Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The good kind of grind

Making small talk with strangers at trailheads is not my favorite thing, but it's bound to come up when one is hoisting a loaded five-foot sled out of the back of a Subaru. "Just training" is generally not an sufficient answer, so a long spiel about a thousand-mile walk across Alaska and some of the gear involved usually ensues. One question I receive more than I would have expected is, "How many women have done this?"

My quick answer: "Oh, about a dozen or so." 

Sometimes, folks press for more details. I derived "a dozen or so" from the known number of women who have powered themselves the full thousand miles of the traditional Iditarod Trail (north or south route) within a single season. Until recently, I wasn't even certain how many women have walked the route, so I finally did some digging. The answer, as best as I can ascertain, is just three. One of those has finished the route twice. Here's the list:

2019 — Southern Route
Kimberly Riggs, bike; 21 days, 23 hours, 39 minutes
Melissa Schwarz, bike; 21 days, 23 hours, 39 minutes

2016 — Northern Route
Jill Homer, bike; 17 days, 3 hours, 46 minutes
Katie Newbury, bike; ~22 days (not part of ITI)

2014 — Northern Route
Ausilia Vistarini, bike; 17 days, 6 hours, 25 minutes
Loreen Hewitt, foot; 26 days, 6 hours, 59 minutes
Shawn McTaggart, foot; 28 days, 17 hours, 30 minutes

2013 — Southern Route
Ausilia Vistarini, bike; 22 days, 7 hours
Shawn McTaggart, foot; 30 days, 12 hours, 10 minutes

2011 — Southern Route
Tracey Petervary, bike; 18 days, 6 hours, 30 minutes

2010 — Northern Route
Tracey Petervary, bike; 18 days, 6 hours

2008 — Northern Route
Kathi Merchant, bike; 25 days, 12 hours, 58 minutes

2000 — Northern Route
Janine Duplessis, foot; 41 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes

These statistics are interesting to ponder as I head toward three weeks of "peak" training — our annual Christmas trip to Fairbanks, followed shortly by the 200-kilometer Fat Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho (I will most likely walk a 100-mile version of this, although I'm still undecided. What's the bigger risk: A DNF that will batter my confidence, or feeling disappointed that I short-changed myself even if I finish?) Anyway, the stats — in 20 years, just 10 women powered themselves to Nome. This is of course a tiny, self-selecting group of privileged enthusiasts who have not only the desire but also the time and resources to make the trip. It's still a dauntingly low number, and there isn't much data out there in regard to "what it takes."

It reminds me of a conversation a couple of weeks ago at my gym, with an older gentleman who was nice enough, so I won't judge him too harshly. The conversation veered to my training, and rather than lie, which is what I usually do, I went through my spiel about this self-supported, thousand-mile walk across Alaska. He perked up. "Oh, I read about the woman who won the Alaska race a few years back." (I assumed he was referring to the late Susan Butcher, who is still arguably the most well-known woman musher. Or perhaps Aliy Zirkle.) Then he furrowed his brow. "But she was ... you know ... very tough" — inferring that I, a basic-looking white woman who just stepped off an elliptical machine on a sunny day in suburban Colorado, was not so tough. I did a half-shrug and sidled away toward the locker room so I wouldn't have to endure more mansplaining from a guy who read one thing about an endeavor I've been embroiled in for the better part of 12 years. Still, I caught myself doing a guns flex in the mirror and smirking at my reflection. He wasn't wrong.

I may not have Aliy's biceps, but I have been cramming in a healthy share of tough workouts this month, and I'm feeling pretty stoked on the work right now. Dare I say — my training is going well. I'm putting in regular efforts and becoming stronger, which sounds foolishly obvious, but it's been years since I experienced such regular, ongoing progression. It's as though my body is — dare I say — almost normal now. Sure, basic 40-year-old white woman normal, but normal!

Despite my best preventative efforts, I did manage to bring a virus home from Utah, as I've done every Thanksgiving for the past five at least. The congestion clamped down hard, so I took it fairly easy during the first week of December. Happily, the cold never migrated to my lungs, and I think I'm mostly past it now.

Last Monday I loaded up our three-foot "baby sled" with five gallons of water plus food and clothing, for a haul in the range of 50 pounds. I've been training heavy with the cart, but I still haven't had that many sessions on snow. I headed to Peaceful Valley, which is popular with skiers and fat bikers, so I hoped to find packed trail. It was packed for the first 3.5 miles, and I enjoyed chats with several cyclists including my friend Betsy. The broken trail mostly ended at a gorge — I did follow the postholes of one intrepid cyclist who decided to push their bike through virgin powder for another mile. But the going became tough. I spent more than an hour traveling 1.5 miles — maneuvering the sled through a tight corridor of trees and boulders ... stopping to lift the 50-pound weight and hoist it over small but seemingly endless deadfall ... inching across a snow-covered footbridge that was not quite as wide as my sled and spanned a mostly open creek (sphincter-clenching, that one) ... and lifting each knee as high as it would go to clear the deep powder. I had a destination in mind but turned around about a quarter mile early. The cold wind and blowing snow picked up intensity as I neared the Divide, my nose was running like a sieve, and eventually all of these little annoyances hit a boiling point. I was done. It was useful to experience this mental shift, as it will help me strengthen my mental toolkit for similar days of compounding irritations.

By Thursday the gale reached hurricane strength, but I still managed to talk my friend Wendy into an outing at Brainard Lake. She's training for the Arrowhead 135, so dealing with trail-breaking and 65-mph winds will likely not be an issue in her race. Still, self-management in difficult conditions is always good practice. I'd hoped to drag the unplowed road, as singletrack is tricky with big sleds. But wind had scoured the road to pavement, so we moved into the merciful wind protection of the winding forest trails.

For this outing I brought my Nome sled, which is a five-foot-long piece of high-molecular-weight polyethylene molded to a low-profile toboggan shape. Beat designed and built it himself, and added nice features like a rollable rear enclosure and a canopy so I can sleep inside of the sled. I had my waterproof sled bag, which Beat also made himself several years ago, and a new harness, which Beat modified from an off-brand backpack. Because I was bringing real stuff, I also packed most of my soft gear — sleeping bag, pad, bivy, spare clothing, down coat. All of that stuff was far too light to provide adequate training, so at the last minute I hoisted my five-gallon jug of water into the mix. Five gallons of water alone weighs 42 pounds. The full set-up was easily more than 60 pounds, which I needed to drag through fresh snow, into a proper headwind.

It was good fun, though. My head cold had finally subsided, and I was feeling strong. We took turns breaking trail and made it five miles in, all the way to Mitchell Lake. There I had to add a bunch of layers, as my body switched from 90-percent to 50-percent effort while we descended our now-broken trail with the wind at our back. Wendy also stopped several times to grab snacks and add layers, and admitted she felt daunted by the demands of it all — stopping for even a half minute left her hands uncomfortably cold, and the ten miles became disproportionately tiring. "It probably didn't even drop below 20 degrees today," she said.

"Wind is everything," I mused. "Give me 40 below over 50 mph winds at any temperature, any day." Then I admitted I have relatively little experience with deep subzero temperatures. While I strongly dislike it, I'm a little better acquainted with the wind. But I still make mistakes, sometimes big ones, every single time. I launched into several "back when I was in Nome" stories to prove my points.

On Sunday, Beat and I were back in the mountains with the sleds. Those strong winds swept in a large snowstorm, dumping as much as two feet of powder on the higher elevations. The storm moved out and a mass of colder air settled in. It was 14 degrees at the trailhead. The air was almost unbelievably still. When was the last time I ventured up here when there was no wind? I don't even remember.

Beat was feeling the first symptoms of my Utah cold, so we decided to forgo the steep climb up Niwot Ridge for a drag along five miles of Rainbow Lakes Road. The road still climbs a thousand feet, so it's not nothing, and the deep powder was only marginally broken by a few snowshoers and skiers who mostly ventured only a mile out.

I thoroughly enjoyed this open road walk. The views were nice, and the soft light of this latitude in December reminds me of Alaska in February. Amid air as still as water and no obstacles to navigate, I had the mental freedom let my imagination wander. This expanse of time and mental space in which to think about everything and nothing is a large part of why I love the slog. I listened to Amy Petty's new album, "The Darkness of Birds," and imagined I was back in Alaska, walking among the birch and black spruce of the Susitna River Valley. These daydreams brought a satisfying sense of peace, refreshed by the calm, cold air. 

Eventually we were fully breaking trail through deep powder, and my daydreams faded into that murkier mental space I need to dig into when things get tough. This is also an interesting place, and one I look forward to spending more time exploring, as I don't know what I'll find in there. Maybe true self-actualization ... or full insanity. I don't even know. It's exciting!

We stopped at the trailhead to fire up a stove, which Beat also modified so we can use the better Primus pumps with our preferred MSR stoves. How lucky am I to have this guy in my life? We had both become quite sweaty amid the hard effort, so this was a shivery stop, even with the big down coats. I need to give more thought about how I will best manage my stops in the future. My typical style is to just go and go and go and make one longer stop to do everything else — eat, sleep, boil water. But breaking up the day is important for many reasons, and I hope to formulate better strategies for myself.

Monday's forecast was quite cold, for this region — single digits for the towns along the Peak to Peak Highway, and subzero at 12,000 feet. I had morning appointments but thought I could squeeze in an outing to Niwot Ridge, leaving the sled behind so I could move as quickly as possible. I wanted to try out my new wind fleece, which I consider a crucial part of my layering system. Beat and I purchased these Mountain Hardwear air-shield jackets back in 2013, and unfortunately the company stopped making the jacket not long afterward. Over the years my fuzzy blue jacket proved its worth in just about every winter condition imaginable, and also slowly wore to threads. There are open holes in the back of the jacket now. A couple of years ago, Beat found a similar women's jacket on Poshmark, sold by a person who also probably held onto it for years, but never wore it. I've been saving the fuzzy black jacket for a special occasion, and the thousand-mile is definitely that occasion.

I couldn't have asked for better testing conditions. It was 8 degrees and windy at the trailhead, and my thermometer continued to drop digits as I climbed. The woods provided some protection, but nearby weather stations at similar altitudes were recording 45 and even 55 mph gusts. A rough track had been broken on the steep ascent, but it was still punchy and hard work. I took off the jacket to avoid soaking up too much sweat, and completed much of the climb wearing only my base layer. Heat poured from my body as my heart beat steady at 155 bpm — a satisfyingly high number for this altitude, where shallow breathing often restricts my efforts. Every so often a gust blasted through the tree canopy, taking all of my hard-earned warmth away. So I marched faster.

At the last stand of trees, I stopped to put the jacket on, along with a balaclava and mittens. Looking up, all I could see was a roiling white cloud in place of the usual mountain views — as though the ridge just dissolved into a vaguely blue sky. Stupidly I neglected to put on my goggles, reasoning that I could add them later "if it gets bad" ... and stepped into a ferocious gale that was among the worst I've experienced. What made this ground blizzard so bad, I think, was the sheer amount of fresh snow sweeping down from the Divide. It felt as though thousands of tiny bullets were pelting my face. The windchill was amazing; I took one hand out of a mitten to set up this self-timer, and within seconds my hand flash-froze. I couldn't move my fingers anymore. Then the camera died.

See the disappearing snowshoe prints? Those are mine, only seconds old.
I did a few arm windmills to push some blood back into my hand, then continued marching west, directly into the wind. Ground became sky without any delineation. Gusts nearly pushed me over. I learned to kneel into the snow when the roar increased a few decibels. After the invisible fist loosened its grip, I stood and shambled some more, weaving like a sail against a wind I could scarcely face. By this point I badly wanted my goggles, but the gale was too strong to risk opening my pack. I punched knee-deep tracks into the crusty powder and tripped over stastrugi I couldn't see. I didn't plan to spend much time up here, but it needed to be sufficient time to justify the gear test. Also, it was such a unique, exhilarating place to experience — I was both anxious and reluctant to leave the chaos behind. Knowing I could simply turn downhill and run for ten minutes to escape the monster did help me feel like I wasn't dying. Because otherwise, being up there actually did feel like dying. Every snow blast tore away threads of life, and my core temperature started to fall.

What did I learn from this excursion? Goggles. Always put on the damn goggles. Don't expose my hands for any reason. It's not worth it. The windchill up here was somewhere between -25F and -30F, and I definitely need extra socks and overboots for such conditions. A full pant shell would be better as well. But at least the wind fleece works. Even wearing only this and a sweaty base layer, my torso stayed warm — it was the lack of wind protection nearly everywhere else that did me in.

I still don't know whether I have "what it takes" to walk to Nome, and I'll never know until I manage to cross under that burled arch stashed in an alleyway, long after everyone else has gone home. But the process of exploring the "what" has surely been rewarding, and fun. 


  1. You are doing awesome with your training!!!

    1. Oh - and of course you have what it takes. Don't be silly!

  2. Hilarious gym story! Had me giggling, could totally relate to being underestimated by an older gentleman (or two).
    Keep up the good training, you got this!

  3. I know what you meant when you said you were feeling almost normal, but even considering the health issues you've had over the past couple of years, what you consider "normal" seems pretty superhuman.

    And I love being underestimated by people. It makes me feel a little like the female equivalent of Clark Kent.

  4. "Time and resources..." The Catch 22 of training...you need both. So glad you seem to be handling/managing health issues. It's been a long road, I can't imagine the frustration.
    cheers, and may you peak at the right time.

  5. I just want you to know I had heart palpitations just READING this account of the hard work & cold. So that man in the gym would have a field day with me if I made any bold account of having what it takes. I'm wondering how I am even going to survive the -30 temps we'll face when we land in Fairbanks on 12/26. Seriously, what did I get myself into???

  6. Good job Jill! Always inspiring! You will do great in Alaska and I look forward to reading about your story!


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