Saturday, April 04, 2009
Iditarod 2009 Part 1
Wow, it's been a month now since I set off on my big adventure. Time's flown for various reasons but here it finally is: the first instalment of my Iditarod story...
Alaska is an amazingly beautiful place - just looking at it from the window of the plane filled me with excitement and anticipation. And, as before, my time there was filled with extraordinary people adding to the experience.
It seems wrong to call the Iditarod Invitational a race. Leading up to the event, it was "The Race" - needing no further qualification. During the adventure, though, thinking of it as a race tended to result in making stupid mistakes. So leave the racing to veteran nutters like Jeff Oatley. I'll probably keep using the word "race" by accident though :)
As I had said in earlier blog posts, the lead-up to the race was far from perfect but it was fantastic to meet some familiar faces at the Speedway Cycles pre-race party. Nerves and jet lag kept me from sleep the night before we started, though, and as I arrived at Knik, I felt numb and a little bit queasy. The sun shone down on us and the other racers seemed to be going through similar thoughts as we stuffed down a last fatty meal. A few tweaks to the bike and I was ready to say good-bye to Emily for a few days. There was, literally, a mountain to climb before I'd see her again.
Time unwound quickly and soon we were riding across the first frozen lake through an inch or two of snow. I tried to stay calm and settle into the ride. The trail helped by quickly becoming firm, swooping, packed snowmachine-singletrack. I chatted to John Ross and the time sped past in the sun. I was feeling overdressed and grateful for a bit of easy mileage.
There is no real set course for the race. There are checkpoints, and there is the Iditarod trail, but we don't have to follow it. This adds to the adventure but makes the first section from Knik to the Susitna river a confusing place for newbies... so John and I duly got lost. After a certain amount of casting around in knee-deep snow, we eventually made it to the river but south of where we wanted to be. Heading north, I could see other racers coming in along Flathorn Lake and saving miles compared to us. Doh! Thinking like it was a race, I upped the effort and soon the back of my jacket was a frozen sweaty husk. There was still a long was to Yentna Station.
A lot of the following section was very marginal riding. You'd progress a hundred metres, then sink into the snow. Casting around across a wide possibility of trails, I'd eventually settle on one and ride another hundred metres or so before sinking again. In the dim light of my head-torch this process went on and on. At least running into Billy was a nice diversion. He was setting a steady "Nome pace" so I said hi and carried on at my own (too fast) speed.
It was in this first section that I learned not to put too much stock in the GPS. Straight line distance to a checkpoint means nothing on a winding river, it just frustrates a tired body. The frequency of my stops increased the further I went and every time I saw a cabin I hoped it was the checkpoint. As the wind picked up, I stopped to swap my normal hat for the one with the pull-up balaclava bit. This simple task was complicated by only having one source of light - my head-torch - and that source being frozen to the hat. Finally, I swapped hats and was able to carry on. The sweaty first hat remained a frozen lump all the way to McGrath.
I was really struggling to set my mind to the speed that I was moving. Every GPS-led estimate of when I would arrive came and went. I wanted to stop, but that wouldn't help, so I carried on. I scolded myself for making promises to my body that I couldn't keep. Promises like, I'll be there in an hour. Eventually I accepted the one truth: if I keep moving I'll get there so keep moving. At around 2am I got there.
Yentna Station was the busiest checkpoint as the field had yet to spread out fully. I rolled up, signed in, and tried to stuff down food. My plan was to sleep for 4 hours and get back out there. So I set my soggy socks and shoes in front of the stove and went to try to sleep.
But sleep wasn't happening. Too much excitement, too many nerves, and my eye was itching, hurting, and watering. As the time came to get up I was glad to be "doing" instead of just lying there. By the time I reached the next checkpoint, I was bound to be so tired I'd sleep like the dead.
Heading downstairs, I found Jill Homer. She was hesitating to put any weight on her feet. Frostbite had got to them after overflow had doused them. I was too spaced out to talk to her properly, but I felt her pain and hoped that she would be able to continue. I gathered up my socks and shoes to find them soaked. They had been lying in a puddle while I'd been lying in bed. "Well, my boots are waterproof anyway so I'll just go," I thought. Mistake.
The word was that it was cold outside, but as I loaded up my bike it didn't seem too severe. Of course, the temperature on the river, in the wind, is a lot colder than up at the checkpoint but that didn't occur to me. I set off into (if anecdotes be true) -30C heading for Skwentna.
Now I was more attuned to things taking absolutely ages. Not quite zen yet, but I could at least appreciate the sunrise and the cold as I pedalled away. Occasionally my feet felt cold so I walked a bit. My eye was watering a lot and freezing up. But, on the whole, things were good. I was doing it, actually feeling like part of the event. At one point, I got off to walk and it felt like my toenail was being torn up by something. I took off my boots to check it out - the toe of my sock was frozen solid and the nail had been pushing against ice. I crunched it around and decided to ride as it was more comfortable. Mistake.
The rest of the ride to Skwentna was uneventful. Jay and Tracy Petervary overtook me; I chugged along. Eventually I reached what I expected to be the driveway for the checkpoint and turned in. No cabin in sight. In fact, it must have been a mile of extra riding through what would have been pleasant surroundings. Sadly, I was squinting at every tree, thinking it was a cabin in disguise. I still didn't have all the patience I would need, but eventually the checkpoint did come into view - heading inside I found a bunch of other racers...
It was great to see James Leavesley looking so cheerful and preparing to go even as I had only just arrived. Already, there were stories swapping around from the first day of travel and, even through my excessive tiredness, the glow of other people was as welcoming as the warmth of the stove. Which is not to exclude the warm welcome of Bonnie and her family into their home. They're lovely people!
It was still only about mid-day so my plan was to warm up, eat, and head on down the trail. As my feet warmed up, though, they started to burn. Taking off my socks, I saw that the flesh of both big toes had turned grey and I couldn't feel anything as I pressed concerned fingers into them. As other people noticed them, I was advised to massage them a bit and try to warm them up in front of the stove. This turned out to be something I could only do in short bursts as the warming hurt quite badly. Eventually, though, my toes felt a normal temperature (but still numb and grey) and I had eaten enough to relax a little. It was getting awfully tempting to sleep for a while.
After some near-dozing on the sofa I decided to head out and try to get to Shell Lake - halfway to the next real checkpoint, but somewhere we could sleep indoors. Rob May thinks I talked him into riding out with me... I'd say the mere suggestion of having someone heading out now was enough. Either way, we set of into the warm afternoon with dry clothes and full bellies.
The ride to Shell Lake was a revelation. Almost all of the pictures I have seen of the trail (including the ones I took) show a single straight like heading across flat tundra to infinity. In fact, there are long section of fun riding out there and the only explanations I can come up with for the lack of photos are: 1) We're having too much fun and making too good time to stop (2) If you want to see those fun bits, you'll have to go do it for yourself and earn them. So, Rob and I swooped along snow-machine singletrack under a golden afternoon sky. It was a breath of fresh air after so much slogging along frozen rivers. I had a chance to get out of the saddle and let the bike flow a little - a strange feeling indeed on such a weighty beast.
We talked about riding, racing, and training for the event and the miles slipped by easily. It almost felt like cheating, but I knew I had to sleep at Shell Lake and catch up on all the missed zzzs since leaving England. Rob was happy with that idea so we rode like a Sunday afternoon saunter until we could see the cabins ahead of us on the lake.
The bar at Shell Lake is a weird place. The kind of place you'd expect to see at the start of a horror movie, it was quiet and very slightly strange. I could just picture some horrible secret in the basement. That didn't stop me ordering food though. And here is one of the sad parts of my race - my bean soup had bits of sausage in it and I just ate up the lot. I could rationalise it by saying that it had already been cooked and probably would have been wasted anyway if I'd have sent it back. But the truth is that it was expensive, I was hungry, and the only alternative was my own food so I just didn't care.
Sleep here was the best I'd had in a long while. I don't recall how long I was out... Maybe 6 hours. But It was perfect and I woke ready to take on the next stage of the adventure...