On Feb 3 I attempted but did not finish the Iditasport 200, a 200-mile human-powered ultramarathon across Alaska. Racers are given 120 hours (5 days) to cover 200 miles. You can ski, bike or run, but you must pick one mode of transport and stick with it throughout the race. There is a required gear list that includes a stove, -20F sleeping bag, and 5000 calories of food, among other things. Skiers usually carry this gear in a backpack, bikers lash the gear to their bike frames, and runners tow the gear behind them in a sled.
My gear list for the race is here. I confess that I wasn’t super excited about being forced to carry a stove or a giant sleeping bag, but I ended up using both items and was grateful to have them. In fact, I used pretty much every item in my sled.
I entered the race as a “runner” – in quotes because I don’t do much running when I’m towing a 40-lb sled behind me. It’s more like a steady hike. This year, there were 12 participants: 2 skiers, 4 runners, and 6 cyclists. By the half-way point, there were only four racers remaining: me, another runner named Paolo, and two cyclists. Everyone else had scratched. By the end of the race, only the two cyclists finished. I ended up making it to approx. mile 150 before dropping. Paolo dropped about 10 miles after I did.
Of the two cyclists, one wound up with severe frostbite on his toes. (I used the pic below with his permission.) What I find most disturbing about his frostbite is that he didn’t know it had happened until after the race. This wasn’t a case of someone being stupid and ignoring intense pain or cold. In fact, he said his feet never felt cold or numb at all. Frostbite is a no-shitter that can impact your outdoor adventures for the rest of your life. To realize it can sneak up on you like that is disconcerting, and makes me even more appreciative that I ended the race with all my digits.
Winter ultras are known for being challenging, but this kind of drop rate (~80% DNF) is high even for a winter ultra. The general consensus is that this year’s race was particularly challenging because the trail received up to 1-2 ft of fresh snow in the days leading up to the race, rendering trail conditions especially soft and slow. The storm system had moved on by the time the race started, which gave us clear skies during the race. This was good news because it meant we got plenty of sunshine and gorgeous views. This was bad news because the clear skies meant frigid temps, frequently well below zero.
The race started just after noon on Friday Feb 3. The first five miles across Big Lake were wonderfully smooth. There is a winter ice road across the lake, which is flat, fast and compact. Even though I knew better, this road gave me a false sense of confidence: Look at that, the first 4-5 miles had gone by in just over an hour! This race wasn’t going to be so hard after all!
As soon as we got off the lake, conditions changed dramatically, and the trail became a soft bumpy mess. By mile 8, the first runner had dropped. At mile 20, I remember being concerned with how hard I was working, so early in the race, despite going so slowly. But I put my head down and got through it, arriving at the first checkpoint, Big Su Tent Camp, around 9:30 pm. I was greeted by two awesome volunteers, and three other racers: a skier, a cyclist, and a runner (Paolo). I soon learned that both the cyclist and the skier were dropping at Tent Camp, but Paolo, who had traveled all the way from Italy for this race, was continuing.
By 11:30 pm I had left Big Su Tent Camp and was headed for Yentna Station, the next checkpoint, approximately 25 miles down the trail. I got in around 8 am, and Yentna was bustling. Yentna Station consists of a house with a common living area and a few simple guest rooms upstairs. There are also several one-room cabins scattered around the property, including a bunkhouse. The walls of the main house are covered in Iditarod memorabilia, and the owners are described as “a true Alaskan family who have been on the river since 1981 – when they carved a home out of the wilderness with a chainsaw, duct tape, and hard-headedness.”
I inhaled breakfast in the main house at Yentna Station, and then went off to find a place to sleep. The Willow 300 dogsled race was happening at the same time as Iditasport, and apparently the night before, Iditasport racers and mushers had been packed into the bunkhouse like sardines. It was now approx. 9 am, and things were starting to clear out. I spotted an empty bunk that was still warm from its previous occupant. Without a thought to fresh bedding, I grabbed the bunk, covered myself with my down jacket for extra warmth, and quickly fell asleep to the sound of a musher snoring loudly across the room from me.
I was awake again by 1130. I had slept for 2.5 hrs. It wasn’t exactly restful sleep in the bunkhouse, but I hoped it would keep the sleep monster at bay for the next part of the race, a 30-mile stretch from Yentna Station to the Skwentna Roadhouse, via the frozen Yentna River. Although this is the longest stretch of trail in the race, in recent years this river section had been flat and fast. After slogging through my first day, I was eager for some easy travel.
But, as I was now learning, the last few years had been uncharacteristically mild. The conditions we had this year were, according to one local, “the real Alaska.” The river, although definitely in better condition than the first section of trail, was still soft and slow and bumpy. I settled in for the long haul. It took a whopping 14 hours to travel the flat 30 miles from Yentna to Skwentna. I was on the trail from 1 pm to 3 am.
Two things made this section bearable: first were the teams of sled dogs that passed me in the night. On the trail, you can hear a snowmachine miles away, but the sled dogs were surprisingly quiet. You wouldn’t know a team of dogs was coming up behind you until suddenly they were panting just a few feet away, and then they glided past and were gone. Watching sled dogs approach head-on was even better, especially at night. First I would just see the bright headlamp of the musher, moving through the dark at a speed that was too fast and smooth to be human, but too quiet to be machine. Then as the dogs got closer, their eyes would glow yellow and green in my headlamp, and I could see the steam rising off their bodies in the cold. As they ran past, they always looked so happy, tongues hanging out, thrilled to be running, making it look effortless.
The other thing that got me through the long section from Yentna to Skwentna, as well as through several other dark moments in the race, were the northern lights. I saw northern lights every night of the race. They were usually muted and low on the horizon, but they were always there, glowing lightly and giving me something to focus on other than my tired legs.
It was the aurora that got me through the final 4 miles into Skwentna that night. I was trudging along, wondering why the hell I was doing this stupid race, when I happened to glance behind me. The northern lights were brighter than usual, putting on a show. I actually stopped and sat down in the snow to watch for a minute. Why was I doing this race? Oh right, for moments like this.
I slept for approx. 4 hours at Skwentna – my longest stretch of sleep during the race. When I awoke, I mentally geared up for another long haul from Skwentna to the half-way point at Shell Lake. The night before, as I was coming into Skwentna, I had run into a couple bikers coming back from the turnaround point at Shell Lake. (These two bikers would turn out to be the only people to finish the race.) As each passed by, they stopped to warn me that trail conditions on the next section from Skwentna to Shell Lake were especially bad, and that I should be prepared for that stretch to take significantly longer than anticipated. (It’s worth noting that these two guys were racing hard – they were within 2 miles of each other, both vying for the win. And both of them took the time to stop and chat as we passed on the trail.)
Although I wasn’t excited to hear about more crappy trail conditions, I was glad for the info. I think part of the reason the section from Yentna to Skwentna was so exhausting is because I had expected an easy day, and instead got a slog. In races like this, it’s all about managing expectations. So yes, it was also a slog up to Shell Lake. But thanks to the words of warning from other racers, I was ready for it, and therefore it didn’t feel quite so bad.
It also helped that Tom and Rowan were waiting for me at Shell Lake! They had flown in on a tiny bush plane and were staying in a rustic cabin on the lake. While it was awesome to see them, I learned that in the future, it’s probably best to avoid family time until after the race. We all ate dinner together, and then went to sleep. Three hours later, at 1130 pm, my alarm went off. I needed to be leaving Shell Lake by midnight if I wanted to make the race cut-offs. Ugh. I got out of the warm bed I was sharing with Tom, gave Rowan a kiss goodbye on her soft little cheek, and headed back out into the cold dark night. I was now more than half-way done with my race, and I’d never felt worse. I thought it would be uplifting to reach the turnaround point, but all I could think was “Holy crap, I’m only half-way done?”
It’s funny, but when I first signed up for this race I thought that the opportunities to rest/sleep would make it easier. The tricky thing about races that last for multiple days without distinct stages (i.e., without “mandatory” rest breaks) is that you never really get any truly restful sleep. In the Iditasport, every time you stop moving, you know that the clock is still ticking and that you really shouldn’t linger. In addition, every time you stop to rest, you must make the decision to start moving again, and again and again. Every time I walked into a warm cabin, I knew I would have to walk out of it in just a few short hours. I almost would’ve preferred to just keep pushing – that way I wouldn’t have to repeatedly talk myself into continuing the race.
And by the Shell Lake turnaround, I was doing a lot of that: trying to convince myself to continue. The trudge from Shell Lake back to Skwentna was not fun. Again, I’d done a poor job of managing expectations. Even though it was mostly downhill from Shell Lake to Skwentna, the snow slowed me down enough that I never actually gained any momentum. What I thought would be an easy downhill cruise was not. It was also at this point that I started hallucinating. Several times I was sure I heard something behind me (not just my sled :), and spun around only to see snow-covered trees sparkling in the beam of my headlamp.
By the time I got back to Skwentna, I was in a bad place. I wanted to quit. I made a deal with myself that I would eat and sleep before making any major decisions. I slept for another couple hours, ate some more food, and woke up feeling 100% better. I decided I had it in me to push on to Yentna. I left Skwentna at 1 pm, with the goal of reaching Yentna by 3 am.
Unfortunately, by midnight I was so tired that I was staggering along the frozen river. The sleep monster had caught me. At one point I fell asleep on my feet and woke myself up when I wandered off trail into deep unconsolidated powder. An hour later, I noticed that there were a couple of spots where the ice had opened up on the river. They were well-marked with lathes, and easy to avoid if you were paying attention. But I was literally asleep on my feet. I realized that even though I was only ~5 miles from Yentna, it was time to bivy.
The night I spent camped on the river was both a highlight and the downfall of my race. Tactically, it wasn’t a smart move, and almost certainly cost me the race. Rather than sleep in a warm bed at Yentna Station, I spent all night shivering in my sleeping bag. Temps were approx. 30 below zero with windchill, and it was not a restful night by any stretch of the imagination.
On the other hand, setting up the bivvy was fun! Suddenly the race felt like an adventure again! Up until that point I’d been doing a lot of plodding along, staring at the snow and putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, no matter how much my legs hurt or how tired I was. The monotony of the course had taken a big toll on me.
But now I was doing something different! The moon was bright, the stars were out, the northern lights glowed faintly on the horizon, and I was going to sleep on a frozen river in Alaska! Not to mention I had been hauling that damn sleeping bag with me the whole way and was excited to finally put it to good use. The thermometer on my duffel had bottomed out at -20F and I knew I was in for a cold bivvy, so I kept my giant expedition-weight puffy coat on as I slid into my sleeping bag. Even with the jacket on, and the sleeping bag zipped to my chin, I couldn’t stop shaking. I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m here to tell you that you can indeed fall asleep while your teeth chatter. Of course, the sleep was brief, and when I woke up my muscles actually felt more tired than when I lay down, probably because they had been working at shivering to keep me warm all night.
And that was the tactical error – I essentially wasted time attempting to rest on the river, and then still needed to take a few hours to rest at Yentna. It was already going to be tight to make the cut-offs, but that bivy put it beyond the realm of possibility.
When I finally reached Yentna Station I slept for a couple hours, ate some food, and chatted with Paolo. We’d been going at a similar pace the entire race, and we both agreed that there was no way to make the race cut-off at this point. Yet both of us were still too stubborn to quit, and so we left Yentna together, headed for Tent Camp. I trudged along in misery for 5 miles, stopping every 3-4 minutes to adjust something, or check my watch, or just bend over and rest my hands on my knees. And suddenly, I realized that I was DONE. The fatigue and pain had reached a level that I simply couldn’t bear. It seemed especially futile to keep pushing onward when I knew I wouldn’t make the cut-off. Suffering is hard. Suffering without any carrot dangling in front of me felt impossible.
After the race, when I told folks about my DNF, a few people said they were glad I knew when to stop, for the sake of health and safety. But the truth is, this wasn’t really about health or safety. Yes, there had been a few sketchy moments during the race (sleepwalking along the river, e.g.). However, when I decided to quit, I wasn’t in any immediate danger. I just couldn’t do it anymore. The thought of taking another step, let alone walking an additional 10-15 miles to the next checkpoint, seemed literally impossible. That was a feeling I had never experienced before.
One way to interpret this is that the Iditasport pushed me to my true limit.
Another possibility is that I’ve simply changed. I used to be a person who refused to quit no matter what. I was proud of my “zero DNFs” record. But maybe that’s not so important to me anymore? Or at least, clearly it’s not important enough to keep me moving forward when I am truly miserable for an extended period of time.
Several days after the race, I’m still pondering all of this. What I do know is that being outside and moving my body makes me happy, and that I enjoy working hard and testing my limits. But perhaps I’ve reached a point in my life where I am redefining how deep I want to dig, and/or what makes digging deep worth it.
Several people have also shared kind words about handling the disappointment of a DNF. And I did indeed feel some disappointment: the goal was to finish the race, and I did not achieve that goal, which definitely stings. However, I was surprised to discover that despite DNFing I still felt an odd sense of pride about the race. It sounds clichéd, but I gave it my best shot, and that is all I can ever ask of myself (or anyone else). My best wasn’t good enough to get me to the finish line during this particular race. But my best got me farther than most of the other racers. My best kept me going to mile 150, even though I wanted to quit starting at approx. mile 85. Giving it my best meant that I prepared diligently for the race, pushed hard, suffered a lot, and saw some beautiful sights. And now it’s time to start thinking about the next adventure!