TLDR: Fairbanks is great. The race community up there is especially awesome. Running/walking/shuffling in the snow for 100 miles is hard, but I finished the race within the cut-offs, which was my number one goal. White Mountains 100 is an excellent race, and if you get a chance to do it, you should.
White Mountains 100 is a “human-powered” ultra which means that you can complete it on bike, ski or foot (or unicycle or kick sled!) You declare your mode of transport at the starting line, and then you must stick with that mode of transport for the entire race. I chose to complete it on foot, although I have to say the fat bike option looks pretty fun and I might have to come back for that one.
My goals for this race were twofold: First and foremost, to finish within the cut-offs. This year the race director reduced the finish time from 48 hrs to 40 hrs. When he announced the shortened duration on Facebook, several experienced winter foot-racers spoke up, warning that it could be tough for foot-racers to meet the new cut-offs if conditions were bad. This definitely got my attention and left me a little concerned about missing a cut-off and getting pulled from the race (Spoiler alert: it turned out just fine.)
In addition to finishing, I wanted to have FUN. To put that in context: when I used to be a tri-geek, and even as a bike racer, races were a big deal to me. Lots of pre-race anxiety. Lots of focus on results, and my pace, and who was there, and could I beat them?! Eventually that mindset left me feeling burned out and dreading races. So my second goal was to avoid all that, and do a better job of managing my thoughts and emotions before and during the race.
Of course I knew that not every minute of the WM100 would be enjoyable. I knew it would be painful and/or boring and/or exhausting for long periods of time. But I didn’t want to be so uptight or results-oriented that I was unable to appreciate where I was and what I was doing.
Tom and I flew into Fairbanks a few days before the race, and took our time exploring the area. We saw a moose (!), went to the Museum of the North (if you go to Fairbanks, do not miss this) and had a delicious dinner with some friends from grad school. It was a relaxing couple days before the race started, which is exactly what I wanted.
I showed up to the start line feeling great. I was healthy and injury-free, which already felt like a bit of a win, considering the toll that training for ultras can take on a body. The days leading up to the race had been gorgeous and sunny, but on race day it was foggy with low visibility. By 730 am, although the sun was up, it was still dark and gloomy. I didn’t mind – the cold and fog made it feel like a “real” Alaskan race!
Christof Teuscher, an FB friend who lives in Oregon, also happened to be racing, so he and I chatted while waiting for the race to start. I told him I thought he was gonna win the footrace, which he humbly denied, and then went on to win the footrace.
The starting line was marked with blue flour sprinkled across the ice in the parking lot, and racers voluntarily lined up in order of approximate speed. All the cyclists at front, followed by the skiers, and then the foot-racers. I noticed that many of the cyclists and skiers called the foot-racers “walkers,” which I imagine might bother people like Christof who actually run the majority of the race. In contrast, my approach is to speed hike the uphills and then jog (or shuffle, as the case may be) the flats and downhills. Being called a walker was oddly refreshing – anytime I was running, I felt like an overachiever! At the finish line party, I learned that one cyclist jokingly calls the foot-racers “fun-haters,” especially the people who tow their gear in a sled behind them. He can’t figure out why you’d tow a pulk that whole way, and never once use it as a sled on the downhills. He has a point.
Before we knew it, the Race Director was counting down “5, 4, 3…” I handed Tom the big down coat I’d been wearing pre-race to stay warm, gave him a kiss, and was off!
I was thrilled to find that the trail was in pretty good condition for the first 20 miles. The pic below actually makes the conditions look worse than they were. Yes, it was cold and foggy and visibility wasn’t great. But the trail itself was hard-packed and firm and temps were in the 20s, which is pretty balmy for interior AK.
I quickly realized I would have no problem making the cut-off for the first check-point, and in fact would likely arrive with a buffer of several hours. It was at this point that I started to really enjoy myself. This is also when I started to leapfrog with a guy named Ned. When he first introduced himself I was probably a bit reserved. I do 99% of my runs alone and I wasn’t necessarily looking for company during this race. Of course, racing with Ned turned out to be one of the highlights of the day, and ultimately I was always glad to see his smiling face.
At one of my low points he gave me a fist bump and said “You’re crushing it, Jessi!” I was surprised at what a huge boost his words gave me, and from then on, I made a point to be equally supportive. All the time I spend alone on trails has made me forget the benefits of a little camaraderie. In fact, that’s probably a good summary of the day: “Trail Hermit Jessi realizes it can be fun to run with other people, and how great it is to be supported by an awesome race community.”
Race checkpoints are located approximately every 20 miles, and before the race I assumed I would be blazing through the checkpoints, primarily because I thought I might be close to missing the cut-offs. However, when it became clear that I was going to make the cut-offs, I started to take my time at the checkpoints. They were bright oases in a long, dark, cold winter race.
The first checkpoint was essentially just a table on the side of the trail, and I did move through that one pretty quickly. But all the other checkpoints were cabins that are part of a hut system in the White Mountains. During the race, you step out of the cold and into a warm cabin full of smiling faces, hot drinks, and real food (baked potatoes, soup, etc). This was vastly different from the unsupported stuff I usually do, and I looked forward to the cabins even more than I thought I would. It felt downright luxurious to hang out at each checkpoint, warm my hands by the woodstove, have a cup of coffee, and chat with other racers and the volunteers. At one cabin, a volunteer with a thick beard, calloused hands and a friendly smile made me soup and then gently cleaned my feet and attempted to bandage a couple of blisters. A girl could get used to this. (Side note: you know your feet are in sad shape when a snowmachine-riding EMT in Alaska tells you it’s time for a pedicure.)
For me, the crux of the race was the 11-mile climb up to Cache Mountain Divide at approximately mile 50. This year, it snowed during the race and left 6-8 inches of fresh snow on the Divide, making the climb especially challenging. (On the plus side, the soft snow was gentle on my knees and ankles during the 11-mile descent down the other side of the Divide.) Huge kudos to racer Eric, who dragged his kicksled all the way up the Divide. I didn’t envy him that climb, although I was tempted to jump on one of his sled runners when he flew past me on the descent.
After Cache Mountain Divide there were several sections of overflow. This article does a great job describing overflow. Basically, “a layer of slush occurs on frozen lakes [and rivers] when water from below the ice seeps up through cracks and rises above the surface of the ice layer. The most common cause of overflow is the weight of a snow load pressing down on the ice, which forces water up through the cracks to mix with the overlying snow to form slush…. when the water only penetrates part of the snow layer, [it leaves] a slush layer covered by a blanket of snow that insulates it and prevents it from re-freezing. Snow has exceptional insulating qualities, and can cause overflow conditions to persist indefinitely even when the air temperature is well below zero. For that reason, a wet, sloppy layer can exist even when the rest of the landscape is frozen solid.”
I knew overflow was relatively common in the White Mountains, and I’d purchased Wiggy’s waders to help stay warm and dry. The waders work very well – except when you aren’t wearing them. I put them on for almost every section of overflow I came across. Of course, putting on and taking off waders, even lightweight easy-to-use waders, is time-consuming and can get annoying. There was one short section of trail where I was sure I saw a solid, dry route across the overflow, so I didn’t bother to put on my waders… and that is exactly when I punched through the ice and found myself in frigid water up to my knees.
Luckily, temps during the race were relatively mild (30s during the day, 20s at night), I was wearing warm SealSkinz socks, and I was moving steadily, so I didn’t get frostbite or even frostnip. But it was a good reminder to stay on my toes (or stay in my waders?) during the race. This isn’t summertime in the Cascades.
In general, miles 20-70 of the course presented the most challenging conditions. Several squalls moved through the area bringing snow and graupel, and trail conditions ranged from soft fresh snow to slushy sections of overflow. However, miles 0-20 and 70-100 were great, with hard-packed trails that made for smooth sailing.
During the race, I found the varying conditions to be difficult and at times, I got a little frustrated with all of the fresh snow, especially considering Fairbanks hadn’t seen any new snow in months. And now it was going to dump? The winner of the women’s footrace, who lives in Anchorage, said “I saw more winter in those 24 hours than I’ve seen all winter.”
In hindsight I’m really glad I got to experience such a wide range of conditions, and it gave me confidence in preparing for future winter races/trips. I observed firsthand that winter trail conditions truly can change hourly, and that you really do need to be prepared for almost anything. The only thing I didn’t experience was sub-zero temps, but of course I’m not complaining about that, especially considering my knee-deep ice bath!
Basically, when it comes to White Mountains trail conditions, as Ned said: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”
The race had started at 8 am on Sunday, and by late afternoon Monday I was beginning to really feel the fatigue. At this point the trail was straight, wide, and non-technical, and I found myself drifting off to sleep while I plodded along. It was also around this time that I started hallucinating, seeing checkpoints where there were none. It felt like too much effort to determine what was real and what wasn’t, so instead I stared straight down at the snow and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
Finally, 37 hrs and 18 min after I started, I reached the finish line. Even though I was one of the last racers to finish, there was still a small crowd at the finish line, cheering loudly and ringing cowbells. The race director greeted me with a smile and a congrats. Within 5 minutes of finishing I was sitting in a warm RV, eating the best cheeseburger ever. Ned finished shortly after me, and as he crossed the line they adorned him with a pink feather boa and a tiara. I was a little jealous.
I still love the independence and challenge of unsupported runs, but I’m definitely starting to see the fun of organized races as well!
A few final details:
- Here’s my gear list, which includes post-race notes about some items.
- I owe a huge THANK YOU to Tony Covarrubias, Shawn McTaggart, Chris and Marty Fagan, Jill Homer, and Joe Grant, all of whom kindly answered my questions leading up to the race. (The Fagans even loaned me the pulk they used in their Antarctic expedition! I did multiple training runs with it, but ultimately raced with a pack instead.) And as always, many many thanks to my amazing husband Tom. Without his support I definitely would not be able to go on these little adventures.
- If possible, I’d like to pay it forward – I’m definitely no expert on winter races, but I collected a lot of excellent advice from the aforementioned people, and I’d be more than happy to pass it on to others. So feel free to email me if you have questions or want more details about anything mentioned here.