Thursday, April 23, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 3

Another big gap between instalments. In the unlikely event that anyone is holding their breath - sorry. I've been looking for a new job, enjoying the dusty trails and still ploughing around on the Pugsley. My normal bike is just about ready to go again, but there was one more outing for the Pug this weekend. The Dyfi Enduro - short distance for an enduro, but it's all either up or down and the downs are fearsome. Fortunately, I didn't have to ride the bit that claimed some of my skin last year as another rider was spread across that bit of trail. I just helped him to his feet and was thankful to get through there unscathed. It's still my favourite "race" in the UK. You get the most technical course out there, bands, cheerleaders, a gorilla suit, and people riding all sorts from lightweight XC bikes to full on freeride. I had pretty good ride with the silly bike choice removing any pressure I may have put on myself. I tried to flow where I could on the descents, but fully rigid on trail that allows you to get a ton of speed before throwing up a pile of pointy off-camber rocks did force me to take things steady. And then at the end of it Nick Craig wanted a go on my bike. He lived up to his reputation of being about the nicest professional sportsman you could meet, which is always good to see. Some pics of the event here.

Back to Alaska..

At Puntilla, we heard that the lead group had already gone into Rainy Pass but no-one had heard from Bill Merchant for a few days. Bill was supposed to be breaking trail for us, so that was worrying. Fortunately, there wasn't much need to worry about Bill's safety - if anyone can look after themself out there, it's him. Given the lack of trail, the fact that I'd been tortoise/hare-ing with Billy for the whole way up to Puntilla, and that Billy's a fun guy to hang out with I decided to ride with him through the pass (Billy Koitzsch, not Bill Merchant. Too many Bills).

Billy, Rob, and myself set off into the darkness expecting to push a lot and probably bivvy before Rhone. We rode steadily to begin with - Billy's dynamo LED casting massive shadows despite our slow progress. Pretty soon, Rob dropped back. I wasn't too worried about letting him go, expecting another sneaky gear-related move from him later in the day. With relatively ride-able trails, my single gear necessitated that I move ahead of Billy. This was my first view of the tripod trail markers: 8ft high tripods made of large logs with reflectors on them. They gave us a rough path up the valley but it was another case of looking with your feet. This part of the trail had been bedded in so the trick was to search for relatively solid ground and use that. Bunched up together again, Billy and I would occasionally fan out to find something we could ride rather than needlessly hurting ourselves by pushing through deep snow only a few feet from the real trail.

I knew it was going to be pretty much uphill all day and looking out into the mountains, I tried to pick out where Rainy Pass lay. Unfortunately, the twists and turns of the trail made it hard to figure exactly where we were really headed. We whacked through the brush and frequently laughed our way through adversity. As we got closer to the mountains, though, the trail got hard to even push on. We were on a very recent snow machine track and our feet would frequently punch straight through, sinking to the knee. Having set ourselves mentally for this kind of treatment, we didn't mind. We just kept on plugging and resolved to have a hot lunch on the trail.

Whilst pushing our bikes kept us very warm, as soon as we stopped to get out the stoves, it was time for the serious clothing. In my puff trousers and down jacket, I was pretty toasty. It was a good feeling to be completely comfortable so far from civilisation and in such cold conditions. I had to be quick with fiddly tasks before getting my big gloves back on, but that was all. Our lunch stop was twice interrupted though - once by a former trail breaker (sorry - I forget your name) who was out to rescue Bill, and once by John Ross. John declined the invitation to join us for lunch... could he be racing again? :)

From the state of the trail and the information we'd learned from the trail breaker, it was clear we weren't going to be riding for a while. Billy took his pedals off to stop them from bashing into his legs as he pushed along the narrow trail, but I stubbornly carried on with mine. It would be more than a day before he'd put them back on. The trudge went on and on. We passed Bill's abandoned snow machine and carried on until we reached a frozen lake. I was looking with my feet again and the trail seemed to veer off to the right. I followed it, and I saw a snow machine approaching. It was Bill, with his rescuer. He told me that the snow was too deep and the light too flat to do much trail breaking. The snow machines just kept sinking and the flat light made it impossible to read the snow. From here there were untold miles before we'd see trail again. But, in the abandoned cabin by the lake Lou Kobin and Eric Warkentin had holed up to wait for the trail breakers.

The cabin had no roof, but Bill had christened it The Rainy Pass Hilton. It may not stop the snow, but the 4 walls did stop most of the wind. Billy and I headed up there to talk to Lou and Eric. We wanted to press on and bivvy in the pass, but after some wavering we decided to stay. We would head out as a group of 4 in the morning. Hanging out with them and Bill for the night seemed much more appealing than a storm-whipped bivvy in the unknown.

During the night Tim and Tom arrived. They are incredible walkers and were eating up the distance as we struggled with the deep snow. Bill must have recognised them - their arrival prompted some classic dry humour, "If you shine that light in my face, I'll shoot you!" It's a good job we all know him well enough to get the joke. As morning came, we all filled up with hot water and faffed. Even more snow had fallen and no-one was in a hurry to get out there.

Eventually we did, though and things soon became comically hard. I was at the front to begin with and thought I had taken a bad turn when the snow was knee deep. Leaving the bike for a moment, I tried some other directions: they were waist deep. We tried to guess which of the utterly exhausting directions would be the least gruelling, but it was impossible to tell. Each step would take tens of seconds as it would involve the same procedure: step forwards, sink (sometimes up to your waist), stumble, reach up to you bike (now above your head) and drag it forward a bit, climb out of the hole you're in, sink again. Just trying to progress at all once you'd sunk was like being in a children's ball pit. Everything you could reach would collapse under your weight.

We rotated like a peloton. Being at the back of the group was more like walking along a trench and much easier. And through it all, we had chat from biking stories to Napa Valley wine. Surreal, but it kept us going and it was particularly good for me to hear from the veterans that these conditions really were extraordinary. Every directional decision was tough. If we wanted to head for higher ground, it would take an age to get there and might not be any better than our current position. The only sure thing was that if we kept moving through the pass, eventually we'd come out.

As we got higher, the terrain got steeper but rockier. The wind was so strong into our backs that the hair exposed under the back of my hat froze solid. It felt pretty crazy, pretty epic, and pretty good to have this place and moment for ourselves. That was the high point, though. Sooner than we were ready, it was over the top and into more waist-deep slogging. Here, we were zig-zagging down the valley and in places we could see open water from the river. Getting wet, particularly on this section would have been seriously bad news so every crossing was tense. Thick willows forced us to keep doing it though, sometimes edging along a narrow ledge dragging/carrying our massive bikes. One memorable section had us 10 feet above the water on a scree slope with varying depths of snow. Each step could be shallow or deep, it could slip or hold and the way was too narrow for a bike to be anything but a clumsy anchor.

In my mind, I had hoped that we would be out of the pass by nightfall. The hours went by, though, and the sun dipped as we lifted and grunted our way through a maze of willows. And then, we could hear engines. The trail breakers had made it through to us. I was so relieved, I could hardly stand. Lou ran up and hugged the first snow machiner. The trail wouldn't be packed enough to ride until the night had frozen it, but at least we had something to follow.

So, it was back to sinking in the snow but now only up to our knees and with a straight line to follow. Moving at our own speeds, our little group broke up. Eric and Lou moved off ahead while Billy and I progressed more slowly. Darkness fell and we were still pushing. Hunger and tiredness were beginning to take their toll so I was swearing at everything: the snow, the dark, the stupid bike, and eventually at Billy stopping to put his pedals back on. At that point, it was definitely food time. I was hating my trail mix (yeah, Pete Basinger was right) and Billy was sick of sweet energy food. A quick food-trade had us both in a better mood for what turned out to be a long way to Rohn.

We saw the ghostly traces of the lead group who were still having to make their own trail at this point. Deep furrows through soft snow. I knew the pain involved in that kind of progress and could only marvel at how they'd pushed so far. Then as we finally got close, there was the first exposed ice. The wind had blow parts of the frozen lake clear and it was like entering a different world. The ever-present crunch of snow was gone, along with the accompanying drag. My light was much less effective as the black ice soaked it up, only the cracks showing up bright. Those cracks were re-assuring though, as they highlighted just how much ice there was underneath us. Tiredness, silence, legs used to a day of pushing, a slippery surface, and a heavily weighted front tyre made it a strange, beautiful experience.

Longer and longer we went, my strength dipping and Billy pulling ahead. Until, at last, I heard a whoop from him. We were at Rohn and had cracked the hardest part of the ride.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 2

It's beautiful and sunny in England at the moment and, due to my lack of other working bikes, I've been bulldozering around on the Pug. It was the North Downs yesterday for dusty trails and the constant accompaniment of people's muttered comments. Usually I'd be able to make out only a single word, "tyres", in the middle of whatever else they had to say. It's all good, though. Riding fully rigid (ok, fat tyre's worth of suspension) and flat pedals is helping me to flow with the trail.

Back to the story...

When I got up at Shell Lake, I notice a couple of changes to my physical conditions. First, my eye had sorted itself out - maybe it just needed some real sleep. Second my toes had come up in big yellow blisters. I knew that these weren't like normal blisters, but put some Compeed patches on anyway. They probably wouldn't do any harm and have always helped me with real blisters.

Patched up, it was a quick trip to the freezing outhouse (Puntilla has the best outhouse, but more on that later) before Rob and I set off for Winterlake Lodge. The lady at the bar had given us some directions the night before but all I could remember was that we would end up at some homesteader's place if we went wrong and it would cost us miles. You can probably see where this is going.

A funny thing about riding with Rob was that I warmed up much quicker than he did. So we set off together, and let our individual paces run their course - me leaving him behind for a few hours, then him catching me later in the day. The terrain was more flat tundra and straight lines but the trail conditions were pretty rideable so I set my mind to "mulling" and watched the relatively fresh bike tracks in front of me. Eventually, the trail split and I followed the tracks to the left.

The riding conditions got worse and I was having to use speed to keep me afloat on the narrow track of a snow-machine ski. It was exhausting and as I saw a "Private Property" sign, I began to wonder if it was all in vain. With tyre tracks still ahead of me, I decided to continue and find out where I'd get to. If I turned round now, I still wouldn't know which way was correct. When I saw a bike ahead, it seemed like good news until I could make out that it was heading straight towards me. This was the route to the homesteaders and some other racers had been there. So we set off back, a drop in the 350-mile ocean of the whole trail.

I saw Rob again as I backtracked and he was getting warmer but still not on a pace that we'd ride together so I plugged on alone. A few hours later, I came to another branch. This time I was going to make a decision not just unthinkingly follow the tyres. Checking my GPS, one direction was clearly right. As I wandered up the trail a bit (GPS can't tell which way you're facing unless you are moving) I saw promising looking tyre-tracks to confirm my decision. Before resuming, I paused for chocolate coffee beans and a wee break. The latter is not a simple thing in bib shorts and bib longs. You have to unhook them from your shoulders and still end up crouched over during the act. I still think it's worth it for the riding comfort, but it feels silly every time you have to go.

As I faffed, Rob caught me up. The cleat had come loose on his shoes so he couldn't unclip. We rode together for a bit but eventually his pedal troubles caused him to fall back. I knew it wasn't far to the checkpoint now and it was a great to joy to see across the last frozen lake up to the Winterlake Lodge. Such a joy, that I stopped to take the photo below (you'll have to look pretty close to see the buildings). And Rob nearly ran into the back of my. He'd snuck up with his sneaky gears as I was spinning out.

Lunch at Winterlake was amazing. Some kind of black bean plate with fried eggs - so good. And this was the first re-supply drop. I opened up my bag to see what Billy had packed for me. Lots of quaker oats bars, peanut butter ritz crackers, some soups and curries, hand-warmers, and a condom. Nice work Billy.

I wanted to make it to Puntilla that night so the stop at Winterlake was short. Just enough time to make sure Rob had his shoes sorted out and get my head together. I'd seen John Ross again and, I'll admit it - I wanted to beat the other English singlespeed rider. The next section of trail was even better than coming into Shell Lake. It twisted and flowed, and I twisted and flowed with it. I pumped the bike over little jumps, drifted round corners with both wheels sliding and one foot out. It took the slightest amounts of subtle braking to keep things going but the rewards were like riding the switchbacks at Afan. Fun and grins, and why can't this last forever? The last part of this section is (I think) known as the steps and got to the point where I was finding the trail steep for the conditions. I wonder at how a dog team can ever cope with this. All too soon it was over, though, and down onto a frozen lake. I saw Cory on his skis - I'd gained 10 minutes back on him pretty quickly which should have been a clue but I couldn't help asking how he'd enjoyed that last bit. Apparently, it's tough for skiers.

And then I saw the trail that took us up off the lake... So steep that it would take hands and feet to get up. It was maybe 12 feet up and I know I'm not that strong at anything but riding, so I stripped all my gear off the bike and threw it to the top. Then, bike on back, I climbed up the wobbly steep trail. I reloaded, had a snack and it was straight back to pushing. All the height I'd lost on the fun stuff would have be regained as we were heading for the Alaska Range. The pushing was a case of shoving the bike forwards, putting on the brakes, walking up to the bars, and shoving again. Repeat until the hill is over. I wasn't going to be catching Cory again for a while.

When the trail levelled out, the views into the mountains were spectacular. The sun shone down and the perfect air was a beautiful place to be. When I caught sight of John Ross off to the side of the trail, I was glad of someone to share it with. Just as I slowed down Rob nearly ran into the back of me. Once again, he'd snuck up on a flat bit of trail. The three of us were just happy and privileged to be out there. John even claimed to have given up on racing for position. The competitive streak in me told me two things... (1) Good, maybe that's my chance to beat him (2) He's a racer, he'll be back on it later.

Regardless, the three of us rode more-or-less together towards Puntilla. There was more of the narrow stuff, but this time John and I were floundering. There seemed to be even less grip and putting a foot down off the trail would result in sinking to knee or even thigh level. My riding was a bit slapstick, but it was still getting me closer.

The final hours into Puntilla were horrible. The twists of the trail were frustrating me again and I was mentally done for the day - walking sections that didn't need walking just because I was fried. Again, over-reliance on GPS made it worse. I could tell that I was at 90deg from where I wanted to go and the stupid damn trail wasn't going there. The drive to finish was there, though, and I kept moving however low I felt. As day turned to night, I got closer and closer. When I finally saw a head-torch bobbing around near the checkpoint I was ready to drop through the door. Fortunately, I composed myself at least a little before saying hi to the collection of racers inside...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 1

Wow, it's been a month now since I set off on my big adventure. Time's flown for various reasons but here it finally is: the first instalment of my Iditarod story...

Alaska is an amazingly beautiful place - just looking at it from the window of the plane filled me with excitement and anticipation. And, as before, my time there was filled with extraordinary people adding to the experience.

It seems wrong to call the Iditarod Invitational a race. Leading up to the event, it was "The Race" - needing no further qualification. During the adventure, though, thinking of it as a race tended to result in making stupid mistakes. So leave the racing to veteran nutters like Jeff Oatley. I'll probably keep using the word "race" by accident though :)

As I had said in earlier blog posts, the lead-up to the race was far from perfect but it was fantastic to meet some familiar faces at the Speedway Cycles pre-race party. Nerves and jet lag kept me from sleep the night before we started, though, and as I arrived at Knik, I felt numb and a little bit queasy. The sun shone down on us and the other racers seemed to be going through similar thoughts as we stuffed down a last fatty meal. A few tweaks to the bike and I was ready to say good-bye to Emily for a few days. There was, literally, a mountain to climb before I'd see her again.

Time unwound quickly and soon we were riding across the first frozen lake through an inch or two of snow. I tried to stay calm and settle into the ride. The trail helped by quickly becoming firm, swooping, packed snowmachine-singletrack. I chatted to John Ross and the time sped past in the sun. I was feeling overdressed and grateful for a bit of easy mileage.

There is no real set course for the race. There are checkpoints, and there is the Iditarod trail, but we don't have to follow it. This adds to the adventure but makes the first section from Knik to the Susitna river a confusing place for newbies... so John and I duly got lost. After a certain amount of casting around in knee-deep snow, we eventually made it to the river but south of where we wanted to be. Heading north, I could see other racers coming in along Flathorn Lake and saving miles compared to us. Doh! Thinking like it was a race, I upped the effort and soon the back of my jacket was a frozen sweaty husk. There was still a long was to Yentna Station.

A lot of the following section was very marginal riding. You'd progress a hundred metres, then sink into the snow. Casting around across a wide possibility of trails, I'd eventually settle on one and ride another hundred metres or so before sinking again. In the dim light of my head-torch this process went on and on. At least running into Billy was a nice diversion. He was setting a steady "Nome pace" so I said hi and carried on at my own (too fast) speed.

It was in this first section that I learned not to put too much stock in the GPS. Straight line distance to a checkpoint means nothing on a winding river, it just frustrates a tired body. The frequency of my stops increased the further I went and every time I saw a cabin I hoped it was the checkpoint. As the wind picked up, I stopped to swap my normal hat for the one with the pull-up balaclava bit. This simple task was complicated by only having one source of light - my head-torch - and that source being frozen to the hat. Finally, I swapped hats and was able to carry on. The sweaty first hat remained a frozen lump all the way to McGrath.

I was really struggling to set my mind to the speed that I was moving. Every GPS-led estimate of when I would arrive came and went. I wanted to stop, but that wouldn't help, so I carried on. I scolded myself for making promises to my body that I couldn't keep. Promises like, I'll be there in an hour. Eventually I accepted the one truth: if I keep moving I'll get there so keep moving. At around 2am I got there.

Yentna Station was the busiest checkpoint as the field had yet to spread out fully. I rolled up, signed in, and tried to stuff down food. My plan was to sleep for 4 hours and get back out there. So I set my soggy socks and shoes in front of the stove and went to try to sleep.

But sleep wasn't happening. Too much excitement, too many nerves, and my eye was itching, hurting, and watering. As the time came to get up I was glad to be "doing" instead of just lying there. By the time I reached the next checkpoint, I was bound to be so tired I'd sleep like the dead.

Heading downstairs, I found Jill Homer. She was hesitating to put any weight on her feet. Frostbite had got to them after overflow had doused them. I was too spaced out to talk to her properly, but I felt her pain and hoped that she would be able to continue. I gathered up my socks and shoes to find them soaked. They had been lying in a puddle while I'd been lying in bed. "Well, my boots are waterproof anyway so I'll just go," I thought. Mistake.

The word was that it was cold outside, but as I loaded up my bike it didn't seem too severe. Of course, the temperature on the river, in the wind, is a lot colder than up at the checkpoint but that didn't occur to me. I set off into (if anecdotes be true) -30C heading for Skwentna.

Now I was more attuned to things taking absolutely ages. Not quite zen yet, but I could at least appreciate the sunrise and the cold as I pedalled away. Occasionally my feet felt cold so I walked a bit. My eye was watering a lot and freezing up. But, on the whole, things were good. I was doing it, actually feeling like part of the event. At one point, I got off to walk and it felt like my toenail was being torn up by something. I took off my boots to check it out - the toe of my sock was frozen solid and the nail had been pushing against ice. I crunched it around and decided to ride as it was more comfortable. Mistake.

The rest of the ride to Skwentna was uneventful. Jay and Tracy Petervary overtook me; I chugged along. Eventually I reached what I expected to be the driveway for the checkpoint and turned in. No cabin in sight. In fact, it must have been a mile of extra riding through what would have been pleasant surroundings. Sadly, I was squinting at every tree, thinking it was a cabin in disguise. I still didn't have all the patience I would need, but eventually the checkpoint did come into view - heading inside I found a bunch of other racers...

It was great to see James Leavesley looking so cheerful and preparing to go even as I had only just arrived. Already, there were stories swapping around from the first day of travel and, even through my excessive tiredness, the glow of other people was as welcoming as the warmth of the stove. Which is not to exclude the warm welcome of Bonnie and her family into their home. They're lovely people!

It was still only about mid-day so my plan was to warm up, eat, and head on down the trail. As my feet warmed up, though, they started to burn. Taking off my socks, I saw that the flesh of both big toes had turned grey and I couldn't feel anything as I pressed concerned fingers into them. As other people noticed them, I was advised to massage them a bit and try to warm them up in front of the stove. This turned out to be something I could only do in short bursts as the warming hurt quite badly. Eventually, though, my toes felt a normal temperature (but still numb and grey) and I had eaten enough to relax a little. It was getting awfully tempting to sleep for a while.

After some near-dozing on the sofa I decided to head out and try to get to Shell Lake - halfway to the next real checkpoint, but somewhere we could sleep indoors. Rob May thinks I talked him into riding out with me... I'd say the mere suggestion of having someone heading out now was enough. Either way, we set of into the warm afternoon with dry clothes and full bellies.

The ride to Shell Lake was a revelation. Almost all of the pictures I have seen of the trail (including the ones I took) show a single straight like heading across flat tundra to infinity. In fact, there are long section of fun riding out there and the only explanations I can come up with for the lack of photos are: 1) We're having too much fun and making too good time to stop (2) If you want to see those fun bits, you'll have to go do it for yourself and earn them. So, Rob and I swooped along snow-machine singletrack under a golden afternoon sky. It was a breath of fresh air after so much slogging along frozen rivers. I had a chance to get out of the saddle and let the bike flow a little - a strange feeling indeed on such a weighty beast.

We talked about riding, racing, and training for the event and the miles slipped by easily. It almost felt like cheating, but I knew I had to sleep at Shell Lake and catch up on all the missed zzzs since leaving England. Rob was happy with that idea so we rode like a Sunday afternoon saunter until we could see the cabins ahead of us on the lake.

The bar at Shell Lake is a weird place. The kind of place you'd expect to see at the start of a horror movie, it was quiet and very slightly strange. I could just picture some horrible secret in the basement. That didn't stop me ordering food though. And here is one of the sad parts of my race - my bean soup had bits of sausage in it and I just ate up the lot. I could rationalise it by saying that it had already been cooked and probably would have been wasted anyway if I'd have sent it back. But the truth is that it was expensive, I was hungry, and the only alternative was my own food so I just didn't care.

Sleep here was the best I'd had in a long while. I don't recall how long I was out... Maybe 6 hours. But It was perfect and I woke ready to take on the next stage of the adventure...