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.


  1. Jill, absolutely sensational vistas, just like your acheivement to reach McGrath. I trust Beat will arrive safely in Nome

  2. The glacier pictures are lovely - I like the one that looks like an orca. Best wishes to you and Beat and hope y'all make it home OK - you're always an inspiration.

  3. Maybe rural Alaska is the safest place to be right now?

  4. I wondered how you were faring and what the news like this meant for the ride. I have some friends doing field work in the YK Delta for a few weeks with intent to head to Israel this month, Portugal next month. They emerged to find their plans drastically changed.

  5. I’m glad to hear that you are safe and sound!

  6. I think you were better off being out of this mess for a time. It is not bringing out the best in some. I hope you dont see the end of your race as a failure, you were really brave to stop.

  7. And we are grateful for you, Jill, and the connections you provide us all, to the natural world and to each other, through your blog posts. Yes, together we'll get through this. I'm glad you listened to your body and your mind in the decision you made to finish at McGrath.

  8. Meaningful. Yes.
    Glad you are safe and fully alive. Best wishes to Beat, too.

  9. Ive been away on business travel since Feb 3rd, and this whole thing has kind of slipped in while we were busy working 12 hr days 7 days a week. We are done with our work but awaiting our ride home (Air Force Transport)...supposed to have left Sunday but broken plane has kept us here (Cape Canaveral FL). Maybe tomorrow it will be fixed, and we can go home, to what exactly I cant really say. I hear stories of huge lines at Costco, grocery stores wiped out, fighting in aisles for all seems very surreal right now as I am not seeing any of it here (Cocoa Beach). I do know that Spring Break didn't really happen this year (a good thing for us, as we would have been kicked out of our hotel rooms 2 weeks ago and we would likely be driving in from Orlando maybe to find the Gov rate for rooms). I would think up where you are at is also kind of an escape from the reality. Best of luck to you as you recover, and especially to Beat and all the others still out there...they have some serious work to do from what you describe is going on our there. I also hope you have no problems getting home when he finally gets to Nome.

  10. Beautiful pictures! I am almost done reading your book "Into the North Wind".

  11. Just bought your "Meanwhile the world goes on" book a few days came up on my Amazon (for my kindle) I miss this? I don't recall you mentioning you had a new(er?) book out! I'm in the middle of another one right now, but can't wait to read it!

  12. As an infrequent visitor I still marvel at what you do every time I stop in. As always you are an inspiration to me to get off the couch and ride. Or in your case step ahead.

  13. Jill, I too, am an infrequent visitor and you are such an inspiration! I appreciate the wonderful connection to nature that you give us, so eloquently and honestly, in your posts.


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