There was a fox running alongside the road. Trotting, really. The perfect combination of spry and delighted, wiry and self satisfied. He was incredibly glossy, his fur rippling against the sunlight like a shampoo commercial. He carried a dead vole. His eyes twinkled. I swear he smirked when he caught us checking him out. At that moment, he caught wind of another prey. He discarded the vole and dove into the forest in pursuit, limitless.
I am not strong anymore. I think about it all the time: what it felt like, to feel powerful. To know you could go anywhere, and fast. To believe I was limitless. I wrote down affirmations after I read Deena Kastor’s book, and Kara Goucher’s. I am powerful. I am fast. I still don’t believe them. I keep telling myself that every time OTS pushes me back down and I fight to stand up again, to run again, that it’s making me in stronger in a different way. That when I am recovered, I’ll be stronger than ever. I do believe that.
The other day I really overdid it. We went for a run up to Alaska Basin, hoping to see the west side of the Tetons and Ice Lake. It was inspiring to be on new terrain, a new trail. It was beautiful. Mostly, I’m grateful that I can do things again. That I can dig in, blow past people, climb. I splash water on my face and arms to cool off, I watch Pippa cavort. Pip is full of delight, even when she’s tired. I started feeling really bad at the end of the climb. I’ve noticed that it’s right around 2,500 feet of climbing that the fatigue begins to be overwhelming. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started heading down. Usually, I can go down okay, but that day the fatigue was pervasive. I shuffled back and laid down, barely able to lift my arms.
Two days earlier, we climbed the Middle Teton. I was uncharacteristically spry after a week of Grand Teton recovery. Some days when I’m fully recovered, I get a hint of what it used to feel like to blaze up a trail. To push, to even have another gear. It never lasts past 2,500 feet. But after that, I can feel the fatigue in my whole body but I can keep going, slowly. When it takes us three and a half hours to reach the saddle between Middle and South, I’m still disappointed in myself. Even though I understood that of course I’m not strong like I used to be, I haven’t been able to train properly. And I’m so grateful that I’ve come this far, to even be able to climb 6,000 feet, to do a 16 mile day. That I can stand on top of something. I downclimbed quickly and gracefully. When I reached the trail, I nearly sprinted the last four miles. I felt fast. I cavorted. I was full of delight. Then I paid for it.
The last time I climbed the Grand Teton was two years ago. I remember it being just hard enough sometimes to keep it interesting. I remember the exposure being extreme, the climbing beautiful, the downclimb long and exhausting. In 24 hours I climbed the Middle Teton and the Grand, then two days later I raced Rendezvous and got fourth, then attempted the Grand the next morning. It feels amazing to think I could do that. This year, it took a week for me to recover from the Grand. I also really struggled on the Exum Ridge. I was scared of everything. It’s embarrassing, but it’s not something people tell you about OTS, that you can’t process fear very well. It’s because it’s all tied into your nervous and adrenal systems. With the slightest bit of stress on my system, it floods with cortisol. It was surreal, to do something I’ve done before, something I found easy the first time, but this time to feel scared. It’s illogical.
I suppose the silver lining is that I still was able to do it. I do believe that the positive that comes out of this is mental strength, resiliency. Forgiveness. Nourishment. Priorities. So much more knowledge about my body. This year in the Tetons, I haven’t been able to do as much as I wanted but I still got to do a lot. I made great strides in downclimbing, in skill and comfort level. That was obvious even on our first summit of this trip, Teewinot. I got a lot better at mountain biking, and particularly at taking risks. I’ve learned that single minded devotion isn’t always a good thing, and that if you can lose everything so easily, you should’ve had a lot more to lose. And I think I do now.
I was really worried feeling so bad on Saturday after Alaska Basin, but my heart rate variability returned the next morning, and my heart rate’s been going down steadily each day since. It was under 60 this morning. Taking a deep dive into understanding the science of recovery and owning all these tools to evaluate it in myself will be infinitely valuable when I can actually train again. For now, I check my heart rate, I drink more water, I take supplements prescribed by my acupuncturist, and I binge on OTS success stories, people who recovered and came back stronger than ever. We named that fox in Teton Canyon Cass, after Quentin Cassidy. As disappointing as it can be sometimes, in equal measure I am full of hope.