I had to work late today, which meant I rode home around 7:30 and saw a very different Northfield than I do when I ride home just after 5: slow strolling students on campus, lawn mowers and dog walkers and stray skateboarders, wide empty streets, a golden yellow haze over the fields
and just for mystery’s sake, a hot air balloon drifting east of town.
I dunno if that many bike riders name their bikes, but I know a few who do, and I have named my last three bikes. My first gravel bike, a Surly CrossCheck, never earned a name, but my blue Salsa Mukluk fatbike was "the Beast," because it was a beastly machine that could go anywhere and looked (I think) a little scary, with those big tires seeming to be giant black paws. My Salsa Vaya gravel bike is "Giddyup," because it’s got a lot of get up and go – which is true even if I don’t ride it enough.
My favorite bike, my silver Salsa Mukluk, is "the Buffalo," a name that took me a long time to choose – or which took a long time to choose the bike. Quite a few people have asked me about the name – including several strangers at the Almanzo last weekend who rode up next me and asked, "Is that the Buffalo? Are you Chris Tassava?"
Despite or because of the weirdness of having strangers recognize me and my bike, I thought maybe I should explain the name.
I bought the Mukluk from my friend Ben, who’d built it up for himself a few years before but hadn’t had time to really put it to use. He gave me a great deal on the bike, so I snapped it up. Riding the nameless bike for months after I bought it, I thought about its many wonderful qualities and waited for the right moniker to emerge. My daughters lobbied for "Beauty," partly as a complement to the Beast (though I no longer owned the Beast) and partly because they’re girls. Honestly, the bike is pretty. Dressed in its blue and gray frame bags for winter racing or bikepacking, the bike looks, I think, like it’s wearing a comfortable, functional uniform.
Without the bags, the bike shows off all of its unpainted silvery titanium – definitely the bike material that’s easiest on the eyes.
Despite all that, "Beauty" didn’t fit. Not that one can’t define beauty in many ways, but to me, the bike was too burly and too aggressive-looking to be "Beauty." Then, on a long training ride last fall, with the bike dressed in its all bags and laden with most of my winter-racing gear, as I ground my way up a long, messy gravel climb, it hit me: "the Buffalo."
My mind was primed for this revelation. I’d just read an article somewhere about bison. Most people know about the bison’s near-eradication in the 19th century, and also know the bit about how Indians used "every part" of the bison, but the animal itself is as fascinating as its history. It’s the largest North American mammal, the only survivor of the megafauna that thrived tens of thousands of years ago but that were almost all killed off by humans when they migrated out of Asia.
The bison survived because of their unique physical characteristics. They’re massive, but their physiology enables them to thrive in a wide range of conditions – hot southwestern deserts, temperate grasslands, lowland forests, mountain valleys, Alaskan swamps – and of course, the dry, windy grasslands that run up the center of the continent, which was where I live and where I would largely be riding the bike. A bison is fast – able to run up to up to 25 miles an hour. A bison is nimble – able to jump over fences that are six feet high or ditches and holes longer than their body length. A bison is tough – able to move dozens of miles a day in the right conditions (not to mention to survive the white mans’ guns). And a bison is very pleasing to look at, in a wild way.
My fatbike, too, is fast, nimble, tough, and above all adaptable – good on pavement, great on gravel, excellent on dirt, and of course phenomenal on snow. With those rationalizations in place, I just had to make sure the name was right "Buffalo" is a laden term, with pedants loving to point out that the American bison isn’t a "buffalo" like the water buffalo of Africa. (This is true, but also dumb, since the French explorers didn’t give the name to the weird humpbacked cattle they saw on the plains because they looked like water buffalo.)
But "the Bison" didn’t sound right, and "Tatanka" (the Lakota word for "bison") didn’t seem right coming from a white guy. Growing up, I’d always used the label "buffalo" for bison, which mattered to me because riding bikes – especially fatbikes – can be a pure, childlike pleasure. And "the Buffalo" just sounded right when I said it. The name fit all the more because I’d installed some weird curved handlebars that looked – from above and behind, which was my view of them – a little like a horned bovine head. Within a few hundred yards of gravel road, the nameless fatbike became the Buffalo, and the Buffalo has taken me to some cool places.
Sunscreen, water bottles, helmets, and away we went. I marveled at how easily and quickly we zipped past the pool, which had been a distant, hard-to-reach destination even just last summer. (It’s not quite a mile away.) The girls being older, bigger, and excited-er was already paying off. A few minutes later, we arrived at the very nondescript start to the trails. Vivi was surprised to see a simple path in the woods (I think she was expecting something grander), but she gamely followed Julia onto the trail, who had been racing ahead of us throughout the ride over.
Taking up the third spot in our little group, I was initially worried that Vivi – who’s often only tolerates bike riding, and had only ever ridden on sidewalks and streets – would hate the tight, twisty dirt trail. Worry: unfounded! She rode carefully but steadily through the first set of corners, popped up off her seat to negotiate a few short rises, and even leaned into the early downhill corners. Not to say she was a natural, but she was pretty close. She wanted to chase down Julia, too, which helped a lot.
I hung back a few yards, at first calling out a few instructions but soon just enjoying the sight of the two of them – or at least G, since J was usually out of view up front – zooming through the trees. They both stopped to walk the two trickier log obstacles and to guide their bikes through one very tight spot that I can’t even ride, but they crushed everything else. I was so happy and proud of them!
Before I knew it, we were zooming around the baseball fields and racing down the flat two-track along the river, which they found a little boring. I was surprised by this, so we headed to some of the trickier trails in the back. Julia was excited to try a fairly steep dropoff, which she rode smoothly – and over and over:
As Julia tried a few other accessible pieces of elevated trail, though, Vivi started to have a hard time, perhaps due to seeing her sister ride stuff that she herself didn’t want to attempt, and perhaps also due to needing a snack. Hangry, she starting crying and yelling about how much she hated biking, and how the trails were boring and stupid.
Trying to curtail this ugliness, I urged them back along the trials to the start, where – as I had promised in the morning – we hit the convenience store for ice cream. After the sugary treats, some water from their very own bike bottles, and a few minutes of rest, Vivi was raring to go again. We hit all of the front stuff again and tried out some of the technical sections in back, including a twenty-foot section that includes a sharp left hand turn, an off-camber descent over some roots and loose dirt, and then a sharp righthand turn away from the river.
With enthusiasm still high but energy levels waning, we spent a long time practicing – "sessioning," as they say – a short but steep little drop that, ultimately, both girls mastered. Vivi spent a good five minutes nerving herself up to try it the first time, but once she did it once, she did it again and again – taking turns with Julia, who alternately encouraged her sister ("Come on, girl! You got this!") and hit the drop at higher and higher speeds.
I wanted to the outing to end on a pretty high note like this one, so after a good number of attempts (and one little crash by the elder in which she bent her brake lever and scraped her legs – yes!), I turned them toward home again. Julia just had to see the Spine, an infamously tough obstacle that she heard about at school from her mom’s supervisor (what?!), so we checked that out. Though they couldn’t ride much of the obstacle, they were intrigued by the idea of learning how to do it over the course of the summer. Being a guy, I just had to show off for the cute girls, so I gave the Spine a go and surprised myself by cleaning it for the first time ever – right in front of the girls.
That couldn’t be topped (at least today), so we headed home from there. The girls literally rode away from me when we passed through the front singletrack section for the last time. I had to work very hard to get close enough to snap a photo!
By the time we rolled into our garage fifteen minutes later, we’d been out in the fresh air for nearly four hours, and spent a solid 2:30 riding. The girls were exhausted, ravenous, and dirty, but after resting, eating, and bathing, they both told me that they were eager to go back next weekend. I can’t wait. I don’t think I’m going to get tired of riding bikes with them anytime soon.
I’ve been a parent for almost 11 years now, but I’m still surprised at how big, important moments come out of nowhere. Sure, a lot of big, important moments are carefully scheduled (somehow, my calendar shows me attending Julia’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony on Tuesday!), but many aren’t. This morning, for instance, I casually mentioned the idea of going with one or both girls over to the new singletrack bike trails at Sechler Park, a short but challenging few miles of track that Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails, our local MTB club, built last year.
Having spent hours and hours on the trails in the fall, over the winter, and now this spring, I’ve cut my crashing down from “constant” to “occasional,” which led me to think that the girls might be able to handle many of the trails – especially the “front” section nearest town and the doubletrack “road” along the river in the back.
Vivi was busy today with her BFF, but lo and behold, Julia got very excited by the idea, and so off we went. She was stoked to have a real water bottle in the cage of her new (to her) bike and to wear a pair of my bike gloves. I could barely keep in front of her on the couple-mile ride through town to the trails. When we arrived at the trailhead, I gave her a few pointers, reassured her that she could and should walk any sections that seemed too tricky, and told her I was so happy that she’d even been interested in coming out. I left unsaid that I was bubbling over with excitement at having one of my kids sharing one of my favorite activities with me.
Then we hit the trails. Though the first stretch of trails – from the trailhead to the baseball fields in the middle of Sechler – is almost entirely flat, the track is very tight, with many sharp corners, innumerable spots where there trees are just slightly wider than a rider’s elbows, and a good number of technical features like log bumps and bridges. I am myself the furthest thing from smooth on this section, but I can ride it pretty cleanly now.
On her first try, Julia rode these trails pretty much as cleanly as I do after hours of practice – railing the corners, riding easily over some low obstacles, crossing the bridges without a thought, and intuitively pedaling hard up some steep bits. She did, wisely, dismount for some of the bigger obstacles, but she handled everything else with aplomb – and maybe a few shrieks.
After negotiating the front section, we rode the doubletrack out to the far end of the park, rested for a bit (and talked about how old she’ll have to be to ride in the 100-mile Almanzo gravel race), and then headed back to the start. After a quick break for fizzy water and granola bars from the gas station, we did the whole route a second time. She crushed it again:
More than once, I was riding ahead of her at a reasonably quick pace, turned to see where she was, and found her right on my wheel, looking for all the world like she was about to make a pass and drop me like a brick. As we neared the end of our second circuit, I sped up so I could get a picture of her hitting the bridge near the trailhead. I rode away fast, but still barely had time to dig out my phone before she cruised through the trees, effortlessly glided up the ramp onto the bridge, rolled over the bouncy little span, dropped back onto the dirt, and whipped past me.
It was just a bike ride, but it felt like a big, important bike ride. I can’t wait to take her back there again soon, and to take Vivi along, too.
I had to leave the Buffalo at the shop for a week while a defective part was replaced, which would have sucked except that a) the part was warrantied, and Tom, my LBS guy, only charged me for the labor needed to install the new part, and b) Tom let me use his shop bike, a Surly Ice Cream Truck, while the Buffalo was fixed.
The Ice Cream Truck is a wonderfully crazy machine: trail-ready frame geometry, candy-blue paint, and most importantly, massive 5″ tires. The ICT was loud and slow on pavement and sidewalks, but on any other surface – grass, dirt, sand, gravel – the bike took off. It was a rocket on straightaways, but really showed off in corners and on sharp ups and downs. Riding this thing, I easily railed tight, loose corners in the local singletrack park and rolled joyfully up and down steep banks – technical stuff that I could not handle on the Buffalo. For the first time, I could see how frame size and geometry could really make a difference in riding experience – a fact that I knew, but had never really experienced.
In short, I had a blast riding this bike. I was almost (almost) sad to give it up on Friday when the Buffalo was fixed, but I was also eager to take the Mukluk – with its expedition geometry – back to the singletrack to see if any of my new skills translated to the bigger, less nimble bike.
Today was just one of those days that went right. Perfect weather. Lots, but not too much, to do at work – including doing off a few to-dos that had been to for too long. A hard workout at noon. Some Carleton silliness: free root-beer floats at the library.
A task at the end of the day that turned out to be easier than I thought. Wonderful floral smells in the humid spring air. A great bike ride home, seeing a half-dozen friends and acquaintances and met a new fatbike. A gorgeous sunset. A pleasant few minutes with the girls when they got home, jazzed up, from tae kwon do. Now, a good new book to read and a delicious beer…
No matter what John Oliver says, April Fools Day is great, especially in the Age of the Internet and especially, I think, in Northfield, which is full of people who enjoy staging pranks and who enjoy hearing about them. Here are a few of my favorite AF jokes from 2015. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more – appreciating their creativity or watching fools fall for them.
I took advantage of the perfect weather today and the girls being busy with a friend to clean up the garage.
I took down and packed away the Christmas lights on the front tree, passed on to new owners two unneeded kids’ bikes, reorganized the crazy miscellany on the shelves, stowed the snow-removal tools again slash finally, installed hooks to get other stuff off the floor (a half-dozen sets of bike tires, a bike rack), and sorted my three bins of various cycling-related items – racing gear, winter equipment, and spare parts.
I also threw out a ton of junk, including these casualties of my winter racing: a worn-out cassette, two derailleurs (one merely bent, one folded like a pretzel) and a bottom bracket whose death throes sounded like a coffee grinder.
Not pictured are the shifters I grew to hate, two different chains I snapped, or the big chainring whose 42 teeth were ground down to nubs.
I looked at this junk and though, "Expensive problems to solve." But as the guy at my shop reminded me, bikers are supposed to ride their bikes. I had a lot of fun wearing out all this stuff.
Along those lines, and keeping in mind that I am not a fast guy, I thought I would write up a few of my own lessons for successfully undertaking long-distance fatbike rides and races.
Forget drop bags.
Though I know many racers use drop bags to replenish their food and drink and to have good stuff to anticipate at the checkpoints, to me they’re been a complication, something to worry about before and during the race: what should I put in the bag? where and when do I drop off the bag? what will I do if I can’t find the bag?
A fatbike set up for a marathon or longer will have enough space on it to carry the stuff that could go in a drop bag, eliminating this complexity – and living up to the "you are responsible for you" ethos of fatbike racing.
Wear a hood!
Hats are great, especially if you need to shade your eyes, but hoods are, I think, superior as means to manage heat and moisture. Not only do hoods look awesome, but they’re easier to pull up or down than hats are to remove and stow or dig out and don. Good hoods, the kind that have high front zippers that cover the chin, also serve as good buffs, helping to bottle up heat inside a jacket or jersey.
To do well in a long race, you have to practice riding, of course, but an ultramarathon demands all kinds of other skills, often an in opportune times like in the middle of the night or after hours of fighting a frigid headwind. To be ready for those moments, practice finding and donning your extra clothing quickly, starting a fire, pushing your bike through deep snow, fixing a flat tire – all those eventualities that could mean the difference between comfort and suffering, between a finish and a DNF, or even between surviving and not.
I love regular coffee and Coke. Love them, and enjoy them whenever I can. But as good as they are, caffeinated drinks and foods are even better during arduous races. As such, I’ve started weaning myself from caffeine before big races, so that I am caffeine-free for the couple weeks leading up to the event. Not only does this help induce good sleep over that period, but this assures that when I do take caffeine during the race, it’s like rocket fuel. The effect can’t be overstated! Caffeinated gel and chews, Coke, coffee, Red Bull: it’s all magically potent.
Riding and racing is a lot easier and more fun when you stay relaxed and loose, whether by temperament or by habit – by consciously counteracting the tension that naturally builds in the body and mind. A loose body also stays warm better, I think!
But staying relaxed ahead of a race also matters to the race itself. Practically, I do this with by using checklists to be mindlessly sure I’m packing all the right stuff, by using drawings to plan the locations on my bike of all my gear, by packing race kit in one bag in my duffel and my post-race clothes in another…
Less practically, I stay relaxed by trying to follow as normal a routine as possible: my usual food, my usual clothes, my usual habits. I’ve found that a beer or two the night before a race helps keep me calmed down. Delicious. Normal.
Move like a sled dog.
From my friend and super-fast fatbike racer Kevin Breitenbach:
"I feel like i dont have a ton of relevant things to learn from guys at the Tour de France, just like they dont have much to learn from me. i have way more to learn from my dog. The more i move down the trail like my dog the better. i dont suggest anyone move down the trail like a roadie. you dont have to be a great cyclist to do well in winter races. you need to know that the most important thing is to move efficiently through every aspect of the race. a good musher, husky, wolf, coyote, or fox knows the same thing. find the sweet spot in the trail, keep your back steady and stride consistent, regulate your temperature easily and constantly, no wasted motions, rarely stop, stay on top of the snow, eat and drink quickly and deal with it in uncomfortably large portions then get rest in whatever form, no matter how brief, as often as possible. Mushers and dog teams do all that very well, and if things go well in a race so do winter endurance athletes."
"Unless you’re riding, always do two things at once."
This is one of JayP’s tips. Ride as much as possible, but when you can’t ride – and any fatbike ride of any distance will include hike-a-bike sections – make sure you’re doing something else while you push: drink water, down a gel, adjust clothing, pop some ibuprofen, move food from a frame bag pocket to a bar bag, open or close is jacket zippers… Make full use of the time before you can get back in the saddle and start making better time again.
This is another of JayP’s tips: do the thing you know you need to do as soon as possible. Tires washing out? Stop and air down. Thirsty but your bottle’s empty? Stop and find that full one in your seat bag. Getting sweaty at 0 degrees? Unzip the jacket (or lower your hood!). Craving some food that’s out of reach? Stop and dig it out. Take care of a little issue before it’s a big problem.
Sunday was a true early-spring day: sunny, breezy, and about forty degrees F. Beautiful, in other words. Finally weather that lets me wear the same clothes all day! No need for a jacket; a fleece sweater is fine!
The sun motivated me to do a few "spring cleaning" tasks around the house – sweeping leaves and sand off the patio, wiping down the patio table, stashing the snow shovel and melting salt and sand in the back corner of the garage, putting the girls’ sleds and snowboards away. I tried to take down the Christmas lights in the tree out front, but the snowbanks were too high and soft to let me get close to the tree itself, and the extension cord was frozen down in three different places. Next weekend!
The day being so nice, I decided to make the usual seasonal tweaks to my bike. I took off the Buffalo’s winter tires and re-installed its dirt tires, took off the winter racing bags and put on a puny little seatbag, and finally also put on my trusty and essential fenders. Cleaned up, the Buffalo looked pretty light and fast:
With these domestic chores out of the way, I decided to hop on the bike to do a couple errands on campus. I saw a half-dozen runners even before I left if our subdivision. Cutting through the very melty Carleton Arboretum, I exchanged affable smiles with one die-hard skier, skating through the slush and standing water. On campus, kids were out everywhere – running, walking hand in hand, playing frisbee golf, just hanging out on the steps and benches. One woman was even fishing through a hole she’d cut in the ice on the pond.
and then took care of a million cleaning tasks I never have time to do during the week. Besides cleaning up my desk and filing cabinets, I threw a couple dozen books in the recycling bin and put twice as many in a box to drag down to the used bookstore sometime soon.
Before long, I needed to head home again. I took a meandering route through the streets, seeing many more walkers, dogwalkers, runners, and bikers, plus groups of kids playing frisbee, football, and baseball. With the sun dropping behind the trees, the air was cooking fast, and I got a nice chill – maybe the last of the season.
Tomorrow, the biggest, baddest fatbike race of them all starts: the Iditarod Trail Invitational, run on the dogsled route from Anchorage, Alaska, north and west to McGrath, the end of the "short" 350 mile race, and Nome, the end of the "long" 1,000 mile race.
This year, a bunch of my fatbike-racing friends are doing the races, including these yahoos from Minnesota and South Dakota:
My buddies Ben Doom and Mark Seaburg are fourth and fifth from the left here. And I loaned my headlamp to Charly Tri, at left. (I want that lamp back, Charly!) I’ll be rooting for them and for other friends I’ve met – Jay and Tracey Petervary, Beat Jegerlehner, Kevin Breitenbach, Petr Ineman- and not yet met – Toni Lund (an incredible photographer) – starting Sunday afternoon.
As you’d guess, I am very eager to do the ITI. The checkpoints and other milestones ring in my head like bells: Knik, Yentna Station, the Skwentna Roadhouse, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, the Dalzell Gorge, Rohn, the Farewell Burn, Nikolai, McGrath…
With finishes in two Arrowheads and one Fat Pursuit, I have enough experience to do the "short" race to McGrath. The problems, as usual, are time and money. Including both travel time and up to five days of racing, I would need about ten days off to do the race – a long time to make Shannon handle all the domestic duties, and a long time to be away from work. Maybe more importantly, the adventure would cost several thousand dollars to do: the race entry fee, extensive travel to and in Alaska, lodging there, plus all the usual race costs like food and Alaska-ready gear and food and batteries (so many batteries!) and food (so much food!).
One of the great things about the fatbike community is how back-of-the-pack guys like me can talk to and learn from racers who are way up front – people like Tracey Petervary, an accomplished long-distance cyclist, a really cool person, and a pretty dominant champion.
T-Race has enjoyed particularly remarkable success in fatbike racing, which everyone agrees is the hardest and best form of bike racing. Most notably, Tracey has won the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska by setting the women’s records on both the northern and the southern routes – 1,000 miles between Nome and Anchorage. Back home in Idaho, she was first female champion at JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in 2014, making a gigantic late-race push to finish second overall.
And here in Minnesota, Tracey has now won back-to-back titles at the Arrowhead 135, taking the last year’s race in memorably cold conditions (and finishing fifth overall) and winning again this year. With the win, she became the only female rider to win the Arrowhead twice. (For reference, only one man – Jeff Oatley – has won the race twice, back to back in 2010 and 2011.)
Proving her awesomeness, T-Race agreed to answer a few questions from me about her 2014-2015 racing so far. I’ve lightly edited her answers for clarity.
Talk first a little about your training this winter. What does a week look like for you – long rides, short hard sessions, a mix? Do you do much training off the bike?
Training? I am a bookkeeper so I get a lot of training sitting on my ass, ha ha. I have been supplementing my time off the bike with Targhee CrossFit, where my coaches keep my weight low, to keep me light and add to my strength, which adds confidence. A week may look like 2-3 days of CrossFit during the week, an hour of snowshoeing to pack down the local Rush Hour Trail I like to ride with the boys [ed.: Rippin’ and Chillin’, the Petervarys’ dogs], and 2-3 days of weekend riding anywhere from 2 to 5 hours.
One part of your winter was serving as co-race director for the Fat Pursuit in early January. What was it like to help run the race, rather than race the race?
The stoke was huge at this race, so it was just straight up fun. The quality of racers and the excitement from the volunteers and the community made it stellar. It was fun to be on the other side, helping racers have a good time, cheering everyone on at different checkpoints, making notes to make the event better, and organizing and talking to the awesome volunteers, who were just as excited as the racers. I got to spend time with friends who don’t race but love to be a part and volunteer. Helping JayP was great; he had a lot of patience and I know he was relieved to have me help, which made me feel good.
The Arrowhead is just part of your winter campaign, which also includes the ITI next month. Why did you choose to race the Arrowhead again this year?
I chose to race the Arrowhead again because it’s a fun race and because I wanted to come back to challenge myself to get a better finish time. It’s like a reunion of friends I don’t get to see often which is really special. I also knew it would be a different race, as far as temperatures.
Tell me about your race strategy at the Arrowhead, given the conditions this year. Did you have a goal time in mind (Eszter Horanyi’s course record – 18:18, set in 2012?)? Did you have goals – in terms of time or effort – for particular checkpoints or other landmarks on the course?
I thought about the record briefly going into the race, but I didn’t feel in record shape – which is how racing goes sometimes. My goals were to beat my own times, have a solid race, and be efficient, making no stops other than the checkpoints. When I was getting close to Melgeorges [the second checkpoint, near midway in the race], it started to set in that I may have a chance at the record.
What kind of tactics played out during the Arrowhead? Racers were finishing fast and furious around you – four finished in the half hour ahead of you and five finished in the half hour after you did. Did you ride with anyone? Chase? Pass?
The section between Melgeorges and Ski Pulk [the third checkpoint] went very well for me. I passed a few guys, my riding was solid, I felt good. I wasn’t really sure where others were; I was just focusing on getting to the finish ASAP.
Some more general questions. First, your bike. You ride a gorgeous Salsa Beargrease, “Fave.”
How did you set up Fave for the Arrowhead – tires, drivetrain, bags, et cetera? Do you always use flat pedals and regular boots on Fave, or is that a race-by-race choice? Were you testing anything interesting? Did anything work particularly well or not work particularly badly?
The set-up for this race is usually the same as far as gear: tires were 4 inch Dillingers front and back, drive train was a 1×11, my frame bag is custom from Carousel Designs with a stretchy part for expansion and embroidered with my name. I got a pair of 45NRTH Wölvhammers this year, so that was different. I really like being clipped in. The warm temps made it tricky. My feet actually overheated and then got wet and cold, but I was able to dry my socks and and the second half of the race my feet felt great!
Second, food! You are a pretty accomplished cook, and maybe even a little bit of a foodie. What do you like to eat and drink during races, when you’re rolling and when you’re stopped? Any treats that you save for particular moments?
Thanks! I like to eat things that make me feel good, that I can be ok with eating as far as ingredients. I also try to eat things I don’t eat all the time and save for race food, but that I have tried in the past so they’re not a shock, such as locally made Kate’s bars and GU Brew, Gel, and Chomps. This race I ate jerky from Wyoming Ranch, which was dynamite. I liked the salt and it was easy to eat. I used to eat a lot more sugar and candy, but these choices were better. My stomach never went south.
Third, what do you think about when you’re on the trail? What goes through your head? Your effort? The sounds Fave is making? Dreams of food and drink?
It depends where I am on the trail. I listen to music to change the mood or just to listen to something. I think of what I am doing and that this is a race and try to keep that focus. I also think about my time in the checkpoints, what I will do and what needs to be done to get in and out, and yes definitely how good the grilled cheese and wild rice soup is gonna taste!
With the AH now past, how are you building up to the ITI?
Mental preparation for me is big. I think about the sections of the trail, what they could be like, how I will handle the lack of sleep, the checkpoints, but always remaining flexible. I am following my regimen of 2-3 days of CrossFit. My coaches keep my weight low, so I am getting stronger but not bigger. I ride two or three days a week and will snowshoe one day a week.
Looking past even the ITI, what’s your “off-season” look like, besides cooking and walking Rippin’ and Chillin’? Races? Tours? Advocacy?
There’s an off season?
Finally: I see a lot of racers carrying mementos, slogans, and the like on their bikes. I pin a card with Mike Riemer’s “Stay constant” advice to my bars, for instance. Does T-Race carry anything like that with her when she’s out there on the trail?
I don’t have anything on my bike, but some quotes that have stuck with me and that I think of often are “You gotta want it,” “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and “Tell the mind to go, the body will follow.”
I was shivering at the predawn start line of JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit on January 10th – not from cold, since it was already 20 degrees, but from eagerness to stop anticipating the event and start racing it. I had been looking forward to this moment since I DNF’ed in the first edition of the race, in March 2014. Getting pulled from that race by Jay Petervary after 34 hours and 100 miles of riding had been tough to take, though I knew I could not have gone any further or faster with the bike, legs, or lungs I had then…
Standing with the Buffalo on the start line of the Arrowhead 135 on Monday morning in International Falls, I was bubbling with excitement – eager to get going. I had not been on my bike for more than about 20 minutes since the end of the Fat Pursuit, exactly 14 days before. Everything had gone well during that period: physical aches and pains disappeared, excitement for riding had returned, appetite had been good. Even race arrangements had been easy to handle: Shannon and the girls were happily on their own for a couple days and I’d driven up to I-Falls with my racer friend Jerry B and his friend Peter.
Still, though my body and mind felt fine, only the race itself would show whether I had recovered enough to work well at the Arrowhead. And aside from fitness, would I reap any gains from the confidence of finishing the Fat Pursuit – arguably a tougher race than even the Arrowhead?
Anticipating faster conditions than last year’s Arctic ride, I set a goal of finishing in 24 hours – five hours (about 20%) faster than my finish in 2014. I would need to average six miles an hour to reach that mark. With “six mph six mph six mph” running through my mind, we hit the trail at exactly seven.
After the usual initial scramble for positions in the tracks, most of the field – 30 or 40 or even 50 riders – settled into two big trains, which then merged into one. We blasted down the Blue Ox Grade out of I-Falls for about ten miles, a bubble of light in the predawn blue black.
I saw a couple big crashes, went into the ditch once myself, overheard a great deal of inane chatter (if someone gave me a dollar every time I heard someone ask ironically, “Are we having fun yet?” early in a race…), followed wheels, watched Charly Tri finish a nature break and blast past me on his 2-pound superbike, and occasionally jumped out of the track to make frantic passes through the fresh powder. Those short bursts helped keep me warm in the 20-something temps, against which I had worn a pretty skimpy kit: thin gloves and hat, no insulation layers under my tights or jersey, a light vest. When I could, I glanced down at my computer to check my speed: 10 mph, 12 mph, 14 mph when I passed someone. Gravel-racing speeds, for me.
Then came the course’s first turn, a sharp left onto the Arrowhead Trail proper. I was shocked that I was close enough to the front that I could still see the fast guys: defending champ Jay Petervary, fast rookie Jorden Wakeley, Charly. As always, the turn was a chaotic moment as racers bailed left and right to eat, drink, adjust air pressure, or just get out of the frying pan. I went through, connected to my friend Mark S. We chatted a little, figuring out the locations of other racers we knew and talking trash – each telling the other that his rear tire looked flat. The dark sky lightened a little with a dim gray dawn.
As the field spread out, the track grew softer and my tire pressure really did start to fail. I struggled with it for too long, watching one racer after another pull away from me and feeling some pain in my back from the heavier pedaling. Finally I hopped off and aired down both tires, gulping water and trail mix. I’d broken one of Jay Petervary’s rules – “be disciplined” – in waiting so long to adjust my pressure, so I was careful not a break another – “always do two things at once if you’re not riding.” Getting back onto the bike, I immediately sensed that the tires were now too low. Shit! I decided to ride a few minutes to see if I could adjust, but soon after the US 53 crossing at mile 19, I bit the bullet and pulled over again to air back up. “Be disciplined. Always do two things at once.” Trail mix in my mouth. Mini-pump on the tire’s valve. Chew, chew. Pump, pump. Swallow, swallow. Pump, pump. Squeeze the tires. Squeeze again. When the tires were about halfway back up where they’d been at the start of the race, I was satisfied. I stretched my back a little and got on the Buffalo to see if I could chase anyone down.
Though I only made a couple catches, everything finally felt just right. The tires were rolling well, I could eat and drink regularly, my backache dissipated, the snowy trail was beautiful, and the conditions were great – light snow falling, a gray sky hanging low overhead, and practically cozy temperatures in the twenties. When I felt myself getting a little too hot, I took off my hat and gloves. Almost instantly, I cooled back down to a comfortable level.
The miles rolled past easily and quickly. I whooped to myself when I saw that I’d gone over 35 miles on the trail. Now the race was just a century! A couple minutes after that, I hit the road crossing just before the first checkpoint, the Gateway General Store, and rolled down the spur to the store itself. A few racers were going the other way, leaving the checkpoint. I exchanged shouts of encouragement with women’s leader Tracey Petervary as she headed out, pleased to be just a few minutes down to T-Race, and even more pleased to be at mile 37 already. I was working far less hard than I had in 2014, and going much faster. I was more than an hour ahead of that year’s pace.
Leaning the Beast in a resting spot, I hurried inside to buy a Coke and some beef jerky. I stood at a table to down these refreshments, taking a couple breaks to crouch and stretch my back some more. A race official recognized me and joked that I didn’t have last year’s ice beard. Fine with me! Coke tastes better when you’re a little too hot than when you’re borderline hypothermic. Mark S came in as I readied to leave. We promised to see each other on the trail. After just 11 minutes, I was back on the trail, now – thanks to cutting a half hour off my stop – 90 minutes up last year’s pace, and well ahead of a 24-hour finish.
Soon after Gateway, steep, short hills start to break up the flat sections of the trail. Eventually the trail becomes almost all vertical: climbs that are tough to pedal up and descents that try to knock you off the bike.
I managed to ride many more of the ups than I had the previous year, and channelled my Fat Pursuit self to plummet through the downs. Somewhere around mile 50, Mark S caught me again, and we agreed that it was a perfectly excellent time to start walking the hills. The snow was badly churned by other racers, and I could feel in my legs that riding was no faster than walking even though it burned more energy. Too, I could eat and drink as I walked uphill, but not as I rode uphill. (“Always do two things at once if you’re not riding.”)
I hadn’t seen any snowmobiles since my stop to air back up, hours before, but around one corner, just after leaving Mark behind again, I almost collided with a road grader that was smoothing the trail so trucks could get to a logging site. The operator gave me a friendly wave as I pulled the Buffalo up onto a snowbank to stay out of his way. Weirdness.
The miles continued to flow under my wheels, and my computer continued to show an average speed that put me ahead of a 24-hour pace. I tried to stay balanced about this: happy to be going fast, aware that the race could change at any moment with a bad stretch of hills, a flat tire, a crash, a mechanical. I pushed myself to keep my speed against those eventualities. Get up out of the saddle. Breathe deeply. Shift to a harder gear. My body responded every time, a strange and wonderful sensation.
Around mid-afternoon, I knew I was approaching the second checkpoint, a cabin at Melgeorges Resort. When I saw a trail sign that said the resort was only five miles away, I stood on the pedals to push as hard as I could. After a half hour of hard effort, I popped out on Elephant Lake, across from Melgeorges. A volunteer on the shoreline warned me that the lake was windy, but I knew it could not be anything like the hellscape it had been the previous year, when I crossed just after dark in temperatures near thirty degrees below zero.
In fact, the winds weren’t very strong, and the flatness of the lake was a relief after the hills on the trail. Taking some encouragement from a few spectators who were resolutely standing in the emptiness at the middle of the ice, I tracked another racer in.
We gathered up another rider or two when we reached the far shore. A twisty trail along the shoreline led us to the checkpoint. I stood the Buffalo in a snowbank, grabbed my empty water bottles and a dry shirt, and marched up the steps into the cabin. The stairs were so much easier to climb than they had been the previous year. Literally day and night, thanks to being 2:23 ahead of last year’s pace.
Inside, the checkpoint was as crowded and warm and bustling as ever. The racers this year looked much less brutalized than in 2014. The “checkpoint ladies,” led by the former race director Mary Pramann, descended on me to take care of my needs. Hot water in my bottles. Soaking-wet jersey and gloves and hat off to the clothes dryer. Grilled cheese sandwiches and a bowl of wild rice soup in my hands. Sitting down, I tried to be quick and efficient. Gulp some Coke. Drink the soup. Stuff hunks of grilled cheese into my mouth. Say hi to T-Race, readying to leave. Commiserate with my gravel-racing friend Jeff, having a rough time. Retrieve my dried clothes. Score a couple pouches of Honey Stinger energy chews from the pile of food that racers had discarded. Say hi to Mark S., just arriving, and joke that I’d see him at the finish line, where I’d be waiting for him to buy my breakfast. Get back out the door. The volunteer with the time-check sheet said I was heading out after 44 minutes – longer than I had hoped to stay, but an hour less than 2014. I was four hours up on that pace.
Outside, I stowed my water, plugged my lights into their batteries, got back onto the Buffalo, and found a big gear to push over the resort driveway and back onto the trail – far easier to find in the evening light than it had been in the full dark the previous year. I was determined to ride as fast as possible in the waning light so that I had to do as little riding as possible in the dark later. The stretch from Melgeorges to the Skipulk checkpoint at mile 111 is the hardest part of the race. Fatigue and the darkness conspire to make the hills seem impossibly hard and numerous. My push to sprint away from Melgeorges initially paid off. In the first hour after leaving the checkpoint. I made it up some nasty hills in the last of the light, caught a racer or two, and kept myself warm as the temps started to dip. Just as dawn had snuck up on me nine hours before, dusk slipped past unnoticed until I wrapped in the dark. I turned my lights on and I started that familiar, comfortable chase of a pool of headlamp light.
However, the darkness brought a deteriorating trail: big tire ruts, snow angels from crashes, a few patches of bare dirt, lots of leaves and branches, a few spots of standing water. Where before I’d been easily following the track others had worn into the trail, I now often accidentally steered or was bounced out of it. Cursing my clumsy riding, I tried and mostly succeeded at riding especially hard on the flats to compensate for my slowdowns (swerves and bobbles, hike-a-bikes on the hills, eating and drinking) or stops (pausing to give Cal N some much-needed ibuprofen, chatting briefly with Charlie F at a shelter where he was planning to camp overnight, mostly for the fun of it). I was surprised and pleased that my legs – 80, 85, 90, 95 miles into the race – continued to respond with actual power and speed, and also that the trail seemed to be flatter and faster than I recalled from 2014. Glancing at my computer, I kept seeing speeds of 8 and 9 and 10 and 11 mph. A good sign. At the very least, I was maintaining my four-hour lead on my 2014 pace.
I hit the 100-mile “century” mark at about 8:30. This was when I’d left Melgeorges the year before, so I figured I was about 28 miles ahead of myself – and more importantly, just about 10 miles from the last checkpoint at Skipulk. I figured I would get there in about 90 minutes, around 10 p.m., 15 hours into the race.
Then the wheels almost literally came off. More and worse sections of deep snow and innumerable ruts made even some stretches of flat trail unrideable. I took an enormous digger when my concentration lapsed on relatively easy descent, finding myself upside down in a nest of branches off the trail. The Buffalo was six feet away, pointing the wrong up the trail. I was lucky I didn’t break any part of my body or my bike in the crash, but not so lucky as to avoid any harm. Shortly after I got myself back in order and started down the trail again, my drivetrain started clanking ominously. Grit in the chain? Bent derailleur? Surely not a chain about to break…
I promised to check everything carefully at Skipulk in an hour. Nope: wrong promise. As I downshifted to climb a fairly easy hill, my drivetrain locked up. I tried to reverse-pedal the chain free. No luck: the jam was too tight, and I tipped over in the snow. Fuuuuuck. Repair time. I clicked off my headlight to save the battery and dug out my breakdown bag – multitool, chain breaker, master links. Inspecting the chain, I saw that one of the inner links had come partially off its pin and then gotten jammed into derailleur cage. Never seen that happen before! I couldn’t pull the chain free by hand or spin it clear with the cranks, so I finally used my multitool’s flat screwdriver to bend the link away from the cage. Break the chain there and at the other end of the link. Stow the pins and links in my toolbag. Get out the master link, being careful that my numb fingers don’t drop it in the snow. Install. Check the chain tension by hand. Spin the cranks to see if the chain holds. Pack away the breakdown bag. Flex my hands to get some feeling back. Push the Buffalo up the hill, then climb on and put some tentative pressure into the pedals. Yes! It holds!
I spent about 10 minutes on this repair at mile 104, and felt old-man stiff when I started rolling again – cold legs from kneeling in the snow, cold fingers from working barehanded on the chain, cold head from cooled sweat. Still: only six or seven miles to Skipulk. An hour! I’d get there at 10:30, just thirty minutes later than I had planned. Between the crash and the breakdown, though, I hadn’t consumed anything in a half hour or more. The increasingly late hour and of course my fatigue started to press down on me, too. Now my computer was showing 4 or 6 mph more often than 8 or 10 mph. Skipulk seemed to be getting further away.
Somehow, race experience broke through the bonk. “Be disciplined!” I stopped, ate a big handful of trail mix, guzzled a Red Bull, slurped up a caffeinated energy gel, and drank a good half-bottle of water. I knew I’d be uncomfortable with all that food in my belly, but I wanted to ingest as many calories as possible so that I could maybe speed up on the way to Skipulk.
And that’s just what happened. The frustration and fatigue faded away, some mental sharpness returned, and I was able to march not trudge up the hills, to stand up to pedal harder on the flats, to look forward to a bit of company at the checkpoint. That company came sooner than I expected, in the form of a half-dozen signs put up by the crew from Surly Bikes, who were manning Skipulk. One sign promised that I was almost to the checkpoint. Another read, “To wolves, you taste like chicken. Wolves love chicken!” Then one said, “Just kidding! You’re not almost there!” I laughed at that one. Pedal pedal pedal. Ignore the returned hunger. Meet and nod silently to someone skiing the wrong way down the trail. No idea what that’s about. Pedal pedal pedal. Appreciate anew that every turn of the cranks brings you closer to whatever it is you’re riding toward.
A weird bellowing sound – almost musical – came down the path toward me. Not scary, but not Northwoods. I rode past another couple signs and a very creepy life-sized centaur perched right at the edge of the track. Another bellow, louder – and now lights! Bike lights, a campfire, torches. People on the trail. The bellowing had been someone blowing a shofar or a conch to announce riders’ arrivals. Awesome! The checkpoint volunteers welcomed me in with a cheer. A nose-pierced woman noted my number and arrival time – 11:05. Way off my planned 10 p.m. arrival. Acceptable considering my last ten miles.
Leaning the Buffalo up between a couple other resting bikes, I clicked back over into checkpoint mode. Turn off headlight and headlamp. Refill and stow water bottles. Throw away a surprisingly large collection of food wrappers and that empty Red Bull can. Get a cup of coffee, and mix cocoa powder into it. Grab a half-dozen cookies. Go into the heated teepee to eat and drink and rest for a spell. I chatted a bit with another racer and a volunteer stoking the fire, really just wanting to be around other people, not necessarily to talk to them. I did ask the volunteer if he knew who had won the race. He didn’t. (As it happens, Jorden Wakeley had won a three-way sprint for the victory just over an hour before.)
I promised myself that I’d go as soon as I finished my treats. I gobbled them up like Cookie Monster, and when the last one was gone, my legs pushed me upright. Checking out a little after 11:30, I figured that I had been stopped for about a half hour – far better than the 90 minutes I’d spent at Skipulk in 2014, when a kerosene heater and a flood of encouraging messages on my phone thawed me out enough to finish the race. I calculated that I was almost exactly eight hours ahead of last year’s pace, putting me at the finish line around 21 hours. Yes! Fantastic! A 24-hour finish was practically in the bag, and even a 22-hour finish was possible – if I held everything together over the last 20-some miles.
Back on the Buffalo, I headed off toward the last big climb and descent, Wakemup Hill. I remembered this landmark coming up quickly after the checkpoint, and it did. As I reached the bottom of the climb, a racer in front of me disappeared over the top, giving me another jolt of adrenaline. Chase? By the time I walked up to the summit, though, he was long gone. No matter. I knew the rest of the race was flat and easier than pretty much everything since Gateway. Midnight came and went somewhere around mile 115. 20 miles to go. I wondered if anyone was still up “watching” the race online.
I caught occasional glimpses of tail lights in front of me. While I couldn’t quite put on a chase, I was able to catch myself softpedaling and to focus on putting steady power into the pedals. Until I couldn’t: on one of the long flat straightaways through the swamps, with the skyglow from Tower visible in the distance, I started veering gently out of and back to the track, losing concentration. Red alert! Bonking! I stopped to pound another Red Bull and a caffeinated gel, enjoying the play of my headlamp on the bushes and trees.
Probably as much from the psychological boost of recognizing the imminent bonk as from the physical boost from all those delicious sugars, I started feeling better immediately. I spotted Shelter 9 at 125 miles, a lonely lean-to at a trail junction. 10 miles to go. An hour! Though my computer had died shortly after Wakemup Hill, I could tell from my cadence and the way the trees and bushes blurred past me that I was still moving at good clip. The skyglow grew brighter and larger on the horizon. I crossed one road and then another, guessing at their names since apparently nobody in goddamn Saint Louis County thinks to put a goddamn sign at a goddamn snowmobile crossing. Low bridges that had felt like the Alps in 2014 were now easy up-and-down bumps. I passed and cursed numerous unhelpful trail signs – “Caution” for what? Murderous moose? – and finally a few that started pointing this way and that toward the resorts on Lake Vermillion, including Fortune Bay Resort & Casino, where the race ended. One sign said Fortune Bay was five miles away. Or did it say six? I wasn’t about to go back to verify my reading comphehension. Either way, not many more miles. Pedal pedal pedal. Getting closer to that yellow-orange glow in the sky!
I saw a red light ahead, passing from right to left. That other racer? No, a car on a road! Checking my cue sheet, I figured that the car had to be on the highway at the edge of the Bois Forte Ojibwe reservation on which Fortune Bay stands. I went up through the mushy snow on one side of the road, over the pavement, and down through the mushy snow on the other side. Sure enough, right there was a big gate that I remembered from last year, with the trail running off to one side.
Two miles to go, minus that pedal stroke and that pedal stroke and that pedal stroke. The trail wound pleasantly through the woods, then came out in an open area where I could see the corner of the first building since Melgeorges – an outbuilding on the casino grounds. Some orange snow fencing appeared, and beyond it, the half-lit finish-line banner. The hair on the back of my neck went up. A l m o s t done – again! I wondered if I’d cry again when I finished. I shifted up and got up out of the saddle one more time. Just like last year, the banner disappeared for a second as I rounded one last corner, then appeared, bright and welcoming, atop the last short rise. I sprinted up that ramp.
A bunch of volunteers came out of the tent on the finish line to cheer me in. I rolled across the finish line and jumped off my bike, exclaiming unthinkingly, “That was awesome! What a great race!” A volunteer took my number down. “What time is it?” I asked, hoping that he would say it was no later than five so that I had my 22-hour finish. “It’s 2:30,” he said. I was surprised it was so early, and tried to do the math in my head. “Damn!” I said. “Just missed a 20-hour finish!” He looked back at his phone. “No, you finished in about 19:30. It’s a good year to go fast!” I blinked up at him. “Really? That’s almost ten hours faster than I went last year.” He nodded, possibly impressed. “Nice ride. C’mon, let’s get inside. We have to do gear check and then get you upstairs.” He graciously snapped a picture of me and the Buffalo first.
I chattered nonstop on the walk up to the casino building, learning among other things that the men’s finish had come down to a three-way sprint and that Tracey had won the women’s race, finishing an hour before me. The volunteer efficiently verified that I still had all my required gear – even the 3,000 calories of uneaten peanut butter – before walking me up to the hospitality room. The volunteers and racers there gave me a nice round of applause, one of the sweetest traditions at the Arrowhead. One of the volunteers helped me take my pick of finisher’s hats (blue, gray, or black) and trophies (yellow, black, white arrowheads) and then posed me in front of the race banner for the requisite portrait. The smile was unforced.
Wired like always after a long race, I camped out in the hospitality room for most of the night, eating, drinking, applauding other finishers, chatting with volunteers and other racers, reading Facebook – and enjoying the feeling that everything had come together pretty well.