"When the drugs quit you
As loyal as a fruit fly you'll mutter to yourself
'You talentless fuck, good fucking luck
Good fucking luck'"
One Night in Copenhagen, The Tragically Hip
I didn't believe it was happening but it was. The bus pulled in and we exited. I took my sled from the bus and made a quick last check that I had everything. Entering the bar next to the start line, I sat down with some friends to eat a burger prior to setting off on a 300+ mile journey across the remote Alaska wilderness. I still could not believe I was here and going to do this. Alaska had been a childhood dream and here I was living it.
It was sometime during the impressionable early stages of ultrarunning that I first heard that, yes, people run and ride bikes on the Iditarod route, just like the dogs. It was only a piece of trivia at that point. Something to know but never to try. It was not something a below average runner, like me, could even consider. Even after gaining some competence in winter ultras, I felt that I was in no way prepared for a race like that. I was probably right.
Last March a discussion began with those that I had finished the Hrimthurs with the year before. Paul was already in ITI after winning Tuscobia and getting his name pulled for a slot. I thought 2019 might be the year but after a rough 2017 I began to think maybe I should wait another year. As usual, I was easily convinced to throw caution to the wind and apply to enter anyway. It was most likely I would get rejected and would need to do more work on my resume to earn an entry. It was a surprise to find out that I actually made it into the race. Deserving or not, I had some work to do to get ready.
2018 turned out to be what I considered a bad year for running, carrying over poor results from the second half of 2017. The joy of racing was gone for some reason. I finished Bigfoot 200 but, in my opinion, it was only due to experience and stubbornness, not physical fitness. This race, in August, was the last race I had finished.
Tuscobia and Arrowhead were intended to be practice runs this year for ITI. I failed to finish either of them. The desire was not there, either to train properly or to push through tough patches in races. All this increased my anxiety about going to Alaska. I did learn some things in those races that would help but my confidence was at an all time low.
Flying into Anchorage, I got my first views of Alaska outside the plane window. It was overwhelming rugged and beautiful. The doubts and fear were increasing as I looked down at a frozen mountainous landscape. I didn't have any business trying to do this.
Similar to my first time at Arrowhead, I looked around the room at the pre-race meeting, realizing these were remarkable people who, though unknown to most, had done incredible things with little or no recognition. I was somehow sitting here with them and felt a bit out of place.
After a couple days hanging out in Anchorage, the time came to board the bus for the ride up to Knik Lake to start the race. The skies were clear and had been since I arrived. I didn't expect this good weather to last but I would take what I could get. After the ride and the burger, we made our way out to the start line. Time for a couple pictures and then suddenly everyone is off.
The first few hours were easy going and relaxed as the trail wound westward. As the pack spread out, I began to realize that the only way to follow the trail was to follow the footprints of those in front of me, as the snowmobile tracks would often veer off in multiple directions. As dark set in, I had to rely on a GPS with route from a previous year on it. There were a few spots where foot racers were wandering about trying to find the trail. Eventually, we made our way down to the Yentna River which we would follow through the night.
Moving along on the frozen river was strange at first. The river is wide and therefore there is no cover from the wind. In the dark, with only a headlamp, it felt like I was on a vast open plain. The river is typically the low point of the surround landscape so the temperatures would be noticeably lower.
Approaching midnight, after a few hours on the river, I began to fight the sleep monster. Starting a race a 2 PM, I knew I would likely have to bivy, at least for short time, before going the 60 miles to the first checkpoint. I was also feeling that the temperatures were much colder than the forecast low of around 5 degrees. Eventually I decided to get in my sleeping bag to try to warm up and get a little sleep, which should help me get to the checkpoint in good shape.
My sleeping bag is rated for -40 degrees. Despite this, I slept very little and shivered for close to an hour. It was very cold. Later, one of the race directors would tell me it was -30 F that night. Cold indeed. Giving up the fight to sleep, I got up and tried to quickly pack everything back up. Moving briskly down the trail to try to stay warm, it became clear to me that, 30 miles from help in either direction, that if I had any survival instinct, I had better keep moving with some purpose. Much more so than ever at any other race, I felt that the danger was real. How much so is debatable I suppose but it was jarring in the moment. I wanted to be a part of this and now I was in it up to my neck.
The sun did not rise as much as it slid upwards at an angle slightly above the horizontal. The distant mountains to the north and west provided great scenery. I continued to follow the Yentna River towards the first checkpoint. I felt better with the sun up and warmer temperatures. I was very eager to get to the station for some hot food and sleep and was within a half a mile when I watched a moose cross an open field and stop right next to the trail to eat. I ended up sitting on my sled for about 10 minutes waiting for the moose to leave before moving along.
The lodge served grilled cheese and soup. I hung clothes up to dry and slept for about an hour. In retrospect, I should have slept a bit longer here as there would be very few places for good sleep in this race. After a couple hours, I set off again along the river towards the next checkpoint at Skwentna, 30 miles away.
Very soon it was early evening and the sunlight faded away. Again I was struggling with sleep as it grew dark and cooler. This night, however, though cold was much warmer than the previous night. I was told at the first stop that there was a "trail angel" about half way through this section. Moving along the river I was surprised to see a house and several building that had electric lights on. Assuming this might be that half way stop, I thought I would go in to warm up and get some food. I wandered around the buildings, trying to follow where the foot and bike tracks went but didn't see any indication of them going into any of these building. As I gave up and walked away, I heard a voice calling out. I turned and went in to what turned out to be what I suppose you could call an unofficial trail angel. I was given a bowl of chili and was able to get a short nap.
|Breakfast of champions (and slow folks like me)|
The next 20 mile section to Shell Lake was one of the high points for me. The weather continued to be clear and warmer during the day, maybe in the teens or low 20s. I was full of food and felt positive. The views of the snowy mountains were beautiful. The trail was firm and easy to move along. Everything was going right. Despite this I was still ready for a break upon arriving at the Shell Lake lodge, which served a delicious burger. I made the mistake of drinking a couple Coca Colas before trying to take a nap. The caffeine had me buzzing so I gave up and set off to the next stop at Finger Lake.
Somewhere in this night things fell apart. I suspect that in my increasingly sleep deprived state I began to neglect food and water. The trail had moved off the relatively easy moving frozen rivers to an overland route that included the foothills of the approaching mountains. My patience became very short with small things, especially trying to figure out how to handle my wild sled going down hills. My irritation increased as I moved through the night. By the time I reached Finger Lake, I was desperate to sleep and eat.
I could see some faint lights as I neared the compound at Finger Lake. Not sure where to go, I went to a group of cabins and found one with a small sign saying to check in. I entered the tiny cabin which was very dimly lit. The only sound was someone snoring at the back. Tired and confused, I just wanted to get my first drop bag and sleep. On an empty bunk I found what looked like scattered drop bags. I tried to find mine but this turned out to be the spot where racers would discard extra food they didn't want to carry. I left the cabin to try to find out where I could sleep when I met a volunteer who had just woken up and had the drop bags in another cabin. After picking mine up I moved to a large tent set up near the lake for us to sleep in. Opening the flap I saw the floor nearly completely covered with sleeping bags and sleepers. The only open spot was angled right near the entry. I angrily threw my bag down in this spot and tried to sleep.
This tent turned out to be marginally warmer than outside since no one had bothered to add wood to the stove set up n the corner. As I slept off and on for a couple hours, others would get up and noisily pack up and talk. After the feeling wonderful the day before, I had now reached a low point. Angry, tired and hungry I got up to get on my way to the next checkpoint in hopes I could recover there. I was given a cold rice and bean burrito, which was awful to eat, that did make me feel slightly better for a time.
The hills continued over the next 26 miles on the trail to the Puntilla Lake checkpoint (approximately half way to McGrath). I gradually sank back to a low point. After making good progress along the rivers, my pace slowed down and I began to get impatient. This section ended up taking me 13 hours to go a marathon distance. By the time I reached the checkpoint, I was mentally broken and demoralized. Despite how much I wanted to be there, doing this thing, I wanted to quit. And I didn't want to just quit this race but any future race. Here I was again, making myself miserable to no purpose. All the negative thoughts were dominating me.
A brief aside to discuss these low periods. Several people had told me this race would give me a chance to "find myself". I've heard this for other ultras before but figured the distance and difficulty would really make it true. It probably was true. Ultras do strip away the protective veneer on our personalities and reveal deep down thoughts and emotions. Whenever I hear talk of "finding yourself" it is presented as a positive but what if you don't like what you find. I certainly didn't. Impatience, anger, and a lack of will to continue. Maybe the lesson is to learn how to handle those things we all feel but at times in these events these feelings appear to be overwhelming. The peril felt in that apparent lack of control can be jarring. I considered that, just maybe, doing this isn't necessarily good. Even after a couple weeks of separation from this I am still struggling to determine what the answer is.
I reached the halfway point at Puntilla Lake (aka Rainy Pass Lodge) feeling much the same way I did at Finger Lake. Desperate to quit, I told myself that I should eat and sleep before making the final call. After some warm food, I found a free bunk and slept off and on for what ended up being 12 hours.
In the morning I finally decided to get up and head to the main lodge for breakfast. I felt better but not quite good enough to want to continue on. The breakfast was amazing and even included homemade donuts. By the time I was done eating, I was ready to tackle the mountain pass that was the next big obstacle. I told myself that the lows were due to my inattention to calories and hydration and to focus more on those. The realization that this may be my one chance at this race also fully sank in by now. So I set off determined to have a good attitude.
After crossing Puntilla Lake, the trail made a steady ascent towards Rainy Pass, 18 miles away. The trail became a narrow strip marked by snowmobile, bike and foot tracks. Stepping slightly off the trail would result in sinking to knee or hip deep snow. The views were incredible as the mountains slowly surrounded me on all sides as I continued forward.
I climbed gradually most of the day reaching the pass in the late afternoon, early evening. Shortly before reaching it, I did hear a couple distant booms, which I assumed were avalanches, which, being from flat Michigan, I was terrified of. Immediately after passing the sign that marked the pass, the trail descended into a narrowing gorge that required the trail to repeatedly cross a stream that was still unfrozen.
Soon after beginning to make may way down to the checkpoint at Rohn, I caught up with a few other racers on foot. We more or less stayed together all the way into the station which was around 1 AM. This stop consisted of a single large tent. One side was stacked with pine branches and then covered with large cloth sacks. There was enough room for 8 people to lie side by side on this make shift bed. As four of us came in, the station had a first in, first out policy so the 4 that had been sleeping the longest were asked to get up to make room. It was difficult to watch them be awakened and told if they wanted to sleep, go outside. I took a narrow open spot, which was lumpy and slanted, with my head being a good 2 feet above my head.
I somehow slept, but it was in short segments and uncomfortable. I became very frustrated as I felt I needed good sleep prior to the next section which was listed as 75 miles. Giving up on sleep around 4 AM, I packed up and decided to go as far as I could into the next section while I had daylight.
The first few miles were some of the most peaceful I had on the trail. The sun was rising slowly as I moved between the mountains on both sides. Several areas were frozen over snow melt and very slippery. I tried walking carefully but after falling hard a couple times, I put on the $10 set of Walmart spikes over my shoes, solving the issue. By this time I was learning more than ever that taking a few moments to prevent a problem was the best approach. Far too often in these races I would just go forward, impatiently, and this simple revelation was a very good lesson.
Before long the trail entered a forest fire scarred area. There was no longer much cover from the sun which melted the reduced amount of snow on this side of mountains. The days were getting slightly warmer, so controlling sweating was important, as it had been from the start. The hills were starting to get relentless and to add to the difficulty in this section, long stretches of trail were clear of snow. Pulling a loaded sled across dirt and rocks is rather difficult, especially at 200 miles of a 300+ mile race. On a couple of the hills I picked the sled up and carried it on my head which seemed easier than pulling.
I could feel the negative, low swing coming and determined to stay positive. I was successful most of the day despite the difficulty and struggle through this section. There down moments but I was well into the second half and the finish was starting to appear attainable.
Early in the evening I found a nice spot under a few pines to bed down for a few hours. I hated to lose the daylight but needed the sleep. I woke up when the group I had been with at Rohn passed by. The sun was setting as I packed up and moved on. I only made it another 4 hours or so before I felt I needed to try sleeping again. Another couple cold hours and little sleep.
These stops were unremarkable at the time but at one of these or along the way, my stove, which I needed to melt snow for water, was lost. When I realized this, I was filled with panic. How would I get another 40 miles to Nikolai with no water. Luckily there was a shelter cabin set about a mile off the trail, which I initially planned on skipping but now I would have to stop there.
When I reached the cabin the next morning, the group that passed the night before was already there. The skies had also become cloudy and a light snow began to fall. The wood stove provided barely enough heat to melt enough snow to half fill my water bottle. That and an hour or so of sleep would be enough to get me to Nikolai.
This stretch to Nikolai was a straight trail, crossing numerous frozen lakes and rivers. At times it was difficult to see where the trail was due to the freshly fallen snow, especially out on lakes. The loose snow made footing tough at times but in the night the trail hardened up and became easier to move on. After 13 or 14 hours I approached Nikolai, which, unlike the other checkpoints, is a small community of dozens of people.
My feet were soaked from the wet snow. I was famished. I had a fitful night of sleep on the floor of the community center. Waking up I thought about the final 50 miles left. It seemed impossible the way I felt. Once again it was food that turned things around. I ate as much I could and set off one last time.
The day was the warmest yet, probably approaching 40 degrees F. The trail softened up again making the early going difficult. The end was in sight, however, and I was determined to just push through to the finish. I just tried to keep from sweating and to keep moving forward.
Late in the night, the trail emerged out onto what looked like a road with snow piled up on each side. That's because this was a road, despite it leading to nowhere, with nothing. I would follow this road the rest of the way into McGrath. The sun rose as the town came into view. A couple miles out from the finish, I saw the first car I had seen for week. I strolled along, reflecting on all that had happened over the last week. It still did not seem real.
I have mentioned in other race reports about the anticlimactic nature of ultramarathon finishes. This one topped them all. I reached a driveway with a sign hanging out front. After 300 plus miles, I took my own finishing picture because everyone else was inside the house sleeping or eating.
|Finish Photo credit: me|
And yes, the finish was at a family's house. The generosity of someone opening their home, providing food, showers, laundry, etc. is incredible but very much in the spirit of the race. Whether at checkpoints or unofficial stops, everyone was helpful and friendly. It was refreshing. And just like that, my dream race was complete. I only had a chance to eat and shower before I was off to board the tiny plane back to Anchorage.
There was so much more that happened but every detail can't be recorded or this blog would be even more unreadable. There were moments of pure joy, stretches of time where everything was perfect. Most nights I could look over to my right and see the aurora borealis arcing just over the horizon, providing magical scenery along my journey. The brief and infrequent interactions with others along the trail provided inspiration. The ever changing views of the mountains and forests along the way will be forever in my memory.
There were also moments of desperation, where it seemed like every fiber of my being was screaming at me to find a way out of the situation I was in. I was ready to quit multiple times. I was ready to quit ultrarunning forever. At these times, it is difficult to see any purpose in travelling on foot across the Alaskan wilderness. I'm still not sure what the purpose is as I said earlier.
I'm reminded often by others that I have finished some hard races but I can't help thinking that, just maybe, they aren't as hard as most think when someone like me can finish them. My expectation of stoically pushing through and finishing strong never happens so why hold that as ideal? What I keep coming back to is that what I find in those dark times will be ugly and it will be very uncomfortable. The true goal may be in recognizing these faults and seeking ways to improve instead of dwelling on them. Still though, I'm struggling with that.
A few days after the race a friend asked me what epic adventure I had next. I was taken aback because I had no answer and realized I hadn't even thought about it. There are days when I think it may be time for a long break or to quit this all together. How do you follow up something you worked years to get to do? I still don't know. My desire and motivation has been sapped over the last couple years. I'll have to let time work that out.
There it is in a not so tidy package. Overall, it was an adventure that I will never forget. I was able to spend time there with a couple of my Hrimthur friends, Paul and Jeff. It was a great chance to catch up and get to know each other even better. I also met a number of new winter ultra folks, all of whom I am very fortunate to know. I am also grateful to each and everyone who followed along. Knowing you're watching keeps me going. We'll see where we go from here.