Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Susitna 100 - The End


The Alexander Lake cabin was warm, almost too warm. Bikers had gear scattered about. One man was fixing a flat. Another was just sitting staring at the ground. The loneliness I had felt out in the wind dissipated as I realized over a hundred other racers were out there going through the same thing.

I wondered how my friend Julie M. was doing. She couldn't be too far behind me. She had been having trouble with her feet, so I had hoped that she worked it out.

It was now after 10 pm. We'd been hanging out in the cabin eating soup and drying out our clothes for almost 45 minutes already. The wind really threw a wrench in my plan as I had only wanted to stay here at the halfway point for a half hour tops.

"Has anyone finished?" I asked.  "Yep, Jeff Oatley and (two other racers who I can't remember their names) crossed the finish all within a few minutes of each other." Wow. Eleven hours. It was hard to believe they were finished and here I was just past halfway. They would be home in time to get a full nights rest. Weird.

I oddly didn't envy them. While I was feeling a bit dejected, my spirit was not completely broken. I was slowly beginning to warm up. I had planned to save my spare base layer for the second round at Luce's, but my skin felt a little damp, and I had a chill that I couldn't get rid of, so I tucked myself into the bottom bunk bed and completely changed my clothes. I didn't really care that there were seven strange men that I didn't know in the room and they didn't seem to notice. All modesty is left behind in an event like this.

The new layers lifted my spirits as did the endless number of dinner rolls with butter that I shoved into my mouth. "I really just want to eat the butter, but this seems more civilized." I was starrrving. Soup, dinner rolls, butter, nuts, hot tang, cookies, pringles... I couldn't get enough. I had burned through all of the calories I had eaten out on the trail and was feeling a serious deficit at this point.

After eating what felt like half of the food in the cabin, I started to gather my things, as did Erv. We chatted a bit and decided we should stick together at least until Luce's. I was excited for the tailwind and the fact that the 12 miles to Luce's was downhill. We gathered our things after an hour and a half and headed back onto the trail with a new outlook.

The moon was so bright. The wind had died down, so we didn't exactly get the tailwind we wanted, but I was so sick of wind at that point that I didn't care. The riding was easy! We were flying, before we knew it we were at the turn where the man told us we still had four miles. It really did only seem to take 30 minutes to get there. We rolled all the way back down to the Yentna river, hooting and hollering the whole way. It felt good to be on the bike again. I stood up for the last mile of real downhill and got shot out onto the river in no time.

We were back at Luce's in what seemed to be two hours, but it was already past 1:30 am. Most of the bikers that were in front of me had already continued on to Flathorn Lake. I ordered a cheeseburger and peeled off my layers. They had a sauna running outside of the lodge so I dried my gear in there. I sat there while I waited for my cheeseburger and even though it was over 110 degrees by the woodstove, I still had a chill running through me.

I wandered around Luce's like a zombie. I was really starting to feel tired and ill. My legs felt like they weighed a thousand pounds. The cheeseburger and fries sat in my belly and I feared it would not stay down. I chewed a piece of ginger gum. I laid my head down on the table and was out. I dreamed of strange things that I cannot even explain.

I felt movement by me and was shocked awake. "Sorry to wake you ma'am", the young kid that was working the night shift whispered. "No, no, I have to get up." It was now 3:15 am and I gave myself a 4 am time limit. I moved like a snail, and even spent another 15 minutes laying in the sauna room. I came back and sat by the fire. I chatted with two runners, who were warming their gear by the fire. I was stalling.

Finally I got a small burst of energy and was ready to go. I told Erv I was heading out and he said if I gave him a few minutes he would ride with me.  After changing his layers what seemed like 13 times Erv was finally ready at 4:15 am. I didn't mind, I was happy that I would have company pedaling out into the cold, dark night.

"We'll be at Flathorn Lake by sunrise! And then it's only 16 miles to the finish."

I don't remember much of the next few hours. It was pedal, pedal, pedal at a hard pace. I led mostly and Erv was always just on my tail. We turned onto the Susitna and I knew the WALL OF DEATH was just 6 short miles of smooth, slightly downhill trail away. Way off in the distance I could see the sun coming up. At this point I was on auto pilot.

It is precisely at these moments that I seem to get an annoying song in my head. This time it was a song that I heard 6 years ago when Brian and I were on our third or fourth date. He had taken me to a Murphy's Law concert in a seedy bar in West Chester, Pennsylvania. We chugged PBR pounders and danced around in the mosh pit. It was that night that we realized how truly compatible we were.

A few hours into the night they played a little song that goes like this...

Wall of death, here we come.
Wall of death, just for fun.
Wall of death, link arms and run!

At which time everyone in the mosh pit links arms and starts forming a "wall of death" and taking people out on the dance floor. For real. I think I got clothes-lined by my boyfriend of two weeks that night.

But I couldn't remember all of those words, so in my head it went something like this...

Wall of death, here we come.
Wall of death, here we come.
Wall of death, here we come.
Wall of death, here we goooo...
Wall of death, here we come..

Damn it, I can't get this song out of my head!

And that went on for the entire 45 minutes it took for us to make it to the wall of death, while I slipped in and out of consciousness. We crawled up the wall and the song disappeared along with the darkness. The sun was up, and we were pedaling the last mile over Flathorn Lake in no time.

Mount Susitna hovered over us in the morning sun. It felt comforting in a time of so much pain. We stare at that mountain every day across the inlet, and now it was so close. It looked so big. When you are out there pedaling for so many hours in a row, staring at the tracks in front of you, you start to think strange thoughts. I was convinced that Mount Sustina was put there to protect me, like it was blocking me from the harsh realities of the Alaskan wilderness, somehow sheltering me and keeping me safe, carrying me in to the finish line.

Flathorn is a blur. I was fighting to stay awake. It was 8 am. Peggy, Erin and Kim the very nice and welcoming hosts fed me Jambalaya. I ate like ten pieces of cornbread. That cornbread is so good. I fell asleep drooling with my head down on the table. Sleep is never good on the trail, you know you should be moving. You never really get to rest.

We stayed at Flathorn Lake for over an hour and headed out for the final 16 miles at 10 am. Erv and I didn't even speak about riding together, it was pretty much understood at that point. There is not much I can say about the last 16 miles except this..


Brian had warned me about this section, but it was so much worse than I imagined. Do you remember doing "perspective drawings" in art class in grade school? The ones where you pick a point on the paper that is infinity and then draw a triangle coming down from there that is the road, and then draw a bunch of buildings around it, each getting smaller and smaller until they disappear into infinity? That is what the trail looked like. It went on for infinity. 16 miles? No. Infinity.

I won't say much more about that. Except that yes, we eventually got back to Ayshire road, and those last 4 miles were some of the happiest miles of my life.

Done. Tired. Satisfied. Happy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Susitna 100 - Part II

The wind whipped down the Yentna River. I had only a thin liner glove on my hands as I hurried to get my gear back in order outside of Luce's. It's amazing how quickly my hands can start to freeze in the wind, and how quickly I start to panic when this happens. I got on my bike fast and started to pedal into the strong headwind.

My fingers were numb and stiff after only being outside of the warm lodge for five minutes. I tried to ride fast and warm up my hands by swinging them, but nothing was working. They were just getting worse, even inside pogies. I could feel the slightest breeze swirling around inside my pogies, just enough to keep my hands frozen. The panic started to rise and I gave up and stopped and decided I need to figure this out before I continued on. The worst thing you can do is let the cold creep into you, because before you know it, it will be too late and you will never warm up.

I tightened the pogies around the handlebars to keep the wind out and stuffed two empty plastic bags up the sleeves to block the wind. I got out hand warmers and threw them inside the pogies. I zipped up my pit zips, pulled my balaclava up over my face and pulled up the hood to my shell. Back on the bike I pedaled hard and grasped the hand warmers in my hand. When they finally kicked in I knew everything was going to be fine. I relaxed, ready faced my next battle. The wind.

On the short ride up the Yentna, before the Alexander Lake turn off, I passed a rider who I recognized as a guy that works at REI, and yelled out through the wind, "Well, at least we'll have a tailwind on the way back!" He said, "Ya never know, that won't be for four hours!" True, I thought. I fully believed in my mind that I would be back back at Luce's by 10 pm ready to order up a giant bowl of spaghetti and start out the final 35 miles with a full belly and a nice tailwind. But as I am starting to learn in these races, what you think it will be like and what it is actually like, never really matches up.

Pedaling was tough now. The sleeping pad strapped to the front of my bike was acting as a huge sail, forcing my handlebars sideways every few feet. It was taking all of my energy to pedal into the wind. But at least I was warm, and soon I would be off the river.

This was the first time I ran into Erv Berglund, who was struggling as well. We walked a bit together on a soft section after we turned off the river and chatted. Erv was from Minnesota, but his son, who was also in the race lived in Alaska. Erv was back for his second try at the Susitna 100 after crashing badly last year and having to drop out around mile 50. He was determined to finish this year.

After awhile I got back on my bike, but it was slow, soft and uphill, but at least we were out of the wind. Finally I started to see my friends coming back from the turn around point. I was wondering when I would start to see them. Sean, Carl, Julie B - all people who I had ridden with during training, but who were quite a bit faster than me. It was nice to see friendly faces again, even if it was only for a few minutes.

Sean, who is also training to ride to Nome, stopped and chatted with me and Erv for a bit. I don't remember what we talked about, but this will always stick in my mind. He said, "I don't want to lie to you, but it's about to get messy up ahead. There is a really strong headwind and the trail is really soft. You have a long way to go." At that point I started to realize that my grand plans of getting back to Luce's by 10 pm were about to be spoiled, but I was still happy to be out there.

I tried to ride as much as I could but, once I was exposed to the wind the going got really tough. There were big snowdrifts across the trail and foot prints of riders that had come before us breaking up the trail into a soft mush. The wind kept pushing me off the trail. I would step down only to fall hip deep in the soft snow beside the trail.

It was good to get off the bike and walk a bit. It was around 6 pm the sun was about to set. I knew it would be dark soon, and secretly in the back of my mind I feared the darkness. Not fear of the dark in the traditional sense, but fear of the limited view of just the space around my bike where the headlamp shines, fear of a trail with no landmarks, only the tracks of racers that had come before me, fear of the drop in temperatures, the wind and the dark places my mind goes when slogging along at 2 mph pushing my bike into the night.

Erv kept catching up to me, he was surprised that I was still within his sight. "I thought you took off!" He said. We kept pushing into the wind, only able to ride for about ten pedal strokes before falling over. He'd fall down, I'd fall down, I'd help him up, he'd help me up, and it was at that point that we started to form an unspoken pact to stick together at least until we got to Alexander Lake and out of the wind.

Finally the sun set and on came our lights. Off in the distance I could see red blinky lights of racers in front of us. It was surprisingly bright out though with an almost full moon hanging over us. I have never seen so many stars. Erv yelled out, "There's Orion! Maybe he'll watch over us until we get to the cabin." This section of the course, which was only 12 miles, seemed to take The wind was sucking all of the energy out of my body. The hours were ticking by. I made a point to not look at my thermometer for fear of seeing what the temperature really was. Later I heard rumors of 20 below ambient temperatures and 40 below windchill. That seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, because I never really felt THAT cold.

At one point we tried to figure out how far we were from the cabin. Neither me nor Erv had a bike computer or GPS so we had no idea. "I think it should only be another 2 miles." I said. "Ya think? I hope so." Erv replied. We pushed on. We flipped flopped with other bikers all trying to figure out just how far we had left to go to get out of the wind. After about another half hour we passed a biker coming out. He said, "I've been riding for 35 minutes." He was riding though, so we figured another hour of walking. We were slightly devastated by the thought, but kept pushing on. Two miles, I can handle two miles.

Then after another half hour we made a hard left turn and the headwind became a cross wind. It felt like it was gaining energy at this point, but we had long stretch where we could ride, so our spirits lifted. Every so often a gust would come through and push me clear across the trail into the snow. I picture it now, and it is quite comical. Maybe I would have been laughing at the time, except for the fact that my face was buried in the snow.

After what felt like forever again, we saw another biker and he told us we still had four more miles. I was crushed. It felt like we were getting farther away from the cabin not closer. How could this be? I felt the very beginning of a bonk rushing through my veins. I shoved a giant cookie in my mouth, a delicious giant cookie made of oatmeal, peanut butter, raisins and chocolate chips. I remembered Brian was calling them Man Cookies. Man Cookies, please give me strength, I thought to myself and giggled. It couldn't be that bad as long as I still had Man Cookies.

Bikers headlights passed in the dark. "Good job, keep going." I was only able to get out two word phrases at this point. After about another mile, it was reduced to "Hey." I finally saw my friend Leonard and knew he would be honest about how far we had left to go. I was sure he would say, see that light up there? That's the cabin. But he crushed me again with his words, "Oh, you still have a waaaaaaaays." In that sort of country sounding drawl that Leonard has.  Those last two words droned on in my head. A waaaaaaaaaaaays....a waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays...a waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays.

Ahhhhh, the beloved low point in the race, the time when you curse yourself for getting yourself out into the middle of nowhere in Alaska only to have to get back somehow, the time when you swear you will never enter another endurance race again, the time when you start making plans to move to Hawaii to become a surfer, where you will retire and spend the rest of your life drinking fruity beverages and basking in the sun.

"This place should be called the fucking Dismal Swamp!" I screamed.

Luckily the wind was howling too loud and Erv was slightly hard of hearing. "WHAT?!!!" he yelled over the wind.

"Oh nothing, I was just saying THIS SUCKS!"

"Yep, it sure does!" He agreed.

After what seemed to be another hour of pure misery, there was a glimmer of hope. As I wallowed in my misery were were passed by a couple of bikers. Erv stopped them to ask how far. I didn't bother because I was tired of hearing bad news. "Oh less than a mile. That's the lake right there and then it's .25 miles from there."

Yes! We were there! We dropped onto the lake just as the wind started subside, got on our bikes and hammered into the Alexander Lake cabin. The Christmas lights that lined the roof of the cabin were twinkling in the night. I could see racers moving around inside. It was the most inviting scene of my life.

"We're halfway kid!" Erv proclaimed.

"Yes, we are. Yes, we are."

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Susitna 100

As we pulled into the Point Mackenzie parking lot at 8:30 am, I wished I had listened to Brian and left Anchorage earlier. I said, "All I have to do is check in and strap my sleeping bag, frame bag and seat bag on and I'll be ready to go. A half hour will be plenty of time."

My first Susitna 100 was about to start in a half hour and I suddenly felt rushed. Julie Malingowski of Fairbanks was with me. She was the girl I met last year on the trail of the White Mountains 100, who I ended up riding with for 60 miles of that race. Driving the last few miles to the start we talked about a sudden rush of nerves that ran over us. There are always last minute doubts that you have to deal with. What if I didn't train enough? What if the trail is soft and we have to push 100 miles? What if I didn't bring enough layers or food? I have only been racing long distance for a little over two years, so I wonder if I will ever show up to a race feeling 100% confident.

We got our bikes out of the car and quickly rode them up to the cabin to check-in. "15 minutes to the start!" someone yelled as I hopped back on my bike and rode it back down to the car to pack up. The thermometer on my bike read -5 F. Not too bad, I thought. I had nearly everything ready on my bike, but I couldn't get my sleeping bag to stay on straight. I messed with it a few more minutes and then heard a cheer come from the crowd at the top of the hill where the start line was. I missed the start, but I wasn't too worried about it yet. In a  race that I expected would take me over 24 hours, what was one minute?

As I pedaled up the hill to the start line and watched the last of the runners hobble away with their sleds I realized my mistake. I now had to pass about 60 people, runners, skiers and bikers included in order to get to a place where I could settle into my pace. The trail was completely torn up and I felt really flustered by my mistake. I started to think bad thoughts, but told myself as soon as my mind started to turn, I would force it back to positive. So I sucked it up and hoped the trail would improve after we left Ayshire Road.

Ayshire road was a mess. I think it's about 4 miles of riding in a ditch next to the road that had been trampled on by over a hundred people that came before me. I was lucky to pass most of the walkers right at the start and then flip flopped with runners, skiers and some other bikers that started late. I mostly pushed my bike through the chopped up mess of soft snow and wondered how long the trail would stay like this. I let air out of my tires and tried to ride as much as I could, the nerves slowly dissipating as I started to realize that race day was finally here and I was about to pedal out into the wilderness of Alaska yet again.

We turned off of Ayshire Road and suddenly I was riding on a paved road that almost had no snow on it. I cranked my twist shifters up to the highest gear and started spinning my way past everyone. Eventhough I was only still passing runners, it felt good. I'm just so used to getting passed. One other biker that was struggling with me came flying by and yelled, "Much better, eh?" I replied "Hell yeah!"

We pedaled past a sign that said "Welcome to the Susitna Flats". It was time to leave civilization behind once again. Mount Susitna looked bigger than ever, the sun was shining and I was finally catching up to the bikers about an hour into my race. It felt good to see bikers again. I came in dead last amongst the bikers in the White Mountain race and was determined not to do that again.

My strategy was to keep moving. I'm not a fast rider to start with, but my biggest problem is that I stop a lot. I take pictures, I stop to eat and drink, I stop to socialize and before you know it I'm dead last. I really wanted to put in a good racing effort this time and not just tour like I usually do. So here are some of the things I did to help myself achieve that goal.

1) Pogies - I usually don't ride with pogies, just really warm mountaineering mittens but I decided that I didn't want to have to manage my hands and I wanted to be able to put food in there. Pogies are great for keeping your hands warm, but even better for use as a feeding trough. And we all know I like to eat. At the start I had my pogies stuffed with pizza, fritos and a giant cinnamon roll. I was like a cafe on wheels.

2) No camera - I have a picture taking problem. I can't pass up an opportunity to stop and take a photo, so I didn't take my camera this time. I probably lost two hours of riding time taking photos in the White Mountain race. Once we were out there and the sun was shining I immediately regretted my decision.

3.) Once I warmed up, I decided to make an effort to push myself. This was my second time riding 100 miles in the snow, so I had an idea what it would take to get myself to the finish. My goal was to settle into a pace that felt comfortable and then push myself just a little bit harder. It really worked, although still slow compared to most racers, I was faster than ever.

After pedaling towards the mountain for a little we turned off of the 50K course for a fun hilly section. I had never ridden this section of the course before and was pleasantly surprised by the hills. I thought of this race as flat, flat, flat. Which means pedal, pedal, pedal, with no rest or fun. but this section was hilly and I even crashed a few times.

I zoned out for awhile and ended up pulling up to a spot on the Little Su where 10 bikes were parked. People were coming up and down this hill and I realized I was already at Flathorn Lake. The first checkpoint! And there were still bikes there. I promptly checked in, downed a huge piece of cornbread, and checked out hoping to pass the 10 bikers that lingered inside. I rolled out onto sunny Flathorn Lake with a huge smile on my face, the first 22 miles behind me and the taste of cornbread still in my mouth. Crisis averted. Time to enjoy the ride.

The next stop was the Dismal Swamp which was anything but dismal. Yes it was long and I could see tiny bikers far off in the distance where I knew I had to go, but the scenery was beautiful and the biking felt easy. It wasn't long before I dropped down the Wall of Death and onto the Susitna River. My nerves were completely gone now as I entered familiar territory. I had ridden on the Susitna River and up the Yentna to Luce's Lodge just two weeks prior to the race. I felt the temperature drop and the trail hard and fast under my wheels and started to crank up the pace. I was determined to get to the next checkpoint by 4pm.

During this section I was passed by Billy who had ridden most of the race with Brian last year. We chatted for a minute before he continued on. He wasn't racing this year, but out there training to ride to Nome in the Iditarod Trial Invitational, which starts on Sunday. I told him I had been thinking of them and remembered some funny stories about their race. Late in the race last year Billy demanded that Brian eat a bowl of Jambalaya, but wouldn't let him sit down at the last checkpoint. He said, "Eat this, and then we are leaving." Billy really pushed Brian and helped him along the last leg of the course. I wondered then if I would end up riding with anyone this time.

The section of riding up to the Yentna was still really hard packed and the going was fast. The Yentna is wide open and I could see riders miles ahead and miles behind me now. This section always takes longer than I remember and just when I think Luce's is around the next bend, I round the corner and realize I have one more bend to go. I zoned out for awhile admiring the mountains of the Alaska Range off in the distance. The sky was clear and blue. I daydreamed about future trips and wondered if I would ever ride to McGrath. I have always dreamed about it, and have read other racers accounts of the trail over and over. There is something that seems to be pulling me out there. I don't know what it is. I ended up arriving at Luce's around 4:30.

There were many bikers at the second checkpoint, some stopped for dinner eating giant bowls of spaghetti, some passing through for the second time on their way to the finish. Everyone still looked pretty fresh and awake. I finally felt like I was back in the place that I should be after the starting line fiasco. Up until this point I was feeling really great, but I had only ridden 41 miles and about 7 hours. I knew that is was going to become more difficult with the darkness and I already felt the temperatures dropping on the river on my way into Luce's.

I grabbed a brownie and planned to eat a full dinner at Luce's when I returned. At this point I had what I thought would be a short 12 mile ride up to Alexander Lake, although I had never ridden that section, so I didn't know much about it. Alexander Lake was at the half way point. 53 miles. There we would turn around and ride 12 miles back to Luce's.

"The wind is really picking up!" one of the checkers yelled out. I looked out the window of the lodge and saw snow blowing fiercely down the river. I had to go up river. I quickly got out some toe warmers, heated them up, stuffed them into my boots and headed out into the wind.