All the ponds are now
Aquatic opera halls
Lust, longing, and death
For weeks: no intermissions
Fun with deafness today:
At the gym I heard someone
Yell “Jane! Jane! Jane! Jane!”
Actually, batting practice:
Baseballs struck by metal bats.
(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.
Just like hills sometimes
Seem lower and gentler than
Other times, sometimes
The barbell feels light despite
The plates on it. Like today.
Mountain biking seems
To mostly be not braking.
Look ahead, pick lines,
Lean more than feels right, grimace,
Pretend the levers don’t work.
I’m sure I younged by
Grunting through all four rounds of
13 burpees (clap!),
17 thrusters (lock out!),
44 lunge jumps (tap knees!).
Rainy Day Dog Bite
On a rainy day
I get an itch on my knee
Where that goddamn dog
Bit me while I rode my bike.
Blood ran through the sweat and dust.
Fat Pursuit 2017 (part I): the first part of my race report on the Fat Pursuit
Fat Pursuit 2017 (part II): the rest of the race report on the Fat Pursuit
Fat Pursuit Numbers: some facts and figures on the Fat Pursuit
Fat Pursuit Bike, Gear, and Kit: a look at the clothing and equipment used at the Fat Pursuit
Arrowhead IV – Fast Until It Wasn’t: my race report on the Arrowhead 135
Ultra Effects, or Putting the Hell Back in Health: musings on the physical effects of racing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
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.
Heading out from the Chick Creek checkpoint, I felt good. I was eager for the next leg of the course, which I had ridden in the other direction during my two attempts at the 200k course. I remembered loving the innumerable long views up and especially down the forested mountainsides and finding the trail not too hard. I encountered a few 200k racers as they worked their way to the checkpoint, and was passed after a few miles by Perry and Josh, two good guys from Spearfish, S.D., who had been at the checkpoint with me. They were having a good time, and pulled away from me pretty easily.
I was trying not to push too hard, fighting the urge to go all out – an urge that has led at more than one race to a huge slowdown after the rest and refreshment of the checkpoint wears off. This more steady approach helped me cover the first seven miles of this section, and keep moving well as I started to climb toward the more challenging trail that would go to West Yellowstone. And the views did not disappoint: I stopped more than once to goggle at the spectacular vistas of the mountainsides patched with stands of lodgepole pines and open fields of white snow. Above, a cloudless blue sky. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect winter.
10, 12, 14 miles from the checkpoint, I had little to do but ride and think about how I was riding. Mentally, I was fine: thinking clearly, remembering to eat and drink, reading the trail well. Psychologically, the same: enjoying myself, thinking positive thoughts, looking forward to discovering whatever was around the bend – and to facing the bigger challenges later. Physically, too, good: feeling no aches or pains even in places that had hurt last night (back muscles, knees), and especially feeling no real fatigue. I had the sense that I was moving slower than I had overnight, but my average speed was still well ahead of the where I needed to be to finish the race by the cutoff. In short, I felt good for having been riding 20 hours and 90 miles.
Despite all that good feeling, somewhere in the stretch, the fatigue of having been riding for 90 miles and 20 hours (not to mention having been awake for thirty) caught up to me. Very unlike the familiar feeling of nodding off, which wells up from inside, this came on as an irresistible external pressure to sleep. Mindful of the rule that racers cannot sleep on the trail (where snowmachiners could run them over), I looked for and found a little spot off to the side of the trail: a gentle slope between two lodgepole pines, corrugated not long before by some sledder. Without really thinking, I propped the Buffalo in the deep snow alongside the trail, pulled my sleeping pad off the front of the bike, and threw the pad down in the snowy spot. I shrugged off my hydration pack and draped it over the bike’s handlebars, then lay down on the pad. A second later, I woke up, chilled but refreshed. Twenty minutes had passed. As I pulled myself back together, a snowmachine approached. I raised a hand to the driver – Salsa’s Kid Riemer! He hopped off the sled, already shooting pictures and asking how the race was going. I told him that I had just had a little nap, and that I felt good. He commented on my upper lip, which I’d been ignoring since the checkpoint, and repeated what I’d heard at the checkpoint about the attrition up front. He guessed that only ten riders were still riding, and none of the pre-race favorites.
This heartened and surprised me, just as it had at the checkpoint. Had the night been that hard? Recombobulated, I climbed back on the Buffalo, said my goodbye to Kid, and headed up the trail. The little bit of extra mental and physical energy provided by the nap put me in a reflective frame of mind, and I concluded that though I wouldn’t pass up the chance to ride any section of the Fat Pursuit course again under less strenuous circumstances, I would probably choose this one if I could – any easy daylong out-and-back jaunt from Island Park. Someday!
The undulating trail was wide and white but far from uniform. Snowmachine tracks – the skis and the treads – covered almost all of it, but dozens of big and small snow boulders had rolled down off the slope to the left. Small softball-sized ones only rolled a few feet onto the trail. Bigger ones – soccer balls, beach balls – made it halfway across, into my path down the middle of the track. I enjoyed riding over some of them, feeling the Buffalo’s tires break them in half. A small amusement.
Around one bend, I saw a cluster of riders ahead. I assumed that Josh and Perry were among them, but when I approached, several sledders broke away and rode their machines down into a big bowl, leaving two bikers. I caught them and we aid out hellos. I didn’t recognize either of them, but Graham had started the 200 mile race with me, and Kellie had started the 200 kilometer race that morning. We rode together until we reached the big turn to the north, toward West Yellowstone. They stopped there, Graham lying down in the snow for a nap while Kellie had a snack.
I pushed on, remembering how hard this trail had been during my first attempt at the Fat Pursuit in 2014: a soft, ungroomed mess that I had not been able to ride for more than a few yards at a time. Today, the trail was firm and smooth, easy to ride even as it tipped upwards. As my computer’s elevation reading went up, though, the sun went down, though. The trail turned light blue, then gray, then black except where my headlamp and headlight shined. 5:00 p.m. came and went. I’d been riding for 24 hours.
Not being able to see much of the trail now, I just rode toward the yellow spots of light in front of me. Eat, drink, stretch, occasionally hop off to walk a tougher section. I crossed from Idaho into Montana. Somewhere on the climb, I caught or was caught by another rider, Greg, who said he was a friend of JayP’s. The surprise of seeing another rider – and especially of having more light on the trail – was a nice diversion from the trail and the trees. As we rode, I filed away details about him: his Canadian accent, his beautiful blue Kona Wo fatbike, his use of a silver beer growler for water. “That’s a good idea,” I told him. “Yeah, it holds a lot of water, but it all tastes like beer!”
Our trail emerged from the woods onto a high ridge – the South Plateau – and exposed us to a sharp wind, blowing from the west across our path. Finger drifts reached across the track, and here and there, the wind created weird patterns that looked like runes. Getting tired again, I knew that they weren’t letters, but I tried anyhow to decipher them. Though the drifting had obscured any snowmobile or bike tracks, some small animal was traveling just ahead of us, leaving a line of crisp paw prints the size of half dollars. We were leaving footprints, too, walking about as much as we were riding. I promised Greg that we would soon hit the faster sections that descended to West Yellowstone, but these downhills kept not arriving. After Greg pulled away from me at one point, I caught him as he prepared to bivvy, saying that he needed some sleep. I assured him that we were not far from West, and the second checkpoint, where I’d already decided to get some good sleep – or maybe I begged him to keep going with me.
However that conversation went, he did get back on his bike, and sure enough, we finally reached the downhill run to West. Doing 4, 5, 7 mph was marvelous. Greg pulled away from me again, a red human form, then a gray shape, then just a blinking rear light, then nothing but a fresh track in the snow. From my computer’s mileage reading, I could tell we were within a few miles of West Yellowstone now. A few signs appeared, some presenting miles-to-go numbers that seemed absurdly high. Gates barring entry to this or that road. The red light on a radio tower south of town. A dim yellow skyglow from the town itself. The descent ended with a straight trail toward the hotels and cabins at the south edge of West Yellowstone. Another rider suddenly passed us. Greg sped up to ride with him. Lagging and feeling really tired, I took a bad route to the checkpoint. What should have been a quick zip-zip ride over the streets turned into a tour of the eastern half of the town.
Finally, at 2:30 a.m., I pulled into the open garage where a few other bikes were resting. I leaned the Buffalo against an open spot on the wall, grabbed a few items off the bike, and headed up the steps into the checkpoint.
The volunteers gave me a hearty welcome. A number of other racers were there too, including Greg and the guy who had passed us as we reached town – my friend Jon, who said that he was going to stop there, that reaching West had been his goal. The living room was full of sleeping riders, some of whom, the volunteers said, had also decided to stop. They asked me what I was planning to do. I told them that I was going to take a nap and then continue. A photo by Jon’s girlfriend, who had been waiting for him at the checkpoint, suggests why they seemed surprised to hear this:
Taking off my vest and shell and hats, I used hot water to melt off my icebeard and sat down to eat a bowl of soup and two grilled-cheese sandwiches. I finished the soup, but halfway through the first sandwich, I realized I needed that nap. The volunteers pointed me downstairs. I decided to take a 90-minute nap to get through one full sleep cycle. I set my phone’s alarm (thank god you can just tell Siri what to do!) and crashed into sleep. After at least one major coughing fit, the alarm sounded. Feeling awful, I decided to grab 20 more minutes of sleep. When that alarm buzzed, I vaulted out of bed, feeling great. It was a little after 5:00 – 36 hours into the race, and one hour before the cutoff time to leave the checkpoint.
Back upstairs, I found different volunteers on duty and more racers at the table. Everyone was quitting or had quit except Graham and Kellie, whom I’d last seen in the afternoon as we turned north toward West. A volunteer asked me if I was planning to continue. “Yes! I feel good!” His eyes widened. “Really? Okay! Good. I’ll tell the race director.” I tried to hustle through everything I needed to do. Two more bowls of soup. A handful of gels to stash on my bike. Hot water in my pack, along with 2 or maybe 10 hydration tablets. New batteries in my headlamp and headlight. Last, a check of the forecast – “1 to 2 inches of snow during the day,” a volunteer told me – and directions back to the course – “Just turn right on the street here and keep going. The street turns into the trail.” 5:58! Time to go. I climbed into the Buffalo and pedaled out of the garage, turned right, almost instantly left town.
For a few miles, the course headed due north, between the West Yellowstone airport and the highway that runs up to Bozeman. I could hear an occasional car through the trees, but steadily I moved away from the road and reentered the black, silent woods. The riding was easy, and pedaling again – after three hours at the checkpoint- was comfortable and familiar. The sleep had been effective, providing physical rest as well as mental rejuvenation. I wasn’t sure exactly when the sun would come up, but I knew that I’d get a boost from the sunshine, and that the boost would help me in turn get up and over Mount Two Top, the 7,880-foot mountain that loomed as the next big challenge on the course. And the last big one, for after Two Top was a long downhill and flat run to the third checkpoint.
As I turned east off onto the trail that ran along the southern shore of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, I checked my average speed. I was still ahead of the pace needed to reach the third checkpoint by the cutoff time of 6 p.m. – about twelve hours into the future – and thus also ahead of the pace needed to finish the race by midnight or a little later. That would mean a total race time of 55 hours or so. Longer than I expected, but feasible if my legs held up. Certainly, I had enough food and water to go that long.
Winding over these flat tracks, I was aware suddenly the sun had come up behind me, lending pale blue and gray tones to everything. At first, I could hardly see the trail in the flat light, but gradually the light sharpened enough that I could see the trail and, across the Madison Arm, the curving banks of Horse Butte – notable to me as one of the few places outside of Yellowstone National Park into which the park’s bison can safely migrate. I hoped to see some buffalo over there, but didn’t. On my side of the lake, a few trees, some shrubs and brush, acres of open country. I wasn’t moving fast but I was moving steadily, now mostly west, not needing to dismount for the few inclines or the occasional snowdrifts. I found another racer’s tracks and tried to follow them. The trail bent south, past mile markers, through an idle campground, and back into thicker trees. Above the trees, Two Top, maybe 10 miles away in gray sunlight.
The mile markers ticked by. I crossed Highway 20 (the finish was 22 miles away by car from that spot) and rode a short spur trail toward Two Top Loop, which would go up, over, and down the mountain. Coming off this spur to turn toward Two Top – now looming dead ahead, green-black with trees but bare on the summits – I saw ahead of me a pack of dogs. Wolves? No, too small. Just as I saw that they were sled dogs, harnessed up and raring to go, their driver shouted to me from off-trail: “Hey, can you do me a big favor?” I stopped. “What is it? I’m in a bike race.” He explained he’d dropped something on the trail and needed me to hold the dogs in place while he retrieved it.
So I dutifully stood there, one foot on the sled’s brake and both hands wrapped around a rope tied to the sled’s chassis, while he sprinted away and then returned with a lost shovel. “Thanks, man. You’re a lifesaver. Have a good ride!” He took the rope from me, tossed it on the sled, pulled up the brake, and shouted to the lead dogs. They ripped off down the trail, throwing up plumes of snow behind the sled. I stepped back onto the Buffalo and pointed myself at Two Top.
I had an unsophisticated strategy for getting over Two Top – and into the last 35 miles of the race: to climb the mountain as steadily as possible, going slowly but continuously, and then to attack the descent, making up time so that I reached the flats by mid-afternoon. I reached the foot of the mountain at about 11 a.m., riding as far up the climb as I could before dismounting for what I knew would be a long hike-a-bike session from about 6,600 feet to about 8,000 feet.
1,400 feet of climbing, more or less. I tackled the climb by going 100 feet at a time, more or less, fourteen times, more or less. On some steep pitches, my computer showed me gaining a foot with every step. 100 steps earned 100 feet. More often, I needed to take two or four or even ten steps to climb a foot. And of course, the Buffalo didn’t roll itself up the hill; I had to push it. Sometimes I had my hands on the bars and walked pretty naturally. Other times, I had to lean in, chest almost on the bars. Here and there, I had to put one hand on the stem and one on the seat and push from behind.
Foot by foot, though, we made our way up, encountering a few groups of snowmachiners. One group, heading up, stopped just up the trail from me and, in unison, reached up to activate the GoPros on their helmets. Another group, coming down, slowed and stopped when they saw me. The leader looked at me and shook his head before roaring away again. I only talked to one group of sledders, two guys in U.S. Forest Service jackets who asked jovially how the race was going. I slurped water from my backpack while we chatted, then waved as they headed uphill. The fact that the riders were on different brands of snowmachines bothered me. Shouldn’t the government have a uniform fleet of snowmobiles?
Suddenly, the trail flattened and I saw the sign marking the Continental Divide, the boundary between Montana and Idaho. This spot isn’t the top of Two Top, but I wanted to commemorate the moment. Two tourists were taking pictures of each other at the sign, and I asked them to take one of me, which they obligingly did – without commenting on how much I looked like death warmed up.
I was happy to be on top of Two Top, but the climb had already eaten up a lot of clock. I had about three hours to reach the third checkpoint – just barely feasible, and only possible if I could ride fast on the descent and then hold a good pace on the trails from the far side of the mountain to the checkpoint.
The bad part of Two Top is that the summit is not a peak but a wide ridge, a patchwork of snowfields and stands of trees, with the trail winding every which way. Up here, the snow and the wind turned the trees into the famous “snow ghosts,” some of the most amazing and bizarre sights I’ve ever seen:
I could ride many parts of this flatter section, but now the light flurries that had started as I reached the divide began to intensify. In the fields, the wind whipped the snow at me; in the woods, the snow drifted down. I could not see any bike tracks, and even the snowmachine tracks were nearly obscured. One more group of sleds went past me as I crossed an especially wide meadow, giving me a wide berth and roaring up a steep bank that I knew I would have to walk.
I didn’t know that those helmeted snowmobilers would be the last people I’d see for eight or nine hours. I did know, as reached the slope they had zoomed over, that my Fat Pursuit was over. My average speed had now dipped under the minimum finishing pace, and I had less than three hours to cover almost twenty miles to the checkpoint. With fresh legs and compliant trails, I could meet this challenge. With exhausted legs and snowed-in trails, I could not. I was not going to reach the next checkpoint by the cutoff.
“Fuck fuck FUCK!” I was pissed. I shouted, I stamped my feet, I even felt a couple tears trickle down my cheeks. “I wanted this so bad,” I said out loud, possibly to the Buffalo. The bike didn’t respond. I hauled it up the ramp, through a grove of trees, and out into a wide meadow.
I climbed onto the Buffalo and pointed our front wheel at the trail markers I could see down the trail. In this open area, though, the flurries became a blizzard, raising walls of snow in front of me and obscuring the markers as I rode toward them. The snow under me was uniformly windblown, hiding the edges of the trail as well as any snowmachine or bike tracks.
This was crazy. As crazy a moment as I’d experienced in any fatbike race – and at least as crazy as biking through the forty-below temperatures on Saturday morning, 36 hours before. I thought for a second about whether I was in any danger. I decided I wasn’t. I was warm and dry. I wasn’t too hungry or thirsty, though I’d have gladly accepted anything to eat or drink that I hadn’t been eating and drinking since Friday evening. My legs were heavy, yes, but not sore, and I didn’t even feel tired so much as weary. As my outburst a few minutes before showed, I could still think, and make clear decisions about riding and resting, not just stopping and going as whims struck or my body allowed.
So no I wasn’t in danger, even if I couldn’t see how I was going to get off the mountain. But I was disappointed – that I hadn’t made better time earlier in the race, that I hadn’t gotten further down the course before the snow started, that now I would not finish.
But whatever. I couldn’t do anything about any of that now, but I could try to ride the Buffalo off the mountain and then as far down the trail as possible by 6 p.m. Maybe I could get to the last main junction before the trail turned north to the third checkpoint. Reaching that goal would be worth something.
I stood there for a minute, looking down the mountain, trying to pick out the paired posts that marked the edges of the trail. I could barely see the nearest ones, which were perhaps 20 feet away. I couldn’t seen the next pair at all. With nothing better to do, I dug out my phone and took a picture so I’d always be able to see just how bad the conditions were. Turns out, the phone’s camera was better at finding the posts in the blizzard than my eyes!
I had been racing for almost exactly 48 hours when I took this picture. I knew I could not finish the race as I’d hoped, but I also knew I had a lot of good work to do to get down to some spot where I could “self rescue” by riding back to Island Park or maybe get picked up by one of my cabinmates. I texted my friend Ben to let him know where I was, though he already knew thanks to the online race tracker. I told him I was going to ride and walk as far as I could and then update him.
Climbing back on the Buffalo, I headed down the mountain. We could ride some of the steeper parts, though the drifts made steering difficult. My computer showed that we were steadily losing elevation and approaching the turnoff from the trail over Two Top onto another trail that ran toward Island Park. Ride the downhills, hike-a-bike the intermittent uphills, pedal, walk, pedal, walk. Back into unbroken woods again.
The sky had turned from gray to black again, my third nightfall of the race. I don’t think I’d been aware of any dawn or dusk as it happened, only after it was over. In the dark, the snow kept falling, filling the flatter tracks and slowing me down even more. I crossed back into Montana, then back into Idaho. Montana, Idaho. Sometimes riding, sometimes walking. 6 p.m.
Around 7 p.m., I made the turn off the Two Top trail and onto a trail – Railroad Grade – that I remembered from my two previous races as being fast and fun, an undulating, curvy section that repaid a certain necessary effort with decent speed and the pleasure of riding fast.
I found though that Railroad was not fast this year. From one edge to the other, the trail was snowed in. An inch or two here, three or four inches there. Snow boulders like those I’d seen on Saturday afternoon – 28, 30 hours ago! – had rolled onto this trail too, but here they were points where snowdrifts could grow. I tried to ride or walk around these obstacles, but my body and mind were finally failing. I’d stumble and fall, or oversteer and crash. Getting up, I sipped a little water or tried to eat something. My water was almost gone, though, and every single item of food tasted the same – like sweetened chalk. 8 p.m. More than once, a tree dumped some of its snow on me as I stood on the trail. I wondered if somehow my headlight was causing those snow dumps. My computer died, so I had to remember how to put in fresh batteries.
As tired as I felt, I also felt relieved that I was, for all intents and purposes, done with the race. I just needed to get off the course. Walking and riding and stumbling and weaving, I made my way down Railroad Grade. To my surprise, I now picked out at least two sets of tracks – bike tires and footprints. I wondered who was ahead of me, and if I could catch them. 9 p.m.
My computer showed that I had just a couple miles to the spot where Railroad Grade ended. There, the racecourse went north toward the third checkpoint, eight miles or so away. Looking at my map, though, I could see that continuing straight west for about that same distance would get me out to the highway. I decided to do that. I texted Ben to let him know, then resumed the trudge. Somewhere in this last stretch, I saw ahead of me, smack in the middle of the trail, an LP gas tank, the sort that might sit outside some rural house. I knew that the tank wasn’t really there in front of me, and yet… As I rode closer, it of course vanished. I kept riding, laughing a little to myself at the oddity of that hallucination.
The turn off Railroad. 10 p.m. A bit more walking and riding brought me to the junction where I planned to keep going west. 10:20. I needed longer than I should have to do the math and figure out that I’d been riding for just over 53 hours – minus the two naps. I was very hungry.
Standing at the junction sign, I tried to figure out which way to go. The trail toward the highway did not start right at the signpost, so I started to wander around a little bit, trying to pick it up. My initial foray put me in the middle of a snowfield, up to my waist in snowmachine-churned powder. As I extricated myself, I saw a snowmachine coming down the trail from the north, the direction of the checkpoint. I waved, hoping the driver would see me, stop, and help me get oriented.
The sled wasn’t driven by just anyone, though: it was JayP, out looking for stragglers like me. Just as he had when he pulled me off the course in 2014, he asked, “How are you doing?” I answered honestly: “I’m tired. I’m going to head out to the highway from here, but I can’t find the trail.” He used his headlamp to find it, a freshly groomed track not ten feet from the signpost. “What happened to your lip?” With the tip of my tongue, I touched my lip. Stinging. “I think I might have gotten some frostbite.” Jay nodded. He said that he was going to go find two racers who were ahead of me but had gone off course, and then go back to the third checkpoint to retrieve the only other 200-mile racer, a guy who’d reached and then left the third checkpoint only to tire and return. I said I was going to ride out to the highway, then ride back to Island Park on the road. Jay said that he’d watch the online race tracker and see if he could meet me at the highway instead.
He roared off up the trail. 10:45. I climbed onto the Buffalo, immensely relieved that I knew how things were going to end. The groomed trail was wondrously smooth and firm, and I enjoyed riding the three or four miles toward the highway. Going oh so slowly, I crossed the Henry’s Fork again, a few miles upstream from where we had seen it on Friday night near Harriman State Park.
I began seeing more street signs, so I knew I was getting close to the highway. Up ahead, red tail lights. A bike, or a set of bikes. No, a car. No, a van – Jay’s van. I rolled over a berm left by a snowplow and onto a paved street. Kid Riemer, Jay, and Gary, a volunteer I’d seen at the first checkpoint on Saturday morning, came toward me, congratulating me on my race. I could barely speak, from both emotion and horrific dehydration. They took the Buffalo from me and packed it in the van, then helped me up and into a seat alongside Graham and Kellie.
We talked quietly about the race as Jay drove us back to Pond’s. I didn’t know what to say or think beyond the fact that the Fat Pursuit had been an extraordinary experience, and so much more than I expected in so many ways – duration, intensity, beauty, difficulty. My computer showed 55 hours of riding time and 176 miles covered.
Hunched there in the van as we hummed along the highway, I knew I needed to do the race again in 2018. I just needed to go faster, so the race wouldn’t take so long. First, though, food and drink and sleep.