Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, February 17, 2014

Susitna 100 Race Report

The Susitna 100 this weekend was a race. "Big duh!" you might say, "it says, 'Race across frozen Alaska,' right on their logo." But many wilderness competitions are more endurance than race. This one was complete with wipeouts, wagers, performance-enhancing substances, and a large helping of strategery.

For me, the planning started long before the race when I could have been working on my dissertation, enjoying the beautiful outdoors, or even watching the olympics with my wife, but instead I decided to weigh my bike.
Stripped down and still not as light as the new carbon machines. It did survive that car crash though (thanks Martin).

Not just my bike though, I weighed my sleeping bag, pad, mittens, sunglasses, and even my socks (in case I determined having toes was worth less than shaving off 175 grams of wool) in a strange obsessive flurry. Then the trail report came in.

"The trail conditions are estimated at about 80% hard packed snow, 10% icy crust over snow and 10% glare ice (most of the glare ice is avoidable)."

What had started as an innocent post on Facebook soliciting a lightweight bivy sack, quickly degenerated into a "what wheels should I use" scramble and I ended up borrowing wheels from half of Fairbanks (thanks Kevin, Josh, Cody, and Jay).

At the pre-race meeting Heather quipped, "You could put studs on your cross bike with this trail and that would be the ticket."After further deliberation with the Francoms and Kriegers, our generous Mat-Su valley hosts, I settled on my studded commuter wheel up front and Kevin's Weirwolf/Snowcat rear tire/wheel combo.
Notice those skinny tires behind the huddling family. Thanks to Becker-Design for the poagies and frame bag.

At the raceline the only two skinny-tired rigs were mine and somebody on a department-store mountain bike. Andrew from Anchorage rolled up, "Snowcats huh? That looks like the ticket. Though I would have studded the back too, but maybe you didn't have the tire for it." Ben lent me his chapstick and we lined up at the start line.
They counted down from ten and 118 racers filed down the icy driveway at Happy Trails Kennel onto 100 miles of snowmachine trails. The pack quickly strung out as we clipped along at 10-15 mph. 

After twenty minutes of winding trail and swamp mounds it was Carey, Kevin, and I enjoying the 14 degree morning air (perfect for not overheating and not freezing anything off). We rode together through the first checkpoint but as we approached Flathorn Lake things got icier. Whenever we crossed a creek or bog, my companions would back off or speed ahead to avoid my studless rear end, which was wagging and jumping between ruts and cracks like a broken robotic dinosaur. The Ice-Spiker-Pro did an amazing job keeping the front from slipping out, but the slop out back was a little disconcerting. As Kevin and Carey cut across the glare ice at Flathorn, I picked my way around the edge of the lake and lost site of them. 

With lots of pretzels, gummies, and Rachel-made moose jerky I was feeling sugared and salted up and I made up some ground on the rolling trail before the Dismal Swamp. The wind was steady on the swamp and as soon as I hit the open ground I hit the ground hard. My front tire screwed its courage to the sticking place, acting as a pivot, and I spun around 180 degrees before slamming into to the polished ice. I drug my bike to the side of the ice patch and assessed the damage. Luckily, besides a bruised knee and some spilt pretzels, I was fine. I got back on the bike and soft-pedaled until Justin and Clint caught me (no sense in riding in the wind alone). Over the next fifty miles I would crash so many times that Hansel and Grettle could have found their way home blindfolded for all the piles of gummy bears and Honey-Stinger waffle crumbs I left whenever the trail got icy (though they might have caught diabetes from it). Once we got onto the wide Susitna River the wind completely died and we pedaled for thirty miles under beautiful blue skies surrounded by the the Alaska Range and Mount Susitna. 

Pulling up to Eagle Quest lodge, a biker on a carbon 907 with HED carbon rims blew past us. 
"Who was that?" I asked Justin.
"I don't know." We pedaled hard and caught Mark, a self-described old, fat guy from Wisconsin. His seat bag was huge and loose and swung from side to side with every pedal.
After 15 miles behind the hypnotic bag and when Mark was out of earshot I quipped to Justin, "We know each other well enough that you would let me know if something was swinging from my bike like that right?"
"It's kind of freaking me out actually. Not the bag, just how well he's doing." He was hammering, and seemed totally unfazed by the 75 miles we'd done so far. I started thinking I'd be fighting for fifth, not third, with this new addition to the up-front crowd.

But then Mark didn't stop at Cow Lake. It was the last major checkpoint, just over 20 miles from the finish, and the snow had started to fall. Justin and I refueled with some sodas and some Cup-A-Noodles. The warm salty soup must have been "heaven" flavored because they filled every corner of our bodies with a celestial light and sense of wellbeing. We knew then that we would catch Mark.

I felt as fresh as the beginning of the race the next 20 miles. The same sequence of events played out four times. I would catch Justin and then wipeout when we hit the ice (once ripping my front wheel from the dropouts). He'd regain a little lead and then I'd catch him again. We caught Mark at the trail shelter 10 miles from the finish. "What are you guys on?" he asked as we passed him.

With the ice at the finish I didn't have a chance to pass Justin, but I sure enjoyed the course, the company, and the fine family that accompanied me. Nice to finish a hundred miles in Alaska and not need to use your headlamp.

Note: I just found out that Mark wrote an account of the race too that you can read here.


  1. bruised and triumphant!
    what trouble that ice must have been.
    congratulations, ben, on an heroic ride.

  2. hi Ben...a buddy came across this and noticed the "fat, old guy from Wisconsin" and knew it had to be me!!! We stayed in Healy last night and got a great view of the aurora....hope to make contact this week....take care and nice write up

    1. Nice write up to you too Mark! Great to see it from another perspective. That was a fun race!

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