The race started at 2:00 pm on Sunday the 24th. There were a lot more people gathered around than I expected. With so many racers from far away places I expected there would just be a few people there other than the racers. As you can see from my starting video (once I get it posted) though there were people lined up yelling and cheering. That was kind of neat.
It was also very nice that as soon as I made it to the other side of Knik Lake I was finally done thinking about what I needed to do to get ready for the race and suddenly I could just focus on the race, and more importantly on whatever other things my mind would wander to over the course of the next several days.
The first few hours of the race were pretty uneventful. I ran for awhile with Tom Jarding and with Anne Ver Hoef and eventually settled into a pace a little ahead of them, but well behind all the bikers. I played leapfrog with the 3 skiers for several hours but eventually I passed them and wouldn't see them again until Yentna (Mile 57).
The sun was out and I was feeling great. At some point, about 15 miles into the race I turned around to get a nice 360 degree view of the scenery and coming up the trail behind me is Mike Curiak. I had first met Mike briefly at the race start just a couple hours earlier, but I knew already from our short talk that he was someone I would be happy to chat with as much as possible over the next several days. Luckily he was moving along at his touring pace or I never would have seen him again, but since he was stopping for 10+ hours each night I was fortunate enough to see Mike 4 or 5 different times while I was out there.
After Mike and I chatted for a bit he took off ahead and I was alone again for several hours. In fact I didn't see a single other person until the next time I ran into Mike again near the Susitna and Yentna River junction about 30 miles later. In this time I got to enjoy a great sunset over Flathorn lake, pass through a perfectly calm and serene Dismal Swamp, and drop down onto a refreshingly cool Susitna River. I had stopped to put on a little more clothing after dark, but I was actually overheated because of this until I dropped onto the river. At that point I could feel the temperature dip (probably to around zero) and I was very comfortable. Also in this stretch was the first time I felt any pain in my ankle. It was the front of my right ankle but the pain was very minor and I quickly found ways to run in which it didn't really bother me.
I took the long way around the island at the mouth of the Yentna (Doh... why did I follow that stupid blinkie light? and who the hell put that light there?). This was only a few minutes longer but it was getting late and I was getting ready to get to the first checkpoint. I was even starting to get a little cold but thought I would just push on the 12 or so miles to Yentna Station with the clothing I had on then. Here I ran into Mike Curiak again. He was setup in his tent for the night and when I asked him what time he was starting in the morning he said, "I don't know, whenever I wake up." I was so jealous of that. Mike offered me a little hot water that he had just heated from melted snow. That hit the spot and warmed me right up. Just talking to another person for the first time in about 5 or 6 hours was also very helpful. As I headed up the river I felt so much better than I did just 10 minutes earlier. This high feeling didn't get me all the way to Yentna but close enough that I only had about 3 miles of "checkpoint slog". (the feeling you get as you approach a checkpoint and you just want to get there and get food and warmth). There was a thermometer on a pole on the river just before Yentna Station that read 10 below. Not cold by Alaska standards but it was a little colder than I expected that first night, and because I was too stubborn to stop for more clothing so close to Yentna I did get pretty chilled by the time I got to the checkpoint.
I got to Yentna (mile 57) at 1:15 am, I ate some spaghetti, filled my water, and headed out to the cabin for some sleep. I set my watch for 6:30 hoping to get 4 hours of sleep. I couldn't sleep well though. I suspect I only got about 2 hours of actual sleep. At any rate, being off my feet for 4 hours felt good.
I headed back out on the river at 7:00 am hoping the coming sun would warm things up. I noticed that Tom Jarding had signed out of the checkpoint 5 minutes before me so I pushed a nice pace hoping to catch up and have someone to run with for awhile. After 2 hours I gave up and figured he was either cruising faster than I wanted to go or that I had passed him somehow without knowing it. When I got to Skwentna several hours later I discovered that I was still the first foot racer, and when I saw Tom again a couple days later I discovered that he had gone down river for a few minutes after he left the checkpoint (to go to the bathroom) and that I was in front of him right away out of Yentna.
Getting up toward Skwentna (mile 90) I had a much longer period of checkpint slog. Probably about 10 miles in which I was walking very slow, my ankle was hurting quite a bit more, and I just wanted to sit down and eat some food. My food intake was very good on the trail. Everything I was eating was going down nicely and satisfying me but there's just no substitute for real, hot, fatty food.
At Skwentna I ate a burger, took some Ibuprofen for my ankle, wrapped some tape around my ankle, and got back on the trail pretty quickly. I think I was there for about 90 minutes. Amazingly once I got going again I felt great. There was a moose a few miles out of Skwentna that took some time to get around but other than that I was just cruising down the trail enjoying the afternoon. At about 5 or 6 pm I hit the beginning of the Shell Hills. I walked most of the steeper uphills but I was feeling so strong that I ran all of the less steep uphills and going uphill was really reducing the pain in my ankle. It was like these hills somehow threw a jolt of energy into me. When the trail leveled back out I was just cruising along, probably running about 6.5 mph for most of the stretch between Skwentna and Shell Lake.
I stopped at Shell Lake Lodge for about 10 minutes to get a little warm water and chat with Bill, Kathi, Pierre, and Mike. They probably thought I was a bit crazy when I told them how much I loved running up through the Shell Hills and that I'd love to stay and visit but I was planning to get back out on my way to Finger Lake before stopping for the night.
This time the checkpoint slog was particularly tough. It was only about the last 5 miles before Finger but it felt like it took a month, and now I was having pretty severe pain in both my ankles as well as behind my left knee. It would have been very wise to slow way down and take a few hours for this last 5 miles but with the checkpoint this close I just kept pushing on in hopes of getting there as fast as possible because that would get me off my feet digging into a warm meal as fast as possible. Unfortunately when I got there everyone was asleep because they had gotten word (from Skwentna?) that no one else was coming in that night. Carl woke up and checked me in, and was kind enough to offer to cook me up some eggs, but I opted instead for a couple oranges and a banana and would instead grab a warm meal in the morning.
I was already pretty certain that I was going to sleep for as long as my body needed but when I got into the sleeping tent and took off my shoes I became 100% sure that I would not be setting an alarm to get up. my right ankle was very swollen and bruised and really did not look good at all. It was just after midnight. I had covered 130 miles in 34 hours, but at that moment I was pretty sure my race was done. Ankles that look like that don't get better under continued stress. I knew I would try pushing on down the trail the next day, but I also knew then that the likelihood of making it to McGrath, 220 miles away was almost zero.
The next morning I could hardly walk so I was in no real hurry to try running for an entire day. I took some Ibuprofen, sorted through my food drop that was at Finger Lake, ate a great breakfast (Finger Lake had the best food I encountered on the trail... which is a good thing since I ended up having 4 meals there), chatted with Bill, Kathi, and Pierre for awhile (they had arrived from Shell Lake in the morning), and then at about 10:30 I set out on the trail looking for a miracle. Unfortunately it wasn't going to happen. After a few miles I knew my race was done but I thought I would keep moving up to Puntilla, even if it took 20 hours and then I'd scratch there. After all it was yet another beautiful day and I figured the more of the trail I encountered, the more prepared I would be for the next time around (next year?).
various photos along the trail north of Finger Lake, just getting into the beginning of the mountains.
Eventually though the pain became so severe that I just could hardly stand up. And then eventually I couldn't. I had come to a steep downhill just before a series of even steeper downhills known as "the steps" and as I began down the first few feet of the hill both of my ankles shot out in pain at the same time and I involuntarily fell to the ground. I tried sliding down the hill on my butt and my sled was going sideways and running me over from behind. Finally I just unhooked my sled and laid in the trail. I cried. I laughed. I ate some food. I was strangely both so upset and very content at the same time. I had learned so much in just 2 days. I was in one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and I had this strange calming feeling knowing that I would be back here again, and that I would be feeling 100 times stronger. Just as I was about to finally get up and try to move Pierre came around the corner on his bike. I jolted up so as to not get run over. He slithered down the hill and I slithered down the hill behind him. I knew I was going to turn back but I wanted to do it alone. Somehow it felt shameful to turn around in the presence of another racer, especially when I had spent almost the entire race on my own. This was in fact one of the only times after the first few miles of the race that I had actually seen another racer out on the trail.
After watching Pierre ride away I stumbled a few more steps and stopped. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, almost 48 hours after the start, and I was done. Except I still had to travel the 7+ miles back to Finger Lake. It took me about 5 hours to get back. I ran into Mike Curiak one last time. This time we were able to chat for several minutes since I was no longer in a hurry. We parted ways once again with me jealous of him, this time simply jealous that he was able to continue on his journey. Be sure to check out Mike's blog to follow his continuing journey.
I finally got back to Finger Lake and had to wait until the next day to fly out to Anchorage. That night it took me several hours to fall asleep because of severe throbbing in both ankles and my left knee. The next morning I almost fell over just as soon as I stood up.
I've now been back in Anchorage for a few days and I feel more attached to this event than ever. Being out there and being a part of such an undertaking was such an unbelievable thing. I am very upset that I didn't get to reach my goal of finishing the race, but I've even more upset that I didn't get to simply spend more time out there and see more of the course. I learned so much about what it is do this race, but my injuries forced me to leave so much unlearned as well. I have so much respect for anyone who finishes or has ever finished this race. There are so many things that need to fall perfectly into place to be able to simply stay out there for that long, and then on top of all of that you need to walk, limp, ride, ski or run 350 miles. There's no getting around the distance. No matter how well everything goes that's still an amazingly long way to travel on your own power.
This said though I do feel like I have a better sense of what it takes to both finish this event and to finish it quickly. Before my experiences out there I thought that Steve Reifenstuhl's foot record of 4d 15h was absolutely beyond comprehension. And for the most part I still do. It's just in a different way that I now can't comprehend it. Before this race I thought that it just didn't seem physically possible to do it that fast, but now I realize that it is physically possible, but it borders on logistically and mentally impossible. There are dozens of things that need to fall perfectly into place for you to even have a shot at doing it that quickly. And of course on top of that you have to have the ability and fitness to cover that much ground in that much time.
I did finish the first 130 miles an hour faster than he did when he broke the record (and presumably faster than anyone ever has) and I had rested my body more up to that point than he had. Aside from my ankle problems my body felt so strong at that point. I had almost no muscle soreness and I didn't feel like I had physically worked very hard at all. I believe that I do have the physically ability to cover this route in a very fast time but I still have so much to learn to be able to do everything just right to make all the pieces come together. I intend to be back out there a year from now trying to put some more pieces of the puzzle in place, and hopefully getting a chance to see the heavenly sight that McGrath is after 350 miles on the trail.