Blizzard of 2015: A Vignette

“Noooo… Please, no,” I plead as I watch the people around me hack and cough and imagine the aerosolized particles of disease permeating the air… As an asthmatic, there is nothing I loathe more than a respiratory track infection…

I try to reassure myself. I’m much better now… I’m strong, my lungs are strong! Heck, I’ve hiked 5000 miles in the last 2 years… But I take extra precautions anyway… I take vitamins, I wash my hands, I get plenty of sleep…

My lungs… They try… They try really hard… I exercise them, I treat them right, and they allow me to do amazing things… Most of the time…

But the Creeping Crud of 2015 went straight for my lungs as the blizzard of 2015 and subsequent storm dumped ~4 feet of fresh powder… I desperately want to go outside and play in the fluffy, beautiful, glittery white snow… but my lungs… They doth protest…

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Thru-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

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Goat Rocks (PCT Days 144-147)

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The clouds gathered ominously as I headed towards Goat Rocks… Rain definitely was not what I wanted on this section of trail, a section renowned for both it’s beauty and its open, exposed ridgelines.

Even though the clouds had been building all day, it wasn’t until around 4 o’clock that the first drops of rain started to fall. It was a strange kind of rain… the individual raindrops were huge, more like gobs than drops, but there weren’t very many of them, and the sun was still out and shining… It’s hard to complain too much about the rain when you have to block your eyes from the blinding sun in order to see it!

As I was marveling at the absurdity of the weather, my friend Charlie Dayhiker came ambling down the trail towards me. He caught me completely by surprise! I didn’t know he was planning on yo-yoing the PCT (having completed his Northbound thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, he is now attempting to hike from Canada back to Mexico)! I hadn’t seen him in months, not since the late spring snowstorm that clobbered the High Sierras and forced us down into Lone Pine, CA to wait it out. At least the storms brewing here weren’t likely to bring us snow! As we got caught up on the events of the last couple of months the rained stopped, but neither of us had much faith in the weather.

“I think the storm is going to get you as you go North,” he assured me. “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get hammered by it as you head South.” We both smiled and eyed the dark clouds that had us surrounded. We’d been watching the weather all day, and between the two of us, we’d probably hiked in excess of 10,000 miles in the last 2 years… we had a lot of experience with mountain weather. Sure, the rain had stopped, but more rain seemed inevitability so I was anxious to get moving. I wanted to find camp and set up before the deluges arrived if that was possible, so I pressed onwards and upwards into the ever darkening mountains.

The skies got grayer as I climbed, and the rumbling thunder in the distance wasn’t sounding so distant anymore… I definitely didn’t trust the weather, so I quickly gathered water for dinner from a nearby stream (I hate having to deal with getting water in the rain: all of my stuff gets wet, my hands get cold/er, and all the streams start carrying siltier runoff) and donned my rain gear.

Moments later, as I followed the trail through the beautiful highland meadows, the skies opened up and dumped some of the heaviest rains on me that I’ve ever seen. It felt like I was walking through a waterfall, but, I have to admit I was feeling a little bit smug. I’d looked at that sky and predicted that I was going to be in a downpour in less than 5 minutes, and sure enough 4 minutes later¬† the storm hit.

Trudging up the hill I saw, through the veil of rain, a group of five backpackers taking cover in a stand of trees above me… I paused to look up at them and my grin and all of my smugness suddenly evaporated. The heavy rain was turning into nasty, whipping, stinging hail. Hailstorms are my least favorite storms because the pea-sized bullets that they call hail hurt when they hammer against you 40 mph! I dashed up the hill to join my soon-to-be new friends in the only shelter around, their small stand of trees… These new friends were feasting on gummy worms and invited me to join them. I happily joined their feast, and gladly took part in the ritual beheading of gummy worms as I waited for the hail to pass.

As a general rule, whenever real hail is involved I try to hike to the nearest shelter and stay there until the hail stops… Partly because the hail stings, but mostly because hail is usually accompanied by severe electrical storms, and it’s best to wait those out. When the hail finally stopped and the thunder faded into the distance, I decided to keep hiking… It looked to me like more storms were brewing, so I needed a place where I could pitch my tent and shelter for the night, and this little stand of trees just wasn’t going to cut it. I constantly scanned the terrain around me as I hiked. If I could find a spot to pitch my tent I would happily call it a day… It was around 40 degrees out (F, 4C) with heavy rains and high winds… the kind of weather I think of as perfect hypothermia weather… Sure I could keep hiking, but I would rather curl up in my nice warm sleeping bag, in my nice dry tent, and eat a nice hot meal! Besides, this was a view I was already really familiar with… A view I’d seen at least a thousand times before… It was the view of the inside of a cloud.

Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing that looked like a suitable campsite… It didn’t help that in heavy rains and with thunder rumbling in the distance I suddenly get very picky about where I camp… I felt like Goldilocks:

1) This spot is too flat! – when it’s rainy the flat spots turn into puddles and have a tendency to flood, so I prefer sites that have a slight (but consistent) slope so the water won’t pool underneath or around me. Flash flooding of creeks and glacial streams is also an issue, so the sandy riverbank sites are out of the running too.

2) This spot is too exposed! – during an electrical storm I don’t want to be the tallest thing around and I don’t want my tent to be either, so the beautiful open meadows are no longer on my happy camping list.

3) This spot is too crowded! – when the weather is bad I need enough room to set up and fully stake out my tent, so I need more space (and fewer rocks, roots, and trees) than I do if I’m just rolling out my sleeping bag under the stars or doing a half-as*ed job of setting up my tent.

4) This spot is too dead! – heavy rains, especially when combined with high winds, make it even more likely than usual that the dead trees will come tumbling down (I definitely don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night with a tree across my tent), so I try not to camp in burn zones (places with fire damage), in areas with heavy beetle damage, or in the fall line of any dead trees.

Nope, I definitely wasn’t running into any campsites that would work. Oh well, it was a good thought. As I rounded the next corner the landscape became much more desolate… On a good day I imagined that it would be phenomenally beautiful, but today it looked bleak and exposed… I was approaching Cispus Pass. The trail was going to be very open and exposed for the next couple of miles, but eventually it would snake down to an official camping area in what was rumored to be a spectacularly beautiful meadow with amazing campsites… There was bound to be a spot there that even Goldilocks would find “just right.”

I eyed the storm clouds suspiciously. The rain had let up again and the thunder was just a muted rumble in the distance, but the clouds to the North were awfully dark. Did I want to attempt to cross the pass in this weather? Not really. I looked carefully around me as I spun in a full circle… There certainly wasn’t anywhere to camp here, and I’d been looking around pretty carefully for the last couple of miles and hadn’t seen anywhere to camp there either… Did I want to backtrack two miles South to find a campsite? Not really, especially since that was the way most of the storm looked to be heading and it was open and exposed in that direction as well.

As I stood there contemplating my options two Southbound (Sobo) hikers approached. “How’s the weather up there, and how long does it stay exposed like this?” I asked. “The weather’s not too bad right now, but it looks like it’s rolling in. It stays pretty exposed for at least a couple of miles. How’s the weather south of here?” they countered. “Well, I got hailed on about 10 minutes ago, and it seems like the weather has mostly been gathering to the southeast all day,” I replied before returning to my contemplations…

At most I had two miles of exposed ridgeline along Cispus pass before I would get to a series of campsites scattered between the river and Goat Rocks. Two miles? As a thru-hiker, two miles was nothing… Well, I clarified to myself, two miles would be somewhere between 30 and40 minutes of hiking if I hustled… I would probably get sopping wet since storms love dumping their load of rain when they hit the ridges, but the distant rumblings of thunder were still getting further away and I hadn’t spotted any lightening at all… I should have a window of at least 30-40 minutes before any more electrical storms rolled in… I might as well get while the getting was good!

Once I’d made my decision I wanted to move quickly to get through the pass before there were any big changes in the weather. I quickly discovered that the trail was a muddy mess; criss-crossed by a series of eroded out ditches where the water from the steep slopes had tried to escape from the highlands. Despite the rough trail and the fact that it was all uphill, I was making good time. About half a mile from the pass, the skies opened up, and I found myself slogging through another torrential downpour. Ugh! I swore that if the rains got much heavier I’d have to call what I was doing swimming and not hiking!

Ping! Ping! Smack! “Motherfu**er!” I grumbled… “Hail!” I was getting hailed on… Again. I almost sprinted to the next clutch of trees… Well, maybe it was really just one tree, but it would provide some shelter from the whizzing hail. It wasn’t far, but by the time I got there I was out of breath and desperately trying to suppress the asthma attack trying to escape from my lungs…. “Dammit,” I thought. One thing I’d learned over the course of my two thru-hikes was that my inhaler was completely useless during severe thunderstorms after the humidity reached 100%… Yet here I was… in the middle of a deluge… Wishing I could use my inhaler… If I’d used my inhaler 20 minutes ago, I would have been fine. Why hadn’t I thought to use it then?

I silently cursed some more. This wasn’t the first time this had happened… You’d think that by now I would remember that I have asthma… That I’d remember that every time I try to run up a hill during a thunderstorm/hailstorm it triggers an asthma attack… Well, at least I remembered the disaster that repeatably results if I try to use my rescue inhaler during those situations… Emergency drugs in aerosol cans have some definite drawbacks! I rested under the tree and watched the bouncing hail as I carefully regained control of my lungs… Perhaps I shouldn’t hustle quite so much… I may be a thru-hiker, but I’m an asthmatic thru-hiker, and thunderstorms (especially the ones that come with torrential downpours) are repeatably a problem for me… I focused on nice slow breaths… in through my nose, out through my nose… In through my nose, wait a sec, out through my nose… Until my lungs decided it was ok to stop spasming…

By the time the hail stopped my lungs were ok again, and I made a new deal with them… I wouldn’t go more than 3 or 3.5 mph up the hill, and they wouldn’t spasm anymore… It was still a solid wall of rain out there, but as long as it was done hailing and there was no sign of an electrical component to the storm, I wanted to keep hiking. No more running though… Maybe this time the “no running during thunderstorms” rule would stick and I’d be able to avoid putting myself in this situation in the future.

Though it felt like an eternity, I only rested under that tree for a couple of minutes before continuing on. Despite my new, slightly slower pace, I easily made it to the top of the pass 5 minutes later and didn’t have any more problems with my asthma. There was no lightening, no thunder, and nowhere to camp anywhere in sight. There was, however, a group of 5 backpackers huddled together in a small copse of trees at the top of the pass.

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“You’re completely drenched!” They exclaimed as I approached. “Yeah,” I confirmed, “it’s pretty wet out here, and the hail is keeping it interesting.” “Come and join us for a bit,” they insisted as they shuffled their huddle around to make room for me. It was surprisingly dry in their copse of trees. “Did you see a group coming up behind you? They’re with us.” I knew exactly who they were talking about and told them about the earlier hailstorm, the gummy worms, and the progress their friends were makings, “They were probably half a mile behind me when the second hailstorm rolled through, a bit more than that now, but somebody in bright yellow rain gear is fast approaching.”

“Oh man!! Those guys must be bummed. A couple of them don’t have any raincoats or anything!” I was absolutely horrified, a backpacking trip, in Washington state, with no rain gear? And then caught in the same storms I’d been caught in… They must be sopping wet and cold. I wondered if I had extra rain gear that I could give them… I did have an extra raincoat, but it was an XS, which I was pretty sure wouldn’t fit any of them. “How come they don’t have raincoats?” I blurted out. I couldn’t help but worry that they were getting hypothermic! “Well, I’m not sure about them, but I just forgot mine at home. All I have is this hoody, so I figure we’ll just hang out here until the storm passes and then we’ll head out again.”

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I looked out at the clouds blowing around us and the rain that just wouldn’t stop, “I’m not sure that it’s going to stop raining anytime soon, but I am sure that it’s going to get colder and darker, so I think I’ll get a move on,” I said through almost chattering teeth. I was getting cold just standing around, I needed to either get moving, or to get into my nice warm zero degree (F) sleeping bag.

The rain definitely hadn’t let up at all, but it felt good to be moving again, and to be going downhill instead of uphill. Below me, below the clouds, I could see vibrant green meadows and tons of rushing water. Beside the nearest river there were four tents set up in a meadow… I desperately hoped that they hadn’t been forced to camp there because the river had flash-flooded… With electrical storms threatening, that was the only reason I could think of for camping in an exposed meadow like that. As I approached it became clear that the storm was causing lots of erosion damage to the banks, but that the river was still crossable. I breathed a sigh of relief, and crossed it without a problem. Clearly the tenters in that meadow had a different set of campsite criteria than I did.

Going downhill I wasn’t generating nearly as much heat as I had going up, so I was getting colder and my desire to find a campsite was getting stronger and stronger with every step. Maps and cell phones don’t get along well with rain, but I was tired of just hoping to stumble onto a good campsite, so I decided to check my phone. I crouched over it, trying to protect it from the rain, as it slowly acquired satellites and figured out my GPS coordinates. There was a campsite in just 0.2 miles!! I shoved the phone away and set off into the rain with renewed energy. Soon I would be warm and dry in my cozy little tent.

“Hmmmm…” When I got there I found that I wasn’t the only one stopping early to try to get out of the storm. There were already three tents set up in the little campsite. Even though it was a little crowded I decided to poke around a bit. There was a smattering of trees, a waterfall nearby, and it looked like there might even have a nice view if the storm ever decided to clear out. All the flat spots were taken, which suited me just fine. The tents set up in those spots were already in puddles and the only signs of movement were the muddy hands that periodically reached out under the flaps of their tents in a futile attempt to dig ditches to drain the growing puddles that had them surrounded. The resulting moats seemed to effectively keep the occupants inside their tents even if they didn’t keep the water out. I never did see the people attached to those hands.

Eventually I found a spot that met all of my criteria. The only downside to the spot was that I would be pitching my tent less than 3 feet away from a tent full of strangers… Normally I try to give myself and everyone else more privacy than that, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I was close enough that I could hear everything that they were saying inside their tent, but the din of the rain on their tent fly made it so they had no idea I was out there. “Hi, I just wanted to let you know that you’re going to have a new neighbor.” I shouted to be heard over the rain.

I quickly pitched my tent and scurried inside. Sure, I should make dinner before going to bed, but my zero degree sleeping bag was calling to me… besides, I could make dinner later. Right now I was going to luxuriate in the puffy goodness of my sleeping bag. As I lay there, in my sleeping bag, I listened to the rain ping against my tent and to the incessant laughing and giggling coming from the two women in the tent next door. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. Laughter is infectious, even when you have no idea what the laughter is about… As a solo hiker, laughter wasn’t something that I heard very often… Laughter is something that you do with friends, it’s something that you share, it’s not something that you tend to do when you are hiking alone through the woods… I daydreamed about taking family and friends on backpacking trips with me, about the shared moments and laughter that would result, and despite the rain, I was incredibly happy to be exactly where I was.

Eventually the sun began to set, the rain slackened, and the rumblings in my belly convinced me that it was dinner time. As I prepared dinner from the safety and warmth of my tent I heard the unmistakable sound of hikers trudging through the rain at the end of the day. The two groups of 5 that I’d seen earlier had coalesced into a group of ten soggy, miserable hikers still pushing towards a distant camp (2.5 miles away). It was already 7:45 pm, so there was no way that they’d get there until well after dark. I remembered how much they were struggling 3 hours ago and was glad that I decided to change my plan and cut my day short. The wet and beleaguered hikers trudging off into the night gave me flashbacks to some of the backpacking trips of my youth… the ones my dad had called “character building”… the ones that were cold, wet, and interminably long… the ones where the hours dragged on and on and on… Backpacking can be a brutal sport at times, how is it that we come to love it despite those long miserable days? Why is it that decades later when I asked myself the simple question, “If I could do anything in the world right now, what would I do?” the answer had been, “I’d hike the PCT!”

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The next morning I awoke to a breathtakingly gorgeous day and one of the most beautiful stretches of trail on the PCT. As I hiked across the sparkling white snowfields and the rough-hewn ridges with the sun on my face and the wind at my back I was at peace with everything… At peace with myself… at peace with the weather… at peace with the world… I took a deep breath and looked around… It was just me, the mountains, the rocks, and the sky… This was why I endured all of those long, cold, miserable days and kept coming back for more… I did it because even on those really long, hard days there was always something for me to learn or discover about myself or the world around me… I did it for the days that were filled with wonder, joy, peace, and light… I did it because I loved it all!

***

P.S. Did you know that thunderstorm associated asthma is a known thing? I didn’t, but after 2 thru-hikes I’d figured out that certain weather patterns triggered my asthma attacks. Now I use my rescue inhaler about 20 minutes prior to the peak of those storm, which makes all of the difference in the world! Though it’s easy to find the research showing that other people experience thunderstorm associated asthma too, it’s been much harder to find information about why my inhaler ceases to function properly at the very moment when I need it most. Part of the problem is that aerosol inhalers are designed to be used at room temperature (68-77F, 20-25C), and I’m definitely using my inhalers outside of that range when I’m doing a thru-hike, but I think the biggest problem during the thunderstorms is either the pressure difference between the contents of the canister and the contents of my lungs or the 100% humidity… The problem I end up having with the inhaler is that the ejected plume from the inhaler feels like it burns my lungs and it triggers even more severe bronchiospasms. If I fire the inhaler into the air instead of into my lungs, the ejected plume extends for 3 feet before dispersing instead of the more typical 4-6 inches… So, in the case of my thunderstorm-related inhaler issues either the plume velocity has gone up or the particle dispersion rate has gone down or maybe both. The big question is why? What’s different about thunderstorms than the other weather conditions that I deal with on the trail? Why is it only a problem during torrential downpours? Why is it only a problem during the peak of the storm?

As I hiked I kept thinking about the ideal gas law, PV=nRT. I was dealing with the expansion of gases, the answer had to be hidden in there somewhere, could I derive it from first principles?… What’s changing in the thunderstorm? Thunderstorms come with severe low pressure areas… At sea level, fair weather is predicted by a steady barometric pressure of ~102kPa, and a thunderstorm might drop that atmospheric pressure by 3kPa… would that be enough to cause the problem? No, that didn’t seem likely since I’ve successfully used my inhaler at high altitudes (I used it on Kilimanjaro when I was at 15,000 ft elevation where the air pressure is only 57kPa). For this incident I was at an elevation of 7000 ft, which has a normal atmospheric pressure of 78 kPa. What else was different? Well, the humidity… It seemed like the torrential downpours were required for the inhaler to fail so annoyingly. Was 100% humidity the problem? What does the humidity do? As the number of water molecules goes up, the number of molecules of air goes down, so, the n in my PV=nRT goes down when the humidity goes up, was that it?IMG_1807.JPG

I hypothesize that in the failure condition the linear velocity of the spray increases and results in a greater plume distance prior to dispersion (3ft vs 6inches). Now all I needed were some equations and I’d be happy… I searched the internet high and low and eventually found much of what I was looking for in a book called Inhalation Aerosols: Physical and Biological Basis for Therapy edited by Anthony J. Hickey, which gives the equatios that directly link the pressure differences between the inside and outside of the inhaler canister with linear velocity.

I further hypothesize that the 100% humidity is crucial to the failure condition. Using Rault’s Law and Dalton’s law, the vapor pressures within the inhaler can be determined based on the solvents used and the mass of the drugs/surfactants. Dalton’s law can then be used to determine the impact of humidity on the pressure outside of the canister. In the case where 100% humidity is achieved, the air is considered to be saturated with water for that temperature and pressure. How would that impact the rate of expansion/evaporation of the medicated droplets and solvents in inhaler’s plume? My research seemed to suggest that the droplet size was key to the efficiency of my inhaler.

I was happy to finally find some of the equations that I could use to model the physics of my inhaler, but what I really wanted for now was a simple rule that predicted the failure condition for my inhaler that I could share with other people. Could I come up with a home experiment that would help me determine whether it was the changes in pressure associated with the storm and the linear velocity that caused the failure, or if it was the 100% humidity? Are there times that I experience 100% humidity other than in middle of thunderstorms with torrential downpours? Suddenly it dawned on me… I do that all the time… I absolutely love hot showers when I’m in civilization… I turn the shower on, close the bathroom door, and step into my saturated solution of water and air… The temperature will be much higher than it is in a thunderstorm and the atmospheric pressure will be much higher, but the high humidity? That I can model at home! If I try to discharge my inhaler in the shower will it generate the characteristic 3 foot plume that I associate with the failure condition? What do you think? I guess I’ll find out the next time I take a shower :)

Interesting links:

Thunderstorm associated asthma.

Inhaler science project.

The effect of extreme weather conditions on asthma.

 Atmospheric pressure and altitude.

Smoky Mornings (PCT Days 130-133)

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“The smoke isn’t too bad,” a day hiker reassured me, “I’ve seen it much worse…” They let the sentence trail off as their gaze swept across the smoky haze, which darkened all of the distant peaks.

She was right, the smoke wasn’t too bad yet, but my lungs are the canaries in the coal mine, and they were already unhappy… Whenever anything messes with the air quality, my lungs let me know, and the smoke… it was definitely messing with the air quality and making them grumpy.

I tried to focus on the positives associated with the smoke… The spectacular sunrises and sunsets that seemed to last halfway through the day, and the blood red moon… The smoke made for some very memorable vistas, but there was no denying it, it came with some negatives… I was having to use my emergency inhaler again… Just once a day, but I could feel my lungs protesting against the smoke, and my body was getting tired more easily than it should, which was a classic sign that I wasn’t using my inhaler enough…

Before I got to Rockpile Lake (just south of Mt. Jefferson) I’d been able to wait until I hiked out of the smoke to pitch my tent at night, so I’d get to sleep in a low-smoke environment, but dark was fast approaching and the smoke still hung thick in the air as I set up camp for the night at Rockpile Lake. I wondered if I was going to need to sleep with my bandana on as a mask… I was already hiking with it as a mask during the day, and I hated it.

After I set up camp, I went down to the lake to get more water… Still pouting about the smoke, I waded two or three steps out into the lake to where the water was clearer and suddenly I was surrounded by water monsters! They were roughly nine inches long, and looked like a cross between a horny toad and a salamander… I forgot all about the smoke, my asthma, and my water, as I dashed back up to my tent and grabbed my camera… I didn’t know what they were, but they were definitely cool! (It turns out they are the Pacific Giant Salamanders in their larval stage). Eventually my hunger was overpowering, and I had to stop watching the salamanders so that I could get water and make dinner, but by then my nose had tuned out the smell of smoke, and I forgot all of my smoke-related woes.

I woke up the next morning with heavy lungs… I’d forgotten to sleep with my makeshift mask on. “It’s ok,” I reassured myself. I hadn’t taken my morning maintenance meds yet, they would help. I sat up and went through the normal routine… Take my meds (Advair, Flonase, Singulair, Zyrtec), pack up, and start hiking.

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As I headed up the trail I was greeted by an absolutely stunning sunrise (I was still glad to have the opportunity to enjoy some of the perks of the smoke) and an even thicker cloud of smoke than I’d encountered the day before… I decided that if I could smell the smoke I needed to use the odious bandana as a mask, especially since my nose still wasn’t working right.

As I continued northwards, the side trails to the right, and to the left of me were all closed due to the recent (and ongoing) wildfires in the Jefferson Wilderness Area… With the trails on both sides of me closed, I wondered why the PCT was still open? I supposed it was because the trail wasn’t on fire… That was a good thing. I wondered if they ever closed the PCT due to excessive smoke?

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A few minutes later the breeze picked up, maybe the smoke was gone? It looked like it should be a nice day, with the wind fluttering through the leaves of the trees… I didn’t need the mask, right? Unfortunately when I lifted the mask up I was overwhelmed by smoke… I couldn’t ditch it yet.

As the hours wore on my eyes burned, my throat burned, my lungs burned, and the inhaler wasn’t bringing me back to normal… My lungs were just progressively getting worse and worse. I wished that I could use the inhaler more often… Or that there was something else I could do…

I started to worry… I was in a section of the trail that had been reopened for weeks, where the wildfires were supposedly under control, but I was headed into an area with active fire closures… Would the smoke be even worse there? Would the smoke last for days? Would it last from here until I got passed the closure? Sh**!

My lungs could handle one day like this if I was careful, used my mask, used my inhaler, and took it easy… I could even manage the two days that it would take me to get to Ollalie Lake (the next place that I would hit civilization, and where the fire closure started)… But if it lasted longer than that I was going to have to make a decision… I would have to start taking prednisone so that I could walk through it, or I was going to have to hitch-hike north of the smoke. I didn’t like either option.

I had a sudden flashback to my last year at work… Wearing an uncomfortable mask all the time, struggling to breath, but forcing my body to fight through it… I’d had a goal, I’d had a dream, and I’d used prednisone to help force my body into letting me live that dream, but at what cost? I’d known that the only way I could truly get healthy was to walk away… to remove myself from the situation… to go find a different dream… but it was a heart-wrenching decision, and there was a whole lot of no fun along the way.

As I thought back on it, I knew that I couldn’t do that to myself again, not if I had a choice… I didn’t need to take the prednisone, I could solve the problem another way… I could hitch-hike past the smoke, but it felt like cheating, and I didn’t want to cheat… Knowingly heading into an incredibly smoky areas for days when you have asthma? That just wasn’t smart (even if I did start taking prednisone to keep my lungs in check).

If I’ve learned anything on these long distance hikes, I’ve learned that I have to respect my body and my health… If I do that I can always find other dreams or other ways of achieving my dreams… I still hoped that I wouldn’t have to make the decision, but I knew the decision I would make if it came to it… I would skip a section if I had to :(

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As the day wore on, the smoke showed no signs of clearing… It had been at least 20 miles of smoky, windy, plodding before I came around to the north side of Mount Jefferson and ran into a couple of southbound thru-hikers, “oh my gosh, where did all of this smoke come from?!” they exclaimed. “Did you come through a fire?” I explained to them that I hadn’t seen any flames, but that it had been really smoky for the last 20 or so miles. “Ah, that makes sense. We’d heard rumors that when the winds picked up this morning the fires broke through the lines and headed towards the ridge the PCT runs along.” It wasn’t exactly reassuring news, but at least I was done with that section now. “How much longer does it stay smoky like this?” I asked.

“We just rounded the corner and came into it, maybe 20 feet from here.” Just 20 more feet!!!!! I was overjoyed! I was beginning to think it was going stay smoky forever! Just 20 more feet and then I could ditch the stupid bandana mask, and my lungs would start getting happier… It wouldn’t be instantaneous, but, if there was no smoke, within a couple of hours I’d be able to breath normally again!

“How was the smoke over in the closure area and in the areas north of here?” I continued almost gleefully.

“This is the worst smoke we’ve encountered on the entire trail! The area by the closure wasn’t smoky at all, and we ducked the lines and went directly through the closure area. We didn’t do the 26 mile road walk.”

This was amazing news… The smoke wasn’t that bad north of here! I was going to be able to keep hiking! I wasn’t going to have to come to terms with skipping a section, I was going to be able to hike my hike :)

I was so happy I was almost bounced up the trail. I rounded the next corner and, sure enough, the smoke was gone. It seemed almost impossible… I’d been struggling with it all day, and most of the day before, but here I was, on the north side of Jefferson, and the smoke was gone!

It felt so good to be free of the smoke and of my mask that I made it to Jefferson Park early, and had to remind myself that my lungs hadn’t had enough time to recover yet… I had to take it slow (at least for the rest of the day).

As soon as I broke free of the crowds at Jefferson Park, I plunked down in the middle of a meadow and looked back at Mt. Jefferson. You could see the smoke billowing up and over both the east side of the mountain and the south side, but the winds were taking all of the smoke to the west. It was going to be a gorgeous sunset with all of that smoke on the horizon, but none of it was headed towards me, none of it was headed north.

With the promise of a spectacular sunset (and no predicted thunderstorms) I decided to try to camp up on Park ridge… I could probably make it all the way to Ollalie Lake, but that would be pushing myself pretty hard, and I needed to give my lungs a chance to recover… Besides, ridges are usually better than lakes for sunset views :)

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Where the PCT crossed over the top of the ridge there were some gorgeous campsites with phenomenal views of Mt. Jefferson, but none of them had good west facing views… They were awesome, but they weren’t perfect. Off to my left, however, was a tiny side trail that looked like it snaked its way off to the highest point on the ridge… The trail was unlabeled, and wasn’t on any of my maps, but I decided to check it out… Maybe the campsite of my dreams, with an amazing sunset view, was up there…

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The trail was definitely a bit of a scramble, and it skirted a couple of snow fields, but at the top was one perfect little campsite… It had a west-facing view of the foothills, mount Jefferson was due south of it, and the sun would rise over the snowfields in the east in the morning. It was still a couple of hours until sunset, but this was the perfect place to kick back, relax, and let my lungs recover!

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Patches the Asthma Girl! (Asthma Ditty)

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I’m Patches the asthma girl!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)
I’m hiking across the world.
With new lands to see
I’m happy as can be!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)

I feel healthy
And I feel strong
‘Cause I’m hiking
The whole day long.

I used to struggle
And I used to wheeze
Now I just
Give the inhaler a squeeze
(Puff! Puff!)

There’s no mountain too high
And no trail that’s too long
When I have my inhaler along
(Puff! Puff!)

I’m Patches the asthma girl!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)
I’m hiking across the world.
With new lands to see
I’m happy as can be!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)

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Confessions of an Asthmatic (PCT Days 63-65)

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Hello, my name is Patches. I’m a thru-hiker and an asthmatic. It’s been 10 days since I last took a full, deep, lung and chest expanding breath and 3 hrs since I last used my emergency inhaler. I can already feel my lungs beginning to constrict again in an angry protest against my attempts to breath while climbing up this mountain and I’m counting the minutes until I can use my inhaler again.

Asthma is the reason why I quit my job and hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2013.. After I returned from my Appalachian Trail journey I checked in with my pulmonologist and I’d regained 100% normal lung function. I was incredibly excited… My plan had worked, hiking the Appalachian Trail had helped my asthma… 100% normal lung function!!! I hadn’t imagined that it would get that much better! Since my asthma had been occupational asthma and I no longer had that occupation, maybe my asthma would be gone for good?!

My continuing good health (and lack of asthma attacks) slowly reinforced the idea that my asthma wasn’t something that I needed to worry about anymore (as long as I took my maintenance meds). As I hiked through the desert sections of the PCT I felt strong and my lungs felt strong. I’d gone to Burning Man (a desert festival) twice, and both times the dust storms had aggravated my lungs leading to nasty bouts of asthmatic bronchitis followed by pneumonia, so I had been extremely nervous about desert dust storms on the PCT… But I’d gotten through the desert without any trouble with my asthma… During the first 700 miles of the PCT I’d only used my emergency inhaler once.

As I left the desert behind, I left my worries about asthma behind too… I even sent all but one of my emergency inhalers home (I’d been carrying 2 or 3 in case I lost one, or miscounted how many doses were left in them).

It came as a real shock to me when I entered the high Sierra and started routinely having breathing issues… I’d hiked over 700 miles, keeping pace with my peers, and my asthma hadn’t been a problem… Despite the daily maintenance meds I take for my asthma, I’d managed to completely forget that I was asthmatic.

At elevations above ~9000 feet, the second the trail started going uphill, I started slowing down, way down. At first I thought that the same thing was happening to everyone else too… “Aha,” I thought, “I can explain to people that being asthmatic is like constantly trying to hike uphill at high elevation.” I clearly remembered that this was exactly what it had felt like trying to climb the three flights of stairs up to my apartment when my asthma had been really bad… My body had shifted to moving very slowly and taking the fast shallow breaths that would keep my blood oxygen levels high, but that wouldn’t trigger an asthma attack, and I was taking frequent breaks… A break after every step or two.

It took me a couple of days before I realized that nobody else was responding to the altitude in quite the same way that I was… To realize that it wasn’t just one bad day… The people that I had easily outpaced in the desert and at lower elevations were all passing me. Everyone else seemed to be adapting to the altitude… But not me… My friends were all outpacing me… It wasn’t a choice… I just couldn’t keep up… And suddenly the thin veil of denial melted away…

I have asthma… It didn’t go away… Asthma doesn’t go away.

I would have taken a deep breath as I processed the realization, but I hadn’t been able to take a deep breath in days. I would have laughed at myself for being in such denial that I didn’t recognize that it was asthma until I actually had an asthma attack on top of Pinchot Pass, but laughing triggers my asthma attacks when my lungs are being cranky. Instead, I sighed… It seems like no matter how bad my asthma is I can always manage to sigh.

I have asthma. In the last year I had gotten so much better that I’d been able to forget what it was like to struggle to breath… I’d fallen back into denial (despite the pound and a half of maintenance meds I was carrying with me and taking everyday). Being at altitude wasn’t like having asthma, it was triggering my asthma, especially since the altitude was combined with lots of cold dry air.

My rescue inhaler which had been left largely unused throughout the latter portion of the AT and the beginning of the PCT was being used on a daily basis again… When I’d forced myself to keep working at the job that had triggered the asthma I remembered that after 2-3 hrs I’d start watching the clock to see if I could use my inhaler again… Here at the higher altitudes I found myself doing the same thing… Was it time yet? How about now? How about now?

I carefully monitored myself for signs of altitude sickness… Could I tell the difference between high altitude and cold temperatures triggering my asthma and HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema)? I wasn’t 100% sure, but I did know that the inhaler helped for 2-3 hrs and that carefully controlling my pace meant that I could keep breathing at 8000ft, 9000ft, 10,000ft, 11,000ft, 12,000ft, 13,000ft and 14,000ft…

It felt like my asthma to me… and it wasn’t getting progressively worse or coupled with any other symptoms of altitude sickness… No nausea, no headaches. Just breathing issues and asthma attacks that frequent breaks and using my emergency inhaler seemed to keep at bay.

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Though slowing down and having to stop to catch my breath more often meant having to hike alone, it also meant that I had more time to just watch and absorb all of the spectacular scenery around me… The high Sierra is breathtakingly beautiful!!

As I hiked through the snow-covered mountains and forded the icy streams of the Sierra I thought about how I hadn’t really believed that I had asthma until I was hospitalized for it. Why did I have so much trouble admitting, even to myself, that I have asthma?

Close your eyes and try to picture an asthmatic. When I did that, the first image that came to mind was that of a ten year old boy wearing a blue shirt and a red baseball cap staring longingly out of his bedroom window at his friends playing baseball… It’s an image from some tv show or movie from my childhood which lodged a stereotype in my head, “asthmatics don’t get to go outside and play.” But I love to go outside and play! I don’t want to be sick, weak, and trapped inside… With those images of asthma lodged in my head it’s no wonder that I didn’t want to accept that I have asthma.

Clearly I needed to exchange those old images of asthma and asthmatics for newer ones. I thought of myself standing on top of Mount Whitney at sunrise… Triumphant and strong… On top of the world… That’s the image of an asthmatic that I want to hold on to, that I want to come to mind first and foremost when I think about asthma. To get to the summit of Mount Whitney I needed to admit to myself that I had asthma, I needed to use my inhalers, I needed to respect my body, and I needed to go my own pace. I worked really hard to get there, but I did it, and it was absolutely amazing. My asthma didn’t prevent me from going outside and playing and living my dreams.

My name is Patches, I’m a thru-hiker, and I have asthma. My asthma is still there, I’m still hiking at high altitudes, I’m still going slowly, and I’m still out here living my dreams on the PCT in the high Sierra and loving it… Me, my backpack, the mountains, and my inhaler! :)

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Health, HIPAA, and Hospitals

I’m used to sharing *my* story and stories here, online, in an incredibly public forum. Since I’ve been off of the trail my story has been dominated not by issues with my health, but with issues associated with my fathers health. This has left me in a bit of a quandry, and has resulted in a long period of blog silence. Dealing with how much health information you want to share with your friends, your family, your colleagues, and complete strangers is a complicated enough issue by itself and one that people tend to feel strongly about and have differing boundaries for, but when its somebody else’s health information its even more complicated. I think that the amount of health information you decide to share with your friends and your family is a deeply personal issue and that each individual needs to decide those boundaries for themselves.

How much health information you share with colleagues and the internet is a much bigger issue because it has the potential to impact your current and future employment. Before disclosing any information about my health on this blog, I thought long and hard about whether or not I was ok with current or future employers learning about my health information (and any other personal information) that I share here. It made/makes me uncomfortable to think that someone might discriminate against me based on the health information that I disclose here. That, in conjunction with having had some negative experiences with stalkers in the past, made me decide to keep my blog somewhat anonymous at first. I still choose not to link this site with my full name, but at the same time I realize that everything I post online (no matter how anonymous) can be linked to me, it’s just a matter of how motivated someone is, and how much time they want to spend… there are no secrets on the internet.

There are four laws in place that are designed to prevent employer’s from discriminating against people based on their health issues and/or disabilities and to protect the privacy of health information. The four major laws that deal with employee health information are: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act), The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). These laws are designed to allow you to keep your health information private (you throw some of that away by posting your health information all over the internet), and to prevent employers from using your health information when making decisions about hiring, firing, and promoting you. These laws are imperfect (employers with fewer that 15 employees are exempt from the ADA for example) and the waters get muddier in terms of how much information and what information to disclose if you want to take advantage of the disability accommodations associated with the ADA, or apply for leave through the FMLA. My point in mentioning these laws is to remind people that health information is important and that whether we like it or not, strangers, friends, and employers may judge us based on our health information now and in the future. If you are posting about a cold or a sprained ankle, this is unlikely to bias a future employer about your employability, but if you are chronically sick or have chronic illnesses (like asthma and ulcerative colitis) then it might be hard for a potential employer not to worry about whether or not your illness will impact your ability to perform your job, or if you’ll cost them more money than your healthier compatriates that won’t require accommodations, won’t take as many sick days, and presumably won’t need to invoke the FMLA.

I had to look into and think about all of these issues when I acquired occupational asthma. I tried to work with my employer to come up with reasonable accommodations because I *wanted* to keep working. The accommodations they came up with were minimal and not as effective as I would have hoped (they didn’t prevent me from getting sicker). The people in occupational health suggested that my best course of action would be to leave my job. I was incredibly frustrated, I was getting sick because of something someone down the hall was doing, I had no control over it, but my employer did. I looked into the FMLA trying to decide if that would help me manage my occupational exposure and my health, but ultimately I decided that the people in occupational health were right. As long as I stayed at my job there I would remain sick. In addition to the formal issues associated with health information at the work place, I also felt constant pressure from my colleagues to share more of my health information than I felt comfortable with. At one point I was accused of being a poor communicator because I was unwilling to provide as many details about my health as my peers wanted. Finally, having a boss sit you down and tell you that you need to consider yourself disabled (because of your asthma) and that you should approach your life accordingly is not even a little bit fun.

I came away from that situation resolved to prove to myself that my asthma wouldn’t prevent me from living my dreams, that I didn’t have to let my health dictate my dreams even if I did have to carefully manage my health so that I could achieve my dreams. I left the job that was killing me and my dreams to go live my dreams on the Appalachian Trail. It was the best decision that I have ever made. I managed my asthma well enough to walk 2200 miles over countless mountains and I am confident that my asthma won’t prevent me from following any of my other dreams.

Dealing with my occupational asthma made me realize how challenging it can be to manage your health and health information in a work environment. Knowing how challenging it has been to manage my own health information, I am very sensitive about how and where it is appropriate to share other people’s health information. Unless someone asks me to share their information for them, or explicitly tells me that I can share their information, then its not my place to post it online… even if its relevant to my story, to my emotional state, to my life. I will try to respect your privacy, I will try to respect the privacy of my future self, and I have dreams of a future internet where the majority of users try to do the same.

I hope and expect to have my dad home and healthy soon. As the gift giving season approaches I will try to get at least some of my gear reviews online (special review requests will be posted first), but my focus this holiday season will remain on my family and friends. On the trail my blog and the internet was the only connection I had to many of the people that I care about and love, this season I am thankful for the opportunity to connect with these people in person.

Marathon Training: A two week program?

Sometime back in June or July my brothers texted me and asked if I would be interested in running a marathon with them. Back in high school I’d been really into running and was decently good at it (my fastest time for the mile was around 5:30), but as I grew older and more and more out of shape, I’d been running less and less until I got to the point where I’d stopped running all together. A few times in the past couple of years I’d signed up for races and attempted to train for them. I ended up running all the races that I signed up for, but I failed at training for them. Between my asthma and being thoroughly out of shape, running seemed more painful than fun. I’d try to run a block or two, then I’d have to stop and try to catch my breath while fumbling for my inhaler. Sometimes I’d sit on the curb for a minute or two before slowly walking back to my apartment feeling defeated by my lungs and my body. After doing that once or twice, I’d give up on the training and just show up for the race (since I’d already paid for it) and wing it. I managed to finish all of those races, but it certainly wasn’t pretty.

The Marine Corps Marathon, which my brothers were trying to talk me into, was scheduled for October. At the time October felt like some point in a very distant future. I remembered that when I’m in shape I love running, and I figured that when I finished hiking the AT I would be in the best shape of my life. All of those things, combined with the fact that I’d always wanted to run a marathon, made it seem like a no brainer… of course I’d run the marathon with my brothers in October!

Before I knew it October was here, I’d finished hiking the AT, and I was in the best shape of my life. The only problem was that I only had two weeks to train for the upcoming marathon. According to coolrunning.com 20 weeks is a sensible training schedule for a marathon and, “You should not run a marathon unless you have at least a year of running experience behind you to prepare both mind and muscle for the miles and months of training ahead.” Well, I had at least a year of running experience behind me… way way behind me, say almost 20 years behind me. I decided that surely that still counted ;) It seemed to me that backpacking for 5 months should have trained my mind to persevere over long distances and through physical hardship, so the remaining question was how much of the training of my muscles for backpacking would overlap and translate to training for running a marathon? I wasn’t entirely sure.

From backpacking I knew that I could hike 26.2 miles, or a marathon, with a full pack in one day. I’d done that the day that I’d hiked from Boiling Springs, PA to Duncannon, PA. I also knew that with relatively good terrain I could hike 20+ miles a day at a 3-4 mph pace. How did that compare to the pace required to complete the Marine Corps Marathon? My brother had said that you had to complete the first 20 miles at a 14 minute per mile pace (~4.29 mph) and then you had to do at least 16 minute miles (3.75 mph) for the remainder of the race. Looking at it that way, it seemed entirely possible that I could finish the marathon in 6 hrs and 19 minutes, all I had to do was bump up my hiking pace just a little bit. Since I wouldn’t have a 35 lb backpack to deal with, or any mountains to climb, I hoped that that would be entirely manageable, but first I had to answer one important question: after tormenting my joints for five months on the trail, could I run at all?

When I got off of the trail my legs were a bit sore, my right knee was tempermental at best, and there was still that pesky labral tear in my hip. It was possible that my body would put up a painful protest when I attempted to speed it up and make it go for a run, but I had to start somewhere. I decided that I would try to go on some short runs first just to see how my body tolerated this whole running thing. I shied away from longer runs afraid that I might injure myself before I even got to the starting line. However, I ran into my first challenge before I even got out the door. I didn’t have any running shoes that fit me because my feet had gotten bigger as I’d hiked the trail. From past experience (the Dublin Half Marathon) I knew that it was a bad idea to run in hiking shoes (I painfully lost two toe nails figuring that out), so I borrowed a pair of my dad’s running shoes and set out for a two mile run. I started out gingerly, my knee aching a bit, and my body confused by the different mechanics involved in running compared to hiking, but eventually I hit my stride and remembered how much I enjoyed running. Being in good cardio-vascular shape and with my asthma under control it was downright fun to move through the world at 6 mph (10 minute miles). I returned home feeling somewhat reassured that I could at least run a little bit. My only complaint was that my upper body was a sore. I decided not to press my luck, so I took a day off before hitting the road again for another 2 mile run. This time I ran it at 6.67 mph (9 minute miles) and felt like I could have kept on running forever. The next day, however, my knee was sore, so I decided I better give it a little more time off to recover. It was also clear that my dad’s running sneakers were too big for me and I was going to have to get a pair of new shoes before the marathon.

Now, with a week to go before the marathon, the longest run I’d done was just two miles, and I still didn’t have a pair or running shoes that fit. I wanted to get at least one longer run in before the marathon, preferable in the new shoes that I hadn’t bought yet. Without a car, I was finding it hard to go somewhere and try on shoes to buy, and I was reluctant to buy shoes online without trying them on first. Eventually, with just days to go before the marathon, I asked my brothers which kind of running shoes they used and ordered a pair online. They would arrive the day before I flew into Washington DC for the marathon. In the meantime I decided I better get in my long run, a 4 mile run, before they arrived. I breezed through my 4 mile run with a 9 minute mile pace and once again felt like I could have gone on forever. If I ran the first 5 miles of the race at that pace, I would build up a buffer of 25 minutes and could walk the rest of the race at 4 mph (15 minute miles) and finish before the marathon cutoff times. It might not be pretty, but I was hopeful that I’d at least be able to finish the marathon.

It was time to pack my bags and hope that my hasty two week training plan would be enough this time. I went to the closet and pulled out a small duffel bag since I only had to bring a few things and didn’t want to have to pay to check any luggage. I was going to go to Boston, then fly to DC, and then fly from there to Florida for a much needed vacation after the marathon. It felt strange to be packing a duffel bag instead of my backpack. There was no reason to pack a sleeping bag or my tent. Suddenly I was having separation anxiety about leaving my pack behind. Even though I hadn’t used my backpack in a couple of weeks, I always knew it was right there… Ready for me to grab it and disappear into the woods at a moments notice. I hadn’t realized that I’d been using its presence as a security blanket as I continued to try to adapt to the post trail life.

This was it though, I was leaving my security blanket, heading into the city for the first time since April or May, and embarking on my next adventure: Running the Marine Corps Marathon!

Inhaler Physics (AT Days 64 & 65)

The skies opened up once again and began dumping rain on me at 1-2 inches and hour. I sighed and resigned myself to getting soaking wet again… The same thing had happened yesterday and the day before. Today, however, I only had two miles of hiking left and then I was headed into town to a nice dry hostel.

Even though I’d resigned myself to getting wet, the thunder, lightning, and really heavy rain weren’t making it the most enjoyable of experiences. I was hiking at about 2 miles/hr so I figured I only had about an hour of uphill in the rain to go. Suddenly I had an epiphany, if I jogged I could be out of the rain in 30 minutes or less… That would be much better than hiking in the nasty nasty weather for an hour!

I tightened the straps of my pack and with water streaming down from the sky and through the trail I started running. It felt good to stretch out my stride and navigate around the rocks and roots.

Not long after initiating this plan the slope of the uphill increased and I realized that I’d forgotten something. I’d forgotten that I have asthma. Doh! I stopped running, pulled out my rescue inhaler (which I always keep handy), and almost hungrily inhaled the medicine that would make it so that I could breath comfortably again.

However, instead of getting the usual easing of my breath as my chest opens up and my lungs full with air, I felt a caustic burning of my throat and lungs and if anything it felt like my lungs constricted even more.

Shocked and confused and now definitely having an asthma attack I looked accusingly at my inhaler. Had I
Accidentally grabbed my pepper spray instead? No, it was definitely my inhaler that I held in my hand. Perhaps it had gotten some sort of particulate in/on it that I had just accidentally propelled into my lungs (everything gets dirty when you’re backpacking). I carefully wiped off the mouthpiece inside and out and took a second puff of the inhaler sure that I’d fixed the problem and would soon be breathing easy again.

F***!!!! Burning, searing, pain as my lungs really ceased up. I threw my inhaler onto the ground; I threw my backpack onto the ground; I threw myself onto the ground. Stupid inhaler, why was it hurting instead of helping?! For the moment I didn’t care. I closed my eyes, leaned forward onto my knees and focused on breathing… It was starting to work, but I was still coughing and feeling short of breath. I reached over and grabbed my water. It soothed my throat and after a couple of minutes I’d stopped coughing.

I was still short of breath, but at least I could think again. What the heck had happened with my inhaler? I remembered the trouble I’d had with my inhaler at the ice hotel in Quebec City over the weekend. It was so cold outside that the inhaler wasn’t working… A common problem with canisters of compressed gases at low temperatures… And suddenly I was thinking about the ideal gas law (PV=nrT), and the compressibility of gases, and thermodynamics.

Was my inhaler acting up because of the weather? It was around 90 degrees out, 100% humidity, plus a low pressure system with a severe thunderstorm raining 2 inches/hr on me. I decided that somehow I must be having the opposite problem from Quebec City, that the compressed gas from the inhaler was still rapidly expanding as it hit the tissue of my throat and lungs. Since the expansion of gas is endothermic, that could essentially burn my throat and lungs with intense cold.

I had a hypothesis… Could I test it? Hmmm… I reached over and picked up my inhaler, which was still sitting in the middle of the trail where I’d thrown it in frustration and anger, and looked at it for a minute. My hypothesis was that the weather conditions were causing the compressed gas in the inhaler to expand over a larger area than usually, so that a noticeable endothermic reaction was still occurring as that compressed air hit my lungs. Based on that hypothesis I would predict noticeable plume as the inhaler was puffed into the open air around me instead of into my lungs.

I pointed the inhaler away from me and delivered a puff over the trail. It looked liked the white plume of breath that you see when someone exhales moist air on a cold winters day… Except that it actually had a propellant, so the plume extended out for about 3 feet.

I was still short of breath, so now I needed a plan. How to get the drugs from my inhaler into my lungs without giving them frostbite? I decided to use my hand as a spacer tube, hoping it would allow the gases to expand in my hand and not my lungs, while still directing the medication into my lungs.

With some trepidation, I squeezed down on the inhaler and inhaled (rather cautiously this time). It worked!!! No horrible burning sensation, and my lungs started to open up. I took a second puff the same way, and my breathing returned to normal.

Now I *really* was drenched. The rain kept pouring down as I walked the rest of the way to the road. I made it in 45 minutes.

Extra credit assignment: Demonstrate mathematically the crucial parameter/s (was it the humidity? the thunderstorm? or a combination of the humidity, thunderstorm, and temperature?) that led to the inhaler doing more harm than good. If I were at home I would have modeled this already and figured out the critical parameters both for this story and for the ice hotel… I miss having pencil, paper, and the easy ability to look things up and research them!

Earning My Name (Days 53-55)

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Patches. That’s the theme for this post. Patches of fog on the trail, patches of rain, patches of thunderstorms, and white patches on my throat (uvula and soft palette).

I’ve been feeling draggy and have been struggling with a sore throat for a few days, but had assumed that it was just allergies (probably from dealing with all of those dogs). When I got into town I spotted a mirror and pulled out my headlamp to take a peek at my throat. Sure enough, it was covered with white patches. The white patches meant one of two things: strep throat or thrush. Either way, I was going to have to take a day off of the trail and go to the doctors.

What do you do when you’re on the trail and need to see a doctor? You wander into the nearest clinic.

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So I wandered into the clinic and got checked out by an M.D. It turns out that the pretty, lacy white patches that were making my throat bleed were from thrush, which is a pretty common side effect from the daily use of my asthma meds (inhaled corticosteroids) in the backcountry. The doctor prescribed a nystatin mouthwash (which is annoyingly heavy for backpacking) and gave me a prescription for some systemic meds in case the mouthwash doesn’t eradicate those nasty white patches. I’m happy that my asthma is under control enough that the side effects of the asthma are worse than the asthma itself.

While I was there I also had the doc look at the patches of rash that have
developed all over my legs, hips, butt, and thighs in this hot, humid, and very wet weather. The doc determined that it was folliculitis and prescribed me some antibiotics for it after making sure I was doing everything else correctly first.