Backcounty Ski Racer Embraces the North
Shalane Frost has won pretty much every ultra-distance ski race in Alaska. In March alone this year, she cleaned up in the Homer Epic 100k, the Chena River to Ridge 50-miler, and the 45-mile Tanana River Challenge, closing out the month by defending her title in the White Mountains 100. The 100-mile ski, bike, and footrace is held in the White Mountains National Recreation Area outside Fairbanks, a one-million-acre wilderness whose fairly modest exterior disguises sweeping valleys, jagged limestone mountains, and clear-running creeks, all tied together by groomed trails and 14 public use cabins. In her last two years in the race, Frost has finished first among skiers (women and men) and set a women’s course record at 12 hours 42 minutes. While she won’t deny being ultra-competitive, she says the real draw of racing in Alaska is getting outside, seeing new country, and—every once in a while—dressing up as a superhero.
—AS TOLD TO AND EDITED BY MOLLY RETTIG
Did you grow up on skis?
No, I’m from southern British Columbia and I did running and rowing in college. I didn’t learn how to ski until I moved to Fairbanks when I was 22. I took a ski lesson at Birch Hill, and my instructor had to show me how to work my ski bindings.
Wow! How’d you get into racing?
When I moved to Alaska, I wanted to find a sport to do for fun. Before that, sports were all about being fast enough to get the scholarship to get the education to get the blank, the blank, the blank. I didn’t know how to do things for fun. I specifically decided I did not want to race, but I totally failed. In 2012, I started doing the distance series races at Birch Hill, then the Sonot Kkaazoot 50k, and it went from there. What I learned is that for me, the competitive part is the part that’s most fun.
So now you’ve been skiing for 13 years. You’ve skied the White Mountains 100 seven times, winning the women’s ski division each year. How did the race go this year?
The snow was a little cold, so it wasn’t as fast as last year. There were a lot of headwinds, a little bit of blowing snow. One of the fun parts was that Holly Brooks was racing, a former Olympian skier from Anchorage. She’s a much better skier than I am, and she’s cleaned my clock every time I’ve raced her, but that’s been on wide trails in races that are not super long. We went back and forth until a checkpoint at mile 40. I left first, and then spent the next 60 miles hearing phantom ski noises behind me. I expected her to catch me, and she was within one mile for the majority of the race, and finished 40 minutes after me. Having Holly right behind me was pretty scary.
How is racing in the Whites different than a race like the Tour of Anchorage?
Since we’re skiing on snowmachine trails, I use these short skis—they’re called Fisher Revolutions—that are great for narrow trails because you can have a wider ski angle as you’re going uphill. You also have to adjust your technique. It relies more on core strength, and you’ve really got to hit it at the beginning of your stride because you can’t count on that long push at the end.
How do you train for these ultras?
I do about five trips per winter in the Whites, not just to train but also as a social activity. I’ve got a group of 10 or so folks who all like the same style of high-mileage overnights. Sometimes we ski 40 miles in and 40 miles out the next day. Most of them are guys on fat bikes, usually training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. This year we also did this awesome trip on the Yukon Quest trail right after the race went through.
What makes the White Mountains special compared to other places you’ve skied?
I did another endurance race just outside Yellowstone National Park; it was 126 miles. You go really high in elevation and get these gorgeous views of Yellowstone. But the difference is that you have cell reception almost the whole time. You’re going through towns, skiing down Main Street, some of the racers were staying in hotel rooms during the race. If you need to bail, you’re not being taken out by snowmachine, you just go find the road and call a cab. It would be really hard to put together a 100-mile race in the Lower 48 and have it feel remote. In the White Mountains, the race organizers said that when you’re out on the icy lakes, it’s the farthest you can get from a road anywhere in the U.S.
Of your hundreds of miles in the White Mountains, can you share a memorable moment?
This winter I went out with our usual group to do the whole 100-mile loop in two nights. The first two days were awesome; it was about zero degrees. The last day, it got way colder than forecast—I woke up to 35 below. Skating relies on creating a tiny layer of unfrozen water to glide on, which doesn’t work at 35 below. My ski partner and I ended up having to classic ski out on our skate gear. It was a very long 39 miles. One of my best memories was volunteering at the Windy Gap cabin in 2014. The northern lights were so bright they were reflecting off the Limestone Jags. It was awesome.