A friend recently mentioned that getting to the starting line of a race is often longer than the race itself. He had no idea. Back in August 2019 when I moved up to Alaska I was already scheming how to get back to the Maah Daah Hey, this time in the form of the 150. I signed up in December 2019 for the September 2020 race thinking I would be able to do it on my way to Yale or Washington DC. We all know how that went so in December 2020 when vaccines rolled out I signed up for the September 2021 race. The recovery from the 250 took longer (shout out to my doctor of 12 years for fixing me up) and I had the honor of officiating Allison and Dave’s wedding instead.
In November 2021, I signed up for the MDH 150 for September 2022. I basically took it off the table until end of May 2022. I didn’t think I would be anywhere near shape mentally or physically to even get to the starting line.
I started working with a trauma informed therapist at the end of March and that’s been extremely helpful in gaining perspective and realizing how much I had been absorbing when it came to COVID over the years. And it’s easier to talk about being in the dark space now because I’m not in that space anymore but still feel like I’m in the building phase of putting all the pieces back together, and/or getting new pieces. And meeting that darkness resulted in some of the scariest moments of my life. As a result I’ve been unpacking my trauma suitcase that I’ve been lugging around for a while and it’s uncomfortable and ugly and painful and for a long time I was so resistant to growth and surrendering because I was so scared of the girl I would be meeting on the other side, would she be filled with darkness, or would she emerge with kindness, joy, and light? It didn’t seem it was worth the risk of finding out so for months I felt stuck in the freeze response. I’ve slowly been able to move out of the freeze response.
It was a lot of baby steps, I didn’t have any confidence that I would be able to ride the MDH 150 until I did the ride with Ana and Grande realizing physically I could if mentally I was also there. As a result this training season looked different than others but then again so has life. Sometime in April I adopted the mantra, “Whatever Kate wants to do is okay” and mostly it came to outdoor activities and centered around training. I would do other things besides biking and other times I would find myself late on the trail under the summer sun trying to squeeze in one more lap before a 5am wake up call.
I would do my intervals but then would also include side quests, revitalizing my curiosity–where did this trail go or could I hit a feature just right to try to get the grace point of a flow state. I became more liberal with my time, taking half days when I got asked to ride, and working to prioritize anything I thought would re-establish my brain/body connection with the earth to get some grounding. And this included a lot of non-activity work too, two therapists, one trauma informed, a specific trauma informed yoga practice, journaling, meditation, daily photos of Alvin, and an amazing community that helped to nourish my mind, soul, and body. I keep calling my response the totality of the circumstances (which lawyers love), as it’s not just one thing but a whole host of things. I think of what I’ve been through and the resources I’ve been able to access because I have the privilege and means to do so whereas a lot of these things are still so inaccessible for most– even though our country was in a mental health crisis before COVID-19.
“There is no restitution for people like us, no return to days when our bodies were unscathed, our innocence intact. Recovery isn’t a gentle self-care spree that restores you to a pre-illness state. Though the word may suggest otherwise, recovery is not about salvaging the old at all. It’s about accepting that you must forsake a familiar self forever, in favor of one that is being newly born. It is an act of brute, terrifying discovery.”
― Suleika Jaouad, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted
I didn’t do my first bike race until July when Grande and I signed up for the sport section and opted for 2 laps instead of 3. This being the first ride Grande and I have done that was less than 200 miles or without middle school girls. I didn’t know what to anticipate because while I had done the Kenai 250 the year before I hadn’t done any real short races in a while and didn’t know how my body would respond given everything it had been dealing with. But with racing comes an element of surrendering. You get to the start line and the hard work is done, you know what to do but you also have to react and respond to those around you and you have to pay acute attention and make micro-adjustments during the race and let go of expectations and get new expectations as things unfold. After that first race, it gave me some more confidence back, that girl who left during COVID is still in there, having been in hiding, as if to keep her safe.
I did two more races, one as a team with Ana and Grande. Because of the way the timing worked, all three of us never actually ended up in the same place. Ana did the first leg and then went to Colorado for the Colorado Trail Race (and got 2nd!!). I did the second segment and without a lot of racers was worried about staying motivated but was able to keep on the gas for the most part and only crashed once (see previous post). After that Grande did the final leg and was hecka fast with enough time for us to eat dinner before driving back to Anchorage. The other race was a gravel hill climb that I started with Grande and then spent the rest of the race trying to chase her wheel. It didn’t start raining till the top and Dusty and Lil’ Snugs met us up there and gave a ride down. During COVID I always thought that I missed racing because of the community it gave me and while this is true I also found a community outside of bike racing.
I did my first Kenai ride by myself (bears included!) and if you had told me that I would do that three years ago when I was scared to even leave the house because of bears I would have been like lolz, nope. I was setting up a car shuttle to ride back the next day with some friends. I packed my camping gear but when it started raining a friend offered me a spot in her RV, I pointed to a spot on the floor I could put my sleeping pad and she just laughed and pointed to the extra spot for an air mattress. Instead of being in the damp cold rain all night I got a full air mattress and access to a microwave, definitely starting to see the positives of glamping- ha! A group of 5 of us rode 40 miles the next day back to the van where we somehow managed to fit 5 people and 5 bikes in (#HowDoYouSienna).
I did another ride where I drove 2 hours with a friend only to find that I had forgotten to charge my battery so rode a singlespeed for 30 miles– I chalked it up to being a good training ride and my friend was gracious enough when I had to jump off and run up some of the shorter hills. But since I have been better about keeping things charged.
I went paddling with some friends, with all the rain we had been getting and me not wanting to wash my bike again, felt like it would be a good activity for the rainy day. We hiked in about 10 miles and had incredible views down into the valleys and definitely made me want to come back and trail run and/or ski there in the winter. I’ve been slightly apprehensive about paddling since COVID began. The whole risk perception was skewed and it seemed like it would be so easy to have something happened. With biking I know my abilities but water certainly adds another element. We put in after scampering through some woods and finding a good spot to lay out all our gear on a gravel bar.
The water was higher than normal so we figured it would be a pretty fast float and we anticipated two spots we’d have to portage around some wood. We put in and started the float, not thinking too much of it. After a bit of getting used to the water and easing back in we came up on a flooded area that was scattered with wood. We started pulling out on the sides and I opted for the shore but realizing that the water was elevated resulted in there not being a great eddy or place to actually pull out. I hit the shore but the current quickly grabbed me and spun me around back into the river and before I could react I saw the downed tree right in front of me. Here we go, stay on top, don’t get under. I hitched my hips to lift the raft up as I hit the tree and quickly got out of the boat, which immediately made it fill with water. The current pushed me against the wood and I was briefly held there while I realized what was happening. Okay I’m trapped against this piece of wood with this boat that is now taking on water. I threw my paddle to shore and started to fight against the current to get some leverage to then wrestle against my boat, trying to get some water out so it would release from the grips of the water. As the water raged against me I thought of how often I had thought of this exact scenario the past two years– and now it was happening. But unlike the panic attack where I thought I might die, I was calm and was fighting back. After what seemed like an ungodly amount of time, I wrangled the boat free and got to shore, settling my heart rate down. As soon as I released another friend had the exact same scenario happen, I was able to get back into the river and help her wrangle her boat free.
We debriefed after which helped to talk through what we did wrong and what could have been different. Talking to others afterwards it seems like everyone has a wood story on that river. We finished the float and got done with just enough time to stop by a restaurant on our way to the car shuttle to get yam fries. Which we had spent most of the float talking about.
A few days later I took a day off to do a hike-a-bike adventure. Earlier in the summer Grande mentioned to me that Dusty had tried to hike up and bike Seattle Ridge but they had to turn back. I asked Caleb if he wanted in and then we all decided to do an attempt. We had initially thought about doing a loop and going up the route Dusty tried but with the late season growth and how much rain had been happening we opted for the up track from the winter snowmachines, which still had a lot of growth on it.
It was about 1.5 hours of hike-a-biking to get to the ridge line but it was so worth it. Once we got to the top the clouds parted for what felt like the first time in days and the views were incredible. We biked around and found some gems from the snowmachines, like a grill, a brand new gopro, and lots of trash.
Standing on the ridge I couldn’t believe my luck, how lucky am I to get to be here right now and do this. In some ways I couldn’t believe I had survived the past 9 months and I was eternally grateful that despite all the hardships I was right here. The descent down proved to be pretty uneventful because of how much we had pushed the trail down on the way up.
It took me a while to process what had happened on the water and I spent most of the next week having one good cry a day (even on Seattle Ridge), often on the phone with Molly, my mom, or other friends depending on the time zone. Molly thought that I was finally moving into the next stage of healing that I had been holding in so much for so long and hadn’t really cried much that I was finally releasing it. My mom and others would just silently sit as I sobbed– misery loves company. When I had the panic attack I thought I was dying which was terrifying because I was so discombobulated and my thoughts were running rampant. And that experience was so counter to what I had experienced with prior close calls, like this calm, serene feeling comes over and I’m just like well this is what’s happening. The panic attack made me so worried that I would actually die and be in a total state of chaos and that’s how I would leave this life and somehow carry that state with me to whatever happened next. And that I wouldn’t fight back I would just be stuck. Welcome to my brain on fire where the total illogical somehow became rationalized in my mind and calling into question any past experience. But in a weird way getting caught on the log made me realize how illogical the panic attack was like I was calm and it was a scary experience that could have gone sideways pretty fast.
I often think of every experience outside as a meditation in mortality and while normally I’m at peace with that COVID and the panic attack totally changed my risk perception. And then the tears would just flow thinking of all the pain that was brought about by my brain and all the joy that I’ve missed out because I was so terrified of taking a step of doing anything that would potentially put me in a similar situation. A friend graciously reminded me that there is still a lot of joy left in my life. I know how bonkers this all sounds trust me. It helped to shed light on the dark parts, the parts that I kept hidden fearing they would be too scary if I brought them to the surface. When floating they say that the scariest hazards aren’t necessarily the ones you can see but the wood or entrapment hazards that are under the surface. Same with the dark parts, bringing them to the surface has made me stare them in the face, to see the hazards and negotiate my way around them. And it’s not even about stuffing the dark parts back down but holding them in the light.
The next weekend I was able to get back on the water, as I was leaving Alaska for a month and didn’t want to be off the water that long with that experience hanging over my head. My two roommates and their friends took me out. I borrowed a kayak and given that I can’t roll and did two swims I had an insane amount of fun– it was pure joy the entire time.
Each time I swam I was able to do what I needed to get out of the boat and get up to shore, realizing that my body does in fact know what to do to keep me safe. And each time the crew would grab my gear and meet me on the shore. The second swim was a bit longer with my roommate telling me which direction to towards shore and one friend giving me her hand to prevent me from going into more wood down the river. I felt bad for swimming because it can be a lot of work but the crew I was with was gracious towards me being a newbie and very kind and generous with their support, knowledge, and expertise. In some ways it mimic’d this chapter that I feel like I’ve been in that the support that I got in the water has transferred to the shore.
That while the waves lap over me this group of people has helped to keep my head above water. In some ways it seems like I’ve picked up where things paused during COVID. This Alaska experience and community that made me fall in love with the place is still there and it’s been magical and intoxicating to reengage.
Then almost to the day that I left Alaska last year I left Alaska this year. But this year I already booked my return ticket and I feel better about the uncertainty that life is brining these days. I left Alaska to race the MDH 150– 4 years after being here for the 100 and 3 registrations for the 150 later. The last time I came to the MDH I was filled with a lot of doubt, it was the first big race I had done by myself without Sully and had my parents to crew me. Despite having 4 mechanicals I surprised myself and kept going being resourceful and scrappy and asking for help. I didn’t realize how strong I could be until that was the only option. I finished the race and laid down in the grass and was surrounded by my parents, Barb, Pat, Tom, Aleen –those that had been with me from the start and will likely be with me at the end.
I had so much happiness in that moment that during my dark times I would think back to laying down in that spot surrounded by love and support. It was the last race I did with Tom and really the last big race I did before COVID started. The trail remains pure magic in my mind, it gave me just what I needed even if it wasn’t what I wanted. This time I’m returning to spend more time on the trail– if I could get that from 100 what will 150 bring? In a lot of ways I feel like I’m in a similar place showing up to the starting line with more bruises and scars with doubt from the past two years if that scrappy, resourceful, strong Kate is still in there. Once I’m off the starting line it’s the ultimate lesson in surrendering, in releasing, in dying 1000 deaths so I can have room to breathe, be present, in the moment.
In one of my last therapy sessions my therapist asked me what the opposite of anxiety is for me. I said adventure she thought that was interesting, I guess most people say calm or peacefulness. But for me not having to battle anxiety means that I have the confidence to run full speed ahead towards what is headed my way and know that I’ll be able to handle it. To have the fear and still do it.
I’m starting out on the MDH 150 on Saturday (I might be out there right now). Only two women have done it so far in 22 and 19 hours. I have no idea what to expect, three years ago I had certain time expectations and now I have no expectations but I will be out on some kind of adventure. I’m a little worried about what the darkness will bring but it will be under a full moon and I have plenty of lights and music to get me through– trying to remind myself that anxiety and excitement have the same physiological response. If you feel like you should send me good vibes, maybe send some to Barb and Jane. They are crewing me and I’m not sure any of us know what exactly we’re about to get into.