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. 


  1. I as always appreciate your strength in being vulnerable and honest. It did make me reflect on a thing (not sure what else to call it) that has happened to me in the past... But first an admission, yes I am one of those people who often does leave things to the last. I work best, it appears, on some sort of deadline. AND there are times when I am procrastinating beyond what even I consider acceptable and then things change and what I was supposed to do, no longer is possible (not because I am late or lazy or distracted or not motivated, but simply not possible because of something out of my control). I have decided/learned not to get so anxious or judgemental about myself when these times happen and accept that someone or something is sending me a message.. like that time I did not make those reservations for the trip and the client cancelled or the time I just couldn't get it together to organize the ski trip and then the lodge burned down..oh well you get the not saying that you were getting a message from the universe about what was happening both weatherwise on the trail or externally, but well... anyway thanks Beat for the encouragement to Jill so we could continue our armchair adventure

  2. I'm told by some (most) of my female friends that they swear "never again" after the pain of giving birth...only to go on and have more babies. "You tend to forget, or at least minimize, suffering over time." I hope you can do that...and find the fortitude to "have another baby," so to speak. Perhaps next time you won't have to face all the weather obstacles thrown at you this year, and it will somehow be easier. It's easy and selfish for me to say because I'm not the one risking my life. I love reading about your trials in the wild...your joys and sorrows and the way you can find a glimmer of hope in the briefest interludes of beauty and aloneness. Thanks for finishing up this brazen adventure and expressing your soul.

  3. Found the head space to finally read your ITI day 7 journey the other morning...not sure why I picked that one to start but your short reflection
     "my apology directed at everything and nothing"
    has stuck with me since. To me it sums in so few words the feeling I get when the winds of emotion  stumble me into a cravas of lucidity or .... deliration :) hard to tell if it is either or both.

    Jeff C


Feedback is always appreciated!