Saturday, March 28, 2020

Last days of innocence — day two

March 3, 2020. Yentna River, Alaska. 12 below zero and clear. 

It was a harsh awakening. A cloud of frosted breath obstructed the dimly lit room as my breath quickened. I tried to sit up, but my back was pressed in a notch between two couch cushions. The muscles had tightened so much that I felt immobilized. In a brief panic I rolled onto the hard floor; my sore knees hit first with a painful thud. My body felt clammy. I unzipped my parka and pulled down the hood, focusing on deep breaths. As my heart rate slowed I pressed my hand under my shirt to confirm a film of cold sweat pooled around my chest.

The temperature in this large, closed-off and unheated room couldn’t have been much above freezing, but the body’s internal thermostat was malfunctioning. I tend to get these night sweats when I’m deep in a recovery hole and my body seems to be desperately expelling whatever toxins build up during damaging efforts. In recent years the night sweats have become increasingly rare thanks to muscle memory and better management of my body’s needs. I’d never experienced them so early in an endurance effort.

Every joint in my body, from the balls of my feet to my lower neck, seemed to creak and groan as I stood. I removed my puffy layers and hung them on a chair to dry. Luckily these hadn’t taken on much moisture, but my base layer was soaked. I probably shouldn’t have slept in the down coat, I thought, but this room was genuinely frigid. Without the puffy layers, I started shivering profusely. Vapors of breath continued to swirl around my face.

 “I need to get a handle on this,” I thought, without any real idea how I would do so.

 I sat on the couch to pull on my pants. My calves were red and swollen, already in that phase where my legs become two uniform bulging tubes from knees to toes. When I scratched my skin it was hot to the touch, unlike my chest and shoulders, which felt like ice. My feet were still in good shape, but I had developed a few heat blisters around the base of my cankles. Heat blisters are also normal for me, a result of the vapor barrier socks I wear to protect my feet. Snowshoeing through powder means my shoes are constantly caked in snow. Even shoes with a water-resistant Gore-Tex outer layer aren’t impermeable, and eventually “breathable” fabric draws the moisture inside. Experience has taught me that a little bit of excess heat and sweat inside a non-breathable sock layer is a small tradeoff to avoid full-blown trenchfoot.

Outside the closed double doors I could hear laughter and the clinking of dishes. It was breakfast time for the many racers who spent the night at McDougall’s Lodge. My phone said it was 5 a.m., which meant I’d slept solidly for six hours. This was my intention. My race plan from the start was to move with purpose during the day and then rest as long as possible at night, while sticking to my daily mileage goals. Overall things were going to plan. So why did I already feel like I was falling apart? 

Of course, I’d dragged my overladen sled through heavy snow for a back-breaking 66 miles in 32 hours with scarcely a 90-minute lunch break at Yentna Station. One six-hour night of sleep wasn’t going to recover all of that, but it was satisfying enough. I felt energized if creaky. As I stood and moved around the room, my joints loosened and the shivering stopped.

Having put myself together as well as I could, I opened the double doors of the rec room and emerged in the brightly-lit, well-heated dining room. Racers crowded around the table, and the two women proprietors were scooping up heaping plates of eggs, biscuits and gravy. On the table they’d placed jugs of orange juice and water, and I poured large glasses of both, feeling desperately thirsty despite my body's obvious water retention and leg edema. The morning conversation was lively, even among the cyclists who had been pushing their bikes for two days. Abundant food, warmth and hospitality are the highest currency on the trail, and we felt rich beyond belief. For all of this luxury — two meals, bottomless coffee and orange juice, a bed, and a warm shower if we wanted — the proprietors of McDougall’s only charged $45 per person.
 
As I packed my sled outside, I noted the temperature had dropped to 12 below. It would be as low as minus 16 on the river before the sun rose, but the wind had calmed, and the air felt surprisingly pleasant. Something about breakfast wasn’t sitting right — or, more likely, my digestive system was adjusting to imbalances — but before I’d even hiked a mile, nausea swept over me. Every hundred steps or so I stopped to gather my bearings. Deep breaths stifled the urge to vomit and I held onto my breakfast, but for a few hours I was in an unhappy place.

After sunrise Janice and her brother, Matt, pedaled up behind me. I moved over to let them pass. They seemed to be in great moods, noting that trail conditions had improved substantially. They’d been able to hold speeds over five miles an hour, Janice told me, smiling wide as she spoke. I simultaneously felt sympathy that a cyclist as strong as Janice was happy with five miles an hour, while feeling a surge of jealousy because I was never going to see a similar twelve-minute-mile … probably ever, for the rest of my life. If my GPS recorded anything above 2.5 mph for even a few steps, I hadn’t seen it yet. This was the fastest speed I could achieve, a veritable sprint. My legs felt leaden, as though I was wading through waist-deep water. I was still wearing snowshoes, and I wasn’t so enamored with them anymore.

The sun rose higher, the clear sky brightened to a brilliant shade of blue, and my body slowly warmed up. The ache in my muscles abated, and my stomach began to settle. The last wisps of clouds faded and I enjoyed the big views that travel on the wide-open river affords. Denali still loomed to the northwest, but now I could see the jagged definition of closer peaks in the Alaska Range, and in front of those, the Shell Hills. The wide slopes looked like pillows of snow glittering in the sunlight.

I love traveling the frozen rivers. I appreciate the simple navigation, the sweeping views, the lack of hills. Most people in this sport think river travel is boring, but I find it pleasantly meditative … albeit still dangerous. Frozen rivers also feature open water and hidden overflow, and I’d encountered patches of slush here and there. But this year, after a winter of consistently low temperatures and heavy snow cover, the river ice seemed about as stable as it could be.

Ten miles and perhaps five hours into the morning, Missy and Beth pedaled past. They’d left McDougall’s before me, so I was surprised to see them. As it turned out Beth had the horrifying setback of two flat tires, and was now riding on her single spare tube and a prayer that the repair on her other tubeless tire would hold. Mechanicals, even simple ones, can be such a big setback out here. I’ll be honest. This is the part I will never miss about cycling the Iditarod Trail — the part where you have to depend on a bicycle.

 The day warmed and wind increased in velocity as I turned toward the Skwentna River confluence. I was still engaged in strenuous effort near the edge of what I could even sustain, and warding off sweat became a tricky proposition. I was constantly stopping to remove my hat, buff, and jacket, then replacing them once again when a chill clamped down after a few minutes. I couldn’t find a balance. My body's internal thermostat was still confused.

Skwentna Roadhouse was bustling as a dozen or so racers mowed through lunch in the big dining hall. I ordered chili but forgot to ask for no onions. Between an explosion of raw onions and the dregs of some burnt beans from the bottom of the pan, I couldn’t force myself to eat much of it, but I did appreciate a banana muffin and lukewarm Dr. Pepper.

I hung out longer than I should have, drinking at least four cups of coffee and laughing with Missy and Beth. Missy let me tether Internet from her phone and I did my only Trackleaders status check of the race, confirming that Beat was already closing in on Shell Lake and the lead bikers had only made it as far as Finger Lake, just forty miles farther up the trail. The lead runners were still with them.

“Everyone’s still held up at Finger Lake,” I said to Missy. “Must be horrible beyond there.”

 Missy grumbled something under her breath and ordered another plate of lasagna.

Outside Skwentna are several trails leading in all directions. I made several loops while looking for the outhouse (relishing a chance to use toilet paper where it was available), then started down a narrow track with chest-high snow berms on both sides. After a mile I was sure something wasn't right, finally consulted my GPS, and swore out loud. I’d ventured onto the alternate trail that leads to Skwentna, and was heading back toward the Yentna River. Turning my sled around in this tunnel of snow proved more difficult than anticipated, and eventually required removing the poles and lifting the 50-pound mass over the snow berm to point it in the right direction. Between this and two bonus miles, I lost an hour of daylight.

Back on route, I enjoyed respite from the wind where Skwentna’s single road cuts through the birch forest. Overhead, gusts howled and barren branches swayed. I knew it was going to be bad once I hit the open swamps before the Shell Hills. It would be a crosswind from the north. It was always a crosswind from the north. At the edge of the swamp, I stopped in the last remaining strip of wind shelter to strap on my snowshoes and adjust my buff. As I stood, I saw my friend Cheryl and her traveling partner Nina pushing their bikes back toward Skwentna.

 “We’re going to rest and try again in the morning,” Nina told me as she passed. “We still have time so no use burning all of our reserves tonight.”

“Good idea, going back,” I said to Cheryl as she passed, and she nodded. Her face was mostly covered but her eyes looked somewhat stricken. “Tough year,” I thought.

The trail was in terrible condition. Thigh-deep drifts swept across the path. There was only a narrow strip left unburied, and it had been punched out by others. It was difficult to hold the line, and I kept tripping over my own snowshoes. My sled jerked and threatened to tip over on the off-camber surface. Blasting gusts of wind threatened to tip me over.

These were perhaps the most annoying trail conditions yet, but I was in an inexplicably fantastic mood. Evening had arrived, my favorite time of day. The sun drifted low on the horizon, illuminating the blowing snow in such a way that it appeared to be fluid — a mesmerizing current in a golden stream. The wind carried a fearsome bite; the ambient temperature had fallen to 6 below, which meant windchills were likely 25 below. I’d layered up well but didn’t put on goggles, so facing directly into the wind incited rapid eyelid blinking, a sharp pain in my eyebrows and ice-cream headache near the bridge of my nose. But Denali was over there, glowing pink in the evening light, and I couldn’t help but glance north, again and again.

As darkness descended I began the climb into the Shell Hills, gaining 600 feet in a scant 1.5 miles. Surrounded by thick forest, the trail was well protected here. Climbing even these steep grades on packed trail felt easier than the powder-choked river and swamp slogging earlier in the day. The trail cut deep into the snowpack, with berms sometimes rising to shoulder level, high enough that I couldn’t see my most immediate surroundings unless I strained my neck. I developed a terrible paranoia, and muted my already low-volume audio book so I could fret about every crack and moan of wind whistling through branches.

This fear of darkness emerged from prior warnings about especially high levels of moose activity along the trail this year. Snowpacks neared record depths, and moose were having difficulty moving around. This left them hungrier than usual and susceptible to predator attacks. In turn, they became agitated and reactive, a threat to anyone who encounters them on these trails that they like to use. People who don’t know better think of moose as dopey forest cows, but they are so much meaner and incredibly dangerous. If a moose is grumpy and you so much as look at it wrong, it will rear up and stomp you into a bloody pulp. We’d been warned this year’s moose were exceptionally grumpy.

All the way through the Shell Hills, my headlamp would catch the gleam of a reflective marker and I’d startle, convinced I was looking an angry moose in the eye. The moose-a-noia was unnerving but effective in warding off the sleep monster. I marched with purpose through the tunnel of snow. I wondered what I’d do if I encountered a moose here. Of course I’d back off, but I’d had such difficulty turning my sled around after Skwentna that I knew I was pretty much a sitting duck as long as I was strapped to it. I’d have to drop my harness, dart behind the sled, and if a moose started coming at me, I would pick up the duffle and hold the whole thing over my body like a shield as I dove into a snowbank. Yes, that was my plan for angry moose. I unhooked the waist-strap of my harness and moved mittens and a balaclava to an outside pocket, in anticipation of frantic retreat.

For all of my vigilance and dozens of false alarms, I didn’t catch even a glimpse of what I could be certain was a real moose. Eventually I dropped onto Shell Lake and battled howling north wind and breathtaking windchill toward a friendly light in the distance. This I knew was Shell Lake Lodge. Although not an official checkpoint, the race directors had rented cabins this year, and I looked forward to another warm spot to dry out my frosty face mask and snow-caked footwear.

It was after midnight when I walked inside, so I was surprised to find two people waiting up in the main lodge. I hadn’t expected there to be volunteers here. One was Kari’s mother, a cheerful midwesterner who served soup and homemade soda bread with butter. I find it terribly difficult to socialize at the end of these long, hard days on the trail, so I remember nothing about our conversation, but the food was transcendently delicious.

 Like McDougall’s, the cabins at Shell Lake Lodge were crowded — probably with the same group of people — and I was one of the last to arrive for the night. But one walker was getting ready to leave, and I was able to score his spot, a double bed in room shared with two others in a bunk bed. I added a log to the wood stove, but suspected none of us would be motivated to wake up and stoke the fire when it burned out in an hour or two. I unrolled my sleeping bag in anticipation of plummeting subzero temperatures that wouldn’t take long to permeate everything.
Thursday, March 26, 2020

Last days of innocence — day one

March 1, 2020. Knik Lake, Alaska. 22 degrees and cloudy. 

It felt like an ordinary scene on an ordinary day. This, I suppose, is an indictment of the lengths one’s perception can skew over time, because for most people it would be a scene of strange choices bordering on madness: Seventy-some people from all over the world, standing at the edge of a frozen lake in Alaska, strapping survival gear to sleds and bikes and raring to go for a week or a month of sleep-deprived solo trekking across the frigid wilderness. This felt normal to me though — the starting line of a 350- and thousand-mile human-powered race across Alaska.

When I first lined up here in 2008, it felt like a monumental undertaking that would forever change my life. What I didn’t yet understand was that I’d return ten more times in the next twelve years — to take on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure again the following year ... to watch a man I hadn’t yet met but would grow to love embrace the thing I loved, again and again ... to join him for an attempt on foot ... to hurtle myself into the thousand-mile ride to Nome ... and then another 350 foot race to bolster more experience for a thousand-mile attempt on foot in 2020. The month-long, solo walk to Nome seemed, for me, to be the ultimate endurance challenge: An endeavor that felt far beyond my physical and emotional limits, but for which I’d amassed just enough knowledge and experience that I might succeed in overcoming these personal hurtles.

I’ve recently written an entire book about my whys for walking the Iditarod Trail, so I won’t rehash them here, but it was a simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying prospect. For most of February I became difficult to live with, a scatterbrained bundle of nerves and irritability. The notion that I … Jill, age 40, mediocre athlete and truly not tough or brave except by sheer force of will … would in a few weeks’ time once again strain all of my strength against a heavy sled and lay down in the snow at 40 below … all of it was surreal.

Now, with all of that a few weeks behind me, it’s unsettling to realize which memories now seem surreal: The Knik Bar, bustling with patrons, shoulder-to-shoulder with other racers, sharing trail tips, laughing, hugging, nervously nibbling on cheeseburgers without a second thought about washing our hands first. We had days or weeks of harrowing weather and merciless wilderness in front of us. But in hindsight, it feels like we didn’t have a care in the world.

The starting roster included 24 people aiming for Nome and 53 people on their way to McGrath. The Nome roster included four women — myself and Loreen, who holds the current women’s record on foot, and two cyclists, Missy and Jill (I joked with her that we’d confuse our drop bags, but then she made hers much prettier than mine.) Among the thousand-mile men were thirteen cyclists, six walkers and one skier.

It’s interesting to note that the roster featured at least 80 participants as of the previous day’s pre-race meeting, but several had dropped out right before the start, citing the demoralizing weather forecast. After three feet of snow fell over the Susitna River Valley in the past two days, the latest weather predictions called for temperatures rising to near freezing and two more feet of wet and heavy snow, starting Sunday afternoon. Beyond the snow dump, forecasts called for high winds and then a subzero cold snap by mid-week. Longtime Alaskans know well that one can’t trust a weather forecast — unless it’s bad. Then it’s probably true.

Most of my recent winter foot races — the 2018 ITI 350, the 2019 White Mountains 100, and the 2020 Fat Pursuit — were marked by warm temperatures and a barrage of heavy snow. I feel well-acquainted with the difficulties of these conditions, the sloggiest of slogs. I also know what they mean for my chances of finishing. With a wealth of personal data to draw from, I envisioned a number of scenarios and formed my own models, of sorts, for schedules and paces I would need to maintain in the thousand-mile race. After the Fat Pursuit, where Beat and I endured a constant inundation of snow over the course of the race and rarely exceeded two miles per hour at near maximum effort, I concluded: “During the ITI I can endure two, maybe three days that are as hard and slow as that. Then maybe seven to ten mediocre days with high winds or cold. But if I’m going to make it to Nome in thirty days, I’m going to need a few fast-coasting sections like we had in 2014 and 2016. I’m going to need a lot of luck.”

Given the record amounts of snow that already covered vast swaths of Alaska, I knew the hard-packed and resistance-free trails of those low-snow years were never going to materialize. But a lot of luck … that could maybe still happen.

Flurries were already wafting from the slate gray sky when the race launched at its usual strange time of 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The field of skiers and walkers trundled through messy tracks across Knik Lake and climbed into the rolling hills. Although I’m not certain, I think this year had one of the largest non-bike fields yet, with 18 walkers and three skiers in the 350 division, and eight walkers and one skier in the 1,000-mile division. I hoped to be in the mix and not off the back like I was for much of the first half of 2018, but I also wasn’t going to push my pace early.

The group streamed past and I enjoyed relative solitude through the birch forest, soaking up the happy nostalgia I always feel when I make my way through this particular place. Fat snowflakes gained velocity as I crossed into the open swamps and reached the shoreline of Sevenmile Lake. Visibility was near zero, but I still paused to take a deep breath and look around. Flakes stung my nostrils like ground pepper; I sneezed and smiled.

Sevenmile is one of my “soul places,” the kind of spot where I might ask a friend to spread some of my ashes after I die. It was here that I watched the sunrise after a night-long sleet storm during the 2006 Susitna 100, my first endurance race of any kind. The sky finally began to clear as I pushed my wildly under-equipped mountain bike through fresh powder. At the edge of the lake, a golden beam of light prompted me to look up. As I watched sunlight slash through silver clouds, I felt an incredible exhilaration, unlike any I’d experienced before. Not only did I survive the night, but I was going to survive this whole experience. I was going to finish this race, this impossible thing I set out to do! I’ve been chasing similarly defining moments ever since, with every endurance race I embark on. I consider it both good and bad that human nature dictates a larger dose of adventure for each new high. That I now need to traverse a thousand miles of frozen Alaska without mechanical aid to meet the same impossible challenge is … well … good and bad.

Snow continued to pile up at an astonishing rate. Past Sevenmile I was hiking in a trail-breaking conga line with Donald and Jason when an approaching snowmobiler stopped to warn us that there wasn’t much of a trail ahead. He told us he was the only one who had been through since 18 inches of snow fell the previous day, and he’d only made it to within a few miles of the Susitna River before drifts forced him to turn around.

 “Take the Junior Iditarod Trail, that’s the only way to go,” he advised. “It’s about, oh, 23 miles to the river from here. You’ll want to get there fast before the trail blows all the way in. If you don’t get there tonight … I don’t know.” I curled my lips in a bemused smile and thanked him. I wondered if he even understood just how slow we were moving. It would take us at least ten hours to reach the river.

After the man left, Jason indicated he hadn’t heard, so I clarified, “Almost certainly Trail 11, same route from last year.” And to Donald, who until this year's race had always been a biker and taken a different route across Flathorn Lake, I said, “It’s the way most walkers will go. Turn right at the Nome sign. Follow the footprints.” I felt chuffed at my trail knowledge. I sure hoped I was right.

At the Burma Road crossing I caught up to several of the ladies with sleds — Loreen, Kari and Amber — as they stopped to pull on extra jackets and headlamps. The fact that it was headlamp time at Burma Road was a little disheartening. Burma Road was around mile 10. In 2018 I’d traveled most of the way to the Nome sign, which is mile 18, before I needed a headlamp. This year’s trail was already much slower, and 2018 had been hard enough. Well … sigh.

Sure enough, by the time we reached the Nome sign the night had become chaotic with swirling snow. The trail was a mess. Clearly more tracks went to the left, which is the official trail toward Flathorn Lake — longer, and a lot more exposed to wind and blowing snow than Trail 11. Trail 11 is hillier, but I felt strongly that the shorter distance and forest protection was more than worth it in this deep snow. Kari was examining her GPS as the intersection. I told her my plan. She and a group of three or four others formed a train of headlamps across the swamp. The track was narrow, already largely blown in and broken only by footprints. I stopped to put on my snowshoes and caught up with Amber, who was doing the same.

 “Snowshoes suck but they are always worth it,” I observed. “It’s just like biking … always worse when tire pressure is too high.” Amber lives in Anchorage, and has been a steady presence in the Alaska fat bike racing scene. She’s fast, and often wins. One of my proud moments during the 2014 White Mountains 100 was when I caught up to Amber at the first checkpoint, and then of course I never saw her again. But she’s brand new to ultrarunning … her previous longest-distance foot effort was the Iditasport 100K just a few weeks earlier, and she’d never raced anything as long as the ITI350, even by bike. She told me she was curious to try out a new sport and take on a challenge where she had no idea what might happen. I admired her audacity. 

We trundled onward in our snowshoes and soon caught up to the conga line of three racers, led by an Italian man, postholing through the deep powder. The berms on either side were hip-high, impossible to pass, so we settled into their rhythm, which was terribly slow. It was so slow that Amber and I both and time to pull out our respective sandwiches, nibbling and chatting amicably as we marched along. Soon I started to feel cold. At an open swamp, where the berm was only knee-high, I plunged into the deep powder and turned the effort level to 11 to pass the group. As Amber and I punched past, the Italian man said, “impressive.”

“Snowshoes,” I replied. “They’re always worth it.”

The night deepened with the accumulating snow. I was grateful for the tracks of others in front of me, as the trail was often barely discernible except for foot traffic. Amber, who drifted ahead some hours ago, had stopped near the river bank to bivy. Bivying by the Big Su is usually my plan as well, but I have enough experience with these conditions to know how horrible it is to set up a bivy site in wet, rapidly accumulating snow. Anyway, I rarely manage to catch any sleep on the first night of an endurance race, so I’d probably only succeed in getting all of my stuff wet while I thrashed around for an hour or two.

I dropped onto the river and followed the only track I could see now — a ski track — toward the confluence with the Yentna River. To my left I could see headlamps in the mist — probably bikers making their way upriver from the Dismal Swamp. That I was still ahead of bikers at mile 31 wasn’t a big surprise … the fresh powder often piled high against my shins. These were definitely bike-pushing conditions. Still, although I had snowshoes, my sled dragged through this heavy powder like an anvil covered in sandpaper. Dragging a sled or pushing a bike … I’ve done my fair share of both, and I still can’t decide what I truly believe is physically more difficult. Basically, it’s whatever I’m doing at the time. So no, I didn’t believe I had it much easier than the bikers. They were just lazier. ;-) (That’s a nod to Beat, by the way. I am in my heart and will always be a lazy biker.)

Despite the arduous conditions, I moved well through the night. I’m also a night owl at heart, and I tend to fare better than most with the wee morning hours. My down times often happen when others catch their second winds — sunrise, and again in the late afternoon. Morning light revealed a clearing sky and gorgeous views of Denali drenched in pink light beneath a dark strip of clouds. And indeed, this is when my fatigue clamped down. I’d spent the entire night listening to an audio book of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In the Woods,” but now just had to switch things off because story time is sleepy time. The trail began to firm up and a few bikers finally passed while pedaling.

I reached Yentna Station around 1 p.m., which was a disappointing stat. That was two hours later than my arrival in 2018, even though I rested for several hours that year, and this year I just marched straight through the night. But Beat was still at the checkpoint — he was getting ready to leave — and was impressed to see me. “You’re the second Nome foot racer!” he exclaimed. I smiled weakly.

Inside, I learned about some of the night’s carnage. Bikers who had sustained injuries from extended pushing were arranging rides out. Others told tales of getting lost amid the maze of valley trails, taking all manner of alternate routes before finding their way to the river. Still others turned around in the storm, never even reaching this first checkpoint. Those who marched through the night like me were talking about sleeping, but it was the middle of the day, and the lodge was crowded and loud. I ordered a quick 1 p.m. breakfast — admittedly a smaller portion than I would have liked, and featuring Spam — and boosted myself out of there within an hour.

Back on the wide-open Yentna River, the afternoon was white and hot and I was grumpy. I spent all of a mile out of my snowshoes before deciding trail conditions were still too punchy, and strapped the painful and awkward devices back on my feet. Snowshoes are always worth it, yes, but there’s still a price to pay.

At this point I was listening to “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, a 19-hour audio book that would take me well into the following day. I especially enjoyed the segments about her hardscrabble childhood, and lost myself in the world of 1960s working-class Chicago as the afternoon sun blazed and an unnerving number of moose regarded me warily from points along the river.

The wind picked up and the late-afternoon sleepies arrived. I was determined to reach a wilderness lodge about 16 miles from Yentna Station, McDougall’s, before they potentially closed for the night. So I marched as hard as my aching legs would muster. Speeds still barely topped 2 mph. It would have to do.

I arrived at the lodge around 10 p.m. Two women were standing in an otherwise empty dining area, and beckoned me to come inside. Before I could hang my shoes on their boot drier (such luxury), they’d whipped up a bowl of chili and a plate of cheesecake. All beds were taken by other racers, but they told me I could sleep on a couch in an adjacent rec room. This room turned out to be unheated, and outdoor temperatures had dropped to four below zero. But I was too lazy to unroll my sleeping bag, so I donned my puffy clothing and drifted into a fitful sleep interrupted by strange night sweats — but it was rest, glorious rest.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Happy at home

How is everyone doing? It's been some couple of weeks, hasn't it? During an endurance race, I often feel like I live years in the span of a few days. This shift into the new reality already feels like a decade. The uncertainties are astounding, the fears are more difficult to quell than others most of us have faced in our lifetimes, and I haven't been handling it all that well. Racing the ITI to the edge of my physical capabilities did not put me in a great position to stand strong amid the shifting reality of the real world. The anxiety monster — the one I can't control with any amount of blizzard-facing determination — first showed up about a week ago, shortly after I transitioned from too-carefree days in Anchorage to a shelter-in-place existence in Fairbanks. I awoke from a seemingly deep sleep drenched in sweat, my heart beating as fast it could possibly beat, blood pressure pounding, in a state of pure terror. I think it was a panic attack. From sleep, so it happened for no discernible reason.

Two more panic attacks would wrestle me from increasingly fitful sleep before the week was out. I did not help myself by using what remained of my foggy mental state during the day to read newspaper articles and scroll Twitter. But that's who I am. I need to make sense of things. I need the truth. It's worse for me to try to tune it out. Meanwhile, Beat was still making his way along the Iditarod Trail. My family endured an ongoing series of earthquakes in Salt Lake City. My friends in Fairbanks were endlessly kind and helpful, even though one is a physician with a lot on her plate right now. All humans have a lot on their plate right now. And I'm in a position of privilege compared to many. I recognize this, but I think it's okay to acknowledge our individual struggles. If I try to shut out my feelings, it only makes things worse.

It was a warm week in Fairbanks, often above freezing with mixed precipitation, and endlessly gray. I took respite in short outdoor excursions from my friends' home. These excursions started out as walks on painfully stiff legs and transitioned to jogs on merely sore legs. Corrine let me borrow her bike one afternoon, and I headed out for a real slog of a two-hour ride through a couple inches of heavy powder on a soft base. But that ride was, by far, my favorite part of the week. The nighttime anxiety and daytime brain fog started to ease up some, but little things would still set me off. After one of the walks, I looked in the mirror at the tape line across my face, and started to cry. The ITI was so recent that I still had its marks on my face, but it felt like years ago, a lifetime ago ... things could never be the same.

As the weekend approached and more restrictions were put in place, I decided it would be prudent to leave Alaska. Beat was determined to stay on the trail as long as he was allowed. And really, as someone who had more or less been almost completely isolated since March 1, he was one of the lower-risk humans out there. But I wanted to go home. I made the decision and purchased a ticket that left town 12 hours later, on Friday morning. I was instantly bumped to first class because there were so few passengers booked on the plane. At the Fairbanks airport I learned that two flights to Denver had been cancelled, and I'd have to spend nine hours at Sea-Tac.

The major hub airport was a ghost town. The few people walking through the corridors darted away from each other. We were all cognizant of the six-foot distance, and there was plenty of space to spare. What was weird was the lack of eye contact. It felt as though all of us viewed the others as our enemy. I found a secluded spot in the lounge and hunkered down, unwilling to move even to find some dinner ... new regulations restricted the lounge from serving food. "Probably good to practice skipping meals," I thought. I don't know why I thought that. Apparently the end-days dreams that may be causing my night terrors are more deeply ingrained than my conscious mind realized.

As I sat more or less in one place for nine hours, Beat's race rapidly unraveled. While he made his way over the Kaltag portage, a fierce southwesterly storm was battering the coast and pushing a surge of tidal water across the sea ice. If you have seen the movie "Togo," you can imagine the destruction and danger.  In a matter of hours the Iditarod Trail across the Norton Sound became unnavigable, to an extent that the Army National Guard opted to contact two bikers who were sleeping at cabins and evacuate them before they attempted to cross. For all of the remaining racers who hadn't yet crossed the sea ice — six bikers, a skier, and Beat — there was no alternative. The race directors wavered for only a few hours, but the cancelation of the race for all but the first three bikers was inevitable.

I had to break the news to Beat while he was still making his way down the trail. I felt devastated. I took the cancelation harder than he did. He'd worked so hard to make it to Nome this year. We both worked so hard to make it to Nome this year. Even though I fell far short, I took some heart in his presence on the trail. Now it was over, and all that remained was the strangeness of the future.

The plane landed at 11:59 p.m. I made my way to the remote parking lot and found it, too, was nearly empty. The temperature was 15 degrees, and at least a foot of fresh snow covered much of the open lot. A three-foot snow drift had wedged itself against my car. I made a half-hearted effort to brush the snow away, feeling angry that this heavy, movement-restricting snow managed to follow me from the Iditarod Trail all the way to Colorado. After sitting for four weeks, the car's engine balked at starting. I almost gave up. I was too tired to deal with this tonight. I'll just crawl into my sleeping bag and deal with it tomorrow, I thought.

The fourth crank finally started the car. It lurched and groaned away the drift. The brakes were jerky and weird, but they seemed to warm up as I pumped them on my way out of the lot. There was no one on the highway into Boulder at this late hour. The first vehicle that passed was a white minivan with a bashed-in sliding door. The next vehicle that passed, many minutes later, was an old Subaru hatchback that looked like it had been rear-ended by a truck. The vibe of abandonment and destruction was so strong that I started to wonder if this really was the zombie apocalypse.

As I crept up the winding mountain road that leads to my neighborhood, the snowpack became deeper and deeper. A neighbor had warned me that it snowed at least two feet on Friday, but this seemed even deeper than that. Along these icy streets I made my way to my home road, where another neighbor had plowed a narrow strip with a three-foot berm. Beyond his driveway, the path abruptly stopped.

I suspected the neighbors wouldn't plow to my house — after all, I was supposed to be out of town — but I was still sad about this new obstacle. I was only wearing a light jacket with no gloves or hat, and temperatures were in the low teens. I acknowledged that I possessed a duffle filled with warm clothing and snowshoes, but all I did was shoulder my carry-on bags and trudge forward. The distance was only a half mile, but that takes an unbelievable amount of time to traverse in two feet of cement snow. I really should know better by now. As I trudged each laborious step, feeling my fingers rapidly freeze and my shoes fill with snow, I was reminded of the quiet weariness of the Iditarod Trail. The starlit sky sparkled in harmony with flecks of snow, and for the first time in the longest day of the longest week, I felt peace.

At home, the front door deadbolt balked when I activated the mechanism to open it. When I finally pushed my way inside, I threw my hands in air in victory. It was late now, 3 a.m., but the slog had rejuvenated some of my spirit. I grabbed a shovel to clear a path around the pumphouse so I could turn on the water to the house. It took twenty minutes just to clear the snow drift blocking the door, and when I went to turn the key that Beat had left in the deadbolt, it was frozen in place. I yelled a few swear words and wriggled and pulled — in hindsight a terrible decision — until the head broke clean off the key. Now the door was still bolted shut, and the key was hopelessly stuck in the lock. Well, shit.

I stormed inside and sent a sad e-mail to my closest neighbors, explaining why I left my car in the middle of the road and the dilemma with my pumphouse door. After all of the slogging and shoveling, I was desperately thirsty. Out of habit and defiance more than anything, I pulled a campstove and fuel from the pantry and melted snow outside ... even though I had soda and fizzy water in the fridge, and a regular electric stove inside the house, and 10 gallons of water in the cart I'd dragged around all winter for training ... although most of that was frozen. But the point is, I was back in civilization and had easier options; I just wasn't thinking all that clearly and forgot how to make decisions like a normal person. My mind just wanted to be back on the trail.

I slept until 10 a.m. and again woke to a pounding heart and pulsing blood pressure. My clothing was damp, although it felt like sweat that had happened earlier in the night. It had been 44 degrees inside the house when I arrived the previous evening, and turning a couple of thermostats to 60 had only bumped the indoor temp to 51. "Oh shit, I have a fever," I thought, and stumbled to the medicine cabinet to find a thermometer. Sunlight blazed on fresh snow outside the windows, impossibly bright, and I felt terribly disoriented. My body started shivering. I was convinced the thermometer would show me something terrible, but it came back with 96.2 degrees. I didn't have a fever. I was mildly chilled ... probably because I'd been sleeping in a 51-degree house without a well-insulated sleeping bag. The rest of my weird physical reactions were probably just my anxiety acting up again.

I threw on dry clothing and walked outside just as my neighbor pulled into my driveway with his plow truck. He had already left two five-gallon jugs of water sitting on my doorstep, and worked his truck around my abandoned car to clear a path to my house. What a selflessly kind gesture. In my e-mail replies, other neighbors offered to cut two wheel-sized paths with their snowblower, and still others offered to let me borrow a sawzall. I could have cried. Our neighbors here are the best.

I spent the rest of the day organizing things and working on different strategies to pull the key out of the lock, taking long breaks between efforts when frustration boiled over. Finally I found a small and narrow flathead screwdriver that looked to be the perfect shape to wedge into a millimeter-sized crack in the door. It actually wasn't that hard to place pressure on the deadbolt and wriggle it until I could push it all the way inside the door. And just like that, I was inside the pumphouse. I could turn on the water. I could take a shower!

It took three more days for Beat to make his way home from Alaska — two of his flights out of Unalakleet were cancelled due to weather. We both started to fret that airports might shut down before he got home. Meanwhile, I distracted myself with cleaning and organizing. It showed up on YouTube for free, so I finally watched "Unbreakable," an ultrarunning race film that features my ex. I subscribed to Disney+ and watched "Togo." (It was an enjoyable film, but it often annoyed me because the setting looked nothing like the landscape surrounding Nome. The Alaska Range-like mountains were just ridiculous.) And I went for a few runs from home, often later in the evening when nobody was around. These runs have been wonderful for burning off some cortisol, but I'm trying to limit any hard efforts because I do have some concerns about my current state of recovery and health. I suspect some of my issues might be related to thyroid levels. Many of these symptoms are similar to what I experienced when I was hyperthyroid. I've known that my autoimmune disease could flare up again at any time. But for now, during this shelter-in-place time when the health care system is so strained, I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. My issues are small in the scheme of things.

Late last night I returned to the empty highways to pick Beat up at the airport. There was much joy upon his return. It is the little things that matter. For now I can be grateful that I have the time to become better acquainted with this small patch of space that I love, but that I often leave for the shiny adventures in the distance. I'll make efforts to connect with my family, also from a distance, and appreciate that Beat and I can spend this time together. The best way to get through these hard times is to slow everything down. Whatever the future holds, it will undoubtedly renew perspective in every way. 
Monday, March 16, 2020

The unbearable lightness of being


It's been surreal — to say the least — to dive into the intensely immersive experience of the Iditarod Trail and then emerge to this rapidly shifting world. I was sitting in a brightly lit kitchen in McGrath, Alaska, struggling with the intellectual confusion of a dinner plate that contained three different items, and eying an outside thermometer that read 38 below. Sitting at the table with me were three Italians — two who were set to continue riding toward Nome, and one who finished in McGrath.

"We do not know when we can go home," one of the men said. "This month, this year, I do not know."

"Why?" I asked him. What he was saying made no sense. I had no idea.


I ended my race in McGrath. It was something I'd been considering since the second day, when I didn't have the strength to meet my minimum daily goals, but kept pursuing them anyway. The challenge was surreal in itself. It was as though all of the most difficult parts of my four previous Iditarod adventures combined were smashed together in a ten-day span that comprised only a third of my ultimate goal. The first day brought two feet of heavy snow, the second and third high winds and rapidly drifting trails, the fourth and fifth deep cold and the terrifying threat of murderous moose, then another foot of snow, then more wind and 40-below cold.


I lost track of the days. I lost track of my thoughts. Everything became a hazy shadow of distant realities. I leaned away from the impossible resistance of my sled and pressed another leg into knee-deep snow. I'd never before felt so physically exhausted, but the mental exhaustion was the truly unnerving state. My decisions started to make less sense to me. At one point, for unknown-to-my-conscious-brain reasons, I stepped off the trail and plunged into a snow drift that swallowed me whole. I was buried in snow to my chest, craning my neck as though I was about to go under water. Then I completely panicked, thrashing wildly until I could pull myself back onto the packed trail, using my arms and kicking as though I was escaping a hole in the ice. Snow had found its way down my shirt, pants, and boots. I could feel its wet sting like a hot iron on cold skin. That was the night it dropped below minus 40.


I stopped my walk to Nome because my brain stopped working. My legs weren't faring that well either. I was uninjured but exhausted, just utterly exhausted. There was no way I could justify pushing this addled mind and depleted body to walk another mile, let alone another 600-plus miles through even more remote and colder parts of the trail. When I arrived in McGrath I said I'd sleep on it, but I already knew. I spent the better part of the next 24 hours asleep. When I emerged from the haze having lost an entire day, I still felt the same. It was crushing, at first, to look my bloodshot eyes in the mirror and acknowledge the insurmountable weakness. Then I talked with the Italians and began to understand what matters and what doesn't matter that much. I wished I wasn't so far from home.


Of course Beat is still out on the trail. As long as he remains out there, I intend to remain in Alaska. He has limited knowledge of the rapidly shifting state of things. He understands that rural village schools are closed and he won't be able to access them for shelter, but he doesn't quite understand that nearly every school in the U.S. is also closed, as are most large public spaces, and many businesses aren't far behind. Meanwhile I sit in limbo, trying to put my still-addled thoughts back together, wondering at the dream I lapsed into that somehow swallowed an unfathomable amount of time between March 1 and March 10.


When I returned to Anchorage, I was lucky to have friends to help guide me into the brave new world. Missy rode to Nome last year and returned this year to experience the Northern Route. She dropped in Shell Lake at mile 100 for the reason of "too much suck," which I assure you was a perfectly legitimate reason to cash in early this year. She was still hanging out in Anchorage while her partner Jen worked a intensive stint of race-volunteer duties in McGrath. They were both in town for a few days before heading home to Fairbanks, so we went for walks, went out for brunch and big pizza dinners (admittedly before I fully understood the social distancing necessities), and purchased all of the CBD and adrenal repair supplements a trashed athlete could want. On Friday they offered to let me borrow a bike and join them for a ride to Knik Glacier. Since I nearly sat down for a trailside nap during our five-mile walk, I was worried about my stamina. But it was too rare an opportunity to pass up.

Early in the ride we had to don our waders to cross Hunter Creek. The temperature was 10 degrees and there was a brisk headwind sweeping down the valley, so wet feet were not an option. 

 Kim, who lives in Anchorage, warned me that the first part of the ride is "boring." I don't think Alaskans fully appreciate the scenery that surrounds them. This glacier-carved valley is ringed by the chiseled peaks of the Chugach, jaw-dropping at every turn of the head.


The foot of the glacier is ten miles from the trailhead, and the snow was soft and resistant. Still, 6 mph pedaling at 50-percent effort was a revelation after days and days and days of 2 mph walking at 90 percent effort. I was tired but surprised when we were already there.

 Calving glaciers and bobbing icebergs make me nervous, so I did not venture too close to any of the features. But it was fun to ride around the ice formations, which remind me of Arches National Park in Utah ... only blue instead of red.

 I ended up turning around early as my friends opted to spend more time exploring. The sleepies were setting in, and I wanted to make it back before my body potentially betrayed me ... I still don't trust it, even for a mellow afternoon bike ride. Back at the trailhead, I donned my puffy gear and took a nap in the 10-degree sunshine, content as I have been since I left the trail.

 Lots of uncertainties lie ahead. It's difficult for everyone, I know. It goes without saying that what we have during these times is each other — even if it's at a social distance, at arm's length, through virtual connections like this blog. I'm grateful for you, the folks who still drop into this space, and for all of the support you've shown me through years of frivolous and dangerous but also intensely-meaningful adventures. Together we'll power on through the challenges and setbacks. We'll overcome the weaknesses. We'll get through this.