Monday, February 27, 2012

Susitna 4, chapter 4

My first steps out of Luce's Lodge were excruciating. I had taken another 45-minute break, applied more Hydropel and dry pairs of liner and insulation socks, and allowed the vapor barrier to dry as I ate another grilled cheese sandwich. But the damage had been done. My soles were on fire, tingling and aching in a way that made each step feel like I was walking on hot coals. I gulped short, shallow breaths of the subzero air as I hobbled down the hill to my sled. Beat's one piece of advice for my consistently troubled feet cycled through my head: "Just remember, it always goes numb." But in those initial seconds out of the checkpoint, even walking required solemn concentration, the kind I imagine yogis employ when walking across hot coals.

After packing up my sled, I managed to work through the hobble and resume a somewhat reluctant but consistent rhythm. I caught and passed Jane, which surprised me because I thought I was really starting to slow down at that point in the race. The first hints of dawn crept across the sky, casting violet light on the steep river bluffs. My peripheral vision caught the profile of a downhill skier in full tuck on a nearby slope. I turned and watched as the skier rocked back and forth as though awaiting a signal at a starting gate. This rocking continued until it occurred to me that there was no way the skier could possibly be real, but when I squinted, I still only saw a skier. It took at least five more minutes of forward motion before the shape of a tree began to replace to colorful skin suit and helmet I could have sworn I witnessed.

As dawn grew brighter, I doubted Beat's assertions; my feet were not going numb. Out of sheer frustration, I quickened my stride and began running. And electric surge burst from my feet and injected a new kind of power into my legs. Running actually felt really good; all my tired walking muscles could finally rest as my running muscles kicked into gear. Again, I doubted I was actually moving any faster. My sled held me back and while my steps were more frequent, my stride was much shorter — a frantic sort of shuffle. But I convinced myself my speed had increased significantly. "If I can just run for a while, I'll make better time and I'll be off my feet sooner," I reasoned. I knew I'd need energy for running, so I reached into my pocket and cracked open the Sour Gummy Lifesavers, of which I only brought one bag specifically to serve as a treat. I plowed into the gummy candies with the same enthusiasm I'd felt for my food all day. In fact, I'd actually been rationing my supply since Luce's 1, just to ensure I showed up at Flathorn Lake 2 with at least 3,000 calories (and I started with over 8,000.) Plus, I ate two grilled cheese sandwiches and a cup of soup and a roll at the checkpoints. I was pretty proud about how well I'd been doing with my calorie intake.

Sour gummies. I love them, love them, but when I am running, I can not handle them. My stomach withers under the bombardment of citric acid and quickly shuts down. I can no longer even count how many times sour gummies have turned on me during an endurance effort, and yet like an abused but loyal pet, I keep going back. I had downed about half of the five-ounce bag when I began to feel nauseated. Dizziness set in and I took a five minute break to await expected vomiting that never actually came. No choice but to resume walking as my stomach struggled to recover, during the first miles of the race in which I failed to take in any calories. Nearly twelve miles, actually, or four full hours. For other runners in this race, four hours without calories was nothing. But I already felt like I was skirting the edge of energy drain even while I was snarfing deep-space rocket fuel. My sugar levels crashed and I sputtered. Dizziness resumed but my stomach still warned me that any effort to take in anything would be severely punished.

I crawled up the Wall of Death and stumbled into the Dismal Swamp with desperation gathering in beads of sweat on my bare forehead. It was not warm outside — still in the teens — but I felt like the air was hotter than California. I took off my jacket only to immediately catch the chill of the cold breeze wafting across the open swamp. It was so quickly frigid that I put my jacket back on, and soon felt too warm again. The Dismal Swamp appeared as a desert, barren and hot, and I felt like a lost hiker picking my way across an eternity of sand. It might as well have been an eternity; the oasis of boreal forest across the horizon never got any closer. My body no longer seemed capable of regulating temperature in anything but extremes, my blood was desperate for sugar and my stomach was nothing more than a cruel master, withholding relief.

As blissed out as I had been on the overnight trek from Alexander Lake, by late Sunday morning I turned a complete 180 into a spiral of grump. I tried to hide my mood from the wonderful volunteers at Flathorn Lake, and made a struggling effort to stuff down the usually delicious jambalaya that they served me. I resumed my checkpoint sock routine and winced at the condition of my feet. The doughy skin looked so fragile that any rubbing movement threatened to remove multiple layers. (I remain convinced that were it not for the magic of Hydropel, I would probably not have any skin on the bottoms of my feet right now.) I used the excuse of "drying my feet" to burn up nearly an hour at Flathorn even though I had resolved to stick to twenty minutes. It didn't matter much at this point. "Fifteen more miles, just fifteen more miles," I consoled myself. When it comes to mileage, I still think in bike terms, where fifteen miles doesn't sound so bad. I couldn't conceptualize the reality of five hours of agony, so I didn't. "Just fifteen more miles."

I'm not sure what exactly motivated those first steps along Flathorn Lake and back into the forest toward Point McKenzie. I was really reluctant to make them. I grumbled that the popular ultrarunner mentality of finishing all races at all costs is really sort of dumb, and what's so great about a hundred miles anyway? I wasn't injured, so I wasn't about to ask for a ride on a snowmachine, but if there had been an exit road at any point, I was completely certain I was willing to bail, right there, less than fifteen miles from the finish. Would I actually have bailed? Probably not, but these are the things I grumble to myself when grumbling is all I have.

I didn't realize that my foot pain was actually a bit of a blessing in disguise. As Beat promised, after a while it did go numb, only to be replaced by extreme sleepiness. The final leg of the course traversed a gas line that cut into the forest at a slight uphill slope in a perfectly straight line. The only reason I couldn't see the finish from twelve miles away was because the Earth is a sphere. What I could see were the Talkeetna Mountains, rendered flat beneath an overcast sky. The clouds ensured there was no change in the light all day long, so 10 a.m. looked like 1 p.m. looked like 4 p.m. There was no indication that time was passing, or that I was actually moving. Sleep took over as I walked.

I did everything I could to keep myself awake. I turned off my iPod and sang, out loud, the lamest and most annoying songs I could think of. I slapped myself on the face and pinched my arm the way I do when I'm driving sleepy. I became terribly excited when I had to pee. I held it in as long as possible because that kept me awake, and relished in pulling to the side of the trail and doing my business because it was a chore, something different. I stopped a few times to purposelessly organize my sled. I weaved back and forth across the hundred-foot-wide gasline trail. I resumed eating Sour Gummy Lifesavers. Oh yes, I did do that.

I put my head down and let time go by. Sometimes in racing, like in life, that's all you can do. It's not all Northern Lights and bliss, but somehow it's the tough challenges that make it all worth it. This is not about suffering so much as it is about overcoming suffering, which everyone must do in life, and it's empowering to understand the ways in which we can overcome it. Still, I felt fully defeated when, just two miles from the finish, I noticed a yellow light approach from behind and watched Jane run past. She was running. I mean, she was really running. Whether she was running to beat me or simply end her own agony faster I did not know, but I did not really care. Every time I had attempted to run in the past ten miles (because that, too, broke up the boredom) I nearly vomited. I was not ready or willing to participate in a two-mile sprint. Not only that, but the whole idea seemed so preposterous and egotistical after 35 hours of slogging that I couldn' t even entertain it. A man passed shortly after and implied a question as to whether or not I was going to chase Jane for second place. "She deserves it," I said. I felt so miserable. It's petty, but I resented being passed. This no longer bothers me at all, but my fragile mood at the time took it hard, and that did cast a sour pall over my finish.

Jane did put in an awesome final sprint, finishing a full twelve minutes in front of me. Actually, two more guys passed me in those final minutes, the last of whom jogged by less than fifty meters from the finish. I joked that we should finish together for a tie, and he still blasted ahead. I walked (didn't even attempt the finish line shuffle) across the line at 8:42, for a finishing time of 35 hours and 42 minutes. I had actually achieved my best-case scenario goal of a sub-36-hour run. I collapsed into a bed at the rented cabin and fitfully but gratefully snoozed for several hours as I awaited Danni's finish. She came in after 41 hours (40:59 according to her watch.) We were both so overtired that Danni passed out mid-sentence and I nearly broke into tears when I became lost and drove in a few circles while trying to find our hotel in Wasilla. The satisfaction of finishing (and acknowledgement of my grotesquely swollen feet and heat blisters) wouldn't come until later.

But the satisfaction was there, growing ever deeper as the pain subsided. That's what lingers in hundreds of happy memories, the meaning behind the madness.