Friday, March 9, 2018

Susitna 100 - 2018

Susitna 100 February 17 – 19, 2018
Spoiler Alert - I finsihed!
Where to go for a winter ultra this year? Alaska offered two choices: White Mountains 100 near Fairbanks and Susitna 100 near Wasilla. We were not lucky in the White Mountains lottery, so Bonnie Busch and I registered for Susitna and were accepted. One of the difficulties for me racing in Alaska is getting all the gear to the event. My mega-bag weighed 36 pounds at the airport. The -30F sleeping bag is a big space user, and there was the other gear: bivy sack, insulated ground pad, waders, trekking poles, harness, shoes and all the cold weather clothes I could take that would fit.

Most racers in this event are from Alaska. I casually asked Erin Kittredge, the race director if there were some sleds available for me and Bonnie to use. Sure enough, two guys from Colorado left their entire rigs last year. We could use them. Surprises to come. We looked at the sleds at gear check on Thursday evening. They were identical kids toboggans with rigid poles attached to the sled and harness. Hmmm. Upon further inspection each sled has skis attached. Hmmm. 

Loaner sled with skis and rope

People occasionally have skis on their sleds to improve drag on the snow. It was early enough in the evening that we could have made a quick trip to REI to purchase Paris Expedition sleds – the standard workhorse for gear hauling. We decided not to go that route. We detached the poles from the sleds. That involved unwinding miles of duct tape. We got them to the Westmark hotel and continued modifications. We enlisted help from Warren, the evening maintenance man at the hotel. “Bring your cart.” There were tools used for cutting the thick plastic rope and a saw for cutting through several pieces of PVC pipe.

Warren - Darrel Busch - sled modifications in the hotel room
“My job is to help guests.” Other winter races use the Westmark as their host hotel and this wasn't Warren's first rodeo. He asked us what we do “out there.” He was puzzled that racers look quite normal before the race, but when they come back days later they are exhausted, their skin is very weathered and sometimes sunburned, some are inured or limping and no one is energetic. We talked a little about the winter events going on in the area, compensated Warren for his help and finished preparations.

Happy Trails Kennel owned by Martin Buser 35+ time Iditarod musher

Race start time was 9AM Saturday at Martin Buser's Happy Trails kennel, a 30 minute drive from Wasilla, AK. Martin is a famous Iditarod musher who has a Bed & Breakfast at his property for guests to experience all things sled dogs. It's a beautiful public facility for our race start. There is plenty of parking, a warm place to check in, flush toilets and space for family and spectators. Martin was mingling with racers. He is celebrity who signed the back of each racer bib. There was no fanfare at 9AM. 

The start

The first several miles are on the property dog trails. The beautiful blue sky was with us all day and we saw Mount Susitna often. It's typical that with 123 racers at the start, it doesn't take long for the group to string out. The bikes are long gone while other runners and skiers are around us. A funny exchanged early on the trail when a guy passed me and recognized his sled from last year, the one I was using. Turns out he was one of the guys from Colorado last year who donated the sleds Bonnie and I were using. His friend was with him and we all had a good laugh. Temperature was around 0 degrees making the snow firm and fast. I never know how much my sled weighs. I'd estimate 30 pounds at the start.

my sled with the red bags and cooler
We plugged along walking and running. The terrain was mostly flat with a few little hills. There are no mile markers and we are in unfamiliar surroundings. Our race route is marked with hundreds of pieces of SU 100 lath in the snow.

Iowans in Alaska.  95 miles to go
The first check point was a tent at mile 22. There were a few snacks and cold water. This check point is mostly to keep people on pace. Neither Bonnie nor I have ever missed a cutoff, especially early in the race. Holy Sh*t, we got there with 10 minutes to spare! No more time pressure as the other cutoffs are more generous.

Mt Susitna on the horizon
Twelve miles later we were at Flathorn Lake and our cabin checkpoint at mile 34. It was dark. Everyone leaves their sleds on the ice and walks up a steep hill to the cabin. The property is privately owned by a race supporter. Flathorn Lake is lined with private homes and cabins. There are no roads. It's fly-in, snow machine in, or dog sled. Not a good place to drop out because you have to pay to get flown out. As we open the cabin door we are greeted with enthusiasm by volunteers, two dogs and other racers. There is spaghetti and all kinds of snacks and beverages. PESTO sauce? Who would guess, but I chose that and was not disappointed. The volunteers, dogs and all supplies were flown in days before and preparations were in full swing since then. The younger guy volunteer had on a memorable pink sequined disco shirt. It was a great stop.

Check point volunteer Watson the Corgi
As we headed out we passed the an airplane parked on the ice. Don't get off the trail and on to the landing strip! After several miles the trail took us to the Susitna River that is well covered with snow. There are lots of snow machine trails going every direction, so we follow the lath that has pieces of reflective material attached to it. At one point we stopped to look at the stars. There is no light pollution with our headlamps off. The night sky is brilliant. Next up – 5 Star Tent Camp. It comes into view at mile 48 without much preview. All the sudden there it is, what looks like a lighted space ship on the snow covered river. It's a tent alright. Inside there is a stove cranking out heat, a pile of wood, several camp chairs, some overturned buckets, a folding table with snacks in bowls, and a camp stove – the source of our hot food. Straw is all over the floor. There are also three volunteer men, all 60-something years old. It's fascinating that they have hauled all of this out to the ice on snow machines. They put the tents up, got the stove going and waited for us. There's a second sleeping tent with no heat. The sleeping tents aren't supposed to be comfortable, so people get up and going again. Another key structure is the outhouse. It's another smaller tent with a bucket and toilet seat made of Styrofoam that is not cold on the back of my legs as I sit on it. Thoughtfulness in the wilderness.

The hot food choices are beef stew and chicken noodle. It's important to me to respect the event and people who put it on. I fueled my self with two cups of beef stew and some snacks. There were a few other racers inside. Five star aid station, Thank you!

Seventeen miles to Eagle Quest Lodge. This resort is accessible by car and has all modern conveniences including cabins that are rented for us to sleep and rest. The restaurant is open 24 hours for us to get food of all sorts. The sun rose as we made our way here – it seemed to take forever. The trail took us off the river and on to roads with houses and cars. The lodge became obvious when we saw lots of bikes and sleds outside. Many people slept here but we weren't two of them. One advantage of riding a bike is the faster pace. Some cyclists slept all night here. Wow, I was envious. I ate something from the menu, got a cup of chai tea and bought snacks for the miles ahead. We talked with other racers. Some racers quit and were waiting for rides. I changed my socks. Bonnie was energetic, I was tired.

Bonnie and Lisa on the trail
This second day on the trail was cloudy. In another 17 miles we would be at Cow Lake, another inaccessible check point in a heated tent. Onward. The Iron Dog Snow Machine Race commenced the same weekend and goes to Nome and Fairbanks. We were told that at one point some of our route would also be used be the Iron Dog Racers. By afternoon we were seeing lots of snow machine activity. I couldn't tell if they were racers or not, but a memorable minute occurred when someone popped a “wheelie” if you will, on his machine. It lasted several seconds. Throughout the race we saw several recreational snow machine users on nearby trails. Some were hauling kids, dogs, fishing gear and one had a large rigid rifle case mounted to the side. Killing large animals is a sort of religion in Alaska. We passed someone who was bivied. We later learned he got his feet soaked to the knees and was waiting for rescue. 

Frozen over flow

Swampy terrain
We plugged along. The trail was through frozen swamp land a lot, but we had some beautiful wooded hills to keep things interesting. I ate everything Bonnie offered me. I don't like white chocolate pretzels or peanut butter somethings, but I ate them. Never had electrolyte tablets, but it couldn't hurt. The cloud cover and increasing humidity made the ground blend into the sky. The view was very flat, difficult to distinguish details. Far ahead we see a guy coming out of a tent and setting out across the lake. It's snowing lightly. We must be at the Cow Lake Check point at mile 80. Same setup with a stove, chairs, snacks, hot and cold beverages and helpful volunteers SuperAl and Cody. SuperAl is from Dennison Iowa. Bonnie is much more energetic than me. She agrees to go on ahead as my pace will be slowing. I'm tired, overtired as my mother would say and concerned that I may not finish. Rather than unroll my sleeping bag, I lay down on the straw near the stove. It's like being in a nativity scene. After ten minutes, I get myself together and peek out the tent flap. It's snowing. One of the snow machine volunteers uses the term “snow storm.” It does not bolster my confidence. Cody attaches my sled to the harness and I walk toward the lath across the lake. Ten miles to Hunter Loop Tent. I see no one for hours, but I know people are behind me. Yes, it's snowing, but it is day time so I can find my way using the lath. At one point I am on a narrow trail having just made it over the crest of the hill when a musher and dog team are coming my way from the other direction. I got to the side with my sled the best I could. Ten dogs are unhappy to stop while Sim Smith, the local musher and I exchange pleasantries. Then, a snow machine is in the mix, too, so we break it up and go on our ways. Dogs in motion don't like to stop. I had been reluctant to ride the sled down any hills fearing a crash would damage one of the skis. But now the end was much closer, I sat on my rear bag and rode the sled on several of the biggest hills. It was fun and getting off my feet for a minute or two felt great.
lath trail markers
Daylight waned and I put on more clothes and my headlamp. I used hand warmers in my mitts, but my feet stayed warm on their own. The snow tapered off and eventually stopped. I continued forward motion. At one point I couldn't see any lath ahead. Each stick has a reflective patch in addition to the SU 100 identification. Any foot, sled or tire prints on the trail were erased by a snow machine. Hmmm. Race organizers get teased by the locals because of the number of trail markers they use. “Are the racers so stupid that you need a marker every ¼ mile?” I turned around, walked back and found the previous lath. Then retraced my steps and continued. No one likes to be lost.

I was welcomed to the Hunter Loop Tent by race organizer Erin Kittredge. What a nice surprise. As with the Cow Lake stop, I laid on the straw floor for a few minutes to rest. A few guys came in while I was there, and left. For the most part, I'm happier on the trail by myself at this stage. Only ten more miles, optimistically three hours. After 5 hours, I theorize there were more than ten miles to cover, but there are no complaints. At some point we were back on the Martin Buser dog trails that went in every direction. Artificial lights could be seen beyond trees in the distance, but I could never quite get to them. I walked and walked. I kept seeing lath but thought I must be lost. I walked. I was tired. Eventually I saw the building where we started. It was a long way away, but at least it was a beacon. Bonnie finished hours earlier, and enthusiastically welcomed me. Alaska never disappoints.

Finish!  44 hours 14 minutes.
Epilogue: At the post race party that evening, we talked to the guys from Colorado, the original owners of our sleds. Turns out they didn't finish again this year, in spite of having different rigs. We suggested they take the sleds back since now the sleds had finished. They thought that was funny.

For more of my photos:

And Bonnie's photos:

Hundreds of great photos by Andy Romang:

Friday, February 10, 2017

Arrowhead 2017 Success

January 30 to February 1, 2017

The most important ultra event this year is traveling to Hawaii with my mother to celebrate her 80th birthday.  It was wise to stay closer to home for a winter ultra.  “I’ll go to Arrowhead” seemed like a fine choice for many reasons.

After success in Alaska last year, I stayed with the ‘old school’ method of pulling the pulk behind me with ropes and no support people at Check points.  It’s not been a snowy winter for us in Eastern Iowa, so I did some long runs and even made a quick trip with Laurie Tulchin and Jim Glasgow to MelGeorge’s in early January to get some time in on the trails.

International Falls had plenty of snow and cold weather waiting for us.  The forecasted temperature was very civilized.  Not too hot or too cold.  It’s very enjoyable to see friends again at gear check and the pre-race meeting.  This being the thirteenth year of the race, the locals seem to be warming up to us.  With eleven starters and five finishers in 2005, predictions of an annual event were unheard of.

Traveling light

I packed light since I was traveling with other racers from Iowa for the drive up and back.  Most everything I took was going in the pulk, which was not light, ~40 pounds.  As usual, my goal is to run my own race and finish.  The mayor started the first wave of racers, eighty five cyclists on fatbikes, with fireworks at exactly 7 AM!  Very nice.  Two minutes later eleven skiers took off, then sixty one of us on foot.  I’m amazed how fast the long line of red blinking lights stretches out until people find themselves alone.  I like to run as much as I can in the beginning.  At mile 9 there is a sharp left turn off of the Blue Ox and we are on the Arrowhead Trail until Fortune Bay.

I hooked up with people here and there to keep my pace up.  It doesn’t seem all that hard to arrive at Gateway Store, Check point 1 at mile 36 before dark.  But, I’ve never done it.  This year I checked in at 5:16 PM.  That was hard.  Being alone, I had to get my water and food and gear together myself for the next 36 miles to MelGeorges.  There was no downtime as I was out in less than an hour.  Ellen Hart takes good care of me at Gateway with food and drinks ready when I arrive.  I indulged in a phone call to Rick to find the SPOT tracker was not working.  “Operator Error” at the race start.  I hate to spend time fooling around with non-essential things, especially when they require dexterity.  I had to take my mittens off and push some small buttons until the green blinking lights were on.

SNOW photos by Jason Johnson

 Within an hour Naomi Plasterer caught up to me. We walked and ran together for a few hours.  It seemed silly to her that we were both traveling alone at night.  By Sheep Ranch Road I was ahead of her and we didn’t see each other again.  Rachel Utecht was on foot unsupported.  The extra weight she was pulling was a great equalizer.  We spent lots of time together the next 24 hours.  Rachel was very efficient with her pulk.  I started riding it down all the hills after watching her.  It felt good to be off my feet for a few seconds, and it was fun picking up speed on the big hills.  I didn’t crash, even when the snow at night was heavy enough to cause a whiteout.  There was snow, at least 3 inches.  The ‘fast’ trail was getting slower.

SNOW photos by Jason Johnson
We were together crossing Elephant Lake.  The wind is always cold on the lake.  We checked in at the Cedar Cabin at 9 AM., my earliest arrival.  Cyclist friends Steve McGuire and JB Barnhouse shared their lodge room with me.  They were long gone.
I spent 2 hours eating, preparing food and drink for the second half of the race and taking care of my feet.  The overnight snow soaked my shoes and socks.  My shoes didn’t dry out in that time, but my feet did and I put clean socks on.  I rested on the bed for 20 minutes.  I bought a room temperature COKE and 3 packs of hand warmers from Carla.
I was almost out the door of the lodge when the City Cab driver from International Falls asked if I was ready to load up.  He was there to drive people who were quitting back to their vehicles at the start.  “I’m continuing.”  I also saw Darrell Busch who told me Bonnie, Larry and Mike had already gone.

Shelter 6 is just 3 miles from MelGeorge’s.  Rachel was there with unsupported skier Helen Scotch.  They were melting snow and generally preparing for another night on the trail.  This forty mile section to Check point 3 is the longest and hilliest.  I met skier Jim Wilson. He finished on foot and bike in previous years and was hoping to join the small group of elite racers who have finished in each method of travel.  Jim was not a proficient skier, but he was steady and determined.  He was good company. As we passed Shelter 7 I made a quick stop and noticed Larry Sandhaas bivied.  Bonnie and Mike were ahead.

SNOW photos by Jason Johnson

 Rachel caught up to me and we plugged along into night number 2.  The wind picked up, it was snowing off and on and the temperature was dropping.  At one point I saw some skis on the trail.  I picked them up hoping to find the owner.  They were heavy.  I didn’t want to carry them for long. In a minute or two I could see a headlamp coming toward us.  It was Chris Scotch looking for his skis.  At one point I grew increasingly tired.  It was hours to Shelter 8.  I preloaded my sleeping bag into the bivy sack and had it ready in the bottom of the pulk under my bags.  I put the bags near the pulk and got in the sleeping bag.  I had a plastic grocery bag with thick paper towels in the bottom for each shoe.  To conserve warmth and keep shoes from freezing, you get in the sleeping bag with all your clothes on, including shoes.  It felt good to close my eyes and rest for a few minutes.  I could hear the wind blowing.  I heard Rachel go by and I got up.  The second night on the trail is very long and tiresome.  Eating, drinking, walking and keeping warm are the objectives.  Eventually we made it to Shelter 8.  Several people were stopped here, even a few on bikes.  The shelter is set back from the trail with a narrow path to access it.  The curious feature of this shelter is that the ‘floor’ is mostly covered with rocks imbedded in the frozen ground.  The rocks are big and irregular on the surface so you cannot sleep on them.  It would be horribly uncomfortable.  People were sleeping on more suitable ground, others were resting.  Rachel sat down by the wall and took a nap.  I rearranged some gear on the bench and laid down for 10 minutes.  I started getting chilled, so I headed out.  The cue card lists the mileage between Shelter 8 and Check point 3 as 10 miles, with the disclaimer All Mileages Are Approximate.  Each year these 10 miles get longer.  They go on and on and on.  There are little hills and endless sameness.  There is no hint of where the Surly Check Point is.  Rachel was moving well after her nap.  She encouraged me.  People were bivied less than a mile from the Check Point because you think it will never come.  I was low on energy and feeling discouraged.  My hands were getting cold in spite of using the warmer packets in my big mittens.  If I just knew how far it was.  I had to either get there or get in the sleeping bag.  On the verge of a meltdown, I called Rick.  With the tracker, he could see that I was just a half mile from the Check Point.  I could do that.  Volunteers from the Surly bike company man the Check Point.  There is no luxury.  There is a teepee with woodburning stove in the middle for “warmth.”  There is also an outdoor campfire.  My hands needed attention.  The volunteers helped me with the zipper to get inside the teepee.  I sat down in a lawn chair.  To my surprise, Larry and Mike were also in there.  They were waiting for a ride to Fortune Bay.  Their race was over.  Bonnie arrived 3 hours before me and barely paused.  After 3 unsuccessful years, she was on her way to finishing.  I regrouped and was on my way as the sun rose on day 3.

SNOW photos by Jason Johnson

I decided to trade my running shoes for the warmth and dryness of my boots.  The forecast was spot on.  The day would get progressively colder with a strong northwest wind.  I didn’t want wet feet.  I changed into my last pair of clean socks and the comfort of my mukluks.  I passed Rachel just outside of the Surly check point.  She was sleeping.  I got myself up and down the last big hill and walked into the frozen forest and marsh.  I ran off and on, but eventually I was overcome with fatigue.  If I slept now I might not finish within the sixty hour time limit.  I talked with Chris Scotch for a while.  We would pick up trash here and there.  He found some home made looking cube-things.  He ate one and said it tasted like marzipan.  Later, I picked up a package of open TUC crackers.  They tasted like absolutely nothing. 

I had to keep moving.  At one point I was wearing all the clothes I brought:  wool cycling jersey, arm warmers, felted wool tunic, down puff coat, windbreaker, pulk harness, Gortex hat with fleece hat on top, liner gloves with hand warmers inside of big mitts, Craft thermal tights with wind pant over top.  I kept moving.  The trees start to look like people or sheds or anything familiar, only to find out they are just trees.  There are long expanses of straight trail that seem to go on forever.  Helen Scotch skied passed me as she caught up to Chris.  They both finished as unsupported skiers.  Helen is the second women to ever finish on skis.

After endless twists and turns, I finally crossed the road and on to the Fortune Bay property.  The finish line seems like a mirage.  The final miles are mostly uphill.  I’m cold.  There is no lingering to celebrate when I finish.  I want to get indoors.  I produce the required gear to the nice lady volunteer and she helps me to the elevator and into the hospitality room.  I must look like I feel, exhausted.  I drank some Sprite and Mountain Dew.  Other racers, family members and volunteers are taking it all in.  Even in easy years, it’s a real accomplishment to finish the Arrowhead 135.
Three time FINISHER photo by Krueger
What did I eat?  Cheese wraps with mayonnaise and mustard, half an egg salad sandwich, vanilla sandwich crème cookies, cashews, grapes, mandarin oranges, lots of crunchy Cheetos, a few mini Twix and York mint patties, two GU packets.  My secret weapon was fruitcake.  It was a Christmas gift from my sister, Andrea.  Loaded with fat, calories, fruit and moisture, the Assumption Abbey fruitcake was a superfood.  I drank warm water in my Camelbak, warm apple juice in a small thermos, hot tea in my big thermos, chocolate milk, and two plastic bottles of Coke.

There is an Arrowhead 135 learning curve for some of us.  The weather is a wild card.  Super cold temperatures, colder than -20 degrees (F), will keep me from finishing.  It took Bonnie Busch four tries before she crossed the finish line.  Carla Goulart went from three years of not finishing, to being the top woman finisher on foot in 2016 and 2017.

I rode home with Bonnie and Darrel Busch.  It was fun to hear about Bonnie’s success this year.  “I knew I could do it.”  We stopped in Rochester, MN for lunch and gas.  Bonnie and I got out of the car in the Fazoli’s parking lot.  Our legs were stiff and sore from hours of sitting.  A woman who looked our age was leaving the restaurant and heading toward her car that was in a Handicapped parking lot.  She stared at us as we walked slowly and uncomfortably into the restaurant.  Handicapped?

BIG Backyard Ultra 2016

October 15, 2016   
Bedford County, Tennessee.

The BIG Backyard Ultra is a trail run on private property.  Runners complete one 4.16666 mile loop each hour, starting on the hour, until you either voluntarily stop or don’t make the hour cutoff.  The last person standing is the winner.  There was a tie in 2014 when two guys ran for 48 hours.
All of my plans, training and positive thinking couldn’t overcome the rocky trail that slowed my pace to the point of completing just 20 miles of what I hoped would be at least 48 miles.  Big disappointment that my best at this event wasn’t nearly what I wanted.  What was advertised as a generally ‘easy’ trail was very difficult for me.  It was the rocks.  Large, small, loose, ancient slabs, rocks on top of rocks, dry stream beds of rocks, a grassy meadow concealing rocks, small caves leading beneath the earth, short walls of rocks, rocks up and down gradual elevation changes.  I didn’t take my eyes off the trail for more than one second fearing I would trip and fall. Sure, there were soft easy sections where I could relax, run and look up at the scenery occasionally, but more rocks were coming right up.  On the long ride home, I heard an interview with Norman Lear.  He thinks the two most important words in our language are ‘over’ and ‘next’. The Big Backyard Ultra is now over and I can focus on whatever comes next.  Thanks, BIG, for including me.

Lisa and BIG

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Iditarod Trail Invitational, February, 2016.

Alaska --  The Land of Silence

If asked to describe Alaska in one word, we agreed on VAST.  The scale of everything is huge here.

How huge is it?  It's t------h-------i--------s  big.
Before we started on the trail into one small piece of the vast-ness Laurie Tulchin and I found ourselves in the Westmark Hotel in Anchorage, AK., preparing for the first 130 miles of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  There are eleven of us total in the event.  Six on foot and five on bikes.  We were the only women on foot.  We’ve never been to Alaska.  We were invited to race because of our previous success at similar winter races.  ITI as it is known, is the ultimate winter race.  I’ve always found the standard distances of 350 miles and 1000 miles well beyond my ability, but the new, introductory distance of 130 miles sounded appealing.  Why not?

 We have lots to do getting food and beverages together.  Egg salad is mixed in the ice bucket as Jim Glasgow attaches SPOT Trackers to our sleds.  We each have two sturdy duffle bags with a soft cooler in between on our sled.  

Didn't need the snow shoes.
Most of our food and drinks are in the cooler.  We’ve packed small thermos’s of hot apple juice, Lipton tea, water, chocolate milk and a 20oz bottle of Coke.  There are egg salad and Muenster cheese wraps, Ritz crackers, Cheese Nips, Salted Nut Rolls, Payday, Gummy Bears, chocolate squares, Vanilla Oreo Thins, sliced apples, grapes and peeled oranges.  We didn't take any supplements, vitamins, gels or tinctures.

My rear bag was taken up with a sleeping bag and bivy sack.  I stuffed a plastic poncho in there, too.  Rain was in the forecast.  There is no mandatory gear.  Race directors Kathi and Bill Merchant believe you should already know what you need.  The front bag had all sorts of things.

An extra headlamp and batteries, extra clothes [down coat, thermal pants, balaclava. mittens, gloves, wool tunic and arm warmers],  Stabilicers [strap-on ice traction things] Wiggies Waders [talk of open water was not encouraging], satellite phone and extra battery, charcoal hand warmers, a small first aid bag and a small bag for emergencies with zip ties, toe straps and S-Biner fasteners.  Our sleds weigh ~40 pounds each.

The race starts at Knik Lake, an hour north and east of Anchorage, at 2 PM.  Most everyone mills around in and outside the bar for 90 minutes.  Burgers and other food is consumed, local people come by to chat and look at our gear, we talk to other racers.  The lake is frozen, but there is some water on top of the ice here and there.  The ice is very slick.  With no fanfare, we all set off to the far side of  Knik Lake at 2 PM. 

Photo by Jim Glasgow
 The far trail is muddy with gravel exposed.  There is old snow and ice in places. 

Most of the bikes peel off to a nearby road.  We are required to sign in at check points.  There is no set route on how to reach the check points.  This translates into no specific trail markings, which turned into a problem around 6 PM when it started to get dark. 

By then those of us on foot were spread out.  Where to go once we reached Flat Horn Lake?  Good question.  There are trails and snow machine tracks in every direction.  We each have Garmin units with the track loaded, but I found using it more confusing than being lost.  Luckily, seven time finisher Loreen Hewitt came upon us.  Her memory is not the best, but she is able to get us on the correct trail several times until Yentna Station, the first check point at mile 60.

We like to run when we can, then stop occasionally to eat.  Loreen keeps a steady pace and does not stop often.  The route is very hilly at times.

Daryl Saari - Arrowhead friend
 Regardless of how a person attaches their sled to their harness, it is difficult to control the sled on steep downhills.  For days before the race, we read descriptions of key points along the route.  “At the confluence of the Susitna and the Yentna Rivers stay to the left.”  This was repeated out loud at least a dozen times.  When we reached this point during the first night on the trail, Loreen was ahead of us, out of sight.  It was completely dark, other than our headlamps.  There were snow machine tracks in every direction.  Most racers don’t have rear red blinking lights, making it more difficult to see them ahead.  At one point, I caught the slightest glimpse of a headlamp, the size of a pin head, very far away, to the left and up the hill.

EEK!  That’s Loreen.  We’re supposed to be up there.   

Trackleaders dot com capture 03:12am AKST Feb 29 '16
There was some fast scrambling over windrows between snow machine tracks.  We would occasionally see her headlamp and keep in that direction.  It was a huge relief to make contact with Loreen again and we did not get separated again that night.  A close call.

At one of our many stops to figure out if we were on the correct trail, we heard the sliding sound of a sled nearby, but couldn’t see it.  At least I hoped it was a sled.  Later on we found out it was Daryl Saari, another racer on foot.

Next we had some freezing rain and snow.  I was worried about getting soaked.  It stopped after an hour, but the result was the zippers on our gear bags were frozen.  It was getting colder, near +10F.  Loreen loaned Laurie an extra coat and I put on a surgery gown.  Loreen asked it if was a Tyvek dress.  “Sort of.”  It kept me dry and a little warmer.  We progressed through the night.  I lost a mitten.  At one point there were large areas of brown water on top of ice.  We were off the rivers now and on swampy ground with ice on top.  Brown water comes up from the ground through cracks and stays on top of the ice.  It was deep enough that our feet got wet.

We approached the “wall of death” a near vertical fifteen foot bank above the Yentna River.  Loreen said to unhook from the sled, and guide it as far as we could, the let it go.  No crashes or lost gear and we got ourselves down to the ice.

We kept moving.  As the sun came up the trail paralleled the Yentna River.  It looked like it had frozen waves on the surface.  I wanted to take photos, but my hands were cold.  We kept walking.  Laurie was usually next to Loreen with me behind.  The sleds sliding on the snow and ice were loud.  I usually couldn’t hear any conversation between them.  Loreen was gesturing a lot with her arm.  A wooden building with a snow covered roof came into view.  Was it Yentna Station?  No.  Then there was another building, also not Yentna Station.  Finally, we arrived at Yentna Station check point 1,at 9:15 AM, 19 hours after starting and ~60 miles into the race.

Yentna station is along the Yentna River.  In winter you can reach it by snow machine, in summer by boat.  During the ‘break up’ and ‘freeze up’ it’s either not accessible, or accessible by small plane.  The station is many things:  a family home, restaurant and lodging.  It was hand build by the owner more than 20 years ago.  He welcomes racers any time of the day or night.

We were hungry and in need of dry socks.  There was a race volunteer stationed indoors who records our IN and OUT times.  There were several children of various ages and a dog in the ‘living room’ and a huge flat screen television tuned to some talk show.  We were offered ham and cheese omlettes and hash browns. ”No ham” was met with a puzzled look. There were mystery colored juice [probably TANG] in dispensers.  There were several jars with cookies and candy in them.  We kept eating and got our feet dry.  I eventually needed the bathroom and found a toilet seat and lid which exposed a five gallon bucket.  “It’s emptied every day.”  We were educated on the price of a lift station and other plumbing expenses that were too high when the house was built decades ago.  Certificates of inspection were proudly displayed on the wall.  Life off the grid has a learning curve to it.  Loreen set out a few minutes ahead of us.  We saw her in the distance a few times, but didn’t catch up.  At some point we found our route was now on the Iron Dog Snow Machine race trail.  That meant we had trail markers, lots of them that we used to [mostly] stay on course.  The markers were thin pieces of wood lathe with reflectors and a ribbon on them.  What a relief!

Day 2 from Yentna Station was beautifully sunny with little wind.  We were in high spirits.  The next indoor check point was 30 miles away at Skwentna Roadhouse, mile 90.  We plugged along on the Yentna River.  Laurie’s shoes came with carbide cleats for traction on the ice and I wore YakTrax for the entire time.  While I don’t recommend wearing YakTrax for 52 hours, they kept me from slipping or falling on the ice.  There was some overflow water on the ice occasionally, but we easily avoided it.  As the day reached noon, we were able to have just one or two layers on and no gloves.  Twice we lied down on the ice, facing south and napped in the sun with our heads on the sled.  Laurie said it was like lying on the beach.  We were tiring from no sleep the night before.  We planned to sleep at Skwentna Roadhouse where rooms are rented and we could get a hot meal.  The afternoon passed as we walked.  We snacked on the food we packed. We got tricked by trail markers in the frozen river that led to a neighborhood of houses.  I found an open door and television on, but no one inside.  I placed satellite phone call #1 to Rick. “You’re on the wrong side of the river.”  We retraced our steps and go back on course.  The lathe to the neighborhood had different color marking that the Iron Dog lathe. (Iron Dog is a snow machine race run the week before from Anchorage to Nome to Fairbanks)

Iron Dog marker
Around 4:00 we could feel the air cooling off.  We stopped to put on more clothes and our headlamps.

The night got increasingly cold.  At one point I had on almost all the clothes I brought.  Wool cycling jersey, vest, wool tunic, arm warmers, windbreaker, bandana, thermal skirt over tights, down coat and sled harness on the outside plus liner gloves inside my big mitts, Gortex hat with balaclava over top.  We were either on ice or snow covered marsh.  Besides the maker lathe, there were no features of any kind.  No trees, signs, animals, fallen logs, or other racers for many hours.  The only light was our headlamps.  I was getting very tired.  There were a few gradual hills.  We kept moving.  We got more tired and kept moving.  Laurie reminded me that sleep deprivation is a form of torture.  After a downhill there was a sign!  One arrow pointed to Skwentna Roadhouse for racers and another arrow for spectators.  We must be getting close!  Up ahead we saw a headlamp coming toward us.  It was Daryl Saari saying not to go the way we planned, it was wrong.  Hmmm.  The thought of doing extra mileage was crushing given our fatigue.  I used the satellite phone to call our  ‘eye in the sky’ Rick, my husband, at home.  He was watching our progress on the Track Leaders website along the route with the SPOT trackers we each rented and had mounted on our sleds.  Daryl had one, too.  Sure enough, Rick was on duty, even at ~1:30 AM Iowa time.  We broke the news to Daryl that he was going the right way after all.  Rick also noticed that Loreen was a short distance behind us.  He thought she must have bivied, but she said she got lost .Rick asked if Laurie was with me.  Her SPOT stopped working hours ago.  The three of us pressed on along the frozen Yentna River.  Eventually we were to the place where Daryl turned around.  There was a big sign with reflectors pointing to the left. Hope springs eternal -- we must be ‘just about there’ turned into more miles.  People in remote areas use electricity sparingly.  There were lights turned on outdoors, but it wasn’t until you practically had one foot on the porch that you could see where to go.  There were several sleds outside the building.  We each took our bags and cooler inside.  The time was around 11:30 PM.  I said “I need to lie down” several times.  I was not interested in eating.  Delighted to find running water and a real toilet upstairs, I brushed my teeth, washed my face and was shown a room with three beds.  Shawn McTaggart  was in the lower bunk, I took the single bed and Laurie had to climb the foot breaking ladder to the upper bunk.  After turning the light out I stubbed my toe on the bed.  Shawn left during the night, I didn’t hear her.  Laurie and I got up at 5:00 AM.  We ate breakfast of eggs and bread.  Toast is not a food choice in the back country.  The friendly woman working the night shift was originally from Wisconsin.  She didn’t know how to cook eggs over easy. There was a large bottle of Advil.  We bought several for ourselves for the road ahead. Laurie put a new battery in her Tracker and it was working again.  The bill was ~$80 for the two of us.  Loreen arrived during the night.  She was eating breakfast when we left ~6:00 AM.  It was dark but we were revitalized by four hours of sleep.  The trail went along an airstrip that led to a huge open area that is swamp in warmer weather.  Miles and miles of gradual downhill on snow machine trails.  There were tops of scrubby trees visible, but not much else.  The trail was like wavy Christmas candy called moguls.  The sled was jerky and uneven on these trails.  Whether the sled had rigid poles connecting to the harness like Laurie, or ropes, like me, we felt constant pulling and pushing.  But there were no complaints.  It was another beautiful day with blue sky and the sun coming up.

Leaving Skwentna Roadhouse at sunrise
  We were heading to Shell Lake Lodge, just 20 miles from Skwentna Roadhouse.  Then another 20 miles to Winter Lake Lodge and we would cross the finish line!

After hours on the wavy swamp we came to flat ground and eventually a wooded, hilly section. 

It was a relief to stretch our legs up some hills.  There were streams of running water and the snow was beautifully white.   

There were trees, but we saw no birds or wildlife.  We stopped for a snack when Daryl Saari and Eric Johnson came upon us. 
Photo taken by Eric Johnson (1000 mile - foot division)
Daryl teamed up with Eric and they were traveling together.  Daryl on the 350 mile route to McGrath and Eric on the 1000 mile route to Nome.  It was nice to have company.  We overtook each other a few times and arrived at Shell Lake Lodge about the same time. ~1:30 PM  

Photo from Michael Schoder
 Crossing Shell Lake: Lisa, Laurie T, Eric Johnson, Daryl Saari

Photo from Michael Schoder
We were greeted heartily by the Shell Lake residents and lodge owners.  Although not an official check point, many people stop for rest and a meal.  We had delicious tomato soup, bread, more Tang and each of us took a Coke for the road.  There was a bird feeder near the window with lots of activity.  The birds were small, like sparrows.  Wildlife was practically invisible on the trail.  After the usual outhouse break, we were off for the final 20 miles.

Once out of the lodge area we had miles and miles of wavy moguls. 

It was slow going.  Earlier in the day the frozen brown trail was slushy. 

We saw frozen foot prints and fat tire prints. There were wolf prints in the snow.

It was our only indication of their presence.  Reports of bear encounters were in the Anchorage newspaper.  Warm temperatures coaxed some bears out of hibernation earlier than usual.  We didn’t pack bear spray or weapons.  As the sun and warmth of our third beautiful afternoon waned we stopped to put on more clothes.  We were stunned by the silence.  There was no sound.  No wind blowing through trees, no birds or airplanes or traffic, or dogs barking or voices.  As we stood with our sleds still, Laurie and I looked at each other and took in the silence.  It was the most memorable moment in all the 57 ½ hours on the trail.

We could see brilliant pink and orange sky through the trees. After rounding a bend we could see the entire sky lit up by the setting sun.   

Wow.  The beauty of remote Alaska was coming right to us.  Always optimistic about our pace, I thought we must be getting close to the finish.  Hours later we were again on slow, wavy trail.  We saw trail markers and even a sign to Puntilla [farther than we were going].  We kept thinking that around the next turn we would see Finger Lake and the lights of Winter Lake Lodge.  Rick signed off earlier once we knew there would be trail markers and felt good with our navigation.  We used the satellite phone to call Jim Glasgow because we could.  HOW MUCH FARTHER???  It was just two miles to Finger Lake.  You don’t really believe the distance until you can see where you are going.  The lights of Winter Lake Lodge were the size of the smallest Christmas lights, but we saw them in the distance.  It was colder crossing the lake which is also the airstrip for small planes bringing supplies almost daily.  The time was nearly 11:15 PM.  There was a lighted tent on one side of the lake.  That was the check point for racers going to McGrath or Nome.  It saved time to not go onto the resort property of you were continuing.  Meals were provided in the tent as well as drop bags of food that racers send ahead.  Racers could also sleep in the tent.  There was talk that while the tent was our check point, the real purpose was to shelter the dogs during the Iditarod Sled Dog race that started a week after us.  We also learned that the miles of wavy trail that pulled our sleds would be flattened out for the dogs.  The trail-breaker snow machines pulled something behind them to break up the moguls, and people with shovels worked on the trail by hand.  It's no secret that the trail is in much rougher condition for our human powered race that for the sled dog race.  Alaskans love their dogs and mushers!
We were happy to be concluding our race at 11:30 PM. With no official route or mile markers we don't know how many miles we covered.  We will go with the advertised distance of 130 miles.  There was no wistful thinking of wanting to continue to McGrath.  We followed the dim lights to the staff kitchen where we signed in and were offered a delicious meal of rice, beans, and scrambled eggs in a tortilla.  There was no fanfare.  Shortly after being accepted into the event, I paid $200 for a room that Laurie and I could use for the night after we finished.  It was stated that there were no showers.  Our plane ride back to Anchorage would not happen until daylight so we needed somewhere to sleep.  It was odd that the kitchen had no electric lights on.  There were two lanterns on our table that gave out as much light as two candles.  The young woman making our meal wore a headlamp.  We talked with her about the lodge.  Everyone who works there lives at the resort for months at a time.  Reading about Winter Lake Lodge had us expecting more.  $4800 gets a person transportation to and from the lodge and three nights, four days stay with activities.  $200 got us each a bed in the ‘annex’ with a wood burning stove, no electricity or water. The outhouse was at the end of the thin icy foot path.  If you took the ‘luge run’ without traction on your feet you would be pitched into the closed door. 

There were no complaints – it was better than the dog tent on the ice.  After sleeping two hours the fire was out.  Laurie woke me up “It’s freezing in here.”  She was right.  We poked around with our headlamps on.  We had tissues and a few napkins with us from the trail.  Along the trail I picked up a dropped cigarette lighter and some packaged Wet Wipes. 

There was some kindling near the stove.  Laurie ventured to the porch and found a box with leaves and bark and some bigger logs.  I managed to get a flame with the lighter and in a few minutes we had heat.  Back to bed.

There wasn’t much to do before breakfast since we slept in our clothes and didn’t have running water in the annex..  Daryl Saari and Eric Johnson were readying themselves to press on, over the Alaska Mountain Range.   
Daryl Saari - 130 down, 220 to go.
Eric Johnson - going for the 1000

I'm getting 1 bar!
It was nice to see them refreshed and together.  We met Joaquin Candel at breakfast.  He finished on foot the afternoon before us but had to stay the night because the afternoon plane back to Anchorage was already filled with three racers and sleds.  Joaquin is a commercial pilot for Southwest Airlines in Las Vegas, NV.  We compared notes on races we did over the years and hope to cross paths again.  He snapped photos of us by the Finish banner as we loaded our sleds for a walk back across the lake to get the plane.   
Photo taken by Joaquim Candel (Las Vegas)

 Supplies and people were unloaded from the four-seat plane that landed on the frozen lake.  Our sleds and many large bags of trash were loaded into the rear of the plane.

The three of us all got a creepy vibe, almost cult-ish, from Winter Lake Lodge and were happy to get in the plane. We each had a seat and headphones so we could talk among ourselves and with the pilot.  The 1958 plane got us back to Anchorage in 50 minutes. Jim was waiting for us.  We traded flush toilets and electricity for wolf tracks and silence.  We were ready to trade them back again.
Back in Anchorage - Photo by Jim Glasgow
We learned much from the Alaskans.  Everyone lives there for a reason.  Whether in a city or town, or in the back country, they are at peace with their situation.  They don’t take the beauty around them for granted. The state is wild and beautiful.  These characteristics can easily mask danger.  There is a learning curve to this event, the trail, and the people.

Big Fat Ride

Blackstone Bay near Whittier Alaska


Blackstone Glacier

On Matanuska Glacier

Matanuska Glacier Cave
Ceremonial start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Anchorage

Musk Ox farm - Palmer Alaska
Photo by Janet Acarregui
 All photos by Lisa Paulos unless otherwise noted.