The longest miles
On Friday evening, I got on a plane and flew to Nome. Part of me is in disbelief that this Alaska adventure has reached this point. I always had faith that Beat would complete the entire distance to Nome, but even he readily admitted the odds were against him during his rookie year. From those early calls where he expressed doubt that he would make the first hundred miles, to the incredible and yet disconcertingly anticlimactic achievement of McGrath, to the horror slush and rain of the Shageluk hills, to the deep cold of the Yukon River, to the wind-blasted coast, to here. Nome. He's only forty miles away and resting as I type this. I expect he'll finish sometime Sunday afternoon.
Except winter's not over yet. The temperature dropped below minus twenty with a fierce north wind during my first night in Nome. It was still fifteen below in the late morning, but the wind had calmed down and it was a gorgeously clear day. My friend Phil, a cyclist who was near the front of this year's fiercely competitive race to McGrath, graciously put me up at his house in Nome while I wait for Beat to arrive. He offered to let me borrow his bike so I could pedal out the Iditarod Trail and check out the sights of Beat's final miles into Nome.
The first ten miles were rough. The wind, although light, was mainly out of the northeast and often blowing directly in my face. I didn't bring any of my bike gear to Nome because I didn't expect to ride, so I had to wear my trail-running shoes as foot gear, and rain pants on my legs. Not quite adequate for pedaling at ten to fifteen below with headwind. Every mile or so, I jumped off the bike to run for five minutes, which felt exhausting but necessary to keep numb toes at bay. The cold wind seemed to creep into every tiny crack in my system. Ice froze painfully to my eyebrows until I could feel the sharp pounding of the dreaded "ice cream headache." My Camelbak valve froze despite being positioned near my armpit. I blew a snot rocket and it hit and instantly froze on Phil's rear derailleur (don't worry, Phil, I chipped it off.) It was tough going, and I was just out for an afternoon joy ride. The experience gave me an even deeper appreciation of what Beat has faced every day in the past four weeks.
But I eventually found a groove in the form of a 500-foot climb onto the bluff above Cape Nome. The hard work warmed my toes, and the elevation offered a stunning vista of rolling hills and the Kigluaik mountains to the north, and the rough ice across the Norton Sound to the south.
I hope head out the trail again tomorrow to greet Beat. I'm excited to share that moment when he marches under that burled arch and unhooks his burdon of a sled for the last time.