Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Susitna 2, Chapter 2

(Our good friends in Palmer followed us to the race start to cheer us on and take pre -race pictures. You know they're good friends when they're willing to get up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and stand for 45 minutes in subfreezing cold.)

Trying to pilot a bicycle on top of snow and ice is unpredictable at best, and impossible at worst. I think this single aspect, more so than even the cold, is what makes winter cycling exciting to me. Trail conditions range from glare ice to packed powder to sugary powder to slurpee mess. And the best part - they can change from one hour to the next. The trail I see is not the same trail the race leaders or the bring-up-the-rear riders see. It is in constant flux, a fluid surface bending to the whims of motion - the wind's motion, the weather's motion, my motion.

Winter cyclists always talk about finding the perfect line - the place where the trail's the hardest packed. Often, it's no wider than the ski of a snowmobile or another cyclist's four-inch tires. Sticking to that line is a practice of patience and focus. Lose it once, and the consequences could mean twisting your knee in a posthole or endoing over the handlebars when you plant your front wheel. I am usually scatterbrained when I ride, my mind always in flux between the past and present. But when I try to find and keep that line, I am a picture of concentration. It's the closest I've come to Zen.

I rode all the way from Eaglesong to the Susitna River, about 8 miles, locked in that trance. I didn't acknowledge the time passing, and don't even remember that stretch except for a random glance at Mount Susitna looming over the horizon beneath a smooth glaze snow. I was momentarily unaware that any time had passed since Feb. 18, 2006. That was exactly where I was one year before, looking at the same mountain as it basked in the same sunlight. For a beautiful moment I was lost in a consequence-free flashback. Then I heard the crackle of snow beneath my wheels. I felt mild headwind biting at my cheeks. And I realized that I had come a fair distance since one year ago, and I still had a long way to go.

Thirteen miles separate the Susinta River from the second checkpoint, Eaglesong Lodge. It's a lesser-used trail - even a private trail in stretches, I believe. I noticed how much slower the snow became. With a sugary layer on top, it often felt like plying my way through desert sand. I remember riding 100-yard stretches of sand in southern Utah that left me doubled over at the end with a heart rate of about 190. It's strange that I now seek out the very conditions I once almost killed myself trying to avoid, back when attempted to crank up slickrock stretches that were way beyond my skill level. Maybe this is the paradox of getting older - the immediate risks become less intense as long-term efforts grow to be almost unfathomable. My 19-year-old self laying on a stretch of Moab's Slickrock Trail with a bloody leg would never, never have been able to imagine where life would take her eight years down the road.

I left Eaglesong just as the sun was beginning to set. This was the first point where I realized that I was actually a ways behind where I was at this point last year. I had made it over eight more miles of trail by sunset in 2006. And this was the worst stretch of trail yet - built solely for the race and used only by racers, it was tracked out and postholed by moose and human feet beyond being any real use to me. I trudged along slowly, hoisting my bike out of the holes and taking advantage of the snail pace and free hands to choke down some turkey jerky and walnut/cranberry trail mix (for the record, not the most palatable combination.) I heard some quiet footsteps approaching from behind. And when I turned around, I wasn't really surprised to see Geoff.

(We just returned from the post-race party, where a race official confirmed that Geoff did indeed break the previous course record, which was 22:15, by more than 30 minutes. It was fun to go to the party and actually meet the racers. I didn't recognize anyone without multiple layers of winter gear on. I have an early flight to catch tomorrow morning, so I'm headed to bed. But I'll get this thing typed out eventually.)