It’s 8:55 in the morning. The air is crisp, but not abrasively cold. Runners, skiers, bikers, and spectators are bustling around in front of Happy Trails Kennel, anxiously awaiting the sound that will signal the start the day. Em and I are taking care of last minute things since we arrived only about fifteen minutes ago after deviating from the route a few times times, although we had completed it seamlessly yesterday afternoon. My nerves are spiking, which is unusual for me. I normally feel cool and collected at the start of a race; the heightened emotions that kept me awake for most of the night are unfamiliar. Puffs of white fog emit from the crowd with each person’s exhale, and as we all count down, the sled dogs chained to their houses behind the kennel begin to howl together in a crescendo. Five… four… three… two…
|Our one snowy day this winter.|
Emily and I had decided to make the February trip to Anchorage for Susitna in the fall. I moved to a rural community in Southeast Alaska as part of an AmeriCorps VISTA program at the beginning of September, and I had been poking around online trying to find some ultras in the state. Em and I had been chatting online, and I, somewhat jokingly, sent her a link to the website of the Little Su 50k and asked how she felt about meeting in Anchorage to go run the race for my birthday weekend. She told me later that I had caught her at just the right time, and I was pleasantly surprised when we were booking our flights a few weeks later. We would get to Anchorage on Thursday, spend the day relaxing on Friday, run the 50k on Saturday, spend Sunday (my birthday) and Monday enjoying the city post-race, and fly back to our respective homes on Tuesday. We sort of toyed with the idea of doing the 100 instead of the 50k, but it seemed incredibly daunting and ridiculous. We’ll try for the 50k this year, we decided, and then could scope out whether or not the 100 would be doable in the future.
I was traveling to Anchorage for a conference the week that the race opened. Travel from Prince of Wales Island, where I live, is no small feat, and I had a busy few days of flying and getting things underway for the conference. Emily signed up for Little Su, and when I got onto UltraSignup a few days after the race opened, my heart sunk to my stomach when I saw that the race was full. Every year, I learned later, the race fills up pretty quickly. I had looked at the results on UltraSignup and seen only 30-40 runners each year, so it hadn’t occurred to me that this would be an issue. Because UltraSignup until recently only displayed results from runners, I didn’t think about an entry cap that was filled by not just the runners, but the bikers and skiers. I felt like I had a rock in my gut for a few days as I turned this over, emailed with the RDs to ask about a waitlist (there is none) and how many people usually are able to register from forfeited entries (varies from year to year, and they usually go quickly). Do I wait and hope that I get into the 50k? Do I sign up for the 100? Do I just go and hang out in Anchorage while Emily does her race?
Em and I sort of mulled this over for a day or two. Finally, we reached a decision. Emily sent me a text that said, “It took me a while to come to my senses, but I see now that doing the 100 is the obvious thing to do.” We decided that we would both sign up for the 100 and would plan on doing the entire thing together, for the sake of being safe. After all, this race only has six aid stations for 100 miles and could possibly get down far into negative temperatures.
|50k on New Year's Day on the icy roads around Coffman.|
For the next three months, it was hard to think about hardly anything other than this race. I regularly put in 20-30 mile runs around the island where I live, desperately hoping for snow that never came. There was one snowy weekend in November where I was able to haul my friend’s child around in a sled, but I otherwise had no way to test my setup. In Boise, I never had to do long miles by myself, but in Coffman Cove, my long days were always alone, a different mental challenge. In the final month of training, I started dragging a tire around town with me when I walked back and forth to work, hoping that it would prepare me for hauling my gear on a sled.
Beyond just the physical and mental preparations, the months leading up to the race saw a lot of monetary expense related to Su. Most of this was dedicated to the -20 degree bag that is required for the race, which I bought used on ebay and still cost me as much as a month of rent. Additional considerations were the closed cell foam pad, insulated water bottles that would prevent frozen drinking water, microspikes, and other winter gear. I joked with Emily that I was going to add up all of my costs for the race and write it down on something that I could look at during the run if I was ever feeling like I wanted to quit. It’s probably due to willful ignorance that I didn’t follow through with this. After all, good gear is an investment.
I felt that my training was going well, even without any sled pulling. Emily and I both decided that it would be best to forgo our original plan to stick together for the whole race. As our training became more solid and we read more and more about the race, the Su100 got less and less scary. I was still unsure about whether or not I would be able to hack it for a hundred miles, but I was no longer worried about getting lost or freezing to death on the side of the trail. All that required gear is a pain, but it does help to quell the worries and the “what ifs.”
|The ferry ride to Ketchikan.|
February finally came, though still no snow in Coffman Cove. Though it hadn’t been snow-tested, I had created my sled with some u-bolts for bungee cords and some poles to connect to my waist belt, relying heavily on what Em said worked and didn't work for her when it came to the rest of the prep. I also was put in touch with Shawn McTaggart, who lives in the area and is well-versed in long-distance winter running. I packed up my gear for the trip to Anchorage and spend an excruciatingly long Wednesday ferrying and flying to Anchorage on “the Milk Run,” which is a flight that makes several stops on the way to Anchorage to make running the flights more cost-effective for the airline. A two hour drive to the ferry, a three hour ferry ride, and a jumping plane ride later, I was in Anchorage after a sixteen hour day of travel.
|Checking my sled to Anchorage.|
I spent the day on Thursday indulging in things that I had not been privy to for several months: cell service, lattes with soymilk, restaurants with a veggie menu. Emily’s flight arrived right before the pre-race meeting, and we greeted each other quickly before getting to gear check and standing in the queue with the other two hundred people shaking out their jitters.
|We matched on accident.|
Gear check was mostly quick and smooth. The wait in line was long, but it was enjoyable to chat with everyone else getting ready to depart on their own adventures. As with every ultra, you see a lot of people who you may not pick out of the crowd as an endurance athlete- one of my favorite things about the sport. The only difference was that in this crowd, the question was, “Are you going on bike, on skis, or by foot?” After making our way through the snaking line, Emily and I got to the front, where we each were called over to one of the many gear checkers to reveal our required gear: -20 degree bag, which was tagged by the checkers, insulated water bottles, bivy sack, closed cell foam sleeping pad, headlamp, red light, 3000 calories of food, and a minimum of 15 pounds of gear. Once everyone had their gear checked, they gathered in front of the big screen where one of the RDs presented on the usual pre-race info: watch out for moose on the way to the start, stay off the airplane runways on the course, and be sure to tell the aid station workers if you are planning on stopping to bivy up for a nap in between checkpoints.
|Mandatory pre-race soak.|
|Scoping out the race start.|
Emily and I left the meeting and indulged in another meal out, heading back to our hotel and to bed before too long. We enjoyed the hot tub in the hotel on Friday morning, did a bit of running around in town getting food and supplies, and headed out to Wasilla. We drove out to the start to ensure that we would know how to get there in the morning, and spent the rest of the night in the hotel, making the final decisions about what would be coming with us for the 100 mile journey. In an attempt to mitigate the blisters that had plagued me in my last few hundreds, Emily walked me through her foot taping method (here), for which I am eternally grateful. Around ten o’clock, we laid down for our final rest, which turned into a fitful night of sleep for me, and a wakeup that came much too soon.