• 26th February 2018 - By greg

    Some guys collect coins. My brother used to collect vintage signs. Helen collects aprons from around the world. My old friend Grant collects pretty much everything imaginable and has to “purge” once a decade due to a lack of storage.

    I collect moments. Brief slices of time that are forever embedded in my memory. Like the time I woke up after a sleep in the cabin of my human powered boat on the Johnstone straight while my buddy Brian was pedalling. I poked my head out of the hatch as Brian handed me a hot cup of coffee and watched a pod of orcas splash and play around our vessel as the morning fog melted away revealing a spectacular sunrise. That was incredible.

    Or watching the perseid meteor shower with Helen from our kayak on the Missouri River as the full moon rose above the river banks on our 47 hour nonstop epic 340 mile journey across Missouri on the big muddy. Magical.

    I think what makes these moments so special is the massive effort required to create them. They don’t come for free. You have to work for them. These special moments are the reward.

    Last weekend, the Susitna 100 mile winter ultra marathon provided a another awesome moment for my collection.

    Imagine this: it’s some point after midnight, I’m hauling a 40 lb sled down a frozen river in Alaska. It’s vast and desolate and I’m alone. It’s 20 below zero (-28 Celsius), so cold every inch of my face is covered except for my eyes. I’m wearing my Beats headphones, full volume, bundled up like I’m out for a space walk and I’m mesmerized by a spectacular northern lights display up above me. I’m thrilled that I’m still running after 14 hours in this frozen wonderland. It was one of those unforgettable, magical moments and made the gruelling months of training required well worth the effort.

    The Susitna 100 mile race across frozen Alaska. Why?

    I decided to do it one night at a dinner party. I was talking with this very overweight guy who was smoking a vape and telling the group all about this lame hike/walk like it was some big adventure.

    I leaned over and said to Helen “if we ever get like this, let’s just shoot each other ok?”

    It was then that I decided it was time for our next adventure, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The susitna 100 mile Run pulling a sled through the snow and for helen, the little su 50 km race. A perfect combination in anchorage in February.

    Our friend Lourdes had finished the Susitna 100 the previous winter and was training for an even longer race; the Arrowhead 130 in northern Minnesota. That’s right – as the name suggests, that one is 130 miles. She is a beast!

    I had never heard of a winter ultra, so I thought it sounded like a great challenge and a worthy goal to keep up our training through the winter. Thank you Lourdes!

    My race started at the Happy Dog Kennel near Wasilla, Alaska which is about an hour drive from Anchorage. 9:00 am start and it was a frigid 0 degrees (-17 C). I was nervous because that really felt cold. I had trained in colder weather in Calgary but Anchorage is very humid, and it felt a lot colder to both of us. Helens 50 km race didn’t start until 11:00 am, so she had a couple of hours to wait.

    There were about 35 runners, about 90 fat bikers and 2 cross country skiers in the 100 mile race – 3 divisions. To my surprise Everyone started running right from the start gun. So I ran too. I sort of figured that I would fast walk most of the race due to having to pull that 40 lb sled, but I didn’t mind a run at the start just to warm up a bit. As it turned out, I didn’t stop running until the 62 mile check point.

    I warmed up almost right away and ended up having to take my down jacket off leaving just a sweater to avoid deadly sweat. You do not want to sweat because wet skin after dark and dropping temperatures with slowing pace is a recipe for hypothermia. After a few hours my toes started to get really sore. I was wearing some thin running wool socks with thick wool socks over, then a gortex sock top layer under my Brooks Cascadias trail shoes. My feet felt way too tight and my toes were rubbing against the top of my shoe, so I stopped and took the thick wool socks off. Much better after that, and one pair of thin socks were enough to fight the cold when you are running.

    For the first day I stuck with my eating plan: boiling water with my jetboil, then eating a full 600 calorie dehydrated meal every 5 hours or so. It turned out that there was some good hot food at the checkpoints later on, so consumed my calories at the checkpoints while supplementing with bars and gels while on the trail.

    The daylight seemed short, and it was. There are only about 9 Hours of daylight in February in Alaska. When the sun went down, we started the longest section on the frozen Susitna river and it got COLD! The guys at the tent checkpoint on the river said it was -20. I was warm, still running and feeling pretty good despite the cold.

    When I reached the 62 mile Eagles Nest lodge check point, I knew that this was pretty much my only “out” because this is the only place on the entire 100 mile course with road access. However, to counter that urge to bail at this point, the lodge kindly offers a couple of cabins to racers if they want to sleep for an hour or two. I met a biker there that had just woken up from a 5 hour sleep!

    I found the urge to phone Helen for a pick up, and I knew sleep would just prolong the inevitable. I ate something, warmed up a bit and headed back out into the freezing dark night for the most brutally difficult part of the race.

    The last 40 miles were fairly miserable to be honest. I was too fatigued to run, so my goal was to walk as fast as possible and make it to sunrise. Sunrise came, and I continued to plug away through the entire next day up and over hills, through fresh snow fall, and probably a whole lot more that I just cannot remember. It felt like it took forever. I was starting to feel a bit loopy and my mind was making things out of the trees that weren’t there. Like people standing on the side of the snowmobile trail. Or cabins that didn’t exist. And there were thousands of moose watching me from the forest.

    My electronics – phone and spot tracker had died hours ago due to the cold. Luckily, my iPod was still running because I slipped it into my mits, and I was able to continue to listen to the book I had started earlier “American king pin” the story about the dark web site “Silk Road”. I listened to the entire book on the course.

    As I said, the last 40 miles was a blur, and finally I reached the end at sun down a full 33 hours finishing in 8th place overall. Helen cheered me up the brutally steep (and mean and cruel) hill to the finish line where I stood still with my eyes closed enjoying every blessed second of not having to move.

    After math: I had caught the flu 4 weeks before the race and was still fighting a nasty cough on race morning. The cough never bothered me once during the race, but returned with a vengeance the next day. A week later, the cough has gotten much worse and I now think that I may have caught a cold on the flight home from anchorage.

    My toes were a MESS after the race. I could sort of feel them during the last 40, but I was popping a couple of Advil every 5 hours, so that probably dampened the sharpness of the pain. The blisters were all on top of my foot so they “may” have been caused by the right wool sock layer prior to when I removed it. However, my toes are always a total blistered mess after ultras. Usually the top of my toes. I need to solve this before the next race!

    Also my Achilles’ tendon on my left leg as very swollen and bruised. Walking through the airport the next day was hell, and it’s still swollen and I’m still limping a bit a week later.

    I am taking steps to cure myself: we are flying to Mexico as I write this.

    Stuff I learned that I have to remember for next time:

    1. keep hand warmers in mitts because you can take your hands out even if it’s -30 for 5 to 10 minutes to use fingers without risking frostbite.
    2. Slide a gel or bar into your mitts for 15 minutes before eating to warm it up
    3. I didn’t want to eat my bars, sort of was ok with gels, really LOVED the stinger gels, craved my stash of sesame seed snaps. Ichiban noodles were always awesome, and I really love the Mountain House biscuits and gravy dehydrated meal. At the check points, spaghetti, stew, and chilli hit the spot! Also picked up a Twinkie at a check pint that really tasted good because it doesn’t freeze.

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