Friday, January 21, 2011

Sledding

Lately, during my evening runs in Montana (and yes, I do still occasionally run in Montana), I have been dragging a sled along for the trip. The sled is a harsh necessity of the Susitna 100, which requires every competitor to carry at least 15 pounds of survival gear, including a sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees F (mine is rated to -40), a bivy sack, a closed-cell foam pad, 3,000 calories of emergency-only food (i.e. you're not allowed to eat it), a stove, a pan, fuel, and whatever else you feel like bringing.

This is my sixth year preparing for a winter ultra in Alaska, but my first attempt to compete on foot (all the others have been by bicycle.) I have mixed feelings about the Susitna 100's required gear. I understand the harshness of the environment and that the race directors have liabilities. However, I also feel that people who are bold enough to sign up for a race like the Susitna 100 should be smart enough to know what they need. The White Mountains 100 takes place in a much more remote region, under generally colder conditions. But in that race, competitors are allowed to choose what they carry. There is no required gear. In last year's White Mountains 100, I opted to carry an emergency bivy system — a down coat, a light down sleeping bag, bivy and pad — reasoning that it would at least keep me alive for a few hours if I somehow became completely immobile, but wouldn't allow for any sleep on the trail. Other racers in the WM100 opted to carry only a few extra items of clothing and food, and no emergency bivy gear. There is inherent risk to that, but in a controlled environment like a race, it's less risky than embarking on a long day hike in the winter without full bivy gear, which I do all the time. I wish the Susitna 100 organizers would allow racers the same freedom. Although I am venturing into unknown territory this year — a potentially very long foot race with higher likelihood for injury — so I might still opt to carry everything they require anyway.

But yes, the sled. In my testing so far, I have been very happy with its features and construction. Geoff developed it over three years, tweaking the harness, ski mounts and cover, so it's really dialed in. He wrote a blog post in 2008 further describing the sled, or at least Version 2.0 (Anatomy of a Sled.) Since then, he added a custom-designed cover, improved the harness substantially and attached it to the poles with industrial silicone that's rated to 100 below. A rope threads through the poles and wraps around the sled, so it's both strong and flexible. The rigid poles also prevent the sled from getting away from you on the downhills. I have run down some very steep slopes and it stays exactly where I want it to. It also tracks very well. Last night I did an 8-mile run in Blue Mountain — largely on winding, uneven singletrack — and it stayed directly behind me around every narrow curve and steep sideslope. The skis seem to reduce drag substantially, and the sled itself will still float on top of deep powder. The harness also is quite comfortable, outfitted with several loops should any fail. On steep uphills, the weight pulls fiercely on my hamstrings, so I need to work on strengthening those. Luckily, there aren't many uphills in the Susitna 100.

Eric Parsons at Revelate Designs custom-designed the cover in 2009, and like all of the bike gear Eric builds, it is a marvel of Alaska innovation. It attaches to the sled with very strong velcro, and has a three-quarter length zipper that zips both ways. When I stuff my sleeping system in the center, I have large compartments in both the front and back for easy accessibility to my food and gear. The cover is waterproof and prevents any snow from creeping into the sled, which will minimize the dead weight I have to drag for 100 miles. The cover is strong, too. Last night I rounded a sharp hairpin turn and tipped the sled over. I actually didn't even notice for about 100 yards; it just continued to follow me completely upside down, with no lost gear and no damage. Luckily, Eric builds his gear to be "Jill-proof." It even has reflective stripping so the snow-mos can see me.

The Susitna 100 is now officially a mere month away, and fear has firmly settled in my heart. I feel confident in my ability to prepare for and deal with cold or wet weather, to keep moving for long periods of time and even to eat properly, but I am quite terrified of the physical prospect of this race: my legs, my feet, my stomach and the possibility that it could take all of 48 sleepless hours. That's why I chose to run the Susitna 100; the bike just wouldn't offer the same unknowns, the same challenges (although it would of course still be extremely challenging.) The Su100 — complete with ghostly apparitions of Flathorn Lake and the long minutes before and after I punched through the ice and froze my right foot in 2009 — are often all I think about when I'm out for my long sled runs. But on Thursday, I felt just a little more confidence creeping in. It allowed my mind to drift back to Martin Luther King Day in Waikiki, when Beat and I went on an 11-mile urban "recovery hike" from our hotel to the top of the Diamond Head crater, and the sun was so warm it made my head spin, the land so green and water so blue it was impossible to comprehend how this could exist in the same hemisphere as Alaska.