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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?