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 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?

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