I used to say that my best adventures are those I am not sure I can finish. That’s a good motto – as long as I finish. It’s a slippery slope. Drop out of one race, and the next time the going gets tough, it’s easy to quit that one too. After some major failures last year, I decided I needed to make some changes, especially in my attitude. 2015 would be The Year of the No DNF.
The year’s first race was JayP's Backyard Fat Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho. This was my first big failure of 2014. Heavy snow during the race and a bad attitude did me in at the halfway point. That and the best-grilled cheese sandwich ever.
This year at the pre-race meeting, Salsa Cycles' Mike Riemer gave us a heartfelt pep talk. The message was: Don’t give up. Finish. If you are contemplating quitting, ask yourself, “Are you really in danger, or are you just uncomfortable?” Looking back at my recent failures, I had to admit I was never really in danger. Mike’s words struck home. This would be my motivation going forward.
The mountains of Idaho can be very cold in early January, but with unseasonably warm temperatures in the mid 20’s, the pack of stellar racers took off at breakneck speed. Me? Not so much. But that meant plenty of good tracks to follow. The miles went by quickly and I soon found my way to the top of the first big climb. Knowing what fun lay ahead, I shifted through PhatTi’s (my Mukluk Ti) gears and went all out. Best downhill ever.
After a quick stop at JayP’s mandatory snow melting checkpoint, I was back in the race and headed up to the continental divide. While there were plenty of soft spots and some hike a biking, the going was so much faster than last year.
I arrived at the half way checkpoint in the early evening and was greeted warmly by assistant race director Tracey Petervary and her crew. Even before sitting down I was served the best grilled-cheese sandwich ever. Unfortunately my stomach was not in the mood for the delicacy and I spent the next couple of hours trying to keep it down. Realizing that sooner or later I would need to get moving, I made my way out towards the trail. I told Tracey of my gastric predicament and asked her whether, if things didn’t go well, I could return to the checkpoint and get a ride to the finish. She said “NO”, which was of course what I needed to hear.
Back on the trail the nausea continued for several hours up to the Continental Divide. Past the Welcome to Idaho sign. Past the Welcome to Montana sign (what the heck?). Past the next Welcome to Idaho sign. And that was it. No more nausea. I felt great and picked up serious speed as I rode down the big hill on the west side of the divide.
Through the darkness I reached the final checkpoint, then with the rising sun, it was on to the finish. After 27 hours of racing I crossed under the big pine arch and I was done. Hearty handshakes came from JayP, Mike, Christopher and Wisconsin Mark. DNF of 2014 avenged. Sweet victory.
In life there are things we do that contribute to the definition of who we are. Towards the top of that list for me is the Arrowhead 135. As in life, for me this race has been mix of success and failure. So far my finishing record was 50%; this would be my fifth attempt.
A couple of years ago I tried to keep up with friends who were planning to race the Iditarod Trail Invitational later that season. At the time, the Arrowhead was the hardest thing I had ever done. I could not believe they were using this race as a training ride for something harder. Now, two years later, I was doing the same thing. I had been accepted for this year’s ITI.
I prefer to race with minimal weight. I knew that I would need to do things differently in Alaska. The weather there can fluctuate dramatically, necessitating more clothing choices, as well as extra food and fuel. Luckily my Mukluk Ti has attachment spots for a rear rack. I purchased the Salsa Alternator Wide Rack and geared up my bike as I would need to do later in the big race. Though the weather was warm, I had a lot of extra gear available just in case I needed it. I didn’t. But I was comforted to know I had it, which was the intent of riding this edition of the Arrowhead as a shakedown race.
Race morning was warm; mid 20’s with a light snowfall. What a pleasant winter day. The pack started out fast, then funneled into a long train with dozens of us following the leader’s trail. Thanks JayP! I held on for a couple of hours then dropped off to tend to a few things. The trail was still good all the way to the first checkpoint. After a quick food break, I was off. Riding with Christopher, I could tell that this was his day. As he sped ahead of me I realized I was going to lose our bet over who would buy breakfast.
Coming into the halfway checkpoint at MelGeorge’s resort, I was feeling strong. I arrived just in time to see Tracey heading out to her eventual victory. Go T-Race! After a quick stop for hydration and the best grilled-cheese sandwich ever, I was out the door before sunset, a first for me.
I yo-yoed with Lindsay (a former Olympian) for most of the night until a few miles out from the last checkpoint, then I totally bonked. A Snickers bar helped but dragging myself into that checkpoint, aka the Surly lair, was a serious struggle.
And what a lair it was; staffed by folks from the Surly bike company, the place was party central. I fell asleep in a lawn chair and apparently missed the whiskey handups. Fellow racer Brother David Sunshine was there too. Dave, Surly employee and fat bike pioneer, is a legend here in Minnesota. There’s a good chance we would still be riding (i.e., pushing) 2.2” mountain bikes on that trail if not for his visionary efforts. Fireworks celebrated his departure and I was soon right behind him.
There was one last big hill then the trail flattened out. The last several miles are always tough but I could smell the barn and picked up the pace. 23 hours after starting, I was done and happy to buy breakfast.
One of the pleasures of bicycle racing is meeting so many nice people and making new friends. A large group of those friends reside in the great Canadian cycling town of Winnipeg. Every winter they hold the Actif Epica race in celebration of human resilience. The route travels 130 km of snowy trails and gravel roads over the wind swept plains of southern Manitoba.
I decided to change things up a bit and bring Babe The Blue Bucksaw (Yes, that’s a Paul Bunyan reference; I am Minnesotan!) with me across the border. I knew her full suspension would not be necessary on the course, but she is my favorite bike and this would be her first race.
We were warned that the race might be a cold one and we weren’t disappointed. The temperature was -21 at the start with a brisk headwind coming straight out of the North Pole. Shortly after the rollout, Wisconsin Mark and I pushed the pace for the next few km. Then we hit some soft snow and whoosh, I was on the ground. The pack flew by as I dusted myself off and that was that. Babe and I would be on our own for a while.
The headwind was relentless. Combined with the arctic temperature, exposed skin was subject to nearly immediate frostbite. In that kind of weather, simple things like eating and drinking become problematic. Fortunately there were five nicely spaced checkpoints along the route. Normally I try to limit my time in these places because they suck you in and make it difficult to leave.
Checkpoint #3, AKA The Perogie Palace, staffed by my friend Al, was one of those places. Delicious food. Good conversation. Tough to leave. Al informed me that there were only a few racers ahead of me since many other competitors had either dropped out or were spending extended time inside at the checkpoints. That’s all I needed to hear to get moving. Pete soon joined me, and the two of us worked together to battle the ferocious headwind.
Many years ago, wise Winnipeg leaders had a floodway diversion built to protect the city from springtime Red River overflow. In the winter it’s dry. Pete and I rode up the dike then down into the big trough. For the first time in the day, Babe got to use her suspension. Babe loves bumpy trails and performed flawlessly. Up and over the other side and soon we were on the home stretch through the streets of urban Winnipeg.
KC caught up and the three of us rode together over the last few km. Eventually we reached the groomed trail on the river and headed to the finish line at The Forks, the intersection of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Our little peloton had survived the brutal cold and wind and ended up with a three-way tie for 4th place. What a great race.
Two weeks later, after years of thinking about and preparing for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I finally stood on the starting line in the historic town of Knik. PhatTi was fully loaded. Though the weather was mild with a temperature in the high 20’s, I knew from the Actif Epica race that I would need my full winter kit if real winter returned. That plus food, a pot, a stove, and fuel really added up. It was the heaviest bike I had ever ridden but I didn’t think I had much choice.
Unlike most races, the ITI does not require participants to follow any particular path. You just have to report to each checkpoint. My GPS track had me going out on the road, which is the way most of the fast people went. But others, including a few I hoped to keep up with, went down the traditional trail. Who to follow? I ended up taking the trail, then switching to the road until it ended. Eventually both paths merged near Flathorn Lake, and by then there was no turning back.
I didn’t have much of a race plan, but knew I wanted to do my best. After the 2:00 PM start, night came quickly and headlights were switched on. Luckily for me I was able to join forces with Andrea from Fairbanks, whom I had met at the Fat Pursuit, and Julie from Anchorage. Sharing similar speed and temperament, we ended up riding together for the entire race. It’s a big wide wilderness out there. It helps to have others along to tackle the distance together.
A quick stop was made at Yentna, the first checkpoint, where they served me the best grilled-cheese sandwich ever. Then we were on to Skwneta, checkpoint number two, where we arrived in the wee hours. After refueling and a short nap, we were back on the trail pre-dawn. Winding our way up and down the Shell Hills, we arrived at Shell Lake Lodge just in time for brunch. By mid afternoon we had reached the third checkpoint at Winter Lake Lodge. T-Race was there and told me about the snowstorm forecast for the next day. Wasting no time, she was off, and we followed later.
We arrived at Rainy Lake Lodge on Puntilla Lake, the fourth checkpoint, after midnight. I was totally spent and needed a good nap. Unfortunately for us the cabin was packed. Every available cot was taken, which meant that we had to spend the night on the floor with the mice. It was a short night, because everyone else got up and out of there by 3:00 AM. They wanted to beat the storm. I just couldn’t do it. I needed more rest. At 5:00 AM the three of us woke up to silence. We had the place to ourselves. A quick look out the door confirmed our fears. The snowstorm was in full force.
After fueling up and gathering our courage, we headed out and up the trail to Rainy Pass in the middle of the Alaska Range. The good news was: the fresh snow was pretty. The bad news was: the fresh snow covered all the preceding riders’ tracks. We had none to follow. The slog up to the race highpoint at 3160’ was long and slow. We were passed by Kara from Anchorage (whose husband won the race), and Steve, a veteran ITI racer from the UK.
By the time we reached the top, the snow had stopped, and we were able to ride down the other side. After dropping thousands of feet and losing our daylight, we found ourselves on a large river. The Iron Dog snowmobile race had passed through here one week prior. I vividly recalled the videos of those racers having to skip their machines over open water. Temperatures were colder by the time we arrived, and the ice seemed solid. But in the dark, I could see open water here and there, and we had no tire tracks to follow. Scary! Eventually we found our way to the Rohn cabin, the fifth checkpoint. Bill Merchant, race founder, and his friendly volunteers took great care of us. Steve was there too, and he decided to join us for the rest of the race. The more the merrier.
Oddly, the next 60 miles had almost no snow, which meant that there were lots of tussock fields to ride through. Think of hairy bowling bowls attached to the ground. Do you ride over them, around them, or do you just stop and swear? Yes, yes, and yes.
The four of us pushed ourselves hard, arriving at Nikolai, the last checkpoint, in the late evening. After our last short nap (apparently serious racers don’t sleep much), we were out the door and headed for the finish line 50 miles away. At first the trail was unusually good. Soon another snowstorm hit, slowing us down again. But we were on a mission. After a short wrong way detour, we hit the road into McGrath and saw a vehicle heading toward us. “Car up,” I warned our peloton, realizing that I hadn’t said that for a long time.
After 3 days and 20 hours, we finished and were greeted with heroes’ welcomes. Host Peter gave us all the food we could possibly eat, and then more. We had become Iditarod finishers; a dream come true.
And with that, my fatbiking winter came to an end. The Year of the No DNF has gotten off to a good start.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: MARK SEABURG
Mark Seaburg is an experienced fatbike racer and former mountaineer. He is a physican and lives in Minnesota.
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