The Susitna 100

I biked the Susitna 100 last weekend and had an amazingly good time. I didn’t finish in all that impressive of a time (17hours or so, which is nothing compared with the 11 hours times the leaders posted ) but it was sufficiently fast to make me happy.

The Susitna 100 is super well organized, but alas with all this organization comes at a bit of a cost. The race requires you to carry 15lbs of gear, including a -20f sleeping bag, a foam pad, 64oz of water storage, a bivy, and you need to leave the last checkpoint with 3000 calories of food. These rules are enforced with a required gear check two days before the race, were the race officials fondle your sleeping bag to check that its actually -20f and check the other required items, and weigh your stuff, making sure you are over the 15lbs that is required. I ended up with 17lbs of stuff, which seemed like a lot, but I talked to a skier who had over 30lbs of stuff, so its all relative I guess. My 17lbs of stuff included a fair bit of extra bike junk (two tubes, multi tool, extra chain, tire levers), a change of long underwear, a heavy long underwear top, extra socks, first aid supplies, a light insulated jacket, and random extras. And food of course.

I also brought a small hydration pack, with a 100oz hydrobak hydraytion bladder. The hydropak bladders are really quite nice – easy to clean, fill, and are very leak free. I passed the gear check without any trouble, and after the gear check attended the pre-race meeting. The pre-race meeting was best described in one word – DOOOOOMMMM! Pictures of frozen feet were displayed, tales of woe were related. The skiers were told to walk down the steep hills. A weather forecast was issued with the prediction of 4″ to 12″ of fresh snow, and the predicted trail conditions were listed as “challenging to extremely challenging”. The race director said that the last time the conditions were like this half the field scratched. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned. I drove to my folks house were I was staying after the gear check and pre race meeting were over, thinking that this whole thing might have been a mistake – pushing my bike 100 miles was not something I was all that excited about. The next day I had nothing planned, so I visited the trail head were the race starts to check out the trail. There was some fresh snow, but not a lot – about 3″ of snow on the trail, with a very hard base under that – not too big of a deal for biking. I had brought skis on the off chance things got too soft to bike, and the evening before the race I waxed them up and tossed them into the truck just incase. This turned out to be unneeded. I headed out to the race start a little early to check out the trail and was pretty happy with what I saw – it had quite a bit of traffic after the snowfall, and was fairly hard. I parked the truck and got my bike out, then talked to several of the racers who were parked nearby.

Rumor had it that a lodge that serves as a checkpoint for the race had called the race director and related no snow at all had fell recently, and since it was below 0f, the trail was fast and hard. I was quite relieved, and kept the skis in the truck, and soon enough I was lined up at the start line with all the others, and then we were off! The first several miles were complete madness – lots of skaters and bikers flailing around on a narrow punchy trail with small rolling hills. I let two skaters by, then instantly regretted it as they slowed down to a crawl while climbing the several short hills. Eventually I clued in and just started passing folks as soon as they slowed down, which made things much faster. After three miles or so the course turned onto a hard packed road for several miles, and there I kicked into high gear to get passed as many of the skaters as possible, in hopes of not getting stuck behind them again. They appeared to be moving along at a fast clip, and I tried to give a positive word each time I passed one of them. That got me several stink eyes and one flabbergasted look. For the most part attempting to talk to folks was a bad idea – I have a nervous caffeine driven motor mouth, and it was out in full force. The trail turned off the road onto what appeared to be a very wide survey cut or road of some sort, and then eventually though some swamps and narrowish trails before dumping onto a slue connected to Flathorn lake.

Up to this point the trail had been very ridable for the most part – it was occasionally a bit punchy, but otherwise was pretty nice. The first several miles were pretty soft, but since everyone was going so slow, it didn’t make a difference – if I bogged down I just jumped off and started pushing. I could apparently push my bike faster than the folks in front of me were riding, so it was not a big deal. One I hit flathorn lake things really sped up – the trail on the lake was rock hard and with all the bikers in front of me, it was easy to follow the most productive lines.

I made it to the first checkpoint, then checked in and out, and was back on the trail as fast as was possible. The next bit of trail was pretty scenic, but a bit boring.

It was completely flat, except for one short drop onto the susitna river.

Up to this point I was wondering about the hills of doom they warned us about at the pre-race meeting. There had been several little drops but nothing scary on a bike, and only one would have been anything to think about on skis. The drop onto the Su is called the “wall of death”, so I expected something pretty spectacular. Alas, I was disappointed – it was a very short (perhaps 20ft or so) , moderately steep decent with a huge runout at the bottom. It was no problem on a bike and would have been fun on skis. Perhaps it is different other years – I didn’t ask anyone as I was not sure how to politely ask if this was the hill everyone was all excited about. After the Wall Of Death the I continued up the Susitna River, until the confluence of the Yentna River, then headed up the Yentna to Luce’s. Riding on the river was a bit strange – very, very, flat, a bit windy, and super bright. I had never biked on anything quite like this before, so I was a new experience for me. The trail was very hard and fast during this section, making for nice and fast riding. Just before the hitting the Yentna, another biker from Fairbanks, Kevin B, blew past me speeding away. For rest of the race I would see his tracks, as he was one of two racers on narrowed tired bikes. Upon reaching Luce’s I headed up the bank, ducked into the lodge, and bought two Dr Peppers. I chugged them down, then headed back to get on down the trail. I was actively attempting to keep my time at checkpoints down to as little as possible – last year in the Whites 100 I spent a ton of time malingering at the checkpoints and I am not sure it was all that productive. The other major thing I learned from the Whites 100 was “Eat, Drink, Eat!” – I got fairly dehydrated in that race and it really took a toll on me, so while doing the Su I made a effort to drink a lot, and eat when ever possible. When it doubt – Eat, Drink! It seemed to work pretty well – I felt really good the whole race, and never suffered from energy problems. After leaving Luce’s the trail continues up the Yentna, then turns off and heads up into some swampy spruce forests to Alexander Lake. The trail on the Yentna past Luce’s was quite a bit softer but still quite rideable. Once the trail turned off the river things got pretty soft and punchy.

This was not helped by the several packs of large snow machines on the trail that kept the trail pretty churned up. I ended up pushing quite a bit in this section, which was slow but not the end of the world. It felt pretty slow, and I kept thinking that everyone would pass me by, however no one passed me. In fact, on the way in I only saw racers coming out. The lead racers, a trio of bikers, were in a tight pack with determined expressions on their faces – they looked pretty intent. I said something along the lines of “Wow – you guys are zooming!” to the last of the three and got a “ARRRGGGG!!!” out of him in response. They did not look like they were having fun.. I however was having a blast – the trail was pretty soft and it was a bit windy, but it was nice and sunny, with great views of Denali in the distance.

Eventually I made it to Alexander Lake, but not before encountering Sean Grady heading out. I read Sean’s blog, but had not meet him in person Sean appeared to be in touring mode due to the his upcoming trip to Nome during the ITI. Alexander Lake was very windy but very scenic. I hit the lake just as some riders were heading out, and seeing them ride across the lake though the blowing snow was pretty epic.

(This is the last picture as it was soon dark and I finished before dawn. )
I ducked into the cabin at the checkpoint, drank several cups of cocoa, a cup of soup, filled up my hydration bladder, and headed back out. I spent about 25 minutes or so at the checkpoint. The ride back out to the Yentna River was much more fun than the ride in – the wind was at my back and it had gotten a bit colder, letting the trail firm up a bit, and it was now largely ridable. On the way out I past lots and lots of racers heading the other way. I tried to give a friendly word to most of them but alas, I am not sure it was all that appreciated that much – I got off the trail to let the lead skier by and as he passed congratulated him on making good time and got a loud groan in response. The skiers looked miserable – the first pack were attempting to skate and it appeared to be a bit of a slog due to punchy trails and hard, cold snow. Eventually I reached the Yentna and there I encountered my first runner (or walker as was in his case). The Yentna was much more firm than on the way in, and with the super nice tailwind I zoomed downriver to Luce’s, were I ducked in for spaghetti and two more Dr Peppers – yum, yum! Luce’s had some folks in it, but it was not as busy as I expected – there were a handful of skiers and several non-race related snowmachiners hanging around. I talked to several skiers who appeared to be having a good time. After eating I headed back out, and started back down the trail. This point of the race was pretty sureal – the race course was now illuminated by all the racer’s headlights heading up river – it looked like stream of little fire flies. The trail was now pretty hard hard and fast. I should have stopped to add air to my tires, as it was getting a bit colder, but didn’t. I checked my thermometer while on the river, and I think the coldest I saw was -10f or so – really not all that bad. Before I knew it I was back at the Flathorn lake checkpoint. As I headed up to the checkpoint, which as on the bank above the lake, I past a house next to the checkpoint that appeared to have a disco going on inside – the Talking Heads were blaring and lights were flashing away. The checkpoint was pretty welcome – at this point my legs were starting to feel the effort and I was really looking forward to the jambalaya that was suposed to be served here. I dashed inside, were I was surprised to see Sean Grady again. He was relaxing in a chair talking bike stuff with the checkpoint staff and hanging out while his stuff dried. I plopped down, had two or three bowls of jambalaya, two cokes, and after a little over a hour of malingering, I headed back out to the finish line. I probably should have spent less time at this checkpoint, and perhaps eaten a bit less, as I was so full I could hardly bike. The next three hours were pretty boring – a brief ride on the lake followed by some long sections though black spruce on wide road like trails. I kept looking for northern lights but didn’t see any, alas. Eventually I stopped to air up my tires and make a less than pleasent discovery – as I bent down over the bike water started spraying all over my chest and bike, due to the bit value on my hydration bladder falling off. Yikes! I got the flow stopped and but when I bent down again to start airing up the tires again the water started spraying again, this time on my chest. As I fumbled around attempting to stop the spraying water I realized my jacket was froze shut and wasted quite a bit of time attempting to get the zipper moving before bailing and just yanking my jacket and pack off over my head without unzipping. At this point I was pretty annoyed and was starting to get a bit cold, and since I was pretty well hydrated I just stood on my pack to squish all the water out then tossed on an additional layer and got back on the bike, leaving the tires as is. The remainder of the ride went by pretty fast. A mile or so before the finish i pulled off the trail to pee and was passed by a speeding racer. I got back on the bike and followed him to the finish line, were I had a fantastic burger!

I learned some interesting lessons during this race. First of all, I need a lot more practice riding in soft-ish trail conditions. When on the Yentna past the checkpoint at Luce’s I was keeping pace with a rider, only to have him zoom away when the conditions got soft – he was just a lot better at riding in the soft conditions than I was, and thus was a lot faster. Definitely something to work on. I also learned that I should probably ramp up the effort during races – I did this race at a fairly conservative pace – I should probably have ramped things up quite a bit. Much like the White Mountains 100 last year I ended the race not very tired – my legs were still pretty strong and I was not sore at all. Some things I did worked out pretty well – I tried to keep the time in checkpoints down, and that appeared to work great. I drank a lot, and didn’t have stomach issues of any sort.

I would really like to do this race again next year, though I think I will ski it classic style – if its is warm with fast snow I think it would a lot of fun.

This race was very fun for me, and is something I would love to do again. The riding was great, I had wonderful clear weather with lots of sun, and it was not very cold. Others might have disagreed about the “not too cold” part, but really lows of -10f at night is not a big deal, and it was pretty nice and warm during the day. One of the only bummers of the race is the pre-race meeting and gear check – it’s on a Thursday night, and required me to come down a day in order to make it. Too bad they don’t do it the night before – that would have made my life a lot easier, but such is life, and it was not that big of a deal in the scheme of things.

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3 Responses to “The Susitna 100”

  1. Jay, what a great read! Sounds like it was a terrific adventure, and I am envious of your desire, and ability to do this kind of event! I didn’t know you were blogging, so I’ll have to check out your other posts! Take care old friend!

  2. beth says:

    Awesome write-up Jay! You totally made me want to do this race. But, I can NOT believe you drank SIX sodas while biking. I would have totally hurled…

    • spruceboy says:

      The sodas were drank while sitting down in heated checkpoints, not while actually biking. No hurling was involved, hurray!

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