Wednesday, August 14, 2013

But I feel like a waterfall

For being thirty pounds heavier than I'm used to being, and then propelling myself across more than thirty miles of rocky dirt track with a loose lava-pebble side excursion, I woke up the second morning with surprisingly little soreness. "Good," I thought. "That was a sustainable pace. I just have to hold it." All night the wind had been relentless, flapping the walls of the canvas tent like an angry animal, and I doubted any of us slept much. But on further inquiry, I learned my tent mates slept rather well through the hurricane. I'm always jealous of people who can sleep when they're exhausted. My body seems to operate in the opposite direction; the more tired I become, the more my brain holds a relentless grip onto consciousness. Eventually the scales tip, but usually by then I'm hallucinating lynxes and experiencing brief blackouts on my feet. Indiscriminate sleep is not a talent of mine.

The first few miles of stage two followed the road, losing a lot of elevation from the wide slope of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on which we slept. A gale-force wind blew at our sides and backs, with enough hard gusting to disrupt balance. At times I'd lean into the wind at a sharp angle only to have the force let off enough that I nearly tipped over. Other times it would push back just as I was landing precariously on one foot, causing me to stumble. Running was downright dangerous, but there was enough tailwind force to make walking even more difficult. I tried to keep up with Beat as he flew down the road, dancing with the gusts as I largely failed in my attempts to predict their erratic movements.

As we rounded a small knoll and launched into a steep descent, the wind and road direction shifted just enough that the wind was entirely at my back. I inadvertently increased my pace, and the incessant roaring quieted some. It reminded me of a most wonderful bicycle ride in Juneau, an experience I had once after grinding up Eaglecrest Road and giving everything I had to 3 mph pedaling into a 30 mph headwind. I turned my bike around, grabbed the wind like a sail, and flew down the road until the wind quieted completely. The air was as silent as morning, and my body was as weightless as space. Looking down at my bicycle computer, I saw I was moving at 43 mph — likely the exact same speed as the wind.

"If only I had a bike," I thought as an expanse of volcanic desert stretched out in front of me. The fastest humans in the world can't run 43 mph. But this wind felt nearly as strong, and I ran as though I could catch up to it. My legs throbbed with the effort and my ankles quivered in fear, but the feeling was amazing — like flying, with a hundred jarring landings. Now it was dangerous and beating me up. "Bad running," I scolded myself, but I couldn't help it. I was like a little girl splashing through puddles, arms raised to the wind.

I paid dearly for my playfulness in the form of a mid-morning energy bonk. Even after digging into the next hour's food rations, I felt the lead weight of fatigue drop into my legs. Beat, who couldn't stay warm at my slower pace, surged ahead. Soon the flagged route crossed a terrifyingly light bridge over a waterfall, and then turned directly into that roaring wind. Everything from my energy to my pace came to a near-standstill. People passed me like I wasn't even moving, one after the other. Although I don't care much about losing my "position" in a race, I dislike being passed by people because it shows me exactly how far I've slipped into shut-down mode. Obviously I wasn't holding my supposedly sustainable pace anymore, even though I was giving the effort everything I had.

We crawled up a steep ridge, where the wind was again swirling at storm force. Other past experiences in Juneau had me estimating the gusts at higher than 50 miles per hour — the baseline where I find it difficult to stay on my feet. This suspicion was further confirmed when I stopped to take a photo, turned my backpack sideways to the wind, and got caught in a gust that knocked me onto the ground. Elbow scraped and camera body scratched, I scrambled to sitting position and faced the gale with trepidation. I wasn't even walking and the wind knocked me over. How much worse was this going to get?

The route skirted along the ridge and dropped into a small basin beside the glacier, where gales still pummeled us from every direction. I don't think I took a single non-blurry photo in this section, as the wind was blowing so hard that I couldn't even hold my camera still for fractions of a second. The fierce weather was exciting but I admit I was a little bit frightened. I was slightly dizzy with low energy and the wind was pushing me around like a staggering drunk. There was a narrow, partially hidden gorge looming in near proximity, and sometimes it felt like I was about to be blown into it.

We finally dropped off the ridge to some relief, but the tiny glacial lake was still rippling like an ocean, with significant waves lapping the shoreline. In one hand I clutched my trekking poles, which had been helping me keep my tentative balance, because the crosswind blew so hard that they were often snatched sideways before I planted them in the ground. My head was spinning and I struggled to do calorie math. One half package Haribo, one half-granola bar, do I still have another? Oh, screw it, I'm going to eat a Snicker Bar. I need it way more now than I'll ever need it later.

Oh chocolate, oh peanuts, oh nougat, oh joy. I'm not sure one candy bar ever did so much for me in so little time. I went from feeling dizzy and wind-knocked to strong and surging within ten minutes. Calorie math told me it wouldn't last as long as I'd like, but for these minutes I could relish in the relative energy binge and march assuredly up the faint track. Snickers really does satisfy.

Suddenly becoming more coherent did me a world of good, and not just because I wasn't teetering on the verge of tipping over any more. Stage two had taken us reasonably far off the beaten track, to the edge of the Langjokull Glacier and along a black sand desert that looked and felt as far away from familiarity as the moon. I pictured myself standing there, in my billowing gray "astronaut"coat, black balaclava, and moon-boot-like Hokas, and had one of those, "Wow, I'm in Iceland" moments. A far-away traveler in a far-away land.

At the last aid station I learned they were rerouting the course yet again to take us away from our scheduled "Land of the Trolls" campsite, instead dropping us into the valley where we could camp somewhere with temperatures slightly warmer than freezing and winds slightly lower than gale force. For once, I was not disappointed with the less-adventurous aspect of this reroute. I had a fun run into the valley, although my legs felt pretty beat up from all of the running I'd done so far after a summer training regimen largely comprised of limping and biking. I encountered the first signs of life I'd seen during the race — besides the moss, and runners — in wide fields of lupine beneath a skyline of small volcanoes. It was still windy enough that I could not get the flowers to hold still long enough to take a clear picture. Sheesh.

The makeshift camp was wonderful. A local farmer had mowed his field and cleaned his horse stable at the last minute to accommodate 300-plus racers and volunteers. The clouds cleared out, the air warmed and the wind settled, leaving behind a most gorgeous evening in the rich Northern light.

People laid in the grass, stretched, napped ...

Did yoga ...

And I wandered the perimeter of the farm, soaking it in. Stage two clocked in at 28 miles, for a total of 57 in two days. There was still a long way to go, and I felt excited about the possibilities.