Featured

Last Place Champ

I was looking for an email this morning and had searched Chamonix when something called Last Place Champ popped up, I didn’t recognize it so clicked to search and it took me to an email from February 10, 2020. It was for a profile someone was doing on me after getting last place at Nationals in the singlespeed category. That took me back to a life that seems so far away now. I was looking at my responses to the questions.

How did you feel once you crossed the finish line?

I had mix feelings crossing the finish line, on one hand I was proud of the effort I put in to get me across the finish line and on the other hand I was pretty disappointed that a mechanical had taken me out of contention and I spent the majority of the race running with my bike instead of riding. There are a lot of factors you can control with racing; training, nutrition, equipment choices, ect…., but you can’t control for everything and that’s part of the appeal is the chaos that you attempt to contain while racing.

What would you say was the hardest challenge in this race?

…I think it’s hard because a last place finish, doesn’t tell the whole story of the race, it only captures a brief moment of time, there is no asterisk there to explain anyone’s story. I kept joking that sometimes ‘I’m fast, sometimes I’m last’. During the race I also had to shake the expectations others had for me and that is not to say that I felt pressure from anyone else but during the race felt like spectators just assumed I was not here to really compete, I mean who runs with their bike during a bike race. I had to remind myself that these people don’t matter but that’s easier said than done.

What was the most rewarding thing about completing this race?

Gaining that mental toughness. Before the race I was joking with my mechanic that is something really went haywire I would just pull the plug, I was there mostly for fun and then to see how my body actually responded during that moment of deciding, it didn’t want to give up and wanted to keep racing, that was oddly exciting to see. This season was one of transition for me and at times I wondered if my body and mind were maybe just done with racing (I took the summer off from racing to study for the bar exam so had to race my way into shape throughout the seasons). It also taught me that it’s okay to have fun and still take things seriously. I didn’t want to put too many expectations on myself to perform so missed some key equipment checks because I didn’t want to come off as too serious because I didn’t think I would be a contended.

Any final words of encouragement and thoughts you’d like to share?

Racing opens you up to vulnerability and potentially criticism, but it also opens the door to an amazing supportive community that will share in your victories and buy you drinks to drown your sorrows. I’ve learned so much about myself by showing up to starting lines that I was minutes away from talking myself out of. I’ve never regretted doing a race, even the ones that I didn’t live up to my potential at, in fact those are the ones that keep me up at night and leave my hungry for more. I thought getting last would be devastating and it was for a bit, but the bright side is that when people ask you how you did in the race, no one expects you to say, “I got dead fucking last” and then laugh, which really sounds better than some random number, unless you’re first.

———

I don’t know if this ever actually got posted anywhere because as 2020 unfolded most things took a backseat to anything other than COVID. In a way it was weird to get transported back to that time and place, the girl who wrote that, past Kate must have known that future Kate was going to be going through some shit soon and maybe would find these words all these years later a little encouraging (I love when past Kate looks out for future Kate). I read through them and thought of how much the answers related to the trauma I’ve been carrying, about holding space for the duality, shaking others’ expectations and assumptions, being confident in my ability, leaning into the community, and how the finish results only serves a snap shot of the race. I think we should all come with asterisks, Kate*

*Kate had a panic attack at the end of December 2021 which she feels like was her own fault and the amount of pain and destruction it caused is complicated by the amount of joy and growth it brought, please proceed gently she is still sometimes anxious and occasionally gets an intrusive thought but loves playing outside and is really good at an extremely niche area of international law.

But we don’t come with asterisks. And in a lot of ways with writing and the past year I’ve been more vulnerable than I ever was when I was racing and while that vulnerability brought pain it also brought me into this amazing circle of others who are navigating choppy waters as well (I mean aren’t we all). I remember during the MDH 150 (yes, still working on that) my phone died and Barb gave me her phone with music on it and tee’d up Florence and the Machine– I told her that was perfect because the most recent song I had had on repeat was one of hers that starts, “Sometimes I wonder if I should be medicated…I’m on fire and I’m trying not to show it.” And isn’t that the theme for most of early 2022. But I suppose I have shown it and it’s taken a while to peel back all the layers and talk about them because well who knew what I would be peeling back. I’ve found that the space that used to be filled with so much grief, sadness, and anger didn’t go away, that space still exists but now has room for other things to fill it like joy, content, relief.

I kept thinking that once COVID was over my life would unpause and I could make plans, grow/strengthen my friendships, dance, laugh, cry, show any emotion. But that thinking did me in and instead I felt so numb for at least a few months leading up to the panic attack, joy was fleeting and even the highs were punctuated with bated breath to see if anyone would get COVID. As I said before life doesn’t pause and having to reschedule and cancel things or adapt comes with frustrations, even when not dealing with a pandemic. I feel like in the past year I saw my mind fail me in a way I had never experienced and am doing everything to make sure it never happens again. Fortunately (or unforunately) I’ve also seen friends in the same boat and some navigating having their bodies fail as they share the frustrations of having to reschedule or put things to a date to be determined. So we’re all adapting, navigating, and walking each other home.

One of the bigger loses I felt this past year was my relationship, I’d like to think the panic attack and the residual aftershocks killed it but it was probably more like death of 1,000 cuts and thinking that once I got footing and my narrative back from COVID, the panic attack, life, I could pick up where we left off before everything, back in March of 2020. Before the cascade of uncertainly crushed me in the chaos. I think of that post-race analysis and it’s like man, I don’t even know if he met that girl who was talking about how strong she was and how much fun I could be, if he did she was fleeting. And while certainly sad it’s also acknowledging that within every relationship is a time stamp of the events around it, with no asterisk. While I certainly grieved for the relationship I feel like I grieved more for the girl who didn’t show up, who had been knocked down and couldn’t figure out how to ask for help, who felt incredibly isolated, alone and awash with my own thoughts, who lost her laugh. I think I grieve mostly for what I lost in myself, who I used to be, and the amount of effort it’s taken to get back to her — the girl who breaks her bike and takes off running to keep up. My therapist (and I) think she’s still in there- and is making quite the moves to come back–but it’s almost like she had to retreat for how much she was trying to protect herself. As I move forward with healing and trying to untangle COVID, panic attack, relationships, I realize that they are all intertwined and figuring out the contact points of the specific fission isn’t exactly a productive use of time. It’s like when a race really goes sideways and it’s just a multitude of factors. And yes, sometimes I still get real annoyed at this trauma suitcase even though it is much smaller than it was a few months ago. Anyways, #SingleK8 is back (IYKYK) and I’m sure this is the start of a Hallmark movie….just kidding more like #SkimoK8 is back (just signed up for a race).

I thought about this all after I arrived back in Alaska after 30 hours of traveling from Italy and awoke early from jet-lag. I was waiting for the sun to come up and then headed out to ski with my roommate. We ran into some overflow early on and Hailey’s foot broke through exposing her to cold water. Realizing the potential damage that could come with a wet, cold exposure she turned around and I remained to do some laps and then ski home. I went up to the top and then dropped down a bit to do some hill repeats, up, down, up down, up down, my heartrate monitor still in a bag over the Atlantic. I kept going beyond what I was told to do, entering the flow state, breaking down the technique, wondering if I could just be a little bit better than the last time. I stopped just as the sun was about to crest the hill line and decided to rip my skins and go down. I took off thinking I should wax my skis at some point, the loop itself is short but there are a few tight corners and as I’ve worked on my technique I’m more comfortable leaning in and pushing through the apex. In those moments, right before the turn falls away, I feel a pushing back from the earth and yesterday as I rounded the corner I couldn’t help but to think it was mother earth kindly reminding me that she had me and would always have me. Alright, nerds don’t ruin that with the forces of gravity pushing back on you, I know logically how it works, just let me have this.

I did a writing that isn’t public yet about how my relationship changed with the outdoors during COVID, before once a place of refuge, became a place where anything and everything could kill me. After the panic attack it was the only place I could go that would quiet my thoughts and pull me back into the present being, however brief and I kept chasing that no matter how elusive it was on some days. I thought of that yesterday too as the quiet spots are no longer elusive or just contained to the outdoors, my resting heartrate is back to a normal 45-55bpm range, and while some days feel long and the trauma suitcase a bit heavy I know that over time this will become a footnote in my story.

On a side note, Italy was great, I was able to meet up with a former co-worker, Renu. Julia and I did some touristy things when we overlapped in Milan. Trento was lovely and I feel like once again I get the push and pull of do you return to a place you already know or to go explore somewhere new. I don’t have to answer the question just yet as I’m headed to Canada and Switzerland in January but sending the question into the universe to see what comes back.

I’m back for a few weeks before what will feel like another whirlwind tour and packing in all the days on snow I can. Charlotte and I once again got out today, with Lang, finding some nice fluffy snow on a less than existent base layer.

You’ll know how to build your own fire in a cold forest. You’ll find yourself in the middle of life’s wet howl and you’ll recognize how bright you are. You’ll reach for only what will burn you back.

Featured

Never Enough

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.

For all you at home, don’t worry finally got my lighter (after this photo)

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.

Or I can go as long as I don’t break any more rules

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.

Scouting ski routes and making plans for the future

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.

Handstands also seem to help

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)

Surrender

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.

Why pack when you can ‘yak

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.

Doubt.

They say that if you sit with your feelings that’s how you process them. After the panic attack I would sit, and sit, and meditate, and go to yoga, and try to feel all my feelings, enlisting therapists, friends, and whoever else I thought would have good perspective so I could hurry up feel my feelings and get back to life. I didn’t realize for a while that while I was feeling my feelings, I wasn’t feeling all of them until I read this from Allison Jansinski: “Anxiety made me feel small and incapable. I had been so confident for so long and suddenly I couldn’t trust myself with the smallest tasks. I had climbed literal mountains no more than 5 months prior, and then there I was, asking my husband to accompany me to the grocery store because I was too afraid to go alone. What if I have a panic attack in the middle of the cereal aisle? The collapse of my mental health was all at once. Or at least that’s how it felt. It was the most lonely and isolating experience of my lifetime. Triggered by a horrific car ride, feeing my burning neighborhood with my dog and a laptop. I was wearing slippers. My wedding ring sat on my nightstand. I’d never see it again. As I navigated my new reality of panic attacks, depersonalization, and nights spent wide awake begging for a deep breath that would never come, I can say with absolute certainty it was the hardest I’ve ever worked. The bravest I’ve ever been. And while I deeply wish I was dealt a different hand of cards last December, it was an absolute honor to meet that version of myself. She stayed at the table. She never folded. I can’t believe she never folded.”

Lots of doggo time

In the early days after the panic attack people would say that they thought the panic attack was going to be good thing once I got through it and on the other side. I hated hearing that so much at the time– they don’t understand what my brain is like, they don’t understand what is happening, what if I never heal, what if it never changes. I would wake up each morning and immediately check to see if I was healed and if those thoughts were gone and when they weren’t I would resign myself to still being angry and confused at the work I had to do. But here’s what I’ve realized, that girl who was angry and confused each day at not feeling healed, at tip toeing as if she was about to burst through a glass floor, still showed up, she went to work, she made food, she sustained herself with meditation, and yoga, and journaling, and therapy, and more therapy, and as the days ached on and she would wearily get into bed each night she would be grateful for having made it through with her marbles intact and fall asleep worried about what the next day would bring for her inner turmoil.

Here’s what they don’t tell you about trauma, much like fear it’s a liar. It tricks your brain so you don’t know what is true and what isn’t real. And you wonder if this darkness that exists if that’s my true essence and the light that is gone, if that was the facade. When it happens it’s just all dark, stormy, and twisty, and there is no light, and you wonder if this is how it’s going to be forever. You have no choice but to keep moving. And so, you do and slowly, very slowly, the light starts to trickle in, the fresh snow under you skis, the house dinners, the moments of silent and rest with my head on your shoulder.

Beating someone to the car – pure joy

You think this is the light, here it is. But the trauma makes you think that those moments of joy are the outliers, a small blimp in the spectrum of time. And in those moments, I felt like I was floating on the love and lightness of all those around me who didn’t know the depth of my despair. I didn’t want to go back and yet the darkness would rip me apart faster than a black hole. You want to get back to the light and so you keep moving, keep surrendering, keep breathing. Then one day you laugh and in that laughter, you realize you aren’t holding your breath wondering when this will disappear, and you realize you are healing because you are breathing. Woofta, was that heavy for you? I’m sorry, hang on it gets better. I promise.

In those moments I couldn’t even process what was happening. I was just surviving, barely keeping my head above water before the next wave would come crashing down. Treading to stay alive and breathing. I had to leave Alaska to go to DC to teach at the end of January and leaving felt like I was once again ripped through the time/space portal. I fumbled around for new activities to occupy me, bouldering and running with Carly, walks with co-workers, getting back to yoga in person. I went and saw my parents and even then, felt like I couldn’t exhale, couldn’t talk, fearful of what might come out. My parents sat or more kept vigil as I would lay on the couch and slowly words would trickle out lamenting about it all. I went and stayed with Allison and Dave for a few days as I was supposed to be in CO for a ski race but that ski race didn’t happen, but I had my skis just in case that girl showed up. Allison (and Kati who spent also spent multiple days with us) helped to give me words to the trauma and feelings that I had been experiencing. We shared an unspoken bond of seeing the weariness in the other that comes with vigilantly rowing ores to keep moving in the unknown water. For the friends that have known me longer than COVID and the panic attack this is such a blip in the timeline and I think I was seeking that out and getting back to those who knew me before all the darkness overtook me, reminding me of who I used to be and who I could be again.

I returned to Alaska and I wrote in my journal that upon arriving it felt like finally arriving home and was starting to see more and more of my old self, albeit slowly. I was still acutely aware of how much trauma felt stored up in my body, but the light returning to Alaska felt like it was returning to me too. I moved up to Alaska so soon to COVID and COVID and the panic attack dominated how I managed my relationships (for better or worse). I felt so much uncertainty and instability that I leaned heavy into those few relationships I did have but also felt the strain of doing so which only accelerated wanting to be healed so I could get back to baseline and then reassess my life. That put additional stress on me trying to rush and desperately trying to feel normal. Which only put me on higher alert each morning I would wake up realizing that I was not fully healed. Love negative feedback loops.

I would ask my self what would pre-panic attack Kate do and then do that

Starting at the end of March my therapist told me to acknowledge joy when I felt it and it started timidly and in the most mundane ways, at a moment of stillness I would whisper, “I feel joy.” Then it got louder and one day I was out skiing with friends and I was just exploding with it, yelling it as I raced down the mountain. One friend asked me if I was being sarcastic, clearly showing how little emotion towards joy I had been showing lately. But it’s been helpful in acknowledging its existence and finding a new way to express it.

How did it happen that you just finished maybe the darkest section of writing that I’ve ever put on this blog? Well, it all came about because I crashed last weekend during a race and it was such a minor crash (like I’m fine, mom) but cut my knee and scrapped my shoulder and hip. And then I thought of all the other times I’ve crashed this year and it’s been a lot (sorry mom, but like I’m fine). I pride myself on being a sound, technical rider. I know my limits and know what I’m capable of that I usually don’t worry– lots of years following the lines of Wayne, Sully, Dave, Alex, Sam, Chris, Christa, Bryan, Katie, Neven, Parker, Jen, so many more that are way above my riding level. I did a ride with a friend and was leading the descent and she came around the corner to find me on the ground, saying she was surprised to find me there, I was too.

I had two crashes during one descent which was mostly out of the view of anyone else and recovered quickly but have been bumbling a lot more in areas that I feel like I’m technically sound in. I starting thinking about how pervasive doubt is. With riding there is a moment where if you doubt, you hesitate, and in that moment the magic is gone, you’ve messed up the line, you’re brain has convinced you that you are in capable and you question you’re ability and then poof you’re on the ground assessing the damage. I was telling my therapist this because I often use outdoor activities to understand my life so I said, “well it seems like I can be quick to recover and I’m actual quite flexible in falling, but I’m doubtful in the approach, in the take-off, in the transition.” And because she always makes me bring it back to center, I followed up with and I think this is probably a larger theme in my life, I’m hesitating and doubting because I still don’t trust my body or myself and it’s getting better but there are moments of doubt that end up pulling me down. And it’s true after the panic attack the doubt overtook everything. And my rational became that if I was doubting, well then surely some of that doubt must be true and if it’s true where does that leave me– but trauma is a liar. And nothing is every guaranteed or fully certain but all I wanted was certainty when I was only filled with doubt. I didn’t trust myself that if the bottom fell out, if the glass shattered that I would be able to recover, that I could overcome what had been thrown my way because I felt like I hadn’t. I had a panic attack and then felt like I blew up my personal life as I scrambled to find dry land. For those who weren’t in my brain it’s so hard to explain that the explosion is how I did what I thought I had to do to survive, to fight, to breathe again.

When I real Allison’s post I thought of the girl I am now, she shows up to start lines with much more bruises and scars than she did before, but she’s scrappy, and resilient, and she is whole. And while I wish I had never met her under these circumstances, it has been an honor.

I read it before I did a gravel race with Grande– Ana had already left for the Colorado Trail Race after our relay last week. I was at max heart rate the whole time and trying to catch Grande’s wheel but I just kept repeating in my head, “Thank God I never folded.”

Like any race where you really shit the bed and everything goes wrong it takes a while to process everything, to pick out the lessons, the good and the bad, and sometimes the only good is like welp, I’m never signing up for that race again (cue the Black Hills 100). Just like with any bike race you know there will be highs and lows and it’s figuring out how to get out of the lows so you can get back to the highs. I know how to get out of the lows when I’m 80 miles into a race and bonking and have to pull myself out to get to the finish line but this felt like completely unknown territory that I was charing. I was in such a low I couldn’t even conceive that there would be a high. Much like when I did Super Walker for the first time and ended up sobbing on the side of the trail for 20 minutes having the worst bonk of my life– and just like then I got up and starting moving wondering if I would ever see the high again. This high just took a long time to get back to.

With the panic attack my therapist pointed this out that 4 months ago I couldn’t even process what it would mean to be here because my brain was still floating in the sea of despair, and I was convinced that no good would possibly ever come out of this. But I feel like I’m finally hitting the apex and the road is bending and there is light shining. Someone posted about a trip to the Grand Canyon and I didn’t even hesitate by saying I wanted in.

this is not a trauma related thing just getting the excess sugar off — don’t ask

I will say that doing the 600-mile ride with Grande and Ana helped me in a tremendous way, I reset my system, was alone with my thoughts but wasn’t overwhelmed. There was so much comfort and familiarity in just pedaling. And for the first time since the panic attack, I actually trusted my body to do what I needed to do. I fully surrendered knowing that I would be able to make it to Haines, even when the doubt crept in. I guess you could say that that was the beginning of the healing journey, all the work before then set the foundation but since then the steps have been greater, I’m surer of the footing, more comfortable with the uncertainty. And running, no sprinting towards the joy that has seemed so fleeting for so long. I think that’s part of the broader theme with COVID– so much pain and destruction happened as a result of it and acknowledging that any good existed seemed so antithetical to the collective suffering that was being felt. Again, you can hold space for both, or I can hold space for both, or I can try to hold space for both.

This one is less bike focused for sure but hope that by talking about it– and if the data is accurate as more people are searching for mental health therapists than ever before– maybe others will feel less alone and realize how much is going on behind the facade that we put on. Allison has been such a lifesaver for me but so many others and not necessarily in any big way but in the small ways that kept me going and kept me sustained. But certainly a handful that were there in a very big way– and they got an inner look into my brain and they didn’t bat an eye, they didn’t turn away, they held space for my pain and grief and they reminded me that it would get better, maybe not today, or tomorrow but it would. A friend mentioned that after reading last week’s post she hadn’t realized I felt all of that because I usually just said I was fine and would carry on. I was gobsmacked only because I was convinced there was no way that I was hiding how much I was walking in a glass house. So, lessons I learned from that and affirmed by my therapist is that (1) people are far less concerned with us than we perceive them to be and (2) I probably need to do a better job of reaching out and asking for help.

And as I looked for picture for this post and the things that I had done I found so few from January and February (less than 100) with more starting to show up in March and then April and then more in May and June (more than 500). It was almost like I didn’t think there was anything worth capturing, there was no way I would want to remember this pain. Just another way to quantify an arbitrary data point.

You stay alive for the stories that need to be told, the chapters that remain unwritten and the endings that need to be completed.

Radical Hope

In the past months I have started and stopped writing more times than I can count, thinking I needed to find the right words for the right audience but I’ve realized that I don’t do this for you I do it for me and if I’m trying to craft the right words for the right reader well then that will never happened because who is the right audience (like besides my parents who already get mini life updates 3-4 times a week).

I still spend a lot of time working on COVID so it still occupies a lot of my mind (globally, we had our highest daily case count this week) but with the vaccines coming online here it feels like I can breathe easier knowing my parents, family, friends, and community are protected. Then I feel guilty because all of those individuals who still can’t access the vaccine while still tracking everything that is happening worldwide and knowing that our individuals actions can have large and lasting impacts beyond our immediate contacts. I’m sure it’s been a wild ride for my therapist and she’s probably learned more about pandemic preparedness and vaccine deployment than she probably ever anticipated knowing about. And it’s been exhausting to see peoples’ response and while I won’t get super deep into my thoughts I will say that I hope when this is over we invest in public health, education, and mental health resources.

Alvin did become a pretty good trail partner

To catch you up from last fall I drove through Canada while the border was closed, with Alvin- the best backseat driver. I didn’t think I could handle an Alaska winter during COVID and it was the longest I had not seen my parents in person like ever (which is very fortunate). We left here in late October (figured if there was a coup during the election resources to Alaska would be cut off first– and that was only funny to joke about until an insurrection happened).

When I drove up to Alaska I promised on my return I would not do it in that amount of time again, I’d take like 2-3 weeks really make a trip of it, well I at least kept half of that promise and did not do it in the same amount of time, but rather quicker. The border was closed (and still is) except for essential travel. My plan was to drive most of my things down before the roads got too bad in case work was like hey we need you in DC and honestly was not sure I could handle Alvin flying beneath me in cargo, let’s be real. I had to show way more documentation to get into Canada than I thought was possible (they did not even seem to care that Alvin was vaccinated). I was given strict instructions and a number to call if I developed symptoms on the drive. It wasn’t too bad just long, and having Alvin at least forced me to stop every few hours to get out and walk around.

When we got to the US border I was met with one question, “where did you stop” and well because I’m me had a list of all places that I had stopped even briefly in case they needed to contact trace, I handed them the list and he goes “oh no, we just need to know if you have any fruits or vegetables that could be carrying something” I looked at him as if I was not the potential carrier of something. I said I had no fruits or vegetables and he waived me through (again not concerned about this wild village dog). I turned my paperwork into the Canadians to avoid getting a bench warrant on me and entered the US. After another 12 hours of driving, and quarantining before hand, I finally made it to my parents and was oddly relieved to see them alive (even though weekly Facetime calls told me they were).

I planned on going back to Alaska and decided to sign up for a running race the first week of March figuring it would give Alvin and I something to do while we were home. And it did, I spent most of the time hiking, trail running, and entertaining both Tenzen and Alvin.

I found a friend to run with who knew the trails in Wind Cave, which I had never spent much time in because too many snakes in the summer but with winter only had to do a few bison detours. And she was even down to run 15 miles without thinking twice about it.

I left Alvin at home when I came back to Alaska because I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying for. It was incredibly challenging, because we had basically spent the past 9 months together like all the time and obviously very worried about traumatizing him by leaving him with Tenzen but he seemed unfazed by it, probably had to put up with more in the village. I do get daily updates and pictures from my parents, and my sister has sworn that she will not be getting a dog (as my parents are currently watching both Frank and I’s…)

I came back to Alaska and continued running and started skiing more which was similar to a baby giraffe figuring out what to do with its legs but had kind friends who would take me out, share tips, and wait for me as I side stepped steep hills (you’re welcome mom).

I did the Homer Epic and raced (ran) 30 miles, it was a time trial start with each participant spaced out by about 30 seconds so I started alone and spent most of the day alone. I figured it was a good way to get to see Homer, albeit a bit slow but it was a blue bird day so could not complain.

I felt great until mile 12 and then the snow lost it’s firmness and it became soft and squishy with a sideways wind picking up the snow and whipping it around me, reminding me that it was in fact a winter race. I made it to the half way mark and recognized one of the aid workers from previous bike races, we briefly chatted and then I took off again. Because of COVID I didn’t make any plans to stop at aid stations and carried what I thought I would need in my backpack and then Kevin carried other things I thought I might need and met me at two points, mile 10 and around mile 21.

After the halfway point I started what seemed to be the only climb of the day, or at least memorable one, it seemed to go on for about 3 miles. It started with a short climb that made me think it was over but upon cresting the summit realize there was still more to come, I started the downhill before getting to the next uphill approach when a woman rode the opposite direction towards me, she yelled something like, “woohooo go lady!” And that was enough to make me cry, like full on sob, I think because in that moment everything felt so normal, like every other race before there there is always someone yelling “go lady” or “girl power” or cheering in some form and it felt just like that, except it wasn’t, we were (are) still in the midst of a pandemic that had claimed so many unnecessary lives, caused so much financial upheaval, and torn at the very fabric of our society. So I think it was a culmination of things, plus having ran like 17 miles before maybe didn’t help my ability to control my emotions but then I cried most of the way up the hill and just like embraced it, like let it all out and it felt real good (or maybe it was the runner’s high).

I met Kevin at mile 21 and was very much looking forward to the processed turkey meat I made him haul out for that mile. I ate the food from him, lamented on how much I wished I was running on concrete since the soft snow had been my nemesis for the past 10 miles. Kevin packed up to ski back to the finish line, but it was rather anti-climatic as he never fully disappeared from my viewpoint for a few miles. I finished in around 8 hours and got 2nd (but the field was very small, although more than 2). The finish was pretty anticlimatic too, I almost tripped going across the finish line and then walked to the car and convinced Kevin to get takeout food from Alice’s Champagne Palace and that was it.

I took a few weeks off and putz around going back to skiing and lifting and then realized it was March and should probably start thinking about biking–got a little thrown that spring was here given how much snow was still around. I loosely started training and have some things in mind for what I want to accomplish this summer/fall but feel like it’s still too premature to state concretely that I’ll be doing these things, like I’ll somehow jinx it and will spend another summer grieving for time that keeps marching on. It’s been nice to get back on my bike, last summer I struggled without much structure in place, among other things, and I feel like my risk factor assessment was skewed in being able to properly assess what was required of me and others.

My academic training taught me a lot about how to prepare for pandemics but in all of those years studying I never once stopped to think about the day-to-day life of the people living through an outbreak– again law focuses on facts and not feelings. But now I realize how detrimental it is to neglect feelings and human behavior and I’m sure all the behavioral scientists are like yeah, duh. After the Exxon/Valdez oil spill a lot of researchers moved to the area, scientists, toxic marine biologists but also sociologist and anthropologists. We had never dealt with an oil spill of that magnitude and weren’t exactly sure how to respond, like after the crash happened nothing happened for 3 days, the oil just stayed in the water while people tried to figure out the best course of action for retrieval, the 4th day a huge storm moved in and displaced the oil up and down the coast of Alaska going from an isolated area to impacting many small communities that rely on the water for fishing and other ways of life. A class action law suit happened, with something over 30,000 plaintiffs but as my dad will point out, justice is not always swift with the lawsuit dragging out for more than a decade. The lawsuit got appealed all the way to Supreme Court and they did in my opinion a terrible job of articulating what punitive damages are for– basically reducing them from an initial award of $5 billion to then $2.5 billion at the Court of Appeals and finally to the Supreme Court saying that punitive damages for maritime related cases should not exceed compensatory damages which was an award of $200 million. So Exxon went from losing one year of profits in punitive damages to 1-2 days. But in exchange we’ve recovered 8% of the oil that was lost. Why did I just tell you this rather depressing information, well because in addition to this legal information, we have sociology and anthropology research that came out it too. I’ve often found the law does an awful job of telling the true realities, which makes sense because you want facts and not feelings making legal precedent but as I’ve written about before, law school only teaches case law and not the human emotions that go into walking into someone’s life on their worst day, as I often felt when walking into a patients room to complete a Will so they could be discharged into hospice and die. My story stops at completing their will and their story stops shortly after but there is no mention of the turmoil one goes through in having weeks to get their affairs in order before leaving this earth. So what did a lot of the behavioral research show after the Valdez oil spill, well it showed that communities come together when dealing with a natural disaster (i.e., disease outbreak.acts of God) but they get torn apart based on acts of humans. Basically technological disasters (acts of humans) were more psychologically stressful than natural disasters, n=177. In addition to the trauma response to the disaster, the community became divided because the longer it went on the more people were split on how it should have been handled- if it should even be litigated vs. just moving on. But there is no playbook for things like this, there is no trauma response class in schools, some people going through the legal system is healing, for other’s it’s putting salt in a wound they don’t want to have open anymore. This is all to say that I’m not sure this leaves us post-COVID, it’s been hellacious seeing our response and I often think of the 1918 Flu because we don’t have a lot of information on that, and some of that was in part because of the sedition acts but I think a lot of it was it was probably really traumatizing for individuals. Now we have all the information but will it get suppressed because of human behaviors. I don’t know but that’s what I spend time thinking about, how do we heal, how do I heal.

I did my first big ride since before COVID this past weekend and it’s the moment I’ve been waiting a year for where this desire finally trickled up and I couldn’t put it off any longer (kind of like finally blogging). Before it wasn’t there, I would think about doing long rides and going on treks but just couldn’t get over whatever barrier was there in my mind. And they weren’t barriers put up by biking but more about how society functioned during COVID which I don’t need to get into here but they have been identified and working through it with my therapist. But I knew the moment was here when I was met with either driving 100 highway miles or riding my bike and riding my bike seemed easier and more enjoyable. Which I know you’re like what, and I would have been like what all last year too. And I was amazed at how quickly my body settled into the rhythm of riding, sure I’ve done longish rides at this point but nothing really over 2-3 hours. It became mechanical again when to eat, when to drink, like I had never stopped doing it. I got done and finished at 95 miles, Kevin suggested I go ride 5 more for a century but I thought best not to over do it right out of the gate.

Why ride 5 more miles when you can go eat hot dogs

I guess my hope is that whatever you have endured this past year, whether COVID related or something else, whatever barriers you had that made you stop, take a break, and question everything that you know, that when you pick up you don’t just think about going back to where you were but are in a place where you get to think about how to make things better than they were before for yourself, your community, wherever you feel called. I also got sent this article this morning by a friend on how the pandemic mental wounds are still wide open, it helped me so maybe it will help you.

I’m headed to Valdez this weekend, it’s been on my list to go for a while and missed the opportunity to get there this winter. I have a lot more thoughts I feel like I need to get out but seems like the best thing for me is to ride 300 miles and see how this community healed after trauma. And in a way all these things tell me that I’m healing.

“If you insist on entertaining hopes you might as well be ambitious in your desires do not bother fantasizing about a return to how things were before you might as well be ambitious in your desires hope that things will be better than they were before” -Plague Poems

Photo by Rachel Heath and I hope everyone has a friend like her in their lives