Three Peninsula residents take up the challenge of wilderness endurance race in Big Lake

Soldotna's Derek Gibson finishes an early February training run with ice on his face. Gibson finished fourth in the men's Little Su 50-kilometer race on foot.

Soldotna's Derek Gibson finishes an early February training run with ice on his face. Gibson finished fourth in the men's Little Su 50-kilometer race on foot.

The famous (or perhaps infamous) Susitna 100-mile and Little Su 50-kilometer races are the type of events that give the 49th state its aura of toughness and mystique. It takes guts, determination and resiliency to compete, and three local racers found that out in this year’s edition.

Soldotna’s Derek Gibson and Kenai’s Scott Moon represented the Kenai Peninsula in the men’s 50-kilometer foot race, while Kenai’s Aurora Agee did the same in the women’s 100-mile ski race. The races took place in mid-February and both feature round-trip courses that begin and end in Big Lake.

Agee, a hardy ski enthusiast that is jokingly known as that “crazy skier person” by her co-workers at First National Bank in Soldotna, said that even after hours of training on negligible ski conditions throughout this winter, she still found herself suffering through fits of vomiting, which had her considering dropping out at the 77-mile marker.

However, a friend that was keeping tabs on the racers at that particular checkpoint encouraged her to continue on and finish what she started.

“Honestly, I was crying when I crossed the finish line, I was so happy to be done,” Agee said in a phone interview. “Even earlier in the race, it was really warm, and my feet sweated, which gave me large blisters.

“I had to wear slippers to work for a week.”

Agee crossed the finish line in second place with a time of 28 hours, 26 minutes and 41 seconds. Agee began skiing at 9 a.m. Saturday morning and finished at 1:26 p.m. the following day, five hours behind women’s winner Jan Tomsen.

Gibson, one of the more elite athletes in the central Peninsula, slogged his way through 50 kilometers of misery to finish fourth among men on foot in a time of 5 hours, 25 minutes and 24 seconds.

“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Gibson said. “It was quite a bit different than I thought it would be.”

Of the three racers, Moon seemingly had the most pleasant outing, although it is easy to describe the Kenai resident’s race as such when compared to the difficulties of Gibson and Agee.

“It’s a long time to be on your feet,” Moon said. “Being out in the wilderness, you just keep plugging away at it.”

Moon finished eighth among men on foot in 6 hours, 23 minutes and 55 seconds.

Held in mid-February — this year on Valentine’s Day — the event usually serves as a precursor to the slate of season-ending races in Alaska, the beginning of the end. However, in the midst of one of the warmest and wettest winters in recent years, the running of this year’s pair of ultramarathon races looked to be in doubt.

Luckily, temperatures dropped and nature was courteous enough to bring enough snowfall in the week leading up to the big weekend to give organizers the green light.

Agee, who completed her first Susitna 100 in 2014, said the difference from the previous year was in the conditions.

“Last year had terrible conditions,” Agee said. “This year had fresh snow, so it was pretty good shape.”

Agee described the snow as any experienced backpacker or skier would describe warm, wet powder — mashed potatoes. The thick, heavy, wet layer slowed racers in the early hours of racing, particularly those on bike.

Moon empathized with the bikers, who had to contend with the difficult powder after the early miles turned from a packed snowmachine trail to mashed potatoes.

“In some places they could really move,” Moon said. “They passed me and I passed them, back and forth … it warmed up and got soft in spots.”

Gibson was also among the group of runners that were able to take advantage of the conditions to keep up with the bicyclists. The 23-year-old prepared for his race with weeks of running on icy roads and pathways in Soldotna, then drove up to the event with running friend Allan Spangler.

Gibson wrote up his spring training plan with the intention of running “a fast (half)-marathon”, and the Little Su 50K provided a perfect opportunity to gauge his progress. Gibson, who had completed a 50-mile ultramarathon in Tennessee in December, targeted a goal of finishing around the four-hour mark.

What he didn’t expect, however, was the fatigue he felt before the halfway mark.

“This girl catches me, and I realized I was feeling kind of fatigued,” Gibson said. “I didn’t have a watch, so I had no gauge of mileage, but I was extremely tired about seven or eight miles in, and I still had like 20 miles to go. I ended up walking a decent amount.

“It takes a lot longer to move when you’re walking.”

Part of what Gibson was feeling was a sore Achilles tendon, which he had aggravated the previous week on a 22-mile training run, and a tweaked calf muscle, courtesy of a short run the previous day. Combined with the frustratingly soft snow, the injuries only added to the anguish that Gibson was feeling.

Alternating between a jog and a shuffle, Gibson said he eventually resorted to short walking breaks. By the time he arrived at the halfway point with cold hands and feet, he was considering dropping out.

Luckily, fellow racer Michael Difilippo caught Gibson not far into the second half of the race, and Gibson was able to keep up with him. Gibson said Difilippo seemed to know what he was doing and the pair managed to push each other to the finish, although Gibson had to call upon every ounce of willpower to muster up a finishing kick.

“If it wasn’t for him, I probably would’ve walked the rest of the way back,” Gibson said. “I would’ve finished right beside him, but he said, ‘You’re young, you’ll probably beat me.’ I caught a second wind and was fast for the last mile or so.”

Meanwhile, Spangler crossed the finish line as the winner in a fast time of under four hours, but it was discovered that he mistakenly cut a corner about a quarter mile from the finish and was ultimately disqualified.

“He was my ride, so that was an interesting conversation on the ride home,” Gibson said.

About the time Gibson was finishing, Agee was beginning to feel the effects of her ordeal. After having completed the Susitna 100 the previous year in under 27 hours on icy trails, Agee anticipated a better result.

“Last year, there was a lot of ice,” she said. “It was like ice skating on your skate skis.”

Agee, who just recently moved to Healy with a job opportunity after six months in Kenai, said she spent this winter out on the ski trails of Tsalteshi, even when conditions weren’t ideal.

“I went out and skied anyway, all the time,” Agee said. “If it wasn’t skiable, I’d go on the lake and ski, but I just got out.”

In the weeks leading up to the 100-miler, Agee said she would ski until dark, and occasionally would even go out a second time after dinner.

On race day, she showed up with a pair of skis and a pack of food that was worth well over 3,000 calories, which was the minimum requirement for the final checkpoint.

Midway through the first day, Agee began experiencing stomach issues. No matter what she ate, she was not able to keep any food down.

“I kept throwing up violently, and I attempted to scratch at Mile 77, Little Cow Lake,” she said.

Agee continued to eat food to keep her energy up, but nothing was staying down. Her friend at the Cow Lake checkpoint advised her to rest and set her up with Ramen noodles, chicken broth and ginger ale, but her difficulties persisted.

Eventually, she resorted to melting butter, which she drank along with hot Tang. That seemed to work.

“You think it would taste horrible but it was sweet,” she recalled. “It was the best thing ever.”

After a 30-minute nap and the large intake of calories, Agee took encouragement from her friend and finished off the remaining 23 miles. Agee limped to the finish with a coaster-sized blister on her left heel.

“I’ve never had that happen before,” she said. “Looking back, maybe I didn’t have enough sugar. I know I had enough protein.”

Moon, on the other hand, did not have to deal with fatigue or stomach issues. All he had to run his third Little Su 50K was energy gel and good tunes.

“It just helps me get into a groove,” he said.

With everything from rap to rock to hip hop and even a little country on his running playlist, Moon was shooting for a sub-six-hour run. The longtime Kenai Peninsula resident said he tries to break the race up into a series of shorter segments, which helps as he nears a certain point on the trail.

“I haven’t been listening to music much when I run, but I told myself when I get to Mile 20, I’ll let myself listen to music,” Moon said. “That was kind of like a mid-distance treat.”

Prior to the race, Moon had been following a five-day marathon training plan, and with a resume that includes the Resurrection Pass 50-miler and the Big Wildlife Run 49K in Anchorage, Moon was set for the endurance test.

“My goal is to always be in motion, just to be moving,” he said.

With a shot of energy about every 45 minutes from three Goo packs and two energy bars, Moon said he was able to stick with several runners, skiers and bikers as he made his way to the finish. Adhering to his race philosophy — “Forget today’s race so tomorrow’s sounds like a good idea” — Moon immediately began thinking of something else after he crossed the finish line.

“I felt really good,” he said. “But I was hungry.”

One hundred and two racers finished the 50K, while 109 finished the 100-miler out of 137 total racers that were entered.

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