Thursday, March 31, 2011

Into the great white open

Why does this make me so happy? Why do fire-singed spruce trees and wind-swept fields of snow rend my heart the way they do? What makes these northern latitudes so unique to me that I can pedal a bicycle to the base of a nondescript mountain and let myself believe I have found the edge of the world? Why do I follow a misfit community of athletes deep into these places I don't belong, and why do these difficult efforts make me feel so awake and alive? Why does this make me so happy?

"Fairbanks is a strange place," I told Beat. "I think you'll either love it or think it's super weird." Even though I've never spent much time there, and certainly not in the 40 below months, I love it. My long-term goal when I moved to Anchorage last year was to someday afford to buy a cabin on the domes above Fairbanks and spend my winters writing and cycling and my summers adventuring in Denali and the Brooks Range. Perhaps that's still my goal. "So hopefully," I said to Beat, "you'll like Fairbanks, too (wink, wink.)"

One of the things I love about Fairbanks is the tight-knit community it engenders. Cold, hard places foster that kind of neighborly goodwill — you have to help each other to survive. Last year, the community surrounding the White Mountains 100 embraced me with open arms, and this year showed almost baffling generosity to the token "Outside" contingent (Beat, me and a man from Los Alamos, New Mexico. All of the other 62 racers were from Alaska.) My friend Carlene came and picked up Beat and me, a bike box and three huge duffels at the airport at 1 a.m. Saturday morning. She transported us to our home for the weekend — race director Ed's cabin, surrounded by birch trees and big landscape windows. Carlene showed us to our own room, which prompted Beat to call Ed the "best race director ever" before he even met Ed. (Who really is the best, by the way.)

Race morning was filled with the usual fumbling and stress. The morning was mostly clear and warm, in the high teens even before the sun came up. I walked around the parking lot chatting with all of the familiar faces from last year's race, with the ulterior motive of checking out their ultra-light fat bike set-ups. I determined that I was one of only three or four other cyclists who was grievously overpacked for a single-day, well-supported race in such warm temps. I agonized about ditching my sleeping bag bivy, down coat and a few other miscellaneous items, but at the last minute decided to just haul it all because, really, "what difference does it make?" (Later, when I felt even more embarrassed about all the crap I was carrying, I told people that Beat guilted me into it because he was also overpacked and didn't want to be the only one. Beat denies this.)

In the midst of our fumbling and dawdling, Beat and I failed to notice it was nearly 8 a.m., and had to rush to the start line only to watch the pack take off in a blur of wheels, skis and snow. I "rode" with Beat for a bit, pedaling beside him until I moved ahead, then dismounting and falling behind as I struggled to hold the runners' pace while pushing my bike. In total, there were seven runners in the White Mountains 100. I didn't even see how many bikes; they were all in front of me. It didn't really matter. It was a warm clear morning, the distant mountains were out, and I had nothing to do all day but ride my bike in the snow. The churned-up trail was fairly soft, and I expected it would only get softer, but even that didn't really matter. It would just give me longer to soak it all in. I gave Beat a kiss at the top of the mile-long hill and said, "see you soon."

On those first rolling hills, I was mostly alone. I laughed with unchecked glee as I careened and swerved down the loose descents and powered up the climbs. As I crested the top of the third or fourth hill, I had a startling realization — I was actually riding all of this. Last year, despite harder packed trails, I was frequently reduced to pushing my bike up many of the climbs. This year, I was climbing strong. Despite a winter absent of any significant bicycle training, my legs found the stamina to press into the pedals and somehow power this 55-pound bicycle with mushy 8 psi tires up hill after soft, steep hill. "Wow," I thought as a grin spread across my face. "I guess running makes me strong."

In what seemed like a short hour or two, I reached the second checkpoint at mile 38. The Cache Mountain cabin sits in a beautiful basin at the base of the White Mountains." It was so warm that some cyclists and skiers were wearing only T-shirts. I felt chilled on descents so I was still wearing my wind shell, but the hard climbing had left me more than a little damp from sweat. I didn't really mind because I was drowning in extra clothes. I honestly needed an excuse to somehow justify my 55-pound kit.

From the cabin, the course follows a 12-mile steady climb to the Cache Mountain Divide at about 3,500 feet. I remembered this as a tough section and mentally steeled myself for a long slog. Despite a 1,800-foot elevation gain with a few significant rollers, I maintained my encouragingly strong cadence. I passed the woman who had been in third position, Gail, as she and her husband, Rocky, pushed their bikes out of a steep drainage. I was in full power mode, hovering over the saddle and trying to mitigate tire slippage as I mashed the pedals. "Nice work," Gail said to me as I passed. Her verbal encouragement sparked a sort of inner competition with myself, a pressing need to ride up this entire mountain. I unzipped my coat, pulled off my hat, and grimaced with new-found resolve into the bright sunlight.

I mashed past cyclist Brian Garcia, who was munching Cheetos from a giant ziplock bag, and skier Matias Saari, who told me he was hurting. The trail lifted skyward and I continued summoning deeper reserves of power. My heart pounded and sweat streamed from my forehead and soaked hair. I was working at a solid level of high intensity that I have possibly never before tapped in a long race — that is, race pace. The high-effort bursts of energy had no reason or justification beyond the fact that they made me feel amazing — pushing so close to the edge of my abilities amid this expansive white wilderness. I finally blew up a mere quarter mile from the top, but I didn't mind. As my breathing finally calmed down and my head stopped spinning, I gazed at the snow-sculpted slopes and grinned. Matias and I stopped together at the pass and enjoyed a bit of lunch — him, a healthy-looking wrap in a wheat tortilla; me, a Snicker's Bar and an Odwalla Bar. The world was perfect, and I was happy.

Beneath a bright and blazing afternoon sun, the trail had softened up considerably. As we started down, I had to swerve around deep trenches and soft mounds left by other cyclists who also had to brake hard amid the uneven conditions. Like sporadically accelerating snowmachines, the bicycles before me had ripped up the trail, leaving it punchy and difficult to navigate even at braking speeds.

The muscles in my shoulders and arms burned as I wrestled with my squirrelly wheels. My technical snow riding skills have become seriously rusty, and several times I dipped to the side and punched my right leg into the waist-deep snow just off the trail. The third or fourth time I did this, I wrenched my knee hard, which prompted my deeper self-preservation instincts. After that, if I saw a deep trench ahead, I stopped to push my bike.

Much of my hard work on the climb up the Cache Mountain Divide was negated by downhill caution. I walked through the slushy overflow on the ice lakes and continued to gingerly pick my way around torn-up bits of trail. At my slower speeds I crashed twice — painless endos into snow banks. Brian and another cyclist passed me, as well as several other skiers. My newfound race instincts experienced bouts of frustration. As I descended, trail conditions improved, and at one point I decided just to see what would happen if I let off the brakes.

In the blur of green and white, it happened so quickly — front wheel lurched right, rear wheel jumped left, and suddenly I was buried head-first beneath my bicycle in a small tree well. My legs were tangled around the bicycle and my face was pressed against the snow beneath a barrier of tree branches. I groped for leverage with my right arm, but found nothing but bottomless powder. I pushed my left arm against the bicycle, but I couldn't muster the strength to force it off my body. "Arrrgh!" I yelled out loud. I was trapped! For several seconds I thrashed around in near panic, like a turtle on its back. Luckily, reason kicked in. I wrestled my right arm out of the snow and with both hands grabbed tree branches, using every ounce of upper body strength I could muster to pull my torso out of the snow. Then I kicked my left leg free of the bike tangle, managed to secure a foothold on the packed trail, pulled myself a little higher up the tree, and reached down to shove the bike sideways in order to extricate my right leg. For about two more minutes, I simply sat on the trail just to recover from my full-body, high intensity battle for freedom.

By the time I made it to the Windy Gap cabin, mile 60, I was feeling a little frustrated. Dea, the wonderful volunteer who made a last-minute grocery stop to ensure five meatballs for all racers because the race organization had planned for three and it "wasn't enough," served me a steaming bowl of meatball soup. "The trail is getting soft and tough," I complained in spite of myself. "You pretty much just have to power full speed to get through the rough patches, but riding fast is risky. I crashed four times." I hoped the trail would set up more with the inevitable freeze of nighttime, but at the same time, I wanted to maximize daylight to see as much of the course as possible. I packed up quickly and left.

The route followed Windy Creek down a narrow canyon surrounded by sheer cliffs and craggy ridges. The trail conditions improved, and on smoother snow I found myself swooping through the forest at 10, 12, even 14 mph. The canyon opened up, revealing bigger mountains and wider valleys speckled with the twisted silhouettes of black spruce trees. I had seen none of this scenery last year because by the time I went through here, it was dark. It was the first time that I realized I really must have been moving faster than I was a year earlier, and this new encouragement prompted me to pedal harder. Clouds sunk in but daylight remained, revealing ever more mountains and valleys. My bicycle moved seemingly effortlessly, allowing me to relish the bombardment of beauty and freedom. I climbed out of Windy Creek and dropped back into Beaver Creek, arriving at the mile 81 checkpoint a mere two hours and 20 minutes after I left Windy Gap. Last year, this same section of the race had taken me a grueling four hours and 10 minutes, and I arrived at the Borealis cabin half-frozen and nearly shattered in the middle of the night. This year, it was still light at 8:30 p.m., and I felt strong and fresh. The Fairbanks race was being so kind to me this year. What had I done to deserve this fantastic treatment?

I ate a cheese sandwich and chips at the Borealis cabin and checked out with Brian Garcia around 8:45 p.m. Twilight had descended over the sky, and the nearby domes were shrouded in a thick ceiling of ominous-looking clouds. Flurries were starting to fall on the trail. "Oh no, snow," I muttered as Brian and I packed up. "I wonder how much it's going to snow?" he replied. "Hopefully not a lot." Still, my optimism didn't flag. We were less than 13 hours into the White Mountains 100 with only 19 more miles to go. I convinced myself if I could just hold the pace, I stood a good chance of finishing the race within the 16-hour range, an almost unthinkably fast time for someone like me. As we climbed out of Beaver Creek, Brian surged ahead but I held back — I knew the big climb was coming, and wanted to save some energy. I stopped at the mile 89 trail shelter because I hoped to see my friend Robin. She wasn't there yet, but for good measure I drank a couple cups of hot Tang and ate several handfuls of Fritos as I chatted with the volunteers. By this point, snow was falling hard, at least an inch had accumulated on the trail, and the new tracks through it made for uneven riding once again.

Then, just like that, I hit the wall. Brian and I were leap-frogging each other as we pedaled toward Wickersham Creek and the looming if unseen "Wickersham Wall." The Wickersham Wall is a direct trail up the Wickersham Dome, gaining more than 800 feet in less than a mile. On already soft trails covered in a couple inches of loose new snow, it sometimes feels as unclimbable as its impossibly steep namesake, a vertical face of Denali. I could see Brian's headlamp rising like a slow elevator toward the sky, followed by that of skier B. Young. I briefly pedaled toward them but quickly hit red-line. I got off my bike and started pushing, but after only a few dozen steps, I red-lined again. My heart raced and head spun until I nearly vomited, and I was forced to stop and catch my breath. I took a few more steps and red-lined again. I took another break. Pant, pant, push. I felt dizzy and exhausted. "Oh crap," I thought. "I bonked."

I dug into my food bag, which was surprisingly depleted. I started the race with about 2,500 calories — not counting checkpoint food — and cut it down to a few bars, some dried fruit, and a bag of Haribo Brix (gummy snacks.) I tore open the Brix and started stuffing them in my mouth. They tasted like fruity bursts of joy and took the edge off my nausea, but the urge to vomit returned as I continued to push my bike up the wall. I was locked in a struggle just to reach my body's lowest gear, which was still too high. Pant, pant, push. Break, eat, push. Pant, pant, push.

Behind me, two lights slowly approached from below. I convinced myself they belonged to Rocky and Gail, and tried to use that as motivation to push harder. "You're going to lose third place," I told myself, as if that mattered. My body certainly did not care. I felt awful, dizzy and exhausted, and I just wanted to sit down for a minute or 45. I stuffed Brix in my mouth and urged my legs to push onward. When my arms became too tired to hold themselves up anymore, I leaned against my handlebars and pushed against the impossibly heavy backward force with my collarbone. Every time I thought I was near the top, the trail only became steeper, with my headlamp illuminating only an endless climb into the black void. Snowflakes fell in large chunks. A bubble of frustration welled up in my throat.

Just as the trail reached a small plateau, the headlights finally caught up to me. They both belonged to Dave Shaw. "Mind if I walk with you for a bit?" he asked.

"As long as you want," I said. "I'm pretty bonked. I'll probably have to walk the rest of the way."

"It's gotta start downhill soon, right?" Dave asked.

"Perhaps," I said. "But I'm not letting myself get too hopeful."

Dave eventually got back on his bike and started riding. I tried, several times, but the effort was just too intense. It felt like I was attempting to sprint even though I was scarcely moving. The last miles crawled onward in a bonked-out blur, tinged with occasional moments of growling frustration. I ate most of the Brix, about 350 calories worth, and an Odwalla Bar, but they didn't seem to make a dent on my empty gas gauge. I finally slumped into the finish line a full 40 minutes after Brian but only 10 minutes after Dave — so I now conclude that I limped through my bonk OK. It was 1:55 a.m., for a final time of 17 hours and 55 minutes. It wasn't even close to the 16-hour range, but at the same time, I certainly couldn't be disappointed about a sub-18-hour finish. I flashed Carlene a subdued smile as she waved pom-poms in front of her own sleepy grin.

I chatted with other finishers in the heated tent before rolling out my sleeping bag in the snow. I caught a couple hours of deep sleep and then Dave woke me up because he was heading home. I took the ride back to Fairbanks, took a shower, ate some food and returned to race headquarters to wait for Beat. I chatted with the race volunteers and mulled the reasons for my bonk. I had been eating what seemed to me to be an adequate number of calories, with food that had worked quite well for me in numerous past events. And the entire time, I felt great, until I didn't. I talked it over with others, and what I concluded is I spent much of the race working at a higher intensity than I'm used to, taking in a lot more water and sweating quite a bit more than I usually do in a winter endurance effort. I was probably low on both electrolytes and calories despite sticking to my planned food intake. Yet another one of those learning experiences. I don't regret the way I executed the White Mountains 100. What would be the point of "racing" if we didn't push and sometimes exceed our own limits?

I really enjoyed my day at race quarters, watching the behind-the-scenes action and cheering on the remaining racers. Anne Ver Hoef had an infectious grin as she wrapped up her second-place, first-woman foot finish. Then Emily Schwing came in on skis and burst into tears. "I don't even know why I'm crying," she bawled, and I think everyone in the circle could feel the weight of her accomplishment. Around 5:30 I decided to start hiking out the trail to meet Beat.

The landscape took on an entirely new look following the snowstorm. The once-green spruce trees were now a ghostly white, and golden sunlight glowed through a weak layer of remaining clouds. As the hustle of race headquarters faded and my solitude crept back in, I felt a rush of strong emotions — awe at the expansive beauty of the region, joy for my presence there, pride for Beat's accomplishment and also my own ride, and gratitude for the race organizers and volunteers I had spent the afternoon with. It all came together in a trickle of perfect moments, the flowed into a lasting impression: This makes me happy. This is something I'm certain of.

I caught up to Beat about 3.5 miles out, just as he crested the Wickersham Dome with another foot racer, Kevin Vig. Beat was smiling wide but one of the first things he said was "&#@#*%! Wickersham!" ... so I knew he had a tough time on the Wall, too. Beat said the race was much tougher than the Susitna 100, but he too was impressed with the beauty of the region. "Let's just buy a cabin in Fairbanks," he joked, and I grinned. Mission accomplished.

I walked with Beat and Kevin to the finish line, where they finished together in 35:41. The volunteers, who had been awake for more than 36 hours, showed just as much enthusiasm for Beat and Kevin as I would have expected for the front-of-the-pack. I realized that why I go to these places — stark and demanding, lonely and difficult — and why I'm so happy in these places, is because it's in these places I find greatness — in myself, in the people I love, in the people I meet, and in everything surrounding us.


(For a map of the course and my GPS stats, click here.)

17 comments:

  1. Nice job Jill and great post. You sure have a knack for drawing a reader into the story.
    Congrats!

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  2. Love the post and love seeing you and Beat so happy :)

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  3. Just when I think the sting of leaving Fairbanks behind has gone away, I read this. It really is a special place, which it took my husband and I leaving to finally realize but this is our plan too :

    "Let's just buy a cabin in Fairbanks," he joked, and I grinned.

    I'm glad you had a great time! The weather looked perfect! :) Congrats to you and Beat!

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  4. Your race reports are amazing. I can't imagine doing a race like this. It looks incredible up there and VERY cold!!

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  5. Sharon Roes9:56 PM

    Great race and great report, Jill. Glad to see you are so happy.

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  6. Might be time to look at supplementing your usual food items with some race specific food/energy items like the top 24hour solo racers use? Personally I think engineered race food is a bit silly with one exception—it actually makes sense for the racers near the top of the ol pyramid, racers like Jill?

    Time to look at adding some higher quality food/fuel? Seems likely- So congratulations are probably in order--Sounds like you moved off a plateau to a higher level –ie: moving the same mass at a higher overall speed requires more/better fuel

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  7. Really enjoyed reading the race account Jill. Congratulations!!

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  8. Congratulations to you and Beat for your respective races. The White Mountains 100 has been in the back of my mind for a couple of months now and your story moved it to the front. I think I need another trip to AK next year.

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  9. WONDERFUL story Jill...thanks for sharing (again)! You ALMOST make me want to do one of these...I did say almost. And hey, just wondering: have you ever tried studded tires on your mt bike? (you can make them yourself using screws and tuffy-liners, or buy them pre-made which are nicer but pricey). I used to ride in Wisconson in the winter on the X-country ski-trails, and studded tires worked quite well, ESPECIALLY on packed trails (and even MO-betta on the downhills). You actually have traction and grip...allows you to steer and NOT end up in treewells (GRIN!) Glad you got out of that intact...they can be QUITE scary and VERY VERY dangerous. EXCELLENT writeup, and GREAT race to you both!

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  10. Nice job knocking that one out!
    Spent some time living in Ester, just outside of Fairbanks (more like a long visit, living in a teepee) and really liked it, but the winter would be limiting in a lot of ways.
    Glad you arrived none the worse for wear.

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  11. Anonymous11:46 AM

    You ask why being in the "desolate" northern wild draws you so strongly. William Chapman White wrote about the Adirondacks of Northern NY in his book "Adirondack Country" and summed up those feelings for me.

    "As a man tramps the woods to the lake he knows he will find pines and lilies, blue herons and golden shiners, shadows on the rocks and the glint of light on the wavelets, just as they were in the summer of 1354, as they will be in 2054 and beyond. He can stand on a rock by the shore and be in a past he could not have known, in a future he will never see. He can be a part of time that was and time yet to come."

    Love Your writing....

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  12. Julie in Alaska1:36 PM

    Hey, Jill, have you ever gone up to Chenah Hotsprings? I could imagine you and Beat enjoying a day in the natural hot waters there. Or am I wrong?
    Great post, thanks!

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  13. Anonymous4:07 AM

    Hi Jill, I am a 52 year old mom who just rides her bike to the grocery store, and I love reading your blog.
    I had no idea races like this even existed before reading Jill Outdoor.
    When you are on a long race like this, alone most of the time, is there ever any danger from wild animals?
    Lynne in MD

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  14. Matias Saari2:43 PM

    That healthy looking wrap was stuffed with Nutella - helped me get my arms and legs working again!
    By the way, I own a perfect-for-writing cabin on a dome above Fairbanks - currently unoccupied though that is subject to change.
    Congrats to you and Beat on a strong race.

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  15. Hey Jill - I agree with Marshal. You said you were 'taking in a lot more water and sweating quite a bit more than I usually do in a winter endurance effort. I was probably low on both electrolytes and calories despite sticking to my planned food intake.' You are talking of hyponatremia. In can be fatal, make no mistake. But filling your Camelbak bladder with a liquid fuel (I use the Science in Sport PSP22 mix) will not only help avoid hyponatremia but also help to fuel your effort and avoid the dreaded bonk!

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  16. Jill,

    my posts are being kinda taken in a negative way and are not meant that way. If you would like to have a dialogue on this try me at zeidler.robert@gmail.com. If I'm inappropriate, or otherwise resembling an axe murderer, you can end it at any time, as will I. Deal?

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  17. Another awesome story and congrats to you and Beat for a job well done....I couldn't imagine doing a 100 miles on a bike in the snow let alone on foot!

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