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

GoRuck Alaska: Back-to-Back Tough and Light

“No, it’s not a group suicide…”

Shortly after sunrise, 26 weirdos were standing at the edge of a steep bluff on the Alaskan coastal trail ready to rappel down a hundred or so feet to the rocky shore. We were covered in mud, wore heavy rucks, and literally smelled like crap. A drunk couple yelled down to us to ask if this was a group suicide. Everyone laughed and reassured them we were okay, but once we reached the shore we did an exercise in the surf that simulates drowning in ankle deep water, so I suppose their confusion was understandable. Just another day in GoRuck event paradise.

GoRuckToughRockingChairs

GoRucks are the oddball events of the OCR – Endurance world. There’s an abundance of obstacles, filth and heavy things to carry, but there’s no set course or timing chips. They start when you meet up with a genuine Special Forces Cadre, then venture out as a group to push beyond the limits you thought existed over 13 hours with a smile on your face – and at least 40 pounds on your back at all times.

Our 9 pm starting point was a park near the coast in downtown Anchorage. The Cadre for this event was a Navy SEAL, so I was fairly terrified. Would this guy be crazy enough to send us into the tidal flats and frigid Alaskan ocean? Going off the GoRuck website pic, he didn’t strike me as being an overly cautious.

CADRE BRETT

GoRuckCadreBrett

We didn’t wait long for the answer. First task after roll call: go to the beach, get completely wet and muddy, then come back here. “You’ve got 5 minutes.”

I’m pretty sure most people knew whatever we did wouldn’t be good enough. On our 5th try, we finally got it right. Our reward for getting completely filthy was sitting in a saltwater trench and then “disappearing” underwater for 5 seconds as a group – adding 10 pounds of water to our rucks in the process.

Once out of the water, the 2-hour welcome party started with pushup facing downhill. Somewhere on the way to our 20 rep goal, the Cadre made us start over. I lost count of how many times we were reset back to zero (someone’s knees would fall, we weren’t in sync, the man bun the Cadre’s hair was in was too tight, etc.), but it was a lot and I’m pretty sure we did at least 80 in a row. Restarting the counts happened a lot, regardless of the exercise we were doing.

GoRuckToughWelcomeParty

The party ended with an over-under tunnel of love that was downright painful.

GoRuckToughTOL

Then we were given our first mission: locate and transport a pair of listening devices along the coast. The enemy had cleverly disguised the devices as heavy logs.

GoRuckToughListeningDevice

The devices were moved along the trail to a secure checkpoint: a swamp with 2 inches of goose poop floating on the water. It was guarded by a hornet’s nest, but almost everyone snuck by without getting stung.  The lighter device was discarded and the heavier one continued its journey.

GoRuckToughCrapPond

At 26 people, the heavier device seemed manageable. But this being GoRuck, Cadre Brett made things interesting by saying only the task’s team leads could talk. Within minutes, two people broke the rule and became casualties.

GoRuck Lesson 1: Follow the instructions or wish you did.

Casualties in GoRuck mean bodies need to be carried. Each casualty takes two people off the log (er, device support): the injured and the carrier. Things go from being manageable to sucking quickly. Everyone shut up after that and developed mad sign language skills.

A few quiet miles later, we reached a bridge the Cadre deemed unsafe. We headed off trail to the mouth of a ravine and tied a rope bridge to cross under. Hooking yourself to 100’ of rope with a carabineer and dragging yourself across a ravine is an interesting experience. Doing it in the dark while pushing and kicking tree branches out of the way made it downright exhilarating.

We recovered the listening device and made it to a bluff along the coast just short of the airport runway for a break where Brett told us a funny story about his first combat Op. It involved him and a SEALs team watching a group of drunken Iraqis ride a bucking donkey in Baghdad sort of like a rodeo. After that, we overhead pressed the log while he briefed the new team leads on the next task: moving the device to a steep bluff so we could kick it down the hill to the ocean.

The device hadn’t stopped careening downhill when Brett said (laughing) we had to go down after it. This is where we learned how to rappel, and it was pretty fun.

GoRuckToughRappel

After the drowning exercise in the freezing surf, we packed 500+ pounds of rocks into sandbags and headed up the coast for a timed and a series of other fast marches (most of which we failed). About midway through our last march, the Cadre noticed people were too far spaced out. Bam! 5 casualties. As we slowed, the 5 casualties became 10.

At 10 bodies, everyone was carrying bodies, being carried or holding multiple rucks. Our group started failing one by one. Seemingly annoyed, the Cadre told us to stop and march back to the Goose Crap lagoon to pick up another listening device. The groans were audible. Then he smiled and said “just kidding, you’re done.”

It took a second to process, but after it sunk in, everyone swore at Brett with genuine passion, then relief. After 13 hours, our Tough class graduated.

GoRuckToughFinish

A few of us had signed up for the GoRuck Light that was scheduled to start four hours later.

The five of us returning after the Tough were hoping the Light would be easier. After roll call, Brett made two of the returning Tough alums the team leads and said “you know what I want to see.”

“Okay everyone, down to beach to get wet and covered in mud.” Surprise! We missed the time hack. Our penalty: the Tunnel of Love through a muddy ditch.

GoRuckLightLuvTunnel

W elephant walked out of the inlet and hiked a few miles to a lagoon and formed two rows in the water, then were told to disappeared for five seconds.

GoRuckLightDisappear

Since we were completely soaked, it was time for another welcome party. For the Light, exercises were in sets of 10 and he didn’t reset the counter on us. It seemed like he was genuinely trying to keep this one more fun focused – and we got to see his sarcastic sense of humor come out more.

After the welcome party and more elephant walking, we arranged the rucks into two course markers to play “it pays to be a winner.”

We divided into 2 teams of 8 for a series of wheelbarrow, leapfrog, low crawl, barrel rolls, etc. races against each other. In the first two races, winners sat in the shade for a break while the losing team jumped into the lake to disappear for five seconds. Losers in the 3rd race received a punishment so bad I won’t even talk about it.

Next up was a timed hike to acquire a new listening device camouflaged as a tree along the rocky coast. It was so light I asked Brett where the hell it had been during the Tough. A few hundred feet down the trail, another listening device (this time disguised as an enormous rock) was identified and hooked up to the first one. Not surprisingly, a 2nd device resembling a large rock was added up shortly after that.

GoRuckLightListeningDev

We marched the devices back to the starting point, only to be turned back to the beach. Back on the coast, the devices were unbundled and chucked into the sand. Graduation time? Nope. 19 group burpees instead.

Once the last of the burpees was counted out, the moment everyone had been waiting for finally arrived after 4 hours and the patches come out.

GoRuckLightGraduation

The feeling of pride having fought off the urge to stay home after the tough and coming back to finish both events is something I think the 5 of us will remember for a long time.

These events are truly special. You meet amazing people and get to hang with genuinely elite members of the armed forces to celebrate fitness and America.  Video from the event is available here .

Can’t wait for GoRuck Pearl Harbor Heavy in December.

Photo Credit: Brett Vernon, Christopher Lutes, Ralph Swan, Louie Weigers.