Just getting to Alaska was an out of body experience. I literally felt, all the way up to the race start, like this was happening to someone else. It probably had to do with the amount of planning involved, the (good) stress of gathering gear and researching those who had come before. For months I was just trying to be as prepared as possible, fully aware that there was no way to truly know what was about to happen. I felt very much out of my league standing in our crowded hotel room after the Meet and Greet, gear and panic strewn about, along with toilet water from our very uncooperative bathroom. Chaotic and confined. I was guaranteed at the most, ten days of pure and raw freedom in order to complete the race, and I was practically salivating to get out there.
The morning of, after going over the gear I wanted to take for the hundredth time, we loaded the bus to Knick Lake, where we would start at 2pm. I ate a burger at the bar, and can honestly say, my tank was 100% full going into this race. The theme of a massive refuel meal would continue throughout the week and I really liked how this worked with my body. I briefly spoke with a dog musher named Marcee as we waited for the race to start, I was hanging out in the back, just trying to lay low and get my head. The gun went off and just like that, I was stepping into my dream race. I had worked hard to get here, physically and financially, I worked weeks extra on the road that spring to cover my race entry, putting a strain on my relationship and physical health, I received support from friends who had opened a “Kari’s Iditarod Fund”, and I started a fundraiser for Free To Run in order to give back what was given to me. All of that flashed and I was walking under the Iditarod Trail Invitational banner, I just couldn’t wait to get all tired and scrappy!
Knick Lake to Yentna Station. The trail had inches of fresh snow, the going was tough right away, but I was fresh and didn’t care. Through the woods we went, all afternoon, it looked like a true winter wonderland. I had the most company on this first afternoon as I would for the rest of the race, leapfrogging Loreen Hewit and Amber Bethe. As we collectively stopped to put on headlamps a few short hours later, Jill Homer caught up with us, and there I was, sharing trail with three major bad ass women in my sport.
In those first few hours, I realized my ropes were messed up. In the chaos of switching hotel rooms, the bunjy cord that attaches to my harness was lost, so I improvised using a short rope with no stretch. This improvisation was destroying my back in the deep snow, needless to say there was significant brainstorming happening from the start to Yenta Station. I decided to make it in one big push, maybe take a cat nap on my sled before getting to the river. The night came easy, just before getting to the river I met up with Max, another foot racer, who thought we were on the wrong trail. Pete Ripmaster sent me his trusted GPS to use, and following Lars tracks on the device, I never had a doubt where I was going! At one point in the night I heard a whistle and turned around, doing so I saw my sled… wasn’t attached. WHAT the HELL? Walking back Max was there, kind of laughing, kind of appalled, saying he had never seen anything like that. I have never DONE anything like that! Working hard to gain traction in the deep snow was apparently enough of a distraction where I went a significant distance without noticing my LIFE LINE was not with me. The result of this experience being, for the next 9.5 days I was constantly looking behind me, and never started walking without calling out “Everybody with me?”
Off to a great start.
With the all the fresh snow came a slow vivid blue morning, now I could see how big the river was, and after some time, yellow mountains off in the distance signified the skies were clearing. Mountains! I eagerly moved towards them, the footing still not good but I still didn’t care! I had synced up with Ryan Wanless during the last miles to Yentna, he was a good moose spotter and there were a lot on the shoreline, munching away having no interest in us. Eventually we made it off the river, my plan was to eat, sleep, and get back out there, it was early afternoon. The hosts were friendly and I had a nice meal, eating while chatting with Paul and meeting the Kiwi’s for the first time, George and Graham. I tried to sleep for three hours but there was a crying baby, and if you know me, crying baby is nails on chalkboard, so I got some much needed rest instead and after WAY too much time fussing, headed back out the door. I swapped out a spare bunjy cord on my ropes and would have no issues for the rest of the trip, but ahhhh did that feel divine!
Yentna to Skwentna Leaving the first checkpoint was a huge mental win, I just wanted to be IN the race. Now I was back on the river, and would be on the river for the next 23 hours. Feeling sleepy right away was confusing, but I hadn’t really slept at all yet, so I planned to go as far as I could and bivy at some point. Drinking some trail coffee was beautiful and woke me right up at the moment. The sun was setting and a big blue moon was rising, along with the cold wind. Stopping to add some layers, Greg, a skier caught up with me. He had a sweet tent set up that I had seen on the first night, and I thought of it every time my frosty bivy lay across my face for the remainder of the race. The wind was significant here, but it never bothered me, I just kept on plugging away through the night until I got so sleepy that I was practically going backwards. Needing to find some shelter on a very exposed river meant I traveled much further before finding a string of trees cutting the wind, and further down, I could see Greg’s tent. Not wanting to bivy close, I stomped down some snow right there and lay out my bag on top of my sled. It was a tad chilly at first but I soon fell asleep, resting for several hours. My alarm went off, and as I rallied to get out of the bivy, I accidentally rolled down off my sled onto my large square of stomped down snow. Like a tornado I was struggling and fussing, panting and groping for a zipper, ANY zipper and a thought passed through my mind “I never thought it would end this way” As I was giving in to my puffy prison forever my hand grasped something square, MY HEADLIGHT! Clicking it on and frantically finding the zipper, finally emerging from my cocoon dramatically gasping in the morning light of dawn, a beautiful sunrise on the river with no wind welcomed me! Sigh, Alaska!
It was a cold morning, I heard -20 something, I was cozy starting that leg with an OMeal, a warm and no fuss self heating meal. They were heavy for so little calories but I enjoyed having them throughout the race. This clear and gorgeous morning on the river was a Moose Highway as Graham said, later that morning having caught up to me and stopping for a chat. We were not far from the Trail Angel, maybe 4 miles, and I was looking forward to a hot treat before continuing the day. Upon getting there I was ready for a break, drank some coco/coffee and after an initial shy refusal of food, changed my mind and had a proper breakfast of eggs and toast with the appropriate amount of butter. That means a lot of butter for you non mid westerners! After that I was on my way to the Skwentna Roadhouse, maybe 13 miles away. WOW what a gorgeous day, and the WIND was incredible! I met Nina for the first time there, biking with her friend. I couldn’t imagine biking in a headwind like that, it was hard enough on foot. But as the day wore on, the wind picked up even more, and it was wild and crazy! Battling the wind I had no low’s, not ONE low moment, which was uncharacteristic but I was in ALASKA! If this is what the ITI meant then I was totally down! Hours later and I was off the river and out of the wind, on a small trail leading to the Skwentna road house. It seemed so quiet as I pulled up to the building and upon entering, met some more athletes, some that were continuing on, some not.
Skwentna to Shell Lake Peeling off layers to dry, I ordered some pasta to eat, my plan was to stay for an hour or so and push on to Shell Lake. Greg was there and he recounted his last few miles on the river and talked about what this race meant to him. Asbjorn came in a bit later and I chatted with him a bit too, he was skiing to Nome and looked like he just started. After an hour I started to pack up, not wanting to linger. My clothes dried reasonably fast, and as I was gathering, started talking with the two Kiwi ladies, one Nina, and the other whose name I forgot (HELP!) They had gone out, and upon getting to the swamp, the trail was so blown in they turned around and would wait for daylight. I was grateful for this intel as it helped me prepare for what was coming. She said I was brave for going out alone, and coming from a legitimately baller woman, I took the compliment. It was only after leaving, around 7pm, where my self doubt came peeping in… SHOULD I be out here? This is the only way I know how to do it, solo, am I going to get into trouble out here? Stubborn and wanting to go alone but unable to handle the conditions? I pushed it away, my insecurity is a constant companion but it doesn’t get to rule the day. Turning a wooded bend I could see the open field, trail blown in, fully dark, the wind HOWLING like crazy and blowing across my face… bring it on I said and stepped into the field.
Immediately I was post holing, and looking for the reflective trail markers. Behind me a head light was steadily moving forward, Mark Hines had caught up with me. First meeting him at the airport, he was in for the 1,000 mile foot. Wind blowing he said, “next time we go out, I’M picking the place” I laughed and we agreed to work together on this portion through the field. Getting into my snowshoes once again, my feet protesting, we worked the miles and miles of blown in trail. Moving steadily it was just a few hours later and we were again out of our snowshoes looking for the end of the field. Mark went ahead to find a nice bivy spot while I stopped to go to the bathroom and eat. I came to an intersection, checked my GPS and went right, not knowing how much I would appreciate that right turn for several hours. Finding Marks bivy under a tree looking snug as a bug, I was envious, it looked cozy. But I am going to Shell Lake, for a physical and mental reprieve by hanging out with my Mom! It was a long and cold eight or so miles of hilly and moonlit trail, and when I got to Shell Lake, seeing the red light of the cabin off in the distance, and a faint white light heading my way, I knew it was my Mom and rest was in short order.
Shell Lake to Finger Lake I was tired! I sat down on the couch and Mom gave me some soup, I fell asleep. There were a few people there and I could see evidence of the Trail on their faces. Also, there was a moose on their faces. Apparently those who went straight at that intersection met up with a Terror Moose, who charged and trampled Greg, attacked a few cyclists and trapped them out there for hours. It was a very real danger going into the race, but now that it was happening and so deep in, I think everyone felt exposed to the realness of the Iditarod. I went to bed in one of the cabins, wanting to sleep for a few hours indoors as I had yet to get a proper sleep so far, I immediately passed out. I woke to darkness and slight confusion, but uncovering the blanket from my face revealed bright sunlight streaming into a warm cabin. Greg was seated on a bed and he recounted his moose story. I watched his face, the Greg I talked to at Skwenta was replaced, he was in Flight or Fight mode big time. I’m still in awe that he went on to continue AND finish the race. Mom came in and we chatted, I slept a little longer before heading to the main cabin for a re-feed before hitting the trail again. It was lovely seeing Mom and Chaylane, they both told me some stories about their experience so far, I can’t say enough on how nice it was to spend time with them. I spent a lot of time fussing here, (now my annoying norm at checkpoints) and it was afternoon before Mom was accompanying me out the door and up the trail. I was tired to start, even after heading up through the woods to the open fields, the mental fog was real. Hugging Mom goodbye, I walked out and in the bright sunshine and nice trail, eventually my head and energy came back. This was a pleasant section, WIDE open fields and big mountains emerging with a backdrop of blue sunlit skies. Evening came, it was on this night that my evening routine was totally dialed in: the sun starts to set, I get my headlight, change socks, add a layer, eat some dinner, and head down the trail. I made my way through the woods, it was a windy night, but comfortable. Up a river for some amount of time, here is also where I realized in Alaska, rivers are not flat! But moving through the night was no problem with the Moon so bright and beautiful.
Getting to Finger Lake was a breeze! Hours earlier athletes were battling high winds and blown in trail, but by the time I got there, she was quiet and stoic. Making my way to the cabin, I just followed the tracks and eventually found it, unsure if I just walk in or what, I paused and a wonderful volunteer came out to meet me (someone help me with her name). Peeling off wet and now GROSS layers, we chatted and I ate a burrito which was amazing. It had everything I wanted, carbs, protein, it was HOT and LARGE! Feeling incredibly chipper in the middle of the night, I chatted for a while, RD Kyle came in as well and it was nice to finally meet him. Time for sleep! There was a delightful tent on the lake, warm and filled with sleeping humans, unfortunately coming into check points in the wee hours of the morning after the bulk of people got settled in, was also my norm in this race. Desperately trying to be quiet, I prolonged the long RIIIIIIIIP of velcro, probably doing more harm than good. Iditarod helped me realize how LOUD outdoor gear was, everything has a giant zipper or velcro strap! Tasks complete, soon I was passed out and snoring loudly. Not gear related.
Finger Lake to Puntilla Lake Leaving Finger Lake I again was fussing and putzing, but I wanted to get to the Happy River Steps in the daylight, so once I was on the trail I was going to haul. At this point my body was great, in fact, I started the race with all sorts of niggles and drama and leaving Finger Lake I felt the best I had in months! Feet were great, legs were great, heart was great, check check check! Right away the trail was tough though, sloppy and slanted, my sled kept tipping over because he was too top heavy. Stop asking how much my sled weighs you guys, unless it is getting flown somewhere, I’ll never be “that” person. I put in the stuff that I need to not die and that’s it! Anyway, I fought hard in that section, and coming out onto a lake was a welcome reprieve. There was still no easy trail, every step so far was fought for, but it was becoming the new norm and I was getting used to it, at least mentally. Through the woods and across lakes or rivers, the mountains looming off to the side, it was a happy morning even though it was tough. Later in the afternoon I reached the Happy River Steps, it was cool to finally get to a place I’ve only read about and tackle them in person. With a lot of up and down, and a lot of moose activity in the area I was singing and making my way to the river. Down down down we went, then after a brief and wide open stint on the Happy River, up up up we go! That was a challenging section all in all, fun but it definitely put a nail in my coffin. Sometime after the Steps, night fell, and some hunters on snowmobiles came up. They were on their way to the Burn to hunt buffalo when a moose charged and they had to shoot it. We chatted for a bit, he said I was crazy to do this alone, and they were off. Shaking my head, I kept on through the night. Fully dark, my thoughts betrayed me on this night. I started thinking about life back home, things I wanted to do differently, the past, the future, thoughts that have no place on the trail. Getting emotional, talking to myself, I missed the turn to Puntilla Lake, after realizing my mistake, checking the GPS and giving it some thought, I kept going and sure enough the trail I was on eventually went to the Lodge I was looking for. Walking down to the lodge, the moon was bright, the lake was frozen and white, and the mountains were tall and glowing before me. It was truly beautiful, quiet, and my solitude was complete. Now for bed, I needed to find the cabin and decide what my plan was for the next section. I found our familiar logo on a dark cabin, pushing hard on the door, Greg was there on the other side getting ready to head out. I’m not sure the time, but it was around 1am maybe? I don’t remember the day exactly, and at that point, was unconcerned. The priority was to eat a ton of food and get some sleep, I still felt like I needed a good recovery sleep and was starting to feel it. Hanging out my socks to dry, I climbed precariously into a top bunk and immediately fell asleep.
Punitlla Lake to Rohn There were a few warnings I took with me going into this race. One of them was don’t go up Rainy Pass alone and/or at night. Waking up around 4am listening to other racers get up to make a push for the Pass, I decided that a proper rest was what I needed the most, and curled back up to sleep. A while later I got up and started the slow foggy process of gathering my dried gear, strewn about everywhere. Once loaded I stepped out into the bright sunshine and the warm day, there was just one more task: find tampons! Sorry readers, but my drama is your drama! Walking to the Lodge, I asked around, and then promptly heard over walkie talkies everywhere echoing in the mountains “does anyone have any tampons!? We’ve got a Walker here that needs some!” Content that the world now knew my dilemma, I spent a little time with a woman while we waited for my special delivery, we talked about the lodge, her aging dog and we both cried. Ah, I love dog people! Now fully armed for the days ahead, I was ready to hit the pass, it was later than I preferred going into unknown territory, but it was a beautiful day and I was feeling confident. Right away I was peeling layers, it was HOT! Kyle and another volunteer (I should know his name, help!) came up on snowmobiles heading to the next checkpoint. I had seen them a couple times over the last few days and they were always in cheerful spirits and fun to chat with. Heading to the Pass was so cool, the trail was unusually firm and flatter than I anticipated. I walked the trail wondering which mountains I would be going in between, this section was amazing and a welcome reprieve from the short steep hills on sloppy trail the day before. Sometime after the intersection to Hells Gate, walking through the low brush and winding path of the valley, the Iditarod dog race trail breakers came through on snowmobiles. Dang, they were cool, what a fun operation! I spoke with one of them for a short bit, and off they went. Of course I lost the firm trail after that, but this was the new normal right?! Hanging a right towards the mountains, my path became clear and up I went into Rainy Pass. At this time, the moody orange glow of sunset engulfed everything, it was time to prepare for night. Adding layers and my headlamp, eating some food while watching the Ptarmagins scamper in the bushes, and taking a last look at the valley below, I continued the consistent uphill as the mountains closed in on each side. As the moon rose, the mountains got brighter, lit up with snow and moonlight, it was such a wonderful feeling moving through them. Up up up I went, feeling the effort from the day before, and at some point during the night, was the famous Rainy Pass sign. How many times had I dreamed of being here? Up and over, I was now on my way to the Dalzell Gorge. A short time later, giant fresh wolf tracks heading in my direction donned the trail, I looked back suddenly feeling exposed, expecting to see glowing eyes… stopped and searching, the world silent now that my steps and heavy breathing had ceased. I was a tiny speck in a mountain pass. Piano music started playing in my mind….
Woop! I shouted to the darkness and kept walking…
I wheeled around, looking back for glowing eyes. Silent darkness greeted me. “Why men great till they gotta be great?” I sang to the pass behind… Nothing.
Turning back to the trail I shot my poles straight to the sky and sang “I just took a DNA test turns out I’m 100% that Bitch…”
I smiled singing down the trail, fear pushed back for the moment, replaced by the happy thought that maybe these peaks had never heard Lizzo before. Your welcome peaks!
Down I went, the gorge was frozen so I had no overflow to work through, just an easy hike through the night with a happy bright moon above. It was one of the most pleasant evenings I would have! Making my way to the frozen lakes, I recognized where I was from Jeff Rocks photos the year before, of course those were taken during the day, but I knew the Rohn checkpoint would be near. The lake was solid but treacherous, so I put on traction to battle the ice, gingerly walking with the sled coasting on the ice easily by my side, we eventually made it safely to Rohn. It was early morning and still dark, the same volunteer who was at Finger Lake came out to greet me. Soon I was again drying out socks while preparing to get some sleep on the straw and pine boughs inside the cozy tent. Filled up with two beautiful bratwursts, I curled up in my sleeping bag having a brief chat with Lars. Before utterly passing out, I noted that my feet had started to get swollen, I made a mental note to keep an eye on them going forward…
I woke up to a bright tent, Klaus had taken the place of Lars during the night, and I apologized to him for my snoring! Consciousness took some time this morning, and that is the problem with sleeping in checkpoints vs bivying, everything is slower. I sat up and was immediately aware that my swollen feet had doubled in size and I couldn’t move my toes, the straw bed was on an incline and I stupidly passed up the opportunity to sleep “head down” the night before. Eating oatmeal and chatting, and sleeping, I turned myself upside down for a snoring little cat nap to try and get my feet back. I spent a lot of time here, some for recovery, some to undo mistakes, but eventually I was packed, refueled, armed with hot Tang, and heading down the trail. The next section had been in my mind for years and I would soon get to see it with my own eyes, the Farewell Burn. It was a cloudy and dark day, leaving the checkpoint and heading through the woods, I came to a lake, a woman was standing and looking out at the mountains. Turning and looking at me she pointed out, “You are headed that way, to Egypt Mountain” I looked at a dark blue triangle of a mountain off in the distance, it seemed so far away. I thanked her and walked onto the icy lake.
Rohn to Nikolai From Rohn to the finish, was another lifetime, and this particular day was dark blue, windy, and desolate from the beginning. It was hilly walking through the woods, and it may have been several hours of this, I was alone with my thoughts and it was pleasant even though I was starting to battle the fatigue demon. In the snowy woods, I heard a strange animal cry off to my right. Stopping to listen, it screamed and cried and screamed and cried, not far from where I was standing. Shaking my head in confusion, what WAS that thing, I took one step and heard a sudden boom boom BOOM BOOOOOOM BOOM boom of an avalanche directly to my left! Feeling incredibly exposed in a strange way, I gingerly walked forward and just a few feet later, stepped into the Farewell Burn. Looking to my left at the mountains I groaned in disappointment, had I been a few minutes faster I could have seen the avalanche, which was close enough to be seen but not so close to be a threat. Looking out at the landscape, the Farewell Burn loomed large before me, and blue Egypt mountain just a little closer.
The rolling hills of the Burn which are notoriously bare had a fair amount of snow cover this year with the exception of just a few hills. Up and down the trail I went, the yellow grass, burned skeletons of trees and exposed earth went on and on. The Pass and mountains behind me started to spread out the further I walked, the grey sky and high wind blew tiny shards of snow in my face. I kept an eye on Egypt Mountain, and as the expanse of dead trees grew wider and wider, it was here where I felt truly alone. Not lonely by any means, but I was alone in body and mind here in the Burn. This section between Rohn and Nikolai is also the longest in the race, somewhere around 80 miles or so, and I could feel it. The day was filled with steep hills and buffalo poop, I was dumbfounded at how BIG the Burn was. Still, I wanted to take the opportunity of no checkpoint to get back to moving during the day, as I had been spending a lot of time walking at night. The weather continued to be grey and blustery, there was no sunset, just the light of day slowly getting dimmer until it was snuffed out by the flat moon and dark evening. Around midnight I started looking for a place to hole up, the exposure of the Burn made this endeavor again last a few hours, but eventually I found a spot to eat some dinner and bivy. I noted my feet were back to normal sized for the most part, set my alarm, and went to sleep.
A couple of hours later, the buzzing alarm woke me up, and unzipping the bivy I shook off a layer of snow that now covered everything. Making breakfast in the dark, I was soon on my way. There was a section that other athletes mutter about, miles of short and steep hills that alone don’t do much damage but collectively wear you down. Within one mile of leaving my cozy spot, I was now in that section. During the evening it had snowed a little, and as the morning light took hold, the snow began to accumulate, leading to the trail deteriorating in a bad way. Up and down the hills I went, the task keeping me focused on the trail and not as much the trail conditions. My sled had been taking chunks out of my ankles for days and this day was no exception. More snow. Every step was a drama. I got back into my snowshoes, which I hated, but they did make it easier to move. Not faster, just easier. I bitterly laughed at how much I had been in my snowshoes during the race, “I used to do this for FUN! I shouted to the trees, snowshoeing SUCKS!” My feet agreed in anger. The hills didn’t bother me, I was musing about this on one climb, wondering how long this section would last, knowing that at some point, it would be “flat to the finish.” Reaching the top of this particular hill, the pancake flat wooded trail lay out endlessly before me like a desert. Wow! So down I went, and this section of mushy flat trail began its slow but sure murder of my legs.
I met Lars at Tuscobia this year, I had DNF’d and returned to the checkpoint to volunteer. Chatting with him, he said he was using that particular race to get some long flat training in for ITI. He was right and I remembered that conversation throughout the day. It was incredibly beautiful, the fresh snow piled on the trees as it continued to fall, but the going was tough. I worked twice as hard and moved half as fast, the squirrely snow making each step a well earned mini victory. “It’s never always terrible” I repeated to myself throughout the day, night will come, the trail will firm, it’s never always terrible. The snow let up just in time for the orange sunset to shine, it was about here where I came to Sullivan creek, a welcome reprieve to eat some dinner and fill up my water. After a sock change it was time to head on down the trail, I was happy when night came, it shut out the endless flat expanse. The night got cold. I had no intention of bivying, there was only a big push now to the town of Nikolai, the last checkpoint. Hamburgers and dry socks was my main driving force, I use checkpoints as a time to stop and rest, a bad habit that would soon catch up with me. The cold deepened and I added layers, the wind picked up and I added my last layer. Frost started accumulating on everything, I entered a black wood, maybe filled with dense birch trees, the creepy flat darkness took my breath away, I pushed on. I pushed through the cold, the wind, fatigue, and the urge to sleep. I took a few cat naps on my sled to eek out a few more steps.
I pushed on.
Dawn came, I felt like I was breaking my mind to get to Nikolai. Then I was on a river, with orange signs, one mile to Nikolai! My spirits rose, I kept saying out loud to myself “Nikolai, I walked there!” Soon I could see the town.
Still chirping, Nikolai! I walked there!
The feeling of getting here was a major accomplishment that still makes me smile. Now to find the checkpoint, it was a small town of less than 100 people so it should be easy, and Lars GPS tracks were sending me to a large community building. Walking over there, a local woman on a snowmobile came over to me, “are you a walker in the race?” she asked. Yes, is this the checkpoint? I responded pointing to the snowy building.
“Yes but they all left this morning”
Umm what? A gear shifted and halted in my mind and I took my sled around back and sat down. Ok Kari, you get ONE minute to lick your paw and then it’s time for action! This is what we need to do, you need to eat, dry out clothes and sleep, you have everything you need so don’t freak out. It was your own damn fault you were thinking about this damn checkpoint for two days and you did not need to put yourself in a hole. At this self deprecating dressing down I could feel a little tear working it’s way out, NO!!!! We’re not doing this! At that moment, the same woman came around and said there was food at the school they were selling. Good enough for me! I shot up and walked over to the school, got a ton of soup and sandwiches and refueled. It was here, now free of my sled, that I noticed my legs were VERY swollen, probably from the mushy snow. The woman came over and ate with me, she was kind and shared stories of her life here in Nikolai, and gave me a little history on the town, and pointed where she was born. I loved my time with her! After I ate two meals, she invited me over to the library to sleep, I hadn’t asked but I was grateful for the offer. After some food my situation was fine, and it wasn’t until she said the word “cutoff” that a wave of panic arose. I knew the cutoffs, but was this new? I had been on the trail for days and didn’t know what day it WAS let alone how much time I had. Am I the last person here? I connected to the internet and sent a message to Mom and Chay, asking about the cutoff. They got a message from Kathi right away confirming that there was not a cutoff here, and there was actually a spot upstairs for me! Hauling my wet gear up stairs, I lay them out and found a kind note with three sandwiches from the volunteers who had to leave early. Encouraged, I lay out my bag to rest. This space was now shared with the Iditrarod volunteers, a nice young man said I might get more rest if I went downstairs where it was quiet, I smiled, climbed in my bag and passed out. Mark Hines came in and I offered him two of my sandwiches having just eaten. Falling asleep again, now clutching a snickers bar that was given to me by a Iditarod volunteer, I was content.
Nikolai to Mcgrath Waking up two hours later, it was late afternoon, I had one more push left. One more push to the finish. As I gathered my things, still wet socks and food, I chatted with the the Iditarod dog race volunteers, the mushers had already left Anchorage and were on their way. I put some hot Tang in a thermos (WHY is this SO GOOD?), grabbed my tuna sandwich left by the wonderful race volunteers, and started making my way downstairs. The last push. I took the opportunity to organize my sled, meanwhile, the locals were stopping by and wishing me good luck. What a great town. Energized by my little nap, and lesson learned about waiting to sleep at checkpoints, I waved goodbye to the friendly locals and headed down the trail. A little while later I saw a sign that read 47 Miles to McGrath. Easy, I chirped! 10 steps later I saw another sign that said 52 Miles to McGrath. What the?! I’m still going with 47. I wanted some nice long miles during daylight and had a plan to bivy around 1am or so. Now on the river, it was getting cold and I quickly added layers, cold but gorgeous, I enjoyed a wonderful sunset and later the bright moon cast shadows going into the evening. This particular evening was physically difficult, and increasingly so by the minute. It felt like I was going constantly uphill, I annoyingly kept turning around to look dumbly at my sled wondering why it was all of a sudden, so heavy! Fully dark but bright, I moved from open and exposed river (or lake?) and into the woods, then back onto open river. It continued to get colder, a fine frost was starting to coat everything, and I could feel that it was definitely at least -30 (I found out later it was closer to -35). The cold didn’t bother me, what WAS bothering me was my heart rate. It was absolutely RACING and I needed to continuously stop for it to climb back down out of my throat and into my chest. Time to bivy!
I found a little spot off the trail, stamped down some snow and prepared to climb in. Here is where things got difficult, my legs were now so swollen that I couldn’t bend them all the way. That meant I was rolling around on the trail trying to get out of my shoes, fresh socks on, and into the bivy. I put a nice show on for the animals. Something that takes seconds was now minutes long, but I wasn’t cold because my heart rate was so high, I was literally panting. Drama! Finally after an embarrassingly long time, I zipped in. Still panting I lay there, waiting for my heart to calm down, it never did. Maybe I slept, but catching my breath was the theme of the night. Either way, I rested so that IS something. With sleep off the table, I got out a few hours later and began the now tedious process of getting into shoes, and was again rolling all over the place! I suddenly really had to go to the bathroom! Soon after I was walking down the trail and within minutes had to pee again! Sorry dear reader, but this was strange for me so worth noting. Chaylane said later with my panting and peeing, my body was probably trying to expel all of the fluid in the legs and what not. I still need to figure out what happened to cause this so I can prevent it in the future.
Onto Mcgrath! Still dark, I was looking for that sunrise, the last one I would see out here on this historic trail. I walked passed Mark Hines bivy, shook my head still wanting sleep, dang I’ve seen so many cozy looking setups, mostly from the athletes pushing for Nome! The sky behind me started to brighten, the moon ahead continued to sink towards the horizon. It was cold, bright, and beautiful. I heard someone behind me and it was Mark, looking well rested and chipper! We chatted for a bit and I walked behind him for a moment but quickly fell behind, I was amazed at how strong he was after 9 days, although it makes sense! At one point I caught back up to him at snack time, he shared an amazing rum ball with me and I shared my hot Tang. Truly the simple pleasures out there made me feel like a Queen. Morning gave way to afternoon, I came to a river and Mark was off in the distance. A mini alarm went up and I checked my GPS, Mark was on the track that my GPS was pointing to and was labeled, Overland River Reroute. I knew ONE thing for certain going into this race, DO NOT TAKE THE RIVER. It adds a 10k of hard miles. Knowing this and double checking the GPS I followed suit, it wasn’t until hours later of post holing in that hell hole drama, that I realized I had taken the wrong trail. It was hugely difficult and dropping down in the snow unable to bend my knees made it even worse. Falling forward one last time in deep snow and seeing bright white glitter sparkling wildly in my face right before getting off the river I had a clear and ringing thought: this is hard, and beautiful, and you were made for this.
Getting off the river was a joy, and I was rewarded with a mile or so of decent trail before it deteriorated completely once again. Twenty miles to Mcgrath, and this was my low point. Shooting pain from me knees on every step of soft snow was the only thing I knew. I cried and sputtered, feeling all the sorry for myself on this self inflicted journey. Here I prayed, when the shit hits the fan, that’s when I’m like “God, me again!” The pain in my legs was more than I could handle, I’ve never felt anything like this before. So I limped and walked down the trail, sad that I now had decided this was “impossible” and I have to give up winter racing forever, and probably have to move and leave Minnesota, and oh how I will miss my dog because obviously I do not deserve to have a dog anymore. Right around this time I stepped down into thigh deep snow, and felt cold water rushing into my shoe. SHIT! I couldn’t bend my leg to get it out so I just rolled on the ground out of my watery doom. Shit. I sat on my sled, now in major problem solving mode, pain gone, I only knew I had one more night and that night was going to be COLD, and I had NO dry socks. Grabbing the least wet ones, I added warmers and baggies, taped them, put my shoes on and added my Neos over boots. I won’t be dry but I WILL be warm. Looking out, suddenly everything was clear, I was on a river, bright white sun was shining down on me out of a clear blue sky. Two miles per hour. That’s what I need to do. I stood up, shoved some gummies in my face, determined once again, and headed down the trail.
A short time later a nice man on a snowmobile stopped to chat and to give me the heads up that the dog teams would be coming any minute now. Up the river I went, and soon heard a whistle, turning around there was the first team, dang they were quiet! I tossed my sled off the trail and stepped down into deep snow so they could pass. She cheered me on, I cheered her on, and off we went. It was invigorating seeing them, I felt humbled being able to share the true spirit of the trail with them. On the frozen water more teams came by, and a moose was all worked up on the trail ahead. He never bothered us. The sun began to set, the teams continued, I made my way up through the woods and back down to the water. Night came. With it, my last fight for the finish.
Black night, dark snow, more dog teams, and me in the quiet, now exhausted knowing the finish is near. Near was still 10+ miles out. Mark wrote a little note about shower beers, I laughed and kept pushing. It was dark, the last few nights of little sleep were catching up to me in a big way. I lay on my sled, immediately fell asleep. Woke up, groaning at the pain in my legs, and continued down the trail. Being so near the end of my adventure I was really letting it slip.
“Girl you have NO idea where you’re going” I said out loud.
Uh oh, bad sign, time for snacks! Peeling my disgusting frozen face mask back, I dropped some lemon heads into my mouth. I continued to move into and out of my task at hand, I started seeing farm equipment, tents, houses, and camp fires. I started to dream. I woke up in the middle of the trail from a standing cat nap, “MOVE” I yelled.
“yeah I got boy problems that’s the human in me…” I sang weakly to the snow.
It was night, again a big moon was my companion, and cold. I added my big down mitts with some hand warmers, my last hand warmers, and felt chilly but not cold at all. Air temp was -38 that night. Now I was on a road, and the ease of the trail for the first time in nine days meant my mind shut off. Now I was dreaming AND walking, I was a wife, touring housing developments. Why are we here, it’s the middle of the night? We can’t see any of these properties…
I woke up, perched on the trail. “Move” I yelled!
Housing developments, this might be a nice place but I’ve seen it three times already and always at night! Why are we here!? I continued to dream…
Plop! I walked into a snowbank, tight knees aching I rolled and pushed hard to get myself out. A woman on a snowmobile stopped and asked if I was ok. “Yes, I’m just tired” I replied, trying to look and sound normal knowing this woman just watched me sleep walk into a snowbank. She said I was close, two blocks. Time and distance were nothing. I was on the trail and that was it. And this development. And my kids (I don’t have kids) and man cakes, and snowmobiles, and McGrath….
“Kari?” I turned around.
I sleepily walked over to her and she led me to the house. Almost immediately I was in the warm yellow light of the kitchen, Jen was peeling layers off, my face mask, jackets, shoes…. then I was sitting. Lars sat across from me talking, I was hazy, still dreaming. “What’s going on?” I asked, Lars said, “you’re in the Iditarod, in Mcgrath, and you finished. Suddenly all of those puzzle pieces floating around my head sorted themselves out and everything was clear. Done, sigh. Now relaxed I had chillie and great company, tea and stories and a glass of wine…. “Go to bed”, Lars said. I didn’t want to! It was great hanging out and chatting! I stayed up a bit more listening and finally Lars woke me up a second time. Jen set up a bed and the feeling of laying on the floor was the most euphoric thing I’ve ever experienced.
The next morning, I woke up giving myself a pep talk. “You can do this, one more leg, get on the trail and you’ll feel better”…. after several minutes of this it hit me… I’m done, I finished! Energized by this new piece of information I got up and walked back out to the kitchen, the house was now bustling with people, I sat down gingerly at the table and began to eat with my fellow participants. I ate for a solid two hours. Jen was a true champion helping me during this time, and Nancy and Peter’s hospitality is second to non! SO much food, and my body devoured all of it!
Aftermath That afternoon the possibility of getting out of Mcgrath before Monday was potentially tricky and I managed to make it on a standby flight at the last minute. As the plane took off my heart sank, I had wanted to get to McGrath so badly for so many years, and got to see non of it. Napping meant a quick flight, and in no time at all I was hugging my Mom and Chaylane in Anchorage. We met Faye and Jeff at the hotel and made plans for dinner, they both looked so happy and pleasantly tired, Faye had WON the woman’s race, we had SO much to celebrate! It was during this time I got caught up on the pandemic drama that had been sweeping the news and the world. The harsh reality of this pandemic made me want to turn around and go back. But there is no true escape, even as I write this, athletes who I shared the trail with that were making their way to Nome are getting pulled from the course after a storm surge made the trail impassable. I’m told the Iditarod Trail Invitational 2020 was a particularly brutal year, Mother Nature rules in all ways, especially out here. After spending time with the most top notch athletes I’ve ever been exposed to in one single setting, I can honestly say I learned a ton. Seeing people do things on a higher level naturally upped my game. I am still my own worst enemy out on the trail, my stubbornness gets me far, but it is also my greatest hurdle. Still, the contentment I feel on completing this literal dream come true is a gift, the blue moon, the white mountains, the hot Tang, they will be with me forever. That is something I hold to tightly, especially now as Minnesota shuts down in quarantine, and remembering just days ago, I was free in the wild.