My winter of racing ended with Saturday’s Fatbike Frozen Forty race at the Elm Creek trails in Champlin, Minnesota. I did this race in 2013 (my first-ever fatbike race) and in 2014, and found 40+ miles of snowy singletrack to be just a little beyond my abilities. This year I did the race as a relay with my friend Dan, who’s new to fatbiking but is a killer on the trails. Alternating our laps, we turned in some insanely consistent times: Dan did our first and third laps in 1:11.01 and 1:11.02 respectively; I did laps two and four in 1:11.48 and 1:10.39.Not bad, and good for third place out of 13 relay teams! We await our bronze medals.
With half as much riding to do at the race, I was able to enjoy the singletrack a lot more, and even to think, at points, that I am actually getting better at that kind of riding. I only had one serious spill, one of those Schrödinger’s crashes where you’re both vertical and horizontal at the same time. No damage to body, kit, or bike, so it was fine.
Apart from that, I managed to maintain a decent pace over what’s, to me, some very tricky trail: with plenty of tight corners and some off-camber climbs and descents. I even enjoyed Grizzland, the “advanced” back section of the Elm Creek trails, that I found, frankly, terrifying the last times I raced here. I’m not yet smooth as a singletrack rider, I did do a lot less of that herky-jerky riding where I smash the brakes and then accelerate. More flow, more go!
Altogether, I did five races this winter:
December 19: the Solstice Chase (26 miles) in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
January 9-10: the Tuscobia (160 miles) in Rice Lake, Wisco
January 16: the Snow Crush (15 miles) in Faribault, Minnesota
January 25-26: the Arrowhead (135 miles) in northern Minnesota
February 13: the FFF (22 miles)
That averages out to be a race every 11 days, and 358 miles of racing! Not bad. Between my arbitrary first day of my winter training on September 1 and the FFF yesterday, I did 1,681 miles of riding (commuting, training, and racing), an average of 10 miles a day.
Spring, summer, and fall 2016 will be quite a bit quieter than the last eight weeks. I’m only planning to do four races before October. Perhaps most, I’m looking forward to trying to finish two mountain bike races that I didn’t last year: the Cheq 100 in northern Wisconsin in June and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands of North Dakota in August. In September, I’ll do the fifth and last running of the Inspiration 100 gravel race in Garfield, Minnesota, and then the Marji Gesick 100 mountain-bike race in the Upper Peninsula – a new race for me, and probably the toughest of the four. But hell, I have 222 days to train, and a still-new-to-me Salsa El Mariachi MTB to train and race on!
Then the winter will come around again. I am already excited to travel out west again to try Jay P’s Fat Pursuit in Idaho in early January, tackling the new 200-mile option. I’ll also do the Arrowhead 135 again in late January, and I’m jazzed about a new “unsupported” way to race the event, as announced yesterday by the race directors:
How do you make one of the toughest races on earth harder?? We will offer the option to race totally self supported for prior Arrowhead finishers or those with prior approval from Race Director. Unsupported racers will check in at checkpoints but will not be allowed food, water, or time to warm up at checkpoints. Unsupported racers will receive a unique finisher award.
Our vision is that an unsupported racer leaves International Falls and gets no help and stays outside until the finish line. No purchases, no Melgeorge drop bag, no hotel, no food or water from other racers (emergencies would be the exception.) Just stop at checkpoints long enough to register.
With this year’s Arrowhead now complete, I’ve crunched some numbers.
In my view, the big story of the race is Tracey Petervary’s third straight win. With the three-peat, T-race is now the winningest Arrowhead bike racer, female or male. Her winning times have ranged from 27:22 in 2014 (the cold year) to 18:27 last year – just 9 minutes off Eszter Horanyi’s women’s record (2012). (John Storkamp has three wins on foot.)
On the men’s side, Jay Petervary’s win places him alongside Dave Pramann (2006, 2008) and Jeff Oatley (2010, 2011) as two-time champions.
The 2017 race could be interesting simply as a chance to see if any of those three riders can win for a third time or if other one-time winners like Jorden Wakeley (2015), Kevin Breitenbach (2012), or Todd McFadden (2013) can win again. (Sarah Lowell [2007, 2008] and Alicia Hudelson [2012, 2014] both have won twice on foot, and Jim Reed appears to be the only person to have won the race in two disciplines – ski in 2010 and foot this year.)
Here’s a spreadsheet on all of the AH winners: https://goo.gl/lkam5Z
Obsessing a bit about ways that I can get faster, I ran some simple analyses of bike finishers the last two years, basically tabulating the time taken to ride the four legs of the race (start to Gateway, Gateway to Melgeorges, Melgeorges to Skipulk, Skipulk to finish) and time spent at the checkpoints.
The two takeaways are stupidly and slightly less stupidly obvious: first, the fastest racers go fast on the course, and second, the fastest racers spend very little time at the checkpoints.
While the top five men all got to Gateway this year in less than four hours, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Dan Dittmer (3rd man) did the second leg of the race in under five hours (4:13, 4:16, and 4:44, respectively), and only Petervary (5:33) and Ross (5:44) did the leg to Skipulk in under six. (Dittmer was next closest, at 6:25). The flat fourth leg saw a huge accordion effect, with fifteen racers going under four hours, including Ross at 2:52 (the only person to cover that leg in under three hours) and Jill Martindale (2nd woman) doing it in 3:41.
Fast on the bike, fast off it: Plenty of folks – including most of the men’s top 10 finishers and Martindale – didn’t stop at Gateway at all. (Like several others, Tracey Petervary stopped for only a minute). At Melgeorges, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Ben Doom (4th man) spent less than 10 minutes refueling. Eight men spent less than 10 minutes at the luxury of Skipulk, led by Dittmer at 2:00, Petervary at 3:00, and Doom and Pat Adrian (6th man) at 5:00. All told, Jay Petervary spent just 6:00 at checkpoints (about three seconds per race mile!), while Ross spent 12:00 – more than accounting for his three minute gap behind Petervary at the finish. Only seven racers – including Jill Martindale – kept their total stops to under an hour.
Too long, didn’t read? Ride fast, stop quick.
Here’s the full spreadsheet of data for this year’s race, which can be sorted as you might like: https://goo.gl/AZmKJE
For the hell of it, here’s the data for 2015 too: https://goo.gl/oet9TK
For those who’d care to see such a thing, here’s my Arrowhead race on Strava – or at least most of it; I had to reset my GPS unit at mile 9.5 after noticing that it had registered the distance (but not the time) of the drive up to International Falls! Weird.
11. I also need to cut my time at the checkpoints down to under an hour, total. That’s what fast racers do. (Wearing a wristwatch and starting the timer each time I hit a checkpoint was a good reminder to keep my stays short.)
12. Riding bikes often humbles me, but watching Tracey Petervary and Jill Martindale ride away from me in the last leg of the race was humbling, awe-inspiring, and motivating. I couldn’t hold either of their wheels, but my weak attempts to chase first T-Race (who won) and then Jill (who finished second) did speed up those endless straightaways after Skipulk.
13. It’s a question as to which racer was tougher this year: Mike Brumbaugh, who skied twenty miles after breaking a ski pole and then finished the race after using PVC pipe and strapping tape to fix the pole; Jim Wilson, who was the last biker to finish, in 55:28; or Sveta Vold, who was the third-place female biker and who stopped during the race to nurse her new baby and pump milk!
I get several recurring questions about fatbike riding:
"Do you get cold?"
"What do you think about?"
"What do you eat?"
"What do you wear?"
The questions interlock: I do get cold, sure, but not usually that cold, in part because I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m cold or hot and adjusting accordingly. I also spend a lot of time thinking about eating and drinking, and of course actually eating and drinking. And when I get everything just right, I don’t have to think about being cold or hot because I’ve chosen the right clothes, and can think about the race itself, about conditions on the trail, about the state of my body and mind, about other racers, et cetera ad infinitum.
I’ve already thought a lot about the race-day weather. Conditions at this year’s Arrowhead look to be similar to last year’s – around 20°F – though we might get a little snow this time. Given this straightforward situation, I’m going with a very reliable set of clothes that I’ve used in other races and long rides, stuff that keeps me warm and, as important, dry but that is also comfortable and easy to adjust as needed. After I put this clothing on around 6 on Monday morning, I hope I don’t have to think about it again till I’m done!
Layers are key from top to bottom, because they help manage moisture – preventing excessive sweating that could lead to dehydration or, worse, frostbite. In pursuing layering nirvana, I have not chosen much cycling-specific clothing. In fact, only the boots are something I couldn’t wear for any other outdoor winter activity.
The boots are 45NRTH’s Wolvhammer cycling boots – sturdy, warm shitkickers that clip into my pedals. Inside, I wear compression socks inside thin wool socks. (If I expected colder temps I’d wear thicker outer socks.)
On my legs, I wear thermal windbriefs, fairly lightweight Craft baselayer bottoms (super long so they stay tucked into my socks), and an old but wonderful pair of fleece-lined Craft skiing tights. I’ve never had cold legs, so I know this combination works.
On my trunk, I often wear a thin wicking undershirt under a long-sleeved but lightweight Craft baselayer shirt (the match to the longjohns). I may forego the undershirt this year as it’s too effective an insulator for 20° weather. I wear fairly thin fleece gloves, as I usually have my hands buried in the big overmitts called "pogies" that are fixed to my handlebars. I carry several pairs of gloves to have options if one pair gets sweaty or if the temperature fluctuates. (At the halfway checkpoint this year, I plan to change into a completely fresh set of baselayer items: both pairs of socks, windbriefs, long bottoms and top.)
My outer layer is a soft shell jacket by Eddie Bauer’s "First Ascent" line. It’s a fantastic piece of clothing: close fitting but very stretchy, with two deep side pockets and a deep chest pocket, a full zipper, and a huge hood that, pulled up, protects the neck and even my lower face. I also wear a very lightweight reflective vest, to comply with race rules that mandate a certain amount of reflective material – the better for other racers and especially snowmobilers to see you.
Keeping my head warm but not sweaty is a challenge. I usually carry two or three different hats so that I can change out of a sweaty one or into a warmer one. The jacket’s hood is a secret weapon here. I always wear some sort of eye protection – usually clear-lensed cycling glasses, though I carry regular cycling sunglasses too, because even an overcast day can be damn bright on the snow. I wear a headlamp all night so that I can see and be seen, but also in the hours before and after dark when I need to be seen in tricky flat light. Fatbike races typically don’t require racers to wear helmets, so I forego that too, which makes regulating my head temperature a lot easier.
Though all this stuff is expensive, it’s all very effective at keeping me warm and dry and therefore safe. And I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I didn’t pay full retail for a single one of these items, except the boots, which I bought with a bonus a couple years ago.
Last weekend, I finished the Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon along the Tuscobia State Trail in northwestern Wisconsin – my fifth winter ultramarathon. I placed 12th out of 29 finishers (25 men and 4 women) in a time of 23:38. I had a great, brutal, wonderful time riding my bike in the woods.
I’d been looking forward to Tuscobia for a while, having heard from other fatbikers that it’s low-key, well run, and straightforward. Many other racers use it to tune up for the Arrowhead 135, always held three or four weeks later. I hadn’t ever done that, but when I decided last fall that I couldn’t spend the time or money to go out to Idaho to race the Fat Pursuit again, I was pretty happy to be able to register for the Tuscobia instead.
In two ways, the 2016 race was a new event. For the first time, the full-distance race ran from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back (rather than from P.F. to R.L. and back). With the start/finish in Rice Lake, the course was lengthened by four miles at each end to take advantage of a flat, straight four-mile spur trail connecting Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail. Race HQ was a no-nonsense community building with a back yard abutting that spur.
I rode that spur trail the day before the race, getting a sense of snow conditions and stretching my legs midway through a very pleasant day of travel and prep. The mandatory gear check that afternoon felt pretty casual, perhaps because I’d done gear checks four previous times. Some of the rookies looked awfully nervous as race officials scrutinized their required gear. I tried to stay relaxed by chatting with other racers, drinking water, and thinking about my race strategy. I was aiming for an 18 hour finish, but I was prepared for a 24 hour ride.
After passing the gear check, I had a quick dinner with my friend Ben, attended the race meeting to pick up any last-minute intelligence on the course (such as a warning about a dangerous spot on the trail), and then went back to the hotel to pack my bike, which as luck would have it I could do while hanging out with Ben.
Six hours of restless sleep – full of nervous dreams about racing and especially about missing the start of the race – ended at 4 a.m. I dressed, nibbled on some high-calorie food, and got myself over to the start in plenty of time to finish some last-minute tasks like attaching my sleeping bag and pad (both mandatory pieces of gear). I couldn’t fit my bike into my rental car when fully assembled, see! As always, I got a little bit high from the way the Buffalo looks when ready for a race:
Just before 6:00 a.m., the 44 bikers tackling the full 160-mile distance formed up outside in the starting area. My thermometer showed the temperature as being 10° F, which is pretty much an ideal race temp. After a few more words from the race director, we were let loose with a hearty shout of “Go!”
Over the four-mile run north out of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia State trail, the pace increased from easy to manageable to fast, but I hovered around tenth place, near enough to see the leader if I stood on my pedals. I relished finally racing: the squeak of tires on the snow, the breathing of other racers, occasional calls as one person passed another, the warm yellow glow of headlights and the unpleasant red blinking of tail lights – by rule, two on the back of every bike.
When we made the right-hand turn that took us over a highway and onto the Tuscobia trail proper, the speed went through the roof, stretching and then breaking the line of racers. I monitored my speed on my computer so that I didn’t get sucked into chasing racers that I’d never catch. Soon enough the leaders came back to me and we traveled along together for a few more miles.
As we headed east, my sleeping pad started to slide upwards, catching the bottom half of my headlight’s beam and reflecting the light back at me in an irritating way. Too, the tire pressure that had served me well over the first 5 or 10 miles was proving too hard for the softer, less heavily ridden snow that we were now on. Earlier than I would have liked, I pulled aside to adjust the pad (folding it in half and strapping it further down) and let quite a bit of air out of my tires. Though as always I second-guessed the new pressure with pretty much every pedal stroke for the next few miles, it turned out to be just right; I didn’t have to tweak it again.
Back on the bike, I could see the sun gradually illuminating the sky in front of me – or at least what of the gray sky I could see above the near-tunnel of trees. Around then, another racer caught up to me – Tom E., a guy with whom I had shared a table at the gear check. We said our hellos and decided without really deciding to ride together for a while, trying to find the right lines in the softer snow. We’d spend the next 22 hours within ten feet of each other, sharing the race and the experience.
Racers say of the Tuscobia that the trail is flat and straight, which some complain is “boring” – a quality that’s amplified, for some, by the unusual out-and-back format. You see everything twice, and “everything” is pretty much just a straightaway through the trees.
I’m a big believer in the grandmotherly maxim that only boring people get bored, so I’d been looking forward to this “boring” quality of the trail. I love out-and-back courses, and do quite a bit of training on them, enjoying the way they turn this uphill into the downhill, or that left-hander into this right-hander, or flip-flop the scenery so the big red barn that was on the left going out is on the right coming back. Very simple pleasures.
The Tuscobia was no different. Talking with Tom about this and that and the other thing, I soaked up the view in front of us, occasionally glancing to the sides if we passed over a river or through a swamp or crossed a highway. The low ridges of snow along the edges of roads were nearly the only bike-handling challenges. The landscape was very much like the low rolling woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I grew up, or in northern Minnesota, where the Arrowhead is held – and very unlike the spectacular mountain forests in the Idaho of the Fat Pursuit course. I loved it all, even the little towns that were usually nothing more than a convenience store, a bar, and a few houses: Brill, Birchwood, Wooddale, Couderay, Radisson, Ojibwa. These names seemed familiar, akin the names of little towns elsewhere in the state that my family drove through on the way from the U.P. to Minneapolis or Green Bay.
The race’s first checkpoint was just past Ojibwa, an old stone cabin in a city park. The ride from the Ojibwa city limits sign to the park seemed painfully long, but we hit the checkpoint just before 11 – five hours and 45 miles into the race. At that 9 mph pace, we’d finish in about 18 hours – my target time.
Though we didn’t have a real plan for the checkpoint, Tom and I were pretty efficient at Ojibwa: checking in with the timekeeper, drying wet clothes in front of the fireplace. I melted off the day’s first icebeard so that I could eat and drink better. Soon enough, we were good to go, and checked out after 40 minutes inside. Tom started back toward the trail, then nearly took a wrong turn onto the driveway that led from the park to the highway. Calling to him, I led us back to our trail, laughing as explained that he’s just too used to riding on the road.
The leg from Ojibwa to the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls was 34 miles, a solid ride under any circumstances and tougher thanks to an insistent headwind and a steady increase in elevation – nothing alpine, for sure, but plenty of false flats. Just after the checkpoint, we passed through more little towns – Winter, Loretta, Draper – before the emptiest part of the ride, a big, silent expanse of state forest interrupted only a few creek crossings and a bit of riding next to the highway. The snow thinned, and we even rode on short stretches of gravel here and there.
As we pedaled, Tom and I chatted. He talked about his experiences as a long-distance road rider, doing brevet rides of 300 and 600 and 1200 kilometers, including the famous Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée that’s held every four years in France. He also told me about his ride over the summer of the full Tuscobia trail, which gave him a nice sense of where we were and what we were approaching. Usually riding in file, we occasionally rode side by side and stopped about once an hour to eat something, adjust our clothes, or take a leak. I took every chance to stretch my back, which was tightening up as we rode, paining me especially on uphills.
What was new was race traffic. First, bikers doing the 80-mile half-distance race came through. The fast guys zoomed by while middle-the-pack riders approached more slowly, traveling more at our pace, and exchanged friendly calls and waves. Then the runners started coming, endlessly, pulling their sleds. Some were actually running, most were walking energetically, and a few were barely moving, even though they were only a third of the way into their races. We even met a couple skiers, who were standing at the bottom of one of the course’s only hills, waving their poles and cheering madly for those of us going in the other direction. Mixed into the short-event racers were the leaders of the 160-mile bike race. They appeared up the trail, closed on us with shocking speed, and then whooshed past. I waved to my friend Ben, riding alone in second position, and greeted the other guys in the top 5 or 10 as they came by in a small group.
The race traffic thinned again as we approached Park Falls. I knew from my cue sheets and from common sense that we’d start crossing roads more frequently as we neared Park Falls, but dammit, not all the roads were signed where we crossed them, or they had a name that didn’t jibe with my cues. Still, my computer told me that we were getting close: 75 miles. 75.5 miles. 76. 76.5. Where the hell was that town? We saw the silvery water tower, which then disappeared as the trail curved. Finally, we could see something that wasn’t trail ahead of us – a trailhead sign! We sped up and popped out with relief onto the city streets. A few turns later, we pulled in at the checkpoint, a Catholic school which had given its cafeteria over to the race. I leaned the Buffalo up against the wall to unpack some stuff I’d need inside: an energy drink, a change of clothes, fresh batteries for my headlamp.
By no means plush, the cafeteria was comfortable – too much so, it turned out. Amazingly and (in retrospect) dismayingly, Tom and I spent a full 80 minutes there – eating soup and pasta and grilled cheeses, resting our legs and stretching my back, drinking soda and coffee, chatting too much with each other and with other racers (including my friend Mark S.), changing our wet clothes, swapping new batteries into my lamp. It felt great to put on fresh, dry clothes and to see that my headlamp would be nice and bright when the sun went down again, but had I been watching the clock, I would have tried to get us, or at least myself, moving sooner than we did. Lesson learned, at least for the next race.
We finally headed back out at 5:20, with the sun already gone. I got a little thrill from seeing that we would be riding in the dark again – “already,” it seemed. Riding the Buffalo in the dark is one of my favorite things, and here I was, literally in the middle of a big race, about to do just that thing for another 10 or 12 hours.
Weaving over the streets back to the trail, I checked my thermometer. As forecasted, the temperature had dropped all day, and was now at a nice round zero. I’d put on thicker layers inside, so I felt ready for that temp, and for the even colder temps that we’d have overnight – all the way down to minus 10 or 15.
When we hit the trail, I couldn’t help myself, and stomped on the pedals. I wanted to go. Behind me, I could sense Tom’s headlight fading, and then he called for me to sit up, not ready yet to go so fast. With 80 miles to go, I was okay with that, so I pulled back a little. This yo-yo’ing occurred on and off throughout the rest of the race, but I was fine with going at about 80% of my maximum. We had a long way to go, riding with someone – especially overnight – is nice, and making the race take longer would, I hope, have a good effect on fitness for the Arrowhead.
The trail was the same, but different. What had been on the left was on the right. What had been steady uphills were now steady downhills. Or, no, wait. They weren’t downhills. They’d somehow become regular flats. Signs we had read as we approached P.F. – like the ubiquitous ones reading “Dip” that marked literally every bit of uneven terrain – were now just silver shapes on posts, and ones that had been silver shapes were now legible. The trail mileage markers now counted down, though I had to remind myself to add four to each number to account for the spur back to Rice Lake.
The big difference was that the trail that had been lit by gray light all day was now a black tunnel – my favorite view, equal parts scary (what’s up there?) and comfortable (the trail is up there!). The abyssal blackness was punctured by our headlights, which lit up a nice cone to help stay in the track other racers had worn into the snow. I had decided at the halfway to use my Princeton Tec Apex headlamp rather than my handlebar-mounted headlights. The headlamp has a big sentimental value (I won it at the first Fat Pursuit), but I also like the way the beam, cast from my head rather the handlebars, lights up a wider patch of trail. And since the lamp is on my head, I can shine it off to the sides of the trail to light up that mountain lion that’s waiting to pounce. Oh, no, that’s just a snowy log. I think.
The black trail was also intermittently broken up by the blinking tail lights of a few runners whom we were now catching – some 160-milers and lots of 80-milers. In the blackness, the blinkies were visible from a mile away, which created many opportunities to chase, not that it’s difficult for a cyclist to catch someone walking. More difficult and more satisfying to catch was a group of four cyclists who had left Park Falls in the half hour before we did. We exchanged encouragement as we went by.
These spurts of motivation helped shorten the 34 miles from Park Falls back to the Objiwa checkpoint. Though Tom and I were hardly talking anymore – just a few words now and then about mileage or time – we still stopped a couple times to have a snack and a drink and adjust clothes. I tried to work my back loose, too, and needed both on and off the bike to shake my hands back to life. Thanks to the cold and a recent tweak of my handlebar position, my palms and pinkies kept falling asleep. I pondered how to correct this for the Arrowhead.
We couldn’t quite reach Ojibwa in one push, deciding out of hunger and thirst and tiredness to swing off the trail in the little town of Winter (aptly named!) for some nourishment at the gas station there. I leaned the Buffalo up against three massive ice cooler and went inside to let my stomach identify its needs. My icebeard alarmed the clerks who gamely sold me some orange juice, which looked so incredibly good in the cooler and tasted even better. The two skiers who’d earlier cheered madly for us were there too, having dropped out of the race. They liked my icebeard, and asked me to pose for a picture with them. I really want to see that picture.
Though I don’t think we stayed too long, we probably did stay too long before wheeling back out onto the trail, especially since Ojibwa was only five miles away – well under an hour of riding. The distance was wearing on us, and my thermometer was now showing five degrees below zero or so now, which meant for the first time meant that the air felt bracing, even unpleasant.
Within the hour, we came on the reflectors that marked the trail down to the checkpoint. I hadn’t taken a photo of the trail since my early-morning shot, so I paused as Tom headed in to take a murky picture of the trail leading on toward Rice Lake and the finish.
The Ojibwa checkpoint had been tidy and energizing when we hit it on the way out, but now, after about 12 hours of solid operation, the atmosphere was different. Racers and volunteers packed the place, first of all, with a group of French-Canadian runners occupying the prime spot in front of the fireplace. The food tables were in disarray, having been attacked by waves of racers since the morning, and the volunteers were working hard to supply everyone with soup, hot water, pancakes, oatmeal, and other warm stuff.
Tom and I chowed down and thawed out and bitched with less and less good nature about the fact that everyone seemed to be forgetting to close the cabin’s giant swinging door. I pulled hunks of ice out of my beard and tossed them into the fireplace. I did a round of back stretches in a bit of open space on the cold floor. We chatted a little bit with other racers about how things were going for them. Opinions were mixed. The lead woman looked disappointed as she messed with her tire. She headed out soon after we arrived, back to the race, I thought. I learned later that she’d dropped out. Gradually the crowd thinned and we realized that we needed to get moving too. We checked out, appallingly, after another 80 minutes of stoppage – the same amount of time we’d spent at Park Falls.
We rolled out just before 11 p.m., with the last 45 miles staring at us out of the dark woods. We knew that the leg to the finish would be tough, and we were pretty much silent, focusing on the effort we needed to make. We’d agreed again that we’d stop every hour or so to drink and eat, which I understood to mean that we would not stop anywhere else if we could help it.
I was in front, as usual, listening for Tom’s tires and watching for his lights behind me. I’d occasionally have to sit up to keep him close; at other times, we’d come up alongside me for a bit, joking a couple times about my tail lights’ obnoxious blinking. I could understand that, even as I was getting foggy from about 18 hours of work.
Surprisingly, the witching hour was not as empty as I’d expected it to be. Soon after Ojibwa, we passed the same group of four riders that we’d caught as we approached Winter. They were still traveling together, a nice little team that cheered as we went through. I was surprised that they didn’t stick to us, but within just a minute or two of catching them, they were behind us again, for good.
We didn’t find any other cyclists on the trail. Instead, we regularly came up on runners who were working their way back to Rice Lake too, including that group of French-Canadians, who took up all of the trail and only moved aside with sluggish surprise. They were a tired bunch. A few runners’ lights were turned off, or burned out, so we didn’t know they were there until we were almost literally on top of them. Moving without illumnination was strictly against the race rules, but what could we or they do?
Most of the time, we could see the runners from hundreds of yards behind thanks to their blinkies or their reflective vests. As fatigue settled into my brain, these spots of light started to play tricks. At one point, I saw a red ribbon hovering over the trail that turned out to be two pairs of blinkers on sleds behind two runners who were walking next to each other. At another place, my eyes told me that a car was parked on the trail. I could see the running lights! I knew it couldn’t be a car, and sure enough, the mirage turned out to have been created by solid red lights and reflective panels on the sleds of two runners who were standing at the edge of the trail.
I tried to call out encouragement to the other racers with a voice that was getting hoarse and slurred with tiredness and cold. I could feel a big icebeard growing on my face, and when I glanced down, I could see the rounded shapes of ice under my nose. I was having a hard time focusing on my cue sheet, too, but I knew we were approaching a railroad crossing that my friend Minnesota Mark, a very experienced ultramarathoner, had warned me about. Though the crossing had been a straightforward down-and-up bit in the daylight, I was a little worried about it in the dark. I didn’t want to hit the rails at the wrong angle and crash on them, to miss the noise and light of an approaching train and ride into its path, or – perhaps worse – to get stuck waiting for a train as it passed or idled. I focused whatever energy I had at that point on this tiny little bit of the race: looking and listening for a train, setting my bike straight down the trail so I’d cross the rails perpendicularly, plunging down the descent, getting up off the seat to ride over the rails as smoothly as possible, and then grunting up the other side. We stopped at the top of the incline for a drink and a snack and a photo of the ominous warning sign. 29 miles to go.
Those 29 miles are mostly lost to me. I remember not catching any more runners or riders. We were alone out there, pedaling down the trail at 7 or 8 mph – 9 if we were on a downhill. I remember watching the elevation reading on my computer, then trying to figure how many feet we still had to lose before Rice Lake. Of course, I couldn’t remember Rice Lake’s elevation( 1,148 feet), so I my arithmetic was futile, just something to occupy the brain. I remember needing to stop a few times to stretch my back, which was stubbornly tight, verging here and there on spasm. I remember talking now and again with Tom about the mile markers, and trying to remember to add the four extra miles to them so that I had an accurate distance to the finish. I remember being disturbed by how drunk I sounded when I tried to let Tom know that the roads we were crossing were clear of traffic. I remember my thermometer showing a temperature of minus 20. I remember seeing a SUV alongside the trail in one of the last towns on the trail, with a couple racers sitting in back. I remember a guy yelling and waving to us as we cruised through another town. I remember thinking that the bars and restaurants looked awfully sad at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. I remember at one point starting to weave from side to side on the trail, falling asleep on the bike. I stopped immediately to down a caffeinated gel, which chased the fatigue just enough to let me ride straight lines. I remember trying to calculate from the display on my GPS how many minutes we needed to go a mile, and failing.
Somehow my legs didn’t stop turning, and nothing on the Buffalo stopped working, and we covered the miles. I had to slow way down to negotiate the bumps along the highway that marked the end of the Tuscobia trail and the start of the spur trail to Rice Lake. Turning my handlebars to make that left turn felt monumental, but then we just had four miles. Tom was right behind me as we made this last push, jostling over the frequent road crossings. Finally, far far far ahead I could see a blinking light – a runner? a rider? No, a tail light on a sign at the finish line. The anticlimax was fitting: no banner, no clock, no spectators, not even a timekeeper. We rolled over the line at 5:41 a.m., leaned our bikes up against the wall of the community building, and went inside to announce ourselves to the two volunteers who were recording finishes.
The hall was full of racers, every one of them asleep in their sleeping bags. The indoor warmth and light made me feel nauseous. Before I started shivering violently, I let one of the volunteers take my picture, needing to record the icebeard:
Gradually I warmed up and stopped shivering. I might have had some water or a snack. When I felt reasonably whole, I said goodbye to Tom, whom I’d see soon at the Arrowhead, and rode my bike a few more yards back to the car. I managed to load the bike into the car without too much trouble and to drive the deserted streets back to my hotel. There I took a shower and a nap before meeting Ben – who’d finished second, in 15:47 – for breakfast. It had been an amazing 24 hours.
I’ve been lucky to be able to ride on snow every day since we came back from our Christmas trip to Moorhead. We arrived home on Monday about an hour before the forecasted snow arrived. About 24 hours of steady snowfall transformed the landscape and created some excellent riding conditions.
Monday night, a short jaunt through the local MTB trails.
Tuesday, 7 hours and 58 miles of tough grinding on the snowy gravel, including some hike-a-bike and a couple crashes.
Wednesday, just a commute to work, but with a little extra riding for fun.
Thursday, New Year’s Eve, a nighttime ride on the MTB trails and a stop for cocoa when it was midnight in Amazonian Brazil.
Friday, New Year’s Day, a fun outing on some of the snowmobile trails outside of town.
Saturday, after loading the bike with most of my race kit, another cruise on different snowmobile trails.
Roster day is my fourth most-favorite day in the annual Arrowhead cycle:
5. Submitting my application each year.
4. Seeing the next race roster.
3. Seeing all the Arrowheaders on the Sunday before the race.
2. Starting the race.
1. Finishing the race.
After following the AH for about five years, having now raced it twice, and looking forward to a third attempt in January, I found this year’s roster especially interesting.
First, according to my review of the bike results from 2005 to the present, nine riders who finished on the podium in previous years will be racing again in January – six men and three women:
Jason Buffington (Minnesota; 2nd in 2011 but skiing in 2016)
Dan Dittmer (Minnesota; 3rd in 2011 and 2012)
Charlie Farrow (Minnesota; 2nd in 2009
Leah Gruhn (Minnesota; 3rd in 2012, 2014, and 2015)
Todd McFadden (Minnesota; 1st in 2013 and just 2s out of 3rd in 2015)
David Pramann (Minnesota; 2006: 1st in 2006 and 2008; 3rd in 2007 and 2010)
Jay Petervary (Idaho; 1st in 2014, 3rd in 2015)
Tracey Petervary (Idaho;1st in 2014 and 2015; 2nd in 2012)
Svetlana Vold (Minnesota; 2nd in 2015)
(I welcome corrections to this list!)
Second, none of the Alaskans who have reached the podium at the AH in previous years are apparently coming back to race this year: Jeff Oatley (1st in 2010 and 2011, 2nd in 2013), Heather Best (1st in 2011), Kevin Breitenbach (1st in 2012, 3rd in 2013), Tim Berntson (2nd in 2012 and 2015), Peter Basinger (2nd in 2010).
Third and interestingly, last year’s winner, Jorden Wakeley (Michigan), isn’t coming back to try to defend his title. (Or at least, he isn’t yet.)
In other words, the bike race seems pretty wide open! Place your bets anytime over the next 96 days. (Odds are very good that it’ll be snowy, somewhat less good that it’ll be super cold.)
Going out with my fried Galen to the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands near Medora, North Dakota, I figured I’d be in for a tough race. I expected the weather to be hot and the singletrack trail to be as challenging as the trails at the Chequamegon 100 in June, and I also knew that – thanks to a busy summer that ate up my usual time to ride – that I wasn’t in the very best shape for riding.
By then, a damaged derailleur had been keeping me out of my two climbing gears for a couple hours, my legs were empty, the temperature had risen to a furnace-like 100° F, and I had just started the third leg of the race, which included the most and hardest climbing. I hate quitting, but the call was a good one. Turns out, 70% of the competitors in the long race did the same thing. The race video says that the MDH is “the raddest race in the baddest place,” but you could flip those adjectives around and summarize the event just as accurately.
So while I didn’t finish, I’m eager to try the race again next year with better training, a better race plan, and a bike that’s better suited to the trail. (My sincerest apologies to the Buffalo, but this isn’t your thing.)
In the meantime, I’m going to savor the experience and especially the amazing scenery. I’d never been to the Badlands, and I found them jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sitting on a bike seat always makes a view at least twice as good. The coolness started before the start, when race director extraordinaire Nick Ybarra quoted a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt (a local hero in western North Dakota, where he ranched before going into politics back east):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This was an inspiring way to wait for the gun, looking west toward a nearly-full moon setting behind the buttes.
The first few miles were rolling and slow as the field separated. I stopped at one point to admire the last glimpse of the moon before it disappeared behind the buttes.
Not long afterwards, we started up a long switchback climb, one that other riders had promised would take 15 or 20 minutes – two or three times longer than the longest climbs here in southern Minnesota. A film crew was shooting the race from a helicopter that zoomed deafeningly up and down the course, and the chopper hovered overhead for a few minutes to get what must be gorgeous footage of the glinting line of riders zig-zagging up the side of the hill.
The Buffalo’s new X1 gearing was more than up to the ascent, which ended in a fast, fun section of prairie singletrack – much more familiar terrain, though our prairie here doesn’t end in sheer 100-foot dropoffs.
For the next while, the trail swooped up and down, always following the tall 4×4 posts that marked the trail. The high prairie sections were frequently interrupted by cattle gates: heavy metal gates that had to be swung up and out of the way, then dropped with a huge clang after passing. Not a part of Midwestern riding!
These flat, fast sections all eventually dove down into the arroyos that created the real drama of the race. Some of this drama was visual – stunning overlooks and amazing moments like when I riding west with the rising sun behind me, then turned sharply left away from a ravine. My shadow momentarily leapt out from beneath me so that my head was fifty feet away on the far wall of the ravine. Breathtaking.
The arroyos also created physical drama. They were often full of evergreen shrubs that the climate assured would never be trees but that smelled wonderful anyhow. We could ride down into and up out of most of the arroyos, but not all of them: one had such steep walls that we had to skid down and clamber up.
Whether up high or down low, the views!
Though the terrain varied almost minute by minute, the rutted singletrack was constant: grooves about six inches wide and anywhere from an inch to six inches deep. Any wobble caused a pedal strike or a slap of the Buffalo’s derailleur against the side of the groove – or even a crash if the front tire snagged the edge. I took a couple undignified but minor falls, and somewhere in this section bent my derailleur hanger, which led to one or two dropped chains.
These delays aside, I was surprised to hit the first aid station (at the amazingly-named Scairt Women Road) fairly early – well ahead of my schedule. I gassed up quickly, lubed the Buffalo’s chain, and got back out on the trail feeling strong.
The heat was mounting, though, and the trail soon entered some very dry areas – desert, basically. The trail now often traced the buttes, with a steep wall up on one side and a steep drop down on the other. Whenever the terrain went down or stayed flat, I continued to make great time, blasting along at speeds well over the pace I needed to maintain for a daylight finish. I even zipped through the infamous “Devil’s Pass” section- a few hundred yards of trail between two steep drops on either side. This section is like something out of a movie – like maybe the MDH promo video (see 1:20-1:30 for the Devil’s Pass).
Tight switchback turns were a dime a dozen, and sand or rocks in the apex of the turns made them extra tricky. Playing it safe, I would put my inner foot down and tap tap tap my way around the corner, leaning away from the drop on the other side. This kind of riding was new and scary and exhilarating. Coming out of shaded areas into the sun, I could feel heat radiating off the eastern and southern faces of the buttes. I rode past patches of prickly-pear cacti and even – once – honest-to-God cattle bones lying along the trail!
Whenever the inclines steepened, troubles occurred. Either from wear and tear (the trail was heinously dusty) or more bobbles (the gully trails continued), my derailleur began acting up more and more often, until I could not get to my two granny gears at all without the chain slipping off the biggest cog and getting jammed between the cog and the spokes.
I tried to tamp down my frustration at losing huge chunks of time when I needed to stop to put the chain back onto the cogs. I’d done harder stuff than this in harder races. But my frustration almost boiled over into anger when the chain actually snapped, just as I started a long hard climb. I’d thought to buy a couple master links for my new chain just the day before at the bike shop in Medora, so I could actually make the change and get going, slowly, again – but still without those two valuable lowest gears, and dreading the inevitable next big climb.
Watching the mileage tick by on my bike computer, I knew I was getting close to the second aid station, which – another rider had told me – came after a stiff climb on the far side of the Little Missouri River. I thought I could sense the river because the landscape began greening up, becoming more like the area near the start, which had been right on the Little Missouri. I saw some cattle meandering through the damper landscape, and when I didn’t see cattle themselves, I saw many of their leavings: cow patties right on the damn trail.
Here, the terrain was flatter again, too – floodplain. I crossed a trickle of water named Whitetail Creek, a sad little watercourse made sadder for flowing around the bloated carcass of a fawn. After a little more pedaling, I arrived at the Little Missouri. A couple other riders were on the bank, taking off their shoes and socks, but I decided to just get on with it and walked right into the warm, muddy water. I first pushed the Buffalo and then hoisted it onto my shoulder when the water came up to knee height.
The crossing only took a minute or two. The trail resumed in a beautiful cottonwood grove that provided the first real shade all day – which was pleasant, since by now the temperatures must have been near a hundred degrees.
Riding away from the river, the cottonwoods ended where the promised big climb up to Aid Station 2 began – a long, steady grunt along the face of a bluff that must have been visible from the floodplain. The ascent was tough but feasible, even with a malfunctioning bike and increasingly dead legs. I was still pedaling when I popped out at the top and rolled past reached the timer’s tent. She welcomed me in and warned that I had arrived just 45 minutes before the time I had to leave. Thanks to all the delays from fixing my chain, this was far less time than I’d hoped to have in hand, but the number was still manageable.
Making my way to the shelter where volunteers were handing out food and drink, another volunteer stepped out to greet me. “How’s your bike working?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think the derailleur hanger is bent. Can’t get to my two granny gears.” “Well, I can take a look!” Past him was a bike mechanic’s station, complete with a bike stand and a big set of tools. “You go have some food and drink and I’ll see what I can do.” Before I could even really assent, he had the Buffalo up in the stand and was starting to examine the wonky der.
Smiling folks at the refreshment tent provided me with Cokes, ice water, and some food – and a handkerchief that had been soaking in ice water. Thrown over my head, it felt fantastic. Adhering to Jay Petervary’s directive to always do two things at once whenever you’re not riding, I ate and drank while restocking my backpack with supplies from my drop bag, then tried to rest in the shade, looking out over the Little Missouri.
Also resting in the tent was Scott J, a racer whom I’d met for the first time at the start that morning. Scott was the star of “The Push,” an amazing short film about the Arrowhead 135 fatbike race in the blizzard-marred 2013. I’ve watched “The Push” dozens of times, drawing inspiration from how Scott had ridden and pushed his bike through the storm that hit during the race to finish in 52 hours.
Of the Maah Daah Hey, though, Scott said that it was the hardest race he’d ever done and that he was quitting.
This gave me pause. One of the toughest racers around, dropping out? Before I could think too much about it, a timer announced that the cutoff time was only fifteen minutes away, and that anyone intending to continue needed to leave a.s.a.p. From the other side of the checkpoint, the bike mechanic called to me. “149, let’s talk about your bike!” We talked for a bit about the Buffalo’s problems: he’d straightened the derailleur hanger and adjusted the cage, which had been twisted, and felt decently sure that the bike was ready for the second half of the race – including, right away, the 25-mile section that included the course’s toughest climbs and that would be run under the day’s highest heat.
I decided I needed to give it a shot. I thanked the mechanic, hurried through the rest of my prep (grabbing two cold cans of Coke), and mounted up. For about ten minutes of rolling climbs, the Buffalo worked fine, even in the low gears, and I felt decent. Then, on one steep ramp, the derailleur started clanking again. I shifted out of the granny and found that I couldn’t pedal the hill. Get off the bike. Start hiking. Feel the heat pouring down from the sky.
On the downhill, I remounted and rode till the next climb, which I rode as far as I could in a medium gear. Shifting down to my granny, everything started clanking again. I hopped off and checked the time. I was now about half an hour out from the aid station – just far enough that turning around would be futile, since the crew would probably have been packed up by now. So I walked that uphill and rode the downhill, then repeated it.
After hiking one long grassy climb that I could have ridden easily with a functioning bike, I stopped in a tiny patch of shade to consider my options. I could see a gravel road – one of the many new roads cut into the grasslands to service new oil wells – in the near distance, but I had no idea where it went. Comparing the mileage on my computer to the course map, though, I figured that I was about three miles from the next checkpoint.
I figured that if I could make it there – even walking – I could abandon and get a ride back to… somewhere. I took a pull of water (already lukewarm) and some food and started riding. As I paralleled the road, a truck came up on me. The driver slowed and shouted, “You okay?” I shouted back, “Nope! Bike’s screwed up.” Pulling over, the driver turned out to be the race director, Nick. After we determined that the Buffalo had reached its limit and that its rider was pretty close to his, Nick loaded my bike in the bed of the truck. My day was over.
For the next couple hours, I toured the course with Nick and a couple other riders whom we picked up, including one guy who thought he had a dislocated shoulder and my Twin Cities friend Ryan, who had a bloody face after a hard crash. When we stopped at the third aid station, the one on the end of the hardest stretch of the course, I saw at least a dozen racers sprawled out – sleeping, resting, dropped out, preparing to go on. Carnage, at least as bad as anything I’d seen at the Arrowhead in quite the opposite weather.
Though I still felt some pangs of disappointment over dropping out, I felt better about the decision when I saw just how far gone were some of these racers – and, more jealously, what kinds of bikes they were using. Not a fatbike in the bunch, and lots of full-suspension mountain bikes. Every few minutes, a racer would come down off the hill into the aid station, and they too would be on light trail bikes. Drinking water and eating potato chips from Nick’s truck, I made some mental notes on what I would need to come back and finish the race in 2016.
This is narcissistic, I know, but dammit, I love them all.
While very eager to do races in the future that will get onto this list, here is the current top ten, in descending order:
10. The Lutsen 99er in June 2014. Not especially demanding physically, this race was my first mountain bike race. If nothing else, the sheer quantity of mud made this one memorable. I’d do it again, for sure! 8h 44m, 282nd of 421 finishers.
9. The Royal 162 in May 2014: At 165 miles (the 162 miles of the course, plus 3 bonus miles after a wrong turn), this was my longest-ever ride – so far! Though conditions were pretty good, this was just a long freaking way to ride bikes. Thank god Derek was there for company. 14h 23m, 39th of 51.
8. The Almanzo 100 in May 2011: (part I | part II | part III) My first gravel-century race, run in cold, wet conditions that made the riding slow and dirty and tough. I loved it as an event in its own right and as my introduction to ultradistance racing. 9h 8m, 80/150.
7. The Heck of the North in September 2014: The distance – 108 miles – wasn’t that bad, and the course was great, but my rear derailleur blew up at about mile 80, so I had to do some jury-rigging to convert my Salsa Vaya to a singlespeed and then limp in to the finish. 9h 55m, 139/174.
6. The Inspiration 100 in September 2013: Another gravel century, but run in temps above 90 and a heat index near or above 100. Heat exhaustion was a major factor, but I still managed a fast (for me) time: 7h 7m, 22/78.
5. The Cheq 100 in June 2015. This was a very hard race of attrition in which I didn’t get the result I wanted (a finish in the full 100-mile race). Pending my race in North Dakota in August, the Cheq now my #1 “off-season” goal for 2016. 10h 45m, something like 20/30.
4. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2015: Coming in well trained, decently rested (two weeks after #3, below), and very, very eager, I rode what I think is my best race here in pretty much perfect conditions. 19h 30m, 26/77.
3. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in January 2015: I worked so freaking hard at getting this race right. I tested my clothing, gear, and bike, I thought incessantly about my race strategy, and I trained like mad. It paid off with a solid effort and a finish of the full 126 miles. 26h 25m, 30/39.
2. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in March 2014 (part I | part II | part III): Run along the Continental Divide where Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana meet, this was my first race at any kind of altitude. What the elevation didn’t take out of me, the brutally slow snow did. I couldn’t finish this one, getting pulled off the course at 100 miles by the race director after 32 hours of racing. I’d say this was the low point in my personal history of bike racing, but I drew a lot of motivation from my “honorary finish.” Not only did I return the next year to ride smarter and faster and to finish (see #X above), but I’ve treasured the connections I made to this race’s people and land.
1. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2014: my first and still the hardest fatbike race I’ve done. I’d never done race of longer than about 12 hours, but this one took me more than 24 hours, thanks in large part to temperatures that infamously ranged from -20° to -40° made the riding difficult, to say the least, but I stuck it out, teaching myself that I could do a lot more than I thought I could. 29h 9m, and a top-ten finish – 7/30.
I was only snuck into the race after I mused to a friend that I didn’t have any races on my calendar between the Almanzo in May and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in August. As it turns out, he knew a guy who could get me into the Cheq, and another friend, Galen, happened to be going up there to volunteer.
Things having fallen into place quite neatly, I headed up north on Thursday with Galen. We planned to camp each night and help set up the course on Friday. I’d race on Saturday while he hung out, and then we’d do a bit of riding on Sunday before coming home.
Our leisurely drive ended at a lovely little campsite at Two Lakes Campground in Drummond (just a couple miles up from where we saw a bear crossing the road!). The spot was idyllic, dominated by greens and blues and very quiet except for loons.
On Friday morning, we helped set up a chunk of the course (which had the added benefit of acquainting me with a gorgeous and fun piece of the trail)
and then did some riding on the infamously hard Rock Lake Trail, a savagely difficult stretch of rocky, rooty singletrack. It was as hard as anything I’d ever ridden, and I was riding it with fresh legs in good, dry conditions. If I do say so myself, the Buffalo looked awesome:
For various reasons entirely under my control, Friday night was less restful than it should have been, but I was up and moving by 5:30 a.m. to get to the race, driving over with JB, a fellow Northfielder. Just as forecasted, a heavy, chilly rain started falling about a half hour before the start. By 7 a.m., everything – roads, trails, riders, bikes, gear – was thoroughly soaked. But off we went!
The opening few miles are on a gravel road, so we were not only wet but muddy even before we hit the needle’s-eye opening to Rock Lake. The single-file line of racers jockeyed as we moved along the singletrack. I let quite a few people pass me when I either bobbled an obstacle or pulled over to let them through. I was not enthused about giving up spots, but I could tell that I was in for a long day – my bike computer was showing an average speed of well under 6 mph – and I wanted to conserve every bit of energy rather than go hard just to keep a spot for five more minutes. When we reached a super-steep rocky drop called Wall Street, I was amazed to see many riders take the A-line down the drop rather than the easy dirt B-line. I took the B, and was pleased to scoot around unscathed. Discretion and valor and all that.
As I wound my way through Rock Lake, other racers became fewer and fewer. A couple friends like JB went by me, and I pulled back a couple people who’d gone out too hot, but I was pretty much on my own, and happy enough about it. That’s not to say I was happy, exactly. In addition to the oddity of my hearing aids popping and buzzing from rain getting into my ears (and my consequent fretting that they’d die on the ride), I was uncomfortably filthy, the mud was already causing the Buffalo’s drivetrain to act up, my front brake suddenly stopped working, and my tires were proving to be terrible in the mud.
And I was crashing a lot. I went down at low speeds and at slightly less low speeds. I went off the bike to the right, scraping my legs on the chainring and chain, and off to the left, trapping myself under the Buffalo. I went over the bars more than once, including one idiotic time when I simply steered into a tree and then flew into it when, sure enough, the tree stopped the bike. Just as I started thinking seriously about how I could lessen the chance of an irreparable bike problem or of breaking an arm or leg, we came off Rock Lake and I had a short respite in which to eat, drink, and calculate that I was on pace for a 21-hour finish of a hundred-mile race.
This was an impossibility. I didn’t have enough food or water to race that long, and I didn’t have any lights to ride at night. As I thought about my options, I came up on my friend JB, sitting in the grass at a road crossing, his face covered in blood. “I hit a tree,” he told me. “My nose is broken.” I dug out my phone to find the number for the race director, who’d need to know JB was dropping out. (As it happens, that was a fateful move, as my phone got soaked and stopped working later that day.) As JB organized himself to head back to the start, a couple other riders pulled up, talking exhaustedly about dropping out. One even claimed to be hypothermic, which struck me as odd given that the temps were in the high sixties and that he was wearing a long-sleeve jersey and knickers – all coated in mud and muck.
I headed back onto the race course as they were leaving, and at around that point the race became as blurry and indistinct as the view through my filthy sunglasses. I rode the Buffalo for at least eight more hours after that point, but I remember only little moments in the race. For one thing, the course is so complicated and my knowledge of the trails is so thin that I have little or no idea where I was at any particular time. The only constants were my efforts to get over the muddy, mucky trails, to focus on making the turns, to strive to enjoy the sound of the rain in the trees and the sight of the weak light through the trees, and to try not to crash over and over. In between the usual array of earworm music, dumb but profound sayings popped into my head, like how success is often just rising one more time than you fall. In this race, this was literally true!
At some point, a racer caught me from behind. We talked for a bit about conditions. She said she’d heard that many people had dropped out. I corroborated this. She said she was wondering if we could switch to the shorter, 62-mile race at the spot on the course where the two races diverge. I said I didn’t know for sure, but had heard as much. We traded a bit of intel about the track ahead of us: a short gravel-road section, then a really tough loop around mile 30. She headed off up the trail away from me, leaving me to consider my options. Since I was only getting more concerned that I might wind up with a broken bike or body, I started to really like the idea of switching into the short race, especially if – as seemed likely – that meant that I would still get in a solid ten or more hours of hard riding.
Amidst all that, I enjoyed the swoopy fun of the Danky Dank and Esker trails, which were challenging but not obscenely so. I did not enjoy Hildebrand Loop, which is rated as “Very Difficult” and might better be rated “Very Effing Difficult.” Racers who must have been the leaders of the 62-mile race caught me in this section, as did a number of others like my friend Finn Sunboo. I crashed my way through the loop, walking plenty of hard sections, including the dicey, wooden “No Hands Bridge” over a creek running into Hildebrand Lake. Relieved to get off Hildebrand, roughly a third of the way into the 100-mile course, I decided to reward myself with the Red Bull I’d been carrying in my frame bag. I eagerly dug it out, almost tasting the sugary fizz. The can was, however, empty: it had been punctured in one of my crashes and all the caffeinated elixir had dribbled out into my frame bag.
Expletives were uttered here, and I decided to definitely shorten my day by switching into the 62-mile race. Now, though, I had to make it to the course split and then ride 20 miles after that to the finish. Back out on a gravel road, my chain, which had been creaking and catching all day, finally jumped off my biggest cog and lodged itself very, very tightly between that cog and the spokes. I needed a good 15 minutes, or maybe more, to fix it, in which time drivers in two passing trucks asked if I needed help. Nice folks, Wisconsinites!
Getting the chain back in place was in some ways the last test of the day, because the rain stopped around then, and after the repair had a long, fast gravel-road section that my computer suggested would end at or near the magical course split. I hammered the road, feeling very much at home in the big ring, head down near the Buffalo’s bars. The rollers and sweeping curves carried me past mile 35 and on to 40. Just as I started to wonder if I’d somehow made wrong turn, I came across a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the edge of the road. “Almost to the checkpoint!” he shouted as I rolled past. I pushed a bit more and got there: a pop-up tent, some muddy trucks, and a few volunteers wading through the soupy mud. I tried to make my stop quick, first confirming with the race director that I could in fact switch to the 62-mile race, then drinking a Coke and devouring some sugary food.
I dunno how long I was stopped, but I felt refreshed and relaxed when I took the Buffalo back onto the course. The trails were now a little drier than they had been in the morning, and these particular trails were also much more fun to ride: aerobically challenging, but technically just right. In the woods, I realized that I could hear birds singing for the first time all day, and that I was really dripping sweat – also for the first time.
I enjoyed the work of trying to punch the climbs – including the ascent to the course’s high point – and then letting the Buffalo run down the descents, including some truly amazing corkscrewing descents that got less and less frightening with each turn. I stopped crashing, and even went long stretches without putting a foot down. More racers caught me, including some 100-mile racers who were now hours and hours up on me. But I felt like I was on the home stretch. The trails – now the long northwesterly Ojibwe (or Ojibwa, depending on the sign!) – continued to be much more fun than work, and far easier to ride than those early in the day. I almost – almost – regretted that the race was coming to its conclusion, and then looked down at my filthy legs, my muddy bike, my clanking chain, and thought, “Naw, a hundred kilometers will be fine.”
Around the time my computer said that I’d gone about 55 miles, my fatbiking friend Wisconsin Mark caught me. He was shocked that I was ahead of him, since I am way slower than he is (even through he’s 18 years older than I am), and then very relieved to learn that he was actually about 40 miles ahead of me, having done the full 100-mile route. I tried to hang with him as we wound through the trees toward what had to be the road section to the finish, but he got away from me.
Then suddenly I saw his red jersey on a switchback ahead of me, riding out a descent that was paralleling a road and thus had to be dropping to the end of the Ojibwe Trail. A few minutes later, the Buffalo took me down that descent, under a nice little archway, and out onto the gravel road to the finish in Cable. I put the bike into the biggest gear that was still working and pushed as hard as I could, seeing Mark off in the distance. When the gravel turned to pavement, I knew I was done. A couple more turns and I pulled into the finishing area, completely and thoroughly worked.
My friend Galen met me with a grin and a few words of sympathy. All told, I logged a solid 100 kilometers in a pathetically slow but brutally hard 10:45, good enough for 18th place in the “metric” field. Notably – and leaving out the complication that some of us stepped down from the long race to the short one – only 35 out of 131 starters finished the 62-mile short race (a 27% completion rate), while only 63 of 130 (48%) finished the 100-mile long race. (Even weirder, the winner of the short race needed 8:05 to do those 62 miles – almost ten more minutes than the winner of the long race needed to do the full hundred!)
At the afterparty, Galen offered to loan me his car so that I could head home early on Sunday while he and another Northfielder – neither of whom had raced – did a bit of fun riding. The drive home was slow and easy, and included way too many stops to take on and let out food and drink. I got home in time to have a great Father’s Day, which was perfect.
Two days later now, I am sure that I will be back to try the race again in 2016. I’ll definitely approach the race differently, in big and small ways. Assuming I can maintain my endurance base, I will have to orient my training around the challenge of singletrack. I need to get much more practice on true singletrack trail, for one thing. I also need to practice handling rough trail – logs, rocks, mud – when fatigued, which is a very different thing than handling obstacles fresh. I’m lucky in these respects to have some fun local singletrack to ride now – and to have the Maah Daah Hey as a goal and a gauge, exactly 40 days from today!
I’ll definitely also need to figure out how to eat and drink on a mountain bike. Unlike either fatbike or gravel racing, a MTB racing seems to offer very few opportunities for eating my preferred “real foods,” like trail mix and jerky. I survived the Cheq on energy chews, but I could kill two birds with one stone by using an energy drink that provides water and nutrition at the same time. And I definitely need to use water bottles, not a Camelbak bladder in a frame bag! (I dislike wearing a backpack, but maybe I need to go in that direction again anyhow…)
I’m even feeling a perverse pride in having some of the ugliest legs in Minnesota right now, thanks to all those crashes. They’ll heal.
Christopher: “Julia, what are you reading?”
Julia: ” A book.”
C: “What’s the title?”
J: “Some words.”
C: “What’s on the cover?”
J: “The title and a picture.”
C: “Who wrote it?”
J: “The author.”
C: “Is it any good?”
J: “I’ve read better. I’ve read worse.”
If she didn’t offer all these answers in the most cheery, funny tone, I’d be annoyed. As it is, I make a point to ask her these questions all the time. Occasionally she forgets and gives me one or two real answers before reverting to tween.
Driving up to see a friend on Sunday night, my iPhone served me a nice mix of tunes off my favorite playlist, “Rock Goodness.” My thoughts on the tunes:
AC/DC, “Money Talks” – A great song marred by a crappy guitar solo.
The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” – A so-so song improved by an insanely great solo. Or series of solos.
Art Brut, “I Will Survive” – Great lyrics with a superb solo.
R.E.M., “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” – Incomprehensible but awesome.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” – A pretty freaking apt summary of 2015 America.
Springsteen, “Glory Days” – I’m glad this isn’t a summary of my life.
Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” – As great in 2015 when it seems to apply (partly?) to my actual daughters as it was in 1987 when it seemed to apply (partly?) to imaginary girlfriends. (Is that creepy?)
Kanye, “Power” – Maybe the best rock song of the ’00s.
Jay-Z and Danger Mouse, “99 Problems” (off The Gray Album) – The Beatles’ zipper guitars never sounded better.
The Who, “Seeker” – The best name-dropping of any rock song.
The Hold Steady, “Massive Nights” – A color-by-numbers party song that is so much more.
Phosphorescent, “Ride On/Right On” – I’d love this song even if it weren’t about sex and bicycling.
Wild Flag, “Racehorse” – You are rock ‘n’ roll fun.
I dunno if that many bike riders name their bikes, but I know a few who do, and I have named my last three bikes. My first gravel bike, a Surly CrossCheck, never earned a name, but my blue Salsa Mukluk fatbike was "the Beast," because it was a beastly machine that could go anywhere and looked (I think) a little scary, with those big tires seeming to be giant black paws. My Salsa Vaya gravel bike is "Giddyup," because it’s got a lot of get up and go – which is true even if I don’t ride it enough.
My favorite bike, my silver Salsa Mukluk, is "the Buffalo," a name that took me a long time to choose – or which took a long time to choose the bike. Quite a few people have asked me about the name – including several strangers at the Almanzo last weekend who rode up next me and asked, "Is that the Buffalo? Are you Chris Tassava?"
Despite or because of the weirdness of having strangers recognize me and my bike, I thought maybe I should explain the name.
I bought the Mukluk from my friend Ben, who’d built it up for himself a few years before but hadn’t had time to really put it to use. He gave me a great deal on the bike, so I snapped it up. Riding the nameless bike for months after I bought it, I thought about its many wonderful qualities and waited for the right moniker to emerge. My daughters lobbied for "Beauty," partly as a complement to the Beast (though I no longer owned the Beast) and partly because they’re girls. Honestly, the bike is pretty. Dressed in its blue and gray frame bags for winter racing or bikepacking, the bike looks, I think, like it’s wearing a comfortable, functional uniform.
Without the bags, the bike shows off all of its unpainted silvery titanium – definitely the bike material that’s easiest on the eyes.
Despite all that, "Beauty" didn’t fit. Not that one can’t define beauty in many ways, but to me, the bike was too burly and too aggressive-looking to be "Beauty." Then, on a long training ride last fall, with the bike dressed in its all bags and laden with most of my winter-racing gear, as I ground my way up a long, messy gravel climb, it hit me: "the Buffalo."
My mind was primed for this revelation. I’d just read an article somewhere about bison. Most people know about the bison’s near-eradication in the 19th century, and also know the bit about how Indians used "every part" of the bison, but the animal itself is as fascinating as its history. It’s the largest North American mammal, the only survivor of the megafauna that thrived tens of thousands of years ago but that were almost all killed off by humans when they migrated out of Asia.
The bison survived because of their unique physical characteristics. They’re massive, but their physiology enables them to thrive in a wide range of conditions – hot southwestern deserts, temperate grasslands, lowland forests, mountain valleys, Alaskan swamps – and of course, the dry, windy grasslands that run up the center of the continent, which was where I live and where I would largely be riding the bike. A bison is fast – able to run up to up to 25 miles an hour. A bison is nimble – able to jump over fences that are six feet high or ditches and holes longer than their body length. A bison is tough – able to move dozens of miles a day in the right conditions (not to mention to survive the white mans’ guns). And a bison is very pleasing to look at, in a wild way.
My fatbike, too, is fast, nimble, tough, and above all adaptable – good on pavement, great on gravel, excellent on dirt, and of course phenomenal on snow. With those rationalizations in place, I just had to make sure the name was right "Buffalo" is a laden term, with pedants loving to point out that the American bison isn’t a "buffalo" like the water buffalo of Africa. (This is true, but also dumb, since the French explorers didn’t give the name to the weird humpbacked cattle they saw on the plains because they looked like water buffalo.)
But "the Bison" didn’t sound right, and "Tatanka" (the Lakota word for "bison") didn’t seem right coming from a white guy. Growing up, I’d always used the label "buffalo" for bison, which mattered to me because riding bikes – especially fatbikes – can be a pure, childlike pleasure. And "the Buffalo" just sounded right when I said it. The name fit all the more because I’d installed some weird curved handlebars that looked – from above and behind, which was my view of them – a little like a horned bovine head. Within a few hundred yards of gravel road, the nameless fatbike became the Buffalo, and the Buffalo has taken me to some cool places.