Sleep - more like a short doze. At about the same time we got up, my mate Peter came into the checkpoint, looking just as spent as I'd seen him the previous night at Bear Creek. Man, this guy is just awesome and an inspiration to us rookies. He'd run out of food on the trail and totally committed to getting to Nikolai - and in reality that was his only option. There was no way I could depart that checkpoint without leaving him some food. I wasn't certain of his dietary requirements, but knew for certain that the Bonk Breakers would fulfil his needs without stomach issues. They were my prized food item, and they were my offering of deep respect to this legend of ultra-running.
I got my breakfast out of the way quickly and was ready to go, but Jim was intent on making a cooked breakfast. First though, we had to thoroughly clean all utensils in the kitchen as they, ahem, weren't quite up to food prep standard. This done, cooked breakfast of eggs, buttered toast and reindeer sausage was served. We left far later than we could have.
Don't ask, you had to be there. Aussie humour.
The trails out of Nikolai are a bit convoluted, I'm told the best time to leave is in the dark to see the trail markers better, as it routes on and off the river many times to avoid the river oxbows. I was riding in the white cone of tiredness.
This image below explains how I started to feel - I think I found my first ever food reaction. I won't say allergy, as I don't consider it to be an allergic reaction. The reindeer sausage was something I'd never eaten before, perhaps the meat or another ingredient was foreign to my digestive system, that it didn't really know how to process it. I didn't feel like throwing up, I just...felt...very off colour. Jim had a taillight on, and that taillight disappeared into the distance, my energy just vanished and I fell way behind. I had to get off and walk. By now, my right knee had stiffened up significantly and pedalling was difficult, painful at the top of the stroke.
But enough drama. Lets talk about food...
TECH: food and related. Classic rookie mistake - I took way too much food. I calc'd out the calorie requirement for each day and tried to match foods, but I just can't eat and process that much food in a day and turn it into useful energy. My food plan was quite complex and multilayered, with side options and redundant strategies should things go wrong. I stuck to simple foods though, nothing out of the ordinary and all things that my digestion was familiar with. I planned out meals in ration bags, then into daily bags which helped keep an eye on consumption. I had a breakfast, mid morning snack, lunch, arvo snack then a dinner. Straightforward, but still too much food - always learning.
During training, I experiment with various foods and unhygienic food prep methods, to replicate field conditions - ie getting the body ready for just about any kind of food from anywhere. Not washing hands or utensils, food off the floor (what, there's a rule now?) and the occasional bindive exposes my body to a certain background level of contaminants for it to adapt to. So far so good. I augment it with unsweetened probiotic yoghurt to assist with healthy digestive flora, which then has many other health benefits. I try to take a holistic approach, where all systems benefit from efficiencies.
The foods I took were varied: I had bars (Bonk Breakers) chocolates, jelly type lollies, freeze drieds, gels - very high carb based, with protein and fats second and third priority. I'll go into a lot more detail on food (and my prep for 2016) in another post. In hindsight, I think the high carb approach didn't fully work. I had gained poundage in bodyweight in prep for this race, but I barely touched it, as I didn't make the switch over to ketogenic energy sourcing - I was still burning carbs as they were in ready supply. But, the high carb approach also left me vulnerable to spikes in blood glucose (from the lollies, gels and simple carbs.) As I felt myself getting flatter and heading below the line, my response at the time was to ingest some more simple carbs (thinking that the exercise demand and temperature would moderate the spikes) - which had that classic, insulin release, rebound effect on my blood glucose levels (I'm not diabetic) and compounded by the effects of low temperature demands. I was following a time honoured recipe of ultra-distance food options, field tested and written about in popular journals and sport diet publications for decades. The science in these publications was going through a metamorphosis at the time, because the current way wasn't working.
By this time in the race though, Bonk Breakers were the only foods I was putting in. I'd been having ups and downs for a few days now and I thought long and hard about the causes, constantly performing self diagnostics to determine causes and to find solutions. I'm always saying to the pet monkey 'if you don't change the constants in an experiment, the result will remain the same' or something like that (as well as pick up your shoes and be nice to your mother). I always knew fat was denser in energy, but in my prep I didn't force my body to optimise fat from my body stores as an energy source (and it was too late to start), however Bonk Breakers do have a fat content that is beneficial, so I was part way there with a food option at hand. I dumped the lollies and other simple carb options, my love affair with these bars just grew even stronger. The bars gave me a complex carb source my system was familiar with, a taste that I never grew sick of, a portion size that never distended my stomach and a fat content that left me satiated for hours. People that know how meticulous I am with prep, will also know how hard it is to get my tick on a product - because it totally has to be earned. Bonk Breaker - thank you for being there for me and you get a five star tick!
Just before sunrise we rode through a short snowstorm, the trail vanished before us in a haze of swirling white anger, our headlamps only penetrating a metre or so in front of the bikes. I continued to move forward, while Jim and Paul stopped to wait it out. I was pushing by now anyways, so got out the compass and started to record bearings at 5 minute frequency. It was a howling headwind too, I'd layered up at the first sign of the storm. Here's the strange thing - I was loving it - really enjoying this partial ferocity and just an entrée portion of what Alaska could serve up in Winter. Suddenly the soap opera of knee and stomach issues didn't dominate my thoughts - it was this storm that captivated me. This was what I wanted and my body responded with renewed strength and vigour.
All too soon though, the storm abated and we were left with bikes dusted with snow, a blown in trail and gutting it out on a half foot of fresh powder.
So began another contrasting day in Alaska - bluebird conditions out on the river, punchy conditions, ride-push-ride-push-ride-fall off-push. You were happy when you could ride at 3 mile an hour pace.
The impact craters from fallen riders ahead were common. Falls like this can be serious - you don't really know what condition the ice is in under the snow, your impact could punch right through some ice and into the water, trapping you with a bike on top; people have broken ribs, wrists and collarbones - ending races right there. The issue lies in the compacted snow and chunked ice (like a freshly ploughed field) that then gets covered in a blanket of smooth looking snow. Your front tyre gets trapped in a deep, soft rut and your balance can't match the steering correction, you go down.
'Diamonds scattered out to sea, the sun keeps laughing down on me'
This was beautiful crust riding.
Off the river every now and again to divert around an oxbow in the river (giant river bend that almost loops back to itself) and through refreshing Birch forest.
Getting off the Kuskokwim River for the last time, I left Jim and Paul so I could push on to McGrath, while they stayed in a small cabin by the river. With 10 miles to go, should only take me a few hours of pushing to complete. Like about 6.
TECH: identify yourself. My race plan was to complete this solo and not travel with other parties. I thoroughly enjoy solo travel and prefer it, but I discovered it can be fun to travel with others as well. A negative of this is that you can fall into step with other peoples routines, causing you to deviate from your plan and your outcomes. Also, a mechanical or health issue becomes a shared problem and how each party takes ownership of that depends on many factors. But a positive is when you can share an awesome moment, benefit from local intel or just have somebody laugh at your jokes. You really need to have a clear plan about what you want to do pre-race, and if you have mates racing or encounter another racer and you travel together, redefine limits in your plan if you continue solo or pair up. I enjoyed Jim and Pauls company, but I wanted to get back to my roots and solo on to complete.
Again, this was where I wanted to be - against the wind and pushing into the sunset to McGrath.
I pushed and postholed my way along the river for hours. I zombied out for a while, I kept thinking I had a giant bridge over the top of me, that crossed the river. I eventually came right around the river to the other side of McGrath (the classic rookie route) and stumbled into some strangers house to ask for directions. As you'd expect, an Aussie on a fatbike asking for directions in the middle of the night seemed like the most natural thing to happen to any McGrath resident. Well, it was natural to me, but I walked out none the wiser.
McGrath is not that big, just a few streets in a grid layout. I didn't have an address, just a description of 'look for the Gingerbread house' so I methodically crisscrossed streets until the checkpoint came into view.
Peter and Tracey Schneiderheinze open their house up completely to ITI racers, to sleep, grab a meal, a shower etc. It is extremely generous of them, there is a jar on fridge for you to leave your appreciation. Their house is like an oasis, racers coming and going with a real buzz about it, as well as a chance to debrief with other racers - as only other racers can understand what you have just been through.
As you enter, you are greeted by Peter, sat down and food is immediately placed in front of you, which is great as by this time you are on auto pilot and happy to give the reins of thinking over to somebody else.
This is one of Peters famous mancakes, it's about an inch thick and filled with locally picked berries of all kinds. You finish, you get your mancake.
As I came in on the Saturday night, I had to wait until Monday for a flight back to Anchorage, so it was a day of lounging around and debriefing - which I must reiterate is very important to racers, for a successful re-introduction to non-ITI society. Fellow racers are like family now, regardless of placing, you've all ridden the same route and endured some form of hardship. More people have climbed Everest than completed the ITI, so you become part of a unique group of people. More racers arrived on Sunday and we shared stories from the trail.
My mate Jim arrived and he told me about the experience he had staying in the cabin with a local athabascan family, and what he learned about native hunting practices - he wanted to stay another few days with them! I found out months later that he had unknowingly broken his back during a fall in the Dalzell Gorge, but continued to McGrath as his only option. Sadly, his goal was Nome this year, and he had to finish at McGrath. That may have explained his reluctance to share some vegemite with me a second time - it's just an acquired taste :)
Peter came in a few hours after me, we shared a big teary hug as he staggered through the door and talked for a while about the trail. The subtle lessons I learnt from this man will stay with me forever.
Kathi keeps track of all racers and stresses when they go off radar for a bit.
This cat is famous, he starred in the film 'A Thin White Line' which is like the 'Endless Summer' film for ITI racers.
...and little old me, I went into the history books as the first Aussie to complete the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 to McGrath. Almost immediately my thoughts turned to the next ITI race, I discussed this with other racers and their response was 'if you're coming back to race, you might as well shoot for the big one - 1000 miles to Nome'. The seed had been sown.
I flew back to Anchorage, first thing I did was shave that poor-excuse-for-a-beard off. It took a few days to sort out the stomach issue - I think it was part food poisoning and part digestive problem with a very unfamiliar food. My right knee took a lot of work to sort out, around 3 months until I deemed it back to 100%.
TECH: getting back to Anchorage: flying back is cake - buy your ticket at the McGrath airport, loosen your handlebar stem so the bars can be rotated in line with the frame and off you go. FAA rules state you must not fly with a fuel bottle and pump that has fuel vapours, hence you will need to leave these behind. I have heard stories of racers embedding their empty bottle and fuel pump deep inside their gearbags, but I can't confirm or deny knowledge of this happening ;) You fly over Denali and Foraker, arrive at the regular Anchorage airport, turn your bars around, wheel it through the terminal and ride back to your accomm.
This race is tough. But it was made easier by the generous support from friends and companies that assisted me with sponsorship.
Muru Cycles were there with me right from the beginning - I built the first Muru Witjira titanium bike in a garage in Alaska in 2013 - the same frame that will be racing 1000 miles to Nome with me in 2016. Over the years my bond with Muru has grown stronger, they've even included some of my nutty ideas into their current range of framesets and built some very custom gear to my specifications.
FE Sports are the Australian importer of Bonk Breaker and Skratch Labs products, the team at FE Sports backed me wholeheartedly with bars and electrolytes, and as you've read they became a crucial foodstuff for me. I will never forget the support you gave and the belief you had in me.
Ride Mechanic is a small company, with a very technical and passionate backbone of tech advisors and chemists to support the engineered products they make. I used Bike Butter on my gear and brake cables back in 2013 when I first built the Muru Witjira, that lube was still in service (unchanged) in 2015 for this race. I also used Bike Butter on all of my zippers on jackets, framebags and boots to minimise friction. I used one of the first released batches of Bike Cream chain lube on this race. I'm quite finicky with my lubes, preferring to use the right lube for the job. With that in mind, Bike Milk has been my go-to lube for beach riding on the fatbikes, but for the snow, I needed a slightly oily base (along with the same solid lubricant) and the Bike Cream was perfect. It was quick and easy to apply, kept the drivetrain quiet and clean right down to -25C. Also, they designed a cologne for me that had a multitude of functions: skin cleanser, scented cologne/aftershave, stove fuel, degreaser - it truly was a multi-function fluid with many uses.
I ran a crowdsourcing fundraiser with the help of MyCause Australia - I managed to reach the goal of raising $2000 to help me get to Alaska, pay for special equipment, assist with entry fees and some travel expenses. My friends generously supported me with donations:
Most importantly, my wife and daughter deserve the biggest praise and thanks of all - these two chicks keep me going forward. They have endured my constant babbling about all things Iditarod, sponsored me, supported me in my decisions, allowed me to train without interference and followed me on some dodgy family outings masked as 'training experiments'. I love you both and I hope to inspire the pet monkey - one day she'll realise her parents did cool stuff that she can be proud of too.
I want to thank you - the reader - for your patience with these blog posts. I like to put a lot of time into each post, for it to be entertaining, truthful with tech and to be a reference document for future generations of adventurers. I truly hope you have enjoyed the adventure with me, perhaps you've been inspired by the posts and might have helped you break down some walls about where to start or how to do something. Hey, I'm no expert, but I learn by getting out there and experimenting.
So what's next? Dunno, but by staying fit and healthy (and keeping my nose and arse clean) I'll be ready for a wide variety of adventures. I've got some ideas floating about...
Amazing where riding a bike will take you!