Sunday, February 17, 2008

A reminder that anything can happen

Wow. Tough times at the Susitna this year - which may go down in Alaska mountain biking lore as the "Carnage 100." I grabbed the above picture from an online post by "Mesotony" (Sorry, Tony, I don't know your real name.) It shows skiers fighting a ground blizzard on Flathorn Lake. The race had everything: 50 mph winds, soft trails, blowing wet snow, big drifts, and more bicycle pushing than any sane person would be willing to accept. A suprising percentage of the field didn't even bother to start. Of those who did, at least half scratched. Those who chose to stay and slog it out had to earn - really, really earn - every mile. The winning cyclist (and second person across the finish line), Pete Basinger, spent more than 25 hours grinding out what he reported to be "25 miles of pushing, 50 miles of granny gear, low pressure, searching for a track firm enough to ride and then about 25 miles of good riding, but never really fast." Last year, it took Pete less than 11 hours to cover the same snowy distance.

In short, this news doesn't bode well for the start of the Iditarod Invitational, although anything can change in a week's time. But continued weather reports of snow storms, wind, and blowing drifts forecast the possibility of equally tough conditions. So I have to spend some time really considering how I will react if faced with the "Carnage 100 times 3.5." I like to think that my greatest athletic gift is the ability to slog on, but I'm not sure how far I would be willing to tread just to meet my own limits. I've worked too hard and come too far to join the ranks of the "DNS," so I guess I just need to mentally prepare for a long, long haul.

The outcome of the Susitna 100 is the perfect example of why nothing can be planned in a winter endurance cycling race. As the event approaches, I've had several people ask me what my goals are for each section. How long do I think it will take me to cover certain distances? When do I plan to sleep, take my breaks, eat my meals? What's my goal finishing time? My answer: I. Have. No. Idea. The truth is, I believe setting too many goals in a race such as this one will only set me up for frustration and failure. I need to accept things as they come, and embrace them as part of my race, and move on. Dwelling on storms and poor trail conditions can't be constructive. But that's probably what I'd do if I became too dedicated to the idea that it should take 7-9 hours to cover the first 50 miles of the race. It could take 24. I need to be ready for that.

That said, some have asked for a breakdown of each section of race, to get a better idea about the course Geoff and I are traveling as the numbers start to come in (I'm not yet sure exactly where race updates will be posted. I'll post a link as soon as I know.) So below is a short description of each section of trail between checkpoints.

I also wanted to link to my interview with the Anchorage Daily News, which was published in the newspaper's Sunday Outdoor section (centerpiece status! sweet!) I bought a copy for you, Mom. I will mail it soon. But for now, check out Melissa DeVaughn's story here.

The Iditarod trail to McGrath:

Knik to Yentna Station, 57 miles

The trail leaves Knik Lake westbound on the old Iditarod Trail, running across low, mostly wooded hills, open swamps, and a number of lakes. The trail crosses the Little Susitna River at the 18-mile point, then works over to Flathorn Lake across an area of level swamps and woods cut by a few sharp ravines (about 30 miles). After a couple more swamps and tree line, you’ll drop onto the Susitna River after 35 miles go north up the broad Susitna for a few miles and then swing up the wide Yentna River, the Susitna’s main tributary, for the last 17 miles to Yentna Station. This entire stretch of trail is very heavily used all winter and is often in very bad shape. There will be ruts, bumps, rough spots, and moguls meet lots of snowmachines, particularly on the river, some of them moving very fast and perhaps not as alert as they should be because of the numerous parties along the trail.

Yentna Station to Skwentna (mile 90), 33 miles
From Yentna Station to Skwentna is all on the Yentna River, with the last few miles up the Skwentna River to the checkpoint. The river stays between well-defined banks for about five miles upstream from Yentna Station, and also for the last 15 miles into Skwentna. In the middle 15 miles it branches out into a maze of channels and sloughs, any of which can have a trail for local traffic. This is normally a fast run with no hills, provided the trail is in good shape.

Skwentna to Finger Lake (mile 130), 40 miles
It’s uphill most of the way to Finger Lake. The trail leaves Skwentna southbound on the Skwentna River, cuts off the left bank to parallel the river in a swamp for eight miles, then swings west to cross the river at the site of the old Skwentna Roadhouse about ten miles out. It then climbs up into the heavily wooded Shell Hills for a mile and a half, down through open swamps and wooded areas to cross Shell Creek after another mile and a half, then on for another three miles across small lakes, swamps, and woods to Onestone Lake, where you’re about 25 miles from Finger Lake. After two-mile-long Onestone Lake, the trail works west along open swamps and meadows, through occasional treelines, and across a few lakes, steadily climbing to Finger Lake.

Finger Lake to Rainy Pass (mile 165), 35 miles
This is a tough run with some short stretches of extraordinarily difficult trail. After leaving Finger Lake, the trail climbs steeply over a ridge to Red Lake, runs along it for a mile or two, swings up a ravine, and then follows a series of climbing wooded shelves interspersed with open swamps. About ten miles from Finger Lake, the trail drops down a series of wooded benches toward Happy River, then onto the river itself via the dreaded Happy River steps. Then it’s down the river to its mouth, up the Skwentna River for a few hundred yards, and back up a steep ravine to the plateau on the south side of the Happy. The trail will cross Shirley Lake, then Long Lake (11 miles from Rainy Pass Lodge) and then run along the steeply sloping mountainside above the south side of the Happy River valley to the checkpoint.

Rainy Pass to Rohn (mile 210), 45 miles
The trail runs in the open on the tundra of Ptarmigan Pass from Rainy Pass Lodge to the mouth of Pass Creek, which it then follows northwest up to the summit of Rainy Pass itself. Then there are several miles of sometimes steep downhills and often tight, twisting trail through scrub willow southwest along Pass Fork to Dalzell Creek. The trail then drops into the infamous Dalzell Gorge for a few miles and finally onto the Tatina River for the last five miles to Rohn.

Rohn to Nikolai (mile 300), 90 miles
Dropping out of the Alaska Range, racers cross the Farewell Burn - the site of a large forest fire that burned more than a million acres and left a stark landscape that has inspired a variety of hallucinations. This run breaks into three natural sections: 20 miles along the south side of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim from Rohn to Farewell Lakes and up onto the Farewell Burn, 35 miles across the Burn itself to Sullivan Creek, and then 20 miles north from Sullivan Creek past Salmon River to Nikolai.

Nikolai to McGrath (mile 350), 50 miles
This is a fairly easy (but sometimes deceptive) stretch which always seems to be longer than it is, mainly because it is often so boring and there are so many seemingly identical lakes and river bends. The trail cuts cross-country southwest from Nikolai toward McGrath, running along a series of lakes and swamps interspersed with wooded stretches to Big River. It then runs west down Big River for a few miles to the Kuskokwim River, then down the Kuskokwim to McGrath, with several shortcuts across the bigger oxbow bends. If you’re running at night or early in the morning and the weather is clear and calm, dress warmly — it can get quite cold down on the Kuskokwim River for the last half of the leg. The trail from Nikolai to McGrath crosses many open lakes and swamps for the first 20 miles. When the wind is blowing, these areas can quickly drift in.