When Ed and Ann first created the White Mountains 100 race 3 years ago I was immediately drawn to it. As opposed to the (in my mind) boring slog of the Susitna 100 course, the WM 100 is in the rolling mountains north of Fairbanks in a far flung wilderness area that I doubt I would visit if it were not for an event like this. Good excuse to sign up for a 100.
The question lingered.. Bike or Ski? I knew I did not want to have repeats of knee inflammation and the doubts of failure that come with "knowing" an old injury will flare up. So I put the idea of biking out the door all together and started training in December for the longest skate ski of my nordic existence. It took some getting used to. I know what it feels like to bike for 12+ hours, but I'm usually pretty well thrashed after 2 or 3hrs nordic skiing, so knew I needed a way more solid base for the skate specific muscles. Then came all the other stuff that not comes with it, basically figuring out backcountry enduro skate skiing. I did a bunch of (cold) 4+ hr skis in December leading to the 50 mile sufferfest Frosty Bottom in January. Did not get many other long skis other than the usual daily exercise under my belt until a few weeks before the race where I did some 5 hr jaunts with a pack to beat my self up. Raced the 50k classic in the Oosik to get super sore the weekend before the Whites (not the best idea but great fun) and my training was complete.
Along the way I confirmed that traveling light was key and that I really needed to stay on top of the calories for these long skis. Unlike biking where if my blood sugar dives I can still plug along spaced out but moving... skate skiing does not offer that luxury (for me at least), things get ugly really quick when you don't take care of yourself due to the coordination involved.
Anyway, off we go. 6 hr drive north to Fairbanks, jolly group of skiers Abby, Chris Wood and Drew Harrington. Pre-race meeting, crashed at Jeff Oatley's place. Awake at 5:00 brewing coffee and eating manfest with Brain Hartman and Tim B who ended up going on to win it. Temps around 7 degrees on the rolling drive north to the start. Off we go.
The setup, .5L nalgene on the shoulder strap (carried 1L more in pack) and 2 modified mtn feedbags on the waist belt, all worked fantastic.
The fast skiers, Rob on the right was gunning it with the lead bikers till mile 60-70 until the trail got bomber for riding.
Surprisingly enough I had zero jitters at the start, I was really relaxed. When someone yelled "GO" I looked over and saw Drew in a last minute panic with a binding problem, so I helped him for a minute while mostly everyone save the walkers cleared out, then started almost dead last in a nice and relaxed pace trying trying to get around people on the initial climb. The sunlight increased dramatically showing through diffuse snow laden clouds. It would snow on and off through the whole race, moments of bluebird, moments of blizzard.
At some point I caught up to Chris Wood, which was fun since we used to work together and we were both equally psyched about the race. Chris is a strong dude and has been skiing way longer than me, so I was happy to pace and swap leads with him for this whole first leg. Right away though the trail was FUN, really fun, lots of climbing and really fast micro-air-catching downhills which on nordic gear is pretty exciting.
Climbing and more climbing. Tips catching, bikers everywhere, such was the story all the way to CP1 which ended with a mile long climb just barely wide enough to hack away skating up. The bikers were all walking so I passed quite a few. CP1 was a few wall tents and some trail side snacks. Chris pulled in right behind me. I pounded some warm water, fritos and cookies and took off. I'm not one for checkpoints really and I did not want to cool down much from the big up hill. The trail from there followed a broad ridge line that continued to climb and descend through an old burn. This was my least favorite part of the race. The trail was the worst, soft and narrow on the climbs with bits of veg that liked catching ski tips causing face plants. I started leap frogging with a crew of bikers including Michael Braun, which was great, some of the other guys were a bit too serious for my tastes never saying much of anything. Misery loves company so might as well laugh about it, ok fine I'll just laugh to myself.
photo by M. Braun. notice the impeccable technique.
The burn did provide a sense of getting deeper and deeper out there, which I love. Big views off into big wilderness. A place you could just disappear into were it not for a ribbon of trail snaking around a 100 mile loop...
Finally the big descent down to Beaver creek. It was basically a 2 step descent, the first being a long straight shot screamer laden with craters and trenches left by bikers, then a flat, then a really steep drop down to the creek itself with a 90 deg right at the bottom. Ho LE SHIT, this descent was nuts. I started going really fast on the first part sketching out and floating over bike craters before I said BRAKES! and sat down for a half controlled half crash butt slide. ok that worked, nothing broken.. Thinking I was good I put my mitts back into the ski straps (bad idea) and skied the flats and started bombing drop #2, snow plow, oh fuck, too fast, I'm gonna eat it, edge edge turn runn it out yyyeaaaaahhh made it to the creek unscathed and all fired up and proceeded to stomp out the rolling 6 miles to Cache mtn cabin under blue skies. Doing it, feeling good 40 miles in.
I pulled into Cache mtn and found Bill Pearson and his sister Kate getting ready to head out. I was psyched to see them since it meant I was actually keeping a decent pace going. They good skiers and have both done the race in the past. But for now it was time to chow. Cache mtn was to be a fuel up spot for me. Gloves over the stove, sit down, lean against the wall and shovel in baked potato covered with moose chili & cheese, chased down with coke, cookies and pringles. Does not get any better for checkpoint fuel. Chris pulled in pretty soon after me and started the same routine. His back was bugging him so he stayed a while and unfortunately this was the last I'd see him for the race. Right after Cris was Russ Devries who was skiing on Classic gear. I could not freaking believe it and was really impressed he was going so fast. Russ ended up finishing about an hour after me. Maybe I need to come back and Classic ski it next time and see what I'm missing...
Hard to leave CP2 with the sun shining and abundant food but there's a pass to climb out there. The trail basically is flat then starts to gradually climb and climb and climb to Cache mountain Divide, the high point on the course. It was hot. mid-20's with sun. I was roasting in the effort and finally threw in the towl and took off the thin tights I had under my pants. This was a bit of a trail side chore that took a few minutes and I second guessed myself several times knowing that I was heading up high into snow and wind. oh well. I was hot. At the start of the climb the trail was infuriatingly narrow. I walked a few of the short steep ones and started to get down... then.... the bulb went off and I dug out the secret weapons. nano-skins armed I started stomping away, climbs be dammed I was moving. Not much glide but I was basically running and putting out far less energy than trying to marathon skate or walk it. Head down, stomp, stomp. If I keep it up and don't stop it's going to work. Higher. Passing bikers, more bikers, ski boot foot prints.. 2 sets of ski boots prints! - Bill and Kate. I'm gonna get them damn it. stomp stomp. post hole tracks, another biker. stomp stomp. fewer trees...getting colder, snowing more.. why did I take off my tights?... these gloves suck.. wait.. is that Bill?? with a defeated look he yells,"DO YOU HAVE A SKIN?" "I have TWO!" I catch Bill really close to the pass, I feel bad for him, but not enough to linger, he's going to out ski me anyway so I might as well get some ground. Almost white out conditions at the pass but basically a party going on of snowmachiners. This was the one dichotomy of this event - it's in a remote wilderness area, but you're never more than 12 miles from a cabin and there is a small army of safety and support staff out there. But this was fun as I feeling great having made such good time up the climb. Skin's ripped, hoodini armed, puff mitts on - Down.
Photo by Josh Spice
Totally flat light, can't see shit. just 4" wide tire trenches and craters from crashing bikers, passed 2 guys hip-deep wallowing off the trail. a bit of skating and I hit the famed Ice lakes meeting up with Michael Braun and Bill again. The ice lakes are a section of massive overflow ice sloping downhill with usually anywhere from toe to knee deep water on the surface. We had reports of moderate overflow still so I stopped to put garbage bags over my boots/overboots and cliped in, better than nothing. Gingerly double poling onto the ice I almost right away eat it and both my feet go shin deep in ice water. crap. keep moving.
Getting through the lakes went pretty quick and was not too bad. Bill and I skiied out together swooping and gliding down tight trail with some great views of the limestone craigs through the blowing snow. Really a sweet section of the course to travel in any mode. A few short up's and I started roasting and had to drop the wind jacket and swap to my wet thinner lobster gloves. A bit more overflow right before Windy Gap Cabin for the third checkpoint.
Bill near the cool craig's.
On the menu was meatballs and soupy rice, even though I was feeling strong overall, the was starting to catching up to me. My lower back was pretty thrashed and my right elbow tendonitis was cooking a medium burn, this was making me compensate more poling with my left side which and I was slowly getting pretty jacked up from the modified technique. The bummer about Windy Gap was Kate was there feeling like crap and ended up scratching. I was pretty stoked about everything and it was probably not the energy she wanted to hear. So I cleared out of there fairly quick assuming that Bill was going to catch me at some point.
This next leg was wild, from here on out I felt more or less by myself till the finish. The trail was fun, rolling, generally downhill for a bit across ice and swooping through big evergreen forests, a little erie and wild for sure. Michael on his bike started leap frogging until he disappeared ahead of me on a gradual climb.
After about 10 miles the trail hung a left and had a steep climb that I walked up to gain a side valley that the course traversed to get to the Borealis cabin. Light was fading and with the light out went my distractions. I was either totally zoned out completely forgetting miles, or totally focused on some ache, pain or slowly failing muscle group. Of all the checkpoints so far this one I was REALLY ready to get to. Everything was starting to hurt and I did not want to stop to get my light out, temps were dropping and my legs were just barely comfortable without any under layers. But soon enough pulled into the Borealis cabin and wallked up the hill complete with battery run christmas lights. nice touch.
"We love Skiers!" was the reception I got. awesome. I had the place to myself with 2 happy volunteers who immediately offered me everything in their stock, including ramen and homemade bread. yum. I took the opportunity to strip down and dry out my super fleece over the stove and hoped my crappy gloves would dry just a touch. Sufficiently fed and layered up I cleared out when the place started filling up with bikers.
Alright 20 miles with tons more climbing, headlamp on here we go. Almost right off the trail climbs forever. I bailed pretty quick and re-activated my secret weapons. Slow but low energy output, passed the 2 pushing bikers with ease even though they flew by me on the flats shortly after. Off camber ice, more overflow, rolling terrain. Headlamps dancing in space ahead of me, flashing red lights taunting me. Were they 2 miles ahead or 200 feet? I could not tell. Reached the 90 mile trail shelter feeling pretty thrashed but stopped in to say hi to Robin and Dean. Robin snapped me out of my funk by putting boiling water in my bottle which I proceeded to chug and we all know how that goes. tasted nothing for about a day. whatever, I have the wall to climb so let's get it over with.
When the hell am I going to get to this thing? The famed Wickersham wall climbs about 1,000' to gain the ridge were were to get back to the start. But just getting to it felt like forever. I had the thought that 80 or even 90 mile ski races might be better idea than 100's. At some point the skies cleared and the temps started to drop. I could not really tell though if I it was an actual temp drop of if my body was just not putting out any extra heat, either way it was getting chilly, gone were the pangs of heat and sweat when battling up short climbs. There was one bad overflow section right at the base of the wall, I went ankle deep in water and immediately had to hike up the bank on the other side. Instant binding ice down. I spent about 15 or more minutes here trying to get clipped back into my bindings and had to resort to digging out the little can of lock de-icer I bought just for the occasion. To the wall - skins back on and stomped away. Kept a steady pace and got to the top without much trouble, switching to striding was a nice change as my skate muscles were toast.
I stole this photo from Josh Spice's blog. This is the view from the top of the wall, except imagine it in total darkness with a 50' headlamp beam. I need to come back here and go faster to see it the daylight.
Backtracking for 6 miles the way we came out from the start to finish. I was wasted and could barely skate at this point. The colder temps, fresh snow and wax job with 95 miles in it made it all feel really, really slow. Working hard for the glide. More climbing, walking the steep ones. Snowmachine moguls, are you kidding me? am I bonking so close to the finish? can't be... did we really descend so f-ing much in the beginning of the race? endless climbing. one mile to finish sign and a fun fast rolling downhill to end it.
Somehow it was almost 3:00am when I finished, but in the darkness I had lost all sense of time. It was so good to be done, so much had happened. The White's had delivered. Walking away from it the race was everything that was expected and more. Beautiful, hard and above all, really fun with the best organization you could imagine. Thank you Ed and Ann for the hard work and to all the many volunteers that make this event so awesome.
The aftermath.. Abby finished about an hour after me totally rocking it being the first woman skier, we tried driving back to Fairbanks and had a nap car bivy en-route. Slept about 5 hrs in Fairbanks then drove 6 back to Anchorage. Happily I felt pretty much recovered with no injuries within a few days but have generally been lazy since. Breakup is upon us and I'm looking foreword to biking again after such a ski focused winter.