Thursday, March 01, 2012

My fault

Photo by Daniel Bailey, www.danbaileyphoto.com
I hoped Dan would understand if my line was a bit erratic on the powdery descents — it was my first snow bike ride in eleven months. We launched onto the delicious trails at Far North Bicentennial Park — soft groomed with about two inches of fresh — and ramped into the climbs through the foothills of the Chugach Mountains. Soon we connected with the hiker-packed singletrack of the Speedway Trail and wended through piles of fluff and snow-covered spruce trees an a thin thread of trail. The light was soft — afternoon gold, filtered by wisps of clouds — and I slipped into a peaceful, Zen-like state. It was exactly what I needed on Wednesday afternoon, as anxiety had been building at a surprising rate.

This race. Oh, this race. What a cluster it's been, so to speak. This kind of effort makes sense with a team of people in the Arctic who were expecting to break trail through daunting obstacles for days on end, and probably planned with enough supplies for a dozen or so miles per day. But when you have fifty people, many of them with wheeled anchors, who are trying to race, expecting to cover fifty to a hundred miles per day — then you have a problem. No one expected a massive storm to obliterate the trail and change everything — but of course, that is the nature of the Iditarod Trail. You can and will see anything, so you have to prepare for it. But here we are, four days into the race, and only three people — a skier and runners Tim and Geoff —have made it to the halfway point. Most of the cyclists, from rookies to the long-time veterans, have scratched. Beat is one of the people still trudging away at it. I have simultaneous mixed but strong feelings about this — pride in his perseverance, and also sadness for his suffering. This was inevitable, I suppose. Because I can imagine the hardships, I can also imagine the spirit-crushing despair.

He sounds so tired on the phone. He makes one call a day now, and keeps it very short. Half of his words are slurred; I can only pick out pieces of information amid the run-on sentences. Beat is now traveling with David Johnston and Andrea Hambach, a fact that makes me happy because those two are experienced Alaskans with a fantastic sense of humor. Humor means all the difference when despair threatens to encompass everything. When trudging across Alaska for 150+ miles at less than two miles an hour, the only advantage anyone can have is the ability to laugh at themselves. It's ridiculous. It's completely ridiculous. At yet, it's so life-changing and enlightening that the rewards are worth the struggle. Usually, I believe — but not always.

During Beat's long preparations for this race, he would joke that his signing up was my fault. "You talked me into it," he'd say with a grin. "You're going to dump me if I don't finish."

"That's I lie!" I proclaimed. "I did nothing of the sort." But I was grinning, too, because I was thrilled he was going to attempt this incredible journey that had such a perspective-shifting effect on my own life. "You're going to have such an amazing experience," I told him.

Now I'm not so sure. Honestly, I'm not. It's inspiring what these men and women are doing out there, but at the same time, I wonder what psychological, physical and spiritual sacrifices they're making to achieve it. I can't help but wonder if these sacrifices will cancel out any rewards ahead on the trail. I only wonder. I'm still so proud of Beat, and also Geoff, Tim, David, Andrea, Anne, Shawn, and all the people I do not know who are still sticking out the ceaseless trudge. A handful of cyclists are holding on in hopes that the trail will firm up over the pass. These cyclists are the craziest of all, and I admire them. I'm cheering Tim, who as a 57-year-old Nome hiker from Pennsylvania, no one dreamed he would lead the race for so long. But I just hope Beat doesn't feel compelled to stay out there for anyone but himself. "Just do what makes you happy," I told him on the phone. "Please."

As for Beat's status, he left Winter Lake Lodge, mile 135, at 3:25 a.m. Thursday. The 30-mile section of steep hills and river gorges between there and Puntilla Lake took leaders Geoff, Tim and Andrea about 18 hours to cover on snowshoes and skis. There have been reports of deep drifts on the trail, as well as a little bit of new snow in the forecast today. I expect — or at least I am hoping — to hear from Beat at Puntilla sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight tonight. From there, who knows? That will be more than a hundred hours into this race, with only half the distance covered on little rest. I can't fathom how he'll still have enough gas to power on to McGrath, but Beat continues to surprise me in many good ways.

And even as I was writing this, I received another text from Beat: "Cross Shirley Lake. More fun. Miss you. Pete just passed us." Definitely positive signs of improving trail conditions. 

I can only hope that when he comes home, and tells me this was my fault, he has a smile on his face.