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.