Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hell week

Date: March 28 and 29
Mileage: 31.1 and 20
March mileage: 312
Temperature upon departure: 35 and 33

I'm in the midst of a crazy busy seven-day span at work. 12-hour days and everything (and I figured out, factoring in recent company-wide pay cuts and an otherwise static weekly salary, that my big promotion is currently netting me something in the range of $2.46 an hour.) Since I pretty much only do three things with the majority of my awake time - bike, work and blog - it's been hard to make cuts. Daily blogging, as you can see, was the first to go. Biking I can do still do with the sacrifice of some of my non-awake time. If I ooze out of bed at 7 a.m., even though I don't roll home from the office until after 11 p.m., I can still ride my bike and/or go to the gym in the morning. This is the part where I can't help but laugh at the humor in a situation that has me - me of all people - sampling the life of a stressed-out workaholic. It's enlightening, really ... in a "It's A Wonderful Life" sort of way ... without the big jar of money at the end ...

Since the blogging has to suffer, I thought I'd just throw in a few quick updates.

1. My book is now available electronically on Amazon Kindle for the low low price of $5.59.

2. By popular demand, mostly from real-life friends, I recently created a four-week frostbite recovery update with pictures. I buried it in the archives to protect the squeamish, so DO NOT CLICK HERE if you do not want to see photographs of dead-looking toes.

3. I have a very exciting announcement to make: Up in Alaska is holding its first-ever product giveaway! Up for grabs is a brand new Olympus Stylus Tough-8000 camera: 12 megapixels, shockproof, waterproof, and lots of new fun. It even has a "beauty" feature that is basically an in-camera Photoshop function that has been programmed to erase ugly boils and blemishes from skin. Sadly, this feature does not work on dead-looking toes. But stay tuned for the camera giveaway contest, which I hope to post within the next week.

4. Since this upcoming summer is to be my "Summer of Bikepacking," expect cool new gear posts in the coming weeks as well.

5. Being under so much job pressure has created a rapid day-to-day swing in my moods and ambitions, until I'm not sure what I want to do. But I refuse to collapse under the weight of "economy guilt." There's just too much joy in simplicity, and the greater the amount of external pressure, the easier it is to forget that I already live an untethered life.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Embracing the snain

Date: March 26 and 27
Mileage: 21.3 and 55.4
March mileage: 255.9
Temperature upon departure: 34

I went to the doctor again Thursday, and am now feeling confident enough in the durability of my toes to start venturing out for some longer days of exercise. The weather, however, didn't have the same ambitions. 34 degrees with intermittent snow and rain ... actually snowing one minute, raining the next, repeat. In Juneau, we call it snain. It's even uglier than its name, and uglier still to try to ride a bike in. Gooey slush erupts from the road in a geyser of moisture that even the best mountain bike fenders can't contain (and I have to use a mountain bike just to plow through the thick slop) Meanwhile, moisture falls in cold streams from the sky. Imagine straddling a cold-water geyser in a downpour. That's what biking in snain feels like. It's impossible to stay dry.

But I've actually figured out a great system for my feet. It only took seven layers (nine including the bandages), but I think I've actually found a way to keep my toes relatively dry (with the exception of trapped sweat, which is closer to damp than the swimming-in-a-slush-pond soaked that my feet usually are after a snain ride): Loose nylon sock to hold sweat somewhat away from the toes, loose vapor barrier sock, huge calf-high wool sock, tights stretched over that, sandle, waterproof overboot, and double-layer rain pants pulled over the top to keep water from seeping in. Dare I say such a setup can keep my feet dry indefinitely? It certainly seems that way after five hours in the slush geyser. Can't say that at all about the rest of my body.

Mostly based on the weather, I had decided to spend the weekend venturing forward in moderation. Riding in snain for anything longer than two hours is miserable, and working out at the gym for anything longer than two hours is miserable. But do both in the same day, and you have a four-hour day that is definitely tolerable. That was my plan. It went well yesterday. I kept my feet dry and I started reading a bad book (why is it that so many bike touring books are nearly unreadable? As in, "I ate this pie, and it was good, and then I rode up this hill, and it was hard." How are all these books getting published? ... said the self-publisher.)

Anyway ... two hours of riding followed by two hours at the gym was the plan today as well. I rode out toward North Douglas but quickly found myself in two to four-inch deep glop. Cars were swerving all over the road and I was having a tough time riding a straight line myself. I turned around to seek out something with a semblance of pavement, and started north toward the Valley. I was riding strong with a tailwind, walking all of the snow-covered bike paths, and actually feeling pretty good. I decided to push on a little longer than two hours, took the long way around Mendenhall Loop, hammered against the pounding headwind, jogged the unrideable bike paths, and had to stop at the Breeze Inn for a Snicker Bar and Gatorade because I was pretty severely bonked and wasn't carrying any food. Then, with sugar coursing through my blood, I decided to tack on another extra 10 miles of slow slush riding out to Thane before finally heading home. And just like that, a planned 20-mile ride became 55. I arrived home at 4 p.m., having left a little after 11 a.m. and telling Geoff I would be back at "1 at the latest."

"I was starting to get worried about you," he said. "I thought you had to be hurt or broken down or something, because there's no way you stayed out that long because you were actually enjoying yourself."

I looked at him, with my polar fleece jacket and rain pants dripping brown water onto the linoleum, waterlogged mittens wadded up in my hands, wet hair clinging to the clammy skin on my neck, socks pretty much comprising the only dry piece of clothing on my body, and I just smiled ... because I had been enjoying myself.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting back in shape is hard

Date: March 25
Mileage: 35.2
March mileage: 179.2
Temperature upon departure: 33

Yeah, I'm ultra-busy at work right now and, OK, I still have frostbite on my toes, but I really have to get this bike thing going again. No more sitting at my computer with my foot up. No more sleeping until 9 a.m. If I am going to work myself up to the best biking shape of my life, I am going to have to trim the fat ... in more ways than one.

I was in pretty good bike shape a month ago. OK, I let it slide a little after that January trip to Hawaii, and in February I did a lot more hiking and swimming through waist-deep snow to prepare for the pushathon I was expecting the Iditarod Trail Invitational to be (I was right about the pushathon; I just happened to miss the bulk of the race.) But then came the frostbite, the downtime that followed, the somewhat conservative venture back to activity, and finally, less than a week ago, getting back on the bike.

I've been doing lots of interval sessions on the elliptical trainer at the gym ... good, high-heart-rate stuff. I thought my fitness was at least late-November level. Maybe even December. I actually had an entire morning available to ride before I had to be at work today, so I planned my most ambitious ride since the pseudo-comback ... 25 miles of tempo riding with a five mile, 1,200-foot climb thrown in.

I wrapped up my bad foot in its requisite 16 layers and put the legs into high gear, rolling north. I knew I was in trouble when four miles in, with a strong wind at my back, I already felt like vomiting. I took it down a notch, but still, the pedaling felt hard. Much harder than this same stretch of road felt the 100 or so times I rode it last season. "I'm really not in very good shape," I thought as I sucked down gulps of cold air. And why would I be? It's been four weeks of crutching and limping and 90-minute elliptical spins in a 70-degree gym and chocolate chip cookies (mental health first, I always say.)

It didn't bode well for the rest of my ride, but I made it to North Douglas and turned into the wind. It really was blowing hard. Bummer. Head down, churning, feet toasty warm but hands half-frozen and locked in place (the coming of spring always makes me stop thinking about mittens until it matters), it was time to fix my blank stare on the glowing circle at the end of cave and suffer.

But I had time. I still had time. I can't afford to waste the time I have, so I turned right at Fish Creek Road, and commenced the climb. I was really hoping I was at least still a good climber. I was a good climber in Hawaii. I am not a good climber right now. At least, I wasn't today. Halfway up I had to stop for water. The effort called for something more, something energizing yet mindless, like 90s pop punk. I pulled out my iPod, flipped through the artist list until I found the Suicide Machines. When I was in 12th grade, I would listen to the Suicide Machines while I stayed up all night churning out uninspired drawings so I could fill up my portfolio with the minimum required to earn my AP Art credit. Come to think of it, my life is not so different now.

I mounted my bike again and smiled at the rush of purple noise.

"I tell you that the world's a scary place
And you tell me we're caught up in the same race
Everybody's worried that they'll never get their share
I got left behind cause I wasn't even there."


Thirty seconds later, I was well out of the pain cave, gazing at a sunlit strip of fog stretched over the mountains and singing out loud, "All my dreams were just islands in the sky! All my dreams were just islands in the sky ..."

It was a strange boost out of nowhere. My hands warmed back up. I climbed hard and shot down the hill, spraying snow and slush at 40 mph. I felt much stronger and even rode a bit faster fighting the headwind home than I had felt coasting with it on the way out. I had spent most of the morning believing I was doomed for this coming summer, but the climb reminded me that success in cycling is still, for me at least, mostly a mental battle.

But I still have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pictures from the drive home

No time to bike or blog these past couple of days. It's not even Hell week at work yet. That's next week. Some day I hope to look back on this span of months as "perspective." Right now I'm just hoping that three years of endurance training gets me through.

At least I had a good dinner break ...

Snow line

Egan Drive

Sandy Beach

There's always tomorrow.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Feels good to come back

Date: March 22
Mileage: 38.2
March mileage: 144
Temperature upon departure: 38

I intended to stick to roads for a while, but the trail looked irresistible where it branched away from the highway. Packed by a steady flow of feet and still firm in the late morning, it cut a six-inch deep line through the snow-crusted woods. It was so narrow that both pedals scrapped against the sides - true winter singletrack - but so smooth and flowing that I could navigate my rigid-fork mountain bike with ease. I breathed in large gulps of air, tasting warmth and fresh moisture. Light from the noon sun streamed through clouds directly overhead. Spring thaw has begun.

I wove through the woods, lost in thoughts about mountain biking and summer. I dropped down the moraine and rolled onto the lake. The narrow trail became bumpier - less traveled - and the walkers had inexplicably tracked a series of tight, hairpin turns across the wide-open lake ice. In the midst of a hard maneuver, I rolled right over a minefield of deep footprints in refrozen slush. I slammed on the breaks and put my good foot down as blood rushed to my head. I felt light-headed, weak and a little bit nauseous, staring right into obvious but also obviously harmless overflow. "Great," I thought, "now I'm going to have to add overflow to my list of fears I overreact to." Also on this list are the open ocean, breaking waves, whitewater and fast-flowing currents. Come to think of it, all of my irrational fears have to do with water.

But I swallowed my overflow phobia and crossed the lake to the face of Mendenhall Glacier.

It seems inevitable that every time someone catches you taking photos of scenic spots, they are going to ask if you want a photo of yourself in front of said spot. It's a nice gesture, but I have mixed feelings about posting a photo of myself modeling the floppy bulk of footgear I need to wear these days to protect my feet from the 40-degree air.

Overflow! Spooky!

The intense blue hue of glacial ice is intriguing, but I find the texture of newly exposed layers truly fascinating. To the touch it feels rough and gritty, like cold sandstone. I like to look for fine particles of crushed sediment encased in the age-old ice, geological layers uncovered by gravity and relentless melt. The face of a glacier is almost uncanny in the way it resembles the wind-eroded rock formations of the Colorado Plateau. Ice and fire.

Can you tell I'm really excited about my monthlong sojourn to the Utah desert? Come mid-May, my blog will probably feature pictures much like the ones above, in shades of red.

Moving on


Date: March 20 and 21
Mileage: 22.1 and 26.7
March mileage: 105.8
Temperature upon departure: 41 and 35

My blog has been a bit boring as of late, so I thought I'd point everyone to some great links on the Web. First is Geoff's exclusive interview with Jeff Oatley, the winner of this year's Iditarod Trail Invitational. The second is the blog of Cory Smith, who competed in the race on skis. He offers a three-part race report full of gripping detail.

Since I returned from Anchorage, several people have asked me what my future is with the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Everybody has either assumed that my frostbite has scared some sense back into me and I'll never return, or that my failure in this year's race will only fire me up more for next year. Both assumptions are untrue. My answer is I'm "probably" not going to enter the ITI in 2010 (emphasis on probably.) This was a decision I had made several months before I froze my foot. My obsession with this race dates back to early 2006, and it's had a strong grip on me ever since. I've never quite been able to pin down the reasons why. The extreme nature of the race never really fit my personality in the beginning, but my individual growth in the past three years has been largely shaped by it. When old friends of mine asked me how I could have possibly found my way into endurance cycling, I would jokingly blame my direct descension from Mormon pioneers. My great-great-and-so-on grandparents dragged wooden handcarts across the untrammeled American plains. If ever there was a gene for enduring a good slog, I inherited it from them.

But in my mind, that wasn't a real answer for why the Iditarod Trail had such a forceful grip on my imagination. I thought I'd find my reasons by finally just lining up with the race in 2008, but my experiences on the trail largely created more questions than answers. I recall several times while slogging through the sugar snow on the Kuskokwim River, long after I had taken to holding out-loud conversations with myself, saying, "This is absurd. This is the bone-dry-desolate-frigid-middle-of-nowhere. What are you doing out here?" So I spent a good portion of the summer writing personal experience essays based on that exact question, which I eventually turned into a book. That helped usher the race out of my head for a short period of the wet, gray summer. But come September and the first hint of cold weather, I was itching to get my name on the ITI roster again.

The grip of my obsession started to loosen somewhat shortly after I made the commitment. I think part of the problem is I was having so much fun training. I started to ask myself, legitimately I believe, if having that same big scary goal at the end of it all was really necessary. I truly enjoy the focus, drive and energy involved in preparing for a race like this, but I started to wonder if I could direct that focus toward something new. As I looked to make changes in my life and "something new" became more of a possibility, I began to divide my focus, and it was freeing. In doing so, I actually became more excited about the ITI, the "grand tour" of the stunning Iditarod Trail and a tough expedition that stood to further boost my body and mind toward my new goals. From that point, I approached the race much more in "tour mode" with less pressure on myself to finish than I felt last year. But because this race still takes so much intense focus, gear prep and hard training just to survive the thing, it felt right to tell myself the the 2009 race would be my last, at least for a while. Then next winter could be more about unwinding - snowboarding more often and actually taking the time to learn to cross-country ski, and bike train to get the sub-20-hour Susitna 100 finish that I really deserve. :-)

Then came the big failure of 2009. I certainly don't blame the race for it. I'm pretty much done even blaming myself for it. Fluke things happen every day, everywhere. After I worked through the initial pain and disappointment, I was left with this inexplicable but plain sense of closure ... a sort of, "Well, this is how the ITI chapter ends. Now what?"

It's all a bit complicated and hard to explain. And of course I'll never say that I'll never go back to the Iditarod Trail. I may even end up back there next year. But for now I'm thinking dirt and sand, heat and elevation, and even though my emotional involvement so far doesn't rise to the level of obsession, I'm happy with my goals.

I've been somewhat cryptic about my summer plans thus far because the fact is I'm still injured, trying by not quite succeeding to keep a holding pattern with my pre-race fitness, and still unable to commit 100 percent. (I learned the hard way with the 2006 Susitna 100 that once something goes up on the blog, it's a done deal.) But, either way, I've put the wheels in motion to go back to the roots of my cycling obsession, which took hold years before the ITI obsession and 24-hour mountain bike races and daylong training rides in snow and ice. In the beginning, all I cared about was traveling between two far-away points on my bicycle. I look forward to being a bike tourist again. And who knows? Maybe those Mormon pioneer genes will pull me through.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

First day of spring

Scattered blizzards rolled through Juneau for most of the day - near-white-outs followed by squinting windows of sunlight. I drove to the gym with a high-intensity workout in mind. I've been using my quality time at the gym to catch up on back issues of the New Yorker and read "Desert Solitaire" for the fifth time (but only the second in the 2000s.) In a sign of improvement, I couldn't focus enough to read today ... seeing red spots and streaks of white ... the colors of strength, returning.

After 97 minutes and 1,353 estimated calories burned (yeah, right), I drove home feeling tired but unfulfilled. A rolling white-out filled the air with static and dissipated as quickly as it arrived, and to the south, the Channel shimmered beneath patches of blue sky. The temperature seemed to climb by the minute. I walked toward my house, weight firmly pressed on both feet, and wondered if this was my window. I've been plotting my return to the outdoors for a week now. It will be a while still before I can hike, ski or snowboard ... sadly, all of the activities I had planned to engage in with more fervor once winter cycling season was over. But cycling, where feet are off the ground and don't do much of anything anyway, is actually an ideal activity for a bad foot.

I broached the subject with my doctor yesterday. She regarded the idea in her semi-disapproving way but said as long as I monitored myself for infection or any kind of rapid changes, I could probably do the things I felt comfortable doing, but I should start slow. I'm in wait-and-see mode with any long-term damage, and there's little I can do but wait for my cells to do their thing; my only job is to keep my foot warm, keep it dry, keep it clean, keep it circulating, and avoid doing anything that causes pain. Check.

I ate lunch and prepped my armor - one loose, moisture-wicking nylon sock, one vapor barrier sock, one heavy duty super thick wool sock, my open-toe walking sandal and a brand new pair of NEOS Explorer overboots that I just bought from Geoff. I'm in general not a huge NEOS fan. (Before someone comments about how NEOS could have saved me on Flathorn Lake, I just want to reaffirm that they wouldn't have. My own system was waterproof to my shins and very water-resistant up to my knees, but I punched through the ice into open water at least as deep as my hips, and likely deeper.) But, really, NEOS are good footwear for keeping the toes warm when it's 20 below; they're also good footwear for keeping frostbitten toes warm when it's 40 degrees and partly cloudy with scattered snow showers.

I thought an hourlong ride sounded reasonable. I took Pugsley because he's my only bike in full working order right now. The first pedal strokes up the Douglas Highway were strange - at once dully familiar and exhilarating. The sucker hole in the clouds opened wider and full-spectrum sunlight poured onto the street. I glanced up at the afternoon sun, much higher in the sky than I remember it being. "This is a good thing, getting out," I told myself. "You need vitamin D to grow new skin. Or is that bone?"

Most of the ride passed by semi-consciously, the way you can sometimes drive to the store and have no memory of how you got there. I had a lot of energy in the reserves, but mentally I held back quite a bit, and ended up slipping into autodrive. Strong but tentative. Baby steps. As it turns out, the ride was a pretty good circulation jog. I felt great afterward. When I sit in my office desk for too long, I get "dead foot" feeling, which makes me nervous. And in my experience so far, the only way to return to healthy tingling is to stand up and move. And what better place to move around than where I belong, outside?

I'm not yet ready to just go ahead and start churning out hill intervals and centuries, but I'm more optimistic now that I'll get there in the time I need to be there. Baby steps toward summer. A good way to start out spring.

Yeah spring.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

This is shaping up to be a tough month

My company had another one of those employee meetings today. I'm not at liberty to say what was said in the meeting, but let's just say it was another dose of bad news, the worst yet, but certainly not the last in a heavy regiment of bad news.

We were all herded into the press room, a cavernous cement warehouse that's always quiet in the afternoon. The first among us had to wait a while. The walls dripped with anxiety and a fierce silence. Small jokes crackled and dissipated. The air had a finality to it, cold and sterile, like a morgue.

I leaned against a post, unable to stand on both feet. I felt like the one trying not to burst out laughing at a funeral. The morbid urge almost seemed logical. It seems like we're just getting what we paid for in this crazy backward economy of ours, throwing around fake money and goals until neither have much meaning. Funnier yet to be a journalist, part of the very entity trying to carve out some sense in this cold war of financial panic, only to learn we're next in line in a toppling house of cards.

So do you fall down or brace yourself to prop up what is certain to become an unbearable load? Neither option really ends well. Thus, the silence.

After most everyone had filed out of the room, my boss approached me. "Is this the part where you bolt out of the building screaming and I never see you again?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I'm not going to do that. Yet."

He looked up, toward the door. "Why?"

I smiled. "I think you know me well enough by now to know I'm not one of those people motivated by money. Good or bad."

"That's good," he said.

I shrugged. "Or bad."

"And next month?"

"I'm still going," I said. "Either way."

"But you're coming back?"

I smiled. "That seems hugely optimistic at this point, doesn't it? But, yeah, I want to be optimistic."

He shook his head. I didn't envy his expression. It's tough to be a manager in tough times. Better, I think, to be one of the tucked away rank-and-file. "You seem to have a good outlook," he said.

I laughed and held up my right foot, with its thick wool sock hanging out of an ugly medical sandal. "You know, when you have hobbies like mine, regular life never seems that bad."

We returned to our desks, grateful, as they say, to be living and breathing.

The rest will be OK. One frozen-toe step at a time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Closer to fine

Spring is creeping closer; the sun is up until 7; and I am starting to think about riding again. It's a tough decision and I'm not sure how to make it - where do you draw the line between smartly conservative and borderline hypochondriac? At the same time, where do you draw the line between doable and reckless?

There's not a lot of sports advice about frostbite and activity out there. One might wonder how a few measly blisters on toes would even prevent a person from riding a bicycle in the first place. My problem is the injury cuts a little deeper than skin-deep. Circulation has for the most part returned to my foot, but left in its wake strange sensations and pains. The lower half of my foot is at once numb and hyper-sensitive. A burning sensation has become a constant. I still can't put much weight on my toes without streaks of pain. But I can press down flat-footed indefinitely. So I can walk with only a slight limp, but I can't negotiate much in the way of inclines.

I've been running 90-minute interval sessions on the elliptical machine at the gym most days, with a little weight-lifting thrown in. It's a good hard workout in a short time, but there's not much variety in the routine, and nothing to really help me hold my endurance. I can also press down on pedals easily. Riding a bike should be fine as long as I can keep my foot warm and completely dry. But still, I have reservations about venturing outside. One, I can't feel my toes very well and wouldn't know if they were becoming too cold. And two, it's difficult to keep my feet dry even with overboots (In my three years in Juneau, I've become totally complacent about riding around for hours in 35-degrees-and-raining weather with wet feet. I think this complacency may have contributed to me not treating my wet foot with the urgency it deserved during the race. 35 degrees with wet feet is one thing. 20 below is another.)

Right now roads are pretty dry, but more rain, snow and snow melt is on the way. Spring generally creates consistently wet riding conditions, which complicate things. I plan to discuss cycling with my doctor, but I'm worried she's going to tell me to just ride the bike at the gym (I can't handle that thing for more than 30 minutes before saddle sores set in.) I sold my bike trainer earlier this year because I was convinced I'd never be tempted to use it again, so I don't even have that as an option. I want my doctor to give me the OK to set out for six-hour rides, but I have a feeling the answer is going to be "Um, better not ..."

But really, the fact that I am even thinking about the option of riding, and not scheduling surgeries, is an optimistic boost. I'm trying to be patient, and directing my energy into my new 50-hour work week. But overwork just doesn't churn out the same rewards as working out. And I've never been too enamored with the virtue of patience. :-)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shifting focus

No biking means I've had more down time these past two weeks. Most of that time, unfortunately, seems to trickle into the office (I've found that less biking in fact results in less photography, writing, and most of my other more fulfilling pastimes.) But I have been able to allot some of my downtime to going through my stuff and skimming off the bottom. It's amazing how a person can move to Alaska with only the things they can fit in a Geo Prism, and three and a half years later end up with rooms full of gear. But assessing some of the stuff that has survived my myriad moves has been fun and nostalgic. A random scattering of 4x6 disposable camera prints are right at the top of the fun list: things I can't believe I still have but can't imagine throwing away.

Above is a picture of me as a 17-year-old at the Hurricane (pronounced "Her'kun") Dunes, more commonly known as Sand Hollow, in southwestern Utah. The Her'kun Dunes were the ultimate escape when I was a teenager - so close to Zion National Park that they were practically in the shadow of the massive cliffs, but so unknown that we only saw the occasional local pass through on a four-wheeler. My three BFFs and I would cut out of class on some Friday in early spring, load up Liz's Chevy Cavalier with our $10 sleeping bags, spring-bar tent and enough Doritos and Dr. Pepper to stock a convenience store. We'd stream down I-15 with our feet out the window, highway jet stream drying the toenails we had just painted blue and silver, listening to the radio until the signal cut out, then popping in Tarrah's garbled Atom and his Package bootleg tape, singing to the desert wind - "I had a dream when I was in high school, that I attended the Punk Rock Academy and no one made fun of me." The Cavalier would rattle down some half-washed-out dirt road until we arrived at our retreat, where piles of red sand swept against a mottled outcropping of sandstone. We'd weave through the red-rock maze, dance barefoot in the sand, play a genuine game of hide and seek like kindergarteners on summer vacation, and launch ourselves off 10-foot cliffs because nothing below could hurt us.

After dark, the moon and marshmallows came out. We built fires out of flash-flood driftwood, juniper and sage. The savory sweet smoke reminded us we were a long way from home. Reflections of flames flickered on the ragged walls, dancing like tamarisk in a cool desert breeze. "This is the most beautiful place on Earth," I would say, shamelessly quoting Ed Abbey. We all knew it wasn't, but it was our most beautiful place, because it seemed to reach only us, and we belonged there, and it, somehow, belonged to us.

The last trip we took to the Her'kun Dunes, sometime shortly after high school graduation, we found the access road half-paved. That was the trip we learned there were plans to build a reservoir. "They're gonna drown all them dunes," a woman at the grocery store checkout told us. Much of our redrock playground had been fenced off. We spent the rest of our weekend in Zion National Park never went back. But I read in the newspaper in summer 2000 that the state started work on the dam. I remember choking up a little.

Beyond occasionally bringing up Sand Hollow Reservoir as an example of the evils of St. George golf courses, I hadn't given the Her'kun Dunes much thought in the years passed. Bigger, better places came along, places set farther away from civilization where no one could drive a four-wheeler if they tried. Somewhere along there, the landscape of my imagination shifted from red-sand deserts to wind-swept tundra. But lately, this now-inundated patch of land has been creeping back into my dreams. I can almost feel the cool sand streaming through my fingers, almost taste the air surrounding our bon fires: sage brush, hot dogs ... freedom. It reminds me that a place can be long gone and still exist in memories. And maybe, in a world where nothing stays the same anyway, that's what really matters.

I've been trying to figure out why I don't feel more depressed right now. I hit a pretty big low point for the year last March, the year I had actually completed the ITI, that one event I had dedicated an entire winter to and had a somewhat successful first go at. This year I dropped out of the ITI the first day, injured myself in the process, haven't ridden a bike or even really been outside since; I'm working longer hours, combing through my stuff with an eye and getting rid of a good bulk of it ... and yet, in all honesty, I'm not all that bummed out.

And think it's because of the desert, and a little dry cabin down on a nondescript patch of sand near Teasdale, Utah, where Geoff and I plan to spend the late spring and early part of summer. This isn't goodbye to Alaska or even to Juneau. It's just a "furlough" as my ex-Army boss calls it, to I place where I can reconnect roots and regenerate strength, and hopefully grow experiences that can never be submerged.

Friday, March 13, 2009

New skin

I started with the recumbent bike and moved to the upright bike, spinning easy circles beneath the florescent lights of the gym. Ten days isn't a long time but it feels eternal, and the dull passing of time was wearing holes into my resolve to take it slow. By the third day of my renewed gym membership, I had crawled my way over to the elliptical machine, toeless surgery boot strapped to one foot, pressing down on my heel until I hit a good glide. I poured sweat onto the plastic machine and felt like I could sprint forever. Good. Alive. Happy to be out again, even if only inside.

I took a bath and changed all my dressings so my doctor wouldn't suspect anything, but she did.

"You've been getting this wet?" she scolded me as she pressed down on the wrinkled white skin on top of my foot.

"Maybe a little sweat," I said. "Or slush. It's been nasty outside."

"You shouldn't be walking around outside," she said. "You still have your crutches?" I nodded. "Good. Did you get the aloe vera cream?"

"Oh, um, I haven't had a chance yet."

"You haven't had a chance? What have you been doing all this time? These are your toes."

"Sorry. I forgot."

She finished unwrapping my bandages to reveal the deep purple skin that has been darkening by the day. I let out a loud sigh. "It's not looking good, is it?"

"It's going to get darker," she said. She took out a small razor and poked my big toe with the tip. "Can you feel that?"

I sighed again. "No."

"Well, it feels pretty soft," she said. "I'm going to look inside."

She sliced the blade in and began carving a straight line around my dull blue toenail. She rounded the outside edge and pressed down harder.

"Does that hurt?"

"I can feel it, but it doesn't hurt."

"That's a pretty major callous you have right there."

"Thanks. I've been working on it for at least two years. It's my Juneau mountain callous."

"Yeah, well you're going to lose it." She carved out the hard yellow mass and set it aside. She moved around the back of my toe and carved along the bottom, coming up the other side of the dead toenail and meeting the edge where she started. She lifted the blister from the back of my toe and said "wow."

"What is it?" I asked. "What do you see?"

"Look at this," she said as she peeled back the purple skin. "This is moving along very quickly." Beneath the blackened veneer of frostbite was a layer of dark pink tissue, smooth and wet like the skin of a newborn.

"That's new baby skin," she said. "Completely healthy." She smiled.

I looked down at my newly pink toe and smiled back. I don't think I've ever been so proud of what my body can do.

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.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Crutching


Since I came back to Juneau on Wednesday, my life has fallen quickly back into its old routine ... minus, quite notably, the biking. I'm not sure when I'll be able to ride, or even really walk, again. But despite a building reserve of pent-up energy, I'm not in any mood to rush it. I'm willing to set aside the time it takes to heal. Meanwhile, though, the late winter is passing me by.

Geoff has not been able to shake his cold, but has been feeling similarly pent up by biological forces beyond his control. So today he announced he was going to the Mendenhall Campground to ski "for an hour, tops." And as I looked out at the seductive sunshine hovering over 10-degree temperatures with fierce winds, I asked if I could go with him.

I wrapped my useless foot up in three socks and a down bootie and planned to crutch over to a nice sunny spot and wait for Geoff until my left foot (the one with the feeling, and therefore the indicator) became cold. But as I approached the shoreline of the frozen lake, the relief of hard effort and a well-packed trail beckoned me forward.

I tested the trail to make sure I wasn't leaving deep postholes, but the claws on the crutches didn't dig in any deeper than my footprint. I so badly wanted to go for a little walk, even if only a mile or so, that I weighed the ridiculousness of hobbling down a snowy trail on crutches with the likelihood that a skier might stop and scold me. It was still worth it. I tentatively ventured forward while planning my defense: "Don't the injured deserve sunshine, too?"

And to my relief, everyone I encountered treated me like a normal person. "That was me last winter," one woman told me as she skated by. "I thought I was going to go bonkers." Juneau skiers are the best.

I returned to the car to meet Geoff an hour later, my biceps and abdomen burning and my face dripping sweat. Both feet were nice and warm. It felt great to get out.

I know I've mentioned this before, but I wanted to take a minute to formally thank everyone who helped me with my stunted race effort.

• Greg and Pete at Speedway Cycles. As I write this, Pete recently arrived in McGrath in fifth place and the first-place skier. Honestly, Pete, after seeing you chop along that first day, I am extremely impressed. Way to persevere through tough conditions. Enjoy the well-earned rest, whether you go on to Nome or not.

• Eric at Epic Designs. The day we returned from Juneau, Geoff and I placed a brand new order for summer frame bags (It's about time my Monkey had her own seat and bikepacking gear.) Eric's stuff is so in demand that he's backordered about six weeks now, and the dude really does sew all day long when he's not skiing a sub three-hour 50K in the Tour of Anchorage (Congratulations, Eric! 2:55 is awesome!), so I recommend ordering soon.

• Ultrarob, who held a fundraiser for my race even though it turned out to be a short one. Ultrarob's store still offers deals on a great assortment of cycling and outdoor gear. Check it out.

• Fellow Yentna drop-outs, Italian cyclist Riccardo Ghirardi and Spanish cyclist Isabel Lopez. Even though the communication was limited, your friendship through those hard hours was priceless.

• Everyone who bought my book. I'm pretty bummed I didn't come out of this year's event with more stories to tell, but there will be time enough for that soon. (This book's still pretty OK, though, so you should buy it :-)

• Those who made unsolicited donations through my blog, which was a very nice surprise.

• And to family, friends, and the people who read this blog. I really feel like I belong to a great community of like-minded friends worldwide.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watching from afar

I finally had a chance to go in to see a doctor in Juneau this afternoon. I wasn't sure who exactly to see in town, so I just browsed the Yellow Pages and became more perplexed with the choices before finally just calling a foot and ankle specialist (with the reasoning that, well, toes are part of the foot.) I was lucky to find an older doctor who had dealt with frostbite before (much less common in Juneau than you would expect in an Alaska city. People here are more likely to get trench foot.) Anyway, he informed me that "at worst," I'd lose the tip of my big toe. Most likely, I'll just lose my toe nails. The worst-case scenario isn't ideal because it will involve an outpatient surgery and prolong my recovery, but all in all, the prognosis is looking good.

Every single employee in the clinic crowded around my chair to take a look at my foot - apparently frostbite is a major curiosity. One woman brought out the clinic's brand-new camera and asked me to rotate my foot in various positions, giddily snapping shots like a fashion photographer. "We need to track your progress," she told me. But I somehow suspect a picture of my disgusting, blistered toes may turn up on some hidden wall of fame in the supply room. (They look way worse now than they did in the emergency room picture I posted on this blog.)

As I explained to my audience how I happened to come down with a case of frostbite, a younger doctor interrupted to say, "Wait ... do you have a blog?" When I told her I did, she said "Oh, I think I've seen it! I moved up from California six months ago and everyone told me I wouldn't be able to ride a bike up here. I Googled "Juneau bike trails" and landed on the blog of this woman who does all this crazy biking in the snow. That's you?" I nodded. "I showed it to everyone on my floor," she continued, "so now most everyone at (this hospital in California whose name I've forgotten) has read your blog!"

They carved off the latest blisters, wrapped up my foot and sent me on my way with a new bag of antibiotic goop and bandages. It will probably be at least another week before I'm able to put any weight on my foot, and another chunk of time before I'm really walking. Having frostbite is not unlike sustaining a serious burn. The pain, treatment and recovery are very similar. Fire and ice.

In the meantime, I am continuing to watch the progress of the racers still in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and am in awe of their progress in continually tough conditions. The leader, much to my amazement, is still a cyclist ... Jeff Oatley of Fairbanks. He's on the homestretch to McGrath, looking like he may finish in just under six days. The lead woman, Tracy Petervary, who is traveling with her husband, Jay, is not far behind, which also is incredible. Even more exciting are the two skiers hot on their trail, including Ed Plumb, who is one of the nicest guys I've ever had the pleasure of letting examine a set of frozen toes. If the trail is blown in by high winds as has been reported, will the skiers catch Jeff? Stay tuned!

Tracking this race on the Internet has been cathartic, and helped me stay upbeat over the course of this week, where disappointment and regret still loom. Even though there is nothing I can do to change what has happened, it's also been theraputic for me to imagine scenerios in which I could have saved my race and stayed on the trail, where I still wish I was and feel I belong. In my gear on my bike, I had one pair of extra Smart Wool socks, several foot warmers and a pair of down booties. I've imagined this scenerio where I stopped right on the lake, removed my boot and wet socks, placed both dry socks and some warmers on my right foot, pulled the bootie on and wrapped the whole thing in duct tape to keep the down bootie from shredding. I'm not sure this would have been enough to get me through seven hours of pushing and pedaling in what was likely a -40 degree windchill, but it surely would have been better than a wet boot, even with all the insulation I believed was helping me. Live and learn.

It's interesting because I still really believe that the tough conditions this year would have favored a person like myself, who is not fast but who has been working to master the art of the slog, and who really believed she was mentally prepared to handle it. Like I said, nothing I can do about it now. And it's not like I really even know what's going on out there. But, for therapy's sake, I'm going to let myself believe that I could have caught up to the main pack bottle-necked at the pass and kept pushing on toward McGrath.

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.

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.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Done

Unfortunately, this year's journey on the Iditarod Trail has come to an end for both Jill and Geoff. From the race update:

There have been some scratches in Yentna... Geoff Roes also had knee issues. Jill Homer stepped into some overflow last night and as some frostbite on her toes. As far as I know it is minor, but not continuing on is a good decision to prevent further damage to the toes. Three of them flew out to Willow and Geoff and Jill are staying with friends in Palmer.

I know something of the disappointment of dropping out early in events like this, having done it myself. It's a tough place to be in, to say the least. But it's also the nature of these events -- everything needs to go right, otherwise it's better to live to race another day rather than push on and risk your health. It sounds like both of them made wise decisions. I'm sure they will indeed be back to race again another day.

Thanks for following along with these posts. I'll continue to host the SPOT leaderboard / map (http://topofusion.com/spot.php) with Billy's progress. Starting tomorrow it will also show Mike Curiak's SPOT position. Mike is attempting to cycle the 1100 miles to Nome, 100% self supported and without even so much as stepping inside a building the entire time. I'll be following him by SPOT and posting updates, starting tomorrow, at: lacemine29.blogspot.com.

For now I wish Jill and Geoff speedy recoveries. Thanks for inspiring us all.

-Scott Morris of topofusion.com

Walkin'



That's the speed plot of Jill's ride so far. It definitely indicates some bike pushing and slow conditions. It appears things got slow right around Flathorn Lake. The Race Update indicates there is drifting snow in open areas (like an open lake!) on top of the freshly fallen stuff.

She rolled into the first checkpoint, Yentna Station, at about 2:40am according to the SPOT (the leaderboard has not been updated with an official time). By contrast, last year she made Yentna by 9pm -- about six hours slower! I'm sure she's taking it all in stride, and remember that last year trail conditions in the first portion of the race were just about ideal, so slower is expected.

I haven't yet seen indication that Jill, Geoff or Billy have progressed beyond Yentna yet. I'll keep watching.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

30 down, 300+ to go


Jill at the start -- Photo courtesy Evan Hone

The sun is down on day one and Jill is some 30 miles into the race. So far so good -- temps are in the teens and the trails appear to be rideable. Her average speed so far has been above 6mph, which means riding. I had read on another racer's blog that there was 6-7" of new snow in Anchorage recently, so I was wondering if even the first few miles might be slow. I'm sure we will learn more about conditions as racers begin filtering into the first checkpoint, Yentna Station, sometime tonight.

I've been working on a better SPOT monitoring page. Something that shows both Jill's current position and the route with checkpoints. Here's what I have so far:

http://topofusion.com/spot.php

Hopefully I will be able refine it in the near future. Right now the checkpoints show up as the same symbol as Jill's current position. You'll have to click around to see which one she is (as of right now, of course, she's between the start and the first checkpoint, so it's pretty easy).

Also, I can add any other racer carrying a SPOT to that page. If you know of any other ITI folks with a SPOT shared page, please post a comment. I know Geoff posted a link to his, but it's not working. If anyone knows of a different share page for Geoff, drop me an email at smorris AT topofusion.com or post a comment.

Special thanks to Kevin Montgomery of Tour Divide for his help setting up the page, and the use of some of his code.

For now, Jill will soon merge onto the Yentna River, which the Iditarod trail follows for many miles. It can be a bit of a monotonous stretch, especially in the dark.

Jill on the move



The first few SPOT points have started trickling in, indicating the start of the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational for Jill!

In the above map you can see the Knik Bar where the race starts, and that she is rolling out over the frozen lake.

Unfortunately it seems Geoff's SPOT page is having some issues. I'm not sure what's up, but I'll try to see if I can get some points out of it.