Saturday, February 05, 2011

Winding down

The Susitna 100 is now less than two weeks away. It's hard for me to believe it's suddenly so close. I'm struck by a strong sense of homecoming — of my first return to Alaska since I left the Great Land, of returning to the first part of the Iditarod Trail, and returning to the Susitna 100, the place where all of this really began. In many ways, these feelings seem to trump the fact that, in the midst of all this nostalgia, there is the ridiculous and daunting notion of running 100 miles. I feel strangely at ease with it. In past years, I remember the entire month of February shrouded in all of my dread and anticipation for the unknowns I was knowingly jumping into, head-first. This year is different for some reason. There is comfort in the things I know, and excitement in the unknowns. Unlike my surprisingly unsettling emotions prior to my failed Iditarod attempt in 2009, running the Susitna 100 is not something I feel I "have" to do. It's something I really want to do. I have no idea whether I'm capable of running 100 miles and therefore feel secure in the worthiness of simply trying.

Two weeks also means it's time to begin the official "taper." After Sunday, I'm hoping to spend the next two weeks finalizing my gear and food, resting a bit and riding my snow bike, because I do have to make the transition from 100-mile run to 100-mile snow bike ride in just a little more than a month. As for the White Mountains 100, I also have plenty of reasons to fear that race, but I am hoping my wide cycling base will get me through it — after all, that worked out OK last winter when I spent most of my free time hiking and working on my Tour Divide book, and still managed to survive that brutal cold 21-hour effort without long-term damage (for the most part.) But that's March; there's no time to think about it now. The Susitna 100 is the real deal; for whatever reason, it's the race I focused on.

Today, Beat and I got out for a sled run. This was one was more of a dread run, obligatory because after reworking the gear list we had to get some testing in with our fully-packed sleds, and also because we're still two weeks out and should be doing a bit more training. But I was dreading it because after the deep freeze, Missoula was hit with another thaw. It rained most the day Friday and was supposed to rain again on Saturday. There was nowhere nearby with good snow cover, so we had to settle on the ice-coated Blue Mountain Road. As we started up the slick, hard surface, my sled meandered back and forth behind me a like distracted dog. On top of it all, a very strongly worded sign warned us of the risks of "sledding."

But as we worked our way up the gradual climb, the ice turned to snow, which turned to softer snow. The sun broke through the clouds and heated up the already warm air. It felt like spring, and smelled like a clear mountain stream, with sweet pine and a faint hint of fresh mulch to jolt my senses away from the winter drudgery. The run was slow, hamstring-pulling work, but the warmth and sun made it feel surprisingly light and easy. I felt reluctant to turn around. At mile 6, I persuaded Beat into one more mile. Then at mile 7, only about 2.5 miles from the top, we stood for a while debating whether we should just go for it. But the trail was already quite punchy, becoming steeper, and the afternoon was waning. Plus, we had no intentions to put in a big effort today. Even though I had been dreading this training run, I wished I could find an excuse to keep it going.

But, common sense prevailed. Making it to the fire lookout would have been cool, but I'm satisfied with the effort and happy the run turned out as fun as it did. Sometimes you set yourself up for a slog, and when you discover something entirely different, you almost feel like you cheated somehow.

As the early evening approached, we found ourselves stopping frequently to absorb the changing light, from brilliant whites to soft oranges to deep pinks and reds. In the midst of a burn area, we took a side trip to climb up the mountain for a better view of the Rattlesnake and Mission mountains.

The light really was fantastic. Difficult to capture with any true detail with a point-and-shoot camera, but fun to photograph nonetheless.

Then it was down, down, back down to the ice and freezing temperatures. We ended up running 14.6 miles and about 2,500 feet of elevation gain while tugging our full race kit. It felt strangely easy. I hope this means I'm as ready as I can be for Susitna.