Friday, 29 July 2016

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2016 - 1000 miles to Nome - Prologue


“Monday: -25C overnight. Tussock all *expletive* day, rough trail from irondoggers. Stopped – no, I’m not *expletive* admiring scenery, I’m *expletive* questioning why. Nothing *expletive* changes. Cold *expletive* monotony. Move forward.”

“Thursday:  -15C, descend to sea ice 20 mins of awsm mogul pump track and railing corners”

“Sunday:  -25C, 20kn howling wind, can’t get shelter cabin warm, out for a wee and the best aurora show yet – memerising”

Let's get real

Eighteen days racing on the Iditarod trail – I traversed a wide variety of terrain and emotions. Excerpts from my trail notes is like peeking through a tiny window and only seeing a fraction of the whole experience – yet often these remain my most potent of all memories.

Slick ice on the broad expanse of Flathorn Lake, at the base of Mt Susitna
It's difficult to write about an experience such as this and do it justice. Some things I can write about (aurora, sunsets, surprise foods), some things I can't - or maybe shouldn't (chamois lifestyle, cheesy foot odour and equally cheesy jokes). Not saying it's taboo - but it's impossible to precisely convey an experience to you, my dear reader. To experience it all together - the cold, the silence and remoteness, the trailfunk; along with a raft of distracting human emotions - it's a package deal or a combo meal with dessert: a cacophony of tastes, a crescendo of flavours.

A quick dinner on a backcountry re-route to Koyukuk

Pfft, come on, I'm gagging here at the hygiene of this story already and my mind is wandering towards a handful of M&Ms.

Little pills of happiness

But there are some things I won't write about. There is a mystique surrounding the ITI - almost a secret, fight club atmosphere among its' veterans. What happens on the trail, stays on the trail and all that. It's a personal, solo journey that varies for the individual, only other racers can truly understand what terrain you go through, what goes through your mind and through your digestive system.

Against the wind and the mind bending nothingness of the hills at Shaktoolik

Let's rewind a little

Long time readers, you could skip this part - I'm just going to bring new readers up to speed. Skip this paragraph if you like, you won't miss much, not like I'm controlling your mind, but I may be able to see you on your webcam - there, you just smiled.

This race is called the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). It is a human powered, ultra endurance race that traverses the famous Iditarod Trail in Alaska. It is held mid winter and covers a myriad of terrain over its' 1000 miles - high mountain passes, endless tundra, frozen rivers and lakes. In 2015, I became the first Aussie to complete the 350 mile race, which qualified me to race the 1000 mile distance in 2016.

I'm guessing that's what you came here to read about?

Bivvy  fun at-25C

Let's be serious

The ITI is more than a race, it's an epic life adventure. You come back changed with an altered perspective on many things and a whole new set of personal boundaries. Look, I know this is second nature and reads a bit basic for hardcore adventurers, but the truth of the matter is that we aren't born with knowledge or with these experiences, they have to be earned. It takes courage and blind desire to take a leap of faith out of your comfort zone and set lofty goals in life, and commit to seeing things through no matter what gets in your way. We all have unique abilities, skill sets and experiences to enable us to push ourselves to new heights, to fulfill our happiness and desires. By pushing your own personal boundaries, you might even WILL uncover hidden talents and strengths you never knew you possessed. I sincerely hope that through the stories in this blog, you find inspiration to challenge yourself, push boundaries, dream big, set lofty goals and maximise your positive human potential.

I don't always want to sound like some cheesy internet motivational, but I try to do the above everyday. If you ask Nyree about it she'll agree - I'm always dreaming up a new adventure, looking at gear for said adventure and avoiding the mowing (I choose to call it goal oriented focus).

Terrible use of Photoshop

Let me thank you

It would be remiss of me to not mention the support I received from good friends, who generously gave money to assist with the financial costs that a race like this incurs. Without that support, things get soooo much tighter in my budget.

Many of you helped me get to the finish - this was your race too - when I crossed that line I thought of the nice people who contributed, and also the ratbags who gave just to see me suffer - I was ecstatic to have you all in my corner and watching from afar. Mates helping mates, Aussie represent!

After the 2015 race my knees were in pretty bad shape. Howard from Springwood Sports Health treated my knees and patiently answered so many of my questions - which was invaluable preparation for my self treatment on this years race. Read a bit more here:

Product sponsor acknowledgements

This race is an expedition level journey, so I'm pretty darn picky about the gear I choose. Items have to pass a myriad of tests before it gets my nod of approval. When you see a piece of gear I've used on any of my trips, it didn't get there by accident - it's there because I've chosen to use it and know it will perform at the highest level.

Following is a brief summary of the gear - in the detailed blog posts I'll delve deeper into the tech - and I know you love tech!

Bike Bag Dude - my good mates at BBD shipped me up a few metres of X-PAC and liner fabric, so I could stitch up my own custom race panniers and downtube bag.

Coastline of the Bering Sea...Russia is just 'over there'

Dawson Sports Group (Australian HED distributor) - I wanted the lightest wheel combo I could get, DSG specially ordered a pair of 100mm wide BFD carbon rims, so I could build up with Tune hubs. I ran them tubeless with Stans sealant - but strange things happen at -20 celsius...

Hidden cracks in the ice on the Yukon River

FE Sports - Bonk Breaker bars were a mainstay in 2015 on my 350 mile race, so naturally they were along for the ride this year on the 1000 mile race. I chose them primarily for the ingredients, the slightly higher fat content and excellent portion size - they pack a punch calorically, without punching you in the pack.

Pausing for a tasty treat near Puntilla

Muru Cycles - my snow race bike has evolved a lot over the years and is a little like Grandads axe (you know the story - 3 handles and 2 heads, still the same old axe) but the one constant has been my Muru Witjira titanium frame. It's done ITI camp in 2013, a top to bottom backcountry tour of Oregon, many local sub24 trips, raced the ITI 350 in 2015, had a Lefty on it for trail use and now back again for the ITI 1000. Muru also made me a custom ti fork to my specs and I'm using their ti handlebar and seatpost. Ti is fly, baby.

Stark Birch forest near Nikolai

Olympus Australia - I needed a tough camera to get the shots, without failure. I bought an Olympus TG-4 as it was the very best tough camera for my type of fun. I approached Olympus for assistance with accessories of my choice - extra batteries, wide angle lens, USB battery charger. The result - a powerful package that performed flawlessly in extreme conditions!

The very best tough camera available - voted by me!

Ride Mechanic - I like ice cream as much as the next person, but I don't like my chain lube as solid as that! The best performance lubes I've used for both the sand (Bike Milk) and the snow (Bike Cream) come from the awesome chemists at Ride Mechanic.
Flows like silk...even at -25 celsius

Cannondale Australia - wait...what? Okay, I didn't take two bikes to Alaska, but I used my Fat CAAD 1 for ITI training on the beaches, trails and the commute to work every day. I've used a Lefty on my Muru in the past, but nothing compares to the Olaf Lefty on the Fat CAAD 1 - this is the best trail fatbike I've ever ridden! This bike was a crucial part of my training prep for Iditarod.

Chasing the sunrise on Moreton Island

Let me entertain you

So, dear reader, my gift to you is my story and pictures (there will also be a video) for your amusement. Together we can journey through the emotional highs and lows, relive the bad karaoke on the long stretches of tundra and burp and fart our way through questionable dietary choices. Over the coming weeks I'll publish the stories here, I hope that you delight in my suffering, glean some form of sense from my efforts, experiment with new foods and pick up some useful tips to get the most out of your one go at life. 

Sure beats watching the tele or mowing. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Microadventure - Kayak to North Straddie

'Follow, follow the sun' 
                    -Xavier Rudd.

I'd been involved so much in everything Iditarod, I'd forgotten about the other simple, type 2 fun things I enjoy. The more disciplines that I can fit into a leave pass the better. Today was the day to paddle to North Stradbroke Island and go for a walk.

I left Cleveland Point at 5:30am with an hour of dark paddling till sunrise. Oh yeah - for my overseas friends - this is our winter. 

It was still so warm that I didn't need my spray skirt. Paddling close to Peel Island in about 2m of water, I could see skates and small rays darting beneath me against the white sand. 

Transition to trek mode. I locked the kayak up adjacent the ticket office for the Micat vehicle ferry. This weekend there was an 8hr rogaine on Straddie, I was planning to race it with a friend, but she was on call at work. Ah well, still doesn't stop me from having a little off-track fun.

'Breathe, breathe in the air. Cherish this moment, cherish this breath'
                                                                                                                  - Xavier Rudd

My first 'self imposed mandatory' CP was Brown Lake and the plan was shortest route possible overland.

The Golden Orb spider weaves a web of strong, sticky silk, between trees and at random heights - just another trail obstacle to look out for.

This plant grew on the eastern slopes, the bush was alive with the sound of  bees gathering nectar from the tiny flower.

But this same plant also had hypodermic leaves. Legs were peppered and punctured...might be a few days before I can shave them again.

Ran into quite a few teams doing the rogaine - some looked in better shape than others...

Their goal was to capture as many CPs as they could.

Today, my goals were far more organic - these were the only white and orange items I wanted to capture.

'Take a stroll to the nearest waters edge, remember your place. Many moons have risen and fallen long, long before you came'
                       -Xavier Rudd

Not all off track today - unavoidable short sections of blacktop.

The track is that way.

There were sections that took me back to Alaska on the Iditarod Trail - that thin white line through the Farewell Burn.

Lets delve into gear and a hint of tech. My trekking poles weigh a scant 300grams, full carbon. I chose the 120cm, fixed length model to suit my wrist height. Andrew, a good mate of mine from Wildearth on the Goldy shipped me his last pair!

The foam handles have a 2 position grip - the lower segment for steep ascents. You can also see the buttons for locking the poles when assembled. Reflective accents. 

Collapsed the poles are only about 33cm long and stow easily across the front of my pack. I prefer them close to hand, not stowed on the back of my pack. The quicker and easier they are to access, the more inclined you'll be to use them .

Here is the secret to their foldability, flexible Kevlar cords.

The baskets are not removable, which is a boon in tough country as they can't get torn off (which is mostly what these will see) but have plenty of surface area for the sand. The rubber tips are replaceable and can be subbed for concave carbide tips, for use on ice.

Left and Right specific wrist straps.

Large surface area top for descending.

Salomon Speedcross 3 shoes are my tried and tested boot of choice. I love the traction they provide with a very aggressive tread. I couple that with a low Salomon sock gaiter and Moxie shin gaiters.

I used this Salomon Skin pack in Alaska, couple it with an OP crampon bag as a front balance pack and close-to-hand storage. Just hidden behind my poles is my SPOT tracker, so my girls can follow. Joby tripod for flexible shooting spots.

The camera that captures all these great pics? My tough Olympus TG-4. I went through an exhaustive process to replace my previous adventure camera - the venerable Panasonic FT2. The TG-4 was the only compact tough camera to accept an accessory lens (for filters, tele or wide angle - I love to shoot wide angle), an awesome microscope function, incredible low light performance, flexible timers and multi shot modes, super simple wifi and app connectivity, low temperature reliability (I was shooting at -30C on the Iditarod) and true tough camera performance - make this your next tough camera!

My second mandatory CP was Blue Lake.  Blue Lake is a window lake with some of the clearest water around. I've hammock bivvied here before and the frogs and birdlife is incredible.

This is one of my stoves - Jetboil Ti. I stow the fuel canister wrapped in a Chux wipe - its uses are only limited by your imagination. I cut the top off one of my Sea to Summit silicone cups so it fits better.

 North Straddie is a tropical island - so what better flavour than coconut would match?

'So which way is the wind blowing, what does your heart say'
                                                                                                          - Xavier Rudd

It's not all quiet bush trail back to the western side.

All too soon, it was time to go. 30km trek done, it was time for the couple hour paddle back.  Trans back to paddle with an hour left before sunset. It was a millpond, not a breath of wind. The tide was turning and a few strange eddy currents to fight in the channels.

 Just off Peel Island there is a random coral band - I saw branching coral, brain coral and plenty of sponge, sea cucumbers, rays and skates. I'll be back to snorkel the wreck of the Platypus as well as the larger garden of coral nearby.

The water was like liquid silk all the way home. No need for a headlamp, just the taillight for rearward marking. The moon shone occasionally through the cloud, when I stopped to savour the night, I'd hear the soft splash of marine life breaching and the chitter of bats as they echo-located their way to feeding spots.

Another shoutout to Wildearth - Andrew kicked out the jams to get me a new PFD - a 'Quest' from SeaToSummit. A feature packed PFD with a 1.5L bladder, plenty of accessible pockets, D-ring, whistle and plenty of reflective.

'So follow, follow the sun. Which way the wind blows, when this day is done'.
                                                                                                                      - Xavier Rudd