I love this race. Started in 2010 by Ed Plumb and Ann Farris, and carried on by Joel Homan, the WM100 is an endurance race that traverses a 100 mile loop through the White Mountains Recreation Area of Interior Alaska. Competitors initially chose between ski, bike, and foot for mode of transport, but recently a kicksled & unicycle have also been employed. I first raced in 2014 after buying a fatbike a few months before. I entered on a lark, but that experience rekindled a love of bike racing that had lain dormant since my youth. Unfortunately, a nagging repetitive use injury kept me out of the 2016 edition. However, I was REALLY excited for this year’s race that saw the most competitive field in all categories since inception. My wife Audrey and I photographed the start before I rode about 40 miles backwards on the course to try to capture a few images of what this race is all about.
Family, friends, and volunteers play a huge role in this race. When moving through the staging area, you feel a palpable level of intimacy among everyone there. Nobody is a complete stranger and we’re all part of a special community rallied around the race simply called “The Whites”. While most Alaskans are a long way from their blood relatives, we all find and build an extended family here. And getting together for the race is kind of like a family reunion. But it’s an extra special reunion as the family gets added to each year by people from near and far in Alaska, and Outside.
As a winter endurance racer, equipment is always on your mind. Gear serves the function of keeping you alive in the worst case scenario, but also makes or breaks your race in the best case. We’re all guilty of perseverating on the smallest detail, but it’s a necessary and often enjoyed part of the sport. And even though it serves such a pragmatic purpose, it’s also an outlet of individuality, expression, and motivation.
If you’re a snowbike racer, you live and die by the tire. Many restless nights have been spent second guessing your decision about tire size (5” or 4”), tread pattern, whether to use ice-gripping studs or not, and most importantly WHAT AIR PRESSURE! On snow, float and traction are decisive. A wide, soft tire will float on soft snow far better than a narrow, hard tire. So if you get into wind drifted snow, or a fresh dump of snow, anyone with a big fatty soft tire will leave their narrow, hard tire riding competitor to dig trenches in the snow and fall off the pace. But if the course is firm and “white pavement”, a narrower & harder tire will give you a significant advantage. The rider with a soft tire will have to stop, get out their pump, and add air while losing precious time.
The funny part of it all, is that in a 100 mile wilderness race, you don’t have any reliable idea of what tire pressure is best since conditions can change significantly throughout the 8-24 hours it will take to ride. Most likely, everybody will stop at least once to adjust pressure. But, that doesn’t stop us from checking, rechecking, adding, subtracting, and generally freaking ourselves out on the start line.
I always get a special kick out of this ritual. In elite road bike racing, it wasn’t uncommon for a coach to walk up to a racer of another team and pinch their butt. By feeling how thick the fat was, that coach would have an idea on how “fit” the racer was and if they were a threat or not. This seems kind of like that. I’ve never had the interest in pinching a competitors butt, but I have been known to squeeze their tire :)
A cauldron of emotion. Excitement, nerves, doubt, confidence, happiness, fear. A rolling spectrum of feeling inevitably passes through each competitor. While some have come to win, and some have come to finish, and others have come to just be, nobody escapes that emotional rollercoaster leading up to the starting gun. No matter what your intentions, you’re guaranteed to “feel” in those moments leading up to the race.
Four checkpoints are located around the course at ~20 mile intervals. Most of these are BLM public use cabins. Volunteer crews of 3-4 people haul water and food in a sled attached to their snowmachines out to the cabins. They grab firewood cut by a volunteer the week prior and fire up the woodstoves, prepare food and drink (including baked potatoes, hot soup, soda, candy, cookies, rice crispy treats, etc.) and get ready to welcome the racers. These checkpoints and volunteers play a special role in each racer’s experience. For the lycra-clad front group, they simply provide a place to grab water (maybe a snack) and go. But further back in the pack, they provide solace, a resting place, levity, a shelter in the storm, medication, encouragement, support, a goal to reach. Without the volunteers staffing these wilderness outposts, the race wouldn’t exist.
There’s a place in the race where the adrenaline wears off, you start to feel your body, and you realize the magnitude of what’s in front of you. If you’re thinking clearly, you focus on eating and drinking regularly. But that all important task gets balanced between many other needs like paying attention to your equipment, picking the fastest line, freaking out a little about that deep overflow ahead, just finding the trail if you’re in a whiteout, chatting with fellow competitors, and maybe looking around at all the incredible scenery (that is, if you’re not currently inside that blizzard).
Each year, the trail presents a unique side of it’s personality and becomes a common foe everyone wrestles with. While you may start out biking, or skiing, or running, it’s a rare year when everybody doesn’t end up walking at least some of the course. For the bikes, you must have at least a moderately packed trail to actively ride. If it turns to “mashed potatoes”, you’re forced out of the saddle to push, pull, cuss, and coerce your bike forward. Skiers do a little better in those conditions, although it does slow their speed significantly. But they face a completely different set of challenges.
Cyclists at least have the option to increase and decrease tire pressure based on conditions, but the skiers have waxed and prepped their skis before the race so a significant change in temperature, or water content of the snow, or even a light dusting of fresh snow can have serious impacts on the ability to “glide”. And without glide, you don’t have any fun. As for the runners, I’m pretty sure they deal with it a certain way….One step at a time.
Most snow conditions can be handled without serious angst. But overflow is brutal and despised by everyone. In the simplest definition, overflow is standing or running water on top of ice. It can vary from a thin film to waist deep and poses a significant threat. Nobody wants to get wet, but in a race, you’re always balancing speed with risk. Cyclists can often ride straight through, but a mistake will topple you into the 32-33 degree water. Skiers can sometimes scoot around it on snow without going straight through. Runners usually have to go a LONG ways around it (the margins are often the most dangerous as intact snow insulates and hides the danger below), or stop and put on lightweight waders to walk through.
Initially, I’d planned to ride the entire course backwards over two days while photographing as much as possible. Unfortunately, my body wasn’t interested in that. Then, in an effort to “self-support”, I got a little overwhelmed trying to ride hard enough to catch the heart of the race in the biggest mountains, while also feeding, finding water, and trying to stay dry. I made some stupid mistakes when going for “the shot”, like falling into overflow and soaking my gear. But it was a great experience overall and the magic of fire can dry out gear like nothing else (although a blizzard can challenge that effort). I spent the night in the woods between checkpoint 3 & checkpoint 4 and was happy to be getting more sleep than the racers.
A huge thanks to my wife Audrey for not only shooting the start and riding the first 10 miles with me, but also providing logistical (and emotional) support throughout my trip. Without her constant vigilance in watching Trackleaders and relaying info to me via an InReach satellite messenger, I would have missed the opportunity for a good image of the entire first group and would have had only a spurious notion of where people were located on the course. And it was especially nice to hear her kind words through the electronic screen as I post-holed off the trail and laid out my sleeping bag under a scrawny clump of Black Spruce trees wondering, why the f*ck am I bivying tonight?