Start to Mile 21 – Point MacKenzie
It was beautiful day as the sun rose to greet and warm us. The first 5 miles melted away on icy, firm snow conditions. I tried to lock that section in my mind because it was the “stick” of the lollipop that we’d complete at mile 95-100 tomorrow.
At the intersection 5 miles out, Rachael and I found ourselves with Mike, the only person in the foot division of the race packing his gear in a backpack instead of sledding it. I was impressed. He’s a 51-year-old, 30-year Navy veteran, stationed in South Korea but retiring soon out of the Navy to Anchorage. Susitna was his first foray into retirement, Alaskan style.
Mike checked his watch and confirmed we had averaged 12-13 minutes per mile so far, which was awesome — much faster than expected. He wanted to average 4 miles per hour (15 min/mile) overall. I knew that there was no way in hell averaging that pace would be possible for anyone our place in the pack, but I told him it sounded like a good goal. Although we started out quicker, I was going to be happy to maintain a 25 minute per mile average. Mike is just one of those people you know is tough on first meeting, and I didn’t figure he would have any trouble finishing, even if it wasn’t as fast as he thought.
The next miles flew by. Rachael and I had planned to run together for the first 21 miles. It’s tough to stick with someone, even early on, in races this long because of the constant ebb and flow of individual pace. It’s really best to run your own race. Additionally, running in pairs was difficult with the sleds scraping loudly behind us. You couldn’t hear each other talking unless you were running two abreast, which was difficult on the parts of the course where there was a single best lane of travel.
We focused on moving consistently because the first checkpoint at Mile 21 had a 2PM (7 hour) cutoff. According to all the race reports we had read, this was a tight cutoff. Most of this time, I lagged behind Rachael and just focused on keeping up.
The trail alternated between long open stretches and rolling hills through trees. I wish I could comment on the topography and geographic landmarks, but honestly I have no idea where we were most of the time and especially at night would not have known if we were on a river or a swamp or a lake or just some tundra or what. I remember it all as either “flat vast expanse” or “hilly trail through trees.”
At one point, we caught up to a group of snowmachines and riders parked on the trail. I stopped for a selfie and one of them said it was his first time on a snowmachine — he was from Los Angeles. They told us they were the film crew for “LA Model” aka Ryan Young, who was being filmed for a Discovery Channel show. I nicknamed the crew member “Hollywood.” I saw them several more times throughout the race.
Immediately before the start, I had pulled on my original, lighter pair of overshoes that I had torn up on my last training run. I thought they’d stay intact and would not be as hot for the daytime as my heavier neoprene pair. This was a mistake, because the torn edges kept creeping up the sides of my shoes, collecting snow, which made my shoes wet. Rachael’s shoes were also wet from stepping off the trail in the first miles. Because we had no idea what the temps would be or how epic it would get “out there,” wet shoes felt dangerous. I was wearing thick wool socks, which I knew would retain warmth when wet but maybe not if temps dropped dramatically or if I could not keep moving. I quelled my negativity about this and focused on moving and monitoring.
Around noon, I felt myself starting to sweat. I wanted to avoid this, so I stripped off my long sleeve shirt and ran in my tank top for a while. My morale was super good at this point, and I started picking up the pace — I’m just not a fast starter. After maybe an hour in the tank top, we got into some shady trees. I made the call to stop, pull on my long sleeve shirt, and change my overshoes, something I should have done immediately when I saw a problem but didn’t because we were in a hurry.
We got our first taste of the rolling hills maybe halfway to the first checkpoint. They didn’t feel like too much of a thing at that point, but we had no idea what was to come either. Good thing. I witnessed a couple people without rigid connections from their waist belt to the sled really struggling on the downhill sections. Controlling the sled behind with PVC or some type of rigid pole is essential to avoid getting creamed by your sled passing you and then dragging you down the hill with it.
Rachael seemed to be having some issues working out her sled system on these rolling hills and I pulled ahead a bit. By this point with my feet warm and hopefully drying out, I was feeling motivated and physically good and wanted to use it or lose it.
We rolled through the trees on a double track trail, which was one of my favorite sections of the race, emerging to cross a river, navigate through a boat launch recreation area, and start up car road that would take us a few miles out to the first checkpoint. The sun was brilliant and I was moving in a good run-walk cadence. The footing on the road was softer and a bit punchy, as it was not groomed by snowmachines as well as the rest of the course. I passed two trucks that had given up trying to dig out of the soft snow on the edges.
I kept looking back, hoping to see Rachael coming soon. She never appeared. We had separated enough by this time that I had no choice but to press forward. I felt bad, but we had not agreed to stick together for the entire race for this reason; it just happened a little sooner than we planned.
On this road, only a mile or two before the checkpoint, I caught back up to Navy Mike. We had leapfrogged for the first 20 miles, but he had been ahead of us for a while. He seemed to be in tempered good spirits, and we chatted for a second, but I wanted to run. Bidding Mike a good day was the last time I saw him until the post-race party Monday night.
On the open road, I had seen Lourdes and Karen, two girls from Calgary, ages 48 and 50, up ahead. Leaving Mike, I chased them down, stoked because I figured they would be years ahead of me. We compared notes, but I fell back when they were pushing the pace more than I wanted to. I kept contact, though, and we arrived at the aid station close to the same time.
I hit Pt. MacKenzie about 2:50PM, an hour and 10 minutes before the cutoff. This was thrilling, a good start. After the previous couple miles of punchy snow road, I hoped there would not be much more of that sort of snow. An extremely helpful lady at the aid station filled one of my Hydroflask water bottles for me, while I grabbed a can of Coke and a couple of chocolate covered espresso beans and then departed quickly. With thirteen miles to the next aid station, I left one of the 32 oz. bottles mostly empty.
Pt MacKenzie (Mile 21) to Flathorn (Mile 34)
Shortly after the checkpoint, I passed some dog teams getting ready to run. There was a big crowd and kennel trucks, and the dogs were yapping and barking like crazy, raring to run. Soon after I ran by them, two of the teams passed me. This was fun. A very Alaskan touch.
The section to Flathorn Lake seemed uneventful and I don’t remember many details. I passed a girl who was sitting on her sled changing shoes or socks. My mood was good, and I felt like I was executing well so far. I plugged in my iPod and let myself just pass the time with my favorite friend, music.
One piece of equipment I carried my running pack was a Delorme Inreach GPS tracking device. It allowed “fans” to keep track of my progress on their computers. We could also exchange text messages, so keeping up with messages kept me occupied some of the time. The well-timed notes of encouragement from friends was invaluable to my morale throughout the whole race.
Rachael and I had each bought a pizza in Anchorage the day before the race and wrapped it in foil to eat on the run. I suspected from prior experience with my stomach that I would not be able to eat the very garlicky cheese pizza later in the run, so I “ate early and often,” finishing all but one piece of pizza before arriving at Flathorn. I also worked on eating the energy bars I had made.
Frequently, I would pause, turn around and reach into the front of my sled, grab my bottle, start walking again, drink heartily, and toss the bottle back into the sled without stopping again. It was a good system, and I think I stayed better hydrated doing this than I do in normal races using a water bladder in my pack.
Every so often, snowmachines would pass, and one of them stopped ahead of me. The race photographer jumped off and snapped a couple of pictures. When I got to him, he pointed behind me. Look at the view in the background of that picture. High pink and blue and white mountains rose behind us. I can’t wait to see those photos. I hesitated to ask him how far it was until the checkpoint — perceptions are so different flying around on snomachines than they are on foot — but I did it anyway. He pointed to the low hill in out front of us and said we did not go beyond that, instead turn right and skirt around the base. That hill easily could have been three miles away, but at least I had a landmark to reference. I think he said the checkpoint was 5 to 7 miles, or 1.5 to 2 hours, tops.
My energy was good when I arrived at Flathorn just after the sun had set about 6:10PM. I figured I would arrive there between 7PM at BEST and more likely near the cutoff at 9PM. Arriving before dark was so exciting.
To reach the checkpoint, we skirted around on top of the frozen lake edge and “docked” our sleds like little boats at the base of the embankment that went from the ice up to the houses. We were allowed to leave our sleds at the bottom, so I quickly gathered my water bottles and hiked up the stairs without my sled up to the aid station. After a quick in and out first checkpoint, I was motivated to keep this quick turnaround trend going. I felt very calculated and strong at Flathorn.
This was one of the best aid stations ever. The approach was lined with pink flamingos and tropical accoutrements. Entering the little red house was like entering a level of Alaskan backwoods heaven. It was cozy and warm and rustic, and the people in there were tremendously friendly and helpful. Three or four other racers were sitting in the checkpoint. I didn’t engage with any of them, staying focused and avoiding distraction.
I asked for hot water in one bottle and regular water in the other bottle. One girl asked if I wanted meat or vegetarian spaghetti. I asked for veggie to play it safe. It tasted so good. I wolfed it down while waiting for my water, and then I departed. I should have eaten another bowl of spaghetti.
Earlier in the day, my plan had been to change into a fresh, dry shirt at mile 34, so back at the sled, I forced myself to do this. I was in a hurry but also determined to execute this race like I knew I could. A few minutes preparing for the night would save me time and problems later. I stripped back down to my tank top and pulled on a merino wool half zip and my new long puffy down coat. I stashed my sunglasses in my pack pocket and put on my headlamp. I pulled on my light mittens over my liner gloves. This level of layering was perfect as the sun went down.
“In an out” of this aid station was 20 minutes because of the long walk in and out, so I was super happy to depart about 6:30PM. Right as I was leaving, Lourdes and Karen arrived looking great. They told me later that Rachael arrived to Flathorn right as they were leaving.
Flathorn (Mile 34) to 5 Star Tent (Mile 52)
Soon after Flathorn I passed Dayton, a skier. He was re-waxing his skis after some previous icy sections had put the hurt on his wax. I peeled open my chicken fried rice Mountain House and poured in hot water, resealed it, and let it sit in my sled to rehydrate. I was going to try to get this down before 5 Star, 18 miles away. Staying fueled would be critical going into the long night, and historically I am not good at staying fueled. All food starts to sound bad, which precipitates extreme hunger, which precipitates nausea, and then vomiting, and then…
Anyway, I was trying to eat. I thought of the food in the sled for a while before getting brave enough to crack it open. I pulled my spoon out of my pack and dug in. Hmm, I didn’t remember chunks of egg when I ate this on a training run. Barf. Emily, it doesn’t matter; it probably tastes good. Don’t look at it, just put it in your mouth and chew. I talked myself through bites over and over for a while, probably getting through half of the packet (~400 calories) before tossing it back in my sled.
Dayton and I leapfrogged most of the way to 5 Star and chatted a couple of times until I pulled away for good when he stopped for one of his ‘5 minutes per hour’ breaks. He is a single dad, works full time, and is a full time student at University of Anchorage. He told me he was undertrained, but I commended him for taking on the challenge and encouraged him to push through. I saw him Monday at the post-race party; he did not finish, making it to mile 63 before dropping. During this time I also got passed by Lester, a 63-year-old gentleman from South Carolina. That man could walk like ultra-walking legend Ulli Kamm. He told me he had pulled a 60 pound sled up Denali on a mountaineering expedition, but never anything like this. Well then. Lester and I leapfrogged for a while into the night, and he finished about an hour and a half behind me.
An hour or two after leaving Flathorn, I had popped a few caffiene pills in hopes it would ward off the sleepiness that is almost ubiquitous to overnight racing (go figure, right!?). So far so good, but the night was young.
I have no concept of time or miles through the night, but I believe I was over half-way to 5 Star when Lourdes and Karen caught up to me like I was standing still. I thought I was going pretty fast, but they were chatting and moving, making it look easy. I was determined to hang on to them and not let them out of my sight. Just keep the gas on, I told myself over and over. This is beast mode. You are steel. No one’s seen anything from you yet. Usually, I am afraid to push hard in races because I can’t recover from the effort, but I forced myself to believe in myself and my body and keep working hard.
I arrived at 5 Star Tent, mile 52, just behind Lourdes and Karen at midnight. This was one of those very rare instances where the checkpoint appeared before expected, a glowing canvas wall tent in the middle of nowhere we were sure was a mirage until it became tangible. I was elated at how fast I had completed the first half – about 15 hours. I was doing really good with quick aid stations and didn’t want to change that so I asked for soup in a cup, filled a water bottle and got out of there, drinking the noodle and hamburger soup as I walked out. Lourdes and Karen were still there preparing their food when I left, aiming for the next aid station, 11 miles away, in 3 hours or less.
But the hardest part of the night — that early morning witching hour — was yet to come.