Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Frostbite

So, what happened? As with most misfortunes, a little bad luck and a little bad judgment in a place where there's absolutely no margin for error, and I now have an incapacitated right foot. I spent six hours in the emergency room at Mat-Su Valley Regional last night. Most of that was waiting, but some of the waiting was connected to the fact that have a fairly serious case of frostbite that the doctors felt needed some outside consulting. Blisters have spread across all five toes and I have some black tissue on my big toe that is supposedly concerning. I will most likely not require surgery (i.e. I get to keep all of my toes), but I am in for a long recovery, and, as with all cases of frostbite, my toes will for the rest of my life be more prone to cold injury.

So what happened? Well, as is usually the case with bad judgement, I was feeling awesome. The day started out beautiful. Trails were slow and soft but rideable. I had everything dialed in. I rode with a peloton of six other cyclists and felt like I wasn't even working. The wind picked up over the course of the afternoon and began to drift in the trails with the 6 inches of dry snow that fell the day before. By Flathorn Lake, at about mile 30, all of us were off and pushing, and the group started to spread out. Evening fell and the light became really flat. Because I was pushing, I was not paying much attention to the trail, instead looking out at the beautiful alpenglow on Mount Susitna and the ground blizzards tearing across the lake like sand in the desert. Suddenly, my front wheel dropped sharply into a trench just as I was stepping forward with my right foot. I fell backward onto my butt and my right leg plunged up to my upper thigh in frigid water. My leg dangled over unknown depths of the lake as I frantically clawed backward up the trench. The overturned bike had also punched through the thin ice with one handlebar, but I left it there until I was securely on solid ice. I laid on my stomach, reached down and pulled it up by the rear wheel. A right pogie and a mitten that was stuck inside were completely soaked and the outside of my bivy bag was superficially wet. I'm pretty sure I lost a half-eaten bag of MnMs to the frigid depths of Flathorn Lake. But, much more concerningly, I had taken on tons of water inside my gators, boots, and both socks.

Now, I don't need lectures. I know how serious this is. At this point, I had to make quick decisions. I was out in the middle of a frozen lake in a fierce headwind and ground blizzards with temperatures already dipping below zero. I decided at that point that my best option was to get out of the wind and get into my bag in an area where I could build a fire, and I knew of a nice sheltered area between Flathorn Lake and the Dismal Swamp, about a mile away. However, on foot, pushing a bike through soft snow, a mile is quite a distance. By the time I got to the sheltered spot, by boot was frozen on. I could not even unhook the Velcro on my gators, let alone undo the laces and zipper and pull my foot out of a completely waterproof boot. So I was faced with a boot stuck to my leg and water sloshing around inside. What I should have done at that point was build a fire, wrap my sleeping bag around my body and try to melt enough of the ice to free my foot. But that's hindsight. What I did do was get this idea inside my head that my foot was perfectly warm even with the water inside my boot. I thought with the vapor barrier sock and insulated boot, my body heat would warm the water and create an equilibrium that I could work with, at least until the next checkpoint. Especially since I was walking at that point, and with all of the drifting snow, there didn't seem to be any end in sight to walking. I managed to wet my boot last year and walk for several hours in similar temperatures with no problems. Thus, the bad judgment. I thought I was fine.

The next seven hours were great. The soft trails set up enough to ride again, and I was feeling so strong that I alternated riding and running every 10 minutes just to keep my foot warm. I continued to wiggle by toes and they continued to wiggle for me. The temperature dropped to 25 below zero on the Yentna River. The fierce headwind drove the windchill down to minus a lot, but I never felt the effects of the extreme temperature. To deal with my frozen pogie and mitten, I put my left mitten on my right hand and rode with only a fleece glove on my left hand. I procured a new bag of MnMs and ate, and rode, and ran, and felt great. I knew I had a long layover at Yentna waiting for me, but I still didn't believe my race was over.

I arrived at the checkpoint at about 2:30 a.m. I was in 13th place. I sat down in the doorway and went to work removing my boot. Even sitting next to a wood stove, it still took me 10 minutes just to work the gator free, then the laces, finally the zipper. When I tried to remove my foot, I realized that my sock was frozen inside my boot. And as I worked the sock down to simply try to remove my foot, I realized with no shortage of trepidation that my foot was frozen to my vapor barrier sock.

It took nearly a half hour to get my foot out of my boot. The tips of my toes were rigid and white, but I was not yet willing to admit to myself what I had done. I quickly slipped on my bootie, went in the next room to check in, ate a meal and settled down for a nap.

I felt no pain as I slept, for the first two hours. Geoff arrived at about 5 a.m. and I told him I was worried I had frostbite. We moved upstairs and it was about then that the thaw set in. For three hours, I laid on the floor on top of my sleeping bag in a hot room, writhing in agony. Hard to explain that pain. Like the "screaming barfies," drawn out for three solid hours. I drew blood from by palms by clenching my fists so tight. By the time I stood up again, I could hardly walk.

I hobbled down the stairs to let the checker know about my situation. I showed him my foot, which still didn't look that bad. The sun shown brightly outside. The thermometer had climbed to 12 below. It looked absolutely beautiful. I so, so wanted to go out there and ride. "It's up to you what you want to do," the checker told me. And I'm ashamed to admit that I, after going through what I had gone through with the thaw, and knowing perfectly well that I absolutely had frostbite, and still had a wet boot, socks, mitten and pogie, seriously considered continuing in the race. Tim Hewitt, a man who has walked to Nome three times and has set out this year to do it a fourth time, who has to be one of the toughest men on Earth, walked up to me and said, with sincere sadness in his eyes, "You can't go on."

And that was it. Geoff, who was upstairs wheezing and coughing and struggling with a cold that had turned into a more serious respiratory illness, mulled over continuing for several hours before deciding to scratch and fly out with me. It was a horrible morning. The lodge owners and other racers were very kind, but I was in a state of disbelief, mostly about my foot and how much the condition had deteriorated over the morning. But dropping out of the race weighed very heavily on my mind. And I had to question my own mental state, and just how tied up I'd become in this whole thing, when I was more disappointed about leaving the race than I was about the fact that I had just sustained a fairly serious injury.

Looking back, I know what I should have done. Taken my boot off immediately, crawled into my partially wet bivy on the lake ice, and awaited help which was very close behind, in the form of other racers. I've mulled over all my options and I realize there was, with the gear I had with me, no way I could have saved my race. Falling into the pressure crack, because I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking, was my fatal mistake. But I absolutely could have avoided frostbite, and now have to question whether the misguided hope that I could save my race led me to drive on when it was clearly not the smart move.

This race has no margin for error. I love it still but I'm extremely disappointed right now, with concern about my upcoming recovery, and a fair amount of self-loathing for the decisions I made. It will take some time, some time when I'm on crutches and unable to ride my bike, but I'll work through this. As always, it's another life experience. I can't say I haven't learned a lot.

I want to say thanks to Scott for tracking me during my short time on the trail, to Sean Grady for his offer to help, to everyone who helped gear me up for the race and everyone who supported me. I'm sorry I let you guys down.