White Mountain 100

DavidShaw-WhtMtns100-2.jpg. Racers line up at the start of the White Mountains 100. Heather Best(r) placed third overall with a time of about 14 hours, besting the author by a mere 16 and a half hours. Photo by David Shaw/wildimagephoto.com.

FAIRBANKS — Organize them and they will come.

That’s the philosophy Ed Plumb adheres to when it comes to organizing human-powered, multi-sport, ultra races in the Interior.

Plumb, who came up with the White Mountains 100 four years ago, is at it again. His nonprofit organization, Endurance North, is sponsoring two new multi-sport, ultra races this spring. Actually, one of them isn’t new but has been resurrected with a new twist.

The first new race, the Chena River to Ridge, is scheduled for March 9 and is open to cyclists, runners and skiers. The race will be held in the Chena River State Recreation Area east of Fairbanks and will feature 25- and 45-mile courses on dog mushing and snowmachine trails.

The race will start and finish at the Colorado Creek Trailhead at 31.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, which also will serve as the midway checkpoint for cyclists and skiers doing the longer of the two courses. Runners can only enter the shorter race because there is a 12-hour time limit.

The 25-mile course is a counterclockwise loop around the Colorado Creek and Compeau trails while the 45-mile route travels around the same loop with another 20-mile loop around the Stiles Creek Ridge tacked on for good measure. Both are demanding courses that will tax those hardy enough to challenge them but at the same time short enough so as not to scare people away, Plumb said.

Plumb had thought about a race on the Compeau Trail previously but was worried that the section of trail that follows the Little Chena fire break was too rough for skiers and cyclists. But after skiing to Colorado Creek Cabin last month and following the new, tamer Compeau Connector Trail built last summer, Plumb decided to go for it. He submitted a permit application to Alaska State Parks last week and it was approved Monday.

 “I had been eyeing a shorter multi-sport race than the White Mountains 100, one that’s less intimidating for people,” he said. “I was trying to come up with some mid-distance race so people could ease into doing a longer race.”

The Chena River to Ridge race is perfect from a racing and organizing standpoint, Plumb said.

“The grades are ridable for cyclists and logistically it’s not as complicated as the White Mountains 100,” he said.  

Old race, new twist

The other “new” race is the Tanana River Challenge, a 50-mile bike, ski or skijor race from Nenana to Fairbanks on the Tanana River scheduled for March 30. It is the descendant of the Equinox Ultra Ski, a 60-mile ski race from Nenana to Fairbanks that was organized by former Olympic skier Audun Endestad for 10 years from 1997-2006. In addition to a new name, organizers also added categories for cyclists and skijorers in hopes of attracting a bigger field.

While Plumb isn’t officially organizing that race, he was the one who planted the seed for the race in the heads of Erin Trochim and Matt Sprau, a skijoring couple who like to go on long-distance skijor trips in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks.

Plumb had thought about bringing the Ultra Ski back to life, but it was too close to the White Mountains 100, which is scheduled the week before. Plumb worried he wouldn’t have the energy or volunteers to pull off back-to-back races, especially since the White Mountains 100 is such a major undertaking when it comes to organizing volunteers and logistics. When he heard Trochim and Sprau were thinking about resurrecting the race, Plumb encouraged them to do so with support from Endurance North in the form of insurance coverage and equipment such as water jugs, tables, tents, toilets, etc.

“They kind of ran with it,” Plumb said.

That was fine by him. The whole point of Endurance North is to promote backcountry, multi-sport races and the Tanana River Challenge is a perfect match, he said.

Trochim and Sprau roped skier friend Max Kaufman into helping organize the race because they knew he had done it before.

“They knew I’d be a sucker for it,” Kaufman said.

The race will have at least three checkpoints spread along the course and possibly a fourth, Kaufman said. The race will end at Chena Pump Wayside instead of what was the traditional finish line at the Pumphouse Restaurant on the Chena River because organizers don’t want to take a chance with thin ice that late in the spring on the lower Chena, Kaufman said.

Sprau and Trochim have selfish intentions. They’re hoping to drum up interest in long-distance skijor racing in Fairbanks and the rest of Alaska. While there was a 50-mile race held in Fairbanks several years back, there are no long-distance skijor races in Alaska today, Sprau said.

“We want to get more interest developed here,” he said. “We figured this might be a fun run.”

Growing demand

The two new races in Fairbanks add to a growing list of multi-sport, winter ultras in Alaska. While there used to be only the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational from Knik to McGrath and the Susitna 100, a 100-mile race from Big Lake to Skwentna, several new winter ultras have sprouted up in the last few years, including the White Mountains 100, a 100-mile race for cyclists, runners or skiers north of Fairbanks on March 24; the Homer Epic, a 100-kilometer bike or ski race in Homer on March 16; and the Talkeetna Trio, a 20- or 60-mile race for bikers that is being held for the first time this weekend in Talkeetna.

The growing popularity of the White Mountains 100 is one of the things that convinced Plumb there was demand for more winter ultras in Fairbanks. Almost 150 people signed up for the 65 available spots in this year’s race and the number of entries has increased each of the four years the race has been held.

“The really gratifying part about the White Mountains 100 was pulling in a lot of people who had never done anything like that before,” Plumb said. “A lot of people who did the White Mountains 100 as first endurance race have gone on to do other stuff. People are definitely into it.”

So what’s the growing attraction of human-powered, multi-sport, ultra races during the winter?

One factor is the growing popularity of fat bikes during the winter in Alaska. With super-wide tires, the bikes are made especially for riding on snow and have quickly gained a foothold in Alaska. In the last few years, the number of fat bikes in Fairbanks — and even more so in Anchorage — has grown exponentially.

“Part of it is definitely the evolution of snow bikes,” Kaufman said.

The fact that ultra races are held in remote areas on trails that aren’t meticulously groomed adds a backcountry allure to them that appeals to a certain crowd, too, Plumb said. It’s much different skiing 45 miles on mushing trails in the Chena River State Recreation Area than it is on the groomed ski trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area.

“There’s no guarantee about conditions so it adds a little more uncertainty,” he said. “You have that more remote feeling, which is what a lot of us are looking for. It’s something we like about living in Alaska.”

Endurance North isn’t limited to winter, multi-sport races, either, Plumb said. The two-year-old Sluice Box 100, a 100-mile mountain biking or running race in June, is run under the auspices of Endurance North and Plumb, an avid packrafter who owns Northern Packrafts, would love to start a multi-sport race that involves packrafts.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.