If in normal conditions it is skill, which counts, in such extreme situations, it is the spirit, which saves. Walter Bonatti
I have been told that the trail changes significantly after Finger Lake. The first 130 miles are basically a highway, being primarily on long, stretches of river, with high snowmachine traffic and frequent businesses along the way. Other than my physical limitations, the overall trail experience has been fairly tame, similar to the Susitna 100 from last year. The prospect of what lies ahead, crossing the Alaska Range and being immersed in vast mountainscapes is exhilarating. This anticipation, along with the brilliant play of the setting sun among the trees, puts a spring in my step. I am riding an all time mental high and physically I am feeling about as good as I have the entire race. The trail mixes fairly steep up and down rollers on a sled-tight singletrack. The change in rhythm is welcome. Putting my head down, leaning into the uphill is a familiar feeling. The short, snappy downhills are entertaining. Again, there is a stark contrast in temperature between the forested areas and the open swamps. I run these open stretches to keep my body evenly warm. For the first time I am genuinely enjoying myself and feel as if I have a handle on the undertaking, but with intense highs also come intense lows.
Six hours after leaving Finger Lake, I begin to note some returning pains- in my legs, hips, feet, and mind. Music might help. Just before I left, Geoff gave me a small MP3 player, that uses a single AAA battery. I had just enough time before the start to figure out how to put my own music on it, but wasn’t able to be very selective. The buttons on the player are small making me fumble with it in my gloved hands. I cannot figure out how to play it in any other mode than shuffle. This would be fine except for some reason, the same songs seem to be repeated very frequently while other titles are never played. On a slight incline, I slip falling flat on my back and slide about 15 feet. I am not hurt, but let out a completely exaggerated, desperate cry. I lay there for a second as Jim Morrison’s poem, Lament starts playing. “Sing your ode to my cock...” Seriously, Jim? This is what you are going to give me right now? I get up, stumbling forward, my legs weak, frustrated and on edge. The Beattles’ Octopus’s Garden follows Jim’s tasteful poetry. Aaaahhhh!!! The LSD infused lyrics are only perpetuating the madness. I am beyond bonking right now- this feeling more like a complete breakdown. Keep it together, keep it together. Fuck, I’m losing it. I need to stop, I need to sleep. I kneel down, putting my head against the snow and close my eyes for a few minutes. I feel as if they are rolling back into my skull, with spasms of weird static electricity mixing in my brain. This isn’t good. I am breathing audibly through my month. My face is locked up in a tense grimace. I take a few more steps and decide to bivy.
I make a disingenuous effort to pack the snow down on the side of the trail with my sled, before collapsing onto my pad. I pull my sleeping bag over my fully clothed body, snow spilling in from all sides. I could not care less. I lay there for about 10 minutes, at peace. Then, I begin to shiver. I toss and turn, trying to make myself more comfortable while exerting the least amount of effort. I know what I need to do to make this more tolerable, but simply cannot bring myself to do it. I do not care anymore. I lay there restlessly for about 2 hours before hearing a biker roll by. I immediately get up, pack my stuff, and march on, wet, cold, numb. I try for a moment to rekindle how I had felt at sunset, that sweet sensation of control, of knowing my body can go on, of relishing in the adventure that lies ahead. Positive thinking is useless. I feel like shit, something broke inside of me back there and I do not know how or why I am even walking right now. Despite being suffocated by negativity, I come to realize that the root of my suffering lies in my frustration. I am frustrated at my limitations, frustrated to be so intimately confronted and overrun by them. Things could be worse. Things could be way, way worse. You walk because you can. You walk because it is the only way out of this mess. In a swirl of these thoughts along with more odes and octopuses, I emerge onto Puntilla Lake with a clear view of the lodge up ahead. I chuckle to myself and begin to run. Shit ain’t that bad.
The Puntilla Lake checkpoint is a small cabin, tucked into a snowbank. The inside feels much like a warm cave that has an instant comforting effect. As I am rummaging through my gear, a man enters announcing that breakfast will be served in a half an hour at 7 am at the main lodge. Perfect. I will dry a few things, nap for 15 minutes, replenish and go. As I somnolently sort through my food, someone else enters the cabin. Have you just taken a shower? I ask. What? No, I’ve been out on the trail all night. What are you talking about? The person replies. You smell of soap or flowers or something. Wait, who is that? It’s John. John! What?! John Logar? Yeah! Holy shit man! I didn’t know you were so close. That’s fucking awesome! Yeah man! I had a great night and just charged all the way from Finger Lake. My night was a little rough, but hey breakfast is ready in 15 minutes. Lets eat and hit the trail! We are both ecstatic to see each other. We had shared some miles at last year’s Susitna and then driven to the start together this year, but not seen each other since.
John is chatting up a storm with the host in the dining hall. He asks if he can remove his pants and eat in his underwear, but she declines. We get our fill of bacon and eggs and I make a couple peanut butter bagels to go. John is wanting to rest for a few hours in the cabin, but I urge him to keep going so we can have the full day to tackle Rainy Pass. He takes little convincing. Shortly thereafter we are marching in sync up the first climb leading to a vast plateau that stretches out before the true ascent of the pass. We are both happy to have company. Since our paces seem to be evenly matched we decide to go together as long as it makes senses. We both agree that if one of us is feeling good or is simply sick of the other guy and wants to pull ahead, then they are free to go. No hard feelings. Going together at this point is more about minimizing the extra stress of endlessly leapfrogging for the next two hundred miles. We both know that the desolate expanse known as the Farewell Burn lies ahead, which will be challenging enough without the need for the additional pressure of ongoing racing. Truth be told, we are also both maxed out. This is as hard as I can go. I do not want to stop, nor can I accelerate and the concept of racing at 2.5 miles per hour is preposterous. John feels much the same.
As we start across the plateau, we see a large moose about 100 feet away. The animal is alone, but stands up to let us know he is aware of our presence. We move by cautiously, planning our retreat to nearby trees in case he decides to charge. He appears tranquil enough and sits back down once we are a safe distance away. Save a few birds, this is the first wildlife I have seen the entire way. John and I spend a lot of time going over the past few days, hashing out every detail of our highs and lows, stops and eating patterns. We also think ahead and do repeated, meticulous math of our pace for distance and projected travel times. Based on snowmachine miles, this is all very arbitrary, but we occupy ourselves with it nonetheless. A snow storm is rolling in from the south. It does not look too threatening for now. The flakes and clouds mix with the late morning sun, diverting off the mountains in spectral swirls of light. The pass gives us purpose, something tangible to work towards. While we chat some, our attention is ahead of us, funneling up the now distinctly rising terrain.
Roaring down on his snowmachine comes Craig Medred, famed writer for the Alaska Dispatch and author of Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska's Iditarod Trail. Craig is a legend in these parts and has covered over 25 consecutive Iditarods (the sled dog race that is). I comment on his Iditarod musher cap and ask him how much he will sell it to me. No way man, this is a vintage collectors item. Before taking off, he informs us that the trail is blown over on the other side of the pass with the wind blasting strong. Not much phases us anymore and we push on with the same resolve.
Reaching the pass is emblematic. It marks the halfway point of the race and a move to a more wild and desperate land ahead. John and I hug and celebrate as if we have reached our destination. Only ten easy, downhill miles separate us from Rohn. We strap on our snowshoes for the first few miles of windswept trail. A faint track winds its way down into the valley, past ice waterfalls and patches of open water. The body begins to ache and protest on the jarring downward slope. We have let down our guard as if the checkpoint was but minutes away. Again, we have deceived ourselves and one turn, leads to another and yet another and still no checkpoint. Again, frustration rolls in taking stabs at our mental armor. My feet are wet still and my stride has become a disjointed waddle. John does not appear to be doing much better. We talk little, occasionally commenting on how close we must be and that certainly we will make it before dark. Soon enough though, we have clicked on our lights and move about 200 feet apart both wallowing in our own discomfort. Eventually, we reach the Tatina River and I make one final push across pulling away from John before stopping in my tracks to sit on my sled. I am in disbelief that we still have not made it to Rohn. I consult the map and my trail notes for the first time, not because we are lost, but to give us some sense of how far we still need to go. Five miles. Five fucking miles! John and I walk side by side now on the final stretch across the airfield. As I complain about my feet we start (what will come to be) a very long debate about foot care. Battered physically and mentally, limping and hitting a low somehow even lower than the previous one, we make it to Rohn.