Susitna 4, chapter 4
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.
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.
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.
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.