Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Susitna 100 Race Report

As you can expect, this is going to be a long one. Let's go.

After an uneventful flight on Wednesday, on Thursday evening I went to the pre-race meeting and gear check. The gear check went well and I was amazed at how people were able to have less than 20 lbs of gear. My bag weighted in at 31 lbs and the guy actually laughed. I didn't tell him that I didn't put everything in the bag. They put a seal on the -20F sleeping bag that would be checked at the second checkpoint. Anyone not able to produce the seal was to be disqualified.

The meeting went smoothly. I met Dave, who had somehow accepted to let me sleep at his place on the Friday night even though he didn't know me. Amazing person and runner. More on that later. The meeting was mainly about what would happen when we were going to quit. Part of the gear check was to take a credit card imprint so that they could charge you if you had to be evacuated by plane or snowmobile from one of the checkpoints. Everyone seemed so fit, so strong and confident, that I have to admit that I wondered if maybe I had made a huge mistake. Saturday was coming fast, my gear was way too heavy and all the race director was talking about was how they would evac me and how they had to ADD a bit of distance to go around some overflow on the river. The distances seemed to vast. 

To Finish
Next checkpoint
Pt MacKenzie General Store (start)
0900 Sat
Flat Horn Lake (outbound)
1600 Sat
Luce’s Lodge (outbound)
0300  Sun
Turnaround (Alexander Lk)
0830  Sun
Luce’s Lodge (inbound)
1400  Sun
Flat Horn Lake (inbound)
0100  Mon
Pt MacKenzie General Store (finish)
0900  Mon

The shortest distance  between checkpoint is 12 miles (20km), the longest 22 miles (35km), almost a marathon without aid station. I expected to run about 3mph so that was between 4 and 7 hours between checkpoints. I knew all this before the race, but for some reason I felt a bit gloomy driving back to the hotel. An email from Derrick full of encouragements helped a bit but I felt a bit shaken.

Here's a map of the course:


I had agreed with Dave that I would try to get to his place around noon. I took off early so I could stop at the Iditarod Headquarters for a quick visit. Got to Dave pretty much on time. He greeted me as if we were long lost brothers. We talked about the race a bit and he went back to work. I spent pretty much all afternoon preparing my gear bag. Taking into account the fact that it wasn't going to be really cold, I was able to shed quite a bit of weight, bringing it down to 26 lbs. I was careful not to remove anything I felt uncomfortable leaving behind. I kept the snowshoes even though Dave decided not to bring his.

Dave came back from work, his son in tow, and threw some pizzas in the oven. We ate that as he prepared his gear. I kept asking questions about the course, the conditions, about everything. It was obvious we weren't running the same race. His food consisted of dozens of gels, no real food. His gear weighted in at close to the minimum weight of 15 lbs.

I showed his son how the SPOT web page worked and how he would be able to track me during the race. He really liked to play with that. We talked about the race until about 10pm and then we turned in. I went right to sleep.


We woke up early, had breakfast and left. My car GPS had an estimated arrival time of 8:20, plenty of time. I was about 15 minutes out when I suddenly thought: "Where the f#@K is my hydration vest?". I had put it on a hook the night before so the cats would do their claws on it. I turned around, picked it up and drove back towards the course. I made it with time to spare but I was so pissed off!
Me waving like an idiot

I checked in, confirmed that I was going on foot (you could also ski or bike) and got myself ready to go. I hooked myself to Junior, my sled, seeded myself at the back, posed for some pictures and first thing I knew, we were going. Never heard the actual start.

To Flat Horn Lake - Miles 0 to 22

The first section, to Flat Horn Lake, was the only one where the cutoff time could be an issue. Basically, I had 7 hours to cover 22 miles and get out of the checkpoint. The trail was in fair condition. I thought traction wasn't that great but people kept saying how horrible the previous 2 years had been so I learned to keep my mouth shut on that topic. Mostly. The bikes and most skiers were out of sight after only a few minutes and the pack spread out quickly. After about 5 miles, I could typically only see 1 or 2 other racers. I kept to my 20 minutes run/ 5 minutes walk routine. The course was mostly flat so it was easy to do. When I got to the Nome sign, at mile 12, I still felt strong. The trail was harder than I had expected though. In many place, there were "waves", short ups and downs where you would climb up and down a hump, then as you go down the sled tugs at you and then as you climb up the next one the sled pushes you in the back and the cycles starts all over again. For miles at a time. Miles are long.

I took a picture at the Nome sign, which I heard about watching the Iditarod on Discovery channel.

At some point, the 100 miles course merged with the 50km course and skiers, bikers and runners kept going past me like I was standing still. I eventually made it to the lake. The sun had softened up the trail and I don't remember being able to run much all the way to the checkpoint.  Every time I tried to run, my feet would punch through the trail. By then I was wearing my Katoohla Microspikes (as I would for much of the race) but I kept wondering if I should stop and switch to the snowshoes. In hindsight I should have, but I didn't. I made it to the checkpoint at 2:24, well within the cutoffs. I parked my sled on the lake, went up the huge hill to the cottage and checked in.
Getting close to Flat Horn

Flat Horn to Luce's Lodge - Miles 22 to 41

The checkpoint volunteers had prepared Jambalaya. I inhaled a bowl, refilled my water, saw a brownie, put it in my mouth and I was out of there in 14 minutes. That would be my shortest stop by far.

When I got to my sled, I looked ahead on the lake and saw two people walking. I took out the snowshoes, put them on and got going. Slow run, but running. There's not a big speed difference between someone power walking at 2.8mph and someone shuffling at 3.2mph. Just feels good to be running and not to have to constantly scan the trail, trying to find a firm route. I have to admit, I can't remember how long I kept the snowshoes on. At some point before the Wall of Death, I took them off when the trail firmed up. The Dismal Swamp was as windy, cold and boring as advertised. At the speed I was running, it took an hour to cover those 3 miles and I was happy to get out of there. After a while I got to a sign that said: "Wall Of Death: 100m". I had made it to the Susitna River.

The way I remember it, this is when fatigue started to show its ugly face. The snowmobile was not a well defined trail, rather it was at least a 100 feet wide, with sub-trail in-between. You kept trying to see where others had skied, biked or run before you, hoping they were able to divine a solid trail where you wouldn't punch through every 5 steps. I kept switching between trails, only to find that the other one was worse than the one I was on. I could see the 2 runners who had left Flat Horn before me. I was closer but still quite far. After what felt like forever, I passed one of them. We just said "Hey" and that was it.

Looking back on Susitna River

I could tell that the other one was in walking mode only. I kept to my 20/5 schedule and caught up to him somewhere close to the "Scary Tree" detour that added about a mile to the distance. It was Adam, a guy I had met at REI when I went shopping for Stove Fuel that I never used. He told me he was in a bad patch. I walked with him for a while, maybe 15 minutes, than my watch beeped that it was time for my walk break. After that I told him it was time for me to go and I started running. After a few minutes I heard something, turned and he's right there! Wtf? Is he walking as fast as I run? How did I catch up then? Then I saw he was running and we run/walked our way up the Yentna River.

The trail got even wider and it became impossible to find good footing. I told him that I was "bustin' out the snowshoes". As I was doing it I decided that as long as I was unhitching and getting into my bag, I might as well take off my sunglasses and put my headlamp on. Adam decided to do the same and couldn't find his headlamp so I loaned him my spare one. I switched from Microspikes to snowshoes and slowly pulled ahead. I wasn't going that much faster than Adam, but mentally it was just so much easier to pick a snowmobile track and follow it. Without snowshoes, that's hell because you foot would roll in the soft snow crushed by the snowmobile.
Me just before dark

After a while it got dark. Later on, I saw a red flashing light, which we all had attached to the back of our sleds, blinking ahead. I was overtaking it fast (well, kinda) so I knew that that person was stopped. I get to the sled, and there's nobody around. There's no hole in the ice, we're hundreds of feet from the banks, I'm not hallucinating. I just stand there wondering what to do. I decide someone snapped and decided to dump the sled to make it easier to get to Luce's. I contemplate attaching it to my sled and towing it to Luce's but couldn't stomach it so I just started running again. About 5 or 10 minutes, I see a skier skating towards me. When she reached me she asked: "Did you see a sled oack there?". "Sure it's a few hundred feet behind. If you don't mind me asking, how on earth do you lose a sled?". She says her friend had been complaining all day that her back hurt. When they got to Luce's, she asked her friend how she felt and the friend responded that she felt much better. The she looked behind and asked her friend "WHERE'S YOUR SLED?". She had no idea so they had to backtrack to find it. Unbelievable.

I'm starting to see headlights coming toward me. This skier, skating like the devil is on his tail just blows by me in the other direction. He is flying. He would win the race in 14:26. Unbelievable. Behind him I see bikers and other skaters. "Good job", most of them would say.

By now, I know that I'm between 35 and 40 miles out and all I can think about is getting to Luce's lodge and eating spaghetti. I now know that I screwed up my food, which consists of mainly nuts, PB and honey wraps, Reese Cups, Granola bars and a few gels. I have plenty of calories but too many have peanut butter in them. I am so sick of peanut butter by now that I'm almost out of Granola bars and I'm starting on my emergency gels. I want spaghetti. Every turn, I'm looking for bright lights on the river bank. It is pitch dark out there. After what seems like forever and a false alert (it was a cottage), I finally make it to Luce's Lodge at 20:51. I'm 41 miles in and I'm still wearing the snowshoes.

Luce's Lodge to Alexander Lake - Miles 41 to 53

At Luce's, I know that I have to show my sleeping bag's seal and I need to change my clothes, so I decide to bring my sled all the way up. Most people leave their sleds on the river because it is a STEEP climb. I don't give a sh!t by then, I know I'm in no condition to pick everything I need and I don't want to have to come back. Once inside, I check in, show my bag and sit down. I am bone tired. I wasn't cold when I was moving, wearing only my Merino base and a light shell, but when I stopped to grab my gear I quickly became cold. There are people laying on the floor, others looking at their bloody feet. I see spaghetti. I order myself a plate and sit back down to change socks and shirt. I surprised how good my feet look. After seeing some of the others, I was worried. They are wet and white, so I let them dry in front of the stove while I change my base and wait for my spaghetti. During that time, my new pal Adam shows up. He looks like I feel. My plate shows up and I don't feel so good. I nibble at it slowly and eventually my stomach settles down and I finish everything, except the meatballs. Adam is blowing out of there, but I just can't do it yet mentally. I slowly put dry sock on. Heaven. I shoot the shit with some of the others. Then I must be ready because I find myself getting dressed. I check out: time at Luce's is 1hr 31minutes. I could have sworn I was there for less than 45 minutes.

I decide to use the overshoes because it's getting cold out there. I overdo it a bit and put some toe warmers in my shoes.

I get outside and it's cold. Not horrible but I want to get moving. I decide to put the snowshoes back on and I go. A mile or 2 out, I realize that the cold has hardened the trail and I don't need the snowshoes anymore. I switch to the Microspikes and get going again. Then I notice than my feet a HOT. They are burning hot. Damn toe warmers! I stop, remove my Microspikes and shoes and get rid of the toe warmers. Finally, after a reasonable amount of time I reach the turn to the trail that leads to Alexander Lake, the turn around. There's a good uphill but nothing ridiculous. This was my favorite part of the race. The trail was firm and reasonably well defined. The stars were bright. I stopped many times, turning my headlamp off, to look at them. There was a very light wind and when I walked, the condensation from my breath would stay around my head and I could see. I'd try to blow it away and it would get worse. Funny.

About midway to Alexander Lake, I see a light that moves differently than the skiers and bikers. A few minutes later, here comes Dave running like here's out on a Sunday jog. We rejoice, exchange a few encouragements and we part ways. I pass a couple of skiers and then a runner. Then I caught up with Jamshid, a runner I met at Luce's. He tells me that he is falling asleep and not feeling good. I keep going but he manages to stay with me and we get to the checkpoint pretty much together. I go in but Jamshid say he's going to be sick if he goes inside so he's out of there. I would never catch up to him and he finished almost 5 hours before me, blowing through checkpoints in a few minutes. 

Alexander lake to Luce's Lodge - Miles 53 to 65

It was hot and nice, there was soup, hot Tang, good company at Alexander Lake. It's like a war zone though. A lot of people are dropping there but they are in good spirit, happy that it's over. Adam was leaving as I walked in. Total time at the checkpoint: 50 minutes. 

I am now 53 miles in, feeling reasonable well and breaking new ground. I've never run that far before. It's 2:30am and I feel much better than I've felt in a long time. As I run back, I meet people that are further and further behind. Some are in though shape, not even acknowledging my "Hey!" when I meet them. Most are runners. That's when I realize, Hey, I haven't met that many runners! I might not be doing so bad after all. Not that it changes anything. I'm moving at what I think of as my "running forever" pace. That's my only pace right now. Even though I feel good, after every checkpoint, my feet are getting stiffer and stiffer. My right Achilles burns for a few minutes and then settles down. My left quad feels like someone stabbed me with an ice pick. My traps are on fire from the weight of the vest on my shoulders. It's actually better now and I figure the pain receptors are numb. I keep running 20/5. At some point, I can't remember if it was coming or going, but I skipped an interval. I walked a whole 30 minutes. Didn't feel that great and I got cold so I didn't do it again by choice. If the trail was runnable, I would run.

It was an ok run to Luce's. I won't lie to you, I was tired, but it was still within reason. I'm not eating good though. I'm drinking but I only eat maybe half of the 100 calories I should be eating at each walk break. I swear I will never eat a Reese's cup again. The last hour before Luce's, I  stop eating altogether. I figure that I need to let my stomach settle down so I can eat my spaghetti. It works well and I'm in good spirit. I'm happy it was my first hundred, because I didn't know what was waiting for me further up that trail.

I got to Luce's at 6:10am and pulled my sled up to the building again.

Luce's Lodge to Flat Horn - Miles 65 to 84

It was not a pretty sight inside. Adam is sleeping sitting down, his face right on a table. People a white as sheets, eyes bloodshot, moving stiffly. Everybody looks about to drop dead. I can't believe my eyes: the lady who owns the Lodge is still cooking spaghetti and is preparing breakfast for 8 people. She tells me it might be a few minutes before my spaghetti is ready. No problem. Adam wakes up. He gives me my space lamp because he found his in his bag and leaves. I'm a bit worried about my headlamp, because I had the beam on high all night and I can tell it's weakening. My spare batteries were actually the batteries in my spare lamp and they have been in use all night as well. I ask the Logde lady if she sells AAA batteries, she says no but she says she can give some to me. Unbelievable. I get my feet dry and change my socks again. OMG. I also put a dry base layer on.

I have a bit of a hard time eating, but I get it in and I drink a Coke. I use the heated outhouse, get ready and leave. I've been at Luce's for almost 2 hours and it's getting light. I feel ok physically, but emotionally drained. 35 miles to go. I know I will finish after 10pm. It's just after 8am. I've been running for 23 hours, awake for 26. My feet are in pain. I have a hard time believing that my body can take that much punishment, that it can carry me until 10pm.

I get going. The trail is hard and crisp. It's still quite cold, I'm told it went down to about 5F (minus 15C) during the night. I know the trail won't stay like this forever and the sun and snowmobiles will make it softer. After a while, my feet and quads are really hurting. I decide to remove the Microspikes to lessen the weight. Not sure it did anything, but at least mentally, I stopped wondering. I ran/walked for so long. As long as the trail was hard, my spirits held up, but at some point, it became harder to find a solid trail. It seemed to me that snowmobiler thought that they were helping by riding on the most popular trail. I couldn't figure out if I was on the Yentna or on the Susitna. I didn't want to know. Logically, I knew that it didn't matter, that regardless of where I was, I had to run until 10pm. Who cares if Irun on snow on the friggin' Yentna, on snow on the friggin' Susitna or on snow on the friggin' Dismal Swamp? By now the snow has turned into sugar and I know I'm fucked.

I'm obsessing about the Wall of Death. Where is it? An hour after I start looking for it, a snowmobile with a race support guy on it stops and asks how I'm doing. I ask him about the Wall of Death and he say it's about 7 miles ahead. WTF? That two whole hours. Jeee-zuuus. I start running. It's hard to convey how bored I become. Time stands still. I bust out the iPod and start listening to music. I even try to play games: run to the next lathe! Now run to the next one. I last 10 minutes. Like this blog post, the river never ends.

Listening to music

Somehow, eventually, the lathes start curving left and I can see the Wall of Death. When I get there, I'm not sure I can get up it without getting my microspikes out. It's been verticalized by snowmobiles and it's hard frozen dirt. I climb on the side in softer snow and it works.

A small forest trail and then it's the Dismal Swamp, that somehow doubled in size overnight. The footing is shit. I put the snowshoes on but I mentally snap and I have to take them off after 15 minutes. I can run with them, but I don't have the extra energy it takes to run in snowshoes. I mostly walk and run when it's hard.

When I finally get to the top of Flat Horn Lake, I can't even tell where the checkpoint is. All I know is that it's far. WTF? I see someone ahead of me. He can't be much more than 10 or 15 minutes ahead. I somehow gained 45 minutes on him. At least I know he must be as miserable as me and as we all know, misery likes company. I feel slightly better. After an eternity, I get to the foot of the hill leading to the checkpoint. I park my sled and walk into heaven.

Flat Horn to Finish - Miles 84 to 100

One of the angel who volunteers there serves me a bowl of Jambalaya and I mix myself a glass of Gatorade. I've been craving Gatorade for a while. I eat a browny. I heard that the last 16 miles is grim. It's a straight line. Adam and me agree to do this section together. We're both in rough shape. The lake is not runnable. Then we run a bit on the first part of the trail which then turns into the "seismic line". If you don't know what a Seismic Line is, let me tell you. It's a trail that keeps going in a straight line, forever. The only reason you don't see your destination is because the earth is a fucking sphere. And of course, it's uphill. It was as grim as we feared and in our weak state, we couldn't run on the shifty surface. We tried, but the little bit of speed gained wasn't worth it. It got dark, it got windy and cold. In the whole 16 miles, I ate half a Sneakers bar. I pulled my food out of my pocket a few times and couldn't make myself eat, not that I can remember anyway.

As it got dark, we started hallucinating. We would ask each other, "Is that someone on a bike?" or "Is there someone standing on the side of the trail?" and the other one would see it as well until we got close and saw it was a tree. I had had no hallucination the first night but now it was a different story. Our brains were just starving to SEE something other than that awful trail that went on forever.

Eventually we got to the road and Dave was there with his son. They had been tracking me on the SPOT page and figured out when we would get there. Unbelievable. We were so happy to see someone.

We're getting closer

By then we were about 4 miles from the finish, still over an hour. I was leading, hallucinating constantly. At any given time, I always saw something that turned out to be a snow bank or a branch. It was ridiculous. Eventually, we got to the last turn, crossed the road, and then there was nothing. No lathe, no sign. We would learn later that the race crew had replaced the lathes 3 or 4 time but someone kept removing them. It was our first time, we didn't know where to go, our brains were on screensaver. Eventually, we saw some sled tracks and followed them and saw then finish line. We ran the last 100 meters and finished in 36:59. Sweet.


Dave and his son were both there, took some pictures and then he left. I was in no shape to drive. I started to shake uncontrollably, so I went in the cabin and ate the best bowl of soup I've ever had. Adam went straight in the crash cabin to sleep. Jamshid came in and were talked a bit, I just sat there I think. I can't remember much except that I was so happy I had done it. I had to pee but I couldn't bear the thought of getting up and going back out into the cold. Eventually I did, went to the crash cabin with my sleeping bag. It was at least 95 degrees in there. Goody! I stripped down to my underwear. My feet looked in rough shape but nothing that required immediate attention. I laid down and passed out on a bunk. I slept fitfully for about 7 hours. The pain in my legs was just fierce. I made a ball out of my sleeping bag to elevate them and it helped. At around 8, I got up, had a fantastic breakfast at the Point Mackenzy General Store and drove to Dave's where I slept for another couple of hours.

The award party was lots of fun.

Dave and David

Adam, my co-3rd place finisher


I'm sorry the report was so long. I mainly wrote it for me, while it's still fresh, so that I can remember as much as I can. Some of it is already fading. Like the part when I said I would never run 100 miler again. What? I forgot that part? Like I said, some of it is fading already.

I can't believe my body let me do this. I did some awful thing to it. My feet are in rough shape. I sometimes didn't feed it enough. It never really complained.

Thank you Derrick for your guidance and constant positive attitude. I truly was ready for this, more than I thought. We had to get over injuries and rescheduling issues, but it all worked out for the best.


Keith Iskiw said...

Just a great effort JD really inspiring! you make me want to run that race it sounds awesome!. Keep at it and hope to see you at the races to hear it in person! Cheers!

Derrick said...

JD, you look way too happy and fresh in those photos. Couldn't have been too hard ;) .....joking!

Incredible, incredible race! Great to see you put your thoughts down so soon after. You'll be re-living this for months and years to come.

You've been living the buildup and the race itself for so long. It's going to be a bit of a culture shock returning back to civilization today. Continue to enjoy the memories for as long as possible. Have a safe trip home.

Sara Montgomery said...

JD, Congrats again on such an amazing accomplishment. Loved your report, thanks for sharing so much detail.

What did you think of Alaska? Was it what you were expecting?

Hoping you post more about it all in the days to come!

Nature Girl said...

Congrats JD and thanks for a great report!
That was encouraging of the director eh? not.
Loved your description of the seismic line. insane.
The whole thing is very inspirational. Nice work!
Note to self: Don't bring too much peanut butter.

Hone said...

Congrats on the great race. I loved the report.

It is cool you were able to experience Alaska running at its finest.

Johnny said...

Inspiring report. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, JD!! What an amazing experience for a first 100 miler. Thanks so much for pouring your thoughts into a detailed report and sharing it. You look so fresh in your finish line shot! :-) Great job!

David Johnston said...

where is my Canadian friend?
lil dave and i miss you already
That was the best race report i've ever read!
It was so nice to meet ya and am proud of you!

Yvonne Leutwyler said...

JD- great race report! I was glad to see you finished and did well. I hope Alaska left a decent impression on you! Maybe you'll be back for another one some day?
Yvonne (Dave's friend who ran the 50K).

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting your take on the 100. I love reading about the mental trials that accompany the physical distance. Throughout your video you look quite well, though.

Huge congrats for finishing! What an accomplishment!

I only ran the 50k this year and can only agree that portions of the trail were downright difficult (regardless of previous years). Those difficult stretches reminded me of you 100 milers going the distance and that kept me motivated (and thankful I was in the short race!).

Again, thanks for all the details in your post. I really enjoyed it :)

Caroline Novak said...

JD, congrats on your first 100!!!! What an amazing adventure, thanks for sharing.