Friday, April 11, 2014

Iditarod playlist

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," Phantogram

If 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 Fire

The 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 Club

Sometimes, 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," Wallpaper

This 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 Bells

I 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," Chvrches

This 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. :)

"Last Words," Hospitality

Another haunting song that got me through some long miles. It was beautiful amid the frozen swamps, far-sweeping horizons and spindly spruce forests of the Farewell Burn.

"Army of the Damned," Lonewolf

Beat and I agree that this death metal song is the perfect anthem for walking to Nome.  But it's appropriate for all frozen-purgatory marching occasions.

"Roar," Katy Perry. 

Yeah. I pretty much had to go there.

"Team," Lorde

One the final stretch into McGrath, I operated in a dreamlike state of mind. I was slightly low on food and rationing calories, and discovered there was a peaceful place between alert and bonked, where time lost meaning, landscape features blurred, and everything seemed magical. As Beat and I traveled the wide expanse of the Kuskokwim River, we began to approach another walker who was about a mile ahead. We knew it had to be our friend Steve, who left Nikolai the previous night just as we were arriving. While in Nikolai, Steve made a phone call and learned that his father had died, and was justifiably emotional. Rather than rest in the remote village, he opted to leave not long after sunset, facing a long night on the river in order to reach McGrath and fly home. The fact that we had caught up to him many hours later, and after what had been a cold night (20 below), raised some concern. It needn't have, as Steve just needed to be alone when he left Nikolai, and had bivied for several hours on the trail. But I was worried he was distraught or in distress on top of everything else, and Beat seemed determined to catch him. We power-hiked on the verge of running for 45 minutes, and again I was at my physical limits on rationed calories and a child-like emotional state. During that hard march, Lorde's "Team" seemed to score the strange combination of stress and bliss. "And you know, we're on each other's team."

"Happy," Wrens

The temper tantrum that erupted while listening to this song is one of my most prominent memories from my first trip to McGrath in 2008. I put it on the playlist of all four of my iPods for that reason, but in the strange way Shuffles work, "Happy" did not come up once until the final day — in almost the same spot as my 2008 emotional eruption on the Kuskokwim River. Hearing this song in a similar location but very different context underscored just how different my journey had been this time around. It was a fitting finale to my 2014 playlist as well. 


  1. I'm in the no music camp, but I suppose I might reconsider for a long slog like that. My longest trip has been 18 days and I really enjoyed just getting into my own head. However it wasn't a race either, or as difficult as your trek.

  2. I Gotta Feeling is an "official" song of the BC bike race. If you hear it over 7 days blasting from huge speakers you know it is the best race song and after race party song as well. How do you find songs? Do you let iTunes fill iPods from a genre randomly?

  3. Jill, thanks for sharing the playlist. Also, if I didn't say it at the time, thanks for the effort catching up to me that last morning. While I definitely needed time alone that night/day, it was really nice having a bit of time with close friends as well.

    I am definitely in the "no music" camp for almost every other run or race I do. However, in the ITI I have a different perspective and both music and ebooks have become a key part of the experience for me. This "race" goes beyond a mere event that occupies a small part of your life. You are basically living on the trail for a week. I wouldn't go a week of my normal life without listening to music or reading something so why would I do so just because I'm spending this week out in the middle of the frozen tundra? ;-)

  4. I too think I would not be too keen on insulating myself from nature with constant music. The Black Eyed Peas (especially that odious song, ha) are anathema to wilderness! Sometimes, maybe. I did find out a repeated 5 mile skin up a cat track is better with music. But I think a true wilderness experience involves enjoying the silence and adjusting to being away from the trappings of the tech world. Music is insulating. I guess I'd feel I may as well be on the treadmill instead of in the mountains with headphones in.

    On my second week in Colombia I started listening to music in my (motorcycle) helmet because I had two days of really dull roads and I was dying of boredom. I totally regret doing that. It really did ruin the cultural experience for a few days and it was hard to get it back.

  5. Over the years, you have introduced me to some really good music. From the early ride videos in Alaska, to this list - I always find something I like (and can use in Spin classes). I almost never comment, but I've been out here reading every post, for ten years! Keep it up, or I'll never hear new music :)

  6. Most new music I find from Amazon, by downloading record label samplers or browsing new stuff in genres I like. I actually don't spend much time listening to the radio, over airwaves or online in places like Pandora, so my exposure to pop music is pretty limited. I was more of an indie rock snob when I was younger, but now I stumble across Katy Perry songs and love them. Call me old and lame. :)

    When I am in a "bored" state of mind, I actually rarely listen to music. It either puts me to sleep or annoys me. That day I described into Puntilla Lake, which was my most tedious day out there, I had to put away the Shuffle for most of the afternoon, until I perked up a bit. People who rarely listen to music outdoors often state that they only resort to this when breaking up tedium, which I find interesting because I feel the opposite. I use music to enhance moods, often good, sometimes bad, but never when I'm "blah." Talking with others is great for me when I'm in a blah mood, but I hate music. I also never listen to books on tape for this same reason. In my view, such media does shut out the experience. But others feel differently.

  7. In case Corrine and Eric are too shy to post this link to the story of their White Mountains 100 ski that's in the Fairbanks newspaper today, here it is:


  8. Hey look! You're self-hosted! How was the transition? I've been thinking about doing that myself.

    As for music during races, I can go both ways. I like it to numb out the self-sabotage at about mile 20 of road marathons, but don't use it for any other race. I find that on long training runs (I don't carry music), I run along with the last song that ways playing on the radio before we arrived stuck in my head. It's like my own built in iPod but about a thousand times more annoying because it's stuck on the same 10 second section over and over again.

    1. I'm not self-hosted; still with Blogger. I just finally re-directed to a Web address I've been holding onto for nearly four years. I didn't do it before now because I was reluctant to give up the "Arctic Glass" address, and didn't realize the re-direct would be as smooth as it was. But I'd say it's worth going to a specific address; costs ten bucks a year and the transition took all of about three clicks (once I figured out how to access my account, the details of which I'd forgotten in four years.)

  9. Jill: Thank you so much for this! I love hearing about new/different music and hearing stories of how a certain moment might connect with a song. There are many songs that remind me of a place I was running every time I hear them. It's like an inside joke between me and the song. :)

  10. Well, thanks, Anonymous Tom. Corrine and I are shrinking violets. In keeping with the theme of the post, I will say that Corrine brought an iPod Shuffle on the WM100 but never listened to it. She thought about it at 3 or 4 in the morning, but we were both freezing and she didn't want to dig it out of her pack. I didn't bring one along. I don't listen to my iPod when I'm in new wild places, or wild places I only occasionally visit. On trails that I know every twist and turn (or on roads, God forbid), I get bored and so listen to audiobooks or music. Corrine often brings her iPod along because, like Karen, she gets a small portion of a song stuck in her head and it drives her crazy.

    I have "I've Got A Feeling" on my playlist (because of my kids). I have always found it catchy but too hip and urban. However, I will now think of Jill and the ITI every time I hear the line "Tonight's gonna be a good night!" That made me laugh!


    P.S. Jill, are those Wiggy Waders you're wearing in that photo of you crossing that Godawful overflow?

    1. Those are Wiggy's waders. They ended up working quite well for that purpose, in at least not getting my feet any more wet. I soaked my shoes on the Tatina River (about five miles before Rohn) and my feet were ALWAYS cold during the remaining days of the ITI. I changed socks several times and did everything I could not to get them any more wet (you can see many socks strapped to the outside of my sled in the picture.) But I have not had much success keeping my feet dry during these winter running endeavors, and the result is either piercing pain or constant cold, not fun.

      I didn't turn on my iPod in the White Mountains 100 until just before the trail shelter, about mile 88 or so. I was in a fantastic mood and had one of those "You know what would make this even better?" moments.

      I always try to keep the volume low and feel like it doesn't obstruct my awareness of ambient sounds any more than the wind. I do feel reduced environmental awareness is a good argument against using headphones in the wilderness, and try to use good judgement in this regard. There have been times where I become *too* aware, and full of irrational paranoia (wolves! They're coming to get me!) Here, I've found it's best to get out of my immediate present for a little while, and music helps.

  11. I agree that music enhances the experience. And everyone should feel free to experience their experience however they most experience. People who drivel about the purity of their music-free nature experience make me want to gag. They are usually against trail running too. There's only one right way to enjoy nature folks.


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