The wind whipped down the Yentna River. I had only a thin liner glove on my hands as I hurried to get my gear back in order outside of Luce's. It's amazing how quickly my hands can start to freeze in the wind, and how quickly I start to panic when this happens. I got on my bike fast and started to pedal into the strong headwind.
My fingers were numb and stiff after only being outside of the warm lodge for five minutes. I tried to ride fast and warm up my hands by swinging them, but nothing was working. They were just getting worse, even inside pogies. I could feel the slightest breeze swirling around inside my pogies, just enough to keep my hands frozen. The panic started to rise and I gave up and stopped and decided I need to figure this out before I continued on. The worst thing you can do is let the cold creep into you, because before you know it, it will be too late and you will never warm up.
I tightened the pogies around the handlebars to keep the wind out and stuffed two empty plastic bags up the sleeves to block the wind. I got out hand warmers and threw them inside the pogies. I zipped up my pit zips, pulled my balaclava up over my face and pulled up the hood to my shell. Back on the bike I pedaled hard and grasped the hand warmers in my hand. When they finally kicked in I knew everything was going to be fine. I relaxed, ready faced my next battle. The wind.
On the short ride up the Yentna, before the Alexander Lake turn off, I passed a rider who I recognized as a guy that works at REI, and yelled out through the wind, "Well, at least we'll have a tailwind on the way back!" He said, "Ya never know, that won't be for four hours!" True, I thought. I fully believed in my mind that I would be back back at Luce's by 10 pm ready to order up a giant bowl of spaghetti and start out the final 35 miles with a full belly and a nice tailwind. But as I am starting to learn in these races, what you think it will be like and what it is actually like, never really matches up.
Pedaling was tough now. The sleeping pad strapped to the front of my bike was acting as a huge sail, forcing my handlebars sideways every few feet. It was taking all of my energy to pedal into the wind. But at least I was warm, and soon I would be off the river.
This was the first time I ran into Erv Berglund, who was struggling as well. We walked a bit together on a soft section after we turned off the river and chatted. Erv was from Minnesota, but his son, who was also in the race lived in Alaska. Erv was back for his second try at the Susitna 100 after crashing badly last year and having to drop out around mile 50. He was determined to finish this year.
After awhile I got back on my bike, but it was slow, soft and uphill, but at least we were out of the wind. Finally I started to see my friends coming back from the turn around point. I was wondering when I would start to see them. Sean, Carl, Julie B - all people who I had ridden with during training, but who were quite a bit faster than me. It was nice to see friendly faces again, even if it was only for a few minutes.
Sean, who is also training to ride to Nome, stopped and chatted with me and Erv for a bit. I don't remember what we talked about, but this will always stick in my mind. He said, "I don't want to lie to you, but it's about to get messy up ahead. There is a really strong headwind and the trail is really soft. You have a long way to go." At that point I started to realize that my grand plans of getting back to Luce's by 10 pm were about to be spoiled, but I was still happy to be out there.
I tried to ride as much as I could but, once I was exposed to the wind the going got really tough. There were big snowdrifts across the trail and foot prints of riders that had come before us breaking up the trail into a soft mush. The wind kept pushing me off the trail. I would step down only to fall hip deep in the soft snow beside the trail.
It was good to get off the bike and walk a bit. It was around 6 pm the sun was about to set. I knew it would be dark soon, and secretly in the back of my mind I feared the darkness. Not fear of the dark in the traditional sense, but fear of the limited view of just the space around my bike where the headlamp shines, fear of a trail with no landmarks, only the tracks of racers that had come before me, fear of the drop in temperatures, the wind and the dark places my mind goes when slogging along at 2 mph pushing my bike into the night.
Erv kept catching up to me, he was surprised that I was still within his sight. "I thought you took off!" He said. We kept pushing into the wind, only able to ride for about ten pedal strokes before falling over. He'd fall down, I'd fall down, I'd help him up, he'd help me up, and it was at that point that we started to form an unspoken pact to stick together at least until we got to Alexander Lake and out of the wind.
Finally the sun set and on came our lights. Off in the distance I could see red blinky lights of racers in front of us. It was surprisingly bright out though with an almost full moon hanging over us. I have never seen so many stars. Erv yelled out, "There's Orion! Maybe he'll watch over us until we get to the cabin." This section of the course, which was only 12 miles, seemed to take for...ev...er. The wind was sucking all of the energy out of my body. The hours were ticking by. I made a point to not look at my thermometer for fear of seeing what the temperature really was. Later I heard rumors of 20 below ambient temperatures and 40 below windchill. That seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, because I never really felt THAT cold.
At one point we tried to figure out how far we were from the cabin. Neither me nor Erv had a bike computer or GPS so we had no idea. "I think it should only be another 2 miles." I said. "Ya think? I hope so." Erv replied. We pushed on. We flipped flopped with other bikers all trying to figure out just how far we had left to go to get out of the wind. After about another half hour we passed a biker coming out. He said, "I've been riding for 35 minutes." He was riding though, so we figured another hour of walking. We were slightly devastated by the thought, but kept pushing on. Two miles, I can handle two miles.
Then after another half hour we made a hard left turn and the headwind became a cross wind. It felt like it was gaining energy at this point, but we had long stretch where we could ride, so our spirits lifted. Every so often a gust would come through and push me clear across the trail into the snow. I picture it now, and it is quite comical. Maybe I would have been laughing at the time, except for the fact that my face was buried in the snow.
After what felt like forever again, we saw another biker and he told us we still had four more miles. I was crushed. It felt like we were getting farther away from the cabin not closer. How could this be? I felt the very beginning of a bonk rushing through my veins. I shoved a giant cookie in my mouth, a delicious giant cookie made of oatmeal, peanut butter, raisins and chocolate chips. I remembered Brian was calling them Man Cookies. Man Cookies, please give me strength, I thought to myself and giggled. It couldn't be that bad as long as I still had Man Cookies.
Bikers headlights passed in the dark. "Good job, keep going." I was only able to get out two word phrases at this point. After about another mile, it was reduced to "Hey." I finally saw my friend Leonard and knew he would be honest about how far we had left to go. I was sure he would say, see that light up there? That's the cabin. But he crushed me again with his words, "Oh, you still have a waaaaaaaays." In that sort of country sounding drawl that Leonard has. Those last two words droned on in my head. A waaaaaaaaaaaays....a waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays...a waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays.
Ahhhhh, the beloved low point in the race, the time when you curse yourself for getting yourself out into the middle of nowhere in Alaska only to have to get back somehow, the time when you swear you will never enter another endurance race again, the time when you start making plans to move to Hawaii to become a surfer, where you will retire and spend the rest of your life drinking fruity beverages and basking in the sun.
"This place should be called the fucking Dismal Swamp!" I screamed.
Luckily the wind was howling too loud and Erv was slightly hard of hearing. "WHAT?!!!" he yelled over the wind.
"Oh nothing, I was just saying THIS SUCKS!"
"Yep, it sure does!" He agreed.
After what seemed to be another hour of pure misery, there was a glimmer of hope. As I wallowed in my misery were were passed by a couple of bikers. Erv stopped them to ask how far. I didn't bother because I was tired of hearing bad news. "Oh less than a mile. That's the lake right there and then it's .25 miles from there."
Yes! We were there! We dropped onto the lake just as the wind started subside, got on our bikes and hammered into the Alexander Lake cabin. The Christmas lights that lined the roof of the cabin were twinkling in the night. I could see racers moving around inside. It was the most inviting scene of my life.
"We're halfway kid!" Erv proclaimed.
"Yes, we are. Yes, we are."