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.

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