The Abyss

Last weekend seemed like an indulgent, illicit activity and now a lifetime away. Many people are finding themselves in spaces that don’t allow for them to escape for empty trails (looking at you, CO) and fresh air all while being able to maintain 6 feet of distance apart. I was finding myself with feelings of isolation in Alaska this winter and have found that this might be as good of place as any to weather out the impending storm. As COVID-19 cases have slowly uptick in Anchorage I’m now trying to consciously recreate in a way that would reduce the need for me to access healthcare services or require a backcountry rescue so will in all likelihood find myself on the local trails for the impending future–but fortunate enough to squeak one more weekend in.

We headed out to another glacier, this one was 20 miles one way–the plan being we’d ski out, set up camp, ski back the next day. I did 20 miles total the weekend before but my biggest fault when it comes to mileage is I still operate in cycling miles, 20 miles, psh ain’t no thang. Little different when cross-country skiing and having 30-40 pounds on your back (realistically probably 20 since I didn’t pack my industrial strength hairdryer this time– and if you don’t get that reference guess we know what you’ll be doing in quarantine).

While we escaped from the constant news updates and feelings of impending doom it was hard to completely turn my mind off from the virus. I would float in and out of scenarios and do comparative analyses to past pandemics and outbreaks (fun fact my favorite pandemic to study is the 1918 flu (you never forget your first) but my favorite disease is tuberculosis). I worried about being out of service for 48 hours and the potential notifications that might be awaiting my arrival. I also thought about if we should even be out there– there is a lot of discussion right now about if people should be partaking in these activities (yes, no, responsibly…I’ll default to my favorite lawyer answer, “it depends” (not legal advice).

The first day called for cooler temps than last weekend and snow. Okay going to get my winter camping badge for real this weekend. We drove 2 hours out of Anchorage and pulled off on the side of the road. I know the saying, “be bold, start cold” but I’m always convinced I will stay cold and never get warm so I bundled on layers with the thought I would take them off as needed. I was told that it was a river bed of flatness out to a glacier so was slightly surprised when we started on a slight downhill, followed by a pretty steep uphill, some more downhill, and some fresh tracks. Stopping to go pee I mused that I’d probably just leave my skis on so I don’t sink in the snow to which there was thunderous chorus that exclaimed of course I should keep my skis on just try not to pee on the bindings (still so much to learn). We descended down for about four more miles before the reaching the river bed.

With the clouds still surrounding us we just began skiing towards this white abyss. And in a lot of ways the physical landscaped matched my internal feelings about the pandemic. Right now we can’t see what we’re working towards (all these measures social distancing, quarantine, isolation against an invisible enemy) we have projections of what will happen if it works and if it doesn’t work but we’re in this abyss right now where we have pushed off from one side and have yet to see a safe landing. And yet we kept moving, I would repeat the mantra in my head, “kick, glide, feel the rhythm, feel the ride” (and if you don’t get that reference also prime quarantine opportunity). We would stop and change layers as needed–adding, removing, snacking. Talking about what the view would have given us without the clouds. On an exposed section the wind had picked up and the soft, fleeting snow had turned into fierce pieces of ice striking my face, it reminded me of acupuncture needles and just imagined I was getting a free facial –one guy talked about doing 100 mile ski race (yeah, read that again) and how it was like this the whole way and at one point he remembered thinking he just wished the snow would stop hitting him in the face. We only dealt with it for maybe 15-20 minutes but imagine I would have different thoughts if it was 100 miles…

After skiing for 19 miles with about 6 hours of moving time we talked about setting up camp, we were within range of the glacier (maybe depending on route beta) but could still be 2-3 miles away, it was getting late and dark and still a lot of things that need to be done to set up camp. We found a spot perched out of the riverbed and got to work. I dug out a hole to put the tent in, which at least helped to warm me up, while one of the other guys started the stove to melt snow and boil water for our bottles and dinner.

We got it accomplished and set up without too many mishaps– and even dug out some more snow for cooking and eating.

Even adding on another area for a firepit (as one of the guys packed firewood and we stacked it on shovel to get it going). It was nice to warm up next to and abate my shivering if only for intermittent moments.

After we had gone through all the wood we headed to bed. At this point I took off my damp ski boots, put on wool socks and down slippers, and got into dry clothes which helped to really warm me up (the -20 degree bag also does wonders). I still slept with a puffy vest, jacket and a hat on. I even figured out how to work the sleeping bag this time and only woke up once with a cold face.

Before going to sleep one of the guys thought about checking the weather for the morning, I lamented, that it doesn’t matter what the weather is going to be we have to face whatever shows up so we can just not check and pretend it will be nice. Which again took me back to the pandemic as we don’t know what tomorrow will bring but we’re in it and regardless will have to wake up and face whatever shows up overnight. Luckily, the morning did not disappoint. I stepped out of the tent and was greeted by calm skies and the sun starting to creep over the horizon releasing a nice alpenglow that quickly bathed the valley in sunlight.

We made breakfast, packed up camp, leaving our bags and gear to ski over to the glacier. It was alluring but in a more subdued enchantment than the previous weekend. It wasn’t piercing blue but rather dingy with intricate crystal lattices where water had frozen onto the surface.

We skied around for a bit, I learned that you should just follow in the previous tracks and not put in your own tracks on a glacier–not because anything bad happened, it was just pointed out to me as I was frolicking around.

Here’s me in multiple puffy layers…frolicking

We headed back to our camp spot to pick up our things and I took off about three layers on the top and bottom. We started making our way back along the trail we came in on. The views were pretty spectacular so occasionally I would just stop to turn and take it in.

Skiing out was pretty uneventful, minus the view. I found myself more hungry than the day before and slowly made my way through all my snacks (and a few emergency ones-which made me a little nervous but never got to my emergency, emergency sour patch kid provisions so).

All those downhills became uphills in the later part of our day but saw it as an opportunity to try to get better at going uphill (spoiler alert, I did not) but at least it gave my legs a different position to be in for a while. We crested the last hill and could see the road off in the distance but there remained a false flat to get up to the car. I started on the slight incline that would lead up to the car but had no concept of how long or the distance it would be so pulled out another emergency provision when I saw the snow pile the car was situated behind and put the morsel back in my jacket for another time (because I had left a bag of Hippeas in the car as a post-ski snack, also learned that trick the week before).

We got to the car and my boots were frozen to my bindings so took the whole contraption off. Then got in and ate a bunch of Hippeas.

Putting the fun between the legs (mostly a cycling joke)

The whole time I kept making comparisons to being in the backcountry with the pandemic– feel free to keep reading but stop if this will contribute to your anxiety. I’ll also put some good websites that I follow you can check out at the end.

  1. Have a good leader: Going into the backcountry requires you to be putting your life in others’ hands if something happens. Our trip leader sent out a map, route guidance, and information on what to anticipate and expect. Right now I feel that most administrations are operating out of fear/unknown/uncertainty/poor planning and actively triaging while not doing anything to assuage the public’s anxiety about what we’re facing (don’t believe me, remember the 2009 pandemic, how long were you stuck in your house for that one?).
  2. Only take what you need: skiing 20 miles with a pack means making the conscious effort to really decide if you need an article of clothing or piece of gear. This is also relevant now with people buying insane amounts of toilet paper and hand sanitizer (pro tip: hand soap is better).
  3. But be prepared: It means I carried 4 pairs of socks, extra food, and multiple different layers to meet the potential challenges. Social distancing means reducing your interactions so be prepared to last a week between grocery store runs.
  4. Don’t be a dick: You’re in the backcountry with a long ski out, if you’re attitude goes south it’s going to impact everyone. Again, turn you speakers off at 11:30pm when ya know your next door neighbor has a small child and is also stuck at home all day.
  5. Communicate effectively: Talking about when to eat lunch, letting them know if you’re stopping to change layers or to take a rest. Giving others in the group time to anticipate (I usually announce that I’ll be peeing in 20-30 minutes to get everyone on the same page). Right now we don’t have one unified voice giving us direct messages (thank you federalism for reserving public health powers to the states; apparently the founding fathers did not know how viruses work and that they don’t respect boundaries). During Ebola the US had a Czar (what an amazing job title) right now you have the President saying one thing, State Governors enacting various orders, and Dr. Fauci trying to get a clear and accurate message out, but not one unified message telling you that this is going to be a long haul– are we up to the challenge yes, because we are responding by taking x,y,z steps and this is what the next few weeks/months are going to look like.
  6. Look out for one another: Checking in to make sure everyone is still feeling okay, do we need a break, how about some candy, how are people’s feet. When you’re in the backcountry you’re only as strong as your weakest member (i.e., me– also thank you to all my high school coaches who loved that saying and would occasionally linger their gaze a little too long on me when I had a lackluster performance.) For a pandemic, we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable, our most uninsured, our most elderly. Which means being willing to step up and take care of each other now- the cost of treatment of COVID-19 is estimated to be ~$34,000. Imagine not having insurance, are you going to go to the hospital unless it gets really bad and how many potential people will you be in contact with before it gets to that point. Our institutions are being challenged, health isn’t just the absence of disease but all the social determinants that make it up (access to food, water, housing…) all these things that provide stability so people can seek healthcare. I also don’t think it should take a pandemic for us to realize how broke some of our systems are but that’s a whole another blog post/paper.
  7. Don’t operate out of fear: Things can go wrong but staying calm and making decisions using logic will help you go a long way. My go to mantra for most things is: Facts over fear. The hysteria around contagious diseases is somewhat understandable; and only supports stronger legal regulations so that politicians cannot capitalize on this fear and uncertainty to gain political points. By enacting robust legal framework that safeguard civil liberties while taking into account an unprecedented necessity for quarantine we can avoid the mistakes of the past and abrogate the uncertainty of the future (lolz, this was a section from my conclusion on my paper on quarantine last year where I mostly argued that quarantine should only be used a tool of last resort because we have so many other provisions we can use to safeguard the health of the public– didn’t really factor into my analysis a 2 month lackluster response from the government for a contagious disease outbreak–jokes on me).

I remain angry at the situation because I don’t believe it needed to get to this point. China as the source of outbreak spent a lot of their time triaging and just trying to get ahead of it. They put other countries on notice and I believe our response is criminal because we had plenty of time to prepare and we squandered it away (it’s like getting a 30-day eviction notice and waiting till day 31 to take action). Lives will be lost because of the passive response our government (cutting funding to the CDC, designing their own test, not adequately providing healthworkers with protective equipment) has taken. I remain hopeful that communities are up to the challenge, we are up to the challenge, and just like the storm moving out and the blue sky shinning the next day, we will emerge from this cloud. Research actually shows that when disasters strike people become more pro-social, they cooperate and support each other, they’re better than ever. This storm isn’t going to blow over overnight and we won’t get through it quickly (Easter is highly aspirational– and without more tests to know what we’re really up against, highly unlikely) it definitely won’t be today, not this week, unlikely this month, maybe May we’ll take a breath and reassess. What I’m saying is it’s going to be a long haul at this point and things will probably get worse before they get better but we need to stay strong and do our part– oh yeah and call your congressional reps and demand mandatory testing and while you’re at it suggest that they commandeer private companies to start making PPE, ventilators, and getting respiratory therapists trained (grateful to the companies that have shifted their focus already–but the government should respond like a war effort, this is a war we are waging). Yah know, I love a good government overreach. But really if you think the free market will save us now, there has been a post circulating showing that Tuberculosis remains the number one killer in the world as if that means we should not be taking action with COVID-19. This actually shows why we need a strong government response. Antibiotics have existed for TB for nearly 70 years and yet it remains endemic in parts of the US (no, really, think about the last person you knew with TB in the US and now realize it’s still around circulating in communities– not your community? Maybe ask yourself why that is–happy to pass along a paper). Oh yeah and also tell them that the vaccine and treatment should be covered by federal funding. As much as it’s easy to get consumed with the negative I remain optimistic that this will shift our societal norms for the better. That doesn’t mean I don’t fluctuate between wondering if the tightness in my chest is anxiety or the virus–daily temperature checks and yoga to help assuage my fears. If you feel like this paragraph sounds exasperated with tones of eternally optimistic well welcome to the inside of my brain at the moment.

Unlike the 1918 Flu, I hope that when this is over we will not look backward and inward with fear and shame of our response. COVID-19 has exposed massive fault lines in domestic and global institutions but I remain hopeful that we will come out on the other side willing and ready to work towards a more perfect world. But as my brother would say, ‘hope springs eternal‘ with me.

I feel like I should apologize for how sassy this comes off as but I’m not going to because I don’t like having to counsel young parents who are in high risk categories of what documentation should be in place for their children because they have been informed by their physicians if they catch COVID they will likely die.

For your reading pleasure:

Duck of Minerva– Mostly focused on global politics but all the articles as of recent are focused on COVID-19 responses.

The Washington Post Monkey Cage– Also another political science based platform but mostly for domestic politics.

New England Journal of Medicine: Mostly focused on COVID-19 related science, stats.

And if you’ve made it this far here are some things I’ve combat my anxiety:

Down Dog: Free yoga!

These articles sent by my friend, Vega: The Science of Well-Being and one on the grief you’re feeling. She also shared a host of wellness tips, I won’t put them all here but my favorite was: Remind yourself daily that this is temporary. It seems while we are in the thick of it, it will never end. It is unsettling to think of the road stretching ahead of us. Just remember we will return to feeling free, safe, busy, and connected in the months ahead. You can find more of her stuff, here.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, take a breath and remember those blue skies will be back.

Corona K8

I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to sleep in a tent, outside, in 0 degree weather.

Actually the only thing I was thinking was I need to get out of this place and away from people and that’s how I found myself sleeping in a tent in a -20 degree sleeping bag near a glacier with no one around. I was suppose to be in Albuquerque for training and was so close to getting a mountain bike on dirt trails that when the trip got cancelled as a result of COVID-19, selfishly I was upset because dirt, finally, but as a public health expert (heyyo master’s in pandemic preparedness ironically not a lot of funding for a job when I was looking) realized that the best thing is to stay put and remain as isolated as possible, and pray to God they start testing everyone, soon.

Also tried to convince my dad to stop going to the jail

As a result last week was weird, I spent Monday thinking I would be leaving, Tuesday cancelling flights, Wednesday and Thursday on calls, and Friday packing up what I thought I might need from my office in the hospital in anticipation of leaving indefinitely. I imagine everyone kind of had a week like that; a lot of moments where I’m like what is happening. And it’s weird because there is nothing I can do right now except wait for what feels like this cloud to engulf us and see how quickly it will blow over or how long we’ll be trapped in an endless fog. Researching and writing about every pandemic during graduate school has really made me jump to the worse case scenario because I know how it can potentially play out, especially when ineffective leadership and missteps will literally cost our country lives (but that’s for a research paper discussion and not my blog).

With all this going on in my brain I didn’t even realize there would be no fire with winter camping.

I had gone the weekend before on a backcountry nordic ski trip to a hut where there was a wood fire stove where we dried our boots out and a stream nearby to collect water to boil and drink. On that trip I was comfortable the whole time, temperature wise, which I got a few comments on how small my backpack was and honestly felt like I overpacked, I didn’t even get to wear the shorts I brought. One of the guys did carry my sleeping bag in his pack because apparently it’s not ideal to just hook it to the outside of my bag (so many things to learn).

It even came with it’s own out house….

The hut trip was really fun and we skied about 15 miles each day, the first day was prime skiing conditions and the weather was nice too. The second day left a little bit to be desired as new snow had fallen, creating a heavy snowpack, very ideal for creating snowballs, less ideal for sliding through it on toothpicks. The snow would pack up underneath my skis rendering them mostly useless and then I would get frustrated and then just kind of run/walk with awkwardly long sticks to my feet and then I would see a downhill and stop and scrapped the snow off my skis and try to get enough glide to gain momentum to go down. I definitely ate a lot of sour patch kids to get me through that dark time. Overall it was a very enjoyable experience with good company (that’s not sarcasm given the next picture).

Having gone through the hut trip meant I was ready for my next Pawnee Goddess Patch: Winter Camping.

I won’t bore you with too much of the details getting there, we skied in a about 10 miles along a mostly flat riverbed area and then found a camp spot near the glacier and set up before going exploring.

We shared the glacier with some snowmobilers and even a few dog sleds (so Alaskan) before they all left for the day and we seemed to be the only souls for miles.

Also did some falling

I dug a hole in the snow so that we had some sort of bench to eat dinner on (because are we not civilized haha).

As we sat there I talked about how my mom tells the story about when she was a kid and she asked her dad what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off and he responded that they would just go sit on the backside of the hill overlooking the river. She joked how as a kid she was slightly mortified but as an adult realized he probably didn’t want to be in a small crawl space with five young children. I concluded by saying this seemed like a good place to sit and take a minute with all the chaos and uncertainty that we had left miles away.

I survived that night with the mantra, you might not ever be comfortable but you won’t die. Being in a -20 degree sleeping bag and almost every piece of puffy clothing I owned I was actually quite comfortable and only found out the next morning I had slept with the back of the sleeping bag covering my face (thought it was a little hard to breath at times but was also quite warm so…). We packed up in the morning and skied by the glacier before running into some friends on bikes. The ski out was nicer than the day before and I slowly peeled off all my puffy layers.

Photo taken by Rachel from 6 feet away

I have spent this week working from home which has come with it’s own challenges (like that I convinced myself I would never need a desk at home) but also endless hot water for tea and real windows in my office.

And in weird ways living in Alaska has helped me prepare for this as I felt like I was having to Facetime and call to maintain a lot of my relationships but conveniently now all my friends who were four hours ahead are also working from home so are more available to talk. And also with my mom working from home, just means I can Facetime and see Tenzen more.

I’m sure like a lot of people (me) right now have a lot of anxiety and it can be hard not to get consumed by it all. I worry about the people I know who are sick or will become sick, I worry about how it will ravish our healthcare system, I worry about my parents, my communities, the small businesses that will be impacted. I know these are normal feelings and acknowledging them is okay, but also dwelling and being consumed by them is not–yes yoga has been helping. Alaska is a weird place to experience this, I feel the distance with my family more than ever, but also realize if I was closer I still wouldn’t be allowed to have contact. In a lot of way getting outside here seems like a completely selfish pursuit at the moment but so few other people are around that it’s maybe safer than going to the grocery story–almost a weird guilt that I can still do most things while others are having their lives upended in irreparable ways.

I know I’m beyond privilege/blessed to have the ability to work from home while still being able to access the outdoors and have some semblance of life. The fatbike race that was suppose to happen this weekend got cancelled which even though there weren’t that many participants I really thing the biggest thing we can all do right now is restrict our movement until more tests get deployed to test for asymptomatic and mild symptomatic people– realistically until we have that data we have no idea what we are actually up against. If you’ve made this far I will make my one political plug and that is to call your congressional delegates and demand mandatory testing for every individual — they want to send everyone a check, great, attach a test to it. Typhoid Mary is thought to have infected 3,000 people with typhoid and she presented as asymptomatic, she was isolated by judicial order for 23 years…

I am headed in the backcountry again this weekend– who knew a pandemic would ignite my love for winter camping but really I think it’s more being able to turn off the email, news cycles, and case counts. Mostly, I’m trying to act as if I was contagious and don’t want to infect others; because while there are some great ‘Kate’ nicknames: Kissing Kate, Rattlesnake Kate, Big Nose Kate, #singlek8 –no these aren’t all my nicknames but would rather not end up with Corona K8 added to the list and be an asymptomatic individuals that is transmitting the virus.

Cheese Pizza Just for Me

Wait a minute, I’ve been here before. I had just put the skin back on my ski and looked behind me to realize in those few moments I was struggling to wrangle it back on the entire field had blown by me. I looked ahead and saw what looked like a tiny ant line marching into the distance, I looked behind me to the edge of the hill which dropped off into darkness with no one behind me. Okay, so starting this race season like I ended last year’s. Dead last. I turned and began to make my way up the hill and made sure to consistently drag my feet and try not to allow any unnecessary movement that would knock my skin off again.

Photo from Callie

I got to the top and all muscle memory of removing my skins and switching my skis had dissipated, okay so it didn’t really help that the only muscle memory I had was from two days earlier when I had put skis on for the first time this season and watched a video of a ski racer during a transition, so hadn’t fully committed it to memory. I shoved my skins down my tights and pushed off the ledge, welp, here we go.

At this point if you’re trying to figure out what is happening, don’t worry I was trying to figure that out the entire race. A week before I had found myself volunteering at a 100 mile race. I’m not sure how it came up but by the end of my time there I had committed to meeting one of the other volunteers for a skimo race on Friday night. Perfect, first time on skis this season and my second time in oh about 19 years, why not start off racing.

Mile 90– yes that’s a space heater + straw very close by

Fortunately, I got a text that they would be going out on Wednesday to do a loop and bringing another friend who would be towing a baby so I should be able to keep up. I texted Sully that I don’t think this person understood that when I said I was a beginner he did not realize ‘I would be pulling my tags off my new gear in the parking lot’ beginner (I bought stuff in October but was still racing my bike till December and then it got super cold in January so really had no interest).

On our practice ski on Wednesday I only got one weird look at the start of the trail from a high school nordic skier, he was like “I’m not even going to ask” to which I responded, “just you wait, this is what you get to look forward to.” So we went up, down, up, down, and I practiced my transitions with lots of humility and openness to just about every piece of advice they could give me. I had hopes of practicing the transition in my backyard on Thursday but had some hard deadlines that meant I just watched videos of Killian Jornet transitioning and went over the steps in my head. I wasn’t too worried about how long it would take me, I didn’t really care about that, but more didn’t want to accidentally lock my ski in and blow out my knee going down or not lock my ski and and loose the stability in my knee going up.

The race started with us running to our skis, getting into the bindings and taking off uphill. I actually felt like I had a somewhat decent start for not knowing what I was doing. I made a comment to another cyclist that ‘this is a bit different than cyclocross’ and kept gliding uphill (trying to channel my inner Dottie Hansen, “gracefully and grandfully” but in reality probably looking more like Marla…). I was about halfway up when I looked up to see people starting to reach the top, and felt one of my leg’s lose traction, I looked down and my skin was lying in the snow behind me. I picked it up and shuffled off to the side taking my ski off to reapply it. I fumbled with it for a bit and put it back on, okay round 2, only to make it a few shuffles and have it pop off again. Por que, why is this happening. I stopped, put it back on again and looked up to realize I was dead last. I made it to the top without any more hiccups but was also conscious to have my ski keep contact with the ground. I got to the top, got a card, transitioned, stuck my skins down my tights as I was informed to do (cycling has left me with so little modesty #kiddingmom, kinda), and took off down the hill. Bonus about being last, not a lot of traffic going down, which I was grateful for because I’m still a bit cautious about the whole downhill speed/brain injury thing (you’re welcome mom).

Photo from Callie

I got to the bottom, handed in my card, put my skins back on and started working on the uphill segment again. I had passed some people, or they had passed me in their lapping of me, but either way had some company going up. Again, I got about halfway up when I lost my skin but had a hard time wrestling it back on, a dad who was with his young son stopped and gave me two ski straps to hold it in place to get to the top. Because of the rubber my ski turned into less of a glide and more of a grumble with an awkwardly long and heavy snow-shoe technique taking over. I got to the top, transitioned, and headed down hill. The downhill wasn’t steep, except for the last little bit before the transition area, I pizza’d so hard down that section as to not go very fast but also didn’t want to crash in front of everyone. I was 8 minutes from the cut-off when they were going to stop people from going back up, well it might take me 8 minutes to transition, it didn’t and I was back on my skis headed up with about 5-6 minutes to spare. I didn’t put the ski straps on and tried to limit any unnecessary movement. I made it to the top without losing a skin. I made it down and took some wider lines into the powder because why not at that point.

Photo from Callie

Before the race I thought that trying to do 3 laps was a good goal and I was able to get that with even the mechanicals (is that even what they are called in skiing, I have no idea). I also had a lot of fun for having no idea what I was doing– at the end of the race I realized I had never flipped my boots over from the ski mode the whole time but also as a beginner I have no idea how things are suppose to feel so just assume it must be how everyone feels.

After putting my legs up on the wall for an abnormally long time that night, I headed down to the resort to go skiing on Saturday. I did some snowboarding in the resort in Colorado when I first moved there but before I got my brain injury because after just didn’t feel like it was worth the risk. I don’t think I had been on skis in the resort since maybe a middle school ski trip.

Photo from Kevin

Fortunately, the two people I went with, while expert skiers were more than okay taking the day slow and spending time on only blue runs, and gave me pointers to practice turning, and showed incredible patience waiting for me at multiple points throughout the run.

Pizza for life– photo from Kevin

We were able to get about 7 runs in and I certainly felt a little more confident by the end of the day, not sending it down the mountain, but did have some french fry moments and not just all pizza.

Look at that french fry– photo from Rachel

In other non-activity news, death remains to feel exceptionally close in Alaska. At first I thought it was because of my position at the hospital, hearing all these ways people die or are injured that I normally wouldn’t be conscious of, and then I thought maybe it was because my counterpart in Fairbanks was violently killed, we were both fresh out of law school and she had only just started her career like mine when it was cut horrifically short, and then I thought maybe I’m just more aware of it–law school is a pretty selfish pursuit so often didn’t dedicate a lot of resources to things besides studying and training, so maybe I just wasn’t fully paying attention to how often death was happening.

Facetime with this dude at least once a week to say goodbye, just in case.

Then I finally realized, it’s just Alaska itself that reminds me of my mortality in so many ways, it remains the feeling that everything can kill you– the exposure, the isolation, the wildlife–being out all night in New York City and not being able to get home, something bad might happen but you probably won’t freeze to death– in Alaska getting your car stuck somewhere on a remote road that you’re trying to turn around on can become a perilous situation pretty quick (no that hasn’t happened but do have a shovel, blankets, and food in my car just in case). It just seems like the stakes are elevated all the time; you can do everything right and still die, you can do everything wrong and still survive, and that’s where I struggle- there are more wild parts of the equation that I can’t control. But like everything there is a certain amount of risk with everything involved and making sure that I’m prepared as best as possible just means maybe it won’t look totally terrible on the report–hope springs eternal.

And in more non-activities, activities, I keep thinking that the Fat Bike race is the week after it really is so now have about 3 weeks to get in shape-ish enough for 100 miles, oops. That is not going to look good on the report. Guess it’s time to finally start training.

The American Birkebeiner

My first year in Boulder, I lived in a house with mostly engineers–and if you want an idea of what that experiences was like I suggest watching The Big Bang Theory–I’ll give you a hint, I was Penny.

While many hilarious antidotes came out of this living situation, so did some learning moments like the Fermi Paradox, Schrodinger’s Cat, and most importantly when throwing stars come out it’s really best to go to bed.

I think mostly about Schrodinger’s Cat at the moment (and quick recap for those at home: it’s this theory that if you place a cat and something that could kill the cat in a box and sealed it, you would not know if the cat was dead or alive until you opened the box, so that until the box was opened, the cat was both “dead and alive”– or you can watch it here–just like Wayne explained it to me). I think about it because I’m still waiting to hear back from anything and all those decisions are in this box where in theory I have something lined up for next year and also don’t have anything lined up for next year (and I’m sure I botched that analogy- but you get the point).

When your roommate gets you.

February was mostly this state of anxiety because one of the applications said they send out responses in Feb/March so most of February was spent refreshing my email. At the end of the month my professor told me to relax that it probably wouldn’t show up till after spring break (that would have been helpful a month ago).

It was so much that I thought about pulling the plug on the Birkie to just sit at home and wallow in my state of being, while also constantly refreshing my email. Instead, my roommate kindly pointed out that I like to exercise for long periods of time, there was a group of us going and all staying in a cabin, and she made me homemade granola for trail snacks. She made excellent points and so we set out on an 8-hour car trip to Haywood, Wisconsin.

1 dog, 3 people, 2 sets of skis, a million snacks

There were six of us staying at the cabin, with 2 doing the Korte (the 18 mile version); 2 doing the Birkie (the 31 mile race); and 2 along to crew and provide support (really the hardest job). It was nice because the 2 doing the Korte raced on Friday so we were able to go through the production of getting to the start line. Which involves parking in one lot and getting bused to the start line. We saw them off at the start and took the bus back to our car to drive back into Haywood to see them at the finish line in approximately 2-4 hours. I had some work that needed finished so headed to the public library (seriously, public libraries are soooo amazing!). I got back to the finish line just in time and when I greeted Ann at the end she said, “I wouldn’t want to have to ski another 12 miles- ha!”. Gulp.

Ann finishing the Korte!

The two of us racing the Birkie did packet-pickup where I bought another pair of gloves, convinced that the two pairs I had brought would not be optimal (I tell ya, you get caught in a blizzard during one mountain bike race without adequate gloves and it’ll leave a mark). Afterwards, we both picked their brains on a little more course information and race tactics but still slightly unnerved about what was going to happen. It felt different than any other long distance race I had done because my longest ski at this point (pretty inadequate snow conditions) was about 10 miles. And some of it was worrying about how to dress, balancing higher nutritional needs, and generally having no idea how my body would preform after 10 miles. After a few outfit changes and packing different clothes entirely for the start I okay about starting.

Still unsure of this whole skiing business

The morning was smooth getting there, the other guy doing it had a start time 15 minutes before me so I was knew if I just followed his plan I would be there on time. Megan and Jeff came to the start which was nice so they could grab our things and I could wait until the last minute to take my jacket off. They have staging gates (which really reminded me of a cattle branding) they herd you into one and then when one wave goes off release you to the next holding area until you get to the start. I jumped in right before they got to the start when you run for position and have to start in a track. If this makes no sense to you, I assure you it made even less sense to me at the start of the race. Because I had never done this race I started in the very last wave and while I had a good starting position before the gun went off by the time I crossed the start line (less than 30 seconds later) I was in second to last place. I looked around and everyone had left, there was one guy to the side of me who was literally leap frogging in his skis to gain position and boy did he. I blame him because I was so memorized by this form that I just stood there shell shocked and then realized I needed to go.

The last wave start

Right from the start the course went uphill, it reminded me of baby turtles making their way back to the water from the sand, everyone’s skis were splayed out and we all neatly formed four lines. The first few miles were pretty uneventful. Around mile 4 we were stopped at the top of a hill where someone had crashed and needed a medic (they were able to get up but the people were apprehensive to go down until everyone was on the side). I looked at my watch…oh wow, it’s been an hour. Now, I’m not good at math but knew I had 8 hours to finish and in my mind that didn’t really calculate to enough time to do so. I turned to a guy next to me who had a bib indicating he had done it multiple times, “how strict is the cut-off, will they pull us at the aid station?” He told me not to worry as long as I didn’t take 20-30 minutes at each aid station. I thought that seemed do-able but also have found myself laying on cardboard slabs at aid stations for well over an hour so really it was anyone’s guess.

I made it through the first 10 miles feeling okay. As soon I passed the 10-mile mark it was like my body realized this was the furthest it had ever skied and started to hurt. I made sure to keep eating as best I could but also knew I was behind on nutrition. I found the whole carrying a ski-pole, having to take off gloves and unpack some food, made me less wanting to invest in eating.

Snow nice to see people on the course (get it?)

I saw Jeff and Megan around mile 15 and stopped for a bit to chat and eat some more food. It was maybe the last time I felt good on the course and was entering a somewhat delirious stage. I went downhill (not a pun, there weren’t a lot of downhills) pretty fast after that and entered a pretty dark place for the next 11 miles. It was totally food related, the course was a bit crowded now with the two styles (classic and skate) merging onto one, but in my mind people were working together to keep me boxed in (yeah they definitely weren’t). One guy kept sprinting by and then halfway up an uphill would just stop to rest and turn his skis to take up a good chunk of the course. In my moment of wanting to ski over his skis to show him how inconvenient of a place it was to stop, I instead opted to eat some granola which helped.

The one thing I noticed is that when biking long distances, I definitely get tired and enter similar mindsets but my body knows what to do. It has ridden enough to keep turning the pedals over (like the MDH when all I wanted to do was sleep, my legs at least knew what to do). With skiing, there was no familiarity in the muscle memory, so each movement required conscious thought to keep propelling myself forward.

I had been leap-frogging with Judy from TDA most of the day and was also nice when I saw her on course, we both joked how we were ready to start biking after this with it being both our first Birkie. In the last few miles she pulled ahead of me and figured I would see her after the race was done. In the last four miles, I caught my second, really my first wind. I felt like I was able to somehow get into a groove, the snow was less slushy and more crunchy/icy, which was similar to what I was used to skiing in South Bend. I even got my sense of humor back, when one spectator said we were looking good another participant yelled, “you are definitely lying there is no way we look good.” I poked back, “speak for yourself”. The last two miles contain a lake crossing (1 miles) and then a passage through town over a bridge and down main street. The lake route was groomed and I felt like I could really move–and I did, I put in my fastest mile of the day going over the lake around 7:30.

I came into town and up the bridge, I was a little concerned about going down because of how many people would see you crash but was able to navigate it successfully. I came up the main street and saw Judy stopped right before the finish line, I caught up to her as she picked up her glove. Woooohooo! We made it and skated across the line together.

Skating in with Judy

Ann greeted me with warm clothes and boots- the other part of the group was with Aaron who had finished only minutes before me. We then went to the beer tent, and Megan bought me a sausage to get some real food and because I had no cash. We all talked about various aspects of the day and then went back to the cabin to cook dinner and decompress.

Megan was right, it was a fun weekend, despite having to ski for 6 hours, it was nice to get out of South Bend and hangout in the woods for a few days. I took a few days off without too much soreness only in my shoulders, before I started biking again.

Not a bad place to spend a long weekend

While I’m still waiting to hear back on applications, March seems to be so busy with deadlines that I’ve mostly stopped constantly refreshing my email and focusing more on what I have to get done. I won a free entry into the TommyKnocker 10 in Silver City, New Mexico this weekend. I changed my flights to reroute through Phoenix for break, but earlier this week realized that I just didn’t have the mental energy to race for 10 hours. So I pulled back and decided to stay in Phoenix for the Cactus Cup, which has a short-track, 40 miler, and enduro. I’m currently signed up for all three but still waiting for my bike to show up so might just end up doing the 40-miler. I definitely was not planning on starting my season this year, but also realize that when I’m studying for the bar I’ll do little to no racing so might as well even if I’m not in racing shape (12 days on the bike won’t do too much for fitness levels).

I’ve also been hitting up therapy again, because as my friend Gen pointed out on her blog, exercise is a great tool, but not really a substitute for actual therapy. Also realizing that anxiety and excitement mask themselves in the exact same physical symptoms, so now just tricking myself to be excited at the endless opportunities that are available instead of anxious about none of them being available.