Alaska Dreamin’

Far away view of the Wickersham wall. 800ft up in less than 1 mile on soft snow.

“Fuck this! Who was this Wickersham anyways?”. Sweat is streaming down my shirt under my jacket. I briefly stagger, almost loose balance, pulled back by my anvil of a sled. “I feel a bit dizzy.”, Kevin says. “Didn’t they ever hear of goddamn switchbacks?”, I pant, “I mean … fuuuuck!”.

Earlier …

65 racers collect at the Wickersham Dome trailhead to participate in the White Mountains 100. About half are bikers, half skiers and then there are the crazy seven, the foot people, “walkers” as the local news article had called us. That term is a sad mix of insult (at least in a 100 miler) and omen, evoking visions of elderly with walking aids that reflect just how we would feel in a day or so, when we would be reduced to just that – walkers.

Jill not yet awake but stressed since it's only 15 minutes to the start and we're not ready.

The dynamic among the groups is interesting. From what I can tell, Bikers are here to compete most and foremost with other bikers, and to make sure the skiers know their place. Skiers come here to race each other, upstage bikers and hope for soft trails that would give them the edge to do so. Both think walkers are crazy and stupid for choosing such a poor form of winter travel, but there is a spark of admiration, an acknowledgement that indeed, walking is the most pure, the hardest, the most painful, the most mentally challenging. We, on the other hand, simply enjoy the fact that we get the most fun per dollar of our entry fee. Twice as much, usually.

Sunrise at the Wickersham Dome Trailhead.

First Checkpoint!

After missing the start by a few seconds, I fall into a comfortable uphill hike. The trails are good, hard and my sled glides well. Despite the early hour and a relatively high starting point at about 2200ft elevation, it is almost warm – probably already above 20°F. The sun and sky seem to indicate that it will be a beautiful day, at least for a while. After a mile or so, I catch up with Anne Ver Hoef, and we stick together, chatting and enjoying the wonderful scenery and trails. WM100 is significantly hillier than Susitna, making for more varied running and views. Despite feeling a bit under the weather, the first 17 miles go by fairly quickly, and I arrive at the first checkpoint in just 4 hours, better than I expected (it needs to be said that snow – even good trails – is simply a lot harder to run on than dirt and rock …). At the checkpoint I consume some mandatory Tang, which, as Jill told me, is an “Alaskan thing”, fuel up (somewhat) and continue on my way.

Cache Mountain Cabin! Most welcome after 37 miles on my feet ...

Soon after the first checkpoint, the trails get softer and the running gets harder. Our merry band of walkers has long fallen back from everyone but the occasional skier or the bold but sadly misguided skinny-tire biker, and I keep leapfrogging various people. The weather is beautiful, the scenery breathtaking – the soft trails give me all the more reason to stop and snap pictures, or simply take in the remoteness of the course. I imagine we could just keep going across the Brooks Range which is of course not visible …

Going is tough and I am fairly glad when I finally arrive at the Cache Mountain Cabin. Trystan, the eventual foot winner, passes me shortly before the cabin, walking very efficiently – a good lesson to be learned. A group of walkers, along with a deliberately slow skier and a biker are there, and we all replenish on a big baked potatoe. One good thing about a strict race organizer and being one of the last is that you end up getting more food – they’re less likely to deny leftovers when you’re one of the last people out there. That said, I think food rations should be proportional to time on trail, and as such should be increasing. It all works out anyways, however I hope the RDs take note! :)

Guessing which one is Cache Mountain ...

I leave the cabin toward the Cache Mountain Divide just a bit before dusk, and soon the light turns gloomy, clouds pull up and it starts to snow – not heavily but constantly. The temperatures are still warm, and there is a solid ~1800ft climb to the divide ahead. I like the gloomy atmosphere, somewhere in this barely touched wilderness, into the night … I have a moment of regret that I did not stick with my original plan to bike this, which would not only have been a lot faster and easier, but also would have given me the opportunity to share the views and experience with Jill. But I know that in the end, I would also feel sad not to have experienced this trail in the most basic and intimate way possible, alone, on foot, fighting for every yard …

Uh-oh.

As I climb to the divide, I can still see the tree-covered hills – I know the divide is just above treeline and that seems awfully far up … but before soon the trees thin out, and, now in more complete darkness, the trail levels out, until I see a strange snow sculpture that seems oddly out of place up here – the top of the divide. I take some time to take a photo and notice how much snow has accumulated on top of my sled. That’s gonna hurt later on …

Not hallucinating.

The drop down from the divide is fun, though it is dampened by generally soft trails. Still, it’s easier than going up, and soon I reach the famed ice lakes, a confluence of overflow in the narrow valley/canyon that accumulates a lot of ice, often with standing water on top, about a mile long. This time, there was very little water, and I simply strap on my beloved Katoolahs and enjoy the effortless running and walking. There are some areas of slush with unknown depth and I didn’t put on my waders, so I have to pick my way through the wide area of overflow, giving me at least a bit of excitement. Towards the end of the lakes I catch up with Kevin, an ultrarunner and Su veteran from Palmer, and we decide to move along together for a while. This stretch is 23 miles long, and some company is welcome for a change.

Serious business, being on top of a divide!

Despite the expectation of an “easy downhill”, I find the remaining eight or so miles to the Windy Gap cabin more rolling – on soft trails, nothing is really easy. Windy Gap is hosted by the famed “Meatball Nazi” Dea, though this year the meager ration of three meatballs has been increased to five in an unparalleled act of generosity by Dea herself, falling a bit out of her historic role though. It is truly a royal meal, supplemented by Starbux via coffee and – naturally – a few cups of heavily concentrated Tang – or “Alaskan Ambrosia”, as I will think of it now. The generally warm temperatures make dressing fairly easy, though my feet and shoes are thorougly wet thanks to the Gore-Tex shoes. Unwisely I had not used Hydropel from the start, but ample application thereof sees to stave off the worst disaster for now. I decide to switch to a vapor barrier system for my feet, since my shoes are now so wet inside that they dampen the socks immediately. I don’t feel the need to dry out my shoes though (which would usually be a wise course of action), since the temperatures simply do not get low enough for this to become a problem. To my surprise I find a number of people sleeping in the cabin, all skiers who somehow are not aware that sleep is really just not a luxury you should afford yourself in such a short race. The cabin itself is extremely hot, almost sauna-like maybe in an attempt to duplicate Luce’s offering in the Su …

I leave Windy Gap about 15 minutes before Kevin for another 20 mile stretch. The first miles, still in the dark, are accompanied by an unusual tiredness on my part, and I find myself often closing my eyes and stepping off the trail (which can have some rather unpleasant knee-to-waist-deep surprises) or simply stopping, dozing off within seconds, just to be awoken by the sensation of my falling forward. Caffeine pills do not appear to help, and so I simply trudge along, slowly, expecting Kevin to catch up with me eventually. We’re now getting close to Beaver Creek, which, last year, had temperatures down to -25ºF – now, though it may be in the teens or at the worst single digits, with the occasional short stretch of some wind to add some windchill, this seems like a non-event, though it’s a very pretty trail. Soon dawn emerges and I find myself walking and shuffling alongside towering limestone formations, and occasionally I can see the mountains disappearing into the low cloud cover, a strange and eerie atmosphere! Despite some hurtiness in my feet I am taken by the scenery, and though there was of course no chance to see northern lights at night due to the clouds, I am taken. I wish this was a much longer race, and I could stop here for a while to bivy, just stay in this beautiful place – but alas, I have to move on.

The morning reveals a different world ...

Absolute quiet.

Soon I start to reach the wider valley and a trail intersection, with a mileage sign for the Borealis cabin, our next stop – 7.8 miles. I expect this to be a fairly flat and reasonably fast section, which is a robustly wrong assumption. Not only does the trail climb and roll quite a lot, it also turns out that the section is about 10 miles long – after about 7 I get increasingly frustrated and experience a little fit, when a skier passes me, breaking the crushing news that I’m really not as close as I thought to the cabin. Ironically the only thing that makes it hard is the mismatch of expectation, because what does it really matter … when I finally reach the Cabin, I am however simmered down enough to have a good time, with homemade bread and salami, more tang and fresh french press coffee! Kevin arrives just a minute behind me, and the last runner, Darren, also shows up, complaining about the sign. Darren seems to be a tad bit competitive, and the prospect of being the dead last runner out there flashes across my mind. Hydropel, socks and I’m out of there!

That lil' wall don't scare me!

The last 19 miles are thankfully split by a small checkpoint after 8 miles. It’s a fairly straight shot from here to the junction where the course joins the outbound route and backtracks the initial 6 miles. After about 2 miles I have a great view of the valley and look for the Wickersham wall. I scan the horizon, rejecting possible candidates, until I conclude that only that menacing looking white line on that high hill could be it. With now 10 miles to ponder both the prospect of finishing dead last, and having to drag my incredibly heavy sled up 800ft of soft snow, I can all but smile.

Don't drink that.

After a few miles Kevin catches up, and I propose a truce – walk in together. “That way at least none of us will finish last. To be honest, it’s self-serving – I think you’ve got more left than me.” I say – “Funny, I was thinking the same.” Kevin responds. The final miles have more occasional overflow than the earlier course, though none of it has more than half an inch of slush on top of it. Recent snowfall has made glare ice a non-issue, though every now and then I can see that we are walking on large slabs of angled ice, which had provided much excitement to the racers last year. Even now, walking over the short stretches of overflow reveals disconcerting sound of crackling ice and hollowness, and I move quickly. The last checkpoint arrives quickly and we linger briefly for a final infusion of Tang and candy, and we’re on our way to the famed obstacle – the wall.

View back from the top of the Wickersham wall.

Fresh snow on the trees from that night.

“This is it.” I say. The trail angles up. “This doesn’t look bad.” Kevin replies. “We’ll see.”. As we make our way up the wall, the trail reveals little crests, preceded by insultingly steep angles. I am using my poles, often they are the only thing preventing me from sliding down the trail. Traction is marginal, and often I have fight for balance. My sled has nicely iced skis with greatly reduced glide making things even better (I do not think of cleaning my skis until a few hours after the race ends …). My effort level is at the maximum, sweat is running down my shirt. “Wow, I’m soaked. We’ll have to haul ass after this hill or I’m gonna freeze to death!”. Kevin has other worries – he says he’s dizzy. Visions of Sisyphus or at least Egyptian slaves hauling rocks up pyramids (Yeah I am THAT hot) flash through my mind. Finally, we approach the crest. All I remember about the last 6 miles is that someone said it’s supposed to be a nice downhill to the finish at some point. Of course, as it turns out, that’s just the last mile. Up to there, the climbing continues on, more gradual, but continuously, only to be broken by a few short downhills.

Before the race I had joked with Jill that she should come meet me out on the trail on foot. I don’t really expect her to be there, actually I expect to have to bivy a bit until she can pick me up, but about 3.5 miles from the finish Jill comes towards us, much to my delight! It makes the final miles a lot more pleasant, though sadness sets in that it will be over, mixed with bursts of anger at the continuous uphill (“I don’t remember it went ALL UP at the end! WHAT?”) and worries about my achilles which started hurting, occasionally sharply, after the wall (one week later, it’s all back to normal – phew).  Finally, we hit the last downhill and I run it down just to be done, wait a few seconds for Kevin to catch up and we are done! 35:41, 3rd place tie. One more runner will finish behind us, as well as one more skier.

So how does this race compare to Susitna? I would say:

  • it’s a lot more remote
  • it’s more challenging, with more variable conditions possible, though locals would probably tell you there’s more chance of very good trails due to low precipitation in that area. However, this year the trails were challenging for runners.
  • it’s at least equally well organized, though you will see far fewer safety patrols, and far fewer people overall
  • it’s a ton of fun, and the terrain is gorgeous
  • it’s (even) more of a family affair
  • course finding is all but trivial. between very few trails, fixed markers and signs, and some race markers it’s almost impossible to get lost
  • It’s a serious race for people who know what they’re doing. There’s no mandatory gear, and you are expected to be able to take care of yourself. If you read the term “wet overflow” the first time in this report, you have a lot to learn before you should even think about signing up.

3 comments to Alaska Dreamin’

  • Great, well-written report. I’ve been following Jill’s blog, and I’m amazed by the epic things the two of you undertake and accomplish. Congratulations!

  • Jethro

    I agree with Kate about you and Jill, wow….the races you two do are pretty impressive also.

  • PeacePlease

    100 miles on foot, and on snow, and icy conditions. Wow. Didn’t think that was possible. Nice job.