This is narcissistic, I know, but dammit, I love them all.
While very eager to do races in the future that will get onto this list, here is the current top ten, in descending order:
10. The Lutsen 99er in June 2014. Not especially demanding physically, this race was my first mountain bike race. If nothing else, the sheer quantity of mud made this one memorable. I’d do it again, for sure! 8h 44m, 282nd of 421 finishers.
9. The Royal 162 in May 2014: At 165 miles (the 162 miles of the course, plus 3 bonus miles after a wrong turn), this was my longest-ever ride – so far! Though conditions were pretty good, this was just a long freaking way to ride bikes. Thank god Derek was there for company. 14h 23m, 39th of 51.
8. The Almanzo 100 in May 2011: (part I | part II | part III) My first gravel-century race, run in cold, wet conditions that made the riding slow and dirty and tough. I loved it as an event in its own right and as my introduction to ultradistance racing. 9h 8m, 80/150.
7. The Heck of the North in September 2014: The distance – 108 miles – wasn’t that bad, and the course was great, but my rear derailleur blew up at about mile 80, so I had to do some jury-rigging to convert my Salsa Vaya to a singlespeed and then limp in to the finish. 9h 55m, 139/174.
6. The Inspiration 100 in September 2013: Another gravel century, but run in temps above 90 and a heat index near or above 100. Heat exhaustion was a major factor, but I still managed a fast (for me) time: 7h 7m, 22/78.
5. The Cheq 100 in June 2015. This was a very hard race of attrition in which I didn’t get the result I wanted (a finish in the full 100-mile race). Pending my race in North Dakota in August, the Cheq now my #1 “off-season” goal for 2016. 10h 45m, something like 20/30.
4. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2015: Coming in well trained, decently rested (two weeks after #3, below), and very, very eager, I rode what I think is my best race here in pretty much perfect conditions. 19h 30m, 26/77.
3. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in January 2015: I worked so freaking hard at getting this race right. I tested my clothing, gear, and bike, I thought incessantly about my race strategy, and I trained like mad. It paid off with a solid effort and a finish of the full 126 miles. 26h 25m, 30/39.
2. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in March 2014 (part I | part II | part III): Run along the Continental Divide where Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana meet, this was my first race at any kind of altitude. What the elevation didn’t take out of me, the brutally slow snow did. I couldn’t finish this one, getting pulled off the course at 100 miles by the race director after 32 hours of racing. I’d say this was the low point in my personal history of bike racing, but I drew a lot of motivation from my “honorary finish.” Not only did I return the next year to ride smarter and faster and to finish (see #X above), but I’ve treasured the connections I made to this race’s people and land.
1. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2014: my first and still the hardest fatbike race I’ve done. I’d never done race of longer than about 12 hours, but this one took me more than 24 hours, thanks in large part to temperatures that infamously ranged from -20° to -40° made the riding difficult, to say the least, but I stuck it out, teaching myself that I could do a lot more than I thought I could. 29h 9m, and a top-ten finish – 7/30.
One of the cooler assignments that Julia has had in elementary school was creating an alternate title, blurb, and cover for a real book. She chose Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, which she read and reread this winter. I love her alternate cover, and her new blurb is really good too.
I took advantage of the perfect weather today and the girls being busy with a friend to clean up the garage.
I took down and packed away the Christmas lights on the front tree, passed on to new owners two unneeded kids’ bikes, reorganized the crazy miscellany on the shelves, stowed the snow-removal tools again slash finally, installed hooks to get other stuff off the floor (a half-dozen sets of bike tires, a bike rack), and sorted my three bins of various cycling-related items – racing gear, winter equipment, and spare parts.
I also threw out a ton of junk, including these casualties of my winter racing: a worn-out cassette, two derailleurs (one merely bent, one folded like a pretzel) and a bottom bracket whose death throes sounded like a coffee grinder.
Not pictured are the shifters I grew to hate, two different chains I snapped, or the big chainring whose 42 teeth were ground down to nubs.
I looked at this junk and though, "Expensive problems to solve." But as the guy at my shop reminded me, bikers are supposed to ride their bikes. I had a lot of fun wearing out all this stuff.
Along those lines, and keeping in mind that I am not a fast guy, I thought I would write up a few of my own lessons for successfully undertaking long-distance fatbike rides and races.
Forget drop bags.
Though I know many racers use drop bags to replenish their food and drink and to have good stuff to anticipate at the checkpoints, to me they’re been a complication, something to worry about before and during the race: what should I put in the bag? where and when do I drop off the bag? what will I do if I can’t find the bag?
A fatbike set up for a marathon or longer will have enough space on it to carry the stuff that could go in a drop bag, eliminating this complexity – and living up to the "you are responsible for you" ethos of fatbike racing.
Wear a hood!
Hats are great, especially if you need to shade your eyes, but hoods are, I think, superior as means to manage heat and moisture. Not only do hoods look awesome, but they’re easier to pull up or down than hats are to remove and stow or dig out and don. Good hoods, the kind that have high front zippers that cover the chin, also serve as good buffs, helping to bottle up heat inside a jacket or jersey.
To do well in a long race, you have to practice riding, of course, but an ultramarathon demands all kinds of other skills, often an in opportune times like in the middle of the night or after hours of fighting a frigid headwind. To be ready for those moments, practice finding and donning your extra clothing quickly, starting a fire, pushing your bike through deep snow, fixing a flat tire – all those eventualities that could mean the difference between comfort and suffering, between a finish and a DNF, or even between surviving and not.
I love regular coffee and Coke. Love them, and enjoy them whenever I can. But as good as they are, caffeinated drinks and foods are even better during arduous races. As such, I’ve started weaning myself from caffeine before big races, so that I am caffeine-free for the couple weeks leading up to the event. Not only does this help induce good sleep over that period, but this assures that when I do take caffeine during the race, it’s like rocket fuel. The effect can’t be overstated! Caffeinated gel and chews, Coke, coffee, Red Bull: it’s all magically potent.
Riding and racing is a lot easier and more fun when you stay relaxed and loose, whether by temperament or by habit – by consciously counteracting the tension that naturally builds in the body and mind. A loose body also stays warm better, I think!
But staying relaxed ahead of a race also matters to the race itself. Practically, I do this with by using checklists to be mindlessly sure I’m packing all the right stuff, by using drawings to plan the locations on my bike of all my gear, by packing race kit in one bag in my duffel and my post-race clothes in another…
Less practically, I stay relaxed by trying to follow as normal a routine as possible: my usual food, my usual clothes, my usual habits. I’ve found that a beer or two the night before a race helps keep me calmed down. Delicious. Normal.
Move like a sled dog.
From my friend and super-fast fatbike racer Kevin Breitenbach:
"I feel like i dont have a ton of relevant things to learn from guys at the Tour de France, just like they dont have much to learn from me. i have way more to learn from my dog. The more i move down the trail like my dog the better. i dont suggest anyone move down the trail like a roadie. you dont have to be a great cyclist to do well in winter races. you need to know that the most important thing is to move efficiently through every aspect of the race. a good musher, husky, wolf, coyote, or fox knows the same thing. find the sweet spot in the trail, keep your back steady and stride consistent, regulate your temperature easily and constantly, no wasted motions, rarely stop, stay on top of the snow, eat and drink quickly and deal with it in uncomfortably large portions then get rest in whatever form, no matter how brief, as often as possible. Mushers and dog teams do all that very well, and if things go well in a race so do winter endurance athletes."
"Unless you’re riding, always do two things at once."
This is one of JayP’s tips. Ride as much as possible, but when you can’t ride – and any fatbike ride of any distance will include hike-a-bike sections – make sure you’re doing something else while you push: drink water, down a gel, adjust clothing, pop some ibuprofen, move food from a frame bag pocket to a bar bag, open or close is jacket zippers… Make full use of the time before you can get back in the saddle and start making better time again.
This is another of JayP’s tips: do the thing you know you need to do as soon as possible. Tires washing out? Stop and air down. Thirsty but your bottle’s empty? Stop and find that full one in your seat bag. Getting sweaty at 0 degrees? Unzip the jacket (or lower your hood!). Craving some food that’s out of reach? Stop and dig it out. Take care of a little issue before it’s a big problem.
Sunday was a true early-spring day: sunny, breezy, and about forty degrees F. Beautiful, in other words. Finally weather that lets me wear the same clothes all day! No need for a jacket; a fleece sweater is fine!
The sun motivated me to do a few "spring cleaning" tasks around the house – sweeping leaves and sand off the patio, wiping down the patio table, stashing the snow shovel and melting salt and sand in the back corner of the garage, putting the girls’ sleds and snowboards away. I tried to take down the Christmas lights in the tree out front, but the snowbanks were too high and soft to let me get close to the tree itself, and the extension cord was frozen down in three different places. Next weekend!
The day being so nice, I decided to make the usual seasonal tweaks to my bike. I took off the Buffalo’s winter tires and re-installed its dirt tires, took off the winter racing bags and put on a puny little seatbag, and finally also put on my trusty and essential fenders. Cleaned up, the Buffalo looked pretty light and fast:
With these domestic chores out of the way, I decided to hop on the bike to do a couple errands on campus. I saw a half-dozen runners even before I left if our subdivision. Cutting through the very melty Carleton Arboretum, I exchanged affable smiles with one die-hard skier, skating through the slush and standing water. On campus, kids were out everywhere – running, walking hand in hand, playing frisbee golf, just hanging out on the steps and benches. One woman was even fishing through a hole she’d cut in the ice on the pond.
and then took care of a million cleaning tasks I never have time to do during the week. Besides cleaning up my desk and filing cabinets, I threw a couple dozen books in the recycling bin and put twice as many in a box to drag down to the used bookstore sometime soon.
Before long, I needed to head home again. I took a meandering route through the streets, seeing many more walkers, dogwalkers, runners, and bikers, plus groups of kids playing frisbee, football, and baseball. With the sun dropping behind the trees, the air was cooking fast, and I got a nice chill – maybe the last of the season.
Vivi, my little scientist, today received her Scholastic book order: eight rocks and a little book of experiments to do with them. She’s fascinated. We did a few of the experiments, and will do more after getting some supplies (do people really keep Epsom salts on hand?), but the best thing we did tonight was to start growing crystals on a "popcorn rock" submerged in white vinegar. We should start start seeing aragonite crystals within a few days, but we were impressed by the bubbling and cloud of matter rising up from the rock. Geochemistry for the win!
Tomorrow, the biggest, baddest fatbike race of them all starts: the Iditarod Trail Invitational, run on the dogsled route from Anchorage, Alaska, north and west to McGrath, the end of the "short" 350 mile race, and Nome, the end of the "long" 1,000 mile race.
This year, a bunch of my fatbike-racing friends are doing the races, including these yahoos from Minnesota and South Dakota:
My buddies Ben Doom and Mark Seaburg are fourth and fifth from the left here. And I loaned my headlamp to Charly Tri, at left. (I want that lamp back, Charly!) I’ll be rooting for them and for other friends I’ve met – Jay and Tracey Petervary, Beat Jegerlehner, Kevin Breitenbach, Petr Ineman- and not yet met – Toni Lund (an incredible photographer) – starting Sunday afternoon.
As you’d guess, I am very eager to do the ITI. The checkpoints and other milestones ring in my head like bells: Knik, Yentna Station, the Skwentna Roadhouse, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, the Dalzell Gorge, Rohn, the Farewell Burn, Nikolai, McGrath…
With finishes in two Arrowheads and one Fat Pursuit, I have enough experience to do the "short" race to McGrath. The problems, as usual, are time and money. Including both travel time and up to five days of racing, I would need about ten days off to do the race – a long time to make Shannon handle all the domestic duties, and a long time to be away from work. Maybe more importantly, the adventure would cost several thousand dollars to do: the race entry fee, extensive travel to and in Alaska, lodging there, plus all the usual race costs like food and Alaska-ready gear and food and batteries (so many batteries!) and food (so much food!).
My conference trip to Washington went well until this morning. I made it to D.C. without any problems, found the conference itself very useful and interesting, and enjoyed hanging out with friends and colleagues. With a forecast of snow for Saturday, though, I expected delays in getting home, even though the snow wasn’t really very heavy:
And that’s exactly what’s happened. My early-afternoon flight home was canceled, and the airline rebooked me for Sunday morning. (Though I was assured that the airports are shut down, I heard airplanes taking off just a few hours ago…)
So I went for a little trip over to DuPont Circle, one of the places in D.C. that I know slightly. I took the Metro, which is always fun:
I stopped in a burger joint to get lunch when I arrived at DuPont Circle. I was the last customer of the day: the girl behind the counter told me that the shop was closing "due to the bad weather." I ate a delicious cheeseburger and fries while watching one person after another ignore the sign on the door announcing the closure, walk in and up to the counter, and then be told that the place was closed.
Sated, I went down the street to Kramerbooks, an excellent indie bookstore. I couldn’t find the book that our waiter had recommended the night before, but I browsed for a while, then decided to find a coffeeshop to check email. Though I wanted something local and cool (Kramerbooks qualified on both counts, but I didn’t want to wait for a table!), I settled for a Starbucks, partly because the sidewalks were so awful that I didn’t want to walk very far. I saw people shoveling their sidewalks, but they were putting the snow in front of the next businesses over, not in the street!
Just after I got my order, the very crabby manager announced that he "had" to close the shop – due to bad weather. Why a coffeeshop has to close because of snow, I have no idea: he was doing a booming business. When I tried to take a picture of the scribbled sign in the window, he flipped it over so I couldn’t!
With two strikes against me, I decided to just head back to the hotel. On the way, I took a picture of the DuPont Circle fountain, since everyone else was, too:
Standing in the park, I noticed that it’s apparently part of the national park system, which means I’ve set a new personal record for national park properties visited in one year, at three – Yellowstone and Grand Teton last month, and now this one.
Then I took the train back to my hotel. The cars were packed with hockey fans and discomfited tourists, so it took a long time. And even though the sidewalks in Potomac Yard were awful, too, I enjoyed the walk through the snow – one of my few outings this winter in actual snowfall. The streets were even worse than the sidewalks:
I totally understand now why snow is such a disaster for cities any further south than, say, Philadelphia. They’re not ready for it and can’t handle it.
Apparently, neither can the airlines. When I got back to my room, I had a voicemail informing me that my Sunday-morning flight, too, had been canceled. Now I’m supposed to leave Washington on Sunday evening, getting back to Minnesota around midnight.
As I walked into the Muni tonight to get some beer (it’s Monday! we can buy beer again!), I distinctly heard a customer at the counter tell the clerk, “So went out there and there like five hundred vanities there!” I wondered “WTF?” and went about my business, trying at the same time to eavesdrop on the other customer’s business.
“When we went down to Florida, I hoped we would see one vanity, but that was just so many vanities!” I wondered if this woman was some sort of Menards/Home Depot nut, traveling the country to visit the bathroom-furnishing sections of home-improvement stores.
I selected my libation and walked up front, catching the end of her conversation and realizing for the zillionth time that my ears had let me down slash provided good entertainment: “It was amazing to see all those manatees! Like a herd of cows in the ocean!”
One of the great things about the fatbike community is how back-of-the-pack guys like me can talk to and learn from racers who are way up front – people like Tracey Petervary, an accomplished long-distance cyclist, a really cool person, and a pretty dominant champion.
T-Race has enjoyed particularly remarkable success in fatbike racing, which everyone agrees is the hardest and best form of bike racing. Most notably, Tracey has won the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska by setting the women’s records on both the northern and the southern routes – 1,000 miles between Nome and Anchorage. Back home in Idaho, she was first female champion at JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in 2014, making a gigantic late-race push to finish second overall.
And here in Minnesota, Tracey has now won back-to-back titles at the Arrowhead 135, taking the last year’s race in memorably cold conditions (and finishing fifth overall) and winning again this year. With the win, she became the only female rider to win the Arrowhead twice. (For reference, only one man – Jeff Oatley – has won the race twice, back to back in 2010 and 2011.)
Proving her awesomeness, T-Race agreed to answer a few questions from me about her 2014-2015 racing so far. I’ve lightly edited her answers for clarity.
Talk first a little about your training this winter. What does a week look like for you – long rides, short hard sessions, a mix? Do you do much training off the bike?
Training? I am a bookkeeper so I get a lot of training sitting on my ass, ha ha. I have been supplementing my time off the bike with Targhee CrossFit, where my coaches keep my weight low, to keep me light and add to my strength, which adds confidence. A week may look like 2-3 days of CrossFit during the week, an hour of snowshoeing to pack down the local Rush Hour Trail I like to ride with the boys [ed.: Rippin’ and Chillin’, the Petervarys’ dogs], and 2-3 days of weekend riding anywhere from 2 to 5 hours.
One part of your winter was serving as co-race director for the Fat Pursuit in early January. What was it like to help run the race, rather than race the race?
The stoke was huge at this race, so it was just straight up fun. The quality of racers and the excitement from the volunteers and the community made it stellar. It was fun to be on the other side, helping racers have a good time, cheering everyone on at different checkpoints, making notes to make the event better, and organizing and talking to the awesome volunteers, who were just as excited as the racers. I got to spend time with friends who don’t race but love to be a part and volunteer. Helping JayP was great; he had a lot of patience and I know he was relieved to have me help, which made me feel good.
The Arrowhead is just part of your winter campaign, which also includes the ITI next month. Why did you choose to race the Arrowhead again this year?
I chose to race the Arrowhead again because it’s a fun race and because I wanted to come back to challenge myself to get a better finish time. It’s like a reunion of friends I don’t get to see often which is really special. I also knew it would be a different race, as far as temperatures.
Tell me about your race strategy at the Arrowhead, given the conditions this year. Did you have a goal time in mind (Eszter Horanyi’s course record – 18:18, set in 2012?)? Did you have goals – in terms of time or effort – for particular checkpoints or other landmarks on the course?
I thought about the record briefly going into the race, but I didn’t feel in record shape – which is how racing goes sometimes. My goals were to beat my own times, have a solid race, and be efficient, making no stops other than the checkpoints. When I was getting close to Melgeorges [the second checkpoint, near midway in the race], it started to set in that I may have a chance at the record.
What kind of tactics played out during the Arrowhead? Racers were finishing fast and furious around you – four finished in the half hour ahead of you and five finished in the half hour after you did. Did you ride with anyone? Chase? Pass?
The section between Melgeorges and Ski Pulk [the third checkpoint] went very well for me. I passed a few guys, my riding was solid, I felt good. I wasn’t really sure where others were; I was just focusing on getting to the finish ASAP.
Some more general questions. First, your bike. You ride a gorgeous Salsa Beargrease, “Fave.”
How did you set up Fave for the Arrowhead – tires, drivetrain, bags, et cetera? Do you always use flat pedals and regular boots on Fave, or is that a race-by-race choice? Were you testing anything interesting? Did anything work particularly well or not work particularly badly?
The set-up for this race is usually the same as far as gear: tires were 4 inch Dillingers front and back, drive train was a 1×11, my frame bag is custom from Carousel Designs with a stretchy part for expansion and embroidered with my name. I got a pair of 45NRTH Wölvhammers this year, so that was different. I really like being clipped in. The warm temps made it tricky. My feet actually overheated and then got wet and cold, but I was able to dry my socks and and the second half of the race my feet felt great!
Second, food! You are a pretty accomplished cook, and maybe even a little bit of a foodie. What do you like to eat and drink during races, when you’re rolling and when you’re stopped? Any treats that you save for particular moments?
Thanks! I like to eat things that make me feel good, that I can be ok with eating as far as ingredients. I also try to eat things I don’t eat all the time and save for race food, but that I have tried in the past so they’re not a shock, such as locally made Kate’s bars and GU Brew, Gel, and Chomps. This race I ate jerky from Wyoming Ranch, which was dynamite. I liked the salt and it was easy to eat. I used to eat a lot more sugar and candy, but these choices were better. My stomach never went south.
Third, what do you think about when you’re on the trail? What goes through your head? Your effort? The sounds Fave is making? Dreams of food and drink?
It depends where I am on the trail. I listen to music to change the mood or just to listen to something. I think of what I am doing and that this is a race and try to keep that focus. I also think about my time in the checkpoints, what I will do and what needs to be done to get in and out, and yes definitely how good the grilled cheese and wild rice soup is gonna taste!
With the AH now past, how are you building up to the ITI?
Mental preparation for me is big. I think about the sections of the trail, what they could be like, how I will handle the lack of sleep, the checkpoints, but always remaining flexible. I am following my regimen of 2-3 days of CrossFit. My coaches keep my weight low, so I am getting stronger but not bigger. I ride two or three days a week and will snowshoe one day a week.
Looking past even the ITI, what’s your “off-season” look like, besides cooking and walking Rippin’ and Chillin’? Races? Tours? Advocacy?
There’s an off season?
Finally: I see a lot of racers carrying mementos, slogans, and the like on their bikes. I pin a card with Mike Riemer’s “Stay constant” advice to my bars, for instance. Does T-Race carry anything like that with her when she’s out there on the trail?
I don’t have anything on my bike, but some quotes that have stuck with me and that I think of often are “You gotta want it,” “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and “Tell the mind to go, the body will follow.”
I was shivering at the predawn start line of JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit on January 10th – not from cold, since it was already 20 degrees, but from eagerness to stop anticipating the event and start racing it. I had been looking forward to this moment since I DNF’ed in the first edition of the race, in March 2014. Getting pulled from that race by Jay Petervary after 34 hours and 100 miles of riding had been tough to take, though I knew I could not have gone any further or faster with the bike, legs, or lungs I had then…
Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.