Someone recently asked me about the music I listened to during my recent races — an Iditarod playlist. Listening to music while exercising, training, or racing outdoors is a controversial subject. Some people are adamantly against it, and those who object to racing playlists often carry the assumptions that those who need music are emotionally weak, bored, or trying to drown out fatigue and pain. They accuse us of shutting out the world, but I don't see it that way at all. I don't use music to shut out experiences; I use it to enhance them. I connect with music much in the same way I connect with wilderness, and in my view, music and outdoor experiences intensify each other in equal parts.
I don't listen to music all of the time — perhaps not even most of the time during a multiday effort — but I still consider it a vital part of my experience. As such, I carried four iPod Shuffles for the 350-mile trek to McGrath, all loaded up with different playlists. There was one Shuffle that I filled days before the race with mostly new-to-me music, and a few of those songs resonated deeply during the Iditarod. It became by far my favorite Shuffle, and I ended up just recharging that one (with a battery-powered charger) and listening to it throughout the seven days I was out on the Iditarod Trail. Although there were more than 200 songs on that Shuffle and well over 800 total, if I were to pick an "Iditarod playlist," this would be it. Included are photos Beat took during our time together on the trail.
"Black Out Days," PhantogramIf I was looking for two ongoing themes in my favorite songs during difficult endurance efforts, most are either outright silly or high-energy yet tinted with sadness. I suppose it makes sense. Emotions can be greatly exaggerated out on the trail. Music gave shape to the melancholy, while at the same time outlining an underlining joy. I remember this Phantogram song first came on during the first night of the journey, as we crossed the Dismal Swamp beneath green waves of Northern Lights. The moon was out and the trail was distinct enough that I could turn off my headlamp and walk through the darkness, gazing over my shoulder at the aurora for a long while. I often sang out loud when the lyrics resonated: "If I could paint the sky; Would all the stars shine a bloody red?"
"Reflektor," Arcade FireThe entire Iditarod Trail is lined with reflective route markers, either permanently affixed to trees and tripods, or tied around wooded lath in the snow. During the long winter nights, these reflectors capture even the dim light of headlamps from a long distance away. Finger Lake, at mile 135, is a checkpoint at the end of a long series of frozen swamps. All of these swamps look the same, and it's the kind of place where you think you've arrived about three hours before you're actually there. As we made our way through the interminable swamps, every distant reflective marker somehow convinced me it was the lights of the lodge. Of course "Reflector" provided the perfect score for every mild disappointment I experienced when I realized I was wrong: "I thought I found a way to enter. It's just a reflector. I thought I found a connector. It's just a reflector." At one point, Beat was several hundred yards ahead and I indulged in singing loudly: "It's just a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! ..."
"Jump Rope," Blue October."Jump Rope" is one of those songs that just landed on my iPod, and I hated it at first. It annoyed me so much. My Shuffle was usually stuffed beneath all of my clothing layers, pressed against my skin to keep the battery warm. But if I could reach it at all, I would skip this song. For whatever reason, the random song generator really liked this one; it came on a lot. One day, we were making our way over a series of snowmobile moguls on the trail and I found myself mumbling, "Up, down, up, down, up, down, yeah ... it will get hard." After that, I became hooked on the blatant motivational theme and catchy repetitiveness.
"How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?" Bombay Bicycle ClubSometimes, amid the physical exhaustion and encompassing focus on forward motion, I imagined the Iditarod Trail as a sentient entity that would converse with me, without prompting. This song is a good example of how I interpret my imaginary and often abstract conversations with the Iditarod Trail. I would pose a rhetorical question like the one presented in the title, and the Iditarod Trail would answer with repetitive prodding and incessant demands — "Can I wake you up? Can I wake you up? Is it late enough? Is it late enough?"
"Good 4 It," WallpaperThis song has a line about "zombie phone" that for whatever dumb reason made me giggle every time. It also contained more resonant lyrics than that: "How to stay alive though? How the f*** should I know?"
"Leave it Alone," Broken BellsI had a tough morning the day we traveled between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake, miles 130 to 165. Monotone clouds and light snow deteriorated to fog and moderate sleet, and then rain. The cold soaking weather, combined with dreary skies, lack of views in what I knew to be a beautiful region, and day three (or was it four) fatigue, sapped away any energy or willpower I could muster for sled-dragging and made the miles seem endless. This song was the perfect rainy day anthem. "Could it all be over now? We've seen it all the while ... There's no dimension to the clouds ... And the moon and world around. That's the heart of all my pain ... cause I don't wanna go ... Oh the distant light ... in a hue we can't describe, still we know."
"Lies," ChvrchesThis was a good marching song. I also imagined it as the Iditarod Trail taunting me, which the Iditarod Trail often did in my imagination. "I can sell you lies ... You can't get enough ... Make a true believer of anyone, anyone, anyone."
"I Gotta Feeling," The Black Eyed Peas
The day after it rained, we crossed over the the far side of the Alaska Range. Several days of warm temperatures absolutely scoured the already-dry region of snow, as well as a lot of its surface-coating ice. For fifty miles we hacked through knee-deep alder tangles, standing water on top of glare ice, bare dirt, roots, ankle-deep mud, wet swamps, tussocks, and shin- to knee-deep stream crossings. This wouldn't have been a terrible trail to backpack if it was a warm day in the summer, and we were carrying backpacks rather than dragging 45- and 75-pound sleds over endless obstacles. The sled-dragging part was always my weakness in this endeavor; I never became terribly strong at it in the best of conditions, and in the worst I was absolutely at my physical limit just to maintain forward motion on the steep rollers along the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. We covered two miles in a good hour. In a bad hour, sometimes closer to one.
After a series of stream crossings, some of my gear had gotten wet, my shoes and socks were soaked, my sled was filled with greasy mud, my head was spinning, and I knew that the temperature could possibly drop to 30 below overnight — as it is known to do in the Farewell Burn in February. I had a complete, mucousy, blubbering breakdown spurred by paralyzing fear and frustration, that Beat was unfortunate enough to witness. Shortly afterward, iPod brought up this Black Eyed Peas song. Knowing that we were going to be spending that night sleeping on muddy ground in the Burn, with soaked feet and gear, in an area where there probably wasn't enough snow to make more water, made this song even more wistfully relatable — "I gotta feeling. That tonight's gonna be a good night." I must have repeated it eight or ten times, using the catchy beat to motivate my body to pull harder over the roots and tussocks. I sang out loud to the part where they repeated all the days of the week — "Get with us, you know what we say, say ... Party every day ... p-p-p-party every day." ... Because that's what we do on the Iditarod Trail. :)