The words below were written more for myself than anyone else. I wanted to trace where I'd been (on paper) to give myself a clearer view of where I'm heading. Seeing it all there in print made it clearer than ever. Rather than just deleting it, I thought a few folks might enjoy and even relate. So here it is. Be warned--it ain't short.
In 1997 I attempted but did not complete the 100-mile Iditasport--I shredded my knee when I accidentally stepped into a hole punched in the trail by a moose. In 1998 I went back to AK armed with experience and humility, and was able to finish the Iditasport 350. Far from scratching the itch, finishing only made the desire to attempt and execute a 'race' like this much stronger.
All through the summer of '99 I was fixated on heading north again to attempt to ride to McGrath. February came and I started the race, but despite all of my planning, training, and preparation, I met face to face with an unexpected adversary: extreme avalanche hazard. Having spent the previous six years backcountry skiing and diligently studying snowpack (independently and with the local professional ski patrol), I assessed the conditions and knew better than to take the risk. I dropped out of the race and flew back to Anchorage, then home to CO.
Voluntarily quitting something that is so dear to you leaves a hole that is unfillable by anything other than that which you have quit. There can be no substitution--you simply have to go back and do it. Starting in late March of '99 I began plotting and planning to return to AK to complete the ride to McGrath. Despite the fact that I had only made it ~180 miles into the '99 race, I still learned heaps and bunches about how to be better prepared for the conditions and scenarios encountered on The Trail. As I was making gear and diet and training changes, a funny thing happened. Then-Iditasport organizer Dan Bull announced that, in honor of the millenium (or something like that), there would be a one-time only race covering the full 1100-miles of the Iditarod. Knik to Nome, on snow, in February.
I can't speak for anyone else that heard that news at the time, but my blood ran cold. Knowing how hard it is simply to ride to McGrath, much less be in a hurry about it, I simply had no means for conceiving of how to train, plan, prepare, or more importantly grasp what the new race meant.
I simply knew that I needed to do it. That was enough.
No set or subset of words can sound anything but cliched when describing the experiences and impact that racing the '00 Iditasport Impossible had on me. It changed my life and my perspective on life on every level. More addicting than anything I'd ever known was the plan/prepare/execute opportunity that such an endeavor provided. No surprise that when Dan Bull announced the race would happen again in '01 I was thrilled and began preparations--in July.
The '01 race saw a ginormous field and atrocious conditions (captured brilliantly here) that, again, changed all the rules of what we (the regular addicts) 'thought' we knew. A single misstep ended my race and sent me home early yet again.
Guess what? Yep--I rehabbed my ankle and spent the summer thinking about snow while riding on dirt. Then in February of '02 I made the pilgrimage to Nome yet again. The trip was wild and chaotic and unpredictable and surreal and very satisfying. When I finished in Nome I felt certain that a chapter in my life was closing. I was not nearly as clear on what the next chapter held.
In 2003 I completed a brutal and brilliant winter tour with Pat Irwin, effectively sealing the I'm-done-with-racing deal. The hardships we encountered were as nothing compared to the amount that our eyes were opened. There was a whole world out there waiting to be explored--we just needed to slow down in order to be able to see it. Unless I'm mistaken, Pat hasn't raced since.
I had a few summer races in the hopper at the time and I needed to follow through on those before pulling the plug completely, but I was sure that winter racing was past tense.
I took the winter of 2004 off from racing. I skied backcountry and track, took road trips to fun winter riding spots, and just generally enjoyed the lack of training and constant need for preparation. Words can't describe the relief I felt at just being able to go with the flow for the first time in over 15 years. I was hooked.
In 2005 I was invited on a three-month tour/traverse of the Greenland Ice Cap, and spent the winter on cloud nine as the departure date approached. Last minute politics saw my spot get taken by an inexperienced yet close acquaintance of the trip organizer (I'm not bitter...) just one week before I was supposed to leave. Filled with emotions at this turn of events, I stomped around the house for a few days before L suggested I could still go to AK and tour to McGrath. Seemed like a great idea at the time, so I spent a day confirming a spot on the start line, buying a ticket to AK, and digging all of my dusty gear outta the rafters. Two weeks later the best result I'll ever have in that race only reconfirmed what I already knew: I didn't want to go fast anymore--I wanted to go slow and enjoy the journey.
I attempted two self-supported winter tours in AK in the winters of '06 and '07. I got slapped down hard by inexperience and ignorance on both, and have savored the learning process as much as ever before.
I have even bigger plans for future explorations--several years worth, actually. But for now I *know* that I don't know enough to embark on those trips with so much as a prayer of completing them. I have to continue experimenting, failing, and learning much, much more first.
Which means that this winter I'll be back in Alaska, out on the Iditarod Trail. I *think* that I'm prepared to be on the trail for as much as a month if need be, although that amount of time will be stretching my food, fuel, and luck pretty thin. I'll be trying to traverse the North Route completely self-supported--no outside assistance of any kind. I won't accept anything that I'm not carrying myself, I won't use trailside shelters nor stop into villages, and I don't plan to step inside of any structure other than my tent for the duration. My bike and gear (all 130# of it!) are 97% ready to go with a few weeks left until departure. As always, I'll continue to learn, tweak, and experiment with things right up until the day I leave, in hopes of enjoying the trip more when out there. Hoping to hit the trail on February 25th.
It has been pointed out to me that by using the packed trail left by other recreational users that I *will* indeed be accepting outside assistance. That's a pretty tough standard, and not one that I subscribe to. But it brings up a very good point: This is a contrived adventure, intended on the most basic level to simply give me a reason to get out of bed every morning. I'm enjoying the whole process--from planning and strategizing to having a compelling reason to get out the door when it'd be easier to stay inside and veg. Executing the trip is, in a way, merely a means of testing myself and the decisions I've made to get there. The trip is a success already in that it has kept me occupied, entranced, and passionate (not just about it, but about everything else in my life too) when it would be easier to do just about anything else. As a result, I don't care much about what others think of it.
When I explained what I had in mind for this winter, Bill Merchant jokingly referred to it as 'postgraduate work'. I like the sound of that--makes it sound like so much more than frittering about at the computer, in the shop, and on the trail.
Enjoy the winter--whatever you're doing with it.