Sunday, April 26, 2020

Figured out, I'm good

Note: Thank you for all of your comments on my last post. It was really fun to have a good old-fashioned blog comment conversation with you.  

This week, for the first time since I stepped off the Iditarod Trail on March 10, I started dreaming about a next adventure. It was a breakthrough. It meant that not only did I believe in *a* future (I admit, my mind really catastrophized the first weeks of COVID reality), but a future in which I could still move through the world and seek risky yet exhilarating experiences. It can't be so just yet, but someday, perhaps sooner than I imagine, more adventures will be had. This perspective has boosted my mood more than I even expected, and allowed me to acknowledge that I still have issues to work through regarding my recent Iditarod adventure.

 "You need to figure out how to forgive yourself," my counselor concluded after our online session this week. It's been nice to hear an objective assessment because I'd convinced myself I was totally fine with how my Iditarod effort turned out this year. Even if I'd continued beyond McGrath, I was never going to reach Nome before travel restrictions and community shutdowns ended my attempt. And the trip to McGrath alone left me so worn down that I spent the next month deep in a recovery hole, convinced that my autoimmune disease had resurged. I shudder to think how bad things could have become if I'd pushed my body any farther. And, anyway, there are more pressing issues in the world right now. Races are not important. But I'm disappointed. I am. And I'm angry with myself. I am. And it's good to just admit this and then figure out how to work through it.

Surrounding this acceptance is an acknowledgment that I need to let go. I'm not going back next year for another attempt — even if there is an Iditarod race next year, which I think will remain in question for a while yet. On Wednesday I joined a Zoom meeting with several of the women who raced the Iditarod this year, along with two dozen others who wanted to listen in and ask questions. It was a lot of fun to get together with all of these ladies again, especially in the context of our weird at-home quarantine lives across four time zones, rather than in close quarters on the snowbound trail. I laughed harder than I have in a while. But the meeting held a hint of sadness for me as well. The other women seemed so pumped about the future, whereas I'm not sure when or if I'll ever go back. The Iditarod has been such a huge part of my life, and Beat's life, that's it's extremely hard to imagine moving on. But moving on feels important for me ... which is why I was talking about 2020 being my last attempt months before the event itself. I need to envision a future with variables that extend beyond the cycle I've ridden a bit too comfortably for years — for more reasons than one, I now realize.

 I will admit, though — old habits and coping mechanisms do not go down easily. A couple of weeks ago, after it started to seem likely that we won't be traveling to Asia or Europe this summer, Beat mentioned he might try fastpacking the Colorado Trail with his friend Daniel. I've been talking about hiking the Colorado Trail for years now, but never too seriously because we travel so much during the summer, and a thru-hike is weeks if not months of investment in one thing. Amusingly, after Beat mentioned fastpacking, I looked up the fastest known times and discovered the women's self-supported record is still reasonably attainable — 15 days, 2 hours for 486 miles. This works out to about 32 miles a day on average. That's exactly what I was trying to do on the Iditarod Trail. Sure it's at altitude with more climbing. It's tougher terrain as well, but with a much smaller load. And no deep snow! And no snowshoes! And no 40 below! Hmm, I thought, there's a way I could try to avenge my DNF without going back to the ITI!

Ah, well. Well ... sigh.

Still, a solo hike across Colorado in September has been a nice dream to carry in my still-tired heart. On Thursday I got out for my first mountain excursion since I returned from Alaska, joining Beat for a quick evening jaunt to Bear Peak. The summit is just three trail miles from our front door, but I've continued to mostly avoid trails in order to remove myself from crowds. Leaving around dinnertime was a good move, as we saw one couple near the trailhead and then nobody after that. We had to peak to ourselves, a rare occurrence at any time. I felt uneasy as I teetered and stumbled over the rocks — it's been so long since I've done any sort of scrambling. Still, my heart was soaring. The jagged spine, the red rocks, the sheer scope of the plains 3,000 feet below our feet — all of it jaw-dropping, as though I'd never seen this view before. April 24 marked four years since we arrived at our new home in Boulder, so I did a quick glance through Strava segments to figure out how many times I've been to the top of Bear. The answer is at least 88 times. It had become this mundane thing, but now my perspective has been renewed. In some ways, stay-at-home mandates are similar to a creative writing prompt. You have these limitations to work with. What do you see in them?

And yes, I recognize the laughable nature of thinking of an 8,500-foot mountain as a "limitation" when some folks are confined to apartments and neighborhood streets. But it is interesting how — no matter who or where we are — each one of our "everyday lives" becomes mundane ... until it isn't.

 On Saturday, Beat was jazzed to join me for a bike ride. This too was a momentous occasion, as Beat doesn't really ride bikes anymore. Don't believe me? He's recorded 88 miles so far in 2020 and 149 miles for all of 2019. But while travel is restricted, bikes are the best adventure vehicle even for somewhat reluctant cyclists. Beat and I schemed a 50-mile loop from the front door, sticking almost entirely to dirt and trails — with one gut-punching pavement climb — and a potential off-trail shortcut to get home. The weather was cooler and breezier than ideal — about 45 degrees with 10-20 mph winds out of the west, so we usually had to battle headwinds while climbing. My comfort level alternated between shivering in the icy wind, and sweating because I was overdressed for 45 degrees.

 Beat routed us through the East Mag trails, which I've recently avoided during my long rides because I always seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere else. On this day we were racing only daylight, and singletrack seemed a good addition to the adventure. I thought we'd run into some snow, but not a foot of slushy sludge covering most of the trail system. Beat took it in stride because his bum was already hurting and he appreciated the hiking break. I had a visceral reaction to pushing my bike through the snow — something closer to anger than annoyance. I was over it before we even started. It was just too close to the arduous conditions on this year's Iditarod Trail, and I wasn't ready to confront them, just yet.

 But then we were riding bikes again and all was well. I showed Beat my dirt-road bypass around the Peak to Peak Highway, which I discovered sometime last year. He appreciated the scenic views and quiet, traffic-free corridor. "This makes it a totally different ride," he said. Even though we still needed to gain a thousand feet of altitude here, it did feel like a pain-free sneak around the drudgery of the pavement climb.

 Then we hit the Switzerland Trail, which I expected to be slushy and muddy. After seeing the snow conditions on East Mag, I worried it would be impassable. But heavy four-wheeler traffic kept it slushy and muddy.

 The slush proved arduous, and we rode and pushed hard to stay ahead of trucks that were plowing through the slop behind us. Even with the beautiful weather on a Saturday afternoon, we'd enjoyed relatively quiet riding — with the strange exception of this segment. As we dropped below the snow line, there seemed to be cars and people everywhere. One driver in a black jeep shot out from a side road, cutting me off so closely that I had to skid and swerve into a side ditch. He also cut off an oncoming red jeep. Both vehicles slammed on their brakes, and the black jeep stayed in place, blocking the entire road. Soon I heard yelling, so I swerved around the mess and beat a quick retreat to the Sugarloaf trailhead. I may need to put Switzerland Trail on my list of places to avoid during weekends until shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, and people find better ways to disperse.

 With 4,000 feet of climbing on our legs, we began the long ascent up Magnolia. It's a gut-buster from the start, with 17-percent grades that top 20-percent around a few switchbacks. It's been so long that I'd almost forgotten that sensation, where I'm grinding at red-line effort and still certain the rear wheel is going to stall and I'll topple over. We ground out another 2,000 feet to the point where my "Homestead sneak" met the road. I'd scouted this shortcut on foot in February. Like then, the hillside was completely snow-covered. I balked at cutting up the fall line like I'd done in February, when I was trying to escape post-holing and was no longer following what had already become an increasingly faint trail. In searching for a more obvious entrance this time around, we climbed too high. Then we bashed around in the woods for several minutes before I insisted we "cut our losses" and take the long way home. This meant trading five miles and two small climbs for 13 more miles and five small-to-medium climbs. But it involved no snow wallowing, no bushwhacking, and I was sure it would still be faster and easier than hashing out this shortcut. Beat, with his hiker-adventurer preferences and sore bum, was a good sport about my decision.

The sun was setting as we returned home — seven hours, 50 miles, and 7,400 feet of climbing in a perfectly timed ride. It was a gorgeous evening.

Sunday, in turn, was a chore day. After we finished gathering firewood last week, I mentioned to Beat that this hard-labor project was somewhat fun, and maybe we should consider harvesting more good pinewood for the coming winter. Careful what you wish for. Beat found two dead trees to fell, both located down a steep slope about 200 meters from the house. With the snow now melted, I had to employ Allen the Taskmaster to drag logs up the hill, then stack them next to the garage. Each log must have weighed 15-25 pounds, and I tried to take three at a time, huffing up the bumpy hillside as the 70-degree sun beat down. I was drenched in sweat and wobble-legged by the third haul, and I ended up doing about a dozen of these hauls.

 Beat cuts away at the "slash pile." He seemed to be having too much fun with his chainsaw, but I'm not pretending it isn't hard work, too. He worked for three-plus hours and I logged two hours of hauling. It was harder than riding a bike for seven hours. Originally I was going to run today, but not after this. I was knackered.

Beat hauled a few loads in the old sled, and it seemed to work okay despite the lack of snow. I wonder if we'll do this again next week. I should probably try to tear out cheatgrass from the flower beds before we have too much green-up. I enjoy the yard work and it's a nice excuse to spend more time outside, appreciating my surroundings. But this doesn't change the fact I'm still allergic to spring (less so than before, thanks to allergy shots, but not immune), and COVID times are not the best times to become a sneezy, red-faced mess. But it is nice to continue to pursue hard labor projects and long bike rides as simple yet effective ways to calm a restless mind. 
Sunday, April 19, 2020

Blursday, April ... ?

That "Last Days of Innocence" blog series was a fun bit of escapism. Writing was a gratifying way to relive my recent adventure, even faintly and not with the ending I wanted. It was still rewarding to return to those days; I was weary and in pain and it was 40 below, but things still felt "normal." Much of the past month has been tough for me. It has been tough for everyone; I get it. I'm certainly not complaining, and I recognize my privilege in this situation. But I was struggling. Mental fatigue and physical depletion from the Iditarod compounded the uncertainties of the present and put me in a dark place. Anxiety spiked higher than I've experienced yet, with occasional panic attacks, weird bouts of paranoia, insomnia, tremors and elevated blood pressure.

I'll have to admit that I've suspected my thyroid from the beginning yet still haven't gone in to get my TSH tested. I've had trouble getting through to my endocrinologist, whose practice is part of Boulder's main health care system, which is justifiably tied up right now. The last thing I want right now is to be a burden on medical resources. Also — and this is something I am especially not proud of — there's a part of me that would rather not know whether I'm hyperthyroid again, because of what that might mean and the difficulties it could bring — not the least of which is having an autoimmune flareup amid a pandemic. So I sat on hold a couple of times and gave up. Again, not proud. But as the weeks passed and physical recovery continued, I started to feel much better. I still spend way too much time reading the New York Times and Twitter feeds, and my outlook remains bleak — bleak, but bolstered by gratitude and glimmers of hope. The night panics have stopped and I've been sleeping much better. My blood pressure is back to normal as well.

One proactive thing I managed to accomplish is finally connecting with a therapist, who I now "see" once a week via video conferencing. I've been meaning to seek professional insight into my anxiety for a couple of years now. I do feel guilty that I waited until this difficult time to insert myself into the system. But it's been nice to meet with her. She's already given me some great grounding tools and a basic but helpful meditation practice. I've long carried the silly assumption that I should "tough" out these often random spikes of anxiety, or squelch them with logic. Emotions can be unruly, and it's better to work with them rather than against them.

More than a month has passed since I updated my blog about day-to-day life. I debated just leaving it at "Last Days of Innocence" indefinitely, but it's hard to stay away. Where else would I archive my photos? Anyway, what has happened in April? Like most people right now, not much. Beat is working from home, which he seems to really enjoy ... except for runs and occasional rides out the front door, he hasn't ventured beyond our neighborhood since I picked him up at the airport nearly a month ago. My work has slowed down some — it's an important time for journalism but not great for the business side of newspapers. I've been dabbling in old writing projects and considering making more small books similar to "Meanwhile the world goes on." But motivation has been low.

I've ventured into town a couple of times for grocery runs — those are sort of terrible right now, aren't they? Everything feels strange and everyone is on edge. Toilet paper shelves are still empty, and my Mormon-ingrained hoarding tendencies (ahem, "preparation skills") have me spending far too much on things I don't really need. These once-weekly trips to town also necessitate getting allergy shots, which my allergist urged me to continue amid concerns about controlling asthma that flared up a bit in February. That is unfun — taking all the precautions necessary to enter a clinic attached to a hospital, then being isolated in a room for an hour as concentrated poison (ahem, allergy extract) enters my bloodstream and causes my arms to swell and my head to become foggy. Then I switch to a clean mask and drive to Trader Joes to wait in line outside for a half hour. Day-to-day life has become a drag. But we're all in the same boat here.

Of course, I feel incredibly grateful for what we have. We're relatively safe, we love our home, and feel lucky to "shelter in place" here. Beat and I have discussed what it would be like for us if we still lived in the Bay Area, locked in our small apartment next to busy streets, with all local trails closed to everyone. Here in Boulder, our local trails have been inundated with visitors since the stay-at-home order began, so we've largely avoided them. But even running from home, mostly on roads, affords so many beautiful moments.

It has been a little strange to begin "training" with no specific goal in mind and nothing to train for. For 2020 I had only two big events planned, the ITI in March, and the Silk Road Mountain Race in August. Since traveling to Kyrgyzstan to race an international event seems increasingly unlikely by August, my friend Danni and I opted to defer our entry to 2021. Beat still has Hardrock 100, the PTL and the Tor des Glaciers on his calendar in July, August and September, but we feel there's a high likelihood of all of these races being canceled. Even if they aren't canceled, the travel is questionable. I've been a little sad about losing these adventures. But in the scheme of things, the setback feels so small that I can't even get that worked up about it. My emotions are too focused on uncontrollable, big-picture stuff, which I can't say is great for my mental health. I'd rather be super bummed about DNFing the Iditarod and giving up a fun bike adventure in Asia, then grief-stricken about the plight of medical professionals and the economic volatility that will affect so many.

Sorry. I intended to keep this post more positive. It's not quite going that way, but I'm trying. I will say that I'm happy to have removed any pressure on myself to build or maintain endurance right now. Instead I can work on cultivating an arguably healthier fitness routine — running for an hour or two a day, absorbing vitamin D, looking at pretty outdoor scenery and building up some happy hormones. Ideally I can stay active without digging myself into too many physical holes — weakening the immune system, generating inflammation, possibly triggering autoimmune reactions that provoke asthma and thyroid imbalance, and everything else that comes with physical stress. 

Still ... it is nice, for reasons of mental health, to still squeeze in a little adventure here and there. Bikes are great for that purpose. If I was training to ride the Silk Road Mountain Race in less than four months, I would be off to a terrible start. So far in 2020 I've logged fewer than 200 cycling miles on Strava, now closing in on month five. April weather has not been conducive to gravel road riding, but I've managed a few lovely rides since I returned from Alaska.

My favorite adventure this month was just over four hours and 42 miles on the bike on April 10. It felt so indulgent, to spend hours climbing and descending these empty roads until the Indian Peaks felt close enough to touch ... I miss those mountains. I've since learned that Colorado's stay-at-home order asks residents to not only ride from home, but also stay within our own counties. This ride put me in a neighboring county, so now I feel guilty. Ah well. Once the roads dry out I do hope to get out for at least one therapeutic ride per week, but I'll have to rework some of my favorite routes to do so in the most responsible way possible. I'm grateful we can still go out and ride bikes. And I don't take it for granted. I acknowledge that restrictions may need to be further tightened, for good reason. 

 What else? It's been an abnormally cold month, with a weather pattern not unlike January — a fluctuating wave of mild temperatures and sunny days followed by deep cold and tons of snow. Our winter supply of firewood was mostly depleted before we left for Alaska, so we've worked to gather more from home. This has been a fun project — Beat taught himself what he needs to know to safely cut down and harvest dead trees, and I help with the hauling. I love hauling. Can you tell? Monotonous, hard labor is possibly my favorite type of exercise, which is why I've taken to sled-dragging so intently. As I've joked with friends: My people weren't made to run fast; we were made to pull plow. But it's still strenuous, heavy-lifting work for which neither of us is fully conditioned, so we both end up feeling quite sore the next day.

 What else? Our goldfish survived yet another winter. The surface ice on our small pond melted, and they've been especially active on sunny days. These fish are the closest thing I've got to a pandemic pet, so I've been doting on them more than usual — throwing fish flakes into the water and sitting on the rocks to watch them swim. Soon the lilies will bloom, the ground around the pond will green up ... and my allergies will probably coax me to spend less time just sitting outside. But for now I am making an effort to appreciate everything that surrounds me, all of the small things that matter the most.
For now, with our January-like weather, spring still feels far away. This week, Boulder surpassed its snowiest season on record — breaking a 111-year-old record — with 152 inches. Boulder also was designated the snowiest city in the United States — a city being a place with more than 50,000 residents, and under those parameters the competition isn't even close. I could live this way year-round, especially with typical Colorado sunny days to break it up, although an endless mud season would be trying. Still, I'm always happy about late-season snow.

On Easter Sunday I was finally able to get out for a run on actual trails, mainly because they were covered in a foot of fresh powder and no one else was around. I've been trying to do my part to stay out of crowds, even on my home trails. But I do appreciate them all the more when they're empty.

The snow and slogging continued throughout the week. We were slammed with two big storms over four days, with a big warmup in between (and another warmup now.) Dynamic weather added to the intrigue of venturing just a few miles from home, with high winds, blowing snow, 22-degree temperatures, and enough strenuous trudging to let us both feel like we were back in Alaska. I greatly appreciate these mini-adventures. It's more than enough to keep motivated, keep moving, and find meaning amid the uncertainty and isolation.

How is everyone out there doing? I know, blogs are no longer a medium for any sort of communication beyond the ramblings into the void for those of us who just can't let go. But for those still reading, I wonder how you're coping? How are you navigating this strange time? Leave a comment if you have the time. I will reply. These little bits of human connection and community mean a lot.

Finally, if you enjoyed the recent posts about my 2020 ITI adventure, you might like the 2018 "prequel" in my recent eBook, "Meanwhile the world goes on," available on Amazon. I appreciate your support!
Monday, April 13, 2020

Last days of innocence — day nine

March 10, 2020. 15 miles outside McGrath, Alaska. 40 below and dark.

Sleep slipped away in a cold stream of air, wafting into the dark tube of my sleeping bag. While unconscious I’d burrowed so deep that my legs were curled tight against the foot of the bag, becoming stiff and unmovable. I struggled into a stretch that pushed my face toward a tiny opening and took a few deep breaths. The air was so cold that it tasted metallic. My tongue tingled. But the rest of my body was warm enough. My fingers were still flexible, although I still took my time working open the many elastic pulls and zippers that shielded me from the outside world. I was frightened of full exposure.

Indeed, wriggling out of my bag and rolling onto the snow had the same effect as plunging into frigid water. The cold air was a punch in the chest, knocking the breath right out of me. I paused to inhale carefully so I didn’t start hyperventilating. But I was wearing only a base layer and booties, so I had to work quickly. The down coat and pants at the head of my bivy went on first, then mittens before my fingers went rigid. I reached into the foot of my sleeping bag and fished out the bag of shoes, gaiters, and overboots. Even though I’d kept these items close to my body, they were still caked in ice and snow. My hands stiffened as I struggled with the laces, velcro and zippers of three finicky layers. I felt frustrated and a bit frantic, but I didn’t want to skip any steps when it came to my feet. My hands I could recover if they went numb, but my toes were likely to be much less responsive.

 “Holy shit it got cold,” I yelled to the darkness, following this exclamation with a string of swear words. These vocalizations had the effect of forcing blood toward my throat, which felt like it was burning with this cold air. I wondered about the temperature, but was frightened of the truth and decided not to look at my thermometer until I finished packing up.

 “Probably still 15 below, you’re just overreacting.” Words, whether angry or pacifying, did seem to soothe my sore throat. I rolled up my bivy bundle and packed it into its compression sack, removing my mittens to tighten the six straps, and windmilling my arms between each one. Once my shoes were on and the bivy packed up, I felt relief. I pulled the sled from my sleeping hollow, packed up the duffle, and turned the harness in the right direction. Wait … was this the right direction? I was pretty sure, but … damn, I’d have to fire up my GPS to know for sure. The device was slow to load, and I could barely read the screen once it was on. The digital images were so faint they were almost blank. While waiting I finally checked my thermometer. It was 39.5 degrees below zero.

I threw my harness over my shoulders and started marching as the barely legible GPS screen finally confirmed the correct direction.

“Success,” I thought. It was 40 below, and all things considered, that was a relatively low-drama bivy. I’d slept comfortably and managed to pack up and get moving before my hands and feet went numb. But damn … was I tired. After just a few steps, my quad muscles quivered and my glutes tightened uncomfortably. The sled balked like a reluctant dog, scraping across sharp grains of snow at 40 below. I strained just to walk down the hill, and entered an open swamp where the trail was still badly drifted with wind-blown snow.

I hadn’t put on my snowshoes, but it wasn’t worth it at this temperature — better to punch into knee-deep drifts but keep moving. At least the wind had stopped. The air was eerily still. Hovering over a silhouette of distant hills, the perfect orb of the moon turned the clear sky an otherworldly shade of purple. The snow-covered expanse was bathed in its silver light. I turned around to check the temperature in this low-lying spot — 43.6 below zero.

I’d avoided checking the time, convinced that I’d see it was 2 or 3 in the morning, and thus would remain dark and likely become colder for many hours before the lazy sun made its way over the horizon. Better to not know. But curiosity finally got the better of me, and I pressed the display button on my GPS.

“Oh wow, 6:30!” This exclamation hurt a little; my throat was becoming raw. I was also in disbelief that I’d apparently spent six hours unconscious in my bivy when it was so cold. But I was well-prepared, with two foam sleeping pads instead of one. It was nine extra ounces, but even for the benefit of that night alone, well worth the weight. I was relieved that the sun would be rising in two hours.

Beneath my relief was guilt that I’d overslept another night. I planned to take a long rest in McGrath and thus only wanted a short nap on the trail, just enough to ward off the sleep monster. However, when I was being honest with myself, I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t battling the sleep monster. I hadn’t felt truly sleepy since the first night. Since then, I’d enjoyed reasonably full nights of sleep that aligned with my circadian rhythm. What I was battling was more of a full-body fatigue — muscle weakness and mental fog that swirled into a perfect storm of difficulty until it felt impossible to push through. When I slumped through every step, even first thing in the morning, it seemed clear that sleep wasn’t really helping.

I wallowed to the edge of the swamp and took a brief stop to dig my food bag out of my sled. I hadn’t eaten for nearly 12 hours, after a bag of trail mix ran out sometime before sunset. The remnants in my food bag were unsurprisingly sparse — two granola bars, a crushed Honey Stinger waffle, and a baggie with about 25 gummy bears wetted out during the Farewell Burn snowstorm and now frozen into an impenetrable lump. Snacking is another way I try to remedy low energy, and apparently I went to town on my food supply while slogging half-unconscious through the previous day. I’d mindlessly eaten all of my food, and apparently had nothing to show for it. McGrath was only about 15 miles away, but at the rate I was moving, it would take six or seven strenuous hours. I was going to need to ration.

The gummy bears seemed like the quickest source of energy, so I pulled my ice-caked balaclava down and held the ball between my teeth until my fingers went numb. Then, with gooey mass still sticking out of my mouth and what was likely multi-colored drool dribbling down my chin, I slipped my hand back in a mitten until it tingled enough to resume gnawing the lump into workable pieces. This is what it takes to eat something at 40 below. It’s not even worth it, really, but I felt so weak. I needed something … anything.

 The cold wouldn’t let up. Forty below always feels like a stalking phantom, but here its heavy presence pressed right up against me, breathing down my spine as I walked. I was already wearing puffy pants and three jackets — a base soft-shell, a heavy wind-proof fleece, and a lightweight primaloft puffy. My only remaining layer was the down parka. I wasn’t quite cold enough to pull that on, but I always resist engaging my entire safety net, because that means there’s nothing left. Mercifully, the puffy pants returned the feeling to my toes, so I decided I could live with cold shoulders and elbows (elbows are a problem spot for me. I know it’s weird. We all have something irregular with our circulatory systems, and 40 below exposes every weakness.)

 It would probably help if I could walk faster, get my heart pumping a little harder and push more blood toward my extremities. But I couldn’t. In the 40-below darkness, brisk motion felt crucial, and still I couldn’t muster the energy. Shortly before intersecting with the summer road, the trail shot up a short but extremely steep hill. I strained against my sled until I fell to my knees. When I tried to stand, I could not. When I lunged forward, my feet slipped and I fell to my stomach. I realized that to simply get up this hill, I was going to have to crawl. Hands still wrapped around my trekking poles — because the pogies were what I was using as outer gloves — I punched my knuckles into the snow and pulled my unbelievably heavy body up the hill, inch by inch. I remember seeing an animal carcass half-buried in snow near the top of this hill. Probably a dead moose. My addled brain signaled that a similar fate awaited me, but I was still conscious enough to laugh it off.

 Finally at the top of the hill, the laughter began to fade. I didn’t remember this hill being so hard. Until this point, I’d held onto the fantasy that I was stronger than I’d been in 2018. But I wasn’t. Since I’d left Rohn, my experiences between the two years had been similar, at least in terms of pacing and trail conditions. But improved health and fitness wasn’t doing much for me. I was struggling even more than I had two years earlier, with no end in sight.

 It was time for brutal honesty, while I still had the mental capacity to access my frontal lobe. After consulting my calendar in Nikolai, I’d mostly concluded that it would take a small miracle or drastic change in conditions to arrive in Nome in time. Still, I wanted to keep going as long as possible. That was my goal from the start — to walk the Iditarod Trail, do my best, relish each moment, but try to avoid fixating on Nome. My odds of success were low enough that the goal would distract from the experience.

Well-meaning friends and family would assure me that my devotion, experience and preparation would get me there. While I appreciated their votes of confidence, I knew they didn’t really understand. The only person in my close circle who did understand was Beat — and he’s both loving and pragmatic enough to be honest with me. In our years of winter adventuring together, he’s proven to consistently be 15-20 percent faster in this endeavor. And even he has to work really hard to reach Nome. I frequently point this out when I’m enjoying an off year and dot-watching from the comfort of home. There will be times when twelve other dots on the map are all sleeping, and Beat is the only one moving. He’ll reach a comfortable and warm place to rest, and retain enough self-discipline to only spend a few hours there. He’ll march cool-headed through storms that would paralyze me.

Even if I agreed to Beat’s terms — and while I started the race dedicated to such discipline, so far in 2020 I’d proved myself to be the sleep-prioritizing, lazy biker that I’d always been — it would still take consistently good trail conditions to make up for my innately slower pace. If it was a 25-day-finish type of year for Beat, the finish was probably within 30-day reach for me. 2020 was far from that kind of year.

Putting this thought process into words sounds like justification and defeatism. And that’s fine — it is. But I have been involved in endurance racing for too long to still subscribe to “you can do anything, no limits ever” sort of platitudes. I’m seeking intense experiences, but I do retain a clear-eyed awareness of my limits. I have to draw hard lines in the snow if I want to avoid completely unravelling, burnt out beyond recovery, injured, or unable to extract myself from a truly dangerous situation.

This last issue is what concerned me the most. Going on from McGrath was feasible, but once you leave Takotna, 18 miles later, you really need to have your shit together. The next segment traverses nearly 200 miles of some of the most remote and inhospitable country in the United States. There are no villages and almost no travelers, besides the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The lead mushers were now less than a day behind me. Once the last musher passed — probably only four or five days later — there would be no more traffic. Any snowstorm or big wind event could close in the trail for the season.

Realistically I was at least a week away from Ruby, the first village on the Yukon River. So even if I battled my way into the Interior, there was no guarantee I’d be able battle my way out — at least in my current, weakened physical state, which was so diminished that apparently I had to crawl up hills. I also had damning concerns about my mental state. Mornings were still okay. I was groggy but alert, although fear sparked by super low temperatures helped me remain aware. But soon, not too many hours for now, the meager supply of adrenaline that sleep replenished would again run out. Then I would enter mental state so clouded that I couldn’t even understand podcasts. This dullness was not confidence-inspiring, but “The Dumb” that coaxed me to plunge into a tree well the previous night was truly unnerving. Forty below remained in the forecast for the next few days, and then more snow was on the way. I’d been lucky so far, but taking care of myself in these conditions demanded mental clarity that I simply didn’t have.

Out there, we can count on none of the hand-holding and outside support that we often lean on to push past a breaking point in a typical ultramarathon. There are no pacers to slap some sense into us when we start hallucinating, no crews to feed us watermelon every five miles. There are no trail rangers to dole out directions if we get lost, no shops to replenish supplies, and no 911 if we really end up in a bind. Out there we’re on our own, in every single way.

Even if I could keep myself safe, and even if I could finish in Nome, I was far from convinced that this painful, foggy-headed march was worth it. I decided to walk the Iditarod Trail to feel a closeness with this landscape, an integrated wonder that rippled from the forgotten corners of my mind to the farthest horizons. I wanted to feel the pulse of the land and learn from its rhythms. But my experience wasn’t turning out the way I envisioned, I realized, because I was trapped in my own body. The difficulties of the effort and my limited strength demanded so much energy that there was nothing left to experience anything else — anything but fatigue, and pain, and occasionally — at high cost to my dwindling adrenaline supply — fear. Joy was no longer within reach; even in moments of unique beauty, my emotions had a dull edge to them, grayed by lethargy. Higher brain functions — reflection, contemplation, self-actualization — seemed long gone, intellectual luxuries for a former self I’d already lost to the demands of survival. I had once been human, but out here I was a little more than a feeble, naked animal. And my naked animal self only grew more enfeebled as my former human brain — my single survival advantage in this inhospitable land — slowly drained of vitality.

 Still, the thought of giving up was devastating. If I gave up for these reasons, it meant I had never been capable of walking to Nome. Likely I’d never be capable of walking to Nome — if I was willing to be brutally honest with myself. Perhaps in a few years, when all but the best memories of 2018 and 2020 faded, and the siren call of this place that I love grew louder, perhaps I’d try again. But a hard truth remained true, regardless.

 After about an hour of using these fumes of mental energy to mull an unwanted decision, I concluded that the very least I could do was walk to Takotna and see how it went. With this plan in place, my thoughts faded to a gray fog where no strong emotions reside. The sun rose behind me. When I glanced back toward the eastern horizon, I could still see the silhouette of Denali, the one landmark that looms over both the first and last miles of the 300-mile route to McGrath. The Great One. A hint of happiness murmured in my heart, and I cherished it.

 Vanderpool Road traces the top of a ridge, with unceasing and pointless climbs and descents. The trail base was still soft, swept with spindrift, and the cold snow felt like velcro underneath my feet. My balaclava had become an ice helmet, heavy on my head and obstructing my vision. Ice crusted to my eyelashes. I was too apathetic to do anything about it, until everything appeared as abstract blotches of blue and white. My mind was set on continuing toward Takotna, but my body still seemed locked in shutdown mode. My legs became increasingly heavy. My breathing was growing more shallow. It didn’t help that I effectively had nothing to eat. I’d plowed through both granola bars at mile four, proclaiming out loud that I was hungry and had no regrets. I did have regrets, and I still had hunger, and now just one package of Honey Stinger crumbs to fuel the final ten miles … possibly five hours … to McGrath.

 Some hours later, the sun rose high on the horizon. My thermometer still read 26 below, but I felt hot. I’d taken off the puffy pants and jacket at sunrise, but I stopped again to tear the ice helmet off my head, remove my fleece jacket and overboots, and stuff mittens in a coat pocket. After cramming all of this clothing into my duffle, I laid down on top of it. The sun felt so warm, like a beach in California. I closed my eyes.

 “Find the energy,” I murmured. Ice was still crusted to my eyelashes, and glimmers of light found their way through partially closed eyelids. I could see the blue water, hear the waves, feel the warm sand underneath my body. I began to doze … for how long, I don’t know. I startled awake to a deep chill and a loud rumbling sound. A large snow-removing vehicle was approaching, and I was sprawled on my sled in the middle of the road.

 At that point, I was just three miles from the McGrath checkpoint. I’d forgotten about my precious Honey Stinger waffle, and would end up throwing it away later. I stood up groggily and pulled my sled against a berm to let the plow go by. Then I opened the duffle and put back on all of the layers that I’d removed amid my California dreaming. I was suddenly, terribly cold. My legs felt frozen in place. Three miles seemed like an impossible distance.

 The miles somehow passed, with almost no input from my brain and thus nothing registered in memory. I arrived at about noon. It was lunchtime, and there was a large contingent of racers sitting around the table of the cozy home of Peter and Tracy, the McGrath residents who have hosted this checkpoint for more than 20 years. I was ravenous, and mowed through a “ManCake” — about 1,500 calories of pancake mass, cream cheese and jam — and an omelet as well, in one sitting. I don’t remember much else about that part of the day. I was offered a room upstairs and immediately went to bed.

 I slept until sunset … my favorite time of day. When I woke up, I was crying. Was I crying in my sleep, or did I forget what I was crying about? I slumped out of bed and limped to the window. Every part of my body ached, in a visceral and enduring way that made it seem like I’d never feel good again. Outside, the sky was drenched in pink and violet light. The streets and houses were smothered in ten feet of snow — I could finally measure it, based on how much piled on the tops of cars. The air still looked terribly cold.

 I went downstairs and had a little bit of food for dinner — that ManCake was still sitting like a lump in my stomach — then went back to bed. I slept all the way until morning.

When I woke up, I knew. I’d told Beat about my plan to walk to Takotna. I told him I’d wait and discuss plans with Mark, another Nome walker who was set to arrive in McGrath the previous evening. If Mark was going on, perhaps we could shadow each other for this intimidating segment through the Interior. Beat and I talked again first thing in the morning. He had a rough night — it was 45 below and windy, he said. Beat didn't mind — it was all just part of life on the trail. He was well on his way to Ophir. I felt the post-18-hours-of-sleep fatigue coarse through my body and wondered if I could even handle one more night of 40-something below and windy. Already my limbs were on the verge of buckling, just standing there.

At breakfast, Mark said he was quitting. The trip to McGrath had taken too much out of him. Klaus, the final Nome walker, arrived that morning. Ever stoic and determined, Klaus would go on, after only a short sleep, leaving in the middle of the night. He tried to talk me into joining him. But I knew. I just knew. I knew it as surely as I’d known anything, even if I didn’t like the ramifications of the truth. I turned on my phone and bought a plane ticket to Anchorage, scheduled to leave that evening. The evening of Wednesday, March 11.

For the rest of that day in McGrath, I hung out at the kitchen table and chatted with Mark. He was cheery, but it seemed like he and I shared an inward disappointment. It was more difficult to be around the others — those who were celebrating their McGrath finishes, who were jubilant and relieved. I couldn’t feel that way. I was a quitter. I’d accepted this as the best choice, necessary even, but it was still my truth. I cried as I packed up my sled to prepare for the flight. I lingered outside as long as I could bear, wearing only a base layer, because the fearsome chill of 30 below felt real. It was the most I could feel, now that I was broken and done.


Of the 53 participants who started the race to McGrath, 32 finished: 16 cyclists, 13 walkers and three skiers. Of the 24 who started the race to Nome, there were 11 official finishers. Three cyclists reached the finish line in Nome together after riding as a team for most of the second half of the race. Eight others — six bikers, a skier and a walker (Beat) — were in and around the village of Unalakleet when a damaging storm pushed a surge of tidal water over the sea ice, rendering the Norton Sound crossing impassable. In a typical year, racers might have been able to take more time to find an alternate way around, or wait for local traffic to cut a trail closer to shore. But the onset of COVID-19 created a situation where villages were in the process of shutting down travel, and outsiders were no longer allowed to pass through. For this unprecedented reason, the race organizers opted to give the “Unalakleet 8” the designation of having finished the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational in Unalakleet, about 750 miles into the race.

 I, of course, am listed as a scratch. I was not a McGrath finisher, because that wasn’t my designated distance. This was my second non-finish in six attempts of the ITI, my first having been the frostbite catastrophe of 2009. I will say that it has been disappointing to give 8 days and 20 hours to this effort and have nothing — well, besides life experience — to show for it. The writing was on the wall, though. If I’d managed to keep going, I may have made it to the vicinity of Galena or Nulato — about 600 miles in — before the trail shut down.

 Since returning from Alaska, many have asked whether I’ll try again. I think most people who know me, including Beat, assume it’s inevitable. But Beat may be the closest to believing me when say that I will not attempt another walk to Nome. Perhaps, a few years on, if the race is still going and the trail is still viable — rapidly shifting climate conditions are a big question mark — perhaps I’ll return with a bike. But the walk to Nome is just too slow and demanding to make room for the joyful experiences I’d prefer. I doubt, especially as I get older, that I’d manage better fitness and health than this year. Trail conditions could and likely would be easier in any future year. It’s still, from my current view, not enough.

 But never say never. For now the future is uncertain for all of us, and I’m grateful for the small things — the many small and wonderful things in my life — perhaps now more than ever.
Saturday, April 11, 2020

Last days of innocence — day eight

March 9, 2020. Nikolai, Alaska. 7 degrees and partly cloudy.

I must have had a good dream during the night, because when I awoke on the floor of the Nikolai community center, bruised legs and torso sprawled well beyond the edge of my sleeping pad, I was brimming with optimism.  

"Today's going to be a good day," I thought as I sat up and barely missed bashing my scalp on the table I'd been sleeping underneath. "Just 50 more miles to McGrath, probably by noon tomorrow, most of a day and night to convalesce, then just do the 18 to Takotna, then Ophir, and hopefully by the time I need to sleep outside, the 40 below will be done.”  

Of course, I couldn’t prevent my calendar from creeping into this hopeful schedule. The “calendar” was something I’d formulated in the comfort of my home several weeks earlier, with projected progress based on my limited conception of blazing fast trail on the Northern Route in 2016. I printed the tally on a sheet of waterproof paper and carried it in my backpack. If today was March 9, then I wouldn’t leave McGrath until the morning of March 11. Leaving Ophir on the 13th probably wouldn’t put me in Ruby until the 16th or 17th, and that was if I was able to blaze through the Interior. After that, I’d be in Kaltag on the 21st, Unalakleet on the 23rd, White Mountain on the 29th, and Nome on the 31st. March 31 was the absolute cut-off for officially finishing this race, and also so late in the season that it seemed likely the trail would be well into the process of melting underneath me. And this was the best-case scenario, only possible if I was able to consistently travel 35 miles a day and endure short camps wherever I happened to collapse, rather than enjoying restful stays in villages. 

 Why, oh why, did I ever decide it would be a good idea to walk to Nome? 

 Unconsciousness was good for optimism. Everything else had the opposite effect. Laying back down so I could roll myself all of the way out of my bag, I initiated the daily struggle just to rise and stand on two feet without buckling from leg fatigue and muscle soreness. Faint violet light shone through small windows overhead. I'd again slept until daylight. I don’t know why I kept doing that, because I certainly did not have the luxury of time on my side. I suppose I thought one of these nights, sleep would actually enable recovery, and I’d be able to move well for once. But in reality the snow was still deep, the trail still soft, the temperatures still plummeting. The miles would never become easier. Ever. 

 Pushing this waking pessimism aside, I packed up my things and walked over to the kitchen to greet the volunteer, George, who was cleaning up behind the counter. Beat had raved about the French toast at this checkpoint, and I’d looked forward to a plate of sweet gooey carbs for breakfast. 

George looked up and said, “Give me a second. We’re leaving on the 9 o’clock flight, so we have to clear out.” 

 I looked at the clock. It was a little before 8 a.m. “Oh, we gotta leave? Okay!” I stood up groggily and walked to the back of the room to gather the rest of my clothing. 

 “You can stay, no problem” George said. “We just need to catch our flight. You want some burgers? We have a couple left.” 

 George handed me a plate with two cold veggie burgers and cheese, no buns. He briefly took the plate back to add a scoop of hashbrowns, also cold. 

“Sorry, that’s all we have left.” 

 “It’s great!” I grabbed the plate and started chowing down. Honestly, I didn’t really care. I’d looked forward to French toast but this was still calories and every bit as useful. The Kiwi cyclists, George and Graham, were on their way out the door, and took the rest of the Oreos out of a nearly empty Costco-sized box. I eyed this greedily, as I’d hoped to take some cookies for trail snacks. Even though I’d packed every single item from my Rohn drop bag, my own calorie supply was still  running predictably thin. That's when I noticed a discarded sleeve with about five Oreos, partially crushed and lying on the edge of the table. I took them. 

 In hindsight, I feel guilty for scavenging these last morsels. As I finished up my burgers, it dawned on me that the food was gone and volunteers were leaving. There were still a number of racers making their way into Nikolai: Kari, Mark, Klaus, Nina and Cheryl, Loreen, Donald, the two military guys from California, and possibly a few more. A couple of ITI checkpoints have established cut-offs, but this one did not. It’s certainly not the volunteers’ fault that this had been such a slow year for so many of us — Nick had been languishing in Nikolai for nearly week at this point — but if the race directors knew they'd need to shut everything down at 7 days and 18 hours, they should have disclosed that much before the start. It would be rather awful, as a back-of-pack racer battling for every mile, to cross 75 miles of Farewell Burn and arrive here expecting food and shelter, only to find the ITI had cleared out and sled dog race volunteers had taken over the space. The ITI race director has since apologized that it turned out this way — he also was surprised to learn that there was no food left over for the remaining racers. Three of them would end up scratching in Nikolai. Their reasons were unrelated to the lack of support, although I doubt arriving to an abandoned checkpoint was good for morale.

I headed out a few minutes in front of the volunteers. The sun was just beginning to cast pink light over the horizon at 8:45, and the temperature was still surprisingly warm — 7 degrees.

“The cold hasn’t found me yet,” I thought. “Maybe it won’t come.”

 I had hoped the trail would set up overnight, but the surface was just as soft as messy as ever, even through the center of town. These “streets” were all soft-churn and ankle-twisting ruts. I stubbornly refused to put on my snowshoes until I’d slogged a mile and a half to the point where the trail veered onto the Kuskokwim River, and then reluctantly conceded that snowshoes were necessary. No doubt I’d remain stuck in these foot-torture devices until McGrath. I wondered how many miles I’d end up snowshoeing. Probably at least 200 of these first 300 miles.

 Nick passed on his bike shortly after I’d stumbled to my feet again. He was in a great mood, finally on the move again, riding surprisingly well over the choppy trail, and clearly excited about his journey to Nome. Nick is the type of guy who makes everything look easy and you kind of resent him for it, but you also admire his smooth approach and laid-back attitude toward any difficulty. He’s the type of person you’d probably choose if you had to be stuck with one person on a deserted island … or, you know, quarantined during a pandemic.

Nick quickly faded into the distance. I knew this was the last I’d see him on the trail. A handful of people left Nikolai a few hours before me, and Lars and at least one other person remained at the checkpoint when I left, but I figured I’d be alone for the remaining miles to McGrath. I turned on podcasts of soothing voices that my addled mind could only process as unintelligible white noise, and slipped into a drone-like state of mandatory motion. My memories for the entire rest of the daylight hours only register as robotic awareness of decisions that needed to be made and occasional consciousness of pain. Which is to say, most of my memories of the day are not happy, but they’re mercifully limited.
Shortly before sunset — always my favorite time of day — my brain came back online. A couple of hours earlier I’d rounded the bend at Big River — one of the few decisions my robot mind needed to register that day — and opted for the overland trail. About 25 miles from McGrath, the trail forks into two routes. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race follows the river, but there's also an overland trail that locals typically use, so it can have better conditions. I’d traveled the river three times and overland once; they're about the same distance. When I arrived at the fork, both trails looked equally choppy and terrible, so I viewed the decision as a wash. But most ITI racers had taken the overland trail, so I followed this route.

 I climbed away from Big River and started to make my way across open swamps that were smothered with ten feet of snow. I could tell, because the wood tripods marking the route — which stand ten feet tall on bare ground — were little more than six-inch fans of sticks, barely jutting out of the surface. The trail itself was only as wide as a single snowmobile with a hip-high berm on both sides. It was a strangely claustrophobic situation, to be trapped in this snow tunnel amid such expansive open space. The landscape was a patchwork of soft white and jagged black, snow-covered swamps and spruce forest. The setting sun cast a golden glow, but a deepening chill defied the warm light. Wind, which cut through the background white noise as a sharp breeze, intensified to an icy gale. The arrival of real cold is probably what jolted me out of my stupor. Okay, Jill, you really need to pay attention.

 I’d been alone for nearly twelve hours and 30 miles when I finally encountered another human. They were hunched next to a small cusp of trees surrounded by open swamp. The wind blew fiercely, and the temperature had dropped to 4 below. I arrived to find Amber packing up her sled and frantically spooning freeze-dried food from a bag. She told me she stopped to melt snow because she ran out of water, and heated up some food while she was at it. Chili Mac. She offered me a bite, but the thought of stopping long enough to shovel food in my mouth was unappealing, so I declined. She looked a bit frazzled, and told me she felt cold. She asked the temperature, and seemed disappointed when I told her it was minus 4.

 “It feels a lot colder because of this wind,” I said. “It's been dropping like a rock, though. It’s probably going to get a lot colder tonight. I still think I’ll stop, somewhere up there, if I find a good wind-protected spot. I’m fading and don’t think I’ll make it to McGrath in one push.”

Amber said she was going to try to keep going, and I agreed that was probably a better plan. I wondered if I could just turn my robot mind back on and march onward in a stupor, but a larger part of me wanted to try to camp in these conditions. It was going to be cold the next night, and the night after that, and probably the night after that. I needed to prove to myself that I could manage it.

The sun set and the wind raged. Within a matter of hours, blowing snow buried the trail in knee-deep drifts. The temperature dropped to 7 below, and then 9 below. The windchill was unreal. When I punched across these drifted swamps at an unbearably slow and difficult pace, the crosswind battered my body and rattled my nerves until I feared I was on the verge of uncontrolled panic. I felt trapped with nowhere to hide. The trail entered a slough, and for several miles was constantly exposed to the wind. I fought the encroaching panic until my adrenaline tanked. The crash was slow but palpable, and resulted in fatigue so deep that I could hardly breathe. I felt helpless and frightened. 

The trail veered to the south to cross several small lakes. These areas were wide open, with only shallow berms. The windblown trail was almost completely obscured. Every step through the sandy powder was so laborious that I felt like I was swimming. I was swimming to exhaustion, swimming to keep my head above the water. Swimming just to survive.

 “Next hill, I have to stop. I just have to,” I thought. 

 After crossing a fourth lake, the trail jutted steeply up a slope lined with the stick skeletons of burned trees. I believed I was just a couple of miles from Vanderpool Road, which wasn’t maintained in the winter but would probably have some well-packed and wind-protected spots to camp. But two miles felt as daunting as 200 miles at that point in the cold, windy night. My limited cognitive function had conjured a daydream about a nice nest dug into a tree well, protected from the wind, soft and cozy. 

Near the top of the hill I spotted a potential spot underneath the thick branches of a gnarled spruce tree. I stepped off the trail and — whoosh — I plunged into a quicksand-like powder hole that swallowed most of my body. The sensation was as startling as though I’d plunged through ice into deep water. Immediately I panicked and thrashed wildly. Snow pushed under my balaclava and stung the sensitive skin around my neck. I thrashed some more, and I could feel cold water dripping down my seemingly naked back. I threw two arms onto the ribbon of packed trail and kicked my way out of the hole. Still attached to my overturned sled and now somewhat tangled in my harness, I rolled onto my side, panting loudly. Powder snow had found its way down my pants, up my coat, into my overboots. My fleece jacket was completely coated in snow. 

 “That was a terrible, stupid thing to do,” I thought. Temperatures were plummeting, and now my clothing was saturated with snow. But how to remedy this? I couldn’t parse the electrical signals misfiring in my brain. I only had an instinctual sense that thoughts could not be trusted. I untangled my harness, righted my sled and continued down the trail. Less than a quarter mile later, I came upon a spot where a snowmobile had briefly pulled off the trail, packing down a short platform. This spot was a little more exposed to the wind, but still generally well-protected in the forest, and near the top of a rise where it might not get as cold. I convinced my addled brain that this was safe because I didn’t trust myself if I kept walking. I might step into another tree well and this time plunge into snow over my head and suffocate. Or maybe I'd decide a quick sled nap was in order … and then slip into eternal slumber. It sounds overdramatic, but everything feels this way when you're convinced you’re losing your mind. 

 Feeling frantic, as though aware that I was operating on my last fumes of cognitive function, I hurried to pull my sled into the indentation and threw my bivy bundle on top. I checked the temperature — 15 below. Then I paused for a few seconds to try to parse out the remaining chores. I removed my many layers of footwear, threw them into their designated dry bag and stuffed that into the foot of my sleeping bag, along with my thermos. The snow berm I'd squeezed into was narrow and loose. Powder piled up on top of my bivy sack every time I moved, but I was able to settle in with relatively little drama, all things considered. Amber passed by on the trail just as I was settling in. 

 “That looks like a cozy spot,” she observed. 

 “Just gonna sleep a few hours. I’ll see you in McGrath,” I replied.

 When I laid down, I wondered — as I always do, every time I lay down to sleep in the cold, even though more than a decade has elapsed since I survived my first subzero winter camping experience — if I’d ever wake up.
Thursday, April 09, 2020

Last days of innocence — day seven

March 8, 2020. Bear Creek, Alaska. 19 degrees and snowing.

All night long, it snowed and snowed. I got up at one point during the night to pee, and noted that at least six inches of powder had accumulated on top of my sled since my arrival at Bear Creek Cabin. I went back to sleep until the trailbreakers stirred, around 8 a.m. The fire had gone out hours ago. The tiny window in the loft was still cracked open. I was sleeping directly beneath the window, so cold air and snow flurries brushed my face as I emerged from my sleeping bag. It was still snowing.

Strangely, nobody else arrived during the night. I expected more ITI racers to straggle in by morning, but it was still just the ten of us. The six trailbreakers mobilized quickly and moved out within twenty minutes. Robert was right behind them, and Greg left a few minutes later. I hung back with Asbjorn, firing up my stove and stubbornly lingering over a hot breakfast and coffee. Motivation had plummeted. I just didn't want to face another gray day of slogging through deep snow.

"What am I doing?" I wondered as I emerged from the cabin. My sled was now fully buried in snow. If I hadn't remembered where I left it, I might have had some trouble finding it. I dug until I located the plastic platform, plopped my heavy duffle onto top, pulled the sled back until its poles emerged from the powder, then re-attached the harness that I took inside to thaw out frozen buckles. The muscles in my back screamed as I slumped over. "How is this even going to work?" I mumbled.

I'd walked 45 miles in 18 hours the previous day. As is my style, I barely stopped moving during that time, so the 2.5 mph average was effectively my moving pace. The hills beside the South Fork are steep and often tough, but I don't remember these climbs wrecking me to such a degree. The few breaks I took mostly happened at the top of each climb, because my heart was racing and my limbs threatened to buckle. I'd entered that physical state that I often experience at the end of 100-mile ultramarathons, when I've exhausted my muscle strength, burned 99 percent of my energy matches, and I'm just battling on fumes to make it to the finish. It's okay for mile 90 of a hundred-miler. But mile 220 of a thousand-miler?

Soft trail conditions fueled my pessimism. Although the trail-breakers had smoothed the foot of new powder, it was still dry and terribly loose. The trail surface remained punchy even with snowshoes. My pace slowed to 2 mph again. My legs felt like rubber, my back like hardened steel. My shoulders slumped against the strain of my sled. Every step felt like wading through molasses. Perhaps if I was a typical ultrarunner (masochists, all of them), I'd convince myself I could keep going indefinitely despite this extent of full-body fatigue. But as an endurance cyclist I'd been able to manage myself better — some pain, some fatigue, but I could usually recover well with food, warmth and nearly nine solid hours of sleep. Still feeling shattered after so much rest — more rest than I could realistically afford for my remaining miles on the Iditarod Trail — felt like a persistent downward spiral that I did not have the tools to reconcile. At least in a way that I believed could propel a meaningful journey, and not simply a punishing death march.

In short, my physical and mental stamina was lacking, and I felt despondent. I slogged to Sullivan Creek, eight miles in 3 hours and 40 minutes of nonstop moving time. At the bridge, I paused to take in a view that was different from the previous miles of snow-covered scrub spruce and endless gray. A burbling creek was a pleasant sound compared to the hiss of snow.

The rate of snowfall did seem to be diminishing though. A weak sun briefly cast a silver glow through the clouds before retreating again. I tried to recapture my mental stamina by embracing individual moments, searching for joy in immediacy. Just beyond Sullivan Creek, a weak snow bridge collapsed underneath me, and my legs plunged into an ankle-deep tributary. Resisting a sense of indignity, I celebrated the fact that I didn't fall over and that my feet remained dry. My snowshoes became coated in ice, and I made a game of trying to break off the gray chunks as I stomped down the trail. Soon I was jumping up and down, wasting energy but laughing out loud as the mean overflow ice fell away. It sounds so trivial now, that I was enjoying this "game" as much as I was. But amid the ceaseless demands of the trail, it pays to claim control where we can.

Skies began to clear. Over several hours I recaptured some optimism. Maybe this was a painfully slow march — with emphasis on painful — but this was still something I that I chose. Out here I was free, with no obligation but to keeping moving through the world — this immense, spectacular world. If I stopped, that too would be a choice. I'd have to accept everything I left behind, and everything I'd never experience, and I'd have to be honest with myself about why I made such a choice. Could I live with those reasons, whatever they may be? I wasn't sure.

Amid this renewed resolve, I again connected with Beat on my satellite phone. He was making his way from Nikolai to McGrath. The Iditarod trailbreakers had already passed him as well. The surface along the Kuskokwim River was also soft and punchy despite the trailbreakers' tracks. Ah well; I suppose tomorrow will be hard, too. For several minutes we chatted about mundane details before the topic of schedules came up, and my demeanor deteriorated into a gulping, ugly cry.

"I'm not even on pace to leave McGrath before ten days is up. I can't do this for 20 more days, I just can't," I sobbed. Snot poured down my chin and onto the mouthpiece of the phone. Gross.

Beat again tried to assure me. "It's been hard — almost as hard as 2012," he said. (That year is regarded as the most difficult conditions this event has experienced, and nobody went beyond McGrath. It was Beat's first year on the Iditarod Trail.) Ever the pragmatist, he seemed to share my view that trail conditions and weather weren't likely to cut any of us a break, but he thought I was managing everything well so far.

"You're still second," he reiterated — meaning I was in second position out of the six Nome walkers. "So many people have already dropped out. You're still doing fine."

Somehow, I did not share this view. My ranking among other racers meant nothing when the clock kept ticking and my energy kept crashing. Hanging up, I felt worse than ever. It was clear I hadn't resolved my misgivings at all, and my "find the joy" bandaids probably weren't going to last. Amid this emotional rollercoaster, I made the mistake of checking the weather forecast on my InReach. There was, again, a foot of new snow the forecast, but it wasn't expected for five more days. The more immediate predictions were confidence-uninspiring in new ways: Monday, high of -10, low -25. Tuesday and Wednesday, high -20s, low -40s. Winds 10-20 mph out of the north. So at best we would emerge from this damp chill and falling snow only to slam into extreme cold and blowing snow. Well ...

It was somewhat of a relief that no decisions needed to be made just yet. I had 32 miles to slog to Nikolai that day and no choice but to do it. The alternative was sitting down in a snowbank and giving up on life, and I certainly wasn't that depressed. Skies cleared to a swath of blue and temperatures were still warm — 15 degrees. I enjoyed soaking up the sunshine. When I pulled down my buff, there was a soft warmth on my neck that took the edge off my leg and back pain. I hiked across vast swamps that seemed to stretch across time and space. In a landscape I've long regarded as monotonous, I relished surprising moments of déjà vu: the thick birch grove that reminded me of Colorado even before I lived here. The knoll with the yellow "Nikolai 20 miles" sign that used to read 18 miles, but in fact is closer to 21 miles from town. The thin patch of spruce forest where I briefly considered firing up my stove in 2008, but the windchill was too distressing to stop. Then I crossed an indistinct swamp, and became certain that this was the exact spot where I broke my trekking pole in 2018.

"Remember that, Bernadette?" I said out loud. "I was so sad. About that! When all I needed to do was walk 70 more miles to McGrath and it wasn't even going to be 40 below. Ah, if only it could be so easy again."

The sun set in a familiar way over a familiar spot — I am a creature of patterns, even out here, and I always seem to be making my way around the bend of the Salmon River shortly before dusk. "How many times am I going to keep coming back?" I wondered aloud. "I not sure I can bear to come back; I really have to try for Nome."

I'd been listening to my iPod Shuffle, and shortly after I voiced this observation, a song popped up that I'd listened to on repeat in near the same spot in 2018 — Manchester Orchestra's "The Maze."
This song still evokes an image of the Iditarod Trail speaking to me.

First of a thousand to write on the wall 
It's only beginning, it's swallowing us 
Somebody said it's unspeakable love 
It's amazing.

Oh boy. The waterworks unleashed. If I thought I'd been ugly crying while talking to Beat, this one was an absolute meltdown. Just like when I broke my trekking pole in 2018, only these snot-soaked sobs arose from deep disappointment not in my equipment, but in myself. I was letting everyone down.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I sobbed, my apology directed at everything and nothing.

Darkness descended on the tundra, only to be illuminated again as the nearly full moon rose above the horizon. My emotional rollercoaster pitched upward again. I snowshoed the remaining miles to Nikolai in a pleasant daze, only jolting to half awareness when I stumbled over the postholes left by others in front of me.

I arrived at the community center just before midnight. The checkpoint was staffed by two attentive volunteers. One volunteer, George, repeatedly asked me what I needed as I stood in the center of the large room, blinking in confusion, immobilized by indecision. Finally I accepted a hot chocolate and spread out my sleeping bag under one a table in one of the few open spaces against the walls. The other volunteer I finally recognized as Nick, an Anchorage cyclist who was in the midst of his own independent ride toward Nome, but decided to stopover in Nikolai and help out at this remote checkpoint for nearly a week. Nick offered to cook burgers and vegetables for me at this late hour. I gratefully accepted, feeling especially excited about the vegetables. He asked how many burgers I wanted, sharing that some of the earlier racers were chowing down six burgers. To me this sounded like a strange admission — I know how supplies are limited in these villages. Surely there was some food left over from all of the racers who had already dropped out, but still. I wasn't feeling terribly hungry, so I clarified that I only wanted one burger.

I settled into my nest a little after 1 a.m. I didn't set an alarm. I figured morning commotion would wake me, and I was beyond glimmers of ambition. I still had fifty miles to McGrath that I could use to put myself back together. Right now, fifty miles didn't seem like nearly far enough to achieve such a drastic turnaround.