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Monday, April 9

Iditarod Trail Invitational - Conclusions

This is athlete Dennis Staley's report from his trip to Alaska for the Iditarod Trail Invitational 130 Fat Bike Race. I've broken the report up in to 4 parts for easier reading.

2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational: A Race Report by Dennis Staley
WARNING: This report is long-winded, contains typos, and is likely to be quite uninteresting to anyone other than my Mom. And even she might get bored
 
Dénouement: Winter Lake to Anchorage
Upon reaching the finish line I checked my Garmin InReach Satellite Messenger, to find a message from Tracy Thelen, my MTB coach, congratulating me for finishing and informing me that I was the first 130 mile racer to reach Winter Lake Lodge. That was a pretty sweet message to receive, and in all my eloquence all I could come up with for a response was “holy shit."
 
The racer accommodations at Winter Lake Lodge consisted of a crowded, wall-tent with a small woodstove as the sleeping space, with a makeshift port-a-potty behind it. I stashed my bike near the main lodge. We were only allowed into the commercial kitchen. Looking forward to getting out of the wind, I proceeded inside, immediately removing my boots and washing my hands per explicit pre-race instruction. Everyone was super-friendly, and in quick order I had a beer and burrito in front of me. Jill and Kim were finishing up their food when I arrived, and we were all happy to be out of the wind and sharing our stories of the previous 7 miles of trail. I was able to send out messages via my satellite messenger letting family and friend know I'd finished. Apparently I didn't need to do this, as my wife Kim, my sister, my Mom and Dad, and several friends had been watching my blue flag on the Trackleaders site. They knew I had won before I did! Ben Pysto walked in about 30 minutes after I sat down to eat, and Pam Todd was not too far behind him.
 
The rest is a bit of a blur. I retired to the sleeping tent, where I found a spot underneath the sign-in table to unpack my sleeping bag. I crawled in and fell into a surprisingly good night’s sleep, waking only occasionally as the 350 mile racers departed for Puntilla. At one point I recognized Kim Riggs, and gave her a thumbs up, psychically wishing her good luck for the remainder of her race.
 
Around 7:30 the next morning I woke up and headed up to the Lodge to inquire about the status of the flight back to Anchorage. The volunteer reported that a plane would be arriving around 10AM, and since I had arrived first that I would have first-dibs on a seat. I slowly ate my breakfast (so that they wouldn’t throw me out of the kitchen), and then headed back out to repack my bags and prepare for the flight. Pam and I also took pictures of each other at the finish line, as it was far too windy, cold, and dark to do so the previous evening. Around 9:45 AM, we pushed our bikes to the end of the runway and awaited the bush plane back to Anchorage. Shortly thereafter we were on the plane, and about an hour later we were safely back in the city.

Yes, even the bikes fit on that tiny plane!
Conclusions
It’s hard to sum up the experience. This was the craziest, most fun, and most surprising athletic experience of my life. I enjoyed every second of the race. It was truly a privilege to line up at the start with some of the finest winter endurance athletes in the world, and even better getting to know them over the next 130 miles. The race organizers, volunteers, and local residents who let us invade their homes and businesses were a huge part of making this experience so enjoyable.
 
In the hours following finishing, there was no chance in hell that I wanted to participate in the 350, even though I had earned an automatic qualification in a future year by winning the 130 mile race. After 24 hours, I thought “hmmm, maybe…”  Now, a couple weeks later, my legs are fresh and my saddle sores have healed, and I can’t stop thinking about getting back to Alaska and riding to McGrath. I may be thousands of miles away from that thin white line in Alaska, but my thoughts are never far from the Iditarod Trail.
 
I’m 41, have a fake hip, and you never know what curveballs life will throw at you. But I am hopeful that I’ll be back in 2 years to test my mettle in the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile race. Bill Merchant has been quoted saying: “We go into the Alaskan backcountry to find cracks in ourselves. We go back a year later to see if we've done anything about them.”  I certainly found many cracks on the snowy trail between Knik Lake and Finger Lake. With a little luck and a lot of training over the next two years, I’ll figure out what I’ve done about them, and hopefully will discover a few more on the trail to McGrath.


Answers to questions I had before the race:
Judd Rohwer, who had completed the 350 the prior year, was kind enough to answer some questions I had prior to the race. In order to keep the experience more of an adventure, I did not want to ask too many questions. But, there were two specific questions I had that would better inform my decision-making process for packing and planning. I’ll provide my answers (not Judd’s) to my questions, based on my experiences, below.
 
1) How hard is the route finding?
Route finding was surprisingly easy, even after the weather took a turn for the worse. The route was pretty obvious leading up to Flathorn Lake with the exception of the Y on the snowmobile trail at mile 21.5. There were spectators on fatbikes who were very helpful in pointing out the correct trail. Even if I had proceeded down the wrong branch, I would have discovered my mistake quickly based on the GPS track.
 
On the river the trail was easy to follow. There were stakes that loosely defined the route, and kept riders away from open water (Cindee at King Bear Lodge said that the snowmobilers maintain those stakes with changing river conditions). Judd’s tip about the “Y’ at mile 34.5 (bear right) certainly saved some hand-wringing and stress. All of the checkpoints and unofficial stops were very obvious, as was the trail between Skwentna and Shell Lake Lodge. After Shell Lake the trail was a bit more “rustic,” though there were often stakes in areas where it could get confusing. These stakes were helpful during the brief heavy snow squall and the ground blizzard. At no point in the 130-mile distance did I feel lost.
 
2) Is food/water available at the checkpoints all day/night?
I arrived at Yentna Station at 12:30AM and there were people making grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, and water (hot and cold) were both available. The “trail angel” at King Bear Lodge was awake and serving breakfast at 8:30AM. Pam Todd bivied a few hundred yards from King Bear Lodge because she arrived around 4am, and it did not appear that anyone was stirring. I arrived at Skwentna and Shell Lake during the day, and both were fully operational. We were told at the pre-race meeting that the hours at Shell Lake Lodge were 9am – 8pm. Winter Lake Lodge was running 24 hours per day, but they powered down around 10pm, so I’m not sure if they were cooking or not. Beverages and hot/cold water were available, and racers received one free burrito. I ate my free burrito just after finishing (around 8pm), and then I purchased a breakfast burrito in the morning.
 
Sleeping arrangements were available at Yentna Station, Skwentna Roadhouse, and Winter Lake Lodge. Yentna was $21 for half a bed. I think Swentna was around $60, and the tent at Winter Lake Lodge was free. If you wanted a cabin, you’d have to reserve it well in advance and cough up around $2500 per person, minimum 2 people…
 
3) Other things a rookie should be aware of, without spoiling the adventure?
Bring cash. Approximate costs were as follows:
- Yentna Station: grilled cheese, soup, and coke = $14. Bed = $21. Grilled Cheese and coffee = $12. I also tipped $10.
- King Bear Lodge “Trail Angel”: food and beverage were free, but she wanted a hug, me to sign the guestbook, and a tip. I tipped $20
- Skwentna Road House: plate of spaghetti and coke = $28. I tipped $12.
- Shell Lake Lodge: I did not eat, but food was available for purchase. I do not know the cost. I filled a Wampak with water for free, but tipped $5.
- Winter Lake Lodge: First meal is free. Second meal was $12. I also bought a coke ($4) and a beer ($7 or $8), and tipped $20. Flight from Winter Lake to Anchorage was free for 130 mile racers.
 
What worked?
(Tracy's note - I always encourage my athletes to sit down after the race to look at what worked, what we need to improve and what went wrong. It's a great way to learn from a race, even a successful race like this.)
 
  • I had an amazing amount of support at home. Even during her illness, my wife was incredible in her encouragement of this undertaking. Not to mention her good humor in dealing with all the weird stuff I did preparing for this race. (Leaving a perfectly good warm house to ride in horrible weather and sleep outside, testing headlights in the freezer and then all the gear purchases and returns...) Without her buy-in and unwavering confidence in my, there was no way I would have been able to pull this off. My mother-in-law who had traveled to AK to spend time with her daughter while I was racing was there to help me talk through the pre-race decision of even making it to the starting line or to go home. She also made sure I was very well fed before the race. In addition, I had a ton of support from my parents, co-workers and friends. And of course, then group of Gilpin County crazies who like riding bikes in the snow, wind and cold and made some of the lower points during training both bearable and fun.
  • I was lucky. I managed not to get bogged down in the storm by staying right at its leading edge. The trail conditions I experienced were way better than it was for the folks who were only a few hours behind me.
  •  I was able to keep myself in a very good mental place throughout the race. At no point did I think about quitting. I did have a few low moments on the river, which were “cured” with some hydration and snacks. I need to remember that when I start feeling down, or questioning why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing, it means my blood sugar is low and I need to eat and drink. This was a valuable lesson learned during long solo training rides in the dark and cold Leadville winter night.
  •  I like committing races. It was really, really expensive to bail, with the flight out of Yentna around $250. That’s plenty of motivation for me to keep pedaling. I’d rather buy bike stuff.
  •  Tracy put together an amazing training plan that got me in the best shape of my life. Long training rides, lots of intervals on gently inclined trails and the pavement on Lookout Mtn, double sessions, strength training and stretching, tempo walks with a full pack. I’d walk on hot coals now if that’s what Tracy put on the training calendar.
  •  Long Leadville rides the night before grooming (they groom on Tuesday and Friday mornings, so I on Thursday nights). This was good preparation for the various snowmobile trails that compose the Iditarod Trail.
  • Practice bivys and stopping on shorter training rides to unpack/repack the gear, and stove practice. This got me comfortable with my gear, my ability to quickly pack and unpack without getting cold, and confidence that I could survive a cold bivy without too much discomfort.
  • Shitty snow conditions at home. Brainard Lake hike-a-fatbike, Golden Gate tech, in the snow, on studded tires, and generally crappy Gilpin County snow conditions and wind. These prepared me mentally for slow slogs, and improved my bike handling in soft conditions, and got me used to cold headwinds. The snow conditions on the Iditarod Trail (at least the part I rode) were an improvement over much of what I experienced on my training rides.
  • Training at high elevation, on steep terrain. This made the flat, sea-level trail feel relatively easy.
  • Sound advice from Tracy for the past several months, followed up by a last-minute, strongly worded text the day before the race that honed my focus and desire to complete the race when I was still debating if I should scratch to go home and take care of Kim: “You MUST be able to focus on the race. From the time it starts until the time you reach the finish. Will you be able to do that?”  And then another one that helped me clear my head and distill things down to the basics: “Ride your bike. Be smart. Have fun. Enjoy the experience.”
  • Garmin Satellite Messenger. It was awesome to be able to check in with friends and family. I only sent a few texts from it because I didn’t want to stop for the entire second day, but it was really great to get some messages of encouragement. I think it also relieved some of the dot-watching stress on my Mom and Dad, as I was able to let them know that everything was fine, I was just stopping for food or a nap. Also, I received a text from an undisclosed source on Monday morning telling me I was in second place. This lit a fire under my ass and gave me the motivation to push a little harder and maybe even win the 130.
  • AA Batteries. It was really nice to have a GPS and headlamp that uses AA batteries. My satellite messenger uses rechargeable USB, so I only had to bring along a single backup USB battery pack, which would be sufficient for over a week of messenger use. I had plenty of spare AA batteries with me for lighting and navigation.
  • Revelate Designs. I absolutely loved every piece of gear of theirs, with the exception of wishing the framebag had a bit more capacity. It doesn’t quite fill up the entire triangle, and could be a bit wider without causing any trouble. I might go with a custom bag for the next race.
 
What didn’t work or could be tweaked?
(Tracy's note - this is the important part of a post race review. While race conditions will never be the same again, it's vital to learn from any small errors or miscalculations. Even if it's something that the athlete can't control, we can learn to manage it better.)
  • Upper body layering could use improvement. This system worked well in training, but the race was a lot more humid that what is typical in Colorado. I’m wondering if I could replace part or all of the vest/windshirt/nano-air with a nice breathable but warm softshell. If it works, this would reduce the amount of stuff I was carrying and hopefully add a bit more weather-resistance when it’s snowing lightly.
  • Bring my good bike shorts WITH ME next time. These stayed in Kim’s suitcase, which stayed in Colorado. My ass was killing me by the end, and did not heal up for a week afterward.
  • I have never had chafing issues until this race. I need to figure out a better personal care / skin care system before the 350.
  • No need for a light on the bicycle, an AA battery powered headlamp is perfectly adequate. I never turned my bar-mounted light on.
  • Socks: I think I’d be better off with a liner sock, a VBL, a thick sock (but not as thick as the one I was wearing), and then the insulated RBH socks. I still have plenty of room in the boot even with the extra VBL.
  • I brought way too much food, though I suppose it would be singing a different tune had the weather turned for the worse. Even so, I could have gotten away with a single freeze-dried meal and no gel. I tried one gel and it was really unappealing in the temperatures that I experienced.
  • I would probably get a really big, warm, but light and packable pair of mittens and only bring those, and then bring 1 warmer pair of gloves, and a pair of 3-season mtb gloves. Regular mtb gloves might not be warm enough, even with pogies, for the trail after Winter Lake as my hands got pretty cold approaching the finish.
  • I might want to replace the buff with a neoprene face mask
  • My goggles were too dark. I knew this going in, but didn’t have the $ for a new pair. I’ll be keeping an eye on sales.
  • I’d like to get rid of the glorified stuff sack on my back, and be more efficient in packing. I think a bigger frame bag and two fork-mounted bags would work great. This seemed to be a standard setup. I’d also use my Revelate Pocket. I took this off because it interferes with my bar mounted light, but I will only be using a headlamp next time. This might not work for races that involve more singletrack where I might want to use my bar mounted light.
  • I’ll need more than just junk food for when I’m on the trail for a week. More experimentation with real food that works in the cold is in order.
Flying over the river where the course traverses - look closely for the tire tracks!

 
Quotes (as best as I can remember them…):
“Miller lite, please” –Tedd Rowher, fellow 130 racer, at the Knik Bar, 1 hour before race start.
“You are off course!!!” –Text from my mother-in-law, sent when the bikers took the shortcut to the road. Sent to my phone, which I would not see until I had coverage again 2 days later, in Anchorage.
“We wouldn’t listen to a health inspector anyways.” –Purveyor of Yentna Station, when I questioned the health implications of letting me (a smelly racer) dump out my water in the sink that was in the kitchen where they were preparing food for the lodge guests.
 “I’d rather it was dark. I don’t like being able to see where I’m going to be in 2 hours” –Chet Fehrmann, when discussing benefits of day vs night for lakes, swamps, and long straightaways.
“You’re an asshole” –Pam Todd, upon our reunion in Skewnta. At this point she still thought I knowingly blew by her without stopping to answer a question. We became friends again after my most sincere apologies and explanation of what happened.
“Don’t pee by the trail. It offends the guests.” –Worker at Winter Lake Lodge, moments before his two dogs peed* right by the trail. *Note: the pee marks were all dog-d**k in height.
“Wooohooo!” –Jill Martindale, passing me at 4am in a snowstorm on the Yentna River. That pretty much sums it up.

Saturday, April 7

Iditarod Trail Invitational Part 3 - To the Finish

This is athlete Dennis Staley's report from his trip to Alaska for the Iditarod Trail Invitational 130 Fat Bike Race. I've broken the report up in to 4 parts for easier reading.

Skwentna Roadhouse
A few hours later I saw the sign indicating the turn off the river for the second checkpoint. Expecting the roadhouse to be situated just off of the river, I was a bit perplexed to have several minutes of riding through the trees on a snowmobile trail. Fortunately, the trail was well-packed and fun, and the break from the monotony of the river was a nice change of pace. Finally, I rolled up to Skwentna, mile 85.2 (mile 90 in the race materials), around 11:30 AM.

The Skwentna Roadhouse offered a warm fire, ample seating, and some expensive but delicious spaghetti. A mere $25 got me a big plate of carbs and protein, which I polished off quickly. The same cast of characters occupied the checkpoint: Jill and Kim were eating and drying clothing by the fire. Pam arrived shortly after me, and relayed the story about her bivy and our “conversation” that didn’t happen. I could tell she was pretty annoyed with me (I swear I didn’t hear her!), but after more chatting and joking I think I assured her I hadn't intentionally continued down the trail without stopping. Some more conversation and we ended up as friendly rivals, and agreed to make the remaining ~35 miles a real race. We were the first two 130 racers to arrive at Skwentna. Jill and Kim left a few minutes before me, and Ben and Chet arrived as I was bundling up. We all wished each other well, and hoped for continued luck and good weather on the trail ahead.

Skwentna to Shell Lake
I departed Skwentna under clearing skies, comfortable temperature (maybe 15F), and decent trail conditions. The next unofficial stop (it wasn’t a checkpoint) was ~15 miles away at the Shell Lake Lodge. I was feeling really good at this point. A quick status check indicated that all systems were fully in the green:  Legs, good. Lungs, good. Heart rate was safely in zone 2/3. I was getting plenty of calories and fluids. Body temperature was good, and clothing was dry.

I knew I was few minutes ahead of Pam at this point, but unsure where the other 130 riders were on the trail. I decided to up the pace a bit, and see if anyone that I didn't recognize caught up. So far, everyone else I had met on the trail was in the 350. After a few long open straightaways the trail entered the trees. I paused right at the treeline to look back and to try and spot riders behind me. I could see Pam’s green jacket about a mile or two back, and no other rider behind her. So, I popped two snickers and rode off into the trees, beginning the most fun section of trail along the entire 130 mile route.

The trail started up a relatively steep and narrow but well-packed trail into the Shell hills. The  next two miles or so were steady climbing. I rode most of it, but opted to hike-a-bike some of the steeper sections to conserve energy. Whenever I jumped off the bike I would grab a quick snack and a few gulps of water or Tailwind. Finally I reached the top of the climb. The trail then traversed along the contour line for about a mile. This pretty stretch of trail, reminiscent of Colorado, ended with a fun, albeit way too short, descent to Shell Lake. This section of the trail, which was maybe a ½ of a mile, was the only sustained coasting for the entirety of the route.

Upon reaching the bottom of the downhill, I “sped” across Shell Lake (can you call 6 mph “speeding”?), feeling great. At this point I decided to forgo any food purchase at the Shell Lake Lodge. I would only stop to refill my Wampak with water and Tailwind as well as toss some of the trash I had accumulated. I would push through to the finish at Winter Lake Lodge, 22 miles further down the trail. I arrived at the Shell Lake Lodge, mile 101.2 (mile 110 in the race material) at 3:15 PM AKST. Jill and Kim were departing for Finger Lake as I pulled up.

Shell Lake to Winter Lake Lodge at Finger Lake and the 130-mile Finish Line
Pam rolled up just as I walked out the door of the lodge. There were no other riders in sight on the lake crossing behind here. I told her I'd decided not to stop, and embarked on the final stretch of trail. Departing Shell Lake, I was pretty sure that I was still in first place (unless the sign-in sheet at Skewntna was wrong or someone blew by the checkpoint), and a previously unknown part of my personality emerged: a bike “racer”…

Another systems check –all systems go—and I decided to go for it and try to get the win. I don’t recall much from the first few miles, except a few random thoughts and period system checks. The thoughts included: “This is going to hurt, almost certainly more than you’ve ever hurt during a ride,” “Keep eating and drinking, and be sure that your Wampak valve doesn’t freeze,” “it’s OK if someone passes you, you’ve had a really solid ride,” and finally “you’re in the middle of nowhere at the foot of the Alaska Range, and it’s cold. Don’t do anything stupid.”  I kept a pace that was just slightly less than moderate, with a high RPM and relatively low damage to my leg muscles. Hard enough to move fairly quickly, but not quite hard enough to start sweating and breathing heavily.

After a short distance I exited the trees and the trail emerged onto the first of an endless series of zig-zag swamps. Trail conditions had deteriorated at this point, with plenty of soft and drifted snow. I could see Jill and Kim's tire tracks - they were probably about 10 minutes ahead of me. Both of them seemed to be riding well, no evidence of any snow angels or dabs. Then after a few miles, a squall popped up. Full-whiteout. I could barely discern the tire tracks, and had trouble staying on the firmer part of the trail. Fortunately there were stakes marking the trail about every 100 yards through this section. I continued pedaling at a sustainable, yet quickening pace. Another systems check: legs, lungs and heart good. Gearing appropriate. Clothing dry. Then onto body maintenance check: Eat something. Drink something. Shit, my bite valve was frozen!  A stupid rookie mistake that might have been costly. With increasing distress, I started softly chewing on the valve in attempt to free the flow of liquid. After a nervous minute or two the blockage was cleared, and a calorie dense mix of water and Tailwind (5 individual packets in 2.5 liters of water) was flowing freely again.

The snow squall cleared and the skies were sunny once again. The trail was soft but rideable, and so I proceeded onward through a series of linear swamps separated by short portage climbs. Most of these climbs were rideable, but some of them involved a minute worth of hike-a-bike. Anytime I got off the bike I also made sure to grab a quick snack. At this point I broke out the secret food weapon: an espresso and dark chocolate Ritter Sport Bar. These things are super calorie dense (600+ calories per bar!!!) and had a nice amount of caffeine in them for a little perk.

I was making pretty good time, a little over 5 mph, and was gradually reeling in Jill Martindale, who was in eyeshot for the remainder of the race. A couple times I got within a few hundred feet of her, but would drop the front wheel off of the firm part of the trail, or some other mistake. This repeated for swamp after swamp after swamp. At some point I began the tortuous process of GPS watching for the first time since the race started. The mileage count crept upwards at a painfully slow rate, compounded by the fact that my GPS no longer reported tenths of miles after hitting 100. After what seemed like days, I reached mile 115. At this point I knew the finish was less than 10 miles away, since the course was less than 130 miles. I just didn't know how much less. With renewed vigor, I shifted up and started pedaling a bit harder, thinking I’d be finished in less than two hours and could finish with daylight in the sky. I should have remembered the lesson learned earlier at Flathorn Lake...

As I turned the corner from one of the zigzags onto a frozen pond, Jill Martindale was a few hundred yards ahead of me. She was in the process of extricating herself from a snowbank. I realized this was an ominous sign, as she is a strong rider with excellent technical skills and bikehandling abilities. Seconds later I got hit by the first (of many) wind gusts. I’m guessing it was 30 mph and directly in my face. I was pushed off the six-inch wide packed path and put foot down in knee deep snow.  The Iditarod Trail was not going to let me off without one more kick in the teeth.

A few minutes later and my hope of arriving at the finish line before dark completely evaporated. The never-ending series of zigzags, portage climbs, and swamps were now accompanied by a strong headwind and ground-blizzard conditions. While the temperature was pretty moderate (a bit below 10 degrees according to the$3 thermometer attached to my pogies), the wind was pretty fierce, adding a sharp bite to the cold. Living in Gilpin County, high in the Colorado Front Range, you have to get used to high winds and cold or  you’d never go outside in the winter. So, I told myself, “this is nothing you haven’t experienced before, and you are less than 10 miles from finishing, and maybe even winning, the 130 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational. HTFU!”  I tucked my head into the wind, battened down the hatches, and started pushing the bike as fast as possible. I could manage quick sips of Tailwind during the short lulls in the wind but it was just too windy for any other stops or snacks.

Jill was back in sight, and she was still having difficulty staying upright. I saw she had ridden a 200-ish yard section of trail, so I thought I’d give it a shot, too. After a mere 20 feet, my front wheel got sucked into one of the drifts and I was face-down in the snow. It turns out that blizzards are even worse at 6 inches off the ground than they are at 6 feet off the ground. So I decided that pushing was the name of the game.

More swamps. And then even more swamps. Darkness fell, and I had to stop to put on my headlamp. Immediately my pinky finger on my right hand went numb from the cold, so I upped the pace (to a lightning fast 2.9 mph!) in order to get the blood flowing back to my extremities. After a few minutes the feeling returned to my finger, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally I worked my way around a small rocky knob to the north. Winter Lake lodge was just a short distance away. The wind increased as I turned the corner towards the lake and finish line, howling perpendicular to the trail instead of directly in my face. All thoughts of riding disappeared at this point. I was merely trying to keep moving.

Another couple of twists and turns, and I arrived at what appeared to be a fairly large lake. I hoped it was the final crossing since the other side was obscured by blowing snow. The backlight on my GPS was off, and I wasn’t about to take my hand out of my pogie to click a button and turn it on. I was flying blind at this point, with the trail marking stakes and Jill's headlamp the only things guiding me. I proceeded about a hundred yards onto the lake and there was a lull in the wind. Christmas lights twinkled into view and the sound of a dog barking drifted across the snow. Winter Lake Lodge and the finish line were less than ¼ of a mile away! At this point I succumbed to the urge I'd been resisting to look behind me for headlamps. Nothing. Assuming that the sign-in sheet at Skwentna was correct, I was going to win this thing!  A few moments later I passed a sign indicating that the 130 mile finish line was straight ahead, though the lodge had vanished into the blowing snow.

At 7:42 PM AKST, 29 hours and 42 minutes after the start gun went off, I crossed the finish line –ignominiously pushing, not riding— at mile 122.5. Unsure of this at the time, it turned out that I was the first of the nine 130 mile distance racers (5 on bike, 4 on foot) to reach Winter Lake Lodge.
 
 
Post finish photo - it was too dark and windy for a proper finish photo!

Thursday, April 5

Iditarod Trail Invitational Part 2 - Yentna to Skwentna

This is athlete Dennis Staley's report from his trip to Alaska for the Iditarod Trail Invitational 130 Fat Bike Race. I've broken the report up in to 4 parts for easier reading.

Yentna Station
Entering Yentna Station was a bit of a temperature shock, as fire was roaring in the woodstove at the entryway. There was a place near the fire to warm boots and clotheslines above to dry clothing. I ordered a grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup, and coca-cola (the only time I ever drink soda is on 50+ mile rides…) for a grand total of $14, and left a $6 tip. After ordering, I chatted with Pam. She conveyed her intention to continue riding though the night until reaching the “Trail Angel,” King Bear Lodge at mile ~77 before stopping for a nap. I briefly considered doing the same, but was concerned they would close up shop for the night and I'd be forced to bivy after a long day. Instead of chancing it, I decided to be safe and sleep at Yentna. Plus, I was plenty tired and helpless to resist the tidal pull of a warm fire and a quick nap.

After eating, another $21 got me a queen bed upstairs in room #2. I could have paid slightly less for a single bed in the bunkhouse, but I think I would have had to extract my sleeping bag for that option. I figured I wouldn’t be sleeping long, so I opted for the upstairs room. Unbeknownst to me at the time of the financial transaction, it was only half of the bed I was getting for that price. I ended up sharing with Tab Ballantyne.

But sharing a bed with Tab was not even the weirdest part of the Yentna Station story. After about 1.5 hours of sleep, the sounds of singing roused me from sleep. Image for a moment if you will, grizzled mountain men discussing the beloved classic Mary Poppins. Now image this image from a sleep deprived state in a strange bed in the middle of Alaska... I woke to the television blaring the recent version of Mary Poppins at maximum volume. In addition to the TV, there was an animated debate between roadhouse purveyors on the merits of the “remake” versus the original movie. Realizing there would be no more sleep for me that night, I got out of bed and started preparing myself mentally for a long day ahead.

Downstairs, I ordered another grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. Jill Martindale was preparing to head out and I chatted with her while breakfast was cooking. Dan Mutz had just arrived at Yentna and was dozing on the couch while waiting for his food. I tried to convince him to take my spot in the bed upstairs. My sleep-deprived brain thought it would be the pinnacle of humor for Tab to go to sleep with one stranger in bed with him, and wake up with a different stranger. I don’t know how my attempt at humor fared, as I never saw Tab or Dan again.

As we were gearing up, Jill and I were warned that there was a pretty good snowstorm on the way. A few other experienced racers were beginning to stir, and would be traveling on the river a little after me. There was also the “Trail Angel” stop 17 miles away that I would hit after daybreak, so I decided to chance it and get moving before the storm got ramped up. This ended up being a good decision, as trail conditions deteriorated rapidly behind me. Several racers ended up having to sit tight at Yentna until conditions improved.

Yentna Station to “Trail Angel” at King Bear Lodge
Next up was the 17 mile section of the Yentna River between the roadhouse and the “Trail Angel,” who was rumored to have hot and cold water, beverages, and food available for purchase. The first couple of miles were uneventful. The weather was cold, and it was alternating between a light and moderate snow. The tracks of the racers ahead of me were almost obscured by the snow from the previous hours. Route finding was still straightforward (just stay on the river!), but it was a challenge finding the more-packed part of the trail without the assistance of other bikers’ tire tracks. Several times I ended up hopping off my bike to push through knee-deep snow, hoping another track on the river would have firmer snow beneath the fresh powder.

At this point I was feeling good, and was so far pleased with my race for several reasons. First, I was happy I'd gotten up and out of Yentna before the storm. Mary Poppins had prevented me from falling into a checkpoint lethargy that could have consumed lots of time. Trail conditions were currently absolutely fantastic. The cold temps and light snow was a nice combination, which resulted in a firm riding surface on the right track. Second, I was 55 miles into the race, and actually AHEAD of Jill Martindale. Jill is a sponsored rider and one of the nicest racers that I have ever met. She was also coming off a win in the Women’s division of the 2018 Arrowhead 135. Of course, Jill is a much stronger rider than I am and wasn't competing with me. She was pacing herself for 350 miles and not 130, and was bound to catch up and pass me at any moment. So I knew that I wasn’t really “faster” than her at all, but still, it was pretty damn cool to actually be in front of a well-respected sponsored rider, for at least a little while.

Sure enough, Jill whizzed by me about 15 minutes outside of Yentna, cheerily encouraging me onward, and hooting about how great trail conditions were this morning. This small moment of camaraderie in the dark and cold gave me a nice boost, both mentally and physically, which lasted pretty much all day long.

I was able to maintain a steady rhythm until daybreak, although I did experience my only mechanical issue for the entire event. Apparently my seatpost collar wasn’t up to the task of keeping my seatpost in place in the cold. Every mile or so, I would begin to feel strain on the tops of my kneecaps, and I would have to stop and raise my saddle up a bit. I was worried about stripping the bolt head, so I probably wasn’t tightening the clamp to the specified torque. And so the pattern repeated every mile until after daybreak. While it was mildly annoying to have to stop, it wasn’t all bad. I would force myself to eat a snack (fig newtons, oreos, snickers or a peanut butter cup) and have a few gulps of Tailwind at each pause. I think ultimately this pattern benfited me later in the day, as I was able to stockpile some calories and maintain a good level of hydration and electrolytes.

Daylight broke after a few hours of this routine, right around the time I caught up to Chet Fehrmann, one of two skiers in the 350. Chet was skate skiing and dragging a loaded sled at a constant, steady pace. He seemed to be well into the zone, so we merely said hello and rolled along at our separate paces. Shortly thereafter I arrived at the King Bear Lodge, mile 74.5 (listed as mile 77 in the race info) around 8:30 AM AKST.

King Bear Lodge to Skwentna
This was the kind of place that restore's one’s faith in humanity. King Bear Lodge was a tiny, warm oasis in the middle of a cold wilderness, open to racers solely because of the kindness of the owners. As soon as I walked in, Cindee offered up a huge menu of food and drink, almost too many options for my cold and sleepy brain. I decided upon a plate of scrambled eggs, some toast, and a couple of cups of hot coffee. I shared the warm and friendly confines with Jill Martindale, Kim Riggs, Steve Cannon and Ben Pysto. Everyone was incredibly nice, and conversation was cheerful and unforced, with lots of laughter. Kim and Jill left first, with me a few minutes behind. This was the pattern repeated at checkpoints for the remainder of the 130 mile race.

I saw Pam Todd about 100 yards up the rail from the Lodge. We both said “hi,” and then I started pedaling upriver towards Skwentna. It turns out (I learned this when we met up at the next checkpoint) Pam hadn't been sure if the Lodge was open when she arrived few hours earlier, and had chosen to bivy outside instead. Furthermore, Pam had wanted me to stop to ask if the Lodge was open and if food was available. Between the combination of my wind-blocking (and noise-blocking) doubled-up hats and balaclava, and the noise from the big tires on the snow, I didn't hear her and so kept pedaling. After learning about this, I felt incredibly guilty (I still feel guilty!), so I bought her a beer at Winter Lake Lodge after we both finished.

It was snowing lightly and the trail was a bit soft but in decent shape. Fortunately the temperature started rising, and my seatpost collar stopped slipping. After a few miles I caught up to Chet, and this time we chatted for a bit. Chet had not stopped for more than a few minutes since the race began almost 20 hours previous. He'd blown through the breakfast stop at the King Bear Lodge. He said he was feeling good, but tired, and that conditions were pretty tough for skiing. He could have fooled me, as he looked very strong and had a great rhythm going. And again, I felt incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to get to know an incredibly strong athlete, and more importantly a very kind person, on the frozen river in the middle of nowhere. While I’m normally not much of a social person, I will always remember and cherish these small moments of camaraderie amongst us racers.
To be continued

Tuesday, April 3

Iditarod Trail Invitational Part 1 - Start to Yentna Station

This is athlete Dennis Staley's report from his trip to Alaska for the Iditarod Trail Invitational 130 Fat Bike Race. I've broken the report up in to 4 parts for easier reading.

2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational: A Race Report by Dennis Staley
Prologue: At the starting line
Five minutes before the gun went off, something strange happened. I realized that I was stress-free and calm. Just 30 minutes ago, I was sitting in the Knik Bar forcing down a hamburger, and hardly able to hold a conversation because of pre-race nerves and fear of the unknown, as well as the anticipation of the suffering to be endured for an unknown period of time. Normally I’m a nervous wreck before a race, unsure if I’ll even be able to start pedaling. The thought of  steering my bike through the inevitable chaos of the opening-minutes terrifies me. Before the start of the Leadville 100 in both 2015 and 2016, and Vapor Trail in 2017, my heart rate monitor was reading in the mid-130s. That is my racing HR for endurance events, not what I’m hoping for while waiting for the start!

But here I was, on the edge of Knik Lake, and my HR monitor was reading a (relatively) cool 93 BPM. Heck, I’ve seen higher heart rates prior to solo training rides. And this was the freaking Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). I was in Alaska, the Great White North, about to set out into 130 miles (well, really 122 miles) of the frozen fields, lakes, rivers, and swamps between the Knik Bar and Finger Lake. And while nervous about what was to come, I was not stressed.

So what happened?  The final build into the race was nothing but life stress building upon itself. It  began with the fatal mud slides in Montecito, CA in January. As a USGS geologist, I spent the next 10 days traveling and doing fieldwork - hiking through knee deep mud and debris. No riding at all. The trip cumulated in an unfortunate war-of-words in the media with a high ranking public official in California. Compounding that, my wife Kim suffered some health issues, with a short hospitalization the week before we planned to leave and then a trip to urgent care after I'd already landed in Alaska. While Kim was fine in the end, I was in AK, unable to do anything to help her. The stress of wondering if I should skip the race and return home to take care of Kim were finally behind me. All I had to do was pedal, stay warm, eat, and drink, and eventually cross the finish line at Finger Lake. Race stress doesn’t hold a candle to real-life stress. I felt free and happy, and in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.


Dennis, ready to ride prior to the race
The Start
The gun went off, and away we went across the snowy lake. As expected, it was a bit chaotic: the trail was not very well packed in, and riders were slipping and sliding in front of me. Everyone was trying to stay in two tire tracks a truck left earlier driving out onto the lake. My only focus was on staying upright and out of the wheel-grabbing ruts. In short order we entered the trees and proceeded along a couple mile section of trail, the width of two snowmobile tracks. The trail was still a bit soft and powdery after the snow from the days before. Chaos continued to ensue, so my focus remained the same as the on the lake: stay upright, avoid the trail ruts left in the wake of earlier washouts, try to hold a line, and just ride it out. Sure enough, the chaos eventually caught me. A rider in front of me started wobbling and had to dab, I tensed up and overcorrected. My front wheel slid off the packed part of the trail and into some soft off-camber snow. I promptly face-planted. That part wasn’t so bad, but my ego was bruised because I wiped out right in front of the 2017 ITI1000 winner, and eventual 2nd place finisher in the 2018 1000, Jay Cable. He kind of laughed, and rolled on. I never saw him again.

Traffic soon settled into a sustainable pace and I was able to get my heart rate back down to endurance pace. I focused on following the tire tracks under my wheel and not pushing into the red. That pace opened up a small gap between me and the group in front. I kept looking behind me to make sure no one wanted to pass, but the three riders behind me seemed content. After a couple of miles, the trail split: skiers and walkers would continue straight on the Iditarod Trail, while the bikers took a “shortcut” beneath some powerlines in order to connect with a road. The powerline section was almost all hike-a-loaded-fatbike. I pushed along at a slow but steady pace, passing the time by chatting with Melissa and Jenn Diederich, twin sisters who were in the 350 mile race to McGrath. I tried to ride a couple sections, but abandoned the attempt after a solid OTB earned a “nice snow angel” comment from one of the Diederichs (not sure which one).
Pedaling in the early miles

The Road
Soon enough we dumped out onto the pavement. I think the road is technically a longer distance than the trail, but much quicker from a time standpoint. I was able to average 10-ish mph on the road, versus 4 or maybe 5 (if I was lucky!) on the soft, snowy, and hilly trail. I stopped for a quick snack (bite-sized snickers bar, the first of many) before proceeding down the icy pavement.

After a few miles, I caught up with Jim Ishman, who was competing in the 1000 mile race. There was a modest headwind, and I thought he might appreciate a chance to sit on my rear wheel since he was planning on riding all the way to Nome. We ended up riding a few miles together, until we got to the base of a short, mile-ish long climb. I just kept pedaling my all-day pace, but Jim wanted to conserve the energy for the remaining 990 miles. I ended up pulling away from him during this section. Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to ride with Jim again during the duration of my (much shorter) race.

Back on the snow, this time for good: Road End to Flat Horn Lake
The section between the end of the road and Flat Horn Lake seemed to pass fairly quickly. A lot of flat, wide, relatively soft snowmobile trail with plenty of soft spots, fun moguls, and small rollers to keep my attention. I ended up passing a handful of riders during this section, including the Diederich twins, Steve Cannon, and a few others that I have yet to identify. There was some non-race traffic on the trail as well, including a group of three snowmobiles early on and later a two small children riding a tiny snowmobile. (Parental supervision for the kids was nowhere to be seen!!) A large group of bikers also had ridden to a “Y” in the trail to cheer on the ITI racers. I got a bit confused with all of the commotion, and the proper trail was  hard to decipher because of the hundreds of  tire tracks. Fortunately, one of the spectators directed me towards the right side of the “Y,” the much shorter way to Flat Horn Lake

The scenery was breathtaking: Mount Susitna was growing larger in the distance with each pedal revolution with the sun slowly traversing across the sky towards an eventual intersection with the horizon. I knew Alaska would be beautiful, but always imagined it as a harsh beauty. While it certainly met those expectations, I failed to imagine how the low sun angle softened the harsh lines. The snow and sky were painted with subdued colors and pastels. I felt blissful, happy, and content. At that very moment there was nowhere on Earth that I’d rather have been than pedaling my bike towards the “Sleeping Lady” in the distance.
The "Sleeping Lady" - Mount Susitna

The trail narrowed about a mile or two east of Flat Horn Lake, with a series of super fun rollers and moguls. I was tempted to catch a little air on some of them, but the smarter and more cautious side of me won the debate, so the 4.6s stayed firmly planted in the snow. 26 miles into the race, and I was feeling good, and anxious to get onto the lake, which I was sure would be well-packed and fast, and I would be on the Dismal Swamp before I knew it.

Flat Horn Lake
Onto the lake, and whoa, the trail got packed, icy, and fast. This was awesome!  For 100 yards.

Then I got my first taste of the real Iditarod Trail. Soft, almost rideable snow composed the rest of the trail on the remaining 3-ish miles of Flat Horn Lake. There was a women rider about 200 yards ahead of me, gamely attempting to ride instead of push. For a few minutes I attempted to do the same, but ultimately resigned myself to pushing after seeing her topple multiple times over a distance of less than a ¼ mile. My slow pushing-pace eventually got me within about 100 feet of the tenacious racer ahead.

After she took a particularly nasty tumble, I jog-pushed up to her and helped extricate her from underneath her 40lb bike and out of a waist-deep snowdrift. I learned that she was Pam Todd, an Anchorage local, and fellow ITI rookie racing the 130 mile. I thanked her for attempting to ride the trail, as her efforts informed me that pushing was clearly the better alternative. Easy conversation with Pam made the drudgery of pushing the rest of the way across Flathorn Lake pass quickly as darkness fell. At this point, my camera stopped cooperating until after the finish.

Dismal Swamp
Soon enough we were off of the lake and on the section of trail known as the Dismal Swamp, now in full dark. Compared to Flathorn Lake, this section was well-packed and relatively easy riding. I stopped a couple of times for a quick bite (more snickers, bacon, and some Oreo’s and Fig Newtons for good measure), and to refill a water bottle with Tailwind. I yo-yo’d back and forth with a handful of riders, as each of us were feeling ebbs and flows of energy commensurate with the 30 miles already traveled and five hours it had taken since the start. Not much to say about this section. It seemed to pass relatively quickly as I anticipated the “Wall of Death,” where the trail dropped from the swamp terraces and emerged onto the frozen Susitna River, where 60-ish miles of river riding would commence.

River Riding, Pt 1. Susitna and Yentna to Yentna Station
The “Wall of Death” was a bit of a disappointment. In fact, at the time, I didn’t even realize that I had ridden down the bluff until it became obvious I was river riding. Maybe it looks worse in daylight? I guess it could be a bit more difficult if icy. Living and riding in the mountains of Colorado has its advantages.

Onto the river, and I started noticing the cold. It wasn’t too bad, but was a different kind of cold than I am used to in Colorado. I could tell this cold had a personality, and it wasn’t exactly friendly. I pulled down my hat, put on my (way-too-dark for night riding) goggles, pulled up my buff, and mentally refocused. I had a long stretch of flat-ish river between me and a place to get some food, water, and (hopefully) a warm spot to nap for a few hours. I describe the river as “flat-ish” because it had a bit more topography than anticipated. Small dips and rises associated with pressure ridges and small islands and sloughs defined much of the next 60 miles of trail.

A tip from Judd Rohwer prior to the race (more on this later) saved some stress at mile 34.6, when a Y appeared in the trail, with tire tracks heading off in both directions. Judd had written in his blog, and again in an email to me, that he had taken the left fork when he rode the 350 (and finished on singlespeed!!!) in 2017. He thought that the left branch was likely a bit longer. I took the right branch, for what it’s worth. Other than the decision point at the trail fork, the river section from the “Wall of Death” to Yentna Station was relatively straightforward. Trail conditions were a bit slow, with lots of snowmobile-created moguls and pressure ridges to at least keep things a bit more interesting.

But the next few hours were definitely my lowest point of the race. The problems began when I went to drink out of my Wampak, but got nothing but resistance. I was out of water (so I thought and still had 20 miles before the next checkpoint. I had about 12oz of Tailwind mix in one of my water bottles, but the other was empty. I knew I could stop and melt snow, but wanted to wait until I was able to find a clump of trees for shelter. 
After about 30 minutes, the stress of worrying about hydration started catching up to me. My energy levels sagged, and I couldn't keep my HR up.  Riders I'd passed earlier in Dismal Swamp caught back up and re-passed me. My speed, pedaling power and RPM were all decreasing. I found myself shifting to back and forth from a cruising gear to an easier gear more frequently. At one point I felt a pretty good bonk coming on, so I stopped to make sure that I was truly out of water. In some of my training rides I'd thought I was empty, only have a kink in the hose. Turned out this was the case here! I guess my previous attempt to shake the hose had failed to undo the kink. With an outlook improved by the free-flow of water, I decided to stop for about five minutes. Time to mentally regroup, rehydrate, mix another bottle of Tailwind, eat some food, and stretch my legs, hips and lower back. Somewhat refreshed, I resumed pedaling towards the checkpoint. My energy was still ebbing and flowing more than I would have liked, but I was able to keep to a slow and steady pace, passing a couple of riders along the way. After a few hours I rolled into Yenta Station, mile 54.3 (listed as mile 60 in the race info) around 12:30 AM AKST.


To be continued