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:

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