Friday, March 26, 2010
White Mountains 100 (this is a long one)
The White Mountains 100 race course was not familiar to most of the racers that lined up at the start on Sunday morning. Some had ridden parts of the trail, some all of it, but some of us had never been there before and none of us had ever raced it.
This was the inaugural year. After this year, I imagine there will be many repeat racers and word will spread about the difficulties and joys of the course. But for these brief two days, forty-nine other racers and I discovered together, for the first time, what racing the remote White Mountains of Alaska was all about.
About two weeks ago, after my last long ride, I became completely turned off to winter biking. It's no secret that if I do the same thing over and over again, I'm eventually going to get bored. I was a little worried when I began my taper that I would never want to ride my bike again.
And I didn't ride for about a week and a half. The taper became a complete period of rest. Then suddenly as the race was upon us, I got back on the bike to test out my setup and my excitement for winter biking and the race had been renewed (along with my nerves).
The night before the race I felt a bit of nerves as the race directors described the "Ice Lakes" and I found out later I was not alone. The Ice Lakes are a mile long and quarter mile wide stretch of slightly inclined overflow that could have posed my greatest challenge in the race. Slide down off into the willows and you could get soaked from head to toe, your bike parts could freeze up rendering the bike unrideable, while you still have 8 miles left to descend down to the next cabin in potentially negative 20 degree temperatures.
Not only that, but I figured I would be getting there just before dark and if I messed around too long in the first 50 miles I would get there after dark. So at the start of the race I felt pressed to get over the divide and over the Ice Lakes in good time.
As Brian and I drove up 28 miles of the winding Elliot Highway to the race start, a flood of nerves rushed over my body. I was in danger of losing my breakfast. It was about -15 degrees out and windy. After getting our gear all loaded up we headed to the race start. A woman from KUAC (which I later was calling KTUU) came up and asked to interview me and Janice Tower, a well known endurance cyclist from Anchorage.
I hesitated because I had a lot on my mind and still so much to do before the start. But Janice was cool and calm as she always is and said, "Sure." So I complied. I have no idea what I said to this woman who asked questions about why we chose this race and what my goals were, and I'm sure what came out was a jumbled mess of words that were linked together in a fashion that only I could understand.
But basically I told her my goal was to "stay alive" and that the biggest draw for me was "the hills". This last comment later haunted me. Over and over in my head I kept hearing myself saying, "It's the hills, I'm looking forward to the hills".
After the interview was over I frantically searched for Brian because I knew he was still messing with his gear back at the car and the race director had yelled, "5 minutes!". I also knew this would probably be the last time I saw him for three days. That last five minutes I must have blacked out because the next thing I know they yelled, "Ten seconds!" Brian rolled up, we said our goodbyes and good lucks and then we were off.
I must have completely blacked out the first six miles because I remember nothing. All I was doing was trying to ignore the nausea in my stomach that wouldn't subside, and focus on the task at hand.
For the next few days all I had to do was ride my bike and it was becoming evident that all I had to do was ride my bike with some great people and arguably some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in Alaska.
The first ten miles were up and down and then down, down, down, down a fast and fun downhill with bumps that tested my handling skills with a fully loaded bike. I must have got up to almost 20 miles an hour, but was afraid to look down at the speedometer for fear of crashing. On the first really long uphill I realized that my rear derailleur would not drop down into the lowest gear and in fact it was stopping two from the lowest. That made climbing a bit difficult and I ended up walking up most of the big hill at mile 17 to the first checkpoint.
But I was at the first checkpoint! And in under 3 hours and only a half hour behind Brian who was in 11th place! At this point all of my nerves melted away and I knew everything was going to be fine. At this pace I would get to tackle the big climb up to Cache Mountain Divide followed by the ice lakes all with plenty of daylight to spare.
I should have stopped to fix my derailleur, but part of me didn't want to slow down my pace by stopping to make a repair. Looking back this was really stupid, I probably used up a lot of energy mashing my pedals up the hills of the first 40 miles because I was too stubborn to stop and was convinced I was strong enough to do the whole course with no granny gear.
After the first checkpoint we rolled through an area that had been affected by a forest fire in 2004. Despite hearing many racers complain about how long the Burn area was, it was one of my favorite parts of the course. There was something eerie and beautiful about the burnt black spruce that lined the trail. The skinny trees allowed me to see for miles and try to imagine where in the landscape we were going to travel next.
I saw Crowberry Cabin and shouted out "Crowberry!" because any landmark along the trail was a relief. It meant I was making progress, going in the right direction, and not just pedaling into the far off interior of Alaska somewhere.
I stopped for a bit to take this picture of my bike and chatted with Matias, who I had been flip flopping with for miles and later realized that he was Matias Saari, a name I recognized to have won many running events throughout Alaska, including Mount Marathon last year. I was thrilled and quite shocked to be amongst so many great athletes in this race.
Before I could even think I was at the one mile sign for the second checkpoint. As I crested the next hill, I could see the cabin down below out on the open tundra. It was 3 pm and I was ecstatic to have gone almost 40 miles in 7 hours. I knew at this time, barring no major injuries or mechanicals that I was going to finish.
I didn't want to stay too long and lose my momentum, so I ate some food at the Cache Mountain cabin and packed up my stuff quickly to go. I knew the next task at hand was to climb the 1500 feet up to the divide and I imagined with my derailleur issues that this was going to be somewhat of a push.
I came across Julie Malingowski about a half mile down the trail, while she was negotiating the first area of overflow. Julie and I had met the night before, but I had been reading her blog for trail updates in the weeks before the race.
We ended up flip flopping for a mile and then just started chatting and riding together. A few people asked me before the race if I thought I would team up with anyone to ride and I said no. If I ended up riding with someone, it would happen naturally out on the trail because we were going the same speed. But for some reason riding with Julie just made sense. We found out we had a lot of random things in common and somehow just got along really well from the start. It turned out that we would later help each other out along the trail. I was very thankful to have her there with me.
The climb up to the divide seemed to take forever and we kept trying to guess how far we were. "I think it's just two more miles", I would say. Then we'd go two miles and still were not in sight of the pass. "Uh, I think it's just two more miles." It felt like we had been pushing for twenty.
The wind started to pick up and the sun fell behind the mountains. It was cold. It was the first time I felt cold since the whistle at the start.
Finally we came out above the trees. We were only pushing at this point. The headwind coming down from the pass was threatening to push us back down the mountain. But we pushed on. My bike felt heavy and I cursed myself for bringing so much. I was taking one step every second. If you can't imagine how slow this is, try it. One... two... three... four... It's slow.
But it's true, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other eventually you will get there. And we eventually came out on top of the pass. Tired, hungry, windblown and a little disoriented we started the long downhill stretch to the Windy Gap Cabin (Checkpoint #3), where I had planned to rest. But we had a few more challenges to get through before then. The Ice Lakes were upon us and it was starting to get dark.
(This is so long already, this looks like a good place to stop. I'm going to have to continue it tomorrow...)