Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Following the 2019 Iditarod Trail Invitational

Well, it's that time of year again — Beat's now-annual sabbatical on the Iditarod Trail. I'm not out on the trail this year, for a number of reasons, but at the top of that list is the harsh unravelling I experienced last year during my walk to McGrath. It's true I've been a long-time enthusiast of gutting my way through physical anguish to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but apparently I have limits, and those limits are drawn at about 85 percent blood oxygen saturation, I've decided. Whether or not I've improved on my ability to draw oxygen from the air and transfer it to my body remains to be seen, so this year I an trying to focus on relative "baby steps" back to my path to spiritual enlightenment. 

I came close to not even joining Beat in Alaska this year. Although always fun, bumming my way around the state amid the difficulties of winter brings its own stresses. As much as I hate to admit it, sticking to a routine seems to improve my overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, I'm definitely back in a slump right now. But the lure of the North is too much to resist. I came up with this strange idea to "live" in Nome for a month. More on that soon. For now, I wanted to post my photos from the start. I put these up on Facebook a few days ago, making this blog post somewhat redundant. But this is my digital log of record. 

 Beat and I arrived in Anchorage on Thursday afternoon, probably the earliest we've ever shown up here before the race. It felt like ample time to browse the aisles at the enormous new REI and see the folks we like to see while we're here. So much pre-race down time would be torture for me if I was racing, but this year I enjoyed soaking in the relief of knowing I would not be gasping my way up the Yentna River in a few days' time. I also had a chance to meet up with much of the Colorado contingent in this year's race. Dennis, Brian, Erika and I rode bikes along the Coastal Trail on the most perfect winter day Alaska has to offer — 18 degrees, sunny, no wind. Sublime.

On Saturday night Beat and I headed out to Wasilla for a quieter night closer to the race start. I secretly love the Mat-Su Valley and think Palmer would be a great place for us to retire. (Where we'll retire in Alaska is something Beat and I often talk about.) Wasilla is a little less great, and receives a justifiable bad rap for its most famous resident, but it's still surrounded by the stunning skyline of the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains, it's close to great adventure trails, and it has a nice, reasonably priced Best Western on the shoreline of Lake Lucille. While Beat napped in the room, I headed out for a slog-jog on the soft snowmachine tracks criss-crossing the frozen lake. My breathing was rough for sea level, flat terrain and no wind, but the scenery kept me moving happily.

 Despite a forecast of overcast skies, the weather remained beautiful as we made our way out to the start at Knik Lake. Beat and Tim set up shop right next to the race sign, probably not noticing that they were photo-bombing everyone's pre-race selfie. But it did seem an appropriate spot for the two most experienced veterans in the 2019 race. Tim is going for his 11th completion in Nome, and tenth on foot (I believe this is the number. He recently joked that he needed his ten-thousand-mile buckle — which doesn't actually exist, but is a nice idea — and "the bike doesn't count" — he finished with a bike in 2017, his last completion.) Beat is aiming for his fifth finish in Nome. He's been at this starting line every since 2012. His finishes go: 2012, hardest-ever trail to McGrath; 2013, Southern Route to Nome; 2014, Northern Route to Nome; 2015, hardest-ever trail from McGrath to Ruby, stopped in Koyukuk following a friend's family emergency; 2016, Northern Route to Nome; 2017, stopped at Puntilla Lake due to illness; 2018, Southern Route to Nome. This year they're back on the Southern Route.

 This year the Knik Bar, parking lot, and even the lake ice was crowded with spectators and participants in a snowmachine drag race. The racers had to divert around the rally action, and I didn't pick the best spot to wait for the walkers.

 I sprinted to catch a starting photo of Beat. He's such a giddy sled dog at the start of these events. He is completely in his element out here, which it the main driver that brings him back again and again. The Iditarod Trail is home. Those who get it, get it.

 I drove to Point MacKenzie Road to get a head-start and rode out Burma Road toward the official Iditarod Trail. I figured I would want more of a beater bike to ride around Nome, so I resuscitated Fatty Fatback, now almost a decade old. Fatty doesn't have quite the charm of my (now-sold) Pugsley and still has a number of old-bike problems, mostly because he's been maintained by me. He had to be heavily disassembled to fit under the 50-pound weight limit, dragged around airports, and reassembled three times. The words "I hate bikes" were uttered by me more than twice this week. But once I was out pedaling on the trail, I was back in love. Fatty and I rode out to the Nome sign, which is 18 miles into the official trail. I wrote this about the sign after my Susitna 100 race in 2007:

"At mile 16, I passed the famous — and usually missing —Nome sign. From that spot, Nome is only 1,049 miles away. I thought about the scope of the Iditarod trail, and the distant dream of actually riding a bicycle all the way to the end of the continent — to a frozen village locked against a frozen sea — and the sparse, starkly gorgeous landscape that would carry you there. A simple thing like a Nome sign makes those sweeping images that much more real, even if they never are anything more than a dream."

Those words are still true. I was filled with Nome dreams as I pedaled a short distance beyond the sign, churning through soft snow that had become even less consolidated at the trail split. The snow out here is deep this year. Trails were perfectly rideable, but every stroke was a small feat of strength. My quads were burning. When I think about the trail to Nome, I often think about my ultimate ambition of walking the entire distance. Still, the bike feels more like home, even if it's true that "I hate bikes" whenever I am not actively riding them (and when they break down, and when I need to deal with maintenance, etc., etc.) It's a tough decision, still — whether to go back at all, and whether to ride or walk.  I have to get these lungs in shape first. Legs also need a lot of work, apparently.

At my mile 13, I looked at my watch and did some quick math to determine where the runners might be. If I didn't turn around soon, I probably wouldn't see anyone before dark. Since my purpose for this ride was to take photos of Beat and the other sled-draggers, I had to turn around. Bummer. The sun had already set by the time I encountered the leading runner, Rob Henderson of Minnesota. Luckily, Alaska has long twilights, so I was able to pass everyone in daylight.

To my surprise, Beat was the third runner I encountered, only about a quarter mile behind Rob. He was leading a duo of Germans and speaking to them in German when he passed. I told him to keep walking, but he leaned in to kiss me, which caused the Germans to say, "Ahhhh."

"You're going out fast. Feeling good, I suppose?" I said to Beat.

"Pretty good," he replied. Beat came down with a cold the day before the race, and symptoms escalated quickly enough that he was asking when I left for Nome, just in case he needed to drop out and return to Anchorage that day. Beat is nearly always like this before a big race — strategizing his early exit points because he is convinced he will need to scratch due to injury or malady — and he usually does just fine. I was not worried.

Bye Beat! Unless he does drop out or I make some elaborate arrangements in the next couple of weeks, I will likely not see him again before he finishes.

The master, Tim Hewitt. He was a mile or so behind Beat, and knowing him, I imagine not too happy about that. Tim is dealing with a chronic knee issue. It's bad but at this point he can't really do any more damage; for now he deals with the pain, which must be considerable, knowing Tim. Every year he says he's finally retired, and he keeps coming back. The Anchorage Daily News published a great feature article about sled dog race champ Lance Mackey that delves into this mindset — "There's only one thing harder than racing. Not racing." Hoping the best for Tim. I can't help it. I worry about him.

Jeff Rock. I don't know him, but I liked the way his red jacket popped out of the wintry landscape.

Also one of my favorite photos — trail ninjas!

This is Pierre, who I initially met years ago at my favorite race in the Bay Area, the Ohlone 50K. I'm not exactly sure how he landed in Alaska endurance racing (there's certainly nowhere great to train for experience near San Francisco, believe me.) But he must be the happiest guy out there. I saw him on the trail last year, after he finished the then-130-mile short race at Winter Lake Lodge. I arrived at the checkpoint about a half hour later, and thought it was about the worst rest stop imaginable — a large and drafty canvas tent out on the lake ice, amid howling 40 mph gusts and windchill near -20F, heated only with a tiny propane heater and a wood stove that wasn't even lit. Pierre seemed to know nothing about stoves but was happily working on starting a fire with a cold cigarette lighter and some big chunks of kindling when I arrived. I didn't want to deal with anything in that moment; my breathing had gotten to me and I was horribly grumpy. I just wanted to grab my drop bag and go, but Pierre wanted to chat and chat. He was giddy about his experience and full of stories. Some of that joy finally trickled over to me, despite my foul mood.

"They're not going to be able to fly out today. It will be a cold night here," I warned him, by way of my own case of misery loves company.

"It's okay. We will persevere," he said with a gleeful tone and French-accented enunciation that prompted a hint of a smile from me. I've never seen someone so excited about finishing a big race only to spend a night on the floor of a cold drafty tent. Pierre is good energy. I'm glad he's back for the 150-mile distance this year.

More good energy from the 2018 trail, Klaus — an Austrian who finished in Nome I believe three times. He has this calm and steady presence that was grounding for me when I saw him at Puntilla Lake, Rohn, and again at Bear Creek cabin. He wasn't able to finish the race to Nome last year because he ran out of time, something I fear will always be a most likely scenario for me. More than the fast guys with their strong legs and high-wattage power, I look to Zen masters like Klaus for inspiration. Go Klaus!

Lars is another I've spent time with on the trail — on bikes in 2016, and on foot in the early parts of the race in 2018. Over the past year, he taught himself to cross country ski — going as far as to buy roller skis and ski around Anchorage all summer long — just so he could complete the 350 distance in the third discipline. He was struggling when I saw him on the first day, and said to me, "this is really, really hard." I said "Good luck," and he replied, "I'm going to need it."

Friends in Colorado often ask me why more people don't ski this trail. From my limited waxless Nordic ski experiences, I have my own theories — it's hard to glide while dragging a sled (just like it's hard to actually run while dragging a sled), but carrying a 40- or 50-pound pack isn't ideal either. The trail is often in rough shape with moguls, glare ice and snowless stretches. It's usually too narrow to skate. The snow is cold and windblown and creates a lot of resistance (I know this from dragging a sled.) Generally, the finicky technical requirements of the "misery sticks" (a term coined by other skiers, not me) create more issues than advantages. Lars is still out there at the back of the pack. I'm looking forward to hearing about his experience. In the future, when friends ask me about skiing the Iditarod Trail, I'll probably direct them to Lars.

Just behind Lars was a too-cute-for words duo, Melody and Dylan, presumably a married couple both registered in the 150-mile distance. Their pulks were a single plastic sled that they sawed in half.

Melody and Dylan ended up taking a wrong turn at the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna Rivers, a spot affectionately know as "Scary Tree," and followed the Susitna all of the way up to Willow, where they decided to scratch.

And finally, Thomas, the Tennessean with whom I also shared a brief time on the trail last year. He's a stereotypically polite Southerner who replied "Yes, ma'am," and "no, ma'am" to my questions. He seemed frazzled and when I said, "I'll see you in Nome!" he looked at me quizzically, so I don't think he remembered me at all. He ended up turning around and hiking back to Knik that night, also scratching from the race. I do not know the reason.

On Monday I had a ticket to fly out to Nome, and I was filled with regret about that. I'm not hugely enamored with Anchorage, but the weather here had been perfect, and the weather in Nome was unbelievably bad and would apparently remain that way for the foreseeable future. Bad weather in Nome is not unexpected — indeed, it's what I signed up for — but the juxtaposition was harsh. Also reality was setting in — being more or less alone for a month, with limited resources, and after crunching my budget, realizing that thanks to my upcoming tax bill, I'm just barely able to afford the high cost of groceries this month. I won't even be able to go out to eat or to the movies to pass the time. Yes, regret. I should have planned a close-to-home, shorter Colorado adventure and worked to grab a few more freelance contracts, but the decision has been made.

Nome will be good for me, though. It's good to step out of my comfort zone. Hopefully my inability to do much else will allow me to actually spend more time writing, which was my goal. Anyway, before I disassembled my bike yet again and headed out to the airport, I was able to squeeze in one more ride in the sunshine out the Coastal Trail and along some yummy Kincaid Park singletrack. I enjoyed views of Mount Susinta, Iliamna and Denali. Coming to Alaska always feels like coming home. 


  1. Looks like good skiing, but I will take others' word for it. skiing with a sled can be good, but not on steep hills downhill!

    1. Yeah, I can't really be a judge of ski conditions. I always felt like I had anchors needlessly strapped to my feet when I was skiing. More often than not I'd just pick up my feet and walk in my skis ... on the flats. Uphills I crawled and downhills I crashed. ;-)

    2. The conditions were pretty good for skiing, overall. But one year on the sticks really wasn't enough for me to build the conditioning and skill required. I hope the weather will be at least as good this winter.

  2. It is good to see you out there in AK! Hope your sojourn in Nome is a good one with great adventures. You are gutsy, woman!

    1. Thanks Julie! It's always nice to be back. Nome has been a harsh introduction but it's growing on me already. :)

  3. I lived in North Chicago for 2 years (after I retired from the Navy back in 94) and I was mt biking most of the year, and took up X-country skiing in the winter. While it was fun, I can't FATHOM pulling a sled! It was extremely taxing work if there was any snow at all on the packed trails. Descending was another issue entirely, and doing that with a loaded sled adding to your mass and acceleration would be terrifying beyond belief. I'm SO not a runner, but given the choice of on foot or skiis (were I to ever attempt anything like this) I'd go w/ foot every time. Wishing Beat and all the others on THE TRAIL best wishes and good weather! And good luck to you in your self-induced-isolation up in Nome.

    1. So many friends in Colorado either ski or snowboard, that I feel like I should give it another try. I came close to buying a split board a few years back. I used to love snowboarding. But I was young then, so young, and I'm so much more breakable now.

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  5. Jill,
    This is a wonderful post about the beginnings of ITI2019. I liked hearing about your previous experience with the racers..such as Pierre. I really like getting to know more about them. I enjoyed hearing the honesty about your love hate relationship with bikes! (I'm a new fat bike owner so I can sympathize.) You have a gift for writing. Your book rests on my husband Paul's nightstand right now. Thanks for sharing. I hope Nome treats you well while you await Beat, of whom I also extend my best wishes.

  6. I think that a month outside your comfort zone will be an experience that you'll end up loving and remembering. Have fun! And good luck to Beat. I'm following him on the tracker.

  7. Thanks for continuing the blog. I avoid Facebook, partly due to privacy issues, but mostly because it's such a horrible platform to selectively read or catch up. Seems only good for reading all the posts all the time and not wanting to go back.



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