Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Day two: Skwentna to Puntilla Lake

The first person I saw at Skwentna was a wild-eyed Jay Petervary, fresh awake from his nap and gulping down soup in the kitchen. I couldn't believe I had caught one of the leaders, even if he was technically a few hours ahead of me. I asked him how he felt and he practically screamed, "Great! Great! Awesome!" His energy was magnetic and I could see in his eyes the intensity it takes to dominate a race like this. "Had a long sleep," he sniffed. "Three hours. Gotta rest up when I'm going to Nome."

"But you're still going to win the race the McGrath, right?" I grinned.

He didn't even smile back. He just nodded. "Oh yeah."

As Jay packed up I sat down to my daily trail meal ... spaghetti with meat sauce. It tasted like ketchup-coated starch strings with rubber balls. It was heavenly.

I woke up the next morning after my own three hours of sleep and took a toilet-paper bath in the luxurious indoor plumbing-equipped bathroom. I was pleased that I still looked somewhat like a normal person. I tried to eat a Clif Bar for breakfast and could only choke down half of it. This was the beginning of the end of my goal for healthy food intake during the race. In the end, I would run a calorie deficit that would cause me to lose five pounds in six days and bonk out in the dark, cold wilderness more than once. But for now, I just decided I wasn't hungry quite yet.

I set out into the Shell Hills with Ted Cahalane, who quickly outpaced me as the trail began to work its way up toward the Alaska Range. Alone again, I basked in the warmth of sunrise and pushed hard up a few hills to jolt my metabolism. This race couldn't possibly be this easy, I thought. I immediately tried to shake that thought out of my head before the Iditarod Trail demons decided to smite my arrogant rookie self with a monster storm. I stopped at the Shell Lake Lodge for a big breakfast with a European cyclist who didn't speak any English. This would become an ongoing theme for me in this race - meeting up with racers who I couldn't even communicate with well enough to remember their names, but with whom I share an intimate understanding and respect. Again, I had a hard time choking down my breakfast. At one point, I thought I might need to run outside to vomit. But it didn't seem like that serious of a problem. The appetite would come, I told myself.

Headwinds into Finger Lake made the going slower, but the trail was still hardpacked and 100 percent rideable - phenomenal conditions this far into the route. As I pulled into the 130-mile checkpoint, I was caught by none other than Pete Basinger, another favorite in the race. I found out he broke one of his pedals on the Skwentna River, waited overnight for a replacement to be flown in, fixed the pedal and still managed to plow up the trail at a pace that was quickly advancing him toward the front of the race. The quantum mechanics of such an effort astounded me. I didn't want to seem like too much of a star-struck groupie, so I tried to advert my eyes as he packed up his drop bag - looked to be mostly candy bars - reloaded his mp3 player, and left without even eating. My own drop bag was loaded with 10 pounds of food and fuel to replace the less than one pound I had consumed so far. I picked out a few choice items and left 90 percent of it in the discard pile. The checker then coaxed me to eat my own meal - chicken with rice and beans - before I hit the trail myself.

I was told the 35-mile climb into Puntilla Lake would likely be the most physically challenging section of the race. The trail gains the most elevation in this stretch, through a series of rolling hills that means a lot of elevation lost must be gained again. Even a firm-packed trail is often so steep that uphills become a grunting hike-a-bike, and the trail was starting to become much softer. The European cyclist I had breakfast with could only say, "So, The Push!" We walked together until he, too, outpaced me. I watched my progress slowly bring me closer to the jagged peaks in the distance, until darkness fell. Then all I had to watch was my progress in a five-foot-diameter circle of light on the trail, telling only a story of footprints and tire tracks, a monotonous sequence of hills and The Push.

The temperature began to drop - to minus five and then minus 10. The water in my insulated bottle holder and Camelbak bladder grew more slushy and solid by the hour. Every sip felt like drinking near-boiling water on a 100-degree day. My body didn't like this cold water and it didn't like the cold air. I could scarcely steer as eyelash icicles obstructed my vision. I kept thinking about the humor of the situation - here I was, Juneau Jill of The Rain, trying to ride a bike up a mountain in negative 10 cold. I had no idea how easy I had it.

I arrived at Puntilla Lake very late - 4 a.m. - having pulled out a 21-hour day and losing most of the beauty of the Alaska Range approach to the cold night. But this is the nature of the race - if you only traveled by day, you wouldn't even be moving half the time you were out there. Night still dominates this time of year. So one must travel when one can and stop when one needs to. The checker at the tiny Puntilla Lake Lodge gave me my next gourmet meal - clam chowder served boiling hot directly from the can and "pilot bread," a quintessential Alaska Bush food that I can only describe as a giant soggy sodium-free Saltine cracker. Again, my dinner tasted like heaven. I was glad to have my appetite back. I crawled onto a hard wooden bed in the bunk room and drifted quickly to sleep, my knees burning and toes wrapped in blisters from walking, but otherwise feeling fresh, fresh as I need to be to climb Rainy Pass, I told myself.