Exhaustion, nausea, bitter cold and hallucinations. Those were just a few of the obstacles athletes faced in last week’s White Mountains 100-mile endurance race in the Interior near Fairbanks.
“I almost threw up on a guy’s expensive bike,” Juneau’s Houston Laws, 27, said. “You know, one of those big, fat-tired, expensive bikes.”
Laws finished first among the male runners with a time of 33.4 hours, second for runners overall, and 47th for all competitors. The race is open to bikers, skiers and foot-propelled competitors.
Laws’ body was rejecting all food at about mile 60, checkpoint 4, and he dashed outside on the checkpoint cabin’s deck, bent over the railing and turned to the side at the last moment when spotting the bike below.
“It would have frozen on the gears and chain if I hit it,” Laws said.
Anchorage’s Laura McDonough was the first female runner and fastest overall runner, placing 43rd at 30.7 hours. The fastest overall time went to Anchorage’s Tim Berntson who biked the course in 10.8 hours. The fastest female biker was Heather Best at 13.5 hours, good for fifth overall.
The first male skier, Mike Kramer from Fairbanks, came in 24th with a 21.2-hour finish. Fairbanks’ Kristen Rozell was the first female skier, finishing 32nd overall in 26.7 hours.
The White Mountains 100 starts at the Wickersham Dome trailhead at Milepost 28 of the Elliott Highway. The race started with the capped limit of 65 competitors. Just a little over an hour into the course the first athlete pulled out due to equipment issues. A mile rise gives way to forested ridgeline. This is the first six miles, and it is also the last six miles on the way back as the loop will come back around to intersect. The trail begins a 400-foot vertical drop over two miles, climbs and drops again, follows three miles of black spruce and drops into a windy meadow. Next are patches of burnt-out spruce from the wildfires of 2004 and finally, after roughly 17 miles the first checkpoint at the Haystack Jct Wall Tent is reached.
“It started with minus 10 degrees,” Laws said. “And started to slowly get worse.”
A total snowfall of 3 to 5 inches would accumulate during the race.
Every hour Laws would consume one Gu energy gel; at the 15-minute and 45-minute of each hour he took half of a Clif Bar Shot Blok package, and at the half hour would drink water.
“My drinking hose had frozen during the race so I was actually drinking from the bag,” Laws said. “I had the routine down, though. I was always doing something. Moving, eating or stretching.”
A random Snickers Bar was thrown into the mix.
The routine would work for the beginning but not over the long haul.
“It definitely caught up to me later,” Laws said. “Next time I will eat more solid food at the beginning and the energy gels later. But the scenery was beautiful. The problem was if I stayed around at a checkpoint too long I got cold. My blood was rushing to help digest food.”
The next portion was a series of gradual climbs, which provides impressive views. At mile 29 the final drop of nearly 800 feet over two miles begins. Athletes come onto Beaver Creek and then back into the forest. A steady climb heads up the O’Brien Creek valley and to checkpoint two at Cache Mountain Cabin.
Top runner McDonough has done ultras for 15 years and was always close behind. Last year’s top male, 6-foot-11 Ronni Grapenthin of El Cerrito, Calif., was also pushing the pace.
“I couldn’t walk with him,” Laws said. “His stride was enormous.”
Dramatic scenery continued as ups and downs through spruce, small meadows and sub-alpine forest led into windswept tundra. Open stream crossings were hindrances in this portion. The highest point of the race is here, 3,770-feet, at Cache Mountain Divide. The next checkpoint is a marathon away, across a series of ice lakes and into the woods and to the Fossil Creek drainage. Another eight miles is Windy Gap Cabin, checkpoint three.
“At Cache Mountain snow-machiners were up there,” Laws said. “They ring the bells for the first in their division. They rang the bells for me and that was pretty cool.”
When leaving checkpoint three Laws had to be wary of sheets of ice as he headed down the Fossil Creek Valley, crossed small drainages into open meadows with black spruce and at mile 69 a small limestone outcrop appeared. A panoramic view unfolded as he then climbed and then returned to the valley floor. Another 300-foot climb lead to the final eight-mile gradual descent into checkpoint four at Borealis Le-Fevre cabin at race mile 82.
“I was feeling great at the 50-mile mark,” Laws said. “I was 10 minutes ahead and wanted to take a big advantage uphill. Then I hit that point at 60 miles.”
Laws hit the checkpoint at dark, about 9 p.m. He had already been dry heaving for two hours. At the checkpoint he thought of quitting. A nurse talked him out of it.
“Physically, I felt sick,” Laws said. “I told her I wanted to quit. Her selling point for staying in was mentally sickening to me. She said I had gone over 60 miles with a great time and had just 12 hours to go. She said to just take a rest and take your time. But 12 hours to go seemed like a long way.”
Laws laid down briefly, trying to rest, but his mind told him competitors were on the course. He spent three hours at the checkpoint before moving on. The nurse did disqualify another seasoned runner at the cabin.
“I fell right back into the game, into the grind,” Laws said. “One foot in front of the other.”
Weather would get gradually worse as a light snow blew sideways.
The final leg is the most treacherous as racers are sleep-deprived and now must navigate a roughly 20-mile climb to the finish.
Laws also became aware that his feet had swollen and were blistered.
“They were so bad that when the race was over and I was flying home on the jet I had to walk on in my socks,” Laws said. “My toe nails will fall off within the next two weeks. I am sure of that.”
Beaver Creek was crossed for the second time in the last section, through more trees and along the Wickersham Creek valley of black spruce. The steepest climb of the race, the Wickersham Wall, rose 600 feet over one mile and lead racers to rejoin the initial six-mile race start.
“It was hell, the last 11-miles,” Laws said. “It is like going up Mount Roberts, just steeper and longer. I just kept telling myself that I had to earn this. With six miles left, it was hallucinations and mirages. The trees were layered with snow that made figures that didn’t make sense. I was seeing abandoned vehicles that would turn out to be trees bent over. I was seeing spectators that became a tree and another tree. It was very frustrating.”
Laws finished at 5:30 p.m. on Monday.
“There were hotdogs waiting for me,” Laws said. “There was a tent with propane heaters and some great volunteers. It is pretty emotional; your chemistry is all whacked out. It was a disbelief that I had finished. From being at a low point of throwing up to having my feet cross the line was very gratifying.”
The White Mountains 100 is one of many winter endurance races beginning to enjoy the recent popularity of extreme running. There used to be only the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational from Knik to McGrath and the Susitna 100, a 100-miler from Big Lake to Skwenta. Now the White Mountains and Homer Epic 100-km and Talkeetna 20 or 60-mile races are taking hold.
Fat-tired snow bikes, improved winter athletic clothing, wilderness all around, weather conditions, and challenging your body to push its limits all play roles in the popularity.
“I was all about packing light,” Laws said. “I borrowed a friend’s sewing machine, learned to sew and tried to make something that would hold a lot of Gu’s close to my body. Well, the design wasn’t that good. But that is part of my whole experience of running. I try to do everything self-sufficient. I watched videos to learn to sew.” Laws salvaged that idea by wearing various layers of clothing stuffed with his treats.
Top finishing runner McDonough tows a sled on this race.
“She comes into these aid stations and it is like a social gathering,” Laws said. “She spends about 30-40 minutes at each station. Every time I thought I had pulled ahead of her she would be right behind me at the aid station. The sled is something I will use next time.”
Laws’ gear included wearing three pairs of socks, the last were knee-highs that would prevent snow getting in his shoes. He also wore running gaiters to keep more snow out of his Salomon running shoes. Two layers of pants were worn. A long sleeve shirt was covered by a middle layer jacket and an outdoor style cross-country ski jacket. A woolen hat purchased in Houston, Alaska, a head mask, insulated gloves with a shell and ski beard for the lower jaw and neck.
“The ski beard was crucial in the minus temperatures,” Laws said. “Everything was purchased locally. I prefer to fit it myself right at the store and shop local.”
Laws said with weather conditions and snowfall he estimated he burned over 1,500 calories per hour.
“I think the hardest part was when my body was rejecting food,” Laws said. “The dry heaving and trying to keep up a pace just to get to the cabin where I could get off my feet in the warmth. The nicest part was the beginning, when it was sunny. I guess I really enjoyed the whole thing, the whole aspect and the challenge.”
Still recovering, Laws said it will be at least a few more days before he runs again and starts to train.
“The next one is the Prince of Wales Marathon on May 25th,” Laws said.