Monday, November 15, 2010

It's coming up ... it's coming up

Have I ever told you the story of the 2006 Susitna 100? I know it’s out there — this blog essentially blossomed around my training log for that race. I wrote about my experiences before and after I finished. But, amid the relentless march of time, I quickly left it behind and moved onto whatever came next. I don't feel like I gave the 2006 Susitna 100 the reflection it deserved. After all, it was the pivotal moment of transition between a former version of myself — then more tentative, fearful, and inexperienced model — and the stronger, more adventurous and independent version that I’ve continued to develop in the aftermath. As with all major developments in life, this change is an ongoing process that will never end. But it began at the Anchorage REI, on a snowy November afternoon just about exactly five years ago.

I was walking out of the store when "the document that changed my life" appeared in my peripheral vision: A brochure, torn, wrinkled and taped to a bulletin board. It was illustrated with a cyclist’s silhouette that had been pasted over a photo of snow-swept tundra. White text advertised “The Susitna 100: A 100-mile race across frozen Alaska.” The brochure filled me with an inexplicable sense of recognition — like looking into the rippled depths of a fun-house mirror and seeing a vague image of my future self. I tore the single sheet away from the wall and carried it into the storm.

It made sense that this brochure captured my attention — after all, I had recently moved to Alaska, and in nervous anticipation for my first Alaska winter, had purchased a pair of studded tires for my 2003 Gary Fisher Sugar. So I was already a winter cycling subscriber. But what didn’t make sense is how the Susitna 100 managed to capture my intrique. After all, I had only ridden my newly converted full-suspension mountain bike in snow a few times, and found the riding to be profoundly more difficult than the summer version of mountain biking. The Susitna 100 covered 100 miles, which was profoundly more mileage than I had ever ridden a mountain bike in a day. And this profoundly long stretch of profoundly hard mountain biking was also framed in the context of a race. I had never competed in a race before. Ever. Not a 100-mile summer mountain bike race, not a cross-country race, not a 5K, nothing. I did once enter a three-mile fun run, way back in middle school. I was the kid who hung way off the back, happier to chat with my other non-athlete friends than struggle toward the gray anonymity of mid-pack. My underachiever friends and I proudly pointed out our positions in third-to-last, second-to-last, and last place every time we walked by the results board in the hall. In the 14 years since, nothing had changed in my attitude, and I happily stayed far away from competitive sports.

So it made sense that my initial admissions of interest in the Susitna 100 were met with disbelief and confusion. My parents, who had just recently digested my unsettling decision to follow a guy 3,000 miles away to Alaska, secretly began to wonder if someone was force-feeding me crazy pills. My friends back in Utah, who once watched me crumble into fear-fueled panic during a relatively harmless rafting trip in the warm desert, quietly changed the subject when I spoke of my impossibly dangerous fantasy. My then-boyfriend, Geoff, shrugged and told me I could do the race as long as he didn’t have to. He had even less interest in winter bicycle racing than I should have. He did, however, have a fleeting interest in competitive running, but at that point even his running had yet to develop into much more than the occasional snowshoe race. When he discovered the ski, bike and foot race offered a 50K version called the Little Su, he resolved to join the madness by training to run the “short race.” From this spark, he would eventually win the Little Su 50K after running “the hardest race of his life,” then do it again in the 2007 Susitna 100, then go on to dominate endurance runs across the country and become one of the top ultramarathoners in North America. But that’s his story. This is my story.

Training for the Sustina 100 taught me that not only is training good preparation for a race, it’s good preparation for life. I froze my fingers and then learned how to keep them from freezing. I steered into snow berms and re-taught myself bike handling. I toppled over the handlebars and discovered how to take a crash. I knelt into the snow and gobbled down peanut butter sandwiches before the chill could grab me. I pressed deep into the daunting wilderness and discovered the wilderness would embrace me back, if only my heart was open enough to accept that beauty trumps fear.

Despite my training, when I showed up at the start of the race, I was an emotional, mental and physical rookie in every way, and I looked the part. The night before, I had spent 95 agonizing minutes gluing my hopelessly tight 2.1” studded tires to my bike’s 26” skinny rims (for the record, studded tires only work on ice, and are useless in snow.) Threads of the sticky substance still clung to the wheels and dangled from the spokes. For my mandatory survival gear, I had stuffed a flimsy dry bag with 15 pounds of sleeping bag, water and clothing and strapped it to a seatpost rack. I dangled a stuff sack with an inflatable Thermarest and batteries from the handlebars, and wore even more water and clothing on my back. For food, I strapped a square handlebar bag to the inside triangle of my bike, filled it with chocolate and Power Bars and added chemical heat packs to keep the Power Bars from freezing (an amusingly hopeless idea.) I wore a snowboarding coat, rain pants and thin overboots; beneath that, a fleece jacket from The Gap, polyester long johns and hiking boots, and beneath that, an actual cycling jersey and padded shorts. For my hands I had neoprene kayaking gloves and over-mittens; for my head, a balaclava and hat. I wheeled my back-heavy, full-suspension Sugar next to rows of sleek fat bikes and sighed. I felt like I was standing at the starting line of the Tour de France with a beach cruiser.

To be continued …