Monday, August 12, 2013

I move slow and steady

My favorite places are all stark and windswept, expanses of uninterrupted space where my eyes are free to wander over the farthest, often unreachable horizons. I appreciate a great many variations of natural beauty, but my daydreams tend to wander into the deserts and tundra, the high mountains and rugged shorelines ... places where tiny flowers and tufts of moss emerge from the rocks ... places where scraggly spruce trees twist out of the snow ... where hardy plants and animals cling to the outer edges of life, that razor point between existence and the void. Beyond their subtle colors and surreal beauties, the places I love most are those where life is hard, because they demonstrate why life is worth living. And because of my life experiences so far, this love always draws me back to the North.

This draw toward starkness and solitude is juxtaposed by a desire to also experience the loudness of life — to immerse myself in cultures, observe and connect with people, experiment with physical abilities and sensations, and play games. The admittedly strange niche of endurance racing fulfills many of my competing desires in ways that are both organic and satisfying. I am alone but I am in the company of like-minded people. I am independent but I am part of a culture. I am at the limit of my perceived abilities and yet I am comfortable and strong. I am treading the edge of livability and yet I am wholly alive.

Racing the Planet Iceland was a great opportunity to seek this spectrum of experience — to visit the stark northern landscapes of Iceland, to meet other endurance junkies from all over the world, to test a level of self-sustainability over long distances, and to inject at least one high-mileage week into my lackluster summer of PTL training. Stage racing, although not necessarily something that caters to my strengths, is a fun game nonetheless. Can I keep up a consistent pace over the course of the week? Can I bring a good mix of gear and food to stay warm and fed without slowing myself down too much? Can I manage six nights crammed into a canvas tent with seven other people without lapsing into insomnia-fueled insanity?

Pre-race necessities including an extensive gear check and scoldings about the rules were sufficiently exhausting. It was a relief to finally board a crowded bus and travel into the highlands between the Vatnajokull and Langjokull glaciers. During the Middle Ages, Iceland was covered in extensive forests, but a combination of human-caused deforestation and erosion, as well as a shift in the Gulf Stream that cooled Iceland's climate, has left the island mostly barren. Less than one percent of Iceland is forested today, and these tree stands are so sparse and straggly that Icelanders have a saying: "If you ever get lost in the forest, just stand up." As hours passed, we traveled deeper into a moonscape covered in soft moss, patches of grass, and the occasional huddle of hardy sheep.

We did make one stop at a roadside geyser. As I rushed out of the bus to try to catch "Geysir" before it erupted, Beat lingered by the gift shop/cafeteria. "Do you think we should buy some more food?" he asked. The reality of seven days of limited calories was setting in, and we went on a hoarding spree of snacks we planned to cram in our stomachs that night before the diet began — chips, cookies, and ice cream. If we'd thought it through earlier, we could have brought fresh vegetables and pizza, but at least tonight we wouldn't go to bed hungry.

Racing the Planet seems to make a habit of cramming lots of people into small and inadequate tents — probably in the interest of bonding, although I tend to think of this living situation as a more difficult challenge than the running part. We were part of tent Fjallfoss, which means mountain falls, and it was immediately apparent that ours was a fun tent. What we lacked in serious racers, we made up for in quirkiness. Our tent included the "Vikings," two friends from New Jersey who purchased souvenir viking hats earlier in the day and vowed to wear them for the remainder of the race. Paul was at least six-foot-four and 250 pounds. Jakes, an equally tall hedge fund manager, brought an entire shelf's worth of small wine bottles and beer, complete with a plastic wine glass that he actually used for the remainder of the race. We also had Raj, a former special forces fighter with India's military, and another Raj from Bangalore. There was Karley, a diminutive air traffic controller from Australia, and Chloe, an Olympic-distance triathlete from New York. We asked Chole if she'd run a trail ultramarathon before. "No," she admitted. "My longest run ever was about fifteen miles." She'd come to Iceland to run more than 150 miles in what amounted to five days, almost entirely on dirt, through all kinds of weather and rough terrain, "to see if I can." I liked Chloe's style.

The weather at camp one was ... invigorating. It was just a few degrees above freezing with drizzling rain and wind blasting down a narrow canyon to a degree where one couldn't stand sideways with their backpack without getting blown over. I'll be the first to admit it was harsh, but I was disappointed when I learned they completely rerouted stage one to keep the field of 270 racers off the higher ridges and away from a waist-deep river crossing. Instead, we'd be running thirty miles back on the dirt track we'd traveled by bus the day before. I understand the organization's liabilities and desire to keep people happy and safe, but they had a required gear list a mile long precisely to ensure everyone was prepared for this type of weather. I had a similar reaction of disappointment and exasperation that I felt when UTMB was rerouted due to weather last year: "These organized races are too tame. I didn't come all the way to Iceland to run on a road; I'd rather be on a touring bike if that's the case." The reroute took the wind out of my sails, so to speak, and I had almost no energy launching into the chilly morning.

Beat and I stuck close together for the first ten or so miles, but we'd already decided we were going to run our own races in Iceleand, and I began to fall behind on the runnable road. With the previous shin and knee injuries, and also hard races and recoveries this summer, my actual running mileage — as in not walking — has been fairly limited. This showed in my stage one performance. The 30-pound backpack hung off my shoulders in a way that felt like a boat anchor whenever I tried to pick up my pace. I could have been dragging an anvil through the dirt for the way it made me feel. Walking was fine; I hardly noticed the extra weight. But running made made my legs throb and lungs sear, and it was difficult to tell whether I was gaining any ground by doing so. People jogging in front of me weren't getting any closer, but when I started walking, they weren't exactly pulling ahead either. This goes back to my sled-dragging dilemma: I can walk almost as fast as I can run, and yet running is at least 50 percent harder. How does it get any easier? Or faster? Specific training, I suppose.

As disappointed as I'd been about the road running, the scenery was pretty spectacular. Eventually I decided just to jog a steady pace and not worry about walking the uphills or trying to make up time on the downhills, and I found a nice flow. I dug out my iPod shuffle that I'd filled with Icelandic bands like Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men, and went into my happy zone.

One notable aspect of stage one was that I felt continuously hungry, the entire time. I stuck to my planned rations that amounted to about 150 calories an hour, but there was this primal urge to continue devouring everything in my pack. Later in the race, on the same rations after several days of cold weather and calorie depletion, I felt much more satisfied with my intake. It was really just days one and two, while settling into the demands of the race, that my appetite was so out of control. This makes me wonder if it would be possible to go for weeks on similar rations. I ate like a horse during the Tour Divide and still lost nearly 15 pounds, but still I wonder. This trip was much more even despite what felt like massive energy output. It seems the body finds ways to adjust.

I didn't have a watch so I'm not sure how long it took me to reach camp two, but I did have a Garmin eTrex that indicated it was 29 miles. My legs felt surprisingly fresh for all of those loaded miles, so Beat and I decided to explore a small ridge next to the camp in the evening.

This hour-long side excursion made up for any lingering disappointments about the stage one reroute. The clouds had cleared and it was gorgeous up there, with panoramic views of nearby volcanoes and glaciers, and an oh-so-soft moss that I could have easily fallen asleep in had it not been for the biting cold and 40-mile-per-hour winds.

I went to bed excited for stage two, knowing that at the very least, we would still be in this beautiful place when we woke up in the morning. Life out here is hard, and good.