Alaska’s Winter Wilderness Ultra – The Little Su

There’s an Ultra event held every February that bills itself as a Race Across Frozen Alaska, and it’s the real deal.  Race temps stay below freezing (by a lot), it’s all wilderness through snow and ice, and the starting line is x4 Iditarod Champion Martin Buser’s kennel.  As a skinny economist with bad eyesight and zero wilderness intelligence, I decided to face a laundry list of weaknesses by making this Little Su 50K my first attempt at Ultra running.  Last Saturday, it went down.

Minutes from the 11:00 a.m. Start

It’s possible there are safer options for a first 50k, but safe has always just felt like another word for dull. After 4 years of OCR, rope climbs and bucket carries feel slightly less exhilarating nowadays… but I still really love trail running and getting lost into the unpaved nowhere.  So just after the temps rose above 0F last Saturday morning, I lined up with 76 bikers, 4 skiers and 25 runners in my home state to try a different sort of running experience (sans obstacles) over 31.4 miles of arctic fun.

the Little Su is Underway

My goal was to run the entire thing, but anything faster than 11 minute miles in snowy conditions would put that at risk. Snow is slow, and it sends a heart rate to the stratosphere if it’s treated like pavement (imagine beach running over squishy sand). When I saw my first mile clocked in at 9:50, I checked my ego, hit the brakes hard and watched the field pass. I wondered how many of the faster runners would gas out at mile 20. Not many (if any) did, they were just in much better shape.

Early in the Run

Around mile 4, I saw a glorified bunny hill and decided to let gravity placate my racing ego with a brief sprint.  Seconds later, I felt like a world-class idiot after my foot sank into a deep snow pocket and rolled my ankle at full speed. It was a potential setback that the SealFit coaches would have ridiculed as a quinjury (i.e. pain quitters use to justify quitting, even though they can continue).  The nagging pain from there on out was a fun reminder that technical running isn’t just for rocky trails.

A mile or so later, I came to a 50’ish foot section of funky brown ice and crossed to the other side without much thought. It looked sort of thin, but the lakes had been frozen for weeks and nothing cracked underfoot. Then I heard a guy yell at me from behind “Hey!!!” as he pointed over to the trail I was supposed to be on. Drat.  After some cathartic expletives, I doubled back across the weird ice to rejoin the right trail.  Shortly after I got home, I looked this section up and realized the funky colored ice was actually the Little Susitna River… Oops.

Roughly 40 minutes later, the snow density changed to something less fast and my pace slowed to stabilize the heart rate. For the next 20+ miles, I saw just a handful of racers. At this point, running became almost meditative and felt like a mushy communion with nature. The remaining hours were spent taking in the Alaskan winter experience… Snowmachines zooming by, low flying planes passing overhead, and picturesque views in every direction with zero wildlife. To all the dutiful bears honoring their proud tradition of hibernation: thank you!

Typical Trail Section Plowed by Snowmachines

Mile 17 Checkpoint w/ PingPong Ball Drop to Prove you were there

After being on the course four 4+ hours, silly songs like “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen and every Christmas Carol I’d ever heard started going through my head. I’d been alone in the wilderness for so long that I started talking to myself. Somewhere the dialogue stopped being just in my head and I caught myself carrying on the conversation out loud. I choose to believe this had more to do with being lost in the Ultra moment than temporarily losing my mind, but either explanation seems plausible.  It’s weird how quickly a person can get lost in their own head without obstacles to distract them every 1/4 of a mile.

The day had its expected opportunities to Embrace the Suck. I constantly worried about my 3L of water freezing (it didn’t), and the Gu’s started making me gag 4 hours in. The potential quinjuries multiplied: my ankle hurt progressively, an IT Band acted up, an Achilles felt like it had partially torn, and a PT tendon went achy for a brief spell. None of these were legit injuries, but my mind wanted in on the day’s challenge to see if it could ruin an otherwise beautiful experience by being a drama queen.

Winter Sunsets last Over an Hour

Around the marathon point, the long sunset was starting as I met a skier 5’ish hours into the race. A few miles later, Iditarod champ Martin Buser zipped by on a snowmachine saying “you’re almost there!!!” as he sped away.

Martin Buser Patrolling the Course  – Photo by Andy Romang

Soon after Buser’s encouraging words, my 6½ hour day of living the dream by running 31.4 miles through frozen Alaska ended under a warm (10F) sunset.  The last time I finished something this far out of my skill set, my Uncle Don was waiting at the beach to greet me as I finished the swim from Alcatraz in to San Francisco. Thanks to the incredibly gracious event photographer, I was able to get one final post-race photo with Uncle Don (who passed 12/20/17) at the finish line.

Sunset Finish – minus the gear – Photo by Andy Romang

Running for 6.5 hours in the snow at these temps was a way different experience than completing the Sun Peaks Ultra Beast in Canada or any other event I’ve done that celebrates our ability to suffer. Bridging the gap from OCR to Ultra distances was a lot harder and more technical than I thought it would be. But thanks to my coach Nickademus de La Rosa (formerly Hollon) sharing his otherworldly endurance knowledge, it’s something I was finally able to manage without a red lantern (last place) or DNF to show for the effort.

Everything about this was fun. The race staff and participants were just nice across the board, and the event’s host was one of the more gracious people you’ll ever meet. After doing one, I get the draw to these events and can’t wait to do more…  Just as soon as my freshly diagnosed Grade II ankle sprain heals…  Apparently some of the pain wasn’t just in my head.

As I was driving away under the sunset, superhuman people were still out there running and skiing the full 100 mile version of the course.  Props to them for stamina and grit, but the full 100 is a goal for another day… maybe.

The Course Just after Sunset – Photo by Andy Romang

 

Photo Credit: Daniel Delfino (thanks GoPro!), Andy Romang, Martin Delfino

Daniel Delfino

A middle aged guy with a day job that deals with stress by training for obstacle course races and extreme endurance events.

Comments

  1. Dam! Looked like you had a lot of fun. Well for me😊