Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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

This is the continuation of my story of the 2006 Susitna 100.

Morning light had not yet fully emerged at the 9 a.m. race start, although it was difficult to discern beneath the thick clouds that filled the sky. Snow reflected the dull gray, black spruce trees stuck out of the drifts like skewers, and the only thing that broke the winter silence was a tight cluster of about 60 skiers, cyclists and runners, perched at the edge of a colorless infinity.

Geoff’s race didn’t start until 11 a.m., so he buzzed around shooting photographs. I was so nervous that I couldn’t bear to smile at him or even glance at anyone else. I stared at my feet and legs, wrapped in what looked like a moon suit, and tried not to think about the alien landscape that lay ahead. Suddenly, I heard the dry crackle of tires on cold snow. I looked up and watched the other cyclists launch toward a narrow corridor that cut into a tangle of trees. Skiers and runners nudged around me. Like a diver who waited too long to come up for air, I jolted out of my daze and struggled to join the surge.

The first few miles of the Susitna 100 were routed through a dog mushing park, a tight maze with trails darting off in every direction. I skirted around skiers and runners and spun my heavy legs as fast as I could muster, hoping to catch the pack. Amid a rush of adrenaline, all of my pre-race fear had been replaced by an elated sort of anticipation. “I’m in a race,” I thought, “an actual race!” Everything I had studied about endurance racing prior to the event - the nutrition, the hydration, the pacing - dissolved into the simple novelty of “racing.” I pedaled faster. My blood surged. I attacked hills with no one in front or behind me. I skidded down steep waves of snowmobile moguls as my rear tire bumped loudly against my seat-post rack. The trails were hard-packed, and I managed to put every skier and runner behind me, and catch a few cyclists as well. I felt great. I pounded out the first 10 miles in less than an hour. Snow bike endurance racing was easy.

Then the dog mushing park and surrounding neighborhood trails ended, and just like that, Alaska emerged. Snow drifts stretched across flat, frozen swamps, with only yellow stakes to indicate the presence of a trail. I stepped off my bike and walked through the sugary powder, something I had practiced a lot, so the effort didn’t faze me. A cold wind blew from the direction of solid white mountains in the distance. The humidity was high and the temperature hovered at about freezing, which made the snow covering the trail at once crusty and soft. I pedaled and walked, walked and pedaled. Skiers passed me. Wide bike tracks in the trail indicated most of the cyclists could ride what I could not. I struggled up short, steep climbs. My tires continued to bump against my seatpost rack on every descent. I tried to readjust the rack, but couldn’t position it higher because the saddle was in the way of the gear bag. I finally just decided to gamble that the whole thing wasn’t going to blow apart in the duration of a 100-mile race.

I dropped onto Flathorn Lake and pulled up to the 25-mile checkpoint at 12:45, having covered the first 25 miles in just under four hours. It seemed a decent pace, and if I could hold it, I would reach the finish by 18 hours, my best-case-scenario goal. The inside of the cabin was blissfully warm, and there were homemade brownies and orange slices on a table. I refilled my Camelbak bladder and started gulping down food. Every sugary, gooey, juicy morsel slid down my throat like chunks of heaven. I had never tasted food so fulfilling, so delicious. I had never tasted food in a race before.

When I walked back outside, hints of sunlight were starting to break through the clouds. I rode along the shoreline of the lake until the trail wound back into the forest. I stopped to gaze across the white expanse behind me. A warm, stinging sensation filled my throat - a physical reaction to the sensation of being at once completely at home and completely out of my element. Only the wind broke a lasting silence. A strip of spruce trees lined the horizon, carving a thin black brush stroke across the white canvas of the lake and Mount Susitna. I had never seen such a place before, a place so beautiful and so surreal, a place so distant from the din of modern life that it seemed frozen in time. Sugar and endorphins surged through my blood and I didn’t know whether to cry or sing. But I remembered that I had already made a decision to race, so I turned and pedaled into the woods.

I crossed the Susitna River at mile 33. Across the frozen white corridor, a gray figure moved along a stand of trees. I squinted as the figure stopped briefly. I saw the shine of eyes, then it turned and darted into the woods. A wolf? A lynx? What else could it be? The warm, stinging sensation filled me again. This was not my place, this was the place of skulking moose and prowling predators. This was their home, and my presence in it meant nothing to them. The realization filled me with a sense of meaningfulness, because the world was so big and I was so small.

Back in the woods, two snowmobiles passed me and churned up the soft trail ahead. Where I had been riding slowly before, I was again reduced to walking. A skier caught up to me, and we moved together for a while - he could do little more than carve parallel tracks in the sand-like snow, which matched my pushing-riding-pushing pace. We chatted a bit, words I no longer remember. He stopped at Eaglesong and I decided to keep going. I wanted to make it to Luce’s Lodge by dinnertime. The trail between the two checkpoints was only a connector created specifically for the race. It was narrow and not very well packed. I walked and pedaled, pedaled and walked. I gnawed on Power Bars which, despite the mild temperatures, were frozen solid. Chocolate-flavored saliva bubbled out of my mouth as I tried to chew.

Darkness fell as I reached Luce's Lodge, at about 6 p.m. I was beginning to feel woozy and decided to skip the spaghetti dinner I had planned to eat at the checkpoint. The warmth inside the building added to my wooziness, so I made a quick exit. A skier on the porch was removing his hat as I stepped outside. His face and hair gave him an uncanny resemblance to a friend of mine back in Utah, Curt. "Hi Curt," I blurted out before I caught myself. The skier shot me a blank stare and without another word, I rushed away.

"Wow, I must really be out of it," I thought as a hurried down the hill, back to the cold darkness of the Yentna River. My mind played backward through the slow march of the day. I had been racing for nine hours and traveled 53 miles across a remote expanse of frozen river valleys. Nine hours was as long of a day of cycling as I had ever put in. Two of my training rides were eight hours long, and once three years earlier I rode for nine hours straight during a cross-country bicycle tour. But this effort was beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I was only halfway done. I smiled with a sense of supreme satisfaction.

Out on the river, the once-expansive landscape dissolved to the flickering beam of my single headlamp. I strained to pick out the yellow Su100 stakes amid the black void. I was terrified of losing them, as though they were the only thing tethering me to Earth. The river was too wide to see either side, and the darkness beyond my headlamp beam was all unknown. I was a tiny island amid an ocean of emptiness. I might as well have been pedaling on the Bering Sea.

My breath felt strangely labored, my lungs and throat raw. I stared at the yellow island in front of me and wondered what being in this race really meant. Venturing beyond the safety of urban development into a wilder region of the Last Frontier had been a fantastic adventure, but the Susitna 100 was more than that. When I looked down at my hands, wrapped in gray neoprene, I saw hands capable of piloting a bicycle across frozen swamps and over snow-covered hills. When I looked at my legs and feet, hidden beneath wide overboots, I saw limbs that could propel my body no matter how tired my mind might become. When my breath swirled in front of me, I saw distant shadows of myself, the shadows of fear and doubt and insecurity, dissolving into the cold air. And when I glanced behind me, I saw the empty expanse that I had somehow managed to cross, under my own power, with my own gumption. With every passing mile I was transforming, from "just Jill" to something else entirely - a racer, perhaps.

Up ahead, a bright circle of light broke the darkness. I grinned and pedaled toward it. The soft snow on the trail kept my speed to a minimum - 5, maybe 6 mph on my odometer. But I was pedaling. The distant light flickered and glistened. Minutes passed, and then miles. Then an hour passed. Uneasiness began to gnaw at my confidence. The light didn't seem to be getting any closer. I did feel pretty out of it. Was I moving at all, or in the midst of my excitement had I somehow forgotten to pedal? I looked down at my odometer. It still registered miles passing. I squinted toward the light and sighed. There was nothing I could do but keep on pedaling.

Two hours passed between the time I first noticed the light and the moment I finally pedaled toward an open canvas tent, a generator and a small fire right on top of the river ice. In that time, I had traveled just over eight miles on infuriatingly flat and wide river ice. The checkpoint was perched at the intersection of the Yentna and Susitna rivers, and designed to point competitors in the right direction, so they didn't end up miles the wrong way down the Susitna. In my excitement at seeing the tent, I veered off on the wrong snowmobile trail and had to push my bike through a quarter mile of knee-deep snow to return to the right trail. As I slogged toward the tent, a man waved wildly at me as though I hadn't yet figured out I had gone the wrong way. He introduced himself as Rich Crain and dished me up a cup of lukewarm soup without me even asking. I sipped the soup and asked him about the trail ahead.

"It's all stuff you've done before now," he said. "You're back on the lollipop stick. Might snow tonight. Shouldn't be too bad. You only have about 35 miles left to go."

I pumped my fist and waved goodbye to Rich. I had made it all the way back to the Susitna River, and everything in front of me was terrain I had seen before, which I already knew was mostly good trail. I grinned because I felt like I had the Susitna 100 nearly in the bag. I didn't yet realize that my race was just getting started.

To be continued ...