Friday, July 19, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Trail: Losing It

The early miles of the race had a nice, familiar feel since it was not too far from the start of the Susitna 100.  My sense of time was a bit off, but it didn't matter much as I was happy strolling along near the back of the race. The first checkpoint wasn't until mile 60. Starting in the afternoon pretty much guaranteed me a night on the trail. There was one option to stop at Flathorn Lake (mile 30), but I knew there was no way I would be able to sleep that first night until I reached exhaustion. Flathorn wasn't an official ITI stop (like it was in Susitna), but the owners were kind enough to put out some water allowing for a mid-point refill before our first checkpoint.

There were a few challenges in those first 30 miles mostly due to somewhat mushy trail conditions. I started in my microspikes and left them on a bit long. Then, later, waited too long to put my snowshoes on when the trail became really bad just after the Nome sign. I kept them on up through Flathorn as there was evidence of overflow around the lake. Overflow is one of the biggest concerns in Alaskan winter travel as getting one's feet wet in sub-freezing temperatures can be quite dire. My feet felt stayed dry, but I had just a slight soreness from the spikes earlier. I was happy for the opportunity to stop and sort a few things out while refilling my hydration bladder.

It was a beautiful night so I didn't have to worry about immediate freeze when removing layers to get at my hydration pack. I took my time filling and grabbing a quick snack from my sled. Then, as I swung the pack back onto my back a few things fell out of the side pocket. Apparently, I had failed to zip it up at the start. I gathered my things from the snow and proceed to put them away when I noticed something was missing. Something critical.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational has checkpoints along the way and you do get drop bags around mile 130 and mile 210. The rest of the checkpoints are at working winter lodges where food and rest are available for purchase. Also, you have to purchase a flight back to Anchorage after the finish or in the event you need to drop at one of the earlier checkpoints. As you might imagine, I am mentioning all of this because what was missing from my pack was the zip-bag containing all of my cash, credit cards and ID. Not good.

I searched all over near the water jugs, hoping that it had dropped out along with the other things as I was putting it on. No such luck. It's hard to explain how I felt upon realizing my mistake. To screw up so badly, so early on was just crushing. I tried to think what to do. I could simply walk up to the cabin at Flathorn, call it in at mile 30 and beg for someone to help me get back to Anchorage. But, was that any worse than just going on? Besides, there was the (slight) possibility that I'd left it at the start and someone could send it forward or the (even less likely) possibility that someone would find it on the trail and return it. The fact that there were only 4 people behind me in the race made this last change a pretty remote one, but desperate times call for desperate hope.

I thought if I could catch up to my friend Beat at the next checkpoint, he might lend me a little cash for food on the trail. At the finish, my situation would really be no different than it was right now. I'd have to find some way to pay for a return trip to Anchorage. The biggest immediate problem was just continuing on my massive undertaking with this black cloud over my head. I strapped on my sled and continued up trail, trying hard not to let my mood spiral too far down into the pit. It was hard. I imagined the responses as I'd have to tell my story over and over to other racers, volunteers and various lodge owners. I was certain they's agree with the sentiment that was filling my own mind which was that I had no business out here being so disorganized.

Not more than a few 100 yards up trail, I saw a light coming from the right out of the woods. There was another, more direct trail option that bypassed the water stop at Flathorn. I figured it was someone else in the race taking this option. It looked like, I'd get to tell my tale sooner than I thought. As the other racer descended onto the lake, I made my greetings. It was Howard "Cookie" Cook, an ITI veteran from the UK. He asked what was available at the stop I'd just left and I told him only water. Then came the inevitable question.

Cookie: "So, how are you doing?"

Me: "Well, I was doing pretty well until I just realized I lost my ID and all my money somewhere out on the trail."

In response, Cookie reached into his bag, pulled out a zip-bag and said: "You mean this?"

After a few moments of stunned pause, I blurted out "Don't take this the wrong way, but I could kiss you right now!"

And, so began my adventure on the Iditarod Trail. Beat often tells the story of his "good trail karma" when a dropped camera was returned to him by a snow-machine rider during last years ITI. However, I was pretty sure I'd topped that quite a bit with this. I only hoped that I hadn't used up all my good karma so early on. I hadn't even covered 10% of this race yet.

In fact, this wouldn't be the last thing I'd drop out on the trail. A fleece hat would slip from my jacket on the Happy Isle Steps (never to be seen again), a glove shell would be blown from my sled heading up Rainy Pass (also returned by another race) and I'd drop one of my trekking poles just outside the village of Nikolai (retrieved by me the next morning). Each time I swore and chastised myself for my clumsiness and lack of focus. However, at one point a very experienced veteran told me he'd dropped so much stuff in his first race that he felt like he was having a yard sale on the Iditarod. That made me feel a little better.

In the end, I guess it's all just part of the learning process of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, but the idea of losing a critical piece of gear on the trail stayed with me for much of the race. So much depends on having the right gear for the conditions that you really can't afford to lose it.

There are worse things to lose on the trail than your money I suppose...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Here it is, the middle of summer and I've yet to make any progress reporting on my "Great Winter Adventure" beyond the initial outline I threw together right after the race. Such bold plans I had to whip it out and not turn writing the report into as epic an undertaking as finishing the race. Sure I've been through at least one major life event since then, but truthfully it is all settled now. I've no real excuse for my lack of progress. After recently re-visiting my initial draft, I think I know why I've had such trouble filling it in and it's not just because I'm a lazy bastard.

Despite my best effort to approach the report as "just highlights (and lowlights)", once I started the writing, it inevitably slipped into the standard race report format. Instead of diving into the interesting bits, I was mired in a linear telling of many mundane details guided by what photos I'd taken along the way. I find the standard race report format to be rather uninspiring and a completely inadequate structure to describe the most inspiring event I've yet to undertake. Of course, one could easily argue that attempting to provide any sense of what the ITI in writing is likely a doomed attempt from the start. Also, given my history with overly verbose race reports, it would likely take well beyond next year's event for me to complete.

This was precisely the situation I had hoped to avoid. All I want is to share some "tales from the trail," to give at least some hints of what I went through out there. So, here goes, I am going to restart without any constraints or expectations on myself, just a serious of stories from my Iditarod Trail Invitational race.

Totally incomplete, only vaguely linear, wholly inadequate, but hopefully somewhat entertaining:

Tales From the Frozen Trail

To start things off, and to set the mood, I'm going to dump a few random thoughts and photos that started my draft report.

On the way to the start

There were many things I had to learn when I first started runnin ultra-marathons such as focusing on just going from aid-station to aid-station rather than the full distance of the race.

In the Iditarod Trail Invitational the distances between checkpoints were each as long as an ultra, some close to 100 miles.

In ultras I also had to learn to stop counting miles and begin counting the hours.

In the ITI, I had to stop counting hours and begin counting the days.

Ironically, I discovered, the days were often measured in miles.

It begins:

Starting behind "The Man" Dave Johnson

Familiar woods from my time at Susitna 100

Enjoying the day on a typical frozen Alaskan swamp

Sharing the trail with some fellow athletes:
The Real Iditarod racers

Their race would start a week later

Visits from friends:
Jill out to catch up with Beat

Amy out for a ride

Other Alaskan friends enjoying the trails

Night falls and I make it to the famous Nome Sign:
Cheezin' and looking gruff

. . .