Fire at the Fat Pursuit

Last weekend’s Backyard Fat Pursuit bike race in Idaho was far harder, more fun, and more amazing than I expected. The race ended for me at five on Sunday afternoon, when the race director intercepted me on the course and asked me to stop, as I was hours off any decent pace.

I am still struggling to think coherently about the race – partly because my body and mind were shattered by the effort and partly because I just have not had enough time to think the event through. If I were not trying to project an image of myself as a hardened ultraendurance athlete, I might admit that I’ve cried every day since I stopped riding, 102.66 miles and 33:59 after the starting gun.

Suffice to say the whole thing – the road trip out there with my new friend (and super fast guy) Ben Doom, our prep and recovery in Idaho, and of course the race itself – was even more challenging and satisfying than the Arrowhead 135, which was itself a peak experience in my life. I tip my sweat-soaked cycling cap to Jay Petervary, the race director and a great guy, and his army of volunteers and sponsors. They staged a race that pushed me much further than I expected.

So while I figure out exactly what to say about the race itself and about the rest of the experience (preview: bike racing is hard, Ben is awesome, the Yellowstone area is impossibly beautiful, I can go a lot harder and longer than I thought, I need to do this race again), let me tell you about how I gave myself a second-degree burn during a fatbike race in the snow.

Like the Arrowhead, the Fat Pursuit requires every racer to carry a certain amount of gear. Those of us who were taking on the 200km race had to ride with various lights and spare batteries, a GPS tracker, a cold-weather sleeping kit, and survival cooking gear – a stove, pot, fuel, fire starter. No problem: I had all this stuff from the Arrowhead.

Unlike the Arrowhead’s organizers, who were satisfied to check that you had all the gear and who assumed you knew how to use it, JayP wanted to be sure that we could use our gear, especially the most crucial gear – the stove. On the race website and then again at the race orientation meeting on Friday night, Jay P said that all of the long-distance racers would need to prove that they could boil eight ounces of water. Where would they need to do this? He wouldn’t say. What would happen to a racer who could not get the water boiling? They would be disqualified from the race.

With that promise slash threat hanging over the 19 of us who had registered for the full distance, we hit the trail at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning.
On the Line

Our race started by sending us out onto a big loop that would be the same course ridden by the 60k racers, who would start two hours later. The first checkpoint was located about 50km into the race, at a corner where the long course turned west and toward 150 more kilometers of racing while the short course turned east for the 10km run back to the finish.

Getting to Checkpoint 1 was tough. The trails were amazingly hilly even there, and I spent a fair amount of time pushing my bike up unridable hills, over flats covered in unridable snow, or through unridable snow on unridable hills. I was enormously relieved to finally come on the first checkpoint, six hours into the race. I expected to be able to sit down, to eat, to drink, and to rest. First, though, JayP came up and said I needed to boil that water.

Surprised by not shocked, I dug my stove, fuel, and firestarter out of the most accessible part of my bike’s saddle bag, where I had had the forethought to stash them. Having boiled water on this stove at home, I knew I could do it. But boiling some tap water in the back yard, two feet and a patio door from my living room, is a far different thing than boiling icy slush poured from my bike bottle into an aluminum cup balanced precariously on a tiny stove resting on the ground on a snowy, windy trail in a remote Idaho forest.

This was of course Jay P’s point.

As I dug out my stuff, another racer – a nice guy and a great rider with whom I was sharing a cabin at the race start – told me that he had not been able to get his stove lit, and so had been disqualified. He admitted that he was feeling much worse than he had expected, so dropping out was the right thing to do. Since he had been far ahead of me on the trail, this rattled me a little bit. I wished him well, though, and squatted down in the snow. I unfolded the little stove, popped a fuel cube out of its package, set the cube in the center of the stove, and tried my lighter, leaning close to the fuel so that the flame would catch right away.

Except the lighter didn’t catch and provide even a spark, much less a flame. JayP was standing nearby, watching but saying nothing. Seeing me struggle, my new friend Kid, who was on course shooting photos for the race sponsor, Salsa Cycles, advised me to warm up the lighter and try again in a few minutes. I stuck the lighter in my armpit and went over to the shelter to stuff my face with cookies. Jay told me to put on my puffer jacket to stay warm. I put on my puffer jacket. Kid hovered nearby, taking photos of me and of others at the checkpoint.

A few minutes later, I tried again. I was working barehanded, and my hands started to shake so violently that I couldn’t really hold the lighter, much less flick my thumb down on the spark wheel. I put the lighter back under my arm and tried instead with the strike-anywhere matches I had brought as a backup.

You know where strike-anywhere matches don’t strike? On a frigid, windy snowmobile trail in the Idaho mountains, that’s where. Watching from the far end of my arm as the matches refused to light, I realized I was in trouble. I often laugh when I’m nervous, and I must have sounded like a lunatic now. But my hands were completely numb, and my options were foreclosing. Kid and a race volunteer tried to help me by forming a semicircle to try and block the wind, which was coming down the hill toward the checkpoint, then whipping into a spirit-killing swirl.

At several points, thanks to Kid and the volunteer, I managed to light some of the matches with the lighter, but the flames always went out before igniting the fuel cube. The two dozen matches I had counted out at home – plenty, right? who would even need more than 24 matches in a bike race? -dwindled to just five. Trying the lighter again and again and one match after another, I could see my whole race going up in nonexistent flames.

Kid and the volunteer could not help me in any direct way, but Kid – an experienced rider and outdoors guy – started offering advice. Break another fuel cube in half and grind the halves together to sprinkle powder over the big tablet. Set the cubes on the matches that had burned without lighting the main cube. Lean down further. Hold the lighter against my chest as I struck the spark wheel. As I tried this, my frozen hands sabotaged me, dropping the lighter top-down into the snow. Though I tried to knock the snow out, I could see there was more in there, and that the nozzle was probably plugged.

JayP’s point about being ready for real survival situations was being driven home like an icicle falling into a snowbank. Just as I was about to give up, JayP himself came over from where he’d been watching other 200km racers light their fires and rooting on 60km racers. I hated those guys as they sped right through the checkpoint on their loathsome rigs, which weren’t weighed down with sleeping bags, a gallon of water, or stupid fucking stoves.

"Try in the shelter." I had forgotten about the little black enclosed shelter next to the snack table. I moved my useless pile of junk from the snow to the shelter. Immediately a little warmer, and out of the wind, I calmed down and tried a few more times, alternating fire starting with face stuffing. I managed to get a couple small flames going, but the main fuel cube refused to light. Then, a miracle: someone stuck his arm through the zipper door of the shelter. "Trade you?" Whoever it was – the volunteer who’d been helping me before? JayP? Another racer? – was handing me a tiny green lighter. I took it and passed back my useless orange one.

I crouched on the snow in front of the bench where I had put the stove. Picked up one intact match with my deadened left hand. Held the match head to the new lighter. Flicked the spark wheel with my dead right hand. A flame jumped up and lit the match in what seemed like a goddamn supernova. Trying to stay calm, I tilted forward and set the burning match on top of the big tablet. Immediately, the fuel powder caught fire. That flame lit the two ground-down parts of the second tablet, and then they lit the main tablet. Chain reaction!

I put my aluminum cup full of water – which had turned from slush to solid ice in the time I had been demonstrating my shitty outdoors skills – on top of the stove. I couldn’t quite believe that the fire was going, but somehow it was. I waited for a few minutes, watching the flames grow until they were lapping up the outside of the cup. The ice melted. The water simmered. The water boiled.

Elated, I popped out of the shelter as if I had just invented fire. Stupidly, I beat my chest and yelled, "Fire!" JayP came over, ducked his head into the shelter, and verified that the water was in fact boiling. "Good," he said, and went over to the race roster to note that I had passed the test, presumably by ticking the box marked "Idiot who somehow did it."

I let the water boil for a little longer, then swung the handles of the cup out and picked it up. The fucking thing was hot, and burned my thumb badly enough that the skin instantaneously blistered. I couldn’t feel a thing, whether from the cold or the adrenaline. I went over to the snack table with my hot water and dumped about a cup of cocoa mix into the cup. In any other situation, the drink would have been disgusting, but I drank every drop and then scraped up the chocolate goo with a spoon.

Mission accomplished, I ate more food – cookies, pretzels, potato chips, a couple energy bars, the only remaining cup of beef ramen – while waiting for my hard-won fire to die down. When only embers remained, I dumped the ashes into the snow and packed everything back up. JayP came over. "Take some paper with you, and make sure it’s in a Ziploc." I dutifully stuffed a few sheets of paper towel into the bag with my fuel tablets, my last few precious matches, and the heaven-sent lighter and put all that and the stove into my flame-marked, cocoa-goo’ed cup. I stripped off my puffer jacket and wadded it back into my saddlebag, then put in the stove kit, where I could get them back out in five seconds if or when I needed them again.

"I’m heading out," I told the volunteer with the roster. "Number 17." He wrote my check-out time on the roster. I picked up the Beast and pointed myself up the trail. The second checkpoint, in West Yellowstone, Montana, was 36 mostly-uphill miles away. I hoped to get there around midnight.

On the Way to West

One thought on “Fire at the Fat Pursuit”

  1. Nice work getting it sorted out. People may not realize just how tough it was at that time, but it wasn’t an easy test under the circumstances. It was certainly a valuable experience though, even for me just watching.

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