Marji Gesick 2019

As soon as I started puking, I knew I could finish the race. I leaned forward into the grass and vomited up everything I’d swallowed since noon: the sips of soda, water, energy drinks and gels, oranges, peanut butter sandwiches, dirt, sweat. In the darkness. I sat back on the gravel – pebbles pricking my legs – to get away from the stench and to savor the feeling of calm, empty guts.

Without the gurgly pinching of my stomach to distract me, I could read my body better. I felt mostly fine. My shoulders and wrists were tight from the trail’s pummeling, but my back was still loose, and my legs felt just a little fatigued, browned rather than charred. I drank some orange soda. Even the fake citrus flavor of orange soda in my mouth was pleasant, or at least not bad. A mask on the acidic tang of the puke.

Behind me, Stevie Wonder sang “Superstition” and the volunteer shouted to other racers as they ripped past on these few blocks of flat city streets: “Soda! Beer! Hot dogs! Pickles! Chips!” Someone pulled up and argued good-naturedly that since we were in Michigan, it was pop, not soda. Good-naturedly, the volunteer agreed. The racer murmured something to him. He replied: “That guy’s just puking a little. He’ll be fine. We’ll get him going again in a minute.”

It meant a lot to hear that. I was so fine, he could tell from twenty feet away. I finished the rest of the pop with pecking little sips, and stood up. No wobbling muscles, no aching joints, no head rush. At the checkpoint table, the volunteer instructed me, “Dude, have a pickle. Fermented shit. The Koreans and the Germans were onto something. Settles your stomach.”

“I’ve never had a pickle,” I told him.

“Never had a pickle?!”

”I mean, in a race. I’ve never had a pickle in a race.”

“It’s magic. It’s a magic pickle!”

He fished a pickle out of a big jar, almost empty. Salty, crunchy, tasty. I needed the calories now. As I snipped away at it, a light drizzle began, the day’s thick humidity finally precipitating. All day, the dew point had hovered just a few degrees lower than the mid-70 degree air temperatures – unseasonable warmth for far northern Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior. I’d been soaking wet with sweat and humidity since seven in the morning. The volunteer’s partner scrambled out of her camp chair to pull the food table all the way under their pop-up tent. “Don’t worry about this rain,” he told her, or me. “You can still see the stars, so this won’t last long. Just a few minutes.”

I had another pickle and looked up. The stars speckled white against a deeply black sky. The yellow dusklight had faded away into the hills to the west. The lights of the city of Marquette glowed to the east, a red arc against clouds over the lake.

I finished the pickle and had a cup of water. I asked the volunteer if he’d done the race. “Yep, two times. I finished the hundred two years ago and the fifty last year. Hard as hell, man! Just get out and keep going. Your pace, you’ll be done in five hours from here. 80 miles down. One more hour of this loop, then four on the last loop. Two a.m. finish. Longer if you sit at the park too long.”

More racers whipped past. One stopped, shotgunned a beer, and headed out again. I stood up to ready myself to follow him into the wooded ridges we had been riding all day.

The race had started fourteen hours ago at a campground outside Marquette. Todd and Danny had provided helpful directions to the right spot:

The start was a spectacle: the National Anthem on an electric guitar, some fireworks, a woman riding a horse made up to look like a unicorn. In keeping with the race’s ethos of silly sadism, we had to run a half-mile loop through the woods before we could climb on our bikes to head into the woods. I’d set up my bike – Needle, a forest-green Salsa Deadwood mountain bike, shock absorbers front and back, a bike I had acquired specifically for this race – the night before, and it was a pleasure to yank it up off the grass and start pedaling.

Starting a bike race with a not-short run was absurd (I needed six minutes to jog the lap in my cycling shoes), like almost everything about the Marji Gesick, from the course’s 105 miles of distance and 12,000 feet of climbing to the many long stretches of trail too rough or too steep (either uphill or downhill) for me to ride. These stretches were so absurdly hard that the race directors had marked them with warning signs: “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny.”

The distance, elevation profile, and especially the sheer difficulty of the trail had been, absurdly, attractive to me. I love long races for the dense feeling of having done them, a weight that I can carry around forever. I’m not earning any money doing these races; no, they’re costing me hundreds of dollars. If get a little beat up by the races, well, the hours of training – of devotion to an absurd goal – that keep me physically fit. I like this more than I should. I like looking down at the curved muscles of my legs and thinking, “I made them look like that.” I like looking further down my legs to the purple lines of new and old scars on my shins and thinking the same thing.

As my stoke for the Marji Gesick rose over the weeks before the race, I would catch myself savoring the future feeling of having finished the race. I would tamp this back down and think instead about other hard races I’d done, especially my winter fatbike races. I deflated some of my eagerness for the Marji by poring over my race-result spreadsheet. The facts were right there in black and white pixels: to date, I had finished only two of the six 100-mile mountain bike races I’d ever attempted. One had been shortened to 80 miles on the day of the race due to weather. Another, I’d cut short when the trail proved too hard for me. I had abandoned two races, including my first attempt at the Marji Gesick, in 2016. One finish came in a race that I see now was more a gravel-road race than a full-on mountain bike race. The other finish had come when I’d been accompanied every inch of the course by my friends Galen and Sarah, two stronger, fitter riders. Shepherds to my sheep.

Looking at that spreadsheet, visualizing the finish line, tinkering with Needle, riding long hours of training, I wanted badly to finish the Marji on my own. Or at least mostly on my own; I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to turn down pickles or encouragement. I wanted badly to be able to say to myself, after the race, that I had met the challenge. And to say it to others, if they asked.

Meeting the challenge I had – absurdly – elected to accept, had paid money and spent hours and hours to undertake required a willingness, an eagerness, to approach my physical and mental limits. To touch those limits, even when they made me gasp for breath, made my calves cramp, made vision twinkle and narrow, made my puke up my guts in an empty lot at the edge of town. To back away from those limits, to circle around and make a different approach to them. With luck, I would find that the limits had moved further out.

I had some reason to expect that the Marji would have this effect. The race would be my thirty-first bike race of a hundred miles or more. But the Marji would be the toughest mountain-bike race I’d ever done, more akin to a winter fatbike race (thirteen starts, eleven finishes) than any other MTB event, much less a gravel-road bike race.

I hoped, in fact, that the Marji Gesick would be a long exercise in mapping new personal limits. Before the race, I had told a friend – absurdly – that I was eager to turn myself inside out, a bit of bravado meant as metaphor that had become absurdly real at the aid station. As I finished my pickle, I could see in the beam of my headlamp a dozen places on my arms and legs where I’d sliced or scoured my skin open. Plus also the puking. And now I was getting back on Needle to ride at least five more hours through the woods in the dark? Absurd.

I shook the volunteer’s hand and pedaled away from the aid station. On the hill ahead of me, I saw the lights of other racers strobing in the trees. Maybe I’d catch them, maybe I wouldn’t. The main thing now, as I rode onto the dirt and rock trail a hundred meters from the aid station, was just to keep up a consistent effort. Don’t stop unless it’s to eat or drink or rest, or maybe to puke again. I had already convinced myself that I was nearly done, that I was starting the home stretch, that I’d be done in time to sleep a few hours in my hotel bed before we drove home.

As hard as the trail could be, most of the Marji Gesick course had been – would still be – wonderfully good riding, some of the best singletrack I’d ever seen, and superb in so many different ways. Here, the trail was almost entirely rideable, as it had been for long stretches in the first half of the race: a ribbon of dirt and stones and roots. I was moving at a steady pace, still punching it up most of the hills and braving many of the downhills.

I was happy about this. The lore of the Marji holds that the last two loops – twenty miles each, mostly encountered in the dark – are brutally hard, much more difficult than anything in the race to that point. Endless “Blame Danny” and “Blame Todd” sections, lots of sharp climbing and descending, mostly or entirely ridden in the dark while fatigued if not exhausted.

I had been scared of this possibility. Of this certainty. Three years ago, I had had to quit the race at mile 54, nowhere near the last loops. I’d been overwhelmed by the sheer appalling difficulty of the trail – the supposedly-easy stuff in the first half of the race. It had been too much for me: the climbs too steep, the descents too scary, the rocky sections far too rough to ride or even walk. I crashed over and over and over. I cracked a rib on one crash, on the aptly named “Scary Trail.” Worse, I broke my derailleur. I could ride through the pain of the rib, but I could not ride in one gear. I abandoned and spent the evening and night rooting for a friend.

Going into this year’s Marji Gesick, I wanted to ride the first part of the course – from the start near Marquette to the Jackson Park checkpoint, at mile 65 – steadily and easily, making progress but conserving my energy for the last forty miles. I had done this, been surprised at how good most of the trails had been – how good I had not remembered them being.

I flew over smooth, winding trails from the start to the first unrideable spot, a massive rock outcrop called the Top of the World. Too slick and steep for me, I pulled Needle to the top, where a bagpiper played while dozens of racers took in the view to the north of the Huron Mountains and Lake Superior.

A few of us tried to ride back off the bluff – “Rider coming through!” – but most of us walked back down to to the ragged, rocky trail and resumed riding. I actually started to enjoy the break from pedaling when we’d hit the “Blame” sections and need to walk for a bit. Have a drink, have a snack, admire the gorgeous forest all around us. Heck, hiking over fifty yards of boulders draped across what would otherwise have been a fun climb and descent was easier on the body than riding what felt like a mile down an abandoned railroad track. Not a rail-to-trail path: whoever had removed the rails had left the ties, overgrown with grass but as smooth as a jackhammer. Riders pulled over to shake out their hands and wrists.

I spent much of this opening section in small groups of other riders. A little chatter, lots of friendly warnings – “Low branch! Sharp rock!” – and lots of energy. We’d slow to enjoy the scenery: clifftop overlooks, long narrow forest lakes, those endless stands of trees beginning to change for the fall.

We sped up when we passed through a big crowd of spectators shouting and clanging cowbells. Just before noon – about an hour ahead of my own schedule – we passed through Marquette. After four hours in the woods, the roar of car traffic jarred. We rode frontage roads and parking lots to a damp tunnel that sent us under US 41, a highway runs from the northernmost tip of Michigan to Miami – from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. The highway felt like a piece of home to me: I’d grown up a couple blocks from 41 where it runs through Hancock, Michigan, 45 miles down the road from its origin in Copper Harbor, and lived for years a block from the highway where it passes, as Lakeshore Drive, through Chicago.

On the far side of the tunnel, I took a short break at the first official aid station and then started a long downhill stretch of paved bike path. Making 15 mph with no effort and a full stomach felt great, charging me up for the turn back onto trails. I let my rear wheel buzz, saving pedal strokes for later. Though a bunch of racers had crowded the aid station, by the time I hit the woods again, I was alone again. No matter: these trails too were fast and fairly easy, skirting subdivisions on the south side of Marquette and the city golf course. Every turn seemed to reveal another green or fairway. Was this a 54-hole course, or what? A winding climb to the top of a grassy hill ended with a long view north to the lake.

Not long after that, the course popped out at a trailhead, the second official checkpoint and, surprisingly, a massive party: dozens of racers, scores of volunteers, even more spectators, and tables loaded with millions of liquid and solid calories. Mile 40. I was about an hour ahead of my 2016 pace, which boded well for the rest of the race, especially given that I didn’t feel tired. I was very hungry, so I decided to take time to eat and drink: water, Coke, PB & jelly sandwiches, some obscenely salty potato chips, some shockingly sweet orange slices. A feast.

I probably soaked in the atmosphere a little too long, and probably soaked up a little too much food – all of which I’d see again that night. But the vibe was hard to leave. A few racers were abandoning here, strapping their bikes to their cars and driving off. I liked the normalcy of the scene, a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon : little kids riding strider bikes on a child-scale pump track, moms and dads and husbands and wives hurrying around taking care of their racers, volunteers bringing sandwiches and Gatorade right over to racers, even a new mom nursing a tiny baby, its dad giving her and the baby gentle kisses before heading back onto the course.

Honestly, I felt a pang of loneliness. I didn’t have anyone “crewing” for me, didn’t know anyone in the crowd, didn’t even really know where on the course I was. But that was part of the deal I’d made with myself. Do it myself, more or less. When I felt less hungry, I had a volunteer (I wasn’t completely alone!) fill my hydration backpack with cold water, strapped my helmet – soaked and stinking of sweat – back on my head, and headed out onto the course.

I probably looked like I was going to a funeral as I rode away from the checkpoint, thinking worriedly about the fact that this was where my race started to go wrong in 2016: crashes on the extremely rough trail just ahead and then a massive, exhausting climb up a gravel road. No time to be lonely. Between the caffeine and calories from the checkpoint, fresher legs than that year, and especially better riding skills, I hoped that the trails wouldn’t be as fearsome as I remembered. And they weren’t. The descent to the bridge over the Carp River was easy, and the river was gorgeous, even if a few filthy cyclists were wading in it.

Then – as abruptly as I reached the trailhead checkpoint – I emerged on the gravel road that climbed the back side of the Marquette Mountain ski hill. Ahead, I could see racers pushing their bikes up the incline. I clicked down to my crawler gear, dropped my chest and chin almost to my handlebars, and started grinding away. I passed almost everyone, appreciating the exhausted-sounded “good job” and “keep it up” encouragement.

A car rolled past me, enviably fast, and parked at an overlook. Somehow this broke my concentration, and I too needed to hop off Needle and walk for a bit. The bit of hike-a-bike freshened my legs again, so I resumed riding up the road, steeled for another ten minutes of climbing. No! A blessing: the course veered off into the woods. Curse: this was an infamously steep and rocky stretch called “Scary Trail” that I had walked in ‘16. Somehow, the bouldery, rooty garbage didn’t seem as brutal this year. To be sure, I didn’t try to ride all of that bastard, but neither did I feel like it was breaking me in half. The rocks and boulders and roots and mud were just hurdles to climb over. Kids hammocking at the bottom of one descent on Scary gave me a good-naturedly sardonic cheer as I hiked down. They’d have to wait for another rider to give them a show.

Scary turned into flowing trail that I remembered from three years before. Definitely more fun to ride – and more rideable – than Scary, this was where my derailleur had finally crapped out here. I had had to walk and coast to the Marquette Mountain lodge, where I found a ride back to the start. This time, my bike was working perfectly. I enjoyed how Needle helped me solve the roots and the rocks and the way the trail seemed always to be slanting away from the direction I wanted to go – almost identical to a favorite stretch of trail back home. Even the steep drops were fun. I found myself plummeting down ramps that I would not have even tried to ride three years before, or maybe even this year, outside of a race.

I also did not ride much of an incredible trail, like nothing I’d ever seen before, built from massive slabs of rock. A cobblestone road, for giants. A few other riders were hiking this with me; we traded spots and moved aside when a few intrepid racers came through on their bikes, moving powerfully over the rounded stones. I leaned later that this trail was called New Yellow. Had there been an original Yellow, or was the name a judgment of the cowards who wouldn’t ride it?

The massive rock armor on New Yellow turned back to dirt, a trail called “Easy Rider.” Compared to the impossibility of New Yellow, yes, sure, easy. But I realized that name was ironic after the tenth or twentieth steep downhill drop. Maybe a little guilty from hiking New Yellow, here I pushed myself to ride a little further down the slants, a little harder over the rocks. I could hear car traffic through the trees, always a sign of civilization, and then the trail pitched me out into the ski hill parking lot. A few more racers were quitting here, loading up their Subarus and Tacomas with dirty mountain bikes. This year, not me. A volunteer was manning a small aid station at the far end of the lot. I stopped there to jokingly complain that Easy Rider had not been easy riding. He just laughed – well trained by Todd and Danny to show no mercy. He pointed me toward the next section, some of the easiest in the race: a little more straightforward singletrack and then miles of gently uphill bike path to Negaunee and the first pass through Jackson Park.

Riding the singletrack, my stomach didn’t feel right. I hadn’t noticed on the demanding stuff on the other side of the mountain. Everything from sternum to navel felt churny and tart, empty and growling. I took an energy gel, a few sips of nutrition drink, a handful of cashews, and hoped everything would settle. If not here on the ride up to Negaunee, then maybe at the checkpoint. On the path, I could shift into a higher gear and crank along at 10, 12, 15 miles an hour, luxurious speeds that let me catch a couple other racers – visible ahead on the straight path – while still relaxing. While I pedaled, I reviewed the food and drink I had in my drop bag at the checkpoint: Red Bull, canned coffee, Fritos, cheese, little sausages. None of it sounded interesting or appetizing. This was familiar; I often – maybe always – feel this way about food and drink during races, especially long ones.

I caught up to a racer who saw my name on my number plate as I approached. “Hey, I know you! Or of you!” He introduced himself – Dan. We’d never met, but he was the friend of friends, and lived just up the road from me back in Minnesota. 400 miles from home, and here I was meeting someone who lived 15 miles from me. We chatted as we rode along. He planned to drop out at the checkpoint, too worn about by the 60 miles we’d covered so far to contemplate tackling another 45. I complained about my stomach, saying I was going to find a store in town where I could get some ginger pills.

“Oh, man, here, have mine!” He dug out a baggie full of gray-green ginger pills and passed it to me. Ten bucks worth, handed over as casually as a pretty leaf he’d found on the trail.

“You sure?”

He laughed. “I won’t need them now. Take two every hour or so.”

I one-handed the baggie open and fished out two pills. A swallow of water washed them down. I imagined they started working immediately.

We talked a little bit more as the path improved, flattened, started passing signs about the area’s history as a center of mining. I really wanted to stop to read the sign about “Mules in the Mines,” but didn’t. After seeing wetlands and scrubby woods for miles, we now started crossing streets, passing houses. I could hear cheering in the distance. From the crowd at a high school game or something? No, from spectators at the checkpoint. Then we were there, and they were cheering for Dan and me as we rode into Jackson Park.

The cheers were energizing, motivating me to take a solid rest: to sit in a chair (or at least on the ground), to eat some of my food and drink something besides my nutrition drink, to not move for a while. I laid Needle down and dropped to the grass next to it. I looked for Dan, already lost in the crowd. I made a mental note to friend him on Facebook. A volunteer brought my drop bag over to me without even being asked. I opened it. Though the food looked gross, I dutifully followed my plan: down one of the sugary coffee drinks, put one Red Bull in my frame bag, refill my cashews and open the Fritos and stash both in one of my handlebar bags, eat some Pringles, drink some soda.

My stomach disliked this effort to get calories, and especially fluids. I’d lost god knows how much water over the, what, ten hours since the start. Ten hours. That’s a long day on the bike, and with the hardest trails still ahead of me, I was probably less than half done with the race.

Ten more hours? Twelve? More? I watched racers come and go – some back onto the course, some to their cars. The racers’ appearance didn’t correlate with what they were doing: some riders looked fresh as they let someone else walk their bikes over to the parking lot. Other riders looked blasted as they pedaled out of the checkpoint to the course.

I felt solitary, not lonely as I had at the bustling trailhead checkpoint back in Marquette, 25 miles ago. I was glad that I didn’t have anyone crewing for me; I’d feel guilty at making them wait and do my dirty work, and guiltier as making them wait for me to finish. Maybe to worry about me out there in the dark. I didn’t care if I had fifteen more hours to ride. I wanted to do this next loop, return to this checkpoint, and then do the final loop. I had to be in and out of the checkpoint by 2 a.m., the cutoff for starting the last loop. With luck I’d be back here by midnight and long out on the course by 2. Regardless, I was fine with it. I had come all this way for this particular challenge.

Having planned to get to this spot in the race before dark, I now needed to set up my lights for overnight riding. I fixed a headlamp to my helmet with some of the thousand black zip ties that I carry with me at all times. The racer next to me noticed. “Hey, man, can I borrow just a few zip ties? This guy” – he pointed to another racer, packing up to quit – “gave me an extra light, only I don’t have a mount.” This light was absurdly small, the sort of light you put on the handlebars to ward off drivers on daytime streets, not the sort that you need to ride all night in the woods.

“Sure, take as many as you need.” He took a few, took some more, took a few more. He narrated his progress as he worked. By the time he was done, the tiny light was almost swaddled in black zip ties. “Great! I think that’ll work!” He tidied up his drop bag and thanked me and hopped back on his bike.

Watching him go I realized that I need to go now too. I contemplated and rejected my food options one more time, returned my drop bag to the volunteers, and buckled on my helmet, heavier now with the light strapped to it. Riding back to the course, I was surprised at how good my legs felt after the, what, hour or more of rest at the checkpoint. My stomach still felt wrong – twisted and bubbly – but yeah my legs felt great, and the caffeinated drinks had restored the focus that I’d lost on the easy-riding bike path.

If the approach to the checkpoint had been gradual, the exit was abrupt: a few turns, and I was suddenly in the silent woods again. Except: under my tires was not a dirt path, but a broken-up sidewalk. Ahead, a volunteer pointed me into a right turn. I accelerated toward him, expecting a nice corner onto the trail. Nope: old concrete steps, just long and unexpected enough that I couldn’t ride Needle up then. I laughed. The volunteer laughed with me, having probably seen dozens of us encounter his particular obstacle. As I walked Needle up the steps, I said, “Tell Danny and Todd that they’re assholes!” He laughed again.

Now I was on real trail again: a ribbon of dirt and rock winding over a defunct mine site. Amid the scrubby trees, I’d see the remnants: old staircases leading to and from nowhere, stretches of broken-up pavement, the foundations of buildings, street signs leaning at intersections where there were no houses. Lots of stretches of trail alongside chain-link fence studded regularly with stern warning signs. Beyond the fence: a defunct open-pit iron mine.

Dusk was still a couple hours off. In the trees, the light was already fading. I flicked on my headlights and enjoyed zigging, zagging, zooming on the graying trail. I caught another rider on a climb, and we rode together for quite a while: wheel to wheel on anything flat, me pulling ahead on any uphill, him escaping on any downhill. Complimenting him on his descending skills, he told me, “You gotta get a dropper post!” – a device that lets you lower your seat on descents to make the bike easier to handle. I’d never thought seriously about getting one – my home trails just don’t have enough steep downs to merit one – but watching this guy fly down some insanely steep, rocky stretches, I could see the value.

Just before dusk, we popped out on an overlook with a view that literally stopped us in our tracks. Tired but focused from the riding, we could hardly say anything to each other about it, only gesture at the trees and lake and ridge and dig out our phones for photos. I wish I’d had him take a shot of me. I bet I looked like shit on shingle.

I lost Dropper Post on a long descent. Night had fully fallen on us – on me – now, and I felt as comfortable and happy about this as I always do. My winter ultramarathons have helped me feel at home on a bike in the dark, savoring the isolation and the narrowed view and the way everything outside the beam of the headlamp seems far away. The simplicity of it. Just chase the yellow spot of light in front of you, and navigate by watching for the course markings, glowing like eyes when the light hits them.

The temperature did not drop with the sun, nor did the humidity magically decrease either. This was wrong; it’s supposed to get colder and drier when the sun goes down. I had not been eating or drinking well now, and the slower nighttime speeds let me pay too much attention to how I felt. Every part of me was totally soaked with sweat. My shorts were so wet that they squeaked against my saddle, which itself was so slick that my hand slipped off it when I had to push Needle. My arms and shoulders were sore, my legs just tired. Worst, my stomach was both utterly empty, grinding against itself, and demanding food and drink. Tiny sips of water and nutrition drink felt like water balloons exploding. Gross. A Frito? Somehow, crunchy and slimy. A cashew? Oily paste.

I could sense my legs turning over with less force, my concentration slipping, as I dealt with my stomach. Climbs got steeper, descents slipperier, corners sharper. Without even really deciding to walk, I’d find myself hiking stuff that I would have easily ridden earlier in the day. The trail cruelly wound back and forth over a hill literally across the road from the hotel where we were staying. The hotel’s sign glowed through the trees. I could bushwhack down to the road, coast over to the parking lot… Quit. Easy. I could be in the shower in ten minutes.

I was felt too lazy to do this. Easier to stay on the course, to wind away from the hotel and up onto the hill. The trail dropped out of the woods and onto city streets not long afterwards, a nice respite. Riding the flat streets past rows of old mining houses that looked just like the ones in my home towns, I decided to get back to Jackson Park and reevaluate. If I still felt shitty then – whenever “then” would be: an hour? two? four? – I would pull the plug. The last loop of 20 miles was supposed to be the hardest of the whole race. Doing that after hours of eating and drinking badly? And on legs that, sure, weren’t actually aching but that were definitely now depleted? A bad idea. I felt mostly sure I would quit. For a second time, yes, much further up the course than I had made it last year. That’s a good thing, right? Maybe the Marji Gesick is just too hard for me. Maybe I need another year or two of training to handle something this hard. Or maybe it’s just not my thing, the way triathlons or open-water swimming aren’t my things.

Ahead I could see open space. I was already coming to the edge of town. Back to trails, and hopefully soon to Jackson Park. I swung around a big corner and found the pop-up aid station, the volunteer yelling, “Soda! Beer! Hot dogs! Pickles! Chips!”

I didn’t want to stop but I needed to stop. “What kind of soda do you have? Sprite or 7-Up?” I was desperate for something to calm my stomach.

“Hmm, no. Coke? Mountain Dew? I have Fanta.” I opened a Fanta and took a tiny sip, acidy and orangey. Another sip. My stomach flipped. I walked away from the aid station and crouched down near a patch of weeds. Another sip, more stomach flipping. Then the painful relief of throwing it all up.

I felt light and clean back in the woods. Not fast but steady. I could not believe that I’d made a deal with myself to consider withdrawing. I hadn’t needed to quit, I had just needed to puke. Jackson Park was a few hours off, according to the volunteer. No problem. I rode up a tough climb, took a wrong turn, and wound up climbing it again. Two hours before, this would have been insurmountable. Now, I laughed. Some other racers came along and gave me directions back to the course. At the bottom of hill, I got turned around almost right away, fatigue, unfamiliar streets, and darkness too much for me. I called my friend Marty, who’d finished the 50-mile race earlier in the day. He figured out that I was just a couple blocks off course, not the several miles I had worried about. As we rang off, he said, “You sound really good, man! Keep it up!”

That was as good to hear as his directions, and as good to see as a pack of riders coming toward me and then turning around. They too were off course. I latched on to them and we rode sidewalks and paths to more singletrack – passing within a block of the race’s finish line, raucous with music and crowds. A few minutes later, I realized the silly cruelty of that course routing: sending tired riders literally past but not over the finish line? Todd and Danny might as well have put up an arrow pointing to the finish area: “This way to quit. Also: food and beer.”

Our little group fractured as soon as we hit the singletrack again. In the darkness and the thin second-growth trees, I could see the bubbles of light from everyone’s headlights. From high points on the ridges – the endless goddamn ridges – I could look up or down and see a string of pearls moving through the woods. Sometimes a pearl would catch and pass me, often on a downhill or a technical Blame Danny or Blame Todd section. Sometimes I’d catch on, often surprisingly on an uphill. Regardless, we encouraged each other. “Nice job, man. Keep it up.” Lied to each other: “Not much further. Jackson Park is coming up.”

Tiny pulls of nutrition drink were staying down now, providing more calories than none, though more would have been better. Hunger aside, I was in a nice flow state, chasing my headlight beam, trying to climb a little higher on the uphills than my legs wanted, trying to descend a little further on the downhills than my nerves wanted. Lean into the corners. Drive my feet through the pedals on the flats. In a word, I was having fun.

A light flashed behind me. Someone running his headlight on that random-flicker setting designed to make you more visible to drivers? Thunder pealed just over my head like every Independence Day firework detonating at the same time. I instantly thought of the volunteer back at the aid station assuring us that the rain wouldn’t last. That drizzle had turned to something more serious. Maybe, I hoped, the thunder and lightning was just a show. Maybe no rain would fall. I heard the rain hitting the canopy leaves a second before it reached me, a spray of huge warm drops. The water splattered the mud off my arms and washed sweat out of my hair into my beard. I licked at the saltiness, savoring it a little too much, crunching the dirt and grit that came with it.

I could not tell how long the rain lasted. The dirt trail turned to mud, too slick to ride on any sort of up or down, and almost too slick to walk. The rocks and roots in the Blame sections were even more slippery, impossible to negotiate. I walked around them through the mucky leaves alongside the trail. I skidded and slipped on hidden rocks. Fell into puddles. Filled my cleats with water.

“Okay,” I said out loud. “That’s enough of this.” A few minutes later, the rain began to let up, trailing off as steadily and perceptibly as if someone were slowly turning off a faucet. Water continued to drip from the trees for hours, probably for the rest of the race. Whenever I bumped a tree – increasingly often as my fatigue mounted – it showered me with raindrops and wet leaves, a bit of rustle and splatter to disturb the pleasant quiet after the storm. Already, the trail started absorbing the water or letting it drain off.

Within a half hour or so, almost everything was rideable again, and so quiet after the din of the storm. I had stop paying attention to the sneezing sound of my rear shock handling the bumps; in the rain, I had forgotten the sound. A flock of birds, or maybe just one bird moving through the brush, chirped at me, so rhythmically that I momentarily wondered whether my drivetrain was squeaking. A raccoon scrambled out of the trail as I approached, eyes beaming. At a complicated trail junction, I turned left, following some tracks in the mud, and had to dismount to hike up a mud-slicked hill. Leaves that blew up the trail away from me turned out to be tiny whitish frogs, hunting in the wet. At the top of the incline, I found myself on trail I had already ridden. I rode back to the base of the muddy hill, where I saw that I’d missed the reflective arrows indicating the correct turn. This time I followed the signs, laughing to myself at my fuzzy decision making.

Though wrong turns meant that my bike computer’s mileage reading was inaccurate, I felt that I could not possibly be far from the second pass through Jackson Park. I checked the time: half past midnight. I had 90 minutes to reach and leave the park before the cutoff. I imagined I could hear street traffic, and imagined that this meant I was getting close to the park. No, the sizzle of cars on wet streets was real. I saw the flash of vehicles’ lights trough the trees, the steady glow of house and street lights. And here was the park, almost deserted, the big tent glistening from the rain.

I rolled right onto the tarp under the tent. Needle was filthy, caked in mud and needles and leaves. I was no better. Worse, since the bike couldn’t be tired. I lay down on the tarp, making my stomach roll unpleasantly toward my mouth. I sat up again, sipped from my water bottle. A volunteer came over. “Do you want your drop bag, 1295?” I told her I didn’t. Everything in it – food, dry clothes, drinks – sounded repellent and useless.

The racers here were a varied lot: a few clearly gearing up to head back out on the last loop, a few clearly packing up to drop out, a few in the middle – deciding. I guess I was in that group. I didn’t need to quit, really. I just had to sit here until 2:00, and then my decision had been made for me. I couldn’t leave after the cutoff. And anyhow 85 miles was a pretty good ride. More like 90, with my wrong turns. I had needed to be pretty tough to do that much, on these trails, in those conditions. Absurd trails. Absurd conditions. I had needed to be tougher than I expected, tougher than I had been before the race, for sure. Just not quite tough enough for the whole race.

Maybe this was good. Maybe I needed to be less tough. Weaker might be good. Maybe weakness, dropping out, was really recognizing limits. Physical, mental, spiritual. Maybe I had gone too far with this whole biking deal. Had gone far enough with it to find a place to stop, right here in Jackson Park. The woods had been lovely, dark and deep, but maybe I had seen enough of them for the day. The night.

All I had to do was sit here on the cold tarp, shivering, till 2:01. Let the volunteers tell me, sorry, you can’t leave. I’d be happy with doing eighty percent of the race. I checked the time on my bike computer: 1:15. Late as hell. Someone had left a pizza on one of the tables under the tent. I had a bite of one slice and had to lumber to a trash can to spit it out. A little spray of vomit came up too. I had puked once in races before, never twice. I was past that limit.

I sat back down. A racer who’d come in just behind me was giving his crew insanely precise directions for readying him get back out on course. Put cream cheese on a bagel. Fill his reservoir with water and add this much nutrition powder. Put this flavor gel in that bag on his bike. Bring him that item of clothing from his drop bag. Help him put this other item in his backpack. He was hyper, eager to get moving again.

A volunteer walked past dragging two trash bags full of race detritus. Another volunteer yelled, “1:30, racers! Half an hour to cutoff! Half an hour!”

Looking at the other racer and his crew, I realized that we were in the same goddamn spot. We were both thirty minutes from the cutoff, not yet dropped out. Not yet quit. I stood up and flexed my legs. They felt good. Not great, but not shredded. Well, shredded from the falls and low branches, not shredded like hamburger.

20 miles didn’t seem that far now. Four hours, maybe five. Moving around dislodged something Marty had said when I called him during my wrong turn in town. “The last loop isn’t that bad. It’s definitely easier than the next-to-last loop” – the one I’d just finished. “The first part is annoying, then it gets easier and better. I thought it wasn’t that hard.”

Not that hard. Though I’d barely registered this when he actually said it, my brain had stored it away and gave it back now. “Not that hard” would be not that bad. Did I really want to sit here another half hour? Did I really want to type “DNF” into my race log? Did I really want to shrug and tell friends back home, “Yeah, I made it to about mile 85, then I quit.” Did I really want to think about quitting for the next year? To have “quitter” hanging over my head during my winter races, just a few months away?

No, I didn’t. Marty’s advice tipped a balance in my mind. Suddenly staying and quitting seemed like the difficult thing to do – the difficult action to take right here and right now, and the difficult thing to absorb after the race, after quitting. The difficult thing to carry around forever.

Going back out seemed easy. All I had to do was fucking get on Needle and start riding again.

The manic rider looked over at me. “You going back out or quitting?” I answered instantly. “I’m ready to go.” I asked a volunteer about the route back to the course. She pointed me toward a gap in the black wall of trees ringing the park. 20 more miles out there. I could do it, one way or the other. I had ridden a bike over a lot of last twenty miles. We only had to get into the woods to have fewer than 20 miles to go.

“Dude, this guy’s ready to go. Get your ass in gear,” the other racer’s friend told him, seeing me standing next to Needle.

“I’m ready!” he said, jogging his bike over to me. “Let’s go.”

A few volunteers and spectators stood at the exit from the park. They clapped for us as we went past, a witching-hour cheer. The trail turned right and pointed uphill. A-fucking-again. Of course it did. The other rider, just off my back wheel, asked, “Have you been riding most of the hills?”

“Some. Not all of them. This one’s fine.”

At the crest of the climb, I looked back under my arm. He was walking up the hill. I pedaled on.

Marty had been right. The first five miles or so was annoying. I don’t recall if any of the burly sections were marked with those damn “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny” signs. Maybe at this point Danny and Todd knew we blamed them for everything. I dismounted to walk up, down, around, over, under. My upper body was so sore now that I would lose control if I didn’t keep both hands on Needle. If I tried to guide the bike with one grip, the front wheel twisted angrily and the whole thing tipped down into me.

Between the rugged sections, the trail was very rideable, and no more hilly than the last loop, or the stretch between the first aid station and the Marquette Mountain climb. I stopped at exactly 2:00 a.m. to take a photo of not missing the cutoff:

I marveled at how much the trail had dried out already. Except for a few puddles invariably located to catch my foot, the dirt was merely tacky now, not slick or muddy. I started catching other riders and even a couple of runners finishing the 100 mile footrace. Some of the racers were riding together, teaming up to keep some speed. I didn’t join them, except temporarily and accidentally, trying to maintain my own pace. I rode some climbs that others walked, thanking them for stepping over to let me through, then reciprocated on the descents when they rode over the junk past me. From the tops or bottoms of the ridges were were climbing, I could see their lights moving in sync through the trees, another string of pearls.

As we rode with each other, we held broken conversations about two topics: the distance to the finish – somewhere around 15 miles, we guessed; everyone’s computer had a different reading – and the location of the “checkpoints” where we had to pick up tokens to present at the finish as evidence that we had covered the whole course. As far as we could tell, the first checkpoint hadn’t come until deep in the race, and had been labeled “Checkpoint #3.” Had we missed numbers 1 and 2, or was this just another way Danny and Todd were messing with us? Probably the latter. I’d visited Checkpoint #2 twice: once on purpose and once in the middle of my longest wrong turn in Ishpeming. Now we were hunting for #1. It had to be here somewhere. There were only so many miles where they could have hidden it!

The string of pearls frayed and broke. Only on the longest straightaways in the thinnest woods could I see anyone else ahead or behind. The trail popped out the foot of a double-track dirt road running straight up what must be the steepest hill in Michigan. No energy-saving switchbacks, no visible summit, no flats halfway up where I could rest, just a drag up toward a TV transmission tower, its red lights blinking robotically.

My legs were aching now. Hard uphill pedal strokes caused a squeezing pain around both knees. Standing on the pedals turned the pincing into burning in my hamstrings. I pedaled up the climb until I could not turn the cranks again. An honorable place to stop. This hill was no harder than the biggest climb back home, the one where I liked to do repeats. I had never climbed that hill after 20 hours of hard riding.

I pulled Needle off the road into the grass and sat down in the grass, knee-high and bowed under the clinging raindrops. The cold water felt refreshing against my butt and back. My stomach growled. I craved a beer, washing down something warm. Pizza or a grilled cheese. Then another beer. I had no beer, just a Red Bull in my bike bag. I dug it out. My hands were too numb to pop the top, so I used my teeth, which meant I only had to tip the can up to get the first mouthful of syrupy goodness.

I drained the can in small sips, each one testing the stability of my stomach. Across the ravine in front of me, I could see some sort of white rectangular shape. Staring, I made out a long flight of steps. I hoped that we would not have to ride back down this hill and walk up those fucking steps. Light flickered below me on the road, a group of racers, actually riding up toward me. I finished the drink and resumed my own struggle toward that transmission tower. I made it to the flat there just ahead of the other racers, found the singletrack, and started back down the hill. Please, please, please Danny and Todd, not those steps.

No steps, just more trail, first furiously descending the hill and then tracing the banks of several small lakes. The waves lapped in a breeze I could not feel. If the trail twisted just right, my headlight shone on the water, a rippled sheet of metal. Then the beam lit up a green shape bulging in the trees between the trail and the lake. I jerked my handlebars away from the thing, almost clipped a tree, overcorrected, hit a different tree, and fell sidelong off Needle into the lake. A cove, really, six inches deep. Six inches of water is deep enough when you’re kneeling in it.

I stood up, giggling and letting the lake water run off my legs. One of my lights had fallen off too; it glowed beautifully under the water. I fished it out and clipped it back on my handlebars. Needle silently reproached my fading skills by lying there alongside the trail. “Notice that I did not fall in the lake.”

Okay. Regroup. The bath had felt nice, really, had washed off some of the grit and grime on my legs. Under my headlamp beam, I could see red where I’d cut my shins and calves. I looked back down the path at the distraction that had caused the mishap: a green canoe, leaning keel-out against some trees along the shoreline. I have crashed my bikes for lots of reasons, never for seeing a canoe in the woods. I laughed again. Absurd.

I stood Needle up and checked my computer. Three a.m., well beyond 100 miles now. Come on, I must have less than five miles from the finish. An hour or so. Maybe less if the trail was really easy and the Red Bull kicked in, maybe more if I had more climbing to do.

Up another ridge, one that must be the last one in the county that we’d hadn’t already visited. From the top, city lights flickered in the distance. Ishpeming. The finish line. Was I at the edge of town? In the center, somehow? A bubble of adrenaline swelled and popped in my stomach. This had to be the finish. The trail wound around the top of the ridge, dropped, climbed. The city lights rotated around me: in front, beside, behind. A car passed slowly along the street along the base of the ridge. Who the fuck is out driving around at four in the morning? Probably someone out looking for a Marji racer, I guessed.

I dropped down off the ridge onto a street, an actual honest to god street. My stomach lurched. This had to be the end of the race. Had to be. I pedaled hard to an intersection up ahead, sensing that a left turn would send me deeper into town, toward the finish. But no: arrows directed me to the right, down more street. Fine; the pavement was luxuriously smooth and fast. More arrows, pointing off onto a footpath into the woods. Okay. More singletrack because why not more singletrack. The path was too narrow and steep to ride. I started pushing Needle. Down the hill came the wobbling headlight of a runner. He grinned at me. “Last checkpoint!”

“Really?”

“Really. See you at the finish!”

I pushed a little further and then remembered that racers had said the last checkpoint was actually an out-and-back. Walk or ride up from the street, get the token, walk or ride back down to the same street. I leaned Needle against a tree and hiked up the path. Nailed to a tree was a bucket with the final tokens in it. I went over to grab one, but it was empty. A scrawled note read, “Ha ha! Go finish!”

Absurd. I laughed at the pointless fun of the walk up and now down the hill. I retrieved Needle and rode back to the bottom, passing the runner. I told him, “Good job, you beast. See you at the finish!”  The path ended at a street. Follow the arrows left, follow the arrows down a gravel trail, follow the arrows right, onto a street running straight toward downtown Ishpeming. I yelped with excitement, pedaling hard down the slope toward the black finish-line arch, glowing under the streetlights. In seconds I flashed under the arch, nailing my brakes and climbing off Needle for the last time.

Todd and Danny were there at the finish line, looking awfully tired but pleased, I think, to see another finisher. Handshakes, hugs, their congratulations, my apologies for being filthy, their apologies for not having any beer left.

Marty was there too, looking awfully fresh. I was babbling, full of swirling energy. I tried to sit down on the curb, but the concrete was too hard on my sore glutes so I stood, paced, chattered about who knows what.

When Todd and Danny moved away to greet two guys finishing together, I dug out my phone to stop my tracker: 114 miles, 14,641 feet of climbing, 22 hours and 54 minutes on the course. I finished in 127th place of 137 finishers – but 63% of the starters dropped out. Next year I aim to be in the finishing group again, but a little further up the list.

Ultra Fun at the Tuscobia 2018

This season’s Tuscobia winter ultra was my best race ever. I was happy from mile 0 to mile 160 with the way everything worked: mind, body, bike, kit, nutrition. Conditions ran the gamut from WTF to silky, but most of the trail was fast as hell, which helped me finish in 21:20, almost three hours faster than my previous best on this course and good enough for a tie for sixth place. I hope this all bodes well for the Arrowhead 135 at the end of January, but even if the Tuscobia was the high point of the season, I’ll be pretty satisfied with my sixth winter of fatbike racing.

I don’t think I am wrong in ascribing some of this good result to regular old experience. Tuscobia was my twelfth winter ultra* and (it turned out) my tenth successful finish**, so I had decent reason to feel, as I set up my bike in the hotel room on Friday night, that I knew what I was about to do. I was even comfortable enough to risk using new gear in the race. Zip ties for the win! My friend Ben Doom, a threat to win any race he entered, watched and lounged on his bed. I had hoped to get to sleep by 10:30 – for my sake and for Ben’s – but that didn’t happen. Oh well. I had plenty of caffeine pills packed on the bike!

My confidence or at least comfort carried over to Saturday morning. I took my time making final preparations, and wound up downing my last spoonful of oatmeal as Chris Scotch, the race director, shouted that we had one minute till the start. I scrambled outside, rolled my bike up to the starting area, reset my GPS unit, and started riding.

The opening miles of the Tuscobia are a flat, narrow run from the edge of the town of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail proper. With a relatively small field of about 35 starters, the pack riding was easy. I enjoyed the fact that each number plate carried both the racer’s number and name (or close to it: “Chris Tassava” in my case, since I guess my full name didn’t fit), allowing us to greet each other by first name. I didn’t catch the name of the guy riding in blue jeans. I wonder if he finished.

True to trail reports and my pre-ride the night before with Jill Martindale and Alexandera Houchin, the trail was hard and fast – a thin layer of snow or ice from being totally bare, and perfect for my Dillinger 5 tires. By the time we made the right turn across the highway and onto the Tuscobia State Trail, everyone had been pretty well sorted. Five miles or so further, the snow deepened a bit, so I stopped to air down from pavement pressure to gravel pressure. I never did have to go down to real snowbiking levels of single-digit PSI, which was amazing and, given the speeds allowed by 15 pounds on packed trail, welcome.

Photo by Dave Markman
Ice is nice, if you have studded tires

Over the rest of the leg to the first checkpoint in a park near the tiny town of Ojibwa, a couple riders passed me, and I passed a couple. I had trouble with the chunder on one of the rolling hills in the town of Birchwood, but judging by the footprints in the snow, so did almost everyone else. I took off my gloves and hat, far too warm for the conditions, and stowed them in case I needed them later. I kept up with my eating and drinking (trail mix and Infinit Go Far, mostly), which is sometimes hard to do when I’m going fast-ish. I slowed down to admire the Chippewa River, which was running low and black, like a ribbon of night sky, and to take a photo of the trail, striped with icy patches:

I’d hoped to get the checkpoint at Ojibwa – 44.5 miles into the race – by noon, so I was very happy to get there at a quarter to 11. I drank a big helping of chicken ramen (in my own cup: organizers didn’t supply any cups, bowls, or utensils this year!), drank some tepid water, and headed back out in about 20 minutes, a really quick stop for me.

Tuscobia is unique in that a half-distance race is run at the same time as the long race. The 80-mile runners, skiers, and riders start at 10:00 a.m. in Park Falls, the turnaround checkpoint for the long race, and head towards Rice Lake, where the bikers in the 160-mile race had started at 6:00 a.m. and would finish 18 or 24 or 30 hours later. It’s always fun and weird to encounter them 80-milers, and my good mood was only heightened by seeing the first 80-mile riders coming towards me a few miles outside the checkpoint. We exchanged encouragements and shouted trail reports back and forth, but everyone mostly kept motoring. The snow deepened here again, forcing everyone to share one four-inch deep slot. I was pleased to be able to do this pretty well, enjoying the way this riding felt a lot like mountain biking.

Occasionally I’d veer into the powder to let an 80-miler have the track, but more often they moved aside for me, which was generous. I waved to Ben as he came roaring toward me on his way to the finish, and later stopped briefly to talk with my friend Mark Seaburg, doing the 80 as a warmup for a far tougher race the next weekend in Idaho. He was his usual gracious self, complimenting my pace so far and telling me that the trail improved drastically nearer to Park Falls. I told him that he’d have to deal with the rut for a while, and some icy sections later, but that after Ojibwa, everything was fast as hell. Fists bumped, we headed out in our opposite directions.

Not long after that, I started meeting the 80-mile runners. So many of them, all pulling sleds loaded with all the required gear that I had strapped to my bike. They cheered for me, I cheered for them, and then I happily rode down the smooth groove packed down by their sleds, happy for some easier riding after six or more hours of effort. I had started to feel a little tired, so I consciously dialed things back. Reviewing my cue cards, I could see I had about 20 miles to the checkpoint in Park Falls, which meant about 100 to the finish – just a century! Very doable. The slower speed also let me enjoy the views of long walls of snowy trees, a sight I always love.

I still hadn’t fallen into my usual pit of watching the odometer on my GPS unit – a sign that my concentration is waning – when I saw the first puff of smoke from the paper mill in Park Falls. Getting close. The town’s old-fashioned silver water tower loomed ahead and then receded on the left, flickering in and out of the trees. How can something so big and tall disappear so easily? Finally, I saw the sign at the head of the Tuscobia State Trail, and then arrows directing me over the streets to the checkpoint, run again this year by the Park Falls Gastropub. I wheeled in at 3:00 p.m., a couple hours ahead of my goal of getting there by dinnertime.

Inside, I ate a grilled cheese and a giant bowl of salty soup, drank a can of Pepsi and took another for the road, chatted with the other racers, and studied the race tracker on a big TV over the table of food. Those of us in the checkpoint were in positions sixth through twelve or so – respectable spots, but far behind Ben Doom, who we could see had already left Ojibwa. He would finish around 7:30 p.m. in a time of 13:27, just shy of the course record but more than three hours ahead of the second-place rider. Ben in fact faster over the full distance than the winning 80-mile rider did over the shorter distance. Not a bad day on the bike!

Goaded a little by the checkpoint coordinator, who told us that we had only a half hour of daylight now, several of us began stirring. I didn’t want to ride with a big group, so I was happy to see that only Jill Martindale was really ready on leave. She and I headed out at four, pointing ourselves at the twilight peeking over the trees. On the forested trail, dusk came fast. I turned on my lights even before we passed the last few houses on the outskirts of Park Falls, or the creepy-looking bar with with its falling-down beer sign. In the gloaming, we met a last few 180-mile riders heading toward Park Falls, including our friend Leah Gruhn, on track for a second-place finish.

Trading pulls with Jill, I relished this moment of exertion and focus, which doesn’t come in every race. My legs are heavy, but I’m not gassed. My stomach doesn’t feel normal, but it’s full of food, and not upset. My shoulders and neck and butt ache, but I can still stretch away the pain. I have many miles behind me, but there are many, many more ahead. And, best, darkness has fallen. As far as I need to know or care, the world ends at the edge of my headlamp’s beam. All I have to do it ride into that spot.

Jill and I had discussed at the checkpoint whether she was on pace to break the women’s course record of about 22 hours. As we rolled out, she was, and so long as we kept our speed up over 6 mph, she’d be fine. I worried a bit about the rutted section where I’d met the 80 milers a few hours before, but the runners had widened and packed the ruts, so we barely noticed it.

What I did notice, in the deep black of the woods, was light, exaggerated by all the darkness. The faint reflection from the numeral on a mile marker glowed like a cell phone. Runners’ taillights – or, often, the Christmas lights draped over their sleds – flared like TVs. Lights on distant houses and garages, even screened by the trees, blazed like fires. And the headlights of cars or occasional snowmobiles seemed obscenely atomic, far too intense to look toward, before blessedly vanishing behind us. After one string of snowmobiles blasted past us, Jill said, aptly, “They sound like they’re breaking!”

Here and there, we paused to eat or drink, to take off or put on some item of clothing, or just to not pedal. We would start moving again after a minute or two, maybe saying a few words to decide who would lead. We told each other ghost stories – the windigo, the Michigan Dog Man – and pointed out things that looked like other things, like the tree that I was sure, until we passed, was a guy waving to us. We really did see an all-white hare run across the trail. I listened to my tires: a harsh static on loose snow, a high sizzle on the compacted stuff. Eyes forward, I could stay in the track by simply listening for one sound or the other. It felt a little magical. The chatter of the tires was my own real awareness of my bike, the Blue Buffalo, which functioned perfectly the whole day.

Assuming that the Ojibwa checkpoint would be pretty busy with runners, we decided to stop at a gas station in Winter, just a few miles on the near side of the checkpoint, where we would also have a wider selection of crap to eat and drink. They didn’t have any of the ginger ale I craved to settle my stomach – now a little burbly after 13 hours of citrus-flavored nutrition drink and trail mix – but we managed to find some other stuff to devour, and I happily accepted Jill’s offer of a squeeze packet of applesauce. I did rudely decline the offer of a guy there – apparently supporting another racer – to pull off my ice beard. Usually I’m good natured about that sort of thing, but this guy had probably been warm and dry all day, and the joke bugged me. “No. Don’t do that. Don’t ever fucking do that.” Sorry for being a jerk, Spectator Man!

Jill and I downed our snacks over a few minutes of sitting by the live-bait tanks

and then headed back out. As expected, the Ojibwa checkpoint was crowded with runners and a couple bikers, but since we had refreshed ourselves at the gas station, we didn’t linger. I did get my glass of ginger ale, which tasted like heaven.

9:16 p.m. and back on the trail, aimed at the finish line, still on pace for the new women’s record time. I flipped my cue sheet to the last page: 44.5 more miles. Now the race was very simple: stay warm, eat and drink, and pedal as hard as possible. After climbing to an afternoon high of about 15º F, the temperature had fallen back to about 5º, with a slight headwind pushing back at us. Chilly, but easily managed. Keep the jacket zipped, the buff tucked in, the hood piled up.

We continued to trade pulls, passing through one small town and then another, dropping down to a scary railroad crossing and then climbing away from it, zipping over roads more frequently than we had in the far part of the course, chatting now and again but mostly just riding. I kept waiting for the sleep monster to slither out of a yawn and dig its claws into my skull – even going so far as to put my caffeine pills in spot where I could find them if I bonked – but the monster never showed up. The only things that did emerge from the darkness

were a couple riders who’d passed us while we were resting with the live bait. One was bonking badly, and asked for an energy bar. I didn’t have one, but I offered him a couple caffeinated gels. He took them, asking, “How far to the finish?” “Do you really want to know?” “Yes.” I told him, but couldn’t tell if he found relief or oppression in the number. I was glad I didn’t feel that bad, and that Jill apparently didn’t either.

It was after midnight already, maybe 20 miles from the finish but a few minutes of riding from Birchwood, the Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin and the last big town before the finish in Rice Lake. Some volunteers there had offered to put up a rest stop for any racers who were coming through overnight. According to the race director, the amenity was partly charity, partly a way to prevent racers from knocking on Birchwooders’ doors at 3 a.m., begging for warm places to rest, as had happened the previous year, when temperatures had ranged down to 20º below zero. I hadn’t done that, but I had rested way too long at a convenience store in town. Though I neither wanted nor needed to rest as long this year, Jill and I still stopped for a bit.

1 a.m. selfie

The volunteers seemed a bit perplexed by us, staring silently as we drank cocoa and beef broth. I tried to eat an oatmeal cookie but couldn’t finish it. Riders and one runner whom we’d recently passed came in to eat and dry their socks.

One rider – the guy who’d asked for the bar a few hours before – left after just a couple minutes, drawing Jill and me back out onto the trail. We caught him almost immediately on a steep up-and-down roller. I chose the wrong gear and had to hike up the far side of the hill while Jill cranked her way up.

From that spot, the course is literally downhill – at maybe negative half a percent grade – for the last seventeen miles, except for a tricky dip at a washed-out culvert near the finish. I don’t think Jill and I said more than seventeen words over those miles, but I did carefully watch my GPS unit, happy to see speeds of 8 and 9 mph. I kept recalculating our finish time, trying to assure myself that Jill would beat the women’s record. By the time we zipped down and up the dip – exactly five miles from the finish – she had the record in hand. We made the last highway crossing and took the left turn onto the straightaway to the finish. Now we just needed to crank our biggest gears past the final new landmarks: a supper club, some driveway crossings, a radio tower, the industrial park, two bridges. Jill pulled up next to me and we decided to cross the finish line side by side. No need to sprint! We rolled over in 21:20 – more than half an hour ahead of the old women’s record.

Exhausted and happy, we collapsed inside the finish line building. I zoned out, then came to and chatted with Jill, race co-director Helen, and a couple other racers and spectators. I’d been dreaming all day of chicken fingers and French fries, but I was satisfied with a slice of pizza and a cup of beer. The new finisher’s hat was nice too.


* Arrowhead 135, 2014-2018; Fat Pursuit 200k in 2014-2015 and 200-miler in 2017; Tuscobia 160, 2016-2018; Actif Epica 120k in 2018.

** I DNF’ed the 2014 Fat Pursuit 200k and the 2017 200-miler.

Blizzard Ride

Expectation, or dread, had built for days here about a big spring blizzard due to arrive on Friday – my birthday – with wind, ice, sleet, and snow. The storm showed up a little late, but by late morning today had started fulfilling the forecast: horizontal snow, clattering ice pellets, a mounting drift in our backyard, a roaring wind, cancelled social plans, and above all gnashing of teeth on Facebook.

It’s been a while – at least a year – since I’ve been able to ride in a real blizzard, so I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity, and luckily both girls had engagements with friends. At one, shivering with excitement, I kitted up and headed over to the Carleton Arboretum (off-limits to fatbikers all winter) for an easy, fun ride in the snow and wind.

And, it turned out, some sleet, which fell for the first half of the ride. But the temperature was comfortable and the wind really only mattered in the open spots. I went slow, taking time to study the treetops for owls, which I am longing to see. I didn’t see any owls, but I did see several red-tailed hawks, including one stalking a red squirrel. I stood and watched for a few minutes, but the hawk couldn’t quite time a swoop to successful nab the squirrel, which eventually scampered into an impenetrable thicket.

Riding on, I admired the gorgeous wintry trees,

looked down at the oxbow in Spring Creek as well as numerous ducks, geese, and two herons

did a little hike-a-bike where the drifted snow was too heavy to pedal

and saw almost no humans – some college kids wandering around, a family sledding, another fatbiker, and a few people downtown at the brewery (including, impressively, a couple who had skied over with their baby and dog!). If this is the last ride of the winter, it might also have been the best one.

Bonus Miles and Flat Tires at the Arrowhead 135

Musing
I think about the Arrowhead constantly, many times a day. It’s been like this for more than five years now, ever since I applied in summer 2013 to race the next winter’s Arrowhead, a fortieth-birthday gift to myself. Maybe I dwell too much on the race – completely voluntary, completely ridiculous, completely gripping.

That winter, my thinking revolved around preparation for and worry over an event that I could imagine doing but had no real way to understand doing. This winter, with four successful Arrowheads behind me and my fifth Arrowhead ahead of me, my thoughts were worry over and excitement for an event that I knew I could do, had done, but that still needed to be done again.

Not all of my thinking about the Arrowhead looks forward to the next race. I also spend a lot of time just remembering the races – before this year’s event, 540 miles and 97 hours of riding (along with healthy amounts of walking and sitting). And I think a lot about the raw fact of having finished the race. My four finishes seem both unreal to me, incidents I watched happen, and tangible, worn like a familiar, comfortable, cherished, and warm piece of clothing.

And yeah, while I have finished the race, a lot of my thinking and remembering runs to other Arrowheaders: riding alongside Charlie in 2014 and Minnesota Mark in 2017, sharing a Red Bull with Wisconsin Mark in 2015, commiserating (in the truest sense) with many nameless racers on the trail every year, trading stories with even more racers at the finish line. The 2018 Arrowhead supplied quite a few more chances to appreciate other racers, one of whom saved my race twice.

Racing
In being my fifth Arrowhead, the 2018 race would also be my tenth winter ultra. If I finished, I’d notch not only that fifth Arrowhead finish but my eighth winter-ultra finish. I’m not sure why, in the months leading up to the AH, I was so hung up on getting that fifth-straight finish, but I was, and I was even more eager to get the race under way. Still, I felt calm – a veteran’s calm? – when after months of training and preparation and my best-ever pre-race night’s sleep, I rolled up to the start outside Kerry Arena in International Falls at the trailhead of the snowmobile trails that would take us to the finish line near Tower, 135 miles away.

The rest of the field of bikers hung strangely back, so I nosed the Buffalo’s front wheel right up to the orange spray-paint starting line, not far from one of the arrows pointing – helpfully? mockingly? – down the trail. Braving the -5º F temps, spectators stood on the jagged mounds of snow that lined the start area – natural bleachers. I bantered a bit with some of the other racers near me – Mark, Charly, Ben – and then we went silent for the countdown to the fireworks that came just before the shout to “Release the hounds!” and the sprint off the line.

By the first road crossing, a few hundred meters up the course, the field was already mostly in single file, a string of red blinking lights. A bit later, Tracey Petervary – three time women’s champion – rode up next to me and commented on how pretty the lights looked when lined up that way. T-race’s comment encapsulated two great things about the race: the way you’re constantly surrounded by beauty, and the way you bond with racers over the weirdest stuff. In my eagerness, I almost rode into a racer whose rear blinky light was barely visible and only weakly shining. As I rode past, I told him that I couldn’t see the light from behind. The sun was coming up soon, which would make all the blinkies irrelevant for nine hours or so.

In the semi-dark, I couldn’t see my bike computer to tell how far we’d gone or how fast we were going, but I was feeling great – easily making passes, easily holding wheels, easily maintaining my line. The trail was as hard and fast as I’d ever seen it, which helped a lot, but so too did a solid taper and good rest before the race – and my excitement at racing again. A few more road crossings, long stretches through open swampy areas, and then the left turn at Shelter 1. The only bad physical sensation I’d had so far was an unusually strong urge to pee, so I stopped to address that need. A big group of racers rode past during my break, rabbits to chase.

Checking my computer, I saw that the Buffalo and I had averaged almost 10 mph over the opening hour – ridiculously fast for us. I caught members of that group within a few minutes, as we moved from the open swamps into thicker forest. Coming up behind them, I enjoyed watching their rear tires kick up little clouds of powdery snow. I still felt fantastic nine miles later, two hours into the race, when I reached the crossing of U.S. 53 and zipped over the pavement as logging trucks approached from both directions. I kept waiting for an ache, a pain, a twinge, a pang, but no: nothing but good feelings in my body, the steady feeling of a good bike, and the sizzle-hum of my tires on the cold, fast snow.

I rode for a bit with Jesse, who was insanely tackling the race on a borrowed single-speed fatbike. We chatted about the cold – still -5º – and the fast track. I passed again that racer whose blinky hadn’t been visible back near the start. This time I recognized her and greeted her and mentioned again that her blinky was still invisible. She stopped to fix it, which made me feel a little bad, since the first checkpoint was just ahead: the Gateway General Store at mile 37, roughly four hours into the race for me.

I rolled right through the checkpoint, calling out my race number and then getting back to the trail. Since I was racing in the unsupported category – carrying all my own food and water, waiving the privilege to go into the checkpoints to dry off or warm up – I had no reason to stop, and anyhow I felt so good I didn’t want to stop. While the first leg of the race, from the start to the first checkpoint at Gateway, is almost entirely flat, the second leg includes some rolling terrain and even a few hills that I’ve always had to walk. This year, the rollers felt faster on both sides of their crests, and even the steeper hills let me ride further up them than I recalled from other races. Pushing the Buffalo the rest of the way to the top of those few hills provided a nice respite, a chance to drink from my hydration backpack (Infinit’s Go Far mix, which I highly recommend) and chew a few calories. KitKats, Reese’s peanut butter cups, salted cashews, Fritos, gels, Clif bars.

I could see my computer clearly in the midday sun, and I could see that everything was going great: a high average speed, a decently low heart rate, the miles ticking by. I stopped at the halfway point of the race – mile 67.5 – to take a photo, but my phone died, so I had to just look around. The trail cut through a swamp, but behind and further ahead were dense stands of evergreens, rising in the distance up one of the ridges that the trail would climb. On the far side of that ridge a few miles later, the trail started dropping toward Elephant Lake, which the race crossed on the way to the second checkpoint, at Melgeorges resort, at about mile 72. Popping out on the ice just before 3 p.m., I could see I was on pace to set a big personal-best time. On the wide-open lake, I could also see that I couldn’t see many bike tracks ahead of me. Even if many racers were riding in each others’ tracks, I estimated that no more than 20 riders were in front of me. Not a bad spot to occupy going into the second checkpoint and then out into the hardest leg of the race.

I came off the lake a few minutes later, greeted a few spectators including my friend Bill, who’d driven me up to the race and enjoyed soaking up the event, and then followed the familiar twisty singletrack trail over to the checkpoint. I’d never reached Melgeorges so early in the race, with the sun so high. The cabins looked, frankly, strange in the daylight. At the top of the steps to the checkpoint cabin, I knocked on the door. A volunteer came over. “Welcome to Melgeorges! Racer 144 checking in at 3:04. Come on in!” I told him I was racing unsupported and couldn’t come in, but that I’d take a couple minutes outside to sort out my food and gear before leaving. He followed me back down the steps and we chatted as I threw away food wrappers and other garbage and reloaded my bags with different stuff to eat. “Okay, I’m heading out.” He wrote the time down and then said, “You’re ninth right now.”

I was shocked. I could tell from the tracks on the trail that not many other racers were in front of me, but only eight? I gave a whoop and headed out of the parking lot, relishing the glow of the high mid-afternoon sunlight on the trees. Each time I’ve left the Melgeorges checkpoint in my previous Arrowheads – last year slightly later in the afternoon, one year at dusk, and two years in the pitch black of early evening – I’d felt a tightness in my stomach. Worry about the innumerable hills, worry about the inescapable cold, worry about the upcoming long night. Worry and some fear about all those certainties and other possibilities: injuring myself in a crash, breaking my bike, getting sick, meeting wolves.

This time, though, I was elated, feeling strong, energized, happy, and eager to hit the hills. I carefully took the turns leading to the spur trail that reconnected with the Arrowhead Trail itself, pedaling hard to warm up again. The trail was badly churned by snowmobiles, so I could only see one or two bike tracks, but no matter. I knew this tricky stretch. Here’s the trail again. Bend left onto fresh track and keep going. Next stop, the third checkpoint, 39 miles down the trail but only 24 miles from the finish.

I rode easily and steadily over some manageable rollers, ups and downs lined by stands of pine, birches, firs, all cinematically lit by the sun to my left. A few tracts of the forest had been clear cut, leaving ugly open spaces and piles of slash. My computer read +5º F, the highest temp I’d seen so far. A few hits of hydration drink, a gel. Where was that first big challenge that comes after Melgeorges – the steep descent, a tricky bridge, and then a monster uphill? Must be up here soon. Around this corner, or this one. Can’t be far.

Suddenly two riders come toward me. Why are they going the wrong way on the course? They stop. #162 says, with the matter of fact tone of the colossally correct, “You’re going the wrong way, man. We’re two miles from Melgeorges. You must have missed the turn after the checkpoint.”

Like a row of icicles all falling from the eaves at the same time, the realization of my error crashes down on me. I hadn’t reached that goddamn hill because I was going the wrong goddamn way. I spit out a stream of expletives. Rider #92 says, in a wonderfully helpful way, “Well, now you can have a second grilled cheese at Melgeorges!” I curse some more and tell him that, actually, no, since I’m racing unsuppported I will instead have no grilled cheeses for a second time.

Fired up with anger at myself, I surge away from them. For a minute, I wonder about the right thing to do here – ride back to Melgeorges and check in and out again? Ride back to but straight through the checkpoint? Simply ride the trail back to the race course? Would I get disqualified for cutting the course? With the certainty of the colossally incorrect, I told myself that no, that wouldn’t happen since I had already covered the stretch I was supposed to ride! No need to do it again.

I cruised back over the trails that I had just ridden, seeing the same trees on the other side of the track. Down the hills I’d gone up, up the hills I’d gone down. Now someone else was coming toward me! What the hell! He pulled up. “Am I going the wrong way?” he asked. I told him he was, that I’d taken the wrong turn and was getting back to the course. He said he’d followed my track and then started wondering if he was off course. He recognized me from another race and introduced himself. Joe and Christopher, brothers in error. He turned himself around and we covered the last few miles back to the course, now laughing about the craziness of this episode.

When we reached the corner that I and then he had taken wrong, I saw that the proper turn was very clearly marked with directional signs and laced with what looked like a billion tire tracks. Certainly, now, many more tracks than the eight that had been in front of me when I left Melgeorges. I checked my computer’s mileage against my cue card and saw that I’d added 11 bonus miles to my ride. Probably 90 minutes or even two hours of riding. Of energy. Of calories. Of sunlight.

But now I was back on the course, and the finish line was getting closer with every pedal stroke again. I’d corrected my error. The interlude had covered great trail in great conditions. And now it was literally behind me. In just a few turns of the cranks, Joe and I reached that steep descent, the tricky bridge, the monster uphill. We walked most of the climb, and at the top I looked back: sure enough the valley was gorgeous in what was now the last light of the day. We climbed back on our bikes and resumed. The pale blue sky darkened to black and stars appeared, one for every tree. I turned on my headlamp, lighting up Joe from well behind him.

We were about twelve hours and 85 miles into the race now. Only the trees knew how many more hours we would need to finish, but the finish line was less than 50 miles away. A hard 50 miles, sure, but I still didn’t feel like I was working too hard, much less suffering. I kept wondering when the really bad hills were coming, remembering from other years what seemed like hours of unbroken hike-a-bike up and even down savagely jagged hills. Though my legs were no longer responding the same way they had to the afternoon’s hills, and my walking was getting more labored, I could still get on the Buffalo and feel good or even great. We cruised over the occasional flat spots, rode the steep descents easily, and zoomed as far up the ascents as we could. About my only trouble was finding easy moments to eat and drink, so somewhere in this stretch I stopped with Joe at one of the trailside shelters to rest for a few minutes, sitting on the dirt floor, drinking some water, eating some food. The racer whom I had told about her bad blinky joined us for a bit. The light still wasn’t flashing visibly, which bugged me since we were in full dark and no one could say when a snowmobile might roar up behind us. I didn’t say anything this time, though. Too tired. Both she and Joe headed off before I was ready to go, and both wound up finishing well ahead of me, she as the women’s champion.

Now alone in the woods, I could feel that the temperature had fallen down into the negative teens. All day long I’d been unzipping and rezipping my jackets, pulling up and down my neck warmer and hoods, opening and closing the vents on my pants. In the nighttime chill, I battened down all the hatches: zippers up, hoods up, face covered as much as possible. I even swapped out the hat I’d been wearing all day – and which I realized with dismay had been frozen to my head – for my down beanie, an item that feels like a secret weapon against the cold.

Adjusting all my gear there on the trail – trees to the left and right; a narrow snowmobile trail ahead, underneath, and behind; the starry black sky above – made me feel ready for the cold and the hills over the twenty or so miles between wherever I was and the third checkpoint. In retrospect I know I was ready because the next many hours of riding and walking passed easily even when I was going slow. I just worked at the hills and the miles. The moon, nearly full, was so bright that it cast deep shadows across the trail. I had to slow down to make sure that a shadow wasn’t a divot in the snow or a tree branch fallen on the trail. The shadows were always just shadows. Sometimes when I looked up, the moon was shrouded by a halo. Other times it hung there alone, a sliver away from fullness. 8 p.m., mile 91, 44 miles to go. 9 p.m., mile 95, 40 miles to go. 10 p.m., mile 99, 36 miles to go. 11 p.m., mile 101, 34 miles to go. Ugh: a 2 mph average over the previous hour. Midnight, mile 104, 31 miles to go.

But now something was amiss. Given how infrequently and briefly I actually pedaled the Buffalo in this hilly section, I hadn’t had much chance to notice a squirrelly feeling in the handling. On one rare stretch of level ground, though, I could tell that one of my tires had lost some air. I squished the front. Nope, solid. I squished the back. Yep, very soft. Not quite flat but getting there. Maybe just a slow leak, though. I laid the Buffalo down in the snow and dug out my pump. Carefully carefully because it was far too cold to take off my gloves, I undid the valve cap and opened the valve, then threaded the pump head onto the valve. I pumped thirty or fifty times and felt the tire – better. More solid. Undo the pump head, close the valve, replace the cap, stow the pump, get back on the bike.

Up and down a hill or two, over another level stretch. The squirrelly feeling again already. I looked at my bike computer. Just after midnight, -25º F. At least there is no wind, I pointed out to myself. I guess it was time to change a tire. I’d never flatted in a winter race, and only ever had one minor mechanical problem – a broken chain that I fixed quickly and easily while talking with a snowmobile-trail groomer outside West Yellowstone, Montana. Maybe this would go as easily!

I laid the bike down again, dug out the pump again, and unpacked my seat bag to find my spare tubes. I rehearsed everything in my head before doing it. Unwrap the tube and lay it in the snow. Lift the bike back up and unwind the rear wheel’s quick-release bolt. Wiggle the wheel out of the dropouts, away from the cassette, free of the chain. Lay the crippled bike back down. Lay the tire down. Undo the valve cap. Open the valve. Bleed out what little air is inside. Press down opposite sides of the tire to break the bead on the rim. Run my fingers under the bead to unseat the tire on one side. The rim is cold as hell, even though my glove. Undo the locking nut on the valve. Son of a bitch. I can’t do this with my gloves. Dig out my multitool. The flap on the leather case barely bends. I open the tool to the pliers. The steel is cold as hell, even through my glove. Pinch the nut and loosen it, then spin it off the valve. Push the valve through the rim. Pull the bad tube out of the tire and throw it angrily away from me.

Halfway done with the process. I stand up, then kneel in the snow again. My knees are cold as hell, just two thin layers of clothing from the -25º snow. Stuff the new tube into the tire, trying to keep it from getting twisted and folded. Guide the valve through the hole in the rim. Run the nut down onto the valve as far as possible. Reseat the tire in the rim. The rim is cold as hell, even though my glove. Open the valve. Thread the pump head onto the valve. Pump pump pump till the tire is firm. Yes! Air! It’s solid. Carefully, with dead fingers, unthread the pump head from the valve. The valve core comes out with the pump head and all the air escapes from the tube in an evil hissing rush. Son of a…

With the pliers, extract the valve core from the pump head. Don’t fucking bend the core! Thread it back into the valve body, tightening it as far as possible. Thread the pump head onto the valve. Pump pump pump till the tire is firm. This now takes minutes; my right arm aches. I’m shivering. Carefully, with even deader fingers, unthread the pump head from the valve. All the air rushes out again.

Breathe deeply. Find something to eat. Eat it. Repeat it all again. With neurosurgical care, unthread the pump head from the valve. The core comes out again and all the air escapes again. It’s now been, what, thirty minutes? More? I’m shaking. A rider or two goes by. If they say something, I don’t hear it, and I don’t say anything to them. I walk around my workshop, shining my headlamp on my useless bike, the gear I’d unpacked from my seat bag, the trees all around.

Take four. Kneel at the wheel. A posture of prayer and submission. I’m barely holding the pump now, but I struggle through the process again and come to the same deflating result. A couple more racers go by. Time for me to decide what to do. Try my other tube? Maybe its valve core won’t come out so easily. Put the wheel back on, flat tire and all, and walk the bike to the third checkpoint? Try to fix everything there, where at least there’s company and a fire? Try to inflate this tube one more time?

I decide to do that, since it’s the easiest of the options. Shaking with cold, I try for a fifth time. A fifth failure. More riders go by. Then one stops. “You need help? A flat?” I look up. It’s rider #162, the guy who corrected my wrong turn. Rider #92 is right there with him. “Yeah. I have everything here but my pump keeps pulling out the valve core.” I’m amazed he can understand me given how bad my teeth must be chattering. #162 digs out his pump – the same one I have. I’m not sure if we’re talking to each other now, but he takes my multitool and tightens the hell out of the valve core, then attaches his pump. He gives it a few pumps before handing it to me. I pump a few times, amazed at how easily his works compared to mine. I tell him this; he says that he uses a silicone spray to keep the rubber components flexible, which makes them work better. When the tire is at the right pressure, he carefully unthreads the pump head. The valve core stays in place. All the air rushes out of my lungs in relief.

As I close the valve and put the valve cap back on, he packs up again, then comes back over to hold the Buffalo in place while I get the wheel back on. This takes the usual jimmying plus extra jimmying due to the fact that my whole right hand feels like a block of ice, but we get the wheel back in place. The Buffalo is ready to roll again. #92 says he’s cold, that he needs to get moving. He soft-pedals away. I thank #162 for what I hope is the hundredth time. He gets back on his bike and heads up the trail.

I had been mostly stationary for more than an hour in the deep cold, leaving me exhausted, but I knew as their blinkies disappeared up the trail that I needed to get moving, to get to the third checkpoint, where I could rest and eat and drink. I packed up my stuff quickly, wrapping the bad tube around my seat bag, then got on the Buffalo and started pedaling. My knees were stiff, cold, achy. My right hand felt distant, as if a new length of forearm had pushed it further away from my body. Sending commands down that long arm into that frozen hand did cause the thumb to press the shifter levers, though, so I knew that the hand still worked in a technical sense. The third checkpoint, sponsored by Surly bikes, was about four miles away – a rudimentary trailside arrangement of a heated teepee, a table, and a campfire.

I have no memory of riding that stretch, but it took a bit over an hour – a slow speed but a riding speed, not a walking one. When I reached the Surly checkpoint, I knew I’d finish my fifth Arrowhead, thanks now twice to racer #162. I checked in at 2:24 a.m., a truly horrible hour to be awake, riding a bike but also a truly wonderful time to be alive, riding a bike. A few racers left the checkpoint in my hour there. A few others arrived and headed back out, including my friend Helen, who was on her way to becoming the first woman to earn the award for racers who complete the Arrowhead in all three disciplines: cycling, running, and skiing. She didn’t even sit down in the half-hour she was at the checkpoint. Soon after she headed out, I decided I was ready to go too, having had a little more food and used the fire to melt some snow to drink, pine needles and all. I also made damn sure to throw away the tube that had caused so much trouble.

After the third checkpoint, the course flattens and straightens out, somewhat mirroring the first leg to Gateway. First, though, racers have to ascend the seemingly longest and steepest climb on the course, Wakemup Hill. I cannot bike it, but this year the walk to the top wasn’t too bad, and ended with the usual amazing view of the lakey forests to the east. The descent off Wakemup is always scary, but then the trail starts its flat, straight runs toward the finish. At the bottom of the hill I knew the finish line was only 25 miles away – an easy ride on most days, a little tougher after 21 hours of racing and those 11 bonus miles.

I don’t remember much of those 25 miles. Before Melgeorges, I’d been looking forward to this finishing leg, which then I hoped to hammer. I was more a nail now, though. I know several racers, including #162 and #92, passed me on this stretch, and made far better time than I did, finishing more than an hour ahead of me. I know I walked quite a bit, both to give my legs a break and to keep from riding off the trail, which I nonetheless did a couple times. I wished I had some company, like the year before, but I was also glad no one could see me weaving across the trail, gagging on a Clif bar, dry-swallowing two caffeine pills, falling asleep standing up. Magically the trail continued to roll underneath the Buffalo, and magically the sun came up right on schedule around 8, lighting the swamps and fields. Subtracting my bonus miles from the total on my computer, I could see that at dawn, I had ten miles to go. I played one of my favorite mind games, convincing myself that even one pedal stroke past mile 125 (or 136) meant that I now had only a single-digit number of miles to go. 3 mph, 4 mph, 5 mph if I stood up on the pedals – even those pathetic speeds wore away the remaining miles. I started crossing roads more frequently, a sure sign of civilization or at least of Tower, Minnesota.

Five miles to go. Four. Three, and now onto the Bois Forte Reservation. I was incredibly thirsty and hungry. I saw the familiar sights of these last miles: the sign directing snowmobilers to Fortune Bay casino, the drooping snow fences separating the churned-up snowmobile trails from thin new-growth woods, a building tucked into those trees. Staring up and to the right, I finally saw the roofline of the casino above the trees. Newer, better snow fencing lined the trail now. As it always does, the finish-line banner appeared, disappeared, and reappeared for good, on top of a little rise. Just as I started to wonder if I could ride the rise, I rode up it and over the last yards of the course, over the finish line. Finish number 5 in 26 hours and 37 minutes, good for 32nd place. 686 miles and now almost 124 hours on the Arrowhead trail.

I remember little of the next few minutes. I think I toppled off my bike, but somehow I got back up before too long. Along with my friend Bill, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were there, having come over from Ely to see me finish. Somehow Jay Petervary, the men’s champion in a near-record time, wound up walking my bike inside. In the recovery room, I peeled off my layers and used a bowl of hot water to melt off my icebeard. My cheeks, upper lip, and right fingers were frostbit – the fingers, by the flat tire ordeal. No matter: my finisher’s hat fit my head and the finisher’s trophy fit in my hands.

AH 2018 trophy photo

24 Hours till Arrowhead 5

Twenty-four hours from now, I should be fairly far down the Arrowhead course, well into my attempt to finish for the fifth time. The race starts in International Falls at 7 a.m. Central time on Monday, January 29. As usual, the race can be followed through Trackleaders, though also as usual not everyone is carrying a tracking device, so it’s hard to tell exactly who’s winning! The Arrowhead’s Facebook page should provide updates on the winners and maybe on other finishers.

I woke up on Saturday with a nervous flutter in my stomach, thinking about an anxiety dream I’d had overnight in which I was racing, but stopping frequently to retrieve weird items from the bag on the front of my bike. I tamped down my nerves by finishing my preparations: packing my clothes, buying a last few food items, testing my stove, and of course checking the forecast. It felt good to check off all the items on my to-do list!

Conditions appear to be good for a fast year, with temps of about -10º F at the start of the race, about +5º F through the afternoon of the first day, and then -10º F or so again overnight into Tuesday, by which time I hope to be near the finish line at Fortune Bay Casino in Tower. This Arrowhead will be my tenth winter ultra race, and if I finish, it’ll be my eighth finish in those ten events. Beyond my goal of simply finishing again, I would love to be able to beat my average time, 24:19.

I had hoped for a a 24-hour finish at Tuscobia 160 in December, though, too, and missed it by 9 hours! I chalked that up partly to a lack of bike fitness (now, far less a concern!) and partly to the extreme cold, which led me to spend a ridiculous amount of time at the checkpoints. I can’t idle at the checkpoints at the Arrowhead, though, as I’m racing in the unsupported category, which means that I have to carry all my own food and drink and that I can’t go into any of the checkpoints to rest or warm up. I finished unsupported last year, but in far warmer conditions.

I’m not worried about getting too cold, since it’s surprisingly easy to stay warm even at -10º (or maybe not surprisingly, having logged about 500 miles of racing at 0º F or lower), but I do need to be careful about food and drink. I’m carrying about 8,000 calories with me. This should be far more than I can actually consume at a rate of 200 calories an hour, but I know from experience that I need a wide variety of stuff to eat. In addition to about 160 ounces of a high-calorie energy drink, then, I’m bringing candy bars, energy gels, corn chips, cashews, oatmeal-peanut butter bars, pepperoni, and even some soup that I can prepare on my stove. I anticipate needing to stop at least a few times to boil some snow into water, as the low temperatures might slushify or even freeze the spare reservoir of nutrition drink I’ll carry in my seatbag. I’m pretty sure that the drink will defrost once I get it into my backpack, but in the meantime I may need to drink some fresh, pure northwoods snow!

Beyond these considerations of food and drink, I’m feeling ready for the challenge. I lost eight pounds after the Tuscobia and haven’t gained them back yet, so I’ll be eight pounds lighter on the Arrowhead trail than I was last year! More seriously, I am very confident in my kit (all the same clothes I’ve used successfully for three straight winters now), my gear (all the equipment that I’ve also been using for years), and especially my bike, which has not failed me yet! Here’s to 135 more miles in the snowy woods with the Buffalo.

1 Week from Arrowhead 5

Monday, January 22, is the start of the last week before the fourteenth annual Arrowhead 135. This year’s race will be my fifth. So far I’ve completed all four of the Arrowheads I’ve entered, and I hope to earn finish number five this year.

Five years is half a decade, which seems like a long time to be invested in this event. As I finish my preparation for the 2018 race (checking the forecast, drinking a lot of water, checking the forecast, packing my gear, checking the forecast, getting good sleep), I am thinking about how naïve and lucky I was in 2014, my rookie year, when the race was run in -20° temperatures. I did the only thing I’m good at – not giving up – and finished seventh in 29:09.

That race hooked me on fatbike racing, and I’ve since raced in eight more long-distance fatbike races: three more Arrowheads (finishing each one faster than that first), three Fat Pursuits (one finish, two DNFs), and two Tuscobias (two finishes). At this year’s Tuscobia, I accumulated my 1,108th mile and 247th hour of fatbike ultra racing.

As those totals (and the many, many more miles and hours of training that lie underneath them) suggest, the winter ultras have become a very important part of my life. The races themselves are highlights of the last five years, and really of my current life. Racing has taken me to some amazing and beautiful and scary places, both literal (Mount Two Top outside West Yellowstone, Montana, or the endless midnight-forest hills before the third checkpoint at the Arrowhead) and figurative (the mind-bent existence of racing for 20, 30, 50 hours straight). The work of getting and staying ready for the races has become permanent – a way of living, I guess. Some of the people I’ve met at the races are now among my closest friends, and many more are great folks I enjoy knowing. (A few, I could do without!) And I probably cherish my fatbike, the Buffalo, more than any other possession I’ve ever had.

With seven days to go till the start of the 2018 Arrowhead, then, I’m reflecting on all this and trying to recapture some of the beginner’s mind that I didn’t know I had in 2014. I want to approach this race with less expectation than the last few, when I’ve aimed for particular results; some came to pass, some didn’t. Too, I want to approach this race with more gratitude than usual: gratitude for race officials and volunteers who stage these crazy events under very trying circumstances, for the fellow racers who make the training and competing fun even when it isn’t, for a body and mind that (partly by accident, partly by intention) match up well with the demands of the events, for a family that lets me engage in this pursuit, for non-racing friends who seem to enjoy following the events online, and yeah for that gorgeous bike.

This year, I’m racing the Arrowhead in the “unsupported” category again, meaning that I can’t use any of the services at the three race checkpoints (shelter, warmth, water, food). I tackled the race this way last year and everything went (mostly) fine. With colder temperatures forecast this year than last, staying hydrated will be a bigger task, since my spare water might freeze, but I’ll carry a lot to drink and be prepared to melt snow if needed. Having competed successfully in three very cold races, my kit and body should be fine at temperatures around 0° F. Even writing this out makes me feel more comfortable with the challenge, and eager to get after it again! Now it’s just the wait until the fireworks at the start at 7 a.m. on Monday the 29th.

Tuscobia Race Report

Last weekend’s Tuscobia winter ultra in central Wisconsin was a tough event, a solid challenge, and, after 33 hours of racing, a satisfying accomplishment – 9th place out of 14 finishers (and 34 starters).

A week out from the start of the 160-mile bike race, I knew that I lacked the fitness to go fast. The night before the race, I could see that the conditions were going to be cold, slow, and demanding. The forecast called for temperatures below 0º F during the entire weekend of the race, though not for much wind (thank the goddess!) and no snow (too cold!).

Since I could not do anything to improve either my condition or the conditions, I prepared for a long ride from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back, packing extra food and clothes and making my usual decision to not give up unless I was in danger. I respected but didn’t fear the temperatures, having thrived in two other cold races: my first Arrowhead in 2014 and last winter’s Fat Pursuit. I’d finished that Arrowhead in 7th place and raced well through the cold of the FP, so I figured I could handle what the Tuscobia was offering.

The start at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday was, as promised, cold as hell – around -15º F – but welcome, too. Once the 30-some bikers in the 160-mile race started rolling north out of Rice Lake along the spur to the Tuscobia State Trail, which runs 76 miles to Park Falls, I warmed up quickly and easily, even unzipping my outer layer within a few miles. As always in these races, the first miles are marked with numerous racers stopping to adjust clothes, to eat or drink, to tweak their bikes or gear, or just to wonder why the hell we were out there. I soon made the turn off the spur and onto the Tuscobia trail proper.

A short jaunt on the trail the day before had been my first real ride on snow all season, but all the usual feelings came back right away: how to read the snow and find the best surface, how to hold the narrow line along the shoulder of trail, how to steer through loose snow, how to gauge whether my tires were at the right pressure for the snow. I got lucky there: I had found a good pressure and wound up not needing to make another adjustment.

I ate and drank as needed, though I made the rookie error of letting the hose to my hydration reservoir freeze, requiring me to bury it deeper into my clothes so it would defrost. I had a HydroFlask full of hot water, though, so I didn’t have to skimp on fluids while the hose thawed. Strangely, I did feel sleepy just after the sun came up, a moment in a race when I usually feel energized. I stopped and drank half a slushy Red Bull – only half because even as I drank, the other half froze solid.

Other riders criticize the Tuscobia for being “boring” or “uninteresting,” and while I can agree that Tuscobia doesn’t offer the mountains of the Fat Pursuit in Idaho or the rolling forests of the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, I love the simplicity of the straight, flat course, a rails-to-trails corridor. You can see up the trail for seeming ever, and breaks in the routine leap out at you: snowmobilers (few and far between in the frigid weather), intersections with roads and other trails, some farms and a few towns (a rarity in fatbike races), the occasional dip in the flatness, and, yes, some beautiful views, like this hoarfrosted swamp about halfway to the first checkpoint:

(Thanks to fellow racer James Kiffmeyer for the photo.)

One strange aspect of the race this year was the lack of animals, even in open spots like this. I saw a few juncos in one town and a big lazy bald eagle soaring near the Chippewa River, a wide black stream that the race crosses not far before the first checkpoint, a stop around mile 45 in Ojibwa Park near the obnoxiously well-named town of Winter. The race actually passes through Ojibwa twice: once on the way out and once on the way back at mile 115, after the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls at mile 80. I had hoped and planned to spend less than one total hour in the three checkpoints, but this plan evaporated like sweat on race day.

As I approached Ojibwa around noon, after six hours of solid riding, I knew I’d need to stop there long enough to completely warm up and dry out. I was already well off my 2016 race pace and I still hadn’t seen a temperature above zero, so I had no reasons to skimp on rest. I wound up spending 50 minutes there, long enough to dry my outer clothes, to warm up, and to eat about a quart of soup.

I admit: I did not enjoy the first few minutes back outside after the warmth of the checkpoint. Though now “only” zero or so, the air felt solid, an invisible block of ice. I pedaled hard up the track back to the trail and then toward Park Falls, trying to warm up. A runner – just out for a jog, not a racer – came toward me, and she gave me a big wave and “Way to go!” as we met. Her braids were tipped with frost. The encouragement settled me back down for the haul to Park Falls.

One interesting and even fun aspect of Tuscobia is that the event is actually six overlapping races: a big group of runners and skiers start the full 160-mile course on Friday morning, 24 hours before the full-distance bikers start; most of them are on the second leg of the course by the time the full-distance bikers start on Saturday morning. And a few hours after we start rolling, an even bigger group of bikers, runners, and skiers start an 80-mile race in Park Falls. The leaders of the 80-mile bike race hit Ojibwa as I was preparing to leave, and from there all the way to Park Falls, I encountered riders and runners (but only one skier!) every few minutes. It was fun to call out encouragement to them and to greet the few I could recognize, like my friends Mark and Tim. I even started to see some of the 160-mile riders on the way back home, including my pal Ben Doom, who dominated the race to win by nearly an hour. He was charging when I saw him, out of the saddle, but still had the energy to give me a shout and hold out a hand for a high five.

The closer I got to Park Falls, though, the less happy the racers looked, though, and around dusk, with the town’s skyglow in the distance, I met a few runners who were out-and-out disgusted. I helped one woman retrieve a mitten she’d dropped and commiserated about the cold with another, but tried to keep my own feelings about the conditions to myself.

I had yet to feel cold, apart from a couple moments when I’d stopped for a nutrition or nature break and the frigid air had wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. Each time, getting myself back underway warmed up everything again, even my hands, which – apart from my face, coated in iced-over whiskers – were the only parts of my body that really got chilled, and then only when I had to take them out of the big, warm pogies on my handlebars. Overall, I was comfortable and happy, pedaling steadily, joggling my fingers and toes to keep them warm, eating or drinking as needed, enjoying the view up the trail.

I did think a lot about why this kind of racing attracts me, when it breaks some who also love it and of course repels so many others. Looking down the snowy trail, I talked to myself about this. Having done eight winter ultra races before the Tuscobia, I was pretty sure that I have some sort of physiological advantage: my body runs hot, keeping me from getting as cold as other people, and functions well while cold. Maybe this is the genetic endowment of generations of Northern European forebears, a result of my childhood in a snowy, cold place, or just a freak thing.

I also think I also have some sort of psychological advantage: I don’t mind being cold when I am cold, and I like the challenge of figuring out how to get warm again, or to function while cold. I hesitate to use the word toughness, since I think that it’s really more a willingness to adjust to the cold, but I do challenge myself by asking – as I did pedaling down the Tuscobia trail – whether or not I was going to be tougher than the cold.

And then there’s an aesthetic component, too: I think that winter is beautiful, and best enjoyed by being out in it, ideally for long periods. Ultras are the best way I’ve found so far to immerse myself in winter and to see if I can handle its challenges.

Dusk was one of those challenges. The sun setting behind me seemed to slow me down, making it a little harder to get to Park Falls. More than once in the last ten miles to the turnaround, I mistook a road crossing or a lit-up house in the woods for town (and once, a tall evergreen for the town water tower), but I really did reach the trailhead around 7 p.m. – 13 hours into the race. A few turns on the city streets brought me to the checkpoint, at the nice little Park Falls Gastropub in downtown P.F.

Volunteers there set me up with food and drink, which I ingested while chatting with two civilian customers who could not quite understand what the race was all about. They seemed confused by the fact that no cash prizes were on offer. I didn’t mention that the main “prize” for finishing is a hat.

After I finished my food, I broke away from them to go up to the racers’ lounge, where I could rest a bit more and dry my gear. While draping my stuff over a chair in front of a tiny little old space heater, I saw that my friend Tom was there too. He and I had ridden together for almost all of my first Tuscobia, so we knew we were compatible and agreed to head out together. Though I enjoy riding alone, I thought the company would be nice, especially through the darkest and coldest overnight stretch of the race.

While my outer layers slowly dried in front of the underpowered heater, I armored up for the night: new compression socks, new wool socks, second baselayer tights and top, a dry buff. I felt unpleasantly plump and overheated while we finished preparing to head out, but I hoped they’d provide the extra warmth I’d need overnight. After a bit over two hours at the checkpoint, I headed out, Tom right behind me.

I was a little scared as we left the checkpoint. My GPS computer showed a temperature that was as low as anything I’d seen so far in the race, and of course the overnight temps would go lower. And while I enjoy riding at night, the cold made the prospect of riding for nine hours in the blackness seem more daunting than usual. The big warm-seeming orange moon hanging in the sky behind us didn’t help, nor did hearing creaks and ticks from my bike, the Buffalo, which had so far run flawlessly. The deep cold slowed the action of my brakes and shifter, making me worry about a breakdown. How could I handle a broken chain at twenty below? I decided I’d handle it carefully. Luckily, I had no mechanicals at all. The Buffalo loves the cold.

Then there were the mileposts on the left edge of the trail. Not every mile had one, but enough did that they both enticed and oppressed: 76 miles to go, 75 miles to go, 74… I had to keep adding the additional four miles for the spur back to Rice Lake and to do the mental math to put the race and our effort in context. At 25 miles, the afternoon before, the race had turned to “only” the distance of the Arrowhead – 135 miles. Just before the Ojibwa checkpoint, the distance had been a double metric century – 200 kilometers or 124 miles. Somewhere between Ojibwa and Park Falls, at 60 miles, the race had become a regular century – 100 miles. As we worked our way to Ojibwa for the second time, we reached the 62-miles-to-go marker – a metric century or 100k.

Tom and I stopped probably once an hour to eat and drink, to break the monotony or warm the extremities by walking for a minute or two, to pee (never have I needed so many nature breaks in a race!), or to just stand and talk for a minute. Once I stopped because I was falling asleep on my bike. When I told Tom that I was feeling really tired, he offered me two caffeine pills. Feeling like a junkie, I accepted them and was rewarded about fifteen minutes later by a magical surge of warmth and energy. I’ll definitely carry my own caffeine pills in future races.

Regardless of the reason, we could never stop for long: the -20º temperatures gripped us instantly and had to be endured for the time needed to unzip and rezip, to tear open a peanut butter cup and stow the wrapper, to swallow a mouthful of water. I’d need ten minutes of hard riding to warm up from each minute-long stop. Every now and then, but less often that I expected, we came on another racer. “You good? Need anything? Keep it up.” We talked a little bit to each other too, but I am not a chatty rider, so we mostly rode in silence. And anyhow my beard had iced up so thoroughly by midnight that I could barely open my mouth wide enough to speak. From our spot on the trail, we could only see a high strip of black sky, but even that ribbon contained thousands of bright stars.

We did talk about what to do at Ojibwa. As much as I would have liked to get in and out quickly, I knew I felt tired and hungry enough to need a real break. How about an hour of sitting down and of not pedaling and of eating and drinking new stuff? Tom thought this sounded fine too, so when around 3:30 a.m. the checkpoint sign appeared ahead of me on the trail – looking at first like a car parked on the trail – we turned eagerly. Inside, we set our clothes to warm by the fire, ate some of the junk food piled on the table, refilled our backpack reservoirs and water bottles, and then accidentally fell asleep. I dunno how long we slept, but when I came to, almost everyone else was asleep too – racers, volunteers, even the race director.

Tom woke up a minute later and we got ourselves moving. While he tended to some last-minute tasks, I visited the restroom, where the toilet seat was rimmed with icicles. My bike computer showed a temperature of -25º as climbed back on the bike at 6:30 a.m. for the last 45 miles of the race. Less than a half century! An easy afternoon’s ride under normal circumstances.

Thinking Tom was ready too I sprinted back toward the trail, out of my saddle and working hard to build speed and heat. When I looked back a few minutes later, expecting to see Tom right behind me, I saw nothing. I soft-pedaled a bit to see if he’d appear, but even that decrease in effort let the chill creep through my clothes. Get back on the pedals, trying to make progress but still let Tom catch up from wherever he was.

Then all of a sudden his lights washed over me from behind. I apologized for dropping him, trying to explain that I thought I’d seen him on his bike as climbed on mine. I think I heard him say that he hadn’t quite been ready, but that he hadn’t been worried or mad either. And at any rate now we were back together for the duration. The sun rose behind us, which helped dispel some of my fatigue and even started pushing the temperature up toward zero.

In the daylight – New Year’s Eve! – I recognized some of the same landmarks I had seen the day before. The Chippewa River crossing, with steam rising off the water. A smaller river that ran alongside the trail for miles. This or that desolate road crossing. This or that cluster of silos at a dairy farm. A sad-looking roadside bar. The scary-fun descent to the railroad tracks near Lemington, and then the grunt climb back up from them. Warning! Trains are moving at 60 mph!

In that magical way that they always do, the miles kept ticking by: the number on my bike computer kept climbing, and the numbers on the mileposts kept falling. Occasionally riding next to me or even in front, Tom said he wanted to stop at Birchwood, the biggest town on the course, for one last rest before the push to the finish. I agreed, both because I too wanted a little more time off the bike and because I needed to call my hotel in Rice Lake and beg them to let me check out far later than planned.

We reached Birchwood – bluegill capital of Wisconsin! – just before noon. A few other racers and volunteers were sitting heavily at tables inside a huge convenience store. I made my call and was relieved to hear I could just show up whenever; no problem. A machine-made cappuccino looked and tasted fantastic. We chatted with the other guys. I ordered french fries that looked amazing but tasted terrible. After too much idle time, we got back on the trail for the last 15 or 20 miles.

The rest of the course ran steadily downhill to Rice Lake after passing over some rollers that would be insignificant in any other race (and indeed that I had not even noticed on the way out) but that today, now, felt like Himalayas. I set for myself the dumb goal of riding all these “hills,” and nearly did – a bad gear choice forced me to walk part of the first one. But then I got back on my bike and started riding again.

The miles remaining were in the teens now, and the temperature had broken zero for the first time all race. As we came to the wetland that had been so beautifully frosted the morning before, a white-tailed deer jumped onto the trail, looked at me with disbelief, and started running easily up the trail ahead of me. It stopped at the far edge of the wetland, saw that I was still coming, and plunged back off the trail into the brush. I could only just see the top of its head as we passed.

We also encountered some other trail users: runners making their own slow progress back to Rice Lake. Tom and I had been seeing them here and there for a while, but now we started seeing more – on some straightaways, four or five of them. Some heard us coming and moved over. Others jumped in surprise when we passed, so deep in their efforts that they hadn’t heard our bikes or greetings. We didn’t stop for any of them, but I tried to encourage each one. The poor bastards would need three times longer than Tom and me to cover the remaining distance.

The mileposts started showing single-digit numbers. I kept adding the additional four miles for the spur, but then even that additional distance added up to less than 10 miles. Fueled by the food at Birchwood, warmed by the afternoon sun, enjoying the oh-so-slight downhill, and now sensing the finish line, we were moving at 8, 9, 10 mph. 90 minutes to go. 60 to go. 30 minutes. Milepost 2.

I knew from my pre-ride on Friday and from the outbound ride that we would shortly reach a sharp, tricky dip where erosion had narrowed the trail. I could see a runner ahead of me. He disappeared, and my fuzzy brain figured that he had gone down into the dip. A moment later I reached the lip of it, and sure enough the runner there, trudging up the far side. I yelled to him and zoomed down and back up, passing him narrowly and getting out of my saddle to keep the speed going so I wouldn’t have to walk this last slope.

I popped out on the far crest and suddenly felt like mashing the pedals. 5 miles to go – half an hour if I really pushed, less if I really, really pushed. I stayed up on my pedals until my quads couldn’t take it, then downshifted to try to maintain the same speed while seated. I heard traffic – cars on the highway parallel to the spur to the finish line. I glanced back for Tom, but he wasn’t there.

I zipped over the highway, turned left down the spur into town, glanced back again. Tom was just approaching the highway. Slow down for him? I couldn’t. I needed to be done. Standing or sitting, I tried to keep my speed as high as my legs would allow. Cars buzzed along the highway to my left. I bumped up and down and up and down over the berms of snow at each road crossing. I noted that I might be able to finish by 3 p.m., 33 hours after the start. A dumb goal, but why not? A junkyard. The city limits sign. And the finish line! I dutifully rode over the line itself and then turned, elated and exhausted, toward the race headquarters. As if on cue, the race director came outside to greet me. A handshake. An escort into the bright warmth of the HQ. Applause from everyone inside. A cold beer. The finisher’s hat. A chair to sit in after 32:57 of racing.

Finished

Racing bikes in the woods

I’ve been floating on air for the last couple days because it’s finally time to race bikes again. After missing two races (and six weeks of riding) with my broken finger this summer, I tried to get back to riding seriously. Though I didn’t log as many hours or miles as I’d hoped, I have had a pretty good last couple months, and feel solid heading into the season’s first big race: the Tuscobia 160, an out-and-back race between Rice Lake and Park Falls, Wisconsin. 80 miles each way, the course is primarily flat, straight snowmobile trails – scenic in an understated Midwestern way. Not for us, those towering peaks out west!

I have done Tuscobia once before, in January 2016, when I finished in 23:38. I hope to beat that time this year. Going under 20 hours isn’t unfeasible, but then again, my lack of bike time this year might mean another 24-hour effort. Other riders have reported that the trail is in great shape, with much more snow than we have in Northfield and enough traffic to pack the powder into a solid, fast surface. The wild card this year is the temperature: forecasts for Saturday and Sunday show a high around 0° F and lows around -15° F, about the same range we encountered in 2016. I’m eager to see how I feel in the cold again, and to get back into that fascinating state of pure effort.

This year the race will be tracked by Trackleaders; anyone can “follow the dots” at http://trackleaders.com/tuscobia17. The full distance bike racers start at 6 a.m. Central time on Saturday, December 30!