In November 2019, Grande told me about the White Mountains 100 and I put in for the lottery and got in. In March of 2020 the race was cancelled (for good reasons) and I never made it to the starting line. This past November a friend reminded me of the lottery and I put in. I got in, along with Grande, Ana, and Holly. In a lot of ways it feels like this year is the year I was planning on having in 2020 without the whole pandemic thing. It’s been weird to think about, almost like the past few years didn’t happen.
But of course they did and certainly left wounds that have become scars and speaking from the scar is certainly easier than speaking from the wound. In a way this month has been one of the harder ones with memories coming back in pieces– the stark realization of how much my voice didn’t exist and the things that I took on, the sink I became for emotions, the projections that happened, the suspended space I lived in. I pointed out to some friends that I feel like I still bring things up that happened and they were like of course you do because you didn’t talk about it for so long, we had no idea what was even going on. My therapist says that it’s because I’m more out of the fight/flight mode and no longer in survival mode so have a different perspective. I mostly spent much of April getting outside with friends, going for big ski objectives, and surrounding myself with those that didn’t leave me with feelings of being disposable.
Annnnyways parts of April still felt like I was speaking from the wound realizing at all that had come out last year and at some point I’ll share more of the story, the dark places my brain took me but for now back to the Whites.
Grande, Ana, Holly, and I were all in for the White Mountains 100 which I was grateful to have others to help figure out logistics. We found a friend to stay with and Grande rented a u-haul van. Oh, that was easy now the part where I hadn’t done much (re: any) biking since October. I did a ride the week before the race with Grande and Lil’ snugs– reminding myself what it was like to pedal. I borrowed Dusty’s bike and boots for the race since I still haven’t bought a fat bike. Charlotte was able to come up for the weekend so we left on Friday afternoon, which meant I was able to be somewhat lenient with what I packed still not exactly knowing what I would be needing.
We headed up the Parks Highway and I was reminded of how long it had been since I drove that road, at least summer of 2021. The road in the park has had some erosion and has been closed for some time so in terms of biking it, there really wasn’t an appeal to go up for only about 15-20 miles of road. But driving back up, I was reminded of the first time I drove to the park and how captivating it was to see Denali so close. We got stuck in between a few military convoys but made it to Fairbanks without much fanfare. We stopped by the grocery store and then headed to the house.
I went to the airport around midnight and got Ana and Grande, despite my optimism we could not fit 3 bikes and 3 people in Charlotte’s car but Ana was able to find a truck that served as a taxi and follow us back to the house.
The next morning Charlotte headed to the local ski hill, Grande picked up the U-Haul and Holly from the airport and we all went through our things to be race ready— mostly building up bikes and laying out gear, another run to the grocery store to stock up on more food for the race. Later in the afternoon we headed to the race meeting. It’s a mandatory race meeting and if you don’t check in, it’s an automatic disqualification.
It’s also the only race meeting I’ve ever attended that had a PowerPoint. There was some good info about overflow and trail conditions, but I left the meeting feeling more like I hope I don’t die than any type of excitement for the race. I conferred with the others and they agreed that it seemed more doom and gloom, I lamented that I hadn’t even thought to pack my puffy pants and what if I had to sleep out next to the trail. I didn’t think it would be longer than 15ish hours at the most but now I was concerned that I would miss my flight that was schedule for Monday evening (36 hours after we started). The pre-race meeting was filed with information about the harsh elements that could meet us out there and a reminder that the most remote place in the lower 48 is 24 miles from a road (this doesn’t seem accurate) and the race is 27 miles from the road, and if people scratch it can be hours or days before a snow machine can get you. Lovely.
Ana and Grande had done it before and reassured me that it probably wouldn’t be that bad. Holly was on skis and depending on trial conditions, we could all end up having very different experiences. We made dinner that night and caught back up with Charlotte about the ski hill conditions. We filled her in on the pre-race meeting and then all settled into the familiar routine of catching up and dancing back and forth between life (houses, relationships, work, school, books we’re reading) and race conversations.
The morning of the race we all worked in harmony around the kitchen preparing a big breakfast and doing last minute adjustments, I put extra layers into a dry bag and stuffed it into my sack, along with my inhaler, inreach, battery pack, and emergency sour patch kids, all for safe keeping and stuffed it into the bottom of my bag. I had decided to run a camelback and knew that I would risk freezing the hose for the race but also planned on putting a small bottle into the pogie on the bike to keep that from freezing.
We loaded up with three bikes, one pair of skis, and all our gear in the back of the U-Haul van. We caravanned up to the start, grateful that with Charlotte’s car we all had seatbelts. Charlotte was going to head back to Anchorage at some point during the race- I figured out that even if I somehow finished in under 10 hours, driving back would put us into Anchorage super late for the Monday work day so I’d take a flight back Monday evening and Charlotte would head back in time to get to work on Monday. We arrived at the start– really the parking lot to the start as we all had to meet at 7:50 to cross the highway to the start. I shuffled back and forth between Charlotte’s car and the van putting on layers, debating things, and finally feeling ready.
Except I couldn’t find the water bottle I was going to put in the pogie. No matter, I had my camelback and would just put warm water in as I got into the checkpoints. Charlotte was a life saver by being able to take our puffy jackets from the start right before we lined up, meaning we could keep them on for another 9 minutes before we released them– I shivered anticipating the cold I would feel throughout the day.
I had slotted myself next to the others and when the gun started lost them all in the chaos as the wheels started to move next to me and realized I needed to go too. I followed a group up from the parking lot on the course, knowing it would be a mile or two of uphill to warm up. I was worried that I would get slung off the back but was able to hold whatever pace was being set in front of me. This wasn’t like the fatbike rides I had done before, there was no leisure happening and I was just hoping to not cause a calamity on the trail.
After the initial uphill there was a few miles descent which helped to spread the pack out a bit more. Grande and I were close but kept leap frogging and I could still see Ana in front of me. My main concern was that I didn’t want to be hours behind everyone and they would be waiting at the finish for me. As I figured, my hose froze before I had the chance to drink any water. My new plan was to drink as much as I could at the aid stations and not plan so much on drinking any in between. I stopped to adjust the seat height (I had never ridden the bike before the race– thanks again for the loaner, Dusty!), take off a layer, and rejig my hose to run under my armpit in the hopes that the warmth would thaw it a bit. I got behind Grande’s wheel but at the first aid station (mile 15 or so) she kept going and I stopped to drink something. This was also the last point where you could self bail and head back to the start without having to wait for a rescue. I noted it but didn’t think about it and drank some warm tang before peeing next to the bike and getting back on my way. I was mostly by myself at this point and my mind was pinging between thoughts, “should you eat something; oh wow, look at that; I wonder what skiing this would be like; how do people even run this; how did I get so lucky; I hope my body holds up; this isn’t what I expected but so much better”. I saw Grande in the distance and thought I would catch her shortly but then I saw something on the trail that stopped me, an antler. I got off the bike and went back to it, it was pretty cool and I figured when would I be here again to find something like this. Most of it fit in my bag and the remainder stuck out but was cinched down. I got back on the bike before realizing that the smell of death was literally chasing me. The antler gave on a distinct musk, dense and heavy, and when the wind blew just right a pungent smell would hit me and I’d be reminded that I picked up this dead thing from the trail to take home as a souvenir. Motivation to ride faster?
A few miles later I saw Grande in the distance and worked to try and catch her realizing that riding with her would be better than riding by myself, plus I hadn’t printed off course directions. I was able to catch up to her after a bit and sat on her wheel while we chatted, we would take turns in the front with me leading the on the descents and her leading on the climbs but coming back together on the flats. We rode this way to the next check-point, Cache Mountain Cabin (mile 40), both deciding that we didn’t want to take too long. We got to the cabin and they had boiled potatoes, I loaded mine with salt and bacon and ate it before pocketing two more potatoes for later. I filled my camelbak with warm water as the hose had melted out and I had been able to drink some water in between aid stations. We made small talk with the volunteers asking about trail conditions, where they snowmachined in from, and one commented about the antler in my bag. I grabbed some more tang and we headed out. The next section would bring us over a pass and onto the ice fields.
We wove our way into the forest to begin the climb up to the pass, Grande would relay what the section had been like the last time she had done it and how it compared to now. I was grateful for all the knowledge that had been passed onto me and the tricks that were given. Grande had brought extra trash bags for us to all grab and use for the overflow. I had stashed them into my pack with some ski straps making them accessible when I would need them. I joked with Grande on how we had both been in for the 2020 version of this but now we were doing it three years later. When I moved up to Anchorage, I met Grande and her husband Dusty on one of my first weekends in town. I joked that I paid for them to be my friends because I had signed up for a bike packing course that they taught and after that weekend we became good friends. When I was in the throws of it in January of 2021 we went on a walk and she reminded me that she knew me before I was dealing with COVID and in a relationship and assured me I would get my mojo back, I certainly didn’t believe her then but it was comforting to hear. Someone who knew me prior, it was like those who knew me prior knew I would return even when I had my doubts. I tell her this in snippets, half joking if it’s weird that her and Dusty are married since I think of them like older (wiser) siblings.
As we were about to start the real climb up onto the pass we ran into a biker coming the other way. Grande knew her so we stopped and chatted for a bit, they were doing the route backwards and had been bikepacking for a few days. After departing I said it would definitely be cool to come back and bikepack this and really take in the views.
As we were about to crest the pass I turned around to see Holly making her way towards us. I yell ahead to Grande to let her know and we both got off the trail to cheer her on. We briefly chatted about her skis (she had been debating which ones to take beforehand) and quickly started following behind her. She was able to pull ahead of us on descent as the firm snow turned into loose powder and we both had one foot out to steady us as we descended. Grande had mentioned that in previous years she actually had to walk up and down the pass because of snow conditions and I was just grateful that we weren’t having to do much hike-a-biking.
We got to the anticipated ice fields that would have the overflow but were pleasantly surprised at them actually being ice fields and no overflow. We picked our way through and seeing a clear path, I was in front when my wheels lost traction and I went down, sliding along with my bike. I got up and did a quick assessment, bike was okay, I was surprisingly okay, not even really being able to indict what the first impact was (don’t worry it was not my head) as I seemed to just disperse the impact on my left side. I got up and we continued on, I was a bit more tepid and followed Grande’s lead when she would get off and walk on the ice. The ice lakes had no overflow and while we walked some spots we were able to move quickly through the sections and before I knew it we were back into the forest and headed towards the third check-point. The views here proved unlike any that I had seen in Alaska with dramatic limestone cliffs jetting out from the drainage we were in. We approached Windy Gap Cabin and headed in.
We asked how far ahead Ana and Holly were and were both excited when we heard Ana was in the lead and Holly wasn’t too far in front of us. I took some rice and then in current state decided to put some tang powder on it– after a few bites I immediately regretted it. I felt sheepish about asking for new rice so ate some of it quickly and shoved the rest into the trash. I grabbed a handful of other treats and we took a few extra minutes at this station than we had previously done. I still had plenty of food that I had brought and had been supplementing ‘real’ food with sour patch kids every few minutes to keep my sugar and energy levels up. We left the cabin and stayed in the drainage weaving in and out of trees for the next 10 miles and hugging the limestone rock. We crossed the intersection to another cabin which wasn’t on the race route but someone had set up a chair and bike as if they were spectating but we didn’t actually see anyone. After a brief little climb and descent, the course felt more enclosed and some of the view points were obstructed by weaving in and out of the hills. We saw signs approaching the last checkpoint and parked our bikes at the bottom of the little hill to walk up to the cabin. A high school ski group was running it and we ran into Holly here — we talked more about the race as we independently grabbed food and filled water. Woohooo! Almost done, right! We took a few photos, thanked those who were out here and took off again. Grande and I headed back down to our bikes with Holly out in front of us.
We got back on the trail and remained in the drainage with a few more frozen creek crossings. We caught up to Holly and I was jealous of how easily she was able to navigate the slick creek crossings on skis. Watching people who are really good at their sport is always really inspiring, there is such beauty and grace in how their bodies and equipment flow together. Holly and Grande are both two prime examples of this. After the creek crossing we jumped back ahead of Holly as she stopped to make and adjustment. We climbed our way up towards the final trail shelter, there is no support here except some water and a duralog if you need it. Seeing it meant we were close to the end but the Wickersham Wall loomed in between us and the finish line.
We had been able to see the Wickersham Wall for the past few miles, raising 600 feet in just over a mile above the valley floor. The crest of it would take us back to the finish line. We started up it and after a few pedal strokes both got off to push our bikes up. We laughed because at one point Grande had told Holly that she would just be able to fast feet up it (moving her hands and making a noise to denote how quickly she’d be able to ascend). I joked that I wish I was able to do the same mechanics now. We got to the top and then took pictures of each other (like a proud mom moment). Over the past few years one of the sayings that Grande and I have passed back and forth to each other is, “You’re doing great sweetie” (it’s a references from the Kardashians when one of the daughters is crying during a shoot or something and her mom tells her that).
We started the descent and Grande took out her light, I waited to take mine out as with the summer sun coming back there would be few opportunities left to soak in the darkness. I followed her tracks and settled into the feeling, the flow of being at ease with the movements, the stillness that comes from knowing your own body and mechanics. This didn’t last long as I realized I would be real dumb if I crashed because I didn’t have a headlight and stopped to dig mine out. I caught back up to Grande after she waited for me and then she yielded the trail for the descent. I ran into a guy I knew from the area who was out running and who had done the bike and he was like, “oh we all thought you were on skis” and I was like, “absolutely not”. The tracker showed that I was on skis for the whole race and for not being a known skier everyone was terribly confused by this. The confusion cleared up when he saw that I was on a bike. We followed the trail back down into the parking lot that we had started from, crossing the line together. Ana met us having been done for a bit (she crushed it, winning the race, her second year in a row!) and had moved the U-Haul van closer for us to have easy access. I went into the warming station to grab some hot water and then immediately when back out when I hear more cheering and Holly crossing the finish line. Grande, Holly, and I all finished around 13 hours– much better than the 36 I had started to expect after the race meeting.
We all finished relatively close to one other and a brief rest in the U-Haul van we got packed up and headed back to the house. Ana and Grande had an early morning flight to catch with Holly and I leaving later on Monday evening.
By the time I woke up to start work the next morning at 5am, Grande and Ana were gone. I worked most of the day and then packed up my bike and did a short walk around the river with Holly. I shared with her some of the parts of the panic attack, the anxiety, the intrusive thoughts, the feelings of OCD, the demise of my sense of self and relationship. And also talked more about female athletes and the culture that exists today to operate in, she was reading Kara Goucher’s memoir so we talked a lot about the issues women still face today in the sport, from the elites to middle school level.
The weekend was really fun and it had been a while since I had done a race with other people. People asked if Grande and I planned to ride together and we never talked about it prior it just so happens that after 20ish miles we seem to be the same pace and riding with someone else is always better than riding by yourself (at least for me). I spent a lot of time during the race dipping in and out of my mind and processing all that had existed during the past year.
Dad, if you’ve made it this far, feel free to stop reading here.
It’s hard to find the words of what transpired over the past year(s), but the feelings certainly were there. I thought a lot about coming into the White Mountains with very little bike training, but I knew my body and my history enough to know what to anticipate for 100 miles and could be prepared for it. I think about the Tatanka 100 a lot—it was the worst race I ever had (in a lot of metrics). I loosely thought I’d be going for the course record and then everything went sideways, I got lost, I bonked, I had to hike-a-bike over so many boulders, I laid on a cardboard slab for an hour, I thought of pulling the plug so many times and I cried and I cried and I cried. I hated that course so much when I was done—it took me to the darkest places I have ever gone bike racing.
Because of that race I know so much more of what I’m capable of—if I have to hike for 50 miles during a race, I’ll survive, if I get lost, I’ll survive, if I spend 4 hours crying, I’ll survive. In a way it’s given me the confidence to be more sure of what I can sign up for and attempt. I think about this a lot now in terms of life—the trauma of the past few years—the perfect storm—thinking back to being asked “what will happen if you [I] have another panic attack”. That question no longer startles me with the potential tizzy it would send my life into. But instead, this place of acceptance of having some confidence that if I do go to those dark places again, there will be a trail of a light that I can follow to get myself out. Maybe that’s why I’ve written about it so much in my blog in case I need to find my way home again.
With the Tatanka 100, I realized that so much hurt came from this place of expectations versus what actually happened—the outcome that I was attached to. In life, this chasm exists the expectations of how things will unfold, how people will show up (or not). The timeline I had for healing the expectation that one more meditation, journal entry, yoga class, would be what healed me. But we never actually get to this place of arrival of enlightenment, we are constantly growing (or not). But I think that’s what keeps drawing me back to the various trails, they hold no expectation for you—they meet you where you are.
I heard someone say recently that they couldn’t tell a story until there was a happy ending—and I don’t think there is ever really this happy ending but this place of acceptance, of fulfillment –of learning to not get attached to the outcomes, the expectations, the behaviors of others and myself. I always found it strange when people would say that their goal is to be happy, happiness is a fleeting emotion, it’s not realistic. We’re all happy humans and none of us are happy humans and we get to experience it all, this full range, this joy of being human, of dancing with the darkness and re-finding the light again and again and again.
I was reminded of this while out skiing in New Hampshire recently, someone asked us if we were having a good adventure and Alexi replied that if you’re looking for adventure you can find it anywhere. I think for me in the past I was clinging so tight to what I thought this life and adventure should look like that I didn’t realize how much was beyond the walls I had built around myself. But isn’t part of being human learning to no longer seek out the homes that do not (cannot) hold us.
I had to do this exercise in therapy where I listed all the ways I have grown in the last year (from post-traumatic stress comes post-traumatic growth) and I told her that every day (if not multiple times a day) I have a realization of wow, I can do this thing and there is no problem and all the freedom that has come with it in deciding how to show up. In this exercise I went back to the writings from that time, reminding myself of what I used to carry in me. The writings from that time don’t fit anymore- they feel panic, urgent, chaotic, but they fit who I was then, this comet on her way to dissolving upon reaching the atmosphere, the fleeting feelings of almost arriving, of almost being whole, of almost being enough. That narrative doesn’t fit me anymore because I don’t fit in that tiny box anymore- the uncertainly still exists, as it always has but it’s more tempered, at ease, at realizing that burning up the mess of restrictions allows for reclamation– of my talents, my energy, my priorities, my values. They say you can’t heal in the same environment that made you sick— I remember writing that in my notes at his house, realizing the end would be coming soon, new soil would be tilled, different seeds would be planted, and I’d be allowed to bloom in conditions that were conducive to my growth and creativity.
I sat on this post for a while and went through multiple iterations, sending a draft to Jane, talking about it with others, deciding how to share. In the end I edited a lot because those that know me probably have heard more than enough at this point and as a friend reminded me those that know me know what I’ve been carrying – so in a lot of ways it’s like looking at a result sheet and only seeing the time but no idea the story of how one got there (like obviously contact me if you want the tea and the dark places my brain went—I’m an external processor and always happy to share). Narratives don’t form in vacuums and in being able to talk about what happened during COVID has allowed it to be molded in the world outside of me—and the pain becomes something outside of me allowing new things to grow in what was holding space for the trauma. I think of it similar to the Tatanka 100, where it was just a perfect storm of having the rug pulled out from me and everything going sideways at once—and it’s hard to parse out what was what and what caused the foundation to crack—but it doesn’t really matter as they say the only benefit of looking behind you is to see how far you’ve come. Just like the Tatanka 100 when I got to the end, Barb greeted me with a big smile and congratulations and held space for me to tell her all about my adventures from the day. The tears dried quickly and was replaced with more of a “I cannnnnot believe this happened” and turning it into a hilarious bit of the worst race of my life. I was able to move to a place of acceptance rather quickly, put that race behind, and carry the lessons I learned from it forward. Grateful for all of those who have held space for me to process everything that has transpired– I think societally we have a larger reckoning with what happened during COVID, all that took place, things that emerged, how we’ve arrived after. And just like the White Mountains 100 it’s sure fun to be surrounded by a great crew to get you to the starting line and meeting you at the finish line of some of life’s biggest trials [trails].
Anyyyyyyways, I could probably write a book on all the ways the healing process is like an endurance race but will stop here because I’m sure my dad stopped reading paragraphs ago- ha. The White Mountains was fun and realized that it was the last time I rode my bike but headed to Iceland in about a month for a race so training looks little different this year.
If you have it made it this far, thanks for sticking with, I realize this post is a bit all over but welcome to my brain.