Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Final Chapter on my Alaskan experience

The Final Chapter:  I know, Dear Reader, that you must be sick of the thousands of words regarding what was essentially a minute part played by a bit player in an epic race that was contested by several of the top actors in the game of long distance snow bike racing.  Whilst Lindsay and I tottered along way way way back, true athletes, in their prime, were putting on a magnificent show, out front, pushing against each other and the conditions all with the famed Iditarod trail as their backdrop.  Special kudos to the leading quintet of Petervary, Berntson, Oatley, Breitenbach, and Lacy of whom all took part in expanding the bounds by which this race is measured by aspiring enduro-cyclists.  The same can be said of Ms. Horanyi and Ms. Ver Hoef, both of whom unequivocally demonstrated that strong women deserve the same respect as strong men when it comes to events like this (and all other pursuits as well).  Finally, the man-hauler, Dave Johnston, who missed breaking Steve Reifenstuhl’s 2005 foot record by just four hours, who through his appreciation of beer, the other finer pursuits of life, and good cheer along the trail has forced the author to concede that runner’s are people too. 
The swollen head of a contented man...A man near the end of his rope...but a contented man nonetheless. 
In closing, I loved being a part of this race.  The whole thing from hanging out at Irene’s Bed&Breakfast, to stumbling along following Lindsay’s red blinking rear light along the trail, to my head swelling up like Elephant Man, to eating those huge Man-cakes at Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze’s cozy home in McGrath. I am still constantly thinking back on how fun it all was and how I cannot wait to go back.  My simple advice to you is to go do it!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Gear List Part III: Da Bike and stuff...

Gear List part III: The Bike and accessories.

Like most things in my life I was a late adopter to the idea of the snow bike.  When the Pugsley first came out I mocked them as “clown bikes.” Thus, it was a source of comfort to me that the legendary Pramann had set the Arrowhead 135 course record on a standard mountain bike.  The first three or maybe even four Arrowhead races were contested with the majority of the riders on either standard mountain bikes or on 29ers.  Even up in Alaska several of the top guyz were riding regular bikes across the barrens, legendary tough guyz like John Stamstad and Rocky Reifenstuhl come immediately to mind.  The fact of the matter is that I’d probably still be riding a std mountain bike had it not been for the fact that a friend of mine won a Pugsely frame at the pre-race festivities several Arrowhead races ago and generously gave me the frame as she maintained that she had no use for it as she was a committed endurance runner.  You can tell that she is still a committed runner because whenever I see her she is limping around injured with some kind of “I-band” or plantar injury.  It took me a few months to build up the Pugsley using old parts from other bikes.  During the summer I saved enough money and bought the wheels and tires.  Finally I took it for a ride and realized that it was a total blast to ride…I was hooked. 

I rode that bike for four years, in summer, spring, winter, and fall until the braking rims on the wheels wore through (I use cyclocross brakes on it).  Last spring (2012) my wife had given me the thumbs up on the Alaskan race so I started shopping around for a new set of wider 80 mm rims.  Of course I soon realized that not only would I need new rims and tires, but also I would have to switch the bike over to disk brakes and swap out the drive train.  I also learned that the Pugsely probably would not have enough clearance for the widest of the currently available tires. I did the math and figured that by the time I made the Pugs “Alaskan ready” it would not cost that much more to get a new Moonlander.  So, I bought the Moonlander from Ski Hut (up here in Duluth) and ultimately turned the Pugsley into a single-speed.  It was a wise decision, as I have grown very fond of both of these utilitarian bikes.

When I first got the Moonlander, I was thinking that before I went to Alaska, I would swap out the relatively low-end rear derailleur, but it worked great and it still works great.  I was thinking that I would swap out the cheap thumb shifters, but they worked great.  I was thinking that the chain ring configurations were not in line with the way I pedal, but I was wrong, the gearing on the Moonlander is spot on for the way I ride.  There is a lesson here somewhere? Essentially what I am conveying is that apart from swapping out the handlebar in favor of a wider one (and the saddle), I am riding the bike as it arrived to the store. I am doing so because the guyz at Surly put together a package that functions as advertised. Also, I did add a Shimano 18 tooth single speed cog to the front hub so as to allow me the chance to continue on down the trail (pedaling a single speed) even if my rear hub became incapacitated.   

Note: In my view and at my level of skill, the wider the wheel/tire combo the better.  I don't usually buy into the idea that guyz can tell the difference between a $30 aluminum seat post and a $180 carbon seat post, but CLEARLY in soft or sketchy snow conditions, one can tell the difference between a 100 mm rim and a 80 mm rim.  I am completely being honest here, no hype.  The difference is palatable and in loose snow allows the guy with the 100 mm the option to ride whereas walking is the only option for the 80 and 60 mm guy.  I am thinking that 120 mm might even be feasible and worthwhile?  You can spend your money on a new fancy carbon frame or fork, but I am saving my nickles and dimes for the wider rims...I bet they are on some one's drawing table...

The weight of the bike and gear at the start of the race in Alaska was approximately 63 pounds.  Those sixty-three pounds, in my mind, represent about as low as I could go and still deal with basically anything the weather or trail conditions could dish out.  I chose clothing in a manner that did not allow for any extras. In others words the set up was progressive in that as it got colder I would add another layer.  The upper body had four potential layers, the lower had three, the hands had three, and the head had three, the neck had two and feet had two.  Along with an old REI bivy bag, I brought a light, down sleeping that is rated to zero degrees and a pad rated to zero degrees as well. I know from experience that if I am wearing a light hat, my down jacket, a light wool under-layer, light wool socks, and wool pants, I can sleep in ten below very comfortably.  I suspect that if I was wearing everything that I had with me in that bag, I could stay warm in twenty to twenty-five below and not freeze in forty below.  Beyond that…it would be “interesting.”

I used a good solid rear rack where I packed all my sleeping gear plus my down jacket, and extra tube. On the front I used a Revelate handlebar thingies that allowed me to secure a front pack. It worked great and I highly recommend it.  On the front, I carried extra clothing and some extra food and an extra headlight.  I also had a Revelate frame pack where I kept my wallet, some tools, pump, extra batteries, food, camera, glasses, etc.  Finally I had two of the “feed bags” where I kept the majority of my food.  On the right fork I was able to carry a 40 fl oz thermos using a nifty Salsa carrying cage that is oversized and quite handy.  

Note: For an account from a guy that really know his stuff read Jay Petervary's Outside interview [ http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-gear/cycle-life/A-Conversation-With-Jay-Petervary.html?page=1 ].  Petervary is a very impressive man as is Jeff Oatley and the other top guyz that contested in this race... I count myself lucky to have met them...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

DBD Issued gear for the recent foray in Alaska Part II

First layer for hand warmth was a pair of light army-surplus wool mitts, Second layer was a pair of double wool mitts that are very well made.   Third was my trusty Granite Gear mitts...I never had to use 'em...For head gear I went with two hats, two face masks, and two neck gaors

I love that jersey....pockets in the front and back

First layer was an old wool long sleeve undershirt. Second layer was my trusty wool jersey (circa 1978).  Third layer was my old Patagonia ninja with hood (circa 1990).  

Manly footwear...I started with a pair of craft wool socks, then a pair of stout vapor barrier socks, then the Lake Winter boots and then a 40-Below overboot that I have used many times up in the big cold mountains. I bought those overboots in 1989...

To protect my nether area I used a good pair of bibs. I brought a pair of patogonia underwear, but I never used them.  I wore my circa 1970s "woolies" the whole way and they worked great. Thanks to Kevin Kenny of Empire Canvas for putting in some size zips.  

I went with three light weight water bottles and a 40 fl. oz. thermos.  I was able to bring 100 fl oz and that seemed good enough.  

A man needs to do his homework to prepare for the Iditarod. Read what Mallory, Mawson, Shackleton, and the Boyz were up against and then "buck-up," cuz what your doing aint nothing special!

DBD Issued gear for recent foray in Alaska Part I

Due to several requests, I have reluctantly decided to let the general public in on how a highly trained DBD man dresses for the Alaskan race from Knik to McGrath.  First, obtain a loyal man-dog that idolizes you. Second, get a good pair of bibs with a hefty chamois, red are best because they make you go faster and women will think that you have money.  Then get a pair of light wool socks.  Then put on an old wool long sleeve T-shirt.  Be careful with this layer, it is the kind that your wife is gonna try to throw out or give to the Salvation Army.  Never wash this layer, because it will allow your wife to find it.

Wear over the light wool socks a pair of vapor barrier socks.  The ones pictured are from a company with initials, something like RHL.  In any event they work great. Then add a very old wool cycling jersey, the one I use has pockets in the front and back.  I had it shortened too much a few years ago...so it makes me look silly, but I still love it.  Again hide these kinds of shirts/jerseys from your wife as she will try to discard them.  Add over the bibs a pair of manly woolies. The ones pictured were my Dad's until I stole them many many years ago.  Kevin Kinney added side zips so they are now modern. On this race I brought two hats and two face masks and two neck 'gaters.  Finish off the torso with a thick Patagonia ninja top and the footwear with Lake Boots and 40 Below Overboots if it getz cold.  Top it all off with a very old down sweater.  Note the admiring Man-dog.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Look away for I am hideous"...a man's head swells on the Iditarod Trail

Segment 3: Lack of sleep leads to instability, then madness, but ultimate redemption.
My fearless Leader...I would follow him anywhere...

Part VI From Point Desecration (~Mile 175) to beautiful downtown Rohn (Mile 210), Alaska, and then onto the last checkpoint, Nikolai (Mile 300).

Most of the human species is endowed with a coping mechanism that allows the simple man to block from memory painful and/or shameful remembrances (this can be either a good thing or a bad thing). For what other reason would nations continue to wage war upon other nations or even on their own citizens. Such was the situation with my dishonorable act of desecration along the once pristine trail as we ascended towards Rainy Pass that beautiful morning. The fact of the matter is that by the time I had caught back up to my mentor, the whole event was nothing more than a distant memory that would be completely forgotten as soon as I was able to gain a proper restroom and take care of some needed paper-work.  But alas there are occasions in a reckless man’s life when his previous deceits, miscalculations and misappropriations, can come back to haunt him—Such was the case of the misplaced dung heap. 
Mr. Gauld on the move (not far from Desecration Point)

Fast-forward Dear Reader, some thirty-six or hours.  Conjure a vision of blurry-eyed, yet hardy men sitting around a circle within a cozy home in the center of the hamlet of McGrath, itz mid-morning on the first Friday of March.  Some are reclined on a large horse-shoe shaped sofa, others are reposed upon the floor, there is a collective sense of great contentment for these men have just successfully crossed the first 350 miles of the famed Iditarod trail.  The lively conversation is centered upon various antidotes, all based on the universal agreement that the Iditarod Trail traverses challenging, albeit beautifully remote wilderness. Then Ken Zylstra, a reflective, sophisticated family man of fifty years offered a sad commentary on a discovery of which he described as the result of a reckless rogue’s actions that involved “clearly, undeniably and decidedly poor form.”  He went on to describe his encounter with a ‘huge pile of fresh sh___” lying in the middle of the trail about midway up Rainy Pass.   All in attendance shook their heads in disgust, comments included, “Who would do such a thing, it must have been a rider.” Hoping that my red face would not give me away I, too, shook my head, feigning repugnance at the thought of such a misdeed. Then the thought occurred to me that may be I could try something like, “I bet it was a snowmobiler!” but instead, I offered no comment.  Lesson #9: I better start to make amends or I will have a lot to answer for at the “Pearly Gates.”
We made the top of Rainy Pass in great time.  The descent down into Dalzell Gorge was a total blast. Down, down, down we went, flying past and between big blue icefalls and tight canyon walls. Lindsay, it seemed to me, never touched his brakes. As he quickly pulled away from me, I would catch glimpses of him taking corners wide-open, leaning hard one way then and counter-weighting his bike the other way as if he had been an Olympic road-cyclist at one point in his long life. It was a great morning…I felt alive, doing simply what I was meant to do…I hope I never lose my love of adventure, too be honest, I guess I am not worried about that. What I am worried about is that one-day I’ll be too old…
We made Rohn around noon, thus completing the route from Puntilla Lake to Rohn in something like eleven hours.  I remember Lindsay telling me that in 2012, that segment of the trail had taken him twenty-eight hours, walking in deep snow almost the whole way in 20 below with high head winds.  We were in good spirits, but we were dog-tired, fatigued at the cellular level, and thus hoping for a good three-hour nap, but it was not to be as it was Happy Hour when we arrived in busy, bustling, downtown Rohn. 

Rohn is comprised on one cabin. The cabin is maintained by the BLM in conjunction with the Iditarod Race organization. Apart for the small, but very cool cabin, there is a nice “fully equipped” outhouse, and a packed down landing strip for ski-equipped small airplanes (Note to self: I’d love to somewhat get my family up there to stay for a week as it truly is a wonderful spot). Yet the place was rockin’ with airplanes landing and taking off,  dropping off massive supplies for the big upcoming dog race.  The cabin was occupied by a number of Iditarod volunteers, all scurrying around getting the mountain of supplies of straw, dog, food, fuel, etc., ready for the mushers and dogs to arrive in a few days.  Many of the volunteers were from northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin; all presumably eager to speak with folks different from whom they had been talking with since they had flown in a couple dayz prior to our arrival. 
Downtown Rohn, Alaska...Dog supplies in the forefront...
First and foremost, I was hell-bent on getting to the outhouse, and then getting some sleep (or at least to lie down) on the pine boughs that lined the cramped canvas wall-tent that had been constructed for the Alaskan Ultra racers, but once Craig Medred entered the tent to interview Lindsay for the Alaskan Dispatch (Read Craig’s interview with Lindsay, itz a classic, http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/after-nasty-frostbite-last-year-canadian-cyclist-returns-iditarod-invitational ), I knew it was not in the cards.  
In any event, on sleeping or even staying in repose, I gave up and thus, with cheerful resignation, went out into the warm sunshine and engaged in fun, lively conversations with several of the volunteers.
I doubt we stayed in Rohn for more than two, maybe three hours. As stated above, we were tired, actually we were more than just tired, we were getting really really fatigued as we had been on the go for well over three dayz.  In Lindsay’s much more accurate account of the race, he states, “I would estimate that we had laid down for about ten hours and I had slept for maybe five.”  Consequently, we knew it would take a mammoth effort to get to Nikolai which was ninety more miles down the trail, but there stands a BLM cabin approximately fifty miles from Rohn and so that would be our goal. The idea was to push it to get to the cabin, get a good three hours of sleep, and then push it onward to Nikolai (for a quick resupply of water) and then to the finish line in McGrath.  It was looking like, given our pace, the good weather, and relatively solid track that we would be able to make McGrath in less than 4.5 dayz. Our weary but encouraged hearts soared as we left Rohn…As it turned out we did not make the goal of 4 dayz and twelve hours, but we were not that far off as we ultimately arrived in McGrath just two hours and some change beyond the goal.  The fact that we did come so close to achieving this goal was due in part to the good trail conditions, but is also indicative of Lindsay’s ability to bring to fruition a well conceived plan-of-action.

Immediately upon leaving Rohn, it became obvious to us that we were entering into a distinct geographical region that receives drastically less snow than on the other side of the pass.  I suppose the moist air from the Pacific deposits the all the precipitation on eastern side of the mountain range. On the eastern side the snow was many meters deep, so deep that we saw little if any signs of wild life. On this side, the interior, we crossed lakes and rivers that were completely devoid of snow and then crossed what the locals call, Farewell Burn, which is a huge swath of charred forest.  Here we saw evidence of abundant wildlife, with lots of moose, wolf, lynx, and an assortment of other critter tracks.  We also saw evidence of trapping, right next to the trail (presumably so the brave trapper would not have to take more than a step from his snowmachine to check his traps), which made my blood boil, but I won’t get into that here.  As stated above, there was little snow and on long sections there was no snow at all, only dirt.  I remember thinking, “How in the hell do the dogs pull musher and sled across this part of the trail?”

We also came upon a section of thirty-degree ice of which we were prepared to negotiate as we had each brought step-in ice grippers. But as luck was on our side, a path lay in such a manner that we did not have to employ the ice-grippers. 

           ....a steep ascent, but luckily no ice to contend with...Picture a dog team heading up this????
Finally, as we followed a sinking, anemic sun, we moved into a less bumpy and rough section that allowed us to make some relatively good time. We had a good tailwind, solid tracks, and yet we were getting increasing sleepy.  By nightfall we had been traveling for something like seventeen hours since leaving Puntilla Lake.  By ten o’clock we had been riding for 21 hours straight with no real rests, and while we were making forward progress we were still at least fifteen miles from the cabin.  We were stopping often with each of us taking turns at leading, so as to allow the follower the luxury of turning off one’s brain and to just instinctually follow the reflective clothing of the leader.  At one point probably around midnight, with Lindsay in the lead, I turned around to notice bright lights heading our way.  It was Bob Ostrom, Ken Zylstra., and Mike Criego.  They had caught us even though we had left an hour or so ahead of them from Rohn and several hours ahead of them from Rainy Pass Lodge.  While it was great to see them, it drove home the point that we were fading fast.  After exchanging pleasantries, they moved on at a much quicker pace.  As their red rear blinking lights disappeared from our view, we felt exceedingly inadequate.  A pair of old men playing a young man’s game, so sad.  Lindsay was grimly stoic while I was a mental mess, so sleepy that I was crashing the bike endless times.  I told him that when I write about this I am going to use the line, “their spirit broken, they decided that they had no choice but to bivy.” I was just sorta joking because I figured that he would want to stay on schedule and thus push on to the cabin, so I was surprised when he said that perhaps it would be a wise move to bivy. 

Lindsay is a calculating, analytical, smart guy that sees the big picture when it comes to races like the Iditarod Invitational.  Guyz like me start fast and flare out, whereas guyz like Lindsay play it smart and finish strong.  He told me to start looking for a good sport to bed down for a few hours.  He threw me a bone by saying, “Charlie, you are the pro when it comes to forced bivouacs, let me know when you find a good spot. We’ll sack out for a few hours and then continue on. I’ll bet those guyz will sleep in at the cabin,” (He was right on all counts.). I immediately started scoping for a good bivy site; itz best to find a site that is on higher ground and of course relatively flat.  It was not long before we were both comfortably ensconced in your warm sleeping bags—just before I turned off my headlight, I looked at my trusty wristwatch; it read 1:45 a.m.  Unfortunately, after the initial warming period, I always take a short high intensity run before I jump into a cold sleeping bag, I ended up rather chilled (it read 5 below on Lindsay’s thermometer but there was no wind) for the three to four hour duration as I had foolishly passed on putting on my down sweater (it lay packed in my handlebar set-up), but at least I was able to rest my tired legs a bit and to close my tortured eyes.  Lindsay faired better claiming in his report that he had the best sleep of the whole race period. 
Good bivy site....

We were on the road again by 6 a.m.  It was sometime during these early pre-dawn hours that I first realized that my head was retaining fluids, that I had become a water-head. As alluded to above, my eyes had been feeling weird earlier as I had laid in my bivy. I had heard of endurance competitors having problems with swollen feet and ankles, but my head was swelling!  Feigning tranquilly, I nonchalantly asked Lindsay how my head looked and he confirmed that my face and forehead were quite swollen!  I felt like Elephant Man. The swelling had progressed to the point that it even started to affect my range of sight as my eye lids were even affected.  I felt hideous, unloved, and my eyes and cheeks were itchy, but Lindsay assured me that he had seen such swelling in braver men than me on such long endeavors.  He said in a confronting voice, “Lotz of guyz swell up like that just before the end.” Of course I was near my breaking point both physically and mentally so I took “the end” to me at the end of one’s life.  I felt sure that I was near the end…Yet, he reassured me that he had meant “at the end of a long race.” Thankfully the swelling abated not long after I made the finish line.  Lesson 10: I’ll never make fun of Elephant Man again as long as I live!
My head was not unlike that of Elephant Man

After several hours and the ascent of a full bodied sun, the trail got better and we started to make time. We had passed the BLM cabin and noted that Lindsay had been correct in his prediction that Ken, Bob, and Mike would sleep in.  It wasn’t like we were racing them, at my age I am so beyond worrying about where I stack up in these kinds of events, (everybody in this race is tough and talented) but it did help us psychologically to know that at least we were keeping pace with them.  By and by we came upon a running Dave Johnston.  He was on a mission to break the foot-category record.  He was so strong and so competent that I do believe his accomplishment ranks right up there with the top three riders. He told me at the finish that he slept less than three hours during the whole race! Plus he is an incredibly amicable fellow, always upbeat and genuinely friendly.  Lindsay and I found him to be most impressive. I do hope that I shall have the opportunity to meet him again someday.  He expressed interest in trying to come down some winter for the Arrowhead 135.

Together the three of us talked and joked and felt like “free men” for a few minutes, whilst we took turns filling our water bottles from a small bridge spanning a fast running stream known as Sullivan’s Creek.  Here the trail was flat and fast, so we took off and left Dave to his miraculous footwork. Perhaps an hour or so after meeting Dave, Ken came up on us at a good pace passing us with the quick message that he would see us in Nikolai. Hot in pursuit of Ken Zylstra, next came Bob Ostrom, and then Mike Criego.  It gave me a sense of state pride to see two Minnesotans doing such a fine job.  Both Lindsay and I felt pretty good at this point, but neither of us felt the inclination to up our steady pace, so we watched them as they eventually disappeared from our view.  I must say that Lindsay sets a remarkably steady and even cadence.   The kind of pace that is very efficient for the long haul.  During the last hours of our battle to finish the route, I was so thankful that he took the leadership position allowing me to just try and mimic his speed. I have no doubt that had I been alone, I would have faltered and bivied one more time out somewhere between Nikolai and McGrath and thus finished six or so hours later than we did together.

Finally at approximately 4 p.m. on that Thursday, we arrived at the last checkpoint located at a local resident’s home in Nikolai and just fifty miles from the finish. At Nikolai we met the race director briefly as he was en route on a snowmachine, heading back along the trail with his immediate goal to make Rohn that evening.  Sadly we did not get a chance to really speak with him, but it is clear that Bill Merchant is a Man’s Man; The kind of man that would have your back and yet expect you to hold your own as well.  I plan to return in five or six years to have a go at Nome, so on that occasion I plan to buy Bill Merchant a beer or seven and a couple shots of whiskey.  Bill and Kathi Merchant assemble the group and provide the canvas, but it is largely up to the artists to create their own personal collages…I like that….itz my kind of race!

We left the last checkpoint in short order staying only an hour, beating Ken and da Boyz out of the house, but it was not long until they passed us on the river; all of them looked strong, especially Ken.

I am not gonna pull any punches—Once the sun went down, our effort from Nikolai to McGrath turned into a real sufferfest for Lindsay and me, taking nearly twelve hours to go less than 50 miles on relatively flat terrain. But in our highly disheveled minds we both had the distinct feeling that the river we were following was angled upward, against us at a significant incline.  It was so surreal and so frustrating, I clearly remember stopping at one point and asking, “Lindsay are we riding uphill? Can that be possible?” Nodding his head in agreement, he replied that it did seem like we were indeed riding up a long, long, forever long hill.  Both of us knew, logically and rationally, that we were on a flat slow moving river and yet it seemed as if we were constantly climbing.  I remember agonizing about being able to only push my granny gear on a flat river.  I reasoned, “It must be a climb otherwise I would not have to stay in my granny gear!”  It seemed undeniably real and yet so harsh that we would have to ride up and up and up a flat river. I wondered out loud if our headlights were causing some kind of optical illusion, but the enormous weight of my worn out legs was no illusion.  It finally got to the point where we had to continually stop, form a solid foundation with both our boots firmly on the ground, and then put our heads on the handlebars, each time nodding off for a few seconds (or minutes).  On one occasion, “being lazy,” I failed to plant both feet on the ground (or ice) and instead left one boot locked into the pedal.  As God is my witness, when I put my head down and then immediately dosed off, I fell over into the snow as a dead man would, when I went to try and get up I realized that my boot was still attached to the pedal... 

.....we would ride for 30 minutes or so and then one of us would simply fall off the bike....
                                        ...I aint gonna lie things got ugly

We were still lucid enough to find humor in our situation, setting a couple little ground rules that included two primary stipulations from which one could not deviate from: 1.When dosing one could only think “happy thoughts,” and 2. Most importantly, under no circumstances could one dream about either finishing the race or one’s life after arriving in McGrath. Without getting too Freudian, perhaps the second provision was instigated to allow us to not consider how much farther we had to go.  But try as I might I just could conceive of making the distance. I became obsessed with wanting to bivy.  As I rode slowly mile after mile, my mind was fixated in finding a place to bivouac. Then abruptly we came to the end of the TRAIL! Just like that the trail ended as it ran directly, in a T-bone fashion, onto a road. 

The Iditarod trail heads mostly in a west by north direction, whereas this road ran basically south to north.  The strangeness or juxtaposition of the trail ending and the road beginning jump-started me back to reality.  How does this work, where is the town? Lindsay’s accurate odometer maintained that we were just five kilometers from the town of McGrath.  It made no sense to us that a road would be here…Do the mushers take the road into town? Thatz weird…

The problem was we had no clue which way to go on the road.  We carefully searched for any telltale signs of bike tracks but could find no evidence. It was pitch black out and yet we could not make out any kind of glow which would indicate a cluster of houses. We quickly launched a plan…We would ride for fifteen minutes to the north carefully looking for any indication that a town lay ahead.  We hit the 15 minute mark with no success, so we turned, and headed back to the start of our troubles.  Then we went fifteen minutes to the south and again found nothing. 

The initial excitement of finding the road had, at this point, worn off and so we were once again desperately sleepy, almost groggy.  We had spied some kind of a radar tower to the north, so we headed back to the north in the hope that maybe someone would be manning the tower.  We took the short driveway off the main road to the radar installation and found no one about. I was ready to throw down my bag and sleep next to the tower, but Lindsay convinced me to try one last time further up the road.  Salvation was ours as we gradually began to see dwellings.  Then we found a sign indicating that the finish was one mile away.  We had made it…all fatigue and cloudy thoughts fell away as we laughingly relished the last few “clicks” of our time on the famed Iditarod Trail…

Part VII: McGrath and beyond…Our stay in McGrath was a highlight!

To be continued…

 From my application for admission into the 2013 Iditarod Invitational: “To earn the respect of my fellow racers, race directors, and race volunteers as I attempt to complete the 350-mile Alaskan Iditarod Invitational. Upon returning to my duties as a high school teacher in northern Minnesota I plan to develop a curriculum based on my experience including references to the history of the race, interesting characters, and the physical and psychological preparation needed to complete the event.” 

Friday, March 15, 2013

A man's search for meaning on the iditarod Trail

Segment 2: The author’s reprieve from moral decay is short-lived…
Part V: From Finger Lake Lodge to Rainy Lake Lodge, located on the Puntilla Lake (Mile 165) and beyond...

As alluded to above, hills start to play a more prominent role in ones quest to make McGrath as one leaves Shell Lake, but the REAL hills come as the racer leaves Winterlake.  Lindsay and I departed Finger Lake Lodge around 9:45 a.m. in perfect conditions, sunny, a firm path, and spirits were high, even though neither of us had enjoyed any real sleep. We had only stayed a little over three hours and yet I was more than ready to leave.
                                                                 the big burn....note absence of camelbak

Immediately upon leaving the checkpoint, one has to push his or her bike up a long hill and then descend a long way down, down, down to another lake or river.  The descent was steep enough that even Lindsay, who is simply amazing at riding steep, scary descents, elected to walk the bike down to the lake.  I suppose we were riding on a solid track for forty or so minutes when Lindsay realized that he had left his damned camelbak back at the lodge.
I think I have already established that Mr. Lindsay Gauld is a gentleman of the highest order, while my irrational actions at the Fingerlake Lodge speak to the level at which my moral or ethical code was operating.  Lindsay handled the oversight with grace and candor, exclaiming with honorable resignation, “Itz my fault, but I must go back and get it as I will surely need it when we cross Rainy Pass.”  My initial response to this predicament was to curse his camelbak and to begin in earnest to try and convince him to leave the damned thing.  “I told you at Irene’s that camelbaks are tools of the devil! I absolutely loath camelbaks, I hate camelbaks, camelbaks are unreliable, camelbaks leak, camelbaks make a guy sweat and chap.  Leave the dam camelbak! You can have a couple of my waterbottles! Forsake the camlebak! I know for certain that you have had major problems with camelbaks in the past because I have witnessed them with my own eyes!! Admit it…Admit that the camelbak has betrayed you in the past!!! Renounce your camelback!!!!”
Note: I really do hate camelbaks, and finally on this trip, for the first time, as a Man should, I acted on my conviction and went without the camelbak and it was great, no regrets—more on this in the gear segment…Lesson #8: Tell Lindsay to leave his left-leaning, immoral, unreliable camelbak at home next time he tries the Iditarod Trail w/me.
                                    ...is this man weeping? No...just a stick in the eye

The stoic and peace-loving former Canadian Olympian and all-around good guy calmly listened to my little tirade and then in a tranquil voice instructed me to continue onward whilst he would return for the camelbak.  I followed my instructions, but sheepishly, perhaps because I was feeling a hint of guilt—before we parted, I promised to walk a lot and ride slow, so as to allow him to catch back up in good time.  It must be pointed out that while I am not above treachery, I had no intentions of trying to ditch Mr. Gauld for he a solid plan and the plan was working.  Even by my “fuzzy” math calculations, we were well ahead of schedule. We had even begun to openly speak of finishing the course in less than four and one half dayz. Plus it was a great sense of comfort to travel with a competent guy that had been on the trail just twelve months before…

Actually it was a good section of the trail for a guy like Lindsay to catch back up to me in reasonable time as he was much more able to descend the many steep, even “bobsled” like descents, than I was.  When he did catch back up to me, in something like three hours, I marveled at the daring speeds he would gather as he flew down the many very steep narrow ramps.  Yet on one such speedy descent, he missed a tight corner and went flying off the trail and into about six feet of fluffy snow.  Having witnessed the crash, I was sure that he would be injured. He was full of snow, totally stuck, and would still be there today had I not pulled him out, but thankfully his little body was unharmed.

In my world, the world of a pure Cyclist, the trail segment from the Happy Steps to the Rainy Lake Lodge on Puntilla Lake was the most appealing of the course to McGrath. It was beautifully remote with huge mountains in the distance, tightly lined with gigantic, majestic evergreens, very hilly, the trail was hard and smooth, and thus the riding was a blast.  I remember thinking, “Wow this is truly awesome, but how in the hell do the mushers get their dogs to run up and down these tight curvy climbs and drops?” Riding the first 350 miles of the Iditarod forced me to concede beyond a doubt that the guyz and galz that run dogs the full 1000 miles to Nome are truly special people…and the dogs are über-special athletes…I thought of my beloved Hondo (and Loki too) and I smiled…

As stated above we had perfect riding conditions, some of the best snow-biking I have ever experienced, and thus rode into the checkpoint cabin at Rainy Lake Lodge in good physical condition and high spirits. I’d guess that we arrived to the checkpoint around dusk, I remember that it was still light out, but it was fading fast (Christmas lights were festooned across the entrance to the little cabin and it looked wonderfully inviting). So maybe it was perhaps 6:30 p.m. when we made Puntilla Lake and subsequently, we left the following morning at 1:00 a.m.  I am pretty sure about the departure time-frame as it has strangely remained stuck in my limited, dysfunctional brain. The idea surrounding the 1:00 a.m. departure timeframe being to get up and over the notoriously cold Rainy Pass during daylight, so as minimize the time spent out in the open as well as decreasing the changes of getting lost.

Lindsay had suffered severe frostbite crossing this high alpine pass last year, so he had some demons to deal with, which worked in my favor as he was highly motivated to get an early start…which meant that he would not oversleep our departure time of 1:00 a.m. (as I surely would).   As far as all the checkpoints go, my six+ hours at that little, cozy cabin on the shores of Puntilla Lake were by far the most restful [by comparison Buffington stayed three hours]. The old log cabin was not too hot, nor too cold, but just right. Just as the bed, in which I slept soundly, was equipped with not too clean, but not too dirty sheets and blankets, but instead with just the right amount of dirt on the sheets and blankets. I was in heaven! The little tribes of mice scurrying around my head were not too big nor too…You get my drift…I was about as close to heaven as I guy like me can hope for, once he leaves this world…

At Puntilla, the unsupported “serve yourself” race protocol regarding the food and drink was provided for in the form of an assorted box of Sam’s Club “bargain basement priced” canned soups, chilis, and the like situated under an old table, a tub of semi-used, slightly moistened orange-flavored Tang, next to two big jugs of water.  There was a big metal bowl on top of a 50 gallon oil-drum stove with six or seven of the cans bobbing, axillary labels floating alongside willy-nilly, in the tepid water.  The stove was warm, but not hot, thanks to Dave Johnston, the only other resident at our arrival.  He was sleeping on a near by bunk, so we spoke in whispers. Given the arrangement, momentarily, I was confused until Lindsay grabbed a can, broke it open and downed the contents, chasing it with a gulp of old-school Tang.  Never one to worry too much about table etiquette, I enthusiastically followed his actions, grabbing what I surmised to be a can of low-rent chili.   My problem was that, as is often the case in my life, I was not content to stop with knocking down just one can of “the affordable” chili.  Lindsay ate a can and then went to prepare for a good sleep. But, the way I figured it was that if this was the meal that I was being given in conjunction with my entry fee, I was gonna dam well get my fair share! So I sat there and knocked down three more cans of various pastas, noodles, and beans. 

Shortly thereafter, I climbed into a very comfortable bottom bunk and passed out, enjoying the first and really only solidly refreshing sleep of the whole trip from start to finish.  When we woke up, Dave was gone…what an amazing person.

When Lindsay roused me up from my sweet slumber around 12:45 a.m., I felt refreshed and motivated to tackle Rainy Pass and head for the beautiful Emerald City of Rohn, Alaska.  Lindsay had taken pity on me and thus waited to the last fifteen minutes of departure time to wake me. He was packed and ready to go, so not wanting to let him down, I packed up as fast as I could and was ready to leave right at 1:00 a.m. The problem was that while my heart and soul were both ready and able to tackle Rainy Pass, to do my part to being honor to our noble effort, my intestinal tract was still very much asleep. 

At home, I awaken my hard to awaken intestinal tract each and every morning in the same manner, every day it’s the same routine, I am very regular, which the doctors tell me is a good thing.  Basically, every morning during the work week, the alarms goes off around 5;20 a.m., I ignore it, and then my wife kicks my sorry butt out of bed.  I then obediently stumble to the shower. Once out of the revitalizing shower, my heart and soul are up and ready to go, but my intestinal tract is still fast asleep, but that’s okay.  I descend our stairs to the family room and head for my chair, where the dog has taken up residence.  As I kick the dog out of my chair, he half-heartedly snarls at me, and I grab him, leash him, and then we head out the door.  He does his business in due time and then we head back inside.  By that time the coffee is ready, so I grab a big cup of coffee and knock it back in fast order.  The coffee immediately wakes up my intestinal tract and so I move back upstairs to do my morning business.  Then I head off to work. Been doing it this way for nearly twenty-five years.  I got me a routine… Men are instinctual creatures. 
So here’s the root of the problem…At our very early a.m. departure time from Puntilla Lake, me mind and me soul were good to go, but in the excitement I had forgot that the third rail was still fast asleep.  We had been warned at the pre-race meeting that this alpine passage would more than likely be coldest on the route and thus to dress accordingly at the cabin, because there was nowhere to get out of the constant winds that fly through the mountain pass. Last year, Lindsay had made the mistake of not dressing warm enough before leaving the cabin and once on the move, had waited too long to add clothing, the result was that he got bit bad by the frost…

So as a precaution, we both added layers of clothing to our ensembles prior to leaving our shelter.  I donned my ninja suit complete with built-in ninja facemask.  As it ultimately played out, luck was on our side, and so while the crossing was moderately cold and windy, it represented nothing beyond our capacity.  In fact things progressed very well as the trail was mostly ride-able and we were also treated to a beautiful lunar glow that spread a magical milky hue across the alpine landscape.  I love mountains, they are without a doubt my favorite geographical feature.  In any event, perhaps three or four hours into the ascent, working our way towards the divide or the apex of the pyramid that separated point A from point B, my digestive system began to stretch and yawn.  
At the initial rumblings deep within my digestive system, I reacted to the forthcoming crisis with a concerted cognitive effort at denial and then suppression.  You must remember, judgmental reader, that we were exceedingly exposed to the Alaskan elements. There were no trees and if there were some trees they were pathetic little loathsome scrub trees.  Maybe there were some trees but they were wimpy trees, good-for-nothing trees.  The effort at denial was foolhardy and worked for at best thirty minutes, the subsequent effort at suppression worked for maybe ten minutes.  I then began to panic in short-order for I had to go “Number Two” in the worst way.  Pedaling hard to catch up to my inspirational leader, upon catching him, I called out in as calm a voice I could muster given my circumstance and the winds, “Lindsay, pedal on ahead, I’ll catch back up. I need to go the bathroom.”   Perhaps sensing the potential for a grave act of dishonor, he quickly complied, but only after thoughtfully taking a second to turn on his red rear blinker so as to allow me to not get lost. 
For the present, I was warm as I was wearing plenty of warm clothes, but I was incredible exposed to a significant wind and an air temperature, that while not below zero, was somewhere in the single digits and so I began to try and work through a plan that would somehow allow me private parts minimal exposure to the cutting wind.  As I attempted to conjure a plan of action I realized that the biggest problem facing me was that I was wearing those damnable bibs.  This meant that in order to get everything into the “go position” I would have to completely strip down.  This major problem of being completely naked from my thighs upward was complicated or exacerbated by two other very significant and related issues. Namely, 1. A lack of any stout trees from which I could steady myself and; 2. The fact that I had packed no toilet paper.  I did have a package of “handi-wraps” given to me by Woody, but it was of no use to me in this crisis as I have foolishly packed them inside of my sleeping bag.  There simply was not time to access my sleeping bag for it was stoutly packed deep within my rear stuff sack. 
Quickly exhausting any and all options (my DBD revolver was also deeply packed away and thus inaccessible). So, with grim resignation, I undressed as quickly as I could.  Within seconds I was completely exposed except for the lower aspects of my legs and feet.  I did the deed as best I could and yet even before I was half-way finished I had become so chilled that I was uncontrollably shivering.  Such was my position in this world.  Desperate to warm myself, devoid of any semblance of humanity, I pulled up the bibs and ran off down the trail hoping that by getting my blood pumping the shivering would cease.  After but a minute or two I began to fill the warm blood coursing through my veins.  After perhaps ten minutes, I was lucid enough to consider my situation.  Snow was all that was available to me.  A man does what a man has to do. Numb to any emotions or thoughts associated with or inherit within a fine gentlemen, I added a healthy glob of Brave Soldier anti-chapping salve to the mix and mounted my bicycle.  I rode away towards the distant red blinking light. I remember hoping that those that would surely pass the massive dung heap left squarely in the middle of the historic Iditarod trail would mistakenly attribute it size and improper location to that of the workings of a rabid, malcontented Bull Moose.  May God have mercy on my Soul.

To be continued….