Thursday, March 29, 2012

Fade to white

My lactic acid-saturated legs were stomping out another 31-minute-mile when I crumbled. Or, more specifically, my heart crumbled. Its once enthusiastic thumping had faded to a humming-bird buzz, and a seemingly erratic one at that. Even this 1.9 mph bike-pushing pace was driving me dangerously close to what felt like a maximum effort, and I began to wonder if my heart had the capability to quit before I did. Is this what happens when athletes blow up? I mean not just bonk, but completely implode? I had often wondered, but I can't say I've ever gone hard enough for long enough to really find out. I suspected the White Mountains were going to show me exactly what it was like to defeat myself, here in the depthless expanse of the Cache Mountain Divide, where vision fades to white and the wind drives breathtaking cold in late March. Not the best place to suddenly feel like my body was broken.

Ah, back at the White Mountains 100. My favorite race. As Beat put it, the WM100 is one of the best hundreds around — "flawless organization and hard and a ton of fun." He also called it "like the Iditarod without the drama." The White Mountains 100 traverses a scenic loop through a small mountain range north of Fairbanks. The race incorporates all of the best parts of winter endurance racing in Alaska — largely self-supported travel through the backcountry; camaraderie among a diverse group of cyclists, skiers, and runners; a spectacular range of scenery including white-washed mountain peaks, craggy cliffs, rolling hills, tall spruce trees, boreal forest and eerie burns; a chance to see the Northern Lights; unpredictable weather and trail conditions; exciting obstacles such as overflow; friendly organizers and quirky participants; Alaska-specific food (moose chili and hot Tang, anyone?); and challenging, fun mountain biking (that just happens to be on snow) — all in a "short" hundred miles. Beat and I both agree that the White Mountains 100 is worth the herculean effort just to get there — making it through the race lottery, preparation, packing and travel, all while ignoring a lack of recovery and specific training. Beat was three weeks off his grueling eight-day effort on 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail. My snow bike training amounted to a hundred-kilometer tour on Yukon's Dawson Trail, during which I regularly commented, "I'd forgotten just how hard snow biking is." Yes, the White Mountains 100 promised great things for both of us, and we were excited.

Since I've finished this race twice before, my goal was to "ride harder" this year. In 2011, I was feeling demotivated to endure much suffering after the Susitna 100, and took it pretty easy during most of the race. If it wasn't for a surprise bonk seven miles from the end, I would have coasted to my 17:55 finish. Finishing faster than that wasn't necessarily my goal this year; there are so many variables in snow biking that times are almost irrelevant from year to year. But I wanted to put in a good effort this year and see where it took me.
The day before the start, it snowed. A few inches of fine fluff coated the previously hardpacked trail, and before the first volunteers set out Sunday morning on snowmachines, nearly all of the course was still untracked. A single bike traveling in these conditions would only experience increased resistance while powering through the powder. But add a few dozen bikers, skiers, volunteers on snowmachines, and their accompanying erratic tracks, and you have a rutted, somewhat technical trail. For the most part these ruts are unpredictable. They grab front wheels and induce loss of control, wild swerving, and often crashing. "Snow angel" is the common term for bike-shaped holes just off the trail, and these became increasingly more frequent in the early miles of the race.

Skilled snow bikers can to some extent read the tracks and pick the most efficient line — or increase their power output and plow through them.  I expect the frontrunners were able to do this, and also didn't have as many deep ruts to contend with. By the time I pedaled through the mess, there was no hope of powering down a direct line, and yet any attempts to steer around the ruts often resulted in one of the tires washing out. This is the side of snow biking where fat tires become more of a liability, because the smoother tread has poor traction in slippery conditions. I'm already out of practice and tried to make up for my lack of skill by applying as much power as I could, basically trying to cut my own deep track through the sifted powder. This was a strenuous effort, and despite single-digit temperatures I was sweating so much that I had to take my hat off and unzip my softshell, exposing my single base layer to the frigid windchill just to cool down.

The first forty miles of trail traverse rolling foothills, a series of climbs and descents. I tried to take advantage of gravity any time the trail sloped downhill. In the process, I made several of my own snow angels — a humorous experience but also a lot of work to get out from underneath. There was also a lot of effort involved in wrestling the Fatback through ruts at higher speeds. It was like taking an angry bull by the horns and trying to stop it from bucking me into the snow. One guy commented that the downhills were more strenuous than the climbs, and I agreed.

During the long descent into Beaver Creek, I was shadowing another cyclist when he began to coast away from me. Just as I was searching for the courage to release the brakes, his bike bucked violently and tossed him into the air. I watched his rag-doll silhouette arc over the handlebars and lawn-dart into a snow bank. I slowed as I passed to ask if he was okay. He giggled but his laugh sounded a little like a whimper. "That was a good one." The deep snowpack is forgiving in most crashes, but I couldn't help but think about what would happen if I crashed like that in just the wrong spot or the wrong tree. I resolved to take the descents slow.

This was my ongoing obsession during the first forty miles — the condition of the trail. When it was bad I would ride hard just to maintain forward motion, and when it was better I would ride hard to catch up on my perceived loss of progress. Despite my claims otherwise, I did want to improve on my 2011 time, and I was quickly falling behind the pace. The sun emerged from the clouds for a brief few miles and the open hillsides felt as hot as a sandy desert. The air told a different story though, as I sucked it into my lungs. Cold air burns, and this effect is amplified like windchill when I'm breathing hard. My lungs already felt ragged and raw. I was working what I might call my 50K race pace, an effort I can maintain for five to eight hours although not comfortably. I pedaled along that uncomfortable edge for six hours just to reach checkpoint two, a cabin at mile 39 of the loop. My original plan was just to blast through the first two checkpoints and only collect water. But my higher-than-usual effort level made it difficult to take in any calories on the trail. I decided sit down for 15 minutes and eat a baked potato with cheese, then somehow "take it easy" and "recover" during the 2,000-foot, eleven mile climb to the Cache Mountain Divide.

Luckily the first miles of the climb were on good trail. The course entered the deeper woods where less new snow covered trail. A film crew on two snowmachines had been through recently, loosening the powder but at least evening out the ruts. I was able to zone out for a while and just climb, a favorite activity that helped reduce my stress level and brought my heart rate down. The heart of the White Mountains loomed in a distance that I was steadily drawing closer. I hoped to catch glimpse of the peaks shimmering in the sunlight. Instead, the clouds closed in around me, and it started to snow again.

By the time I climbed above the last stands of spruce, the snow squall had strengthened to a white-out and the trail had been completely wiped out by the previous day's storm. I could see the footprints and choppy ski tracks of racers who came through before, but only as faint tints of gray in the disorienting flat light. Even these subtle clues were disappearing fast under new snow. The powder on the trail was about eight inches deep. It was hard work, pushing my bike, and my GPS registered speeds in the range of 1.5 to 1.9 miles per hour. Again my heart was pounding, which made my head feel light and my stomach nauseated. Sometimes overexertion is necessary just to maintain forward progress.

I did spend some time wishing I had trained more mindfully — ran some intervals or something, just to increase my cardiovascular capabilities. I gulped down wind-whipped shards of snow and pulled my balaclava half over my mouth, trying to strike a balance between inevitable sweat from the hard effort, a lack of insulating layers because I was sweating, and the bitter cold. I didn't feel so good. I thought I could feel my heart racing toward overdrive, and this mental image was concerning enough that I stopped often to catch my breath even though doing so let in a frigid chill. Bracing myself against the wind and gasping for air was tough dose of reality for me — a realization that I was doing all I could, but my fitness just wasn't up to snuff. Could be overtraining, could be undertraining, could just be a bad day in the saddle. The reasons don't really matter in the midst of a blizzard fifty miles from nowhere. There was never any drama involved because I was part of the White Mountains 100 and help was always nearby. But when I was a small dot alone in the white intensity of the Cache Mountain Divide, I could let myself believe what I come to these frozen landscapes to believe — that forward progress isn't a choice, it's a necessity. It doesn't matter how bad I feel; my body can keep going indefinitely if it has to. As always, this is an empowering realization.

Still, maintaining requisite forward motion while feeling lousy doesn't exactly put me in a good mood, nor does it motivate me to move fast. I crested the broad pass and tried to remount my bike for the descent. I was determined to ride down the pass, which was a silly delusion when I could barely discern the trail from the deep snow from the mountains from the sky. Still, I continued trying to ride, crashing again and again over unseen ruts. During the heart-rate-pegging efforts to extract myself from snow drifts, frustration finally boiled over. I threw a little temper tantrum and resolved to not just stop trying to ride my bike down the pass, but to stop riding my bike in the race, period. This year's White Mountains 100 had been one hard effort after another and I was exhausted. I felt like I had just barely avoided a physical blow-out and I still had fifty miles in front of me with little evidence that riding my bike wouldn't continue to be just as strenuous as it had been in the first fifty. I missed the "easy" marching of competing in the Susitna 100 on foot (oh, how those rose-colored lenses of memory mask the truth.) "If the trail doesn't improve I'll just walk to the finish." And for weird reasons that are now only known to the irrational whims of fatigue, this plan made me feel so much better. I set off marching down the pass, happily prepared to push my bike for fifty miles.

... to be continued.


  1. Yay, a post! oh my, this is gripping ... can't wait to read the rest.

  2. I really enjoy the way you tell a story...can't wait for part 2

  3. You never really let yourself recover from Su. You don't ever really do much recovery actually...

  4. Man, you're not making me envious about your trip this year.

    And I agree with Danni on the recovery thing. It's funny how we expect our bodies to perform well when we're over-trained/under-rested, it's like the brain counteracts those signs and makes us slightly crazy, just perpetuating the cycle. In my history, it has taken a couple really good blow-ups just to realize what it was.

    ..not that the extra snow helped you any.

  5. Wow..can't wait for the next part. Hopefully you're giving yourself some time to recover before your next adventure.

  6. Your outdoor endurance adventures continue to amaze me. Can't wait for part 2!

  7. Awesome read Jill. A thought: clearly, based on your last 130 miles in the GDR back in 2009, you have the physical ability to go quite fast. If I recall right, you were forced to not ride before that as a result of your frostbite. Perhaps that rest was a huge blessing in disguise. Food for thought before your big race in Europe. Regardless, congrats on a great Alaskan adventure.


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