Friday, October 19, 2018

The White Mountains 100 will live on

On top of Cache Mountain Divide in 2014

I want to diverge from my recent blog themes and indulge in some cathartic nostalgia about my favorite race, the White Mountains 100, which recently announced it will return for a tenth season next year. 


It’s January 2010. I’m 30 years old and live in Juneau, Alaska. Night rain pummels the glass as I sit at my office desk with my back to the windows. It’s 1:30 a.m., which isn’t abnormal because I work more than 60 hours a week in an ill-suited managerial position for a daily newspaper with crumbling revenues and employee morale to match. Eventually I’ll wheel my long-suffering rusted Surly Pugsley into the rain and pedal home to the small room where I live with my cat Cady, ten miles away on an isolated beach called Fritz Cove.

Occasional bike commuting is all I do these days; I write disingenuous posts on my blog to make it seem like I still ride my bike, but I just don’t enjoy it anymore. Once I reach my room, even though it’s likely to be after 3 a.m., I’ll still strip off my mud-soaked clothing, take a rushed “screaming barfies” shower, curl up on a lumpy mattress, spoon peanut butter and jam out of a jar for “dinner,” and pour out my anger into the narrative I’m writing about the recent dissolution of my eight-year relationship. After a wise editor helps me cut out half of the words and most of the anger, this narrative will eventually become my book about the Tour Divide, “Be Brave, Be Strong.” But for now, it's my only outlet. My break-up distanced me from many of my friends in this isolated community. My job is frustrating. I can only afford to live in a cheaply furnished room within a large house owned by a fussy older woman who complains whenever I use the washing machine or the kitchen, so now most of my meals are spooned out of jars. My life is pretty sad, and my mood reflects this. I blame my bike, because I think obsession about endurance cycling led to this misery. I have no idea what the future holds, but I am certain that I will quit racing for good.

For now I’m still at work, reading through e-mails to my work account, when one comes through from Ed Plumb, who I know from another recent disaster in my life. The disaster was the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational, where I stepped through thin ice on Flathorn Lake, soaking and eventually freezing my right foot. Ed and I shared a room at the first checkpoint, where he snored away as I writhed through hours of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, thawing a frostbitten foot. In the morning, Ed skied away and finished the race. I dropped out and went to the hospital. Now, ten months later, Ed tells me he’s started a new winter race in Fairbanks, Alaska. The White Mountains 100. It’s a great course. You’ll love it. “Everyone signed up is from Anchorage or Fairbanks,” he writes. “We need at least one person from Juneau.” I don’t write back to Ed immediately. Eventually I do. I’ll think about it, I tell him. At some point, during one of my late-night bursts of rage, I sign up. But I still mostly hate my bike.

Snowstorm near the finish line in 2011


It’s March 2010. The race will happen in a week from now. I haven’t trained. I want to quit my job, and still don’t care about racing. A trip to Fairbanks with its expensive flight and time away from the office is just too much right now. I’m about to write Ed and let him know I’m dropping out of the race, when I receive a call from a “friend,” in Juneau — actually a man I briefly dated, but we are definitely no longer dating. He needs to drive to Fairbanks next week. Maybe I want to join him? 

Now it’s March 18. My friend and I are boarding the ferry in his old Subaru with my dismantled Pugsley stuffed in the back seat. After the boat docks in Skagway, Fairbanks is still 700 miles away, over the wind-battered summit of White Pass and through hundreds of miles of mostly uninhabited taiga. My friend has made a single mix tape for his tape deck, and we listen to it over and over. Each song is a hollow echo in my heart; eventually I will hear this tape in my dreams.

Travel is a two-day affair, so we take a break to ski along the flanks of Sheep Mountain and camp near the shoreline of the frozen Slim River in Kluane National Park, Canada. It’s -10F, and the wind pummels our down coats as we sit on the snow blocks we scooped up to protect the tent, and listen to the wolves howl. My friend-psuedo-ex shows me how to make a hot drink by melting a Snickers Bar in boiling water. I think this is the first time I’ve been truly happy this year.

With Beat at the starting line in 2012


It’s March 21. The first day of spring. I’m riding shotgun in Ed’s old truck, on our way north from Fairbanks to the starting line of the White Mountains 100. Although I had previously visited during the summer of 2003, my memory of the region is vague — images of boreal forest, flat and unbroken as far as the eye can see. I suppose the name White Mountains 100 was lost on me, but I’m surprised by all of the hills. The truck rumbles up a dome and drops into a river valley. Ed, a professional weather geek, has a thermometer attached to the hood and wired to a digital display on top of the dash. At the top of the dome, the temperature was 5 degrees. Down here, it’s -18F. Ed giggles with delight. I tremble. Frostbite is still fresh in my memory, and still painful in my toes. I’m deathly afraid of the cold.

A fierce wind greets us at the Wickersham Dome, where the salmon-colored sun is casting its first rays on the ice at 7:15 a.m. I hoist my bike out of Ed’s truck. The steel frame burns my hands. Up on this dome I can see a long distance — steep, rolling hills over every horizon. Nobody told me about all of these hills. I’m so afraid that I am physically shivering, although that may just be the cold wind. But I drove out here with the race director, so there’s no backing out now.

At checkpoint one in 2010

The race starts. I take my place near the back and gasp up the first hill, drenching my base layer in sweat. We drop into a deep valley, where the temperature plummets 30 degrees in an instant. I’m so cold that I’m convulsing. The process repeats, for seemingly endless steep climbs and descents. I’m too cold and strung out to feel the burning from my undertrained legs and lungs. I suppose this is a good thing. A couple other cyclists and I are close together; we frequently gather to negotiate long sections of bumpy glare ice, known as overflow. Neither my bicycle tires nor my boots are studded, so I have to tiptoe across the ice with utmost care. Because of my previous experience with falling through ice, every loud crack or change of color in the overflow is heart-stoppingly scary.

I reach the first indoor checkpoint at mile 38, housed in an adorable little shelter cabin at the base of fierce-looking mountains. The volunteers offer a baked potato. No, I’m far too nauseated. I drink hot chocolate and press into the unknown.

The Cache Mountain Divide is Just. Unbelievably. Steep. Or perhaps not, but I am shattered. I stumble along, dragging my bike through the soft sidewalls of the trail. Several skiers pass, justifiably gloating at my anchor. Eventually I reach an altitude of 3,500 feet, which feels like the High Himalaya in Interior Alaska. The wind is howling but the snow-bound mountains fill my heart with warmth. It’s so beautiful.

I drop into a long descent on heavily drifted trail. I crash my bike a few times, leaving perfectly-pressed impressions of my body in the snow. At one point I’m face-down on the trail when I hear the cries of a skier above me. I grab my bike and roll into a drift with a fraction of a second to spare before he whisks past, unable to stop.

Soon I reach the edge of blue ice that fills the entire valley. These are the famous “Ice Lakes” I’d been warned about. The skier who called out to me and another are also there, taking off their skies and putting on microspikes. I am going to have to walk across this ice without spikes, dragging an unruly bike. It could be miles. But I am stranded out here, I suppose by choice, so I’m just going to have to gulp down my terror and keep going. With every step, the ice cracks and moans. I almost want the Ice Lake to open up and swallow me, just so I won’t have to feel so terrified anymore. Logically I know these lakes are actually just overflow and only a foot or so deep. This should make me feel better, but it doesn’t, because that only means more frostbite or slow death by hypothermia if I break through.

Above Beaver Creek in 2015


A semi-stupefied state wrought by fatigue and fear follows me to the end of the ice and all the way to checkpoint three, which I reach as the sun sets and casts dramatic orange light on the limestone cliffs. The little cabin is stiflingly hot. A volunteer offers me a small bowl of rice soup with three meatballs. I ask for more, and she says I cannot have more. I feel a little like Oliver Twist as I stumble, still stupefied, back into the cold.

Night falls. There’s a slow descent into a valley, where the cold is otherworldly. Frost builds on my balaclava. My legs have virtually died, and I can barely climb out of the valley. From there, the trail feels like sandpaper. I can barely turn pedals. I pass a number of skiers who passed me earlier in the day. They are shuffling along as though stupefied themselves. The cold seeps into my lower body. My butt and thighs are numb. I think about stopping to put on all of my layers, but then I see a sign announcing it’s one mile to the checkpoint. I pedal. I pedal some more. It’s the longest mile in the history of distance. By the time I reach the cabin at mile 78, I can’t feel anything.

 “It’s cold out there for me,” I announce. “Yeah, I’m from Juneau,” explaining that all I know is temperatures in the 30s and rain.

“It’s 25 below,” the volunteer replies. “It’s cold for everyone out there.” I gratefully accept a cup of hot coffee, but as soon as the volunteer hands it to me, my upper body starts convulsing so badly that I spill all of the coffee, every last drop, in a two-foot radius around my feet. I put the cup down, embarrassed, hoping nobody noticed.

I sit down on a bunk and remove my boots to add warmers. A skier in the other corner eyes me jealously. It’s Chris Wrobel, a man from Anchorage with whom I’d spent several hours chatting the evening before the race, about his adventures on the Iditarod Trail. He accidentally washed with conditioner, and his hair is handsomely coiffed at mile 78 of an endurance race, which will lead to a permanent nickname from the White Mountains 100 community, “Perfect Hair Chris.”

I catch his eye and think about giving him my foot warmers. My feet aren’t really that cold, amazingly, because every other part of my body is. Because Chris didn’t ask, I don’t offer, which is something I’d still feel guilty about a decade later. Because of his cold feet, Chris would end up spending a long time at the cabin, as would most of the other folks trapped there at 1 a.m. I remember advice the previous evening, offered by one of my heroes, Jeff Oatley: “If you get cold on Beaver Creek, keep going.”

I decide to keep going.

Fossil Creek Valley, 2018


I climb out of Beaver Creek. It’s not 25 below up on the ridge, but it’s still very cold, the wind is again howling, and there’s overflow everywhere. As I tiptoe across a long patch of ice, a skier skitters past me, not remotely in control. He crashes into the snow and stands up to brush himself off. He comments about the horrible sandpaper trail and I agree. I’m plodding but tires are still faster than skis on such snow, and as the overflow dissipates, I pick up speed. I’m alone again. I feel very alone.

I drop into yet another valley. In a few years from now, I will know this place well as the Wickersham Creek Valley, but on this night it is a place beyond the end of the world. The entire rest of the course is uphill — at least it feels that way, but that’s also pretty much the case. I can barely turn pedals. I am beyond exhausted, perhaps more so than I have ever been — even when I had to walk for 30 miles in my first Susitna 100, and even I fell asleep on my bike during my first trip to McGrath, and even more so than any point in my emotionally fraught Tour Divide. Then again, our fresh emotions are always the most dramatic.

Amid exhaustion, I look up at the sky. Stars fill the black abyss, and the moon is a golden egg. I think I can see its yellow reflection on the trail, and this fills my heart with warmth. Suddenly I understand, intrinsically, that I will leave my job, and I will move away from Juneau, and I will strike out alone into the unknown. And I also understand, intrinsically, that everything will be okay. I’m filled with such gratitude I can hardly contain it. If you get cold in life, keep going.

The finish-line tent, 2010

At mile 90, I reach the Wickersham Wall. There are no emotions to contain the Wickersham Wall. It is an impenetrable fortress, an impossible divide, as terrible and soul-crushing as any physical barrier known to humans. In a few years from now, I will know this place as a reasonably steep snow climb that gains 800 feet in one mile. But on this night it is Everest. I take two steps and my leg muscles cramp. I take two more steps and stop to catch my breath. Every sinew in my body feels torn and ragged. I will never make it up this wall. But I have to. I have no choice. Keep going.

Time trickles by on a geological scale. The wall relents, and there are still some miles left to the finish. I am stupefied when I reach it, but I know it has happened, because suddenly there is artificial light and a trailer. A volunteer steps outside to point me to a propane-heated tent. Inside the tent is not really that warm, so wrap up in the sleeping bag I carried around the course. Checking to ensure the other person inside the tent is asleep, I burst out in a good cry. I’m so overwhelmed. The only way I can describe this emotion is love. I am in love with the White Mountains. I know I’ll never be the same.

With Beat at the start in 2015


Between 2010 and 2018, I raced the White Mountains 100 six times. Four times on a bike, and twice on foot. In 2010 I finished in 22:23, my slowest bike time. In 2011 and 2012 Beat and I started the race together (me on a bike, him on foot) and I rolled to 18- and 20-hour finishes. My fastest finish was 11:34 in 2014. My two foot finishes were 29:54 in 2015 and 33:59 on pre-tenderized legs in 2018. I skipped the race in 2013 because I didn’t make it through the lottery, 2016 because that was the year I rode my bike to Nome, and 2017 because I was sick, but I did volunteer at checkpoint one that year. My sub-30-hour finish in 2015 remains my best hundred-mile ultramarathon, much to my dismay (because the White Mountains 100 is absolutely a walking effort for me, and I have tried to run other hundreds.)

Still, physical challenge or accomplishment is not remotely the reason I keep going back. The White Mountains 100 is beautiful and hard and filled with friendly volunteers and interesting participants, but those are also not the only reasons it’s my favorite race. I have true affection for both the event and the region. This affection runs deeper than most of my experiences. The White Mountains 100 entered my life at exactly the right time. When I heard that the second race director, Joel Homan, was leaving the event after 2018, I surprised myself by feeling real despair. I believed the White Mountains 100 would go away, and it was disheartening.

Earlier this week, Fairbanks cyclist and previous winner Kevin Breitenbach announced he will take over race directing, and I was overjoyed. I don’t even know if I’ll race the White Mountains 100 again (I probably will, given the opportunity) … but the simple fact that the race will live on made my week. I love the White Mountains.


  1. Yes, you need to sign up and see if you get in through the lottery! You know, you have a place to stay at our house beforehand and afterwards, too! Eric and I are signing up. Love the WM100 race and so glad that Kevin is taking it on as race director!

    1. Thanks Corrine! I will probably try to resist signing up for the lottery to keep March open-ended, but it's so, so hard to resist. We'll see. :-)

  2. Love that second-to-the-last photo (finish line tent). You look like a model at a photo shoot!

    Come play and be miserable with us!

  3. Thanks for a wonderful trail report of your first White Mountains back in the day. I have never done it, and unsure if I would ever have been able to. Many of my friends have though and I have been at the start line watching them go off into the whites. It seems like an amazing race.

  4. This is a great line:

    "It’s the longest mile in the history of distance."


  5. As always, you blow my mind Jill! On my wildest day I can't see myself doing this race (I'm SO not into cold weather!) Now if they'd do something like this in Hawaii, maybe (GRIN!) I am SUCH a fair-weather-poser.

  6. I agree with Tom. “The longest mile in the history of distance” is a truly great line. Well done. This post reminds me why I started following your blog and reading your books. Thanks for that.


Feedback is always appreciated!