2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational: Rohn to McGrath

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).

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5 Responses to “2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational: Rohn to McGrath”

  1. jeff oatley says:

    This is one of the best race stories I’ve ever read about the ITI!!! Thanks a lot for posting it. I promise you that I was not playing head games when I said I’d have a fire going at Bison Camp and then not stopped there. As you know the storm was getting worse and I made the (probably wrong) decision that I had to get north of the Burn before the trails were completely gone. I stopped in front of the camp and really wished I hadn’t said that to you and Ed. Then made it another 7-8 miles before being stopped in my tracks by wind and snow. You did a great job dealing with some really crappy conditions out there.

  2. Kathi says:

    Hi Cory,

    You did an amazing job skiing and finishing the race in a really tough year!
    I enjoyed seeing everyone at Peter’s house listening to all the different stories and aspects of this year’s race.
    I was amazed at every single racer that walked into Peter’s house with a big smile on their face.
    What the racers overcame that made it to McGrath this year is just beyond belief and shows the character and strength that these athletes have, that show up for this race.
    My hat is off to all of them!!
    The detail of your race report is absolutely amazing.
    I agree with Jeff, it’s one the best trail reports I have read.

    Kathi

  3. Jill Homer says:

    I agree with Jeff on all points … great writeup, and great race. Even though I’ve always been near the back of the pack, I feel like I can perfectly understand how you felt when you came into Nikolai in second place. I got the same reaction from Nick and Olene when I shuffled into their house last year, told them I had bivvied for 12 hours about 25 miles from Nikolai, and intended to spend about another 12 hours there before setting out again. I could see it in their faces … “aren’t you in a race?” But I feel like you get to a point where you’re not even in a race against yourself. You just want to live … as in not die.

    Anyhow, thanks for taking all of the time to write and post this. I wish you the best in your future adventures.

  4. Geoff Roes says:

    congratulations and thanks for putting out such an in depth and descriptive race report. It really paints a great picture of what you went through out there. very impressive.

  5. Kid Riemer says:

    Tremendous write up of the superior efforts that you all put in this year. Congrats on a job well done.

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