At 5 AM Saturday morning I was wide awake, listening to my husband, Perry, shuffle around the room, getting himself ready for the 200k Fat Pursuit race. I lay there groggily, wishing I would have slept soundly for at least a few hours, but that hadn’t happened thanks to the snoring 'bulldozer' in the adjoining cabin. By 6:30 AM Perry was out the door, and I lay there still not wanting to get out of the warm cozy bed, but knowing that it was time to get up and get ready for the day's excursion.
Perry and I heading out to pre-ride the day before the race…
I'd been nervous about this ride for the past week, as I had just started fatbiking, and my longest ride had only been about 17 miles. From what I could tell, the short course of the Fat Pursuit was somewhere between 34 to 37 miles. No worries though, I knew I could do this. I've been on long distance rides before and all you have to do is keep moving forward and eventually you’ll get there.
The day’s forecast had called for about a 25-degree day. Pretty decent weather for a day out on the fatbike! Perry and I had done a recon ride the day before to check out the course, and I figured that if I wore the same clothes, plus brought an extra jacket, I would be just fine. Slowly I got dressed, did some stretching, ate what I could for breakfast, and started packing my bike with all the essentials. Poking around the room I lost track of time, and when I looked at the clock I realized I needed to get myself over to the lodge. I quickly filled up my hydration pack with hot water, put on my jacket, boots, gloves, hat, and helmet, and headed out the door.
While riding over to the lodge I noticed that some of the other riders seemed to be very bundled up. I remember thinking to myself, ‘These guys are going to get hot fast!’ although it did feel slightly cooler than the 25-degree temp that had been forecasted. I wasn't too concerned though, as I figured it would warm up later in the day.
I rode over to the lodge and strolled inside just in time to catch race director JayP's words of, “Eight degrees with below-zero wind chill”. ‘Did I just hear that right?’ I stood there contemplating what to do while everyone started heading out the door. I followed their lead and headed outside, over to my bike. Eight degrees? It didn't feel that cold, so I decided I would be fine because I had brought the extra jacket and I even had stuffed a pair of warmer gloves in my pack along with my trustee 45NRTH balaclava….just in case. The only part of my body I was a little worried about were my legs, as I chose to wear my insulated bibs with some light windpants rather than my warmer, heavier windpants. Oh well, too late now!
Everyone rode casually over to the starting line and the wait began. There were a few guys that were late and we ended up waiting for them!?! As each minute ticked by the cold started to sink in. I really just wanted this thing to get going so I could start riding and warm up. Finally, about ten minutes late, the 'late guy' showed up and we were off. I hung in the back right from the start, as I was in no way, shape, or form ready to race this thing. It was all about survival today, and little did I know, it would end up feeling literally 'all about survival!'
The first few miles of the course were smooth sailing. I was warming up and felt great. The only problem I was having was my hydration tube was starting to freeze up. I tried to remember to sip often, but while riding across one windy stretch about five miles in, my tube finally gave in and froze up. ‘Bummer, but no worries,’ I thought. I would just have to stop every half hour or so and take off my pack to drink directly from the bladder. At this time I also started noticing my pinky toes felt cold and were becoming numb, as were my pinky fingers! I pulled my fingers out of their individual spots and curled them up into fists inside my gloves to warm up. I also started wiggling my toes in my shoes to try to get the blood flowing. In what seemed like no time, I was at the first checkpoint, at around mile eight. I wasn't entirely sure if we were supposed to use this first stop as an aid station, but I knew that I had 20 miles to go before I would have any means of getting more water, so I timidly asked the volunteer if it was okay to get a glass of water. The man kindly helped me fill up a cup and I, quickly drank several glasses of nice warm, dirty, snow melt water and hopped back on my bike.
Look closely and you'll find me…
I was alone at this point and it was really beautiful. I knew there were a few others behind me but I wasn't sure how many, and that I needed to keep moving to stay out of DFL place. As I kept pedaling I realized my toes were still getting colder. I continued wiggling them around in my shoes, but they just weren't warming up. A couple miles later I decided I should probably get off my bike and walk until they warmed up and I could take a drink at this time as well!
One big lesson I learned on this ride is to have a little more patience with myself. Typically I hate stopping when I ride, and every time I do stop, I feel like it is a bad pit stop, where I am the only mechanic, trying frantically to get things taken care of. Anyway, I reluctantly stopped, took off my pack to drink and a great big sigh escaped my lips as I realized the bladder wasn't even halfway full of water, and the bottom of it was soaking wet! I looked at the back of my jacket and saw an iceberg on the bottom/back of it, where water had been slowly leaking down my back.
I also noticed the backs of my legs were really cold! Like icy cold to the touch! I decided to stick my hands down my pants and assess the situation, while trying to warm up the backs of my legs a bit. My hands weren't producing near enough heat to warm up my legs so I broke out my two packages of hand warmers; open, shake and wait. I also got my second jacket out and slipped it on, as all this standing around was starting to chill me. After about ten minutes of walking and pushing my bike, my toes began to warm up, but I felt my legs and they were still cold. Not totally numb yet, but very cold! I took the hand warmers and shoved them down my pants but they weren't warming up? I had never used hand warmers before, but if this was the warmest they were going to get, they weren't going to do anyone any good on this frigid day!
By now I was getting a little frustrated, as two riders had passed me and I was getting nowhere fast. I decided to just keep walking, to see if my legs would eventually warm up, and also because the snow was getting pretty tough to ride in.
After about 30 minutes of walking my legs were still cold and I decided I better get on my bike and ride if I ever wanted to finish this thing. I pedaled, swerved, fell…pedaled, swerved, fell…pedaled, swerved, fell. Okay, back to walking. During this stretch I was passed by two of the long course riders. The first place male was followed by, the one and only, Rebecca Rusch!
I knew a little about her from blogs and articles I had read, and had the privilege to get to know her a bit as we sat at the same table at the previous night’s dinner and rider’s meeting. As she started to pass me, she recognized me and asked how my ride was going. I didn't want to go into too much detail, but mumbled how my hydration pack had frozen up. So get this; Rebecca stopped…yes, she actually stopped and tried to help me out and give me a few pointers for my ride. I can't really remember much of our conversation. I think I was just so surprised that she had actually stopped on her bike to visit with me for a few minutes in the middle of her race! After a few minutes, we wished each other good luck, and she rode off up the snowy trail and vanished.
After a few more minutes of pushing I finally decided I should try to let some air out of my tires. On my recon ride the previous day, race organizer and ultra-endurance athlete, Jay Petervary had kindly pulled over on his sled, hopped off, and given me a quick lesson on tire pressure. If not for this, my ride this day would have been a nightmare. I dropped my tire pressure down to about three pounds of pressure and was off! Why hadn't I done that sooner? Old habits die hard I guess.
After about another mile of climbing I finally made it to the turn onto Black Canyon. On this stretch I passed several other riders who were walking their bikes. The riding was great at this point. We were finally heading down, and it felt good to be able to stand up and coast a little bit. My neck was starting to get really stiff and sore so I stopped once again, took off my pack to drink and popped a few ibuprofen. By this point my water supply was really low. I would only take small sips when I needed to, trying to conserve the water until I reached the checkpoint at mile 30. But I could feel the thirst starting to take hold. At one point I tried shoving some snow into the hyration bladder, hoping that the warm water would melt it, but this was making my hands freeze up and my gloves were getting wet. I abandoned that idea and fished out my warmer, dry gloves, elated that I had brought them along with me.
Continuing along I was starting to get tired of being on my bike, and the mental games began. I started thinking about wolves (I know…silly), and that it was getting colder, and that it would start getting dark in a few hours! My GPS told me that I was about 25 miles into the ride and my body told me that I was starting to get tired, thirsty, and was feeling a little nauseous. However, I kept forcing down the food, kept taking baby sips of water, and kept moving forward, knowing that I was closing in on the last checkpoint.
I can't remember exactly when, but at some point we took a turn, and I felt the wind at my back. Normally I look forward to 'wind at my back', but this time I was afraid for my legs! Sure enough, after about a half hour more riding, I felt the backs of my legs and they were now completely numb! I started wondering about frostbite, and if it was safe for me to keep going like this? I decided to get off and walk to see if that would help them warm up. While I was walking all three of the riders I had passed earlier went by me. I kept walking but my legs weren't getting any warmer. I even tried walking backwards to try to shelter my legs from the biting wind at my back. Looking down at my odometer and saw I was at the 29-mile mark. I only had one or two more miles to go before I reached the checkpoint, but I was now actually afraid to keep moving! I had been on the course for seven hours now. Originally it had been my goal to finish in seven hours or less, but I knew at the pace I was traveling at I would be lucky to make it in 11 hours…and it was getting colder, and darker!
Then I heard it; a snowmobile was heading my way. I stood and waited for it to pull up wondering what I could say to them to try to get a ride back to the lodge. At this point I was ready to abandon my bike on course, afraid that staying out in the cold any longer would do some serious damage to my legs. When the snowmobile got closer, I was extremely relieved when I recognized the jacket of Scott, one of the volunteers for the race. He pulled up alongside me and asked how I was doing. I wanted to hop on right then and yell at him to get me to the nearest hot tub! But instead, I casually explained that my legs had been completely numb for the last hour and that I thought I should probably call it quits. Scott asked me if I wanted to get a ride to the checkpoint and try to warm up, and I was game.
We loaded, and bungee corded my bike on the tub he was pulling behind his sled, and I was extremely relieved to be on my way to the checkpoint to warm up. Once at the checkpoint, I got off the sled and went straight into the ice fishing tent they had set up. Scott was kind enough to bring me more warm, dirty water and I gladly gulped it down. There was one volunteer at the checkpoint and he was looking pretty cold. As I stood there the three riders that we re-passed on the snowmobile pulled up, resupplied, and took off. I also learned that there was one other guy still out there, quite a ways back on course. I silently hoped that he had lithium batteries in his lights.
At the checkpoint, I was only getting colder and the backs of my legs were still completely numb. I got back onto the sled behind Scott, and we took off toward the lodge, head down, face planted into the back of his jacket to keep the wind out. After a few miles we pulled up alongside some other snowmobilers, and they informed us that there was a guy up ahead that was walking his bike and they thought he was done. So we rode onward, and sure enough, came upon the guy walking his bike. This guy looked pretty shelled. It was completely flat and he was walking his bike! He had this 'dazed and confused' kind of look on his face. Scott asked how he was doing and after a short conversation the guy decided to just keep walking, or maybe he realized there was really nothing we could do for him at this point, as I was not about to give up my spot on the back of the sled!
Moving forward, it wasn't long before I peeked out from the back of Scott's jacket, and saw the Lodge coming into view. It was a bittersweet sight, as I knew I would finally be able to get my legs warmed up, but also that my journey had officially come to a bad ending of a DNF. I hopped of the sled, thanked Scott for picking me up, talked briefly to a friend about what had happened, and headed straight for my cabin! Once inside I stripped out of my wet clothes, downed a water bottle, wrapped the comforter from the bed around myself, and plopped down in front of the little heater that I had just cranked up to about 90 degrees. I think I sat there for an hour thinking about the day's events, and what an interesting experience it had been.
Fast-forward two weeks.
The backs of my legs were still tingling with a pins and needles sensation, but they finally felt like they were starting to heal up a bit. The pins and needles feeling actually didn't start up until about two days after the race, and it concerned me enough that I went in to the doctor to get it checked out. I found out that I have a hereditary condition called Reynaud’s Syndrome, which is basically a poor circulation kind of thing. It explained a lot to me about why my fingers and toes are always getting cold, and why the backs of my legs ended up being colder than they should have. I was told to be extra careful in keeping my extremities warm in cold conditions. I'm thinking custom pockets sewn into my riding apparel for hand warmers would be pretty cool!
I've thought a lot about this ride, and learned a lot about what to do, and what not to do, and have realized that winter riding isn't about just going out for a ride. You really need to be prepared for any and every condition and situation that is thrown your way; a lot can go wrong pretty easily when you really think about it. I think this ride was a great learning experience for a lot of people who did it. It's far from the ultra 200k that some of the riders faced, but for me it was a mini-ultra that chewed me up and spit me out! But hey, I'll be back. Winter fatbiking is definitely a dance that I can't wait to learn more about, and I look forward to the many journeys ahead!
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