Actif Epica, or The Windswept Plains of Southern Manitoba

The Actif Epica race outside Winnipeg was the ideal way to end a very challenging race season – a relatively short ride through some small French-Canadian towns and up into Winnipeg itself. After the Arrowhead, I decided I didn’t have another overnight race in me this winter, so I changed from the 200-kilometer (124-mile) long race to the “classic” 125k (77 mile) race. This was a good decision, allowing me to start and end in daylight and to really enjoy the racecourse.

And what a racecourse! In a word, it was bizarre – or as the French say, “bizarre.” The race started in the tiny town of St. Malo, about 50 miles due south of Winnipeg.

32 cyclists comprised the field in the short race, which started at a very reasonable 7:30 a.m. (that’s 7:30 a.m. in the metric system) outside the town’s charmingly un-fancy hockey arena. After a neutral rollout, we crossed St. Malo Lake, which shook out the field pretty well and ended with one of the only climbs in the race – a 10-foot zip up what might have been a boat launch.

Starting there, the rest of the course consisted of long sections of gravel road linked by short bits of paved highways, of trails for snowmobiles (which the Canadians call “Skidoos,” no matter the actual brand) or, even better, of completely snowed-in roads across farm fields. It was wacky, unlike any of the other fatbike racing I’ve done but not unlike some of the training I’ve done around Northfield – though far, far flatter. The end of the race was memorably different from all that terrain!

The open country – what my friend Minnesota Mark called “the windswept plains of southern Manitoba” – made it easy to see other racers, which allowed a lot of chasing and being chased. We came up on numerous runners who’d started either the long 200k race the night before or the short 125k race an hour before our bike event. I was happy to be able to ride quite a bit with Mark, who has finished the AE a few times (as well as 20-some other fatbike ultras), making him a good guide to the race’s innumerable twists and turns and to its five checkpoints. At several of those checkpoints, I saw my friend Corey; though not a cyclist, he’d wanted to see what fatbike racing was all about, and so had driven me up to Winnipeg for the event. He tracked us over the first part of the course, taking photos like this one at the first CP in St.-Pierre-Jolys.

We’d been told to try the pea soup there, but pea soup doesn’t sound too good at 9:05 a.m., so I ducked in and headed right back back out, yoyoing with a couple other riders whom I’d see all day as we made our way up to the second checkpoint at a “colony” of Hutterites at Crystal Springs. Just before reaching the checkpoint, we rode a couple miles of wonderful wooded trails along the Rat River (a.k.a. la Rivière aux Rats, which is frankly a far better name) as it oxbowed its way north to meet the Red River of the North nearer to Winnipeg. I stopped a little longer at Crystal Springs, which had a real bathroom (no peeing in the ditches during this race! [well, maybe a little]), chocolate-chip cookies, and very talkative Hutterite men, who wanted to tell me all about their colony. I chatted for a bit, but needed to get moving again.

The silent little boys – shirts buttoned up to their collar just like the adult men – held the door for me, and then I rode again with Mark for a while on some windy gravel. The first few miles of the race had woven through stands of trees, but those were behind us now. Houses were few and far between, but many flew a Canadian flag. The cattle farms had a smell that differed from the smell of cattle farms in Minnesota – sweeter, grassier, not as acrid. Under a high sun, the forecasted westerly wind started to show up, making us work hard whenever we angled north and west – which was pretty often.

At one point, the course dumped us onto a snowed-in road between two fields. In Minnesota we’d call it a “minimum maintenance road,” but I don’t know the French translation. Maybe “le chemin de posthole”? Ride for a bit, push for a bit, ride for more, push for more. For a change of pace, tip over in a pillowy drift and get snow down your neck. At the end of the section, I stopped to record the scene. Mark is one of the dots on the horizon; the other is, I think, racer #36, a tough guy who was riding the race on a 26″ city bike. He could haul on the gravel and especially on the pavement roads, but whenever we hit any snow, he slowed and even had to walk sections that Mark and I could ride. I filed this fact away for later, in case he and I were still nearby at the end of the race.

These sections made me extra grateful to be riding my friend Ben’s souped-up race bike. My beloved Buffalo had started acting up just before the race, perhaps suffering from an injury at the Arrowhead. As I commuted home the day before Corey and I would head to Winnipeg, the rear wheel started rubbing the chainstay. Two hours of sweating and swearing over it couldn’t fix the problem, but Ben solved the problems and saved my race by loaning me his own Mukluk, which was definitely the best bike I’ve ever ridden. The carbon rims in particular helped me float over more of the drifting than I could have on my own bike – though I sure missed the Buffalo.

Somewhere after this section, Mark caught me and started rhapsodizing about the pierogies served at the third checkpoint, in the hockey arena in Niverville. I’d never had pierogis before, an error I remedied with a triple serving. When we checked out, the volunteers told us we were in 8th and 9th places – top 10! We had barely gotten back on our bikes before we reached the fourth checkpoint, 11k (7 miles) away in St. Adolphe. Though this leg was short, I felt like we had a headwind for every meter. Mark and I traded pulls over the worst stretch, making the wind a little more tolerable. When we finally reached St. Adolphe, we rode not on streets to the CP but on the dikes that protect the town from the Red River,

and stopped not at a hockey arena but at a curling club. (Next to the door is the bike of racer #36, who reached the CP just before us.)

Curling looks just as fun from the other side of the glass as it does on TV, but why are so many Manitoba hockey arenas and curling clubs in Quonset huts? And can Northfield please build a Quonset hut for a curling club?

Someone – probably Mark – had warned me that the stretch after St. Adolphe would be the hardest of the race, as we would be continuously exposed to the wind. This was definitely the case. Mark and I traded pulls as we went north on the memorably-named Sood Road, then jogged a bit east to Shapansky Road, a freakishly straight and flat road that I’m pretty sure runs all the way to Hudson Bay. (Here it’s the north-south line from St. Germain South.)

The wind here finally went from “hard” to “brutal.” Cutting across us from left to right, it separated Mark and me and slowed me to what could not have been more than 8 mph, which felt like a sad waste of Ben’s carbon machine! Racer #36 dangled in front of me for this entire stretch. I had worried that his skinny tires would help him get away here, but the wind was as bad for him as for me, and for Mark. Another racer later said that the winds had been blowing at 25mph here, which means that the windchill must have been well below zero. Adding to the fun, the sun was so bright that I couldn’t see my computer, and so couldn’t see the goddamn map that would tell me how goddamn long this goddamn section would continue. This was a classic sufferfest: put your head down and just turn the cranks. Every time the pedals make a rotation, you’re closer to getting done with it.

Then suddenly I couldn’t see racer #36 anymore. He’d turned! Huzzah! No more crosswind! Oh, wait. No, he’d turned northwest, going directly into the wind. A minute later, I made the turn too, and found another Actif Epica Special: a dirt “road” almost completely covered in snowdrifts. Someone had recently driven a truck down the road, cutting two ruts through all the drifts, and I aimed for the nearer one. But I had been puttering along so slowly for so long that my aim was way off, and I hit the drift. Stop, lean, bobble, lean more, tip over, already laughing and cursing. I expected Mark to ride up to me right then as I struggled to unclip my boots from my pedals, but no, he was still slogging up Shapansky.

Back on my feet and then back on the bike, I could see that #36 was hiking. I was able to ride, and gradually closed on him as we angled northwest, then north again through more crosswind. He grew from a black dot in the distance to an indistinct human figure, then to a cyclist – helmet, jacket, legs. I was excited to be on the verge of contact after seeing him off in the distance since St. Adolphe.

Then another turn, to the southwest. Mon Dieu! Knowing that Winnipeg was due north of us, I got worried here that we’d taken a wrong turn, but ahead of us I could see a weird low hill. Maybe another dike that would take us north? Here the course drifted in again, the snow cover deepening as we approached the hill. #36 was hiking continuously, and I was trying hard to ride as much as I could to catch up before the hill. But now the drifts turned to a thick crust of snow with a skin of windblown black dirt on top – the most bizarre surface that I’d ever crossed on a fatbike, or rather crossed walking next to a fatbike. The snow was loose under the dirt, far too soft to support the bike or me. I postholed for a good ten minutes, trying to roll the bike along next to me and marveling as the weird cake-like appearance of the snow: a thin layer of black, a thick layer of white, and then far below some brown dirt.

Now I was at the bottom of the hill, with #36 on top of it. A lightbulb went off and I remembered that Mark had mentioned we would ride up and over the huge floodway that protects Winnipeg from the Red River’s spring floods. The hill was actually the eastern wall of the floodway, which – Wikipedia says – was at the time of its construction in the 1960s the second-largest earthmoving project in the world, smaller only than the Panama Canal. Still trailing #36, I rode up and onto the berm, down into the floodway – empty except for some grass and more snowdrifts – then back up onto a secondary berm that ran to a massive control gate. On the other side of the gate, #36 turned west again. Down a street? Where the hell were we?

We were already in Winnipeg. The city apparently has no suburbs; you’re either on the prairie suffering in the wind for your sins or on paved streets, dodging cars and trucks. #36 was gone now, hammering on his city bike over city streets. I dug out my cue sheets and zoomed in on my computer’s map, remembering more advice from Mark: that you had to be careful as the race zigged and zagged over streets and bike trails. I didn’t want to take a wrong turn again, as I had at the Arrowhead in January. There the only dangers had been -30º F temps and wolves; who knows what urban terrors lurked in Winnipeg! I might be force-fed poutine or compelled to learn the words to “O Canada”!

Luckily, the course here was remarkably easy to follow, winding this way and that through the city on the way to the last checkpoint at the University of Manitoba. The sidewalks and trails were fairly busy with civilians running, walking, walking their dogs, even riding bikes. Everyone I encountered gave me a nice smile and a wave, except the dogs. Abruptly, #36 reappeared at the far end of a long straightaway. Knowing that we had the checkpoint and then another half hour of riding before the finish, I didn’t try too hard to catch him, but gradually he drifted back to me. Fittingly I finally caught him at a stoplight where we waited in futility for the light to change. I had definitely never had to wait at a stoplight in a fatbike race. He said he’d finished the race on foot a couple times, but that riding wasn’t easier – “just faster.” Finally we decided to cross against the interminable red, and a few minutes later we reached the last checkpoint.

Another racer was there when we arrived, #37, a guy who’d dropped me after the Crystal Springs checkpoint hours before. He was riding a fatbike with drop handlebars, which struck me as perhaps the ideal machine for this wacky race. Could I bounce out of the checkpoint fast enough to steal two spots? No; as I headed out both #36 and #37 left too. We rode together in some places, apart in others, as we left the university campus, crossed the Red River, and headed north through what my computer said were the last ten miles of the race.

I had no desire to get in front of #36 and #37, since they seemed to know where they were going. #36 said we were nearly to the park where we would drop down onto the river itself. We would have something like 5 kilometers to go from that point. More streets and paths, another bridge over the Red River, and then we hooked into a little park over the river. Pedestrians had worn a path down the steep riverbank onto the ice, and we plunged down, #36 leading me and #37 just behind me.

Amazing. The river was spectacularly wide, and down the middle ran two groomed trails, one cleaned to the bare ice for skaters, the other covered with a thin layer of snow for walkers, runners, and cyclists and quite a few dogs wearing neon booties. Hundreds and hundreds of people were on the river, doing all those things or just hanging out on benches on the median between the lanes. I nosed alongside #36, said I wanted to go a little faster, and headed up the ice trail. My rear wheel slipped here and there on the ice, but the snow provided just enough traction that I could easily pedal at 12, 14, 16 mph – far faster than I usually finish a race!

#37 came up around me, down on his bars and working hard. I hung with him for a while, drafting, then moved up beside him, now ahead of him. I realized that the red flags on the median were marking kilometers. We’d just passed 4, and here came 3 already. My legs were burning. I wanted to see if #37 was still with me, but given the ice underneath and the innumerable pedestrians all around, I couldn’t risk a glance back. Crashing on a perfectly flat part of the race and wiping out a bunch of Canadian kids would not be a good way to finish!

On the bench at kilometer marker 2, a hipster was smoking a joint. A strange thing to smell at the end of a race. I could see a bridge looming ahead, the one that marked the official finish line. The crowds thickened around the 1k marker, and more stuff crowded the ice: some sort of museum exhibit, playground equipment, vendors’ kiosks…

I started seeing little spots of light and wished I could see my heart rate on my computer. My pulse was ridiculously loud in my ears. The bridge came toward me. Throngs of people now. Music. The smell of food. I started looking for a finish line or banner, but no: nothing except the shadow of the bridge on the ice. I rode all the way through the shadow and slowed to a stop. #37 was still coming, but I’d reached the bridge first. 4:07 p.m. – not even nine hours of riding! How humane.

I pedaled slowly toward the ramp that led up from the river to the race HQ at a restaurant complex overlooking the point where the Assiniboine River flowed into the Red. #37 caught up to me as we climbed up to the street level. We wove through the pedestrians and hunted down the race HQ. When we found it, we pulled up and got off our bikes, exchanging well-dones. A little boy sitting nearby looked up at me and asked, “Why is your face covered in ice?” I told him I’d just finished a bike race. Some volunteers came out when they saw us and held the doors so we could roll our bikes inside.

There we got a nice round of applause and our trophies – for me, one for finishing the Actif Epica and another for finishing the Tuscobia, the Arrowhead, and the AE in the same winter and thus entering the “Order of the Hrimthurs.” Sure, why not!

#36 came in a few minutes later, and then Mark. The timekeepers announced our places – Mark in 8th, #36 in 7th, #37 in 6th, and me in 5th. I was amazed and pleased – proof that the good feeling I’d had in the first half of the Arrowhead was no fluke. I hope next winter’s racing is as fun and successful as this winter’s. Only a few months till then!

Bonus Miles and Flat Tires at the Arrowhead 135

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AH 2018 trophy photo

Daily Tanka: On Driving up North

On Driving up North, v. 1

Fir, pine, spruce, cedar
Canyon a narrow blacktop
River that allows
Cars to sail through the northwoods
Between the small lonely towns

On Driving up North, v. 2
I’ve sailed cars over
Thousands of miles of blacktop
Rivers running down 
Evergreen canyons to towns
Clinging to the roads’ edges

Fat Pursuit 2017 (part II)

Part I here.

Heading out from the Chick Creek checkpoint, I felt good. I was eager for the next leg of the course, which I had ridden in the other direction during my two attempts at the 200k course. I remembered loving the innumerable long views up and especially down the forested mountainsides and finding the trail not too hard. I encountered a few 200k racers as they worked their way to the checkpoint, and was passed after a few miles by Perry and Josh, two good guys from Spearfish, S.D., who had been at the checkpoint with me. They were having a good time, and pulled away from me pretty easily.

I was trying not to push too hard, fighting the urge to go all out – an urge that has led at more than one race to a huge slowdown after the rest and refreshment of the checkpoint wears off. This more steady approach helped me cover the first seven miles of this section, and keep moving well as I started to climb toward the more challenging trail that would go to West Yellowstone. And the views did not disappoint: I stopped more than once to goggle at the spectacular vistas of the mountainsides patched with stands of lodgepole pines and open fields of white snow. Above, a cloudless blue sky. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect winter.

Snow Bowl on South Black Canyon
10, 12, 14 miles from the checkpoint, I had little to do but ride and think about how I was riding. Mentally, I was fine: thinking clearly, remembering to eat and drink, reading the trail well. Psychologically, the same: enjoying myself, thinking positive thoughts, looking forward to discovering whatever was around the bend – and to facing the bigger challenges later. Physically, too, good: feeling no aches or pains even in places that had hurt last night (back muscles, knees), and especially feeling no real fatigue. I had the sense that I was moving slower than I had overnight, but my average speed was still well ahead of the where I needed to be to finish the race by the cutoff. In short, I felt good for having been riding 20 hours and 90 miles.

Despite all that good feeling, somewhere in the stretch, the fatigue of having been riding for 90 miles and 20 hours (not to mention having been awake for thirty) caught up to me. Very unlike the familiar feeling of nodding off, which wells up from inside, this came on as an irresistible external pressure to sleep. Mindful of the rule that racers cannot sleep on the trail (where snowmachiners could run them over), I looked for and found a little spot off to the side of the trail: a gentle slope between two lodgepole pines, corrugated not long before by some sledder. Without really thinking, I propped the Buffalo in the deep snow alongside the trail, pulled my sleeping pad off the front of the bike, and threw the pad down in the snowy spot. I shrugged off my hydration pack and draped it over the bike’s handlebars, then lay down on the pad. A second later, I woke up, chilled but refreshed. Twenty minutes had passed. As I pulled myself back together, a snowmachine approached. I raised a hand to the driver – Salsa’s Kid Riemer! He hopped off the sled, already shooting pictures and asking how the race was going. I told him that I had just had a little nap, and that I felt good. He commented on my upper lip, which I’d been ignoring since the checkpoint, and repeated what I’d heard at the checkpoint about the attrition up front. He guessed that only ten riders were still riding, and none of the pre-race favorites.

This heartened and surprised me, just as it had at the checkpoint. Had the night been that hard? Recombobulated, I climbed back on the Buffalo, said my goodbye to Kid, and headed up the trail. The little bit of extra mental and physical energy provided by the nap put me in a reflective frame of mind, and I concluded that though I wouldn’t pass up the chance to ride any section of the Fat Pursuit course again under less strenuous circumstances, I would probably choose this one if I could – any easy daylong out-and-back jaunt from Island Park. Someday!

The undulating trail was wide and white but far from uniform. Snowmachine tracks – the skis and the treads – covered almost all of it, but dozens of big and small snow boulders had rolled down off the slope to the left. Small softball-sized ones only rolled a few feet onto the trail. Bigger ones – soccer balls, beach balls – made it halfway across, into my path down the middle of the track. I enjoyed riding over some of them, feeling the Buffalo’s tires break them in half. A small amusement.

Around one bend, I saw a cluster of riders ahead. I assumed that Josh and Perry were among them, but when I approached, several sledders broke away and rode their machines down into a big bowl, leaving two bikers. I caught them and we aid out hellos. I didn’t recognize either of them, but Graham had started the 200 mile race with me, and Kellie had started the 200 kilometer race that morning. We rode together until we reached the big turn to the north, toward West Yellowstone. They stopped there, Graham lying down in the snow for a nap while Kellie had a snack.

I pushed on, remembering how hard this trail had been during my first attempt at the Fat Pursuit in 2014: a soft, ungroomed mess that I had not been able to ride for more than a few yards at a time. Today, the trail was firm and smooth, easy to ride even as it tipped upwards. As my computer’s elevation reading went up, though, the sun went down, though. The trail turned light blue, then gray, then black except where my headlamp and headlight shined. 5:00 p.m. came and went. I’d been riding for 24 hours.

Not being able to see much of the trail now, I just rode toward the yellow spots of light in front of me. Eat, drink, stretch, occasionally hop off to walk a tougher section. I crossed from Idaho into Montana. Somewhere on the climb, I caught or was caught by another rider, Greg, who said he was a friend of JayP’s. The surprise of seeing another rider – and especially of having more light on the trail – was a nice diversion from the trail and the trees. As we rode, I filed away details about him: his Canadian accent, his beautiful blue Kona Wo fatbike, his use of a silver beer growler for water. “That’s a good idea,” I told him. “Yeah, it holds a lot of water, but it all tastes like beer!”

Our trail emerged from the woods onto a high ridge – the South Plateau – and exposed us to a sharp wind, blowing from the west across our path. Finger drifts reached across the track, and here and there, the wind created weird patterns that looked like runes. Getting tired again, I knew that they weren’t letters, but I tried anyhow to decipher them. Though the drifting had obscured any snowmobile or bike tracks, some small animal was traveling just ahead of us, leaving a line of crisp paw prints the size of half dollars. We were leaving footprints, too, walking about as much as we were riding. I promised Greg that we would soon hit the faster sections that descended to West Yellowstone, but these downhills kept not arriving. After Greg pulled away from me at one point, I caught him as he prepared to bivvy, saying that he needed some sleep. I assured him that we were not far from West, and the second checkpoint, where I’d already decided to get some good sleep – or maybe I begged him to keep going with me.

However that conversation went, he did get back on his bike, and sure enough, we finally reached the downhill run to West. Doing 4, 5, 7 mph was marvelous. Greg pulled away from me again, a red human form, then a gray shape, then just a blinking rear light, then nothing but a fresh track in the snow. From my computer’s mileage reading, I could tell we were within a few miles of West Yellowstone now. A few signs appeared, some presenting miles-to-go numbers that seemed absurdly high. Gates barring entry to this or that road. The red light on a radio tower south of town. A dim yellow skyglow from the town itself. The descent ended with a straight trail toward the hotels and cabins at the south edge of West Yellowstone. Another rider suddenly passed us. Greg sped up to ride with him. Lagging and feeling really tired, I took a bad route to the checkpoint. What should have been a quick zip-zip ride over the streets turned into a tour of the eastern half of the town.

Finally, at 2:30 a.m., I pulled into the open garage where a few other bikes were resting. I leaned the Buffalo against an open spot on the wall, grabbed a few items off the bike, and headed up the steps into the checkpoint.

The Buffalo Resting at West
The volunteers gave me a hearty welcome. A number of other racers were there too, including Greg and the guy who had passed us as we reached town – my friend Jon, who said that he was going to stop there, that reaching West had been his goal. The living room was full of sleeping riders, some of whom, the volunteers said, had also decided to stop. They asked me what I was planning to do. I told them that I was going to take a nap and then continue. A photo by Jon’s girlfriend, who had been waiting for him at the checkpoint, suggests why they seemed surprised to hear this:

West Mess (photo by Anne Leider-Snyder)
West Mess (photo by Anne Leider-Snyder)
Taking off my vest and shell and hats, I used hot water to melt off my icebeard and sat down to eat a bowl of soup and two grilled-cheese sandwiches. I finished the soup, but halfway through the first sandwich, I realized I needed that nap. The volunteers pointed me downstairs. I decided to take a 90-minute nap to get through one full sleep cycle. I set my phone’s alarm (thank god you can just tell Siri what to do!) and crashed into sleep. After at least one major coughing fit, the alarm sounded. Feeling awful, I decided to grab 20 more minutes of sleep. When that alarm buzzed, I vaulted out of bed, feeling great. It was a little after 5:00 – 36 hours into the race, and one hour before the cutoff time to leave the checkpoint.

Back upstairs, I found different volunteers on duty and more racers at the table. Everyone was quitting or had quit except Graham and Kellie, whom I’d last seen in the afternoon as we turned north toward West. A volunteer asked me if I was planning to continue. “Yes! I feel good!” His eyes widened. “Really? Okay! Good. I’ll tell the race director.” I tried to hustle through everything I needed to do. Two more bowls of soup. A handful of gels to stash on my bike. Hot water in my pack, along with 2 or maybe 10 hydration tablets. New batteries in my headlamp and headlight. Last, a check of the forecast – “1 to 2 inches of snow during the day,” a volunteer told me – and directions back to the course – “Just turn right on the street here and keep going. The street turns into the trail.” 5:58! Time to go. I climbed into the Buffalo and pedaled out of the garage, turned right, almost instantly left town.

For a few miles, the course headed due north, between the West Yellowstone airport and the highway that runs up to Bozeman. I could hear an occasional car through the trees, but steadily I moved away from the road and reentered the black, silent woods. The riding was easy, and pedaling again – after three hours at the checkpoint- was comfortable and familiar. The sleep had been effective, providing physical rest as well as mental rejuvenation. I wasn’t sure exactly when the sun would come up, but I knew that I’d get a boost from the sunshine, and that the boost would help me in turn get up and over Mount Two Top, the 7,880-foot mountain that loomed as the next big challenge on the course. And the last big one, for after Two Top was a long downhill and flat run to the third checkpoint.

As I turned east off onto the trail that ran along the southern shore of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, I checked my average speed. I was still ahead of the pace needed to reach the third checkpoint by the cutoff time of 6 p.m. – about twelve hours into the future – and thus also ahead of the pace needed to finish the race by midnight or a little later. That would mean a total race time of 55 hours or so. Longer than I expected, but feasible if my legs held up. Certainly, I had enough food and water to go that long.

Winding over these flat tracks, I was aware suddenly the sun had come up behind me, lending pale blue and gray tones to everything. At first, I could hardly see the trail in the flat light, but gradually the light sharpened enough that I could see the trail and, across the Madison Arm, the curving banks of Horse Butte – notable to me as one of the few places outside of Yellowstone National Park into which the park’s bison can safely migrate. I hoped to see some buffalo over there, but didn’t. On my side of the lake, a few trees, some shrubs and brush, acres of open country. I wasn’t moving fast but I was moving steadily, now mostly west, not needing to dismount for the few inclines or the occasional snowdrifts. I found another racer’s tracks and tried to follow them. The trail bent south, past mile markers, through an idle campground, and back into thicker trees. Above the trees, Two Top, maybe 10 miles away in gray sunlight.

The mile markers ticked by. I crossed Highway 20 (the finish was 22 miles away by car from that spot) and rode a short spur trail toward Two Top Loop, which would go up, over, and down the mountain. Coming off this spur to turn toward Two Top – now looming dead ahead, green-black with trees but bare on the summits – I saw ahead of me a pack of dogs. Wolves? No, too small. Just as I saw that they were sled dogs, harnessed up and raring to go, their driver shouted to me from off-trail: “Hey, can you do me a big favor?” I stopped. “What is it? I’m in a bike race.” He explained he’d dropped something on the trail and needed me to hold the dogs in place while he retrieved it.

So I dutifully stood there, one foot on the sled’s brake and both hands wrapped around a rope tied to the sled’s chassis, while he sprinted away and then returned with a lost shovel. “Thanks, man. You’re a lifesaver. Have a good ride!” He took the rope from me, tossed it on the sled, pulled up the brake, and shouted to the lead dogs. They ripped off down the trail, throwing up plumes of snow behind the sled. I stepped back onto the Buffalo and pointed myself at Two Top.

Heading toward Two Top
I had an unsophisticated strategy for getting over Two Top – and into the last 35 miles of the race: to climb the mountain as steadily as possible, going slowly but continuously, and then to attack the descent, making up time so that I reached the flats by mid-afternoon. I reached the foot of the mountain at about 11 a.m., riding as far up the climb as I could before dismounting for what I knew would be a long hike-a-bike session from about 6,600 feet to about 8,000 feet.

On Two Top
1,400 feet of climbing, more or less. I tackled the climb by going 100 feet at a time, more or less, fourteen times, more or less. On some steep pitches, my computer showed me gaining a foot with every step. 100 steps earned 100 feet. More often, I needed to take two or four or even ten steps to climb a foot. And of course, the Buffalo didn’t roll itself up the hill; I had to push it. Sometimes I had my hands on the bars and walked pretty naturally. Other times, I had to lean in, chest almost on the bars. Here and there, I had to put one hand on the stem and one on the seat and push from behind.

Climbing Two Top
Foot by foot, though, we made our way up, encountering a few groups of snowmachiners. One group, heading up, stopped just up the trail from me and, in unison, reached up to activate the GoPros on their helmets. Another group, coming down, slowed and stopped when they saw me. The leader looked at me and shook his head before roaring away again. I only talked to one group of sledders, two guys in U.S. Forest Service jackets who asked jovially how the race was going. I slurped water from my backpack while we chatted, then waved as they headed uphill. The fact that the riders were on different brands of snowmachines bothered me. Shouldn’t the government have a uniform fleet of snowmobiles?

Suddenly, the trail flattened and I saw the sign marking the Continental Divide, the boundary between Montana and Idaho. This spot isn’t the top of Two Top, but I wanted to commemorate the moment. Two tourists were taking pictures of each other at the sign, and I asked them to take one of me, which they obligingly did – without commenting on how much I looked like death warmed up.

At the Continental Divide (7,733 feet)
I was happy to be on top of Two Top, but the climb had already eaten up a lot of clock. I had about three hours to reach the third checkpoint – just barely feasible, and only possible if I could ride fast on the descent and then hold a good pace on the trails from the far side of the mountain to the checkpoint.

The bad part of Two Top is that the summit is not a peak but a wide ridge, a patchwork of snowfields and stands of trees, with the trail winding every which way. Up here, the snow and the wind turned the trees into the famous “snow ghosts,” some of the most amazing and bizarre sights I’ve ever seen:

Two Top Snow Ghosts
I could ride many parts of this flatter section, but now the light flurries that had started as I reached the divide began to intensify. In the fields, the wind whipped the snow at me; in the woods, the snow drifted down. I could not see any bike tracks, and even the snowmachine tracks were nearly obscured. One more group of sleds went past me as I crossed an especially wide meadow, giving me a wide berth and roaring up a steep bank that I knew I would have to walk.

I didn’t know that those helmeted snowmobilers would be the last people I’d see for eight or nine hours. I did know, as reached the slope they had zoomed over, that my Fat Pursuit was over. My average speed had now dipped under the minimum finishing pace, and I had less than three hours to cover almost twenty miles to the checkpoint. With fresh legs and compliant trails, I could meet this challenge. With exhausted legs and snowed-in trails, I could not. I was not going to reach the next checkpoint by the cutoff.

“Fuck fuck FUCK!” I was pissed. I shouted, I stamped my feet, I even felt a couple tears trickle down my cheeks. “I wanted this so bad,” I said out loud, possibly to the Buffalo. The bike didn’t respond. I hauled it up the ramp, through a grove of trees, and out into a wide meadow.

I climbed onto the Buffalo and pointed our front wheel at the trail markers I could see down the trail. In this open area, though, the flurries became a blizzard, raising walls of snow in front of me and obscuring the markers as I rode toward them. The snow under me was uniformly windblown, hiding the edges of the trail as well as any snowmachine or bike tracks.

This was crazy. As crazy a moment as I’d experienced in any fatbike race – and at least as crazy as biking through the forty-below temperatures on Saturday morning, 36 hours before. I thought for a second about whether I was in any danger. I decided I wasn’t. I was warm and dry. I wasn’t too hungry or thirsty, though I’d have gladly accepted anything to eat or drink that I hadn’t been eating and drinking since Friday evening. My legs were heavy, yes, but not sore, and I didn’t even feel tired so much as weary. As my outburst a few minutes before showed, I could still think, and make clear decisions about riding and resting, not just stopping and going as whims struck or my body allowed.

So no I wasn’t in danger, even if I couldn’t see how I was going to get off the mountain. But I was disappointed – that I hadn’t made better time earlier in the race, that I hadn’t gotten further down the course before the snow started, that now I would not finish.

But whatever. I couldn’t do anything about any of that now, but I could try to ride the Buffalo off the mountain and then as far down the trail as possible by 6 p.m. Maybe I could get to the last main junction before the trail turned north to the third checkpoint. Reaching that goal would be worth something.

I stood there for a minute, looking down the mountain, trying to pick out the paired posts that marked the edges of the trail. I could barely see the nearest ones, which were perhaps 20 feet away. I couldn’t seen the next pair at all. With nothing better to do, I dug out my phone and took a picture so I’d always be able to see just how bad the conditions were. Turns out, the phone’s camera was better at finding the posts in the blizzard than my eyes!

Two Top Whiteout
I had been racing for almost exactly 48 hours when I took this picture. I knew I could not finish the race as I’d hoped, but I also knew I had a lot of good work to do to get down to some spot where I could “self rescue” by riding back to Island Park or maybe get picked up by one of my cabinmates. I texted my friend Ben to let him know where I was, though he already knew thanks to the online race tracker. I told him I was going to ride and walk as far as I could and then update him.

Climbing back on the Buffalo, I headed down the mountain. We could ride some of the steeper parts, though the drifts made steering difficult. My computer showed that we were steadily losing elevation and approaching the turnoff from the trail over Two Top onto another trail that ran toward Island Park. Ride the downhills, hike-a-bike the intermittent uphills, pedal, walk, pedal, walk. Back into unbroken woods again.

The sky had turned from gray to black again, my third nightfall of the race. I don’t think I’d been aware of any dawn or dusk as it happened, only after it was over. In the dark, the snow kept falling, filling the flatter tracks and slowing me down even more. I crossed back into Montana, then back into Idaho. Montana, Idaho. Sometimes riding, sometimes walking. 6 p.m.

Around 7 p.m., I made the turn off the Two Top trail and onto a trail – Railroad Grade – that I remembered from my two previous races as being fast and fun, an undulating, curvy section that repaid a certain necessary effort with decent speed and the pleasure of riding fast.

I found though that Railroad was not fast this year. From one edge to the other, the trail was snowed in. An inch or two here, three or four inches there. Snow boulders like those I’d seen on Saturday afternoon – 28, 30 hours ago! – had rolled onto this trail too, but here they were points where snowdrifts could grow. I tried to ride or walk around these obstacles, but my body and mind were finally failing. I’d stumble and fall, or oversteer and crash. Getting up, I sipped a little water or tried to eat something. My water was almost gone, though, and every single item of food tasted the same – like sweetened chalk. 8 p.m. More than once, a tree dumped some of its snow on me as I stood on the trail. I wondered if somehow my headlight was causing those snow dumps. My computer died, so I had to remember how to put in fresh batteries.

As tired as I felt, I also felt relieved that I was, for all intents and purposes, done with the race. I just needed to get off the course. Walking and riding and stumbling and weaving, I made my way down Railroad Grade. To my surprise, I now picked out at least two sets of tracks – bike tires and footprints. I wondered who was ahead of me, and if I could catch them. 9 p.m.

My computer showed that I had just a couple miles to the spot where Railroad Grade ended. There, the racecourse went north toward the third checkpoint, eight miles or so away. Looking at my map, though, I could see that continuing straight west for about that same distance would get me out to the highway. I decided to do that. I texted Ben to let him know, then resumed the trudge. Somewhere in this last stretch, I saw ahead of me, smack in the middle of the trail, an LP gas tank, the sort that might sit outside some rural house. I knew that the tank wasn’t really there in front of me, and yet… As I rode closer, it of course vanished. I kept riding, laughing a little to myself at the oddity of that hallucination.

The turn off Railroad. 10 p.m. A bit more walking and riding brought me to the junction where I planned to keep going west. 10:20. I needed longer than I should have to do the math and figure out that I’d been riding for just over 53 hours – minus the two naps. I was very hungry.

Standing at the junction sign, I tried to figure out which way to go. The trail toward the highway did not start right at the signpost, so I started to wander around a little bit, trying to pick it up. My initial foray put me in the middle of a snowfield, up to my waist in snowmachine-churned powder. As I extricated myself, I saw a snowmachine coming down the trail from the north, the direction of the checkpoint. I waved, hoping the driver would see me, stop, and help me get oriented.

The sled wasn’t driven by just anyone, though: it was JayP, out looking for stragglers like me. Just as he had when he pulled me off the course in 2014, he asked, “How are you doing?” I answered honestly: “I’m tired. I’m going to head out to the highway from here, but I can’t find the trail.” He used his headlamp to find it, a freshly groomed track not ten feet from the signpost. “What happened to your lip?” With the tip of my tongue, I touched my lip. Stinging. “I think I might have gotten some frostbite.” Jay nodded. He said that he was going to go find two racers who were ahead of me but had gone off course, and then go back to the third checkpoint to retrieve the only other 200-mile racer, a guy who’d reached and then left the third checkpoint only to tire and return. I said I was going to ride out to the highway, then ride back to Island Park on the road. Jay said that he’d watch the online race tracker and see if he could meet me at the highway instead.

He roared off up the trail. 10:45. I climbed onto the Buffalo, immensely relieved that I knew how things were going to end. The groomed trail was wondrously smooth and firm, and I enjoyed riding the three or four miles toward the highway. Going oh so slowly, I crossed the Henry’s Fork again, a few miles upstream from where we had seen it on Friday night near Harriman State Park.

I began seeing more street signs, so I knew I was getting close to the highway. Up ahead, red tail lights. A bike, or a set of bikes. No, a car. No, a van – Jay’s van. I rolled over a berm left by a snowplow and onto a paved street. Kid Riemer, Jay, and Gary, a volunteer I’d seen at the first checkpoint on Saturday morning, came toward me, congratulating me on my race. I could barely speak, from both emotion and horrific dehydration. They took the Buffalo from me and packed it in the van, then helped me up and into a seat alongside Graham and Kellie.

We talked quietly about the race as Jay drove us back to Pond’s. I didn’t know what to say or think beyond the fact that the Fat Pursuit had been an extraordinary experience, and so much more than I expected in so many ways – duration, intensity, beauty, difficulty. My computer showed 55 hours of riding time and 176 miles covered. 

Hunched there in the van as we hummed along the highway, I knew I needed to do the race again in 2018. I just needed to go faster, so the race wouldn’t take so long. First, though, food and drink and sleep.

 

Daytripping

I’ve been working as a more or less professional for nearly 20 years now, but Wednesday was the first time I did a one-day business trip by plane – to attend an meeting in Chicago.

O’Hare Selfie

The event itself was great, which was the main thing – an all-day workshop at which a colleague and I described how our colleges collaborate.

The travel was, really, fine: the meeting conveners paid for my plane ticket, the flights and El rides were on time, and it’s stupidly easy to get great coffee when you’re traveling by air. #good #better #best

Beyond that, though, the experience was interesting, in the Minnesota sense. This kind of travel is amazingly tiring, for one thing. After getting up at 3 a.m. to be ready for the airport shuttle at 4, I was at the airport at 4:45, one business-casual white guy in a horde of us. (Turns out, being up at that time gives me a splitting headache.) Flight, train, meeting, train, flight, shuttle, and I was back home by 9 p.m. – a solid 18-hour day.

For a second thing, the condensed nature of this trip revealed just how much of a noob I am at travel. On the way back home, my traveling companion pointed out that I had somehow, without any volition on my part, been granted TSA’s pre-check status. I’d never applied for it, to my knowledge, and certainly never paid the $85 for it. And yet there it was on my boarding pass, whisking me through security. I’d estimate that 80% of the other TSA Pre passengers were white guys of +/- 20 years of my age. Most of the rest were white women of similar ages (like my fellow traveler). The few non-white Pre passengers exuded wealth.

So I guess I have that going for me.

For a last thing, travel of this sort drains away a lot of the aspects of travel that I enjoy the most, like just looking around, or having foods that I usually don’t, or pausing to people watch. No time for that when you have to get to the plane/train/office! I’ll have to make up for this by going extra slow and eating extra much on my next trip.