Ititarod Trail Invitational 350, 2002
[This is a story of my ITI 2002 experience. I wrote it just after the race, in 2002. It contains some unflattering comments about other racers with film crews, but I decided to leave it mostly as it originated. Keep in mind that I had never seen a fatbike until the start of the race, hence my commentary about sand bikes. Pictures were taken with disposable cameras at a time before I became truly interested in photography. My prejudices about racers coming in 140 pound skinny packages was formed by reading too many mountain bike magazines.]
Before the race:
I had built a substantial base of fitness over the past few years of bike commuting so I knew that the people who were questioning my level of fitness were underestimating me. I also knew that there was a big difference between commuting 21km twice a day and covering 560km of wilderness in a week on a fully laden bike. I continued my daily commuting but added a little science to it. Monday mornings I extended my commute to 90km by making a circuit of the city on my way to work. Twice a week I did intervals on my way home. I also added some weekend training rides of longer distances. In November I had the good fortune to have my workweek cut back by a day to four days per week which allowed me to do some long training rides and walks on Fridays. I practiced riding the bike loaded as well as pushing it through the snow. I also ran 3 to 9 km at lunch times at work. I did day long rides out to the mountains, I did overnight rides. I slept out in –25 in the back yard.
By mid February, I felt prepared for the race and fitter than I had been in over a decade.
The bike and equipment
In order to get lots of flotation on the snow, wider tires are better than narrow ones. The most common method is to use snow cat rims which are 44mm wide and allow a rather large footprint on the snow. They also have the advantage that they fit (mostly) into a standard mountain bike frame. I ordered some Snow Cats twice from Simon at All Weather Sports in Fairbanks but they never showed up. I ended up ordering some rims of the same dimensions from Avro in Dorval. After some hassling, the rims arrived. I had them built on a pair of DT Swiss Hugi 240 hubs that use a star ratchet freehub assembly that can be field serviced without tools and engages in the coldest of weather.
A Rocky Mountain steel hardtail coupled with a Surly rigid front fork gave a reasonably light and durable package. Also I already owned the bike so I did not have to make yet another purchase.
I used a Specialized big hit 2.5 tire in the front and a WTB Weirwolf 2.5 tire in the rear. In retrospect, the Specialized tire in 3.0 inch would have been a better choice in front.
I used an extra thick downhill tube in the rear tire to avoid flats. This turned out to be overkill and was a great deal more rotating weight than necessary. Had I been less lazy, I would have swapped it out early in the race. Since I would be running very low pressure in the tires during the race, I glued one side of the tire to the rim to avoid having it slip and shear off the valve stem. I found some brakes in my box of spare parts with long curved arms that cleared the extra wide tires.
To keep my hands warm, pogies (large handlebar covers that act somewhat like mittens) were a necessity. I designed these myself to get all of the features that I wanted into them. I made them large enough to carry snacks in. In fact they were large enough to use them as booties to warm my feet in emergency situations. The bright yellow colour gave them high visibility and ripstop polyester covering over thick windstoper fleece and blue closed cell foam made them very warm.
I did not want panniers hanging down to drag in the snow so I mounted an aero bar in the front of my bike to use as a front rack. A seatpost rack in the rear held my stove and clothing while food was stored in a frame bag in the main triangle of the bike.
I was fairly conservative when it came to sleeping equipment and clothing. I did not want to be cold or get any cold related injuries so I paid a significant weight penalty.
In addition to a –20 C rated sleeping bag with a vapour barrier liner, I carried a yellow ensolite pad and bivouac sack. I brought a down sweater and fleece pants for times when it was cold and I was stopped to bivy out or to fix my bike. I also planned to use the sweater and pants for sleeping on extra cold nights.
For cooking or making water, I carried a Coleman single burner stove that we have used for several years and has proven reliable. It is a little heavier than some other available stoves but again I decided against the extra purchase.
For riding in the dark I brought a headlamp with a remote battery pack that I could put inside my jacket to keep the batteries warm. I also brought an LED headlamp as a backup or to save batteries when the larger light was not needed.
Arrival in Anchorage
I was a little apprehensive about meeting the other racers, I half expected a bunch of prima donnas with big egos. After all, there were some real racers here. I was a bike commuter.
I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere at Earth B&B was supportive and friendly.
I arrived in Anchorage only to find out that my bike had not. The lady at the lost luggage counter assured me that it would be delivered to me later that night as soon as it got in.
I spent the afternoon at Earth B&B with the other racers. Margriet (the owner) introduced me to everyone in sight. Many of the people that I had seen in the ‘Thin White Line’ video were there. Elliot McAllister, Andy Headings and I went off to the local bike store “Ready To Race” to get some parts for Elliot’s bike. It turned out that Elliot was an engineer at Christini, a company who make two wheel drive mountain bikes. The store was an amazing place, tucked into the back of the owner’s house, the vestibule housed several customer bikes and a wide assortment of parts. My favourite kind of bike store, the owner rides bikes himself and is obviously keen on more than pumping through the inventory. I hear later that he is particularly fond of wheel building and builds the type of wheels that never need to be trued and last forever.
The morning of the second day, my bike arrived. I started assembly but put off completing it in order to make a trip to REI. REI is the American version of Mountain Equipment Coop and is quite similar in many ways but perhaps a little downscale as far as quality goes. I walked there with Eric, one of my roommates at the B&B and of course we met several other racers there. Apparently, there is a yearly ritual of making many trips to REI to make sure that one has all of the same equipment as the other racers. Usually, the extra equipment ends up getting left behind since everyone already had a plan about what to bring on the race.
Fortunately, I had a list of equipment that I was bringing with me and another list of equipment to purchase in Anchorage so I minimized my impulse buys at the REI.
Back at the Earth B&B garage, I proceeded to put the rest of my bike together. I discovered that I had forgotten my pedals and I managed to break the quick release skewer on my rear hub. With borrowed pedals and skewer (thanks to Bill Merchant), I went off to the bike store to get replacements.
The traffic in Anchorage is positively bike hostile. I have never been in a city where less consideration is shown towards cyclists than Anchorage. I ended up abandoning my bike store quest in order to get off the horrible streets, they were simply not safe. I ended up splitting a cab with Elliot the next day to go to get pedals.
Elliot seemed to have the most to do. He had constructed a sled for himself and seemed to have left it entirely untested. It seemed a little late to be thinking about using questionable equipment.
I did a shakedown run on my bike on the local multi use path. I got to see some of the famous Anchorage urban moose and the scenic parts of town. I felt good, The bike felt good. I was more or less ready.
The pre-race meeting featured a slide show by Mike Curiak, the holder of the record Knik to Nome time of 15 days. It was better than slide shows tend to be as Mike is a very good speaker and had some great slides showing the various parts of the race.
A film crew member interrupted the slide show by filming the audience with a really bright light – while making voice commentary. Mike simply stopped, said “that is really annoying” and waited for him to turn off the spotlight.
After the pre-race meeting was a party with all the racers and volunteers and a keg of beer. Most of the racers limited themselves to only a glass or two of the very delicious microbrewed beer.
That night, I loaded my bike into the van that was to take it to the race start.
Waiting for the race start is a time for self doubt. Here I am waiting to start a race alongside a bunch of real mountain bike racers. I have said again and again that I am in no danger of winning the race, in fact all I want to do is finish with all of my digits intact. Still, I have a feeling of being out of my league, a bike commuter amongst successful racers. I am not scared, just a little uncomfortable. Finally, the race begins, I carefully take my place near the rear of the rush of bikes leaving the start line. I don’t want to be in anyone’s way.
About 200m from the start, at the end of the lake, the trail goes up a hill and enters the woods and becomes a single file track through rolling hills. Elliot McAlister, from Pennsylvania, breaks his sled on the hill. I feel sorry for him, less than a minute into the race, I tell him to get a backpack, but I know that he will probably scratch.
I end up just behind Maurizio and Eris, the Italian cyclists on their way to Nome. I feel really good, the pace feels like I can maintain it forever. A few people have told me that if I feel like I am going at a good pace, I should slow down. Maurizio’s chain falls off his bike. I catch up to his partner Eris and tell him. Eris turns back to help. Perhaps they are sharing tools?
For a good part of the afternoon I end up trading places back and forth with David Barker-Milne from the UK and Dario Valsesia from Italy. I can see that Dario lacks experience riding on the snow, his tires are pumped to about 60 psi and he is reluctant to let air out of them. He is also carrying way too much stuff. His food supplies include canned chili and stew – probably four pounds with those alone. He is also the only other cyclist I have seen who is in the same weight range as I am. He is also wearing way too many clothes for the warm temperature. He is using much too much energy for the slow speed that we are going.
The weather is warm, hovering around 0 C and I end up riding wearing a capilene shirt and a vest with a wind proof front. I had been hoping for some colder weather to cut down on the sweating and to allow me to wear clothes instead of carrying them strapped to the bike.
Several Iditarod junior racers are going by in the opposite direction. I should really stop and take some pictures of the dogsleds. Maybe I will later.
The trail is mostly rideable on the downhill and level sections but we are walking up the uphill stuff. The occasional ravine provides good opportunity to crash, which I do several times. On one of the crashes, I lose my glasses. I had brought one pair of glasses with clear, yellow and dark lenses. I have therefore lost my sun, overcast and night glasses all at once. At least I still have my goggles.
There is an opportunity to stop for water and a nap at Flathorn Lake but I have lots of water and elect to bypass it on the hopefully better Iditarod Junior trail that I am already on. Eris and Maurizio have by now caught up and they are riding just behind me. The trail eventually opens up onto the large Susitna river and then follows it upstream to the Yentna river.
To my left is the sleeping lady mountain, somehow it really does look like a sleeping lady. The sun very slowly sets as I ride past.
About a mile up the Susitna river, I stop for a break and meet up with Steve and Janice Tower from Anchorage. I have heard of Janice, she is the record holder for the 130 mile race and has consistently been the fastest woman in the shorter races. The Towers turn out to be a very agreeable couple. They are from Anchorage and so were not staying at the B&B.
It turns out that Steve is substantially bigger than any of the other cyclists, including myself. He is pulling a sled to help keep weight off of the bike. Several people have poked fun at this system but it seems logical, soft snow would mean that every ounce off of the bike would make the difference between riding and pushing.
Steve had intended to ride a super wide sand bike up until the night before the race when he discovered that the bottom bracket was destroyed. He ended up staying up until 3 AM to put together the regular bike, snowcats and sled combination that he was riding. Janice and Steve were already running a sleep deficit by the time that they started the race.
We soon catch up to the Italians who nearly double their speed when they realize that a woman is passing them. Steve and I get a good chuckle out of this. We soon make it to Yentna station slightly behind the Italians.
Yentna Station is a comfortable house and is serving grilled cheese sandwiches. I wolf down one of these and quickly dry some clothes before pressing on. The Italians are trying to catch a nap but the owner wants to charge them to sleep and though they are willing to pay, they do not want to get up to go sleep in one of the beds as designated for sleeping. As we leave, Maurizio and Eris are gathering their clothes to leave.
Steve and Janice have a friend with a cabin a short way up the Yentna river. I intend to continue on past, but, in a moment of weakness I accept their hospitality. It proves to be a wise decision. I sleep at the back of the cabin in relative cool and get a very refreshing two-hour nap.
Back on the river, we ride in at 11:45 for brunch at the Skwentna roadhouse. Eggs, potatoes and toast really hit the spot and we are back on the road by 1pm. After a slight detour in the wrong direction, we are soon on the trail to Shell Lake. Unfortunately, shortly after Skwentna, the trail turns to soft moguls that are impossible to ride. The moguls are left over from the iron dog snowmobile race a week earlier and are as unpopular with us as they are with the locals. The locals get beaten by the moguls when they ride around for work and to reach neighbours on their own snowmobiles. We dislike them because they mean walking or very harsh riding instead of smooth rideable trail.
This section is where we first witness Steve’s “transformer” routine. He carries a pair of skis in his sled and when the going gets tough on the bike, Steve becomes a skier towing a bike.
The temperature warms up to near freezing and the trail softens even further. Even the flat spots are unrideable now.
We roll in to Shell Lake lodge around 8 PM, Zoe, the owner is serving a choice of burgers or grilled cheese. The bread is homemade, the cheese is plentiful, one of the best grilled-cheese sandwiches I have ever inhaled. We try to rent a cabin to sleep in but Zoe says that since we will only be sleeping for a few hours, we should crash on the floor on cushions. She tapes the cushions together so they don’t separate and comes around with pillows and blankets for everyone.
Round midnight, Roberto Ghidoni, the larger than life Italian walker comes in. He is suffering a bad case of chafing on his butt and needs some cream to soothe it. I do not have any cream until the Finger Lake drop bag, so I wake Steve who has some Bag Balm(tm) and we go back to sleep.
The clock on the wall at Shell Lake dings a great deal (1 for quarter after, 2 for half past, 4 plus the time on the hour). Pierre Ostor and Steve are world class snorers and yet by 4 am I feel refreshed enough to get back on the trail. We head out by the light of our headlamps and leave behind a tip for our wonderful hostess.
The trail has hardened a bunch but is still mostly a pushing trail. We catch up to the Italian bikers and their film crew entourage about halfway along. It appears as though they had a rough night out. One of the film crew guys mentions that I look really fresh. I reply that I feel fresh, and in fact I do, I have had more than enough sleep and the pace has been somewhat slow.
As I pass the film crew, the trail becomes rideable again. This makes me wonder if in fact the film crew snow machines have something to do with the inability to ride. My suspicions are confirmed when I am passed again and the trail turns to sugar. This could become annoying.
At Finger Lake lodge I eat some fine quesadillas and rice. I also break into my drop bags for some food replenishment. I have sent way too much food and some of it looks downright unappealing. Fortunately, everyone else seems to have sent too much as well and I raid the leftovers box for some cheese and other goodies.
Roberto has been at Shell Lake for an hour or so and is getting ready to leave as we get in. He is barefoot and I mention to him that his feet look blister free, to which he replies “feet good, ass fire!” Apparently, last year he got some frostbite on his penis and this year his windproof underwear are rubbing. Everyone is donating his or her favourite salve to help him out. Roberto is a bit of a legend in these races, he tows a tiny child’s sled borrowed from his granddaughter which only highlights his stature and mammoth stride. His feet are massive and yet he has managed to find a pair of runners big enough for several layers of socks. He walks at 4.5 miles per hour for 20 hours per day, a one-eyed force of nature.
From what we have heard, the trail between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) is never rideable and this year is no exception. I take the left side pedal off my bike to make pushing easier and plan for a long push.
I make an interesting discovery this afternoon. I am much better at pushing the bike than I am at riding it. I stride along all afternoon, thoroughly enjoying the rolling hills and the sparse northern forest. On the few rideable patches, my knees hurt from pedaling, so it is just as well that there are few pedaling sections. Just before sunset I stop to talk to some passing snow machiners on their way to Rohn. One of them gives me some delicious birch candies. They are camping for the night at the top of the Happy River valley with the dire prediction that it will be really cold at the bottom. The descent to the river is a series of steep drops (the dreaded happy river steps) interspersed with flat traverses. I manage the descent without incident and travel for a ways along the happy river and then up some equally steep hills to another ridge. I am still feeling good as darkness descends and I walk on into the night. I am catching up to the Italians and I can see their headlamps occasionally in the distance. This section of trail is ultra hilly and drops off and on to a ridge, crossing a couple of lakes. I begin to wonder how far it is to the checkpoint. The temperature drops to a cool –20C and I wonder how effective my jacket, wet from the earlier wet snow, is going to be. [I did have a backup jacket, not sure why I wrote in the drama here]
I come to a site flooded with light… Bright as a TV studio… I assume that this must be the most brightly lit checkpoint in the race. Funny, I hadn’t expected it to be so soon, I also didn’t expect it to be hidden in the forest. I am not tired enough for hallucinating – I think.
Fortunately, it turns out to be the film crew camped for the night. Maurizio and Eris have just arrived, they are being filmed under bright lights. Eric, the film crew’s guide, makes me some Kraft dinner. He also tells me what turns out to be an outrageous lie, the checkpoint is only 5 more miles. My estimates and my trail notes put it somewhere closer to 15 miles. The 15 mile figure turns out to be correct. While Eris and Maurizio sleep, I head up the trail another 7 miles or so before biviying. My plan is to sleep till 6, get up, make the checkpoint early morning and head into the pass by day – I can push my bike all day, sleep and descend the Dalzell Gorge in the morning.
I awake around 9 to a camera in my face. I have overslept. Nothing to worry about. I doze ‘till close to 10 when Steve Tower comes by, I better get going. I just wish these boots weren’t frozen so I could get them on my feet. Oh well, they should thaw as I walk to the checkpoint. I squeeze my feet into the boots and head off to Puntilla lake checkpoint. A quick 4 hour walk gets me to the checkpoint before 2 pm at the same time as Steve Tower. My early morning plan is blown but I can still make some progress toward the pass itself in the daylight.
I feel really well rested. Janice mentions to me how peaceful I looked sleeping. I have a substantial blister from walking in frozen boots but fortunately I have a plentiful supply of blister pads. My ring finger and little finger on either hand have gone numb from the battering of my handlebars.
On the other hand, Jim Jager is still at the checkpoint. He has been out toward the pass zand encountered whiteout conditions. He has decided to scratch and is waiting for a plane. There are six other racers in an emergency shack six miles ahead. We are six miles out of second place. I think about heading out on my own but I have planned all along to be safe, which precludes getting lost in mountain passes during a blizzard. I decide to wait with Janice and Steve to let the blizzard pass.
Ray Molino has been at the checkpoint for a few days. He is essentially a tourist, traveling the same route as the race. He is riding his sandbike, a fat tire bike that some other racers are also using. With the huge contact patch of his 4 inch plus tires, Ray can ride what we can only wish to ride. He is carrying an incredible amount of stuff with him. He has a video camera, a walkman with a large collection of cassettes, a spare tire (his front tire is home made), a big slab of bacon, and a host of other goodies that he is carrying on home made racks on his home made bike. Ray is a real character, he practically invented the sport of sandbiking and frequently hosts guided sandbiking trips in the Mexican Dunes near his home in the state of New Mexico.
As the afternoon passes, Jim decides that waiting for a plane is going to take too long and cost too much so he heads out, back in the race. Cullen Barker comes in accompanied by skier Andy Stearns.
[I was very much not that interested in hanging out at the checkpoint for so long. The Italians ended up stuck in the pass, so however bored I was, they had it worse]
Our intended departure time rolls around and the snow is falling thicker than ever. We finally leave in the morning under full daylight. There are five of us: Janice, Steve, Cullen and Andy along with myself travelling as a loosely knit group. Steve and Andy are skiing and the rest of us are walking. Some stretches are hard enough for Janice to ride.
After a few miles, Ray Molino catches up to us. He is able to ride the marginal stretches of trail and is making good time. When he is walking, he makes great time by jogging the better packed stretches. He stops from time to time to take video footage. He is singing along to his walkman.
I, meanwhile, am floundering. I am postholling up to my thighs where my lightweight companions are walking. There is essentially no trail since the snowmobile traffic through here has taken a variety of routes the past few days and none of them are packed hard enough for walking. Snowshoes would be a great asset here.
Even at a snail’s pace, we are making progress. We make it to the summit of the pass just after nightfall. It is downhill and flat from here to Rohn. Just as we enter the Dalzell Gorge, the moon comes up behind us. The night is clear enough to see without the need for a headlamp. I turn mine off as I descend through the Gorge, the scene around me is surreal, like something from an El Greco painting. Icefalls on either side, dropping into the gorge, snow covered trees, the river down the center, all bathed in the glow of the moon and reflected light from the rest of the scene. My plan for riding the Gorge in the day would have missed all of this. I would still like to see it by day sometime but I would not wish to have missed it by moonlight.
As I get toward the bottom of the Gorge, I pass by Ray Molino again. He has a huge bonfire going and is getting ready to bivy for the night. He has flatted a couple of tires and has to stop and patch some tubes. His wide tires require two tubes each and he is only carrying one spare.
The remainder of the way to Rohn is mostly windswept ice. My first fall is enough to make me want to be really careful. In the city, I would have the luxury of studded tires and the traction that they provide but the soft wide knobbies that I am using for the race provide no grip whatsoever. I try to stay relaxed and not to make sudden moves. I manage to only fall twice – no injuries.
Rohn is a welcome sight. Maurizio and Eris are there as well as my companions from today. Eris has a wet sleeping bag again and is shivering in the tent trying to dry it. I bed out outside to avoid sleeping with the snoring symphony in the wildly swinging temperatures of the checkpoint tent. Andy Headings –last year’s Nome race winner, is surprisingly also still here, he has broken his bike’s bottom bracket and is resigned to flying to McGrath to fix his bike and continue on to Nome. He is waiting for his plane to arrive.
Claudia Werner is the checker at Rohn and is making sure that everyone is comfortable and taken care of. Hopefully, she took some time out to enjoy skating on the giant sized rink just a short walk away. While I am in Rohn (population 2, for 1 month of the year, otherwise 0), she is constantly looking for ways to help out.
Our second drop bags are in Rohn, time to stock up on food and drink. I once again have way too much. I cannot imagine how I thought I could possibly choke down so many Balance(tm) bars. The Fudgeos are a welcome treat. Somehow I get confused and failed to fill my drink bladder with the pineapple juice I had so cleverly sent and so carefully thawed. I sure wish I had packed some snickers bars, or at least more chocolate. Some more cheese would be good too.
I leave with the Towers at around 10:00 – being somehow stuck in slow motion packing my bike makes me late starting out.
After Rohn, the trail starts flat for a short while with some sections of open overflow and then, a series of nasty hills. At the top of the first such hill, the Italian film crew is filming us pushing our bikes up the hill. At the top, they have left their snowmobiles in the middle of the trail. This sets the scene for the rest of the day. As soon as we are in front of the film crew, the trail becomes rideable. As long as we were behind them, the trail was unrideable.
Unfortunately for me, I have to stop to fix a flat and take a restroom break and so get passed by the crew. Meanwhile, Steve and Janice manage to stay ahead of them for quite a while. I eventually catch up to the film crew and hear that they had been given a thorough chewing out by another racer who honestly believed that they were sabotaging us to put the Italian riders in better position. It is certainly what it looks like. Why are they not harassing the Italian riders? Had the Italian riders wanted to be rid of them? Either way, they are stopped on the trail, in the middle of the trail, in a narrow part of the trail where it is impossible to pass them without wading through deep snow, and they are waiting for the racer to “cool down” before attempting to pass again.
I make a supreme effort at politeness and mention that it is really annoying to be pushing a bike when the only reason you can’t ride is that there is a film crew in front of you. Especially when the stars of the film get to be ahead of the crew, making time on the good trail. Especially when the stars of the film have been observed to dislike riding behind women and amateurs.
Being in front of the crew is wonderful. The trail that I had been hiking for hours is suddenly rideable. I am thrilled. I lose some time climbing the “glacier”, a treacherous ice flow that does not want to be climbed. At the top, I am greeted by a meadow covered in dirt! Fast, hard, wonderful frozen dirt. I put some air into my tires and started hammering. I am obsessed with staying ahead of the film crew. There is a fellow stopped on the side of the trail in a pop-up tent atop a sled and I don’t even stop to talk to him. I only want to stay ahead of the evil ones. The trail turns to snow again, I let air out of the tires and continued my punishing pace. I come to a stretch of ice, I speed across it, heedless to the danger of fast riding on ice. My saddle sores are getting really painful; I hammer on. On a later stretch of ice, A gust of wind catches me by surprise. I fall, hard; the wind is knocked out of me; I hear crunching. I lay there for a while cursing myself for not being more careful, for making it this far and now having to scratch. Gradually, I take stock. My hip hurts. My shoulder hurts. My back or back ribs hurt. I am lying on ice in a single layer of clothing in winter. I better get up. I extricate myself from the bike and stand up. At least I can stand. My hip is definitely not broken. I can rotate the shoulder. The back hurts but seems to be just a muscle problem. I am back in the race. The film crew goes by.
Unfortunately, the fall has destroyed my confidence and the brutal pace has worn me down. I shuffle like a senior citizen with bad hips and knees across the remaining ice. The next several miles feature wooded steep hills interspersed with lakes – windswept ice covered lakes. I alternate between the shuffle and a slow walk through the woods. I console myself that at least the burn will be flat. At the top of the next hill, I see the evil film crew. They are filming me pushing my bike up a particularily steep hill. They are at the top of the hill because both of the crew have whacked trees with their snowmobiles. A little further on, when I meet up with Eric, their guide, he estimates that the snowmobile crash will leave them at a standstill for two days at least. Hurrah!
The next lake, I see at least a half a dozen snowmobiles tearing around. I think, “Oh well, at least they are non-partisan”. There is an assortment of buffalo (bison) hunters around this area. There is a large herd of bison somewhere in the vicinity of the Farewell Burn. I don’t imagine that I will see much of them other than the profusion of frozen buffalo dung that threaten to launch the unwary biker off the bike.
As I shuffle across one of the many lakes, I see a dog coming out of the woods. Then, I see a second dog. Both dogs are wearing collars so they are clearly domestic. I assume that someone has taken their dogs buffalo hunting but then I see a couple who do not resemble hunters come out of the woods just behind the dogs. It turns out that they are the winter caretakers at a nearby lodge and they are out walking their dogs. It strikes me as amusing to encounter people walking their dogs out in the middle of nowhere.
On one of the following lakes, I run into Andy Stearns as I knock the accumulated pounds of ice from my wheels. He has been gaining a lot of ground on me as I shuffle across lakes. He passes me and I become inspired to ride my bike instead of shuffling. I find that I am going at more or less an even pace with Andy as I ride along. I am faster on ice, he is faster on level snow, I am faster on uphills, he on downhills. We talk as we pass back and forth and it softens the effect of the solitude.
I have to make a mile or so detour around some open water with a collapsed ice bridge. I end up crossing on a small tree that fallen across the water.
After what seems like an eternity, I reach the Farewell Burn. This site of a 1970’s forest fire has a lot of tree skeletons and a lot of 3 foot tall trees. Apparently things don’t grow real fast out here. After the first two or three really steep hills, I begin to question the flatness of the burn. I wait for Andy to catch up and he confirms that in fact, the burn is a series of brutal hills, followed by a relatively flat stretch. This completely demoralizes me. All day, I had been looking forward to the flat burn, the one I had seen in the video with the riders riding quickly across rolling flat trail, the one where the riders blew past the walkers and where the trail would magically levitate my bike along at breakneck speed. I drop back from Andy to whine to myself for a while. I give myself a bit of a pep talk. I try to convince myself that my problems are not that significant. My back hurts but not enough to be serious. I have experienced hand numbness before and it has always healed. I am not that tired. I have plenty of food and water. Maybe I should be enjoying myself instead of whining.
Darkness falls and I convince myself to ride as much as possible. As I catch up to Andy, I enjoy the huge pool of light generated by his musher’s headlamp.
After several hours of up and down in the dark, I come down a hill and see a frozen wolf that someone has propped up on the side of the trail. I have no idea why I didn’t think it was alive but for whatever reason, my brain simply tells me “there’s a frozen wolf.” It has been artfully placed so that the head of the wolf and the front of the body protrude into the trail. I had been hoping to see a wolf, I guess I should have specified alive.
After such a frustrating day, it is in a weak-willed state that I arrive at Buffalo Camp. I had intended to ride straight through to Nikolai, but when Andy and I are offered space on the spruce bough covered floor of John and Marty’s (Buffalo camp owners) tent for the night, I cannot refuse. I sleep very well, the smell of spruce lifting my spirits for the following day. Even the shooting pains in my arms are not enough to make me sleep poorly.
John wakes me just before sunrise. I have to get up so that I am out of the way of the cooks and the hunting guests. I get up and take Marty up on her offer of breakfast. I notice that I am not the only one adding butter to my oatmeal. Some of the family who are here as hunting guides apparently need lots of energy too. Marty gives me a chocolate muffin on my way out of the camp – fantastic generosity.
The buffalo camp marks the beginning of the last big hill in the Farewell Burn. I push my way to the top and begin riding. My saddle sores have become tremendously painful so I alternate a lot between riding and pushing through the sparse scenery of the burn. I try to lower my seat to reduce the rubbing on my sores but this only makes my knees hurt more. It also makes me realize that my seat post is bent. I have read stories of other racers who have broken seat posts from the extra weight of the seat post rack as well as the strain placed on the seatpost by a rider traveling the near constant snowmobile moguls. I resolve to be very gentle on my seatpost until the end of the race.
The last part of the Farewell burn is mostly rolling hills. The straight trail and the lack of obstacles mean that the moguls are kept to a minimum. Some years the Burn is completely devoid of snow cover but this year it is covered to a substantial depth. I see a huge number of body shaped indentations in the snow and I am glad to note that I am not the only one falling off my bike from time to time.
I see Andy every hour or so throughout the day. I talk to him each time he passes or I pass him. When I am riding, I ride much faster than he does. When I walk, he is the quick one. I am making slow progress but I am now sure that I can easily make it to the end. I am in tourist mode, enjoying the scenery, watching for wildlife, stopping for long periods to talk to the local family that are heading out to Buffalo camp on their snowmobile. They are not making a lot better progress than I am. They have taken 4 hours to go 24 miles.
The end of the burn comes and the trail turns to alternating wooded and open swamp. There is an open river that Andy has told me about with a bridge over it. I started the day with a full load of 2.5L of water and 2.5L of sport drink so I do not stop for river water. There are several smaller creeks before the bridge with sections of open water large enough to make crossing with a 65-pound bike interesting. The local family had warned me about this, they had apparently broken through since there was a large, snowmobile shaped hole in the partial ice bridge over the creek.
About 15 miles later, I come to the first permanent building I have seen since Rohn. According to my trail notes, it is some sort of fishing camp. It marks the start of some very good trail. I manage to ride for the next five miles or so until the telltale sound of a snowmobile convoy marks an approaching break from riding. This is most unfortunate since the cream I have been applying seems to be making my sores much more tolerable. Of course, the convoy turns out to be my good buddies from Italy and their guide Eric. It is hard to hate Eric, he is very good-natured; he seems genuinely regretful that he is sabotaging my riding and he did make me that Kraft dinner.
I only have to walk for about an hour until the trail hardens enough that I can ride again. This time it is really hardened and I make good time the rest of the way to Nikolai.
Nikolai is a small fishing town on a river and its’ most striking features are it’s Russian Orthodox church and cemetery. I roll in to town as light is fading and ask a local for directions to Nick and Olene Petruska’s house. A man on a 4-wheeler has me follow him the entire way. The streets are well packed and I can almost keep up. I am thrilled to be able to use (without pushing myself like yesterday) the fourth gear on my middle chainring – the lowest gear that I ever use commuting to work.
Outside of Nick’s house, I see a number of bikes parked. Cullen, Pierre, Steve and Janice, Eris and Maurizio and Ray Molina all have their bikes parked outside. As I get inside though, I see Andy Heading. Apparently, Ray lent Andy his bike in Rohn and walked back over the pass to Puntilla Lake. Andy is planning to ride Ray’s bike to McGrath, pick up his own bike, fix it and continue on.
It seems that everyone else is getting ready to leave any second. I momentarily debate leaving with them, I feel strong but my hands are very numb and my knees hurt quite a bit. I decide that I am going to have a bit of sleep and leave around midnight. The Italian film crew is heading to McGrath right away so the trail should be set up by the time I leave. Eric promises that this is the very last time that we will see him before McGrath.
After eating, I lay down on one of the beds and fall asleep. I fail to set any type of alarm and end up sleeping until just before sunrise. Apparently the other racers didn’t leave until well after midnight – I could have gone with them. Nick prepares some breakfast for Andy Stearns and I and then I hit the road. My boots are dry, I have had almost 12 hours of sleep, my knees don’t hurt too much, I have 5 Snickers Bars from the box that Nick has provided and I have a full stomach as I set out on what should be the last leg of the race. I make some mental calculations and decide that even if I have to walk the entire way, I can make it to McGrath by 4 in the morning. I have a sense of completion that I know that I will not lose and I am confident that this will be a good day.
The trail to McGrath is mostly flat with river, swamp and lake sections interspersed with wooded sections between them. There are only a couple of hills and only one of them is reputed to be any difficulty at all.
I ride out of town on the road past the church, the dump to the end of the road and back on the trail.
I head out on to the first river section and find it to be marginally rideable. Since I have two spare tubes and no fear of walking, I let enough air out of my tire that I can feel the rim hit the sidewalls on the slightest of bumps. This is way less air than is prudent and any earlier in the race I would have been worried about destroying the tire sidewalls or getting a pinch flat. My tire abuse works and I am able to ride the sugary trail. I take a picture of myself to document my good spirits.
I discover that taking a picture of oneself while riding a loaded bike on snow is harder than it sounds. I stop and take another less dynamic but hopefully better picture. [selfies weren’t really a thing in 2002, not that I invented them]
The wooded sections are infested with my nemesis the moguls and so to avoid further damaging my hands, I chose to walk the woods and ride the rivers, swamps and lakes whenever conditions, my butt and my knees will let me. I have ceased to care about my bent seatpost, it will need to be replaced anyway and I am close enough to the end to get there without it if it breaks.
The trail is well used by locals and they come by at a rate of about one an hour. I stop to talk to them if they are so inclined and they tell me of the other racers ahead of me and of Andy behind me. Around noon, I see Eric, the film crew guide going the other way up the trail. One of the snowmobiles’ engines died the night before and he is on his way with a trailer to tow it to McGrath. Since the trail has so much traffic, I don’t care too much about Eric passing me again and it does nothing to dampen my spirits.
I continue on, riding and pushing for the whole day. Just before sunset (or during the 2 hour sunset), I am alert enough to spot the shortcut that Nick was discussing with the other riders the night before. I take it and the trail leads me toward a light which I have heard is a short way from town. I finally get to the fabled section: three miles of plowed road leading into town. I stop to pump up my tires and the first car I have seen in seven days stops to ask me if I need help. I smile and cheerfully explain that I am just putting some air in my tires to be able to ride better on the plowed road. They tell me that it is 3 miles to town.
With air in my tires, I fly along the road. I could even use some of the gears on my big chainring if I hadn’t bent the teeth on a frozen buffalo dropping. I use the biggest gear on my middle ring and ride my way into town. I am going so fast that I almost crash as I stop for the finish line sign that leads into Peter’s driveway. I pull up to the house and find a place to park my bike. Pat Irwin is here and is congratulating me heavily. Pat also tries to fend off the Italian film crew who want to film me coming inside. I insist that I am all right and that I can probably stand to be filmed this one last time. They film me coming in and I accept the congratulations of the people inside. Eric has promised to have cold beer at the finish and he has come through. I polish off a beer and some mashed potatoes with butter. I also eat some vegetables and some salad – the salad is especially satisfying after a week of eating almost exclusively fat and sugar, certainly nothing with so few calories per mouthful. The night at Peter’s house ends up being the second coldest night of the trip with the temperature in the unheated wing of the house getting down to –20 C. This suits me fine as I don’t have to worry about swings between sweating and freezing.
The next morning, those of us who were not continuing to Nome are off to the airport to catch a flight back to Anchorage. The flight is cancelled which leaves us waiting until evening to catch a flight. We get back to Anchorage and I get a ride back to the B&B with Tony Allen, who’s Affordable Car Rentals are sponsors of the race. Tony’s family has perhaps the world’s greatest tradition of bringing beer to anyone that they pick up at the airport. Cullen Barker and I dismantle and box our bikes for the trip home in the B&B garage while Tony chats with us. Cullen packs his bike in about ten minutes, as he has to get back to the airport right away to catch his flight. Tony then drives Cullen back to the airport for his late night departure home.
The next morning I fly home.
Returning to reality is a bit of a chore. I have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and yet I cannot help but think of the things I could have done differently. I entered the race as a challenge to finish and I have finished. My training has been very effective and I was in no way out of my league. My hands will take some time for the feeling to return and the bruise is already started fading by the Tuesday following the race.
If I were to do it again, I would have the advantage of having been on the course and knowing where I was going. There is no substitute for that kind of knowledge and I cannot help but think that I would have needed much less caution if I had known exactly what to expect on the various parts of the trail.
I would bring more chocolate bars, more cheese, more butter and less balance bars. Food that tastes good and doesn’t suck all the moisture out of your mouth is so much better than dry bars like Balance.
The bike performed well but definitely needed some changes to make it optimum. The handlebars need to be higher and bar-ends are a must. Obviously, the seatpost lacked strength. The seat and chain stays lack clearance for the ideal 3 inch tire. Single speed might be a good weight and mechanical complexity saving option. At the very least, a single front chainring would make sense.
Saving some pounds off the bike might be a nice thing to do. The rear rack could have been replaced with a really large seat bag. At the very least, the pound-and-a-half rack bag could definitely have been something lighter. The clothing that I had with me was intended to keep me warm in any of the conditions that I might encounter. The fact that I did not encounter temperatures below –35C did not mean that I brought the wrong clothes.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I saw parts of the Alaskan wilderness that few people get to see and met the personal challenge I had set out to meet.