Sunday, January 20, 2019

Already January

After hiking out of the White Mountains in the dark morning hours of Dec. 31, we enjoyed New Years Eve dinner with friends, dozed off before midnight, awoke at 3 a.m. to catch our flight out of Fairbanks, and officially welcomed the new year when we finally stumbled outside into 3-degree weather at Denver International. Finally it was 2019, and my resolution of "no more racing in 2018" was officially met. Already, perhaps unsurprisingly, my race ambitions are starting to go overboard. 

My 2019 plans thus far:

Feb. 2: "The Bear," a 50-mile fat bike race in Steamboat Springs, Colo. 

Feb. 9: Golden Gate 50K in Rodeo Beach, Calif. — my first 50K since Crystal Springs in January 2016. I raced three dozen 50Ks while living in California between 2011 and 2016, and I am legit nervous that this one is going to fall so far short of expectations that I'll quit running forever. 

March 24: White Mountains 100 (foot division) in Fairbanks, Alaska. If trail conditions are good, I want to log a faster finish than the 29:xx of 2015. If they're bad, I just want to stay ahead of the 40-hour cutoff and maybe beat some bikers.

May 17: Bryce 100 near Bryce Canyon, Utah. Bryce has been a monkey on my back ever since I had a terrible race there in 2013. This terrible race just happens to be the last "dirt" (non-winter) hundred-miler that I managed to finish. I DNF'd Bryce in 2017 because I was too ambitious when I still wasn't ready to race ultras again following my thyroid diagnosis. I will be devastated if I can't finish it again, yet I still have no idea how well I can manage my breathing in a harder effort of this length. 

So I am officially training! Yay?

I stayed reasonably active through 2018, but focused training is still a difficult habit to get back into. I find myself thinking, "I should probably run more than 15 miles a week. But it's 50 degrees today and the roads are almost dry. I just want to spin my mountain bike up to Nederland and maybe try a few laps around Mud Lake. Eh, I signed up for that fat bike race so I do need to put in some pedaling miles."

Yay bikes. This ride happened on Jan. 10, and I suppose I'll start my 2019 training journal here. Following our sled-dragging trips in Alaska, my legs were really sore and sluggish, so the first week of the year was mainly a "recovery week." By Jan. 8, I managed to find a bit of speed on my usual five-mile Tuesday run, and did a treadmill breathing test that showed encouraging equilibrium. I'm still using the treadmill test to track my breathing patterns, and plan to continue this every other week until we leave for Alaska.

 It was good that I got in that long ride on Thursday. Typical of Boulder in January, that 50-degree sunshiny day preceded a major winter storm that dumped nearly a foot of snow on our house. On Friday I went out for a two-hour "run" that involved 24-minute miles and trudging through knee-deep drifts.

 On Saturday morning I had plans to ride with friends, but the notion of driving the Subaru through miles of unknown snow conditions was daunting, and I ended up canceling. Instead I decided to take the fat bike on the route I would have driven — 20 miles round trip along Gross Dam Road. If conditions were reasonable, I expected this ride to take two and a half hours, three at the most — which was the maximum effort I wanted to expend, since Beat and I had a difficult hike planned for Sunday.

 A little background to what will reveal itself to be poor preparation: In the past few years, I've become what one might call a "good eater" during endurance efforts. I believe this started when I became hyperthyroid and consumed a lot more calories than I even realized, but I'd go out for six-hour rides, bring stacks of bars and eat them all. Now I am not hyperthyroid but still want to eat All The Food. So I put myself on a bit of a diet. My regular meals are still about the same, but I avoid snacks unless I'm out for a day-long effort. It works well for me to achieve balanced energy throughout the day without feeling hungry. For this ride, since I was starting at 11 a.m. and would be out over lunchtime, I brought two Nature Valley bars.

 It was a lovely afternoon, with a dynamic mix of blue sky and cloud, and a thick blanket of snow sparkling in the intermittent sunshine. An hour into my ride, I stopped at an overlook to enjoy the view and one of my granola bars.

 Temperatures had warmed into the mid-30s as a breeze kicked up. Riding conditions were challenging with slippery powder dusting the slush and ice, and soft mud where the road had been scraped clear. Still, I was so enjoying myself that I wasn't quite ready to turn around at the highway junction. I continued up through Coal Creek to Camp Eden, and enjoyed my other granola bar at 9,000 feet while I soaked in the satisfaction of a good, tough ride.

Now I had only 12 mostly downhill miles home. Coasting into the afternoon shade, I developed a bit of a chill and started shivering. Fifteen minutes and five miles into the descent, I rolled up to the Crescent railroad crossing, where a freight train had stopped on the tracks and was blocking the road. One car was waiting there, and I stopped behind it and shivered for five minutes before the car started backing up, forcing me to dive out of the way. I startled the young driver when I shot past his window — apparently he hadn't seen me before. Not too surprising.

"How long have you been waiting here?" I asked.

"About 35 minutes now," he said.

We chatted for a few minutes as two more cars pulled up. He observed that I at least didn't have a car and could climb over the train, so I decided to try. I hoisted my bike onto my shoulder and grabbed onto a platform that was higher than my head. The only accessible foothold was at chest level, and I couldn't muster the strength to pull myself and my bike onto the platform. I wasn't willing to take a chance on the time it would take to lift my bike and pull myself up in separate motions, so I backed off.

The tracks run along a fairly steep side slope here, narrowing into a gully to the west. Still, the western gully seemed more doable, so I started pushing my bike through the knee-deep snow. After a couple hundred meters, the gully considerably narrowed to the point where I was less than a meter from the rails. I could see engines and the end of the stopped train, but I had a bad feeling about sidling so close to the track, so I again backed off. Not three minutes later, I heard a loud whistle and rushed as far as I could up the near-vertical slope as an oncoming train buzzed past on the second line of rails. Sufficiently humbled, I decided there would be no more efforts to go around the train.

Thinking the stopped train may have just been waiting for that second train to go by, I waited at the crossing for 15 more minutes. My base layer was damp under a thin shell. Cooling down after the sweaty effort of wading through the gully cause me to shiver profusely. It was now 2:30 and I only had another two and a half hours of daylight to work with. I wasn't well prepared for a long wait or night riding, so I had to make a quick decision.

 There were no quick ways around the train. Blocking passage on one side was Eldorado Canyon; on the other, Gross Reservoir. My choices with a bicycle were to descend all the way into Golden, following a heavy-traffic route into Boulder before climbing home, or to detour around the reservoir along the foothills of Highway 72. I chose the way most likely to get me home before dark. The foothills would add 17 extra miles — for a total of 24 remaining — and 3,000 feet more climbing, plus what was almost sure to be two miles of hike-a-bike along an unmaintained segment of county road. Oof. Better get pedaling.

 At first I was a little bit panicked, as the train incidents had set off an adrenaline rush, and now I felt anxious about riding without a headlight in the dark. Then I became frustrated, as the climb back to the highway and then onto Wondervu went on forever. Then I was grumpy, as any energy remaining from the two granola bars I ate for lunch faded. Then I was back to feeling a little bit panicked while battling a punchy climb before Pinecliff that I completely forgot about. An anticipated long climb took me to Magnolia, where I was certain my legs would give out on me. This is about the point where my glycogen stores finally fizzled, and everything began to seem dire to an exaggerated extreme — the icy gravel, the sun sinking into horizon, the teeth-chattering temperatures that were just below freezing.

As hypoglycemia deepened, however, a pleasant feeling of floating began to take over. My brain shut down most of the useless emotions and together we focused on forward motion. In a seeming instant I was wallowing in shin-deep snow on the steep grade of 68J, trying to push my bike through an erratic truck track. Whoever tried to drive up here spun out and swerved many times before backtracking, leaving a horrible mess that was worse than if the road hadn't been tracked at all. This is where I started to speak out loud to no one.

"Try driving in a straight line, why don't you?" I muttered.

Then, "What was that? Was that a cow?"

I wondered if I was being stalked by real bovines or just bovine-shaped shadows. In this part of the neighborhood I knew I was much more likely to see moose, elk or even a winter black bear than a cow.

Then, out loud, "Am I hallucinating already?"

Two miles of 68J was 90 percent unrideable. That section dragged in a way I never thought possible — ages and ages of shivering and taking big heavy steps and whipping my head back and forth while anticipating attacks from phantom cows. I still did a lot of muttering to myself, mostly swearing, as the sky shifted from golden to pink to violet.

Once released onto a plowed road, the ride home only took 20 more minutes. I had no daylight to spare, but incredibly it wasn't completely dark when I finally rolled into the driveway — 42 miles, 6,200 feet of climbing, and 6.5 hours into my short "recovery" ride.

 A good "bonk ride" is always mentally taxing but not too difficult of a physical recovery — at least, it's not as bad as dragging my sled 100 miles through the White Mountains or even setting the treadmill at 10mph during a breathing test. By morning my glycogen was restored, my legs were fine and I was excited for our planned snowshoe up Niwot Ridge. Good old Niwot Ridge. Beat planned to drag his Nome sled and I loaded up a new pack — an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35 — with most of the gear I'd likely take with me in the White Mountains 100 — similar warm layers, extra socks, electronics, two liters of water, 2,000 calories in snacks (not the 5,000 I'd probably take in the race and otherwise a lot more than I'd need for a six-hour hike, but the bonk ride had left me with hoarding syndrome.)

Beat loaded his sled with 60 pounds of mostly books. Our route climbs 3,000 feet in 5.5 miles on minimally tracked or untracked snow, so this weight created a big drag. Beat was sweating bullets and I barely had to make any effort in comparison. I started to feel guilty about this and broke my own trail beside him while he labored in the skin track. After 3.5 miles the skin track petered out (we chatted with the skiers as they descended, mostly about sleds and backpacks) and then it was my turn to break trail. Beat didn't seem to appreciate my line and mostly made his own.

 The weather on this day was unbelievable. We often visit Niwot because it's a good route for sled dragging with low avalanche danger, but it's also an incredible wind funnel that can draw 60mph gusts down from the Continental Divide on days when there's only a light breeze in Boulder. It's not that we love the wind, but pushing into it is always good training in a region with mild weather compared to Alaska. When we neared treeline and there wasn't even a whisper of wind, I was in disbelief.

 Beat dropped hints that he wanted to stop at the weather station. I wanted to take advantage of the perfect weather and continue farther up the ridge, so I talked him into dumping his books. We joked about the "Niwot Book Club" and reactions from the scientists should they come across this stack — mostly physics textbooks, mountaineering tomes and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Beat picked them up on the way down.)

 From there we had to deal with the usual deep drifts and wind-scoured rocks — now a lot of work for me, too. But I was thrilled. Beat even pointed out the big silly grin on my face.

 I mean, how often can you enjoy a pleasant beach day at 12,000 feet in January? Especially with our classic training nemesis, the notorious Niwot Ridge. The temperature was actually not all that warm — the official Niwot weather station was reporting afternoon temperatures in the single digits! But in that harsh high-altitude sunlight with no wind, it really did feel like summer. I stripped off whatever I could, pulling all of the zippers down on my shell but stopping just short of removing it, and still felt like I was baking.

 It was a best-ever day on Niwot Ridge. Also, I really like the new backpack. White Mountains training achievement unlocked!

By Monday I was admittedly starting to feel tired, but Betsy had a free morning and wanted to ride fat bikes near Rollinsville. It was another beautiful day, and I caved into the temptation to join her.

We're both in training for The Bear 50-miler on Groundhog Day. At this point it's difficult to predict what that race will entail. The course itself has more than 5,000 feet of climbing and a few sections of 20-percent-plus grades, topping out over 10,000 feet. It's held just outside Steamboat Springs, an area that has been repeatedly slammed with snow for the past few weeks. What I envision, to be honest, is deep piles of fluff that have been only shallowly groomed, barely rideable at 2 psi and 3 mph. I could be pleasantly surprised, but yeah ... in all honesty I'm already writing off the race as "good White Mountains training" and one I won't be too sad if I can't finish. I have to go in with low expectations, as I've put such high and unreasonable expectations on my upcoming foot races.

Of course I can't shed my pessimism on Betsy, who is fairly new to snow riding and really excited and nervous for The Bear. Although she doesn't seem to realize it yet, she's a stronger rider than me and has the potential to do well. So even though I was a little burnt out from the weekend and she didn't seem to have much motivation on Monday, I coaxed her to continue up Rollins Pass Road after our planned ride up Gamble Gulch fizzled out in untracked snow.

Rollins Pass Road had surprisingly excellent conditions for several miles. And just as things started to get punchy, we ran out of time. But it was great to wrap up what turned out to be a 20-hour training week with a lot of useful variety. I'm more cautiously optimistic about my fitness and potential than I was at this time last year. Hopefully it will continue to go well, and I won't make another late-March resolution of "no more racing." 
Friday, January 18, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part five

My favorite moment from 2018 also happened on the Iditarod Trail. It's effectively impossible to describe, because the lead-up involves a litany of complaints. There's almost no way to convey what I was feeling without making it sound mostly terrible. It's the great paradox of feeling most alive along the frayed edges of existence. 

My breathing had been rough for three days, and I felt this extended oxygen deprivation deep in my blood. I'd been walking through sugary drifts into a hard wind for most of three days as well, and my fatigue was extreme. To top things off I'd become nauseated after eating a meal at the 130-mile checkpoint, and hadn't consumed any calories for more than six hours. Physically, I was a shell, and my mental state was even more hollow. As I climbed into the mountains, the wind finally died with the setting sun. The temperature plummeted as well, south of 20 below, but I had bundled against the now-absent wind and wasn't aware of the cold at first. All I noticed was the stillness, and the intensity of the moonlight — so bright that I could see sharp details without a headlamp and follow my own shadow into the night. 

I walked this way for hours, barely hanging on to consciousness, until it was time to descend the Happy River Steps — a series of steep drop-offs into a narrow gorge. The final step involved sending my sled down on its own and down-climbing, like a mountaineer, while using my fists as ice axes to punch into the snow for leverage. After my sled slid out of view I had a panicked vision of losing everything I needed to survive, and this rush emptied out what was left in my adrenals. I was now acutely alert and afraid — for my solitude, for the cold, for the fearsome river ice. Just as I made eye contact with my sled, I emerged from the willow-lined shoreline onto the frozen Happy River and gasped. The sheer cliffs of the gorge loomed hundreds of feet overhead, flanked by the white slopes of more distant mountains, rendered in the moonlight with such astonishing depth of light and shadow that it gave off the illusion of a multi-dimensional window into microscopic detail — molecules pulsating with electrons to match an infinity of stars shimmering in the sky. 

"This is the most incredible place I've ever been," I said aloud, my voice hoarse to the point of being inaudible. Not that there was anyone to hear what I said, but the fact that I was alone in this moment was meaningful in itself. The river ice could break apart and swallow me right there — an event I half expect to happen every time I venture out into frozen Alaska. But in that moment, I felt content with this expectation. If my journey ended here, I could leave this world with the confidence that I had squeezed the best drops from the gift of life.

For the fifth day of our journey, we planned to travel 21 miles to our final overnight stay in the Whites —a cabin just six miles from the trailhead. Even a 27-mile day wouldn't be terribly difficult at this point, but we weren't quite ready to return to civilization. It was the penultimate day of the year, a date that inevitably prompts reflection. What had I done with my wild and precious 2018? It wasn't a terrible year, definitely much better than 2017, but I was still drifting. I haven't yet formed real goals for 2019. My writing is fragmented right now. I want to finish a book project this year, finally, but I keep going back to writing about Alaska. I feel stymied in everything else, and partly believe that I won't produce anything worthwhile until I expel whatever it is I need to expel about these experiences, even while acknowledging that no one really cares. 

I supposedly regained much of my health in 2018 — my autoimmune thyroid disease was treated and normalized. My allergic asthma is almost completely under control, and I almost never use my inhaler anymore. Do I feel better? I think I do, but my body has noticeably aged since these issues started, and the little struggles have gone on long enough that I don't really remember what "normal" feels like. 

Meanwhile, my otherwise unsolved and ongoing breathing troubles have put me in long-term survival mode with my endurance racing. I approach most efforts expecting failure and merely hoping for a little better. I gave everything I had to the 2018 ITI. I mean everything. I was still the third to last finisher, with a pace that would never get me to Nome in time, even if I could make that mental leap. And why am I even thinking about such ridiculousness? I should be seeking new experiences, new horizons. And if not that, at least become a slightly more productive member of society than an aimless writer and remote newspaper editor for communities I've admittedly never even visited. Thus, I fell back to thinking about mid-life crises and working in a bagel shop. 

In my view, scrolling through meaningful memories from the past is a good use of time, but fretting about the as-yet-nonexistent future is utterly useless. I made an effort to shut down these thoughts as we traversed the burned forest. Temperatures had warmed to 25 degrees above zero, and the snow was slightly mushy from the heat. The morning was otherwise gray with small hints of sunlight beneath the clouds, always a cause for celebration. But my legs were still sore. Most of the muscles in my back felt strained. Sleep deprivation was adding up. Beat and I both agreed that this was going to be a tedious march, one of those "mental training" days that are good for racing, and even better in the practical applications of real life.

Why? Because most of life is tedious, whether we like to admit it or not. Every day we need to go through the motions — wake up, fuel, chores, routines, work, social obligations, sleep. It's like those life statistics you often hear. For example, the average American spends 8 percent of their lives commuting in a car. You might think "what a waste." But endurance adventures have taught me to took beyond myself and try to find joy where it's not easy. These days, I get in my car and think of this as its own little adventure — another chance to move through the world and observe, even if the scenery isn't necessarily new or exciting. I wait in long lines and invent silent stories about the other people around me. I wheel a cart through a grocery store and marvel at the abundance.

In turn, all of the tedious necessities of life become more meaningful. It's funny that we use our leisure time to seek out a primitive existence where the necessities that we take for granted in our modern lives don't come easily. Heat, for example. The cabin we were headed to that night is notorious for never having any firewood on hand. It's also one huge hill away from the nearest burn area, so gathering wood isn't as practical. As we crested the second to last hill before the cabin, Beat decided to pull down some trees and load them on the sleds.

I admittedly balked at carting the extra weight up that final steep hill. "It's so warm; can't we just go without a fire?" Beat handed me just one log to carry. Afterward I felt sheepishly ashamed for being such a weakling. Find the joy. It's actually pretty incredible, I thought, that just a few dead trees can provide so much comfort. Dead trees, or the sleeping bags stuffed in our sleds. We do need some necessities in life, but not much.

Find the joy. Even on this warm, gray day, the far northern sunlight crept through cracks in the clouds and cast beautiful colors across the landscape. My legs were sore, but beyond that my body had managed this effort much better than I expected. Arguably I was in better condition than I was near the start of the 2018 ITI, even factoring in my lack of recent training. My breathing was steady, and I wasn't so strung out and mentally exhausted as I had been on the Iditarod Trail. The year was better than I was giving it credit for as well. 2018 had so many beautiful moments, so many memories.

As we neared Lee's cabin, I realized that the soul wanderings of this trip through the White Mountains hadn't given me the solutions I'd hoped for. I hadn't solved my supposed mid-life crisis. I didn't even come up with a theme song for the year. Of course, just as I was mulling this over, one of the more obscure files on my iPod came up. It's not a song I discovered this year, but I never made that a rule. Still, I haven't thought of it much since 2011 or so. But as I hefted my heavy load over the soft snow, I listened to the quiet buildup, simple melody and brief lyrics, and thought, "This is it. This is my life philosophy."

We're here on Earth. We spend our energy. We try to do the best we can. We try to connect with other humans. In turn we generate a whisper of life to send out into eternity. Maybe this ... is all there is.

"Generator (First Floor)," by the Freelance Whales:

We get up early just to start cranking the generator 
Our limbs have been asleep, we need to get the blood back in 'em 
We're finding every day, several ways that we can be friends.

We keep on churning and the lights inside the house turn on 
And in our native language we are chanting ancient songs 
And when we quiet down, the house chants on without us.
Tuesday, January 15, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part four

Interesting, isn't it, how we spend so much of our lives striving? Life is a game every one of us knows we're going to lose, and yet we all play to win. Let's face it, even if one of the many theological theories about an afterlife plays out, only a tiny fraction of us live accordingly. No, most of us are striving to win at the here and now — more money, more power, more legacy, more fame. We all have something. Me? I'm greedy about memories. My stockpile is made up of experiences. I'm more interested in quality than quantity, though. I find beautiful, intense moments and then return to them, if I can, to fortify the memories. I could visit a hundred places and remember very little about each of them. Or I could trek through the White Mountains a hundred times, and carry the tiniest details into ... I guess my hope would be ... eternity. 

The miles and firewood gathering drained enough energy to make up for my usual night-owlishness, and I was out cold by 7:45. Unfortunately, my subconscious interpreted this as nap time and roused me awake at 10:30 p.m., ready to meet the new day. I couldn't fall back asleep. I finished the "Myth of Sisyphus" essay, but afterward felt too exhausted for more brain activity. A little after midnight I slipped outside to look for aurora. It was the first fully clear night of the trip, but I wasn't so optimistic as to put on any clothing. Instead, I stepped onto the porch in my underwear and booties, jaw slackening as the sky lit up all around me.

It was warm — 14 degrees above zero — but there was a hard wind at this altitude, and my buns rapidly turned blue. I ducked back into the cabin and threw on down pants and a parka, then went back outside to watch the sky. Green waves tinged in white and pink fluttered in an erratic and mesmerizing dance. Even medium-intensity Northern Lights carry otherworldly beauty. Still, it's interesting just how intently I can watch the aurora without a whisper of distraction from my otherwise hyperactive brain. Like that time I froze my hands during the White Mountains 100 — my brain didn't even send a signal that my body was rapidly cooling.

Then there was that visit to the Museum of the North with my friend Wendy, a day or two before the White Mountains 100. I walked into a closet-sized room filled with low-pitched humming audio accompanied by a light show that resembled the Northern Lights. I spent most of our time at the museum neglecting all of the other exhibits to sit in that room. I just sat, looked, listened, and had no other thoughts until others entered and roused me back to reality. It was everything I needed before my upcoming race — peaceful, meditative minutes to distance myself from my sore body and overanxious mind, and just float. And those Northern Lights weren't even real.

A knocking sound broke my concentration, and a few minutes later Beat came outside. I looked at my phone and saw it was nearly 1 a.m. Had I really been out there for almost an hour? Come to think of it, my fingers were terribly stiff, and my toes felt like stone bricks. As Beat spoke I could hear the wind instead of him, which caused me to think, "Huh, it's still windy." He pulled out his camera, which prompted me to try a few of my own shots. Conscious again of my body, I felt jittery and cold and knew I wouldn't remain outside much longer. The moment had been broken. Still, I was perplexed as to where the time went. Did I doze off? While standing up? Or was this really, as I imagine it, a small glimpse into the timelessness of eternity — seamlessly integrated with beauty and light?

Day four involved another 20-mile trek, but we knew it would be tougher than the previous 20-mile day. We planned to cut across the Moose Creek Valley on a seldom-used trail en route to Crowberry cabin, high on another ridge over Beaver Creek. It would be possible to get there on the main trails, but this would add eight miles and more climbing to the schedule — not trivial, but also not necessarily longer than the shortcut. If we ended up breaking trail, we'd probably travel slower than a mile an hour on the shortcut versus the ~2.8 mph that I could average on the packed trails. (I admittedly get a little bit of a masochistic kick out of tracking my pace and realizing just how hard I need to work for a measly 22-minute-mile. While doing this I liked to imagine my occasional 7-minute-mile paces at home and dream about what it would feel like to be free again.)

While hiking past the Moose Creek trail junction on the first day of the trip, we noted a faint base that had been almost entirely buried by days or weeks of wind and snow. We continued to debate the merits of taking the shortcut until the third day, when we hiked past the junction again and noted a single bike track cutting through the fluff. The bike track appeared to go in just one direction. The track continued up to Eleazars, and based on an entry in the cabin log book, we began calling this phantom cyclist "lazy biker chick." (I should note that this moniker arose mostly because she did not leave any firewood, and also because she was on a bike ... now, you will never catch me pretending that fat biking is a "lazy" way to go, but after a number of days with a sled anchor, my ego had been dutifully pulverized and was grasping for any hint of superiority.)

Anyway, for most of the night, we reasoned that if "lazy biker chick" could handle Moose Creek, so could we. We hit the trail in the 8 a.m. darkness and coasted effortlessly down from Eleazars (those who claim there is no coasting in running or hiking have never run in front of a heavy sled down a steep hill.) A mile later we reached the junction, strapped on snowshoes, and waded into the fluff. Conditions could be characterized as shin-deep sugar, coated with a paper-thin but solid crust of ice. We followed lazy biker chick's track all of 30 meters, where she'd stopped, wheeled around, and rode perfectly within her own track, never deviating once, back to the main trail.

Well, she is a pretty skilled cyclist. Undoubtedly a smart one, too.

For eight miles we waded through the gritty snow over an invisible obstacle course of tussocks, tangles of branches and ATV ruts. The snow was deep enough to add considerable resistance, but not deep enough to smooth out the hidden bumps in the trail. Every few steps, one of my snowshoes slid off a rut and I strained an ankle tendon, or I snagged a snowshoe on a branch and stumbled awkwardly, straining all sorts of soft tissues. The sled balked over the ruts and pulled at my already painful hamstrings. Zeus had it wrong when he condemned Sisyphus to roll a rock up a hill for all of eternity. This ... this is hell.

By the time we reached the junction with the main trail, my body felt half-shattered. I had done no deep thinking on this day, because I was sleep-deprived and exhausted. My mind had nothing to give me besides the most basic functions. Even my appetite waned. In the haste of meal-planning, most of my day food was trail mix, and I'd become unsurprisingly sick of it. I threw handfuls of nuts into the snow whenever I saw birds. I know I shouldn't feed wildlife, but I can't help but let my heart melt whenever I see those little birds fluttering among the frosty branches and realize how hard their lives must be.

There was a long climb followed by 10 more miles of rolling trail. Even the steep climb felt almost like coasting compared to the Moose Creek mire, but I was still fading. Beat told me he had a surprise for us at the top of the hill. His surprise — Magnum ice cream bars.

There's something blissfully childlike about scarfing ice cream and getting melty chocolate all over your face and teeth when it's -1F. I thoroughly enjoyed this treat.

We continued into the colorless afternoon, tracing the spine of a gentle ridge. Much of this forest had burned in recent years, and what was left hunched beside the trail with weary postures, wearing the frost like delicate strands of gray hair. I became entranced by this forest of ghosts, beckoning me into a dream world where my legs no longer hurt and the weight lifted from my shoulders and I could lay down amid the stillness and sleep.

This dream-like state carried me into my recent past and stirred up vivd details from a day that I believed carried few memories, because I was so mentally out of it — the day I walked alone across the Farewell Burn during the 2018 ITI. On that day my mind was so strung out and my body was so desperate for relief that I sought the soothing rhythm of repetition. There was yet another Manchester Orchestra song, "The Maze," that I listened to on repeat, again and again, for more than ten miles. Later I would look back in awe at the reality that this was probably at least four hours of the same three-minute song.

Wish me a wonder and wish me to sleep. 
You don't have to wander to hear when I speak. 
There is nothing I've got when I die that I keep.
It's amazing.

This resurgence of memories was the first I realized that I wasn't completely out of it as I'd believed. Ten miles passed in what I fooled myself into believing was three minutes, but I remember the thousands of steps: turning right at the tattered ruins of Salmon Camp and following a straight cut though the ghostly spruce forest as the gray faded to deeper gray. During that time I was acutely aware of tiny details — moose tracks in the snow, flaking bark on the birch trees, the occasional piece of wooden lath coated in frost. The stuff of life. Repetition lulled my brain's need to process and overanalyze everything, and the deathly monotone of the landscape sharpened my focus on the moment. In the short term that day on the Iditarod Trail was blah and the memories seemed inconsequential. But as they re-emerged, I realized these had become my most cherished memories from that experience — a glimpse into existence without a past or a future. Life in the present.

Darkness settled over the White Mountains ghost forest in a similar inconsequential manner. I was walking and breathing and walking as the ash grayness imperceptibly shifted to charcoal. There was a moment when I could no longer make out the outline of the trail, so I switched on the headlamp that I never bothered to remove.  My inner night owl woke up with the fading light, and I felt more alert than I had all day. This meant more energy for my battered legs, but it also brought back the fretting, so much useless fretting. Suddenly I was thinking about endurance racing and jobs again. As much as I wanted to return to the ghost forest's quiet meditation, I couldn't bring it back.

Our friends Corrine and Eric and ridden their bikes out to Crowberry. We hadn't interacted with other humans for several days, and their presence was jarring, for a few moments. But we settled in quickly to libations and chatting and feeling like normal people in the modern world.

With one key difference — well, besides being dozens of miles from anywhere. My physical and mental energy had been spent, leaving my soul to wander unburdened into the night.