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

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What's not to like?

On May 7, 2011 I posted a picture of my mom on Facebook.  It wasn’t a particularly good picture.  It was taken by a four-year-old.  Moreover, the gesture was patently unoriginal (and potentially labeled me as a pawn of Hallmark), given that it was Mothers’ Day.  Still, seventeen people “liked” the image. 

Then someone else chimed in – someone who, when we were ten, patiently tried to teach me to shoot hoops, shared 25-cent cans of orange soda, and did unspeakably dangerous things on bicycles with me.  Someone who dressed as an angel for Halloween when I was a devil.  Someone I haven’t seen or even spoken to in twenty years.

Credit: Molly Cable

S: I Love this photo!!! It brings back such wonderful memories. I remember painting the mural with you. I always had a great time hanging out at your house.
S: P.S.- my mom is sitting with me and I just showed her this photo. This is her comment "I always admired Nancy's mother for having the courage to let you and Nancy paint fish on her kitchen wall." Happy Mothers Day!
A: I guess I'd better bring some paint the next time I babysit M and L. A few hours should be enough time to make our mark.
N: S, I'm pretty sure that starfish is yours. I keep thinking of you and hoping your twins are letting you sleep. I promise, twins are really easy when they're four (unless A lets them paint on the walls).

Yup.  Sometimes I really love Facebook. 

And yet… even as I type that, I cringe. None of us wants to admit that we don’t just “like” that little white-on-blue f (with an eye-rolling, self-deprecating injection of sub-cutaneous sarcasm) -- we really, truly, like it. 

Facebook is suspect.  No matter how much time we all spend on its alluring pages – how many adorable cats/dogs/children/orphaned hedgehogs we post, how many hours we devote to a version of Scrabble apparently programmed by Dostoyevsky, how many Important Causes we espouse -- we project, at best, unadorned ambivalence with regard to our habits.  More often, our ambivalence is flavored with guilt, conspiracy theories, and denial. 

Facebook, we say, laughing nervously, is a vortex of time-wasting.  It’s an omphaloskeptic simulation of actual human interaction. It’s a hang-out for narcissists who are addicted to “likes” and who obsessively self-edit their lives.  It’s a bits-and-bytes pseudo-reality where all the babies are precociously precious, everyone gets promoted, and photos never include double chins, gray hairs, or wrinkles. 

In our frantic, plugged-in, don’t-sniff-the-flowers don’t-know-the-neighbors lives, is Facebook really repairing our disconnectedness, or is it actually making us lonelier?  Stephen Marche posed that question in the Atlantic Monthly in May 2012 (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930/) in an article that was well worth the read, even for those with tweet-sized attention-spans.   Reading the piece, I found that some of Marche’s awkward questions mirrored my own. 

Is Facebook actually useful for keeping up with old friends from all the myriad chapters of my life – or does it merely makes me think I’m keeping up with them, because I’ve seen the photos of their newly tiled bathroom or read the details of the natural childbirth of their eleven-pound baby?  Have all my friends morphed into one bland, public-faced person living roughly the same life-stage as myself but with no actual recollection or reference to the finer quirks of what makes them them and me me? 

Or are they, perhaps, still inimitable, individual, and goofy as heck?

May 10, 2012 was my birthday.  It wasn’t a particularly important birthday.  I was thirty-nine.  Still, thanks to Facebook’s propensity for having a far better memory than mere mortals can ever attain (a fact that makes some folks get a bit twitchy about privacy), I got a number of nice “happy birthday” messages.  And then I got this one:

Happy Birthday, Nancy, from a collection of your friends at B1's graduation party in Western Mass! — with D, B1, and B2.

Credit: benevolent stranger

A: I said, "Say Fresco!" and B1 did.
N: Awww... thanks, you guys. Given that I met one of you in the Adirondacks in 1992, and one in Boston in 1994, and the other two in Fairbanks in 1999, that's a pretty awesome birthday photo. And B1, another huge congratulations!
B2: I think we all said "Fresco," but B1 went with "Frescoooooooooooooo." She's a doctor, so she knows what she's doing.
A: Yeah, but D, *we're* looking doctoral in the robes!
N: I dunno... I've had my doctorate for a few years now, and I'm pretty sure I'm more likely to play air guitar with a badminton racket than actually wear a robe. Unless, of course, I went to a Harry Potter costume party, in which case I might do both at once.
B1: Of course I held the "o" in Fresco...I'm playing the ukulele!

In case it wasn’t obvious, these people aren’t even supposed to know each other, let alone be partying together four thousand miles away from me -- and taking time out from partying to be cute for my benefit.  I am their six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon.  The vagaries of the universe (plus the self-assortment of dorkily awesome people) conspired to create this birthday photo.  When it popped onto my timeline, I stared at it with a mix of nostalgia, amusement, jealousy, and joy. 

Ok, fine.  Facebook perhaps has its own special magic with regard to old friends.  But it can’t hold a candle to reality when it comes to new friends, right?  Only an idiot would try to meet people in the digital universe.  Back when I first signed up for an account, I told myself – with self-satisfied smugness -- that I would never be so stupid as to “friend” someone I’d never even met, for heaven’s sake.  

Well… until last November.

Credit: Mark Conde

C: HA! Weather Channel proof! (Slide #6 is my sister-in-law, Nancy Fresco, mid-run.)
The World's 15 Toughest Marathons - weather.com
Here's where the initial text goes

G: Wait, where does the initial text go?
C: Here, G. Here.
N: G, the initial text goes over a freakin' mountain. After that, I generally find that I've lost the thread of the text altogether, and I stumble from paragraph to paragraph with little or no coherence, retention, or even basic grammar.
G: Am I the only one seeing that line in the preview for this article?
C: Will it be more or less amusing if I say yes?
N: We can all see it, G. We're just in denial. Deep, deep denial.
C: N, meet G. You have a mutual Facebook friend from California.
N: Wait, you know M? Holy cow! He's been a friend since college... and he just got married... have you met the (other) groom?
[discussion of the general coolness of the other groom, R]
G: Maybe we can ALL get together when C's out here?
C: So are you two friends now? Have we completed the circle? square? pentagram?
N: Yup. Me, you, G, M, R... that makes a pentagram. I knew it. YOU'RE A WITCH!

It should be noted that none of my sisters-in-law are actually witches; those genes reside solidly on my side of the family. 

However, it should also be noted that many of my friends are marathoners – and when the recent tragedy in Boston set worry flaring and social media buzzing, it was Facebook that told me that my former college roommate and blazing-fast role-model (whose name is not actually Vernon, no matter how often I call her that) was safe and sound.

Credit: Bob Cowin Images

The world is small, sometimes to the point of coziness.  If a friend-of-a-friend reads enough of your political ranting and overly-intellectual hypothesizing, she might click on your blog.  And she might discover that you grew up in the same hometown on the opposite side of the country, and caused gastric distress in the same waterfowl through profligate dispersal of unwanted sandwich detritus.

N and J are now friends
P: Oh, how do N and J know each other?
N: We don't. But we know the same ducks, so it's all good.

Yeah, ok, but a Facebook “friend” isn’t the same as the person who agrees to go skiing with you at forty-five below zero, or the person who groans with you after eating the other half of the box of Girl Scout cookies, or the person who knows the answer to twenty-seven across when you don’t.  A true friend isn’t the person who “likes” the photo of your dog or your baby; it’s the person who knows that your dog chews off doorknobs and that your baby’s got flaking cradle-cap, drool-rash, and a shrieking aversion to naps – and yet still offers to dogsit or babysit.

Facebook can connect me with new people, sure, but can it help create an actual no-quotation-marks-needed friend out of the guy I bonded with when we were twelve (based on Dungeons and Dragons, contemplation of the space-time continuum, and social ostracization)?  Can it provide an inroad into socio-political debate, family camping trips, and late-night Star Trek with the vague acquaintance who drops off his kid at preschool at roughly the same time I do?

Well… yes, actually.  Yes, it can.  Not generally, perhaps, but particularly.  If I let it.

Even when distance intervenes, the equation is not impossible.  Circa 2009, I challenged that science-fiction-reading D&D-playing library-skulking friend from the Time Before Puberty to a game of Facebook Scrabble.  Four years later, I could tell you a wealth of fascinating details about his kids, his mother, his literary aspirations, and the agonies and triumphs of trying to make a living as a professional photographer.  I won’t, though – not only because I am circumspect to the core, but also because he is my faithful blog editor.

Furthermore, I can vouch that the local “friend” who always has something hilarious or insightful to say -- about the grammatical rules everyone should cease ignoring, the Onion article that will cause you to snarf your Cheerios, or the Borough Assembly member who would be more usefully put to work in the Solid Waste division -- can become the honest-to-goodness friend who teaches your kid how to light a campfire, discusses the nature of free will over a plate of not-at-all-theoretical Thai curry, or shows up unexpectedly with a loaf of ambrosial homemade multi-grain sourdough. 

Facebook is not the alpha and the omega, of course, and my use of it is far from exemplary.  Digging back into my timeline,  I find myself embarrassed by how many of my posts seem inane (“Look, my kids lose teeth, just like all other six-year-olds on the planet!”) or self-absorbed (“Hey, I’m biking/skiing/pogo-sticking a hundred miles for no good reason, and I’m sure you want to hear all about it!”) or outright boastful (“This is my child holding a blue ribbon, because she’s, like, TOTALLY AWESOME!”) 

Nonetheless, even if used as haphazardly as I have used it, Facebook can create bridges to inventing – or reinventing -- the kind of friendship that goes way beyond a click or two.  Tell me all about your obscure political candidate, your arachnophobia, and your fascination with fractals. Make bad puns about my Scrabble moves.  Quote Shakespeare or Gandhi or Captain Kirk.  Eventually, you may also accept a back rub; inherit my hand-made infant-size Arctic sleeping bags; come crash on my incredibly uncomfortable window seat; ply me with your homemade eggnog; invite my family to your wedding; and, most of all, laugh at me with understanding, intelligence, and impunity. 

A week or so ago, I got a bit testy about what passes for spring weather in mid-April in Fairbanks.  So I posted a photo of our thermometer.  That’s right, I was making bland and innocuous small-talk about the weather.  Booooring.  But my friends came through for me anyhow.

N: It's 53 degrees inside because we forgot to refill the wood pellet stove last night. It's
-24.7 outside because this is all some kind of existential test of my sense of humor.
Also, the cat is glaring at me accusingly.

P: Y'know, Nancy, I was going to bike to work today, but I was counting on a temperature about 40 degrees higher. I'm weird, but not Nancy-weird.
S: Is anyone other than Nancy truly Nancy-weird?
View 25 more comments
Twenty-five more comments!  In the space of those comments, we invented the Venn Diagram of Weird.  We started populating it with our own idiosyncrasies, from the hopelessly nerdy to the slyly profane.  In other words, we enjoyed one another’s company.

Although kibitzers on this particular post ranged across the globe – from New York to California to Ireland -- the conversation was mostly among locals.  So… why do we need Facebook?  Arguably, shouldn’t we all just get together for a cup of tea, a bike ride, or a potluck supper, and crack each other up in person, rather than via ethereal electrons?  Aren’t we doing this all wrong?

Such an assertion presupposes that the two are mutually exclusive – that Facebook is elbowing aside honest-to-goodness elbow-rubbing.  However, I’d contend that, if you let it, Facebook does just the opposite.  Most of the people in the conversation were locals, yes.  Any of them were people I’ll happily invite to our next potluck, whenever I get my act together enough and my home tidy enough to hold one.  But half of those – or perhaps more than half – are people who might not have reached my potluck-radar, had it not been for their occasional (or frequent) commentary, insights, semi-inappropriate badinage, and over-intelligent hilarity.  On Facebook.

Marche, in his article in the Atlantic, asked many of the same questions that had been rattling around in the back of my mind for a while.  Ultimately, he concluded – with the help of numerous studies, plenty of esteemed experts, and heaps of anecdotal evidence – kinda the same thing I did:  Facebook, like many other activities (grocery shopping, library book selection, ten-pin bowling, belly-dancing) is what you make of it.  If you’re lonely to start with, it probably won’t save you. Yes, we Americans are deeply lonely, eating-ice-cream-from-the-carton-in-front-of-a-glowing-screen lonely.  Facebook can contribute to that, by luring us into a false connectedness that keeps us from opening our doors and greeting our neighbors.  If we browse and click, stingy with words and bitter over the success of Annabel’s prize gardenias or Willard’s promotion to Regional Optimization Associate (www.bullshitjob.com), Facebook won’t make us less stingy, or less bitter.  But if we approach it with humanity, humility, and humor, we just might become that much more comfortable in our own Venn Diagrams of Weird. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Most Improved

At the front of the room, Ed (our fearless leader, multi-tasker extraordinaire, crazy-man of the back-country, and peerless interpretive dancer) advances to the next slide.
Most Improved: Nancy Fresco
What?  Oh.  Yikes.  I grin awkwardly, as if I expect people to boo. 
They don’t, of course. The applause is cheerful.  In fact, the crowd at the White Mountains 100 post-race party is almost impossibly cheerful.  About everything.  Folks are happily nibbling on veggies and hummus while comparing second-degree frostbite.  They are slurping down soup while discussing the hallucinations they experienced after forty-plus sleepless hours on the trail.  Nonetheless, I feel the need to demur in the face of their congratulations. 
“But… I cheated!  I switched from skis to a bike!” 
Given that more than half the 65 participants rode snow bikes on the hundred-miles of backcountry trails that make up the race course, “cheating” is perhaps not exactly the most politic term.  Still, I can’t shake the feeling that it is the right term. 
I take part in a fair number of long-distance races, but I’m definitely not a racer.  In 2011 and 2012, I was a skier in the White Mountains 100.  A classic skier.  A slow classic skier. Ok, fine, I was an outright shuffler.  This year, for a change, I rode my shiny new fat-tired bike – but for all its lovely purpleness and high-tech panache, I didn’t really expect it to make me anything more than modestly speedier.
Theoretically, any competitor – whether on wheels, on skis, or on their own two hoofs – can triumph in the 100. In reality, in the four years that the race has existed, the snow bikers have always won – albeit not by much.  In 2010, bikers took the top six slots, but skiers nabbed ten of the top twenty.  In 2011, a skier took fifth, less than an hour behind the lightning-fast top biker.  In 2012, skiers took fourth, seventh, eighth, and ninth.
This year’s race, however, was indubitably the most one-sided to date.  Due to bitterly cold conditions at the start and considerable snow accumulation later in the event, the advantage fell squarely to those who rolled rather than those who swished or tromped.  For the same reasons, it was a race even richer than usual in grisly tales of fortitude and exhaustion.  It was also, for me, a race full of peculiar surprises that left me feeling – well, feeling as if I really had somehow cheated.
Sunday, 8 a.m. 
Sixty-five crazy individuals crowd the trailhead at Mile 28 of the Eliot Highway, stomping, chattering, and lining up to enjoy the questionable joys of the port-a-potty.  It’s twenty below zero (Fahrenheit).  I may be just a trace too caffeinated.  Just… a… trace.  A quart of Cheerios are bouncing in my innards.  The snow is packed like white pavement.  I decide not to reduce my tire pressure at all.
Sunday, 10:09 a.m
Rolling, rolling… I haven’t taken out my audiobook, or even my snacks, for that matter.  Can I really be at Checkpoint #1 already?  But yes, there are my neighbors, in their new guise as volunteers: Mark, bundled up like a camera-wielding yeti, and Trusten, proffering the cocoa and Fritos.  Second breakfast of champions -- or hobbits.  I’m pretty sure I have more similarities to the latter, but so what?  I’m feeling as happy-go-lucky as Peregrine Took.
Sunday, 1:30 p.m. 
Wait… have I already completed the section of trail that was billed as being badly drifted, soft, a potential slog-fest of push-a-bike?  I did have to let out quite a lot of air in order to float my less-than-ladylike weight on my squishy tires.  I took a few remarkable headers into snowbanks when I hit soft spots in the flat, flat light, as clouds came in.  But I chalked that up to my monocularity and general klutziness.  Clambering out from under the huge purple bike and shaking the snow from my hair, my ears, and my pogies is par for the course when Nancy goes biking.  The key fact was, I was still riding. And now I am just outside Checkpoint #2, and…
I see Kevin plenty when I amble the hundred yards from my workplace to his, in order to buy more inner tubes or blinky lights and gossip about snow conditions and suchlike -- but he is not someone I am supposed to see during the White Mountains 100.  That is, I wasn’t supposed to see him after we all shouted, “three… two… one…go!”  For a turtle such as myself, Kevin is supposed to be nothing but a memory of fast-moving snowdust.  But here he is at mile 39.  And he is biking in the wrong direction.
Quickly, sadly – but with impressively upbeat resolve – he explains his dilemma:  a burst water system, drenched clothes that he’s spent the past two hours drying out at Checkpoint #2, and to top it off, a frostbitten stomach.  For (arguably) the fastest racer in Fairbanks, the race is already over.  There’s nothing I can do but remind him of what a great season he’s had, and wish him well as I head into Cache Mountain Cabin.
Sunday, 1:50 p.m.
One ultra-cheese-laden baked potato later, I have my second shock of the day. 
Forty-five miles of crazy-fast riding with the lead pack, a bad knee, and here he is, another amazing athlete, limping in to scratch from the race.  And here am I, slowpoke Nancy, with nothing to offer but a couple of heartfelt hugs and a handful of cookies.  It’s not fair, I think.  He helped me sort, crate, and transport all those cookies, and everything else, besides…
It’s at this point that I began to feel as if there’s something amiss.  How could I be going strong when these two are not?  I hit the trails again, potato-powered, yet still thrown off by my speedy friends’ misfortune. 
On.  And on. And up. And up.
Sunday, circa 5 p.m. 
This year, I get to actually see the Cache Mountain Divide.  In daylight.
Just as I summit, pushing my bike through the soft, steep snow, I hear a sound behind me: an even whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.  The sound of a skate-skier.  It is, of course, the super-human Mike Kramer.  That Mike should pass me is a given.  That it should take until mile 50 for him to do so is unthinkable.
In previous races, I plodded over the Divide near the back of the pack, and crossed the notorious ice lakes in pitch darkness.  Checkpoint #3 -- Windy Gap Cabin -- was a refuge I reached at about one in the morning. The cabin was always a glowing beacon signaling the first stage of exhaustion.  The forty miles of race that lay beyond it were the miles covered in a semi-somnolent and aching blur.
Sunday, 7:02 p.m.
This time, I arrive at a respectable suppertime, even if the supper I eat is not terribly respectable. 
“Number thirteen, checking out.”  I might have sounded kinda official, were my mouth not stuffed full of chocolate.
“Already?”  Teresa, an ever-smiling volunteer (not to mention a strong skier and darned talented research ecologist) has already given me the second-hand hug that Jay left for me, as well as the message that went with it: “Have fun!”  She’s seen me mixing the Gatorade double strength and chugging Coke (sugar and caffeine, gurgling down with a belch).  Still, she seems surprised that I am ready to take off. 
And so, in truth, am I.
My haste is certainly not attributable to competitiveness.  Although I ask after Jay, I don’t check the sign-in sheet to see how many people are ahead of me. My previous finishes placed me 54th and 53rd out of an annual field of 65.  For me, it’s always been about (as Jay wants me to be reminded) having fun.  And finishing.  And maintaining a standard-issue numbers of fingers and toes.  So far, so good.
Sunday, 7:17 p.m. 
I leave Windy Gap full of junk food and energy.  I leave because there is daylight still to burn; even in a mist of softly falling snow, I have some chance of witnessing the long and mountain-hedged valley that glides on down toward Borealis.  Or, in this case, rolls on down.  Bikes, I discover, are pretty darned swift in this section. 
There’s a skier ahead of me.  But… wait… I cannot possibly be passing Mike Kramer – can I?  My brief hello sounds apologetic.  He disappears behind me in the snowy twilight.  Still skating.
Sunday, 10:20 p.m.
Hello, Borealis Cabin.  I remember when you used to seem like an ambitious destination, a whole twenty miles from the trailhead.  When did twenty miles become the “home stretch”?   There is clearly something wrong with my life choices.  Hey, can I have one of those brownies with my ramen?  Or in my ramen.  Or, really, whatever. 
I’ve been plugged into my epic audiobook for quite some time now, and I’m at a dramatic point.  Actually, all of George R.R. Martin’s points are dramatic, or bloody, or licentious, or all of the above.  I need to find out what happens next, so I’d best be going. 
Wait… you there… relaxing in the upper bunk… you’re not… you can’t possibly be Janice Tower, can you?  Because, even though I don’t know you, I certainly know that I’m several orders of magnitude slower than you are.
Um… feel better, ok? This can’t be right.
Sunday, 10:40 p.m.
The kind and patient Borealis crew herd me upstream to cross Beaver Creek, avoiding the section that, earlier in the day, half-swallowed Ariana’s snowmachine in slushy overflow.  On the ensuing uphill I pass a fellow biker who wants to know how long the hill is.  “At least a mile,” I tell him, with ebullience that he does not seem to share.  I think I drank some more Coke at that last stop.  Did I?  Dunno.  Boy, this fresh snow sure is pretty.  The beam of my headlamp glitters on each flake.
Just after midnight, Monday morning
I need to stop at the trail shelter because Mark and Trusten are there.  Except that Trusten is asleep, and Mark takes a photo of me without actually noticing that it’s me.  What, are my frosty outerwear and androgynous-bundled shape not distinctive enough?  But Jim is there, and he is all good cheer.  When is he not?  He seems perplexed that I don’t want to ingest anything.  How could anyone resist that same Sam’s Club sack of corn nuts that came across from Checkpoint #1? 
“I just wanted to say hi!”  
Wickersham Wall is waiting for me, after all.
Some time after 1 a.m., Monday morning
At the Wall, I find Amy and Cody.  This isn’t right.  Amy, who generally inhabits an office just down the hall from mine, is probably faster than me at all things climate-change-ecology-related – but she and Cody are definitely faster than I am at all things bike-related.  But really, right now, “faster” is not an operative word, and logic is a bit foggy.  I turn off the pseudo-medieval clash of dynasties that has been pouring into my ears, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  Push.  Push.  Bicycle.  Snow.  Mountain.  Up.  Push.  We are not conversing.  We are pushing.  But somewhere along the way, I extract a promise of a ride home from the finish line from my overly-kind compatriots.  Asking favors of exhausted people in the wee hours is not exactly Kosher, it occurs to me.  But I ask anyhow.
I assume they will pull away from me after the wall, but somehow, the opposite is true.  In the Land of the Wobbly, the least wobbly takes the lead through the darkness – and that, peculiarly, is me.  I know these last six miles of trail so well that I feel them rather than seeing them.  Slow downhill, short steep up, long down, slow up, and… yes.  The last downhill.  Finally – and yet… already?
2:35 (ish) Monday morning
Ann, Ed’s counterpoint and tireless mastermind of Endurance North, is in the trailer – race headquarters – so I bang on the door to get my hug and my sort-of-official finish time.  We chat and laugh.  Andrew, who skied the course in the Nancy-speed league two years ago, comes to give me another hug, and to usher me into the cocoon of the heated tent.  A few other folks are sipping drinks or snuggled on cots.  I don’t ask how many people finished ahead of me – except for Jay.  Jay kicked butt.  I knew that already, though.
4:00 Monday morning
Just.  Keep Talking.  I have no idea what I’m talking about.  Work?  My kids?  Something inappropriately personal and humiliating?  It doesn’t matter, so long as I am keeping Amy awake on these snow-deep roads. 
Back at the wall tent, after many minutes spent staring blankly at one another, unable to fathom how we’d muster the energy and warmth to load all three bikes onto the car’s roof racks, Amy, Cody, and I became the beneficiaries of Andrew’s goodwill.  He made it look so easy, as I fumbled with my wheel and my hex wrench in the snow. Even in my tiredness, though, I knew I wasn’t exhausted.  Not really exhausted.  I know that further zone of Tired.  I’ve visited it in other years.
And so home.  And so to bed, where Jay wakes up enough to congratulate me, and I him, in blurry solidarity.  And so to sleep.
12:00 noon Monday
Oh, the sheer joy of snoring until noon, and then lolling on my window seat in sweats!  I slowly amble through my work emails.  I answer a few.  I’m a bit on the droopy and aching side, but I sigh deeply and contentedly.  Parents don’t get to sleep until noon.  Ever.  But other than approximately one minute of awake-time at 7:30, when the children were permitted to come kiss their comatose Mommy goodbye, I got my slumber. 
I check the race stats.  I discover that there are people still out there.  As in, a lot of people.  I note that, out of 65 competitors, 35 of them on bikes, Jay took sixth place.  This seems about right.  I also note that I took 15th.  This seems all wrong. 
“Podium!” comments Ned.  Ned is one of the true stars of the event, in my books. While Kristen, Jay and I were on the trails, he took care of three six-year-olds with a joint penchant for naked trampolining.  It takes me a moment to figure out what he was talking about.  But yes, it seems I was the third woman across the (somewhat ambiguous) finish line.  I tend to forget about fine points such as gender.  Besides, this is clearly wrong, too.  I can’t be third, or fifteenth, or anything above thirtieth.  I must have cheated.  Somehow.
11:00 p.m., Monday
I’ve gotten a bit of work done today.  I’ve also picked up the kids from the bus stop, helped them with their homework, and read stories with them.  We’ve done dinnertime and baths and more playing and more stories and bedtime for little people. It’s time for me to go to bed, but just for good measure, I check the race stats, again – just one more time.  There are still people out there.  Thirty-nine hours into the race, longer than even I have ever been out there, they are still slogging.  They have seen not one sunset on the course, but two.  Nine of them.  They are still going.  One of them is Michael.  I’m pretty sure I told him the race was “fun,” in years past, as we chatted while dropping off our kids at preschool.  Another is our perky and optimistic neighbor, Sarah.  Jay and I have given her lots of race advice over supper.  At this point, is either of them coherent enough to hate me?  And why isn’t it me out there?  It ought to be me, shouldn’t it?  Those are my people, struggling on through the deepening snow. 
9:09 a.m. Tuesday
I am at work, being semi-productive.  But I’m also waiting, waiting. 
At last, at last, Sarah, the red lantern, crosses the finish line.  Forty-nine hours.  She has not slept.
8:00 p.m. Wednesday
Finally, here I am at the post-race party.  This, more than the race itself, is my event.  I booked the community center.  I hit Sam’s Club.  I made the ten-gallon pot of sausage-and-bean soup.  I baked the eleven loaves of bread and the four double-size batches of brownies.  I enslaved my husband and children – and the ever-patient Trusten – to arrange all the tables and chair, fruits and vegetables, cheeses and dips, cups and spoons.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.  Everyone has tales to tell.
Kevin is here, and so is Joel – both of them good sports to the core.  So is Michael, complete with frostbitten fingers and broad smile.  So is Sarah, although I wonder whether someone should send her home to sleep a bit more.  Tom (classic skier, playwright, Scrabble fanatic, and proud winner of the “Most Grunts and Moans” Award) skied seven hours slower this year than last, and has blisters the size of the Goodyear blimp -- yet cedes the Agony of de-Feet Award to Bob, uncontested.  On that score, no one can ever compete with grinning, imperturbable Bob.  Don’t look at the photos, just trust me on this one.
My own “award” is no more serious than any of the others.  There are no prizes.  In the real world, outside of this steam-and-spices-cozy room, no one -- except for a few stalwart and over-loyal friends and family members -- cares who won, who lost, who was “Racer of the Year” (yes, you, Jay), or who got honors for excessive puking. 
And within this room? 
Ah.  There, I realize, is the beauty of it.  Within this room, we all care.  We shout out stories.  Most of them are funny, in a Type-Two fun-after-the-fact kind of way. All of them have merit.  No one is less deserving of credit, or kudos, or attention, or cheers: not the ultra-fast guy who had to scratch, with red frozen welts on his stomach (yeah, he showed them to me – chicks dig that kinda thing); not the woman who didn’t quite make the 48-hour cutoff; not the winner, Tim, who crossed the line in a breathtaking 10.8 hours; not the indomitable Mike, who skated on until 5 a.m.; not the Carrolls, who finished at the next 5 a.m.; not Laura, who beat everyone else on foot (boys and girls both); not the good-humored medic who flooded her snowmachine; not the “crossing guards” at Beaver Creek. 
The sloggers, the plodders, the zoomers, the blistered and goofy and crazy – it takes all sixty-five, plus a horde of amazing volunteers and two astonishing Race Directors, to make the White Mountains 100 what it is.  It’s not really one race, but sixty-five different races, and then some.
So, yes, I cheated.  I totally, utterly cheated by switching from skis (which would have placed me in the Monday Night of Doom crowd) to a bike (which still placed me almost eight hours behind the winner, because when all is said and done, I’m Just Not Fast).  But, on the other hand, I didn’t cheat at all, because the only person I was racing against was me. (It’s always a tie.)
“Have fun,” Jay told me. 
“Have fun,” Teresa passed on, with a hug. 
“Have fun,” I reminded myself. 
Yes.  Yes, I did have fun.  I wasn’t really “most improved” – but so what?  I wasn’t trying to be “improved” any more than I was trying to cheat.  Snowbike or no snowbike, I had a blast. 
I wonder how I should do the race next year?