A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Long and the Short of It

The cozy log shelter known as Lee’s Cabin is not a race checkpoint on the White Mountains 100.  Of course not!  Any real ultra-racer who is snow-biking, skiing, or running 100 miles wouldn’t even pause to rip open a Clif bar a mere seven miles into the adventure.  And yet two weeks earlier, Lee’s had been not a blip in the background, but the Grand Destination – and I’d spent a lot more time planning for that two-day fourteen-mile round-trip than for this (theoretically) non-stop hundred-mile one. 

As I meandered past on my sturdy classic skis, I did stop for a moment, and take a good swig from my battered Nalgene of hot chocolate.  I felt a little self-conscious for even noticing the cabin’s existence, but I could practically hear the echos of our Spring Break visit.

“Two, three, four…” The scuffling of ten small hands and an equal number of small feet in the loft of Lee’s Cabin sounded like an infestation of forty-pound squirrels.  “…seven, eight, nine…”  After several false starts, a total was reached.  Down below, the adults exchanged sardonic glances and waited for the census results to be announced.  The stuffed animal census, that is.

Placing limits on the plush beast population was part of the elaborate packing process.  So was preventing the kids from stuffing their allotted toy bags with cherished blocks of wood, railroad spikes, or chunks of granite.  But despite these efforts, the invisible gurus of Traveling Light mocked me. 

“They’re all small animals,” Lizzy told me earnestly.

Part of the trouble was that all undertakings involving kids need to be double-buffered against Worst Case Scenarios.  And if the adventure involves getting our two five-year-olds (not to mention three small people belonging to other mommies and daddies) to ski seven miles to a backwoods cabin when the temperature is hovering around zero Fahrenheit, make that quadruple-buffered. 

I knew that bringing a whole pint of maple syrup – from real Canadian maple trees! -- might be overkill.  Then again, running out of syrup?  That would be tragic.  I knew that the twins were unlikely to wear more than one sweater under their snowsuits for the simple reason that if they did so they’d be unable to move – but what if one sweater got wet?  What if it was accidentally drenched in real Canadian maple syrup?  I brought extras.  I worried that the rigors of the trail, the limitations of a cramped space, or the chill of the cabin floor might cause my kids to decide that (horrors!) they didn’t actually like ski trips.  I countered this eventuality by bringing approximately eight million snacks, plenty of art supplies, slippers, and, of course, stuffed animals.

Jay likes to spend whole evenings reading up on the riveting nuances of gossamer-light sleeping bags, tents less hefty than the average guinea pig, stoves that fold into your pocket, and rain jackets that practically levitate.  And yet there we were in the woods with not only three boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, eight bedtime stories, and a non-stick non-gossamer frying pan, but also a well-travelled Lamby and a toy cat named Dirty Snow.  I like to think I know how to prepare for the most extreme of Arctic expeditions, but what I actually prepared for was a slumber party at which the greatest danger was that someone might wet their sleeping bag or mislay a teddy.  The irony stared me in the face with its fuzzy little sewn-on eyes. 

In contrast, for the Whites 100, packing took roughly half an hour.  It wasn’t that I was trying to take the race less seriously than I took the family camping trip.  But I escaped the waiting list and inherited bib #16 only two days before the event -- and even then, I couldn’t immediately begin stuffing my old blue backpack.  I had a few other jobs to do first… starting with lining up 30 hours of childcare.

Luckily, our friends are saintly.  As far as I know, no one even groaned or rolled their eyes.  Still, I had to call upon the collective goodwill of six different long-suffering individuals, each with sleep habits to match their allotted shift.  These folks are savvy to the ways of kindergarteners (no unsupervised use of Sharpies; no eating pudding in the living room; beware of scientific experiments involving Silly Putty, food coloring, or grownup scissors), but I still needed to write a few basic instructions about things like pajamas, family doctors and school schedules.  I packed lunch boxes two days in advance, and I packed a canvas bag with enough apples, fishy crackers, cucumber slices, and smoked Gouda to fill the time in between. 

I also had to face the uncomfortable reality of my work schedule.  The race started on a Sunday morning.  I estimated that I would finish on Monday night… or maybe Monday evening, if I was lucky… or possibly even Monday afternoon, if I was an incurable optimist.  But however things panned out, on Tuesday morning I needed to wax lyrical – or at least wax coherent -- about climate change impacts to an audience of forty people from around the state.  I was planning to flagrantly violate the rule that states “Don’t Lead a Three-Day Conference When Utterly Annihilated.”  At the very least, I needed to finish my Powerpoints and put my laptop and paperwork in a bag, and make sure that bag was so handy that I could not possibly forget it, even if my Tuesday-morning brain had all the cohesion of a fruit smoothie.  While I was at it, it seemed prudent to lay out my clean clothes and semi-professional shoes.  Am I the only one who sometimes has dreams in which I show up at a podium with no clue what I’m supposed to talk about, clad in muddy overalls or Superwoman underwear?

And then there was the party planning.  Back when I thought that Jay was the only member of the family who was going to be out on the racecourse, I’d happily agreed to do all the shopping, cooking, and planning for the after-race party – a dinner (hopefully at least passably edible) for 100-ish people. I figured it would be fun to check on Jay’s progress on the SPOT tracker while stirring up a few gallons of brownie batter and simmering chili in a pot large enough to bathe a wildebeest.  Instead, I rushed to do all this in advance, my demeanor more Demented Line-Cook than Betty Crocker.  I took advantage of the vast size of our freezer – otherwise known as Fairbanks Winter – to store the results.  A hundred slabs of homemade cornbread?  No problem… so long as I didn’t also need to prepare food for the race itself.  Except that, of course, I did. 

It turned out there was one other task I’d forgotten.  It was my turn to clean our community’s shared building.  Quick, get out the mop!  By the time I’d laundered the tablecloths and played the requisite game of The Vacuum Cleaner is Going to Nibble Your Toes, there wasn’t exactly time to shop for Powerbars. 

Luckily, there’s always plenty of food in our house.  Pilot bread?  Check.  Peanut butter?  Crunchy and creamy.   I was pretty sure other race participants would be fuelled by carefully calibrated rations and high-performance brand-name gels and goos – but there were plenty of those animal cookies left over.  I filled two sandwich baggies.

I figured those cookies must be good trail fuel, because they’d been popular among the three-foot-tall skiers.  “’Nother cookie, please, Mommy?”  The treats were just the right size to stuff into Molly, one at a time, as she struggled along on her Lilliputian skis.  No need to take off your mittens when your parent is imitating a bird feeding its fledglings.  Look, this one is shaped like a lion!  At least, I think that’s a lion.  Tiger?  Endangered snow leopard?  Mmmm, chocolatey snow leopard.  Keep those skis moving, kiddo!

I kick-waxed my own skis the night before the race in the infinitesimal interval between almost-kids’-bedtime and really-truly-right-now-kids’-bedtime.  I tossed the waxes into the top pocket of my backpack, where they fought for space with the headlamp, extra batteries, and small ration of toilet paper.

On our Spring Break trip, we carried a full medical kid, complete with salves, ointments, and cherry-flavored medications for the kindergarten crowd, just in case.  In other words, we had all the necessities. My race backpack had all the medical necessities, too: duct tape wrapped around a pen, and six Alleve tablets in a Ziploc.  There were four race medics out on the course, and I had a lot of warm clothes.  I’d be fine without the Winnie the Pooh Bandaids. 

My slush-proof overboots – for use on the notorious Ice Lakes and other sections of overflow – were actually plastic bags that had once held spruce pellets for our stove.  I knew they worked.  But I didn’t exactly feel like an ultra-racer with legs that said, “Made from 100% Alaskan Wood.”

It was when I was removing this low-rent footwear for the second time in a mile, at about mile 92 of the course, that a racer on foot caught up with me.  Strictly speaking, skiers ought to be far ahead of those who are walking the course, but I knew there were already two foot travelers ahead of me, so my pride wasn’t exactly at stake. 

In fact, my fellow racer didn’t seem scornful of either my slowness or my pellet bags, although I knew that if anyone is a real ultra-racer, he is.  Not only has he completed umpteen events, but he was one of the 18 entrants who actually finished this year’s snow-mired Iditasport, a race that Jay dropped out of after pushing a heavily laden bike through drifts for three days straight.  I was very grateful to find that such a supremely accomplished walker was willing to hike the next section of the course with me, because mile 93 is Wickersham Wall, a hill just as daunting as it sounds. 

And yet, somehow, the Wall wasn’t demoralizing at all.  Oh, I’m not saying I flew up it at lightning speed.  I was panting along with my skis strapped to my pack, my knees aching, and my ankles threatening mutiny.  But as I chatted with my new friend about his background in theoretical physics, his girlfriend who had snow-biked the course and was (hopefully) awaiting him at the finish, his political frustration and amusement, and his job at Google, it seemed easy to tell him about my kids, my logistical contortions, and my hope that Jay was there at the finish, too.  Maybe this guy was a real ultra-racer in a way that I would never be, but he was a real person, too, with a jumbled calendar and competing interests.  Moreover, he had a sense of humor – a trait that seems crucial for dealing with not only sleep-deprivation and steep hills, but also Powerpoint presentations, party-catering, small children, and just… life, the universe, and everything.  Sunshine was pouring down on us, there was still enough afternoon to carry us to the finish line, and we were both having a blast.

The course of the Whites 100 is a loop with a spur at the beginning and end, meaning that I passed Lee’s Cabin at mile seven, but also passed within half a mile of it at mile 94, right after topping Wickersham Wall.  This time, I was too far away to actually see the cabin, but I gave the left-hand trail a glance and a smile anyhow.  I’d be back again.  Jay and I would bring the kids back next winter, or perhaps even in the fall, with extra sweaters, chocolate cookies shaped like bison, and plenty of cuddly toys.  Maybe we’d even beat 2012’s record – although that might be tough. 

No, I don’t mean we’d beat the four hours that it took our family of four to cover those seven miles.  Who cares about speed?  I’m talking about our stellar packing job. Because when the plush-critter census was complete, and the number was relayed down from the loft, even the grownups were impressed.

How many stuffed animals made the journey? The answer, it transpired, was eighteen.


  1. I don't think I spend whole evenings reading about gear.. just most of the evening:)

  2. Great write up, Nancy. I've been checking all week to see your report on the race. Glad you had a good time. My daughter used to sneak about 8 stuffed animals on backpacking trips!!

  3. Great story, Nancy! and for the record, you were 100% with it at the workshop. Impressive.