Thursday, March 22, 2012

We interrupt this spring ...

Riding over Cache Mountain Divide in 2011. Photo by J. Rose, White Mountains 100
... for more winter fun! And a story:

When I flew to Anchorage to run the Susitna 100, I spent my first night in Alaska with a good friend who I've known since college, Chris, and his wife Becky. I had spent most of the day Wednesday at various airports or on planes. I get airsick when I travel and never eat or drink much, so I was already depleted Thursday morning when I downed two cups of coffee while chatting with Becky. She mentioned she was going to go for an hour-long ski with her dog before work and asked if I wanted to join her. I didn't have ski equipment but I pictured classic skiing as something about walking speed (because when I do it, it is), so I agreed to accompany her on foot.

I threw on a coat over my cotton hoodie and put on extra socks, a warm hat, and gloves, because it was 20 degrees outside and I was still acclimated to balmy California. We hit a groomed multi-use trail near her house, and Becky immediately took off down the pre-set ski track. She was breezing along at six miles an hour, and I had to run to keep up with her. The snow was groomed but not hard-packed, meaning every footprint punched in a couple of inches. Maintaining ten-minute-miles in those snow conditions was a full, red-lined effort for me — like running a ten-minute mile up a steep incline. Becky chatted amicably while I gasped for cold air and occasionally grunted single-syllable replies. I was extremely overdressed for that intense of an effort, so I was showering myself in sweat.

We made it about two miles down the Tour of Anchorage trail when the edges of my vision began to go dark. As the tunnel closed in, I hit a wall of dizziness so thick that I actually stopped and knelt on the trail. In the degrees of bonking, this one was a nine out of ten — one of the worst I had ever experienced. Becky didn't notice right away so I stood up and called out to her, a likely pathetic whimper. "Becky, um, Becky?" She and her malamute, Moose, slowed and waited for me to stagger toward them. "I'm sorry, I really have to turn around," I explained. "I didn't eat much yesterday, then drank too much coffee with no breakfast, and I'm completely bonked. Sorry, I just can't keep up."

Becky's face revealed a mixture of confusion, pity, and horror. Here I was, in Anchorage specifically to run a hundred miles on the snow, in a race that was less than 48 hours away, and I was apparently incapable of running two miles at what she viewed as a mellow pace. "Um, okay," she said. "I'll catch you on the way back."

As I staggered back through the woods of Far North Bicentennial Park, I continued to feel worse. My glycogen-depleted body stopped producing heat, and my drenched cotton hoodie let in a stiff chill. My head was still spinning, my heart was thumping, my teeth were chattering, the muscles in my legs were achy with dehydration, and I admit I felt scared. Was I even going to make it back to the bridge over Tudor Road? It had been a long time since my body felt that broken down, and I certainly wasn't expecting it right then, during a morning stroll while tapering for the Susitna 100.

I'm sharing this story to illustrate my point that while training and experience count for a lot, circumstance can be everything. Even though Becky will probably now and forever question whether I'm really a couch potato who makes up everything I write on my blog, I didn't let that incident upset me. I knew my major bonk was just that — a bonk — and all I needed were some carbohydrates and water, and maybe a little more sleep, and I'd be all set to run a hundred miles across the Susitna Valley. But the fact that I could be taken down so swiftly by seemingly benign circumstances was enlightening. The lessons: Never assume anything will be easy. And don't assume that unexpected setbacks make something impossible.

Beat and I are leaving early Friday morning to travel to Fairbanks for the White Mountains 100, which begins Sunday morning at the Wickersham Dome Trailhead, about an hour north of Fairbanks. I am planning to ride the Fatback and Beat will tackle the course on foot. This race could be anything and I have to approach it with an open mind. All week, overnight lows in Fairbanks have been -15 to -30, and temperatures are typically at least ten degrees colder in the Whites — and the swing is wider on clear nights. Forecasts call for a warming trend over the weekend, but also new snow on Saturday. Even if a lot of fresh snow dumps on the trail overnight, I'm still planning to start this race with a bike. I feel like I'm physically prepared for a long push and admit there would be a certain masochistic fun in trying, but I'm still hoping for hardpacked trails and lots of fun, true mountain biking.

So there could be fresh snow, it could be twenty below or colder, there could be a lot of sloping ice and even wet overflow on the trail, there could be strong winds that will push my bike like a sail as I tiptoe across the Ice Lakes, or temperatures could warm dramatically and turn the whole trail to mashed potatoes. That's the thing about winter racing — and the part I like best: You must expect anything. I'm not sure what to expect from my body as it's been a while since I attempted or even trained for this many hours on a bike. But I have a deep base in cycling, an abnormally insensitive butt, and a lot of enthusiasm. My hope, if the trail is good, is that I find the wherewithal to ride hard. I want to put in a strong race. And while I do plan to avoid bonking at mile two, I accept this and all setbacks as possible.

The race begins Sunday at 8 a.m. Alaska time. Beat updated our tracking pages for the White Mountains 100, so you can follow our progress here:

Jill's tracking page.

Beat's tracking page.

These pages should also depict the speed of our progression. Mine will be a series of fat-bike riding and pushing, with hopefully more miles of riding: 
And Beat's page will be a series of run, trudge, rest (I wouldn't expect to see much resting from him. Possible some from me.)
There will also be updates at the White Mountains 100 site, as well as photos and other info about the race. I may post before the race begins but if I don't have a chance, I wanted to put the links up now. Wish us luck. 


  1. One could argue that we have to expect anything in all pursuits, winter or otherwise. Of course, the risks for each one are different and varied (frostbite, bears and mountain lions, people that wish to do us harm, mistakes in fueling or resting).

    Enjoy the race! Tell Ed and Fairbanks that Matthew and Karen say "Hi"!

  2. This is true, Karen. But of the pursuits I've dabbled in, none are so dominated by unpredictable and uncontrollable factors such as weather and trail conditions as winter endurance racing. I could put it a hard effort and finish in 16 hours, or I could put in an even harder effort and finish in 36 hours. That's a wide margin in which to prepare for both basics (such as training and nutrition) and larger risks (such as frostbite.)

    I'll let Ed know you said hi. Have you been back to Fairbanks to visit since you moved away?

  3. I've said this so many times before...You amaze me Jill!!
    Enjoy the race, be safe, and best of luck to both you and Beat. Looking forward to reading about it and seeing your images:)

  4. Beat already looks kind of sad in his pictures. Isn't there an icon where trudging doesn't look so depressing?

  5. Good luck! I wish I could "run" with Beat. Boo.

  6. I know it may seem odd coming from a stranger. But I am so impressed and proud that you knew yourself well enough to call it quits on the run because you felt a bonk coming on. Knowing your body and acting accordingly is so important in endurance sports. It shows a confidences and self awareness. I think that's great

  7. Danni, you need to just apply for the ITI already :P

    Sierra, I think the trudging icon only appears when Beat's average speed drops below 2 mph, which usually is a sad state if you're in it. The pushing icon I believe triggers at <3 mph.

    Big E, thanks, but I really didn't feel like I had a choice. If it was a trail race and I had no more food or water, I would have had to drop on the spot and move toward the nearest exit point, plodding along at a max speed of 1.5 mph. It was a decisive bonk, which is rare for me, and humorous because I thought I was heading out for a chatty stroll with my friend.

  8. This is so exciting. I'm hoping for rain where I live so I can sit around and hit refresh, refresh, refresh...sounds like of lazy of me. Jill, I really enjoy reading your blog & Beat's write ups too.
    I wonder if the next book should be a joint venture.

  9. Looks like you're both done, and you beat Beat by 13 hrs:) Time for pictures and reports!

  10. Five days without a Jill post - this is madness! :)

  11. Can't wait to read all about it!!


Feedback is always appreciated!