Thursday, March 04, 2010

ITI, day four

Photo by Sean Grady, Kuskokwim River area, March 2009

The two venerable veterans of the ITI, Pete Basinger and Jeff Oatley, on Wednesday night were battling it out on the home stretch of the 350-mile race, the Kuskokwim River. Temperatures were still warm, in the mid-20s. This year will probably be remembered as the "Pineapple Express Iditarod." I'll be interested to hear if the temperature even dropped below zero degrees, anywhere on the trail, in these first four days.

There hasn't been much chatter about the trail conditions out of Nikolai, but it seems this 50-mile stretch was expected to take the leaders 8-10 hours to ride. Pete left for McGrath at 4:50 p.m. and Jeff left at 6:19 p.m. Wednesday, and in eight to 10 hours, anything can happen. Still, Jeff has a big task ahead of him if he wants to catch Pete. A 90-minute head start is hard to make up if you have a determined competitor out front. Since I leave here in about 20 minutes, and hope to wake up early in the morning for a bike ride, I probably won't find out who won the race until more than a half day after it's finished.

It's interesting that the winner is going to wrap it up in three and a half days, after all of the reports of horrific trail conditions this year. In 2008, when conditions were supposedly relatively good, winner Jay Petervary took 3 days and 14 hours to finish. The race record is 3 days, 5 hours. It makes those of us watching the race from afar wonder what kind of magic Zen-Jedi power people like Pete and Jeff have over the trail, apparently riding when even snowmobile driver Craig Medred is complaining "at what point is a trail so bad it no longer qualifies as a trail?" and most of the other competitors are walking at a 2-3 mph pace. The third-place finisher may come in nearly a full day behind Pete and Jeff. Lou Kobin, who is still on great pace to take the women's record, will probably finish after the five-day mark. What is this magic that makes Pete and Jeff so fast? Is it their bikes? Are they running when nobody is looking? Did they learn levitation? Or is the secret just to grind, grind away without ever stopping?

So many factors of the ITI make it such a fascinating event. As a spectator, it is fun to speculate on weather and trail conditions and athleticism. But as racer — which, yes, I do hope to be again someday — to me, the ITI is about determination, facing fears, and ripping at the very fabric of your soul just to see where it shreds. It is such a different existence than to be here now. Just watching the ITI — very similar to the way I did in 2007 when I became irrevocably hooked on this race — feels surprisingly hollow.

But, then again, I have been amazingly useless all week. Insomnia has been dogging me for about 10 days now, which usually causes me to sleep in really late, which then necessitates going to the gym so I can squeeze in 70-90 minutes of harder effort rather than the 2-4 hours of biking I generally like to do before work. When I can't sleep at night, I read from a big stack of library books about mountaineering and the craft of writing, which have both served to be somewhat depressing. (Seriously, at least three people die in every single mountaineering book.) I've also been going back and trying to revise my Tour Divide project, which for all practical purposes is completed in the first draft, but right now I am in a "dislike" stage with this project, and I don't feel like dealing with it. This often happens with me. Something turns my stomach for a while, but I usually go back to it, eventually.

It's not entirely pretty, but it's part of life — seems to be typical for me, a February/March slump. It does mean I have to make a hard decision about the White Mountains 100, which starts March 22. I'm going to make an effort to force myself into a long bike ride this weekend to see how I feel physically, and then I still have to decide — is it worth a $500 plane ticket? Is it worth all the logistics? Am I really ready?

I hate to turn my back on the only race I planned to do this season, but timing right now is not on my side. Hopefully, I will be more clear about it on Friday.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010

ITI, day three

photo by Cory Smith, Pass Creek, March 2009

This is the kind of weather I empathize with the most. I see it frequently in Southeast Alaska. It's 34 degrees. A gray mass blots out both ground and sky, and everything is swirling in a dynamic cauldron of slush. Gusting winds drive the sleet into skin like a thousand tiny bee stings; they needle into the tiniest imperfections in clothing until nothing short of an ocean-going survival suit is going to keep you dry. 40 mph winds drive the chill down to 0 degrees, and the frigid blasts of air find their way into your clothing as well, pummeling your wet skin until the entire surface of your body goes numb even as your core burns hot with the exhausting effort of pedaling. Ease up on the hard effort even a little, and hypothermia will find its way to you faster than all but the most sinister "freezing" conditions. Cyclists in this kind of weather pine for anything else, even 30 below. I know, because I have. You see, when it's 30 below, it's dry.

Now imagine you're walking out of a remote wilderness lodge, above timberline where the wind and sleet blows free, and it's 45 miles to the next outpost of civilization, 20 miles to the next scrap of wind shelter, and there's hardly a trail. Even if you're strong, even if you're the strongest, it's going to take you 12 hours to get there. You bundle up your coat even though you know it isn't going to do you a bit of good, and you head out into the cold, gray, liquid infinity.

"This is Alaska," Kathi Merchant says. "Crazy weather is normal here."

Pete Basinger arrived in Rohn, mile 210 of the Iditarod Trail, around 8 p.m. Tuesday, 54 hours into the 2010 ITI. He left Puntilla Lake, mile 165, at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, in weather described as "warm and wet" with 25 mph winds gusting to 40. There were reports of driving rain. Seriously horrible. Pete powered through the deluge, up and over Rainy Pass, and is now at least five hours ahead of his closest competitor, Jeff Oatley, and 10 hours ahead of third-place Jay Petervary. In more than two days of racing, Pete's had a little less than six hours of down-time at checkpoints, probably only a fraction of which is actually sleeping. But Pete didn't stop to rest long in Rohn. As of 9 p.m., Pete was listed as "OUT."

As of 9, many others were still resting at Puntilla Lake, including Louise Kobin, the leading woman cyclist, who is in fifth place overall. Temperatures in the late evening at Puntilla Lake were listed to be in the low-30s with light snow. Fresh snow makes trails slower, but anything is better than slush.

Meanwhile, the weather in Rohn, on the other side of the Alaska Range, was comparitively pleasant — 29 degrees and overcast with light winds. Not bad if you're fresh and dry. But when you're soaked, strung-out and exhausted, even 70 degrees and sunny can feel extreme.

And what awaits Pete as he pushes on into the night? According to reports, there's little snow on the other side of the range. And what little snow there was has mostly blown away. The Iron Dog snowmobile race trailbreakers, those brave sled-runners who are essentially responsible for creating the Iditarod Trail every year, took this picture a couple of weeks ago:

Farewell Burn. No snow. Frozen tussocks. Glare ice in every crack. No white snowcover to reflect a little visibility in the inky darkness of the night. Even the most skilled technical mountain biker wouldn't touch this stuff with a 4-inch tire, but that's where Pete's going tonight, and where every other person who pushes over the pass will go tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Is this fun yet? Why yes, actually, it is.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010

ITI, day two

It's 32 hours into the 2010 Iditarod Invitational, and the race leaders have been established — to no one's surprise, Jeff Oatley, Pete Basinger and Jay Petervary hold the top spots. Most reports point to somewhat difficult trail conditions this year, including fresh snow, warm temperatures (which make the trail surface slushy and soft), and somewhat hard-to-picture "holes," which I imagine are either sinkholes or trenches down the center of the trail.

It's interesting to me because the three leaders are turning in checkpoint times very similar to my first three check-ins in 2008 (which, again, point to the significantly increased level of difficulty on the trail this year compared to two years ago.) But the leaders were into Yentna Station at mile 60 around 10 p.m. Sunday, into Swentna at mile 90 around 3 a.m. Monday, and into Fingerlake, mile 130, at 4 p.m. Monday — my 2008 pace up to that point almost verbatim.

This fact is fun for me because I can mine my memory to conjure up images of approximately where they are right now, and it helps me feel like I am there again. I imagine climbing into the foothills of the Alaska Range just as dusk begins to cast its long, cold shadow over the open swamps. The trail is narrow and steep, wending tightly through the woods and sometimes dropping off veritable cliffs into the Happy River Gorge. Headlamps cast a warm, yellow light on the trail, revealing a stream of snowmobile tread, Endomorph tire tracks and the occasional, unique imprints of fellow racers' boots. As the miles plod onward, these tracks begin to tell elaborate stories of movement and struggle, triumph and pain. They become as interesting as movies, maybe because there's nothing else to watch, and the headlamp beam flickers like a film projector, a soft reflection of humanity against a bewildering expanse of darkness.

But this is just what I think about, when I think about 10 p.m. Monday night in the Happy River Gorge. The reality of the race leaders is they are probably thinking about sleep, and about warm food, and constantly looking over their shoulders, watching for the soft, warm headlamp glow that signals the approach of their closest competitor. Anxious competitiveness, rather than peaceful loneliness, is probably what drives those leading the race right now.

The good thing — perhaps the only good thing — about my current position in a cubical 700 miles away in Juneau, where driving rain and wind pounds the window, and where I am perched next to a space heater with a lukewarm water bottle and a fresh orange, is that I can imagine myself wherever I'd like to be.