Showing posts from February, 2012

Iditarod Trail fly-over

This afternoon, my friend Dan Bailey and I set out from Anchorage to fly over the Yentna River in his Cessna 120. Our goal: A bird's eye view of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. We knew most racers would be bunched up in the 32 miles between Yentna Station and Skwentna Roadhouse, and the wide Yentna River was a great place to spot the racers.

We took off from Anchorage and flew over the Sustina Valley, spotting familiar landmarks such as Point McKenzie, the survey cut that serves as part of the Susitna 100 course, and Flathorn Lake. Even from 500 feet above the ground, the trail told a story of its own. The thin line across the Dismal Swamp was a mess of deep, staggered footprints. It looked like a herd of drunken moose had forged through the drifted snow.

An aerial view of Luce's Lodge. This spot is always a welcome sight in the cold, lonely night.

Yentna Station, the first checkpoint in the race at mile 57. Beat took about a six-hour rest here last night and left around 3:40…

The toughest miles

"I can't do this," Beat's voice crackled across the satellite connection. "It's not possible."

"It doesn't matter," I said. "Look what you've done already. You're amazing. All you need to do is get to Luce's Lodge. Get some rest, get some sleep. Sleep for a day if you want. All you have to do is get to Luce's."

I hung up my cell phone and stared hatefully at the snow flurries floating outside my window. The Iditarod Trail was a relative breeze just one week ago when I traveled these same miles in the Susitna 100. Now it was buried in more than a foot of new, unconsolidated snow, and not a single machine had been through to break the trail. The runners were breaking the trail, at a pace of about 1.5 mph, and the bikers were still farther behind. They had covered only forty miles in 24 nearly non-stop hours. At that pace, Beat was right — it wasn't possible. 

The race began so optimistically, under an overcast s…

Susitna 4, chapter 4

My first steps out of Luce's Lodge were excruciating. I had taken another 45-minute break, applied more Hydropel and dry pairs of liner and insulation socks, and allowed the vapor barrier to dry as I ate another grilled cheese sandwich. But the damage had been done. My soles were on fire, tingling and aching in a way that made each step feel like I was walking on hot coals. I gulped short, shallow breaths of the subzero air as I hobbled down the hill to my sled. Beat's one piece of advice for my consistently troubled feet cycled through my head: "Just remember, it always goes numb." But in those initial seconds out of the checkpoint, even walking required solemn concentration, the kind I imagine yogis employ when walking across hot coals.

After packing up my sled, I managed to work through the hobble and resume a somewhat reluctant but consistent rhythm. I caught and passed Jane, which surprised me because I thought I was really starting to slow down at that point in…

Susitna 4, chapter 3

The first person I saw out of Luce's Lodge was a runner. I could see his white headlight bobbing up and down from a long distance up the river, and smiled at the realization that he was actually running. This made sense, as he was more than twenty miles in front of me. I did some quick math and realized he was on a sub-24-hour pace, moving with forceful speed — or at least as much speed as this soft trail would yield. In all the years of the Susitna 100, 24 hours has only been broken by a few people. When we finally crossed paths more than five minutes later, I realized he was my friend, David Johnston. I raised my poles and waved my pogies around. "Yay, Dave!"

Dave stopped running. "Is that you Jill?"


"You're doing awesome!" he exclaimed.

"I'm doing awesome? Holy cow, you're doing awesome," I said, feeling embarrassed that Dave was actually stopping to talk to me. "You should go, you're in first place!…

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 al…

Susitna 4, chapter 1

After 55 miles, my steps had a sort of rhythm to them, a dance. I could see Jane's red taillight blinking several hundred meters directly across the frozen swamp, so I felt safe in turning off my own headlight. Cast away from that comfortable island of light, my eyes began to adjust to the delicate contrast of gray on black. All of my senses sharpened. I could taste the moist air — almost sweet, and cold ... zero degrees and dropping. I could feel the hot prickling on the pads of my feet that I had been trying so hard to ignore, so I clenched my toes and walked faster. The moonless night opened like a door in front of me, and my peripheral vision caught a flash of silver. I glanced north and for the first time noticed columns of light rising from the boreal forest, high into an indigo sky. Tinged with subtle hints of green and magenta, light streaks rippled across the horizon and dissipated into a glowing arch. My exhausted mind conjured the image of a great symphony. Fingers of l…

Three sides of the Susitna 100

The good.
The bad.
The ugly.
Yet another dynamic experience at the Susitna 100. I finished in 35:42, which was under my best-case scenario goal of 36 hours. I had one of the most incredible walks of my life during the 12-mile leg between the Alexander Lake turnaround and the Yentna River, marching under the aurora borealis with my headlamp off and watching columns of light ripple across the sky. I used snowshoes for 91 of the 100 miles. I ate most of the 5,000 calories of junk food that I brought and still experienced a harsh, energy-sapping bonk on the Dismal Swamp at mile 80. I was so paranoid about frostbite that I think I gave myself heat blisters from my vapor barrier sock system. I'll write a race report when I have more mental capabilities. Right now I mainly fluctuate between thinking about food and sleep, and feeling a combination of horror and fascination about exactly what Beat is going to attempt next week in the Iditarod 350. My feet hurt just thinking about it. Actual…

Susitna, again

As I sat in the San Jose airport with a large cup of Peet's coffee, I looked over my gear list and tried to figure out what I'd forgotten or what I still needed to change. My mind drifted to the first time I'd done all this, while sitting on the hardwood floor of my cabin in Homer, Alaska, with a bewildering spread of unfamiliar gear piled around me. I smiled as I remembered strapping a handlebar bag full of Power Bars to the inside triangle of my full-suspension mountain bike, and laughed at the memory of bursting into tears while attempting to glue a pair of studded tires to the rims one day before the Susitna 100. That was six years ago, six years. Long enough that I can no longer define endurance racing as this quirky new hobby I'm experimenting with. No, this has become major part of my life, and I can no longer feign novice status when I stand at the starting line of my original journey. However, I am still a newbie to ultra distances on foot, and I will probably…

Last weekend before winter

For every ominous challenge looming over the horizon, there must inevitably be a quiet weekend before. The lists are complete with gear sorted. Travel plans have been made, transportation arranged, training tapered, and fitness as good as it's going to get. All that can happen now is injury, sickness, panic ... you get the picture. Daily routines must go on, distances must be traveled, and pre-race chaos must ensue. But, by and large, this is a week of waiting.

I am not great at waiting. Rather than let phantom pains and panic get the best of me, I decided to stay busy this weekend. And because the Susitna 100 is all about mastering mind games, I also wanted to log some happy images in the short-term memory bank. Happy memories = biking with friends in scenic places. A four-hour mountain bike ride and a five-hour road ride didn't exactly fall into the smart taper plan, but I believe they were a good use of this weekend all the same.

I was going to add warm weather to the happy m…