What a Drag: Joe Grant’s Susitna 100 Experience

The night is perfectly still. The wind is only perceptible in the dance of the silvery fairy dust in the beam of my headlamp. The Northern Lights mix greens and shimmery blues into the dark sky. In the far distance, I can see the bright light of a snow machine. I wonder for a moment, if he would see me collapse? How long would I lie here before being found? Would I sink into the snow and dissolve into this sea of silence, cold and ice? This is my second time crossing this five-mile stretch of choppy, frozen gunge referred to as the Dismal Swamp. Eighty miles deep into the race and I can barely keep myself standing up. I am zigzagging left and right, lightheaded from low blood sugar, struggling to keep my eyelids open. My lower leg tendons are on fire, screaming at me from the extended use of my snowshoes. Shooting pains run through my right IT band and lower back. Hunched over, I stagger forward, hands on hips trying to prop up my flailing core. I step to one side and punch through the snow to mid-calf. Before I can stabilize myself, Fatty, my sled, gives me a customary shove in the lumbar area bringing me to my knees. Somehow, I get back up again. There is no bravado in my move, no heroic triumph of pushing through a low point, rather an overwhelming feeling of despair, knowing that forward is the only way this will end.

This is my first time in Alaska, my first time dragging a sled and my first time running on snow and ice for a hundred miles. So much for never trying something new on race day. The Susitna 100, like several other long distance winter races in Alaska, gives racers the option of choosing between traveling on foot, bike or ski. Bikes are by far the most popular option with a vast majority of people sitting atop their fat tires with gear neatly strapped around their frame, saddle and handle bars. Skis appear to be the next best choice, offering individuals the possibility to carry the required gear in a pack instead of towing it in a sled. Then comes foot travel, my mode of transport for the day, which is by far the slowest, least efficient and arguably hardest (definitely dumbest) method of covering endless miles on snow and ice. Adding to that fact the dragging of a 25-pound sled (15 pounds of required gear, plus food, water and sled weight) and there is an absolute guarantee of a tough slog.

2012 Susitna 100 start

Susitna 100 start. Photo: Joe Grant

My sled tips over, within a few hundred yards of the start, on the first turn of the race. Thomas Burton, last year’s winner, kindly flips it back over for me. I am somewhat surprised that it tips so easily, but figure it is probably just due to the sharp turn on a crowded trail. Over the next couple miles, it flips several other times, a trend that increases in frequency as I progress onto the ski moguls that line most of the trail for the twenty miles leading to Flat Horn Lake- the first check point. Beside the flipping, my real issue lies in the ineffective harness system that straps Fatty to my waist. For every two steps forward, I take one step back. The harness loosens constantly and has too much play around my mid-section causing perpetual jarring on my lower-back. I find a temporary solution, unstrapping the belt and pulling it along with my arms down by my side. This eliminates the jarring and tipping, but is taxing and inefficient. I am working way too hard this early struggling with this system. When I reach the lake, Dave Johnston passes me with a cheerful greeting and inquires about my harness issues. He tells me the trail now flattens out for quite a while which should help, then pushes on with a smooth, powerful stride. He wears a three foot long braided pony tail and an Elmer Fudd hat, so he definitely has extra style points on me. He also lives in the area and spends countless hours dragging his sled around, making it apparent that he is very much in his element. It will take a mighty effort on my part to keep up with this burly Alaskan man.

Trail paralleling Ayrshire Road.

Trail paralleling Ayrshire Road. The first and last 3 miles of the course. Photo: Joe Grant

My transition through the first checkpoint is efficient and I stop only to refill my water. Back on Flat Horn Lake, the snow is punchy. Anticipating further sloppy conditions, I slip on my snowshoes but, soon realize that they are more of a hindrance than a help, so I take them off again. Small adjustments such as these waste precious time and let Dave gradually pull further and further ahead. I am still running mostly, switching only occasionally to a walk when the snow gets too soft. The temperatures are surprisingly warm, hovering somewhere in the mid-20s to low-30s. I make my first crossing of the Dismal Swamp, which lives up to its name and with my back now acting up, I feel about as good as the swamp. Despite wearing just a long sleeve and a windbreaker, I am working up a sweat and am pretty much soaked through by the time I reach the Susitna River. With the wind kicking up, I soon get chilled. Enough areas of my body are in pain that I have plenty to focus on for this interminable stretch to Luce’s Lodge – the next checkpoint at mile 41.

pulling sled Susitna 100

Happy sled pulling early on. Photo: Joe Grant

Laboring this hard this early, the prospects of a successful run at my first frozen hundred are not looking too good. Before long, several bikers have made it past me voicing encouragements along with another runner, John Logar. He looks strong and has a dialed albeit heavy looking setup. It is nice to chat with him for a bit and I learn that he did Arrowhead 135 the previous year, so he is familiar with this type of idiocy. He soon pulls ahead though. I try to lock into his rhythm from a distance, which gives me good incentive to keep pushing. My back pain is worsening, my hip flexors tightening, my feet are too crammed in my shoes with the Goretex vapor barriers. The course is chewing me up physically and mentally. Dropping out of the race is not an option as there is a $250 evacuation fee to be airlifted off the course. I am too cheap for that and am thankful that there are not any other alternatives as I would easily be tempted to succumb to my weaknesses.

Classic Alaskan ice beard

Classic Alaskan ice beard. Photo: Joe Grant

I take more time transitioning through Luce’s as I change my top and jacket, fill up my water and buy a coke and a couple of snickers. The added comfort of the warm, dry clothes along with some sweet calories help my morale. I pad my harness by tying a thick shirt around my lower back. This seems to improve the pulling on smooth surfaces, but the damage to my back is already done with the agony never letting up. To my surprise, I rapidly catch John who is taking a twelve-mile “walk break” from Luce’s to the turn around at Alexander Lake. The trail offers some rare variation, climbing off the Yentna River up a 10-foot wide trail through the trees. I pretend for a moment that the organizers of the race came to their senses and decided that we would go up Mt. Susitna after all instead of skirting the beauty. Soon enough though I am back out on the wide open nearly featureless expanse of frozen land aiming for some cabin out there ahead, with nothing more than a friendly smile and a bowl of hot soup awaiting me. The night has brought welcome changes to the race dynamic. There is something warming, reassuring to feel like I exist only in the globe of my headlamp light. It is easier to focus on breath and forget about the mind numbing vastness of the terrain that surrounds me. Seeing other racers’ lights flash ahead gives me small objectives to work toward and breaks up the monotony.

John and I are both together through Alexander Lake and neither of us lingers too long in the warm haven. I had crossed paths with Dave on this out and back section and estimated that his lead had now increased to about an hour and a half. He seemed to be having a fine time looking unshakable with cheer still in his voice. He was also wearing his snowshoes, which prompts me to follow suit. Aided by a string of seven double espresso gels in a row, I find a good surge of energy alternating a ferocious forced march and jog-slog return to Luce’s. When I arrive, I have cut thirty-five minutes off his lead. Trying to refill my water bladder, I fumble with my drink mix and spill some powder on the carpet of the lodge. The owner comes over to me, informs me that there is a vacuum cleaner in the back and asks me to take care of my mess. So, here I am at 1 a.m. in hot pursuit of Dave, suddenly stunted in my efforts by having to vacuum a bit of spilled drink mix powder. Thankfully, a volunteer kindly offers to help and sets me on my way.

Junction of the Su100 and the Little Su 50K

Junction of the Su100 and the Little Su 50K. Photo: Joe Grant

In my hasty departure, I take a short wrong turn on the Susitna River straight out of the lodge, losing another 15 minutes. Urgh! Fatty feels fatter, the course, as one biker later commented, “Feels straighter than ever before” and my surge resulted in nothing but another huge waist of energy. Now, more of the same: bad back, bad IT band, slogging on snow and ice (what’s new?) and yes, my feet hurt. At three to four miles per hour, forward progress is absurdly slow. I do eventually get back across the Dismal Swamp and to Flat Horn where some steaming jambalaya, corn bread, brownies and coffee save the day. I would never eat this way in a normal race but I am going so slow that nothing really matters anymore.

View of Mt. Susitna from the Dismal Swamp

View of Mt. Susitna from the Dismal Swamp. Photo: Joe Grant

With sixteen miles to go, I have at best four more hours of misery left. Realistically though, it will be closer to five or six. Five or six hours!? I simply block this fact completely out of my mind. This last stretch across the Susitna Flats are referred to as the fault line, which is essentially the frozen version of Death Valley. The path ahead stretches interminably to the horizon. I see phantom sled dogs running across the trail. For a moment, I think I see Dave fixing his sled up ahead. As I near the spot my eyes are fixed upon, his image fades into small trees and bushes rustling in the wind. My mind is slowly being taken over by delirium.

John Logar Susitna 100

John Logar up ahead on the Susitna River before Luce's Lodge. Photo: Joe Grant

Even the stunning rise of the sun on the Alaska Range ahead does little to perk me up. I have never hurt this badly. I have never felt such an intense, overwhelming feeling of abject misery. The trail continues on and on and on and on. Crippling my body so early on has made this endeavour far more soul-wrenching than I had ever imagined. Finally, I reach Ayrshire Road, which we had paralleled at the start of the race some ninety-seven miles ago. I am nearly there. Nearly, is relative as it takes me a full fifty minutes to cover the last 3 miles. When I turn the final corner the only person there is Veronica, a race official. In classic ultra fashion, she gives me a pat on the back and tells me well done. And, that is it. I do not feel a sense of accomplishment or finality, just relief. Relief that it is over and that I will not have to drag that wretched sled a single step further.

2012 Susitna 100

Mid-morning sun just before the finish. Photo: Joe Grant

The hardship I went through on my run contrasts with how great the event actually is. The kindness and helpfulness of the volunteers, as well as the other participants, the views and Alaska in general all make for a truly unique and worthwhile experience. While I firmly declared at the end of the race never again, I have already been plotting a return to this wild land. I may not drag a sled again but, certainly, I will be back, to run and most likely up a mountain next time.

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever run a race that you knew would be a slog from the get go?
  • Ever run Susitna or another winter ultra that required pulling a sled? How’d it go for you?
  • Have you ever considered running Susitna? If so, does Joe’s story make you more or less inclined to run it?
Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 45 comments

  1. Hone

    Awesome. You captured that race perfectly. The Dismal Swamp is the worst place on earth.

    Also Dave is a machine. I did a 70 mile training run with him on the course a couple years ago and he let me throw all of my gear on his sled because it would help toughen him up for the race. I still had to work hard to keep up!

    Congrats on the solid race!

  2. Jeff Faulkner

    Joe it doesn't sound like I have the vocabulary to describe how difficult that sounds to me. I like to run in the snow myself, but wow… Huge congrats on finishing, you must feel a great sense of accomplishment.

  3. Steve Ansell

    I ran Susitna last year (much slower than Joe) and did Arrowhead this past month. Joe's report made me long for the relative ease, beauty and enjoyment of the Alaskan slog. It also reminded me that I need to finish my race report for the 135. Congrats to Joe and all the other finishers up there!

  4. dogrunner

    Great job getting through it. But I am more convinced than ever that DOGpower is the premier engine in the winter :) No consolation, I know! And that is not an option in that race anyway, so forget I mentioned it ;)

  5. Tony Mollica

    You have more guts than I could ever dream of having Joe! Thanks for the RR!

    I am doing the Green Jewel 50K on Saturday. When the going gets tough for me, I will remind myself that I am not doing 100 miles in the snow pulling a sled.

  6. Danni Coffman

    Awesome work Joe! It is encouraging to hear that the race is tough for the fast/cool kids too. Su was just plain awesome. I can't imagine getting it done under 30 hours! While it seemed slow to Joe he should feel good about his impressive pace. I admire people able to effectively use snowshoes. I would have gladly chucked mine into the river if it weren't frozen.

  7. Peter Hudec

    Brilliant effort!

    Good to hear/read about people getting out there and pushing their body and mind to the limit. It inspires the rest of us

    No going away In a flash shiny box and well preserved body for you Joe!!!

  8. Kristin Z.

    way to perservere… one thought on your sled/harness system… did you cross your poles connecting the harness to the sled (that hopefully you also have cord running through)?? helps lots to avoid the tipping or the sled trying to get ahead of you on the short steep downhills…

    hearty congrats on trying EVERYTHING new on race day… sometimes, in retrospect, it's JUST the thing to do! and your other 100s will never be the same again. :)

  9. halkoerner

    One of my first 100's was the iditasport on those very trails and lakes. My oh my what I should've know, that you handled very well. The write up and photos are some of the best I have seen and made me 10 years younger for a sec. Congrats on the race!

    hk

  10. Mick

    You are incredible Joe! The pictures coupled with your words breathe life into the dichotomy you described of beauty and pain. Congratulations and Good luck on future runs.

  11. Matias Saari

    Nice report, Joe. Well done grinding it out.

    However, your experience (and seeing you hobble around after finishing) confirms for me that if I ever do the Su100 it will be on skis!

    Allow me a shameless plug to alert people to another Alaska 100-miler, the White Mountains 100 near Fairbanks every March. It's a 100-mile loop of inspiring terrain with plenty of ups and downs. There are 4 log cabin checkpoints with hot food and volunteers so enthusiastic one is tempted to stay awhile. And race organizers trust participants to bring what they feel they need, so with NO MANDATORY GEAR most eschew sleds in favor of backpacks. However, there is a permit cap of 65, so some lose the lottery and don't get in. There are also relatively few runners (7 this year).

    By the way, Dave Johnston is back at it, this time with Geoff R. and others for the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational. The fresh snow is reportedly quite deep.

  12. derrick

    Matias…Yes White Mountains sounds like a great race. Unfortunate with the 65 competitor cap, it's really tough to get in. Another great northern ultra is the Yukon Arctic Ultra in Yukon, Canada. Spectacular scenery and very well organized.

    1. Matias Saari

      Most applicants did get in to WM100 this year (but the growing popularity will make it increasingly harder). I think about 130 applied but many from the wait list got in after those in the first 65 decided not to enter.

  13. GMack

    Thanks for the memories, and laughs. I ran this race in 2007 coming from Dallas and having never trained on snow or pulled a sled. Don't know how I finished. Thought I'd need to see a chiro for my lower back pain from the sled.

  14. Seamus Foy

    I think that's the most well-written race report I have read!

    I don't know if it's intentional, but the first paragraph is a great example of bathos. The opening sounds magical, and then suddenly you're in despair, wondering if anyone would see you collapse. Great writing!

    After reading that, I will not be doing any snow ultras. Congrats on the finish!

  15. Joe Grant

    Thanks, Kristin. Yes, I did cross my poles but the issues I was having were more in the harness. I simply couldn't get it tight enough, which didn't seem like it would be much of an issue at first but torqued the poles in a way that caused the sled to tip a lot on rolling terrain and eventually resulted in back pain. Stuffing a shirt in there helped but the buckle worked itself loose regardless. I'll know next time…

  16. Joe Grant

    Thanks, Matias. You've gotten me excited about White Mountains and I may put in for it next year. I really think that any race in Alaska short or long is worth considering. The mountain running culture is amazing up there…And, yes Su100 was very much the JV race compared to what Geoff, Dave and others are doing on the ITI…simply incredible!

    1. Jared F

      I ran the 50k that same day, just under 7 hours (and that was good enough for 8th!). I could only imagine what you guys went through. Although, I have to admit, while cursing the last 10 miles of the Little Su, the day after I was wanting to run the full for the "experience." I live and train here in Anchorage, so I should be able to dial in my race day prep pretty well.

      So anyway Joe, your post makes the race sound tough, but the crazy people will still do it and it does sound like a great experience. I oddly enough enjoy running at night during the winter, shooting for the 2014 race. If anything, it is worth 4 UTMB points.

  17. Barbara Miller

    Started reading this yesterday, Joe, but stopped when I began to develop sympathetic aches and pains. I have the greatest admiration for what you accomplished and for your splendid written account of it.

    Am I right in thinking you did this of your own free will?

  18. Jared F

    Matias, I have been following the runners up north for the ITI. They have been running, or at least moving, through 2-3 feet of fresh snow! Reports are coming back that bikers are scratching with very few people moving forward. No word from Geoff, but another runner was reporting less than 3 MPH pace! First 60 or so miles in about 36 hours, very very tough year for them. The conditions should improve as they make their way north out of the deep snow though.

    1. dogrunner

      I was in AK for a summer a few years ago, and in Anchorage the first week. Ran in town near the airport, along the coast early one morning. It was foggy and nearly ran into a moose!

  19. Josh White

    That more or less sums up my thoughts Zack. I'm sure every ultra runner is locally known to have a thing for pain, but this particular race has virtually no appeal to me whatsoever. First time I've ever read about a race like that (aside from road races). Joe is AMAZING.

  20. MikeC

    Coastal trail is fun; peak tagging, scree sliding, ridge traversing are epic fun! The best part, it's my backyard, or a 20 minute drive from the airport.

    1. dogrunner

      The biggest problem for me with running in AK is the spectacular scenery in all directions (at least when I was not in wooded areas). Hard to keep an eye on the trail or a lookout for large animals. I suppose you get used to it ;)

      1. Hone

        Anchorage is the best running city in the nation in my opinion. Sure it gets cold in the winter but at least it puts the bears to sleep.

  21. Julien Chorier

    What a great adventure. Congratulations. A new concept to test in the future. You come to France this year?

  22. David Johnston

    Hey Joe, i like my hat….

    was so nice to meet you (at ITI start too) and what a great report…Hurry back up here soon.

    Yea that Luce's lodge owner is a piece of work…one year he made me pick up all the ice that fell off my shoes before i left. He is like the soup Nazi of the North..

    David J

Post Your Thoughts