Alaska Ultrasport entry 5: McGrath - Ruby

I’m getting tired of thinking about this race all over again. I can’t quite get it out of my head for three reasons: 1) I didn’t finish to Nome. 2) I have to see the finish line everyday, and 3) it’s such an insane race with so many variables at stake that it just kind of oozes under my skin. My recent post-race biking addiction snuck up on me and I do dream about doing endurance races. It’s too early to tell if my knees will be strong enough to endure another race. I have to be sure b/c to quit again would be intolerable. In any case, this next write up is my last for the ultrasport 08.

PART II (McGrath – Ruby)

DAY 5 – 10 (260 miles)

After a nights rest Jay, Pete, Carl, Rocky and myself would continue on to Nome. Hindsight always gives a clearer view but I cannot believe I continued. I reviewed pictures of myself while in McGrath and saw my face was swollen and remember the legs/knees were quite swollen as well. My body had already retained fluid in McGrath. I took greater risk because this was a race on the Iditarod Trail. An established trail did not pose a threat nor seem as dangerous to me, as a result I was not as careful to stay within my limits. I likely did not have the saddle time to excel in the length of this race. I tried to shove years of biking muscle memory into 1 year worth of training. I over-trained and the injuries began in its infancy well ahead of the race. My ITB, calf and achilles were as stretched as they ever would and tighter than a “well-diggers ass in the Klondike” as my friend Rollie would say. On the ocean in a kayak or ventures out in the country alone I am always in tune and know when to rest, when to stop before injury, when to eat. I have always fought the mental battles well before the physical, it was the opposite here.

We left the comfort of the McGrath house at 9am hoping there was an established trail out there. It was windy but fast the 18 miles to Takotna. It seemed like the pain in my leg and knee would basically go away once I rode for an hour but as soon as I stopped or got off the bike the transition killed me. From this point on I constantly had to lay the bike down in order to get off and on. Walking was only getting worse too, unable to bend the knee made me wobbly. It was strange to stand and literally my knee would not bend, it was as if someone took a winch and tightened my leg straight.

Most of the rivers after Rohn had stands of trees we went through, probably islands that had nice sized moguls and steep banks up and down onto the river ice. It was on one of these sections just a few miles past McGrath that my rear rack broke. I managed to suck my sleeping sack and gear up to the seat post and took off any loose metal. It would have to do. The others were ahead of me by about a 1/2 hr according to Carl who was still at the community center in Takotna. We called in our checkpoint and Carl left. I made a quick hamburger at the grill inside and also left. It was a steep 5 miles uphill heading toward Ophir 30 miles away but as long as I was riding my knees seemed ok. My mood brightened as the pain subsided. The snow covered mining road went fast for 10 miles than turned into a trail the following 20 miles. The wind drifted in some sections but mostly still ride-able. I noticed the wind had steadily picked up and the temperature dropped below zero towards evening. Around a bend there was a small cabin hidden in the trees with a light on, it must be the Ophir checkpoint. This was not an official ultrasport checkpoint, rather a privately owned cabin for Iditarod only. There was no electricity or phone service after Takotna. I knew this would be the last cabin I saw in a while so I stopped and knocked on the door. I asked if I could come inside and warm up before I delved into the most remote section on this trail. There were three men and the stove was very warm. They offered me some soup. I felt a little distant and did not want to be a burden to them. They said that the first two bikers stopped in about two hours before and the second two an hour ago. The owner of the cabin was a retired pilot and we actually knew a similar person indirectly (Alaska- the biggest small town). I dried some clothes, felt warm again and stuck around for 2 hours- they even gave me some candy bars which was like gold. I made the mistake of trying to be completely nutritious conscious this trip and left out foods with simple sugars. That meant eating only cliff bars, certain hammer gels, freeze-dried food, seal oil, etc… I’ve done it before and knew it would be disgusting but thought my diet is too important. Yuck, never again.

I thought about the upcoming roughly 190 mile section to Ruby. There wasn’t much trail information or anyone that has been through the area lately. Iron Dog came through about a month ago but it has been a heavy snow year with a number of inches covering that trail since. It was hard to leave the warmth of the cabin when I knew the next cabin may be days away. I was calculating time and miles in terms of riding not pushing and had no idea the pain that await me 12 hours from then, it was 7pm. My knees had locked up a little and the thermometer outside said -20. I said my goodbyes and left into the darkness.

I went a little over four-five hours of riding before I bivied. The wind was gusting and there was little protection even in the trees. I stomped the snow and put pine boughs on the ground then laid out my foam matt, sleeping bag and bivy sac. It was a tight fit with my 3/4 full 10 liter water bladder and wasn’t able to zip all the up or crawl down in the bag far enough to be snug. Luckily I had my seal skin hat and OR gloves as well as my puffy coat. I took a swig of seal oil before settling down. I fell asleep quickly but the wind blew snow on my face and I kept waking up. At 5 am it was time to get going but it was too hard to get out of the warm synthetic bag and if I moved a little the air space would fill with cold. I overslept and managed to get motivated at 7am. My knees were locked in one position all night and seemed to have a dull throbbing pain. Nothing different from previous nights except they were cold. I put my contacts on in the bag and then tried getting up only to fall over in the snow. My knees were locked and hurt incredibly. The pain was scream-able and I sort of rolled around in the snow frantically trying to get up. I kept falling over. Strangely, I thought if I were watching this scene in a movie it would be comical.

Once out of the sleeping bag I needed to get moving and grabbed my overboots to put on. Staying on my knees, foam pad underneath, I packed everything onto the bike. It took over two hours. The dexterity of my fingers were poor and I took the OR mittens off and on while packing. Each time I fumbled to cinch my straps the cold ate at my hands and then I put the OR mittens on to warm up. My hands were numb but not from the cold. The compressed nerves were taking its toll and I could barely tie my shoes. Eventually I got everything together and used the bike as a crutch to get up. I blocked the pain from my mind because I knew I needed to move and started gimping along. I couldn't think about riding the bike, the pain just took my breath away.

I walked a few miles able to get a little blood flowing. Even as I warmed the locked legs and pain did not let up this time. I tried to assess my situation. It was grim. The 50 mile ride I enjoyed yesterday took the damage in my legs a notch up. The trail was becoming a push with only four bike tracks leading the way. I had no reason to believe it would get better and I knew there may be nothing but a push the next 170 miles. Iditarod trail breakers were likely a week away. I was becoming emotional as my mental block broke through the shield of denial. I thought about my new baby girl Hahnah, my wife Sarah and started getting weepy. I broke down two or three times as it dawned on me that I may have to turn around. It was an absolutely awful decision. I made it, turned the bike around and started back to Ophir. I hobbled back, passed the north/south turnoff and eventually was back in Ophir 9 hrs later, it was late afternoon. The Ophir cabin turned into a checkpoint. It was buzzing with activity as the three men were getting ready for the Iditarod. They were a little surprised to see me back but I told them my knees were totally shot. I sat down inside and one of the men said he went to McGrath and back that morning by snow machine and saw another biker coming this way from Takotna. Not good, I didn't really want to see anyone. I sat brooding in the warm cabin and realized the last few miles into Ophir my knees didn't hurt as bad.

Dario, the Italian biker who picked up my stuff sack- what seemed a year ago- came in and seemed genuinely happy to see me. He hardly spoke English and said "We go Ruby?" I shook my head, "No, McGrath... my knees" pointed to my knees. He seemed not to understand and said again "We go Ruby", as a statement. I repeated myself and he looked worried. I could tell he really wanted company to Ruby. It was a long way to the next checkpoint, even our food drop was about 90 miles away. We sat down for a while and the men at Ophir ate a pig-rib dinner that smelled so good. It was agonizing. They offered for me to sleep in one the tents outside and then I could make the hard journey back to McGrath tomorrow. Dario was insisting I go to Ruby. I think he said he would go back to McGrath if I went back. I sat there and really wanted to go on, could I do it? Another thing that gnawed in my mind was my Jetboil stove. Could I trust it to boil water when I needed it? I asked Dario if he had a good stove. After some miming to get my point across he said “Yes, no problem.” I told him if we went together I might be slow and I may need to use his stove. He was enthusiastic, “no problem”. He said just tell him to slow down and the stove was no problem. We shook on it. It looked like I was going.

My knees were stiff but warm and the guys offered us the glorious leftovers which we scarfed down. I was stuffed and it felt great. Our plan was to go all night so I wouldn't have to bivy in the cold. We left at 8pm. We rode for 4 hours, passed where I slept the night before and then where I turned around. Another 5 miles the trees thinned out, it was a huge tract of land larger than The Burn wiped out by one of the great interior forest fires, I remember reading. It was a bare landscape and the wind blew hard. It was -30 according to Dario’s thermometer. Cold but I felt warm. At around 1 am Dario said he needed to sleep. I looked at him disbelieving. I told him I couldn't. He insisted. I conceded but I said we needed to find a sheltered place from the wind. We rode on and on until we found a small section of trees still standing and it looked like another racer had bivied here the night before. I made a fire from the dry timbers quickly and soon was able to make a bivy without being too cold. I slept soundly and woke at 6 am, late again. He got up quickly and looked scared and cold. He packed up hurriedly while I took longer b/c, as expected my knees were locked and I couldn’t maintain my balance in the snow. I had resigned myself to the pain and get to Ruby. Dario was cold and said he would go on ahead. I put on overboots and packed up. I started gimping and then rode, it was cold windy and overcast. Depressing. I caught up to him and when he saw me said "We turn around go back to Ophir.". I looked at him blankly and said “No way. I'm not.” It was already 30 miles past Ophir another 60 to our drop at cripple. To go back to Ophir, Takotna then McGrath would be a lot longer. At this point I simply couldn’t stop I had to keep going. We kept moving and he didn’t mention it again. We warmed up a little and just plodded along mostly pushing. I tried hard to ride as walking was more painful and so slow. The day dragged on and Dario stopped frequently to check his GPS and show me cripple was only 10 miles away. I told him the trail is not a straight line so the GPS is not accurate and that he had the wrong waypoint. He had the old cripple waypoint not the newer one which was another 25 miles further. After 12 hrs the trail was a slog, all pushing. We were close to the old cripple checkpoint wondering if there was a cabin around. I didn’t think so according to the Ophir guys and in fact I believe we passed that old checkpoint a long time ago. We kept moving till about 10pm and found other racers bivy. The leaders must have banded together since there were four stomped off areas. I made a fire and noticed I was out of water. I asked Dario if I could use his MSR stove but he didn't seem to understand and then he said tomorrow morning. I was not able to use my cup attachment to melt snow next to the fire because of the neoprene and fabric handle on it. I would just have to suffer through holding my canister stove. It was slow but worked. I had a freeze-dried package and ate it. It was good. I drank hot Gatorade and the fire felt good. I tried cutting more timber but my Leatherman was clumsy in my hands and fell in the snow. Sh&*#!. I couldn’t dig it out the snow was so deep and the branches from the tree made it impossible to dig down to find it. Sarah will kill me since it was her fancy Leatherman. I couldn’t think about it though. We slept and woke at 4am. Dario packed up real fast and left, I asked about water but he said he would meet me at cripple and make me hot chocolate and coffee... I was puzzled and then he was off. I don't know if it was miscommunication or that he was just too cold. Either way I was out of water. Each morning I packed up with greater and greater difficulty. Dario was gone. I struggled to plod on and for the next 2 hrs I was sort of hoping he may be waiting for me around each corner to melt water because I knew he was low too. No such luck. I warmed up pushing the bike, the sun rose and as I topped a knoll a clump of trees shielded the wind. I stopped and slowly made a ½ liter of water. I kept the isobutene cartridges in my pocket to keep them warm but within a minute the flame would get low. My hands were so cold after using the stove. I put the cartridge back in my bib pocket, quickly took my coat off and filled up the 10 L MSR dromedary bag with a ½ liter of water. This was a cold procedure and didn’t dawdle, it was a warmer day but still below zero.

I didn't see Dario that day, only tracks. I tried to ride a number of times only to crash hard off-trail in a poof of snow. At times I just wanted to lay there it was so comfortable and the effort to “swim” back to the trail was draining. It was a cruel slow pace. I couldn’t bear to see that the GPS read 2 mph walking. Slower than kayaking. I plodded along all day and eventually reached wolf kill slough, the cripple checkpoint around 7pm. As predicted there was nothing, just our drops on the trail. I walked across the slough and it started snowing hard. I made a fire, sorted my food and ate what I could. It certainly wasn’t a treasure of goodies except for the mash potatoes which I boiled water to eat. I gorged on some goo and packed the rest of my food. I felt rejuvenated and noticed the temperature had warmed up considerably as it snowed. I kept going and it was amazing how fast the snow piled up. At around 10pm I saw Dario sleeping in a bivy on the side of the trail. He didn't wake as I shined my light and I didn’t want to disturb him. It snowed non-stop but at least it was balmy at about 10 above, I stopped and made a bivy at 2 am. I didn’t even need pine boughs it was so warm. 22hrs. today.

At 4:40am Dario woke me up. He seemed shocked I was ahead and maybe even a little upset why I didn't stop where he was. I told him it was too early and I didn't want to wake him. I was able pack up quicker with the temps warmer and we left down the trail together. It wasn’t long before I fell behind and couldn't keep up with my knees and soon was pushing alone. Another long day with intermittent melting snow for water and the working the stove wasn’t as dramatic with the warmer weather. The day wore on and I was expecting to see the town of Poorman as a small ghost town or road but it turned into another burned out area of depressing black spruce. It continued to snow heavily and the remaining bike tracks were covered in no time. Slogging through the snow my ipod was out of battery life and I thought about my wife and baby and fantasized about eating hamburgers. Gradually I saw signs of manmade structures and found the start of an old road. It was exciting but still not able to ride well though I tried numerous times. Pushing and riding. Up and down hills till one hill kept going up. At the top the wind was howling and the snow was drifting knee deep in some places. Around midnight I saw Dario camp about 30 yards off the side of the trail in front of a decrepit cabin. I barely managed to navigate through the deep snow. He appeared happy to see me. He had some wood for a fire but wasn't able to get it started. I got it going for him and got more wood. He was shivering and grateful. He had a down bag that was getting more and more wet over the days. I don’t think he was expecting such remoteness and length of time sleeping outside. He asked me if I was continuing on to Nome when I got to Ruby. “Definitely.” I couldn’t imagine going through all this and not finishing, especially once I hit the Yukon River it would be a highway to my backyard. He said “I go home at Ruby”.

It was hard for me to recall exactly when my legs felt like blocks of wood, the pain was there but dull. It’s not clear if it was so chronic that my body adjusted or what. When I changed my smart wool socks I had to cut slits in my long underwear as my ankles and calves were swollen. It was getting easier for me to bivy and since I was constantly low on water the bag was roomier. We woke at 4:45am and packed up, the temps were still warm but the wind was strong. Dario was off and I hobbled down the trail. It turned a little better for riding but still mostly a push. The wind was howling through the trees and the drifts deep. After the ghost town of Long the road had snow machine tracks and I could ride. It went uphill for 10 miles, I couldn’t believe I was 30 miles from Ruby. I met Alan Titus on snow machine and he said the Italian up ahead didn't look so good and had begged him for water. Alan gave him a bottle of water which he had downed really fast. I never saw Dario use his stove so I wonder if he knew how or just thought he could go without. It seemed strange and wish I knew a little Italian to ask him. It was a struggle the rest of the way. The hills were immense and the snow started again, it was coming down so hard I could not see well. My mind was dizzy and I was barely able to focus. I actually thought about bivying but I was so close. The trail was gone replaced by 6 inches of snow and only by not falling in chest deep snow was I able to tell I was on a trail. My head was so tired. It was 11pm and I finally made the last push up to Ruby, a long 3 mile steep hill. I saw the airport lights and was ecstatic to ride down the other side into town through the runway and down to the school. There was a sign for me to knock. It was the most welcome thing I saw in a long time. I knocked and was let into the school by an attendant. She made me food and I called Sarah after five long days. I couldn't believe I was there. My legs were so numb and stiff. Half my hand from the index finger on was also without much feeling. Once I warmed up I realized I couldn’t get around easily at all. After an hour or so I checked in with Dan at HQ. It was over an 18 hr day. I was barely able to take my clothes off and take a shower…. and then realized my feet. Oh wow. It grew and grew. I sat down in the shower not able to move while I saw my calf, knee, ankle and foot were one piece of swollen flesh. I know I didn’t have frostbite as my toes were not cold and easily able to move. What the heck?!? I was so excited to be done with that section and was looking forward to 12 hr rest before hitting the Yukon. I thought it was all good from here on out and desperately wanted to continue to Galena but I wonder about how much I injured myself. It was 2 am but I made a collect call to Mike by friend who is a physician. I told him my symptoms of swelling and that I couldn’t even fit my oversized boots back on and that I had to cut my long johns off. Should I go to the clinic? Can I go on? He said “you’re done.” It was what I knew all along and probably what I should have done in McGrath and when I turned back to Ophir the first time. It was a big loss to stop but it was insane to have kept going injured as I was.

I assumed it was the hundreds of miles of constant pounding of injured knees, torn calf muscle and tight achilles that caused the swelling but I actually had retained water all over my body… about 10-15lbs worth. Pulmonary edema? Heart? Acute kidney failure? Or just pounding the hell out of my body for 10 days with very little sleep? I never did find out, it was assumed by my doctor that it was the kidney failure brought on by taking too much Ibuprofen. The kidneys can swell with IB and stop filtering fluid out of the body. I didn’t think it was this during the race b/c I was never peeing brown or dark protein but I was told that it is not always the case. In either case I flew back to Nome and started a terrible long rode to recovery. Dario had frostbite on his feet and also left for home.

I sweated out my retained water over a week, couldn’t help around the house, hold my baby or be productive. Sarah had to take care of two babies. I watched and cheered on in crutches as Pete B and Carl H made it into Nome 9 days later. I heard their tales of hardship, Pete won but almost scratched on the Yukon. Rocky and Jay scratched in Galena. They all had their own epics. After three months now my hands are almost back to normal and my knees are only slightly stiff. The orthopedic surgeon said my ITBs were severely inflamed but otherwise no structural damage. I am back to biking but now I put some extreme padding on the handlebars and use a seriously cushy seat.


Jill said…
Wow, Phil, that is quite the intense story. I love how you chose to try to bike to Nome because you considered it a toned-down adventure compared to earlier ones. I can't even imagine what those must have been like.

Thanks for taking the time to write it all out.