Friday, March 30, 2012

Fade to white, part two

I didn't actually believe I was going to walk the entire rest of the race; I just needed a mental reprieve from maneuvering my bike and crashing and thrashing out of the snow and doing it all over again. I blamed my fatigue on my heart, but my mind was tired, too — tired of intense focus and anxiety. I pulled over to let a few skiers pass, gliding over the fluff. "It's too bad you don't even get to enjoy the downhill," Anchorage skier Abby Rideout said as she coasted by me. "Meh!" I called out with an exaggerated shrug as though I wasn't jealous of her effortless speed, which I was.

I hiked to the edge of the ice lakes and pulled microspikes over my boots. The ice lakes are not lakes at all but a narrow, sloping valley covered in a film of wet ice known as overflow. Overflow forms when an upwelling of ground water seeps over the surface of the snow in freezing conditions, building variable layers of ice and open water. The condition of overflow changes quickly — shin-deep slush can freeze to bumpy ice which can submerge in a new upwelling of water in a matter of hours. A volunteer had told me the ice lakes were knee-deep earlier in the morning, and since my overarching goal is self-preservation in all situations, my plan was to walk this section all along. A thin veneer of new ice shattered beneath my boots and sunk my feet to my ankles in water. Thanks to my prior frostbite experience, overflow is one of my great fears. Crunching and groaning ice echoed in the wind, an eerie chorus matched in volume by the pounding of my heart. Turns out my heart did have some oomph left — all I needed was a little more fear.

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I enjoy confronting my fears. The ice lakes are more than a mile long, and after about fifteen minutes of anxious tiptoeing I managed to punch in fairly deep, over my right ankle. I stopped to watch the slushy water cascade over my boot with childlike fascination, exhausted as my mind was. Amid the sudden quieting of my footsteps I could hear the sounds of the environment — gurgles from water seepage, metallic clinking of wind-driven snow, and the moaning breeze. The low cloud ceiling blended flawlessly into the snow, obscuring the ground and creating the optical illusion of spruce trees ascending into the sky. The whole world was black and white except for the ice surrounding my feet, which was a bright glacial blue. Because my soft shell and base layer were soaked in sweat, the cold wind stabbed into my core with a "help, I'm alive" kind of urgency — both exhilarating and terrifying."What is this place?" I said out loud, with a genuine sense of wonder. And then, in the next breath, "I love this place." It no longer mattered that I wasn't quite strong enough. I was here.

Shortly after the ice lakes, I forgot about my silly resolve to hike it in and got back on my bike. Trail conditions were much better than they had been on the other side of the divide, but the surface was quickly filling in with new snow. I could see several ski tracks but no tire or snowmachine tread, meaning enough new powder had fallen to obscure older tracks entirely. When snow is falling that quickly, a trail can become unrideable in a matter of hours. This knowledge boosted me into hard-riding mode again. I really didn't have the stamina for it, nor the energy, because these effort levels caused me to feel pukey and made it impossible to eat anything but Gummy Lifesavers, of which I only had one package. (Note: These were regular Gummy Lifesavers, not the sour kind that made me so ill during the Susitna 100. But it is ironic that they were the only food I had that didn't make me queasy.)

This section of trail is the most fun of the White Mountains course, a gradual descent swooping through the woods beside cathedral-like spires and dramatic gulches. Sadly I was too blown to enjoy it, and also crashed two more times. After my second crash I laid in the snow for several seconds, letting the soft pillow envelop me and contemplating whether I could take a power nap right there. The chill roused me to action before I dozed off. I couldn't arrive at checkpoint three soon enough.

Checkpoint three manager Dea Huff catches a much-deserved nap in the Windy Gap Cabin. Photo by Beat.
I arrived at Windy Gap, mile 60, at 7:30 p.m. I had only been on the trail for eleven and a half hours but honestly, the way I felt, you could have tacked another day on to that. I was surprised when Dea told me I looked "fresh" compared to others who had been through before and also said I was the "best dressed" of the bikers. (I was wearing a sweaty jacket, freebie mittens from the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse, and clashing shades of blue and purple — but everyone loves my down skirt.) Dea served me her signature soup with six meatballs. I crammed the steaming chunks down my throat. My eyes watered as the food seared my tongue, but I was too hungry to wait for it to cool down. Every time I stopped moving, I felt ravenously hungry. And yet, as soon as I started pedaling again, my appetite faded behind a wall of nausea.

The trail past Windy Gap cabin the next morning. Photo by Beat.
Snow was still coming down hard after I left Windy Gap, enough so that I had no choice but to put on my goggles. I despise wearing goggles, and have discovered that the only times I can make myself wear them are when it's snowing too hard to see without them, or so windy that the chill can freeze skin in seconds. My goggles have a brown tint that rendered the already flat light into low-resolution fuzziness, like an old photograph. I think not being able to see much actually did me some good, as I could no longer see the deeper ruts in the trail and thus took no evasive action that probably would have caused me to swerve and crash into the snow bank. A few times my front tire dropped out from underneath me before I realized I was descending into a stream bed — my depth perception was so bad that I couldn't even discern six-foot dips. Finally it became dark enough to switch on my headlamp. I didn't know what was worse — a complete lack of depth or squinting through the static television effect of snow swirling through the beam. Either way, I seemed to be riding better than I had been all day. Go figure.

I reached Borealis cabin, mile 79, at 11:15 p.m. Abby was just leaving and a couple of male skiers were discussing the benefits of classic skis in this year's trail conditions. As soon as I was drawn into the discussion it turned into a debate about which year was the most difficult for the White Mountains 100. "Definitely this year, no question," I said. The first skier disagreed, arguing that the minus 25 temperatures of 2010 made the trail much worse. "Maybe if you're a skier," I said. "But bikes can handle the cold. New snow slows us down." Everyone agreed that this year was probably the year for skiers, in the unofficial competition between the three disciplines. A skier was the first to arrive at Windy Gap cabin, and if the snowstorm that followed me down the pass had come five hours earlier, a skier might have won the race. But it's amazing what strong snow bikers can do, and the top three guys, all bikers, would finish in the twelve-hour range. The lead skier finished in thirteen hours flat.

I've never seen any of this section of the race because it's always dark when I travel through here. Now I'm wondering if maybe I should just try the White Mountains 100 on foot one of these years. Photo by Beat. 
I left Borealis with one of the skiers, Brian Jackson. He took off his skis to climb the steep hill out of Beaver Creek, but even though we were both walking I couldn't even strain to keep his pace. "Your fault for bringing that heavy bike," he had joked earlier when I complained about the push up the divide. I watched Brian's headlamp fade up the hill. As far as I could tell there weren't any other cyclists in my time zone, so I figured I'd be spending the rest of the race alone.

The sky began to clear before it even stopped snowing. Through the squall I could see the moon, and then stars, and then subtle streaks of white light — the Northern Lights. Finally the snow tapered off, and then the temperature dropped precipitously. It was ten degrees above when I left Borealis, but down on the slopes along Wickersham Creek it felt at least fifteen degrees colder, possible twenty. It was definitely below zero. Before I arrived at Borealis I decided my wet soft shell was no longer keeping me warm, and traded it for a fleece jacket, then tied the soft shell around my waist. This was plenty warm for the hard climb immediately after the cabin, but let in a harsh chill as soon as I started pedaling again. By the time I decided to use my soft shell over my fleece jacket just to block the wind, it had solidified into an ice sheet. I could barely bend the coat enough to wrap it around my torso. My clothing situation was not ideal.

Luckily, I had packed my expedition down coat in my seat post bag. It was two pounds of extra gear I likely wouldn't need, but I appreciated having an insurance policy on my bike. I was already on the cusp of feeling uncomfortably cold, and temperatures were dropping. Not having any more layers would have been unnerving. As it was, I could only stay warm if I crammed some sugar into my system. Every time I felt a chill, I would choke down a peanut butter cup or a piece of Twix bar. I really didn't feel like eating, to the point where the nausea caused by swallowing made me feel dizzy, but candy worked. The kindling sparked and I'd feel warm again, for a few minutes, until it burned out. I'd waver until my teeth began to chatter and choke down another peanut butter cup. I thought about putting on my down coat but I knew I had hard climbs ahead of me, and I didn't want to pour any moisture into my insurance policy if I didn't have to.

Photo by Beat. This is where I felt the coldest. Beat recorded temperatures of 15 below in the early morning. 
This section was punctuated by a few deep overflow sections. I picked a bad line over this crossing and punched my front wheel into water all the way to the hub, soaking half of the brake rotor. This instantly froze into an impenetrable ice film, and the front brake wouldn't work for the rest of the race.

The Wickersham Wall viewed from the distance. Photo by Beat.
But even beyond the deepening cold, I was more concerned about the unseen monster looming in front of me — the Wickersham Wall. The Wall is the direct route up to the top of the Wickersham Dome, gaining a thousand vertical feet in a little more than a mile. By itself it wouldn't be a big deal, but in the White Mountains 100 this obstacle comes at mile 93 of a 100-mile race. Even after cresting the wall, the trail continues a general climbing trend on rolling hills all the way to one mile before the finish. It's brutal, just brutal.

I needn't have worried so much about it, though. I had already pedaled in survival mode for the better part of fifty miles, and the Wall was simply the next step. Plus, I had eaten so much candy in my efforts to stay warm that I actually had a little energy to spare, and felt a boost while I plodded up the foot-stomped snow. When I reached the ridge I found I could pedal uphill, even where I saw the footprints of other cyclists. This energy and alertness boost carried all the way to top of the dome, as though I was finally coming around. But by then, it was too late — I was at the one-mile-from-the-finish sign. I coasted in with a subdued sort of elation, riding my squealing back brake and wondering if perhaps I wasn't broken, and perhaps I'd never been broken. These are the questions I always ask myself after a hard effort — how much of the challenge was physical, and how much was mental. I still believe most of this is mental, and as long as we maintain the basic physical needs (food, water, warmth), most anything we deem impossible is achievable. And so I wonder ... I wonder ...

Photo by White Mountains 100.
But I was tired. I was stupid tired. I arrived at the finish at 4:47 a.m. for a finishing time of 20 hours, 39 minutes (the race started at 8:08 a.m.) I knocked on the RV that was race headquarters and announced my arrival. The volunteer must have taken a photo that I don't remember her taking, and directed me toward the warming tent. "I'm not going to the warming tent," I replied. "I'm just going to go to my car and sleep for a while before driving back to Fairbanks."

"You can sleep in the tent," she said. "There are cots in there and a heater. It's nice."

I considered this and said, "But my sleeping bag is in my car" — as though this statement should have conveyed proper logic as to why I couldn't sleep in the warming tent. Alas. I rolled out my sleeping bag in the back of a borrowed Jeep and fell into a dreamless sleep.