Friday, February 25, 2011

Susitna 3, Chapter 3

I decided if I was going to make it through the last 20 miles of the race, I would need a routine. It would start with Advil, and continue with a couple of Happy Cola candies every four songs or so. Looking back, I ate astonishingly little during the Susitna 100. There were the checkpoint meals — a bowl of jambalaya, a plate of spaghetti, a small cup of soup, a grilled cheese sandwich. There was my race food, with which I was able to get through a half bag of Combos, one bag of Happy Colas, one bag of chocolate espresso beans, a handful of Goldfish crackers, a few pieces of turkey jerky, a couple of candy bars and a couple of Odwalla Bars. It was always enough to keep the furnace stoked, but later in the race I often felt lightheaded or sick, likely attributable to a borderline bonk. It was just too difficult to eat out on the trail, with the icy face mask, the cold wind, and the perceived effort, which minute for minute was noticeably higher than what I was accustomed to on a bike or in training, even when I was fresh.

As we worked our way back into the Dismal Swamp, we saw a man on foot dragging a sled back toward the Susitna River. We speculated that he was either going to McGrath or training to go to McGrath on the Iditarod Trail. "I used to think the foot people didn't have it that much harder than the bikers in these types of races," I told Beat. "That's why I thought the Susitna would make a good first hundred miler for me. But I was wrong. I was really, really wrong. This is so much harder than it is on a bike."

At the foot of the Dismal Swamp, I had Beat shoot my picture. We were at approximately mile 80, which in a bike race feels like nearly the finish, but on foot, at an optimistic 2.5 mph, isn't that close at all. The sun again drifted behind Mount Susitna, just as it had in this exact same spot a day before. When I glanced to the north, I could see the distant peaks of Denali and Mount Foraker, bathed in the same pink light they had been 24 hours ago. In front of me, the expansive blank slate of the swamp stretched over the same endless horizon. Everything was exactly as it had been. I didn't even need to close my eyes to believe that no time had passed at all. Amid my fuzzy fatigue, I could draw a straight line between Saturday morning and that moment, and convince myself this was the first sunset, not the second, and it had only been an afternoon, just an afternoon, since I left the comfort of civilization. Nothing at all.

But my feet believed otherwise. No matter how many songs I listened to, or how much I daydreamed that I had the power to stretch a single day into infinity, my feet knew how much time had passed. As I ate a few more Happy Colas and recovered some of my energy, I realized that my legs felt a lot better if I started running — well, more like shuffling — along the trail. I could do this for all of a quarter of a song before my feet protested loudly, and then grabbed by legs and forced them to stop altogether. The repetitive motion of walking seemed to tax all the wrong muscles, and I badly wanted to use some different ones, but my pain-stricken feet would have none of it. I fantasized about sprawling out across my sled and dragging myself along the trail with my arms. I wondered how far I'd get using this method.

Beat fell behind for a little while, and I felt sick of my iPod, so I turned it off and decided to count the steps between the scraggly trees that occasionally popped out of the barren swamp. I counted 214 steps, then 683, and then I realized that I was only counting to about 80 or so and after that starting over, and then eventually making numbers up. In the meantime, I noticed that my sled and poles were talking to me. The fish-scale-covered skis on the bottom of the sled made a low, groaning noise like a distant voice on a crossed phone line ... "Hellloooo, hellllooo." Meanwhile, the poles dug into the squeaky snow and made higher pitched noises that sounded very much like Danni's voice. A couple of times, I actually looked back and expected to see Danni right behind me. After the third time, when she wasn't there, I decided to turn the iPod back on.

As the sun disappeared behind the mountain, the deep and bitter cold began to return. A lighter but noticeable headwind swept along the swamp, and the windchill again needled into my layers. At this point I had put all of my headgear and mittens back on, and I was again wearing nearly everything I had brought with me. I tried to march faster. Beat overtook me and we chatted briefly, but he too was becoming cold and shortly put more distance on me as we dropped onto Flathorn Lake. We could see the checkpoint when we first entered the lake, and I told him it wasn't more than a mile. The chill cut deeper and deeper as I trudged across the lake ice, my feet refused to move any faster, and still the checkpoint never became closer. I thought maybe I had re-entered the same Flathorn Lake twilight zone that pushed the distant trees ever farther away after I punched through to the water in 2009, but then I watched Beat disappear up the hill and realized Flathorn Lake Lodge was a place that still existed.

Flathorn Lake Lodge has always been my favorite checkpoint of any race I've ever participated in. Peggy and her friends and family cook up monster pots of jambalaya, cut oranges, bake brownies, stoke a roaring fire and generally just make you feel like you want to sign a lease and never leave. I sometimes tell people I subscribe to the "checkpoints are a pointless time suck" theory, but I don't really believe it. Checkpoints are the way I turn myself back into some semblance of a real person. They warm my body and fill my stomach, remind me there is still goodness in the cold, hard world, and are really the reason I do races like this. I could rush back out into the cold and shave a couple hours off my time, or I could sit back, relax, and soak in the entirety of the experience. I've always chosen the latter.

David and Andrea were just leaving, and for a beautiful half hour we had Flathorn to ourselves while Peggy doted on us and I stuffed my face with brownies, my appetite nearly recovered. Meanwhile, I remembered how cold I had been on the way in. I decided I needed to go for broke and wear everything. I changed out my liner socks for the first time in the race (this would prove a mistake. I had no blisters form until those last 15 miles.) I put on a pair of fleece socks over my vapor barrier. I changed into my last dry base layer. I stuffed the last of my handwarmers in my mittens. And before we left, I put on my down coat. That was all of it. "If this isn't enough, I'm SOL," I thought. It was not a happy realization.

We checked out of Flathorn just before 8 p.m. The lake was now enveloped in purple darkness. The air was as still as a graveyard, as frigid as the deepest grave, and I was immediately filled by an inexplicable, almost insurmountable dread. I recognized my dread as irrational but it was there just the same, coating my heart like ice, telling me that I was terribly, terribly afraid of the dark. Why so afraid of the dark? Was it because I had been awake for 39 hours already, and on the trail for 35? Was it because I was out of spare clothing and now going on faith that I would stay warm enough? Was it because I wasn't certain I could stay awake, or not even certain I could stay alive? Whatever the reason, I was fearful. We skittered over frozen overflow on the edge of Flathorn Lake, and I did my best to keep my dread in check.

The snowmobile volunteers told us the last 15 miles were "flat," but of course they were not. After the initial climb out of the lake basin, the trail continued its slight uphill grade on a rolling obstacle course of snowmobile moguls. Snowmobile moguls are a slight annoyance on a bike, but they really are extra strenuous on foot dragging a sled, because you can never hit a stride. Your feet are climbing as the sled drops out behind you, then have to struggle down as the upward-swinging sled pulls against you. It's absolutely infuriating sometimes, to the point where you think about picking up the sled and just leaping from mogul to mogul, if only you could be so strong.

What the last 15 miles are is inconceivably straight. First the trail follows a seismic line and veers ever-so-slightly on a gas line. The cut in the spruce trees stretches beyond the horizon, into the eerie orange glow of Anchorage city lights. We'd see a headlight in the distance and watch it approach, and watch it approach, and watch it approach, until I convinced myself it was either a static light or a slow-moving cyclist, and finally, about five minutes later, a snowmobile would pass us. The seismic line has made many a Susitna 100 participant nearly lose their mind, but my mind was in a strange place — not a place to be annoyed by this unnaturally straight trail, but in a place to be both terrified and awestruck by the expansive night, the glimmering orange lights, the distant stars, and the deeply biting cold. I no longer had access to a thermometer and couldn't say how cold it was, but I do know the frost buildup on my clothing was thicker than it had been yet, and the air certainly felt colder than it had yet, wind or no wind. There are a lot of reasons why a body feels cold — and fatigue and lack of calories certainly contribute — but I convinced myself the night was approaching absolute zero, and I have to admit I was just a little bit scared.

Beat and I tried to carry on conversations along the seismic line. We talked about sled improvements, bike gear for the White Mountains, future adventures and just how many hours ago Steve probably finished. But my mind was so mushy I found it hard to concentrate, and more often than not I had to stop to pee as Beat walked on. Every half mile or so required a near-emergency sprint for the side of the trail. I would take a sip of my Camelbak and have to pee. I would pee and stand up and feel an urge to pee again. The urine itself wasn't an unusal color — still fairly yellow, but not dark — but on top of my fear of the cold, I also alarmed myself with thoughts that my kidneys were out of whack. After all, I've heard all sorts of horror stories about ultrarunners who run 100-milers and shut down vital organs in the process. I didn't feel particularly unhealthy beyond being just a bit cold, but then again the constant pants dropping wasn't helping with that problem either.

As we dropped into the Little Su River, the moon rose over the forest. Oblong and vaguely orange, it looked like a radioactive potato and added to the ominous, surreal tint of the night. Beat fell into his own battle with the sleep monster. I watched him stumble along the wide trail, and if I caught up to him I could see his dark bloodshot eyes behind his goggles. We reached a road crossing where volunteers in an idling truck told us we had four more miles to the end on that same soft roadside trail we had started the race on. In the bright sunlight of Saturday morning, we failed to notice that trail was significantly downhill. It was still soft and punchy, only now it was climbing. When I dared to look at my GPS, I realized I was no longer moving 2 mph, again. I tried to pick up the pace. I added up my songs. Twenty four songs. Only 24 songs.

Slog, slog, slog. Beat had had it with the Susitna 100 and surged ahead. I did my best to keep up, but another part of me hung back. Even in the midst of my hardest, most grueling physical challenges, I always have a point near the finish where I feel reluctant to wrap it up, to see it end. The songs ticked off and I worked through my feelings about it — "This is the worst pain ever. Worst. Pain. Ever. But, um, holy cow, I'm actually going to do it. I'm going to finish a 100-mile foot race! Who would have ever guessed?" Through my slight chill, burning tendons, throbbing feet, and almost crushing fatigue, I could only smile. Damn it, I was going to finish this thing.

Beat waited for me at the end of the roadside trail. We were only a quarter mile from the finish line. I was thrilled that he waited so we could finish together. "Icy kiss," I said, and bent in to press my frozen face mask against his. "That was by far the most frustrating finish to a race I have ever seen," he said. "It was all uphill." I couldn't be annoyed because we were finally done with it, but I was still shocked by how much my legs and feet burned and throbbed in those last few hundred yards. I wanted badly to run into the finish, to actually pick my legs up and run, but when push came to shove, and the tightly bundled, clapping volunteers were in sight, I couldn't do it. I just couldn't.

We limped across the finish line at 2:16 a.m. Monday morning, for a finishing time of 41 hours and 16 minutes. It was by far the longest "single day" effort I had ever engaged in, and unquestionably the most difficult. And yet, as I threw my arm around Beat and we stumbled into the cabin without exchanging more than a few small words, I knew we had done so much more than cross 100 miles of Alaska together. We had crossed a threshold, proved we could stand together against 100 miles of pain and fear, fatigue and danger, awe and life-or-death intensity. And if we could do that together, we could do anything together. And that, to me, felt like our victory.