Monday, February 28, 2011

Recovery

I've been quiet this week. Lots of changes since Susitna. More on that soon, but for now I thought I'd pop my head up lest my family think I've started sleeping 12 hours a day. For the record, that pretty much was my average my first two nights after I came home from Anchorage, where I doubt I slept 12 hours in five days. The cold I had before the trip of course reared its head with a vengeance, and the rest of my body decided it no longer needed to listen to me. It's interesting how one day you can feel lousy and still travel 100 miles on foot, and two days later struggle to find your way to the fridge for a glass of orange juice. I really can't say I felt that much worse than I did at times during the race, but I was firmly floored by fatigue and illness in the aftermath.

Then I popped out of it, and got on my bike. It was cold and windy in Missoula, with temperatures in the single digits and fierce windchill - not to mention heinous wind drifts across the trails and more bike pushing than my sore feet would have preferred. I didn't go hard, but it felt good to get out, even if I was annoyed by how cold it was ("Susinta is over! It's time for spring!") while being simultaneously amazed by how "warm" that kind of cold felt (8 degrees and 30 mph winds. Bah! That's nothing.") There was lots to think about. Digest. Pedal. Peace. Physically, I felt OK. A bit overtrained, but it definitely feels good to ride versus walk (push.) I'll be taking it easy for at least another week, but I'm still hoping to get in some good saddle hours before the White Mountains 100 on March 27.

I spent the weekend in Kalispell with Danni, so we could share post-Susitna indulgences such as eating freely out of Danni's leftover M&M/Reeses Pieces/Jordan Almonds "race food" feed bag, commiserating about our post-race malaise and difficulties re-integrating back in the "real world," soaking in the hot tub and riding the lifts at Big Mountain Ski Resort in Whitefish. Sunday was actually an awesome powder day, with tons of new snow and fresh pillow clouds billowing between the trees. Danni and I were quite the pair, getting vertigo together in the summit whiteout, complaining that our feet were too swollen for our boots, and moaning about our tired legs. Danni's friend Shannon was a good sport to hang out with us, and we actually had a lot of fun.

I only need to go lift-served snowboarding about once or twice a year to remember that I am an endorphin junkie, not an adrenaline junkie. Because of this, for me, ski resorts essentially take all the fun out of the activity - which of course is the climbing part. I know I could pursue backcountry skiing/splitboarding, but that's a complicated sport that requires a lot of gear, skill and risk acceptance, and still includes the less-fun part, which is the downhill part. Maybe I don't have to be ashamed to admit that when I saw a group of snowshoers slogging up the mountain while I was breezing up the lift - who were not carrying downhill devices of any kind - that I kind of envied them (although I would never snowshoe at a crowded ski hill.) All kidding aside, I had a surprisingly good day on the board given my rustiness/timidness. I was punching through powder clouds and carving semi-decent turns on black diamond runs, thank you slow snow. I love that feeling of weightlessness when you rise on top of untracked powder and weave through a maze of whitewashed trees. It is almost as awesome as riding a bike ... almost.

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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Susitna 3, Chapter 2

Even though it felt like a single heartbeat, I was surprised to learn that only two hours had passed since the time we checked into Luce's Lodge. It could have been much longer. While Beat was choking down his spaghetti and trying to recover his energy, I spent most of an hour in the back room with all of my gear spread out in front of me. Finally, I decided to put most all of it on — microfleece tights, wind tights and wind shell pants, fresh polypro base layer, microfleece pullover, wind vest, Gore-tex shell, thin balaclava, face mask, windstopper hat and fleece balaclava, gators, liner mittens, shell gloves with handwarmers, vapor barrier socks with feet warmers and Drymax liner socks. The only items of clothing I packed back into my sled were things I had more than one of, such as liner gloves and socks, and my down coat — my lifeline. I started the race feeling over-packed and it only took me 40 miles to make use of nearly every non-required item I brought.

It was just after midnight when we stepped back out into the deep cold, but as Danni predicted, the wind had died down. I briefly glanced at the thermometer on the river and saw the needle hovering near minus 20. I didn't need to look any closer. "It will probably take us five hours to get to Alexander Lake," Beat said, and I agreed. We started trudging up the Yentna River.

The trailed veered back into the woods, climbing the river bluff and emerging into yet more rolling swamps. The glittering sky became more muted, an indication that it was starting to cloud up. Having moved several dozens of miles inland, the robust birch and hemlock we passed when we started the race were gone. The forest had deteriorated into stands of scraggly black spruce that twisted in gothic shapes over frozen swamps — the kind of scenery that dominates Alaska's Interior. It was strange to think that it was possible to cross entire climate zones on foot, and the time it was taking made it seem more like an expedition than a 100-mile race. "This is one way to get your money's worth out of the Su100. Walk it," I thought to myself. "I feel bad for those biker guys who have to sleep in their own beds tonight. They're completely missing out." It was a lie, of course, but it felt good to think it.

We passed Danni about seven or eight miles from the checkpoint. "How are you feeling?" I asked her. "I feel cold," was all she said. I lingered for a second, expected to start exchanging our usual playful banter, but then realized the expectation was ridiculous. We weren't out for a fun hike in Glacier National Park. We had just walked 50 miles through the middle of nowhere Alaska and it was minus 20 out. It was a time for solitude and silence. Even Beat and I didn't say much in the 12 miles to Alexander Lake, except to remark about the soft trail, its difficult footing, and how slow-going it was. We were only five miles from the checkpoint when we encountered the first skiers — a mere 10 miles in front of us. Their proximity to a couple of mid-to-back-pack runners spoke to just how bad the trail really was. From the inside of my ice-crusted face mask, I could hear my raspy breaths becoming louder and more frequent. I was working so hard. I was tired. And yet I was moving so slowly. It just wasn't fair.

At 4:30 a.m., we practically crawled up the steep hillside toward the Alexander Lake cabin. The tiny single-room building was choked with bodies, some sprawled out on a bunk bed and benches, others slumped against tables and the floor. It looked like a makeshift morgue for the victims of some kind of mountaineering tragedy. The other two people on the "Couple's Foot Tour of the Susitna 100," David Johnston and Andrea Hambach, were two of only a few who were still awake inside the stuffy, crowded room. "It's easier running 50 miles than trying to hang out here," David said, and I could relate to the stifling claustrophobia of an overly crowded checkpoint. The checker got cups of soup for Beat and I as Beat put on dry layers. He said he overdressed for the trip in. I told him I had put on nearly everything I brought, and still sweat so little that my base layer was essentially dry. I nervously hoped it didn't get much colder.

About 30 minutes later, Danni stumbled in. She was shivering and looked extremely tired. "I need a nap," she said, then spread out her sleeping bag and crawled under the checker's table. The checker expressed irritation but Danni was already zonked out. I felt bad for the checker, being stuck in this stifling place all night long. I wasn't about to stay much longer. I figured most of the people there were dropping out of the race, probably in various states of moaning pain, and it was not a happy place to be. David and Andrea escaped and we left at 5:15.

On the way out, I remembered to grab my poles out of my sled. I bought hiking poles last-minute at REI upon recommendation from my friend Amy Sebby, who ran the Susitna 100 last year and was biking it with her husband this year. Until Alexander Lake, at mile 53, I had forgotten about them, but pulling them out proved to be one of the smarter decisions I made. The poles helped me navigate the difficult footing in the punchy snow, and later in the race would save some pressure from my howling IT band. Plus, hiking with poles gave me a sense of purpose. Less trudging, more "skiing." I felt smooth and efficient as I "glided" along the winding trail.

That sense of purpose soon faded into overwhelming exhaustion. I started stumbling often, and more than once drifted all the way off the trail into the deep snow, where I had to use my poles to push myself out. I had taken two caffeine pills at Alexander Lake, but they seemed to be doing nothing. "I'm falling asleep on my feet," I said to Beat the next time I caught up with him. "Seriously, I don't think I'm going to get through this thing without a nap."

"You'll be fine," Beat said. "Just wait for the sunrise. You'll see."

"No, seriously, I am too tired," I said. "I can't even keep my eyes open."

"You're not going to fall asleep," he said. "Just keep moving. When the sun comes up, you'll feel better."

Dawn was breaking with an eerie, deep crimson light on the horizon. The red glow and violet sky made the black spruce forest seem even more foreboding, and the swamps never seemed to end. I pulled out my secret weapon, chocolate covered espresso beans, and started stuffing them in my mouth with abandon. Before I knew it, the entire bag was nearly gone. The caffeine and sugar did revive me some, and the growing light muted my overwhelming desire to sleep.

I was glad to leave the gothic swamps and drop back onto the wide Yentna River. In my four times traveling on that river, I hadn't once been there during daylight hours. I was excited to see it from this new point of view. We stopped at Luce's again, now 65 miles into the race. It felt like success, but there was still a long, long way to go. Beat encouraged more eating so I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and more coffee. We congratulated a cyclist, Anna, who managed to revive herself from the dead at Alexander Lake and continue down the trail. "I admire that kind of fortitude more than I admire speed," I told her. Perhaps this is because I can relate to fortitude, but still — it takes some serious grit to not give up after you've convinced yourself you have to give up.

We finally broke away from Luce's Lodge at 10:45 a.m., and walked into what felt like a balmy morning. In the new heat, I could actually pull my face mask down and breathe fresh air, and take my mittens off for more than a second to eat and take photos. "Wow, I can't believe how much it's warmed up," I remarked to Beat as we packed up. Then I looked over at the thermometer. It was 0 degrees outside, but in comparison to the night, it felt like spring.

The proprietors at Luce's had warned us that the Iron Dog Snowmachine Race was to begin at 11 a.m. Known as the world's longest and toughest snowmobile race, the Iron Dog takes participants nearly 2,000 miles, across the Alaska backcountry to Nome and back to Fairbanks. I'm normally a fan of the Iron Dog — really, anybody who dares to traverse such incredible and hostile country on the Iditarod Trail is pretty awesome in my book. But I was not looking forward to watching snowmobiles race toward us at 90 mph. Sure enough, the first pair zipped past us about two miles from Luce's, and more followed in short order. Motors hummed like manic mosquitoes and processions of bush planes buzzed overhead. Spectators lined the river with their snowmobiles, building fires on the ice, drinking beers, and sometimes yelling toward us. One team headed straight toward Beat and me before veering around us, one snowmobile on each side of us helpless hikers. Others buzzed closely beside us while launching off nearby jumbles of ice that had been smoothed over to resemble a motocross course. We were both uneasy and I was borderline terrified, but I didn't know where else to go. The trail itself was nearly as wide as the river, and it was impossible to determine where exactly the fast-approaching snowmobiles would choose to pass. All we could do was stick close to the Su100 stakes and hope the Iron Dog snowmobilers made a conscious choice not to run us over.

I quickly grew tired of the Iron Dog circus, and wanted nothing more but to get off that frantic river. Shortly after I made a choice to increase my effort as much as I could physically stand, I started to feel quite ill. I felt flashes of extreme heat followed by almost instantaneous deep chills, until I had to stop and lean against my poles, breathing hard and waiting for the vomit that would not come. Amid my nausea is when I also first started to notice just how much pain my feet and legs were in. My IT band burned and my feet throbbed with every step. I blinked against the hard sun but there was nothing but sickness, and pain, and more sickness. Beat tried to talk me through it; he offered ginger candies and encouraged me to eat, but I knew eating was an unthinkable proposition, like pouring hot acid on a fire. Sometimes I felt so overheated that it was all I could do not to rip all of my layers off, but the chill would come so quickly that I refrained. "My feet are killing me. My legs are killing me. My body's shutting down." I breathed heavily in and out, in and out, but the only relief was my brief stops to lean against my poles.

"You're just sick," Beat told me. "It happens during an ultra. Just keep moving. You'll get through it."

Snowmobiles raced by. I started to secretly fantasize about one of them smacking me head-on and putting me quickly out of my misery. I was beyond the ability to put words together into a coherent sentence. So when Beat looked at his phone GPS and warned me that we might have to pick up the pace in order to make the cutoff, I just grunted, "Can't."

"We're not even doing 2 mph right now," he said. "If you can just try for 2.5 ..."

"This is just ... way ... more hurty than I thought," I said.

"I know," he said. "It hurts. But it won't always hurt this bad. Just keep moving."

"I can't do this for 30 more miles," I said. "I just can't."

"What are you going to do?" he asked. "You can't just sit down on the trail and wait."

"I know that," I said, still breathing heavily. "I know that. But Flathorn Lake. I just have to make it to Flathorn Lake."

"You're not going to quit at Flathorn Lake," he said. "It's only 15 miles from the finish. If you don't finish, we'll have to find some 50 milers for you to do so you can qualify for Tahoe Rim." (a 100-mile trail run in June that I already signed up for.)

"Oh, there's not going to be any more 100-mile runs," I said. "I hope I don't finish Susitna cause I don't want to qualify for Tahoe."

"No more 100-mile runs?" Beat said, sounding genuinely disappointed.

"No," I said, not even hiding the irritation in my voice. "Please, please. I can't think about that. I can't think about the cut-off. It just stresses me out. It makes me feel worse. Please can I just drag along for a bit and try not to think about how awful I feel?"

Beat seemed dejected that I was being so unfairly grumpy with him, but nodded and walked on ahead. I fished out my iPod shuffle. Instead of listening the music, though, I could only think of it in terms of time. "One song is about five minutes; that's 12 songs an hour. At 2 mph that's 12 songs for two miles. Twelve miles to Flathorn means 72 songs. I can listen to 70 or so songs. Maybe add 10 more songs for the short ones, and because I'm moving slower than 2 mph." Then I started to count the songs. I made it to three songs, and lost count.

The music droned on. We turned onto the Susitna River and the white expanse opened up even wider. My stomach started to settle a bit and I was able to force down some Goldfish crackers and a peanut butter cup, but I could not stop dwelling on the pain in my feet and legs. Every step felt like a prick of thousands of small and large needles. Even my song math couldn't hide the fact that I had lots and lots of hours left of this. It was ridiculous, so ridiculous, and unfair, even if I had done it to myself. My body didn't want to do this anymore, but it had to because I was the one who had stranded it out here in the middle of this god-foresaken Alaska river. My body was angry with me. I was angry with me. The music droned on.

As I trudged toward the looming mass of Mount Susitna, my iPod switched over to a song from the "Ride the Divide" soundtrack. I downloaded this soundtrack, along with several other new albums, just days before the race so I'd have a fresh Susitna playlist. I downloaded the "Ride the Divide" music because I had seen the movie several times, and was hoping the music would fill my head with images from "Ride the Divide," which in turn would remind me of my better days during the 2009 Tour Divide. This particular song didn't ignite any recognition from the movie, but it did wrestle my attention away from my own self-absorbed suffer-fest. "July" by Amy Petty started to fill my soul with something that almost felt like hope.

I listened to the whole song, removed my mittens, fished around in my pocket until I found the shuffle, hit the back button, and listened again. The lyrics rang with a more lasting kind of truth, as though I was suddenly able to see myself in the aftermath, beyond the suffering and pain:

Do you remember when all we had to do was get up to go to school on time?
Do you remember what it meant to refuse, said she wouldn’t let you play outside?
Now we’re so caught up in this great big. big world and so quickly the seasons change the wind;
Now before I lose myself in the blur, I go back where I begin.


Tears filled my eyes, which quickly became streams, and before I even realized it, I was bawling. I was glad Beat was a ways ahead, because I was in the midst of a full-on emotional breakdown, blubbering, sobbing and generally just spewing out a lot of built-up pain and frustration. I wiped away the tears and snot and let more stream out. I reflected back to the 2006 Susitna 100 and my emotional breakdown in the Dismal Swamp, when it was raining and I was wet and cold and pushing my bike through the slush of that wide-open nothingness. There was a point when I sat down on the trail and gave up. And then I got up and kept going. I never forgot that moment, and can never forget that moment. It was the first time in my life I realized I could be that strong. And here I was, back on the Susitna River, back where I began.

The black despair that had dominated my heart suddenly faded into something almost joyful. The pain was still there, but it was nothing I couldn't manage. "Beat's been through so much worse, and got through it," I told myself. "I've been through so much worse, and I got through it." I lifted my chin, plunged my poles into the squeaky snow, and attempted to march the best I could. The afternoon sun blazed overhead, already sinking lower on the horizon. I crawled up the icy Wall of Death and found Beat at the top. He had laid out his sleeping pad and gathered up some chocolate for a snack. He expected me to arrive broken, and was ready to make a peace offering.

"Thank you so much," I said as I briefly sat on the mat. "But really, I'm so much better now. I was just at a low point. I just had to get through it. I'm sorry I was so grumpy with you."

He wrapped his arms around me. "It's all right," he said. "It happens. I know how it is."

Tears filled my eyes again. I was still an exhausted, over-emotional wreck, but at least now my overexagerated emotions were veering toward the positive. I was again overcome with love and gratitude. "Thanks so much for waiting for me," I said. "You know you didn't have to."

"Of course," Beat said. "I wouldn't leave you."


P.S. Beat has started posting his write-up from the race. You can read the first part here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Susitna 3, Chapter 1

Anxiety condensed into fear as frost accumulated on the windows inside the truck cab. "Now it's 12 below," Steve announced and snapped a picture of the temperature gauge on the rear-view mirror. The nearly full moon hugged the horizon, casting an ominous violet glow over a forest of birch and black spruce trees, all freshly coated in snow. We pulled into the Point MacKenzie General Store parking lot and emerged in the biting air. The frozen morning suddenly came alive, with the purple reflection of the moon retreating from the deep crimson light of the sun. I grinned in spite of myself. "Hello Alaska," I whispered.

We struggled to keep fingers and toes pliable as we packed our sleds, checked in, and ducked into the store for breakfast. Beat and Danni quietly picked at their pancakes and Steve looked sick with nervousness. I felt more in my element with the prospect of the snowy trails and cold, but I envied their running experience. Each one of them knew they could travel 100 miles on foot in one shot. I really had no idea. Over the past few days, I visited with many of my friends in the Anchorage area, and always got the same question — "Why are you running it this time?" My simple answer was to see if I could. In my mind, the Susitna 100 itself wasn't the journey I sought. I was looking for a more internal experience, amid a daunting and unfamiliar physical challenge, with the knowledge that unlike many of my more epic adventures, I would be sharing this experience with somebody else, somebody I was in love with. What would the dynamics of that be like? For me, all of those aspects were more intriguing than the simple act of traveling to Alexander Lake and back. And for that reason, even when I was at my lowest moments of the race, I never found myself wishing that I was on a bicycle instead.

Thanks to last-minute gear adjustments and my desire to photograph the bike-ski-run procession, Beat and I missed the start of the race. Despite starting a few minutes late, we quickly caught up to the Conga line of cyclists pushing along the soft trail beside Ayrshire Road. Several of the cyclists seemed panicked, but I knew that this roadside trail didn't represent the condition of the snowmachine highways that dominate this course. It was a clear day, and traffic would smooth out the trail soon if it hadn't already.

The condition of the snow itself was disconcerting, however. Fresh snowfall followed by extreme cold covered the trail in very dry, unconsolidated grains of fine snow that is often called "sand," because that's what it resembles. Sand can be packed well enough for bikes and snowmachines, but feet still tend to punch through the crusty surface to the soft fluff below. It's like running on the beach — very taxing physically, and the uneven surfaces wreak havoc on feet muscles and tendons before working their way up the legs. On top of that, sandy snow is too rough and cold to offer any sort of glide for skis or sleds. Our 30-pound sleds tugged behind us like stubborn dogs.

Despite the already difficult conditions, we were all smiles in the first miles of the Susitna 100. The day dawned bluebird bright and gorgeous, and we ran strong and warm in the sunlight even though frost buildup on our faces indicated the temperature was still below zero. The trail dipped into and climbed out of drainages and crossed frozen swamps surrounded by spindly black spruce. The condition of the snow and drag of the sled made jogging along at 4 or 4.5 mph as physically taxing as climbing steep hills or trying to knock out 8-minute miles had been back home. I certainly couldn't afford the effort for 100 miles, but knew we had to hustle in the first 22 miles of the race to make the Flathorn Lake cutoff.

Beat and I often ran side-by-side and made animated gestures as we chatted and I gushed about how much fun we were having. He looked relieved that the subzero cold wasn't as big of an issue as he feared, and seemed genuinely impressed by the stark subarctic scenery of the Sustina Valley despite its lack of dramatic mountains. We watched sled dog teams speed past, waved happily at snowmobilers and leap-frogged frequently with Danni, who also had a permagrin on her face. "This is just ... amazing," Danni said as we dropped onto the open ice of Fish Creek Slough and jogged toward the dramatic view of Mount Susitna. "Isn't it, though?" I beamed with pride. My friends like Alaska, too.

We were in an out of Flathorn Lake Lodge fairly quickly — just enough time to refill our water bladders and eat a bowl of Peggy's famous jambalaya. Danni, Beat and I headed out together across the lake, still talking and laughing. I pointed out the slough where I broke through the lake ice and got frostbite on my foot in 2009. "I was in a much worse place the last time I was here," I said. "It's so weird to be back here."

The sun drifted low on the horizon as we traversed Dismal Swamp, finally fading into a golden blur behind Mount Susitna. We encountered the leaders of the bike race at Susitna River on the "Wall of Death," so called because it's generally hazardously icy. Three cyclists rode side by side down the river trail and pushed up the Wall, smiling and congratulating Beat and I as they passed even though we were merely at mile 28 and they were an astonishing 22 miles from the finish. A good year for bikes indeed. "There's going to be a headwind on the Yentna River," Jeff Oatley said to me in his characteristically nonchalant way. Last year in the White Mountains 100, it was Jeff who warned me that Beaver Creek would be significantly colder than the rest of the course. I didn't do anything to heed his warning last year and became seriously chilled on Beaver Creek. Why, oh why don't I listen to the things Jeff Oatley tells me?

But we had left Flathorn Lake in the "heat" of the day, and I was still feeling quite strong. On the open Susitna River, the wind picked up and the chill started to drive into my insulation layers. I knew I wasn't wearing enough clothing, but at this point we were far from any kind of wind protection, and stopping out in the open, in the wind, is quite daunting. I thought if I picked up my pace, I would stay warm. But, as I learned last year in the White Mountains, a chilled body is not all that effective at warming itself. I became colder and colder. We traveled up a slough and turned onto the Yentna River. The full brunt of a very strong wind hit us directly in the face. I no longer had a choice.

"Beat, I need to stop and put on my down coat," I said. He nodded and opened his own sled to dig out extra layers as I rifled around for my coat, a heavy balaclava, my face mask and mitten shells. I removed my liner mittens, pulled on my head gear and unzipped my Gore-tex shell so I could put the smaller down coat underneath. I require dexterity to manage zippers and have many times before worked with bare fingers in extreme cold. But I'm used to having a bicycle with heat-pack-warmed pogies that I could quickly retreat into when my fingers lost strength. And this time, I was already starting with cold hands and a chilled core. My fingers froze almost instantly. The speed and potency at which my hands became completely useless took my breath away.

Panic gurgled up from my gut. The fierce wind tore all around me. There was no way to get to tree cover without wading through deep, unbroken snow. I brushed my rigid hands futilely against my zipper and knew that battle was lost. I gathered up my down coat and stuffed my hands inside the pockets, holding the mass close to my chest. "Don't panic," I whispered to myself, which is always the first thing I think of when my breaths start to become short and fear washes over me like a black tsunami. I thought of my bivy bundle. I could pop that open and crawl inside on the open river, then hold my hands between my legs until they warmed up. Amid this rampant swirl of thoughts, I remembered Beat was still there.

I turned back to him. "I froze my fingers. I can't zip up my coat. I really can't." The squeak in my voice startled me.

"Ok," he said. "Just give me a second. He zipped up his own coat and pulled on his liner gloves. It occurred to me that despite his lack of cold weather experience, he was doing the smart thing by taking care of himself first so we didn't both end up in crisis. A warm sensation of love and gratitude washed over me, and the panic tears I had been fighting filled my eyes. Beat walked over to me, helped me pull off my Gortex shell and then pulled my down coat over my arms, zipped it up, and helped me put the shell back on. As he finished packing his sled, I used my hand stumps to wrestle my mittens back on. Already I could feel warmth building in my core. I jumped up and down and swung my arms until my hands began to burn and my painfully tingling fingers began to move upon prompting again. I breathed out. Crisis over.

We still had about eight miles to travel up the river, long and slow-going into the brutal wind. I was constantly on the margin of being too cold but unwilling to stop again in the wind to put on more layers. Every time I saw a light against the river, I was certain it was Luce's. At one point, I decided it must be just around the corner and asked Beat how far he thought we were. He consulted his phone application and announced it was five more miles. "That's impossible," I said, until I consulted my own GPS. We trudged quietly into the inky night, beneath a sky washed in stars, but all I seemed to notice was the wind. Beat had to make another stop to grab his own down coat. I felt I couldn't afford any more stops, and selfishly asked him if he minded if I run ahead. "No, I'll catch you," he said, but he sounded unsure. I should have just waited a few minutes, but I was being selfish, and didn't want to lose the feeling in my hands again. "See you soon," I said.

The lights of Luce's were a half mile away when Beat finally caught up to me. He was breathing heavily and had a white look of distress in his face, like he was about to pass out. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Are you OK?"

"No," he said. "I am really sick. I almost threw up back there. I think I am deep in bonkville."

Amid the dangerous cold and wind crisis, I hadn't eaten or drank a single thing since the Dismal Swamp, which was likely more than five hours before. Beat was probably also not eating or drinking in that time. I wrapped an arm around him and pointed to Luce's. "That's the checkpoint right there. We're really close."

He nodded and trudged beside me. "I'm sorry I left," I said, trying to mitigate my guilt. "I was just so cold I didn't want to stop. I had no idea you were struggling."

"You left me," Beat said in a somewhat playful tone, but he looked despondent, and I believed he was disappointed that I ran ahead. I'm learning this is an important aspect of partnership, both in outdoor adventure and in regular life — never assume, and never leave the other person behind.

Luce's Lodge was crowded with runners and cyclists who were on the return ride down the river. The mood inside was jovial, with racers taking turns sitting in the lodge's sauna and downing giant plates of spaghetti and meatballs. Steve was still inside the checkpoint, repacking his gear and also looking borderline hyper — excited and anxious — about the epic conditions of the race. I ordered a plate for myself and a Diet Pepsi for Beat, and tried to coax him to eat something. I removed wet layers and sat down near the fire. As my body warmed up, I started shivering rather violently and spilled coffee on my pants twice before Beat took the cup away from me. A group of snowmobilers walked in and said they saw temperatures around 16 below on the river with 25 mph winds. One racer said it was closer to 19 below in spots. It was still early; there was a long, cold night in front of us.

Beat's eyes were bloodshot and his face was ghostly white. He said he was experiencing a major bonk. And he would know, because he's been through more than his fair share of ultras. "I'll be able to get back out there. It's just going to be a while," he said. I knew I would need to dress significantly warmer to go back outside, but I was certain I had enough gear with me to fight the wind. Under the reported conditions, the windchill would have been somewhere in the range of 40 below. Definitely too cold for a single layer of windtights I was wearing when I left Flathorn Lake. No wonder I was chilled.

At this point, we were only 41 miles into the race. Not even halfway; not even all that close to halfway. As I sat mulling this prospect, Danni bounded in looking cheerful. "How was the river?" I asked her. "Did you get cold?"

"Not too cold," she said. "But that wind was going to be a deal-breaker for me. I decided I was going to quit if it kept up, but I think the wind is dying down now."

"Hopefully," I said. "Beat and I are going to spend a little more time here. He needs to eat something and I wouldn't mind drying out some stuff." Other racers sat down next to us to chat. The bikers told us the Alexander Lake trail was bad — soft and slow — and the crosswind was brutal. Several were bedding down to take naps. One 60-something-year-old runner came in wearing jeans and talking up a storm about the HURT 100, as though Hawaii somehow had relevance to the task at hand. I was ready to return with Beat to the solitude of the trail, but knew we were both going to have to get healthy first if we stood a chance outside. I munched on my spaghetti and contemplated 60 more miles of this.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Susitna 3, the video

2011 Susitna 100 from Jill Homer on Vimeo.

I'm still too knackered to write up my race report, but I did throw together a quick film of some of the video and images I shot during the race. The music is "July" by Amy Petty. The song was included on the "Ride the Divide" movie soundtrack, which I recently downloaded as part of my playlist for the Susitna 100 to help motivate me by inserting Tour Divide images in my head during some of the more monotonous parts of the race. This song just happened to pop up on my iPod shuffle during my real low point on the afternoon of day two, on the Yentna River. As my friend Danni says, "waterworks ensued," and afterward I started to feel quite a bit better. I think it's a fitting soundtrack for this video. Enjoy!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Slog-arific

Beat and I finished the Susitna 100 on foot in 41 hours and 16 minutes. All I can say about it right now is — wow, that was really hard. The race was actually much harder than I anticipated, not only in physical effort, but also pain and cold management. As it turns out, traveling 100 miles really is a lot more difficult without a bike — who knew?

It was an interesting year for the Susitna 100. The weather was clear and cold, with colorful skies and incredible views during the day, and overnight temperatures dipping as low as 19 below with a 20 mph headwind. The trail was well packed, awesome for cycling, but the new snow made for tough footing. The fine powder was still very sandy where our little feet punched through. It was very taxing to maintain a 2.5 walk pace, much like trying to run 100 miles in crusty sand. The snow was also very cold, which makes it very sharp — meaning no glide for our sleds. There was a lot of resistance all around.

What else can I say about it? My feet hurt a lot. So do my legs. No injuries, but the usage pain alone led to a minor mental breakdown around mile 70, when I realized I was going to have to endure the pain I was in for at least 13 more hours. Beat and I decided to stick together from the beginning and it was really great to have him around for my low points, even when I got really grumpy and at one point snapped at him that I hoped I didn't finish the Susitna 100 so I wouldn't qualify for any other dumb 100-mile foot events. He also helped me zip up my coat when my fingers froze and refused to work amid a desperate layer-adding effort in the intense windchill on the Yentna River. Did I mention it was really cold? That also made the run that much harder. Yeah, it's hard to eat and drink when your whole face is crusted in ice.

I'll write up the race report at a later date. It really was one of the more intense experiences of my life — did I also mention we were out in the cold without sleep for two nights, not just one. We certainly did a checkpoint comfort tour with the five indoor stops on course, so we did have chances to warm up and reconnect with the real world. But by the second sunset, with all that leg and foot pain coursing through my nerves, my thoughts ventured into new head spaces I'd never before found. Which is the reason why I seek out this sort of stuff — long, difficult slogs that are way over my pay grade. I need to occasionally be reminded that I am weak and small and the world is huge and incredible and mean, and even the world is just weak and small in the grand scheme of the universe. I fall in love the world from this perspective. It's consistently awe-inspiring, even when it's reduced to the tiny beam of my headlamp.

And it was so much fun to share it with Beat, with my new friends Steve and Danni, and with many of the Alaska cyclists I've met over the years. It was incredible to return to Alaska. It helps me realize how much I really miss it, but also that it's still here. I took lots of pictures, and even a bit of video. Check back again!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Su, Su scared

Well, this week has been surprisingly busy and I never got around to writing the pre-race post I was hoping to write. We made it to Anchorage with smidgens of optimism about the Susitna 100, only to have our hubris dashed by nearly a foot of new snow on Friday (such are the reports from my friends in the Mat-Su Valley.) New snow is just a set-back, not a deterrent, but it does mean softer, more strenuous and possibly impassable conditions even for people on foot. No use worrying about it. Since this is my first 100-mile ultramarathon, I feel happy to just try my best and if that's not good enough, well — either way, it will be a memorable experience. I actually get a little excited, even giddy, when I think about the ways the trail conditions might be insanely hard, even for a 100-mile foot race, which already seemed insanely hard. I tell Beat this, and he just shakes his head and says, "You're in for a rude awakening."

Steve, Beat and I all arrived in Seattle from different airports and shared a row on the way to Anchorage, where most of the time was spent nervously updating weather reports on in-flight wireless and gazing longingly out the window at the incredible landscape disappearing below us.

It's rare to see a clear day in Southeast Alaska. This is the volcano near Sitka, Mount Edgecombe.

Chugach! As we flew over the mountains Beat said, "Why don't we just go there instead?"

The Cook Inlet. Just across this icy strait lies the key to our demise.

The first thing we did when we arrived in Anchorage was turn the home where we are staying into a veritable gear tornado. (Sorry Kate.)

Brooks, the Susitna 100 race director, was all about spreading the pessimism. I guess there's something to be said about keeping people mentally prepared, but I for one would rather hear subtle words of encouragement than blatant gloom and doom.

Weighing the gear to ensures it weighs the mandatory 15 pounds. My gear weighed in at 19.9 pounds. My complete kit, including the sled, all of my food (around 8,000 calories including 3,000 emergency calories), and two liters of water weighed 30.8 pounds. Not terrible.

Enjoying pre-race carbo-loading at Romanos with fellow racers. Yeah, it was technically two nights before the race, but you really can't get enough carbs for something like this.

Testing out the completely packed sleds.

Posing with the sleds with Steve, Danni and Beat. Steve has a humorous post about our different sleds on his blog. We're as ready as we can be, which is to say, not much. I'll be dragging my SPOT along on this slog. You can check out the tracking page at this link. Also visit www.susitna100.com for race updates. By grace go I ...

My SPOT tracking page
Danni's SPOT tracking page
Steve's SPOT tracking page

Monday, February 14, 2011

Date with Pugsley

My friends Dave and Brenda from Banff stopped through Missoula during their ski blitz of the state of Montana. In a regrettable stroke of luck, their home mountain was being slammed with fresh powder while western Montana was basking in temperatures more appropriate for April than February. Dave and Brenda spent the day navigating the slush at Lookout Mountain, then opted to skip Missoula's Snowbowl and flee north to Whitefish. Before they left town, we agreed to meet up for $1 Monday sushi rolls. We arrived at Sushi Hana promptly at 5:15 p.m. and were informed the place was booked up all night. Booked up? I mean, $1 is a good deal for sushi, but really? "Valentines Day," the server informed us.

"Oh, right, that's today," we nodded, deflated. So instead of having dinner in Missoula, Dave and Brenda decided to continue driving in an effort to join our mutual friend Danni for an obligatory Canuck visit to Famous Dave's (a BBQ chain that in Kalispell is famous for attracting Canadians down from Alberta.) I walked back to my office, where I discovered a pink paper heart threaded through the spokes of my Pugsley (aw, a little love for the commuter bikes on Valentine's Day.) "Well, Pugsley, I guess it's just you and me tonight," I said.

The evening light was particularly stunning, warm and rich and full of character, like a Valentine's dessert. I hadn't planned on riding tonight, but the spring-like warmth and earthy aromas were too enticing to resist. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but the temperatures were so warm that I didn't need anything else. I had a fleece pullover, hat and gloves in my frame bag — everything I needed. I punched the pedals and streamed beside the rush-hour traffic backed up on Higgins Avenue.

It's funny how effective tapering really is. I spent most of the weekend sleeping, relaxing and eating ice cream, and woke up on Monday feeling like I could do no wrong. It was all I could do to hold the throttle back and quell the urge to red-line it up the Maurice Avenue trail — slush, soft mud and all. I felt amazingly strong. The light of sunset only fueled my mania, and my bare arms glistened with sweat as I gulped down vast quantities of sweet, spring-tasting air.

In the back of my mind, the quiet voice of reason reminded me not to go hard because Saturday is going to be a physical effort unlike any I've ever experienced and I need to be as rested as possible. But Pugsley behaved more like a runaway elephant, charging full-speed up the hill, trampling slush and mud so enthusiastically that it drowned out the soft urgings of reason. I was having so much fun, fueled by so much energy, that I momentarily forgot about the low-level freak-out I should be having. For tonight, just this one night, this Valentine's night, it was just me and Pugsley. There was no one else in the world. (Except, of course, for my actual Valentine, Beat, who was back in California, dutifully working on his sled and preparing for the Susitna 100, nursing his own low-level freak-out while I played on my bicycle.)

But, oh, what a whirlwind night it was! Together Pugsley and I rounded the mountain to the Hidden Treasure Trail, where there was dirt, real dirt, and not just muddy dirt — DRY dirt, with the happy crunching of gravel beneath Pugsley's wide tires. When the ice became too thick we dropped down to Pattee Canyon and raced up the pavement — so fast and effortless that I felt like I was on a featherweight roadie and not an obese fat bike. We turned on the Larch Camp Road. I reasoned that I would only ride until the slush and ice became unrideable. But there was only wet gravel on the road, so we climbed. The moonlight glowed on the sun-crusted snow, adding startling definition to the surrounding forest. We climbed and climbed, and still the gravel road persisted. We rose out of the forest onto the open mountainside, with the city lights of Missoula glowing far below, and still the road remained rideable. It occurred to me that if I simply waited for the road conditions to shut me down, I might just make it to the top ... 6,200 feet ... not a good thing.

But the night was so magical, I did not want it to end. Reluctantly, I turned around and raced down the long, winding road, still wearing only jeans and a fleece — no gloves or hat — as the city lights, trees, shadows and snow blended like a daiquiri in the rapidly chilling air. A fountain of gritty slush sprayed in my face, but nothing could wipe my smile away. The night belong to me. Me and Pugsley. Happy Valentines.