Thursday, March 05, 2009

12 hours of fun

The 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational did not exactly go well for me, but it was amazingly fun while it lasted. The fun and almost relaxed nature of those 57 miles into Yentna Station came as a surprise after the general gloom that hung over me all day Saturday. Thick flakes of snow fell on Southcentral Alaska for most of the afternoon, accumulating by the inch and promising to obliterate any sign of the trail out of Knik. My cold had flared up again, compounded by anxiety and, much to my annoyance about the timing, cramps. I was nauseated and on the verge of vomiting for most of the afternoon, chugging Alka Seltzer out of a water bottle and catching little cat naps as we drove around to pick up our last "Oh, I forgot this" items and watch our friend and her band play at a Fur Rondie gig. To make matters worse, Geoff had caught my cold and was plunged into the worst of it. As we crawled up the Glenn Highway in the fresh snow, passing at least 30 buried and upside-down vehicles that had careened off the road in the storm, Geoff said, "So this is what impending doom feels like."

I took a sleeping pill and passed out for nine solid hours. And then, just like the calm center of a swirling storm, Sunday morning arrived. I woke up to clear, beautiful skies and a renewed sense of peace. My strength had returned and my nauseated anxiety had converted to almost overwhelming excitement. I felt like a harnessed sled dog as I arrived at the race start in Knik, nipping excitedly at the cold air and shaking with the desire to run, run, run. We purposely arrived just minutes before the start to avoid that last-minute anxiety, but as I unloaded my bike and wheeled it to the starting line, I felt confident. "I can do this," I thought. "This is my year."

The minute Kathi yelled "Go," most of the cyclists were off their bikes and pushing across the fresh drifted snow over Knik Lake. Ten inches of fresh powder promised at best slow riding conditions, at worst an indefinite amount of pushing. But I started the race expecting it. I knew if I had to push my bike all the way to Skwentna, it would take me at least two days to get there. "But that's OK," I thought. "I have all the time in the world."

Luckily, enough snowmobiles and been through that the trail had set up nicely as soon as we left Knik Lake. It took a while to pass all of the runners and skiers that had gotten ahead of me. The last skier I passed was Pete Basinger, a veteran Iditarod cyclist who decided to try to mix it up this year by skiing all the way to Nome. "Hey, Pete, thanks for fixing my bike. It feels awesome," I said to him as I passed him. "Can I borrow it?" he replied with a laugh. (Skiing is much more physical work than biking this trail, even in marginal conditions, so I'm hugely impressed with what Pete is trying to do this year.)

I joined a pace line with several other cyclists - a few Europeans, Anchorage rookie Sean Grady on "skinny" wheels and Catherine Shenk, a rookie from Colorado. Catherine and I hit it off immediately. I was excited to ride with other women in the race, and Catherine was excited to be riding her bike in Alaska. "This place is unreal," she said as we traversed the rolling hills and crossed the Little Susitna River. "Isn't it?" I said. Catherine and I seemed to be comfortable riding a similar pace and I thought we might make good companions for the duration of the race.

The wind picked up and our pack broke up as we hit more open and drifted areas that required us to get off our bikes and push. I noticed I was a little bit faster of a "pusher" than the people I had been riding with, and also seemed to be able to ride more of the marginal sections of trail (maybe because I was willing to run my tire pressure lower than some of the rookies, but that's just a theory I have about it.) Anyway, I soon broke out in front of the pack, somewhere ahead of the main group but behind the dozen race leaders who took the legal shortcut. For a long time I just shadowed skier Cory Smith, who was cruising across the drifting snow like it was groomed trail. As we dropped onto the slough before Flathorn Lake, I landed in shin-deep drifted snow and had no choice but to push. Cory shot out ahead of me, and I was alone.

I don't have a great memory of those last miles before I fell into the water. After sunset, it was still light enough to travel without a headlight, but the light was flat enough that it was difficult to tell a steep berm from a little bump, a ski track from a trench. I remember I was looking out across the lake a lot and not always looking down at my path, because there wasn't much of a path to follow. The wind was blowing so hard that snow drifted in tracks as soon as they were made, and I could hardly see the tire marks and footprints of the people who had moved through just minutes before. But it was clear enough that I could see exactly where I needed to go, so I just pointed my bike and walked toward the horizon. It was there, trudging slowly and focusing only on the distant shoreline, that I dropped my bike and one leg into a thinly-frozen crack at a weak point where a stream came into the lake.

After that, huge amounts of adrenaline kicked in and I moved with strength, excitement and purpose the next 30 miles to the Yentna checkpoint. I explained my decision-making process in my last post, but my physical state after I dunked my leg was nothing short of strong and healthy. The going was still slow with lots of pushing, low-pressure pedaling over lightly packed powder, and jogging in an effort to keep my foot warm. It took me seven hours to cover that distance, including a short stop to help out a fellow racer who had lost his pump, but I never once felt cold or uncomfortable. I thought I was OK at the time because I never felt my foot becoming cold, let alone freezing. This was probably because my foot was instantly numbed in the initial submersion, but I assumed it was because I was doing well to keep my foot warm. It turns out I was wrong about that, but in many ways I don't necessarily regret my decision to try to get to the first checkpoint. As soon as dunked my leg, none of my options were great. If I had stopped immediately on the lake to take off my boot, I would have halted my progress right there and become entirely dependent on rescue. In the time it took another racer to find me and send someone back to help me, I may have struggled with hypothermia or something more serious than frostbitten toes. Another option that seems appropriate in hindsight would have been to walk backward down the trail toward one of the unoccupied cabins on the lake. Breaking into a cabin to attend to a life-threatening situation is certainly acceptable in the harsh Alaska backcountry, but the fact is, it's private property and difficult to assess whether a situation is really life-threatening. It's also a controversial and discouraged practice with ITI travelers, who are supposed to be geared up to be self-sufficient.

Either way, what's done is done, and I know it's silly to feel sorry for myself. I was lucky in my situation. I initially thought I stepped into overflow, but in further discussing it with others who remembered that exact spot and realizing that my foot never hit bottom, I know that what I fell into was the deep, dark lake. I am extremely lucky that only my right leg went in and not my whole body, or even worse, my whole body and my bike with all of my survival gear attached to it. Taking a swim in subzero temperatures with 20 mph winds becomes life-threatening within minutes, whether or not you can pull yourself out of the water.

This race is hard. It is truly, for almost everyone who participates, more of an adventure than a race, more about survival and strength than speed. As I write this, those competitors still in the race are held up just below Rainy Pass, waiting for trailbreakers to forge a trail in the deep snow as a major storm moves toward the Alaska Range. This is shaping out to be a hard, hard year for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and it will be interesting to see in the next few days who - if anyone - makes it to McGrath. I wish the best for the racers still out there. They have my deepest respect. I wanted to thank everyone who commented on my last post with words of encouragement, especially to the man who is recovering from much more serious frostbite down in Salt Lake City. I'm going to take care of my toes the best I can, I'm going to heal and be fine, and I don't for a second regret giving this race another try. I don't want to ever become the kind of person who doesn't dare to fail and fail spectacularly. I don't ever want to be unwilling to approach the unknown. I don't ever want to live a life free of risk.