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.