In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. Albert Camus
Eyes glazed over, I stare absently at my $22 lasagna. Fuck, I think to myself, I tipped the Yenta lodge like 40%. Despite my apparent removed demeanour, my sense of what I need to accomplish at each stop is clear. I have established a mechanical routine to manage myself. I had an epiphany at Yentna that despite being completely crushed by the first 60 miles, I could and would somehow revive and go on. When I reach the checkpoint at 6 pm, I unclip my duffle from my sled and bring the bag inside. I pencil in my name on to the sign-in sheet and check on the bike race out of interest. My first priority is to order food, focusing more on what will replenish me rather than on how much it costs. Then, I head over to the fireplace to remove my shoes and socks to dry. After eating, I sort through my trail food and pack my vest for the next segment to minimize how much I need to get in and out of my sled while on the go. I also refill my water to the full 100 ounce capacity of my bladder.
I have opted to put my head down at Skwentna for what I hope to be 4 hours. I need to bank some time on the pillow to hopefully be able to move faster on the go. I note that Dave barely stopped here, probably just enough for a beer. I am both amazed and inspired by his effort and decide then and there that the only way I am catching him is if he blows up. I simply cannot match his frenetic pace. The room is warm and reasonably quiet. I am sharing it with only one other biker, but there are a couple more beds open so I assume I will be woken before too long. Sure enough, after a few hours of decent sleep I stir from the commotion in the hallway. I desperately attempt to ignore the noise, but only succeed at tossing and turning in and out of sleep for another few hours.
I rise before my alarm and groggily make my way downstairs. It is 11pm and apart from our host, I am the only one up. I grab a hot cinnamon bun, fill my bottle with hot coffee, tuck it in my coat and stumble out into the cool, clear night. As I set off, I am disappointed that my planned 6 hour total stop has not been more rejuvenating. Contrary to my hour and half rest in Yentna, I still feel sleepy and stiff bumbling along the windy trail through the forest. Again, it has become clear to me that I do not do well between the hours of 12 and 4 am.
This section is notorious for moose sightings so I try to stay especially alert on the tighter segments of trail so as to not startle one of these animals. The night is beautiful and the full moon reflecting off the snow gives me great visibility. Despite my slow, struggling pace, I enjoy the change in scenery from the previous long, river stretches. Shell Lake is the next intermediary stop before Finger Lake and I determine I should easily get there before dawn. I mix in bouts of short, slow shuffles to work my body out of its rigid self, but to no avail.
To keep myself occupied, I ponder my race tactics. Part of me feels, I should adjust my strategy to only rest in the second half of the night, while doing big continuous blocks the rest of the time. For some reason though, I feel forced to push as long as I can until breakdown, rest, then resume. If it were not for the race, I would progress more according to my biorhythms and feel less obliged to keep pushing incessantly. In some ways, I wonder if my overall progression would not be close to the same, while the perceived difficulty would be lessened. While I have a strong sense of how to pace a 100 mile race, this feels notably different. Not knowing what lies ahead adds to the difficulty in gauging my effort.
Amidst, all these ruminations, I am surprised to pop out of the trees and see the lit cabins at Shell Lake up ahead. It is about 6 am when I quietly enter the main cabin, finding it dead still with no one around. I succomb to my craving for a nap and curl up in a foetal position on the hard bench of the dining room table. I am kept awake by the loud ticking of an old grandfather clock, along with the stress of not knowing if I am allowed to sleep here or not. With this not being an official check point, I am concerned I might be overstepping my welcome in someone’s home. Just before 7 am, a woman is up and getting coffee started. She apologizes for waking me, while I ask her to forgive me for inviting myself into her home. She offers me a cup of cowboy coffee- strong, black, sipped with a mouthful of grains. It goes down well though and warms me inside and out. I slip out just before sunrise, noticing that Eric Johnson, who had pushed on past Skwentna, is still asleep in one of the cabins.
With daylight comes a new sense of purpose. Again, I try to mix some running to change up my stride. The day is warm though and the snow is soft like mashed potatoes. I feel as if I am running in sand, not postholing, but not really making very efficient progress either. I am sweating a lot, have removed my gaiters, rolled up my pants and am now running in just a long sleeve shirt. The texture of the snow becomes somewhat of a mind trip. While I know, snow is inherently cold, after starring at it for so long and being so warm, I start to forget on what I am actually moving. It is a strange feeling to have a complete disconnect with the surface under my feet. I spend a lot of time analyzing my sensations wallowing in long, drawn out confusion. I find myself in a state of permanent haze, with my reasoning labored.
Since Skwentna, I have been much more entertained by the changes in the trail. I am more suited to the ups and downs than to the vast, flat stretches. I recognize a mountain formation up head that I have previously seen in photos as a backdrop to the Finger Lake checkpoint. The mountains seem deceptively close. Every mile or so is interspersed with a thicket of trees followed by an open section of swamp. Each time I exit the forest, I think that I am there. Yet, the trail curves once again, stretches a bit further and reenters the trees endlessly.
The soles of my feet are starting to be painful with the warm weather. They have been sitting in a pool of water ever since I left Skwentna 12 hours ago. The issue is that it is too warm to wear gaiters due to excess perspiration, but snow inevitably enters my boots, getting my feet wet. The moisture evacuates through the Gore-Tex membrane, but then it is just cold enough outside for it to freeze on top of the material, creating a hermetic seal. Therefore, my feet sit in a warm, puddle of water for hours on end, gradually getting more and more pruned and tender. I am starting to shuffle awkwardly, adjusting my steps to minimize the pain. I had a bad case of trench foot at last year’s Susitna. I am starting to worry that a similar issue might be developing with this heat.
Just as I am beginning to despair that I will never reach Finger Lake, Steve Wilkinson, a fellow from Newcastle, pulls up behind me on his bike. I tell him that I think the checkpoint is just beyond these trees, but unfortunately he informs me that according to his GPS we have close to 2 more miles to go. While that may sound very close, given how I am feeling, it could take close to an hour to get there. Sure enough, the trail drags on and I get in to Finger Lake barely walking, completely at the end of my strength.
Plugging into my routine, I have my shoes and socks off hanging up to dry with a plate of rice, beans and chicken on the way. I look at my white, wrinkled, nearly translucent feet in dismay. I have several quarter inch grooves in my forefoot that are painful to the touch. My only option is to let them dry and hope for a miracle. The food is restorative and I seem to manage a half-decent conversation with some bikers, tourists and the host. After lunch, I find the “sleep” cabin, where our drop bags are stored. Unsurprisingly, my cheese ration has gone bad. Even for someone who grew up in France, the deep gray and blue coloration does not seem too appealing. For some reason, I had thought the drop bags would be sitting in a snowbank and stay reasonably fresh so I would take a chance with a perishable item. Instead, they were stored inside by the fire. The loss of my cheese is not that important though as I still have some left over from the start along with plenty of other food. Once I am all restocked, I try to take a 15 minute nap on the couch with my feet up by the fire. I do not sleep, but to my amazement my feet dry up and the grooves retract. Hum…maybe I can buy myself enough time to the next checkpoint before needing to dry them again? And, with that I am up and out the door by 4 pm for an evening stroll on to Puntilla.