Thursday, April 28, 2011

Being Schooled

Since this race report is going to take me some time to complete and since the posts will end up in reverse order from the event time table, I thought I would publish a TOC.

Table of Contents

Being Schooled (lessons learned)


Lesson 19: Looking back is looking forward

I've heard ultrarunning likened to banging one's head against a wall. It doesn't really make sense and most of us aren't totally clear exactly why we do it, but it feels so good when you finally stop. After the finish, I checked into the headquarters cabin and let them know I was done. I congratulated Jamshid on a great finish and headed over to the racer's cabin. Most everyone inside was asleep so I changed clothes in the dark, laid out my sleeping bag and crawled in. I don't think I've ever fallen to sleep quite so quickly in my life. I awoke about an hour later to relieve my bladder and then again after a few hours when Jill and Beat arrived. The remaining hours were spent in blissful slumber until the sun came up.

Bleary-eyed racers began to awake around the cabin and there was Hernan sitting up in one of the beds. We smiled in recognition and congratulations. Brief conversations were shared about the race, but it was clear everyone was still a bit out of it. Eventually, all but Jill, Beat and me headed out. We were waiting for word about Danni when the final racer, a skier, came into the cabin. She said she had spent some time with Danni and had seen her at Flathorn. Apparently, she had accepted a ride to the final checkpoint after deciding her race was over. We would have to wait around for a while to find out what the plan was for getting her out.

I was in no hurry. I felt good and, after putting on my warm jacket, was enjoying simply ambling around the area.  We ate a huge breakfast at the cafe and then I stood outside for a while thinking and reflecting. It seems disingenuous to call the experience "indescribable" after having written so many words about it. But, at the end of these epic events, it's always difficult to characterize the jumble of emotions I feel. In this case it was something like a deep sense of satisfaction coupled with a longing for more given all I'd learned. There was no grumbling or swearing off the race. My thoughts were filled with sled designs and better gear management, the desire for longer adventures and a sense of anticipation for the plans I had in the coming year. Clearly, these harsh lessons had not left me no wiser.

I imagine that anyone who has read this entire report (assuming such exists) is hoping that what I've ultimately learned has something to do with brevity and economy of language. I might say that I'll never write a report this long again, but I've said that before about shorter ones so I think my credibility on such matters is shot. Certainly, two months is a long time to take, but it has given me some insight into why I enjoy writing these. Obviously, a blog is not a private journal. Having an audience, for what feels like a personal indulgence, bears similarity to the reason for running races. It's motivation to finish. In writing, I get to put myself mentally back out there and hang onto the experience. However, if I never complete it, then I can't make the shift from reflection to anticipation. Planning the next big adventure is at least as satisfying as reliving the last.

Lesson 20: Always leave them smiling

There is no "Lesson 20".

Being Schooled (final lessons)

Flathorn - Finish

Lesson 16: It's all uphill in the snow

Being in a hurry can make you stupid. It had warmed up during the day and I had been moving well so I'd taken off my mittens on the final stretch to the checkpoint. I discovered only one upon arrival. I tried not to fret about it. I had the cabin to myself so I rushed around, trying to efficiently take care of business. The first thing I did was to take off my top layers and put them near the stove. While laying out my mid-layer, I waved it too close and it touched the little window. The fabric immediately clung to the hot glass and melting a few nice big holes in my shirt.

I should have recognized this as the first sign my brain wasn't running on all cylinders, but, once again, I just rolled with it. I ate some of the wonderful gumbo, filled my water bladder and stuffed a few more random food items in my mouth, preparing for the final 16 miles. Even though I'd walked through the deep snow to get there, I forgot to grab a change of socks just as I'd done here on my way out. There must be something about Flathorn. Before leaving, I asked the volunteer working the checkpoint about the course. She assured me it was almost completely flat. A little over a mile along the lake then a short climb up to the "faultline" which was a straight shot to the finish.

I headed out in good spirits despite my mistakes, happy to be back on the trail before sundown. I'd decided to mentally split the final stretch into 4 mile sections. I would check my GPS only after I'd covered what felt like a significant distance. I was excited to discover how quickly the first couple miles passed, moving off the lake, through the small moguls and onto the faultline. I'm sure by most standards--including my usual non-snow filled ones--this section would be considered flat. In truth, the entire 16 miles only climbed around 650ft. However, the trail was as straight as could be. I could see for miles in front of me and all I saw was a long, gradual uphill dotted with occasional clusters of trees on either side, only slightly breaking the monotony.

I began selecting trees way off in the distance, trying to guess how far away they were. I then would refuse to look at my GPS until I arrived at the chosen destination. Inevitably, the distance covered would end up significantly less than I had estimated and, inevitably, even more of the long, straight, gradually uphill trail would reveal itself in front of me. By the time I'd covered 2 miles of this terrain to complete my initial 4 mile block, I'd given up. I couldn't stare up at the trail anymore. The more I watched it, the more I felt like I was simply climbing and climbing. Looking up only occasionally was no better as each glance would present a new false summit. I resolved to simply stare down at the snow. The snow had a mind of its own.

Lesson 17: You can be scared without feeling scared

My brain was numb. I knew I was hallucinating. Usually upon realizing my mind is playing tricks on me, the simple knowledge is enough to right my eyes and reveal the reality of the situation. Snow is weird. It doesn't seem to play by the same rules as other elements. Everywhere I looked, every bump, every indentation, appeared as an elaborate 3 dimensional sculpture. It was as if the ground had been littered with little globes each containing a tiny scene captured within. Some looked like cartoons of animals or caricatures of people. Others appeared as detailed and intricate carvings worthy to sit alongside Rodin's best work. After a time it actually became entertaining, like watching a show. It helped the miles pass, but did nothing for my pace.

I noticed a light approaching behind me. It wasn't moving fast enough to be a snowmobile or even a bike, but it was going at a good clip. When it came close enough, I realized it was a runner...actually running! It was Jamshid. As he passed, I offered words of encouragement and attempted to pick up my own pace a bit. I didn't have it in me. It seemed my body was following my mind down its gradual path of degradation. I became aware of how slow I'd been moving. I left Flathorn with the thought that maybe I could cover the final miles in 5 hours to make 36. Half way through, it was clear that was far out of reach. Racing against time--any time--is often a good motivator for me near the end of a race. It was becoming clear that in the final miles of the Susitna 100 I would be racing against something else entirely.

Night fell and it became cold. I could feel that my simple liner gloves inside the shell mittens were not as effective as the fleece I'd worn before. I could also tell my socks needed a change. Stopping seemed distasteful so I tried to pick up the pace again. It helped only slightly. I was wishing I could summon the feeling I'd carried with me through most of this race, just enjoying being out there, touring across the snow. It seemed impossible given this trail's incessant consistency. Then, my wish was granted. A marker indicated a right turn that headed downhill. It descended sharply and turned. I was running. I was happy. I thought that if the trail would continue like this, I could manage it without problem. Unfortunately, it wouldn't.

After about a mile the trail headed sharply up. It was still seemed better than the constant gradual ascent, but at the top of the climb, it turned right onto far too familiar terrain. I looked back left and my heart sunk. This was the same wide path I'd been on. It was like waking from a dream within a dream only to find myself trapped back in the original nightmare from which I thought I'd escaped. There'd been a dark mood growing within me before I'd left this road and now it returned. As I continued slowly onward I felt something looming over me. It wasn't the distinct feeling of an imagined presence following me on the trail at night. That I'd had before; I could shake it off. This was more like some cloudy phantom tugging at the back of my consciousness, refusing to go away. I was also becoming quite cold. I needed to do something about my fingers and toes, but I couldn't convince myself to stop.

A snowmobile drove up alongside and asked how I was. I immediately said "fine" as the mere sight of him made me feel as if I'd just exhaled. A short ways father, he stopped to help another racer up the road: Jamshid. In the presence of others, I was able to finally realize that ignoring my cold digits was no longer an option. I stopped and unzipped my bag. I put on my VBL gloves before undoing my shoes, but they were too big and awkward so I had to work barehanded. I first tried my expedition socks, but couldn't make them work so I tore them off and went for the VBL socks and wool overs. All this messing with gear was taking too long. I could feel the tips of my fingers tingling. They felt as if they were burning. I scrambled, but tried to stay focused. My socks weren't sitting right, I didn't know if the gloves would work, but I had to get moving. I stuffed my old things back in the duffel, zipped it, latched my belt and began dragging my sled as fast as I could go.

The first thing I noticed was my breath, those short, staccato puffs. I was hyperventilating. I tried to slow it down as my body warmed up. Getting my breathing under control, I noticed all the tension in my body starting to relax. I finally realized what had been following me this past miles and, in awareness, hoped to put it to rest. The sneaking spectre of fear had finally apparated into outright panic. Panic, I could handle; I could deal with it head on. I started through my mental checklist. First, keep moving. Watch the trail. Stay warm. Drink. Do I need to eat? Keep moving...

Lesson 18: Forgetting all I'd learned

The road!

A sign at an intersection indicated I was to cross and head alongside the road. I recognized this. I was back at Ayshire for the final 3 miles. I was so happy that I think I let down my guard. While it was much more packed down than it had been when we started the race, it was still far from a fast trail. It also seemed to include much more climbing than it had descent when I'd headed down it a day and a half before. I'd still an hour to go, but 37 was my new number. I was motivated. Focus, however, was another story.

Now that I had conquered fear, exhaustion and its evil twin, sleepiness, had stepped in to fill the void. Not a mile into this trail and I could feel myself beginning to stumble. My hallucinations were in full force as well. Along with the small shapes at my feet, the large piles of snow alongside the trail appeared as giant bodies laying prone in various intertwined positions. Further down the path my headlamp put on a show of its own. I started to see colors. I'd approach what appeared to be walls comprised of various shades of stone only to recognize them as mere shadows of grey against the white snow. I might have found it interesting had I been capable of composing a single coherent thought.

My brain had turned to scrambled eggs. Cognition was a distant memory. Snippets, phrases and half-formed ideas floated around in my mind. I shook my head to keep myself awake. I knew I was almost there. I just had to keep going a little longer, but somehow, that knowledge worked against me, providing a sense of release when constraint was what I needed most. At some point I seemed to lose where I was and then...I was out!

I came too as soon as I hit the snow on the side of the trail. I had never fallen asleep on my feet like that before. It was enough of a shock to bring me immediately to my senses. I got up and started running. I committed to run to the finish. At some point I'd accidentally paused my GPS so I had no idea exactly how far it was. It didn't matter. I pushed and then pushed some more. One more hill and I could see the turn up ahead. I think someone came by on a bike and told me I was almost there, but I'm not really sure. All I recall is "sprinting" down that final hill into an empty lot in the middle of nowhere and crossing the finish line.

I was done.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Being Schooled (study time)

Luce's - Flathorn

Lesson 14: Necessities are anything but bare

Back at Luce's tired faces filled the room. All seemed to be moving slowly. Day was breaking. The fire was going. I was hungry. Other than during the freezing wind the previous evening, I'd been eating pretty well throughout the race. I'd consumed both of my frozen snickers, eaten through my various gummy candies, all my turkey jerky, even finished off my Hammer Solids. Unlike other races, I never felt even the slightest stomach discomfort. Even right after scarfing down a bunch of food at once, there was no sense of heaviness. I don't know whether from the lack of jostling due to a slower pace or simply another side-effect of the cold, but it seemed my body would process as much food as I could stuff into it. In fact, the one thing I regretted was not eating more during my previous visit to Luce's.

After sorting myself out in the lodge, I was about to order a nice big plate of spaghetti when I saw someone carrying one filled with eggs, sausage and pancakes. It wasn't listed on the white-board, but apparently they had a breakfast special that included all this along with orange juice and a bowl of fruit for only $10! I had a 20 left in my pack so I offered to buy for Hernan as well. Breakfast never tasted so good. It felt as if my digestive system was running on overdrive. I imagined the food converting instantaneously to warmth and energy reviving me as the glycogen-filled blood moved through me. Sitting in the cabin watching the sun rise over the Yetna river mad it easy to let oneself be lulled into a sense of complacency. I could picture myself simply sitting by the window staring at the peaceful white terrain all day.

Shortly, activity in the cabin began picking up. The Iron Dog snowmobile race would be running across the river before heading up to Nome and Luce's was a popular place from which to watch. We decided that we'd better get going before we'd have to share our trail with machines traveling 90mph heading in the opposite direction.

Lesson 15: A day can pass in the blink of an eye

When I headed out of Luce's it was still quite early in the morning, but by the time I would arrive at Alexander Lake it seemed the day was already gone. Sunday was a beautiful day and I retained a sense of it along with a few specific memories. However, it was one of those periods--not uncommon in a long race--when it felt as though I moved past time rather than through it. Hernan and I stuck together for the bulk of this section and talked more than we had over the previous 24 hours. For the most part, our pace was rather leisurely, but the miles seemed to pass rather swiftly.

While we'd managed to get off the Yetna before the main race pack came through, we couldn't avoid the dozens of spectators riding to and fro. For some reason, it seemed that whenever we found a descent line in the snow, a rider would come through and turn it to mush. The river was a mile wide in parts and I couldn't figure out why they insisted on sharing the tiny section of firm snow on which we were trying to travel. I spent a lot of time staring down, looking for solid bike tracks. It was at this time that I noticed certain tire patterns appeared as a series of words. I tried to make out what each of the 4 letters sequences was supposed to spell: "SPAK", "PLUT", "DOFT", etc. None of it made any sense. Eventually, rather slowly, I realized that these couldn't be actual words as the pattern didn't repeat. There were far too many unique "words" for one rotation of a tire. It was clear my eyes were playing tricks on me, but I kept looking as I found it somewhat entertaining.

My mind in something of a trance-like state, we were standing at the base of the Wall of Death in no time. Making it up The Wall turned out to be much more of a challenge than going down had been the day before. About half way up, I had to dig my gloves into the snow to keep from sliding backwards. However, once at the top and moving again, Hernan and I were through the woods without incident finding ourselves quickly back on the Dismal Swamp. We picked up the pace a bit knowing that Flathorn was approaching. A little ways before the end of the swamp, Hernan said he needed to make a pit stop. I decided to keep going as I was now feeling some drive to get to the final section and have this race done. I pushed on.

The next few miles were nearly the first were I actually recall being "in a hurry". I decided that I wanted to finish this race on my own. This meant either putting a gap between myself and Hernan or let him go on ahead of me. His need for an off trail excursion gave helped make the decision for me. I walked fast and shuffled along the next couple miles then out onto the lake. I was focused and moving well, carefully picking my line in the snow in front of my feet. Before I knew it, I was approaching the end of the lake. I stopped and looked to my left realizing that the entrance to the checkpoint was behind me. I'm not sure how I missed a marked turn out in the middle of a large expanse of frozen lake. I guess that's what happens when you become lax in your studies.

Post-holing across the snow, I cursed at myself. Here I was approaching the final miles, forgetting one of the most first lessons I'd learned in doing any long-distance events. Don't finish your race before its done!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Being Schooled (night classes)

Alexander - Luce's

Lesson 12: The incentive of other's demise

The checkpoint at Alexander Lake was like a triage tent. When I opened the door to the cabin the first thing that struck me was the quiet. The single room was filled with people, but most were either laying in beds or sitting in stunned silence. It was required to have your sleeping bag checked here to assure you hadn't swapped it out before the race. The volunteer working here spoke in hushed tones as she checked bags and checked up on sleeping racers. There wasn't much in terms of aid here, but I did get some hot soup and sat down by the fire after removing my layers. I looked around the room at all the folks in various states of disrepair and realized that I was actually feeling quite good.

While I sat one runner had started to head out and then returned to the cabin after collapsing  in the snow. The checkpoint woman helped him into the last remaining bunk. Not long after that Jamshid entered the cabin and started complaining about his vision. He didn't have any goggles and was worried he might have damaged his eyes in the cold. I was feeling enormously fortunate as I sucked down a second cup of soup. I decided not to waste too much time here. Seeing all these people and then learning there was another tent with even more people sleeping provided me motivation to get a move on.

I'm not an extraordinarily competitive person when it comes to these type of events, but I am aware that it is supposed to be a race. Nonetheless, I always experience a slight twinge of guilt at how other's ill fate can inspire me to positive feelings about my own situation. I wouldn't say it was anything as base as smugness. Though some of the people I'd seen were the same ones I'd noticed going out "hard" in the early miles, running up slopes. It's not that I felt an air of superiority because I am always well aware how much luck is involved in keeping oneself healthy during an event such as this. Besides, I had certainly made my share of mistakes along the course any one of which could have ended my race curled up in a cabin. I think that it mainly serves as a reaffirmation. Seeing others in a bad state reminds me that I'm doing relatively well. So, no matter how low I might feel, I should just get on with the race. 

Lesson 13: There's cold and then there's...

I hitched up my sled and set my sights back towards Luce's as I headed onto the dragging snow. Within the first mile I saw Beat, Jill and then Danni all heading towards the checkpoint looking well and in seemingly good spirits. This was one of the shortest sections, but it was the dead of night and I wasn't moving especially fast. I could feel the fatigue growing within me. I knew that the dawn would eventually revive me, but I had a few more hours of darkness until then. I was also aware that the time just before sunrise was generally the coldest of the day. Being sleepy was not making me feel any warmer.

I saw a light moving up ahead. I figured it was probably Hernan so I hustled to catch up. I don't know that the running gait moved me any faster, but it did seem to warm me up a bit. It seemed strange to run for warmth rather than for time. However, it turned out to be a very useful technique. I added an addition to something I'd learned earlier in the race. Sometimes walking is faster than running, but sometimes you run anyway. Apart from building up a bit of heat in my body, it also helped keep me awake. My mind had started to drift and the monotony of slowly trudging through the snow made it worse.

I caught up to Hernan and asked if he minded some company. Feeling a bit tired himself, he welcomed it. I don't know that we said more than a few words to one another along this section, but it was nice to have someone else to share the cold, dark hours. We took turns leading through, seeking out the narrow lines of packed snow created by bike tires. Whether following or leading, having someone with me on the trail helped me maintain lucidity. It did nothing, however, to keep me warm. I was pretty much in full kit short of digging out my giant down jacket. However, even with 3 layers on my hands, I could still feel the chill coming through to my fingers.

We descended back onto the river just as the sky began to lighten. With only a couple miles remaining to the checkpoint, we picked up the pace. It was unbelievably cold so moving faster was a welcome change on multiple counts. By the time we arrived, I was more than a little ready for a break. I didn't check the thermometer on the way in, but by the time we would leave at 8am it would still read -10. Given its more sheltered location and the fact that the air had warmed significantly by then, the temperature on course the previous night was easily 20-below.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Being Schooled (slow learner)

Luce's - Alexander

Lesson 10: These are no mere checkpoints

I checked into the cabin, stripped layers off to remove my pack and sat at the large wooden table. Word was that it was at least 10 below zero without even calculating in the 20-mph wind chill. I was a bit shook up. Wandering in those conditions with only the minimal light of my small backup headlamp and my face exposed to the elements was just plain dumb. I tried fiddling with my main headlamp, but was feeling a bit light-headed. I'd actually done pretty well with calories throughout the day, having dipped into my stash a few times and eaten my fill at Flathorn. However, anything that slowed, let alone stopped movement in the last couple hours had not been an option in my mind. I was obviously near empty. Someone handed me a cupcake or something sweet and I ate it in one bite. Feeling somewhat revived, I gathered up my clothes and headed over to the fire.

They call the small cabins along the course simply "checkpoints", but that does little to describe the atmosphere within. Luce's is a working lodge that serves mainly ice-fishermen and snowmobilers. Coming in from that frozen world outside, the term "refuge" came immediately to mind. Warm and inviting, I could see why someone might want to spend a nice winter week in this place. While the previous stop seemed like a traditional aid-station, this place was an actual business so food was only available for purchase. Most people seemed to be opting for the big plate of spaghetti, but I wasn't sure if it would sit well given how I felt at the time. I ordered a large hot chocolate and a basket of fries then sat down and tried to warm up while I waited for them to be prepared.

Hernan had arrived and we sat near the stove together chatting. I was having some difficulty getting warm, but the hot food and drink were helping. I'd grabbed a few things from my sled and was changing my socks while trying to dry out my feet and shoes. The many trips off-trail had gathered snow on them. While the dry snow mainly just gathered on top, as soon as I came into the checkpoint it melted wetting my feet. I'd retrieved a few items from my sled and after changing socks I swapped the batteries in my big headlamp which solved the problem. Apparently, I'd drained them before the race. I began slowing putting myself back together, orienting myself towards a mindset for heading back out.

Making quick time in and out of the checkpoints seemed not only impractical, but undesirable. I wanted to make sure to minimize gear mistakes going forward. I also wanted to shore up my confidence. Spending time in the cabins was simply a part of this race. Jamshid, whom had run this race numerous times past, was here and informed me there was a sauna available to racers. Coming up on an hour since my arrival, the potential for an even greater time suck was a dangerous proposition. However, I came up with a plan to get myself out the door. Just as I was putting it into action, my friends arrived. They too looked a little worse for wear. With their food orders arriving as I was heading out, I knew I'd be seeing them all again.

I geared completely up, face mask, headlamp and all. Carrying only my outer-shell mittens in my hands, I headed out the door. Instead of going right for my sled, I took a left and headed into the sauna. Five minutes: that was enough time to completely warm my core without starting a sweat. I headed over to my sled and attached it as quickly as possible. I could feel the heat trapped in my layers and was determined to keep moving in order to retain as much of it as possible. The mental image of myself as a little insulated stove helped warm my spirits. I headed onto the river with an attitude much improved over the one with which I had arrived.

Lesson 11: There's something called "noglide"

The wind had died down, but it was no less cold. There were three more miles along the river and then some gradual climbing up to the swamp that leads to Alexander Lake. I'd seen a few bikers heading home on my way into Luce's, but the bulk of the returners passed by on this section. I was glad for the 4"-wide, packed-down tracks they were leaving in the snow. The night is always slower moving in an ultra, but I felt like I was downright dragging. Apparently, when snow is very dry and very cold, there is no "glide" to it. I'd learned this from a skier at Luce's who was explaining why most of them had already dropped from the race. Without the ability to glide across the snow, they were relegated to walking with skis on their feet. For me, it simply felt as if the "pig" attached to my hips was digging in its heels.

I've said it a dozen times before: I love being out on the trails at night. Susitna after dark was nothing short of magical. With a bright lamp now on my head, I could also look around and enjoy the environment. The sky was a bit hazy with a soft glow of light to the south hinting at the far-off existence of civilization. As much as I wanted to take in every bit of this, I also longed to be at the next checkpoint which, beyond the halfway mark. It's always with a small amount of regret that I employ the dissociative mind-tricks necessary to make it through certain parts of these long events. However, I know that to stay completely in the present, perceiving the full passage of time, would likely spoil my mood and taint the entire experience. As I often do, I went "inside myself" and let the hours disappear only occasionally mindful of myself and my surroundings.

Despite slow moving, the twelve miles to Alexander passed relatively quickly. Yet, I retained a definite feeling for the atmosphere as well as memories of distinct moments along the path. The lead runner passed by not long after coming onto the swamp. A few more went by within the next hour. The only other people I saw along this section were the row of snowmobiles parked at the spot where the route takes a sharp left. They pointed the proper direction and let me know it was around 4 miles to the checkpoint. That would be over an hour at my pace, but I was feeling good. Along the way, one of the snowmobiles came flying by. Apparently, a runner hit some difficulties and was bivy-ed alongside the trail waiting for an evac.

The final stretch found me in good spirits. As I approached the cabin, I had a renewed sense of confidence. Over half the course was done and I still felt strong even if my pace was slow. Watching the guy end his race on the back of the snowmobile, I felt bad for him. However, the sight also made me aware of how well I was doing. This was a serious race where dropping required an airplane ride out and I was still on my feet, moving well, heading into mile 53.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Being Schooled (serious lessons)

Flathorn - Luce's
Lesson 6: There's always someone

A couple of miles outside the first checkpoint we dropped onto an offshoot of Flathorn Lake. While trying to figure out just what the heck the ice fishermen were doing, another sled-puller came up alongside me. We chatted. His name was Hernan. He was from Argentina, but living in Florida. I guess coming up to Alaska for a winter race from California wasn't so far fetched. It occurred to me he was only the second person with whom I had shared more than a few words during the race so far. It's not that people were less friendly, or so focused and competitive, it just seemed that you tend to talk less in the cold. I'd later learn that when it gets very cold, you don't talk at all.

Hernan and I would end up crossing back and forth as well as spending quite a bit of time together during the race. It's not uncommon, in long races, that I end up finding someone whose pace is close enough to mine to act as motivation, companionship or simply a life-line moving along in the distance ahead or behind me. Hernan moved on ahead just before we reached the checkpoint and I stopped to take some pictures of the lawn gnomes they'd set up in the snow. This was the intersection where the 50K race headed back to the start (as would we in another day or so). I shuffled over to the checkpoint, my mind abuzz with all the new information I'd been trying to stuff into it during these first 21 miles. I felt as if I was barely learning just how much I still had to learn.

I saw Hernan at the top of the hill as I dropped my sled which encouraged me to hustle on up, forgetting the change of socks I'd been reminding myself to grab. I'd been told to plan on spending a bit of time at the checkpoints warming up, changing clothes, and getting one's self together. Forgetting to grab essentials from my duffel was a pretty big rookie move. I'll give myself the excuse that the cutoff to the first aid station seemed a bit tight for a race that allowed 48 hours to finish. Arriving in just under 6 hours, I only had an hour buffer going in and would spend half an hour getting out.

Changing socks back down by my sled posed challenging and Hernan headed off on the next section ahead of me. It gave me a chance to say hello to Beat, Jill and Danni as they came in together. Perhaps, in retrospect, finding a more experienced person to glom onto would have been the wiser move, but I prefer to make my mistakes and learn on my own so I trotted out across the lake to catch up with my new friend. I set my mind on Luce's, the next checkpoint, as I wanted to be at that 40+ mile point. There's something comforting about having an ultra-marathon distance under the feet. These long events always involve some amount of pain, but after a certain point it seems the pain stops getting worse.

Lesson 7: Sometimes walking is faster, even on flat ground

Across the lake, through some woods and it was onto Dismal Swamp where I finally caught up to Hernan. It's interesting to look at the Susitna course via "satellite view" on Google Maps because most of it is under water during the warmer months. Given how much of the area is covered in forest, I suppose it makes sense that frozen lakes, rivers and swamps would be the most obvious pathways along which to set trail in winter. This particular swamp didn't seem nearly as bad as its name would imply, but I'd heard that in past races it's been beset with heavy wind or frozen fog. In our case, it was just long, barren and slow. About the only features here were some scraggly, dead-looking brush and a view of Denali that could just be made out far in the distance.

Hernan and I shuffled along silently, exchanging positions from time to time in order to take turns leading a weaving pattern along the snow in search of the best line. This constant search for a path of packed down snow was a trend that would be followed for much of the race. It's amazing what a difference the slightest change in snow consistency can make on one's effort and pace. I'm not sure the source of the mental imagery, but it was here that I first began to think of the gear sitting in my sled as simply "the pig." Though I think "boat anchor" might have painted a better image. I was running, or so I felt. I was making running-like motions, but could scarcely keep a 17 minute per mile pace on a trail as flat as a sidewalk.

About halfway across the swamp a couple whom I'd seen in the cabin caught up and trailed along behind us. When they shuffled past, I decided to stick behind them jokingly asking, "is drafting allowed?" A short while later they decided the extra effort was being wasted and dropped to a walk. I figured they knew what they were doing and followed suite. The wisdom of this move became immediately evident as walking felt significantly easier.

I thought to imagine myself in a mountain race power hiking up a steep slope. My pace picked up. Suddenly, I found myself moving along the snow at a good clip. It felt solid. It felt good. I glanced down at my GPS and saw that I was approaching 15 minute miles. The first thing that popped into my head was simply, "what manner of place is this where walking is faster than running on flat ground?" After giving it a bit deeper thought I realized what was happening. Whilst "running" I was exerting more pressure with each step. Just enough, in fact, to break through the top crust of hard, frozen snow. Walking, even at a good pace, kept me moving along this surface. Pondering this strange new discovery, I eventually came to another realization. I had left behind the group in which I'd been travelling. I was on my own.

Lesson 8: There are measures of silence

As I moved off the swamp and through a final section of rolling, mogul-ridden woods, I decided some alone time was warranted. I kept up my pace and played the little mind-game of remaining out of eyesight from those behind me. At the end of the woods is a short, but steep downhill quaintly called "Wall of Death". Like the Dismal Swamp, its name seemed misleading especially since it led onto the broad expanse of the Susitna river. I'd been told that the going along the river would be easier especially as the evening temps dropped and the surface hardened up. I was looking forward to it. Twilight was setting in and shuffling along the frozen river with no one in sight, I felt beset by solitude on all sides.

I often seek out these solitary moments during ultras when the silence of my surroundings helps induce a similar inner state. My mind can best be described as a rather noisy place. When not directed towards some specific task, my thoughts tend to be distracted, harried, even erratic. The busy world in which we live does little to quell this constant mental dialog. I like to think that running helps me deal with the trials of modern life, reduces stress by providing time to organize and analyze my thoughts. And during my weekly training runs, it often does. But, these grand adventures serve more as escape than solution. Stripped to the bare necessities of eating, drinking and staying warm, life becomes both simple and frightening. Yet, I find a certain sense of calm in the singular focus on continual motion.

Cold, dry air slows the speed of sound, the silence further amplified by the starkness of the landscape. My mind wanders. but there's a certain clarity to it. The vast quiet of the space and the constant forward movement lend a sense of direction and control reflected by a singular voice within my head. I can almost hear it speaking aloud in my head. It's a level of lucidity I achieve only at rare moments when all the background noise has faded away.

Lesson 9: It doesn't matter how good your gear if you don't use it

My little reverie ends abruptly when the two lead bikers come passing through. Less than 8-1/2 hours into my race and they're already on the homestretch, yet still looking like they're just out for a leisurely ride. It makes me painfully aware of how much further I have to go. I also notice that the sun is in the midst of its slow descent and the temperature is beginning to drop. It would have been a good time to take stock and prepare for the coming nightfall. I knew that I was headed towards a big swing left at a spot named "Scary Tree" (though its actually devoid of any such tree). From there it's a straight shot and 8 miles to the next checkpoint at Luce's Lodge. I fixed my mind on that goal. I decided to wait until after the turn to regroup. This was a mistake.

Winter days may be shorter up north, but they seem to fade with a certain reluctance as dusk lingers into dark. I could tell I was loosing light, but didn't feel any urgency to dig out my headlamp. It was starting to get cold and I occupied myself with the various options for covering my face with the fleece buff. Eventually, I grabbed my jacket from the sled, but passed again on retrieving the light not wanting to make a full stop. Perhaps I was under the illusion that I could make it to the checkpoint in time. It wasn't until I wandered off path into deeper snow that I finally came to my senses. I stopped, zipped my jacket up and began searching through my disorganized duffel.

I'd bought a fancy new headlamp for Susitna. It was much brighter than I needed for a snow-covered race, but specifically designed for extreme conditions. It was also more complicated with a remote battery pack, adjustable beam and a variety of settings. It also didn't work. After some frustration getting it opened, I checked that the batteries were in correctly. I tried turning them around. I fiddled with it in various ways. Finally, I cursed myself for not double checking it right before the race, shoved it in my pocket and grabbed my small backup lamp. I was starting to feel a chill in my body and there was a growing headwind. I needed to get moving.

Unlike heat, there isn't much one can do to adapt the human body for the cold. It really come down to having the proper gear and using it properly. My small headlamp was dim and insufficient. The wind picked up. In my frustration over the headlamp, I'd failed to retrieve either my face mask or my goggles which had been packed for this exact situation. I doggedly marched on. Pulling the buff further in front of my face, I wrapped the headlamp around the hood of my jacket to keep it snug and set my gaze straight down towards the snow to block the wind. Meandering in the poor visibility, I kept wandering off the firm line into deep snow. This did little to help my situation. I told myself that frustration and rough weather didn't mix.

Steeling a glance forward, I could see lights in the distance. I continued on, hopefully. Forging into a bitterly cold wind, I felt I was finally getting a taste of real Alaskan weather. I also felt a small question tugging at the back of my mind. My stubbornness often gets me through these long events, would the same land me in trouble now that the situations was more serious? As I approached the lights, I realized they were not from the checkpoint, but two other races stopped along the trail. I checked my GPS and estimated about 2 miles to go. I let the them know as I passed. Encouraged that I was "close" I continued pushing forward.

Heading into a 20-mph freezing wind, 2 miles would take more than 40 minutes. After finally reaching the checkpoint and dragging my sled up the hill to the lodge, I stood there for a moment berating myself over poor preparation and decision making. The buff was completely frozen around my face and I could now feel the cold air biting at my skin. How stupid to leave it exposed in the much harsher conditions out on the river.

The checkpoint volunteer who recorded my number told me, "get inside, you can come back and retrieve stuff from your sled once you warm up."

I obeyed.