Cycling on the ghost trail to McGrath

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

When I felt the shutdown coming, I knew I was worse than lost.

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Jill Homer / Juneau Empire
Jill Homer / Juneau Empire

Waves of green aurora lapped the phantom peaks of the Alaska Range as I stumbled down the narrow gorge surrounding Pass Creek. A gusting breeze blasted my face with frigid air - 20 below 0 and dropping. I could almost hear the putter, putter, putter as my knees sank in the snow and I slumped into the trail one last time. The sudden silence was deafening; it made my situation seem even more surreal. I was 200 miles beyond the nearest road, 20 miles from the nearest outpost of humanity, and I was completely out of fuel.

This would have been frightening enough had I been at the helm of a snowmobile or even an exhausted team of dogs. But the machine I had pushed to total breakdown was my own body, and I had nothing else to fall back on. I leaned my bicycle against a tree and tried to cram frozen chunks of dried cherries down my throat. It was too late. My body couldn't process the calories quickly enough. I began to nod off even as I shivered with the creeping chill. I was running out of options. I crawled back to my bike and unhooked my survival kit - a bivy sack, sleeping bag and foam pad. I crawled inside with my water bottle and a chocolate bar I hoped to eat in the morning. My thermometer, purchased in Juneau, had long since bottomed out. As I drifted helplessly to sleep, I wondered if I would be able to regain the energy to push my bike the 20 miles into Rohn. Then I wondered if I would ever wake up. I had no way of knowing for sure.

It was an eye-opening way to spend my third night in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile human-powered race that follows the Iditarod Trail from Knik to McGrath. Competitors choose one of three modes of travel: bike, ski or foot. The only rules of the race are that competitors carry all of their survival gear from the start, accept no outside support, and visit seven checkpoints along the way. There is no prize money, no reward for finishing, no free truck for the winner. In a race such as this, often touted as one of the toughest human-powered winter races in the world, competitors have to create their own rewards.

I joined 45 others on Feb. 24 at the Knik Lake starting line. We took a collective deep breath before the event many of us anticipated would be the ultimate endurance race: Ourselves versus a vast, untamed and deeply frozen Alaska wilderness.

My boyfriend, Geoff Roes, and I had been training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational for months. He entered the race on foot and I was a cyclist. There are advantages and disadvantages to both modes of travel. A cyclist can travel much faster than a person on foot when the snow trails are hard packed. But new snow, wind-drifted powder and warm temperatures can render the trails unrideable for long stretches. Cyclists are reduced to walking, with the added burden of a 60-70 pound loaded bicycle to hoist beside them. In these conditions, the foot racers easily coast past long-suffering cyclists.

On the first day of the race, the Iditarod Trail was kind to cyclists. I coasted over the first 90 miles in 12 hours, only a couple of hours behind the leaders and an almost unbelievable pace for me - an admittedly mediocre athlete and rookie to boot. My speed continued into the foothills of the Alaska Range, and despite softer snow and longer climbs, I hit the 165-mile mark just after the 36-hour mark passed. Checkpoint volunteers spoke about the possibility of my breaking the female cyclist record. They told me this at volumes barely above a whisper, as though trying not to jinx me. But it was already too late. My confidence was reaching its boiling point. I was a self-assured, fired-up racer. I had no reason to believe I could be broken. Yet.

The next morning burned clear but cold as I set out to climb Rainy Pass. The trail rose above tree line and rolled across the open tundra beneath several inches of soft, drifted snow. I was off my bike and walking before I was even out of the sightlines of the checkpoint. From the number of footprints punched into the snow, I could tell everyone had hoofed it through here. For a snow cyclist, hope that the trail will become rideable again springs eternal. But the reality of the situation was already sinking in - I was traversing the largest mountain range in the state across nearly 50 miles of uninhabited terrain just to reach the next checkpoint. And if I continued to travel at 2.5 mph through knee-deep snow, this would be a long stretch indeed.

I crested the 3,160-foot pass just before sunset, nearly 10 hours later, only to meet trail that was even deeper and softer on the other side of the range. I would later learn that the cyclists before me were the first humans over the pass this winter, breaking their own trail as they inched their way down. My own progress through their punched-out path dropped off even my odometer's reading, which won't register anything slower than 1.5 mph. Locked single-mindedly in the slog, I neglected to eat and drink. I still had a long, long walk to Rohn when I ran out of energy.

After waking from my bivy to find myself alive, I was simultaneously overjoyed and overwhelmingly frustrated. My watch registered 3 a.m. I wolfed down the chocolate bar I had cuddled with in an effort to gain precious calories. I set into the walk, still frightened, sleepy and a little bit punch drunk. The trail crossed an open creek that was running knee deep. I used an old musher trick and wrapped garbage bags around my legs with duct tape, hoisted my bicycle and stepped into the stream. The rushing water swept into my legs and stole my balance. As I teetered, the bike slipped from my fingers and dropped into the stream. I panicked and kneeled down to keep it upright, wincing as icy water poured into the garbage bag around my right leg. Now I had a soaked boot to add to my list of woes - which, at subzero temperatures, was by far the most serious problem. I knew all that mattered in that moment was reaching the warmth and safety of the checkpoint. My race was over. Rainy Pass had beaten the fight right out of me.

I arrived in Rohn at 11 a.m. and spent the next 17 hours drying my boot, feeding my empty stomach and attempting to gulp down my anxiety. I went into the Iditarod Trail Invitational nearly certain that I had what it took to finish the race. I arrived in Rohn unsure that I had what it took to even survive the race. Ahead of me lay the real cold, the real remote, the real challenge: the Interior. I couldn't face the idea that I had been beaten, but I couldn't turn away from it, either. I finally decided that I was still healthy, still prepared, and in my own crazy way, still having fun. I had to give it a shot. I slipped out of the Rohn tent before I could second-guess my decision.

It was 4 a.m.

Over the next three days, I strove to make better decisions and still struggled with my fair share of challenges. I pulled a hip muscle on the steep, wet ice famously known as the Post River Glacier, reducing every uphill ride to a painful grind. I undercut my calorie intake further and was forced to bivy again in the Farewell Burn. I froze all my water and had to ride the better part of a day with no hydration. I left the tiny village of Nikolai in 50 mph wind gusts that drove the wind chill down to 60 below 0. The trail became so wind-drifted that I had to push my bike the last 20 miles to McGrath on a route I could barely find. But after I left Rohn, I never had any doubt about whether or not I was going to finish. And when I finally pulled into McGrath after six days, two hours and 20 minutes on the trail - well behind the record - I never had any doubt about my success.

People have asked me if riding a bicycle to McGrath was the hardest thing I've ever done. I tell them yes, but that's not exactly true. Leaving Rohn in predawn darkness to face the deep-frozen Interior alone was the hardest thing I have ever done.

Others have asked me what I possibly could have gained from this struggle, for all of my work and suffering just to finish a race without rewards, recognition, or even a decent T-shirt. I can only answer that this race forced me to dig deeper inside myself than I ever thought possible. What I found was that I not only have the strength to survive such harsh and soul-shredding conditions; I have the ability to thrive. The value of this newfound knowledge, for lack of a better word: Priceless.

• Jill Homer is a page designer at the Juneau Empire.

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