Thursday, March 31, 2016

Some Iditarod photos from others

Photo by Mike Beiergrohslein
 One of the more positive aspects of social media is the proliferation of images that allow us to see our experiences through another lens. Although I still have hundreds of my own photos to sort through, I wanted to post some of the photos that turned up on Facebook while I was away — for my own archives more than anything. This post is also an excuse to tell a few trail stories. I've already decided that I don't want to hammer out a 20-part post that's doomed to fade into the over-stuffed jumble that is this blog. I'd rather spend some time crafting a focused narrative, and if it seems good for a book, great.

The above photo is a favorite, taken by Mike as he and I traversed the sea ice of the Norton Sound amid a stout windstorm. When we left Shaktoolik, the village weather station was recording a north wind of 28 mph with gusts to 43 mph, and temperatures forecast from -10 to 0F. It took us two days to make the 48-mile crossing: A moving time of 21 hours and a purposefully long rest in a shelter cabin to shore up strength and wait for the wind to die down overnight (it didn't.) The "trail" was little more than waves of hard and soft sastrugi — difficult to discern until the front wheel either floats or sinks. The windchill was breathtaking. Facing directly into the wind without a face mask, I genuinely could not breathe. Stopping to either eat, drink, or pee invited a chill that cut to the core and remained far too long, which added to my simmering anxiety. I eventually gave up drinking in order to eliminate the worst chore — peeing — but the effort was so strenuous that I did try to stay ahead of an absolute bonk. At one point I set my bike down, and the entire contents of my gas tank bag — including two candy bars and a ziplock bag half-filled with trail mix — blew away. The sea ice was an intense experience — at once urgent and tedious, adrenaline-charged and exhausted.

I'm still processing the wisdom of the sea ice and excited to write more about the whole experience. Until then, photos!

Photo by Seth Landon
 Chatting with Dave Johnston and his wife, Andrea, just before the start of the race at Knik Lake. I still can't believe how brown it was!

Photo by Eric Roberts
Sixty-five runners, bikers, and a skier lined up on the shoreline of Knik Lake. Sixteen were on the roster for Nome and ultimately 14 would finish. Back in what some might refer to as the good ol' days of the ITI, the finishing rate was usually less than 50 percent for the 350-mile race, and five or fewer reached Nome. Since 2013, this race has seen finisher rates higher than 90 percent. I believe the reasons for the success rates have been consistently "good" trail conditions and weather, a more rigorous racer screening process, and access to more information online. Even back in 2008, with just a few race reports and not much else, there were more unknowns. In 2016, we have GPS tracks, a plethora of race reports, at lease two books (my fault), folks posting photos of current trail conditions on Facebook, Trackleaders real-time race updates, Web cams, weather stations ... Bah! Kids these days.

Photo by Seth Landon
 I started the race resigned to this conviction that I was going to be among the 10 percent who dropped out. My feelings on this issue are complex, but after the failures of 2015, I harbor a fair amount of resentment for the "death before DNF" attitude. I'm all but convinced that my decision to continue with the Tour Divide while I was sick with bronchitis directly contributed to the asthma symptoms I've coped with ever since. Mentally, I gave up on the Nome dream back in January, and I was resolved to put my health first even if it meant a $900 pilot pickup at some remote checkpoint. Sure, I really wanted to go to Nome, but yeah, I felt it probably wasn't my year. I love this photo because my and Beat's faces reveal much of what we were feeling as we rolled off the starting line. Beat has that silly grin because he's as happy as a puppy at a playground, and my face says, "Thanks for cheering ... but this is going to be a disaster."

Photo by Sean Grady
Also, I can't be too critical about the Iditarod Trail's bygone days of mystery, because I'm as attached to information and technology as anyone. My GPS was acting up at the start line, and I nearly panicked. Beat helped me restart it, and that was the last exchange we shared before we went our separate ways for 24 days.

Photo by Tony Allen
 I was a bundle of stress on the first day, full of all these tight emotions that I now regret — not the least of which was the fact I arrived at Skwentna on the first night with a numb right hand that was no doubt aggravated by stress-throttling of the handlebars. I also regret being so wound up because the first day of the ITI is generally a fun day. If trail conditions are good, the going is pretty easy, and it's the most social day because racers are still packed together and there are spectators around. Indeed, even with my resolve to take it as easy as possible and not aggravate my lungs, I still averaged 9.7 mph for the first 88 miles — which is flying on a loaded fat bike. Tony posted the above photo on Facebook alongside one he took at mile seven of the race in 2008, for a fun retrospective.

Photo by Angie Glover 
A first-day photo along Ayrshire Road. This spot brought back fond memories of running the 2012 Susitna 100 with my friend Danni.

Photo by Sean Grady
This is a photo of Mike and me shortly after we crossed Flathorn Lake. We ended up riding together and chatting for a while on the Yentna River. As I mentioned earlier, I was a bundle of stress, and Mike is a laid-back guy even in the most daunting situations. His happy-go-lucky attitude helped me dial back the anxiety, and I enjoyed his company. Little did I know we'd end up becoming Nome buddies.

Photo by Leah Gruhn
 This photo was taken the following afternoon, near mile 145, as three of us ascended the steep climb after the Happy River Steps. The first 30 feet of the climb is a near-vertical river bank, and I was sure I was going to have to remove my bike bags and portage the load up the bank in trips. For those who are curious, I discovered at a cargo carrier in Nome that the weight of my loaded bike was 68 pounds, not including food and water. I'm actually quite happy with my gear choices — I had a comfortable safety margin, and would not choose to leave it behind — but there were a handful of situations where I wasn't quite strong enough to manage the weight. Happily, I arrived at the step just as Leah Gruhn and Lars Danner were dragging their bikes up the headwall, and they helped me with mine. "You just saved me at least a half hour!" I exclaimed to my fellow racers. In truth, they may have contributed to saving my race. On day two I was still wound-up enough to attempt high-intensity efforts, even though I could sense these efforts were causing me respiratory distress. But I had no desire to portage gear and may have attempted to drag the bike myself, which may have resulted in an asthma attack. As it was, I desperately needed to use my inhaler at the top of this climb. Thanks Leah and Lars!

Photo by Kathi Merchant
 I arrived in McGrath around 10 a.m. on Thursday morning. I forgot to note the arrival time, and I'm disappointed about this as it would be interesting to know my McGrath "split," but it's somewhere in the range of three days and 20 hours. I pedaled most of the 50 miles from Nikolai to McGrath in the dark, shining my headlamp on a startling number of huge wolf tracks and thinking about how daunting it would be to leave McGrath, but damn it, I probably have to do it. The Northern Lights were out. The temperature was -10. I had to let my frost-lashes thaw for a while before I could remove my balaclava.

Photo by Larry Hausmann
This photo is about 250 miles later, in the Yukon River village of Galena. Larry Hausmann is a local who went out of his way to collect drop boxes and set up accommodations for every ITI racer who rolled through town. Super nice guy! I arrived in the afternoon and stayed only an hour to make lunch. I love that I look sunburned and sweaty in this photo. I saw subzero mornings on the Yukon, but some of those afternoons were downright hot.

Photo by Mike Beiergrohslein
After I left Ruby, I didn't see Mike at all for more than 200 miles until he caught me on the Kaltag Portage, which was a magical day of hard-packed trails, fast descents, big crashes, and beautiful scenery.

Photo by Jeremy Weizel
 A man from Unalakleet and his friend from Minnesota caught up to me on their snowmobiles about halfway through the Blueberry Hills, 15 miles out of Unalakleet. It's always fun to meet fans, Spot-stalkers even out here in remote Western Alaska.

Photo by Jeremy Weizel
Heading off toward the hills on a windy but warm late morning. I think it was 20 degrees.

Photo by Mike Beiergrohslein
Leaving Shaktoolik, Mike and I geared up for Antarctica. At first I was jealous of his wolf ruff, but in the headwind he had to cinch it up so much that he could hardly see. At one point I mentioned the shelter cabin, which is painted bright orange and which I had been able to see for at least two miles (it was still two miles away), and he said, "What? Where?" He called his ruff "A Chewbacca tunnel." I liked my big clear UV-protective goggles and wind-shield fleece balaclava with silnylon nose and mouth pieces (designed and sewed by Beat) It was effectively windproof, although I did get a patch of frostnip on my cheek where the tape I put over my nose and cheeks ended, because I was often ripping the mask down to catch my breath.

Photo my Mike Beiergrohslein
 This might be the moment that I thought I was putting my camera back in my hydration vest pocket, but instead just stuffed it in the coat, where it eventually fell out. About three miles from Little Mountain shelter cabin, I realized my camera pocket was empty. Oh, sorrow. I told Mike I had to go back to look for it and vowed to only backtrack two miles — one hours' worth of travel into the wind, probably only 15 minutes with the wind — before giving up. He and I both knew that the last time we used our cameras was at least six miles back. I'd already resigned myself to the idea that my camera and every photo I'd taken thus far were gone forever, but it sure felt amazing to ride with the wind. Even though the trail was still crap and I could barely top 7 mph while the wind roared at 30 mph, it still felt amazing. And happily, my camera had fallen out only a half mile back. Oh, joy! I was very overprotective of it from that point on.

Photo by Joanna Wassillie
Joanna is the Iditarod Trail Invitational's most wonderful trail angel. She lives in a house on the river in the village of White Mountain, and takes in every single human-powered traveler than traipses through town, regardless of state of hygiene or hour of the night. She took this photo as she waved me toward her house.

Photo by Joanna Wassillie
 These two women, Robin and Laura, were skijoring the Iditarod Trail from Unalakleet to Nome with four dogs (Robin, who lives in Koyuk, joined in Koyuk.) Joanna invited them over to dinner and fed us spaghetti with caribou meat sauce, French-press coffee, and homemade cheesecake with blueberry sauce. At this point I'd put all of my clothing in the washer and taken a long, incredibly relaxing epsom salt bath that Joanna drew for me. A bath! Beat still teases me that I took a bath in White Mountain and still came in under the record. It does say a lot about the fast trail conditions we enjoyed this year. After I came down with lung congestion in Koyuk, I was far away from any kind of racing or hurriedness for the rest of the journey ... until Jason Mackey passed me at Topkok.

Captures from the Iditarod Sled Dog Race's Nome Webcam. If you look at the photo on the right, there's a man with a big white beard. That's Hunter from Ketchikan. I know him from my Juneau days, when he was a regular blog reader and commenter (he admitted to me he lost interest after I left Alaska.) Small world. He and his wife were in Nome to watch the mushers, and treated me to sushi dinner at the Bering Sea Restaurant. Sushi in rural Alaska ... it actually was pretty good.

 Another capture from the Nome Webcam, shortly after I rolled up to the burled arch.

Photo by Nils Hahn
A photographer for the Nome Nugget took this photo the day after I finished, as I was commuting around town. These photos are just a small sample of the community and hospitality I encountered on the trail. I'm incredibly grateful to the folks I met. Today, the ITI race originator (he no longer wants to be called the race director) Bill Merchant sent out a message that describes this gratitude well:

 "When I first came to the Iditarod Trail I experienced something in my long line of adventures that was very different. Just before I finished in McGrath, I felt an almost overwhelming sense of sadness. It was over! Every year, when the Iditarod Trail comes together, a culture older than recorded time becomes available to visitors from another place. We get to experience a culture born when everyone was a traveler in the North Country and hospitality on your journey could mean the difference in life and death. The lodges, checkpoints, cabins, community centers, schools and private homes become the hunting camps and villages or the roadhouses of more modern times along the Iditarod Trail. 

Just like times past it takes them and those with the skills and mindset to put in a "safe" route for all of us with the wanderlust no matter what our mode of transportation to follow. A 1,000-mile community is born for a few weeks each year for us to be part of. It is all of this combined with being around the amazing group of people this race attracts that made me need to come back every year for the last 19 whether as a racer (a time long past) or trail support."

Why do we keep coming back? That's why.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Lingering at the end

One week passed between my and Beat's arrivals in Nome, and I spent that time in a kind of limbo — not yet removed from the Iditarod Trail, and yet not out there anymore. I had close to zero Internet access, only the possessions I carried from Anchorage and a separate set of clothing I'd mailed to Nome, and a somewhat worn-down body and bike for transportation. Through the winner of the bike race, Phil — an audiologist and hospital administrator who lives in Nome — I was able to connect with a physician named Roxy who invited me to stay at her apartment and then included me in a swirl of nights on the town — crab bake birthday party, dancing at Breakers Bar, salmon dinner, and the lavish Iditarod Sled Dog Race awards banquet that's as long and meandering as the trail itself.

Although it may take some time, I have no doubt I'll eventually write down many words about my journey. The story of my last day on the trail deserves more than a summarizing paragraph, but much of it was marked by this exhilarating sort of frenzy to "race" musher Jason Mackey into town after he passed me on the last Topkok Hill and dropped his ski pole at the top, still 50 miles from Nome. That rather random and abrupt decision to chase Jason allowed me to slide in under the women's record (of which I wasn't aware) rather than take my time and draw out the final miles, which is what I'd intended to do before the -25 morning and a too-strenuous pace out of White Mountain left me drenched in sweat, shivering, a somewhat in a state of desperation — too chilled to stop but too shattered to continue — as I crawled over the seemingly endless Topkok Hills. (On the coast I'd become used to -10 and windy. Wind keeps you dry, but it was a calm morning, which results lot more sweat than I'd expected. Sweat and respiration turns quickly to ice at -25F.) When Jason Mackey passed me I was on the verge of tears, and finding his ski pole and resolving to "catch" him was my final act of defiance — a defiance of every limit I set for myself from the start of that race to that moment on the hill.

When I arrived at the finish line 15 minutes before Jason, I was overwhelmed by that small victory on its own. I could scarcely conceptualize the 900 miles that came before. Because a popular musher was coming into town, the finishing ramp was crowded with dozens of spectators, and the barrage of interviews, conversations and questions left me bewildered and no doubt stammering as I wheeled my bike off the ramp and stumbled across Front Street. People asked me where my support team was, what had I arranged, where would I stay?

"I have no idea what comes next."

I wasn't thrilled with my finish line experience, and resolved to try to meet everyone else who came into town after me, so at least there would be one other person there who knew a little about what came before. To my great disappointment, I managed to miss Mike Beiergrohslein, who was my closest trail companion. Although we didn't often ride together, Mike and I kept a similar pace and spent most nights in the same places. We also shared the harrowing sea ice crossing, so I felt a special camaraderie with him. He arrived about four hours after me, by which time I was holed up at Phil's house eating leftover pizza and unsuccessfully trying to get Trackleaders to refresh. I finally did manage to get an updated location, but Mike had already been done for a half hour.

This photo is the Australian, Troy Szczurkowski, who arrived the following evening. Troy finished with this stoic demeanor and appeared even more discombobulated than I felt the previous day. Martin Buser was there waiting for his puppy team to arrive, and Troy ignored the musher's good-natured ribbing to take off his balaclava so we could see his face. I introduced myself and offered to take Troy's photo, but he didn't really acknowledge me either as he returned to his bike and pulled out a lightweight tripod for his finish-line photo — even as at least a half dozen others offered to take it for him. It was all quite humorous — Troy seemed to completely block out the outside world and became a little huffy when we interjected on that illusion. I could empathize with this. You spend a lot of time alone on the trail.

Another local physician, Nora, invited us both to have dinner with her. Her house was two miles away, and Troy pedaled so fast that I actually bonked badly as I raced him up the roadside trail. I was dizzy, lightheaded, and on the verge of fainting ... after 24 hours, I was well into recovery mode. It's so, so strange how you can simply tell yourself it's over, and everything shuts down. I'd experienced nothing like that in the 17 days prior.

The following night, Tim Hewitt was on his way toward Nome. I convinced Roxy and a pediatrician, Eric, to drive out to the bridge over the Nome River and cheer for him as he hiked past. It was an intensely beautiful night, with silver moonlight over the jumbled sea ice and Northern Lights across the horizon. Sadly it was so windy that I couldn't take a decent photo — gusts rattled the camera even when I set up the self-timer and balanced it on the hood of the car. We cheered manically as Tim approached, and he probably thought we were a bunch of drunks. Eric called out "You Can Do It!" Roxy and I teased him because Tim had already covered all but three miles of a thousand — at that point, Tim undoubtedly knew he could do it.

Tim hiked the trail in 19 days, 9 hours and change. It is an *incredible* achievement, made all the more so by the fact he's 61 years old. Having walked the 350 and now biked the 1,000, I feel like I have at least somewhat of a grasp on just how difficult it would be to hike the length of this trail in 30 days, let alone sub-20. I really don't think anyone will surpass this record anytime soon. However, I continue to be surprised by the way impossible-seeming feats become possible on the Iditarod Trail.

I apologize, but I couldn't help but post a horrifying photo of Tim's feet. It doesn't even show the worst blisters. He thinks this is normal. I'll state for the record that Beat prioritizes self-care and arrived in Nome with pristine baby feet. It doesn't have to be like this, but maybe it does if you want to break 20 days.

We had a great time sharing stories of the trail with Phil, who battled a number of mechanicals and still came in under 12 days.

The mushers' banquet happened on Sunday afternoon. I sadly also forgot my camera for this colorful affair, which included excellent people-watching as some 800 Nomeites, mushers, volunteers, super-fans and spectators crammed into a gymnasium whose fire code no doubt allowed for no more than 500. We ate chocolate-covered strawberries out of a decorative dog sled and listened to at least 70 speeches before the temperature in the room rose above 90 degrees and we had to escape. The banquet is fun but I think it would be beneficial for everyone if they figured out a way to streamline all the speeches. It's just too many speeches.

Monday I decided it would be fun to get back on my bike. I'd been commuting around town with it, but felt well enough recovered to do a recreational sightseeing ride on the unmaintained roads beyond city limits. I'd planned to go out for 45 minutes before turning around, but as I spun toward the mountains beyond Beam Road, I slipped into that meditative flow that carried me along the Iditarod Trail on my best days, losing all track of time and distance. A thickening patch of glare ice snapped me out of my reverie, and by then 17 miles and two hours had passed. I briefly fretted that I was going to bonk before I got myself home — similar to my episode with Troy — but it was just as effortless on the return. Somewhere along the Iditarod Trail, away from the fretting and self-defined limits, I'd pedaled myself into pretty good shape.

On Tuesday I rode 17 miles out the Nome-Teller Road on purpose, as that was the distance to the top of the first pass. Phil had chided me for riding the roads because Nome roads are "boring," but I find nothing boring about views of the frozen Bering Sea and stark, white mountains.

The conditions on the roads also are not boring. They start out as gravel, but quickly deteriorate into packed snow, glare ice, and hardened wind drifts. The "sastrugi" are especially fun to ride — similar to bumpy slickrock with the occasional patch of sand deep enough to swallow a wheel.

On Wednesday, Beat was making his way into town. Although I felt great on Monday, the back-to-back four- and five-hour rides had taken their toll, and my legs were jelly again as I pedaled out of town with the hopes of seeing him near Safety.

On this ride I went up and over Cape Nome, a scenic climb I'd skipped on my own ride into town because the road is regarded to be the faster route. I began to perk up as I mashed the pedals up the steep slope, mostly because I knew Beat's and my paths were close to intersecting.

I caught sight of him three miles past the Cape, just under 16 miles from Nome. It was a more subdued meeting than I expected — it's a long 70 miles from White Mountain, and Beat had a rough night through the windy and cold corridor often referred to as the "blowhole." He needed to stay in his headspace just to keep himself moving forward, so we shared a kiss and then I veered off the trail toward the road, which ended up costing me an extra 3.5 miles and made for a third 34-mile ride.

I admit to being sad that I had to leave Beat behind. I'd harbored these daydreams about flying into White Mountain and walking with him along the final stretch to Nome. But race rules don't allow that, and I didn't have a sled or appropriate walking gear, nor any reason to believe that after three weeks with a fat bike, I would be in shape to hold Beat's pace for 70 miles. But perhaps, someday, we'll travel this trail together.

By the time I met up with Beat again, about a mile from the finish, the temperature had warmed up to 33 degrees and the trail was rapidly deteriorating. Beat was exhausted and the slush made it worse, so he wasn't in the best mood.

Beat approaching town on the shoreline.

I'd recruited a handful of friends I'd made during my week in town — most of them medical professionals — to cheer for Beat at the finish. After the sled dog race ends, they move the burled arch to an empty lot across the street from the Nome Liquor Store.

A quiet but triumphant finish.

Beat and I, together again under the burled arch. I love this guy.

Since the first day of my race, I grappled with numbness in my right hand. It became bad enough that I lost most of my dexterity and strength in my thumb, index, and middle fingers, and struggled to even zip up my coats (I'm right handed.) I can't make a fist without using my other hand to move my fingers, and I often wake up to throbbing pain during the night. My hand was so useless that I knew even a minor mechanical such as a broken chain would probably end my race — unless I could find someone to help me fix it — so I was very lucky to get through the Iditarod without incident. My new Nome friends helped me diagnose this as a case of carpal tunnel syndrome, and a shock test performed by a physical therapist at the hospital revealed almost no response from my median nerve — it's effectively not firing at all. It could take a few weeks or even months to heal, or it may require surgery — which is to say I didn't exactly meet my top goal for this race, which was to come home healthy. I also shouldn't be riding my bike until my hand heals, which I used as an excuse to go for "one last ride" in Nome before I probably have to give up cycling for at least a few weeks. I know, I know. But it was an incredible final outing, riding into a sparkling sun halo.

We flew out of Nome on Friday afternoon, but were able to watch Eric Johnson — yet another physician from Ogden, Utah — arrive amid a blustery snowstorm in the late morning. Beat traveled near Eric early on, but spent most of the race traveling alone as Eric fell nearly two days behind.

Amid the low visibility, Eric wandered onto a side trail and walked two or three extra miles when he was only three miles from Nome, and had been out of food and water for a while. He too exhibited an interesting combination of frustration and elation under the arch.

We took Eric across the street to the Bering Sea restaurant, where he ordered two breakfasts and consumed that entire jar of syrup. We all left on the 8:30 p.m. flight to Anchorage, where the cloud ceiling closed in before the plane even cleared the sharp point of Cape Nome. I felt a sharp tinge of sadness as Nome disappeared. Nine days is a long time to linger, but it felt like a blip in time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Nome

With a lot of joy, a little hardship and a healthy helping of luck, I pedaled and pushed a bike from Knik Lake to Nome, Alaska, in 17 days, 3 hours and 46 minutes. I finished on Wednesday, March 16, and I'm still in disbelief that all of it happened. There were some real struggles, but every day was filled with beauty and enjoyment, and I was genuinely sad as I pedaled the final 20 miles into Nome and realized it was all going to come to an end soon.

As it turns out, the time it took me fell 2.5 hours under the women's record for the 1,000-mile ride to Nome. I honestly had no idea. Setting out from Knik, I would have told anyone that my chances of leaving McGrath were probably less than 1 in 5. I just wanted to get myself through each day without any self-imposed pressure. Every day I felt strong and healthy would lead to another, and I was grateful each morning when I woke up breathing freely and feeling excited (or terrified) for what lay ahead. Racing against a clock was the farthest thing in my mind. As I neared the coast, it occurred to me the record might be in reach. I knew Ausillia set a fast time in 2014, and believed it to be 16 days. But when we reached the icy wind tunnel of the Norton Sound and made very slow progress from Unalakleet to Koyuk, I figured the record was out of reach and felt relieved, because I could continue at my own pace. The difficult sea ice journey left me with lung congestion, and I made a decision to go easy and rest a lot during the final 200 miles, so as to not exacerbate my lungs. Bronchitis could easily shut me down out here, and I'd have been so disappointed this close to the finish. For this reason I'm glad I had no idea that the record was 17 days and 6 hours. I rode my own race, and Koyuk to Nome became one of the most enjoyable stretches of the trip.

No doubt I'll write up the journey, but for now I've been enjoying some down time in Nome as I wait for Beat, meeting new people, watching mushers come in, eating locally caught salmon and crab, and enjoying all the festivities surrounding the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. Thanks to readers, friends, and family for all of your support. It's been an incredible ride.