My son D says to me, She’s a beast…I call her Mama. This is my beast story. The main event for this particular tale just happens to be a race called the Susitna 100: A Winter Race in Remote Frozen Alaska. After a weekend like this, it’s hard to know where to start, so obviously, begin with gratitude.
To the following people, thank you so very much for your advice, expertise, thoughtfulness, listening ears, encouragement, and borrowed gear: John Berriochoa, Dwight Schuh, Dennis Ahern, Tony Huff, Paul Lind, Doc Lind, Dennis Aslett, Rob Anderson, Lynette McDougal, Amy King, Dieter Berriochoa, John Odle, Kim Neill, Shawn McTaggart, and of course Rachael Bazzett. You people share my success.
The race committee organized an outstanding event. As with any longstanding event with a big local constituency, the Su 100’s family feel and camaraderie were strongly evident both at the briefing where people reunited with other annual offenders and at the post race party where three new 10-time finishers were recognized, stories were told, and the Race Directors knew 70% of the field by name. The volunteers were world class. I don’t think I’ve ever received better service at aid stations.
As this was a brand new genre of event for me, everything felt confusing, so pre-race I was not sure if the race was disorganized or I simply didn’t understand the “local culture.” Today, I’ll pick the latter. I really, really want to go back. It only took me about 24 hours post-race to decide that!
I know nothing special. Most racers knew a ton more than I do about outdoors survival, winter ultras, and sled running. But I know what I know, so that’s what I’ll share. If anything, it will help you understand what not to do if you attempt something similar.
My training felt like ultra meets outdoors survival, although that description feels melodramatic considering the temperate weather and lack of survival skills required during the race itself, making for many fast times and a couple of course records. My training was conducted in far more difficult conditions than the race, so Su ended up being far less epic but far more wonderful than anticipated.
Thursday 2/11: Briefing and Gear Check
On Thursday, February 11, 2016, after a slightly delayed flight out of Seattle (and a slightly not so slight freakout about that), I landed in Anchorage, claimed my 65 lb. bag (hallelujah!!) from the oversize baggage claim (the bag contained my sled, both 4-foot poles, and all my race gear), claimed my rental car, drove downtown, and picked up Rachael at the hotel.
After a brief moment of total girly reunion giddiness, we drove a couple blocks from the hotel to a church for the mandatory gear check and briefing. If we had missed the gear check Thursday night, we would have had to wait until AFTER the race started Saturday morning to get our gear checked before we could start. A late start to a race I wasn’t even sure I could finish to begin with was NOT acceptable, so making my flights on time and arriving at the briefing right at 6PM with my sled and luggage intact felt like the first win of the trip.
Rachael and I had woken up Thursday morning in different cities and without talking, dressed in jeans with matching Pickled Feet Ultra Running shirts and IMTUF 100 belt buckles. Rachael asked if she should change clothes before the briefing, but I said let’s just go for it.
Thus, after nearly getting stuck a couple of times navigating our giant bags through the various doors, we entered a church event hall filled with the most outdoorsy, hardcore people you’ve ever seen in one collection feeling like sorority girls, all wide-eyed and twinsy. Understatement: I felt outclassed and out of place.
Snaking through the long gear check line, we chatted with other racers. The big question was always: bike, ski, or run? Most people in the room were going to bike the 100 miles, but we tracked down a few foot racers, including running legend Pam Reed (I was not sure it was her at the time because she had not been on the registered list) and Shawn McTaggart.
I was in awe of Shawn, knowing she had done some serious hardcore winter races, including the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) footrace two times. She just finished the 350 mile ITI again (March 6, 2016). Incredible. Rachael and I are incredibly grateful to her for feeding us intel and advice in the weeks and months leading up to the race.
We finally arrived at the gear check tables, where volunteers meticulously checked off our gear — including a complete unfurling of my giant down sleeping bag to verify the “-20F” printed on the very bottom — and weighed our bags. I thought the weigh-in at this juncture was irrelevant because we would ultimately pack our sleds differently for the race, but my bag weighed 26 pounds. This did not include water, extra clothing, some of my food, or the sled itself.
The race requires the following gear:
- Sleeping bag rated to -20F
- Closed cell foam sleeping pad-minimum size = 3/8″ x 20″ x 48″
- Bivy sack or tent (NO space blankets)
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Rear flashing light to be used after sunset
- Two-quart (64 oz) insulated water container
- 1-day of food (3000 calories) may be consumed after the last checkpoint
- 15 lbs of gear at ALL times-including the finish line
For a complete list of additional “recommended” gear and a discussion about what I actually carried, check out Part V of this blog (not posted as of 3/12/16).
After the gear check, we picked our race numbers and settled in for the briefing. Race Director Kim Kittredge gave both an enlightening and concerning presentation, complete with slides like this:
Much of the course information might have made sense to locals, but we could only hope that the course was marked adequately and that we wouldn’t encounter any overflow, a dangerous situation where water exceeds the ice covering it. We noted to stay off bush airplane landing strips and watch out for snowmachines (snowmobiles).
After the briefing, we left my luggage at the hotel and headed downtown to find some vegan Thai food for dinner (drunken noodle with fried tofu and coconut curry with potatoes!), and then went to bed soon after as this was a crucial night for sleep. No partying until after the race!
Friday 2/12: Pre-Race Prep Day
Friday was our free day to run last minute errands and find the race start, so naturally we started by spending some time in the hotel hot tub.
Next, we loaded my economy size rental car to the brim with all our gear and then found a fantastic coffee shop for lunch, where Rachael bought herself a birthday cupcake to eat on her birthday, 2/14. She toted that cupcake for 100 miles but had to defer the eating of it to Monday after the race because it never sounded good to eat during.
Next, we hit an outdoors consignment store, where I picked up Black Diamond liner gloves and a Patagonia long down coat, both of which I ended up using a lot during the race. Totally good purchases. After spending WAY too much time shopping, we picked up a gourmet artisan pizza each to eat during the race, hit up Walmart for foil to wrap the pizza in, and finally headed out of town about 3PM. I was drooling over the mountains on the drive to Wasilla.
The race was headquartered at 4-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake, 30-45 minutes past Wasilla, so like many out of town runners, we had booked a hotel in Wasilla for Friday night. Before checking in, we continued on to Big Lake to ensure we could arrive at the race start without getting lost.
Rachael navigated us perfectly using GPS on her phone, and we could finally put our feet on the terrain of the race. It felt good to be standing on the course. We would feel REALLY good once the gun went off.
The unknown hung like a nervous pall on our psyches.
Friday night dinner was pad Thai vegan noodle packets in the hotel room while we loaded our sleds. I had put so much effort into every decision before the race, I didn’t agonize too much over anything at this point, but I did consider every piece going into the bag. The night before, I had already made the decision to not take my stove/alcohol based on the “mild” conditions. We wrapped our pizzas in foil, considered the prudent extra clothing to pack considering the “warm” temps and lack of precip in the forecast, and taped up our feet to prevent blisters (an amazing system that truly works – see my blog here for details).
About 9:30PM, we turned out the lights, anxious about the 6:30AM alarm. I slept pretty good until about 3:30AM and then on and off after that. My stomach was turning and upset. You can’t complain about 6 hours of good sleep the night before a race.
I had planned to eat another high calorie noodle packet for breakfast, but after the havoc the previous night’s spicy noodles had wreaked on my stomach, I accepted Rachael’s offer of oatmeal, packed with nuts and dried fruit. We each ate two bowls of this. Downing more calories might have been prudent, but simply choking this much oatmeal into my nervous stomach felt like another win.
About 7:15AM, we left the hotel, hoping to arrive to the race start by 8AM.
Of course, we missed a turn to Happy Trails Kennel and had to find our way around the icy back roads. This did not create the most stress-free start, especially because the racer parking was located past the start line about a quarter mile.
Because we were running late, we decided to walk back up to the kennel to sign in before the 8:45AM check in cutoff and then walk back down to the car, unload/organize our gear and sleds, and finally walk back up to the start with the sleds. This was literally Rachael’s first time pulling her race-ready sled setup.
Back at the car after signing in, I talked myself through each move, willing my hands to stop shaking and all decisions to be calculated. I had prepared too well to bypass details due to 11th hour pressure. A last minute phone conversation with my friend Paul set the tone, putting me in the frame of mind to give everything in me to this effort. Our sleds felt heavy enough as we hurried to the start and skirted the ~120 other racers to a clear spot in the back corner. By the time I jerked on my cycling overshoes and microspikes (crampon-like traction devices) while sitting on my sled behind the start line, the race director was giving the 2 minute countdown.
To start, I wore fleecy running tights, a merino wool tank top, and a single long sleeve half zip tech shirt. That was it. Basically one layer of clothing. The morning chill wasn’t deep enough to necessitate my fleece running jacket. Given the clear, sunny dawn, I knew we’d warm up the minute we started running. That jacket stayed in the sled for the entire race.
Suddenly — exactly at 9AM — the pack of nervous energy shifted and the bikers zipped into gorgeous Alaskan sunrise. With varying degrees of urgency, the rest of the racers followed behind. For weeks Rachael and I had been telling each other that once the gun went off, we’d feel okay, and we were right. Following four months of agonizing, “keep going” was now the only requirement, and that’s the easy part. Anyone can take one step at a time.
The reality finally eclipsed the unknown.