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.
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.
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|
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.