me: I think I’ll sign up for Susitna next year although maybe I never want to run again after TDG
Steve: You got something against your toes?
me: Ha! most people are fine
Steve: Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by Susitna
me: yeah come with!!!! come on, it’s not in jan I know a bunch of ppl who’ve done it, plus I’m sure Jill can tell us all about cold weather
Steve: You know…for you…it does sound like the perfect opportunity to convince a certain young lady who lived in Alaska to do 100-miler with you
me: Or just come do Susitna or Yukon Arctic and you are pretty much right there with the ski touring
Danni: Are you planning on running Susitna? That one interests me but in a really sick and wrong way.
me: Right now I’m just toying with the thought. But we all know where that leads with me …
me: Ok, closing argument … if you go, I will! Susitna or Yukon Arctic. Also Steve might be interested. Come on, you can’t resist. Plus we need some cold-weather advice!!!
Danni: Yeah Susitna. I will if you will.
me: Awesome! You’re ON! I Registration opens Sept 1, at which time you bet I will be registered …
To be honest, I had always been worried about the Susitna. It was the only “hard” race I had talked myself out of numerous times, worried about losing parts of my body to frostbite (I always have cold feet and was not sure if it was circulation related). However, for reasons that only Jill can tell you, it seemed like a good first 100 mile foot race to her – you know, she had biked it, and snow is just so much softer than rock. Since the heart is impervious to rational reasoning and it seemed like a great reason to meet up with her (this was before we were dating), I signed up for this without thinking twice. Jill was clearly worth a few toes for sure. Along the way, I suckered my friends Danni and Steve into it (although they had pondered it for a long time already). It would be significant potential collateral damage for romantic purposes, but hey, isn’t this the only good reason?
On paper, the Su looks easy. 100 miles – check. ~3000ft climb – you kidding me? Hard-packed snowmobile trails, lots on frozen rivers – like a track, right? 48! hours. The only worry would be the cold, and it’s not really THAT cold. And Jamshid, who has finished this 14 times now, said “It’s easy! You can sleep, 48 hours. It is nothing.”. Oh, and the weather forecast looked oh so good – perfect conditions.
Still, I was very nervous. The preparation for this race was far beyond anything I’ve done – including the RTP stage races. I bought an insane amount of cold weather gear. I had spent a lot of time fidgeting around with a sled that I custom-built myself, instead of going the usual (but much safer) toboggan route. Not that I thought my sled was so much better, but I just like building stuff. After a number of versions, I had something that I thought I could get me through the race and was field repairable if something broke (though during my training I broke enough of the earlier prototypes I wasn’t actually so sure).
I really got scared though when I packed for my flight. I had a full duffel – 45 lbs – with mostly race gear, and ANOTHER 25 lbs roller bag. And a backpack. During my training I never really packed my sled fully, and I always assumed it’d be around 20-25 lbs. Ugh! My suspicions were confirmed when we all packed our sleds in Anchorage (after ANOTHER REI shopping spree) and it turned out that with food and everything I wanted my sled was 36 lbs – about twice of my training weight. The sole consolation was that all of our sleds were in the same ballpark and we all were equally shocked. At least Jamshid had confirmed his sled was around 33 lbs, so we knew we weren’t far off.
The pre-race checkin reminded me a lot of RTP style stuff – gear check, nervous faces, looming grand adventure! But the RD predicted doom for everyone because the previously perfect weather had converted to up to a foot of new snow, and very frigid temperatures – instead of the 8-20F we might see -10 to 10 or so. Jill assured us though he was usually just being overly pessimistic, and that the pre-race meeting was always doom and gloom that wouldn’t come to pass, maybe to fend off the people lacking the proper spirit for this race. Still, I was now doubly scared. And I had left my snowshoes at home …
The race morning was cold. The temperature at the start was -12F, and I was glad I opted for a somewhat heavier layer than originally anticipated. After some pancakes for breakfast, checkin and setting up the sleds it was almost time to start. I remembered I had forgotten my thin balaclava and ran to the car to grab it. I found it, ran back – to find the start had already happened without me! But I was only a few seconds behind – and Jill had waited for me, which made me feel rather happy. “Where were you?” “Oh, I forgot my balaclava and ran to get … my … underpants!!”. In the hurry I had grabbed my post-race underwear. While I’ve dressed in some embarrassing ways during races, I definitely wouldn’t get caught with undies on my head though. It turns out I had the balaclava I wanted actually also with me, but this kind of disorganization didn’t really bode well!
Flathorn Lake Outbound
During the first miles reality was hitting me like a concrete floor. Actually I wish there would have been a concrete floor. The snow was punchy, dry and sandy, it was bitter cold and the sled had way more drag than I had ever noticed during training. My back started hurting almost immediately in a spot of an oldish injury that I knew had the potential to lead to some extreme back pain. In addition, we were haunted by an inexplicably short 7 hour cut-off for the first 22 miles (if that sounds generous – no it’s not). I knew I could put in a strong effort to make it, but wasn’t totally sure about Jill, though she kept up really well. Jill is extremely good at maintaining her pace, but she doesn’t like to push it.
It was very comforting to have Jill with me, even though we were both for the most part lost in our own worlds. It was a gorgeous day with beautiful views, and the sun had warmed us up a bit, and life didn’t seem terribly bad. Various systems we had put together – like wearing our camelbacks under all our insulation layers, or my glove system, proved to be working quite well. Despite the frigid temperatures early on, both Jill and I were only wearing thin windstopper tights which were surprisingly warm but not so warm as to make us uncomfortable. Even better, our initial fears that we could not stick together because one of us might get too cold going below their pace seemed to be unwarranted. On the other hand, the physical effort was just a lot higher than I had anticipated – this was more like running uphill for 22 miles than climbing a measly few hundred feet. Everything seemed hard, and the punchyness of the snow made my feet angry and hurty early on in the race. My thoughts oscillated quickly between being awestruck by the ice cold beauty of Alaska and worrying about cut-offs and how Jill would cope with this race. It was physically simply very taxing on foot, and even walking was a strain.
In the end my worries about the cut-off were unwarranted as we got into the checkpoint at 6:15 hours. To my delight we found Steve leaving, which meant we had not lost so much time, and took a few minutes to inhale some delicious Jambalaya and brownies, and left ~6:33 or so, a fairly good time. Our feet were fine so we didn’t feel we had to change, and we had been fairly comfortable so we just assumed it would stay that way later in the race. Normally that would be a perfectly fine plan, since we had all our clothing with us. But I had not yet fully internalized the reality of cold-weather racing …
Luce’s Lodge Outbound
The next part of the race would be to Luce’s lodge, another 20 mile stretch that would include the dismal swamp, the “wall of death”, the Susitna and Yentna rivers and the night. It didn’t sound all too terrible, and Jill, Danni and I left the aid station in good spirits. The rivers promised better traction and glide. The sun set beautifully around the dismal swamp.
The dismal swamp had some better footing, but still the overall resistance was high, and even without any climbing we could not really afford to muster more than a slowish shuffle. Just around sunset, the wind picked up significantly, and with it came little biting daggers penetrating my exposed skin, and making their way into my layers. I layered on a heavier balaclava and shut my mitten shells. My eyes hurt from the wind, and Jill happened to mention that it is important to be very careful with the eyes to avoid frostbite. Some of her friends had acquired frostbite on their corneas, and I for one was not excited about that prospect. Fortunately I had acquired a clear ski mask and put it on immediately. Even with the mask, the air coming in through the vents was uncomfortable, but much more muted. Quite possibly Jill had saved me from some rather stupid mistake right there, and I was very thankful to have her around.
When we came to the wall of death – mile 28 out and 78 back, which seemed rather unimpressive being only about four or five yards high and moderately steep – though icy and in some years with overhanging steps – the bike leaders came towards us, a group of three, led by Jeff Oatley. I was impressed and excited, because it meant good trails had to be ahead, or so I thought. Jeff warned me of a stiff headwind ahead, and the group pushed on, and I ran down the wall, hooting a bit with fun. Jill was not so amused, especially since her sled lacked some of the side stability that mine had (thanks to carving skis), but she made it down easily. We turned onto the Susitna river, which seemed rather enormous. The trail was still no better, punchy and with high resistance. I did notice that although we punched into the snow a bit with regularity, the bike tracks were very shallow and one would almost never see a bike punching through. This meant that the good bike conditions did not necessarily translate into ideal running conditions. Ah well. More of the same. Still, it could have been much worse I presume.
While we made our way to “Scary Tree”, the turn-off from the Susitna onto the Yentna river, the temperature kept dropping and the wind kept increasing. Once we got onto the Yentna, we had a very stiff headwind, which now penetrated our windstopper tights and cooled us down significantly. The only reason we got this far with our clothing were totally windproof high gaiters and our gore-tex shells, but my feet, which had been toasty all the way, started to cool, an I was alarmed. Jill said she needed to pee and put on a jacket at some point, and it was dark enough we really needed to put on our headlamps, and I suggested to just take care of business, and try to eat something as well. One thing about the cold is that it is very unpleasant to do stuff like take out your camelback hose (which was perfectly fine, not frozen, but required me to unzip my jacket, which I was unwilling to do, or take off my now seriously beloved mitten shells!). Jill stopped to do her stuff, and I took the opportunity to look around for some items like my pants which I couldn’t find, so I just grabbed some food and more headlayers as well as a heat pack which I simply dropped between my two baselayers on my chest, and another one for my hands, when I heard Jill struggle with her jacket. “I can’t use my hands! These zippers are so fidgety!” There was some panic in her voice, but I felt I had some warmth resources, and zipped myself up and put on my liner gloves and helped her out of her shell, into her down jacket, and back into her shell. Despite the gloves, my fingers started hurting severely, but the crisis was averted, with me feeling mildly proud for helping the infamous cold-weather Jill out! Only later did she tell me just how panicked she had been in this situation, because with a windchill in the -40 range, with a cooled core, one is very close to being in some real trouble. At that point I also realized that my system of a stuff-sack compressed sleeping bag would probably induce some extremely anxious moments should I actually need it in such a situation … because it needed strength to unpack. And that’s something that’s very hard to come by, when your hands are numb and frozen.
We carried on, I ate a tiny bit, but soon we just focused on working our way across the river. I noticed we could no longer see the trail markers, but Jill assured me it’s impossible to get lost. Still, the trail was much softer and punchier than before, and we worked quite hard. I figured the real trail would be on the other side, just about 200 yards away, and hopefully in better shape. I started making my way across, just to find that as soon as I stepped off the main trails I would be shin to knee deep in snow! So we carried on for another mile until I found a suitable passage, and indeed the trail was much better on the other side, the best conditions we would find in the whole race.
My legs started to get very cold, and I kept getting colder and colder and knew I had to do something. I stopped and told Jill to keep moving, which was courteous but maybe not the smart choice, which I realized very soon. I unpacked my primaloft jacket and unzipped my shell and almost lost it to the wind. Putting on the jacket was difficult, the arms just weren’t in the right place, and by the time I had it finally zipped up I was even colder. Putting on the shell was equally tedious, and I could barely get the main zipper up. Finally I had everything back together, just barely avoiding the same panicked situation that Jill had found herself in just a bit earlier, but with her long gone! I felt stupid, and pushed on. The one thing that makes winter ultras so much more extreme than anything else is that if you do what you feel like, namely just stand still and rest – you actually hurt yourself. Do it for a minute (without putting on tons of clothes), you’ll be cold. Do it for five, and you might not be able to go on. It’s more unforgiving than anything I’ve ever experienced.
I must not have had any water in hours, and trying to increase the pace and catch up with Jill I started to feel very ill and weak. The Jacket provided enough warmth to feel that I wasn’t in any danger of hypothermia though my legs were painfully cold, but my sled seemed to get heavier and heavier, and each step became very labored, my back hurting badly from the heavy load. I pushed and pushed, getting sicker, knowing the aid station was just two or so miles ahead. Weird thoughts pondering where I could place the footwarmers I had ran through my mind. I hoped to catch up to Jill, but nothing … until I finally saw a light. However that turned out to be another runner who decided it’s time to put on some layers … I think I passed two or three runners before I finally, just before Luce’s, caught up with Jill. During that time I so wanted to stop and just rest a little, but I was scared to death to stop moving. I admit there was a small twinge of being hurt because she had not waited for me, though I knew that she could not really afford to stand still for any period of time, and I quickly overcame the feeling (and after all I sent her away!). I was extremely glad to see Luce’s, though the 100 ft climb to the actual lodge seemed extremely difficult to me. I felt like I was going to hurl and pass out any minute, and stumbled into the station, barely able to initial my name. I dropped in front of the oven, and saw Steve and Jamshid who recommended for me to go to the Sauna to warm up. The thought seemed rather ridiculous to me, but over time I kept feeling very chilled, while all my stuff dried out at the hot stove heating the main room. Finally, after sitting and resting for what seemed like an eternity and after choking down some spaghetti an diet pepsis, slowly letting my nausea subside and regaining some strength, I decided to try the sauna, still feeling very cold. Stiffly, with aching back and feet,walked there and within a few minutes felt warmed up to the level of starting to perspire a little. I went outside to find I was no longer chilled – best sauna ever.
Ready to finally get going, and feeling guilty for holding Jill up for almost 2 hours despite me supposedly guiding her through her running experience or so, I got my stuff together. Jill told me she would put on just about everything she brought, and although I had felt almost warm with my puff jacket, I decided to put on two additional leg layers (fleece and shell), the big RBH mitten liners with the hand warmer and more head layers. With renewed energy, I was ready to make the stint to Alexander Lake, and then be on my way back!