Thursday, January 27, 2011

Training for tedium

This has become a weekday routine for me, the Rattlesnake Corridor, dragging a heavy sled that sounds like a far-away airplane as it grinds over the icy snow, punching footprints in the soft slush until my legs sink to my knees and I can hardly move anymore. This forced stopping point always happens at nearly the same distance, 5.5 miles. I leave at 5:30 p.m. under the last gray streaks of what feels like hard-earned January daylight, which fades imperceptibly to dark gray and then black above the thick tree canopy. At first I can run "fast" at nearly 6 mph but as the trail deteriorates I "run harder" for a quad-and-hamstring-burning 3.5 or 4 mph, and then, as most trail use fades, finally a full-calf-and-ankle-shredding-1.5 mph slog.

It is the most tedious three-hour workout I have ever done. There is nothing to see but a dim circle of white light on the punchy snow, or the dull orange glow of distant city lights against the clouds. The narrow canyon and thick trees choke the landscape in two-dimensional shadows. The drag of my sled drowns out the otherwise eerie silence. Sometimes I fantasize about more engaging workouts I have done, like running on a treadmill at my old Juneau gym while Fox News blared on the television screen. But most of the time my mind succumbs to the numbness of complete boredom. The Corridor follows a gradual incline up the canyon, but the trail conditions are so difficult that I might as well put the effort into climbing a mountain. Unlike a mountain, there is no reward at the end of the Corridor, only a point where I have to stop because I can't move anymore. I turn off my headlamp and squint into the night — only the faint outline of mountains, trees, and more shadows. Then I turn around, and it takes the same amount of time to run back, even though it's downhill.

I detest the Corridor workout, dread it, and yet I go back. Why? There is much about the Susitna 100 that I can't train for, but there is one area where I truly believe preparedness counts the most — the mental game. I have my reasons why I believe running the Susitna 100 will be a truly rewarding experience, even though I don't know yet what those rewards will entail. But there's one thing I know for sure — the Susitna 100 is going to be tedious. Amazingly, mind-numbingly tedious. I look forward to the physical challenge, the beauty of Alaska and sharing such a deep emotional experience with my boyfriend and friends. But I know at some point it's going to be 3 a.m. or 7 a.m. or 8 p.m. and I'm going to be shuffling along the Yentna River, breathing through the thick frost crusted through my face mask. All I will hear is the infernal grinding of my sled, and all I will see is the faint island of light from my headlamp, the muted gray slate of the frozen river and the two-dimensional shadows of trees along a too-far-distant horizon.

And when that time comes, I'm going to be ready. My mind will shift back to these training runs — the wet, cold feet and knee-deep slush — and I'll say to myself, "At least I'm not in the Corridor."