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.


  1. Great write up! I can’t wait to read about the rest of your race.

  2. Hopefully this is the beginning of a new book?? I couldn't help myself and left the series I WAS reading and jumped into your "Meanwhile the world goes on" (I was having new tires put on my car and had a moment to relax and read). Jill...I know I've said this before, but you are an AMAZING writer! You have the ability to bring us with you into the suckage...I am cringing and amazed at the same time. I go on something I consider 'epic' and it's just another day compared to your 'epic' stuff. My adventure-writing compared to yours is like my photos compared to a pro photographer...mine are just an empty shell, and vaguely show what I wanted, yet a pro photog can take pretty much the same picture and it's somehow a work of art. Just the physical-level you (and Beat, and everybody else doing these amazing things) are wiling to take yourself down to and need to recover from is something I will never do (never say never?). Glad you are back home (hopefully Beat is back by now too) so you can do your social-distancing together (I think your lives are already pretty much that). Keep the story going, loving it!

  3. I am loving it. Thanks so much for writing it. I was instantly transported to Alaska with you. I am in the midst of reading "Meanwhile the world goes on". It is calming my anxious mind each evening, and for that I am grateful.

  4. Love reading your descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness. It's an addictive combination of soothing and exhilarating.

    The next few months of confinement will probably be tougher than any Iditarod Trail for you and Beat. The permitted one brief spell of exercise a day could be hard to endure when you're used to being out for ten hours at a time.

    Take care and stay safe.

  5. "A scene of strange choices bordering on madness". It is madness and terrifying to us sitting in our comfy armchairs. Your in-depth writing tranpsorts us to Alaska and as always its a gripping, fabulous read.


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