Saturday, February 29, 2020

Following the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational

Well, it's nearly here — the Sunday, March 1 start of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational. This will be the sixth time I've stood at this starting line with an intention to race, my second with a hopeful ambition to reach Nome, and my first with the completely idiotic idea to walk the entire distance. This post includes several links to follow the race while I am gone. With any luck I will be out there for the entire month of March — I believe a best-case scenario is to finish in Nome in the 30-day range. Hopefully I won't post here again sooner than that, because that will mean I've stopped early.

Right now we're facing a rather dire weather forecast right out of the gate, with heavy snowfall — as much as two feet in some forecasts — slamming the Susitna River Valley tonight and Sunday. By midweek the forecasts predict clearing accompanied by a return to chilly temperatures — possibly 20s and 30s below on this side of the Alaska Range, perhaps some -40s in the Interior. It's just ... oooof. All of the fears are being packed for this one. I thrive on my natural inclination toward pessimism, so I'm bracing for the worst but hoping for a little better. I do feel like I can be mentally and hopefully physically prepared for such difficulties. As I told Beat, "Day one and two will be just like the Fat Pursuit, and then it will be our Christmas trips in Fairbanks." For the record, I was very slow during both of these outings, and they were both unbelievably taxing in terms of energy spent per mile. But I understand how to manage them for a few miles at least.

Anyway, there will be tracking again this year, if you want to follow some really, really slow dots:

2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational on Trackleaders
My personal tracking page on Trackleaders

I probably won't make much of an effort to update social media while I am out there. However, there's a chance I will feel lonely and in need of vicarious virtual human connection and send tweets from my InReach, similar to my string-of-consciousness feed in 2018. If you have any interest in seeing these posts, please either follow me on Twitter or my "Up in Alaska" page on Facebook. Per Facebook's policies, the InReach posts will only appear there and not on my personal profile:

@AlaskaJill on Twitter
Up in Alaska on Facebook

Finally, I've written many words about adventures on the Iditarod Trail. If you'd like a more in-depth narrative to accompany the dots, or to support me in my work while I'm away, please consider buying one or more of my books. Here are links to three about my experiences in the ITI specifically:

My 2018 walk to McGrath:
Meanwhile the world goes on

My 2016 ride to Nome:
Into the North Wind: A thousand-mile bicycle adventure across frozen Alaska

My first time on the trail, the 2008 ride to McGrath:
Ghost Trails: Journeys Through a Lifetime

Thanks again for all of your support over the years. I can't believe it's been 12 years since I first set out from Knik Lake. I hope I'll return with as many intense memories and renewed perspectives as I did then. 
Monday, February 24, 2020

Meanwhile the world goes on

Part of my preparations for the 2020 ITI was to pick up the jumble of words I wrote about my experiences on the Iditarod Trail in 2018, and weave it together into something coherent. My reasons for this writing project were mostly cathartic ... I had a rough go of things the last time I was out there, and I'm still trying to make sense of why I decided to go back, on foot of all things, which is an damn near impossible mode of travel for someone like me ... and finishing up my race report did little to boost my confidence. Beat joked that it was making me more anxious and might be healthier to stop.

But, similar to its subject matter, I plodded through to the end and came up with 45,000 words that depict what it's like out there for a hiker on the trail — from the intimate connection to the landscape, to the weird ruminations and meanders down memory lane, to the horrific things that happen to feet. It seemed like a good reference to put out there for those who might be interested, before I take off for another crack at a very long and hard walk in the cold. And although I promised myself "no more books about the Iditarod," this is really the best medium for a narrative of this length. So I'm putting it out there as an eBook, available on Amazon.

It's a small fee, but free for people with Kindle Unlimited, and an app makes it available for reading on any device or laptop. As always, I'm grateful for readers who support my (admittedly excessive) adventure content.

As a preview, here is chapter two, "Knik Bar," with a few photos from my 2018 trek:

Knik Bar

The feel of this place is familiar yet vaguely unsettling. A rundown bar sits on a lake shore near the end of one of Alaska’s many dead-end roads. A blinking neon sign beckons the few remaining motorists on the highway with promises of cheap beer. It’s a fading piece of Alaskana, a roadhouse that once stood at the edge of the wilderness but now borders ever-expanding suburban sprawl. The parking lot is a mixture of minivans and snowmobiles; the building is a green rambler with plywood flooring. The clientele is mostly local and male, proudly sporting the image of grizzled sourdoughs even though there’s a Subway restaurant just a few miles down the highway. This is mile zero of a historic winter trail that traverses a thousand miles across Alaska, all the way to the Bering Sea. The Iditarod Trail.

Once travelers head west from Knik Bar and Grill, there’s little civilization to be had in hundreds of miles. What exists hardly qualifies as civilization — shuttered summer cabins, a few fly-in lodges, and a handful of public safety shelters. One must cross an entire mountain range and nearly three hundred miles of ice and snow to reach the first village. By then travelers have entered the alternate universe that is The Bush, a place where residents tan pine marten pelts in their living rooms and drive snowmobiles through sixty-below blizzards to attend high school basketball games.

What lies beyond is makes Knik Bar so unsettling. Patrons can order a cheeseburger on a paper plate, guzzle Budweiser on tap, throw darts and play a round of pool. It’s all so commonplace, but as soon as they step outside in a swirl of wind-blown snow, this last tenuous connection to civilization ends. All that remains is a journey that is both perilous and frivolous, a journey with no external rewards, a journey that becomes a battle for survival … and that’s when things are going well. For those of us about to embark on this journey, the Knik Bar is a place to pick at a greasy mistake of a meal and sit in contemplative silence, wondering where exactly one’s life went wrong.

I keep coming back here. It’s as baffling to me now as it was the first time, ten years ago, when I gazed across this snow-covered lake toward a cluster of birch trees. I knew then, just as I know now, that beyond these trees are hundreds of barren and inhospitable miles. Then, just as now, terrible scenarios filled my imagination. I questioned whether I could accept the worst possibilities and surprised myself with a clear answer: Yes. I might die. That was okay by me.

Perhaps it was easier when I was twenty-eight years old, mortality was still a vague concept, and I was naive about nature’s brutality and dangerous depths of physical exhaustion. I had absolutely no idea what actually awaited beyond the far shoreline of Knik Lake. I was nervous, of course, but I was also young, headstrong and unwilling to quit something in which I’d invested so much. With providence on my side, I propelled body and bicycle more than 300 miles to the village of McGrath and finished my race — alive, astonishingly. I promised myself I wouldn’t return.

Of course I returned, just one year later. The year was 2009. I only made it as far as the first checkpoint. Twenty-five miles into the race, I punched through thin ice on a lake, soaked a leg and froze my right foot. I spent the next several months recovering from frostbite, and still cope with nerve damage I sustained in that incident. But I survived, relatively unscathed, so I considered it a valuable life lesson. I intended to never return.

Less than two years later, I met a man and dragged him into the strange world of winter endurance racing. He in turn dragged me back to the Iditarod Trail — not without reluctance on my part. Still, I was excited to experience the trail by his preferred mode of travel — walking, moving slowly and methodically, gazing skyward. We completed the race to McGrath together in 2014, sharing a beautiful and intimate experience that can never be repeated.

Still I kept coming back. In 2016, I returned with my bicycle and a tentative ambition to pedal all the way to Nome. In this race I was more successful than I imagined possible, setting a women’s record for the thousand-mile distance in seventeen days. By then I was in my late thirties, and life started to catch up with me. Fatigue clamped down, followed by a wave of chronic health issues including asthma and autoimmune thyroid disease. I stood in the shadows of my former vitality, scarred by years of striving, certain that endurance racing was to blame for this premature sense of old age. I was finally ready to admit my hubris, accept my fragile humanness, and walk away. But then I came back. Why?

My interest in athletics is as myopic as it is preposterous. I want to discover how far I can go. That’s about it. Speed and competition just don’t hold my interest the way distance does — and not just distance in physical miles, but distance into the abstract expanses of my mind. I want not only to explore landscapes, but to explore the outer limits of existence. I want to tip-toe beyond the fringes of the known world and peer into the abyss. I want to feel the ache of being, at that hard edge where mortal flesh meets the crushing indifference of the universe. I want to see the beauty of places so hostile that I must fight just to survive, and in turn learn to cherish the fragile gift of life. I want to release my soul to the wind and watch as everything I thought I knew about myself is torn to pieces. In this I hope to pick up the pieces and put them together, like a puzzle with endless possibilities. I was born into this world with a human body, and in my opinion it’s not a particularly great one, but it works well enough to propel me through a strange and mysterious universe. For this I’m grateful.

I started on the same track as many future endurance athletes — as a child humiliated on her elementary school playground. Even for a girl I was bad at sports. I still cringe at the memory of my second-grade class cackling after my pitched softball plopped into the grass two feet in front of me. In kickball classmates relegated me to far left field, where I never caught the ball. In sixth-grade gym I squirmed at the bottom of the climbing rope, never budging an inch. In seventh-grade tumbling I writhed around on the floor, unable to complete somersault. In eighth grade I failed the presidential fitness test because I could not run a mile in eleven minutes. It wasn’t for lack of trying. But thirteen years old and humiliated again, that became my final mile — the end of trying. After that, my interest in fitness only extended as far as the bare minimum it took to pass gym class. For my high school newspaper, I wrote an impassioned column listing reasons why structured exercise was a waste of time. Snowboarding, ska dancing, and thrashing around in mosh pits were the only workouts I’d ever need.

When I was fifteen, my dad invited me to join him on a hike up my first real peak, Mount Aire in Utah’s Wasatch Range. At first, the rewards of such strenuous effort eluded me. The climb was hot and painful, and the peak was rather underwhelming. I remember looking around at scrub brush dotting the summit and thinking, “It’s okay I guess. Maybe we’ll get ice cream when we’re done?” Dad was grinning as he handed me a bottle of warm Gatorade. I smiled back. My Dad was proud. Despite sunburned calves and blisters boiling up beneath my brand new leather hiking boots, a warm satisfaction settled over me. I was already looking forward to our next hike together. I blame Dad’s influence for a lot of what I’ve become, but nature runs deeper than nurture. I was doomed — or saved, depending on perspective — either way.

I am … well, who am I? My mother insists I haven’t changed much since I was a baby, but my identity always felt fluid. Like many girls, I tried on different versions of myself to see which one fit in. None quite did. Now, in 2018, I’m thirty-eight years old. My fair skin has been marked by years of desert and mountain sun, so I look my age. I have blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. With a little effort, I probably could have slipped into a conventional version of beauty, but never bothered. Awkward as a child, rebellious as a teenager, I never stopped feeling defiant toward the status quo. Money and power held little interest. Time is life’s only currency, and freedom is its most valuable reward. 

I come from a large Latter-day Saint family in Utah, with roots curling back to nineteenth-century pioneers. Since I’m white and American, the Mormons are the closest thing I have to an identifying culture. I’m proud of my pioneer ancestors. They packed up meager belongings in wooden carts and walked thousands of miles across the Great Plains. They did so on nothing more than faith — a conviction that God called upon them to uproot their lives, labor across the hostile wilderness, watch their sons drown during river crossings, watch babies and mothers die in childbirth, battle early winter storms, and often succumb to typhoid or diphtheria. They endured all of this so they could be free to openly practice their faith. My great-great-and-so-on-grandfather survived the arduous journey and helped found a town in northern Utah. It was hardscrabble place where winters were long and throttled with subzero cold, and summers were hot and dry. Generations of family members continued to work the land there. My great-grandmother resided in the same home until she died at 98, proudly remaining self-sufficient for nearly a century. My grandmother was born here as well, an eldest daughter who essentially raised her siblings while her parents worked long hours on the family farm. Hard labor was their way of life, and they championed work ethic and grit. This is my family’s legacy. I was doomed — or saved, depending on perspective — long before I was born.

A number of generations and 150 years removed from my Mormon pioneer ancestors, I’m still wandering across the wilderness. I don’t believe God called me to do this. I know there’s no new life waiting for me on the other side, nor do I believe there will be rewards in heaven. I only know that powering myself across Alaska is the most self-actualizing endeavor I’ve found, the most “me” thing I can do. Comfort, safety and the necessities of survival will always drive me back to civilization. But the edge of existence is the only place I break free of petty distractions and insecurities, and just live — pure, unhindered, and forever unresolved.

Once again I stood beside Knik Lake, squinting amid the glare of afternoon sunlight reflecting off snow-covered ice. Against the white backdrop was a flurry of colorful motion — eighty-something racers adjusting bags on their bicycles, strapping on skis, and maneuvering sleds around piles of snow. The race organizer had strung a black banner over the shoreline — fancier than the homemade version of 2008. Not much else about the Iditarod Trail Invitational had changed in ten years. Support is limited to infrequent meals and shelter at a handful of camps and villages. Participants are self-supported between these checkpoints, which necessitates carrying survival gear, food, water and supplies.

How much weight one carries is self-imposed, based on tolerance for risk. If you want to travel light, that’s your choice. If you want to wager that you won’t be caught out in an impenetrable storm without an extra coat, won’t panic about shivering in a thin emergency blanket because you miscalculated your energy and succumbed to fatigue, and feel confident that you won’t lose a mitten and frostbite your fingers because you don’t have spares, then you’re free to travel as light and swift as you’re capable. The race requires self-sufficiency and check-ins at six checkpoints. The rules end there. There will be no hand-holding through this race. If you make a choice, you better be prepared to live (or die) with it. In subzero temperatures and windstorms, or on thin ice over cold water, the gap between a small mistake and a fatal outcome can be measured in minutes. It is best to operate under the assumption that no one will come to save you, at least before it’s too late.

Due to my anxiety-prone personality, I fall well into the “heavyweight” end of the spectrum. I’d rather carry my fears in my sled than in my heart. If I didn’t have a security blanket to cling to for anticipated worst-case scenarios, I wouldn’t find the courage to cross Knik Lake, let alone persist for a thousand miles of frozen autonomy. This year I only pursued the 350-mile distance on foot, as opposed to the thousand-mile distance on a bike, which was my original ambition. Practicality pushed me back to the “short” race when my thyroid and lung health continued to falter, instilling little confidence in my fitness or stamina.

The most succinct way to explain my condition is that my body is strong but unreliable, like a sport utility vehicle with a clogged fuel line. There’s a chance my heart will start racing uncontrollably or I’ll sputter with breathing difficulty, and I can’t predict when this might happen, or how much it will limit my ability to keep moving.

Most people with health concerns would have the sense to stay home, find safer hobbies, and accept that aging hits us all — at least the lucky among us who don’t die young. The thought of confining myself to comfortable routine fills me with more anxiety than the dangers of frozen wilderness. I fear the mundane more than I fear the unknown. But I feel I can still mitigate risk with a sleeping bag rated to fifty below and an expedition down coat that will allow me to rest in almost any weather.

All of the gear and food piled in my sled probably weighed around fifty pounds. I’d refused to calculate the exact weight. I had no intention of minimizing my safety supplies, so I’d have to schlep it regardless of what it weighed. Best not to know the number, I figured. I even brought an emotional support animal: A plush toy Siberian husky named Bernadette. The sled balked as I dragged it toward the fancy black banner.

Beat, my partner of eight years, stood beside me with his even larger sled. He was again bound for Nome, his sixth attempt. Beat was already a prolific ultra runner when we met, but had no experience with cold or Alaska. After we started dating — prompting each other into increasingly grueling adventures disguised as “dates” — he raced his first winter ultra and I raced my first foot hundred-miler at the 2011 Susitna 100. We finished together, both shattered in our own ways. For Beat, the continuing story is a freight train of progress. He walked to McGrath through deep snow and intense cold in 2012, and has been bound for Nome every year since, with finishes in 2013, 2014 and 2016. I may have stood at this starting line first, but I was now the novice next to his knowledge and experience.

Unlike our magical week on the trail to McGrath in 2014, we did not intend to travel together this year. We both knew my fitness was far below his, and a plan to team up would force him to essentially take care of me in order to maintain the pace necessary to reach Nome before the thirty-day race cutoff. This sort of lopsided partnership was against the rules and, more importantly, against the spirit of the endeavor. The experience would have no value to me if I couldn’t be self-sufficient. As Beat adjusted his harness, I leaned in for a kiss. I expected it would be our last for a month.


The rest of "Meanwhile the world goes on" is available as an eBook on Amazon. A free Kindle app can be downloaded for reading on tablets, phones, and other devices.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Final preparations

Oof, it's been a busy couple of weeks. Predictably I have not yet written down a gear list for the trip to Nome, but I've made a nice stack of things that looks disconcertingly like a lot of things. Beat and I have been putting together our Nome food boxes, and I just have to say that this part is the absolute worst. I am now neck-deep in planning fatigue and tempted to just grab random things from the pantry to fill out my food boxes rather than try to adhere to the lists I made. I told Beat I will not be doing any of this next year. I don't even care if I fail miserably in the 2020 race and don't manage to save the funds to buy a plane ticket to New Zealand next winter. I'll stay home. I hear Colorado is nice in March. I wouldn't even know!

Last week I joined my friend Cheryl for a sub-24-hour overnight trip to Leadville. The Arkansas River Valley is one of the relatively close-to-home parts of the state that is often quite cold, and I was excited when the nights leading up to our trip dipped into the negative double digits. Of course, by the time we arrived in Leadville, heavy storm clouds were building over the Sawatch Range. The forecast called for 1-3" of snow, but I was already bracing for a foot, since warm, wet snow just seems to be my lot in life. Alaska has been experiencing one of its coldest winters in years, but I have little doubt by the time I arrive in the North, the winter-hurricane conditions I experienced for an entire month last year in Nome will return. Not that I have any sort of crystal ball. And of course, because I'm bracing for warm and wet conditions, the universe will probably smack me down with endless days of 40 below.

We started out from the southern tip of Turquoise Lake just after 2 p.m. Initially the weather was quite nice, 15 degrees and partly cloudy. The trail was recently groomed and a bit punchy, but had a good base and optimal sled glide. I got a head start with my fully packed sled and wanted to see how long I could stay ahead of Cheryl. I even did a bit of jogging, and was thankful that dragging a sled at a decent clip actually doesn't feel that hard in good conditions. I don't think I've done a sled-drag yet this winter where conditions weren't unreasonably difficult — either deep and unconsolidated snow, or a continuous steep climb, or loose powder at 30 below. 

Cheryl passed me about three miles in. The flurries had already started, and we were heading toward ominous skies. We had agreed on a likely place to camp near our starting point, and I planned to hike out and back. But I was making such good time that I decided to follow Cheryl all the way around the lake. I texted her to let her know my new plan, but we had forgotten to exchange specific InReach e-mail addresses, and a message sent to her phone number from my poor-reception cell phone just disappeared into the void. This miscommunication caused confusion when our planned site wasn't accessible, and Cheryl became sweaty and cold while riding around and looking for me.

Meanwhile I was feeling good, marching up a thousand-foot climb in increasingly heavy snowfall, listening to decade-old podcasts about the Iditarod Trail Invitational that I managed to dredge up from deep Internet (so much nostalgia. Gear talk about Pugsleys!), and trying to keep Cheryl's disappearing tire track in sight so I could meet her wherever she decided to camp. Between the big climb and a longer-than-expected route — 16 miles, when I was banking on 13 or 14 — I was about an hour late. Cheryl had decided to return to the car. She didn't seem too irritated about the miscommunication, although I felt bad. She was carrying a lightweight sleeping bag that she recently purchased and changed her mind about using it. She wanted to return it while it was still new and instead bring her 40-below bag to Alaska for the 350-mile race. On the drive up, we'd had a long talk about how I was a "fear-packer" and hold few regrets about this. Sure, I'm not that strong, and I acknowledge that the weight does affect my performance. But I'd rather carry my fears in my sled than in my heart for a thousand miles. I wholeheartedly supported her decision to go with the 40 below bag, even if it meant she wouldn't be camping with me on this night.

Unfortunately it was still fairly early in the evening when Cheryl headed back into Leadville and I walked a mile up the trail to a dead-end picnic area to pitch my camp. We set a time to meet in the morning and it was 12 hours later ... I should have given that more thought. Winter bivies can be okay for five or six hours, but longer than that becomes tedious. I've found I need to be endurance-racing exhausted to sleep much in a winter bivy, so this was going to be a long night.

Anyway, I expected to find a nice picnic table in this picnic area, but of course the sites were all buried under six feet of snow. At the trail turnaround a musher left a few bails of hay, so I made those into a table for my leisurely dinner of Mountain House Chili Mac and tea. (The meal gave me indigestion, and now I'm having second thoughts about packing this flavor in my boxes. Which means I'm down to about three freeze-dried dinner varieties that I'm willing to eat.) It was snowing heavily and snow got into everything. The first night of winter camping is always quite the junk show. On a long trek it doesn't take all that long for routine to settle in, but flailing my way back into the routine while inundated with wet snow means lots of things get wet. This overnight was a valuable refresher, in that regard.

The overnight low was 6 degrees, and about six more inches of snow fell on the trail overnight, in addition to the four or so that accumulated during the hike. It's just my lot in life. I did not sleep much and tossed and turned in my bivy sack for close to eight hours before I finally got up a little after 5 a.m. and started to hike out. It was six miles to town, and by the time I got there to meet Cheryl at 7:30, we'd both decided we'd had enough of slogging through deep snow, and opted to head home early.

There's less than two weeks until the start, and it can't come soon enough. Although I am enjoying being warm, not wet, and not hyperventilating into a closed bivy sack while trying to sleep at night. I suppose I should enjoy these terrible days of stress and anticipation more than I have been. 
Sunday, February 09, 2020

Weather whiplash

We're three weeks out from the Iditarod, which means Beat and I are officially tapering. This final training block since the Fat Pursuit has been disappointing, to say the least. After more than two weeks of a death cold, there hasn't been a lot of time to squeeze in long runs. My gym visits lapsed for too long and I lost a lot of ground; now my twice-weekly weight sessions leave me quite sore the following day. Setbacks are bound to happen in a training effort this long, but I was a little discouraged.

Overall, though, I feel about as healthy and strong as I could hope. When I'm doing the thing I'm training to do, which is dragging a sled through the snow, I feel relaxed and energetic, not overly burdened or bored in the least. It's encouraging enough. It's funny, though, as the Iditarod approaches, I feel increasing reluctance to do anything hard. Go to Niwot Ridge and battle 70 mph winds, or sit at home by the fire? This weekend, I surprised myself by picking the sit-at-home option. I justify this with all of the many things I'm still trying to accomplish in the three weeks I have left. But there's also only so much comfort left, and I want to soak it up. Once February is over, I'm likely to be uncomfortable for a long time. 

Life at home has been interesting enough, as Colorado does its Colorado thing with amusingly bipolar weather. On Groundhog Day - 02022020 Palindrome Day - Superbowl Sunday, Boulder topped out at 75 degrees! We joined our friend Daniel for a real trail run on his home trails in the foothills west of Denver. At least, I showed up believing we were going for a summer-style trail run, because it sure felt like summer. But there was still plenty of ice and snow in the woods and along north-facing slopes, not to mention a lot of slick mud. Beat took a solid digger while we were side-hilling a particularly steep slope coated in bulletproof crust. Just as he was talking about how his shoe studs weren't all that effective and I was thinking about ice axes, both of his feet shot into the air and he landed on one side. After that, I was overly cautious. I slid down one icy chute on my butt. 

And yet, when we climbed up onto another ridge bathed in sunlight and a hundred percent dry, sweat streamed down our foreheads and it was easy to forget that it had ever been winter. I wholly enjoyed this 75-degree day, but running in those temperatures does skirt the edge of uncomfortably hot. 

It's no wonder that the Rocky Mountain marmot saw his shadow on Sunday, and thus no surprise that our six (probably closer to 12) weeks of winter returned with a 63-degree drop in temperature on Monday. It was 12 degrees with 3-4 inches of new snow when I set out to drag a sled from home. I loaded it up with 45 pounds and soon realized that breaking trail through fresh powder with a heavy sled is harder than dragging my 90-pound cart on gravel. When I was about 2.5 miles up the road, a neighbor came through with a plow and made two passes, scraping much of the road down to gravel. Argh. I mean, good for driving. But bad for me in that moment. I opted to veer down a faint old jeep road and make a loop. 

Soon I regretted this decision, because this route is littered with rocks, ruts and down trees that were covered in enough snow to hide them, but not enough snow to insulate against them. My sled was awkwardly weighted with a five-gallon jug of water and a few extra things. It must have tipped over ten times. Each time I had to wrestle with it to turn it over, and I wasn't wearing gloves because I'd been using pogies on my trekking poles. Predictably, my hands started hurting, started burning, went numb ... and still the sled continued to tip over. The hands became a concern. It was only 12 degrees ... definitely frostbite territory if I couldn't warm them up soon. I briefly considered abandoning the sled and coming back for it later, but managed to make my way back to a road, start jogging, and generate enough heat to writhe with screaming barfies most of the way home.

Important lessons were learned — things will go wrong when I don't expect them to go wrong. Always be prepared. And keep some damn mittens in close reach at all times. 

On Tuesday it continued to snow all day. At least, I think it did. It was one of those days where I was locked behind a computer screen for the better part of 14 hours. But Wednesday dawned as the most gorgeous, powdery, bluebird day. It was still quite cold for Boulder — the temperature at dawn was -5F. And it was breezy, with gusts to 40 mph in open areas. So ... yeah, actually it was very cold. Somehow it didn't feel this way when I set out to run to town, breaking trail through ten inches of snow along the relatively sheltered west ridge of Green Mountain. I'd been feeling stressed, and the run was everything I needed to calm down and enjoy being in the present.

"I so love running through the snow," I thought as I splashed through pillows of powder during the descent from Green. "If only I could just do this for a month and nothing else. Oh, wait ..."

It was downright hot again, close to 50 degrees, on Thursday while I ran chores in town and went to the gym. I did not feel like I was missing out on a slush slog. Then on Friday, it snowed again. More than eight inches came with this storm. Ski resorts and mountain passes to the west received as much as 55 inches. I-70 was an utter disaster before CDOT finally shut it down. Lift lines stretched across counties. Front Range avalanche danger climbed to 4 out of 5. Beat stayed home from work because roads in town were such a mess, and we did another sled-drag. This one wrapped up with less drama than Monday, although a neighbor's friend had gotten her car hopelessly stuck in a ditch, and we both separately spent some time trying to push her out. Beat ended up running all the way home (three miles) to return with his truck and plow, then successfully cleared a path to free her car.

Then, on Saturday, it was warm again! Forty-five degrees! Beat insisted on wearing shorts and gaiters for what I expected to be an awful slush slog to Bear Peak. The road was a muddy mess, but the trail was in great shape with mostly packed powder. The people who packed the trail apparently couldn't navigate to save their life. Beat, ever the rule-follower, did not want to tramp over their eroded path through this fragile burned area, so we ended up breaking some of the trail up the west ridge, wading through drifts that often swallowed entire legs. Despite the gaiters, Beat's legs still ended up a little bloodied.

Then, on Sunday, it was 18 degrees and snowing ... again! All of the muddy gravel that we ran on Saturday was covered in six inches of new snow. Most of the Front Range received only trace snow for the entire month of January, so three big storms during the first week of February has been a shock to everyone's system. The wind combined with bad roads and volatile backcountry conditions ultimately kept us away from the mountains, but it was nice to get several things done and go for a short sled-drag in the afternoon.

I was able finally try out my completed sled-pole-harness system, which I filled with most of my planned gear for the Alaska journey, as well as two gallons of water (16 pounds) to mimic the weight of food, fuel, and other things I'm missing. It all felt great. My Nome sled is smooth and has excellent tracking — it's going to take work to tip this thing over. Beat added a canopy to keep snow out, and also to be used as a head piece while sleeping in my sled. It's a great addition. And of course, I made sure Bernadette, my stuffed Siberian Husky, is strapped down so she won't be forgotten. I've been working on finally finishing up the thing I've been writing about the 2018 Iditarod, it it's helped me remember how much Bernadette meant to me when I was tired and alone and had the emotional stability of a 3-year-old.

I'm getting close to finalizing my gear list, so that will probably be my next blog post. If I find the time for one. So much to do! Such stress. February is often the worst month on my personal calendar ... and yet, I don't want it to end. 
Saturday, February 01, 2020

Feeding a 30-day expedition

The start of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational is now less than a month away, which means anxiety is about to double down and my single-minded focus on this event will narrow even further. Gear and prep. Prep and gear. It makes for boring conversation and mundane writing. Of course, I think these subjects are boring, but the general public seems to disagree. Among the 2,000+ posts on this blog, one of the most enduringly popular is a post from 2009 titled "Bikepacking gear," which is so outdated it might as well be titled "Delightable accessories for your velocipede." It still receives thousands of hits each year.

Several folks have expressed interest in learning more about the technical aspects of a 30-day march across Alaska. Since I am not remotely a list-maker in my day-to-day life, an impetus to make checklists and justify my choices benefits me as well. This particular post is going to cover the most specifically individual yet universally debated aspect of such an endeavor — food.

Before I start, I wanted to report that I am no longer dying of the illness I wrote about in my last post. It took more than two weeks to recover even 80 percent of my energy following the onset of this most recent upper respiratory infection, but I hope the severity of it means it's my last for the season (fingers crossed.) I started running again this week, including a 17-miler yesterday where I felt 95 percent of normal — I'm still stuck with a phlegmy cough that rears its ugly head at night and during harder efforts.

On Monday I had my annual follow-up with my asthma doctor, where I failed my breathing test spectacularly. The results were significantly worse than this time last year, enough so that I couldn't fully convince my doctor that I don't have out-of-control asthma. He agreed that the virus was partly to blame, but wanted to try out a couple new medications this month. Since I'm still dealing with lingering chest congestion, I think these medications can only help.

Now, onto food planning. In choosing what food to bring for a month of strenuous exercise in subfreezing conditions, one must consider several important questions:

1. Is it shelf-stable? Some of this food will sit for nearly a month in heated buildings — either post offices or schools — but will likely be exposed to subfreezing temperatures during transport. So it needs to endure a freeze-thaw cycle.

2. Is it calorie-dense? Each resupply box will hold two to five days' worth of food, and everything must be carried until it's eaten. Maximizing the calorie-to-weight ratio is crucial. High-fat foods have the highest calorie density, but many of these are unpalatable (to me at least) during a hard effort. I prioritize carbs, but choose foods with low moisture content, which is also important because:

3. Is it edible when frozen? I won't have the luxury of thawing most of my food. It's nice to have foods that retain similar textures and tastes when frozen — nuts, for example, and chocolate. Dried meats are also good. Gummies need to be "gummed" for a few seconds before they can be chewed, but the flow of sugary goodness makes up for this extra effort. Peanut butter is even more delicious when frozen — it develops a fudge-like consistency. Semi-hard cheeses such as cheddar are terrible in my opinion — like gnawing on tasteless rubber. Hard cheeses such as Parmesan are okay, but a little too strong-tasting for my liking. I've also learned that the degree of freezing matters. An Oreo cookie at 0 degrees is just like any Oreo, but at -40 it becomes difficult to bite or chew until I thaw an entire cookie in my mouth for a few seconds.

4. Is it nutritious? A month is a long time, and bodies in motion have many requirements. I'm not going to pretend that most of my food isn't traditionally junk food, but it still carries important macros and some micronutrients. I plan to supplement with multivitamins and electrolyte tablets, which are probably placebos but don't weigh that much either.

5. Most importantly, will I eat it? During the 2018 ITI, I experimented with a trail diet that was about 80 percent fruit-and-nut trail mix, with limited candy and chips. This didn't work out so well for me — my energy levels were alarmingly low at times, and I think that food intake was part of the problem. My only options were too high in fat and protein, and too low-carb relative to what I am used to eating and what seems to work best for me while in motion. I also packed only about 5,000 calories per day, which turned out to be too few even with supplemental meals. This was probably the case because it got to the point where I could not stomach sunflower seeds, and tossed too many handfuls of trail mix to "the birds" when my stomach turned. Meanwhile, I craved sugar like crazy. It would be nice not to need sugar to this degree, but it's also amazing how well it works. In 2018, whenever I got my hands on something sugary such as hot Tang or another racer's left-behind brownies, it brought instant vitality and energy. I will be carrying candy this year.

Half of my 2018 supply of trail mix was a generous donation from a kind-hearted acquaintance in Iowa — Linda. We haven't yet met, but Linda has long followed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, read my books some years ago, and has been an enthusiastic fan ever since — not just of mine, but of all of the folks in the human-powered race. She donated trail mix to my successful 2016 ride to Nome. It was such a welcome treat that she sent more in 2017 for a race that unfortunately I didn't end up starting (much of that trail mix went to Beat), and then again in 2018. My mistake in 2018 was doubling her generous contribution with a similar trail mix of my own. By the time I packed it all and realized I was already near the weight limit for each box, I just went with it ... and thus had only trail mix to eat.

This year I'm going for more variety, but I still think nuts and dried fruit are fantastic energy food and a preferred baseline for my trail diet. So I was thrilled when she offered to contribute to yet another extended Nome effort ... so many delicious nuts and fruits. And not a single sunflower seed to be found. She sourced much of it from Natural Grocers because she is so dedicated to healthy living. I have a feeling she won't love the rest of my list. But it's for the best, Linda, really. I believe this is the best balance to answer all of the above questions while combatting my low-energy issues from 2018.

The following is my plan for a typical day on the trail. It's just an approximate list; there will be a number of variations for each individual category and amounts for each day. The total amount will be reduced earlier in the race when there's much more supplemental food. For later boxes, I'll probably increase the amount of protein-rich foods while reducing some of the carby stuff that I'm sure to become sick of, based on my 2016 experience (granola bars are probably going to be gone for good after day 14, and I'll replace oatmeal with dehydrated egg scrambles.)

Breakfast foods:
Instant oatmeal, 3 ounces — 320 calories (4g fat, 66g carb, 8g protein)
Trader Joe’s instant coffee (3), 1 ounce — 150 calories (3g fat, 30g carb, 0 g protein)
Jif-to-go peanut butter (2), 3 ounces — 500 calories (42g fat, 22g carb, 18g protein)

Snacks on the go:
Linda’s wonderful and healthy trail mix, 8 ounces — 1,280 calories (96g fat, 88g carb, 32g protein*)
Jill’s less-healthy-but-includes-delicious-pb-cups trail mix — (dried bananas and cranberries, mini peanut butter cups, salted dark chocolate-covered almonds, pecans) 4 ounces — 630 calories (45g fat, 54g carb, 9g protein*)
Chips or crackers (Cheez-It, Pringles), 4 ounces — 550 calories (30g fat, 63g carb, 11g protein)
Nature Valley bars (2) 2.7 ounces — 380 calories (22g fat, 42g carb, 8g protein)
Candy bars (2), 4 ounces — 500 calories (24g fat, 66g carb, 8g protein)
Cookies (chocolate chip, Oreos, no-bake) 4.4 ounces — 560 calories (32g fat, 64g carb, 8g protein*)
Beef or bacon jerky, 4 ounces — 320-440 calories (8g fat, 1g carb, 11g protein*)
Gummy candies (Haribo varieties, jelly fruit slices or cinnamon bears) 5 ounces — 500 calories (0g fat, 126g carb, 0g protein)
*These calorie and macro numbers are an approximate guess for foods that will be compiled at home or dehydrated at home (oh yeah, Beat bought a food dehydrator! We're just doing jerky this year, but hopefully we'll become more creative in the future.)

Mountain House meal, 5 ounces, 550-800 calories (27g fat, 72g carb, 27g protein)
Tuna packet, 2.6 ounces — 110 calories (4g fat, 0g carb, 18g protein)
Hot chocolate (1-2), 2 ounces — 220 calories (1g fat, 48g carb, 4g protein)

Total: 6,590 calories
54.7 ounces (3.4 pounds)
338g fat, 741g carb, 162g protein
27% fat, 60% carb, 13% protein

Yes, I also feel slightly sick to my stomach when I read this list. Three and a half pounds is a lot of food to carry for each day, but it will be lower than this most days ... some, however, will be full-meal-deal sorts of days. I know I'll operate best if I have a good buffer of energy and don't need to ration food the way I did in 2018. (The rationing came about because we were only allowed to send five pounds of food to the checkpoint in Rohn, which needed to fuel 130 hard miles over three long days and diminished quickly amid my pouty bird-feeding.) There are enough resupply points that I can adjust the amounts as I go ... this isn't nearly as involved as planning for an unsupported Antarctic expedition.

Thirteen percent protein is also lower than I hoped, which is why I think I'll adjust toward more protein later in the race. In 2016, when I had plenty of sugar, the food that I craved like crazy was meat. But I also want to note that this list still includes 162 grams of protein, which is nearly three times the typical daily recommendation. I'm not adjusting my diet to simply eat three times as much as usual — I need ten times the energy. My hope is to be on the move between 12 to 18 hours a day, burning roughly 500-600 calories per hour. If I had 6,000 calories of pure carbs, my body would probably happily incinerate it all ... if it could. Unfortunately most human digestive systems aren't so efficient.

Based on past experience, ~6,500 calories of all three macros is probably the most I'll be able to process in a 24-hour period. But I should feel relatively energized at that level. I'll still probably run a calorie deficit, but it won't be huge. Once those calorie deficits cut too deep, the body starts consuming itself, both fats — of which I have much to spare — but also muscle proteins, which I don't have to spare. Aggressive fat-burning will, at best, cause one to feel downtrodden and tired. At worst, it can be dangerous — a faster route to hypothermia and frostbite, as well as organ failure in extreme cases (cases only become this extreme in unsupported Arctic expedition-type scenarios.) Still, I want to consume most of what I'm burning. I actually don't want to lose a bunch of weight out there, because I know how terrible this will cause me to feel, and how much it will slow me down. Given the limited amount of time I have to reach Nome, I can't afford a steep energy deficit.

So there it is ... my 2020 Iditarod food plan. If you have any questions on suggestions, please leave a comment below. I'll try to answer any questions. I've given this lots of thought and believe food consumption is a highly individual subject, so I'll probably be less receptive to suggestions ... but I never say never. Thanks for reading.