Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Small dose of desert

Every since I re-read "Desert Solitaire" during a sleepless night between wearying days of that ill-fated trip to Eleazar's cabin in the White Mountains last month, I have been hungry for some time in the desert. For me, Alaska's frozen tundra and Utah's red desert have always been two sides of the same coin — desolate extremes that enrich my soul. Growing up in Utah, I cut my adventure teeth on viscous rivers and sandstone, and assume I'll eventually return to Alaska to die (hopefully the dying part happens well into my senescence, and the return much sooner.) I crave the frozen north because it's there that I feel most alive. I crave the desert because it's there that I still feel young. 

View from the backyard, looking toward the Colorado River and rain clouds over Grand Junction
 An opportunity arose when friends from Boulder rented a house in Grand Junction for the weekend. It will probably annoy locals when I say this, but every time I visit the far Western Slope of Colorado, all I see is Utah — from fluted mesa backdrops to manicured lawns in the desert to tidy street grids (but really, Fruita, what is up with the fractions? J 6/10 Road? What even is that?)

Wendy at an overlook — not really an overlook, more like a regular switchback on a ledgy trail
 I knew this trip was coming and had been saving up my legs for it, as I was pretty sure these folks were going to make me run. It was my fault for talking them out of bringing bikes at the last minute, because the logistics of toting the bikes became too daunting. I know, sacrilege. To prepare for the trip, two days prior I embarked on a five-mile run that was the most running (not hiking) that I'd done since February. I felt good. I was ready!

 Temperatures were mercifully mild for the 15-miler Steve had planned, traveling out to Rattlesnake Arches and back. The trail was just rugged enough that my body balked at running within the first few miles — every step felt jarring and awkward, and without my trekking poles I felt like a black bear trying to lumber forward on two legs. Running on rocks ... so strange! I was certain a face-plant was coming, and tentatively lurched into every step. I actually I did have a pretty good splat around mile 10, but I caught it well enough that I only ripped up my already deeply scarred right elbow. No one was around to see it, so all was well.

Arches — two for the price of one!
Mile four involved a mild class-three scramble in and out of a canyon that sparked navigation confusion and backtracking, then Marianne had a scary-looking ten-foot tumble that she managed to walk away from uninjured, then Jorge started experiencing vertigo and turned around. Given my own perceived balance issues, I was feeling pretty spooked about moving through this hard and often vertical place. Still, the arches were well worth the effort.

The iconic Rattlesnake Arch
Clustered within less than a mile of each other are six or more arches, looming over a narrow bench that spans incredible vistas.  Just a spectacular place, close to town and yet reasonably uncrowded on a Saturday in spring.

 The arch promenade can be looped by climbing through Cedar Arch and descending back to a junction. Spoiler alert: I chickened out without even considering this sandstone scramble, and instead backtracked the two miles. Sometimes I am more open to scrambling challenges, but on this day I was too much of a spooked and awkward bear stumbling along on my two legs, and knew I'd likely panic and freeze up. All of my friends did it, and said another party let them use a rope, and it was perfectly mellow and lots of fun. I did two 12-minute-miles and went splat.

Sheep blocking the trail
 On Sunday morning everyone had to rush back to Boulder for travel, work, and other obligations. I was planning to head to Salt Lake City to visit my family, but wanted to spend one more night in the desert. Before leaving town, I headed to a popular trailhead to hike Monument and Wedding Canyons. For this outing, there was no pretense of running. My quads were again sore, and my weird sense of balance had not recovered. But the walk was quite enjoyable.

One of the monuments in Monument Canyon
Although I intended to just hike the five-mile loop, I felt inspired at the junction and continued deeper into Monument Canyon, eventually climbing out Rim Road some six miles from the trailhead. Well, 12 miles is good, too.

View from my lunch spot. If you squint you can see the trail wending down the slope in the center. 
I did indulge in an extended lunch break with my sweaty shoes and socks flung aside, and the still-papery soles of my feet drying in the cool sand. My body is strongly not cut out for desert living. I was slathered head-to-heel in SPF 50, with dark red burns on my skin where I had previously missed spots. Hat and sunglasses couldn't quite temper the glare of the sun. Long sleeves protected arms that are more or less permanently sun-damaged. My throat felt parched even though I was gulping down two to three liters of water on these five- and four-hour outings. I was sneezing and wheezing from spring allergies despite Claritin and Singular. Still, I was happy, nonetheless.

I headed back as the heat of the afternoon really started to bear down. Sweat was poring down my legs and aggravating an old but not-yet-healed rash around my ankles. I was quite disappointed to check the temperature gauge in my car and see that it was just 72 degrees, not the 114 that I was expecting.
 
 For the night, I drove west on I-70 for a hundred miles or so and set up my little tent on a sandy patch of BLM land in the San Rafael Swell, close to a wrinkle I hoped to explore the following morning — Devil's Canyon. It was a gorgeous and warm night of scratching my irritated and sunburned skin, blowing my nose, wondering if my sore throat was the result of a virus or just parched desert dryness, and getting up five times to pee because I over-drank water in large amounts. "No, you are not built for the desert," I thought as I listened to a hard wind drive sand against my tent. "But you love it all the same."
 
By morning, the wind had a sharp chill to it. I started down the rugged mine road in my puffy jacket, but thought better of that and stashed it in the car, opting to just shiver until I dropped far enough into the canyon to partially block the gale. For a time the walking was easy enough, and I drifted through happy memories of desert camping trips in the Swell, and of being 20 years old. Then I hit the wash and ankle-deep sand. Suddenly my quads were burning with angry muscle memory from hundreds of miles of soft snow in Alaska.

 My research of this route amounted to a Google Map search to locate the trailhead. Drainages veered off in at least four directions, and I had no idea which one was Devil's Canyon, or which way I was supposed to go. I was searching for a narrow slot that was supposed to cut into one of these canyons, but I realized at this point that my chances of finding it were low. I chose to head straight, along a sandy wash where I could occasionally see faint footprints. I hit a dead-end after an arduous mile and a half.

 Desert hopscotch — not the clumsy person's favorite game. Incredibly, I did not go splat. But I did start to run low on drinking water, having greedily slurped up too much again, and having promised myself that this "recovery" hike would be two hours tops. I'd already run up that amount of time, but chose to try one more drainage heading east.

 I did find a tiny slot — not the correct one — and water, although I had nothing to filter it and was not nearly thirsty enough to drink from a stagnant pothole. Despite being low on water, curiosity got the better of me, and I continued hopscotching, sand-wading, and sandstone-ledge-scrambing up a side canyon, hoping I might intersect with the road I walked in on. Again, I knew chances of finding an exit were low, but there's something so compelling about exploring a tiny wrinkle in the Earth. People on I-70 would look across this expanse and see only the flat juniper desert stretching all the way to San Rafael Knob. But the entire plateau rippled with these hidden canyons, a veritable maze that I could crawl through for hours, days, weeks even, and never find the place I'm looking for.

My explorations led to the sharp end of the drainage, where I crawled out onto a rim and followed a cattle trail back toward the main canyon. I assumed cattle like to access water, and that the trail would lead back to my starting point. Instead, it dropped into another small wash, which ended in a cliff that plummeted 200 feet into the narrow crevice I'd been at the bottom of, an hour earlier. No option but to backtrack. I was effectively out of water, and quite grumpy. But I'd made my choices. I wasn't going to die from 90 minutes of thirst. The wind still roared and the sun was hot now, drying my skin and throat to an even greater degree. My quads joined the chorus of complaints as I hopped rocks and waded through sand. To soothe a growing urge to panic, I sang to myself the Tom Rosenthal song that I mumbled many times during the Iditarod, where it always made me feel better.

"I took a road that wasn't a road, but it was something I chose, and that's fine."

The desert, like frozen tundra, never yields. The desert makes you earn it, whatever it is. The desert punishes mistakes severely, but it also rewards in kind. By the time I made it back to my campsite, my skin was pockmarked from the sand blast, and my throat was searingly dry. But I had a gallon of water stored under a blanket, where it remained blissfully cool. The taste of that water was pure ecstasy. 
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Wanna breathe that fire again

I felt like I was being excessively nice to my legs — taking rest days, avoiding running, and backing off efforts when I felt even a hint of lactic acid in my quads. Just two weeks had passed since the White Mountains 100, and already I felt restless, wistful for something more challenging, ready to breathe some fire. Taxes done and deadlines met, a window swung wide open on Wednesday. I excitedly planned a longer ride, just for fun, but with a gnawing desire to push myself at least a little. Then the wind came.

I was sipping coffee at the dining room table when a gust ripped across the yard and slammed into the house with a loud knocking sound — as though something broke, but I'm not sure what. I was afraid to venture outside to check. A glance at measurements from our weather station revealed the wind speed: 50 mph. It wasn't even 9 a.m., and the wind was supposed to worsen throughout the day. Well.

For the rest of the morning I glanced outside as trees bent sideways, and quivered along with them. I've ridden my bike through 50-plus-mile-per-hour gusts before, and I've been blown into a ditch. I've been hit with unidentified flying debris. I've also been pushed to the opposite side of the road without warning, which could have ended terribly if there had been any oncoming traffic. I'm frightened of strong wind — not because it creates difficulty, but because it's unpredictable with dangers that can't be lessened with any amount of gear or preparation, unlike heavy rain or 30 below zero. But on Wednesday, I had this gleam in my eye about the prospect. Sure, I didn't have to go outside and battle hurricane-force gusts for six hours. There was absolutely no good reason to subject myself to that. And yet.

Now that more than a month has passed since I left the Iditarod Trail, much of my current stream-of-consciousness thought involves fond recollections about how happy I was out there. Isn't it weird how that works? During the race I struggled, so much, and managed to hold onto this pain long enough to convince myself not to sign up for next year. Then, as soon as the deadline passed, I felt regret. While continuing to process this strange wistfulness, I often think back to the day I broke my trekking pole in the Farewell Burn and dropped into the cold snow, curled into a fetal position and bawled about it ... for several minutes at least. I was just so fatigued and frustrated with the seeming futility of my efforts. The prospect of things becoming even slightly more difficult broke an emotional floodgate, and I was temporarily but utterly broken. Now that a month has passed, I think about that incident and smile — because it sure was a beautiful day, with the frosty dwarf spruce and glistening fresh snow blanketing the wind-blown swamps. All I want to do is go back. What is wrong with me?

It will be easier to accept my limitations when I come down again. Right now I'm riding a bit of a high, feeling the strongest and most upbeat I've felt since December. Sure, I've got the sore legs, and the necessary Alaska recovery. But my emotional health has evened out and my breathing has been solid. Oxygen doesn't always come easily to me, and seems like a terrible thing to waste.

That's how I found myself buffeted by amazingly strong headwinds as I dipped in and out of ruts on County Road 68J yesterday afternoon. A steady stream of dirt and small rocks pummeled my bare legs. Gusts stopped my wheels cold while I teetered precariously on embedded boulders. I'd crash through the invisible wall by mashing pedals as hard as I could, lungs searing as air rushed past my face faster than I could capture it. It was comical, really — like a mechanical rodeo on an unruly bicycle with a mind of its own. The sheer effort of mashing pedals flushed the soreness right out of my legs, and everything about the ridiculousness felt amazing. I was the unstoppable force against the immovable object.  I was breathing that fire.

If I'd ridden an hour and turned around, it would have been perfect. But I continued battling the lung-searing headwind all the way to Nederland, then endured what was mostly a crosswind along the busy Peak to Peak Highway. The gusts required hard leaning to the left, which I had to swiftly correct in relative lulls, otherwise I'd shoot out of the shoulder and into traffic. Finally I reached the Switzerland Trail and a long descent with the wind at my back. This proved to be a detriment to me while steering around the many sharp rocks littering the doubletrack. Eventually I just let the wind push me over the rocks, and ended up with a sharp kink in my lower back, because right now I'm not exactly well-conditioned for rough riding. The pain endured as I fought my way around the curve past Sugarloaf into the fiercest wind yet. Gusts were being sucked into the narrow funnel of Fourmile Canyon, and I was barely able to mash pedals for most of a rocky, four-mile descent. I was certain some the wind gusts were pushing 80 mph, but of course can't verify this. Later that evening, I searched Wunderground for nearby weather stations, and did find measured gusts of 70 mph.

The final climb of the day was fairly protected from the wind, even when I pedaled in a westerly direction. I was finally able to relax as I bounced over sharp rocks for 1,500 feet of elevation gain. After nearly five hours of a ceaseless battle that demanded the depth of my strength, I felt drained — but in a pleasant way. Fatigue cleared my mind, making room for appreciative observations of the canyon's beauty to temporarily replace happy but preoccupying Alaska memories and unrealized ambitions. Glimpses of the Continental Divide revealed sharply contrasted black-and-white mountains framed by billowing clouds of blowing snow. Equally visible clouds of brown dust swept along the forested slopes to the south, but somehow left me alone, for a few minutes at least. Overhead the sky was a brilliant shade of blue, unexpectedly clear. Beauty is always easy to find, when I remember to look around.

And there's beauty in the ridiculous, like riding a bike in 70-mph winds for no real reason. The happy memories of breathing fire and watching dramatic storm clouds outlast the fatigue, brightly eclipsing all of those pretty days of spring when I prudently rested my legs and did my taxes. 
Wednesday, April 04, 2018

What now?

 The first few days following the White Mountains 100 were rough. Exhausted as I was after the 34-hour effort, my legs would not let me sleep. It was a pattern of writhing for a while, finally dozing, and jerking awake less than 20 minutes later with either cramps or a dull burning sensation in my quads. For two nights, I just gave up trying to sleep, crawled upstairs, and did my insomniac thing where I stare at Twitter or the New York Times and don't retain anything. People seemed to not believe me when I said I wasn't sleeping, but as far as I was concerned, an invisible force was slapping my legs all night long — how well would anyone sleep through that? I was so desperate for rest that wouldn't come. If someone had offered me hard drugs, I probably would have accepted. As it was, I coerced my physician friend Corrine to disclose the largest cocktail of Aleve and Tylenol that I could safely ingest.

One of those evenings included the post-race pizza party, of which I remember little. I do remember agreeing to be the designated driver so that others could enjoy the keg. But shortly after taking the wheel, I hallucinated a cloaked grim reaper darting in front of the car and slammed on the brakes. Luckily Wendy was willing to finish driving home, so I pulled over immediately. Thinking back, I was definitely the least sober person in the vehicle.

The pain finally began to loosen its grip, but my legs were still too sore to stay comfortable during our drive back to Anchorage and flight to Denver on Thursday and Friday. I was perplexed about what exactly was wrong with them (I mean, I know I walked about 100 miles too far last week, but I have never experienced this depth of soreness before.) Beat helped shed some light by disclosing just how long he dealt with muscle pain following his Iditarod walk in 2015, when he and a few others battled thigh-deep snow drifts for 200 miles across the Interior. He likened the effort to climbing a Stairmaster for 12 hours a day, without relief. I remember that year well. For months afterward, Beat's legs felt sore every time he exercised. The soreness wasn't terrible and only lasted a few hours each time, but it did persist.

His descriptive use of "Stairmaster" rang true for my effort this year. Trail conditions weren't nearly as bad as those Beat faced in 2015, but I'm also not nearly as strong as Beat. Dragging my 45-pound sled through either wind-drifted snow or fresh snow was a full-strength workout for me, and I was doing it in large blocks — 12 hours, 14 hours, 20 hours without rest. No wonder I tore apart my legs.

 I have been cautious about venturing back into activity. I've noticed my legs actually hurt more after I've taken two or three days off. Easy motions seem to soothe them ... but not hiking. I tried one three-mile hike on Sunday, and that reignited deeper pain. I've accepted that it may be a while before I can return to running. But biking — at least, the two rides I've done — feels wonderful.

Go figure. It's been six weeks since I've been on a bike, and I'm back to riding at 7,000 to 8,000 feet after residing at low altitudes for more than a month. But I'm breathing more easily, climbing more smoothly, and feeling stronger than I distinctly remember feeling before we left for Alaska in February. My legs are actually less sore tonight than they were last night, after two rest days. It's as though in the process of burning out my hiking/running fitness, I managed to significantly improve my cycling fitness.

"Well of course you feel great, it's April," I reasoned today as I cleared a tough climb without even breathing hard. See, I have this theory about a four-month hormonal cycle attached to fluctuations of my hyperthyroid condition. Whether or not there's any biological merit to this theory (likely there is none), it doesn't really matter anymore — the placebo effect is firmly in place. I'm now convinced I'm nearing the high that follows two months of low. This further reinforces an idea that December, April, and August are "awesome." February, June, and October are "awful." All of the other months are somewhere in between on a roller-coaster bell curve ... and there's pretty much nothing I can do about that. I can burn myself out in March and still feel awesome in April. Or train hard all winter long and still arrive at my late-February race in horrible shape. The cycle dictates my fitness.

I realize I need to let go of these convictions in order to kill the placebo effect. But as long as it's April, I think I'll hold on a bit longer.

Of course, I realize that a lot of this April awesome is simply stoke about being back on my bike after such a long time away, and about being home again. For as inexplicably sad as I was during the weeks following the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I've felt pleasantly content since finishing the White Mountains 100. In many ways, I left all of my feels out on the trails in Alaska. Both mind and body are ready for some boring routine. But the wanderlust continues to whisper, all the same.

On the adventure/race front, I have almost nothing planned. I did sign up for a local 50K trail race in June, but that hardly counts. I willfully dodged the urge to plan a big summer race or trip, reasoning that I could really use a block of time to focus on the state of my health, rather than goals. I've also decided not to sign up for the Iditarod next year. This year was a bit of a test to see whether I have what it takes to walk the Southern Route to Nome, which was my tentative ambition for 2019. My conclusion was a resounding no. I don't have what it takes. The largest road block right now is my mind. I am tired — tired of all of the striving I've done for this trail since 2014. I am emphatically not ready to start all over again, effectively launching right now, to train and prepare for a physical endeavor that frankly feels impossible after what I experienced in the ITI350 last month. Of course, as I've stated before, the fact that something feels impossible to me has never been a reason not to try. But right now, I am not ready. Right now, I need physical and mental rest. And if 2019 just happens to be my last best chance, well, too bad.

It is strange for me, though, to have nothing on the horizon. Of course I hope to divert some time to writing and other projects, but these feel so small next to the sweeping emotions of a big adventure. Perhaps my resolve to keep it simple will crack. For now, though, I am content to pedal my mountain bike up a steep gravel road while elk graze in a meadow, and cold wind sweeps in from the west, carrying a strong aroma of wet dirt and crushed pine needles ... spring.
Sunday, April 01, 2018

A familiar sound, reawakened

Scientists say the aurora borealis emits no sound. They're probably correct, but just try to convince this half-hobbled hiker, 50 miles and 16 hours into nonstop 100-mile trek through Alaska's White Mountains. For most of those hours, icy north winds pummeled my body until I wasn't sure whether my upper legs were numb from fatigue or cold. The hour was closing in on midnight, perhaps past; time had become fluid, swirling around my feet with the wind-driven snow. I was hobbled only because my legs hurt, with throbbing soreness that had gripped my quads since well before mile zero. But this wasn't bad, really. At least it wasn't getting worse.


 I crested Cache Mountain Divide and continued shuffle-walking across the narrow saddle, dragging my feet to feel out the hidden trail base beneath a flowing stream of spindrift. I briefly switched on my headlamp and decided it was a detriment to visibility, as its white LCD glow washed out the shadows cast by the half moon. In moonlight, bald mountains glistened with a silver tint, and shadows etched the snow-covered landscape with stark definition. If I was a poet, I would write something about windows into the ancient soul of the mountain, moments of unobstructed clarity when the far reaches of time and space become briefly, strikingly visible.

More futile than attempting to describe such perspective is attempting to photograph it, but I pulled my little camera from an inside pocket, set the exposure to four seconds, and anchored it atop my trekking pole pogies. As I waited for the self timer, I perceived a low-pitched sound from the north — a rich, vibrating harmony best likened to Tuvan throat singers, or the quiet roar of a distant whitewater river.  It was probably the wind, or imagination, but I heard something, and this prompted me to wheel around and face the northern horizon.


What I saw was an auroral storm more intense than any I'd witnessed in five years of living in Alaska, and miles of winter endurance races that now number in the thousands. Photon waves rippled over the mountains until the entire sky was a river of green light — almost blindingly bright in the deeper channels, rolling into eddies of red-tinted and white streaks, then shimmering and disappearing into curled tails. The light moved so quickly that if I blinked it changed entirely. I was gobsmacked, simultaneously plopping down on my butt and wheezily screaming a string of obscenities that was entirely inappropriate. Alas, I am but an inarticulate human, with limited means to express what I feel in such moments. 

I didn't even try to take another photo just then, as expressions of my feeble humanity were rightly silenced beneath the thundering universe. Time drifted past. I'm not sure how long I sat in the snow, sore legs stretched up a steep incline, watching the sky. At some point I reached at a backpack strap, and realized I couldn't flex my fingers — my hands were bare and had been exposed to the cold wind since I removed them from my pole pogies. 

"Oh, you've frozen your hands," I said out loud with surprising matter-of-factness. This kind of thing happens to feeble humans when our core temperature drops and our circulatory systems decrease blood flow to our extremities, limiting movement in these muscles. Fingers aren't actually frozen, yet, but this soon follows if one doesn't do something about it immediately. Reluctantly I staggered to my feet, used a rigid claw to scoop my trekking poles under one arm, pushed both claws under my jacket and shirt, then held them awkwardly under my arm pits. My fingers felt like ice against the warm skin of my torso. 

I wasn't alarmed, but I was lucid enough to understand the urgency of the situation. With a few sputters from creaky muscles, I worked my stride into a jog. Here I was, feeble human in a remote and snowbound Alaska wilderness at midnight, illuminated by spectacular Northern Lights as I shambled forward with my arms crossed under my shirt like a deranged zombie wearing a straight jacket. 

Amid the chaos I managed to hit the play button on my iPod Shuffle, which was still affixed to my tights with ear buds in place, but hadn't been turned on since I arrived at Cache Mountain cabin some hours earlier. Suddenly music was playing, and it was jarring, but I couldn't sacrifice a cold hand to reach down and turn it off. Instead I hobble-jogged as fast as my sore legs could muster. Adrenaline surged. Hot blood pumped through my arteries. My fingers started to tingle. As waves of aurora continued dancing overhead, I felt a soul-rending burst of pain and euphoria that my feeble body was helpless to contain. Expression was all I had left. Through hard breathing, I managed to wheeze-sing at the top of my lungs with the song on my iPod, "Folk-Hop Sound" by Judah and the Lion. 

"Don't you feel like letting go? 
Don't you feel like letting go? 
Don't you feel like letting go don't you feel like letting go by turning up the stereo ..."


In "The Call of the Wild," Jack London more articulately described this sensation:

“He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.” 

Friends! Danni and Wendy, with Bryon Powell and his phone in the background at the starting line of the WM100
The 2018 White Mountains 100 — this was the sixth time I'd lined up for this race, with finishes on a bike in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, and a foot finish in 2015. For all of this experience, this year was by far the least confident I'd ever felt, including 2010 when I was undertrained and really had no idea what I was getting into with this route — deep in Alaska's Interior, constant climbing and descending along narrow snowmobile trails that are dozens of miles from the nearest road access, likely to be deathly cold in late March, and often choked with hard ice and wet overflow. But I made it thanks to support from tireless volunteers and fellow nutty bikers and skiers. The White Mountains 100 has been my favorite race ever since.

This year, the 300-mile trek through soft snow to McGrath had left me with deeper fatigue than I'd anticipated. Prolonged muscle soreness in my upper legs led to suspicion about chronic exertional compartment syndrome of the quadriceps. But then I read more from Dr. Google and scolded myself. "You're not in pain like that. You're just being a baby because your leggies are tired." Over two weeks of "active recovery," I nearly regained the confidence I needed to start this race ... but then I took that ill-advised overnight trip to Eleazar's cabin last weekend.

Danni descending along the endless rollers to Moose Creek
I may be a neurotic and uncertain person at heart, but I think even the most cocksure individual would find their courage pulverized if they'd experienced what I experienced one week prior to the race. My quad muscles went numb while dragging my sled through knee-deep snowdrifts out of Eleazar's cabin. Several times, I knelt into the snow because I was certain my legs could no longer support my weight. In 6.5 hours I traveled 12 miles, and was fully exhausted by the day's effort. That was Monday, and the White Mountains 100 started the following Sunday. Persistent soreness while barely moving for the rest of the week left no doubt about my odds of finishing the race.

"Even if trails somehow set up after that storm, it's still 100 miles on dead legs," I grumbled to friends.

Fear of pain, injury and failure gnawed at my rational side, but I was still more influenced by "Fear of Missing Out" and the reality that several friends and acquaintances were flying up from the Lower 48 to participate, along with many kindred souls who I've connected with in nine years of Fairbanks visits and White Mountains 100s. Could I really see myself willfully if prudently dropping out of "The Best Race Ever ®"?  No. No I could not.

Melanie Vriesman skiing past the trailside checkpoint above Moose Creek
The race began much as my my five prior White Mountains 100s began, under the red glow of a rising sun after 45 minutes of standing around in single-digit temperatures blasted by a cold, cold wind. I used up all of the pre-race minutes chatting with folks and making five or six bathroom stops, so I spent some quality time in last place while I fumbled with layers, GPS and the backpack I was using. It was an untested 20-liter Ultimate Direction Fastpack that I borrowed from Bryon Powell, after having a "What was I thinking?" realization about my well-worn 12-liter pack from 2015. Of course, I was so anxious about my legs during pre-race week that I didn't even bother to pack it up and set out for a test hike. I've used untested items in 100-milers before. They usually work just fine, and the Fastpack was no exception.

After a few miles of readjustments, I did some jogging (real running! At least, not walking. The motion felt so strange) and caught up to Wendy and Danni.

"How are you feeling?" Danni asked me.

"My legs hurt," I complained. "I mean, it's not that bad, but ... this is mile three."


A cyclist with tubeless tire failure returns to checkpoint one on the wind-drifted trail
The north wind continued to gain strength, blowing steadily at 15mph with gusts to 30mph. Much of the eastern side of this loop traverses wildfire-charred hillsides. The skeletons of spindly black spruce resemble a Dr. Seuss dystopia. Wind-drifted snow passes effortlessly through these burns, and it takes mere minutes to disappear the trail and all of the tracks from people who passed earlier. I felt like I was back on the Yentna River, rolling my feet over endless snow dunes as spindrift pummeled my face. With that experience still fresh in memory, my most pressing concern was my breathing. I'd struggled with asthma during the first third of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and later decided this was most likely caused by breathing hard into the cold wind, which constricted my airways and resulted in mucous buildup that further obstructed my ability to breathe. My strategy to combat this problem during the White Mountains 100 was to reduce my effort level to something more sustainable than I'd pushed while battling my way up the Yentna River (admittedly not that difficult with sore legs and no sled to drag) and breathe into a thin buff stretched over my face. I dislike doing this because the buff becomes soaked and chills my face. But it's not so thick that it obstructs air flow, and the humid air results in happier lungs.

Descending toward Beaver Creek, with Cache Mountain in the background
The first third of this race was challenging, for many of the same reasons as the first third of my ITI. After a week of back and forth indecision, I opted to leave my snowshoes behind. Without a flat platform to float atop soft snow, I had to take extra care to not roll my feet excessively and reignite the tendon swelling and pain that had only just abated. My pace felt glacial, but at least it wasn't sled-dragging hard. The roar of the wind became tedious so I turned on my iPod after seven hours. Although I was still moving in close proximity to my friends and several other women runners in the race, the headwind and exertion limited our conversations.

Kathryn Bonuck of Portland, Oregon, on the drifted trail leading to Cache Mountain cabin
Beautiful solitude, without the sting of loneliness — this is just one of the many reasons I love participating in races. It's assuring, knowing that others are out there feeling the emotions you are feeling, experiencing similar wonder, battling similar challenges and fears. The interesting psychology of this camaraderie makes it possible to go farther, sometimes much farther, than we otherwise could alone.

Wendy approaching Cache Mountain cabin at sunset
Amid the intensity of the wind and focus on my footsteps and breathing, I'd managed to forget about leg pain for most of the first 40 miles. We neared the Cache Mountain checkpoint just as the sun slipped behind the western horizon. The cabin was crammed to the loft with skiers and runners, resting feet and legs as fatigue settled in for the long haul. A cheerful volunteer offered this checkpoint's highly anticipated baked potato with butter and cheese.

"Thanks, important stuff first," I replied as I removed my shoes and socks, hanging them over the wood stove to dry. I squeezed into a corner next to my friend Melanie and another Fairbanks skier I'd met at a bonfire earlier in the week, Christian. "Gotta dry your feet," I reasoned when they asked if I was leaving right away. Hurty feet were the one physiological issue I felt I could control, and I wasn't about to relinquish this.


Danni arrived just as I was heading out the door, about 45 minutes later. She was pale-faced and audibly wheezing, and told me her asthma was acting up. The sound of her speaking in a hoarse voice through shallow breaths was a visceral reminder of own struggle during the ITI. I recalled the frightening hours when I sleeplessly writhed in the unheated cabin at Shell Lake and pondered who I needed to call to secure a plane ride out of there. Feeling like you can't breathe is utterly awful; I never understood until I finally understood.

"It's the wind," I said. "Breathing into this wind is just ... ugh. But I think it might be dying down finally. Do you have an inhaler with you?"

I'd hoped to travel most of the course with Danni, and regret not hanging around longer to see whether she recovered. My own experiences warned me that she probably couldn't recover in time to meet the 40-hour cutoffs. I barely boosted myself out the door after seven hours at Shell Lake, and still continued to struggle with my breathing for the next day and a half. Danni waited through the night and took a snowmachine ride out in the morning, enjoying the scenic route along McKay Creek and lunch at the Chatanika Lodge. One thing about Danni, she knows how to do DNFs right.


Approaching Cache Mountain Divide at dusk
Heading out the door, I felt lucky that the only thing holding me back were my legs, which were as stiff as rusty hinges after an hour of cool-down. I zombie-walked down the trail until my muscles warmed up, just in time to watch the last hints of twilight fade from the sky. Deepening purple hues revealed hints of green before the first stars arrived. As the trail veered west toward Cache Mountain Divide, I passed a man on foot and commented on the aurora's arrival. "Looks like it's going to be a good night," I said, and switched off my headlamp as soon as I passed. I wouldn't need the headlamp again until I left checkpoint three after 4 a.m., more than six hours later.

Aurora over Fossil Creek valley around 2 a.m.
Hiking through the night by the light of a half moon beneath rippling aurora was an experience I'm sure I'll never succeed in reliving, no matter how many hallucinogenic drugs I try. Walking allowed the freedom to crane my neck upward for minutes at a time — comfortable in both my movements and my body temperature. Constant motion created an ever-changing canvas of mountains and sky that reignited awe at every turn. After the frozen-hand incident, I didn't attempt to stop again. Regaining the life in my hands was exhilarating, and although I couldn't recreate the miracle in my legs, this didn't prevent continued attempts at exalted hobble-jogging.

I was astonished how my brain could produce such depths of unbroken joy. I nearly always experience moments of euphoria during my longer endurance races, but this was literal hours in a sort of waking dream in which time stopped and I felt no pain. If I was a poet, I would write about the way the sky danced overhead as though solely for me, the beautiful, low-toned music that continued long after I resumed the moonlit march in silence, or how my whole body seemed to vibrate until I thought I might burst, such were my continued surges of energy after nearly 60 miles.

There were a few more occasions when I paused briefly to attempt to capture an image of the sky. As expected, the photos are disappointing. I look at them and think they don't begin to convey the truth, but then again, neither can my words.

Dawn in the depths of the cold
I arrived at Windy Gap feeling full of life and boosted myself out of there fairly quickly, although I definitely had ultra brain — I knocked all three of my allotted meatballs and most of my soup onto the floor, and ate the meatballs anyway. (Aaaack! I won't even eat the "trail magic" food left in cabins because I'm convinced rodents have rifled through it. Eating meatballs that rolled through dirt and mouse turds atop a snowmachine boot and sweaty-feet-smeared floor?!? Argh!) And even though I'd consumed almost no water since leaving checkpoint two, I urged the volunteer to overfill my hydration bladder until it leaked onto the floor. When I stepped outside again, morning was approaching. The half moon had slipped behind the limestone crags towering over Fossil Creek, and tall spruce trees blotted out most views of the sky. I can't pretend I wasn't disappointed. If I could have waved some kind wand, I would have made that magic night last much longer.


I left Windy Gap wearing my base layer, unzipped primaloft shorts, and soft-shell jacket. As dawn overtook the beautiful sky, a disconcerting creep of cold air settled around my body. I started by adding a mid-layer synthetic puffy jacket, then my fuzzy buff. I finally remembered to zip up my shorts and added fleece knee warmers over joints that now ached with cold. After another mile or so, a small panic set in and I made a longer stop to pull primaloft overboots over my cold toes (so glad I brought those!), mittens, and a thin wind shell between my two jackets. The only items that remained in my pack were my "emergency" down coat, thin shell pants, liner beanie, three pairs of used and slightly damp fleece or Drymax socks, one pair of dry socks, and thin over-mitts. My arms, cut off from better circulation by the backpack straps, remained cold, but I was loathe to put on that down coat. There's something deeply unsettling about using up all of my layers, meaning I have no safety buffer beyond fire-starters and an emergency bivy. This was the only point during the race when I remotely missed my sled.

First light over Fossil Creek.
Of course continued marching with a few more layers warmed me up just fine, until I was comfortable enough to stop for several minutes for, well, you know ... the morning constitutional. As I leaned against a spruce tree, I felt the depth of frost encrusted to my eyelashes and guessed it was 20 below zero along this low-lying valley. Volunteers in the adjacent and similarly low Beaver Creek valley measured minus 25 well after dawn.

Climbing out of Fossil Creek Valley well after sunrise. The cold stayed for a while.
I was actually stoked that it was so cold. With my security blanket puffy jacket still safely stowed in my pack, I felt increasingly invincible to this sinister vapor swirling around me. And it was distracting enough that several more hours passed without giving a second thought to my legs, which, thanks to the exciting yet numbing cold, were moving more smoothly than ever.

A long climb on much improved trail
The brightening skies and warmth of day two were not entirely welcome. As I climbed out of Fossil Creek Valley, nighttime bliss finally gave way to fatigue. For the first time in the race, I felt hints of nausea. This wasn't all that surprising, as I'd been subsisting almost solely on jelly fruit slices. Donald the Scottish biker turned me on to these miracle bursts of energy after donating his stash to me in Nikolai. After eight days of subsisting on healthy trail mix during the ITI, pure sugar was the rocket fuel that propelled me the final 20 miles into McGrath. Knowing I needed to do whatever I could to get through the White Mountains 100, I bought a pound of jelly fruit slices at Fred Meyer and burned through all of them by the end of the race. I have no regrets. No regrets! But I did hope the stomach ache was from all of this candy, and not an early symptom of hantavirus from the floor meatballs.

Surprised to see a biker pass me near mile 75. 
I was still in a good mood as I checked into Borealis cabin, slurped up a bowl of instant ramen noodles, slathered lube on my feet, changed my socks, and got out of there in less than 20 minutes. Before arriving, I'd already removed most of my clothing layers even as ice remained encrusted on my eyelashes and hat. I commented about the heat to a volunteer, and he glanced at the outdoor thermometer to inform me that it was still 1 below zero, at 11 a.m.

"So it's going to be a cooker today," I said like a smug Alaskan that I am totally not, and replaced my thick windproof hat with the still-damp liner hat, then removed my primaloft shorts, fleece socks and gaiters to help cool my legs. They were throbbing, and stiffened up immediately. Even with the swift retreat from Borealis, I could scarcely contain tears as I battled the rusty hinges to resume walking.

View from the Wickersham Wall
My mood deteriorated from there. Although slightly soft, there trail was no longer covered in wind-drifted snow, so there wasn't uneven footing to distract me. The wind had died, so I no longer had to concentrate on steady movement and breathing. The warming air and second-day heat pouring from my body meant there was no longer cold to distract me. The aurora was gone, the sun was oppressively bright, and the terrain was all too familiar and uninspiring. I was hiking along the Wickersham Creek valley, with its shallow rollers that somehow feel endlessly uphill without gaining altitude, while spending nine miles staring at the Wickersham Wall, which never seems to get any closer, even if you walk for three hours. All I had left was my pain — my throbbing, hot, relentless pain. And despite my pep talk with Wendy before the start, there was no making friends with my pain.

Photo by Danni Coffman, one mile before the finish
I'd love to say I worked through my pain and spent the final miles in satisfied reflection, but I learned that — just as it's possible to spend 20 miles enveloped in total joy — it's also possible to spend 20 miles focused solely on pain. I did what I could to distract myself. I moaned often, loudly, without shame. I briefly attempted hobble-jogs that had become almost comical with awkward stumbling. I dropped onto my knees at one point to try crawling down a hill, also without shame. I continued having strange hallucinations of my friend Wendy, wearing her big white parka and waiting for me on the side of the trail ... and discovered, every time, that this was just another snow-covered tree. I turned up my iPod and sang along loudly, completely without shame ... mostly to Judah and the Lion, which I had adopted as my official 2018 White Mountains 100 soundtrack.

"We'll be growing old and gray. 
We'll be getting through the good times, same pain. 
We'll be making the years go by like days,
Cause you're my forever, you're my forever, you're my always."

Through all this, I remembered my love for the White Mountains, for the familiarity and the surprise, the harshness and benevolence, the life-changing realizations, the highs and the lows. I gritted my teeth and glanced to the south, toward a ripple of rounded domes, the trans-Alaska Pipeline, hazy views of the Hayes Range — still beautiful, even through a lens of pain.

Danni hiked out to meet me a mile from the finish, and I was overjoyed to see her. About 50 yards before the finish, I saw Beat standing next to the trail in his big coat with a full beard and wind-burned face. It was the first time I'd seen him in a month.

"You're here," I wheezed, and reached out to embrace him before he could walk away and make me finish this race. "Congrats, you did awesome," I said, regarding his fourth finish in Nome, a place he'd reached just 48 hours earlier. He'd managed to grab a couple nights of rest, fly from Nome to Anchorage to Fairbanks, and drive my rental car to the Wickersham Dome trailhead while I plodded along the course.

Race director Joel handed me a belt buckle and let me officially finish before 6 p.m., for a time of 33:59. It's pretty far from the under-30-hour finish I managed in 2015, and blows away my pre-ITI hubris about walking the ITI350 to build bulletproof fitness for a fast time at the Whites. But damn, I actually made it through with only 20 percent grumbling, 40 percent striving, and 40 percent effortless and exhilarating awe. I couldn't ask for better odds if I dreamed the entire experience, which I'm still not 100 percent sure I hadn't.