Friday, October 25, 2019


Cathy and I have lived in Durango for 14 months now. My, how time flies when you're having fun! When we moved here, I had no grand plans for training or competition. My thoughts were set more on exploration of this great state, not VOmax drills.

On prior trips to Colorado, I generally experienced little to no altitude sickness. Biggest effects of altitude were poor sleep the first few days, especially when going straight to high places like Crested Butte, and generally just sucking athletically at altitude. Many lay references cite it takes 1-3 days to acclimatize to altitude. This is BS. Maybe you get over some of the acute shock effects, like low grade headache, but it takes much longer for hematocrit changes to take effect. A commonly used metric is altitude in kilometers times 11.4 days. We moved to 6650ft, or about 2km above sea level. We previously lived at about 100m above sea level. Our new home elevation would take about 23 days to fully acclimate to.

So I would expect to see a rapid bump in performance in the first few weeks at my new home. I can't say I noticed a dramatic change in that time. I did get faster, but it wasn't like a eureka wake up one day and holy smokes are things better kind of change. I was still dismayed by how much faster than me the local community was on climbs. To be sure, Durango is a humbling town for amateur athletes with undoubtedly the highest per capita density of national and world champions.

Winter came, and along with it Biblical proportions of snow. Alpine ski touring gear was acquired, lots of time spent at 12,000-13,000ft sucking wind in the San Juans. Research is mixed on benefits of training at high altitude. Some of the benefits are cancelled out by the fact you just can't reach intensity levels of sea level work. I skate skied a great deal too, typically at 7000-9000ft elevations. You couldn't ride, so what else are you going to do?

When trails finally started opening up in June and July, I found my times on foot and bike were generally faster than late fall after I was fully acclimatized. Some of my best bike race performances back east were in April after minimal time on the bike, but lots of time on skinny skis. I think many cyclists fail to appreciate how effective this type of cross-training can be. Many in Durango get this, including Ned Overend.

Summer progressed, and my times running and riding up town climbs continue to come down. Why? I wasn't really doing anything different. Acclimation should have been complete a year earlier. Can acclimatization have a long tail to it? Was I just learning the trails better, pacing better, etc? Maybe, but at my age, I would expect an initial acclimatization bump, then plateauing or even slow decline, not steady improvement 14 months later.

Here is chart of four climbs I regularly push myself on. There are several others, and they all look like this. Two are running, one short, one longer, and two are riding, one short, one longer. I brought the data over from Strava into Excel for analysis. Data starts in August 2018 when we moved to Durango to present. Excel computed the linear trend lines.

What is striking is the two running trends show about 20% improvement in running times over this period. This did not come during first few weeks of acclimatization. It started 14 months ago, but the trend continuous 14 months later. My weekly volume of foot activity has changed little since NH. Long hikes on weekends, one midweek run.

The two biking trends also show steady improvement over 14 months, but more in 10% range. Am I just trying harder? My cycling volume isn't any different than last fall.

One thing that occurred to me is my celiac disease diagnosis last fall. I've been gluten free (GF) for about 11 months now. Most recent blood work still shows elevated tTG-IgA levels, like 2x the normal threshold. This really sucks, as this is after seeing a dietitian a few months earlier to pull all the GF stops out, basically GF extreme diet. No corn products, no oat products, only foods produced in GF facility (call the plant manager if you are not sure!) kind of extreme. Antigen levels continue to come down, but not at rate GI doc thinks they should. Thus gluten is still sneaking into my diet somehow. Despite being GF for 11 months, I've not noticed even the slightest difference in how I feel. Except for maybe...

I've been drinking coffee from the same bean for many months. It is a bean from Guatemala roasted by 81301 Coffee Roasters. Love that coffee house. Anyway, I've been having more trouble staying asleep lately, especially hours 3am until 6:30am wake-up time. It feels like too much caffeine sleeping issues. Generally I avoid coffee after 1pm because of this, and I have two strong cups in the morning and half a cup after lunch. The other thing I noticed in past few weeks is my first cup in the morning has become more of a stout jolt. Like hits me hard in 10 minutes, jittery hands, etc. Things didn't used to be this way. It could be each Guatemala batch 81301 roasts has different caffeine content, as roasting profile can affect this. This bean is known to have high caffeine too, as another acquaintance noted. Then one night lying awake in bed, I randomly pondered if being GF has anything to do with it. Where is coffee absorbed? I Googled it when I got up. Small intestine. The small intestine is what closes up when celiacs consume gluten. Could my perceived increased sensitivity to caffeine be first sign my gut is healing? I could find nothing to corroborate this on the web.

But then I started thinking. Maybe my continued improvement in athletic performance is another indicator. There is nothing to back this up other than pure speculation. I don't have a control group of Hill Junkies. It's not like I was sick and anemic eating gluten, although one of my post diagnosis blood tests did show anemia, the first time I was every tested for it. There were the other markers that went overlooked for up to 20 years pointing to celiac disease, like elevation liver function enzymes (recent blood work showed just into normal range first time in 20 years!), and that pesky detail that I have the bone density of a 80 year old woman. The issue that led to celiac disease discovery was frail bone health. A diseased small intestine may not absorb vitamin D and calcium well. It many not absorb a large class of nutrients well. I may not have felt ill, but it is entirely possible (likely?) that it had some impact on my athletic performance. Could there have been more top step podium finishes over the years? Who knows. Regardless, I'm not going to look this gift horse in the mouth.

Much of Colorado is blanketed in snow now. The backcountry ski pics and vids are making me envious. Our corner of the state has avoided the last three storms. It's all good, as the riding is still phenomenal. Looking forward to getting on both the fat and skinny skis soon though. This bump-up in fitness will play well into that.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Ironhorse MTB Race Report

Remember when blogging was a thing? Some even posted race reports on semi-regular basis. It didn't take long for soundbite social media to exploit weaknesses in human needs to form social bonds.  Posts longer than 140 characters can't feed the addiction and longer attention span content went by the wayside.  The snack food industry has done the same thing over decades to perfection, exploiting evolved cravings for calorie dense food sources.

Anyway, the Hill Junkie blog hasn't been put to rest yet. After a one year hiatus in racing, I finally built up enough motivation to pin a number on again. Last year was busy - buying a house, putting a house on the market, moving cross-country, and transitioning to less than full time employment. Racing just wasn't on my mind. Feeling settled in now, I couldn't let one of the premier Durango weekends slip by without engaging. The Ironhorse Classic race is in it's 48th year now. It started when two brothers challenged each other who could reach Silverton first, one by bicycle on road, the other as a brakeman on the steam train. The cyclist won. The event grew and now draws thousands to our small town each Memorial Day weekend.

I had hoped to race in both the road and MTB races for omnium points. I waited too long to register and all of the masters road race fields had filled. I didn't really want to pay $110 to participate in the untimed tour, so I signed up just for the MTB race on the second day.

After an abysmal weather week with lots more snow in the mountains and rain in town, the weather cleared for the weekend. It was killing me to not go out and do an epic backcountry ski on Friday and blow any chance of doing well in the race on Sunday. It killed me further to see a couple thousand riders head off to Silverton on Saturday on one of the nicest days in a good while. I had better not suck in my race!

Not having raced in almost two years and not having any historical reference to gauge my fitness, I had no idea how I'd do in the 55+ age group. Don't know anything about folks who race here either. In science, some of the best experiments are where the outcome is uncertain. That is where discovery is maximized.

After taking it pretty easy for a few days, race day comes. Trails are finally dry, it wasn't going to get too hot. I warmed up with my neighbor kid Jack whose family also recently moved to Durango. He is 14 but because he turns 15 this year, he had to race with the 15-18yr olds. He is strong and will surely be kicking my butt a year from now. Jack's dad also races, enduro style.

Lining up in the corral area, I was in fourth wave with one minute staggers. Ugh. This can't be good. I think the 45+ field in front of me alone had upwards of 50 riders in it. This isn't a road race where the pack leaves and you don't (usually) see them again. The first climb will fragment that pack, leaving many riders to pass. I would soon learn it was much worse than that...

Leading out the 55+ wave at the start
We go off and I bolt to front. The course does two 90deg right handers into a park with some taped-off side hill cyclocross material. If somebody bobbled in front of you, you were probably putting a foot down. Didn't want to deal with that. Got through clean, then onto pavement for a bit. Another came around and put the hammer down. About four of us started to peel away up a long gradual climb to the steep singletrack climb on edge of town. As the grade inched up, I came back to the front to maintain a solid pace. To my horror, we were quickly closing in on what looked like most of the two waves to start ahead of us.

We caught up to a very large pack of riders just as we got to the 300ft steep switched-backed climb. This was going to be a huge CF. The trail has many places to barely pass, but there was wheel to wheel conga line of riders as far as you can see. I kept calling out passes and everybody was pretty good about it. I heard others behind me from my wave doing the same. Then, about a third of the way up, I call out "on your left" and get an immediate "there's no room and no where to go." Well, maybe at the very second it was true. But when it widened a bit, I called out again and the same guy says "your gonna have to wait until we get to the road." Huh? WTF. I said "your kidding, right." I think he was dead serious. It took some "initiative" to get around this guy. I didn't kill myself to that point only to sit on a slow wheel and have my competition close any gained ground. I passed easily over 30 riders on that climb. Was definitely a different kind of MTB race for me. At least I knew I was leading my wave when I got to the top, so as long as nobody passed me the rest of the race, I knew my standing.

I hadn't breathed that hard in years. The air was extremely dry, and minutes into the race my throat was already so dry it felt like it was cracking. I didn't take water with me because I don't need it for one hour effort and I knew I would be breathing too hard to drink anyway. No rest on the rim either. Just a minute or two of contouring at all-out hammer pace brought you to a rocket decent that lasted fraction of a minute. Then right back into VOmax effort on the next multi-minute climb. It was all singletrack with limited opportunities to pass. The passing windows were so short riding on extremely steep benchcut terrain. When you are already max'd out, how do you jump to a whole 'nother level to explosively pass in those tiny windows? I was sure I would blow up before finishing the second lap. The effort was completely unsustainable.

After dropping back off the college mesa at insanely risky speed through rutted chicanes of loose on hardpack, you're back on pavement on a gradual downhill dragstrip to town. You can see a half mile back to see who might be coming up on you. Then you get to the Steamworks Brewery. You race through the brew pub! They built a narrow-ish wooden ramp up the back side to come in at second story level. There was huge crowd there with live band on a platform. Surreal! You come downhill into sharp right and hit the lower ramp at high speed. It is all you can do to not crash through the rail. Then abrupt right and up another really steep ramp, except now you've scrubbed all your speed and you are in a huge gear from bombing down into town. Oh the humiliation if you had to put a foot down with a couple hundred watching, ready for the bobble. I mashed it out. Steamworks is pretty big inside. At first the "trail" is defined by a keg barrier left and right. It is nearly pitch black in there with shades on. I couldn't see shit! Oh the horror if I crashed into the row of kegs with hundreds watching. Inside the brewery there were abrupt right-left turns that were tight and so hard to see. Then you get to a straight-away and see the street-level window they removed through which you exit. It is an abrupt ramp up and over the sill to sidewalk. I accelerated and almost overcook the back side ramp coming down hard on my front well. Another big crowd there too! The cheering crowd inside was deafening. Was a crazy experience, and I would get to do it again on my second lap.

Entrance ramp into back of Steamworks

Exit ramp out of Steamworks through window to street level
Heading back out to the dirt course, I had already passed most of the waves staged in front of me and those that were ahead were faster. Thus everything was spread way out now at the front of the race. It felt more like an individual time trail now. Just keep it steady, don't make a mistake, and everything will be ok. Funny how much less energy you expend and yet average faster pace when you don't have others interfering with your TT effort. Smoothness is energy conservation king. I think I may have passed only three more on my second lap, one of them being Jack who started in the first wave (three minutes ahead of me). I was impressed it took so long to catch him. He had a good race.

Finishing up second lap, dark clouds were building. Winds were whipping and huge amount of dust got kicked up. I'm still getting it out of my eyes. Felt a few drops too. It wasn't until the Pro race right after my race that the thunder and lightning started. Lap and a half in, the race director made a safety call to stop the Pro race at two laps. It didn't rain much, but you are exposed to lightning up on the mesa.

I finished in 1:05:33, which is right around my best times on Mt Washington. This MTB race was the most intense MTB race I've ever done. There is no recovery around the course and it is short. It is an all-out sprint race, really. I don't think any of my Mt Washington races hurt this bad or forced me to take such long, sustained deep digs. Results are live and 100% electronic now, no printing and posting. They post a URL at the finish for you to check your result on a smart device. As expected, I took the win in the men's 55+ field. That was pretty satisfying. I didn't suck. Age group winners received a massive chocolate trophy that must weigh two pounds. Made by local chocolatier Animas Chocolate Co. I think there are cash payouts too, which are mailed.

55+ Podium (third place didn't stick around)
The city of Durango goes all-in for this weekend. The state too. On Saturday, US 550 between Purgatory (just north of Durango) and Silverton is completely closed to autos in both directions for the race. This means the 2500 tourers and racers have the whole road to themselves. On Sunday, Main Street and other streets are shut down for the MTB race. There were spectators pretty much all the way around the course, which was so cool. Have never done an MTB race with even 10th as many spectators. There are all kinds of other events going on over the weekend too, a gravel race on Saturday, tons of kiddie activities, carnival and more. Everything was so well organized. Next year I will register right away to ensure entry to road race.

Winner's Trophy. Maybe 8" tall. That is not hollow. It is solid chocolate.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Unshackled Terrain

I completed another step towards taking in all that this great state of Colorado has to offer. I completed AIARE Level 1 avalanche training. It almost didn't happen. I was originally signed up with San Juan Mountain Guides in January. Then a tragic accident happened during an advanced avalanche training class where a student died in an avalanche. As an indirect result, my class, which was scheduled right after the accident happened was cancelled.

SJMG offered me a hut-based course for same price later in season, but I feared going three days with little to no sleep. A crowded hut is not my idea of a good night's rest. As popular as the hut based training camps are, I just couldn't do it. Silverton Avalanche School, one of the oldest if not the oldest in the country, still had a non-hut based course available in February. It is based out of Silverton, so that meant an hour drive each way each day, which is fine when roads are good. The passes close regularly in winter, so it would be luck of the draw. It turned out to be a fabulous weekend.

We had five students and a fantastic instructor, "Ack." I think the next oldest student was half my age, the youngest still in high school. A great group that meshed well. Two were accomplished skiers, the rest of us various levels of noobs in powder.

The first day we learned how to use our rescue gear. We got to practice finding buried transceivers, probing, and digging. Digging in several feet of powder like someone's life depended on it at 10,000ft will have you gasping in no time! Day 2 focused on human factors, like where a bunch of dudes go out into sketchy terrain and nobody wants to be "that guy" to say this is stupid. So many have died when nobody spoke up. Our instructor has a saying "Ego is not your Amigo" when going out into avalanche terrain. That afternoon we went out to Red Mountain Pass with 6+ft snow pack to practice safe route finding and dig a snow pit to assess stability. The snow pack this year has been a disaster. Many unstable layers, especially near the ground, which when released, sends the entire season's snow pack down the slope. Day three we put everything together into planning and executing a tour. Instructor Ack turned it over to us, to plan a safe route at Red Mountain Pass using weather forecast, Avalanche conditions and CalTopo route planning. Conditions and plan are recorded in the "Blue Book." Post tour, observations are recorded. We spent most of the day above treeline. It was sublime.

The training was an eye opener. You may think you know some things, but there will be big gaps in knowledge. Level 1 is the first step. From here, there are recreational and professional tracks. I will probably take Level 2, but not right away. You are expected to have many backcountry days before taking Level 2 and be a proficient skier. I also need to take a two day wilderness first aid course and it wouldn't hurt to take a dedicated rescue course too. These are all essential tools when heading out into the back country, especially when leading others.

I've been to Wolf Creek front-side around 10 times now to skin. I've hit some powder days there. Still not the full experience I seek when heading outdoors. A week ago I bought afternoon lift pass after skinning a couple laps. Must've done 20 lift runs. Was amazed at how, in a few short hours, my ability to ski ungroomed terrain improved. I regularly do strenuously aerobic workouts in frostbite conditions but never have problems. Not until this lift day at Wolf Creek. It was sub-zero at summit with 30-below windchills. When the lift does all the work for you, you don't produce copious excess heat. I didn't know it at the time, but I got frost bite in four fingers and the tip of my nose.A week later, my finger tips are still numb and painful. They are not turning black though, so only level 1 frost bite. My nose lost some skin on the tip though. I guess that's my punishment for not earning my afternoon turns!

When I mountain bike through the San Juan mountains, I'm constrained to a trail. There are many trails to chose from, so many I haven't hit yet, but you are still confined to essentially a one-dimensional space. It's generally not cool to ride off-trail on alpine vegetation. This is where BC skiing comes in. The delicate terrain is blanketed under many feet of snow. You now can go ANYWHERE. It opens another whole level of creativity to explore. It comes with considerably more responsibility too. There is a dimension of consequences of poor decision making that does not exist mountain biking, or even for much of hiking. Perfect skiing terrain is also perfect avalanche terrain.

We are getting a real winter this season. I'd be screwed right now if I wasn't into snow sports. When there is too much snow to bike, too much new snow to effectively skate ski, there will be perfect snow for BC skiing. The mountains are draped with a white canvas. Your skis or split board are your artist's brush. What will you paint on the landscape today?

Day 1: Ack getting ready to show us how transceivers follow field lines. Town of Silverton in background.

Day 2: Test pit in 2 meters of snow pack. Took shit-ton of effort to dig that out!

Day 3: Heading up CR14 from Red Mountain Pass. One at a time, some potential avy terrain to left.

Day 3: group above treeline heading up to ridge between Red Mountain #3 and McMillan Peak.

Day 3: The Putney Pipe, our initial descent from 12,300ft. Exposed areas above tree line were wind hammered but not in the pipe. Telluride is just over ridge in distance.

Day 3: Ack popping out of the Casa Glade, fine powder near tree line

Day 3: Looking back at the ridge we came down from Carbon Hill, the Putney Pipe just left of center.

Day 3: Our group's tracks coming off summit of Carbon Hill

Day 3: Lorrea finishing descent on Carbon Hill

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.


Monday, September 25, 2017

2017 Vermont 50

Don't know why I keep coming back to this sufferfest. The VT50 is essentially a 4-5hr individual time-trial. I have never gotten through it without cramping. This was may 8th time in an 18 year span. My first expert class MTB race was the VT50 back in 2000.

I almost bailed on the race this year for multiple reasons. First, my main steed wasn't expected to make it back from Colorado until after the race. For some reason, FedEx thought it was economical to send my bike through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and North Carolina before heading up to New England. They did get the Tallboy back to me before the weekend. One excuse removed. I wasn't cherishing the thought of racing my 15yr old hardtail with barely any travel left in the fork...

Then the forecast was calling for record heat. High near 90F at the end of September? I have enough trouble with hydration and cramping when we start with frost on the ground, as in many times past. But how could I turn down a dry week and mint course conditions? To my amazement, I found White River Inn still had decent rooms available for a good price. I booked the day before checking in.

I posted an abysmal time on Mt Washington this summer. I've avoided structured intensity training pretty much all summer and it showed. I was at least five pounds above my "racing weight" too. Two weeks in Colorado took care of the weight problem. I ate a little more healthy than in trips past and had more volume of aerobic activity too. There is no training at 14,000ft though! A large majority of my activity was between 10,000-14,000ft. You go at best maybe half pace that high up. No air to do anything more. Like Washington, the VT50 was going to be what it was going to be. No goals or expectations.

It was very mild lining up at the start. No need for long layers for sure. I saw nobody with them on. It was around 60F. I had about 70oz of Gatorade with extra electrolytes mixed in on me. I would swap that out at the 31mi mark for a smaller 50oz pack. No fog on this warm morning. There was barely a hint of light in the east as we rolled out with LED lights on.

I quickly slid to the back of ~100 riders in my wave on the first super-steep punchy climbs on the road. I know how deep digs on these early rises do nothing but bring cramps on sooner. It meant I would be at the back of the pack on conga line hill where many walk. But today it was so dry and firm that most people were riding it. I was not forced to dismount. I rode the whole thing. Probably a first in eight times for me. For many others too, I suspect.

I was feeling pretty good but tried to keep a governor on deep digs. It sucks riding at 50% of your capacity, just knowing the cramping demon will surface at some point anyway. I had a pretty good average speed going half way in, 11+mph through the climbing loaded first half of the course.

Then it started. At 26mi, the first cramping twitches started. By mile 28, I was forced off the bike for the first time. I think it was the same hill I almost always first cramp on. This BS is so predictable. I was not happy, mostly like why did I sign up for this stupid race when exactly the same thing happens every time?! The next 22 miles were totally going to suck. Again.

There was a whole lot of deliberate walking up hills over the next few miles. I know from experience walking on off-road grades greater than 10% doesn't lose too much against the clock and it forces me to relax and recharge the imbalance in my revolting hamstrings. I can sometimes buy back an hour of moderate intensity on the bike with 10-15 minutes of walking. A lot of people passed me though, even though I was going just 1mph slower than they were up these steep grades.

I swapped packs at the 31 mile stop and was kind of going again. There were a couple more sustained steep climbs after that I walked. I always seem to walk some of the beautiful singletrack climbing up to below the deck on the house with music. Hate that part because I'm cramping. But the back 20 miles of the course has less climbing and a lot more singletrack in it. It means you are not on the gas all the time and can get bits of recovery. It is really fun stuff too. Lots of rock features toward the end.

A lengthy bit of descending pops you out in Brownsville just before the last climb of the race up the flanks of Mt Ascutney. I had passed a few people back just before this point and hoped to not hemorrhage any more spots. The cramping was barely holding off.

There's that saying the horse smells the barn. You definitely get that sense the last few miles on this course. It's partly you want it to be over, partly looking forward to the final ruckus descent to the finish. I could hear somebody breathing down my neck for the last two miles and gained on me as the descent began. No way dude, I'm on a Tallboy long-travel, you ain't passing me!. The off-camber side slope was nice and dry and I let it rip. Scared myself shitless on a few turns. Racing Ralph's are not the best tires for this! I held my spot to the line by just two seconds!

I finished with 4:48:29, about 7 minutes slower than two years earlier when I last did the race. Can't really complain about that. It was good enough to net second podium spot for the 55+ age group. My nemesis Stephen Wright showed up this year and claimed the top step, about 4 minutes faster. Could I have not back off quite as much when the cramping started and not given up those 4 minutes? I don't know. I have had experiences where that approach went spectacularly badly. Either way, a good clean race, and I didn't feel the heat was overly oppressive.

2nd place finisher's size Vermont maple syrup
I was curious to see Strava had me tied for eight place in the finishing descent out of over 700 over the years. How can this be, for a timid descender? Tied with Mike Barton, multi-time overall winner here?! I knew I finished strong, but dang. Must've taken some risk there. Have to chalk it up to riding the sofa bike. So many ride hardtails and short-travel dualies on this course. Others are probably tired too, and I don't think I'm ever fatigued finishing this race.  Cramping prevents me from getting tired. Ironic. The Santa Cruz Tallboy LTc is surely overkill, but it lays waste to anything going down, even for cautious me.

Post race, I got my first massage ever! Yeah, short massages are offered to racers free. I signed up, nobody was waiting, and I had two ladies working on me, uh-huh. My hamstrings were pretty sensitive so they kind of backed off there when I think I could have used the most work there. The shoulder/upper body massage sure felt great though!

Mighty fine but roasting hot day in late September
I thought it would be interesting to plot out my eight finishing times since 2000. In eight races, I have not flatted or had a mechanical here. Pretty amazing really, 400 miles and about 65,000ft of descending and no flats. I've had no serious crashes either. My slowest times were when I was younger and racing a 26" steep geometry hardtail. 2009 was the year with Biblical proportion rain fall, so can't pay too much attention to that outlier. I was probably the most fit that year, winning the BUMPS hillclimb challenge. The 29" hardtail brought a new PR in 2013, my first sub-5hr finish. But my fastests times came when I switched over to my behemoth Tallboy, weighing 4 pounds more than my hardtail. It's more relaxed geometry made the descents so much more fast and fun that it made up for the excess weight to haul up 8000+ feet of climbing. Regardless, it's still nice to see I can post times faster than almost 20 years ago and two age groups younger on this course. When May 25 rolls around next year, I'll probably forgot how much the cramping hurts and register again.

Expert 55+ Podium, David Boyce 3rd, Stephen Wright 1st and myself 2nd. Photo by Lara Gibson.