Give a runner shoes and he runs for a day, give a runner passion and he runs for a lifetime.
Three local runners took their passion to the White Mountains 100, one of the United State’s most grueling human-powered endurance races, and finished in personal best times.
Houston Laws, Dan Lesh and John Nagel began the race at 8 a.m. Sunday. Laws finished 22.7 hours later in 50th position overall among bikers, skiers and runners. Lesh 23.7 (52nd) and Nagel 32.9 (62nd).
Only 65 competitors are allowed in the race and two did not finish. Participants cover a 100-mile loop in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Near perfect weather and trail conditions made for course records.
Top foot racer Joe Grant, from Colorado, won the foot division with a record time of 17 hours, 5 minutes, placing 38th overall.
“Every aid station I passed I asked how that Joe guy was doing,” Houston Laws said. “Everyone’s description was fast and that he had just blown by there.”
Laws improved his time by 11 hours over last year’s race. Grant’s time eclipsed the previous foot record held by Anchorage’s Laura McDonough by more than 12 hours. McDonough defended her women’s title in 24 hours, 50 minutes (four hours faster than her best race time).
Lead racers went so fast that a pilot snow machine traveling in front of the pack with medical personnel was barely able to keep a safe distance ahead of the bikers.
“Grant went so fast at the start that he was running with the lower tier bikers out to mile 39,” John Nagel said. “Houston went so fast he had time to take pictures, basked in the sun with his feet up at rest stations. Houston was nothing short of amazing.”
Laws stated he budgeted his time so that the first 40 miles were fast. At each aide station he gave himself 30 minutes off his feet, dried out his socks and took photos.
“I felt comfortable at the 80-mile mark,” Laws said. “The last 20 I was going to take my time on the hilly portion. I had a little more energy than I thought.”
Laws had done most of his hard running on the flat areas of the race and got a second wind at the 50-mile mark called the Cache Mountain Divide, the White Mountains Pass half way through the race, and took his time across some ice fields.
Laws was averaging under 10-minute miles up to the 40-mile mark and then started to slow down to 12-minute miles. At the 80-mile mark he was hitting 15-minutes per mile.
“For psychological purposes I plan on a worst case three miles per hour,” Laws said. “That is a 20-minute pace. I underestimate to help finish. I have to mentally accept that it will take a bit longer, but also that I kicked my butt in the beginning so I can budget for this time at the end.”
Anchorage cyclist Josh Chelf topped the field in 7 hours and 53 minutes, knocking 2 hours, 17 minutes off the previous race record of 10 hours, 10 minutes set by Greg Matyas (Anchorage, 2011).
Fairbanks biker Tyson Flaharty was second in 8 hours, 10 minutes and Fairbanks fat-tire biker Ben Abbot was third in 10:12.
Top female biker was Anchorage’s Amber Bathe who placed 15th overall in 10:33.
Skiers did not set a course record but had trail wide enough to skate ski most of the race. According to race officials the excellent trails were due to heavy spring break traffic by snow machines and recreational skiers and grooming efforts by the Bureau of Land Management.
“I was out there a while,” Nagel said. “I had some cramping issues from mile 35 through 62. I was ready to start again but a friend was having more difficulties than I was and I hung out for five more hours of sleep. But I felt rested when I began again.”
Nagel’s skiing friend Emily Schwing, from Fairbanks, had to scratch, as did another female cross-country skier.
After the additional rest at the Wind Gap checkpoint Nagel took his next break after four-and-a-half hours and 20 miles to Borealis LeFever cabin.
“The conditions were just lightening fast,” Nagel said. “Hard packed snow.”
Nagel then did the last 10 miles in about three hours.
“I look at it this way,” Nagel said. “I did back-to-back runs. A 62 miler in 14 hours the first day and about 10-and-a-half the second day. As for the cramping, hot weather? I wish I knew. I have more questions than I have answers right now. I was on a good run. I felt comfortable being with Houston (Laws) and Dan (Lesh).”
Fairbanks’ Max Kaufman won the ski division with a time of 12 hours, 27 minutes for 27th overall. The ski record is 11:09 (Rob Whitney). The fastest women’s skier finished 51st overall with a time of 23 hours, 35 minutes.
Fairbank’s Elliot Wilson, the only unicycle racer, completed the race in 18 hours, 38 minutes for 43rd overall.
“What was great is that a lot of volunteers from last year were there,” Laws said. “People remembered me and they were all excited. As low as I was last year, White Mountains was amazing this year. It was great to see the volunteers, but in the daylight. The race director was there and said he was happy I was eating this year.”
Last year Laws was more fatigued, it was darker and there was a snow blizzard.
At this same 60-mile area last year Laws could not hold any food down.
Due to the nicer weather Laws also decided to not use his sled but instead took a bigger backpack with room for his snowshoes, which he didn’t need.
“It was pretty much up to the runner’s imagination as to what it would take to get to each checkpoint,” Laws said. “You have to bring water and enough food to get to checkpoints. It was nice to have an extra layer of clothes too.”
The White Mountains was Dan Lesh’s first 100-mile race.
“I had a lot of fun actually,” Lesh said. “I finished the race wanting to do it again next year. Usually it takes a couple weeks to want to do the race you just finished again. For some reason it was just great conditions, all my problems were manageable and the camaraderie made it a really great top notch race.”
Lesh ran into salt deficiency issues, hip cramps and nausea. Another issue was running through the night, something new for Lesh as he has only competed in 50 and 100 K’s.
“I was kind of delirious, not hallucinating but I had about 80 percent trust in my mind,” Lesh said. “Everything was actually pretty good except I knew I was just a little out of it.”
His headlamp went on after Windy Gap, about Mile 62, and he ran with it to the 96 Mile point.
At the Mile 82 checkpoint Lesh took time to get back on track with caffeine, anti-inflammatory and lots of food.
While Laws and Nagel eat on the run and at checkpoints, Lesh is not comfortable eating on the run.
Lesh has been running on the beaches and roads in Gustavus, his longest day being 30 miles, with some overnight camps and runs. He hasn’t raced in over a year-and-a-half.
“I thought I was undertrained but at the same time I felt like my mind was in the right place,” Lesh said. “I wasn’t excited about racing but I kind of got that back and I had a good way to express it. I really think my body likes running in cold weather. I am going to be looking for more of these Alaskan races and less down south”
Lesh also wasn’t used to the temperature drops. Although the race was unusually warm, temperatures still dipped to 15 below zero.
Most racers stated the coldest part of the race was at Beaver Flats around 2 a.m.
“I have never really had a race where things have gone well,” Lesh said. “I have been one of those kind of unlucky racers. I don’t have any major changes I would have made.”
Lesh said he kept his pack weight down which is key to be comfortable running and he was able to run on moderate grade up hills.
“I put a lot of food in my pockets,” Lesh said. “I had a lot of food left over. I started with five pounds of food and could have probably gotten by with three pounds. But you never know what to expect. I was pretty happy.”
The three runners are expected back to Juneau this week.
Laws will next train for the Slush Box 100 in Fairbanks during June as he continues on his quest for the Alaska Slam, four 100-mile races.
“This was so great to have this be my second White Mountains,” Laws said. “The Wickersham Wall did not look so intimidating, the inclines seemed more manageable and the land marks came faster. It is still tough but it was that much more enjoyable, I could predict things coming up.”
Knowing two good Juneau runners were behind him also provided a boost.
“I knew there were some good runners on my heels,” Laws said. “It was a good motivator. With Dan (Lesh), Laura (McDonough) and John (Nagel) it was pushing me forward. I knew I couldn’t slack. I am relieved I am done with the winter races and I am looking forward to the summer races. They will be faster though.”