I got to my friend Drew’s house late last night. I met Drew after the ITI down in Anchorage while staying with another friend, Matias. Drew, originally from D.C., has lived in Fairbanks for over a decade now and has skied the White Mountains 100 every year since the race’s inception in 2010. He’s taken the couple of days before the race off work to show me around Fairbanks and a bit of the course. We start the day with a late breakfast, followed by a short outing on the snow packed trails around his house. Similar to my experience in Anchorage, there is a great network of winter trails around town to ski, bike, mush, or run. Drew skis, I run, and we both test out are race set-up to determine any last minute adjustments. Being three days out from the race, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what the weather will do and trail conditions and are both happy with our gear choices. The snowmachine trail snakes through a forest of mainly black spruce and birch. The black spruce is a scraggly looking tree, with its roots interconnected together, making it a formidable survivor in the most dismal icy and snowy climates. A lot of these trees are pushing 80 years old and look like long sticks covered in black, furry nets. Kelsey, Drew’s husky, accompanies us on the outing. She’s a powerful dog, stubborn too, a personality trait that comes across any time she’s in the presence of food. She’ll inhale her kibble, then proceed to prance around in circles, emitting a low howl, demanding more food. The few times Drew has indulged her, she’ll eat until being basically worthless, so full she can only lie around all day. She once ate the entire contents of a snowmachine packed with food for an overnight hot spring camping trip with Drew, only to waddle her way out of camp the next day, vomiting every mile. Her mischief is more endearing than it is frustrating and she makes for a great companion on and off the trails.
After running, we head to a couple Fairbanks classic stores for a bit of local, culture experience. First, we visit Apocalypse Design, a primarily custom gear shop mainly targeted at mushers. Winter travel, in extreme conditions, is definitely a niche activity, but it’s fun to browse through all the unique designs, many of which are conjured up on the trail such as insulated bottle sleeves, sled pulling harnesses, arctic bibs, etc. I find a few items I could have used on the ITI last year. Gear refinement is an endless pursuit, particularly in such an involved environment found in the Alaskan winter.
Next, we head over to Alaska Tent and Tarp, where the sales rep. Jeff, does a phenomenal presentation on one of the arctic oven tents, a burly 4 season expedition tent. Calling Jeff a sales rep. doesn’t really do the man justice. He’s more of a physical manifestation of every specification of every tent, stove, tarp, stool, or any other necessary piece of wilderness gear in the store. The man lives and breathes the stats and before we leave we get into a lengthy conversation about the benefits of fiberglass propane canisters over the metal counterparts. According to Jeff you can fire a shotgun at the canisters and it won’t blow up like with metal. Instead, the gas will disperse. He exemplified the dispersion with hand gestures, making sounds of air from his mouth. I was sold.
In much less dramatic fashion, Drew and I discussed the merits of Blaze King catalytic stoves en route to see some reindeer, musk ox, and caribou at the university farm. The reindeer come from Scandinavia. They’re stocky little animals and quite docile. The caribou have slightly longer legs, elongated white necks, and are more skittish around people. The musk ox, shaggy beasts, slept in the distance the whole time we were there.
Drew and I got another leisurely start to the day, and ate a copious breakfast of bacon and eggs before heading out to the Whites. I was eager to check out the first few miles of the course, test the snow and get an idea of what to expect in a couple of days for the race. Luckily, the sky was clear and the air warm in the upper 20s. After about 4 miles on a widely groomed trail, we reached a small outcropping with the White Mountains in full view up ahead. Drew pointed to the contours of the land that the trail follows, so I could visualize a pretty clear picture of the course in my head. Basically, it’s a lollipop with a short 6 mile stick, followed by an 88 mile loop and a return on the same initial 6 miles. The stick is pretty hilly, with the course generally trending uphill towards the Divide in the mountains. It then flows mostly downhill, with some rollers to mile 80, where it once again becomes hilly to the finish.
At the outcropping, we meet some of Drew’s friends Duncan and Becky, who are from Scotland. They’d just spent the past several days on a hut to hut snowmachine trip on the course so they had lots of interesting insight on trail conditions, overflow and the temps at night. Duncan is a fine Scottish gentleman, with a trim white beard and a near continuous grin on his face. He uses the words wonderful and fantastic frequently adding immeasurable stoke to all of his stories. He’s an arctic explorer with more experience up north than most. His description of the ice lakes, a 1 mile section of ice about halfway on the course, looking like a broken up iceberg gets me excited. It’s Becky first proper winter outing and with the mild weather, she’s having an enjoyable time. She does roll her eyes every time Duncan launches into his praise of their borrowed Ski-Doo 4 stroke engine snowmachine.
Duncan and Becky join us for dinner along with a few other friends for a delicious chili made by Drew’s girlfriend, Molly. Duncan recounts his time racing the Scottish Three Peaks Yacht Race, a 3 day event that involves astute sailing navigation and fit runners to tag all the peaks. His team raced on a 60 foot arctic research boat- a large beast for the job, but that nearly won them the race.
Drew and I got out for a short outing in the morning when he finally settled on which wax he’ll use for the race. Skiing is mostly faster than running, but it’s certainly more involved. Running only trumps skiing and biking in terms of speed when conditions are particularly bad and snowshoes are required. However, running is the simplest mode of transportation, and I don’t envy Drew’s additional amount of gear preparation to successfully ski the race. We both get a kick out of the media repeatedly claiming that “bikes dominated the race.” It was true for Susitna, ITI, and will most likely be for Whites. To me, we’re all racing in different categories. In good conditions, the lead bikes will take at least half the time of runners and are usually several hours faster than skiers. The only exception to this was exemplified in the 2012 ITI, when Geoff lead the entire field on foot for most of the race because of knee deep snow. As soon as the trail cleared the bikers took command of the race and won by a large margin. To me there’s no sense in comparing the different modes of transportation. Each division is a completely different race, and I treat it as such.
At the mandatory pre-race check in, I run into a bunch of familiar faces, including Jeff Oatley who I’m excited to congratulate after his sensational ride to Nome this year on the ITI. He’s mostly recovered although his hands are sore from gripping the handlebars for 10 days straight, and he still doesn’t have full mobility in one of his ankles. He broke an ankle 3 months before the ITI, and for the first time in many years, was forced to ride with platform pedals, so he could wear more comfortable boots to not overstain his ankle tendons. I remember him riding the 2013 race with a broken sternum, so clearly he’s got some serious mind control to achieve such feats in a compromised state.
The pre-race meeting was well run, short, and to the point, a reflexion of the excellent organization, headed by race director Ed Plumb. After the meeting, I met up for a Thai dinner with the Juneau crowd, Dan Lesh, John Nagel, Houston Laws, and few folks from Fairbanks and others from out of town including Jill Homer, whose great blog is worth a read.
Bob Gillis, a local, seasoned adventurer, picks Drew and me up at 6am to carpool to the start of the race. On our way, we snag Seth Adams from the Mcdonald’s bathroom. He animates the ride to the trailhead with some colorful recounting of his winter Wilderness Classic attempt this past week. He also shares peculiar smells with us after inhaling his McMuffin. He swears the grease bomb will last him a steady 6 hours into the race. The first rays of sun crack the horizon as we pull up to the parking lot. I jog up a service road west of the highway to relieve myself and take in the spectacular view of the Whites. The mountains seem awfully far from this vantage point, a good reminder to run easy towards them. I exchange a few words with Jeff Oatley who’s there to see us off, before joining all the racers in crossing the highway to the start at the Wickersham Dome trailhead. The parking lot is covered in a full, thick sheet of ice. My footing feels very secure though in my metal spiked shoes. Most racers are on bikes and they charge off the start, funnelling onto the single snowmachine wide trail. I wait to the left of the trail with skier Max Kauffman for a few seconds before finding a good insertion point into the pack. I see Houston, a fellow runner, right behind me, and we exchange greetings. The first few minutes are pretty frantic with bikers, skiers, and runners jockeying for position on the tight trail. I find a nice rhythm up the first mile climb next to Jill, who’s riding her bike after completing the ITI on foot just last month. Quickly the trail starts descending and unclutters as we spread out along the track.
I alternate back and forth with bikers and skiers in the opening, undulating 17 miles to the first checkpoint. Moose Creek cabin sits right at the bottom of a steep little grunt to the aid station. Drew’s girlfriend, Molly, is there, enjoying the morning with a cup of coffee. She mushed out the previous day to spend the night at the cabin. The dogs are howling, spread out across their hay beds. The White Mountains occupy the backdrop, their milky complexion contrasting with the jet blue sky. It’s warm out already, probably somewhere in the 20s and it’s only mid-morning. The trail remains surprisingly firm though, making it easy to keep up a good running cadence. I stop for a few minutes to fill my water bottles at the aid, getting a friendly cheer from Superal Mitchell, whom I’d met at the Susitna 100 a few years back. Al has the best moustache on the winter racing scene and trust me there’s a fair amount of quality facial hair out in these parts.
I share a good amount of the next 22 miles to the Cache Mountain checkpoint with Drew. This section is spectacular, a wide-open open landscape where the trail winds through sparse, and often burned black spruce. At this point, about a third of the way into the race, I couldn’t be feeling any better. The trail seems to have the perfect mix of tackiness so I don’t waste much energy and softness to minimize the impact on my body. The openness of the terrain and sweeping views gives the place a wild and remote quality that remains equally inviting- a deceptive notion as the beauty remains indifferent to my presence.
As I near Cache, I start to get some tightness in my hip, specifically in my piriformis and gluteus minimus. I’m not surprised that this is happening, as hip tightness seems to be inherent for me when running on snow. I roll into Cache eager to do a few stretches that I think might alleviate the problem and camel up on some water. My one liter reserve is just enough to cover the miles between checkpoints, and with temperatures rising, I am sweating more and more. I sit with my right leg folded under my butt, while I eat a few cookies, and drink nearly a liter and a half of water. Drew buzzes in and out of the cabin in a few minutes. I’m impressed with his efficient transition, as it’s a bit more tedious to be fast in the winter. Seth is tucking into a baked potato with bacon and sour cream. We’ve been on the go for about five and half hours, so his McMuffin fuel power has just about run its course.
The following section to Windy Gap cabin is the longest and most difficult part of the course. It’s 23 miles to Windy, over the Cache Mountain divide and the ice lakes. Thankfully, I’m fully rehydrated, but my hip is still giving me some grief. The dull ache isn’t going away and it’s now also manifesting itself in the IT band, knee, and upper shin. The repetitive movement of running on the soft surface never gives the area a break. My hope is that the divide will be steep and soft enough to force me into a hike to change up the muscles I am using. Before I start the actual climb, Drew points to a spot of open water, which I gladly use to fill one of my bottles. The divide trail does get a little punchy for the last couple hundred feet, so I welcome my first bit of walking, as I pass roughly the halfway point on the course. The backside, down to the ice lakes, is bumbly with the most inconsistent snow I’ve experienced all race. Initially, I was excited to see the ice lakes, which are essentially just a shallow body of frozen water about 100 feet wide and a mile long, emanating from a small creek. Head down, I follow bike tracks onto the first lake, ignoring the better trail to my right. I step into some slush, then submerge my right foot. It’s very difficult to see what is solid or not and how deep the water is. I’m not overly concerned about getting my feet a bit wet as it’s still warm out and the cold isn’t an immediate threat. Still, I backtrack to the better trail and avoid any more moisture to the end of the lakes. An emergency wall tent is there as a safety measure as the temps could be 60 degrees cooler and at 30 below the prospect of wet feet gets a whole lot more serious. The dull ache in my hip and knee isn’t getting any better. Stretching isn’t helping much, but stopping makes it worse, so I run into Windy Gap without pause. The trail into Windy is the most beautiful on the entire course, cradled by jagged, limestone cliffs. The evening light glows softly on the rock, offering a wonderfully romantic undertone to the scene. I reach Windy Gap cabin at mile 62, at roughly 6pm, after 10 hours of running. Again, I take a moment to drink several bottles of water, and chat briefly with race director Ed Plumb, who in the moment I don’t recognize. Ed has been known to ski up to 70 miles of the course during the race and is a very accomplished adventurer. I kind of wish I had more to say to him, but am instead focused on savoring the cup of rice and meatball soup in front of me. My stomach has been rock solid all day, so I allow myself a break from the shot blocks I’ve be eating between checkpoints to consume some real food.
Leaving Windy, I’m most excited about the prospect of reaching Borealis (mile 80) before sundown, allowing me to see all but about 12 miles of the course in the daylight. This section is also known to be the coldest on the course, so my hope is to keep moving well to stay warm. For me, miles 60 to 80 are always the hardest in hundred mile races. Sixty miles is a long way to run, but isn’t anywhere near the finish. It’s often where my body gets tired and my mind loses focus. Often when laying in bed at night or out walking, I practice a zen breathing exercise that consists of counting my breaths (inhalation, exhalation) to ten and then repeating. It’s easy to do a few sets, but soon the mind wanders, and I lose track of my count. To stay focused on this 20 mile stretch, I decide to start counting my breaths in such a manner. I get deeply absorbed in my counting and am only once interrupted by passing a sled dog team. Several hours slip away and suddenly, I run by the 1 mile to checkpoint sign. I reach Borealis at 9pm sharp. I make a 15 minute stop to get out my headlamp, eat a cup of ramen and switch into my warmer gloves. This is the only gear adjustment I’ve had to make all day. A biker is sitting eating some soup; he’s a big guy, with a big beard. The tells me he’s 280 lbs and that when he cramps his muscles seize so violently they do so with immeasurable full-body fury. I find his phrasing amusing (or at least that’s what I thought he said) and I’m damn impressed with him getting it done in such fine style.
Once I leave Borealis, temps have dropped quickly and I get uncontrollable chills for a few minutes. I fight the urge to put my down jacket on, as I know I’ll warm up very soon. I run steadily on the climb out of the checkpoint. A volunteer had told me it was 4 miles to The Wall, an infamous, steep, last one mile climb. My hip has finally loosened up, and my energy is high with only 20 miles to go. I decide I’m going to run until The Wall, then walk the climb for a bit of a break and then run on to the finish. I can see Christmas lights up ahead that I assume indicate the emergency trail shelter at mile 91. It’s not an official checkpoint, but a good reference to know how much further is still to go. I keep running, wondering where this Wall is, but run into the volunteer at the shelter before any climb of note. Just when I thought I’d easily climbed the Wall without noticing, he informs me it’s still about 3 miles ahead. I eat a caffeinated gel, the first I’ve taken all race and the only food I’ve ingested since Borealis, rinse it down with a cup of coke, and continue on my way. Roughly until mile 80 in a hundred miler, I always need to focus with intent on what I’m doing. Pace, eating, drinking, managing any little problem is a very deliberate process and my success or failure in the race is usually determined by how well I stay on top of such things. After 80 miles, I typically find myself no longer trying to focus, rather it becomes a natural occurance, as if finally my mind and body intuitively understand what to do. Today is no different. Since Borealis, any feeling of struggle has gone. I’ve stopped eating or drinking, because I just feel right, and sense that bonking is no longer an issue. It’s a strange feeling because logic would suggest that after so many miles, the body and mind would deteriorate in a linear way. Instead, with the end in sight, I can finally completely relax and run without worry. My perception of control and ease is a as good as in the opening miles of the race, despite my pace being naturally slower for the accumulated distance. The night is beautifully clear and a shooting star fires up ahead. Finally, I reach the Wall and hike steadily up the climb. A few skiers are at the top, cheering on racers. They ask me if I’m the first walker to which I reply that while I’m walking in this instance, I am mostly a runner. I remember Ed’s words at the pre-race meeting about how everyone always forgets the last hills coming into the finish.
I don’t rush and maintain an even pace all the way back to the Wickersham Dome trailhead where I’m greeted by some friendly race volunteers, along with Drew and Seth who skied in an hour before me. I enjoy a beer and a couple brats in the warm, propane heated tent while waiting for Bob Gillis to finish, and celebrate his 50th birthday. Elliott, the unicyclist, comes in in fine form after an incredible ride on his fat one wheel. The entire event was fantastically well organized, with great support from all the volunteers and a interesting, engaging course. It was nice to share some trail miles with Drew and other friends, and witness many great performances. I’d highly recommend the race for anyone looking to try out a winter ultra.
We got home late after the race and didn’t get to bed until 4am. Still, I woke up early after only 4 hours of sleep. I’m always amazed at how a small amount of sleep can be completely revitalizing. The day is spent mostly eating, all the time. Randomly, I get to meet Scott’s brother, Greg Jurek, at the kennel where Molly works. Drew organized a barbecue in the evening with Bob and his friend Lisa, Seth, and Molly. We talk a lot about mushing. I love dogs, but the love, care and knowledge about dogs up here is next level.
Molly kindly take me out mushing in the morning. I sit in the sled, watching her masterfully steer the dog team through wooded trails out on to the river. She knows all her dogs intimately, having cared for them since they were puppies. There’s a lot of personalities to manage and work to find a team that will best mesh together. Mushing is a very engaging endeavour, with so many parameters coming into leading a dog team successfully. After 15 years of mushing, Molly runs the show with ease and effortlessness. I’m thankful for her introduction to the activity and am eager to keep learning about it. After mushing, we head to Gullivers bookstore where I pick up a couple alaskan classics, Shadows of the Kuyukuk and Ordinary Wolves. I dug into the first book later in the evening and it’s already proving to be a fascinating read.
I rise early to catch my flight home. Drew has been a most gracious host. I’ve really enjoyed the people I’ve met in Fairbanks- mostly a laidback, no frills type of crowd, who really get after it in the wilds. A six hour layover in the Las Vegas airport provide for a more dramatic contrast from the past week. I try, unsuccessfully, to get some work done, wallowing instead in typical post hundred mile vegetation. After a truly great trip, I’m now eager to get home.