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. 


  1. Thanks for catching us up on your and Beat's Ultra-ordeal, Jill...
    Don't let the "news" such you dry. We are finding respite in nature...hours on end wandering trails around Lovely Ouray helps with news-induced insomnia.

  2. I went ahead and deleted a hateful comment directed at folks in the baby boomer generation. Apparently this commenter thinks I am a boomer? I mean, I'm 40, so just a few years older than the millennials, but I have asthma, prior respiratory issues, and autoimmune disease, so I consider myself an at-risk person. And I really don't understand the hate. This is one issue that effects all humans, and we all have a lot to lose if we can't work together. Hate and division will only hurt us all.

  3. Take care Jill, thanks for sharing. It's been stressful for every these last couple of weeks. I am glad Beat and you are back.

  4. I haven't even been to Nome and that was my biggest takeaway from Togo.

    Great fun as a movie, but that is NOT what it looks like around there...

    I, too used the weather in the movie to describe the weather hitting both the ITI racers and the mushers to my kids.

    Glad you are both safe and sound

  5. So glad you made it home safe. Interesting that you mentioned your thyroid -- I had a similar thought yesterday that some of what I'm feeling physically and mentally right now is quite similar to how I felt when I was diagnosed with Graves last year. I've been in remission for a few months and my most recent labs look good, but I believe my Graves was first triggered after a particularly stressful time, and so I'm wondering if the anxiousness right now might have caused a relapse. I'm taking a wait and see approach too, but I'm hoping (for the both of us) that this is just stress and not our thyroids!

  6. I really don't like how people think it is bad to be a Boomer. Why? Anyway, glad you both made it home.

    1. Mary I'm a baby boomer. Thanks for sticking up for us. We got to where we are the hard way. Making do and going without. Housing loan of 18% interest. When that was paid off, our money only earnt 1 or 2%. Very little new furniture and a long wait for carpet.

    2. Those of us who were children of the 80s remember that Mike & the Mechanics song ...

      "Every generation
      Blames the one before
      And all of their frustrations
      Come beating on your door

      I know that I'm a prisoner
      To all my father held so dear
      I know that I'm a hostage
      To all his hopes and fears
      I just wish I could have told him in the living years ..."

      I still think GenX came before the Millennials, but of course our generation has been utterly erased from modern politics and culture.

  7. So glad of the catch up Jill and that you are both home safe and sound. Take care.


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