Sunday, March 31, 2013

In search of deep seas

The morning after Beat finished his journey across Alaska, he took a well-deserved nap and I used the opportunity to steal away for one last outing in Nome. The cold snap was easing but far from broken — it was still 15 below, and the north wind was picking up strength. Phil pointed out a small peak called Anvil Mountain where I could hike, but warned me that the wind could be fierce up there. And as Beat observed after 28 days out in the weather, "Wind is everything."

"Give me 50 below over 10 below with wind," he told me after determining that all of his layers need to be windproof if (and when) he attempts such a journey in the future. When it's calm, cold air hangs like a curtain that can be brushed away. But wind is knife that tears open every tiny crack in the armor and pierces the skin, driving its chill to the core. With this in mind, I geared up substantially ... wind-proof tights, wind-proof shell pants, Beat's primaloft shorts, gaiters, polypro base layer, fleece, Gortex shell, hats, face mask, and goggles. As I pulled on each layer in the comfort of Phil's driftwood-heated front room, I imagined I was suiting up to go deep-sea diving.

I pedaled the purple Pugsley to the base of Anvil; five miles was just long enough for my toes to go numb as I rode up the pavement. It was uphill, but not steep enough to justify how sluggish I felt. I stashed the bike behind a sign propped against four feet of snowpack, warning that the road may be impassable beyond that point. From there, I marched in a direct line up the mountain, postholing in knee-deep drifts. It was a short climb — one mile and about a thousand feet of elevation gain — but the continuous effort was Herculean, about as hard as I'm able to go in a sustained push. On the surface I was gasping and exhausted, but inside I was deeply pleased about how wonderful it felt to be both outside and warm.


And then I crested the ridge, where I met The North Wind. It raced along the broad spine of the mountain and hit my face in a blast of ice shards and breathtaking cold. My instinctual reaction, as it often is, was instant panic. "It's cold, it's cold, run away, run away." It turned my back to the wind to muffle the voices. "Shut up, this wind is not even bad." I reached in my pack to pull out my goggles and face mask, finally completing my full-body wind barrier. When I turned to face The North Wind again, I could hear it gusting in my hood, but felt only hot breath swirling around my face. As I moved into The North Wind, it felt as though I were swimming against a strong current, or taking deliberate steps to slice through deep water pressure. The rolling hills were as barren as the bottom of the ocean. I listened to my own labored breaths echo through my headgear, and imagined I was deep-sea diving.


And sure enough, as soon as it became apparent that the insidious North Wind was not going to kill me, I decided we should be friends. "It is a beautiful thing, what you've done to these hills," I said to The North Wind as I stepped over sparkling sastrugi formations and skittered across granite-like snow crusts. I had heard plenty of stories of how bad the wind can be on the Bering Sea coast, and was grateful the North Wind had granted a relatively workable passage to Beat and Marco, and had been even kinder to me during my three days in Nome. In fact, Alaska had been nothing but kind to me for a whole month. From all the wonderful friends who offered me a warm bed and hot food, to the weather that remained consistently dry and even sunny, to the collision of factors that made it possible to ride the Denali Highway with three busy friends from wildly varying geographic locations, to the two foot races that were timed perfectly to fit my schedule, to the seemingly endless supply of fun bikeable trails and adventure opportunities.


"It's going to be tough to leave all of this behind," I said to The North Wind. I removed a mitten to pull out my camera and shoot photos of the expanse. In the sixty-second interim, The North Wind whisked the blood from my fingers, leaving them pale and rigid. I pulled my mitten back on and shook my arm around to ignite a painful thaw, acknowledging with bemusement how close I was to the hard edge, even now — and wondered how exactly I was going to miss this when we returned to, as Beat put it jokingly, "fake life."

And what is "real life?" During my month of wanderings around Alaska, I felt consistent contentedness, frequently interjected with profound happiness. As Beat and I return to California and our routines, I'm left to ponder the origin of these emotions. It's true I was surrounded by beauty and kindness in Alaska, combined with a satisfying freedom to do as I wanted, when I wanted. But my time there was also filled with physical discomforts — many restless nights with insomnia, fatigue, cold, soreness, acute pains, hunger, and nausea. There were also frequent emotional stresses — anxiety for Beat's situation, loneliness, fear, and a wayward lack of security and routine. But as I've discovered in my endurance pursuits, unrest is not a barrier against happiness ... it may just be an important bridge.

I circled a set of radar towers — eerie relics from the Cold War — and kept walking north. The chill was beginning to find its way into my layers and I found myself running occasionally to send more blood to my extremities. My body protested the pointless discomforts of this walk, and my rational side reminded me that Beat and I had a plane to catch that would take us back to Anchorage in a short four hours. But for now, I was in no hurry to turn away from The North Wind ... not yet.

To paraphrase something Beat told me about his experience of walking to Nome — we find these places that are so beautiful, and so hostile, that they encompass us fully. The farther I walked away from Nome, the deeper I immersed myself in a vast ocean that did not care about my presence. Cold clamped down like a vice on barren tundra that appeared frozen in time; but The North Wind flowed through effortlessly, reminding anyone who dared to listen that nothing is permanent, nothing. We go to these places where our existence does not matter so we can step outside our egos and attachments for brief moments, and look back to see ourselves the way The North Wind sees us — small figures in an unbroken expanse. I block a tiny stream of The North Wind for a few moments, watch my warm breath turn to a cloud and dissipate, and I call this my life.

There's joy in this realization. If life is a goggle-clad figure steeling herself against a sea of cold space, then it's more beautiful and valuable than I ever imagined. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The finish

 During Beat's final night on the Iditarod Trail, the temperature dropped into the minus thirties. Beat and Marco left the Topkok cabin at 1 a.m. under a bright moon to make the final push through the wind-sharpened cold. I received my final sat phone dispatch from Beat in the late morning, after he and Marco stopped near a ghost town called Safety. They planned a breakfast break there, and while seeking a lee from the wind near a locked cabin, managed to hunker down in a spot that was both in the shade and still brushed with wind. They attempted to hurry through the breakfast-making motions, but the urgent grip of the cold sank in first, until they had no choice but to pack up with numb fingers and keep moving as core heat painfully returned to their extremities. Beat's voice sounded ragged and rough on the phone. They were twenty miles out; but it still seemed so far.


Back in Nome, Phil's 5-year-old daughter Hannah glanced out the window and announced that it was raining. "I don't think it's raining, honey," Phil replied. But as we opened the curtains, we saw a river of water gushing down the street. The stream was gathering in slushy eddies and freezing to the curbs in tiers of ice. A water pipe had burst in the cold and flooded the street. Children were outside splashing through the flood like they were playing in puddles during a summer rainstorm. The temperature was still well into the minus twenties.

 The liquor store opened at 1 p.m., so I walked into town to buy Beat and Marco some celebratory beers. The sun warmed my cheeks and I was glad the temperature had risen so much, as I was planning to bike out to see them on the trail and was still nervous about my inadequate foot gear. On the way back to the house, I saw it was minus 17, at midday. It probably wouldn't get much warmer.

Self portrait from six miles out, lungs a bit raw from breathing the cold wind, after running for five minutes to warm up my toes. I can't say any of my Alaska activities, except perhaps for my daylong ride in subzero temperatures in the White Mountains, fully prepared me for the rigors of these simple rides I did while visiting Nome. I don't know exactly why they felt so hard. Maybe it was the lack of proper footgear, or a psychological reaction to the overwhelming expansiveness of the frozen landscape. Or maybe it was the knowledge that this "good" weather could turn on me at any minute and kick up a gale of ground blizzards, unmanageable winds, and potential whiteouts. If I got caught out with my minimal supplies I would quickly be in trouble, and this realization made every nibble from the cold feel that much sharper. I'm not sure I had a full understanding or respect for Beat's daily life on the trail beyond McGrath until I came here, and pedaled my own laughably minimal miles away from the safety net of Nome. The edge is no longer an abstract concept out here; it's visibly real.

I was pedaling across the crystal blue ice of a slough when I first saw figures moving on the horizon. As they rounded the wide edge of Cape Nome, I quickened my pedal strokes up the hillside in time to meet them at the crest of the hill. This energy burst accompanied a blast of emotions — relief, pride, awe, happiness, and love.

It was the first time I'd seem him in a month, and Beat looked rough — as Phil worded it, like he had been through something "real." His beard was thick and coarse, his nose was swollen and red, and his face was crusted with frost nip scabs. His shoes were nearly in pieces, and he'd fashioned dog booties to the tips of his trekking poles. His pants seemed to hang loosely off his waist even though he said he'd been eating "a ton," but he had a big smile on his face. I met Marco for the first time, too — tall, rail thin, with long legs and a fantastically big nose. "Ciao," we greeted each other with a kiss on the cold cheeks. It was a great moment.


I intended to say hello and see you soon, and then leave, so as to not interfere with their race. But I decided it couldn't hurt to shadow them for a short while and listen to the dispatches, not unlike listening to Beat on his sat phone. He talked excitedly about his adventures and gear adjustments he was already making in his mind. It was tough for me to break away — both because I was so happy to see him, and because walking was a more enjoyable activity for my chilled feet than pedaling. But Beat gently suggested that I was skirting that uncomfortable edge of support, so I bowed out. 
 
Of course I couldn't help but linger long enough to take a few pictures on the way out.

 Marco and Beat and the expanse.


 I pedaled back as quickly as I could muster so I'd have enough time to take a shower, prepare for their arrival, and set up a vigil at the arch on Front Street. This is what Beat and Marco arrived to as they walked the final miles on the shoreline trail — a tiny cluster of buildings lining a frozen sea.

 Just before 7 p.m., they made their appearance on Front Street. A few scattered bystanders gave passing glances to the two ice-encrusted guys dragging their sleds on the pavement. I also think it says much about the general atmosphere of Nome that the random bystander in this photo is a bearded guy wearing a Santa hat and a red puffy coat, walking what appears to be an Irish Wolfhound type of dog.

 The victorious final approach to the burled arch.



Beat and Marco hoisted their sleds and stepped up there together at 7 p.m. on the dot, Sunday, March 24. A full 28 days, and a round calendar month, had passed since they launched from Knik Lake on the cloudy afternoon of February 24. To a few people who stopped on the street to congratulate them, they were "the guys who walked from Anchorage."

I couldn't resist a posed shot with Beat and the arch.

I pulled a couple of Alaskan Ambers out of the cavernous pockets of my down coat, and the two toasted a grand adventure and partnership. I can only imagine the satisfaction of that moment, drinking in was is truly an incredible accomplishment. But it apparently only lasted for a moment for Beat; he's already talking about next year. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nome

Beat finished his thousand-mile journey across Alaska on Sunday evening, side by side with Marco Berni of Italy as they dragged their sleds up onto Front Street in Nome. They hoisted them under Iditarod's burled arch at 7 p.m. on the dot, for a finish time of 28 days and 4 hours, adjusted for Daylight Savings Time. And just like that, the ongoing battle against extreme cold, wind, ice, blowing snow, overflow, isolation, and desolation that had become Beat's life ... was over. He finished to walk to Nome. I can hardly believe it.

I wanted to write a proper post about that final day, which is why I haven't updated my blog for a couple of days. There's been little time, but I wanted to post a quick update for the friends and family who may have not seen my Facebook posts. Beat is doing well — some frostbite and windburn on his cheeks, a few blisters on his feet, and superficial muscle soreness along with fatigue and hunger. But he's otherwise not worse for the wear. The physical maladies and pains he experienced early in the race seemed to iron themselves out and he fell into a rhythm that didn't break down his body too much — which is necessary if one wants to continue forward motion for four solid weeks.

The Iditarod Trail never made passage easy for Marco and Beat. Their final days along the coast were wracked with deep cold and wind, and the slightest transitions from moving to stopping were a struggle. I'm going to work on a final write-up for my now-neglected Half Past Done blog about it as soon as we get back to California. We leave Wednesday.

This past month of traveling around Alaska, connecting with the wonderful people up here, embarking on cold-weather adventures, and following Beat in spirit has been an incredible experience for me; I can't even imagine how fulfilling Beat's journey must have been. Thanks for following along. More soon. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

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.

 This is my first visit to Western Alaska. I bought a cheap air-mile ticket and had to take a milk run flight into Kotzebue, which was awesome in itself. "Wow, I'm in the Arctic!" The flight over the Seward Peninsula to Nome was surreal — just a tree-less expanse of white hills and frozen sea as far as that high-reaching view could see. From the air, Nome itself looks like a tight cluster of city blocks pressed like a stamp onto a sheet of white paper. My flight landed at 8:30 p.m. and the sun was still well over the horizon. It doesn't get fully dark here until 10:30. The late daylight is deceiving; it's still only a few days after the equinox so there's not that much more total daylight here than in California right now. But it's so far west in Alaska's ridiculously large time zone that the sun rises late and stays out late (my kind of time zone!) And daylight is now gaining at a ridiculously large rate — seven minutes per day. Winter is officially over.


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 descended to Cape Nome and stamped out a message to Beat in the snow (which had the selfish ulterior motive of warming my feet, which were frozen again after the descent.) I considered adding "only fifteen more miles" as an encouraging note. Even though my GPS read 16.9 miles, I knew the distance would be shorter on the coastal route, which Beat and Marco would likely take, and fifteen miles just sounded better. But then I remembered — Beat hates when I over-optimistically guestimate distance and gets mad at me every time I do it. That's the last thing he needs fifteen (to seventeen) miles from the finish of a thousand-mile journey.

 Pedaling back toward the Cape, I marveled at the beautiful desolation and thought about how strange, hectic, and green California is going to appear when we return next week.

For the return ride I took the coast route, which was drifted in spots and blown clear of snow in others. The coast had its own intriguing scenery — fishing shacks lined the frozen shoreline and long-abandoned cars and gold-mining equipment were encased in drifted snow. I veered off trail to explore and old graveyard on a hillside.

 Among the wildlife I saw were several flocks of bright-white ptarmigan and two foxes. I never got a good photo, but in this one you can see a small silhouette of a fox behind the grave markers. I do think it's strange that a predator so conspicuously red can eke out a living in a black and white landscape.

Phil borrowed his friend's old-school purple Pugsley and pedaled out to meet me about eight miles from town. It was fun comparing the performance of that bike to his green Fatback, side by side. I seemed to have an easier time cutting clean and fast lines through the snow than Phil did, even with his higher skill and strength. Fat bikes have made some impressive leaps in design during the past eight years.

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.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Active recovery

By Sunday afternoon, my feet were just as swollen as they were after the 2012 Susitna 100 — which is to say, very swollen. I didn't take a photo like I did last year, but you can really only take so many pictures of sausage toes before they all look the same. I'm really not sure why this only seems to happen to me during winter ultras. I ran several long races during the summer — sometimes in very wet (UTMB) or rapidly fluctuating hot and cold (Bear 100) conditions — and did not experience anywhere near this level of edema. It's a puzzling mystery. 

I did try to take precautions to avoid skin maceration and swelling. My shoes were GorTex Montrail Mountain Masochist, sized 1.5 sizes too large to accomodate extra socks. Because of the "warm" forecast, I opted to go with two layers of DryMax socks: a trail sock and a larger winter sock — mostly to fill out the shoes,  but I expected the socks would move the moisture away from my skin like they do in summer runs. I did wear gaiters, which were in hindsight not needed, but you never know when you're going to have to wade through softer snow and I didn't want to get snow down my shoes. On top of all that, I slathered both feet in Hydropel the morning before the race. Hydropel is an anti-blister ointment that repels water from skin. The company discontinued production last year and Beat bought up every last remaining tube at Zombie Runner at the time. He gave three to me, and I treat it like liquid gold these days. Used only in races, and even then, only the most foot-shredding races. But by the end of the Homer Epic, my heel and forefoot on both feet were bright white, deeply creased, and painful. When I took my shoes off on the trail, I convinced myself they were full-scale huge blisters. But no, it was just maceration, or the colloquial version of "trench foot." After the skin dried, my feet swelled significantly. 

Anyway, if anyone has some insight into this condition, I'd appreciate any tips or advice. Winter running is a strange animal. 

 But yes, my feet hurt a lot after the race. Beyond that, however, I didn't feel too beat up from the Homer Epic. I took Sunday off to catch up on chores and communications, and doze off in my car at scenic overlooks for an hour here and there. On Monday, the weather remained clear and gorgeous, and I started feeling antsy again. Since I was in Homer, it made sense to squeeze in a ride on the beach. Luckily it was a "warm" day (about 32 degrees), because I could only put one thin pair of socks on my swollen feet. Even then they barely fit into my boots.

Winter beach riding has to be one of the more meditative activities there is. Waves are lapping on the shore, waterfalls are encased in ice on the bluffs, and wheels glide over smooth sand in organic lines. The sandy stretches of beach were interspersed with tight boulder fields and very loose — as in inches deep — gravelly sections. I was so desperate to not put my feet on the ground that I rode a lot more of the "chunk" than I would normally bother with, and it was a lot of fun. My still tender quads screamed as I powered over the larger rocks, but it still beat touching the ground with my hurty feet.  Bikes rule.

It felt so warm in the sun, and I was still so wrecked, that I opted to lie down for a nap on the sand. I spread out my coat, sprawled out facing the sun, and dozed off. I woke up after what must not have been more than five or ten minutes, shivering and with numb fingers and toes. The beach scenery had lulled me into a sense of summertime comfort, but apparently below-freezing temperatures are not conducive to naps in the sand.

In all I rode for nearly three hours with the nap, but probably only covered twelve or thirteen miles. The tide had come up a lot for the return trip and I had to ride a lot more chunk closer to the bluffs. I cleared all of it — turns out sore feet are a powerful motivator for technical maneuvering. It was sublime.


I intended to get more work done while I was in Homer, but mostly I cruised the different cafes scattered throughout town, drank cup after cup of coffee, listened to K-Wave (best radio station ever) and ate gluten-free organic pumpkin muffins, kale scrambles, and vegan burritos. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy the atmosphere in Homer — it's in Alaska, tiny, but with San Francisco sensibilities. Fun place.

On Tuesday I decided to try Homer's snowbiking opportunities. Since I had already run a hundred kilometers of trail on the east side of town, I decided to head up to Ohlson Mountain to explore some secondary snowmachine trails. It was a fun ride, but brutal. The trail carried me all the way down to the Anchor River — losing nearly a thousand feet in elevation — and then climbed as dramatically up the next ridge on a trail that was soft, steep, and so overgrown that both of my shoulders (and my face) were continuously catching tree branches. I think bicycles sit too high for the likes of that trail. But I didn't give up on it because, well, I'm not really sure why I didn't give up. The legs were so angry with me as I churned back up to Ohlson Mountain. My quads were searing with lactic acid, it still beat pushing on my hurty feet. I guess if you want to ride something flat in Homer, ride on the beach.

 By Wednesday, the swelling in my feet had mostly diminished. I prepared to leave Homer and return to Anchorage to wrap up a couple more things. And it was yet another bluebird day. Blast! Sunny days in coastal Alaska are not to be wasted. Since my legs hurt more than my feet on this day, I decided it would be a good day for some mellow snowshoeing breaks as I drove up the Kenai Peninsula. The first place I tried was the Devil's Pass trailhead, which was a bust. I wandered around in the woods for three miles and never found a "trail" of tracks that didn't loop back on themselves. At one point I discovered some survey tape and busted my own path through the brush, following the ribbons down into a drainage that had no possible link to the Devil's Pass trail. Oh well.

It was still early afternoon, so I decided to stop a bit farther north and check out the Portage Glacier area. The wind had picked up significantly, and Portage Glacier has its own microclimate that instantly dropped the temperature another ten degrees. It was 13F at the parking lot. The wind was gusting to 40 mph or so, and the windchill felt awful. I almost turned around to get back in my car, but then decided the wind might provide a fun setting for a more adventurous short outing. I was not disappointed. I climbed Byron Glacier in a full ground blizzard that devoured my footprints within seconds. Blowing snow gave the stark landscape a kind of urgent intensity.

Finally I climbed into a lee of the mountain, enough that I could look back toward Portage Lake. The wind had been entirely at my back on the climb, so it was going to be a thrilling trek down — wrapped in full-coverage goggles and facemask. I was rendered immobile and breathless whenever a larger gust roared up from the valley below.

 Then I decided I kinda liked playing in the wind. So instead of returning to the trailhead, I veered onto Portage Lake to hop stastrugi and pretend I was trekking across Antarctica. I did not walk all the way to Portage Glacier — it was a lot farther away than it looked. But I did end up with eight miles of wind-playing, and eleven miles on the day, of what turned out to be rather exhausting walking. Oi. Why do I do this to myself? Well, because it's fun.

Still, I think in the end the legs and feet benefited from the shake-out. My toes look normal again, and the soreness in my legs worked itself out. Part of me is convinced this happens naturally whether one "rests" or not. Especially if one is only in Alaska for one more week, and must take advantage of these beautiful opportunities while she can. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Odyssey


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. 

There were about eighty participants in the Homer Epic. I didn't count the number on foot, but guessed there were seven or eight of us (as it turns out there were eight finishers.) All of the guys had tiny little backpacks and looked fast. I knew one of them, Dmitry, because he joined Beat for much of the last half of the Tor des Geants last year. Dmitry was strong, I remembered, and I didn't see another woman runner at first glance. "Well, I'm going to end up at the very back of this race," I thought, and braced myself for it.

As promised, the trails were perfectly groomed, wide, and hard-packed. Skier trails. A snow biker's dream. It was a definitively runnable surface, and I wondered how much of this race I'd be able to run. I haven't been running enough lately to pull out a hundred kilometers without some damage, and the sled shortened my stride in a way that might also cause some pains. Although I'm convinced I could walk across the country without (too many) issues, I don't consider myself a natural runner and always worry about the physical implications of any event with lots of running. Still, I had those cut-offs to meet. I resolved the keep running while the running was good.


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.

I kept a small group of runners and skiers in sight and followed them down a big drop and back up an equally long hill through a powerline cut. Near the top of the hill, I became suspicious of the number on my GPS — "Six miles? We were supposed to turn right by now I think." I switched to map mode and, sure enough, we were traveling the wrong way up the counter-clockwise loop. I waved my arms but the rest of the wrong-way group was too far ahead. The mistake netted me about two and a half bonus miles, or 4K in Homer Epic parlance. The rest, who eventually passed me again, gave numbers ranging from 6K to 14K out of the way.

The trail was perfect, in a sort-of-infuriating way. I admit I started longing for my bike, especially after twenty miles when my feet started throbbing the way they do when I run that far on dirt. Running this trail wasn't exactly like running on dirt; even well-packed snow puts up a lot more resistance, and feet still punch tracks into the surface while skis and wheels can glide over the top. Still, with the exception of steeper hills and a few deliberate breaks, I'd kept up a solid running pace since the start. It was not a fast running pace — the best I can do is still a 12- to 14-minute mile average; that hasn't changed. But it was a hard effort and it felt great, except for the nagging foot pains.

The harsh reflection of sun on snow began to feel like an oven. By early afternoon I had stripped down to my base layer and would have stripped down farther if I didn't think my sled harness was going to chafe horribly on bare skin. The weird thing is that the temperature could not have gone above or even all that close to freezing, as the surface of the snow remained frozen and hard. But I felt like I was overheating severely, and the increasing length and steepness of the hills wasn't helping my comfort levels.

In hindsight, the overheated feeling was probably the initial warning that I was headed for a bonk. I've noticed in these winter races, when I'm not adequately fueled, my body doesn't regulate temperature as well. I go from hot to cold to hot to cold in big, often inexplicable swings. For whatever reason, I haven't had much of an appetite while I've been out on the trail lately, and it didn't help that I only brought three things to eat — brownies, Swedish fish/gummy peach mix, and Chex Mix. Seriously. I've spent so much time prepping drop bags for Beat during this trip that I didn't want to deal with another set of requirements for myself. I just bought big bags of crap at a gas station in Soldotna, packed a baggie of left-over Chena River to Ridge brownies that Ed gave to me, and called it good. Big mistake.

After 50K, the trail veered off to a long (very long) out-and-back through the North Fork hills. Most of my biking friends, and, well, most of the bikers, had long since covered this section on these super-fast trails and were already finished with the race. The first runner passed me not far from the turn, at least twenty miles ahead of me. Wow ... count me as impressed. But I didn't think I was doing that badly. I hit the 50K split a bit under eight hours, and although I knew the second half would be hillier, was still feeling well enough to believe I could hit ten for the second half. An eighteen-hour finish was far better than my expectation of "I'm going to need every one of those 24 hours to finish."

The Homer Epic advertises 6,500 feet of climbing in 100K. After the first 50K only had about 1,500 feet of climbing, I thought, "Oh, that has to be wrong." It was not wrong. The second half was nothing but hills. Trail runners will think that 6,500 feet sounds mellow for a hundred kilometers. I do not agree. Snow adds a level of resistance that at least doubles if not triples the perceived effort of an incline, in my opinion. This likely also has something to do with the fact I willfully chose to drag a sled. But last year I ran the modified UTMB with its 20,000 feet of climbing in a similar distance, and it was not harder than 6,500 feet in the Homer Epic. Well, maybe it was. Why do I even try to compare snow running to trail running? They're really different games, at least for me.

Still, I loved that North Fork spur. Much of it rolled along a high ridge overlooking the Cook Inlet and several volcanoes. Clouds had moved in and the light flattened out, which added a peaceful atmosphere to the run. I was still trying to run, but my feet were beginning to hurt badly on the downhills and many of the climbs were slowing me to a trudge. Another woman, Kerri, caught and passed me, which came as a surprise — another woman in the race! It also made me feel a bit less lonely, as I'd begun to feel that back-of-pack sting as the last bikers and skiers passed me on their way out.

Sometimes, when I feel that tinge of shame about ending up at the back of a race, I imagine Adam Sandler's graduation speech in "Billy Madison:" "I know most of you are saying 'hey, any idiot could do that.' Well it was tough for me so back off!" As the day waned, I gnawed miserably on frozen Swedish Fish and imagined a magical fairy god-moose would come and turn my sled into a bike, and I could take my hurty feet off the ground for good. I considered riding my sled down the hills, but they were increasingly more steep and at least a half mile long. I probably would smack into a tree or hit a moose and be stomped to death. Too scary. The sunset did not disappoint, however. Homer has the most consistently beautiful sunrises and sunsets that I've ever seen. Even on this mostly cloudy evening, the red glow managed to make an appearance.


The checkpoint two cabin was cramped and crowded with volunteers, and I didn't feel compelled to linger long. But about a mile down the trail, just as the last bits of daylight were fading, I decided to stop and attend to my feet. Sure enough, the skin on both soles was creased and pale white — a result of being wet and hot for too many hours. Runners often call this condition "trench foot" although it's not the same as actual trench foot. But it does hurt something fierce, like an open blister, or running on hot coals. The same thing happened to me last year during the Susitna 100; I tried to avoid it this year by wearing only two lighter pairs of socks rather than my heavy insulated system. But I still had the Gortex running shoes that are designed to keep water and snowmelt out, and my feet had apparently marinated in sweat, again.

It was all I could do to clench my teeth and make it down hills, whether I was walking or running. I still passed the 50-mile split at 14 hours, which I decided was not terrible and I was still actually on okay pace to finish in 18 to 19 hours. My wrong turn meant I still had 14 or 15 miles to run to the finish, but I could probably cover it in four hours. The return trip on the North Fork spur confirmed there was only one other runner still behind me. If he passed me, I would be at the official back of the race. This prospect frightened me a bit. It's strange — I can go out alone for 12-hour rides in the remote White Mountains in subzero weather and feel confident and self-sufficient. But being alone during a race is another type of condition that seems to cause insecurity.

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
I saw Keri just a quarter mile from the checkpoint as I was leaving, looking better, although she'd stuffed her emergency blanket under her coat. (I can relate. I was just about that desperately cold myself at times.) She said she planned to take a long rest at the cabin, so I decided to keep going. There were 7.2 miles to the finish, and my bonk had eased enough that foot pain and returned to the forefront of my mind. I shuffled along and tried not to let it encompass every thought.

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.