Winter Confessions from the Iditasport Extreme Bike Race

 

I have a very bad tendency to seek tough mountain bike events. The events where you compete against yourself, where finishing is an accomplishment. The ones that make your parents wake up at night in a cold sweat.

It all started in 1994 when I registered our team of five for the 24 Hours of Canaan relay race in West Virginia. Up until this race, I had been mountain biking for three years and racing for two. I figured I could handle anything the Michigan trails could throw at me.

If I were the know-it-all teen, the Canaan course would be the experienced mother. She spanked me pretty hard on race day. Her trails were ten times more technical than anything I’d ridden before. I was left bruised and humbled.

My bad tendency arose again early in 1996 when I registered for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado. I’d never ridden in the Rockies and the course profile was intimidating with over 10,000 feet of climbing at 9,000 to 12,600 feet above sea level. (For local reference, one lap of Pontiac Lake has less than 500 feet of climbing.)

I finished the race extremely dehydrated and debilitated.

At the start of 1998 I thought I’d try something new. I’d read about the Iditasport 100 mile race in Alaska. VeloNews calls it “the most famous race in endurance mountain biking.” Before you know it, my bad tendency was dropping the registration in the mail.

I had friends join me at Canaan and Leadville, however they weren’t interested in riding in Alaska in the dead of winter. They said if I survived and brought back all my fingers and toes, they might consider it in ’99. I guess they’d watched too many TV docudramas about the Mount Everest disasters. I was alone on this one.

But how bad could it be? I know they canceled it one year when the temperatures got stuck at 50F below, but that was an arctic anomaly. The race was a little more than an hour from Anchorage, whose temperatures were similar to Gaylord, Michigan at least according to the web information.

Around this time I started trading email with some of the race veterans. I was asking about what kind of survival gear I should bring. One answer was “whatever you think you’ll need to survive at 30F below for 24 hours.” “My house has worked well in the past” I quipped. The voice of reason was suggesting I stay home. Instead I went to the local bookstore and read up on winter camping and survival.

In January I received my race packet, a half-inch document describing everything about the course and winter survival. There were warnings about dealing with moose on the trail and river overflows (water on top of the ice.) It outlined the 15 pounds of required survival gear including a -20 F sleeping bag, mattress pad, bivy (or tent), stove, and 3,000 calories of food. This 15 pounds became a critical part of the race.

All of the participants had to get their gear weighed at the race check in. Also, the top three finishers in each class were subjected to a post-race gear check and weigh in. This new procedure was due in part to allegations that previous winners were dumping their unneeded gear along the trail before the finish.

As the manual says, “What’s the point in shaving weight? No Iditasport winner has ever been invited to the White House or signed a million-dollar endorsement contract.”

Speaking of weight, I was losing body fat, which is important. This race favors lighter riders who stay on top of the snow. The tires under heavier riders sink a little lower and make riding more difficult and slow.

My weight loss was mostly due to steady training. My plan was to continue riding over 100 miles a week from the Summer of ’97 through January. At that point I started ramping up my mileage an extra 25 miles each week. When February hit, I cut back my mileage to around 100 a week or less and gave my body a chance to recover.

Putting in so many miles during Michigan winters can be miserable. Fortunately I invested in some items that made it more tolerable.

Cold hands and feet can end a ride real quick. For the hands I bought a pair of handlebar mitts handcrafted by my friend’s mom. They’re similar to “Pogies.” This is the best $35 investment I made in 1997. What Camelbacs are to summer riding, these are to winter riding.

Like many others, I have cold-sensitive feet. Some Alaskans on the web suggested buying some Thinsulate-lined L.L. Bean Snow Sneakers ($50) and adding SPD cleats using a Syntace SPD-to-Look converter plate ($18).

I finally got all the parts slapped together and found the result very satisfying. The only problem is the Snow Sneakers allow a little wind through the front toe box. To solve that I bought some XL Sidetrak toe covers which barely fit but seemed to work.

For socks, I was using a synthetic base layer, typically Pearl Izumi Foundation socks. Over that I threw on an Ultimax XC skiing sock which is extra thick on the bottom and around the toes where my feet get cold first. Then I spent another $7 and replaced the Snow Sneaker liners with some new liners which were “tested and proven at 70 degrees below zero.” And of course my Snow Sneakers were a size larger than normal which gave me plenty of room for these added socks and liners.

On my head I was wearing a balaclava, sometimes adding a headband for nasty weather. My helmet was fitted with a wind blocking cover. My torso was covered in one or two synthetic layers with a windbreaker. My legs were covered in tights of various thickness. And of course, I wear my windproof briefs on bad days.

Most of this is fairly standard clothing. One excellent source for more information on winter clothing and riding in general is Icebike.org. If you can surf, you must check this site.

So February 11th rolls around and my plane awaits me. The flight is complements of Northwest’s Frequent Flyer program, but not for my bike. I have to pay $50 for the airline to handle my bike which was safely tucked in cardboard box.

For $50 you’d think some specially trained luggage professional would be called in. He’d personally load your box on the plane and make sure it didn’t get banged about. Instead I arrived in Anchorage where some rough baggage guy said “Is dat your box? I think some things fell out of it.” Sure enough, three tool-stuffed socks came around the baggage conveyor much to the delight of my fellow passengers. “Look, there’s someone’s socks!”

The flight to Alaska was about 8 air hours with a brief layover in Minneapolis. I was greeted in Anchorage by my week-long roommate, Dean. Dean is a displaced Cleveland boy enjoying his dream making a living in Alaska. The Iditasport folks have a housing program where 100 bucks buys a week’s lodging with a local race competitor. In my case, that was Dean. Fortunately for the both of us, it was a good match.

Dean was super gracious. We tooled around town in his truck saving me the need to rent a car. I had my own room in his igloo, which happened to be that of the 1997 U.S. Biathlon National Champion. Unfortunately a near tragic para-gliding accident left him in rehab instead of Nagano. I was hoping the room’s positive karma would give me an Olympic race performance and not a trip to the hospital.

On my first full day in Anchorage, I built up my bike and went for a ride on a couple of the awesome trails in town. Near the end of my exploring two bad things happened: (1) I kind of got lost and (2) I asked a newspaper reporter for directions. I didn’t realize the second dilemma until I read the Anchorage Daily News the next day. I was slammed. If anything positive could be said it was that I was more motivated than ever for redemption.

Later that day I had arranged for a massage from someone Dean knew named Gina. Gina not only gave me a great, relaxing massage, but refused any payment. I was very thankful and added her to my sponsor list.

Friday was a lay around kind of day. Dean and I spun ten miles, picked up some last minute supplies, including cashew nut butter. On race morning I spread this on some Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tarts. It tasted great. That was the last time I was nice to my body that day.

Dean and I arrived plenty early for the race. I wanted extra time to get prepared before the race start. Well, it was -3F outside and warm in the truck. We sat there doing math trying to figure the absolute latest time we’d have to leave the truck to start getting ready. That was mistake number one. The last few minutes before the start were bedlam. I forgot my asthma medicine which I need for cold weather. I forgot extra chemical warmers for my hands and feet. I forgot to blow the water out of my Camelbak tube.

I did manage to chew about a dozen chocolate covered coffee beans at the start as the promoter read the list of participants. Each person had to state their method of human-powered transportation: bike, snowshoe, foot, or ski. As the countdown reached zero, forty bikers zipped out to a fast start along with 6 snowshoers, 29 runners, and 29 skiers. I remember having to make a little move to get around a skier. You have to be nice to those guys because they have long weapons in each hand.

The first 9 miles is on plowed ice roads that connect a series of lakes. A pack of cyclists formed and we rode somewhat moderately until we hit the snow. Some young guy went off the front. I chased him down and we got a decent gap on the group.

It was then that I realized my insulated Camelbak tube was froze solid and there was another 16 miles until the first rest stop. As much as I wanted to hammer, without water I’d end up drier than moose jerky. Finishing was more important so I backed off. Soon Rocky Reifenstuhl passed me and I was alone in third.

By now I was dying of thirst so I stopped and drank directly from the Camelbak bung. It was filled with watered down Gatorade. As you can imagine, it was a clumsy situation and a spilled my mix all over myself, which quickly froze, resembling excessive nasal discharges. During this debacle a group of about 6 riders passed me. I quickly remounted, gave chase, and passed them all to return to third place, or so I thought.

I pulled into the first aid station and was surprised to find I was in first. The two leaders were off course so they sent out a snow machine to find them (Alaskans don’t use the term snow mobile and I don’t know why.) In the meantime I pulled apart my Camelbak and was pouring scalding hot water on the tube. After a few minutes it was de-iced and I got back on the bike.

Soon after I left the rest stop, I realized I was getting soaking wet. I looked down to see my Camelbak tube spraying my legs. I guess I did a poor job refitting the bite valve on the tube and it took a tumble in the snow. Luckily the sun was shining brightly in the beautiful blue sky and I found the valve quickly.

After some more solitary riding the trail wound across a small open area. A bush plane had recently landed and was about to cross my path. Though it’s not specified in the IMBA rules of the trail, I decided to yield the trail and avoid getting chopped by the blurred prop.

While that was happening on one side of the trail, a video camera man dove in front of me. I gave a thumbs up and I may have said “Hi Mom.” I don’t remember. It was a weird mid-race situation.

The trail for the next few miles was simply awesome. The climbing was not too difficult, perhaps similar to what Island Lake throws at you, but of course it was covered in snow. Fortunately here and through out the course, the snow machines left the snow well packed. They also left large snow berms.

The downhill sections were like a bobsled course. They were so fun that I forgot about the added weight of my survival gear. I was floating on my double wide SnowCat rims wrapped in fat Ratchet 2.35 Z-Max tires. It was a blast. And the weather was getting warmer. The sun had brought the temperatures above zero and into the high twenties.

Before I knew it I was at the second rest stop. It surprised me that I was becoming very hungry. I was using the same race diet that worked well at the Leadville 100 race, but my body was telling me it wasn’t working. But I was very fortunate some entrepreneurial kids were selling cookies at this stop.

I gave them $10 for a $2 bag of cookies since I didn’t want to wait around for them hunt down their mom for change. They were ecstatic. “Wow, ten dollars!” Before heading back to my bike I noticed they had brownies as well so I grabbed one. One kid said “That’s fifty cents” while the older sibling said “It’s okay, he gave us ten dollars.”

It was a most excellent brownie.

I returned to my bike and refilled my Camelbak with “warm water.” A few minutes down the trail and it felt like someone was pressing a hot iron on my back. I started playing posture games to reduce the heat. I tried arching my back. I reached around and pushed the Camelbak to the side of my back and when that side was fried, I’d shift it to the other side.

This section of the trail is the furthest from any civilization and fewer snow machines cruise these parts so the snow is less packed. Between me dealing with the inferno on my back and the sketchy trail, I fell. I fell quite a bit, and when I landed on my back in the snow, it felt good.

I remember staying on the ground a little more than I needed to. Finally, I pulled off the Camelbak and put it on the outside of my windbreaker. My back was now a little more insulated from the heat and the darned thing should cool faster so I could perhaps drink some of it.

The loose trail continued. The bike fish tailed left and right. So many times you’d come to a complete stop, regain your balance, and restart. I’d say to myself, “I must have ridden another half mile.”

My computer said “Wrong, that was barely one-tenth.” This is when the voices in my head started. I slogged along for nearly 2 hours riding only about 10 miles. I saw one person. The only sign of civilization was the snow machine track slowly moving under my wheels.

During the pre-race preparations, Dean asked me if I was going to listen to a radio headset. Huh? “This is a race!” I thought. I don’t have time to listen to a stinkin’ radio. Now I know how important it is. Songs, advertisements and DJ chatter help keep your conscious mind occupied while your legs grind away through these more desolate sections.

Nonetheless, there were others using this trail: big ol’moose. These beasts are so large that theoretically one could easily bike limbo under them. Thankfully I never saw any during the race. However, the trail was spotted with moose tracks, holes about 6 inches wide and a foot deep. It hurt when you rode over them, just like Michigan pot holes.

Eventually the trail dumps on to the Yentna river. When the rivers around here freeze, they become the winter superhighways for the local residents. Understand that there are no roads in this wilderness. Snow machines, ATV’s, dog sleds and bush planes are the only way to get around. Unless of course you enjoy struggling on bike.

The third stop is called Hartley Beach. It’s nicknamed hardly-a-beach for there is no sand nor any bikini-clad women. Upon my arrival, the rest stop volunteers watched me execute a perfect header as my front wheel dove into deep, loose snow. I was one of the few wearing a helmet and I was thankful.

I refilled my Camelbak adding a “shot” of super concentrated Gatorade. At six times it’s normal concentration, Gatorade almost glows. The volunteers inquired as to what it was. In my best spy voice I said “eet’s camel wee wee.”

With 45 miles to go, the trail continued down the river. I was still dehydrated so I was concentrating real hard, watching my bike computer, and drinking every two minutes. I was concentrating so hard on rehydrating that I made the mistake of following some dog sled race markers. I couldn’t help but think about that newspaper article. I could see the next day’s headlines already: “Michigan boy gets lost again!” Ugh!

I finally stopped and got out my map. Sure enough I was on the wrong side of this frozen river. I couldn’t simply ride to the other side. With the snow not being packed, I’d be portaging my bike through a half-mile of waist deep snow. So, I continued on the wrong side of the river until I found a single snow machine path that angled across the river. As long as I rode exactly in the the ski track, I could make decent progress to the other side.

I persevered and made it to the other side, following the correct trail markers up the river bank. The trail now retraces itself. As I’m heading back to the start/finish, I’m passing runners heading the other direction. Those runners are a fairly optimistic bunch despite their slower progress. They also have to carry 15 pounds of survival gear which they all pull behind them in small plastic child sleds. No thanks, I’d rather be at mile 70 than mile 30.

The fourth rest stop is the same as the first. I’m still in third and the video camera man asks me for an interview. I reminded him that this is a race and “some guy’s right on my butt.” But he’s real polite and insistent, so I consent.

I’ve heard Eskimos have a large number of words for snow. Now I’m sure they have a equally large number of words for loneliness. I wish I had that thought at the time and could have spoken eloquently about it. Instead I think I said “it’s so lonely out there” and gave a few grunts in response to his questioning.

At the end of the brief interview I ran up the steep, slippery ramp to the rest stop lodge and took on water. The host here was incredible. She was cooking jambalaya and much more. It smelled great but that wasn’t on my race menu.

A few runners were sitting at a table eating and talking. One guy said “You look pretty good.” I told him I didn’t know how to take that. We all laughed as he clarified himself saying the I looked the freshest compared to first and second place. As the laugher faded I gave them a short coaching. “Hey, this is a race. What are you guys doing? Playing cards? Get out there!”

The Alaskan sun slowly dropped below the surrounding mountains and the air began to cool. The trail was very hard-packed and the last rest stop arrived very quickly. Dean’s friends were manning this stop so I chatted a bit. They gave me some kind, motivating words and I started the final 12 miles.

I turned on my 15 watt Niterider. I had kept its Ni-Cad battery warm by making a neoprene bootie and stuffing it with four chemical toe warmers. This helped keep the battery from loosing much charge and from freezing.

Perhaps the coolest moment of the race occurred at this time. Much of the Iditasport race is on the infamous Iditarod trail so the dog sled teams were out practicing for this year’s race in March. At one point a couple teams passed me going the opposite direction. The impassioned dogs glanced my way as they charged their sled up the hill. Their eyes reflected my light, the musher tipped his head, and they were quietly away.

It was awfully dark now. The moon had not yet risen and the temperatures were falling fast. My hands and feet were starting to get chilled. My chemical warmers had long since expired and I was regretting not having extras. I was making fists and wiggling my toes to trying to get warm blood to return to my extremities.

My mind was starting to go as well. I looked back a few times and didn’t see anyone on my tail, so I’d stop. I stopped on the ice road and thought it would be funny to urinate on the road and write D-E-A-N. This was my first bathroom stop in 11 hours but I knew I was in trouble after writing the “D”. I didn’t have enough “ink” in me so I shortened my plans and wrote Dean’s initials. It was all in vain. He never saw them.

Finally, the Big Lake Lodge came into view. I found the energy to shift to the big ring and rose from the saddle. The clock said 11 hours and 12 minutes at the finish. My cameraman friend was there and wanted more. I told him I lost my cookies. He said “Oh, you threw up?” I told him no, I had actually lost the cookies I bought from the kids. It was a bummer. I was so hungry.

I walked in the lodge and got confirmation on my third place finish, 54 minutes behind a victorious Rocky. I was the first rookie and first non-Alaskan which made me happy.

I passed the mandatory gear check and ordered a cheese omelette. I choked that down and ordered a grilled cheese with fries. I called my parents to let them know I survived. My only ailment was a light tingling sensation in the tip of my right pinkie and left big toe. Someone called it frost nip and told me it’ll probably go away after a few months. We’ll see.

Poor Dean was a little over half way done. He was toughing it out in the worse conditions yet. While the thermometer read -2F outside the lodge, reports on the course were of -10F temperatures. There was no wind which made things worse, allowing the colder air to settle on the rivers and lakes. It was dark, too, and much easier to wander off course. From the Lodge, the race promoter was frantically sending out snow machine search teams to find the wayward racers.

Dean finished the next morning and I celebrated by eating another cheese omelette. We packed up and headed back to Anchorage.

While we were slumming around the condo, other racers continued to drift across the wilderness. The last finisher took over 39 hours on snowshoes, well under the 50 hours cutoff.

At the awards banquet, we chowed some excellent food, and no, they weren’t serving whale blubber. Everyone who finishes the race gets a commemorative Native Alaskan ulu knife. The promoter reminded the out-of-towners that if you try carrying this past airline security, you will lose your precious award.

I donated another $50 to Northwest to bring me and the bike back to Michigan. When I finally got home, I sent an email to that Anchorage Daily News reporter. I let him know I didn’t get terribly lost and finished pretty well. I’m sure he’s sleeping better now.

I learned quite a bit about the race and myself. Friends have asked me which is tougher, Leadville or Iditasport. Well, they’re obviously different. There’s definitely more pain and intensity at Leadville due to the climbing, but there’s also more people and support.

Iditasport had practically no spectators to cheer you. Mentally, Iditasport is tougher. And this race challenges you to balance racing with survival.

Will I do this race again? Yes, at least once more. I need to have a mistake-free performance so I can toss these “should-a, could-a, would-a’s” out of my head. Will I be graduating to the Iditasport Extreme 350 mile race? Ah, probably not. That might be a little too tough.

One reply on “Winter Confessions from the Iditasport Extreme Bike Race

  • GP

    This was a great story. It reminded me a lot of Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, by Gary Paulsen. Similar moments of madness, but a lot of fun. I didn’t see the author mentioned, but would love to read more.

    Reply

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