Archive for March, 2009

Iditarod Trail Invitational Post-Script

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

This is a collection of musing on the race that surprisingly didn’t fit into my tome of a race report.

Thank You!

First off, it’s time to finally thank the people that made this race possible for me:

My wife Linda – I know, I’ve thanked her a lot already, but I can’t say enough about all she did. Plus if I mention her again, this post will get a “Linda’ tag, helping her increase her lead in the ‘number of times tagged’ (see the tag cloud in the right hand column). This is apparently very important to her. I’d also like to thank our kiddo for holding his “Why did you leave us?” grudge for only three days after I returned.

My parents, and all of the friends and family who supported me and followed me during the race. It was great to come home and read all the messages afterwards. I’m fairly certain that none of them had any idea what I was getting into until it was too late to stop me.

Greg – for offering to fly out and get me from any checkpoint along the course. The offer was tempting many times. And thanks for coming to get me (and Alec Petro) once I got to McGrath. I was able to get home a day earlier, and we had a spectacular tour of the race course on the flight home. Although Alec’s view during the flight wasn’t quite as good as mine. Sorry Alec!

Cindy – for helping to design and then sew my sled cover, and modifying my pogies. And also for helping to keep Linda sane at work while I was away.

Jen and Ian – for their last minute modifications to the sled cover.

Tim – for sharing his sled design, and answering my questions about gear. And for all he has taught me over the years about “Performance backcountry skiing.

Mike – for sharing his suspension sled pole design.

Ed, Pete, Jay, Tracey, Jeff, Billy, and all the other racers who knowingly, or unknowingly, helped me along the trail. All the racers were amazing, friendly people. As I said before, I really enjoyed being around the other two skiers for the entire race. I was really psyched that all three skiers finished, when there had only been four skiers finish in the last four years combined.

Bill & Kathi Merchant for pouring their hearts into this race, and all of the checkpoint workers along the way for keeping me fed, rested, and motivated, especially Dan the Mountain Man, Nick and Olene Petruska and Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze.

Jill Homer, Kathi Merchant, Mike Curiak and everyone else who has written about their experiences on the trail. I read them all as I prepared for the race.


Here are a few questions that people have asked me recently…


How did your gear work out?


My boot/insole/sock system – I had a lot of anxiety about this stuff prior to the race, but it couldn’t have performed any better. My feet were never cold the entire race. Never. I only got one small blister the entire way. I choose boots that were a size too big (so that I could put an extra insole in them), and this proved critically helpful as my feet swelled throughout the race. The vapor barrier socks were a revelation for me, and I plan to use them a lot more in the future.

Down booties – I almost didn’t bring these because they are bulky and heavy. But they were really handy at the checkpoints, when I needed to get my feet out of the ski boots for a little while.

My sled pole – I really liked the suspension. It was a huge help for classic skiing, although the elastic was getting worn out by the end.

My headlamp – I came very close to buying a new headlamp for the race, but I’m glad I didn’t. My headlamp was made by Nite-Hawk, which sadly went out of business. It was powerful enough to using skiing while on the ‘low’ setting, which gets over 100 hours of burn time. I used one set of lithium batteries for the entire race. I was kind of bummed to leave so many expensive Lithium batteries behind in my drop bags.



My skis -To be fair, the skis worked as well as I could expect them to. The problem was that I chose the wrong pair. For months, I had been planning on using these skis. I did all my training on them. But at the start of the race, because of the new snow, I had a pair of classic racing skis in the car, just in case I thought the trail looked really bad. I spent the entire race wishing I had grabbed those skis instead.

My sled – Again, I feel bad putting the sled under “Didn’t Work” especially considering the hours I invested in building it. For 90% of the race it worked great. It was a great sled for a packed trail. But when it got caught on alders, or tipped over in deep snow, it was a real liability. It was a perfect sled for the Susitna 100, which has a better trail, but less perfect for the ITI.


How did your food work out?

I had a lot of different foods with me, and I enjoyed having the variety. I ate some of everything. I had way more than enough food. I think my favorites were Snickers, Buckeyes (peanut butter balls), Pop-Tarts ( a surprise to me), Oatmeal cookies, and Gu (caffinated Espresso flavor). The only thing I wish I had more of was Snickers bars. I had one Snickers and one Hershey bar for each leg of the trip, but I wish I had three Snickers bars instead. I packed way too much summer sausage. Usually I eat a lot of that during long adventures, but not this time. I planned for a one pound stick of sausage for each leg of the trip, and only ate one stick the entire race. Bummer, because that was a lot of weight.  Surprisingly (and unfortunately), when I got home I wasn’t sick of junk food. In fact, I think this trip only increased my addiction to junk food. Withdrawl sucks.


How much weight did you lose?

I weighed myself about 36 hours after I finished, and I had lost 4 pounds. At that point, I had already eaten about six big post-race meals, and my feet and ankles were still very swollen. At the finish, I was probably 6-8 ponds lighter than normal. For the first week afterwards, I was consistently eating 5-6 full meals a day. I weighed myself again a week later, and I was back to my normal weight. All in all, not a lot of fluxuation.


How would you rate your level of stink after wearing the same clothes for a week?

I was definitely foul. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘I just stepped out of the shower’ and 10 being ‘I just swam across town in the sewer system,’ I think I was a 6 when I finished.  Okay, maybe a 7.   I thought I would smell worse. Except for my feet. They were an 11. Those wool socks might get thrown out.


What does Linda get in return for letting you do this?

We’re not sure yet, but she definitely gets something. Maybe a vacation of her own, or maybe she gets to focus on training for her own event, or maybe she gets a new toy. Or maybe all of the above. At the very least, I think there is either a road bike or cyclocross bike in her future.


What’s your next adventure?

I cashed in a lot of chips at work and at home to do this race, so it will be a while before I do anything on this scale again. Actually, it might be a while before I do anything at all again, because of…


My Achilles Tendon injury

My feet and legs had been feeling steadily better for the past two weeks.  I went skiing (very mellow) twice this past weekend, and my feet were sore, but my Achilles tendon didn’t hurt at all. So I was optimistic as I went to the doctor’s office this morning.

The doctor killed that positive vibe pretty quickly. I have a partially ruptured (torn) Achilles tendon.

Its never a good sign when you take off your sock, and at first glance the doctor says, “Yep, there it is. It’s torn.”  He estimated that the tendon is about 50% torn, but I need to have an MRI to be sure.    So I am now in a walking cast and looking at about three months of recovery time if things go well. Or surgery and six months of recovery time if it goes not-so-well.

I’m pretty bummed.   So much for enjoying Alaska’s Better Half.  And just to be safe, its probably best if you  not make any mention of crust skiing to me for the foreseeable future.

But on the bright side, I guess I can be glad that it’s not completely torn, and that it didn’t give out in the middle of the Farewell Burn.  Knowing that the injury is kind of serious makes me feel better about my decision to play it safe towards the end of the race.  I have to admit that, as the pain and the satisfaction of finishing subsided over time, I had begun to wonder if I should have pushed through Nikolai and tried to hold my second place standing. I was starting to wish that I had been in race mode, just a little bit.  But now, knowing the full extend of the injury makes me realize that I did the right thing.  Well, the right thing might have been to scratch from the race when it first started hurting.  But I think I did the second-best thing.

The doctor seemed to have an understanding of the athletic stuff I am used to doing, so he knows the kind of shape I want to get back to. I guess he figured that out when he asked “How did this happen?” And I answered, “By skiing 350 miles.” He also knows how to deal with athletes who are not happy about being laid up. One of his main concerns was finding alternative ways for me to work out during the next few weeks. For the time-being though, I’m not in the mood to push it. I’ve got a lot of non-athletic things to catch up on, and I could use a little rest. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go mount this boot-thingy onto a skate ski.

2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational Scrapbook

Friday, March 20th, 2009

It seemed like there was a lot more awareness of the Iditarod Trail Invitational this year. I’ve followed the race for the past few years and I don’t remember seeing nearly as many newspaper articles as there were this year. I wanted to make sure I had a copy of this stuff for future reference. So here is my scrapbook of this year’s race.

Race News and Discussion

ITI website Latest News page

ITI website Results page

ITI website participant list

MTBR Discussion Forum

ITI message board comments for me: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

Photos and Video

ITI Photos from the Start

Tony start photos

Fred start photos

ITI Photos from the finish

Robert May photos from start

Aidan Harding photos

YouTube video of Bill Merchant’s pass ordeal

Racer Reports

Jay & Tracey P: Tidbits | Full Report

Phil Hofstetter: Recap 1 | Recap 2 | Recap 3 | Tim’s Nome finish

Lou Kobin: Recap 1 | Recap 2 | Recap 3 Lou has some of the best ‘in-race’ photos I’ve seen

Yair Kellner: Rumors of my demise…

Geoff Roes: Interview with Jeff Oatley

Jill Homer: All of her February and March posts


Athletes max out Trail Invitational field
Anchorage Daily News 01/03/09 23:58:40
Considering the Alaska Trail Invitational, the 350-mile race from Knik to McGrath along the Iditarod Trail that begins March 1? Forget it. Fifty hardy bikers, runners and skiers from Alaska, the Lower 48 and overseas have already filled out the 50-racer field. And what a loaded field it is.

Iditarod Trail Invitational Ready To Roll
Anchorage Daily News 01/19/09 22:53:01
While the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational slog to Nome which begins March 1, a week before the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race,remains the domain of just a few endurance studs, the shorter 350-mile race to McGrath features a stellar field littered with former champs.

The loneliness of the long-distance winter race
Anchorage Daily News 02/23/09 21:32:10
The hardest race to run is the one waged in your mind, and it is for this reason the Iditarod Trail Invitational is the hardest race in the world. Forget the distance of hundreds of miles, the brutal Alaska winds, the subzero cold, the bad trail, and the danger of avalanche and overflow. Those are the smallest of the challenges to be met.

Basinger swaps bike for skis in race to Nome
Anchorage Daily News February 27th, 2009 12:21 AM
The rare endurance animals who finish the Iditarod Trail Invitational to McGrath or Nome can count themselves among the toughest bikers, skiers or runners in the world. And at least one aims to show he’s pretty flexible too. Anchorage bicyclist extraordinaire Peter Basinger, who owns the Invitational record to McGrath — a stunning 3 days, 5 hours, 40 minutes — will slip out of the pedals and strap on the skis Sunday when Alaska’s longest human- powered race begins at 2 p.m. on Knik Lake.

Oatley plows through snow for race lead
Anchorage Daily News 03/02/09 22:34:19
Picking his way through deep snow, Fairbanks cyclist Jeff Oatley is dominating the field in the early stages of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Oatley rolling rapidly in Iditarod Invitational
Anchorage Daily News 03/03/09 23:01:35
Fairbanks bicyclist Jeff Oatley extended his ridiculous lead in the Iditarod Trail Invitational to more than 11 hours on Tuesday as he headed into the treacherous Dalzell Gorge reported to be blanketed with deep snow.

Iditarod Trail missing under deep snow
Anchorage Daily News 03/04/09 22:10:14
Kathi Merchant with the Iditarod Trail Invitational reported heavy snow falling in McGrath on the north side of the Alaska Range late Wednesday afternoon. Merchant was reached by telephone as she waited to greet mountain bikers, skiers and runners coming north on the historic Iditarod route from Knik. She was starting to get a little worried.

Storm traps wilderness racers on Iditarod Trail
Anchorage Daily News 03/05/09 11:03:48
Along the Iditarod Trail, a race was on today to reach mountain bikers, skiers and runners trapped by snows high in the Alaska Range as the notorious Rainy Pass winds began to blow. Kathi Merchant with the Iditarod Trail Invitational said none of the 20 or so people on the trail appeared to be in imminent danger, but they were all stuck. The invitational, in cooperation with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was trying to get to them to provide a trail over the pass and down to a one-room log cabin on the Tatina River at Rohn. Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks, a mountain biker who led the race to Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake near the south end of the pass, left that checkpoint at 3 a.m. Tuesday. By this morning, he’d been on the trail more than 48 hours.

Wilderness racer gets through Rainy Pass
Anchorage Daily News 03/05/09 21:39:25
An effort to reach mountain bikers, skiers and runners trapped by deep snow along the Iditarod Trail high in the Alaska Range appeared to have succeeded Thursday, but the only one known for sure to be through treacherous Rainy Pass was a hedge-fund trader from the Boston area.

Wilderness race leaders power through pass
Anchorage Daily News 03/06/09 11:24:21
The storm that stranded racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational high in the Alaska Range on Thursday was easing today, but the race lead that Fairbanks cyclist Jeff Oatley sweated so hard to obtain in the 350-mile, human-powered wilderness epic appeared gone, swallowed up by the deep snow that stalled the race.

Iditarod Trail Invitational cyclist has been missing since Tuesday
Anchorage Daily News 03/07/09 00:02:06
Nineteen competitors in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race from Knik to McGrath were on the trail out of Rohn on the north side of the Alaska Range on Friday afternoon, but one competitor was notably missing. Australian cyclist Yair Kellner hasn’t been seen by anyone since he left the community of Skwentna, about 100 miles north of Anchorage, at 1 a.m. Tuesday. He is now almost 100 miles behind the tail-end Invitational walkers and concern for his welfare is growing.

Missing endurance racer rescued
Anchorage Daily News 03/08/09 22:36:32
After spending a couple days shivering in his sleeping bag and building snow caves to block the chilling wind, Australian Yair Kellner was rescued near the historic Iditarod Trail on Saturday morning.

Oatley wins ‘short’ Iditarod Invitational race
Anchorage Daily News 03/10/09 21:57:50
Fairbanks cyclist fastest to Mcgrath; 600 miles more for some. Oatley, who led by as much as 11 hours in the first portion of the race, persevered to win in five days, 19 hours and 34 minutes despite being bogged down for days by winter storms that all but obliterated the Iditarod Trail between Rainy Pass and Rohn.

From a racer’s perspective
Jill Homer, Juneau Empire Friday, March 13, 2009
A rookie no more, Juneau biker felt ready for all 350 miles of the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational. “When I finally worked the boot open, my foot wouldn’t budge. As I worked my wet sock down and wiggled and yanked my foot, nothing happened. My socks were frozen to the inside of my boot. And my foot, I realized with sinking dread, was frozen to the inside of my socks.”

Invitational cyclist rescued
Anchorage Daily News 03/14/09 03:21:23
Cyclist Billy Koitzsch was limping along the most desolate stretch of the Iditraod Trail in one of the most desolate corners of Alaska on Thursday when rescue arrived in the guise of a film crew on a snowmachine.

No cause for alarm on Iditarod Invitational
Anchorage Daily News March 30th, 2009 08:39 PM
As nasty and perilous as portions of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were this year, consider this: The Iditarod Trail Invitational was far worse. “For racers who feel the world needs to know where they are in real time, there are other races out there for them,” said Invitational co-director Bill Merchant, who plans to ban satellite signalling and tracking devices from the race next year because of problems they caused this year. The devices have uneven performance in Alaska, he said, and can cause all sorts of confusion when people use devices like the SPOT personal tracker to signal for help only to have the signal subsequently blink in and out.

Snow machine: Jeff Oatley’s Rig for the Iditarod Trail Invitational

2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational: Rohn to McGrath

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

This is part three of a three part story. Part one is here. Part two is here.

Thursday – Day 5 (continued)

Rohn to Bison Camp – 45 miles (255 miles total)

Because we had all spent a decent amount of time bivied during our trip over the pass, most of us in the lead group were feeling rested and ready to move on after a short stop in Rohn. We spent only a few hours in the checkpoint in order to dry out our sleeping bags, gloves and boots which had become damp or even soggy during the Pass snowstorm. I spent an hour or two nursing my sore feet. It was at this time that I realized my right knee wasn’t hurting nearly as much as it had the first few days. But instead, my left Achilles was aching. It’s always something. I also used the time to eat a few more cans of Chef Boy-R-Dee, restock food from my second drop bag (this time I took about half of it with me), and refill my water. By 4 PM I was on my way, along with Jay and Tracey Petervary. We were an hour or two behind Jeff Oatley and Ed Plumb who were the first to leave Rohn.

I had thought that this section of trail headed down the Kuskokwim River to the Farewell Lakes area. I was looking forward to easy cruising on the river. I should have known by now that nothing would be easy. Instead the trail went up on the south bank of the river, into thick forest called the “Buffalo Tunnels,” and gradually climbed towards Egypt Mountain. Once again the trail was unpacked, and thus I moved ahead of Jay and Tracey when they had to walk. Fortunately, this snow was only a foot to eighteen inches deep, and I was following Jeff and Ed’s tracks. My sled still provided a lot of resistance in the unpacked snow, but it was still light-years better than what I had experienced the day before.

During this section, I wanted to see how fast I was moving to estimate how long it would take me to get to the Farewell Burn. I pulled out my brand-new, super-fancy GPS receiver that I bought for this race. I turned it on (I kept it off most of the time to conserve batteries) and put it back in my pocket. I skied about 200 yards, then reached into my pocket to grab the GPS and see what my average speed was. The GPS wasn’t in my pocket. Oh no. Did I put it in a different pocket? No, I don’t have it anywhere. I glanced back. it wasn’t on the trail either. My mind started racing. So far in the race, the GPS had proven to be one of the most valuable pieces of equipment I had. I used it at least hourly to make sure I was still headed the right direction and to see how far I still had to go. I had maps and text descriptions of the trail with me, but the GPS had proven much more useful than either of those. Was it gone forever? My sled smoothed out the broken trail like a groomer as it passed over the snow, so if the GPS had fallen out of my pocket (or never made it into my pocket), it had been buried and smoothed over by the sled. I unhitched from the sled and took off my skis. I walked back 200 yards, kicking snow off the trail the whole way. No sign of it. I resolved to move every inch of snow off the trail in those 200 yards. I refused to leave until I’d found the GPS. I put on my waterproof overmitts, and dug in, starting where I had first pulled the GPS out of my pocket. I had only cleared about 4 feet of trail when I caught a glimpse of its gray and black housing, buried about two feet deep. I snatched it up, made sure it was still working, thanked god, and continued down the trail at about 3.5 MPH.

By watching their tracks, I could tell that for the next ten miles, Jeff and Ed were alternating lead. I was amazed that Jeff was able to keep pace with Ed while pushing his bike. Very impressive. My goal on this section was to reach the “Post River Glacier” (essentially a frozen cascade of ice that the trail goes straight up) before dark so I could follow Jeff and Ed’s route. I arrived at the base of the glacier just before 8 PM, with a sliver of daylight left. The meager light didn’t make for a good picture of the ‘glacier’, but here it is anyway.

I got confused trying to follow their footprints a few times, and had a few harrowing moments on the ice, but I made it up the glacier, using my ski poles for balance, and holding on to branches for dear life. Relieved to have the glacier behind me, I set my sights on making it to the Bison camp, still 25-30 miles ahead, before sleeping.

A couple of hours later, I passed Jeff and soon thereafter caught up to Ed as we neared Egypt Mountain. Ed and I were both planning on going to Bison Camp that night, and since I had been skiing by myself for almost the entire race, I was glad to have some company. I volunteered to spell Ed on the trail-breaking for a while as we started down the trail together. But the trail immediately transitioned from the woods to a open bench on the south side of Egypt Mountain, and the snow changed almost instantly as well, from powder to a firm rain crust. For the next mile or two, we cruised almost effortlessly over the crust, wondering just how long our good fortune would last. The crust was just barely firm enough to hold our weight, and it cracked as we passed over it. Every once in a while I would break through, a signal that the crust-induced bliss would not last long.

Sure enough, as the trail began to descend back into the woods on the west end of Egypt Mountain, my skis started busting through the crust on every stride. Once again we were walking. I was having an especially hard time because the short tips on my skate skis would sink below the snow level and get stuck under the crust. I had to give a swift upward kick to get the skis to bust through the crust layer so I could take another step. In addition to being frustrating, the crust-busting was also aggravating my Achilles even more. Ed was also busting through, but his classic skis were at least staying on top of the snow. After at least an hour (maybe two?) of crust-busting, I happened to glance down at my right ski and I saw the P-Tex base at the tip flapping around in the breeze. Oh shit.

My ski was broken and I had about sixty miles until the next sign of civilization. I took off the ski and inspected the damage. The ski itself hadn’t broken, but the base was peeling off the ski, starting at the tip and going down about six inches. The miles of busting the ski through crust had taken a toll. First things first, I need to repair the ski. I pulled about three feet of duct tape off the supply roll on my sled pole and wrapped the tip. I was careful not to wrap any of the base that might affect the glide of the ski, even though about four inches of that was delaminated. Then I cinched two zip-ties around the tip to hold the duct tape on. That would hold likely the tip together, but would the delamination continue to work its way down the ski? We’d find out sooner or later. Next question: Should I continue on? Or should I go back to Rohn. At this point, it was probably further to go back to Rohn that to make it to Bison Camp. And while Rohn might have had a few more tools to help me repair the ski, neither place was likely to have everything I needed to do the job right (epoxy, clamps, and a day or two to let it dry). I thought there was a better than 50% chance that the ski would hold to Bison Camp, so I continued on.

It took me more than half an hour to catch back up to Ed, and by the time I did, he was headed back the other way to find out what had happened to me. I appreciated his concern and was sorry he had to double-back for a quarter-mile or so. He turned around and we continued to break trail through the crusty snow. Ed had been telling me for a couple hours that he thought we would find a recent snowmobile track once we reached the Farewell Lakes area. There is a lodge in the area that keeps the trail packed, he said. I knew better than to get my hopes up, but they went up anyway. I was desperately longing for a decent trail. Fortunately, Ed was right. When we passed over Tin Creek, just before Farewell, we hit a snowmobile trail. I was relived that my ski and my Achilles tendon would no longer be abused by the rain crust. Our pace and our spirits picked up considerably.

As we passed over the Farewell Lakes and entered the Farewell Burn, I gradually pulled ahead of Ed and he was no longer in sight. A couple of hours later, maybe just after midnight, I stopped to put on an extra layer of clothes, as the wind had picked up considerably on the open expanses of the lakes and the Burn. I saw a headlamp coming across the lake towards me very quickly. “Man, Ed is flying,” I thought. When the light got within 50 yards I realized it wasn’t Ed, but Jeff. He was able to start riding when he hit the snowmobile trail and he was hammering. “I’ll have the fire going at Bison Camp for you,” he said as he cruised by.

The next few hours through the Burn were tough. I was fighting a stiff cross-wind and the exposed trail was going up and down hill after hill after relentless hill. I had long ago given up trying to get kick wax to stick to my skis for more than a few minutes, so I had no grip on the hills. The climbs were steep enough that I had to take off the skis and walk up them. They were also steep enough that I probably shouldn’t have been skiing down the other side in the dark either, but I was too tired to care. If I didn’t ski the downhills, I would have been walking most of the way, and I just wasn’t mentally prepared to do that. I was already exhausted from the deep snow and crust earlier in the day, and these hills were sapping every last ounce of energy. I needed to use gravity whenever possible. Besides, the hills weren’t big enough that I thought I would get injured if I crashed. Sure, I might break a ski, but one ski was mostly broken already. I had some “uh oh, this is it, this is the end” moments on a few downhills when I would start to outrun the beam of my headlamp, but I managed to survive them all.

This area is inhabited by a herd of bison that were introduced to the area years ago, I believe as a subsistence food source. Hence the names Bison Camp and Buffalo Tunnels. Before the race, I had thought it would be cool to see a bison. But now, in the middle of a snowy, windy night, I was praying that there wasn’t one blocking the trail on a fast downhill. Thankfully I didn’t see any bison.

I stumbled into Bison camp around 4 AM. There were at least 5 wall tents and I wasn’t sure which one I was supposed to go to. I remembered Pete telling us in Rohn that “our tent at Bison Camp is in the back on the left.” So I went that direction. One of the tents in that area had a snowmobile parked in front of it, but the machine was drifted in snow. The way the wind was blowing, it could have been there an hour or month, I couldn’t tell. That tent was also the only one that was not pad-locked on the outside. But the door wouldn’t budge when I tried to open it. I pulled and pulled, but it was definitely locked some how. I had a brief moment of panic when it occurred to me that I might not get inside, and I would have to continue on. My body had shut down and I wasn’t prepared to continue on. I let out a few loud “HELLO!?”‘s but there was no response. I went back and yanked on the door even harder, so the whole tent frame shook. A voice inside the tent called out “Just a minute” and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It took the man about three minutes to open the door. “What’s he doing, cleaning house?” I wondered. But when he opened the door, it was apparent that he had not been cleaning. The tent was a mess. The floor was half dirt, half straw, with a few musty sleeping pads thrown on top. There was a wood stove in the corner, but it was not going, so I was surprised that the man was only wearing a short-sleeve shirt. Dan (I didn’t find out his name until the next day) was very friendly considering I had just woken him up at 4 in the morning. He helped me get a fire started in the stove. He said he had come out to the camp earlier in the day from Nikolai to cut firewood for us racers. I thanked him very much for the support.

“I didn’t expect any of you until the afternoon,” he said.

“What about the first guy?” I asked.

“I haven’t seen anyone else. You are the first one.”

Hmmm, where did Jeff go? I didn’t worry too much about it, and after my damp overboots, hat and gloves were hung over the fire and I had something to eat, I crawled into my sleeping bag. I was just starting to doze off when Ed came to the door. He was a little confused because he thought he’d already passed by a deserted Bison Camp a few miles back. So he’d taken a few Excedrin and refocused on making it to the Bear Creek cabin, seven miles further down the trail. He was now set on the cabin, so he closed the door and went on his way. I found it very odd that everyone I talked to since Rohn had planned to stop at Bison Camp to sleep, and yet I was the only racer there that night. Was this some kind of trick to throw me off their real race strategy? The middle of the Farewell Burn seemed like a cruel place to play mind games with your fellow racers, but maybe they were taking this thing a lot more seriously than I was. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. Plans change as the race changes. No matter. The tent was warm and out of the wind and snow, so I was content to stay.

Bison Camp to Nikolai – 45 miles (300 total)

I woke up around 8:30 AM. The fire had gone out and the tent was freezing. I stumbled outside to relieve myself. My Achilles was really stiff and I walked with a limp. My feet were extremely sore, but that was normal by this point. The wind was still howling and the snow was still blowing sideways. Still no sign of other racers. I was starting to worry about crossing thirty more miles of the infamous Farewell Burn alone, on a broken ski, on an injured leg, in a blizzard on a trail that may or may not exist after because of the storm. It seemed like a really bad idea. At this point Dan the Mountain Man started talking about how these conditions were perfect for hypothermia. It was warm enough (in the teens) that we would work up a sweat, and then the wind and snow could chill to the bone with one strong gust, he said. It was true, but it wasn’t exactly the encouragement I was looking for.

I decided that I would sit tight until something changed, either the weather or the arrival of another racer. Safe and smart. No need to rush. I rebuilt the fire, ate some sausage, cheese and pop tarts, and used the time to inspect my broken ski. The base had delaminated an additional couple of inches on the way to Bison Camp. It was apparent that I would need to wrap it in a lot more duct tape if it was going to hold to Nikolai. I dried the ski out over the fire, then wrapped the first two feet of the ski in multiple layers of duct tape and new zip-ties. At this point I couldn’t worry about glide, I just needed the ski to stay in once piece.

Around 10 AM, things started to change for the better. Jay, Tracey and Pete all arrived, and the snow had stopped falling. The wind was still blowing, but it seemed much less menacing against a sunny blue sky. Dan spent a couple hours talking about how the ITI should hire guys like him to pack down the trail. After the sections of ‘trail’ we’d just seen, none of us was in a mood to disagree with him. Jay and Pete agreed that these were some of the worst trail conditions they’d seen in their years of doing the ITI. Jay and Tracey talked about how the ITI compared to the many other crazy races they have done, including multiple Eco-Challenges. Jay said the ITI was probably the hardest, but Tracey wasn’t sure. “New Zealand [Eco-Challenge] was pretty hard,” she said. Still, I had heard enough. This was one of the most difficult years in one of the hardest races in the world. What in the hell was I doing here?

In the weeks leading up to the race, I had been nearly certain that we were going to have good trail conditions. The weather had been stable and reports from the trail were good. Besides, there were a lot of horror stories from 2008 about post-holing through the Dalzell Gorge. What were the chances of that happening two years in a row? Never did it occur to me that it might be worse than last year. And yet here I was, dealing with some of the worst the Iditarod Trail could dish out.

Those of us at Bison Camp suspected that the trail ahead was going to be full of snow drifts. There was no way the new snow would stick to the rain crust. Instead the new snow would blow around until it found a depression to settle into – like a snowmobile trail. So when Dan mentioned that he was going to be riding his snowmachine back to Nikolai that day, we all planned our departures so we could be on the trail just before Dan. Hopefully when he passed us, it would give us a decent trail for a while, at least. I left Bison Camp with Jay and Tracey around noon, about an hour after Pete. We each gave Dan some gas money in appreciation for his help. I was also hoping that might make him more inclined to put in a good trail for us today. At first, Jay and Tracey were able to ride, and thus were faster than me, but once Dan came by and smoothed out the snow drifts the skiing was much better, but still very slow. I passed Jay and Tracey, and a couple hours later I passed Pete. I never saw Ed, but I did see where his tracks left the main trail to go to the cabin. Was he still there? I had no idea where he was. No sign of Jeff anywhere. His tracks were probably wiped out by Dan’s snowmobile.

It was a slow thirty mile trudge from Bison Camp, past Sullivan Creek and on to Salmon Camp, which was about 13 miles from Nikolai. The entire Farewell Burn was covered in a rain crust, which meant that the snow drifts in the trail continued. Fortunately Dan’s trail held up well, or it would have been even slower. My leg would throb in pain for an hour or two, then it would subside for an hour or two, only to return later. I was taking Advil, but it didn’t seem to do much. I was getting really frustrated at my pace. I was going about 4 MPH, barely faster than walking. I had been classic skiing all day, without kick wax because the snow was so slow. I was trying to mentally prepare myself for another 3-4 hours of trudging to Nikolai. But soon after Salmon Camp, after the sun went down, the trail hooked a right hand turn towards Nikolai and the snow conditions changed completely. The new, dry, windblown snow disappeared and the trail consisted of old, transformed snow that was refreezing after a day out in the warm sun. It was fast – the fastest snow I’d felt all race – and for the first time since day one I was able to double pole. This took a lot of stress off my Achilles. My speed doubled to about 8 MPH and I cruised into Nikolai in under two hours. What an unexpected treat!

When I arrived in Nikolai, it took me a while to find the right house. I didn’t expect it to be a mile outside town. But the locals were very encouraging and helpful with directions. I stumbled into Nick and Olene Petruska’s house at 9:40 PM. I was surprised to see that Jeff had only left here two hours prior, and that he had continued on without much rest. Why the rush? Didn’t he already have this race sewn up? It didn’t even occur to me that he, or others, might think I had a shot of beating him. As she served me a heaping plate of spaghetti, Olene asked me if I was going to hurry back out to chase Jeff. “No way, I’m not racing,” I replied. Looking back, I can now understand how odd that comment must have seemed coming from someone in second place. The confused look on Nick and Olene’s faces was priceless. So I explained, “I haven’t been racing, I’ve just been trying to survive. I’ve got foot and knee problems. I’ve got a broken ski. I’ve been resting a lot at each checkpoint so that my body can simply make it to the next checkpoint. The only reason I’m in second place is because the trail has been so bad. I’m not worried about winning, I’m worried about making it the last 50 miles on a bum leg and a broken ski. I’m going to get some sleep before I attempt the final push to McGrath.”

At this point, a young man who I believe was Nick and Olene’s son, volunteered that the trail to McGrath was not in the whole way due to the recent storms. “But,” he said, “There’s a group of us heading down to McGrath tomorrow morning at 9:30, so there will be a trail after that.” Very good to know. Another reason to wait a while.

Nick called in my arrival to race director Kathi in McGrath. She was very encouraging and wanted to know if I was heading out soon. “No, I’m exhausted and my legs hurt. I need to rest. I’m not really racing, anyway, I just want to make it to the finish.”

I then placed a quick call to my wife. She had just seen Kathi’s update on the web that I arrived in Nikolai. The update also said that I “sounded fresh but having a quick break before starting [my] homecoming”. So I explained to my wife that I was definitely not fresh. I also said, “I haven’t been racing and I am not going to start now. I’ve been going safe and smart, taking lots of rest, and the race has come to me. I’m going to stick with what’s working.”

Ed came in as I was finishing my second plate of spaghetti. He must have been traveling less than an hour behind me the whole day. He said he was completely wiped out. We both went to sleep in a spare bedroom with the same plan – sleep until we wake up, then take it from there.

Nikolai to McGrath – 50 miles (350 total)

I woke around 6:00 AM to see Jay and Tracey getting ready to head out after a solid eight hour break. I had slept about seven hours, just what I needed if I was going to make it through a fifty mile day. Pete was also up and starting to get his stuff together. As I ate a delicious egg, sausage and cheese concoction that Olene had prepared, I started to plan my own departure. The temperature was about -20F, so there was no glide to be found out there. If I could wait until daylight, the snow might be a little faster. I spent some time adding more duct tape to my ski, and figuring what clothes to wear on a day that would start at -20F, but likely warm up into the +20′s, then cool off below zero again before I was done. Pete was packed up and out the door at 7:40 AM. I still wasn’t concerned about racing, but since I had been the lead skier for almost the entire race until this point, I did want to maintain that position to the finish. Based on our times on previous legs, I figured I would be 2- 3 hours faster than Pete on the last leg. I figured if I left within an hour after him, it would be no problem to catch him along the way. It took me a little longer than expected to pack up (it always does), but I was on my way at 9:00 AM, an hour and twenty minutes after Pete, and feeling good about my position.

My first hint that Pete wasn’t going to roll over and let me catch him came immediately. Despite the extremely cold, dry snow I saw Pete’s tracks skating down the road from Nick & Olene’s house. I tried to follow suit, but my skis just wouldn’t glide an inch. How did Pete do that? Earlier in the race he had marveled at some of the places I had been skating, now he was putting me to shame. Was it the duct tape on my ski? I didn’t think so, because both skis felt like they were stuck on Styrofoam. After passing through Nikolai and onto the Kuskokwim River, thankfully his skate tracks turned to classic and the Iditarod Shuffle resumed.

By noon, the sun was up and it was quite warm out, but the snow never sped up. The crystals were too dry and sharp. I was still essentially walking on my skis, no glide at all. This was going to be a long fifty miles. I started thinking that I must be getting close to Pete. I tried to do split times to see how far back I was. When a snowmobile would pass me, it would wipe out Pete’s tracks. So I would time how long it was before I saw Pete’s tracks again, then either add or subtract a few minutes depending on which way the snowmobile was headed. The first time I did this, the gap was an hour. No way, I thought. I must have made up more than twenty minutes in four hours. About the halfway mark, six hours, I tried again. The gap was 50 minutes. Wow, Pete is hauling ass. Can he keep it up for twelve hours? I began to realize that the only way I was going to catch him was if I cranked up my own speed. I started to increase my tempo and I put a little more push into each stride. I was working a lot harder and I had increased my speed from 4 MPH all the way up to… 4.4 MPH. That was the most frustrating thing about skiing this race. The snow was so slow, and my sled so heavy, that it made no sense to actually ski. It was much more efficient to just shuffle, which I found to be boring and tedious. But maybe that 0.4 MPH would be enough to make the difference. So for the next two hours, I hammered at a pace that I knew I couldn’t keep up for the entire day, but which maybe would help me bridge the gap to Pete. The next snowmobile split time was 40 minutes, even after the hammer-fest. That split crushed my motivation and I realized that I wasn’t going to catch Pete before the finish. I had been overconfident, and made the mistake of underestimating a guy who just happens to have the record time in this race. It wasn’t that I slowed down. My average speed was faster than it had been in days. And I was three hours faster than Ed on that last leg, when he had been within an hour or two of me on all the other sections. It was all Pete. I should have known he’d be fired up. And I should have taken the hint back in Nikolai when he said he was thinking of quitting in McGrath, rather than continuing on to Nome. Either he pushed it into overdrive for those last 12 hours, or he had been holding back all race until then, but either way, he put in a great effort and earned the ski division win. My hat is off to him.

About the time I conceded the ski race, I came around the corner of the Kuskokwim River and encountered this view. This straightaway was about three miles long. Okay, well, I knew what I’d be doing for the next hour. The scenery was not going to change. I had already been counting down the hours until the finish, and this sight was really discouraging. For the first time all race, I pulled out my iPod, in hopes that some music would make the time go quicker. Instead, it seemed to make it go even slower. Each song seemed twice as usual. “Funny, I don’t remember ‘Story Of My Life’ being an eight minute song. Wait, did it just play ‘Begin the Begin’ twice in a row? No? Are you sure it was only once?” Instead of the time passing in ten or fifteen minute chunks, it was now passing in three minute chunks. After about six songs, the cold air thankfully zapped the iPod’s battery and it went dead. About this time, John Ross came by on his bike and he was really moving fast. That looks like a lot more fun, I thought. Soon, but not soon enough, that straightaway was over and the trail moved off the river into swamps and more interesting terrain.

With about five miles to go, I encountered a split in the trail. The Iditarod trail markings followed the branch that took a turn to the right, while an unmarked trail continued straight. There was a cardboard sign on the left side of the trail that said “Ultrasport 5.5 miles” but it didn’t say which trail to take. And I saw bike tracks going both ways. Damn. I was so used to following the Iditarod trail markings that I decided to go that way. After about 10 minutes, the trail dumped me out on the river. I was still following bike tracks, but something didn’t seem right. I looked for Pete’s ski tracks and couldn’t find them. I knew that Pete would know the right route. I skied back to the intersection, and after another few minutes of internal debate, I tried the other fork. It took a few hundred yards of close inspection, but I finally made a positive I.D. on one of Pete’s ski tracks. This was the right trail. The wrong turn cost me 20-25 minutes, which put any last hope of catching Pete out of reach. Now I was more worried that other racers might have passed by while I was sidetracked. It wasn’t until the finish that I knew for sure that hadn’t happened.

I passed a “four miles to go” sign around 8 PM. I desperately wanted to just be finished, and I had to keep reminding myself that I had at least an hour to go. Then, about a mile later, I popped out on a hard-packed road. Was I hallucinating? Did this fast, skateable road just fall out of the sky? In my exhaustion, I had forgotten that the last three miles were on a road. It was the best surprise of the race. I covered the last three miles into McGrath in about 25 minutes. I arrived at Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze’s house at 8:55 PM, completing the last 48 miles in about twelve hours.

I took off my boots, hat, gloves, and jacket and went immediately to the kitchen table where I was given a heaping plate of ham, pasta, vegetables (first vegetables in a week!), and cake. I think I ate two full dinners while sharing stories with other racers. Jeff jokingly and grumpily said he wished he’d known I wasn’t going for the win before he left Nikolai. Sounded like he had quite an epic push through the night to get to McGrath, thinking I was right behind him the whole time. Looking back, it would have been fun to give it a shot, to push through the night to catch Jeff. But even now, I know it simply wasn’t possible. Given my battered body, and my broken ski, I’m not sure I would have made it. And I certainly wouldn’t have made it fast enough to catch Jeff. Besides, I would have been really hated in the bike community if I had snuck up and snatched victory from the guy who had built a full day’s lead early in the race, only to see Mother Nature take it away.

I had finished. That was my main goal (goal #3), and all I could really ask for. I also came back alive and with my body intact (goals #1 and #2 – although we are still awaiting a final ruling on my Achilles tendon. When I finally got a chance to inspect it in McGrath, it looked like I had a golf ball protruding halfway between my calf and my ankle. Not good.) I didn’t quite finish in less than 6 days (goal #4) but I am certain that with decent trail conditions, I would have been at least a day faster.

As for goal #5 (Have Fun), well, fun might be too strong a word. It was an amazing and worthwhile experience, and I am glad that I did it. There were certainly parts that were fun. Getting to know the other racers (especially Ed and Pete, who I saw every single day during the race), experiencing remote Alaskan lodges and villages, night-skiing to Finger Lake, cruising through Dalzell Gorge, double-poling into Nikolai, and hanging out at the Schneiderheinze’s house at the finish were some of the highlights. But as I said in an earlier post, I was pretty disappointed in the skiing aspect of this race. The skiing was never very good. I understand that a race like this will have highs and lows. I don’t mind the lows. I can deal with miles of trail-breaking or skiing through crud if it means that eventually I’ll enjoy gliding down a packed snowmobile track. The problem was that even the good trail sections, the parts that should have been the ‘highs,’ were kind of miserable. The snow was cold, dry and windblown, and I couldn’t get an inch of glide while pulling a sled. I couldn’t skate, I couldn’t double-pole, I couldn’t even stride. I wasn’t skiing, I was shuffling. I signed up to ski 350 miles, not walk 350 miles with skis on my feet.

I now understand why this race is much more popular with the bike crowd. Sure, it can be absolutely horrible to push a bike through untracked snow, but when you can ride, it looks like a lot of fun. With skiing, it was either bad, or not-so-bad. I bet it would be a lot better for skiing if you hit it when the snow was older, warmer, and/or transformed. But how often would most of the trail be like that? One year out of ten? Maybe? A better idea might be to wait until a few weeks later, after the Iditarod Sled Dog race, and try skiing it then, when the trail has been put in and the temperatures are a little warmer. But in any year, at any time, one storm can wipe out the entire trail, so you never know.

The scene at the Schneiderheinze’s house was very memorable. There was a steady supply of delicious food being handed out to famished racers, who would eat, sleep and repeat. At one point, about 5:00 in the morning, I woke up to use the bathroom, and somehow found myself back at the kitchen table with a huge sausage omelet and a “mancake” (a gigantic fried pancake) in front of me.

In between gulps of food, beer or ice cream, the stories were pouring out all night. My favorite was the tale of Chris Wrobel and James Leavesley who had basically disappeared after Rohn. It turns out they tried to ride down the Kuskokwim River all the way to Nikolai, rather than take the trail through the Buffulo Tunnels and the Farewell Burn. Apparently the first day was great riding on the ice, but by the second day they were pushing the bikes through snow (there is no trail on the river) and crossing small leads of open water. About fifteen miles from Nikolai, they encountered open water that they simply couldn’t cross. Their only option was to backtrack two days worth of travel, all the way to Rohn, where they planned to scratch from the race. Luckily, they were noticed by a wolf trapper flying overhead, who knew that no one was supposed to be in that area. He landed, and then flew them one by one to McGrath. I could only shake my head in disbelief. I couldn’t even comprehend the notion of taking such an untested, unknown route in an area like that. What a huge risk. But imagine if it had paid off!

As we lounged about and assessed the damage we’d done to ourselves, race veterans like Jay P, Pete, and Jeff were asking all of us rookies if we would do the race again. I think we all said no. They just laughed. “Yeah, we all said that after our first time too. So, we’ll see you next year.”

My play time is limited and there are a lot of other adventures I’d like to try, so I sincerely doubt I’ll be back next year. But already, my reply has softened from “No” to “I doubt it.” And I have to admit, I’m already thinking about all the things I’d do differently, you know, if I ever did it again.

I’ve got one more post about the ITI coming before I put this thing to bed. Kind of a Post Script. [It's now up ... here]  Apparently my race report has created more questions than it answered, so I am going to try to answer a few of the questions I’ve been asked the most. If you’ve got questions, put them in the comments or email me. I’ll also give an update on how my body has recovered since the race. Look for that early next week (I hope).

2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational: Finger Lake to Rohn (aka The Rainy Pass Adventure)

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

This is part two of a three part story. Part one is here. I went a little overboard in my account of the Rainy Pass section of the race, putting together timelines and maps, because I think some people had false impressions about what actually happened. The information that was reported during the race was great for easing the minds of family and friends, but it wasn’t completely accurate. That is to be expected when you are in a storm in the Alaska Range without any communication with the outside world. Each one of us who was out there has a unique story to tell. Here is mine.

Tuesday – Day 3 (continued)

Finger Lake to Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) – 35 miles (165 miles total)

The first hint of what was to come in Rainy Pass was dropped while I was resting at the Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake. I was trying futilely to get some sleep on the damp floor of the tent when Billy Koitzsch came in and started chatting up John Ross and me. He said that the trail over Rainy Pass was still not in, and that the lead racers were piling up in Puntilla. Usually, there are two ways to get from Puntilla to Rohn. Rainy Pass is the shortest route and is used by most of the racers in both the ITI and the Iditarod sled dog race. The alternative route is through Ptarmigan Pass and Hell’s Gate. This route is 30 miles longer, but is usually well-packed by the Iron Dog snowmobile racers who came through a few weeks ago. If Rainy Pass looks to be difficult, it can be much faster to go the Hell’s Gate route. But now I flashed back to a conversation I had in Skwentna. Another racer (come to think of it, it might have been Billy, man that guys’s got sources…) had told me that the Ptarmigan/Hells Gate route was blocked off this year by open water. The Iditarod Trail crew going to Rohn via Hell’s Gate had a snowmachine submerge in open water on the Kuskokwim River and barely made it to Rohn. We had to go over Rainy Pass. At the time, it didn’t mean much to me, because I was planning on going over Rainy Pass anyway. Thirty extra miles? No thanks. But now, I was wishing I had the Hell’s Gate option. I was definitely not falling asleep after this news, especially since Billy kept talking. So I prepared to move on. After all, there was a full day until I would get to Rainy Pass. Plenty of time for a trail to be put in, either by snowmobile, or by other racers.

Pete and Ed finished their rice and beans meals and came to the tent to lay down as I was getting ready to leave. We chatted a bit. I really enjoyed that we three skiers were able to interact so much along the trail. We all skied at different paces, but because we took different amounts of rest, we were moving down the trail at almost the same pace.

I went through my re-supply drop bag that I had sent to Finger Lake before the start of the race. As I restocked my food supply, I was shocked at how little I had eaten. Because I was spending extra time at checkpoints to let my knees and feet recover, I was eating two full meals at each checkpoint, rather than the one I had planned on. This meant I was eating much less of my own food. I still had my appetite and was getting plenty of calories, but I was carrying a lot of food weight with me because I wasn’t making a dent in the cache. I had very little need to resupply with food.

This picture shows all the food that was in my Finger Lag drop bag. The pile on the right is what I took with me. The pile on the left is what I left behind. I hope someone ate that stuff. I left Finger Lake just before noon, in 12th place.

By this section of trail, it was finally beginning to sink in that not only would I not be skating very much on this trip, I wouldn’t really be classic skiing either. Instead I would be shuffling. The new snow that had fallen earlier in the week had only been packed down by a few snowmobiles, so the crystals were still sharp. And the trail was also windblown in most places, making it even slower. And now, as I started the ascent towards Rainy Pass, I knew I wouldn’t be getting any glide on the uphills. I resigned myself to shuffling – still mostly without kick wax because it wore off so quickly – until I was over Rainy Pass. Maybe once I got to the other side and the trail flattened out I could do some striding or even (dare to dream…) skating. But for now, the Iditarod Shuffle continued.

My second meal of beans and rice at Finger Lake was not sitting well in my stomach, and I was having a hard time keeping it down. For the first four hours of the ski to Puntilla, I was unable to eat anything else. Finally, as I approached the Happy River, I was able to force down a Snickers bar, and my stomach gradually felt better as the day went on.

About twenty miles from Finger Lake, I encountered the notorious Happy River steps. Here’s how the Iditarod Sled Dog race website describes the steps:

After a mile or so of dropping down toward the valley and zigzagging through the forest, you’ll plunge down a short but very steep hill; directly in front of you will be one of the warning signs and the trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill. Of course, you will be standing on your brake for all you’re worth.

I took off my skis and walked down the steps. This was tricky in its own right because my sled was pushing heavily on my back as I walked, and my ski boots had minimal traction on the icy snow. But I took it slow and made it down with only a couple spills and out onto the Skwentna River. Aidan Harding caught me during the short section on the Skwentna. But then to get off the river, we had to climb up a nearly vertical embankment. I was able to throw my skis up to the top, then claw my way up on my hands and knees while still pulling my sled. Aidan had to remove every bag of gear from his bike and carry each piece up one by one. I was gone by the time he had to haul the bike up, but I can only imagine what a trick that must have been. I breathed a sigh of relief for having made it through the steps. But as I soon found out, that was the easy part of today’s trail for anyone hauling a sled.

The trail between the Happy River steps and the open expanses of Rainy Pass was twisty and turny, with lots of ups and down and wavy bumps created by snowmobiles. This was difficult terrain to navigate a sled through, but the worst part was the alder branches and stumps that were sticking up through the snow the entire way. The smaller branches were constantly catching on my sled cover. Each time I would have to stop, turn around and give the sled pole a quick tug to break it free. The bigger branches sometime got under the cover, or snagged on the sled itself. This required that I stop, unbuckle myself from the sled, ski back and de-tangle the sled, then re-buckle and move on, only to do it all again in a few minutes. Some of the bigger stumps would flip the sled over completely, which meant an even longer stop before I could get going again. The sled cover took its toll in this section, as seams began to unravel and snaps popped off. This is where I began to think that Pete’s elevated sled frame was a brilliant idea. It was a beautiful sunny day and the trail was incredibly scenic as it passed across alpine lakes and through the woods, but I wasn’t enjoying the trip because I was fighting with the sled.

After passing by the Long Lake Hills, the valley widened and the brush gave way to open meadows. The mountains were spectacular, and for the first time all trip, I started snapping a lot of photos.

The last five miles to Puntilla were a slow uphill shuffle, but at least I wasn’t stopping every three minutes to de-tangle my sled. I arrived at Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake at 7:30 PM, along with John Ross, Billy Koitzsch, Robert May, and Aidan Harding. I was surprised to find only two other racers at the checkpoint, Eric Warkentin and Louise (Lou) Kobin. As we ate Chef Boy-R-Dee ravioli straight from the can, the checkpoint worker informed us that there was a trail over Rainy Pass, and that everyone else had started their trip up and over. This was good news, and it put my mind at ease as I fell asleep on a bed in the extremely warm cabin.

Wednesday and into Thursday – Day 4 and 5

Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) to Rohn – 45 miles (210 miles total)

Having heard plenty of horror stories about Rainy Pass and the Dalzell Gorge, I was hoping to travel with other racers for that section. Billy, Robert, Aidan, and John departed at 5:00 AM. I knew I would be faster than the bikers, at least on the climb up to the Pass, so I decided I would follow them by about half an hour. I was a bit sad leaving Puntilla, because I thought it might be the last time I saw Pete and Ed. We’d seen each other at every checkpoint, and I enjoyed the fact that the skiers were sticking close together despite our different skis and sled/backpack arrangements. But the time gap between us was steadily growing at each checkpoint, and it was now about five hours. I thought that a long trip up and over Rainy Pass would increase the gap, and I would leave Rohn before they arrived. Of course, it turned out I shouldn’t have been too worried about that.

About an hour after leaving Puntilla, I encountered Robert who was on his way back down to Puntilla. “I don’t feel quite right,” he said. “I’m overheating. I’m going to go back and rest some more.” I continued on the gradual six hour climb, passing John and then Billy and Aidan along the way.

Just after passing the bikers, I crested a small hill and saw a dark-haired creature scurrying up a hillside about half a mile away. It was too big to be a fox or a porcupine, and too small to be a bear. Wolverine? It’s loping gait sure made it look like a wolverine, but I was too far away to know for sure. I’ve seen lots of wolverine tracks in the snow over the years, but they are elusive creatures and I had never seen the actual beast the wild before. I watched it disappear over a small ridge. It had to be a wolverine. Other than one moose and some birds, it was the only wildlife I saw the entire trip.

[To view full size map, click the map, then when it expands click it again in the lower right corner. Same for any of the photos.]

In the morning, we were teased with sun and blue sky, but as I left the Ptarmigan Pass Valley and entered the narrower Rainy Pass side valley, the clouds moved in, the light got flat, the wind picked up and it started to snow. There were a lot more alders in the side valley, and I had trouble guiding my sled between them. Soon, I came across a snowmobile that was stuck in deep snow and alders. The machine was a rental and it was identical to the machines being used by a couple of Italian guys who appeared to be shadowing the race on snowmobile. They had passed me the day before, about 10 miles before Puntilla. I had also seen them in Skwentna and Shell Lake, and it seemed like the Italians were up to no good (It is illegal for any racer to have external support or accompaniment out on the trail). I later found out that they were illegally providing support to racer Marco Costa who was disqualified and banned from the race. When I saw the stuck snowmachine, I immediately assumed it belonged to the Italians. I shook my head and moved on.

The wind was now howling, and it was all I could do to follow the footsteps of the bikers as they led me to the pass. Any snowmobile trail that might have existed was blown in with new snow. But I knew that the other side of the pass usually gets less snow. If I could just make it up and over, I was sure the trail on the other side would be better.

As I shuffled across Rainy Pass Lake, about a half mile below the pass, I had my head down, trying as best I could to follow the footsteps in the drifting snow. Just then a voice called out, “Hey Cory!” I looked to my right to see a man standing in front of a cabin, maybe 200 yards away.

“How’s it going?” he asked. Based on the voice and the fact that he knew my name, I figured it had to be Bill Merchant, the race director and the person putting in the trail for us.

“Well, I’m slogging along, but I’m still moving,” I replied.

“Okay, there’s a group of bikers up ahead of you,” Bill said.

“Great, thanks.”

And with that, I continued on my way. I guess I should have known at that point that something was not right. Bill was supposed to be ahead of us, packing down the trail. Why was he still here, on this side of the pass? But I was still operating with the information we’d been given in Puntilla – that there was a trail over the pass. So I just figured that Bill must have gone up and over, then came back up to pack it down better. Sure, I couldn’t see any sign of a trail where I was, but this snow near the pass was all rock-solid sastrugi, extremely firm wind-blown snow. A snowmachine would barely make a mark in it. I figured the trail would pick up again after I dropped down the other side of Rainy Pass and out of the wind.

The light was extremely flat as I crested the pass. Starting down the other side, it would have been good skiing on the firm snow, except that I couldn’t see a thing. It was all a giant white sheet. I couldn’t make out any definition. I was afraid that I would drop off a cliff or run smack into a snowdrift (and snap a ski), so I went really slowly. The slope was just the right grade to cruise slowly without having to work too hard, or pick up too much speed. It was the easiest mile of the race. “I’ll be down to Rohn in no time,” I thought.

But as I descended out of the wind, the new snow started to settle in on top of the old. I could now see the footprints and bike treads ahead of me that I assumed belonged to Eric and Lou, the two bikers who left Puntilla seven hours before me. But there was no sign of a snowmobile track! It wasn’t until this point, about two miles down the other side of Rainy Pass, that it occurred to me that there was no trail. Maybe that stuck snowmobile did belong to Bill and he never made it over. But what about the Rohn crew that was supposed to be coming up this side? Shouldn’t they have been through here by now? This was a bummer, but I wasn’t overly concerned. The snow wasn’t deep, and I was still averaging between two and three miles per hour. With about 10 miles to go before I reached the Tatina River, this meant it the section from Puntilla to Rohn would take about 12-14 hours, rather than the optimistic 8-10 I was shooting for, but not a big deal.

I continued following the bike prints as they entered a narrow creek bed in the couple of miles before Pass Creek spilled out into the Dalzell Creek valley. Here the valley was narrow. So narrow that a few racers I talked to thought this section was the infamous Dalzell Gorge, even after they had made it through the Dalzell Gorge (which is actually the last descent before we hit the Tatina River). The snow was getting deeper. I was trudging through snow up to my knees in places. I tried to think positively by telling myself that I was still better off than the bikers, but I had my own unique issues to deal with. Much of this section looked like this:

Yes that is the trail. You can see the markings on the trees. Now tell me how you would get a through there on skis, while pulling a sled? I don’t know the answer either. All I know is that somehow I made it by detaching and reattaching to the sled many times. I was mystified by the fact that the Iditarod Sled Dog race would be coming through here in four days. How would they buff out this trail in that short amount of time? Surely, it would take the trail crew a full week to clear all the brush. But as I discovered when I read Lou’s blog, I should never underestimate a man with a snowmobile and a machete. Words to live by, actually.

Because of the alders, doing this section on skis wasn’t much easier than pushing a bike. Sometimes the alders necessitated traveling on the creek, while hoping that I wouldn’t bust through into open water (I didn’t). Later Jay Petervary would tell me how the lead group of bikers came through here, taking turns leading the post-hole parade. Frequently, someone would take step and the snow would collapse into the creek, taking the person’s leg with it. Then everyone would hold their collective breath until the person announced “Wet!” or “Not Wet!”

Sometime around 2:00 PM, after traveling 3 miles in two hours, I knew I was getting close to where Pass Creek was about to spill out into the Dalzell Creek valley. I sensed that the vegetation above the creek bank was thinning out, and I popped up to see if it was any easier to travel on the banks. It turned out to be much easier. The snow wasn’t as deep (only just above my ankles) and the trees were spaced wide enough to ski through. I hadn’t gone more than 20 feet on this bank, which felt like a superhighway compared to the creek, when I looked down and saw a group of seven bikers in the creek next to me. My first thought was, “Oh crap, not now. Why do they have to see me now?” They were going to see me glide by, in relative ease, while they slogged through every step. They were going to absolutely hate me, and there was nothing I could do about it. I gave them a sheepish wave and and a meek “Hey.” The looks of frustration on their faces told the whole story.

“Is it any better up there?” a woman I later figured out was Tracey Petervary called out.

“Yeah, the snow is not as deep,” I replied.

“Do you see any trail markers?”

“Yep – two right in front of me.”

We had a brief conversation as they extracted themselves from the creek and climbed up the bank. They asked how the skiing was, and I tried to explain that, despite appearances at the moment, I was having my fair share of trouble with the sled in the alders. But they were having none of my excuses, and I agreed that it was still better than pushing a bike. Jay Petervary asked where Eric and Lou (the other couple on the trail, and Jay & Tracey’s main competition) were. I told them I had no idea, I had assumed they were in front of me.

“Maybe they are still at the cabin,” Jay said.

“Maybe. I didn’t stop there.” I replied.

At this point I started doing math in my head. I left Puntilla in 14th place. I passed 4 people on the climb. I apparently passed two more (Eric and Lou) who were in the cabin. And now I was passing a group of seven. That puts me in …FIRST PLACE?!? How did that happen? Last I knew, the lead biker (Jeff Oatley) was at least a day ahead of me. Only later did I hear the story from these guys how Jeff arrived at the Rainy Pass Lake cabin and found Bill stranded there. Bill had gotten his snowmobile stuck and had been holed up in the cabin (which, by the way, did not have a roof) for a couple of days. His satellite phone was also broken so he couldn’t call for help. Jeff, knowing there was no trail for him over the pass, elected to stay put at the cabin with Bill, as did the rest of the top cyclists when they arrived. Finally early that morning, the first seven decided to make a push over the pass as a group. And here they were: Jeff, Jay, Tracey, James Leavesley, Chris Wrobel, Phil Hofstetter, and Alec Petro.

My excitement about leading the race was promptly quelled when I started breaking trail. Again, it wasn’t bad at first. The snow was only up to my shins and I was easily able to follow the trail markings at a pace between 1 and 2 MPH. I wouldn’t make it to Rohn by dark as I hoped, but I was able to easily put the bikers out of sight. But with each mile, the snow got deeper, the pace got slower, and I swear the trail markings got harder to follow. I took these pictures when I thought I was breaking trail through deep snow. It turned out that this was nothing compared to the deep snow I encountered a couple hours later, but by then I was in no mood to take pictures.

After breaking trail for three miles, the snow was now up to my knees and my pace was about 1 MPH at best. It had started snowing. At this point I hadn’t yet heard Bill’s story of being stranded for days, and I was cursing him not only for not putting in a trail, but for not warning me about what was to come when I saw him near the pass. The snow kept getting deeper. Each step was a monumental effort. After five miles down Dalzell Creek, it was up to my mid-thigh. I could barely pull my skis out of the deep snow to take another step. On each step, my ski would sink through about a foot of powder and hit a layer of crust underneath. And each time I would hope that maybe, just maybe, the crust would hold my weight as I stepped up onto the ski. And each time the crust would collapse under my weight, burying the ski an additional two feet under and sucking all my energy with it. Anyone who has had to ski or walk through breakable crust knows how mentally and physically tiring it is. And did I mention I was pulling a sled? I had stopped keeping track of my pace because it was too depressing, but it was probably about 0.5 MPH. After six hours and about six miles of breaking trail, I couldn’t go any further. I was utterly exhausted. I had kept my motivation high until that point simply because I had faith I could make it through to Rohn before stopping. I was now faced with the reality that I was too tired. I needed to rest now. Besides, if someone else caught up, they could take a turn busting trail. There was no need for me to do it all by myself. I packed out a spot for my sled and bivy sack under a tree next to the trail, crawled in and ate some cookies and pop tarts before drifting off to sleep. It was about 6 PM.

Ed came by at about 11:00 PM. Even with my trail-breaking efforts, I essentially had a five hour lead before I stopped. That was gone now, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was just happy to have help with the trailblazing. We had a brief conversation about how ridiculous the situation was, then he said he was going press on a little further.

The bikers came by around 1:00 AM. I didn’t talk to them, but I did hear a few comments they made as they passed.

“Bivy. That’s what we should be doing.”

“There’s Cory – I thought he’d be long gone.”

That second comment made me realize that the bikers didn’t understand how difficult it was to ski this section. They saw me ski away with relative ease many hours ago and figured it was like that for me the whole way. They never saw me when I was breaking through 3 feet of snow, when it required an explosive full-body lunge and about three contortionist poses just to get my ski out of the snow on every step. I will readily admit that I had it easier than the bikers did, but it still was nowhere near easy.

I couldn’t get back to sleep after the bikers passed, and by 2:00 AM, I was packed up and back on the trail. I was no longer trudging through unbroken snow, but now I had a new problem. The trench that the bikers left in their wake was completely lopsided. One side was very deep from where they were walking. The other side of the trench, where they pushed their bikes, was only half as deep. I simply could not pull my sled through their tracks because it kept flipping over in the uneven trench. It flipped over six times in the first one hundred yards. I had a brief moment of panic when I thought there was no way I could get my sled through that section. Would I have to ditch the sled in order to save myself? Was my best option to leave the sled and gear behind, ski to Rohn and scratch from the race? Would I have to break a parallel trail? No way was I doing that. My only other option was to empty the sled. I took my three drybags, sleeping pad and sled cover and strapped them to my body, my hip belt and on my small backpack. I was able to pull the sled fine when it was empty, but the extra thirty five pounds hanging awkwardly on my body provided yet another degree of difficulty. I was insanely jealous of Ed, with all his gear in a backpack, and Pete, whose ingenious sled design made it possible to carry the load on his back when needed.

After a few hundred more yards, I was just staring to get into a rhythm when I came upon a cluster of bivies. And the end of the broken trail. At first I was in disbelief that they had only made it a few hundred yards beyond my bivy site before calling it quits, but eventually it occurred to me that it probably took a couple of hours to make that progress. Oh well, I was back to being the trail breaker.

I took one stride into the unbroken snow and quickly realized that skis were not going to work. My first step sunk so deep in the snow that my ski wouldn’t move an inch. I simply could not take another step. I reached down, unclipped my boots from my bindings and dug my skis out of the snow so I could continue on foot. With each step I sunk in to at least my waist, sometimes my chest. Each step required an explosive movement just to extract the leg and move it twelve inches forward. Sometimes it wasn’t even a step, it was more of a swimming motion, pushing snow out of the way with both my arms and legs. At this point I began wondering if this is what the Donner Party experienced. I was envisioning us being stuck for another couple of days. Things were going to get worse before they got better. I was fairly certain that we’d all eventually be okay, because we had plenty of food and warm clothes. I was more worried about all the people following in the race at home. What would they think when all the racers simply disappeared for a few days. I’m not sure my mom could take that. I reminded myself of Linda’s Rule #2: Don’t worry about them. I pressed on.

After about an hour and a half of this wrestling match, the trail started to climb up a hill out of the valley. It was 3:30 AM. I had been out here from almost 24 hours. I knew from the trail description in my pocket that this climb directly preceded the trail dropping into the Dalzell Gorge for the final two miles of descent onto the Tatina River. So I knew I had less than three miles to the river, then 5 miles to Rohn. But I didn’t know if there would be a trail on any of that. It could easily be another 16 hours at this pace.

If breaking trail through waist-deep snow on the flats had been exhausting, breaking trail uphill felt impossible. After half an hour and what felt like only 100 yards, I was sure I couldn’t take another step. I was starting to get above treeline where the wind was picking up and the snow was blowing in circles. I paused to assess the situation. I had no idea how big the hill was. With this weather, I needed to either camp right there, or make it up and over the hill and down the other side. I couldn’t camp where it was exposed. And even if I could make it up and over, I was still faced with the daunting task of descending through the legendary Dalzell Gorge, in deep snow, in the middle of the night, without a trail. Stories from last year of people falling in the water while trying to crisscross the Dalzell Creek gorge were fresh in my mind. That’s not a good situation for a race rookie. I decided to camp again. Safe and smart, I told myself. I had plenty of food and a warm (if slightly damp from the falling snow) sleeping bag. I’d be okay.

Ed showed up a few hours later, and also decided to camp for a second time rather than push on. The bikers came by in the morning, maybe about 9:30 AM. We all chit-chatted a bit and shared some stories from the night before. After a few minutes, the bikers started to move on. They hadn’t taken five steps beyond where I was camped, when one of them called out, “Hey, a snowmobile trail!” I was certain it was a joke. No f*%&$-ing way did I just camp 10 feet shy of the trail that would rescue us from this ordeal! Even after they disappeared, I was still in denial. I simply couldn’t allow myself to believe there was a trail until I’d seen it myself. That would be too cruel and too lucky at the same time. I was bundled up in my bivy, and it was a long process to get my boots and outerwear on so I could see for myself. It wasn’t until Ed packed up and took off an hour later that he confirmed for me that there really was a trail.

By the time Ed left, I was already in the process of melting snow for water (my CamelBak was empty) and cooking freeze-dried Mac & Cheese for breakfast, so it took me another hour to finish up and hit the trail. Besides, I knew that I very well might encounter the whole group breaking trail again in 45 minutes. I couldn’t assume that the trail was good all the way to Rohn. By now, I knew better than to trust any trail, no matter how promising it looked.

Pete came by as I was packing up and I followed him down through the gorge. The gorge did indeed have a snowmobile trail the whole way, put in by the Rohn Iditarod crew. The dreaded Dalzell Gorge turned out to be a really fun ski, and a walk in the park compared to the previous day. I arrived in Rohn around 12:30 PM, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I could have been there six hours earlier if I had simply walked 10 more feet the night before.

Throughout the Dalzell Creek ordeal, I thought a lot about my family following the race on the internet. I had estimated before the race that I could do that section in about 10 hours, and it took over 30. I could only imagine how worried they must have been. Fortunately, there was quite a bit of information put out to keep people like my wife and parents in the loop. Most of it was reassuring which was good. However, not all of it was true.

We weren’t all together. We didn’t all have shelter. We weren’t staying put. We didn’t all know what we had gotten ourselves into when we pushed over the pass.

For instance, one article in the Anchorage Daily News said, “Racers who left the Puntilla checkpoint after Oatley were advised to pack extra food because of the conditions.” Maybe some of the racers after us were told this, but I was distinctly told that there was a trail and that things looked good up at the pass. And even so, how would we pack extra food? Our last food drop was at Finger Lake. We only had the food we brought from there. In the same article it also stated, “Meanwhile, Terry Boyle, a longtime Iditarod volunteer and skookum woodsman, was reportedly leading the pack of snowmobiles that apparently managed to open the trail from Rohn up the Dalzell Gorge and over Rainy Pass to where racers waited.” These guys put in the trail up the gorge, true (and thank God they did). And maybe later they did get up and over the pass (although Lou’s blog says they didn’t). But there was no trail in the 10 miles between the Pass and the Gorge when we went through. I don’t think any racers “waited” until there was a trail over the pass. Some waited longer than others, but I think eventually everyone set out from the cabin before any snowmobiles made it up and over. It is a testament to this year’s group of racers that everyone who went over the pass made it to Rohn. There was potential for disaster with the conditions the way they were, but everyone was fit, smart and prepared. It was quite an experience to be out there with such an incredible group of athletes.

In Rohn, we all spent some time going through our drop bags, drying out our sleeping bags and other gear, licking our wounds, and telling stories. We also listened to a Rohn checkpoint volunteer tell stories of going through the ice on the Kuskokwim River on the Ptarmigan Pass route. Someone asked her how the Iron Dog Snowmachine race had gone through Ptarmigan Pass a few weeks ago without encountering any water issues. “Those guys aren’t afraid to ride open water,” she replied. “They just gun it.”

Wow. And I thought we were crazy.

Continue on to Part Three: 2009 Iditarod Invitational – Rohn to McGrath

2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational Report: Knik to Finger Lake

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Disclaimer: This race journal turned out a lot longer than I expected. I wanted to capture as many details as possible for my own benefit, so I don’t forget them as the race fades into memory. I thought about doing an abridged version for my blog, but that would take even more time, and a few people have encouraged me to post every last detail. So, my apologies to those who want it short and sweet. I’ll probably break it up into three parts. This is part one. Also, consider this a work-in-progress. Each day I remember something else that I want to add to the journal. I’ll add things as I think of them. If you come backa nd read this again in a month, it might be completely different. If you’d rather just look at pictures, go to my Iditarod Trail Invitational Photo Album. I was disappointed by my pictures, but I’m posting them anyway. The photos from the air were taken on the flight home from McGrath. I hope you enjoy!

Part 1: Knik to Finger Lake

I couldn’t hold it back any longer. It was too overwhelming. This race had finally done it – it had reduced me to tears. How did this happen? How did it come to this? This isn’t how it was supposed to go. This isn’t how I envisioned it. The late night training sessions. The countless hours preparing gear. The months of reading and researching. I was fit. I was equipped. I was prepared. I tried to snap out of it as my eyes welled up. I needed to pull it together. There was no time for tears. This was unacceptable. Especially considering there was still two hours until the race start.

Sunday – Day 1

Knik to Yentna Station – 57 miles

We were driving down Knik-Goose Bay road towards the start of the race. I thought I was pretty cool, calm and collected. Then Linda reached out and gently squeezed my hand. That’s when I completely lost it. With that one squeeze, she was able to say “Be safe,” “We’ll miss you,” “I know you can do it,” and “I love you” all at once. The wave of emotion caught me completely off-guard. It hit me that, even though my effort out on the trail would be solitary, she and so many other people were also invested in it. Linda had essentially put her life on hold for the past few months to help me prepare. She made Buckeyes, buttery goodness, and Oatmeal cookies. She helped design my sled. She didn’t confiscate my credit card when boxes of new gear began appearing at our door almost daily. She poured over the trail information probably closer than I did. She let me disappear for eight hour training sessions. I didn’t want to let her down. And I started thinking about our son, who would certainly be confused when Daddy skied off into the woods and didn’t come back. He changes so quickly by the day, I couldn’t fathom being away from him for an entire week. I also thought of my parents, and Linda’s parents, and all the other friends and family who would be following the race on the internet. I felt lucky to have such a base of support. I thought of everyone who had helped me prepare. I didn’t want their efforts to go for naught. And I thought of myself. I was excited. I had been dreaming of doing this race for five years. And now it was really going to happen. I was full of anticipation and nervousness. Months of preparation were finally about to be tested. No more talking, writing, or analyzing, it was time to ski. It felt like graduation day, a funeral, and a Space Shuttle launch all rolled into one. It was as if Linda’s touch had just zapped me with all of these emotions that I had been trying to repress as I focused on the race itself. A few tears started rolling down my cheek, but it wasn’t sadness. It was joy, excitement, love, nervousness, homesickness, fear, and about fifteen other emotions hitting me all at once. This was the big day. It finally came.

It turned out that this was the most difficult moment of the race for me, and that is saying a lot, considering what lay ahead.

I had regained my composure by the time we reach the Knik Bar. I choked down a burger, fries and a Coke as I put on my ski boots and packed my sled. It was a little surreal to be chowing down on a burger in a smoke-filled bar, only ten minutes before the biggest endurance test of my life. But everything seemed a little surreal at that point, so I went with the flow.

Linda laid out three rules for me:

  1. Be safe
  2. Don’t worry about her, our son, or anyone else (unless it directly pertains to Rule #1)
  3. Have fun

Some final hugs and kisses, and then I headed to the start to join forty-some-odd other strangers for the beginning of our shared adventure. Kathi said the word “Go” at 2:00 PM and just like that, we were underway.

A foot of fresh snow that had fallen the day before made Knik Lake very soft. I could skate okay, but the bikers were really bogged down. I was trying to be very conservative, but I arrived at the other end of the lake in first place. I scurried up the hill and immediately came to a trail intersection. Damn. Five minutes into the race and I’m already lost. Not a good sign. I pulled over and waited for a bunch of bikers to go by, then I took off skating down the narrow trail, followed by the other two skiers in the race, Ed Plumb and Pete Basinger. Ed is an all-round adventurer from Fairbanks, and Pete is a world-class ultracyclist (and record-holder, on bike, in the Iditarod Trail Invitational) who decided to try to ski the race to Nome this year for a new challenge. We were the only three skiers in the race, and it was interesting because we each had a different gear set-up. I had skate skis and a traditional gear sled. Ed had classic race skis and had all his gear in a backpack. Pete had both skate skis and classic skis, and his sled was basically a backpack strapped to an aluminum frame (road bike handlebars) mounted on two skis.

After about half an hour, I realized I was working my arms too hard trying to skate uphill on a narrow snowmobile track. Ed was striding along behind me on classic skis and he looked to be more relaxed. So I pulled over, put some Super Blue kick wax on my skate skis, and started to kick and glide. It was excellent skiing. It was sunny, with temperatures in the twenties, and the trail was firm and the glide was fast. The trail was firm enough that the lead cyclists quickly left me in the dust, but I settled in with the loose-knit second group of cyclists as we made our way towards Flathorn Lake. Just before the lake, I got a fly-over from Greg, one of my bosses at work, in his plane. He buzzed the trees directly overhead to say good luck.

I thought I had put all of the second group of cyclists behind me, when I reached a steep downhill. I debated whether to ski it or walk it. I decided to let ‘er rip. Everything was fine until my sled hit a big sno-go bump at the base of the hill and caught about three feet of air. It rotated slightly while airborne, came down on its side, and basically exploded. The cover popped off and my three drybags spilled out all over the trail. Fortunately, nothing was damaged and it served as a good reminder than just because I can ski a certain section, doesn’t mean I should. Jill Homer passed me as I was repacking my sled and I followed her to Flathorn Lake.

We reached Flathorn Lake, about halfway to the Yentna Station checkpoint at mile 57, just as it was getting dark. The trail on the lake was nice and wide, and I was able to skate again. It wasn’t perfect, the snow was bumpy and a little soft, but I glided well, just happy to be skating again. Had I known at the time that those would be the best skating conditions I would have all race, I probably would have appreciated it a little more. Jill’s race soon took a turn for the worse , though I didn’t find out about it until the next day in Skwentna. It was dark by the time I was crossing Dismal Swamp. Crossing the swamp in the dark was a neat experience because it made me feel like I was in the lead of the race. I really couldn’t see the headlamps of people ahead of me unless they turned around to glance backward. But if I turned around, I could see a long line of lights across the swamp behind me, in hot pursuit. By now, the temperature was dropping quickly and the wind had picked up, so the snow was cold, dry, and windblown. The temperature would be down to -20F and windy by the time I reached Yentna Station. It felt chilly, but I never would have guessed it was that cold. I thought it was maybe zero or -5F. I guess that explains why my skis were so slow. I was no longer able to glide enough to skate ski, so I shuffled along in classic mode without much glide.

It was more of the same as I travelled up the Susitna and Yentna rivers. All of my training for this race had been skate skiing, and now I was getting concerned that on day one (a day that I was sure I’d be able to skate) I was doing about 80% classic skiing. I was dumbfounded that, after analyzing every aspect of this race in detail, a lot of my analysis was based on an assumption that had now been proven false on the first day – that I would be doing mostly skate skiing. Based on this assumption I had trained almost exclusively in skate technique and chosen to use skate skis. I knew I’d have to do a significant amount of classic skiing (I had been thinking it would be about 40% of the race) and I would just throw kick wax on the skate skis for those sections. I was now less than 10% of the way through the race and I was already regretting both my skis and my training. My skis weren’t prepared for this. The kick wax wore off my skate skis so quickly it wasn’t even worth stopping to put more on. My body wasn’t prepared for this. My feet were extremely sore, and my knee was in pain on every stride. Uh oh.

By the time I reached Yentna Station at 2 AM (two hours after I had hoped to arrive), I was seriously thinking about dropping out. This was the longest leg of the race, but it was also the first leg so I wasn’t expecting it to be so hard. I should have still been feeling fresh. Instead I was almost falling over in exhaustion by the time I finally smelled the woodsmoke signaling that Yentna Station was near. My feet were screaming in pain, I could barely bend my right knee, and I was faced with skiing the next 300 miles on the wrong pair of skis. After a hot dog and some soup, I decided to take some Advil, go to sleep and see how I felt when I woke up. It was now clear to me that I couldn’t not skimp on rest. Pre-race, my goal had been to rest only half as much as I skied. For example, if a section took 10 hours to ski, I would rest 5 hours before tackling the next section. But my body was giving me signals, loud and clear, that it would tell me when I was ready to more on, and that forcing it to abide by some arbitrary timetable would lead to disaster. I had never been in a racing mindset about this ‘race,’ but now more than ever, I knew that I had to be safe and smart if I was going to be able to continue at all, let alone finish.

Monday – Day 2

Yentna Station to Skwentna Roadhouse – 33 miles (90 miles total)

I woke up four hours later, feeling a bit better. My feet were still sore and my knee was really stiff, but I thought I could at least make it to Skwentna. Dropping out at the second checkpoint seemed much more appealing than dropping out at the first. By 8:00 AM, I was back on the Yentna and headed upriver. It was still about -17 F, and glide was non-existent. I shuffled along in classic mode until about 10:30 AM, when the snow was finally warm enough to skate on. After that, it was an enjoyable skate ski up the river. I arrived at the Skwentna Roadhouse at about 2:30 PM on Monday in about 15th place. I had averaged about six miles per hour on that leg, which seemed about right to me. I had hoped to average 6 MPH when skating and 5 MPH when classic skiing during the race. I’m glad I didn’t know at the time that I would never approach those average speeds again.

At Skwentna, I was exhausted and my feet were in pain, though my knee felt better when skating. After a huge plate of spaghetti and a cheese burger, I went upstairs to an empty room and laid down for a nap.

I had a hard time falling asleep and by 6 PM I was back downstairs eating another burger, feeling a bit better about my feet, and thinking about continuing on. Ed and Pete had just arrived and were settling in for naps, and I was tempted to stay a little longer. I wasn’t excited about taking off just as it was getting dark, but I knew I couldn’t stay here until the next morning either. So I packed up and hit the trail at 7:30 PM.

Skwentna Roadhouse to Shell Lake Lodge – 17 miles (107 miles total)

The trail from Skwentna to Shell Lake might have been my favorite of the whole trip, even though I did it in the dark and couldn’t see any of the scenery. The trail was too narrow to skate, but it didn’t get too cold that night, so I still had a little bit of glide to go with my kick. The climbs through the Shell Hills were gradual enough that I could ski them, and the twists and turns were a lot of fun. I caught cyclist Catherine Shenk on this section and we arrived at the Shell Lake Lodge at 11:00 PM. I was feeling good, and loving the trail, so I thought about not stopping. But I also wanted to experience as many of these remote lodges as I could along the way, so I decided to stop in for a quick bite to eat. We caught Zoe, the lodge owner, just before she was headed to bed and she made Catherine and I the best grilled ham and cheese sandwiches I have ever had. The only bummer during my Shell Lake stop was that at one point I had to go use the outhouse, so I put my ski boots back on. The plastic was brittle in the cold air, and the post that serves as the hinge for the ankle cuff cracked and almost pulled the cuff entirely off the boot. Fortunately it did not break all the way off, but I knew it could at any time.

I made a mental note that from there on, I would be VERY careful when putting my boot on and off, and I would always ski with overboots on to protect the hinge from another impact. If it did break completely, 250 miles would be a long way to ski without ankle support.

By the time I had finished my ham sandwich, I had settled quite nicely into a couch and was in no mood to leave Shell Lake. When Zoe pulled out some cushions and and blankets for me to sleep on, how could I refuse? I vowed to only lay down for half an hour. An hour later, I finally raised myself from slumber. Pete was just arriving at Shell Lake as I was leaving, which was fortunate, because I almost took a wrong turn out the door and he was there to set me on the correct trail. Pete went inside for a nap and I headed towards Finger Lake.

Tuesday – Day 3

Shell Lake Lodge to Finger Lake – 23 miles (130 miles total)

Prior to the race, I had been dreading having to ski any section entirely at night. I thought it would be a mental battle to stay awake and maintain focus. I thought the hours would crawl by as I longed for daylight. But I have to say that my ski from Shell Lake to Finger Lake, between 1 AM and 6 AM, was one of the most enjoyable of the whole trip. The trail was skiable, even though it was a little soft and slow. It didn’t hurt that I could see lots of footsteps next to the bike tracks in front of me, so I knew I was making good time relative to the bike pushers. There were even a bunch of sections where I was able to break out some skate strides, if only for a few seconds. Those few strides gave my screaming feet and sore knee just enough of a reprieve to keep going. I was getting pretty tired as I approached Finger Lake and I swear the last mile was really about four. The sun came up shortly after I arrived at 6:12 AM, as I was eating my chicken with beans and rice in the Winter Lake Lodge kitchen. The meal tasted good, but I was having a hard time choking it down. I thought briefly about pushing on to maximize daylight, but I was worn out and my feet needed a break. Plus I knew the next section of trail would be tough as I started the climb towards Rainy Pass. I was also trying to arrange my schedule so that I would be departing Puntilla early the next morning in order to do the trip over Rainy Pass to Rohn in daylight. So I was in no rush, I just needed to make it to Puntilla by midnight to get a few hours of rest before departing again. Safe and smart, I thought. No need to push it.

Up until the Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake, I had felt like I was on a fancy ski tour. Yentna, Skwentna, and Shell Lake had all offered us a number of food options and beds to sleep in. It was very cushy by adventure race standard. That all changed quickly at Winterlake, which is ironic because it is actually one of the nicest lodges along the route. But they didn’t let us in the lodge. We were allowed in the kitchen to eat, but the only other place they had for us was a slightly heated tent, with a door that didn’t shut completely and a damp rug on the floor from people coming and going all day. I knew the next few checkpoints would also be rustic or primitive until I reached Nikolai, but as long as they had warm shelter and food, I wasn’t complaining. I laid down in the tiny tent and tried to get a little sleep.

All in all, I was kind of pleased with myself for making it this far considering the pain I was in, and the fact that I was classic skiing on skate skis without kick wax. Here I am, I thought, over one-third of the way through the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Little did I know that I had merely completed the warm-up.

Continue to Part 2: Iditarod Trail Invitational: Finger Lake to Rohn (the Rainy Pass Adventure)

The Iditarod Trail Invitational was many things. Easy was not one of them.

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I am back home now after successfully completing the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational race to McGrath. It was an incredible race, and I am still in slight disbelief that it played out the way that it did. Somehow I managed to finish, despite broken equipment, faulty race strategy, nagging injuries, and the worst trail conditions the ITI has seen.

I am planning to write a detailed account of my race, but that might take a while. Hopefully I can start posting it in sections, starting next week.

In the meantime, let me answer the two questions I’ve been asked most often since I finished:

1) What happened on the last leg? You came into Nikolai in second place, but ended up in 6th, as the second skier?
I’ll go into more detail later, but basically up until that point I had not been racing. I had been playing it smart and safe and resisting any urge to be competitive. And that strategy was working great – after all, I was in second place! Plus, I was also dealing with a broken ski and pretty severe tendinitis in my Achilles. I was exhausted and I knew I couldn’t catch Jeff to win the thing. And honestly, I thought I had the ski division sewn up because Pete’s leg times has always been at least an hour or two slower than mine. So I played it smart and safe, and Pete skied an amazing last leg. Sure, now I wish I had left Nikolai with Pete instead of an hour and twenty minutes later, but I still think I made the smart and safe decision based on the information I had at the time. My hat is off to Pete for kicking into high gear when it counted. He’s the record-holder in this race for a reason.

2. Will you do it again?
I doubt it. There are too many other potential adventures on my list for me to continue focusing on this one. Plus, I was pretty disappointed in the skiing aspect of this race. The skiing was never very good. I understand that a race like this will have highs and lows. I don’t mind the lows. I can deal with miles of trail-breaking or skiing through crud if it means that eventually I’ll enjoy gliding down a packed snowmobile track. The problem was that even the good trail sections, the parts that should have been the ‘highs,’ were kind of miserable. The snow was cold, dry and windblown, and I couldn’t get an inch of glide while pulling a sled. I couldn’t skate, I couldn’t double-pole, I couldn’t even stride. I wasn’t skiing, I was shuffling. I signed up to ski 350 miles, not walk 350 miles with skis on my feet.

But having said all that, there were plenty of moments that made the trip worthwhile. I look forward to cataloging all of my thoughts and getting them down in written form. Check back soon.

Send a note

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

I created a few threads on the Ultrasport Message Board to consolidate well wishes, taunts, news reports, etc on Cory. Feel free to chime in…

Click on the link above, select either forum (The organizers created a 2009 race board, but then proceeded to keep the old 2008 board in their site links, so messages to racers are spread out on both forums). Look for a thread entitled “Cory on the Trail” and hit reply to add your comment.

- Linda

Going strong!

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Got a call from Greg, a work friend of Cory’s. He wanted to let me know that he was flying his plane in the area of the race today, and spotted Cory at about 5:30pm (3-1/2 hours in). He called to let me know that Cory looked strong. A lot of the cyclists were walking. He mentioned that no one had reached the Susitna river yet, but I haven’t studied the map enough to know the implications of that. Greg noted that the wind has caused a lot of drifts to pile up on the river, so the cyclists may have a rough time tonight. He also said he didn’t see anyone ahead of him for ages and thought that Cory was in the lead! That conflicts with the messages out of the race organizers, but they did state that the cyclists were really spread out.  We’ll see how things look when racers log into the first checkpoint, but it’s nice to think that he’s skiing well and making progress.

Greg noted that he saw Ed (skier w/the backpack) with the cyclists. But he didn’t mention Pete Basinger, so I hope Greg didn’t confuse Pete for Cory. Cory’s ‘safety orange’ sled cover should have been pretty eyecatching.


Into the wild….

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

[disclaimer- Cory may be pissed I'm posting, but he can always delete this later]

After yesterday’s snowstorm, today’s clear skies were a relief. I doubt any of the racers were excited to see several inches of soft snow arrive, but maybe the nice weather will bring out the snowmobilers and they’ll pack the trail.

There wasn’t much left for the racers to do at the start, since all the gear choices and prep were complete by the time they arrived. Everyone was ordering burgers and fries for one last warm heavy meal and trying to choke them down. It was outwardly calm, but the racers were generally withdrawn into their own little worlds. It was so strange, even I started to feel that pre-race nauseous feeling.

At about 1:45, Cory pulled his sled together, took a short spin to decide which poles to use at the start (skate poles), and then we said our goodbyes. I thought his sled looked pretty compact compared to a lot of the others, but there were a lot of different sizes and designs. A couple of runners were checking out Cory’s suspension system.  They were using rubber tubing over ropes, so their system looked very lightweight, but runners have very different needs than skiers. The only sled that was intriguing to me was Peter Basinger’s metal frame on skies with a backpack attached. It rides a 3-5 (?) inches off the ground, and supposedly it can be lifted up and carried on his back.  With the inches of new snow, it looked like it was gliding easily.  The other skier had a pretty compact backpack, although supposed his load was about 35 lbs.

Watching 50 racers start doesn’t take too long, and Cory was smiling and waving as he passed us. I took some photos (the race website has better ones), and watched until the racers were all out of view. If I hear any updates, maybe I’ll try to post.


It’s Go Time

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Okay, its finally time to stop typing and start skiing. Heavy snow yesterday will make for a slow first day (and maybe second day, and ….).

Many people have asked how they can get updates during the race. I followed the race online last year, and I can tell you that updates are sporadic – but they do exist. Here are your best bets:

Iditarod Invitational homepage – there is a ton of info on this site, but it can be hard to find. Dig around a little bit. The Latest News page will get updated during the race. That page is your best bet for accurate information. You can also click the links to some racer’s blogs, which may have updates.

ITI Message Board – The board is a little clunky to use, but it is a great gathering place for family and race fans.

ITI Blog – official blog of the race organizers, Bill and Kathi. Kathi will be in McGrath this year and may post updates on the blog.

MTBCast – a podcast of race reports. Usually this is just an audio summary of information found elsewhere, but sometimes racers call in with updates, especially those going all the way to Nome.

Jill Homer’s blog – Jill has someone who will be posting updates on her site. It won’t say anything about me, but it might include general comments on trail conditions, weather, etc.  Jill is using a Spot, so if you can’t follow me, you can follow her pretty easily. She is a celebrity in ITI circles. She became famous when NPR followed her 2008 race. She has the most popular blog and a book.

Weather and Temperatures on the Course

Here we go!

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