Iditarod Trail Invitational 2013 I’m at the Anchorage airport on Sunday evening, a little over a week since I started the Iditarod trail invitational. I’ve been finished the race for several days and this has given me time to reflect on my experience between trying to catch up on much needed sleep. I had a very challenging time at last year’s race what with pushing my bike for 190 miles out of the 210 I covered. My race ended with some severe frostbite to my face and hands, which forced me to be evacuated from the Rohn checkpoint. I was facing some demons as I prepared for some this years event. On my first attempt at the race, I carried far too much gear so I made some tough choices and managed to drop the weight of my bike from 73 lbs. to 60. This made a huge difference when it came to pushing my bike up some of the many steep hills. I still had more food than necessary and didn’t need to pick up much at either of the drops but this is a reasonable precaution in case the weather makes the course much slower, so I’ll live with that. The other area I had to address was improving my gear to protect my hands and face against frostbite. Lynne’s friend Sharon did a great job of sewing in more insulation into my handlebar poggies and they proved to be much warmer. In order to protect my nose and cheeks, I got a new balaclava with a built in neoprene cover for my nose, new goggles with a nose piece as well a much better Icebreaker wool face cover. I also took to copying the Iditarod dog mushers and covered my nose and cheeks with tape. We had a chilly winter so I was confident in these changes. There were a number of veterans from last year’s event as well as many people I’ve come to know from the Arrowhead 135. It was great to renew acquaintances at the pre race party and the race instruction meeting. I flew in from Minneapolis on the same flight as Dan Dittmer, Mike Creigo and Ken Zylstra. They were all entered for the first time. My friends Charlie Farrow and Jason Buffington came from Duluth for their first attempt at the ITI. At the B&B I met up with Ausilia and Sebastiano from Italy. We had travelled through Rainy Pass together in the horrible blizzard last year. Everyone I’d met last year seemed very pleased that I still had my nose. The race starts on Sunday at 2 pm on Knik Lake which means we must leave on the bus from Anchorage at 11. I still find it strange to have racers sitting in the bar on Knik Lake consuming cheeseburgers and fries an hour before the start. Such is the nature of an event. Where the winner averaged slightly over 7 kms per hour ( I was 4.9 Kms). It is a casual start with many of the fast riders lined up at the back of the pack till someone says go and we head across the lake and off on our journey. The first 30 miles offer a number of routes to reach Flathorn Lake. The whole field in front of me chose to go a longer route which got us on an asphalt road for 20 Kms. When we finally reached the snowmobile trail leading to the lake I was completely by myself. It was much easier than last year when the deep snow made riding impossible but there had been about 18 to 24 inches of snow in the last week so it was hard work. More than a few times I chose to walk at 4 k as opposed to riding at 5. In a race lasting 5 days or more I need to use my energy wisely. I reached Flathorn Lake at dusk and I was greeted by a moose on the trail. They like the easier going and aren’t inclined to move for cyclists. I wasn’t sure what to do. I blinked my headlamp on and off for several minutes and he ambled away. This section of about 6 k was almost all pushing and there were many areas of overflow where you needed to pick through wet sections. Shortly after Flathorn comes the Dismal Swamp. Here, I was caught by Ken and Mike from Minneapolis as well as my friend Bob Ostrom. Bob is the co-inventor of the HydroHeater camelback. He was going all the way to Nome this year. I joined up with them and we went down the Susitna river and then up the Yentna to the Yentna Roadhouse at mile 57. We arrived there after 13 hours compared to the 42 it took me last year. These places give you a chance to dry some clothes over the wood stove and eat some real food. I had two bowls of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich and headed on my way before my travelling companions. As we’d arrived I’d seen Charlie Farrow about to leave. After several hours on the trail, I could see lights coming towards me and it turned out that Charlie was on the wrong trail in that it was not ridden in by any other riders. We were able to cut across the river and get on the more worn in trail. From this point on we would spend the rest of the race together. We arrived at the Swentkna Roadhouse after 20 3/4 hours which put me over 2 days ahead of last year’s pace! What a difference a year makes. It was the middle of the day but we’d been awake for about 27 hours and needed to have some sleep. We got a room with two twins and lay down for about 3 1/2 hours. It felt good to have a rest and it was better to wait till later in the day to ride as the mild temps made the trail soft. We left at about 5 in the evening and had a good ride across a 7 km stretch of water into the Shell Hills. I was telling Charlie how brutal they were but my lighter bike combined with the fact that there wasn’t 34 inches of new snow made it feel quite manageable. We arrived at the Shell Lake Lodge and had a food break with a bowl of hearty soup and good bread. From here we had a 20 mile section to Finger Lake which is fairly flat after an initial climb. We expected to make good time but it turned out that this was the worst trail we faced in the whole race. We could see that even the leaders were forced to walk for long stretches. It took many more hours and much more energy than we expected. You can never let your guard down on this trail. At Finger Lake, we were supplied with a meal of burritos and a cabin for sleeping. We also got our first drop bag which we’d mailed ahead. I needed batteries for my lights but very little food as the race was moving much more quickly than I expected. We slept in the cabin for about three hours and headed on with a gloriously sunny morning. After going about 3 Kms I realized that I’d left my Camelback behind. It was discouraging to go back but I’d definitely need it. Charlie carried on at a casual pace and after about 4 hours I caught up to him. This section has some very steep hills going down and then up from the Happy River. These are the famous Happy Steps and last year I literally had to drag my bike up them. It was more manageable this year but still a huge challenge. We arrived at Rainy Pass lodge on Puntilla Lake at 6 in the evening. At mile 165, I was 2 days and 20 hours ahead of last year’s pace. We had a good rest here as it is considered best to leave for the climb over the pass somewhere between midnight and 6 am in order to arrive at the top of the pass in daylight. We ate food supplied by the race and slept in the cozy cabin and got on our way at 1 am. At this point, I was dealing with the memories of my disastrous time on the pass last year. I had resolved to dress warmer before leaving the lodge. I also taped my nose and cheeks. I left the tape in place all the way to the finish. This year, the weather in the pass proved to be as gentle as last year’s was severe. Long stretches were rideable and we were through before daylight. The ride down the other side through the Dalzell Gorge is beautiful and fun. We arrived at the checkpoint at Rohn slightly before noon; so I was now 3 days and 9 hours ahead of last year’s pace and with my face and hands in fine shape. OE and Rob man the checkpoint and were happy to see me in good shape after last year’s issues. Unfortunately, this meant too much visiting and not enough sleeping. At the same time, I was interviewed by Craig Medred of the Alaska Dispatch. Craig follows the race and provides great media coverage but again it cut into rest time. When some other riders arrived and it became clear that we weren’t going to sleep, we decided to get on our way. At this point in the race, I estimate that we had laid down to sleep for about 11 hours and I had slept maybe 5 or 6. We were heading into new territory for me as I’d been flown out from Rohn last year. It was 90 miles to the next checkpoint at Nikolai. It proved to be a tough stretch as we crossed the Farewell Burn, which was North America’s largest forest fire. It was bumpy and really beat you up. In this stretch was the famous Post Glacier, a cascade of ice that we had to go up. Many people have been hurt there including my friend Lance Andre who fell and broke his arm two years ago. I carried ice cleats to put over my boots but we were able to find a line just off the ice on the extreme left hand side. After passing through the burn in got a little better but there were still many steep push a bike sections. We were both tired and clumsy which resulted in many detours off the trail. Finally, we were caught by Bob, Ken and Mike and they were moving so much better than us that it showed us the reality of our situation. Our joking line was “their spirit broken, they decided to bivy”. It was still still 13 miles to an emergency BLM cabin but we were moving so slowly that we were looking at over 3 hours. It was about minus 20 C so I found myself going through a mental checklist in preparation for stopping, in order to quickly get into the warmth of my sleeping bag with everything necessary. I needed my down jacket, my Sporthill jacket, my headware and mitts and most of all, my camelback and a liter bottle of water. I have a new inflatable Thermarest that goes inside the bicycle sac under the sleeping bag. It is warm and comfortable but it takes up a fair amount of space so it was tight to get everything in. However, once I got settled, I had my best sleep of the whole race. We got on our way after about 4 1/2 hours at 6 am and could immediately feel that we were moving better. After several hours we got into a flatter section with dry packed snow and we were able to make good time. We came to a bridge over Sullivan Creek. There is a bucket here so you can fill your bottle, which helped to extend our water supply. At this point we caught up to David Johnson who’d passed us while we were bivied. David was in the walker category but make no mistake, he was running the course. We’d seen him along the way and he’s truly amazing and a great guy to be around. We got into the checkpoint in the village of Nikolai at about 4 pm so that 90 miles had taken us 24 hours. They supplied lasagna and bread as well as drinks. We spent about an hour there and headed out a little after 5 pm. We were hoping to do this final 80 km section in under 9 hours to bring us in under 4 1/2 days but it was not to be. At Nikolai, we had met with race organizer Bill Merchant and he said the trail to McGrath was “like a highway”, which raised our expectations but the trail proved to be looser than expected and we were both more tired and most especially sleepy than we realized. At about the halfway point Charlie suggested another bivy, but I was like an animal heading for the barn by this point, albeit, very slowly and convinced him to go on. When we were about 5 Kms from the finish we came off the trail onto a road and here we ran into some true frustration as there was no sign indicating which way to go and no bike tracks to be seen. We went one way for about 3 km and then came back and went the other way for an equal distance. We then went back and checked the trail we had been on to make sure that we hadn’t missed an earlier turn. We finally resolved to go further in the first direction and this proved to be correct so we arrived at the finish at 4:45 am or about 1 1/4 hours later than we should have. It was great to be done and it is sort of a mutual admiration society as we all respect each other’s efforts. We were able to consume some of Peter’s famous Mancakes and have a thoroughly enjoyable shower at which point I felt at least partially human again. It was great to share war stories with the others and have the opportunity to meet them more than previously. The race for first proved to be a fierce battle with the first seven riders beating the old record. Jay Petervary won out by not sleeping at all for 2 days and 19 hours and holding off several others on the last section. To give you an idea of the field quality, 7 time winner and 3 time defending champion Pete Basinger was 9th. I had the great pleasure to share the last four days with my friend Charlie, from Duluth. He’s a strong rider and fun person to be with. It made the experience memorable and Charlie topped it of by honouring me with 2 DBD patches at the end of the race. This is the world famous “death before dishonour” crew from Duluth and I am honoured that he bestowed one on me and one for my faithful manservant Andy Lockery. I’m home now and feel that I’m recovering nicely and ready to think about my next event. One funny reaction I’m dealing with is a slight feeling of guilt in that it wasn’t quite as hard as I had anticipated. However, I suppose last year’s race meant that I was owed an “easy” year so I’ll accept any kindness that the trail bestowed. I was racing this week in honour of my longtime cycling friend Marty Halprin. I borrowed one of his old wool jerseys (in this case a Salvarani pro jersey as worn by the winner of the 1965 Tour de France Felice Gimondi). It was warm and comfortable and more importantly it helped me to keep Marty’s memory with me along the trail. Just to serve notice Laverne, it felt so right that I’d like to keep it for my future adventures…..
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