Thursday, November 18, 2010

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

About a half mile from Rich Crain’s tent, I rounded the cliffs of the river bend and plunged back into an all-encompassing darkness. I stopped to tighten my seatpost rack and contemplated changing my base layer. There was a strange chill in the air. I couldn’t quite place it. It didn’t feel like bitter cold, frosty or sharp; it was more of a dull, penetrating chill that saturated the air. I looked up at the starless sky and felt tiny needles of moisture bouncing off my nose and cheeks. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized it was raining.

Rain! Rain wasn’t good. How often does it rain in Southcentral Alaska in February? I had planned for blizzards, I had planned for outer-space-like cold, I had planned for snow and ice and even sunlight, but I hadn’t planned on rain. The light drizzle picked up volume until large droplets were bouncing of my ultra-breathable — and therefore minimally water-resistant – shell. The trail’s thin crust began to break apart. I could feel my tires churning up slush, and then the bike stopped moving. I pushed it several dozen yards and tried to ride again, laboring and churning up slush until the wheels seized. I stopped, and then tried to pedal, then stopped again, and again and again.

Yellow stakes veered up the riverbank and into the woods. I knew without a doubt that I was back on the same trail I had ridden in the early afternoon. But it was the same trail only in location; it no longer bore any resemblance to the smooth, icy path I had ridden earlier in the day. It had become a quagmire, swept with gray slush and occasional puddles of standing water. Ski and snowmobile tracks carved irregular ruts across the trail. My own wheels knifed into the trail like warm butter; riding was impossible. As I walked, I occasionally punched shin-deep postholes into the soft snow. The rain kept pouring down, like spray from an unseen waterfall, cold and endless.

There is a place, a windswept plain between the Susitna River and Flathorn Lake, known as Dismal Swamp. As I pushed my bike, the bleak blank landscape sucked every last ounce of hope and joy out of my being, like a mystical crossing where the name isn’t ironic, it’s an actual warning. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The sloshing sound of my feet through the slush was maddening. I stopped when I couldn’t bear to listen to it any more. My legs throbbed with a low roar of pain. My feet were wet and hot where blisters were forming. My throat was raw and tingling from breathing so hard for so long. I hadn’t eaten anything since the frozen Power Bar six or seven hours earlier. I felt more ill than hungry, so I didn’t even consider eating anything else. Instead, I sat down in the snow and gazed at the bleak blank sky. A stream of cold water trickled down my spine. I held up my gloves and noticed they were dripping rainwater. So was my coat. My legs felt clammy and cold. I was officially, thoroughly soaked. The wet clothing did nothing to block the frigid wind from chilling my skin. I burrowed deeper into the drift beside the trail. I wanted someone to come rescue me, to whisk me away from this hopeless place. But I hadn’t seen a single other person besides Rich Crain since I left Luce’s Lodge. The chill seeped into my core. I started to shiver. Logic began to frantically wave at me from behind the hazy veil of my bonked daze. I knew I could abandon hope all I wanted, but I wasn’t going to last long being completely wet in 35-degree rainy weather if I didn’t keep moving. So reluctantly, I stood up.

This is the part where my memory fades to an almost unrecognizable blur. Somewhere in the back of my primordial instincts, I found the strength to keep moving. Moving meant pushing my bike through the slush; nothing less, nothing more. It must have been hard work, because I do remember stopping occasionally to catch my breath and look up at the sky, straining to see stars that I never found. I must have stopped at Flathorn Lake lodge again, since that was the 75-mile checkpoint, although I don’t remember doing so. The checkers must have fed me some of their famous paella, or at least I assume they did, because for a while after Flathorn Lake, my mental images became much clearer. The rain turned to snow. Large chunky flakes fell on my wet clothing and clung to my eyelashes. The “slorp” sound of my footsteps became more of a crunch. Temperatures were turning more favorable, which simply meant they had dropped below freezing again. Would the trail set up? I shivered against the creeping chill. Shadows of black spruce trees plodded beside me. I didn’t want to listen to my footsteps anymore. I took of my wet, snow-covered pack and fished out the little AM/FM radio I brought with me.

I turned the dial, searching for the weather band. I wanted the familiar computer-generated voice to tell me the storm was moving on, the temperatures were falling, and the trail would freeze solid again. I caught a single, static-garbled report that the temperature was still 37 degrees in Wasilla, and then it cut out. I switched to FM. My radio found only one channel, a mainstream pop station out of Anchorage. I walked and listened. They played songs I remembered from high school, cheesy ballads that brought an actual if subdued smile back to my face. They played dance music that pumped life back into my flagging will to live and even prompted me to try to ride my bike again, which usually ended swiftly in swerving, crashing failures. They played the same damn “Yahoo Mat-Su” commercial so many times that I wanted to rip my ice-crusted hair out of my head. And then they played a song I had never heard before.

“It’s coming up … it’s coming up … it’s coming up …” I stopped walking, held my breath, and listened. The music caught my attention in the way certain songs just do sometimes, a consuming blend of surreal melody, mood-matching rhythm and lyrics that spoke to the moment.

“You’ve got to press it on you … you just think it, that’s what you do, baby … hold it down, DARE.”

“DARE” by the Gorillaz. Just another pop song, but it filled my slow march with rush of new meaning. I looked up at the sky and saw the eerie orange glow of Anchorage city lights reflecting off the low clouds. I licked my lips, cracked and crusty, and felt a strange kind of warmth, like a glow, starting from those city lights and seeping all the way to my soul. I pushed a grin through my cracked lips, and then I broke out laughing. I felt amazing; I didn’t think I had ever felt so amazing. I certainly never felt that way before, what I recognize now as endurance euphoria: the out-of-body elation one experiences when one has been so miserable for so long that even the tiniest hits of positive emotion feel like ecstasy.

But because endurance euphoria only hits in the midst of prolonged misery, and because it is accompanied by extreme fatigue and poor nutrition and, in my case, the dangerous edge of hypothermia, it never lasts long. Soon I was back to being miserable again, pushing my bike through the crusty but still-soft slush, screaming at the “Yahoo Mat-Su” commercial but too lonely to risk turning my radio off.

After a seemingly endless number of hours, the sun started to rise over the distant Chugach Mountains. I blinked against its strange ochre light, reflected off the thinning clouds. It meant I had been out there grinding away at the Susitna 100 for nearly a day, an entire day. Not only had I more than doubled the amount of time that I had ever spent engaged in an outdoor activity, but I had exponentially surpassed the amount of stress, fatigue, strain and outright soul-crushing tedium of any single effort I had every experienced. It was, by large degrees, the hardest thing I had ever done. And yet, it wasn’t necessarily getting harder. The dull pain and chill simmered beneath my limbs, but my transformed legs kept walking and my transformed arms kept pushing. Even while every cell in my body begged me to stop, I couldn’t help but wonder how far these new-found, robot-like abilities could take me.

I returned to the dog-mushing park, where the well-used trails had set up in the morning cold, and mounted my bike again. For the first time in more than 25 miles, I was able to pedal for more than a few feet. I figured I couldn’t have more than five or six miles left in the race. Endurance euphoria crept up again, and in my excitement I failed to pay much attention to the yellow stakes that had guided me for 93 miles. After a half hour or so, I realized I hadn’t seen a yellow stake in a while.

I rode forward another mile before deciding I really was on the wrong track. It’s quite common to become lost in an endurance race, especially if you’re me, but this was my first time and I took it badly. I turned around and sprinted back the way I came, fuming with anger and frustration and what suddenly felt like crushing fatigue. I backtracked three miles to another intersection, where there were still no signs of yellow stakes. I got of my bike, laid on the trail, and indulged in a screaming temper tantrum. That was it. I was ready to surrender. My odometer had surpassed 100 miles, and I didn’t care anymore whether I finished the race. The Susitna 100 could claim victory in this battle. I wanted out of this war.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a skier whisk up a parallel trail on the other side of the swamp. I jumped up and followed the skier’s line until I found a yellow stake. I rode two and a half more miles and reached the finish line just after 10 a.m. I stared in disbelief at my surroundings — a tiny warming hut, a crowded parking lot, and a sallow-faced race director standing in the snow with a clipboard. It was the same scene I had left 25 hours earlier, but somehow had become irreparably different. Geoff ran up to me and wrapped his arms around me. He snapped another picture and I tried to smile. My face felt frozen, my soul drained. I couldn't think of any words to say, except "I did it." Through my raspy voice, they echoed with a strange sort of hollowness. Somehow, some way, I was going to eventually have to accept that I finished the Susitna 100.

…. To be continued (Yes, I’m working up to a point, but it’s fun to write a long rambling race report first.)