My Fourth Time To McGrath

The months leading up to this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational were slightly more stressful than needed. First, I was going to the ITI, then I wasn’t going, then I was. I had planned to go to the ITI back in April 2014, but then we weren’t sure we would be able to afford it so I gave up my spot and planned on racing JayP’s Fat Pursuit instead. Then things changed and I was out for the Fat Pursuit. I really wanted to do another winter ultra, in addition to the Arrowhead 135. A few days before the Fat Pursuit, we were having dinner with ITI race directors, Kathi and Bill Merchant, and it just so happened a spot in the ITI opened and was offered to me. I was in! That meant I had six weeks to come up with the funds, plan my travel, and get my gear together.

One of the draws of going back to the ITI is that it is different every year. Temperatures had been unusually warm in Alaska this year, so open water and overflow were to be expected. My main concern was keeping my feet warm and dry. I had damaged them back in 2010 going to Nome, which led toward me developing Chilblains and susceptibility to cold. I applied seam sealer to my 45NRTH boots as a backup to help keep water out. I tried and tested several different sock setups, which included filling the bathtub with cold water and stepping in, until I found what worked for me. I wound up using a Vermont Darn tough liner sock, an Icebreaker snowboard sock covered with a neoprene sock. I constantly wiggle my toes and over exaggerate my ankle movement to help keep the blood flowing. I also put hand warmers on my shins, as close to my feet as possible, between my liner and sock. There are many small details to think about that may impact your performance.

As far as gear, I had a few new items this time around. My very lightweight, Salsa Beargrease Carbon, Fave, was one. I was wearing 45NRTH Wolfhammer clipless cycling boots, using 45NRTH four-inch studded Dillinger tires and a brand new handlebar roll bag from BikeBagDude.

I kept my food lists from previous years and had made notes on what worked and what didn’t. I experimented with some new and less processed food items prior to the race and found some that worked great. Don’t get me wrong; I still packed a fruit pie and a few candy bars. Those are things I normally don’t eat so they will be more appetizing during the race.

It was nice to stay at the Westmark, ITI race headquarters in Anchorage, a few days prior to the race. Many other racers were staying there so we had time to chat and get to know each other a little more. Everyone was in the same boat, hurry up and wait for the race to start. Waiting isn’t fun, but you need to arrive early to make sure you and your bike and gear actually make it to Alaska on time without missing flights or missing luggage.

Finally, it was go time!

Once we arrived at the Knik Lake Bar, the start of the race, I ran inside and ordered some food for Jay and I. We had lunch, finished getting dressed, did a quick warm up/gear check ride, said our good lucks and were ready to go. The Lake was covered with a thin layer of snow; a few people went down right out of the gate.

Due to the weather conditions the trail was expected to have a lot of ice, which is why I choose to use the studded tires. I was very happy with this choice and they gave me that extra level of confidence while riding. We took the road to get to the trail that brought us to Flathorn Lake. I have never gone this way before and was nervous about getting dropped since I didn’t know where I was. Once on the trail I settled in and enjoyed the ride.

My strategy was to go as fast as I could for as long as I could, but also to be efficient on the trail and when I stopped. My goal was to make it to Skwentna the first night, 90 miles in, before taking a rest. Due to the warm temps I was soaking wet from sweat, so I spent a little more time at the first checkpoint Yetna, 60 miles in, to dry out. I had a grilled cheese and bowl of soup. I am not sure why but after that meal and for the rest of the race I had acid reflux issues, which I have never experienced in my life. It was horrible and would only happening while I was riding.

I made it to Skwentna around 1 a.m. I had a meal and took a 2-hour nap while my clothes dried near the fire. The next cabin was Shell Lake, a few hours away. I stopped there briefly to dry out my feet and moved on the Finger Lake where I would get my first drop bag. I made it to Finger Lake around 11 a.m. the morning after the race start. Upon arrival I was informed there was a message for me from my ever-so-sweet man, JayP.

I had a nice meal, did some maintenance, sorted through my drop bag and took an hour nap. Since Yetna, there was a chirping noise coming from the front of my bike and it was driving my nuts! I had stopped several times along the way trying to figure it out what was causing it and finally wound up putting both my earbuds in so I couldn’t hear it. It wasn’t until Rohn, at mile 200, that I had figured out how to stop the cable from rubbing on my fork and the noise went away.

I knew the next section of trail to Puntilla Lake, which included the Happy Steps and the Dalzell Gorge, was going to be demanding. I was ready for it. My bike was light approximately at 40 lbs with all my food and gear. This gave me an advantage maneuvering and pushing up the gorge as I watched a few others struggle behind me. I was the first of the group I was traveling with to make it to Puntilla Lake, so I had the whole cabin to myself. I grabbed a bed in the back room, quickly did my maintenance, and ate as I knew other racers were not far behind. I only wanted to sleep for two hours, which meant a midnight departure to attempt Rainy Pass. I was nervous about going over the pass by myself in the dark, but I knew a storm was coming and I didn’t want to get stuck in it.

I overslept and my departure was delayed. I didn’t leave until 2 a.m., and  it was dumping snow outside then. By the time I left, the cabin was packed, with bodies lying wherever there was room. Two other racers left just ahead of me. They were walking and pushing their bikes up the pass mucking up the trail. I wanted to pass them ASAP since I was able to ride the climb. It turns out their tire pressure was too high and that’s what was hindering their riding efforts. Due to deteriorating trail conditions most of the other racers behind them had to walk as well. There I was, just Fave and I on top of Rainy Pass, navigating the blown in trail!

This gave me a huge boost in confidence. I was stoked and was able to ride almost all the way to Rohn.

My plan was to get in and out of Rohn as quickly as possible. Besides the checkpoint crew, I was the only person there. I ate two bratwurst and a can of ravioli. I looked for my second drop bag, but it wasn’t there. At the pre-race meeting there was an announcement that ravens had hit a few bags. Yep, mine was one of them. It was definitely a mental blow, as I had left some food behind at Puntilla thinking I was going to get my second drop. I looked through the leftovers box, but not one thing I had packed was in the box. I still had some food of my own, and nothing in the box looked appetizing, so I left Rohn with what I had.

From Rohn my goal was to make it to Nikolai, 90 miles away. As I was leaving, they told me to follow the scratch marks on the ice and that there would be a few open holes.

Water is flowing just behind those trees.

I was really nervous about this section; once again riding alone. Riding on frozen lakes with overflow, hearing it crack and seeing water flowing around me, made me uncomfortable. What would I do if the ice broke? My bike and all my gear would be gone! I would run back to Rohn, that is what I would do.

Well it wouldn’t be a T-Race race unless I got lost. I missed a turn and although it was only a couple miles, I wound up on this super muddy trail, that caked my bike. Not good.

Once back on the lakes, I was following the scratch marks on the ice. Sometimes those scratch marks ended or there were several scratch marks going different ways, so it was a relief to get off the lakes and into the burn.

The burn started off nice but then turned to tussock heads halfway to the next checkpoint; Nikolai. They reminded me of baby Cousin Its (from the Adam’s Family) ranging in size from newborn to age two. They were gnarly.

I mainly tried to ride around them, but took a few falls, got bumped around a bit, and even had to walk some.

I got to Nikolai at 1 a.m., I had been awake for 23 hours. I needed a quick rest before finishing up. I had a bit to eat and took a two-hour nap. Once I left Nikolai, I knew this was the final push and it wouldn’t be long until I was in McGrath eating Peter’s Mancakes!

The final 50 miles is mellow with a few riverbanks to push up. Peter likes to put mileage signs out and there are a few other new ones on the trail (which are incorrect). I knew where I was though and was excited about completing the ITI for my fourth time, in my fastest time ever; 2 days, 22 hours and 18 minutes.

Kathi met me outside at the finish, took a few pictures and then it was time to eat!

There are so many outstanding reasons to do this race. I hope those who want to get to experience this journey someday. Thank you to all who helped me get here!

This post filed under topics: Beargrease Bikepacking Fatbike Snow Biking Tracey Petervary Ultra Racing

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Tracey Petervary

Tracey Petervary

Endurance cyclist Tracey Petervary is a New Jersey native residing in Victor, Idaho. She started adventure racing 18 years ago, enjoying multi-day, multi-sport team events traveling to places such as Fiji, New Zealand and across the United States. Her stable includes several bikes (MTB, road, cyclocross, commuter, fat, tandem), which allow her to ride every day of the year in any condition.


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PaT Irwin | March 19th, 2015

Peter’s Mancakes and omelets are reason enough to do the race, but your cake looked a bit small to me. Was he low on batter?

Congrats!! on your fine finish and great writeup. Brings back lots of memories…

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chach | March 19th, 2015

I wonder about the reflux. Too much salt, nuts, and not enough water perhaps?  My GI surgeon from the Mayo clinic advises to drink water 30 minutes before a meal to get the stomach enzymes activated.

That’s a mean looking pancake!  Congrats on the race time!

How are you guys liking the no brake fronts?  What’s your rationale in spite of the fact that fronts give you the most stopping power? Even on a sloppy downhill you must be risking a potential loss of control than otherwise with the fronts on.  It takes a lot of skill to accurately tap those fronts in the aforementioned scenario. Especially with all the added weight on the front. So, I don’t blame you for removing them altogether. However some people think it’s sacrilege.  I’d go with mechanical brakes for the fronts.

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T-Race | March 24th, 2015

Thank you Pat! Those mancakes are dense, I picked a small one so I could put more whipped cream on it.

Thank you Chach! Some other people suffered the same deal afer that meal, maybe there was something in it we weren’t use to. I will remember that about the water, thanks!  I was comfortable having just a rear brake, I am also confident in my handling skills. For me there are not enough hills in the ITI to justify me having a front brake, others may want it. Personal choice. Hope to see you out there!

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Joe STILLER | March 24th, 2015

I enjoy getting to know you better and sharing stories about the trail, it   was a very special time for all of us racers in McGrath, D briefing as Kathy says,,
see you soon,
good luck to you and Jay

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katie newbury | February 12th, 2016

Hi Tracy!
Not sure if you remember me…we’ve only met a couple times.  Anyhoo, I loved reading this!  Thank you for sharing your thoughts/experience.  Sam and I are headed up to AK to TOUR (no racing this time around) part or all of the iditarod trail.  I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on FEET and the 40 North boots.  I have pretty poor circulation in my feet (due to outdoor ice hockey growing up : ) and my toes can be the limiting factor on winter adventures (often causing me to have to stop and put them on someone’s (ie sam’s) belly.  So, I am wondering what your experience was with the 40 North boots, do you recommend them?  If so, do you recommend the model you used or the newer one with removable liners?  Do you have any other suggestions of foot systems you’ve seen or experienced work out there?

If you get this and get the chance to respond, THANK YOU!!

I hope you and Jay are having an awesome winter so far!

Take care,

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T-Race | February 12th, 2016

Hi Katie, yes I do remember you. Thank you for reaching out.

I damaged my toes a few years ago going to Nome. They get very cold very quickly now. I have also developed chilblains, so I have to be on top of my maintenance with them. But I have never had to use the belly warming method, so we may have different levels of damage.

My current setup for cold weather temps say, -20F to 0F, is the 45nrth Wolfgar boot (the new one), 2 sizes bigger than I normally wear, a thin wool liner, RBH designs’ VaprThrm Hi-Rise insulated sock, with a knee high heavy/mid-weight wool sock on top for insulation. I also place hand warmers on my shins, between my liner and Vapor barrier and in the back pocket of my cycling knickers, I carry a spare pair of the mid-weight wool socks to switch and dry out. RBH designs’ recommends wearing the VaprThrm next to your skin and some friends have used them this way with success, but I don’t like the way it feels on my feet.

There are also HotHands footbed warmers, that are the shape of your foot, friends with raynaud’s have used these and were happy with them, I have not tried them yet. As soon as my toes begin to get cold, which happens at times, I get off and run until my toes warm up, it could be a mile or 5 minutes.

Yes, I would recommend the Wolfgar boots, they are the warmest cycling shoe I have ever owned, but you will have to experiment with your own sock system to see what works for you.

I hope that helps and that you and Sam have an awesome, safe journey! Maybe I’ll see you out there!!

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katie newbury | February 12th, 2016

Tracy, thank you SO much!!  Hope to see you!

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katie newbury | February 12th, 2016

TracEy, Whoops…not only did I accidentally write 40 instead of 45 North,  I also spelled your name wrong.  My apologies!

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