Friday, March 07, 2008

Day seven: Ghost trail to McGrath

Bathed in comfort at Nick and Olene's house, I made the mistake of reverting back to the status of a real person. I sat in discouragement as I examined my legs, a cacophony of bruises, swollen ankles and throbbing knees. I grabbed the loose skin around my abdomen and realized I had lost some weight. I had lost a lot of weight. Most of it was probably water, but still, it hadn't been that long. My head throbbed from a serious dehydration hangover and my stomach lurched from my frantic efforts to stuff down calories. Then I made the mistake of going online. I learned how worried people at home had become for my well-being. And then I checked the weather report. "Severe Wind Advisory" it screamed. "35 mph winds gusting to 50 mph. Wind chills to 60 below 0." I just shook my head. That couldn't possibly be real. I asked Nick, the wizened local, how he dealt with traveling in such weather. "I don't travel in this kind of weather," he said matter-of-factly.

It was late in the evening and I figured I had at most 24 more hours to ride into McGrath, and likely closer to 12. But I had seriously underestimated how many batteries I would need for the race and figured at the time I only had five, maybe six hours of good lithium battery power for my headlamp and about two hours of desperately low battery power with my one set of (near useless) alkaline batteries. If I left at 9 p.m., I would likely be caught out in utter blackness in the storm at 2 a.m. My only option was to leave around 4 a.m. and hope I had the strength to push into McGrath before the next night. Waiting until pre-dawn would also give me more rest, more time to rehydrate, more time to let the wind calm down, I told myself. I tossed and turned with words of Nick's wisdom ringing in my head. "I don't travel in this kind of weather."

At 4 a.m., the wind was as strong as ever. I remembered the way it tore at my face through my goggles the day before, and it was much, much colder now. Maybe 20 below, before wind chill. I put on every layer I had. The clothing provided a good climate zone for my body, but I could feel the fingers of death clawing at the air only centimeters away. "I will go two miles," I told myself. "And I will see how insane this really is. And then I will turn around." However, what I didn't know was that outside of Nikolai, the trail makes a sharp angled turn onto the river, back almost the way it came. And pretty quickly, I realized that the 35 mph wind gusting to 50 mph wasn't just no longer in my face. It was full on at my back.

In the arctic blast, Pugsley and I flew down the Kuskokwim River. I had to keep the tire pressure really low - about 6 psi - to punch through all the soft sugar snowdrifts across the trail. But for long, hardpacked stretches we would fly at 12 mph, 14 mph, without even trying. I felt like I was piloting an airplane. After an hour, a small chill began to set in near my chest and I started to shiver. I noticed that every time I sat down on my bicycle seat, it felt like a burning block of dry ice. It stole more and more heat away from my core until I couldn't feel my butt any longer. I quickly stopped, pulled three of the four chemical heat packs out of my mittens, stuffed one down my bike shorts for each butt cheek and one between my legs. The chemical warmers improved my situation nearly 100 percent. Later, in McGrath, I would notice a deep red burn on the top of each butt cheek. That may have been the beginning of tailwind-induced butt frostbite.

It was a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, even when you feel on top of the world with a 35 mph tailwind. I did not know it then, but at nearly the exact same time, another competitor, a woman walker, was fighting that same wind into Nikolai. A headwind for her, the monster gusts would ravage her eyes until they froze shut. Completely blinded, she would grope around for her sled but somehow become disoriented and unable to get in her sleeping bag or even zip up her jacket. She would wander around helplessly until another racer, a cyclist, met her from behind, put her in her sleeping bag, and rode as fast as he could into Nikolai to send back help. She would acknowledge that she would likely have died if this cyclist did not meet her and help her when he did. I was heartbroken when I learned this later that night. How quickly everything changes.

As day broke, the trail became more and more drifted in. I suspected this would happen in the wind, especially where the river narrowed, but I still couldn't hold back the frustration after I had foolishly allowed myself to believe I could make a six-hour run over the final 50 miles to McGrath. For miles, the trail would be covered in anywhere from one inch to 12 inches of fine, sugar-like snow. Often, I couldn't even distinguish the trail from the rest of the river. I would scout around with my front wheel until it dropped down into the waist-deep snow just off the trail. Then I would climb back out, walk tentatively forward, and continue scouting until the wheel fell out from under me, again. My average pace dropped from over 10 mph back down to 2 mph. I still had 20 miles to push into McGrath. At first daylight, an average pace of 2 mph would put me in town right at sunset. I began to fret about my batteries, again.

I would later talk to Kathi, the first woman cyclist who was just under a day ahead of me, about this final stretch. She is arguably the most experienced female Alaska winter cyclist alive, and is hugely optimistic and open to anything. She would call it "a slog." She wouldn't even refer to the push over Rainy Pass with this derogatory of an adjective. She called Rainy Pass "a fun walk." So when Kathi calls something a slog, you have to know it's really A SLOG. To me, temporarily losing the trail every once in a while was frustrating. But the movement itself felt like wading through a giant, endless bowl of granulated sugar. My calves burned with the effort of the soft steps and my heart rate pounded. And all the while, the landscape of the open river lingered like an anchor caught at the bottom of the sea. I was the sailor tirelessly cranking away at the pulley, but the anchor never gave up its hold. Walking down a frozen river is the definition of monotony. I would fixate on a single tree and watch it take a half hour to reach me. Bluffs could take over an hour. I was losing my will, losing my mind. I stopped to eat a fruit leather. I ripped off the package with my teeth and the howling tailwind tore it out of my mouth and sent it fluttering down the trail. I watched it dance down the river until it disappeared from sight. It followed the exact path I wanted to take. I was so angry that my wrapper could travel to McGrath faster than I could.

I tried to keep my mind occupied. I thought about Geoff and what he must have gone through to let go of the race even when he had no choice. I thought about bicycle touring and how different touring really is during the summer. I thought about cycling and how different "cycling" really is from this endless effort I was experiencing. I thought about my frantic family and hoped they hadn't checked the weather report. I thought about the foods I might like to eat and decided I no longer cared about food. I thought about Juneau and my job, and I wondered how I could ever go back to it all. How I could ever really leave this trail. I caught The Wrens' "Happy" on my iPod shuffle and set it on repeat for at least six playings ... "is this how it's going to be? ... is this how you wanted me? ... broken down again ... it's almost over now." I could not think about the end in McGrath. The end was still so far, far away.

The hours passed by like minutes, and sometimes like days. My knees began to burn and throb, not unlike my right knee had at the end of the 2007 Susitna 100, right before I spent several months injured. I worried about the future, but in a way, I didn't care. The only thing that mattered now was step after step and The Slog. Then I started to see the signs outside of McGrath. "Ultrasport: 10 more miles" the first one read. Then, an eternity later, nine more miles. Then eight. Then I turned off the river onto completely blown-in snowmobile trails. Then seven. I walked as though locked in a slow-motion dream, where every effort I had to give amounted to nearly nothing.

After the six-mile sign, a gust of wind caught me from the side and knocked me off the trail. I laid in the snow, with my 70-pound bike on top of me, and I wondered whether or not I would be able to get up. I laughed because the thought of being pinned there was funny, but then, just like that, I started to sob. I had not cried once during the entire race. And there I was, six miles outside McGrath, bawling so hard that I had to gasp for air as my tear-filled eyelashes froze shut. I cried and cried and cried. I cried for my frozen water and heavy bike and burning knees and throbbing calves and piles of food I could not eat. I cried for the hard, unwarming sun and the wind and the driving cold. I cried for the distance and for my aloneness and for the remoteness and the mean, mean, unmerciful nature of it all. I cried because my adventure was nearly done. I cried because I knew I was going to survive it. I cried because I knew there was an end to the suffering. And I cried because I knew there would be no end to the drive.

About three miles outside of McGrath, the trail veered onto a road. A full-on, two-lane snowpacked-but-plowed road. People in Subarus and snowmachines puttered by, waving often but not even doubletaking the alien bicycle lumbering up the road. Riding the first road I'd seen since Day One, I decided I was going to sprint the final three miles into town. I was going to give it every thing I had. I laid into the pedals with my burning knees and pushed, pushed, pushed. My lungs seared and head throbbed. The bicycle odometer inched up to 9 mph and dropped back to 8. Eight mph. That was all I had to give.

I felt a subdued sort of peace as I rolled into driveway with the big Alaska Ultrasport sign, the warm home of Peter and Tracy, a couple in McGrath who open their lives to the dozens of stinky trekkers who push into their small town. I was told by Jeff Oatley that McGrath is an oasis in the tundra, a heaven where angels feed you grapes and wrap you in warm blankets. Peter's and Tracy's home did not disappoint. I rolled in at 4:20 p.m., just in time to sit down to family dinner. Bill and Kathi were still there, as were a few other Euro racers, and I didn't even have time to strip off all my layers before Peter sat me down at the table with a tall glass of orange juice and a big meal of pork chops and potatoes.

As I sat at the table, chatting about strange topics with the strange crowd and trying to stuff down the food I still was not hungry for, I could feel a piece of me being ripped away. I went into the race believing I would change out on the trail. Less than an hour into being done, I couldn't believe how changed I felt. How severe the final shift, it's still hard to say. But as I stumbled upstairs to take a shower and looked at my emaciated body in the mirror, I couldn't help but mourn the person I had lost. I was still Jill from Juneau, but I would never be the same. I had followed the ghost trail to McGrath and in a way had become a ghost, forever in flux, forever searching for an end.