Friday, March 30, 2012

Fade to white, part two

I didn't actually believe I was going to walk the entire rest of the race; I just needed a mental reprieve from maneuvering my bike and crashing and thrashing out of the snow and doing it all over again. I blamed my fatigue on my heart, but my mind was tired, too — tired of intense focus and anxiety. I pulled over to let a few skiers pass, gliding over the fluff. "It's too bad you don't even get to enjoy the downhill," Anchorage skier Abby Rideout said as she coasted by me. "Meh!" I called out with an exaggerated shrug as though I wasn't jealous of her effortless speed, which I was.

I hiked to the edge of the ice lakes and pulled microspikes over my boots. The ice lakes are not lakes at all but a narrow, sloping valley covered in a film of wet ice known as overflow. Overflow forms when an upwelling of ground water seeps over the surface of the snow in freezing conditions, building variable layers of ice and open water. The condition of overflow changes quickly — shin-deep slush can freeze to bumpy ice which can submerge in a new upwelling of water in a matter of hours. A volunteer had told me the ice lakes were knee-deep earlier in the morning, and since my overarching goal is self-preservation in all situations, my plan was to walk this section all along. A thin veneer of new ice shattered beneath my boots and sunk my feet to my ankles in water. Thanks to my prior frostbite experience, overflow is one of my great fears. Crunching and groaning ice echoed in the wind, an eerie chorus matched in volume by the pounding of my heart. Turns out my heart did have some oomph left — all I needed was a little more fear.

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I enjoy confronting my fears. The ice lakes are more than a mile long, and after about fifteen minutes of anxious tiptoeing I managed to punch in fairly deep, over my right ankle. I stopped to watch the slushy water cascade over my boot with childlike fascination, exhausted as my mind was. Amid the sudden quieting of my footsteps I could hear the sounds of the environment — gurgles from water seepage, metallic clinking of wind-driven snow, and the moaning breeze. The low cloud ceiling blended flawlessly into the snow, obscuring the ground and creating the optical illusion of spruce trees ascending into the sky. The whole world was black and white except for the ice surrounding my feet, which was a bright glacial blue. Because my soft shell and base layer were soaked in sweat, the cold wind stabbed into my core with a "help, I'm alive" kind of urgency — both exhilarating and terrifying."What is this place?" I said out loud, with a genuine sense of wonder. And then, in the next breath, "I love this place." It no longer mattered that I wasn't quite strong enough. I was here.

Shortly after the ice lakes, I forgot about my silly resolve to hike it in and got back on my bike. Trail conditions were much better than they had been on the other side of the divide, but the surface was quickly filling in with new snow. I could see several ski tracks but no tire or snowmachine tread, meaning enough new powder had fallen to obscure older tracks entirely. When snow is falling that quickly, a trail can become unrideable in a matter of hours. This knowledge boosted me into hard-riding mode again. I really didn't have the stamina for it, nor the energy, because these effort levels caused me to feel pukey and made it impossible to eat anything but Gummy Lifesavers, of which I only had one package. (Note: These were regular Gummy Lifesavers, not the sour kind that made me so ill during the Susitna 100. But it is ironic that they were the only food I had that didn't make me queasy.)

This section of trail is the most fun of the White Mountains course, a gradual descent swooping through the woods beside cathedral-like spires and dramatic gulches. Sadly I was too blown to enjoy it, and also crashed two more times. After my second crash I laid in the snow for several seconds, letting the soft pillow envelop me and contemplating whether I could take a power nap right there. The chill roused me to action before I dozed off. I couldn't arrive at checkpoint three soon enough.

Checkpoint three manager Dea Huff catches a much-deserved nap in the Windy Gap Cabin. Photo by Beat.
I arrived at Windy Gap, mile 60, at 7:30 p.m. I had only been on the trail for eleven and a half hours but honestly, the way I felt, you could have tacked another day on to that. I was surprised when Dea told me I looked "fresh" compared to others who had been through before and also said I was the "best dressed" of the bikers. (I was wearing a sweaty jacket, freebie mittens from the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse, and clashing shades of blue and purple — but everyone loves my down skirt.) Dea served me her signature soup with six meatballs. I crammed the steaming chunks down my throat. My eyes watered as the food seared my tongue, but I was too hungry to wait for it to cool down. Every time I stopped moving, I felt ravenously hungry. And yet, as soon as I started pedaling again, my appetite faded behind a wall of nausea.

The trail past Windy Gap cabin the next morning. Photo by Beat.
Snow was still coming down hard after I left Windy Gap, enough so that I had no choice but to put on my goggles. I despise wearing goggles, and have discovered that the only times I can make myself wear them are when it's snowing too hard to see without them, or so windy that the chill can freeze skin in seconds. My goggles have a brown tint that rendered the already flat light into low-resolution fuzziness, like an old photograph. I think not being able to see much actually did me some good, as I could no longer see the deeper ruts in the trail and thus took no evasive action that probably would have caused me to swerve and crash into the snow bank. A few times my front tire dropped out from underneath me before I realized I was descending into a stream bed — my depth perception was so bad that I couldn't even discern six-foot dips. Finally it became dark enough to switch on my headlamp. I didn't know what was worse — a complete lack of depth or squinting through the static television effect of snow swirling through the beam. Either way, I seemed to be riding better than I had been all day. Go figure.

I reached Borealis cabin, mile 79, at 11:15 p.m. Abby was just leaving and a couple of male skiers were discussing the benefits of classic skis in this year's trail conditions. As soon as I was drawn into the discussion it turned into a debate about which year was the most difficult for the White Mountains 100. "Definitely this year, no question," I said. The first skier disagreed, arguing that the minus 25 temperatures of 2010 made the trail much worse. "Maybe if you're a skier," I said. "But bikes can handle the cold. New snow slows us down." Everyone agreed that this year was probably the year for skiers, in the unofficial competition between the three disciplines. A skier was the first to arrive at Windy Gap cabin, and if the snowstorm that followed me down the pass had come five hours earlier, a skier might have won the race. But it's amazing what strong snow bikers can do, and the top three guys, all bikers, would finish in the twelve-hour range. The lead skier finished in thirteen hours flat.

I've never seen any of this section of the race because it's always dark when I travel through here. Now I'm wondering if maybe I should just try the White Mountains 100 on foot one of these years. Photo by Beat. 
I left Borealis with one of the skiers, Brian Jackson. He took off his skis to climb the steep hill out of Beaver Creek, but even though we were both walking I couldn't even strain to keep his pace. "Your fault for bringing that heavy bike," he had joked earlier when I complained about the push up the divide. I watched Brian's headlamp fade up the hill. As far as I could tell there weren't any other cyclists in my time zone, so I figured I'd be spending the rest of the race alone.

The sky began to clear before it even stopped snowing. Through the squall I could see the moon, and then stars, and then subtle streaks of white light — the Northern Lights. Finally the snow tapered off, and then the temperature dropped precipitously. It was ten degrees above when I left Borealis, but down on the slopes along Wickersham Creek it felt at least fifteen degrees colder, possible twenty. It was definitely below zero. Before I arrived at Borealis I decided my wet soft shell was no longer keeping me warm, and traded it for a fleece jacket, then tied the soft shell around my waist. This was plenty warm for the hard climb immediately after the cabin, but let in a harsh chill as soon as I started pedaling again. By the time I decided to use my soft shell over my fleece jacket just to block the wind, it had solidified into an ice sheet. I could barely bend the coat enough to wrap it around my torso. My clothing situation was not ideal.

Luckily, I had packed my expedition down coat in my seat post bag. It was two pounds of extra gear I likely wouldn't need, but I appreciated having an insurance policy on my bike. I was already on the cusp of feeling uncomfortably cold, and temperatures were dropping. Not having any more layers would have been unnerving. As it was, I could only stay warm if I crammed some sugar into my system. Every time I felt a chill, I would choke down a peanut butter cup or a piece of Twix bar. I really didn't feel like eating, to the point where the nausea caused by swallowing made me feel dizzy, but candy worked. The kindling sparked and I'd feel warm again, for a few minutes, until it burned out. I'd waver until my teeth began to chatter and choke down another peanut butter cup. I thought about putting on my down coat but I knew I had hard climbs ahead of me, and I didn't want to pour any moisture into my insurance policy if I didn't have to.

Photo by Beat. This is where I felt the coldest. Beat recorded temperatures of 15 below in the early morning. 
This section was punctuated by a few deep overflow sections. I picked a bad line over this crossing and punched my front wheel into water all the way to the hub, soaking half of the brake rotor. This instantly froze into an impenetrable ice film, and the front brake wouldn't work for the rest of the race.

The Wickersham Wall viewed from the distance. Photo by Beat.
But even beyond the deepening cold, I was more concerned about the unseen monster looming in front of me — the Wickersham Wall. The Wall is the direct route up to the top of the Wickersham Dome, gaining a thousand vertical feet in a little more than a mile. By itself it wouldn't be a big deal, but in the White Mountains 100 this obstacle comes at mile 93 of a 100-mile race. Even after cresting the wall, the trail continues a general climbing trend on rolling hills all the way to one mile before the finish. It's brutal, just brutal.

I needn't have worried so much about it, though. I had already pedaled in survival mode for the better part of fifty miles, and the Wall was simply the next step. Plus, I had eaten so much candy in my efforts to stay warm that I actually had a little energy to spare, and felt a boost while I plodded up the foot-stomped snow. When I reached the ridge I found I could pedal uphill, even where I saw the footprints of other cyclists. This energy and alertness boost carried all the way to top of the dome, as though I was finally coming around. But by then, it was too late — I was at the one-mile-from-the-finish sign. I coasted in with a subdued sort of elation, riding my squealing back brake and wondering if perhaps I wasn't broken, and perhaps I'd never been broken. These are the questions I always ask myself after a hard effort — how much of the challenge was physical, and how much was mental. I still believe most of this is mental, and as long as we maintain the basic physical needs (food, water, warmth), most anything we deem impossible is achievable. And so I wonder ... I wonder ...

Photo by White Mountains 100.
But I was tired. I was stupid tired. I arrived at the finish at 4:47 a.m. for a finishing time of 20 hours, 39 minutes (the race started at 8:08 a.m.) I knocked on the RV that was race headquarters and announced my arrival. The volunteer must have taken a photo that I don't remember her taking, and directed me toward the warming tent. "I'm not going to the warming tent," I replied. "I'm just going to go to my car and sleep for a while before driving back to Fairbanks."

"You can sleep in the tent," she said. "There are cots in there and a heater. It's nice."

I considered this and said, "But my sleeping bag is in my car" — as though this statement should have conveyed proper logic as to why I couldn't sleep in the warming tent. Alas. I rolled out my sleeping bag in the back of a borrowed Jeep and fell into a dreamless sleep.


  1. wonderful photos, great writing and a heck of a feat too!

  2. Wow, congrats on another finish in a difficult race.

  3. I posted and it disappeared!

    I love to read of your adventures and even the struggles, from the comfort of my sofa here in Zurich. The icing on the cake :-) is to see photos of my home state Alaska!

    Thanks for blogging, and congratulations on your finish!

  4. Congratulations Jill on a great race.

  5. Good Job Jill, wish I had seen more of you out there. Cool to see Beat's photos of the overflow and wall in the daylight.

  6. You are awesome. It's really impressive that you pushed through even though you weren't feeling super awesome. Given the amount of time to finish it would have been tempting to take a long long long nap or something. I'm glad the gummies served you well and you were at least able to eat something. Sounds like quite the challenge but you always rise to the occassion. Yay Jill!

  7. I love the overflow pictures! Congrats on a tough race!

  8. Congratulations on the race! Can I ask you a few questions about the overflow? I want to do Susitna next year but feel like I don't understand a few things:

    -You were talking about bringing waders for overflow (maybe not in this race, but in Susitna I think). Does that mean it's generally obvious where the overflow might be? If not, are the waders worth it, if you could step into overflow at any time when you're not wearing them?

    -After you stepped in the overflow this time, did you immediately change socks and shoes? Or in a "warm" year, does movement keep your feet warm even if they're wet? Would you generally bring multiple pairs of dry socks and/or shoes in case you step in overflow multiple times?

    -With waders + goretex shoes, do you get wet feet if you step in overflow, or is that enough to keep your feet dry?

    -Did you have one of those standard plastic orange sleds for Susitna? How do they do with getting wet if you drag the sled through overflow?

    sorry for so many questions...


  9. Thanks all.

    Eric — awesome work yourself. It was fun to see you near the beginning. After your passed I knew I was not going to see you again out there. I'm curious what it was like skiing this course.

    Danni — I considered taking a nap at Windy Gap, but the checkpoint at the time was fairly crowded, I didn't have any sleeping gear, and it was only 7:30 in the evening. It's more likely I would have just laid awake on that hard bunk until my back hurt and got up 90 minutes later feeling worse than before. After Windy Gap, I slowly started to feel better. I think I actually did recover some on the move just because the trail was better and my low-level energy bonk forced me to slow the pace anyway.

    Alicia — I always carry my waders in winter ultras. They too serve as a peace-of-mind insurance policy, but I rarely use them, and didn't at all in the Su100 or the White Mountains 100. My bike boots are waterproof to just below my calves, and gaiters make them largely water resistant to my knees. I never stepped into overflow deep enough to go over my boots, so I had no issues with wet feet.

    As you can tell from that picture, you can usually see overflow although you can't always tell how deep it is. In the Su100, which is largely on rivers and lakes, overflow is caused when water runs over the ice. This has the potential to be much larger and deeper than the little water seeps in the Interior, and can also be hidden under layers of new snow. (The overflow forms a thin layer of ice that is covered with snow, which insulates the water and keeps it from freezing solid.) The best way to avoid this is to stay on the trail (generally if a surface can hold a snowmachine it can hold you) and if there's no trail, look for sinks in the snowpack. Whenever you see solid ice, walk on that. Never try to walk around it.

    If I had seen any evidence of overflow in the Su100 I would have definitely put my waders on, as I was only wearing Gortex shoes, which in my experience are more water resistant than waterproof. I would never trust them to repel open water on their own, but the waders are 100% waterproof. If I did accidentally step into overflow and get my feet wet, I would immediately sit down, remove everything, put on dry socks, and gallon-size ziplock bags over the socks. This would probably keep feet warm enough if temperatures were above zero F. If they were below zero, it would hopefully at least get you to the next checkpoint where you can dry your shoes. But you definitely don't want to mess around with below-zero temps and wet feet. Overflow is more rare in the Susitna 100 than the WM100, but is possible. When I got frostbite in the 2009 ITI, I was on part of the Susitna 100 course.

    Good luck! I love to see others take on this winter ultra madness. E-mail me if you have more questions.

  10. Congrats to you on your finish! Thanks for taking us along on your adventure. Can't wait for the next one.

  11. Jill--that is extremely helpful, thank you so much! The ziploc bag thing is a great idea that I would have never thought of. I will almost certainly be emailing you with more rookie questions over the next year...

  12. Nice writing, felt your pain. Congrats on finishing! Some day I'd like to give that race a try.

  13. Rock on Jill. This is bad ass. I won't lie - the words from your books and blog will be motivation for us tonight. Be brave, be strong. Thanks for that!


Feedback is always appreciated!