Dé Céadaoin 17 Márta 2010

The short race

For those not aware, that's what I did this year and last, the short version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The full length version is 1100 miles all the way to Nome. 3 riders and two walkers took on that challenge this year, and they're all still going, with Phil Hofstetter in the lead right now. Not far behind him are riders Tracey and Jay Petervary, with Tom Jarding leading the legendary Tim Hewitt on foot. Phil's in White Mountain right now, @80 miles from home(he lives in Nome). I've been checking the updates several times daily, and it's pretty exciting stuff. They travelled down the Yukon river, through 100 mile+ uninhabited lengths of trail, and across sea ice to get where they are now.

The message board here: http://kathih.websitetoolbox.com/ is a great way to cheer them on, as they're able to occasionally check it at schools in the villages they pass through. They're a huge morale boost for racers on the course, and I encourage you all, whether you know them or not, to post something up there letting them know people are watching with interest.

The main site for the race, with the Leader Board and Latest News updates is here: http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/alaska_ultra_home_page.html

Dé Máirt 16 Márta 2010

2010 Alaska Ultrasport Last 19 Hours, Bison Camp to McGrath

2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Last 19 hours
Bison Camp to McGrath

Rolling down that hill and into the long straightaway, I kept expecting the tussocks to show up around every slight bend and over every slight rise, but the trail was good. Really good. It was like a paved, white bike path. I stopped one or two more times to mess with the hose, trying to thaw it out. I finally relented and started drinking directly from the bladder. I didn’t feel thirsty, but didn’t want to find myself cramping in the middle of the tussocks, wherever they were.

I wasn’t sweating, but was obviously losing moisture:


The trail from Bison Camp to just before Sullivan Creek Bridge is mostly straight. Long sight lines on those big long straightaways, and sure enough, I eventually saw the first of the tussocks a quarter mile or so up the trail. They basically started right at the sign for the BLM shelter cabin, which I hadn’t seen last year. I was a little apprehensive about how difficult they would be on a loaded bike, but it turned out they weren’t that difficult at all. They were fun actually, and I was able to keep a relatively good speed through them. I walked one short section of about 100 yards, and made it from the first sign for the shelter cabin to Sully’s bridge in just over 1 hour. I equate the tussocks to a long, furry rock garden. There were definitely good lines to be had through all of them, and they were probably the most enjoyable section of trail this year for me.


As I made the ‘hard’ right turn with the trail toward the bridge I got excited and let out a “Yeaaaah!!”, which I’m not sure Sebatiano Favaro, who at the time was staggering around on the bridge, heard. Sebastiano is one of the Italian racers, and is just about the most pleasant person you’ll ever meet. He really, genuinely seemed to be enjoying every minute of the trip. I wanted to fill up my polar bottle with water from the creek, and before I had a chance to do it myself, Seb hooked up the bucket that’s always there and set about getting the water for both of us. I thanked him, but had to press on.

A few miles down the trail, I noticed the water starting to ice over in my bottle, so I stopped and just chugged it all down. While I was stopped, I figured I might as well get my headlamp on, since the sun was going down. I reached into the pouch containing both my headlamps, to find only one of them there. Uh-oh. I looked around in all the obvious places on the bike, but couldn’t find the other one. I wondered if I had left it in Rohn. I hoped not. I put the one I had on, and when I hit the ‘On” button, nothing happened. I hit it again. Nothing. I must’ve put bad batteries in it. I tried unscrewing the battery cap by hand, but it was stuck. So I put it between my teeth, gently bit down and turned. It opened, but not by unthreading. It opened by breaking in half. Double uh-oh. Now I really hoped I hadn’t left the other one in Rohn. The trail was good and hard though, and the sky was clear and it had been a full moon at the start of the race. I decided to press on as fast as I could, and get to Nikolai hopefully before dark.


I charged off down the trail as fast as I thought I could manage for the next 20-25 miles. It wasn’t long before I caught Tim, and didn’t recognize him with his face masks on. Was it cold? It didn’t feel cold to me for some reason. Must’ve been though, his masks were covered in frost, and my beard was a block of ice. I had meant to shave it off before the race. I told him about my headlamp, and he offered me his small spare. I didn’t want to leave him without one, and was optimistic about reaching Nikolai without needing it, so I told him that I was going to press on, and that if he found me wandering around in the darkness up the trail, that I would take him up on the offer. The miles flew by pretty quickly, across swamps and through small poplar groves. It was starting to get too dark to ride. I could see the trail on the swamps, but not in the woods. I made it to Salmon River Fish Camp, and got off to walk through the wooded section after. I ended up walking across the swamp after it and then some as well before I saw Tim’s headlamp coming up behind me. He hooked me up with the headlamp and we rode off down the trail. It proved to be easiest for me to just ride behind him, with his powerful headlamp scanning the trail ahead, and his small spare, on my head, just covering the short distance between us.

It was nice to ride with someone. We talked about our plans in Nikolai while stopping to admire the incredible planetarium overhead in the middle of one of the swamps. If I managed to find my headlamp somewhere in my gear, or repair the one I broke, I was going to press on, but if not, I figured I would be forced to wait till morning. He offered to let me just use his spare, but If we had to separate at some point along the way, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave him without his spare headlamp should his main one fail on him.

Across the swamps, and through the woods in between, I kept trying to spot the place where I bivied last year. Never was able to pin it down, but I knew we were on that big swamp when we hit it. A bit more woods, with the smell of wood smoke in the air, and we dumped down onto the river and cruised for Nikolai. We stopped to chat with some locals, who welcomed us to the village and told us it was getting down around -20 on the rivers and swamps at that point. I would have never guessed it. We cruised up through the town, meeting a few other locals along the way, and finally pulled into the welcoming warmth of the Petruska household, our checkpoint. It was really great to see Stephanie, Oline, and especially Nick in good health. Inside there was one racer sleeping, Simon Honore. We found out that two of the Italians had pressed on, but I knew they must have been about as tired as tired gets. I set my sneakers by the stove to attempt, again, to dry them. Nick tossed clothes from the bladder spill that morning, now solid blocks of ice, in the dryer to thaw and dry them.

We sat down to some moose stew, coffee and bread. It was nice to be there, and with my headlamp woes, the temps outside as they were, and me with wet sneakers, I decided that I needed to stay at least until my sneakers were dry. I didn’t want frostbite on top of immersion foot. As Sebastiano, Kyle, Tracey, Bill, Chris and Dave rolled in, Tim rolled out, leaving me with his spare headlamp and expecting me to catch him at some point during the night. If his ran out, he could just wait for me to show up, I could give it back, and find myself a convenient spot to bivy.


It was nice to chat with Kyle and Bill again, and for the first time really with Chris, Tracey and Dave. I planned to roll out with them in a couple of hours, whether my sneakers were fully dry or not. I was getting sick of sitting still, and wanted my mancake! Bill told me he had a pretty powerful second light that I could use if I wanted to, since I was cruising with them. I immediately took him up one the offer. I figured it would be nice to cruise the last 50+ miles with some company. Dave found his way to one of the bedrooms to sleep. Simon got up and left. Chris started falling asleep on the couch, and when the time came for us to go, he said he needed real sleep for a couple of hours. So it was Bill, Tracey, Kyle, Sebastiano and myself. As we were packed up and signing out, Eric and Lou came rolling in!

This is where it got interesting. Lou and Tracey were the leading females in the race. Lou is a VERY accomplished and capable mtb racer. Tracey has some strong racing and riding under her belt as well. Seeing Lou put a little scare into her. She wanted the win, and definitely respected Lou’s ability to catch her. Eric and Lou needed rest though.

We rolled out of the village in a paceline, keeping a pretty strong pace. I took first pull, and we seemed to be all keeping together, so I kept my pace up. I was liking it, we were moving quickly, but it eventually looked like we wouldn’t be able to stay a group if the pace didn’t relax a little bit. So we backed off to a comfortable pace. The trail was in great shape. Every now and then there would be a short section of drifts across the trail, but for the most part it was bomber. I was giggling at being able to ride it after the previous year’s slog. It just seemed like such a novel concept to not only be riding it, but to be riding it quickly. We kept the paceline going, everyone taking turns setting the pace.

I really enjoyed those last 50 miles. The riding was enjoyably easy, the company was great, and the weather had warmed up to a very comfortable place. The skittles came out again, abut they more celebratory than reward. The finish wasn’t far, and neither were mancakes.

The sun came up behind an overcast sky as we rolled along the last section of river. Riders were getting pretty tired at this point, but we all felt how close the finish was.

snow angel

Up onto the swamps we cruised along, rookies Bill and Kyle leading the way as the little cardboard mile marker signs started showing up. My amazement at being able to ride this section this year continued as we sped across that last big open swamp, with the radio tower in sight, and veered left and out onto the haul road. We chatted and congratulated ourselves as we cruised down the road. I think I smiled almost the whole 3 miles or so.


We finished right around 9AM, with Tracey taking 1st woman and setting the fastest female time EVER to McGrath, with Kyle, Bill and myself(and Tracey as well) tying for 8th place overall. Entering the house to find all the racers who came before us there to welcome us was great, and I was sat at the table with a stack of mancakes in front of me. Peter looked around for a beverage to offer me. He looked in the fridge, closed it, and as he started to head back to the storage room to look for soda, he mentioned that there was only beer in the fridge. Ummm, beer? Can I have a beer? My smile grew wider. I’ll drink a beer!! And so it was, I had a beer with my breakfast of mancakes and a monster omelet. It was beginning to look like I was to be the only one drinking alcohol at the table till Sebastiano, who had fallen off the back of the group, rolled in about 20 minutes behind us. After welcoming and congratulating him and setting him up at the table, he was offered the (verbal) list of available beverages, and his eyes swelled to the size of dinner plates when he heard Peter say “beer”. Woohoo! We toasted to our accomplishment. A few hours later, Chris, Eric and Lou rolled in, and Eric or Lou handed me my headlamp! They had carried it with them all the way from Rohn. Awesome!

The next 24 hours were spent resting, eating, chatting, occasionally sleeping, learning all about the Evil Empire from Brij and strolling around McGrath with Bill, Kyle and Dave.

This year was immensely easier for me than last year. I cut my time in half and then some, and didn’t feel spent at the finish. I think the Fatback had a lot to do with that, but the better training, more refined gear, and experience of having done it already all came together to make this year seem like a piece of cake in retrospect. I had some equipment malfunctions, but with a little refinement, I think I’ll mostly be bringing the same gear with me to Nome next year….

Dé Luain 15 Márta 2010

2010 Alaska Ultrasport Day 4, Pass Lake to Bison Camp

2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Day 4
Pass Lake to Bison Camp

As we paused to eat across Pass Lake from the Perrin’s cabin, we visually followed Craig’s tracks turning left when they reached the lake, shooting across to the cabin, then turning around and retracing themselves back down toward Puntilla. He had come by us headed in that direction back when we were still a group of four. We had been thankful since to have Jay’s foot prints and tire tracks to push our bikes in. We could see that at the point where Craig had passed him on the return trip, Jay really wasn’t that far ahead of us. Maybe 2-3 hours. When we saw that he had turned back less than a mile from the pass proper, we felt for Jay, who would then find himself breaking trail entirely on his own for the last steep pitch to the top. It was definitely easier on us than it was on him, and I think we were all pretty impressed with his fortitude getting over the top alone in the same conditions we struggled through.

From the top, it certainly became less difficult, being downhill with enough visible evidence of the trail to follow it easily, but that relative ease was offset by how ragged I was beginning to become from the effort expended to get to the top. I was running low on water, and my feet were really starting to feel the effects of my sneakers being wet for the entire race combined with the slogging of the last day+. This was compounded by the fact that all the open water on the way up caused us to be wearing our overboots. Mine were insulated.


We were descending though, and making it over the top had brought a sense of closure to my difficulties last year, and with that sense of closure relief. I felt like could coast down the other side on auto pilot. “One foot in front of the other”, and Janice said. Besides, the 30 miles of trail from the pass to just after Rohn are, as far as I know, the most scenically beautiful section of the trail to McGrath.

The three of us dropped down and around and into the small, rocky gorge where all those who had gone before me last year had struggled so much through the web of alders and deep snow. There was a trail for us though. We become more talkative the more tired we became. Telling and listening to our stories helped me focus on keeping my feet moving.


I was running low on water, and stopped briefly to fill up from a section of open water on the creek. It was incredibly refreshing water. About an hour after I filled up and took those first few sips I remembered that someone, maybe Bill, had told me that of all the creeks out there, that was one of the worst ones to fill up from. It was pretty much guaranteed to give you Alaska’s official state illness: Beaver Fever. Great. Oh well.

I was eating. I was only mildly dehydrated. Whatever was in the water, if anything, would take days at least to have an effect. So the hallucinations and time lapses could really only be blamed on exhaustion. It started with occasional flashes of white light in the corners of my eyes(it was daytime out). I would say something to Lou or Eric, who I had not met before, and a minute later would either get an intense feeling of dejavu or the similarly intense notion that I had not actually said it out loud. I was stumbling.

We stopped to watch some small avalanches on the peak we were facing. There was an impressively loud “BOOM” and then we would scan the slopes to see the shifting, dirty snow. I wondered how loud of a BOOM a really big avalanche would make.

We slogged on, tripping through small alder branches that poked up through the trail.


Before long, I realized that I apparently wasn’t the only one so close to the end of my rope, as I was walking alone, and they were behind me. Noone would have minded if I pressed on at my own pace, but there was this tree on the side of the trail, with a sloping burl growing up out of the ground and ascending it’s trunk, and another fallen tree across it, and it looked really comfortable, and I wanted skittles, and waiting for my companions was a pretty convenient excuse to sit down. It was comfortable, and the skittles were gooooood, and I nearly spilled them like five times as I started dozing off. I woke again when they came by.

I would find myself alone ahead of them again, but not out of sight, when Craig finally came through on his way to Rohn. He wasn’t too keen on the trail conditions. We regrouped again briefly and then, once again, separated on our way to the hill we knew was coming, and I both dreaded and desired. I desired it because it was the last real hill on the entire route to McGrath, and on the other side of it was the Dalzell Gorge, which had a good chance of being rideable, and was really close to Rohn. I reached the base of the hill with no one in sight. I put my bike off to the side of the trail to pop a mouthful of skittles. Skittles are my slog food. They’re my reward for pressing on, for dealing with situations that aren’t really completely ‘fun’. I popped a handful of the frozen morsels in my mouth, and as they thawed, and the tangy, sugary, acidic flavors saturated my taste buds, I plopped down in the snow next to my bike. The whole world was skittles at that point. The snow that had just gotten into my gaiters and was melting down my ankle: skittles. The warm temps and soft trail: skittles. The steep hill in front of me: skittles. Craig Medred’s paddle track: skittles. Beaver Fever: skittles. I wanted to just unroll my sleeping bag(skittles), pop another mouthful of skittles and call it a night(it was still daylight).

Lou and Eric came by, and Lou, who was clearly struggling at least as much as I was at that point, didn’t sit down, didn’t park her bike or look at the spruce trees longingly, but exhaled a few times, put her head down and charged up the hill with all her might. Crap. Now I HAVE to go up the hill.

Slowly but surely, I slogged away up it. The top eventually came, as I knew it would. The trail was occasionally pedallable for short stretches across the top, but barely. The downhill was rideable for Lou and Eric, but Eric’s a normal sized dude, and punched through as much as I would have in his position, which made it easier for me to just walk down it. The Dalzell Gorge was in my sights though, as the daylight faded. There was a good amount of walking for all three of us in the upper section. It eventually firmed up though, and Lou and Eric were riding quite a bit. I tried a few times, but was in such a mental, and I guess physical state, that I couldn’t control the front end of the bike when I tried. I decided, with all the delicate ice bridges, that It would just be safer to walk the rest of the way down to the broad Tatina River. The hallucinations continued. At one point I would have sworn to you that Lou and Eric, not 30 feet from me, were mooses, and my heart sank at the thought of two mooses tromping down the gorge and breaking the remaining ice bridges before I had a chance to cross them.

After the last ice bridge, the trail was firm, and significantly flatter and straighter, and I managed to ride, catching the other two as they aired up their tires. Down onto the Tatina, and we put on our windshells, took a last drink of water and rolled along. It was rideable, and very flat. There was even good traction for the most part. There were a few glare ice sections that encouraged me to go as fast as I could in between them in order to maintain enough momentum to cross them without having to pedal. Within a short while I could no longer see their headlamps behind me. I thought about turning around to make sure one of them hadn’t fallen, but we were less than 5 miles from the checkpoint, if they didn’t show soon after I arrived, someone would go out looking for them. I paused for a few silent moments. I was sure if one of them were hurt or in a sticky situation I would have heard calls for help. The river was just sooo fast. I wasn’t sure where I got the leg speed from for that last 5 miles, but it felt great, and really boosted my spirits, lifting me from the bonk I was in. Up off the river and the trail in to the airstrip was, by far, the best section of trail I had ridden the entire race up to that point. It was scary fast. Gently winding around a bit before bursting you out onto the airstrip. Oops. We’re supposed to take the trail next to the airstrip. It actually took a while before I realized that it was the airstrip, being dark out.

I rolled off the airstrip, turned right at the ‘roadhouse’ and straight over to the checkpoint tent, somehow in 4th place. Within seconds after getting off the bike, my mind started drifting back off into delirium. I began to remember how bad my feet felt, but I was still riding high on the awesome trail coming in. Bill was there, as was Rob, and they both made me as welcome as could be. Rob was pretty psyched to see me in Rohn this early after my late arrival last year. I sat down in the tent, on the big, 20(?) foot long bed of spruce boughs Bill and Rob had built, took off my overboots and my shoes and my socks. We were able to diagnose the condition of my feet as mild immersion on my left foot, blistered immersion on my right foot. I wasn’t concerned about it till I tried to stand up bare footed and nearly fell over. I ate some soup, drank some tang, and laid out my sleeping bag. I was deep asleep within 15 minutes of Lou and Eric’s arrival.

Something to the effect of, “WAKE UP! I NEED ROOM FOR INCOMING RACERS! YOU GUYS NEED TO MOVE OUTSIDE!!” had the intended effect of waking me up. Well, part of me anyway. I had no idea what was going on. I was less than half awake as I crawled out of my bag and tried with a great amount of futility to stand up. I think someone ended up holding me upright for a minute. I remember checking my sneakers to find them, of course, still wet. I tried walking outside barefoot, only to be reminded by cold feet that it was in fact winter, in Alaska, even if it was in the upper 20’s, at least. I grabbed my overboots and clomped around in them. I must have been obviously struggling with figuring out what was going on because Bill ended up helping me spread some straw from a large pile on a tarp to lay down on. I don’t think I was in the bag long before passing out again.


When I woke, there were bikes everywhere, and people rummaging about, packing up. I drifted back into slumber. When I finally managed to get up, I my frozen overboots to my side, and my bivy sac covered in some of the snow that had fallen that night. I was awake though, and cognizant. I could think straight, and I could walk. I strolled inside to see a full house. The walkers had caught us up. Lou and Eric were still there as well. Phil, Dave, Chris, Tracey, Tim, Kyle, Brij and Simon were there. I found out that three Italians had pressed on after they got there. The crowd was too much for me. I couldn’t think straight anymore with so many people moving around. I ended up waiting till a group of riders had left to really dig into my drop bag and start packing everything up. When I saw Phil walking around, I barely recognized him. He had retained a bunch of water, and was planning on taking it easy and resting for a few more hours. He was trying to ride home to Nome, so he wasn’t about to push himself to injury. The walkers left, and I was, I thought finished packing up everything, so I left too.

I passed them on the river. The riding was good. The trail was firm and I felt great both on and off the bike. The immersion foot was surprisingly easy to deal with when wearing properly fitting shoes. I had it last year with ill-fitting pack liners in neos, and it was a mess. I had planned at the start of this years race, to run up the “post river glacier” when I got to it, since I would be wearing my clipless crampons. But those were obviously now non-functional as crampons, having become makeshift flat pedals. When I got to the ‘glacier’, I discovered that one of them was no longer there. I also discovered that I had forgotten my gaiters in Rohn. I didn’t think long about going back for either. I hope someone in Rohn was able to put the gaiters to good use. This year, like last, there was an easily walk-able line of snow, grass, small shrubs and rocks up the left side of the glaciated overflow. After the first pitch, for some reason, it looked like everyone had crossed the sloping ice to the other side, where it butted right up against some protruding, exposed sections of ridge rock. I didn’t fall for that though, and continued walking easily up the left side on grass, though I appeared to be the only one to have done so.

I finally caught sight of, caught and passed Dave, which made me feel good, because he’s a really strong rider. I stopped to either tighten my load, or ditch a jacket, or both, I forget, and Dave passing me back.

The riding continued, I was pushing the pace to put a good gap on Dave, and thinking I would soon catch sight of the rest of the group, until I managed to lose one of my overboots. I stopped to look at my rack because it felt like it was swaying too much, to discover only one overboot perched loosely on top of my drybag. I figured it wasn’t to be far down the trail, so I propped my bike up against as tree on the side of the trail. I pulled out a bag of trail mix, and at it as I walked along. And I kept eating it as I kept walking, and walking, and walking. The boot must’ve been a mile back. I don’t know how the other one stayed on all that time.

I had expected Dave to pass me but he didn’t. Another mile up the trail, I’m riding along happily when I begin to wonder why my belly and crotch are getting cold. Oddly cold. I look down and there’s water splashing out of my hydration pack hose(I was going to say “bladder hose” there, but that could be interpreted as something else…), and ice all down my front side. I said some choice words, and pulled over to the side of the trail. Unclipped my drybag with my spare clothes in it, stripped, dried off with the little towel I had brought with me, and redressed in dry clothes. I even changed my socks. I was dressed and packing my wet, heavy clothes into the drybag when Dave finally passed me back.


I caught him again at some slushy overflow, where we both put on our overboots, and saw him a couple more times while crossing the lakes, and then not again till Nikolai. I rode on as the trail did it’s thing, constantly expecting the dreaded tussocks we had heard about around every corner. The trail through this section is a bunch of short, rolling hills with swamps in between. My “bladder hose”, no not that one, the other one, with water in it, now had ice in it. I guess I had overfilled it in Rohn, and when it leaked, the leaking water had managed to soak the Thinsulate insulation around the hose, which combined to lead to a bunch of ice in the hose. I stopped every now and then and faffed with it for a minute or two, rearranging my layers to try to get it to thaw out on it’s own. It had leaked because I had removed the soft part of the bite valve before the race, and had forgotten to close the shut-off valve on it after taking a drink. I eventually caught up to Tracey, Bill, Chris and Kyle, and we rolled along pretty much together till the sign for Bison camp. Through the one section of tussocks we experienced together, I could tell that my North Jersey rock garden skills, the Moxey suspension seatpost given to me before the race(thanks Bill!!) and my gearing would make our paces incompatible through the long section of tussocks I knew was coming after Bison Camp.

After the sign, I just pressed on without stopping till the top of the hill just after Bison Camp, which surprisingly still had all the tents up. I stopped for a bite to eat, another brief attempt to rearrange my bladder hose in hopes of thawing it out, and to grab a photo of the trail stretching out toward Nikolai.


Dé Sathairn 13 Márta 2010

2010 Alaska Ultrasport Day 3, FinnBear Lake to Pass Lake

2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Day 3
FinnBear Lake to Pass Lake

I hadn’t been inside long when Craig pulled up. He had pressed on after the next group of riders had come through. I relaxed inside for longer than expected, drying out and refueling/refilling. It wasn’t until I looked out the window and saw Brij approach the cutoff trail, then press on straight past it, that I felt a sense of urgency to leave. I had been there over an hour at that point. Time had kind of flown by chatting with Mike, Ingrid and Craig. I refilled my water bladder one more time with the delicious spring water, and hustled out the door. As Craig and Mike walked down the shoveled out path to Craig’s machine, Mike looks at his track and says, in a half shocked/half disapproving way, “Oh you DO have a paddle track on there?!”. Craig again expressed his regret, relaying that it was the only machine(rental I guess) he could get a hold of, and that he himself doesn’t like people on his local trails with paddle tracks.

I know it sounds like I’m complaining/venting/harping on Craig here, and I am. But I do understand that “It is what it is.” Craig wasn’t out there trying to maliciously destroy the trail for us. He was just out there. All of the racers had to deal with it, not just me. The trail sucked only partly because of him. The warm temps and fresh snow were just as much to blame. It was just much easier at the time for (many of) us to direct our disappointment in the trail conditions toward him. Last year I had Marco Costa’s support crew ride back and forth in front of me a few times on the stretch from Shell Lake to Puntilla with paddle tracks, doing the same thing. So it could just as easily have been anyone else out there chewing up the trail. Dealing with trail conditions is part of the race.

So, anyway, I marched along the ‘outbound’ cutoff trail to try and catch up to Brij. I was concerned about his unfair abilities to levitate over the soft snow, and was still in race mode, so I wanted to get ahead of him on the coming uphill push. When I got to the end of the lake, Craig came past. I looked back and could see the rest of the group turning down the cutoff toward Mike and Ingrid’s. I was happy both that the rookies in that group would get to know Mike and Ingrid, and that the only racer I would have to worry about for the next few miles would be Brij.

I caught him up a quarter mile or so up the hill. We chatted briefly about how evil Craig is and then parted ways. As I climbed in elevation, the trail started to become more and more rideable. The downhills were no longer sketchy, and some of the flats could be pedaled as well. I sort of dreaded the long group of meadows approaching the checkpoint. They had been a slog the previous year.


When I dropped down the last steep pitch onto the first meadow, I was greeted with flat light on a windswept expanse. I could hardly see the trail markers, let alone the actual trail. Every now and then it would pop up out of the drifts though to let me know I was on the right track.



I knew I would be on meadows until I passed the first of the two big humps that reside on either side of Puntilla Lake. I also knew that if Brij was going to catch me before the checkpoint, it would be on this stretch. There’s a lot of gradual inclines here that are just ‘steep’ enough when the snow is soft to make me walk them with the single speed. I felt better than last year though, and seeing the familiar landmarks along this section of trail made me feel even better. Once out of the meadows, nearly everything was rideable right up to the Lake itself, which was intermittently punchy, so I just walked it.


I added my bike to the lineup of Phil, Lou, Eric and Dave’s outside, and entered through that familiar door. I was determined not to stay long. I had been at Puntilla essentially for 2 ½ days in 09. I had knocked down some demons last year here, and it was time to finally knock ‘em out for good. Dan McDonough was our checker, and I had run into him a few months earlier in our local park. It took my tired mind a few minutes to recall the meeting though. Steven, one of the Perrins boys came in and we had a brief chat about last year. Then the floodgates opened. Either the trail had firmed up behind myself and the group I left Finger Lake right in front of, or the next group of Europeans had mounted a formidable charge, because 10 more riders stormed the checkpoint behind me. I was planning on setting out at midnight. Phil was planning on leaving at 10ish. I got no sleep in the hustle of the incoming racers. It was snowing and blowing, and Craig decided to head out and try to make it to Rohn so that we would have a trail to follow. I was pretty happy about that, because when the snow is whipping around up above treeline there, the markers can be very difficult to find.

Phil got up and out of there around 10:30. He wasn’t gone 45 minutes when Craig came back. He couldn’t find the trail or see the markers. He said the two riders that had headed out were bivying. Lou and Eric had gotten up as well, and were planning on departing around midnight. I figured we would all leave together, but they were a little bit longer getting setup than I was. If the trail was that bad, it wouldn’t matter anyway, they would soon catch up.

I set out in the darkness, passing Tim Stern in his comfortable looking bivy just off the lake. The trail really wasn’t that bad for the first few miles. Once it climbed up out of the basin, truly breaking the treeline, it became significantly more windswept, and in places I couldn’t see Phil’s tracks. I was just going from patch of ‘disturbed’ snow to patch of disturbed snow, wading through ankle to knee deep wind drifts in between.

After climbing steadily for a bit, the trail dropped into a sump where the blowing snow conveniently settled and accumulated. The wind was non-existent down there, and I could see Phil’s tracks pretty easily. Unfortunately, I could see that his tracks were zigging, zagging, branching off, and occasionally walking in circles. I found it best to just split the difference, and take the most central line through his wanderings. A couple of hundred yards up the rise out of the sump and I caught up to him. It was now that I would get my real intro to breaking trail, as we took turns in the lead, trying desperately to stay on the hardpacked trail that was somewhere under the drifted in snow. We had made it maybe half a mile before we saw Lou and Eric’s headlamps descending into the sump. We talked about bivying till daylight, when we would more easily be able to see the tripod trail markers, and both agreed that the place to do it would be back in the willows at the bottom of the sump. It was pretty discouraging not being able to see any sign of the trail in the darkness.

Lou and Eric were determined to press on at a steady pace though, and with 4 of us out there, the trail finding should be a lot easier. We pushed back up to where Phil and I had turned around, the last sign of any kind of trail. Without our bikes, we all fanned out in different directions till one of us found the trail. We would continue this for a few more hours till Craig came by. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to have said something to him about his tracks, as he made some borderline snide comments to Lou. Up untill then, his humor and demeanor had been pretty standard, jaded east coast sarcasm, which I appreciated, but his words seemed a little more along the lines of picking on her at that point. Maybe he was tired. I dunno. I don’t think it was appropriate though.

I had apparently falsely assumed he knew his way along the tripods fairly well, and was hopeful as he sped off up the trail. Until his lights stop and his headlamp begin searching broadly from side to side, then cutting hard right and doing the same again. I found it humorous. Visibility was pretty low though, and would only be lower when traveling with any kind of speed. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves postholing in his tracks, clearly way off the actual trail. At one point we found ourselves on the south sideslope of a hill, a situation which I definitely did not remember from 09. We were getting kind of frustrated at this point, as it was easier when we were finding the trail ourselves. I left my bike and marched up to the top of the slope to find a trail marker tripod, and the trail itself, about 50 yards from where we had been struggling along. We all made our way up to it and our spirits lifted a bit.

The bad news was that when Craig had passed us he told us that the next, large group of racers weren’t that far behind us. We had been putting out quite a bit of effort at this point, and I was getting worried that they would have a much easier time, and would eventually swallow us up.

At one point Craig dropped down into the next sump, waaay off the trail. The snow through here was waist deep in places, and his track led us directly through a bunch of willows. When we broke through to the other side, with daylight upon us, and found the firm trail, it was time for breakfast.


The next mile or so involved a bit of postholing, but not too much, till we finally reconnected with the trail that had been set in by Bill and Rob, the trailbreakers for our race. From there it was a push, but on trail the entire way, and was much easier than the night’s travels had been. Phil stopped at one point to tend to his feet, and told us to press on without him. Lou, Eric and myself told stories and chatted to pass the time as we pushed, and occasionally carried, our bikes across open water and up the toboggan run to Pass Lake.



A blue sky shone down on us for about a half hour as we entered the mouth of the pass.



Looking back from where we stopped for somewhat of a short ‘lunch’ break, Phil was nowhere in sight.

Dé hAoine 12 Márta 2010

2010 Alaska Ultrasport Day 2 part 2Finger to Finn Bear

2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Day 2 Part 2
Finger Lake to Finn Bear Lake

I woke at some point during the morning when I heard a disk brake squealing down the hill out of the checkpoint. No one else was stirring though, and I was fairly comfy, so I shut my eyes for a few more minutes. The next time I opened them, I could see Bill and at least one other racer(Nicola? Brij?) stirring and/or sitting up. Wake up time. Packed my gear, strapped it to my bike. There was about 5 inches of fresh, new, fluffy snow on the ground. I went off to pillage my drop bag. It really wasn’t so much pillaging as picking through. I took full advantage of the 10 lb limit on the bags, and since I arrived at Finger Lake in under two days, I had a lot of extra. The temps had been warm all race so far, so all of my hand/foot warmers got left behind. I had forgotten to take out cash to bring with me for the race, and only had about $45 with me at the start. Everyone was talking about getting breakfast, and I was worried that we only got one meal and had to pay for any additional ones. It was a great relief to find out that there would be no charge for breakfast. Food and lodging are included at each checkpoint from Finger Lake to McGrath, I just wasn’t sure how much food and lodging that would be.

I knew I had slept quite a bit, and was anxious to get on the trail before Craig on his snowmachine. The light fluffy stuff looked somewhat rideable, but I had a feeling that wouldn’t be the case after he passed. After I ate and filled up on water, I headed for my bike. Bill was the only one outside, and was packing up his bike. I asked if he was ready to go, and he said “5 or 10 minutes”. I thought about waiting and taking off with them while walking to my bike. Everyone else had parked their bikes up by the lodge. I rolled mine down to the tent the previous night and parked it right outside. Once I had double checked everything on the bike, I stood and looked up the hill toward the lodge. It didn’t look like anyone was coming, and I was ready to move, so off I went.


I was right, the trail was about 50% rideable, even with the new snow. Phil from Nome had been the squealing brake I heard a few hours earlier, and his tracks certainly helped. It was gorgeous out, with all the fresh snow covering everything. The only visible tracks being those of a bike and occasionally it’s rider’s footprints. Phil is a much more experienced snow rider than I am, and between that and his multiple gears, he was certainly able to ride a bit more than I was.


I pressed on at a fairly quick pace, working up a sweat. I wanted to get as far down the trail as possible while it was still rideable. I had fantasies about making it to FinnBear before the trail got churned up by snowmachine. I hadn’t reached gotten to the Happy River Steps though before I heard the whining sound of a motor behind me. When I ran into Craig at the checkpoint the previous night, I had said to him, “I know you can’t help it, but your track tears that trail up…”. He said he knew it, and felt bad about it. He was out here on a job though, reporting for the race. “It is what it is”, as someone once said. Once Craig had come past, the trail was what it was, and that was a slog. Even the downhills where sketchy at best. Some of them I didn’t even bother trying to ride down.


The pushing became a lot more strenuous. I was working harder, sweating more, and drinking more water. I got the notion that I might run out before reaching FinnBear Lake, so I started supplementing my water with snow. It was warm enough that hypothermia wasn’t going to be a problem, but those snow crystals do tear up one’s mouth.


Craig was stopped at the bottom of the last of the Happy River Steps. Passing him, I stopped to ask if he had seen Phil(he had), and see if he had a way to get some water going for the group of racers behind me. I figured at that point that I had enough to get me the handful of miles to FinnBear, but that if I was running low, so might some of them. My hopes shot up again that I might be able to ride the flats and downhill parts from there to FinnBear.


After the steps, you come down onto the Happy River for a few hundred yards, where you intersect the Skwentna River, again traveling a few hundred yards before climbing up off of it. The hill after it is probably the single most strenuous pitch of the course. It starts with a 8ft or so near vertical wall up the river bank. Last year I had to alternately lift and set my bike, and kick in footholds. This year, with all the new snow, I was able to wheel my bike right up, while quickly kicking in my footholds. Mike Schoder passed me right before the wall, no paddle track on his machine. For somewhat of a perspective on what each do to the trail, especially soft trail, I took a photo of his track, and a photo of Craig’s nearby. You'll have to forgive the quality, as it's the only way to get the definition to show up.





Neither are rideable where the photos were taken. Both tracks break down the structure of the new snow, but Mike’s doesn’t affect the base, and the resulting track sets up more quickly into a generally nice trail. If it’s warm out, the paddle tracks will dig down, occasionally disrupting the base and making an unrideable trail. And when that churned up, scrambled trail sets up, it’s far from smooth and far from fast. Not that it would set up in those temps until night time anyway.

So, after the wall, It was a bit of a slog up the long steep hill, but I think maybe easier than last year. Last year it was icy and difficult to get a foothold, but the bike rolled easier. This year, foot traction wasn’t a problem, but the bike rolled a bit slower. 6 of one, half dozen of the other I guess.


On Shirley Lake, I took a sucker trail because the main one was all but completely blow in, and it looked like Phil had postholed down it. It eventually led back to the main trail, but added a little bit of distance.

Up over the next rise, I knew I was really close to FinnBear, so I went ahead and drained the last of the water in my hydration pack.


When I got down onto the Lake, It was blowing pretty hard and the trail was drifted. The mid-day, overcast sky cast a very flat light that, combined with the drifts, made riding futile for me. When I got to the sign for Mike and Ingrid’s, the cutoff trail to their cabin was completely blown in. Just gone. No signs of it at all. I thought about heading to the other side of the lake to melt snow, but knew that the cutoff trail generally runs in a dead straight line from a few feet in front of the sign to the cabin, so I went for it. I postholed maybe up to midcalf for a little while before eventually finding signs of the trail again and making it up to the cabin. Mike and Ingrid greeted me outside, and to my surprise, remembered me from the year before, despite the fact that it had been dark the only other time they had seen me. It was very comforting to see some friendly faces, and I planned to stay about half an hour or so, to chat and fill up on water.

Dé Céadaoin 10 Márta 2010

2010 Alaska Ultrasport Day 2 part 1, Shell to Finger

2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Day 2, Part 1
Shell Lake to Finger Lake

As we killed time at Shell Lake Lodge, stretching, eating, drying clothes and resting, riders came and went. Eventually I put my wet shoes back on and headed out to catch Tim, Chris and Kyle(Phil might have been in that group as well), who had left a minute ahead of me. Brij, Big Nicola and Bill had left a while earlier and were well ahead of us. We had been warned of some overflow and open water in the first meadow out of the lodge by Mike Schoder, and soon enough found ourselves at a big, wet rift in the trail. It looked deep enough to go around, so we walked and occasionally crawled through the deep snow skirting the edge of it. I’ve found that when I punch through into deep snow it’s easier and more efficient to just proceed by ‘walking’ on my shins till the trail looks like it firms up. I was walking in front of the procession, so rejoined the main trail before the others. I mounted my steed without pause and pedaled away. Mike had been grooming it all morning, so despite the fresh snow the night before, it was hard packed and rather fast, especially with the tracks of several riders in front of me.

Last years travels through this section had felt like a bit of a slog, but actually ended up taking about the same amount of time as this year. I think the difference could be accounted for in this years slog from Skwentna to Shell, my gear woes in the middle of the swamp, and perhaps a longer rest at Shell. The swamps and meadows did seem to fly by under my tires this year, and I took no photos on this section. So I’ll add a few from last year to keep your attention.





Around the time it became justifiable to put my headlamp on my head, I spotted a brief flash of light a couple of hundred yards up the trail. Often, at night on winter trails, you won’t see another racers headlamp in front of you unless they look back. The headlamps we use are light and small, and usually not more than 100 lumens due to the reflectivity of the snow. Combine that with the trail being in somewhat of a trench most of the time and a rider could be 200 yards in front of you and you might not even know it. Squinting in the fading daylight, I was able to make out the shape of two riders not very far up the trail. I pressed ahead to see who it was(and to pass them, this being a race after all)… It was Lou and Eric, a couple of pros from California, who had done this race numerous times before. I had remarked at some point after last years race that getting myself to McGrath before a racer as accomplished as Louise Kobin would be a nearly insurmountable feat. Catching up to her and Eric on the trail gave me a bit of an adrenaline surge, and I pressed on at a quicker pace than I had been traveling at, thinking about my chances of maybe catching a few more racers.


It wasn’t long before I saw more headlamps and came upon Bill, Brij and Big Nicola. They were happy to see me as they had been setting in tracks through the churned up trail for quite a while. Craig Medred was on the trail reporting on the race, and unfortunately had a paddle track on his snowmachine, which really makes a mess of the trail and is difficult ride behind. So far it seemed like myself and the other racers mentioned so far had been playing leap frog with him since Yentna Station. It was only starting to get a tiny bit annoying at this point. By a stroke of luck, the point where I caught the three B’s was also the point where Craig had caught and passed Dave Pramann from Minnesota, so I had a track to follow for a bit. Unfortunately I was just coming down off the adrenaline fueled overexertion I had been cruising on, and my pulls were feeble at best as the trail continued to get softer for the last handful of miles into Winter Lake Lodge on Finger Lake. Brij summoned up his powers of levitation to calmly pedal away from the pedestrian travel of Bill and I, while Big Nicola fell off the back a bit, encouraging us to press on without him. Had a good chat with Bill as we made our way in to the checkpoint about 15 minutes behind Brij.



I had planned on pressing on a few miles before bivying, remembering the discomfort of trying to sleep in the weatherport last year at Finger Lake. As we sat eating our dinner, we found out that there were TWO heated tents this year, and that changed my attitude. Bill, Nicola, Brij, Lou, Eric and myself went to check out the second tent, with Dave sleeping soundly in the weatherport. It was warm, the floor was dry, and there were no fumes or odors, so I made the decision to join the group on the floor. Lou and Eric expressed the desire to leave around 2am, and I considered departing with them. I only had about a half hour of sleep so far though, and a good night’s rest proved too appealing when I heard them pack up and head out in the middle of the night.

Dé Luain 8 Márta 2010

2010 Alaska Ultrasport Day 1 Knik Bar to Shell Lake

ITI 2010
Day 1
Knik Bar to Shell Lake

My attitude and emotions leading up to this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 were decidedly different than they were in ‘09. Last year saw disappointment in my physical condition and gear set up and resentment toward everyone I blamed for those. Mostly myself. Should have been entirely myself. I had wondered whether it was even worth showing up on the starting line. This year was a complete reversal. I came into the race with significantly better fitness, a more refined gear setup and an eye toward performing to the best of my abilities. I was actually nervous this year. Excited, anxious and nervous. Greg from Speedway Cycles/Fatback hooked me up with a demo black aluminum Fatback for the race. I set it up SS using a tensioner, and it took no more than one ride for me to realize how foolish it is to ride anything less than Endomorphs for this race anymore. They simply roll faster on snow than anything else. Thanks, Greg!!


I got a lift down to the starting line with Tony, Julie and Jill. Thanks!! Got there early and napped in the van for a bit while they joined Jenny, Taig, Charlie, Jamin and eventually Greg for a ride on the first few miles of the course.


Hung out with Bob O, Tony and Paul, Erik, Roger and Bill and others as the clock neared the 2pm start. Quite a few people asked what my goals were for the race, and my main goal was a sub 5 day finish if the trail was good, and that being within 15% of the winning time would be a perfect race for me. The nervousness slowly dissipated, and by the time I was standing on the start line, I was relaxed and focused. The gun went off, and nearly all the cyclists went left, all the walkers and the skier straight. We fell into a long paceline for the first 8 miles. Tim and Jeff cut left at one point for a shortcut to the plowed road, and I briefly considered following, but had plans for my own shortcut a little later on. At Burma rd, the ‘peleton’ was still pretty much all together. I calmly hung out at the back of the line and watched all of them turn left. I turned right. I cruised up the rd wondering what would happen. I had options to bail out to the main trail if my shortcut didn’t pan out. There had been a bunch of fresh snow in the three days before the race start and I wasn’t able to get a trail report on the trail I intended to use. My shortcut involved a combination of several rds and trails which, if in good condition, would cut a huge chunk out of the first 20-30 miles of the race. They would also allow me to avoid Flathorn lake and the Dismal swamp entirely, neither of which I’m very fond of at all.

I experienced my first setback when the second component of my shortcut turned out to only have two snowmachine tracks down it. Not enough to ride on, but not a huge setback. Just meant adding a couple of miles of paved rd to the route. It certainly made me nervous though, as I got closer and closer to what should be the next trail component of my route. The biggest problem, it turns out, was that I should have brought a map. I got lost. For about a half hour, I wandered around on some dead end roads as the thought that I might have to turn around and ride the 5 or 6 miles back to where the group had split and follow everyone else. Just as I was beginning to think that my shortcut was getting ready to kick me in the face, I found what I thought MUST be it. I followed the trail. It was going in the right direction. It was a little soft and mushy, but looked well traveled, so I assumed everyone else’s trail was soft and mushy as well. I really wouldn’t know if it was going to work till I got to at least the river, if not Yentna Station, the first checkpoint.


For the next 8-12 miles I switched back and forth between pushing and riding. The trail was mostly in trees, with lot’s of little ups and downs and the occasional swamp. Eventually it intersected another trail and became pretty bomber. Recently groomed and fast hardpack.


As darkness fell, I started seeing signs for the river. Off the swamp and through the woods and down the hill out onto the Big Su. I could see another racer’s headlamp to the south coming up the river, the first sign of another racer I had seen in a couple of hours. Adrenaline took over and a raced off along the trail, wondering if I would see any tire tracks when the two trails intersected. When I got there, there appeared to be at least 4 of them. I motored on. I could occasionally see that headlamp behind me, but I was steadily putting distance between us. There was blowing snow falling the whole way there, but it was rather uneventful and mostly rideable. My crampon clipless system was starting to bother my feet. It was putting weird pressure points on the ball of each foot. I could tell that I was having an easier time walking than others were though when we were doing so. I arrived in Yentna Station in 6th, just as Jay Petervary was leaving. Considering the setbacks I experienced with my route, I was pretty happy with my position.

I relaxed for a bit and downed a big bowl of french fries before taking off more or less with Bill Flemming. We jockied back and forth for a while. When I was able to stay on the bike, I seemed to be moving a little faster than him, but I crashed a few times, and got off to walk a few times to try and relieve some of the pressure the crampons were putting on my feet, and each time that happened he caught me up. We pulled into a rest stop that I skipped last year, where Bill hoped to get a nap in, and I planned to dismantle my crampons and turn them into platform pedals.


I left the rest stop a few minutes after Tim Stern pulled in. He informed me that Lou Kobin and Eric Warkentin had passed by not to long ago. I ended up walking a lot of the next section as my pedals just weren’t working that well. I had no traction on them and kept slipping off. Got to Skwentna around sun up and decided to take a nap for a while before trying something else with my pedals. I again got there as Jay was getting ready to leave.

After a big plate of pasta I went upstairs and layed down for a while, but had a lot of trouble actually keeping my eyes shut. When Bill came in, I got up and went downstairs to see what I could do with my pedals. I tried turning the crampons around, since that would put more material in front of the cleat and relieve some pressure from the ball of my foot. It actually worked, as far as that is concerned. The problem though, was that I couldn’t unclip. If I came to a stop, I just fell over and had to lay there, struggling to get out of the pedals. I left before Tim, Eric and Lou, but they quickly caught me up.




The conditions were mushy, and we were all doing a lot of walking. I walk pretty quickly, so I was able to get about 1/3 of the way across the marginally rideable swamp before they and Kyle Amstadter passed me by. After about 10 minutes of fast walking as they rode away I finally decided to sit down in the swamp and have another got at converting them to platform pedals. This time I added one of the screws from the bindings to the bare crampon to add some traction. Chris Plesko passed me by while I was doing this, on a SS Fatback as well. I would stick to this setup the rest of the race. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it worked well enough to get me by.



Here's a short video clip shot by Craig Medred of AKDispatch as I was pushing my bike up the Shell Hills:

Everyone was walking uphill, so I caught up to the rest of the group of riders by the time we reached the high point where the trail crosses the Shell Hills. From there it became a lot more rideable down to and across Shell Lake to the lodge, where all but Lou and Eric rested for a couple of hours, with Brij Potnis and Phil Hoffstetter coming before long to join us.