I have really enjoyed my last 3 attempts at the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a race along the Iditarod Trail from Knik, to McGrath or Nome. Even my first attempt, which ended well short of the finish, was still fun in its own way. Every year I have learned something new about myself..
An apology for this being so long.. feel free to just skim and look at the photos!
This year was a bit different, as the dog sled race was planned to start in Fairbanks rather than Anchorage due to conditions in Rainy Pass and on the Burn. This brought a lot of uncertainty to the race, as no one knew quite what to expect in regards to trail conditions, and we didn’t have the “fall back” plan of waiting for the Iditarod Trail breakers to come clear a path if it snowed a lot or some other calamity took place. The tales from the Iron dog racers of lots of overflow and open water also gave me cause to worry. I ended up packing Wiggy’s waders and full rain gear into my kit before driving down to Anchorage for the pre-race party. The party was held at Speedway Cycles, and as always, was a fun affair. I cut out early partly to go hang out with my brother John, but mostly because I was all peopled out – too many people! The next day I spent getting some final race prep done (mainly buying food) and packing my bike up. The pre-race meeting was a neat affair, and it was great to see that there was a full posse of folks from Fairbanks – Heather B, Jeff O, Andrea D, Kevin B, and Morris P. After the meeting I headed back up to my hotel room to do final packing, then made a panicked trip to Freds and REI to pick up a couple of items that I forget, where I ran into Steve W and Aaron F, who I then gave a ride over to Eric Parson’s shop . We (mostly Steve) then chatted with Eric about bikes and gear for a while, before heading back to the hotel. It was very nice to finally meet Eric! Eventually I got everything packed, then hit the stack early after stuffing myself with Bear Tooth pizza, yum, yum!
Race day morning Andrea D and I shuttled cars to the airport to wait for our return, then trundled our bikes down to the lobby to get loaded into the box vans and to hop onto a bus to the race start. The bus ride was uneventful, and I was very glad not to be driving on the slippery roads. I did meet Erik, who is married to a high school friend of my wife. Small world…
Eventually the race start of 2pm drew near, and someone pointed out my rear derailleur hanger was bent (I seem to be cursed with derailleur hanger issues!!), causing some last minute panicking as I attempted to straighten it. I got it mostly working just before the start was called, and we were off! As usual, the leaders took off like rockets, and I followed along in their wake.
Almost everyone seemed to take the standard route over to the road and then followed the road over to the gas line and then on to Flathorn Lake and beyond. Almost everyone that is, besides Jeff O, who was waiting conspicuously near the turn off for the “no road” option that the walkers and some of the bikers take as the slower folks like myself came by. Later I was to hear he took a “no road” option, which which is about the same length, but has hills in it, and took a fair bit longer.
We zoomed along, and I was dropped by the leaders on the first hill, and I made no attempt to keep up with them – it is a long race, and it is no use wearing myself out in the first hours of it trying to keep up with folks much faster than myself.
I made my way over to the gas line, over to Flathorn lake, and on to the Susitna River.
The trail was very fast and super firm, and I made good time. There was a little ice, and a short section of overflow on the Dismal Swamp. The Susitna River was a strange place – it had a fairly firm crust on top of the snow, and most of the snowmachine tracks looked like they were filled with re-frozen overflow. It made for fast riding, though it was a bit confusing, as I ended going up a side channel of the Yentna, coming out on the wrong side of the main river, and had to cross over to the east side where most of the traffic was to get on the main trail.
Soon I was at Yentna Station, much faster than I anticipated, and even before dark! I had some food, then took off with Erik a bit behind me. A bit before Skwentna Pavel R caught up with me, and we headed into Skwentna together. We arrived at about 9:40pm, amazingly fast! I had some food, talked a bit, and after some discussion, Pavel and I tried to get a room at Shell Lake Lodge, which is half way between checkpoints. Alas, the proprietor (Zoey) had already gone to bed and wasn’t answering the phone, but we got the impression that there was a double cabin with one side open, and Pavel and I took off, looking forward to a nice quiet nap at Shell Lake. The trail to Shell was super fast, and we arrived at Shell Lake in good time. One side of the cabin appeared to be free and heated, and figuring that on one else was going to use it, Pavel and I moved in and crashed for the night, leaving payment on the desk inside. I got a nice 4 hours of sleep, which was awesome, then packed up and headed out. Pavel was still snoozing when I left, enjoying a bit more sleep.
The ride to Finger Lake was fast, and after stopping to have a burrito and to reload my bike with snacks I headed out again. Just as I was leaving, some of the staff of the lodge started talking about Rocky Reifenstuhl and his involvement in helping one of the clients in a failed White Mountains guiding trip. It is funny the world is so small. I remember being in the whites that weekend, and in the morning looking down from Caribou Bluff cabin to see a military rescue helicopter flying low to the ground obviously searching for someone. The legend of Rocky lives on!
I have mixed feelings about the trail between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake.
I really enjoy the fact we are finally leaving the flat swamp land and heading into the mountains, and getting into some wonderful views, however, I don’t really like all the climbing. The trail seems to have lots of ups and downs, and it always seems to take forever. The Happy River steps, a iconic section of trail, was in good shape, though there was a really steep dirt ramp on the way down to the river at one point, and a short but nearly vertical dirt ramp up off the river. Fortunately the river was well frozen and nice and firm. Eventually I arrived at Puntilla Lake, and headed into the cabin the race rents there. I was a bit worried about the pass, and was mentally preparing myself for 2 days of pushing, but when I arrived Jeff and Heather were about to set out, and I was told that the leaders made it over the pass in 7 hours. Well, no pushing then, and alas, no chance to see in the pass in daylight. This would be my third time over the pass, and I have never been over it in daylight, alas! I grabbed two cans of soup, and lay down for a bit and got a tiny bit of sleep before more racers arrived, led by the ever cheerful Joe Stiller. Taking this as a sign I should get moving, I packed up and (slowly!) got on my way. It was still daylight when I headed out, but by the time I made it to the hills above Puntilla it was dark, and I slowly made my way up the pass. It was mostly rid-able and for Rainy Pass, quite fast. I could see faint flashes of light from someone ahead, that initially I thought was just my imagination, but eventually I could see the headlamp clearly. Pavel caught up with me just before Pass Creek, continuing the trend of him leaving the checkpoints well after me and catching up in a shockingly fast time. The trail from Puntilla to Rainy Pass is a bit deceptive – there is a long 14 mile lead up to the mouth of the pass, then a fairly short 3 mile (ish) climb up to the top of the pass. The climb up the pass was fast, and just before the pass we caught up with Tony L who was looking a bit hammered. We made our way up and over the pass, then headed down.
The ride down the pass was fun but a bit slower than it could have been. Just before Dalzell Gorge the trail split several ways. I took the main one, and it led right to a large green cabin, with a snowmachine parked outside, and smoke drifting out of the chimney. It definitely wasn’t Rohn, so we turned around and headed back to find the correct trail. Later I was to learn that this cabin was put in for the Iditarod trail breakers and some folks who run guided summer hunting trips. The rest of the ride down the pass was uneventful. Dalzell Creek was a mess of marginal looking ice bridges and chunky refrozen ice but I didn’t fall in the creek so all is well. When we finally made it on onto the Tatina River, we enjoyed a brisk tailwind, pushing us down to Rohn at a good clip. Rohn was a welcome sight, and I was welcomed by Arron(I think?) and handed two brats, and a can of soup. Yay! Jeff and Heather were crashed out in the wall tent, so I joined them, as did Pavel. I set my alarm for 4 hours, and dozed off.. I mostly slept well, and woke up refreshed and ready to go. I had a bowl of oatmeal, a huge cup of coffee, and packed up. Tony said he would be leaving shortly, so I waited for him to pack up while chatting with OE and Bill M. Eventually Tony was ready to go, and we took off. Tony was dragging a bit, and I soon left him behind, as the riding was fantastic! The trail though the burn had received some work and was in great shape – smooth and fast. How long it is going to stay that way seems open to question – it looked like someone just scraped or ground up the tussocks, leaving fine dry dirt exposed. It looked to me like it was one rain storm away from lots of ruts, but who am I.
The improvements also included a straight shot re-route across the Post River Glacier, a section of sloping off-ice.
The riding was fast, and almost snow free.
Between one of the lake sections I ran into a party of bison hunters camped near the trail, where I was offered a Miller Light. I passed on the beer, though I did stop to chat a bit.
They said the tussocks were about to get bad, and for the next 20 miles it was a mix of fast smooth riding and tussocks.
After I passed the Bear Creek cabin turnoff, the tussocks got a bit worse – it was never unrideable, but it wasn’t all that fast.
The trail passes over a handful of lakes, which were all blown free of snow. The ice was so clear you could see the bottom in a few of them – some with rocky bottoms, some with silty.. The lakes were also a welcome break from the bouncy tussocks!
The weather was fantastic – nearly no wind, and my thermometer was now saying it was in the mid 40s…it was tee shirt weather!
The tussocks seemed to be making things hard for the folks ahead of me as well, as I started seeing things on the trail – an apple shuffle, a bag of usb cables, a headlamp, a flashlight, a Tyvek tarp among other items. I stopped and picked up most of them. I did find a can of Hormel canned corn beef, which I stopped to look at, but left – I couldn’t imagine wanting to eat that cold, right from the can, yuck! Tastes must vary though, as the indomitable Joe Stiller mentioned later he stopped and would have eaten it if he could have figured out how to open the can.
About midday I ran into Eric Parson’s group who are touring from McGrath to Anchorage. They seemed like they were having a great time.
I chatted a bit with the first biker, Luc Mehl and the last one in the line, Eric. I was envious of their mellow pace. I tried to convince Luc to bike up Egypt Mountain, but he wasn’t biting. If I ever tour this route, I really want to hike up Egypt Mountain, I think the views from on top would be fantastic, and it is such an iconic place.. Eventually they took off and it was back to racing… though I kicked myself for not hitting Luc up about the summer wilderness classic to see if he knew of anyone looking for a race partner. The rest of the ride into Nikolai went by fast.
I arrived at the Petruska’s, happy to take a break and have a short lie down. I am always happy to reach the Petruskas – it means I am almost done, and they are amazingly nice folks, opening up their home to all us somewhat crazed racers. I had some pasta, then crashed on a bed in their back room for a bit, before I was awoken by Joe Stiller coming in, bouncing with happiness. Soon, Pavel and Tony arrived, and I got up to have more pasta before setting out on the final stretch to Mcgrath. The final stretch to McGrath I did mostly in the dark, and I normally don’t really enjoy it, as it feels just like riding at home, except I am all sleep deprived, but this time I had a blast and really enjoyed it. I turned on my music player, and after several hours, dug out the ipod shuffle I found on the trail, excited to listen to some new to me music. Alas, the stuff on the ipod was not really my taste, and after 3 or so songs put it back away and switched back to my own (admittedly terrible) music. At about 5am I rolled into McGrath, super happy to have arrived. Peter and Tracy’s house was quiet, but Heather did get up to say hi and welcome me in. There was food out, and I was soon sitting down, gobbling down delicious food. Peter and Tracy open up their house, and provide a magic bubble of happiness with never ending supply of good food – the best way to finish a race. There was a ransacked box of racer snacks sitting on the floor, with half a bottle of fireball schnapps, which I enjoyed several large shots from, before taking a snooze on the floor. Eventually everyone got up and started moving around, and soon Tony, Joe, and Pavel rolled in, and I was up eating again and chatting with everyone. The finish in Mcgrath is a strange place, everyone is super friendly and pumped up on a post race high, while I am feeling like I am swimming through a post race flog. Before I knew it I was booked on a midday flight out to Anchorage, and was soon packing things up and heading off to the airport. This round I shipped my bike back to Fairbanks via NAC, which worked fantastic – no worrying about if my bike was going to make the same flight back as me – yay! I arrived in Anchorage, had more to eat, then crashed at a hotel, before driving back to Fairbanks the following day, and making it home in time for dinner.
A huge thank you to Nancy and the twins for allowing me the time away to prepare (train!) and to do the race. I am ever thankful for your understanding.
Best of luck to Jeff O, Phil H, Phil H, Beat J, and all the other folks headed to Nome or otherwise still out on the trail, may your trails be firm and fast!
A few random notes about the race…
- It was amazingly warm the entire time – I very briefly saw temps in the single digits, but that was only for an hour or so, mostly the temperatures were in the mid teens to mid twenties (my gps claims the average temperature was 28f). Near Sullivan Creek it was in the upper 40s. I didn’t wear a hat or mittens for the entire race. This is obviously quite unusual, and not to be counted on, as it was back to more normal temperatures by the time I was back home in Fairbanks.
- Mukluks are awesome for snowbiking, but suck for bouncy dirt riding – my toes were killing me from getting smashed around while biking though the tussocks, and for some of the more extended hard riding they were too flexible, and made my feet numb. It might be time to look at other options..
- Studded tires are the way to go – I ran a D5 in back, and a D4 up front, and that rocked.
- I really need to make a plywood hanger protector to keep my hanger from getting bent again if I take the bus.
- Staying in the hotel with the other racers at the start was fun – lots of the other racers were there (obviously) and it was neat to talk to them.
- I took a little collapsing bottle with me, that worked great for holding pop, ensure (I started the race with three bottles of ensure in it), coffee, etc in pocket of my jacket. Some of the runners in the Sluicebox 100 used them. The basic idea was awesome, however the hard bottom sucked, and it poked me in the ribs occasionally.
- I need to keep much better track of my stuff – I left my thermos at Finger Lake, and my little collapsing bottle at Nikolai.
- Food-wise, I ate lots of Honey Stinger gels, shortbread, chips, cookies, bacon jerky, and barbecue pork jerky, and it was all awesome. I packed starbucks instant coffee in my drops, and it was fantastic to have good coffee at the checkpoints.
- Brooks saddles – everyone raves about them, but I am not convinced – I am pretty sure the cheap WTB Pure V saddle I have traditionally used is more comfortable.
- The new (to me anyway) 1×11 setups are great, and a 26 up front is the way to go for me – lots of slow spinning power plus enough gear to go fast when needed.
- The wider bottom brackets needed for 190 bikes aren’t a problem for me.
- The spot trackers used by the ITI were great – it gave Nancy an idea where I was and made things more fun to watch.
Strava (yes,yes – lame!) details for me ride can be found here.
A Postscript of sorts – I would also like to thank the race organizers and all the folks involved with the race. This race is truly fun on so many levels, and it wouldn’t be possible without the folks who make it happen – thanks! I would also like to thank Bill and Kathi for not switching to the course the route the dogs are using – biking from Fairbanks to Ruby on the river would be amazingly boring, and to be quite frank, not nearly as much fun!
PS#2 – I shipped my bike from McGrath to Fairbanks using Northern Air Cargo (NAC), and it arrived intact, and it was cheap – all major wins. Alas, they put a tag on my bike, with the weight, and I was shocked/stunned by how heavy it was. I need to start trimming down how much gear I am hauling with me…