I was shivering at the predawn start line of JayP's Backyard Fat Pursuit on January 10th - not from cold, since it was already 20 degrees, but from eagerness to stop anticipating the event and start racing it. I had been looking forward to this moment since I DNF'ed in the first edition of the race, in March 2014. Getting pulled from that race by Jay Petervary after 34 hours and 100 miles of riding had been tough to take, though I knew I could not have gone any further or faster with the bike, legs, or lungs I had then.
I planned, trained, and raced all spring, summer, and fall with the goal of finishing the second running of the Fat Pursuit. I rode more and better miles on my bike than ever before, including a dozen rides of more than 100 miles on my fatbike. I logged scores of hours in cross-training classes at the gym. I sold my beloved blue Salsa Mukluk (the Beast) for a gorgeous used Salsa Mukluk Ti that I named the Buffalo - a burly, adaptable creature that usually moves slowly and steadily but can go awfully fast, too. I tested every piece of kit and gear I could in as many different conditions as possible. I visualized myself riding through the mountains outside Yellowstone, all the way to the finish line under the gorgeous wooden arch at Ponds Lodge in Island Park. And crucially, I found a good way to get out to Idaho: driving with Wisconsin Mark, another Midwesterner who was going to take on the mountains.
The field for the second running of the 200k Fat Pursuit was almost three times bigger than the previous year's, and I knew from looking at the start list and at the people at the race meeting that I would not be near the front of the race. The bigger field electrified the atmosphere at the race venue, Ponds Lodge in Island Park. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, all the racers looked eager for the challenge, and all the fatbikes looked beautiful. A fatbike loaded for a long race exudes solidity and readiness - a machine made for adventure.
When the alarm rang at 5 a.m. on Saturday, I was eager to ride. A quick breakfast (a burrito with fries in it? yes, please) and a last few minutes of indoor warmth ended when we rode over to the start line, from which Jay released us at exactly 7 a.m. The fast guys and gals sprinted off the line and up the darkened trail.
After the usual number of spinouts and an unusual number of ass-over-handlebars crashes, we organized ourselves into one long string of red taillights. I tried to hold onto a big group until I felt myself working too hard for such an early point in a long race. Instead, I applied the advice offered by Kid Riemer, the Salsa Cycles rep at the race, to "stay constant," and settled in to enjoy the feeling of riding the Buffalo through snow-shrouded trees and a gray mountain dawn.
The course opened with an easy, gradual climb that steadily steepened. As the ascent started in earnest, many racers pulled over to air down. I was happy with the pressure in my Dillinger 5 tires that I had borrowed from a friend, and especially with the firm conditions of the trail. I did hike-a-bike a few especially steep or soft bits, but I was able to ride almost all the sections I had walked the year before, and to speed through sections I had crawled over in 2014. When passing me, or being passed by others, a few racers complained about the soft, slow conditions. I felt like a grizzled veteran in telling them that the trail was almost incomprehensibly better than it had been in 2014. As traffic thinned, I reached the early high point of the course far ahead of my pace in the previous year. A long downhill followed, rolling and curving through the woods. I was thrilled to see my GPS show top speeds of 30 miles an hour, and pleased to feel my legs loosening up.
Some short climbs out of the bottom of this first part of the course delivered me to the first checkpoint at about 10:30 AM - two and a half hours ahead of my 2014 pace. There, JayP and a squad of volunteers - including Bill Merchant from the Iditarod Trail Invitational - waited along the trail to administer the race's infamous boiling water test. In '14, I had spent almost two frigid hours struggling to pass this test. This year, I hopped off the Buffalo, set out my cooking kit, and got right to work. Thanks to practicing with my stove over the fall and winter, I got my fire going right away. While the water heated up, I downed a cup of ramen soup and a nutrition bar and shot the breeze with Bill and JayP, sitting royally in his puff jacket and directing traffic. Before I was even done stuffing my face, my water was boiling. I grinned with stupid delight at how things were coming together. Bill himself verified the boil, and flattered me by saying that I had been the most efficient Esbit user all day. Oh, Bill: you don't need to sweet-talk me to get me to want to do the ITI! I used my hot water to make some cocoa, filled my bike bottles with fresh water, stowed my cooking kit, and got back out on course at just about 11 o'clock. My stop had been more than an hour faster than in 2014, which added to my feeling that everything was working just right.
Owing to the overlaps between the 200k and 60k routes, the long-course racers headed from the checkpoint onto a stretch of trails we had already ridden. I rode for a bit with my friend Minnesota Mark, but he got away when I stopped to adjust my rear tire pressure. If he wasn't a fellow Minnesotan, and therefore wholly earnest, I might suspect that he played a trick on me in saying that my tire looked low.
A little air did seem to speed things up, and I was soon making good time again up the climb we'd already done once, through scattered 60k racers who were now on course, and then through the turn that sent the 200k riders off toward West Yellowstone. I paused at that spot - at the foot of South Plateau Trail - to take a picture, down some food, and adjust my clothing selection. The temperature had been in the 20s all morning, and I expected to see high 30s during the afternoon, so I wanted to be ready for some sweaty riding. Vest off. Hat off. Gloves stowed. Jersey untucked.
Just a few minutes after this turn, the firm and ridable trail vanished. Forced to push the Buffalo, I looked down at the mashed potatoes and thought, for the first time all day, "Not again!" The trail ran uphill and straight, so I could easily envision hours of brutal hike-a-bike in front of me. I tried to push those fears away, talking out loud to myself: "Stay constant. Move forward. Even walking will get me to West." I must have prayed to the right gods, because after only a few minutes on foot, the trail firmed up again, and I hopped back on the bike, shouting with happiness. The rest of the twenty-six miles to West Yellowstone and Checkpoint 2 was rideable - unlike my all-night hike-a-bike in 2014.
Even rideable, South Plateau wasn't easy. I needed more than eight hours to cover it. Mostly, this was by design. Aiming for a tempo I could keep all day and all night, I stayed in a comfortable zone as the trail rose well past 7,000 feet, opening endless views into the Targhee National Forest to the west and Yellowstone National Park to the east. Where I had needed to stop just to catch my breath in 2014, now my lungs filled and emptied easily even when I was head-down into my bars, grinding up a pitch - a clear payoff of innumerable interval sessions on and off the bike (and maybe of eating a lot of beets before the race).
A few ripping downhills, and some complementary crashes, punctuated the climbing. I was entirely alone except for a couple encounters with Kid Riemer who was on the trail shooting photos, flyovers by huge ravens with loud voices, my earworms (Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," oddly) and one run-in with a porcupine. I only had one spare tube, so I played it safe by stopping while the porky waddled across the trail, quills bristling. All in all, these twenty-six miles of riding were some of the best fatbiking I've ever done.
Though I had hoped to get to West Yellowstone in the daylight, the sun set when I was an hour or more outside of town. Much of that riding would be descent, I knew, so I could expect it to be the easiest riding since Checkpoint 1. Still, I wanted to take a break, and to be off my bike for a bit.
I must have angered the gods who had rewarded me earlier in the day, because six miles outside West, as I pedaled hard down a long straight descent, my chain clinked alarmingly and jumped off the cassette. I slammed on my brakes, worried about damage to the chain or the spokes. When I beamed my headlamp onto the Buffalo's rear wheel, the chain was gone. Disaster! It had fallen off somewhere on the descent. Ten feet ago? Ten yards ago? A hundred yards ago? I cursed, laid the bike down, and started walking back up the hill.
The gods were only teasing! The broken chain was lying in the snow just a few yards back up the trail, a silvery ribbon amid the black shadows and white snow. I picked it up and walked back down to the bike, mentally reviewing the process of fixing a broken chain. I found my repair kit (left pocket of my frame bag, next to the wind vest), set the spare master link on the Buffalo's front tire, and got to work. As I wiggled the broken link out of the chain, a trail-grooming machine came rumbling up the trail. The driver stopped. "What's up?" Crouching in his spotlights, I shouted back, "Broken chain!" He grimaced sympathetically. "F’ing chain! I'm Mike. Need any tools?" I told Mike I couldn't accept any help, and anyhow I was already almost done with the repair. He stood nearby, chatting with me as I finished installing the master link.
"Mind if I run my dog?" he asked. I didn't, so Mike let his gorgeous pointer out of the groomer's cab. "He's named Domino." Domino sniffed me, inspected my bike, and then ran off up the hill. The trailside conversation and the dog made me even happier that even this problem, the biggest one of the race, was turning out to be eminently solvable. I whooped with glee when I stood the Buffalo back up, spun the pedals, and saw that the chain held. "Nice job," he said. "Enjoy the rest of the race!" We shook hands and I climbed back onto the bike for the rest of the pleasingly uneventful drop into West Yellowstone.
A little zigzagging over the snowy streets brought me to Checkpoint 2, and the midpoint of the race at 7:30 PM - twelve and a half hours into the race. I grabbed my water bottles and headed inside. The CP buzzed with volunteers, led by Tracey Petervary - the co-race director, a monster ultra-distance bike racer, and JayP's wife. She gave me a high five and called my time to the checker. Other volunteers were helping the handful of other racers who were there, including my friend Mark, who'd dropped me after the first checkpoint. I set my wet clothes near the fireplace to dry and got to work resting. A volunteer brought me a couple grilled-cheese sandwiches, a bowl of soup, some amazing herbed baby potatoes, and a Coke - then more soup and more potatoes. Mark was fixing to depart, so I put my dry clothes back on and collected a couple cans of Red Bull. Tracey gave me another high five. "See you at the finish!"
On the way out the front door, I nearly fell down the icy steps, which would have been an ignominious way to end a bike race. No harm, and a little jolt of adrenaline! I stashed my water bottles, put a few pounds of air into my rear tire - which was in fact looking low again - and got back onto the Buffalo. Mark led me through town to the trails that would take us over the hardest part of the course: a forty-mile section that crossed the Continental Divide, went up and down the infamously steep Two Top Pass, and eventually dumped us out on windy flats midway between West Yellowstone and Island Park.
We found the trail and headed out of town on the solid lines that other racers had laid down. Another rider was close behind us, and we were closing on a rider just ahead. I hoped that the trail would hold up for most or all of the brutal three-mile climb to the Divide, but no: the trail fell apart just after making the left turn that pointed us uphill. We could tell that many of the racers ahead of us had walked too, so we regretfully dismounted. I was almost glad to be in the pitch black, because we were looking at pushing our bikes up three miles of trail and about 1,500 feet of climbing. I was also glad to share the trail with three other racers. Erwin had joined Mark and me as the climb started, and we caught Andrea on one of the lower pitches of the climb. Our little group stretched out, contracted, stretched out again, contracted again. We chatted breathlessly. We found someone's wind jacket, which I stashed in my seatbag. We stepped into the snowbank to let a groomer come down the hill toward us, turning the choppy, unrideable trail into a smooth, unrideable one.
Talking back and forth, the four of us convinced ourselves that this was a good thing. The groomer had already done all of the trail we were now going to climb, right? Colder overnight temperatures would only firm up the trail, right? We just had to wait for that to happen, and in the meantime to keep moving forward. I found that I could make the best time up the hills with a strategy of walking fifty steps, resting ten breaths, walking fifty steps, resting ten breaths, fifty steps, ten breaths…
At some point halfway up the climb, I noticed that our elevation and our distance had crossed: 7,500 feet and 75.00 miles. This seemed important to mention, but Mark didn't seem to care. It turned out he was on the verge of puking, though my computer took his indifference badly and chose that moment to die. I dug out a spare battery, bummed a charging cable from Erwin, and hooked the computer to the battery, hoping that it would charge enough to be useful later in the race. As we tired from the climb, we started talking about just where the hell the Divide was. I was the only one in our party who had crossed it in 2014, so I racked my brain trying to recall the last stretch to the Divide or its actual altitude. Before I succeeded in either, we abruptly came upon a "Welcome to Idaho" sign. We were at the Divide. It was midnight. It was time for a selfie.
The big lie about the Fat Pursuit - like so many other races - is that "it's all downhill" after the Divide. I couldn't recall exactly how much it wasn't all downhill, but I was soon reminded. Leading the group into the descent, I would get far enough ahead that I couldn't see their lights, then hit another climb, where one or two or all three of them would come back up on me. Walk, ride, walk, ride to the top, and then rocket downhill again. This went on for a couple hours, over which our little group fractured. I kept hoping to reach Two Top, because I remembered that the descent off Two Top was the longest, fastest, and last of the whole race. If you can get off Two Top, you can look forward to lots of flat riding and no more hard climbing.
And soon enough, Erwin and I came up to the summit of Two Top, a bizarrely open area studded by "snow ghosts" - trees that are almost entirely hidden by windblown snow. Reaching this spot around noon in 2014, I had found the snow ghosts fairly creepy. Riding past them in the dark was much more so, especially because a chilly breeze was whipping across the trail, animating the snow ghosts. Erwin moved ahead of me, flipped on all his lights, and plunged over the edge. I followed.
The descent was even more scary and fast and fun than I remembered from the previous year, when I did it about twelve hours later in the race, in wan daylight. The pitch-black ramps were steep, lined with unbroken walls of trees, and full of unexpected corners. My headlamp and dying headlight illuminated countless curving ruts and body-sized pits where other racers had swerved and crashed. Pumping the brakes, I managed to string together one clean descent after another. As I started to sense the trail flattening, I let out a whoop: the ups and downs were almost over!
Finishing one long run-out, I saw a light ahead, on the wrong side of the junction with a trail that would lead out to the flats. I stopped and called over to the rider, thinking it was Erwin. Nope, it was Greg, whom I hadn't seen all day. He was happy for me to confirm the correct turn, and off we went. I pulled away, taking advantage of a few more feet of elevation loss to hammer along in the big ring. Then the first real physical unpleasantness of the race hit me: one of those waves of hunger and thirst that are almost painful. The climbing and descending since West Yellowstone had screwed up my eating and drinking schedule, and now my body needed to catch up. I pulled off to a warming hut at the next junction to down some energy chews and two gels. As I ate, Greg rolled up and stopped to catch his breath. I hazily recalled the windjacket in my seatbag and asked him if he'd lost one. He had, and gratefully took the jacket back. Back on the Buffalo, I pulled away from Greg again.
A couple short legs of flat trail put me at the start of Meadow Creek Trail, a long stretch that ended almost at the door of Checkpoint Three, the Man Cave. In 2014, this had been the end of my race: a gray afternoon sky, soft trails, dead legs, heavy snowmachine traffic, and the DNF. Pretty much everything was opposite now: a black predawn sky, firm trails, lively legs, no snowmachines, the expectation of the checkpoint, and then the last 21 miles to the finish. I wanted to use my computer to gauge my effort over the run to the Man Cave, so I reached into the bag where I had stashed it to recharge. It was empty: the GPS and the spare battery had fallen out somewhere on the descents, miles ago. I grimaced at my bad idea to stick the devices in an open bag rather than zip them away. Stupid. Uncorrectable now. Maybe someone would find it, like we had earlier found Greg's jacket! Putting the error out of my mind, I headed northwest up Meadow Creek, feeling good and getting jolts of energy every time I saw, through the thinning trees, lights in the distance.
I ticked off various half-remembered landmarks on the trail: several weird fenced enclosures, a bar accessible only by snowmobile, some houses hiding at the end of snowed-in driveways, a nasty uphill s-curve that proved again to be unrideable, and then the long westerly straightaway to U.S. 20 - along which the Man Cave was lit up with Christmas lights. I could see the blinky light of a rider ahead of me, and I pushed a little harder to catch him. Though I didn't, the chase brought me to the highway and then down the trail to the Mancave sooner than otherwise. Almost literally at the checkpoint's doorstep, I made a bad turn and found myself on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. I couldn't stand the idea of riding back out to the trail and around the end of the fence, so I just waded into the snowbank and lifted the Buffalo over the fence. A few pedal strokes later, I pulled up to the Mancave. 5:00 AM and 21 miles to go.
The Man Cave is a cavernous garage with a kitchen and a little "living room" space along the back wall. I wanted to make a quick stop, but I found, inside, that I needed to do a lot of stuff: dry my clothes at least a little, talk to the volunteers, and urgently use the bathroom. I also ate and drank: a cold Coke, a half-dozen hot pancakes (folded into quarters and jammed in my mouth), a dozen strips of bacon. I sat on a folding chair to avoid one of the comfy sofas, which seemed entrappingly decadent. Erwin was sacked out on one, looking ragged. I took it as a good sign that one of the joint's decorations was a massive buffalo head.
After forty-five minutes, I got back into my kit and headed for the door. Mark was just coming in. He looked strong, and said he was going to make the stop a quick one. My eagerness to get moving again quashed a momentary impulse to wait for him and have company on the home stretch. 6 AM. My stretch goal - a 24-hour finish - was now out of reach. My main goal - finishing! - was almost in hand.
The home stretch opened with a straight four-mile ride toward one of the many resorts along U.S. 20. Fighting a light headwind, I soon reached the resort, dodged around a couple buildings, and then started down a fast snowy gravel road. Big old condos and cabins lined the road, providing a nice distraction from the weird thrum of the Buffalo's tires. I even saw a bit of human activity. It was Sunday morning, after all.
The gravel road eventually intersected with the snowmachine network. Maybe because I'd hammered on the gravel road, my back started to seize up immediately after hitting the snow of Stamp Meadows Trail. Riding a wide, rolling path through the woods, I simply couldn't get up to the exertion levels I'd been enjoying before the Man Cave. Frustrated, I tried all kinds of stretches on and off the bike, finally resorting to walk-jogging the uphills to let my back relax, then riding the descents and flats - not a recipe for speed. Walk. Jog. Pedal. Coast. Remind myself that every bit of forward motion brought the finish closer - a thought less profound in the gray light than it had seemed overnight, but nonetheless true. Get through Stamp Meadows.
Sometime during the night, I had put a homemade cue card and a course map on my handlebars so that I could track my turns and distances. Without my computer, these resources were less useful than they might have been. Still, they helped me check off the final stretches. When I reached the junction of Stamp Meadows and Shotgun Trail, I turned the card over and saw just four more turns. Eight miles! An hour or a little more!
Shotgun Trail was a tricky beast, seeming to include every possible oddity: road crossings, a powerline cut with dozens of rollers that forced me to walk, a bridge over Henrys Fork (ducks, geese), even a couple residential streets. The trail also crossed several other snowmachine trails, which I avidly noted on the map were painfully close to my last turn, onto Ponds Trail and down to the finish line.
Then suddenly I rolled past a sign that pointed toward Ponds. Three miles! A half hour, or less, if I could hammer. Though the morning wasn't nearly as warm as the previous afternoon, I started to sweat from excitement. I even stood up on the pedals and shifted down as far as I could, trying to find every bit of speed I could. When I realized I was hearing car traffic on U.S. 20 again, an electric current went down my back as the finish was right on the highway. My back tingled again when I recognized a grove of trees from a reconnoiter ride that I'd done the day before the start. This grove was a leisurely 15 minute ride back to Ponds, so I was sure that the finish line was less than ten minutes away. Pedal, pedal, pedal. A stop sign! On the road that I'd figured to be a third of a mile from the finish! I got up on the pedals again. My mouth opened and exclaimed, "I did it!" The trail widened, letting me could see the Ponds parking lot, and a bunch of people - JayP, Kid Riemer, racers like Wisconsin Mark, spectators. I wheeled through the small crowd, following Jay's signal to ride under the arch. An arm pump, a squeeze of the brakes, and I was done. Unbelievable, and yet: done.
Jay brought me a beer in a snazzy can holder - the award to all finishers. I knelt in the snow for a while, beaming and gasping and downing that beer - a fantastic breakfast. Kid took a few pictures. Some other racers came over with congratulations. I posed for a couple more shots. The high was incredible - better than my unexpectedly good finish of the frigid Arrowhead 135 a year before and far better than the DNF at the Fat Pursuit that same winter. And while I certainly benefited from a lot of luck - from my travel arrangements to finding great trails - the finish rested on a foundation of lots of careful planning and hard work, from choosing good gear to riding every chance I had. Feeling my work pay off was enormously satisfying.
The rest of the day was a series of slow-motion pleasures projected against the backdrop of that satisfaction. Showering and changing into dry, soft clothes. Seeing Minnesota Mark over the line, avenging his own DNF from 2014. Joining the traditional noontime toast to the race. Watching the Packers win their playoff game. Finding that another racer had found my GPS and battery on Two Top and returned them to race HQ! Eating a ton of food and drinking gallons of Coke, water, coffee, and beer (not all at once). Swapping stories with other racers, including the men and women's winners. And above all, reflecting on my twenty-six and a half hours of riding a bike in the mountains.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER
Christopher Tassava lives in a small college town in southern Minnesota with his wife and two daughters. He caught the gravel riding bug in 2009, and fell hard for fatbiking in 2012. In addition to riding year round to get to and from work and training as much as his schedule allows, he has completed several of Minnesota's great gravel grinder races. Racing his fatbike seemed like the logical next step. You can find him online via his blog Blowing & Drifting, @tassava (Twitter), http://snowandgravel.tumblr.com/ (Tumblr), and on Facebook, where he has happily gotten in touch with lots of cool bikers from all over the world.
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