Monday, March 12, 2012

Thoughts on Beat's ITI

The morning after a 45-below night in the Farewell Burn. Photos by Beat Jegerlehner
It's true that we can only view others' experiences through the lens of our own, and for that reason, few can grasp what an event such as the Iditarod Trail Invitational is really like. Bits and pieces reach us when we remember times when we were cold, or exhausted, or fighting mind-numbing tedium, or frightened for our lives. We feel empathy, and believe we understand, but we don't. Not really. This is why I shy away from telling others' stories, but I wanted to express a few thoughts about Beat's Iditarod experience from an outsider's perspective. In time I'm sure he'll write about his experiences out there, what really happened, even if few can understand.

2012 was the year of weather for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Walkers and cyclists who pushed through to the finish saw raging blizzards and high winds obliterate the trail several times over, soft and sugary snow, rock-hard wind drifts, overflow, and a temperature swing of 90 degrees, from 40 above to 50 below zero. Only 18 of the 47 starters would reach McGrath, and none would go on to Nome — a first in the 10-year history of the ITI. It was a tough year to run the race, let alone as a rookie, and one that undoubtedly favored stubbornness and perseverance over any kind of speed.

Sean Grady, a cyclist who rode as far as Shell Lake in this year's ITI, laid out the race weather report well:

Day 1 - Blizzard dumps three feet of snow around the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna.
Day 2 - High winds.
Day 3 - More winds followed by another snow event.
Day 4 - Snow falling.
Day 5 - Negative 45 degree temps.
Day 6 - Negative 45 degree temps.
Day 7 and 8 - Eight inches to one foot of new snow fell on the final section of the course.

Just a few hours after the race began at 2 p.m. Sunday, a blizzard buried the course in more than 30 inches of snow. Where snow had drifted in on Flathorn Lake, some of the frontrunners found it impossible to make forward progress of any sort. Runners actually encountered the first cyclist moving backward on the trail, claiming that was the only direction he could physically go. Only by cooperative effort did the group manage to plow through Flathorn Lake and the Dismal Swamp, covering something in the range of six miles in seven or eight hours. A handful of cyclists turned around and scratched, not even making it to the first checkpoint.

When Beat called me early Monday afternoon to tell me he was still slogging along the Susitna River, I knew things were bad. This meant he had traveled less than 35 miles in 24 hours. The same distance on virtually the same course had taken me ten hours to knock out on foot, just one week earlier. And step for step, Beat was working considerably harder than I ever did during the Susitna 100. In all likelihood, his exertion level and energy burn for those 35 miles were on par with my entire Susitna 100 effort combined. Not only that, but I could only imagine how demoralized he must have felt, to be so exhausted before even leaving the old-hat Su100 course.

I didn't expect him to scratch at Yentna Station, but I admit part of me hoped he would. I love the guy; I hate to think about him out there suffering, even though I acknowledge these activities are optional and that another part of me (a part I still don't understand) wished I was out there experiencing the same epic struggle. He reached Yentna at 10 p.m. Monday and took a short rest there before striking out toward Skwentna early Tuesday morning. That afternoon, my friend Dan and I did our fly-over and saw Beat, other walkers, and the still-bike-pushing cyclists making their way along a single soft trail on the Yentna River. He reached Skwentna at 6 p.m. that evening and left around midnight. By then, it was just about 60 hours into the race. Contrast this to my 2008 Iditarod, when I hit Skwentna in 12 hours (with a bike) — or even our December 2011 sled-trekking vacation, where we leisurely walked for eight to nine hours each day, rested, ate and slept for the rest, and still made it to Skwentna within 48 hours of starting (about 15 miles shorter, but still.) I offer these as examples because Beat was still in familiar territory, moving slower than he ever imagined, and one of the challenges of this race was accepting that.

But even in a year of frustrating extremes, Beat did experience moments of bliss. This is a photo of Rainy Pass, which he crossed right at sunrise on Friday. This is another place that only experience can really reflect. It's so pristine and remote that just being there is ethereal. But experiencing Rainy Pass solo and under the influence of heavy physical effort is sublime. I still carry my favorite memories of my 2008 Iditarod experience through the frame of Rainy Pass. I slumped over these mountains at sunset and completely bonked beyond recovery, but even then I understood that I had crossed a threshold into a new perspective, and my life would not be the same.

But the blissful moments wouldn't last. Shortly after leaving Rohn, Beat would encounter the deep-space cold of the Farewell Burn. This section of trail crosses 90 miles of absolutely nothing. It's hard to truly fathom until you see it, but there is really nothing out there. Covering this distance on foot takes two full days of self-sufficiency.  You might happen to see a person on a snowmobile out there if you get into trouble, but in all likelihood, you won't. When I crossed the Burn over two days in 2008, I saw exactly three people, and they were all other cyclists. During the time Beat was out there, other racers recorded temperatures of minus 40 to minus 45, and it's likely that some cold sinks saw temperatures in the negative 50s. When it's this cold, a body enters survival mode. Nothing else matters. Beat later described the last half of this race as a something of a tug-of-war between mind-numbing tedium and terror. There was little in between. 

Beat traveled the last 50 miles with a friend, Anne Ver Hoef, who finished first in the women's overall race. They reached McGrath at 4:20 p.m. Monday for a finishing time of 8 days, 2 hours, and 20 minutes. I found this amusing as this was the exact time of day, down to the minute, that I finished in 2008 — 6 days, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and I had much easier trail conditions (and a bike!) Even though I feel like I have some frame of reference from my own experiences, it is still impossible for me to fathom what Beat and others really went through out there this year. It's also impossible to explain why Beat wants to go back out and do it all again next year, if the opportunity arises. He's a crazy man, and I'm proud of him.

I'm also happy for Geoff, who finished first in the foot race in his third try on the course. His race report is published on iRunfar. I think Geoff's report does a good job of portraying just how far the Iditarod goes beyond the typical conception of an ultra-endurance race. The ITI is a full expedition, with the added layer of racing against a clock and others, and it's as exciting as a race can be at 2 mph.  What Geoff managed to do out there is, in my opinion, a more exceptional performance than his 2010 Western States win. The ITI was a full week of high-level exertion and mental stamina without the benefit of support, or the satisfaction of moving fast. But of course most people prefer fast, because most people can relate to fast. Because of this, most ultrarunning fans will soon forget about Geoff's 2012 ITI and remember him for Western States. My (admittedly unique) opinion is that most people just don't understand.

But Beat finished the ITI without even the benefit of sponsors, and he finished as the top rookie runner in the race (as well as tied for third runner and tied for seventh overall.) He's awesome — at least that much I understand. 

7 comments:

  1. I know I'll think of Geoff as an ITI survivor by far and above his WS, and Beat was always crazy, byr doing these conditions as a rookie put him spaceyears elsewhere else:)

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  2. Nice write up tribute to Beat's accomplishment. What a great achievement for him. I am kind of liking the fact that summer is coming now.

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  3. Truly epic!

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  4. Let me know if Beat write's up anything about his race. I'd love to read it. I got in in time to only have to deal with one really cold night. I can only imagine how tough it must have been to have to get through the burn at 45 or 50 below. it was a balmy 15 or 20 below the night i slept there.

    and yeah, although they are two completely different things, i have no question in my mind that my ITI run was the most exceptional/satisfying performance i've ever had. as compared to ITI, WS is like a 5k fun run in terms of the ability that it takes to do it and do it well. there's really no comparison between the ITI and anything else I've ever done.

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  5. Yeah I'm writing something up, will let you know. Hard to make it even a halfways entertaining read up to now though ... slog slog slog ... :)

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  6. Congratulations Beat!! I know I don't understand what that experience was like, but I appreciate hearing Jill's perspective on it.

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  7. My son was looking at the pictures with me and saw the one with Beat's skirt, he asked me what he was wearing and I said it's a down skirt to keep his man parts warm to which he fired back "It's not a dress it's a Kilt, Sicko!" which I believe is quoting one of his favorite movies.

    Anyway great write up and congrats to Beat for finishing such a tough race.

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