Sunday, February 25, 2007

Glad I'm here, wish I was there

I did sit on the couch with an ice pack on my knee for a decent part of the morning, squinting out the window at a brutally unfair blaze of sun until I could take it no longer. Even if my knee still can’t bend far enough to pedal a bicycle, at could at least drag it somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

I decided to drive out the the glacier visitors center and go for a walk. A simple walk. I’d take it slow and loosen up my knee. I started at the edge of the lake, making my way across the ice. I veered of the trail when the footing became too uneven and shuffled through several inches of soft, unbroken powder. Even during the popular hours of a beautiful early Sunday afternoon, the wide-open lake ice serves as the perfect crowd sifter. Skiers, walkers and runners fan out in all directions, across all points, so a gimp like me can waddle along in peace.

I walked for a while, watching every step, focused only on my gait and how far each knee came up. Several minutes passed this way. And half-hour maybe. It’s hard to say. I was out for a walk, trying to ward off the creeping crazy of cabin fever, and I was still completely preoccupied with arbitrary steps. Enough so that when I looked up, I felt momentarily lost. Ahead of me, huge, electric-blue ice chunks of the Mendenhall Glacier loomed like city buildings, so close that I could only see the tips of the jagged peaks rising beyond the skyline. I turned around to see dark puffs of clouds encompassing the sun, their backlit edges burning blinding holes in the sky. Craggy, snow-covered mountains seemed to tower over even the clouds. And I admit ... I stopped for a moment, baffled. Baffled that this place still exists. Baffled that this is where I live. Baffled that even as a partial cripple, I have the option of gimping out here an hour before I have to be at work. Baffled that I can stand in the midst of this handicap-accessible white world of ice and feel - if only momentarily - as though I’ve accidentally discovered some deep and unchartable wilderness. Baffling.

Not as much so, however, as the current standings of the Iditarod Invitational. This year’s race to McGrath is beyond compelling. The racers left at 2 p.m. Saturday and all the cyclists blazed down the hard-packed trail in record time. Now, more than 30 hours into the 350-mile event, they’re hardly showing any signs of slowing down. Pete Basinger, the winner of this year’s Susitna 100, took the lead at mile 90. At 24 hours, he was nearly halfway to the finish - 165 miles. Nearly 11 hours ahead of Mike Curiak’s 2005 time at that point, Pete was on pace not only to break the course record, but absolutely shatter it.

But then came news of bad conditions on the other side of the pass ... a maze of thick, twisting alders were choking the trail, which had been wind-blasted clean of most of its snow cover. The racers had only three choices ... wait for race volunteers to cut out the brush, which could take a day or more; plow right into the thick of it, knowing that bushwhacking could be extremely slow and arduous; or ride the side route, tacking on 33 extra miles but having a marginally better chance of smooth hardpack for the remainder of the race. What will Pete do? How will he get out of this predicament?

Last we heard, he was checking out of Puntilla Lake at mile 165 and was going to decide what to do once he saw the trail. Either way, he is heading into the communication-devoid “Black Hole” of the course. He faces another long, cold night on very little to no sleep, temperatures dipping below 0, and three very different choices that could make or break him. How will he fare? Will the three cyclists on his tail leave Puntilla in time to catch up to him? Will the alder predicament rob him of the record? Stay tuned!

Man ... I love this stuff. Especially since there’s so little solid information out there. Everything is speculative and subject to the revision by the wild imaginations of those who get to sleep in warm beds tonight. This is sports spectatorship at its best, if you ask me. For the latest, check here.