2011 White Mountains 100 Race Report

coryApril 2, 2011

I’d say that this race report is old news by now, but that implies that it actually was news at some point. In truth, I’m probably the only person who was wondering if I’d ever get time to do a write up. But I like having all these details for future reference, so I sat down and started typing..

Let me say this right off the bat – I’m a little disappointed in my WM100 finish. That doesn’t mean I’m disappointed in my race. I enjoyed it so much more than any other “ultra” race I have done, and I think I skied as well as I could have. I am just disappointed with where that effort placed me at the finish line.

I accomplished all my goals in the White Mountains 100:
• Finish without getting injured – CHECK
• Have fun exploring a new area – CHECK
• Go as fast as I can while still accomplishing #1 & #2- CHECK

Before the race, my target time was 16-18 hours, and I finished in 13.5. I should be thrilled. But I’m not.

My strategy at the start of the race was to ski with Rob Whitney for as long as it felt comfortable. Knowing Rob, I figured there were only two possible outcomes for his race. He would either ski away from everybody else and win easily (among skiers), or he would ski away from everybody else and then blow up and get caught. Either way, he’d be going fast early on. He and I skied together up the first mile-long climb with only a handful of bikers ahead of us. We relaxed a bit as we moved over the gradual ups and downs after the initial climb. A few bikers went by and skiers Mike Kramer and Owen Hanley caught up to us. Mike flew by without a word and put a gap on us, but Owen fell in line with Rob and I. I glanced at my watch as we passed the top of the Wickersham Wall, which I knew was 6 miles into the race. We’d been racing for 35 minutes. Some quick math in my head – that’s about 10 mph! I knew there was no way I could keep that pace for 95 more miles (the race is actually 101 miles, not 100. That last mile is very important!), but for now it felt good.

I don’t worry about keeping a steady pace in a race like this. I just go at whatever pace feels good. My body has a good sense of how fast it can go without blowing up, and I listen to it. Trying to ski faster to keep up with somebody could lead to a blow up, but I also find that going slower to ski with somebody can often be more tiring as well. Right then, with the adrenaline of the start still flowing, 10 mph felt good.

On some of the early downhills I noticed that Rob and Owen were gliding away from me a little bit. “I’m just cautious on the downhills,” I told myself. “I’d rather lose a second or two than crash out of the race.” But I wasn’t being overly cautious, and those guys weren’t exactly going kamikaze. There was another possibility. Were my skis slow? I tried not to think about it. Even if they were, there was nothing I could do about it now. And besides, the conditions could change a lot in the next 90 miles.

At about the 12 mile mark, I started to think that maybe I should back off. Maybe I was trying a little too hard to keep up with Rob and Owen. Soon after, my ski pole punched through the soft snow and caused the pole strap to break. In an instant, my race strategy had to change. I love my Exel QLS pole straps for races like this. They are comfortable for long distances and I can quickly clip and unclip the straps from the poles with one hand – great for grabbing food. But they have horrible durability. They break a lot. Fortunately, I know this from past experience and I always have a spare set with me.

I skied for another couple of miles without putting any pressure on my right pole. I didn’t want to stop and replace it. I knew that as soon as I stopped, Rob and Owen would be gone, at least for a long while if not for good. But I could see our group breaking up. Rob had put a small gap on Owen, and Owen was now about 50 meters ahead of me. I was starting to tire a bit, and those guys seemed to be going at an impossibly fast pace. Time for a change in strategy.

At the base of the climb to the first checkpoint, I stopped to replace the strap. I had been using my “good” straps, and I now had to resort to the backup pair, which was already well-worn. Who knows how long it would last? I decided that I would have to rely more on my legs, and not put so much pressure on my poles. This would be difficult in sections of narrow trail, but I couldn’t risk breaking another strap. It was time to switch out of race mode and into autopilot mode. I find that in every race like this, a point comes that I have to back off, forget racing, and just let my body dictate the pace. In past experience, it usually comes somewhere around mile 30. So I was pretty bummed to already be hitting that point at about mile 15. But I tried to keep a positive outlook. After all, I could slow by a couple of miles per hour and still be ahead of my 16 hour target time. I’ll just cruise and wait for those fast guys to bonk.

I headed up the hill just ahead of skier Max Kaufman. We pulled into the first checkpoint at 9:49, about a half-hour ahead of my target arrival. I drank a few cups of super-super-saturated Gatorade, ate some cookies, and we were on our way again.

Max and I skied within sight of each other most of the way to checkpoint 2. The first dozen or so miles of this section were gradual ups and downs on a trail barely wide enough to skate. I was being very careful not to “muscle it” too much with my arms. But after an hour or so, my quads started to hurt. I switched up my technique, but taking the stress off my legs only made them tighten up more. This wasn’t a burn, or fatigue, this was something different and it was getting worse with every stride. Eventually it became so painful I had to stop. And when I stopped it, the muscles seized up completely. That’s when I realized I was cramping. I’ve never experienced muscle cramps while exercising before. Sometimes I’ll get them after exercise, or while lying in bed, but this was a new experience for me. I rubbed the muscles, and stretched them a bit, and the pain subsided. I continued on my way but the cramp gradually came back. I was stopping every ten minutes or so to relieve my quads.

It was a gorgeous sunny day and I was loving the views from the ridgelines we were traversing. But I was also hitting my lowpoint in the race. The pole straps, the cramps, the fatigue that was setting in. And 70 miles to go.

The drop to Beaver Creek came just in time. After crossing the creek, the terrain flattened out and the trail was wider. I was able to use a variety of techniques and eventually the cramps subsided. When I arrived at Checkpoint #2, Cache Mountain Cabin, I was feeling much better. I had put ten minutes on Max in the last few miles (I found out after the race he had stopped to eat). I was a full hour and fifteen minutes ahead of my target pace. I was only fifteen minutes behind Mike and Owen, despite my troubles.

I knew that the crux of the race lie ahead – an eleven mile 2000 foot ascent of Cache Mountain Divide. I hadn’t eaten a lot so far in the race, and I wanted to make sure I was well-fueled for this section. So stayed at CP2 long enough to stuff an entire baked potato loaded with bacon, cheese and sour cream down my throat. I left CP2 at the height of the noon sun, feeling good, happy, and very full. I was optimistic that I would be able to catch Mike and Owen now that I was feeling better. I took off my jacket in the warm sun, and was now skiing in just a long-sleeve polypro and tights.

But the digestive pains started about 30 minutes later. A small gas pain gradually grew over a period of a few minutes until it got so bad I thought my stomach was going to burst. Then, with a loud, dramatic gurgling, that felt like an earthquake in my stomach, it would subside. This happened every five minutes or so as I headed up towards the divide. This section of trail was very narrow, any significant incline was too narrow to skate. Normally, I would narrow-up the V in my skate stride and rely on my arms and stomach muscles to power through these tight sections. But with questionable pole straps and an upset stomach, applying upper body power was out of the question. I marathon-skated as much as possible, and when it got too steep for that I would herringbone or step up sideways on my skis. In a few places, I was forced to take off my skis and hike because the trail was too narrow. In this section, I kept expecting Max, on his short Fischer Revolution skis, to catch up to me.

The top of the pass came sooner than I expected. The climb wasn’t that hard. I wasn’t even sure it was the top until I caught Jay Cable, a biker who skied the race last year, right at the pass. He informed me that the upcoming downhill would be a blast on skis. The most fun part of the course. This raised my spirits and I took off down towards the ice lakes. The ice lakes, which can be very treacherous, were a non-factor this year, almost completely covered with snow. Shortly after the ice lakes, I passed race director Ed, who was skiing backwards up towards the pass. He also told me that this was the best part of the course. It was a lot of fun. There was just enough elevation loss to maintain speed without effort, and the narrow trail darted around trees as it descended. The trail was a bit soft, and I could see that the bikers were having trouble breaking through. And while I don’t wish bike-pushing on anyone, I have to admit that after watching the bikers cruise so easily early in the race, it was nice to finally feel like I had an advantage for a little bit.

But five miles or so before Windy Gap cabin (checkpoint #3), short, steep uphills started to breakup the easy descent. Most of these hills were very short and only took a matter of seconds to get over. But again, I was unable to use my normal muscle-it-with-the-upper-body technique, and that made the hills more difficult and much more mentally challenging. Each time a short uphill would come into view, my heart would sink. The trail was now passing by the base of some spectacular limestone crags, but I had a hard time appreciating them. By the time I reached Windy Gap, I was spent. My stomach was still doing cartwheels and was beginning to ache even between gas pains. I was tired also, but I think I was mostly fatigued from the mental rollercoaster of the narrow ups and downs. The course profile indicatated that the next section from Windy to Borealis would be similar. I was not looking forward to 20 more miles of narrow, twisty, ups and downs.

At Windy Gap, I decided to sit and rest for about twenty minutes while I ate my meatball soup. As I did, Max checked-in fourteen minutes after me. I’ll admit I was a little bummed that he was so close behind, but I knew his short skis would perform well on that section. More surprising was when my friend Kate Arduser checked in two minutes after Max. I hadn’t seen her since the start and had no idea she was so close. As I sat back to rest my legs for a few minutes, I sat on my sunglasses and broke them. It was turning into that kind of a day, I supposed. I left a few minutes later, knowing Max and Kate would be right on my tail. I was dumbfounded by the times we were putting up. I felt terrible, and yet I was over two hours ahead of the fastest skier from last year. I had checked in only 17 minutes behind Owen and Mike, which I was happy with. But my 21 minute stay had left me a half hour behind in leaving. Rob was now an hour ahead of me and was uncatchable unless he blew up, which I still thought was likely given his blistering pace.

The trail from Windy to checkpoint four at the Borealis-LeFevre cabin was nothing like I feared, and it was exactly what I needed. It was wide and flat. For the first time all race, I was able to get into a rhythm and just glide easy. The scenery was spectacular and I was glad to focus on that rather than my race. My stomach was still giving me fits, but at least I was moving along pretty well without having to use my upper body. Somewhere around mile 70, as we were hiking the only significant climb on this leg, Max caught up to me. He suggested that we ski together, taking turns leading, for the rest of the race, as long as we agreed not to try to out-sprint each other at the finish. I tried to politely decline. Not because I was looking forward to a sprint, but because I doubted I could keep up with Max on this section. He was looking strong and I could see his little Revolutions were getting better glide than my skis. If I worked too hard to keep up with him now, it would spell doom later on. I needed to ski my own pace. Even so, Max took the lead and pulled me all the way to checkpoint four. On many occasions, I could see him look over his shoulder and see a gap opening between us. He would slow down and let me get back into his draft. I appreciated the effort, but part of me wanted to just be left to suffer on my own.

Kate arrived at checkpoint several minutes after we did, having skied that section at the exact same pace I did. As I ate my bowl of ramen noodles, I told Max he should go ahead. I was hurting, and it didn’t make sense for him to wait for me. Max and Kate left, then I gathered up my stuff and left four minutes later. I was now 48 minutes behind Mike and Owen, due mostly to my long stops at the checkpoints. I had to abandon any lingering hope of being in the top three. I found it amusing that given my current condition, and my lack of motivation to push any harder, that I was still thinking about a “podium finish.” Old habits die hard. I was also a whopping two hours behind Rob. I was now pretty sure Rob was going to make it all the way. Incredible.

I knew there were two main challenges still between me and the finish: a four hundred foot climb right from the checkpoint, and the six hundred foot Wickersham Wall with about 7 miles to go. I figured I would just plod up those climbs, and do my best to ski the rest at a decent pace. I got into a good V1 rhythmn going up the first climb, but I was feeling the cumulative effect of 80 miles on my legs. I could only muster a small grunt when I passed Kate about halfway up the hill. I probably could have skated the gradual downhill on the other side, but for the most part I just let gravity do the work. I could see the straight-line cut up the Wichersham Wall, which looked impossibly far ahead.

I pulled into the trail shelter at mile 91 just as Max was leaving. Kate also came and left as I was having a cup of coffee and some Gu. I was starting to feel a bit better, and probably could have skipped this stop in order to stay with the two of them, but I really didn’t care. If I was feeling good, I’d see them again, if not, I wouldn’t. Simple as that. The coffee tasted good, and a few minutes weren’t going to make much of a difference.

As I approached the base of the Wickersham Wall, I saw Kate taking off her skis and another skier who started running on skis, almost bounding, up the long climb. Who was that? That couldn’t be Max, could it? Where did he get that energy? And how did he have incredible kick on his short skate skis? I granny skated up the first third of the climb and then started hiking. When I caught up to Kate, she confirmed that the bounder was indeed Max. He had put short little skins on his skis to climb the wall, and was now well ahead of us, out of sight.

The wall was not as bad as I expected. The hiking was a welcome change from skiing, for a little while. At the top, dusk was setting in and I could see Max and his headlamp several hundred meters ahead. I was definitely feeling a little better now, and I decided to take it up a notch to see if I could catch Max. For one thing, I didn’t have my headlamp on and it was getting dark. I decided that it would be better to catch Max and piggyback off his light than stop and dig mine out. The last six miles, which had also been the first six miles of the race, had a lot more uphill than I remembered from the start. And while I groaned every time I saw another long, gradual uphill unfold in front of me, it was probably to my benefit. I could see that I was catching Max on the uphills, but his skis were faster on the downhills. I could also see that he was looking behind, and picking up his pace as I drew a bit closer.

Ugh, Max and I were now locked in the sprint to the finish that we both hoped to avoid. I had no intention of passing Max. That seemed like poor sportsmanship since he had pulled me along for miles and I had never been able to return the favor. I wanted to yell, “Max, chill, we’ll both ski in together, like you said!” But that seemed lame. If I wanted to move up a place (by skiing in with Max, for a tie) I would have to catch him, not get him to let up. So I cranked up the pace again. In the process of dueling it out, we passed a couple of bikers. With a mile to go, I finally caught him. I said, “Come on, let’s finish this thing.”   We cruised in together at 9:26, a total time of 13 hours and 26 minutes.

After the race, I pretty much didn’t move for 12 hours. I went from the wall tent, to the truck, to the couch while my stomach ached and groaned. But after that, I was able to start eating, and eventually I bounced back much quicker than I had from previous long races.

I had mixed emotions as I reflected back on my race. I was bummed that I was not among the ski leaders. With all the factors (stomach, slow skis, pole straps, and –oh yeah – lack of training) I couldn’t really expect to be up there. But I had still held out hope that somehow I’d be able to pull it off.  Again, old habits die hard.  More than anything, this race finally drove home the point that I can’t expect to live off past training any more. It’s been nine years since I averaged more than eight hours a week of training. I can’t expect that endurance base to keep coming through for me.

On the other hand, my bare-bones training did exactly what I wanted it to do. It kept me from getting injured and allowed me to survive 100 miles. It allowed me to experience one of the most amazing races anywhere. And 13:26? Wow, I never, ever thought I would ski it that fast. Almost three hours faster than my goal.

I know I said it before, but this race was absolutely perfect. Perfect weather, perfect trail conditions, amazing scenery, a fantastic race crew. Usually when I finish a race this grueling, I say “Never again!” But the White Mountains 100 is such an incredible experience that I’m already looking forward to next time.  But not next year.  Next time, I want to be in shape and do it right.  That is likely a few years off.


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