About the Race

Susitna 50K - www.susitna100.com

On February 19 two unicyclists, George Barnes and Brian Schuster, competed in the Alaskan race covering parts of the historic Iditarod trail.  Run in conjunction with it's older brother, the Susitna 100, the Little Su 50k travels the same course but turns around at the famous "Nome" sign just a couple of miles from the Little Susitna River and the Little Su Checkpoint. It finishes where it begins at the Big Lake Lodge for a total distance of 50 kilometers (approx. 31.1 miles).

Race Report - George

Pictures up HERE

Brian's video of the race up HERE

February 19, 2005

The 50K racers get to start at 11 AM in the morning, 2 hours later than the 100 mile racers.  By this point conditions are ideal - no wind, relatively warm temperatures, and mostly clear skies.  Unsure how our pace will match with the other racers (bikers, skiers, and runners) we choose to start at the back of the pack.

The first few miles roll by quickly as the trail is packed and firm, ideal for unicycling.  We quickly pass all of the runners (which was interesting on the narrow trail), but never catch the bulk of the skiers and bikers.  When we're riding our average is around 6-7 mph.

Upon crossing Sevenmile Lake we begin to see signs of deteriorating trail conditions.  The snow is less packed, and because of the warming weather we're sinking in more.  After 4-5 miles we're resigned to walking stretches of unrideable soft terrain, and remounting for down hills and packed sections.  Runners slowly catch and pass us as we walk.

At around mile 7 we stop on an unnamed frozen lake for our first real break, and pause to eat and take pictures of passing dog teams.  Moving again, we ride as much as we can, but we're forced to do a fair amount of walking.

After the lake the trail is primarily shrouded by trees.  Enough runners and snowmobiles have passed us that the formerly smooth trail is fairly chewed up, making riding the flat sections more work than it is worth.  Downhills are a welcome change from pushing.  We meet a biker who has turned around early at the Little Su river checkpoint (instead of the Nome sign).  We hear that the bikers are having similar experiences with the softening snow.  It's so warm that I'm in only a polypro shirt and not wearing a hat or gloves.

We're closing on the Little Su checkpoint as the trail breaks out of the forest and onto the frozen marshes.  Sections of this are rideable with increased effort.  We reach the checkpoint just as two 100 milers (who left 2 hours earlier) leave it.  We're still ahead of some runners, though a few of the skiers have already made the turnaround and passed us on their way back.

The trail past the checkpoint is pretty soft - we're walking all the uphills, most of the flats, and riding the downhills.  A few dog teams pass us as we make our way to the checkpoint.  The two 100 milers are pulling heavy gear sleds, and at times the packed trail they leave is more rideable.

When we finally make the turn around sign at around 4:00PM we've gone 15.6 miles - an average speed of just over 3 mph.  We learn that the bikers in the 100 miler are also suffering, and our pace is similar to theirs.  We fool around quite a while at the sign, not anxious to get moving again.  Finishing in the dark is now unavoidable, so there's no real rush.  We figure that we have plenty of time to finish before the 12 hour cut off time.

Moving east again we find the snow is beginning to firm up as temperatures drop.  It's still too much work to ride portions, but we have high hopes for the trail near the finish.  I've developed a fairly nasty ache behind both my knees, presumably from the walking.  Half way back to the Little Su checkpoint we meet a skier still heading out, the only person behind us.  We'd later learn that the skier and five others wouldn't finish the race.  My personal goal was to beat somebody, so I guess that counts.

Back at the checkpoint I top off my Camelbak with near boiling water while Brian brews some hot chocolate.  At this point we're consciously taking our time, hoping the dropping temperatures will yield rideable snow.

Our wishes are somewhat granted, though the trail is hardening the footprints of 30+ runners.  Riding is somewhat of a challenge, but much faster than walking.  We make great time across the frozen lakes.  The moon is bright enough to light the trail and cast shadows, but we don headlamps to improve depth perception.

The last five miles would prove to be the greatest challenge.  Trail conditions were decent, but we're exhausted from the previous 26 miles, so we alternate riding and walking.  Stops get longer, "motivation is definitely lacking", and the 12 hour cut off isn't so far off.  I can tell I'm getting goofy, and focus all my energy on just moving forward.  My unicycle's bumper sticker serves as a reminder to "Cowboy Up" and keep moving.  I'm trying everything to stay in the game - recalling Chris LeDoux lyrics, counting to 10 over and over (I have no idea why), and fantasizing of food other than Clif bars.  I'm quickly realizing that this race is probably the hardest physical thing I've ever done.

About a mile from the finish we get passed by a skier from the 100 mile race - he's done 100 miles in 2 hours more than the time it took us to do 30.  Clearly skis are the fastest mode of transportation in this race, last year's winner had an average of around 11 mph.

We force ourselves to ride to the finish, and reach the line at 10:32 PM, 28 minutes under the cut off.  A warm welcome and chili dogs at the warming house are much appreciated.  Our overall average speed (including stops) has been around 2.7 mph, and I estimate our moving average at around 4 mph.  All told, we probably rode around 40-50% of the course.  Faster times and higher percentages would have certainly been possible with colder weather.  Regardless, we're done with the race and the first unicyclists to complete the Susitna 50K!  Many thanks to our sponsors and everyone that made our ride possible!

 

February 21, 2005 -- Post Race Commentary

 

  • Back in Denver I jumped on the scale to learn that I lost about 5 lbs in my 4 days in Alaska  - I should start a diet program!

    Total food intake (George):

    • 1.5 Clif Bars

    • 3 Clif Shots

    • 1 bag turkey jerky

    • 1 bag dried pineapple

    • 1/2 bar of Toblerone chocolate (thanks Brian)

    • ~ 5 liters of water

     

  • The ache behind my knees is still present but getting better.

  • Overall, I was really happy with the performance of our unicycles in the race.  The 3" Gazzaloddi tire on a Large Marge rim was a great combination.  I'm anxious to see Surly's new 4" tire, I suspect it could have increased the amount of trail we rode.

 

Race Report - Brian

February 19 2005

It was close to 8:00 am Alaska time when we woke to the slowly rising sun. Both George and I took our showers, got dressed in the appropriate clothing and grabbed our pre-packed bags to head out to the start of the race. After filling the tank on our Lincoln Towncar (bad winter vehicle) and grabbing breakfast at McDonalds (both of us got 2 bacon egg and cheese biscuits, a hash brown and an orange juice) we started up Alaska 1 out of Anchorage.

When we got to the start of the race, we decided not to pull out the Unicycles until about 5 minutes before the race, a good way to put more surprise in the event and give us more time to get other things ready. After registering and filling out a short questionnaire, we pulled out the unicycles, answered many questions and started the race at 11:00 am.

At the start of the race, we were more toward the back of the pack since we didnít know how well we would be able to ride on the trail. After passing most of the walkers we found that the unicycle worked well on the interior of the trail, where it was packed the most. After around 4 miles, we began taking breaks, sometimes when we didnít want to. With the sun and temperature gaining, the snow began to become very soft. This soft snow would not support our tire as wide as it was and we started to walk with unicycle in hand. These walks became longer and longer until we were only unicycling down hills. It was due to this that we lost our lead and eventually were passed by the walkers. It was at this time that the Toblerone came out.

After around 12 miles and 4 hours, we reached the checkpoint at the same time two walkers from the 100 mile race were leaving it. These two women started at 9:00 am and were pulling sleds that housed the required gear for the 100 mile race. After a fairly short break at the check point it was off to the turn around. After 5:30 from the start, we reached the turnaround and found that we were keeping pace with the bikers from the 100 mile race. After walking around the sign to Nome, a requirement to do the entire 31 miles, we parked our unicycles and had a bite to eat. It was here that I was glad that I packed in that apple pie.

Shortly after leaving the turnaround we passed a skier who was still struggling to reach the turnaround. He seemed out of it and although we said hi, he just starred straight ahead and walked with his skis over his shoulder. George looked at me shortly after and asked if he was sporting downhill skis. For his sake, I hope not.

On the way back, we stopped at the checkpoint again to fill up on water and for another quick break. This time I brewed up some hot chocolate and had some more Toblerone. After around 15 minutes we finally got up and began again our long trek back. The sun was starting to hide behind the distant mountains, and the temperature was beginning to drop. Although this meant wearing more clothing than before, we were glad because it allowed us to ride more of the trail. At the same time however, we were feeling the miles on our bodies. George was feeling some pain on the back side of his legs where I was feeling it on the inside of my thighs. Either way, pain or no pain, we had to get back to the start before 11:00 pm, and that became our goal.

With many stops on the way back, our overall speed seemed slower, but we were able to ride more of the trail this time and we did the best we could. We rode most of the frozen lakes this time and all of the down hills. And finally at 10:32 pm we both crossed the finish line together and into the history books.

Although we were not the first unicyclists to ride a unicycle on snow or on a packed trail, we were the first to ever be a part of such an event and included in a race. While in the race we were asked many questions and supported by almost every person. It made the race that much more enjoyable and I am sure it gave them something to talk about for a long time.


Total Race Time:
11 hours 32 minutes

Food Menu:
3.5 Cliff Bars
1 Apple Pie
0.5 Toblerone
8 oz. of Hot Chocolate
~5 Quarts of Water