Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Being Schooled (first lessons)

All races, especially the very long ones, present learning opportunities. A race like Susitna is more akin to a post-graduate exam. With the added complication that you're expected to apply what you've learned immediately because not only finishing, but possibly even surviving may depend on it. With my limited time in the snow and a complete lack of experience with extreme cold temperatures, I have never felt less prepared before a race. Certainly, I did my homework and I was perhaps more comfortable with the distance than many, but in terms of first-hand knowledge of how my body and my gear would handle the conditions, it was going to be on-the-fly lessons of trial and (hopefully not too much) error.


Lesson 1: -10 is cold; -17 even colder

If I felt unprepared heading into this race, the emotion reached its pinnacle shortly before the start. Driving towards Point McKenzie the temperature gauge in the rear-view mirror of our rental car crept continuously lower. It hovered around 10-below as we parked the truck, jumped out and immediately headed up to the store for some breakfast. This wasn't simply a little colder than anything I had experienced before, it was significant. I had run in 75F temps just the previous weekend! I'm certain my nervousness sat visibly on my face as we ate. I was quite glad when it was time to head back to the truck for final preparations. Movement and action were a good distraction from the torment of my overactive imagination.

It didn't seem possible, but down at the truck it felt even colder than before. Attempting to sort myself out was proving most difficult. 9am seemed to be accelerating towards us. I skipped the idea of trying to wax my sled as I struggled with my gaiters having almost forgotten them until the last moment. Everything seemed slightly harder in the cold and I could feel a tiny panic creeping into my psyche as I watched people heading to the start line. I managed to pull it together, focusing on level breathing as I snapped into my sled and started up the hill. Strangely, I noticed that the hyperventilated pattern of my breaths actually made me feel better, even a tad warmer. Perhaps panic serves an added purpose in the extreme cold.

Much later in the race, I would hear a couple of locals talking about the weather at the start. Upon learning that it had been around -17, one of them said, "I thought so. I knew it was colder than -10. I could feel that stinging in my cheeks." Apparently, Alaskans learn to discern the subtle variations of what I would simply call "really damn cold!"

Lesson 2: Misery loves company, but fear demands it

I've stated before how I often enjoy being alone late in these sorts of events, living in my own mental world, finding random sources of motivation to move me towards that final destination. At the end of this race, I'd be in a whole other universe, but at the start it was a different story. Seeing the rows of racers--first bikes, then skiers and, finally, those of us on foot--gave me my first bit of calm. There's something reassuring in knowing that at least a handful or two of other people are willing to undertake a challenge most would consider somewhere between inane and insane. Even though I knew many of those around me had significantly more experience with these conditions, it stood as a visual demonstration that it could be done.

I relaxed and tried to take in the scene. Other than a few aggressive looking bikers up front, everyone seemed fairly casual. In a race that may take some almost two full days to complete, the start is far too early a place to begin to panic. There was time and enough for that to come. I took pictures, watched the front bikes take off followed by a jumble of various racers behind them. I was enjoying it so much that I had to remind myself at one point that I was supposed to be a part of this spectacle. I fell in about midway into the "runners" (at this point anyways) and took a look around as we headed uphill. I marveled at what an amazing place this was to be. To think, we hadn't even gone anywhere yet!

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