Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Ultra Effects, or Putting the Hell Back in Health

This week, about ten days after the Arrowhead, I started to lose my eyelashes, one of the classic aftereffects of long races. It’s not like my lashes are all falling out, but every time I wash my face, I lose a few, and I seem to find one of my desk every few hours.

Though bizarre and a little gross, losing some eyelashes is also probably the lamest of the myriad physical effects of races like the Fat Pursuit or the Arrowhead.

The main effect of the races was drastic weight loss, from eating and especially drinking too little during the races. When I got home after the Fat Pursuit (two days after finishing the ride), I weighed something like ten pounds less than I had the day I left for the race, and that was after eating and especially drinking like crazy on the road trip home: literally gallons of water, milk, coffee, soda, Gatorade (lime cucumber is the best!). I can’t say I looked good.

Two Days after the Fat Pursuit

My weight stabilized at my usual level after a day or so at home, but for another week or two I needed to eat about twice my usual amount of food (which isn’t small) to keep it there. Then I did the Arrowhead and kicked off the cycle again. My metabolism finally slowed again this week, just about the time the eyelashes started falling out. Maybe there’s a relationship between the two.

Running in parallel to a big appetite and major thirst is being insanely overheated. Perhaps this hyperendothermism is just my body processing all the calories I’m sticking in it, but for days I’m almost feverish, constantly on the edge of breaking into a sweat. My little girl, always cold, loves it: I’m a fireplace she can snuggle with.

Come to think of it, maybe this heat is a sign that my body’s repair processes are in high gear, fixing various kinds of race-induced wear and tear. At the trivial end of this spectrum of damage were issues like acne along my hairline and dry, lifeless hair (wearing sweaty hats for 55 hours will do that) or deep grooves in my calves from the cuffs of my compression socks (wearing sweaty footwear for 55 hours will do that).

At the more dramatic end of the spectrum of physical damage were the pains and agonies caused by making the body work so hard for so long. Especially after the Fat Pursuit, my feet were destroyed – pale, wrinkled, and so goddamn sore I couldn’t walk barefooted without wincing. Even now, the bony spots just behind my pinky toes are tender. My ankles, too, turned against me, swelling up so badly that my ankle bones vanished for several days. WebMD says this was “edema,” which sounds slightly better “athletic cankles.”

And though I escaped both races without any especially bad leg or back pain (problems I’ve had after other long races but tried to mitigate this year by cross-training to build strength), I could not escape truly ridiculous weakness and soreness, especially in the big muscle groups taxed to the limit by 22 or 55 hours of exertion. The day after the Fat Pursuit, for instance, I needed twenty minutes to put on my socks because I could neither bend my legs enough to reach my feet nor pull hard enough with my arms to yank the goddamn socks up. My traveling companion Ben thought this was amusing. Later, when we stopped on the drive home, I almost fell out of his minivan because I couldn’t unbend my legs in time to swing them under me as I leaned my torso out of the open door. Getting back into the minivan, I had to grab my thighs and hoist each leg up into the vehicle.

This lack of strength went deep. I limped around for maybe five days after the Fat Pursuit (only a couple days after the Arrowhead!), but a week after I finished my attempt at that first race, I went to the gym for my usual weight training class, thinking that I’d feel okay. Not great, but okay. I didn’t. I struggled with loads well under my normal working weights, and got dizzy from even a few reps. I’ll just sit down over here out of the way for a while.

Paralleling that lack of muscle strength was the loss of my voice. Scratchy the day after the Fat Pursuit and croaky two days later, my voice disappeared entirely on the third day and only started to return after about five days of not talking – during which I drank even more ridiculous amounts of water. I suspect that dehydration was the main cause of the laryngitis, but I’d also guess that exposure to cold, dry air for those two days – and to -20° F air that first night of the race – also played a big part. Honestly, I was a little worried, as I creaked out fragments of sentences during the week after the Fat Pursuit, that I’d permanently damaged my vocal cords. I see now that I didn’t. Close call though, and one I’ll have to prevent by covering my nose and mouth during future races in cold temps.

The other main effect of being outside in the super-cold temperatures at the Fat Pursuit was a touch of frostbite. My toes were fine, but the tip of my right index finger got burned when I had to barehandedly use my wrench to adjust my seat (an adjustment necessitated by some unpleasant chafing that’s best left to the imagination), and I pretty badly burned my upper lip. The lip required weeks of care: a topical ointment (thanks, Leah!), then ounces of petroleum jelly, then tube after tube of Carmex – five or so? Over the course of three weeks, the skin went from burned to horribly raw to badly chapped to really dry and then finally to normal, except maybe for the pink spot right in the center. Thank goodness my mustache does a good job of hiding it!

The frostbit fingertip took just as long to heal, and if anything passed through even more stages of healing: dry white flesh turned pink and hard, then reddish and inflamed. This skin grew increasingly tight until the fingertip basically molted, revealing fresh new skin underneath. Interestingly, none of the healing states were alive enough to register on my smartphone screen! I was glad when I molted if only because I could use my phone without seeming to be flipping off everyone.

Everything I’ve heard and read on frostbite says that the burned spots will always be more sensitive to cold now, and I think that’s true. My lip was very tingly even in some moderately cold weather before the Arrowhead, though not during the event. I did get my hands pretty cold during that race, though, and sure enough that right index finger got mad: tingling, then burning, then feeling as if it were exploding in my glove. It wasn’t – just warming back up.

That sensation hasn’t happened again, thank goodness, but most of my fingertips still feel funny. Not painful, but stubby and slightly numb. This happened after my first Arrowhead, too, and subsided after a couple months. I’m guessing that this dull feeling is due not to frostbite but to holding onto my grips for something like a total three days’ worth of riding. It’s an odd sensation. Not unpleasant, since it’s likely to go away, and even kind of perversely pleasing as a lingering reminder of the races, but also a reminder that – as with my vocal cords and lips, I’ll have to be very careful in future races to protect hands.

And then there are the ongoing disruptions to sleep: crushing bouts of exhaustion, extended spells of overnight sleeplessness, and wacky dreams. In the first few days after each of this winter’s races, I slept much less than normal – five or six hours a night, waking up sweaty and hungry and thirsty. The body just didn’t know what to do with the freedom to sleep again! After those few days, I shifted back to something like a regular pattern, but I still don’t quite know when sleep will crash down onto me at 3 pm or 8 pm, or lift off at midnight or 2 am. I just roll with it, five weeks after the Fat Pursuit and two after the Arrowhead. I’ll sleep when I can, and caffeinate when I can’t!

When I can sleep, though, I enjoy very vivid dreams about, or sort of about, the races. I’ve always had very literal dreams, and now – as I have after all my longest and hardest races – I’m having numerous dreams that are more or less replays of parts of the races: riding off Two Top in a whiteout; pedaling through West Yellowstone to the checkpoint, only it’s not West, it’s my hometown in Upper Michigan; walking up some Arrowhead hill…

I’ve also had some weirder dreams, like one – riffing on The Empire Strikes Back – in which I was riding in a long line of other fatbikers – many of whom I just knew, in that unspecified but certain way of dreams, were the folks who stayed in my same cabin at the Fat Pursuit. Riding over a snowy trail along the edge of a ridge, we encountered a group of Rebel soldiers on their tauntaun snow lizards, heading back to their Echo Base. No biggie. Maybe next year’s Fat Pursuit will include some miles on Hoth.

Arrowhead IV – Fast Until It Wasn’t

The happy feeling I had on the day before the 2017 Arrowhead faded a little before the start, as I realized that the race would conclude an amazing two months of training and racing. Beginning with some big training rides in early December, continuing through the extraordinary experience of the Fat Pursuit, and now winding up at the event where I had gotten hooked on fatbike racing, these eight weeks were probably my hardest-ever sustained period of physical effort. Assuming I finished, the 2017 Arrowhead would be my 24th race of 100 or more miles and my eighth winter ultra – and put me over 500 lifetime miles of riding on the Arrowhead Trail.

And on the start line, I felt good! Ready to ride, for sure, and excited to see what I’d see, do, and learn on the 135 miles between International Falls and Tower. My prep in the morning went quickly and smoothly (except for tearing one contact lens: thank goodness I’d packed a spare pair!), and my friend Bill delivered me to the start well before seven. I hustled through the routine there: check in, greet various friends and wish them luck, and yes, pee indoors for the last time in a while.

Outside, I took a short spin up the trail to confirm that everything on my bike was secure and that my tire pressure was right. By the time I rolled back to the start, other racers were lining up. I found a good spot a few rows back. I can never hear the pre-race announcements, but they ended this year with a blast of fireworks (wake up, International Falls!) and then the race director shouting, “Release the hounds!”

And we were off.

Launch! (Photo by 45NRTH)
On the hard trail, the front-runners jetted away, building a huge gap within the first minute. A few other groups formed; I rode up from one to the next to the next, trying to find one that matched my speed. I rode conservatively, not wanting to crash as I had last year.

Soon enough the field of 85 riders had sorted itself out, and we were humming along down flat, straight Oxbow Trail. Even after the sun rose, the flat gray light kept me from seeing my computer screen, so I was surprised when we made the left turn at mile 10 onto the Arrowhead Trail proper. I hooked up with some other riders, and we motored down the course, taking advantage of the firm track. Ahead of me, rear tires kicked up pretty little clouds of dry snow. I was surprised to see 8, 9, 10 mph readings on my computer. The speed felt great.

I worried a little, as we rocketed along, that I was working too hard too early, maybe setting myself up to falter when, inevitably, I’d start feeling the weeks-ago effort of the Fat Pursuit. I put those worries out of my head by eating and drinking (replacing some of the copious sweat I was generating in the 20º F temperatures) and enjoying the wintry woods. I gave a photographer a smile as we rolled down the trail toward the highway crossing, invisible ahead of us but audible thanks to the logging trucks barreling down the asphalt.

Leading the Pack
At US 53, I stopped to make a couple adjustments, chat with some of the spectators there, and inadvertently check whether the icy gravel was slippery. It was! I nearly went down, which would have been embarrassing after riding safely through the chaos of the start.

Back on the trail, but now mostly by myself, the miles continued to flow under the Buffalo’s tires. Checking my time against my previous years’ splits, I could see I was already well ahead of my personal-best time, a heartening feeling. 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Gateway General Store… 10 miles… In a small group, whipping past my friend Bill, who had seen us start and was now out riding bits of the course for fun. 5 miles… 2… Up and over the road and down the spur toward the checkpoint. Racers who’d just left the checkpoint came back up the trail toward me. A rider who had been hanging on my wheel for a while saw them and yelled to me, “We’re going the wrong way!”

What a rookie thing to say. I shout back that they’re heading out from the checkpoint. Zip over the soft snow churned up by the two-way traffic. Pop out of the narrow track onto the parking lot outside Gateway. Speed past the parked cars and trucks, the spectators and racers, a few snowmobiles. The store itself was just ahead, always smaller in reality than in my memory.

In my previous three Arrowheads, I’d stopped at the store to get a Coke and to rest (2014: 48 minutes; 2015: 17 minutes; 2016: 12 minutes). This year, I really could not stop, since I had entered the race’s new “unsupported” category, meaning that I could not use any of the services at the three checkpoints. I could not accept any aid from other racers or any spectators, but I also couldn’t buy food or drink at Gateway or consume race-supplied food and drink at the second and third checkpoints. I couldn’t leave a drop bag of my own food and drink at checkpoint two. I couldn’t even go inside the checkpoints to warm up!

So I rolled toward the checkpoint timer, called out my race number and heard him call it back, hung the hairpin turn around the orange cone in front of him, and headed back out onto the trail. I have to admit, I felt fantastically badass to not even put down a damn foot at the checkpoint. I rode back over the spur to the main trail, and turned right. Back on course at a staggeringly early time for me, 10:40 a.m. Total checkpoint time: zero minutes.

A few minutes later, I pulled over to munch on some food I couldn’t easily eat while riding and to drink half of the bottle of Coke I’d brought along from home. It tasted even better than one from Gateway. A few riders passed me as I stood there, every one of them calling out. “You okay?” “Need anything?” “All good?” I love that part of the Arrowhead.

Almost as much as I love those trails. Though we never saw any sun during this year’s race, the gray light, the white snow, and the endless trees all created as beautiful a combination as they always do. A little snow began to fall, just as the forecast had predicted, adding to the beauty. A few hills kicked up, but nothing unrideable, even with some new tension in my quadriceps.

Somewhere after Sheep Ranch Road
Here and there the Buffalo and I joined a few other racers, including some guys who are usually far in front of me. I liked that. The groups split and reformed as one rider or another stopped to eat or drink or just rest. I finished off my Coke during one break and hunted in my bags for something salty to eat, having had nothing but sweet food all day. Even my nutrition drink – a sort of super-caloric Gatorade that many riders love, and even use exclusively – was pretty sweet, though at least it had a nice salty tang too. I saw that my salty food came down to one small bag of Fritos and Cheez-Its. I’d have to manage them carefully.

Just before 3:00 p.m., I reached mile 67.5, the halfway point of the race. Unmarked and unremarkable, this spot deserves to be remembered: a flat stretch of trail with an evergreen forest to the south and a swamp to the north. A low forested ridge waited a mile ahead, one of the many hills that the course ascends and descends on this and the next section of the course.

The Trail Near Black Duck River (2 pm)
For good measure, I took a selfie. I had grown and lost at least two icebeards already in the race, thanks to the temperatures that had ranged as high as 25º F. This halfway-point icebeard was merely decent. Not my best work, but okay. Before taking the shot, I checked for the millionth time that the green ribbon denoting my “unsupported” status was still pinned to my bib. It was.

3 pm Selfie
This actual halfway point of the race comes about five miles before the second checkpoint, at Melgeorges Resort on Elephant Lake. Over its length, the Arrowhead Trail is studded with signs directing snowmobilers to this bar or that motel – a nice reminder that you’re not really in the middle of nowhere – and the numerous signs for Melgeorges start way up the trail. The Melgeorges signs have always annoyed me, though, because the number of miles they claim remain before the resort always seem like half the real number, thanks to tired legs and a dread of the really bad hills that start after Melgeorges.

This year, not so much. I was still well ahead of my personal-best pace, which provided a nice mental boost, and my legs felt strong. The five miles felt like three, or even two, since the mile-long ride across Elephant Lake is always so strange and wonderful that I hardly feel the effort of that last mile to the checkpoint. Certainly, the Buffalo didn’t, rolling over snow and ice churned up by a group of snowmobilers that had passed us a few minutes before.

Elephant Lake Crossing
A few spectators were out on the lake, ringing cowbells, and more were on the shoreline, cheering. A volunteer stationed at the spot where the trail leaves the lake shouted out directions to the checkpoint cabin, addressing me by name.

11 bikes were leaned against the snowbanks outside the checkpoint. I set the Buffalo among them and went up the steps to the cabin’s unheated porch – as far as unsupported racers could go. Dozens of drop bags filled the entryway.

I go this way? (Photo courtesy of Marcus Steele)
I go this way? (Photo courtesy of Marcus Steele)
Through the windows, I could see racers eating the famous grilled cheese sandwiches that the checkpoint volunteers prepare by the score. I felt a little like a bad dog, exiled to the porch, while I waited until a timer noticed me and came to the door. “157, unsupported, in and out!” She said, “Got it!”

Back outside, I chatted with my friend Bill and a couple others while throwing away some trash and transferring food to more accessible places on the bike. When I felt a chill starting to settle into my shoulders, I realized I had to get back on the trail. 4:00 p.m. exactly, a half hour ahead of my PB time. Knowing that the worst hills would start soon, I wondered, as I rode off the Melgeorges property, whether I’d be able to stay on that pace. At least, I told myself, I’d get to tackle the first few hills in the daylight, helping me see the length of the climbs and the gnarliness of the descents.

For me, the first real hill of the whole Arrowhead is a massive, seemingly vertical climb about six miles past Melgeorges. Moving along at a decent clip, the trail suddenly turns and drops steeply into a swampy valley. I can only just ride this section. At the bottom of the descent, the trail crosses a creek and then goes right back up. Straight up.

While we were shooting the breeze on Sunday night at the hotel, my friend Minnesota Mark had said that he handled the hills by trying always to ride past the first set of footprints. “That racer is ahead of me, but he’s walking and I’m riding, so really, I’m beating him!” As soon as he told me this, I knew I had to use his strategy.

The Big Downhill
The Big Downhill
On this first big hill, I rode the chopped-up downhill, putting as much speed as possible into the Buffalo and carrying that speed over the short flat stretch. Pedaling hard, I go quite a way past the first footprints. Pop off. Start pushing the Buffalo up the hill. Feel the familiar effort of hike-a-bike – a flashback to endless pushing during the Fat Pursuit.

The Big Uphill
The Big Uphill
At the top of the hill, I turned back to enjoy the gorgeous view over the valley. Someday I’ll make a point to get a good photo of these scene. Back on the bike, the unseen sun set behind me. With fresh batteries in my headlamp, I could actually often see better in the dark than I had for much of the day. What I could not see were the tops and bottoms of the hills. Was this climb a hundred or a thousand steps long? Did this descent end after this turn or that one? Did this descent, like so many, end at a rickety wooden bridge over some frozen creek? My light did show me that any trail that wasn’t flat had been completely destroyed by riders in front of me – braided tire tracks on every downhill, pockmarked footprints on every uphill.

I tried to keep eating and drinking right, staying ahead of my hunger and thirst, but after twelve hours of racing, my stomach was not happy with more sugary drink or food. I took a few pinches from my tiny bag of salty stuff, chewing slowly to cover the acid sweetness in my mouth. I guzzled a Red Bull, hoping the carbonation would overwhelm the sweetness. The idea was as poor as the result.

I started to get a little worried. My average speed had now dipped below my personal-best speed, and I had a good forty miles to go. A new personal record was not going to happen. A 24-hour finish was still possible, but could I ride that far with an angry stomach? What could I do to cut the burny feeling in my mouth and gut? I wondered if I should have recognized this problem earlier, maybe even before Melgeorges, and had some food there. Doing so would have meant dropping my unsupported designation, but I would still have had my finish. Was I jeopardizing a finish by going unsupported?

Think about what to do while pedaling. Take some tiny sips of my drink. Walk up a hill while thinking about what to do. Swallow small chunks of an energy bar, almost unchewed. Think about what do to while pedaling again. Try to eat a gel fast so that the sweetness wouldn’t even register. Think about what’s going right: warm and dry, still making decent time, still riding all the flats, still getting further than the first set of footprints on the hills.

Encouragment that Kid Riemer from Salsa Cycles had offered at various races ran through my head. “Stay constant” – a mantra I like so much that I made a little reminder to pin to my handlebars. “You have everything you need to go out and come around again.” Have confidence in your preparation and exertion. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I in danger, or just uncomfortable?'” Definitely only uncomfortable. Riding through the snow in the dark is wonderful, one of my favorite experiences. I tried to focus on the fact that I had hours and hours of this favorite experience to soak up.

I decided that I would have to stop soon to boil some snow into water. At least enough to drink on the spot, and maybe more to add to my hydration reservoir, diluting the nutrition drink. When? Where? I saw from my mileage chart that I would soon reach one of the several lean-to shelters on the Arrowhead Trail, spots where snowmobilers could rest for a bit, maybe have a fire. Where riders and runners and skiers, once a year, could sit down on a bench, maybe take a nap. I decided that I would stop there to boil some water.

Having that goal helped settle my mind if not my belly. I ticked off the miles to the shelter, and then pulled right off the trail. The shelter itself seemed to be a cabin, set well back from the trail. Getting back there looked like unnecessary trouble, so I set up my stove on the snow next to the Buffalo. As I knelt there – enjoying the cold snow on my achy knees – a couple other riders came and went. When I had the flame going, I filled my pot with handfuls of snow. In seconds, it had begun to melt, creating a dismayingly tiny amount of water. More snow, more water. Snow, water, snow, water. After a few minutes the pot was half full. I tested the water with a finger. Tepid. I sipped it, savoring the blank taste on my tongue and in my mouth. All gone. Repeat the process.

While adding the zillionth handful of snow to the pot, I noticed that two riders were hanging around. Something was wrong with one of them. Nursing my second half-cup of water, I went over to see what was up. The older racer was in visible pain, wincing even standing there. The other racer, Mike, was someone I had ridden with earlier the race. “I think Steve here has some broken ribs,” he told me. Uh-oh. “We’re going to have to call about a rescue.” We dug out Steve’s sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and parka. Mike got on his phone and called one of the emergency numbers, relaying our location and the problem. As I pointed my headlight at him, Steve partly inflated his sleeping pad, pulled on his parka, and slid with great care into the sleeping bag – refusing any help from me. “They’re sending a snowmobile,” Mike reported. Lying in his bag, Steve looked bad, but better than he had when they arrived. I realized I was shivering. My water was gone. “I think I need to go. I’m getting cold.” Mike nodded. “Yes, go. I’ll stay here till the snowmobile gets here.” Steve thanked me. I hadn’t done more than throw some light on him. Arrowhead spirit, even injured.

My shivering built to a continuous shaking as I packed my stove away and got back on the Buffalo to ride away. My computer showed the time and distance as exactly 9 p.m. and 99 miles traveled – 14 hours into the race and about 12 miles from checkpoint three, a bare-bones set of tents and fires tended by the ladies and gentlemen from Surly Bikes.

Those dozen miles, though! Every hill seemed to be a quarter-mile struggle up a sheer face, then a quick 50 yard run down a gentle incline. Stay constant. Adopt the favorite trick of forcing myself to walk continuously to that spot before resting, or to walk 50 steps before resting. Remember how awful these hills had been during my first Arrowhead, when the temperatures ranged down from -20º F.

Walk to that spot, rest, then walk to the next spot. Remind myself that literally every step, every hill, every turn of the cranks brought me closer to the finish line. 100 miles. A century! Ride every inch of the flats. 102 miles. More than three-quarters of the way done. I met a snowmobile going the other way. The driver checked on me, and I told him that I’d come about three miles from the shelter where the injured racer was resting. 105 miles. I passed a rider who said he needed to walk to the checkpoint. I told him that we had only a couple miles to go. I was lying. 110 miles. Midnight! Where the $*%#ing $*%# is the Surly checkpoint! 111 miles. Hand-painted signs set up along the trail. “You wanted to do this!”

Surly Sign by Pamela Gonzalez
I did! I do!

Abruptly, Surly appeared ahead. Shadowed tents, tiki torches, bikes’ blinkies. Even more spartan than I recalled but oh so welcome. I rode in, body almost folding over in relief. A volunteer took down my number and noted that I was unsupported. “You can set your bike over there if you’re going to rest.” I told him I was planning to stay for a while. “Cool. You can sit by the fire over there. I’m afraid that’s all I can do for you.” The fire in fact looked like heaven – heat and light, a few camp chairs. I was happy to sit on something besides the Buffalo’s saddle, to soak up some warmth, to see other racers again. A couple others arrived. They ducked into the massive canvas tent that regular racers could use. No biggie. I didn’t need walls, or a roof, or hot water.

I had a little more of my drink and thought about boiling more water to add to the reservoir. From my tongue to my stomach, I could feel a weird sensation, equal parts sour and sizzling. I knew more fresh water would taste good and probably be good. I literally had nothing else to do at the moment, but the effort seemed too much. As if to prove otherwise, another unsupported racer joined me at the fire and proceeded to melt snow into water that he poured into his hydration pack. Watching him, I asked a volunteer about the race results. He gave me the rundown. A sprint finish and a rookie winner in the men’s race, setting a new course record. A solo win in the women’s race, also setting a new record. Both winning times were insanely fast. The new champs had been done for hours when I rolled into the checkpoint. They were probably asleep. It was midnight, after all.

No, it was 12:30. Shit. Time was passing but I was not moving. I asked about a couple friends that I assumed were up ahead. They’d all come through, anywhere from an hour before I arrived to just a few minutes. 12:45. I needed to get going too. I finished a Red Bull that I didn’t remember starting, threw the can away, and told the volunteer I was checking out. Wait, no, I needed to change my headlight batteries. I did that and checked out again. 12:52. The Buffalo seemed rested too – quiet and strong and ready to finish the race. 23 miles to go.

I have a clear conception of the last leg, those 23 miles from checkpoint three to the finish line. In my head, the leg start with a few miles of hills and then hits a massive ramp – Wakemup Hill – that can only be walked. From Wakemup, the trail drops down to flat, level swamplands that continue all the way to the finish. All a racer – exhausted, hungry, thirsty, probably cold – has to do is get to those flats, and then ride them to the finish line.

This conception is as mushy as the trails after the Surly checkpoint. Yes, hills at first. Ride the first few, passing another unsupported racer who left a few minutes before me. Walk up Wakemup. Ride the steep descent down to the flats. No, not open country. No, not level ground. Undulating trail, linear webs of tire tracks, innumerable boot prints, dense forest. Hard work. So hungry. So thirsty.

Now I was really racing. I was at the limit. Like the headlamp beam that I could direct to any spot, so long as it ten feet in front of me, I could direct my mental energy to any topic, so long as it was how bad my stomach felt or why I didn’t remember these beautiful evergreens, with snow-covered branches that looked strangely like green-and-white animal paws… Somewhere before Surly, I’d hit my five-hundredth mile of riding on the Arrowhead Trail, and yet I couldn’t remember all these amazing trees.

Ugh. Who cares. Shut up and ride! Besides your guts, how’s the rest of the body? Fine, really: warm and dry and not even too sore or achy. How’s the Buffalo? A-okay. Not a single squeak or wobble. Time? 1:35 a.m. Distance? 115 miles. No tenths showed on my computer’s display now, so suddenly the riding was digital: this many miles and then suddenly that many. No point-one, point-two, point-nine intervals to track and interpret as progress.

I’d hoped, in preparing for the race, to hammer this section. Conservative riding earlier would have saved energy to use now. A rest at Surly would have refreshed the legs further. A Red Bull or two would have provided extra energy. The pull of the finish line would be another, even stronger motivation.

None of this was happening. Where I had been flowing until or even beyond Melgeorges, I was now staggering – stopping at random moments when my legs simply decided to stop working. My eyes were closing, my shoulders slumping even as I rode. My thoughts would blur, wavering visibly in the air in front of me like a heat mirage. I started fantasizing about a trailside nap like the one I took on the first day at the Fat Pursuit. I had to squint to collect the thought waves, to reason for a moment, to tell myself to finish the last crumbs of my salty food, to pound a gel, to gulp down more of my drink. 2:05 a.m. 117 miles – only two miles covered in 30 minutes. Ugh.

I struggled like this for miles more, until on one long straightaway I saw another rider’s blinking tail light far ahead, on the other side of the universe. Who? I sped up, if going 4 mph rather than 3 mph counts as speeding up. The rider disappeared. Did he get too far ahead to see? Did he just round a corner? Did I imagine him?

I was hardly chasing that rider, but then I came around a big bend in the trail and there he was. Blue jacket, white helmet. Minnesota Mark! The friend with the great advice on climbing hills. “Mark!” I exclaimed, riding up. “Who’s that?” he called back. I identified myself. “I am glad to see you, man. I am hurting,” I told him, and summarized my food-and-drink problems. He offered me an Oreo. No! No more sugar! He said he was feeling okay, and on pace to set a personal best, but suffering from sore knees. “Let’s ride together,” we agreed, and then each of use politely told the other that he should feel free to ride faster if needed.

I sure didn’t want to do that. My stomach was now both rumbling with hunger and burning badly enough that I could taste acid in my throat. Heartburn during a race? I wanted to ride or walk or crawl with Mark the rest of the way so that I’d have someone there to distract me from my guts.

So off we went up the trail together, me following Mark by a few bike lengths. Mile 122, 3:00 a.m. 13 miles to go, but how many hours? At six miles an hour, just over two hours. At five miles an hour…

I was trying to hang back from Mark enough that my headlamp and headlight weren’t shining around him and casting annoying shadows on the trail in front of him. For whatever reason, though, I kept looking down, too, and the sensation of having a bright oval of light underneath me made me dizzy. I’d look up for a while, trying not to shine too much over Mark, let the dizziness subside, and then look down again, feeling the dizziness build again. Why didn’t I just angle my lights down directly in front of me and then ride looking forward toward Mark? Who knows. It’s hard to think at 3:15 a.m. on the Arrowhead Trail.

We crept down the trail together, ten feet apart, then stopped together for a few words or a snack. Just being there on the trail with Mark reassured me that I – we! – would finish. Looking back at these moments, I realize again, as I do after many races, that one of my strengths as a racer is my passivity, a characteristic that doesn’t always serve me well in other areas of life (or indeed in riding). I tend to accept the mountain in front of me and try to drill a tunnel through it, rather than discover some grand pass around it. Like Robert Frost wrote: “The best way out is always through.” Accept and adjust to soft trails, to bad weather, to a long hard climb or a long cold descent, to slow riding, to hike-a-bike, to repellent food, to sore legs. My passivity has helped make it easy to not give up.

As such, I didn’t worry too much about the process of our finish, and focused instead on the certainty of the finish. I didn’t even worry too much when, after I ate a few forgotten sesame crackers, I felt a weird gurgle in my stomach. I stopped, stepped off the Buffalo, and dropped to my knees. Gurgle gurgle. I cleared away the top six inches of snow in front of me. Gurgle gurgle vomit. I’ve never thrown up in a race before, and I hope I don’t again, but this episode was unpleasant to undergo and marvelous to have undergone. When I stood up (after brushing snow over the pit of puke I’d made), my head was clear, my stomach didn’t hurt, and my mouth tasted, finally, of something besides sugary race food.

Suddenly I wanted to sprint off to the finish, six or so miles up the trail. Mark had not noticed that I’d stopped, so I had a half mile or so to ride till I was back on his wheel. “You okay?” I told him what had happened and said I felt good. Probably for the first time in an hour or more, I took the lead. Ahead of us was the Tower tower – the radio mast outside the village of Tower. The tower blinks in front of you for miles, but then slides away on your right as you keep riding toward the finish.

When I turned around to check on Mark, I could see another rider’s light behind us, sometimes near and sometimes well back. I didn’t want him to catch us. Earlier we’d let two other racers go past us without even a fight. I figured they were done by now. I wanted to be done too. Up the trail we went, riding now between the numerous road crossings on the approach to the finish. Sometimes I could hear, or imagine I was hearing, traffic on the roads. Was anyone really driving around at 5:00 a.m.? Maybe. We rode toward the pink glow of the parking lot at Fortune Bay Casino, which hosts the finish of the race.

The glow intensified. We reached the last road. A little pitch up and then a little pitch down got us over the asphalt. Ahead of us was a sign pointing toward Fortune Bay. Two and a half miles – a half hour or less of riding at our slowest. Way less now, thanks to the jolt of being close to the finish. The finish! Mark’s fifth finish in seven starts, in a personal best time. My fourth finish in four starts.

The snow fence along the trail into the Fortune Bay property. A building in the shadowed woods. A glimpse of the finish line sign. More snow fence, and a couple spectators. We turned the last corner and rode side by side up the tiny hill to the finish line, a string of pink lights in the snow. I pulled back a little as we reached the line so that Mark, who did so much work to tow me through my valley of the shadow of puke, could get the higher finishing spot after 22 hours and 38 minutes on the Arrowhead Trail.

Mark and Me at the Finish Line
Elated, we talked with the finish-line volunteers for a few minutes, then followed a mutual friend – Wisconsin Mark, a strong racer who was volunteering this year – to the casino. He checked our gear, making sure we hadn’t tossed out our sleeping bags, then led us up to the hospitality room. A big round of applause for us both. The hat that all finishers receive. The giant trophy that unsupported finishers receive. The finisher’s photo, in which I look much less gaunt than I usually do after the race.

Finished!
Two beers for breakfast. Rounds of applause for every other finisher, including, just behind us, Mike, who’d so heroically helped Steve with his broken ribs. Shooting the breeze with other finishers, we naturally turned toward the usual topic: will you do the race again? Everyone agreed: we would.

Only 363 days to wait…

Arrowhead 135 no. IV

The temperature was only 9° F when my friend Bill and I rolled into International Falls around noon today, but I had a warm feeling. The plume of smoke over the paper mill and the banner over 3rd Street means that I’m back at the Arrowhead 135, which kicks off at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. The race tracker is online at http://trackleaders.com/arrowhead17

Two thumbs up for Arrowhead no. 4

 
I’m very excited to race the Arrowhead again, going for my fourth finish in four starts. Exactly three weeks have passed since I ended my adventure at the Fat Pursuit, and while I feel good in both body and mind, I can’t be sure I’ve recovered enough to tackle the Arrowhead. I would not be surprised, once I’m out on the trail tomorrow, to feel either terrible and then struggle over the course or to feel fantastic and then ride well, maybe even to a personal best time.* 
So I’m eager, in the spirit of experimenting on myself, to see what effects the Fat Pursuit has had in me: did it wear me down, or did it give me a big fitness boost?

Judging by how I felt on today’s short excursion down the trail, I think a finish in 24 hours is feasible – a good but not great time for me. Finishing in the dark, in 18 or 20 hours, would be phenomenal.

Besides the Fat Pursuit, though, several other wild cards hide in this year’s Arrowhead deck:

  • the trail: the Arrowhead Trail is in exceptionally good shape, with good snow cover and firm, fast tracks. The trail though could be affected by
  • the weather: the forecasts call for light snow all day Monday and relatively warm temperatures of around 20° F, which could mean, respectively, tracks that slow throughout the race and lots of sweating. Hydration is an issue because this year I’m racing in 
  • the new “unsupported” category: along with forty others, I have been allowed to race entirely on my own. I cannot accept any help from the race organization or establishments on the course: no food or drink at the checkpoints, no drop bags full of goodies at the second checkpoint, and above all no use of any of the three checkpoints to dry out or to warm up – no going inside! I didn’t use drop bags last year, so that aspect of the unsupported category doesn’t seem too daunting, but I’ll miss my cold Coke at the Gateway General Store and my hot grilled cheeses at Melgeorges. On the other hand, three weeks ago I went almost wholly unsupported over the first 126 miles and 36 hours of the Fat Pursuit, so I have some ground to feel
  • a sense of confidence: I’m not the fastest racer, but I think I’ve figured out many of the key issues with winter bike races. My fitness could be good, my gear is certainly dialed in, and of course the bike is ready – all key elements of
  • my race plan: I am carrrying enough food and drink to last 30 hours (about 6,000 calories of energy and about three liters of fluid [plus the ability to melt snow!]), I understand the Arrowhead course, and I have my eye on some fellow racers who usually go a little faster than me but who this year might be good rabbits to follow. 

Given all that, I’m eager to get on the Buffalo tomorrow and see what I find on the trail!

* My best time was 19:30, in 2015 – good for 26th overall (25th man). My best placing was 7th (6th man) in 2014, the cold year. 

Fat Pursuit 2017 (part I)

My 2017 Fat Pursuit was extraordinary – the course, the weather, the scenery, the effort, the effects.

Though I didn’t reach the finish line this year, I had a hell of an adventure: 55 hours and 167 miles of riding my fatbike, the Buffalo, through a surpassingly beautiful, harsh, and rewarding place. Racing the Fat Pursuit was a privilege and a challenge and a joy. I can’t wait to go back next January.

The Buffalo, loaded for the race
The Buffalo, loaded for the race

The Fat Pursuit as an event has three separate races: a 60-kilometer race run in December and then a pair of 200s run the same weekend in January – the 200-mile in which I was competing, starting at 5 p.m. Mountain time on Friday, January 6, and a 200-kilometer (126 mile) race that started the next morning.

By race day, I had been preparing for a year – or maybe longer. I had done the 200k distance at the first and second Fat Pursuits in 2014 and 2015, but I missed the first year of the new 200-mile distance in 2016. I burned up my regrets over my absence at the edition by doing a lot of training – more and better riding, including more races, than I’d ever done as well as hundreds of hours of work in the gym. I also did a wide range of other preparation: testing literally every piece of required (and optional) equipment, studying the course to the point of memorizing segment distances, ironing out travel and lodging, visualizing myself riding (not walking!) past the Continental Divide marker and under the finish line arch…

When I left for Idaho with my friend Ben Doom two days before the race, I felt as ready as I could possibly be. On the long, fun drive out west, we talked about the course, about our bikes and equipment, about other racers, and about the weather, which looked daunting: extreme cold on Friday night, the first night of the race, then the possibility of snow later in the weekend, during what would probably be the last half of my race. I’ve done okay in cold weather, but fresh snow makes for slow riding.

We reached the race HQ at Pond’s Lodge in Island Park, Idaho, early Thursday afternoon, right on schedule. We checked in at the registration table, where I was assigned race number 9, and went through the gear check, which race director Jay Petervary – “JayP” – insisted on running on the sidewalk outside the lodge, with his two dogs running around like maniacs and snowmobiles – “snowmachines” in Western parlance – revving in the parking lot. When we finally headed over to our luxurious cabin, at the back of the Pond’s property, I was pretty confident that I would be able to go for 30 or even 40 hours – perhaps a bit longer if the extra time ensured a finish.

Staying in a cabin with a dozen other racers – some doing the same 200 mile race as Ben and me, some the 200 kilometer race that started on Saturday morning – I soaked up their excitement and their knowledge. I think I made a good half-dozen tweaks to my bike and equipment based on our conversations in front of the fire. A couple favorites: use the capacious zipper pockets on the underside of my pogies (the big, funny-looking overmitts that most fatbike era mount over their handlebars) to store stuff like nutrition gels and extra gloves or hats, and loop my dry bag buckles through my bottle cage so that the bag can’t bounce out.

At noon on Friday, we all trooped over to the racer meeting, at which JayP gave a surprisingly causal overview of the race course. Cold-cut sandwiches there for lunch, then back to the cabin, quieter now as we handled final prep and got our minds right for the start of the race. I stuck to my plan for the afternoon. Get dressed in all my race gear: wind briefs and wicking shirt, compression socks and thick wool socks, upper and lower thermal base layers, heavyweight cycling pants, synthetic soft shell jacket, wind vest, neck wrap, heavyweight gloves, thick wool cap, cycling boots, clear-lens glasses. Take short ride on (and shoot live video during!) the first section of the course. Hang out for a few minutes with an old friend who’d come up from Jackson Hole to see the start of the race. Double-check that all my extra clothes were accessible: down hat, fleece mittens, light gloves, headband. Install fresh batteries in all my devices (headlight, headlamp, bike computer, hearing aids). Get to the start line in plenty of time. Pose for pictures – so many pictures: pre-race solo portrait,

On the start line

group photo with my cabinmates, shot of all the starters under Pond’s arch…

Start line crew (by Anne)

Finally, just before five, Mike Riemer from Salsa Cycles, the main sponsor of the race, gave a short pep talk. While I listened, I reset my computer to get good data for the next 24 or 36 or 48 hours. The screen showed a temperature of -9º F, but I refused to believe it. I felt warm and happy and ready. We cheered the race volunteers and especially JayP, who then sent us off with a simple “Three, two, one, go!” My eyes welled up unexpectedly, but now we were rolling. There’s no crying in bike racing!

Rolling…

Section 1: From the Start to Checkpoint 1 (81 miles, 5:00 p.m. Friday till 11:30 a.m. Saturday)
The opening miles of the course routed us south over flat, fast trails along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River – a famous and gorgeous fly-fishing creek. In a long loose line, we passed the ominously-named Last Chance resort, a few buildings at a wide spot in the river where the sunset shot light through the steam rising off the black water. Dozens of trumpeter swans were settling in for the night. I jockeyed with other riders for good lines on the trail, but tried as much as possible to absorb the beauty – the river and trees around me, the sunset fading to my right, the blinking lights and hunched shapes on the bikes in front of me.

Soon after Last Chance, we turned right, for a loop through Harriman State Park. Full dark. Headlamp and headlight on. -15º showing on my computer. Dismount and get in the queue of riders lifting bikes over the gate into the park. Take the moment to pop a gel and a sip of water. Back on the bike. Catch up to some riders, get caught by others. Greet Jill Martindale, going well on her splatter-painted Salsa Beargrease, Miami Vice, early in her own extraordinary adventure. Study a mechanically regular line of feline tracks running along the edge of the trail. Climb and descend the low hills. Glance at the black bulk of a bluff in the near distance – the rim of the Island Park caldera. Keep things smooth as the trail leaves the flat open fields and enters thick evergreen forest.

This narrower, tighter riding was tricky – a mental test. I’m not a very good rider on singletrack under perfect circumstances, but now I was maneuvering a 50-pound fatbike and trying to not to slow down the riders behind me. Their multiple headlights cast numerous overlapping shadows of me down the trail – negative racer #9s, to match the negative temps. -10° in higher warm spots, -20° in lower cold ones. Watching the mileage on my computer, I could tell we were nearing the end of the Harriman section, and soon enough the trail spit us out on an access road that in turn led us across the highway, exactly 10 miles straight south of Pond’s.

181 miles to go. I stopped for more food and a gulp of water, but my hydration pack hose was frozen. Uh-oh. I dry-swallowed the trail mix and tucked the hose deeper under my clothing, hoping my body would thaw it. As I chewed another mouthful of trail mix, I dug out a set of backup clothing. A headband went across my nose and mouth, a new layer of insulation against the headwind. I pulled off my headlamp to fit my down beanie over my cycling cap, then put the lamp back on my head. I loved seeing the bright yellow spot of light it cast wherever I looked. I pulled my down jacket from my seat pack and put it on too, being careful to pull both my shell’s and the jacket’s hoods up over the headlamp straps. Finally I snuggled my gloved hands into fleece mittens. Armored up. 8:00 exactly. Three hours in.

I knew from my course notes that the next section was mostly downhill, running sixteen miles from the flats of Harriman at 6,100 feet to the lowest spot on the course – the Warm River campground at 5,200 feet. Jay had suggested at the race meeting that Warm River would perversely probably be the coldest spot on the course, thanks to the berg of frigid air that would likely settle there overnight, so as I pedaled southeast across some open country toward the trail to the campground, I looked at my computer to get a sense of how cold it was right now. The temperature readout was blank. I tapped the screen. A flicker. -29° appeared. I could feel a headwind blowing. Cold that cold feels solid. A spring or summer headwind pushes back at you. A winter headwind like this encases you. Han Solo in carbonite, delivered to Jabba the Hutt.

I was happy to make the turn south toward Warm River, into the trees and out of the wind. This riding was fast, often easy, but the extra speed intensified the cold. My hands would go dead and come back, numb and revive, though I told myself this was more from a nervously tight grip on the bars than from the cold. Loosen up. Light hands. I pulled each hand in turn out of its pogie and shook it, warming the fingers. My toes too were getting cold. I flexed each foot and pointed each toe in turn. This little piggy went to market.

About two-thirds of the way to Warm River, the race detoured to Mesa Falls, a gorgeous cascade where the Henry’s Fork pours over the edge of the Island Park caldera. At the falls, racers had to go on foot to retrieve a piece of candy that we’d show volunteers at the first checkpoint – after 45 more miles and the rest of the long night. A cluster of lights up the trail told me that I was approaching the spur to the falls. Hooking a sharp right turn, I plunged down the steep, winding road to the falls, cursing because I knew I’d have to climb every damn foot of the road to get back to the trail. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. Now my hands were numb for real. Feet too. I couldn’t feel them at all. Glancing at my computer, I though I saw a reading in the -30° range, but I was going too fast to be sure.

Finally I reached the bottom of the road. 9:41 p.m. 33 miles into the race. A sixth of the full distance. A big park building loomed in the dark, shuttered for the night if not the season. Another rider pulled up just as I dismounted. We instinctively started heading down the only path we could see. Another racer came back up path toward us. “What are we doing here?” he asked. “The path just kinda peters out!” I told him we were supposed to get some sort of candy to save for the first checkpoint. “Oh yeah, the fucking candy! I shoulda paid more attention at the meeting.” He fell in behind us as we walk-jogged further down the path. I could hear a dull roar – the falls. Off the Buffalo, my legs felt like they were being misused. Cold wet air billowed up from the river below us. Finally, we saw two crude wooden stakes with a plastic grocery bag tied between them. Mr. Confusion lunged around me and grabbed one of the candies – golfball-sized cordials for a local confectioner. Some sort of JayP joke. I chose a blue one to match my bike’s bags.

We made our way back up the path to the parking lot where our bikes waited. I put the candy prize in the bag on the front of my bike, tucking it into an interior pocket so that it could not, would not fall out even if I dumped my bike and tore the bag open. Standing there, my feet felt dead. I needed to do something for them. No time like the present. Take off my mittens, lay them on my pogies. Unzip the right side of my frame bag. Find my stash of chemical handwarmer packets. Pull out two pairs. Lay one on the pogies next to the mittens, rip open the other. Shake each packet, one in each hand, being careful to really mix the contents. One of my companions leaves, pedaling back up the road. Reach down and undo the four fasteners on my right boot: Velcro strap, Velcro flap, zipper, drawcord. Pull out my foot, a block of ice inside two socks. The foot in the air feels like the foot in Lake Superior in March. Place the warmer, faintly warm, inside the boot. Focus. Flatten the warmer out where the ball of the foot will go. Push the foot, now seemingly swollen with cold (impossible!), back into the boot. Focus. Flex the foot. Wiggle the toes. Carefully do up the boot’s fasteners: drawcord, zipper, flap, strap. Get each one exactly right to prevent the need to do all this again.

But I do have to do all this again, with the left foot. By the time I had the left foot out of the boot, though, I felt – imagined? – heat seeping up from the warmer into my right foot. Two minutes later I had the left foot back in its boot. I took another minute to activate the second pair of warmers and put them against my palms inside my gloves. The empty wrappers went in my garbage bag. I ate some food, put the mittens back on, put my hands back in my pogies. I climbed onto on the Buffalo. With a big push-off, I started pedaling up the hill. It was steep and took effort but I rode every foot, chest almost to the bars at some points. The motion felt good – generating heat to trap inside my layers, giving me reason to flex my feet over and over and over, recalling repeats I did in November on the steepest hill in Northfield – no harder than the tenth time up Radar Hill! I passed a few other riders walking the climb, and a few more where the road rejoined the trail.

I paused there for some food and drink. My hydration hose had thawed long ago and the water in the reservoir – scalding hot at 4:30 p.m. – was now pleasantly tepid. I made the right turn toward Warm River, just a few miles further downhill. This stretch wasn’t quite as fast as the leg to the falls road, but I still moved well, feeling warm for the first time in a while, and even, wonderfully, feeling sensations in my feet. With a bit of concentration, I could tell each toe apart from every other toe. Little piggies awake again. A rider came up and settled in next to me. I greeted him, but didn’t hear a reply. He moved ahead, then drifted, as passing riders often do, toward me. I overreacted to create space between us and steered right into the snow bank on the edge of the trail, flying off the Buffalo and burying myself in the pillowy snow. He didn’t stop, or even notice. I sorted myself out and got back on the Buffalo, following him a safer distance. My computer showed an elevation that meant we were nearly at the low spot of the course, but surprisingly also that the temperature had gone up since Mesa Falls to -15°! Remembering JayP’s prediction that this would be the coldest place on the course, I was heartened. Maybe the cold, forecast to last all night, had broken early! My computer showed a little after 11 p.m.

Warm River itself was just to my left, flowing in the same direction as my ride. Abruptly the trail crossed the river. The low spot. In a poetic sense, the course was uphill all the rest of the way. But in a real sense, the next leg of the course was all uphill: 26 miles – a marathon! – of steady climbing. My friend Minnesota Mark had said that this was “AC/DC time,” time to crank up whatever music was needed to do the work of turning the cranks. Owing to my hearing aids, I can’t listen to music while I ride, so I had decided to enjoy the fact that this would be the longest continuous climb I had ever done – and that when the climb ended, I’d have ten miles of downhill and ten miles of flats to reach the first checkpoint. I had more water and food, pushed the Buffalo up and over a steep initial ramp, and started pedaling.

And you know what? That’s all I remember of the climb. I started the climb at 11:20 p.m., a late night, and topped out at 5:48 a.m., an early morning. I have no recollection of the six-and-a-half hours between those moments. A quarter of a day, lost to memory. I must have just been riding my bike, eating, and drinking. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t take pictures of the dark trail or the starry sky. I didn’t send any late-night texts. I just rode the Buffalo, doing the thing I came to Idaho to do.

In fact the next moment I remember came even later, after the ten-mile descent that followed the all-night climb. Other riders have said that this descent was horribly cold, but I don’t know. Instead, I recall a moment of riding on the flat stretches before Checkpoint 1. Heading north into a light but insistent breeze, I could see dawnglow to my right, over the mountain ridge that I’d climb much later in the day, on the way to West Yellowstone. One of my cabinmates had said that a day’s coldest temperatures often occur right at dawn, a sort of thermal analogue to the sky always being darkest before daybreak. I pointed my headlamp at my computer. -39°. Definitely the lowest air temperature I’d ever seen. Pretty cold. Worth remembering.

My mental tape started running again there, partly with aches and pains. My stomach hurt from too many sugary foods overnight, and my head felt heavy. I had a massive icebeard on my face, pulling at my whiskers. The headband I’d put over my nose the evening before had frozen in place. I could feel an icicle on my upper lip. I’d chew it off, spit it away, and feel it form again, an unwanted extra tooth.

Ride, ride, ride. I was getting desperate to reach the checkpoint, but no matter what I did – pedaled, ran, walk – I was getting closer. Around 9 a.m., the full light of day became irresistible. I fished my phone out of my jacket and took a picture of Sawtell Peak in the far northern distance. The course would go over that mountain too, in the last twenty miles of the race.

Sawtell at 8 a.m.

Ride, ride, ride. More miles ticked by. I reached the last trail junction before the checkpoint. From study of the course map before the race, I knew that this junction was almost exactly midway between the first checkpoint and the start. A left turn would go directly back to Pond’s. Three, four miles of easy pedaling. A right turn would go directly to the checkpoint. Three, four miles of slightly harder pedaling. Later I learned that a dozen or more racers had come to this corner and turned left, including all the favorites to win.

I turned right. I had no reason not to. I was fine. Happy. Working hard. Somewhere on the approach to the checkpoint, I stopped again to take a selfie, expecting that I would melt off my icebeard at the checkpoint.

Saturday morning selfie

Then I got back on the Buffalo and finished this first, longest leg of the race. I reached the checkpoint at 10:15 a.m. I was 17 hours and 81 miles into the race. Well over a third done, at least by distance.

This first checkpoint is infamous because it is the site of the race’s dreaded water-boil test: to use whatever means you’d like to bring eight ounces of water to a rolling boil. I’d nearly failed when I did the test at my first Fat Pursuit, but performed far better at my second race the next year. This time too I acquitted myself well. In a few minutes of focused effort, I used my white-gas stove to turn a few big handfuls of trailside snow into 16 ounces of boiling water, which became a delicious cup of hot cocoa.

Boiling some water (photo by Gary Chrisman)
Boiling some water (photo by Gary Chrisman)

After turning off the stove, I went into the tiny canvas-sided shelter where racers could thaw out and rest. I sipped my cocoa and downed a cup of ramen that a volunteer gave me. Sitting awkwardly in a saggy camp chair, I hunched toward a massive propane heater, trying to thaw off my icebeard. The cold was so piercing, even inside the tent, that I had to actually touch the ice to the heater’s shroud before the beard started to melt. Gradually the icebeard shrank and fell off. I finished my cocoa and had more soup, chatting with a couple other racers, including the leader of the 200-kilometer race, which had started that morning at 7. After a while – you could have convinced it was thirty minutes or three hours – I was ready to go again. 11:30 a.m. I had been at the checkpoint for about 75 minutes – less than a minute of rest for every mile of riding. So far.

Going back outside, a volunteer asked whether I was continuing. I told him I was. I asked him who was winning. He said he didn’t know, but that all the “fast guys” had quit overnight. Looking at the racer log, I saw that almost every name on the list had been crossed off and had “scratch” written next to it. Apparently the night had been pretty hard.

I packed up my stove and cup, threw away my garbage, filled my hydration reservoir with hot water from a massive pot that the volunteers were feeding with snow, put my gloves back on, and picked up the Buffalo from its resting spot in the snow. I massive thermometer on the side of the checkpoint tent showed a temp of +20º, but my computer showed 5°. Either way, the sun was shining high in a blue sky. The next checkpoint was forty miles away in West Yellowstone, Montana. I hoped to get there by midnight.

Fat Pursuit Numbers

I’m working on a real narrative post on the race; this list of details is a placeholder and raw material for it.

167 miles: covered by bike or foot
55 hours: time I spent on course
29 percent: fraction of 2017 that I’d spent in the race when I quit at midnight on Sunday night
10,000 feet: estimated number of feet climbed during the race

Climbing
Climbing

2.2 hours: sleep during the race (20 minutes trailside on Saturday afternoon, 110 minutes at the second checkpoint on Sunday morning)
-20º F: the supposed air temperature at the start
-39º F: the coldest temperature I saw on my bike computer, near dawn on Saturday
22: minimum number of items of clothing I was wearing then

Saturday Morning Selfie
Saturday Morning Selfie

3 times: number of crossings of the Continental Divide (maybe more?)

At the Divide (7,733 feet)
At the Divide (7,733 feet)

8.25 hours: time needed to climb, cross, and descend Two Top mountain, largely in a blizzard

Two Top Whiteout
Two Top Whiteout

8 hours: longest time I went without seeing another person (4 p.m. till midnight on Sunday)
12 hours: minimum stretch I went without talking to anyone
6 hours: hours after missing the final cutoff time that I finally stopped

Sunday night selfie

18,000 calories: estimated energy burned during the race
1 time: number of times I filled my hydration pack with snow to see if the lining and my body heat really would melt the snow (they did!)