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Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017 Iditarod Trail Invitational Part 2

There is a wonderful moose that wonders just outside of Finger Lake. He, like us humans doesn't like to post hole for miles and uses the nice, snow machine compacted track of the Iditarod Trail. I had to dump some tire pressure to take a little bit of the edge off. Luckily, the weather outside was delightful. The sun was shining, the temperature was mild, the trail was in good shape besides the potholes and my mind and body were upbeat.
The Steps. Judging by the beard it wasn't too cold! Smile tells me I'm having a good time.
Not long after enjoying The Steps we get to experience The Gorge. Ooof
The approach to The Gorge was much better this time around. With great lighting the climb didn't seem so steep this time. I was carrying less weight this time and my strength was better. A small amount of experience is great!

About 20 miles out of Finger Lake the trail really starts to climb. I love the views we get in this area but the effort level really starts going up. One advantage of being 4 or 5 bikes back is that I can read how strong everyone in front of me is. It helps my psych when I feel like walking and at least one of the other riders is walking. Eventually, the suffering comes to an end and I see Puntilla Lake/Rainy Pass Lodge.  I roll into the cabin and find Neil and Jay outside ready to attack Ptarmigan Valley!

After going inside and seeing Tim Berntson and John Lackey hanging out and resting I too decided now was a good time to rest. I made my freeze dried food, ate some Pilot Bread and drank some Tang. After a bit of rest, Tim noticed that snow was coming down. It was at that point that he quickly packed up and left Puntilla Lake. Looking back, I should have left right with him. One of my weak points is that I don't think that I belong with the lead pack. I am left to wonder how the next half of the race would have been had I latched on to Tim. But for a short period of time I was with Pete Basinger I wouldn't see another rider for the rest of the race.

The next checkpoint was 60-70 miles away and I assumed we would be in for a long night of walking...

My Nosehat was a face savior! Without it my nose and cheeks would have developed frostbite.
I don't know how to describe this point of the race. Perhaps it's because I don't necessarily understand how I feel about it yet. Better yet, maybe it's because I was one part scared, one part tired and one part actually prepared. Laura and I were sarcastically talking the other day about how much we "love" bushwhacking while on hiking trips. She mentioned that if she is prepared and knows before hand that she is going to bushwhack then the experience isn't so bad. I discussed with my father, Geri and Laura prior to the start of the race that I planned on a bivy in Ptarmigan Valley. I knew that the possibility of soft conditions was very real and that the wind drifts could really slow us down.

Leaving Puntilla Lake was OK for the first few miles. The lake is in a bowl of sorts and because of that it seems to be calm. At least the two times I've been there. ;-) Of course, after crawling up over the series of hills the wind gradually picks up. Each hill I crest it gradually became more and more windy. After another period of time, I lost all tracks from Tim and the others. Thankfully, there are Iditarod Tri-pods that line the trail towards Rainy Pass.

The wind continued to increase in speed and severity. I had almost all of my clothing on and was comfortable physically, but with each gust, each wave of blowing snow I was beginning to wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into. It was getting to the point that I could not see the Tri-pods anymore. I stopped for a moment and looked back towards Puntilla Lake. To me, this is what this "race" is about. I had prepared, I have a decent sense of direction, I was rested well enough to attempt this and I really wanted to have a chance at another podium if not race it out with others around me. But for a moment I considered turning around. I weighed the options, the risk and where I was at mentally and decided I was ready to tackle Ptarmigan Pass.

I made it down to the "Y" and made my left turn. There is always a little bit of excitement heading down a trail that you've never been on. I was a bit relieved to see Irondog lath marking the course. As I made it down the trail I even noticed the Iditasport lath was still in place. These were helpful seeing as it was really dark and there was no moonlight to assist our travel. Another great realization was that I got to ride for a bit. I mean, I thought I was going to have to walk all the way up the valley. The nice trail didn't last for long though. I continued down the trail and it got softer. Not only that, I began to notice there was a new fourth place walker, with furry paws and four legs. Sure enough there was some wolves in the valley! The neat thing about these rides is you have a long time to think about the conditions you're in. Or the condition of the folks in front of you and the animal tracks that you might be following. I noticed that the wolves would follow Tim Berntson for a while, then veer back towards the center of the valley after their curiosity wore off. This happened four or five times. Definitely scary!

After pushing through shin deep snow and going up a steep hill the sleeping bug hit me. I wanted to push through. I was scared about stopping in this area, I knew there was no cover and the constant wolf tracks really had me worried. I was pushing a bicycle food truck and I couldn't see anything other than the track that the three leaders in front of me left. I started wondering from side to side of the trail and soon after that I was falling into the deep snow off the side of the trail. I was worried that I would get lost if I continued on like this.

I've done some winter camping but nothing like this. I was looking for anything that could give me some protection but quickly came to the realization that the only protection I was going to get was to find a large wind drift. I found a suitable drift and I started trampling down my spot. I got my sleeping bag, pad and big puffy coat out I set the alarm for 130am. The wind continued to whip around, seemingly coming from all directions. Even with all the uneasiness I was experiencing, my body took over and asleep I went.

I woke up a few times, rolled around and quickly fell back asleep. Each time, the wind was still strong. I woke up again and there were some weird noises that didn't sound like wind. I started thrashing about and yelling! I thought the noise I heard was a wolf digging through my frame bag eating my food! Ha ha, there was no wolf. Finally, I woke up again and got myself up, boots on... where the fuck is my sleeping bag stuff sack!??!!!??

No fucking way. When I was laying out my sleeping bag earlier I put the stuff sack at the bottom of the bag. While my bag was waving like a flag in the heavy winds earlier it blew away. SHIT. What the hell am I supposed to do? Where do I put a fucking sleeping bag? I frantically stomped around my bivy site looking for a stuff sack. The wind-blown snow for sure had covered it up, so even if it was anywhere near me I wasn't going to find it.

I pride myself on coming up with fixes for unexpected things. Not to brag, but I will this time. I took my garage door insulation sleeping pad and wrapped it up. I put it into the Revelate Designs harness and let it unravel into the straps. Then I stuffed my puffy jacket into my spare stuff sack that I use for my drop bags that I got in Finger Lake and just stuffed that and the sleeping bag into the garage door insulation. After placing the jacket and bag inside the roll I wrapped my rope/Wiggy's hip wader belt around the ends of the insulation to hold everything in. I also used a bit of "Alaska" tape (duct tape) to assist the rope at holding the sleeping bag in the pad. I was pumped! It held great all the way to McGrath.

After getting going I saw a giant Vee Rubber 2XL Snowshoe tire track was now in front of me. The legendary bad ass Pete Basinger had passed me while I was getting my beauty sleep.

After I started down the trail on foot, I noticed that there were footsteps going in many different directions. One downhill, one straight ahead and some other random downhill directions. I realized that my decision to bivy when I did was a great idea. I for sure would have been really lost right along with those guys. After walking straight for a minute or so I noticed that some steps went for the downhill direction. I hoped on my bike and skied down to the bottom happy that I didn't get really lost like those guys.

The trail was pretty uneventful for an hour or so. I came upon Pete and he was sleeping away. He looked "comfy" so I didn't bother him while he slept. Further down the trail I noticed another bivy site. I felt great that I wasn't the only person that was getting tired. I wondered who had slept and who continued on. But not long after I found another bivy spot and knew that everyone had bivy'd.

Right about the time that I came upon the final bivy site the trail was starting to come around. We had crested over what my GPS calls Houston Pass and the wind seems like it hadn't affected the trail as much. I was riding again! I was so happy to get through this night. I was scared, psyched, happy and all the other emotions I could think of.
Ptarmigan Valley after crossing Houston Pass. The wind died down for an hour our two.
While I was looking forward to riding through Hellsgate, I noticed when looking at the mountains there was a lot of snow blowing around. Damn it was windy there. Every time I stopped I turned my back into the wind. 

I kept my eyes peeled for open water. After the confluence of the South Fork Kuskokwim and Hartman River there was only a couple of sections with overflow or open water. As I traveled down the South Fork Kuskokwim the wind gradually got stronger and stronger. The trail was solid but very slow. And the more windy it got, the more wind drifted snow was on the trail. Miles were going by slow. As I looked down the valley, I knew it wasn't going to get better. The amount of snow blowing down the river valley started to weigh on my mind. I slowed down. My mind was starting to get beat. I got to a sketchy iced-over river crossing to a bank and my mind was uneasy. I crossed the channel and right at the bank my rear tire broke through the ice. Read part one of my race report for details on this. I don't want to re-live that right now. ;-)

I was trying really hard to not look at the mileage left to Rohn. It's a bad thing to walk what feels like hours and look down and find out that you've only covered 2 miles. The wind was really strong now and I looked behind me and found that my tire tracks were covered within 30 seconds. Within a minute and a half my foot tracks were not to be found. I was mentally tired. Each gust was like a sledge hammer to my inner most spirit. To make things a little more difficult, I turned during a gust of wind and there stood an all-black figure, Pete Basinger marching through the wind gust like it wasn't even there. Like splitting wood with a knot, he resisted the gust. It was quite the site to see actually. He's a bad ass. I have a lot of respect for the guys and gals I race with. But I was really bummed with my breakdown at this point. I felt like I had lost the front group and that I was going to get passed and was just going to continue to go really slow. We were on foot for the rest of the time into Rohn.

The wind at this point was crazy. Not the strongest I've been in but it was definitely the worst. But the awesome thing is that Rohn is a great checkpoint. The guys and gals there are so kind and are a joy to be around. They are so helpful. I got a couple of famous Rohn Bratwursts and had some coffee and other snacks. After talking to guys about the trail conditions I found out that Jay Petervary had only left about half an hour before Pete and I had gotten there. Suddenly, the wind didn't bother me! I decided that I needed to go. So I got my drop bag items loaded up, set up a plan to fix my valve cores and chipped the ice off my bike. Not long after that, I was riding out of Rohn. As soon as I got on the river I found that the wind had not died down at all! But my spirit was high and my resolve was strong again. I put my head down and did my best Jeff Oatley/Pete Basinger impression!

I rode without drama through Post River Glacier. I was careful not to push the pace too hard. But something happens in the dark of the night. I was starting to doze off. I noticed that I was passing Egypt Mountain. And again...and again...and again...and again. I felt like I was going through the same left and right turn complex over and over. The stars and northern lights threw a mountain shadow over me and I didn't think I was actually covering any ground. I began to wonder if I was just going in circles. I was crashing over and over, falling off the trail, crashing into trees and at times when I would stop on the side of the trail I would almost fall over without warning.

This is a weakness in my ultra-distance racing. I don't know how these guys just push through. Maybe it's the excitement of riding with others, I don't know. I didn't really come back to life until Buffalo Camp many miles and hours away. I do remember getting some of the best views of Northern Lights, a random camp in the Farewell Lakes area and fixing my valve cores again.

My beard turned into a glacier. Kind of fun!
Check out that stuff sack! Hahaha
I made it to Sullivan Creek where you can get water from the creek. I decided to have a meal and some coffee. I boiled water, had some Colombian Starbucks instant coffee and a Mountain House Egg Scramble. Man that tasted great! The sun was out and the temps felt good. At least I thought they did...
My gear was working great up to this point. My Fatback is a great bike for these types of adventures.
I knew that once I made the turn at Salmon River towards Nikolai that I would run into a headwind again. What I didn't know what that my hands were getting cold. I made it into the Petruska's house and immediately doubled over in pain from screaming barfies. Urban Dictionary definition of Screaming Barfies Man that hurt. After that passed, I had some food and chatted with the Petruska's for a bit. Nick Petruska has had some medical issues recently and I wish him and his family comfort.  I decided to lay down and get some rest. Not long after I placed my head down I heard Pete Basinger come rolling in. I wondered if he would stop and sleep as well. He did.

About an hour later I woke up. I wanted to get another cookie down the pipe and get outta Dodge! I didn't know how long Pete would rest after I left. The trail was in good shape for the first 25-30 miles out of Nikolai. The northern lights were out again and I measured my effort carefully for that first 20 miles to make sure I didn't get too tired. I got to the Big River sign and took that direction. What a horrible decision! Bill Merchant had broke trail on the overland route and not the river. I understand most of the locals use the overland route as well. Last year, the river trail was so fast I thought that  this year would have been the same. Looking back, Jay Petervary and Pete Basinger covered this section so much faster than myself, Tim Berntson and Neil Belchanko. Experience is worth a lot of time!

Many, many hours later I rolled into McGrath after getting frostbite on my index finger and thumb on my right hand. That night was tough. Temps dropped to well below -30, -40's on the river is what the race directors told me. I had more valve core issues which caused me lots of problems with pumping up my tires. My bottom bracket was so stiff from the cold I could barely rotate the pedals. I thought something was wrong with my bike. I took the chain off and found the crank would barely turn over. The free-hub and chain were OK. I tried removing all tension off the bottom bracket to see if it would spin easier. No luck. I just had to toughen up and push this pig into town. I destroyed myself standing and mashing for hours and hours. I was so worried that after all of these days and hours of riding that Pete would catch me and pass me just a handful of miles from the finish. But I guess at this point it wouldn't have really mattered. I just wanted to get to the finish.

I got to the finish and he didn't pass me. Kathi and Bill were standing on the street to welcome me. It was a different finish than last year. I was happy to make it there and be in one piece. Perhaps I was still a rookie I thought. I guess now I've experienced a true Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Holy cow, my beard really froze.
I think my eyes tell the story of the previous nights journey. Again, my nose hat saved my face.
I was so happy to be at the finish. 
Thanks to the various sponsors. Supporting this event is more than just good advertisement. It's supporting our community.
After getting into Peter and Tracy's house and getting settled in I was happy to get a phone call from Laura and my Dad and his wife Geri. I was grateful to have a nice evening with everyone. We ate lots of great food, drank great beer and exchanged stories of the trail.

Legends in the Ultra-Endurance game. Not often you get to share an IPA with amazing cyclists like Kevin and Tim.
Watching the dots drop out of the event after we finished is tough. I know what my friends and competitors are going through. All it takes is one little issue and the outcome can be so different. It's the difference between finishing and having to take a flight back home from a remote checkpoint.

After coming back down from our event, we jumped on a plane and flew home. It's always great to look at what we've just accomplished from high up. It looks so simple and easy from up here. Ha ha
Shell Hills
Looking back at Egypt Mountain
Looking at Willow Swamp and part of Big Swamp
I believe this is Ptarmigan Valley
Dazell Gorge
We landed in Anchorage and my family and friends were there to greet us. They are such an integral part of our success. There are times when we come in from a long ride cold and hungry. They feed us. We need someone to walk our dog cause we aren't home. They walk the dog. When we need someone to give us a word of advice or encouragement they are kind. They bake you great treats, fill your bags with loving notes, and give bear hugs after landing at the airport. There is nothing better than seeing these folks after an adventure.
Laura is the best. She is so supportive, through the tough times and good. She deserves all that she gets and more. Thank you babe! Love you!

My index finger is OK and recovered. My thumb is still funky looking but recovering. I had surgery this Wednesday for an unrelated issue and will be off the bike for bit. I look forward to just hanging out with my friends and going to Boston to cheer on Laura on her third Boston Marathon! Time to bring on spring!

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