It's 32 hours into the 2010 Iditarod Invitational, and the race leaders have been established — to no one's surprise, Jeff Oatley, Pete Basinger and Jay Petervary hold the top spots. Most reports point to somewhat difficult trail conditions this year, including fresh snow, warm temperatures (which make the trail surface slushy and soft), and somewhat hard-to-picture "holes," which I imagine are either sinkholes or trenches down the center of the trail.
It's interesting to me because the three leaders are turning in checkpoint times very similar to my first three check-ins in 2008 (which, again, point to the significantly increased level of difficulty on the trail this year compared to two years ago.) But the leaders were into Yentna Station at mile 60 around 10 p.m. Sunday, into Swentna at mile 90 around 3 a.m. Monday, and into Fingerlake, mile 130, at 4 p.m. Monday — my 2008 pace up to that point almost verbatim.
This fact is fun for me because I can mine my memory to conjure up images of approximately where they are right now, and it helps me feel like I am there again. I imagine climbing into the foothills of the Alaska Range just as dusk begins to cast its long, cold shadow over the open swamps. The trail is narrow and steep, wending tightly through the woods and sometimes dropping off veritable cliffs into the Happy River Gorge. Headlamps cast a warm, yellow light on the trail, revealing a stream of snowmobile tread, Endomorph tire tracks and the occasional, unique imprints of fellow racers' boots. As the miles plod onward, these tracks begin to tell elaborate stories of movement and struggle, triumph and pain. They become as interesting as movies, maybe because there's nothing else to watch, and the headlamp beam flickers like a film projector, a soft reflection of humanity against a bewildering expanse of darkness.
But this is just what I think about, when I think about 10 p.m. Monday night in the Happy River Gorge. The reality of the race leaders is they are probably thinking about sleep, and about warm food, and constantly looking over their shoulders, watching for the soft, warm headlamp glow that signals the approach of their closest competitor. Anxious competitiveness, rather than peaceful loneliness, is probably what drives those leading the race right now.
The good thing — perhaps the only good thing — about my current position in a cubical 700 miles away in Juneau, where driving rain and wind pounds the window, and where I am perched next to a space heater with a lukewarm water bottle and a fresh orange, is that I can imagine myself wherever I'd like to be.