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.
|My friend Jenn from Whitehorse, with her husband Ben. Jenn was racing her first winter 100-miler.|
|Photo by Lucy Bettis|
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.
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.
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.