Monday, August 19, 2013

Past the ones that I used to know

Needles of rain drove in through the small opening in my sleeping bag as the plastic walls of the dining shelter reverberated a howling wind — fwap fwap fwap fwap. I'd made a midnight escape from Tent Fjallfoss after being elbowed several times by one of my tentmates. It wasn't his fault, really; most of the occupants arrived after the storm set in, and it was soaked inside. There wasn't enough dry floor space for all of us. I decided sleep was better than walls and retreated to the three-sided group shelter. Unfortunately, the open side was facing the direction of the wind, and I couldn't find a square foot free from errant daggers of rain. The temperature couldn't have been more than a few degrees above freezing, and the wind forced cold air directly into my bag. I curled up in the farthest corner on the grass and shivered.

 "This is good training for Alaska," I thought, and the notion softened the knots of stress that had been building in my gut. Thoughts of Alaska, and specifically Alaska winter racing, often do. "I'm cold," I'll think, "but not nearly as cold as the time I bivied on the Farewell Burn." "I'm scared," I'll think, "but not nearly as frightened as the time I pedaled onto the hard ice of the Kuskokwim River and into that black abyss beyond." I was okay then, and I'll be okay now. It's interesting that something that happened more than five years ago still resonates so deeply, and everything I've been through since has become doable because of it, so far.

As I tossed and shivered, the cold, gray night changed imperceptibly into a cold, gray morning. Others began to emerge from their tents with similarly ashen faces. Today was the day of "The Long March to the Arctic Ocean," slated at 41.6 miles of tired-leg running in weather that, realistically, couldn't have been much worse for an August day in southern Iceland. The race organizer told us the forecast called for similar conditions to day two — meaning temperatures in the low 40s and 30- to 50-mile-per-hour winds — the only difference is today's storm would include significant amounts of precipitation. Wet and frigid weather, and a distance that would keep the majority of the field out there for more than ten hours. Misery, or adventure? Clearly, attitude was everything on this day.

Before we set out, I decided to embrace the latter — adventure, with a dash of farce. This attitude was actually made easier by sleep deprivation and the silliness it evoked. The race organizers also contributed by insisting on busing everyone fifty feet across a river, with a goal of letting runners start the race with dry feet. It was a noble gesture, mostly lost on the fact it was raining sideways and the process with two small buses took more than half an hour — meaning everyone was soaked at the start anyways, and also chilled from standing around in the cold wind. Most agreed that crossing the river on foot would have been preferable.


The early miles of the Long March took us through the industrial infrastructure of a geothermal plant, giving the start a kind of apocalyptic feel as the fierce storm raged overhead. Beat and Dan had run ahead, so I joined a group that included two friends from Cleveland. Lee and Gabe are significantly faster runners than me — Lee actually received an unexpected and last-minute entry to the 2013 Western States race after winning a prominent 50-mile race — but had been running close to my pace in Iceland both because "backpacks are the great equalizer" and because they had come here with a goal to have fun no matter what. This attitude made them great running partners, and I made an effort to stick with them as long as I could hold on. We tore through the driving rain singing the theme from the children's show Lambchop: "This is the song that doesn't end ... yes it goes on and on my friend ... "

Being better runners than me, Lee and Gabe were also more adept on technical terrain, so I eventually faded on the horse track leading over the last pass before the coast. Sleepiness enveloped me like a warm blanket, pulling my thoughts away from the physical discomforts of sloshing shoes and stinging mist, to the dreamlike landscape beyond — fog-shrouded valleys, vanishing mountains, and soft, bumpy carpets of moss on top of jumbled rocks.

As the tide of fatigue drew my thoughts deeper into the past, time and space became more vague. Miles would pass in what felt like seconds, and yet minutes would stretch out like hours. I took quick breaths from my flickering awareness of the present as I swam through an ocean of memories. What developed was a kind of melancholy, sparked by close visual proximity to places I once loved, places I no longer know. Although it's positioned on the other side of the globe, the mist-shrouded slopes of Iceland held a strong resemblance to alpine ridges I used to wander in Southeast Alaska. It's true that occasionally I miss Alaska so much my heart aches, in the same way one might miss a good friend who moved far away. I know it's still out there; I know I can still visit. But a disconnect has been established, and the void is an unsettling reminder of the impermanence of time, the truth that you can't go home again. Psychologically pulling myself back into a semblance of "home" while I traversed the rocky tundra of Iceland was both jarring and comforting — another reminder that "home" can be everywhere and nowhere at once.

Inevitably, my journeys down memory lane met a roadblock of physiological distractions — tender sprained toe, irritated eyes, windburned lips, and of course sleepiness. For the length of the trek and the conditions so far, being blister-free and not too sore was cause for celebration, but it is easy to focus on discomforts.  As we drew closer to the coast, the route turned directly into the wind, which was cranking at a velocity that all but prohibited forward motion. Curiosity eventually got the better of me and I pulled out my GPS — confirming a strenuous pace of 2.4 mph. I groaned. At least steep climbs provide visual confirmation of effort; walking into a strong wind is simply interminable.

Eventually we reached the beach, where shards of black sand took to the air with similarly painful velocity. Despite the exciting weather conditions, I was losing my grip on consciousness. I was just so sleepy, and that sharp volcanic sand on the beach somehow looked so soft and inviting for a nap. Even an advanced ration of Sour Patch Kids did little to cut through the descending fog of fatigue.

We climbed up sand bluffs and crossed through the village of Þorlákshöfn, where I took not one but two caffeine pills — a too-high dose I always vow to avoid, but too often find myself resorting to in moments of weak desperation. I thought we were in for more monotonous sand slogging, where staying awake on my feet was a genuine concern. It was at this point that the route veered onto the lava cliffs, traversing over loose boulders and extremely slick ledges.

I caught back up to Lee and Gabe on the cliffs and attempted to keep their pace as they danced gracefully over the terrifying terrain, arms raised to the howling wind. Directly below us, waves crashed against the cliffs and roiled in eddies, flinging sea foam dozens of meters over the rocks. Iceland sits at the confluence of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. I was never clear on whether this meant the southern coast was the Atlantic and the northern coast was the Arctic, or some other variation. But either way, the sea was angry that day, my friends. With the fierce wind swirling in seeming every direction, it was difficult to feel stable standing still, let alone attempting to "run" over a minefield of slippery rocks.

Now hopped up on both caffeine and adrenaline, I was a overtightened bundle of nerves, at times clinging precipitously to some small ledge I was scrambling down, and other times skipping far too confidently over rain-slicked boulders. I still lost ground on Gabe and Lee, who seemed impervious to technical obstacles, but I did catch up to my friends Harry and Martina. Harry had come down with a horrible cold and looked even more exhausted than I felt. Martina wasn't thrilled about lava scrambling, made much more dangerous by the wet conditions and wind. But the excitement of the rocks injected some new life into my tired blood; once we returned to solid ground, I was running well again.

The final 18 or so miles of the stage were fairly uneventful, if you consider rocky beach running, driving rain and 30 mph crosswinds to be uneventful. It is interesting how quickly minds and bodies adjust to new routines — the thru-hiker mentality. I had a specific ration of food each day, and that was just enough. I had a certain number of miles to cover each day, and whether it was 6 or 40, it felt like the right amount. The climate was very different from anything I'd trained for in California's summer. But because I'd adjusted my expectations, the rough weather didn't feel like a hardship; it was just another aspect of running in Iceland, same as the hills and rocks. My main difficulty was the bout of insomnia; but while this was mentally frustrating, it wasn't physically unworkable. I think what I found most satisfying about my experience at Racing the Planet Iceland was discovering a level of enjoyable sustainability within a demanding routine. Could I run like this every day, for weeks or even months? I'm not sure, but I miss it already. The other day I found myself sighing happily at a package of freeze-dried Chicken and Rice that I found in Beat's luggage. That stuff is horrible, but it reminds me of Iceland.

Crossing the finish line of stage five. Photo from Racing the Planet. 
The format of Racing the Planet events is strange, in that after the long stage there's a mandatory zero-mile "rest" day followed by a very short (10-kilometer) run to the finish. This means the race is effectively over after stage five, but there are still two nights and one and a half days left of living on backpack rations, sleeping on the ground, and waiting for the actual finish. Because the weather was so wet, the race organizers put us up in a community gym in Þorlákshöfn rather than relegate racers to their wet tents for an entire day. The gym itself had the feel of a Red Cross disaster relief center, with two-hundred-plus people and all of their wet gear strewn everywhere — but it was nice to get out of the rain. We lounged around and bought passes to the swimming pool and spa to while away the wet afternoon. We even set out into the storm to hike back to the lava cliffs, just to spend more time gazing into the roiling sea.

Stage six took us six miles over moss and rocks to the Blue Lagoon, an iconic thermal pool and luxury resort. After watching many of my fellow competitors limp around the gym all day on Friday, I was a bit shocked how fast people ran this stage. People who were barely walking at the end of stage five were busting out sub-hour 10Ks on terrain that was quite hilly and technical. I was impressed, because I can't dig that deep in the name of speed, even with the promise of a relaxing soak and a tasty sandwich at the end. But the Blue Lagoon was a great spot to finish the race. I'm glad we had a chance to go there.

Final race results are listed here. I pulled my GPS tracks into Strava, so a map of the route with a few discrepancies is posted here. I finished 13th out of 64 among women finishers and 76th out of 228 overall with a time of 40:05:21 for 250 kilometers over six stages. Beat finished in 36:56:20 and was 56th overall. I was pleased to log a decent result after running my own race, slow and steady.