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.


  1. Wow. What an amazing journey you're going on soon. It's been fun reading your blog. I'm heading back to the States soon so I'll miss your start, but I hope to be somewhat settled so I can check in and see how it's going. Good luck Jill!

  2. Hi Jill,
    As always folks can find updates on the race at least twice daily on Latest News at The Leader Board will also be kept up to date. This year you can find a different version of the updates at (thanks to Eric Parsons) and there will be a link on our site to mtb podcasts from the Nome Racers. There will be short podcasts from our race director Dan McDonough and
    Bob Lisey one of the runners will call in reports from the trail with his Sat phone during the McGrath race. Racers in the McGrath race will not be allowed to tie up the phones at checkpoints to call in but the Nome field will call in from McGrath and the villages.
    Bill Merchant
    Alaska Ultra Sport
    Racer/Race Organizer

  3. Yikes....

    I sure hope the conditions improve by nest week.

  4. Hey Jill, Can we get a copy of the newspaper article also? Will be thinking of you guys all the time until you are successfully acrossed the finish line and can call to report your success!!!!

  5. Jill,

    Excellent posting! The newspaper article was informative and your detailed description of the Iditarod route was greatly appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to fill us in.

    As for the race itself, just do your best, stay safe and enjoy yourself. We're all rooting for you and G.

  6. jill, you rock! your blog is beautiful, as is your philosophy on life. keep it up sista!

  7. Best of Luck! Stay safe. Cant wait to read your post!!

    Adam (Michigan)

  8. I read the article and I thought you interviewed well. I am excited for your race and will follow your progress. Can you provide the above ultrasport links in your blog before you start to make it easier for us non-biker people?

    I'll wish you luck again closer to race time, but I keep thinking about you guys and hoping you'll do well!

  9. Am I the only one who is worried about you? Be careful! I'll be watching from the safety of our Connecticut 'winter' (today it was 40 and rain).

    Best of luck to you...I hope all goes well.

  10. Jill,

    I just want to wish you and Geoff the best before you head off to the Iditarod Invitational. One thing that I want to make clear before you start is that it is okay to scratch. There is no shame in it at all. In fact if the conditions are anything like the Susitna 100, then it is the prudent thing to do. You are under absolutely no obligation to prove anything to anyone – including yourself. Speaking as someone who has financially contributed directly and indirectly (through the Ultra Rob fund raiser) to your cause, my expectation is that you will make smart choices. If you do, then there is another chance to try again. If you don’t, then there may not be anymore chances.

    I have survived blizzard conditions in the wilderness, and I know that it is total malarkey to think you can make any headway in those conditions. You are lucky if you can see 20 feet in any direction. You cannot even recognize landmarks that you know well, let alone find those that you have never seen before. Even if your GPS is working you can easily be 30 feet off the mark, and when you can only see 20 feet you are still lost. So, despite all the fanfare and publicity, the expectation is that you will make smart choices and not get suckered into the hype. On that note, you have trained well, you have made good gear choices, and if Mother Nature cooperates you will have a terrific time.

    If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, then save it for some other kickass endurance event like the Great Divide Race (GDR) and try the Iditarod again next year. Even Pete Basinger had to scratch out of the GDR last year. The money you spent on the Iditarod Invitational entrance fee isn’t even a piss-hole in the snow compared with the value of your life.

    Good luck, best wishes, and God bless you and Geoff.

    P.S. Google “Snow Caves” and learn how to dig one – it saved my life!

  11. I think most of us consider "Mesotony" to be Tony's real name!

    Maybe the temperature will drop and firm up the trail after this warm spell.

    Good luck. Go home with all your fingers and toes.


  12. holy crap! i had no idea you could ride in such cold and snowy weather.- i spend my winters in and indoor spinning class waiting for spring to arrive - you are one tough cookie - i am so impressed. -my niece pointed your blog out to me this morn and i am so excited to be checking it out on a regular basis.
    your images are awesome!

  13. I read your story they ran here:,5143,695254360,00.html

    Keep up the great work!!

  14. I totally agree with bikerbob! Please read his post again!!!
    Mellan :)

  15. Hi Jill,

    Good luck with the Invitational! I got to travel along parts of your first stretch of trail (the "Big Su" and the Yentna River to 15 miles past Yentna Station) this past weekend as a musher with the Serum Run Shakedown group. It wasn't exactly ideal, unfortunately-- temps started out in the teens on Saturday, but things heated up to mid-20s on Sunday and mid-30s on Monday, with wet rain and snow both days. Very slow going for the dogs, and I'd imagine the slush and powder would probably slow bikes down a bit too.

    A lot of the Tug 120 mushers were stranded during that ground blizzard on Flathorn Lake as well-- sounds like it was pretty brutal.

    Will you actually be staying at Yentna Station, or just passing through? Dan is a great host-- ask him to play guitar for you if you are going to stay for a little while, and at least make sure you have a meal-- they're great cooks.

  16. Biker Bob said it perfectly... You are ten times the athlete that I am and I know that it would be hard for me to bail even if the conditions were like the Susitna--especially with the pressure of knowing we're all rooting for you. But, again, Bob said it perfectly. Just showing up, as prepared as you are, has inspired us all... Please be careful.

    Give the USPS hell and get that bike back!!!

  17. Jill,

    Traditionally MacGyver could get out of any situation with a Swiss Army knife and a little bit of duct tape... and not much time. Occasionally he would use some household cleaning products to make a small bomb as a diversionary tactic; never to harm his opponents. Brain over brawn was the main theme of the show. Likewise, sometimes we get ourselves into situations where we must be smart. My MacGyver kit is a little more extensive than the original.

    Nevertheless, I always have a saw. I use to rely on a cheapo Sierra folding saw with a wooden handle. Now I carry a miniature “chain saw.” I am the engine, but it is high quality and will tear right through both dry (firewood) and green (boughs to sleep on and in) wood incredible fast. The Sierra folding saw works fine for gathering boughs and firewood and only weighs about 8-10 ounces. I carry a sharp knife for making tinder. I also slather regular cotton balls with Vaseline and double Ziploc bag them. The Vaseline will keep them from getting damp and will greatly help get the fire going. When I am out and about I have a Space Blanket with me too. You have to stay warm and dry. You have already mentioned that you have some kind of survival fire starter stick. Sometimes you have to hit them a little harder than you might expect to get enough sparks. The butane lighters don’t work for beans in the severe weather. I have a fifty dollar one, and in the real cold, windy weather it is almost worthless. I also carry a lightweight (Lexan) signal mirror. For years I carried a real glass signal mirror. If you do get caught in a nasty storm, then hopefully once it breaks they will start flying over the trail. I always carry a Storm whistle too. In fact, I cleared the hall with it today during lunch.

    Fortunately, I had trained in winter survival skills. I thought my final exam was when I had to spend three days and two nights out with just the winter clothes on my back, a small plastic tarp, a sleeping bag, 6 wax covered matches, a #10 tin can and one regular size Hersey bar. You definitely meet your demons, and there probably won’t be much time or energy to journal or write poetry. It is all about survival and once you get settled in it is far more mental than physical. The hunger passes after a couple days; especially if you stay hydrated.

    It turned out that my real winter survival final exam was to come a few years later. I will spare you the drama, but I had more lessons to learn. I barely survived the lessons. I could give you a whole laundry list of suggestions, but I suspect you have heard too much from me already. I hope I am totally full of crap, and that the weather is perfect. I sincerely hope that everything is perfect. However, just in case the weather and conditions head down the porcelain facility, then a small saw, a bag of Vaseline covered cotton balls, a space blanket, and some matches that will burn underwater could make all the difference. We are probably talking about 12 ounces of additional gear for fewer than twenty dollars. Most of it you can get a Wal-Mart.

    Again, best wishes and good luck! Think like MacGyver.

    P.S. I just read about your missing bike. That's incredible! I have shipped my bikes all over the country with FedEx and never had a problem ... yet! I hope you have some paperwork and insured it. However, it is probably in Anchorage already. I suspect your "fan club" could probably create quite a stir with FedEx, but let's not jump to conclusions. In any case my MacGyver kit suggestions are still relevant. You have to think even more like MacGyver! He never had much time to work it out.


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