First. Official. Ultra.
I finished. Yay!
Distance: 50 km / 31 mi
Time: 6:40:15 (I know ...)
Trail conditions: mostly well packed by snow machines / dog sleds, some punchy stuff, some overflow
Weather: Temps in the 20s F, started out sunny, overcast later, a little breeze here and there, overall too warm, though.
The Little Su 50K shares parts of the course of its bigger brother the Susitna 100 in the Susitna River valley, north of Anchorage, west of Wasilla. "Winter races on marked trailes in remote frozen Alaska." Pretty tough, eh? Divisions to participate in are bike, ski, and foot. I did the foot thing.
The main reasons for me to sign up was to get another long training run in and, more importantly, get some long distance race experience before my second attempt on the White Mountains 100 in about a month (last year I injured myself during training and had to withdraw - this year I was lucky to get a spot through the lottery; the race is getting popular in its third installation). While I've done plenty of running in all sorts of wintery conditions in Alaska, I had the slight notion that race conditions are yet something different. And they are. Given that so much of this long distance stuff is mental, getting some race experience before the big day is generally good; reducing the number of unknowns.
Jamie and I headed down to Anchorage the Friday before to race. It's about 320 mi to Wasilla from Fairbanks. We left at noon and arrived it by 8 or 9 pm. While I thought winter camping would make it a perfect trip, Jamie was sure I'd appreciate the comforts of a hotel prior to and after the race a bit more. She found something with a full kitchen that was just as expensive as the room in the hostel we stayed at in Hawai'i a month earlier. Hawai'i vs. Wasilla ... uhm.
Two things worried me prior to the race: fresh snow and warm weather. While there were occasional flakes floating around on Friday night, it did not really snow. Good! I wouldn't have liked plowing through a foot of fluff. Temperature wise it could have been a bit colder to harden the snow a bit more. Before I moved to Alaska I had heard that Greenlanders have >10 words for snow; describing its characteristics precisely. Now, living in a place where snow sticks around for a significant portion of the year, I have certainly had ample opportunity to confirm that snow != snow. Cold but not squeaky is good running snow.
Saturday morning we had a lot of time - the 50k didn't start until 11am; the 100mi racers were sent off at 9am. We spent our time getting slightly lost on a backroad while looking for a place to have a hearty breakfast. Eventually we found the Palmer-Wasilla Highway; supposedly connecting the towns of Palmer and Wasilla. Right turn? Left turn? Right turn! One of these days I may get one of these smart phones with GPS - once I live in a place with reasonable network coverage. Until then I have to stop at gas stations and ask for the way; given the low number of roads in Alaska that's always a bit awkward.
After a fabulous Reindeer sausage omlette Jamie dropped me at the McKenzie General Store where the race starts and ends. I checked in, warmed up, geared up (and down - too warm) and proceeded to the starting line. About 75-80 people on bikes, skis and their feet congregated and waited for the clock to strike 11 am. Off we went. The course map above describes the course fairly well: West along Ayshire road (on a well packed trail next to the road), NW on the Little Susitna Access Road and then on the trails. Parts of those trails are used in the Iditarod sled dog race - fairly inspiring to be on these trails comparing the puny 50k to the 1000 miles to Nome those dogs are going. At some point the 100mi course takes a right and the 50k goes straight. Up to that point the trail was great; a little soft in places which was great for catching and passing bikers (It's really uplifting to pass a biker in the snow, I've gotta admit!). At some point though, the trail turned into a rather punchy mess: windpacked snow that couldn't carry all the weight in certain places. It turned a bit into a lottery whether I'd be sinking up to over my ankles in the snow or found a spot hard as asphalt. It's part of the game I guess, but as another runner said afterwards "It was pretty good they didn't put up a sign 'The rest of the trail is gonna be like this!' - that would have been a little discouraging."
Everybody had the same issues - the bikers seemed to suffer more than the runners though. I didn't see a single skier during this section, so I don't know about their thoughts. The question was for how long it would continue like that. Well, a few miles on and off. In the trees it was usually fine, but as the map shows, there are many (frozen) lakes which translates to open country. I made it through this and the trail got (and stayed) excellent again after the 100mi trail reunited with the 50k. Here I ran into a few foot racers doing the long race. Most of them walked, pulled a sled and listened to music or audiobooks it seemed. I gave some encouragement, asked how they were doing and moved on towards Flat Head Lake on which the locals had several ice fishing huts - at about 15 miles in, sitting down with a beer and jigging a line seemed pretty appealing I've gotta say.
The first 50k aid station was at mile 17; 3.5 hours into my race. A bunch of guys stood around a table at the place where the 100mi racers went on their long out-and-back and the 50k racers took the shortcut straight to the finish line; well 14 miles to the finish line. Straight describes it awefully well though; more below. At this aid station I made a huge mistake! I was just about to finish my water (brought 2 liters) and refilled the bottle (1 liter, 1/3 hot, 2/3 cold water), asked the guys whether there was water at the next station, which they confirmed, and went off. After about 0.5 mi my bottle was half empty. Now I had another 5.5-6.5 miles to with almost no water. Full on rookie mistake. The reason I left the aid station so quickly was, because there were runners in sight who I didn't want to pass me; as if that mattered at all!
The second half of the race, once off Flat Head Lake, is insanely hard. Not physically as the terrain is mostly flat. Mentally. You travel on snowmachine trails easily twice as wide as a highway. There are few trails and tall mountains in the far distance. While I usually enjoy looking at mountains, I started to hate those: they don't come any closer, you don't have much sense of scale and it feels like no progress is being made at all. It was discouraging enough that I started walking, wondering what I was doing out there. Another foot racer (the first since the start) had passed me earlier and was now getting out of sight. The guy behind me, who was about 400 ft behind since the beginning of the race, surprisingly stayed there. No water, no progress, no motivation - not a good place to be with your head.
I made it to the next aid station mostly ok, but well enough dehydrated that I drank and entire liter of water in about a second. Here I learned about my second big mistake of the race: 50km convert to 31 miles, not 30! The guy at the station told me it was exactly 9 miles to the finish, 6 more on similarly wide and demotivating trails and then 3 on the road. Great. That's the kinda boost I didn't need at that point. I continued walking, munching on some beef jerky. Pondering the deeper meaning of long distance winter races.
Two bikers and a skier passed me. The other foot racer was still behind me, walking as well I suppose. I needed some motivation so I switched my hand held GPS from miles to km: 13 more to go (8 mi), and then continued running - km go by a lot faster and it's amazing how much of a motivation this can be! Earlier I had passed a hiker going the opposite direction who told me that I was #7 runner. Then that other guy had passed me. I was still #8 and my mantra for the rest of the race became to stay #8. I ran as fast as I could, which wasn't very fast, but still fast enough to race a skier whose technique wasn't all that great so that I eventually passed her on an uphill section. I ran and ran and ran and finally turned around to see if I gained anything on the guy behind me. Well, he was out of sight - remember how you can see quite a ways out there?! Didn't see him anymore. Great! I kept on going as fast as I could, made it to the road, passed two bikers -one of which had cramping issues- and finally made it to the finish, having gained 18 mins on the guy behind me!
The race was emotionally really hard. I don't like road running for the exact same reason: it's boring and I don't feel like I am making much progress; faster things (cars, snow machines) constantly pass me. This is a very unhappy spot to be in during a race! The best you can do is try to find a way out as quickly as you can. Or else you end up walking, or just sitting. A very worthwhile lesson to have learned. Other lessons learned: don't run away from the water, eventually you burn out on Cliff Bars, get your unit conversions straight, Jamie was right about the comforts of the hotel room - living in a dry cabin in Fairbanks I've completely forgotten about the qualties of a hot bath!
ronni <at> gi <dot> alaska <dot> edu | Created: 2012/01/28 | Last modified: August 11 2012 00:26.