Pushing Back at Alaska

“I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. I felt a breath of melancholy – Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped and leaned against the railing, deathly tired – Looking out across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and town. My friends walked on – I stood there, trembling with fear. And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature.” – Edvard Munch, speaking of his inspiration for his iconic paining “The Scream”

Back in February of 2012 I headed out into the Alaskan wilderness during my first Iditarod Trail Invitational.  A few hours into the race heavy snow began to fall and darkness quickly descended upon the trail.  Somewhere out in the wide-open expanse of frozen swamps barely 20 miles into the race I found myself completely alone near Flat Horn Lake.  No trees poked above the snow to help guide me. The wind was howling so hard and the snow was falling so quickly that I completely lost the track of the riders who were pushing ahead of me, not even their tracks remained.  The trail had disappeared into the swirling snows of night. I was alone.

I pushed my bike and struggled to find the welcoming face of the next glowing orange reflective trail marker in the beam of my headlamp.  Not having any way to gauge the trail I mistakenly wandered off into the deep unconsolidated snow beside the established route and quickly sank up to my hips.  I had heard of the possibility of overflow in this area and was hoping my feet were not becoming drenched in water as I struggled like a fly trapped in a soda.  A twinge of panic rose from deep within my core as I searched for the end of the tunnel of snow flowing sideways across the beam of my headlamp.

Right then it hit me: what exactly was I doing out here venturing into the darkness of Alaska with such bad weather descending upon me?  Doubt began to settle in like the drifts and from nowhere “that great infinite scream” passed right through me and echoed into the night.

Eventually I found the trail and bivied with a few other riders where we hoped to get going in the morning when the snow stopped falling.  Although the snow briefly stopped during the night, by daybreak it had started again and 2-3 ft drifts covered the entire trail.  Not being tough enough mentally to carry on and push my bike for hundreds of miles (not to mention not having brought along enough food to last for such a slow pace or wanting to pay for a flight out further along the trail) I turned around and pushed my bike through the deep snow back toward Knik.  My race was over.  Didn’t even make it to Yentna.

Two weeks from now I’ll be back in Alaska again, this time to race in the resurrection of the classic 200 mile Iditasport race.  I’m looking forward to it immensely, not because I’m a great racer and plan on winning the thing of course, but because I enjoy pushing myself.  I enjoy discovering my personal limits and seeing what I’m capable of accomplishing.  Even as I watch my physical prowess ebb with the receding tide of age that swirls around me in my mid 40’s, there’s always something to improve upon.  Though I occasionally recognize that pushing is futile (as I did during the 2012 ITI), I refuse to stop pushing back.

Life throws curves at you.  You may lose your job, have a relationship go sour or worse yet someone close to you may pass away.  I could go on for days typing out my fears, both real and imagined, but though these things suck they are only circumstances that you may not have any real control over.  It’s what you do next that matters.  Do you sit back and feel sorry for yourself and never put yourself out on that edge again?  I think not. If the company you work for folds and you lose your job due to circumstances beyond your control do you just sit back and do nothing?  Hell no, you fight on.  Life is what happens to you while you’re busy working out the details, and the opportunities you miss out on while you’re sitting around wondering what to do next may never present themselves again.

I’m extremely excited to have the opportunity to head back to Alaska and head out on the Iditarod Trail again. Don’t take this the wrong way Alaska, but I’m pushing back.

“Only that deepest, slow and extended pain that burns inside of us as firewood forces us to go down into our depths… I doubt that such a pain could ever make us feel better, but I know that it makes us deeper beings, it makes us ask more rigorous and deeper questions to ourselves….” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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2 Responses to Pushing Back at Alaska

  1. beingmalcolm says:

    Tom – that’s a great piece of writing. All the best for you In Alaska.

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