Thursday 22 February 2024

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2024... an uncommon adventure

  • un·sup·port·ed
  • (of a person or activity) not given physical, emotional or other assistance.

Pre-race start 2019

The ITI '24 unsupported project is something that's been gnawing at the edges of my chocolate fueled adventures on the trail for many years. After 5x 1000 mile Nome finishes and 2x 350 mile McGrath finishes from 8 starts over 10+ years since my first Alaska trip, I've dedicated a chunk of my life to honing my craft of winter travel and gear refinement...and this last aspect is an intrinsic reward of the race to me.

    'I yearned to do that - to create my own gear, with my own designs to solve problems in traversing the trail'

I'd read stories from the pioneers of fatbiking in the golden era; of garage built frames, rims welded together, tyres sewn together and custom components to increase the flotation of a loaded bike on the snow to travel the Iditarod Trail. I've studied these bikes up close in the unofficial fatbike museum at Speedway Cycles in Anchorage and I have to say - we got it eeeeeasy nowadays. I yearned to do some of that - to create my own gear, with my own designs to solve problems in traversing the trail. I've made a bunch of stuff over the years and this unsupported project gave me the opportunity to flex those maker muscles again, along with building a highly refined and functional kick-ass bike with the best modern materials a bike mechanic can afford. 

However, another aspect that is becoming a slight irritant to me is the modern progression of 3rd party support on the trail - sometimes unbidden by well meaning folk. Those early days of the event, where veteran racers would sleep outside with no shelter cabins, or go a long time between resupply - if it was even there at all - that's what drew me in to a yearning for that slightly purer experience with less or no support, even if it meant stretching things out a bit. Put simply - I feel too much support has crept in and is readily accepted by racers, instead of declined. Curmudgeon much? I wouldn't say so of myself, but I think we can do better in terms of what we seek out there on the trail. I can only change my response to support-creep for my own outcomes. 

There was a quote from Bill Merchant many years ago that sums up my perspective on this - it's not word for word but the emotive is the same: 

'When you solve too many problems for folks on the trail, you take away some of the reasons for the true adventurer wanting to be out there in the first place and it lessens the experience for them'

As the saying goes "if it was easy, everyone would do it." There're reasons why its never been done by bike within the ITI race and the cryptic answer lies between those inverted commas above.  Tim Hewitt finished unsupported to Nome on foot in the 2013 ITI; Mike Curiak completed a private unsupported bike tour to Nome in 2010. That's it. Mucho respecto to those veteran legends of the Iditarod Trail.  

'take something hard and purposefully make it more difficult and pure, all the while simplifying and solving some issues one might encounter by travelling supported or tethered to a safety net'

For me, I felt the timing was right - the confluence of motivation, desire, competence and sacrifice. Sacrifice? Yes sir - my family have supported me on this whole journey. I'd also felt a little burned out by the 1st place goal, with some shitfuckery in '19 (IYKYK) and a 2nd place that year, then short coursed by Covid in '20 and ensuing issues in '22 and '23 had me on the mat but I wasn't ready to tap out, I just needed to modify MY approach to a performance goal. But why harder, not easier? This race attracts a certain type of person - I'm sure a psychologist could drill down into the uncommon mindset. So many motivational speakers outline a 'growth mindset' and want to sell you a book, subscription or conference ticket on how to achieve it - I can tell you straight up you need to get out and get after it if you truly want to grow - we each have our own way of seeking out the puzzle pieces. The Iditarod Trail is where I've learnt so much about myself and life in general, in that freeze dried atmosphere.

Comfort at -40C

'You are your only option'

There is a spirit and a series of rules surrounding unsupported racing and they vary from race to race, however the mantra remains the same - take something hard and purposefully make it more difficult and pure, all the while simplifying and solving some issues one might encounter by travelling supported or tethered to a safety net. Integrity is of the utmost importance. Am I still racing? Hard YES, but I'm racing for a good time, not a fast time. Efficient movement in every action is an intrinsic reward as every hour I'm out there equals more resources required. I consulted the race director to ensure that my unsupported attempt can be done within the ITI race structure, as I prefer the pressure of a clock ticking and the legacy aspect of a metric to record, for the annals of ITI history and for my family. There is a saying within the ITI 'you are your only option' and I feel my unsupported project '24 wholly embodies that motto. Lets deep dive into my rules for 1000 miles of wintry, solo type 2 fun:

  1. The unsupported racer is to carry 100% from the start, everything they need to get to Nome - no mandatories other than GPS Trace unit as per 'regular' race rules
  2. No indoor time (includes outhouses, porches of cabins or schools etc) and use only the shelter that the racer carries or natural cover (trees)
  3. No resupply or forwarding of equipment
  4. No mechanical support or shipping of parts/equipment
  5. No lingering in villages
  6. No camping in villages or near cabins
  7. No assistance of any kind from other racers or 3rd parties
  8. The unsupported racer is to ride solo where possible, with minimal/no pairing with other racers - no drafting 
  9. Any racer applying for unsupported MUST have completed 2x North route and 2x South route in close proximity years
  10. The unsupported racer is to check in at checkpoints (outside the CP) with minimal time contact
  11. GPS Trace unit/Trackleader tracking as per regular racer, to verify location
  12. All other regular ITI rules apply
  13. Breaches are considered a failure of the goal, resultant DNF
  14. Behaviour must be in line with the true spirit of human powered racing and to remain competitive with the highest level of integrity
  15. Leave no trace
  16. Make good choices

'Check your hubris at the door, son.' 

Fresh after the 2022 Nome finish

An unsupported attempt isn't something one boasts about early, if at all - it is very much a personal decision to forego the support, step into another hyper level of prep/focus and also also step up your exposure level to be HIGHLY scrutinised before, during and after the race. You need to do a gut check bigtime before announcing your intention, weigh up your risk vs outcome overall. Check your hubris at the door, son. I feel unsupported is for the challenge within, but at some point you have to announce it publicly so that fellow racers, dot watchers and armchair critics can make some sense of your odd movements out there on the trail...or not.  

Hard no.

So... there might be less of the good stuff we're accustomed to as veteran racers (mancakes, rummaging through leftover drops and BLM cabins) but there is a certain simple beauty in the challenge I've set for myself for '24. 

'More freedom, more smiles, less distractions that take away the maximum absorption of enjoyment in the moment.'

I'm reminded of a scene from the sci-fi movie 'Contact' starring Jodie Foster, where she is in the space capsule and strapped with safety harnesses into the seat - both of which were not in the original design schematics of the capsule. The safety structure was the foreign element and wasn't part of the organic intention of travel and became a danger. However, once she detached from those safety mechanisms she was free to explore and experience the surroundings to the fullest.

'I'm okay to go' 

More freedom, more smiles, less distractions that take away the maximum absorption of enjoyment in the moment on the trail. That enjoyment began many months ago, when the making began and the mind expanded its journey of all things unsupported, churning over scenarios and solving them in theory - which is how I've managed to solve them over the last 10+ years coming to Alaska - remotely, in Australia, during a hot summer. Must be doing something right all these years. Over the last decade I've changed a lot of things around to better optimise my life for this event, to be comfortable, when it's uncomfortable out. To this point, my mascot this year is a Red Fox - he looks pretty comfy and content to just be himself out there. 

Lets have a sneak peak of the machine that will carry my gear, my soul and my food along 1000 miles to Nomnomnom (credit Oppy for that one!) I'm sure at some point there'll be a far more detailed breakdown of the bike and gear, but for now just be thankful I didn't redact the images...

Microphone dropped. 

Thursday 21 December 2023

Big bike, big plan, big project '24

Far from a palindrome.

The big ITI bike is in the workshop, getting some mods for the '24 ITI project. 

First up was a new ti fork with rack mounts and 3 bolt cage mounts f&r on the fork blade. 

I made this front rack for my 2016 Nome trip, but to suit a different fork. This new fork has rack mounts in a different location,  so ill mod the rack again to suit. 

I stitched these front micropanniers for Nome '16 as well, to suit this rack. Ill make a rack top bag to match the pannier ensemble. For 'stuff'.

A new downtube bag is also on the drawing board. 

A new kitchen bag will be hewn out of X-Pac fabric to go behind the seatpost.
 This rack area here, yes im making some enormous, cavernous slimline panniers. 

Big box of nice new carbon hoops.

Lots to make before February.

Tuesday 28 February 2023

ITI 2023 race report.

'So what happened?'

I've been asked this a LOT in the past few months, about my 2023 ITI Nome attempt. It's taken me a while to coalesce my thoughts and feelings around this and how best to share it.

The short story - cold induced mild pulmonary edema. 2 hours into the race I knew I was in the shit - I wasn't able to get my heart rate over 120BPM (which is a pretty cruisy all day HR for me); any kind of effort felt like a major task for my body overall; deep breaths were a real challenge and usually ended in a hacking cough fest; and with an icy cold temp of -20C by 4pm, my lungs were getting whupped in the first round and I'll spare you the other mucky details. I had a heart a-fib episode in my 20's from overtraining, it's never been a limiter to what I do in sport, but this time I was just a tad spooked when I ran my self diagnostics a few hours into the race. We all live in a post-covid world and that can have different effects and residues in people.  

'Make good choices, yeah? I drum this principle into attendees at the ITI training camp I instruct at, so I act on that same rule.' 

I made the good choice to end my race at the first checkpoint of Butterfly Lake, a meagre 25 miles into the race. Yeah nah, don't take chances with your heart health kiddies, you've gotta make good decisions no matter how big the sheep station is in your head. Being a 5 time veteran of biking the 1000 miles to Nome, I knew what was ahead of me and I'd lost trust in my body's ability to do what needed to be done to compete and complete the long game. Bonus points as well for not getting caught up in the expen$$ive US health care system! It's a tough call to make - so much time and especially money invested in each trip - not cheap as an international athlete along with the horrible AUD-USD exchange rate...

However, I wasn't the only veteran racer to make good choices and retire early from the race. RJ Sauer was lingering around Butterfly Lake CP like I was, huddling around the stove, deep within the tempest of our minds. I eventually racked out on a couch, drifting in and out of a meek slumber as other racers arrive, dry some clothing, do a gut check and then get out the door into the early morning cold after a very quick nap on the floor. 

Before the sun had risen, I noticed RJ up and moving - but not with vigour. 'If you're waiting for me so we can leave together...' he never got to finish his sentence as I knew what he was going to say - I clipped it short with 'Nah mate, I'm scratching. My airways are burnt. I kinda figured you were scratching too - I've been watching your body language all night'. Once that line had been crossed together, we were kindred brothers in arms, no longer feeling like singular race outcasts - only feeling the reinforcement from a fellow veteran that had seen plenty of good and bad along the trail - knowing how indifferent the horrible beauty can be out there. We chatted for hours all things ITI, Alaska, Tour Divide and family bikepacking. We sorted our combined logistics (thanks Beth) and debriefed along the slow paced ride back to Big Lake. It was a true bluebird day - bitterly cold and clear skies. 

It wasn't until a few days later when I was back home in Australia, that the stinging cold brutality of that first night had surfaced. Many racers had succumbed to cold injuries, severe frostbite (that later required several amputations of digits) and medivacs from Yentna Station - only another 25 odd miles along the trail from Butterfly Lake checkpoint. This year saw the largest field of scratchings ever in the history of the race due to cold injuries, with many of them right there at Yentna, or a day or so later as a result of that first nights exposure. The first night is often the toughest, as your body is going through all kinds of hell to adapt to its new operating environment. Plus it's very easy to get caught up in the competition and make poor choices in the deep of the night, when you're depleted and sleep deprived, on a seemingly never ending frozen river and the temps are nearing -40C. Errors compound and multiply very quickly. 

But all of this generally won't stop the fallen from signing up the following year. It takes a certain kind of dumb tenacity to make that choice. Often it's when we are truly tested in the theatre of  the outdoors, is when we reveal a gritty aspect of our true self, to ourselves. 

There are lessons in there too; each time we put ourselves in these positions we get a bit more intuitive and connect thought with action in a far more autonomous manner. Well, duh.

Unfinished business, along with dumb tenacity. 

Saturday 12 February 2022

Iditarod 2022 prologue

 'Antarctica; icy graveyard of hubris, not hostile to humanity but worse, utterly indifferent; a blank wall at the edge of the universe defying us to find meaning in it'  ~ Sterling Archer, worlds greatest secret agent.

I'm in Alaska baby! Kinda snuck that one under the radar, hey. But to be honest, for a long while I didn't know when I'd be back so it was kept on the down low, until all the things clicked into place. It was tenuous for sure, it left me quite distracted and with such a dynamic situation and things changing fast, adopting the plastic mindset (as you do when racing this event) had to be engaged earlier: to adapt, improvise and move forward. 

The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) 2022 is nearly here (Sunday 27th February, 2pm AKST - yes there will be GPS tracking for dotwatchers to follow, closer to the date) and now is a good time to go through the machinations of the 'haven't you had enough suffering yet' motivation for me to keep returning to this race. (Quick facts on the race for those new around these parts - 1000 miles/1600km by bike, self supported solo, middle of winter in the Alaskan backcountry, no roads, just frozen lakes and rivers with a rudimentary route carved into the snow, no dark zones, you decide when you travel, the race does not stop regardless of weather, the responsibility is on you to make good decisions and manage yourself and gear during the race - there is no safety net - just danger zone from start to finish - woohoo!)

Well, Covid kinda ruined my 2020 race with its many sucky parts (check out previous blog posts for that tearful race report) so there's a bit of char to burn in the furnace there, 2021 was in limp mode most of the time, however the opportunity is now there to travel internationally and resume life where we left off - if you go for it. I feel that this is a milestone year, that despite the race being hard enough - there are all these other obstacles in front of you just to get to the startline. This magnifies the intrinsic reward for me - that if you can make good choices, prepare yourself and your gear correctly, overcome these additional challenges and achieve your goal - that's Ubermensch level stuff. Either that or just Archer-ise the shit out of it.. 

We've all been affected in some way and it's all relative to our lot in life, I also acknowledge that some may see my travel as too soon and risky. I get it, but when it's time to move forward and we have that opportunity to move - it's best to grab hold of it. If there's one takeaway from the last 2 years - don't hesitate - do the thing, eat the stuff, go to the place. What we put our bodies and minds through on the race is pretty risky too and I reckon the reward is well worth it. I'm not very politically minded, so all of the stuff on that side of things I just stay clear of, I keep myself busy enough with other adventure related things, that there is just no interest or bandwidth left for it. I wanted to travel internationally and race, so I'll do what needs to be done and move forward - it's time to be intrepid, be that positive influence and inspire people to live their best lives. Considering that Covid is the biggest health risk right now and getting sick from it (or even just testing positive at the pre-race testing with no symptoms) is devastating to my race goals, so IMO vaccination is about the best darn bodyhack/performance enhancer I can get right now! 

I've had some health issues these last two years that I'm glad to put behind me.  My incredibly supportive wife Nyree has changed a lot of things around to enable this to happen, which I doubt I'll be able to repay in this lifetime. Mum has been a constant inspiration of grit and mental toughness, backing me all the way. My business has been slowly building up again thanks to the support from my awesome customers, friends and suppliers. 

This race to me is the ultimate casserole - bikes, extreme cold, camping, high calorie foods, keeping shit real (and if you're a Goggins fan - carrying boats and staying hard haha), gear nerdery and digging real deep into that human performance and psychological ice cream bucket. Terrible way to lose weight, but awesome way to see what you're made of. This year will be my 7th time on the startline and my 5th to Nome for the full 1000 mile distance. My finish position has been improving each year as well - an 8th place on my rookie Nome year in 2016, 5th place in '17, 3rd in '18, 2nd in '19; so you can see where my focus has been the last few years. 

You can't control things outside of your command, but you can control your response to it. 

So after a 30 hour travel time with an added 4 hour delay to Anchorage from LAX, I arrived at the bnb around 2am, but there is no key. No problem, dig out your sleep kit and rack out behind the wheely bins, snack on the choc peanuts in your pack.

Irene arrived a short while later and opened up, she looks after us racers very well and it's a very homely atmosphere, the very best place to prepare for the race - close to shops, a good sized garage and home cooked food.

There is a lot of prep to do. Food and supply cache bags have to be made up (so lots of high calorie food shopping for a month or so) and prepare my kit for instructing at Iditarod Training Camp - a week in the bush with 10 or so enthusiastic rookies where we fill their minds with knowledge, stories from the trail, hints and hacks and loads of other misinformation, to help them get more out of their winter travels and achieve their race goals on the ITI. Then it's a week back at the bnb to do more food shopping (as you run out of things when doing the rest of your drops) taper off the training, more trips to the store for supplies for your drops, bank sleep, fuss over your setup and nervously triple check everything. As an international athlete, this time is essential and a complacent 'she'll be right aye' will nett negative results. Get acclimated! In town it's -4C and about a 40 degree swing compared to home, so it's t shirt on the outdoor walks and shorts and boots only for the driveway workouts. Through the interior it can easily get to -40C and beyond: and beyond that again if the wind is up; simply put, could be an 80 to 100 degree temp swing for this Aussie. I think my Polish blood likes it. 

...and why Archer as my avatar for dotwatcher tracking and as mascot/theme for this year? He's only the worlds greatest secret agent, what's not to like? He's highly competent, doesn't like too much intel before a mission (it ruins the surprise, Lana), always manages to pull it off (phrasing) when things go noisy and when he goes white-hot-supernova-rampage - that's a danger zone you don't want to get caught up in! Danger Zone! Woohoo!

Sunday 3 October 2021

Iditarod 2020 - race report EP 4

This final episode is a bit of a roller coaster for me, as I look back now at the many moving parts of the 2020 race. It comes with a veteran's helping of selflessness to a Nome rookie, along with some very bitter-sweet decisions that were both easy and hard to make at the time, and would bring about their own residues to manage at a later point in time. Lets dive in - I'm at Nikolai checkpoint and we'll rewind with a bit of copy and paste:

'About an hour after I arrived, word filtered through that George Adams had an issue with his bike. The details were sketchy, but he couldn't ride it and was pushing from around Bear Creek. I built this bike for George around 6 weeks prior to the race and he was going to Nome with his lifelong buddy, Graham Muir. My focus instantly shifted from my own goal, into doing everything that I could to get George's bike fixed and back to 100%. The dream adventure for two people was on the line here as George and Graham were racing as a pair. With 4 Nome finishes under my belt, I knew how much work they'd done to get here and also how important it was to continue - those that know, know. When you are in the theatre of Iditarod, there is a lot of camaraderie between racers that gets magnified in situations like this. George's Muru Canning build spec was modeled around my own Muru Iditarod LE, and if it meant taking parts off my own bike to keep him on track to Nome then that's what I was going to do.

At his rate of travel, George was due into Nikolai the following day...sometime. There was no way to get a message to him on the trail that I was waiting for him, to assess and hopefully repair his bike, so George unfortunately had to wallow in push mode for another 24+ hours. I had to wallow in eat and sleep mode until he arrived, but also the anguish of seeing my own race potential adapt and evolve.'

All I could do was watch the tracker, strategise and fill the time with tasks; re-organise my foodbags/framebag; mop the floor of the checkpoint; fix bikes - Roberto Gazzoli's bike had been stomped on by a moose, two spokes had torn through the rear rim and the gears were not indexing right with no climbing gears, so I spent a bit of time down in the laundry space of the checkpoint tuning his drivetrain to get him as much gear range as possible for the next 750 miles. Roberto and I chatted about George's scenario, I still didn't have any firm intel on his mechanical failure, but I said to Roberto that I'll do what it takes to keep George in the game, I will give him parts off my bike, even if it makes my bike unrideable. That was where my mind was right there. But I also had to be patient and wait for George to arrive, while I watched my competitors gain more distance up the trail. 

As if by happy accident, there had been a fair bit of salad shipped to Nikolai. In the world of ultra-distance racing, salad isn't one of those foodstuffs that is demanded or revered by athletes for it's energy content or satiety. But it was there. George G. (checkpoint host) became aware of my situation and my reason for pausing, he set about fixing me a karma meal like no other - a big leafy green salad with a grilled Salmon steak, cherry tomatoes with garnish and lemon dressing. He said to me "Trail karma comes back around". My response was "mate, do good things even if nobody is watching". 

We chatted quite a bit about luck and the effect it can have on many aspects of the race. I'm not a superstitious person, I'm a firm believer in making your own future with good planning and execution, however I was coming around to the premise that when stuff happens in close proximity to other happening stuff, it's just easier to brand it as luck and prefix accordingly with bad, good, or shit outta. Word from the outside world was that the travel situation with COVID was worsening. Crazy times.

I had some management of my own to do: my legs were ballooning up with oedema and inactivity. It seems the dehydration over Rainy Pass was catching up with me, along with the side effects of sleep deficit piling up from the last 2 months or so. Oedema is something I've had mildly in the past, bit of puffiness always went away as the body normalised from life on the trail, but this was different and exacerbated the bursitis I get every year - but normally that hits around the 500 mile mark when I hit the Yukon. 

I watched the tracker for George's arrival. I swept and mopped the checkpoint floor, ate, napped, got my tools and the pit area ready in the laundry room for when George arrived. The checkpoint gradually filled with more tired foot/biking/skiing bodies and gear, racers eager to cram themselves in whatever warm and dry space they could find. 

The moment finally arrived, Graham 'Bush' Muir rode in first, with George not far behind pushing his bike off the river, IIRC it was just before midday. We cheered him in through the windows and he was surprised to see me there ready to wrench on his bike - lol it's not outside assistance if the help is from another racer!  Got the bike up on a workstand and the back wheel out for assessment. 

E13 9-46T cassette on an XD driver, using the e13 grease. E13 specify 1.5Nm of torque on the clamp bolt, as the clamp strap is easily broken. I'd fitted this cassette in Australia and used my calibrated Ritchey torque wrench on the bolt at 25 degrees celsius, I can only surmise that temperature played a part here, shrinking the freehub body just enough where the clamping force wasn't sufficient to hold the cassette on with George's significant power output. 

Plan was to get the bike going (there were no tools to 'split' the cassette to retension the clamp bolt) by easing the cassette back into place and re-tuning the gears so he could ride to McGrath
 (same thing I told Adam at Eagle Island CP in '18, after I field repaired his I9 hub): 

                  'Just don't hate f^ck it on the hills, mate.'

I did up a shopping list of parts for George to order and get sent to McGrath, then we would all rendezvous there and I do the final repair. In that time I can haul arse to McGrath, get my food cache, rack out until George and Bush arrived and strategise my next race plan to see what time I can recoup on the front pack. But first, fruit. 

Rewarded with a fast dance and groovy lightshow on the trail, I got into McGrath just after dark. Front Nome pack were still there - they'd had 3 days rest! 

I busied myself on the next phase, my food cache was missing so best get busy on discarded/scratched racer's food to make up supplies to get me to Cripple or Ruby. It's a fun process, digging around like a kid in a lego box looking for the right coloured block, but snacking along the way. 

Next task was body management. It's quite common in rest rooms to have flushable wipes, they are a staple item in your drop for a regular trail hygiene routine. I looked at the white cap on this pack and it fitted the needs at the time - disinfection, fresh lemon scent, virus protection (very apt at this point) and the scrubbing texture would help in key areas (don't make me explain it). However, I only looked at the front panel. 


Yep. Go on, I know you're thinking of laughing, so just do it.  Initially, I liked how big the wipes were, the texture helped where needed and the scent was refreshing, along with the cleansing feeling. Until the burning started. I know you're laughing by now. My natural curiosity told me to investigate the package further, upon seeing the flipside, it all started to make sense. I began looking for a Scoville unit rating and there was an afterburn that kept on giving after the rinsing and powdering. But I was happy I'd taken steps to prevent entry of corona virus via that portal. Plenty of snow outside, it was dark, nobody could see my wormy dog impression. I racked out. 

Morning time - Peter is always up early to craft his bespoke mancakes - 1" thick pancakes with berries and apple chunks - you try and put back in what the trails takes out at every opportunity. I skyped Nyree and the news coming back was grim, changing by the hour, the dnb party was getting shut down. 

 'Aussies abroad come home now, Australia will be closing its borders due to the evolving pandemic. Any citizens abroad, make your plans to return home ASAP (DFAT)'. 

Shit. I've never scratched from a race or backed down from a challenge I've taken on, and yet here I was, able bodied to continue, the weather seemed about as perfect as you could get, and I was left with an extremely tough decision to make. George and Bush weren't due for another few hours, so I had to chew on this and look out the window at this bluebird day. 

I won't lie. Despite all the hard times I've had on the Iditarod trail, tough weather and physical/mental strain - sitting there on the couch in the back room, looking out the window and making that call to finish in McGrath, was THE hardest task I've ever faced in this race. It brought me to tears. When you put so much into doing this race, with people in your corner that support and believe in you, you shoulder that load as well - this is just as much their race too. There were so many moving parts to this evolving situation, Nyree and I discussed it on skype and workshopped many scenarios, but running it down the logic funnel always ended with the same constant. I knew it was a good and right decision, but it just hurt so damn much. 

'Always make good decisions - it's a backbone formula for any aspect of this race, for life's journey as well.' 

I was also looking at the long range weather forecast as well - despite it being a nice day today, the window was closing with a warm system moving in. I've been up the trail to Nome 4 times in consecutive years since 2016 - this was to be my 5th in a row - so I could read what was coming up on the trail - it wasn't going to be a record year of fast days with hard trail to Nome. It was going to be a slog, which is all par for the course any other year, without the threat of Covid closing international borders and causing flight havoc. 

Toni was laid up in McGrath with some sort of chest infection, he went to the McGrath hospital and got treated, he hung around waiting for me to leave and head up the trail, but I was waiting on George and Bush. They got in just before sunset. Plan was to stay another night and repair Georges bike the next day, as his parts were due in then. I felt so bad for Toni having to head out solo in his condition, but he is one tough unit and I knew he'd make good choices. 

 I had made my decision to finish early in McGrath due to Covid, but kept it to myself after notifying Kathi. I wanted to absorb and contribute positively to conversation with the finished 350 racers as they came through, not get quagmired in the negative vibe of a scratch. It felt good to imbue rookie finishers with the importance of debriefing and those precious memories at Peter and Tracey's house; reminding them that the only people that will understand what you've just been through, are the people currently sharing the table and meals with you. 

'Savour it, as nobody back home will understand your stories like this family seated with you right now.' 

It helped me process my own situation, by listening to the excited stories of finished racers and knowing the locations of their lowest moments - plus the food kept coming. Parts arrived just after midday so I got stuck into fitting them to Georges bike (a new HG freehub for his DT 350 hub, with a Shimano XT cassette and DT end cap fitted), adjusted the brakes, took a headset spacer off my bike and put it on Georges - they were good to go. There was surprise and disappointment from them that I wasn't riding out with them, but they had their adventure path in front of them and I wanted to set them up right. 

Race postscript: (for readers who didn't follow the race commentary or dot watch) the trail weather remained cold and clear for the next few days, then a warm front moved in and stayed, with a low cloud ceiling and poor light contrast conditions (quite hard to ride in as you can't see the firm trail next to the soft snow shoulder). Village checkpoints were relocating out of town and slamming shut to outsiders faster than racers could get to them. Some veteran racers were scratching on the Yukon river, as they knew they would get trapped with village lockdowns, no food cache access and risk of no flights out of villages (bush plane pilots weren't taking covid risks with foreign visitors - especially athletes that 'looked' sick due to normal trail exposure from racing). Coastal wind storms fragmented the Bering Sea ice/Norton Sound crossing from Shaktoolik to Koyuk and Golovin Bay, ending the race for 8 racers in Unalakleet, mile 700 (Toni, Jussi, Beat, Asbjorn, George, Graham, Willy and Roberto) with Jill, Petr and Casey continuing together to Nome. These 3 fell into step with 11 dog teams north of Elim, until the official Iditarod trail breakers could be dispatched from Nome to build a usable trail for the final 130 miles. A Blackhawk was scrambled out of Nome to rescue 3 dog teams that had fallen victim to the deteriorating conditions and open water along the Safety Sound coastline. Nome had issued a time curfew to ALL visitors and users of the trail - the covid lockdowns had begun. Northern villages were very frightened and protective as the 1918 Spanish flu decimated their population, along with Diptheria (of which, ironically, the Iditarod race and route has deep roots in the Serum Run of 1925). I'm summarising these final 2 weeks, there are a lot more details that are beyond the scope of this blog post - it's a whole other shitshow.

Back to me. Covid was already affecting international flights, small scale as well. Local pilots were starting to be re-directed for extraction/movement of officials for the Iditarod dog race, along with media and comms staff. Pilots make decisions about cargo and passengers based on mass - when he saw that we were lean and depleted athletes, he made the call and I was lucky to jag the last seat on this 208 Caravan. Next available flight out of McGrath was 3 days away - but this was a dynamic situation that was rapidly changing.  

An open plan cargo space, with plenty of storage in the hatches in the lower fuselage for the foot athletes' sleds. My bike with Beth's bike behind. 

Looking back south over the Alaska Range and through some of the valleys we'd traversed just a few days ago, 2015 was the last time I'd flown back from McGrath to Anchorage on a plane this size. 

Getting back to Anchorage was surreal, as my mindset would normally still be running the Nome destination program for the next 2 weeks. Donald had also finished early, so to catch up with him back at the bnb post-race was something we'd not done since 2016. It was great to debrief with another Nome veteran - he was on foot this year, so he had a new range of experiences to talk about over a coffee. He managed to change his home flight much earlier on standby, I just managed to change mine in time before the situation got out of control and flights were being canned (we all saw how messed up that became). A huge shout out to my travel agent Sam from Helloworld Daisy Hill, she spent countless hours piecing together a seamless flight plan for me. 

I still had a few days with my bike assembled, the weather was the best I'd ever seen it in Anchorage, clear sunny days, loads of snow and firm trails around town. Each day I rode out to some places I'd not been to since my rookie year in '15, was great to reconnect at a recovery pace and take stock of things. 

Then I got real sick. Saturday afternoon I got back in from a day ride over in FNBP trails, all of the symptoms of Covid hit me - slowly at first - the fever, the chills, broken glass sore throat, dry wracking cough, swollen and sore joints, by Sat night it was fullblown. Then bedbound for 4 days, watching re-runs of MASH, following dots on trackleaders, race armchair commentary on the socials and eating the last of my race food (the chocolate diet lol). I was comfort eating at the same rate as if I was still on the trail - trying to meet some crazy 6000 calorie goal. 

'Hi, my name is Troy, and I'm a snackaholic'

I was alone now at the bnb, no other guests or staff. I was slipping down into the pit of post adventure depression, with the weight of a DNF, and wracked with Covid symptoms. I took the minimum of meds to control the fever, I wanted to remain in 'contact' with the severity of this sickness, not bury the symptoms under medications in case it was getting worse without my conscious knowledge. I could not afford to get bogged down in the US medical system at this point - my flights were locked in and all travel insurances were pretty much worthless, so I had to gut this out in iso for a few days and stay under the radar. The day before flights home, I managed to break down the bike and pack up all my equipment. US domestic flights were at 5% capacity, international was near 100%. I masked up and did what I could to protect others during my travels despite still being in the full grip of symptoms. Within 2 hours of arriving in Brisbane, I was at the hospital for a Covid test. 3 days later, a negative result. The various physical, mental and financial residues of my ITI 2020 campaign would linger another 18 months and as many of us have experienced in life, some things will never return to 'normal'. 

I had to capture this moment as it was so profound, in the garage at the bnb. I built my first Muru fatbike here in 2013, it was my first trip to Alaska for ITI training camp and backcountry tour of Oregon. I've stayed here every year and celebrated  birthdays in the snow. The great friends I've met and greeted here after long flights from our home countries, the stories we've shared, the pranks we've pulled, the gear chats we've had, the late night panic packing and re-packing - I really dig the history I have with this garage and how it's been a focus point for my Alaskan adventures. 

Sometimes the low point of a race isn't the harsh weather, or the physical and mental toll of exertion in the pursuit of our goals - these are the fundamentals and the things we prepare for, build our training programs around and choose gear for. However, there remain some aspects you can't plan for or rehearse with a theoretical scenario for - you have to experience it to fully grasp how it will affect you. How you respond to that, well, we are all different in how we process it and the time it takes. This episode has been tough to write, I really needed time to do this piece justice but also get to the other side of my own challenges to write it in a balanced style. I don't like melodrama and my life is not a soap opera.

The low point of emotion you see in this image is exactly how you imagine it. It's the final focus point of all those years; and a climax of the episodes you've just read - my 2020 ITI race.