Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yeah, we're going down

The trip to the starting line was mostly a quiet one. Ed, who was both the race co-director and a participating skier, was at the wheel of his old truck; I was the wide-eyed passenger fixated on the thick ice covering the road. The last structures of the greater Fairbanks area faded in the side-view mirror, causing me to breathe a nervous sigh. I always get this feeling when I know I'm close to the northernmost reaches of civilization, whether I'm in central Ontario or standing on the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay — just realizing I could draw a straight line north and likely hit nothing but trees or ice all the way to the North Pole fills me with a primal sort of wonder, and fear.

Dawn was slow to approach. The whole sky was cast in a pale violet light that seemed fixed in time, as though sunrise wasn't coming. I felt anxious, but not in the ways I expected to — not really at all about the race. I hadn't really trained and wasn't emotionally invested in whether or not I finished. Honestly, I didn't care. Racing bicycles on the snow was such a trivial thing in the wider context of my life, which was in the process of turning upside down. I had quit my well-established job to strike out on my own with a rather vague plan based on travel and freelance writing. I was moving away from my comfortable routine and beautiful familiar places in Juneau to the bustling urban culture shock of Anchorage. But I had a book project I was excited about, and a sense that if I was willing to take a chance on the unknown, good things would follow. I was set to leave Juneau for good on April 1.

It was the first day of spring, March 21, but the prolonged subarctic winter defied any hope of new life. Ed nodded toward the thermometer on his dashboard, which measured the outside temperature as we rolled north. There was a thick inversion that morning, holding the cold air close to the ground. When we left the house it was just above zero degrees, which I felt OK about, but as we dipped into low-lying valleys, the gauge quickly dropped to -11, and -14 and then -17. For the first time that morning, a different sort of nervousness started to creep in — anxiety about survival. It had been a mild winter in Juneau, and -17 was quite a bit colder than anything I had experienced that season. I wasn't trained for this sort of thing, and I wasn't acclimated. I could only hope I was prepared.

The quiet persisted, along with the violet dawn. Frosted birch and spruce trees streamed past. The radio, which had been fading in an out, crackled on again for a bit, broadcasting a pop station out of Fairbanks. "All the Right Moves" by OneRepublic came on. A couple verses passed before Ed, with his own style of understated humor, sang faintly along with one of the lines in the lyrics: "Yeah, we're going down."

I looked at him and laughed. "Maybe I'm reading too much into this whole thing," I thought. "Maybe I should just stop obsessing about unemployment and Anchorage and all of the things I'll miss about Juneau. Maybe I can just sit back and have some fun."

And the race really was fun. From the steep climbs and descents, to the beautiful mountain scenery, to the challenging overflow obstacles, to the incredible camaraderie among organizers and participants, the White Mountains 100 really was the most fantastic fun I've ever had in a single race. In the later miles I struggled with the cold and a bit of knee pain, but I genuinely never felt unhappy about any part of it. I finished the race in 22 hours and 38 minutes. Afterward, I reflected on that overwhelming positive feeling in my race report:

"I could say it was a struggle, but the landscape was too dreamlike, too compelling, to be a place of struggle. The moon wedge burned bright in a sky splattered with stars, and the twisted trees carved gothic silhouettes over the snow. I did a lot of thinking about the upcoming changes in my life and felt a beautiful sense of peace. Just as I had no real control over the cold, over my fatigue, I had no control over the future. And yet I could move through it, taking on the challenges with the best of my abilities, learning from my mistakes, and growing. Even when the race got hard, like life, it never stopped being worth it."

Now I'm going back to the White Mountains 100 under strikingly similar circumstances. At lot in my life has changed and is changing, and I'm filled with positive emotions about it all. The race starts Sunday morning at 9 a.m. Alaska time; this will probably be my last post before the start, so I wanted to post the links to the race pages.

Beat created personal tracking pages for each of us, including a map of the course, comment bubbles that can include short messages from the SPOT units (I have the word "Slogarific" pre-set in mine), and adorable little icons. Beat is going to compete on foot, so his icon is a little runner. Since I'm on a bike, I get a fat bike icon:

And, if my pace slows to a speed not conducive to bike riding, the icon should (in theory) change to a little bike-pushing guy. If you see this, you'll know that things are truly slogarific out there.

What conditions are they expecting for Sunday's race? Trail reports vary widely — I've heard everything from lots of snow and soft to hard-packed and fast. To me, personally, it doesn't matter all that much. I did the entire Susitna 100 on foot so I'm arguably better trained for bike pushing than I am for bike riding, but, at the same time, I'd of course prefer to ride my bike, because that's more fun. Either way, I am really excited. I'm get to ride my bike in Alaska! For 100 miles! We're going down! Yippee!

My tracking page is located at this link.

Beat's page is at this link.

Race updates and information will be posted here.

Beat's disclaimer: The tracking sites might be buggy, I made some last minute changes. They should automatically refresh but hitting the refresh button may help. If it doesn't work with IE, try Chrome (which you should be using anyways!) or some other browser. Things might get slow - sorry I won't be able to watch and fix anything :) There's some filtering going on to remove bogus coordinates, and the site does some calculations to infer how far we traveled - that may be wrong. Go to the SPOT pages for just the locations. The regular SPOT page is at this link.


  1. Jill, good luck to both you and Beat. Have fun and enjoy the race as the memories will flow back. Paul

  2. Good luck you guys! I will be thinking about you.

  3. Best of luck to you both. Have a great time out there. If conditions are good for biking, I think you should head out on a second loop and catch up with Beat ;-)

  4. I can't belive you've been to Alaska :D

  5. I love Ed! He was my husband's guru for all things outdoors when they worked together. We wish that we had an "Ed" here to help us find all the good places to go!

    Good luck to you and Beat! I hope he gets as addicted to biking as you did with ultra running!

  6. Good luck, and thanks for publishing your tracking pages, it will be fun to watch!

  7. Stay safe and have FUN

    PS Maybe you have to chance the name of the blog "Up in Alaska." LOL

  8. yeah! good luck! i wish i could come back for round 2. i'll be cheering from boring ol' michigan.

  9. Best of luck Jill! I'll be looking forward to hearing all about it.

  10. Racing in Alaska sounds like a wonderful experience and I'm don't even ride my bike that often, due to knee problems. However, I would make an exception if I were in Alaska! I hope you had fun racing again, can't wait to hear how it went.

  11. Congratulations on finishing - and taking HOURS off your time! Can't wait to hear (read) all about it.


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