What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out. Bertrand Russell
A mix of tense excitement and anticipation fills the air as racers make final adjustments to their gear, exchange a few words, eat, and hydrate before the 2pm start. I remember this scene quite vividly from last year when I had accompanied Geoff to see him off on his journey. On the one hand, I am ready to get going, to start chipping away at the miles that await. On the other hand, there is no rush, no typical surge of adrenaline before the gun goes off. In fact, as I stand chatting with John Logar, I do not realize the race has started until the group of racers in front of us pulls forward. The bikers head left to connect with a longer, but more rideable road while foot racers head straight across the frozen lake to get on the Iditarod trail. I share these first few hundred feet with Beat Jegerlehner and Marco Berni, both of whom are going to Nome. At the top of a short 30 foot climb, I am happy to find the single, snowmachine track to be in good condition, so I ease into a comfortable run, unintentionally taking the lead of the foot race. While I’m a rookie at this race and this distance, I had previously decided to never worry about what others were doing or be affected by their strategies and just move along at my own pace. As such, I find myself running the first 6 hours of the race alone. I take a minor wrong turn at a confusing intersection, before being put back on the right track by a young kid out doing tricks on his snowmachine. I get to the infamous 1049 miles to Nome sign that I had encountered at last year’s Susitna 100 and decide to take my first quick stop for a shot of coffee. The first thing I notice is that my body is pretty tight. My lower back and the soft tissue behind my knees are stiff, so I stretch lightly, then sit on the back of my sled. The night is incredibly still and lit up by the full moon. I click off my headlamp to fully take in the majestic surroundings. Sitting there, drinking my hot beverage, I bask in the stillness and am filled with a great sense of happiness to be here.
Just as I start thinking that this is where Dave Johnston caught up to me at the Su 100 last year, he comes cruising around the corner. As per usual, he is smiling, jovial and greets me warmly. Dave is a simple man and I mean that in the best sense of the term. He is direct, sincere and exudes permanent kindness and happiness that is contagious. I am excited to share some miles with him and hope that our paces can match for a while as we tackle the second part of the night. With the race starting at 2pm, it is difficult to not immediately put oneself in debt by wanting to push to the first checkpoint at mile 57 without stopping. Geoff told me that in good conditions, one could probably get there by 1-2am leaving enough time to eat and rest before dawn. I liked the idea of this strategy, but as Dave and I posthole our way across Flathorn Lake it becomes apparent that it may take us a bit longer to get there. As we both put our snowshoes on, Dave remarks that he is a bit disappointed that he won’t be able to run the whole way. I chuckle and think to myself that wanting to run the whole way is a rather bold statement. Little did I know, Dave would go on to basically pull that off and lay down one of most impressive runs in the race’s history. We stop briefly for water at Peggy’s (famous for her Jambalaya at the Su 100 and fervent supporter of the race) before making quick business of the Dismal Swamp and merging on to the Susitna River. My body is starting to ache and I am struggling with my first bout of sleepiness. We are reaching the crux of the night for me, the hours between 12 and 4am. I stop to relieve myself and watch Dave gradually pull away as his light rapidly dissipates in the vastness of the frozen landscape. I am alone again and not feeling too great. I’m surprised and a bit concerned at how weak my body seems to be all of a sudden. I am trying to maintain a comfortable pace, but no matter how much I slow down, my perceived effort is much greater than I would like it to be at this point. I follow a lone bike track in the snow and some Irondog markers (the Irondog is a snowmachine race that shares part of the same course). Something about this doesn’t feel right and I suspect I may have taken a wrong turn. As I look back though, there are clearly two bikers coming towards me so I push on for a while until deciding to turn around and assess with them whether or not we are on the right track. The three of us agree we made a mistake and backtrack to a faint junction that leads us onto the Yentna River. I have lost about 45 minutes with this little mishap, but am pretty unphased by it. It is still so early in the race that there’s truly no point in getting agitated. Additionally, the checkpoint can not be much further-or so I think. Twists, bends and turns seem interminable on the river and still no checkpoint. I am accompanied by Jim Barkeley on his bike and we are both starting to get a little desperate for a stop. Just before 6am, we agree to go another 30 minutes before melting some snow if we still have not reached the checkpoint by then. Despite starting with 100 ounces of water, I have run out and am getting pretty parched and dehydrated. Just as we are about to give up hope, we come upon the Yentna station sign, arriving just before dawn.
I am a little shell shocked, sitting at the table and in haze order two grill cheese sandwiches. I am perplexed by how bad I am feeling this early. I have gone less than 60 miles and feel like I have just ran Hardrock. I decide that I need to take some time here and get at least 4 hours of rest. If I do not somehow restore myself, this could mean an abrupt and early end to my race. I get a room and as soon as I hit the bed, I fall into a deep sleep. To my astonishment, I wake an hour and half later completely refreshed. I bounce out of bed, my legs barely hurting anymore, no longer fatigued, and skip out the door without breakfast. It is a glorious morning and the warm, radiant sun is invigorating. I ease into a jog, munching on some cheese and chips. The contrast with how I felt a mere two hours ago is astounding. My mood has completely transformed. Despite having nearly 300 more miles to go, the effects of that small amount of rest have me confident that I still have a lot more to give. It is a bizarre thing to be pondering such thoughts so early. I had expected to not really have to go through this type of rationale until much further down the line. However, I am just content to no longer be suffering and revel in the first small victory of pulling myself out of that rough patch.
Shortly after leaving Yentna, I pass Todd Kasteler, napping on the riverside in the sun. The 15 minute power nap will soon become an indispensable part of my race routine, but for now I have my mind set on making it to Skwentna some 30 miles down the way. Before long, I catch up to Eric Johnson who had also pulled ahead of me during my stop at Yentna. I am excited to see someone and greet him enthusiastically. He nods in return and keeps marching along with a powerful stride in sync with his poles. His demeanor appears to indicate that he does not want to talk, nor does he want my company. I decide to run ahead and reflect on the odd nature of this race. On the one hand, we are clearly racing since we are stopping very little, pushing through the night and putting our bodies into an immense amount of debt very early. On the other hand, the race is so long and overall we are moving so slowly that it seems completely absurd to think of it as a race. Here I am thinking I am doing alright, yet I am not even a third of the way into the event. Similarly when I was feeling down, stringing together another 300 miles seemed unfathomable. Henceforth, begins this strange relationship for me with the concept of racing. I never feel like I am intentionally trying to catch or drop anyone, yet at the same time, I am putting all my effort into trying to move as fast and efficiently as possible to get to McGrath.
After about 4 hours or so of running, my morning high appears to be fading. My body is stiffening again, my mind is getting restless and I feel locked into a slow slog with no choice but to be patient. At this point, I decide it might be wise to ease off the running for a bit, pull out my poles and start a fast intentional walk. As I make these adjustments, Eric pulls up to me and seems to want to engage more. As we hike together, I learn that he has done the race 6 times already and has vast experience with winter racing. He is modified a lot of his gear, adding venting zippers to his pants or fleece pockets to his jersey for food. Over the years, he has continually perfected the little details that make a huge difference in this type of race. Despite our paces being evenly matched, I still feel slightly uncomfortable, as if I’m imposing on his race. Eventually, the small rollers dissipate and the trail becomes more consistently flat, so I decide to run ahead to give both of us our own space. I come to a large sign that reads “Skwentna Roadhouse 2 miles.” Given that I am running, I assume this will take me about 30 minutes, 40 at most. 56 minutes later, I roll into Skwentna. I make a comment to the host that that was the longest two miles I had ever run to which she replies, “Well, it’s 2.8 miles, didn’t you see the markers?” Ha! I did see the markers, but I also saw the sign. This was my first experience with “snowmachine miles,” which basically means that if a snowmachiner tells you, it is only 2 miles to go, it can be anywhere between 2 and 10 miles. When you do not know what lies ahead, any reference point, is helpful to hold on to. Breaking down the course makes each piece more manageable. However, once you discover these references aren’t reliable, it becomes an absurd mindgame to let go of them. What I’ve come to understand is that the only thing I can rely on is time. Not distance covered during that time, but just time itself. Four hours comes to mean that it is time for a 10-15 minute nap or break. 30 minutes means it is time to eat something. What happens during that time does not matter much. What is important is to have something, anything to anchor the mind. My mind needs to be able to break things down for this absurd endeavour to be manageable. Over intellectualizing though seems counterproductive. If somehow I could free myself and just run- no thoughts, no attachment, just forward motion. Everything would flow then and I would get into a more familiar place that I have become accustomed to with my running. Yet, no matter how much I try not to think, I come to feel that my burden is my sled- both literally and metaphorically. The weight and drag prevents me from opening up my stride and negates any qualities I have as a runner. Mentally, the sled is a shackle that holds me to a dismally slow pace, trying my patience and resilience.
I’d decided that no matter how I was feeling, I would take a long break at Skwentna, eat several meals and try to bank at least 4 hours of sleep. At 6pm, it feels like an odd time to stop, but for the first time I decide to adhere to a rational plan rather than just go by feel.