Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Please wait a moment...

36 hours and 56 minutes. That's quite a lot of time for which to make a complete accounting. While I attempt to wrap my brain around everything that I went through during that time, you can read Jill's initial recap or peruse the race results and ponder what sort of event has initial finishers completing it on bicycles, Saturday evening, a bit more than 11 hours and the final one crossing on skis, Monday morning, nearly 47 hours after leaving the start.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Over the cliff

Last night was the pre-race meeting and gear check. If there was any residual question that Susitna requires a significant more preparation than your standard 100-miler, they were answered there. Giving a credit card to cover potential evacuation costs, showing your sleeping bag was rated for at least 20-below, having your 3000 emergency calories examined and then weighing your minimal gear to assure it was over 15-lbs, went well beyond the standard "sign your name and pick up your bib" requirement of most pre-race check-ins.

Gear check
Once the laborious registration process was complete, it was time for the RD presentation. A self-described pessimist, his deliver of the weather forecast was somewhat ominous. Apparently, a storm was moving in and expected to dump a large load of snow that night and all day Friday. His expectations of what this meant for the race were presented quite dryly in his initial slide.

  While most people took this omen with a grain of salt, the weather turned out to live up to expectations.

At least 4" dropped overnight and it snowed throughout the day

I had initially thought the race began on Friday. Luckily, this was wrong and, in retrospect, it couldn't have been otherwise. Friday before Susitna is reserved for all the necessary last-minute activities including shopping for important necessities such as better gaiters, vacillating back and forth on whether to bring the snowshoes or not (they're coming), experiencing all of the varying shades and subtleties of the stages of panic, and, most important of all, making all of the final preparations to your sled and gear set-up. This last, took most of the afternoon.

In the end, our sleds could not possibly have looked more distinct from one another. Each one expressing, perhaps not so much our individual personalities, but certainly our approach to preparing for this race.

Beat's Sled: The Craftsman
Beat experimented with a number of different designs for his sled coming up with his own unique ideas on what constituted a good approach and building it himself by hand. His final version was tweaked based on his training. It rides a bit high, but he assures that it is both stable and low friction. It certainly demonstrates the care he put into both the conception and construction.
Bike handlebars and kids skiis - who'd of thought?

Jill's Sled: The Pro
Jill's sled is not only race proven, but has actually won this race and still holds the course record in the foot division. It's only fitting that the one of us with the most experience both with racing in Alaska and with Susitna  specifically should be trailing this beauty. While this is Jill's first time tackling the race on foot, none would ever guess based on the slick cart that will be following her every move.
A sled built for speed

Danni's Sled: Psychedelic Snow Blower
While the design is one of the most common, consisting of the same kids toboggan and ropes-through-PVC poles that I will be utilizing, Danni put her own unique touch on this classic. A trip to the craft store and some creative use of Velcro took it from basic to beautiful. 1968 may have been the summer of love, but for Danni's sled, 2011 is the winter of love.
She called it The Clown design: it's certainly the most fun!

My Sled: Homebrew
While I purchased the standard kit from the race, I put the pieces together myself and experimented with a few different options. Yes its raw, sure it looks thrown together and held up by plastic and bungee cords, but, like a first experimental batch of beer, it will get the job done. I think.
Duffel, straps, some plastic, what more do you need?
Pimpin' that Brooks logo!

After admiring our handiwork, we took our loads out for test spins along the street.

Beat with a big grin
Danni strikes a pose
Jill going for broke

Finally, a last parting shot of all four of us. Next photo I take will be at the start.
Here we go!


The Siamese twins of trepidation and anticipation finally made their appearance as they’re apt to do before the start of a new adventure. Staring at the array of equipment strewn across my living room floor–10,000 calories of food, a sleeping system sufficient to survive at 40-below, clothing comprising a dozen different layering options, satellite tracker, GPS watches, med kit, various tools, and supplies including those needed to attach it all to a sled that will be dragged across the snow for 100 miles–the realization was finally sinking in. Fear and excitement continued to grow as I busily stuffed the bulk of my gear into a duffel and then packed it all into an even larger duffel for the next morning’s flight. When I’d finally convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly need anything more for this race and, in truth, that I’d already packed far too much, I grab one last article of clothing and shove it into the bag. When all is done, I reflect on the reason those seemingly apposing emotions are sprung from the same seed: the feeling I’ve no idea what I’m doing.

A decade and a half ago I switched my main pass-time from mountain biking to running due, in part, to the greater simplicity and reduced gear required of the sport. Since I didn’t participate in really long-distance events at the time, that notion seems a bit silly right now. However, the idea of expedition-style rides had always held a an attraction. I remember reading about an event called the Iditabike and seeing pictures of the hardened men and women facing the Alaskan winter along the famed Iditarod Trail on specialized snow bikes equipped with double-wide tires and loaded to the hilt with gear. It seemed such a romantic idea and totally out of reach at the time. Years later as I’d gotten into trail and then ultra-distance running, I remember watching “Running on the Sun”, the documentary about the Badwater 135 race. I was fascinated by the idea of an extreme event made even more so by the very conditions in which its run, but the combination of running on roads and the excruciating heat just wasn’t my thing. I remember thinking, and perhaps even verbalizing, “I’d rather do that race up in Alaska.”

Susitna has been on my short list of “must do” 100-milers for a while, but one that I always kept as “in the future.” However, it took but a mere suggestion from Beat for me to sign up. I didn’t give it much more thought until winter rolled around. My running hit its normal seasonal low; more so this year due to a heavy work schedule and some hectic situations at home. I’ve tried to hit the snow as much as possible, but the weather hasn’t always contributed. I’ve done my homework on gear and tactics, but having no experience with sub-0 temperatures, how prepared can I really be? I just can’t seem to shake the feeling that a guy who’s grown up in the warm embrace of California’s temperate climate has no business attempting a winter race in Alaska. Then again, if I only attempted that which I knew I could complete then what would I be doing in this sport in the first place.
So, undertrained, unprepared and over-packed, standing on the verge of a new adventure, I head north.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Snow Report

Living in California's Bay Area makes training for a winter race in Alaska a rather dicey proposition. This past weekend we saw temperatures in the mid-70s. It is the literal middle of winter!

I've tried to head up to the snow in the mountains as much as possible taking a few trips to Tahoe and one to Yosemite. However, it seems that every time I go, the sun follows. My initial trip to Tahoe was after the first major storm of the season at the end of November. My first snowshoe trip ended in my running shorts as temperatures climbed into the 50s during the afternoon.

I had the week off work between X-mas and New Years. With the promise of a winter storm on its way I headed back up to spend a few days. My first day saw some great snow, but temps around 40 with beautiful sunny skies.

Snowshoing at Tahoe Donner in (unfortunately) lovely weather

The next morning in Reno, I managed a run in weather just cold enough to test out my tights. I then headed up to Mt. Rose to try some back-country snowshoeing. While more hiking than running, it was a blast. I was "lucky" enough to be hit by the initial front of a blizzard on my way back to the car. In fact, I had to resort to my GPS to even find my car in the white out conditions. As I drove down to Incline Village, the storm began to build.

The brunt of the storm hit on my drive to the lake
I was hopeful for a very chilly morning the next day and anxious to test out my newly purchased Kahtoola Microspikes. The spikes were amazing, but the only other accomplishment was validating what it felt like to run overdressed for the conditions. It was perhaps in the low 30s, but I think I was dressed for much cooler. The problem, of course, is that I have no idea HOW much.

The storm dropped quite a bit of snow, but it turned out to be a better test for my new SUV than my cold weather running gear.

New Grand Cherokee gets its first taste of snow...
...and handles it just like a Jeep should!

As it turns out, the day after a left, the mercury plummeted into single digits...alas.

After another incredible, but warm snow weekend in Yosemite, I decided that perhaps I should try an entirely different state. I also needed to get in at least one run of at least 30 miles before my 100 so I was overjoyed to discover an event that looked to accomplish both goals while providing a brand new challenge. The folks who put on the Squaw Peak 50 Mile Trail Run and Kat'cina Mosa 100k in Utah have also been hosting a Snowshoe race for the past 4 years. Sponosored by Kahtoola, the race includes a 5K, 10K, 25K, marathon and a 50K. It sounded like just what I needed. My limited experience on snowshoes told me that this would definitely be a bit more of a workout than your normal 50K run.

Apparently, the full name for the event is the Kahtoola Wasatch Winter Bigfoot Snowshoe Festival though the RD just referred to it as the Bigfoot Snowshoe race and many of the fee handouts followed that theme. The race consisted of multiple loops comprised of a 10K loop around what, in summer, would be a golf course and a 5K loop that utilizes some of the final trails followed by the Wasatch Front 100. The area where the race is held was quite beautiful, especially in the snow, but a dead camera battery meant that it would be sans-photos for me.

Despite significant snowfall the week prior, upon my arrival the sun was shining and the weather report for Saturday morning looked all too familiar. The start would be nice and cold in the 20s, but the afternoon was set to warm up to around 40. Once again, I would not be testing my gear or my ability to handle cold temps. At least I'd be getting in some good miles and a significant ultra-marathon level effort.

The 50K would be made up of laps run in the following order: 10K, 5K, 10K, 10K, 5K, 10K. The longer golf-course loop was a wide XC-ski path with about 7-800ft of climbing. Between the extra effort of the shoes and a starting elevation of close to 6000ft, I had to force myself to slow in the early miles as I could feel the extra effort. Eventually, I relaxed and passed a few people before settling into a position that I would hold for most of the race. The 10K loop was not difficult, but even on the first lap it was clear that the "big climb" was going to be a slushy mess as the course warmed up. I finished just under 1:08 for the lap. I knew this was going to be anything but a negative-split race.

The 5K loop was on a single-track path through the woods with around 1000ft of climbing. While certainly more difficult going, it was also much more beautiful and enjoyable. However, when they say "single-track snowshoe trail" it is to be taken literally. The path was at least 6" deep and barely wide enough for both my shoes side-by-side. When the lead racers came down the hill as I was heading up, I had to basically dive into the deep snow on the side of the trail to make way. As a side note, those guys were flying!

During the second 10K loop, I could tell things were going to continue to be more difficult both physically and mentally as the day continued. It took me over 10 minutes longer to complete and as I came into the start area, the lead 50K runner was right with me. Half way through the race and I was already lapped! The guy mentioned that he wasn't really a runner, but did snowshoe all winter. This would be his first time going further than a marathon. However, I heard someone say that he had beaten the 25K course record on his split. As I watched him head out for his final 15K, I was amazed. He may not have been a runner, but he moved faster on snowshoes than I could without them.

I motivated myself on my next lap with the promise of a change of socks at the 35K mark. I hadn't worn my overboots and a couple of off-trail excursions on the downhill of the 5K loop had left my feet quite wet. Another 6 minutes added to this loop split as exhaustion and sticky snow began to take their toll. With warmer feet, I headed into the 5K loop and focused on just enjoying the final mountain trip before one last slog around the golf course. I passed a number of marathoners during this loop as they had only has a single 12K loop between their 2 5Ks.

With a final lap to go I was at 5:41 and change. I would have had to run better than my second 10K lap to break 7 hours so I decided not to push. Besides, I knew the big climb was going to by going uphill in sand. Still, I pushed a bit to keep it at a solid effort finishing at 7 hours and 11 minutes for 4th place in the 50K race. It significantly harder than a 50K trail run. Despite the time, I felt more like I would after a solid 50-miler. Happy to be finished I took off my cold wet clothes to go sit by the fire inside.

I learned that the winner had crushed the course record finishing the 50K in 5:09:53. I had been prepared to be an hour behind the leader, but 2 hours! I then learned that the guy was actually 50 years old to boot. An inspiring performance and, as he sat down to chat, a very low-key, humble guy. Had I not noticed the crest on his jacket I would never have known he was a member of the US National Snowshoe Team. OK, truth is, I didn't even know such a thing existed until I saw it, but it was clear to me what sort of effort it took to make the team.

Despite the less than perfect conditions for Susitna prep, snowshoeing has been a great way to stay fit and motivated during the winter months. I'm not sure if I would return to this particular race again, but certainly plan to keep the sport on as part of my winter regimen even after my race up north.