Friday, 4 March 2011

Susitna 100 - race report

In February I competed in my first 100-mile race, the Susitna 100. Not only was it the furthest I had ever run (at least three times further than my previous 50km ultras), but it was also in some very tough conditions and required an extensive gear list. I have slowly become accustomed to running in cold weather in Anchorage, and since the short winter days here require that I do most of my running in the dark, I was feeling relatively well prepared for those aspects of the race. I was more concerned about the distance, getting my nutrition right and hauling all the required gear over such a long period.

In the week leading up to the race, I spent some time preparing my sled and getting great advice about surviving in the Alaskan outdoors from my running buddies, Brian and Doug. At the pre-race briefing I checked in all my gear, and apart from a small issue with the wrong type of sleeping mat, I was good to go. I ate well, slept as much as I could, fussed over the race route and had Vanessa helping me every step of the way. By Saturday morning all that was left to do was run a 100 miles!

Walking to the start in -12F weather.

The race start is self-seeding with the bikes starting up front, skiers coming next and runners at the back. I happily fell towards the back of the crowd and when the gun went off, started in true ultra-fashion - a walking shuffle that was mostly aimed at keeping myself out of the way of other racers! The first 3 miles were along Ayreshire Rd, but we were not allowed to use the road and I had to fight amongst the other racers for space. I made some good progress, but struggled with an incorrectly weighted sled that kept turning over when I would try and pass others. I managed to sort out the sled, settle into a good pace and get into my rhythm by the time we hit the next small section of road. The road was like a dream come true! It was smooth and flat, and my sled had no thoughts of turning itself upside down. After that were some seismic lines and I made good time and enjoyed a good pace running to Flathorn with a new friend, Luke. I was quite pleased with how the race was going and settled into a perfect pace for the last hour to the first checkpoint. I arrived at Flathorn at 1431 and felt like it was the beginning of a great race.

At the famous Nome sign, but I only had 88 miles to go and not 1049.

After a quick bowl of jambalaya and a brownie I left Flathorn. I was feeling confident and excited about how the race was going. Little did I know that the upcoming sections of the race would live up to their names: Dismal Swamp, Wall of Death and Scary Tree all changed my mood from confident to sad and dejected. My good pace leaving Flathorn slowly started to fade, I had a few more minor problems with my sled that I managed to fix for the final time when the wind picked up. By the time I was out on the Susitna River I had already put on another pair of trousers, a wind jacket and extra hand-warmers in my mittens. My frozen North Face hydration pack and frozen Perpetuem flasks (which were frozen on the first leg but didn't seem to bother me then), became a very big issue. My pace slowed to a walk, my food was frozen, it was getting dark and I was truly miserable. I caught up with Luke again after putting in a solid half-hour spurt while a playlist from V buoyed my spirits. We decided to walk to Luce's together as it was getting dark and the wind was howling, and company would definitely make the journey a little easier. In the next two hours I put on another pair of trousers, a down jacket under my wind jacket, snow goggles and a head lamp. I felt like I was on an expedition to the pole with more gear than any other day I had spent outside in Alaska (even more than this). The only consolation was that my sled was a little lighter! After what seemed like hours of following the tiny beam of my head lamp that was tinted yellow from my goggle lens, I finally arrived at Luce's. It was with a sigh of relief that I trekked up to the checkpoint in the worst and unhappiest state I would be in during the whole race. It was 2130 and I was only 45 miles in...

 Beautiful scenery and some company early on during the first day.

Trying to figure out how to eat my frozen food while foolishly exposing my hands for too long.

However, Luce's was fantastic! I had a Mountain Dew and a plate of chips, and the number of people buzzing around inside helped to give me some perspective of where I was in the race. I wasn't at the back of the field and in fact was through five and a half hours before the cut-off time. I put on some dry gear and got out of the checkpoint ahead of some competitors who had been there since before I arrived. It felt great to leave ahead of them, and although I was leaving for almost a half-marathon at ten o'clock at night, I was quite excited that the next checkpoint was only 12 miles away. I planned to get to the Alexander Lake checkpoint in four hours, which would require a very fast walk or slow run. The trail was in the worst condition of any section in the race with slushy, soft snow that made getting a consistent cadence almost impossible. I wasn't too upset by this though, because I was making good time and the 12-mile section seemed so much shorter than the previous two sections which were 22 and 19 miles. Up ahead I could see a red flashing light which I guessed was attached to someone's sled and I focused on catching up to that by the next checkpoint. Along the way there was the another runner who had pulled over and set up his bivy and sleeping bag. He was waiting to be picked up by the snow-machine patrol and was not in a very good way. So with a runner pulling out and the red flashing light getting closer and closer I was moving up the field even at my almost pedestrian pace! I caught the runner ahead just as we reached Alexander Lake and went into the checkpoint in good spirits.

Alex Lake had a similar effect on me as Luce's. I was happy to be there and feeling good considering being 53 miles away from home in the middle of the night. It was the other racers in the cabin that made me feel so much better and it was great to know that we were all in it together at just over half way. However, the huge distance was starting to take its toll. There were a few runners who had pulled out, a skier and biker passed out on the couch and bed, and a radio call came in to say that another runner was pulling out due to hypothermia. Compared to that I was feeling fantastic! I had some soup, filled up my water pack with boiling water and got out onto the course in a quick time again. I knew what was coming as it was the same trail I had just traveled on, and I knew it was "only" 12 miles to get back to Luce's. This section went by very similar to the way out and I kept up a pace that was only a little slower. I had no trouble with my food or legs on this section, but did experience two hours between 4am and 6am where I was constantly nodding off to sleep as I shuffled along. I would suddenly wake up and wonder where I was and then quickly get back to the realization that I was out in the middle of a swamp and needed to keep pressing on. As the sun rose over the Yetna River I started to feel better and the sleepiness was left behind on the trail. I felt great pulling up to Luce's for the second time, although being able to see the lodge from about 2 miles away sure seemed like a long way to put a carrot in front of a tired runner! It was 0735 in the morning and I had been awake for a whole day, and running for most of it.

At Luce's I met up with Kevin again. I had been catching up to him little by little and when I got to Luce's he had just gone inside and was ready to leave with some company. I changed out of my think winter socks and put on some lighter gear for the day ahead. By now my down jacket was frozen between my two waterproof layers so it felt good to take that off and look forward to finishing up the race in mostly daylight. Kevin and I left together at 0830 and decided to go at a fast walk pace as I was hurting and Kevin was happy to have some company and cruise along with me. We kept a constant pace and I started to feel better as the morning went by. I managed to figure out some of the problems with my hydration pack and had drinkable water from an unfrozen water pipe. This helped with my hydration and probably contributed to a strong finish later in the day. During this leg we saw hundreds of snow machines which were waiting for the start of the Iron Dog race. It was like swarms of bees racing around and trying to find a good spot to watch the racers come past. Unfortunately we turned off the Yetna before the race came past, and we headed towards the Wall of Death for the final time. The last hour into Flathorn was tough and dragged out forever. But, just before arriving at Flathorn and after trekking through Dismal Swamp we met a man pulling a sled and going the wrong way. We stopped to have a chat and he told us about his plan to hike out to the trail of the Iditarod Trail Invitational to see his friend who would be in the race. He was planning a 400-mile solo journey that would last more than 2 weeks; it sure made walking into Flathorn much easier knowing that we were 16 miles from home while he was only 16 miles into his journey!

Smiling even though I was a little worse for wear the second time round at Flathorn. I had stopped taking photos long ago, but managed to find these from the great support team.

After a refreshing stop at Flathorn complete with jambalaya, coca-cola and more brownies, we headed out for the last leg of the day. The final 16 miles seemed very achievable and the only ambition I had left was to finish before it got too late and dark. Kevin and I joined up with Veronica and together we planned to finish up at a reasonable pace even if that almost meant walking it in. We shared a very strange experience on a seismic line where there appeared to be a cyclist yoyoing backwards and forwards on the trail unable to find the turn for the last 7 miles. The cyclist taunted us and only as we slowly drew near did we realize that what we were seeing was actually a tree branch hanging over the road! We headed into the last 7 miles in approaching darkness and briefly formed the idea that we could finish up in under 36 hours. However, that would require running and increasing the pace all the way to the end. Kevin and I picked up the speed and for the first 20 minutes it seemed like we were doing quite well and making progress. Then we hit a wall of a mountain, which was actually only a gradual incline, that kept going and going and going. It seemed like forever that we were running up this hill and the possibility of making our goal seemed quite remote. Eventually after keeping ourselves going for the entire hill we ended up on the dreaded Ayreshire road side trail. Fortunately it had frozen overnight and was much better, firmer footing than we remembered. It was also much more of incline than either of us remembered! Taking it in turns to pull uphill for the final 3 miles, Kevin and I gradually increased the pace until we were running well and into the final turn. Coming down the finishing straight was a fantastic sense of relief and when I got to the end I had the best surprise of all- my biggest fan was there to watch me finish!

I completed my first 100 miler, earned a Susitna belt buckle, finished in a day and half (35hrs 54mins) and finished in 4th position! What an excellent race and weekend!

10 of the 16 finishers who made it to the awards ceremony.

7 comments:

  1. Dan- Wonderful post. Very informative. Thanks for sharing. I am in S. Cal and have decided to do the Lil-Susitna in 15 and possibly the Susitna in 16. My running days are over due to hip replacements - what are your thoughts regarding walking the whole race? Doable?

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    1. It's a pleasure. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. You've chosen a fantastic challenge in an amazing part of the world - I would love to go back to this race. I think that it is possible to walk the whole race. If the conditions are tough most competitors will be walking a lot of the race anyway. You may need to keep in mind that if you are walking you will need to be quick in the checkpoints as these can take a lot of time that you may not have as a walker (I stopped for 45min to 1hr30min).

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  2. Daniel- Thanks for the post. Very informative. I'd like to get your thoughts regarding training. I am planning on the Lil-Susitna in 15 and the Susitna in 16. My running days are pretty much over due to hip surgery. Is it possible to finish the race in the requisite time by walking? Are snow shoes necessary?

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    1. With regards to snow shoes, I didn't use any when I ran. My understanding is that generally they are not required as the race often follows snow machine tracks and dog sled tracks where the snow is compressed and runnable (or walkable). However, this probably depends greatly on the amount of snow that falls right before the race and varies each year. In 2011 I didn't need them, a friend who ran the Su50 in 2012 didn't need them and it looks like this year's conditions were of little snow and a very fast and runnable trail. I think in 2013 it snowed a lot and they may have been useful. So the answer is that snow shoes are probably not necessary, but that it might be better to check with an Alaskan close to the race to find out what the snow conditions are. I hope that helps. (sorry for the slow replies - I was traveling for a race for the last 3 weeks)

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  3. Hi and congrats! I'm doing the 100 and wanted to ask you about your pull system: is it poles that you had to make it a stiff pull vs. rope? And how did you tie it to your belt, which belt was it? And was it gore-tex shoes you had? Thank you!

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    1. Hi! Great news that you're running the 100 - I really enjoyed that race.

      The pull system is rope through half-inch pvc pipe. The pipe provides the rigidity necessary so that the sled moves with the runner rather than jerking and stopping and starting with each little bump on the trail. I would definitely recommend using a stiff connection between you and the sled. I used a homemade belt and tied the sled to sewn-on D-rings. However, I would recommend buying a proper hiking backpack waist belt and attach the sled to that. That style will have more padding and be much more comfortable (I think you can buy replacement belts at REI).

      I used Salomon Speedcross Gore-Tex shoes and they worked quite well at keeping the moisture out. The problem was that they also kept moisture in and my feet were very soft and wet at the end of the race. I would probably use a normal shoe if the conditions were dry and a Gore-Tex shoe if it were snowing.

      I hope that helps!

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  4. It certainly does, thank you so much!

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I'd love to hear from you and get your perspective on my stories, thoughts and training. Please feel free to comment.