Dé hAoine 25 Nollaig 2009

09 Alaska Ultrasport Soggy Foot Slough to the END

continued from: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/09-alaska-ultrasport-nikolai-to-outer.html

I woke, of course, a bit after first light along side what I have now decided to officially refer to as Soggy Foot Slough. A musher or two passed by as I was packing up my sleeping gear, calmly talking to their team. I got on the bike feeling defeated. I had no idea how far I was from McGrath. I was sore and completely drained of energy. My feet hurt just pressing down on the pedals. Wait a minute… I’m pedaling! Enough little paws must’ve passed in the night to pack down a just firm enough to ride trail, which wasn’t actually entirely brown and yellow, but in fact mostly white and entirely awesome. I picked up my pace a bit, to maybe 5mph until I heard the drone of a snowmachine approaching from behind. Before I had a chance to pull off to the side, the rider had ridden up off the left bank of the trail. He parked near me and introduced himself as Dan. I don’t remember much of the conversation that ensued, but I do remember that he gave me Tang, offered me food, and tried to sell me an awl he had shaved down from a moose shin bone. I explained that I had been on the trail much, much longer than expected, and really didn’t have the $20 to spare. I had more than $20 on me, but I had no idea how much I was going to need to spend in McGrath, and I really didn’t need an awl…. Then he just gave it to me. It was unexpected and I was grateful, and promised him that the next year, 2010, when I came through Bison Camp an Nikolai, I would look for him and give him $20. I do remember him talking about being at Bison Camp a few days earlier and breaking trail for some of the racers into Nikolai. He said that there had been a bunch of fresh snow, so he would break in the correct trail to Peter and Tracy’s house in McGrath, that I needed to take a left at the intersection on the swamp.

He took off slowly to avoid chewing up the trail too much. And away I rode.

I rode and occasionally walked with everything I had left for the next 20 miles. I really don’t remember much of it, but it wasn’t fast by any means, and was increasingly slower as I neared the finish line.


There were places where I was chasing moose down the trail for 20 minutes before they had finally had enough and ran up the river bank. I kept waiting and waiting for the one last hill described in some of the Iditarod online literature I had read pre race. From there, I knew it was a slough, and one more little stretch of river before heading into the swamps.

On one section of river, I had stopped for a Skittle and Tang break, which was probably more of a faff break, as I don’t actually recall being hungry. As I stood there, I was suddenly given the motivation to move by the unmistakable sound of a big truck jake braking down some nearby hill. There was a road nearby. The haul rd into McGrath! It was the sweetest sound I had heard in days. I got on and gave what I could. I would pick objects in the distance and pedal to them, stop, eat or take a photo, and do it again.


Finally the hill came. I knew it as soon as I was on it. Through the entire slog from Nikolai to where I stood, I kept repeating the small section of text(or some version of it) in my mind, expecting it to be around every corner. I tried with all I had to ride up it, but of course couldn’t. I got off and feigned a run up the hill. Across the top and down the other side, where I had the only crash of the trip that I could really say was caused by exhaustion.




I was thrilled to be on the river again, that ‘last stretch’ of river. There was what looked like a cabin at the far bend, and it seemed to never get any closer, no matter how far I went. I kept looking back, and forth, and again. I found a Zip-Loc bag on the ground that a musher had dropped with some Emergen-C’s and a huge ‘cookie’ in it. I pocketed the Emergen-C’s and took a bite of the cookie, which I promptly spit out. It tasted horrible. I think it might have been a dog treat. It took several BIG gulps of Tang to wash that taste out of my mouth…. I’m sitting here laughing as I type this, wondering why the hell I would put something like that in my mouth. It seemed like the best idea ever at the time though.


The temp was warming up as it had the previous day, but I don’t think it got above freezing while I was on the river. There were small sections of frozen overflow on the trail, and I had to be careful stepping off the trail for any reason to avoid sinking up to my knee in the slushy grey stuff.


This Musher, who I believe is Cindy Gallea, had a tough go of it back in the Alaska range. I think I recall hearing that she had smacked a tree with her face pretty hard. Tough woman.



As I got nearer to and passed that little cabin, I spotted a cardboard sign on the side of the trail. I had been told there were mile markers coming into the finish, and here was the first.


Up off the river, and into the swamps.


I really had trouble staying on the bike through the swamps. The trail was mostly just firm enough to ride, but I was losing control of the bike over the whoops.


Karin Hendrickson passed by and seemed genuinely, incredibly grateful to me for getting off the trail for her. Sven Haltman was right behind and gave me a reassuring look, telling me, “You’re almost there!!” It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me since Nikolai. Thanks, Sven!





The little cardboard mile/km signs couldn’t pass by quickly enough. It felt like it took an hour to get from one to the next, and it was all I could do to set each one as a goal with a reward of some skittles or chocolate when I reached it.





The final, big open swamp seemed endless, but with the radio towers in sight, I knew I was close to the haul road.



Then I was there. It should have been obvious which direction I needed to go, even with the sign that was probably there buried under the new snow the plows had piled up. I stood there for a minute having a celebretory drink of tang. A smile and an improvised hand gesture conversation with this plow driver as he passed confirmed that crazy bikers turn right at this intersection.


I dropped down onto the smooth, hardpacked surface of the road and pedaled along, laughing out loud at how easy it was. I quickly spun out my gear and had to coast, uphill, before getting on it again and repeating. I stopped only when the big trucks came by, making sure they had plenty of room. As I got closer to town, I started seeing people. One woman asked me a question, and for a minute I managed to forget that I was, in fact, almost there, and stopped to chat with her. I was pretty out of it at that point.


Then I saw it. The McGrath banner at the driveway to the house I had seen in all those photos from all those racers from all those trips prior on the web. It was immensely, overwhelmingly satisfying.


I walked up to the door and knocked. There was no answer, but, it’s the checkpoint, so I assumed(correctly) that I could just go inside. I had no idea what time it was. The only electronic pieces of equipment I had with me the whole time were my headlamp and camera. No watch. As I sat in the doorway removing my boots, Mike came down the stairs and greeted me with a grin, a welcome and a congrats. He gave me the rundown on the house and hooked me up with some of the food Peter had prepared before taking off to catch a flight out of town. Turns out I wasn’t the only one with foot issues.



The Schniederheinz family dog was there to greet me as well. Can’t quite remember his name, but he was certainly happy to see me. Dogs do tend to like smelly objects.


We looked at a clock as I sat there, and then two other clocks, and all read something different. We picked one, and wrote the time down on the check in sheet. The clock said 2:25.

Before long Tracy, and eventually Peter arrived. I showered, washed my clothes, sent out some emails and sat down to watch some road race videos from the 70’s and 80’s with Peter. He had some people in town for whom he was tour guiding as the mushers came into town. Taking them out for a ride on his dog sled, I got to direct traffic for him. His dogs were incredibly fast as he commanded “GEE!!” out of the driveway then an immediate “HAW!” at the first turn. It was pretty cool.

I woke the next morning after a good nights sleep to find Roger and George both in the house! They had made it.


A week after the race, I was thinking about it, and wondered if the clock had been adjusted for Daylight Saving time, which had occurred on the 7th day of the race. As my recorded time sat, it put me in Mcgrath a scant 25 minutes past the official 10 day cutoff. I emailed Kathi, acknowledging that it didn’t actually matter for anything and was more nit-picking that not, and I think she adjusted the time for me just to give me the benefit of the doubt. While typing this up, and going through my photos from the race, I did a little math. My camera was set to East coast summer time, so none of the times were exact. I found a photo I could use to figure out the difference.

ultrasport start
This photo was taken on the starting line, 5 minutes before the 2pm start. My camera recorded it as 6:55pm. Subtract 4 hrs for time difference plus 1 hr for daylight saving time to get the actual time of 1:55pm where the photo was taken.

This photo entering the driveway was recorded by my camera as 5:12pm. Subtract the 4hr time difference, and you get 1:12pm, 48 minutes before the official 10 day cutoff. Goal from Rohn accomplished. Barely. Scary part is, looking through the times on other photos, it appears to have taken me 2 ½ hrs to get from the river to the finish. A distance of only 9 miles….

There’re a million people I could thank for helping me through this trip in some way shape or form, and frankly I’m sick of typing, and I’m sure you’re sick of reading. So, THANK YOU!! Yes, I mean you.

Longest Ultrasport write up ever??



spruceboy said...

Hey, thanks for writing this up, I enjoyed reading your account of the race. Good luck with this years race!

sean said...

Thanks! and thanks for reading it.

Karlos said...


Brilliant Effort.

my toes hurt from just reading it..


Cold is one of my nemesis, I must conquer, however not in this grand fashion.

Great story, write up and pics!

Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

Tough, very tough. I quite obviously haven't had a chance to read your writeup from the beginning but it is on my list of things to do tomorrow, no worries.

In fact, I only found your blog jus tthe other day. I totally love your subtitle in the header as I can quote that movie word for word.

When I read AK blogs like yours I long for the winter biking in Squarebanks at -50... Then I walk out into the backyard barefoot, jump in the pool and the longing seems to vanish utterly.

cheers mate!

Love your carvings, if AQIS would let it into the country I'd be buying the wolf's head.

Phil said...

Cool writeup, brings back memories.

sean said...

Thanks Karlos, Dave and Phil.

Phil I've probably read both of your writeups about 6 times each.

saved by biking said...

when I asked you about this year's race, you mentioned that you slept too much last year... after allowing myself the pleasure of reading the last few chapters of you story, I get it.

Enjoyed your writing - and as a long-time wanna-be - it was really great to see a first-timer's impressions.

Michael O'Hara said...

So amazing. As one who grew up snowshoeing, sleeping in snow shelters and xc skiing through the woods in the moonlight, I really love reading about your ventures in Alaska. Congratulations on finishing the Ultrasport! Somethign to be very proud of for sure!!


sean said...

Haha, SBB! It's easy to look back at a race and say 'I lost time' here or there, but almost never accurate. With that out of the way though, I can't help but to think that I lost a day and a half to oversleeping....

Thanks Mike!