Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Odyssey


There are moments when time seems more circular than linear, like a minute hand ticking its way back to twelve o'clock. The midday sun lights up a sheen of snow across the Caribou Hills, sparkling on a frozen swamp I'm trying to cross. I've forgotten my sunglasses, again, and the reflection is fully blinding. I have to close my eyes. They remain closed as I jog along, listening to the crunch of my steps and the scraping groans of my sled.

In that moment I feel fully present, but when I open my eyes again, I see the Caribou Hills in a different light — dawn's twilight. It's mid-January, and the sound I hear is the squeak of studded tires rolling over cold-packed snow. My memory sharpens; I see the ski gloves clinging to handlebars, a cheap Cateye headlight, feet clad in three pairs of socks and hiking boots, turning pedals, and a sharp chill surrounds everything. 

It must be about seven years ago. I'd set out down the Caribou Lake trail for a day-long training ride for the Susitna 100, an upcoming endurance race that I'd accepted as the most daunting challenge of my life. But the first miles of this training ride brought the depths of my fears to the surface — it felt perilously cold, and this landscape was caked in menacing ice and snow. I had no idea where this trail would lead me and wasn't sure I wanted to find out what discomforts and perils awaited at the end. Alaska turns to backcountry fast, and just a few miles from East End Road the silence was already deafening. There's nobody out here. I'm all alone.

When I read "Homer Epic," the first thing that comes to my mind is a Greek poem — a classic rendering of the universal journey home. I'd been hoping to find a winter race challenge for 2013 and the Homer Epic 100K seemed ideal — a hundred kilometers in the place where I first lived in Alaska, on trails where I occasionally trained with my mountain bike. The timing was ideal for Beat's Nome run, and the distance was appealing — far enough to be challenging, but not so far that I'd have to block out adventuring to make too much room for pre-race rest and post-race recovery. And although I lay claim to a lot of "homes," going home to Homer was the most appealing aspect of the Homer Epic.

Although the Homer Epic had the standard winter-racing format with multiple modes of travel that would allow me to ride a bike, from the start I resolved to do this one on foot. I also decided I wanted to drag a sled — even though the minimal required gear could easily fit in a backpack. This one baffled others but made sense in my convoluted way of thinking — everything is training for something else, for life. While Beat has been out sled-dragging his way across Alaska, we've chatted about someday doing something like that together. I'll be the first to admit I don't love dragging a sled, but a little practice never hurts. I also have to admit that I wanted to finish this race — which had what was in my opinion a tight cutoff — so my sled load was pretty light. It included food for 24 hours (about 4,000 calories), a liter of water (to supplement the two on my back), lights,  snowshoes, trekking poles, and extra layers. I never weighed it, but it was probably somewhere in the range of 15 pounds. Probably not much heavier than some of the backpacks I saw out there. But I was the only person in the whole race with a sled. 

There were about eighty participants in the Homer Epic. I didn't count the number on foot, but guessed there were seven or eight of us (as it turns out there were eight finishers.) All of the guys had tiny little backpacks and looked fast. I knew one of them, Dmitry, because he joined Beat for much of the last half of the Tor des Geants last year. Dmitry was strong, I remembered, and I didn't see another woman runner at first glance. "Well, I'm going to end up at the very back of this race," I thought, and braced myself for it.

As promised, the trails were perfectly groomed, wide, and hard-packed. Skier trails. A snow biker's dream. It was a definitively runnable surface, and I wondered how much of this race I'd be able to run. I haven't been running enough lately to pull out a hundred kilometers without some damage, and the sled shortened my stride in a way that might also cause some pains. Although I'm convinced I could walk across the country without (too many) issues, I don't consider myself a natural runner and always worry about the physical implications of any event with lots of running. Still, I had those cut-offs to meet. I resolved the keep running while the running was good.


These trails were just the way I remember them — rolling hills, scattered spruce trees, wide open spaces, and the grand skyline of the Kenai Mountains on the horizon. And it was a grand day to be out — clear skies and fluctuating temperatures that ranged from single digits in the lower valleys to 20s on the hills. But it all felt comfortable, even pleasant.

I kept a small group of runners and skiers in sight and followed them down a big drop and back up an equally long hill through a powerline cut. Near the top of the hill, I became suspicious of the number on my GPS — "Six miles? We were supposed to turn right by now I think." I switched to map mode and, sure enough, we were traveling the wrong way up the counter-clockwise loop. I waved my arms but the rest of the wrong-way group was too far ahead. The mistake netted me about two and a half bonus miles, or 4K in Homer Epic parlance. The rest, who eventually passed me again, gave numbers ranging from 6K to 14K out of the way.

The trail was perfect, in a sort-of-infuriating way. I admit I started longing for my bike, especially after twenty miles when my feet started throbbing the way they do when I run that far on dirt. Running this trail wasn't exactly like running on dirt; even well-packed snow puts up a lot more resistance, and feet still punch tracks into the surface while skis and wheels can glide over the top. Still, with the exception of steeper hills and a few deliberate breaks, I'd kept up a solid running pace since the start. It was not a fast running pace — the best I can do is still a 12- to 14-minute mile average; that hasn't changed. But it was a hard effort and it felt great, except for the nagging foot pains.

The harsh reflection of sun on snow began to feel like an oven. By early afternoon I had stripped down to my base layer and would have stripped down farther if I didn't think my sled harness was going to chafe horribly on bare skin. The weird thing is that the temperature could not have gone above or even all that close to freezing, as the surface of the snow remained frozen and hard. But I felt like I was overheating severely, and the increasing length and steepness of the hills wasn't helping my comfort levels.

In hindsight, the overheated feeling was probably the initial warning that I was headed for a bonk. I've noticed in these winter races, when I'm not adequately fueled, my body doesn't regulate temperature as well. I go from hot to cold to hot to cold in big, often inexplicable swings. For whatever reason, I haven't had much of an appetite while I've been out on the trail lately, and it didn't help that I only brought three things to eat — brownies, Swedish fish/gummy peach mix, and Chex Mix. Seriously. I've spent so much time prepping drop bags for Beat during this trip that I didn't want to deal with another set of requirements for myself. I just bought big bags of crap at a gas station in Soldotna, packed a baggie of left-over Chena River to Ridge brownies that Ed gave to me, and called it good. Big mistake.

After 50K, the trail veered off to a long (very long) out-and-back through the North Fork hills. Most of my biking friends, and, well, most of the bikers, had long since covered this section on these super-fast trails and were already finished with the race. The first runner passed me not far from the turn, at least twenty miles ahead of me. Wow ... count me as impressed. But I didn't think I was doing that badly. I hit the 50K split a bit under eight hours, and although I knew the second half would be hillier, was still feeling well enough to believe I could hit ten for the second half. An eighteen-hour finish was far better than my expectation of "I'm going to need every one of those 24 hours to finish."

The Homer Epic advertises 6,500 feet of climbing in 100K. After the first 50K only had about 1,500 feet of climbing, I thought, "Oh, that has to be wrong." It was not wrong. The second half was nothing but hills. Trail runners will think that 6,500 feet sounds mellow for a hundred kilometers. I do not agree. Snow adds a level of resistance that at least doubles if not triples the perceived effort of an incline, in my opinion. This likely also has something to do with the fact I willfully chose to drag a sled. But last year I ran the modified UTMB with its 20,000 feet of climbing in a similar distance, and it was not harder than 6,500 feet in the Homer Epic. Well, maybe it was. Why do I even try to compare snow running to trail running? They're really different games, at least for me.

Still, I loved that North Fork spur. Much of it rolled along a high ridge overlooking the Cook Inlet and several volcanoes. Clouds had moved in and the light flattened out, which added a peaceful atmosphere to the run. I was still trying to run, but my feet were beginning to hurt badly on the downhills and many of the climbs were slowing me to a trudge. Another woman, Kerri, caught and passed me, which came as a surprise — another woman in the race! It also made me feel a bit less lonely, as I'd begun to feel that back-of-pack sting as the last bikers and skiers passed me on their way out.

Sometimes, when I feel that tinge of shame about ending up at the back of a race, I imagine Adam Sandler's graduation speech in "Billy Madison:" "I know most of you are saying 'hey, any idiot could do that.' Well it was tough for me so back off!" As the day waned, I gnawed miserably on frozen Swedish Fish and imagined a magical fairy god-moose would come and turn my sled into a bike, and I could take my hurty feet off the ground for good. I considered riding my sled down the hills, but they were increasingly more steep and at least a half mile long. I probably would smack into a tree or hit a moose and be stomped to death. Too scary. The sunset did not disappoint, however. Homer has the most consistently beautiful sunrises and sunsets that I've ever seen. Even on this mostly cloudy evening, the red glow managed to make an appearance.


The checkpoint two cabin was cramped and crowded with volunteers, and I didn't feel compelled to linger long. But about a mile down the trail, just as the last bits of daylight were fading, I decided to stop and attend to my feet. Sure enough, the skin on both soles was creased and pale white — a result of being wet and hot for too many hours. Runners often call this condition "trench foot" although it's not the same as actual trench foot. But it does hurt something fierce, like an open blister, or running on hot coals. The same thing happened to me last year during the Susitna 100; I tried to avoid it this year by wearing only two lighter pairs of socks rather than my heavy insulated system. But I still had the Gortex running shoes that are designed to keep water and snowmelt out, and my feet had apparently marinated in sweat, again.

It was all I could do to clench my teeth and make it down hills, whether I was walking or running. I still passed the 50-mile split at 14 hours, which I decided was not terrible and I was still actually on okay pace to finish in 18 to 19 hours. My wrong turn meant I still had 14 or 15 miles to run to the finish, but I could probably cover it in four hours. The return trip on the North Fork spur confirmed there was only one other runner still behind me. If he passed me, I would be at the official back of the race. This prospect frightened me a bit. It's strange — I can go out alone for 12-hour rides in the remote White Mountains in subzero weather and feel confident and self-sufficient. But being alone during a race is another type of condition that seems to cause insecurity.

Shortly after I hit my 50-mile split, I caught up to the other woman runner, Keri. She had stopped on the side of the trail and appeared to be waiting for me. "What's up?" I asked. "Can I walk with you for a bit?" she asked. "I'm not feeling great."

"Of course." Keri was shivering slightly and I asked her if she was cold. "A bit," she said. She told me she was sick and couldn't eat. I could empathize and agreed we should stick together through the next checkpoint, which was still about seven miles away. Keri's pace continued to slow. Sometimes I asked a question and she didn't seem responsive, but more often she made jokes and showed the demeanor of an ultra-runner who was just going through a low point. The cold wind picked up and I stopped to put on more layers. We'd walk a bit more, and I'd turn around to find she'd stopped not far from the last break spot and was again a few hundred yards back. As I waited, the chill crept in and I put on more layers. Soon I was wearing most of the extra layers I'd packed in my sled. It wasn't extremely cold as far as extreme cold goes — temperatures were probably in the single digits again, maybe even zero, but with a decent windchill. In addition, I was more than a little bonked myself. My body was no longer efficiently making heat, and once I lost body heat, it didn't come back easily. I started running to warm up, only to look back five minutes later and find I'd gone so far that I could no longer see Keri's headlamp.

I wasn't sure whether I should worry about Keri. She seemed to know what she was doing, lived in Anchorage and thus had plenty of cold experience, and was still moving even if slowly. But I didn't think I could go on like this for four or five more miles, barely clinging to body heat myself. As I thought about it, I decided the best thing I could do was go to the next checkpoint and voice my concerns to someone with a snowmachine, who could actually help her if there was a problem. And if there were any immediate issues, I knew the last runner, Nicolai, wasn't far behind us. In the next mile, the trail veered up a long hill and I could still see her headlamp behind me, so I knew she was still moving.

I lost track of Keri when the trail turned to the right on a two-mile spur. It was there that my bonk really set in. I should have stuck with Keri because I doubt I was moving any faster at that point. I was wrapped in all my layers, plodding along, hating my feet, feeling silly for struggling so much in a "measly" 100K in "easy" single-digit weather. "It was tough for me so back off." At the checkpoint I told the volunteers about my slight concern for Keri and that she wasn't far behind me so if they didn't see her within a half hour, it would be prudent to go check on her. The checkpoint had a ration of two cookies per racer, as all the checkpoints did. I didn't like those cookies much at checkpoints one and two, but this time around my angry stomach sensed desperation and let them in. And because I was near the back of the race, the volunteers didn't care if I stuffed my face with extra cookies. All the cookies! I must have eaten ten. I was suddenly ravenous.

Photo by Keri Riley, taken in Ninilchik, a village about twenty miles as the crow flies from where I was at this time
I saw Keri just a quarter mile from the checkpoint as I was leaving, looking better, although she'd stuffed her emergency blanket under her coat. (I can relate. I was just about that desperately cold myself at times.) She said she planned to take a long rest at the cabin, so I decided to keep going. There were 7.2 miles to the finish, and my bonk had eased enough that foot pain and returned to the forefront of my mind. I shuffled along and tried not to let it encompass every thought.

As I emerged from the woods on an open ridge, I noticed a shimmer in the sky. Cloud cover? I wondered. I turned off my headlamp and noticed a splatter of stars. The clouds had moved out and the night was stunningly clear. The streaks of light began to ripple, and as my eyes adjusted, I noticed definitive hues of green, bright white, and even a faint bit of red. The Northern Lights! All this time I'd been in Alaska, I'd seen only a single weak display. Nearly every night in Fairbanks, I went out at least once to search for them, to no avail. And here I was in Homer, as far south in Alaska as I'd been yet, and this had to be one of the most spectacular displays I'd ever seen. Streaks of light continued to move through the sky, reaching out from the horizon and rippling like a piano whose keys light up when you play them.

For three more hours I marched along, every so often searching for the trail, but more often craning my neck to watch the northern sky. I was still moving painfully slow, but concern about my pace was forgotten. My feet still hurt something fierce, but that was surprisingly easy to ignore. The original inhabitants of this region believed the Northern Lights were communications from the spirit world, voices from the past. I gazed at the ebb and flow of color, the light cycle, and imagined what they might be saying, what secrets the past had yet to reveal. The lights were knowingly vague, promising only that life would always be beautiful and good.

I was surprised to find five people still awake at 4 a.m., waiting for me at the finish. They rang cowbells and hollered and handed me a St. Patrick's Day balloon as I strode across the line. My finish time was 19:53 — third from last. But I was given a beautiful hand-designed mug for winning the women's foot division. Keri would come in three hours later after a rest at checkpoint three. I was just waking up from a nap on the floor of the elementary school, and we were able to congratulate each other on our podium finishes.

I thought back to that first Susitna 100, the training, all those big leaps into the unknown that brought me to this strange but transformative way of living. The clock shifted back to the present, the swollen feet, dry mouth, and raw emptiness in my stomach. But daylight was emerging, and the sunrise was beautiful. Exactly as it had always been.