Sunday, March 09, 2008

Aftermath

Date: March 8
Mileage: 15.5
March mileage: 15.5
Temperature: 41

Well, I've been off the trail for a week now. I'm finally back in Juneau, back at work, but still trying to plow through the solid wall of culture shock I first encountered when I stepped onto the tarmac at the McGrath airport. I feel like I have been away much longer than two weeks. It seems spring has come to Juneau since I've been gone, but little else has changed. Winter will surely be back for one final blast. Winter always comes back.

Physically, my body is recovering great ... for the most part. I went for my first bicycle ride since the race just this morning. I definitely don't have much oomph yet - my legs especially are sluggish and I still have to struggle up the smallest of hills. But at the same time, I don't seem to have any acute injuries. That's especially amazing after my first forays into physical activity: A few violent jolts following three days of basically sitting on a couch. On Wednesday, I set out for a walk to buy some sushi. It had been raining buckets in Palmer and my friends never shovel their driveway. I took one step on the wet ice and went down hard - legs up in the air, tailbone bounce, everything. The fall knocked the wind out of me and I laid there for quite some time, fretting that I had broken my tailbone. It did strike me as funny that I might have managed to injure myself worse in a driveway than I had on 350 miles of Iditarod Trail. But as it turned out, I was fine.

So on Friday I made the mistake of going night-riding at Eaglecrest Ski Area with my friend Libby. This is part of my late-winter transition back to being a somewhat normal person. I wanted to take up snowboarding again. But I'm pretty sure I haven't been on a snowboard since I went to Brighton in Utah with my sisters in November 2006. It was of course raining/snaining buckets at the resort (as you can see in this beautiful picture), and we were trying to negotiate steep slopes of slush as 15-year-old jibbers flew over our heads. First-time-of-the-season snowboarding is just not the thing to do when you already are stiff and sore and slow with your reflexes. I made it two hours before my knees began to scream bloody murder over every little carve. Then I took a fall off the lift and struggled to drag myself up like a 70-year-old arthritic woman who lost contact with her walker. I announced to Libby I was going to have to soft-ride it down and call it a day. I felt like a 70-year-old arthritic woman in a sport for teenagers.

So I'm definitely not back to 100 percent. But have had a week to reflect on the race. I wanted to thank everyone who wrote a nice comment on my super-long race report. In many ways, it was the easiest article I have ever written. I wrote about all the events I remembered exactly as they happened, and the words just poured out onto the screen. But it other ways, it was hard for me to go through and relive those moments. I got so wrapped up in the writing that I would have to take breaks and walk away from the computer and stare out the window at the dogs and the cars, just to remind myself that I was no longer in those situations, lingering so close to the edge of danger, locked so deeply in those emotional battles. This event became much more of a journey to me than a race, so much so that I'm still caught off guard when the first thing people ask me about it is, "Did you win?"

As a race, the Iditarod Trail Invitational was a success for me in many ways. I mean, I finished. With all of my body parts intact. And those were really my only goals to begin with. So, in that way, the race was a huge success. My physical fitness held up better than I could have even anticipated, given that I trained not really knowing exactly what I was training for. So much of the race involved heavy lifting, walking and bike pushing, all things that were only a small part of my training regimen. So to get through the race without serious shoulder soreness, or huge blisters, or foot injuries, was a big stroke of luck.

My gear performed even better than my body. After the debacle of Pugsley going missing in the FedEx vortex and arriving in Anchorage almost too late for the race, Speedway Cycles did a rush job of last-minute repairs to ensure my bicycle was in top running condition. The irony of the situation is that most of the work was done by Pete Basinger, who ended up having so many mechanicals of his own early in the race (Geoff has joked that he was too busy fixing my bike to work on his.) It goes to show that a lot of the success in gear performance is simply luck, but I am extremely grateful to Greg, Pete and Speedway for giving Pugsley every edge they could. I never even had so much as a flat tire in 350 miles.

I also am a huge fan of Epic Designs bags. My bivy burrito turned out to be my favorite piece of gear in the race. Being able to pull that off my front rack, unsnap the straps and crawl into my ready-to-go bivy set-up in less than a minute was especially comforting when I was completely bonked out, cold and discouraged. If I had needed to fumble with three stuff sacks and put everything together in those moments, I might still be out there frozen on the trail. The seatpost bag also held its shape well, even as I packed it and repacked it throughout the race without ever readjusting the straps. The only time it rubbed the tire was the last day, when I was wearing nearly all of my clothing and the seatpost bag was nearly empty. Those bags endured a lot of tossing and a lot of crashes. The only thing I broke was the stem strap on the gas tank. Not bad when you consider the abuse those bags endured. So thank you to Eric Parsons. I'm definitely going to be pulling out the checkbook for your summer line.

I also was pretty lucky with my clothing choices, with the exception of not having good overboots for the stream crossing. Temperatures during those six days ranged between about 25 above to 30 below. I discovered the best way to regulate my core temperature throughout the day was to remove hats, and actually did little to change my torso and leg layers until the last two days, when the sustained temperatures were well below 0 and the windchills were otherworldly and I put on nearly everything I had. I emit a lot of heat through my hands, and actually spent most of the race without gloves or mittens on - just bare hands in my admittedly cheap but warm Cabela's pogies. I did most of my chores with my bare hands. Only the last two days did I pull out my mittens, when the wind worked to flash-freeze all exposed skin. But the liner gloves hardly made an appearance.

So this is the part of the race reflection where I talk about "What Went Wrong." I had my fair share of rookie mishaps, misjudgements, and outright big mistakes. And right at the top of all that was my inability or unwillingness to eat enough calories. Bonking out on the trail the way I did, twice, was scary and pointless. Part of it was the sleep deprivation, but I think the largest part was almost complete bodily mechanical shutdown as a result of running out of fuel. I've never felt anything like it. For a half hour or so I'd putter, putter, putter, and sort of feel it coming. But when the real shutdown came, I'd slump into the trail and feel completely helpless. If I did not have a sleeping bag and my life had depended on it, I probably could have crawled out of those situations, but I'm not positive of that. In reflecting back on the food I actually put down, I was probably eating about 3,000-3,500 calories over a 24-hour period on days I went through checkpoints with meals, and as little as 2,000 on the days I had to feed myself. Hard to say what I was burning ... maybe 6,000? It definitely was a deficit that is NOT sustainable over six days. Eating while cycling has always been a struggle for me, but if I ever plan to do a multiday even like the Iditarod Trail Invitational again, I really have to focus and dial in a better nutrition plan.

In hindsight (skewed as it is, with a week of comfortable nights in beds behind me), I believe my emotional handling of the race could be better in the future, knowing what I know now. I left Rohn after nearly a full day of agonizing, still not entirely convinced I had what it took to even survive the terrain ahead, let alone finish a race. I learned over the course of the next three days that I do, in fact, have what it takes to survive Interior Alaska in the winter, as long as I make good choices, stay alert, and stay on the move. My long stay in Rohn and 12-hour bivy on the Burn were physically unnecessary (and, in the case of the long restless bivy that left my water frozen, actually physically detrimental.) But I used those long layovers to work through what was at the time paralyzing anxiety about the remoteness and the cold. I needed the layovers then, but I doubt non-rookie Jill would have needed them, at least to that extreme. Those alone would have shaved a full day off my time.

Finally, my bicycle was too %&@! heavy. I either need to work harder to cull my gear to a more sizeable mass (and it did cross my mind that cutting out all the uneaten food I carried would be a fast way to do this), or I need to work harder to build strength and train longer with the full gear set-up. I feel like simply being a woman puts me at a disadvantage in this regard ... I have less overall muscle mass to work with in the first place, but I still have the same amount of winter survival gear to hoist. There must be a happy medium.

A question I have been asked often this week is whether I am going to enter the race again. It's hard to say. I already am in "what now" mode and daydreaming about new adventures. I still have no idea where these dreams may take me. People have asked if my next step is Nome. And my answer is, I can't even fathom Nome. The race to McGrath is 3.5 times longer than the Susitna 100, but the increase in difficulty and effort was beyond exponential - it was a quantum leap. The race to Nome is more than three times longer than the race to McGrath. No, I can not fathom it.

Yet.