Specter: The Iditarod Trail Invitational

Anchorage, AK

March 01, 2020
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The day by day account below was written by the SEAL who lead and organized this mission…

 

Below is a day by day account of our experience on the ITI 350, which we undertook to support mental health in the SEAL community.

 

DAY 1

We lined up at the finish line after a 1.5 hour bus ride from Anchorage to Knik lake. There was a bar right next to it, so we took advantage by loading up on burgers and fries, and each took a shot of Jameson. It seemed like the right thing to do. Just getting to the start line was an accomplishment in itself. Many hours of planning and preparation had gone into this moment, and now we were here, ready, or as ready as we could be.

The gun went off, and the 70 or so racers began the long journey. It was 59 miles to the first checkpoint at Yetna station. Within the first 400 meters or so, the sled I was dragging tipped over three or four times, immediately separating us from the pack. Eventually, we caught up and overtook a group of racers, and put ourselves closer to the middle.

It was snowing out, and the trail was getting deeper. The snow turned out to be everyone’s worst enemy. It made the trail deeper, harder to traverse, and took longer to get through. Our rough estimate was that you were burning double calories to cover half the distance over the course of an hour navigating through deep snow.

Since it was day one, we managed to trudge through this with relatively good attitudes, and eventually decided to bivvy down in the snow about 30 miles in or so, around 2AM. I remember at this point being worried about our prospects of finishing, as most of our water was frozen despite being stuffed inside warmers, our Whisperlite stove was proving to be temperamental and time consuming to operate, and our sleds were not as high speed as the other racers. Luckily, we had both agreed to call these first couple days training, and learn from them. Neither of us had done anything like this before, and we had plenty of time to learn.

 

DAY 2

I woke up to the sound of snowflakes tapping against my bivvy. I don’t think I slept for a single second, which would later become the norm for this trip, and a real complicating factor. However, it helped to get off our feet. We packed up, and continued on. We were very thirsty, and still a little nervous about our prospects. We eventually got the stove working and melted some snow, which took longer than we would have liked. There were cutoffs at the checkpoints, so we had to be as efficient as possible with our time.

The highlight of this day was when an old guy on a snow machine stopped and asked us if we were ok, and then offered us some milk. We drank it, and he zoomed off into nowhere once again. It was the best milk I’ve ever had in my life, and our spirits soared for the next few hours because of it. For some reason, I took this as a sign we were going to make it.

About 10 miles from the first checkpoint, we encountered out first moose. The pre-race brief covered moose encounter do’s and don’ts in detail, but it could pretty much be summed up by saying “if you see a moose, you will die.” So, we were pretty cautious. The snow and cold make moose significantly more irritable, and they don’t want to leave the harder pack of the trail to the neck deep hell of the powder. So if they are standing in the middle of the trail, they will probably stay there until a snow machine comes by and scares them off.

We attempted to snowshoe around it through the powder, but it went out of its way to block our path about 150M off the trail. When we trudged back to the trail, it followed us there too.

This whole back-and-forth costed us about two hours. Eventually some snow machines came by and scared it off, and we quickly got out of the area. We made it to the first checkpoint about 4.5 hours later.

 

DAY 3

I slept for 0 hours at Yetna, but Keith got plenty, as was his standard. People were moving around, prepping their gear, talking, and the TV was on playing “The Greatest Showman”. Again, I was happy to get off our feet. We took our time here to try and re-configure some of our gear to be more efficient, and eat as much food as possible. There were probably about four really friendly German Shepherds at this spot, which was a big win psychologically. We ended up stepping off around 9AM, less than 48 hours from when we started. Luckily, we were only about 25 miles or so from the next checkpoint, and wouldn’t have to sleep outside.

Within 45 minutes of leaving, we were stopped by two moose blocking the trail. We were less cautious this time, and ended up walking within 15 feet or so of them, and they were just as apprehensive as us, and ended up yielding some space. This encounter set us back about an hour.

About six or so hours later, we had another encounter. This was the biggest one we had seen yet, and it was determined to sit perfectly still, like a statue, and squint at us from 30 feet away. We now less cautious, and just wanted to get by it. We yelled at it, and banged our trekking poles together to get it to move. We ended up walking directly towards it. Within about 15 feet it started walking towards us too, so we would stop and back up a little. This went on for awhile, until we eventually got within less than 10 feet of it and passed it by. It was kind of nerve-wracking, but we were just happy to carry on. This encounter costed us about an hour.

That night ended up being pretty bad. The wind factor put the temperature down to about

-20F, and it felt like it was ripping my face off. Snow was also blown over parts of the trail, and we were walking at night and had no way of seeing it. Our GPS was a little off, and we ended up trekking /swimming through five feet of snow for about two hours before locating the trail again. It sucked. We eventually got the second checkpoint around four in the morning. We got some of our stuff situated, and slept for about three hours. We dried our gear as much as we could, refilled our water, and ate as much as possible. The lady who ran the place was pretty unwelcoming.

 

DAY 4

We had a pretty clean leg this day, and it wasn’t too far to the next checkpoint. We crossed a large swamp, which had just been blazed through by a CAT, whose trail we followed. It also chased off another moose who might have otherwise caused a significant delay. We made it to a lodge about 20 miles later, but it wasn’t an official checkpoint. The guy there was awesome, and made us huge burgers, and was really accommodating. We learned that, because of the horrible conditions, the moose were especially angry were taking it out on the racers. A woman was knocked over by one. Two bikers had their bikes stomped on and broken by another, and a another guy was stampeded by one and was stomped on, and had to hide in the deep snow for hours before the moose wandered off, and he almost got hypothermia doing so. We got lucky and took a different, moos-free trail recommended to us by a guy on a snow-machine. We again re-configured our loads for better efficiency. We only slept on the couch here for about 40 minutes before stepping off around 11PM for an 18-mile leg to the next official checkpoint. This leg was especially brutal, as the sleep deprivation started to settle in. I was hallucinating badly starting around 2AM, and it lasted all the way to 8AM or so until I took a 10-minute nap. I remember shouting at the trees “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME MOTHERFUCKER!” realizing I sounded like a crazy person, snapping out of it for another 30 minutes, then slipping right back into the delusion and shouting more obscenities. It dropped to -30F this night, so we decided to push through. Keith’s right foot got cold enough to cause concern, and we were worried about frostbite, so we also ended up stopping and addressing it as best as we could.

We got to Finger Lake, the 3rd checkpoint, around 10AM, and I was absolutely smoked. We re-jocked our gear, slept for about two hours, and pillaged the drop bags of people who had scratched from the race. At this point, almost a third of the field had quit, including veterans of the race. I was feeling pretty optimistic about our odds. We stepped off in the evening, around 5PM, and bivvied down around midnight. I did not sleep at all.

 

DAY 5

We got started around 530AM, after melting some snow for water, and unfreezing some of the lids on our Nalgenes. Nalgenes turned out to be a terrible choice, even with the thick insulators. If the water didn’t freeze, the lid definitely would, and you wouldn’t be able to open it unless you boiled some water or set it next to a fire, both of which were options that were not especially expedient. A hydro-flask or metal thermos would have been way better, but we managed.

This stretch was the most beautiful of the whole course, and we made clean progress to Rainy Pass Lodge, and arrived there around 4PM. I was absolutely smoked, and had a good feeling I would sleep well here. We had an amazing meal, and Keith gave me some valuable instruction to not mess with my gear at all, and just go straight to bed. I did, and ended up sleeping for a full six hours. I wasn’t fully caught up on sleep, but this was huge.

 

DAY 6

We got started around 5AM, for the biggest ascent on the course. It was a solid 3000 feet of elevation gain, but the incline was pretty gentle, so it wasn’t that bad. We got to top of the pass in about 9 hours, and made it to the bottom and the next checkpoint in about 7 hours. It was a clean leg. We crossed a frozen river, with fairly windy conditions, and crossed our fingers that the ice didn’t break and the river didn’t swallow us up. Apparently someone fell in a few years before. Just off the trail, the ice was thin enough that you could see the river flowing underneath the ice. My sled had a tendency to slide offline from me, so I was concerned it would break the thin ice and pull me in with it. We took our time on this stretch, shuffled our feet and stepped lightly. We also slipped and ate shit several times. I started this race with a broken collarbone, and these were some of the worst hits for it. I could just picture landing on it wrong, the bone snapping in half again, and walking for miles to the next station in even more pain. So we were extra cautious where we stepped. We ended up getting to the Rohn checkpoint at about 9PM. We slept on some beds of hay, and ate four or five Bratwursts each. I slept ok at this checkpoint, and maybe got two or three hours total.

 

DAY 7

We stepped off on our longest leg yet around 5:15AM. It was 70 miles from here to Nikolai. At this point I was really dragging ass. We had about 30 miles of hills ahead of us, and sort of just trudged on through them. I don’t remember much from this leg, except there were some buffalo hunters in the area, and we came across some bagged, bloody buffalo meat in the trail, and a full carcass not too much further after that. We came across their camp as well, which had a severed buffalo head, skinned, on a pike outside their tent. They passed us later on their snow-machines, they were carrying rifles and were wearing huge fur coats and hats. It was kind of surreal, like winter Mad Max. There was moose shit everywhere, and we had another short moose delay. It didn’t see us, but wandered off on its own. We bivvied down around 11PM, and I ended up getting pretty decent sleep, maybe 4 hours.

 

DAY 8

We woke up and melted some snow for water, and got moving again. This was the most monotonous, boring part of the journey. It was about 40 miles of this Dr. Suess looking hell-scape. It was flat, all the trees were dead, and the clumps of snow on the trees looked like grimacing deformed little ghosts. There ended up being a flowing creek where you could re-fill on water, which saved us (it was called Sullivan Creek). I was still behind on sleep, overall, and so was experiencing some mild hallucinations. We had a long way to go to Nikolai, but pushed through. I ate some instant coffee grounds around 8PM or 9Pm to stay awake, and we pushed through the night. It again dropped down to -30F or so, and the hallucinations were awful. I was shouting at the top of my lungs to stay awake, running, and at this point barely experiencing reality. Keith was behind me keeping me going, staying positive. He understood I hadn’t been sleeping, and was being as supportive as he could. I realized my poor sleep was a personal problem, and mine to fix. We arrived at Nikolai at 4AM. We walked for 23 hours this day. There was no race staff or food dedicated to the racers at the Nikolai Community center. Luckily, some folks were there supporting the dog races, and the chef there made us a ham and cheese sandwich. There was limited sleeping space, so I slept on top of a pool table, and Keith slept underneath it. After eating and drinking, it was about 5:30AM, and all the dog race supporters were waking up, prepping their gear, and chatting. I did not sleep at all.  Some additional racers had scratched at this point, and gave us some of their extra water bottles and gear. A Scottish guy named Donald who we had become friends with on the trail dropped at this point, and offered us something called a storm shelter. I didn’t think we needed it, but we ended up taking it, as the next leg was said to get down to -50F. We ended up needing it.

 

DAY 9

We stepped off around 12PM after the least rejuvenating checkpoint yet, after the longest leg, and towards the end of the race. I was kind of irritated that the race staff abandoned the checkpoint, but we had everything we needed for the final 50 miles. We put in an uneventful

18 miles that day, and bivvied down around 9PM, as the temperature starting dropping dramatically. As I was inflating my ground pad, I could hear a slight hiss. There was a leak. I had a sinking feeling, because this was my only ground pad. I deserved this though, it was a true JV move to not have a foam ground pad at least as a back-up. I think if I had had more sleep, I might have come up with a better solution than what I did, but as it was I laid the ground pad in my sled, and laid in my sleeping bag on top of my sled. I could already feel that the thin plastic of my sled was failing to insulate against the ice, but I was so exhausted I fell asleep almost instantly. After about 1.5 hours, I woke up jack-hammering, freezing cold. I could feel my back was pressed clean against the ice through the plastic of the sled, and the cold had suffused throughout my whole body. The air outside my bag was worse, and the coldest it had been since starting. I got my boots on as fast as I could, and started running laps up and down the trail. I woke Keith up and told him we had to run.

We ended up running for 9 miles. A female dog musher passed us by and told us it was -50F out, and to be careful. At this point, we were feeling somewhat frightened for safety. I had in fact, never felt this un-safe overseas on deployment, or in any high-risk training environments. This was the height of my sleep deprivation, almost all of our water was frozen, and we were exhausted from the last eight days of absolute suck-fest, and we had another 30 or so miles to go to the finish. The most complicating factor was the sleep deprivation. Even at a full run, I was nodding off and falling asleep, and face-planting into the snow. I did this a few times an hour from about 1200AM to 0600AM. I was picturing falling down at a full run, snapping an ankle, and being significantly immobilized in -50F degree weather, and then hyping out with no one to help for miles. With sleep, in retrospect, this situation could have been entirely averted if I had just chosen to make a 1-2 foot deep spruce bed for insulation, this would have never happened, even if my pad had popped, this was a viable option. I was now experiencing a completely different reality, and the sleep deprivation was truly agonizing. My brain and body was violently craving sleep, and it was truly painful to deny it. We eventually decided that rest was a priority for our safety, and ended up using Donald’s storm shelter. We laid down Keith’s Sled, put his foam ground pad in it, and my sleeping bag on the bottom. We then lined the storm shelter with his sleeping bag, and covered ourselves with it. We had four toe-warmer packs with us, and not one of them worked. It was an incredible relief to get this thing set up and realize it would work. We were immediately warmer. And ended up staying in it for about four hours, and sleeping on and off for about three.

 

DAY 10.

We got started around 10AM for our final leg to McGrath. We were a little shook from the night before, and I was resenting myself for being a shitty outdoorsman, and not coming to the obvious conclusion that packing only an inflatable ground pad was a terrible fucking idea. It was a clean leg. We should have been a little more cheerful at this point, but the journey had taken its toll on us, and we just wanted to finish. It was probably about 0F out after a couple hours of the sun being up, which was a huge relief. We were scheduled to get into McGrath around 8:30PM or 9:00PM. About 5 miles out, it started to settle in that we might finish this thing. We eventually started to see little houses pop up along the river, and saw a sign for McGrath. Keith and I gave each other a fist bump, took a picture in front of the sign, and walked to the finish line at a Peter and Tracy’s house. I could have stayed here forever. Peter made giant blueberry pancakes, and we laid down by a fireplace and slept for a solid eight hours. We talked with some of the other racers and re-capped the experiences. One of the guys, Klaus, was from Austria, and was continuing on from McGrath to finish in Nome for the 1000 mile race. He as only a third of the way done. I could not imagine getting all the way to this point and having such a long way to go.

But we were done now, and could indulge in a little reflection. We did this to support a cause. Not to sound too cheesy, but personally, the cause ended up supporting me. Over and over again, in the worst moments, I remembered why we were doing this, that SEALs have been through far worse, and suffered far greater consequences than being a little chilly and tired. Our community talks a lot about Preservation of the Force and Family, and there are some good measures out there that make good on this mission, but there is always more to do. 20 Veterans take their own lives every day. Any service member or vested individual who reads this statement should make it their personal responsibility to productively address this matter. And yet, some of us still get squeamish when talking about the subject of mental health. This is unacceptable. The sooner this ends, the sooner we develop our force to become more capable of fulfilling its mission than ever before. Mental health and resilience mark the foundation of our efficacy as a community, and we must continue to provide solutions to veterans at risk at every turn.