Thursday, April 03, 2014

White Mountains, again

Find the tiny biker in the big wilderness
Six weeks in Alaska and a weariness had settled into the journey, like a bungee cord held taut for too long. I knew once I let go I was going to fall limp to the floor, sun-faded and cracked from weeks of freeze and thaw. My stretch marks spread across the state — over the streets of downtown Anchorage, up the Yentna River to the sun-kissed summit of Rainy Pass, Interior swamps and hard-frozen lakes, the magical corridor of the Kuskokwim River, McGrath, Anchorage again, Turnagain Pass and the Placer River Valley, deep snow in Denali State Park and Talkeetna, Willow, a puddle-jump flight into Cordova and Yakutat, onto gray and misty Juneau, Douglas Island, the wet pavement of Thane Road and wind-blasted ridge of Thunder Mountain, then high over 1,500 miles of empty wilderness to Alaska’s gold coast, Nome, the frozen sea, Cold War relics on Anvil Mountain, and back to the streets of downtown Anchorage. After all of that, it was time to turn north for the last leg — Fairbanks and the White Mountains 100.

 The White Mountains 100 felt a little like something carelessly tacked on at the last minute, although I'd been planning to race it since I found out I "won" the entry lottery last October. I did enter that lottery, even though I knew that at best I'd be stale (if not injured) after the 350-mile march to McGrath, and even though I knew it meant an extra week in Alaska after Beat needed to return to California. But how could I not enter the White Mountains 100? It's difficult to describe why it's is the best race ever, but it really is. Fun community, superb organization, dedicated volunteers ("I can't get rid of them," race director Ed Plumb said of those that kept coming back. "It's harder to volunteer for this race than it is to race it.") And the course is sublime — a hundred-mile loop through an Interior Alaska mountain range that really does feel far away from anything, but just happens to contain stellar trails courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management. It fosters the kind of experiences that draw a person back again and again, hoping to recapture some of the magic. It felt greedy in every way to remain in Alaska to race the White Mountains a fourth time, but I was grateful for the opportunity.

Sunday morning dawned clear and frosty, about 5 degrees and completely calm on the often windy Wickersham Dome. I felt strangely at ease as I stepped out of my car and looked out over the rounded hills, bristling with pipe-cleaner spruce trees and drenched in pink light. The White Mountains have become a familiar place, more like a distant friend rather than a sinister wilderness filled with things that could kill me (the place is still filled with things that could kill me, but it's funny how familiarity breeds comfort.) I had no expectations for race performance, having spent the winter training for a week on my feet dragging a sled 350 miles to McGrath, and being four weeks off of doing just that. I joked that slogging was all I was good for this season, and the only way I'd do well in the race is if it turned out to be a "bike push" year. All pre-race indications pointed to the opposite. Lack of new snow, warm daytime temperatures, and cold nighttime temperatures promised well-packed, fast trails.

Late March at Latitude 64 means nearly 14 hours of daylight, and the sun was already high in the sky when the field of 65 took off at 8 a.m. I started near the back and spent the first mile riding beside faster runners — Joe Grant, who was carrying a pack that looked to be about the size and weight of the vest I wear on six-mile trail runs near my home in California, and Houston Laws, a cheerful young guy from Juneau who I met a few weeks earlier. I have to admit that I sort of envied the runners. That's also tough for me to explain. I love riding bikes, I'm built to ride bikes, and this year's course conditions all but promised to be the best yet for bikes. But there's something raw and compelling about setting out to cover a hundred miles on foot. You all but assure yourself a full spectrum of emotions and experience, not to mention the time to fully soak in the vast landscape. Someday I'd like to come back and run this course. I hope when it's my chance to do it, I enjoy an equally runnable year. This race could actually work quite well as a "fast" 100-mile course for a runner like me. But it could just as easily be a sled-and-snowshoe year, and take 48 hours.

 But I digress, because yay bikes! Beat's awesome Moots machine floated over the hardpacked trails, maintained great traction on the climbs and confidence-inducing suspension down the mogul-rippled descents. I must have been pedaling the thing because last I checked no one installed a motor, but the burnt spruce forests flashed by, and in what seemed like no time at all I reached checkpoint one, which is something like 17 miles into the race. Seventeen miles! In the Iditarod Trail Invitational, seventeen miles was more than a third of a very long and hard day. I munched on some Oreos and left the checkpoint with Max Kaufman and Amber Bethe, who turned out to be the men's ski and women's bike winners in this race. Wow, I was feeling fast!

  Amber stayed in my sights until the Cache Mountain cabin, which is 39 miles into the race. Thirty nine! I couldn't believe I was there already. It felt early in the day, and it probably was (I wear a GPS watch but rarely use it to actually track the time.) I had no concept of how fast we were really moving, and assumed it was mid-afternoon, as it usually is by the time I arrive at Cache Mountain (it was actually around 11:45 a.m.) Amber left quickly and I re-upped my water bladder and mulled the baked potato with chili that I promised myself I wouldn't eat. ("But it sounds so tasty. And I feel great. But it's a hot day. And Cache Mountain Divide is a long, strenuous climb, and heavy food in the stomach is a bad idea.") I settled on two cookies and checked out something like five minutes later, which is just nutty for checkpoints as nice and inviting as White Mountains cabins. But it was a beautiful day and there was still much awesome riding to be had.

 I rode much of the climb with a woman from Anchorage, Laurel Brady. We were nearing a half century on fat bikes loaded with a decent amount of gear, and my legs were finally starting to feel the burn. The early part of the climb is more gradual, and Laurel easily outpaced me on that section. Every time I pushed the pace to keep up with her, sharp pains grabbed my left knee and my legs became exponentially heavier. But if I backed off just a little, back to my own pace, the knee settled in and the pedaling felt natural again. I suppose if you train for long-distance endurance and a "forever pace," that's exactly what you'll have — one pace. If you want the speed it up, you need to train at something faster once in a while. Who knew?

 But the truth is, I am blissfully content at forever pace. It's one thing to feel fast, and another to feel like you can propel yourself enormous distances without pain or fatigue. I guess I'm more of an exception in the racing crowd, but it must be obvious by now that I'd choose the latter over the former.

As Laurel and I crested the sun-drenched summit of Cache Mountain Divide, I was entering a near perfect flow state. Miles were unraveling behind me and stunning mountains were unfolding before me, and I was an entity beyond myself, almost void of self-consciousness, a cyclist and only a cyclist, pedaling into a place of pure joy.

 Flow state can only persist when the mind is completely calm, which isn't always possible amid the inherently scary surroundings of Alaska backcountry still locked in winter conditions. Still, even the scary sections were known, and the weather was unbelievably friendly. There was no wind on the ice lakes, and only the thinnest film of standing water. Even though I know these "lakes" are simply a creek bed that fills with layers of overflow, the cracks and groans in the breakable top layer make my heart flutter every time.

 I brought microspikes to wear on my boots so I could walk the ice sections. The ice lakes went on for about a mile and a half, and I even ran a bit because I was feeling good. Of course, Laurel came fearlessly riding by, expressing disbelief that I did not have studded tires (I wanted to get all old-timey on her ... "Back in my day, fat bike tires didn't even have tread, let alone studs, and there was only one to choose from, way back in 2007.") Of course, she was riding glare ice and couldn't slow down to wait for my response.

 The descent off Cache Mountain Divide is pretty much always a vat of mashed potatoes. This year was better but not an exception, and the lead pack had ripped up the trail enough to leave wheel-throwing ruts. Just like previous years, I had a couple of spectacular crashes, tearing down the trail at 25 mph, spotting a deep rut, swerving to avoid it, catching the edge of a tire and launching into the air with hope in my heart that my body would find the cushion of a snow bank and not a tree. Both times I did land in a soft bank and got up laughing. This is why I prefer snow biking — even crashing is fun.

 After the initial steep grades off the Divide, the trail follows a rolling descent beside craggy limestone cliffs.

 It's a little like miniature Alps. In past years of the White Mountains 100, the sun was already starting to set by the time I reached this section of the course. With the glaring mid-day light and blue skies, I was beginning to understand just how fast these trails were carrying me this year.

Coasting down the canyon, eating bagel chips out of my "gas tank" top tube bag, and soaking in some rays. At Windy Gap, mile 62, it still felt ridiculously early in the day and I was almost too full for the famous meatball soup that they serve at that checkpoint. But I ate a little because it's the kind of indulgence I just can't let myself pass up. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I don't even think the meatball soup is all that good. It's just frozen meatballs in broth with plain white rice. But in 2010, the first running of this race, I arrived at Windy Gap at dusk, feeling shattered after a hard push up the Divide, followed by a terrifying crossing the ice lakes without microspikes through three to six inches of standing water on top of glare ice, a fierce crosswind blowing my bike like a sail, and temperatures around 10 below. A volunteer, Dea, who has since become a friend, handed me a Styrofoam bowl with thin soup and three meatballs. I slurped it up while it was still too hot to swallow, an amazing elixir of life and energy, and sheepishly asked if I could have some more. "No," she said with a strain in her voice, probably because she had been asked that same question by many that day. "There's only enough for everyone to have one serving." The rationing earned her the unfortunate joking moniker "Meatball Nazi," which stuck even though she personally assured there has been enough for everyone to have six meatballs every year since. And I now have a permanent wistful place in my heart for the Windy Gap meatball soup.

 Back to flow state, winding through the narrow corridor of Fossil Creek. Miles continued to roll away, and I was so focused on the simple task of pedaling that my mind seemed to leave my body altogether, floating somewhere above the moving bike to play its own filmstrip of near and distant memories.

 Often my thoughts turned to the reality that I would be leaving Alaska soon, and what this past month and the things I experienced here meant to me.  I was so lost in thought on this 20-mile segment that it passed in what truly felt like an instant. A burst through space-time and suddenly I was at Borealis, mile 82. Perennial checkpoint four volunteer Carleen has also become a friend, and served up ramen soup. I still didn't feel terribly hungry (my body must have been mindlessly snacking on something while I floated along), but asked her if she'd put extra flavor powder in it, because I was feeling quite salt-depleted. It had been a hot day for the Whites — although probably never above freezing, close to it — and I was overdressed with two pairs of tights, fleece and vapor barrier socks, and gaiters. My thick fleece jacket was my only wind-blocking layer, which felt necessary when riding "fast." But the whole combo was causing me to sweat a whole lot, and I was both overheated and dehydrated — and this was the first point in the race I actually acknowledged that. In truth I was riding pretty hard. I was racing, as hard as I could, within reasonable happy knee range and my own cardiovascular limits. This was also about the first point in the race I acknowledged that fact as well.

I drank as much water as I could stomach and re-upped my supply before leaving checkpoint four. Acknowledging a race mentality left me wondering just how far in front of me Laurel was by now. Amber was undoubtedly hours ahead at this point, but second place might be within reach (at the time, I didn't yet know that my friend Erica Betts got into the race at the last minute. She was first on the wait list and drove all the way out to the start of the race, hoping for a no-show, which there was! I'm thrilled she got in as she trained hard over the winter and had a great race in the Whites.) Since I never saw Laurel at the checkpoint, I was surprised when I got my answer just a few miles later, approaching a rider in a black jacket on the climb to the low ridge between Beaver Creek and Wickersham Creek. Truly a racer, she looked over her shoulder and cranked up the pace.

 I passed her by blowing past the non-mandatory trail shelter checkpoint at mile 89, but wasn't granted a Lance Mackey-like sneak-through because the volunteers spotted me on the trail and called out to get my number. Hee hee. Laurel again passed me while I walked across the overflow of Wickersham Creek. We started pushing up the Wickerhsam Wall together and I exclaimed, "This is my favorite part!," which is such a bald-faced lie. The Wickersham Wall — an 800-foot climb in less than a mile on often loose and punchy snow — has single-handedly broken me more times than any other segment of any other race. I broke down in tears on this climb in 2011, for reasons I don't even remember. But I've since dragged a sled up this thing at 20 below, and in truth it's a pretty short hike-a-bike in the grand scheme of things. The knee wouldn't let me stay in the saddle this time either, but the surface was relatively hardpacked and I briefly considered running with the bike, as a move like that might be my last chance to gain an edge in the race. But I'm not quite willing to act that ridiculous in the name of racing, so Laurel and I walked up the hill together.

 We reached the top and I sort of knew that was it for racing. Although the remaining six miles of the course is rolling hills that gain overall elevation, there wasn't enough climbing left to catch Laurel. She took off as soon as the trail reached rideable grades, and my feeble efforts to follow resulted in fierce knee pain. I did briefly consider whether my knee could hold out for six miles of sprinting without permanent damage, but that instantly seemed like a stupid question. "Or, you know, I could just enjoy the last six miles because it's a beautiful evening and the sun's still out and I feel great." Back to flow state, happy, excited be finished but also wishing that somehow this could continue for another hundred miles.

 I rolled into the finish at 7:34 p.m., for a time of 11 hours and 34 minutes. I was the fourth woman; Laurel finished third two minutes before me, Erica was second in 10:47, and Amber won in 10:33. The fastest male cyclist, Josh Chelf, torched the course in 7:53. This was an amazingly fast year for bikes; I was 24th overall and still finished nearly an hour before the first skier, Max. My own previous best time on this course was 17:55 — but chopping more than six hours off that doesn't mean a whole lot. I wasn't necessarily smarter or stronger this year, just luckier. Snow and weather conditions are pretty much everything in winter racing, which is one of the things I love about it! It was pretty awesome to finish in the daylight, with friends who I know to be fast riders still hanging out in the finish line tent eating brats. But still, I did miss out on the Northern Lights, 10-below overnight lows, and eerie silence of a night in the Whites. I had an amazing ride and a lot of fun, but not quite the full spectrum of experience that I like to seek in these endeavors.

Oh, White Mountains, I will be back. On foot? Don't hold me to any promises. ;)