During the first two weeks of March, 2009, I participated in Alaska Ultrasport's Iditarod Trail Invitational, more commonly referred to now as simply, the ITI. The ITI is a 350 or 1100 mile race across Alaska in winter, on snow. It’s the human powered version of the Iditarod dog sled race, taking off from the traditional starting location for the dog sled race, one week before the canine athletes do. Racers choose their mode of transportation, either bike, ski or foot. I, of course, was on bike. Which means I was also on foot quite a bit, but not in the foot division…. This is my write up, which is fittingly now about 9 months late.
As I stood there, in the second-ish row back at the starting line, it really hit me. It really wasn’t untill that point that I bothered to ask myself, “What the hell am I doing here? What business do I have toeing this line, unprepared and seriously undertrained??”
Seriously though, what the hell was I doing there? I have somewhat of a background with endurance cycling, through a few 24 hr races and some really long distance touring, but I didn’t have more than 100 miles of riding under me in the 4 months leading up to the race. I packed my gear the morning of the race. I had worked A LOT those 4 months, outdoors, so I was ready for the exposure, but my beer gut was reaching astronomical proportions, and I didn’t have any time on my new wheels and I didn’t have much experience with winter camping at all and I don’t have time to think about this crap anymore because Kathi just yelled “GO!!!”…
And off we went, across the soft snow of Knik Lake. In the excitement and confusion it ended up being quicker to just hop off and run across the semi-soft snow than to try and stay on the bike. I broke left to get free of the traffic and took off with magnificent strides. I was actually in front of people! Woohoo! That’s when the overloaded fanny pack I decided to cram full of way too much food decided it would look better around my knees and promptly ended my enthusiasm with a faceplant in the snow….
I got up, hiked up my ass satchel, held it in place with one hand and tried running again, pushing the bike with the other hand. That didn’t work, the bike was all over the place in the snow. So I cinched the butt bag up as tight as I could and tried both hands on the bars and a slightly more subdued trot, which again resulted in the fanny pack around my knees. Luckily I was moving slow enough that I was able to keep from falling on my face again, and decided that my best course of action was a cartoonish, bowlegged gallop to the end of the lake. That worked, and I pressed forward, ready to face the second 100 yards of the course with all I had to offer.
We were off the lake now and into the short, gently rolling hills on our way out to the Big Su(sitna river). After a little bit of work passing some of the walkers and skiers that had passed me on the lake, I finally caught up with some other cyclists and was starting to feel a little bit more composed. Luckily I was on the back of the group when that #@$%!# fanny pack headed south again! This time It slumped down past my backside and grabbed hold of the back of my saddle, which, when I tried to dismount the bike to throw the bag and all my food as far as I could, resulted in me being stuck to my seat and falling over, awkwardly attached to my bike, into the deep snow on the side of the trail.
The snow must’ve cooled my temper a bit as I decided to simply mount the bag messenger style around my torso and ride away. Again, I managed to catch up to some more riders, and we worked together for a while across the swamps, eventually spreading out enough to be alone. At one point, I decided to strap the fanny pack around my handlebar/bedroll, which worked fairly well for a temporary solution. Jill Homer, a cyclist from Juneau passed me at one point, It might have been on the slough leading into Flat Horn lake.
As I reached the ramp leading up to Kurt and Peggy’s cabin, I gave serious consideration to pulling a repeat of my failed attempt at the Su100 the year before, and hanging a left to take the quick way back my truck and calling it quits. I looked down at my bike, if only as an excuse to stand around a bit more and give myself time to concede to my quitter demons. It was then that I failed to discover the small stuff sac containing my super warm gloves, balaclava, hood, spare socks and some polypro pants. It must’ve fallen off at some point in the last what, 20 miles? WTF do I do? If I turned back to go get it, I knew that upon finding it, I would have just kept going back to the start, the bar, my truck. If I kept going without it, I was going to be without some fairly critical cold weather gear. I kept going, pushing along in the soft snow and headwind, hoping that someone would have picked it up somewhere along the way. I decided to ride to the first checkpoint at Yentna Station and wait, asking every racer that came in if they had seen it.
As I traversed the edge of the lake, I could occasionally see other racers headlamps ahead of me as darkness fell quickly on the course. At the end of the lake, the trail entered a short stretch of alders and black spruce, and with the trail protected from the wind, I was actually able to ride on firm trail.
A couple of swoopy turns and I see Juneau Jill off to the right of the trail, doing something with her lower pants leg. I ask if she’s alright, and she looks back at me and says something like, “Yeah, I’m just getting some stuff together.”. She looked embarrassed though, so I figured I had caught her peeing or something and tried to be non-chalant and said, “alright” and rode away. Girls get embarrassed about that kind of stuff.
The riding didn’t last long, and upon reaching the dismal swamp I found myself pushing yet again. With the darkness came a really stiff headwind and a lot of cold. I pulled the hood of my windbreaker up, and would have to turn around every few minutes to let my face thaw out. There were headlamps on behind me, and I really didn’t want them to catch me. Eventually, one of them did. It was Jill. Good news. She wasn’t peeing. Bad news, she had stepped in a hole in the lake and her boot and sock were a block of ice. She couldn’t get the boot off back in the woods where I had seen her. Frost bite was a major concern with the wind and dropping temperature, and we discussed the option of her stopping to build a fire in the woods right before the river, thawing her foot out, and me riding ahead and sending help back for her. The other option was to ride hard to Yentna station and try to keep enough blood flowing to her foot to keep it warm. I was all set to offer her one of my spare sets of socks when I remembered that I had dropped them somewhere back on the course. When I reached the woods, she was nowhere to be seen, so it was obviously option B. I chatted with a skier, we shared some food, and off I went. The next while involved a little bit of riding and a lot of walking. The trail was marginally rideable, but I wasn’t marginally fit enough physically or mentally to ride it at that point. My hands were getting a little chilly, so I opened a heat pack, and would hold it on one hand for a few minutes, then switch, and back and forth.
After a while, some of the riders I had been riding with earlier caught up to me, and I was thrilled beyond all belief to find that one of them had picked up my little stuff sac and carried it with them for me!! It was one of the Italian/Spanish riders and I thanked as best as my cold and tired mind could in Spanish.
I ended up spending the remaining darkness hours on the porch at Luce’s Lodge, and upon waking, and upon the lodge opening for the day, went inside and treated myself to a big breakfast while my clothes dried by the fire. A few walkers were there as well. Turns out the rest of the competitors where only about 8 miles up the trail at the official first checkpoint, Yentna Station. When I found out how close I had been, I kicked myself for not continuing on to it. So off I went on a clear cold morning. I felt good, and was riding well. I made it to Yentna at I believe 11:30 or so, but of course, almost everyone had already left. By the time I left, day one of the 2009 ITI was just about over.
days 2 and 3: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/alaska-ultrasport-2009-days-2-3.html