Saturday, March 24, 2018

The confidence-crushing cabin trip

It was Feb. 18, one week before the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, when I casually logged onto the Web site and thought, "You know what would be fun between my races? An overnight shakedown trip in the White Mountains." Cabins can be booked 30 days out, and the absolute latest I wanted to go was one week before the White Mountains 100. Nothing was available until March 18, but on that date was an opening for Eleazar's — just 12 miles one way, with a bit of climbing. No big deal.

I already knew about the winter storm warning when I set out Sunday afternoon. "Three to five inches? Pshaw. I dragged my sled through a lot more than that, most of the way to McGrath. And it's only 24 miles. And my legs are all recovered!"

Delusion persists. But it was a refreshingly beautiful afternoon. Although the trail base was as soft as I expected, sunlight broke through the clouds, and there were lots of happy people on the trails to offer distractions.

Dog teams area always the most fun to watch.

Especially this little girl with her single-pup kick-sled.

Most of the human-powered folks I encountered asked if I was racing next week. I told the truth to these cyclists as we commiserated about the slog on the Wickersham Wall. But to most others, I lied. I don't know why ... I was weirdly embarrassed about my intention to start the 100-miler. Maybe because I was dragging a beast of a sled along, and slowly realizing that 2.5 mph remains close to my maximum speed. Perhaps my ego knows it's going to be pulverized, and doesn't want to endure yet more indignity by acknowledging this folly.

"No, I'm just out for a cabin trip to Eleazars," I told a skier.

"That's a big hike!" he exclaimed, enthusiastically encouraging this obvious amateur. 

Eleazars — my port in the storm. Flurries were already flying by the time I arrived. There wasn't a lot of firewood stacked up, so I set out around the vicinity to gather what I could — I try not to be a consumer of these valuable resources when I actually have the time to contribute. But after a half hour of flailing with a saw and ax to collect what amounted to a pile of twigs, I decided temps were already warm enough for comfortable sitting, and it wasn't really worth the effort. I did build a short-lived fire to dry my gear and melt snow, and the radiant heat of ashes warmed the cabin nicely for the rest of the evening. It felt wonderful to curl up in my sleeping bag and re-read "Desert Solitaire." I was happy to be there.

Monday morning, I awoke to 4 inches of new snow on the porch. The wind was howling, and had been since 6 a.m. My legs were disconcertingly sore, with dull pain and throbbing in my lower quad muscles. I woke up to that pain nearly every morning on my way to McGrath, and many days afterward, but I'd let myself believe this had finally healed. After just 12 miles with the sled, leg pain came roaring back as fresh as ever.

The trail from the wind-exposed cabin had filled in with snow. As I began to pull my sled downhill, the jerk of resistance was at once shocking and oh-so-familiar. Why, oh why, oh why, do I keep returning to this place? The first mile through thick, protected forest involved a 600-foot descent, and clocked in at 28 minutes. And not a leisurely 28 minutes. I was straight-up winded.

Well. This was going to be a long day.

Through the anemic swamps surrounding Wickersham Creek, the trail had been erased. I tried different methods of walking and decided I preferred to not wear snowshoes — enabling my feet to anchor into the deep powder, which gave me more purchase to tug my anvil forward. My GPS watch became an actually welcome source of comedy, clocking my pace in minutes per mile. 33:14. 45:19. 58:34. Are you even moving at all?

"Hell awaits the Army of the Damned."

I put my head down to march up the Wickersham Wall, and surprised myself my arriving at the top without expending much more effort than I had to move forward on the flats. Apparently, in such trail conditions, gaining 800 feet in one mile doesn't add that much difficulty. It's a matter of increments; when the effort required is already ratcheted up to 85 percent, how much worse is 90 percent, really?

Of course, the rolling hills along Wickersham Dome were much more exposed to the still-howling wind, and I encountered knee- and sometimes thigh-high drifts, along with open areas where I wandered uphill and downhill, feeling out the fanned-out trail bases until found one that veered back into the trees, indicating the actual trail. Later, I'd take comfort from the story of a friend who'd been caught along this same section of trail in a similar storm a few weeks earlier. Eventually, she and her friend had to abandon their pulks and just ski out, returning later in the week to collect their belongings in more favorable conditions.

It was all slow and exhausting, but then my muscles started to give out on me. It felt more dramatic than it probably was, but the soreness in my legs began to feel like numbness, and then I felt some tingling, which led to a perception of lost strength and a need to kneel down on the trail, because my quads had died and I was about to topple over. Of course my quads had not died, and I was able to stand up again just fine. But the sensation was disconcerting, to put it mildly. This was a depth of muscle fatigue that I've never before experienced.

By the time I wobbled back to the parking lot, it had taken me 6.5 hours to travel 12 miles. In my mind, I'd already withdrawn from the White Mountains 100, bought a plane ticket to Nome, watched Beat finish his race, and was giddy about the thought of all of this in my future.

Then ... somehow ... inexplicably ... I talked myself out of this.

 I don't know.

I don't know.

There's a deeper, exceedingly selfish part of my heart that so badly wants ... perhaps needs ... to return to this place one more time, before retreating to spring and responsibilities and real life. Before all that, I just want a bit more time in the place where all I need to do is walk, and breathe, as a vast and incomprehensible world opens wide around me.

I've learned this lesson so many times — about limits, about failure, about the realities of recovery ... and yet. And yet my heart doesn't seem to care.

So I sat on my butt for the next five days. I hung out in Fairbanks, went to bonfires, enjoyed birthday dinners with friends, greeted other racers as they trickled into town. I visited Joel, the race director, who let me use his Normatec leg recovery system, and asked about the one issue that really might have prevented me from starting ... "how much of a burden is it to you, if I time out or otherwise need to stop at one of the remote checkpoints?" He shrugged ... not a problem. Shoot.

It's not my ego's fault. Really. I can assure you, ego wants nothing to do with this asininity. The Iditarod Trail took a lot out of me, and I'm not in denial about that anymore. My endurance prowess is not what it once was, and for the most part, I'm not in denial about that, either. My legs are still sore, after five days off ... but I worry more about the sadness that followed me home from McGrath. So why? What is this to me anymore? Why am I even here?

I suppose I just can't let it go. I need to know.

So yes, I'm going to start the White Mountains 100. I'm certainly not going to take it to any dangerous extreme, but sore legs and fatigue aren't really dangerous. Trail conditions will assuredly be better than they were last weekend, because they can't be a whole lot worse. A number of friends will be there, and it might well turn into a fun hike/jog without any of the issues or dramas that I'm anticipating. Or it might be a disaster accompanied by well-deserved "I told you so's."

But regardless, it will be living intensely at its best. Beautiful discomfort. A grand adventure. Really, why would I just sit on the sidelines, stewing over perceived limitations that might not even matter, in the end?


  1. You rock, Jill. Let the White Mountains begin!

  2. Stay safe, and I hope you find what you're looking for!

  3. Exactly! Why wouldn't you? You do what makes you you. Short of actually being ill, what is wrong with going out to get the most you can out of something you enjoy. Have fun tomorrow!


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