We loaded upon buses with no heat and headed to good ole Knik Bar and Grill, the beginning of the ITI race. I was a bit confused when we got there, since we usually go inside. I thought that perhaps the race had arranged for this location to be “in” the “ITI COVID bubble”, thereby allowing us to go inside, but this had not happened. Consequently, we were outside waiting around for about 2 hours in 25F temps. This was easily tied for coldest felt temp during the race, the other being a bivy outside of Yentna Station. Everyone was pulling out their puffy jackets and down pants, etc.
After some cheeseburgers and a few pedal strokes to warm up, the race was on. Out of the gate, several of us riders remained together. Several climbs in loose snow on heavy bikes was a deciding factor on splitting up the riders. Aaron broke away ahead. I eventually caught him going north to the Big Lake roads. At that point, I wanted to put some extra effort in to cash in on the peloton, as there’s usually a head-wind on Big Lake when heading West. I had also hedged on slightly higher pressure to go faster on the ice.
As we hit the Big Lake snowmachine trails, things changed drastically. It was not just soft, but softer than I’ve seen out there in the last few months. I think I stopped to let out air 4 times. It was hard going and lots of air. At this point I was still up near the front, exchanging positions occasionally with other riders. I thought I was going to have to take a longer route and double back to the CP due to one of the trails not being “in”, but I saw a Jr. Iditarod musher heading in from a different direction just as I was going by and was able to get on the right trail. All in all, things seemed to be going well. A little water and refresh at Butterfly Lake and I was headed off into the night and next segment.
CP1 to CP2
Having headed in this direction so many times in the last few months, I felt very confident heading out of CP1 to Yentna Station. No matter what, it was going to be a big first-day push. Once at Cow Lake, things started going bad, and they just got worse and worse. Lots of overflow in the Northern portion of the lake. Easily ankle deep, if not more. People getting feet wet, no way to avoid the water. I heavily waxed my relatively lightweight gaiters and running those with the Wolfgar+RAB VB system makes for a fairly water-resistant system IME. Not fully waterproof, as anything except waders is going to leak, but if I’m fast, I can generally prevent water ingress. As we kept going, the trail just got worse and worse, loose, deep snow, more overflow. There had been a significant amount of new snow and not many snowmachines had been out on all of the trails yet. As we approached where the trail to the Susitna River was supposed to be…there was nothing but a couple old soft and shallow snowmachine tracks in approximate directions. The trail was not there. The only option was to head South in the big swamp to intersect trail 11. At this point, I was glad for all the familiarization rides and extra GPS tracks I had brought with me. Although I didn’t have this exact trail, I did have the trail 11 “route home”, so I loaded that and it at least gave some idea of direction and distance as we closed in. Unfortunately, the trail situation did not improve drastically, it started out rideable and then turned into a push-fest for many miles, most being unrideable. Eventually it was Chris, Kate and myself in a little group as we approached trail 11. The only good part was looking backwards, there was an amazing show being put on by the northern lights and then the moon raised up, big and yellow, creating amazing sights. As we pushed on though, the sky would eventually cloud up.
Eventually we got to trail 11, I hung back to make some clothing and other changes and didn’t see Chris or Kate again for a while. Temps were slightly in the -Fs, but pretty comfortable for riding and being out there. I don’t remember the snow exactly, but I don’t recall any significant problems up to Yentna Station. Even if the snowmachine trails suck, being a few riders back at that hour of the night usually yields some decent tracks to ride in. The further in you get though, the more the predominant “hard” track is a high-resistance snowmachine track. This means your average speed drops and drops. I remember passing JP and Jacob Hora cooking up mountain houses at the Susitna Yentna intersection. Also passed Rebecca and Greg that had stopped to chat. I thought it was odd to be cooking and eating there, but with some of this year’s divisions, “self-supported” and “bivy outside”, it really wouldn’t matter where the checkpoint is in some cases. Again, uneventful grinding up the Yentna. Those miles drag on and it gets real late at night. All said and done, it was about 59 miles. Although it was pretty bad trail conditions, it still wasn’t as bad as last year trying to get to and go North from Flathorn Lake in bottomless new snow. That slog was one to truly remember.
Got to Yentna Roadhouse. Got my foot and hand-gear off to dry out. Got the classic Yentna meal of cheese on hotdog buns and chicken soup. She makes this because it can be done fast and easy for all the racers, but it doesn’t matter what it is, we are grateful to have some warm food in a warm place to put down the hole at this point. I figured I’d get a few hours of down-time as the smart thing to do, given the big push that I had just made. I forgot that the top of Yentna station is like a sauna. The smart thing to do would be to bivy outside, but you just aren’t thinking that when you arrive. This is likely a mistake to be repeated again and again. Sleep or down-time is also a relative term, it’s incredibly hard to do most of the time. The best you can usually do is give your body a little while to recoup, digest calories, get ready for the next segment. You can easily get caught in a rut where your body is getting worse and worse and not repairing itself.
CP2 to CP3
It had clouded up during the end of the previous segment. Now in the early morning, it was snowing fairly heavily. This was the theme all day basically, riding through the storm up to Skwentna Roadhouse. It wasn’t too bad before the sun started to come up, I was able to see the contrast from the older tracks of those that went before, allowing me to keep riding. The other idea with starting early was to get out before the snowmachiners started waking up and driving the winter river highway. They have a tendency to obliterate fatbike tracks so that you don’t know where the compressed snow is, churning the top in the process. The worst time was just after dawn, when my headlamp would no longer show contrast, the flat light created a situation where it was very hard to follow the previous tracks. This eventually passed, but it was a significant chunk of time. I passed McDougal’s Lodge. I’d like to try it out some time, I only hear good things, but it’s just at an odd spot for stopping in my opinion. The push up the Yentna to Yentna Station and then up past McDougal’s to avoid daytime snowmachine traffic is a better way to get further easier, but everything I hear about McDougal’s always sounds so positive. Anyway, continuing up the river, just a few short sections where some pushing was required.
I caught up to a group of about 3 riders as I turned off the river to the Skwentna Roadhouse. This was good for comrade and we all rolled in together. The owner of the lodge has a reputation for being crabby/not accommodating, but I think there’s any intentional action. The lasagna was great and very welcome. We all dried off some gear and we got ready to leave together on the next segment. The snow had started to die down and stop. The race volunteer at the checkpoint wanted to get pictures of us all together, so we had to do a photo-op before all lined up. There was still ample sunlight at this time and it looked like we could get to Shell Lake while they were offering food. For some reason, I thought Shell Lake was 8am-8pm for food. They also had cabins, although not a checkpoint.
We left in a group, looking forward to the relatively short segment of 15 miles and change. The bad part is that there’s a ton of climbing that’s just not possible on a loaded fatbike, so you end up pushing a good portion of it. The sun was still up, so being able to see and look around was a treat, compared to the last time, when started the same segment way too early in the morning to see any details. There is now a cat-track trail that goes around the steep 15 mile trail. We took the cat-track. The tradeoff was 4 more miles and trying to figure “where does this come out, because it’s sure not on the lake?” Turns out, it comes out almost right at the Shell Lake Lodge. There is still a significant amount of climbing, just not as steep or impossible. I was feeling strong and blasted up the climbs, probably standing a significant amount of time. This is when my knee started acting up. I was getting pain on the inside left knee, which had been identified as a meniscus cyst. This happened last year too. The Doc said if it gives me any trouble again, to come see them for orthoscopic surgery…except, it never really did. I attribute this to several issues. One being riding out of the saddle, which puts an immense amount of stress on the knees given the rolling resistance and weight of an 80lb bike. Another is the fact that you can’t just step off a fat-bike in most of the ITI. IF you have a packed track, it’s usually very narrow, so there’s no way to really step off to the side and the bike is too heavy for the same maneuver. In softer conditions, you’ll never get back on the bike trying to do it like this. You end up doing a freaking round-house kick much of the time to get on and off the bike. Over whatever you have on the rear rack. Now imagine doing this when you are in deeper snow, having sunk several inches below the height of your bike. It’s not impossible, but you have some crazy high-torque situations on your knee, when you come to a stop and jump off the bike, when you try to go again, when either of those things goes wrong, etc. I made a lot of changes to the bike and setup as a result of last year. One of these was a dropper post, which worked flawelessly, that is to say, real real slow in the cold…but it worked. Much easier gears to be easier on the knee and not require standing events as much, changed seating position some, etc. But by the time I got to Shell Lake, my knee was hurting pretty significantly and I could see some swelling. At this point, I thought I was about in the same situation as last year, where I was starting to hurt and the next segment would do me in and require a scratch. I thought about where I should scratch. Skwentna is accessible from the river…but that would require riding and if I am going to ride, might as well ride toward Finger Lake and get flown out there, but I was seriously thinking about asking for information on flights out of Finger. The cabins at Shell were fantastic though. I didn’t take advantage of this last year and Shell Lake is in general very accommodating. The other 3 riders left to head up to Finger Lake. As I was sitting there, I thought about my options. Then I had the idea that I was way way ahead of the checkpoint cutoffs and also significantly ahead of the pace from last year (mostly due to not having the horrid Flathorn Lake push). I also remembered that I had taken 2 weeks of leave. Also, last year, after a few days, the swelling did go down, but I also think it was worse at that time, I couldn’t even stand on it. I was in pain, but I thought I would throw everything towards babying the knee and getting to Finger and then see what I could do from there. I decided to spend a few extra hours and then go real slow on the next leg and just baby it, without standing at all. In fact, I created a “no standing” rule for the next segments, since that’s where it hurt the worst.
I got ready slowly after some breakfast at Shell Lake Lodge, it was in the early hours of the morning. I started out and tried to institute my rule and be really easy on the knee. All sorts of stuff that you just don’t normally think of. I made sure I wasn’t dismounting to the left, but only to the right. Always dismounting/mounting using the dropper post. I found that when I stopped, I always liked to favor my left leg, so I made sure to favor my right.
The trail was decent and I was lucky that I didn’t run into any significant wind. The trail takes a turn towards Finger Lake about 5-7 miles out and the wind just likes to scream out of the West and you get into these long interconnected swamps where there is just no relief. This can stop all forward progress as it drifts and your speed drops below 1mph. I also seemed to make it with my knee “ok”. It didn’t seem better…but it didn’t seem worse. I decided to start icing it down at the checkpoints, both after arriving and before leaving. I wasn’t the only one treating issues and I was taking some NSAIDs. Somehow the topic came up from another racer that the “maximum safe daily dosage” for Ibuprofen was supposedly 3200mg. Holy ****! I would never go that far and that just seemed bizarre. The checkpoint volunteer hooked me up with a lidocaine patch I could put on the affected area of my knee. It wasn’t terribly cold, so I took my sleeping bag and mat outside to see if I could get a few hours of rest in. Again, relative “rest”. With access to my drop bag, I loaded up on some stuff, but left some stuff. In retrospect, I should have basically not touched my drop bag and pillaged the scratched racer’s stuff almost exclusively. More on that later.
I decided to leave well into the night, a little after midnight. This was my favorite segment. In a lot of places, the “trail” was just that, an actual trail curving and rolling through the woods. Sometimes on the side of a slope or mountain, several fun downhills and sections, etc. A series of super-steep rollers that I was able to make without falling. The trail was well packed and ridable. As an aside, on a fat bike board, the idea has been occasionally floated of using just one brake for something like the ITI. That is insanity. This and other segments had significant vertical. At one point, I found a smooth and hard-packed cat-track that some other people had ridden. Evidently this is part of a mine for bringing in equipment. I started and compared the direction and where it was going on my GPS to the traditional and it appeared to intersect later, so I kept going and it worked out. There was an insanely steep and long push uphill at one point. I guess this is the opposite side of the “Happy Steps”, or it replaces them or something. I never saw the steps going this direction, except for this steep hill, which seemed way too steep for anything. Think 40% grade and super long. As I continued, the light started to show the surrounding area. It was beautiful. I passed the top runner that was camped out under a tree-well right off the trail. This wouldn’t be the last time I saw someone camped out way to close to the trail. I also realized on this segment that my ass was really starting to hurt. Not saddle sores, but more of a dull general pain on my sit-bones. This had been going on for a while, but had taken a while to notice as a significant issue. This is also what happened to me last year and now thinking back, I think it’s really the primary driver of my knee issue. It’s what gets me up and off the saddle, where I see that increased stress. I had tried it last year with a suspension seatpost, but this year I was trying it with a dropper for relief and the reasons stated above. I had tried out a bunch of saddles, but I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it, it seems to take more than 100 miles for this issue to manifest, so that’s around 3 segments in, not something I tend to experience during races like the Su100 or Soggy Bottom 100. Because of this, it’s incredibly hard to isolate and mitigate. I figured that Brooks was probably the best bet with the best reputation, but I tried others and again, couldn’t make heads or tales. So my riding started getting affected again, where I had to take breaks while my ass pain subsided, getting off the saddle (standing and coasting), changing position, etc. I started adjusting the saddle angle and position too. Every time I did this, it would buy me a little extra mileage and time before the same issue would happen again and eventually, I’d exhausted all combinations. Thinking back, this was definitely happening during the previous segment, but I wasn’t noticing it. My knee was doing slightly better. Not great or to where I felt like I could start doing a bunch of riding out of the saddle, but it seemed that aggressively icing was paying off. Despite all of this, again, it was a beautiful stretch of trail that seemed more like a trail than a flat river path. To have made the push all at night and then have the sun come up as I rolled in felt good. I was outside and taking some pictures when I saw another rider come in from the other direction. They were all puffy-jacketed out and I couldn’t tell who it was at first.
The Rainy Pass Lodge/Puntilla Lake CP was my favorite CP. It had a total “Nepal-base-camp” vibe to it, where racers were stating and deciding how and when to make their summit attack. There were a bunch of bunks and ample supply of burritos and tang, the life-blood of winter endurance riding. Inside I started getting something to eat and relaxing after the last segment and the racer I met explained they had just come off the pass, but that they had gotten bad asthma, some kind of cold-induced asthma that they’d never had before. In fact, they couldn’t even speak full sentences to me to explain the situation, due to shortness of breath. I thought I used to get unique exercise-induced asthma, no shortness of breath while performing, but coughing some fluid and stuff afterwards, but listening to all the racers hack after segments, I realize it’s nothing out of the ordinary. What this other racer experienced was definitely out of the ordinary. Luckily, they got flown back to Anchorage from that location. There was good comradery at this CP with the arriving and departing riders, trying to get intel on the next segment and how/when to attack the pass. Matt and I decided to try the next segment at around 6pm, allowing for rest most of the day.
The 6pm attempt did not go well. Winds were screaming and while significant around Puntilla Lake, it was still relatively shielded from the greater Ptarmigan Valley. We ran into Rebecca and Greg returning and they said the wind was screaming after getting up the “step” to the valley. They did not recommend attempting it, but said local pilots claimed the winds die down around 3am. We tried to get up on and past the step, but the wind was so bad that you had to basically put your head down parallel with the ground and push your bike against it, many any forward progress impossibly hard. I rode ahead a little further to see if it got better or worse…definitely worse. The trail was obscured by the wind and blowing snow and it was just not possible. If you were coming the other way, it would have been an “interesting” ride though, you’d be able to just blast through snow drifts, barely pedaling, etc.
So we decided we would try at 3am. I checked the wind outside several times and it was blowing just as hard up until about 3am and then it really did seem to subside. There were a few more riders interested in making the attempt by this time. We headed out again and the wind was definitely blowing, but this at least seemed do-able. And by do-able I mean -19 degrees before windchill and crazy blowing wind and snow around 20-30mph. It was still pretty crazy, but forward progress could be made and I was able to ride some of the time. I didn’t have as much of an “ass problem” because the riding was intermittent as the conditions allowed. This was one of those times when you had to know what you were doing with your clothing and be all cinched up. I had my puffy jacket on, 45nrth mask and had dumped a ton of handwarmers in each pogie. The wind at those speeds will cold-soak anything almost immediately and messing with buckles or anything becomes impossible due to numb hands with frostbite a significant threat. Since were going to a checkpoint where there was inevitably to be a bunch of scratch drop-bags, I decided to go-for-broke and load up the handwarmers to the ridiculous level. I had a bunch of food in the pogies that stayed nice and warm, allow me to eat on the move and because I was so warm, I was stopping to cool off, eat, pee, etc. I had a few other people tell me that that this was very hard due to the conditions, but I got into a nice groove. The only problem I did have was my glasses kept icing over. They ice over from the inside and if you try to take the moisture off, it inevitably leaves moisture on that re-crystalizes instantly. This is with a mask that directs breath below. I tried goggles and those were a big nope. Immediate fog and frost. It’s just the radiant heat of my face. So it required stopping and clearing the ice every few minutes (again, mitigating sore-ass). This goes away for me when the sun comes up, no matter how cold it is, but when it’s cold and the sun is down, I’ve never found a solution that works, except no-glasses. Another aspect about this push up Ptarmigan Valley was that we couldn’t see around us until much later when we were pretty much at the valley to Rainy Pass. Due to the widespread featureless terrain of Ptarmigan Valley and how hard it was to make forward progress, I was sure it was uphill, in addition to the wind we were experiencing. This turned out to be completely wrong.
As the first signs of light appeared, we started getting more and more spread out. I was ahead and making good progress towards the pass. It was real beautiful and it started to again feel like riding a “trail” as opposed to a “path. The trail/tracks didn’t quite go to the pass monument, so I hiked over and took a few pictures and scouted the next section of trail.
The next section was also fabulous. It started out with some higher altitude downhill with rocky outcroppings on both sides. The dropper post was brilliant and this was super fun. I met the top foot-runner again and they were very nice, trying to make sure I had “everything” I needed. As I continued down I eventually passed some bison hunters and then the race director. The last feature is the Dalzell Gorge, which has the trail pass over a stream a bunch of times, often on ice-bridges. This was decent, but I liked the higher altitude rocky section a little better due to the downhill. Another common theme with these segments is they always seem they are 3-5 miles higher than advertised. After dropping out on the Tatina River, it was still a few miles on the flat to Rohn.
Rohn was pretty much like I pictured. It was also a frenzy of activity as it was the first day that supplies could be flown in for the dog-iditarod competition. Lots of aircraft landing and taking off and stores of supplies being piled up. The checkpoint crew was great and they had some good food and refreshment. When I entered the tent, a racer had just returned from up the trail with a flat tire, trying to get the tire off the HED rim with a tire lever. They had been at it for a while and were thinking they were going to have to scratch. Years of dealing with tires at shops and personally taught me that gloves+grip is almost always better than a tire lever. I told them that I could get it off and I popped it off almost immediately with the tried and true method of pulling the bead over and putting some weight behind it. They were grateful and able to get a tube in there and pump it up for the rest of the race. One thing on our minds was the forecast. It was supposed to snow. First it was supposed to snow on Thursday, but that evidently got pushed back a little. When we had started to head up Rainy Pass, the wind started to subside and it was just clear and cold all the way into Rohn, in the negative F temps during most of the descent and especially in the narrower canyon areas. I didn’t realize it, but while we were at the CP, the temp was rapidly increasing. With the idea that snow was still in the forecast, we figured it would be best to push back over the pass sooner rather than later. Again, after icing down my knee, I got on with it. A few of us were starting close together, but not so close that we’d be able to see each other. It was discussed that there’s no place to bivy in the pass, you either do it well before or push on through.
The full route for this segment is Rohn to Finger Lake, bypassing the Rainy Pass CP. I didn’t think I’d get the whole way, camping overnight in Rainy Pass most likely. When I started out, it quickly became obvious that the weather had changed. Winds were now tearing down the Tatina river. We could also see snow being scraped off the peaks. This was also a massive headwind. The difference between this and before was that these were warm chinook winds. The temp gauge said high 20s and it never changed for temp over the pass. I was really dreading this segment given the huge downhill I had just enjoyed, but I found that it wasn’t too hard to click out the miles on this segment. There was a lot of pushing up steep spots and this again helped with my ass problem, but I was also getting into the situation where I could ride for little and then had to get off and push the bike. I tried to make sure that under all circumstances I kept moving forward and I eventually got close to the pass above the treeline.
Wind was screaming now again. The trail was so drifted you couldn’t tell where it was and if you didn’t step on the trail, you’d immediately sink down in the snow and be unable to prevent falling. I had kept the same track in my GPS which allowed me to zoom in and see my previous track over the pass. The sun was also going down and visibility essentially only about 20 feet. The big difference though here was the relatively warm wind. It was a piece of cake compared to -20. With my GPS zoomed into 300 feet, I simply went where I went before, which gave me solid trail to push up. I eventually ran into another racer that was having a hard time with the trail. The situation looked epically bad, screaming winds, drifted trail, no idea where the trail was, night time, but I was pretty confident given the course and difference from before. I said the last thing we are going to do is go take pictures of Rainy Pass monument in this weather…so I did just that. I guided the other rider over the pass and started the descent. The descent down the other side of rainy pass was mainly uneventful and the wind died off almost immediately. I did have one interesting point where I had looked down at my GPS and then up real quick. I gave myself special disorientation due to my inner-ear and eyes and I immediately turned left without wanting to or knowing what I was doing. It was interesting to experience that. I know all about it from piloting, but it was interesting to see it in a different situation.
This is where my mind was blown. Now the sky was featureless black due to low overcast. Ptarmigan valley is featureless flat wind blown snow. There was no perspective of up and down. The nice gradual downhill that I was looking forward to did not exist. It was in fact downhill when we were fighting the wind going the other way. This was just disheartening and it took a lot to keep pushing through it, with sore-ass becoming more and more of a problem. I had scored some reeses peanut-butter cups during the scratch drop-bag pillaging in Rohn and these pick-me-ups were utilized. I saw lots of people, mainly runners and some skiers, heading in the opposite direction to try and get over the pass. I was tired getting back to Rainy Pass Lodge-area and camped out next to the gravel runway (not used in the winter). It was starting to snow. Not sure if I slept, but I tried to spend 4-6 hours down before continuing towards CP 7, Finger Lake.
Getting up the next morning, it was still snowing, but had snowed only a few inches of dry snow. I was looking forward to the next segment, anticipating significant downhill on the way back to Finger Lake. Almost immediately, something strange was up with the trail. There was now a new trail that often cut-across the old trail that I had previously rode. The new trail was too soft to ride, but if I rode the old trail, even with the new snow on it, I could ride pretty well. Following the old trail became difficult though, not being sure what track it was in the continuing snow. Then I met an Iditarod (dog) trail “grooming” crew. It became obvious what was going on. They were cutting a new trail…next to the old trail, dragging a “groomer” that basically churned up all the snow, with no weight on it for compaction. This created a surface that had no cohesion and it was impossible to ride. I could ride downhill with gravity assisting, but pretty much everything else was impossible. This “grooming” seems a little dubious, given the prior nature of the trail that was already hard packed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to cut an entirely new trail when there already was one. I’m wondering if someone is making money off of this when it’s not entirely necessary. In the meadows/swamps/lakes, same thing, a “new” trail was made next to the old trail, for seemingly no reason. So this turned into quite the struggle. I ran into a local that was building a lodge on a nearby lake. They suggested I take a “creek trail” that goes to the “cat track” which would bypass some of the trail, a little more than I had before on the way out. The tip was legit…except whatever machine they are using to transport stuff on the cat-track had recently gone by and it too was entirely churned and soft, no way to ride it. I eventually got to the steep descent and “Happy Steps” on the other side. These were sheer murder. I had grabbed gummy worms from my drop-bag, somewhat hesitant though, because I wasn’t sure if I would really find myself wanting gummy worms. As I started dealing with the “steps”, I was damn glad I had them, they were needed in force for the amount of energy I had expend getting my bike up those slopes. Some of them you would look at and just think that it didn’t even seem possible to get up. I would take the porcelain rocket and sleeping bags off my bike, hike up ,throw the bags at the top, go back down, try to kick in some footholds and get my bike up, but that all makes it sound real simple and easy and it was not. It took a long time to clear those steps. And when I did, it was more of the same. Not as much problem with my ass hurting, since it was so much walking. That made it a little more precarious for my knee, but the knee didn’t seem to do too badly when walking in soft snow. It was dramatic how different my experience was on this same section going different directions. Going “up” it was magical. Coming “down” it was an nightmare.
I got into the CP at Finger Lake and knew I needed some down-time. There weren’t many people there and the volunteers offered the arctic oven tent to sleep in, which I gladly took them up on. This is where an interesting dynamic occurred with the drop-bags. Usually, this checkpoint would have tons of goodies from all the scratched riders. But since this checkpoint was being used twice, by this point, it had been cleared out, even though some of those riders that took stuff would later scratch themselves. So if you were used to the race from before, you would think you could go “lighter” from Rohn and not have to tanker a bunch of food and stuff, being able to resupply at Finger. But Finger Lake was all cleared out and there was very little left. Again, I took my time, icing down my knee, etc. I returned to get set up in the morning to find the main tent filled with sleeping racers and the fire in the stove out. I took the time to get the fire restarted for all, then got my gear ready and had another burrito.
This is another long segment, around 60 miles. It started out amazing, that same crazy Finger Lake wind that I encountered last year trying to keep me from getting there now pushed me out at insane speeds. I was averaging above 14mph between the swamps, which is just insane for any ITI segment. It was definitely one of those “too good to be true” situations, but I felt I was owed it for having the huge headwind both ways with Rainy Pass. The trail had again been “reset” recently, but this had enough time to settle a bit and I was able to ride most of it. After about 10 miles, the wind died down and the track softened considerably, so it was back to intermediate riding. Back to my ass problem, when starting out on a segment, I was able to “sit” more and pedal, but the problem would eventually overwhelm everything. So I got a good bit of miles in before I had the biggest problem with it. The trail conditions got worse and worse as there was more and more wind to deal with. The new overland section of trail was very bad in this respect and it generally wasn’t ridable. When I finally got to a section where it was at ultra-low PSI, a moose had post-holed it for about a mile and it was horrendous. I passed a rider camped on ON the trail, even though they had a blinker on, this seemed incredibly dangerous (especially considering all the snowmachiners talking about driving drunk later that night). Less than a quarter mile later, there were wolf tracks going in the direction of the camped out rider. Upon closer inspection, it looked like an adult wolf and a pup. So not only was he in the middle of the trail, the wolves were possibly interested. This segment crossed the Skwentna river and continued on the other side. The wind was ever present, as a tailwind, which worked out decent at first. I was not really able to ride due to sore ass and I would walk for a while, then get on a ride for a short bit, then get off and walk, etc. As crazy as it sounds, you can still make decent progress like this as long as you aren’t standing around and waiting. Moving forward is the most important part. But after a few miles, that same wind had totally filled in the trail, so this became a giant walk. This was 20-30 miles of walking. This took a lot longer than I was anticipating, so I was getting low on water. The nice thing was that with the sun out and generally warm temps in the high 20s, I could just dump snow into my camelback and melt it as I walked, which I did several times. All in all, a camelback is the way to go on this ride, which I supplemented with a bottle for the beginning of segments. My metal vacuum flask was dead weight I should not have brought. I was getting energy depleted and low on food due to the Rohn drop-bag thing. One of my toes was also giving me some issue, possibly the toenail. I had applied some moleskin to the other foot previously when one of the toenails fell off. I basically dig out a pit that let me sit on the side of the trail and in the meantime, I boiled some water for a mountain house. After doing all of this, which took some time, I felt a lot better, even though I still had like 15 miles of walking ahead. The stars came out and were brilliant and beautiful. I kept looking up because I knew we wouldn’t be able to see them very often in a month or so. Dropping back down to the Yentna, the temp had dropped considerably…like well into the negatives. I also took the wrong path around one of the islands, still in the right direction, just a much more chewed up snowmachine path.
I got back to Yentna Station and they were having a huge party for the passing of River Man Dan, the owner and wife to Jean, who is currently running the lodge. This had happened just a few weeks before the race and this party was friends and family. It was rowdy, but they still tried to accommodate. I picked up some candy bars for the next day since I was low on food. Not the best, but they’d get the job done. I decided to camp outside and get a few hours of sleep. It was well into the negative temps, maybe -10 to -15. I slept for a little while, then woke up chilled. First time I’ve been chilled in this bag, but possibly due to moisture over some previous usages. I decided that was a good reason to get up and get started. By this point things were much calmer in the lodge, everyone was passed out, a few more racers had been by and were sleeping on the floor, etc. I got my dried gear and got ready for a cold start.
CP 8 to Finish
The cold start was around -20 on the river. This isn’t bad in the day, but early in the morning before the sun it generally requires another layer. It also creates that situation where I have to keep putting on and taking off that layer as I get a little too warm, etc. I did pretty decent clicking out the first 16 miles on the river. My knee seemed to be significantly improving, while my ass was the same, getting those first few miles before becoming a big problem again. The snow was absolutely terrible to ride on, little frozen chunks that were like dirt-clods you have to constantly crush. The amount of traffic the river had seen was huge, leading up to the dog Iditarod, which was on the same day. I was ahead of the start by a good margin, but at the confluence of the Yentna and Skwentna there were a few guys with snow-machines drinking beer and starting a fire. I would later hear that this party grew to 75-100 snowmachines and a huge bonfire, etc. It was at this confluence I had a choice, I could go South, similar to the way we came out originally, or I could go North, the original planned route. I figured that most people would go South and that it might be interesting to see someone go different and I also figured that enough time had passed for the trail to be put in. I was semi-right. Again, the snow was terrible, but it seemed to be terrible all over. After the initial section by the river, the trail was real poor and the tracks were fairly disorganized. The trail then got a lot more organized, but the snow was as bad or worse. Despite this, it was still infinitely better than having to walk the entirety of a wind-blown trail or the Cow Lake outbound debacle. This route more or less worked and was “ok” and shaved a few miles off. The closer I got to Big Lake, the softer the snow got (warming) and the more and more snowmachines I saw. It got to be crazy, just so many people out on a blue-bird day and the snow was so churned up that it was very difficult to ride. My ass hurt so much that I figured I needed to do something to get more time between walking. I got my Dogwood Designs overboots out and put them on over the saddle, with my camp-boot outers underneath, I then strapped this down and it looked like a giant 2x1 foot saddle. This seemed to help. It didn’t solve the problem, but it seemed to buy me more time in-between having to walk. It possibly put my ass back on the path to rehab. In general, I was getting exhausted and the end couldn’t come soon enough. I was relieved when I finally broke out onto Flat Lake where the ice-road begins. I stopped and pumped up my tires real high, to take full advantage of the ice. I even found an extra brownie snack that I had packed away at this time, so that was a nice boost. I made great time on the lake, being able to sustain about 16.5mph. I got real emotional too, crying on the way realizing what a journey I had just been through and been able to complete. It felt great to complete and be able to look back on all the adventures and intricacies of the trip.
The bike and gear seemed to work ok. I think I would have prioritized rolling resistance over all-out float, the D5s I have would have likely been a better choice than the Cakeeaters. There’s not much that float can do for you in the wind-blown/drifted snow. The 27.5 is still a boondoggle, I don’t think it makes a significant difference. It does make it a little harder to get on your bike if it’s higher. My sealant and pump worked great in the varied temps. The dropper post was pretty excellent, as mentioned above, making it easier to get on and off the bike is a huge win and you simply can’t put your foot down sideways much of the time, for fear of falling off the packed into the giant abyss. It was super nice for some of the steep downhills that exist out there too. Made the descent off of Rainy Pass a lot of fun. I thought I wanted the front end higher for my back and I even went as far to install little reverse bar-ends that I could grip to get to a more upright position. I tested it before hand and thought I’d want to use it, but turns out nope. I had shortened the stem and riding position-wise I felt fine, with the exception of the ass problem. As mentioned above, I’d dump the vacuum flask. Although they work amazing at keeping fluid hot over hours and hours, it’s more weight to water %, it’s more complicated to get water from, it’s a liability for forgetting to bring inside a checkpoint and eventually freezing solid. The camelback under the jacket is really slick and I’d top off my plastic water bottle and drink from that first. The Revelate Expedition pogies are still a good choice, goofy sealing, but lots of folds inside for you to trap heat and space for things like food and hand-warmers. I think the Pogies+ could be a more streamlined contender if you got someone to sew you a few similar pockets in there. I was a little concerned about my jacket up to a few months before. I had tried to replace my favorite jacket once, but what I ended up with wasn’t as well suited. On a recommendation from AMH (Anchorage), I got an Ortovox Piz Boe. Testing it, it seemed to work well and the more and more I used it, the more I realized it was pretty brilliant. It’s a very lightweight backcountry ski jacket with a thin wool layer and it breathes very well. I never got sweaty, except for the normal damp foot and hand-gear. The Time pedals are a little more problematic than I thought they’d be. I think I’d go back to Shimano. The release on Times is similar to CB and you sometimes find yourself at odd angles falling in the snow where you can’t generate the required angular deflection and “pulling” won’t activate the spring. This is especially prevalent when trying to twist the heel inwards, which happens sometimes in slow-speed falls. There’s no issue with packing snow in the pedals/shoes in these temps, unless the temp shoots up to 33 degrees and the snow gets baked, but that’s unlikely at this time of the year. The 1x11 x01 gripshift worked excellent again, this time with an E13 TRS+ cassette. I was a little concerned about the performance of the cassette given it’s design, but it worked flawlessly. I put a new chain on right before the trip too. The Tubus fat rack is nice because it gets your panniers low and pretty far aft, minimizing clearance issues, also with the clearance for the biggest tires. I scored some Porcelain Rocket micro-panniers right before the race. I used lighter weight dry bags than they came with, but otherwise they were great. I’m not sure PR actually makes stuff anymore, as I’ve watched for these to be produced for a few years and never seen any actually made. There was a lot more bivying this year than in years past, this meant keeping bivy sacks and sleeping bags dry was very challenging. You could possibly dry it out at a checkpoint, but the bags are so bulky and take up so much space that chances are you wouldn’t really have the space to do that all the time. I think the last night my bag was a little damp, since I got cold at around -10 to -15, vs, the -30 I did before. A few people were trying things like vapor barriers in their bags and rain-gear, to reduce moisture escaping. So I don’t know what the best answer is if the next race is like this one, but several ideas have been floated on the ITI racer facebook page. The RSD Mayor frame works pretty well, has attachments for the rack, has a little wasted space in the front triangle, but not much. Again, everything worked pretty well for the most part.
For route-finding, I had done a lot of rides in the Mat-Su valley in the months prior, pioneering routes out to the river. I took previous ITI gpx routes and broke them into the checkpoint segments, creating tracks to follow. I included waypoints of prominent features, but mainly, I was following the tracks that I made in Gaia and Garmin Explore. This worked excellent. I used the gold standard E-trex which I only had to change the batteries on twice. I loaded the same tracks into my in-reach mini and phone, as well as the old full course (same past the Susitna River) into my watch. True story: a racer had “the course” on their phone and was using this for their primary navigation…but lost it, then took a flight from a checkpoint back to Anchorage, got a new phone, headed back out on the course…and was subsequently disqualified when the race management found out. If you are using your phone for primary nav, you don’t know what you are doing and shouldn’t be out here. Lots of people took some wrong turns or explored routes that were not feasible. Nothing quite as dramatic as last year though.
I would do it again or try to get to McGrath if I could figure out the ass-problem. Just to have covered so much distance over Alaska and go over the Alaskan range is mind-blowing. I was coming out and down the Yentna and people would ask where I was coming from and I would say “Rohn”. No one goes out that far human-powered, except for the people in this race that are up to the challenge. I trained a lot with gear and endurance for this and I’m ultimately glad to have achieved my goal. Part of it is being able to do something like this with severe Reynaud’s and coming up with the ability to be self-supported over long periods. It feels like the ultimate in overcoming. The biggest take-away though is that the only way forward is to keep pedaling and when you can't do that, put one foot in front of the other. If you do those things, you will get to the end.
You get to pillage the drop-bags of the racers that have scratched out of the race.
I think it was George that I helped out in Rohn. I came into the checkpoint tent and he was trying to get his tire off with a tire lever so he could install a tube. He had headed back up the trail, but got a flat, then turned around and headed back. He was considering scratching out, but I immediately said "I can get that off". Took me about 10 seconds using the normal method of rolling the bead over the edge and pushing down. IME, if you can't do it with this method, it's just going to break tire levers anyway. He was thankful and headed up towards the pass. I think it was George again that I ran into short of the pass when it was all drifted over and I had to use my GPS for 100% nav at night with the blowing and drifting snow. I got him over. After I finished we were wondering why he camped out at the edge of Big Lake and then was pushing his bike across the lake towards the finish later. Looks like another flat tire, but this time he didn't have a tube? He was running the HED rims if I recall, but I'm not sure why he kept flatting, there's literally nothing to puncture tires out there.
That guy was real nice, he was trying to make sure I had "everything I needed" when we crossed paths, haha. I'm pretty trained at being self-sufficient, so it was a bit funny, but he's a real nice guy and amazing athlete. In challenging conditions years, it's easy for the people on foot to catch up to the fatbikers. Their walking speed is a little faster than our pushing speed and then when we can get on and ride for short stints, the mounting and dismounting tends to eat up so much time that they will not be falling back and often gain some on us. If it's real crappy, they'll flat out pass us. It wasn't as bad this year as last year, despite some extremely challenging and blown-in trail where we had long pushing sections. Last year was bottomless snow on a different route that was a much more horrible push on the first night and we didn't hit any solid snow until halfway to Shell Lake, which disappeared again on the next segment. Again, we had our share of crappy trail and pushing this year, but last year it dumped feet of snow over and over again right before the race, so not as bad. There's also the people that simply don't rest. For some athletes, that can work out. For others, they get delirious and start making stupid decisions. There's also a balance point where if you can keep close enough to the leaders, you can take advantage of their tracks without being so far back that they get erased by other traffic. My strategy obviously changed when I started encountering physical limitations, with more rest/down-time, but being ahead or behind doesn't guarantee any trail conditions, it could be better or worse, like when we get wind events and it drifts the trail.
That's why I ask. Way I read the website is that the full 1000 was cancelled due to wanting to keep the Rona out of the communities along the route. Participants were given the option of an entry for next year, a drop to the out and back, or a withdraw. I was curious what @Jm_'s original plan had been.
Yes, the plan was to minimize exposure for the the native villages of Nicolai and McGrath. My original plan (the usual 350 route) was to do the trip to McGrath. There were a few people talking about doing this on their own, self-supported, but that's kind of a dick move for the reasons that it was canceled in the race. I don't really have an interest to do the 1000 to Nome, but I think the concept of crossing the Alaska Range to McGrath is interesting.
It's 10 years since I attempted TD, at least that was summer'ish conditions, not withstanding needing snowshoes for the extra snowpack that year. I scratched with a screwed achilles at 1000 miles in, so I know what it's like to deal with sore knees etc on that kind of endeavour.
What guestimate of walking versus riding would you say the 350 miles was split in to?