The Drift 100 is a winter race in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Shoshone National Forest in the mountains of Wyoming, at elevation. How much elevation? A lot for a winter race but not bad for a summer one. The total elevation gain is around 9000 feet. The lowest elevation is the start line at 7650 feet and it goes up to 9850 feet. You can see the Tetons from a portion of the course but it was night when I was on that part. Half of this race is run above 9000 feet so it’s not the easiest to come from 850 feet where I live. The course crosses the continental divide several times. The race starts kind of in the middle of nowhere so the closest city is Pinedale, WY and is only 30 minutes away. As most winter ultras, it’s done on foot, ski, or fat bike. As always I chose foot.
As an aside, this will probably be a more mundane race report as I’ll try to put lots of details of the course itself since I haven’t read any reports yet that had good details. This is only the second year this race happened as well.
Despite there being lots of snow drifts on the course, the name is actually due to the annual movement of cattle onto the spring/summer pasture lands in the forest and back again in the fall. This movement is just called “the drift”. The “drift” follows the Green River up to the Upper Green River Valley where there is allotment for cattle to pasture on federal forest land.
The course itself is a figure 8 pattern with very little of the course being run on twice. It’s all on snowmobile trails. Most of the trails are actual roads in the summer but the difficult parts of the course are just trails. One portion isn’t even groomed. As with all winter races, there is required gear you need to carry with you. The list may change so it’s just best to look at the race website for the most recent list. It’s mostly similar to Tuscobia’s old list. The most unique thing on this list is $200 cash. If you quit the race, you have to pay $200 to be taken out by snowmobile. I was expecting a 100% finishing rate when I saw this. It wasn’t. I guess money isn’t a good motivator for some.
The race cutoff is 48 hours which is pretty good. I could see it being harder to make that if there was a huge snowstorm during the race but otherwise, it’s a reasonable cutoff. Also the course was very well marked with both snowmobile trail markers and race signs. There are places all over where snowmobiles go off trail but trust me when I tell you you’ll know if you’re off trail. If you step off the groomed trail, you are pretty much instantly up to your waist in powder. In the white out condition areas you just keep following the poles in the ground along the trail. Yes, white out conditions!
This year we had to have a negative SARS-Cov2 test before the race but we also got to have a drop bag at the Strawberry Aid Station. I ended up not really using anything out of it except some food but it was nice to have. As usual I still ended up bringing too much food with. The check-in was the night before with scheduled times to keep from getting a crowd.
The pre-race meeting was after the gear check/check-in and was nice and quick. They took our photos but I think there was a technical issue so I don’t know if we’ll ever see them. There really wasn’t anything to cover during the meeting that wasn’t already on the website. There were a lot of people that were doing their first 100 mile race by the show of hands. I’m not sure how many of these were runners, bikers, or skiers but regardless, us Minnesotans were surprised. You do have to qualify for this race but it seems like the bar isn’t very steep to get in. I’m not sure why you’d want your first 100 mile race to be in the winter honestly. I’d recommend this not be your first 100 mile race, especially since you’re going to be walking most of this race anyway.
I’m going to give a entire paragraph to the timing of the race. It was March 12th-13th. That’s pretty late in the year. Even Iditarod is the week before. I’m not sure of the reason for that. The weather certainly isn’t going to get very cold so perhaps that’s the reason. I’d rather it get super cold so people quit. This year, it was way too hot during the daytime. There was even 2 inches of slush the second afternoon. I didn’t stop to make a snowman but easily could’ve. The other issue is snowblindness/sunburn. I did what I could to prevent both but still ended up getting sunburned under my beard and the bottom of my nose. I kept wiping off anything I put on the bottom of my nose so I don’t even know what there is to do to stop it. The sun is so strong, your at elevation, and the snow just doubles the radiation. They warned us of that but I never thought I’d get burned under my beard. I guess if you want a full suntan just go to the snow covered mountains and walk around naked for 30 minutes and even your butt crack will be tanned.
I decided to drive out there instead of flying my gear and such. There was a storm predicted for South Dakota so I left Tuesday night and drove down through Nebraska to get away from most of the storm. As usual I just slept in my car in a field during the night. I got to Pinedale Wednesday afternoon. It’s a nice town and set up mostly for tourism and cattle. It’s over 7000 feet in elevation so that was good to get somewhat acclimated. I usually like to have 48 hours before I go hiking or running in the mountains but I only had 36 hours before the race so not ideal.
The next morning I decided to head out to the starting line. I had already gotten some intel about it from other people but since I had a whole day to kill I went anyway. I brought my newer smaller sled I was planning on using and loaded duffel bag. I stopped at the signs along the road to learn stuff and enjoyed the awesome clear views of the surrounding mountains.
I got there in no time it seemed. The race starts at the snowmobile parking lot for the Continental Divide Trail. For the race you actually park in the second parking lot which is 50feet down the trail. I took out my sled and just started running in my jeans and regular shoes. The trail basically felt like it was snow that had been melted a bunch of times until it was small chunks of ice. Pretty ideal really but my sled didn’t seem to glide at all. It had no run to it once I stopped. I realized the fins I had added to it to prevent me from sliding in circles downhill were digging in to the ice. I didn’t have long enough pieces to go the whole length of the sled. So much for using that sled I guess. I decided to use my old trusty big sled. I swear the old sled looked at me when I got back to the hotel room in a way that said “I see your new hussy didn’t work out so well”.
The rest of the day was eating, putting screws into my shoes, rechecking everything I was bringing, packing food, and relaxing. Then the gear check and pre-race meeting as stated above. I quickly ate at a restaurant after the meeting and headed back to the hotel. It’s mountain time here so I called home before the kids went to bed since it was an hour later at home. I quickly did my final packing of things and did the pre-race things I could do now, like taping my face.
Since the race started at 9AM I had plenty of time the next morning to get ready. I slept pretty well and got up before 6. I had hoped to sleep a little longer but circadian rhythm is tough to beat. People were looking at me when I went down for breakfast but I didn’t realize until I went back to my room it was probably because I had tape on my face already. The rest of the morning was spent getting hot water from the microwave, lubing feet, eating, getting dressed, etc. My sled weighed 36.5 pounds including food and water. That’s the lightest I’ve gotten it down to. With the warm weather we’d have, not needing snowshoes, and being able to have the drop bag, it wasn’t too hard to get down. If I could afford a down sleeping bag I’d drop 2 more pounds. I didn’t want to be pulling a heavy sled up 9000 feet worth of elevation gain. I left my hotel just before 8AM. We had to check in again at the start.
The forecast for the day was sunny and 34 degrees. The problem was that it was currently -4F at the start line with a headwind of around 8mph. So clearly there was going to be a lot of changing clothes today. It sucked putting on extra stuff, knowing I’d be taking it all off in 2 hours time. I put on as little as possible and just planned on running cold for at least the first hour. I even saw about 10 people with Cold Avengers on at the beginning due to the wind. I stayed in my warm car listening to music until it got to race time. I took some pictures with the Brians from MN and got my picture taken by a photographer.
There were 42 of us that ended up starting. They allowed 50 to enter and had a wait list but they burned through the entire wait list before the race and ended up with 42. I think they could easily handle another 50 participants in the 100 mile event but who knows with permitting and such.
We just had a mob start after they said “Go!” I think that’s what they said.
My plan for this race was largely based on things I learned at Actif Epica since they are similar distance. Basically what that means is that I wasn’t going to sleep at all and I was going to try to not spend so much time at the aid stations. I also hadn’t had any caffeine or chocolate for the last month so that caffeine would work better during the race like it did at Actif. There were a lot of really good racers signed up based on my previous knowledge of some and previous results of others. A couple ended up not coming but I was still unsure if I’d even get the top 5 like I usually try for.
There were more people on foot than bike – 21 vs 13. That’s unlike most winter ultras. There also were 8 skiers which is a lot. I’m not too surprised since there is definitely enough snow, which is usually a main worry of skiers. Pretty much all the bikes and skiers were in front of me. I think I was somewhere around 6th for most the first section. I know 1 guy had a backpack and was running pretty well. I swear I got his name but I can’t find it in the race list so apparently my brain was already getting messed up by the sun. It’s easier with a sled, trust me. I’m guessing he quit at some point or I passed him at an aid station.
Since there weren’t many racers in this event, I rarely had a chance to talk to anyone. Most of the race I couldn’t even see anyone. I did talk to Jake for a bit. He is a mostly an obstacle course racer (OCR) it sounded like. We talked about World’s Toughest Mudder experiences for a bit. There was another OCR guy last year as well and I think a couple more besides Jake this year as well. I suppose it’s a word of mouth kind of thing as to why there were so many.
There was certainly a younger crowd at this race than I’m used to at winter ultras. Usually I’m one of the young guys but I was definitely on the old side of this one.
So the first 9 miles of the course is basically flat and just following rivers upstream. Then you start the first big climb of the race. It’s about 1000 feet over 5 miles and it was easily the easiest climb of the race. I was power hiking it pretty quickly. If not for the sled, I could’ve ran it. Well…the sled and the elevation! I was puffing quit a bit. I tried to not mouth breath but it was so hot now that it didn’t have as bad as an effect as if it was below zero. Even so, my throat was already getting sore so I tried harder to not mouth breath. I got passed by a few people that were running up the climb. For me running would’ve been downright stupid with my breathing the way it was already. Plus it was above freezing now.
I had taken everything off and put on a long sleeve t shirt by 11AM, just as I suspected I would. I’ve never worn just a t shirt in a winter race. I was still too hot but I didn’t feel like taking my shirt off and getting seriously burned everywhere.
Since I knew there would be an issue with snow blindness ahead of time, I decided to make a pair of Inuit snow goggles. The reason for this is that regular sunglasses usually freeze up quickly in the winter. Even snow goggles freeze up if there isn’t enough wind or you’re sweating. That certainly wasn’t an issue this year at this race since it was above freezing and windy during the time you’d wear them but of course I didn’t know what the temperatures would be like months earlier. These can be worn at any temperature and not freeze up. You’ll certainly have more field of view with goggles but again that’s only if they aren’t froze over. It’s surprising how much you can see with my improved design. I wouldn’t drive a car with them on but it’s good enough for human speeds.
I was also hoping they would keep the wind mostly out of my eyes as well. I only got to train with them for 2 hours in the cold at home before the race but again it never got cold at the race so I still don’t know how they’ll work in -20F for 12 hours. The race start was -4F and windy and they worked better than expected at blocking the wind so I was pretty happy about that and suspect they’ll do just fine at -20 and windy. I still brought along 2 pair of regular goggles just in case. Plus I wasn’t sure if they would pass the gear requirement for goggles.
As a side-note, I fully plan on using them at Halloween somehow. Maybe put lights on the inside somehow to make them glow? They didn’t cost anything to make other than to buy a couple Dremmel bits since I used scraps and old stuff around the house (including a bra – thanks honey!).
After the 1000 foot climb, there was just small rolling hills for the most part. The course is now at 9000 feet or above for the next 40 miles. There was one nice longish downhill that was fun to sled down. It was the first one of the race and I was looking forward to more. I had heard rumors that many of the hills were dangerous to sled down. As in they were way too long and you wouldn’t be able to control yourself. Challenge accepted! In the end I sledded down every hill that gravity and the slushy snow would allow. You certainly need to know what you’re doing on a few of them and have practiced turning. I only had to jump off the sled once because I was kicking up so much snow I couldn’t see and thought it safer to just bail than to keep digging into the turn.
The trail turned East and so I knew it would be about 5 more miles to the first aid which is called Strawberry. First you come back to the Continental Divide (CD) Trail and go on it for half a mile to get to the aid station. I wasn’t planning on staying long. My feet were still dry since there wasn’t any snow powder going on top of my shoes and with it being so warm, everything was evaporating well. The wind seemed to be picking up a bit now and the sun was starting to get lower and cooler.
I got to the aid station at 3:35 PM (6:35 race time). This is at mile 26ish in the race. I was guesstimating I’d get here around 5PM so I was ahead of that. The shelter that is there is brand new and very nice. I think they slid it on the snow to get it there earlier in the season. I didn’t go in it at all this time since they had the hot water and food outside. I filled up with hot water since they warned that people tended to run out on the next section (I had too much in the end) and took some snacks. I wasn’t hungry enough to spend the time having a meal warmed up for me. There is a vault toilet bathroom there so I made use of it as well. I changed back into a thermal shirt and got gloves, hat, and jacket into my jump spot of the bag as I figured I’d need them in the next hour or so. I spent 10 minutes here. I left in 6th place but didn’t really know where I was at the time. It was too early in the race to care that much anyway.
The next aid station is 25 miles away called Sheridan. This is by far the worst section of the race as far as steepness and difficulty goes. I was thinking it would take 9 hours for this section in my pre-race plan. Since I hadn’t seen or talked to anyone on the course for hours I decided to get my ipod out and start listening to music. You continue on the CD trail mostly uphill for 4.5 miles and turn on the A trail. The A trail is quite pretty. It opens up out of the trees for great views to the North and West. It’s the first time you can see things in those directions. It was getting closer to sunset now but I was glad to get to see these views before dark. It only lasts for a mile so enjoy it. I saw a helicopter circle around once and then again about 5 minutes later which I thought was weird. When you turn onto A you also cross the actual Continental Divide (not the trail) although I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought the first crossing was later.
After about a mile it looks like you turn off the trail to the left but in reality you are staying on the A trail and if you kept going straight you would be on the AA trail. This left turn goes down a pretty good size hill. The thing with the next 3.1 miles of trail is that it is not groomed. This means you get to hope that the snowmobile path you chose is firm enough to not posthole through. The downhill would’ve been awesome on firm snow but the ungroomed snow slowed you down a lot, even though you’re on a snowmobile track. I couldn’t even make it completely down the hill. I’m thinking maybe too since this was on the North slope of the hill and then in a narrow valley that it hadn’t melted near as much either. Either way it was “sticky” slow snow to go through. You also couldn’t use poles to help since they would punch right through the delicate crust of the snowmobile path.
I could see I was catching up to a skier which you would think could just glide down this entire 3 mile downhill section. The wind was funneling up this valley and making a strong headwind of probably 15mph. I stopped a couple of times to get more clothes on; mad at myself each time that I didn’t put more on the last time I stopped. It was getting dark in the valley so I got my headlamp out the last time I stopped to get clothes on.
I then saw the blades and very top part of a helicopter. It looked red like it was old and rusted out. I soon saw that it was a complete helicopter and wasn’t an abandoned one from years past. It was in fact the one I had seen flying around before. They were rescuing a snowmobiler. I had guessed he flipped over while climbing a steep hill but I found out later that he had hit a tree after cresting the hill or something like that. They were a couple hundred feet away but he was getting put on a board so it didn’t look good.
I soon caught up to the skier which I think was Emily. She was definitely having a hard time with the snow conditions. She would be the only person I saw this entire 25 mile section. I kept on going down the valley with an occasional uphill. It was getting harder to find a good path to follow and I would start falling in here and there. There was no point in trying to slide as it just wouldn’t go. I ran for some of it since it was downhill but I certainly didn’t need to, my sled wasn’t running into me from behind. Every step was starting to make me mad because I knew that was one more step I’d have to go up. And the hillsides looked steep.
I got to the turn onto trail B around 6:30PM and turned on my headlamp. It was indeed steep. On paper it says it’s 1000 feet up over 3.7 miles. The thing is, 600 of that is in the first 1.4 miles I figured out later. It’s the steepest part of the course and you can definitely feel the pull of the sled. While it is quite steep, it isn’t as steep as some places at Arrowhead. Specifically, the hill after the cold swamp before Mel Georges, the 2 big hills after Mel Georges, and Wakemup hill. If you’ve done Arrowhead, you’ll know what hills I’m talking about. Some of the hills in the 99 -108 mile section are pretty similar in steepness. In fact the section of this race from the turn on B at 35 miles until about 47 miles is reminiscent of the Arrowhead 99-108 section. It’s nighttime for both and lots of hills. The difference of course is it’s the second night at Arrowhead so you’re much more tired there.
Anyway, I’m still not at the top of this hill! After the first 600 feet, it comes out of the trees and into an open space. I didn’t know that was going to happen since I had been told it was mostly trees in this section. In fact there aren’t any trees for a couple miles and then other sections of open space as well. Plan on being exposed is what I’m telling you. The cold wind was smack in my face so I had to again stop twice to keep adding clothes or changing gloves/hats. I also had to put on my nose/face protector. I wasn’t even that mad I was still going up, just mad about the lack of trees. On the plus side, the stars were out like crazy! It was a new moon and with the clear high elevation air, I could see everything. If it wasn’t so windy and cold, I would’ve stopped and laid on the sled for awhile. I crossed the Continental Divide at the top and then briefly two more times on the way to the turn on F. If not for being so windy I would’ve done the obligatory peeing on both sides of it that is tradition for my family and I’m assuming every male in the world. Again, this wasn’t the first time the trail crossed it, but at the time I thought it was.
The turn on to trail F (just before mile 40) is more of a continuation of the same path you are on instead of turning. This is good because it is on a hill and I was moving pretty fast as I slide through the intersection. Then of course you start climbing again. There was a sign around 42.5 miles that said it was the highest part of the course but I don’t think that’s right. For 1 it went down a small hill right after the sign and then went up a bigger hill so clearly that hill was higher. It also said in the course description that it’s around mile 47 and looking at the topo maps, that’s right since it goes through a 3000 meter line (9843 feet) there and only a 2970 meter line where they had it (the next hill was 2980 meters so I was right it was taller). Just don’t be fooled that you’re at mile 47 if you see that sign at mile 42.5.
I’m sure the views are pretty nice from this height in the daytime. You’re supposed to be able to see the Tetons pretty well from the viewpoint near the highest spot on the course.
I think it was fairly soon after I got on F that I saw some lights coming from behind and heard some noise. I assumed it was a snowmobile as they had snowmobiles going by every 2 hours or so to pick up people that were quitting and just to check on us. It ended up being a groomer. I didn’t think they were supposed to be out tonight since they were out the night before but whatever. Usually the groomer makes the trail worse at home when it’s warm like this. This time it didn’t really make a difference either way. What it did do was erase the footprints in front of me so now I could tell how close I was to the people in front of me. We all had trackers but without cell service that didn’t do me any good to see where anyone was. It took 30 minutes to see the first set of prints so that person was probably almost an hour ahead. The next set was around another 30 minutes from there so even further ahead. I didn’t see anymore tracks before Sheridan so the rest of the people had to be quite a bit ahead. Looking at the race flow chart now, I see that the 2 in front of me were just 30 and 60 minutes ahead of me. I ended up closing some of that gap before Sheridan. The trail crosses the Continental Divide and then mostly follows it until after the high spot on the course. It crosses it again at Sheridan Pass.
After the true highest spot, it’s mostly downhill to Sheridan. I slid down maybe 5 hills but nowhere near what it looks like I should’ve been able to on the elevation profile. I mostly power hiked downhill in what seemed like forever to get to the aid station that just kind of sneaks up on you. Since there is no electricity and they didn’t have a generator at the aid station, there was just a faint glow from a window and I think a couple small lights if I remember correctly. I got there at 12:36AM (15:36 race time) which was just under 9 hours from when I left Strawberry.
The shelter itself is small with only two 5 foot benches against the wall to sit on. A lot of the space is taken up by the wood stove and table with the race food, etc on. I was still 6th I figured out later but there were only 2 racers there at the time. I was planning on eating here and changing my socks since it seemed like the vaseline had mostly worn off. My shoes were fairly frosted over now too since it had gotten colder. It was probably around 10 degrees I’d guess. There wasn’t much room to do anything but soon the other guys left so there was more room to maneuver.
They warmed up the rice and veggie option as that seemed like a better fuel source than beef stew. It was OK tasting but not what I was expecting I guess. It was pretty hot at first so I did other stuff while it cooled down. I tried to recharge my watch but my power pack wasn’t working, even though I had tested it at zero degrees. There’s 6 ounces I drug around for 102 miles for no reason. I got more water, changed socks, planned what to wear for the next section and then ate the cooled down rice.
They had music playing there. Some of it was odd sounding remakes of older songs. It’s hard to remember what all was playing but at some point one of the volunteers (it was just me and 2 volunteers at this point) said it reminded him of “Dayman” from the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I know the song very well so I started singing it. It was horrible because my throat was all messed up from the fast breathing I had to do because of the elevation. Anyway, he was impressed I knew the song. I told him there is a industrial/dance kind of remix of that song on my ipod that he hadn’t known of. I can’t even remember how I found that version since it was just made by a fan but here is the song from the show itself.
Anyway, he proclaimed, “now I want you to win the race!” I’m not sure who he was cheering for before this point but I was glad to have a new friend cheering me on. I think the next song was “Tainted Love” from Soft Cell that started another rabbit hole discussion. After about 45 minutes I was finally on my way. That was longer than I’d like but it was just hard to get things done quickly in a small space and it took awhile to cook and eat the food.
You continue on the F trail for a tenth of a mile and then turn right onto the E trail. In the description they say this is an easy section to Warm Springs Aid Station since it’s mostly downhill. That’s not really true. There’s plenty of small hills and 3 big hills before you get there. I was planning on this section taking 5 hours since I was assuming it would be as easy as they said. I ended up only averaging 3 mph so it took 5.5 hours. It felt like such a slog. I didn’t have much energy at all. The food I ate did nothing. I took a caffeine pill to help and maybe it did but I never felt great.
The E trail wasn’t recently groomed like the F trail was so I could see what looked like 5 sets of footprints. Yep, still in 6th place. It was also colder now. Based on the snow starting to squeak loudly and my nose freezing shut on strong inhalation, it was somewhere below zero but I’m not sure how cold. It was only like this for about an hour or two and then it seemed to start to warm up. I think the wind shifted from the West to the Northeast at the same time like some new air mass was moving in.
Only a couple hills were sledable. I never saw a person this entire section. I did start to see a fair amount of people quitting and going by on snowmobiles. I was thinking of stopping at the Green Creek Shelter but I can’t remember why now. I think it was to change into different clothes or something? I saw it was a good hundred yards off the course and there were at least a couple bikers there so I ended up just continuing on. Plus it was up a hill. Who needs to climb an extra hill?
The 3 big hills start after this shelter. They are long and somewhat steep. I was going much slower than I would like and figured someone would be right behind me at any moment. Turns out everyone else was going slow too and I was actually gaining on everyone. The first big downhill was a disappointment. It was too shallow to sled down all but a small part of it. The second downhill was awesome fun. It was a half mile long with a 180 degree turn in it that I navigated perfectly. I got up to 20 mph! The third downhill was basically too shallow to sled down as well. It was just quicker to run them.
After the hills, it is another couple miles to get to the aid station depending on what you call the bottom of the hill. Again, it’s so shallow, it’s hard to tell when you’re done going down and just going flat. It was starting to get light out now so I turned my headlamp off. I was still going to hit my initial goal of getting to Warm Aid Station by 7AM but it had definitely taken longer to get there than I was planning on from Sheridan.
I got there at 6:55AM (21:55 race time). This is mile 67.9. It is a trailhead parking lot with a vault toilet bathroom and they had put up a dome tent for shelter. I didn’t want to go into the tent for several reasons. First, it would melt the ice on my shoes and then I’d have wet socks. I wanted to just let them melt on their own when it got warm later in the day. Second, I saw there were a lot of sleds and bikes parked outside that I wanted to pass. I opened up the zipper enough to look inside and saw it was crowded anyway. I said I was checking in and asked what food options there were. Thanksgiving dinner (whatever that meant) and hot dogs. I asked for a hot dog and then went about getting hot water put in my water bottle. I still had plenty of water left over in my thermos from Sheridan. I also reapplied lube to my legs and butt. Sexy I know. You are probably thinking, “I didn’t need to know that”. Remember one of the reasons for this blog is just to remind myself how things went so as to learn for future races, hence “reapplied butt lube”.
It seemed like forever to get my hot dog and I was on the edge of getting cold. It was supposed to be real windy on Union Pass which was coming up so I got another coat out and more windproof gloves and hat on as well. I ate my hotdog which was literally just the hotdog with no bun. I was expecting a bun. Either way it tasted awesome and hit the spot as nothing I had with me seemed to taste good.
I was here for about 15 minutes which was 10 minutes longer than it should’ve been. I should’ve just asked for the cold hot dog and moved along since I didn’t do anything that took longer than 5 minutes here. I started off with the extra clothes on in what I found out later was 2nd overall and first place male. I figured I was only passing maybe 3 people. Cole started out right after I did.
It’s not even a mile before the last BIG climb of the race starts. This is the Union Gap climb. It’s 1400 feet over about 4.4 miles. I say about because the vast majority of the climb is in less than 4 miles. It’s not an even climb so some parts are steeper and some seem almost flat. A third of a mile into the climb I realized I was way overdressed. There was zero wind in the trees at the bottom of the hill and the sun was heating me up as well. I ended up wasting almost 10 minutes stopping twice to change back out of everything I had just changed into at Warm Springs. Cole passed me as well so I was pissed at myself for making an error like that. This is of course where experience of the course helps a great deal. I can pretty much know what’s coming up ahead at Arrowhead from anywhere on the course and know what direction I’m going in even in the dark.
I was thinking it would take around 2 hours for this climb. With the stopping, it took almost that long. The trail started to open up here and there and the views were awesome. The wind started to pick up as well. I think partly because it was daytime and partly because there were less trees as well. I was glad I knew how long this hill was because there are lots of false summits.
I knew I was getting close to the top and I could tell the wind was really going to be an issue once I got there since it was already getting pretty strong. I stopped to get the more windproof stuff back on again. I knew I would probably be too warm with it all on but I’d also be WAY too cold without it. The trail was softening up due to the heat and it was clear there had been a fair amount of snowmobile traffic. I had to move around the trail to find better footing quite a lot.
It was also very sunny again. I put my Inuit snow goggles on but after a half mile or so I realized they were making me really tired and almost dizzy. Apparently it takes a fair amount of brain power to process everything through those small slits. I hadn’t expected this but I wasn’t necessarily surprised either. Vision always gets kind of weird when I’m tired. I got out my tinted goggles and wore them. Since it was already in the 20’s I didn’t have to worry about anything freezing. I have to say though that my tinted goggles certainly aren’t tinted enough for that kind of light. I almost had to squint even with them on.
Finally I reached the summit of Union Pass and crossed the Continental Divide for the last time of the race. The pass is fairly flat so it was kind of hard to tell where the actual top was. The wind was impossible to miss though. It was coming from behind me mostly but also from the left side of me for long stretches as well. The decent is too shallow to sled for the most part so I’d try to run at times but I was getting fatigued and it felt so much better to just power hike down.
There are occasionally trees along the next 5 miles but they did absolutely nothing to stop the wind. You could stand right next to a thick line of trees and the wind would just come at you from every angle possible. I’m not sure what the wind speed was but had to be at least sustained at 25 with gusts of at least 40. I suggest peeing before you start this section or else just be inclined to piss all over yourself since the wind will do it for you no matter which direction you aim!
The drifts had already started and were getting bigger by the minute. In the beginning, they were mostly only 4 inches deep. What was interesting to me is how slippery they were. Back home drifts are soft while they’re being made so stepping in them is just like stepping in fresh powder – your foot goes straight down. After a while they get a hard crust on top and eventually get as hard as concrete once the cold air gets to them. These drifts were like stepping on a pile of banana peels. You had no way of knowing which way your foot would go other than the certainty that it wouldn’t go straight down. I would say 90% of my accessory muscle use during the race happened in these 5 miles. The sled also dragged across the drifts like they were made of gravel which I thought was odd. Clearly I tried to stay away from the drifts as much as possible.
About a mile into the decent when the wind was coming from the side, it was a complete white out for a half mile or so. The poles along the side of the trail were visible so I just followed them staying on the far right of the trail. The wind blew me off the trail a couple times and I’d posthole all the way down. I didn’t dare go any further onto the snowmobile trail since there was currently a parade of fast moving snowmobiles flying down the trail. They didn’t even throw any candy. This was easily the busiest section for snowmobile traffic. Probably 150 of them passed me in the section from Warm Springs to Strawberry with the vast majority at Union Pass. It was Saturday so I’m sure that was part of it. Another reason to not try to sled this section since you’re much more visible standing up.
It didn’t seem to matter how far down the mountain the trail went, the wind just kept blowing. The drifts got higher and higher. Even when the trail went along side the trees, the wind didn’t stop, it just blew around from a different direction. The mile before the trail intersected with the AA trail, was completely drifted over. They would go from over knee high on the left side to only 8 inches high on the right side so I stayed to the right. The snowmobile traffic had stopped now. It would’ve helped had they been in this section to level the drifts. I was glad that the trail would soon be turning west again into the forest so the wind would get more reasonable. Occasionally there would be a cloud that blocked the sun but not too often.
I was hot most of this time since it was above freezing and the sun was strong but I couldn’t remove the windproof stuff or I’d get way too cold and wet from the blowing snow. In fact I didn’t have one of my bag’s zippers fully closed and that compartment got completely full of snow. Completely.
Finally the turn west and into the trees. My watch had died now so I really wouldn’t know how much further until I got to the section of the trail that I had been on before. About 4 miles before the Strawberry Aid Station I saw Cole up ahead sledding down a hill. I was surprised I had caught up to him. Well, almost caught up, I lost sight of him in the trees again. I was trying to eat things but not too much was enticing. I decided I would try the beef stew at Strawberry and I’d also have to change my socks since my feet were pretty soaked with the warm weather and all the drift busting I had been doing for hours. I took a caffeine pill to help with the final push that afternoon.
Time wise I had thought it would take around 8 hours for this section. I was moving faster than that so I started doing math now that I knew more of what the rest of the course would be like. I figured I’d get to Strawberry around 1PM which was only 6 hours for the section. I was thinking I could finish the race around 7PM then for a time of 34 hours total. It can be dangerous doing math during an ultra as things can change quickly but there isn’t much else to do to pass the time.
I ended up getting to Strawberry (mile 84) just before 1PM pretty much the same time as Cole got there. I knew I had to get stuff done but I wanted to just skip the aid station at the same time. With 18 miles left to go a lot can go wrong so it’s best to take care of things early. I checked in and asked them to get some beef stew ready. Then I got my stuff from my bag to change socks, etc. I remembered this time to tell them to just warm it up and not get it hot so I could eat it right away. I ate the food while doing all my other stuff, taking a bite here and there. It was really good and I wished I could’ve ate it all (it was a huge portion compared to the rice I had last night) but I didn’t need that much. I got some pop as well. I even had some time to chat while the food was being warmed up. I found out that Cole and I were going for second place. I thought that seemed right but I wasn’t sure if that meant second place male or overall. It didn’t really matter, my plan was to go fast and see what happened. I used the bathroom to lube up again. Total time there was about 20 minutes.
Cole left 5 minutes ahead of me. They said it was windy for most of the rest of the course. In reality it wasn’t very windy for the first few miles so I was worried I was overdressed again. They kept talking about the steep hills but they never seemed to come. I checked a couple times thinking I had gone on the wrong trail but I could see other footprints and bike paths so I knew it was right. I had forgotten you go uphill for a few miles first with lots of dips along the way to get there that don’t show up on the elevation profile.
Normally I would’ve been able to sled a lot more this whole day but the sled would slow way down when I sat on it compared to it just running on it’s own. The top 2 inches of snow were soft and you could easily make snowballs if you so desired. So I didn’t ride until the big downhills.
On the elevation profile it looks like you go down 1500 feet in a straight line. It’s really more like steps with a downhill here and there. The first one was OK but not like what I had been told it would be like. I’m guessing it was the snow holding me back. I could see Cole again up ahead. I’d usually follow the path he made with his sled the best I could.
The entire time from Strawberry, you’re basically going South. This day was the day the giant snowstorm hit Colorado and would hit Wyoming that night and the next day. In the distance you could see a gigantic black cloud that went up to space hanging over Colorado. It was amazing to see. I didn’t want to take the time to get my phone out to take a picture so you don’t get to see it.
About half way down this downhill section comes the best part of this entire race. It starts around mile 90 and I had no idea it was even going to happen because there are trees here and there. It is just over a mile section of downhill that is completely sleddable without stopping. It is the most fun I’ve ever had at a race. It’s a full 5 minutes of sledding. Not only do you get to go fast in spots, but there are multiple turns and bumps that your momentum will get you over before the next downhill. If it was guaranteed that no snowmobiles would be on the trail, I really could’ve opened it up! Instead I’d have to slow down at the blind corners to make sure I didn’t run into an unseen snowmobile. I wonder how much more fun it would’ve been if not for the slower sticky snow. Looking at the tracker data, I think a couple people didn’t sled down this part. They totally missed out!
After the long downhill, there were a couple smaller downhills and a few hills that were too shallow to sled down with the current snow. I had basically caught up to Cole and a biker had just passed us as well on the last downhill. He waited at the bottom to watch how we sledded down the hill. I was surprised there was a biker still out here but I’m guessing he slept at night sometime (maybe one of them at the Green Shelter?). Another one passed me later on as well.
I felt amazing after all that fun downhill sledding. The food and caffeine seemed to be kicking in as well. I had lots of energy. I wasn’t really sure how much was left since my watch died but I was guessing about 10 miles. The trail wasn’t near as drifted over here and had a nice firm surface most of the time if you knew where to walk. I started power hiking as fast as I could to take advantage of the the great footing and energy I had. Cole seemed to be falling behind. I couldn’t see anyone ahead but I also know from past experience that if the person in front of you is having a rough time, you can catch up to them pretty easy over 10 miles. Turns out the first place woman was almost finished when I was at this point so I had no chance of catching someone. I decided I’d give it my all but still played it smart by not running since I was moving so fast just hiking and felt I could keep that up for hours. It was also almost impossible to run and not mouth breath due to the elevation and my throat was already shot. If someone would start to catch up, then I’d run.
It was windy again as we were out of the trees. It was somewhat cloudy now as the sun was getting lower in the sky so it would feel almost cold at times. I was pretty sure now that I’d finish by 7PM and I would try to beat the sunset at 6:20PM or so. Getting the headlamp out was my new enemy. I “felt” like I was going 4mph but I knew that may not be the actual case. I wouldn’t know how much further the finish was until I got to the S trail intersection that we had turned on yesterday morning. From there it was supposed to be 6 miles. Surprise, it’s a little further.
Slowly I became alone as Cole drifted behind. I didn’t let up because I really wanted to get done by sunset. I think I was moving about 17 minute miles which isn’t bad. My family was cheering me from home I found out later. This is the first race I’ve had a tracker that actually worked. I can’t imagine cheering over hours of time. One of the interesting things about winter races is how long the endings take. While I’m currently telling you about this last push, it may seem like things are happening kind of fast. In reality, it took about 3 hours to go from the bottom of that huge downhill to the finish. That’s 2 movies! And that was a pretty fast time, most took 4 hours. It’s like that for many ultramarathons, but ESPECIALLY winter ultramarathons.
It was still 3 miles to go after the last turn onto trail P that went to the Kendall Valley Lodge where the finish line was. The sun slowly went behind the hills and the shadows got longer. A mile or so from the finish a snowmobile was coming towards me with 2 people on it. The photographer from the beginning of the race was on it and got off to take photographs. It must’ve been light out enough yet for some good photos. I asked if the photos would be on the website or somewhere, assuming he was just taking photos for the race. He said he was a reporter for the New York Times. I thought he was joking. I don’t even know if the New York Times has even done an article about people doing the Iditarod on foot so it seemed pretty far fetched. He continued that he was doing an article on back country use of national forests or something like that and felt this was a good example of that. He said to just ignore the camera so I tried to do that. I had lots of questions I wanted to ask though so I probably wrecked all the photos with my mouth moving. He remembered I had the goggles at the beginning of the race. It’d be kind of cool if he ended up using one of the photos although I have no way of knowing when/if the article will come out.
As I watched the shadows start to creep up the mountain to the East, I could see the Lodge come into view over the next hill. I ran a little bit to make sure I’d beat the sunset. In Arrowhead tradition, the finish line is at the top of a hill. I heard cowbells and a couple cheering voices. I have a video of me finishing but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get it uploaded to the blog. It’s basically me hiking quickly and then leaning on my poles smiling after I cross the line. That’s when I found out I was the first place male! Wow. That’s the first time I’ve gotten first in a 100 mile or longer race, and in the mountains no less. My strategy and a little luck had ended up paying off. My official time is 33:18 (6:18PM).
Finishing a race during this current pandemic kind of sucks. There’s no other way to say it. You can’t really hug anyone. You can’t all get together with strangers in one spot to tell your race stories and thoroughly enjoy it. I really wanted to just hang around and watch the rest of the runners come in but that just wasn’t in the cards. Winter races themselves are all about solitude in general, but after the race it’s all about coming together. I really missed that. Ultrarunners are already a different breed, but winter ultrarunners are an even more unique breed. I’d say normal, but most people would say “special”, in that way only Minnesotans can. In some ways it would be hard at this race to all get together anyway since it’s not a big enough lodge for everyone to get a room to stay after the race.
I remembered to turn my tracker back in and then loaded my stuff into someone’s vehicle that was kind enough to drive me the mile back to the start line across the river where my car was. Actually, the race directors loaded it up for me. I thanked them for everything and off we went to my car. I was still awake but I knew if I didn’t get back to Pinedale soon, I’d end up sleeping in my car instead of a hotel.
The driver was asking advice on winter races as he knows some people that want to do this race. First off read blogs and race reports like this. No, I should say STUDY race reports and blogs. Then test, test, test your gear. Also, talk to someone on an actual phone about it. This will likely be a 3 hour phone call if you really want to scratch the surface. If the weather is nice, you can grunt your way through. If it’s bad weather, you could get seriously injured if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can’t stress enough that these CAN be dangerous. People lose body parts. This year wasn’t a bad weather year. I’d be surprised if anyone got frostbite despite there being quite a few rookies. Plenty of sunburn I’m sure.
I drove towards Pinedale and got cell service after a few miles so I could call home. They were all pretty excited. My kids are pretty tough to impress but this time they were. I got a hotel and a big pizza. Showered and slept till 7AM or so. I can’t remember if that was Daylight time or Standard. I forgot to mention that Sunday morning was daylight savings time so those runners overnight had that to deal with. The race was still a 48 hour time limit so the cutoff time was 10AM.
15 of the 21 runners finished the race (71%). It looks to me that there were 4 pairs of people that finished the race together. Shows how much people like to get together. Originally my friend Paul was signed up for this race and I expected we once again would’ve ended up spending a huge amount of time together but he deferred to next year. Even without him 3 of us 5 Hrimthurs from last year were at this race.
Since the snowstorm was indeed the storm of a generation, all the roads in Wyoming were closed other than the one going West to Idaho. It was still nice weather in Pinedale. The roads wouldn’t be opened until Monday afternoon at the earliest and I had to work Tuesday so I went West. Then up through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and finally home. I slept in the car in South Dakota somewhere. It was good to finally get home Monday noon!
The race is well run with lots of great volunteers. I’m sure the demand to get into this race will continue to increase and the finishing rate will also increase once people hear how fun that last downhill is! How can you stop at mile 70 and miss the hill at 90?