Imagine wanting to ski 350 miles through Alaska - next week, without much training or real experience on cross-country skis. That's the situation I found myself in a few months ago: I was signed up to ski the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile race through the interior of Alaska. The only challenge was that I am neither a skier, nor had I ever completed a 350 mile non-stop race - and in true "me" fashion I didn't have time to properly train for the behemoth of an adventure, either.
You may ask “Why would anyone WANT to do something like that?” That’s a great question, but it’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about the how: HOW does one go about pulling off 350 miles on minimal training and in a new discipline in extreme cold? The answer is this: strategy. Race strategy, gear strategy, and mental strategy. When you find yourself in a situation where you are swimming upstream, be it as a rookie on the Iditarod Trail or while preparing for a stressful and difficult deadline at work, optimizing your strategy is critical.
I knew that I had little margin for error in Alaska. Failing to finish the race was the smallest risk that I faced - there were more severe consequences such as hypothermia, frostbite, and the possibility of real harm to limb if not life. As such, I put a lot of forethought into deciding both my strategy for the race itself, as well as into my strategy for the gear that would keep me alive.
Here’s what optimizing my setup looked like on the gear side: rather than pulling a sled, and having to work through both a new-to-me mode of travel (skiing) and the mechanics of dragging a sled over at times steep terrain, I opted to carry all my gear in a backpack. I also knew that the biggest and potentially fatal danger out there was the possibility of breaking through the ice and getting wet - which, in subzero temperatures, can be a death sentence if you don’t have dry clothes to change into and ways to make a fire. That’s why I kept a fire starter kit on my body, and carried a designated survival set of dry clothing in a Nite Ize RunOff Pouch: I needed to know that these clothes would stay dry even if I, and my backpack, were to be submerged in water.
Another important gear consideration was lighting: I knew that I would have to travel through many a night during this ten-day race, and with 12 hours of darkness and the extreme cold of the Alaskan night I needed not just a reliable and rechargeable headlamp — I needed a multi-level, lightweight and adaptable lighting system to help me see through whiteouts and create depth perception in flat white light. I choose a combination of my trusty INOVA STS PowerSwitch headlamp, and the new Radiant 170 Rechargeable Task Light which I attached to the chest strap of my pack. I also used GearTies to secure extra gear to my pack, which came in beyond handy when one of my bindings broke at mile 250 and I was faced with the task of rigging a ski carrying system so I could complete the remaining 100 miles on foot.
But I didn’t just focus on optimizing my gear for the Iditarod; I also went into the race with a clear overarching strategy for how to get through those 350 miles, and a mental strategy for how to overcome the emotional low points and moments of wanting to give up that I knew I would inevitably encounter. My overall strategy was simple: since I wasn’t properly trained going into this adventure, I needed to use the early days on the trail to get stronger rather than weaker. That’s why I did not push mileage in the first few days of the race: twenty to thirty miles a day was all I needed, and rather than trying to go hard and push through the nights I stopped every evening and got as much rest as possible - sometimes as much as eight hours of sleep.
In addition, I had made a simple rule for myself to optimize my mental game: I wouldn’t ever consider quitting, or dropping out of the race, before having slept. The thing in ultra races is this: no matter how well prepared you are (or aren’t), there’ll be parts of the adventure that feel amazing and parts of it that feel terrible. The secret is figuring out how to get through the terribly challenging sections without giving in to the temptation to quit. Often times that’s as easy as having quiet confidence in the knowledge that how you feel will change: no matter how difficult a section may be, or how exhausted you may feel - a good night’s rest will make all the difference.
For what it’s worth, that’s precisely what I love about ultra-endurance challenges and the very reason that I WANT to take on crazy adventures like the Iditarod Trail Invitational: the lessons that the trail teaches me are 100% transferable to day-to-day events, and help me dial in my mental game across all areas of life.