Even before getting to the start of the Maah Daah Hey 150 people would ask me what was next. Next? I hadn’t even thought about that so I would joke that I was going to retire. Part of me maybe wasn’t joking. It’s been the first bike race in my life where I didn’t have something immediately lined up afterwards– I think I wasn’t even fully convinced I would get to race this year and the other part knew that if I did, I wasn’t sure what the after would look like. Instead of rushing off to the next event, I’m absorbing all that has transpired and releasing what’s also been contained in my body for so long. It’s like a long savasana and my body is finally in a state of resurrection.
Three years ago I wrote about death and the novelty of the dark reaching Alaska. During that period, in the span of one week I had lost three clients and one co-worker and it seemed like death was closer than it had been in previous locations. That feeling didn’t go away once COVID hit, in fact it seemed to get closer as I would go into the backcountry without service for 24-48 hours and wonder what I would come back to– if I would miss the passing of a parent, relative, or friend. This was taking me away from being in the present and into the liminality between life and death.* Instead of coming back to life I was stuck in this transition space in-between it seemed like. I was just waiting to be released and go back to living. After the panic attack death felt so close and it felt so foreign, as someone who has been relatively comfortable with death for most of my life, maybe more than others. It felt like it was chasing me as I tip-toed around my brain, worried that somehow while suspended in this chaotic state I would die and spend the rest of eternity being anxious. Told you it was a wild ride. But in learning to release all this trauma it’s shown me a lot that got built up during COVID and finally feeling like I have some distance from death gave me new perspective on what that really meant or didn’t mean, I mean who really knows right. Now in a lot of ways I feel grounding that I haven’t felt since COVID, these days my grief is living closer to the surface but so is my joy. I no longer feel like I must plan activities days/weeks out to give my mind time to prepared and can envision a future that exists more than 2-3 days out. Why do I keep writing about this, well for part it’s cathartic but also ties into a lot of my experiences with the outdoors. But it also is starting to fit into the larger narrative of how to do I want to move forward in my life.
After I returned to Alaska I did four cross races, two I previously wrote about. The last two included a night race and the other one in snow covered/icy field that my only real goal was to not crash and break my leg this close to ski season. I didn’t, instead I opted to hand out candy on the course to the spectators #plottwist — and we all made sure to celebrate Grande’s 40th birthday as she crossed the finish line. At some point this summer I had entertained the idea of going to cross nationals this year. Another friend up here, Mel was also thinking about doing it but we both realized our work schedules were a little too hectic to make it work this year. We both talked a lot about how racing is so different up here (for context, Mel and I raced against each other at national’s- she got 3rd and I got 5th) nobody is stressed about points or races, everyone is kind and pretty excited to be riding bikes. In a lot of ways, it’s what you want out of a cycling community. And even if cross seems to be dying in other parts of the country it continues to grow here– which makes me happy.
After the cross season wrapped up, I went to Ottawa, CA for work. Two of my friends and I decided to track our elevation for 2 months to help get in shape for ski season with a goal of at least 1200 ft/day. I spent time running there and finding stairs to get as much elevation as I could. It’s weird to travel and to present about COVID-19, it’s like a postmortem but the body is still moving.
When I returned to Alaska, I was able to get on skis, getting a few laps in Hatcher Pass with Charlotte the end of October. The first run of the season we took pretty mellow to see just how our ski legs would do after months off, not terrible. The snow glided under my skis, and it felt like no time had passed. We turned around for another lap where we climbed higher and we were rewarded with some nice pockets of powder and opted for another lap. I wasn’t sure I could find someone to ski on Sunday with so discussed with her a route that would work for low avalanche danger but could still get some elevation in (for the elevation spreadsheet).
I was able to get another friend, Nate to come with, he seemed pretty open to my ridiculous idea of skinning up to the ridge and then I would run down and he could ski down, the snow was a little sparse and he’s a better skilled skier than me, as he still teleskis (that’s how that works right?). I know the absurdity of this idea but I wasn’t sure my skill level was strong enough to get down the line I wanted. Instead, I left my running shoes in the car and after skinning up the road we saw a bowl that looked pretty good and made our way up, navigating above where Charlotte and I had been a few days before. I was on my lighter, skinnier skis than I would have liked but didn’t hesitate about climbing up. Nate and I ended up talking about death on the way up, he was raised Jewish which means they don’t have the same after life thoughts as Catholics, he joked that it was poor for recruitment but nice in terms of not having to concern yourself with where you ended up after you died. That seemed nice and I told him how close I had felt to death for so long, not in a suicidal sense, more that I would just die and I would be stuck like this forever– on top of feeling so incredibly isolated during COVID I wasn’t sure that I had made an impact in any community and had feelings of being incredibly disposable. I was so worried to do anything that would push me any closer into the death zone. Told ya not to trust your brain when it’s on fire.
I ripped my skins, and we discussed our lines down, the light was flat and so we opted instead for tracked out areas of snow instead of untouched powder. We got down, hooting and hollering despite the survival skiing methods being deployed and looped back around to the top of the road to take that down instead. Nate commented about a section to not trigger a slide, oh that’s right, avalanches, things that can actually kill me instead of my thoughts. We got done and Nate commented how I seemed like a strong skier already than when we had gone out last spring. I told him that having some distance from death and gaining confidence back in myself and self-trust seemed to make the biggest difference in terms of my ability.
I’ve had a few more Fridays of skiing that I call ‘Ferda Girls Friday’ —Charlotte and I have somewhat similar work schedules and we’ve been trying to get out when we can. The skiing has been good up in Hatcher’s Pass or at least they have snow. One Friday had another friend, Julie join us as well, she dubbed it ‘Femme Fatal Friday’. Again, we warmed up with a road lap to scout out conditions, seeing more avalanche activity we picked a route up that wouldn’t leave us too exposed and would put us back where we had a been a few weeks earlier. We skinned up and on the first run down were surprised with the pockets of powder that existed, despite a few rocks poking up. We opted for another half run and took a different line down. The Anchorage scene is filled with incredibly strong women and in talking to them about everything from life, work, and relationships it seems like my challenges aren’t unique to just me, which is reassuring, and almost comical for how long I held things in thinking I was the only experiencing these things. Not only do I get to bounce life and work ideas off of them, I also get to follow their lines down. On the last run I took a nice little chunk out of my ski, despite not realizing until I went to put my skins back on. I joked that it was okay, because I needed a pair of rock skis anyways.
After that I headed to Singapore for work where I traded in my down jacket for tank tops and sandals. I opted for running outside when I could, having some familiarity with the city from being there this summer. The jet-lag often meant that I had a lot of places to myself at 4am. Into the dark I would head and not think anything of it- a stark difference from where I had been a few months ago. The darkness seemed to be a place I didn’t want to go, I was already spending too much time there in my mind and was fearful that surely there was more that could kill me in the dark than in the light. In a weird way being able to poke further into the dark spots in my mind and hold space for them has allowed me to hold and reclaim space in the darkness. What was once feared is back to feeling like an old friend. I would dash around the botanical gardens and despite being next to a large metropolitan was easy to get into the dark spaces and revel in them.
Maybe it’s also because in the dark I don’t get sunburnt because after we had some time after work and spending an hour or so outside, I got too much sun, threw up (totally normal), and I joked with my coworker that’s why I live as far away from the equator as possible.
I got back to Alaska with one weekend in between arriving from Singapore and leaving for Italy. Opting to try to make the most of it, I found a cabin down on the Kenai to ski into. Charlotte joined and what started as thinking of going to the cabin grew into backcountry skiing on the way down and carrying skates in to skate on the lake by the cabin before heading back out and if there was enough time to ski again on the way home. We couldn’t find anyone else to join us (Fridays are hard) and left late morning. We got to Turnagain pass and were pleasantly surprised to find the weather was nicer than anticipated. We skinned up and again looked for routes to go down as the recent weather had created a weird crust on top. Charlotte is an incredibly strong overall athlete and has really good skiing technique so I often let her go first and then will try to follow her tracks, turning where she did and making similar descents. Which sometimes works but more often than not I’ll veer out of her line and try to gain some control to get it back.
We found nicer snow lower down but only opted for one lap so we wouldn’t arrive to the cabin too late. We rearranged things in the parking lot, putting away our backcountry gear and getting our Nordic gear and re-packing our packs for the ski in. About an hour later we got to the trailhead and we were on the trail quickly but moving on the trail proved to be less than quick.
The snow was patchy, and we would alternate between gliding and having to pick up our skis and walk on what seemed to be ice on top of dirt and rocks. After one up-hill switchback tiltering on the icy/rock mess I toppled over the side of the hill but luckily only had 1-2 tumbles down before stopping with my pack and skis still attached. I somehow avoided any underlying brush that could have been problematic. I unsnapped my pack and skis and hopped back up to the trail taking note of anything that might have been impacted. Surprisingly good to go. We kept making our way down the trail and after another mile or so we opted to instead take our skis off and hike in. The snow had covered the alders and weighed them, so the branches were often covering the trail requiring more navigation than we at points were wanting to do. After about 4-5 hours we made it to the cabin around midnight and with getting a fire going and making food finally got to bed around 1:30am deciding we would figure out what things looked like in the morning for our activities.
Throughout the night I could hear snow sluffing off the roof with the warmer temperature, at one point convinced someone else was in the cabin but was too sleepy to actually investigate. The morning brought a bit of a drizzle and after a fire and breakfast we packed up most of our things and went to the lake to check out ice skating. Charlotte used her ice screw to determine we had at least 4 inches thick to skate on and in that time period I realized that I had the wrong mount for my boots and skates- ha! Well, something had to go array on this 24 hour frenzy. Charlotte skated around near the shore, avoiding a large crack across the ice and I walked out on to the frozen lake. One of the distinct memories from last January is skating on a frozen lake and being absolutely terrified, like so much so that I became almost paralyzed and had to be gingerly coaxed back to shore—this was despite all the cars that were parked on the ice for ice fishing. I remember thinking that at any moment I would just plunge through and at that time I wasn’t convinced I would be able to fight to stay alive, I was too weak physically and mentally, and that I would just simply perish. And despite the current ice being in the same molecular state I felt grounded with a renewed sense in myself.
We didn’t spend too much time on the lake but enough to make it worth carrying an extra set of boots and skate into our packs. We made our way back to the cabin, repacked our boots and skates in our bags and headed out. Thinking we would at least start skiing and hoping to at least get a mile in before we’d have to hike. We hit the trail and we were pleasantly surprised, the warmer temperature meant that most of the snow had fallen off the branches with the trail being mostly clear of the wood that had posed so much hassle the night before. We were able to ski out for about 5 miles before having to switch to hiking, almost the exact opposite of what we did the night before. We got back to the car as night was approaching and didn’t even discuss getting a backcountry lap in on the way home. We watched the temperature not even dip below freezing on the drive back and wondered what the rain would do to the snowpack that was already being formed for the season.
In between, I’ve tried to start a ‘Wednesday Worlds’ group- there is a small contingency of those who have been showing up (mostly Charlotte and Mary) to hike and now hoping to consistently be on skis to get some hot laps in– but if anything it helps to get me out of the house and do something on Wednesday, often later than I would. I keep thinking it’ll be one of those if you build it they will come and going for the long game here but if you have some skis and want in, let me know!
I still have a lot of guilt and some shame about how I showed up during COVID and the panic attack, and while it’s been a long recovery for me, I also feel like it’s been a long recovery for my support system. Now having more space from that gives me a new perspective on everything. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to bike racing, there are highs and lows and you try to learn what you can and keep moving forward hoping that the highs will be enough to carry you through. One thing that I deviated from with racing is that my general approach with my support crew is it’s not their problem, I’ll let them know what I need but they shouldn’t panic. Well with COVID I feel like I let that line blur and did not necessarily contain my problems. The lows certainly damaged relationships and I’m grateful for those friends and family who keep showing me grace with how I can show up some days. And while I certainly wish there were some things I could do over much like a bike race you take what you can from it and keep moving forward accepting that sometimes there just aren’t any do overs to be had. In some ways I feel like COVID and the panic attack resulted in the biggest bonk of my life and much like experiencing that during a race, you take the lessons you can from it so that you never get to that space again.
How do you continue to live and love with so much uncertainty. How do you stay in love with the world amid so much loss? Nevertheless, you love, you’re injured and you inflict injuries, you throw people away then try to get them back, we yearn for one another in sickness and in health.Love in the time of Contagion
Where does this leave me, well the future is much easier to plan, and getting outside in the dark is no longer anxiety inducing so I asked my coach to keep coaching me for skimo racing with a few races on tap in the L48 when I have to be down to teach later in the winter. I also signed up for a stage race in Iceland next summer (you didn’t really think I would be done biking did you). But it’s also leaving space for what comes my way, a hut-to-hut running trip in Switzerland, that sounds fun, going backcountry skiing in Canada, ohhh I can definitely make that work.
I’m also trying to work on the balance of not wearing myself down to get anywhere close to a breaking point again. In a lot of ways that means that it feels like there is never enough time while simultaneously having to be okay with the time that I have. One of the biggest things I’ve been tackling in therapy is this duality—that I can love my job and love where I live (before it felt like I would always have to pick one), I can love my work on pandemics and really hate that the pandemic happened, I can have doubt while also knowing that I’ll land on my feet, I can be afraid and still take the leap, I can hold space for all these things, or at least try to hold space for all these things. One thing that has helped me a lot recently is when someone told me, “it’s okay to not be okay, but it’s also okay to be okay while others are not.” That literally feels life changing for me.
I’m in Italy this week for work but will be back in Alaska next weekend in hopes that the snow has finally stuck around in Anchorage. I also convinced a friend to come with, it didn’t take much convincing but appreciate being at the point in my life that friends have disposable income and PTO. We’ll be in Milan for about a day where we’ll meet up with a former co-worker and then I’ll head off to Trento for work and she’ll go Venice before we meet back up in Milan and head to London, where I’ll continue onto Anchorage and she’s tacked on a few other sidequests.
I guess I continue to write more about my personal life (I mean is it any more than normal, I’m sure my mom would suggest not-ha!) because we write about the things we’re trying to make sense of or are hopeless at. So much of my writing became trying to make sense of COVID that I lost the sense of everything else. Thinking I could put things on hold and return where I had left them when things were more stable, more grounded, but time keeps marching on whether you try to hit pause or not. And realizing that while control is illusory (I mean is there even free will), there is a difference between trying to control your life and passively living your life—and while sometimes it seems like the work is long and the narrative will remain incomplete, there is some solstice to be had in knowing that we (I) may not know the whole story in our (my) lifetime.
And if anyone in Anchorage has next Friday off and wants to ski lettttttttme know.
Oh and still working on the MDH150, but gossiping more with my therapist than crying so it’ll probably be done soon.
* I mean aren’t we all just little souls carrying around corpses (Marcus Aurelius)