Thursday, February 23, 2012

Susitna 4, chapter 1

After 55 miles, my steps had a sort of rhythm to them, a dance. I could see Jane's red taillight blinking several hundred meters directly across the frozen swamp, so I felt safe in turning off my own headlight. Cast away from that comfortable island of light, my eyes began to adjust to the delicate contrast of gray on black. All of my senses sharpened. I could taste the moist air — almost sweet, and cold ... zero degrees and dropping. I could feel the hot prickling on the pads of my feet that I had been trying so hard to ignore, so I clenched my toes and walked faster. The moonless night opened like a door in front of me, and my peripheral vision caught a flash of silver. I glanced north and for the first time noticed columns of light rising from the boreal forest, high into an indigo sky. Tinged with subtle hints of green and magenta, light streaks rippled across the horizon and dissipated into a glowing arch. My exhausted mind conjured the image of a great symphony. Fingers of light extended from the arch like the bows of string instruments, glowing forms took the shape of flutes and trumpets, and colors rippled like sound waves — only the night was entirely silent. The only noise in this alien world was the rhythm of my steps, a lone dancer accompanied by an orchestra of light. I was dancing with the sky, moving in harmony with the aurora borealis, and the exhilaration of it all filled me with such a strong burst of emotions that my eyes filled with tears.

I was crying, again. I had cried several times in this race. The first tears fell when I descended the "Wall of Death" where Beat made a picnic for me during last year's race; returning to that spot made me think about how much he meant to me. The second tears came as I climbed over an ice shelf on the Susitna River and glimpsed the pink light of the setting sun splashed across the mountains of the Alaska Range. Now I was crying over the Northern Lights. Three times during the Sustina 100 I had reduced myself to a blubbering mess, and the race was only half over. And yet, I was halfway into this incredibly difficult hundred-mile foot expedition, and the only emotion that had gotten the better of me was extreme happiness. Instead of suffering and pain, beauty had become the one thing I could scarcely endure.

Ever since I signed up for the 2012 Sustina 100, I had been grappling for a tangible reason for exactly why I wanted to go back and race this particular course on foot. I had taken on this challenge last year with Beat, and we finished together in 41:16. A part of me feels like I should try different things, visit different places. A larger part of me knows what a slog this race really is — that traveling on snow is similar to running a hundred miles up a moderately steep incline in terms of effort, and dragging a 25-pound sled nearly equals the difficulty of something entirely self-supported. When I picked the steepest 50K courses I could find in the Bay Area to train for the Susitna 100, I coud only lament that these training races weren't hard enough. Completing the Susitna 100 on foot is really hard. I had this opinion at least partly validated when elite ultrarunner Joe Grant approached me after the race and admitted he had no idea what a slog the Sustina 100 would turn out to be. Joe finished in a smoking-fast 26 hours and 14 minutes. I can only imagine how fast runners might view this 100-mile time as disappointing. 

Still, I really wanted an excuse to return. I was happy when my friend Danni admitted she also wanted to sign up for Susitna 100 again. I figured if Danni could go back, I could go back. Danni made it to mile 85 last year and wanted redemption this year. I guess the act of racing makes us all feel like we have something to prove, and I decided my 2012 goal would be a 36-hour finish. I didn't convey this goal to anyone, because it was an aggressive ambition for someone like me — fairly new to the sport, couldn't train specifically for the conditions, and planned to set out alone without any support from Beat this time. But I knew it was achievable in most trail conditions if I could stick to an infallible plan — average three miles per hour on the move and limit my checkpoint downtime to three hours. My secret plan involved snowshoes to make me impervious to changing trail conditions, and a determined walking pace that I could maintain indefinitely. I knew I needed to avoid the trap of running more than a couple hundred meters at a time, and even then just to shake out the walking muscles. Remember those old Looney Tunes episodes where one cartoon character holds onto the suspenders of another as the hapless victim unknowingly scrambles in place in a futile effort to get away? That is exactly what running on snow with a 25-pound sled feels like to me. It's a massive energy drain that nets frustratingly little gain in speed. Some runners can handle this energy drain. I, well, I wanted more happy moments than agony if I could manage it.

Danni and I spent a relaxing night in a hotel on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, where we could see Sarah Palin's house (but strangely, we could not see Russia.) The weather in Southcentral Alaska had been warm — near or even above freezing — since we arrived, and Saturday morning in Wasilla was no different. I groaned as we fired up the rental car and the thermometer read 29 degrees. "It's going to be a massive slush fest," I grumbled. The softer snow becomes, the harder the trail makes us work. So you can imagine how Danni and I both squealed with audible delight as we made our way twenty miles west toward Point McKenzie and watched the thermometer plummet to six degrees, then two, then zero. In the strange phenomenon of Alaska weather, this isolated pocket of cold air was sitting exactly where it needed to be. This was a good omen, a good omen indeed.

The race launched and I immediately broke my promise to myself by running, hard. The whole field was running and I didn't want to get caught way off the back, so I quickened my stride and sucked down single-digit air as my heart rate shot to the 170s. The snowshoes were still strapped to the back of my sled. My face was coated in frozen sweat but my smile was as wide as the expansive valley in front of me. It was a beautiful frosty morning, the sun was out, and I was running in Alaska. No matter that I had nearly exhausted the high burners with 96 miles in front of me. I wanted to run while it still felt good to run.

Those early miles — after the endorphins settled in but before the toxins started to accumulate — were pure bliss. I relished in the simple movements that I knew were capable of carrying me a hundred miles across this land. The reclining profile of Mount Susitna loomed in a distance I knew I would have to not only close, but travel far beyond, and back. There was a certain satisfaction to the audacity — choosing a difficult place to go and the most difficult way of getting there. I no longer try to justify the ridiculousness of it all, only point out that this is the general direction of modern achievement. We still need to look inside ourselves and excavate the stuff we're made of, even if are the proverbial cartoon caracter with a hook attached to our suspenders.

I've also compared the Susitna 100 to a nicotine patch for the little-known but crazy-potent Iditarod addiction. Like many who have been out there before, I yearn to return. The Su100 course on foot is beautiful and difficult enough to get my fix without venturing down the more dangerous and exhaustive rabbit hole of the longer stuff. I'm excited for Beat and his chance at the 350 miles to McGrath starting this coming Sunday, but I feel apprehensive as well. So much so that I spent some of the quiet hours of the Sustina 100 thinking about it.

About three miles from the first checkpoint, I caught up to Danni. We had both run a fair number of those first miles in an effort to make the first cut-off, which in my opinion is unreasonably tight at seven hours for 22 miles that happen be the hilliest of the entire course. We had both stressed over making this cut-off, but arrived at Flathorn Lake by 2:45 p.m. with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare. The afternoon was becoming warm and we were both excited and feeling good. Of course, we had a long way to go, but our doubts were beginning to fade into the background. 


  1. Wow! It's beautiful out there. I love the way you describe the dance with the sky.

  2. Another installment and a pleasure to read. Thanks for sharing.

  3. It just "feels right" reading about you in the Alaskan winter again! I know it felt good for you to be there. Best wishes for Beat in the I350.

  4. I didn't realize my finish time was so close to yours last year. If we do this again I'm running less in the first 22 miles. There is no need to hit the cut-off an hour+ early.

    Last night I was googling snowshoes to find a different setup. Sadly, I don't think kathoola makes those cool ones anymore.

    That is sweet about the picnic. I love that.

  5. Woot! Awesome job, Jill. Can't wait for the next installments :-)

    Happy relaxing,

  6. Jill you're an incredible writer, photographer, and endurance athelete! Wish you the best in recovery from the Sustina.

  7. Congrats!

    "Instead of suffering and pain, beauty had become the one thing I could scarcely endure."

    LOVE that.

  8. If you haven't checked them out, Dion in Vermont makes an awesome light running snowshoe. I can attest to them doing well in the cold of Interior Alaska, but I've never run an ultra in them.

  9. Message to Beat.... First best of luck in the 350... Next I hope you realize this one here (Jill) is one in a billion (i'd say million but not true)... Make it happen (you know what I mean...) and I hope you kick butt in the 350!


Feedback is always appreciated!