Friday, February 21, 2014

Sustina 100, Race Across Frozen Alaska. 2014

The Susitna100 was born out of some of the first Alaskan Ultra Endurance Races.
My original plan was to ski the race.
But, if conditions warranted biking, I didn't want to take a bike on the plane or send one up if I didn't use it so I decided to line up a rental if that was needed. I made contact with the Anchorage Alaskan bike manufacturer 9:zero:7. 
I have a 9:zero:7 at home so I figured the geometry and all would work out to allow me to rent a bike to ride 100 miles off-road and still be able to walk afterword!
The only recommendation I'd made when renting a bike is to maybe bring one's own saddle...for the "best fit" where it counts the most. I didn't experience any issues, but one never knows.

They set me up with an amazing bike when I made the decision I was going to bike instead of ski due to the very icy conditions of the trail.

Carbon fiber frame, HED carbon rims....studded tires, the bike was setup with all the candy.

This year the race started at the Happy Trial Kennels of 4 time Iditarod Champion, Matin Buser just west of Wasilla, AK.

I came out the day before to test out the bike and get an idea of the trail.
Everyone knew conditions were going to be fast and icy due to the unseasonably warm temps that had caused a huge melt-down and everyone wanted studded tires, which as I mentioned this bike had, to avoid falling on the ice.

The only change/addition I made was to buy some yellow shooting glasses due to the flat light which caused difficulty seeing definition on the trail in the late gray afternoon sun.
I knew I'd need to wear glasses because of the expected 11-12mph average speed and 15-20mph spurts/downhills that I figured would occur throughout the race. I also knew there would be a good chance of headwinds at one point or another due to the circular route we'd be on.
I didn't want my eyes to water and blur my vision out on the trail. There was also the desire to protect my eyes from any cold weather we might get. Temps were expected to be single digits at the start and warm up to high teens with possible snow late afternoon/evening.

Photo credits, the crew from CA. The afternoon before the start.

Starting west of Wasilla it's a trail that undulates around and through forested land, up and down rivers, through swamps and across lakes all under the watchfull of eye of the Sleeping Lady, or Sustina Mountain.

The Legend:
The Sleeping Lady
Legend tells us that a millennia ago, the Great Land known as Alaska was inhabited by a race of giants.  Among these people was a beautiful young maiden and a handsome young man whose devotion to each other was admired by all the villagers.  Wedding preparations were underway when word reached the village of a warring tribe approaching from the north. 
After a village council it was decided that the young man would bring gifts to the invaders to show the peaceful and friendly intentions of the villagers.  Keeping herself busy while waiting for the young man's return, the maiden eventually grew tired and laid down to rest.
Soon after, word reached the village that the invaders rejected the offer of peace and a battle ensued in which the young man was killed.  The villagers, gazing at the sleeping maiden, did not have the heart to wake her. 
So there she rests today, still waiting for news of peace and the return of her love . . . 

Steve helping me out in the parking lot getting the bike ready the morning of the race. We stayed with Steve and his wife Kathi the night before the race in Wasilla, when we met them for the first time. Steve moved to AK from WI back in 1977. Phil, a friend of Steve and I in WI got us connected. That's just the way they roll in AK, very eager to take outsiders into their homes and help out.

Photo credit for the next 3, Lynn Scotch.

Note the studded tires....

Me waving to Lynn at the line up. 

Photo by Mark Seaburg from MN who was also racing on a bike. To the left is Erwin Berglund, another MN racer who has raced the Su100 before. His son lives in AK and Erwin is a bit of a local hero who at age 71 is still doing these races.

The race started out at an easy pace as everyone was testing the waters, or should I say ice? The first glare ice we hit sent a number of bikers and their bikes sliding.
I was somewhat close behind one of the guys that fell. As he and his bike moved down the ice away and a bit across in front of me to the right, slowly spinning like a curling stone, I very carefully moved to my left little by little and rolled on past the wheels of his bike clearing them by just a few inches.
After that I always left just a little more room between me and the guy in front of me if I was behind anyone when we hit ice sections. There was no way a quick turn could be made without going down yourself.

We were moving through a singletrack like section when I came up behind 4 riders. It was in the woods and although tight and with mogals, not that difficult. One rider stalled on a hill and I passed him, so that left 3 in front of me.
After a bit we dropped down on to a swamp or a small pond. I accelerated around the group and was getting a good lead on them when I noticed that the trail in front of me was narrowing to a ^ and soon I'd have to get over some ridges on the ice. It didn't go well and the bike slid to the left and over I went. My head hit the ice (thank goodness I had bought a helmet) as I landed. I jumped up as quick as I could but Andy, the lead guy, went past me. Joe and another guy were too far back and I tucked back in behind Andy as we left the ice and started on a section of trail that was brutal.

It looked like someone had driven a 4 wheeled gator or something down it. There were deep ruts on both edges, too deep to ride in. The only place to ride was a 5-6" strip right down the middle but it wasn't the best, either.
Moose had been walking down it, like they had on many sections of the trail, and had post holed the center of the trail that allowed the tires to drop in to the divot. As the edges of the holes were froze, the tires didn't drop so far as to cause one to go over the bars as long as they kept their weight back some, but the constant jarring and possible sliding into the edge ruts were tough to fight and again, I think the studs helped out here. It was truly technical singletrack riding.

Andy soon caught a rider that was off  his bike dealing with some clothes. The rider got back on in front of me and as he banged his way down the trail, articles started dropping out of his seat bag. I yelled at him that he was losing things and he stopped and ran back towards me picking up his items. This allowed me to get around him and try to reel in Andy....again.

We dropped back onto an open area and as I pulled up along side Andy for the 2nd time in a few miles I teasingly asked him if he had gotten pissed back there for me trying to pass him as he really took off after that. He said no, that the technical sections were his strong point but that he was slower in the other sections. With that I took off.

I got to the 2nd checkpoint on Flat Horn Lake 32 miles in and while I was casually drinking some coke and munching on some potato chips I asked how many riders were in front of me. I had passed 6-8 bikes or more since the start and really had no idea where I was in the standings as some had yo-yo'd back in front of me and visa versa. Riders were constantly changing positions whenever anyone would slow to grab some food out of their bags or drink some water.

When the checkpoint volunteer said there were 6 in front of me I about sent Coke through my nose. I made my way out the door as fast as I could and was about 15 yards from the cabin when I realized I had forgotten my glasses I was in such a hurry and had to go back and get them. With a race this long and varied, anything could happen and I figured I'd get out there asap to see if I could move up some places.

Taken coming out of the 2nd checkpoint at Flat Horn Lake. You can see the profile of the "Sleeping Lady" and the glare ice.

Andy and Joe had made a quick pit stop and Joe got in front of me again and maybe even another rider or 2 as I was doing some refueling. He and 2-3 other riders were on the ice of Flat Horn lake stretched out 1-2 miles in front of me as I got back on my bike and took off.

Stopped on the trail for few seconds to get this shot. Andy, Joe and Sleeping Lady.

As I made my way across the rest of Flat Horn lake I noticed where bikes were leaving the lake and entering the shore and I make a bee-line for that point. During the melt down from a few weeks ago snowmobiles that had been out on the soft ice cut ruts and formed ridges in the ice. The surface of the ice would go from these ruts and ridges to just plain glare ice to areas of snow. It was better riding further out and the direct line to the entrance took me that way as well so I utilized this route.

After getting off the ice, where I just concentrated on staying up and moving, I started to hammer it. We were riding through a swamp and I started to pick off bikes. As we approached the Susitna River I went around  Joe for the last time and a couple more bikes and started up river on the broken, jagged ice. It was critical to follow the lath with the Su100 markings in this section as it channeled us over and through sections of ice that were rideable vs. the holes and ice pile ups that weren't. I don't think I ever really saw open water, but then I didn't let my eyes wander too much either but focused on the trail.

It wasn't long before I caught 4 more riders that had just entered a section of soft snow, our first and only section that caused one to do some walking or drop air pressure in the tires....or maybe both.

I decided that we weren't even at the half way point yet so I'd just walk/run a bit to get a break from the bike and also get my toes warmed up good even though temps were probably in the teens and my feet/toes felt fine from the Arrowhead 135 frostbite episode of a few weeks ago.

After a bit I too lowered my tire pressure some to float as the guys were back building up a pretty good lead on me. I didn't want to take out too much air so I'd have to stop and take the time to pump in some more should the trail become ice hard again and high tire pressure would allow for faster speeds.

It wasn't much longer and I came up to the next check point. I drank some of their water and looked at my speedometer as I got ready to take off. The shooting glasses don't have the small magnifiers my other glasses have and I was never able to confirm if the mileage unit was in kph or mph although I could see the actual read out for speed and the total distance ridden. That might sound strange but by the time I got to this check point I had convinced myself that it was reading mileage in kph as I just didn't think we could be riding fast enough for it to be in mph for total miles even though it was displaying the actual speed in mph...stupid stuff to bother with on the trail, but it happens.

After looking down at the display and seeing 47 and multiplying it by .6 I asked the check point person if we were at 27-28 miles and he said NO! we were at mile 46! I couldn't believe it, almost at the half way point....I just wasn't looking consistently enough at the display to be convinced it was in mph and not kph.
In any case, with that I took off to catch the 4 guys in front of me.

I picked off one guy and then caught the other 3. It wasn't long before another person dropped off the pace and that left three of us riding together for the next 50 miles or so.

We took turns leading as we also took turns eating and drinking which prompted the lead changes. One of the guys, Ben (29 years old), was talking a bit and asked me a few questions. When it came out that I was from Wisconsin, the other guy, Justin (30 years old), kind of looked sideways at me as we were riding abreast at that time and verified by way of a question if I was indeed from Wisconsin. With my confirmation, it was obvious to me by his tone and facial expression that he seemed to make a decision that no one from WI was going to beat him.

When I was in the lead, I'd ride at about 90-95% of my energy level to see if they were going to hang.....and they did. When we'd trade the lead it seemed we'd drop the pace a little, from about 12-13mph to 9-10mph.
Both Ben and Justin commented after the race that when I came up at them at mile 50 or so it seemed like I had just started the race and that they had to pick up the pace 2-3 mph to stick with me which makes sense I guess as I did catch them after all.

As we rode into the Cow Lake check point at mile 77 I took inventory on myself. I just felt there was no point in stopping. I was still able to eat my pizza and chocolate for long and short term energy and I had plenty of water from the previous checkpoint. My legs felt fine as did my lungs. I only stopped long enough to initial the log and I took off.
Ben and Justin stopped for 7 minutes or so to eat some soup and drink a Coke they later told me.

I crossed Cow Lake and the trail turned into another narrow winding path with many ups and downs with some being quite steep and I walked some of them. Looking back I couldn't see that anyone was following me, but I knew they were. What remained to be seen was were they going to be able to make up the difference and was I going to be able to press on to stay in front of them.

Later, at around mile 88 or so, I looked back on a long straight stretch and I saw a rider. One of the guys was running me down. It was a bit too far to sprint, but I did try to pick up my pace, but down deep I knew that unless the oncoming rider was super extending himself to catch me, he'd pass me and take over 3rd position.

At the 91 mile check point Justin passed me and his smile could have powered all the lights in a small village and at mile 95 Ben politely asked if he could come around me as well.

I decided to hang with Ben as long as possible and we took off trying to catch Justin. 
I was still riding at 12-13 mph in some twitchy conditions which I felt was a pretty good pace for me after almost 100 miles but Ben was slowly pulling away. We got to a tight left turn and Ben went down hard on the ice with his skinny tired 29er which I assume had studs but found out later he didn't at least in the rear.
I hung to the left and slowed down a little as he popped up quickly and got back on without relinquishing his lead. He didn't seem to have hurt himself or his bike and he started to pull away some again.

After this I could see that Ben wasn't going to blow up (nor Justin as well, for that matter) and I decided to just enjoy the last 2-3 miles in.
I knocked it down a hair and tried to mentally capture the landscape in the late afternoons flat light to try to imprint it in my mind for future enjoyment.

A 5th place finish out of around 64 riders that finished and being close to getting 3rd was much better than I ever could have expected. I finished 45 minutes or so behind the leader, again, better than I'd have predicted.

I had a great time with some good kids out on the course. As always in these races, the race directors and volunteers are fantastic. Coupled with all of that was Bill Fleming at 9:zero:7, Steve and Kathi and most satisfying, Lynn being there, it was an experience that I'll always treasure.

To just be healthy enough and the opportunity to be at the starting line was reward enough not counting the fun race and satisfying finish.

Another point of view.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Arrowhead 2014

"That's not frostbite, my toes just look like that because they've been drenched in sweat for the past 12 hours"

And with that, ultimately, Arrowhead 135 for 2014 came to a close for me. 72 miles and 12:04 hours into the race, my first attempt at it on a fat bike after 2 xc ski finishes ends. Ironically, I always felt that the one thing that would prevent me from finishing the race skiing would be cold feet in thin xc-ski boots. My feet sweat so much (hence my love of going mountain biking barefoot in my clipless sandals?) and after a harrowing canoe trip over 10 years ago or so, where I had to walk in knee deep snow while portaging in ankle deep water, my feet have never really been the same when it comes to extreme cold.

Arrowhead 2014 was sizing up to be one of if not the coldest of it's 10 year history. There were years where absolute lower temps were observed like -41 in 2011, but 2014 was looking to produce sustained temps lower than any year before.
-24 F with -43 to -50 degree windchill at the start. Forecast was for temps not to be over -10 the first day and -30 to -35F the first night followed by a high below 0 for the second day. Second night lows of -15 to -20 and then a warming trend for the 3rd day with a high of 10-15 above 0. Basically, of the 60 hours of the race, it might get above 0F for only a few of the last hours of the last day, when just about everyone that was going to finish would have already.

First Facebook posting of the race, a few hours before I'd be at the starting line:

"4AM. Should be sound asleep but the fan in the heat register is in the process of grinding its guts (bearings) out trying to keep up to whatever is inches away through a thin wall that's sucking all the heat from my motel room.
This has been going on since 2:30AM.
I turned off the wall unit and stacked all the extra blankets on me and short of putting on what I plan to ride in tomorrow hoped to stay warm and fall back asleep. No go. Now instead of losing just one night of sleep it looks like it'll be closer to 2.
The bike is ready to go so am I, albeit a bit earlier than expected and desired."

Staying warm in the motel the night before the race.

Got to the start in fine shape, if even a bit earlier than normal for me, and got to talk to a few of the racers. Everyone was tight with anxiety as to what to expect out there.

Within minutes the hounds were released and we were on our way. With the brutal cold came a hard packed track that was expected to contribute to a possible new coarse record. What was hard to judge was how the cold would affect racers, gear and bikes.

As with all races, I start out a bit stiff and slow. Normally after 15-20 minutes I'm warmed up and the pain in my legs and lungs subsides. This morning was no different. I had to stop in the first 2 miles to remove my goggles. Completely fogged up.
The face protector I had on was the half face kind similar to the one below. It's thick and protects well, but also traps all of the vapor coming out of ones lungs. It's great at avoiding frostbite at these temps, but the majority of the warm air tends to escape up or down as the mouth opening is too small and it also starts to ice over.
So, goggles were the first to go and then a few hours later, I had to open my jacket zipper to cool down. The moist air condensed and dropped onto the top of my cockpit bag and frame bag in a fairly steady stream forming into ice almost instantly. It also iced up the top of my jacket, so I fought with iced zippers all race. When the temps dropped towards nightfall I started to feel a burning on my neck so I tried to pull the zipper up on my jacket but couldn't. I reached inside my jacket and zipped up the Icebreaker as high as I could. That took care of the burning but a birthmark like spot of frostbite showed up a couple of days later.

But, the mask did allow warm air to move up and keep my cheeks, eyes and ears warm enough that I didn't need eye-wear and as mentioned, no frostbite on my face.
What the outfit looked like out on a practice run a few days earlier during the Polar Vortex. Conditions almost exactly like the start of the race. -50 windchill.

Top of my cockpit and frame bag coated with ice from moisture dripping out the bottom of my mask.

I arrived at the first checkpoint 35 miles and 5 hours later feeling pretty good. My goals there were to eat a few pieces of my pizza and drink as much water as I could. It was hard to eat and drink on the trail and especially while on the bike and I had wanted to stay on the bike as much as possible so I wanted to pile in as many calories as possible.

When I walked into the checkpoint a I saw a couple of the top riders that had dropped. One from cramps and one from nausea. I then heard that the winner from the year before and current coarse record holder had been pulled due to frostbite. I mentioned to one person I knew I had wet feet but they felt good and I figured that after 5 hours if my feet were going to have an issue it would have happened by now.
I didn't even really consider changing my socks....a bad decision. After 10 minutes I started to shiver some and I mentioned to a couple of riders I needed to get back on the bike and get the furnace stoked up again. 14 minutes in the checkpoint.
It didn't help that so many of the people at the checkpoint looked like they were done whether they actually were or not....and that they were just looking for a reason to stop. With that I took off feeling in good shape and in good spirits. I felt the rest of the race was going to be more of the same but with some walking thrown in as the hills were awaiting. As for my feet, I figured the walking was going to go a long way in helping to keep them warm.

Yours truly. On the trail. Photo credit to Burgess Eberhardt.

When I pulled into the mid-point check station I starting peeling off my wet clothes. In the process of removing my boots, outer sock and vapor barrier bag there were ice cubes frozen to the ends of both of my big toes attached to my inner, sweat soaked socks. They were about the diameter of my thumb and about half as long. I broke them off and removed my inner sock.

The volunteers rushed over and exclaimed that I had frostbite. That's when I stated the opening line of this post, that they were white/ashen and cold to the touch due to being basically in water for the past 12 hours. They disagreed, but were going to allow some time to verify their observations. It was going to be a hard case for me to argue I thought, seeing that there were ice cubes frozen to the ends of my feet. Dah!

The evidence...yeah, the toes look a little bit black on the tips. The skin never died and peeled like my neck and ear lobe though. Yes, the toes were cold to the touch immediately out of the boots, but like I mentioned above, there was ice froze to the socks they were in for cripes sake!

With that I started chowing down soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking water and hot cider that the Angels just kept on bringing. And Angels they are!!
After 20-30 minutes or so one of the volunteers asked me if I wanted to officially DNF. I said not really, that I'd preferred we took some time to see what the status of my toes would be after some more time as we had discussed originally and she said ok, but we both kind of knew what the out come was going to be.

I understood the rules. This year anyone diagnosed with frostbite would be removed from the race for their own safety, the safety of other racers and the safety of volunteers out on the coarse.

Interestingly, one of my biggest fears this year was what would happen if I came up on a racer that was disabled due to the cold. I went through my gear in my mind how I would help them and not jeopardize myself in the process while we waited for help/rescue. We've all heard of people that remove their clothes thinking they were hot....would they act like a drowning victim and fight their only hope of survival? Being prepared may not only concern yourself in a rescue, it could be saving yourself and another person. Hard to prepare for that even if it is a plan D or E or F down the list.

I knew that one of the bike favorites was pulled at the first checkpoint due to frostbite on his face as mentioned earlier. He had appealed and was denied re-entry from what I was told. I didn't know the severity of his condition but really, it didn't matter. There was no subjectivity of the condition, only that if frostbite was discovered one was automatically out.
I knew it would be unfair to allow me to go on and not him. I respect the race, the people who race it and the people who run it to consciously cause some kind of controversy and it was at the forefront of my thinking at the time, even more so than if my feet were frostbit.
I really didn't think, even if they had gotten nipped, that my toes were in any real long-term danger.
I had really tried to stay focused on my feet during the race, constantly taking mental inventory of them, and I just couldn't remember ever thinking they were in any danger. Although only 14 minutes at the first checkpoint, I kind of thought that if they were in danger, I'd pickup the tell tale signs there by walking and being off the bike.

I decided to go to the cabin we rented to call my wife as I wanted to bounce it off someone not so close to the race. We would discuss the situation. She'd know how much I would want to finish but yet she'd also know...well, I just felt she'd have more level thinking than I would at this time considering the circumstances.

The main items:
- the biker had been pulled, it wouldn't be fair for me to be allowed back in if indeed I had frostbite.
- I didn't want to start the next 40 mile section, which was very remote in the dead of night with -30 to -35 temps expected, if indeed my feet had been "bit" I knew they would be much more susceptible to another hit. I did not want to jeopardize myself nor other racers if I needed to be rescued.
- I had to be at a job site in 2 days ready to work on my feet for 2 days. I didn't want to chance not making it to work or to show up not being able to do my job properly or not  be there at all and instead in some hospital.
- We had tickets to Alaska for 2 races I was going to do the first one coming up in in 3 weeks. I didn't want to jeopardize that trip.
 Lynn and I decided it wasn't worth it to head back out even assuming I had a choice in the matter.
Just wasn't worth the risk.

I went to take a shower and was expecting the pain when the hot water hit my toes. Back at the time of the canoe trip my feet never hurt so bad before or after as during that warmup process and I was preparing for that same intense burning feeling....but it never came.
There were a few times sharp needle like pain was present over the next hour or two but that was it.
In any case with that, I went back to the race checkpoint cabin and announced my DNF.
Andy Chadwick, from the UK, didn't fare as well. He came in about 2 hours behind me to find his feet frostbit. That night and the next morning they didn't look all that bad, but after a few days one foot got much worse. Not sure if this is Second or Third degree frostbite. This helped convince me the race officials and I made the right decision.

I talked to a racer in the checkpoint cabin that ended up with frostbit finger tips. When he noticed his hands were getting super cold very fast he pulled heavier gloves (that were cold) out of his bike pack  and put them on but that didn't help. He then bivied and inside his sleeping bag he did all he could to warm his hands. Although I never looked at his fingers, my son Chris did  and he said they had blackened tips.
Chris told me that he had an episode where his fingers became instantly cold as well but he just pulled on another layer of mittens he had attached to his wrist and they warmed up without any issues.
No margin of error this year. One wrong or even late move and things could turn south (or north as the case maybe, towards the cold) quickly.

As for my boot setup, I started with a light woolish FITSOK, a vapor barrier bag, then medium wool socks and Keen Summit boots with 400 gram insulation/-20F rated, and NEOS Navigator 5 overshoe/-20F rated over it all. It's obvious this setup wasn't enough for these conditions, at least for my wet feet, but hindsight may reveal that it WAS a pretty good setup. If it was any less, I might have gotten a bad case of frostbite.
Bottom line, I really believe not changing my wet sock and using powder would have made the difference. Maybe some year I'll get the chance to prove it.

The resort bar was still open so I went and got a few beers and talked to some of the folks there. Most were friends of racers out on the coarse.

Then I went to the cabin and went to bed. 2 bikers that were sharing our cabin, Tom and Bob, came to the cabin around 3:30AM after getting in to the checkpoint around 1AM. Chris came in around 6:15AM and Helen around 7:30AM, both on foot. All 4 rested and continued their race and finished.

I then caught a ride back to the start with the dad of one of the bikers in our group to get my Jeep and Chris's. Had to jump mine due to a dead battery after 2 -30/-35 degree nights, Chris's started, obviously a better battery!

The Race Director asked if I could help out and pick up a foot racer that was at a road crossing who had dropped out as I had 4 WD.

After that I jumped ahead on the trial and tried to catch Helen and Chris and people I knew a few times before I headed south to attend to my work responsibilities.



The "guys"...see pics below. Fun time!

Winter in Wisconsin, 2014

Had to post this. Buddy Randy (photo credit to his girlfriend Genevieve I believe) airing it out in more ways than one this past weekend on the Greenbush trails.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Coming up, Arrowhead 2014 report.

To get stories from others click link....Arrowhead 2014