Sunday, February 17, 2008

Scratched - a mental battle

We're off--100 miles into the Alaskan wilderness.

The Susitna 100 took place down near Wasilla this weekend. This is a 100-mile endurance race on backcountry trails where competitors can choose to bike, run or ski. All racers are required to carry 15 lbs of mandatory survival gear including a -20F sleeping bag, sleeping pad, bivy sack or tent, etc, etc.

The trail conditions and weather were brutal at times--strong head winds, blizzard conditions, a dump of snow, and many miles of blown over and drifted trail. This year the course was far more challenging than in 2006 when we were battered by heavy rain, wet snow and winds. In 2006 the trail was hard packed and fast despite the hypothermia inducing weather conditions. A large percentage of people scratched during this years race and many others didnt even attempt to start. For those that did finish, the overall times this year were some of the slowest ever in the races history.

Kristen and I sort out our food the night before the race. Fritos are one of my secret endurance race snacks--and only 3 ingredients: corn, oil and salt. No preservatives. Salt...yum...

This is actually one of the very few wider sections of trail that wasn't drifted. Much of the course required a lot of double poling and marathon skiing (pushing with one foot) because the trail was soft and narrow. The trail was much better suited for old school classic skiing rather than skate skiing. It was easy to catch my tips on the edge of the trail and tumble face first into the snow.

Ground blizzard on Flathorn Lake - this was the view as we came out onto the lake near the first checkpt. I thought to myself : Holy crap! are people really going to continue into this? They did so I pushed forward... Conditions actually worsened in the aptly named "Dismal Swamp" where 30+ mph headwinds blew the snow around and completely obscured the visibility. This is the point where Kristen bagged it and headed back. (picture stolen from Up in Alaska blog)

So I continued on to the Eaglesong checkpoint at mile 44. About 2 miles out my pole punched several feet into the soft snow. As I fell onto the submerged pole it exploded from my weight and when I pulled it from the snow I found that I had a 3 foot carbon fiber shaft dangling from my wrist - it split in half. I was able to limp my way into Eaglesong with one pole. The folks at the checkpt found an old retro bamboo pole in a shed that was about a foot shorter than my remaining good pole.

Word on the trail was that conditions ahead were bad but after some food and rest I decided to keep going. So I headed out into the late evening darkness and within a mile or so the strap on the newly acquired bamboo pole shredded to pieces. I attempted repair it in the field but it was too far gone and I went back to Eaglesong. I fixed the strap but at this point I had to make a difficult decision: !!Scratch!! - I did it. And now I was going to have to be content with this decision. At the time it seemed more logical to return to the start line on a trail I knew rather than heading into the unknown with what seemed to be an unreliable pole. So I left Eaglesong around midnight and got back to the start around 10 AM. 82 miles and 25 hours later I found myself back where I had started feeling somewhat disappointed and conquered.

Back at the start/finish with the bamboo pole and broken carbon fiber pole.

So I am still suffering from a bit of "scratchers remorse" because I feel like I should have made one last attempt and push forward with the old bamboo pole. I was able to make it back to the starting line without any mishaps so I should have easily been able to complete the course. I suppose its easy to think this from the comfort of home--which is a totally different mindset from being out on the trail, in a snowstorm, frustrated with malfunctioning equipment, stories of horrendous trail conditions ahead, and the uncertainty that the retrofitted pole will hold up. At the time it certainly felt like the most reasonable decision and I guess that is what really matters. With a look on the positive side...I do feel like I am walking away from this race with more confidence in my ability grind on through taxing conditions, I acquired some new techniques for skiing over rough trails, I will always carry an extra pole on extended trips, and I appreciate the opportunity to be out in some beautiful country under grueling conditions.


mtbikemeteo said...


i still think you're super hardcore and i'm sure everyone else reading this still does too. everyone scratches a race once in awhile if you do enough of them. i've had to before.. things happen, and i'm still young. :-) but i know what you mean about being home and thinking that you could have done it and should have pushed a little more. ed is my favorite skiier evaaaa!!!!

-jules :-)

Anonymous said...

Well you did MORE than I ever would - bad equipment or not! :) Check out Komperdell - I don't know if they are downhill only. Our old ski instructor from Austria owns that Ski Pole Company out of Austria - of course.
You did GREAT! Does your back or side hurt from your rather uneven stance/poles?
See ya!

Stef said...

You're amazing Ed! Looks like you DEFINITELY had your work cut out for you!