By Guest Blogger Leah Gruhn
Continued from “The 2016 ITI: Part I,” posted March 24, 2016 …
After dark, Jim Ishman and I encountered more snow-free lakes and off-camber ice. I think I might still be out on the trail with broken bones or a broken bike if not for the studded Dillinger 5 tires that held and did not slip at all. In this section, we traversed the Farewell Lakes that were as big as ¾ of a mile across. To stay on the trail, we watched our GPS tracks and Iditarod Trail reflective markers on trees. Because some of the lakes were so big that the reflective markers were not visible all the way across the lake, we had to trust the GPS track and the integrity of the ice to get across.
There was little to no snow on the ice, so our headlamps shone through, and we were able to see every crack and variation. Most of the ice was strong and solid, but there were sections that sounded weak, as well as sections of open water along the shoreline. I was entirely creeped out by the fear of traveling over the weak ice in the dark and the fear of accidentally losing the trail and riding over truly bad ice or into the depths of interior Alaska. Throughout the Farewell Lakes, I was especially thankful to be riding with Jim, since he was willing to bravely ride in the lead on this section.
The trail flattened out after we left the lakes and the hills. I got very sleepy, and my plan for the night was to take short naps to “shiver bivy” on the side of the trail instead of stopping to sleep for a few hours. A shiver bivy is where a person lies on the trail and drifts off to sleep for 10–15 minutes before being awoken from the cold, then quickly gets up and back onto the bike to ride and warm up. I had never used the shiver bivy to get through an entire night, but I wanted to try because we were only about 80 miles from the finish, and I thought that it would be the best use of time on the trail.
Jim wanted to push on and sleep at the BLM Bear Creek primitive cabin a mile east of the Iditarod Trail, so I told him to go ahead and that I would shiver bivy along the trail. After a couple of tries, however, I found that I was only alert for 15–20 minutes before I got very weary again. I speculated that I could go on for the rest of the night splitting time between riding and sleeping alongside the trail, but maybe I was better off getting a few hours of continuous sleep at the BLM cabin before continuing. I pressed on to the cabin. There were five other racers (including Jim) sleeping there when I arrived, so I laid my ridge rest and sleeping bag onto the floor (hopefully avoiding most of the mouse turds) and got some rest.
I headed back out in the dark morning, and Jim caught up to me around dawn. We got to Sullivan Creek, where there is a bridge over the creek that stays ice-free most winters. On the bridge is a can on a string that can be used to fill up on cool and delicious water. The sun eventually came out for another warm and bright day. At the 300-mile Nikolai checkpoint, I ate two heaping plates of spaghetti before continuing out onto the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River on the now hot 40 degree F afternoon.
From Nikolai, the trail travels across lakes and streams with short wooded sections. The lakes were sunny and felt like 40 degrees, but when I’d go into the shaded woods, the temperature seemed to drop by 20 degrees.
When I was only about 30 miles from the finish, I became overcome with gratitude for my husband Jeré, my friends and family who supported me, my cycling friends Brian and Todd who encouraged me to follow my dreams and do this in the first place, previous racers who gave me advice and lent me gear, and for the nice friends that I had made so far since the race started. I felt conflicted, because on one hand, I was elated that the race had exceeded my expectations, but bummed that it was almost over. Preparing for the ITI had been a focus of my life for the previous 10 months, and I wasn’t sure what would be next. Knowing that I would reach the finish that night in the dark as the sun was setting, I stopped for some photos of the last light that I would see on the trail.
I rode on and on to a point where I figured that I had about 17 miles left to go and saw a sign that read “McGrath–20 miles.” I was deflated that I still had 20 miles to go. I was so exhausted and kept thinking about how far 20 miles is relative to landmarks back home. I tried to remind myself that I had already come 330 and that I could do another 20, but I wanted to be done so badly that I couldn’t stand the thought of more hours on the bike. I rode down the next hill, coasted onto the Kuskokwim River until I came to a stop, set my bike down on the river, and lay on my back looking up at the sky, all alone and feeling frustrated and exhausted.
After 5 or 10 minutes, I started thinking that the only thing worse than having 20 miles left to ride was to drag it out and make it take even longer because I was feeling tired, frustrated, and impatient. With that thought, I pulled myself together and got back on the bike.
Not long after, I took a quick stop and looked over my shoulder to see an arc of green northern lights along with brilliant stars. I was wrong hours ago when I thought that the setting sun was the last light that I would see! The amazing northern lights would be the last light on the trail. A couple of hours after that, I looked back and saw that they were taking up most of the sky behind me. It was an incredible sight. That gave me strength and motivation to carry on and get to McGrath, and I was hoping that other racers at McGrath and on the trail were able to see the beautiful northern lights, too.
Somehow, the last 5 miles felt to be all gradual downhill, but later when talking to others and looking at maps, it seems that it was flat. I’m not sure where I got the boost of strength to make it feel easier than it should have, but I am thankful regardless. Eventually the trail met up with a snow-covered road in McGrath, which I followed to the finish at the home of Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze.
The house was packed with sleeping racers, but Ken and two others had stayed up waiting for me to come in. After hugs and words of congratulations, they fed me, and we compared notes on the part of the trail since we’d last seen each other. I rolled out my sleeping bag in front of the wood stove and flopped down on the floor for a long rest, only interrupted by a cough I had developed from exertion in the cold air.
The next day involved copious amounts of food—“man-cakes” (think pancakes on steroids) and a humongous omelet. Other racers finished, stories were shared, and I finally took a flight back to Anchorage. Jeré met me and other returning racers at the airport, and we went back to the hotel in Anchorage.
Looking back on it all, I wonder how I did it—how did I ride all day for 3.5 days, only stopping to sleep for a few hours each night? I’m not exactly sure, but I know that the following played a role—the thankfulness and satisfaction that you get when everything is going well (knowing that things can change at any moment), the focus and determination that you get when things aren’t going well, the beauty of the trail, the companionship of Jeré and the other racers, support from family and friends back home, and taking a step back to think about what I was accomplishing—a winter traverse of a subarctic mountain range by fully loaded fatbike.
Why do it?
When I set out to do the Heck of the North (Jeremy Kershaw’s 100-miler gravel race) for the first time in 2011, it was my first bike race, ever. I didn’t know that I could finish it, because it seemed like an impossible task, and I had never done anything like that before. I ended up finishing, had fun, and made a lot of really great friends in the process. It’s an amazing and empowering feeling to be reminded that we can set our limits based on our hopes and dreams, rather than negativity and fears. A couple of months after I finished the Heck of the North, Anne Flueckiger and I decided to sign up for the Arrowhead 135 on skis. We didn’t finish that year, but then I bought a fatbike and have now finished the event four times. I find the pursuit of my limits to be a bit addictive and intoxicating. I love to identify an adventure that seems nearly impossible, but succeed with enough planning, hard work, and determination, with a dose of good luck.
I leave you with this: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us—it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ―Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”
More to come from Leah Gruhn’s race prep and trip planning March 30 …
About the Guest Blogger—Leah Gruhn
Leah Gruhn grew up in Rhode Island and developed a love of wilderness adventure in the far north as a teenager on summer canoe trips in northern Minnesota and the Canadian Arctic. After moving to Duluth, Minnesota, she became an avid cross-country skier and winter camper, and later competed in northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135 on cross-country skis. The following year, Leah raced the Arrowhead on fatbike and quickly got hooked on long fatbike races. In total she has competed in six Arrowhead 135s, the ITI, Tuscobia Ultra, and Actif Epica.
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