Monday, March 18, 2013

"Look away for I am hideous"...a man's head swells on the Iditarod Trail

Segment 3: Lack of sleep leads to instability, then madness, but ultimate redemption.
My fearless Leader...I would follow him anywhere...

Part VI From Point Desecration (~Mile 175) to beautiful downtown Rohn (Mile 210), Alaska, and then onto the last checkpoint, Nikolai (Mile 300).

Most of the human species is endowed with a coping mechanism that allows the simple man to block from memory painful and/or shameful remembrances (this can be either a good thing or a bad thing). For what other reason would nations continue to wage war upon other nations or even on their own citizens. Such was the situation with my dishonorable act of desecration along the once pristine trail as we ascended towards Rainy Pass that beautiful morning. The fact of the matter is that by the time I had caught back up to my mentor, the whole event was nothing more than a distant memory that would be completely forgotten as soon as I was able to gain a proper restroom and take care of some needed paper-work.  But alas there are occasions in a reckless man’s life when his previous deceits, miscalculations and misappropriations, can come back to haunt him—Such was the case of the misplaced dung heap. 
Mr. Gauld on the move (not far from Desecration Point)

Fast-forward Dear Reader, some thirty-six or hours.  Conjure a vision of blurry-eyed, yet hardy men sitting around a circle within a cozy home in the center of the hamlet of McGrath, itz mid-morning on the first Friday of March.  Some are reclined on a large horse-shoe shaped sofa, others are reposed upon the floor, there is a collective sense of great contentment for these men have just successfully crossed the first 350 miles of the famed Iditarod trail.  The lively conversation is centered upon various antidotes, all based on the universal agreement that the Iditarod Trail traverses challenging, albeit beautifully remote wilderness. Then Ken Zylstra, a reflective, sophisticated family man of fifty years offered a sad commentary on a discovery of which he described as the result of a reckless rogue’s actions that involved “clearly, undeniably and decidedly poor form.”  He went on to describe his encounter with a ‘huge pile of fresh sh___” lying in the middle of the trail about midway up Rainy Pass.   All in attendance shook their heads in disgust, comments included, “Who would do such a thing, it must have been a rider.” Hoping that my red face would not give me away I, too, shook my head, feigning repugnance at the thought of such a misdeed. Then the thought occurred to me that may be I could try something like, “I bet it was a snowmobiler!” but instead, I offered no comment.  Lesson #9: I better start to make amends or I will have a lot to answer for at the “Pearly Gates.”
We made the top of Rainy Pass in great time.  The descent down into Dalzell Gorge was a total blast. Down, down, down we went, flying past and between big blue icefalls and tight canyon walls. Lindsay, it seemed to me, never touched his brakes. As he quickly pulled away from me, I would catch glimpses of him taking corners wide-open, leaning hard one way then and counter-weighting his bike the other way as if he had been an Olympic road-cyclist at one point in his long life. It was a great morning…I felt alive, doing simply what I was meant to do…I hope I never lose my love of adventure, too be honest, I guess I am not worried about that. What I am worried about is that one-day I’ll be too old…
We made Rohn around noon, thus completing the route from Puntilla Lake to Rohn in something like eleven hours.  I remember Lindsay telling me that in 2012, that segment of the trail had taken him twenty-eight hours, walking in deep snow almost the whole way in 20 below with high head winds.  We were in good spirits, but we were dog-tired, fatigued at the cellular level, and thus hoping for a good three-hour nap, but it was not to be as it was Happy Hour when we arrived in busy, bustling, downtown Rohn. 

Rohn is comprised on one cabin. The cabin is maintained by the BLM in conjunction with the Iditarod Race organization. Apart for the small, but very cool cabin, there is a nice “fully equipped” outhouse, and a packed down landing strip for ski-equipped small airplanes (Note to self: I’d love to somewhat get my family up there to stay for a week as it truly is a wonderful spot). Yet the place was rockin’ with airplanes landing and taking off,  dropping off massive supplies for the big upcoming dog race.  The cabin was occupied by a number of Iditarod volunteers, all scurrying around getting the mountain of supplies of straw, dog, food, fuel, etc., ready for the mushers and dogs to arrive in a few days.  Many of the volunteers were from northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin; all presumably eager to speak with folks different from whom they had been talking with since they had flown in a couple dayz prior to our arrival. 
Downtown Rohn, Alaska...Dog supplies in the forefront...
First and foremost, I was hell-bent on getting to the outhouse, and then getting some sleep (or at least to lie down) on the pine boughs that lined the cramped canvas wall-tent that had been constructed for the Alaskan Ultra racers, but once Craig Medred entered the tent to interview Lindsay for the Alaskan Dispatch (Read Craig’s interview with Lindsay, itz a classic, ), I knew it was not in the cards.  
In any event, on sleeping or even staying in repose, I gave up and thus, with cheerful resignation, went out into the warm sunshine and engaged in fun, lively conversations with several of the volunteers.
I doubt we stayed in Rohn for more than two, maybe three hours. As stated above, we were tired, actually we were more than just tired, we were getting really really fatigued as we had been on the go for well over three dayz.  In Lindsay’s much more accurate account of the race, he states, “I would estimate that we had laid down for about ten hours and I had slept for maybe five.”  Consequently, we knew it would take a mammoth effort to get to Nikolai which was ninety more miles down the trail, but there stands a BLM cabin approximately fifty miles from Rohn and so that would be our goal. The idea was to push it to get to the cabin, get a good three hours of sleep, and then push it onward to Nikolai (for a quick resupply of water) and then to the finish line in McGrath.  It was looking like, given our pace, the good weather, and relatively solid track that we would be able to make McGrath in less than 4.5 dayz. Our weary but encouraged hearts soared as we left Rohn…As it turned out we did not make the goal of 4 dayz and twelve hours, but we were not that far off as we ultimately arrived in McGrath just two hours and some change beyond the goal.  The fact that we did come so close to achieving this goal was due in part to the good trail conditions, but is also indicative of Lindsay’s ability to bring to fruition a well conceived plan-of-action.

Immediately upon leaving Rohn, it became obvious to us that we were entering into a distinct geographical region that receives drastically less snow than on the other side of the pass.  I suppose the moist air from the Pacific deposits the all the precipitation on eastern side of the mountain range. On the eastern side the snow was many meters deep, so deep that we saw little if any signs of wild life. On this side, the interior, we crossed lakes and rivers that were completely devoid of snow and then crossed what the locals call, Farewell Burn, which is a huge swath of charred forest.  Here we saw evidence of abundant wildlife, with lots of moose, wolf, lynx, and an assortment of other critter tracks.  We also saw evidence of trapping, right next to the trail (presumably so the brave trapper would not have to take more than a step from his snowmachine to check his traps), which made my blood boil, but I won’t get into that here.  As stated above, there was little snow and on long sections there was no snow at all, only dirt.  I remember thinking, “How in the hell do the dogs pull musher and sled across this part of the trail?”

We also came upon a section of thirty-degree ice of which we were prepared to negotiate as we had each brought step-in ice grippers. But as luck was on our side, a path lay in such a manner that we did not have to employ the ice-grippers. 

           ....a steep ascent, but luckily no ice to contend with...Picture a dog team heading up this????
Finally, as we followed a sinking, anemic sun, we moved into a less bumpy and rough section that allowed us to make some relatively good time. We had a good tailwind, solid tracks, and yet we were getting increasing sleepy.  By nightfall we had been traveling for something like seventeen hours since leaving Puntilla Lake.  By ten o’clock we had been riding for 21 hours straight with no real rests, and while we were making forward progress we were still at least fifteen miles from the cabin.  We were stopping often with each of us taking turns at leading, so as to allow the follower the luxury of turning off one’s brain and to just instinctually follow the reflective clothing of the leader.  At one point probably around midnight, with Lindsay in the lead, I turned around to notice bright lights heading our way.  It was Bob Ostrom, Ken Zylstra., and Mike Criego.  They had caught us even though we had left an hour or so ahead of them from Rohn and several hours ahead of them from Rainy Pass Lodge.  While it was great to see them, it drove home the point that we were fading fast.  After exchanging pleasantries, they moved on at a much quicker pace.  As their red rear blinking lights disappeared from our view, we felt exceedingly inadequate.  A pair of old men playing a young man’s game, so sad.  Lindsay was grimly stoic while I was a mental mess, so sleepy that I was crashing the bike endless times.  I told him that when I write about this I am going to use the line, “their spirit broken, they decided that they had no choice but to bivy.” I was just sorta joking because I figured that he would want to stay on schedule and thus push on to the cabin, so I was surprised when he said that perhaps it would be a wise move to bivy. 

Lindsay is a calculating, analytical, smart guy that sees the big picture when it comes to races like the Iditarod Invitational.  Guyz like me start fast and flare out, whereas guyz like Lindsay play it smart and finish strong.  He told me to start looking for a good sport to bed down for a few hours.  He threw me a bone by saying, “Charlie, you are the pro when it comes to forced bivouacs, let me know when you find a good spot. We’ll sack out for a few hours and then continue on. I’ll bet those guyz will sleep in at the cabin,” (He was right on all counts.). I immediately started scoping for a good bivy site; itz best to find a site that is on higher ground and of course relatively flat.  It was not long before we were both comfortably ensconced in your warm sleeping bags—just before I turned off my headlight, I looked at my trusty wristwatch; it read 1:45 a.m.  Unfortunately, after the initial warming period, I always take a short high intensity run before I jump into a cold sleeping bag, I ended up rather chilled (it read 5 below on Lindsay’s thermometer but there was no wind) for the three to four hour duration as I had foolishly passed on putting on my down sweater (it lay packed in my handlebar set-up), but at least I was able to rest my tired legs a bit and to close my tortured eyes.  Lindsay faired better claiming in his report that he had the best sleep of the whole race period. 
Good bivy site....

We were on the road again by 6 a.m.  It was sometime during these early pre-dawn hours that I first realized that my head was retaining fluids, that I had become a water-head. As alluded to above, my eyes had been feeling weird earlier as I had laid in my bivy. I had heard of endurance competitors having problems with swollen feet and ankles, but my head was swelling!  Feigning tranquilly, I nonchalantly asked Lindsay how my head looked and he confirmed that my face and forehead were quite swollen!  I felt like Elephant Man. The swelling had progressed to the point that it even started to affect my range of sight as my eye lids were even affected.  I felt hideous, unloved, and my eyes and cheeks were itchy, but Lindsay assured me that he had seen such swelling in braver men than me on such long endeavors.  He said in a confronting voice, “Lotz of guyz swell up like that just before the end.” Of course I was near my breaking point both physically and mentally so I took “the end” to me at the end of one’s life.  I felt sure that I was near the end…Yet, he reassured me that he had meant “at the end of a long race.” Thankfully the swelling abated not long after I made the finish line.  Lesson 10: I’ll never make fun of Elephant Man again as long as I live!
My head was not unlike that of Elephant Man

After several hours and the ascent of a full bodied sun, the trail got better and we started to make time. We had passed the BLM cabin and noted that Lindsay had been correct in his prediction that Ken, Bob, and Mike would sleep in.  It wasn’t like we were racing them, at my age I am so beyond worrying about where I stack up in these kinds of events, (everybody in this race is tough and talented) but it did help us psychologically to know that at least we were keeping pace with them.  By and by we came upon a running Dave Johnston.  He was on a mission to break the foot-category record.  He was so strong and so competent that I do believe his accomplishment ranks right up there with the top three riders. He told me at the finish that he slept less than three hours during the whole race! Plus he is an incredibly amicable fellow, always upbeat and genuinely friendly.  Lindsay and I found him to be most impressive. I do hope that I shall have the opportunity to meet him again someday.  He expressed interest in trying to come down some winter for the Arrowhead 135.

Together the three of us talked and joked and felt like “free men” for a few minutes, whilst we took turns filling our water bottles from a small bridge spanning a fast running stream known as Sullivan’s Creek.  Here the trail was flat and fast, so we took off and left Dave to his miraculous footwork. Perhaps an hour or so after meeting Dave, Ken came up on us at a good pace passing us with the quick message that he would see us in Nikolai. Hot in pursuit of Ken Zylstra, next came Bob Ostrom, and then Mike Criego.  It gave me a sense of state pride to see two Minnesotans doing such a fine job.  Both Lindsay and I felt pretty good at this point, but neither of us felt the inclination to up our steady pace, so we watched them as they eventually disappeared from our view.  I must say that Lindsay sets a remarkably steady and even cadence.   The kind of pace that is very efficient for the long haul.  During the last hours of our battle to finish the route, I was so thankful that he took the leadership position allowing me to just try and mimic his speed. I have no doubt that had I been alone, I would have faltered and bivied one more time out somewhere between Nikolai and McGrath and thus finished six or so hours later than we did together.

Finally at approximately 4 p.m. on that Thursday, we arrived at the last checkpoint located at a local resident’s home in Nikolai and just fifty miles from the finish. At Nikolai we met the race director briefly as he was en route on a snowmachine, heading back along the trail with his immediate goal to make Rohn that evening.  Sadly we did not get a chance to really speak with him, but it is clear that Bill Merchant is a Man’s Man; The kind of man that would have your back and yet expect you to hold your own as well.  I plan to return in five or six years to have a go at Nome, so on that occasion I plan to buy Bill Merchant a beer or seven and a couple shots of whiskey.  Bill and Kathi Merchant assemble the group and provide the canvas, but it is largely up to the artists to create their own personal collages…I like that….itz my kind of race!

We left the last checkpoint in short order staying only an hour, beating Ken and da Boyz out of the house, but it was not long until they passed us on the river; all of them looked strong, especially Ken.

I am not gonna pull any punches—Once the sun went down, our effort from Nikolai to McGrath turned into a real sufferfest for Lindsay and me, taking nearly twelve hours to go less than 50 miles on relatively flat terrain. But in our highly disheveled minds we both had the distinct feeling that the river we were following was angled upward, against us at a significant incline.  It was so surreal and so frustrating, I clearly remember stopping at one point and asking, “Lindsay are we riding uphill? Can that be possible?” Nodding his head in agreement, he replied that it did seem like we were indeed riding up a long, long, forever long hill.  Both of us knew, logically and rationally, that we were on a flat slow moving river and yet it seemed as if we were constantly climbing.  I remember agonizing about being able to only push my granny gear on a flat river.  I reasoned, “It must be a climb otherwise I would not have to stay in my granny gear!”  It seemed undeniably real and yet so harsh that we would have to ride up and up and up a flat river. I wondered out loud if our headlights were causing some kind of optical illusion, but the enormous weight of my worn out legs was no illusion.  It finally got to the point where we had to continually stop, form a solid foundation with both our boots firmly on the ground, and then put our heads on the handlebars, each time nodding off for a few seconds (or minutes).  On one occasion, “being lazy,” I failed to plant both feet on the ground (or ice) and instead left one boot locked into the pedal.  As God is my witness, when I put my head down and then immediately dosed off, I fell over into the snow as a dead man would, when I went to try and get up I realized that my boot was still attached to the pedal... 

.....we would ride for 30 minutes or so and then one of us would simply fall off the bike....
                                        ...I aint gonna lie things got ugly

We were still lucid enough to find humor in our situation, setting a couple little ground rules that included two primary stipulations from which one could not deviate from: 1.When dosing one could only think “happy thoughts,” and 2. Most importantly, under no circumstances could one dream about either finishing the race or one’s life after arriving in McGrath. Without getting too Freudian, perhaps the second provision was instigated to allow us to not consider how much farther we had to go.  But try as I might I just could conceive of making the distance. I became obsessed with wanting to bivy.  As I rode slowly mile after mile, my mind was fixated in finding a place to bivouac. Then abruptly we came to the end of the TRAIL! Just like that the trail ended as it ran directly, in a T-bone fashion, onto a road. 

The Iditarod trail heads mostly in a west by north direction, whereas this road ran basically south to north.  The strangeness or juxtaposition of the trail ending and the road beginning jump-started me back to reality.  How does this work, where is the town? Lindsay’s accurate odometer maintained that we were just five kilometers from the town of McGrath.  It made no sense to us that a road would be here…Do the mushers take the road into town? Thatz weird…

The problem was we had no clue which way to go on the road.  We carefully searched for any telltale signs of bike tracks but could find no evidence. It was pitch black out and yet we could not make out any kind of glow which would indicate a cluster of houses. We quickly launched a plan…We would ride for fifteen minutes to the north carefully looking for any indication that a town lay ahead.  We hit the 15 minute mark with no success, so we turned, and headed back to the start of our troubles.  Then we went fifteen minutes to the south and again found nothing. 

The initial excitement of finding the road had, at this point, worn off and so we were once again desperately sleepy, almost groggy.  We had spied some kind of a radar tower to the north, so we headed back to the north in the hope that maybe someone would be manning the tower.  We took the short driveway off the main road to the radar installation and found no one about. I was ready to throw down my bag and sleep next to the tower, but Lindsay convinced me to try one last time further up the road.  Salvation was ours as we gradually began to see dwellings.  Then we found a sign indicating that the finish was one mile away.  We had made it…all fatigue and cloudy thoughts fell away as we laughingly relished the last few “clicks” of our time on the famed Iditarod Trail…

Part VII: McGrath and beyond…Our stay in McGrath was a highlight!

To be continued…

 From my application for admission into the 2013 Iditarod Invitational: “To earn the respect of my fellow racers, race directors, and race volunteers as I attempt to complete the 350-mile Alaskan Iditarod Invitational. Upon returning to my duties as a high school teacher in northern Minnesota I plan to develop a curriculum based on my experience including references to the history of the race, interesting characters, and the physical and psychological preparation needed to complete the event.” 


  1. Congratulations from Lincoln, Charlie! Enjoyed your writeup, awesome stuff. You give hope and inspiration to all us old men out there. See you at TIV9.
    Scott B

  2. Keep it coming! Tears rolling down my face reading some of this.