Wednesday, February 28, 2007

350 saga

It's cliche to say, but this really is the kind of thing you can't make up.

Nearly everyone, even the race officials, expected Pete to be into the last checkpoint of the race by midnight last night, and across the finish line before 2 p.m. today - probably well ahead of the three-day mark. When this morning came and went with no sign of the lead cyclist, speculation started to fly. Did he oversleep? Did he burn out? Did the chasers catch him?

When Pete finally rolled into Nikolai at 10 a.m., the truth started to emerge. The trail across the Farewell Burn was not hard and fast ground. It was a minefield of invisible tussocks and ice chunks buried in new snow. Pete fell over "at least 100 times." But he kept riding. And as he trudged over those 90 miles, temperatures dipped beneath 30 below. He wore every piece of clothing he had, and he still felt cold. Sometime in the early morning, he finally reached Buffalo Camp - a wall tent with a wood stove inside, stocked with firewood. He laid out his sleeping bag and crawled into a short nap on the frigid floor, declining to start a fire because "someone might need the wood more than he did."

He left mile 300 at 1:45 p.m., with only six hours remaining before the course record passed him by. Even the current course record holder didn't ride the last 50 miles that fast - and no one knew what the trail was really like. People had speculated it would be hard and fast ... but people have a way of being wrong about these things.

On the homefront, suspense was building. Would he do it? Could he do it? And the best question, the one that floated into the forefront with thoughts of him grinding out frozen miles somewhere west of the edge of nowhere ... did he even care?

8 p.m. came and went with no news. That was it. Gone was gone. Spectators reacted with deafening silence. Then came the blip on the computer screen - just a small blurb, red text on a black screen - "1 Peter Basinger 2/27 7:40pm. A new course record is set!"

With 20 minutes to spare ... almost the same amount of time he lost on Mike Curiak during the course-record-setting 2004 Great Divide Race.

No one knows what he said. No one knows what he saw. No one knows what really happened out on that trail, all alone in the subarctic night, with dozens of miles separating him from anything. That's the beauty of the Iditarod Invitational. There is no crowd waiting to congratulate you at the end, no podium, no trophy. There's no prize money and no sponsors lining up to greet you. There's only you, and an amazing saga that only you know about, an adventure only you experience. And I think that you always know that, and nothing can take that away - even a course record.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Geoff's Susitna story

(Photo taken during Susitna 100 by Frank McGuire)
By Geoff Roes
Well, the Susitna has come and gone, and the last thing you all probably want to read about are more race details, but I thought this would be as good a time as any to make my posting debut on Jill's blog.

First of all, I'd like to say thanks to everyone for the advice and words of encouragement leading up to the race, as well as the congratulatory comments after. It somehow made it easier knowing that I had dozens of people scattered throughout the world tracking my progress on their computer.

Anyway, here is the experience of my first 100 mile race:

The start was just how I like my races to start - hectic and sudden. (after not sleeping much at all the night before the last thing I want to do is stand around in the cold any longer than I have to) We were required to declare our mode of travel by 8:45 and we rolled into the parking lot at about 8:42. By the time I jumped out of the car and told the race director that I would be traveling on foot it was time to do all the last minute adjustments and then the racers were lining up at the start. By the time I was ready to go and made my way over to the line, it was 8:58. With 2 more minutes before setting out on a run that would double the longest run I had ever done, I suddenly felt really calm. For the first time in about 2 weeks I wasn't thinking about what I needed to do to prepare for the race. At this point I had done everything that I could do. No more worrying about my sled, my food, or my sore foot. There was now nothing I could do about any of these things and this felt really good.

I had just enough time to look around at some of the other racers. I noticed Pete Basinger lined up front and center. I knew that Pete was doing this ride as a "training" ride for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, but I also felt pretty certain, just from glancing over at him for a few seconds, that he was going to win the Susitna. I don't know Pete very well, but I know that he's an amazing racer and I felt a sense of excitement simply from being lined up on the same starting line with him, even if he was on a bike and I was on foot.

Just in front of me on the starting line I noticed John Stamstad. At the time I didn't know too much about his career in the 90's as one of the greatest endurance mountain bikers ever (He even has his own Wikipedia page!!!), but I had been told that he would likely be doing the race on foot (he retired from bike racing in 2000) and that he should be one of the front runners. After noticing Pete and John, I had just enough time to glance over to Jill for one last good luck gesture. Jill and I both get really quiet just before our races so I guess there was an unspoken understanding at that point that there really just wasn't much more to say to each other. I looked back down the trail in front of me for a few seconds and then I heard someone yell, "Go".

After shuffling to the side to let the bikers and skiers ahead, I tried to find a pace that I felt was a good pace to start with. When you've never raced anything longer than a 50k, it's quite difficult to figure out just what you should be doing at this point in a 100-mile race. In the first 3 miles I must have forced myself to slow down a dozen times, but each time I would end up going too fast again after a couple minutes. Eventually the field thinned out and I was able to focus more on what I was doing and less on how I was moving in relation to others. By about mile 5 I really settled in and felt OK with my pace.

From here things progressed pretty uneventful for quite some time. I noticed at about mile 12 that my quads were a little tired already (probably a result of having not run much at all for almost 2 weeks), but as I progressed on toward Flathorn lake I felt pretty certain that they weren't getting any worse and that this probably wasn't anything I was going to have to worry about until much further into the race.

Flathorn Lake was a very welcome sight. Just before reaching the lake, the trail was very bumpy for awhile, and dragging a sled behind you is ten times worse if you're pulling it over bumps. As soon as I dropped down onto the lake, I felt great. The surface was hard and smooth and the view looking out onto the lake was incredible. I turned on my iPod for awhile and began to speed up into a much more aggressive pace. I was running in third place at this point and could see both the runners ahead of me on the lake. I passed one of them by the Flathorn checkpoint (mile 25) and headed back out on the trail (after checking in and getting some water) about 4 minutes behind the race leader.

This was the point when things started to feel really good. I began to find my rhythm such that hours were passing by in what felt like 10 minutes. I took the lead in dismal swamp (around mile 30) and this gave me a burst of energy to push on even faster. After crossing the Susitna river and heading up into the woods towards the second checkpoint I began to notice that I was now running up all the hills. For the first 20 miles, I walked up all of the hills to conserve energy. But now I was running up all the hills. This wasn't really a conscious decision that I made, but rather I simply fell into habit of pushing hard on uphills. This is of course a logical thing to do on a training run, but in the middle of a 100 miler??? Probably not the best idea. I was feeling great though so I pushed onto Eaglesong at an obnoxiously fast pace. I checked into Eaglesong (mile 46) at 8 1/2 hours and noticed 2 things: Pete Basinger was in the overall lead and was moving about twice as fast as me and Jill was about 20 minutes ahead of me.

Heading back onto the trail after Eaglesong I knew that I was going to pass Jill before Luce's. This is the slowest stretch of trail for the bikers and I was continuing to feel stronger and stronger with each step. about 30 minutes down the trail I could see Jill in the distance pushing her bike across soft snow, just as the sun was going down. I had about 5 minutes to think about what I would say to her when I caught her. I knew she would feel discouraged that I was catching up to her in middle of the race, but I also knew that she was making good timing and that she was going to pass me again when the trail improved. In 5 minutes I could not think of anything to say to her though. I wanted so badly to say the right thing so that she would not feel discouraged about her progress in relation to me, but I just couldn't think of how to say it. A week later I'm still not sure what I should have said to her at that point. I knew that I was moving along a few hours faster than I had imagined possible, and that me catching up to her had nothing to do with her going slower than she planned, but just saying this to Jill at that time didn't seem to do anything to make her feel better. All I could really do was move on down the trail and wait for her to pass me later in the night.

After checking in and out of Luce's, I got onto the Yentna river. This was when things began to get strange. I could begin to feel that I was physically tiring a little bit, but mentally I fell into a trance that I've never felt before while running. From Luce's to the Susitna river is about 9 miles and I can't recall a single thing that I thought or did in that stretch. I simply ran along and then I was at the Susitna river. There is a small checkpoint here and I stopped for some water. I asked the guy there how far to Flathorn and he told me it was about 10 miles.

Normally I think of a 10 mile run as a pretty decent length in which I'm going to have some time to think about several things and maybe listen to some music to help pass the time. Now though I was at this point where 10 miles seemed to be just around the corner. The only reason I recall much of anything that I thought or did in this 10 miles is because I played leapfrog with 2 female skiers through this stretch. They passed me somewhere on the Susitna and then I passed them in Dismal Swamp and then they passed me again just before Flathorn Lake. We didn't talk with each other much on the trail but it was nice to have them there so that looking back on it I at least have some memory of any of the 20 miles from Luce's to Flathorn. In all though, it was so nice to have that long stretch of mileage in which I was able to zone out and not really think about much of anything.

And suddenly there I was back at Flathorn (mile 75) and I was feeling great. It was almost midnight and was getting cold so I took some clothing into the checkpoint to add some layers (up to this point I was wearing exactly what I started the race with: one thin layer on my legs, windproof shell over a thin layer on top, thin fleece gloves, skull cap on my head, and two pair of thin socks). My plan was to spend about 15 minutes at this checkpoint... just enough time to get some water, change my clothes, and mix up the last of my Perpetuem. I ended up spending almost 40 minutes though.

The hospitality at this checkpoint is amazing. Here I was in middle of nowhere, in Alaska, at 11:30 pm and there were these wonderful women who run this checkpoint offering me everything you could ever want after running 75 miles: a warm cabin, comfortable seat, hot water, hot chocolate, soda, oranges, bananas, brownies, rice, cornbread, jambalaya, and some great company. There were also several other racers (bikers and skiers) at the checkpoint at this time.

In hindsight I probably spent more time here than I should have but oranges, rice, and cornbread never tasted so good and it was nice to change my socks and add another layer on my legs, a face mask that would keep my neck warm, and switch over to thick mittens for the last 25 miles. Jill arrived at Flathorn just before I left and I told her that i wanted to get going to see if I could break 20 hours. I suppose I was being a bit optimistic about this but I was really feeling good and I had 5:15 to cover a stretch of trail that had only taken me 4:41 at the start of the race, and I was still feeling as though I had enough in me to push the last 7 or 8 miles faster than I had run yet in the race. I also noticed that Pete Basinger had been through here 8 hours into the race so I was still a little ahead of double his time (I was at 15 hours).

It's amazing though how quickly these goals and feelings can change. Within 5 miles of leaving Flathorn I began to hurt. My quads were aching much more seriously now and my feet and lower legs began to ache on and off. I simply hit this point at around mile 80 in which I couldn't seem to pick my feet up anymore.

So here I was out on the trail in middle of the night with only 20 miles to go, on pace to break a race record for those traveling on foot. This was what I was thinking one minute and then a few minutes later I was thinking, "Holy Shit, how am i possibly going to run 20 miles feeling like this"??? I quickly stopped thinking about 20 hours and about Pete Basinger zipping through here on his bike, and then I stopped thinking about 21 or 22 or 23 or any other number of hours... i just wanted to finish. I put my head down an shuffled along hoping to get to a point where the pain became the norm such that I wouldn't feel it anymore. I achieved this every now and then for about 30 minutes at a time but then I would snap back to reality and feel every muscle in my body telling me to stop. I walked for awhile but that didn't help much. I started running again and the pain would return. When I started to walk for the second time I also started feeling cold. I had added the right amount of clothing at Flathorn if I were still moving at the same pace but since I was now moving much slower I wasn't generating as much heat and I was constantly fighting off chills. I debated whether to stop on the trail and get more clothing out of my sled, but then I would look down at the trail through the thin light of my headlamp and just try not to think about anything for a few miles, hoping I could block out the cold and aching muscles just long enough to finish.

Somewhere in the midst of all this Jill went cruising past me on her bike. I don't remember anything we said to each other, but I was so glad that she was back in front of me. I knew that this was mentally a good thing for her and somehow it was also a good thing for me. Now she was coasting on toward the finish and I was shuffling along completely on my own, and somehow this was comforting. I was cold, tired, and aching all over - and yet in some ways this last 5 or 10 miles became my favorite part of the race. For most of the last 5 miles I was able to pick up the pace a little bit and as I did so I noticed that I was blocking out pain more effectively than I had ever done before. for a few minutes I would focus on the pain and then I would go 15+ minutes where I forgot about it entirely. And then there was a junction in the trail that I knew was only 2 or 3 miles from the finish. Just knowing that I was this close gave me enough energy to run this last stretch at a pace similar to that which I was doing several hours earlier in the middle of the race.

Last year, when I ran the Little Susitna 50k, I crossed the finish line and dropped to the ground, I felt like I couldn't move another step. As I finished the 100 last week, though, I simply slowed to a walk as I saw the race director approaching me to record my time. I was relieved to be done and my legs were in unexplainable pain, but a small part of me felt like I could keep going, and that I wanted to keep going. I suppose this is the same part of me that has been trying to tell me all week that I should do the 350 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational next year.

After recording my official time of 21 hours and 43 minutes, there was nothing left to do but to sit down and begin the recovery process. Little did I know that this was actually just the start of the real pain and suffering. For the next 12 hours I felt like I had been run over by a truck a few times and then placed on a spinning amusement park ride for a couple hours until my body was finally deposited into a small cabin somewhere in Alaska that was heated to about 85 degrees.

It took me about an hour to take off my shoes and change my socks. I was trying to drink liquids and eat food but my body didn't really want any of this. It was simply trying to reject everything. I remained in this state more or less that entire day and then finally later that night my body calmed down and suddenly I couldn't feed it and hydrate it fast enough.

I had some toes that were messed up pretty badly and some very sore muscles in my legs, but within 4 days this was all more or less recovered. I haven't been back out for a run yet, but I've xc skied about 40 miles in the last 4 days and will probably go for a short run tomorrow just to be sure everything's working properly. After all, it's never too early to start training for next year's 350.

By the way, my time was about 20 minutes slower than twice as much as the overall race winner, Pete Basinger who as I write this is in the final stretches of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. He is currently on pace to break the race record by several hours. Check out the Iditarod Trail Invitational page if you're interested in seeing how he's doing.

Here's some specifics on what I ate during the race for those who are interested in that kind of thing:
Hammer Perpetuem (sustained energy mix) - about 2000 calories
Cytomax (sports drink mix) - about 1000 calories
7 Fruit Leathers (dried fruit) - about 300 calories
4 Granola Bars - about 700 calories
1 Sandwich - about 400 calories
Hammer Gel Raspberry flavor - about 500 calories
Hammer Gel Espresso flavor w/caffeine - about 200 calories
Walnuts - about 400 calories
Chocolate - about 400 calories
Rice, Cornbread, and Oranges at Flathorn - about 600 calories
Total Calories: ~6500


(Photo by Mike Curiak, 2005)

I’ve been glued to Iditarod Invitational race reports. Web update voyeurism has pretty much defined my day. That and my job ... in there, somewhere.

Despite an alder-choked trail setback, Pete Basinger is still tearing up the race. After he left the Puntilla Lake checkpoint at mile 165 yesterday evening, he opted to take the long way around, adding 33 miles onto what is already a 350-mile race. After nearly 18 hours of no new information, the race officials finally had him into the Rohn checkpoint, mile 210, at 11:15 a.m. and out two hours later. Word is he slept a little out on the trail last night. He had 140 more miles of what is reported to be hard, fast trail ... some of it with little to no snow, which is good if you’re a biker. And at 1:15 he still had nearly 30 hours to finish in record time. Can Pete bike 140 reportedly hardpacked miles in 30 hours, even on little to no sleep? I don’t personally know Pete, but I’m guessing it would take a grizzly bear waking up from hibernation in the -30-degree night and eating both of his tires to stop him. And even then, I don’t believe he’d stop.

Pete’s three trailers, seasoned Alaska cyclists Jeff Oatley and Rocky Reifenstuhl, and impressive Wyoming-based newcomer Jay Petervary, left Rohn at 8 this evening. No word yet on which route they chose to get to Rohn. It sounds like the alder obstacle is beyond relief - six miles of thick bushwhacking. If they heard the same information that was posted on the news board, they would have been crazy not to follow in Pete’s tire tracks, even with river overflow concerns, so I'm guessing they did the extra mileage as well. But either way, they made it.

I have a feeling that by the time I wake up tomorrow morning, this race is going to be over. And I believe Pete will have completed whatever impossible mission he set out to do ... whatever drove him to tell Geoff in July that the Iditarod Invitational “is all I think about.”

Speculation at this point is all I have ... speculation and stunning pictures of the ghost trail to McGrath, stretching closer to the Great Unknown than anyone should dare to go.

“In the past week, I’ve gone from maybe doing the race in a few years to maybe doing it next year,” Geoff wrote on the MTBR forum. “And now, with all the excitement I’m feeling from just tracking it online and seeing these pictures, I can’t imagine not doing it next year ...”

And I’m sorry, Mom, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same way.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Glad I'm here, wish I was there

I did sit on the couch with an ice pack on my knee for a decent part of the morning, squinting out the window at a brutally unfair blaze of sun until I could take it no longer. Even if my knee still can’t bend far enough to pedal a bicycle, at could at least drag it somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

I decided to drive out the the glacier visitors center and go for a walk. A simple walk. I’d take it slow and loosen up my knee. I started at the edge of the lake, making my way across the ice. I veered of the trail when the footing became too uneven and shuffled through several inches of soft, unbroken powder. Even during the popular hours of a beautiful early Sunday afternoon, the wide-open lake ice serves as the perfect crowd sifter. Skiers, walkers and runners fan out in all directions, across all points, so a gimp like me can waddle along in peace.

I walked for a while, watching every step, focused only on my gait and how far each knee came up. Several minutes passed this way. And half-hour maybe. It’s hard to say. I was out for a walk, trying to ward off the creeping crazy of cabin fever, and I was still completely preoccupied with arbitrary steps. Enough so that when I looked up, I felt momentarily lost. Ahead of me, huge, electric-blue ice chunks of the Mendenhall Glacier loomed like city buildings, so close that I could only see the tips of the jagged peaks rising beyond the skyline. I turned around to see dark puffs of clouds encompassing the sun, their backlit edges burning blinding holes in the sky. Craggy, snow-covered mountains seemed to tower over even the clouds. And I admit ... I stopped for a moment, baffled. Baffled that this place still exists. Baffled that this is where I live. Baffled that even as a partial cripple, I have the option of gimping out here an hour before I have to be at work. Baffled that I can stand in the midst of this handicap-accessible white world of ice and feel - if only momentarily - as though I’ve accidentally discovered some deep and unchartable wilderness. Baffling.

Not as much so, however, as the current standings of the Iditarod Invitational. This year’s race to McGrath is beyond compelling. The racers left at 2 p.m. Saturday and all the cyclists blazed down the hard-packed trail in record time. Now, more than 30 hours into the 350-mile event, they’re hardly showing any signs of slowing down. Pete Basinger, the winner of this year’s Susitna 100, took the lead at mile 90. At 24 hours, he was nearly halfway to the finish - 165 miles. Nearly 11 hours ahead of Mike Curiak’s 2005 time at that point, Pete was on pace not only to break the course record, but absolutely shatter it.

But then came news of bad conditions on the other side of the pass ... a maze of thick, twisting alders were choking the trail, which had been wind-blasted clean of most of its snow cover. The racers had only three choices ... wait for race volunteers to cut out the brush, which could take a day or more; plow right into the thick of it, knowing that bushwhacking could be extremely slow and arduous; or ride the side route, tacking on 33 extra miles but having a marginally better chance of smooth hardpack for the remainder of the race. What will Pete do? How will he get out of this predicament?

Last we heard, he was checking out of Puntilla Lake at mile 165 and was going to decide what to do once he saw the trail. Either way, he is heading into the communication-devoid “Black Hole” of the course. He faces another long, cold night on very little to no sleep, temperatures dipping below 0, and three very different choices that could make or break him. How will he fare? Will the three cyclists on his tail leave Puntilla in time to catch up to him? Will the alder predicament rob him of the record? Stay tuned!

Man ... I love this stuff. Especially since there’s so little solid information out there. Everything is speculative and subject to the revision by the wild imaginations of those who get to sleep in warm beds tonight. This is sports spectatorship at its best, if you ask me. For the latest, check here.
Saturday, February 24, 2007


Today was a beautiful day: sunny sky, dry air, new snow and temperatures that haven’t been above freezing in more than a week ... leaving nothing but powder dusting as far as the roads and trails stretch. In short, perfect conditions.

I, however, can’t say the same about myself. Still have that mysterious knee pain. I’m unable to bend my right knee at more than a 30 degree angle without pushing through a lot of pain. It has good periods and bad, but what doesn’t change is how weak and sore it feels, regardless of what angle I have it at.

Since it’s been a week, I’m beginning to have a lot of empathy for what Geoff when through earlier this month, struggling with mysterious foot pains. It’s really frustrating, especially since I don’t know the diagnosis or even the cause. I had that theory about overextending it in a posthole, but who knows?

The worst part, beyond everyone asking me ‘Why are you limping?’ is that all of this pent-up energy is just pooling and fermenting inside of me. I’ve had to cut back my caffeine intake. Today, I went to the gym to do some upper-body weight lifting and pedal the stationary bike with my left leg while propping my right on the frame — just to get some of the shakes out. I even walked on the treadmill for a little while. My knee loosened up and felt great all afternoon, but this evening is back to being stiff.

I’m thinking about going to see a doctor this week. But if I’m going to drop a big co-pay on an ‘expert,’ I’d like something a little more substantial than vague guesses. Geoff received a lot of good info by reaching out to other ultrarunners on the Web. So I thought I’d do the same.

If you’re still reading after my gripe fest, maybe you can help me. My problem is stiff/soreness on the top of my knee, mostly in the tissue immediately around my kneecap. It’s tender enough that it hurts when I press down on the top of my knee. There was some swelling for three or four days, but that’s mostly gone down. It is getting better, just slowly. I’m not sure if the pain is in muscle or tendons. It’s basically right in the joint.

Has anyone out there ever experienced something like this? Since I don’t know exactly how it happened, any information will give be a leg to stand on, so to speak.

Thanks again. I know the importance of recovery and the virtue of patience. But recent comments about “major reconstructive surgery” just have me a little worried.

But if I can’t bike in this beautiful winter weather, at least I have a good sporting event to watch. The 350-mile Iditarod Invitational began today, which means that every 12 hours or so, some names will appear in white text on a black screen, telling me where each hardcore winter racer is located and when they rolled through. The updates are slow and not very visual, but for me, this is more exciting than the Superbowl. Go Pete!
Thursday, February 22, 2007


(This photo was contributed to the Susitna 100 Web site by Michael Schoder. There are other cool photos of the race at

The sore knee I sustained during the Susitna 100 turned out to be more of a full-fledged injury. My best guess is I either twisted or mildly sprained it after another cyclist brushed me over and I punched my right leg into a hip-deep snowdrift, probably overextending my knee in the process. I remember feeling sharp tinges of pain that wore off pretty fast. But since that happened three miles into the race, I'm guessing that riding 100 more miles didn't exactly do wonders for the healing process.

Whatever the cause, I'm still gimpy and unable to use it much. Today was the first time since early Sunday morning that I have been able to bend it at all without shooting pain - it's been reduced to dull pain. After couple of days of stagnant pain levels, I became more and more stressed about its state and the prospect of needing weeks or doctor visits to heal.

So when my knee started to feel better today, I was already feeling overeager about bringing it back. I decided to go for a little walk along Twin Lakes - flat, paved, and exactly a mile one way. I made slow, careful steps to concentrate on bending, but not overbending. I shuffled my way about a half mile down the path before my knee started to feel really weak and sore. After a few more steps, pain was shooting again, so I locked my knee and hobbled back to the car.

It's such an interesting paradox ... injury. In less than a week, I've gone from snowbiking centuries to struggling to walk a mile. I am going to have to take it easy for at least a few more days, and it's already driving me crazy. Beyond my injury, I feel like I recovered amazingly fast. Then, on top of that, the past few days in Juneau have been filled with dry snow and cold temperatures ... perfect for any number of activities I've neglected: skiing, snowboarding, ice skating. And Snaux Bike ... poor thing is still in a rumpled bike box, probably thrashed to pieces by airport baggage handlers. I guess the least I could do is put it back together. But what I really want to do is ride it. It's crazy how fast that urge recovers.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Susitna 2, Chapter 4

(The Susitna River, Mile 33. One thing I always neglect but wish I did was take more pictures. There's a stark beauty out there that I was never quite able to capture. Mostly, what I got were long stretches of snowmobile tracks and sky.)

Any long-term comfort that may have been provided by a warm meal and a half hour in front of a fire wore off the minute I let the subzero chill off Flathorn Lake hit my skin. I thought it important to change into something dry for the duration of what was certain to be five more hours of riding through the ungodliest cold hours of the early morning. But even as I thrashed and struggled with my clothing, I could feel the wind biting the pink skin on my torso. It sucked heat like a vacuum from my exposed legs and shoeless feet as I stood toes-curled on top of a thin drybag. Changing clothes out there was one of the worst ideas I had since deciding to ride a full-day winter ultramarathon with a leaking camelbak (I haven't talked about that problem in my race report, but let's just say I spent the day with an ice slick down the back of my coat.)

By the time I was moving again, I was a full-body freak show of involuntary shivering. I pedaled down the lake ice quickly to drum up body heat, but the convulsions would rip my handlebars in bad directions, sending my bicycle careening into soft spots as I struggled to regain balance. After about a mile of that - right before leaving the lake and heading back into the woods - I thought pretty seriously about turning around and going back to Flathorn Lodge until I warmed up. But I realized that my shivering had almost subsided, and I was beginning to feel better. A more-than-fleeting thought crossed my mind that I might actually just be approaching that stage of hypothermia where people start tearing off all of their clothing because they feel overheated. But I turned off my iPod and recited a few sentences aloud. They didn't sound slurred to me, so I decided I was still mentally with it. I continued forward.

The middle of the night is one of my favorite times to be riding during an endurance event. Before a ride, there is always the hope that conditions would be perfect, I would feel on top of my game and amazingly find the strength to pound all the miles out by midnight. But when that doesn't happen, I find the lonely hours of the morning to be the most revealing and memorable of the entire ride. In the clear night, the distant city lights of Anchorage burned deep orange streaks behind the horizon like remnants of a long-departed sunset. Craggy silhouettes of black spruce stabbed at the light and cast faint, far-stretching shadows over the purple snow. In the night, I think about a lot of things. I think about nothing. I habitually turn the pedals and believe I could do this forever, and never stop, even as my eyelids droop and shoulders burn. In the night, time makes quantum leaps forward, even as I move slower and slower. Entire hours will pass by. I will remember every moment, and it will feel like minutes.

This was the point of the race when my eyelashes started freezing shut. The ice fog of my breath hung like a blinder in front of my headlamp, condensing into droplets and clinging to my face. When sleepy fatigue began to settle in and it seemed appealing to close my eyes and lift my neck to the sky for just a couple seconds, the ice would halt my ability to open them again. My mittens did little to thaw my eyelashes, and it was too risky now to take my mittens off. Enough pulling with my eyelid muscles would eventually pry them open again (and I probably ripped out several in the process). But there were stretches on the trail where I rode with one eye clamped shut, grumbling about the tragic comedy of it all.

Later, as I dipped and climbed over the rolling hills of the woods, the shivering came back. More than two hours had passed since I left Flathorn Lodge. I had not stopped my bike for more than a couple seconds since that point, but I was definitely shivering. Convulsions coursed through my body in waves as I surfed over the trail moguls, subsiding briefly before then punching through again. They were becoming more pronounced with each episode. I let my teeth chatter for a while as I stood up and sat back down on my seat repeatedly in a strange, slow-motion mimic of the heart-pounding intervals I used to do in Spin class. But it was quickly becoming apparent that my body wasn't going to warm itself on its own.

So I began to assess my situation. I was already wearing all of my dry layers. The trail was soft and punchy here, and going harder didn't even seem mechanically possible. I could get off my bike and jog or run, but that seemed counterproductive, too. I could bivy if the situation became dire, but I didn't want the Mat-Su Motor Mushers to come out looking for me and drag me off the trail with only 16 miles left in my race. My only moving option that I hadn't explored yet were the six chemical heat warmers I had left in my food bag. I stopped and tore open every single one. I put one in each glove, one in the ankle of each boot, a big one in my bike jersey back pocket, and another with my water bottle, just to ensure continued access to water. (One of the most valuable things I've learned recently, from reading Arrowhead 135 race reports, is that dehydration compounds the effects of hypothermia.) I was still shivering, but I could feel the packs' radiant heat on my cold skin.

Chemical warmers are little miracles. I don't know why they do what they do, and they're probably full of scary toxins, but they work. After about a 15 minutes, I was beginning to feel normal again. And that's when I saw a red blinky light several hundred yards in front of me. It was the first motion I had seen since leaving Flathorn.

I purposely held back for quite a while, unwilling to decide whether or not to catch up to Geoff. I felt pangs of frustration set off by his presence ... Frustration for breaking my solitude. For being so much better than me at this sort of thing. For holding so strong a lead. For being destined to win the foot division. For taking the Susitna 100, which was my race, and carving a permanent stamp of success on his name when I was destined for mediocrity. I can be very petty when I'm sleep deprived. But these are the thoughts that crossed my mind, and these are the reasons I watched his blinky light flash around corners for more than a mile before I pedaled up to him.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Hurting," he croaked. "I'm hurting."

He wasn't the same Geoff I saw 12 miles ago at Flathorn Lodge. He was subdued, and swaying a bit. "You only have 14 more miles to go," I said. The words sounded ridiculous before I even finished saying them. Regardless of how many miles came before, 14 miles is not a short distance on foot. And I realized that, even after periods of chill and pangs of hunger, I was feeling just fine. I was going to finish this race, even if it wasn't with impressive speed. And a quick glance at Geoff's face, and the look in his eyes, told me that he wasn't so certain of the same outcome.

"You should go," he said. "I'm slowing down here. My sub-20 is shot." (As it was, mine was too, unless I picked up the pace from my current 6-7 mph to 8 mph without stops, and at this point, I needed stops to get water.)

"I can stay," I said, but I was already shooting ahead of him by just coasting. I touched the brakes and slowed back. "No," he said, and I knew he didn't want me lingering at the edge of his pain tunnel. When the tables are turned (and when Geoff and I do things together, they usually are), I always feel the exact same way.

"OK," I said, and rolled away. I knew he would be fine, but I felt instantly guilty. I wrestled with ridiculous thoughts about attaching his sled to the back of my bike and pulling him for a while. And I struggled with humbling thoughts about how Geoff must really feel - in the midst of the race of his life, one minute feeling on top of the world and the next fading to black. We all have our battles, and mine was only two more hours of sore shoulders, a throbbing right knee, and a little sleepy fatigue. I had no idea what Geoff was going to fight to get through the last 14 miles.

The next 10 miles of trail are the most difficult part of the entire course ... punctuated with long climbs and steep, scary downhills. It's a fun way to begin a race and a brutal way to end it. I can't imagine there's anyone who trudged through this stretch and didn't wish they were somewhere - anywhere - else. The snow drifts on the side of the trail began to look like to most comfortable beds in the world. Anything with more than 10 feet of elevation gain had me on my feet. So much for 7 mph.

During these final miles of endurance races, I always launch into a slow shutdown. My body no longer acknowledges the passing of time. My brain, whose urgent messages of fatigue and pain have too long been ignored, stops bothering to send them. I give up on eating (and hadn't eaten anything since Flathorn Lodge anyway.) I only drink when the thought crosses my mind, which becomes less and less frequent. I pedal as though in a dream, as though in a machine, with no rewards and no consequences.

I caught up with another cyclist when my computer registered 100 miles. I realized that there couldn't be more than three miles in the race. He was stopped on the side of the trail. Not knowing what he was at first, I stopped too. We both stared into the darkness, headlight to headlight, for several elapsed seconds before I finally moved toward him. "I thought you were a dog musher," he said.

"I thought the same," I said.

"You should go ahead," he said.

"Actually, I'm dying here," I said. "You don't want to get stuck behind me."

"I'm in no hurry," he said. And with that he took off in front of me. I followed on his tail for more than a mile before he broke away. Somehow, in those final two miles, I felt no time pass and no more fatigue. My transition outside myself was finally complete, and I felt as though I no longer had to suffer the burden of being human. But the reality turned out to be quite different. That cyclist managed to finish a full 7 minutes before me. And when I finally rolled up to the finish line and stepped off my bike, all of that surreal painlessness tore away with it. My right knee was screaming at me. My shoulders burned as though I was being stabbed with hundreds of hot needles. I hobbled toward the bleary-eyed race director, who took my name and the time - 5:50 a.m. - but never really acknowledged me. He would later stop me twice to ask me if I was the first woman skier across the finish line.

With all the strength I could muster, I pushed my bike to the truck and limped into the warming hut, dragging my stiff right leg behind me. A handful of other racers sprawled in sleeping bags on the floor as a friendly dog musher stoked the fire to an indoor temperature of 87 degrees. She gave me apple cider and I gulped it down. I sat next to the silent race director and we stared blankly out the window toward the finish line for 20 minutes. Then, with heavy eyelids, I decided that a quick recline on the bench, with no pillow and my legs dangling off the edge, would do no harm. Just rest my eyes for a minute ... then sit back up to wait for Geoff come in. I felt the hard bench pressing painfully into my skull. Then I felt nothing until 6:55 a.m., when I jolted awake to find a bleary-eyed Geoff sitting across from me.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I sputtered. He looked blankly at me. "How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Like I've been hit by a truck," he said.

I looked at my watch again. "You broke the record, didn't you?"

He shrugged. "I can't believe I paid $700 to feel this way."

I adjusted my weight on the bench and realized my right knee was no longer voluntarily bending. And in my mind, I'm thinking it was worth every penny.

Total time: 20 hours, 50 minutes.
Total riding time: 18 hours, 2 minutes.
Total distance: 102.9 miles.
Average speed: 5.7 mph.
Top speed: 18.2 mph
Calories consumed: (At my best guess) Walnuts and cranberries, 1,200; One PBJ sandwich, 500; fruit rope (9) 420; turkey jerky (2 ounces) 160; jambalaya dinner, 800; orange slices (4) 80; Power Bar (1), 250.
Total calories: About 3,410.
Total flat tires: 0.
Total tire-pressure changes: 8.
Learning what it takes to persevere in these harsh and soul-shredding conditions: Priceless.

Susitna 2, Chapter 3

(When we left Palmer this morning, it was -9 outside. I almost forgot how beautiful the woods are when hoarfrost begins to coat everything - and the dead landscape transforms into a twisting crystal sculpture, the kind of trinket your great-grandmother stockpiled that always appeared to be on the verge of shattering. I felt sad to be leaving this cold place, and it made me realize how quickly pain is forgotten. )

For having just run 52 miles, Geoff looked much too perky. I didn't even know how to greet him in that kind of situation so all I said was, "You're fast."

"No, you're fast," he said. I tried to laugh. He had to slow down to my duck-footed hobble just to talk with me.

"You should just go," I said. "I've probably got miles more of this."

I will. But I'll stick with you for a bit," he said with the urgency of someone who knows he's in the lead but has no idea how far.

"Running a good race?" I asked.

He grinned. "Easiest thing I've ever done." His bright-eyed, red-cheeked face almost made me believe it.

"Maybe I'll see you at Luce's," he said, already cutting away.

Probably not. "Maybe I'll see you at the finish line," I said, but his red blinky light was already fading over a knoll.

I walked three more miles and then rode through teeth-clenching fishtales off the bluff and onto the Yentna River. I checked quickly in and out of the third checkpoint, and joined a veritable traffic jam of racers - skiers and other midpack bikers - as we shuffled single-file down the frozen 80-lane highway. We were all looking for the best trail out of dozens, and did so by following each other. Snowmobiles shot by us as our headlights and taillights wove in birdlike formation toward the darkness. I captured the fat track of a bike just ahead of me, easily pressing an extra inch on either side of my tread pattern. I knew one of those blinky lights ahead was Geoff. I tried to push harder but my lungs told me no. Take it easy - get through this thing. I was already wheezing just a bit. Between breaths, I was cramming cranberries in my mouth to curb the head spinning that was already starting to take hold, and taking small sips of my camelbak to curb the ice crust that had become a permanent fixture on the nozzle. Every time I pulled my fingers out of my pogies, they began to freeze. But I didn't know what else to do. "They'll come back," I told myself. "They always come back."

The flat darkness of the river is deceiving. What looks like 100 yards could be a mile, or it could be four. I watched the flickering light of the next landmark - a "five-star tent camp" at the Scary Tree junction, approach for what seemed like hours. Last year, those distant lights that seemed so close drove me insane. This year, my saving grace was my little bike computer, telling me the checkpoint was still three miles away, and that was OK.

At the confluence of the Susitna River, I finally hit harpack after yet another postholed soft trail and stopped yet again to change my tire pressure. I noticed my fingers would begin to freeze within minutes, but they were useless to me with mittens on. Even my liner gloves made the process too complicated. I decided then that this would probably be my last tire pressure change. After that, come what may, I was going to ride what I had. I pumped up to 15 psi as quickly as I could, then went for a quick sip of water. Instead, I bit down on a nozzle as hard as concrete - sending a jolt of pain through my teeth. I had waited too long. My camelbak was frozen. In a fit of frustration, I tore open my back-rack bag and rifled through until I found my water bottle, which I had buried in my gear. It was more than half frozen itself, but still had liquid inside. I fought with the cap for a while, and guzzled the lemon-flavored Propel slushy until it was dry, knowing that any liquid in it now would not be liquid much later. As I pondered my water situation and my options, I had two wonderful ideas. I pulled out a chemical warmer, tore it open and stuffed it in a plastic grocery bag with my water bottle, buried in the deep pouch of my camelbak. Then I stuck the nozzle beneath my armpit, and off I rode (this probably sounds gross. It seemed brilliant at the time.)

(This is the Susitna River on the way out, Mile 33, about 2 p.m. I never took any pictures after dark. It was completely clear, with a new moon and a sky full of spectacular stars, but no sign of Northern Lights. It must have been a quiet night for the aurora, and that was definitely disappointing.)

There were only nine more miles to the next checkpoint, and I knew my water situation wasn't dire ... especially since I still had plenty of liquid in my camelbak bladder. But my fingers were taking longer and longer to come back from the dead, and I realized that I wasn't really going to be able to continue using them as I was. It would mean no longer eating frequent small bites as I had been, but I thought if I could have one big meal at Flathorn Lodge, that would probably get me through the rest of the race. And, if not, I could always make careful, longer stops to eat with mittens on. I felt proud of my innovation, but more frustrated with my amateurish lack of preparedness and planning, which was becoming more apparent with every stop.

Luckily, the next nine miles were hard and fast and I warmed up easily. This was the site of my undoing last year ... the Dismal Swamp, and I always understood how it earned its name. But this year, under a canopy of stars that punched through the black sky like holes in a disintegrating sun shelter, it was difficult to feel dismal. This may have been the fastest stretch of my race. I'll never know because the time stamps don't exactly back up that claim. But it felt that way.

I arrived at Flathorn just before midnight. Geoff was there as well, preparing the take off into the new day. He was still perky and energetic to the point of being buzzed. He informed me that he had just eaten white rice with cornbread crumbled on top, and life was good and he was going to pound the rest of this thing out for a sub 20-hour finish. He still had five hours to do so, and it definitely didn't seem implausible at that point. Since my own sub 20-hour finish seemed a little less plausible ... and a little less important, I settled in at the table and somehow scarfed down an entire bowl of homemade jambalaya before I realized there were chunks of tomato-colored sausage in it (I don't eat red meat.) But it was too warm and tasty for me to even care. I can probably honestly say that this is the first meal I have ever actually enjoyed eating during a long bicycle ride, road centuries included.

Everyone else in the cabin had cozied up next to the wood stove and looked to be settled in for the night. I purposely didn't take off any of my gear to avoid the temptation (and would later be made fun of for doing so.) But I slipped out at 12:07 a.m. Once I returned to my bike, I changed my base layer and added extra layers (I would have done so in the cabin, but I forgot to bring my bag in with me the first time, and it was a good 300-yard walk up and back down a hill just to change clothes.) It was OK. I was wearing layers I knew had worked for me before. The chill would wear off. It always did ...
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Susitna 2, Chapter 2

(Our good friends in Palmer followed us to the race start to cheer us on and take pre -race pictures. You know they're good friends when they're willing to get up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and stand for 45 minutes in subfreezing cold.)

Trying to pilot a bicycle on top of snow and ice is unpredictable at best, and impossible at worst. I think this single aspect, more so than even the cold, is what makes winter cycling exciting to me. Trail conditions range from glare ice to packed powder to sugary powder to slurpee mess. And the best part - they can change from one hour to the next. The trail I see is not the same trail the race leaders or the bring-up-the-rear riders see. It is in constant flux, a fluid surface bending to the whims of motion - the wind's motion, the weather's motion, my motion.

Winter cyclists always talk about finding the perfect line - the place where the trail's the hardest packed. Often, it's no wider than the ski of a snowmobile or another cyclist's four-inch tires. Sticking to that line is a practice of patience and focus. Lose it once, and the consequences could mean twisting your knee in a posthole or endoing over the handlebars when you plant your front wheel. I am usually scatterbrained when I ride, my mind always in flux between the past and present. But when I try to find and keep that line, I am a picture of concentration. It's the closest I've come to Zen.

I rode all the way from Eaglesong to the Susitna River, about 8 miles, locked in that trance. I didn't acknowledge the time passing, and don't even remember that stretch except for a random glance at Mount Susitna looming over the horizon beneath a smooth glaze snow. I was momentarily unaware that any time had passed since Feb. 18, 2006. That was exactly where I was one year before, looking at the same mountain as it basked in the same sunlight. For a beautiful moment I was lost in a consequence-free flashback. Then I heard the crackle of snow beneath my wheels. I felt mild headwind biting at my cheeks. And I realized that I had come a fair distance since one year ago, and I still had a long way to go.

Thirteen miles separate the Susinta River from the second checkpoint, Eaglesong Lodge. It's a lesser-used trail - even a private trail in stretches, I believe. I noticed how much slower the snow became. With a sugary layer on top, it often felt like plying my way through desert sand. I remember riding 100-yard stretches of sand in southern Utah that left me doubled over at the end with a heart rate of about 190. It's strange that I now seek out the very conditions I once almost killed myself trying to avoid, back when attempted to crank up slickrock stretches that were way beyond my skill level. Maybe this is the paradox of getting older - the immediate risks become less intense as long-term efforts grow to be almost unfathomable. My 19-year-old self laying on a stretch of Moab's Slickrock Trail with a bloody leg would never, never have been able to imagine where life would take her eight years down the road.

I left Eaglesong just as the sun was beginning to set. This was the first point where I realized that I was actually a ways behind where I was at this point last year. I had made it over eight more miles of trail by sunset in 2006. And this was the worst stretch of trail yet - built solely for the race and used only by racers, it was tracked out and postholed by moose and human feet beyond being any real use to me. I trudged along slowly, hoisting my bike out of the holes and taking advantage of the snail pace and free hands to choke down some turkey jerky and walnut/cranberry trail mix (for the record, not the most palatable combination.) I heard some quiet footsteps approaching from behind. And when I turned around, I wasn't really surprised to see Geoff.

(We just returned from the post-race party, where a race official confirmed that Geoff did indeed break the previous course record, which was 22:15, by more than 30 minutes. It was fun to go to the party and actually meet the racers. I didn't recognize anyone without multiple layers of winter gear on. I have an early flight to catch tomorrow morning, so I'm headed to bed. But I'll get this thing typed out eventually.)
Monday, February 19, 2007

Susitna 2, Chapter 1

(Thanks to Ben for providing the picture. This isn't me at the finish. It was very, very dark when I finished the race. This picture was taken while I was still perky and warm at Eaglesong Lodge, Mile 47.)

Like most people who relish in getting themselves in over their heads, I tend to be a bit superstitious. I treat weather reports like religious text - true to the sense that you believe them - and never speak of them lest they come back to bite me. The night before the race is an important ritual of stress and acceptance. Then, the morning of the race is a reality check of clutter and chaos.

I believed it an interesting omen when Geoff momentarily lost control of the truck we were driving, with my bike thrown haphazardly in the back, on a patch of ice near Big Lake. I believed a more ominous omen when I pulled my overturned camelbak out of the truck to find it soaked and empty of water (I actually knew that camelbak bladder leaked out of the top and still took it, thereby making one of the worst decisions I could possibly make.)

During the frantic starting-line search for water, I lost all extra time for pre-race gear preps. My friends helped me strap on my bags, which I could only hope I packed correctly, and I tested my electronic gear ... headlight, headlamp, blinky light and iPod.

The first song that came on was Steven Sufjan's "Chicago" ... "If I was crying, in the van, with my friend - it was for freedom, from myself and from the land." I believe it to somehow be the right omen. This race wasn't going to be about me.

A calm settled over me as I lined up at the starting line with Geoff at my side, fiddling with his sled. Directly in front of me was John Stamstad, a legendary endurance cycling pioneer, standing with his stroller sled and getting ready to run his own race. I watched the leaders straddle their truly fat "FatBikes" at the front. The sunrise hung low on the horizon and reflected off the snow-frosted trees in steaks of pastel pink. I thought about the strangeness of being locked in such a crowd, so close to the solitary remoteness of the Susitna Valley. I never heard them say "go." As the crowd of 60 or so racers on bike, skis and foot lurched forward, I followed the flow.

I'm about the most conservative cyclist there is, but I can't help but go hard at the beginning. Part of the urgency stems from staying ahead of the skiers, who can completely block the narrow trail for miles if you fall behind. But it also feels really good, on that groomed dog mushing path, with the leaders still in sight, to crank out a 10 mph average and believe for a few beautiful miles that you might actually be able to maintain that clip. That lasted for almost three miles. Then, another cyclist nudged me as he passed me. I put my leg down to catch myself and lost it in a posthole up to my hip. As I struggled to climb out and lift my 60-pound, overturned bicycle, I watched a group of four skate-skiers scoot by. I was riding the Susitna 100, and there are some things time and training just can't change. I couldn't help but smile.

One thing time did change was my memory of how hilly the first and last 15 miles really are. I didn't even register the hills last year in the midst of deteriorating snow conditions and plummeting morale, but the rolling terrain caught up to me this year. Most of the racers in front of me got off their bikes and took off their skis to march up the hills, leaving a wake of whipped powder snow. It's about the slipperiest surface this side of glare ice, and I could not control my footing up the steeper slopes. Some hills had me crawling on my knees, dragging my bike - overturned on its side - behind me. As I clawed my way up, I hated everything about its heavy, dead weight. I would learn to appreciate it a lot more later.

(This is another picture that I stole from a MTBR forum. Apparently, someone who rode the 50K has a sense of humor.)

At mile 16, I passed the famous - and usually missing - Nome sign. From that spot, Nome is only 1,049 miles away. I thought about the scope of the Iditarod trail, and the distant dream of actually riding a bicycle all the way to the end of the continent - to a frozen village locked against a frozen sea - and the sparse, starkly gorgeous landscape that would carry you there. A simple thing like a Nome sign makes those sweeping images that much more real, even if they never are anything more than a dream.

Once on the Iditarod, the trail is flat and fast - as fast as a trail can be when you're trying to pedal and overweight, comparatively skinny-tire bicycle through an inch or so of new snow. I was already fading a little, and I realized I was going to have to find a more comfortable pace. Frozen swamps and lakes burned blinding white in the sun. I dug out a pair of old sunglasses that I haven't worn in about a year and leaned back like a Harley biker chick out for a Saturday cruise.

The first checkpoint is at Flathorn Lake, mile 25. This checkpoint alone could singlehandidly strip all bragging rights about riding a completely self-supported race. They lure you inside a warm cabin and ply you with oranges, brownies and hot water. They won't even let you get your own water or food. It's full service through and through, all out of the goodness of heart of a few race volunteers who happen to own property in what I consider one of the most beautiful areas of the world. It's after this checkpoint that I start to realize I'm not necessarily riding a race. I'm a tourist in this land. And later, when fatigue creeps in a darkness masks all but the immediate, painful future, the promise of Flathorn really helps ...
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cold ride

Date: Feb. 17
Mileage: 102.9
February mileage: 361.1
Temperature upon departure: 11

I have some more cognizant thoughts about the Susitna 100 that I'd like to write about when I'm a little less sleep-deprived. But today, between my Sunday duties of eating food that all tastes overwhelmingly like salt (why does dehydration do that?) and physically hauling a crippled Geoff from the car to the couch to bath to bed, I wanted to post a quick race report.

First of all, Geoff not only persevered through his injury, but he came back full force to shatter the old Susinta 100 foot course record (according to some people we talked to this morning. I'm not sure yet if it's official.) He finished in about 21 hours 40 minutes. Just behind me :-). In fact, we hopscotched during a fair portion of the race. It was a little demoralizing at first, but the fact is ... Geoff's a strong runner, and I'm not all that fast on a bike. For me, snowbiking - even in good conditions - is like constantly riding uphill or into a strong wind. The resistance is fierce, and I'm fairly happy to maintain 6-7 mph over a fairly hilly course. And obviously, Geoff can run that speed no problem. But who knew he could do it for 100 miles?

I'm actually pretty happy with my time. It was about three hours slower than I was shooting for, but 4.5 hours faster than last year. We had great trail riding conditions. Most of the trail was hard-packed powder, but there were about two new inches of snow that made things slower going. And, of course, I never take into account that the trail use out there is so varied. At least 10 percent of trail will always be soft or postholed, and I'll have at least 10 miles of walking at 2.5 mph (This year, including long uphills, I think I walked a total of 14 miles.) I think the secret to increasing my time is the practice faster pushing ... buy lighter gear ... and the fattest snowbike I can find.

I felt like I rode close to my aerobic capability most of time, but I didn't struggle with either that or the trail conditions this year. No, this year, my nemesis was the cold. My training in moderately temperate Juneau didn't quite prepare for for the subzero conditions I met out on the trail (some reports I got put checkpoint lows at -4 before windchill. Based on past experiences, I wouldn't be surprised if it was colder than that in pockets.) I thought I prepared well for the cold, but it hit me hard. At my lowest point, I was riding through a wooded stretch at about 2 a.m. Even though I had changed into all of the layers I was carrying, I could feel my core temperature dropping. (I had even changed my base layer just a couple of hours before, so I was not drenched in sweat.) Light shivering started even as I was riding. Since I figured at that point I was about 20 minutes away from pulling off the trail, starting a fire and bivying, I turned to my last resort before desperation ... chemical heat warming packs. Those things are little miracles. Inside my boots and mittens, my hands and feet warmed up pretty quickly ... and I think my digits may have been the original source of my cooling spell. I had one chemical warmer in my bike jersey back pocket, and one in my pack with the hope that it would thaw my frozen water bottle a little. That miraculously staved off the worst of the chill, but there were always little things to deal with ... eyelashes that kept freezing shut, not being about to pull my hands out of my pogies to feed myself, an insulated camelbak nozzle that kept freezing solid (yes, I always put it inside my coat and blew all the water out of the hose). It would only unfreeze after an extensive period under my arms.

Geoff did contract a little bit of "frost nip" on the tip of one of his toes, though you can hardly tell with all of the blisters he has anyway. I suffered no ill after-effects from the cold.

It's funny, because there were racers from Fairbanks who thought -4 was downright balmy. I really think it's a matter of acclimatization, and also having confidence in what systems work best under what I consider extreme conditions. If it's 35 and raining, I know exactly what to do. But spending 20 hours in subzero to scarcely-double-digit cold, and I definitely have a lot to learn. Last night, I was never in any real danger. I was chilled, but not hypothermic. I definitely know that value of stopping and trying to remedy a situation before hypothermia even begins to set in. I was just concerned that I was closing in on that point.

Anyway, it was an amazing experience. I can't wait to write about the things I saw and felt, which for me, is really the most valuable part of the race.
Friday, February 16, 2007

Let's get it started

If you're checking in after 9 a.m. AST Saturday morning, check on my progress here.

About 12 more hours to wait. I feel a little nauseated with anxiety. I wouldn't want it any other way.

However, I can't really pinpoint why I feel this way. It's not that I have performance anxiety because I'm trying to win this thing. This is a popular race, packed with some extremely skilled and strong winter endurance cyclists, and I'm one of those weekend warriors who will be thrilled to simply finish ... even if it takes me 48 hours because I spent the last 25 miles trudging through eight inches of snow with my bike on my back (actually, it would be really cool if I still finished after all that.) And it's not that I'm convinced that I'm riding into my death ... I did believe that last year, and this feeling is different. It doesn't have the same immediacy. It doesn't have the same bite. It's a dull kind of stress, worn smooth by time and contemplation. It's the kind of stress I imagine a person would feel if they had spent hours frantically fighting off some kind of danger, like a pursuing black bear, only to end up at the top of a tree with the bear closing in. They know at that point that they've done all they can do. What's going to happen is going to happen. It's acceptance. The calm before the storm.

It's been a gloomy sort of day. Overcast and foggy in these wide open spaces that I'm not used to. I spent the day in Palmer putting my bike together, packing my stuff, drinking water, trying to eat. It's hard to eat. I have to pop Tums after every little snack ... and little snacks are all I've been able to get down in one sitting. Now I have to take a shower and get some sleep, and that's going to be difficult, too. But I know this waiting is physically challenging because this event is important to me. I like to have goals in my life that I care deeply about. I do feel sick now, but, like I said ... I wouldn't have it any other way.

The race starts at 9 a.m. The weather forecast looks good. Trail reports are promising. What's going to happen is going to happen. I'm already past acceptance. Bring on the attack.
Thursday, February 15, 2007

It's my bike in a box

These are the last-minute details.

Since I may not get another chance to post before Saturday (but probably will), I wanted to post a link to the Susitna 100 Web site. Last year, they posted checkpoint check-in times during the race. It was surprisingly up-to-date all the way until I wandered across the finish line at 10 a.m., about five hours after I left the last checkpoint with only 13 miles to go. If that wasn't enough of a delayed finish, they didn't actually post that I had finished until after 1 p.m. The time delay caused my parents, friends and even a few people out in bloggerland some understandable anxiety. So I post this link with the disclaimer that I may be where they say I am ... hoofing deliriously down the trail at a rate of about 1 mph. Or, I may not. But please check it out. When it gets really lonely out there, it's a comforting thought to believe that some people are - in a distant way - watching you.

Actually packing all of my gear into two bags was an interesting experience. Geoff and I are going to be gone for five days, and we actually have an airport baggage weight problem.

Geoff: "Did you know they have a 50-pound limit on your luggage?"

Me: "All of your luggage?"

Geoff: "No, each bag. But that bike box is over 40 pounds. How much do you think all of that other stuff weighs?"

Me, looking at a bed stacked a foot-high with random gear: "It may be less than 50 pounds."

Geoff: "It doesn't look it. Can't you leave some stuff home?"

Me, feeling deflated: "I haven't even packed anything for the four other days yet. That's just stuff I need in the race."

Geoff: "Hmmm. Better wear something the the airport you can wash a few times."

And in a few hours, I'm going to have to hoist it all into a car and somehow carry it into the airport. What's even stranger to me is that, eventually, I'm going to have to carry all that stuff 100 miles.

I'll probably post a pre-race report tomorrow. But in case I don't get a chance, thank you to everyone who has been watching and who has wished me well.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fun at its peak

A few people have asked me how Geoff is dealing with his foot injury. Today, he had a really good day. Not only did he get a job offer to be a cook at a natural food grocery store and deli, but he also ran four miles without any pain in his feet. A pain-free four-mile run does not a successful 100-mile race make, but he's feeling less certain that he has a stress fracture, and more certain that he his going to run the race. Certain enough that he's at least going to stand at the starting line Saturday morning.

I spent the morning fixing up my bike so I can take it apart tomorrow. I've spent a better part of the evening creating an iPod playlist for the race. Intertwined with my old staples like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill are a few random selections that carry vivid memories of last year's Susitna 100: "D.A.R.E." by the Gorillaz and "Scrub" by TLC. It's always interesting to me when certain songs tie themselves irrevocably to particular moments in the past. So it's unfortunate that the one song that sweeps me instantly back to the dripping darkness of that soggy night in February 2006 isn't actually a song at all - it's a jingle.

Before Susitna 2006, I never listened to music while riding - at all. But people mentioned that if I found myself alone and struggling in the middle of the night, a little FM/AM radio would help me stay sane. So I took their advice, and when the night became really dark and lonely, I turned it on for the first time. I had to flip through every single notch on the dial before I came to the one station the radio could pick up. It was some top-40 station out of Anchorage, playing the most random mix of pre-selected music that any midnight radio show could hope to find. And between broadcasts of choice selections like "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt and "Unforgiven" by Metallica - literally after every other song - the station played its one and only commercial: a promo for the Mat-Su Valley tourism board. So every ten minutes, a giddy group of singing banshees would wail in my ear ... "Yahoo, Mat-Su! Fun is at its peak in the Valley!" That night, as fatigued and desperate for companionship as I was, every single advertising spot made me cringe.

But now, every time that hideous jingle enters my head, I think of the way the distant city lights of Anchorage burned orange over the wilderness. I think of the way those Valium-laced voices sang, "Don't miss the sights ... Nature puts on a show with the northern lights." And it makes me smile.

And if I could find an mP3 of that commercial, I'd definitely add it to my Susitna 2007 playlist.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hold the butter

Date: Feb. 12
Mileage: 20.1
February mileage: 258.3
Temperature upon departure: 28

I set out today for one last ride on my fully loaded bike. For some reason, it was really tough. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve reduced my mileage, or because I haven’t reduced it enough, but I just couldn’t get warmed up. My legs were pumping lactic acid, and I could feel the metallic pangs of an old repetitive motion injury in my knees. Probably just a bad day. But I’ve decided to settle into some real rest. Tomorrow, I’m planning a short session at the gym, but I'll probably cut back on all other physical activity for the rest of the week.

I have just about all of my gear gathered for the race, with the exception of one thing - food. Since I’m one of those people that hates eating on the trail (I consider it a necessary chore akin to changing a flat tire), I’ve predictably put off deciding what I’m going to bring. The race rules require carrying 3,000 calories for the duration of the race. Lots of people just carry a pound of butter because it’s one of the lightest ways to pack 3,000 calories, but I think that’s a bad idea. I’ve tried to envision possible scenarios on the dark wilderness trail, and I can’t, for the life of me, come up with any situation that would compel me to bite into a frozen stick of butter. If I need food to save my life, it should probably be something I can actually eat. So I’m going to carry 20 ounces of chocolate, knowing those four extra ounces could make all the difference. And they're pretty negligible in the grand (60-pound) scheme of things.

As for food I actually plan to eat, I’m probably going to pack between 3,500 and 4,500 calories, knowing that this race could take me 16 hours to finish, or it could take me 40. There is food at three of the checkpoints along the way, but I’m not planning to rely on it. Most likely, I’ll bring: peanut butter and jam sandwiches; a homemade trail mix with raw walnuts, Craisens and dried cherries; turkey jerky; fruit leathers; fruit snacks (Shrek brand, my favorite); fig bars and Power Bars (I realize Power Bars freeze. But since they’re one of my best sources of complex carbohydrates, I’ll probably just carry them next to my torso to keep them warm.) The reason for all of this random, sugar-laden stuff is that it’s all been trail tested and approved for stomachache-free consumption.

I also will probably carry some Cytomax powder and maybe a few Clif Shot Bloks for good measure. Geoff is trying to convince me to take a bottle of Hammer Perpetuem. But the last time I tried to take a swig of that stuff, I was stopped cold by the smell of what is, to me, the most disgusting food ever to be manufactured and sold in a standard grocery store: Vanilla Soy Milk. Honestly, I think I’d have more luck getting the butter down.

If anyone has any last-minute suggestions, I’ll hear them out. I just discovered that also entered in the Susitna 100 this year is John “The Guy Who Drinks Vegetable Oil” Stamstad. So I guess there’s no end to the possibilities.
Sunday, February 11, 2007

So long to the holidays

Date: Feb. 11
Mileage: 14.3
February mileage: 238.2
Temperature upon departure: 23

Geoff and I skim across the surface of Mendenhall Lake, he on skate skis, me on “studs” and a mountain bike. Side by side, we glide steady at 10 mph. He slashes up the groomed track; I draw a straight line through several inches of dry powder. The flat surface radiates a blaze of unfiltered sunlight, blinding to the point of hypnotizing. Through a heavy squint, all I can make out is a white slate stretching uninterrupted for more than a mile in all directions. The tracks of others veer off in shadowed tangents that remind me of curves on a line graph; their creators stand at variable points in the distance. Geoff and I move parallel along the axis, where I can’t help but weave through a barrage of vague images from 11th-grade calculus.

After standing in the shadow of the glacier terminus, much too close for comfort, we veer off the lake and hit the moraine trails. Inches of new snow slow us both down, but we push on through the the crackle and click of powder-dusted singletrack. Rides like this, when surging up even small hills is a losing battle against sand-like resistance, can at times be sweaty, heart-pounding work. But on days like today, when the forest is full of sweaty people smiling in the sunlight, they can hardly be counted as workouts.

I think about where 2007 has taken me so far ... simple moments of awe and joy cut like razors through my daily routine. I think back to the holiday season, spent thousands of miles away from my family, and how it was in turn overwhelmingly hectic and largely meaningless. The first six weeks of the new year, on the other hand, have been full of selfish gifts and selflessly quiet reflections. When I began training for the Susitna 100, I embarked on a journey so daunting and encompassing that I could be forgiven for letting social, financial and domestic obligations fall by the wayside. It was a holiday from myself, from the day-to-day hassle and general realities of life.

And now that it’s nearly over, I’m like a kid counting down the days until Christmas - almost blind with anticipation but, at the same time, already feeling a sense of loss for the inevitable day after.

Bicycle obesity

Date: Feb. 10
Mileage: 24.9
February mileage: 223.9
Temperature upon departure: 22

By the time I reached the top of the second flight of stairs, my heart was racing. I hoisted my bike over the final step and dropped it with a thud on the ice, then leaned against the house until my head stopped spinning. Usually, my pre-ride weight training doesn’t leave me more exhausted than the ride itself. But, then again, I’m not used to packing a bike weighted down with most of the gear you’d need to survive a winter night in Denali.

After I caught my breath, I purposely went out and rode the hilliest route I could find. Motoring up hills seemed vaguely harder, but downhills are what really brought weight gain into the forefront of my thoughts. At one point, I hit 32 mph while coasting down a snow-covered slope (the kind of surface in which brakes are generally a bad idea.) Scary.

After I came to the end of the road and turned away from the sun, I caught my first glimpse of my shadow pedaling that bicycle behemoth down the street. It looked so funny, lumbering ahead of be, that I couldn’t help but surge toward it. The return ride was noticeably faster.

After I returned home, I pulled out my bathroom scale to weigh it for curiosity’s sake.

The verdict: Bicycle and stuff = 47 pounds. Once I throw in water, a few articles of extra clothing and food, I could be pushing 60. So I have a little weight problem. Oh well. Things could definitely be worse.

Much worse. On a more somber note, I have been reading all of the race reports from this year’s Arrowhead 135. Harrowing, harrowing stuff - hypothermic cyclists who had to be dragged off the trail in their sleeping bags; people who froze their hands changing tires; severely frostbitten toes. They were people who didn’t seem to fully grasp the realities of -30 ... people no different than me. I read these stories with the morbid fascination of someone who could experience the same thing in a week’s time. I read them while chanting to myself that the chance of -30 is very, very slim. Then I nestled further into my warm computer chair and struggled with those sweeping thoughts about the grand insanity of it all.

A copy of Wend Magazine came my way earlier this week. Inside is a great article by Mike Curiak, the endurance cyclist who has singlehandedly conquered many of the most difficult mountain biking challenges in the United States. But in this article, he doesn’t talk about his triumphs and trophies. He talks about a single incident along the lonely Iditarod trail, where, buffeted by 80 mph wind and subzero cold, he contracted hypothermia and nearly died. Despite all of his experience and preparedness, he found himself buried in the depths of a storm in one of the most remote regions of the world. He knew in his heart that no one was coming. And as he lay wrapped in his sleeping bag, slipping further and further toward unconsciousness, he realized that no one could save him but himself.

The next thing he realized, or at least the next thing he wrote about, was the crackle of a fire in a village cabin some five miles down the trail. An Alaska Native man on a snowmobile found him cocooned in his bag and carried him to safety. I found it to be an inspiring story ... that even at his most alone, he wasn't alone.