Sometimes I wonder why I do these things. Why would I possibly think that it’s a good idea to try to race my bike across 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail in Alaska in the middle of winter? Really, sitting here surrounded by creature comforts such as a cup of coffee, music, warmth, a chair, instant access to an internet’s worth of information and entertainment, why would I go try to survive off my bike and race a bunch of boys from Knik to McGrath. But maybe that’s the reason in end, that we can sit here in front of our computers, going about our daily lives until the cows come home. But what’s the adventure in that?
The Iditirod Trail Invitational was nothing short of an amazing adventure, from the moment I left Boulder with my bike box and all my gear, to the start line, to the finish line, to taking the red-eye home from Anchorage and finding myself right back where I started, except with a life experience that will not soon be forgotten under my belt, it was all big, all the time.
The ITI is a beast all of it’s own because even more so than all the other questionable bike-packing adventures I’ve partaken in, it’s walking a fine line between going fast and survival. Being a rookie going into the race, I erred on the side of survival and even with (relatively) warm temperatures forecasted, I still deemed it a good idea to bring a -20 degree sleeping bag. The racer in me decided to forgo the down pants in the interest of weight savings. Some of the boys brought lighter sleeping bags and less clothes, but said boys also had much more faith in their abilities to push from check point to check point between rests (I won’t say ‘sleeps’ because the top guys didn’t actually sleep for the entire race).
As for me? I slept. A whopping 8 hours for the entire race, which by most people’s standards isn’t a lot but by the standards set by the boys this year, made me seem downright lazy. My first push was 135 miles long and took me 26 hours on slow trail. I hadn’t planned on riding this long without sleep, but a few inches of fresh snow that fell during the first couple of hours of the race slowed everyone’s progress. During this first push, I’d ridden icy pavement with the lead group of boys, negotiated overflow on the Flathead lake, braved heavy snow through the Dismal Swamps, ridden the giant Yentna River through the middle of the night, watched a spectacular Alaskan sunrise, nearly cried with snowmobilers obliterated the bike tracks in front of me, and then finally found myself at the Winter Lake Lodge on Finger Lake, a resort that flies it’s guests in for pampering and relaxation.
I ate. I tried to sleep. I gave up eventually, ate some more and headed out into the Alaskan night for the push to the Rainy Pass lodge. Now, I’m a mountain biker at heart. I love trails that climb and descend, in addition to going to the left and right. 3-D riding. A lot of snow biking is a very 2-D affair, but the section of trail between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass Lodge is anything but 2-D. It was a roller coaster under a full Alaskan moon in the middle of the Alaskan Range. The lodge appeared what seemed like two hours later, but was in fact a solid 8 hours later. That’s an entire workday, passed by in the blink of an eye. Luckily, after a can of chicken chile warmed on a roaring wood stove, sleep came quickly at 4:30 in the morning. But with the crux of the route, the 3,000 foot Rainy Pass looming, the sleep was not long and I was back outside before 7 am.
Part of the appeal of these races is the places that I’d never get to see if I didn’t do them. Rainy Pass and the Dalzell Gorge afterward seemed like one of those secret places that only few get to see, the few who really put the effort in. Even tired and sleep deprived, I understood that I was in a magic place. Another work day’s worth of riding later, I found myself in the outpost of Rohn, a place that only exists for the ITI and the Iditarod dog race. Luxury is all a matter of perspective, and at that particular juncture in time, the small canvas walled tent with a bed made of snow and pine boughs was as comfortable as a five-star hotel, the clam chowder from a can rivaling meals from master chefs. I ate. I pondered sleep, but now that I was finally ahead of record pace after being close to six hours behind after the slow start, the motivation outweighed the exhaustion.
And so I pedaled. First across the ice of the Kuskokwin River, then the ice of the Post River, and then into the Farewell Burn, a huge swath of land dotted with dead spruce trees. Under the full moon, it seemed like a scene out of a horror movie. Eventually, the lack of sleep got to my brain. The body could have kept moving, but the head was done, so I made use of my -20 degree sleeping bag, told the bright Alaskan moon Goodnight and passed out for the best sleep I had the entire trip. Waking up was a sub-stellar affair, but once I got moving, I just had a 40 mile straightaway, a 15 mile jaunt into Nikolai for the final checkpoint, and then 50 miles along the Kuskokwim River to the finish line. On paper, it seems simple enough.
In reality, I battled mouth sores from eating too much sugar and not being OCD about brushing my teeth, I suffered from a sore underside from thinking a single chamois would get me through, and I suffered from the sleep monster that took me down 12 miles from the finish for one last nap. But at the same time, I saw the Alaskan Range lit up by the sunrise. I rode ice so glassy and smooth it didn’t seem real. I saw the most amazing sunset of my life. And when I finished, I ate some of the best food of my life at Peter and Tracy’s, a wonderful couple who host finished ITI racers until they can book a flight out of McGrath back to Anchorage. There are no roads that go to McGrath, flying out is the only option. That’s the type of place the ITI goes to.
In the end, I broke the women’s record by a little under 6 hours. I made plenty of rookie mistakes, but apparently I made just enough good decisions to make up for the screw ups. The only worrisome part is that I’m finding myself making lists of things I can fix and do better…possibly for a race past McGrath, all the way to Nome.