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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