Friday, March 29, 2019

No place like Nome

My month in Nome divided neatly into two distinct segments: The first two weeks when the town was dark and quiet and I accomplished a fair amount of writing and run-training. Then the last two weeks, which were loud and sleepless and All Iditarod All Of The Time. I became swept up in the excitement of the sled dog race, and was outside cheering for every musher I could catch. I wandered the town attending talks by race pioneers, museum exhibits, concerts, and anything else that looked interesting on the calendar. Iditarod fever had consumed this sleepy town, and I was not immune.

The 2019 co-winners, Petr Ineman and John Logar
Just as Iditarod fever took over, cyclists began to arrive. When this idea first sparked to spend the month in Nome, I genuinely didn't consider that I'd probably become the de facto finish-line host. An official Nome greeter is something the ITI has never offered. After their thousand-mile journey, racers often arrive to quiet streets, no fanfare, and sometimes don't even have a place to warm up (one of my favorite stories comes from Marco Berni, who arrived in the middle of the night in 2006. With no businesses open, he curled up in the only warm spot he could find — the ATM at the bank — until the police showed up and took him to the homeless shelter.) Personally I appreciate the low-key nature of the ITI, and was a little overwhelmed in 2016 when I arrived in Nome 15 minutes before a popular musher and had to chat with dozens of people while my head was still offline and drifting back toward the trail. Still, it was fun to track the cyclists' movements and greet them at the burled arch — even Troy whose dot kept me up most of the night before he arrived around 7 a.m.

And thankfully, Carole and Jen flew in from Anchorage and Fairbanks to help out. They were there to greet the two women pedaling toward the finish — Kim and Missy — and brought a bounty of exotic foods from Costco to share. My little apartment on Front Street became a scene reminiscent of the much-more established finish line in McGrath, with racers crashed out on the floor, wet gear strewn around, food appearing on tables and disappearing as fast as it could be produced, and an entertaining exchange of adventure stories from the trail. I loved how this all worked out, but I have to say, this introvert was exhausted.

The flurry of activity necessitated a sharp taper in my workouts, which was probably a good thing, although I still needed the outdoor excursions just to wind down and relax. After my final long run two weeks before the White Mountains 100, my mildly sprained right ankle was still bothering me enough that I decided I would do no more running before the race. Instead I went out for rides along the coast, catching glimpses of ringed seals poking their heads out of openings in the re-forming ice.

I also enjoyed one more ride with the Saturday morning fat bike club, again grinding into the hard wind toward Cape Nome. The wind-driven surface snow was like Velcro, pulling against the tires with each hard-earned rotation. Still, at least the trail was packed. We were able to cover more than twice the distance in the same amount of time this week — 18 miles instead of 8. After three weeks in Nome, 18 miles in three hours felt like a blistering fast speed on a bike.

On Sunday, Carole's friend Tom invited us out to his kennel to try our hands at mushing. Tom lives 13 miles outside of town in the beautiful Nome River Valley, and this time of year his house is only accessible by trail. He towed the three of us out there in his snowmachine. What a treat!

I was having so much fun hanging out with Carole and Jen. Carole and I bonded in the ITI 350 last year. Although we didn't travel together in the race until the final two miles, we were in close enough proximity to share similar struggles. We battled the same deep snow, plunged through the same overflow. We shared a bunk with the loud-partying Iditarod trailbreakers at the Bear Creek shelter cabin, and also shared the horrors of wet feet. Her footprints were the only signs of life after the storm, and I followed them gratefully for dozens of miles. Two miles before McGrath, I caught up to her as she hobbled along with trench foot so advanced that her feet would take months to recover. It seemed downright silly to race at that point, so I hobbled along with her, chatting to take her mind off the pain until I was wracked with shivering from moving so slowly. We limped into the finish to tie for second place or something after eight and a half days. I feel like Carole is my sister on the trail, and it was wonderful to spend more time with her in Nome this year.

Tom's kennel is home to 18 huskies, cute and friendly dogs mostly named after cuts of beef. I'd forgotten to mention to my friends that I have mild dog fears, and my phobia crept to the surface with 18 energetic canines and their sharp teeth bouncing all around me. Still, I did my best to coral a few bundles of pure muscle to help harness the team.

Tom ran the Iditarod once, in 2016 — the same year that I rode a bike to Nome. It was fun to share our stories from the trail as though we'd run the same race, which in many ways, it felt like we had. However, as we rushed through a multitude of tasks to prepare the team for the run, I decided that dog mushing is a decidedly different sport from fat biking. It's much more strenuous. Nothing but respect for mushers and sled dogs here.

Tom let us each drive the team along a 1.5-mile loop. Driving 10 dogs is terrifying; even in the soft snow, they can fly. At first I death-gripped the sled and rode the brake constantly, but as I started to feel more secure on the runners, I let them go. This was an exhilarating sensation — quiet, yet swift, with only the flow of wind and agile husky legs to betray a sense of stillness.

That night, amid a lovely 9 p.m. sunset, we watched Kristin Bacon's team come in.

Red Lantern Victoria Hardwick arrived the following afternoon.

At the time we were waiting at the arch for Kim and Missy, who arrived less than ten minutes later, at 2 p.m. Monday. The ITI race organizers touted them as only the eighth and ninth women to complete the race to Nome since 2002. Guess who was the seventh? This was a powerful moment to experience with them — it felt like passing on the mantle. Happy tears flowed from all five of us.

Then, as we were coaxing the women to approach the arch for photos, who rolls up but the "Gypsy by Trade," Nicholas Carmen himself. Before then we weren't aware of Nick's whereabouts; we only knew he'd been independently touring the Iditarod Trail from Anchorage to Nome this year. With a depth of touring and Alaska experience, what appears to be boundless strength, and extra-wide tires, Nick made a three-week solo ride on the Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail look all too easy. Missy and Kim want to assure you that it's not easy. I concur. But it was a happy reunion for all.

On Tuesday evening I stole a little more solo time to ride into the Nome River Valley. This felt like the first truly clear day in the three weeks since I arrived — no clouds, barely a breeze, almost cold enough to create a frosty face (it was about 10 degrees.) I talked up the amazing weather window that most of the Nome cyclists were able to enjoy here. "It's been snowing and/or blowing for three weeks straight," I insisted. I'm not sure anyone believed me.

We had one more ladies slumber party, and after much celebration and libations, I really tried to get some sleep. But I couldn't help but stay awake clicking on Beat's dot as he rested briefly at White Mountain and set out on the "final" (70-mile) leg toward Nome. Based on his pacing and planned rest, I predicted an o-dark-thirty finish on Thursday morning.

Iditarod was officially over and town businesses were slowly shuttering their doors as we enjoyed one last leisurely breakfast at Bering Tea on Wednesday morning. As the ladies piled into their taxi to head to the airport, I pointed at the clear view of Anvil Mountain and "White Alice," the imposing tropospheric antennas installed at the peak during the Cold War. "I've been waiting more than three weeks for a window to climb that mountain," I announced. "Today I'm finally going to do it."

Of course there was laundry to do and ice cream to buy before Beat's arrival, so I didn't set out until 2 p.m. I loaded my snowshoes and poles onto my bike and put a few warm layers in a backpack. The weather was 15 degrees with relatively light winds. I pedaled north toward Anvil Mountain, basking in sunshine. But less than two miles into my ride, the North Wind turned on, like flipping a switch. It was absolutely incredible — a phenomenon I've only experienced on the Bering Sea Coast. A pleasant breeze became a 30mph gale within minutes. Suddenly I could barely pedal into the wind, and a ground blizzard all but obscured the pavement. I began to shiver, so I stopped to pull on my rain pants and buff, which were my only extra layers besides an emergency puffy. Should I bail? But this was my last chance to climb Anvil! It would be crime to spend a month in Nome and not ascend this mountain at least once.

I reached the end of the road and strapped on my snowshoes. My thermometer now read 8 degrees, and it was sure to keep dropping. My core was already cold, but figured the climb would warm me some. And the hike should only be another 1.5 miles with 700 or so feet of climbing. Of course it was a trudge in breaking crust over deep sugar snow, and the wind was howling in a way I had yet to experience this year. I managed to spend nearly a month in Nome without facing the sharpest teeth of the North Wind, even as I expected it all along. This long wait made the gale all the more unsettling.

Amid a battle with both my core temperature and primal sense of fear, I reached the edge of "Nomehenge" — a thrilling apocalyptic scene. The sixty-foot towers were coated in thick rime, looming as industrial ghosts over the barren snowscape. The towers are normally surrounded by a chain-link fence, but the snow is so deep this year that I could snowshoe freely between them, gazing upward and taking a few photos at a time as my fingers flash-froze to disconcerting rigidity. After one too many photos, I finally reached into my pack to grab my mittens, only to remember I'd left them on my bike. All I had to protect my hands were the pogies on my poles, which let in the wind and suddenly felt like nothing at all.

My hands would freeze if I didn't hurry. A panicked urgency took over and I rushed down the mountain as fast as I could "run," holding my arms crossed over my chest with hands, pogies, and trekking poles wedged under my arms. The snowshoes flailed about and I tripped twice, taking a face full of snow because my arms were too sluggish to catch my body. Things get real, fast — and I mean real fast — when the North Wind blows. At my bike I put the mittens on and blasted toward town with the violent wind shoving me faster than I could pedal. The ground blizzard was astonishing; I couldn't see the bumpers of trucks driving toward me. Not weather to be out in, by any stretch.

Of course, I already had plans for an evening ride with Nick and Chris, a Nome dentist I'd met the previous week. The North Wind was not quite as brutal in town, but it was still pretty bad. Chris and I flailed about with the drifts while Nick pedaled steadily forward, because it seems nothing is hard for him. Still, when we all stopped for a break after about 1.5 miles, Nick commented, "If I lived in Nome, I don't think I'd motivate often to ride."

Just after we started north again, I received a call from Beat. I could barely hear him over the wind, which roared in both my ear and the ear-piece of the phone. I knew since the North Wind was blowing 30 in Nome, it had to be bad — real bad — where Beat was. I knew he left Topkok shelter cabin, but I suppose a part of me hoped he turned around. Another part just tried to put it out of my mind. But his voice on the phone left no doubt. He was shaken. He was scared. "Blowhole," he said.

The Solomon Blowhole is an infamous segment of the Iditarod Trail. The blowhole forms when the relatively warm air of the Bering Sea draws cold Arctic air from the North through narrow canyons of the Kigluaik Mountains. The funneling creates convective winds that can reach hurricane force before hitting the water. A weather station near a place called Johnson Camp often records gusts of 60 to 70 mph, reaching 100 mph at times. A trail description for the sled dog race carries this warning: "This can be one of the most dangerous stretches on the race when the wind blows or a storm hits. It can make or break champions, not to mention back-of-the-packers. Mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours’ easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable."

Beat was in the blowhole. He'd managed to reach a newer shelter cabin supposedly built at the edge of the worst of it, but he was still surrounded by violent gusts. His pogies and pockets had filled with snow. Gusts flipped his enormous sled onto its side. He kept moving because he had no other choice. Visibility was already zero, and darkness was approaching. He was 30 miles from Nome, utterly pinned down.

Beat told me he didn't plan to leave until morning — at 14 to 15 hours, this would be his longest stop of the entire journey. I commiserated with Chris, who has ridden his snowmachine through many a Nome storm, and pried him for information about when and where Beat might be safe. I started receiving texts from people in the know — a local musher who runs the Nome Nugget newspaper. A teacher who used to help with search and rescue. Phil Hofstetter, a former Nome resident who has finished the thousand-mile ride a number of times. They asked me how Beat was doing, whether I'd heard from him. People who understood were worried. I was scared.

I didn't sleep at all on Wednesday night. Not a wink. I clicked refresh on Trackleaders about a thousand times, even though I'd been trying so hard not to run out the limited bandwith from my gracious Nome landlord. In the morning I started seeing notes from well-meaning friends. It's been 14 hours? Why is Beat still sitting? Did his tracker die? I was grateful he was still safe in the shelter cabin. But I was worried he might be pinned down for days. We had tickets to fly to Fairbanks on Friday afternoon. If I didn't make that flight, I wouldn't be able to race the White Mountains 100. Of course, I wasn't going anywhere until Beat was safely in Nome.

Beat called again. The wind was still raging all around him, but he'd fortified his layers and sled, and he was going to make a run for it. He might turn around, he told me. I was locked to the computer, refresh, refresh. The wind howled through town, and the roads had blown in again. I couldn't have ridden out to see him even if I was capable of battling Nome's relatively mild 30mph North Wind. I didn't feel nearly that strong. I went over to Chris's house for a nice dinner that was literally leftover dog food (prime rib for the huskies on Victoria's team.) I tried not to pace as Beat's dot continued the steady approach — seven miles, then five. Chris and I drove a mile out of town, punching through deep drifts and nearly stalling out the truck, when finally I caught sight of Beat. He looked more than a little bedraggled, like a homeless person who put on all of his warm clothing only to have the wind rip half of it off of his body. His voice was raspy as he turned his head away from the wind to speak to us. "This shit just never ends, does it?"

I felt suddenly shy, like I had honed in on needed moments of introspection. Chris and I stalked him more quietly as he made his way down Front Street to the arch, which had been moved off to the side of the street the previous day.

And with that, Beat completed his fifth journey to Nome, in 25 days and 5 hours. He was the first runner to arrive this year, making him the winner of a fancy headlamp reserved for "first foot." He was in great shape, all things considered. He had no blisters after days of rain across the wet swamp that covered the Yukon River. He had no windburn after the blowhole. He had a strange arm injury from an early fall. His arm looked misshapen to me, but he insisted it wasn't broken. He was tired. He was real tired. We found our way to Milano's pizza place for a well-earned burger and sushi roll. 


  1. Outrageous. Insane. Foolhardy. Death wish. Exactly what we expect to see and read on this "Outside" blog. If you have to explain it to someone, they wouldn't understand. I couldn't do it, but I get it. It's the worst conditions of Everest, only at sea level. Hat's off to Beat...and you, Jill.
    Box Canyon

    1. Few really understand ... both what it's like, and the reasons why. I know you "get it" — even if you've arrived at the not illogical conclusion of "foolhardy" — and appreciate your perspective. Thanks for the note. :)

  2. Gads...Beat is amazing! I'd bail (strike that, as I'd NEVER even try what he has now done so many times). Love your pics of "White Alice"...I was stationed out on Adak island back in the early 80's (a Navy base) and we had a derelict White Alice tower there. I was amazed at the construction considering the winds all the Aleutian Islands get in the winter (had no idea there were towers in the Nome area...I wonder where else they are?) And that they're still standing...THAT is incredible! Great pics, and thanks for keeping us apprised of Beats journey!

    1. I believe these are the last White Alice towers still standing. The city of Nome made a move to preserve them a few years ago, as they were slated to be torn down. But the Nomers love their "Nomehenge," and it's become both a landmark and a tourist attraction.

  3. Congratulations to Beat. It seems sad that the runners have little glory when they arrive. Their effort seems far greater than the mushers and cyclists.
    What a wonderful month you have had in Nome.

    1. When Beat first finished in 2013, I flew out to greet him, which was my first experience with Nome. He arrived to empty streets in the middle of the night, and I thought it was a little fitting, after such a long solo journey — and one, as you noted, is both deeply physical and mental. I was a little sad to arrive in 2016 to nobody I knew, but still received a lot more fanfare than I expected, which I did appreciate.

  4. I think the ITI finishers get more of a fanfare than TD finishers...didn't your mom and dad drive down to be at the border when you finished (and if I recall, it was a surprise to you)? If they hadn't come, what would that have been like? Over 3000 miles and unfathomable climbing, totally self supported...and the finish is pretty much just a spot on the map and done....then what do you do? I always wondered how people deal with that. For WEEKS your every breathing moment is focused on forward motion...and then suddenly no more. How do you decompress and return to reality after something like that? (what does Beat do?) I kind of think most ultra-endruance solo events are much like that. Doubt I'll ever find out personally though...but you never know.

    1. I think you'd love the Tour Divide. ;-) But you're right, having my Mom and Dad greet me in New Mexico was a huge boost in 2009. It would have been a much different experience to arrive to no one. And it also was more satisfying than being greeted by dozens of strangers in Nome in 2016.

      As for the return to reality — it is hard. For Beat, it seems like part of his "flow" now, and I'm not sure he struggles that much with it anymore. But he'd have to answer that question.

  5. Truly amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Beautifully written.Would you consider taking up mushing if you could no longer run/cycle?

    1. Thank you. I admit mushing is probably not for me. I think you need to really love being around dogs and taking care of other beings, and I prefer to operate independently and be in charge of only myself. However, I'd definitely be open to learning to drive a snowmachine.


Feedback is always appreciated!