It’s been a flighty few weeks here on the western side of the Atlantic. I’m sitting typing this in a garden in central Arizona while we wait for the start of the Arizona Trail Race, but that will (hopefully) be a story for another time. Before the warmth, sun and cacti happened, I spent 10 days at more northern latitudes in Alaska last month, separated from this trip by a few days of unpacking, re-packing and some time actually working…
Annie and me both suffer from a very British attraction towards cold, northern places. I have yet to hear a good explanation for why Brits feel the need to leave our soggy island and head north, rather than towards where the sun, sand and olives are, but that we do seems like a fairly established fact. Last spring we confused skiers by having a brilliant time touring in northern Sweden and camping in the snow, but ever since I heard about them winter ultras have been nibbling away at me. Living in Canada has been a perfect opportunity to train and practise for racing in winter conditions, so last November I entered the draw to try and get a spot in the White Mountains 100, a remote, beautiful 100 miler just north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Soon after a entering I learned that I hadn’t been one of the lucky few to get a spot, but then I got an email from David, one of the title sponsors of the race, offering me an entry as he had seen I was the only Brit in the draw! Winter racing was back on the cards, and I was going to need some flights to Alaska…
The only Alaskans I’d met before were friends Dan Bailey and Amy Sebby, on their bikepacking trip to Scotland a couple of years ago. Over whisky in the Glen Dulnain bothy I had asked them all about winter in the home of fatbikes, racing, and which foods taste best when frozen. It was a perfect excuse to go and visit them, as well as saying hello to the guys at Revelate Designs HQ, so I touched down in Anchorage on a grey morning, having spent the night at Seattle airport and having slept very little. Dan and Amy went way beyond the call of duty as hosts, introduced me to friends, helped me get up to Fairbanks, and generally left me thinking hard about how soon I could possibly start paying them back for their generosity.
There was no time to hang around when I arrived. After a bit of food and a cup of tea, we got out for a quick ride on the local trails that create a tangled knot among the spruces all throughout the edge of the city. I was told that moose are a common sight in Dan and Amy’s back garden, and I believed them when I saw the depression in the snow, filled with shed hairs, that their local moose like to lie in when he visits their garden. To remind me that I was in the land of the free, we saw a few bald eagles hanging around in the trees, and I learned that their squeaky call is a very long way from what you’d expect. After lunch, the weather had cleared enough for a quick flight over the Knik Glacier in the wee yellow plane that Dan uses for his beautiful aerial photography of the Chugach Mountains. This was, literally, going above and beyond: an amazing thing way to be able to see and experience the mind-altering scale of Alaska, with Denali hovering a few hundred miles away on the northern horizon. When I wasn’t staring out the window and drooling, I joined Dan in taking some photographs of the geometric ice patterns formed during the long winter in Lake George.
Dan and Amy had arranged a ride with Clinton Hodges to get up to Fairbanks, and as someone who has completed the ITI several times he seemed a perfect guy to be sat in a car with for 6 hours on the highway north. He was also a newbie to the WM100, and on the drive we wondered what conditions were going to be like and what on earth to wear: Alaska was undergoing a heat wave and temperatures were likely to be above freezing during the race. I’d spent all winter in Canmore getting used to -30C and now we were looking at plus 5C! At least we had the scenery of the road through Denali National Park to keep us occupied, although the mountain itself was feeling sulky, and kept itself well hidden.
Visiting Fairbanks itself was an eye-opener. I met several folks who have ridden, walked or skied the full ITI 1000 all the way to Nome, Alaskan fatbiking legends Jeff Oatley and Tim Bernstein, and got a general sense that riding 100 miles in winter is no big deal. It was comforting to think that there were so many people up here who got their adventure fix this way, and that no now was going to call you mad almost dismissively, as they would at home.
The race itself was as warm as predicted, but with solid snow conditions and an air of expectation that this was going to be a fast year. Seeing the heavy, 4.6” tyre equipped ‘Bismarck’ that I had brought , had even offered to loan me her Fatback Corvus for the race. Despite already feeling as though they had done too much for me, I didn’t want to look a (very light) gifthorse in the mouth, and as we hit the first rolling singletrack miles along a low ridgeline, I was very glad that I’d accepted the offer. Despite that, there seemed to be riders passing me alarmingly regularly. I knew from the few months of training that I’d had through Kurt Refsnider at UltraMTB that flat pedally miles were never going to be my thing, but it took a lot of resolve to keep chugging away at my own pace and hope that all these people had misjudged the distance.
The volunteer/marshal system at the WM100 is world class. The White Mountains BLM area contains several beautiful cabins, and these were used as checkpoints and food/water resupplies for the race, always manned by cheerful volunteers offering tasty food. I had decided to try and bring all my food for the planned 10 hours of riding, but I really had to rip myself away from the smells wafting from checkpoint 2 as the climbing towards the course’s high point got underway. The entire 100 miles are on fairly narrow snowmobile trail, and as it wound up through spruce forest towards Cache Mountain Divide I started catching racers in front, the sun came up and I fell in to a really great mood. I couldn’t quite believe that I was here, in Alaska, racing through mountains 40 miles from the nearest road. All the climbing intervals done over the last few months on a much heavier fatbike made the metres fall away, and the treeless summit of snowy bowls and wide views arrived quickly.
The going stayed fast on the other side, even as the temperature rose to a midday high and the snow began to soften. The notorious Ice Lakes, areas of regular overflow, caused by the covering of snow and ice insulating river water from the cold, allowing it to remain liquid and burst through onto the surface, were mercifully frozen solid. Not that wet feet would have been such a dangerous prospect as they would be at normal March temperatures.
The third quarter of the race was a repeat of the first quarter: flat and pedally. My mood dipped with each rider that caught me as my legs said they prefer climbing, and those felt like some long miles. It was warm, too, and I ran out of water between checkpoints 3 and 4. Thankfully, ‘the Wall’, a steep climb that most seemed to be dreading, was visible from miles away. I was hoping that the Wall and the hilly 7 miles beyond it to the finish might help me out a little, so I filled myself up with drink and sugar to make sure I made the most of it, and my hopes proved to be correct as I passed quite a few folks walking up it. A few miles to use up what little energy remained in my legs, and 10 hours after we started I ended up back at the start as the 7th rider in. Pooped. The winning male and female riders absolutely smashed the course, and everyone smashed the beers and burgers that were waiting from yet more smiling volunteers when they crossed the finish.
The race itself was awesome fun, and was one of the best-organised races I’ve ever done. The fact that they even arranged for balmy weather was unexpected, but definitely not unwelcome. Even better than the racing was the fact that bikes and biking create a far-reaching community of like-minded people. From meeting Dan and Amy in Aviemore, to a sauna in Fairbanks, to racing among northern mountains and against like-minded people, the common factors were bikes, friendship and generosity. I owe quite a few people some return hospitality now, and I hope to be able to do so soon!
As for Alaska, well, I’ll be back.