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.
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.
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."