Friday, February 24, 2017

Jeny and The Race: The mental mind.

The ITI starts in 2 days!

There is little that can be done to increase fitness at this point.  Jeny can rest and show up recovered and ready to go, or she can not, but she can't get any stronger.  

I dropped Jeny at the airport at dark-thirty this morning, and she'll transit through several other airports before arriving in Anchorage this evening.  If you're anything like a normal human being, you spend lots of time "devicing" while killing time in airports.  In that way Jeny is normal.  She'll read a little news, maybe catch up with friends and family, possibly get some actual work done.  

Undoubtedly she'll also check a few weather websites to see how things are shaping up along the route.  My experience is that the more you look at those seemingly innocuous forecasts, the more you're sewing the seeds of uncertainty in your own preparation.

Weather forecasts being what they are, you come away from each one less sure about what they're telling you.  60% chance of sun is virtually the same as a 40% chance of snow, but the way that you prepare for and react to each is emphatically not the same.  The more you think about the likelihood of snow, the more you wonder how prepared you really are for it.  


-If the snow is light and dry, and it comes in on a wind, then the trail will drift in and traction is very difficult to find.  Bigger knobs on your tires are quite beneficial to the end of riding vs. spinning your rear wheel and digging holes, or being able to control the front end of the bike.  Even though we've tested, discussed, tested, and retested tires, and made the decision to run Bud/Bud based on past conditions and current forecasts, Jeny wouldn't be human if she looked at these forecasts and didn't wonder if that was the right choice.

-If the snow is wet and heavy it becomes easier to ride, but it has the ancillary effect of weighing down the ice on the frozen waterways that constitute the bulk of this route.  Pushing down the ice pushes water out on top, creating overflow.  Ever pedaled or walked through standing water at -20*?  It happens, and if you're unprepared for it you're going to have a bad day.

Where am I going with all this?

If at this stage you have any cause for uncertainty with any of your preparation, the littlest things will cause you to second guess the steps you've taken to get here.  Second guess enough steps and suddenly the most prepared person is debating whether to start at all, or considering adding a dozen pounds ("We pack our insecurities") of ultra-lightweight gear to their kit.  This isn't specific to any one demographic or individual, although it does tend to hit us CDO folks harder.

The solution?  

Simple: Remind yourself where you've been en route to this moment.

When Jeny first made the decision to head north back in early January, I sat her down and shone a very bright light in her eyes, then explained to her that she could start the event the very next day and do really well.  A lifetime spent outside in similar conditions has familiarized her with what she'll experience up there.  She nodded in agreement but I could tell that she was skeptical.  Then I explained that since she had 6 weeks left to prepare, we'd leave no stone unturned doing just that.  And we have -- well, *she* has.  Jeny buckled down, focused and really put in the necessary effort to dial in her fitness and gear.  When I reiterated that to her yesterday she again nodded in agreement, but again I could tell that she was skeptical.  And I get that -- there are just so many variables involved that you can't help but to wonder which of them you could or should have spent more time with. 

To that end, all Jeny needs to do is go back to the beginning of this series of posts and re-read each one to realize that she has, indeed, prepared in a way that will deliver her to Knik Lake on Sunday morning as prepared as any ITI rookie will likely ever be.  She has scrutinized every piece of clothing she'll wear and done research to understand what sort of options she has.  Then she's gone out and ridden (and pushed, and camped) in each piece, overandoverandover, for the past ~6 weeks.  After each ride she's made some minute adjustment (cutting, sewing, amending) to each piece of gear -- usually to make it fit better or to become more invisible when worn -- and then she's gone out and ridden some more.  Again, and again, and again.

Apply that process not just to your clothing, but also to your bike, your food, and your safety kit, and what do you get?  Eventually you get a sense of confidence at having left no detail unexamined.  Or at least you should.  Once you've been out on the actual trail and seen how well things work, then that confidence can begin to sink in.

But Jeny's not there yet: She's got a long 2 days before she pedals away from Knik and can begin to understand this for herself.  In that time she'll meet lots of new people -- mostly fellow racers -- and she'll have a multitude of conversations about the race, the route, the weather, and always more talk about gear.  It is cyclical and seemingly interminable.  As with the weather forecasts, each of these conversations leaves you with a sense of uncertainty about the prep you've done to date.  Invariably someone will ask how you plan to deal with X scenario and, even though you've thought it through, experimented, and have a solid answer, *their* answer might be different from yours, and this'll give you pause.

There are very few black and white answers to the scenarios they'll face out there.  The one certainty is that if you have confidence in the solution you've devised -- whatever it is -- then that's good enough.  Never having been out there makes it difficult for some to grasp this simple truth.

Last point about the mental aspect of traversing the Iditarod Trail: Things never go exactly to plan.  You're pushing hard in an unforgiving and potentially hostile environment for too long to do everything 100% perfect.  Mistakes happen to everyone, sometimes in rapid succession.  Dwelling on them -- beating yourself up -- does little to teach and less to get you further up the trail.  The person that can make a mistake, digest and embrace the lesson, then drop it trailside and move on is the person that emerges victorious from the ITI.  And from life...

Jeny is a gifted athlete with a lifetime of outdoor experience, and because of this she sets very high expectations for herself.  Failing to live up to them -- whatever that means to her -- can send her down a mental spiral that's difficult to pull out of.  To the end of combatting that she's devised a handful of strategies to keep herself on track.  Slowing down, stopping for a break, grabbing a midday catnap, preparing and then eating a hot meal -- all of these serve to keep her from getting too far ahead of herself.  Staying in the moment is The Most Important Thing.  Those are popular words these days, and might not get through to everyone.

So I'll put them differently.  Thinking too far ahead can be crippling.  Thinking of each task to be completed as sequential, and not cumulative, might be the best single piece of advice I can offer this late in the game. 

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The 2017 ITI starts this Sunday at 2PM Alaska time.  You can follow it here.


  1. Yew!!! Go Jeny! Cheering you on from home here in GJ. And thanks Mike for documenting all the prep work done for this gnarly race. Inspirational to say the least.

  2. Sitting in my hotel room staring at my setup then I read your solution, brilliant. Now I just need to go to bed and be satisfied with my choices and preparation.

  3. Thanks, Mike, for this series. I have no desire to do something like this but have really enjoyed what and how you've shared your years of experience. Wishing Jeny the best!