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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!