Saturday, February 13, 2016

I'm following the sun that's setting in the west

In my dream the world looks like the inside of television screen static, black and gray raging with the white noise turned up to 11. It's a night blizzard and for some reason I don't have a headlamp, but when I look down I can't see my legs because they're buried in a snow drift, and when I look up I can hear this ragged Darth Vader breathing. I pull down my face mask to gasp and have this sense that my lungs are filling with snow. There's nothing I can do.

The phone alarm chimed and I blinked in confusion for several seconds, the way you do when you've been jilted awake from one of those far-away sleeps. I had another nightmare about Alaska, my second in a week, so I suppose the pre-race panics are here. This one was even scarier than the first, which was an only slightly enhanced memory blip from my Iditarod race in 2014, looking down into the black infinity beneath thin ice on the Kuskokwim River.

As I rolled out of bed, I breathed the deep relief that comes after waking up from a dream about suffocation. Thick morning fog whited out the scenery beyond my bedroom window, but I knew that would burn off soon enough. It was supposed to reach the high 70s by mid-afternoon, when I'd likely been pedaling through the dappled sunlight beneath a redwood grove wearing my favorite Hoka T-shirt and bike shorts. Alaska panics could be pushed to the back of my mind for now; I'd already sent out my McGrath food boxes and compiled most of my gear. All I had to do today was this pretty easy thing — pedal my bicycle for eight hours over the hills and trails of sunny California.

I'm trying to decide whether to send out supply boxes to the villages along the Iditarod Trail this week. Doing so would be a way of hedging my bets that if I'm feeling healthy, and conditions seem favorable, I'll still have a glimmer of an opportunity to travel to Nome. Not sending boxes means I can't travel any farther than McGrath, no matter what. Deep down I know the second option is probably the call I need to make. But I've been feeling so good lately. Like I can do anything I set my mind to ...

C.S. Lewis is credited with the quote, "If one could run without getting tired, I don't think one would often want to do anything else." Sure, it's a musing in a fantasy novel, but it's one that, some days —some of the best days — almost feels achievable. Days like Saturday, when tires almost hover over the dirt, and the steepest hills seem to disintegrate beneath them, like clouds. Sure, I'm still sweating, my breathing is still labored, nothing is weightless, and perpetual motion does not exist. But some days, the miles come easy. The moving tunnel of peace surrounds me, and when 80 miles are up, I want to do another. When this happens, I always think, why not?

After the Tour Divide, I promised myself 'never again.' Fighting for oxygen drove me deep into weakness and depression, until I was mostly a shell, moving forward on the fumes of expectations and ghosted passion. This is not why I do what I do. I don't need achievement; it's meaningless if the experiences are gray and melancholy, something I'd rather push out of my memory than hold on. But I went back to UTMB, and then the Fat Pursuit, and actually most endurance efforts over the past year have brought the same struggles. I don't entirely know why. I do know that's not what I want. So why do I want to go back? Recently, I reached out to several people who I deeply respect for advice. Several touted the virtue of stubbornness. "But I am stubborn," I thought. "That's really the problem."

Liehann and I have ridden our "Big Basin Big Loop" a number of times over the years as a long training ride, and I felt nostalgic about the fact that this one was probably going to be our last. I tried to stay present and take it all in — the mossy banks of Gazos Creek, the salty headwind along the pumpkin fields of Pescadero, the roller-coaster Haul Road, the cool air beneath redwood groves that seem to trap a permanent twilight. If this has to be my last ride here, I picked a good day for it. This is the one I want to burn to memory.

The second to last climb is a little dull, so I slip into daydreams about packing for a tour across Alaska. All of my Nome gear will require the two panniers. The only things I'd leave behind if I wasn't going to Nome is a few extra layers and maybe the stove, so I should just take all of it. Maybe I should get a heavy-duty dry sack for my parka on the rear rack, because there probably will be at least one hard rain. Food, meds, and repair kit in the frame bag; stove, fuel, pot, waders, extra headgear, goggles and mittens in one pannier — the one opposite my bike-pushing side; excess upper and lower layers in the other. How many pairs of underwear should I take? I really hate not changing my underwear, but man, I won't be able to do laundry for 30 days. Am I really thinking about Nome? What is wrong with me? 

Liehann and I veered onto the Stevens Canyon trail an hour earlier than we expected — we'd really ripped this one up today. For a split second I mulled time-trialing up the Bella Vista Trail the way Liehann always does, but the last thing I needed was to instigate a race with someone who's faster than me, not to mention tempting fate with high-intensity efforts and hard breathing. I've felt a bit of a cough coming on, and it makes me nervous. Beat has been sick for the past two weeks and is currently on antibiotics, and he's worried about slipping back into pneumonia so close to our Alaska trip. Happily he's been feeling a little better, but also nervous about spending a fair chunk of these past few months down with his own respiratory illnesses, not training. As long as he's healthy during the Iditarod, I don't think missed training will make all that much of a difference for him. He's strong whenever he needs to be. I wish I had that kind of faith in myself.

On this day, at least, I felt as strong as a bull, and supremely happy, even though we missed our traditional Black Mountain sunset because were too fast and too early. So happy that I sang out loud while screaming down Montebello — a song that doesn't have a name, by Metric:

We got the sunshine 
We got the shade 
We got temptation 
We got it made 
We got rewarded 
We got refused 
We got distorted 
We got confused 

I want it all 
I want it all 
I want it all 
I want it all


  1. Awesome Jill! Maybe that gym work is paying off? You sound like I felt before the TD last year.
    Go for the big ride....

  2. I can't see the harm in sending out those supply boxes. It sounds as if you will be very cautious about the decision you make at McGrath (about whether to continue to Nome) so why not keep the Nome option open? My impression was that your lungs were doing well during your holiday trip to Alaska. That, plus how great you're feeling now, makes me think that Nome just might be possible. I'll be cheering for you!

  3. That's the beauty of California: you can ride in shorts one day and ski the next day. Or fat bike (you guys missed out on Ebbetts Pass, it was epic!)

  4. the moving tunnel of peace! right on! ride on!


Feedback is always appreciated!