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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