Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Unacceptable Consequences

Question: After I frostbit my toes at Arrowhead in 2007 how long did it take me to recover completely?

It seems that some interesting stuff happened at Arrowhead this year. It was a tough year and that brings out the best and worst in people. Actually, it's one of the reasons I go. I want to see myself at my best and at my worst. I want to learn what I am capable of and where my limits are. Sometimes those limits are physical, but more often they are mental. Failure to make good decisions is a case of pushing yourself beyond your mental limits.

First off I should point out that I don't know all of the parties involved in the issues at Arrowhead this year. I know a few of them. Nor was I there.  I believe that some people made mistakes and that they were just that, mistakes. It doesn't mean that they are bad people. I don't think that they are “lacking in character” or anything like that. At least they haven't given me any reason to think so. If they are like anyone else at Arrowhead then I am pretty sure that I like them. I have made some big mistakes at Arrowhead myself.  Those mistakes were my fault and I think that I have owned up to them. I hope that others can do the same. Maybe not today, but after some thought.

When we enter races like the Arrowhead, TransIowa, or Superior 100 we expect a little adventure. We expect to come out of them with some crazy stories to tell. That's one of the reasons we do it. In a sense we want to get ourselves in a pickle and then get ourselves out again. We love to hear stories about breaking a bone and still finishing a race. The thing is that there are acceptable consequences and unacceptable ones.

Some acceptable consequences are:
  • exhaustion
  • soreness
  • mild hallucinations
  • using snow as toilet paper
  • blisters
  • a few days of limping around
  • eating lots of junk food
  • wear & tear on equipment
  • bruises and scrapes
  • accidents
We think that these things are okay and we accept that they will happen. None of them (except accidents) are particularly dangerous and we happily indulge in them.

Some unacceptable consequences are:
  • frostbite
  • dehydration
  • bonking
  • sunburn
  • drinking your own (or someone else's) urine
  • heat exhaustion
  • giardia
These things are unacceptable, dangerous, and there is no good reason that anyone entering into any of these races should have to deal with them. As one friend of a friend put it: “De-hy-dration. You did that to yourself.”

In a shorter race, even a 100 mile gravel ride or 50k run, many of these worries simply don't come up. You can push yourself to the limit and vomit from the exertion. That's okay. It's acceptable in those races. You can cut corners (so to speak), skip aid stations, dump your water before the final sprint, all that good stuff. You take a calculated risk.

Endurance races, races that take more than say 8 hours or take place in extreme conditions are different. You don't know what will happen. You must know yourself well, know the conditions well, and know the course well. Corners simply can not safely be cut. You are taking a calculated risk just by entering the race.

Arrowhead is billed as one of the coldest races in the world. Some say it is one of the toughest. I can't speak to that. I haven't been to all the races in the world. What I do know is that -30f is no joke. Things happen fast at those temperatures. They go from bad to worse without much warning. The first thing to be is prepared. Have plenty of food. Plenty of water. Know that you can use all of your required gear, including your sleeping bag and stove.

Some people have said, “if you stop at those temperatures you will die.” That is simply not true. If you went through gear check you have all the tools necessary to survive at those temperatures. When I got too tired to see straight at Arrowhead in 2011 I pulled out my sleeping bag and pad and took a nap at -40f. I was comfortable and it felt great. The same thing goes for your stove. I have never had to melt water from snow during Arrowhead, but I have done it in practice down to about -10f. It takes a long time, it's true, and you should be in your sleeping bag if it is especially cold out, but it can be done. Being prepared means having the equipment, knowing how to use it, and just as importantly being willing to use it. I said earlier on that making mistakes is a case of beyond your mental limits. Being unwilling to use your gear is being beyond your mental limits too.

If you read the reasons that I didn't go to Arrowhead this year you know that one reason, perhaps the key reason, was that I didn't want to be in a hurry. It sounds silly: I didn't want to go to a race because I didn't want to be in a hurry. Isn't racing about being in a hurry? No. Endurance racing is the tortoise and the hare. It is festina lente.  It is making the right decisions. If you are in too much of a hurry to do things right then you have failed.

One of the things you must be willing to do is re-evaluate your situation. If you are too focused on winning, on beating someone else, or even on finishing then you will not be willing to re-evaluate. If I had gone this year I would have had a 48 hour time limit that I set for myself. That might have been very realistic for me to accomplish on skis in a good year, but cold snow makes for slow skis. I had to rethink what was likely.  The only skier to finish this year finished in 54 hours and change. I have no doubt that he is a good skier. I also have no doubt that he had to re-evaluate his expectations. In the end 60 hours probably felt like a realistic goal and anything faster was gravy.

Well, I've gone on for too long here. In brief what I want to say is: someone made a mistake and that mistake led to unacceptable consequences. Once he put himself in that position he had to get himself out and perhaps he did the right thing then, in the short run, but the situation was totally avoidable and should not be celebrated.

Oh, and the answer to the question I posed: I still haven't completely recovered, even after 7 years.   

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why I won't be at Arrowhead this year.

I have been going to Arrowhead every year since 2006. Since then I have finished four times, twice on bike, once on skis, and once on foot; DNF'd 4 times, 3 times on skis, and once on bike requiring a snowmachine rescue. Temperatures have ranged from +35f to -40f and trail conditions from a virtual highway to unbroken to bare earth or gravel in spots. I've seen pretty much everything and have nothing to prove.

This race has been a big deal to me and shaped my life entirely for the better (minus a couple of toenails). I am much more mature, capable, and happier than I was at the age of 27. I can't say that Arrowhead was solely responsible, but it taught me that I could do what I set out to do. It was the first thing I had started, struggled with, and completed. Prior to that I was easily discouraged and gave up at the first sign of trouble. I really didn't try very hard at anything. Nothing really seemed worth it or really mattered to me.

It's silly that a race without any tangible value could be the one thing that really mattered to me. Perhaps it is because it was my own goal; no one else had any interest in seeing me finish. One person actually told me that they would support me in anything I did except stupid things like the Arrowhead.

Biking the race told me that I could do it. I went in without any real training and finished. An accomplishment, but without meaning. Skiing though was what became my white whale. My first attempt in 2008 earned me the Myrtle the Turtle award for the last person to the halfway checkpoint. I dropped out there, but that award, just making it halfway was a real victory. The next year I resolved to actually train for the first time in my life. I made it halfway without trouble, but didn't have another 75 miles in me. 2009 with smarter training actually saw me at the finish on skis. It wasn't fast, but it was and is the greatest, most meaningful, accomplishment of my life. It sounds crazy, but it is; maybe my life is empty like that.

I say this because the Arrowhead is the reason that I am back in school. It is what showed me what work really is. It convinced me that I have what it takes to graduate. Of course plenty of people graduate without having to go through what I have. I don't know if it is simply easier for them or if they understood something that I didn't. Sometimes I think that the Arrowhead is a remedial perseverance class. Some of us just need to learn the hard way.

School is something that I failed at. I don't need to go back to get a job. I have one that I'm happy with. I'm not going for anyone else, even though my graduation will make some people very happy. Heck, I'm getting my degree in Philosophy, what more useless degree could I be getting. I am going back because it is something that I failed at and going back is a victory. Every day that I go to class, every assignment that I turn in is a victory. When I graduate it will be a victory. It will mean as much as the Arrowhead. It already does.

Aside from the personal victories everyone I know through the race is an inspiration to me. Everyone who toes the line and gives it their all, no matter how far they go, is someone I like and want to be around. Many of those people I only see once a year and I won't see them this year.

That is why my decision not to go this year is so tough. It is one of the three toughest decisions I have ever made. I feel sick making this decision, but I know that either way it went I would have felt sick. There just wasn't any perfect way out. Sometimes there isn't.

When I signed up for the Arrowhead last year I knew that it was going to be a stretch to do both it and school. I thought I would be able to miss three or four days of class without a problem. It turns out though that I have a lot of work to do. School is hard. I spend hours reading and writing every night in addition to going to class and working 30 hours per week. In particular, next week I have three short papers due, and an exam on Thursday. I was going to have to hurry the race along in order to get back in time for that exam. I know from hard experience that hurrying is not something you should do at -30f. That is the time for slow deliberate action. The race is 60 hours long and you have to be willing to take 60 hours. Hurrying is why I dropped out last year when I had a good shot at finishing. Hurrying is how I got serious frostbite and had to be rescued.

Skipping three days of class and doing a slap-dash job on a few papers and an exam won't cause me to fail classes. That isn't the point. The point is that I can either do both poorly or one well. If I could have done one well and one poorly I would have chosen that.

Well, that's a lot to try and say in one blog post, especially a long overdue blog post. I will miss all of you up in International Falls, at Melgeorges, SkiPulk, and Fortune Bay. Some of you I will see at Trans Iowa, some in Duluth later this year, some maybe not until next January, or not at all. I will miss the trees, hills, flat swamps, and the cold. The Arrowhead chapter of my life is not closed, but will have to wait another year.