2015 Susitna 100 race report

Here’s a somewhat belated report on my first ride of the Susitna 100 endurance race.  Distances are approximate, and brain fry may have distorted some details.  But I think it’s probably correct.

The best way to describe my race: Hot Mess.

3rd place is a great result that I’m happy with, but finishing in the front group with Tim Berntson & Tyson Flaharty was an even bigger result to me. Tim is one of the best fat/snow bike racers anywhere with an incredible list of race wins and results. Tyson is a massive talent with a huge engine who has just started racing these long winter bike races last year but also has a long list of bike racing accomplishments and a national caliber xc ski background.

So being with them at the end was the Hot part.

Now the Mess part.

I made a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes led to lost time, which led to me having to chase the front group down again and again, which led to overexertion & wasted energy, which led to about 9 hours of excessive suffering, misery, stress, and pain. And unfortunately a net sum of zero on-the-bike fun.

I got a fatbike last winter and started started riding for fun and to lose weight. I never expected to get serious about competing. I rode the White Mountains 100 race outside Fairbanks last March for fun, but was pretty overweight, out of shape, and hadn’t done much training. After that race, I rode a little over summer but had a few months off the bike in fall before starting riding again in October. At some point in the fall, I thought maybe I’d like to get a little more serious so I started training more. I did a shorter race in January with most of the best riders in the state and was able to “almost” finish in the front group. That showed me that I was getting there, but a 3 hour race is way different than an 11 hour race so there were still a lot of unknowns for this weekend’s race and a long ways to go. I thought maybe I could be competitive, but unsure.  So into the painful frying pan of real experience.

Mile 0-20: The pace was fairly fast, faster than I thought it would be. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to adjust my eating amount and increase my calorie consumption. Carey Grumelot, Tim, & Tyson were alternating at the front and the trail was good and fast. About 10 miles in, the front group was down to just five (Brian Bonney being the other person not mentioned yet). Eventually the trail softened enough that I stopped to lower tire pressure and I think a few of the other guys did too. This section would have actually been fun if I hadn’t been thinking and stressing about the pace, whether or not I should back off, and how to adjust my eating for the rest of the race. The group broke up a little between miile 15-20, but came together before the checkpoint.

Checkpoint 1 @ Mile 20: The start of the big mistakes. I was using water bottles and mixing powdered food into them. Everyone else either didn’t fill bottles, was using a hydration pack, or filled but no mix. By the time I got back on the bike, they were GONE.

Mile 20-23: Three miles of painful chasing to catch back up. Eventually I join the group and we ride on but I’m more tired than I’d like to be.

Mile ~25: As we go up a little hill, I have to put my foot down, and my leg instantly cramps. F*CK. This is really bad news……my race is over.

At the race in January, I also got debilitating cramps, but fortunately was able to ride through them for the most part as long as I didn’t go too hard. That race was pretty short and in the middle of Anchorage so it doesn’t really matter if you have to drop out. But here I was, 75 miles to go with lots of trail in the middle of nowhere and no idea how bad the cramps would get. Would I even be able to walk out or ride at all? And even more demoralizing was losing the opportunity to race in the front and learn some lessons. I had the option of self evacuating at that point by turning around to get to a road access. But I’ve never quit a race and I didn’t want to start. I decided if I wanted to finish the race, I was just going to have to slow way down and try to hold off the cramping. I wished Tyson good luck before sitting up. And that just plain sucked.

I’ve never raced with music, but had borrowed Audrey’s shuffle before this race in case I found myself alone. I got it out, plugged in, pressed play, then settled in for a long day.

Mile 25-32: A mind-boggling monotonous straightaway on a straight seismic line. I could see the front four the whole time, but just had to tap out a steady tempo at an easier pace and let them be. The cramps backed off. The music was good. Some Jimi Hendrix, some U2, a pretty nice blend of songs that kept me stable at that pace. Eventually, I realized I was catching back up. And then I did catch them. But I didn’t get too happy or optimistic, as I still felt the tightness in my legs and realized I’d mostly likely be gone again soon.

Flathorn Lake & checkpoint 2: We head off the trail onto a massive lake. Very beautiful, but the snow goes soft. Here’s where a positive turn came for me in the race. I had the best weight to tire size ratio of the group, so I floated on the snow better than the rest.

(side note: In snow biking, float is a huge issue. How well you float depend on a complex combination of how wide your tires & rims are, how much air pressure is in them, how much you+bike weighs, your technique, your strength, and your zen mind. If you can float on the snow, you can ride. If you can’t, you have to walk and push your bike. Riding is faster and easier. Walking and pushing is slower and sucks. I was lighter, had wide tires, my technique and strength aren’t awesome, but I was repeating the mantra “mindandbike like water” which was working.)

Thanks to my float, I got a little baby lead going into the checkpoint and was pretty happy for a few minutes. What cramps?  I felt good enough to run up the hill to the checkpoint, but then couldn’t quite tell where the people were (apparently I couldn’t read the signs that clearly marked where to go!  Saw the first building and went up the stairs, hello? No answer. I start yelling outside, “hello”? Down the stairs, and around the corner. There they are. Wow, embarassing. I just filled one bottle, got powder in fast, and set off with a little gap.

Mile ~35-42: This was a good section for me. We came off the “Wall of Death” onto the Susitna river, and the snow got very soft. Everyone stopped to let a bunch of air out of their tires for more float. But I still had an advantage and was able to ride easy enough to stay with or lead the group without awakening the cramps. I crashed quite a few times though, and each time I went down, my legs seized. I think the guys were also crashing some behind me. As we got towards the end of the soft snow, Tyson and I had a lead over the other three. Tim was closest to us, Carey next, then Brian a little ways back.

Mile ~42-51: Still on the Susitna river, which while beautiful, was pretty monotonous. At one point, we passed the 50 mile mark and I started to worry that we’d missed the next checkpoint. The weather was quite warm, maybe 30F? And it started to sleet a little. Tyson dropped me for a bit, but I was able to catch back up. Finally we hit 5 star checkpoint. Tyson and I signed in, and as we were getting ready to head out, Tim and Carey checked in. I had a fast fill of water and powder, and was able to get out on my own with a little lead. Tyson and Tim came out together, then Carey just a bit behind them.

Mile ~51-61: This was the highpoint of my race. It was even verging on “fun”. My legs felt fine and I was able to increase my output a bit without cramping. Horribly monotonous, a bit of a headwind, but full-on time trial mode. I’ve spent a bit of my life in that mode so was actually having some nostalgia which made me almost happy. I would look back and see Tim & Tyson together, with Carey falling quite a bit further back. I also realized I was putting time into them. But I COULDN’T WAIT to get off the river, and was ecstatic when I saw we were turning off. The trail jumped up the river bank onto a groomed trail and then straight into a vertical wall. Ouch. Careful what you wish for. After pushing the bike up the wall, there was a nice curvy trail in the forest and I settled back into tempo.

EagleQuest checkpoint: Tyson and Tim were nowhere in sight but I had to fill 2 bottles and my hydration pack. Was screwing around with my powder which I kept dropping, putting my vest on wrong, dropping my sunglasses, cleaning my sunglasses, then getting things buttoned up to take off when they arrived. I figured I’d lose some of my lead, but still have a gap as they filled and maybe ate. Out of the checkpoint, down the trail a few hundred meters, and I sense something behind me. I turn around to see two big bad asses RIGHT THERE. Can I say F*ck again? Boom, a two or so minute lead gone and any chance of babying my legs anymore.

Mile ~62-68: Not a fun time. Actually a pretty dark time. Some of this section of trail might have been pretty nice to ride in different circumstances. Some bogs, some forest, some rolling hills. But also some cramps. I had started to feel bad and realized that I hadn’t eaten enough on my little jaunt off the front. I got tired, my cramps came back. I stopped at one point to try to rest them, and then chased back on. But that effort just exacerbated the cramps, so for the second time in the race, I had to make the decision to sit up. As my legs completely seized, I watched them ride away, stopped and sat down in the middle of the trail. I tried to stretch a little, and probably would have cried if I had the energy for it. I took a second to look around and try to be thankful for being there and to see what a cool place it was. But mostly I was just frustrated.

Mile 68-77: Got on the bike, and started off at a pace that was tolerable with the cramps. I could see the two of them when we got to straightaways, and after 3 or 4 miles, I realized I was once again closing the distance. Finally caught them again and was able to shoot the breeze with Tyson some which buoyed my spirits. I was able to ride with or lead with them into Cow Lake and we all arrived together.

Cow Lake checkpoint: My biggest screw-ups of the day. I arrived at the checkpoint feeling ok and positive for the rest of the race. Since I had increased my calorie consumption earlier in the race, I ran out of food in my easy-to-access front pocket. I had more tucked away in my saddle bag, but didn’t want to take the time to unpack and get at it. So I opted to grab a couple cookies, pretzels, and a coke (ther first coke I’ve drank in probably 25 years!). Then I stood around trying to figure out where to put the food. Decided to put it in my vest pockets, but there was a bunch of trash in them. Took out the trash, but dropped it all on the ground. Picked up all the little pieces and tried to figure out where to stuff them. Then walked out of the tent but forgot my water bottles. Went back into the tent. Dropped a water bottle. Got out of the tent and unpacked my powder. Off rides Tim. Fill my bottles with powder. Off rides Tyson. Drop my sunglasses. Clean my sunglasses. Get on the bike. Lost about 30 seconds to Tim, about 15 seconds to Tyson but no big deal. Ride down the trail, grab a cookie out of my pocket, crash. Fall into a big pile of soft snow. Get up, get on bike, start riding again. Realize I need to get my light on. Look in the pocket where it was stuffed….. no light. Oh crap.

So this is a pretty big problem. I realize we have 1.5-2 hrs of pitch black riding to come before the finish. A partial moon, partly cloudy. The trail is visible enough that I would be able to finish without light, but will have to slow down a lot, crash a lot, get in soft pack a lot, pretty much lose a ton of time. My taillight facing forward would give a little light, but then I’d risk getting creamed by a snow machine from behind. I could use my iPhone as light, but since I’m too cheap to get the newest phone, and too stubborn to upgrade my iOS, I don’t have the “flashlight” app. So I have three options.

1. Go back and find the light.
2. Ride with someone else and follow their wheel or use their spill as they’re following me.
3. Ride in the dark.

I chose 1, kind of. I figured the light must have fallen out at my last crash because I’d seen it not long before. So I rode back to the crash site and dug around in the snow. But no luck, and I had no idea where it might be. By now, Tim/Tyson were at least two or three minutes ahead. But it was completely unacceptable to me to lose 3rd place and get caught by Carey. So back to chasing again. It took quite a long time to chase them down, and without the motivation to catch them for their light, I don’t know if I could have closed that gap. Finally I did link up and was so happy to be with them, but so blown. Cramps were back, fatigue was significant.

We rode on, ended up switching out pulls, and then I dropped my sunglasses while on the front. I immediately swung over to the side and freaked out trying to get to them quickly so I wouldn’t get dropped. But Tyson had stopped and picked them up and I felt so bad that now he was going to have to close a little gap. But Tim had stopped to wait. And this was with about 15 miles to go. I was floored.

A couple miles on, we go down a little hill and I can’t quite see the trail enough and crash again. Tim was behind me and I freaked out that I was going to take him out due to my mistake. But he gets past fine and makes sure I’m ok. I get up and steel myself for yet another chase back on, but look up and see Tyson had stopped to wait and so did Tim. Had I had any energy left for a wave of emotion, it would have been tidal sized. So back on the bike and to the last checkpoint.

Mile 91 checkpoint: We roll in and one of the great volunteers says 9 miles to go. I had thought it was 11, so this was awesome news. I didn’t have to take any water or do anything, so grabbed a few snacks and drank some coke. This was the only checkpoint of the day where I actually was able to chill out for a second and not be amped up.

Finish stretch: The trail had firmed up nicely and we were moving pretty fast on this section (12-14mph). We switched out pulls but at one point, I led us off the trail onto a soft section because of that light problem. I think Tim missed it but Tyson was behind me and got jammed up and had to put a foot down. I felt pretty bad about it and decided I needed to quit leading. They were doing pretty strong pulls at this point and my legs were shot. But I’ll be honest, I was thinking about the sprint and wondering if I had any chance at it. I seriously doubted it as I was now riding while cramped, but still interested. But from mile 97-99, I started coming apart. Tyson was leading, then me, then Tim.

I knew the sprint was a non-issue if I got dropped, but there was nothing more to tap into to hold on. Everything about me said, “sit up, JUST SIT UP!” I needed something, anything for a little push. It was too late for calories, too late for water, too late for music, too late for anything. But then I happened to see something a little magical. Tyson’s rear light, being a bright red color, was illuminating the snow crystals flying off his tires causing a beautiful cascade of sparks. Just like the sparks coming off a campfire, which to me is one of the most mesmerizing and enjoyable things about being outdoors. So I stared at the sparks, got something kind of like happy, and zoned out for those last few miles allowing me to hold on.

Wouldn’t it be great if then I had won the sprint? Oh well, not a chance as this is bike racing not a fairy tale.

1/2 mile to go, and boom, we hit soft snow. We get through that patch, then hit another. Tim says, “really?” I want to laugh but too tired to. I end up in front again. It gets hard and then another patch of soft. I look back and see that I have a little lead on the two of them. So I give a kick straight into the darkness. I knew there was a turn coming up, but I can’t see it. And my kick is a little pathetic and they catch me. We turn the corner and head into the final stretch when I start leading out the sprint. Tim flies by, Tyson flies by, they tear up the hill to the finish. I eek up the hill and across the line a few seconds back.

Afterwards, I head into the welcome building and Martin Buser (he & his wife generously host the race start/finish at his home/kennel: “Happy Trails Kennel”) gives a huge cheer and jumps up to serve me a cup of hot Tang. How unbelievably nice and awesome is that? He then chides me to get out of my boots, and I say I will but need to walk downhill to get my truck and need to dry out a bit. As I finish that statement, a woman (I think her name was Veronica or Vanessa? Sorry my brain was so fried, I tried to remember) offers to go walk way down the hill, find my truck, and bring it to me. So nice!

In the end, I can’t really say that I enjoyed the race. It was miserable for the most part due to the inordinate amount of suffering. But I’m sure I’ll have loved it after some time passes.  And I’m glad I did it.

My expectation of getting some invaluable experience was definitely met, and the incredibly generous acts from the racers and volunteers made it a great experience and truly appreciated. The trail was marked extremely well with great organization. You could tell the trail was thoughtfully laid out to make it as interesting and the highest quality possible without having big climbs, fun descents, and awesome mountains to work with.  A big thanks to Tyson & Tim, and all the race volunteers.

So now it’s back to the “lab” to work on my mistakes and problems, and of course more training. With a 6 hour solo drive the day after the race, I had a lot of time to flesh out yet another spreadsheet. I’ll be getting some things dialed in so the next big race can get closer to “fun”.

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