Yoopersotan in Wind River Canyon

The drive out of Idaho was stunning: the west side of the Tetons from Idaho; the twisting, turning route over Teton Pass; a delicious breakfast in Wilson, Wyoming; the beauty (and seductive tourist-trappiness) of Jackson, W-Y; the east side of the Tetons; the heights of Togwotee Pass in the Absaroka Mountains (9,658 feet! the highest terrestrial point I’ve ever visited); the dry plains in northwest Wyoming; and most spectacularly, the impossible Wind River Canyon. Miles long, and every turn revealed a more stunning view than the last. Here I am, spoiling one of those views.

Yoopersotan in Wind River Canyon

Racecourse Recon

Taking advantage of some downtime and of the gorgeous weather the day before the race (30 degrees F, sunny, blue skies, no wind), Minnesota Mark and Wisconsin Mark and I went out for a short ride, inspecting the first and last few miles of the racecourse. This view looking west toward Sawtelle Mountain was pretty great.

The Marks checking out the finish

Gallatin River Gorge(ous)

The Gallatin River gorge in western Montana, south of Bozeman in the Gallatin National Forest, was my favorite discovery of the 2014 Fat Pursuit trip. The scenery was just as beautiful this year. Here are two shots taken from the Greek Creek Campground just off US 191. The water was as cold as any I’ve ever felt.

Looking north along the river (see the fly fishermen?):
Looking north along the Gallatin

Looking south along the river:

Looking south along the Gallatin


Like pretty much every aspect of and moment I’m adulthood, Christmas 2014 had been a mix of good and bad.

Time with family, gifts, a couple fun outings, and holiday food have been good. No time for Scrabble and poor weather has been bad, but nothing’s been worse than Vivi getting sick again – this time on Christmas Day with what we’re assuming is the stomach flu. Poor kiddo, and poor Mama for missing out while taking care of her…

Sick Vivi

Oakland C-A

One of the high points of most summers at work is a conference for other grantwriters at liberal arts colleges. The conference moves around the country each year, and this year was held at Mills College, a beautiful little institution in Oakland, California.
Mills College Views

Mills is crowded with amazing eucalyptus trees
Eucalyptus Trees

and gorgeous buildings
Mills Views II

with wonderful art.
Lion Sculpture

I enjoyed and benefited from the meetings themselves, which were held in this great room:
Mills Views III

I also enjoyed staying at an amazing old hotel in Oakland, the Claremont – to which I took my first-ever Uber ride, making me feel very urban, and which afforded incredible views of San Francisco:

San Franscisco from the Claremont

We also took a nice trip to the Wente Vineyards, an old vineyard southeast of the city. I’m not much for wine, but vineyards are apparently always spectacularly gorgeous.
Vineyard Magic Hour

Plus I got to see my cool cousin Sara, though we didn’t remember to document our meetup with photos. All in all, it was a pretty wonderful trip. I’m lucky to have such great trips to make for my job!

Firewood 4 Sale

Even though our vacation came at the start of summer, we saw lots of firewood for sale in the UP. Every other rural house or small-town gas station seemed to be selling camp wood for sale, always on the honor system. $4 a bundle was the normal rate, but I did see some priced to move at $3. This appears to an unexploited marketplace inefficiency. Someone should buy all the cheap wood, then sell it to desperate tourists at campgrounds for $6.

Bruce Crossing Cenex

Here and there, I also saw bigger quantities for sale – by the cord, by the pile, or even by the truckload, albeit through a raffle.
South Range

To Idaho and Back (In Snippets)

Day 1
I35 south to I90 west to the Rocky Mountains. The long flat straights of South Dakota. Gas station stops for fuel, beef jerky, and water. Passing the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Lake Francis Case on the Missouri River. So many Wall Drug signs. Cheap Subway somewhere on the road, made by a sandwich artist who had recently been beat up. Finally, Wall, but not Wall Drug – just a dinosaur statue and a gas station. The dim Badlands at dusk. Wyoming warnings to chain up. The hellish-looking coal plant outside Gillette. A good night of sleep in the industrial-park Super8 in Billings.

Day 2
The mountains mounting in the distance. Flatlander freakouts start. A morning gas stop in Bozeman, where we saw no bozes. Lumberyards full of timbers for "log cabin homes" after the Four Corners south of Bozeman. The amazing morning drive south on US 191 through the Gallatin River valley. Overpriced Subway and snowed-in shops in West Yellowstone. Up and over the Continental Divide outside West. Dicey driving on US 20 down to Island Park, Idaho. "The longest main street in America." Pond’s Lodge and Cabin 17.
Cabin 17

Admiring the Mad Max snowmachines in the parking lot. (These aren’t Midwestern sleds.)
Mountain Sleds

Riding bikes along the edge of Harriman State Park).
Harriman State Park

Coyotes watching us from the banks of Henry Fork, snowmachiners watching us from the back of the Last Chance. Driving off the mountain through all the winter weather for dinner. Rexburg, home of the biggest Mormon temple in Idaho. All you can eat pizza at Pizza Pie Cafe. Sharing the dining room with a Mormon youth group discussing the best thing in your life right now. (Nobody said "racing bikes.") Getting groceries at Albertson’s, a Super Valu in different colors. Home again. One last night of good sleep before before the race, except for the nightmare about ferrets.

Day 3
A lazy morning. Meeting Kid Riemer, the voice of "The Push." Coffee and breakfast and a morning drive to Fitzgeralds Bicycles in Victor. Every kind of weather coming off the mountain. A snowmachine trail next to the road, wider than the road. The big potato at the Spuds Drive-in in Driggs. The invisible Tetons in the distance. Taking advantage of the sales at Fitzgeralds and having an excellent americano. Newpaper stories about wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Relaxing all afternoon, but not really. Meeting the other roomies. Setting up the bikes. Meeting other racers at Pond’s. A bowl of beef stew and a hard cider for pre-dinner. The pre-race meeting. JayP turning the stoke to 11.
JayP at the Pre-Race Meeting

A huge pre-race dinner. More bike and kit prep. A surprise visit from JayP. Trying to go to bed, but actually staying up too late, jittered.

*Day 4
Day 1

Night Trees

Day 5
Day 2

The six telephone poles leading to the US 20 crossing. JayP pulling me from the race. Disappointment shading into a shattered kind of satisfaction. Race talk with Ben, the fourth-place finisher. A horrible, wonderful shower. Dinner at Pond’s with other racers. The happy chatter of race stories. Swag from JayP. A hard sleep full of nightmares and visits to the bathroom.

Day 6
Up early-ish. Saying goodbye to Kid. A gas stop in West for double-caffeinated coffee. Wondering where Checkpoint Two had been. The morning drive up US 191 along the Gallatin to Bozeman – even more amazing than it had been on the way in. Surprised to be missing a place that I hadn’t even known, or left yet.
Gallatin River Valley

One annoyed big horn sheep.
Bighorn Sheep

Bozeman through the car windows. The big mountains turning to lower mountains turning to hills turning to almost plains. Wyoming again, "Forever West" (unless you’re in Idaho). A lone pronghorn in a field along the road. Devil’s Tower in the northerly distance. Loaded coal trains heading east, empty ones coming west. A superb burger and beer in Spearfish with a mountain bike on the wall. The Super8 in Chamberlain.

Day 7
A carb-y breakfast and then the rest of the road trip.

A partial list of amusingly named gas stations on the trip: Pump & Munch. Kum & Go. Loaf & Jug. The long straight flats of eastern South Dakota. A stop for Caribou Coffee and amazing donuts. The mysterious barn-y building in Worthington, Minnesota. Turning north again. F’real milkshakes at one last stop outside Owatonna. The backroads into Northfield. Home again. Sad to see Ben off. Unpacking forever. Getting my laundry done before the family gets home from school. Satisfaction, happiness, tiredness.

Fire at the Fat Pursuit

Last weekend’s Backyard Fat Pursuit bike race in Idaho was far harder, more fun, and more amazing than I expected. The race ended for me at five on Sunday afternoon, when the race director intercepted me on the course and asked me to stop, as I was hours off any decent pace.

I am still struggling to think coherently about the race – partly because my body and mind were shattered by the effort and partly because I just have not had enough time to think the event through. If I were not trying to project an image of myself as a hardened ultraendurance athlete, I might admit that I’ve cried every day since I stopped riding, 102.66 miles and 33:59 after the starting gun.

Suffice to say the whole thing – the road trip out there with my new friend (and super fast guy) Ben Doom, our prep and recovery in Idaho, and of course the race itself – was even more challenging and satisfying than the Arrowhead 135, which was itself a peak experience in my life. I tip my sweat-soaked cycling cap to Jay Petervary, the race director and a great guy, and his army of volunteers and sponsors. They staged a race that pushed me much further than I expected.

So while I figure out exactly what to say about the race itself and about the rest of the experience (preview: bike racing is hard, Ben is awesome, the Yellowstone area is impossibly beautiful, I can go a lot harder and longer than I thought, I need to do this race again), let me tell you about how I gave myself a second-degree burn during a fatbike race in the snow.

Like the Arrowhead, the Fat Pursuit requires every racer to carry a certain amount of gear. Those of us who were taking on the 200km race had to ride with various lights and spare batteries, a GPS tracker, a cold-weather sleeping kit, and survival cooking gear – a stove, pot, fuel, fire starter. No problem: I had all this stuff from the Arrowhead.

Unlike the Arrowhead’s organizers, who were satisfied to check that you had all the gear and who assumed you knew how to use it, JayP wanted to be sure that we could use our gear, especially the most crucial gear – the stove. On the race website and then again at the race orientation meeting on Friday night, Jay P said that all of the long-distance racers would need to prove that they could boil eight ounces of water. Where would they need to do this? He wouldn’t say. What would happen to a racer who could not get the water boiling? They would be disqualified from the race.

With that promise slash threat hanging over the 19 of us who had registered for the full distance, we hit the trail at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning.
On the Line

Our race started by sending us out onto a big loop that would be the same course ridden by the 60k racers, who would start two hours later. The first checkpoint was located about 50km into the race, at a corner where the long course turned west and toward 150 more kilometers of racing while the short course turned east for the 10km run back to the finish.

Getting to Checkpoint 1 was tough. The trails were amazingly hilly even there, and I spent a fair amount of time pushing my bike up unridable hills, over flats covered in unridable snow, or through unridable snow on unridable hills. I was enormously relieved to finally come on the first checkpoint, six hours into the race. I expected to be able to sit down, to eat, to drink, and to rest. First, though, JayP came up and said I needed to boil that water.

Surprised by not shocked, I dug my stove, fuel, and firestarter out of the most accessible part of my bike’s saddle bag, where I had had the forethought to stash them. Having boiled water on this stove at home, I knew I could do it. But boiling some tap water in the back yard, two feet and a patio door from my living room, is a far different thing than boiling icy slush poured from my bike bottle into an aluminum cup balanced precariously on a tiny stove resting on the ground on a snowy, windy trail in a remote Idaho forest.

This was of course Jay P’s point.

As I dug out my stuff, another racer – a nice guy and a great rider with whom I was sharing a cabin at the race start – told me that he had not been able to get his stove lit, and so had been disqualified. He admitted that he was feeling much worse than he had expected, so dropping out was the right thing to do. Since he had been far ahead of me on the trail, this rattled me a little bit. I wished him well, though, and squatted down in the snow. I unfolded the little stove, popped a fuel cube out of its package, set the cube in the center of the stove, and tried my lighter, leaning close to the fuel so that the flame would catch right away.

Except the lighter didn’t catch and provide even a spark, much less a flame. JayP was standing nearby, watching but saying nothing. Seeing me struggle, my new friend Kid, who was on course shooting photos for the race sponsor, Salsa Cycles, advised me to warm up the lighter and try again in a few minutes. I stuck the lighter in my armpit and went over to the shelter to stuff my face with cookies. Jay told me to put on my puffer jacket to stay warm. I put on my puffer jacket. Kid hovered nearby, taking photos of me and of others at the checkpoint.

A few minutes later, I tried again. I was working barehanded, and my hands started to shake so violently that I couldn’t really hold the lighter, much less flick my thumb down on the spark wheel. I put the lighter back under my arm and tried instead with the strike-anywhere matches I had brought as a backup.

You know where strike-anywhere matches don’t strike? On a frigid, windy snowmobile trail in the Idaho mountains, that’s where. Watching from the far end of my arm as the matches refused to light, I realized I was in trouble. I often laugh when I’m nervous, and I must have sounded like a lunatic now. But my hands were completely numb, and my options were foreclosing. Kid and a race volunteer tried to help me by forming a semicircle to try and block the wind, which was coming down the hill toward the checkpoint, then whipping into a spirit-killing swirl.

At several points, thanks to Kid and the volunteer, I managed to light some of the matches with the lighter, but the flames always went out before igniting the fuel cube. The two dozen matches I had counted out at home – plenty, right? who would even need more than 24 matches in a bike race? -dwindled to just five. Trying the lighter again and again and one match after another, I could see my whole race going up in nonexistent flames.

Kid and the volunteer could not help me in any direct way, but Kid – an experienced rider and outdoors guy – started offering advice. Break another fuel cube in half and grind the halves together to sprinkle powder over the big tablet. Set the cubes on the matches that had burned without lighting the main cube. Lean down further. Hold the lighter against my chest as I struck the spark wheel. As I tried this, my frozen hands sabotaged me, dropping the lighter top-down into the snow. Though I tried to knock the snow out, I could see there was more in there, and that the nozzle was probably plugged.

JayP’s point about being ready for real survival situations was being driven home like an icicle falling into a snowbank. Just as I was about to give up, JayP himself came over from where he’d been watching other 200km racers light their fires and rooting on 60km racers. I hated those guys as they sped right through the checkpoint on their loathsome rigs, which weren’t weighed down with sleeping bags, a gallon of water, or stupid fucking stoves.

"Try in the shelter." I had forgotten about the little black enclosed shelter next to the snack table. I moved my useless pile of junk from the snow to the shelter. Immediately a little warmer, and out of the wind, I calmed down and tried a few more times, alternating fire starting with face stuffing. I managed to get a couple small flames going, but the main fuel cube refused to light. Then, a miracle: someone stuck his arm through the zipper door of the shelter. "Trade you?" Whoever it was – the volunteer who’d been helping me before? JayP? Another racer? – was handing me a tiny green lighter. I took it and passed back my useless orange one.

I crouched on the snow in front of the bench where I had put the stove. Picked up one intact match with my deadened left hand. Held the match head to the new lighter. Flicked the spark wheel with my dead right hand. A flame jumped up and lit the match in what seemed like a goddamn supernova. Trying to stay calm, I tilted forward and set the burning match on top of the big tablet. Immediately, the fuel powder caught fire. That flame lit the two ground-down parts of the second tablet, and then they lit the main tablet. Chain reaction!

I put my aluminum cup full of water – which had turned from slush to solid ice in the time I had been demonstrating my shitty outdoors skills – on top of the stove. I couldn’t quite believe that the fire was going, but somehow it was. I waited for a few minutes, watching the flames grow until they were lapping up the outside of the cup. The ice melted. The water simmered. The water boiled.

Elated, I popped out of the shelter as if I had just invented fire. Stupidly, I beat my chest and yelled, "Fire!" JayP came over, ducked his head into the shelter, and verified that the water was in fact boiling. "Good," he said, and went over to the race roster to note that I had passed the test, presumably by ticking the box marked "Idiot who somehow did it."

I let the water boil for a little longer, then swung the handles of the cup out and picked it up. The fucking thing was hot, and burned my thumb badly enough that the skin instantaneously blistered. I couldn’t feel a thing, whether from the cold or the adrenaline. I went over to the snack table with my hot water and dumped about a cup of cocoa mix into the cup. In any other situation, the drink would have been disgusting, but I drank every drop and then scraped up the chocolate goo with a spoon.

Mission accomplished, I ate more food – cookies, pretzels, potato chips, a couple energy bars, the only remaining cup of beef ramen – while waiting for my hard-won fire to die down. When only embers remained, I dumped the ashes into the snow and packed everything back up. JayP came over. "Take some paper with you, and make sure it’s in a Ziploc." I dutifully stuffed a few sheets of paper towel into the bag with my fuel tablets, my last few precious matches, and the heaven-sent lighter and put all that and the stove into my flame-marked, cocoa-goo’ed cup. I stripped off my puffer jacket and wadded it back into my saddlebag, then put in the stove kit, where I could get them back out in five seconds if or when I needed them again.

"I’m heading out," I told the volunteer with the roster. "Number 17." He wrote my check-out time on the roster. I picked up the Beast and pointed myself up the trail. The second checkpoint, in West Yellowstone, Montana, was 36 mostly-uphill miles away. I hoped to get there around midnight.

On the Way to West

Following the Fat Pursuit

In about seven hours, I’ll roll out of this bed at Pond’s Lodge in Island Park, Idaho, to start what promises to be a long, hard, exhilarating day of racing bikes in a new ultradistance fatbike race, Jay P’s Fat Pursuit.


The event has two distances, a 60 kilometer short course (about 37 miles) and a 200 kilometer long course (about 124 miles). I am doing the 200km, which will probably take me about 24 hours to finish. Unlike the Arrowhead 135, which basically parallels a highway for its entire distance, the Fat Pursuit crosses areas that are as wild (even given the snowmobile trails we will be riding) as any place in the Lower 48.

The 200km course is a giant loop running from Island Park east to and north along the edge of Yellowstone National Park, turning back west at the little snowbound town of West Yellowstone, and then meandering west and south back to Island Park. The first half includes most of the climbing, though the high point of the course takes us over the Continental Divide soon after the checkpoint at "West."

Before the Arrowhead, I didn’t know enough to get very nervous. Thanks to that experience and to a very intense race orientation here tonight, I am insanely wired now. The weather is going to be crazily variable, and will – as they said at the race orientation – include just about everything possible in late winter in the mountains: heavy snow, ground blizzards, high winds, bright sun, thick fog, even sleet and rain. Temperatures should stay in a range from about zero up to 30. I guess I’m ready for all that. After the Arrowhead, I have some confidence that I can handle bad conditions. The predicted high temps here will be about fifty or sixty degrees warmer than the low temps I survived at the Arrowhead!

What I’m most nervous about is the elevation: the course includes something like 7,000 feet of climbing, all of it between 6,500 feet (where Island Park sits) and about 8,100 feet – the Continental Divide. The thin air at these relatively high elevations is going to be a major challenge, at least as much as the total amount of uphill riding, and more even than the distance. And then there are all the interesting animals we might see or even encounter: moose, coyotes (like those we saw on Thursday!), wolves, even buffalo or wolverines, and possibly early-waking bears.

The race organizers are providing two ways to track the racers: a continually-updated results webpage with separate spreadsheets for each race distance and a GPS tracker map for the whole field (click on my name to see my progress and position).

I’m anxious, excited, and ready to get the hell after it!

The Next Bike Adventure – Idaho!

The Arrowhead experience is just going on and on, in the most amazing ways.

At the race, I got to talk briefly with the two winners, Jay and Tracey Petervary, who were inviting everyone to come out for a new race they’re staging in Idaho – Jay P’s Fat Pursuit. I immediately wrote it off as a "someday" event, but somehow several things fell into place perfectly: Shannon was willing to solo-parent again if I went out there, another racer (a seriously fast guy) was willing to let me drive out there with him, cheap lodging was available… And so I am heading out there on Wednesday to do the 200-kilometer (124-mile) long main event.

Jay P's Fat Pursuit Start Jay P’s Fat Pursuit Start

I am extremely excited. Not only do I want to see if I am actually good at these unsupported fatbike marathons (and didn’t just luck out at the AH), but I’ve never been to the mountains, much less raced in them. The course starts in a little town near the Idaho-Montana border, then winds in a huge counterclockwise loop through the mountains all the way to Yellowstone National Park and back. Along the way, we’ll stop at one checkpoint where we can make s’mores and another called the "Man Cave."

All in all, the race should be spectacular, with about 7,000 feet of climbing (all between 6,200 feet and 8,200 feet: quite a bit higher than Northfield’s 900-foot elevation!) – hard in the best way. The Beast is ready. I hope my legs and lungs are ready, too!

Don’t Get Froze, part II: The Arrowhead 135 (Miles 110-135)

Skipulk came at a funny place on the course: I could have pedaled, or at least walked, for quite a bit further to reach the checkpoint, but once I had reached it, I couldn’t move except to hand the Beast to the volunteer who came rushing up and then to climb into the nearer tent and sit down. The volunteer came in right away to take down my bib number and check-in time – 6:10 a.m., or 50 minutes shy of 24 hours since the start. He radioed that info to the finish, then turned on the propane heater on the floor next to me. I eyed the cot next to me, wondering whether I should lie down.

My Hot Little Friend

I sat there for a while breathing heavily, listening to my pulse in my ears, and feeling the warmth of the heater spread up my legs. I was wet enough that my pants and then my sleeves started steaming. I hadn’t had any shivering episodes so far in the race, and the blast from the heater let me skip right to the point of being warm enough to talk. The volunteer introduced himself, saying he had started the race but dropped out at Gateway because it was too cold, then decided to make himself useful by helping with the race. At some point as I listened, I broke in and faced him. "Does my nose look okay? I think it’s frostbitten." He leaned in, checking, and then grinned. "Nope. It’s no redder than mine. You’re fine. I’ll take a picture to show you."

Skipulk Portrait

I hardly noticed that I looked like hell, but I was hugely relieved to see that my nose was not in fact black with frostbite. Frostbite wouldn’t have been that bad, but getting pulled from the race for frostbite would have been a disaster. (This photo shows why I did later get frostbite on my face: I had Dermatone all over my upper cheeks and forehead, but missed my lower cheeks and nose.) Around this time, my riding partner – who had gone to the other tent when we arrived – banged on the wall of my tent and shouted, "I’m heading out! You’re faster than me, so I’ll see you on the trail!" I think I replied, but maybe I didn’t. I hope I wished him well. At any rate, I never did catch him. He left Skipulk after just a half hour of rest and 53 minutes ahead of me. I finished exactly 53 minutes behind him.

I couldn’t even think about going on yet, but feeling warmer now, I dug out my phone and turned it on, planning to post the picture in case anyone wanted to know how I was doing. I hadn’t had a signal at Melgeorges, so I had been offline for nearly twelve hours – half the race. Once the phone powered up, it went nuts: tens and then scores and then hundreds of messages scrolled past, too fast to read. Fogged, I couldn’t tell what they were – Status updates? Tweets? Notifications that I needed to take my turns in Words with Friends? After a minute, they stopped and let me get to my home screen, where my Facebook icon showed nearly 200 updates. Bizarre! What were they about? I tapped into FB and was shocked to find that dozens of my friends had been following my race all day and all night. Many of them knew more about my race than I did, and all of them seemed to be rooting for me. For probably the first time in a day, I started sweating, but with excitement and even a tinge of nervousness. So many people! Why were they so into how I was doing in this crazy race? And what the hell was this? The Minneapolis newspaper had my picture on the front of the sports section? I showed a FB photo of that page to the volunteer, who had just brought me a cup of chicken soup. He laughed. "Now you have to finish!" I was speechless. I just sat there on my camp chair too close to the heater, sipped my soup, and read messages, feeling better and better with each one.

At some point, I was right again. My heart was full, most importantly, but also, I could feel my feet. The soup – plus some water from my defrosted bottle and one more precious Red Bull – had filled my stomach. Insouciantly, I had even taken off my gloves, revealing ghastly hands: gray with cold, wrinkly from dehydration, a little bit bloody where my fingertips had cracked. Back inside their gloves, though, they felt fine, almost as good as my soul. I posted photos of my face and of my friend the heater and stood up for the first time since arriving. I managed to unzip the tent by myself (something I hadn’t been able to do when I arrived) and discovered, stepping outside, that the sun had come up. Everything was washed in a brittle blue light. It was great to see.

"My" volunteer seemed a little surprised to see me up and moving. I handed him my empty soup cups and started demanding things. "Can you take my water bottles out of my backpack and then fill them with hot water?" He hopped to, pouring water boiled over the campfire into my bottles and zipping the bottles into my pack. Soon, I could feel the heat from the bottles soaking through the bag and to my skin. It felt great, like a bath. I asked him to fill my third bottle, which I stowed in my frame bag, and then suddenly I was ready to go. Readiness just suddenly appeared, fully formed. He checked me out, logging a massive 90-minute stop, and I headed off up the trail, feeling pretty good. If I’d been able to do the math, I could have figured that the race had started just over 24 hours before.

All night long, I had had the official checkpoint mileage card


sitting on my sleeping bag, held down by my brake and shifter cables. As I started riding, I had to move it a little so that I could see the mileage markers for the last leg. This leg was the shortest in the race, just 26.5 miles, and was suppposed to be entirely flat once I made it up and down Wakemup Hill, at the end of the first of two short, early sections. I reached Wakemup Hill in just 30 minutes, which meant I was flying. Or had been: the hill was too steep to ride. At the top, though, the morning vista was so incredible that I stopped to take a picture before plunging back down.

Wakemup Hill Vista

I barely stayed on the track when it turned at the bottom of the hill, but I was feeling really good, and I hammered over the ensuing flats, eager to make it to the next milestone. The Crescent Bar road came up before I knew it, and suddenly I felt like I was almost done.

But I wasn’t. In my exhaustion, I was misreading the card, thinking that I had just 9 or 10 miles after the Crescent Bar road crossing until the finish. Actually, I had 20 miles to go from that point, split into two halves: from the road to the mysterious Shelter #9 and then from that shelter to the finish. The fact that the card had a typo on it – listing Shelter #8 in two spots – didn’t help my reasoning abilities.

And then the warmth and the rest and the nutrition of Skipulk started to wear off. The trail was flatter now, just as everyone had promised, but what the Arrowhead giveth, it also taketh away. The wall of trees that been sheltering me from the wind all night now started to break up, and open stretches – through cutover tracts, swamps, or just boring old fields – became more and more common. My speed tailed off, and I found myself barely moving, even on the flats. At one point, I followed a track that swerved wrong and crashed in slow motion into the foot-high snowbank that the snowmobile trail groomer had created. Going so slow did allow me to notice again all the dog, no, wolf tracks on the trail, and even to note the first birds I had seen since the overnight owl: some little winged bullets that shot from tree to tree ahead of me, and some fat crows or ravens that cawed at me and then slowly flew away. Sauntering, if birds could saunter. Seeing these black birds up there reminded me of the messenger birds in the Game of Thrones books, and I started trying to recall if those birds were crows or ravens. Were the members of the Night’s Watch called crows because of the messenger birds, or because they wore black? You know nothing, Jon Snow. Winter is coming.

I was muddled, almost stationary in mind and body, and the flat white track still stretched out in front of me. I decided, somewhere in here, to have my next-to-last can of Red Bull. Like the previous two, I carefully crushed it in the snow and then stowed the disk in my frame bag. My icebeard was back, so I couldn’t eat anything solid, even if I had had something that sounded good. Somehow, though, I remembered that I had energy gels, and even worked out the fact that if I stuck one in each glove, they would defrost enough that I could consume them.

This breakfast was good, but what was bad was the onset of the first true pain in the whole race: stabbing agony in my ass, which could no longer rest against the frozen seat for very long. Since solving my knee-pain problem on the first leg, my body had not been in any serious trouble. In fact, for most of the race, my body felt like something apart from me, a machine that was working pretty well but that I didn’t need to worry much about. The fatigue had mounted, sure, and I got really hungry, and my arms wavered as I pushed up the hills between Melgeorges and Skipulk, but nothing hurt or wanted to stop. Until now. I would pedal seated for a hundred strokes, gritting my teeth, then almost leap off the Beast to walk a hundred steps on perfectly flat trail. Stop. Breathe. Wait for the pain to subside. Get back on the bike, gingerly. Try to sit on one buttcheek or the other. Pedal more. Stop again. Walk again, noting that I could see at least one other set of boot prints on the trail. If someone ahead of me was walking, it was okay for me to walk, right?

This went on for what I can figure now to have been probably 10 miles. I created games for myself: walk to that tree, ride to that more distant tree, rest. I tried to remind myself that literally every pedal stroke or step, no matter how weak or short, got me closer to the finish line. This, in turn, reminded me of Zeno, but who has Zeno? Occasionally, I reached bridges over some nameless creeks, and even the tiny two-foot ramps up to the bridge decks were taxing. The snow seemed even squeakier than it had overnight, which started making me think that another racer was coming up on me. Many times, I concluded that I was about to get passed, resigned myself to losing a spot at this late moment in the race, and turned around to see nothing but empty track.

Then I would remember all those posts on Facebook. All those people! They were up now, going to work or taking their kids to school. Shannon had seen the girls onto the bus already. She was probably doing chores, or maybe having a cup of coffee. Was she hungry? I wanted a hug. If I were at work, I would be checking email. Did I turn on my out-of-the-office message? Yes, I did. Walk to that tree. Wait, that tree is a sign! A big sign! The sign was actually a map at a snowmobile-trail junction. I rode over and investigated, hoping it could give me some fucking information on how much fucking futher I fucking had to fucking go. It did, and clearly enough that even a drunk snowmobiler or an exhausted fatbiker could figure out the right direction to go. A little later, I came across another map, and it showed me, amazingly, that I now had fewer miles to go. I crossed a road, and amazingly that very road was shown on the course map that had been forgotten in my pack until I dug it out.

Last Miles

When had I gotten the map out? No idea. I was still walking a lot, but I was making progress. I felt warm, and okay except for my butt. As I had with my nose overnight, I imagined what sort of damage I was doing, and the mental picture wasn’t a good one.

But at some point in one of my brief stints of pedaling, I passed a small black shelter that must have been #9, putting me just about ten miles out. Ten miles! I could ride ten miles. Ten more miles! I stopped to celebrate with my last Red Bull and a caffeinated energy gel, which are my secret weapons in normal races. I tried to figure out how fast I had been going since Skipulk, but totally failed to do the simple math of dividing the miles I had covered by the hours since I had left the checkpoint. Instead, I just arbitrarily decided that I was going about five miles an hour, so I had about two hours left. Having a limit, even a totally illusory one, was very helpful. I got back on the Beast and started pedaling again. Perhaps because of the intermittent rest provided by walking or just because bodies are made to accommodate pain, I found that I could pedal steadily again.

In one of the race’s great ironies, I was now encountering the roughest snow I had seen since the start. Getting close to civilization meant that more snowmobilers had been out, tearing up the trail almost to the point of being unridable. But my trails back home were pretty rough, so I was able to keep up some speed, or at least not walk or stop. Then I heard road traffic – the first cars and trucks I had heard since Gateway. Looking at my map, I figured that these vehicles had to be on the last road before the finish line. I groaned up the slight rise to the road and discovered that I had in fact reached that last beautiful ribbon of asphalt. I had reached a spot not on the map or the checkpoint card: Almost There.

Just over the road, I think, was a sign that informed me I was entering the Bois Forte reservation. For a second, I tried to figure out what "Bois Forte" meant, but gave up as I pedaled past. The trail meandered now, jumping across a powerline cut, tracing the base of a hill, running between two ragged orange snow fences, and even paralleling the back of a big concrete building, but I was excited, powering – or seeming to power – through the turns and up and down the little rises. I kept my head up and forward, looking for the finish line. It had be here somewhere.

And then it was: far away, through a slot in the trees, I could see the arching white banner over the finish line. It disappeared as I took a curve, then reappeared, bigger and closer. The banner might have blinked in and out of sight a couple more times, but then I came upon a massive building that I knew, just knew, was the Fortune Bay resort, and saw the banner again, dead ahead, atop a short rise, close enough that I could read the text on it. Having that banner in an unbroken line of sight meant I was done, and I started crying as I pedaled. Up the hill. Up the hill. Up the hill. There was nobody at the finish line, but I kept pedaling and crying until I got there. Then I stopped and tipped over, hard. I just couldn’t get my feet off my pedals and onto the snow. As I crashed down, three guys popped out of the tent at the side of the finish line. "Are you okay? Just lie down, man. Congratulations! You finished the Arrowhead 135! You’re seventh! Congratulations!"

I laid there in the snow for a minute, looking up at this big bearded guy looming over me, talking to me. I was still crying, but I was smiling too. Someone else pulled my bike out from between my feet, and the bearded guy helped me up. "Hey, sit down if you need to. Rest. You’re done." I still hadn’t said anything. Couldn’t say anything. I just thought about how hard that had been. How could it be that I was done? How did I do it? How could I tell everyone that I had finished?

"I’m okay," I said, rolling onto my stomach and pushing myself up on to my knees, then standing up. "What time is it? What’s my finishing time?" The bearded guy tallied it. "29 hours, 9 minutes. Great job! When you’re ready, let’s get a picture of you and your bike!" I stood still for a minute more, then went over to stand behind the Beast under the finish line banner while three different people shot photos (which I still haven’t tracked down). I grinned. I was beyond elated, just a couple notches short of the high of getting married or holding my daughters for the first times.

My bearded friend took the Beast from me and led me over the snow to the hotel. Opening a back door, we entered a cold hallway. There were six other fatbikes in it – the rigs of the previous finishers. He leaned the Beast up against the wall. For some reason, I found it very important to turn off my front and rear blinky lights, so I did that. "Ready?" My friend was waiting patiently. "Your bike is secure here. No worries. Follow me up to the reception room." Walking the hotel corridors to the race HQ, I broke down again, sobbing with relief and joy. He turned a final corner and delivered me into a small, square room crowded with boxes, food, racers, and volunteers. "I have finisher number 7. Bib 31. 29:09." Everyone in the room clapped, even the racers.

Within a few minutes, I had received my finishing trophy, posed for my official finish picture,

Finisher Picture

started downing all the Coke I could find on the hospitality table, and stripped out of some of my layers of clothes. I also dug out my phone again and posted a message to say that I had finished. I felt like everyone needed to know.

Arrowhead 135: Follow over the web

A few links in case anyone wants to “watch” the Arrowhead 135 from afar:

  1. This Spot map that will update to show my position every five minutes, thanks to the GPS tracker loaned to me by my fatbiking and airplane-piloting friend Michael L. (The updating will start when the race kicks off at 7 a.m. on Monday, January 27.)
  2. The official race results website, a simple online spreadsheet that organizers update as racers pass through the checkpoints.
  3. The race Facebook page will have some updates.
  4. This semi-official Google Map of the entire course.