Thursday, March 06, 2014


Recovery is an interesting thing. You can stay on the move for eighteen-plus hours a day and somehow feel a few notches stronger every day — the aching hamstrings and stiff knees stop their protests; the sore back, wrenched by dozens of miles of sled-halting roots and rocks, also gives up the fight; and shin pain, which at times became excruciating, just needs a few minutes of walking to "warm up." Even hurty feet that always hurt stop occupying every other thought. Bodies somehow find an equilibrium that is neither fresh nor stale. It's just shelf-stable: Your body is a walking machine, that's its job, and with a determined brain at the helm, it will do what you ask it to do. A friend once put it, "Your legs are the dogs and your brain is the musher." I echoed that phrase a lot out on the Iditarod Trail. "Mush, legs, mush."

And then, somewhere in there, your brain tells your legs it's time to stop. It could be seven hours, it could be seven days, maybe it could even be seven weeks — but somehow the thought "I'm done" sets off a chain reaction of physical events that are difficult to quantify. Suddenly I can't sleep more than two hours without waking up drenched in sweat, so much that I have to change my clothes, presumably because my body is flushing out an enormous buildup of toxins. The hurty feet that always hurt again become very good at reminding you they hurt, so much that you hobble around and hold your bladder to the brink of emergency just to avoid the unsavory task of walking. The legs stiffen up and fatigue sets in so deep that not even long-neglected appetites have enough spark to spur you to action. "I walked fifty miles yesterday without issue, what happened?" I'd think. Suddenly I couldn't fathom walking another step. Why? Because I told myself I didn't have to walk anymore.

And thus, I flew back to Anchorage in a daze on Monday evening, watching through the last light of sunset as the Kuskokwim River Valley, the Alaska Range, and the Susitna River Valley unfolded beneath me in a blink. Ever since then, it's been a scramble to put together enough cognitive energy to catch up on obligations and work, and try to set a plan for the next month. Even just one week out in the wild in "walking machine" mode makes it difficult to return to regular life routines, and I feel overwhelmed by the simplest tasks. I made all these plans out on the trail for a book proposal I want to write, and I can't remember any of them — of course — but I sit at my computer staring at a blank screen all the same, willing them to come back. There was a full day of deadline work on Tuesday that I thought would be simple enough, but somehow felt so stressful that the night sweats came back even though I was awake.

All desire to move was gone for two days, but that didn't take long to come back. Today I set out for a bike ride along the Chester Creek and Coastal Trails. Surprisingly, or maybe predictably, I felt fine, and ended up spinning twenty miles out to Point Woronzof and back. The feet were irked at being stuffed into hard-sided boots, but beyond that, there were no problems or even muscle fatigue. I was sleepy when I got home, but then again I might just be sleepy because I haven't been sleeping well. The night sweats are finally gone, but I still wake up with a startle every two hours, mind racing with thoughts of "time to go."

So where does recovery begin and end? There are people that did the same thing I did every day for a week, and they're still out there, pressing deeper into the wilderness. I stayed off my feet for three days, so I should feel even stronger than them, that much more recovered. But somehow the recovery process moved my body from shelf-stable to stale. I'm like Pilot Bread that got left out by a hot wood stove a bit too long.

Through it all, I haven't even attempted to start a race report. I value my habit of keeping a prompt and fresh journal, but it all just feels too far away right now, and it's still a puzzling challenge just to decide what groceries to buy at the store. So it may be a while yet, if too much else gets in the way. I don't know. Maybe if I just start walking again, it will all come back ...

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Iditarod, again

In 2008, I wrote this passage about the Iditarod Trail for my book, "Ghost Trails:"

The trail was soft and deep now, but eventually the cold would sink in. The trail would set up and harden, only to be blanketed by fresh layers of snow. The racing dog teams would come through and stamp it out again, followed by recreational snowmobiles tracking it out until the warm air of spring left the surface rotten and unusable. Then summer would come and take the rest of the snowpack with it, leaving behind only open tundra and narrow passages through the alder where the trail wound through a canyon below Rainy Pass. In a few short months, there would be no sign of the winter trail or anybody who followed it. The Iditarod Trail was a ghost itself. But that night, beneath the moonless twilight of the Northern Lights, the Iditarod Trail was more of a ghost than any trail I had followed before. Not in the way it frightened me or battered me, but in the way it haunted me, even as I lay beside it, like it was some distant part of my past and inevitable part of my future.

Six years later I was back, traveling the trail by different means, seeing the landscape through different eyes, experiencing the world as a different person. But just as the trail and life are ever-changing, so much remains, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to return. Beat and I stayed together for the duration of the 350-mile trek to McGrath in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and finished together in 7 days, 7 hours, and 50 minutes. There's more to say about the experience, of course, but for now I wanted to post a few of my favorite pictures from the race.

 Carole Holley and Beat run the rollers of the Susitna Valley, heading toward Mount Susitna.

 On the Yentna River, looking toward Mount Foraker and Denali.

 Finnbear Lake.

 Rainy Pass.

 Tim Hewitt enjoying some alder shwacking in the Dalzell Gorge.

 Sketchy passage at the bottom of the Dalzell Gorge — wet, thin ice and open water for more than a mile.

 The "new burn" heading up Egypt Mountain. We saw barely a skiff of snow for more than 40 miles, and the surface ground had thawed after two days of temperatures nearing 50 degrees. We dealt with dry dirt, roots, rocks, puddles, bison-stomped mud, tussocks, knee-deep stream crossings, wet swamps, gravel bars, and glare ice. Muscling my 45-pound sled through this section was by far the most physically difficult segment of the race. It was the most mentally challenging as well, because I am deeply afraid of open water in winter travel, and we had to deal with a lot of that, all while knowing that it could easily drop back to 30 below on the Farewell Burn overnight. Still, traveling through this kind of terrain, on the northern side of the Alaska Range in February, was downright surreal, and became the most memorable part of the journey.

 Crossing one of the Farewell Lakes. Race director Bill Merchant scratched this "trail" for us on his return snowmachine trip from McGrath that morning, which was helpful.

 Approaching the village of Nikolai with Loreen and Tim Hewitt, and Rick Freeman. The five of us more or less traveled in a pack, with our friends Steve Ansell and Anne Ver Hoef just a few hours ahead. This made for a fun and social journey through a remote part of the country.

 On the last morning on the Iditarod Trail, with Denali and Foraker behind us now.

A wonderfully rejuvenating mid-day bivy on a slough of the Kuskokwim River, during the final leg into McGrath. Even an hour of rest does wonders for resetting tired legs and hurty feet, making for a more enjoyable afternoon. 
Saturday, February 22, 2014

I'm friends with the monster

I intended to write more pre-race thoughts, but this week slipped away from me and suddenly it's Saturday night in Anchorage. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is all set to begin at 2 p.m. Sunday in what looks to be generally favorable conditions for the forty cyclists and fourteen runners who are signed up this year. It's a great field this year. The bikers should fly; it wouldn't be too surprising to see last year's 67-hour McGrath record broken again. Twenty-three people are signed up to go the distance, a thousand miles to Nome. There are seven women in this year's event, and five of them are traveling on foot. A fairly large percentage of the field on foot are people I consider friends, so I'm really looking forward to spending some time out there with a quality group of crazies. Although there is still a healthy dose of nervousness and a dash of dread regarding the daunting task ahead, I now mostly feel excitement about the prospect of a week-plus of nothing but walking, shuffling, spreading out my bivy under a wash of stars, facing and conquering scary obstacles, and spending a few blissful minutes (not too many) in warm cabins with friendly faces.

My strategy for the race is to keep a steady pace but stay mostly within my comfort zone while moving, and try to limit stopped time to improve overall speed. Beat, for his own experimental purposes, is traveling fully self-supported for the first 350 miles — meaning he is hauling all of his food for that section and not planning on stopping inside of any cabins. My goal is to shadow Beat as best I can and possibly spend nights out with him, camping on the trail. I want to do this for both the wilderness experience, and as a race strategy. Cabin checkpoints are often loud, hot and crowded, and I rarely sleep well if at all inside of them. However, a simple shelter, someplace warm and surrounded by other humans, is such a huge comfort that I'm not sure I can resist the gravitational pull, even if I know for a fact I'll sleep better curled up in my bivy sack outdoors. We'll see. I'm announcing my intentions on my blog in hopes that some public accountability will hold me to it. I'd like to move in an out of checkpoints relatively quickly and grab most of my sleeps on the trail.

We've been in Anchorage since early Thursday morning, mainly doing unfun things — arranging our gear, shopping for food and last-minute supplies, rearranging our gear, obsessing about what we may have forgotten, trying to stuff butterfly stomachs with food, and rearranging gear again. We spent a couple of nights at the home of our friends Dan and Amy, and have enjoyed the calming effects of playing with their kitten, Olive.

Beat especially loves Olive. He carried her around the house in his coat, which she let him do for longer than you'd expect. I should probably check his sled to make sure he's not smuggling her for the trip to Nome.

Beat does have a friend for the journey, however — a toy husky named Bernie that he plans to prop on top of the sled. You know — the man pulling the husky rather than the other way around.

Bernie and Olive.

On Saturday morning, Beat put the Moots fat bike together, and I took it out for a short ride on the trails near Dan's house. I've obviously gone through a lot of back and forth about my decision to walk the Iditarod Trail this year, wondering if I'd regret not having a bicycle. And while I have to accept that there will inevitably be moments of longing, especially while pounding painful feet on a hard-packed trail for seemingly endless slow miles — I'm truly glad I chose to walk the Iditarod Trail this year. The slow pace will allow me to see and experience the landscape in a new way, and the longer span of time will facilitate the meditative mindset I crave. Not that I'm under any delusion that it will be a week of endless peace and quiet — there are bound to be long hours of boredom, pain, and occasional sheer terror. I think back to the last time I sought a similar experience — Petite Trotte a'Leon in France last August — and how badly that went for me. I met demons and monsters out there that I never want to meet again, and I'm almost certain I will. But that's part of the appeal and the challenge as well — facing the fear of the unknown, meeting the dark and loathsome sides of myself, and emerging wiser and more confident, in everything.

Saturday was a very good day that ended in a beautiful sunset. The last time I was here in Anchorage before an Iditarod attempt, in 2009, there was a big snowstorm, all these cars were off the road, and all I felt was doom. "I feel no doom this year; this is a good omen," I said to Beat.

"There are no such things as omens," he replied. Maybe not, but there is optimism, and that can go a long way by itself.

If you'd like to follow up with how the race is going, here are a few links. As a walker near the back of the pack, there won't be much about my progress, but the leaderboard should be updated once a day with the location of the last check-in. My best-case scenario is to finish sometime in the afternoon of Sunday, March 2. A more likely scenario is Monday or Tuesday, and the race officially ends on Wednesday, March 5.

 Race updates:
Iditarod Trail Invitational
Facebook updates
Message board

Recent media:
Rugged and crazed cyclists, runners ready for Iditarod Trail Invitational
Running Wild Alaska (TrailRunner interviewed Beat for this article)
Fairbanks fat bikers pumped for ITI 
Ultrarunner Johnston readies for Iditarod Invitational