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.

33 comments:

  1. Wow.

    Thanks for taking us all along for the ride:-)

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  2. Anonymous5:39 AM

    Amazing. Absolutely amazing. Congratulations.

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  3. I am so glad you are okay. Thank you ever so much for sharing with us. You took us to the edge with you and we will all be better because of your experience. God bless you Jill.

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  4. What is incredible is that basking in the glory of simply having finished, which is an amazing feat that few have ever accomplished, is not enough. You are already analyzing the experience to find out what you could do differently, and I suspect that next time, just finishing won't be sufficient. It seems like you've created a monster (in a good way) by pushing yourself and I doubt it will be satisfied anytime soon.

    But that's a good thing, isn't it? Though my own goals aren't as mammoth as some of yours, I've found that pushing myself to complete them has made for some of the most significant and memorable times in my life. Finishing things my brain and my emotions are telling me I'm not capable of has turned into the most fulfillment. I'm just guessing and I don't really know you, but I think that you have experienced something similar. (It just takes bigger challenges for you because you are tougher!)

    I'm really looking forward to reading about more of your adventures, as well as having some of my own.

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  5. Thank you. The amount of knowledge gained on training, gear, and self is overwhelming. Every other challenge seems relatively simple now, eh?

    Great experience, keep exploring. Thanks for the knowledge of your experience.

    DG

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  6. like others have already said, jill, thanks for sharing your experience. what an awesome accomplishment!

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  7. Hey Jill congrats on a great ride. I'm glad it went so well and that you didn't get injured. Great reports as well.

    I've been reading about various winter bike "touring" expeditions. Sounds right up your alley - remote, difficult, beautiful and freaking cold...=-)

    Her 'em rolling.....!

    Vik

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  8. I too would like to thank you for sharing your story. It definitly makes me want to make the leap up to the Alaska races. Maybe in 2010 :)

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  9. Here is something to investigate. "Perpetium" by Hammer Nutrition. I have used it for 7 hours of non stop anerobic endurance racing in the Butte 100 and I never had to take in any other calories. I joke with friends that when I go any endurance or multi day events all I need is Perpetium. I hate eating while while racing as well and this is just something I can slam down (drinking). Just a thought. I am not affiliated with them, they even turned me down for sponsorship!

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  10. Jill, it was a pleasure to follow you through this journey. I could feel the deep dark aloneness of interior Alaska, and the knowledge that your survival was completely up to you. Harsh but exciting, thanks for sharing.

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  11. Congratulations again for making it to McGrath! I hate going back to normal life after a long event on the bike. In some ways a long race is so tough but all you have to do is keep moving and doing what you love to do.

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  12. so basically you're saying you're going to nome next year?

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  13. Hi Jill!
    I'm a radio reporter in Fairbanks following Iditarod this year. Really enjoyed your blog and npr stories!
    I just caught up with Pete Basinger and Carl Hutchings here in Kaltag, and they've been pushing their bikes since last weekend. Finally hit good trail last night. Take care, Libby
    radioicebox.wordpress.com

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  14. Jill,
    I just stumbled upon your blog since I've only recently gotten into cycling. Thank you for sharing your story! You are such an inspiration! I have really enjoyed reading your stories. Congratulations on finishing the race!

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  15. Damn Jill Homer - you surely are an inspiration. Pretty sure there is nothing in life that you will not accomplish if you so desire. Your writing is growing as quickly as your spirit. I can only hope you do not tire of towing us all along on your journey through life.

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  16. Jill,

    I can't even imagine the amount of internal fortitude it took to finish this race. If more people had half of what you do this world would be markedly better. Thanks so much for letting us follow you through all of your training as well as your struggle to defeat the Alaskan wilderness. You rocked this race!

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  17. Well ridden, well written.
    Thanks for the great account.

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  18. After any big event, you need to rest, both the mind & body. Going light is about have the right mind set & not being scared. You need to commit to less gear, it's the way to go (go lite, & freeze all nite).
    http://keepitstreetlevel.blogspot.com/2006/12/traveling-fast-and-light-part-i.html

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  19. "...as long as I make good choices, stay alert, and stay on the move."

    There's your new mantra. Keep that thought in your mind as you trudge (or roll) along through lifes adventures and you'll get where ever you're headed.

    Riding randoneur events I have learned over the years that nutrition during endurance events is one of the biggest challenges to success.(equipment and sleep strategies are right up there but that's a whole different set of lectures!)

    I wish I could say "Eat souper goop, it works for everyone and it will work for you" but the solution to this riddle is unique to each and every individual. I know riders who use only liquid sports nutrition products (Spiz or Hammer Nutrition products) and others who get by on PayDay bars and chocolate milk. I keep a can or two of Ensure in my H-Bar Bag and in my drop bags as well, a nice nutritional safety valve.
    Here is one thing I do know: solving this problem is adaptive. the more you undertake endurance events, the more you learn what works for you ...and what does not.
    A friend tried for 4 years to complete a 400K brevet, he DNF'ed every time; went to sports and med nutritionists, read scholarly articles, ate different things, tried liquid nutrition and finally said he would never try a ride of 400K or more ... ever again. But a year later he was back at it. He got to the 400K point of a 600, and decided he was done: puking, cramping, bonking, etc. Decided to pull the pin and went into a fast food joint to rest before trying to sort out how he was going to get home. He ate, and just sat around for an hour or so and what do you know; The batteries recharged the mental headlights came up and he was able to finish the last 200K! He was outside the time limit but thrilled with his accomplishment. His solution was to eat AND ALLOW A LITTLE TIME TO DIGEST! Simple, but different from most.

    Given your location it might be a challenge to line up a season of progressively longer endurance events, but I think that would help you work through this little riddle.

    I am assuming you have a fairly low body fat % so that may be a strike against you. The body can learn to better metabolize fat, but first you have to have the training events (see above) and then you have to have the fat.

    I've rambled but one last thing: You are a winner, and success breeds succes. At Paris Brest Paris every finisher, from first to dead last gets the same medal, regardless the time. Finishing endurance events is winning. Iditarod is a race which suggests winners, but I doubt anyone who finishes would ever be considered a looser.

    Yr Pal DrCodfish

    PS: For next time, incorporate some upper body strength work in your conditioning program. It will paty even if your not pushing a 70# bike through snow at 20 below for 20 mile stretches. (sheesh, my calves are aching just writing it!)

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  20. Jill, thanks again for the coverage of your race (and for racing/riding), you mentioned you emit a bunch/most of your heat through your hands, this article might be of interest to you:

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.03/bemore.html

    Some DARPA research into better equiping folks in the field, quite interesting.

    Good luck on choosing another adventure!

    -Chris

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  21. An epic adventure! Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  22. Anonymous7:41 PM

    "When the burden seems too much to bear, remember the end will justify the pain it took to get us there."... a line from one of my favorite songs.

    And you made it to the end, Jill.

    I really can't express in words the admiration I have for you. I read your entire journey and just cried through the whole thing because this is MY sister. MY sister who accomplished something I cannot realate to or comprehend, but have such a deep respect for it regardless.

    I love you.
    Sara

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  23. Anonymous9:01 PM

    Now nothing -- the ups and downs of life, those things beyond our control, serious illness, the challenges of finding a suitable livelihood -- will ever defeat you. Your triumph on the Iditarod Trail will be the counterpoint to everything else... Well done, Jill Homer! jgp

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  24. Anonymous9:19 PM

    Jill I can relate to your fall on the ice. After surviving a solo bike trip from Seattle to Inuvik I found myself a week later in a 5 star hotel at an Outdoor Industry event. I came flying into the bathroom of my hotel room to spit out some toothpaste (I must have been engaged with the morning news) to find my feet coming up from underneath me. The hotel had graciously put me in a handicapped room with the shower floor and the bathroom floor the one and the same. I had started the shower before brushing my teeth. (In light of our outsized personal energy use it is an admission that greatly embarrasses me) As I flew thru the air my life passed in front of me coming to a culminating moment when my back squarely met the marble
    floor. It took me close to an hour to regain any semblance of personal dignity and I did so only by slithering on my back out of the bathroom to the carpet where I could get a bit of traction. Ultimately it was a 9 week recovery. As I lied there on the bathroom floor the irony of successfully facing down grizzly bears in their domain and then soon afterward becoming a possible quadriplegic in a 5 star hotel did not completely escape me.

    You had a fantastic trip all around. Imagine that you are very, very close to 1 in 6 billion and keep that thought with you for the rest of your life. Great job!

    Pat Rodden

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  25. Anonymous12:18 AM

    Well done Jill, and thank you for such a good write up of the event.

    With the food issue, dehydration can be a big contributor. When dehydrated most peoples digestion shuts down. It takes a lot of water to keep hydrated, even at the low temperatures. You should need to pee at least every 2 hours.

    As others have mentioned you need to find what food works for you. This takes time, so best to start now!

    All the best for your future endeavours.

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  26. tailbone! ouch! Ib proufen is your friend.

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  27. You've got to keep riding on through the abyss of undiscovered countries if for no other reason than to chase your lactic muse. He demands much but has much to offer when caught. Isn't it fantastic when the words flow forth in a fuge state, unhindered by embellishment or hyperbole, because none is required. You put out some nice fluid prose to compliment your fluid (sometimes?) pedalstrokes from the extreme.

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  28. I did a little research and found that Payday Candy bars have the most calories for the $ while still being palatable. They work for me.

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  29. Congrats, Jill. You are a great person, competitor and writer. What a combo. I look forward to reading and seeing so much more from you. In the meantime, rest and recover, an important (and oft-overlooked) stage in the journey. Woo Hoo!

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  30. Awesome conclusion to an exciting story. Thanks for sharing!

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  31. Anonymous9:40 PM

    Jill, thanks so much for writing about your herculean accomplishment! I really enjoyed reading your race report, and found in inspiring that you were able to overcome the many obstacles thrown at you during the brutal journey.

    Bravo to you for a job well done!

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  32. Awesome finish! It sure is exciting to learn more about yourself, is it not? I think that is what makes or breaks us. Great job again Jill. A true inspiration!

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  33. Anonymous11:34 PM

    when are you writing a book about your alaska adventures...or are you already writing one?
    i would surely read it!
    the posts about this race are truly inspirational!!!

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