To Build a Fire – Part 3

The temperature drops quickly in northern Minnesota once the sun sets. Overnight it was to dip into the minus twenties again but it was probably only minus 10 or so at this point. I stopped to get my headlamp out of my Camelback and was shocked at how quickly I began to shiver when I removed my jacket. My body had begun to feel the toll of riding in the subzero temperatures and I sipped as much water as I could to avoid dehydration. I noticed a few drips from the leaky bite valve of the drink tube and fiddled with it a bit to try and stem the flow. I zipped my jacket back up and rode as hard as I dared 55 miles into a 135 mile race. If you’ve ever done a long one like this you know the drill: Pace, pace, pace.

I’m still not sure how this happened again: A few miles later as I followed the beam of my headlamp down the trail, I can only imagine that the few drips that had formed on the bite valve froze solid to my jacket. I imagine that I twisted my body (probably to look at the sky or something stupid) and the damn valve came completely off the end of the tube. Water poured all over me again, except this time it was dark and I was depleted. I jumped off the bike in a repeat performance of what I had done hours ago. This time it was much, much worse.

Water ran down my pants and all over the front of my jacket AGAIN!! My curse vocabulary earned in 42 years of stupidity spewed forth with the water, ranging from base childhood emotions to esoteric middle-aged epithets and back again. I swore beyond my years into old age as the water formed in pools that froze almost instantly on the inside of my jacket. I tried to get the jacket open but couldn’t get it done with the bulky mittens I was wearing so I took them off momentarily. The zipper was already frozen. 

My hands were doused in water as the hose sprayed until the bladder was almost empty. I couldn’t get the damn thing to stop as I had so much crap packed into the camelback for this race that it created positive pressure in the bladder – probably one of the reasons why it kept leaking in the first place. If I was a dog I would have shaken myself I was so drenched. I had gone from bliss to panic in a matter of minutes. Worse yet, my hands were completely numb.

The only thing to do was to get moving as fast as possible to start generating some heat in my shivering body. I knew that there was a cabin at the halfway point. Though I had originally wanted to keep riding through the night, now my only goal was to make the cabin and reassess things. I did not want to have to sleep beside the trail, especially with soaked clothing. Even though I had a spare layer in my gear, I was having serious trouble doing anything with my hands as they were so numb. I never considered that I would lose the use of my hands in this manner. I thought back to the blackened, blistered frostbitten toes I had seen at the first checkpoint and became a little afraid for the first time. I burped chili and almost gagged.

I entered into an area of steep rolling hills and ran up the front side of each to create some heat in my body. However, on the backside of each roller was an equally steep descent and the windchill was brutal at 25 mph. My face began to freeze no matter what I did to cover it as the blood receded from my extremities in the first stages of hypothermia. I only had a thin layer on beneath my shell so the ice was basically right up against my body and I was being refrigerated in my own synthetic skin. Try as I might I could not thaw my hands. At one point I tried to use a chemical warmer but couldn’t get the package open with my frozen hands. I was a Jack London character come to life without a catchy nickname and longed for a novelist to stop by and crown me with one.  For the first time The Cremation of Sam McGee made sense to me.

The final two hours before the halfway point are a blur in my memory. I do recall an almost full moon rising over one of the frozen lakes that made me think of friends and family who were following my progress at home. I was not alone when I thought of them yet I saw no other racers the entire time. I hadn’t eaten much in five hours so I started to walk more as my energy drained. I had given up trying to warm my hands and just concentrated on getting to the cabin where I fully intended to quit and find a ride back to the start. This was not fun any longer and I’m sure any of the resident wolves watching my progress on the trail smelled defeat (and a possible meal).

The final approach to the cabin tracked across a large frozen lake. One light from the cabin shone in the distance as I crossed the featureless plain of the lake for what seemed like hours. I know that the surface of a frozen lake is dead flat, but I climbed an alpine pass in my brain – my personal Col du Stupidity. Mercifully it ended.

Leaning against the snowbanks outside the cabin were about 15 snowbikes all with their blinky lights ablaze. They flashed excitedly to one another in a language only fatbikes understand. I left my bike with the others to swap some stories and make some friends and ran to the door of the cabin…

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