Friday, April 03, 2015

Still the best race ever, part one

I call the White Mountains 100 my favorite race, but the emotional attachment runs deeper than that. My introduction to this race came in early 2010, when I was going through an extensive personal crisis involving my career, relationships, location, and lifestyle. I was 30 years old, and everything that I thought I was had been flipped on its head. I spent most of the winter months holed away in the single room I was renting in Juneau, cuddling with my cat, eating peanut butter out of a jar, and writing "Be Brave, Be Strong." I wasn't riding my bike all that much, except to commute to work. The one activity I truly enjoyed at the time was hiking in the mountains. I was pretty sure I was going to give up endurance racing altogether. 

Then I received a call from Ed Plumb, a Fairbanks skier who I met at Yentna Station the previous year, while I was coping with frostbite and scratching from 2009 Iditarod Trial Invitational. He told me about this new race he was developing in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks — a 100-mile loop with a ski, bike and foot division. Everyone who signed up so far was from either Fairbanks or Anchorage, and he thought he should diversify with someone from elsewhere in the state. I was reluctant, but how could I say no to Ed? I mailed my race entry about a month before the event, and made feeble efforts to train through my funk. During this single month of White Mountains anticipation, I also found the courage to sever ties to some emotional anchors, leave my job, and make arrangements to move to Anchorage with few plans but renewed determination to make my own way. When I arrived at the Wickersham Dome to strong winds and a temperature of 13 below in March 2010, it marked the threshold to a major life transition. 

2010 was a daunting year for this new race — extreme cold (down to 25 below), high winds, lots of glare ice and wet overflow. I finished as the third female and eighth biker in 22 hours and 38 minutes, completely enamoured with the journey. Since then, I've made what many might consider ridiculous efforts to return every year, even as my life continued through unplanned transitions and tangents. In 2011, while I was living in Montana and dating Beat long-distance, I coaxed him to join the craziness — and look where that went. In 2012 I flew up to Fairbanks from California for a long weekend. In 2013 I did not make it through the lottery, and missed out on what many call the toughest year for this race (although I'd still wager 2010 against that.) In 2014 I arrived three weeks after finishing the 350-mile race to McGrath on foot, fairly undertrained for a snow bike century, and floated almost effortlessly through a magical, perfect race. This was by far my fastest finish — 11 hours and 34 minutes — although it was the only year I wasn't third female biker (I was fourth.) 

I joked that I'd never be able to top the magic of 2014, and that I should probably just retire from the White Mountains 100. In actuality, what I really wanted to do was try the race on foot. As a 100-mile ultramarathon, this is not an easy one. There are no drop bags, and checkpoints only every 20 miles or so, with a limited amount of food, so one has to be mostly self-supported. Temperatures can range from 25 below to 50 above, and in late March both are plausible. There's 8,000 feet of climbing, which may sound low for a 100-miler, but running on snow — even packed snow — creates resistance that makes most grades feel like steep climbing. Punchy conditions can slow you to a crawl, and feet don't float as well as fat bike tires or skis. Obstacles and technical challenges include off-camber glare ice, thin ice, wet and slushy overflow, ankle-breaking moose holes, and knee-twisting punchy snow, to name a few. The women's record belonged to the reigning queen of Alaska ultras, Laura McDonough, at 24 hours and 50 minutes, also set in the near-perfect conditions of 2014. Beat's fastest time on the course was 33 hours and 45 minutes. My 100-mile PR (2012 Bear 100) was 33 hours and 28 minutes. I made a goal of 36 hours. 

Beat and Shawn McTaggart, both two-time finishers to Nome on foot. Shawn was going to ski
the WM100 this year but changed her mind at the last minute.
The White Mountains 100 course is an aesthetic loop through a remote mountain range in Interior Alaska, but the top appeal of this race is the community — race directors who also race, volunteers who chop wood and melt snow, and fiercely dedicated participants. Although it isn't simple to quit (requiring a $200 extraction fee and a frigid snowmachine ride), it's telling that this very difficult race has less than a 10 percent DNF rate every year. And the field is universally such a great group of people. Five years ago I knew almost no one in Fairbanks, and now I almost feel like a local (and have had other Fairbanksians tell me this as well, an ultimate compliment.) If Beat and I could move here without financial repercussions, we probably would tomorrow.

My friend Jenn from Whitehorse, with her husband Ben. Jenn was racing her first winter 100-miler.
Sunday morning may have been the warmest start yet for the White Mountains 100, with temperatures just below freezing and almost no wind. This did not bode well for daytime slushiness, but wasn't altogether unwelcome. Since I had no bike to set up and really nothing to do but take off my puffy coat and put on my backpack, I wandered around the parking lot greeting friends and others.

Photo by Lucy Bettis
I still managed one pre-race equipment failure, as I'd put on my vintage gaiters backward. In this photo, Beat is helping me fix them. Beat was well-prepared for the unsupported effort with more than 10,000 calories of food, an MSR Reactor stove, fuel to melt snow and make meals, an expedition puffy coat and sleeping pad, extra clothing and emergency gear, among the more conventional items that I also was carrying. Our plan was to travel together; Beat's walking pace has always been considerably faster than mine, and he's stronger than me in any situation. Even with the extra weight and 600+ tough miles on his legs, we both figured he'd have no problems holding my pace.

This is the part of the race report where runners always sandbag, but I really did not expect the White Mountains 100 to go particularly well for me. Even though I hadn't even traveled half the distance I expected to during the five days I spent on my coast bike tour (just 120 miles), I felt nearly as wrung out by this trip as I did after walking 350 miles to McGrath last year. I had night sweats and sleep disruptions, tingly muscles, cramping, and general exhaustion. On top of that, the kennel cough I caught in Shaktoolik stubbornly held on, and I was still hacking and congested the following Sunday. My training had fallen off a cliff amid all the Alaska adventures; total running mileage since I left California in late February was less than 50 miles, probably closer to 40. Plus, I had the untested shoes and backpack. Still, I went out harder than I intended in the first few miles of the race, partly due to embarrassment about being at the very back of the field.

The early miles were great. The sun was out, it was warm, and I was amazed how effortlessly I could climb the rippling foothills of the White Mountains. After the race, several people asked me if I missed my bike during this year's race. The honest truth: most of the time, I didn't at all. Although trail conditions were for the most part superb and there was potential there to best my PR from last year, all of my recent associations with my fat bike involve extremely arduous pedaling and pushing. Without the anchor, I felt like a little feather, floating up hills and drifting down. When we reached Moose Creek, about mile 16, I looked at my GPS and marveled that it had only taken us three and a half hours to get there. Two weeks earlier, I needed more than four hours to cover this stretch of trail, with a bike. Granted, it was 20 below and there was a foot of new snow. Still — this running stuff is so easy compared to snow biking! (Not really.)
Trail conditions were superb, but not perfect. Here, you can see the punchy tracks of the runners in front of us. These trails were probably sidewalk smooth for skiers and bikers, but runners and their little feet are at the highest disadvantage when it comes to float. It's yet another reason why it's pretty silly to run a winter snow race; traveling on foot doesn't make a whole lot of sense in most cases. And yet — the appeal persists. There's something pure and freeing about traveling on your own two feet, and I find rhythm and flow that I don't experience in any other way. As the warm afternoon sun softened the snow, we danced around the tracks, searching for the best surface in a patchwork of crust and slush.

Beat was hurting. His 200 miles of trailbreaking on the Iditarod Trail weighed heavily on his body, and the sled didn't help matters. I thought I was keeping a fairly easy, breezy pace, but he began to complain that I was driving him too hard, calling me a taskmaster, or something like that. He wondered why I never wanted to take breaks, reminding me that on the Iditarod Trail, it pays to stop once in a while. At first I didn't take his complaints too seriously. Beat's known to joke about such things. I argued that he had a different mindset than me, since I was in "race" mode and he was in "tour" mode. He was running out of water, so I encouraged him to take sips from my Camelback vest and hold on until checkpoint 2, where I'd take a longer break and he could melt some snow.

Checkpoint 2, the Cache Mountain cabin, came at mile 39. It was about 5 p.m., and we were just over nine hours into the race, a statistic I was pretty stoked about, because I didn't feel much more tired than past years when I rode a bike here. The friendly volunteers wore Elvis glasses. All three remote cabin checkpoints provide one meal along with a few bags of chips and cookies, as well as hot and cold water. The other two checkpoints offer a small bowl of soup, but Cache Mountain offers a relatively huge meal — a baked potato with cheese, bacon bits, and sour cream. I made the mistake of eating it in 2010 and got quite nauseated climbing the Cache Mountain Divide; I've avoided the potato every year since. This year, however, with my own supply of trail food already rapidly diminishing (snow running always makes me so ravenous; I don't even know why), I greedily devoured the potato along with some Fruity Pebble crispy treats.

I also took the time to dry and re-lube my feet — an opportunity one should never pass up when temperatures are too cold to work on feet outside. My heel blister patch was holding up well, and skin maceration was relatively low — overall, the new shoes were working out great so far. We spent 47 minutes at the cabin — where does the time go? — but in the grand scheme the long break gave both of us a needed boost. I felt great as we started up the pass, as though the race had just started — which, at only forty miles in, it just had.


  1. I used to be a regular reader of your blog but have dropped off a bit lately, with a young family I have less computer time (or maybe I'm just getting lazy and old and am intimidated by your endurance and strength)
    I remember reading those posts back in 2010 and earlier at the time was hoping you'd stick with it but was kind of overawed by how much you'd already pushed yourself and the amazing journeys you'd made. It would have been perfectly reasonable to slack off or pull back into a more sedate life, but then you just kept going... and going.... and going... And here I sit getting fat, lazy and consider it a good month if I get to go for a 50km pleasure ride along a bicycle path! Good on you Jill. Thanks for posting your amazing adventures through the ice and snow. The writing is great as ever and the images you post are awe inspiring.

  2. I have been a long time follower of your writings. I have enjoyed them all, and this is another great one. Thanks!

  3. The White Mountains are beautiful and your adventures make me want to explore more of them than I previously have seen. Thanks. Lucy

  4. Never heard of this race. Thanks for the introduction!


Feedback is always appreciated!