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.

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