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Snow is weird, part 2

Chapter 3
Alexander Lake and back

I felt warm and more confident leaving Luce’s to make my way to the turnaround point. I looked forward to it, because Alexander Lake is a bit more than halfway, which would be a nice mental boost for me – all “downhill” from there on (yeah you gotta lie to yourself as an ultrarunner …)! My mode of running this race was to go a bit faster than Jill for a few minutes and then wait for her to catch up. It wasn’t terribly social, and I felt guilty about that, but at the same time talking was not possible anyways since you could rarely go side by side without one person having significantly worse footing. Also, I think Jill appreciated the quiet in some ways, as we moved through this bizarre landscape, both lost in our own thoughts, sensations and emotions, yet intensely together. The stop and go mode of walking was also somewhat easier than trying to go exactly Jill’s pace – it’s actually not that easy to really go slower than you usually do. Still, the interruption made it hard to find a good steady state, and I was surely as tired as Jill. At the same time I grew increasingly impressed by Jill’s ability to continue on, as this race was quite a lot harder than I anticipated.

We left Luce’s with renewed resolve and this time well dressed. The fierce winds had died down, and I soon was toasty warm. We followed the river futher but soon veered off onto a less well packed trail. Dragging our sleds became significantly harder … We made it off the river into a swampy wooded area. I told Jill that I estimated it would take us around five hours to make it to Alexander Lake, though secretly I hoped that would be a pessimistic estimate … it wasn’t. We were now deep in the night, and I couldn’t find my caffeine pills, and I was too lazy and tired (duh!) to look for them, so I carried on just on the coffee and Diet Pepsi’s we had at Luce’s. The trail veered through more swamps and odd looking woods with scraggly trees, and only rarely would we now hit a patch of trail where we moved well. The 12.5 miles seemed to take an eternity. My severe overdressing took its toll in me sweating a lot, though I did not feel chilled due to that. Finally we arrived at the cabin. Excited, I rushed ahead and dragged my sled up the ramp to the little hut and got my sleeping bag out of the sled to have it checked.

The hut reminded me of a small mountain hut in the alps, except after maybe some alpine tragedy had happened. People were passed out on various beds, chairs, couches and there was no place to sit. Jamshid was still there, having problems with his eyes. “No, don’t turn it on green” he said when the checker turned off his headlamp – with only white lighting modes. I sure hope he’s alright now, but he would finish the race strong long before us. Danni staggered into the cabin a bit later and without a word crawled, after her bag check, into said bag under the table of the checker.

As it turned out I had severely soaked my base layers including my primaloft jacket, which were dripping wet. What a dumb rookie mistake, and one that could have made my remaining race very uncomfortable, if not outright dangerous. Fortunately I had spare layers, and I completely changed my base and insulation layers, though wearing only about a third of what I had before to avoid the soaking. I planned on compensating with the better mittens instead, and maybe some chemical warmers if needed.

Due to the uncomfortable atmosphere we did not end up staying long, and that was just as well. When we left, I suggested to Jill we use the poles we bought to make our journey back easier – I had thought of it earlier but somehow we decided we’d wait until the return trip – not really for any good reason, but it goes to show how reluctant one gets to do the right thing just to keep going. Gripping anything tends to make your hands cold in these temperatures, but my RBH mittens did a great job of keeping me happy.

The return trip was just as long as the trip outwards except for the odd chirping of the poles as they hit the snow. Both Jill and I got very tired, as we approached dawn, and I staggered all over the trail. I still couldn’t find my caffeine, but Jill offered me some chocolate covered espresso beans which helped. She was also suffering from tiredness, but I tried to cheer her up and reassure her that she’d be like a spring chicken come sunlight. Just before we hit the river I carved “Jill rocks!” into a snowbank with my poles, which earned me a warm look and icy kiss, very much the highlight of the whole section.

The undisputable ice-lash queen. Hot.

Chapter 5
Flathorn Inbound

We arrived at Luce’s in the early morning. We were not particularly cold, as it had warmed up significantly in the morning, but I insisted on ordering some warm food, and we both got grilled cheese sandwiches. I also took the opportunity to dry out some of my wet and now completely frozen clothing I took off at Alexander Lake. I didn’t make any use of the sauna, and when I went outside lightly dressed to fill my pack I mentioned how much it had warmed up, which caused some laughter from the helpers at Luce’s. It had warmed up to a normally hardly balmy 0°F, which did indeed feel fairly mild to me now – the same temperature would have made me cringe in Missoula on our training runs. The body is adaptable indeed …

We were making reasonable time although I was shocked just how long we spent at the checkpoints, pretty much due to my tardiness. I had vowed to get us in and out quickly, but the need to warm up, fuel and rest a bit overrode any such desire in me. I felt very guilty for slowing down Jill, although she reassured me that she would be significantly more grumpy without the stops.

Refreshed and warm, we left Luce’s. It was another perfect day, and the sun was making its best attempt at making me feel like I was in California. If there wouldn’t have been the Iron Dog snowmobile racers with their high-pitched engines coming towards us, passing us closely at speeds nearing 90mph, I might have believed it. It was a zoo. Worse, our ideal line, which pretty much was the only good trail on foot, overlapped with the Iron Dog ideal line. And even worse, Jill had a serious bad spell just during this river stretch. She felt very ill and slowed significantly, approaching a speed of maybe 1mph.

Being a somewhat experienced ultrarunner one would have thought I could cheer Jill up and do the right thing. Instead, I became really worried about the cut-off. I extrapolated, and at the speed we were going, a finish seemed no longer feasible. It was the last thing that was on Jill’s mind, as it would have been on mine would I have been in her condition. I fiercely wanted us to finish. “But if we don’t finish, you’ll have to run one or two 50 milers to qualify for TRT 100” I said in what is now a no longer explicable line of reasoning. I guess I must have been really tired, too. “There won’t be another hundred”, Jill said. I felt dejected, both because I was sad to see my favorite pastime be such a poor experience for Jill, and also because I realized how petty, stupid and poorly timed my worries about the cut-off were. Really, I wonder why I still have a girlfriend. “You can go ahead if you want”, Jill said, but I insisted “I will stick with you, whether we make the cut-off or not”. I decided to leave her alone for a bit, only encouraging her to drink and have some food every once in a while. Like a true ultra-athlete, Jill moved on, slowly, painfully but relentlessly – when you feel sick, all the pain in your feet and legs often gets amplified, and she was obviously suffering. It took us a long time to get back to scary tree, where Jill took a picture. I suppressed the urge to hurry us along, showing at least a small sign of higher brain function. At least we were finally off the crazy circus of the Yentna river, off the Iron Dog route, which, although the whole field had long come through, was still full of snowmobile riders and in generally horrible condition due to that. I could not feel annoyed by them really, because in the end they made this race possible in the first place, creating the trails that were laid out. Unfortunately my recollection of the Susitna river section was seriously twisted, as it turned out to be about four times farther than I though. Frustrated at the endlessness of the rivers, I surged on and left Jill behind, giving her some alone time while working off my own frustration.

I finally reached the wall of death, with a crisp and incredibly beautiful view of Mount Susitna and the river. It was breathtaking. I made my way up the wall which turned out to be surprisingly difficult thanks to icy conditions, and decided to wait for Jill. I had searched my soul and truly I did not really care about finishing as much as I did about our experience together, and I felt bad for my behavior. I decided we would enjoy the beautiful view, I would give her a hug and a kiss, and we would sit for a while in this incredibly romantic spot, just on top of the wall of death, looking out over the Alaskan frozen landscape. When Jill arrived, I thought I saw some tears, but she did not tell me about her emotional breakdown just a bit earlier. But we hugged, kissed and sat down briefly to look out onto the landscape. Jill felt much better, which made me happy, though her feet were still hurting badly. “It’ll get better eventually”, I said. I’m not sure if I believed that myself.

We finally emerged back onto the Flathorn lake and could have seen the aid station if I would have known where to look. Jill said it would be maybe another mile, so I stormed off. It was also getting really cold again as it was sunset and the lake was windy. I did not want to change clothes, so I needed to generate heat.

Of course it was more like 2 miles, and it seemed like 3. I secretly shook my head about Jill’s estimations, which were overly optimistic in true ultra fashion … but finally I saw the airstrip in front of the cabin! I made my way up, and ended up in an almost empty station, to be fully waited on by the awesome and eager Peggy and her crew. Magically Jambalaya, fruit, brownies and a cookie appeared before me. One thing about the cold is that it makes you hungry, and it makes food taste oh so good. Add that to already good food, and you’re in heaven. Jill came in a few minutes later and was treated to the same.

Chapter 6

We did not linger as long this time. My worries about the cut-off had disappeared with us having about nine hours for 15 miles, even though I did not know the trail conditions. We dressed warmly in anticipation of another frosty night, and headed out. I could smell the finish now, and I was really proud of Jill, because I knew we were going to make it. This was an insane first 100 miler.

Despite it being the second night, we were not as tired as the night before. We veered off the lake into the woods, over some moguls and arrived at the “faultline”, a trail that was straight as an arrow for some six or seven miles. The trail was in decent condition, with an ever so slight uphill grade. As soon as we hit the trail, it got noticeably colder. From afar, we could see some lights, which, after I first thought they were car headlights, we could infer belonged to snowmobiles. They came toward us … and came … and came … it took them what seemed like 20 minutes to finally reach us, a trail patrol to check on the racers. After another eternity, we finally got onto the “gas line” trail, another five straight and endless miles.

Finally we got to the road. I had been worried about the trail conditions in the ditch next to the road that we had to follow, but it turned out to be very packed compared to the morning. Some people waiting in a car for another racer told us it was about 4 miles to the finish. I hoped they were wrong, and Jill estimated 3 miles. It was, of course, 4 …

In case you read my HURT report you know I have the gift of the Jesus-fire – once I smell the finish, I can put all pain and tiredness aside and push for the finish, just because I HAD ENOUGH and want to be done. This time, my Jesus-fire only fizzled and my mind was filled with some rather un-savory general anger and frustration. I had fixated on a red light on a pole that I thought was close to the finish. But the stretch kept on going, and the light kept on staying exactly where it was and it was bitter cold and some gap between my mitten and jacket which I somehow could’t fix sent cold needles up my arm. Truly those last miles were amongst the most insulting I’ve ever experienced in a hundred finish.

Finally I crossed the road again, waited for Jill and we walked together to the finish. Despite my own little silent temper tantrum I was infinitely proud of Jill and a little bit proud of myself (“I knew Jill could do it! I called it!!”) – and no matter what Jamshid said, the Su is a very difficult course by any standards in even more difficult conditions. No ultra I’ve experienced comes close to the intensity and raw force of nature that the Su presented, making you feel like an alien organism barely suited to survive. And despite how hard it was, how frustratingly slow you’d move on flat ground, I knew – I was hooked. Immediately my mind started working on sled improvements, gear adjustments, …

But more important I was very happy to see that what I thought would come true – Jill and had I worked flawlessly together, and the shared experience was priceless. Even at her worst I thought she was just really sweet (and though she kept apologizing for throwing a temper tantrum, I have to say Jill having a temper tantrum is still nicer than most other people when they’re nice 🙂 ).

Note that the pictures in this report were mostly Jill’s, I stole them, but she’s ok with that.

3 comments to Snow is weird, part 2

  • Lilo Jegerlehner

    Hallo Beat, Deine und Jill’s reports über den Susnita 100 haben uns richtig suechtig gemacht! Es ist ein wenig wie miterleben — einfach spitze, und man moechte immer weiterlesen. Was fuer eine Adventure, was fuer eine Leistung! Wir bewundern Euch ohne Ende. Gratulation! Love, Ma

  • Congrats on finishing your race report! I’ve sort of become a bit lost in mine and need to figure out where I’m going.

  • JD

    Congrats to both of you! I ran it last year and it sounds like you guys had way more difficult conditions than us. Maybe I’ll see you next year!