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.
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...
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.