Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Iditarod Again, part one

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
What does it mean, exactly, to return to the point of no return? It's not an oxymoron, but rather an inevitable cycle. For every threshold we cross — and in life, there are only a few — there remains a desire to wander back to the now-closed door and re-live the moment that everything changed. Maybe with renewed perspective, we'll finally be able to bring that jarring moment into focus and understand what it meant. And then we can turn from our threshold again, onto a beautiful new path. Like Frost's two roads in a yellow wood. We want to see what remains. We want to see what's different.

Everything changes, even memories, and yet emotions can be startlingly steadfast. Five years had passed, but there wasn't even a heartbeat separating the bewilderment of gazing through a barricade of birch trees along the shore of Knik Lake. Their shadows drew trenchant patterns on the snow, and everything beyond was still unnervingly unknown. 

Emotions were sharp but thoughts were jumbled at the start of the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational, with at atmosphere that was ripe for cognitive dissonance — as though a roving carnival had arrived at a mountain base camp. Temperatures hovered near freezing and the afternoon was intensely sunny, with low-angle light shimmering on the snow like a sequin carpet. Fifteen runners and forty cyclists, along with dozens of friends and family members, crowded the small parking lot of a community museum on the edge of Knik Lake. Clustered around the people was a jamboree of gear — carbon fat bikes still bearing the polish of nervous fiddling, steel fat bikes with bulging bags around their frames, sleds ranging from streamlined pulks to plastic toys with duffles strapped down by bungee cords. An enterprising hot dog vendor dragged her cart onto the snow and sold reindeer sausage and hot chocolate to lines of nervous athletes who, facing as many as four weeks on the trail, felt it necessary to force down one final pre-race meal. Few culinary experiences can match this sensation. Eating greasy carnival food and then immediately stepping onto a Tilt-A-Whirl comes to mind.

Anticipating the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, February 2008
The first time I started this race, in 2008, I was a child in my memory — a wide-eyed twenty-eight-year-old who had a rich imagination for possibilities but no real concept of the threshold I was about to irrevocably cross. The second time I started this race, in 2009, I was already old — perhaps too weathered and jaded for my actual experience level. My memories of 2008 held strong, and I was certain I could rewrite the story with fewer mistakes, more triumphs. In spite of this confidence, or maybe because of it, my heart never caught up to my ambition that year. Although I didn’t yet recognize the signs, my relationship at the time was failing, my job had become overwhelming, and I carried piles of dissatisfaction that I believed the Iditarod Trail could simply fix. But when I stood at the edge of Knik Lake that year, I didn’t recognize any of my pre-written script, or ambition, or hope. I saw only doom. It’s easy to say that in hindsight, knowing what I know now, but that is distinctly how I remember it — a wash of gray skies and flat light, and a feeling of undefinable dread. Within four hours, I had punched my right leg into an opening in the ice on Flathorn Lake. Within six hours, darkness plunged temperatures below minus thirty. Within twelve hours, I had serious frostbite on my right foot, and my race was over.

Anticipating the start, February 2014.
“I don’t feel any doom this year; that’s a good sign,” I told my boyfriend Beat, who was gearing up for his second attempt at the thousand-mile march to Nome. The last time I lined up beneath the banner stretched out over this frozen shoreline, five years earlier, I also stood beside my partner at the time. This is the point of no return — the reality that time is linear, and yet much about life is recycled experience. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is the kind of grueling yet addictive adventure that the same people keep returning to year after year, precisely because it can never be experienced in the same way. Those who knew the ITI would ask me why it took so long to return. Everyone else remained flabbergasted as to why I’d even return at all — I finished the race once, and then I was injured, and then I went through a break-up, and then I met someone new and wonderful, and then I moved to the warm and friendly state of California. There was no remotely rational reason why I should ever come back to drag myself 350 miles across Alaska wilderness, again.

 In many ways, an entire life cycle had passed in the five years that spanned the moment I hobbled out of Yentna Station with blackened toes, and the moment I marched back to the Iditarod starting line in shiny new Montrail running shoes. I had been old, and then broken, and then I cycled back to wide-eyed innocence. That childlike spark — and the desire to grasp onto it as long as possible — was why I was strapped to a sled this year. During my first two attempts in 2008 and 2009, I was a cyclist. I was only a cyclist. I rode bikes nearly every day of the year; I rode bikes in sleet and rain and streams of slush. I walked bikes for miles through places where it was impossible to ride, just to search for new places to ride bikes. I directed most of my disposable income toward cycling and fixated on parts and gear and shiny new components. My partner at the time was a runner, but I couldn’t relate to him on that level. Running seemed painful, slow; what was the point? No, I was not a runner. I was certain I never would be.

Life cycles have a way of masticating our assumptions, sometimes in the most surprising ways. I think I know myself, and then I crash into a whirlpool of change and realize my reality goes so much deeper. That my sense of self is just the exposed tip of an iceberg of consciousness. It’s thrilling and terrifying at the same time, to realize that there’s no way I’ll ever fully know myself, which means I’ll never stop discovering who I am. So, against wisdom I once possessed, I lined up at the reindeer sausage cart to drown my nausea in a lukewarm cup of hot chocolate. And I stood next to dozens of fellow winter cycling enthusiasts, sans bike.

My sled was the sum of my most recent answer to the ultimate problem. Endurance sports tend to generate a whirlpool of problems without obvious solutions: What gear will help me go faster? What food can I eat at moderate effort levels for twenty-four hours without barfing? How many electrolyte tablets should I take to avoid cramping? What shoes will prevent my feet from deteriorating into a cesspool of blood and puss? For every possible answer there are many variations and exponentially more questions. It can become dizzying and is one of the reasons I appreciate Alaska wilderness-based endurance efforts, because all of these questions are trumped the one — the only one — that really matters:

“How do I stay alive?” 

I’ve been mulling over this ultimate problem — well, all my life — but specifically related to self-sufficiency in subzero cold, since 2005. The answer is as simple as it is obvious: One must stay warm. Ah, but how to stay warm? That is where the whirlpool commences. Adequate insulation is important, but not the sole key to self-generated warmth. Bodies that are depleted of energy don’t produce heat, so sufficient calories are needed. Cells depleted of moisture are more susceptible to freezing, so regular hydration is crucial. Clothing, food, water — on a base level, that actually is all a human needs to survive indefinitely in deep subzero cold. But what to wear? And what to eat? And how to make water and prevent it from freezing? And how to carry it all, enough but not so much that it hinders forward motion? How to customize it to my individual needs — nerve-damaged toes that are always too cold and thighs that are always too warm? In real-life execution, even the most basic problems still have seemingly endless possible solutions. 

So what do we do? Trial and error, using what just happens to be the best-tested method at any given moment. Whatever this is, is bound to change — so it’s almost pointless to make assertions on paper regardless of how certain one is about their gear. Suffice to say that each item in my 2014 sled was different than those I carried on my 2008 bicycle, with one key exception: A fleece balaclava that had been a faithful head-warmer since I was a teenage snowboarder in 1997. My dedication to this pilled black fleece was more nostalgic than practical at this point, but it remained the single constant in an ever-changing repertoire. 

But, to answer the question of what was in my sled, without compiling too long of a useless list, and not including the clothing I wore at the start or the two liters of water on my back: A down sleeping bag rated to fifty below zero, a closed-cell foam pad, a water-proof bivy sack, a liquid fuel stove, twenty-two ounces of fuel, pot and spoon, an expedition down coat, Gore-Tex shell jacket and waterproof pants, spare fleece socks, spare liner socks, vapor barrier socks, synthetic puffy jacket, spare liner mittens, vapor barrier mittens, spare hat, goggles, buff, wind pants, thin fleece pullover, nylon waders, spare large plastic bags, repair supplies and med kit, survival knick-knacks such as fire starters and a personal locator beacon, electronics, forty-ounce insulated thermos, and twelve thousand calories — or about two and a half days’ worth — of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, crackers, dehydrated chicken and noodles, and gummy candy. The total weighed in at about forty-five pounds, or exactly one third of my body weight. 

Beat’s sled clocked in at a whopping seventy-five pounds. An explanation is in order for this. Beat completed the trek to Nome in 2013 on the Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail, and soon after developed ambitions to trek to the South Pole. Although funding is the major obstacle to any polar endeavor, he thought it would be wise to test his abilities for an unsupported Antarctic expedition by conducting a dry run of sorts in Alaska. After much mulling on the prospect, he decided to take smaller steps, traveling the Northern Route of the Iditarod Trail over three self-supported legs. The first would be 350 miles to McGrath — the entire distance I was planning to travel — with everything he needed in his sled. Unlike me, Beat would not collect the two drop bags provided by the race organization, and at the time did not plan to go inside any buildings or purchase any food from lodges along the way. Even this truncated endeavor required more than thirty pounds of food and fuel, which Beat parsed out in high-calorie-density ziplock bags of peanut butter and dehydrated meals, among a few other items. 

Both of our sleds looked obese as we sifted through them in the final hours before the start, mulling last-minute crash diets. No one, including me, wants to drag forty-five pounds of dead weight over the Alaska Range, but the ultimate problem keeps me from tossing it all in the nearest oil drum fire. Ultimately, I want to stay alive. I could probably stay alive with less gear, but life is important to me and I’m not inclined to bet on the increasingly higher stakes of fewer supplies. Beat and I are both conservatives in this regard. And as residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, our testing opportunities are limited.

We were called from the museum parking lot down a steep bank to the lake ice below. This year, there were a host of familiar faces among the competitors, and amusingly, most of my friends were runners — longtime veterans Tim and Loreen Hewitt, Laurel Highlands co-race-director Rick Freeman, fellow Californian Steve Ansell, blazing-fast sled-dragger Dave Johnston, and going for her first attempt on Nome, Anne Ver Hoef. A buzzing vibration of nerves all but drowned the chatter in the crowd, and similar to past years in this event, I never actually heard the official "Go!"



  1. Dang girl. That first paragraph was so unbelievably poignant, I had to keep reading it over and over. When is that book of yours going to be released? I can't wait to purchase a copy!!

  2. After reading your book about Tim, I am even more amazed by this endeavor.

  3. Love your writing, as always, Jill!

  4. Love the multi day stories. Can't wait to read more.

  5. Speaking of being a former cycling nut, do you still have that great video you posted of you snow biking in Alaska. It was set to music and I would love to watch it again. Still waiting for some snow here in IL.


Feedback is always appreciated!