Posts Tagged ‘iditarod trail invitational’

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..)

90 out of 350..

Monday, April 9th, 2012

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

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

Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

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

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

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

A few more photos can be found here.