Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Return to the Whites

It was late March and the weather was a manic rollercoaster — 20 below in the mornings, sun, wind, heat. By the time Beat's plane landed at 4:45 p.m.,  the temperature was 19 above. Beat was fresh from balmy Colorado, bundled up, and giddy about the upcoming White Mountains 100. I had stripped down to the one T-shirt I owned in Alaska, torn somewhere in my travels. Worn ragged and weary. 

Forty-eight hours had passed since the avalanche debacle, and although my head was finally switching to its normal settings as hormones settled, I had no energy for much of anything. I'd slept in the car during a break from my commute between Denali and Fairbanks (30 minutes, alarm set) and dozed off again while sitting at the airport. Beat was a bundle of excitement and I tried to absorb some of that energy as we went through the usual pre-race motions. The WM100 is my favorite race of all. Even though I couldn't be a participant this year, I'd be in the midst of the excitement while volunteering at checkpoint 1. I wanted to support Beat as he tried to recapture his mojo after leaving the Iditarod Trail. 

All of this I reminded myself, but in truth I was just weary. I wanted to go home. 

"Home is in the Whites!" I reminded myself as I packed my bike with the same gear I'd been hauling around for a month. Pieces were missing after all of the back-and-forth: Some clothing, straps, an old Garmin watch. The bike — Beat's old 2010 aluminum Fatback — made its own long journey from Canada to Fairbanks with a kind French woman who was planning to run the White Mountains 100. The frame was still coated in grit from a sloppy thaw during a miserable commute through Whitehorse, several parts were creaking, and had its own weary feel.

The plan was to leave Fairbanks after the pre-race meeting Saturday, drive to the trailhead, and ride 17 miles into Moose Creek cabin, where I'd meet four other volunteers to set up our checkpoint early the following morning. I planned to spend two nights at Moose Creek, then ride out a cutoff trail early Monday to greet Beat near the end of the course. It was a low-stress trip of minimal miles that would allow me to spend two-plus days in my beloved White Mountains. It was great to have one last adventure in Alaska, I told myself. But I was weary.

Although the pulled quad muscle was improving rapidly, my right leg was still sore, and neither leg had any spark at all. At 7:34 p.m. I finally trundled onto the trail, balking at the steady incline, stopping several times to adjust things on my creaking bike. Trail conditions had improved quite a bit since I was here two weeks earlier, but there was still a layer of sugary fluff that had been stirred up by snowmobile traffic, and the base wasn't quite "late March bomber."

Churning and churning, I thought, "I'm tired of pedaling a bike in the highest resistance setting," and "I wonder who else is going to be riding out this trail at four miles an hour tomorrow morning?" Just as I pondered the speed of White Mountains cyclists, a friendly Anchorage racer who was out for a shakedown ride approached. I'd chatted with him at the trailhead; he seemed relaxed there, but here he sped past me as though I was standing still.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes, just a heavy bike," I replied as I watched him race up the next hill.

"He'll do well tomorrow," I thought. Ultimately he would arrive with the lead pack at checkpoint one, then return two hours later to inform us that he'd blown up so he was heading back to the start.

After sunset, temperatures plummeted again. I guessed it was -10 or -15. Frost collected on the fuzzy blue fleece things that have become as much security blankets as they are cold-weather gear. I saw the tracks of the other checkpoint one volunteer who was riding out on a bike. He walked in many of the places I wanted to walk, which made me feel a bit better.

The trail undulated over steep hills populated by toothpick trees. Hints of green aurora swept over the northern horizon. To the south I could see the yellow aura of Fairbanks, and three headlights approaching me. The other volunteers were hauling gear out by snowmobile, and also told me they were getting a late start.

"Yay, I can catch a ride," I thought as I trudged up a mushy incline. The headlights disappeared into a dark valley and emerged again, seemingly on a different ridge. Minutes went by, miles went by, and they inexplicably never caught up to me.

"Maybe they're all riding bikes," I thought, imagining someone hauling out tables and snacks and 25 gallons of water via bicycle. Ultimately the lights were the three volunteers on snowmobiles, moving slowly across a deceptively expansive ripple of hills.

We all crammed into the new but diminutive cabin — me, four dudes, and three dogs, one of which barked through the night. We stayed up until 2 a.m. chatting about races, laughing, and drinking beer (I had a virgin hot chocolate.) One guy had stopped by Sams Club to pick up an army's worth of breakfast foods — two pounds of bacon, 18 eggs, 40 tortillas, a gallon of orange juice, a pound of shredded cheese, at least five pounds of ground beef, and two big jars of salsa. There were five of us. I looked at my little bag of oatmeal and laughed.

We woke up at 6 a.m. and headed up the trail to set up our trailside checkpoint — this would be the first checkpoint racers reached at mile 17. We provided warm water, drink mixes, chips, cookies, granola bars, soda, and fruit snacks. There was a small tent for a bucket toilet, tables, five chairs, a propane heater, ten liters of Coke, and only 15 gallons of water for this checkpoint — anything more would have to be generated by melting snow. The minimal offerings at this spot necessitated a surprising amount of stuff. I managed to pull a muscle in my lower back while yanking a snowmobile trailer to a different spot. This injury ultimately proved more annoying and longer lasting than my pulled quad muscle.

I believe this was the first skier to checkpoint one — a Swede named Christian. I would see him again the following morning after he bonked and slept for 14 hours at checkpoint four.

The first runners, Teri and Brian. Teri holds the women's record for this course, and was the overall winner this year. Even though I don't think I'll ever have the ability to run the White Mountains 100 in less than 24 hours, that's what I dreamed about for the rest of the day. Running over the snow in the same way one might float on a cloud, with none of the weariness or pain that my body was currently experiencing. That's what I want to do, I decided, if I ever recover my previous abilities — run, really run, the White Mountains 100.

Beat approached with a big group of runners about 45 minutes later. They were laughing and seemed to be in great spirits. I didn't tell Beat that in the minutes before they'd arrived, we had nearly run out of water. We were frantically shoveling snow into the big pot on the cooker in hopes they wouldn't arrive to a dry checkpoint. The Coke wasn't much help — even though I buried it in the snow for insulation, all of the soda was mostly frozen. Temperatures were still in the single digits.

I gave Beat some warm water and a kiss and waved goodbye. After ninety minutes, everyone else had come through the checkpoint. We had one cyclist drop out with frost-nip concerns, and the Anchorage rider who bonked, but everyone else made it through. My back ached as we packed up, and I bid everyone else goodbye. For my second night at Moose Creek, I'd be alone.

Although I planned to ride a ways out the trail, weariness took over, and instead I went back to the cabin and napped for two hours. By 5:30 p.m. there were still several hours of daylight, so I attempted to rally for a ride. Snowmobiles with massive paddle tracks had torn up the trail again — it really was mashed potatoes, according to Beat, it wasn't just me. I gave up after three miles, which still took me nearly an hour to "pedal." It was both a relief and discouraging to realize that I'm really not in any condition to be racing anything right now.

Dinner with a view. I was a bit relieved to be alone again. Still processing thoughts, still uneasy. Still ready to sleep as long as possible.

At 8 p.m. I stepped outside for a satellite phone call with Beat. Just after sunset, the northern lights erupted. Beat had the best views from Cache Mountain Divide. Despite my overarching desire for sleep, I still went outside four times that night to view the light show — standing on the porch in my underwear and booties at 5 below as the wind howled. The final time I finally suited up in my down stuff so I could attempt to capture a photo, but it didn't turn out at all. I preferred viewing the aurora in my underwear, with the exhilarating tremors in my body as light dances in the sky.

The following morning, I took a cut-off trail to pedal ten miles between Moose Creek cabin and the final checkpoint, a trail shelter at mile 90. The cut-off trail had only been recently groomed and there was no base. I could see footprints next to tire tracks from a rider who just the day prior found it not rideable at all (turns out that was Matt, the WM100 cyclist who dropped out with frost-nip concerns. He strangely decided to attempt to ride this trail back, even though the route is four miles longer and clearly in worse condition.)

Churning, churning, but it was a beautiful morning. I may be weary, but I'm always happy in the Whites.

Despite the soft trail, I found I really enjoyed this route — a scenic expanse of open hillsides and anemic spruce forests. Temps were again in the -10s, but warmed rapidly. Trail conditions also improved drastically once I returned to the main race course. I was able to ride six miles per hour, up gentle inclines! Then I hit the Wickersham Wall, the infamous ascent that gains 800 feet in less than a mile. At this point of weariness it didn't feel much worse than anything else.

I set up my "camp" at the top of the Wickersham Wall, boiled water for coffee amid the brisk wind, and walked around as it was too cold to sit still, even with a puffy coat. This photo is Christian, the fast skier who bonked, with his friend Patrick, who was one of the volunteers with me at checkpoint one. Because of his dismal performance, Patrick told him his punishment would be to double-pole all the way up the Wickersham Wall. I watched him do exactly this. I'm not a skier and don't even really know what double-poling entails, but it looked painful.

Twenty minutes later, Beat came up the hill, as limber and smiley as ever. He told me he saw temperatures as low as -28 overnight, and the northern lights were some of the best he's seen, which is saying a lot. This made me miss winter racing even more — the act of being up all night through that deep cold and darkness, watching the sky light up.

Six miles later, Beat sprinted into the finish. His finish time was 31:45, the fourth runner overall and third man. His mojo had returned.

We were both ready to return home to routine, comfortable beds, and springtime. I'm always grateful for the time I'm able to spend in Alaska. Even without the Iditarod, this March visit had been full of adventures, exhilarating highs and humbling lows. My body and mind were ragged, but my spirit was full, ready to pick up the pieces and sprint forward. 


  1. Nice write up, Jill. Hope you can participate next year. Thanks for volunteering.

    BTW, word is that the rider who dropped and took the cut off took it because he was assured the trail was fine by a very experienced winter cyclist (who shall remain unnamed). I guess even the most experienced of us can make mistakes.

  2. Thank you for volunteering, Jill!


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