Saturday, March 31, 2012

Finish and aftermath

Fatback coated in ice the morning after the White Mountains 100.
The sweet release of sleep only lasted about twenty minutes before I woke up with wrenching pain in my right big toe — the pain of renewed circulation. I endured another twenty minutes of intense throbbing and frostbite panic before I remembered that my toe had gone numb all the way back before checkpoint three, and the reason it went numb is because it was crammed against the tip of my boot while I pedaled. I tried to drift back to sleep, but then the coughing fits returned. I'd had a bunch of coughing attacks out on the trail but these were worse, searing my throat and producing crystallized chunks of phlegm that were a disconcertingly dark shade of brown. I managed to sleep fitfully for two more hours, then woke up to the sensation of shivering in my zero-degree sleeping bag. I checked the car thermometer. It was still four below outside at 8 a.m.

My plan had been to just wait at the trailhead for Beat to finish. I was too tired and apathetic to do anything else. But when I realized that this meant languishing in my sleeping bag for upwards of twelve hours, compounded by the fact that I didn't have anything to eat or drink, I decided to make the hourlong drive back to Fairbanks. I managed to catch our host, Joel, between naps at his house. Joel got into the White Mountains 100 at the eleventh hour, or more accurately fifteen hours before the race started, after five months in limbo on the wait list. Joel finished strong, in just over sixteen hours, but he too was shattered by the effort.

It was reaffirming to chat with another cyclist about what I found difficult about the race, and find out he agreed. Not many people understand what piloting a snow bike across a hundred miles of wilderness trails really entails. They see an average pace of five miles per hour and quietly scoff ... "what's so hard about that? I can run that fast." Actually, I can, too, and in many ways I believe the effort of snow biking is comparable to a trail-running effort — at least in my own experiences. Yes, snow biking has coasting, it has the potential to be faster, and it's considerably less rough on my joints and feet than running. But the energy output is still high, and I do believe that most of my struggles in the White Mountains 100 were caused by going out too hard. I wouldn't try to run a six-hour 50K at the beginning of a 100-mile ultramarathon, but that's essentially the effort level I exerted on my bike in the first forty miles of the White Mountains 100. My fitness, and indeed my genetics, just weren't conditioned to hold up to the demand.

I did collect some interesting data (if only to me) from my GPS. I have the comparisons for my pace in the 2011 and 2012 race. The 2012 race is slightly truncated because my GPS died a couple hours before I finished, but most of it recorded. Unsurprisingly my speeds were slower over the entire course, and in a fairly consistent way. To me, that proves the course was just across-the-board more difficult this year. It was! That's my story and I'm sticking too it.

After chatting with Joel I don't remember if I ate or drank anything. If I did it wasn't nearly enough. I headed back out to the Wickersham Dome trailhead to watch Beat finish. He put in an incredible effort and finished in 33 hours and 37 minutes, two hours faster than last year. He was the third of seven runners, and the second of three men. He had few issues besides sore hip flexers, and I think less post-Iditarod race fatigue than even he expected. Beat had a great race, and thought the trail conditions weren't all that bad. Well, no, not compared to the Iditarod. Ha!

It really amazes me how strong Beat is at these consistently hard efforts, recovering from them in a matter of days. Beat was essentially fine within hours after he finished, while I continued to struggle. I tossed and turned for most of the night as my heart raced and I gasped for breaths that I couldn't seem to catch. I thought I still hadn't cooled down from my hard effort, but several Facebook friends (how I love social media) diagnosed me with something much more obvious — dehydration. David Shaw, who finished the 2011 White Mountains 100 just a few minutes before I came in, wrote, "It's called volume shock. When dehydration sucks the fluid out of the blood, the blood thickens and volume goes down which means your heart has to work much harder to keep blood pressure up. You respiration rate is probably high too, another compensator. Drink and eat, drink and eat."

I took his advice, drank a lot of water, took some electrolyte tablets, and felt significantly better by the afternoon. Strange how such small changes can cause huge swings in health and well-being. And once again I revealed myself as a master of poor recovery.

This is essentially what most my friends pointed out after the race — "You're bad at recovery. You never let yourself recover from anything." I went straight from the Susitna 100 to playing hard in Alaska and the Yukon to training for the White Mountains 100. I don't really see this as a problem. I enjoyed every moment of playing and training, and didn't have any injuries or specific fatigue going into the White Mountains 100. I agree that with more focused intervals of training and resting, I could get my body to a point of being stronger and faster. But this isn't really my interest or my goal. If I had to sum up my fitness goals in simple phrases, they might be, "I want to do what I want, when I want. I don't want to be tied to a specific activity or regimen. I want to avoid injury. I want to travel long distances under my own power and have the strength and energy to do so."

Motivations for racing are as wide-ranging as the individuals who participate in races, and yet most people assume we're all the same — "We want to be faster. We want to beat others." Moving fast and placing high in race standings is certainly satisfying, but it's not why I race. I race to challenge my perceived limitations and confront my fears. I race to be part of a community, to connect with others who share my passions. I race to learn more about myself and the world around me. I race to overcome difficulties and prove to myself, again and again, that I'm capable of doing so. I race to fuel the stoke for day-to-day outdoor adventures, which collectively have provided more personal rewards than all of my races combined. Some people train to race. I race to train. I race so I can pursue adventure. As a sometimes reluctant adult, I view training as as euphemism for "go play outside."

It was 27 degrees and clear the afternoon before Beat and I left Fairbanks. I had downed six liters of water and only recently started breathing normally again when Beat decided to take the Fatback out for one last spin through the snow. He came back forty-five minutes later and described a beautiful loop that was "just a little farther than we ran the day before the race." That distance was only about four miles, so I thought it wouldn't be too outlandish to go out and enjoy one last romp in the winterlands myself.

The afternoon was indeed painfully beautiful, with sunlight sparkling on the snow and golden light high in the spring sky. I was still low on energy but, thanks to the impact-absorbing wonder that is a bicycle, had little muscle soreness or joint pain after the race. Still, I took it easy and savored the cool air, knowing it would be my last taste of Alaska for a while. I took Beat's advice and followed the main trail as it continued to wend through the spruce forest. I pedaled and breathed, pedaled and breathed. Somehow an hour went by, and I didn't appear to be anywhere near where I started. I rode another fifteen minutes before I arrived at a mushing clubhouse that I knew was at least five miles from Joel's place by road. I had already been out much longer than I intended, wearing only a pair of running shoes, nylon hiking pants, and a soft shell over my cotton T-shirt. I cut to the road and raced home, mainly because I was chilled and needed to build some heat. Without trying I had turned an questionable recovery spin into a fifteen-mile, moderate-effort ride. And yet it didn't feel that bad. In fact, it felt kind of awesome.

Now my friends are asking me if I'm actually going to rest and recover now that I'm done with my winter season. I already have a 400-mile mountain bike race planned at the end of April, and regardless of conditioning, I'm really excited for that one. It's going to be a beautiful route across Southern California, and it's been too long since I've embarked on a bike tour. In fact, I really should start planning an overnighter to get ready for the Stagecoach 400. You know, for training. I also need to start a routine of nightly sabbaticals in the sauna. You know, for heat acclimation.

If I required an extended period of downtime after a race it would mean, to me, that I've failed in my fitness goals. If I fail in a race because I pushed my limits of recovery too far, well, that's okay. At least then I'll know what's too far.


  1. I am always amazed by your efforts and even more amazed that you don't ever seem to sit back and bask in the afterglow of a big effort...

  2. So long as you don't get injured, it's all good.

  3. I feel like I'm mindful of avoiding injuries. My most common cause of injury is clumsiness, and even this I work to mitigate by holding back on descents and technical terrain. When I look at friends who struggled with long-term or overuse injuries, the most common cause seems to be speed, not volume. I've actually been working up an article proposal about speed obsession and its effects on active lifestyles. It seems too many people get caught up in the allure of limitless improvement, when we don't all have the biomechanics or discipline to pull this off. We can't all be graceful gazelles. When I try to listen to my body it tells me I'm a mule — strong, stubborn and slow. ;-)

  4. I assume you were on the Alaska Dog Mushers Association trails in and around Creamers Wildlife Refuge in Fairbanks on your short bike ride. We groom 28 looping miles, so it's easy to get turned around. The trails are multi-use, open to just about everything except ATVs and vehicles--snow machines are OK.

    (My skijoring dogs always think it's funny when we meet a biker out on the trail.)

    Google Earth maps are at:


  5. I agree. Elaine and I have been sort of tapering for this Elk Mountain thing, and it got in the way of some good skiing, and in turn, good experiences. All of the sudden, it becomes job-like. Next time, we'll just ski, not worry about it, race if we feel like it, and have fun. It's about adventure - not racing.

  6. Love your attitude...and love hearing of your adventures...


Feedback is always appreciated!