Wednesday, February 29, 2012
|Beat about 10 miles south of Skwentna on the Yentna River.|
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
"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.|
Monday, February 27, 2012
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.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Dave stopped running. "Is that you Jill?"
"You're doing awesome!" he exclaimed.
"I'm doing awesome? Holy cow, you're doing awesome," I said, feeling embarrassed that Dave was actually stopping to talk to me. "You should go, you're in first place!"
Dave waved his arm. "Aw, I don't care. I just can't wait to get back to Luce's. I have a beer waiting for me there."
"Sounds, um, relaxing," I laughed. "Hey, thanks for stopping to chat. I enjoy passing everyone like this on this course."
"My favorite part is seeing everyone," he said with his characteristic grin. "The rest just hurts bad with many mental sacrifices."
I laughed again and waved as he continued running. I admit I enjoy being involved in sports that are still small and quirky enough that even the race leaders still stop to chat and guzzle beers. Not that there's no competition in the Susitna 100. Dave still had Joe Grant hot on his trail, and would have to continue to make mental sacrifices all the way to his 24:11 finish.
Boosted by more friendly faces, I made good time to Alexander Lake, the turnaround point and mile 53 of the race. The bottoms of my feet had been simultaneously aching and burning, so I pulled off my socks to do another foot check. The skin looked like it belonged to a dead person — ghastly white and wrinkled deep into my foot. There was a patch of gray on both heels. Trench foot. I couldn't decide how to proceed. I had only one more pair of dry liner socks that I was going to save for my second Luce's stop. If I removed my insulation socks, my feet were going to slide around in the size ten shoes and probably blister badly in the process. And if I removed my vapor barrier, I was going to expose my soaking wet feet to the cold — now 13 degrees and rapidly dropping beneath the clearing sky. I slathered on more Hydropel and ate my soup slowly in hopes my liner socks would dry some.
Jane's red blinking light provided a navigation point as I traced the trail back across a series of frozen swamps. At the first long straightaway, I turned off my headlamp and caught my first glimpse of the aurora borealis. As my eyes adjusted, the soft white blur sharpened into a masterpiece of light, tinged with streaks of green and magenta. I shed a few tears at the overwhelming beauty before I became lost in it. Time seemed to stop, and Earth stood still as the lights pulled me inward. I was mesmerized, listening to the distant echo of my own footsteps as my mind freely danced with the sky.
The Northern Lights are so much more dynamic than their depictions in photos and films. Columns and shapes pulsed and expanded like rapid brush strokes, painting multi-dimensional images that instantaneously blended into new brush strokes. The transition was so seamless that it almost appeared static, until suddenly the circle I had been watching became an arch, and then a elliptical stream stretched across the star-speckled sky. I believed I could see the universe expanding in front of me, as though a thousand light years were passing in the space of a thousand footsteps. I had never experienced Northern Lights with such encompassing depth, and it occurred to me that the fact my body was so exhausted helped open my mind to the surreal intensity of it all. There was also the simple fact that the whole reason I was out here at all, fifty miles from the nearest road at 2 a.m., was because I had crazy hobbies like the Susitna 100. I smiled at the sheer providence of finding myself in the right place at the right time, which often seems to be the place I find myself whenever I leave the confines of my comfort zone.
Released from my aurora trance, I returned to a world where my feet hurt and the rest of me was becoming increasingly tired. I crossed paths with Danni about two miles after I left Alexander Lake, and figured there was a chance she might catch me, but I should probably count on spending the rest of the race alone. I also noticed my wet toes were beginning to feel pangs of cold. I checked my thermometer and saw the temperature had dropped to five below. A thin fog had settled over the river, masking the remnants of the aurora. It was 6 a.m., and I still had 35 more miles in front of me.
Friday, February 24, 2012
I was hit with a vivid memory of the minutes after my emotional meltdown in the 2011 Sustina 100. I crawled to the top of the Wall of Death and found Beat at the top with his sleeping pad laid out on the snow, and a spread of chocolate and other snacks on top. It was his peace offering after I had reamed him out for lecturing me about time cutoffs when I was feeling sick and demanded he leave me alone. One year later, the memory met me with a smile, and I wanted so much for Beat to be here with me so we could have our junk food picnic on top of the Wall of Death. Tears started to fall into my open grin, and I consoled myself with all of the mushy nonsense that the tough exterior of my non-basic self would usually squash. But no one was here to see me gush, so I gushed, relishing in the empowering acknowledgement of strong love.
I munched on deep-space rocket fuel and squinted at figures coming toward me from the distance. The lead bikers. I had been expecting them. The current out-and-back course of the Susitna 100 allows me to see nearly every other person in the race as they pass. As I was achieving mile thirty, the lead bikers were nearing mile eighty. They'd be done within three hours, before it was even late. I knew I had more than 24 hours in front of me, and laughed at the thought of what they must think of me and the other foot racers.
I had an idea because I've been a cyclist in this race before. Even with my "skinny tire" mountain bike, I'd never been beaten by foot racer, even the course record holder (my ex-boyfriend, Geoff, who ran the Su100 in 2007 as his first 100-mile ultra in 21:43, a time I can not fathom.) Back then, I thought the foot racers were kind of quirky, to say the least. The former lollipop course meant I never even saw them. They were the ghosts of the Sustina 100, haunting the quiet hours long after most everyone else had finished and gone to bed.
"Ah, how much worse can it get?" I thought. I still had 59 miles to go.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
I was crying, again. I had cried several times in this race. The first tears fell when I descended the "Wall of Death" where Beat made a picnic for me during last year's race; returning to that spot made me think about how much he meant to me. The second tears came as I climbed over an ice shelf on the Susitna River and glimpsed the pink light of the setting sun splashed across the mountains of the Alaska Range. Now I was crying over the Northern Lights. Three times during the Sustina 100 I had reduced myself to a blubbering mess, and the race was only half over. And yet, I was halfway into this incredibly difficult hundred-mile foot expedition, and the only emotion that had gotten the better of me was extreme happiness. Instead of suffering and pain, beauty had become the one thing I could scarcely endure.
Ever since I signed up for the 2012 Sustina 100, I had been grappling for a tangible reason for exactly why I wanted to go back and race this particular course on foot. I had taken on this challenge last year with Beat, and we finished together in 41:16. A part of me feels like I should try different things, visit different places. A larger part of me knows what a slog this race really is — that traveling on snow is similar to running a hundred miles up a moderately steep incline in terms of effort, and dragging a 25-pound sled nearly equals the difficulty of something entirely self-supported. When I picked the steepest 50K courses I could find in the Bay Area to train for the Susitna 100, I coud only lament that these training races weren't hard enough. Completing the Susitna 100 on foot is really hard. I had this opinion at least partly validated when elite ultrarunner Joe Grant approached me after the race and admitted he had no idea what a slog the Sustina 100 would turn out to be. Joe finished in a smoking-fast 26 hours and 14 minutes. I can only imagine how fast runners might view this 100-mile time as disappointing.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Yet another dynamic experience at the Susitna 100. I finished in 35:42, which was under my best-case scenario goal of 36 hours. I had one of the most incredible walks of my life during the 12-mile leg between the Alexander Lake turnaround and the Yentna River, marching under the aurora borealis with my headlamp off and watching columns of light ripple across the sky. I used snowshoes for 91 of the 100 miles. I ate most of the 5,000 calories of junk food that I brought and still experienced a harsh, energy-sapping bonk on the Dismal Swamp at mile 80. I was so paranoid about frostbite that I think I gave myself heat blisters from my vapor barrier sock system. I'll write a race report when I have more mental capabilities. Right now I mainly fluctuate between thinking about food and sleep, and feeling a combination of horror and fascination about exactly what Beat is going to attempt next week in the Iditarod 350. My feet hurt just thinking about it. Actually, my feet just hurt.
But I'm happy I did it. I love my annual slog-fest. More to come.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
|Mount Shasta from the plane. It was a beautiful day leaving San Jose.|
As for clothing I plan to start with, if the forecasts hold true and temperatures are around +20 degrees, I will probably start the race wearing a pair of wind tights, a base layer, a bike jersey (for use of the pockets in back, where I will store things I want to keep warm), a Gortex coat, a thin balaclava and hat, and my same DryMax sock/ fleece sock/ vapor barrier sock/ Vasque Gortex shoes set-up. I will probably go bare-handed with pole pogies, and carry a set of liner mittens in my coat.
My race strategy is one of continuing forward motion and minimizing impact on my body, so I will likely make good use of my poles and snowshoes. I don't expect I'll spend much time "running," as I consider the motion too much of an energy drain for too little increase in speed when traveling on top of soft snow. I also need to acknowledge that I didn't train running in snow, and I have no idea what kind of impact the uneven footing will have on my body, but I do feel confident that I can walk consistently and comfortably at a decent clip. However, I will have to race the first checkpoint cut-off. Warmer temperatures and a sled full of tasty candy will likely reduce the allure of slumming at indoor checkpoints. Slushy conditions will significantly reduce everyone's pace, but hopefully things cool down a bit by race day.
I'll probably post once again before the race starts on Saturday morning with a final pre-race update. But I wanted to make a gear post — if for no other reason, so I can check everything off when I complete my final packing on Friday. I should have a SPOT tracking page set up at http://www.beultra.com/routes/main_new.php?course=SU100Jill. Beat designed the page to include special slogging and sleeping icons if I am either moving very slow or have completely stopped. There's also an option to send pre-set messages, and if I have the wherewithal to do so, I will probably have some fun with that.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Leah, for a "mellow" road ride through San Francisco and Marin County. Leah is a cross racer who is recovering after an intense season (cross season just ended a couple weeks ago in these parts.) And I'm tapering for a 100-mile foot race on snow. We both agreed we wanted to take it easy, but Leah secretly likes to hammer and I secretly like to ride all day. In some ways, we both got our secret wish, although the ride did maintain a mellow vibe. Leah guided me through the city and pointed out the sights while I stressed about dodging street cars, descending steep hills and clipping in and out and in and out of my road pedals. I am not well-practiced in urban riding. The Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito bike path felt like a slalom through an obstacle course of pedestrians and meandering bikers.
Then, as we were rounding a tight hairpin turn on a particularly rugged rocky slab, two completely out-of-control mountain bikers came careening around the corner on our side of the road (it was a wide road, and we were all the way on the right edge.) Leah was in front and swerved first. I yanked my foot out of my pedal so fast that my ankle rebounded painfully into the crank, and I slammed my knee into the handlebar as I dove toward the bushes. That was the closest I have ever come to a head-on collision with another mountain biker — while riding a wide gravel road on a road bike. I was livid. All one of the guys could do was say "sorry" as he screamed past us. He was going too fast to stop. "What the hell!" I screamed back. Now I have bruises on my right ankle and left knee, and a grumpy disdain for mountain bikers who ride like idiots on easy trails (Seriously, guys, at least find a real downhill trail or a new hobby.) I only hope they didn't hit somebody else further down the road.