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.


  1. Dire Straits seems appropriate here:

    Well it's a strange old game - you learn it slow
    one step forward and it's back to go
    you're standing on the throttle
    you're standing on the brakes
    in the groove 'til you make a mistake

    you gotta know happy - you gotta know glad
    because you're gonna know lonely
    and you're gonna know bad
    when you're rippin' and a ridin'
    and you're coming on strong
    you start slippin' and slidin'
    and it all goes wrong

    one day you got the glory
    one day you got none
    one day you're a diamond
    and then you're a stone
    everything can change
    in the blink of an eye
    so let the good times roll
    before we say goodbye, because

    sometimes you're the windshield
    sometimes you're the bug
    sometimes it all comes together baby
    sometimes you're a fool in love
    sometimes you're the louisville slugger baby
    sometimes you're the ball
    sometimes it all comes together baby
    sometimes you're going to lose it all

  2. great article, nice summary of your experience. Thanks so much for sharing it!

    fyi - end of 7th paragraph from start of article, "by boats" I think you meant to write "my boots"

  3. I'm surprised you didn't mention anything about cyclist Yair Kellner who got off track and fell through the ice:;_ylt=AglqtrJwc_YXTyRdWZGudcV.grcF?slug=ap-racerrescue&prov=ap&type=lgns

  4. Sweet! You're a great writer Jill. I felt like I was right there.


  5. Jill,
    I've been reading your blog for a few months now, and its been incredibly inspiring to me, as I, too, am training towards a goal that drives every single part of my existence.

    As an alpine skier, I know that it is likely that there is a heinous injury out there to either a knee, shoulder, or back, just waiting for me. But I can't think about it, because I don't have time before my tryout to undergo a surgery or spend time in the hospital.

    Reading this account, after just barely getting to know you through your blog, your courage, your dedication, your total commitment and will, and to read, as my stomach sank, what had happened, was truly painful.

    It was scary to read about your foot, and I know that should be the most important thing. But the thing that made me feel sick for you in my heart, was the fluke nature of the submersion, at the start of the race, when you had worked so hard, and trained so well.

    I felt, as I read, the horrible realization that your race was over, the unfairness of it, and your resolve as you let go and turned toward what has to be your focus right now, healing. But I understand the line you wrote: But worst of all, the race was over.

    I'm proud of you for getting help and stopping, don't second guess your choices, because they are the choices you made, and you can't change them now. You are a survivor and a woman of will, and yes, you will ride a bike again and come back strong.

    In the meantime, your sprit and will are in my thoughts, hang tough, and maybe, MAYBE this can be a great mental training opportunity for you, and you'll be wiser, faster and tougher next time.

    Much love,
    Kate Howe

  6. How 'bout an update pic of those toes Sparky?

  7. Jill -

    You stated that you weren't a rookie anymore. That may be so, but no matter how experienced you become, there will always be that much more to learn.

    Maybe next year you'll have a backup plan for a wet boot. I'm glad you seem to be ok. :-)


  8. Eileen ... Thanks! This column still needs an edit. I stayed at work until midnight last night writing it and realized I didn't have time to post anything on my blog. So up it went.

    Jason ... what happened in the race after I dropped out is a whole other story of survival and perseverance that I could spend 20,000 words writing about, if I ever get a chance to interview those who were there. :-)

    Kate ... thanks for sharing your experiences and support. It means a lot.

    Juancho ... maybe. I'm thinking maybe when they're in a less disgusting phase than they're in right now. I mean, people read blogs with their breakfast.

    Di ... I don't think there's going to be a next year. It's a decision I had made long before I froze my toes, and doesn't seem to be wavering despite the spectacular failure that 2009 became. But, I'll never say never.

    The only backup for a wet boot I can think of is an extra pair of boots.

  9. Jill, I was struck in this great piece by a detail you had mentioned in your blog earlier -- about how you'd been looking at the sky when you hit the hole. It reminded me of a spectacular fall I took from my horse -- she was spooked badly by a wild horse neither of us had spotted....I had been day-dreaming, looking up at the sky at the time. Otherwise,I might have handled the situation and kept her from making the hard left spin that dumped me so completely. Oh well. I often remind myself not to indulge in daydreaming and sky-watching -- but can't seem to stop!
    Keep healing.

  10. Great recap of the whole experience!

    I know that 'rush of blood to your head' feeling when you suddenly realize that you've hit a hard right turn and nothing can be done about it. It's a bad moment.

    I nearly lost both of my ears to frostbite. Stupid teenage me, walking to a friend's cabin in the Fairbanks winter. I had very cool hair, a dozen metal earrings and no hat. My ears froze solid! They actually crunched when I touched them. The emergency room nurse said "Honey, if they turn black, they're coming off."

    Luckily, they only turned a dark purple and split open a bit.(Yeah.) They took 3 months to heal enough to look normal. To this day, 15+ years later, they can't take ANY kind of cold. This means ear warmers on all but the hottest summer days when I'm out cycling!

    I hope your foot/toes make a good comeback. You, more than anyone, know that it could've been so much worse.

    I'm glad you're okay and you'll live to cycle (a lot!) another day.
    You're out there living life, you know? You're not just watching it on TV. Applause!


  11. I just love your blog. Its awsome to reach about such a wild past time as biking through wild cold Alaska. So, I have to ask, whats the next phase!?!? Keep us all posted!

  12. Jill, you are still a BadAss in my mind along with any and everyone who lined up. Take care, GET well and keep your chin up.



  13. well said


    Also - '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.'

    Sometimes rehash is a good thing, it makes it possible for you to change things or do things better in the future- but, I hope you aren't feeling bad or beating yourself up, because I would say you'll rock next year, but for what this "race" is- you already rocked it this year. for what this experience was.

  14. Mike in WI said...

    Jill, It's quite obvious you have other future plans and I will be looking forward to reading about them.

    As for your tootsies, They will recover over time and so will you're mindset. I know it's hard but you are a strong little ball of energy.
    All the best Mike in WI

  15. I've been away from the blog for a few weeks, and i just caught up. Oh no!! I'm so so sorry! For the stupid tragedy of it and the pain you've had to go through and the weary frustration of being injured. I'm so sorry Jill! You have so many people rooting for you! Don't give up on a future race - You're a wildcat. Even if it isn't the Iditarod, we'll be here rooting for you while you heal and look forward to a new challenge.


Feedback is always appreciated!