Friday, October 19, 2018

The White Mountains 100 will live on

On top of Cache Mountain Divide in 2014

I want to diverge from my recent blog themes and indulge in some cathartic nostalgia about my favorite race, the White Mountains 100, which recently announced it will return for a tenth season next year. 


It’s January 2010. I’m 30 years old and live in Juneau, Alaska. Night rain pummels the glass as I sit at my office desk with my back to the windows. It’s 1:30 a.m., which isn’t abnormal because I work more than 60 hours a week in an ill-suited managerial position for a daily newspaper with crumbling revenues and employee morale to match. Eventually I’ll wheel my long-suffering rusted Surly Pugsley into the rain and pedal home to the small room where I live with my cat Cady, ten miles away on an isolated beach called Fritz Cove.

Occasional bike commuting is all I do these days; I write disingenuous posts on my blog to make it seem like I still ride my bike, but I just don’t enjoy it anymore. Once I reach my room, even though it’s likely to be after 3 a.m., I’ll still strip off my mud-soaked clothing, take a rushed “screaming barfies” shower, curl up on a lumpy mattress, spoon peanut butter and jam out of a jar for “dinner,” and pour out my anger into the narrative I’m writing about the recent dissolution of my eight-year relationship. After a wise editor helps me cut out half of the words and most of the anger, this narrative will eventually become my book about the Tour Divide, “Be Brave, Be Strong.” But for now, it's my only outlet. My break-up distanced me from many of my friends in this isolated community. My job is frustrating. I can only afford to live in a cheaply furnished room within a large house owned by a fussy older woman who complains whenever I use the washing machine or the kitchen, so now most of my meals are spooned out of jars. My life is pretty sad, and my mood reflects this. I blame my bike, because I think obsession about endurance cycling led to this misery. I have no idea what the future holds, but I am certain that I will quit racing for good.

For now I’m still at work, reading through e-mails to my work account, when one comes through from Ed Plumb, who I know from another recent disaster in my life. The disaster was the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational, where I stepped through thin ice on Flathorn Lake, soaking and eventually freezing my right foot. Ed and I shared a room at the first checkpoint, where he snored away as I writhed through hours of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, thawing a frostbitten foot. In the morning, Ed skied away and finished the race. I dropped out and went to the hospital. Now, ten months later, Ed tells me he’s started a new winter race in Fairbanks, Alaska. The White Mountains 100. It’s a great course. You’ll love it. “Everyone signed up is from Anchorage or Fairbanks,” he writes. “We need at least one person from Juneau.” I don’t write back to Ed immediately. Eventually I do. I’ll think about it, I tell him. At some point, during one of my late-night bursts of rage, I sign up. But I still mostly hate my bike.

Snowstorm near the finish line in 2011


It’s March 2010. The race will happen in a week from now. I haven’t trained. I want to quit my job, and still don’t care about racing. A trip to Fairbanks with its expensive flight and time away from the office is just too much right now. I’m about to write Ed and let him know I’m dropping out of the race, when I receive a call from a “friend,” in Juneau — actually a man I briefly dated, but we are definitely no longer dating. He needs to drive to Fairbanks next week. Maybe I want to join him? 

Now it’s March 18. My friend and I are boarding the ferry in his old Subaru with my dismantled Pugsley stuffed in the back seat. After the boat docks in Skagway, Fairbanks is still 700 miles away, over the wind-battered summit of White Pass and through hundreds of miles of mostly uninhabited taiga. My friend has made a single mix tape for his tape deck, and we listen to it over and over. Each song is a hollow echo in my heart; eventually I will hear this tape in my dreams.

Travel is a two-day affair, so we take a break to ski along the flanks of Sheep Mountain and camp near the shoreline of the frozen Slim River in Kluane National Park, Canada. It’s -10F, and the wind pummels our down coats as we sit on the snow blocks we scooped up to protect the tent, and listen to the wolves howl. My friend-psuedo-ex shows me how to make a hot drink by melting a Snickers Bar in boiling water. I think this is the first time I’ve been truly happy this year.

With Beat at the starting line in 2012


It’s March 21. The first day of spring. I’m riding shotgun in Ed’s old truck, on our way north from Fairbanks to the starting line of the White Mountains 100. Although I had previously visited during the summer of 2003, my memory of the region is vague — images of boreal forest, flat and unbroken as far as the eye can see. I suppose the name White Mountains 100 was lost on me, but I’m surprised by all of the hills. The truck rumbles up a dome and drops into a river valley. Ed, a professional weather geek, has a thermometer attached to the hood and wired to a digital display on top of the dash. At the top of the dome, the temperature was 5 degrees. Down here, it’s -18F. Ed giggles with delight. I tremble. Frostbite is still fresh in my memory, and still painful in my toes. I’m deathly afraid of the cold.

A fierce wind greets us at the Wickersham Dome, where the salmon-colored sun is casting its first rays on the ice at 7:15 a.m. I hoist my bike out of Ed’s truck. The steel frame burns my hands. Up on this dome I can see a long distance — steep, rolling hills over every horizon. Nobody told me about all of these hills. I’m so afraid that I am physically shivering, although that may just be the cold wind. But I drove out here with the race director, so there’s no backing out now.

At checkpoint one in 2010

The race starts. I take my place near the back and gasp up the first hill, drenching my base layer in sweat. We drop into a deep valley, where the temperature plummets 30 degrees in an instant. I’m so cold that I’m convulsing. The process repeats, for seemingly endless steep climbs and descents. I’m too cold and strung out to feel the burning from my undertrained legs and lungs. I suppose this is a good thing. A couple other cyclists and I are close together; we frequently gather to negotiate long sections of bumpy glare ice, known as overflow. Neither my bicycle tires nor my boots are studded, so I have to tiptoe across the ice with utmost care. Because of my previous experience with falling through ice, every loud crack or change of color in the overflow is heart-stoppingly scary.

I reach the first indoor checkpoint at mile 38, housed in an adorable little shelter cabin at the base of fierce-looking mountains. The volunteers offer a baked potato. No, I’m far too nauseated. I drink hot chocolate and press into the unknown.

The Cache Mountain Divide is Just. Unbelievably. Steep. Or perhaps not, but I am shattered. I stumble along, dragging my bike through the soft sidewalls of the trail. Several skiers pass, justifiably gloating at my anchor. Eventually I reach an altitude of 3,500 feet, which feels like the High Himalaya in Interior Alaska. The wind is howling but the snow-bound mountains fill my heart with warmth. It’s so beautiful.

I drop into a long descent on heavily drifted trail. I crash my bike a few times, leaving perfectly-pressed impressions of my body in the snow. At one point I’m face-down on the trail when I hear the cries of a skier above me. I grab my bike and roll into a drift with a fraction of a second to spare before he whisks past, unable to stop.

Soon I reach the edge of blue ice that fills the entire valley. These are the famous “Ice Lakes” I’d been warned about. The skier who called out to me and another are also there, taking off their skies and putting on microspikes. I am going to have to walk across this ice without spikes, dragging an unruly bike. It could be miles. But I am stranded out here, I suppose by choice, so I’m just going to have to gulp down my terror and keep going. With every step, the ice cracks and moans. I almost want the Ice Lake to open up and swallow me, just so I won’t have to feel so terrified anymore. Logically I know these lakes are actually just overflow and only a foot or so deep. This should make me feel better, but it doesn’t, because that only means more frostbite or slow death by hypothermia if I break through.

Above Beaver Creek in 2015


A semi-stupefied state wrought by fatigue and fear follows me to the end of the ice and all the way to checkpoint three, which I reach as the sun sets and casts dramatic orange light on the limestone cliffs. The little cabin is stiflingly hot. A volunteer offers me a small bowl of rice soup with three meatballs. I ask for more, and she says I cannot have more. I feel a little like Oliver Twist as I stumble, still stupefied, back into the cold.

Night falls. There’s a slow descent into a valley, where the cold is otherworldly. Frost builds on my balaclava. My legs have virtually died, and I can barely climb out of the valley. From there, the trail feels like sandpaper. I can barely turn pedals. I pass a number of skiers who passed me earlier in the day. They are shuffling along as though stupefied themselves. The cold seeps into my lower body. My butt and thighs are numb. I think about stopping to put on all of my layers, but then I see a sign announcing it’s one mile to the checkpoint. I pedal. I pedal some more. It’s the longest mile in the history of distance. By the time I reach the cabin at mile 78, I can’t feel anything.

 “It’s cold out there for me,” I announce. “Yeah, I’m from Juneau,” explaining that all I know is temperatures in the 30s and rain.

“It’s 25 below,” the volunteer replies. “It’s cold for everyone out there.” I gratefully accept a cup of hot coffee, but as soon as the volunteer hands it to me, my upper body starts convulsing so badly that I spill all of the coffee, every last drop, in a two-foot radius around my feet. I put the cup down, embarrassed, hoping nobody noticed.

I sit down on a bunk and remove my boots to add warmers. A skier in the other corner eyes me jealously. It’s Chris Wrobel, a man from Anchorage with whom I’d spent several hours chatting the evening before the race, about his adventures on the Iditarod Trail. He accidentally washed with conditioner, and his hair is handsomely coiffed at mile 78 of an endurance race, which will lead to a permanent nickname from the White Mountains 100 community, “Perfect Hair Chris.”

I catch his eye and think about giving him my foot warmers. My feet aren’t really that cold, amazingly, because every other part of my body is. Because Chris didn’t ask, I don’t offer, which is something I’d still feel guilty about a decade later. Because of his cold feet, Chris would end up spending a long time at the cabin, as would most of the other folks trapped there at 1 a.m. I remember advice the previous evening, offered by one of my heroes, Jeff Oatley: “If you get cold on Beaver Creek, keep going.”

I decide to keep going.

Fossil Creek Valley, 2018


I climb out of Beaver Creek. It’s not 25 below up on the ridge, but it’s still very cold, the wind is again howling, and there’s overflow everywhere. As I tiptoe across a long patch of ice, a skier skitters past me, not remotely in control. He crashes into the snow and stands up to brush himself off. He comments about the horrible sandpaper trail and I agree. I’m plodding but tires are still faster than skis on such snow, and as the overflow dissipates, I pick up speed. I’m alone again. I feel very alone.

I drop into yet another valley. In a few years from now, I will know this place well as the Wickersham Creek Valley, but on this night it is a place beyond the end of the world. The entire rest of the course is uphill — at least it feels that way, but that’s also pretty much the case. I can barely turn pedals. I am beyond exhausted, perhaps more so than I have ever been — even when I had to walk for 30 miles in my first Susitna 100, and even I fell asleep on my bike during my first trip to McGrath, and even more so than any point in my emotionally fraught Tour Divide. Then again, our fresh emotions are always the most dramatic.

Amid exhaustion, I look up at the sky. Stars fill the black abyss, and the moon is a golden egg. I think I can see its yellow reflection on the trail, and this fills my heart with warmth. Suddenly I understand, intrinsically, that I will leave my job, and I will move away from Juneau, and I will strike out alone into the unknown. And I also understand, intrinsically, that everything will be okay. I’m filled with such gratitude I can hardly contain it. If you get cold in life, keep going.

The finish-line tent, 2010

At mile 90, I reach the Wickersham Wall. There are no emotions to contain the Wickersham Wall. It is an impenetrable fortress, an impossible divide, as terrible and soul-crushing as any physical barrier known to humans. In a few years from now, I will know this place as a reasonably steep snow climb that gains 800 feet in one mile. But on this night it is Everest. I take two steps and my leg muscles cramp. I take two more steps and stop to catch my breath. Every sinew in my body feels torn and ragged. I will never make it up this wall. But I have to. I have no choice. Keep going.

Time trickles by on a geological scale. The wall relents, and there are still some miles left to the finish. I am stupefied when I reach it, but I know it has happened, because suddenly there is artificial light and a trailer. A volunteer steps outside to point me to a propane-heated tent. Inside the tent is not really that warm, so wrap up in the sleeping bag I carried around the course. Checking to ensure the other person inside the tent is asleep, I burst out in a good cry. I’m so overwhelmed. The only way I can describe this emotion is love. I am in love with the White Mountains. I know I’ll never be the same.

With Beat at the start in 2015


Between 2010 and 2018, I raced the White Mountains 100 six times. Four times on a bike, and twice on foot. In 2010 I finished in 22:23, my slowest bike time. In 2011 and 2012 Beat and I started the race together (me on a bike, him on foot) and I rolled to 18- and 20-hour finishes. My fastest finish was 11:34 in 2014. My two foot finishes were 29:54 in 2015 and 33:59 on pre-tenderized legs in 2018. I skipped the race in 2013 because I didn’t make it through the lottery, 2016 because that was the year I rode my bike to Nome, and 2017 because I was sick, but I did volunteer at checkpoint one that year. My sub-30-hour finish in 2015 remains my best hundred-mile ultramarathon, much to my dismay (because the White Mountains 100 is absolutely a walking effort for me, and I have tried to run other hundreds.)

Still, physical challenge or accomplishment is not remotely the reason I keep going back. The White Mountains 100 is beautiful and hard and filled with friendly volunteers and interesting participants, but those are also not the only reasons it’s my favorite race. I have true affection for both the event and the region. This affection runs deeper than most of my experiences. The White Mountains 100 entered my life at exactly the right time. When I heard that the second race director, Joel Homan, was leaving the event after 2018, I surprised myself by feeling real despair. I believed the White Mountains 100 would go away, and it was disheartening.

Earlier this week, Fairbanks cyclist and previous winner Kevin Breitenbach announced he will take over race directing, and I was overjoyed. I don’t even know if I’ll race the White Mountains 100 again (I probably will, given the opportunity) … but the simple fact that the race will live on made my week. I love the White Mountains.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

It's the little things, in big places

Like most people, I find the big picture utterly overwhelming, and yet I seek to comprehend it anyway. Most of my efforts in life center around the intellectual pursuit of universal truths that I don't actually believe can be understood. The more I learn, the less I know, and lack of understanding creates a counterbalance of nihilism and pessimism. The pursuit of truth brings joy, the nihilism brings sorrow, and as the balance tips, my physical state follows. 

At least this is one working theory I have for my slumps. These downswings are very real to me, and I don't have a good explanation for them. But as I work through them, I realize each one has further eroded the tenuous confidence I spent years working so hard to build. I no longer believe I can finish a 100-mile summer trail ultramarathon before the time runs out. I'm nervous about the prospect of a thru-hike, because what if I have a breathing attack dozens of miles from anywhere? I feel somewhat okay about traveling to remote places in frozen Alaska, only because my joy there runs so deep, but I don't believe I can do so without curling up on top of my sled in a desperate bid to catch my breath from time to time. I fret about hiking in the mountains, because I don't want to feel dizzy in delicate places. I'm reverting back to my 22-year-old self, anxious and fearful about almost everything, and years of experience count for almost nothing. It sucks. 

 Last week, I contemplated taking an extended break from running and cycling, because these activities feel sort of bad right now. It seems difficult to explain, because what I feel during a slump goes far beyond what I experienced as a bad day on the bike when I was "healthy" (pre-2015.) I'm wheezy on hills and can't ride or walk slowly enough to curb the lightheadedness. I feel robbed of oxygen, dull, and foggy. An hour or four hours or six is the same; I'm not tired afterward, because my muscles are still strong and I didn't actually work that hard. I'm just grumpy, and feel a little bit hollow, because what is left of me if I can't joyfully move through the world? Still, I know there is a strong mental component, because I was fine after my snow ride with Betsy last week — the effort was undeniably strenuous, and I certainly didn't rock the uphills, but I was having so much fun.

If I stop recreating outside altogether, I suspect the mental component of my slumps would take over, and then I'll be a real mess. If I felt emotionally stronger, I might be willing to take this risk for an opportunity to test whether these wild swings could be caused by the nebulous "overtraining syndrome." I'll just admit up front that I've read extensively on this issue, and tried to keep an open mind, but the idea of a quantifiable overtraining outcome remains a hard sell for me — and not just because I don't want it to be true. There's just no pattern there, my experiences and symptoms don't line up with any standard, and the research is limited at best. Even anecdotal evidence points to a conclusion that if you've actually trained yourself into a years-long hole, you'll probably never climb out of it. So be it. I'll just keep running, until I truly can't.

On Thursday I headed out for a slow jog to Green Mountain. The weather was interesting, with persistent thick fog, several inches of new snow, and temperatures around 45, so trees were shedding clumps of ice and slush at an alarming rate. I was getting pummeled and soaked, and thus was quite cold. But as I climbed I could see streams of sunlight breaking through the fog, and knew I had to keep climbing. The summit of Green provided an oh-so-brief but spectacularly clear reprieve. I couldn't have been more than 30 feet above the fog ceiling, seeing blue sky for the first time in nearly a week. I crawled up the summit boulder and sat in the warm, calm sunshine, buzzing with renewed joy and gratitude. "It's the little things," I thought.

After 10 minutes, the clouds rolled upward and I was engulfed in cold fog once again. Nowhere to go but down, so I stood up and reluctantly returned to the slush gauntlet. But I did take the time to look up and say out loud to the unknowable universe, as I often still do, "Thanks for that."

My Friday ride was beautiful but not quite so fortuitous. I faltered on the spin up 68J — too dizzy — which has become a reliable indicator for me of "not being in great shape." Temps neared 60, which was nice but felt weirdly hot after the week of fog and snow, and there was quite a bit of mud on the road, so I opted to avoid the trails. I only made it up halfway up Caribou, despite giving myself what should have been ample time to climb over the top. I was annoyed and ready to take a break from everything again ...

... and actually had one coming. For a couple of years now, Loreen and Tim Hewitt have urged us to join them at their beach house in North Carolina. Finally an opportunity for a three-day trip worked out. A beach vacation could be viewed as a bit random for all four of us, who know each other from grueling adventures in Alaska. But I love (and very much fear) the ocean, and I'd never actually set foot in the Atlantic. So I looked forward to our weekend on the Outer Banks.

Even though I certainly have my preferences, I've always thought it a little sad when outdoor-enthusiasts proclaim they're "not beach people" or "not mountain people" or whatever. I'm a mountain person, tundra person, taiga person, rainforest person, desert person, prairie person, and certainly a beach person as well. Put me outside, and I will find something to love. Even in suburban strip malls, my eyes drift toward the trees in planters. I wonder how long they've been growing in that spot, and what life might be like for the squirrel clinging to the trunk. I find peace in the fact they're still here.

Being outdoors is especially rewarding in the company of interesting people. Here we are in 2014, out for a lovely afternoon walk on the Yentna River.

And again in 2018, on Rodanthe Beach. Actually not all that different! At least the terrain underfoot feels pretty much the same.

Anyway, it was a relaxing and fun trip with lots of sunshine, hot tub soaks, sunset and night cruises on the state ferry system, lighthouse viewing, good food and of course endless conversation about icy adventures. It's rewarding to spend time with folks who really "get you." Tim has grand ambitions for an out-and-back of the Northern and Southern routes of the Iditarod Trail — a 2,000-mile route that, to our knowledge, has never been completed human-powered or possibly at all. He wants to talk Beat into joining him. As you might guess, I'm not thrilled about the prospect of Beat being away on an arduous journey for nearly two months. Spread an Alaska wilderness trip over more than 48 days, and you're virtually guaranteed dangerous conditions.

But of course I'm envious, too, that Beat still has confidence in the possibility of such a glorious adventure. I'd like to get back to this point, someday, somehow. 
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Looking for my mojo

Last Friday I planned to embark on a long ride, but instead went back to bed. Of course I'm not proud of this. Lingering over my morning coffee left too much time to read too many articles about the erosion of democracy. This lead to hot takes on climate change and early rumblings about that landmark U.N. report. "Nothing can be done. Therefore nothing need be done." Soon I was wondering where I could find the nearest ice floe to float into oblivion before there's no sea ice left. My bed seemed like a safer option.

I also have selfish and slightly more rational reasons for ennui. After weeks away, I thought I'd be thrilled to reunite with my bicycles. But my ride last Wednesday was many levels less than great, even accounting for recovery from a cold and re-acclimation to altitude and "being out of bike shape." Sure, I hadn't been in the saddle for nearly six weeks, but 120,000 feet of climbing and equal, even harsher pounding from on-foot descents in that time period is not exactly idleness. Also, I spent plenty of time above 2,000 meters while I was away. So why do my lungs feel so compressed? Why are my legs so limber and yet hopelessly heavy? Why am I dizzy on climbs that I could crush two months ago? Why am I fantasizing about floating away into a partially frozen sea?

I went looking for something tangible on which to blame the latest slump. I requested another blood test, since it had been five months since my last. My doctor ordered the works, and everything turned up ship-shape. My TSH has nearly hit 2.0, which is right in line with the general population. I took my numbers to the self-proclaimed experts on my Graves Disease forum, and they pointed out that my thyroid hormone levels are likely too low. T3, the active hormone, has almost dropped off the low end of the acceptable range. We all have optimal levels, which are individual to us and much narrower than the general range, they said. They told me I'm overmedicated, and that's why I feel bad. But why would I be having the same symptoms? The breathing? The insomnia? The anxiety? My favorite endocrinologist blogger, who would vehemently disagree with most of what people write on that forum, would simply repeat his oft-repeated phrase: "It's not your thyroid."

Okay, then I just suck. That's fine. Only this month was to be the month I made important-to-me decisions about whether or not to race next year. I'd set my sights on the 2019 Tour Divide, to celebrate my 40th birthday with a glorious attempt to execute an ideal race effort, or at least something that's significantly less of a disaster than 2015. I'm not really interested in just riding the route. If I want an adventure, I know there's something out there to occupy my dreams and hopefully fill in the mental spaces that I tend to fill up with bad news. No, this is specifically about racing and whether I want to pursue that hard edge. If so, I need to commit and begin training, ideally with sharper focus this time.

But the Tour Divide is in June, which recent personal history shows is a terrible time for fitness. Why even bother training if you're just going to sputter out like you did on the Iditarod in February? Maybe you could ITT the route in late August/September? You've long believed that's a better time of year on the Divide, but enduring heat and wildfire season does make a late season ride more iffy these days. And what about March? If you're not training for anything, you could do just about anything. But I know, you really, really want to go to Alaska. Maybe you should look into the possibility of renting a room in Nome? 

I know, indecision about possible adventures is the definition of a first-world problem. It does take the mind off of lead legs and heavy lungs, ever so briefly.

While motivation was plummeting to new lows, a bout of cold weather moved into the region. For three or four days the world was a solid wall of fog. I went for a couple of short and really slow runs through the icy mist. I visited my gym and lamented how much ground I've lost in my weight routine. I took days off. Finally, on Tuesday, light snow began to fall. My friend Betsy and I had planned a ride on Wednesday morning. When we scheduled this a week ago, I suggested riding either West Nederland or the Sourdough Trail, "to ride in the high country one more time before shoulder season hits." Then shoulder season beat us to the punch. There was some back-and-forth texting about how much we wanted to ride in slop. Betsy pointed out that hard things are good for mental training. I had to agree, especially when my own mental fortitude is as soft as a melting snowball.

 All I'd seen of the storm so far was the lightest dusting at 7,500 feet, so I was a little surprised to see several inches of snow at 9,000 feet. We laid what appeared to be the season's first tracks on the Sourdough Trail, stirring up powder as we grunted over nearly-invisible rocks and roots now coated in ice. I was grateful Beat had graciously offered to swap out the wheels and tires on my fat bike the previous evening, as I was lazy and busy on Tuesday night, and would have happily showed up for this ride with the 29+ set-up. We needed the surface area, aggressive tread and studs. Conditions were treacherous ... and incredibly fun.

Above 10,000 feet there were six to eight inches of heavy snow covering the ground, and every pedal stroke was hard work.  The temperature was 18 degrees, and a brisk wind kept us grinding without reprieve. Thick curtains of snow fell at times, masking our tracks just minutes after we laid them. Betsy and I were all smiles, wrestling with bikes at 3mph through a winter wonderland. Betsy, who is training for a 60-kilometer fat bike race in December, fretted a little over failure math. "I can't ride 60K when five miles takes almost two hours."

"Three miles an hour is a great speed on snow," I assured her. "Fat Pursuit won't take you more than what, 12 hours? More likely you'll be done sooner. Also, the course has no rocks and roots, which makes a bigger difference than you'd think."

She asked me if I occasionally walk these winter races because walking is faster.

"Walking is never faster," I answered. "You'd think so at times, as slow as we're moving. The sled is even slower."

It is, truly, an exquisite slog. As crappy as you felt on the Iditarod Trail last February, you were still enamored with it all and dream about it frequently still. I can't believe you decided to skip a winter of racing and training. Maybe you can still plan a solo trip out of Nome. 

 I still have a ways to go to find my mojo, but this was a nice start.