I expected to feel something like euphoria after completing the Sustina 100, but found the experience to be closer to the opposite of that. Geoff loaded my bike in the back of the truck as I stood in the bright sun with my head lowered. My skin felt clammy and chapped, my lips and mouth parched. Geoff gave me a Diet Pepsi, a special treat, but the cold liquid tasted like fire and sea water — a result of extreme electrolyte imbalance, mild nutritional deficiencies and of course dehydration. I was out of energy but I had no appetite. Geoff produced a cold pizza — he purchased it the evening before when he expected me to finish around 2 a.m., not 10 — but I couldn't even choke down a full slice. We drove in mostly silence an hour back to Palmer, where I peeled off my still-wet clothing and prepared to take a shower. My hair was wet and so knotted around my hair band that I couldn't untangle it. My bloodshot eyes stared back at my blotchy face in the mirror. I tried to yank my hair free until I broke out in tears. Every muscle in my legs throbbed. I felt like I had deliberately thrown my body into rush-hour traffic, and finishing the Susitna 100 seemed just as masochistically useless.
In the following days, with my body battered and the edges of my spirit worn soft, I attempted to get back on my bike and ride again. At first, I felt only a vague sense of transformation. As my distance from the Susitna 100 grew, the initial shock and pain of the race slowly replaced itself with a warm feeling of enlightenment and purpose, not unlike a religious awakening after a long fast. My memory intensified the beauty and emotion of the experience until I had to actively block my mind from a constant barrage of daydreams. When I closed my eyes, I only saw wind-swept tundra and snow. I felt like I had crossed a threshold, one that I could never return from. As I recovered, I followed the progress of another race — a little-known ultra-endurance race called the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Everything about the ITI captured the still-sharp edges of my imagination, and the words of the participants spoke to my new state of mind. Steve Reifenstuhl, who was in the process of running the 350-mile race to McGrath in 2006, wrote this about finishing the 2005 race:
"The edge with which I am dancing is where the mind can make the body perform beyond what is believed to be possible. It is spiritual, it is dreamlike, it penetrates to my core and when I come back from it, I know I was there, and it beckons for months afterward ... At the finish line in McGrath, the physical and the emotional unite in a crescendo of emotion, pain, elation. The "other" becomes a memory. This unique reality has been reached by the passage of miles, time, physical exertion, psychological strain and sleep deprivation. It is so close to me, yet a world away."
In 2007, I went back to the Susitna 100 much more prepared — except for I was overtrained, and finished the race with stage 3 chondromalacia in my right knee that kept me off my bike for more than three months afterward. In 2008, I took the quantum leap to the 350-mile race to McGrath, grossly underexperienced and underprepared, and finished the race after what is still the most intense six days of my life. In 2009, I returned to the race to McGrath with much more experience and preparation, and contracted frostbite on my right foot within the first 60 miles. Later that summer, I finished the 2,740-mile Tour Divide after 24 days of physically exhausting, often painfully lonely pedaling, convinced I had my fill of adventure racing, finally, and I didn't have to do it any more.
The temperature was 8 degrees and 25 mph winds plunged icy flakes of snow like daggers into my skin as Beat and I slipped micro-spikes over our shoes and started up the exposed hillside on Monday evening. After our seven-hour snow-bike adventure on Sunday, my legs felt heavy and sore. Something similar to wet concrete and cold acid pumped through my veins. I adjusted my face mask to block the fierce windchill, lowered my head and shuffled behind Beat up a gravel road where I've ridden my mountain bike several dozen times. Powder snow drifted like sand under my feet. I was running, but only barely. Climbing this hill had never been so hard. We turned left and traversed the face of Mount Sentinel as an eerie blur of city lights glowed through the blizzard below. We reached the ridgeline where the full Arctic blast roared through Hellgate Canyon. With hands and spikes on ice-crusted rocks, we picked our way up the mountain. Beat said it felt like mountaineering. I felt like I was slapping my own legs with a spiked paddle. It had been barely a week of mild running and hiking since I started to recover my sprained ankle, and already my body was seriously sore and tired. The cold was not much of a concern for me. But my speed was. Our 12-mile loop was going to take three to four hours at my pace, something a little beyond the cold-weather and physical exposure both Beat and I felt was prudent for a weeknight training run. We turned back. I stumbled several times. We returned after an hour and 40 minutes — an amount of time that would be a "short weekday quickie" if it were a bike ride — and I felt spent.
On September 1, after much mutual goading, my friend Danni and I both registered for the 2011 Susitna 100. The simple action of hitting "send" on the Web site filled me with the same raw anticipation that I felt five years ago, the same anxiety and excitement of the prospect of venturing into almost completely unknown — and for me, completely ridiculous — territory. Yes, I've finished the Susitna 100 twice (on a slightly different course, but still in the same region.) I still sometimes dream of it, with jolting lucidity, when my mind slips into the gray spaces between wakefulness and slumber, and I remember the childlike awe and wonder. I want to return that space, back to the beginning, with a similar state of mind. I want to venture far out of my comfort zone. I want to leave my bike at home, the one tool that has gotten me through so much. I want to strike out into the tundra with only my own body to rely on, maybe with my friends Danni and Beat, or maybe alone, to see the windswept Dismal Swamp in new light, with new eyes.
In other words, I want to run the Susitna 100. On foot.
And after a fall marked with more injuries than actual training runs, continuing struggle with simple efforts, and a general complete lack of running experience, I have absolutely no reason to believe I can even attempt it, let alone finish it.
But I had no reason to believe it in 2006, either.
And this just gives me all the more reason to dream ...