Thursday, March 04, 2010

ITI, day four

Photo by Sean Grady, Kuskokwim River area, March 2009

The two venerable veterans of the ITI, Pete Basinger and Jeff Oatley, on Wednesday night were battling it out on the home stretch of the 350-mile race, the Kuskokwim River. Temperatures were still warm, in the mid-20s. This year will probably be remembered as the "Pineapple Express Iditarod." I'll be interested to hear if the temperature even dropped below zero degrees, anywhere on the trail, in these first four days.

There hasn't been much chatter about the trail conditions out of Nikolai, but it seems this 50-mile stretch was expected to take the leaders 8-10 hours to ride. Pete left for McGrath at 4:50 p.m. and Jeff left at 6:19 p.m. Wednesday, and in eight to 10 hours, anything can happen. Still, Jeff has a big task ahead of him if he wants to catch Pete. A 90-minute head start is hard to make up if you have a determined competitor out front. Since I leave here in about 20 minutes, and hope to wake up early in the morning for a bike ride, I probably won't find out who won the race until more than a half day after it's finished.

It's interesting that the winner is going to wrap it up in three and a half days, after all of the reports of horrific trail conditions this year. In 2008, when conditions were supposedly relatively good, winner Jay Petervary took 3 days and 14 hours to finish. The race record is 3 days, 5 hours. It makes those of us watching the race from afar wonder what kind of magic Zen-Jedi power people like Pete and Jeff have over the trail, apparently riding when even snowmobile driver Craig Medred is complaining "at what point is a trail so bad it no longer qualifies as a trail?" and most of the other competitors are walking at a 2-3 mph pace. The third-place finisher may come in nearly a full day behind Pete and Jeff. Lou Kobin, who is still on great pace to take the women's record, will probably finish after the five-day mark. What is this magic that makes Pete and Jeff so fast? Is it their bikes? Are they running when nobody is looking? Did they learn levitation? Or is the secret just to grind, grind away without ever stopping?

So many factors of the ITI make it such a fascinating event. As a spectator, it is fun to speculate on weather and trail conditions and athleticism. But as racer — which, yes, I do hope to be again someday — to me, the ITI is about determination, facing fears, and ripping at the very fabric of your soul just to see where it shreds. It is such a different existence than to be here now. Just watching the ITI — very similar to the way I did in 2007 when I became irrevocably hooked on this race — feels surprisingly hollow.

But, then again, I have been amazingly useless all week. Insomnia has been dogging me for about 10 days now, which usually causes me to sleep in really late, which then necessitates going to the gym so I can squeeze in 70-90 minutes of harder effort rather than the 2-4 hours of biking I generally like to do before work. When I can't sleep at night, I read from a big stack of library books about mountaineering and the craft of writing, which have both served to be somewhat depressing. (Seriously, at least three people die in every single mountaineering book.) I've also been going back and trying to revise my Tour Divide project, which for all practical purposes is completed in the first draft, but right now I am in a "dislike" stage with this project, and I don't feel like dealing with it. This often happens with me. Something turns my stomach for a while, but I usually go back to it, eventually.

It's not entirely pretty, but it's part of life — seems to be typical for me, a February/March slump. It does mean I have to make a hard decision about the White Mountains 100, which starts March 22. I'm going to make an effort to force myself into a long bike ride this weekend to see how I feel physically, and then I still have to decide — is it worth a $500 plane ticket? Is it worth all the logistics? Am I really ready?

I hate to turn my back on the only race I planned to do this season, but timing right now is not on my side. Hopefully, I will be more clear about it on Friday.