“You don’t look like an athlete.” That’s what a woman in my choir, a person I like very much, said to me last night at my first rehearsal after completing the White Mountains 100. I smiled. This comment came immediately after the question “did you win?” which also brought a smile to my face. Nope, this non-athlete most decidedly did not win the race. In fact, the winners travelled at twice my speed across the frozen interior of Alaska. But I had a really strong ride and a great time.
I threw my name into the lottery for this race way back in October. My friend Jill has participated 4 times (5 now, she ran the race this year) and her enthusiasm for this event encouraged me to give it a try. I just had a feeling that I was going to get a spot on the roster and when it happened, I admit that I felt a little bit sick to my stomach. I was excited but also super nervous. 100 miles is a not messin’ around distance. And in winter! But, like the good little rule following, linear person I am, I set out on a training schedule and decided I would give it my best shot.
Sunday morning March 29th dawned with a beautiful sunrise. The weather was cool but not cold (maybe -10C at the trailhead). The sky was clear and all indications pointed to a spectacular day ahead. Anyone who knows me will realize the importance of this. I am significantly motivated by the beauty of the outdoors and, while there can be beauty in a snowstorm for sure, I was stoked that it looked like it would be a blue sky day.
Race start was 8am and Ben and I arrived early enough to make sure that my spot wasn’t given away to a racer on the wait list. Apparently this happens! We milled around the parking lot and I took a bit of a spin on my bike just in case there were any last minute mechanical issues that came up (although what I was going to do about them at that point, I have no idea). There was a LOT of carbon and bling happening at the start and I hate to admit that I was impressed/intimidated by the seriousness of some of the racers. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was friendly and welcoming, but I was feeling outclassed. Jill reminded me that “this race isn’t about the bike” and she was totally right. After all, 13 of the racers were doing this on skis and another 10 were running (ya, I know – crazy) the 100 miles. My bike was definitely not the issue. It was going to be all about how I pedaled it.
All too quickly we were lined up to start and someone counted down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go! I pedalled out with as much enthusiasm as I could muster while trying not to redline my heart. I ended up behind a rider who was going slightly slower than I might have on my own and that actually seemed perfect. But we did need to move aside and let a handful of speedier folks by. I was focused on trying to pedal at a good pace and yet not hold anyone else up. After a few miles we were considerably more spread out and I could settle down into my own rhythm.
This first leg felt like there was a lot of uphill but when I look at the elevation profile, that seems to not actually be true. I think I was just nervous. The last mile into checkpoint 1 seemed like an interminable uphill.
And when I got there, this guy was playing “Drunken Sailor” on his accordion. That song is *still* stuck in my head.
I stopped long enough to take a quick pee, snap a couple of photos and fill my water bottles. Then I was back on my bike.
The trail was in awesome condition. Hard packed and plenty wide enough. The sun was beating down on me and the sky was super blue. But, finally alone with no one around me, I wasn’t feeling that hot. I had a headache. I slowed down. I was passed by a rider I hadn’t seen before. I stopped to try and take stock of what was going on. Oh man it was quiet out there. Suddenly I was panicked that I was “sick” and that I was not going to make it through the race due to some random illness. Looking back, I think it was just a case of “the nerves” and really there was nothing wrong at all. We had been told to expect knee-deep overflow towards the end of leg 2 and I was worried about how I was going to manage that. But there was nothing to do about it until I got there so I dug into my pack, ate 400mg of ibuprofen, drank some water and snacked. And I kept going.
A couple of hours later, when I descended to Beaver Creek and there was no overflow to contend with, it was as if a huge burden was lifted. I felt so.much.better. There were a couple of volunteers on the river and with my heart feeling full and happy, I waved and pedaled on by.
Checkpoint 2 is known as the home of the baked potato. Volunteers here cook up baked potatoes with all the fixin’s. Stan, one of the volunteers there, even provided his own moose tomato stew topping. Pretty awesome. I stuck to butter, sour cream and salt and I washed it down with Coke (so bad for you and yet so delicious). One of the checkpoint volunteers took this photo of me wearing their Elvis glasses. What happens at checkpoint 2, stays at checkpoint 2 I guess.
I set out again after 34 minutes. I was feeling fabulous. At this point, however, the day really started to warm up and as I started to climb, I had to remove layers. Down to only my long-sleeved wool shirt, it was starting to be a bit of a slog. The snow was now considerably softer and had reached that consistency known as “mashed potato” (seems like there’s a starch theme here). I let air out of my tires but I was still on and off my bike a lot.
Finally I caught up to the racer ahead of me (Jim) and we pushed our bikes together for awhile. He completed the race last year and his comment was that this section was considerably more rideable in 2014. That said, I’m well-aware that it could also have been -30 and snowing so warm and mushy wasn’t that bad. It’s just a shame that I could have ridden a lot of this section based on the steepness, but I wasn’t able to do so based on the softness.
Finally, the top of the divide came into view!
My plan for this race was to try and get to checkpoint 3, at mile 60, before nightfall. 100km was a distance I could imagine and I knew I could complete. I figured if I got that far, I had a good chance of finishing. So I was pretty stoked to be riding down the divide in full sunshine and heading towards the icy lakes with lots of light.
Ya, the icy lakes. What is up with those?! This is an approximately 2 mile section of trail that goes over lakes. Except they aren’t covered with snow, they are – as their name implies – covered in ice. And they slope slightly downhill. I brought microspikes for my boots so that I could walk this section and my friend Mario very kindly loaned me a studded tire for my front wheel. I chose not to walk because the ice was actually melting on top and when riding my bike across I would break through the surface and create a sort of trench for my wheel. It wasn’t exactly rock solid secure and my rear wheel did occasionally break loose and make my heart leap up into my throat but overall it was manageable on the bike.
Just after 6:30pm I pulled up to the Windy Gap cabin. It is beautifully situated and the light bouncing off the surrounding mountains was so gorgeous at this time of day. I scarfed back a bowl of veggie broth and rice (again, how can something like this taste so delicious?) and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, filled up my water bottles and again was on my way in about 40 minutes. I allowed myself to rest at the checkpoints and refuel but I also didn’t want to get too comfortable. Time passes too quickly inside with friendly volunteers and food.
Leg 4 began with several miles of rough going due to moose tracks being frozen into the reasonably narrow snow-machine trail. You just couldn’t avoid running over these snow road potholes. The good news is that the trail was firming up again due to the temperature falling but that bad news was – moose! I had no idea until a few years ago (don’t ask what rock I was living under) that these ungulates can stomp you to death if they are tired, hungry or generally feel harassed by humans. And I have to think that a snow biker whizzing past you, if you were a moose, might be considered harassment. But – good news. I didn’t see a single moose and I enjoyed a spectacular sunset full of pinks and purples on this leg. I also pulled out my ipod for the first time to give myself a little extra oomph heading towards Borealis cabin. When I got there I think I was feeling slightly high from being tired (I had been out for 14 hours at that point) but I was very, very happy.
The volunteers at the final checkpoint were awesome. They prepared some ramen noodles for me (so tasty!) and they cheerfully listened to my natterings about the race thus far. It was at this stop that I finally felt tired. Throughout the whole race I had been feeling strong and able and for the first time I felt a little bit, well, unsteady is the best word I can come up with. I took my time here – I stayed for an hour – to try and feel better. I was so excited to be getting ready for the final push of the race and yet I knew that this leg would be a hard one. Borealis cabin is situated at the lowest point on the course and there are several climbs – including the much disparaged Wickersham Wall – before the race is complete. I finally managed to get myself dressed and ready to head out into the night and the cold (I was told it was 15F but it felt colder to me) at 11pm.
The last 20 miles took me 4.5 hours. I walked most of the hills or at least alternated between walking a few steps and pedaling a few strokes. I didn’t feel terrible but I no longer felt awesome. Somewhere around mile 83 I thought I should look at the sky see if there were any northern lights out. And what a treat. Behind me, a green stripe in the sky was glowing away. They remained out for much of the evening and, even though I knew my camera didn’t have a setting that would capture them, I tried anyway. This video was taken by a volunteer at the mile 91 trail shelter. It ends just about the time I would have biked by. It’s worth the click.
The Wickersham Wall of the White Mountains is a climb of 600 feet over one mile. In rest of the world speak, that’s 185m in a kilometre and a half. However you want to measure it, it sucks the life out of you. Honestly, the crest of this hill seemed to get further and further away every time I looked up. And I was pushing my bike the whole way. I don’t know if some cyclists can ride it? I guess some can but I sure as hell couldn’t. Behind me I could see the lights of the three cyclists who were at Borealis cabin with me and I used this as fuel to keep myself going. Much as finish time wasn’t all that important to me, by this point I decided that I wanted to finish in under 20 hours and I did not want to be passed in the last 10 miles of the race. So I pushed on. And on and on. And finally the trail began to undulate and I was able to ride sections again. I was looking so keenly for the final mile marker at this point, I think I could have made it materialize out of thin air. And then, there it was. On the right hand side of the trail I saw the three glowing rectangles that I knew signified the one mile to go sign. It was going to be all downhill from here.
It was with a giant bucket of satisfaction and happiness that I swooped down into the parking lot finish line where 19.5 hours before I had departed on this adventure. Ben was waiting for me and a couple of volunteers cheered my arrival. Someone took my photograph. The event’s facebook page updated with “Jenn Roberts finishes at 3:30 with a ton of energy.” I felt awesome.
I got changed, ate half a veggie dog and then took my sore and somewhat swollen body back to our hotel. I fell into a not very satisfying sleep sometime around 5:00am. In some ways, I think I was in shock that I had completed the race and that I had survived. And that it was okay. It was more than okay, it was fun.
The best thing about choir last night was that we started learning a song that I have listened to quite a lot over the last year or so, mostly during spin sessions. During leg 4 of this race I confess to belting out a little Katy Perry in the middle of nowhere. It was either Mo Kenny or Katy Perry that the medics on leg 4 caught me singing. No shame. I don’t really care if a lot of her music is vacuous pop, the chorus to Roar is anthemic. I may not be a White Mountains champion or winner of any division but it was an awesome experience. The course is spectacular, the people are super nice and I feel like my very own rock star for gettin’ ‘er done and feeling fabulous almost the whole way.
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
You’re gonna hear me roar