I'd bivvied a little way off the trail, at some point during the night a racer came through and left some bright red pasta on the trail nearby. When I say left, I mean decoratively sprayed it in a wide arc. Had to be Jim. A light snow was still falling and only one racer had been through so early.
This section of the trail was heavily wooded with tall, mature spruce and I found myself a slowing just a little too often, to savour the vista, a Bonk Breaker and the absolute silence.
The tech aspect of the trail went up a couple of notches too, on the approach to the Happy River steps. All good fun if you enjoy and are competent at technical offroad riding - an absolute nightmare if you're the type who struggle with transition at a triathlon.
One of the descents though, I wasn't going to risk riding. I scouted it top to bottom, I saw that some had indeed ridden it and some had also binned it quite hard at the bottom. Too many variables for me, I rigged up a quick belay line from whatever I had in my kit - some lengths of rope and some straps, on with crampons and began the belay. The chute was steep and icy so gravity just dragged the bike down. The lumps at the bottom is what caught riders out - the ice offered no braking traction so you hit the jumps at a fast pace. On an unladen bike I'd have no problem riding this - but gear preservation was at the forefront of my mind - tear a major bag mount or overload a component is not what you want out here. Ride smart.
TECH - BOOTS, SOCKS, PEDALS ETC: 30+ odd years of cycling I've always ridden clipped in - as a juvenile I raced in toe clips and straps, then moved to LOOK Delta pedals in the junior ranks during the late 80's. For ITI, I went through a lengthy test process of whether to race with flats or clips. My flat options were a pair of 45NRTH Heiruspec pedals, combined with Saloman Anka insulated boots, along with NEO Navigator overshoes. Dave from BOGear made me up a pair of his modified FRS straps to fit the pedals, to give me a strapped in feeling (read his blog post here -> http://www.bogear.com.au/blog/frs-pedal-straps-for-iditarod/ ). My clipped options were Crank Bros Mallet 3 (the model with needle roller bearing/cartridge bearing - I rebuild all bearings with -60C winter spec grease for smoooooooth running), my tried and tested 1st gen 45NRTH Wolvhammer boots, a pair of Vaude 3mm neoprene shoe covers, Hillsound Trail crampons and 45NRTH Bergraven insulated gaiters. I also had a pair of Wiggys Overshoes if needed for problematic overflow.
Sock system - I used an Injinji Coolmax thin liner sock, then a RAB vapour barrier liner sock, over the vbl went a light but lofty Wooltek insulation sock. I never removed the liner sock (I trim my nails, clean meticulously and prime my feet with an anti-bacterial/anti-fungal powder before putting the Injinjis on), but would strip off the other layers at night to dry the feet. I only wore an insulated bootie in huts, I had no issue with trenchfoot or similar wet foot skin issues - I put this down to living in a warm climate and wearing closed leather shoes each day, my feet have adapted to a warm and non-breathable micro-climate. The Mallets provided a spiked platform to act as a pseudo flat pedal, if I wanted to pedal without clipping in. Due to the brass cleat on the boot, I found it acted like a 'temperature differential nucleation point' for snow to collect on when walking and compress into an ice ball. Due to the rigid sole the ice didn't dislodge when walking, you had to chip it off on the pedal to allow clipping in. I've spoken to many racers about which option is best in their opinion - my conclusion is use the system that works for you and that you are familiar with, but foremost does not compromise your waterproofing or your temperature range. All systems will have some form of negative and positive. For me, I liked the rigid feel of the Wolvhammer - it felt like a solid mountaineering boot with a stiff sole and firm feedback on the ice with a crampon fitted. The clip gave me positive engagement to the pedal to match my pedal stroke. With the platform on the Mallet, I could still ride as a flat if needed, and could ride with the crampons fitted.
A little ways along the Happy River, there was a matching climb up a short, vertical face up the river bank then straight up the ravine of 'The Gorge'.
I could see the crampon marks in the ice from pointed crampons, but alas my little trail crampons weren't up to this kind of vertical. There was a side track, with very loose snow and soil - required carrying the bike. The risk was if I fell with the bike, all kinds of random things happen during the 3-8 metres of falling, with spindly willows to stab and tear. I scoped the traverse and planned out my moves. I drove some branches into the undercut soil bank (not frozen) and tied some fixed rope handles to the willows. Was all I needed to maintain balance and control.
Snacktime! This flavour has a story. I packed a wide range of Bonk Breaker flavours and evenly distributed them throughout my ration packs. Ironically, the Blueberry Oat seemed to be the flavour that appeared every time. Every single time. It became this little game in my head, which flavour would be next - I craved the Peanut Butter and Choc Chip - and I'd hoot and howl when it appeared.
It was a long push up the gorge, through some incredible country. To many racers who are used to the weather cycles of harsh winters, this was probably a mundane task. But to an Aussie from a surf, sun and sand culture - every metre of the race was fascinating and awesome! The little details you absorb, admire and appreciate - the depth of the snow, the absolute silence (I know I've mentioned it before) was a reward that softened some harsh realities.
50% of the view is also looking backwards...
Just like any trail, the drivetrain is bound to pick up trail debris - and snow is no different. As long as you remain mindful to turn everything over once in a while as you walk, it won't ice up. If parking your bike into snowbanks - park the front wheel and not the back - racers have had issues with drivetrains icing up severely and ripping off derailleurs, mincing the chain into the spokes and other fun repair tasks.
This section of trail has several dangerous sidehill traverses along the mountain, in some places it drops several hundred metres down the steep slope into the Happy River canyon. There are a few side streams that glacier over the trail - you've gotta keep on the lookout on the upside of the bank for the change in vegetation that signals this kind of overflow, as it may be covered in a thin, slippery veneer of snow as I found out several times - the side angle will overcome studded tyres. More steep and icy downhill trail - some say this is the toughest stretch of trail in the race, certainly nothing to laugh at.
But it's not all trail horror and twisted shapes and hard falls on the ice and mental fractures from flavoured oatmeal bars - I was passing through a very active community of squirrels - they would bark and chatter at me for challenging them, darting between trees and then oops, they'd stray into a neighbours turf and an affray would begin between them, all highly amusing - I just wish the pet monkey was there to see it (I'm sure she will...one day she could come back and race the 130 as a junior).
Serenity. Snap back to reality man, this is a race!
RACE TIP - CABIN ETIQUETTE: Be meticulous about how and where you set your gear out in cabins. It's not uncommon for other racers to accidentally pickup your socks/gloves/headgear etc in the dark and in a sleep deprived state, or for you to do the same or even completely forget a piece of gear, or it gets moved/bumped/knocked over and lost or damaged. Also, when drying gear, think about proximity to the fireplace. Boots and gear can get burnt if knocked closer to the fireplace, or a racer may stoke the fire up and radiant temps rise to the point where your gear gets scorched. Use earplugs to minimise disturbances from snorers and the comings and goings of racers. Use a headtorch with a low setting or a red LED to minimise disturbance to other racers. Hydrate well and you won't need a watch for a wakeup call.