2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational Report: Knik to Finger Lake

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)




Cory Written by:

One Comment

  1. March 17, 2009

    Great race report so far. I remember hitting Fingerlake in 2008 and thinking “this race isn’t so hard.” Ha!

    It’s strange, but I don’t remember passing you, or having you pass me again, at all. I hope I at least said something, at least an “Are you OK?” as I went by after your sled exploded. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I was a little more out to lunch that evening than I remember … that would explain the mishap on Flathorn Lake.

    Anyway, I for one am glad you’re taking the time to write it all down. Congrats again.

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