I had my birthday early this month and, for the first time in 30+ years, noticed that my birthdate has an intelligible homophone: March Forth. While a simple statement, the phrase has a wide range of applications, and feels particularly potent for me right now. I expressed my surprise on Facebook that I had failed to notice “March 4th” sounds like anything other than a date, and a cousin mentioned that perhaps I haven’t been ready for it until now. That seems like a legitimate explanation.
The following Saturday, I was able to put the phrase into practice. Two months ago, I registered for the Snow Canoe Loop 11-Miler in Willow. At the time, I was only running one non-stop mile at a time, but thought I had plenty of training days to work up to 10-12 miles. My longest run before the race ended up being 6. If this had been a road race, I probably would have backed out, but a few factors made it seem like the run would be doable, despite my lack of preparation. The course is by default broken up into small sections. During the summer, the course is a trail that links up a series of small lakes. The idea is to alternate carrying and paddling a canoe through the loop. This time of year, the lakes are frozen, so the entire trip is done on foot. The topography creates a nice mix of flat open trail across the lakes, and gently rolling terrain in between. I planned to keep a nice, sustainable run across each lake, no more than a mile at a time, then hike the portages. Since I’ve been hiking through the snow with a baby up to five miles, I thought a 1/2 run, 1/2 hike with only my body weight sounded altogether reasonable. Overall, all I needed to do was March Forth, and eventually I’d reach the finish.
The morning started out cold. The start time wasn’t until 10am, but by 9:30, the temp was still only 0* F. I was glad I brought my INKnBURN Tech Tube. At that temperature, the air was piercing to breathe, but adjusting the Tech Tube so I was breathing through it warmed the air just enough to be comfortable.
In most races, I use an app on my iPhone to track my pace and mileage. In this race, my biggest concern was keeping the battery from freezing. I stopped by REI a few days ahead of time to look for carriers, and found a waist pack. I would feel absolutely ridiculous wearing it in a way that could be seen by anyone, but being able to keep my phone under all of my layers seemed like my best bet at having a functional phone if I needed it. The carrier really limited my accessibility, so I just pushed “Start” on my running app at the beginning of the race, and forgot about it, though I did miss the nice lady who lives in my phone and announces each mile marker.
In the early part of the race, I settled in to a pace that felt like I was covering a decent amount of ground without being overly ambitious. There had been some recent snowfall, but the trail had been traversed by several snow machines, making the surface packed but soft. The sun was shining, the snow was fresh, and the air was crisp; overall, it was a beautiful day to be out.
I was surprised with how good I felt. The small turnout of 22 runners spread out quickly, and I was satisfied with the spot I assumed in the queue: towards the back of the middle, but not last. Though the snowy surface created some slow going, it was still easy to at least remain at a consistent pace. As the miles added up, I continued to feel great and even started catching up with and passing other runners.
Tramping down the trail, it didn’t take me long to recognize my first rookie-Alaskan mistake. The sip of water I had taken earlier from my hydration pack had filled the tube with water, which promptly froze solid. Too late I remembered reading a tip about blowing air into the straw to force all the water back into the pack. I considered stopping to dump the rest of the water instead of having it slosh pointlessly behind me for the following couple of hours, but figured in a life or death situation I could drink straight from the bladder.
After a few miles, I had acquired a follower. He was pretty close behind me, but being so bundled up, chit-chat was semi-impossible. All I could knew was that it was a guy, so for the following miles, I ran the possible scenarios through my head.
“He wants to pass, but I’m blocking the way.”
“I should step off the trail so he can get around.”
“I’m walking up this hill; he hates me.”
I finally decided that self-conscious paranoia was really a waste of my time and energy, so I settled on, “He approves of my pace, and has decided to match it.”
With the frequent alternations between wide, flat, open lakes, and quiet, wooded hills, the miles passed quickly. At each lake crossing, the temperature would shoot up. Running completely exposed in the sun, I would start considering stopping to pull off a layer. Maintaining forward movement paid off each time. It was back into the trees and shade, and the air temp would lose about 20 degrees.
Without my phone handy, I tried to estimate about where I was. Just as I was thinking I had to have gone at least 4 miles, I saw someone standing in the distance. Four miles was a major underestimate. The person was manning the race’s one aid station at mile 6.5. At the aid station, I stopped for some water and was introduced to Jay, my follower. He confirmed my final conclusion. He’d started out with a group that was too fast, but my pace was just perfect. With just 4.5 miles left, we started back out on the trail.
I’d been trying to count lake crossings. I knew there would be 16 total, and I thought I’d done 9 already. The countdown was on. Several lakes later, and I wasn’t sure if there were 2 or 3 left, but I knew my legs were about done. All the sun was making the snow soft, and the lateral sliding was taking its toll. The loop part of the course had come full circle, and I was heading back along the beginning of the course, though each section now seemed much longer than on the way out.
I lost Jay at some point and found myself alone in the trees. I wasn’t sure if the next lake was the final crossing, or the second to last. I decided to plan on expecting two more. That way, I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I might even be pleasantly surprised. This particular portage ended up being the hardest. It wasn’t hilly, but was a long stretch of small rollers. They would have been fun on a snowmachine, but were a mild form of torture on spent legs. I resorted to hiking as fast as possible, which was a welcome reprieve. The section was certainly runnable, but as long as I continued to March Forth, I felt no guilt.
The trees opened up, and I picked up my pace across the lake. On the far side, the trail went straight up, or so it seemed. I went back to my fast hike, not sure of what lay in wait for me over the hill. To my delight, cresting the hill brought me not another lake, but the downhill road that led right to the finish line. During my final trudge up the hill, Jay had caught up, and brought encouraging words.
“You pulled me most of the way, so you have to finish first!”
That was enough to put the spark back in my step. In an attempt to sprint to the finish, I discovered my legs were essentially numb. It was a welcome feeling. I crossed the line to my waiting family, which was the most welcome feeling of all.
Other than my frozen pack, my race plans all worked out. I even had a fully functioning phone that managed to record the whole race. Admittedly under-trained, I not only finished, but had a great race on a beautiful day in an awesome place, and even ended up as the 4th female. With such success, I’m ready to live March Forth every day of the year.