fog over my mind began to lift. The sea monster slowly sank back into the depths. The view outside my window became clearer, more beautiful. It’s astonishing, really, the beauty in this view outside my window. And it’s astonishing how sometimes I don’t see it, can’t see it, for reasons I don’t understand. 

 This past weekend, I returned to the Indian Peaks Wilderness for my first mountain adventure in months. Beat and I are again planning to travel to Fairbanks over Christmas, and I wanted to ensure that my healing but still-painful torso could manage a sled. During the October slump, I thought about asking Beat to cancel the trip, but now I’m excited again. So I loaded up our smallest sled with an admittedly negligible amount of weight and headed toward a place that has been a reliable test of fortitude — Niwot Ridge. 

 I wasn’t interested in testing my fortitude, but I was interested in avoiding the considerable avalanche risk in these mountains right now. Niwot rises on a steep-for-feet but gentle-for-snow incline toward a veritable wind tunnel beneath the Continental Divide. The slopes are alternately covered in rock-solid sastrugi and nearly-bare tundra. The West Wind blows constantly and nothing that could slide stays for long. 

The wind is what makes Niwot so fearsome. It can be a calm, warm day in Denver and the wind will be gusting to 60mph on Niwot Ridge, which is what it was doing on Saturday. I schlepped the sled five miles and 3,000 feet to our usual high point, scraping my “rock snowshoes” on tussocks and boulders. Occasionally the sled caught on alder branches and the harness yanked my tender rib, provoking involuntary yelps. Despite not being a terribly cold winter day — +15F — the windchill felt like daggers through my clothing. The sled was full of poor choices on this first-of-the-season adventure. I forgot to bring goggles. My eyebrows burned. In every logical way, my body was in pain, but I didn’t really care. I was not in danger, and admittedly this felt amazing — these exhilarating sensations after two months of flatness. This pain I could choose. 

 For this reason, I kept going, pressing deeper into the wind as gusts grew increasingly menacing. After another mile of squinting into the ground blizzard, I caught a snowshoe on hidden branches and nearly toppled over. This was what it took to turn me around — I was never going to forgive myself if I re-broke a rib or anything else up here. 

The tailwind ushered me along, the only human in seeming miles, surrounded by an amphitheater of astonishing peaks. Spindrift raced toward the foothills, and beyond that, the Great Plains sprawled out seemingly forever. Niwot Ridge, my cantankerous old friend, seemed to embrace me with its hard-pressing gale. “Everything starts here and flows from here. Didn’t you miss this?”

I did miss it, and didn’t want to leave as I meandered back to the forest and the deep snow it protected. I didn’t even feel tired as I retraced my snowshoe tracks beneath evergreens drenched in the most gorgeous winter afternoon light. It’s rather astonishing how simple this is, how just walking and breathing in such a place lets me feel so intensely alive. This is the way anxiety lies to me: That these places don’t exist anymore. The crushing darkness is all that remains. Why bother leaving if there’s nowhere else to go?

 I’m under no delusion that the sea monster left forever, but at least it’s gone for now. I also have no idea what I did to convince it to leave. But perhaps the takeaway is as simple as an endurance racing platitude: If you’re going through Hell, keep going.
Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Should've known I gotta get this off my chest

Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. On my way to Bear Peak

On Nov. 3, 2022, this blog turned a staggering and somewhat embarrassing 17 years old. I distinctly remember the day I launched it, from a desktop PC wedged into the corner of our cabin loft in the bluffs above Homer, Alaska. It was a blustery November evening, a Thursday, and I was still thawing out from an evening flail through the darkness on cross-country skis — a sport I was never going to mesh with. My then-boyfriend had taken a gorgeous photo with our shared 2.1-megapixel digital camera, that showed fresh snow coating the forested hills behind our house with the sunlit Kenai Mountains glistening in the background. I wanted to share the photo, but my strategy of mass e-mailing everyone in my address book had recently been blasted by an acquaintance who admonished me to stop “bragging all of the time about your great new life in Alaska.” 

But that was exactly what I wanted to do. And 2005 offered the most perfect social media platform ever created, before or since. After 10 minutes of online searching, I landed on, and within 30 minutes had a brand new Web site, “Arctic Glass” — my own misinterpretation of a Modest Mouse lyric that I’d grown to love for its simple evocation of beauty. 

 “So this is my new online journal about moving to Homer, Alaska — a place where it snows in October, where moose traipse through my backyard, and where everyone can spell my last name but if you can’t spell “Xtratuf,” well, so help you God.” 

 I’d been an Alaska resident for all of two months and was already certain I’d live there forever. My life was going to be amazing, full of summer’s endless sunlight, autumn snow, coaxing my underpowered sedan along snow-packed roads, weekend adventures, and moonlit skis … although I still hoped to find a winter sport that was better balanced between the tedium and terror of skiing. Fat bikes weren’t yet a gleam in my eye, nor was endurance racing, the Iditarod Trail, the Tour Divide, ultrarunning, Montana, California, Colorado. Launching this blog, in many ways, launched all of that. 

Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. Ethereal November snow returns. 

Exactly 17 years later, I was sprawled under a weighted blanket on the floor of my current loft in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado. It was a cloudy November dawn, a Thursday, and I’d been awake for sleepless hours searching online for therapists in the region. The prospect is bleak right now — so many people are in crisis and no one is available to help. The weighted blanket was a paradoxically comforting embodiment of the way I was feeling — pinned down, flat, vaguely anxious about nothing and everything all at once, and tired of myself. So tired. Bone tired. I wondered how anyone can aspire to live forever when I couldn’t even make it 43 years without daydreaming about a future when my molecules will become rocks or trees or rabbits or anything else. 

A poet I admire, Elisa Gabbert, recently wrote on Twitter — the worst social media platform ever created — “I think writing gets harder as you get older for the simple reason that you’re sick of yourself.” 

 This. So much this. There’s no rule that anyone has to write *about* themselves, but I think writers are in denial if they believe they’re not projecting self into any genre they pursue. Still, what am I if not a writer? It’s the one identity I’ve always held. Even before I could read, I’d grasp Richard Scarry books and see myself in their pages. I could quit anything else in my life — cycling, ultrarunning, adventuring — and still be myself. But without writing, without a narrative thread to weave through the chaos of life, I may as well just be a rock or a tree or a rabbit. Therein lies the intrigue. 

Elisa tweeted, “I may fantasize about quitting writing (a kind of self-indulgent death wish), but what I really want to do is quit striving. I want to try not giving a shit.” 

 I hovered over a button on the neglected and decaying UI of It read, simply, “Delete blog.” That’s all it would take. One click. Seventeen years. Poof. The thought was so enticing that I felt a dopamine rush, one of my first in a while. Sure, I’ve written much more than just blog posts in the past 17 years, but here in one place is my core, my history, my sanctuary. Thousands of hours of work. Removing it all would be a step into the unknown, an acknowledgment of a fresh start, not unlike dropping everything in my life to move to Alaska. But I couldn’t do it. I chickened out. I scrolled to a different button and changed the blog’s settings to “private” as a way to temporarily step back.  

Unsurprisingly, few people noticed that I knocked my blog offline. Since Nov. 3, I’ve received about three dozen messages, some personal and touching, mostly from people I’ve never met. After 17 years on a blog that once received upwards of 10,000 hits a day, the hiatus showed just how few readers remain. Even friends and family don’t check in anymore. But as I said, this was not surprising. No one reads blogs these days. All of that time, all of the tears, all of the joy and sadness — everything could be distilled into an unreadable string of hashtags over a pixelated image destined to disappear from Instagram Stories and no one would notice or care. 

 This is also a frequent source of angst for me, because seriously, why do writers bother? Any of us? There are a few who scrape income from their writing but the vast majority don’t. Even Elisa, a published essayist and poet who writes reviews for the New York Times, doesn’t think writing is really worth it. Writing is a compulsion. A sad one. But what choice do we have? 

Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Not my best moment.

On Nov. 9, 2022, I laced up my favorite pair of trail runners and bounded out the door. It was a bright November morning, a Wednesday, moving into my favorite time of year. Daylight is short but gorgeous, saturated with rich color even in the middle of the day. The cool air is refreshing, the cold air invigorating. There’s no more pollen, no wildfire smoke. I can draw deep breaths into my lungs and luxuriate in this wealth of energy. 

Despite the inexplicably poor mental health that clouded most of the past month, I’d been running increasingly well. Waking up each morning to awful anxiety combined with a suffocating schedule — thrice-weekly allergy shots, medical and car appointments, chores, and an afternoon work shift — meant I had almost zero motivation to run. But I knew I needed it, so I created a routine. On Mondays, I ran Green Mountain. Fridays, SoBo or Bear. On weekends I usually rode my bike trainer, which yes — judge me because it doesn’t fit the narrative I’ve created for myself, but I needed the physical release without the mental stress of planning and executing a real adventure. 

Wednesday was swiftly becoming my favorite day of the week. On Wednesday, I ran Walker Ranch. My Wednesday Walker follows a 10-mile lollipop loop along a trail that I consider “mid-tech.” It’s entirely runnable but it’s not a stroller ramp; there are steep grades, tight switchbacks, and like any trail in Colorado, a whole lot of rocks. This makes it the perfect mental health run — I can’t fixate on daydreams or ruminations; I need to be present for all of the obstacles. As I push my pace, I slip into flow, each step finding its place until there’s nothing else. 

 “It takes concentration and a quiet mind to run well without any splats,” I wrote in a Nov. 2 description on Strava. “I had a few close calls so I was slower and more tentative this week, but still, a worthwhile two hours of meditation.” 

The following week, I decided I could earn a new PR. I’ve been running this loop for seven years, but it was within my grasp. I just needed to not think at all. I fired up my Shuffle. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Rosenthal during my runs, which is funny because his own daughter once told him that his music made it sound like “everyone in the world had died.” Honestly, sad or contemplative music when you’re a little bit depressed can become hopeful and inspiring. Still, PR runs require something more upbeat, so I started the new album from the Silversun Pickups — a band I discovered while living in Homer. By mile four, I was in perfect flow — unencumbered molecules in motion — and vibing to “Empty Nest.” 

Did you notice, did you notice, I’m feeling uninspired? 
I think I’m crossing wires. 
How’d we get here? How’d we get here? Did we get here on our own? 
The seeds are overgrown. 

There’s a strange rhythm in this song, a skipped beat. I’m not sure I can blame the music, but I noticed these blips. One moment, my feet were dancing over the rocks as I rocketed through the universe. The next thing I noticed was the rough surface of a boulder, mere inches from my eyes. 

I must have tripped. I don’t remember catching my foot or losing my balance. I don’t remember the Superman launch through the air that must have happened to put me in this position. My arms were still at my side. Mere moments had lapsed, but these were important moments. Blissful flow instantly collapsed into “oh shit” terror, and then I smacked down, chin first. My chest slammed into the rounded side of the rock. A weird combination of my right elbow and left knee took the rest of the impact. 

Flooded with shock and humiliation, I scrambled to my feet and crawled up the hillside. I couldn’t risk anyone finding me in this crumpled, embarrassing state. Nausea swirled in my gut and I staggered wildly, punchdrunk from the hard uppercut. My jaw throbbed and I couldn’t draw a breath. It felt as though my chest had been crushed, though I understood this to mean that the wind was knocked out of me. I supposed it could have been something more serious than that, but my initial instinct was to fear a broken jaw, not a collapsed lung. 

I lay in the dry grass for some time, drawing thin, high-pitched breaths through clenched teeth. Finally, my chest relaxed and I could draw enough air to sit up. Blood had splattered all over my favorite shoes. There was a mile of climbing to the nearest trailhead, but this part of the hike wasn’t that hard. With the exception of a shallow scrape on one knee, my legs were fine. My arm was drenched in blood. I tried to hide this from the two hikers who passed along the trail. A quick phone selfie assured me that my chin didn’t look that bad. It is humorous that my first concerns were appearances and dignity. I felt like a deer after a car collision, shambling into the woods to die. 

Another way I felt like road kill was complete bewilderment about what hit me. Yes, I know it’s easy to trip and fall while running. Yes, I know I do this a lot. But this time was particularly strange, a total lapse in consciousness before I left the ground. I complain about balance and proprioception, joke about how I don’t know how to use my body, and haha I’m such a klutz. But I admit that underneath all of this, I fear something more sinister. Something that can’t necessarily be fixed by yoga or dance classes or anything I could control. I remember my father describing strange episodes, skipped beats while we hiked together. I remember when he was rushed to the emergency room after inexplicably falling off the trail on Mount Olympus. I remember how he died. 

 I called Beat from the trailhead, but he didn’t hear his phone ring. I left a message, knowing I wouldn’t have cell reception for the next 2.5 miles. I started the limp home. Endorphin-suppressed pain cracked open as I walked, encompassing my body like a dark cloud. I decided I hadn’t broken my jaw, but damn, things weren’t right. I staggered and gasped, drawing into myself, focusing on each shallow breath until I found peace beyond the pain. Just like running — a return to a quiet mind. 

Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. Trying my best to smile while walking to a physical therapy appointment.

Wednesday afternoon was a work day. I didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of calling in sick because of a splat, so I dissuaded Beat from taking me to urgent care. A couple of days later, my mother begged me to visit a doctor. My clinic couldn’t squeeze me in until 15 minutes before closing time on Friday afternoon. The doctor seemed rushed but assured me that my jaw wasn’t broken, brushed off my chest bruising, and made me feel like the hypochondriac I was. Beat, wonderful husband that he is, bought 15 different kinds of soup and reminded me regularly to ice my injuries. I visited a friend who had been injured much more seriously in a head-on car collision. Sitting next to her in her wheelchair, I felt silly, sad, grateful, angry, lucky, all of the emotions that arise after yet another realization that life can change swiftly and permanently with the skip of a beat. 

For the next month, I did no running or writing, even the regular writing practices I’d committed to — my gratitude journal and sorting through the contents of my childhood trunk (that trunk is a whole other can of worms that I probably should not have opened.) I continued to languish in pain, struggling to sleep and do daily tasks, and lacking an exercise outlet beyond slow hobble-walking and upright spinning on the bike trainer. My jaw is still bruised. I probably broke a rib or two. And seriously, what is going on with my sternum, am I having a slow-rolling heart attack? 

Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at South Boulder Creek with Danni. Chin is looking better, no?

Inexplicably, my mental health continued to improve. I no longer woke up feeling like the world was collapsing in on itself, even after terrible nights of sleep. I no longer felt sick of everything about myself, maybe just sick of my usual bullshit (why can’t I stop thinking about signing up for races?) I spend less time ruminating about the unknowable future, the skipped beats. 

 I resolved to start the New Year with yoga classes and regular strength training at a gym that I have yet to join (I’m going to be one of those people, because there’s almost no chance I’ll be up for lifting weights before Jan. 1.) Beat and I drove home to Utah for Thanksgiving; it was lovely. The following week my friend Danni flew out from Montana for a mellow visit of hobble-walking and laughing. (She reached out in November when she knew I was struggling and offered to plan an adventure. True to form, the very next day I fell on my face.) 

December arrived. It’s my favorite month. The light is beautiful. The promise of Alaska awaits. I have no races on the calendar. I’ve let go of my fitness. I am free. 

 So I decided to open up my slowly decaying blog once again. I wanted to explain where it went for a month, and true to form, vomited out a 2,500-word post in two hours after struggling for weeks to tap out even simple social media posts. No one wants to read all of this, no one cares, but that — at least until the next time I have an anxiety “flare-up” — doesn’t matter to me. I am free. 

Should've known I gotta get this off my chest 
I'm allowed to keep around this empty nest 
It's so much to clean up a clever mess 
Should've known, should've known