Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One more rehash

Photo by Dan Bailey. Used without permission. Sorry, Dan.

I'm probably one of the few ITI participants who can stay in a race for all of 12 hours and still find a way to write 6,000 words about it. This is a column I wrote for the Juneau Empire. It seemed a good overview, so I thought I'd post it here.

"A unique cycling injury: Frostbite."

From a racer’s perspective, it was a perfect example of how a person can be on top of their game one minute and hip-deep in trouble the next.

From an adventurer’s perspective, it was a defining moment of hard reality amid months of hopeful preparations.

This is where I stood on March 1 at mile 27 of the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile human-powered adventure race along Alaska’s most famous winter trail. It was my second year entered in the race as a cyclist. In 2008 as a rookie, I managed to land myself in plenty of troubling situations and still found a way to finish the race in a respectable time of six days, two hours. This year, I wasn’t a rookie anymore. I had made my mistakes and learned from them. I had a whole new batch of sweat-tested survival gear and a new outlook about my willpower and physical abilities. And on the afternoon of March 1, as I faced the seemingly endless trail where it launched from Knik Lake, I felt ready.

At 2 p.m., the race director yelled “go," and 45 cyclists, runners and skiers fanned over the frozen lake. Amid several inches of new snow, I joined a pack of six cyclists as we mashed our way along soft snowmachine trails over the rolling hills of the Susitna River Valley. The going was slow — 8 mph at a sprint — but the smiles were wide as clear-day sunshine and the distant peaks of the Alaska Range loomed over our heads. I felt strong and alive — exactly, I thought, how I needed to feel at the beginning of a six-day endurance adventure.

As the trails became more drifted in and our progress slowed, the pack began to break apart. I found myself out in front, walking with my bike through shin-deep snow on top of the frozen surface of Flathorn Lake. A fierce wind whipped up the powder into swirling ground blizzards, which sparkled like confetti in the orange light of sunset.

Once the sun sank behind the mountains, the wind-driven snow obscured the trail and filled in the footprints of the racers who came before me. I was gazing up at the last hints of red light on Mount Susitna when the front wheel of my bicycle dropped sharply into a trench. My instinctual reaction was to fall backward as I slid down the embankment. My right leg punched through a thin layer of ice, plunging to my hip in frigid water. My left leg twisted painfully but remained on solid ice as I swung around and clawed up the slope.

As I hoisted my bike out of the trench, I realized my handlebar had punched through the ice, soaking a handlebar mitt and a mitten that was stuffed aside. A half-eaten bag of M&Ms was missing, most likely already drifting toward the bottom of Flathorn Lake. But, most concerningly, a rush of cold water had filled by boots and was slowly soaking through to my skin.

I wavered for a few seconds of disbelief at the edge of the trench, watching slushy water gurgle up from the hole I had punched in the ice as a veneer of frost formed on my pants. The sun was gone. The temperature was already dipping below zero. The wind whipped up light snow and a deep chill, and every rational voice in my head pleaded with me to get off that lake.

I walked toward the relative shelter of the shoreline, trying to formulate a plan. I would gather wood, start a fire, take off my boot, crawl into my sleeping bag, and wait for help. But did I really need help? What if I just took off my boot, put on a pair of dry socks, and continued down the trail? But my wet boot would only wet those socks, and any exposure to the subzero air could only make things worse. What choices did I have? The tree-lined shore seemed to only move farther away.

By the time I reached shelter from the wind, 45 minutes had passed. I bent down to take off my boot, but ice had encased my entire lower leg. I couldn’t even rip apart the Velcro on my gators, let alone undo the boot’s zipper or laces.

“My boot is insulated,” I thought. “So are my vapor barrier socks. My foot feels pretty warm right now. Maybe that insulation will be enough to get me to the next checkpoint.”

As I beat more ice off my pants, another cyclist, Sean Grady, caught up to me.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“I’m,” I said, and paused. “I’m just trying to get some things together.”

“Really?” he said. Even in the soft light of my headlamp, I could tell he didn’t believe me.

“I stepped in overflow,” I finally admitted. “Back on Flathorn. I can’t get my boot off.”

“Are you going to stop here?” he asked. “Do you need me to send someone back?”

“I think I'll keep going to keep going until my foot feels cold,” I said. “If I stop, it’s because I’m worried about my foot.”

With that, we continued pushing our bikes across a blown-in section of trail. Eventually, I wandered out ahead, alone, on the Yentna River.

For the next few hours I alternated pedaling over the soft snow and running with my bike to help boost circulation in my wet foot. I wiggled my toes and continued to tell myself I was fine. But in the interim, seven hours passed and the temperature dropped below minus 20. The hard headwind never let up. The effort and my carefully planned clothing kept me warm, but fear started to creep in. “I’m still fine,” I thought. “I’m fine because I feel fine.”

At 2:30 a.m., I reached the first checkpoint, a quaint little river lodge at mile 57. I was in 14th place at the time, and still only about an hour behind most of the race leaders. I snuck in quietly and crouched next to the wood stove, chipping away at the hard ice and trying to loosen solidified pieces of footgear. When I finally worked the boot open, my foot wouldn’t budge. As I worked my wet sock down and wiggled and yanked my foot, nothing happened. My socks were frozen to the inside of my boot. And my foot, I realized with sinking dread, was frozen to the inside of my socks.

When I finally freed my foot, nearly a half hour after I sat down next to the wood stove, I found five chalk-white toes with skin as solid as wood. Even as I tried to reassure myself that they might not be frozen, I knew exactly what I had done, and I knew just how heavy a price I had yet to pay. My race was over. I faced hospital visits, longterm injury, possibly permanent disfiguration. But, worst of all, my race was over. I leaned against a stairway and fought back a rush of blood to my head. It seemed such a high cost for a simple misstep, a single instance of letting my guard down during a moment of bliss.

I took a sleeping pill and napped for about two hours before the thaw set in. My boyfriend, Geoff Roes, who was competing in the race as a runner, arrived at about 5 a.m. We moved to an upstairs room where the temperature was at least 80 degrees. Geoff had a cold that was quickly developing into something closer to pneumonia. For the next three hours, I writhed on the floor in burning, excruciating pain while Geoff coughed and sputtered and struggled to breathe. More than once I envisioned a Spartan 19th-century hospital, the kind of place where non-anesthesitized patients lay strapped to cots, screaming. Geoff and I had unwittingly set up a makeshift Iditarod triage center. It would have been somewhat comical if it wasn’t so painful.

By morning, my toes had formed deep yellow and purple blisters, Geoff could barely stand up and we both knew we needed to catch the first flight out of there. The morning burned bright and beautiful, with ocean blue sky and sparkling snow. More than anything, I wanted to return to the trail. The race seemed so simple compared to the alternative. But reality had finally set in. I had frostbite and I had to go home.

In the week since the race, I have gone over the scenario again and again. I tried to recognize what I could have done differently and how I could have better handled the situation. I’ve had to remind myself that what’s done is done, and all that matters now is moving forward. My hospital visits have netted positive results, and I will most likely be able to keep all of my toes and may someday even ride a bike again, although it’s hard to imagine as I hobble around on crutches.

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” a friend wrote to me as I struggled through the disappointing aftermath.

“Experience is what you always get,” I wrote back. But some experiences are more valuable than others.