Escape to Alaska

Last week in Fairbanks, Alaska, the temperature dropped to 53 below. It was more than 100 degrees warmer in Boulder, where I was mashing pedals through four inches of thick slush on top of mud. My speed stayed firmly lodged in the 2.5 mph range, while I fretted about the state of the world, geopolitical nonsense, and strong desire to not face a certain crushing expedition, now just a month away. I'm not ready for the Iditarod, again ... but of course I've never been ready, and I never will be. But I was desperate for a modicum of confidence. If I could just test my current and mostly non-negotiable state of fitness in real Alaska conditions — a place where the air is rich and cold, where the boreal forest stretches out for hundreds of miles, and I could possibly even tune out the news ... at least for a few days. 

That's how I ended up hovering over the Alaska Airlines Web site, debating mileage ticket possibilities, convincing Beat it was a good idea, and finally flying solo to Fairbanks on Tuesday night. By the time I landed, temperatures had risen to -12. They would be +12 before morning, and continue rising to +30 by Thursday. So much for true Alaska training conditions. But it felt right, all the same.

On Wednesday it was nice and bright by 11 a.m., which seemed quite early  — usually we visit Fairbanks over Christmas break; in comparison, late January seems like practically summer. Of course it does, when temperatures are in the teens when you've emotionally banked on 50 below. I put together my sled for the first time since 2015, and hauled it on a five-hour drag through a few inches of fluff over lightly traveled trails.

Why was I dragging a sled? Because I'm still considering it as a way to avoid that terrifying expedition by committing to a harder — but more predictable — effort on a shorter route. And, truthfully, I missed the quiet rhythm of hauling a heavy load through the snowy woods. The sled pulls me into deep but dispassionate concentration, breathing in and out, thinking only of forward motion and the tidy patterns of a monochrome world.

Five hours was enough to remind me that I haven't pulled a sled more than a few miles here and there since 2014. My hips became sore, my hamstrings screamed and my calves burned. Still, I can't help but appreciate the strain of sled-dragging. It's the only activity I've found where my (meager) aerobic capacity exceeds my (surprisingly inadequate) leg strength. Breathing was easy. Walking was hard.

On Thursday I returned to the familiar, borrowing my friend Corrine's bike for a six-hour spin that of course included hike-a-bike and multiple near-crashes while negotiating soft, rutted trail in flat light. It was interesting to find highly variable trail conditions in a short distance — from the perfect smooth singletrack of O'Conner Creek, to wind drifts on the ridge, to the aforementioned soft ruts and overflow on Eldorado Creek.

 I was breathing really well today, which may have been a result of difficult trail conditions that never allowed me to really "open up." Still, it was refreshing not to experience any constriction, wheezing, dizziness, or even brief bouts of shallow breathing. Lower altitudes probably played a large role in this. It's encouraging, though. I came to Alaska to search for confidence. I may not find it, or even need it, but I keep looking, all the same.

The gray, warm day cleared up and cooled down. I fish-tailed, mashed and crashed my way down Eldorado Creek, taking a multitude of breaks just to gaze toward the orange-frosted trees and think, "How did I get here? I'm so lucky to be here."

Even luckier is our plan for the weekend — a three-day cabin trip into the White Mountains, where there's no Internet and no way to hear whether the world ended while we were away. Yes, I may not gain confidence, but I've already found peace. 

Comments

  1. I am seriously considering finding a remote cabin without Internet for the next four years.

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  2. Ohhhh i really feeling cool just reading your post.

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  3. Anonymous7:03 AM

    Totally envious of the picture at the top of your post!..Sounds like you did find some "answers" on your training condition. To me it looks like your lung volume has increased from training at altitude but your Vo2 Max and LT(lactate threshold)fell because of the down sides of altitude training. Interval training can increase those even during the Iditarod I think. Sled dragging would be easier to maintain your HR (heart rate) at or below your LT plus keeping yourself fueled and hydrated which will keep your LT in higher range. With weather and trail conditions you can vary your intervals of dragging and rest as you feel your body feedback. Seems one major hike-a-bike could be bad but there is the ground you can cover if conditions are right. Just my 2cents FWIW. I will keep tuned in and wish you well as you wrestle the decision.
    Jeff

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