Poignant words from a modern storyteller, that encompasses the fulfilment of a dream, of a goal to achieve and let no barrier foil your effort.
But lets snap back to reality - it's race day!
We had a large group of racers staying at the Alaska European B and B, our wonderful host Irene cooked up a fabulous high energy breakfast to prep us for the day. Racers from the lower 48, Denmark, Czechoslovakia and of course Australia - we all spent the last few days prepping, sharing ideas of setup - each of us having our own methods.
A quick ride downtown to the Westmark Hotel, load the bikes into the provided truck, load ourselves onto the race bus for travel out to Knik Lake for the start. Many veterans go through their last minute checklists, weather forecasting and food/race/sleep strategies - while rookies are just wondering which direction to ride over the lake...
The Knik bar is a rite of passage - a place for race veterans to catch up, or to share a story or two with the locals and cram a pre-race meal. I wasn't homesick until I saw those bears.
All too soon though, it was go time. Mirth ensued as eager rookies led the charge...in the wrong direction, as vets sat back in the pack with a clear run in the right direction. The lake ice was covered by a very thin dusting of snow - this was truly a trial of fire - tyre studs proved totally ineffective for traction on the ice, as the tyre tread filled with loose pack snow and the snow acted like a lubricant - like bare feet on a wet tile floor. Oh yeah, falling on the ice was sooooo much fun...over, and over, and over...
Settled into a nice rhythm and stripped off layers, I passed people and people passed me - I was racing the Iditarod baby...ooowwwoooooo! You could hear the hoots, hollers and wolf cries through the forest as racers let the fun flow and the trail magic happen. For whatever reason (raceday red mist, taking pics and adjusting layers), I missed a turn (Burma Rd) that would take me along a valid shortcut along the gas road (flat and fast way to Flathorn Lake) from Pt MacKenzie, I remained on the marked Iditarod trail (a lot more hills, traditional and way more scenic). A serendipitous mistake for sure, but a mistake that I reckon every rookie should make – to reinforce the effect of navigational importance in familiar ground and to keep you on your ‘A’ game. This trail was way more enjoyable too!
This trail section undulates through the hills, finally coming out on one of the NE sloughs of Flathorn Lake – back into familiar territory – however there was no fatbike traffic. I’d been following a few other fatbike tracks (and trailside urine deposits that are undeniably the marks of racers) along the marked Iditarod trail (trail markers are reflective alloy triangles nailed to trees) so I knew my direction was solid - discussion with other racers later confirmed many had also taken the scenic route to Flathorn.
Snowmachines had chunked and balled the trail ice in the slough, then snow had covered this trail. I hit one of these patches and went down – FAST and HARD. Left knee took a big knock and opened it up on a chunk of ice – geez it was only the first day! No time for drama, patched myself up, checked the bike and got rolling again.
The race tension eased a little after that fall, the pressure of trying to get along the trail quickly had overcome my common sense – there was a lot to learn and re-learn since last riding in Alaska 2 years ago – and experience is the best teacher. Although I had been focussing on conservative outputs for so long, the excitement of the race takes over and you find yourself becoming complacent as you push hard. I was slowly adapting to the longhaul mindset – I wasn’t just tootling around the trails of Anchorage anymore. So with the sun setting behind the ‘sleeping lady’ form of Mt Susitna, I sauntered over Flathorn lake with only a few tyre tracks in front of me.
The lack of tracks over Flathorn from my entry slough had me on edge...just a little. Mainly for ice integrity, but I was confused where the other pack riders had gone - they must have hugged the bank closer to Susitna and I had no idea how many riders were in front of me or behind. No problem, this made it a little easier to ride my own ride.
I paused for dinner on the edge of Dismal swamp and reset my gear for the night ride. Crossing the swamp is the first real exposure to mucky overflow. The plants have chemicals in them that minimise cellular damage when the seasonal freeze comes - their own kind of anti-freeze. These chemicals leach into the surrounding water, and because the water volume is low the higher concentrations of the chemicals affect the crystallisation and strength of the ice - it tends to crumble, crack etc and the overflow ice is rotten. It was a low snow year, the snowmachine trail was rotten and watery - you had to weave a cautious line on the tussock and the trail. And push.
Once past Dismal swamp, roll through the pump track to the drop onto the Susitna river. This drop is worthy of respect - you have to drop in 20 odd feet down to the river ice - it's lumpy and you collect a lot of speed real quick. Many bikes and people have broken right at this spot. I saw a runner ahead - turned out to be my good friend Peter Ripmaster - this ultra-running veteran was going to show me the secret art of Iditarod suffering in a few days time. After a few hours on the river, my thoughts only broken by light whisperings of the Aurora Borealis overhead. Total silence. But the strangest thing - I heard the sound of running water, turned out to be a small spring of fresh water running into the river. Strange juxtaposition and it intially confuses you, as the only water you can relate to in your immediate vicinity is all frozen! More hours pass, river confluences and sloughs roll on by, in that cone of light in front of you. But then you remember you have caffeinated treats...
More time. More ice, snow, more cone of light, before you know it the sound (that generator!) of Yentna station appears. CP1. The moment of truth - to see exactly where I was in the field and quell those questions of who-where that had been rattling around in my head.
I was a bit set back by how much time I'd lost, but this is a race of constant adaptations to new realities. I noted quite a few bikes still in the lot, with riders taking the time to sleep at the checkpoint cabin. My plan was to bivvy out each night - I didn't come all this way to sleep inside!
Before I left Yentna to gain a few more miles for the night, I spied one bike in particular. This bike belonged to my good friend Jim - an ITI veteran headed for Nome and one with whom I shared a unique sense of humour with. I spent a bit of time with Jim before the race, teaching him bike repair techniques and common field repairs. I wanted to notify Jim I'd been through, so took the time to pen a note and remind him of the importance of oral hygeine (I found this skanky looking toothbrush on a nearby fuel drum). And humour - oh the humour - it'll get you through some tough times on the ITI.
I wanted to bivvy down - I felt like I had to stop due to some pre-programmed mode - a remnant of sensible civilisation, but I also needed to keep moving forward for another hour or so. Plus, the genset at Yentna was going to ruin any plan for an hour or two of restful sleep under the stars on the snow. Oh yeah, it sounds so romantic. It was -12C on the river, and not much warmer up on the river bank. I wanted to stay close to the bank edge so I could see racers going past.
TECH - BEDDING: First of all you stomp down your snow patch and let it set for a few minutes, a snow crust will form. For insulation I use a Thermarest Z-lite foam pad on that crust. The great thing about the Z-lite is the way it folds up easily and quite compact - another popular option is the Thermarest Ridgerest - plus they are virtually indestructible and you never worry that a foam pad will puncture. The drawbacks - nearly no comfort and a seemingly low R-value of 2.6. I was using a hipbag Camelbak - this became my pillow (I would drink all water out of it and inflate - any water left in it just freezes). The sleeping bag is an Exped Waterbloc 1200, and inside this I used a Klymit Inertia X-frame inflatable for added comfort.
'Never go to bed depleted'. That's a Bill Merchant quote. I had cooked up a double serve of Idaho buttered mash potatoes a few hours ago, supplemented by a Bonk Breaker and other stuff. Would it be enough to hold me through the night in the bag?