(When we left Palmer this morning, it was -9 outside. I almost forgot how beautiful the woods are when hoarfrost begins to coat everything - and the dead landscape transforms into a twisting crystal sculpture, the kind of trinket your great-grandmother stockpiled that always appeared to be on the verge of shattering. I felt sad to be leaving this cold place, and it made me realize how quickly pain is forgotten. )
For having just run 52 miles, Geoff looked much too perky. I didn't even know how to greet him in that kind of situation so all I said was, "You're fast."
"No, you're fast," he said. I tried to laugh. He had to slow down to my duck-footed hobble just to talk with me.
"You should just go," I said. "I've probably got miles more of this."
I will. But I'll stick with you for a bit," he said with the urgency of someone who knows he's in the lead but has no idea how far.
"Running a good race?" I asked.
He grinned. "Easiest thing I've ever done." His bright-eyed, red-cheeked face almost made me believe it.
"Maybe I'll see you at Luce's," he said, already cutting away.
Probably not. "Maybe I'll see you at the finish line," I said, but his red blinky light was already fading over a knoll.
I walked three more miles and then rode through teeth-clenching fishtales off the bluff and onto the Yentna River. I checked quickly in and out of the third checkpoint, and joined a veritable traffic jam of racers - skiers and other midpack bikers - as we shuffled single-file down the frozen 80-lane highway. We were all looking for the best trail out of dozens, and did so by following each other. Snowmobiles shot by us as our headlights and taillights wove in birdlike formation toward the darkness. I captured the fat track of a bike just ahead of me, easily pressing an extra inch on either side of my tread pattern. I knew one of those blinky lights ahead was Geoff. I tried to push harder but my lungs told me no. Take it easy - get through this thing. I was already wheezing just a bit. Between breaths, I was cramming cranberries in my mouth to curb the head spinning that was already starting to take hold, and taking small sips of my camelbak to curb the ice crust that had become a permanent fixture on the nozzle. Every time I pulled my fingers out of my pogies, they began to freeze. But I didn't know what else to do. "They'll come back," I told myself. "They always come back."
The flat darkness of the river is deceiving. What looks like 100 yards could be a mile, or it could be four. I watched the flickering light of the next landmark - a "five-star tent camp" at the Scary Tree junction, approach for what seemed like hours. Last year, those distant lights that seemed so close drove me insane. This year, my saving grace was my little bike computer, telling me the checkpoint was still three miles away, and that was OK.
At the confluence of the Susitna River, I finally hit harpack after yet another postholed soft trail and stopped yet again to change my tire pressure. I noticed my fingers would begin to freeze within minutes, but they were useless to me with mittens on. Even my liner gloves made the process too complicated. I decided then that this would probably be my last tire pressure change. After that, come what may, I was going to ride what I had. I pumped up to 15 psi as quickly as I could, then went for a quick sip of water. Instead, I bit down on a nozzle as hard as concrete - sending a jolt of pain through my teeth. I had waited too long. My camelbak was frozen. In a fit of frustration, I tore open my back-rack bag and rifled through until I found my water bottle, which I had buried in my gear. It was more than half frozen itself, but still had liquid inside. I fought with the cap for a while, and guzzled the lemon-flavored Propel slushy until it was dry, knowing that any liquid in it now would not be liquid much later. As I pondered my water situation and my options, I had two wonderful ideas. I pulled out a chemical warmer, tore it open and stuffed it in a plastic grocery bag with my water bottle, buried in the deep pouch of my camelbak. Then I stuck the nozzle beneath my armpit, and off I rode (this probably sounds gross. It seemed brilliant at the time.)
(This is the Susitna River on the way out, Mile 33, about 2 p.m. I never took any pictures after dark. It was completely clear, with a new moon and a sky full of spectacular stars, but no sign of Northern Lights. It must have been a quiet night for the aurora, and that was definitely disappointing.)
There were only nine more miles to the next checkpoint, and I knew my water situation wasn't dire ... especially since I still had plenty of liquid in my camelbak bladder. But my fingers were taking longer and longer to come back from the dead, and I realized that I wasn't really going to be able to continue using them as I was. It would mean no longer eating frequent small bites as I had been, but I thought if I could have one big meal at Flathorn Lodge, that would probably get me through the rest of the race. And, if not, I could always make careful, longer stops to eat with mittens on. I felt proud of my innovation, but more frustrated with my amateurish lack of preparedness and planning, which was becoming more apparent with every stop.
Luckily, the next nine miles were hard and fast and I warmed up easily. This was the site of my undoing last year ... the Dismal Swamp, and I always understood how it earned its name. But this year, under a canopy of stars that punched through the black sky like holes in a disintegrating sun shelter, it was difficult to feel dismal. This may have been the fastest stretch of my race. I'll never know because the time stamps don't exactly back up that claim. But it felt that way.
I arrived at Flathorn just before midnight. Geoff was there as well, preparing the take off into the new day. He was still perky and energetic to the point of being buzzed. He informed me that he had just eaten white rice with cornbread crumbled on top, and life was good and he was going to pound the rest of this thing out for a sub 20-hour finish. He still had five hours to do so, and it definitely didn't seem implausible at that point. Since my own sub 20-hour finish seemed a little less plausible ... and a little less important, I settled in at the table and somehow scarfed down an entire bowl of homemade jambalaya before I realized there were chunks of tomato-colored sausage in it (I don't eat red meat.) But it was too warm and tasty for me to even care. I can probably honestly say that this is the first meal I have ever actually enjoyed eating during a long bicycle ride, road centuries included.
Everyone else in the cabin had cozied up next to the wood stove and looked to be settled in for the night. I purposely didn't take off any of my gear to avoid the temptation (and would later be made fun of for doing so.) But I slipped out at 12:07 a.m. Once I returned to my bike, I changed my base layer and added extra layers (I would have done so in the cabin, but I forgot to bring my bag in with me the first time, and it was a good 300-yard walk up and back down a hill just to change clothes.) It was OK. I was wearing layers I knew had worked for me before. The chill would wear off. It always did ...