ITI Part V – Nikolai to McGrath

» Posted by on Mar 31, 2013 in Blog | 14 comments

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. C.G. Jung

We reach Nikolai at nightfall just after 6 pm. I was a bit worried we would be circling around looking for the checkpoint as I was told it is notoriously hard to find. However, there are small ITI signs staked at intersections to guide us. John and I are thankful to not have to waste any additional energy on the search. We both immediately collapse on the Petruska’s couch upon entering their home. It feels warm inside, too warm. I shed some layers, but am still working up a sweat. I notice my face is swelling and appears puffy upon touch. My hands and feet look swollen as well. My throat is locked up in a knot. I have a dry, raspy cough. My head is pounding, my breathing is strained as if undergoing slow suffocation. What the fuck is happening to me? I feel as if I have actually lost touch with my body. I am experiencing the pain, yet appear as an observer of my own condition. I have started to let go too soon, as if I am already at the finish. My body has started the healing process, revealing all of its maladies.
I stare absently into my plate of spaghetti. The wheel of fortune is playing on the television. The sound of the ticking wheel ecos over and over in my ears. What the fuck is happening to me?

John is already done with dinner. He is headed to the back room to get some sleep. We agree on 2 hours of rest. I hobble to the bathroom, catching a glimpse of my disheveled reflection in the mirror. It the first time I have seen myself all week. I am frightened at the frail, blank stare returned by the mirror, so I look away. Back in the living room, I try to socialize for a minute inquiring about other racers. I am not sure I am making much sense, so I resign myself to the back room as well for a nap. I clamber up on the top bunk, toss, sweat and agonize for what seems like an eternity. I cannot sleep, not in the slightest, but am dazed in a consistent nightmare. John is up, standing below me in nothing but his underwear and a sleeveless vest.
Joey, we need to get the fuck out of here! I hear you moaning and groaning and I’m not doing any better myself. Lets go. Now!
I agree. If I stay here any longer, I will not leave. An FBI murder investigation documentary is now on the TV. We fill our bladders and grab a little more food between mentions of cut up body parts burned in the back of a car trunk. We thank the Petruskas for their hospitality. I feel embarrassed at our state. The cold night has an instant soothing effect. John rushes back inside to down a last cup of water. As he comes back out he is coughing badly, pounding his chest with his fist.
I have a constriction! he exclaims.
What’s that? I retort. Stop being a doctor and overanalyzing. Just puke it out!
He paces off about 20 feet from the house, hunched over, gagging. I stand there watching the whole scene unfold, helpless. His theatrics go on for about 10 minutes, before he finally burps up some water and declares he is fine. We are now finally on our way without having had to call the plane evacuation, like John was suggesting for moment. We walk and talk, slow, but steady. It takes us 4 hours to reach the 10 mile sign out of Nikolai. The time has gone by fast, but we are both shattered, in need of a bivy. We are on Kuskokwim River or a swamp perhaps. Regardless, the land is wide open with no shelter from the wind. We have no desire to go a single step further. The waning moon still shines bright as the sky gently flakes. Two hours go by and my alarm rings. I let it snooze once, twice, three times, for a full hour.
John, we overslept by an hour.
I know man. I heard you stir, but just don’t care anymore.
Yeah, neither do I. It’s been the first feeling of comfort I’ve had in a long time. I wanted to savor it for a little longer.

John has some warm water in his thermos. It is from the tap as we could not find any boiling water before leaving. We want to replicate our Farewell Burn cuppa, but the tepid liquid is not even close. We both spit it out, starting back up with our walk with a dissatisfied taste in our mouths. Remarkably, our pace has slowed even more. I did not think that was possible without standing still. Our mood has improved though with daylight. John has been sharing these incredible, thick strips of smoked salmon with me. The greasiness and light saltiness is soothing to my charred mouth. I have about a dozen canker sores and several more cuts on my tongue and inner cheeks from the peanuts in the candy bars. Eating is a process. It takes me about 20 minutes to open, nimble and suck on a Snickers bar. I accompany each bite with a numbing handful of snow. While it is horrendously painful, eating does pass the time and gives me small goals to work towards.

Our conversations have become more eclectic, delving into politics and other more opinion driven topics. The more we talk, the more I observe a bizarre development in our relationship. On the one hand, the nature of our encounter on this race has accelerated our bond, making me feel as if I have known John for years. On the other hand, I will occasionally look over to him and have no idea who the man standing next to me is. This is not a negative observation, rather just a result of the rapid and intense progression of getting to know each other under such circumstances.

We have gone over 30 miles now and another nap is in order. Does this stumbling, collapsing, dying bullshit ever stop? We opt to nap in the middle of a swamp again, since as per usual in these moments, no more forward progress is desired. The wind is blowing hard. It already feels cold before we lay down. Typically, we can get 10-15 minutes before we start shivering, but my teeth are already chattering. Ten minutes. No sleep, no rest. Fuck naps, lets go. With twenty miles to go you would think we would have that late race surge where you allow yourself to burn through your last reserve, pushing recklessly to the finish. It is not so. We execute each step, emotionless. During the non-nap, I managed to get peanut butter all over my sunglasses. I cannot seem to clean them effectively, so I switch into my goggles. It feels cold enough that they are nearly justified, but existence inside a pair of goggles ups the intensity of desperation. Everything feels a bit harder, a bit more expeditionary. I tell John to go ahead as I just need to tend to my glasses. In the time it takes for me to deal with them satisfactorily, John has disappeared in the vast expanse ahead. I eventually catch back up to him, thanking him for the pull. We are getting there. We switch over, with me now setting the pace. I keep our momentum going, dragging us steadily past sunset.

Finally, we leave the river, merging on what appears to be the last 11 mile road section to the finish. Not too long after we come to a fork in the path. A picket has 5.3 miles scribbled on the back in marker pen, but no indication of direction. Bike tracks lead both ways. We are five miles away and have to gamble on our turn. We go right. Shortly thereafter, we get back on to the river. We hesitantly keep going, knowing that we should be on a road. I decide to pull out my phone for the first time, as I have the full set of topo maps of the course loaded on it. I can ping our location and determine if we are on the right track. The little blue dot appears on screen showing that we are way up river. Shit! While the river leads to McGrath we are unsure if a connecting trail will be cut over in to town. We are not going to take any chances making our own trail, so we turn back.
I’m fucking running. John spouts out.
Ok! Fuck! I can’t fucking believe this! I can’t believe we took the wrong fucking turn!

We run. We run as hard as we can. Everything hurts. We are both wearing our puff pants and parkas for the freezing night temperatures. Sweat is freezing up on our faces and the front of our jackets. We do not care. We continue to run as hard as possible. My body is screaming at me in pain, but is overpowered by the rage that floods my mind. I have nothing to direct my frustration at other than to pound it out with the run. I consciously have to control my breathing, to try to calm myself down. We see a light behind us. Another foot traveler? Anne perhaps? Really? We are really going to race this in?
Finally we reach the road and start to catches glimpses of McGrath up ahead.
You feel that pain, John?
Yeah. I’m hurting.
Hold that pain like a little ball right in your chest. See it?
Hold it there and let it dissolve. It’s manageable. We’re nearly there.
The phantom light behind us has dissipated. A passerby asks us if we are running the ITI. Ha! No we’re just out for an evening jog.

One more mile to go. It is the longest mile I have ever run, but then comes the Alaska Ultra Sport banner, Peter and Tracy’s home- the end. We are done. All I want to do is lay my sweaty body down on that comfortable looking couch and be spoon fed. To my surprise, Tracy suggests just that. I sit there for a bit, unable to say much. Tracy brings me one of Peter’s t-shirts that I can change into after a shower. Peter has food ready- lots and lots of food. Despite it being past midnight, I organize all of my gear, fold my clothes, put some pieces up to dry, disassemble my sled, in a manic, obsessive-compulsive manner. Once I am organized, I feel a huge sense of relief. Finally, my mind and body can harmoniously release without one fighting the other. I do not feel proud or happy, nor can I recall the suffering and rage I felt only moments before entering this house. I am in a perfect place of neutrality, of contentment. By the end of the race, the sheer extremes of highs and lows have cancelled themselves out leaving only balance.
If I was ever in doubt as to why I had chosen to do this event, I now had the answer. If something is broken down enough, the fragmentation of each piece becomes so minute that it essentially re-forms as its whole, but simply in a different manifestation. The process becomes restorative rather than destructive, transformative rather than despondent.

After a few hours of sleep, I have Sunday to relax in McGrath before flying out in the evening. I borrow James Hodges’ fatbike and head to town for a beer at the bar with Aaron Fanetti and Don Wood, who finished the bike race shortly before us. John has met up with his wife and kids who had made the trip out to see him finish. They will be staying in McGrath for another few days to soak up the atmosphere of the Iditarod sled dog race, before the front mushers come through later in the week. Before leaving, I am also fortunate to indulge in Tracy and Peter’s immense generosity. If I ever run this race again the thought of getting to their home at the finish is enough to bring lasting comfort even through the hardest times. I am also thankful to Bill and Kathy Merchant, along with all the supporters of the event, for all their hard work in making this race a reality. It takes a special bunch of people to conjure up something like this and a unique set of individuals to get out and race it. The ITI is certainly not for everyone, but I sure am grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it.


  1. Saying this is wonderful doesn’t really do it justice. It’s breathtaking and exhausting and exhilarating and enlightening and downright scary. Great work, Joe.

  2. A beautiful experience. Thank you.

  3. A treat to be able to “finish” with you. Congrats.

  4. Awesome Joe! I have been following along each time you have posted about your race. It was a great read and I really enjoyed the honesty in your report. You are tough as nails! You need to head up there in the summer and run Equinox or Crow Pass. Enough of this artic stuff!

  5. I need a day, maybe two, of recovery after reading this. It sounds incredibly exhausting. — Great job. Joe! Congrats on your efforts and a truly well written summary of your race. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Incredible race, report and photos. Have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experience. I know I will go back and re-read it again in the future a number of times. Thanks for this!

  7. I’m certain that the reformation of the broken down pieces have transformed you into a even better “Joe”, the specifics only you will know. Thank you for letting us come along on your amazing journey. Looking forward to seeing you in Silverton.

  8. What a great read, it almost felt like i was there.

  9. Wow! It’s been nothing short of incredible to read your race report. Thanks for taking the time to recount the good, the bad and the ugly of this amazing event (as well as the gear recap leading up to your heading out). Hardcore only scratches the surface here…

    Excellent Job! Well done.

  10. Joey,

    Excellent race report

  11. I don’t know how you could possibly have remembered as much detail as you did through all the effort. Great reading Joe.

  12. Best race report I’ve ever read. You’re a very talented adventure writer Joe. What a moving series.

  13. Incredible. I’m speechless, nearly. Congratulations, Joe.

  14. Awesome writeup, I don’t know how i missed it when you first posted it.


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