Susitna 100 Race Thoughts
by Anna Edmonds, February 2011
I packed up all the cold weather gear I had, some tools, a saddle, and my pedals and boarded a plane headed north for the Susitna 100, an ultra-endurance race through frozen snowy Alaska. I had spent a couple months “training” by which I mean that I sometimes did intervals on the trainer in the living room and sometimes on the weekend I bundled up and dragged my karate monkey around snowy Michigan trails. But mostly my training consisted in lying sleepless in my bed at night and imagining what it would be like to pedal all day and all night and, if things got bad, maybe even two nights in sub-zero temperatures for one hundred miles. On enthusiastic nights I’d formulate a game plan. The strategy was that I’d keep going. Whenever I wanted to stop, I’d just keep going. This seemed a sure-fire route to success. Other nights I’d think about the fact that one hundred miles is significantly further than Ann Arbor to Detroit and back, plus it’d be on snowy trails, and things would begin to look bleak. One hundred miles on a bike isn’t a problem. I’ve had significantly longer days in the saddle on tours, but on my Ann Arbor snow slogs any attempt over about twenty miles put me in a world of hurt.
My worries are not assuaged when I get to gear check and eye the other ultra-endurance competitors. I must reek of newbie because it’s not long before a small throng of folks begin to ask me questions – where in Alaska are you from? Oh? You came all the way from Michigan? You must be really into snow-biking! What?? You’ve never been on a snow bike? Silence then giggles, words of encouragement, but beneath, looks of concern and dismay. I’m asked to pile my requisite calories on the table for counting and it’s with some embarrassment that I shake out my array of donuts and twinkies and cupcakes.
I take my tiny economy rental to Billy Koitzsch’s Arctic Cycles basement where he greets me outside, takes one look at the car and says “no fat bike in there, should have told you to bring a van.” I’m puzzled, telling him that I know it’ll be a squeeze but that I’m planning to take both wheels off and surely the bike will fit in the back seat. He eyes me with suspicion, asks some questions about my history with bikes and tells me he’s used to renting to folks that can’t re-assemble their own machines. I smile and assure him that I’ll manage and he looks comforted.
His basement is a veritable history of snow biking and he shows me photos of old snow bikes with three wheels cobbled together in front and his own fat bike that he’s readying for the McGrath to Nome ride next week. He sends me out on my 9zero7, an aluminum fat bike with four-inch-wide tires — I’ve been involuntarily upgraded from the Pugsley I thought I’d ride — and I’m delighted with the ride and totally psyched.
Heading from the race meeting in Anchorage where the race director has informed us that the course will get 8-14 inches of fresh snow and that they’re expecting a record number of evacuations, the road is all snow and ice and the little rental slips along giddily as I pretend I’m an Ice Road Trucker.
I’m all nerves and excitement the night before and even the rapidly accumulating snow and the first of my soon-to-be pile of disasters doesn’t take the fun of race eve away. My set-up has run into trouble because the clamps on the large Carradice saddle bag that Cruz has mailed me savior-style doesn’t fit on the fat bike seatpost, even though I’ve checked into the measurements in advance. This means that most of the gear that I’d planned on stuffing in there will go on my back, not the best arrangement for long hours in the saddle. I jerry-rig a compression sack in its stead, but this will later be emptied and tied up when I realize there’s no use in fooling with so many buckles and straps in -20 degree frozen-finger weather.
I wake up when it’s still dark and get to Point Mackenzie tired, frozen, scared. Everyone piles around the starting line, bikers in front, skiers next, runners clustering in the back. It’s -7 degrees, no one wants to stand around waiting, so it’s a mercifully quick start. I wave goodbye and I’m off. A few pedal strokes and a wave of relief floods my body. All I want is to be pedaling. I’m doing this because I want to know that I can force myself to keep going and I won’t learn whether I can until I try.
I don’t know what the conditions will be like with the fresh snowfall, but I round the first corner and it seems like everybody’s worst fear has been realized. The trail is deep soft snow and, especially since I’m surrounded by skiers and runners, biking is impossible. Fresh onto the trail I try to step around someone and am punished face down in a deep snow drift. This keeps up for a few miles until we turn off Ayrshire road and the fun starts. A ways of rolling hills, just my style, and I even get some loaded-fatbike air. I started in last place and I’m pretty sure I’m still there, but I’m already having a blast. The first 20 miles done, we drop onto Flathorn Lake and I pass heavily bundled Alaskans with loud drills, stools clustered in circles, roaring campfires by tents, ice fishing in style. I roll into the Flat Horn checkpoint and see the fast boys already leaving. I spend a short half hour, swallowing as many snacks as I can muster and head back out. Not long into the Dismal Swamp and it occurs to me with slight trepidation that I’ve already biked more miles in the snow than I ever have on one ride in the past. I pedal along for a while with Brian and Julie before we space out at our own paces and I reach for my insulated camelbak hose which I’ve dutifully tucked beneath my jacket only to find that it’s frozen all the same. I’ve only got about fifteen miles to the next checkpoint so I’m not too worried. I stop to lick some snow and Brian catches up to me. He offers me some of his water but it’s frozen too. We leave the Susitna River and turn onto the Yentna river and we’re welcomed by a sharp headwind. I’m quickly convinced that I’m the coldest I’ve ever been. My fingers begin to lose feeling and I often dismount to stomp around and get my feet back. I know I need to put eye protection on because I can feel my eyeballs begin to freeze. Sometimes the wind gusts so hard that I can’t see in front of me and I jump off my bike to hunker down backwards. There are so many things I could have done at this point to better my condition, but as would happen over and over during the next 30 hours, extreme cold led to extreme inertia.
I snap into action when, with a rush of terror, I realize that my left eye has finally frozen shut. I take my glove off and touch my face and am delighted to find that my eyelashes, which were crusted in snow and icicles, have merely tangled together and frozen. I pull them apart, open my eye, grin broadly despite myself and keep going. I’m being generous if I say that I was averaging 3 miles an hour. Most of the time I can’t find the hard bike tracks and when I misjudge my tires sink in and I fall to my knees. I figure the next check point, Luce’s Lodge will be around the next river bend. I figure this for at least ten river bends. I’ve had enough of the headwind and shivering and I’m even more demoralized when I spot Jeff Oatley flying toward me, tailwind at his back, riding as if he’s going down a nice grade on pavement. He’s already been to the Alexander Lake checkpoint and back. It’s at this point that I first seriously think that I will likely not finish the race.
I get to Luce’s as it’s getting dark and I stumble up the steep hill a frozen whimpering mess. The lodge is a warm woodstove glow and there are big steaming plates of spaghetti, but I can’t help but notice that the fast bikers are cheery because as I had been stumbling around on the river crouching down behind my bicycle and thinking that I was in a frozen hell, they had already been to Alexander Lake and were delighting in the wind that was now behind their backs. I absolutely cannot imagine stepping back out into the roaring headwind and plummeting night-time temperatures to ride sixty more miles. Someone at Luce’s takes pity on my convulsive shivers and leads me into the woodstove room where I strip off my soaked layers and start spooning the stove. In my frozen oblivion, I lay my socks on the stove and don’t realize they’re on fire until sometime later when I smell burning plastics. I put out the fire and throw them in the trash, and I’m down to only one pair. My sauna savior comes back and tells me that it’s about 100 degrees in the room and that no one has ever lasted more than ten minutes. I’d stayed more than an hour and was just starting to thaw. I return to the lodge with my one remaining pair of socks and pep myself up to keep trudging. I’m astounded when the checkpoint volunteers inform me that I’ve stayed for three hours.
The next leg to Alexander Lake couldn’t have been a bigger disaster. In retrospect it’s hilarious. It was even a little hilarious at the time. No part of my reasoning for the past number of hours had been sound, and I managed to get back onto the river without having taken out my headlamp. I mess around in my framebag frozen-finger style for a while and manage to knock out my entire bag of food without noticing. This would turn out not to be much of a problem because I couldn’t eat between checkpoints because I didn’t have liquid water to wash it down. I have my face covered and my ski goggles on, but I quickly realize that the combination of dark-lens ski goggles and a mouth covering that steams up those dark lenses is quite effectively blinding. I steer around all crazy horse, trying to pick up on the small bike tracks, but after one too many dives into snow drifts I’m resigned to walking. Earlier I had been hopeful for a moose sighting and it seems bad to me that now I’m wishing fervently for a moose attack. I decide that when the next snowmobile passes I’ll announce to them that I’ve caved to the bitter fate of scratch and evacuation. A snow mobile pulls up along side me shortly and I hear myself announce in my best sing-song voice that I’m having a merry go of it, couldn’t be better. They laugh and zoom off, I collapse in the snow and suck at my frozen camelbak hose.
I’ve got about ten miles left, all of which will be off-bike trudging, but I think I must be within four, so those are long miles. Folks pass me in varying states of comfort and at this point, even runners are passing me and I envy their unencumbered travel as they’ll envy my fast wheels the next morning. Veronica, my adopted race mother, comes along and tells me that I need to enjoy my private beautiful Alaska night-time adventure. Veronica, you are a strong, incredible human being, and shut the hell up. I’m in the misery tank and it’s -20 degrees with a -40 windchill and I’m pushing a 55 pound loaded bike and zigzagging into snowdrifts. I thank Veronica for her words of encouragement and I see her red taillight bob off into the distance. Tim comes along from having already made the checkpoint and, seeing as he has a bright light and is riding, I scamper off to the side, sinking thigh deep into a snow drift, my bike on top of me. My pathetic showing defeats the whole moving aside thing and he stops with surprise and pity to help me up. He asks if I’m ok, tells me I’m doing great and I burst out laughing. It’s after two in the morning when I make it, still blind, to Alexander Lake. I think I must be putting up the worst showing in the history of the Susitna and I crawl into the checkpoint utterly defeated. Linda offers me a cup of hot soup and I slump over in a frozen crusty mass before I melt in front of the fire. I’m sure my race is over and I crawl into my sleeping bag.
I never get to sleep and I’m pretty sure I’ve got a fever, so I lay shaking in and out of delusional, probably borderline hypothermic in my bag, too cold to get out of my wet stuff, beyond stupid, I know. The checkpoint is a battle scene, Linda rushing around tending to the needs of the victims. A couple folks have recently been brought in by snowmobile, one is yelling that his corneas are frozen, another is groaning loudly and vomiting into a bag. I try to disappear and fade in and out of oblivion for a few hours. I come to and hear someone saying that she usually does these things on bikes, and I figure that it’s Jill, whose blog I’ve come to adore and who is running the race. I sit up in my sleeping bag, a fit of dazed coughing and know that there’s no way I’m going to give up.
I wash down a handful of pain killers with some diet rockstar and I stumble out of my bag with pretend resolve. I haven’t gone to the bathroom the whole trip because I’m too cold to pull my pants down, but I figure that if I’m going to ride fifty more miles I need to start by peeing. Linda can’t believe that I’m resurrected and she bids me luck as I trudge down the hill.
It’s 7:30 and daylight is breaking and I can’t believe the beauty around me. I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities of the day and I get on my bike and start pedaling. Amazingly, I recognize that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I can’t get over the frozen scenery and I laugh at branches in my path that were so many fictitious mooses the night before. I pound out this section that took me over five hours the night before in a mere two and a half hours and I’m back at Luce’s. I order a quick cheeseburger and sit down with Jill and with Beat, who is surprised that I emerged from my Alexander Lake deathsack cocoon. A short while longer and I’m on my way, putting out the miles with surprising ease and regularity. The distances are long and white and unremarkable sometimes, but I’m used to this from desert days and salt flats in Bolivia. I’m lost in my thoughts, thoughts about old arctic expeditions when equipment was unsophisticated, thoughts about perseverance and diet coke. I pass most of the people who passed me the night before, mostly skiers and runners and a couple bikers, but I’m far back in the bike standings. I can’t believe how fast the miles fly past, I’m engrossed by the Iron Dog snowmobile race that has drawn bundled crowds, so fascinated by what life is like on this frozen river that I forget my petty frustration that they’ve churned up my biking tracks making for softer, more laborious pedaling.
Before I know it I’m at the Wall of Death. So fun on the way down, so not fun on the way up, but then again, carrying heavy bikes up steep things is one of my few specialties. I slip down once and succeed on the next try. I fairly dash into Flathorn, eat some delicious cornbread and gulp down a surprise Coke gift. I hear that fourteen people have just been evacuated by plane from Luce’s Lodge. The checkers are obviously surprised at the time I’ve been making and I even think that I can finish the race by dark. I see Julie, who had been significantly ahead of me for the past night at the checkpoint and we exchange smiles and I notice that when she sees me she quickly prepares to head out behind me. I’m delighted by the challenge and I race the last sixteen miles with everything I’ve got. It occurs to me that I’m sad this thing is over, that I’m not ready to be done with snow bikes and frozen trees and rivers and that, even though my lungs are frozen and my mind is weary, my legs are still strong and I decide that endurance racing will be a new part of me, though it won’t be in the damned snow.
The Susitna was a blast, some of it acute misery, some of it exaltation, and all of it fantastic in my memory. The best part was the people that I met, the checkers that fed me hot drinks and mostly the other racers who, even though they were engrossed in their own personal battles, never failed to help me fight mine. I finished in 33 hours and 47 minutes. Since my cycling times were actually pretty good, I think if I learn how to dress and survive in the cold I can shave around nine hours off my time. So here’s to next year!