Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2009 Susitna 100 Race Report

WARNING: It's a long one

Battle ready

I was surprisingly calm the morning of the race and arrived at the Pt. McKenzie store over an hour early to fiddle with gear, re-check the PSI, and warm up a little. A brief ride out and back on the trail confirmed that conditions were still soft but ridealbe at low PSI as the 25F temps were not cold enough to firm things up overnight. Every racer has a different method packing their gear and I enjoyed taking mental snapshots of the various race setups.

Start to Flathorn Lake

Taking a spot in the front row at the start felt a little strange since my goal was simply to finish but I also wanted to stay ahead of the freaky-fast skiers through the initial narrow section paralleling Ayshire Rd. or I would not be able to pass. I decided it was a worth a little extra effort at the beginning.

Go. For a glorious 20 yards I was leading the Su100 before a handful of bikes surged past me and I slid into a paceline behind them going into the first narrow soft section. We had a good gap on the main field which made riding that section easier since I could choose my own line. Soft conditions have a way of quickly spreading people out and one bobble can create a 25 yd gap between you and the rider you were just behind. However, there were just enough firm patches early in the race to make you think about stopping to add air but then seemingly just around the corner would be speed-sucking mush. On the way out to Flathorn I rode with Jim Jager, local veteran of many Su100s and the ITI 350, but decided his pace was a notch too high so I let him ride off. The trail that takes the 100-milers away from the 50K course towards the “Nome” sign was very soft and the strong skiers started to catch the bikers as we pushed though ankle-deep snow. It was at this same point in last year’s race where the real pushing began and never really ended so I had a moment where I thought “here we go again”. Luckily, after a few miles the trail improved and we were slowly riding again towards Flathorn Lake. By 11:00 AM I had stripped down to a Craft base layer top and my RBH vest that was mostly unzipped and I was still sweating. Rolling into Flathorn in 3 hours, 43 minutes felt good…my pacing was good and there was minimal wasted time. In and out.

Lesson #1: When leaving a checkpoint, throw an extra layer on for the first ten minutes until your sweaty clothing warms back up with effort.

Lesson #2: Carry an empty water bottle in the bottle cage below the down tube and use it to gulp down 16 – 22 oz. of water or Gatorade while signing in and out of the checkpoint. It also makes a good backup in case the Camelbak freezes and you can't thaw it out. The checkpoints typically have small cups, if any, that make drinking a lot of fluids tedious.

Flathorn Lake to Eaglesong

The sun was starting to become a factor and the temps had crept up into the high 20s. In exposed areas, the snow’s surface had a glossy sheen to it indicating that the sun was affecting the conditions rapidly. Riding into the south end of the Dismal Swamp I immediately noticed how beautiful it was; sunny, calm, with gorgeous mountains surrounding us. This was quite a contrast from last year when the blizzard conditions of the Dismal Swamp ended my race.

The soft conditions had slowed the pace way down by this point and riding, when possible, was at a blistering 4.5 to 5 mph and rarely in a straight line. I was falling behind in my calorie intake but I didn’t know it yet. Just before the Wall of Death descent onto the Big Su, I saw Pete Basinger packing up after a leisurely meal. He was on a training ski in preparation for skiing to Nome in two weeks. Yeah, as in 1100 miles of skiing! We chatted for a minute and then I slid down the Wall of Death, dragging my feet Fred Flintstone style, and headed across the Big Su to the trail to Eagelsong.

I remember thinking that this “could” be the coolest section of trail in the entire race…if it was firm. The narrow trail twists its way through timber and rolls up and down moderate hills all the way to Eaglesong. It “could” have been a snowy singletrack nirvana. However, the soft narrow trail was unforgiving and when a gaggle of snowmobiles would pass (this happened at least three times in ten miles), the trail became churned up and so soft that it was hard to even push the bike up the steep hills. In an effort to keep riding, I would hug the far edge of the trail looking for the firmest snow but any bobble sent me off trail, stuck up to my thigh in deep snow, and pinned down by the 45 lb. bike. This happened so many times in one short stretch I had to stop and have a little talk with myself. Having not seen anyone in a while, I was convinced that I was the only racer being affected by the snowmobile traffic and I just knew that I was condemned to walking the entire friggin’ race.

Lesson #3: Push with a purpose. Pay attention to your posture and take long, efficient strides. The pushing is part of the race too. I caught myself shuffling along, head down, and moving too slowly at times. Use the pushing to catch up on hydration and calories too. Never stop moving forward.

It was also along this section of trail that I ran into Epic Eric. I came around a corner to hear “We are not in the Teton’s anymore” and in my calorie deprived state I couldn’t figure out who could possibly know I was from the Tetons. It was great to finally meet Eric face to face and we chatted for a minute before I slogged on. Eric posted a great album of the race here. The trail got slightly better once we got onto Trail Lake near Eaglesong but this section took me 5 hours, 44 minutes to go 22 miles.

EagleSong to Luce’s

My plan going into the race was to keep moving with minimal stops until I got to Luce’s at mile 66 where I would then stop briefly to eat some spaghetti. When I rolled into Eaglesong at mile 44 I felt ok, but not great and I let my commitment to my pre-conceived plan override what my body was telling me. I filled my Camelbak, ate ½ a bar, put my headlamp on, and started up the trail.

I was starting to feel the effects of an “off” tummy and was getting more behind in my calories with each hour. Only two hours up the trail from Eaglesong I had my low moment of the race. This was not a “this sucks, I want to quit moment”. It was a “Dammit Scotty, I need more power” moment and I had nothing. Nada. Zip. I couldn’t steer straight, my stomach was off, the thought of eating anything was not appealing, and a wave of sleepiness came over me that I have never experienced on the bike. It was only 8 PM but I was seriously considering crawling into my bivy. I kept stopping in the trail to close my eyes while straddling my bike and I felt as if I could sleep standing up.

Lesson #4: Tummy Management 101 – For me, taking in “liquid only” calories for more than 5 hours straight is a sure path to an upset tummy. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid...and I know better than this.

“You don’t bivy in the Su 100!” I remember saying these words to myself and I decided I needed to choke down some food regardless of how unappetizing it sounded. Three Reece’s cups went down the hatch and I was pushing up the trail again with the thoughts of sleeping on the trail out of my brain now. I was committed to getting to Luce’s now matter how slow I was moving.

Lesson #5: Taking 20 minutes at a checkpoint to drink a Pepsi & eat some hot food will be faster in the long run than bonking out on the trail and slowing to a snail’s pace. Listen to your body.

The Yentna River was a welcome change and the well-traveled trail meant I was consistently riding again. As soon as you drop onto the Yentna you can see the bright light from Luce’s Lodge and it was a welcome sight for me. The Reece’s helped a little but I needed some real food and a little break to refocus. A wet snow had started to fall at 11 PM and when I arrived at Luce’s my softshell was wet from sweat and snow. I got a little satisfaction out of seeing so many bikes outside of Luce’s because I felt so slow during the previous hours I was convinced every bike had finished the entire race by now. Ha! It took me 5 hours and 25 minutes to go the 22 miles to Luces.

Lesson #6: If you spend any time at a checkpoint, be efficient while you are there.

I staggered into Luce’s after propping my bike up outside in the snow and saw racer’s in various states of readiness. There were folks zipping up to head back out, folks asleep in the back behind the pool table, and folks sitting around the picnic tables eating pasta.

I walked around in a haze for too long, undecided about what I should do first. Eat? Take off my wet clothes? Fill my Camelbak? Do I need anything on my bike? I was not firing on many cylinders. Finally, I took my outer layers off, hung them up to dry and ordered spaghetti and a Pepsi.

Lesson #7: Choose layers that dry quickly. The Patagonia Track pants I wore with the windproof front did not dry out despite hanging at Luce’s for three hours and leaving a warm checkpoint with wet pants is super-sweet. Um, not.

Lesson #8: Carry Hydropel in my little “personals” bag to use as needed. Sweat + wet snow + 13 hours on the bike means there will be some chafing that needs to be addressed and Hydropel is good for all of it.

Pulling the sleeping bag off of my bike is a decision that I regret. I didn’t “need” to sleep but the food and Pepsi hadn’t kicked in yet and I was not making good decisions. The lure of the back room filled with snoring racers was too strong for my weakened mental state so I gave in. I never slept but I managed to kill four hours at Luce’s before deciding that it was time to rally. Dave Hart was stirring as well after his own long layover so we left together in a steady snow at 4 AM.

Luce’s to Flathorn

Back on the Yentna, the new snow had filled in most of the racer’s tracks but surprisingly we were able to ride most of it. On the big river trails, the best line is not always obvious and often zigzagging 20 yards back and forth is required to find the magic line. I was encouraged with how my legs felt and with each mile I was mentally gaining momentum.

The turn off of the Yentna at Rich Crain’s tent could potentially be a soul-crusher because the trail goes from rideable to shin-deep mush immediately and stays that way for about two miles before merging with the Big Su again. I pushed efficiently and the two miles passed quickly with Dave Hart’s blinking red light barely visible in the distance. I was also on mental high alert because this section of the race notoriously causes races to go off course but the race officials did an excellent job of trail marking and it was easy to follow the lathe onto the Big Su and to the bottom of the Wall of Death. As I dismounted for the push up the wall I immediately lost traction in the center of the trail so I moved into the soft snow to the side and kicked my Neos into holes with each step…until the last six feet. One step too far to the inside sent me sliding back down the wall with my bike on top of me. Crap! I did manage to clear it on my second try.

Lesson #9: Spikes, or screws, or something on the toes of my Neos would help with the steep hills

Dave Hart was still there and having a chuckle at the top of the Wall of Death after seeing my headlight disappear back down the hill so we rode the remaining section into Flathorn together and chatted about his ITI 350 race last year. Dave is a strong rider and we made good time into Flathorn.

The sun was just coming up as we pulled into Flathorn so I stowed the headlamp, grabbed some snacks, and climbed the hill to the cabin on foot to check in. Peggy’s hot Jambalaya and cornbread is like a gift from the heavens after 20+ hours on the trail so I scarfed a bowl down and was back out on the trail in 20 minutes on a mission to knock this thing out.

Flathorn to the finish

Seeing several racers stopped at Flathorn who had come and gone while I was at Luce’s gave me an extra spark to kick it up a notch. The legs were turning over well and I was able to ride the entire stretch from Flathorn to the finish, including the hills. Two skate skiers in the distance were my “carrots” and I slowly caught them on the seismic line before crossing the Little Su again. I had mentally prepared myself for a four-plus hour slog from Flathorn to the finish and I ate and drank accordingly. My solid pace and the good feelings in my legs had me thinking “what if” even before the finish but riding the last leg in 2 hours, 48 minutes was very satisfying and a great way to finish off my race. I proudly crossed the line at 11:42 AM Sunday morning.

I couldn’t get changed out of my wet clothes and boots fast enough and ordered a buffalo cheeseburger, fries, and a coke at the Pt. McKenzie store to celebrate. Enjoying a cheese burger and greeting the other racers as they finished was a nice way to end the Su100 race experience.

Random Gear Notes:

- The Fatback and 80mm rims were great. I can’t help but wonder if 100mm rims would have helped a little
- Cycling computers don’t track mileage well when pushing so it is coming off the bike. I would rather not know the mileage than see incorrect mileage
- Dressing for temps in the high 20s or low 30s is not easy. I could have used a sweatband for my head and lighter pants
- Check the saddle height if you change anything in your footwear. My right knee was grumpy at the end and I think it was from the saddle being a touch low.
- My Epic Designs sleep system cradle worked great and held everything firmly in place. When I did remove the bag at Luces’, it was simple and fast.

Lastly, I want to thank Greg at Speedway Cycles for allowing me to unpack my bike, hang out, fondle lots of titanium, hang out some more, and repack my bike during my visit. His shop is definitely the center of the snow biking universe and I appreciate them taking me in.


Chris said...

Awesome report and great job out there. The Su can be a monster apparently for a 100 miler!

Unknown said...

That was a great write-up. I almost felt like I was there witnessing the race. I like the lessons. I hope to learn from them. Again, Congrats and we are all proud of your finish.

Doug said...

Nice write-up Dave, I enjoyed it! Congrats again on must feel great!!!

Anonymous said...

nice one!

i think some lessons are almost to valuable to be spoken about, the more you suffer the more you learn and then the more you enjoy. i love sharing but i also like watching others learn.

next year, ITI??

Jill Homer said...

Great report.

"The Su can be a monster apparently for a 100 miler!"

This is what I keep saying! Mileage is totally erroneous in these snow bike races. Conditions are everything. Way to kill it in tough conditions.

Anonymous said...

Lesson #3... I tell myself a lot... keep moving forward.
I'm so proud of you and your accomplishment. This was a great write up and lots of inspiration. I heart snow biking.
PS- Michelle you’re a great wife for being there for Dave.

Dave said...

Having so many people send positive vibes helps so much and I think about it a lot on the trail.

Michelle is SO supportive of my wacky obsession and I can't thank her enough.

Anonymous said...

ROCK ON! You're such a badass!

Ed said...

Dave - well done!! I enjoyed the write-up.


Anonymous said...

Dave, thanks for the lessons! I will be using them shortly! Great write up, so cool of you to share your adventure! Awesome job!

Amanda Carey said...

You are one tough SOB. I am most curious to hear how you think this will help your training for 'cross? Congrats on a great race!

Dave Harris said...

Nice execution Dave. Love the lessons - you learned a lot out there!