Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Path that led to The Plan.

The words below were written more for myself than anyone else. I wanted to trace where I'd been (on paper) to give myself a clearer view of where I'm heading. Seeing it all there in print made it clearer than ever. Rather than just deleting it, I thought a few folks might enjoy and even relate. So here it is. Be warned--it ain't short.

In 1997 I attempted but did not complete the 100-mile Iditasport--I shredded my knee when I accidentally stepped into a hole punched in the trail by a moose. In 1998 I went back to AK armed with experience and humility, and was able to finish the Iditasport 350. Far from scratching the itch, finishing only made the desire to attempt and execute a 'race' like this much stronger.

All through the summer of '99 I was fixated on heading north again to attempt to ride to McGrath. February came and I started the race, but despite all of my planning, training, and preparation, I met face to face with an unexpected adversary: extreme avalanche hazard. Having spent the previous six years backcountry skiing and diligently studying snowpack (independently and with the local professional ski patrol), I assessed the conditions and knew better than to take the risk. I dropped out of the race and flew back to Anchorage, then home to CO.

Voluntarily quitting something that is so dear to you leaves a hole that is unfillable by anything other than that which you have quit. There can be no substitution--you simply have to go back and do it. Starting in late March of '99 I began plotting and planning to return to AK to complete the ride to McGrath. Despite the fact that I had only made it ~180 miles into the '99 race, I still learned heaps and bunches about how to be better prepared for the conditions and scenarios encountered on The Trail. As I was making gear and diet and training changes, a funny thing happened. Then-Iditasport organizer Dan Bull announced that, in honor of the millenium (or something like that), there would be a one-time only race covering the full 1100-miles of the Iditarod. Knik to Nome, on snow, in February.

I can't speak for anyone else that heard that news at the time, but my blood ran cold. Knowing how hard it is simply to ride to McGrath, much less be in a hurry about it, I simply had no means for conceiving of how to train, plan, prepare, or more importantly grasp what the new race meant.

I simply knew that I needed to do it. That was enough.

No set or subset of words can sound anything but cliched when describing the experiences and impact that racing the '00 Iditasport Impossible had on me. It changed my life and my perspective on life on every level. More addicting than anything I'd ever known was the plan/prepare/execute opportunity that such an endeavor provided. No surprise that when Dan Bull announced the race would happen again in '01 I was thrilled and began preparations--in July.

The '01 race saw a ginormous field and atrocious conditions (captured brilliantly here) that, again, changed all the rules of what we (the regular addicts) 'thought' we knew. A single misstep ended my race and sent me home early yet again.

Guess what? Yep--I rehabbed my ankle and spent the summer thinking about snow while riding on dirt. Then in February of '02 I made the pilgrimage to Nome yet again. The trip was wild and chaotic and unpredictable and surreal and very satisfying. When I finished in Nome I felt certain that a chapter in my life was closing. I was not nearly as clear on what the next chapter held.

In 2003 I completed a brutal and brilliant winter tour with Pat Irwin, effectively sealing the I'm-done-with-racing deal. The hardships we encountered were as nothing compared to the amount that our eyes were opened. There was a whole world out there waiting to be explored--we just needed to slow down in order to be able to see it. Unless I'm mistaken, Pat hasn't raced since.

I had a few summer races in the hopper at the time and I needed to follow through on those before pulling the plug completely, but I was sure that winter racing was past tense.

I took the winter of 2004 off from racing. I skied backcountry and track, took road trips to fun winter riding spots, and just generally enjoyed the lack of training and constant need for preparation. Words can't describe the relief I felt at just being able to go with the flow for the first time in over 15 years. I was hooked.

In 2005 I was invited on a three-month tour/traverse of the Greenland Ice Cap, and spent the winter on cloud nine as the departure date approached. Last minute politics saw my spot get taken by an inexperienced yet close acquaintance of the trip organizer (I'm not bitter...) just one week before I was supposed to leave. Filled with emotions at this turn of events, I stomped around the house for a few days before L suggested I could still go to AK and tour to McGrath. Seemed like a great idea at the time, so I spent a day confirming a spot on the start line, buying a ticket to AK, and digging all of my dusty gear outta the rafters. Two weeks later the best result I'll ever have in that race only reconfirmed what I already knew: I didn't want to go fast anymore--I wanted to go slow and enjoy the journey.

I attempted two self-supported winter tours in AK in the winters of '06 and '07. I got slapped down hard by inexperience and ignorance on both, and have savored the learning process as much as ever before.

I have even bigger plans for future explorations--several years worth, actually. But for now I *know* that I don't know enough to embark on those trips with so much as a prayer of completing them. I have to continue experimenting, failing, and learning much, much more first.

Which means that this winter I'll be back in Alaska, out on the Iditarod Trail. I *think* that I'm prepared to be on the trail for as much as a month if need be, although that amount of time will be stretching my food, fuel, and luck pretty thin. I'll be trying to traverse the North Route completely self-supported--no outside assistance of any kind. I won't accept anything that I'm not carrying myself, I won't use trailside shelters nor stop into villages, and I don't plan to step inside of any structure other than my tent for the duration. My bike and gear (all 130# of it!) are 97% ready to go with a few weeks left until departure. As always, I'll continue to learn, tweak, and experiment with things right up until the day I leave, in hopes of enjoying the trip more when out there. Hoping to hit the trail on February 25th.

It has been pointed out to me that by using the packed trail left by other recreational users that I *will* indeed be accepting outside assistance. That's a pretty tough standard, and not one that I subscribe to. But it brings up a very good point: This is a contrived adventure, intended on the most basic level to simply give me a reason to get out of bed every morning. I'm enjoying the whole process--from planning and strategizing to having a compelling reason to get out the door when it'd be easier to stay inside and veg. Executing the trip is, in a way, merely a means of testing myself and the decisions I've made to get there. The trip is a success already in that it has kept me occupied, entranced, and passionate (not just about it, but about everything else in my life too) when it would be easier to do just about anything else. As a result, I don't care much about what others think of it.

When I explained what I had in mind for this winter, Bill Merchant jokingly referred to it as 'postgraduate work'. I like the sound of that--makes it sound like so much more than frittering about at the computer, in the shop, and on the trail.

Enjoy the winter--whatever you're doing with it.



  1. "Voluntarily quitting something that is so dear to you leaves a hole that is unfillable by anything other than that which you have quit. There can be no substitution--you simply have to go back and do it."

    That speaks volumes.

    Thanks Mike. I hope your trip is everything you dreamed of and more.

  2. I found your blog through a friend... great post, I know exactly how you feel, as I just finished filling a massive hole in my own adventures (

    All the best on all of your adventures!

  3. Very inspirational. Keep up the hard work. My crappy ride into work doesn't seem so bad now, although you wouldn't tell it by my post :)

    Good luck with the trip. Looking forward to reading aboutit.

  4. And here I sit, frittering away my time on a computer (two in fact).

    Good luck and enjoy!


  5. That would be life in a nutshell wouldn't it? Pursuit of happiness, purely.

    "As always, I'll continue to learn, tweak, and experiment with things right up until the day I leave" This sentence alone would make you fit in with the HPV groups well.

    Happy trails.

  6. Mike, I always enjoy reading your posts but I really enjoyed this one. I can't really explain what drives me to keep trying to do longer and harder things.

    If I'm not mistaken, we raced the 24 Hours of Moab solo in the late '90s together. Now I've attempted the Race Across America and need to go back and finish it. At the same time I'm fascinated with the GDR.

  7. and because Mike is so humble he fails to mention that in 2000 he hammered out what we know the full iditarod trail to be in 15 days and won the race against a field with depth not seen since.Then in 2002 he wins the race to Nome in 17 days setting an Alaska ultrasport record.Since his 2002 race no one has managed to ride the full trail in less then 22 days. and the reason that his 05 ride was the best he`ll ever have is because he won the race to Mcgrath breaking the record which should have stood for years had it not been beaten by the young determined Pete Basinger in 06.
    Im sure you said you were leaving Knik this year on the 26th.I dont care if you are hauling 120 pounds more gear we need more of a head start ;-)

    ps. you stud.

  8. I now feel like a total wussy for "suffering" through a 5 hour sub 50 degree dirt adventure today.

    Stay warm Mike...and keep pedaling!


  9. Hardman: why drag a tenth of a ton of stuff across a soft, chewed up trail, a trail you been over many, many times?

    Go north to the Slope where the windblown crust can support your weight (!) and the landscape will be new and the wilderness wild. Someplace challenging and not so familiar to you?

    The idiotdog trail self contained is pretty darned contrived given there'll be pilot biscuits and nabob jam every 100 miles or so. You'll feel foolish passing it by and the locals will feel slighted when you passup their hospitality.

    And a snowmachine trail -- you know what that's like by now, don't you? why not ride the crust from Kaktovik to Kotzebue?