Posts Tagged ‘iditarod trail invitational’

ITI – 2016 Part 2, This time to Nome!

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

A bit of a warning – this post is on the long side.. ok actually its very long side..

Part 1 can be found here.

In the morning we woke up to a wonderfully clear day in Ruby, with what appeared to be a tailwind – hurrah!
After a breakfast of pancakes and some final packing, Bill, Kyle, and I headed out.

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I had been dreading riding on the Yukon river, as I have never found traveling on rivers to be all that exciting.  Too much flat endless white stuff, stretching out seemingly forever in front of me..  It always seems to like I am not going anywhere.

We did hear via the grapevine that Phil H., who should have been two days ahead of us at this point, had suffered some bike trouble just outside Galena, and had lost half a day there, but had apparently made good time.

We left The River’s Edge B&B, dropped down on the river, and headed downriver to Galena.

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The ride from Ruby to Galena was very fast.  The Yukon River was not what I expected, with lots more bare ice, silt, and rocks than I anticipated.

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Soon after we  left Ruby, Bill zoomed off ahead, while Kyle and I chugged along.   I felt a bit guilty at this point, as I think I was slowing Kyle down a bit – he is definitely a faster rider than I am.

The ride to Galena was mostly uneventful, besides some funny signs warning about a “bump” just outside town.

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The bump appeared to be a slight bulge in the ice, which was pretty funny, as the ice is anything but flat, and the trail on the river was filled with larger bumps.

We were meet just outside Galena by Bill and Larry, a local who was following the race, who directed us to a local B&B which had a room set up for the racers to crash in.   Bill had wandered around Galena a bit, and had picked us up  microwave hamburgers, which tasted awesome!

We spent the next hour or so repacking our bikes from our drop boxes, mellowing out, and eating.  Before we took off, Larry called ahead to Nulato, the next stop on the route, and got us permission to crash on the floor of the Catholic Church.

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Leaving Galena

The ride from Galena to Nulato was pretty interesting — a bit of river, a bit of swamp, a few narrow sections of nice trail looping though the trees, and tons of long, narrow beaver ponds.

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I think this section is normally on the Yukon, but the river hadn’t frozen up completely, and the trail was routed overland.

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About halfway from Galena to Koyukuk we started seeing lots of snowmachines, and we eventually bumped into the owner of the Galena B&B. After thanking her, and talking for a bit, we learned there was a basketball tournament that evening in Koyukuk, and folks were headed back to Galena and Nulato.

We passed Koyukuk in the early evening, all lit up in the dark, and it was back on the Yukon.  About halfway between Nulato and Koyukuk we stopped briefly and then noticed there were lots of eyes staring down at us, reflecting the lights of our headlamps.   Kyle thought they might be wolves, but it is hard to say.  Regardless, they didn’t seem too traumatized by us, and kept watching.

Just before arriving at Nulato, my bike made a grinding noise, and my gears started freewheeling without any resistance — not a good sign.  I took my wheel off, and was amazed to see the lower 10 gears on my cassette had fallen off.  I fiddled with it a bit, but I wasn’t sure how to get it back on.  I was pretty sure at this point I was hosed. After shifting around a bit I found my lowest gear still worked, and after telling Kyle and Bill to continued on to Nulato, I slowly followed them, spinning away.  We ended up spending the night in a Catholic Church, getting a wonderful meal cooked for us by Brother Bob at 1am, and a fantastic pancake breakfast at in the morning.

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Brother Bob, and a fellow who gave me some bailing wire.

Bill, who owns the Trek Store in Anchorage, helped me try to put the cassette back together, and we set off in the morning, only to have my cassette fall apart again immediately.
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We headed back to Brother Bob’s, where we fiddled with it a bit more, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the lower 10 gears of the cassette to stay on.   Eventually, I gave up, and told Kyle and Bill to head out.

This was the lowest part of the race for me — I was pretty sure at this point I was going to end up flying back to Fairbanks to swap out the wheel.  I had been told there was a 11am and 3pm flight in from Fairbank, and started spinning slowly up to the airport, which is on a bluff overlooking the river, or so said my gps.   After a bit of 3mph spinning, I quickly realized that as it was just after 11am, and I had seen the flight land at 20 minutes ago, I just wasn’t going to make it.

So I made the demoralizing trip back to Brother Bob’s porch to hang out and wait until the next flight.  While I was waiting, I took the cassette apart again several more times, and eventually figured out the cassette only fit on in one orientation, and once I got it lined up correctly, the lower 10 gears snapped on – and I was back in business!  It was still unclear how it snapped off in the first place, but it seemed solid, and after a few hard mashing sprints to test it out, it looked like it would hold up, and I set off to go catch up with Kyle and Bill. I did pick up a length of baling wire — if worse came to worst I could wire it together, which would hopefully hold until I reached the nearest town.

The ride to the next town of Kaltag was fast, but very uneventful, and a bit boring.

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This was the Yukon I was dreading — flat and seemingly endless.  Fortunately, it was warm, I had a slight tailwind, and the riding was very good.    I tried to put on an audiobook, but my player was malfunctioning, alas.

Eventually I made it to Kaltag, where I just missed the Post Office closing, and ended up stopping by the store to grab some snacks  — mainly a bag of bagels, two small containers of yogurt, and a small jar of peanut butter.  I ate two bagels and the yogurt which was fantastic for dinner, and after asking for directions on the way out of town from a young guy manning the store, I headed out.

The next section of trail was the Kaltag portage, which leaves the Yukon river (yay!) and heads overland to Unalakleet, on the coast.  As I was heading out of town, I was very surprised to see Kyle and Bill riding on a road paralleling me a mile or so off, then watched as they turned off and continued down the Kaltag airport’s runway.   I turned around and headed after them, but quickly decided it wasn’t going to happen — it was going to take a while for me to get to the trail they were on, and with that lead, I wasn’t going to catch them.   I could see trail markers on the trail I was on so I knew I was headed the right way, and headed back down the trail.   A mile or so out of town, I remembered I was supposed to call the ITI organizers when we leave the Yukon river, and stopped  to get out my cell.  After wasting a bit of time screwing around with my phone I discovered I couldn’t get cell reception, gave up and headed back down the trail.    After 20 minute or so, I ran into Bill and Kyle – hurrah!  They were super surprised to see me and were pretty happy my bike was working again.  They had taken a long break at Kaltag, and were pretty well rested, and quickly disappeared down the trail.  

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Hopefully I would catch up with them again at one of the shelter cabins along the trail.  At the first cabin, the Tripod Flats cabin,  I could smell smoke, and knew they were inside, warming things up – hurrah!   After a nice evening of dinner and a good night’s sleep, we headed off to Unalakleet.

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The Kaltag Portage trail is pretty spectacular — very scenic, and very beautiful.  The trail was in fantastic shape, and it was warm and calm, with clear skies and fantastic views.  I think this was one of the highlights of the race for me.

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About 15 miles or so outside Unalakleet we ran into some bikers headed the other direction.

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It turned out two guys were on a overnight trip to Old Woman Cabin to spectate and say hi to the ITI racers as they passed by.   After a bit of chatting we parted ways, and we continued on.  Unalakleet is famous for Peace on Earth pizza, and we were determined to make it there before they closed!

As we neared Unalakleet, the snow started disappearing, and soon we were riding on bare ice and dirt.  

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Soon we were riding down the main street of Unalakleet, where I stopped to get some more white gas and some ice cream for later, while Bill and Kyle attempted to figure out where the Post Office was.  I came out and they were chatting away with some folks who had been following the race and had come out to say hi as we passed through.  They directed us to the Post Office, where we had drop boxes waiting for us.  I had been warned the Unalakleet Post Office wasn’t the most friendly, so I was expecting trouble, but as we were waiting in line to get our boxes, the postmaster walked up and excitedly started talking to us about the race, and before we knew it he was outside with us looking at our bikes, and asking questions.  

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As we talked to him, there was suddenly a deep voice from seemingly out of nowhere asked us if we would like some coffee.  After a quick bit of searching for the source of the voice I looked up to see a man leaning out of a small second storey window above the PO looking down at us.  I passed on the coffee, but thanked the disembodied voice for the thought.  After a bit more chatting with the super friendly postmaster, we headed off to have pizza.

We arrived at Peace on Earth only to discover they were closed for another 45 minutes.  Two phone calls later the manager arrived, opened up, and we sat down to unpack our drop bags, and gorge on pizza.  The pizza was fantastic, though I was sort of overwhelmed by all the food and supplies in my drop box.  I felt a bit like a child on Christmas Day, confronted by too many new toys and unable to decide which to play with first.   I only had a limited space on my bike, and picking what I was going to take with me was a bit overwhelming.

Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of pizza heaven, and headed down the trail.  Our plan was to stop at the Foothills shelter cabin.   The ride out of town was gorgeous, and I got my first real views of ocean from the west coast of Alaska — one of the highlights of the trip!

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There wasn’t a lot of snow, and the trail mainly seemed to consist of a strip of ice in ATV ruts, but it was scenic.  I was pretty surprised how hilly it was — we seemed to either be going up or down, without a lot of flat in between.  

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Perhaps I had been spoiled by all that flat river.. We arrived at the cabin in early evening, warmed it up, and enjoyed leftover pizza, and for Bill and I, icecream.  Kyle is alas, lactose intolerant, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up the ice cream as an evening snack.

In the morning we headed out and made our way to Shaktoolik.  As we left the foothills, we headed out across a lagoon to the village, and finally hit some real wind.  This was my first encounter with any strong wind so far, and I quickly had to rethink a few things.  First, I needed more layers on my lower body, and second, while the ruff I had on my puffy jacket was awesome, wearing my puffy jacket while biking at these fairly warm temperatures (teens F)  made me much too hot.

At Shaktoolik we biked through town, eventually finding the school.

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After asking if it was okay to come inside, we came in, and talked to the kids, had lunch, and re-shuffled our layers for the next section, the ride to Koyuk across the sea ice of Norton Bay.   The students and teachers were super friendly, and very excited about the upcoming Iditarod dog race.  I ducked out briefly to run across to the store, where I wandered around in a daze, overwhelmed by all the food options.  Eventually I grabbed some junk food and snacks, and joined Bill and Kyle in an empty cafeteria for lunch.

I took the time to swap my ruff over to my shell jacket.  When I purchased the ruff, I was given the option of setting it up so I could move it from jacket to jacket.  I had been given mixed advice about this – several people told me it was a good idea, and others had told me it just made it heaver and harder to deal with, and I would not want to switch it anyway.   The option to switch it turned out to be pretty awesome — the ruff turned out to work great on my shell, and it was way too warm (around 5F for most of our ride from Shaktoolik to Koyuk) to ride in my puffy jacket.

The ride to Koyuk was neat, but took forever, and I soon got sick of the novelty of riding on sea-ice.  

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The wind, while not blowing super hard, was pretty relentless blowing into our faces, and the trail was mostly firm, but had sections where it was too soft or the crust wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight.   Bill and Kyle had the advantage of being much lighter than I am, and could float over the soft stuff like angels, while I bogged down like a pig wallowing in mud.   The final 10 miles to Koyuk seemed to take forever.   We could see the lights of Koyuk, but they just didn’t seem to get any closer.  Finally we arrived, and connected up with someone affiliated with the school.  Alas, I forget his name — he was super helpful though, fantastic guy!  He let us in, and set us up in the preschool room, where we made ourselves at home.
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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

Koyuk really reminded me of my home town of Skagway.   We arrived at around 10pm, and there was a basketball game going on, giving me flashbacks of being a kid in a small-town in Alaska.  The school even had the same feel..

In the morning we headed out, making our way back onto the sea-ice, though this trail seemed much firmer and the riding was much faster.  The ride from Koyuk to Elim was a surprise — it was really interesting, with diverse scenery, with sea ice, forested hills, wide open, and wind blasted fields.

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Bill got a bit antsy about the idea of missing his drop box waiting for him in the Elim Post office, and possibly a bit frustrated with my slow pace, and he took off.  Hopefully Kyle and I would meet up with him again in Elim.    Eventually I stopped and added a bit more air to my tires, and immediately I sped up considerably.   Kyle and Bill were both running tubeless setups, and I was pretty amazed by the difference they had in their rolling resistance.  I definitely had to do more tire pressure adjustment.  I think tubeless fat bike wheels must just roll easier than their tubed counterparts.  Some tubeless wheels are in my future, I think!

As Kyle and I neared Elim we started seeing signs of civilization — in this case, lots and lots of boats, of various sizes and states of repair.

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The last mile into Ellim involved, much to my surprise, biking up a huge hill on a plowed road, but it did provide some awesome views of the ocean.

Elim was a fantastically welcoming town. As we biked, a fellow on an ATV stopped to ask us if we needed directions, and he pointed us towards the school, where Kyle and I had drop boxes waiting for us.  Unbeknownst to me, my wife Nancy had called a village elder she knows from the Alaska Forum on the Environment conferences to let her know I was coming in, and she had a group of kids waiting for us to direct us to the school, and help me find the store.  Just outside the store I ran into a lady who told me she was just checking to make sure the store was open and was going to check to see the school was open, as Nancy Fresco’s (my wife) husband was biking in.   I laughed and introduced myself as Nancy Fresco’s husband, and thanked her.  It was surreal experience, being escorted through the village store by a group of 3rd to 5th graders all asking me questions about what I was doing, while I was asking them questions about life in Ellim, all while trying to quickly pick out food from the small but still overwhelming selection in the store.  On the upside, I eventually just started asking the kids to help me find stuff, and once I started that I quickly got what I needed and was ready to check out.  Just after I checked out, the checker handed me the phone, saying it was for me , and it was the village elder, Emily Murray, calling to let me know my drop box was at the school, and the door was open, and I should just come in and get it, and make myself at home.  A fantastic welcome to Elim!

We spend a few hours in the school, snacking and talking to the principal and his family about life in Elim.  The discussion reminded me a lot of growing up in Skagway, with the same problems of being an authority figure in a small town, and being unable to escape that role in such a small community.   Eventually we pried ourselves away, and headed off to White Mountain, though not before calling ahead to Joanna, a local in White Mountain, which was hopefully our destination for the evening.  Joanna has an almost mystical reputation in the ITI.  Folks always talk about how fantastic it is to arrive at her house at White Mountain, and I was eager to experience this!

The next section was a bit of a blur.  We headed out onto the sea ice briefly, where the for the first time I could actually see the ocean from the ice I was biking on, which was a bit disconcerting.  

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Fortunately we headed back onto land, where we headed up and over some large hills, before descending down to Golovin Bay and across to Golovin.  Golovin Bay was a bit surreal.  Last year some of the Irondog folks had major trouble here. I think one team ended up ditching their snowmachines in the middle of the lagoon in several feet of water and having to walk to shore.  Fortunately, the ice seemed thick and sound, and the trail was more of a hard-packed runway than almost anything we had been on for most of the way so far.  We zoomed across the bay to Golvin, where we briefly stopped out of the wind for a snack, then biked across town and onto more ice for the final stretch to White Mountain.   The ride from Golovin to White Mountain seemed to take forever.  Although we where making good time, it just didn’t seem like we were going anywhere, possibly due to the featureless terrain and darkness.   A few miles outside White Mountain, a snowmachine pulled up, and a woman introduced herself as Joanna.  We were unbelievably excited to see her.  I think Bill told her “I could hug you,” and she said, “While that would be nice, you should keep biking, White Mountain is just around the corner.  She headed off and we followed, and soon enough we pulled up into White Mountain, where we were welcomed into her home, in the early hours of the morning. I ended up crashing on her couch, having I think the best sleep of the race, after a fantastic bowl of soup.  Joanna and her family — Liam, Cha, and Jack — are amazingly nice, and it is hard to describe how fantastic it was to be welcomed into her house.   While chatting with Joanna, it turns out we have many mutual friends in Fairbanks, and she is even familiar with the neighborhood I live in — it is such a small world!

In the morning we had a wonderful breakfast, and headed out for the last push to Nome.   I didn’t know what to expect for the remainder of the trail, but I was pretty surprised by all the climbing there was.  After winding through some river and swamp, we were soon climbing up and down some large hills, giving us fantastic views, but a lot more climbing than I expected!

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 Eventually we descended down to Topkok, where we ducked into the shelter cabin for a bit of lunch.  After Topkok, the amount of snow dropped considerably, and soon we were zooming along on firm, hard-packed trail.   The next day was the Nome to Golovin snowmachine race, and lots of folks were out riding fast, getting some last minute practicing in.  

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We didn’t have any close calls, but some of the snowmachines were going pretty darn fast.   The rest of the ride to Safety was pretty fun, but largely uneventful.  This area is notorious for a short section where there is occasionally a “blow hole”, where the wind can be very strong.  Fortunately, while it was windy, the blow hole didn’t seem to be in action when we passed through.  Eventually we arrived at Safety, where I hoped to maybe get a bite to eat or at least some pop, but alas, they were not open yet.  We were welcomed inside though, and we chatted a bit with the owner, who was in the process of getting things ready for the dog race.  They had a very comfortable couch, but while I would have loved to just crash on it, we had to get going if we were going to finish!

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

The last 20 miles were all on a road, which was a mix of very fast, and slow, depending on how much traffic and drifting there was.  There seemed to be at least two other options, and I was a bit sceptical that the road was the most reasonable, but it worked out in the end.    Parts seemed to take forever.   Some old friends of ours from Fairbanks, Sue and Glenn,  had offered to let me stay with them in Nome when I finished, and I was on a mission to arrive at a reasonable hour and not get them up in the middle of the night!  A few miles out of town, a truck pulled up, and it was Sue and Glenn! After a brief chat, we got back going again — the finish was just around the corner!   As the miles counted down, I watched for each mile post.. five, four, three, two, then, alas, there was a loud pop, and I didn’t have any gears anymore.   A little over a mile from the finish, my lower 10 speeds of the cassette popped off, leaving me just the big ring again.  And since the road was now completely snow free, spinning away at 3 miles an hour was going to be torture.  I tried to fix the cassette the same way as before, but no dice.  I couldn’t get it back on.  The frustration!  I suggested that Bill and Kyle continue on, but they weren’t having it, and soon had a tow system set up.  Bill towed me into the finish.  

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

It was fantastically nice of him, and one of the highlights of the race for me.  Thanks, guys!

We were met by a small crowd of folks, including the winner Phil H, who finished just a day slower than the record.   I sort of wandered around in a daze, glad to be done, but not quite processing everything going on around me.  Eventually we all loaded up into Sue and Glenn’s truck, and drove over to their house, where we spent several hours talking and enjoying some fantastic homemade pizza!   Bill and Sue in particular were in heaven — they are both super social folks who love to talk.  Eventually we headed off to bed, and in the morning we toured Nome a bit, got our bikes headed back to our respective homes via Northern Air Cargo, had lunch with Phil H and his family and, I saw Bill and Kyle off at the airport.  I hung around for the next day, then flew back to Anchorage, where my sister gave me a ride to my folks’ house in Wasilla.  I mellowed out for a day before driving back.

Phil had an amazing race. I think he would have broken the record if he hadn’t had two serious issues with his bike. He had a crank fall apart on him outside Galena, and his chain fell apart on the sea ice outside Koyuk. Both times he had to wait for replacements to arrive. A huge congrats to Phil for such a fantastic race!

Just in case it isn’t clear – we had amazing trail conditions. It is hard to imagine the trail being nicer, any my fast time was due entirely to that, so my sub 13 day time should be put in that context. Snow bike riding is mostly about conditions, and I lucked out, the conditions were as good as I think it is possible for them to be!

I finished mostly physically intact.  One hand was a bit numb, but otherwise I had no major issues, besides having sore legs for a solid week to 10 days after the race.   My knees gave me trouble for the first half of the race, then I didn’t seem to have any issues.

I would like to thank my family for allowing me to take time away from them to train and to do this race. I really appreciate your understanding, and I love you guys!  I would also like to thank everyone I spent time with on the trail: Frenchie (Alan), Ken, Morris, Bob, and of course Bill and Kyle.   Spending time with you guys on the trail was one of the highlights of the race — thanks guys!   I would also like to thank all the folks who helped me along the way: the folks at Yentna Station, Skwentna, Shell Lake lodge, Winter Lake Lodge, the crew at Rohn (Adrian I hope you got your whiskey!) , the Petruskas in Nikolia, Tracy and Peter in Mcgrath, the folks at River Edge B&B in Ruby, Larry in Galena, Brother Bob in Nulato, Emily Murray and the school principal and his family in Elim, Joanna and her family in White Mountain, and Sue and Glenn for welcoming us to Nome.  Thanks everyone!  You guys made this experience possible for me, and I will be forever thankful for your kindness along the way.

Last, I would like to thank Bill and Kathi for putting on this race.  I am sure it is tons of work.  Thanks for doing it — it is truly a unique experience!

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

A Post Script of Sorts..

When I finished at Nome, and took a glance at the news, I was saddened to hear about Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle’s encounter with a drunken snowmachiner outside Nulato.  When I got back home, I got questions about it.  I didn’t spend much time in Nulato, but the 12 hours I was there, I found it to be a perfectly normal place, filled with helpful, nice people.  This was true of all the communities I passed through and everyone I encountered on the trail and in the villages.  Everyone was friendly and helpful, and I had nothing but positive experiences. That isn’t to say what happened to Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle wasn’t horrible – it was, it just wasn’t the experience I had.

Improvements

There are lots of things I wished I could have improved on, but mostly I think I was under-trained for this race.  I think if I do something like this again, I need to work in some structured training of some sort.  I also need to think more about the food I put in my drop boxes.  I think if I ever have to eat another Snickers bar I will puke!  Otherwise I was mostly pretty happy with my performance in the race. I did feel like I was slowing Bill and Kyle down, something which I feel quite guilty for.   I might update this later, as I think over what I would do differently if I do this race again.


Folks who are gear phobic, should skip this bit — it is just a discussion of what gear I took.  Please, note I am not an expert, and we had really good conditions this year, so your mileage may vary.

You have been warned..  🙂

The bike

I rode to Nome on a Fatback Corvus, which I was super happy with.  The bike isn’t perfect — I wish the bottle cage on the down tube was further down, and I wish the fork had mounts for bottle cages as well, but it rides great, and the carbon fork’s flex is awesome in bouncy tussocks. I love that bike!  I was amazed how much more comfortable the carbon fork is vs the aluminum fork I used last year.  My setup is a pretty normal stock SRAM XO based setup, with a few unusual bits — a b17 Brooks saddle, and groovy Luv Handles handlebars.   The Brooks sort of grew on me — it squeaks, but it is very comfortable, and I had no butt issues of any sort when I finished at Nome.  The handlebars are awesome — just the right amount of bend, and I don’t have to worry they will snap in half if mistreated like carbon bars might.   If anyone knows of anyone selling one, I would love to buy it!

The one serious issue I had with the bike is the SRAM 11 speed cassette fell apart on me at Nulato, and again a mile from the finish.  These “xdome” cassettes come in two parts: the lower 10 gears, and the big 42 tooth cog.  The lower 10 gears just fell off the rest of the cassette.  I could pedal in the big 42 gear, but it was geared very low, as I run a 26ish (it is an oval ring) front, so if I spin hard I can get up to 4mph —  better than walking, but not by much.  I was able to get it back together after some fiddling in Nulato, but when it fell apart again a mile from the finish, I could not get it back together. I might be done with SRAM’s cassettes.

I used Northern Air Cargo to ship my bike back from Nome, and alas, they didn’t do a very good job.  The bike arrived heavily scratched with a dinged up derailleur.   If I ship stuff with them again, I am going to see about insuring it, or at least some “do not scratch, be careful” labels.  I think they must have strapped it to something with metal hooks around the fork, as the scratches are deep!

Food

I sent drop boxes to all the villages I passed through on the Yukon, plus all the villages on the coast.  I quickly ran out of ideas, and just randomly stuffed the boxes with whatever candy and junk food I could find.  Belvita breakfast crackers/cookies, and Oreos were the surprise hits — I ate pretty much all of the ones I sent out.   I got pretty sick of Snickers, and of beef jerky.  A major oversight was that the drop boxes ended up at places I often spent the night in, and they often didn’t have food there. I should have packed some heavier dinner and breakfast foods in the boxes to eat when I opened them up.   Otherwise I was mostly pretty happy.  I packed way more freeze-dried food than I used, but that probably was good, as we had fantastically good trail, and if things had taken longer that extra food would have been appreciated.  Several times I ended up having freeze dried food for breakfast, which while okay, wasn’t the most awesome — in the future I will pack something for breakfast besides Sweet and Sour Pork!

Gear

For sleeping gear, I packed a minus 40 bag and a regular length Ridgerest pad.  For clothing, a light weight puffy jacket , a puffy down jacket, puffy pants, two sets of long underwear pants (one light, one heavy), a long underwear top with a hood, and two sets of underpants.  I also packed some “town clothing”:a lightweight shirt and a superlight set of shorts Nancy sewed for me.   I was very thankful for the shorts, as they gave me something to wear when staying at schools etc, or when my clothes were getting laundered, which I did once at Ruby and once at Mcgrath.  For rain, I packed a rain jacket and rain pants.   I wore some Marmot pants that worked great, and a Mammut soft shell that has now seen four ITIs.  I love that jacket!  I had been warned that I should get a ruff for the wind on the coast.  I was initially pretty skeptical, but ended up getting one, and was amazed how big of a difference it made.  I didn’t wear a facemask the whole time!  Admittedly, it wasn’t very cold, but in the windier sections I probably would have needed something, and the ruff completely avoided this.  That was money well spent!  I brought some Primaloft mitts, and two facemasks/balaclava, and an extra hat.

For cooking gear, I packed a titanium pot and a new style XGK with an very old pump from one of the original XGKs.  I had been told the new pumps don’t work well in the cold, so I used an old one I had lying around.  It worked great, though it was loud and heavy.  I might take a Whisperlight if I do it again.

For more photos check out my Flickr gallery:
ITI 2016 - Nome

ITI – 2016 Part 1, This time to Nome!

Monday, April 4th, 2016

A bit of a warning – this post is on the long side.. 

As the sun set halfway between Ophir and the Carson Crossing Cabin,  I — for the second time in the last couple of hours — heard voices..  I thought for sure I could hear people talking.

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Me: “Kyle, can you hear some voices talking?”

Kyle:  “Ah, no, I don’t hear any voices…”
This was followed by a pretty skeptical look from Kyle.  Clearly my sanity was in question.

I stopped for a moment, and in a moment of silence, I discovered the voices were coming from my pocket.  My audio book player was on.

“Ahh, I nevermind, I think I found them..”

Nome..  After my second bike ride to McGrath on the Iditarod Trail among some of the racers who continued on from Mcgrath, I started thinking about going all the way to Nome.  

The Iditarod Trail Invitational is a race on foot, bike, or skis from Knik to Mcgrath in its shorter 300 mile version, or Nome, on the Iditarod Trail.

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Initially the full race to Nome seemed so far out of reach — too far, too hard — but I figured it would be fun to try, and if I didn’t make, no big deal.  I had thought Nancy wouldn’t be excited about me being away from the family for 20+ days, but after sounding her out I was surprised — and excited! — to get the OK from her.  So, I started planning in earnest.  Thinking about going to Nome was pretty scary, with so many unknowns: lots of new trail, new areas, wind, cold, the remoteness of the Ophir to Ruby section, working out the logistics for resupplying with food, etc.   Lots of things outside my control, and so many things to worry about.  The race to Mcgrath is pretty simple by comparison — you just need to pack up your bike, send out two drop bags, and you’re good to go.

As usual the race started in the early afternoon at Knik Lake.  My brother John lives in Wasilla, which is a 20 minute drive from the race start, so he dropped me off at the start.  The start was a bit of a madhouse, with lots of people.  Eventually everyone lined up, and we were off.  Knik Lake was snow-free, with a tiny bit of water on it, so the the first quarter mile was icy and slippery, but soon we were off onto the trail, which was a mix of slush, water, mud, and ice.  After a few minutes I looked down and noticed my drivetrain was all muddy — just thing I wanted to see on the start of a 1000 mile ride.    The next few hours sped by.  I ended up mostly riding with a friend from Fairbanks, Morris, to Flathorn Lake, where he zoomed off, and it briefly rained on me.

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The rain had me pretty worried.  It was just a few hours into a several-week-long race, and I didn’t want to start things off by getting soaked.  I briefly stopped to take my pogies off, but as I took them off the rain stopped, so I put them back on and kept riding.    Otherwise, the ride to the first two checkpoints was uneventful, but very fast, as there was only a little snow on the river, and lots of bare ice.  After a bite to eat at Skwentna, Morris, Bob O from Anchorage, and two folks from Minnesota, Frenchie (Alan), and Ken, headed on to Shell Lake lodge to get some sleep.

We arrived sometime after midnight, and I was surprised to see the lodge was still open — hurrah!  We snagged one of their cabins, and after getting a shot of Jack Daniels from the bar, I hit the sack.  The cabin was a bit hot, but that dried off my pogies and the rest of my gear.  The ride from Shell to Finger was fairly fast, and after a stop at the Finger Lake checkpoint, Morris and I continued on to Puntilla.  A few miles down the trail we were passed by some snowmachines, and the the riding got a bit slower, as they churned up the snow and it was slow to set up in the near-freezing temperatures.

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Ken, Bob, and Frenchie quickly caught up, and I ended up riding with them to Puntilla, over Rainy Pass, and to Rohn.   The ride (and walk) up to Rainy Pass was a bit slow, but nothing epic.

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The Happy River was open were the trail crossed it before heading up into Rainy, so I got to use my Wiggies Waders for the first time in the ITI —  hurrah!

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I got to use them once more heading down the pass, then they stayed packed up for the rest of the race.

This was the first time I got to travel Rainy Pass in the daylight, and I enjoyed the views of Denzel Gorge.  

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The trail after Rainy Pass was fantastic, and we zoomed down to Rohn, where Frenchie, Morris, and I continued on to Nikolai.  The trail was in great shape, and the riding was very fast.

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I had forgotten how many hills there are in the first 30ish miles outside of Rohn — lots and lots of little hills.

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I was having a very hard time keeping up with my two riding partners, and eventually they zoomed off, and I caught up to them in Nikolai.  Nikolai is always a great place — Nick, Olene and Stephanie are always welcoming and are wonderful folks.  I really needed more sleep at this point,  and since it was quiet there and I wasn’t that concerned about my time into Mcgrath, I crashed for 6 or so hours, while the the other guys took off after a few hours of sleep.

The ride to Mcgrath was uneventful and fun, with firm and fast trail conditions.  I arrived in Mcgrath in late afternoon, and I was soon helping myself to the endless buffet of food and happiness that is Peter and Tracy’s house in McGrath.   I was able to wash my clothing, get some sleep (almost 10 hours!), and load up my bike with stuff for the next section.  I am afraid I sort of stumbled around like a mad person in a bit of a daze while I was in McGrath.  Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone.

I had been dreading the ride to Mcgrath, worried I was going to end up in a pack of people, with crowded checkpoints and general hubbub and madness, but it was actually very fun and enjoyable.  I could have gotten a bit more sleep, but it was fine. I really enjoyed traveling with Ken, Frenchie, Morris, and Bob on the way to Mcrath – thanks guys, it was great sharing the trail with you!

The next morning I headed out with Kyle Amstadter.   I had never met Kyle before, but I had emailed back and forth a bit with him before the race.  It was fantastic to meet him in person, and I was to ride rest of the way to Nome with him and Bill, who joined us later.  Kyle and Bill are fantastic guys, and wonderful companions on the trail.

I was pretty excited about the next section of trail — it was going to be all new to me, and from my point of view, where the “real” adventure started.  The ride to Ophir was mostly uneventful.

As I biked into Takotna, the first community we passed through after Mcgrath, I was greeted by a huge dog, who was tall enough to stick his nose into my pogies while standing on the ground.   I  was a bit startled, as it was a “big dog”, but I guess they were starting to smell a bit funky at this point, and he was very friendly.

After Takotna we made way to the next place on the map, Ophir, which is an old mining community.  The trail between Takotna and Ophir seemed to be an old road, complete with well aged AKDOT road signs.

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In the early afternoon we reached Opher, where  Iditarod dog race folks who man the checkpoint were outside building some new outhouses.  They waved us in, and gave us hot water and coffee, and we talked for a bit.  It was an awesome unexpected bit of welcome, they were very nice, and I enjoyed talking to them and petting their cute dogs.

After leaving Ophir we were were joined by Bill F, who rode with us to Carlson Crossing cabin, where we spent the night.

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Carlson Crossing cabin is a neat cabin, but while it had a fancy Honda generator and was wired for lights, it didn’t have a saw.  Fortunately Bill found wood and after some use of a pulaski he found lying near the cabin, it was broken up, and he had the place warmed up in no time.  Just before we hit the sack Bob arrived.   In the morning Kyle, Bill and I all headed out together, with Bob staying for a bit more sleep.   The trail was fast, but bumpy!   It reminded me of the Fairbanks area, winding through swamps and black spruce forests.  

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Early in the day we found our last set of drop bags piled up on the side of the trail.   A this point there was only one racer ahead of us, Phil, and we had been following his tracks since leaving McGrath.   Phil had apparently biked right by the drop bags — apparently he was in a hurry!   (Later I learned he had been ahead of the plane that dropped the bags off, and they were dropped off after he passed through. )

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After a hot lunch and restocking bikes, we headed off, with plans to bivy near Poorman.  Bill zoomed off ,planning on scouting a “good spot”, and  Kyle and I eventually caught up with him after Poorman around midnight, and bivied outside along the trail, in a small stand of little spruce trees.

In the morning we rode on to Ruby.  The last section into Ruby is on an old mining road, and was surprisingly hilly.  I have flown over this area, and was expecting hills, but was pretty amazed by how many of them were were — lots and lots of little 500ft climbs and descents.

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Eventually we arrived at Ruby, and we spent the night at the River Edge BB — fantastic folks!  They had apparently just got back into town, and were a bit surprised to see us, but didn’t seem to mind too much.

In the morning, just before we departed, Bob showed up.  He had apparently arrived in Ruby in the middle of the night, and after a quick spin through town and didn’t finding anyone awake, so he made a little fort of the straw bales at the Iditarod dog race checkpoint and bivied there, which sounded pretty awesome.

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Next up, Part 2!

ITI – 2015

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

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…

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(Erik, swapping out is non-studded front tire – very good call!)

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.

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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.

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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.

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(Spectator Will Ross, who would place first in the Fat Bike Nationals two weeks later)

I made my way over to the gas line, over to Flathorn lake, and on to the Susitna River.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The improvements also included a straight shot re-route across the Post River Glacier, a section of sloping off-ice.

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The riding was fast, and almost snow free.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The weather was fantastic – nearly no wind, and my thermometer was now saying it was in the mid 40s…it was tee shirt weather!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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ITI – 2014

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

I had been looking forward to the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) ever since I finished last year. The ITI is a human powered (so skiing, biking, or running) race on the Iditarod Trail, from Knik Alaska to either McGrath (~300 miles) or Nome. Last year’s ITI was a wonderful learning experience, and whetted my taste for more. The trail last year was in fantastic shape, and very fast, but given that my first attempt in 2012 was a bit of a push fest, I wasn’t counting on such nice trails again.

The few days before the race were pretty hectic for me – saying goodbye to the family, driving down to Anchorage to go to the pre-race party and meeting, and finishing up those final “bits” before the race started. I always am a bit of a pre-race spaz, particularly at pre-race meetings – all the focus on what’s going to be happening in the next week (or 8 hours, or 12 hours) gets my mind going, and gets me all twitter-pated.

This year the lead-up to the race was a bit different, as there was not a lot of snow on parts of the course. The news coverage for the Iditarod dog race was mainly focused on if the route would be changed – years ago re-start was held in Fairbanks rather than Wasilla due to lack of snow. It was starting to sound like the start was going to be in Fairbanks, but in the week before the race (the ITI, not the dog race) the Iditarod Dog race made the official decision to go with the standard route. Eventually, race day arrived and my brother John gave me a ride to the start of the race, on Knik Lake. The start was a bit different this year, as Knik Bar was closed, and the race started at the Iditarod Museum.

Race day arrived, sunny and warm, and after my brother John dropped me off at the start I got my bike setup, then ran around nervously saying hi to everyone. The ITI starts at the somewhat unusual time of 2pm in the afternoon. Eventually, they lined us up at the edge of the lake, someone said go, and we were off. The first couple of miles flew by, as I tagged along with the fast people, until they slowly pulled away and I was dropped. I took the same route as I did last year – a short bit of trail, then 10 miles (very approximate) of road until reaching the gas line leading to Flathorn Lake. The road zoomed by, and with it all my pre-race stress – it had begun!

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The gas line was mostly pretty firm, as was the side trail leading to Flathorn.

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Flathorn Lake had a thin, spotty coverage of punchy snow, but was almost entirely rideable.

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In the days before the race, on tales of lots of glare ice on the Susitna 100 course held in the same area, I had purchased a studded dillinger tire for the front. These tires are pretty pricey (more than the tires for my truck!!), so at the time I really questioned it, but while biking across Flathorn I was starting to wonder if maybe one for the rear would have been a good idea as well. There were a number of planes flying around, including several that appeared to be doing laps over the racers, possibly spectating. On Flathorn there was a Beaver parked near the middle of the lake, with two guys taking pictures of the racers as we went by. By this time things had thinned out a bit, and besides a few sightings of other racers, I was mostly by myself.

Dismal Swamp zoomed by, then down the Wall of Death to the Susitna River, then on to Scary Tree and up the Yentna River to Yentna Station.

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So far the trail had been bomber – in particular, the trail on the Yentna was rock hard, packed to an asphalt-like hardness. A few miles before Yentna Station someone hauling two huge sleds of fuel behind a snowmachine yelled at me and Eric from MN for not getting off the trail, which was sort of surreal, as we were pulled off to the edge of a 15ft wide completely flat, smooth trail with tons of room to get by. I pulled into Yentna Station and had something to eat. Two Fairbanks folks, Jeff and Heather, were there, as well as several other bikers. After some soup, a grilled cheese, and two Cokes, I took off with the rest of the crew. Heather, Jeff, and Eric zoomed off, and quickly disappeared, as I slowly made my way up river to Skwentna. The trail continued to be amazingly fast – really firm and super hard. I think I bounced back and forth a bit with Tim R, before arriving just outside Skwentna at the intersection of confusion. Several signs for Skwentna pointed different directions, and tire tracks headed down each option. It didn’t look like anyone turned around, so I just picked the turn with the most tires, which turned out to be the “wrong” one – it took to me there, just in a roundabout way, and added maybe a half mile or so. Not a big deal. When I finally arrived in Skwentna I was told by the folks at the roadhouse that I had taken the wrong way, as a lot of other people. I was surprised to see another Fairbanks local, Kevin B. still there but getting ready to go. He looked to be happy but focused, and took off soon after I arrived. He would eventually win the race and set a new record.

The roadhouse was filled with racers, sitting around, eating, drying off, and watching a motorcross race on a TV. It was somewhat surreal. I got dinner, mellowed out for a bit, then took off with a big pulse of racers. I was planning on going to Shell Lake and sleeping on the floor of Shell Lake Lodge, though it turned out other folks had this same idea. Last year I hit the trail to Shell Lake in the morning, and just as I got off the flats a huge party of snowmachines passed me. They turning the trail into a bit of a mess, forcing me to walk most of the way to Shell. I was hoping to avoid this if at all possible, so riding this section in the middle of the night seemed like a great plan. The trail to Shell was fast, and I arrived at 3 or 4am to find a handful of other folks on the couches and floor of the lodge, getting some sleep. Shell Lake Lodge is a little log cabin on the edge of Shell lake run by a spry elderly lady who generally doesn’t mind if folks crash on her floor. I got several hours of sleep last year on a couch here, and have a marvelous grilled cheese sandwich. I got out my big coat and laid down next to the stove, and got intermittent sleep, though not much of it – the floor was cold, and several of the other racers were epic snorers. At one point I woke up to the smell of plastic melting in a panic, worrying that I was lying against to the stove, only to find someone had moved a chair up against the fireplace with a jacket on it. The jacket was melting, and the varnish on the chair was smoking – I pushed it away from the fire, and that was the end of trying to sleep. An hour or so later the owner got up and stoked the stove, and everyone got going.

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The next bit of trail to Winter Lake Lodge (confusingly it is on Finger Lake), winds through miles of flat swamp and short bits of trees. The trail was mostly in great shape and fairly fast riding, though it seemed to take a long time, as I was starting to get a bit sleep deprived.

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I arrived at Winter Lake Lodge, found my first drop bag, and enjoyed my beans and chicken burrito. It was the middle of the day, so while I really wanted to go to take a nap, I hit the trail again and headed off to Puntilla Lake and Rainy Pass lodge.

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The trail to Rainy Pass Lodge is beautiful, and it is the first section of trail where you start to see mountains up close.

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The trail continued to be in great shape, and I made good time to Rainy Pass Lodge. The Happy River steps were mellow this year, and it looked like someone had put a lot of time into making a nice, banked descent to the Happy River.

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There was a bit of open water on the Skwentna River, but otherwise it was uneventful. There was a group of snow machiners parked on the river waiting for someone, and they said hi as I biked by.

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It was dark again when I arrived at Rainy Pass Lodge, and the little cabin they have us in was filled with racers. I was able to score a bed to sleep in, and after two cans of soup, laid down to enjoy a nice nap. I got a few hours of sleep, before being woken by someone leaving, and then had trouble getting back to sleep with all the racers’ noises.

Eventually, I gave up, had another can of soup, then took off at 2am or thereabout. The next section of trail heads over Rainy Pass to Rohn, and has an epic reputation. I was expecting it could take 30+ hours, so watered up, and left at a fairly mellow pace. I rode all the way up to the base of the pass, following the tracks of the folks ahead of me. Just before Rainy Pass there is a broad open area, Ptarmigan Pass I think it is called, before the trail turns off and heads up a narrow valley to Rainy Pass. After the turnoff for Rainy Pass it got a bit harder to follow the “fast” line – the tire tracks spread out a lot, and the one I was following often ended it post-holing. I think my sleep deprived brain was just bad at finding the good line. Eventually I was up over the pass, and heading down. I was really looking forward to the ride down – last year it was a super fun decent! As soon as I started heading down I noticed something odd – lots of chunks of black stuff in the trail. My sleep addled brain wrote them off as chunks of plastic from snowmachines, but eventually as the snow started to disappear I realized they were slabs and chunks of rock. Eventually the snow was almost entirely gone, and I was riding on dirt, ice, and lots of brush. This section flew by in a blur – I was going pretty slow, as with only one studded tire if I flew onto an icy patch at speed I was probably going down, and I didn’t want to get hurt. I didn’t crash, and my other fear – open water, didn’t come to pass, and before I knew it I was out on the Tatina River.

The Tatina is a large river, and the short bit the trail it’s on is completely flat. This year it was blown free of snow with lots of exposed glare ice. I made it to Rohn without any crashes, though I went slow and was very careful. Dawn was just about to arrive as I turned off off the river. When I arrived at Rohn, I was greeted by OE, Rob Keher, and a Canadian racer, who was just waking up from a nap. Alas, Rob passed away this year. I didn’t know him well, but I will always remember him for his cheerful personality and how fantastically nice he was to the racers as they passed though Rohn. Everyone is going to miss him, he was a wonderful person! The racer was packing up, and since I had the place to myself, I grabbed a bowl of soup, and and hit the sack.

About an hour later I was woken up by an influx of racers, as a big group of racers who left the last checkpoint after I did arrived. I packed up my stuff as everyone was bustling around, and slowly tried to get going. I am afraid in my sleep deprived state I mouthed off a bit, and might have made a bit of an ass of my self – sometimes I just don’t handle sleep deprivation all that well. Anyway, I headed out with the rest of the pack, and everyone quickly disappeared into the distance, as I carefully made my way across the icy Kuskoquim River. The Kuskoquim was entirely free of snow – endless glare ice.

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Eventually I made it back onto land, and started the up and down rollers that make up the “New” part of the Farewell Burn. I don’t think this is actually part of the Farewell Burn, as it is quite a distance away from the Farewell Lakes.

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The area north of Rohn was almost completely free of snow. The trail wasn’t in too bad of shape, just lots and lots of tussocks and sticks.

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I was pretty worried I was either going to jam a stick in my spokes, rip my derailleur off, or damage something, so I was going fairly slow, attempting not to break anything. Just before the Post River glacier, a short stretch of angled overflow, I was passed by Tim R as he zoomed up the ice using some sort of traction magic.

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My traction magic, some minimal studded cleat bar things that were supposed to go across the bottom of my boots, didn’t work well, and I was forced to stomp my way up the edge of the ice using some willows as traction. I got to the top of the ice, had a quick snack, then tried to start biking – and quickly stopped after noticing a “thunk, thunk, thunk” from my rear wheel.

Worried I had a stick in the spokes, I hopped off the bike to check things out, and after a bit of fiddling, I noticed the derailleur was hitting the spokes. I pulled it out, spun the wheel, and since everything seemed fine, hopped on the bike and starting going again. After about fifty feet it was back to “thunk, thunk, thunk”. I checked things out again, and noticed my rear derailleur was back in the spokes. Thinking I just didn’t bend it back far enough, I gave it another tug, and it came off in my hand.

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I spent a few seconds trying to process the complete mess I had just made of things. Then it all it all hit me – my quick ride from Rohn to Nikolai just became a long, long, push. Some quick math in my head said it was going to take 36+ hours to make it to Nikolai. this was followed by lots of loud cursing. I pushed for a bit, then stopped when I was out of the wind, and tried to set everything up as a single speed. After several tries I got things going with a very low gear – a 22 in front, and a 26 in back, and I was back moving.

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It felt great to be biking again, and the super low gear worked ok on rolling hills I had for the next couple of hours.

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Eventually the hills went away, and I found myself spinning across glare ice lakes, and the realization that if I spun really hard I could get up to around 6 mph, and it was still going to take forever to get anywhere – this wasn’t going to work.

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After several tries I got a much bigger gear going, a 34 by 26, which let me actually move at an reasonable pace.

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I was in a panic at this point – four people had passed me while I was either walking, or madly spinning in my slow gear. The next 40-ish miles went by in a blur – lots of windy lakes, a thin snow-covered trail, and stand up mashing.

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Twice while crossing windy, icy lakes I was nearly blown over, the wind pushing the rear of my bike around, spinning on my studded front tire like a weather vane.

Eventually I pulled into Nikolai, where I was pretty thrashed. The checkpoint in Nikolai is in the Petruska Family’s house, and they are truly wonderful folks, opening up their house to the racers. I was amazingly happy to have made it there. I could barely walk, and was limping around the Petruska’s living room in a daze, eating food, and eventually crashing onto a couch in an attempt to get some sleep. Eventually I gave up trying to sleep, had more food and several Cokes, and headed back out, well before sunrise. The trail from Nikolai to finish in McGrath was fast and firm, though a bit surreal at times. While I was making good time, I had to re-do my single speed setup twice, once because the chain broke, and once because the chain stretched and it started randomly shifting. I was very, very glad it was warm, well above zero Fahrenheit, as each time I had to screw with the chain it took what felt like an eternity to get it working again, long enough for my hands to get very cold.

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Eventually the trail dumped me onto the Kuskokwim again, where the trail got a bit softer, but still mostly rideable. The last twenty miles seemed to take forever. I kept forgetting I didn’t have gears anymore, and would move my shifters to gear up or down, then get a reality check when nothing happened. The light was very flat as well, making it hard to see where the “good” lines were. I finally found myself on the road just outside of McGrath, slowly spinning to the finish. Reaching the finish was awesome – I could finally get off my bike, lay down, and hopefully get some real sleep and food – hurrah! The finish is the Schneiderheinze’s house, and is a glorious never ending buffet of happiness – nearly endless food, powered by the ever cheerful and happy Tracy and Peter. They are wonderful folks, and their house is like heaven! The finish was sort of a blur, lots of random faces, me stumbling around babbling in a sleep deprived haze. I think I came across as a bit of an idiot as I really couldn’t think or talk very clearly. I was very, very hammered by not having any gears – single speeders are nuts, only having one gear destroyed my legs! The following day I hitched a ride out on Pen Air, but alas, once again my bike didn’t make it out with me. Fortunately Heather (who set a new course record!!) was staying a couple of extra days in Anchorage, and picked it up when it finally arrived and hauled it back to Fairbanks for me. On the way back I stayed with my brother John for a night to catch up on more sleep, and to pick up a pillow for the drive back – my bottom was destroyed, and sitting in the car was unpleasant!

I would like to give a huge thank you to Nancy and the Twins for letting me do this race – it involves a ton of time away from the Family, and I really appreciate their understanding – thanks!

I would also like to thank everyone involved with the race – the organizers Kathi and Bill,  OE and Rob in Rohn, the Petruska family in Nikolai, the Schneiderheinzes in McGrath, and all the other folks staffing the checkpoints.

I will have a follow up post (soonish I hope) with some notes about what worked gear and bike wise, and what didn’t.

I hope everyone is enjoying Winter!

ITI – 2013,Puntila to McGrath

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

This is part II of my writeup of my 2013 ” Iditarod Trail Invitational race”:http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/alaska_ultra_home_page.html or the ITI as folks call it – part one can be found “here”:http://yak.spruceboy.net/2013/03/iti-2013-knik-to-puntila.html .

We left off last time at Checkpoint number four at Puntila Lake and “Rainy Pass Lodge”http://www.theperrinsrainypasslodge.com/ . Eric and I left Rainy Pass at about 6pm after getting a hour or two of sleep.

The cabin at Puntila we stayed at had a lot of character. I was particularly amused by the heads mounted on the walls just over the beds.

I was a bit worried about going over the pass at night, what with the long pre-race lecture we were given, telling us to leave at 1am so we would arrive at the pass in daylight, but Eric was unconcerned. It turned out to be not a big deal. Amazingly, the ride up to the pass was fantastic, and it was ridable almost the entire way.

Perfect weather, mostly calm, clear, and a full moon – it couldn’t get better than that.

Before I knew it we were at the pass and topped out. Rainy Pass has a semi-legendary reputation, at least in my mind. I have heard various stories of deep snow, winds, and bitter cold, so I was floored by how fast we arrived at the top of the pass. I stopped for a some photos, and had to get one of the marker on the pass, the iconic Rainy Pass sign.

The ride down the Denzel Gorge to the Kuskokwim River was fantastic – zooming downhill though the moonlight night.

I let Eric take the lead, and let him rip down the hills, assuming he knew what he was doing, and that he would slow down if there were any cliffs to fly off of or other hazards. Flying down the pass in the dark was one of the highlights of the race – zooming downhill in the dark, flying along a narrow trail crossing back and forth over a little creek. In a surprisingly short time we were on the Kuskokwim River and riding down river on hard frozen ice. I was very surprised to suddenly see some Endomorph tire prints – a type of fat bike tire I had not seen since the start of the race. When I am racing on a snow bike, I spend most of my time looking at the ground feeling for the fastest “line” or path, so the riding is as effortless as possible. One side effect of this is that I spend a lot of time looking at folks’ tire tracks, and when a random new tread print shows up it makes a bit of an impression, making me worried someone had passed us while we were sleeping at Puntila. When we arrived at Rohn, all became clear when I noticed that one of the checkers – “O.E.” – had a snow bike parked outside the wall tent. Rohn was a pretty neat place – there were two small planes parked on a packed strip, with a small hewn log cabin the Iditarod Trail crew stays in, with the ITI folks staying in a large wall tent. We ducked inside and were soon sitting down to enjoy cans of soup with pilot bread. After hammering down several pilot bread crackers, I started to feel a bit guilty, and when the other checker, Rob, told me to have at it, gleefully had several more. Unlimited Pilot bread – sometimes happiness is so simple!

We crashed for several hours, then refilled our water, reloaded from our drop bags, and headed out. As I was searching around for my drop bag I nearly stepped on Craig, who was sleeping outside next to the wall tent. We left a little before dawn, following the Kuskokwim river downstream.

The trail moved on and off the river, which was blown free of snow for the most part. It was a bit nerve-racking to zoom along on glare ice, but I managed not to crash.

The next section from Rohn to Bison Camp, an abandoned tent camp, was pretty scenic, with wonderful views as I biked away from the mountains and toward the flats.

Once off the ice of the Kuskokwim the trail passed though several burns, going up and down countless small, short hills as I moved slowly towards Egypt Mountain and onto the flats beyond the Alaska range.

Before the race there was lots of talk of overflow, so I was fairly worried about large tracks of wet mushy ice, however everything was frozen rock hard.

The post river glacer, a large bulge of ice where the Post River comes out onto the Kuskokwim, also seems to have lots of stories surrounding it, with tales of having to climb a huge slippery ice face. This year it was all mellow though, barely larger than the overflow bulges we get on the trails in White Mountains near Fairbanks, and nothing to be worked up about.

The trail was beautiful in this section, winding though burns and grassy fields covered by only a little snow. The snow cover was amazingly shallow, only a couple of inches deep.

There were also tons of bison footprints and droppings. I spent lots of time scanning the hills in hopes of seeing a bison, but alas, no such luck. Eventually we made it past Egypt Mountain and onto Fairwell Lakes.

The lakes had a tiny bit of snow on them, and it was a bit mind-warping to bike across them. The long, flat lakes sort of warped my perspective a bit, making it seem like I was not actually moving.

It was very, very beautiful though. At this point I was a bit sleep deprived, and Eric and I were swapping who was leading.

I am afraid at one point I think Eric found me talking to myself all crazy-like, which was quite embarrassing. However, a bit more fat and sugar and I was back in sane-person land. As we pulled farther away from the Alaska Range, the more the trail started feeling Fairbanks-like.

Eventually we passed Bison Camp, a sad looking collection of wall tents, and soon after that, the turnoff for Bear Creek cabin. The cabin had been visible occasionally as a gray dot on a hill, but is way off the trail, and we zoomed by. It looked from the tracks as if several racers had pulled into the cabin for some rest. Alas, we zoomed by, and continued towards Nikolai. For the most part, the trail once out of Rohn had been in great shape, but now as the trail headed through open areas it started to have large drifts in it, which were a bit too soft to ride.

I messed a bit with my tire pressure, and got things ridable for the most part. The drifts continued for a fair distance, but were not too big of a deal – there was some pushing but only in very short sections. Eventually evening came, and with it some huge wind-blown swamps. The swamps were mostly fast riding, as the trail was fairly hard and scoured free of soft snow by the wind.

The swamps were a bit creepy, as they were huge and it was often not possible to see the far side of the swamp. I was happy to be riding though, as Eric mentioned that he had pushed all the way from Rohn to Nikolai at least once. In the early a.m. we reached Nikolai, and I followed Eric to the checkpoint, the home of Nick and Olene Petruska. It was a bit hard to find, and without Eric I think I might have wandered around for some time. They were excited to see us, getting up to welcome us even though it was around 1am. They gave us some wonderful lasagna that was nothing short of heavenly. I talked a bit to a young man who was helping them out, though alas I have forgotten his name (Steve perhaps?), then headed into a back room for two hours or so of sleeping. The two hours went by fast, and before I knew it Eric and I were setting off. I had carried two 5-hour energy bottles with me since the start, and with 50 miles to go, I decided it was time to use them. Before leaving the Petruska’s I gulped down one of them, grimaced at the intensely awful aftertaste, then stuffed the other one into my pocket for later. I had quizzed Steve about the trail conditions and potential traffic on the river, and it sounded like we might have it to ourselves, which would be fantastic, as it would mean potentially fast riding. The trail was wonderfully firm as we left Nikolai, and stayed pretty nice all the way to McGrath. I had a bit of a tough time in the early morning hours, as my metabolism was not really churning out the power or the heat, and had to put my light jacket on, slowing things down a bit. Eric was patient though, and didn’t smack me for wasting time. The ride to McGrath was a bit of a blur, traveling on and off several large rivers, including one called “Big River” that was pretty wide, a handful of wide open swamps, and more of the Kuskokwim. Eventually it warmed up a bit or I just woke up and I was able to take my jacket off and get moving. It never was really all that cold, perhaps minus 10f at the coldest, so not too big of a deal. At one point we passed three bikers, Scott M, Brian B, and Mike C, all snuggled up in a trail side bivy. They were touring the trail and I had been seeing their tracks on and off for most of the race. I was very tempted to leave candy on their seats as good morning wakeup snacks but couldn’t muster the energy.. alas. Eventually we reached the outskirts of McGrath, and zoomed through the town, arriving at the finish line happy to be done. Bill Merchant was outside and getting ready to head back up the trail, and was pretty excited to see us, congratulated us and sent us inside to the warmth and food of Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze’s. I stumbled inside, zombie-like, and spent the next four hours or so eating and lolling, wanting to sleep but also wanting to see the next racers coming in, and not wanting to miss any of the excitement. I must have looked out of it, as Jeff O told me to go sleep several times. The Schneiderheinze’s was heaven – a hot shower, clean clothes, and endless food. Eventually, after tons of eating, I stumbled upstairs, found a quiet corner in a room, and crashed. In the morning, arrangements were made to fly back to Anchorage, and before I knew it I was off heading back to Anchorage. Alas, my bike didn’t make it and ended up in McGrath for two more days. It was looking like I was going to have to either tell Nancy I had to hang out in Anchorage for several more days or do some more flying back and forth, but the Speedway Cycles owner Greg offered to pick my bike up at the airport for me when it arrived, then ship it to me via a local transport company. This was fantastic, as it allowed me to drive home and see my family – hurray! It was very nice to be back at home and see Nancy and the twins.

I should point out at this point that I finished almost 24 hours after the leaders, who were absolutely flying. The top packs performance with nothing short of amazing – doing the whole race on essentially no sleep. It was very fun to watch the leader’s race by looking at their in and out times as I arrived at checkpoints, and it was great to see two of the local guys, Kevin and Jeff, have such a wonderful race. Congratulations to everyone who finished!

h3. A couple of thanks –

* I would like to thank Eric for riding with me, and sharing his knowledge of the trail and generally providing a cool and calming influence for most of the race – it was fantastic riding with him, and one of the highlights of the race.
* A huge thanks to Greg at Speedway and Jeff Gilmore at Beaver Sports for setting me up with a hub and a rebuilt wheel after I destroyed a freehub a few weeks before the race, and for helping get my bike back to me post race – you guys are fantastic! I am getting a reputation for breaking things just before the ITI, hopefully this will not continue.. My bike was a bit delayed going out of Mcgrath, and Greg at Speedway was nice enough to offer to pick it when it arrived and ship it up to me, making my life so much simpler – thanks!
* A big thank you to my ever-understanding wife Nancy and the twins – thanks ever so much for putting up with my biking obsession and letting me put in all those long training rides. I am very lucky to have such a supportive family – thanks!
* A huge thanks to everyone who offered me advice both this year and last, in particular Ned Rozell and Jeff Oatley were super helpful about what to expect. “Sean Grady’s blog”:http://seansalach.blogspot.com/ posts on his ITI experiences were also very helpful. Sean – your blog misses you!

h3. Gear Notes

I carried a lot less stuff with me this year, making for a lighter bike. Some the major changes were taking fewer clothes, a -20f sleeping bag rather than a -40f bag, less food, and I didn’t bring a stove. This mostly worked quite well, though I didn’t sleep outside at all, and it was pretty warm for the entire race. I think the coldest I saw was around -10f, which is not really all that cold. I might have missed some of the clothing if it had been sub -30f.

I brought my vapor barrier shirt, which I didn’t use. I think if the forecast is good I would leave this at home, as it is really only useful (for me anyway) in sub -15f weather.

For footwear this year I used “Lobbens”:http://www.piasweaters.com/product-p/lb-trd-a.htm inside the basic, uninsulated Neos. This seemed to work great, providing good walking, heavy duty waterproofing, and was fairly light. It was more than warm enough for this years race, though I probably could have run my lake winter boots given the nice weather we had. I wore thin neoprene liner socks as vapor barriers with wool socks over them, and this seemed to work great. The neos didn’t accumulate moisture, and my feet didn’t mind the neoprene socks. My feet were a bit sore the last day, only because I didn’t take the time to dry out the vapor barrior socks at Nicolai.

For food I took a fairly random selection of candy bars, a lot of reese’s peanut butter cups, with a handful of GUs, lots of gummies of various types, chocolate, and a lot of pepperoni. This seemed to work fine, though I think a bit more pure sugar might have been preferable. I put several of those bear claws that you find in vending machine in each drop bag for breakfast, and they are definitely a bit short on flavor. Eric packed oatmeal, and gave me some at Finger Lake, which was pretty fantastic. That was definitely the trick, and in the future I will put oatmeal in the drop bags for breakfast at the checkpoints. Eric also had a thermos that he left the checkpoints with filled with oatmeal which he would snack on several hours after leaving the checkpoints, which looked really pretty delicious. I am definitely going to bring a large mouth thermos if I do the ITI again.

Bike wise, I am still using a Fatback with a fairly standard setup as sold to me by Speedway Cycles. I replaced the handle bar with a “Carver Pry bar”:http://www.carverbikes.com/comp/prybar , a nice wide flat bar with a bit of a sweep and replaced the seat post with a cheap “Niner carbon post”:http://www.ninerbikes.com/carbonseatpost (much more comfortable!). I am now running 90mm UMAs, with BFL tires. The fit on the back is really tight, and I had to trim the side knobs a fair bit so there is no rubbing. The trail conditions were pretty nice, but I was still very happy I had the big tires – the added weight and rolling resistance is worth the extra float those tires give me. More float means more riding.. one hopes anyway. If I could fit it I would like to run the wider knobbier Lou and Buds, but alas they are way too big. That is the one thing I would change if I had the choice, otherwise I was super happy with this setup. I have been super happy with my snowbike, from a “Fatback”:http://www.fatbackbikes.com/ from “Speedway Cycles”:http://speedwaycyclesak.com/ . I have had such wonderful adventures on that bike…

It might be bad form but the details of my ITI race as recorded by my GPS can be seen on “strava”:http://app.strava.com/activities/48381783 and “garmin connect”:http://connect.garmin.com/activity/296656263 if folks want to see exactly how slow this sort of race is. I think my moving average was something like 5.2 mph!

ITI – 2013, Knik to Puntila

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Ever since last year’s aborted push-fest I have been thinking about the next “Iditarod Trail Invitational”:http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/alaska_ultra_home_page.html, ITI for short. Pushing for ~70 ish miles last year got me enough of a taste of the ITI to bring me back again, hopefully to actually finish.

Things started a bit rough – my 8am flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage was canceled, and I barely made the pre-race meeting, with my new flight touching down in Anchorage at 1:30pm, followed by a half hour of hurrying to reach the meeting a few minutes before it was supposed to start. Fortunately it turned out the meetings start time was rather etherial, and it was a good 20 minutes before anything happened. I was all pumped up from all the rushing around, then slowly calmed down as folks arrived, and talked a bit to some of the racers. I was pretty wound up with pre-race jitters – pre-race meetings are a high stress time for me – too many people and too much thinking about all the unknowns about the next week or so I will be out racing. The meeting was fairly short, and soon I was with my brother John, riding to Wasilla for some pre-race pigging out — and to get a good night of sleep. I managed to get a wonderful night’s sleep, and in the morning ate a lot more, having lunch out with my sister Theresa and her fiance. Then John drove me out to the race start, a small bar on Knik Lake. I arrived fairly early, and spent some time messing with my bike, making sure everything still worked, then wandered around gawking at the racers and their getups, and drooling over all the fancy, shinny bikes.



The start was a bit anticlimactic – someone said go, everyone sort of slowly moved forward, unsure it was actually officially a go. Eventually someone zoomed off, and a stretched out pace line quickly formed. I latched to the pack, and followed along, quickly ending up biking along a paved road that eventually led to a wide snow-machine trail leading to Flathorn Lake, and eventually the Susitna River.




I was a bit surprised that the leaders were just ahead of me for most of the brief ride on the asphalt. I ended up talking a bit to whomever was riding beside me. Eventually the pavement ended, and I immediately crashed into the rider I had been chatting with, Dan from Minnesota. Dan was unharmed, dusted himself off and zoomed off along with most of the other folks I was biking with, leaving me to slowly mash my way though the soft snow. It was fantastic to actually ride this section, though, after last year’s push-fest. Eventually I had to stop to de-layer, and several more people zoomed by while I was sitting on the side of the trail with my pants down, as I struggled to take my long johns off. Once that got sorted out, I was back on the bike and riding toward Flathorn Lake. Things were a bit soft in sections, but for the most part ridable.



I could see two bikers ahead of me way in the distance, and I tried to keep pace with them, but alas, they gradually pulled away. I reached Flathorn, where things got a bit too soft to ride, and made my way across the lake. The trail was a bit confusing at this point, with tracks heading across the middle of the lake, and along the edge of the lake. It appeared that more people went around the end of the lake, so I pushed my bike along, occasionally riding for short sections, heading around the lake to Dismal Swamp.



It was starting to get dark, so out came the headlamp. Dismal Swamp was mostly rideable, so I zoomed along, heading over to the Susitna River.

Shortly before the river a snowmachine zoomed by and stopped, and I chatted a bit with the rider, Craig Medrid from the Alaska Dispatch. He, like last year, was out covering the race on snowmachine. He seemed like he was enjoying himself. I pressed on to the Su, and started upriver.



Eventually I saw a snowmachiner coming downriver, and eventually Craig zoomed up to tell me the trail turned and headed the wrong direction, and all the bikers had turned around. Craig convinced me that there was another trail that I had missed,so I turned around and started pushing down river, ignoring the blatant fact that all the foot prints (this section was fairly soft, with lots of pushing) were heading up river. After 10 minutes or so of going the wrong way, I realized I was being stupid, and headed back up river. Craig zoomed back and forth several times, each time stopping to tell me the trail was dead ending, and he couldn’t find a trail heading up river. Eventually he found a trail and zoomed off into the darkness. I continued up river and eventually encountered two snowmachines hauling freight downriver, and I turned off onto a side trail heading across the Su that they had come from. This turned out to be a bit of a waste of time, as their trail took a huge loop, circling around, and eventually coming back to close were I turned off onto, but it did lead to the main trail heading up river, and to the confluence with the Yentna. Soon I was biking up the Yentna, happy that I was biking this time around, and not pushing slowly for the second day. Biking by the old site of Luce’s Lodge was sad, as it was now a private residence – no more warm rooms and cheese burgers. Riding on the Yentna an hour or so after from Luces to Yentna Station was surprisingly beautiful, with a wonderfully bright nearly full moon and the occasional patch of mist from sections of open water.




I had to stop a couple of times to futz with the camera.


Yentna Station was quiet, with only Rich Crain, Craig Medrid, the owner of the lodge, and a biker, Eric W. from California. I sat down, had three cokes and a grilled cheese sandwich, and eventually headed out with Eric.



We biked upriver in the dark, and stopped at Slims, a small residence by the river that welcomes racers in. Cindy and Andy were there, and we chatted for a bit, and had some wonderful soup. They had a bit of a rough year, as Andy had fallen off a roof (twice apparently!) and had broken his hip. He appeared to be in good spirits, and on the mend, but was still having trouble getting around. We the first racers they had seen yet this year. I had really fond memories of them last year, coming into their place in the middle of the night, wore out by pushing my bike for two days straight. After eating for a bit, Eric and I crashed in one of their back cabins. I was out immediately, but in a hour or so I woke up freezing, as the heater had gone out. After rolling around for a bit, I got up, triggering Eric to get up as well, and we headed out. Stopping was probably a bit of a mistake, as it turned out that if you can actually ride, Skwentna is a little under two hours up river.



We arrived at Skwentna, wehre I sat down for lunch and Eric took off, zooming away. Seeing Eric bike off reminded me it was actually a race, so I snarfed down my food, had two cans of coke, and a cup of coffee and headed out. Just as I was leaving, Charlie Farrow from MN and Lindsay Gauld arrived, looking happy. Charlie in particular had a huge smile on his face, and appeared to be really enjoying life. I talked to them for a moment, then set off for the Shell Hills. It was fantastic to be in a area totally new to me, on a trail I have never been on before – the adventure had now started!

Alas, I was soon passed by a snow-machine dragging a groomer, then someone hauling freight, turning the trail from fast riding to something a bit less so. The views were fantastic though, and it was nice and sunny.



After passing though several huge, wide open swamps I reached the Shell Hills and started riding up and down a series of small wooded hills.





Soon after hitting the hills I heard the droning of snow-machines in the distance, and was passed several moments later by a huge party of snow-machines, apparently a club of some sort, judging by the small flags flying on the back of their machines. There were maybe 12 to 16 machines, half of which had large paddle tracks. I rode for a bit after taking out almost all the air in my tires, eventually deciding it was not worth it, and started pushing while waiting for the trail to set back up. I eventually dug out my music player and started listing to a “Quicksilver, a novel by Neal Stephenson”:http://goo.gl/RU15j enjoying the hijinks of 17th century England semi-scientists while I pushed my bike in the hot sun. Just about the time I reached Shell Lake things became a bit more ridable, and I pulled up to Shell Lake lodge for a bit to eat.



Eric was inside snoozing, stretched out on a bench waiting for the trail to set up. I talked a bit with Zoe the owner of the lodge, and drank 3 cokes, then stretched out for a brief nap. Cokes drunk, nap taken, Eric and I headed out in hope that the trail would be more rideable.

The trail between Shell and Finger Lake wound up and down many small hills separated by small snow-covered lakes and swamps. The riding was pretty good for the most part, though in a few places it was unclear which trail we were supposed to be on. Fortunately the fast pack ahead of us had packed a nice little bike path, making the riding pretty easy. On this section I kept thinking back to last year, and how blown in these open sections must have been with all that snow. It would have been a long, slow slog. Fortunately I was biking, zooming along – and enjoying it! Eventually we arrived at Winter Lake Lodge, on Finger Lake.



Eric was an old pro at this, and quickly lead me to the kitchen, where we checked in and had dinner, checked the times of the leaders, chatted with the cook, then headed to a small cabin to get some sleep. The cabin was a bit hot, but I was able to get some nice sleep regardless. Kevin from Anchorage and Dan from MN were just heading out as we hit the sack. After 4 hours or so of sleep Eric and I got up and headed out after having a bite to eat and raiding our first set of drop bags. Eric was kind enough to share his oatmeal with me. Eric is, in a word awesome, and it was one of the highlights of my race to travel with him. He has done the race many times (I think 9 times?). He knew a wealth of details about trail and about how to race the ITI, and is just an all-around nice guy.

Just as we left, a runner, Dave Johnston, arrived. I was amazed to see him, and he appeared to be having a fantastic race. The next section, from Finger Lake to Puntila Lake, was fantastic biking, with lots of little hills and great views, and it was almost entirely rideable. I had a blast. The Happy River steps were a piece of cake, and the trail was in great shape.


It was wonderful biking along while watching the mountains getting closer and closer. In a surprisingly short time, about eight hours, we arrived at Puntila Lake, where I enjoyed several cans of soup and three hours of sleep.



Next up Rohn! (To be continued..)