Fat Pursuit Numbers

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

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

Climbing
Climbing

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

Saturday Morning Selfie
Saturday Morning Selfie

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

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

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

Two Top Whiteout
Two Top Whiteout

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

Sunday night selfie

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

Mountains

For a lifelong Midwesterner like me, the mountains never fail to be awesome in the traditional sense of the word.

The drive out to Idaho on I-90 climbs the whole way, from the thick air in Northfield at 910 feet, up the inclined plane of eastern South Dakota, through the Badlands and Black Hills in western SD, past Sheridan, WY, at 3,700 feet

and the Crazy Mountains in central Montana,

before going over the pass into Bozeman at 4,800 feet, where you see this from the parking lot at Target.

A few miles later, leaving the interstate, the route goes south through the Gallatin  River valley, seeming somehow to descend but actually climbing past endless rocky and forested bluffs. 

The highway pops out at West Yellowstone (6,667 feet) – at the northern end of the Fat Pursuit course – goes east over Targhee Pass, then turns south again, down to the race start in Island Park, Idaho. From I.P., Mount Two Top looms to the north, just outside West but 2,000 feet higher – the biggest challenge of the race course. 

Fat Pursuit Eve

I’ve been anticipating the 2017 Fat Pursuit for more than a year. Tomorrow, the race finally happens – or starts to happen. 

Today on the drive from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Island Park, Idaho, Ben and I talked pretty much continuously about the race – the course, strategies, equipment, weather…

I was almost relieved to get to West Yellowstone, Montana – at the northern end of the course – and finally be in the places where we will be riding our bikes. We drove past these flats south of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, just west of “West,” for instance:
 

We’ll cruise over these flats at about mile 140 of the race, then start the climb to Two Top, the 8,710-foot peak at the left end of the highest ridge in the distance here:


Two Top should be the last big test of the course, around mile 150. I can’t wait to be up there, probably sometime Sunday, and then to ride off the mountain toward the finish. (I have a recurring dream about descending Two Top the last time I did this race, in 2015… The mountain left a mark on me!)

Lying here a cabin full of other racers – old friends and new ones – Sunday seems very far away, but I find this oddly appealing. I can anticipate finally getting going today and tomorrow, and then – after the race start at 5 pm on Friday (18:26 from right now!) – switch to enjoying my 40 or 50 hours of riding (and, honestly, to detesting some of it too) and especially anticipating the feeling of finishing

Sheridamn, Whyomin

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

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

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

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

The Caldera Are Calling and I Must Go

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

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

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

The Henry’s Fork and Island Park Calderas

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

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

 

Winter Fun

People often express surprise when I say that I’m looking forward to one of my winter races, when I say that it’ll be “fun.”

Given the dislike or even hatred (not to say fear) that many people seem to have for winter, I guess I can understand their surprise. I would need many more words than I have in this post to explain all the forms that the “fun” of a winter race can take. But one kind of pleasure that I enjoy during the races, and during winter generally, is the pleasure of being in the snowy landscape. 

Even today, taking a completely ordinary ride home from the gym, I saw this wonderful view, looking east out of Carleton’s Arboretum:

Mix in some mountains and forests, like the Fat Pursuit does, and the views get literally breathtaking:


I’m looking forward to the fun of riding through these scenes again. Four days!

New Year, Same Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night Ride 

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

Border Crossing MTBing

What: the marathon class (four-hour) event at the Border Crossing MTB race, part of the Minnesota MTB series

Where: Whitetail Ridge MTB trails, River Falls, Wisconsin – really fun trails that loop up and down a wooded hillside. Apart for a couple straight stretches along the cornfield at the top of the hill (perfectly situated for recovery!), the trails are very twisty and turny, and very rooty, and not particularly technical except for a section – near the end of our lap – that featured some burly rock sections. Our lap also included two short but steep climbs, which did a very good job of exploding my legs.

When: 8:50 a.m. till about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why: I had hoped to do the Dirt Bag gravel race this weekend, but family plans made that hard or impossible, so when my friend Galen asked if I was interested in this event – rescheduled from July – I jumped at the chance.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi with a new 1x drivetrain. 

My best gear was the bike, of course, and my new Revelate Wampak hydration pack – which I hope will be a key element of my winter-racing setup.

My worst gear was my new 1x drivetrain on the bike, which was wonky all day. Still, it never failed, so…

The low points were not very low:

  1. When I realized, halfway through lap four of five, that I wouldn’t be able to hold pace for six full laps. Not actually that bad a problem!
  2. When my Four Hour Energy drink wore off after three hours. False advertising!
  3. When the elite-class racers came ripping though about two hours into my race. Good lord they’re fast.

The high point was when, on my last lap – pretty much totally gassed – I still managed to clean all but one of the various fairly technical obstacles on the course. I had been hit or miss with them all day, so I was happy to put my experience with them to good purpose so late in the race. Now I just need to be able to do this on lap two, and at three times the speed!

It was in the bag when I made it up the last serious climb, a steep ramp covered with loose rock, and knew I pretty much just had easy, fun trails to the finish.

The key lesson learned was that Four Hour Energy isn’t, and that the Whitetail Ridge trails are great. I’ll have to try to do this race next year, at its usual time in July.

The takeaway is that the MMBS races are pretty damn fun. I did three this year (this one, the Red Wing Classic in RW in July, and the Singletrack Escape in August in St. Cloud), and found the race experience to be quite different from my usual kind of event – gravel centuries and fatbike ultras. I like the vibe, especially having racers around almost all the time. I look forward to getting better – smoother but especially faster – at this kind of racing.

Happy Birthday, Carleton!

Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.

Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

Schiller and Tassava
Schiller and Tassava

I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!

Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:

Julia and Twigonometry
Julia and Twigonometry

What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.

Coyote Nation

When I was growing up in the U.P. in the ’70s and ’80s, coyotes were considered the menace to farm animals. Back then, wolves were (temporarily, as nature assured) absent from the Yoop, so coyotes – kai-ohts – assumed the apex predator spot that Canis lupus should have held, and in fact resumed sometime in the ’90s.

I have no idea if any Yooper farmers lost any livestock bigger than a chicken to Canis latrans, but my male relatives were unanimous in their hatred of coyotes, and were eager to kill them all. I never understood why this was, but then I ever understood why it was fun to sit in a tree for hours in the hopes of shooting a deer either. 

I did understand that the coyotes’ howls were thrillingly wild. When we stayed at our family’s hunting camp – a one-room shack in the northwestern corner of the Ottawa National Forest (almost a million acres of woods that covers almost all of the Wisconsin end of the U.P.) – we often heard coyotes singing at night. I lay there in my keeping bag in the bunk bed and imagined the coyotes sniffing around the building, drawn by scraps of food and our weird smells.

I don’t recall ever seeing any coyotes, but I must have, for as Dan Flores shows in his superlative Coyote America, coyotes are now America’s most ubiquitous big predator, despite continuing to be killed in the thousands every year. Some of the only actual coyotes I’ve ever seen – on a years’-ago bike ride – were three dead ones, dumped in a ditch not a mile outside of town. More recently I saw two skinny specimens patrolling a river near Island Park in eastern Idaho. They watched me and a friend bike along the opposite bank, then effortlessly scaled a sheer snowbank to get up off the river and onto the flat plain. 


Notwithstanding this pair in the underpopulated West, Americans now live among more of these scrawny, intelligent, shy beasts than ever before – a story that Flores tells with care, detail, a bit on anger, and a lot of humor in his book and with indignation in this New York Times op-ed. After a century of incessant, brutal biocide against the coyote, we should admit defeat and admire the victor. 

By rights, in fact, we Americans should do as generations of a Native Americans – from the Aztecs to the Apache – did, and worship the coyote as a nature god. Like God, Coyote is everywhere. As my friend Charlotte pointed out the other day, they’ve surely watched me on a bike ride. They’ve probably watched my girls playing in our backyard. A family of them might be right now in the field to the south, perhaps looking warily between the light spilling from my picture window and the harvester that’s growling along the rows of soybeans. Maybe they made a meal of one of the hundreds of Canada geese that gleaned in the field all afternoon. Regardless I’m pleased to know that they’re out there, outlasting and outsmarting us. 

Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

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


Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

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

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

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

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

The low points were

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 


Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 


When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

One and One-Tenth Decades

Today – Monday, October 3 – is the eleventh anniversary of starting my job at Carleton. I somehow still think of it as my “new job,” even though no it isn’t. Perhaps I think of it that way because it’s endlessly fascinating, and most of the time in a positive way.

Beyond my awesome ten-year mug, I have many reasons to like this job, including, foremost, my coworkers – especially Mark, Dee, Charlotte, and Nina but also other staff and faculty (except that one guy).

Beyond the lovely people, I relish the opportunity to contribute to an institution that I respect and value (and that has never once missed a payday), and to have the chance to learn interesting new information literally every day, and to talk with experts about that information.

More crassly, but objectively, I enjoy being able to tally up my effort in dollars and cents. From 2005 to the present, I’ve helped submit 620 grant proposals that yielded 225 awards worth a total of $7.4 million – annual averages of 50-some proposals, about 20 grants, and about $800,000. By all indications, this year’s results are going to exceed all those averages! Maybe I’ll get a new mug!