90 out of 350..

As folks who know me are already well aware I ended up scratching out of the ITI fairly early in the event, at about mile 90. It was pretty sad, as I had spent most of the winter thinking, planning, and training for this race, but it was a good call. Hopefully I will get another chance at the race next year, as I really want to finish this one!

I am afraid this write-up is a bit wordy, so here is a short summary: I scratched, pushing a bike in Neos sucks, and my feet hurt. Next year’s to-dos – don’t scratch, practice pushing, try some less crappy footwear, and bring less stuff.

Moving on…

The race starts on the edge of a small lake near the old town of Knik, at a small bar known as Knik Bar. I arrived early enough to get all my stuff arranged and ready to go on the bike, then spent a bit of time checking out other folks’ setups and buzzing on last minute pre-race stress.

Eventually everyone lined up, and we were off. I grabbed the wheel of someone who looked like he knew what he was doing, Sean Grady and tagged along though a series of trails that eventually lead to Point Mackenzie Road.

Sean knew where to go, and soon were zooming down the road in little posse of obese bikes with too much stuff in tow.

After 10 minutes or so on the road the “fast” guys passed us in a tight pack.

I expected I would never see them again until after the race..
Eventually the road riding ended and there was an abrupt transition from biking to walking.

The snow kept coming down and as the traffic died off as evening arrived the snow piled up deeper and deeper.

We passed several groups of snowmachines either on their way home or stopped on the side of the trail to mess with their machines. One group asked us where we were going, and upon hearing “McGrath”, stared at us blankly. One of them, as if addressing someone simpleminded, started telling us that McGrath was a long way away… as if it was not abundantly clear to someone 20 miles into a 350 mile event, pushing a bike at a little more than 2 miles an hour, that this was going to take a very long time. We trudged along on the long straight trail leading to Flathorn Lake. At this point the crowd had thinned out and I was now in the company of Sven, a teacher from Anchorage, and Sean, though we could occasionally see flashes from the headlights of racers behind us. At about 8pm we passed Jeff Oatley leaning on his bike as he waited for a couple of folks right behind us to catch up, and he let us know that the leaders were about 15 minutes ahead of us. At this point it was pretty clear that this was not going to be a “normal” event, as the fast people are normally much, much faster than I am, and my only sign of them is their in and out times in the log books at the checkpoints. We arrived at the edge of Flathorn Lake and were greeted by Craig Medrid of the Alaska Dispatch sitting on a snowmachine texting (tweeting I believe he said) on a sat phone.

He had apparently gone across the lake, was not able to find where the trail exited the lake, was soon stuck, and had a hard time extracting himself. He was strongly discouraging folks from heading out across the lake due to poor visibility from the blowing snow, though the two lead bikers had headed across. I took a peek out onto the lake, and all signs of any trail besides Craig’s snowmachine tracks were completely wiped clean by the wind and fresh snow. Sean and Sven decided to bivy and wait for morning. I decided to hang out for a couple of minutes, waiting for more folks to arrive, as it was only a little after 8pm, and I was way too excited to sleep anytime soon. In ten minutes or so Jeff, Heather Best, and Tim Stern arrived, and undetered by Craig’s statements of doom, headed out with me tagging along.

We soon caught up with the lead bikers, Pete Basinger and Tim Berntson, and begin a long, slow slog across the rest of Flathorn and Dismal Swamp. Soon more bikers and eventually walkers started catching up with us sharing in the trail breaking. This section of trail is very wide and it was fairly hard to locate the firm trail under two feet of fresh snow. When we got off the main trail we would start postholing up to our waists, making for really fun bike pushing. At this point I was starting to get pretty whooped, and was having a hard time lifting the front of my bike to push it though the fresh snow. Fortunately the “fast” guys were happy to charge away though the snow, and I just pushed along in their wake. The walkers were having a bit easier time and soon were a ways ahead of us, but their headlights were still visible flashing back and forth as they searched for the trail under the snow. Gradually the pack was thinning out, with bikers dropping off here and there to bivy under welcoming trees. Eventually we reached the bank of the Susitna River, which locals call the “Wall of Death” named for the 10 foot or so drop from the top of the bank to the river. All the walkers apparently responding to some sort of hidden signal peeled off to bivy under trees.

The lead bikers started building a fire to melt water, and since it looked like no one was going to be leaving anytime soon, I set up my bivy and went to sleep. I woke up a little before dawn as a walker, Tim Hewit, passed by. The leaders had left while I was sleeping, and were now long gone, probably off enjoying a long hard slog through the deep snow. I packed up and started pushing my bike down the trail, and after several minutes was surprised to see him again heading back towards me. Apparently this trail led to the cabin near the river, and not to the main trail. The lead bikers had apparently headed out this way, wandered around for a while, and gave up, headed back and found the right trail about 10 feet from where I bivied. Tim was very cheerful, and surprisingly bubbly as we chatted for a moment as I got off the trail to let him by, and then I followed him back up the trail to the turnoff for the main trail onto the river.

The Susitna river was covered in fresh snow, with a single “push” track the bikers and walkers had broken winding up the river.

This was quite a contrast to the last time I was on this section of river, when the trail was rock hard and about 100 feet wide.

I continued pushing my bike up river, mostly by myself at this point, occasionally getting passed by a walker or passing a biker. At about noon Craig zipped by on his snowmachine. I was hoping that the motorized traffic would pick up a bit when I reached the confluence with the Yenta River, which is the main route for most of the traffic. Alas, Craig was to be the only motorized traffic I was to encounter until late in the afternoon.

Eventually I was passed by several walkers and two skiers as I slowly made my way to Luce’s, a lodge on the Yentna River.

Just before Luce’s several snow machines passed by hauling sleds and waved as they zoomed by. I reached the lodge, where two walkers and the lead bikers were enjoying burgers, fries, and snacks. I ordered food, several pops, and booked a room, as I was pretty wiped. As I was enjoying my burger Jeff, Heather, Tim, and several more bikers arrived. It is hard to describe how surreal it was to be with the lead bikers at this point. I am not a fast biker, and normally I never see the fast guys more more than a minute or two once the race starts. Seeing the lead guys snarfing burgers while talking about how wiped they were really drove home this race was going to be a long slow slog. Two of the bikers left after eating and headed out for the official checkpoint, Yenta Station, which is 6 miles or so up river. Most of the rest of the bikers decided to get some sleep and head out in the morning at various versions of ungodly early.

In the not tremendously early a.m. I headed out with Jeff, Heather, and Tim. The trail firmed up a bit overnight, but not enough to be consistently rideable. It was rideable in short stretches, but not for any significant distance. It did appear the Tim, Phil, and Pete who left earlier than us road a fair bit more than we did. We arrived at Yenta Station, had some breakfast, and headed out again.

The trail upstream of Yenta Station was quite a bit softer, and it was back to pushing. Not show-stopping by any means, but I was starting to get worried about how much pushing I could actually pull off.

The temperatures remained much too warm for the trail to harden up, so the pushing continued for the rest of the day.

By this time my feet were starting to take a bit of a beating as the footwear I was using, Neos overboots with sorel liners and superfeet insoles, did not provide the sort of support and protection that my feet apparently need for this amount of pushing.

I was starting to get blisters on the ends of most of my toes, and was getting periodic sharp pains in the arch of my left foot, probably due to the soft soles of the Neos.

We ended up pushing all the way to Cindy Abbot’s place, also known as Slims. Cindy apparently enjoys the company of the racers enough to open her house to them, and lets folks crash on the floor of her guest cabins. By the time we reached it was a very welcome sight. After having some wonderful soup I spent a couple of hours sleeping on the floor of one of her guest cabins, then took off in the late evening for Skwentna. I will be forever grateful to Cindy and her husband-to-be Andy’s hospitality.

The trail had hardened up a bit and was semi rideable now. Jeff zoomed off, floating away, and was soon followed by Tim and Heather. They had a much easier time due to either their elite snow riding skills, or some other magic I have yet to posses. I ended up riding a bit, but there was still a lot of pushing. I arrived at Skwentna a bit beat, and a half hour behind them.

Upon arriving I learned that the lead bikers had left for Shell Lake 5 hours before. There was some talk that the trail might firm up, so I grabbed a bunk and snoozed until the morning.

In the morning the owner of Skwentna Roadhouse called the next place up the trail that folks would stop at, Shell Lake to how long it had taken Pete and Phil, and learned that they had yet to arrive. This was bad news, as it means they had taken about 12 hours to travel the 15 miles, meaning lots of slow pushing. At this point my feet where starting to show the mileage, and I was not sure that I could handle another 100 miles of pushing. I was to later learn the winner of the race, Pete Basinger, figured he rode about 40% of the 300-350 miles to McGrath.

After some talking with the other racers, and being told that from that point onward getting flown out was going to be increasing difficult, getting more expensive and possibly involving a fairly long wait, I decided to scratch and hopped on a plane to Anchorage. It was pretty sad, as it was clear I could have gone onward, and my feet might have held up for the rest of the pushing, but probably a good call. It definitely would have been a long, long slog, and I was not tremendously excited by the prospect of pushing my bike for another 5 or 6 days (or longer!). I ended up taking a flight out with Lue and Eric.

And so ended my attempt at the ITI. I learned a fair bit, and really want to come back next year and make another go at it, hopefully this time making it the full way.

Lessons Learned:

  • My footwear needs to be up for extended pushing. I had tested my setup by going for 6 mile walks and it worked great for that length of time, and had done overnight bike-packing trips with a fair bit of intermittent pushing, but it just was not up to extended bike pushing. The soles were a little too soft and all the pushing in the soft snow put some unusual stress on my feet causing some of the connective tissue on the bottom of my feet to start to hurt (perhaps hurt is an understatement – sharp stabbing pains would be a more apt description – yeah, yeah, HTFU). The other problem was the fit was too loose allowing my feet to move about a bit too much, giving me blisters. When I got back home I ended up spending a fair bit of time treating my blisters, leading my daughters to start playing blister treatment games. They even made a song in honor of one of the less happy toes, called “Pus-y Toe” – the meaning of which should be fairly obvious. I need to work on a footwear system that is good to -40f, and that I can push the bike in for extended periods.. It took about a two weeks before my feet were back to normal, without random pains when putting pressure on the arches of my feet. Next year I think will go on some overnight bike trips were I take the chain off my bike and just push it the whole way..
  • I need to pack a lot less stuff. A lighter bike would have been much easier to push through the soft snow. At several points my upper body was completely trashed from lifting my bike through deep snow and drifts. I never opened my stuff sack of extra clothing, so I think I could have pared it down a fair bit, though it was fairly warm. My bike looked obese when compared to some of the other setups at the race start.
  • I packed way too much food. I figured that I would need 4 days of food with me between drop bags worst case, and packed accordingly with 4k calories per day, plus some extra food. This turns out to be way too much even at my glacial pace, as there were ample places to resupply. When I scratched at Skwentna I still had two days or more of food. Eventually folks started to make fun of me for still having so much food..
  • I suck at soft snow riding. I just don’t get enough time practicing riding in soft snow with the hard trails we have here in Fairbanks, apparently.

A big thanks to Sean for leading me through the maze of trails in first 10 miles, and for Jeff, Heather, and Tim for letting me tag along in their wake, and the wonderful people at the checkpoints. A huge thank you to the folks who organize the race – Bill and Kathi Merchant. While I didn’t make it all that far, this event is nothing like anything I have ever done before, and is truly unique. I can see why folks seem to get addicted to it – a big thank you to Bill and Kathi for putting it on. And of course a big thanks to the twins and Nancy for being so supportive.

One final thank you to the wonderful folks at Speedway Cycles – they replaced my bike frame due to a cracked seat tube two days before the race, and were very tolerant of my last minute panicking. Amazing folks.. I can’t say how nice it was of them to make time for me durring all the pre-ITI hubbub.

Hopefully next year the weather will be more cooperative. Hmmm, next year..

A few more photos can be found here.

Tags: , , , , ,

3 Responses to “90 out of 350..”

  1. Paul says:

    Don’t beat yourself up too bad. Given the conditions, I don’t think I would have even started!
    You mentioned cracking a seat tube. Out of curiosity, are you pretty tall? I just cracked my seat tube on an XL 907.
    Conditions like those, big guys are just going to be at a disadvantage period.
    Paul in Whitehorse

    • Jay C says:

      I am 6′”2 or so, and a little under 210. I think these bikes with the “dropped” top tube just place a fair bit of strain on the seat tube, as at least in my case, with a fair bit of seatpost exposed there is a lot of leverage on that joint. My bike is a Fatback, not a 907, but I expect the same thing applies. Speedway was super nice about it, and set me up with a new frame and swapped out my parts for me. Frames sometime break, its the way things go, and I don’t fault Speedway for this. I cracked a Gary Fischer frame in the same location last summer, so its possible I am just hard on frames.. Hopefully the 907 folks warranted your frame without any fuss.

      • Paul says:

        Chain Reaction was also super to deal with, and its not the frames fault. I’m 6’7″ and 230, so yeah, lots of force being applied.
        I think I might have to ditch the 907, which is too bad, it rides great, and get a custom Steel frame. My old Pugs was always too short in the TT.
        I think the Steel Fatback frame would be the way to go.

Leave a Reply