Jay Cable and a friend recently rode a chunk of the Yukon Quest route, and reading his writeup brought me back to my traverse of that route chasing Pat Irwin 15 years ago.
I want to share that story, but it seemed important somehow to tell the story of the previous year first, as a means for adding context to what came before, and why we did what we did in '03.
Thus, here's what I wrote about that '02 trip to Nome back in '02, complete with my scanned-to-digital (and it shows!) slides from the trip.
A version of this was published somewhere -- maybe Dirt Rag? -- way back then. I've included piles more pics on this go-round, largely so that people can understand how little of this we had "figured out" at that point, but also for some context as to how the route and conditions have -- and have not -- changed.
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When I started to recap the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I planned to present a view that would allow the reader to appreciate the remoteness and indifference of the land. I hoped to make clear the degree to which racers are affected by the routinely harsh weather, and explain the total exhaustion that we feel as we collapse, trailside and alone, into our sleeping bags each night. I also sought to give some clue of how dependent racers are on the native Athabaskan and Inuit villages that we pass through along the way, and how inconceivable the race would be without the companion Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Iron Dog Snowmobile Race.
I began the outline, quickly realizing the futility of the task. How can you explain a human-powered race with an arena the size of Alaska? I’m a marginal writer, but even if I were levels better I’d still balk at that task. Can you make people understand that years go by with no one completing the full eleven-hundred mile distance, and that only 30 people, ever, have finished? When a society hangs on every instant-replayed move of billionaire marquee athletes and ‘reality’ TV show contestants, how can you expect it to care about a race with no television coverage and no prize money?
So I decided to simply share a few of the more poignant moments. I chose a handful of slides and included a few paragraphs to capture a bit of their significance.
Price of admission
The first hundred miles of the Iditarod Trail are, to a cyclist, tedious and uninspiring. More riding on a mile-wide river than I care to quantify, followed by a nearly endless string of seemingly identical swamps. The lack of visual stimulation, especially at night, makes it difficult to stay interested. Race veterans know this is one of many ways that you pay your dues before getting into the Alaska Range or the Interior, yet still they wish to be somewhere else.
The second day of any race is usually the physical low-point; in this event I depend on the surrounding views to keep my motivation up. Past Finger Lake the trail and scenery become more interesting, beginning with a long climb into the Alaska Range. Enormous peaks project vertically out of glacial valleys populated by moose, wolves, and lynx. Alpine scenery satisfies my desire for visual stimulation while the presence of the animals, visible or anticipated, occupies my subconscious thoughts.
Fat flakes of snow begin falling as I work up into the mountains, followed closely by a driving gale that blows in the trail almost as fast as it blocks out the scenery. Above timberline and with flat light visibility is nil; I locate the trail only with my feet, and know instantly when I’ve strayed because I’m in up to my thighs.
Traveling in these conditions isn’t exceptionally grueling in a physical sense, but the monotony of the task soon becomes overwhelming. Frustrated by slow travel and compounded by a lack of scenery, even the most hardened athletes wonder what the hell they’re doing here. They have plenty of time to contemplate their answer. The upshot? It isn’t very cold. Yet.
Avoidance and admiration
Traversing the Dalzell Gorge is all about anxiety management. All you really have to do is stay on the radically sloping ice bridges and out of the rushing water. It gets tricky because at the same time you’re avoiding avalanche debris and holes in the ice bridges, admiring icefalls, rockslides, animal tracks, and being buffeted by high winds sweeping through all of it. The Gorge initiates the most visually stunning segment of this entire race, one that I always curse myself for rushing through.
Some sections of ice are so slippery, and so tilted, that even using the bike as an outrigger it takes everything I have to remain upright. Sometimes I fall and slide anyway, but I’ve never hurt myself. Convinced that fact was more luck than skill, before this year’s race I outfitted my shoes with sheet metal screws to help gain purchase. I tested them by sprinting and successfully cutting sharp corners on mirror-smooth ice in parking lots. Even still, beyond Rohn there are times when I can only death-grip the bike and brace myself as we’re blown down rivers and across lakes, shaved ice erupting from beneath my feet.
The days become a blur of deep snow, sharp gusts, wind-polished ice, captivating sunsets and wolves both real and imagined. Arriving in Nikolai after four days on the trail, I expect that the sweetest satisfaction will come from a hot meal or even a shower, but I find it instead by simply removing my shoes, one at a time, and letting my feet breathe again. Sweaty feet plus long periods of time in shoes equals trench foot.
Staring at my bare left foot, wiggling each toe independently to make sure that everyone is still on board and with the program, I calculate 40 hours since my feet last breathed freely. That’s hardly newsworthy, but the sweet relief is worth writing home about.
This race demands self-sufficiency, which means we carry only the absolute essentials. Spare clothing is left behind to save on weight and space. When all the comforts of daily life (like clean, dry socks) are removed, what’s left becomes ultimately precious. The simplest things become highlights of the trip.
Saddle sore and other pains
The trail to McGrath is marginally rideable, forcing me to work way too hard to ride very little. I dismount and walk, hoping I have enough of a lead to hang onto second place. Lightly falling snow tapers off into crystalline air. Broken clouds expose a waning moon, revealing ominous shadows that torment my subliminal while the rest of me fights sleep. At some point the trail firms up enough to ride with a reasonable amount of effort. Just before moonset I estimate three hours to go, and somehow sense that I’m being watched. Or caught.
Inching along in the darkness, I sing, chant, and tell jokes to myself, belly laughing at each punch line as though it were a surprise. I’d do anything to keep my motivation up; I’m too sore to perch on the seat anymore and my legs can’t hack it standing for another stroke. That’s all I’ve done for the last 30 miles.
Eric Warkentin appears behind as I cross a bend of the Kuskokwim River. When we come face to face he sees that I’m cooked. We ride together briefly, offering any food that we have left.
Our conversation quickly runs thin, more from a lack of energy than a lack of things to say, and he slowly begins pulling away.
As Eric rides ahead I feel my anxiety grow. I know beyond a doubt that I haven’t the energy to keep up with him for two more hours, but my ego won’t buy that. I catch myself laboring in too big of a gear, trying to salvage the race that I’ve worked so hard for. I force myself to stop. Placing my feet on the ground, I close my eyes and let my breathing return to normal. Eric’s gap is almost a hundred meters, but I want it much bigger so that I’m less inclined to chase him. My goal is Nome, over 800 miles further on. I need to maintain integrity and keep that goal foremost. I snap off a few pictures, have a few bites of jerky, and by the time I’m riding again he’s out of sight. Good.
5 days after starting I arrive in McGrath and am greeted by a gracious Pat Irwin, who won the 350-mile race over a day ago. Second-placed Eric smiles through a mouthful of food, motioning with his fork to a table laden with omelettes and larger-than-life “mancakes”. Nothing sounds better than to be unshod and unchamoised; I quickly peel off riding clothes before bellying up to breakfast.
Furrowed and fleeting
The 200 miles of trail between Takotna and Ruby exist momentarily each winter. Days ago the snowmobile race roared through, scratched the surface, and left behind a delicate crust. Days from now, using the same route, northbound sled dogs will trot on by. The fleeting moments between allow us human-powered types priceless passage through an immeasurable expanse of raw wilderness. A state-sized region of furrowed knolls bisected by meandering streams, this area sees only slightly more humans per year than the moons of Jupiter. Discounting the gummy worms frozen in my pocket, I’m unaccompanied and the miles are gloriously empty and unmarked.
The abrupt arrival of a sharp north wind softens the trail and slows my progress. Minutes later the leeward aspect of each hill becomes too soft to ride, so I walk, hoping to see something other than more hills from each crest. Arresting mountains ring the valley, yet somehow they remain conspicuously beyond the next rise, and each one after. Remounting, I savor the moments of semi-controlled descent, using them to renew my optimism about what lies ahead. Broken only by a pair of naps, the routine is endlessly repeated.
Nighttime brings clear skies, a lull in the incessant wind, and strong cold. I bivouac in a stomped-out trench just off the trail, waking fitful hours later to a kaleidoscope of stars, the sound of my heartbeat, and an oppressive 45 below. Words cannot convey the mental strength required to exit a sleeping bag at that temperature, in the dark, to push a bicycle through a strange, stark, and forbidding place. Hopeful that I’m not losing ground while procrastinating, I tell myself that everyone else must be doing the same thing.
Only once in the three days since McGrath do I see something other than more hills. Topping a climb that seems identical to the hundreds before it, with a setting sun behind and a plunging thermometer on the handlebars, I peek out and spy the lights of Ruby. Still miles away, the shelter and smiles I hope to find there seem close enough to reach out and touch.
The psychological river
The Yukon is moody and it has it’s own set of rules. On a calm, blue-sky day 5 below zero is unbelievably hot; the direct and reflected sunlight broils relentlessly. The same temperature in the shade or at night can be unbearably cold, dominated by prevailing winds pouring downstream. It’s difficult to maintain a consistent temperature while pedaling in and out of shadows along the south bank, or through williwaws behind islands or near sloughs. I fluctuate from too hot to too cold and am unable to find the perfect clothing configuration. I open and close pit zips, put the hood on and take it off, remove my hat, put it back on, gloves off, gloves on--over and over and over. A dog mushing trapper sums it up best, "On the river you get used to being not quite comfortable."
At night the Yukon becomes a virtually boundless expanse. Visibility with my tiny headlamp is 30 feet or less and the wind's blowing at least a little bit so it's hard to see that far. Besides, there’s not much to see. The only sounds are those of my tires squeaking in the snow when I’m riding or my hub clicking as I’m walking. Those are comforting in many ways because they keep me from hearing the other things; moose, wolves, shifting ice, the boogeyman. A winter night alone on this river, even an uneventful one, is filled with an indescribable anxiety alleviated only by the coming of the sun.
Psychologically the Yukon messes with my head because it’s so huge; there's a place west of Ruby that’s over 5 miles wide. It's not like that very often; it probably averages two miles. But even at that width it’s like being on an arctic treadmill—I pedal and push but nothing ever seems to move. I focus on the same spot for an hour and it doesn't get any closer.
Looking straight down at the snow movement is obvious, but gaze toward the horizon and nothing changes. I constantly remind myself to keep it in perspective; each pedal stroke is just one little step toward getting down the trail. Wishing myself past this spot only makes me crazy. The answer? Get into a groove, spin the pedals and think about anything but covering ground. Always easier said than done. Alternately enjoying and cursing things, thinking about surfing, Dr. Seuss, or sundown, much later I’ve gotten a little further. I spend two unforgettable days and one memorable night traversing 150 miles from Ruby to Kaltag.
Blow me down
I meet an Inuit couple along the trail from Kaltag. They stop to ask how I am, where I’ve come from, if I’ve seen any animals on the trail. When their questions stop I’ve got one for them; is it blowing in Unalakleet? In a lovely singsong voice, the woman replies cheerfully that it’s not blowing tonight and it will not blow tomorrow. Heartened by her simple certainty, I relax enough to stop trailside and enjoy a nap, my first sleep in 30 hours.
On the trail again when I wake, I’m blown about and frequently down by terrific winds. Gusts sweep the wheels from beneath and send me sliding. Frustrated by the gap between reality and what the sweet-voiced woman said, I later learn that this tempest doesn’t qualify as blowing. It’s merely an “afternoon breeze”.
Blown, literally, the last mile into Unalakleet, I’m bundled head to toe to protect delicate flesh. Eskimo children play outside in shirtsleeves, innocent of that which disturbs me. I stop at the Unk store to pick up a few items, asking the shopkeeper about the kids’ attire. With a detached shrug she responds that, “They dress right when they need to—when it really blows”. Precisely one day later I find out what that means.
Whoaed by wheel woes
(An email I sent from the Shaktoolik High School, back to race officials in Anchorage.)
…Just got into Shak about two hours ago. Am having big problems with my rear tire--it's disintegrating. I fixed a flat near Egavik, then noticed a hole in the sidewall while replacing the wheel. Upon closer inspection I found two more holes--all of them way too big to be riding on. Without a sewing kit I had no choice but to let the air out of the tubes and start hoofing it. About 3 hours into my little walk I was passed by a Swiss snowmachiner, who gladly gave me his needle and parachute cord. By this time the winds were over 50mph, so I couldn't stop to fix it there. Walked two more hours to the shelter cabin at the north end of the Blueberry Hills, then stopped there, sitting on a polar bear hide, to remove the tire and start sewing. About 90 minutes later I was done with the three biggest holes, but found four more starting. I slathered those with rubber cement, covered 'em up with duct tape, replaced the tire and finally got on my bike and rode! The next mile and a half along the beach was crazy--people were getting plucked from their snowmachines by the wind--some of the machines were getting turned over!! After that the wind died, like someone had flipped a switch, and the rest of the sunset ride into Shaktoolik was uneventful.
Met in the street by the whole town! Huge smiles on everyone's faces, lots of questions, kids wanting autographs (!?) made me forget the whole 12-hour trip up from Unk. First time I wasn't welcomed into a town by drunken snowmachiners doing 95 mph a few feet away from me.
I’m crashing at the school. The kids are out because of the dog race--strange what Alaskans think of as vacation. I just had a meal and a shower and am going to do some more sewing before I pass out. I'll be at the post office at 7:59:59am to get my new inner tubes and food, and then I'm off like a prom dress for Koyuk. ICE!
An hour past Golovin, 1047 miles and sixteen days into this race, I leave the sea ice and start up the Fish River. While the transition is scarcely noticeable, it makes an enormous difference. From this point forward there will be ice on lakes, sloughs, lagoons, and rivers, but gone are the demoralizing see-to-the-horizon vistas, undeterred 70 mph gales, and worrisome pressure ridges. No more anxiety-laden travel and poor, if any, sleep while listening to the wind whip, wail and shriek unabated across the ice. From here to the finish the ice is, in a word, manageable. I can wrap my head around it because it comes in small doses.
Approaching White Mountain I’m in a great mood because the sea ice is behind and tonight’s sunset is shaping up to be spectacular. To the west the Topkok Hills smolder in an amber hue, while the mountains to the north glow crimson. More significant is that there are only 79 miles to go until Nome, until I can stop. Stop moving, riding, walking, and eating. Shoveling in eight thousand calories a day for over two weeks is barely enough to stay alive out here; I’ve needed an additional four or five thousand daily in order to keep moving. That means non-stop motion of hands to mouth; I eat when pedaling, walking, navigating, even while peeing. I take food into the sleeping bag to consume while sleeping. Getting to Nome means I can stop eating and get some real sleep. That also lifts my spirits.
What pushes me over the edge on the giddy-meter is a two-raven escort. They barrel roll and tuck-turn their way ahead for three bends of the Fish River. When we finally come in sight of town they become even more animated--chasing each other in figure eights and swooping parabolas. Their graceful movements contrast hugely with my herky-jerky pedaling, providing a welcome reminder to slow down, if only in my mind, and enjoy the remainder of the race.
In the final 30 miles I fix three flats and repair, for the umpteenth time, my disintegrating rear tire. I nearly succumb to a wave of frustration, thinking that after eleven hundred miles I’ve somehow earned the right to coast to the finish. I know better-- every inch is earned up here. If I have to fix five more flats before I cross the line in Nome, that’s the only way I’m going to get there.
There are neither words nor any further thoughts when I arrive. Finishing the race is immeasurably anticlimactic. After 17 days on the trail life becomes so simple: ride, eat, breathe, and sleep. The transition back to everyday life is not as simple, or welcome.
Signing paperwork (with a caveman-grip on the pen) to get a room for the night, I’m approached and asked if that’s my bike sitting outside. Where did I come from? Seems like no one in the small crowd believes my answer. Some hesitate but a second before asking, Why?
Sorting through the mental Rolodex of answers, I finally settle on some version of, “I came looking for a supreme challenge” or, “I see it as a pilgrimage”, but I’m too exhausted to add a convincing tone to my voice. I mean what I say but mere words ring hollow, and I doubt anyone is satisfied with these responses. Eventually their curiosity fades and they leave me alone.
While flying south to Anchorage my mind wanders from the trail visible below, to home in Colorado, back to the trail, then to the future. Why do I do it? I can’t decide if it’s remarkable or ironic that not once while on the trail was that question asked.
I think of friend and fellow racer Bill Merchant, still moving toward Nome somewhere below. He’s fond of saying that we go into the Alaskan backcountry to find cracks in ourselves, and that we go back a year later to see if we've done anything about them.
He’s probably right. It could be that simple. I simply haven’t stopped finding cracks.
Tell me Bill, please, does anyone?
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Contested each February in the Alaskan winter, the Iditarod Trail Invitational is a human-powered race tracing that historic route. Known previously as Iditabike, Iditaski, or Iditasport, this event has matured and evolved for almost two decades. There have been 100, 130, 160, and 200-mile races over the years. The most attended of all of these is the century distance, now known as the Susitna 100. The current Iditarod Trail Invitational race has a finish line after 350 miles (in McGrath), and another (in Nome) after 1,100 miles. While most find 350 miles ‘enough’, some racers ‘sprint’ to McGrath, take a day to recuperate, and then head out for the next 800 miles to Nome.
A few things have always remained the same:
-You can move along via mountain bike, skis, or feet, or any other method of non-motorized transport that you prefer, so long as only you are the motor.
-Support on the trail is minimal to non-existent, and the competitors wouldn’t have it any other way.
-The weather is what it always is in the Alaskan winter: Predictably cold, snowy, and windy, and it influences every move of every racer along the way.
Anyone wanting to get their feet wet and see some of this for themselves would be well advised to start here: www.susitna100.com
Already know you want to go big? www.alaskaultrasport.com
Be forewarned: You Will Not come away from this race unscathed. You will become obsessed with choosing, testing, and carrying your gear, and you will do this up until the minute the race starts. You will perform light/battery tests in your freezer to the surprise and eventual disgust of your spouse. Your friends will tire of endless banter regarding PSI, LED’s, BTU’s, and fill power. You’ll wish for colder weather, and when it comes you’ll head for the backyard with your sleeping bag. You’ll decide between down and synthetic. You’ll get precisely one second of peace, and then the starter’s gun will go off. You will suffer heavily, no matter your pace. You will get lost, hypothermic, disoriented, confused, flatulent, euphoric, famished, angry, and always while exhausted and sleep deprived. And somewhere in there you will have your eyes opened to Mountain Bike Racing, Version 2.0.