Sunday, 3 October 2021

Iditarod 2020 - race report EP 4




This final episode is a bit of a roller coaster for me, as I look back now at the many moving parts of the 2020 race. It comes with a veteran's helping of selflessness to a Nome rookie, along with some very bitter-sweet decisions that were both easy and hard to make at the time, and would bring about their own residues to manage at a later point in time. Lets dive in - I'm at Nikolai checkpoint and we'll rewind with a bit of copy and paste:

'About an hour after I arrived, word filtered through that George Adams had an issue with his bike. The details were sketchy, but he couldn't ride it and was pushing from around Bear Creek. I built this bike for George around 6 weeks prior to the race and he was going to Nome with his lifelong buddy, Graham Muir. My focus instantly shifted from my own goal, into doing everything that I could to get George's bike fixed and back to 100%. The dream adventure for two people was on the line here as George and Graham were racing as a pair. With 4 Nome finishes under my belt, I knew how much work they'd done to get here and also how important it was to continue - those that know, know. When you are in the theatre of Iditarod, there is a lot of camaraderie between racers that gets magnified in situations like this. George's Muru Canning build spec was modeled around my own Muru Iditarod LE, and if it meant taking parts off my own bike to keep him on track to Nome then that's what I was going to do.

At his rate of travel, George was due into Nikolai the following day...sometime. There was no way to get a message to him on the trail that I was waiting for him, to assess and hopefully repair his bike, so George unfortunately had to wallow in push mode for another 24+ hours. I had to wallow in eat and sleep mode until he arrived, but also the anguish of seeing my own race potential adapt and evolve.'

All I could do was watch the tracker, strategise and fill the time with tasks; re-organise my foodbags/framebag; mop the floor of the checkpoint; fix bikes - Roberto Gazzoli's bike had been stomped on by a moose, two spokes had torn through the rear rim and the gears were not indexing right with no climbing gears, so I spent a bit of time down in the laundry space of the checkpoint tuning his drivetrain to get him as much gear range as possible for the next 750 miles. Roberto and I chatted about George's scenario, I still didn't have any firm intel on his mechanical failure, but I said to Roberto that I'll do what it takes to keep George in the game, I will give him parts off my bike, even if it makes my bike unrideable. That was where my mind was right there. But I also had to be patient and wait for George to arrive, while I watched my competitors gain more distance up the trail. 




As if by happy accident, there had been a fair bit of salad shipped to Nikolai. In the world of ultra-distance racing, salad isn't one of those foodstuffs that is demanded or revered by athletes for it's energy content or satiety. But it was there. George G. (checkpoint host) became aware of my situation and my reason for pausing, he set about fixing me a karma meal like no other - a big leafy green salad with a grilled Salmon steak, cherry tomatoes with garnish and lemon dressing. He said to me "Trail karma comes back around". My response was "mate, do good things even if nobody is watching". 

We chatted quite a bit about luck and the effect it can have on many aspects of the race. I'm not a superstitious person, I'm a firm believer in making your own future with good planning and execution, however I was coming around to the premise that when stuff happens in close proximity to other happening stuff, it's just easier to brand it as luck and prefix accordingly with bad, good, or shit outta. Word from the outside world was that the travel situation with COVID was worsening. Crazy times.

I had some management of my own to do: my legs were ballooning up with oedema and inactivity. It seems the dehydration over Rainy Pass was catching up with me, along with the side effects of sleep deficit piling up from the last 2 months or so. Oedema is something I've had mildly in the past, bit of puffiness always went away as the body normalised from life on the trail, but this was different and exacerbated the bursitis I get every year - but normally that hits around the 500 mile mark when I hit the Yukon. 

I watched the tracker for George's arrival. I swept and mopped the checkpoint floor, ate, napped, got my tools and the pit area ready in the laundry room for when George arrived. The checkpoint gradually filled with more tired foot/biking/skiing bodies and gear, racers eager to cram themselves in whatever warm and dry space they could find. 




The moment finally arrived, Graham 'Bush' Muir rode in first, with George not far behind pushing his bike off the river, IIRC it was just before midday. We cheered him in through the windows and he was surprised to see me there ready to wrench on his bike - lol it's not outside assistance if the help is from another racer!  Got the bike up on a workstand and the back wheel out for assessment. 


E13 9-46T cassette on an XD driver, using the e13 grease. E13 specify 1.5Nm of torque on the clamp bolt, as the clamp strap is easily broken. I'd fitted this cassette in Australia and used my calibrated Ritchey torque wrench on the bolt at 25 degrees celsius, I can only surmise that temperature played a part here, shrinking the freehub body just enough where the clamping force wasn't sufficient to hold the cassette on with George's significant power output. 


Plan was to get the bike going (there were no tools to 'split' the cassette to retension the clamp bolt) by easing the cassette back into place and re-tuning the gears so he could ride to McGrath
 (same thing I told Adam at Eagle Island CP in '18, after I field repaired his I9 hub): 

                  'Just don't hate f^ck it on the hills, mate.'

I did up a shopping list of parts for George to order and get sent to McGrath, then we would all rendezvous there and I do the final repair. In that time I can haul arse to McGrath, get my food cache, rack out until George and Bush arrived and strategise my next race plan to see what time I can recoup on the front pack. But first, fruit. 


Rewarded with a fast dance and groovy lightshow on the trail, I got into McGrath just after dark. Front Nome pack were still there - they'd had 3 days rest! 


I busied myself on the next phase, my food cache was missing so best get busy on discarded/scratched racer's food to make up supplies to get me to Cripple or Ruby. It's a fun process, digging around like a kid in a lego box looking for the right coloured block, but snacking along the way. 


Next task was body management. It's quite common in rest rooms to have flushable wipes, they are a staple item in your drop for a regular trail hygiene routine. I looked at the white cap on this pack and it fitted the needs at the time - disinfection, fresh lemon scent, virus protection (very apt at this point) and the scrubbing texture would help in key areas (don't make me explain it). However, I only looked at the front panel. 

                   

Yep. Go on, I know you're thinking of laughing, so just do it.  Initially, I liked how big the wipes were, the texture helped where needed and the scent was refreshing, along with the cleansing feeling. Until the burning started. I know you're laughing by now. My natural curiosity told me to investigate the package further, upon seeing the flipside, it all started to make sense. I began looking for a Scoville unit rating and there was an afterburn that kept on giving after the rinsing and powdering. But I was happy I'd taken steps to prevent entry of corona virus via that portal. Plenty of snow outside, it was dark, nobody could see my wormy dog impression. I racked out. 


Morning time - Peter is always up early to craft his bespoke mancakes - 1" thick pancakes with berries and apple chunks - you try and put back in what the trails takes out at every opportunity. I skyped Nyree and the news coming back was grim, changing by the hour, the dnb party was getting shut down. 

 'Aussies abroad come home now, Australia will be closing its borders due to the evolving pandemic. Any citizens abroad, make your plans to return home ASAP (DFAT)'. 

Shit. I've never scratched from a race or backed down from a challenge I've taken on, and yet here I was, able bodied to continue, the weather seemed about as perfect as you could get, and I was left with an extremely tough decision to make. George and Bush weren't due for another few hours, so I had to chew on this and look out the window at this bluebird day. 

I won't lie. Despite all the hard times I've had on the Iditarod trail, tough weather and physical/mental strain - sitting there on the couch in the back room, looking out the window and making that call to finish in McGrath, was THE hardest task I've ever faced in this race. It brought me to tears. When you put so much into doing this race, with people in your corner that support and believe in you, you shoulder that load as well - this is just as much their race too. There were so many moving parts to this evolving situation, Nyree and I discussed it on skype and workshopped many scenarios, but running it down the logic funnel always ended with the same constant. I knew it was a good and right decision, but it just hurt so damn much. 

'Always make good decisions - it's a backbone formula for any aspect of this race, for life's journey as well.' 

I was also looking at the long range weather forecast as well - despite it being a nice day today, the window was closing with a warm system moving in. I've been up the trail to Nome 4 times in consecutive years since 2016 - this was to be my 5th in a row - so I could read what was coming up on the trail - it wasn't going to be a record year of fast days with hard trail to Nome. It was going to be a slog, which is all par for the course any other year, without the threat of Covid closing international borders and causing flight havoc. 

Toni was laid up in McGrath with some sort of chest infection, he went to the McGrath hospital and got treated, he hung around waiting for me to leave and head up the trail, but I was waiting on George and Bush. They got in just before sunset. Plan was to stay another night and repair Georges bike the next day, as his parts were due in then. I felt so bad for Toni having to head out solo in his condition, but he is one tough unit and I knew he'd make good choices. 


 I had made my decision to finish early in McGrath due to Covid, but kept it to myself after notifying Kathi. I wanted to absorb and contribute positively to conversation with the finished 350 racers as they came through, not get quagmired in the negative vibe of a scratch. It felt good to imbue rookie finishers with the importance of debriefing and those precious memories at Peter and Tracey's house; reminding them that the only people that will understand what you've just been through, are the people currently sharing the table and meals with you. 

'Savour it, as nobody back home will understand your stories like this family seated with you right now.' 

It helped me process my own situation, by listening to the excited stories of finished racers and knowing the locations of their lowest moments - plus the food kept coming. Parts arrived just after midday so I got stuck into fitting them to Georges bike (a new HG freehub for his DT 350 hub, with a Shimano XT cassette and DT end cap fitted), adjusted the brakes, took a headset spacer off my bike and put it on Georges - they were good to go. There was surprise and disappointment from them that I wasn't riding out with them, but they had their adventure path in front of them and I wanted to set them up right. 


Race postscript: (for readers who didn't follow the race commentary or dot watch) the trail weather remained cold and clear for the next few days, then a warm front moved in and stayed, with a low cloud ceiling and poor light contrast conditions (quite hard to ride in as you can't see the firm trail next to the soft snow shoulder). Village checkpoints were relocating out of town and slamming shut to outsiders faster than racers could get to them. Some veteran racers were scratching on the Yukon river, as they knew they would get trapped with village lockdowns, no food cache access and risk of no flights out of villages (bush plane pilots weren't taking covid risks with foreign visitors - especially athletes that 'looked' sick due to normal trail exposure from racing). Coastal wind storms fragmented the Bering Sea ice/Norton Sound crossing from Shaktoolik to Koyuk and Golovin Bay, ending the race for 8 racers in Unalakleet, mile 700 (Toni, Jussi, Beat, Asbjorn, George, Graham, Willy and Roberto) with Jill, Petr and Casey continuing together to Nome. These 3 fell into step with 11 dog teams north of Elim, until the official Iditarod trail breakers could be dispatched from Nome to build a usable trail for the final 130 miles. A Blackhawk was scrambled out of Nome to rescue 3 dog teams that had fallen victim to the deteriorating conditions and open water along the Safety Sound coastline. Nome had issued a time curfew to ALL visitors and users of the trail - the covid lockdowns had begun. Northern villages were very frightened and protective as the 1918 Spanish flu decimated their population, along with Diptheria (of which, ironically, the Iditarod race and route has deep roots in the Serum Run of 1925). I'm summarising these final 2 weeks, there are a lot more details that are beyond the scope of this blog post - it's a whole other shitshow.

Back to me. Covid was already affecting international flights, small scale as well. Local pilots were starting to be re-directed for extraction/movement of officials for the Iditarod dog race, along with media and comms staff. Pilots make decisions about cargo and passengers based on mass - when he saw that we were lean and depleted athletes, he made the call and I was lucky to jag the last seat on this 208 Caravan. Next available flight out of McGrath was 3 days away - but this was a dynamic situation that was rapidly changing.  


An open plan cargo space, with plenty of storage in the hatches in the lower fuselage for the foot athletes' sleds. My bike with Beth's bike behind. 





Looking back south over the Alaska Range and through some of the valleys we'd traversed just a few days ago, 2015 was the last time I'd flown back from McGrath to Anchorage on a plane this size. 


Getting back to Anchorage was surreal, as my mindset would normally still be running the Nome destination program for the next 2 weeks. Donald had also finished early, so to catch up with him back at the bnb post-race was something we'd not done since 2016. It was great to debrief with another Nome veteran - he was on foot this year, so he had a new range of experiences to talk about over a coffee. He managed to change his home flight much earlier on standby, I just managed to change mine in time before the situation got out of control and flights were being canned (we all saw how messed up that became). A huge shout out to my travel agent Sam from Helloworld Daisy Hill, she spent countless hours piecing together a seamless flight plan for me. 

I still had a few days with my bike assembled, the weather was the best I'd ever seen it in Anchorage, clear sunny days, loads of snow and firm trails around town. Each day I rode out to some places I'd not been to since my rookie year in '15, was great to reconnect at a recovery pace and take stock of things. 

Then I got real sick. Saturday afternoon I got back in from a day ride over in FNBP trails, all of the symptoms of Covid hit me - slowly at first - the fever, the chills, broken glass sore throat, dry wracking cough, swollen and sore joints, by Sat night it was fullblown. Then bedbound for 4 days, watching re-runs of MASH, following dots on trackleaders, race armchair commentary on the socials and eating the last of my race food (the chocolate diet lol). I was comfort eating at the same rate as if I was still on the trail - trying to meet some crazy 6000 calorie goal. 

'Hi, my name is Troy, and I'm a snackaholic'

I was alone now at the bnb, no other guests or staff. I was slipping down into the pit of post adventure depression, with the weight of a DNF, and wracked with Covid symptoms. I took the minimum of meds to control the fever, I wanted to remain in 'contact' with the severity of this sickness, not bury the symptoms under medications in case it was getting worse without my conscious knowledge. I could not afford to get bogged down in the US medical system at this point - my flights were locked in and all travel insurances were pretty much worthless, so I had to gut this out in iso for a few days and stay under the radar. The day before flights home, I managed to break down the bike and pack up all my equipment. US domestic flights were at 5% capacity, international was near 100%. I masked up and did what I could to protect others during my travels despite still being in the full grip of symptoms. Within 2 hours of arriving in Brisbane, I was at the hospital for a Covid test. 3 days later, a negative result. The various physical, mental and financial residues of my ITI 2020 campaign would linger another 18 months and as many of us have experienced in life, some things will never return to 'normal'. 


I had to capture this moment as it was so profound, in the garage at the bnb. I built my first Muru fatbike here in 2013, it was my first trip to Alaska for ITI training camp and backcountry tour of Oregon. I've stayed here every year and celebrated  birthdays in the snow. The great friends I've met and greeted here after long flights from our home countries, the stories we've shared, the pranks we've pulled, the gear chats we've had, the late night panic packing and re-packing - I really dig the history I have with this garage and how it's been a focus point for my Alaskan adventures. 

Sometimes the low point of a race isn't the harsh weather, or the physical and mental toll of exertion in the pursuit of our goals - these are the fundamentals and the things we prepare for, build our training programs around and choose gear for. However, there remain some aspects you can't plan for or rehearse with a theoretical scenario for - you have to experience it to fully grasp how it will affect you. How you respond to that, well, we are all different in how we process it and the time it takes. This episode has been tough to write, I really needed time to do this piece justice but also get to the other side of my own challenges to write it in a balanced style. I don't like melodrama and my life is not a soap opera.

The low point of emotion you see in this image is exactly how you imagine it. It's the final focus point of all those years; and a climax of the episodes you've just read - my 2020 ITI race. 


Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Straddy adventure - fatbike loop 1

Before we had fatbikes, we'd ride Straddy (North Stradbroke Island) on our MTB's. Back then it was a vanilla ice cream kinda experience - enjoyable, but could be better with sprinkles and chocolate sauce.



Heck, that was over 10 years ago, our inspiration to become a fatbike family came from those rides on Straddy. The bike that started it for us began right here in this story (that bike is still in service):

http://troyszczurkowski.blogspot.com/p/surly-moonlander-build.html   and from there I've done some other rides 'here and there' on my other fatbikes.

Wifey got herself a new bike, a Norco Bigfoot VLT 1. An e-fatbike. Woah, don't hate on me - this bike opens up new routes for us together and I can inflict more type 2 fun on my wife with zero complaints. Yeeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!!

This story isn't about a bike though, it's about the places we can now go together. My wife doesn't get the opportunity to ride as much as I do, so there was always a disparity with speed, distance and endurance - her new bike totally levels that playing field.

I hope this story might give you some intel on planning a fatbike trip to Straddy. Being the closest and cheapest island to access from Brisbane, doing a day trip or overnighter is a simple thing.


The water taxi leaves from Cleveland, it's only a few minutes ride from Cleveland train station to the dock, if you didn't want to drive there. Ticket is $20 return and bikes go on free, on the bow deck and it's generally a pretty smooth and dry trip over, around 20 minutes or so. You land at Dunwich, from there you have a few road and trail options - this trip we headed East on the road towards Blue Lake. This road has a few hills, so be prepared for it! Other routes I'll cover in future trips and blog posts.


The turn off to Blue Lake is well signposted. There is a vehicle maintenance track to the lake, as well as a walking track.


Blue Lake is a window lake, with a white sandy bottom and clear, fresh water. Great for a swim, play on the packraft, sit on a hammock and read a book. Very peaceful with loads of birdlife, shade and a few mosquitoes.


We followed the track on from the lake, crossing the outflow of the lake. I sent wifey in first for a depth check. Sandy base with a bit of leaf litter, approx knee deep.


Shoes off, carry the bikes across. Sure, you could ride it, but today we didn't need to.


The trail leads to the edge of Eighteen Mile Swamp, fed by the freshwater outflow of Blue Lake, but at the southern end of the swamp it opens to Swan bay near Jumpinpin.


We travel North back to the road, the track continues North on the Keyholes track. This track can be hit and miss with passability - there are quite a few deep waterholes and low water areas to traverse. We headed to the surfside to explore some of the secluded beach campsites (totally empty during the COVID lockdown) and have lunch on the dunes. Minimal traffic on the island, a slight offshore breeze and the day was ultra clear.


Size wise for the curious - wifey is 150cm and her bike is a small, fits her perfectly.


Despite the small tailwind, wifey half wheeled me all day, proud of the fact she could just put it into BOOST mode and haul off the front.


The 'roos are pretty chilled, but be wary of them on trails, in case they jump in front of you as you ride.



Point Lookout for a snack, the place was so quiet, very few vehicle barges were running (mostly just for locals) and pedestrian tourists were only on the water taxi (there is a regular bus service from Dunwich servicing Amity and Point Lookout).


From there we dropped onto Cylinders Beach, skipped around Adder Rock headland with perfect wave timing and onto Flinders Beach. Bit woody in places but we didn't have to HAB, just time it right.



A few fresh and tidal/brackish lagoon outflows here and there, tide was on our side.



Just before Amity township we got off the beach, onto a short bit of road through the township and then a right hander onto the bush track that would cut out most of the hilly road section between Amity and Dunwich.



The trail isn't over-maintained, so we had our fair share of prickles and seed pods stuck to our clothes when we got to the road, along with other hitchhikers.


A few km of road, we didn't stop at Myora Springs though - a nice place to pause for a swim and wash off after a days ride in summer. The swimming spot is right next to the road, a fresh water outflow that is fed from a spring, only a few km from Dunwich.


 One of my golden rules of daytrips is to always pack lights, as we tend to squeeze as much out of the day as we can, the last water taxi for the day was 5:55pm, so we had time to scoff the last of our food and enjoy the sunset.


Here's some reference material. All up the loop was around 60km. The biggest amount of elevation change is getting to Blue Lake from Dunwich, but by following the bush track from Blue Lake to the back of the swamp, you avoid the last climb out of the valley via the road.  We got a late start and did the loop at a fairly relaxed pace. Do you really need a fatbike? Well, a plus bike could give you the float for some of the sandy back tracks and an mtb would do the hard sand at low tide. A fatbike will allow you to ride more places, instead of pushing, and explore further more efficiently.

There are heaps more routes to cover in future blog posts, more ways to explore this bay island gem. With sand mining on the decrease on Straddy, low impact recreation is tipped to be the next best export, the island is criss-crossed with old 4x4 trails, forestry and maintenance tracks.

This is all a very loose account of this trip, I purposely leave out a lot of things that may alter your own expectation of adventure or depth of exploration. Use it as a foundation and go as deep as you like - sometimes too much information can ruin the simple pleasure of going off track and exploring.

Here is a handy GPX file of the route: CLICK HERE then download the file and upload to your device.




Amazing where riding a bike will take you.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Iditarod 2020 - race report EP 3


Picking up the dream from the previous episode, Casey and I left Rainy Pass Lodge at around 2pm. I had a full tank of fuel, blinker fluid topped off and muffler bearings greased for a long night in the saddle. It was actually a really grouse arvo on the bike as the image shows...despite the constant 30mph head wind and rapidly falling temperatures.


Bundle up in the right gear though and it's not an issue, above all you must manage moisture. Of course yellow snow breaks are common, but the holes on the front of your face exhaust the most moisture and can quickly bind up layers and beards with ice. I start the race with a clean face, I've seen some painful atrocities with racers' beards getting ice crusted to their ruffs and other head gear. 

Speaking of beards, I had an issue in '16 across the Norton Sound sea ice crossing, with a quality OR balaclava that had a mesh section in front of the mouth. Now, my genes don't facilitate the growing of an awesome arctic explorer/lumberjack's beard, but that particular year it didn't stop me trying. I had about a 10mm cushion of bristles between my skin and the balaclava, creating a gap for moist air to unknowingly sneak through as the mesh had wetted out and frozen over. Consequently, the balaclava pretty much froze to my embarassment of a beard and stopped me from putting in any decent food or water. The layers had frosted over on the outside fabric too and formed a frozen mask, I didn't want to wreck the garments trying to make a food hole, so I made a small gap under my goggles - in between voluntary tourettes episodes - and just dropped the food in, moved my head around like one of those Laughing Clown games with the ping pong balls. Yeah, laughing clowns. I'm not triggered by them, but getting separated from food on a critical crossing can be annoying at best and amusing for bystanders. It's why I like solo travel so much - sing in the shower, dance in the dark...


Anyways, we were heading up a very exposed section called Ptarmigan Valley, the trail surface was scoured by the wind and was sastrugi hard in many places, so it was rideable, just really slow. The trail climbs up and down over many large hillocks, there are tripod markers at regular intervals to mark the trail but most of them were only a foot or two above the surface - normally they are around 7 feet tall (it had been a high snow year). 


Being such a high snow year there was concern before the race started, of avalanche risk in the pass. Only a few days before our race started, a group of specialists from the Iditarod Trail Committee (controlling body for the dog sled race) ventured up to the pass to assess the risk, in case a re route was needed. This is what it looks like from the air:

  


You get to the last summit of the small hills along Ptarmigan valley, descend to the Happy River which runs year round, it has a gravel bottom, about a foot deep and sometimes has an ice bridge. I've seen people ride through the water - which is risky in itself - the general nastiness is if the ambient temp is below freezing, that creek water drizzles over your bike. You know Ice Magic, the liquid choc coating you pour on ice cream, sets hard after a short while? If you get water in your derailleur mech or brakes, chain etc, it soon freezes like that and you also end up with noisy spokey dokeys on your wheels. Kinda cool, but also not fun when your brakes no longer work and can't shift gears. Carry where you can, but its okay if the tyres get wet, just keep the water off functional stuff okay? So once past the river, you have a mile or 4 of Alder brush and meadow to the mouth of the pass. By this time Casey had ridden off the front, I was starting to conserve a bit from that headwind and my knees were getting aggro. This was the year I promised myself no pain meds unless absolutely necessary, stay in touch with the discomfort and see what affect it had on my other body functions (never stop experimenting). It had taken me 5 hours to get to this point from the lodge, I paused in the lee of some low trees where the icy, bare knuckled wind couldn't arm bar me, before I started into Rainy Pass itself. Dang it, water in my plastic secondary bottle (1L nally in OR coozy) had slushed up. I checked my tertiary frame bottle (1.4L nally in a custom EVA foam and neoprene sleeve, in an insulated bag) it too was slushy so I tipped them out before they became solid plugs in the bottles. I still had 350mL of hot choc in my steel bottle and 1L in the hydration pack. The wind  just vacuumed the heat right outta those bottles, despite being covered in some dense 8mm closed cell EVA and 6mm neoprene, in an insulated framebag.

PRO TIP: Hydration is always an issue and would be one of the top 5 questions I get about water storage. Obvs you have to melt the snow, then store it, for a few years I've played with all kinds of insulated storage. Double walled steel canisters remain the best performers, despite the weight penalty. I work off primary, medium and long term storage to go the distance. This year, my medium and long term I'd reverted back to plastic nally's (I used all double walled steel in '18 and '19) and did a lot of work to insulate the nallys, in an effort to reduce some static weight. It was a mistake, suffice to say I recommend double walled bottles if you really want hot water to stay hot over a longer period of time in a sub zero environment. Avoid flip style drinking caps on them as they can leak with pressure - use the screw caps - and store them upside down, because if they start to freeze, the ice plug will start at the top of the water (not the bottom) so with the bottle inverted the water will still be liquid and the cap threads won't freeze the cap on. DON'T drink from a metal lipped bottle - decant into a plastic lipped bottle - otherwise your lips or tongue may stick to the metal bottle. 



So I'm out of the wind momentarily and took stock of the situation (whether to fire up the stove, bivvy or move forward) and decided on a quick shiver bivvy and then get to work, use what I had and make the rest up - I knew what was coming and time for more experiments. Just like science class in school, we like to see how close we can get our hand to the bunsen flame. Leaving Rainy Pass early was a poor decision for both of us, but we both felt that we needed to maintain the push forward. I couldn't get any food down, I'd dry-heave-gag reflex when I tried to eat, it was 8 hours since my last decent feed, but trust me on this - I was in familiar ground with energy levels and my metabolism. I changed into my riot gear - clear lens goggles and Cold Avenger mask. Gavan rocked up behind me on the trail (foot athlete), asked if I was okay...but that's not what I heard when he said it (sorry Gav). When Casey and I left Rainy Pass Lodge, Rob left at the same time (Rob was the leading foot athlete at that point). Rob is from Minneapolis, Gavan is Irish. Expecting Rob, but hearing Gavan, my brain got a bit twisted - it expected Purple Rain, but got Riverdance. (PLEASE NOTE: The Proclaimers are Scottish, earworm: 500 miles - we've all sung it at some point on the trail)

It was around 8pm when I stepped into the maw of the pass and the wind got the first round of blows in, the bright moon overhead was no longer a disco ball - it was a single spotlight above a UFC cage and it was time to float like a butterfly.


Who hah that last paragraph made it sound so serious, we should be dancing! Well, Rainy Pass is sort of a big deal, it's a major crux on the way to McGrath, but I get excited in the weather events and like to balance it out with humour too. Years ago, I joked with my friend Jim Barkley that there was a churro stand at the top of the pass, I was eager to see if I would get delirious to the point where the stand would appear.

Rainy Pass in 2016 - it's nice when it's nice

I'd been up Rainy Pass many times, day and night, blue skies and grey flat light, in wind and calm. This night I honestly don't recall much of the traverse, I joke that it was just a series of microsleeps broken by periods of forward motion dreams in REM. Never sit down, just keep dancing and accept that speed didn't matter, this was really becoming a solid cagefight. To remain lucid, I would call out the items I would see in front of me - rock, handlebar, boot, moonlit mountain - no monkeys or palm trees to be seen - which was a good sign. I've had other times in sleep deprived mode, when the snowy trail resembled a beach ride back home, it all looked like sand. With my riot gear on  it was like a miniature paradise for my face - warm and tropical - at one point I paused, removed the gear to have a drink and try some food - the windblown snow grit blasted my face and with that windchill: I didn't bother again. I didn't need to have an exfoliation and skin peel on this summer holiday (well, it was summer when I left home if that makes sense) so early in the race, but a bit of tropical holiday food would be nice - I had small pineapple chunks in my Mag Tank top tube feed bag. Some research later on regarding the conditions that night revealed interesting numbers: windchill -60 to -80 degrees celsius with gusts to 47miles/hr, my own temp gauge registered -35C static. Ouchy. I followed a firm snowmachine route I hadn't done in previous years - instead of rounding the final moraine to the left, I went over the top of it and came a lot closer to the busted cabin near the saddle of the pass, in front of the lake. I purposely chose this route as it kept me away from the other path that crisscrossed a stream and also away from the tight part of the gorge, where snow cornices and shelf ice can be undermined by the wind. A nasty place to get caught with this wind and low visibility, an avalanche risk.  The last push to the sign was steep and tough, a light had appeared behind and I communicated with an up and down nod of the head. It was Bergur, he caught up just as I began the descent, the wind was still growling away and roiling the snow around my goggles and feet. I could barely keep my eyes open, I knew I was slowly dehydrating and was approaching the 18 hour mark since food, so caffeinating would do more harm than good, it was 3am with daylight still a few hours away. Again, I was in full control of my actions, I knew where I was literally and figuratively as well as my energy levels, I was just so damn eye tired. There was no sign of the churro stand and I was all out of family block. 


PRO TIP: Keto. What does going it mean? To me, its a broad term of the body sourcing its fuel needs from its stores, as opposed to sourcing from the GI tract and digestion. How do you do that? It's complicated, but also very simple if you experiment (in training) and understand the principles. My interest and research in this area goes back 30+ years and I love that there is always more to learn from my own body, and it astonishes me sometimes with what it can do when I push it. In a race like this, going 'keto' is something that will happen at some point to everybody as you just cannot put in enough fuel and process it to meet the burn rate. Teach your body to go keto in training, learn what it feels like during the fuel transition and then it won't be so shocking in the field (ie bonking). Is eating fatty foods considered keto? Well, I can't give you dietary advice (except chew your nuts) but I can say look at the bioavailability of the locked energy in a foodstuff. Sure, might be 3500 calories in that jar of peanut butter, but can your body actually digest and convert it to energy in a reasonable timespan for you to use? Experimentation is the key. Become a student of nutrition and a master of your body's metabolism - haha among all the other things you gotta master to be proficient in for the race. This environment is just a series of problems to solve - that's what cold weather travel is all about. Solve some of them in training - cold travel becomes a bit easier, more enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding.  

Start of the descent into Dalzell Gorge - 2015

The first part of the descent was a post hole affair if you went off track, it was something to focus on. Dalzell creek is off to the left as I entered the sharp V of a gorge, the wind started to ease as I lost elevation. In the past I've seen Dall sheep grazing among the steep rocky formations and further down in the alder and willow there are often moose. Again, something to focus on and I would recite these important notes to myself, to stave off sleep monsters. The temperature was falling rapidly, I had -35C on my gauge so I layered up with puffy layers. The pre-dawn glow came with the temp drop, so I decided to ride a bit as I had been still walking the bike to this point. After 1 microsleep fall I decided walking pace wasn't so bad compared to worst case scenarios. 

Fresh morning at -40 with Rainy Pass behind me. 2020

I walked for an hour or so until I felt the disco smoke lift from my senses - it was time to ride and it felt awesome. I love the descent of Dalzell, every corner is a new challenge of glare ice, dodgy bridges and punchy climbs. I'm on studless tyres so my approach on the ice has to be perfect and match the angle, speed and direction needed - there cannot be last moment changes to any factor! The Dalzell gorge is like no other section on the trail, you criss cross the Dalzell creek over the ice bridges, huge voids on either side reveal a fast flowing creek beneath, 7 storey ice walls tower over the gorge and the trail weaves in and out of dark spruce forest with a low, 100% canopy. 



The last of the spruce forest spits you onto the Tatina river and then onto the Kuskokwim river. These are mostly glare ice rivers with flowing water underneath the ice. Over time the river heaves and the ice jumbles up, leaving the massive ice sheets tilted on angles. The ice is also drummy and hollow underneath - shelved over the water or a gravel streambed. Sometimes the ice will crack under the point load of your tyres - you clench your teeth, hold your breath while your arsehole puckers to diamond forming levels. 

I reached a section on the Tatina that had fresh overflow which was strange, as I'd seen the water level further up and it was low. Hmm, approach with care. There was hoar frost growing on the ice surrounding it - basically these ice crystals grow upwards off the ice surface, it would have been -40C or beyond here the previous night - things go weird at -40C. I hadn't noticed that the trail veered slightly over a gravel bar to my right 20m back, I was focussed on a marker further up on the ice. I was right in the middle of the hoar frost party when BAM, down I go with zero warning. I had lowish pressure in the tyres which gives me surface area and traction on glare ice, I was fully awake, I had no steering input, I wasn't braking nor did I have excessive speed - the frost acted like talcum powder on a polished timber floor - all traction had gone and the tyres just slipped completely. I paused for a moment laying on the ground, still clipped in and hands in the pogies, doing a full body check before I moved. No head impact, landed on right side knee, hip and shoulder simultaneously. Checked the gears and bike, visual on the area in case something had fallen off. No harm done and back to business as usual. 


Rohn checkpoint was only a few more miles of river away and the day sure was purty. There was a food drop waiting for me in Rohn, I started going through the mental checklist of what I had in that drop and what I'd need for the next section, and what I'd leave behind.

When you get to Rohn, the first thing you're asked - would you like a brat? Unique to Rohn, the bratwurst in a roll with sauce and mustard is an iconic rite of passage wrapped in delicious calories slathered with the reward of arrival at this remote checkpoint. It was also 24 hours since I'd eaten and I was pretty darn happy with this new block of body performance data. I sat in the sun on a log, ate my brats and drank cold Tang, with a bodyheated Snickers bar for dessert while admiring the view of the Terracotta Mtns behind the log cabin. Life was beautiful.



Rohn is a Tardis-like tent in the wilderness. Manned by Adrian and Beth, outside it's just a canvas tent, but inside it's shelter from the elements, a place to dry gear, a bed of straw and spruce needles to rest on with abundant hot water. It's all you need. 


But don't get comfortable, Rohn tent camp sleeps about 5 and is run as a first in-first out deal, where you only get your ticket to rest inside until another racer comes along to boot you out of the space. You can bivvy outside as long as you like, but it can get bitterly cold on this side of the Alaska range in the valleys right next to the river. I planned a 2 hour break here, until the next racers were due - Rebecca and Greg - with 5 more due in over the next 6 hours. Bergur had been in for a while, I racked out for about an hour then got my bike packed (more Cadburys family block!) before the afternoon sun vanished in the valley and temps started to dip. It was around 2-3pm when I left. Sadly, I lost my Cold Avenger mask somewhere on the trail coming into Rohn, the only piece of gear I've ever lost and a critical piece of riot gear for when it goes noisy on the trail. I still had other headgear options to use, but that mask had been to Nome 3 times so I was a bit bummed. 



I am still in the Alaska Range - check it:


Down at ground level though, the scenery is just jaw droppingly beautiful. The Northern slope of the Alaska range sees less precipitation, up ahead there would be bare trail and always some dirt/overflow/frozen buffalo shit. The trail remains in the grip of the mountains for a few more miles when you depart Rohn, straight out over the ice of the Kuskokwim River and surrounded by tall peaks.


The trail was hard and fast and more sketchy river ice, legs felt fresh for the blast through the forest known as the buffalo tunnels. As suggested, from here there's a good chance you'll see bison galloping along - they can move fast! You may also see things hanging in the trees, like bottles, soda cans or coloured flags - these are often markers left by trappers to indicate they have laid traps in the area. 



The Post River 'glacier' is really just overflow on the slope of a hill, but in low snow years it's a barren, sloping glare ice chute that will have you on your knees - literally - if you don't have any studs in your boots or tyres. Racers have been known to remove their pedals and tie them to their studless boots, in order to gain some traction. Racers have also fallen hard here and slid a long way down the slope before coming to a stop - one year I found a trail of crash candy from the point of impact to the stop point. Of course I "Ibis'd" the candy! (a pop culture icon, the Ibis is a scavenging, protected native bird of Australia - cross between a seagull and a goat - relentless in it's search for bin scraps and will eat anything - it's also lovingly referred to as the "bin chicken") Scavenging crash candy is not classified as outside assistance...


Looking back towards Rohn, the forest in these parts burnt out from the largest fire in Alaska's history - the Farewell fire of 1978. The soil was scorched so badly in places that nothing has grown back, only the haunting trunks remain. Some of the swamps have good grass cover and that's what attracts the bison.

Looking back towards the Alaska range, Egypt mountain peak in centre of image.

Once past Farewell mountain on the left and the towering Egypt mountain on the right, named due to its close resemblance to a pyramid, the Farewell burn, or just 'the burn' hold many stories for many racers. Some racers freak out at night through here, combination of sleep monsters and low blood sugar, or maybe just too many Stephen King novels. Following the burn, there are quite a few lakes and swamps to cross, with freaky eyes in the frozen lake ice.


Then there are many short and sharp climbs to tackle on this section, one particular hill that will give you a clear view of Foraker and Denali, the sunrises/sunsets here are sensational and this was where I paused for a quick melt up of water and prep a hot meal for later.  It was going to be a long night and day and then another night before I would reach Nikolai.


Somewhere in the burn, I had to rest a short while as the fog of fatigue was creeping in and dulling my senses. I would have grabbed about 30 mins of shiver bivvy, when Jussi came past just as I was packing up. He was riding strong and soon vanished from sight. Oh hang on, what's a shiver bivvy? Well, instead of going to the trouble of stomping out a chimp nest in the snow for a full sleep, a shiver biv is simple - you put on your puffy layers, you have a quick feed to fuel the furnace and sit upright next to your bike and snooze. Other bivvy types are the REM bivvy: stand upright, eyes closed and straight into dreamy REM; the Zombie bivvy: stand upright, eyes open, stare at the horizon and zone out; the Tripod bivvy: straddle the bike, legs locked, arms crossed and resting on handlebars, head on arms. There are more but I'd be taking the fun of discovery out of it for others, just beware the crash bivvy or the nude bivvy - you're going hypothermic... 

 My knees started to develop some discomfort, which isn't a new thing for any racer on the Iditarod - we all acquire some issues during the race. But this was affecting the amount of power I could put down to the pedals, I could spin but not grind,  after a while the spinning wasn't winning as far as the knees were concerned. No pain meds, too early in the race to be drugging up to get it done, so I just settled into a rhythm that worked for me, ride, then push, then grovel forward as the trail was fairly average. Somewhere near Bear Creek, Petr passed me, I'd been pushing for an hour or so by that point, he asked if all was good, then he kept riding. The trail was marginal - rideable if you could put the power down and float, it was quite windblown and drifted. Another hour or two later, Toni passed me, he was riding albeit a slow grind. Not long after that, a few machines went by and tore up what little rideable trail there was, it was mid afternoon so the trail wasn't going to fix itself anytime soon. I amused myself by dropping into the character voice of chef from the Muppets. Pushing the bike, I started hearing a flubbery flerpty floopin kind of noise. The subsequent temp drop overnight and the low pressure riding had weakened the bead seal and caused a very slow air leak in the back tyre, it was now ger borkin. I mean flat. Sigh. Well, at least it wasn't -40C un der gerfs. 20 minutes of rigorous pumping to get enough pressure in to re-seal the bead, only pausing to quickly circulate the sealant. Yur dur beecycle tyer is sergudd hur der desh floompty schmer. Bork bork bork!

PRO TIP: Tubeless or tube? Another top 5 question I get, my first answer is 'the system you feel most comfortable messing about with at night at -40C'. Both have their +/- and it's outside the scope of this pro tip to go through each and every scenario. But lets talk basics, as I know you wanna hear some answers! Winter sealants are special jazzed up versions of regular sealants - they have more Glycols in them to help stave off the freeze - but they can still slush up, I've had this at around -35C, the sealant puddled and then froze in the tyre. Sealants have some pretty complex chemistry in them nowadays, natural latex has organisms that attack it and break it down, so throw in some antibacterials and fungicides. The sealant needs to coagulate in contact with the atmospheric air, so some ammonia will help that along - but wait a minute, some tyre compounds react with ammonia, so there are low levels of it along with pseudo ammonia chemicals, and as mentioned, the glycols keep it liquid at sub zero temps. CO2 inflation will prematurely cure the sealant - doesn't cure it instantly but it accelerates the reaction over time. Tyre beads can leak due to low pressure running, or from freshly installed tyres where the rim/tyre bead hasn't grown a significant seal of dried sealant at the tyre/rim junction, also from some lighter single wall rims having too high a spoke tension (shrinks the bead seat diameter). Low flow valve stems can clog up with sealant, as can old valve cores, reducing the ability to drop/add air in the tyre, and stems can leak at the base if they are loose. Valve cores can wind out of the stem if you use a pump that has a screw on head - when removing the head they can unscrew the core with it and you lose most of your air pressure. Thin, high flow alloy race valve stems can be damaged with rough pump use, they are quite thin and sometimes, they can develop porosity in the threads, or slight corrosion will make them leak. Some of these issues can be mitigated with Fatty Strippers or ghetto tubeless with thin split tubes, brass valve stems. Studded tyres never seem to wear out the tread, but the sidewalls get a hammering if you spend a lot of cumulative time at low, single digit wrinkle air pressure. You'll see that damage as lots of wetness on the sidewalls from the sealant weeping through (this can also happen with aged sealant, as the glycols start to split off and weep through - if you taste test the weeping fluid, it will have a sweet taste - that's the glycol splitting off. Sealant is dead and inactive, take the tyre off, wash it all down, refit the tyre and fresh sealant). You may also see cross hatching start to appear on the tyre, have a think about the amount of wrinkle work the tyre has done, it can be a sign the tyre cords are starting to delaminate from the rubber. The tyre can live on with a tube in it. Speaking of tubes, if that's all you'll ever run, ALWAYS install your tubes with plenty of talc powder brushed on the inside of the tyre (use a 2" brush and put the powder in an old drink bottle). The talc acts a lube between the tyre carcass and tube, for low pressure work, There is a lot of rubbing that happens at low pressure with tubes. For expedition work, always use a thick tube at the proper size, not a lightweight one or an oversized MTB tube, to save weight. Why? When you inflate the tube, it will stretch out to the tyre. Think of it like a balloon. Half inflate the ballon, the wall thickness is thick, you can insert a pin and the balloon will deflate very slowly. Inflate the same balloon to maximum size, the wall thickness is gossamer thin, insert the pin and the balloon explodes into ribbons. Same thing with a tube - you can field repair a tube with a small hole - a ribboned tube you cannot. Also that thick tube will resist wearing through for longer when there is tube/tyre friction happening. Sure, carry a thin and lightweight spare, as long as you understand the +/- of both, you make the call to suit. In my opinion and experience, putting sealant into a tube does not work. Some sealants work by a log jam effect with fibres to jam against the puncture site and a viscous fluid that gums up (Slime). This log jam can be dislodged with low pressure flexion of the tyre/tube. YMMV. Tyre plugs are rad for tubeless, the smart ones use an insert that is impregnated with a re-agent that is a catalyst for coagulation of the sealant at the puncture/plug site. Beware the plugs that have a sharp tip - if you forget it's there and you need to put in a tube, that tip will obviously puncture the tube near instantly. A tear in a tyre can be temporarily booted with a gel wrapper or similar before putting in a tube, a thick sock is the ultimate as it will conform better with tyre pressure changes and stay in place, I've seen gel wrappers and other hard plastic items scratch and eventually puncture the tubes long term. Tyre pressure? Air up for the night and air down for the day. I detailed this in EP #2, read more there and check out the fancy algorithm - it helped me make better toast among other things.


The trail got a bit firmer for a while, until the snow came down and the knees didn't like the pedalling, that was that. Then, it was a re-run of the Rainy Pass traverse of zombie bivvies and  instant REM between 10 steps of forward motion. Painful to watch when you're a dot watcher! The falling snow was a constant feature now and the spruce trees were too small to find a decent tree well, to have a quick bivvy under. This stretch also has it's share of long, open meadows. Auto pilot was set to keep...moving...forward through the deepening fatigue. I ticked off the mile markers as they came - the 20 mile, then 10, then 5 to Nikolai. The day dawned and I started to make more ground, saw some familiar landmarks and knew that proper rest wasn't far away.

Funny thing again though, despite the tiredness, I never have hallucinations and I actually enjoy the multi-faceted challenge of moving forward in this state. Risk? Of course there's always risk. But I keep the risk in the margins, devote the page to my outcome calculations. I choose to look for the solutions to the figurative Rubix cube of race fatigue, mental games, mechanicals and body issues. It's an intrinsic reward that's satisfying to me, to maintain equal measure of control whether it's bad or good - it truly excites me - but I'm no adrenaline junky. Weird brain, huh? We are all wired differently, I don't drink alcohol and Nyree always beats me at chess.

Don't get me wrong - I love to bivvy and prefer being outside than in, but I needed to accumulate some solid rest in a short space of time and out here wasn't optimal for that rest. There are some spectacularly moody/creepy Birch forests at this point on the trail that I've always wanted to bivvy in...one day. I've heard there is a wolf pack around Nikolai too. The scene was incredibly beautiful: spruce trees were heavily laden with snow; the temp was mild; the cloud was thick so the light was soft and had a neutral colour temperature; snow was falling in big, slow flakes, the trail was entirely filled in and it gave you this feeling of intense serenity and purity, like nobody had been here before. Lol, nope I wasn't off track either.


I rounded the river bend and Nikolai came into view, it was about 9am. A figure approached by bike - it was Nicholas Carmen, a very experienced traveller and he was volunteering at the checkpoint. After checking on me, he rode back to the checkpoint, he had a burger ready on the grill when I arrived. Every checkpoint has it's own style, cuisine and accom level. The Nikolai Grill was proving itself as a contender for the title, no doubt! I'd planned a few hours rest here and a decent feed, I racked out in the corner for a bit.

Nikolai community centre, looks empty now before the hordes. 

George G. (checkpoint Master host and master foodie kept us fed) on the left, David F. (tech guru, drone captain and cameraman keeping the socials fed) on the right. 

About an hour after I arrived, word filtered through that George Adams had an issue with his bike. The details were sketchy, but he couldn't ride it and was pushing from around Bear Creek. I built this bike for George around 6 weeks prior to the race and he was going to Nome with his lifelong buddy, Graham. My focus instantly shifted from my own goal, into doing everything that I could to get George's bike fixed and back to 100%. The dream adventure for two people was on the line here as George and Graham were racing as a pair. With 4 Nome finishes under my belt, I knew how much work they'd done to get here and also how important it was to continue - those that know, know. When you are in the theatre of Iditarod, there is a lot of camaraderie between racers that gets magnified in situations like this. George's Muru Canning build spec was modelled around my own Muru Iditarod LE, and if it meant taking parts off my own bike to keep him on track to Nome then that's what I was going to do.

At his rate of travel, George was due into Nikolai the following day...sometime. There was no way to get a message to him on the trail that I was waiting for him, to assess and hopefully repair his bike, so George unfortunately had to wallow in push mode for another 24+ hours. I had to wallow in eat and sleep mode until he arrived, but also the anguish of seeing my own race effort and potential adapt and evolve.


I also had a message from Nyree. The situation with COVID-19 was worsening worldwide, DFAT had issued a request that all Aussies abroad should make moves to return home, should borders need to close. We'd all been in an eat, sleep, rave, repeat bubble for a week or more, so at that point I was like, 'yeah nah, she'll be right ay, I'll keep heading to Nome'. I ate another apple and added another page for calculations...