Occasionally an email will slip through the spam filter or a piece of mass mailing will make it accidentally in the keep pile, and you are left with just a moment to consider the possibility of the glossy pitch, to daydream about the enclosed adventure, and to think that this race, however too far, could be really cool in a rebellious way that your friends, family, and quadriceps will think you are nuts and your fellow distance junkies will nod with that sounds hard. The one that slipped into my life was ski 50 kilometers in Alaska for Team in Training on one winter’s day.
The race has a locals’ scent that makes the event feel like a special hidden secret, like stumbling into to a bar and seeing Bonnie Raitt open a set, or like going to In and Out Burger and ordering an Animal style burger. In California it almost seems that the cross-training for Nordic skiing is apologizing - “Yes, it really tough. Yes, the drive every weekend to Tahoe is pretty far” but in Anchorage, skiing, like everything else, weaves into wintertime. The place has the mammalian need to continue to move against the cold.
It was hard not to be intimated by the race. There is an entire genre of the doomed icy narrative in which a bold (and almost always) male decides to push against the frozen climate. The legend is strong enough that it inspires actual people to take chances against Alaska as if it were nature’s own Vegas. In the nineties there was the Chris McCandless voyage “Into the Wild”, and recently there was the “Grizzly Man” journey down a bear’s digestive track. I really did not want to complete the trilogy and perhaps the best thing I did that weekend was to test my skis against the snow the day before and realize that this surface had the same lattice made with two hydrogen’s for every oxygen, that this was the same kind of conditions I had practiced at more local mountains, and that I was ready to glide even if part of the trail the day before was being used for the Iditarod.
The ceremonial start of the 1,000 mile sled race marks the end of the 17 day long Fur Rendezvous Festival, an affair that is the concoction of taxidermy, cold, and fashion. If Nordic skiing is about the purity of winter then the Fur Rondy is about getting close to the animal. Perhaps a little too close. The most spectacular hat-coat combinations still had the original mammal’s head and legs attached. The affect was the answer to the question of what would have happened if the NCAA mascots got really hard-core after a drinking binge.
For the Iditarod the starting area for the canines was similar to one for the humans but there was no theme music being played unless it was in a key too high for me to hear. Several blocks had been roped off, and the dogs barked anxiously for the start of the race. If there were a surprise about the event, other than you could watch part of it from a mall parking lot, was how small the dogs were. They are the mid-size variety, which at first felt like going to a monster truck pull but seeing how the vehicles had been replaced with Volkswagen Passat’s. The “strength to weight” ratio is often used by triathletes as an excuse for why they got dropped biking up a hill, and the dog size must follow the same principle. The musher’s must carry theirs and the dogs’ food on the several weeks journey and the bigger dogs just eat too much.
My biggest disappointment of the Iditarod was that it didn’t have a mass start. They launched each dog team a few minutes apart and there wasn’t the kind of pile up that happens with rental cars in the hands of Californians along the icy Steward highway.
My mild by comparison 50k race did have wave starts, and based on my dead last performance at Yellowstone the year before I was placed in the final wave. An hour before the race my teammates and I gathered at Robert Service high school, and we huddled on the floor to gain whatever knowledge we could from the locals. The one next to me had signed up for the 40k because he was afraid of the hills during the 50. This was not the kind of cheer I wanted to hear.
One by one the waves of skiers launched ahead. Ski starts are different than the swim scrum at the start of a triathlon. In skiing you must double poll - the equivalent of requiring everyone at a swim start to kick the first fifty yards, a personal dream of mine - and no one was run over. My wave had mostly my Team in Training teammates along with whatever elderly they couldn’t place anywhere else. The old folks quickly dropped us.
My entire race strategy was to sandbag the opening hills and then see what happens in the flats. The secret of endurance sports is learning to let go and trust your own pace rather than competition. I watched my two other closest teammates and my head coach blast up the hills and then out of sight as I did a quick gear change because the weather was in the quite balmy high 20’s.
Like doing taxes, going up hills isn’t that bad if you take them slowly enough. The down hills were more a problem. With the hundreds of skiers ahead of me, they had zambonied the descents into icy chutes. The race was going to be part luge.
Down the first hill I fell after the second bend. I hadn’t realized someone was on my tail. Normally if you are the downhill skier and someone tries to pass you on the inside right without saying anything like “track” or “on your right”, it isn’t your fault. But when the guy hit my boot, launched a ways down the hill, then skidded down the trail, and almost hit trees on the other side as if trying out for the opening of Wild World of Sports, I felt I had to say. “Dude, I am so sorry. Are you okay?”
He grunted as if I could understand bear and then pushed off. I was left to ski by self for a long time until I caught my first teammate at the second water stop.
We were starting to go through the main town of Anchorage. A phrase I heard while traveling outside of Anchorage was that they didn’t consider Anchorage to be part of real Alaska, and it reminded me hearing how people think of my hometown, San Francisco, isn’t part of the real America. Both get the high school isolationism of not being in the “in crowd.” If they were casting metropolitans as characters in “The Breakfast Club” San Francisco would be Judd Nelson’s “way too old to be in high school” rebel and Anchorage would be Ally Sheedy’s “very cute if she just would brush back her hair” babe still hoping to get asked to the prom. Anchorage is wonderful; how many other places have tunnels that you ski through?
Just over two thirds of the way through the course I picked off my head coach. I was so amazed that I fell on my tailbone. That vertebrate ached the rest of the vacation. I had also pushed my triceps to fatigue, and it hurt just to lift my polls. The fortunate thing about skiing in the flats is that you can get mostly by on legs and core strength. I knew for the hill at the end of the race I was doomed, but that was a ways off and I had to wonder who designed the layout. Marquis de Sade?
I past my last teammate with just a few miles left to go. The hill at the end was brutal, and I think I have one unhappy race photo waiting online for me somewhere. It is too bad they don’t take pictures a few minutes after finishing, because I discovered my race time was 3:54. I dropped almost an hour and twenty minutes from the prior year. A good portion of that was there was very fast snow, but I like to think in part some of it was that I am slowly becoming a real skier and I now have two t-shirts to show for it.
But I also know that my luck during the race was also from what I learned from seeing all the other mammals during the rest of the trip - the moose, the killer whales, the sea lions, and the bears - that winter is best conquered in packs. The foolishness of McCardness and Jack London was to fail to realize how great winters can be when shared with a group. And I want to say thanks to everyone along the way. I do want to thank the race organizers because that was one of the best races I have done in any sport. I want to thank all of my fellow skiers (even the one guy who grunted at me) because they were the politest group of slow twitch junkies I have met.
I want to thank all the people who help support me with donations either financial or just simply emotional. That a bunch of money is going to leukemia is a much better side effect of this trip than my hurt tailbone. You have really helped make a difference.
And I really want to thank my teammates and coaches for teaching so much, sharing so much, and laughing so often. It was one of the best adventures I have done.