Greetings From Alaska
By the time you read this, I’ll have made the turn at Rohn in this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational, and will be on my way back towards the finish at Big Lake. (Don’t worry, I’m not live blogging as I go—I’m a little busy—but I queued this up before I set out.) If you’re following along, I promise to get a full race report out once I’m back safe and warm and have had a chance to recover. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a few of the things that are helping me out on the trail this year.
One of the big things this race has taught me is that I’m never going to stop learning. It's exciting, even if a little scary, to be a newbie, to be a rookie at something. Three of the biggest challenges I have had to overcome in this event have been dealing with the weight of a fully loaded fat bike, enduring the cold of an Alaskan winter, and keeping myself fueled.
Unloaded, my bike weighs 20 to 25 pounds. With all my gear and food on it, it’s probably 50 to 55 pounds. I have to push the same amount of gear as anyone else. My stove weighs the same as one carried by somebody who's a larger physique. Last year, my husband, Greg, and I probably pushed our bikes 150 miles out of 350 because the snow was so deep. It was unrideable. Smaller people still have got to push just as much weight, and that makes it harder.
To deal with that, I've been implementing more strength training. I did a lot of snow shoveling this year, which I think is a really good core workout. And I also did a lot of really low cadence intervals, like 60 RPM, pushing in this huge gear, and then I'd get off, do a bunch of push ups and burpees, and then get right back on the bike. My coach, Tim Cusick, and my friend Kelly Starrett from The Ready State have designed these little strength programs that are built into my rides. It’s the same on the weekends, I'd just be out in the snow riding and I’d drop down and do pushups and burpees along the trail. (Though I probably won’t be doing that out in Alaska!)
On Rainy Pass last year, we faced minus 40 degree temperatures and 50 mile-per-hour winds. It can get really cold on the trail. To acclimate myself a little bit to the cold stress I’m going to face, I’ve been doing cold-water shower training. At the end of a shower, I switch the water to fully cold for 30 seconds. And then I build up a few more seconds, then a few more seconds. It's a Wim Hof method, and he's done all these really cold expeditions, setting world records for swimming under ice and running barefoot through snow.
I didn't do it every day, because it's kind of horrible, but it has helped me get ready both physiologically and psychologically. There is the mental aspect of learning to breathe. OK, it's not that cold. I can stay here for 30 seconds. You practice the mental and emotional skills of calming your heart rate in a stressful situation, trying to settle down.
The extreme cold also makes the task of eating and drinking really difficult. My first year, I just wasn't able to eat. Things were frozen, or they weren't palatable, or they didn't taste good in the cold. And the sheer logistics of pulling down your facemask, unwrapping food, finding it's frozen and you can't bite into it made eating become this chore. I was running on fumes by the last day because I just couldn't eat. And I didn't want to eat even though I knew that was really dangerous.
For year two, I experimented with making a lot of my own food. My nutritionist friend Lentine Alexis made me a little recipe for trail cookies. Really it's a mix of nuts, dried fruits and dates, and I make it into tiny little balls. (See recipe HERE) They're palatable and I can eat them. Those work really well, and I’ve also made some little date mango balls.
Tim had me practicing eating during my training in Idaho. Eating 400 calories an hour, which is tough. Just forcing myself to eat, making myself unwrap everything, learning what works and what doesn’t. And I made everything into really small sized pieces so that I didn’t have to bite anything. And I would make up food at home, put it in the freezer for a day, and then try to eat it frozen.
One of the things that did work was warm GU Roctane (both the energy drink and recovery drink versions). I was always able to drink the warm fluid. A thermos is an essential piece of equipment in the Alaskan wilderness.
You also need to be disciplined. You have to stop and eat. As a biker, you never want to stop. But with all the gear and all the pogies you can’t really eat while you're moving. You just have to swallow your pride and stop every 30 minutes. It is hard, because you're moving five miles an hour, three miles an hour. But it's very much part of survival on the Iditarod. In 2020, on Rainy Pass, Greg and I didn’t eat or drink anything for 12 hours. We just had to keep moving forward. If I hadn't been taking care of myself religiously in the early parts of the race, I wouldn't have had that reserve.
I will be back soon to let you know how this year went, but in the meantime, stay warm and don’t forget to eat!