Winter snow-biking races gain momentum across the state
Winter endurance races proliferate across Alaska. For years the Susitna 100 in the Susitna Basin and the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) from Knik to McGrath and Nome were the only multisport adventures available to skiers, runners and snow bikers.
Two of the new kids on the block are the Homer Epic 100K at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and the White Mountains 100, a short distance north of Fairbanks.
Ed Plumb and Ann Farris hatched the idea for a 100-mile loop through the White Mountains National Recreation Area while on a pack-rafting trip on Beaver Creek in 2009.
“There are a lot of 12-hour paddling days, so you end up doing a lot of thinking,” Plumb explained. “We got back into the White Mountains wilderness, and I thought the area would make a really neat course.”
Farris kindled the idea and encouraged Plumb to organize a race in March 2010 that borrowed the format of the Susitna 100. The trail is snowmachine groomed and Bureau of Land Management checkpoint cabins occur about every 20 miles.
The event website advertises the race as follows: “This rugged wilderness will challenge racers with a variety of terrain and trail conditions, satisfying even the most experienced winter athlete. Steep climbs, bowel-clenching descents, sharp turns, areas of active overflow, glare ice, tree stumps, roots, and bare tussocks are all part of the White Mountains trail network. Sub-zero temperatures, strong winds, along with blowing and drifting snow may add to the excitement.”
Such a description would be enough to turn all but the hardiest adventurer away. Yet 65 competitors elbow for entry, and the wait list grows longer each year.
The course circles through one of the most scenic areas of Interior Alaska. With more than 7,000 feet of elevation gain on a route that traces the high ridges of the White Mountains, the course cuts through cathedral-like limestone cliffs that rise impressively before the competitors.
The hospitality at the checkpoint cabins may be one of the biggest reasons a racer might quit the race – the volunteers serve up hearty soups, baked potatoes and other comfort foods. You feel so welcome that you don’t want to leave.
“It’s harder to get to be a volunteer than to get into the race,” Plumb said. “The volunteers have a blast even though they’re severely lacking in sleep.”
In the high country of the Caribou Hills above Homer and Kachemak Bay, Pat Irwin and Kathy Sarns organize a 100-kilometer race that began last year. The Homer Epic 100 is a fund-raiser for the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club.
Almost the entire course is groomed by a 16-foot wide piston-bully by Homer’s Snomads Snowmachine Club. The partnership among skiers, snowmachiners and adventure racers might seem unlikely but in this situation everyone comes away a winner. The proceeds are funneled back into building and maintaining better trails to give the Homer community and visitors healthy outdoor opportunities.
“The scenery is epic-ly spectacular,” Sarns said. “You can see the Harding Ice Field from the high points as well as Kachemak Bay, the surrounding mountains, and steaming volcanoes.”
Like the White Mountains race, the Homer Epic has plenty of character-building elevation gain – some 6,500 feet over the course of 60 miles, a tall order even for road biking in the summer.
With its close proximity to Homer, you might think that the course is somewhat tame. Not so, Sarns said.
“These trails are very remote and can experience sudden changes in weather with winds up to 80 to 90 mph and whiteout conditions. Just last week an experienced snowmachiner familiar with the area got lost for several days. Rescuers found him staggering deliriously in an area near where the Epic race takes place.”
Both of these events place competitors in far-reaching areas where rescue is more than a phone call away. Participants are encouraged to train hard and come prepared to deal with the weather, equipment failure and the possibility of getting lost.
By the time this column goes to print, the inaugural Talkeetna Trio organized by Greg Matyas of Speedway Cycles will have taken place in early February – another race to mark on your calendar for future years. This fat-biking only race stays close to Talkeetna, looping three times on a 20-mile course. If you get tired of staring at the trail, Denali and Foraker will stare back at you to remind you how lucky you are to be racing in Alaska.
ALASKA WINTER ENDURANCE RACES
Talkeetna Trio Early February www.fatbackbikes.com
Susitna 100 Mid-February www.susitna100.org
Iditarod Trail Invitational Late February www.alaskaultrasport.com
Homer Epic 100 Mid-March www.kachemaknordicskiclub.org
White Mountains 100 Late March www.whitemountains100.org