Sunday, January 26, 2020

Momentum lost

 Monday morning, 12 hours after we finished the Fat Pursuit, we woke up to 18 more inches of snow that fell overnight. U.S. 20, the only road in and out of Island Park, had been closed in both directions with no estimate on when the highway would reopen. We were sharing a rental house with a half dozen other people, and the news that we were snowed in did not incite panic until we realized there was no more coffee in the house. Never mind that we also had no real food. Coffee was the real emergency. We made our way over to a nearby convenience store.

"Last time they closed 20 in both directions, it took a week to reopen," the store owner casually observed. I filled a 32-ounce jug with brewed coffee and bought them out of refrigerated burritos.

I hadn't slept well on Sunday night — my lungs were filled with gunk and I was up most of the night coughing. Still, despite having only slept a grand total of five hours in three days, I felt surprisingly okay. My quads weren't shredded as I'd expected them to be. My back and shoulders were hardly sore. My feet were in near perfect condition. My head was a muddled fog of sleep deprivation and my short-term memory was shot, but if I was forced to walk another 30 miles that day, I probably could have done it. This seemed a good place to be in terms of fitness for Nome.

Of course, I was grateful that no one was forcing me to walk 30 miles that day. Instead, I thought I'd get to spend the whole afternoon eating burritos, drinking coffee and swapping trail stories with my fellow storm refugees, several of whom finished the 200K course on bikes late the previous evening. But I forgot that my housemates weren't children relishing in an unexpected snow day; they're adults who had everywhere else to be. The house was filled with a low-energy panic, fretting, and a mass exodus when a short weather window opened.

A rumor spread that highway patrol was letting nonresidents who were stuck in the area travel south on the closed road. Beat and Daniel left first, followed by the 200K bikers, and then Danni wanted to go ... she was my ride to my car. The weather window looked tight ... yet more snow was on the way and it did seem possible we could get stuck here all week. Reluctantly, I packed up my uneaten burritos, and Danni and I made a run for it. She dropped me off at my car, which was again completely buried with snow, and we caravanned down the closed highway. The road was icy and eerily empty, with blowing snow obscuring visibility. A liter of coffee did little to slice through my brain fog, and I was convinced my own vision was blurring. It didn't feel remotely safe. The radio warned of more closures south on I-15. I made it as far as Idaho Falls and booked a hotel room.

 I managed to score more coffee and stayed awake as long as I could to finish up some work, which continued as I made my way farther south on Tuesday — driving for an hour, pulling over somewhere to work and drink caffeinated beverages for a couple of hours, repeat. My plan all along had been to return home via Salt Lake City so I could visit my family, because I have that thing in Alaska on the horizon and ... you know ... you never know. Sometime during a fitful sleep between Monday and Tuesday, congestion really clamped down and I couldn't stop coughing. I pulled over at a Subway and succumbed to a coughing fit as I was trying to order a sandwich. I had to run outside, nearly threw up, and then I was so embarrassed that I just left.

By the time I reached my parents' house, my voice was gone. I couldn't even regale them with the story of my race, which was endlessly frustrating. My mother rushed to heat up soup and set up a humidifier as my dad dug any possible flu remedy out of the medicine cabinet. I have to say, if you're already recovering from a 100-mile foot race and catch a virus on top of that, it's pretty wonderful to be in a spot where mommy can take care of you.

 I really thought this was just a simple cold — a few days' worth of laryngitis and coughing, and then I'd be fine. It may have turned out that way if I wasn't exposed to it while my immune system was suppressed by the Fat Pursuit effort. I also probably made some poor decisions with the stressful drive followed by a Wednesday morning outing, snowshoeing with my dad. But what can I say? I took Nyquil and slept like the dead for 10 hours, and when I woke up I felt amazing. My legs were a bit stale, but they didn't hurt at all. My voice was still gone, but the cough seemed to have loosened up some. And it was a most beautiful day in the Wasatch Mountains — bluebird skies, fresh snow, calm air and pleasant temperatures. Dad broke trail through knee- and thigh-deep powder along these steep side slopes that made me nervous, but he's been here many times before. I wasn't at my peppiest, but I didn't feel too bad. I was certain this was going to be a quick recovery.

On Thursday morning I opted to head home a day early, to try to beat another big winter storm that was forecast to sweep across Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. I didn't really start to feel bad until the drive was nearly over. But my condition made a significant turn for the worse on Thursday night, and by Friday I struggled to get out of bed. Walking up the stairs, I felt like I was carrying a massive pack up Mount Everest, struggling to breathe through blocked airways.

For the next week I grappled with one of the worse upper respiratory infections I've experienced ... coughing so much that the muscles in my chest and abdomen were wracked with pain, propping up my thousand-pound head on multiple pillows so I wouldn't drown in sputum, dosing with Nyquil just so I could sleep fitfully beside piles of tissue, and generally feeling like my world had ended, like I'd never be healthy again. Oh well; I had a good run while it lasted. Please spread my ashes on Lone Peak.

That over-exaggerated but still real despair also tore into any confidence I'd gleaned from Fat Pursuit. "Sure, I finished okay, but if a mere hundred miles could take me out so completely, what hope do I have for anything more?" I wasn't so bothered by the fact I couldn't exercise for a week ... I've been at this multiday endurance stuff a long time, and I understand well that once I'm about five or six weeks out from a big event, the buildup window has mostly closed. I was, however, alarmed by the sudden and near-complete helplessness. It became clear how fragile I am, and how weak I can be once this thin veneer of experience and determination peels away.

Similar to everything that has happened over the past few months, I tried to turn it around and determine what I've learned. Interestingly, this illness brought the same lessons I learned from a mud-caked ride outside Fruita in November, when my bike bogged down in wet clay and I had to carry and drag it through slippery slime for most of four miles. The death mud taught me humor in the face of frustration and rage, and it also taught patience. I must accept that this is just how it's going to be sometimes — I am going to be hopelessly bogged down and forward motion will seem impossible. But because forward motion is the only choice — in death mud, in death colds, and in life — I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. If it's not going to immediately kill me, then it's endurable. And if it's endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.

Finally, today — two weeks past the Fat Pursuit — I felt well enough to join my friends Cheryl and Kate on a Sunday morning fat bike ride on the Sourdough Trail. My chest and abdomen are still deeply sore from all of the coughing, so I haven't been able to muster for a run. But this was a good prompt to get back on a bike after two full months away. Yes, I haven't ridden a bike since I rolled to the finish of my White Rim tour in November. I have no regrets. This was an important period of buildup for Idiatrod prep. My lack of pain during the Fat Pursuit was a testament to solid conditioning, which can only be earned by hard time on my feet.

Still, it was fun to get out in the snow today. It was very windy — it's always windy here — but the 35-degree temperature felt downright summer-like in the sun. I'm still dealing with congestion and tried to keep a low-effort pace, to be nice to my lungs — easier said than done on a narrow, off-camber and steep rolling trail that is often inundated with snow drifts. My heart rate spiked on a few of the climbs, but it was good fun. It felt like my strength and energy was finally returning. I realize I've only been sick for two weeks, but this was still a relief.

It has been a dizzying shift of momentum, in the span of a mere two weeks, to go from a hundred miles of hard sled pulling, to barely able to climb the stairs without feeling faint, to spinning comfortably in the saddle after a two-month break. Life changes quickly. I am grateful for it all, really. 
Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The snow is piling up — Fat Pursuit 2020

They say getting to the starting line is the hardest part. That's never true for the Fat Pursuit — although this race can be so ridiculously difficult that it surprises me just a little when anyone gets themselves to the start more than once. I've had three prior starts here, and each once curled into its own disaster. One finish and two DNFs — the last in 2017, when it was 40 below and I stumbled along in a daze, convinced I was slowly asphyxiating. Trust me, believing you're about to pass out when it's 40 below is extremely unfun. At the time I still had no idea that my health was objectively quite poor, but 2017 cemented my exit from this pursuit of suffering. DNFs be damned.

Then, in late 2019, the race's evil genius ... er, director ... Jay Petervary, contacted us with an opportunity. He was interested in opening the event to skiers and runners, similar to other popular winter races (Fat Pursuit had been a fat bike-only race, thus the name "Fat" Pursuit.) It was a little late to get the official ball rolling for the longer distances, but he was looking for a few beta testers to run and ski the course and provide feedback for future years. The timing was right for one more big shakedown ahead of the Iditarod. Beat jumped on board immediately, and invited our friend Daniel to join. I was fairly certain I couldn't finish the 200K course in the loose time limit set by the event — 60 hours — so I proposed taking on a modified loop that would come in at 100 miles. "That will be a much more popular distance with runners," I reasoned to JayP.

Just a measly hundred miles through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where volatile weather pummels the mountains with upwards of 400 inches of snow a year, temperatures frequently plummet below zero, and the course traverses two remote and wind-blasted ridges along the Continental Divide. All I needed to do was get myself to the start.

This proved surprisingly difficult. T-minus 42 hours, I was sitting at the Seattle airport listening to Alaska Airlines announce that the Denver airport was in "full stoppage" due to high winds, no one was being allowed to land, and the whole airport had been closed. Well, crap. I searched around for flights that would take me directly to Idaho Falls or Jackson, but there was nothing available within a reasonable time limit. I did some math, then texted a gear list to Beat. He'd already shopped for my requested snacks, but now I needed him to gather everything else I would need in the race. "If I make it home before tomorrow morning," I wrote, "maybe I can still go with you."

Ultimately my flight did take off and land in Denver, and I was home before midnight, but only just. T-minus 36 hours. I pawed through the pile Beat had compiled and deemed it good enough. I had no idea whether everything I needed was actually in there, but I trust Beat. I washed the clothing I wore in Anchorage and wanted to re-wear in Idaho, and collapsed for five hours of sleep.

T-minus 28 hours. We were on the road west, battling high winds and black ice across Wyoming. We met up with Daniel and then Beat switched cars, so I drove alone up the mountainous and snow-covered Highway 189 as snow started to fall. We waited ten minutes for a few elk among a massive herd to amble across a designated crossing. We turned toward Jackson and learned that Teton Pass was closed by not one, but two avalanches that buried the road. We detoured south with heavy traffic that slowly trickled elsewhere as we entered Idaho and the Swan Valley. Beat was now driving and Daniel followed closely as we picked our way west and north. The empty potato fields of Eastern Idaho were a blitzkrieg of violent winds and blowing snow. Drifts overtook the road, some as deep as the bumper of our Subaru Outback. Every time we punched into a drift I braced for impact, certain the car would stop and we'd be hopelessly stuck in this wind-blasted wasteland, where we would have to crawl into our race-required 0-degree sleeping bags to stave off death.

Hours of high stress muted my short-term memory, but we eventually made it to Island Park sometime after 10 p.m. T-minus 14 hours.

When we awoke on Friday morning, skies were clear and it was 18 below zero. We joked with our friends Eric and Corrine, who had been so excited to leave frigid Fairbanks for tropical Idaho, because the forecast predicted temperatures in the 20s. "Never trust the forecast for this region," we had warned them earlier, and now felt justified in our gloating. But only for a second. The rest of the forecast I fully believed, because it called for the one thing I really didn't want — a massive winter storm arriving Friday afternoon and continuing through Tuesday. "Expect up to FOUR FEET of snow at high altitudes," the National Weather Service warned, emphasis theirs.

Thankfully, Beat did a great job packing and I had most of the gear I'd hoped to bring. I tore through the load and extracted what I could. I wanted a reasonably light but realistic load, as I still expected to be out in a blizzard for most of 60 hours. Beat had been battling an upper respiratory infection and hinted that he might stick with me for the "short" loop, which he'd decide by the first checkpoint.

We started at noon with the 200-mile bikers, who turned south into the best part of that course (Herriman State Park singletrack) while we proceeded east on freshly groomed corduroy. The conditions were sublime — firm footing and plenty of glide for the sleds. We waltzed along effortlessly, chatting with Corrine and Eric on skies as well as several 200K bikers who were previewing the course (their race started the following morning.) Daniel and Beat quickly put some distance on me, but I was still keeping a 3.5-4 mph pace, according to my GPS.

Photo by Eric Troyer
Briefly running for the camera. Had I truly understood what was coming, I probably would have done a little more of this while I still could.

Beat was waiting for me at checkpoint one, which volunteers were only beginning to set up, so there wasn't yet any food or water available. According to my GPS we were nine miles into the course, and had taken only two and a half hours to get there. We were on fire! But Beat wasn't feeling great, and said he'd stick with me. I admit to being a little disappointed about this ... both because I was still strongly questioning whether he should be out here at all since he was sick and might be risking pneumonia, and also because I value the ability to make all of my own decisions in a race. However, it's considerably less daunting and more entertaining to have a partner, so ultimately I was glad to team up. After all, we weren't exactly "racing" anyone. Might as well enjoy it.

My gratitude for Beat ratcheted up a couple hours later when, quite suddenly, my sled detached from the harness. Both elastic attachments had broken — one probably fell apart a while ago, and the other finally snapped. This is the kind of thing I'd typically check before a race, but I hadn't even had enough time to pack my own supplies. And since it was "only" a hundred miles, I only had one spare rope in my repair bag. I don't handle mechanicals well in the best of scenarios, and went into panic mode. I quickly grabbed the metal pole with one hand and sprinted toward Beat, screaming at the top of my lungs so he'd hear me over his headphones. Had I been alone, I probably would have sat down and had a little cry before composing myself and figuring out what to do ... and I would have figured it out; I had several means to fix this problem. But it sure was nice to have Beat take charge of the repair, tie knots into two spare ropes, and guide me through motions I'd partly forgotten. I won't forget again.

Clouds moved in and snow started to fall. The trail pitched steeply upward as a wall of mountains loomed in front of us. By the time the sun set, snow was falling heavily and accumulating on a soft, churned surface of the trail. At mile 16, Beat and I reached the intersection where the 200K course continued straight for a bonus loop of 22 miles, and my modified course turned right. A headlamp approached us. It was Daniel, who continued about a half mile down the 200K route before deciding that he didn't want to break his own trail through rapidly accumulating snow for more than a hundred miles. He'd stick with us, so we could work together.

Through the night we mostly held a line, with Beat pushing a surprisingly hard pace out front, me trying to match him but fading in the middle, and Daniel staying behind me, probably out of courtesy to make sure I didn't fall off the back of the team. We crossed through a burn area where a fierce crosswind blew unobstructed, and for several miles the trail was buried in drifts. Daniel took the lead and punched through waist-deep piles of snow. I had flashbacks of our Subaru in the potato fields. A whiteout swirled around us, coming down so hard that if I faded more than a hundred yards back, by the time I reached Daniel's tracks through the drifts, they had mostly filled with snow.

Daniel soon ran out of gas. He started talking about bivying. It wasn't yet 11 p.m. I was incredulous, because I always believed Daniel to be impervious to the sleep monster — after all, he's Beat's PTL partner, and PTL is a race that requires staying awake while tackling monstrous mountains for five days straight. But the strobe light of a headlamp beam on swirling snow and the rapid motion of eyelids blinking against snowflakes has a hypnotic and sleep-inducing effect — I've been convinced of this ever since the 2018 ITI, which is why I made my own effort to pull up my hood and look down rather than directly into the storm. Just after midnight Daniel gave in, pulled off the trail, and started stomping out a spot to lay out his bivy.

Beat and I continued for another four or five miles before he ran out of water, so we had to take a longer stop as well. I admit that I dislike taking breaks on the trail. It just takes so much effort to set up and break down any kind of stop. It's easier for me to just keep moving, and then do all of my eating and water-making and sock-changing and occasional bivying when I'm about to collapse. So I started with enough drinking water to last until West Yellowstone, but reasoned that boiling water amid this heavy snowfall would be good practice for Alaska. We put on our big coats and down pants, sat on our sled bags and fired up the stove. Beat noted that it was 9 degrees — a fairly pleasant temperature for a stop — but the heavy snowfall complicated tasks and snow seemed to get into everything. I boiled enough water for a hot chocolate-coffee drink and shared with Beat, who was still melting snow.

Shortly before dawn, clouds briefly cleared and the moon came out. This was my favorite part of the night, when I could turn off my headlamp and walk beneath the snow-drenched spruce, rendered in silver and obsidian hues. All things considered, I was still feeling pretty good. However, when the snow started up again I neglected to follow my own rule, continued trying to look at the scenery, blinked too many times against snowflakes and succumbed to the sleep monster. Beat and I took turns leading — not because it was harder to break trail, but because it was easier to mimic the movements of a person in front. In the lead, with no frame of reference, I slumped and stumbled. Occasionally I thought, "I can close my eyes for a second. I'll wake up before I hit the ground." Then I'd let my neck go slack, drifting into a brief but blissful oblivion that even seemed to provide real rest — just enough to snap to alertness when Beat's voice barked out, "Are you falling asleep?"

We reached the edge of West Yellowstone, mile 45, just after 7 a.m. A blue dawn had taken over the snow-covered streets. We stopped in front of a large hotel to remove our snowshoes, which we had been wearing continuously since we connected with Daniel almost 30 miles earlier. It's hard enough to walk on a soft surface while pulling a heavy anchor, without adding bulky and awkward footwear that compresses each foot, reduces circulation and completely changes one's gait. Still, they're necessary to avoid ankle-rolling and tendon-straining, not to mention the exhaustion of postholing in deep snow. I appreciate the support snowshoes provide, but it sure is tedious to snowshoe for 30 miles. And, we both knew, we were likely facing 55 more miles of the same.

The West Yellowstone checkpoint was a welcome respite. A rental house on the edge of town, it was warm if small with limited space to hang up wet clothing. Since we were the first to arrive, we were doted on by the four volunteers, who included Jeffrey — years ago, he read my Tour Divide book and created a painting of a Nanoraptor tire track through the mud, then mailed it to me. The painting still hangs in my front room. I love it, and I had yet to meet him. We enjoyed coffee and raved about the delicious soup ("It's Campbell's," one volunteer admitted, pointing to a stack of cans.) We intended to get in and out, but we got sucked in as one does. Eventually we could see on the tracker that Daniel was getting close, and Beat wanted to wait. This burned up way more time that I wanted to spend not doing much of anything else — not even sleeping (The checkpoints are not set up for sleeping and checkpoint naps are highly discouraged in JayP's races — you're required to carry bivy gear, and you're expected to use it.) But I did look forward to reconnecting with Daniel.

He arrived around 10 a.m., having slept minimally in his bivy — it was windy, and the closure wasn't working properly so snow was blowing in his face. But he was perky again. He wolfed down some soup, raved about it, sorted through his drop bag, and tumble-dried his wet gear. We were all back on the trail by 10:30.

Daytime trail was the worst trail. It was Saturday morning in West Yellowstone, arguably the snowmobile capital of the West, and the route was inundated with machines. Many of them ran paddle tracks, which are designed to provide traction through deep powder but also do a great job of ripping up trails. And since there was already about a foot of new snow on top of the groomed surface, the trail had become a mess of chunks and gray chowder. Meanwhile, machines were buzzing past us every few minutes. I wanted to wade into the woods and just disappear, but figured there was only, oh, about six hours until dark. I could probably endure for that long.

The trail again pitched steeply upward. This was the beginning of the infamous "Two Top" climb, an ascent that is deceptive in its length, contains multiple false summits, and is often treeless and exposed to fierce winds and whiteouts as it traces the Continental Divide for more than five miles.

We had a brief respite from the snow for several afternoon hours, but it picked up in force to match the wind as we crested our first "top" at 7,600 feet. The mean thing about Two Top is that there are actually closer to seven summits before you begin the final descent. Along the first wind-blasted section we saw our last snowmobile for the day. Within an hour trails were so blown in that there was little evidence that any had passed through at all.

The sun set and night returned, again. We dragged ourselves up disconcertingly steep hills and then dragged ourselves down through piles of drifted snow. In open areas the trail had been obliterated. We navigated by GPS, and by tripods that were almost impossible to pick out in the chaotic darkness. I was a little underdressed for the windchill; I could tell because my knees and shoulders ached from the cold. But it seemed unwise to ask the whole team to stop so I could put on more layers. And anyway, we had to be nearing the descent, I thought.

The open plateau continued. This place felt like a winter night in Antarctica, or perhaps the sea ice crossing of the Iditarod Trail. A few times Beat became anxious when we veered away from what I thought was an inaccurate GPS track; I begged to stick with the tripods. We stomped through knee-deep snow until even I was sure we'd left the trail, but then another trail sign would appear.

I got the sense that even ever-calm-and-collected Daniel was on edge. I'd point out a ghost tree, encrusted in such thick ice that it looked like a white monster lurking in the turbulent shadows. He'd reply with a pinched and nervous-sounding, "Hey, look at that."

My core temperature began to drop. I could tell, because now my hands were cold. I had lots of layers in my sled. I knew they'd take effect quickly once I put them on, and it didn't seem urgent enough to stop the whole team just yet. But the cold and windchill put me on edge.

The final top seemed eternal, but eventually clusters of trees formed around us, and then we crossed into the shelter of thicker forest. The churned trail plummeted steeply down the slope, and it was difficult to stay in control. I jogged to try to push blood into my feet, but they were becoming increasingly painful. Beat again talked about taking a break.

"What, already?" My body was wracked with cold and stopping was the last thing I wanted to have to deal with in that moment. "I won't be able to keep my feet warm. I'll have to crawl into my sleeping bag," I protested. Quietly, I was ready to ditch the team. They'd eventually catch up to me; I was the weak link anyway. Beat berated me for my refusal to take breaks, arguing that this was the reason I was so broken by my Iditarod race in 2018. "Losing toes is not going to help me finish the ITI," I grumbled.

Finally we decided that Beat and Daniel would make a brief stop and I'd continue slowly. By then I'd determined that a large part of my inability to make heat was because I was terribly bonked. I pulled out a sleeve of Ritz crackers and munched on them miserably while I slogged through the chowder. I told myself I couldn't stop eating until the sleeve was half empty, and surprised myself by getting through it. I did feel quite a bit better afterward, and it wasn't long before the guys caught up to me. But Daniel was still talking about bivying for a few hours.

"There's a shelter cabin around here," I said. "I remember it, vaguely, from 2015. I don't know where it is and I can't even say for sure that it exists, but I remember there being a cabin."

This was not a convincing case to hold out for a cabin. The guys continued to look for bivy spots as the wind whipped and I whined, "let's find somewhere a little more sheltered." We encountered a young man driving a piston-bully groomer, who knew nothing of a shelter cabin nearby. But he did lay down a smooth track for us to follow — soft, so we still needed to wear our snowshoes, but at least we weren't mired in chowder or powder for a few miles. So we continued while the going was good. Then, about 13 miles from checkpoint three, we came upon a small cabin. Inside the 8-by-8 foot building were two benches and a propane heater. The heater was running! It was warm inside!

Excitedly, we pulled our sleds up to the entrance and rolled out our sleeping bags on the floor. Just before we settled in, we were finally passed by our first biker — Kurt Refsnider, leading the 200K race. I had expected to be passed before West Yellowstone, nearly 24 hours earlier, by the fastest 200-miler riders. But conditions were so difficult that almost no one was getting through.

Beat wanted to set an alarm for 90 minutes. "Who are you racing?" I quipped, and Daniel talked him into two hours. Those two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight were pure bliss. I usually don't sleep for the first two days of an endurance event, but I was so exhausted already. I slept like the dead.

Beat was the only one to hear his midnight alarm. He had already walked outside and returned when he woke me up with a "hey, look, some kind of animal or wolves got into our sleds." I sat up, blinking rapidly, and looked around. The dark interior of the building struck me as familiar, and I thought I was in a cabin in Alaska's White Mountains — Caribou Bluff — and we were on one of our Christmas trips. Of course there were wolves. I stepped outside and blinked some more, as the exterior did not look how I expected it to look. Where were we? What year is it? Both Beat's and my sleds were stretched across the wide trail, and there were bits of wrappers scattered around them. Wait a minute. This is not Alaska. This is Idaho. But where are the wolves?

I put on my shoes and went down to survey the damage. Beat had already picked up his harness and some of the debris. All around the sled were many dozens of small canine tracks — too small to be wolves, but still quite large. They had been dusted with fresh snow, masking the claws, and Beat kept insisting they were cat tracks. But the size would indicate lynx or bobcat, which don't travel in packs. I was fairly certain — and still am — that this was the work of a pack of coyotes. They'd grabbed our harnesses, ripped out the front buckle attachments and tore through the side pockets, rifling out the snacks we'd left inside — because in our fatigue we just didn't think about the possibility of food attracting wild animals. From me they'd stolen almost everything — as I walked around looking for trash, I couldn't even find most of the remnant wrappers or bags. Apparently coyotes don't like Mike and Ikes. The colorful candies were scattered all over the place, but everything else was gone.

"Those little bastards!" I cried out, because that was my food, almost all of it, and I was hungry and didn't want to bonk again. We still had 13 miles to travel to checkpoint three, which was likely to take six hours. They'd eaten a lot of Beat's food as well, and I knew Daniel wasn't carrying much because he hadn't expected this venture to take so long. So I decided to make due with what I had and only beg if I felt things were becoming dire, perhaps if my toes went numb again. Back in the cabin I put toe warmers in my shoes to try to prevent this, and took stock of what I had in my sled bag — two packs of beef jerky and one small package of hazelnut wafer cookies — 330 calories' worth. The jerky was something I brought because I thought it would be good but so far found it too repulsive to consider. But I could probably milk those cookies for a while.

We followed those bastards' tracks up the trail for nearly a mile — I'd guess there were four to six of them, trotting smugly with all of my snacks in their bellies. I felt briefly nervous that they were still lurking and would come back for more. In my addled mindset, I hoped this would happen. I was hungry, angry, and ready to open up a can of whoop-ass.

The miles to checkpoint three — known as "Man Cave" dragged on interminably. There were ups and downs, heavy falling snow, many inches of fresh powder over a track groomed only hours before, and I was deep in an energy deficit. I drifted far behind Beat in Daniel. We reached another open area where the wind raged, and I could no longer see any evidence of their tracks even though they were only a quarter mile in front of me. I took my last bite of cookie, which emitted a short burst of energy. I decided my only recourse now was to cue up something motivating on my iPod and help prolong it. I flipped through to find a song that I've made my anthem for several ultra races, from the 2018 ITI to the 2019 White Mountains 100 to the Bryce 100 — yes, even the Bryce 100, which is in Southern Utah in May, tormented me with falling snow. So now when I race ultras, I take refuge in "Lead, SD" by Manchester Orchestra. I sing along, literally screaming as loud as a voice ravaged by days of heavy breathing will allow:

The snow is piling up!
Our temporary grit!

There's nothing in the wind!
Just white up to the trees!

And you know what — I felt better and found the oomph to make it to Man Cave without toppling over. There we had drop bags — a special courtesy of JayP — which probably saved my race as I couldn't have gotten through 20 more miles on pancakes and bacon alone. But the breakfast was sublime and well-appreciated, the volunteers were cheerful, and the workshop setting of the Man Cave was downright cozy. I even stole a five-minute nap on a chair while Beat and Daniel packed up.

We left Man Cave just after dawn to a bleak and snowy new day. The snowmobile paddletrack chowder began anew. Beat was struggling a lot more with his congestion, and I noticed I had quite a bit myself — I was starting to cough up crud that left amusing globs of green and orange on the snow. But otherwise I did not feel that bad. I kept reminding myself of this. My feet were still in good condition despite all of the precipitation and snowshoeing. My quads were sore but still strong when I needed them to be. My back and shoulders weren't bothering me at all, a miracle. I'd come close to melting down about my broken harness, and arguably about my stolen food, but for the most part I'd held it together emotionally — and this is not an easy thing to do through 50-plus hours of strenuous and sometimes stressful effort. The Fat Pursuit had been slow — slower than I even anticipated — and again I can't help but remind myself that I can't finish the Iditarod spending this much energy on two miles an hour. But I took heart in the conviction that this was the absolute best I could do. This was everything I had to give. Come what may, this body can either do it, or it can't. As the Stoics say, "The willing are led by fate; the reluctant, dragged."

"If it's endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining." — Marcus Aurelius

We finished the 2020 Fat Pursuit in 54 hours and 28 minutes. It was, by a large margin, the most difficult 100-mile foot race I've attempted. In the aftermath, it's difficult not to feel a little bummed out about taking 54 and a half hours to cover 100 miles, but I know I executed a good effort for the long-term. I also watched Beat and Daniel over those long hours, and believe that even without me in tow, they probably wouldn't have finished that much sooner.

Out of about 15 starters of the 200-mile event, only one finished. Out of 45 starters there were 11 finishers in the 200K event — ten bikers and one skier. This wasn't even the lowest finisher rate this event has seen. "You need to start calling this Fat Disaster," Beat ribbed JayP at the finish. The local paper ran a story with the headline "Fat Pursuit wins again."

JayP presented us with whimsical handmade "guinea pig" awards, and we enjoyed dinner with several of the many friends who attended this event — it was fun to see so many come out, from all over the West and Alaska. It was an interesting view of just how much the winter endurance racing community has expanded in recent years, and how much my own circle of friends is intertwined with it. I think this sense of community, as much as anything else, is what keeps us coming back.

Alone in the parking lot, ours and Daniel's Subarus were buried in nearly three feet of snow. We'd parked in a clear lot on a sunny day, but a lot can change in 54 hours. The fact that we'd battled the ongoing accumulation of nearly three feet of snow also spoke to the difficulty of the conditions — although really, such absurdity is fairly typical for Fat Pursuit. Snow, slog and whiteout conditions. The Tetons are out there somewhere, but you're never going to see them. You're going to burn up all of your energy going almost nowhere, all for flashes of beauty and hiccups of clarity so fleeting that the wind will carry them away. It will never stop snowing. It will be this way for eternity. Just accept it. Embrace it. Learn to love it. Be it.

The impetus to pursue such a relentless, Sisyphean grind  — evil genius, really. JayP knows what matters. We'll probably be back. 
Saturday, January 18, 2020

Oh Anchorage, 'til now I never knew thee

In the past 15-plus years, I've spent a fair amount of time in Anchorage — preparing for the Iditarod in February, free-wheeling around the state in March. From April to June 2010 I lived in the Fairview neighborhood — did a bunch of spring hiking in the Chugach, rode my bike everywhere else and never really learned the city streets. I've raced mountain bikes in July, tent-camped in a rundown RV park in August, shopped at Costco before heading down the Kenai in September, visited friends during the gray months of October and November, and sled-dragged many Hillside trails to train for the Susitna 100 in December. Still, over all of these years, there's one month I had yet to experience in Alaska's largest city — January. 

For years now — almost seven — I've been a freelance contractor for several rural Alaska weeklies, working on editing and layout. Recently these weeklies were acquired by the Anchorage Daily News, which I thought meant the end of my favorite paying gig. Instead the ADN offered to keep me on and even make more work available. Yay, I can still work for Alaska newspapers! But it was necessary to learn their system, and the ADN editor thought it would be best to bring me up for a week to work directly with employees at the Anchorage office. The week that just happened to work best for everyone was Jan. 2 to Jan. 8. The main problem on my end was that I was flying to Denver from Fairbanks on Jan. 1, and had to be back in Colorado to drive across Wyoming en route to the Fat Pursuit on Jan. 9. So the whole trip involved an extremely tight turnover. Indeed, we weren't home from the Denver airport until 9 p.m. Jan. 1. I unpacked all of my winter camping gear and threw it in another pile for Fat Pursuit, compiled a small suitcase for Anchorage, then headed straight back to the airport at noon Jan. 2. 

The training started right away with long days at the office. It was fun to work in a newsroom with real journalists again, something I haven't been able to do since I left the Juneau Empire and went freelance in 2010. But I've also gotten used to doing my own thing, and it was weird to effectively punch a clock again. The weather outside was gorgeous and we were all just sitting at desks, wiling away the best part of the day. Then again, nobody I was working with seemed to agree with me. Indeed, Anchorage was mired in its most prolonged cold snap since 2012. This meant temperatures between -15F and 0F. Following ten days in Fairbanks where it was frequently -30F and lower, this seemed fairly pleasant to me. I'd walk to the office beneath the soft light of street lamps filtered by fog and sparkling from tiny ice crystals coating everything, and smile the whole way. Meanwhile, my office companions were grumbling or outright freaking out ... one because he also had to walk to work. People were not thrilled with this weather. Temperatures don't often drop below zero in Anchorage, despite its reputation.

 Over the weekend I was still doing homework but had a little more time to get outside. On Saturday, the temperature was -7F in midtown when I hopped a city bus to the eastern edge of town. My aim was to run some of the Hillside trails that I remembered vaguely from Su100 training in 2011, but I neglected to take into account just how sprawling Anchorage can be. After I exited the bus and ran through several neighborhoods, I'd already covered two miles just to reach the trailhead. I'd dressed relatively lightly, reasoning that this would be a "short" run, and didn't take into account the microclimates of Anchorage. While it may have been -7F near my hotel, the low-lying swamps near Campbell Airstrip were -18F and even -20F ... something I didn't learn until later. While running I felt comfortable, but recent snows meant the trails weren't well compacted, and the surface was too loose to be runnable. I didn't feel as comfortable walking, but it wasn't too bad, so I continued. I reached a patch of open water on Campbell Creek and nearly turned around, but decided it would be good visual practice to at least look for a safe way across the creek. Crashing through brush and knee-deep snow, I actually found a narrow bridge, which was a surprise. But I suppose these are urban trails, probably quite popular in the summer.

 Less than a hundred yards later, I met this cow moose. As soon as she noticed me, she turned from her grazing and started walking toward me. She wasn't charging, but it was clear she wanted to intimidate, and I definitely felt intimidated. I turned and walked back toward the creek, making an effort not to look back. But she kept coming. I knew if she started galloping, I couldn't move fast enough to get back to the bridge, so my plan was to cross the open creek, hope she didn't follow, and sprint two miles back to the closest commercial building (a McDonalds) before my feet froze. It wasn't a great plan. Luckily she paused and I was able to pick my way back to the bridge and beat a swift retreat off of that powerline trail. $&@#! urban moose. At least I'd warmed up.

 I wasn't ready to give up on this run just yet, and indeed I found a small trail leading up the hill. It was steep and there was only one set of footprints through five inches of powder, but it was perfect for hard hiking and continual generation of heat.

 I crossed Campbell Creek on another small footbridge and climbed an extremely steep hillside that required digging my mittened fists into the snow for leverage. Finally the trail spit me out near the top of the Stuckagain Heights neighborhood. I was relieved, and did not intend to leave the road again.

The climb was worth it. The views were fantastic. One of my heart mountains, "The Sleeping Lady" was out in full form, as were Iliamna and Redoubt to the south. Also out in force was this poodle, who become more aggressive and eventually chased me away from my revery.

To the northwest I had a perfectly clear view of Mount Foraker and Denali — more than 120 miles away. Thick fog still blanketed the Mat-Su valley and the coastal stretches of Anchorage. It had been a little rough getting here, but I was glad I came. I loped down the road, running all of the seven miles back to my bus stop. I thought I was running quite well, but Strava later revealed 11-and 12-minute miles. Aw. I suppose there's only so much you can do with cold muscles. Beyond my adrenaline-charged escape from the moose and hard uphill hike, I never felt comfortably warm. Soon my glycogen stores were depleted ... because I had no snacks and this was a 3.5-hour outing in subzero cold. Well. If you're not going to be smart, you're not going to be fast.

I took this photo in Spenard on my way to the bus stop on Sunday morning. My walks to and from the ADN offices were all in the dark, as the sun didn't rise until 10 a.m. and set again by 4. Even coming from three hours of daylight in Fairbanks, this was a bit of a sensory adjustment, as my memory is used to the relatively abundant daylight of late February. But this is why I was in such a good mood after walking to work — frost added a delicate beauty to everything.

 For my Sunday run, I took the bus to a random stop in South Anchorage, near an access point for Campbell Creek trail. I was much better prepared for this outing, although I could only do so much with the limited gear I'd brought on this trip. I didn't have my knee warmers, for example, so I wore a pair of lightweight rain pants (I had basically not checked the forecast before quickly packing for this trip, and thought I should be prepared for rain, since wet weather seems to be a winter norm in Anchorage these days.) But the four-ounce pants added a lot of warmth, and I felt much better than the previous day, jogging comfortably through what the newspaper reported to be "the coldest day in Southcentral in three years."

My destination from the random bus stop was Carr-Gottstein Park, a scenic nook along the Cook Inlet. Somehow I came across a photo of this park online and thought, "That looks nice; I want to go to the beach." Then I figured out how to get there.

It was a lovely spot, but windy and -10F. I couldn't linger long.

After my short visit to the beach, I jogged back to my hotel along Campbell Creek Trail. The wildlife viewing here was surprisingly good. I saw a bald eagle, grouse, and this moose who was considerably less grumpy than the Hillside moose.

Nearby, this red fox watched me for more than a minute before diving into a foxhole in the snow.

Making my way home via C Street. "Even C Street is pretty!" This run ended at 11 miles. It wasn't fast, but felt much shorter and easier than the previous day's 13-mile shivery excursion. I was able to have dinner with a couple of college friends, Chris and Becky, on Sunday night. The place where we planned to meet turned out to be closed Sundays, so I jogged circles around the parking lot until they arrived. Commuting on foot when it's -10 is not the easiest.

Case in point: On Monday night, my friends Dan and Amy invited me over for soup, homemade bread and Amy's famous cookies. I'd planned to take the bus, but before leaving the ADN offices decided it was "only" 3.5 miles mostly on Chester Creek Trail, and should be a nice walk. Of course I was again poorly prepared with only my "walk to work" clothes, which included a cotton shirt and pants as a base layer. Still, the trail was lovely with its frosted trees, and nobody else was on it. Google maps chirped encouraging directions, and everything was going well until my phone died — the battery was too cold.

Dammit. I've spent a fair amount of time with Dan and Amy and thought I could remember the way to their house, but it's been about four years since my last visit, and I'd never traveled the trail in the dark. As I fiddled with my phone my hands went numb, and then my legs felt uncomfortably cold. I started jogging. City lights faded farther away as I entered Sitka Street Park, and then my feet felt uncomfortably cold. A little panic started to build. "I am lost in the woods and I don't have enough layers and my phone is dead and I am lost!" I started running.

A kind of autopilot took hold. I passed several soccer fields, and knew I needed to turn somewhere at at a soccer field, but this one didn't look quite right. I came upon an intersection that I also didn't consciously remember, but thought of a photo of my bike on a bridge that I took back in 2014 and thought, "I should turn left toward that bridge." Then I passed a soccer field and thought, "I need to go to the end." Past the field was a faint foot path that I followed, emerging on a familiar 20th Avenue. Rejoice!

I was finally ready to take everything about Anchorage more seriously, and the next morning I left for work with all of my layers. I made plans to meet fellow ITI racer Lars and his wife, Dawn, for pizza at a restaurant about a mile from the office. However, I finished up my duties early enough to leave work at 6, and since we didn't plan to meet until 7:30, I thought I could squeeze in another run. I mapped a nice trail route, using my trusty Garmin eTrex to navigate rather than my phone. The route was 7.5 miles ... pretty doable in 90 minutes in normal circumstances, but on snow in subzero temps? I decided to go for it. And I felt so fantastic. I was finally dressed well, feeling strong, all by my lonesome in this big frosty city (where did everyone go? I know the temperatures were cold for Anchorage, but still. So pretty!)

I ran effortlessly down the Coastal Trail, enjoying the sparkle of ice crystals and an ethereal curtain of mist along the shore, thinking about how much I loved Anchorage, and why did I ever discount this place? It's not a bad city; really, it's a lot like my hometown of Salt Lake City: bland architecture and sort of annoying traffic and infrastructure, but incredible mountains next door. Just as I was plotting my move to Anchorage, I came upon another moose standing right on the trail. At this point, if I retreated, I'd have to run all the way back to Westchester Lagoon and wouldn't make it to the restaurant in time. The moose did not seem irritable, so I slowed to a walk, tightened my shoulders, and continued. While I was tiptoeing along the edge of the trail, a headlight approached from behind — these were the first humans I'd seen in more than three miles. As two riders on a tandem bicycle passed, the male stoker commented, "Nice night for a walk."

"Sure is," I replied. They continued, with no mention of the moose that was still right behind us.

Three miles later, I arrived at the restaurant at 7:25, taking a few minutes outside to brush off the snotcicles and make myself presentable. Dawn and Lars were waiting inside. As we got to talking, we collectively realized that they were the couple on the tandem and I was the walker, both taking the scenic way to dinner. Only in Anchorage, am I right? They said the moose also made them nervous, but they watched me pass without being stomped, so they felt comfortable riding past.

"So if that was you two, you must have been waiting here for a while," I observed, since I had to run the same distance that they rode.

"Not really," Lars said, which made me feel a little better about myself as a runner.

We had a wonderful time sharing trail stories and devouring a large helping of pizza and wine before it was time to head home. I was tipsy, still a bit damp and definitely not dressed warmly enough for walking, so I had no choice but to run 1.25 miles at my best speed. This did not feel great. And at -10F, it was still long enough to create more frost buildup around my eyes.

"Geez, it's been almost three weeks since I last did a run where my face wasn't crusted in ice," I thought. "And now I gotta go run the Fat Pursuit. Oof."

I paused at the hotel door and felt a glimmer of sadness. It had been a magical week and I wanted to stay, not travel on delayed airplanes and icy Wyoming highways to drag a sled 100 miles over two passes on the Continental Divide. But commitments had been made, to myself more than anyone.

"Well, I'll always have January in Anchorage," I thought, gazing up at purple and blue light reflecting from frosted tree branches. "Thanks for this," I said out loud before stepping inside. 
Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The years go fast and the days go so slow

"Another decade is gone,” I thought as Beat and I rumbled down the frost-heaved highway with the car heater on full blast — our last modern source of heat for the next five days. The scenery was foreboding and familiar — spindly spruce hunched beneath pillows of snow, rendered in the black shades of midnight at 9 a.m. The radio faded to static and I stared out the window, imagining eternal quiet — you know, the quiet of the universe, long after the sun has burned out. The outside temperature was 22 below, and we didn’t expect to see anything warmer for the rest of the year.

“Another decade and I’m still out here. Out in the cold.”

We pulled into the Wickersham Dome, a large and almost entirely empty trailhead. There were two other vehicles, both caked in frost and looking like they'd been there for a while. Wordlessly we removed our sleds and harnesses from our vehicle, along with additional layers that we couldn’t don until our last artificial source of heat was gone. I’d spent much of the drive reminding myself of the process of gearing up and the order of each step, so everything would come together without a hitch. My sled bag was especially laden for this trip — we saw 50 below in the forecast and went to Fairbanks on Christmas Eve to buy all of the things. A pair of primaloft zip pants for me. A sleeping bag liner for Beat. Foam insulation from Home Depot to line cabin bunks, or the bottom of our sleds, if necessary. We packed plenty of fears along with enough fuel and food for six days of racing — we still forget how to pare down the calories for “normal” trips, and brought far too much. The weight of the sled was comforting, and unbearable.

Despite the deep subzero temperatures, a Christmas Day storm coated the trails in four inches of fresh powder. When snow falls at temperatures this low, the flakes are as dry and sharp as shards of glass. My sled is five feet long and about 20 inches wide. It wasn’t a stretch to guess I had upwards of 60 pounds of stuff loading it down. And when it’s 20 below, the microscopic surface melt that reduces friction and lets things glide just isn’t there. You might as well be dragging an anchor across a sandy beach. I heaved to take my first labored steps across the parking lot and briefly stopped, looking back to make sure my sled wasn’t hooked on something. Of course it wasn’t. I felt like I was dragging a dead body, and it was just going to be that way.

So we commenced the march. The first hints of purple dawn appeared on the southern horizon. I could see the sky was overcast, and I was grateful — if it stayed cloudy, we might escape the fearsome possibility of 50 and even 60 below. The cloud-blanketed temperature hovered in the minus 20s. Globes of ice accumulated on my eyelashes and eyebrows, obstructing gray but pleasant views of rolling hills speckled with pipe-cleaner trees. The taskmaster of a sled kept my internal furnace cranked on high; I left zippers open and hands exposed to vent heat as I labored forward. 

Within three miles we encountered two parties returning to the trailhead — a solo skier with a dog and two people on a snowmachine. I wanted to ask questions about their respective cabins and wood supplies and trail conditions, but I knew it was too cold to stop, and so settled on a polite wave and nod.

“There go the other two vehicles at the Dome,” I thought. “We’re alone out here now.” But I knew we weren’t all alone, because I could see the fresh bike tracks of an acquaintance from Colorado who also traveled up here to embark on cold-weather training ahead of the Iditarod. He had a closer cabin reserved, and our plan was to seek refuge with him if necessary. We had two cabins reserved for this night — the likely one, which was 19 miles away, and a moonshot favorite spot that was 28 miles from the trailhead. I consulted my GPS for a dose of reality … 1.8 mph, 1.6 mph … “Hmm, I don’t think Carbiou Bluff is going to happen.”

We reached the edge of the Wickersham Wall, a steep descent from the ridge into the Wickersham Creek valley. “Finally, some relief,” I thought. But as I started down the slope, my dead-weight sled didn’t give an inch. There was so much resistance in this snow that I had to pull hard, even down a steep hill. I cued up an audio book on my mP3 player — “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah — and let my mind escape into a different place. I value and mostly enjoy the expansive mental space of a good slog, which is why I haven’t formed a podcast-audiobook habit before this year. But sometimes you just need to find the best ways to cope.

 The day dragged on. Pink streaks of light appeared on the clouds overhead, and then I noticed patches of blue. By 3 p.m. dusk, the sky overhead had cleared. My body was still cranking heat but my nose felt significantly colder. I had started using my bare fingers to thaw the ice surrounding my eyes, because it was giving me an ice-cream headache. “It’s probably at least 30 below now,” I thought, but Beat had the thermometer, and he was too far ahead to ask.

Darkness returned. The night deepened. Some eons had passed, not to mention a good chunk of my audio book, and we’d still only traveled 16 miles. Only halfway up an interminable hill out of the Wickersham Valley. My shoulders ached. Most of my leg muscles were burning … but at least my core was warm. I saw Beat walking toward me without his sled. He’d done this several times already, a strategy to stay warm as he waited for me to catch up. This is why traveling with another person in cold weather can be problematic, because each individual operates best at their own pace. It’s not fair to ask the stronger person to either freeze or burn extra energy walking back and forth to match the slower person’s pace, nor is it realistic to ask the slower person to keep up. This is why Beat and I can’t walk the Iditarod together. It’s hard enough to manage a cabin trip.

 “Want me to take your sled for a bit?” he asked.

 “Sure,” I wheezed. I haven’t had to cope with consistently labored breathing in some time, and the raspy sound of my voice frightened me. This is how I sounded most of the time, back when I was sick. But I’m not sick now … I’m just at my limit. I unhooked from my harness and handed the pack to Beat. As soon as I took my first unweighted step, I stumbled and nearly fell forward. My legs felt so strange, as though my bones were rubber bands. I walked beside Beat, wobbling like a baby giraffe taking her first steps and marveling at the sensation of weightlessness.

We resumed dragging our own sleds and reached the top of the hill. Scoured by wildfire, the open knoll invited a stiff breeze, and within seconds I shifted from comfortable to shivering. I zipped up all of my coats and tried to run, but the anchor would allow none of it. Limited to 2 mph on a steep descent, I still managed to warm up again and decided against stopping for an extra layer. Still, that windchill was breathtaking. It surpassed that barrier where cold becomes so cold that it feels like burning. Beat met me at the bottom of the knoll leading to Borealis cabin. He’d already been up there and dropped his sled.

“There’s a little wood in the cabin, not much,” he said. “What do you think? Want to go on?”

 I looked at my GPS. “This already took us nine hours,” I said. “It’s going to be eleven by the time we get there. At best.”

Beat nodded.

“What’s the temperature?” I asked.

 “37 below.”

 “And there’s that breeze,” I added, my voice still raspy. “Honestly, I feel fairly shattered. I mean, if this was the Iditarod, and it was 37 below and breezy and I needed to walk another five hours to reach a shelter, I’d keep going, of course. But right now we’re just on vacation. How much suffering do we need to practice?”

I heaved my anchor up the knoll. The interior of the cabin was as cold as outside, but inside cold always seems to feel significantly colder —possibly because of mental expectations about stepping into a shelter. I unpacked a few things as Beat used a small tangle of wood to start a fire in the wood stove. Then we bundled up in our big down coats and dragged an empty sled back down to the creek, where we’d spotted a snag of dead wood on our way in. Beat took out the trusty hand saw that he’d purchased just days before we left for Fairbanks, reasoning that cabin saws are often too dull to be worth much (this turned out to be the best purchase ever.) He went to work on a larger tree. I waded into the hip-deep snow and wrapped my mitts around a promising skeleton of a black spruce tree  —known in Alaska as “standing dead” — and rocked back and forth until I was able to rip the entire tree by its decayed roots out of the frozen ground. Then I dragged the 10-foot trunk through the deep snow, heaving it onto the trail to start what would become a substantial pile. This made me feel like superwoman, or better yet, a Canadian lumberjack. This kind of effort could work up a serious thirst at 37 below.

 We loaded the empty sled with our harvest and slumped back to Borealis. Beat went to work sawing the logs into manageable pieces while I collected a bag full of snow and fired up my stove to boil water. Borealis cabin is a familiar one; I know it’s well built with a decent stove, but I was still relieved when the remnant moisture in the wood finally burned off and the cabin began to heat toward zero degrees, then freezing. Within a couple of hours, the air was even close to room temperature if one stood right next to the stove. Beat selflessly took on the task of setting an alarm every two hours to stock the stove. If we let it go out, it wouldn’t take long for 37 below to seep back into the cabin.

We had Borealis reserved for the following day and no backup cabins. So we knew we’d be spending another night here, and that we’d need to gather a lot more wood. That was task number one for the second day, but we also wanted to put in a four- or five-hour sled drag for good measure.

The morning dawned brilliantly clear at 44 below. I started out in goggles, but they soon fogged up and I reluctantly removed them. The air was still, and didn’t needle into my layers the way windchill often does. I was surrounded by a bubble of warmth that allowed me to move freely, hold my fingers to my lips to bite a lemon Oreo, or pull my hydration hose from its spot against my chest and take a sip of lukewarm water. I loved all of this freedom. It felt stolen, unnatural, like I was an astronaut wearing a space suit and wandering an alien planet. "An alien planet with four times the gravity of Earth," I thought, looking back at my anchor.

How do you describe the distant world of 45 below? It’s quiet here, but if you stop and listen, you can hear a faint, high-pitched harmony. This is the chime of tiny ice crystals colliding all around you. When you walk, each footstep also chimes — the crunching sound of warm snow becomes a squeak around zero degrees, but at 40 below deepens to something more metallic, almost melodious. These tiny sounds seem to echo for miles through the heavy, motionless air. A moose could brush against a frost-covered tree a half mile away, and you’ll here a jingling chorus as loud and clear as though the moose was standing right next to you.

The temperature continued to fall. Beat announced it was 48 below. His digital thermometer’s sensor is exceedingly accurate, unlike many alcohol thermometers used in Alaska because mercury freezes at 38 below. So there was no question — this was the lowest temperature I had ever experienced. I pulled my hands out of my trekking pole pogies and clamped two fingers over the ice coating my eyelashes, noting how quick the tips began to numb.

Alaskans have a saying they like to repeat about minus 50, often attributed to famous turn-of-the-century missionary Hudson Stuck: “Everything’s all right as long as it’s all right.” It’s not hard to keep oneself comfortable and safe at 50 below, but the tiniest error can spiral into something dire in the span of a few heartbeats. Within seconds my bare fingers were tingling. I shoved them into a mitten and then back into a pogie, visualizing the potential pale patches of frostnip that might already be taking hold.

I was listening to the last chapters of “Born a Crime,” which I was captivated by and eager to hear the end. But I’d placed my mP3 player in a tight pants pocket and the buttons frequently skipped chapters. I’d pull out my bare hand to fish the player out of my pocket and hold the rewind button until I returned to where I wanted to be in the book, shoving numb fingers back into a mitten after I was done. And because I’d spent my dexterity on this, I had to wait longer to eat and drink. “This is dumb. I should not be spending all of this heat capital on entertainment,” I thought. “Note to self, for the future.”

In this valley, the sun was out for all of eleven minutes. It peeked over a low hill and then slumped into a higher mountain. I felt revived by this shot of sunlight. Energy levels were high and I believed I was moving so much better today, but when I looked down at my ever-truthful GPS, I saw 2.1 mph, 2.4 mph, 1.9 mph. We walked just over eight miles and it took us four hours. Beat hadn’t stayed as far ahead today, but it was likely he had just slowed due to lack of motivation to be anywhere. Meanwhile, I was excited by 50 below and felt like I was breathing fire, when in reality I was still just as hunched and slow as the previous day. The audiobook ended, and my wandering mind found its way to Modest Mouse songs that I loved when I was a college student in Utah, and which now evoke daydreams about the Alaska moonscape I never experienced until I was older. One song kept repeating. “Heart Cooks Brain.”

Slow walk
from land mines
It's a coal mine
It's a bad thought ...

About a mile from the cabin, Beat stopped where the trail bordered a burn and crashed into the waist-deep snow toward a group of standing dead. I did not like the idea of wading into snow at 50 below, imagining the powder would find its way into my clothing somewhere, and we were still more than a mile from the cabin. But we didn't have much of a choice. Firewood wasn't going to just topple onto the trail for us. Beat sawed as I pulled smaller trees down, heaving and wheezing as I dragged them through the deep snow and hoisted them onto the sleds. This was hard work. I could feel heat building on the back of my neck and under my arms, and pulled down hoods and zippers to try to circumvent sweat.

Eventually we had a large pile on each sled. This is only half of what we thought we needed, but we could carry no more. We hoped to find our next load closer to the cabin. The haul back to Borealis was unbelievably slow. When I checked my pace on GPS, it showed only blank lines — the device thought I was stopped. "This will take as long as it takes," I told myself in an effort to circumvent the frustration. With this mantra in mind, I perked up again. It was still nice to be outside on this dusky early afternoon, engaged in something that kept my body warm and comfortable for as long as I could maintain the effort. Movement was the space suit that made it possible to experience this alien planet. My heart was happy. That's what mattered. In the past decade-plus of cold endeavors, my heart has formed all of these tricks to convince my brain that safety and comfort is not the goal in life — no, a happy heart is the goal.

On my way to ... God I don't know
My brain's the burger and my heart's the coal.

We dropped off our first two loads and went back out to gather more. I actually removed a layer and left it at the cabin because my "walking attire" was uncomfortably warm for real survival work. I thought about old-time trappers in the Far North, snowshoeing their trapping lines and gathering wood every single day, in addition to the building and repairing and whatever else it takes to survive in this remarkably inhospitable world. Not to mention the Native Alaskans who hunted these lands for centuries before the trappers arrived. However, I admit as a white person with Scandinavian roots, I tend to reflect toward what might reside in my own DNA. Did my ancestors work this tiny margin to survive and thrive? Does their blood pulse through my heart?

We dragged, hauled, and sawed logs for more than three hours, finally acquiring a supply we felt confident would not require us to burn through our bodies' fat stores to shiver ourselves to sleep at 50 below. Indeed, we had more than enough wood to burn. We let the cabin grow hot as we sipped Fireball hot chocolate and ate ice cream bars that we had to bring inside to partially thaw, as even ice cream becomes tasteless and rock-hard at 50 below. We did that thing where we boiled a pot of water and tossed it off the porch, watching the fountain change instantly to an arc of snow. Later, after stepping outside to brush my teeth with a cup of warm water, I realized the same phenomenon happened when I spit onto my toothbrush. Warm water went into my mouth and a blast of white mist spewed out, barely skimming the toothbrush.

The next morning we had ten miles to travel to the next cabin. We had given up any pretense that ten miles was anything less than a day's haul. The temperature had risen to minus 20 overnight, but strong winds had moved in, carrying low clouds and snow flurries. It was the bleakest of days. I stepped into the mire, groaning against the unbelievable weight behind me. Overhead, black trees swayed and groaned, raining down the last bits of frost that still clung to the branches.

I struggled mightily. My labored breathing proved I was working as hard as I could, but my body was so cold. The wind wouldn't allow a whisper of heat to stick around. We dropped into the swampy Wickersham Valley, where the trees were too sparse to offer any protection. Wind blasted my face. I moved my balaclava around, regretting that I hadn't put on goggles, but finding reasons why I didn't need to fish them out of my pack just yet. I do hate goggles, but also acknowledge their crucial role in all of the scenarios in which I avoid them.

For this day I started out with an audio book about climate change called "The End of Cold." But when my pocket shut it off somewhere within the second chapter, I just left it off. The wind was a constant companion. I wanted to shut it out but felt like I needed to be present — to know when big gusts came and I needed to lower my head, and hear lulls so I could look up again. I did not feel free on this day. I felt trapped. If I stopped moving for more than a minute, an insidious cold seeped through the tiniest weaknesses in my system, leaving me with weird discomforts like a cold lower back and a burning sensation behind my knees. Later we'd learn that gusts in this region were measured at 35-40 mph, and it was 25 below. That's a windchill of -62 — and if anyone ever dares claim to my face that "windchill isn't real," I'm probably going to kick them.

I'm on my way to — God, don't know or don't care
My brain's the weak heart and my heart's the long stairs.

We made the long climb up to Eleazar's cabin, a lovely spot on a wind-blasted ridge. Here our Colorado friend Jim had left a small amount of wood behind for us, along with a cabin log entry about his two days here — slow ride out on the sandpaper snow, an excursion down to the low-lying valley to test out gear when it was 50 below, and an enjoyable retreat from the real world. One does feel insulated out here — clothing insulating warm limbs from a deadly cold, cozy cabins holding out a fearsome wind, fatigue cushioning fragile emotions from the machinations of the mind, and a vast amount of unoccupied space to feel separated from the whole world. One feels safe here, even as scary as this place can be.

We tore one down and erected another there
The match of the century, absence versus thin air.

The morning of day four brought -6F with the same blasting winds that rocked the cabin all night. We tugged our sleds down the sandpaper trail, and soon it was -20. Still windy. I started this day better prepared with extra layers and toe warmers, following my intuitive understanding that windchill feels even colder than an equivalent ambient temperature, because windchill is actively assaulting you.

Indeed, the wind had done a number on the trails, which had almost been erased by drifted snow. For this day's trek we would need to wade through styrofoam powder for more than eight of the 11 miles. My legs were throbbing, which fed a creeping dread — not about this trip, but about the Iditarod, where I will need to travel an average of 32 miles every day. Here I was killing myself to travel 10 or 11 in six hours. Could my legs, let alone my mind, even absorb 18 hours a day of this level of effort and almost no rest? I doubted it. Failure math brought on too much angst ... scarier than windchill, even. I cued up "The End of Cold" and imagined myself buying a small bungalow on the beach in Florida, a place I could spend my remaining years watching the waves roll in until they consumed me.

Ah, angst. We stopped to strap on our snowshoes, but I felt fearful of snowshoeing when the windchill was still negative a lot — it's difficult enough to keep my feet warm when I don't have straps compressed around them. Snowshoes also restrict foot flex, and the metal plates become their own cold sink. But the exercise was still exceedingly hard and I noticed little change in my body temperature. The wind howled and the legs shambled forward, until my audio book faded to mumbles and white noise, and I only occasionally remembered to shove a handful of trail mix in my mouth.

I'm trying to get my head clear.
I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears.

"Why, why, why do we always take the Moose Creek connector?" Beat despises this trail because it's seldom traveled and often blown in, but it does chop six miles off the trip to Moose Creek cabin. We were both growing weary of the slog. I am forever in pursuit of ways to wholeheartedly embrace the slog, but this trip was testing my resolve in every way. We thought battling sandpaper snow at 20 below was difficult, but then came 50 below. That wasn't difficult enough, so the gray days with basement windchills moved in. Now we were breaking trail through a mire of Styrofoam and continuing subzero cold. What could the next day possibly bring?

I was also growing weary of viewing the world through an ice helmet. I gave up the task of melting my ice-lashes, until the scenery appeared through an abstraction of white blobs and blinking shadows. When gusts blasted through I put my head down, and often forgot to raise it until my neck began to hurt. Beat and I had been out in the Whites for four days and hadn't seen a soul, besides the two groups on day one. It hadn't been long, but it already felt lonely. Even as my body adjusted to the physical discomfort, my heart grew restless. "Is this all?"

In this place that I call home
My brain's the cliff and my heart's the bitter buffalo.

We finally arrived at Moose Creek cabin to the strangest pocket of warm air — suddenly it was 9 above zero, but still windy enough to discourage any lingering outside. I was even annoyed at the warmth, because I could no longer claim subzero for the entirety of the trip. The wood at this cabin was abundant — we didn't even need to gather it — and it was almost too warm to fully enjoy the stove. We ended up letting it go out overnight. We awaited the arrival of our friend Kevin, who had told us he'd ride his bike out to meet us on Sunday night. He never showed — ultimately a late start and drifted, "slow snow" turned him around.

The next day, we decided to hike out. We had one more night at a cabin reserved, but we were weary. We found the main trail drifted in as well, but the warm temperatures at least added some glide to our sleds. When we started out in the morning it was 22 above — unbelievably tropical. But within a half mile we dropped into zero degrees, and temperatures stayed near there for the rest of the hike out.

I looked and felt rough but I also felt more content — moving toward acceptance as the end neared. "Maybe the best I can do is two miles per hour. Maybe ten miles will drain away the most of my strength, and everything beyond will be survival shambling. That's okay. I'll go as far as I can. Every mile through this far-away planet is a gift."

It was Dec. 30, not quite the last day of the decade. But close. Like many times in the past, my brain cycled through disbelief at how these cold pursuits became such a huge part of my life, and guesses as to what the next decade might hold. Possibly something very different. My heart wanted none of this rumination and speculation. It only wanted to gaze toward a thin clearing on the southern horizon, and hope against hope that sunlight would peak through.

In this life that we call home
The years go fast and the days go so slow
The days go so slow
The days go slow