Friday, February 24, 2012

Sustina 4, chapter 2

The week before the Susitna 100, Danni participated in a ski mountaineering race in British Columbia. When I commented on the intensity required in a race like that, Danni said, "It is a different challenge than just putting your head down and letting time go by." I considered her accurate summary of the Su100 as I shuffled through a thick layer of wind-swept powder across the Dismal Swamp. It wasn't all that long ago in human history that marching was a harsh necessity of war, or an outright punishment. What is it about modern life that has turned long marches into a hobby, even a pleasurable one? One might postulate that our first-world lives are simply too convenient and easy, while our biological makeup still thrives on physical labor and struggle. Since I consider myself more of an artist than an athlete, I suspect a desire to peel away the agglomeration of our modern lives in order to obtain a better view of our basic selves. I am never more basic than when I am alone in the wilderness, walking.

In the irony of basic human nature, the tougher the situation I find myself in, the more emotionally fragile I become. By mile 27, I had been on the move for nearly eight hours. My hip muscles were already sore from the effort of pulling the sled. The arches of my feet ached and I often had to clench my toes to stretch the tendons. The day's cold had been mild but the sun was beginning to set, and I could feel wisps of chilled air across my skin. Danni and I left Flathorn Lake together but our comfortable paces were a little bit different, and I found myself ahead. My first strike of loneliness hit as I wended through a narrow strip of forest beyond the swamp and reached the bank of the Susitna River. Race officials had placed a sign marking the "Wall of Death," a short but icy and steep headwall that often catches bikers and skiers unaware. For the marchers, it's just a hundred feet of trail in a hundred miles, almost not worth noting, but I paused at the top all the same.

I was hit with a vivid memory of the minutes after my emotional meltdown in the 2011 Sustina 100. I crawled to the top of the Wall of Death and found Beat at the top with his sleeping pad laid out on the snow, and a spread of chocolate and other snacks on top. It was his peace offering after I had reamed him out for lecturing me about time cutoffs when I was feeling sick and demanded he leave me alone. One year later, the memory met me with a smile, and I wanted so much for Beat to be here with me so we could have our junk food picnic on top of the Wall of Death. Tears started to fall into my open grin, and I consoled myself with all of the mushy nonsense that the tough exterior of my non-basic self would usually squash. But no one was here to see me gush, so I gushed, relishing in the empowering acknowledgement of strong love.

I dropped onto the Susitna River and started jogging, a snowshoe-laden shuffle that I doubted was any faster than my walking speed. But in that moment I was so filled with joy that I had to find some way to express it. I don't sing and I was much too anchored by snowshoes and a sled to dance, so I ran. The horizon greeted me with a fortress of mountains, drenched in the pink light of sunset. It was so simply beautiful that I started bawling all over again. Mountains! Snow! Alaska! My basic self needs little to be happy.

I munched on deep-space rocket fuel and squinted at figures coming toward me from the distance. The lead bikers. I had been expecting them. The current out-and-back course of the Susitna 100 allows me to see nearly every other person in the race as they pass. As I was achieving mile thirty, the lead bikers were nearing mile eighty. They'd be done within three hours, before it was even late. I knew I had more than 24 hours in front of me, and laughed at the thought of what they must think of me and the other foot racers.

I had an idea because I've been a cyclist in this race before. Even with my "skinny tire" mountain bike, I'd never been beaten by foot racer, even the course record holder (my ex-boyfriend, Geoff, who ran the Su100 in 2007 as his first 100-mile ultra in 21:43, a time I can not fathom.) Back then, I thought the foot racers were kind of quirky, to say the least. The former lollipop course meant I never even saw them. They were the ghosts of the Sustina 100, haunting the quiet hours long after most everyone else had finished and gone to bed.

But perspectives shift, and now, five years later, I enjoyed being a ghost on the trail. The new out-and-back course makes it much less lonely. Once I turned onto the Yentna River, I could see a parade of white lights moving toward me, sparse but consistent all the way to Luce's Lodge. I reached the 41-mile checkpoint twelve hours and fifteen minutes after the start, at 9:15 p.m. As far as I could remember, that was at least an hour before the time I checked in to Luce's Lodge last year. I was already moving faster. Still, I vowed to keep my promise of minimal checkpoint time. I wanted to be at Luce's for a half hour at the most. I ordered a quick grilled cheese sandwich and ripped off my gators and multi-layered sock system for a liner sock change. Although I hadn't felt much pain while walking on the river, my feet looked like they were in bad shape. Some of my toenails were flaking, and I had several small blisters on my toes. The skin on my soles was white and deeply wrinkled, a symptom of being soaked in sweat for twelve hours. I had wondered if the outside temperature was too warm for my vapor barrier system, but I was so concerned about fending of frostbite that I figured, "feet can't be too warm." Apparently, they can. But at this point, my shoes were soaked from the snow, my insulation socks were soaked, and I had no choice but to stick with the vapor barrier or risk the combination of wet and cold.

"Ah, how much worse can it get?" I thought. I still had 59 miles to go. 


  1. You had what Ted calls a "love seizure." So wonderful.

  2. Wow! You are doing some serious riding, very cool. How can we get in touch with you?

  3. I've wondered why people do 100s for fun too. I've had enough suffering in my life that I don't think I'll ever find it fun. I'm glad you enjoy it though. :)

  4. I do believe there are deep rooted desires in many of us humans to push ourselves, to challenge ourselves, sometimes to the extreme. Perhaps this goes back to our ancestor’s similar struggles for mere survival. Yikes, this is too deep for a blog comment…..:-)

  5. Congrats on a job well done once again.
    I saw this (since I know how you like the candy for race snacks) and thought this would be perfect for your next Death wall picnic...

    Talk about your "rocket fuel"! :-)

    You may want to get on that Beat.


Feedback is always appreciated!