Training for a 1000 miler: mystery and romance

Some of you know this already: all these pictures of sleds and snow are part of a bigger plan. World domination? Maybe later. First, a more modest target: a 1000-mile Alaska traverse, from Anchorage to Nome, starting February 19.

Few places speak to the frontier, the edge, as Alaska does, full of romance and mystery. In 1925, twenty dog teams and their mushers carried diphtheria vaccines 1000 miles through the cruelest winter to save the town of Nome. Since then, fourteen people have successfully raced the 1000-mile Iditarod Trail on foot. On the trail, romance turns to challenge and mystery. The trail shifts every year. Ice bridges over rivers break. Overflow hidden by snow creates cold water traps. Extreme winds turn sleds into flying weathervanes. Low temperatures crack Gore-Tex layers and metal zippers, and turn non-fatty foods into molar-cracking rocks. When the race starts, the noon Sun barely reaches 16 degrees above the horizon. Extraction requires good weather, a willing bush pilot, and a suitable landing zone. At the finish line, in Nome, you can almost see Russia across the Bering Strait!

A marathon is rote (but fun!) and even 100 milers now have training plans. A 1000-mile trek through Alaska at the peak of winter: Google that! Physical training started in September. And there is a lot more than physical training involved in a 20- to 30-day endeavor. Weather. Terrain. Equipment. Clothes. Procedures. Food. First aid. Repair kits. Safety. Mental. And more physical. How to allocate time to all of these competing priorities? What is the priority? I am a part-time adventurer explorer, and the choices are very real. Whatever I choose, I know I will find something wanting during the actual race, and I will have to deal with it.

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Training is a major challenge, just like the race. Training is where I stress my body and mind to grow into the race. If I do my job right, the race will be a non sequitur. Longest run while training for a 100-miler may be a back-to-back: 35 miles followed by 25 miles the following day; or three marathons in three days. Do your hills, your speed work, your recovery runs. Periodize and repeat. But for the 1000 miler? Do I run 250 miles one week and 350 the next? I don’t think so. I started with miles – 200 in September, 300 in October, 400 in November – peppered with strength training and tire pulling.

Now I’m convinced time on my feet matters. Plugging along with my sled for hours and hours feels bound to deliver more benefits now than more and more miles. Perhaps the injuries I am dealing with are their own test. I had my strained left hamstring dry-needled on Thursday and I stretch it a few times a day. I need that hamstring to be in tip top shape to make my hard workouts hard enough. And to enjoy them. If I must start the race with a strained hamstring, it complicates race management and requires additional mind games. How might I need to prepare to compensate? Will I discover new tricks as I did at a race when a pebble in my glove distracted me from an aching knee?

Challenge, mystery, but still and always romance. This week-end, Wendy and I enjoyed winter wonderlands near the Continental Divide and Rollinsville with our sleds and Mr. Scout, Explorer Extraordinaire. It was unusually warm – not far from that wet moment when snow melts – a good training opportunity as it might well rain at times along the Iditarod trail even in the depths of winter. It was a great excuse to sport running shorts and pretend I was right out of the cool crowd at A-Basin in July.

There is magic in every moment and place. Peace was the magic during this week-end. Large loads and steep grades made it easy to fall into a contemplative mood. A gray fog with fluffy snow flakes quietly landing everywhere softened all colors in the diffuse light of a soupy cloud cover that muffled all sound. At times I saw ourselves in perfect Christmas cards, with dog and a nostalgia-inducing WWII three-axle truck with a snow plow.

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The snow cover frequently changed, from deep snow drifts to barren rock scoured by the winds, giving our sleds a variety of resistances and our legs a wide range of regimes from large hip flexor leg lifts to powerful hamstring pushes. We passed dilapidated structures, silent messengers of a mining past now asleep. We enjoyed our own private paradise of unending roads and trails. On the return 2500ft descent, we sat on our sleds and raced like little kids, free to play outside and no one to call us in. Six hours outside with lots of climbs and descents, snow depths and wind gusts, and increasing snowfall, added up to a great training day.

Every time I train well, I feel fitter and stronger. This was the case today. It brought me back to the big questions: what are the best breathable bivies in -50C temperatures? Do I want kevlar or UHMW for my sled? Ropes or poles? Can I get my MSR pump modified for cold weather? Is my -40 bag good enough? Do I really want to take 20lb of photo equipment with me? With so little Sun, how will I keep my electronics alive? What about my hamstring?

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