Several times this holiday season I have been asked the ‘why’ question. “1,000 miles? in Alaska? In winter? Really? How? Why?…”
For me, a solo unsupported trek across Alaska includes several highly desirable components:
– It’s about running and about endurance. Endurance has motivated me since watching a 24-hour motorcycle race in the urban circuit of Barcelona when I was a kid. Two pilots in each team drove one machine non-stop, at great speeds, in tight zig-zagging turns. Spectators were right next to the action, and I could feel the heat of the overexerted engines. I could feel the exhaustion when a Kawasaki and its pilot went down coming out of a curve and sliding for a hundred feet before stopping, fortunately unharmed. I didn’t know what to do about endurance then; I entered a 24-hour cycling race in college and exited prematurely with shortest-delay, most severe DOMS. The motivation never went away and a few years ago, in the highly contagious Boulder running environment, I rediscovered endurance in ultrarunning. I have learned about training, running form, nutrition, and other basic building blocks of endurance, and after 50 milers, 100 milers, and a 300 miler, time now for a rarely-completed 1000 miler.
– It’s about remoteness and extreme conditions with limited resources. The Apollo program accounts have been the central guiding lore in my life. I literally worked with the space program; and later helped companies look for new spaces to grow. In Alaska, my body and many fabric layers will be my spacecraft. Uninhabited open spaces and mountain ranges will be my Moon.
– I meet other people with a different worldview and experience of life. Moving to the US provided abundant culture shock, and each project I get involved with is a new opportunity to learn from a different culture. The most special people are the ones that bridge cultures and can hold a door for you: Billy Arnaquq, an Inuit elder in Baffin Island who shared the values of those who live in the Arctic and the tensions the “southern” ways of life bring, or, on our “southern” side, Eric Larsen, master of cold.
– Long-distance, self-supported cold treks combine many disciplines: navigation, nutrition, first aid, communications, energy and cold management. I love to be a generalist. I first learned this when reading “Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne, where engineer Cyrus Smith brings the entirety of western 19th century knowledge to help a small group of shipwrecked friends triumph over their dire circumstances. I delight in being resourceful in unpredictable and highly variable situations.
– And, most importantly, it’s about learning: developing new skills fast and applying them to achieve new results. I remember the first time I flew a tiny airplane solo after my flight instructor stepped off (on the ground!). Now in a suddenly cavernous and empty cockpit, my skills barely matched the challenge. For the first time I was fully and uniquely in control. Feedback about the effect of my actions was quick and clear. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It was a perfect state of flow. In Alaska, learning is plentiful. I look forward to applying and further develop all the skills I have been amassing.
All of this is coming together in a path I continue to explore… do I know how it ends? No. At its core, this is a creative job, a work of art. I admire the way the Navajo might say it: I want to do it because, to me, it’s a beautiful thing to do in a beautiful place.