During Iditarod, I felt fit as a fiddle. Or, mostly. My hands were super messed up. I couldn’t use zippers or do small tasks. As I mention in one of the recordings I made along the way, I could, at least, bootie dogs, which was a major blessing. But, as I also said in both the recordings and in one of the Iditarod Insider videos, the hand thing was all that held me back from wanting to keep going and going.
After Iditarod– hours after– things started to hurt. That’s kind of part of the way it works with events maybe. Like, you are so focused on in the moment that you can put aside your pain or the little lights that are going off in your body saying, “Cap’n, we have an issue!” You might not even realize you’re doing that, turning off the indicator lights. I didn’t realize. But as soon as the ole machine took a slight rest, the indicator lights, and all the problems they were pointing to, came back on.
I feel very foolish describing my own health and injuries. I consistently feel I’m probably “making them up.” I’m not really sure why that is. Maybe from a lot of medical visits and situations where I was told as much, about other things, big and small. Maybe it’s just what western / US society conditions us to believe. I don’t know. There’s some kind of cognitive dissonance, and whatever it is, at some point I subscribed to what the exterior world was saying. At some mythical past point, I didn’t just feel foolish about health things, I became convinced what I was feeling in my own body wasn’t real. When you do that, reality gets really really… Confusing. It takes time and confidence to sit in your own body and understand that the indicator lights are indicating something.
Anyway, metaphors aside, right after Iditarod, I lost feeling in both arms and my right foot was so painful I could hardly walk. All of that was so glaring that I couldn’t ignore or deny it. I don’t understand, actually, how I completed Iditarod, but I guess the brain is a powerful thing. (A horrible contemplation, because, if my brain could manage all of that once, why can’t I turn the indicator lights and problems off again? Mind over matter, right??) When we got back to the kennel with the dogs, I couldn’t unload them from the truck. I limped to their spots in the yard and let gently helped them home. The dogs, having run almost 900 miles in 10 days, romped around the yard with enviable lack of effort. They are joy and running: that is them. Humans struggle to come close.
Not being able to ignore the obvious at this point, I made appointments. Medical appointments suck. The medical system here sucks. The hoops you have to jump through– it’s anathema to my ADHD brain. But I did what I could, and I got appointments and had evaluations and x-rays (turns out insurance doesn’t cover diagnostics! WTF), of my foot and my back and my neck… And meanwhile, other random health stuff was cropping up. I’m not getting younger! And, mushing for 20+ years takes a toll. And, eating like a college student for… 35+ years… also not great probably. And, you know, stuff just happens. It’s tough to be a mortal! I don’t need to go into great detail, but I’ve got some stuff going on with a few so-called “essential” organs that probably has to be addressed. I maintain that I’m ready to become an android ANY TIME. Seriously, computerize me.
I took a lot of the summer to tackle this stuff, with the goal of Iditarod ’22 at the forefront of every choice I made. Even though, in the balance between incurring medical bills and buying things for the dogs, I’d prefer the dogs any day of the week. I kept in mind that as the water boy and also the team doctor / feeder / houser / etc, I have to be some level of functional to keep the dogs healthy and safe.
I had promised myself a “break” after Iditarod, where I’d binge watch Netflix and eat whatever I wanted and sleep. My injuries meant I was pretty much restricted to bed for a couple weeks. There was a big difference between WANTING to sit around and watch shows and kind of being stuck there. After being with my dogs 24/7 for ten days, and close to that in the months before, the sudden forced isolation from them was jarring. It was a relief to not have to fight the pain to care for them– But it was a new pain to not get to.
I started the process of “recovering” as best I could. I don’t remember that time well, now. Lots of advice and assignments. Lots of soft tissue work on my back. Learning that another joy of insurance is that they won’t allow simultaneous treatment of different things, at least not by the same provider. So even though my foot needed to be looked at by the same doctors looking at my back (mainly sports docs), I had to choose what would come first. Some misdiagnoses, and advice that I should just “wait til the numbness went away”– enforcement of my impression that I was being wimpy or making things up. I was lucky to have the ability to look for a second opinion on that, and was able to pursue it better. Our med system is not “the best in the world” y’all. Maybe it is if you are rich. I’m not sure. It’s got big problems. Anyway, I digress.
I finally got my foot looked at and then got to see an ultrasound of an injection into a majorly inflamed nerve before my very eyes. Not gonna lie, that was super cool. It also relieved the pain in my foot immensely.
As I juggled all of those things, I dove back into stuff at the kennel. The list of Things To Do literally filled a notebook. I went through that list once with Shawn, and they kept saying, “Wait there’s MORE?” There’s always more.
We started ATAO in 2017 and the years have flown by. I’ve made big improvements, but we are very much still building. There are still big infrastructure things that are being slowly manifested. It is expensive and takes a lot of time and some major learning curves. In the summer, a musher works alone, often, since those handlers have to actually make money at some point in their lives. I cared for dogs and worked on projects. So many projects. Iditarod had taught me about a million things I wanted to tweak, adjust, build, work on. Somehow the months sifted away, with a lot done, and so much more to do. I was really happy, chipping away at my projects. Happy, but also never-stopping. Aside from my forced month of sitting in the GD bed, I didn’t have a break. With COVID seeming less intense, folks asked us to adventure and hang out and do things. With rare exceptions, I only did “work parties.” That’s when someone comes over here and chats to me while I’m doing scat, or they pitch in too. There was no time for not moving. I was either working at my day job, to make up for the months of time I took off work to train and race, or I was troubleshooting house things that is just par for the course with owning Alaska property, or I was working on my million projects. Luckily, the dogs are great at work projects. They free play while I build things. It’s a good arrangement– I’d venture to say, it’s the dream. Through all this time, I did mend. I kept up with massage, especially, in effort to keep my body in some kind of order. I did exercises and I tried to eat better. (I took literal months of cereal and if that’s not sacrifice, I don’t know what is.) I seemed and felt better. I was excited and confident.
And then like that, it was fall.
Mushing takes time. A lot of time. My days were already long and my sleep short. Adding hours of mushing into the equation equaled out to– something that didn’t compute. When our first snow flew (early this year), it was incredibly clear there was no way to accomplish the projects I needed to do before Iditarod and also train for Iditarod. But I also didn’t really have a choice. So I just kept trying. I felt so much like I was in a checkpoint, nearing my exit time, failing once again to meet it. Knowing you, the spectators, would wonder why I was still there, wanting to send me a message to get moving. I am moving. I haven’t stopped moving.
And, then health.
When snow came and ice came too, scooping changed. In scooping, you have to use your shoulders, especially if the ground is frozen. My seemingly healed arms piped up– or perhaps I should say, piped down. Every morning, I’d lose feeling in them again. I cursed the reality of how repairing heavily used equipment isn’t making it new. Wear and tear is real and bodies are finite. I’ve always known this; I have no illusions about being immortal or that this ole human will last forever. I had just not expected this kind of breaking down so soon.
My problem internal parts kept acting up too. They’d seemed a bit better, but then as stress and mushing increased and time and other resources decreased, the ole inside parts made their problems more known. (Though actually, the problem of their problems is still being sussed out, these things take time in a GD horrible medical system where things fall through the cracks and hoops must be jumped through and who knows what your lab workups mean? You’ll find out at your appointment in weeks / months / maybe we have an opening next year.)
A few weeks ago, the wonderful, beautiful shot to my nerve in my foot wore off. Oh yes, that is what pain feels like. I came back from a run and my whole foot was a different size. It was a run I’d done on the four wheeler, not even standing on a sled. In fact, I haven’t stood on a sled this year. To be perfectly honest, I’m scared to, on some level. On some body level where everything in my resists the idea of it. Maybe the ole human knows that being on a sled hurt. And the ole brain is disappointed in myself, being afraid. Being hesitant.
I’m scared of other things too. Scared of my own anxiety. Scared of my own inabilities. Inability to drive a sled properly. Inability to be organized, to recover, organizationally, from last year’s race. Scared of my own fear, that finds any excuse to avoid going on a run.
Sam’s been mushing mostly, lately. Before all the things were really piling up, I was so confident and so excited. So bonded with my dogs. And even early in the season, I was doing all right. Never perfect, never– But okay.
Now I’m somewhere I haven’t been a while. A low place. I’m not “depressed,” precisely. Not as I have been before. Maybe part of that is having more insight into my own brain. But I’m sad. Deeply sad. There are two huge emotions in me: A dream and desire to mush, to just be out there in the quiet with my dogs– and an overwhelming fear of it. If I move towards the dream, the fear and anxiety scream. If I move towards the fear, my heart hurts.
I have to evaluate this all from some point of logic, too, in the end. Right now, aside from the anxiety, even aside from the pain, my health in general makes mushing for long hours difficult if not nearly impossible. And very likely not a good idea, at least not until I have some method(s) of addressing the issues overall. Another shot to the foot will help that. Eventually I’ll likely need a nervectomy, which I’m down for whenever, but if I’m gonna try to be mushing anytime soon, I probably need a little more recovery time. We’ll see: the earliest I can get back to the doc I need to see is in weeks.
What about the other stuff?
I don’t know. From a place of intense pushing, I’ve crested into a place of reality. I need to take a hot second and focus on my health and my mental health. I’m truly useless to the team without those in place. And I have to see with open eyes that those things are real. That I’m not being “lazy.” That the choices I make right now will affect how long I get to mush, period.
This extremely long-winded peak into my world is really all to say: Sam and I are not running the ACE race this weekend! The ACE race is a really informal race on the Denali Highway. It should be fun– I’ve never yet gotten to do it. (History and my own run logs also show that November and early December are always really tough for me, so, I shouldn’t be shocked.) For one reason or another every season, I’ve signed up and have had to withdraw. I hate that. This year, it’s because we’re still working on the dog box, we’re getting sleds in order, we’re trying to get kibble and meat lined up. There’s never enough time. Plus *waves at long monologuing above.*
What about the next thing? The next thing on the docket was the Solstice 100, which Sam and Sarah were going to run, but which unfortunately was canceled / will be moved to a new time. Or maybe fortunately! It’s a relief for me, I’ll be honest. Instead of trying to compress the enormity of building a new dog box and everything else into a few days, I have more time to do it right now.
And after that?
After that is the Copper Basin. At this point, I don’t know what will happen for me and that race. Sam will be running, for sure. She’s working on her qualifiers and is feeling very motivated. That’s great, because I’m necessarily dumping a lot of things of the kennel on her shoulders. I feel a lot of guilt about that. A huge amount. I felt that way after Iditarod too: asking someone to do something I can’t do alongside them feels… wrong.
And I miss my dogs. I haven’t mushed with them in weeks. I see them every day, but we can’t do the thing together that is so binding, so essential. Part of my foot problem requires new boots with a larger toe box. I was able to order them and they’ve just arrived. Now I have to get the gumption up to mush again, and see if the replacements will cut it. But the gumption thing is… Dubious. I have fallen off the horse, in a way, and I didn’t get back on, and the anxiety and fear have become a very big monster. In so many ways I wish I could just crawl under the covers and shut the world out. And, if I did that, if I just threw in the towel completely, I know I’d feel empty and heartbroken.
I want to get to Nome. I need to. It is what I’ve been working towards for so, so long. There are always bumps along the way. None of this is new. And, I need to be smart about the steps I’m taking now so that I can make those steps later. Literally! Ha! Accidental pun.
I think, with time and a focus on my own health, I can be in better, safer order soon. It’s hellish that in order to be healthy, we have to fight through so many expectations and naysayers. I know I’m not alone in this experience by a long shot.
Wish me executive function. Insurance. And, ya know, gumption. We’ll miss you for this race, but we’ll be back for more adventures soon– even if I’m benched, I’ll be sharing what you really care about: the dogs.
Okay. With that off my chest– It’s time to go onward. To the most fun thing of all: doctors’ appointments!
Sometimes onward looks weird or boring or even stock still. This part of the race requires patience and a little grace for myself. So, here we go.
The trail is waiting, and I want to be back on it.
There is a reason the flight attendant warns you to put on your oxygen mask first. It makes me angry that getting help is such a challenge. Please continue to take after yourself even when the red tape is discouraging. Nome isn’t going anywhere.