Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Susitna 2, Chapter 4

(The Susitna River, Mile 33. One thing I always neglect but wish I did was take more pictures. There's a stark beauty out there that I was never quite able to capture. Mostly, what I got were long stretches of snowmobile tracks and sky.)

Any long-term comfort that may have been provided by a warm meal and a half hour in front of a fire wore off the minute I let the subzero chill off Flathorn Lake hit my skin. I thought it important to change into something dry for the duration of what was certain to be five more hours of riding through the ungodliest cold hours of the early morning. But even as I thrashed and struggled with my clothing, I could feel the wind biting the pink skin on my torso. It sucked heat like a vacuum from my exposed legs and shoeless feet as I stood toes-curled on top of a thin drybag. Changing clothes out there was one of the worst ideas I had since deciding to ride a full-day winter ultramarathon with a leaking camelbak (I haven't talked about that problem in my race report, but let's just say I spent the day with an ice slick down the back of my coat.)

By the time I was moving again, I was a full-body freak show of involuntary shivering. I pedaled down the lake ice quickly to drum up body heat, but the convulsions would rip my handlebars in bad directions, sending my bicycle careening into soft spots as I struggled to regain balance. After about a mile of that - right before leaving the lake and heading back into the woods - I thought pretty seriously about turning around and going back to Flathorn Lodge until I warmed up. But I realized that my shivering had almost subsided, and I was beginning to feel better. A more-than-fleeting thought crossed my mind that I might actually just be approaching that stage of hypothermia where people start tearing off all of their clothing because they feel overheated. But I turned off my iPod and recited a few sentences aloud. They didn't sound slurred to me, so I decided I was still mentally with it. I continued forward.

The middle of the night is one of my favorite times to be riding during an endurance event. Before a ride, there is always the hope that conditions would be perfect, I would feel on top of my game and amazingly find the strength to pound all the miles out by midnight. But when that doesn't happen, I find the lonely hours of the morning to be the most revealing and memorable of the entire ride. In the clear night, the distant city lights of Anchorage burned deep orange streaks behind the horizon like remnants of a long-departed sunset. Craggy silhouettes of black spruce stabbed at the light and cast faint, far-stretching shadows over the purple snow. In the night, I think about a lot of things. I think about nothing. I habitually turn the pedals and believe I could do this forever, and never stop, even as my eyelids droop and shoulders burn. In the night, time makes quantum leaps forward, even as I move slower and slower. Entire hours will pass by. I will remember every moment, and it will feel like minutes.

This was the point of the race when my eyelashes started freezing shut. The ice fog of my breath hung like a blinder in front of my headlamp, condensing into droplets and clinging to my face. When sleepy fatigue began to settle in and it seemed appealing to close my eyes and lift my neck to the sky for just a couple seconds, the ice would halt my ability to open them again. My mittens did little to thaw my eyelashes, and it was too risky now to take my mittens off. Enough pulling with my eyelid muscles would eventually pry them open again (and I probably ripped out several in the process). But there were stretches on the trail where I rode with one eye clamped shut, grumbling about the tragic comedy of it all.

Later, as I dipped and climbed over the rolling hills of the woods, the shivering came back. More than two hours had passed since I left Flathorn Lodge. I had not stopped my bike for more than a couple seconds since that point, but I was definitely shivering. Convulsions coursed through my body in waves as I surfed over the trail moguls, subsiding briefly before then punching through again. They were becoming more pronounced with each episode. I let my teeth chatter for a while as I stood up and sat back down on my seat repeatedly in a strange, slow-motion mimic of the heart-pounding intervals I used to do in Spin class. But it was quickly becoming apparent that my body wasn't going to warm itself on its own.

So I began to assess my situation. I was already wearing all of my dry layers. The trail was soft and punchy here, and going harder didn't even seem mechanically possible. I could get off my bike and jog or run, but that seemed counterproductive, too. I could bivy if the situation became dire, but I didn't want the Mat-Su Motor Mushers to come out looking for me and drag me off the trail with only 16 miles left in my race. My only moving option that I hadn't explored yet were the six chemical heat warmers I had left in my food bag. I stopped and tore open every single one. I put one in each glove, one in the ankle of each boot, a big one in my bike jersey back pocket, and another with my water bottle, just to ensure continued access to water. (One of the most valuable things I've learned recently, from reading Arrowhead 135 race reports, is that dehydration compounds the effects of hypothermia.) I was still shivering, but I could feel the packs' radiant heat on my cold skin.

Chemical warmers are little miracles. I don't know why they do what they do, and they're probably full of scary toxins, but they work. After about a 15 minutes, I was beginning to feel normal again. And that's when I saw a red blinky light several hundred yards in front of me. It was the first motion I had seen since leaving Flathorn.

I purposely held back for quite a while, unwilling to decide whether or not to catch up to Geoff. I felt pangs of frustration set off by his presence ... Frustration for breaking my solitude. For being so much better than me at this sort of thing. For holding so strong a lead. For being destined to win the foot division. For taking the Susitna 100, which was my race, and carving a permanent stamp of success on his name when I was destined for mediocrity. I can be very petty when I'm sleep deprived. But these are the thoughts that crossed my mind, and these are the reasons I watched his blinky light flash around corners for more than a mile before I pedaled up to him.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Hurting," he croaked. "I'm hurting."

He wasn't the same Geoff I saw 12 miles ago at Flathorn Lodge. He was subdued, and swaying a bit. "You only have 14 more miles to go," I said. The words sounded ridiculous before I even finished saying them. Regardless of how many miles came before, 14 miles is not a short distance on foot. And I realized that, even after periods of chill and pangs of hunger, I was feeling just fine. I was going to finish this race, even if it wasn't with impressive speed. And a quick glance at Geoff's face, and the look in his eyes, told me that he wasn't so certain of the same outcome.

"You should go," he said. "I'm slowing down here. My sub-20 is shot." (As it was, mine was too, unless I picked up the pace from my current 6-7 mph to 8 mph without stops, and at this point, I needed stops to get water.)

"I can stay," I said, but I was already shooting ahead of him by just coasting. I touched the brakes and slowed back. "No," he said, and I knew he didn't want me lingering at the edge of his pain tunnel. When the tables are turned (and when Geoff and I do things together, they usually are), I always feel the exact same way.

"OK," I said, and rolled away. I knew he would be fine, but I felt instantly guilty. I wrestled with ridiculous thoughts about attaching his sled to the back of my bike and pulling him for a while. And I struggled with humbling thoughts about how Geoff must really feel - in the midst of the race of his life, one minute feeling on top of the world and the next fading to black. We all have our battles, and mine was only two more hours of sore shoulders, a throbbing right knee, and a little sleepy fatigue. I had no idea what Geoff was going to fight to get through the last 14 miles.

The next 10 miles of trail are the most difficult part of the entire course ... punctuated with long climbs and steep, scary downhills. It's a fun way to begin a race and a brutal way to end it. I can't imagine there's anyone who trudged through this stretch and didn't wish they were somewhere - anywhere - else. The snow drifts on the side of the trail began to look like to most comfortable beds in the world. Anything with more than 10 feet of elevation gain had me on my feet. So much for 7 mph.

During these final miles of endurance races, I always launch into a slow shutdown. My body no longer acknowledges the passing of time. My brain, whose urgent messages of fatigue and pain have too long been ignored, stops bothering to send them. I give up on eating (and hadn't eaten anything since Flathorn Lodge anyway.) I only drink when the thought crosses my mind, which becomes less and less frequent. I pedal as though in a dream, as though in a machine, with no rewards and no consequences.

I caught up with another cyclist when my computer registered 100 miles. I realized that there couldn't be more than three miles in the race. He was stopped on the side of the trail. Not knowing what he was at first, I stopped too. We both stared into the darkness, headlight to headlight, for several elapsed seconds before I finally moved toward him. "I thought you were a dog musher," he said.

"I thought the same," I said.

"You should go ahead," he said.

"Actually, I'm dying here," I said. "You don't want to get stuck behind me."

"I'm in no hurry," he said. And with that he took off in front of me. I followed on his tail for more than a mile before he broke away. Somehow, in those final two miles, I felt no time pass and no more fatigue. My transition outside myself was finally complete, and I felt as though I no longer had to suffer the burden of being human. But the reality turned out to be quite different. That cyclist managed to finish a full 7 minutes before me. And when I finally rolled up to the finish line and stepped off my bike, all of that surreal painlessness tore away with it. My right knee was screaming at me. My shoulders burned as though I was being stabbed with hundreds of hot needles. I hobbled toward the bleary-eyed race director, who took my name and the time - 5:50 a.m. - but never really acknowledged me. He would later stop me twice to ask me if I was the first woman skier across the finish line.

With all the strength I could muster, I pushed my bike to the truck and limped into the warming hut, dragging my stiff right leg behind me. A handful of other racers sprawled in sleeping bags on the floor as a friendly dog musher stoked the fire to an indoor temperature of 87 degrees. She gave me apple cider and I gulped it down. I sat next to the silent race director and we stared blankly out the window toward the finish line for 20 minutes. Then, with heavy eyelids, I decided that a quick recline on the bench, with no pillow and my legs dangling off the edge, would do no harm. Just rest my eyes for a minute ... then sit back up to wait for Geoff come in. I felt the hard bench pressing painfully into my skull. Then I felt nothing until 6:55 a.m., when I jolted awake to find a bleary-eyed Geoff sitting across from me.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I sputtered. He looked blankly at me. "How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Like I've been hit by a truck," he said.

I looked at my watch again. "You broke the record, didn't you?"

He shrugged. "I can't believe I paid $700 to feel this way."

I adjusted my weight on the bench and realized my right knee was no longer voluntarily bending. And in my mind, I'm thinking it was worth every penny.

Total time: 20 hours, 50 minutes.
Total riding time: 18 hours, 2 minutes.
Total distance: 102.9 miles.
Average speed: 5.7 mph.
Top speed: 18.2 mph
Calories consumed: (At my best guess) Walnuts and cranberries, 1,200; One PBJ sandwich, 500; fruit rope (9) 420; turkey jerky (2 ounces) 160; jambalaya dinner, 800; orange slices (4) 80; Power Bar (1), 250.
Total calories: About 3,410.
Total flat tires: 0.
Total tire-pressure changes: 8.
Learning what it takes to persevere in these harsh and soul-shredding conditions: Priceless.