Monday, March 03, 2008

Day one: Knik to Skwentna

Sunday afternoon burned clear and calm as the racers of the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational lined up at the edge of Knik Lake, next to a rowdy roadhouse just outside the limits of Anchorage suburbia. All manner of gear-laden fat bikes and bundled sleds leaned against the log building. People in expedition parkas, insulated overboots and polypro tights milled around in the pre-race haze. Against the backdrop of classic Alaska culture with its snowmachines and Carhartts, we must have looked like astronauts preparing to go to the moon. In a way, we were.

The road to the beginning of the Iditarod Trail has been a long and strange route for me. I feel like I have crossed the galaxy in my transformation from someone who was once too afraid of the dark and unknown to be willing to go for a hike at night, to someone gearing up to cross the Alaska Range alone with a bicycle in the winter. But as I looked across the frozen lake to the place where the trail disappeared into the woods, those fears of the dark and unknown came rocketing back. I couldn't believe this was me standing at this point, facing this human-powered journey that only a few hundred people have ever attempted. Only a small fraction of those have been women.

I took slow, heavy breaths and tried to look calm as the chaos reached fever pitch. My watch chugged toward 2 p.m. I rolled my bike next to Geoff, who was cinching up the harness on his sled. After months of training together, preparing together and working together, we were finally standing at the starting line, together. We shared a long, clasping hug of two people who understood we were at the final crossroads, about to go our separate ways. "I'm going to see you real soon," I said, knowing his fast foot pace would keep him near me for most of the race. "Don't count on it," he said, in his way of encouraging me to give the bike effort everything I had.

I never heard anyone say "go." Just like a lapse between one dream and another, we were suddenly pedaling across the lake, hopping over the torn-up tracks of freewheeling snowmachines and finally climbing into those all-encompassing woods. The field of racers stretched out quickly. Within four miles, I couldn't see another person behind or in front of me. I passed the last group of well-wishers at Seven Mile Lake, and the only cyclist I would ever pass at mile 11. From there, all I had to look forward to were long, long periods of quiet interrupted only by checkpoint chaos.

To many participants of this race and its well-known big brother, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Iditarod Trail becomes a living thing, infused with all of the personality and sinister motivations that humans are prone to bestowing on the things they can not control. The trail can be benevolent one mile and unspeakably cruel the next. It changes by the hour and even by the minute. No two travelers will ever see the same trail. As it snakes its way over frozen rivers and swamps, the ice and the weather - not people - choose its final path. It is a trail forever in flux; an imaginary line embedded in the geography of Alaska; a ghost trail. A person could potentially follow it forever, and never really find its end. According to race organizer Bill Merchant, many people return to the race and the trail year after year. The Iditarod embeds itself in their souls, he says. They're still looking for its end.

On the first day of the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational, the trail was unbelievably kind. Hardpacked and smooth, it allowed me to motor my 70ish pounds of bike, food, water and gear at 10 mph in comfortable touring mode. The temperature still hovered near the 20s at sunset as I rolled over the so-called Dismal Swamp, now cool and calm and bathed in breathtaking gold alpenglow. The high mountains of the Alaska Range captured incandescent pink hues in the far, far distance. "Denali," I said to myself. I turned onto the Yentna River as night descended. The moguls of the snowmachine trail rolled like frozen waves. I pictured myself in a little canoe paddling into the wilderness. A golden moon climbed into the sky behind me as low northern lights flowed across the northern horizon. "This is it, out here, the real Alaska," I said to myself. Little did I know that, compared to the bewildering remoteness beyond the Alaska Range, I was still in the suburbs. But for now, I would relish in my innocence. I would be strong and fast. I would be a cyclist, and not a trekker. For now.

I rolled into the Skwentna Roadhouse just after 2 a.m. I couldn't believe that I had traveled 90 miles in 12 hours. A pace like that in the Susitna 100 would have been phenomenal for a person like me, and here I was setting it at the beginning of a potentially week-long race. And still I felt as fresh as I had at Knik Lake. I wanted to drive on toward Finger Lake; the audacity of attempting a 36-hour push the first day of the race was the only thing that stopped me. I checked into a room at the roadhouse and imagined what kind of pace I could set in the morning if the trail held up even half as well. I was still innocent. I was still a racer, and not a survivor. For now.


  1. Alrighty then! No writers block for Jill! I woulda taken a month off from an event like that before putting pen to paper, but not Ms Homer ... she strikes when the iron is hot. Or, shall I say, when the snow boot is frozen. This should be good. Where did I put my popcorn ...

  2. Yay! Much better than the one sentence notes from the Iditarod Race Report we were subjected to during the race. You are back and giving us your writing at its finest. Glad you made it all in one piece and can't wait to read the entire story!

  3. Jill, You must realize that you spoiled your loyal readers by allowing us into your adventurous lifestyle through your daily posts. Dan did a fine job of keeping us abreast of the necessary info regarding the race, but left us longing for your words...insight. Welcome back from your epic journey & serious congratulations on your stellar showing out there! Ali

  4. Congratulations!

  5. I am so happy to see your pictures and words...You rock!


  6. Jill,

    You got a book deal yet?


  7. You and Geoff totally amaze me. Did he greet you in McGrath like he wanted to?

    I agree you should have a book deal. I remember reading somewhere on your blog how writing feeds your soul. You are so good at it, and at biking 350 miles through barren Alaskan Land solo!

    You go girl. I can't wait for more!

  8. Jill, Jill, Jill!!!

    Welcome back Your writing is thrilling and transported all of us right inside your journey. What an absolutely amazing job you did! You are my new heroine! (Can I clean your bike sometime?)

    Please let us know how Geoff did, too.
    -Barb <--awed and amazed at your accomplishments and awaiting the full story

  9. A HA ! I think you have answered a question many of us biker chicks have but were afraid to ask ! You "checked into a room" so I assume this means you were able on occasion, to have a hot shower or bath and wash your hair ?

  10. Again, fantastic job in completing that ride (push/walk). I must say that I truly enjoy reading your blog from not only the perspective of the story you are telling, but from how you tell it. You have a gift for prose as well as one for riding insane distances. I am such a wus compared to you. Thanks for posting your story. I look forward to your next installment.


  11. You're my hero!

    Seriously, you write, you ride and you chase your dreams.

    You're my hero

  12. Congratulations on making your goal!!! You are an inspiration to this cyclist & I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of your adventure.

  13. Brava! Any woman who even attempts this race is on my list of most awesome women of all time. Congratulations for an amazing accomplishment!

  14. Hey Jill,

    Congratulations! I don't even think that word sums it up though, Sierra and I are both totally amazed. Looking forward to hearing the entire tale.


  15. YYYYEEEESSSS! Finally, we get to read more from Jill!!!

    How many times have I clicked on your website waiting for another update? Too many to count, many more than I should as a busy working momma... :-)

  16. Mmm, foreshadowing. Excellent.

  17. Jill, beautifully written. Hope you are resting and eating well.

  18. Jill,
    Congratulation to both you and Geoff! Can't wait to see your recap of your trip between Rainy Pass to MacGrath. Sounds like a lot of heart and soul went into this segment of your adventure.

  19. Wow. Awesome writing, Jill. Congrats.


  20. Awesome post - suspected, and confirmed that you and Geo' are as awesome in person as you are in the blogosphere - yep, looking forward to more about your experiance


    That was such a great report, and I feel like I was with you on your journey! I am SO excited for you!! OMG, it was such an honor meeting you before you began your super race. My game plan is to ride to McGrath in 2010 and I hope you'll decide to race again then!

    Yeh, you ain't kidding about the rowdy roadhoad in Knik! Man, do I have a story for you! Remind me to tell you when I see you next.



  22. Congratulations on finishing, thank you for writing up the adventure and bring all of the readers with you.

  23. Congratulations Jill! Sooo ... next year? Are thoughts creeping into your head to go all the way to Nome? I don't want to take away from this adventure but with myself I start thinking bigger a couple days after a big ride. Are you?

  24. Well done,

    Good Luck with the adventure. You are source of inspiration...


Feedback is always appreciated!