Sunday, November 25, 2018

N + 1

I bet you're already thinking HJ bought a new bike. Most have now heard of the catchy question "What is the correct number of bikes to own?" The answer is "N + 1, where N = current number of bikes you own." Well, this N + 1 is not that.

Over the last couple years, a number of friends and acquaintances have lobbied to get me into back country skiing (BC), or ski mountaineering (SkiMo), or alpine touring (AT).  These are all variants of where you power yourself up mountains and then ski back down. In the northeast, it struck me as wrought with risk and delivered pour return on investment in time and gear to acquire a new outdoor skill. Last winter I demo'd some alpine touring gear at Loon Mountain in NH. The boots were essentially re-labeled downhill boots and were the most tortuous things I've ever put on my feet. It was a miserable experience. I shelved the idea of getting into this discipline for the time being.

Well, now I live in a state where back-country is a really big deal. There have already been SkiMo races, and it is only November! I did more research. One of the boots I tried on but it was not in the demo fleet last year was a Dynafit TLT 7. It fit like a glove and had tons of effortless pivot. It is an $800 boot though, and I didn't want to commit that kind of money into gear for a new activity that could fizzle out or an activity that might quickly move into a more specialized area. Dynafit also has a non-carbon version of the boot that was available on sale right now, the Speedfit model. That got me thinking. Then Dynafit has a new TUV certified binding. I value my knees, and some of the minimalist "tech" bindings out there have questionable safety records. They don't release in all the same ways that a regular downhill ski binding releases. Toes tend to be locked in until heel comes out. The Dynafit ST Rotation made some improvements in this area. Still not the same as a downhill binding, but at least Dynafit has taken an extra safety step. I liked the idea of getting boot and binding from same company to avoid compatibility issues, which is quite common in this arena.

So what about skis? This is what I struggled with mightily. Some were pushing me into super lightweight SkiMo gear. The problem is, you can't really take it into powder. The skis are too narrow. I will eventually want to untether myself from groomed runs.  On the other end, a true BC ski is super wide to float on bottomless powder. I don't see myself hitting 35 degree avalanche prone terrain right away either. These wide skis are heavier and not optimal for groomed runs.

Just like in the mountain bike world, they talk about "quiver of one" bikes. If you have to pick one bike that did every thing pretty well but was not a pure cross country, pure downhill, endure specific, etc etc bike, which would you pick? The BC ski world also touts skis that can be quiver of one. They are not too wide or skinny, not to light or heavy, not too stiff for flexy.  That is where I needed to be right now. I will ski mostly groomers to start. I would hope to hit powder days on controlled terrain. Chest deep powder in the back country or boiler plate crud at the ski area? Don't need a ski good for those because I won't ski those conditions for now.

I went with mid width Black Diamond Helio 95's. Reviews were decent, they are pretty light, and the 17/18 model year skis are deeply discounted right now. I took a leap of faith this setup would work for me and got it on order.

Black Diamond Helio 95 (173cm long) skis, Black Diamond GlideLite Mix skins, Dynafit ST Rotation 10 bindings, Dynafit Speedfit boots.
I've gotten out twice this holiday weekend at Wolf Creek ski area. They have one of the least restrictive uphill policies in Colorado. Basically, you may only uses the slopes when lifts are in operation. No pass required. Stay out of the way and visible. This is awesome. They are about 90 minutes away. Lift served elevation difference is about 1400ft, just enough to get good value out of transitions between climbing and descending.

The gear performed flawlessly. After more than 6hrs and nearly 10,000ft of climbing, zero blisters on the feet. A few pressure points, but that is it. Skinning up to nearly 12,000ft is no picnic. Even though I'm getting pretty well acclimated to living at elevation, you still can't go as fast up as you can at sea level. At least that feeling like you're going to pass out stuff is well behind me now. It will take some time to regain DH skills. I used to be able to bomb 2000 vertical feet at Cannon Mountain and beat the tram car I rode up in back down. I am so far from being able to do that now.

Powder/packed powder conditions at Wolf Creek on November 25. All natural snow here, 66" claimed so far this season. Lots of intermediate terrain to get started on.
On Sunday I brought my skate skis and AT gear to Wolf Creek. The 4km Nordic track drifted in with the high winds yesterday and they did not regroom it. Didn't matter. Four skin laps to the top did me in. BC skiing will take a chunk out of Nordic skate skiing for sure. Even though I didn't push myself too hard skinning up this weekend, you can surely bury yourself in this activity unlike any other. No part of the body is spared. Not to worry though. I did buy a season pass at Durango Nordic Center. I'm keeping my fingers crossed they'll get snow this season, unlike last season.

Back to N + 1. N + 1 is not a new sport toy added to a quiver. N + 1 is a new outdoor endeavor. What is the correct number of outdoor passion pursuits? N + 1, where N is the current number of pursuits you are engaged in.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

I didn't see this coming

Before "Fat Doug" became a memory, even before there was a Fat Doug, I've had an interesting relationship with food. I ate a lot, had a reputation for eating a lot, and got picked on for dietary habits. When I was 10 or 12, my best friend's older brother gave me the nickname of Fart Pants. I was an active kid and stayed thin until family and career made a totally sedentary lifestyle an easy trap to fall into.

Back in 1999, a recovered Fat Doug got a routine wellness exams with full blood panel. Everything was good, except for liver function. The marker enzymes were extremely high. I was only 37. This concerned my doctor and freaked me out just a little. He drilled me on alcohol consumption (zero) and Tylenol use (near zero). My liver results were indicative of liver disease. I got retested a few weeks later. Results were still above normal, but much lower than a few weeks earlier.

Like anybody facing a medical malady, you scour the web for hope it is nothing, or fear it is your worst nightmare coming true. I learned highly athletic people can have elevated liver function enzymes. Those same enzymes exist in your muscles too, and if you break down muscle tissue enough, you release these enzymes into the blood. I mentioned this to my doc on a follow-up visit. He looked into it a bit himself. After ruling out other potential causes, he kind of shrugged and said yeah, maybe you're training too hard. He wanted me to go two weeks with ZERO exercise and repeat the labs again. That didn't quite happen, lol.

Over the years, my liver function has been right at or above the normal threshold. I was healthy, fit, never had hepatitis and didn't drink. It was just my "normal" without a solid explanation.

In 2010, I had what I felt was a freak ankle fracture. Simple putting a foot down to catch my balance while riding resulted in double fracture. A complete assortment of hardware was needed to put my ankle back together again. After I was out of the cast and healed, I asked my doctor if a bone density scan would be worthwhile. He agreed. My spine and both hips were abnormally low, especially my spine. This freaked me out a lot, as I was about two full standard deviations below normal. I was many times more likely to break my back in a bike crash than my peers. I greatly curtailed bike racing after this. The stress worrying about life impacting injury just didn't make the thrill of winning races worth it anymore.

But why were my bones in such poor shape? I've been a life-long dairy consumer. I've been very active most of my life too. It was possible I could've been Vitamin D deficient. My doctor started testing for it and it never came in low. But long Michigan winters without supplementing with D could have caused low serum levels when I was younger.  I was pretty much a pure cyclist at this point, and I was aware that elite cyclists have been known to have poor bone density. It is not well understood why. Lack of weight bearing activity was believed to be a factor.

In response to poor bone density, I started running. Running kind of sucked, especially on pavement. Even though I ran only an hour or so a week, I still managed to pull off a sub-18 minute 5km just before turning 50. But even after a few years with greatly increased weight bearing activity and taking all the right supplements, my bone density continued to decline. My hips started to plateau, but my spine continued to drop at nearly 2x the normal aging rate. Projecting the curve out, I was no more than about 3yrs from full blown osteoporosis.

My doctor said maybe it was time to go on a bisphosphonate drug. This class of drug is wicked scary shit. Women who stayed on it too long ended up with horrific femur fractures that wouldn't heal. The drug stops bone turn-over and thus changes the structure of bones. I really wanted nothing to do with that.

About a year ago, I wanted to get an second opinion on what's going on. I went to an orthopedic center, the same outfit that put my ankle together in 2010. They treat problems arising from osteoporosis, so they know a thing or two about it, but not necessarily secondary causes of osteoporosis. The physician assistant that saw me ordered up a whole bunch of labs that my primary care doctor never did. Things like thyroid, testosterone and a 24 hour urine calcium excretion test, among other things.

The hormones were ok. What stood out was how low my calcium excretion was. The PA surmised I was not excreting calcium because I was not absorbing calcium. He also noted my elevated liver function enzymes and asked if I had ever been tested for celiac disease. Huh? "No, I seem to tolerate gluten just fine," I said. He said it doesn't matter, he treats patients with extremely poor bone health that never knew they had celiac disease. One of the many symptoms of celiac disease is poor bone density because the small intestine fails to absorb vitamin D and calcium. People with celiac disease who consume gluten (bread, pasta, etc), also often have elevated liver function enzymes. In fact, says testing for celiac is called for when there is no other explanation for elevated liver enzymes. The orthopedists doesn't treat secondary causes of poor bone health, so he sent me back to my primary care doctor.

Armed with this new info, I went back to my PCP. He basically scoffed at the whole idea, said of the orthopedist, "he's guessing." My doc wouldn't test me for celiac. He said if I really wanted to get treated, I should go see an endocrinologist. These are the guys that treat diabetes, among other things.

Well, this whole process got shelved when we bought a house in Durango and then this summer decided to put our NH house on the market. Once settled in Durango, I picked up where this left off in NH. I sought out a new family doctor. Super cool dude. Turns out everybody that lives in this town is an active outdoor person. Anyway, I mentioned some of the earlier lab results, the calcium excretion, liver function, poor bone density, and even having the DQ2.5 gene that is pretty much a prerequisite to having celiac disease (30% of whites have this gene, so pretty common). New doc said of course we'll check for celiac. I mainly wanted to rule this out so then I could decide if it was time to go on the bone meds.

The blood test came back literally off the chart positive! I didn't see that coming. A positive blood result is just the first step. Definitive diagnosis is determined with intestinal biopsy. Sounds scary, but it is just upper endoscopy where they take a few small samples of tissue while looking at things. You are sedated no more than 15 minutes. I had this done earlier this month. The gastroenterologist said yep, it all looks like celiac. I got the biopsy report back last week. It supports full-blown celiac disease. This explains so much now.

Interestingly, the nurse that prep'd me for the endoscopy told me her husband was not diagnosed with celiac disease until after multiple freak bone fractures.  Like me, he did not have the usual GI symptoms that are prevalent when celiacs consume gluten.

So now some big changes. Eating my favorite Italian and Mexican dishes must come to screeching halt. Cathy and I do like to dine out on weekends. Road trips are going to get tricky too. No more grabbing a burrito or burger after the ride, hike or ski. At home changes will be more subtle because most of the things we buy are whole foods with no ingredient labels on them. But bread and pasta were staples. Cathy has dabbled with gluten free recipes, breads and pastas over the years. THEY ALL SUCK! I refuse to eat something that is a crappy substitute when there are other foods that fit the bill nicely. Thinking whole grain rice instead of pasta. Corn tortillas instead of bread.

The nurse practitioner at the gastro center said it can take up to two years for intestinal damage to heal after going on strict gluten free diet. There will be more labs at 3 and 6 months to see if the blood antigens come down, an early indication that diet is working. After that, there will be another endoscopy scheduled. Liver function will be monitored too. The good news is there was no pre-cancer, which celiacs are at much greater risk for. The biggest hope here is that as I heal, my bone density will start to reverse its death plunge and actually improve naturally. Will be at least 2-3yrs before I know this.

I think the take-away from this story is you must be your own health advocate. Research things yourself. Get second opinions. If you don't think you are being properly treated, try a different doctor. Everything has a cause. It is best to address the root cause of problems than just take a pill that addresses the symptoms. The human body is incredibly complex and there is more we don't understand about it than we do understand. It may take some work to get to the root of problems.

It will be interesting to see if I feel any different after I've been gluten free for a while. Most celiacs report feeling much healthier - ailments go away, more energy, sharper mind - after cutting gluten. But many celiacs are pretty sick too. Time will tell. Stay tuned...

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming!

Where do I start? It's been almost a year since I posted anything here. Blogs... what were those again? A lot has happened this year. Cathy and I have been actively searching for the ideal retirement community for a few years now. Utah, Idaho and Colorado were all contending states.  Durango, Colorado seemed to check more boxes for both of us than other towns. Disappointment was the mood after a house hunting trip to Durango last fall. Nothing in our target price range was even remotely appealing to either of us. A run-down rental used for pot growing operation outside of town? Ah, no. How about 1970 era electric heat with carpet, paint and fixtures still from 1970 and homemade rebar bars on all the windows and doors? Or 1000 square footer with no basement, no garage, built in the 1800s for half a million dollars? So disappointing.

A patio home that had been on the market for a long time, went off, then back on the market with a different listing agent, caught our attention. It was listed much higher than the range we were shopping in and much higher than we hoped to sell our NH house for. But it check all of the other right boxes. It was in town, immediate access to paved bike path system for Cathy and singletrack right out the back patio for me. While virtually no homes here have basements, the house did have a nice finished storage area above the garage and the garage was a little bigger than our NH garage. I could possibly squeeze essential bike shop equipment in there. We made an offer before even seeing the house to ensure it would not get sold out from under me while making a dedicated trip out to see and inspect the house. The offer was countered, and we accepted.

That was an easy decision to make. A much harder decision to make is when to relocate and severe the employment cord. At first, Cathy and I planned to work a while longer and use our new home as a vacation home. That turned out to be really hard to do. We were both really looking forward to a change. But it was financially too risky to lose all income and pay astronomical Obamacare premiums. That's when I approached my employer about working remotely less than full time. They were receptive to it! There is a high demand for my skillset in the marketplace right now, so that helped. There are no companies in Durango though that directly hire integrated circuit designers. Remote work cleared the path to putting our NH house on the market.

We listed with Remax agent Ed Bisson. Can't say enough good things about Ed. He had precise pulse of the market, knew what price to list our house and exactly how quickly it would sell. We had to move quickly though, as June is the month you can't miss. The listing hit MLS on Wednesday, and after open house that Sunday, we had multiple above asking price offers. Gulp. Ed said it would go down like that and it did. This was happening way too fast.

Leaving our NH home in better shape than when we bought it new.

Took four days for pending sign to go up
We had been paring our stuff down for a year in anticipation of an eventual move, but now we had to kick things into high gear. 34 years of marriage, essentially a four level house, well, that creates a very large multi-dimensional space to accumulate a lot of crap you really don't need to own anymore. We used FB sale pages, Craig's List, work classifieds, word of mouth, you name it. So frustrating. I sold two of my bikes, each that I had put more than $4000 into, for only $500-600 each. There were multiple Goodwill trips. Even on the eve of the move, we realized it still wasn't going to all fit on the truck and had to get rid of more stuff, stuff we really thought we needed.

So that gets to the moving experience. A colleague who self-moved cross-country once said it will be an experience you will never forget. I didn't really understand that comment at the time, but I do now. Don't think I will ever self-move again, even if I saved more than twice the $10,000 I think we saved by moving ourselves.

Loaded for Colorado. That trailer was wide, coupled with sloppy steering, made for white knuckle driving on narrow roads.
We rented Uhaul's second biggest box truck, a 20 footer. Plan was to pull an auto-hauler behind it with the Subaru on it and Cathy would follow with the Rav4. That's about 20,000 pounds of truck, cargo, trailer and SUV.  The truck had seen better days. The front-end was wicked janky. There was considerable play in the steering, so it was hard to keep it in the lane. When you hit a bump, it would shudder and takes 2-3 seconds to calm down. It felt like you had minimal control of the beast. That was before loading the truck and pulling another 7000# behind it.

After closing, the Hill Junkie convoy left for the west.  We made Youngstown, OH the first half day, as planned. Then Kansas City, KS the next day, after 14 continuous hours on the road. We stopped at Wilson Lake State Park just off Interstate 70 for a break on the third day. I got in a sweet ride on the MTB loop there and Cathy went for a walk in the park. Things were looking up, other than all the Google driving time estimates were actually about 1.3x longer with the truck and trailer.

Middle of Kansas, some great riding here

The 23mi Switchgrass MTB loop

Where the train started to go off the rails was on the fourth day, leaving from La Junta, CO to Durango through the mountains on state highways. We were heading up North La Veta Pass on Hwy 160 when I noticed the cab filling with acrid smoke. WTF. I looked in side view mirror to see a thick blue contrail in the wake of the truck. Holy freak out. No place to pull over but I had no choice. I shut the engine off, pop the hood expecting to see fire, but see nothing. I crawl underneath for a look. To my horror, the entire undercarriage with dripping with oil and it was falling on the exhaust, making the smoke. Did the engine blow the main bearing seal? I thought we were done right there. An hour from the nearest tiny town in middle of 100,000 acre recent burn area. Truck would get hauled somewhere that was not our house.

Unbelievable number of miles of this kind of driving through Colorado.
I had just topped the motor oil off before leaving for last leg of trip. I checked it there on side of road. It was still full. Despite how badly it looked. It wasn't blowing through oil a quart a minute. I had 6 quarts of my own oil with me for our cars, not quite the right viscosity, but could work in a pinch. I decided to try to get over the pass, then it was 45 miles downhill to Alamosa, the next town we pass through. Babying the truck over the pass seemed to work. Topping gas off in Alamosa, I checked the oil again. Still good. Dry underneath too. So what was going on?

We had a monster pass to go over next, Wolf Creek at nearly 11,000ft. Super steep too. I had extreme reservations about continuing, but we were so close. Heading up the pass, I noticed the longer we got into it, the louder the engine got and the slower we went. It sounded like maybe some kind of super loud cooler kicked in, maybe a transmission cooler? And a governor kicked in too, limiting speed to less than 25mph on state highway with 55mph speed limit. Lovely. Even the semi's hauling steel were passing us. I could smell burning oil, but at least the cab was not filling up with smoke like the first time. We made the top without a blue smoke contrail!

Next up was the stout climb out of Pagosa Springs. It's not a pass really. But something about it turned the oil leak back on. Smoke in cab, plume behind truck. I thought surely with only hour to go we were not going to make it. If only we could stay on the flat and level the rest of the way to Durango. Anybody that has driven Hwy 160 knows it is anything but flat and level!

Make it we did though. We got the car unloaded and the trailer unhitched at the Uhaul franchise, not saying anything about the oil leak yet. We had to get our cargo off the truck. The house was only 3-4mi away. What a difference without the trailer! Cathy had not yet even seen her new house, so I was anxious to get her reaction.

Th Uhaul made it. Common grounds landscaping in our 6-unit HOA is quite nice.

I was fortunate to get a couple helping hands from Animas City Movers to unload the truck. Great local company, great help. Took little over an hour to get everything off the truck. Stress level dropped a couple orders of magnitude. We were going to sleep in our new house after all!

The house had been vacant for most of a year and even had no electricity for four months (by accident, could have frozen the pipes). But everything was pretty much as expected.  It took two weeks to pack everything, it wasn't going to get unpacked in a day! We did get the master bed set up though and collapsed into sleep.

View from Lions Den Trail just steps off our patio

View from home office window

The house is exceptionally quiet. I anticipated this, as it is backed into a steep hill with nothing behind and actually embedded about 1.5 stories into the hill on the south side. Thus the master bedroom is essentially below grade. It should be quiet. Our six unit HOA is mostly retired folks. No rentals to kids from the college up the hill behind us.

While Cathy retired from work (she just turned 62), I have three weeks off before resuming work from my home office. It took a week to move and partially unpack. That leaves two weeks to play in paradise. It is just starting to sink in we're not on vacation this time. While the monsoonal weather pattern makes planning lengthy outdoor activities tricky and the air is smoky from distant fires most days, it still feels like its a dream. Pinch me so I know it's real!

I've been hitting tons of new terrain, both on the bike and on foot. I had hoped to get up to Crested Butte for a few days, but between new house work needed, temperamental weather and smoky air, I'll save CB trips for this fall when conditions should be more ideal. So much fun stuff to do right from the front door or short drive away.

Summit of El Diente, often ranked the 6th most difficult of 58 14ers to climb. Near Telluride, less than 2hrs away.

Black Bear Pass at 12,840ft. Looks like terrain from another planet. Near Silverton, just an hour north of Durango.

One observation I note daily is how crazy over cycling this town is. On a week day you see more people on bikes and more bikes on cars than you will at Kingdom Trails in Vermont on a Canadian national holiday weekend! The non-profit organization Trails 2000 oversees maintenance and construction of over 300 miles of trails around town. There are probably over 1000 miles of jeep routes in the San Juan mountains that I've barely touched. There are hundreds of 12,000-14,000ft peaks to hike in the area too.

Not the New Hampshire Hill Junkie basement, but this space in the garage will do.

A friend recently commented that me moving to Colorado is like an opioid addict getting a job in a Oxycontin factory. There is scary truth to that! I've already found myself binging on peaks and vert.

Going on two weeks here, I stepped on the scale, expecting to be disappointed from a four days of eating total crap food on the road. But exactly the opposite happened. I lost five pounds! I'm lower (at 155#) than anytime I was doing the hillclimb racing circuit. Will I become one of those wiry, leather skinned Coloradans? Time will tell.

It is just starting to sink in that a new chapter is beginning for Cathy and me. Maybe more so for Cathy than me. I haven't severed the tie with work and work colleagues yet, although I will see them much less frequently. One thing is certain though, the house is a keeper and we already can tell things are going to go well here.