Monday, March 26, 2007

Sonot Recap

This was the 20th Sonot (my second attempt at the 50k), and the toughest according finishers who have done the race every year. At the start it was about 0 F and we had about 2-3 inches of fresh snow. Forget fancy flouro waxes because we might as well have painted on some spruce sap--at least that's how it felt. Actually the river sections (first and last 10k) were reasonable, but everything on the already tough Birch Hill section (30k of up and down) was brutal. All skate, no glide, no rest.

No glide at the Sonot! It was all work from 10k through 39k.

Got off to a good start in the 2nd pack, but then that dissipated more quickly than I'd hoped, so I was in no-man's land from 4k to about 25k. Then the lead women, Kate Pearson and Melissa Lewis, caught up. Skied with them (more like hung on for dear life) through about 36k before they put the hammer down. No one else passed but I didn't pass anyone else either. Just a tough day.

I finished 9th among men, 11th overall, in 3:06:44, 25 minutes slower than last year. Most of the top finishers were about 15-20 minutes slower than 2006 (and nearly 30 minutes behind the previous year which was very fast). This race tested fitness level. There was little or no advantage from finesse or waxing, and the heavier/muscular skiers suffered mightily. Those who were most fit and with a good strength to weigh ratio had the best days.

Pearson wins with big kick! Pearson and Lewis dueled the entire 50k and the race was not decided until the final half kilometer (photo copied from Fairbanks News-Miner)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Iditarod takes a black eye

Like the Tour de France last year, this year's Iditarod ended with a great story. A five-time also ran and cancer survivor named Lance won the rugged 1,100 mile race convincingly, becoming the first Yukon Quest (another 1,000 mile race from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Fairbanks, AK held two weeks earlier) - Iditarod doubler as well as the first father-brother combination winner. His dad won in 1978 and half brother did it in 1983. All three Mackey's did it on their 6th try wearing bib number 13. Great stuff for a great story.

The elation lasted for a day or so until a dark cloud of animal abuse accusations arose, centering around Ramy Brooks who is from another well-known Alaskan mushing family. First, on the last day of the race one of Brook's dogs died. Per Iditarod rules he was not given a finish time until the necropsy was completed. That cost him three places from 12th to 15th and several thousand dollars. Press releases indicated that Brooks was crestfallen at the loss of his dog. A necropsy by Iditarod veterinarians indicated no signs of abuse on the dead dog.

Then the story got worse and the ensuing controversy has all but overshadowed Mackey's remarkable double. Brooks was initially disqualified for hitting his dogs with a flexible trail marker--approximately 1 inch wide and a quarter inch thick--because the dogs balked at an icy crossing. However, witnesses report that Brooks allegedly strike his dogs with his fists, feet, and a ski pole.

There is already a strong anti-mushing push from groups like PETA and help (, who are so anti-mushing that any and all types of sled dog racing should be banned--in addition to sled dog tours. Some extremists, who apparently believe that all dogs should be pampered indoor pooches sitting on the couch eating potato chips with their cholesterol clogged and adipose addled owners, are even against recreational mushing. This case just adds to their hystrionics.

The Iditarod's last finishers have completed the course and the case is under further investigation.
Meanwhile, two sets of inspections (the Iditarod and Brooks) did not reveal bruising or physical injury to Brooks' dogs, and the animals "appear to be in good health."

The public reaction is strong, ranging from disappointment to defense of Brooks, to call for a criminal charges and a lifetime ban

Brooks is well respected for his community service with mental health and with outreach to children, which makes this even harder. However, the Iditarod is likely to come down upon him pretty hard, espcially if the witnesses accounts hold up. He could get a ban for one to several years, and the Iditarod, feeling pressure from the public and from sponsors could conceivably ban him for life.

I say let the investigation continue and may the Iditarod be fair with Brooks. He's paid a heavy price already, and if additional sanctions are needed, let's just be fair. I don't think that he is an animal abuser, but he certainly crossed the line. That said, I am adamantly opposed to the anti-mushing movement. They do nothing but carp and whine. If they want to do something the should pony up some money to ensure animal care protocols are met and to fund research to improve animal care evaluate the health impacts to dogs. They should also put up and contribute by adopting some sled dogs who don't make the cut for teams.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Striding out of the deep freeze

Can't help but discuss the weather a bit. We've been locked into a nearly unprecedented cold snap for four weeks now and we're just starting to crawl out of it. Old timers and weather records say it hasn't been this cold, this long, this late since the early 1960s. Stationary low pressure systems in NW Canada and Bering Sea have resulted in a perpetual swirl of cold air streaming over most of Alaska.

After a reasonable, almost mild early February (with highs in the mid-teens, lows something below zero), the system moved in and we were locked into -40s at night, and highs barely reaching -20. That is late for this area, which is usually one of the best times of the year if you like doing things outdoors. Rather than embracing the last month of winter--which everybody looks forward to--it got harder and harder to just get out the door and put in a workout. Finally, however, on Friday after 26 days of sub zero, the thermometer climbed to about 10 degrees.

Saturday dawned brilliant and clear, and at race time the thermometer at UAF read +6, quite nice difference from the -32 at the snowshoe race three weeks ago. I joked to anyone in sight that springtime in Alaska sure is nice! They laughed politely but probably wanted to kill me.

Our race was the 20k Skiathon, a classic race and a long-standing campus tradition dating back to the 1970s. The Skiathon used to be a much bigger event, now it's pretty small, averaging about 60 to 100 skiers a year. I really like this one because a) it's the only race not at Birch Hill and b) because of that it has a much more laid back feel. Nevertheless, the competition is pretty good.

The skis were running well in the warmup--with solid kick and glide--and I felt confident for a decent race. As usual the first few ks are furious with a lot of double-poling and jockying for postion. A lead pack of a couple college skiers and Fairbank's best citizen racer pulled ahead, and I settled into a 2nd pack of four. In the open areas the snow was so grainy and windblown that we had to step out of the track while doing an arduous double pole. At 5k on Smith Lake I suddenly found myself leading our pack--not quite where I wanted to be, but I pushed through the wind with the others in tow. Probably not a great tactical move, but it did break up the pack, and by the climb into the Potato Fields there were only two of us. I let up and let Matt, a new grad student here, pull for a while. However, I'd already fallen into oxygen debt, and strugged to maintain contact. By 8k he was pulling away, with Will and Max about 100 m back.

Normally, I should be strongest on the hilly loops between 7 and 10k, but was just hanging on. Max reeled me in and by 10k and we skied side-by side, taking in some feed at the only aid station. But with the climbing over with, I took in some oxygen, and on a short steep uphill was able to pull away again. From then on the course is mostly double polling. The downhills aren't quite steep enough to glide, so you just hammer with rapid fire double poling. At about 18k, I could see Matt ahead about 40-50 sec, and thought maybe he was slowing down. I pushed till 19 or 19.5 k and then eased it in for 5th.

All in all a good day. Sometimes, when you get a rough stretch of weather here, you wonder if it's worthwhile. But, if you mix in the good (dog races, Tour of Anchorage, and events like the Skiathon) witht the bitter cold--yes, it's worthwhile. Note to self for next year: take it easy on the lake and wait for the hills!

1. Spangler (UAF) - 1:07:51
2. Viavant (Montana State) - 1:08:29
3. Kramer (local citizen racer) - 1:10:03
4. Matt (grad student)- 1:13:49
5. Me (geezer) - 1:15:07
6. Will (UAF) - 1:15:57
7. Max (local citizen racer) - 1:16:20
8. Ingrid (UAF assistant coach and local racer) - 1:19:53