I knew from the moment that I laid down in Nikolai that I wasn’t going to sleep. ‘This is ridiculous,’ I thought to myself, ‘My body is so jacked up, I can’t even sleep.’ But, I was no where near mentally ready to face the last 50 miles, so I laid there, wallowing in my own pity party, trying to keep my chamois away from my body, my tongue away from my mouth. ‘This is officially suck-balls,’ I remember thinking.
And then I heard the door open and Dan and Kevin walk in. I’d been wondering what happened to them. Repeating my Tour Divide mantra of ‘if you’re not eating, sleeping, or pedaling, you’re wasting time’, I rolled myself up and wandered back out into the kitchen where a second plate of pasta that I had started eating before my nap was still waiting for me. The boys had bivied along the trail, the push from Rohn to Nikolai proving to be too much, and seemed ready to pedal again. ‘I guess I’m going,’ I responded when quizzed of my plans. ‘McGrath isn’t getting any closer just sitting here.’ I had 18 hours to get there to break the record. It had taken Lou 18 hours to get there from Nikolai.
My extraction from the Petruska’s house was anything but quick, but another plate of pasta, two cups of coffee, and two cookies later, I found myself back outside, dressed the same as I’d been when I arrived. Fueled with calories rather than bonking, I immediately started sweltering. I pedaled away from the house regardless, headed back the way I came. I was ready to drop onto the river when man yelled after me, ‘Are you going to McGrath?’
‘You’re going the wrong way! Just follow the power lines, it’s a lot shorter!’
Instead of the river, I pedaled down the road, engaging in the pattern that had become ritual after every extended stop before the Vitamin I could kick in. 30 pedal strokes standing, 5 sitting, 30 standing, 6 sitting, 30 standing 7 sitting, etc. C’mon underside, let that Advil do it’s work. I quickly dumped out onto the river and in a fit of motivation, decided that I was going to drill it the next 50 miles to McGrath. I started to sweat two minutes later and luckily had the mental capacity to realize that working up a sweat during an Alaskan sunset was quite possibly a bad idea. I reigned in my enthusiasm, but knew that I had to get the section done as quickly as possible because eating was no longer an option given the current state of affairs in my mouth. ‘I’m never going to be able to kiss anyone or have sex ever again,’ I thought to myself, heading west into the sunset. ‘Forget frost bitten toes and fingers, I have bigger problems! A single chamois and Sour Patch Kids…what was I thinking? Maybe I’ll become a nun after this.’
I pedaled along, occasionally stealing glances backwards to see if Kevin and Dan were coming. What I would have given to have had someone to talk to… With no sign of the boys, I focused on forward. Westward. Into one of the longest and most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Again, no pictures from Broken Ez, but the Team Photo had a field day. Scott also left me a message in the snow, which made me smile for the first time since leaving Nikolai. The sunset continued. Orange. Red. Blue. Purple. Dusk.
With the disappearance of light came a dimming of my spirit. I got angry and jettisoned two giant handfuls of nuts from my pogies into the woods. ‘Screw you food! I can’t eat you anyhow!’ I went to take a sip of water and found my hose frozen for the first time the entire race. ‘Screw you water, I didn’t want to drink you anyhow!’ It wasn’t until later that I realized that the frozen hose would also result in not being able to swallow Vitamin I or caffeine pills. I thought about jettisoning my water, but knew that in a worst-case scenario, I could still get to liquid water if I needed it. I put a piece of dried coconut into my mouth and immediately spit it out and shook my head in amazement. For a girl who can pretty much out-eat anyone out there, I’d been reduced to this. Lame-O.
I would love to have a transcript of what occurred in my brain for the following several hours as it descending to a place untouched by even my second CTR run, my 40 hour sleepless push during the Dixie 200, my hissy fit at the base of the final climb of the Stagecoach 400, or any place along the Tour Divide. The trail followed the KooKooSwim river, straight, never ending, with the light of the McGrath airport, 40-some-odd miles away blinking in the distance. Dark. Cold.
I started doing the math, looking at the GPS: 38 miles to go. ‘If I continue at 5 mph, that’s seven and a half hours. Seven and a half hours! I bet I can pedal faster.’ I put a little effort into the pedals and saw my speed rise to 6 mph. Now that’s more like it. A little more effort yielded 7 mph.
This is like a tempo ride. I can do a three hour tempo ride, I’ve done tons of those in training. That’ll knock some miles off. So I rode tempo for a while. The minutes passed painfully slowly.
Maybe I should do some 20 minute threshold intervals. I can knock out nearly 5 miles of climbing on Lefthand Canyon on the roadbike doing those, I bet I could knock out three miles here. I bet I could keep my speed above 7 mph for 20 minutes. So I did.
My goodness this is sooooo boring.
I saw a sign that said, ‘McGrath – 30 Miles’. I stopped and stared at it, not wanting to believe it, though knowing that the GPS confirmed the distance. I muttered some expletives into the night. I put my head down and laid into the pedals. The faster you go, the faster you’ll get there. Gogogogogogogo! I could still step on the gas and get a response even if the brain wasn’t firing on all circuits anymore. Maybe pedaling really is hardwired. Eventually, I couldn’t tell if I was on the river, on land, going east, going west, or even how fast I was moving anymore. Just get to McGrath, make your next sleep in a warm bed!
I thought back to Jill’s description of McGrath as a shining bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel and related to her sentiment. Just. Keep. Moving.
I tried to sing to myself, but no songs came to mind. I started in with 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall for the second time that day, but only made it down to 64 bottles before I lost interest. I tried my multiplication tables, but tired halfway into the 7’s. I watched the 10th’s of miles tick by. I lost hope.
And then I saw reflectors in the trees to the right. A bike! I saw a body next to the bike. I saw another bike just beyond. And then a third to the left! The boys! ‘Well, hi there!’ I announced my presence and dropped my bike in the middle of the trail. Scott and Brian sat up in their sleeping bags on opposite sides of the trail.
‘This is the most idiotically boring trail I’ve ever ridden!’ I announced. ‘I’m so bored I can’t even think about anything interesting to think about!’ And so began what amounted to a 20 minute rant about the trail, Alaska, and life in general. Scott just sat there listening, laughing, nodding in agreement when I declared, ‘All this trail does is go left, and then right, and then left, and then right again. And you guys must have been drunk riding back there because you clearly couldn’t stay on the actual trail!’ (Note: They weren’t drunk, they just had their tires pumped up to absurdly high pressure on the river superhighway.)
‘You only have 23 more miles to go,’ Scott told me.
‘No! I have 200 miles. And it’s going to take seven eternities to do it!’
‘You rode from Silver City to Antelope Wells in a night, you can do 23 miles.’
I paused. ‘I’m cold. I’m going. Thanks for listening.’
I hopped back on my bike and pedaled off, fully awake for the first time in hours. Ok, McGrath, here I come!
I stepped on the gas, expecting to accelerate and found nothing. The Gas Tank Empty light flashed bright red. Well, shit. I choked down a couple of raisins, anything to kickstart the engine. 20 miles. Four sets of five miles. The next seven miles passed in seven eternities. The blinking light of the airport tower mocked in the distance.
I. Can’t. Do. It.
I pulled my sleeping bag off my bike. Put on my big down jacket. Just 45 minutes. Then we’ll make a run for it. I was asleep within seconds of curling up in the giant bag.
The alarm shook me wide awake. GO! I packed up my camp on the frigid river and proceeded to cover the next three miles standing up before reverting back to my 30 pedal strokes standing, 5 sitting pattern. The trail eventually left the river and I came to an intersection marked with the orange tipped stakes of the Iron dog in both directions and tire tracks heading both directions. I went in the direction of what seemed like more tracks before the tracks began to peter out. Dejected, I pushed back to the intersection and examined the stakes going the opposite direction: They said something along the lines of AK Ultra, or AK Ul Sport, or maybe even AK Ultra Sport. Whatever the combination of letters was, I convinced myself that it was some sort of geological marker, so I went back in the original direction until all the tire tracks petered out. I got off and pushed back and gave the stakes another look. ‘Oh,’ I thought as the letters on the stake started to make sense. ‘Dummy.’
The trail continued on, finally dumping out on the final three miles of road. I should air up my tires. My pump is probably frozen. Screw it, I don’t need air in my tires. I stood on my pedals, watching my tires squish underneath me until I saw the sign under the street lights of McGrath: Alaska Ultrasport. I pulled up to the house, propped my pony up to the other ponies sleeping in the night, and walked in the door.
Done. Bent. Very nearly broken. Not quite, but very nearly. But done. 3 days. 16 hours. 20 minutes.
What ensued was the most magical 32 hours of my life at Peter and Tracy’s in McGrath. I had to take some pictures because I was afraid I’d start to believe that I’d only dreamed of being there. I ate, and slept, and showered, and babied my sore mouth. I ate mancakes and omelets, drank cups of hot chocolate and coffee with whipped cream, inhaled cookies and cake, brie and apple butter. Dan and Kevin came in a few hours later. Then came Curiak and Brian, followed closely by Scott, complete with frozen beard. It was so good to see them all…three desert rats, sitting in McGrath. We told stories of the trail, the boys made fun of me of sleeping through the fire alarm that they’d set off just a few hours after my arrival, called me a shining example of how to sleep after I passed out sitting up on the dog bed, plate of food in my lap, talked of sleep deprivation, sleep monsters, and mouth sores that seemed to plague everyone in the dry, cold air. I started to put faces with names that I’d studied on all the sign-in sheets. Peter kept food production on high throughout the day and the table was never empty of food or of people eating food. If there is a heaven, it was found at Peter and Tracy’s.
Broken souls started to return to life. By the time we all got on the airplane on the snowy airstrip the next afternoon, smiles could be seen all around. I couldn’t walk without pain, I definitely couldn’t sit without pain, but I ridden to McGrath. Not gracefully, but I’d survived. And as Scott and I stood in the cold Alaskan air, watching bikes being loaded on the small prop plane, I found myself looking out into the vast expanse of wilderness, wondering what it would be to ride all the way to Nome.