Wednesday, March 24, 2010

White Mountains 100, part 2

I pulled into the Windy Gap cabin, mile 62, at 7:25 p.m. A sliver of evening sun still hung above the mountains — one of the glorious benefits of spring. But it didn't feel like spring, with a sharp wind tearing down the canyon as air temperatures plummeted. I ducked inside the small cabin, which was packed with racers. Ted, Brian, Chris and Scott were all there, as were two Fairbanks cyclists — Rocky Reifenstuhl and his wife, Gail Koepf. It seemed I had joined a tight-knit group of bikers and skiers, although on the outside we mostly traveled alone. I greedily accepted my allotted serving of three meatballs and rice. I didn't even wait for it to cool before I wolfed down the deliciously throat-searing meal. I could have eaten three times as much, and was beginning to understand why the race organizers limited the servings — otherwise, it would probably already be gone. Every scrap of wood, food, water and supplies had to be hauled in over dozens of miles of trail by volunteers on snowmobiles. It was all so precious — so hard to ride away from. Still, I was burning daylight. I hoped to get some pictures of sunset before I faced the final 40 miles of the race in the dark. So as quickly as I entered the cabin, I left.

Outside, I tried to take some pictures, but my camera was no longer working. Cold battery. Oh well. I started pedaling into the growing twilight, with a thick wedge of the moon casting a soft glow on snow-covered hillsides. The wind started to let up, which was disappointing, because it was finally at my back. It was replaced by a deepening cold, which seemed to pierce through the still air. I climbed up a long hill, generating a furnace of heat in my core, but my fingers and legs started to sting. I launched into a long descent, and by the time I dropped into the next valley, my fingers and legs were tingling and my butt had become almost completely numb.

I stopped to put my gloves back on and contemplated changing out my layers. I had an extra insulation layer in my bag, but it would require stripping down to my base layer to pull it on, which would mean removing my hard boots and the many insulating layers around my feet. It seemed easier to wait until the next checkpoint, which I estimated was about 10 miles away. I forget that on my snow bike, 10 miles often amounts to two hours. All I was wearing on my legs was a pair of thin spandex tights and soft shell pants. It had been perfect for the sunlit daytime weather, but was no match for temperatures that had already dropped 30 degrees and were still rapidly plummeting. I'm from the Southeast Coast. I'm not used to wild swings in temperatures. I thought I just wasn't pedaling hard enough. So I tried to ride harder.

It's a frustrating exercise — trying to use cold muscles that just won't warm up. The brain can make them spin the rotations, but it's helpless to add power. And meanwhile, the muscles' heat output lessens, the cold cuts deeper, and basically what is happening is the body is slipping into hypothermia, one cell layer at a time. Shivering kicked in. I thought, "OK, I have to work harder." And I thought I was working harder. But if I had looked at my watch, if I had looked at my GPS, it probably would have revealed that I was moving ever slower. But I didn't look at those things. I only looked at my thermometer, which appeared to have dipped beneath 10 below. And, of course, the intelligent thing to do would have been to stop riding my bike and start applying my insulation layers and chemical warmers. But cold bodies do not want to stop. They want to find warmth. And I was convinced the checkpoint had to be close.

I dropped into Beaver Creek, where even on numb skin I could feel another sharp dip in the temperature. The thermometer was frosted over and difficult to read. The red line looked bottomed out at 20 below. I remembered Jeff Oatley telling me the night before that Beaver Creek was the lowest — and therefore coldest — point on the course. "If you get cold on Beaver Creek, just keep riding. It will get warmer," he said. And the checkpoint had to be close. But the cold air filtered through my ice-coated face mask and filled my lungs with fire. I yanked the face mask down, gasping and coughing until I could breathe again, but then my nose began to sting. I pulled the mask up, and again, I could not breathe. I coughed and sputtered and shifted my mask, alternating between breathing free and trying to thaw my cheeks and nose. I was finally ready to just stop and deal with it all — building a fire if I had to — when I saw a sign indicating the checkpoint was only a mile away. I coughed the whole way there — the longest mile in the history of distance. Even though the trail was flat, sloping slightly downhill on the creek bed, my speed was barely above a crawl. I didn't really notice, though. Time had essentially stopped for me. I was moving as though in a dream, in slow motion, no longer fully conscious and therefore no longer accountable for the poor decisions I had made.

It was nearly midnight when I reached the Borealis-LeFevre Cabin, mile 82. I was incredulous, because I could not figure out how four hours had passed since I left the last checkpoint. But first things first — I had to thaw out. I stumbled into the cabin with a head ringed in ice.

"It's cold for me out there," I announced. "Yeah, I'm from Juneau."

"It's cold for everyone out there," the checker said. "Last I looked outside, it was 15 below."

"My thermometer said 20 below," I said.

"Sounds about right, down on the river," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it's negative 25."

I pulled off my coat and the inside was coated in frost, as was my polar fleece pullover. "Wow," the checker said. "You're pretty wet."

"Yeah," I said. I opened my mouth to formulate an excuse, but I had none. I had made the most basic error, sweating myself out during the day and going into the cold night partly soaked. I hadn't even realized I had sweat that much during the day. A race volunteer asked me if I wanted hot chocolate. I nodded, but the drink wasn't really hot; it was barely warm. He placed the cup in my hands and I clenched my numb fingers around it. After he had turned away, my hand started convulsing uncontrollably and I spilled a bunch on the seat. I quickly mopped it up with my sleeve, hoping he didn't notice. These volunteers were going to think I was completely incompetent and call in an evacuation.

So I did my best to hide the tears in my eyes as my numb body parts came back to life. The bulk of the pain was in my butt and fingers, which looked swollen and red. My toes, the body part I had been so worried about, were basically fine. I had insulated them in so many layers that they were essentially a self-contained unit, but I hadn't really thought through the rest of my kit, at least not the needed layer changes for temps ranging from 25 above to 25 below. I carefully pulled off my softshell pants and put on long johns, then dry liner socks, then a dry base layer and insulation layer on my torso. I cracked open a bunch of chemical warmers and placed them in my boots, mittens and — when no one was looking — stuffed some down my tights. Others in the cabin were in various states of distress. Gail was severely dehydrated and in the first stages of shock. Chris told me his ski boots were too cold and his feet were giving him trouble. I was so wrapped up in my own issues that I didn't even think to offer him some of my warmers — he later told me he didn't have any of his own — an oversight I'm still kicking myself over.

For a while I sat and ate and waited for my body to warm up. I considered rolling out my sleeping bag and resting a while, but the cabin itself wasn't very warm. It was enough to bring my frozen body parts back to life but not the kind of place I wanted to stick around, especially since I finally had enough layers to deal with the temperatures outside. Moving seemed better than sitting. So an hour after I checked in, I checked out, returning to the tomb-like air outside.

The warmers, long johns and new balaclava seemed to make all the difference. The brutal cold stayed away from my skin and my core burned with new warmth. I even took the time to adjust my seat post and move my sagging seat post bag to the front rack. But as I pedaled into the blue-tinted shadows, I felt a new wash of fatigue. It was as though my hours-long battle with the cold had sucked the energy right out of my body, and it didn't matter how many frozen Sour Patch Kids I gnawed on — the energy just wouldn't come back.

I could say it was a struggle, but the landscape was too dreamlike, too compelling, to be a place of struggle. The moon wedge burned bright in a sky splattered with stars, and the twisted trees carved gothic silhouettes over the snow. I did a lot of thinking about the upcoming changes in my life and felt a beautiful sense of peace. Just as I had no real control over the cold, over my fatigue, I had no control over the future. And yet I could move through it, taking on the challenges with the best of my abilities, learning from my mistakes, and growing. Even when the race got hard, like life, it never stopped being worth it.

About 14 miles from the end, my knee started to go. I have issues with my right joint that my doctor once called "Angry Knee." Basically, overuse causes a flareup of chondromalacia that stiffens the joint until I can't bend it at all without pain. The onset of that all-too-familiar sharp pain causes no end of anxiety, because I have no idea how bad it will get or how long it will last. In 2007, I couldn't ride my bicycle for three months as I recovered from chondromalacia I acquired, interestingly enough, during the final miles of a frigid 100-mile winter race called the Susitna 100. And at mile 87 of the White Mountains 100, my Angry Knee was none too happy. My usual strategy is to stop riding, but that wasn't really an option on a remote trail in subzero temperatures. I just had to hope I could limp it to the end without too much long-term damage.

I did do everything I could to be as gentle as possible. I essentially stopped riding up hills; even the mellow ones I walked. Even still, the pain increased. I'm not sure why my knee chose this precise time to give up the fight. I think a large part of it was undertraining. I can climb all the difficult mountains I want, but unless I turn pedals, I'm not going to build up the essential muscles to support my joint through an excessive number of rotations in a short period of time. I also suspect that this knee doesn't like extreme cold very much. I stopped and ate a recklessly large handful of Advil pills, which helped.

About seven miles from the finish, I reached the Wickersham Wall. Lovingly named after a face of Denali that is essentially unclimbable, the White Mountains' Wickersham Wall gains 1,000 feet in a little less than two miles. Judging by the footprints punched into the trail, it must have been a walk for nearly everyone, but I really felt like I was tackling some high-altitude route on Denali. Every 30 steps or so I had to stop, gasping for breath and massaging my knee. My body was beaten, but — amazingly — my attitude remained upbeat. I could look back and see the headlamps of other racers, pinpricks of light in a vast and dark wilderness. Behind them, a sliver of dawn's blue light climbed over the horizon. And in front of me, the setting moon burned with a surreal tint of dark orange. I felt happy. My lungs burned; my swollen fingers ached and my knee sometimes screamed in pain, but I still felt happy. I think much of it was the realization that even though my body is my vehicle through life, life itself is my source of joy.

Dawn had broken when I rolled into the finish line at 6:23 a.m., for a finishing time of 22 hours, 23 minutes, in 14th place out of 49 finishers. I was satisfied to be done, but more than that, I was just grateful to have been a part of it. There are a lot of people that deserve a huge thanks — Ed Plumb and Ann Farris for organizing the race; John Shook for putting me, Chris and his wife, Maura, up for two nights, feeding us meals and letting us throw our stinky gear all over his spare bedrooms; Robin BeeBee for finding and returning my SPOT unit after it bounced off my bike near the end the route — my mother especially is grateful for this; all of the the volunteers who manned the checkpoints, working harder getting even less sleep than the racers; the medics who covered the entire course on snowmobiles, and everyone else who helped make the White Mountains 100 happen. Thank you. It was really great.