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.
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….