Fat Pursuit 2017 (part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the start line

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

Start line crew (by Anne)

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

Rolling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawtell at 8 a.m.

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

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

Saturday morning selfie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat Pursuit Numbers

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

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

Climbing
Climbing

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

Saturday Morning Selfie
Saturday Morning Selfie

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

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

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

Two Top Whiteout
Two Top Whiteout

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

Sunday night selfie

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

Sheridamn, Whyomin

On the first leg of our road trip to the Fat Pursuit, Ben Doom and I made it as far as Sheridan, Wyoming – 815 miles from Northfield (925 from St. Cloud, from which Ben started, heading down to pick my sorry ass up). We have 340 to go!

Having just done most of this drive this summer on our family vacation to the Black  Hills, I didn’t pay much attention till we crossed the Missouri River. Soon afterwards, the sun set – which seemed to take hours and hours. Before we reached Rapid City, though, we were traveling in full big-sky darkness. Even with high-beam headlights in front of me, the stars were distractingly bright. I can’t wait to see them again on Friday and Saturday nights from the seat of my bike.

After Rapid City, the country and the road emptied out. We hit the Wyoming state line, goggled at the massive coal mine power plant outside Gillette, paused for snacks when we hit that city, and then pushed on to Sheridan. 

The 80 miles between Gillette and Sheridan were empty. I usually think that I grew up in a pretty sparsely-settled place, but that stretch reminded me that the U.P. is Manhattan compared to Wyoming. In the time we needed to get from Gillette to Sheridan, we shared westbound I-90 with only three other vehicles: a filthy pickup truck that blasted past us at 90 mph right after Gillette, a dumpy compact car that popped up in front of us from some remote on-ramp, and an old Chevy truck that lumbering along in the passing lane. Even this bit of I-90 will seem heavily trafficked compared to the overnight trails at the race. Again, I can’t wait.

The Caldera Are Calling and I Must Go

A person can find all types of treasure, trinkets, and trash bearing John Muir’s famous line, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” which he originally wrote in a letter to his sister.

I don’t know what Muir thought of Yellowstone and the Tetons, but I bet he’d have found the Island Park area interesting: like Yellowstone, it’s got a fascinating geological history. For instance, Big Spring, near the northern end of Island Park, is indeed a big spring – one of the biggest in the world – and gives rise to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

More dramatically, the entire area occupies the floor of two nested caldera – collapsed volcanoes. The larger Island Park caldera is about the same size as the Yellowstone caldera, part of the supervolcano that – as the Onion jokes –  could choose to blow at any minute.

The Henry’s Fork and Island Park Calderas

Of course this relates to fatbiking! The Fat Pursuit course skirts the aligned western rims of the Island Park and smaller Henry’s Fork calderas, then runs south to the spot where the Henry’s Fork river drops off the edge of the caldera, forming the two Mesa Falls on its way to the Snake River. The course winds toward the eastern side of the Henry’s Fork caldera, climbing along its edge before dropping back down away from the rim to our first checkpoint. There the course starts to run north, climbing out of the Henry’s Fork again and then out of the Island Park caldera too on the way to our second checkpoint. Later, after the third checkpoint, the course bumps up and over the the rims again, just a few miles from the finish.

I doubt I’ll have the wherewithal (or the daylight) to notice these various encounters with the race’s geology, not maybe I can pick a few of the details up on the drive to the start in Thursday. And I’ll certainly hope that the super volcano doesn’t erupt while I’m riding in the race. That would almost certainly melt my bike and prevent me from racing the way I’d like.

 

New Year, Same Obsession

One week into the new year, I hope to be finishing my third try at the Fat Pursuit fatbike race in eastern Idaho, just over the border from Yellowstone National Park. I’ve raced the Fat Pursuit twice before, both times at the 200 kilometer (126 mile) distance: I only made it to mile 100 in 2014 before I had to quit, but the next year, I finished the race in 26 hours, 25 minutes.

This year, I am trying the 200 mile race, which was run for the first time last year. Only seven men finished, out of 24 starters (21 men, 3 women). In addition to being run entirely at altitude (6,000 feet and up), and of course being 200 miles long, the big race includes a colossal amount of climbing – something on the order of 10,000 feet. Last year’s winner was the only guy to finish under 30 hours; everyone else was over 40 hours – and two guys needed more than 50 hours to finish.

All of that only makes me more eager to get to the start line for a race that goes through country this beautiful:

I’m not overstating things by saying that I’ve been training and preparing for the Fat Pursuit for a year, starting with my successful winter ultramarathons last January. I did more racing in 2016 than I ever have before: four winter races and six dryland races totaling 92 hours of riding – a pretty solid hit of race experience.

The races contributed to the 361 hours of training I logged in 2016, across 271 discrete sessions – training rides, races, gym workouts. I only eked out 2,000 miles of riding this year, but it was pretty high-quality riding, I think, and I did a good chunk of it in the last three months, building toward the Fat Pursuit. (I’m a little annoyed with myself that I only realized on New Year’s Eve that I had nearly averaged an hour of working out a day! Had I realized I was so close even a week earlier, I could have easily done a few more longer workouts to hit that completely meaningless goal.)

Given all that training (and racing)  in 2016, I feel pretty ready to start the 200-mile Fat Pursuit on Friday, January 6, 2017. The one variable that I can’t really prepare to handle is the altitude, though I have done tons of intensity training which I hope will pay off in processing that thin mountain air! I have spent a lot of time tuning my fatbike, the Buffalo, including a crucial switch to a smaller chainring to handle the race’s climbing. I’ve also been obsessing over clothing and gear, including the mandatory survival gear that everyone has to carry – and use. I’m looking forward to seeing my “fatbike family” out there, too – the men and women with whom I’ve raced bikes at events like this and the Arrowhead over the last four winters. With four days till the race, I think I’m ready.

Night Ride 

With the Fat Pursuit and the Arrowhead rapidly approaching (70 days and 94 days away, respectively), I’ve been feeling the need to get out for some long rides. So far this fall, though, a heavy workload at the office and plenty of activities at home have made all-day outings impossible, so Friday I did the next best thing by going out after dinner for a few hours on the gravel roads.

Riding gravel roads in the dark is wonderful, especially on an unseasonable night like Friday – 60° F, an insistent but not harsh westerly breeze, a touch of humidity. I left home just as the sun set behind me, calling out for a picture or two. A stop to adjust my seat height – when did I acquire the unwelcome ability to feel that my saddle is too high or low based on the shorts I’m wearing? – and tweak the angle of some new grips. 


Soon afterwards, I was in full dark, riding toward the white spot of road illuminated by my headlight. First more east, waving to a cyclist hiding behind his own headlight as he headed back toward town. Then some south paralleling the county line, waving to the cars and trucks I met, dropping into low spots where cool wet air had pooled, climbing up to ridges where the breeze warmed me. All around, I could see yellow, white, red lights at dozens of farms. Interior lights spilling through picture windows. A bonfire, the smoke almost more felt than smelled. 

A turn to the west onto pavement for a passage through a tiny farm town, dark but loud with machinery at the grain elevator. 


Then back onto gravel, passing the state park and the first deer, timidly watching from the trees from the far side of the ditch. A cat, sitting by a mailbox post. An easy downhill curve that the darkness turned into a mountain pass. A slow, tentative lap around the MTB trails at the county park – tricky to ride with only the headlight and a fading headlamp. Stopped at the high point, I could hears cows lowing, horses neighing, dogs barking, coyotes yipping. The night was really alive. Back on the bike, I found Gut Check Bridge downright scary: wet, banked, downhill. 


After the park, one last westerly section, then northeast up a long, steady climb through a gorgeous stand of hardwoods. Some unseen dogs yapping angrily at me. More deer. Legs burning now from the gym at noon, from 2.5 hours of riding, from an empty stomach. 

North now, back toward town. The last big climb, past a dead deer, gnawed open by night creatures. Another cat, darting away. The rollers on the straight drag back to the city limits. A combine crawling through a cornfield toward two tractor-trailers waiting for its load. The last stretch of gravel, up a hill now crowned with a new tract house, light pouring from every window, people moving around inside. Five minutes later, back inside my own house to stay up too late, buzzing with endorphins and looking forward to the next night ride. 

Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series


Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course. 

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff. 

My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while. 

The low points were

  1. when I crashed,
  2. when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and 
  3. When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time. 

The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course. 

It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner. 

The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon. 

The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and  52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster. 

Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me

Marji Gesick 2016: 100% Effort, 49% Complete

What: the Marji Gesick 100

When: Saturday, September 26, 2016: 7:47 total riding time, about 9 hours total time on course.

Why: Because the MG is supposed to be one of the hardest MTB races in the Midwest, if not the country, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing over the 100-mile distance, and because I need to finish a 100-mile MTB race. I’m 0-3* lifetime!

Also, because I’d never raced in the homeland!

Where: Marquette to Ishpeming, Michigan – in the center of the gorgeous Upper Peninsula. Our drive up to the race took me through some old stomping grounds and directly past my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Channing. This is a fire tower outside Crystal Falls, not their house. 

The course was mostly singletrack in the woods – always demanding and often relentlessly technical. Though there was plenty of fast, fun trail


and lots of hike-bike for me and others.


Who: The Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi 29er hardtail.

Best gear: My front shock and my Bontrager XR2 tires, run tubeless at about 20 psi.

Worst gear: My rear derailleur, which failed catastrophically at mile 53.

The high point was when I realized at about mile 50 that I felt about as good as I’d ever felt near the midpoint of a long race. I was confident I had the legs and lungs to finish in 14-16 hours. 

The low point was when chain suck wrapped the derailleur around my cassette and neither I nor a fellow racer could fix it or switch the bike to singlespeed.

It was in the bag at no point in the race. It was on a pipe and in a tunnel at different moments in the event, though. 

The key lesson I learned was that I have the fitness for a long MTB race, and that my technical skills have improved enough that they’re no longer a liability (as they’d been at the 2015 Chequamegon 100). I just need to combine those qualities with a good day from the bike – or a different, more forgiving bike. It’s no surprise that virtually all the finishers rode full-suspension machines.

The takeaway is that the Marji Gesick is a great event run on a stupid hard course. I need to get back to there in 2017 and earn a finish like my friend Galen:

* My results in four attempts at century-length MTB races:

  • 2015 Chequamegon 100: switched midway to the 62-mile race, DNFing the 100.
  • 2015 Maah Daah Hey 100: quit at about mile 50 after the fatbike’s drivetrain blew up.
  • 2016 Chequamegon 100: completed the full course, which had been shortened to about 80 miles due to rain damage to the trails.
  • 2016 Marji Gesick 100: DNF at mile 54 with a mechanical.

Fat Pursuing

Today I registered for the Fat Pursuit, the fatbike race that Jay Petervary stages in eastern Idaho each winter. I was registrant number two for the long race – a 200 mile affair that starts on January 6.

After completing the 120-mile distance in 2015, I had to skip the race this year, which only stoked my fire to go back in 2017. Now the race is on the horizon again – 158 days away. It’s hard to overstate how much I’m excited to train, to prep my bike and gear, to travel out there, to see the mountains again, to hang out with race friends, and to ride those amazing trails on the Buffalo.

The Buffalo in its summer garb

A Good Winter’s Riding

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.

Sounds like a good challenge!

Arrowheadata

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 did the first leg, 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 third 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

Arrowhead Race Report – Arrowhead III: Revenge of the Snows

I was lucky to have Salsa Cycles publish my Arrowhead 135 race report on their “Culture” blog!

Arrowhead III: Revenge of the Snows

They wove in a bunch of my own photos as well as some much better shots taken by Mike Riemer from Salsa, like this one.

Early On (Photo by Mike Riemer)
Early On (Photo by Mike Riemer)

13.5 Quick Thoughts on the Arrowhead

The Arrowhead Trail, near Kabetogama Lake
The Arrowhead Trail, near Kabetogama Lake

1. It’s an outrageous, unearned privilege to be able to do a race like the Arrowhead. I can’t think about this fact too much or I’ll start dehydrating through my tear ducts.

2. When the winner of the race says, “It was the hardest conditions I have ridden in with such an intense pace,” it must have been a damn hard race.

3. There must be a time and a place for margarita-flavored Shot Bloks, but the Arrowhead is neither. #yuck

4. On the other hand, sliced salami is a delicious and nutritious race snack at any time!

5. Next year I’m not sharing my Red Bulls with anyone! I need that crap. It’s magical.

6. I’m sure some egghead can explain the fancy science behind ibuprofen, but that crap, too, is magical.

7. I love the “racer against the trail” feeling I get leaving Melgeorges (checkpoint two, at mile 72) to tackle the hardest section of the course.

8. I’m almost happier to reach the last checkpoint – Skipulk at mile 111 – than the finish, because if you can get there, you only have 24 miles to go. The finish is more a relief than anything.

9. I think that with more and better training, I have a real shot at a top-ten finish next year.

10.Some carbon rims would help, cough cough.

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!

13.5. Hungry.