On the way in to the cabin, we had a non-racer join us on the trail. Paul was out on a ride of his own along the trail, starting a day after us. Paul was an Anchorage local, had extensive mountaineering experience and had summited Denali and other lofty peaks. His beard had experience.
The low cloud again gave a very flat light - but there was a moment during sunrise that will be forever burned in my memory. Peter and I were standing on the porch, when the sunrise peeped through the gap between the land and the low cloud, illuminating the expanse of snow dusted spruce forest in front of us, bathing it in a warm, peachy glow. It was extremely calming and invigorating to see such beautiful colours, lasting only a minute or two.
Here you go, this is a better picture of the trail in and out from the cabin. Normally in a regular snow year, the tussock would be covered and the gaps filled in with snow and this would all be rideable. We lost so much time on this traverse, another reason for my dislike of staying in cabins and checkpoints.
The Iditarod trail wasn't much better. Imagine you have a bowl of mashed potato, now randomly place heads of broccoli into the mash. Upscale that and you have an indication of what tussock is like. Each tussock was about the size of an adult head and grew randomly. They are a solid ball of grass protruding from the ground, not just blades of grass poking up. There were giant ankle twisting crevasses between each head, you had to half push, half carry your bike and watch your footing at the same time.
Jim had this magical sesame paste, super high in fat but lacking taste. One had to block the memories of those late nights when your first born moved onto solids...
TECH: Looking after yourself. I'm not sensitive new age or anything like that. Sure, I wear deodorant (Ride Mechanic made me up some cool Alaskologne that reminded me of the beach) but I aint fancy. On the trail though, you gotta have a body maintenance regime that works for you and is effective. That will be different for everyone and can only be refined by being out in a lot of different environments and using your body as a test subject. Experiment during training.
Alaska is cold and the air is dry. Your skin (exposed skin on face, nail fold/cuticles) will dry out, get windburn and flake similar to sunburn. Lips and fingers/nail cuticles will split and crack. I used a moisturiser called Eucerin that has a mineral oil component in it (similar to Vaseline) and is available in small travel sized tubes in Anchorage. On the days where you need a sunscreen component, I used Dermatone stick for cheeks/nose and a Dermatone chapstick for the lips - these are popular with mountaineers and have earned their place on many expeditions.
Feet: I powder them with regular talc before I put on my Injinji liner socks - and I don't remove the liners unless it's an absolute necessity (on Day 3 I covered my boot and sock system). I took spare socks, but didn't need to change for the length of the race. I also clean them meticulously for weeks before the event to break the cycle of any microbial or fungal activity around the nails (I carry Lamisil with me in case of an outbreak). I trim the nails well and push back all the cuticles, to ensure my feet are in excellent condition before they get shoved into a boot for weeks. Feet can get numb and cold for a variety of reasons - a way to mitigate this is to keep shifting your foot around in the boot, get off and walk for a few minutes. Your feet and calf muscles act like pumps to raise blood back to your heart - when cycling your remove this pump action significantly, lessening the chance to get nice fresh, warm blood right down to the tiny capillaries of your toes. Also, if you have long nails, contact with the boot inner will compress the nail bed and reduce blood flow - and right under the nail bed are lots of nerve endings (So guys, go get that pedicure with your lady - do it for Iditarod!) Massage the feet at night to improve blood flow and identify problems early. Do not sleep in vapour liners, let your feet breathe and try to get them as dry as possible before you bivvy down. Ensure the cuffs on your lower leg layers do not cut into your skin and reduce blood flow - very important as your lower leg will develop oedema. I had zero foot issues (from boot, sock layer or moisture) no blisters, no trenchfoot, no nerve compression, but I did have a bit of lower leg oedema that I noticed at the finish.
Hands: I keep the nails trimmed and the cuticles pushed back. It's important to keep the nails trimmed as they can be pushed on by the gloves and will press on nerves slightly, causing premature numbness. Short nails also collect less shit (literally) under them and keep your hands a bit cleaner overall (important as washing hands with soap and warm water is a rarity on the trail). Your hands will suffer from some form of contact pressure nerve issue, regardless of what kind of grips you use. Yes, ergo grips do help, but are only part of the solution. The key is to keep moving the hands around, multiple positions and regular breaks while in motion. Massage cream into them at night and sort out problem areas, stretch the wrist and massage forearm muscles. Ensure sleeve and glove cuffs are comfy to maintain good blood flow. Each night I suffered from burning fingers - my middle, pointer and thumb would go numb due to holding onto the bars so tightly (icy trail and a mismatched geometry of carbon fork and frame, causing poor handling and excessive auto-steer)
Arse: I sleep in my knicks, but just pull them down away from the skin. I clean the skin with wet wipes, then dust with baby talc. It's a nightly routine, and a good time to thoroughly check the area and treat anything of interest before it gets worse. I don't use chamois cream, just talc on the chamois and on the skin. I carry Bepanthen cream for simple issues, Bactroban for more serious things (prescription only). During training trips though, I purposefully practise a poor hygiene routine to test the effects of long term exposure on my skin to the ammonia, bacteria, skin cells, sweat/electrolytes and other stuff that builds up in the chamois. For this race I wore the same knicks the full length, with no change. Zero arse problems - it did what it was supposed to do so I could focus on what I needed to do. Sound icky? Ultra-endurance events aint pretty baby...
Why is all this an issue? Well, your body is under enough stress, why give it more work to repair? Skin issues can then lead to bigger things - circulation and exposure issues, frostnip then becomes frostbite, localised palsy becomes long term nerve damage and permanent numbness. A buildup of waste products in your system from exertion can be cumulative - your arse is already trying to recover from 18 hours in the saddle each day, your feet haven't seen sunlight in 2 weeks and your hands will suffer some form of nerve damage from the race. Don't be lazy as these things are cumulative, many superfit racers have scratched due to ignoring contact point issues. You're fighting the trail and the elements, no need to fight your body as well and divert mental focus to blocking out minor ailments that can be managed better.
More tussock. Yay.
The Athabascans have around 100 words in their language, for snow. I've got a few words for tussock, that can't be said around children.
Bridge at Sullivan creek - the water here is drinkable and always flowing, regardless of the ambient temps, the tin is on a rope tethered to the bridge. Ideal time to refill your bottles and camelbaks. Tip for rookies - when you are finished with the tin, leave it upside down for the water to drain out before it freezes. Racers have mistakenly left the tin full of water for the next person to use, thinking they were helping...
Out on the zip zag plains to Nikolai. Flat and featureless, the only thing that breaks the monotony is the constant buffeting wind. It did feel good to be able to open up the throttle a bit along this section - visibility was good, trail was flat and fast. We chased down an animal we think was a Wolverine - the loping gait as it ran back to it's den was a key identifier. Pound for pound, the Wolverine is regarded as the most ferocious animal in Alaska, but they are solitary, shy from humans and won't attack unless cornered.
One of the older shelters at Salmon Camp.
This area is a maze of small sloughs and river oxbows, you really have to keep your eyes out for trail markers and ground intel.
Nikolai is a small native Athabascan village. Sadly, western ways have permeated into many aspects of native life, diluting the culture and way of life. Not many people live subsistently any more, people do still hunt, but western diets have crept in and affected their health significantly, with diabetes and depression the major health risks. With less physical work to do, receiving stipend incomes from Alaskas' oil, gas and precious metals industries, combined with hundreds of channels on cable TV, things don't look too good for the health and quality of life for many villagers.
We passed Lars on the way through the village, he was on his way to McGrath - he had a very long night ahead of him. He had to make McGrath without stopping, as he had no foam sleeping pad to insulate from the snow.
The checkpoint is at the home of the Petruska family. They open their home to racers and provide a hot meal and a place to sleep if you need to. On the advice of Jim, we stayed the night and planned an early departure, as it is easier to spot the reflective trail markers in the dark - the trails around Nikolai can be very confusing and we'd also heard there were wolves about. Jim, Paul and I sat down to a helping of spaghetti bolognaise and buttered bread, then racked up in a spare room.
It's quite a juxtaposition - outside you have people riding around on snowmachines at all hours of the night, yet inside it's warm and the TV is often tuned to an MTV station, playing country and western tunes, with imagery emanating from warmer climes, like Texas and Kansas. The residents just sit in front of the TV, eyes glued to the screen, transfixed in a daze. I set my alarm and fell asleep to a tune about roping cattle, pretty girls in cowboy boots and barns with hay in them. My least fave night on the trail staying in the house at Nikolai, I wish I'd left with Lars.