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.