The toughest miles
"It doesn't matter," I said. "Look what you've done already. You're amazing. All you need to do is get to Luce's Lodge. Get some rest, get some sleep. Sleep for a day if you want. All you have to do is get to Luce's."
I hung up my cell phone and stared hatefully at the snow flurries floating outside my window. The Iditarod Trail was a relative breeze just one week ago when I traveled these same miles in the Susitna 100. Now it was buried in more than a foot of new, unconsolidated snow, and not a single machine had been through to break the trail. The runners were breaking the trail, at a pace of about 1.5 mph, and the bikers were still farther behind. They had covered only forty miles in 24 nearly non-stop hours. At that pace, Beat was right — it wasn't possible.
|Geoff and Beat analyze Geoff's Iditarod sled.|
I felt frustrated about how demoralized Beat was when he called me at 1 p.m. Monday, because there was nothing I could say to boost his spirits. I couldn't promise that snowmachine traffic would come to save him from the wallow, and I couldn't lie away the fact there was more snow in the forecast. These aren't supposed to be the tough miles of the Iditarod; they're supposed to be the warm up. The tough miles of the Iditarod come later, over the mountains, across the deep-frozen Interior, into the unknown. I been holed up at a computer, waiting for news all morning. But I didn't want to dwell on my frustration. I packed up my gear and snowshoes and set out toward Lazy Mountain.
|Beat and David Johnston model their individual race fashion.|
I received the first call just after 9 a.m. "I'm still on the Sustina River," Beat said, meaning he had traveled about thirty miles since 2 p.m. the day before with only about two hours rest. "We're taking turns breaking trail," Beat told me of the group of runners he was traveling with. "When I'm out front, I'm leading the race. All of the bikers are behind us now." I was floored by this news, because I slept through the text and had no idea trail conditions had gotten so bad. There was no trail. They might as well have been cutting a path across a remote wilderness, plodding through bottomless powder like turn-of-the-century polar explorers.
The packed surface of the Lazy Mountain trail was so icy that every step forward in my snowshoes netted two skids back. I should have packed crampons. I stepped over into the deep powder beside the trail and began the slow plod up the steep slope. Every step was an ordeal; I sunk to my knees down to an icy base, so the footing was both slippery and strenuous. The low ceiling of clouds grew closer, and I knew that soon all I'd see were shapeless shades of gray.
|Out of the gate at Knik Lake.|
"Just take it easy," I urged. "Go slow, take breaks. You have nothing to gain by pushing hard."
"I have to push hard to to go forward," Beat said. "I don't have a choice."
I couldn't help but sigh. "Yes, I know," I said. "I understand. I do understand."
As the fog grew thicker, visibility decreased to a few bleak twigs among the snow. I was drenched in sweat despite wearing only a single layer, and my poles stabbed uselessly at the powder. I was beginning to resent my Lazy Mountain hike, but for my own reasons of coping with a situation I couldn't help, I felt obligated to keep at it. I was compelled to join the slog and show my solidarity for all 47 racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational who had yet to even see the first checkpoint.
Those who have never traveled long distances in bad snow conditions can't really understand how incredibly frustrating and difficult it is. It's the definition of futility, fighting a useless war with no end in sight. Climbing a mountain, well, that was easy. At least I had the top to look forward to. Beat only had the knowledge that there was no way he could maintain this level of effort, and no way he could finish the race at his current pace. He had no reason to believe that would change.
|Facing the long path ahead.|