Sunday, February 26, 2012

Susitna 4, chapter 3

The first person I saw out of Luce's Lodge was a runner. I could see his white headlight bobbing up and down from a long distance up the river, and smiled at the realization that he was actually running. This made sense, as he was more than twenty miles in front of me. I did some quick math and realized he was on a sub-24-hour pace, moving with forceful speed — or at least as much speed as this soft trail would yield. In all the years of the Susitna 100, 24 hours has only been broken by a few people. When we finally crossed paths more than five minutes later, I realized he was my friend, David Johnston. I raised my poles and waved my pogies around. "Yay, Dave!"

Dave stopped running. "Is that you Jill?"

"Yeah."

"You're doing awesome!" he exclaimed.

"I'm doing awesome? Holy cow, you're doing awesome," I said, feeling embarrassed that Dave was actually stopping to talk to me. "You should go, you're in first place!"

Dave waved his arm. "Aw, I don't care. I just can't wait to get back to Luce's. I have a beer waiting for me there."

"Sounds, um, relaxing," I laughed. "Hey, thanks for stopping to chat. I enjoy passing everyone like this on this course."

"My favorite part is seeing everyone," he said with his characteristic grin. "The rest just hurts bad with many mental sacrifices."

I laughed again and waved as he continued running. I admit I enjoy being involved in sports that are still small and quirky enough that even the race leaders still stop to chat and guzzle beers. Not that there's no competition in the Susitna 100. Dave still had Joe Grant hot on his trail, and would have to continue to make mental sacrifices all the way to his 24:11 finish.

Boosted by more friendly faces, I made good time to Alexander Lake, the turnaround point and mile 53 of the race. The bottoms of my feet had been simultaneously aching and burning, so I pulled off my socks to do another foot check. The skin looked like it belonged to a dead person — ghastly white and wrinkled deep into my foot. There was a patch of gray on both heels. Trench foot. I couldn't decide how to proceed. I had only one more pair of dry liner socks that I was going to save for my second Luce's stop. If I removed my insulation socks, my feet were going to slide around in the size ten shoes and probably blister badly in the process. And if I removed my vapor barrier, I was going to expose my soaking wet feet to the cold — now 13 degrees and rapidly dropping beneath the clearing sky. I slathered on more Hydropel and ate my soup slowly in hopes my liner socks would dry some.

I checked out of Alexander Lake at 1:38 a.m., about ten minutes after another woman foot racer, Jane. I still wanted to travel by myself, but I felt better about being in the proximity of another person, now that there were fewer people to encounter on the inbound trip. As much as I relish in my chances for solitude, I still value the presence of other people — which is one of the reasons I enjoy racing. And because the Susitna 100 was a race, I admit I realized that Jane and I were in second and third position at that point, and I didn't have to concede second just yet.

Jane's red blinking light provided a navigation point as I traced the trail back across a series of frozen swamps. At the first long straightaway, I turned off my headlamp and caught my first glimpse of the aurora borealis. As my eyes adjusted, the soft white blur sharpened into a masterpiece of light, tinged with streaks of green and magenta. I shed a few tears at the overwhelming beauty before I became lost in it. Time seemed to stop, and Earth stood still as the lights pulled me inward. I was mesmerized, listening to the distant echo of my own footsteps as my mind freely danced with the sky.

The Northern Lights are so much more dynamic than their depictions in photos and films. Columns and shapes pulsed and expanded like rapid brush strokes, painting multi-dimensional images that instantaneously blended into new brush strokes. The transition was so seamless that it almost appeared static, until suddenly the circle I had been watching became an arch, and then a elliptical stream stretched across the star-speckled sky. I believed I could see the universe expanding in front of me, as though a thousand light years were passing in the space of a thousand footsteps. I had never experienced Northern Lights with such encompassing depth, and it occurred to me that the fact my body was so exhausted helped open my mind to the surreal intensity of it all. There was also the simple fact that the whole reason I was out here at all, fifty miles from the nearest road at 2 a.m., was because I had crazy hobbies like the Susitna 100. I smiled at the sheer providence of finding myself in the right place at the right time, which often seems to be the place I find myself whenever I leave the confines of my comfort zone.

In an seeming instant, I was back at Luce's Lodge. I had walked most of twelve miles with my headlamp off and neck craned toward the sky, only occasionally switching on the yellow light to gain my bearings, or trace out the trail once I lost Jane's blinking red beacon after stopping too long to take photos. It was a truly special experience that I can scarcely piece together now, and any descriptions I write appear rather weak. But I'm beyond thankful I was there to witness it — slow enough to be there, fit enough to be there, crazy enough to be there.

Released from my aurora trance, I returned to a world where my feet hurt and the rest of me was becoming increasingly tired. I crossed paths with Danni about two miles after I left Alexander Lake, and figured there was a chance she might catch me, but I should probably count on spending the rest of the race alone. I also noticed my wet toes were beginning to feel pangs of cold. I checked my thermometer and saw the temperature had dropped to five below. A thin fog had settled over the river, masking the remnants of the aurora. It was 6 a.m., and I still had 35 more miles in front of me.