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.

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