Posts Tagged ‘race’

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 4

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017


This is part four – part one can be found here, part two can be found here, and part three can be found here.

Leaving Unalakleet and Kevin behind was pretty sad, but I was cheered up almost immediately when a couple from Buckland stopped to talk to me. They were on their way back from a trip to St Michaels via the sea ice, which seems to me to be a pretty crazy adventure. The rest of the ride to Shaktoolik was fast and pretty fun.
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Just as a I crested the final hill before the descent into the bay outside Shaktoolik I was passed by Mitch Seavey, who asked me if this was the final hill. I was pretty amused, as he definitely should know better than me. His dogs were in fantastic shape with upright happy tails, which made my day.
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Arriving in Shaktoolik, I quickly found the school where I was hoping to spend the night, but when I knocked to be let in, some Iditarod media folks told me that the school was closed and they were the only folks allowed to use it – doh! A quick call soon had a very helpful local named Marvin had me inside the school and comfortably tucked into a corner. Alas, the Iditarod folks got revenge by walking back and forth down the hallway, setting off a motion control light near by and waking me up every 30 minutes.

The next morning came way too soon, and soon I rolling on the sea ice towards Koyuk.
Musher on the sea ice outside Koyuk
Shaktool to Koyuk trail
Seaice before Koyuk
The ride to Koyuk was mostly uneventful, though I was pretty fried when I arrived. After a quick stop at the store, I found the school and the very helpful principal helped me find a box of supplies I had sent out. Alas, I was having a hard time staying awake, so I arranged to spend the night in Koyuk, planning to head out in the early AM hours so I could hopefully arrive at White Mountain at a “normal person time”. At this point I had one goal- to arrive at White Mountain and Nome at hours that everyone would be awake to talk to and wouldn’t inconvenience my hosts. I was set up in a cozy room in the school, the same room I was in last year, though the school was without running water, so alas no shower. I hit the sack, planning to head out at 1am. One am arrived sooner than I would have liked, but I got moving and was on the trail quickly. The ride to Ellim was fast.
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I bumped into Paul Gebhardt just off the sea ice, feeding his dogs. He was bundled up in so many layers he looked like he was wearing a giant hoop skirt, with skinny legs sticking out from the layers. The extra layers were justified – it was a bit cold, nearly -30f. He seemed to be in great spirits, and his dogs were chowing down or rolled up into balls resting. I chatted for a bit, then rode on to Elim, where I hit the store to grab some snacks, including my new favorite foods, a quart of chocolate milk and more Fritos, then headed to the school to eat, then was back on the trail.

Just outside Ellim while pushing my bike up a hill I was surprised by a famous musher Jeff King, and in my hurry to get off the trail fell over with my bike on top of me. The first couple of dogs ran over me, then when the musher hit the brake. His leaders, who were a little over eye level with me, looked down and gave me “That is not where you are supposed to be, idiot!” looks. I will never forget the look of scorn on the faces of those dogs. Mr King was very apologetic, and we both spent the seconds it took to get me off the trail saying we were sorry to each other, before I was out of the way and he was off up the hill again.

The next leg into White Mountain was pretty uneventful until I neared Golovan.
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Golvin sea ice
Golovan is a long narrow town set on a strip of land jutting out into a bay. As I neared town I could hear the wind howling on the other side, so I knew things were about to get unpleasant. Once I rode through town it was a headwind all the way to White Mountain. Mushers kept passing me, and I tried to draft them, but I am just too big, and their draft isn’t tall enough. A musher in an orange jumpsuit kept having trouble, where his dogs kept turning to run 90 degrees to the wind. I had sympathy to their plight.

A mile or so outside White Mountain two snow machines pulled up, jumped off, and one of them offered me a fifth of Fireball – Bill and Adrian had caught up with me. Bill was planning on sweeping the course, and I had been expecting them to catch up with me ever since Ruby – and they had arrived! After a quick chat and a burrito (yay for snowmachine cookers!), they zoomed off, and I caught up with them in White Mountain. I arrived a little after 10pm, hours after I hoped, but everyone was awake. At White Mountain we stay with Joanna and Jack, who very kindly open up their home to the racers. Their house was full of activity, with their children Ki (probably misspelled), and Liam running around, Bill, Adrian, several guests, and one of the film crew, Kenton. A full house, and it was great to suddenly be around people again!

Arriving in White Mountain is always fantastic – Joanna and Jack really welcome us into their home, with lots of great food, a shower (yay!), and a place to sleep. I was very happy to have arrived. Alas, I did have to leave, so I set an alarm for 6am, and tucked myself away into one of the kids’ beds in the top of a double bunk. Kenton apparently found this amusing, and started trying to interview me while I was conking out.. I expect I didn’t make much sense. Thanks, Jack and Joanna, I will always be grateful for the warm welcome!

The next morning I rode the rest of the way to Nome, with a brief stop at Safety for a burger. Folks always talk about the burgers at Safety, so I was looking forward to something awesome – the frozen gas station style reality was a bit of a letdown.
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20 miles out..

I made it to Nome at around 6pm, and was met by a small crowd. The next few days were a bit of a blur, and I had a case of “mushy brain” making thinking a bit slow. I stayed with Glenn, Sue, and their four dogs, who kindly let me take over one of their couches for a few days while waiting for flights out. I will be forever thankful to Glenn and Sue for letting me crash on their couch – it was like heaven!

It took a few days to get out, given all the Iditarod traffic, but on the upside, I got to hang out with Glenn, Sue, and two of the other racers — RJ Sauer and Tim Hewit. I also hung out a bit with Jorge, the walker I ran into at 3am at the North Fork cabin. Eventually I was back on a plane to Anchorage, where my sister (thanks Theresa!) gave me a ride back to my folks’ house, from which I drove back to Fairbanks and back to my family. It was great to see Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy again, and to be back home.

I would love to thank everyone who helped me along the way – Scotty, Jack and Joanna, Sue and Glen, the Schneiderheinzes in Mcgrath, the miners in Ophir.. I am sure I forgot folks, but thanks!

I awe a huge thanks to the folks who organize the race – thanks to Bill and Kathi, O.E., Adrean, and everyone else who makes things happen.

I would also like to thank my very understanding family, Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy, for allowing me to do be away from the family so long – I am forever thankful for you understanding!

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 – 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!

The Kenai 250

Friday, July 5th, 2013

For the last couple of years I have been thinking about doing a multi-day (something longer than a 100 miler) summer mountain bike race. Alas, summer multi-day races seem to be more of a lower 48 thing and out of my reach, so I was super happy to hear about the Kenai 250. After getting the ok from Nancy, I signed up! It is a bit of a drive, but it seemed like a great way to scratch the “long race” itch and explore some trails I had not been on before – Yay!

The race starts and ends in Hope, Alaska, a small town south of Anchorage. It seemed to hit most of the major trails in that area – Resurrection Pass trail, Devil’s Pass trail, Johnson’s Pass trail, Lost Lake trail, and a bit of random extras. On the downside, it included some pavement, but such is life.

The weeks leading up to the race I kept hashing over what I was going to take – trying to figure out if a sleeping bag & bivy were needed, how much food, how much clothing, how much rain gear, etc. In the end I decided to err on the side of safety, and brought lots of clothes (well, perhaps not lots, but a fair bit of extras, including a puffy jacket I never used), full rain gear (yay!), and way too much food.

I drove down from Fairbanks with my friend Tom, who was going to hike the Resurrection Pass trail while I was racing, and was going to meet up with me at Hope, post race. I dropped him off at Cooper Landing, then continued on to Hope, where I got settled in, got my bike mostly packed up, then took a short spin around town. On my short ride I saw two bikes decked out with bike packing gear, and chatted for a bit with two racers, Chuck D. and Tony A. As we were talking, two other racers arrived, and folks started talking about the trails the course is on, bears, beers, and all the other manner of pre-race randomness.

Eventually I dragged myself away to go get some sleep and obsess about packing my bike. In the morning I zipped over to beautiful downtown Hope, and enjoyed the small group of racers in various stages of readiness. A rough count showed a little over 10 racers – a small crowd, with a few familiar faces. After a short pre-race meeting, we were off. Things started off slow and steady, as folks zoomed up the dirt roads leading to the start of the Resurrection Pass Trail.

(Its easy to talk photos while biking on the road..)

Once we got off the road and onto the trail I jumped back and forth between Mark and Chuck, with the single speeding Jay from Vermont zooming ahead.

I chatted a bit with Chuck on the way up to Resurrection Pass, but alas, he was way less winded than I was, and could chat away going up the hills while I was left gasping – such is life. On one of the hills I screwed up a shift and my chain dropped between my rear cassette and my spokes, leaving me annoyed and futzing getting the chain out while the others zoomed away. After a bit of pulling and tugging I got the chain out (I really need to start taking bike maintenance more seriously!) and got moving again. This happened several more times during the race, but I was too worried about adjusting it in the wrong direction and didn’t mess with the limit screws. A bit more bike maintenance before the race would have made things a lot easier!

At the top of the pass, Jay was stopped taking photos of the fine view, and I stopped for a moment to say hi, then headed down to enjoy the fantastic downhill ride into Cooper Landing.

Mark and Chuck really kicked into high gear, and zoomed off. I didn’t see Chuck again until after the race, and wouldn’t see Mark again until Seward. This section is always a blast – fun and fast, and easy riding – yay! Near the big lakes (Juneau Lake?) I passed Tom as he was hiking towards Hope.


(Photo compliments of Tom)

Just before Cooper Landing I started running into hikers, and had to slow things down a bit as to not mow anyone down. Eventually it was out onto the road, and up into the Russian Lakes trail system. From this point on everything was new to me, and I was happy to be on new trails!

The first couple of miles of the Russian Lakes trail were a bit slow, as there were lots of hikers and a bit of brush. With all the pre-race talk of bears I was pretty paranoid, and keep up a nearly constant racket of “whoop, whoop”, “BooYah”, and “Hey, hey, hey!”. I am sure everyone I passed thought I was insane. At one point I surprised a pair of bow hunters all dressed up in camo. The idea of bow hunting (or any hunting at all) in such a crowded area seemed insane to me, as the idea of chasing a wounded black bear or moose down the busy trail would have given me pause, but each to their own. Once I got away from the trailhead the hikers thinned out a lot, and I enjoyed zooming over alpine meadows and stands of huge trees.


(Me, looking tired on Russian Lakes)

The grass and greenery were pretty thick in the meadows, and it was often impossible to see where my tires were – I eventually gave up worrying and trusted the trail builders not to have hidden huge rocks.

This worked fine except for a short section where I smashed my right foot into a rock at speed – ouch! Eventually it was back onto dirt road, then onto pavement, through Cooper Landing and onto the Seward Highway. Alas, with the road came rain, first sprinkles, then dumping. Not the end of the world, but thank goodness for full rain gear. As I changed into rain gear I noticed I no longer had a camera – apparently it fell out of my jersey pocket somewhere on Russian Lakes.


(Last photo from the race – one of the handful of Russian Lakes bridges.)

I debated going back, but quickly resigned myself to its loss. The camera had seen many adventures, but losing it meant no pictures from the race, which was not a happy thought. It was apparently picked up by Jay, and made its way back to me a month or so after the race. As I passed through Cooper Landing I made a quick stop at a drive-through coffee shop, getting a huge brownie and 16 oz latte to go, and made a quick stop at a random gas station for more snacks.

The section around Cooper Landing was pretty intense traffic-wise, but it was short, and there was a nice dirt road connector that skipped some of the madness before hitting the Seward Highway – yay! After the Seward Highway it was back onto trail and I spent a bit of time biking in circles looking for the right trail. The cue sheet said “Lost Lake” trail, but the only trail I could find was labeled “Primrose Trail”. With all the rain it had been easy to follow Mark and Chuck’s tracks on the soft trail, but everything here had gravel on it, making finding them impossible. I soon gave up and headed up the Primrose trail, and after a half mile started seeing Mark and Chuck’s tracks again – yay! It was a blast – lots of muddy biking though the forest. Eventually the trail climbed out of the trees into the alpine, and I enjoyed the views while zooming along. I had been warned that a few sections here were pretty tricky, but everything seemed ridable, except for a few steep sections of stairs that I walked. It looked like Mark and Chuck just hammered down them, but I keep worrying about some tricky section of doom right at the bottom of one of the steep sections, and kept things slow. The ride down was fantastic, and I never encountered anything particularly tricky – yay! I am a klutzy rider in anything tricky, so I was super happy not to run into anything hard. The rain was starting to let up, but as I made it back onto the Seward Highway, it started getting dark and I started thinking about places to sleep and how likely it was I could find a nice dry tree to bivy under. Everything looked wet and a bit miserable, so I was getting resigned for a long night of wet biking.

I zoomed into Seward, enjoying the ride on the bike path into town, to find Mark sitting under the carport of the Holiday Inn, looking a bit wet as he munched on a pile of snacks. I said hi, and we talked for a bit, and Mark mentioned that he had failed to find a hotel with any rooms free. Hmm – a hotel! A nice dry room – now that’s a thought. He also relayed the news that Chuck had bailed due to all the rain. Chuck lives in Seward, which was a major disadvantage in this case, as he had a nice warm, dry house calling him home. Mark said he was going to head off down the trail and bivy under a tree for a couple of hours, and I headed off to continue my loop though Seward, haunted by visions of a dry hotel room.

Seward at 12:30am on a rainy day is a funny place. The streets were mostly empty, except for the random people wandering around, most of whom appeared to be a bit drunk and staggering. It sort of felt like the start of a low budget zombie movie. The race route had us going though Seward twice and so I got a pretty nice tour of downtown Seward. After passing a few hotels I randomly picked one, dropped in, and checked to see if they had any rooms available – and I was in luck, though got a bit of sticker shock from the price I was quoted. I headed back out, got to the end of town, then headed back. On a whim I stopped at another hotel, and asked about rooms. I was told yes, they had a room available, and I was nearly floored by the price – damn! Apparently my expression was less than favorable, and the guy at the desk dropped the price twice before I could say anything. Since it was still more than the first place, I headed out, and on the way back though town stopped at the first hotel and enjoyed several hours of sleep in a warm, dry bed, though with a lighter wallet. I must have been quite a sight – completely soaked and muddy – but they didn’t kick me out, though the desk attendant thought I was insane when I showed up to check back out 4 hours later. I was in too big of a hurry to dry out, and left all my food on my bike, which I regretted when I was woken 2 hours later by hunger pangs. After a bit too long inside I packed up and headed out, stopping for a handful of snacks at Safeway before getting back going and heading out.

By this time the rain had stopped and it was overcast but dry, which made for much nicer biking. The next section of trail was on something signed the “Historical Iditarod Trail”, and was a blast – lots of narrowish trail winding though huge trees, with the occasional bridge. After crossing back over the Seward Highway, things got even more fun, with dryer trail and some long sections of raised bridging. While zipping across a small creek, I had my only flat when a sharp bit of slate slashed my front tire open, leaving an inch-long slash in the middle of the tire. Several minutes of fiddling with a tube and boot and I was back on the trail, though I took sections with sharp looking rocks a bit more slowly. Soon I was back out on the Seward Highway, with a brief detour on a wonderful single track loop, before hitting Johnson’s Pass trail.

Johnson’s Pass was fantastic fun, with pretty much no pushing to speak of and wonderful biking. Midway though Johnson’s I encountered two of the Forest Service’s trail crew, both on bikes with trailers of tools. I stopped and chatted for a bit, then pushed on. Soon I was back on pavement, heading towards Devil’s Pass Trailhead. For the first 8 miles or so there is a nice wide separated bike path, which I took advantage of, even though it is slightly longer. It was nice to be off the road and to enjoy spinning while listening to an audiobook (Cold Days by Jim Butcher, completely escapist trash, but just the thing 200 miles into a race.) Soon the path ended, and it was back on the road. I think I was honked at about 5 times in this section, which was surreal as I was riding right on the white line, and being very well behaved. Eventually I started getting close to the trailhead, and saw a biker parked outside a restaurant – it was Mark! I pulled over to say hi – and chatted for a bit.

Mark had stopped for a bit of food with his wife Darcy, and was mellowing out. I was tempted to stop and enjoy a burger, but the lure of the last ~30 miles of trail was calling, so I left Mark to his meal. Most of the race up to this point was all new to me, but I was about to be back on trail I had ridden before, and was really looking forward to the long downhill ride into Hope! The climb up to Devil’s pass was fun, but did involve a couple of brief sections of pushing, and several water crossings. Mark caught up to me just as I left the treeline, and we rode up over Devil’s Pass and over Resurrection Pass together.


(Devils Pass, 20 hours before I biked though it. Complements Tom.)

At this point in the race I really only had two gears that were working reliably – and that combined with the granny and middle ring were the only thing I had going at this point, and shifting between them was stiff and slow. I probably should have stopped and cleaned the mud off my chain and added some oil, but I was way too tired and lazy to deal with it.

I had my first and only crash of the race when I bounced off some rocks and turtled upside down on the side of the trail, right in front of Mark – awesome! Near the top of Resurrection Pass I started losing air from my rear tire, and had to stop and add more air, hoping the Stans would do its magic, but no such luck – for the last hours of the race I had to stop every half hour or so to add air. I probably should have just put a tube in at this point, but was not feeling motivated enough to deal with it. Mark pulled over just as we entered tree line to go bivy in a nice stand of spruce, as his light was not bright enough to ride though the trees with. I pushed on though, making tons of noise as I bounced and banged the last 10 miles into Hope. I finished a little after 2am, happy to be done and back at the truck. I was surprised to see folks still wandering around Hope at 2am, though the bar was closed. Tom had left a note saying he was camped at a nearby FS campground, but I soon gave up finding where he was camped and crashed in the back seat of the truck, happy to be in clean, dry clothing and to be munching on Tom’s big bag of Triscuits.

All and all I was quite happy with my performance in the race, though I made tons of small mistakes, and rode a fair bit slower than I should have. Such is life. This race is highly recommended, and a great way to see a lot of trails in South Central. I am super envious of all the fantastic riding in this area! The experience really made me interested in doing more of these.. now if there were only more of them in Alaska!

A big thanks to Sharon and Michael for organizing the event, Tom for accompanying me for the drive up and back, and of course Nancy and the Twins for letting me escape for several days. A huge thanks to Jay from VA and Michael for getting my camera back to me – hurrah!

Some post race notes, in semi random order:
Things that worked
* Bright light – I brought a fairly bright light, and didn’t regret it. Something brighter might have been worthwhile.
* Rain gear – I brought rain pants and a e-vent rain jacket, and it was worth the extra weight.
* “alt” handlebars and “paddle” grips – This was my first long race with some funky new style bars, and I loved them. Combined with ergon style paddle grips I didn’t have any hand numbness problems or any upper body stiffness or soreness, which was pretty nice. Sold on this setup, at least for long summer races.
* cue sheets – first time I have ever used/taken them -awesome.
* gps with tracklog- without I gps I would have been confused at several points or just plain got lost. It was 100% required for me, perhaps the locals wouldn’t need it.
* “Relevate Designs seatbag”:https://www.revelatedesigns.com/index.cfm/store.catalog/Seat-Bags/Viscacha I have never used these things in the rain before – it worked great, and after lots of rain everything in it appeared to be dry. Very impressed!
* extra layers – at 1am extended downhills in the rain take a lot out of me, it was worth the weight carrying extra layers. I brought extra socks, 1 pair (never used, but almost got them out at one point to use as mittens), extra polypro top (used), neopreme socks (never used), windproof vest (used, a lot), windproof top (used, a lot), light weight puffy (never used), rain mitts (used). Would take everything again. Long downhills in the rain are cold!

Things that did not work well
* too much food – as usual I packed way too much food.
* bike prep – I dropped my chain behind the cassette 10 miles into the race, which could have been avoided by taking the time pre-event to actually look over my bike and make sure everything was shifting properly.
* rigid bike – about half the racers were on full suspension bikes, which I think was a good call. 200+ miles of bumps was a bit much. It was ok, but I think I could have made better time on my FS bike. Next time!
* fragile tires – I punched a rock straight though my front tire, and put several slashes in the rear tire. The rear tire leaked constantly the last 10 miles, and I had to pump it up about 8 times, which was a huge waste of energy and time. I think running more durable tires would have been a good call. In the front I had a no longer made WTB Prowler SL, which while being a great front tire has a very thin casing. The rear tire, a S-WORKS FASTTRAK, was shredded with three or so slashes that showed a good deal of thread and had to be tossed after the race. Something in a similar vein, but with more cut resistance would be a good call. Also tubing a tire at the first sign of tubeless failure would have saved some time and frustration. I need to find a WTB Nanorapter like tire with a tougher casing!
* drive train maintenance – I could have been faster and it would have saved my knees some ware and tare if I had stopped to clean the mud off my chain and re-oil it occasionally.
* a whistle or some other non-bell noise maker – I spent a lot of time making “Hey Bear!”, “Whoop, Whoop!”, etc noises as I moved at a pretty good clip though some fairly dense greenery and trees. Making noise was pretty important not to mow down a bear, or another hiker, but some other scheme, perhaps a whistle or something similar would be better, as I was pretty sick of shouting after a while.
* disorganized shopping – when I hit stores (three times I think – cooper landing, moose pass, seward) I wandered around shell shocked, confused about what to get, and taking forever. I should get some sort of shopping snack plan before even walking in, so I don’t waste so much time dinking around!
* poor riding skills – I don’t get much time riding anything challenging in Fairbanks, and I regretted it several times in the race. I need to make a concerted effort to seek out more challenging riding, so don’t just fall over when going over rocks.

GPS tracklogs on “Strava”:http://www.strava.com/activities/65521084 and “Garmin Connect”:http://connect.garmin.com/activity/339228729 . Don’t look at those too closely, all it does is show how depressingly slowly I biked :).

My total time was 42.5 hours.

I am already looking forward to next years race! I think someone fast (Like Chuck D!) could do a sub 30hr easily, or sub 24hr with some effort.

PS: I wrote this post in early October, 2013, but dated it July 6th, the day I finished the race.

PS#2: I would like to thank my wonderful wife Nancy for not minding me disappearing for several days to do this race, Jeff G. at “Beaver Sports”:http://www.beaversports.com/ for some last minute bike maintenance (yay for working brakes), and the folks at “Goldstream Sports”:http://goldstreamsports.com/ for helping me out a bit with bike fit.

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..)

Arrowhead..

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

The last couple of years I have been hearing about the Arrowhead 135, a winter race in northern Minnesota, and following the race online. Eventually I had enough watching other folks having all the fun, and after getting Nancy’s approval, signed up. Two flights and a five hour drive later, I found myself at International Falls, MN, two days before race day. I stayed at the TeePee lodge, and while checking in for my room the owner chatted away with lots of race gossip, wondering if the some of the bikers from Minnesota would beat my fellow Fairbanksan fast guys Kevin and Jeff. After finding a place to stay I headed off to get my required gear checked off. Pre-race stuff always makes me a bit nervous – gear checks etc. always work on my mind, but the checks went ok, and I was soon done. I got some riding in Saturday and Sunday checking out the trail. Everyone I talked to kept talking about how slow and soft the trails were, but they seemed fine to me – fast actually. I spent a bit of time exploring International Falls, but there was not much to see. I was very surprised to see a banner across main street welcoming all the Arrowhead racers – it was really cool to see a town embrace a race.

Unexpectedly, International Falls reminded me a lot of Wisconsin where my mother’s extended family lives. The night before the race there was a pre-race meeting, and I was pretty shocked by all the people. At one point there were four video cameras set up, and one of the foot racers seemed to have his own video crew. I ducked out a bit early, driven a bit twitter-pated by pre-race jitters and all the people.

The race started at 7am.

It was a bit of a madhouse, with with lots of bikers bunched up along the starting line, but fortunately the trail was very wide for the first half mile so I didn’t run into pileups. The first 15 miles or so the course flew by, with a fairly firm trail and fast riding.

Alas, it was fairly flat and straight though, and a bit boring, but the course soon changed character and got a bit more interesting, winding between forest and swamp. I made good time to the first check point, where I stopped for 10 minutes or so, downing two bowls of chili and refilled my water bladder, then headed back out. The next section of the course had a lot less swamp, and more forested rolling hills, and was super fun riding. There were a couple of sections of slightly softer riding, and I let a bit of air out at one point to make the riding a bit easier. I ended up putting more air in again shortly after that, as the trail was switching from hard and fast, and slightly softer conditions where I would almost break though the crust, and the float was only needed in short sections. At this point things had thinned out a lot, and I was bouncing between Brian from CA, Kevin from Anchorage, Andrew from Minneapolis, and a fellow from Manitoba, Hal I think. The course was occasionally firm enough for us to ride side by side and I got chatting with Brian a bit, mostly talking about his trip to Port Molar (read more here, here, etc – a fantastic read).

Eventually I reached Elephent Lake, and soon reached checkpoint two, MelGeorges.

I sat down for a bit here, eating some soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, and chatted a bit with some of the other folks at the checkpoint, including Terry, a past winner of the race. Eventually I pried myself out of the chair and got moving again, heading back out. I had been told the next section was the most hilly part fo the course, and was looking forward to some steep hills. It turns out the next section had lots of small rolling hills, a few of which were too steep to ride up. I ended up pushing up a fair number of them as my legs were hammered at this point.

At some point while riding in the hills it started snowing, and continued on and off for the rest of the race. Initially it was just annoying, as the snow kept getting into my eyes as I was blasting down the hills, but it gradually accumilated, slowing things down. By the time I made it to SkiPulk, the last checkpoint before the finish, the snow was starting to slow things down a fair bit.

I stopped for a few minutes at the SkiPulk check point, having three cups of hot chocolate. I might have downed them a bit too fast, as when I started biking again I had to stop to let my stomach settle, and it was a bit off for the rest of the race. At this point there was maybe three to four inches of wet snow that had to be pushed though, making for slower biking than I would have liked.

Fortunately Andrew from Minneapolis charged ahead and squished down a nice trail though all the white stuff. The last 25 miles to the finish went by very slowly, but eventually the lights of Fortune Bay, could be seen, and finally I arrived at the finish, behind Andrew and Brian. I was wiped enough that I couldn’t really ride up the last hill and had to push to the finish line.

Lame, but I made it! I made my way inside, where I parked my bike inside to dry out, and sat down for some snacks, and eventually grabbed a shower and changed into normal (and dry) clothes. I got a bit of sleep before riding the race shuttle back to the race start and my hotel room where I crashed and napped the rest of the afternoon. Apparently the folks who finished after me had a really hard time – it kept snowing, building up to a good 8 inches of wet snow making biking really hard. I am very impressed by anyone who pressed on though the snow and completed the race – major kudos to anyone who finished; it was an amazingly hard race once the snow arrived. I ended up with a time around 20 hours, 30 minutes, well short of the 24 hour time I was shooting for – hurrah!

The Arrowhead is a wonderfully well organized race, and super fun. Alas, it is a bit of a haul to get to from Fairbanks, but well worth the travel. Lots of fun competitors, nice trails, and a well run race – in a word, fantastic. Not as scenic as the Whites 100, but such is life. I was baffled by how few skiers show up for the event before the race, and and am even more baffled after the race – the skiing looked to be fantastic, with wonderfully fast snow, but only five folks signed up to ski. Coming from Fairbanks I was amazed by how much more light and sun there was in International Falls – it felt like mid or late March, which was just fantastic! A highly wonderful event! A bit thanks to the Arrowhead’s organizers, they put on a great event, and a thanks to Kevin, Brian, and the others who I rode with durring the race. And of course, a huge thanks to Nancy and the twins for letting me disappear for almost a week to do this race – they are truly wonderful!

PS – stat geek details (elevation profile, how glacially slow I was, etc) can be found on strava here.

PS #2 – For the second half of the race my brakes, avid bb-7s, kept icing up. In the several weeks before the race the little noodle that protects the brake cable housing were the brake cable enters the cable housing as it heads away from the calipers had started falling apart, and sometime durring the race completely gave up the ghost, falling apart completely. Without the noodle to protect the cable housing, water from snow melting off the brake and rotar would seep into the brake line, freezing up and making it really hard to engage and disengage the brake. Eventually I had to stop each time I used the rear brakes to pry them open so I could pedal again. Not the end of the world, but a bit of a pain. I think my bike was just giving me a gentle reminder that I should always deal with these issues proactively before they become an actual problem. Times like these make me think about using hydros instead.. but then I remember the “bleed once a week all winter” avid juicys I have on my 29er, and maybe this isn’t such a bit deal. At <-20f those juicys are good for about one long hill before starting to get spongy, and several more hills later completely gone.

The Soggy Bottom

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Last summer I heard about a 100 mile summer race, the Soggy Bottom, and followed it online. It looked like fun, so when the spring came I signed up. On a damp slightly morning, I lined up with about two dozen other bikers, and we were off.

The Soggy Bottom’s course is on the Resurrection Pass trail system (more details here, north and south). The route, in a nutshell, goes from Hope Alaska, over Resurrection Pass to Cooper Landing, then back to Hope with a side trip down and back on Devil’s Creek trail. It can be done solo, or as part of relay, with exchanges at Cooper Landing and Devil’s Creek. Apparently most people doing the race are from Anchorage, and have some sort of support crew in one form or another. The evening before the race, I talked a bit with the organizer, Carlos, who very kindly offered to take two drop bags to the exchanges for me, and I quickly filled two stuff sacks with snacks etc and handed them off.

The race started at a fairly mellow pace on several miles of road, with the fast guys and gals zooming off, and the rest of us tagging along at the rear.

Fortunately the section on the road was pretty short, and we were soon on the Resurrection Pass trail. The riding was fantastic single track in large trees and tall leafy green plants, including the ever popular Cow Parsnip.

At this point the riders had thinned out a fair bit, and I rode most of the way to cooper landing with two riders for Anchorage. Eventually I climbed up out of the green stuff and into the higher alpine terrain.

The trail continued to be pretty wonderful – fast and smooth riding single track.

Eventually I reached the top of the pass, and started heading down.

On one of the downhill sections I pinch flatted on a rock waterbar. Not a big deal, after a couple of minutes I was going again, but alas I had now used my only spare tube. While I was changing the flat three riders passed me. I caught up with two of them before Cooper Landing, the other guy stayed well ahead of me, and was to finish a hour or so before me.

Just before the flat I past a group of very classic looking hikers, including one guy hiking bare shirted in sweat pants with a mid sized boom box on his shoulder, playing old hair band rock. It was quite a scene, and made more so by the bare shirted man’s budda like physic.

About five miles or so before Cooper Landing I started running into the leaders heading back out. It was a nice twist to see most of them as I rode in, though it did require me to stay on my toes, as the trail was narrow in a couple of sections. Upon arriving at Cooper Landing I was a bit confused and had a bit of trouble locating water, but I eventually figured stuff out and got reloaded. I asked around for a spare tube, and one of the relay riders (Brian I think) from Anchorage set me up with two tubes and some CO2 cylinders, definitely adding to my peace of mind – thanks!. After fiddling around a bit too long I headed back out, heading back to Hope. The ride up to the pass was uneventful. I was caught by a relay rider, and I tried keeping up with her for a while, but eventually she pulled away. There was a brief bit of pushing up a short steep section, but otherwise it was all rideable, and very, very fun. Eventually I reached the Devil’s Creek trail, and headed back down. On the way down I passed some of the faster folks heading back up, but the really fast folks were already done with this section and on their way to Hope by the time I reached it. This section of trail was amazingly fun, with lots of fast riding with fairly long sight-lines so I could open it up and ride fast. There were periodic rocky sections that were wonderful at keeping me on my toes, and a bit of mud but nothing too bad.

The end of Devil’s creek trail ends in large parking lot, where there was a checkpoint with water and a lot of relay riders relaxing and having fun, having finished with their sections. I restocked and headed back out. The climb back up to the pass was almost as fun as riding down. Eventually I made it back up to the top, then enjoyed the 20 miles of mostly downhill riding back to Hope. I arrived in Hope just before dark, and was very happy to get a shower, a beer, and some pizza. The race ends just outside a bar, and there was live music playing, making for an interesting scene. After the beer I headed off to go to sleep, feeling a bit wiped.

I really was not sure what to expect from this race, but I was completely blown away by how fun it was. Fantastic single track, and a bit of mud, what more could someone ask for? I was pretty happy with my time, though I could have ridden a fair bit faster if I had done the trail before and knew what to expect. Running tubeless would have saved be a flat, as I pinched flatted on my rear while slamming over a rocky waterbar. It might have also saved me a spoke, as somewhere in the last 40 miles I broke a spoke on my rear wheel.

A major thanks to Carlos the organizer for putting on this wonderful event. Hopefully more Fairbanks folks will head down for the event next year, as it is well worth the drive. For folks interested in a fun but not super epic time, the relay looks like it would be a blast – the legs are all in the 35 mile range. My photos really don’t do the course justice, as they were taken on the move with a little point and shoot, but the trail system the race is on goes though some very beautiful territory. That area has some fantastic bike touring potential.

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.

The Summer 100 (non) race

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

For the last year or so there have been plans afoot to have a local 100-mile running or biking race. This summer one of the organizers of the White Mountains 100, Ann, got things going and set up a trial run of the non-race. “Non-race” as i, it was not an official, organized race, but more of a mass-start individual time trial. As soon as I heard about the idea I immediately knew I wanted to do it. We don’t have very many local off-road or trail-bike bike events. There is a 12 hour race on the Ester Dome single track, though that was canceled this year, and a mountain bike stage race, but that’s about all. Even more exciting was the fact the start was only four miles from my house, so I could bike to the start – wahoo! In the two months before the race, folks did informal Tuesday runs and ran most of the course in sections. I am not much of a runner these days. Biking has been my main focus, and its hard for me to get enough mental momentum to regularly bike and run in a semi-serious manner. I joined in for a handful of the runs and survived, but barely – running 8-12 miles at once is not a recipe for a happy run. It was pretty social, and it was interesting to talk to folks and meet some folks from the non-winter sports crowd. In the weeks leading up to the race I biked most of the course in a couple of sections to make sure I had an idea about what I was getting into and could prepare mentally for some of the tricky bits. Biking the course was a wonderful experience and exposed me to trails I would not know about otherwise, including some wonderful sections that are amazingly good biking. The course is a mix of dirt roads, single track, ATV trails, a brief section of the Alaska pipeline, a short bit of pavement, and several sections of tricky bits.

So, the “tricky bits”.. The course has several sections that are tricky biking for “normal” people (normal being not trials superstars like Danny MacAskill), and one section that could not be biked even by super-humans. The difficult sections consist of several shortish bits that have tight spaced roots, have lots of rocks, are very steep, or all three at once. I can, for the most part, bike these sections while fresh, but when tired it becomes a bit difficult – not the end of the world, just start pushing! There is one section that involves crossing Goldstream Creek, and is truly unbikable, though perhaps it could be done by winged monkeys. This section involves crossing Goldstream Creek, then crossing a swamp with a short deep section (deep as in more than chest, possibly over my head deep), then brush whacking though some alder for a mile or so. This is perhaps a bit different from what most folks might expect from a bike race, as the course will have fair bit of pushing, but in order to have a long course on trails, some sections of difficult or impossible biking are to be expected. Otherwise to link pieces of nice trail would require lots of sections (possibly pretty long ones) on paved or dirt roads. While these sections would zoom by on a bike, they would be miserably boring for the runners.

Hopefully this race becomes an annual event – it was a wonderful experience and a great fit for Fairbanks. Ann put a tremendous amount of work getting the trial run of the race going and deserves major credit for putting everything together – Go Ann!

Maps of the course of various sorts can be found here.

The rest of this involves my experience in the race – probably quite uninteresting to everyone but me so feel free to stop reading now, and go turn on the TV. Or go play outside!

On the day of the race I got up at 5:45, got dressed, had breakfast, drank several cups of coffee and left the house on the bike heading off to the race start. Just as I was leaving the sky opened up and started dumping epic quantities of rain. Hard rain, with big drops, and a stiff wind – a wonderful day for an epic bike ride! I had put aside two sets of rain gear the night before, and with the hard rain I grabbed the full-on waterproof jacket and pants, put them on, and headed out. The four miles to the starting point was mostly downhill and very wet. At one point the tracks worn in the road by studded tires were running with water like a small stream. I arrived about 20 minutes before the race started and ducked under an eve of one of the entrances to the UAF Patty Center, which was alas, not open, and watched the rain. It was showing no sign of letting up, and thunder could be heard in the distance – it was going to be an interesting day.



Twenty minutes early was apparently a bit too early, as no one else seemed to be around. Eventually other folks arrived and started splashing around in the rain getting ready to go.




It appeared there were going to be 18 or so people enjoying the fun. My friend Tom arrived pushing his bike up to the Patty Center – he apparently had massive chain-suck issues on the way to the start and his chain was wrapped around the bottom bracket in a difficult to extract manner. Several of the bikers attempted to extract the chain to no avail – eventually one of the runners, Rick, pulled the crank off, got the chain unstuck, and put things back to together for Tom. Just before the start two of the bikers headed back home to get more warm clothes and real rain gear. One of them was up from Anchorage and was pretty bemused by the rain, say something like “Isn’t it supposed to be sunny and dry here – this is Anchorage weather!” 7am came upon us and the non-racers lined up in the field outside the Patty, someone gave a count down, and we were off. The course starts on a similar route to the Equinox Marathon, and immediately heads up a small hill. The rain had turned the trail up the hill into a bit of a slippery mess – some of the bikers were already pushing and it was only a quarter of a mile in. The first miles of the course were on a mix of UAF trails and the Equinox, then onto the Sheep Creek bike path, and over to St Patrick’s. I was surprised to see Tom just before the Sheep Creek bike path – apparently he had a return of his chain suck issues on the muddy first hill and decided that was a sign to call it quits. That was a good call, as the mud was quite a bit worse later on. The rest of the morning was spent riding over to Ester, climbing Ester Dome, and riding down the back side of the dome to Goldstream Creek. Two guys had started several hours early in an attempt to get to mile 50 or so before one of them had to make a wedding in the afternoon, and for most of the morning I followed their footprints in the mud and rain-softened trails. Surprisingly, I was in the lead, and would stay in the lead for the rest of the race. When I reached the top of Ester Dome the place had an unearthly feel to it – it was very foggy and socked in with perhaps 50ft visibility at a couple of points, with the wind blowing though the transmission towers on top of the dome making some freaky howling noises. It was a strange experience.. On the ride down to the creek I passed a cheerful man working away on the road with a fairly large bulldozer. He seemed fairly surprised to see me but waved me by in a friendly manner. I bet he was amused and perplexed by the rest of the crew passing him thoughout the day.. The mud on the ride down was pretty intense, but my wheels and gears kept going, and I kept moving.



Crossing the creek was a bit tricky – the log across the creek was wet and slippery, but it was uneventful, though a bit nerve racking. I would later hear that one of the participants dropped his bike in the creek and had to fish it out.



(Photo is not from race day, but a pre-ride. Note the sunny weather..)

It was probably better to drop your bike than to fall in – getting out would have been a pain! After the creek crossing came the swamp, which was a bit of an adventure. There was a path marked though the swamp, and I stuck to it, but alas, I think the path was more intended for the runners as it moved in and out of the brush and though some pretty tight sections that were hard to carry a bike through. Not the end of the world, but there was a fair bit of chest-deep water, and lots of waist-deep water, and a short section separated by floating mats where I could not touch bottom. The short deep section I just left the bike on the floating mats, swam/flopped across, then grabbed the bike and yanked it across the open section. No one appeared to be near me which was good, as there was quite a bit of yelling and swearing as I floundered around. Soon after the marshes I hit the first checkpoint, and my drop bag of clean clothes. I grabbed my stuff, changed into dry clothing, and hopped back on the bike and was off. Later when I was washing my gear from this section I was really surprised to see that everything smelled like swamp – no sweat, no dirt, no mud, just swamp. The folks manning the checkpoint were very cheerful and happy, and understanding of my manic stripping and dressing while (very) partially concealed by some parked cars.



I should probably point out now that photo taking and racing don’t really fit together all that well. Stopping to get the camera out slows things down and slowing down is not how one goes fast. I am not very fast though, so I bring a camera and take pictures, figuring if I am too busy to take pictures and enjoy my self I should just go home as its not worth it. Alas, for lots of reasons I didn’t take the camera out all that much, but I did attempt to get pictures of all the checkpoints and the checkpoint staffers. The checkpoints are like little bubbles of joy in longer races like this one, filled with friendly people, food, and water. Sometimes nirvana is as simple as a can of coke and handful of potato chips.. Anyway, since checkpoints in winter races photograph poorly (because its dark, cameras coming in from the cold fog up instantly, among other reasons) and this was the first long summer bike race I have done, I made an attempt to get photos of them.

Just after leaving the checkpoint I passed the runner Mark, who was cheerfully running along.




The next section was on dirt roads of various sorts and sped by on the bike. Soon after the first checkpoint I had my first bike problem and broke a spoke on my rear wheel and soon things were a bit more wobbly and loose than I would have liked. After riding another half an hour I grabbed my cell phone, called Tom, unfortunately waking him up, and he amiably agreed to pick up a wheel I had on my porch and bring it by Ivory Jacks. I eventually passed Steve the runner, the second person to start early. He seemed to be having a wonderful time and had a huge smile on his face when I rode past. There is a brief out-and-back section where I passed a biker (Andi I think) headed the other way who seemed be having a good time and had a huge grin on his face. Soon I was riding on dirt roads which made for fairly fast but uninteresting biking. Eventually I reached the second checkpoint, an unofficial one staffed by a former co-worker of mine, Jen, and a fellow I had met once before but alas forget his name.



They were cheerfully enjoying a calm afternoon under a nice dry tent and seemed to be having a great time. I refilled my water and took off. The next section to Ivory Jack’s was very, very fun, with lots of fun biking on a mix of narrow dirt roads, ATV trails, and some single track. I really enjoyed this section, though alas someone had taken down the course markings here – bummer. This section features a wonderful downhill bit with lots of water bars that are ever so fun to hop over and a very steep, straight downhill though some birch trees – pure fun! I arrived at Ivory Jacks a bit later than I anticipated but was greeted by Nancy and the twins, and Tom with my replacement wheel – Thanks Tom!


I had a bit to eat, refilled my water, swapped out my wheel with the broken spoke, and was off.



Now with life like hand foo action!

Before I left Lizzy said to Nancy, “When is Daddy going to start biking again?” Obviously I was being a big slacker and should get my butt in gear! The next section was a mix of tricky biking (so more pushing than biking) and some wonderfully fun riding. At one point while on Cranberry Ridge I encountered a lady running who stopped to give me a lecture on how bikes damage trails. She might have had a point, but at the time I was pushing my bike though a rooty section after deciding that the constant pounding and effort required to ride the roots was making my neck and head hurt. She continued her run and I continued pushing my bike though the roots. Alas, at this point my neck was killing me, and my feet were numb and getting a bit sore. My shoes are regular mt bike clipless Shimano bike shoes. They are a bit short on grip, and the cushioning is nonexistent. After the event I had nice and tender forefeet for several days. Once I was past the roots the trail transformed into fun riding and I started to enjoy myself again. Just before reaching Hilltop the course follows the pipeline down a hill which provided some of the fastest biking of the course. At Hilltop I stopped briefly and chatted with the fellow at the checkpoint there, Andy, and snarfed down some snacks.



I had a bike bag blowout somewhere along the way and had lost my bike tools and my chain oil. Andy was super prepared and even had chain oil, ending the squeaking of my tortured chain. The riding from Hilltop to the final checkpoint was fantastic, though I had the funny encounter with someone who had a car breakdown. About halfway between Hilltop and the Skiland checkpoint someone started shouting from the bushes behind me. I stopped and waited a bit nervously for the fellow to catch up with me. It turns out he had driven his new VW Bug up to Pedro Dome Road, had hit a rock, and ruptured his oil pan, leaving him stranded. When I encountered him he was attempting to walk down to the Steese Highway – apparently his car’s GPS told him that it was close by, so he decided to just bush-whack down to it. It’s pretty close, as such things go, but a long steep drop down a brushy hillside. He apparently thought better of it, and was coming back to his car when he saw me and tried to get my attention. He borrowed my cell phone to call a friend to pick him up, and after making sure he was going to be ok, I took off.
A little while later, my phone rang. I dug it out of my backpack, and answered it – it turned out that his friend had gotten lost and needed directions. I guided him via phone to the right road and within sight of his lost friend, and I was back on my way. I made a brief stop at the Skiland checkpoint, getting a bite to eat, and said hi to the cheerful checkpoint staffers.




The final section is mostly downhill and was refreshingly nice riding, though by this time my legs were pretty hammered and I could barely bike up the hills. I rolled into the finish at 15 hours and 24 minutes, very happy to be off the bike. John Estle was at the finish line and did a quick video interview with me and I am afraid I was a bit incoherent and silly.




Soon after I arrived the two bikers who started late came in. They started about 20 minutes late and finished 10 minutes behind me and would have finished ahead of me if they had started with everyone else.

Hopefully this race will be an annual event – it was an amazing experience and a complete blast. With luck this race will be become a summer ritual! Thanks again to Ann and all the other volunteers – you guys made it possible and fun!

The finishing times for the finishers in the trial run of the race were:

  • Bikers
    • Jay Cable 15:24
    • John Shook 15:33
    • Chris Wrobel 15:33
    • Rocky Reifenstuhl 16:38
    • T. Herriott 16:38
    • Andy Sterns 19:43
  • Runners
    • Rork Peterson 21:47
    • Ann Farris 26:40
    • Rick Johnson 28:02
    • Anne VerHoef 28:08

There was also some coverage in the News Miner.

More photos from the race
Course pre-ride photos.