FISH CREEK SLOUGH - Out in the mean north wind and blowing snow, the night is already as cold and dark as the devil's heart, though it is only 6:30 p.m.
Two spots of light flickering deep in the void appear at first to mark the remote cabins along the faraway northeast shore of Flathorn Lake. Then it becomes obvious the lights are moving.
Slowly the lights come closer, and in their combined glow appear Anchorage runners Pam Richter and Karen Williams, towing sleds. They are not, of course, running. Given the conditions, they are happy just to be plodding forward.
They stop to exchange pleasantries. Behind them, they say, the trail is bad. Ahead of them, they are told, the trail is equally bad.
The newly falling snow holds no bond to the bare ice that covers not only frozen lakes and ponds but many of the muskeg swamps too. The snow is soft enough that the surface on which the women actually walk remains ice, or it is forming into drifts just firm enough to form a platform of snow that breaks free from the ice and slides out from under foot.
For the two women, the sled-pulling hike for the next 12 miles back to the so-called Point MacKenzie parking lot just east of the Little Susitna River will prove to be, in a word, grueling.
Welcome to training for the Susitna 100 ultra-endurance race.
Were the organizers of this February loop around the Susitna River Valley more forthright, they might bill this the heir to the now-dead Iditasport race as the world's toughest 100 miler. Sure the Western States 100-mile footrace requires a lot more climbing and descending, and the Trail of Tears 100-mile mountain-bike race in Oklahoma has the better name.
But bad trail - an all-too-common occurrence in the Susitna 100 - can more than make up for any topographical challenges posed by other races.
When organizers of the Badwater Ultra, which runs from the torrid hotspot of Death Valley to a point 8,300 feet high on the flanks of California's Mount Whitney, asked veteran Canadian ultra-runner Monica Scholz to recall her strangest race experience, the frozen Su 100 popped immediately into her mind. Here's what she had to say:
"My weirdest ultra experience occurred in February 2001. ... I ran in the last 10 miles with another lawyer from Anchorage (Jenifer Kohout). ... We were both hallucinating. ... Jenn would say, 'Hey Monica, why do you figure that monkey in the shining armor is hanging out on the side of the trail.' I'd see the same monkey and told her he's probably cheering us on. It was weird but a lot of fun."
Winter trail conditions, particularly in Southcentral Alaska, often change daily, sometimes hourly. The real trick is to develop the ability to ignore the conditions, because the greatest hurdle anyone will face along the frozen trails is mental.
Richter admits she still wrestles with one mental barrier. Wherever she goes, she tows her anxieties along behind.
Weighing in at 20 to 25 pounds, her gear sled is too heavy to slide easily on snowy trail. Other racers have been known to get their sleds down to 15 pounds in weight, but that requires significant equipment cutbacks.
"I definitely am trying to minimize the weight of what I have in (the sled), but there's always the fear of not enough clothing," Richter said.
"I think staying warm is just my biggest deal. Once I'm out there, I'm fine. It's just my imagination."