Friday, November 21, 2014

Iditarod Again, part nine

As dusk faded, a thick, subzero cold oozed back into the Kuskokwim Valley, as though daylight had been the only force holding it at bay. We were coated in frost by the time we arrived in Nikolai, barraging the Petruskas all at once with five hungry walkers who hadn’t stepped inside a building in three days. The house was just a few notches below roasting thanks to a cavernous wood stove, and we clustered in the doorway as we raced to remove as much clothing as possible before the sweat glands kicked in. 

Anne had already returned to Nikolai and flown out — we waved to her from the ground as her husband's small plane passed overhead. Steve was there and had been for a few hours, but he was already packing up to leave again. It was just after 8 p.m. and this night promised to be insidiously cold. There was much commotion in the room, and I was about to tease Steve for being antisocial, when he informed us that he just learned his father had died. He’d made phone calls and determined there were no flights out of McGrath until the day after next, and so he still planned to finish the journey to McGrath and wait for the next flight. He said he was leaving now because “I’m not going to sleep anyway” and he wanted to be alone for a while. 

I did not know Steve’s father, but I was stunned by this news. These long journeys already have a way of unveiling every crack in the armor, ripping away defenses and exposing your raw core to the brutal, indifferent world. This is part of the “why” of doing them, because of everything we stand to learn about self and life and love. But in the midst of the battle, we’re completely vulnerable to the wild swings of emotions, to the point where the simplest frustrations can trigger a meltdown. I couldn’t even fathom what it might be like to learn that my father died, feel my whole world crumble away underneath me, and then pick up my already emotionally and physically exhausted body and head out into the frigid, exceedingly dark night to walk fifty miles to McGrath, on no sleep, alone. My chin started to quiver and I had nothing to say, so I joined Beat and wrapping my arms around Steve and imploring him to be careful. 

After Steve suited up and left, I told Beat, “I’m really worried about Steve. I mean, not just worried, but scared for him. Do you think he’s going to be okay?” 

“I hope so,” Beat said. “He’s capable. If he gets tired he can stop and bivy.”

I was haunted by this image of Steve out on the frozen swamps, alone with his grief. Not only because Steve is my friend, but my own splintered emotions magnified the empathy. I'd imagine myself in his place until I was almost overcome with sadness, and then switch off the tears and fixate on base physical needs: hunger, fatigue, and the weird grayness of emotion (which I might call indifference for lack of a better word) surrounding everything else that didn’t address these immediate desires. It was a strange emotional state, swinging on the pendulum between these two extremes. 

We sat down for dinner — spaghetti with moose meat sauce and yellow cake, which was delicious but portioned out a bit smaller than I would have liked when divided among the five of us. Still, my appetite had reached a place of wild swings as well — I was either ravenous or repulsed, and often one would follow the other within seconds. For the first few bites I was wolfing down my spaghetti greedily, and after that I had to force it down. I did enjoy the cake, though. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I can nearly always pound some sugar. 

Rick, Loreen, and Tim took one bedroom, and Beat and I shared the other with Donald the Scottish biker. I haven’t mentioned Donald much in my reports because for us he was like a ghost — he’d be asleep at checkpoints when we arrived and when we left, and then he’d pass us somewhere on the trail, spinning pedals with his big overboots and grinning, and by the time we reached the next checkpoint, he was asleep again. “I like my sleep,” he told us. “You runners never sleep. I don’t see how you can do that.” Tim especially seemed bemused by Donald’s marathon sleeping, but I couldn’t fault him for enjoying himself. 

I sprawled my half-wet sleeping bag onto the bed (to dry) and plopped on top. We set an alarm for 2 a.m., and I woke up three times in three hours to pee. I couldn’t even figure out where it was all coming from, since I’d had all of maybe four liters to drink, if that, in the forty hours since we left Rohn, and maybe another liter and a half since we arrived in Nikolai. And yet more water than that seemed to be gushing out of me. It was mildly alarming. 

When the alarm blared, my body made it clear that it had every intention of shutting me down. As I sat up I was overcome with nausea so severe that I had to immediately lay back down, and started hyperventilating. I was gasping and gulping and struggling with the effort of breathing while not vomiting at the same time. I laid in bed, doing just that for about five minutes when Beat shook me again. “I need to … lay here … for a while longer … to not … throw up,” I gasped. Beat said okay, and then my small child emotions kicked in. 

“Why do we have to get up so early?” I whined. “I mean, really, why?”

Beat asked me if I wanted to sleep longer. I did! But at the same time, I knew that more sleep wasn’t actually going to remedy whatever I had going on, and wasn’t going to put me any closer to being done with the task in front of me. It seemed my mind decided fifty miles was “nearly done,” and it let the misconception slip to my body, which unleashed the toxic flood of recovery chemicals. Electrolyte imbalance or caffeine withdrawals or any number of chemical reactions were the real culprit for my malaise, but the endurance game is a mind game, and I needed to reign in control. 

As we packed up, I partitioned out my remaining food and realized there was not much left — a bag and a half of Jill Feed, and four single-serving peanut butter containers. It amounted to about 2,500 calories. “How did I eat all of my food already?” was my first thought. I hate eating. I didn’t remember eating it. But it was gone. 

Rick was making peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen. There was only a small portion of bread left, and I never want to be greedy at the Petruskas, who live in a remote region where resources are scarce and expensive, and who are so generous to take the whole lot of us in during this race. I resolved to eat one sandwich, but was not having success in forcing the thing into my churning stomach. I’d take a few bites, audibly choke and cough, wait a half minute, and take another bite. This process again was going very slowly. Tim and Loreen hauled out more than a half hour before we finally made our way into the pre-dawn stillness.

The frigid depths had indeed returned to Alaska; stepping outside from the Petruskas’ balmy house amounted to nearly a hundred-degree swing. The cold shock pumped some life back into my blood and curbed the nausea to some degree. My shoes, which I’d left propped on a chair next to the wood stove for five hours, were still pretty much soaking wet. Putting them on my feet and stepping outside was horribly uncomfortable; I liked them better when they were frozen solid. The sled and bottom of the duffel were still coated in thick chunks of ice left over from the stream crossings. I tried to break off as much dead weight as possible before my fingers froze, and then it was time to haul out. 

Nikolai is typical of rural Alaska villages — a cluster of somewhat disorganized streets, pre-fabricated buildings and log cabins, crude outbuildings, snowmobiles and four-wheelers, few if any trucks or vehicles. We made our way through the maze underneath the eerie yellow glow of flickering street lights before dropping back onto the Kuskokwim River. Out on the ice the temperature was 20 below zero, and the lights of meager civilization quickly faded into a yawning darkness. 

My body, which had rebelled so violently from a 2 a.m wakeup call, was swiftly beaten into compliance. I don’t even know what achieved this — the blast of cold, the brick-like peanut butter sandwich in my stomach, or my brain finally saying to my body, “Psych! We actually have fifty more miles to go.” But I was grateful for whatever fixed it, because I was no longer sick or gasping, and my legs were moving pretty well. The pain in my shins had been excruciating when we started out, but a mile of walking beat those into submission as well, and I morphed back into the forward motion machine that I wanted to be.

The first ten miles passed in a seeming instant. Darkness persisted and the river meandered lazily as headlamp-illuminated puffs of breath added swirling clouds to the starry sky. I was indirectly aware of the passing of time, but the absence of change put me into a kind of hypnosis, walking and gazing at stars, and, yes, still stopping to pee every twenty minutes (I really don’t get it. Where does it come from?) Beat was ahead, his reflectors still resembling a hockey goalie forever maneuvering to block my shot. I fixated on the swaying glow until I was free of thought and emotion. The meditative disconnect left me feeling deeply content, as though I’d ventured away from my own consciousness to touch a greater form of understanding, and returned with no memory of what I learned, but the satisfaction remained. 

When emotions did start to creep back in, however, they were filled with darkness. I again felt unfocused grief, and frustration for this pace that was so hard to keep above three miles per hour, and my feet were cold, and my shins hurt, and I had to pee, again, and this made me angry. Malaise, grumpiness and despondency closed in like a pack of wolves  … and that’s when it occurred to me that I should eat something. I’d already resolved to ration Jill Feed and only eat the peanut butter servings as “meals” every three or four hours. I popped a few pinches of nuts and fruit into my mouth, and after a hundred or so calories, that airy, happy feeling soon returned. 

It was quite the revelation — I was essentially running in bonk mode, taking in just enough sugar to keep the pilot light burning. Once that went out, survival mode turned back, using all of its emotion-wringing tactics to urge me to find more food. When I did feed the furnace, it was only just enough to turn the pilot light back on — but this was a beautiful thing. Not so much food that I became a hundred percent alert and aware, but not so little that I was clawing and desperate. Finding that balance became an overarching goal — and I did succeed in it for quite some time. 

Dawn emerged as we passed through the swamps of Guitar Lake, with far-ranging horizons drenched in warm light. When I looked over my shoulder I could once again see Mount Foraker and Denali, dominating the open landscape much as they had on day two of the journey. But their profiles had changed and their positions had switched, because we were now on the opposite side of these great mountains. The distance of our journey had a tangible, awe-inspiring perspective.  

We passed Tim, Loreen, and Rick as they rested on the trail, with Loreen curled up in her down coat on top of her sled. I looked at her feet, sticking out of the coat in the 20-below air, and was amazed that she could achieve a stop of any length — let alone sleep — without being menaced by foot pain. My feet always hurt, and it wasn’t the kind of pain I could just hope “went numb,” because numbness meant my toes really were freezing, not just cold. The mesh of my shoes was coated in thick ice, but the insides were still felt wet. I’d actually tried my vapor barrier socks the previous day, after our dawn bivy, and decided they did little to help my comfort level and only pruned the skin and caused new pain, so I didn’t put them back on after our lunch stop. It seemed as though there was nothing more I could do for my feet, but I think the lesson here is, “Don’t soak your shoes and then go hiking at 20 below.”

As the landscape opened up with the expanding daylight, we saw another figure in the far distance. At first I thought it was a moose, and it took a few minutes for it to become clear that it was not only another human, but another person on foot. It had to be Steve. This was cause for some concern, as he’d left Nikolai nearly six hours earlier than us, and had been out all night at 20 below or lower. Although the likeliest outcome was that he’d stopped to bivy for a few hours, we couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t in distress or injured, so Beat was determined to catch him. These open swamps stretch for miles, and Steve was at least a mile ahead, if not more. 

Beat increased his stride and I rushed to follow, digging my poles into the snow and stretching out my tired hamstrings and painful shins. Really, all we were doing was slightly increasing our walking pace, but it was amazingly strenuous. If 20-minute miles were just on the edge of sustainability, then 18-minute miles were a sprint. My heart rate increased and I had to pull down my buff as I gulped icy air. My muscles were searing and I wasn’t even running, but wondered if I should just run, like I had in the Farewell Burn. Maybe it was my limited access to carbohydrates or a subconscious resistance, but my body seemed incapable of running and had to struggle for this fast walk. Still, I wanted to catch Steve, too, and it was going to be a race until we did. 

We marched and I narrowed my focus as though I were running a marathon, concentrating on breathing, pace, and the gradual reeling in of a tiny silhouette in a broad, white landscape. I turned on my Shuffle and found comfort in “Team” by Lorde, so I put it on repeat, singing along to the lyrics with my raspy exhalations. “And you know, we’re on each other’s team.” I thought about our little group of Iditarod walkers — now down to the Pennsylvanians and the Californians — and how we loosely banded together as we moved across this vast swath of empty space. I went through my first Iditarod experience utterly alone, and this time around was very different — not by virtue of walking instead of biking, or by virtue of the inevitable differences in weather and trail conditions, but by virtue of the people around me. 

And of course, Beat is the one who made all the difference. With my body wrung out and the core of my soul exposed, I felt new depths of love and appreciation for him that I couldn’t adequately express, but could wholly absorb because he was right there. Admittedly, sharing raw emotion is not well-trodden territory for me. I do tend to hold the people I love at arm’s length, and up until recently was more adamant about taking on endurance challenges on my own. This is because I’m not fully comfortable confronting emotional and physical vulnerabilities in the presence of others, nor expressing feelings until I can adequately absorb, process, and organize them (which is what I do with writing, even in public spaces such as this blog. I’m not a private person, just a reserved person, if that makes any sense.) In the 2014 Iditarod, Beat stuck by my side through the whole messy process — the wild elation, the meltdown, the anxiety and the tedium. Even though we ultimately had to deal with our own issues in our own ways — just as we do in day-to-day-life — bonding together in shared joy and misery is the core of our most valuable experiences, and meaningful partnerships. 

As I pushed my body beyond perceived physical limits in an effort to catch Steve, I was filled with a sense of camaraderie for everyone in our clan, and an admittedly silly wish that we could all finish together holding hands and hugging and crying. Most of us, however, weren’t actually headed for a finish. Except for me and Steve, everyone else was only making a pit stop in McGrath before they went on toward Nome, which was still a long, long, long way away. I could not fathom it. 

Beat caught Steve while I was still a hundred or so meters behind, and I slowed down because I genuinely thought I might black out from exertion. Steve and Beat walked together while I shadowed them for more than a mile. While I inferred that Steve wasn’t in distress, I didn’t hear how his night went, or how he was coping with his father's death. I finally caught up when they waited for me at a small bluff off the river, where Steve seemed to be in good spirits. Maybe his night out on the river alone had helped him work through some of his grief. 

We walked together for a while and Beat talked more about taking a break soon. We’d agreed to it earlier because fifty miles is a long continuous push, and it wouldn't serve Beat well for his ongoing journey to Nome. Just getting off the feet and resting tired bones for one hour can make a big difference between an enjoyable day, and an enjoyable half day followed by another half day of aching-leg death march. Strategically timed rests can actually help a person move faster overall. I was seeing my own loss in efficiency firsthand with the display on my Garmin eTrex. Even though I thought I was working just as hard, my pace was on a downward curve below a self-imposed three miles per hour. Soon 22-minute-miles were feeling pretty hurty and difficult. Beat and I found a nice spot in the sun on a slough paralleling the Kuskokwim, and bid Steve goodbye one last time. 

I enjoyed this final bivy immensely. It wasn’t entirely useful for me — it was only sixty minutes of "sleep" where I didn’t sleep at all, and still involved the usual thirty minutes of set-up and break-down. But just laying in the cold sunlight wrapped in my cocoon, which had mostly dried in Nikolai, left a lasting feeling of satisfaction. I snuggled in deeper with one single-serving container of peanut butter, nibbled on the rich, fudge-like morsel, and realized I actually wasn’t quite ready for this journey to be done. Nome may have been an unfathomably long way away, but McGrath was just too soon. 

Everyone else, including Donald the biker, passed as we rested. Beat and I were in the back of the group again. As we packed up I mentioned that the clan went by, and Beat suggested that we should push for a while to try to catch Loreen. 

“Why? We’ll see them again in McGrath,” I replied.

“Maybe you can win?” he said.

Win? Win what? Oh, this race! It was weird to think of this journey as a race, but it was still an organized event where times were recorded and weighed against others as part of the overall challenge. Five women had started the Iditarod Trail Invitational in the foot division, and now we were down to four. Shawn and Carole were still somewhere behind us, but Loreen was the only one ahead. I was bemused by the thought of trying to compete with another person when the "race" had been this grueling, seven-day march across the barren mountains into Interior Alaska. Loreen was aiming for the long haul of Nome, so it was hardly a fair point of comparison. And anyway, I didn’t want to chase any more people at strenuous 18-minute miles today, nor did I want to subject Loreen to head-to-head “racing” if she was feeling at all competitive about it, given she had to get up and do it all over again the next day. Tim and Loreen also passed by near the beginning of our nap, and now had more than an hour on us with only 25 miles left to go. But Beat thought our rest would give us a boost to push for a while, and I agreed. 

When I started walking again, the pain in my shins was excruciating. At this point, a stop of any length would require a half hour or so of warm-up, wherein every step was nearly unbearable. Then, as I forced more steps, the throbbing tissue along my tibia would slowly loosen and I could walk more easily, although not comfortably. I told Beat about my shin splints and how it seemed utterly impossible to endure this for another seven hundred miles to Nome. He replied, “It would go away, eventually.” 

We marched along the sparkling river, and I continued nibbling on just enough Jill Feed to stave off grumpiness. I thought often about how magical this day had been. “Someday I will go to Nome,” I decided. “But not on foot. It is way too far to walk.” 

The sun again sank low on the horizon, closing the curtains on my final night on this journey. I was full of nostalgia for my first trip into McGrath, the grueling slog through wind-drift on the Kuskokwim River, as well as more recent, fonder memories — finishing the 2011 Susitna 100 with Beat, greeting him and Marco at Cape Nome before his first thousand-mile finish in 2013. The Iditarod Trail has been such a meaningful entity in my life. In many ways, it’s been the “stage” for every major life change I’ve embarked on since I moved to Alaska in 2005. It's remained that way even now that I've lived away from Alaska for nearly as long as I lived there. 

Over the past few months, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could write about this latest experience on the Iditarod Trail to convey its connections to past experiences and the ongoing significance. In the end I failed to find words to express this. This long-form, nine-part, mini-novel is my race report — what we did, how I felt. But someday I will figure out a succinct way to express what it has meant, and what I’ve discovered and continue to discover amid these returns. Although I haven’t found the distillation of words to express the "why," I can't shake this strong desire to loop back to the proverbial point of no return, to pound myself against my limits until pieces are scattered all over the tundra, then to gather them back up with only enough time in the cold air to keep the pieces that matter, the ones that remain. 

It's true that "You Can’t Go Home Again.” But you can embrace the relentless march of time in the pursuit of experience, and shared experience, knowing that ultimately, meaning is not something we find, but something we create. 

Ten miles from McGrath, we turned off the Kuskokwim River and made our way through the woods in the fading light. I’d actually rationed my Jill Feed well and had a fair amount remaining, so I indulged in a higher calorie intake than earlier in the day. This soothed the gnawing hunger pangs, but it also kickstarted the part of my brain that was hell-bent on complaining loudly about every other physical discomfort. I saw the sign that said “McGrath: 10 Miles” and told my body, “Yay! We’re Done!” when actually three hours of difficult marching still remained. I soon resented every step, and was angry at myself for lapsing into this bad attitude here, so close to the end of the journey. I tried to cling to the reflective awe of it all, but I admit once we hit that last three miles on the road into town, I thought mostly of what I always end up thinking about at the end of these long foot races, which is, "Ow, my feet hurt." 

We arrived the home of Peter and Tracy at 9:50 p.m. Sunday, March 2, for a final time of 7 days 7 hours and 50 minutes. Loreen and Tim arrived more than an hour earlier, having kicked it into an impressively high gear into McGrath. As others have written about before, Peter and Tracy maintain a wonderful oasis on the tundra, offering finishers an endless supply of warm food, hot showers, and spots to curl up in front of a wood stove, and they welcome you to stay as long as you'd like. We enjoyed a big plate of lasagna warmed up for us by Jason Buffington, a fast runner who had been basking in the hospitality for two days.

Loreen went on to set a new women's record in the thousand-mile race to Nome, finishing alongside Tim, who logged his eighth complete journey to Nome. Later this summer Tim and I released a book about his adventures. If you enjoyed this account of my little journey to McGrath, you'll be amazed by Tim's story. (Link here.)

Beat was second overall in the race Nome, logging his second thousand-mile finish in 25 days, 12 hours, and 52 minutes. He'll be back next year aiming for a third — just as hooked as anyone.

Rick decided to stop in McGrath, declaring that he found his limit and was happy where he stood. We'll see. This trail has a way of luring people back.

Steve is signed up for the 2015 race to Nome on the notoriously difficult Southern Route. I'm sure his dad would be proud.

Dave Johnston was the first runner to arrive in McGrath, shattering the limits of what most of us in this community believed to be possible: 4 days, 1 hour, and 38 minutes. Breaking four days — once the realm of the fastest bikers — is his next goal.

54 racers started the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational and 49 finished in McGrath, with another disqualified for a rule violation. Sixteen went on to Nome, and of those, all finished.

Bike records were shattered across the board thanks to low- to no-snow conditions. 2014 will go down in race lore as the amazingly fast year for everyone, because no one will remember the runners who are not Dave Johnston. But we did not have it easy out there, of that much I'm certain.

As for me, I once again found myself gazing out the window of Peter and Tracy's house, watching a bright moon light up the frosty yard and pondering the experiences I keep circling back to, and the ways everything has changed. I'm not done with the Iditarod Trail, and I already have new ideas and ambitions for next season. Perhaps in 2016 Beat and I will find ourselves standing side-by-side on Knik Lake once again, looking toward Nome. If I have my way, we'll both be straddling bikes.


  1. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you for the journey.

  2. What an amazing story and experience. Thank you for writing it up and sharing it with us. I am absolutely stunned at your ability to keep going beyond the point where most people would collapse in a blubbering heap (myself included!). I felt - just a tiny bit - like I was with you as I read, to the point where I was also totally surprised to be reminded that it was a race.

    As I was reading about your food rationing, a pizza menu came through my door, with a "winter survival deal" advertised on the front. I thought, "You have no idea what winter survival is about!"


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