Susitna 100 Race Recap/Story
Susitna 100-Race Across Frozen Alaska
Race recap-probably TMI and a little nasty
February 17-18, 2018
“What the hell did I get myself into?” I asked myself as I stepped out of my warm rented truck into the freshly plowed parking lot on Big Lake, Alaska. The temperature was -9°F. With each breath, steam exhaled from my mouth. Every step I took elicited a crunch-crunch sound on the snow. The parking area was about a quarter-mile from the race check-in/start area. I had to bundle up to go check-in. I then returned to the truck to connect my sled to my waist harness and to make my last minute preparations.
Here I was for the Susitna 100 Endurance Run, about an hour away from Anchorage. We runners could either carry our necessary gear in a backpack or haul it behind us. Everyone chose the latter. We were required to have at the minimum a sleeping bag and pad, a bivouac sac, fire starter kit, 3000 calories of food, an insulated water container and lighting.
I had packed my sled the night before and was ready to go. The previous night I decided to take the skis off the sled to make it is light as possible. In true Murphy’s Law fashion, I was able to get the first seven bolts off easily but sure enough, I couldn’t get the last bolt off because the threads were stripped. So I ended up having to put the skis back on. I noticed that almost all the other runners did not have skis on their sled. “Oh well” I told myself. Nothing I could do about it now.
With the worst possible timing, just two steps after leaving the truck to head to the start line, I noticed that “nature was calling.” It was an emergency call and it was on line”number 2.” I couldn’t believe it! Here I was far away from a porta-potty in 9° below zero temperatures with a horrible “situation.” No privacy. Worse yet, my toilet paper was stashed deep away in a bag in my sled. I didn’t think I would need it until late in the race, if at all. In another case of Murphy’s Law, I needed to take care of business and the race hadn’t even started yet. After completing my gift back to nature, I needed to clean my hands but had nothing with which to do so. My already cold hands became even colder as I washed them off in the snow. Things were not getting off to a good start. I just wanted the race to begin so badly.
Most of the racers, which comprised of runners, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers, huddled in the warmth of the Happy Trails Kennels Lodge, until the last possible moment. This was a working kennel owned by three time Iditarod Dog Sled Race winner Martin Buser.
Finally, right on schedule, we were off at 9 AM. I felt extremely well physically and mentally prepared. Just as I had I settled into a seemingly effortless pace, I realized that in my prerace excitement, I had forgotten to put on my Salomon race vest. I wanted to wear it because it had so many easily accessible pockets so I could grab necessary items during the race. So… I had to stop at the truck yet again just one minute into the race. Total rookie mistake!
During my stop at the truck, I had been passed by all the other runners. I now had to work my way around them to get back to my previous place. The trail narrowed making it difficult to do so. I really enjoyed the first few miles because the sun was just coming up over the horizon and the views were spectacular. The snowcapped mountains off in the distance seemed to have been painted in place. I felt like I was running through an Ansel Adams photograph.
Around mile five, yet another bad thing happened: I dropped my glove after stopping to pee. It wasn’t until about a mile later that I realized I had done so. I have a rule of never going backwards in my ultramarathons. I had several backup pairs of gloves and mittens but this was my go-to glove that I would wear for most of the race. I decided to go on without it hoping that someone would pick it up and it would work its way back up to me. The next runner who passed me, asked if I had dropped a glove. I said I did and asked her if she had it. She said she didn’t pick it up because she didn’t know whose it was. Her response made me furious. It obviously belonged to someone in front of her. Why in the hell would she not pick it up?! How stupid could she be! I cursed at her under my breath for a few miles then told myself to stop being negative and just deal with it.
A few miles later, as I was being passed by more runners, a girl named Sarah told me she had my glove. I was ecstatic. I thanked her repeatedly.
By this point, I became increasingly frustrated as I was passed by about eight runners. I noticed that I was going slower despite what seemed to be the same amount of effort. I knew it had to be my sled which must’ve been the heaviest one out on the course. The temperature had risen making the snow less slick. As a rookie to cold-weather races, I was certainly out of my element. I had packed way too much food and drink, clothes and equipment. I wanted to be prepared for almost any situation but most of what I took was simply unnecessary. One example was a heated bladder pack for my electrolyte fluid. After drinking three liters (Tailwind), I stopped using it because it was so cumbersome to fill. Nasty warning: I found a way to hydrate by using my bottom lip to pull “beardsicles” off the top of my beard. For some extra protein, I did the same with the “Snotsicles!” I was proud of myself for “recycling” my resources so efficiently.
Reaching the first checkpoint at mile 22 raised my spirits. I had become frustrated being passed by so many other people. I couldn’t imagine anyone else out there having trained as hard as I had. Why were so many people ahead of me? Anyway, I put down about 1000 cal at the aid station/checkpoint. I had some Mountain Dew and Motrin, energized and in a more positive state of mind.
I made great time over the next 12 miles which took me to mile 34. In some points I struggled climbing really steep sections. In some of these I actually had to crawl on my hands and knees while tugging the sled behind me up the incline. Otherwise, I would slide backwards down the hill.
By now, all my bars had frozen solid. Eating them was truly like trying to take a bite off a brick. I figured out a technique: I would put half the bar in my mouth soaking it/thawing it for about a minute then rock it up and down for 30 seconds between my molars, allowing me to break the bar in half.
I noticed that it had become really, really cold again. Around here my cell phone stopped working because of the conditions. I tried to keep it warm but to no avail. So from here on, I had no music to pump me up and no camera with which to record my experience. With no tunes to energize me, I had to rely on true mental toughness to plow on.
This Flat Horn Lake aid station had to be my favorite. The volunteers catered to our every need. I devoured three plates of the best basil pesto pasta I had ever had in my life. While relaxing in a chair next to a wonderful wood stove, I scarf’ed down several brownies and cookies, handfuls of M&Ms, mixed nuts and some Coke. It felt so damn good there making me want to stay for a few hours. However, I was in the middle of a race and had told myself to spend as little time stopping as possible.
Once again, the aid station served as a great ”pick-me-up.” I charged out of there, connected my sled to my waist harness and began the next 14 mile section. Most of this was on the frozen Little Susitna River. We were told to expect this section to be the coldest portion. At Badwater, one can feel the blazing heat of the pavement rise up through the shoes into the legs. Here, conversely, I could feel the frigid cold do the same. What a contrast I thought.
I later heard that the temperature had dropped to somewhere between 15 and 21 below as we entered the Five Star Tent checkpoint/mile 48. I was expecting to warm up but when I noticed the volunteers rocking back and forth trying to stay warm, I knew there’d be a problem. Their woodstove was not kicking out any heat at all. I politely suggested that they put a couple more pieces of wood in it. Ironically, the soup given to me that had been cooked on a propane stove, scalded my tongue because it was way too hot.
In this tent that had been erected on the ice surface of the river, I noted that several other runners were taking their jolly old time. I could tell they had no desire to head out for what would be an absolutely brutal and absolutely frigid 15 mile slog through the pitch black Alaskan wilderness to the next checkpoint. My confidence took a hit when I heard a very experienced Alaskan runner start crying. A few miles back, she had stepped in some overflow which is water above the ice. She considered dropping out for fear of frostbite. She was able to warm up her feet, change her socks and salvage her race. This particular stud told me at the post race party that she sometimes cries at certain points in tough races, just to release negative energy.
Two miles later, I hit the defining point of the race for me. I was frozen to the core. Of greater concern was that my fifth and fourth fingers on my right hand became agonizingly painful. All the other fingers in both of my hands were really, really freaking cold also. I knew I had to do something or I would develop frostbite, perhaps later leading to the loss of some fingers. I simply could not let that happen. As a doctor, my hands are essential to my job. More importantly, my wife would kill me!!
I shook my hands continuously while occasionally sticking them in my armpits hoping to warm them up. Nope. It didn’t make any difference. I finally realized that I had to use some hand warmers that were in my main bag in the sled behind me. I had great difficulty opening the bag and dealing with the stupid zipper that would not open despite my great effort. I had no dexterity because of my near frozen hands. And I couldn’t grab the teeny little zipper tag thing. I had no choice but to remove all three pairs of my gloves/mittens in order to deal with the frickin’ zipper! In doing so, my hands got even coldER. The next challenge was opening the package containing the hand warmers. After three minutes of this challenge, I then had to zip the bag back up then fumble around inserting the hand warmers in between the first two layers of my gloves. I couldn’t believe how frustrating these normally small tasks were. It was during this ordeal, that I realized this was a seriously tough race.
I was born and raised in Ohio so I had experienced cold-weather running before…but nothing like this. I told myself that in order to warm up, I simply had to dig deep and generate more body heat by running faster despite the difficulty of the situation. And so I did. Within two hours, I was out of the danger zone and cruising along. My hands and the rest of my body had warmed up. I can’t put into words my sense of relief.
Leaving the last checkpoint, we were told to look for a flashing red light as a marker for the next aid station. I expected some small little flashing LED light on the riverbank, which would mark the start of a trail leading up into the woods and then the aid station. After hours of steady progress, I followed the snowmobile tracks up a half mile tough climb. At the top, I approached a large parking lot containing empty snowmobile trailers connected to pickup trucks. However, not a soul could be found. I hadn’t seen a trail marker for a half-mile. I thought I must’ve gone the wrong way. I was furious in that now I had to go back down the hill, wasting time and energy. At the bottom of the hill, I saw the trail marker which means I had gone the right way after all. Now I had to suffer through that ridiculous climb a second time! Reaching the parking area, I pushed on finally seeing a flashing red light on the top of a radio antenna high in the sky. A little further, I saw the Eagle Quest Lodge, mile 63 aid station. What an amazing joy. This Lodge was a bona fide restaurant serving a full menu of hot foods. Many athletes hung out here for a while and even chose to sleep for a few hours. I made my stay here very efficient. I ate spaghetti , brownies, cookies and drank an Ensure and Red Bull (after thawing them out in some boiling water!) I changed out my socks and exchanged my waterproof trail running shoes for my insulated boots. These kept my feet nice and toasty but they were a little tight, causing some nasty blisters.
I got yelled at by the Lodge owner because I had moved my sled inside to take care of all these tasks in the warmth. He said I was blocking a door (which I was) and that the snow from my sled was melting and leaving puddles of water. (it wasn’t) He got so pissed off that he actually grabbed my sled and put it outside. His tone changed a bit when I handed him a $20 bill to pay for my food and that of another runner’s.
Feeling completely recharged and super pumped, I told myself I had 37 miles left: 17 miles to the next checkpoint then 10 miles and another 10 miles and I would be done! I challenged myself to absolutely power through this next section. Then for the last 20 miles, I’d be on easy street.
Five miles into this section, I met Greg, an experienced runner from Calgary, Canada. While we were enjoying some chitchat, his headlamp batteries died. I helped him change them out. I enjoy talking with him. However I pulled away and would not see him again. Late in this segment, I noticed twilight had begun. This was a huge pick-me-up. It’s always easier running during the day. And, I knew that it should be warming up again. I ran/power walked pretty consistently. At the mile 80/Cow Lake aid station, I talked briefly with Kim, the race director. I really enjoyed every opportunity I had to speak with him. He was always so friendly, upbeat and helpful. After the usual intake of food and liquid, I was told by another volunteer that I was in seventh place. My earlier goal of a top three overall finish was not realistic. But, I was very satisfied with being in seventh place, competing against all these experienced winter ultra athletes for whom I had great respect.
The next section was supposed to be ten miles. After the race, everybody was complaining about how this section was probably more like 12 to 14 miles. It just seemed to go on and on and on. An extra two to four miles may not seem like much. But under these conditions and this late in the race, every mile seems like ten. But just as in life, if one persists and is patient, the goal will be accomplished.
Around mile 82, I actually felt a little warm. I took a layer off my top and bottom. This ended up being a mistake because just two miles later I was cold again. So at mile 84, I actually sat down on the trail for the very first time to put some clothes back on. The only other times that I stopped were at the aid stations.
At mile 89, I could see off in the distance the mile 90 Hunter Loop Trail tent checkpoint and the volunteers. Their energy was super uplifting. They rang a cowbell while I approached. Here, Martin Buser, the race host and three-time Iditarod champion congratulated and entertained the runners. I asked him to sign my race bib and take a photo with me at the finish line. He said he would love to. My stay here lasted just a few minutes as I knew I only had to power on ten more miles. I could smell the finish. I estimate I ran 12 minute pace for the next three miles. I was proud of my effort, considering that I was pulling a sled weighing about 50 pounds and had been doing so for 90+ miles. The snow fell heavily at this point, enriching my Arctic experience. With each step closer, I thought of how satisfying crossing the finish line would be. I thought of the many miles of arduous workouts I had completed in preparation for the Susitna 100. I thought of all my runs wearing my 40 pound weighted vest. I thought of all the time I ran 11 miles each way to work and back. I thought of all the times I dragged my weighted sled through the soft sand down at the beach. My hard work had paid off.
At just before 5 o’clock, I could see the lights of the Happy Trails Kennel off in the distance. My pace quickened until finally I went under the finish banner. I had made it. I ended up seventh overall and third male. Four women beat me. Mad respect to them!!
Completing any ultra brings a tremendous sense of fulfillment, which is almost indescribable to anyone not experiencing it firsthand. This one brought greater pleasure for me because of the unique logistical demands and because the Arctic conditions took me so far out of my comfort zone.
Epilogue: Lessons learned
If I ever did another winter ultra, I would do the following:
1. I would make my sled the absolute lightest possible. I would not use skis because I think the extra weight does not offset the benefit of less surface area/friction over the snow.
2. I would actually wear a jog bra like many of the other male racers do, allowing them to stash food and other essential items on their chest close to their body keeping things warm and functional.
3. I would also stash food, bars and gels in my mittens allowing them to stay thawed out and more easily eaten.
4. I would put long strings on the ends of all zippers, making it easier to grab with gloves or mittens on.
5. I would make sure to wear pants/tights with zippers so I don’t have to fool around with a stupid drawstring. It’s impossible to untie and tie a knot with gloves or mittens on.
6. I would make sure the hand warmers are much more easily accessible because if ever needed, it’s an emergency situation.
7. I would make damn sure not to drop a glove!
8. I would make damn sure to take care of all of ”natures calls” way before the start of the race!