Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Iditarod history

Today marks one decade since I started the Susitna 100 — my first-ever race — on February 18, 2006. As I gear up to return to Alaska next week, I thought it would be fun to mark this tenth anniversary with a timeline of my endeavors on the Iditarod Trail. 

 2006: They say there's nothing like your first — which is why I look so shellshocked at the finish line of the Susitna 100 after 25 hours of wrestling with this mountain bike through soft trails, driving rain, and slush. My thoughts at the time were definitely along the lines of "what the hell just happened?" But, like most who deign to dabble in endurance sports, I was irrevocably hooked by the sheer intensity of the experience, and already knew I'd be back to race again. I wrote about this in my most recent book, "Becoming Frozen."

2007: I returned the the Su100 a second time with slightly better equipment — an old Raleigh hardtail with 26" Snowcat rims that I called "Snaux Bike." After only three miles, I tipped over and twisted my right knee. By the finish, every pedal stroke caused sharp pain. Shortly after I stopped, the joint locked up, and stayed that way for the better part of the next four months. I was eventually diagnosed with severe softening of the cartilage, a degenerative condition caused by overuse. My Ironman-triathlete doctor told me I'd have to deal with osteoarthritis for the rest of my life, and all but said my endurance racing days were probably over. I was 27 years old.

 2008: Ever since I moved to Alaska I'd been mesmerized by stories from the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and longed for my own experiences on the trail to McGrath. After the knee debacle of 2007, I knew I had to get out there before my knees gave up on me altogether. I was still young enough to overlook the true long-term implications of osteoarthritis, but I'd actually been convinced I had bad knees since my early 20s, and figured there wasn't much left to lose. Healing and training had for the most part gone well, and I was a bundle of raw anticipation when this photo was snapped on Seven Mile Lake, shortly after the start. The next six days were jarring and surreal, one of the truly transformative experiences of my life. I wrote a book about this race a few months after I finished, "Ghost Trails."

 2009: I went back to the Iditarod Trail Invitational to revisit the experience and perhaps correct the myriad of mistakes I made during my first run. I had more confidence and hubris this time around, and was almost in disbelief when I put my right foot through a hole in the ice on Flathorn Lake and plunged my whole leg in cold water. Temperatures were already below zero and I knew this was a serious setback just 25 miles into the race, but made a poor decision to continue to the next checkpoint before addressing it. The temperature would plunge to at least 30 below (and by many reports lower) as I pedaled up the Yentna River. By the time I reached Yentna Station, my foot was frozen, forcing me to withdraw from the race on the first day. In the years since this happened, my supposedly incurable knee pain has gone away completely, but I've come to believe that frostbite is forever. I kept all my toes, but still have nerve damage that causes poor circulation and pain.

2010: This is the only year of the past ten that I didn't revisit at least some portion of the Iditarod Trail. In December and January I'd fallen into a big funk — I think it's fair to call it depression. I finished writing my book about the 2009 Tour Divide — "Be Brave, Be Strong" — and through the reliving of that experience, decided endurance racing was to blame for the dissolution of my previous relationship as well as most of my unhappiness. These adventures were such encompassing and intense experiences that they resulted in a kind of disinterest and absenteeism in my everyday life. I had quietly, genuinely resolved to quit endurance racing for good, when I received an e-mail from an acquaintance, Ed Plumb, who was organizing a new race called the White Mountains 100. I thought, why not? I signed up, then didn't really train, didn't feel all that much dedication, and showed up in Fairbanks for what turned out to be another perspective-altering experience. After that I left Juneau, regathered my life in Anchorage, found a great job in Montana, and met Beat. The rest is history.

 2011: During the first year of our relationship, Beat and I had a pattern of daring each other away from our respective comfort zones into bigger and better adventures. The 2011 Susitna 100 was this for both of us — Beat's first winter race, and my first ultramarathon (not counting three 50Ks I ran as training for this 100-mile sled-dragging endeavor.) It ended up becoming, by far, the most epic of my four Susitna 100s — temperatures never rose above zero, and 30 mph winds drove the nighttime windchill down to -50 (and believe me, I'm one who strongly believes that "windchill counts.") Beat and I had the first big test of our relationship during this race. Shortly after the first sunset, my hands froze to the point that I couldn't use them at all, and needed Beat to help me zip up my jacket. This jarring experience prompted me to not stop moving until we reached Luce's Lodge, as Beat fell behind with his own issues. He was understandably upset with me about leaving him behind after we agreed to travel together, but I hadn't realized how far back he was (I thought when I looked back I could see his headlamp, but on the open river this can be quite far.) Later, around mile 70, after realizing that completing 100 miles on foot in one go is indeed *very* difficult, I had a huge meltdown about being in too much pain to finish. Beat took my bawling in stride, hung back and waited for me as I plodded along at 1.5 mph, and was very patient and sweet even after I abandoned him the night before. You could say the trials of the Susitna 100 cemented our bond. I moved to California a few weeks later.

 2012: True to my pattern, I wanted to return the the Susitna 100 on foot to correct the mistakes of the previous year. Beat was already irrevocably hooked on winter racing and preparing for his first Iditarod Trail Invitational. For a variety of reasons, I didn't think I'd return the ITI again, but the Su100 and White Mountains 100 had become great "nicotine patch" races to feed my addiction without diving in too deep. My fourth Susitna was a lot more relaxing and fun than the previous year, except for a poor decision I made in my footwear that resulted in badly swollen, macerated feet. I still met my goal of finishing under 36 hours.

 2013: This year was largely about supporting Beat in his first journey to Nome. Not actual support — which isn't allowed — but being there on the sidelines, sending him supply boxes, taking his sat phone calls and reporting his progress online. Really, it was an excuse for me to spend a month in Alaska doing fun things like a Denali Highway bike tour, the Chena River to Ridge marathon in Fairbanks, and the Homer Epic 100K. As Beat neared the finish, I flew to Nome for my first visit to western Alaska, with enough time to go for a few day rides on the Iditarod Trail. I'd always thought of western Alaska as this stark, featureless place — and admit it looks that way in this photo — but I was in awe of the rawness and beauty of the Bering Sea Coast. I was also humbled by its fierce weather. During the first ride, over Cape Nome and back, the temperature was -20. The following day — the day Beat finished — it was at least as cold with a strong north wind. I was shaken to the core by these rides. And sure enough, after all of my years of Alaska winter racing addiction, this is the first time I truly became interested in going all the way to Nome.

 2014: One again I signed up for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, this time traveling the first 350 miles with Beat on foot. It was strange to return to a rapidly-changing region that now sees frequent mid-winter rains, long snowless stretches, and heat waves that boost the temperature to 50 above, in Interior Alaska in early March. Don't get me wrong, we also experienced temperatures down to 20 below, but the heat presents unique challenges — especially when it comes to my biggest fear (open water), and the strength one needs to tug a 45-pound sled over dirt, roots, and tussocks for 50+ miles. Still, this was my most enjoyable experience on the Iditarod Trail. What really made this trip special is sharing it with others — Beat, our friend Steve, and Tim and Loreen Hewitt. Later in the year, Tim and I finished up a collaborative project about all of his amazing Iditarod adventures — "8,000 Miles Across Alaska." So there you have it — all of my books are effectively centered on the Iditarod Trail. I really should branch out.

2015: With the Nome dream firmly implanted, I decided to embark on a solo test run of sorts along the Bering Sea coast, starting in Unalakleet. From the outset I encountered the amazing north wind, which I expected, but the short version of the story is that it took me four full days to travel 60 miles to Little Mountain Cabin, and I was demolished by the time I reached it. Fighting shin-deep drifts into a 40-50 mph headwind all day drained every last molecule of energy from my body. I now feel like I have a better understanding of what it's like to walk to the South Pole, and why most Antarctic skiers only cover 8 to 15 miles a day. But because the work was so strenuous and taxing, and the windchill allowed for no stops whatsoever, I strongly doubted — and still do — my ability to survive a 40-mile sea ice crossing in that weather.  The thing about weather is that if one is patient, one can wait it out. I'd already decided to return to Anchorage and reconnect with Beat following a tragic event, but when I woke up the following day it was -5 and the wind was absent. It was a bright, beautiful, warm day — perhaps perfect for a run across the Norton Sound. Instead I turned around and pedaled the 60 miles back to Unalakleet in about 14 hours — which isn't record-breaking, but it was a lot more enjoyable than the four-day outbound trip.

I'd managed to re-boost my energy with some random items I'd purchased at the Shaktoolik village store after two dozen Iditarod mushers cleaned it out during the storm that had everyone hunkering down. As it was, I'd left Unalakleet with four days of food to travel, by bike, 100 miles to Koyuk. It wasn't nearly enough. I thought I'd erred strongly on the side of too much. But I had no real perspective of just how hard one mile can be, or how long it can take, even after ten years of this.

I learned a lot on my coast trip, and the main gist of that lesson is Alaska is very big, and I am very small and very, very weak — which is really the same lesson I've been re-learning since 2006. The difference is, before I always felt some empowerment by my ability to mentally muscle my way through problems and overcome obstacles, but my recent breathing difficulties have added a new, much deeper layer of uncertainty. Still, I feel better equipped to head out there and make better decisions, even if they're not the preferred decisions. Any day on the Iditarod Trail is a gift, because many of the days I've had out there are among the best of my life.


  1. Awesome retrospective, Jill! It's fun to see it all compacted into a single blog post.

    I love that teensy-weensy-tired mountain bike from 2006. Oh my, how winter biking has changed. You've also got to tell me about that sled from 2012. Now that I've become a sled nerd, I want to know where you got it. By the way, I had my sled builder soup up my kicksled. It's now got faster runners and can handle drifts with no problem. Tell Beat to look out!

    1. I made this sled. It consisted of some sport sled skis (which were nice, actually: they had a runner with a good edge for hard conditions and then a wider ski base), some bike handlebars and a duffel. It worked beautifully on firm trails, but had a fatal flaw in bad conditions - it was prone to toppling over. In the 2012 iditarod it caused me a lot of grief. I since then switched to the lighter, still very good glode UHMW style sleds ...

      You should have seen my first prototype. It was a plastic storage box with these skis. It worked well until the box of course broke :)

    2. Thanks, Beat. Toppling over is a bad characteristic. I found that out going to Tolovana. I'll stick with my kicksled. But I love the fact that you made it. And from bike handlebars, no less. I should have guessed!

  2. I've been reading your blog since well before you and Beat were together and I still can't believe it's been that long. Time flies.

  3. Just commenting on this now because I know I'm going to take frickin' ages to read this post because you always inspire me to write. So now I'm going to go off and catch up on a week's skiing posts and pop back later to finish catching up on two weeks of Jill.


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