Om Saturday, Scott and I headed out to Knik to do a long ski on the Susitna 100 course. A snowstorm on Friday had dumped almost a foot of new snow on the trail, which wasn’t ideal for skate skiing. But we headed out anyway, hoping that plenty of snowmobiles would hit it before we did. Besides, I’m going to encounter a lot of challenging trail conditions in my race, so a day of slogging through soft snow would be excellent, if difficult, training.
The trail from the Point Mackenzie General Store was as good as we could have hoped for, given the new snow. We skated down the road (FYI: travel on the road is not allowed in the Su100) for the first few miles until we hit the trail. The road was slightly icy, and super-fast. The trail was not. It was packed by many a snowmobile, but it was soft and uneven. About what we expected.
We had planned to take the Su100 oubound trail to Flathorn Lake via the Nome Sign, then maybe ski out a little farther before returning via the Su100 inbound trail. We never saw the turn-off for the outbound trail towards the Nome Sign and ended up going out and back on the straight section line that is the inbound Su100 trail.
It was slow going. I was towing my loaded gear sled, and Scott was wearing a heavy pack. In soft snow, there is no way to skate at an easy pace while towing a sled. You need to maintain a certain amount of momentum to keep the sled moving, and that requires churning the legs at a quick pace, even as they sink into the collapsing snow with each stride. It took us about 3 hours to travel the fifteen miles to Flathorn Lake. And even though that’s a pathetic 5 mph average, I was spent by the time we got there.
We took a short break to eat when we reached the lake, and I got cold really fast. The temperature was zero degrees F, not too cold, but a slight wind on the lake chilled us to the bone in minutes.
As we skied across the lake for a look at the Su100 checkpoint, I started to get really nervous. No, not nervous. Scared. I began to think about how tired I was after only three hours and fifteen miles. And I began to think about how cold I was, even though the current weather would be considered mild for the Iditarod Invitational. I knew I would survive this day. I knew my fingers and toes would warm up and I knew I would make it back to the car after a long slog. But what would happen when it is much colder and windier? When I’ve already skied 150 miles, not fifteen? When I don’t have a warm car and a bowl of soup at the end of the day, but only a sleeping bag and frozen chunks of peanut butter? And I have to get up and do it all again in a few hours? These are all concerns that I’ve had for a long time, but they all hit me at once as I looked across the barren expanse of Flathorn Lake.
Just before the four hour mark, we turned around and headed back. I skated as much as possible and resorted to classic ski shuffling when needed. Surprisingly, the shuffling was only marginally slower than skate skiing. My worries haunted me for the entire return trip.
It was almost 8 PM when we finished. It had been a 7.5 hour ski. Scott and I had a bowl of bean soup and a Coke at the General Store before heading home. It was a great day of training, and yet I went to bed that night feeling much less optimistic about my race than I had the day before. I told my wife I thought I had a 20% percent chance of finishing the race.
On Sunday, I loaded up my sled again, but I didn’t have time for a long ski. I skied the trails at Kincaid Park instead. It was amazing how much easier it was to ski the firm corduroy of Kincaid. Even the steepest hills of the Lekisch Loop were easier than the flat section line from Saturday. I skied for two hours and felt like I could have kept going forever.
Sunday’s workout lifted my spirits quite a bit. I’m now pretty confident that I could make it to McGrath if the whole trail was groomed like Kincaid Park. Which is to say, I’ve still got a lot of work to do.