(Thanks to Ben for providing the picture. This isn't me at the finish. It was very, very dark when I finished the race. This picture was taken while I was still perky and warm at Eaglesong Lodge, Mile 47.)
Like most people who relish in getting themselves in over their heads, I tend to be a bit superstitious. I treat weather reports like religious text - true to the sense that you believe them - and never speak of them lest they come back to bite me. The night before the race is an important ritual of stress and acceptance. Then, the morning of the race is a reality check of clutter and chaos.
I believed it an interesting omen when Geoff momentarily lost control of the truck we were driving, with my bike thrown haphazardly in the back, on a patch of ice near Big Lake. I believed a more ominous omen when I pulled my overturned camelbak out of the truck to find it soaked and empty of water (I actually knew that camelbak bladder leaked out of the top and still took it, thereby making one of the worst decisions I could possibly make.)
During the frantic starting-line search for water, I lost all extra time for pre-race gear preps. My friends helped me strap on my bags, which I could only hope I packed correctly, and I tested my electronic gear ... headlight, headlamp, blinky light and iPod.
The first song that came on was Steven Sufjan's "Chicago" ... "If I was crying, in the van, with my friend - it was for freedom, from myself and from the land." I believe it to somehow be the right omen. This race wasn't going to be about me.
A calm settled over me as I lined up at the starting line with Geoff at my side, fiddling with his sled. Directly in front of me was John Stamstad, a legendary endurance cycling pioneer, standing with his stroller sled and getting ready to run his own race. I watched the leaders straddle their truly fat "FatBikes" at the front. The sunrise hung low on the horizon and reflected off the snow-frosted trees in steaks of pastel pink. I thought about the strangeness of being locked in such a crowd, so close to the solitary remoteness of the Susitna Valley. I never heard them say "go." As the crowd of 60 or so racers on bike, skis and foot lurched forward, I followed the flow.
I'm about the most conservative cyclist there is, but I can't help but go hard at the beginning. Part of the urgency stems from staying ahead of the skiers, who can completely block the narrow trail for miles if you fall behind. But it also feels really good, on that groomed dog mushing path, with the leaders still in sight, to crank out a 10 mph average and believe for a few beautiful miles that you might actually be able to maintain that clip. That lasted for almost three miles. Then, another cyclist nudged me as he passed me. I put my leg down to catch myself and lost it in a posthole up to my hip. As I struggled to climb out and lift my 60-pound, overturned bicycle, I watched a group of four skate-skiers scoot by. I was riding the Susitna 100, and there are some things time and training just can't change. I couldn't help but smile.
One thing time did change was my memory of how hilly the first and last 15 miles really are. I didn't even register the hills last year in the midst of deteriorating snow conditions and plummeting morale, but the rolling terrain caught up to me this year. Most of the racers in front of me got off their bikes and took off their skis to march up the hills, leaving a wake of whipped powder snow. It's about the slipperiest surface this side of glare ice, and I could not control my footing up the steeper slopes. Some hills had me crawling on my knees, dragging my bike - overturned on its side - behind me. As I clawed my way up, I hated everything about its heavy, dead weight. I would learn to appreciate it a lot more later.
(This is another picture that I stole from a MTBR forum. Apparently, someone who rode the 50K has a sense of humor.)
At mile 16, I passed the famous - and usually missing - Nome sign. From that spot, Nome is only 1,049 miles away. I thought about the scope of the Iditarod trail, and the distant dream of actually riding a bicycle all the way to the end of the continent - to a frozen village locked against a frozen sea - and the sparse, starkly gorgeous landscape that would carry you there. A simple thing like a Nome sign makes those sweeping images that much more real, even if they never are anything more than a dream.
Once on the Iditarod, the trail is flat and fast - as fast as a trail can be when you're trying to pedal and overweight, comparatively skinny-tire bicycle through an inch or so of new snow. I was already fading a little, and I realized I was going to have to find a more comfortable pace. Frozen swamps and lakes burned blinding white in the sun. I dug out a pair of old sunglasses that I haven't worn in about a year and leaned back like a Harley biker chick out for a Saturday cruise.
The first checkpoint is at Flathorn Lake, mile 25. This checkpoint alone could singlehandidly strip all bragging rights about riding a completely self-supported race. They lure you inside a warm cabin and ply you with oranges, brownies and hot water. They won't even let you get your own water or food. It's full service through and through, all out of the goodness of heart of a few race volunteers who happen to own property in what I consider one of the most beautiful areas of the world. It's after this checkpoint that I start to realize I'm not necessarily riding a race. I'm a tourist in this land. And later, when fatigue creeps in a darkness masks all but the immediate, painful future, the promise of Flathorn really helps ...