I watched the sunrise, then the sunset, then the sunrise, and then the sunset again. I don't even know where to begin to talk about the Susitna 100. I'll try to start from the beginning.
I had originally heard about the Susitna 100 from a good friend who was working at Happy Trails Kennel. He raced it two years ago in the bike division and at the time I thought it sounded crazy. Flash forward to August 2015 I'm coming back from a soul crushing (and foot crushing) Nolan's 14 attempt looking for a sufferfest to satiate my sadness. I looked seriously into the Zion 100 but couldn't bring myself to register. The terrain seemed straightforward and the challenge was more of distance and less of elements. Weeks went by and something sparked my memory of the Susitna 100. I did a quick Google search and found myself entangled in the logistics of a race across frozen Alaska dragging sled! A few hours later I was registered. At the time I don't think I realized what an epic endeavor this would be.
Months went by and I built a sled and did some long runs in Tahoe, Yosemite, The Grand Canyon, and Zion. Training was easy this year with the large amount of snow Tahoe received so I tried to get out often to run around with sled. Logistically the race is intimidating warning of frostbite and other serious damages from the extreme cold and extreme distance. I over planned and was sure I'd be ready for the worst case scenario. I wanted to leave there with all my fingers and toes!
Something to know about the Susitna 100 is that all racers are required to carry a -20 degree sleeping bag, a closed cell sleeping pad, a bivy sack, 2 insulated liters of water, 3,000 calories of food that you can't eat unless in an emergency, a headlamp, and a rear flashing light. At a minimum your gear has to weigh 15lbs but most peoples weigh well over. This is why all the runners drag a sled. So here I am weighing in at 118 lbs with a sled that in total weighed 30 lbs. My weight to sled ratio had me at a serious disadvantage from the start. But no matter what, this race wasn't going to be physically or mentally easy.
Corbin and I flew into Anchorage a few days before the race and explored around the area. A quick day in the Chugach and a awesome day in Talkeetna getting to see Denali up close and personal. It was nice to distract myself from the grim reality the next 2 days would be for me. I got the sled packed and all the gear dialed and was feeling ready but nervous for the day ahead. I honestly had no idea what to expect. When people asked me how long they thought it would take I would answer with anywhere from 32 to 38 hours.
At the start it was still dark and I checked in for the race. I walked around in a room full of athletes over hearing conversations that started with "The last three years I did this it was... " or "My last 100 miler was like... " My heart immediately sank and I couldn't join in on any of the conversations. A few people chatted with me and asked me about my last race or my other ultra races. I was left codfish mouthed. My response was uh... I don't race but I really liked running the Grand Canyon.
All the racers funneled out to the start line and I positioned myself directly behind the woman who has raced it 15 times. I figured if I could stick close with her I'd do well and not get lost. The gun went off and the adrenaline started pumping. I was determined to keep up with these ladies. I was in first for awhile, then second, then third. By mile 5 I knew this was not a pace I could sustain for 100 miles, but I kept charging. I wanted to stick close to the front of the pack. By mile 10 I must have been 5 or 6 back and by 15 I realized that I needed to walk. The first aid station was 22 miles from the start and it felt like an eternity to get there. Kept thinking I must be getting close. Two men that were keeping the same pace as me caught up, Dustin and Tim. I kept with them till we got the first checkpoint in a little over 5 hours. I left the checkpoint before them because I was moving much slower then them so I knew they would catch me in the next 15 mile stretch to Flathorn Lake. This was the section of the trail that conflicted with a dogsled race.
Zoom another group of dogs ran past and then another and another. It was crazy to watch all the mushers out there running the dogs and for a few minutes I also felt like a dog dragging a sled. My thoughts wandered to Lopi and how much I love that dumb dog. I played out scenarios in my head of Lopi getting picked on by the sled dogs because he's a California softy. It's the little things that keep your mind distracted from your current state.
Tim and his friend Lester zoomed past me and Dustin stayed pretty close. It was the infinite awfulness of the dismal swamp. The never ending flat icy miserable miles of nothing. I was happy to have the micro spikes on my feet but now 30 miles in I could feel the bruises building on every step. I just wanted to get to Flathorn Lake before the sunset. The temperature had dropped considerably since the start of the race and just in a light pair of gloves I thought I was going to lose my thumbs. I kept shaking my hands trying to rush blood back into them.
It was a relief right as the sun was setting to finally make it to the check point. It felt like an eternity as I watched the checkpoint get closer and closer traversing the miles over the frozen lake. It was busy with people. I dropped the sled and started to prepare myself for the long cold night. I pulled out my big black diamond expedition mittens and a few hand warms. I thought my feet were doing fine other than the bruising on the bottom so I didn't change my socks. I pulled out my puffy and a second pair of pants and headed into the checkpoint. My plan was to make it quick I was feeling better and want to making it through the night with all my fingers and toes. I had drank almost all my bladder so I planned to fill it up and get on my way with a few bites of food. Any icy hill led up to a small hut that was booming with warmth. As I started up the hill I watch Tim slip badly and fall down it. He seemed okay so I kept moving. When I got inside I layered up and ate some food the warm couch was so inviting I knew I needed to stay focused. I went outside to fill my water bladder and ended up filling it with freezing cold water. This proved to be a crucial mistake. As I headed back inside for a brief second I realized my backpack was soaking wet and there was water everywhere. I checked to make sure I closed the bladder only to realize the cold water had burst the seams. Well there was no way I was going to put a soaking wet backpack back on my back so I cut my loses and threw it in the sled.
It was dark now so I had my headlamp out and was ready to keep moving. As I left Flathorn Lake I had a million things racing through my head. How was I supposed to run another 70 miles with no water!? I had a Nalgene in my sled but having to stop and take the sled off every time I needed to drink was going to take too much time. I continued contemplating my options for several hours. The bruising on the bottom of my feet had become unbearable and I removed the micro spikes after dropping down onto the Susitna River. It was about to be a very long 18 miles on a cold flat river to the next checkpoint and at this point I wasn't positive I was going to finish. My demeanor quickly changed from wanting to finish towards the front of the pack to just wanting to finish period. It was no longer a competition to me but pure survival. I didn't train and travel all the way here to just give up. I was going to finish. I kept repeating in my head my motto... never give up, it's not that bad, just keep moving.
The miles ticked by slowly and my pace had slowed considerably. My thoughts drifted to comfortable things like being in a warm hotel room with Corbin just snuggled up fast asleep. I mentally struggled to push through. I thought about how much easier it would be to like simple things. To take a vacation to Alaska without running 100 miles. I thought about my other options. How I could be a stay at home mom and never run again. I picked up another handful of snow and shoved it in my mouth. It was the only way to get a little water in. All I could see on the horizon were red flashing lights and when I looked behind for miles dots of headlamps. It was nice to know I wasn't completely alone yet.
My legs were now starting to cramp. I could barely bend my knees. I had stopped fueling because I had stopped hydrating and now almost 50 miles in my body was taking a toll. The bruises on my feet felt better when I jogged so I found myself shuffling slowly. A red light in the distance kept getting closer until it was right in front of me. It was Tim and he was standing in the middle of trail just standing. I looked at him and dry mouthed sputtered can I have some of your water. He kindly obliged and I got a few calories and water in. He was hurting bad from the fall he took down the icy hill at Flathorn. We ran together for a bit talking about this and that. He would share his water with me every for miles and I greatly appreciated it. Time seemed to go faster with his company and my mind wandered less to the comfortable things.
The final stretch to the 5 Star Tent checkpoint went on forever. Tim would stop every few minutes to lay in the snow and stretch out his back and I found myself more and more often needing to bend over and stretch out my legs. The cramping had become so severe I was constantly making a plan for the next check point which involved a Skratch Labs Rescue drink and a lot of salt. When the checkpoint finally came into view we told ourselves we would be quick and get as fast as we could the 11 miles to Eagle Crest Lodge. The tent cabin was warm and inviting and being able to sit down never felt so good. Tim took his shoes and socks off and his feet looked like hell. I should have changed my socks too but instead I continued to stick it out. A couple people there had given up, and I made a pack with Tim that we would not give up. We were making it to the finish even if it took us 48hrs.
When we left 5 star tent we were moving well. We chatted about our families and friends. Tim was excited to have dry socks on and I was excited to finally have some salt in me. Miles passed and my body started to deteriorate again. My thoughts wondered to the bikers who by now were showered and sleeping in a warm bed. The race was a memory to them. Something they did yesterday. But for us we were only half way done and it was still very much a reality. 1 am, 2 am, 3 am... it was early and I was wide awake belting the lyrics to I believe I can fly. Tim on the other hand was exhausted he wanted to sleep. I encouraged him and we kept moving. The air had gotten colder and our breath lingered around our faces. Every time Tim would breath a cloud of minty fresh air would sit in the air and I would walk straight though it. He was chewing gum at this point to keep himself awake.
When we reached Eagles Crest Lodge it was the last point we had to give up and we were determined to finish. I finally got to use a bathroom inside and see the carnage the sled had done to my hips. We left the Lodge early in the morning and were headed towards Cows Lake. We knew we would be watching the sunrise on the way. A few miles from the lodge I was hurting again. The weight of sled was taking a toll on me. I needed to make it lighter. We stopped and dumped all of our liquids from the sled. We were now just sharing one camelbacks worth of water between the two of us. We sat down in the darkness and laughed about all the shit in the sled we didn't need to bring. But we weren't going to drag it all the way out here for nothing. So we lit up the jet boil and made a cup of hot chocolate. The best cup of hot chocolate I've ever had.
As the sun rose we could finally turn our headlamps off and Tim made a comment about all of my hair being frozen. Next the hallucinations started to begin. We had been moving for 24 hours non stop at this point with over 30 miles left to go. Giant houses with airplanes and dog kennels appeared and disappeared in the woods. Tim was seeing similar things and a few times we would ask confirmation on if something was there or not. I found myself falling farther and farther behind Tim. In an effort to keep up I would walking directly behind him in his foot prints. This seemed to help the time pass but I found myself getting fatigued faster. The steep icy uphills with the sled felt traitorous and the icy descents often ended in me and the sled sliding down together... involuntary.
When we reached Cow Lake we knew we weren't going to make it to the finish in the daylight but we hoped we could at least make it to the 90 mile mark at sunset. This was the hardest stretch for me. The trail jerked steep up and then steep down and repeated this for miles on end. A few times I found myself taking the sled off and sending it down the hill without me. Tim at this point was well ahead of me. He would a go three or four miles and then fall asleep on the trail and I would wake him up when I finally caught up and we continued to do this almost the entire way to mile 90. The checkpoint never felt like it was going to come and we passed under power lines for a few miles. Out to the left something caught our eye. A moose I screamed! It quickly turned and looked at us and I immediately regretted my decision to shout. It started to kick its legs and for a few moments I wondered if I was hallucinating it but now Tim saw it too. The checkpoint was right around the corner and I pounded a pop-tart and a bottle of water before we started the final stretch to the finish. We were going to actually do it! This 10 mile stretch went quickly while Tim and I talked about everything to distract ourselves from our current situation. We planned our ways of destroying the sled. Burning, pissing, running over it with a car. We were determined to never do this again. A couple of times Tim shouted in fear of an actual hallucinated moose and I thought I saw Corbin on the side of the trail multiple times.
When the finish finally came into sight I thought I was going to cry. My body was depleted and my mind was too. Corbin cheered us on as we pulled the sled up the final hill. 36 hours on my feet with 40 hours of no sleep and we were finally done. Tim and I laughed about the craziness we just endured and we sat inside eating and drinking food for a bit. I know for a fact I would have never finished if it wasn’t for Tim pulling me along the last 30 miles.
Now came the biggest challenge. The race was over and now my body was done. I tried to stand up but couldn't. Corbin carried my limp body to the car where I finally took my shoes off for the first time since starting two days ago. Pruney, white, bruised, swollen, and blistered. The pain was so extreme I wanted to cry. In my delirious state I asked Corbin to cut my legs off. And then I was out. Corbin said I would moan every once and awhile and say words like pop and then laugh. When I regained consciousness we were at the hotel. I was still hallucinating and I smelled bad of piss and sweat. Corbin dragged my limp legs into the hotel and pushed me in a wheel chair to the room where he dumped me out on the floor. I was determined to make it to the bath tub. But my legs didn't work and I laid on the hotel floor in pain.
I wanted out of my smelly clothes and I wanted a shower. I got naked on the floor and Corbin lifted my body into a warm bath. I've never felt so helpless in my life then when I asked Corbin to supervise so I wouldn't drowned. The warm water felt nice but I soon went into shock convulsing and violently shivering. He lifted me from the tub and toweled my off before placing me in the bed. He then elevated my legs, forced calories and water down my throat, and iced my knees before falling asleep. I don't know what I would have done with out him. I slept like shit from the pain maybe getting one or two hours. In the morning I urged Corbin to go ski and I laid helpless in bed for hours. Tossing and turning moaning in pain. But without Corbin there to help I became mobile. At first using trekking poles to get around and stand in the shower, and then fully supporting myself as I limped around.
As we headed back to Tahoe that night my legs seemed to get better as my exhaustion increased. I would fall asleep everywhere and on everything in an instance.
I learned a lot and I appreciate more now then ever before the importance of foot maintenance. Hopefully my next 100 will feel a little bit easier after that... and it will most definitely not involve pulling a sled!!