Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Still, in this place

If you've come here looking for a race report, I'm sorry

Unfortunately, there will be no telling the tail of my 600 mile adventure along the Iditarod Trail in Alaska last winter. I am writing this only as a brief explanation of how it ended and why a part of me is (and may always be) still out there. In my mind there exists some alternate reality where some version of me, frozen in time, is just outside the small village of Koyukuk, AK. He's still scheming and pushing to continue the struggle, hoping to complete the final miles to Nome

It's reality where I, ultimately, return home to share with the people I love the story of not just the physical accomplishment, but the spiritual journey I'd taken along the way. And, when I imagine it, I see myself standing beneath the massive cliff looking up, ignorant of what awaits me. Alas, I am still just grounded enough to not allow that reality's existence (tempting though it may be) to shield me from what did happen.

In the real world, I continued on into the village and was met by a local official on snowmachine first asking Beat and then me "are you Steve?" After which I was given instructions for contacting the Alaska State Troopers. A year earlier at mile 200 of this race, I'd been delivered the news of my father's passing. Now, 400 miles further down that same trail, I was to learn that I had lost so much more. The woman with whom I'd been married, helped raise two amazing boys and watch them grow into men--my best friend of 20 years--was gone.

Six months now and I really don't have much more to say. These words have become no easier to write except, perhaps, that I am now able to actually write them. In all honesty, I am only doing so because it has become, in some sense, easier than not explaining or, rather, having to explain at random times and in unexpected situations. It's one of those things they never tell you about grief. The hardest thing is simply having to explain.

If I could wish for one thing, it would be for, somehow, the news to have been delivered in my absence into the ear of all but my closest friends so that I didn't have to be the one to do it. I'm not an especially social person, so having each of my infrequent interactions with casual acquaintance and family friends consist of the conversation-ending story of my personal tragedy is probably the most difficult part. That and the inevitable, but understandable flood of condolences that follow.

If I had a second wish, it would be to ask people to please, stop saying "I'm sorry". I understand the need to say "something" and maybe it is said more for them than for me. However, I just can't help thinking that, right now, sorrow seems to be this ever present theme smouldering beneath the surface of everything I do. Each time I hear that phrase along with the offers for "anything I need", no matter how well-meaning and sincere, it just seems to add more fuel to the fire. I've enough sorrow of my own, I don't really need more. The fact is, beyond my closest friends and family who have been and continue to be here for me, there really is nothing anyone can do.

With everyone else, though, I really just want some semblance or at least remembrance of "normal life." Simply knowing that you know is enough. There truly is nothing more I ask, but if you do really feel the need to offer something beyond the usual platitudes (and, since this blog's readership consists mostly of runners and other outdoor enthusiasts), then if we happen to meet, please just share with me your upcoming races, next adventure, hiking plans or anything that represents those values that we might have in common. Values really are the whole point of life and sharing them the point of friendship.

As for this blog, I'm not sure if it will be continuing. It's been mostly silent for more than a year as is. I did recently finish Hardrock, but don't expect to write anything therein. I have been doing more writing on my other, older, even less-read blog. It's filled with random, sometimes philosophic musings and the occasional wine-inspired bit of poetry. I don't expect to garner readership there as its contents will likely seem foreign to even some of my closest friends, let alone those only casually acquainted with the extents of my thoughts and ramblings.

Thanks for reading. Happy trails.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Second look

For my second preview of the course, there weren't many options that offered easy logistics. The first two sections of the course were either too far away or offered pretty poor access. My friends would arrive on Monday and we agreed to check out the final section no Tuesday. That left either doing part of Leg 5 which was listed as the easiest section or some of Leg 4 which would represent the final descent from the climb I did on Saturday. I opted for the latter

Since I would be going opposite the race direction, I was to head up the Hope Pass trail and then hook up for a bit more climbing on Grainger Creek Trail. I planned for a shorter day so I wouldn't be hitting the steeper bits of the trail near the top.

If the Bonnevier Trail was a single-lane country road, then Hope Pass was like a two-lane highway. Though the soft ground made it feel more like a wide, padded track. In reality, it's actually a historic wagon trail.

Again the trail was in deep tree cover, but this one much more reminiscent of something you might see in the Tahoe area. Big coniferous trees, lots of shade, but with a more open feeling.

It was also a much more popular trail as I passed at least a half dozen backpackers heading in from one or other of the trail camps. However, as soon as I turned off the wide path around 4-1/2 miles in, I didn't see another soul.

Grainger Creek was a more narrow single-track trail winding its way up the side of the mountains. Where the previous day's path didn't follow any obvious topographical feature (in fact, it appeared as if someone just decided to make their way through the woods), this trail contoured along the side of the hill slowly climbing above its namesake creek (though it might be considered a raging river in California right now given our drought).

Many offshoot streams crossed the trail feeding down to the creek often creating short muddy bits to step over.

This well maintained trail, included bridges built over any longer sections of muck.

Of course, this meant for lush and green surroundings and an all around enjoyable hike up the trail.

While there once again was very little view due to the dense cover, I was always aware of it teasing just beyond the curtain of trees. I kept expecting to come out into a clearing at some point. This is probably why I ended up going further up trail than planned. In the end, I only ended up with one brief view of the surrounding area.

When I finally turned around after 8-1/2 miles (a mile longer than intended), I couldn't help myself. This trail was pretty much just the sort I love to bomb downhill. A soft, easy surface, but with just enough rocks, roots, twists and turns to keep it interesting. I did manage to reel in the proverbial reins, forcing myself to walk anything that was flat or slightly uphill. I also kept the downhill pace in check, but felt light on my feet the whole way.

With the two days combined, I'd covered well over 1/4 of the race distance. Unfortunately, though, since I had to do everything as an out-and-back, I'd only seen around 1/7 of the course. I'm also a little worried that I picked sections that were a bit easy, building a little false confidence. No matter, it will give me something to look forward to as I grind through the first couple climbs.

Also, I wouldn't want to have the race completely devoid of surprises (as if that would be possible in an event this long).

Saturday, August 09, 2014

First Impressions

I'm up in Canada a week before the Fat Dog 120 mile race. Since I'm typically under-trained, I thought I would come up a week before and at least get a bit of a preview. I haven't done a mountain 100 since Bryce last year and have only managed a few trips up to the Sierras this summer. Luckily, the altitude isn't a huge issue (high point around 7500ft), but it does have plenty of climbing (28,000ft) and there's that extra 20 miles. While there's not much I can do in terms of training at this point, I figured seeing some of the course and getting my head in the right space might help.

My friends who are also doing the race don't arrive until Monday and we agreed to check out the last section of the course (purportedly one of the most difficult) together. So, I looked for another section for my solo preview today. I chose the third section labeled Bonnevier. It was accessible right off the highway and starts about 41 miles or so into the race. With a 10am start time, that puts it squarely into the night hours for my pace. This would give me a chance to see some of it in the day and also give me some familiarity with trail that I'll be doing just as fatigue and sleepiness become part of the race experience.

The first 2-1/2 miles are on a forest service road and mostly (almost*) all climbing. Then you take a sharp left off the road and onto trail that narrows down to singletrack in the next 1/2 mile.

This is "real deal" singletrack. In fact, with the significant overgrowth in parts, the path nearly disappears altogether. I would venture that this trail sees less traffic than even the least visited trails in most of California's mountains.

The trail was quite good. Beneath the overgrowth there were a few roots, but it was not super technical. There weren't many rocks nor downed trees across the trail. This last, apparently, due to the heroic effort by some volunteers. In numerous places along the trail there was evidence of recently cut trees that would have lain cross the trail. The area is quite ripe with downed trees.

The other thing that made the trail pretty mellow was the ease of navigation. The GPX track I downloaded (and Harry edited) was excellent, but almost completely unnecessary. The course was already marked and the markings were beyond superb. Almost excessive, even. If this section is any indication, if I don't see a ribbon for more than 2 minutes, I should turn around and go back.

Overall, the climb was not especially steep, accumulating just under 2000ft in the first 4-1/2 miles before dropping down a bit and climbing another 1200ft before I turned around after about 10 miles. Of course, that's on fresh legs in the middle of the day. We'll see what story those legs tell in the middle of the night after 40+ miles that include two of the biggest climbs on the course.

The views from up top were quite wonderful. However, the vast majority of the miles I did were completely contained within a thick forest with little in the way of grand vistas. I guess that's appropriate for a section that I'll be starting at night.

Overall, I took it pretty easy, treating it more as a hike than a run. Anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty much incapable of not running downhill, but even on the downhills I kept it constrained and conservative. Keeping things easy a week before the race was obviously part of it. However, I was also running solo and I was the only person on the trail. In fact, after leaving the road, I didn't see another single human being in the 5 hours I was out there. Amazing to be just 10 miles from the road and feel completely isolated.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Frozen Tearsicles

The Iditarod Trail is an ephemeral thing, lasting for just one season each year. It is also essentially perpetual, renewed again the following winter after inevitable spring thaws. Unfortunately, the continuity of our own lives is never quite so certain and none of us knows exactly how many seasons we will have.

I arrived at the final checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Invitational to learn that my father had passed away the previous night. He'd been dealing with a number of health issues with significant degeneration over the past couple years, but I did get to spend time with him before departing for Alaska. He had just been released from the hospital and we were hopeful to see this as just another minor setback. It was, apparently, not to be.

Encouraged by my family to finish the race, I knew I would not be able to get much sleep at that point so I headed back out into the night. Walking the frozen trail, watching the northern lights and, eventually, falling asleep in my bivy beneath the star-filled Alaskan sky, I thought about my dad.

The next morning, I continued down the remainder of the final 50-mile stretch with a lifetime of memories as my companion. There were some difficult moments and one near-complete breakdown, but I'm glad that I was able to spend this time "with him" on the trail.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Well, it's been another winter of fits and starts. Since the "Fear and Loathing" race, I've had a setbacks on a number of fronts. With almost no training at all the rest of December and a single 50K race in January, I decided to go ahead with my plan to attempt a repeat at the Arrowhead 135.

It went well enough for the first 24 hours or so, toughing it through temps down into the -40s. Leaving the 72 mile checkpoint Tuesday afternoon my lungs weren't feeling great, but I managed to convince myself it was just the lack of sleep and it would work itself out if I could sneak in a bit of rest the next night. However, it didn't take long to realize that my hacking and coughing was not going to clear up so easily especially given that I only had a single hour on the cutoff time. After 2-1/2 miles I made the decision to turn back rather than risk a potentially more serious illness along with my plans for returning to the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile race less than 4 weeks hence.

Given my past history, friends of mine have always predicted that my first DNF would either be because I was dragged kicking-and-screaming from the course or carried off in a stretcher. In the end, it was actually a fairly easy decision. Every now and then I like to make the smart choice, but I don't generally make a habit of it. After around 90 ultra-marathons and 27 of them of 100 miles or longer, it was inevitable that I would eventually not finish one.

And now, since my main motivation for accepting those three letters was for a larger and more fulfilling goal, I am about to head north to Alaska. I don't feel at all prepared and trail conditions (though quite the opposite of what we experienced in Minnesota) are not looking great. Alaska experienced a significant melt down in January followed by a re-freeze the course is more ice and frozen ground than snow. However, the Iditarod trail is never the same any two given years anyways so one simply has to take it in stride.

Despite significant reservations, I'm looking forward to being out there on the trail, moving forward through the last great frontier. At least the time pressures won't be what they were at Arrowhead and I'm excited about returning to the "expedition mentality" that is an integral aspect of this event.

Updates will be infrequent, but available here:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fear and Loathing in the dead of night

The Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing 50K/50M is one of those classic ultrarunning events that's been on my "to do" list for some time. It's been around for around 30 years and follows the San Francisco 49 mile Scenic Drive as it winds it's way through the city. Running 50 miles on roads certainly doesn't sounds like it fits in my wheelhouse. However, I really love events that have a certain "organic" aspect to them and the idea of a long race that tours the city I've lived near most of my life, is simply irresistible. Now that I live in the San Francisco and the route goes right by my place, I had no excuse not to join the fun.

Well, I actually did have one excuse. I wanted to run the entire course, but I had some things I wanted to do in the afternoon and didn't want to kill my entire Sunday. Not only would it likely take at least 9 hours to run the course, but I would have to travel to and from the start at Twin Peaks which is about 5 miles from my house and an hour by public transit. So, rather than opting to just run the 50K route, I hit upon the somewhat crazy idea of starting my run in the middle of the night from home so I could finish there the following morning.

Leaving my house near Fort Mason right around midnight, it was interesting to be running such common paths while dark and empty. Coming out of the Presidio I saw a coyote running in the middle of the street with something in its mouth. Further on the path in a residential neighborhood heading towards Ocean Beach, I was surprised by a group of raccoons that came tumbling around a corner in the midst of a fight. A bit more wildlife than I expected especially since I wasn't even in the park.

The path along the beach and up and over The Great Highway was quite peaceful with nary a bit of traffic which would be impossible in the daylight. After that it was out and around Lake Merced and then on towards Golden Gate Park. The normally-crowded Sunset Blvd also devoid of vehicles in the wee hours of the a.m. However, once the route took me into the Park, the solitude turned from pleasant to creepy. Its one thing to not see another living thing that isn't scavenging for leftover morsels. It's quite another to be continuously haunted by the thought that that emptiness might just be an illusion and you may just wake someone sleeping in those bushes next to the path. I opted to run in the middle of the street instead.

I was glad to finally be leaving the park and heading up towards UCSF Medical, but looking at the route to the "start" had me a wee concerned. The official race began at 7:00am. It wasn't even 5 yet and I was only a few miles from the base of the final climb up Twin Peaks. It was around 5:30am when I arrived at Portola Drive. It was Sunday and I imagined myself cowering in a doorway for the next hour. Then I noticed the Starbucks across the street with a light on and someone going in the door. I hustled across and smiled as I headed inside. A much better venue to spend my waiting time.

Despite overnight temps in the 30s, I hadn't really been cold for the entire run. Taking over an hour break and then heading back out took care of that. I cowered at the top of the hill with everyone else anxiously awaiting the start. It was good to get caught up with old friends though once we were underway, the extra miles on my legs kept me far in the back of the pack. No problem. I was still enjoying running solo as the morning came upon us and we headed mostly downhill through Dolores Hights to Cesar Chavez and towards the bay.

I knew the night was taking a toll when I was running along the Embarcadero and needed to use a bathroom. I stopped at one of the little public stalls, but then read the sign reading "vacant", uttered a "damn it" to myself and ran on. It was about 1/2 mile before I realized that my brain had translated that to "occupied". Of course, every other one I came upon either was occupied or out of order. Figures.

Just as I was really starting to feel the fatigue, I was lucky enough to hook up with another runner, Billy McCarty, who is a really interesting guy and helped pass the time as we wound our way through the shopping district, Japan Town, China Town and then up to Coit Tower before descending down to Fisherman's Warf and then back towards home.

I finished up about 11 hours after I started with my GPS registering around 48 miles for the full 49-mile Scenic Drive. I'm not sure if I'd do it again, certainly not in the same fashion. However, it was probably the most fun I've ever had running that many miles on road. My legs definitely felt like they do after a normal 50 miler, but my feet hurt much, much more.

In the end, the goal was accomplished. I got in some solid miles and made it back home in time for a nap before the start of the 49ers game :-)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Trail: The Real Story

Tales about gear choices, what I ate and where I slept are all well and good, but not what I imagine most people really want to know about a week spent dragging sled along the Iditarod Trail. The questions are myriad: Are you alone the whole time?, Do you get bored? Aren't you scared? What do you think about? Don't you go crazy? How do you keep it together? Ultimately, they boil done to this: Just what the heck do you do out there dragging a sled across the snow all day?

The simple, if slightly apocryphal, answer is that I've never had trouble being alone. Spending quiet time living in my own head while out on the trail enjoying nature's beauty is one of the best things there is. The full truth, however, is that it does get a bit weird out there (or inside there) at times.

It started with music.

I don't run with headphones except on the rare occasion where I am relegated to the treadmill. However, for this event I brought an MP3 player loaded with both music and audio books along with a portable charger. I was especially interested to see how the audio books would work out, but I wanted to save those until later in the race. Slogging in the middle of a wide expanse of the Yentna River on a sunny afternoon, my mind started taking a wrong turn. In some ways, the early miles were toughest. With too few miles behind, any thought of the vast distances ahead would quickly become disheartening. Once I had a few days under my belt, I could try to find some sort of routine, but in this first full day on the trail, I was struggling just to keep focused on the immediate.

I put on my headphones and tried to find some fitting music for the stillness and beauty that surrounded me. I tested a few options, but nothing really seemed to match my mood. I tried some motivational music then something pensive then upbeat. For some reason, nothing resonated. Nothing seemed appropriate. I put it on random play for a bit until an odd thought hit me. Maybe I should try something wholly inappropriate. What music would one least expect to fit into a romp along the frozen Alaskan wilderness?

So, that was it, bopping along the Iditarod Trail to C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)". It may not fit the mood you'd expect to accompany an adventure of this sort, but it certainly got me moving. In fact, I was pretty much "bustin' moves" across the trail when a bunch of snow-machines came whirring by bringing me back both to my senses and a sense of where I was. The dance music stayed on, but I kept the actual dancing a bit more contained as I marched my way into Yentna Station.

As the third night deepened and my long, difficult trek towards Winterlake Lodge began, I once again turned to the Dance/Electronica genre. I'd finished off some audio-book content during the day, but as the sun went down, I held my own little dance party on the tundra with my trekking poles as my partner. I listened to that album on repeat making it through three full rotations before reaching my destination. As the hours crept on and the checkpoint seemed no closer I began to dread the start of each new song. There was no more dancing, but the music became like a lifeline and I desperately wanted not to finish another set before arriving at the cabin.

Looking back, I'm not sure why that seemed so important at the time, but when my battery drained before finishing the album again, it seemed actually seemed worse. I stopped in a little stand of trees and just knelt beside my sled. It was probably the forth or fifth time that I assured myself the checkpoint must be just ahead. I contemplated just setting up camp there, but my experience spending a night just a half mile before a cabin the previous night drove me forward. The silence dragged on in those final miles to the lodge.

Though I recharged my battery, that would be the last time I spent listening to music for a long while. I would, however, make some of my own out there on the trail later on.

On Books

If my music choices seem a bit questionable then consider my book selection. It was right around dusk when I decided to test out some spoken word content. As the sun went down, I put my headphones on and sampled a selection of Vincent Price reading the poems and short-stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Choosing "The Master of Macabre" may seem a bit dark and uninspiring especially relative to my musical selections. However, the intrigue and plot twists of Poe's tales kept me engaged. Besides, I've been a fan since I was young; I'd read most of the stories, but not for some time so it was a nice little dose of reminiscence  along with my entertainment.

The only downside of this particular audio book collection was that it wasn't very well organized. Some tracks covered multiple stories and/or poems while others stories spanned multiple tracks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the time listening to "The Gold-Bug" and "The Fall of The House of Usher". There was occasional talk-back and I did make a rather futile effort to recite along with poetry favorites "The Bells" and "Annabel Lee" when following some of the stories became difficult. My only wish was that it had been easier to scan back and catch any bits I missed when my mind ran off on its own.

My second foray into audio books out on the trail was even more epic. I saved my longer selection for the longest unsupported section of trail in the race and it turned out to be nothing less than brilliant. Homer's classic The Odyssey was another favorite from my youth and I listened to the entire recording between the Rohn and Nikolai checkpoints. I knew the framework of the story, but the details stood vague in my memory. It was a bit like listening to an old friend recalling a story I hadn't heard in years. I so enjoyed it that it left me with a bit of lingering sadness once it was over.

Things that go bump in my head.

When not listening to music or stories, my mind worked on its own to keep my head filled. Most of the time I spent just trying to enjoy the moments either letting my thoughts wander or directing them towards one meaningless train or another. Sometimes, my mind would just seem to decide on its own where to go. And, occasionally, it got a bit odd.

It was only the second morning and I was on my way to Skwentna. I had just taken a caffeine pill to wake me up when it started. It just popped into my head as some random syllables at first. Then I started playing with the consonants and making non-sensical rhymes. Finally, I found myself chanting it out loud.


Meaningless. Over and over. Rearranging the order, altering the intonations, it went on for the better part of two hours. This simple chant, repeated in my head followed me, off and on, throughout the remainder of the race. It would disappear and then reappear in my mind. I would think that I had lost it and then it would return out of nowhere. I would sometimes struggle to recall the original order even though it didn't matter as I would just as quickly change it once I remembered, deciding that I preferred another sequence. I would play games in my head where the final "nee-dul" would try to sneak in early and then the other syllables would rebel and try to keep it from vocalizing at all. Epic battles were held.

Strange though this little incantation was, it kept me occupied and moving along the trail for countless hours even helping me through a few rough patches along the way. Some how it managed to wend its way into my psyche. Even now as I write this, I can hear its echoes.

Funny things

Traveling up and down the Happy River steps, things went in different direction. I mentioned before how much I really enjoyed this section. Perhaps it was the variety of the hills, perhaps the contrast to the bad night I'd had before or maybe it was just that it felt a little like being in a wooded Christmas-y setting. I'm quite certain that must be the origin of my starting to sing carols. It started with the chorus of "Jingle Bell Rock", but it was "Winter Wonderland" that really got me going. It was just the bridge and chorus from the actual song (or at least something approximating it):
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man,
but you can do the job while you're in town! 
Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, (sang as: "dum dum da dum")
The plans that we've made, ("da dum dum da dum")
Walking in a winter wonderland.
However, after singing it a few times, it began to warp into something completely different and even bizarre. The words took on a rather perverse and even pornographic bent. A strong desire not to incriminate myself keeps me from writing the entire lyrics to my "F*#king in a Winter Wonderland" XXX-mas charol here on this blog, but needless to say, it provided endless hours of entertainment as I marched up and ran down those hills. Nothing helps the hours go by like laughing at oneself. And, for me, there is apparently no better way to do this than to just let the twisted side of my personality run bat-ass crazy, free.

This became even more evident as I headed out for two long days in the wild. Holiday jingles just weren't going to cut it for the vast barrenness of the Farewell Burn. So, what else was there to do than to start composing limericks? It started simply by playing with names. In the end, I covered most of my close friends and work colleagues composing poems running the gamut from just silly to downright raunchy. Again, I'm not going to fill this blog with the perverse language that occupied my brain after 5 days out on the frozen trail.

I will share one of the most tame one's since it is very timely given the subject's recent stint in the desert (or was when I started writing this).

There once was a girl named Jill
Who rode her bike up a hill
Again and again
She just wouldn't come in
Even when she took a bad spill

Things went pretty sharply downhill from there as you may imagine. For example, Beat's name is actually pronounced "BEH-awe-t" but most people tend to say it like "beet" which happens to rhyme with "meat". I'll let your imagination fill in the details. As for my imagination, it ran wild as I repeated these little inventions out loud, using a variety of voices. Occasionally, I would send myself straight into fits of maniacal laughter. So much so that I would have to stop to keep myself from stumbling off trail or falling over. Had someone seen me out there, I'm certain they would conclude that I had escaped the asylum and would eventually be found as a frozen corpse with a perma-grin stuck on my face.

But, of course, there was nobody out there to see.


For two full days, I don't think I saw a single living thing that wasn't rooted to the ground beneath the snow.

The emotional stuff

Up until now, I've written primarily about my thoughts, but little about the feelings accompanying them. One of the reasons for undertaking challenges such as this is to experience a breadth and depth of emotions beyond what may hit you in the course of a normal week. Many people may assume that a certain amount of fear might accompany a journey that involves wondering over remote mountains, through empty woods and across frozen lakes in the dead of winter. However, I can't really say it was any significant part of the experience except in minor moments when crossing some glare ice or a snow-ridge over a river. It certainly wasn't as integral to the experience as was the case back in my rock-climbing days.

There were times, such as heading up Rainy Pass in the dark with snow blowing in my face, where I was filled with a sense of urgency. It wasn't the feeling of being in a full on emergency, but more just being impressed with the immediacy of my situation. In such inhospitable environments, you're made acutely aware of the need to keep moving and not make mistakes. People often describe a rush of "feeling alive" directly after some life-threatening event or upon completing an adrenaline-filled challenge. While not with the same intensity, an aspect of that feeling stuck with me as a sort-of driving force, prodding me forward along the trail.

As the days went on and I became comfortable with the long hours alone pulling sled across snow (or at lease became comfortable with the discomfort), the range and intensity of my emotions varied. Despite the fact that I travelled by myself for nearly the entire race, I didn't feel lonely. I've never had trouble being alone and, at times in my life, have even felt almost too comfortable with it.  However, I can't claim to have been completely untouched by the isolation. No matter the distance of the event, as finishing became a conceivable, everything seems to become accentuated. Somehow my psyche always seems to be "set" for the particular duration of my undertaking such that the final miles, hours or days are often the most difficult, the most rewarding and always beset with strong emotions.

Nikolai was the last stop before the final 50 mile stretch. Arriving there is pretty much knowing that you are going to finish the race. After two full days alone, I can't say that this fact was forefront in my mind. I'd had a fuel failure during my attempt to melt snow earlier in the day and was considering giving it another go when a sign indicating 10 miles spurred me on. Those miles did not pass quickly, especially after dark as the wind swept up the trail while crossing what seemed an endless series of small lakes. I'd donned my outer layers and goggles for protection, but was having a terrible time keeping them properly together on my face. My frustration grew as I'd adjust my goggles and my hat would slip. I'd fix my hat and my balaclava would become misaligned. Eventually, I just couldn't take it any more.

I snapped. I ripped the goggles from my face and threw them to the ground, screaming at them, my voice cracking. "WHY CAN'T YOU JUST DO WHAT I SAY!"

I collapsed onto my poles, hanging my head. After finally catching my breath I propped myself onto my feet and looked up at the perfectly clear night sky. A billion stars met my gaze. And, there, foremost among them, just above the horizon, shone the Big Dipper, the symbol of the very land across which I was traveling.  I stood there in the center of the frozen lake, tears in my eyes, repeating to myself "look where you are, just look where you are."

Finishing before you're done

The race ends in McGrath, but in some ways, making it to Nikolai felt like the biggest accomplishment. At that point, I knew I would finish even with one last, very long, day ahead. Having been on the trail for nearly a full week, there was a part of me that just wanted to stop and revel in "being out there' before it was all over. What better place to do so than in this tiny village populated with people whose ancestors have called this land home for 1000s of years? One of the negatives of these types of events is that, while you get to spend a long time covering a vast range of amazing locales, there still isn't much time for pause and reflection in situ. So it was, with a certain ambivalence, that I headed out for my final slog an hour before dawn.

As the sun rose over the Kuskokwim, my spirits were up. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. I could feel the many miles on my legs, but I was happy to be moving. Despite my growing weary of the river travel earlier in the race, I was happy for the wide expanse and obvious trail allowing my mind to wander. As I approached more "civilized" locales, and as the dogsled race began to approach from behind, there was increased activity along the river. This wasn't to say it was busy. I was still pretty much completely alone taking the time to amuse my addled brain with a Braveheart yell of "Freedom!"

The day was uneventful and dusk arrived before I knew it. I tried to pick up the pace hoping to get off the river before dark. I was rewarded coming upon a "10 mile" sign as I headed into the woods and then the 8 mile hand-written one specifically for our race that could not have been 2 miles from the previous one. Little did I know they were both bald-faced lies.

I was ready to "kick it in" and get this thing done, but the course went up a long and gradual climb so it was more slow slogging. Biding time and dreaming of a long night's sleep in a warm house, my mental strength began to waver. This is when the trail made a sharp turn and headed in the direction of a single red light in the distance. Like the proverbial dangling carrot, the light never seemed to come any closer. Furthermore, I could't tell whether it lay just a little ways in front of me or atop a distance hillside. It seemed to be wavering back and forth taunting me, or so I imagined. It so played with my psyche that I simply refused to look up as I ground my way up the trail, mumbling nonsense under my breath.

After what seemed an eternity, the trail finally came to a "T" at a road. An actual road! Right at the intersection was a hand-written sign lying that the finish was only 2 miles away. Of course, they could have included an arrow indicating which direction to go. It was probably obvious, but in my addled state, I ran back and forth, up and down the road looking at the less than specific track on my GPS. Eventually, I noticed what looked to be some tracks in, of course, the direction of the red light. When I finally passed that blasted thing (some sort of radio tower or something), started to run.

I ran on, but after more than a mile ticked off my GPS, still was not anyplace resembling a town. I slowed back to a walk. As I passed the 2 mile mark, I let a bit of frustration into my head, frustration that eventually turned to resignation. Upon finally reaching the edge of town, I dragged on expecting the finish anytime soon, but the dragging just seemed to continue. It's always the case that the last mile is the longest (especially when its much longer than a mile). Finally, just as I began to entertain images of not being able to find the finish and setting up bivy in the middle of the road, there it was.

I stood for a while in front of the house in silent contemplation. How fitting that this race where I'd spent nearly every moment on the trail alone would be finished in the wee hours of the morning, everyone else nuzzled quietly inside, sleeping.

I gathered my things from my sled one last time and headed in to prepare to join them.


The next morning I awoke to see Beat off on his long, long continued journey to Nome, completely unimaginable in my state of mind at the time.

One of the best things about the Iditarod Trail Invitational was spending the next few days in McGrath. After most races, even the week-long events I'd done in Europe, the aftermath is basically crash, burn and move on home. After the ITI it was an enjoyable time spent with like-minded people, sharing tales of the trail, spectating the main event of the dogsled race and immersing oneself in the culture of small town in remote Alaska in the winter. I don't ever remember having a more enjoyable post-race experience.