Zen On Dirt


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The Calm

I took Scott to the bus station this morning to go to the airport, armed with his bike box, a duffle bag, and his backpack.  I waved goodbye as I left to go to work, knowing that I would be in the same position as him in a mere 36 hours.  Getting on the bus to go to the airport to go to Alaska.  Last April when I signed up for the ITI, this day seemed far, far, very far away.

Usually, before these things, I’m in a mad rush to get everything done, but this time around, I knew that my Wednesday and Thursday were going to be shot with work so I needed to have everything ready to go by Monday at noon, give or take a few last minute items which are currently in the dryer.  Shopping was done on Saturday. Clothing was packed on Sunday. The bike was packed on Monday.  Last night was spent lounging on the couch in front of the fire, finalizing my cheat-sheet that is coming along on the race.

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I expected a late night tonight, as my to-do list is generally over flowing but after I got home from a lovely dinner with Jeny, I sat down and methodically crossed off the remaining half dozen life maintenance items that needed to get done, like paying car insurance, changing some grades, and figuring out where I needed to be and when once I got to AK.  And then everything ‘critical’ was done, and everything non-critical was either done, or got the nod for getting done after I got home.    I feel sort of lost right now.  Either I’m getting better at prepping for these things, or I’m forgetting something very major.  Either way, adventure begins the moment I finish teaching my last recitation tomorrow and hop on the 3:42 bus to DIA.

Race starts at 2pm on Sunday.  There’s no live tracking, but Kathi does a good job of keeping the leaderboard updated here.  The full butterfly effect hasn’t started yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.  And then I go adventuring, to see places I’ve never seen, to face fears that I’ve pondered for months and fears that I haven’t even imagined, and to soak in the beauty that is Alaska.

This is going to be good.

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Final Shakedown

A week from today, I’ll be on the Iditarod Trail.  Four or so hours into it.  Me.  My pony.  And all the food I can eat.  (And that’s a lot of food) The start time period has just started peeking into the 7-10 day weather forecast period, and while I try not to obsess too much about weather, (Because, really what can you do about it besides deal with it?) I’ve been stealing glances at it on a daily basis.  And it looks good.

There’s always a switch that flips coming into these events where I go from ‘There’s no way I can get everything done in time’ to ‘I wish it were time to line up at the start.’  As it stands, I could probably be packed and out of the house within three hours and on my way to AK, as long as I had my computer on the flight to make my final cheat sheet.  I’d also need to rustle up some clear glasses since the Tour Divide apparently killed my only clear lenses.  But the prep is done.  And it was done well.

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Last weekend was to be the final shakedown for ITI.  The weather forecast looked…not good.  Snow all Saturday for Bunny Ears Pass.  Snow all night.  Snow all Sunday.  We went out with the knowledge that something would happen, but as with everything in the past month, we really had very little idea what that ‘thing’ was.  New area.  New maps.  New boots.  New tires.  What could possibly go wrong?

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After a peaceful first day of riding, (once we oriented ourselves after a little bit of Hike-a-bike and the swallowing of pride that we should probably just turn around and return to square 1.47) we found ourselves a little grove of trees to call home for the night.  I could have ridden forever that night, dusk falling beautifully, but I’d been watching the numbers on the GPS tick over the ‘recommended’ ride time for a while already and my stated goal was not to overcook myself with riding during the weekend.  We stomped out a hole part of the way up Buffalo Pass, the far point of our loop and watched small snowflakes come down from a starry night.

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And then before I knew it, I was awake.  My watch said 5:30 and I’m fairly sure it was my grumbling stomach that roused me from the dead.  I made just enough noise to wake Scott up and convinced him that by the time we cooked two breakfasts, the sun would probably be up.  Truth be told, I was just worried that if I didn’t eat really soon, I’d pretty much wither away and starve to death.  So it was okay when, after sharing two breakfast meals, the sun still wasn’t up.  At least I wasn’t going to die, though I was still hungry.

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I knew that it had snowed at night, but I wasn’t really prepared for how much it actually accumulated.  So we walked.  Scott pushes his bike from the right.  I push from the left.  We’d switch sides pushing whenever we’d switch leads.  We pushed.  And pushed.  And pushed.  I watched the recommended ride time come and go, still a solid double-digit milage from the car.  Well, when LW said ITI race pace, I guess she didn’t specify whether it was race pace riding or walking.  I braced for another 5 hours of walking given our average speed.

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But it wasn’t bad pushing.  I knew that with my full ITI gear and food, I could fairly happily survive another night out if it came to it.  I didn’t really have to be back in Boulder until Monday afternoon.  And really, as long as we kept moving, the car would get closer.  So we talked.  Told stories.  Laughed and commiserated.  Made feeble attempts to ride.  And pushed some more, switching off the lead whenever we got sick of pushing from our ‘wrong’ sides.

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And eventually, as she always does eventually, the Universe smiled.  The sun broke through the clouds as the trail became rideable and the river valley we were following turned magic.  Like, unicorn magic.  Sparkling snow.  Sun.  Ponies being ridden instead of pushed. Snow coated trees.  The world, all for us.

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Eventually, we found our way back towards civilization, as marked by increasing sled traffic from Bunny Ears.  I found myself wanting to dawdle, to not actually make our way back to the highway, to extend the magic.  But dusk was falling, pizza was calling, and by all metrics, the weekend shakedown had been a success.  And, surprise, I was hungry.

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I won’t say I’m prepared for anything that AK can throw at me, because I know that’s a foolish statement, but I feel like I’m as prepared as I can be.  I know how to ride a bike.  I know how to bikepack.  I know how to eat.  I know I can push my bike for hours on end.  And I know that the -20 degree bag on loan from DaveB can save my butt if things get truly dire.

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Is it Thursday yet?


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“Training”

I have to admit, somewhere on the order of two months ago, my enthusiasm for training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational/Alaska Ultrasport/Iditabike/Iditabunny/Idiotbike wasn’t terribly high.  I’d had one too many frozen descents down the canyons of Boulder and was seriously starting to doubt my ability to even survive the race intact.  Plus, I knew that the training plan would call for the inevitable overnighters, of which I was justifiably nervous, and I knew that eventually, I would have to go find some legitimate snow to practice riding on, which would involve driving places to ride, most likely alone.  Sub-fun.  Plus, there were all the logistics to plan, gear to gather, money to spend, etc.  Stoke-level was not pegged at high.IMG_4507

Then at some point in time, Scott made a comment, while he was sitting in the warm AZ desert and I was freezing in CO, ‘I’m thinking about doing the ITI someday.  I need to do some testing to see if I could actually survive it.’

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I scratched my head at the statement.  Shrugged.  And changed the subject.  There was no way he was going to leave his little desert paradise to ride in the cold.  And then in mid-January, he showed up with a snowbike.  A month later, I’m still scratching my head at whether the past month has really happened, but I have pictures, so it must have.

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It’s been nothing short of a month of living and exploring with as much intensity as I can ever remember, all while ‘training’ for the ITI.

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I’d find myself out riding, whether on dirt, snow, or pavement, just grinning. Is ‘training’ allowed to be this fun?  Is ‘training’ allowed to consist of riding bikes in all sorts of new and cool places, looking at maps with a completely different eye for adventure, of going places where I’d never think of going in the summer (or on skis in the winter)?

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It’s amazing the difference a change in perspective can make of a situation.  Instead of dreading having to gear test overnight gear and sleeping out in the cold, I’m mourning the fact that this past weekend was my final overnighter before flying out to AK.  Instead of thinking about tire pressure with a sense of annoyance, I’ve enjoyed playing with different pressures in different conditions.  Instead of fearing intervals on the road, I’ve surprised myself with the numbers I can make my little yellow computer put out.

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Heading into the Arrowhead 135 last year, I said that I didn’t care how the race turned out because  I had learned so many new bike-related skills in regards to riding in the cold, and even if the race was a bust, preparing for the race made it worth it.

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Now that I’m a week away from getting on a plane to AK, I think I can firmly say that regardless of what happens up there (aside from dying, I’d really prefer not to die), the preparation for this thing has made it worth it.  The work is (mostly) done (and my goodness it was a lot of fun to do).  It’s time to really go play.


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A Little Adventurita

I have a pretty good map collection, especially of the fun parts of Colorado, and with an overnight adventure on the horizon, I hauled what I thought would be all the maps I needed up to Winter Park so Scott and I could map gaze, ponder, and put together a good route for a final ITI shakedown for next weekend.  Somehow, over the course of the first two days of the weekend, I stumbled across the High Lonesome Hut on the internets.  I quickly pulled out the maps after reading the website description of the route and was gutted when I realized that the one map I really needed was sitting at home.  Luckily, I had this map to go off of.

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I guess in the end, while I was posturing the entire time that we’d be able to make a loop of it, starting in Tabernash, riding past the hut to Lake Granby, and then coming back on the highway, I really only had about a 2% confidence level in the route actually going past the hut, which was a two mile pedal up the road, and then three miles of trail. Perfect for a ‘2-hour L2 ride’.  But I know better than to lead Scott on an out-and-back, at least intentionally.

So I parked the car as if we were going to do the loop and started off in 2-degree weather, quickly climbing into the sun and out of the inversion.  The road went smoothly, and the trail to the hut, well the trail to the hut was nothing short of snowbiking heaven.  Well packed, reasonable gradient, wide enough to not fall off, narrow enough to require attention, skill, and finesse.

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And as I’d expected, the trail stopped at the hut.  But there was a fainter, less packed trail that seemed to go in the Granby direction.  What’s the worst that could happen?  So we went, and lo and behold, the trail from the hut hooked back up with the road, and was remarkably rideable for having knee-high banks on either side.  This is going to go all the way to Granby!  I bet people were accessing the hut from the Granby side and we’re going to have smooth sailing the whole way.

It was delightful trail.  Until the trail ended.

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We consulted the GPS.  0.38 miles until a semi-major road.  So we wallowed, following trail markers, devising new techniques for getting the Monster Truck ponies through deep powder.  And we found the road…entirely untracked.  So the pushing continued.  And continued.  And continued.  Eventually we stopped to ponder the situation.

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‘What do you think we should do?’ I asked.

‘I think we should eat this chocolate toffee bar,’ was Scott’s reply.

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So we did, and after the deliciousness was consumed, we continued going forward because we both hate backtracking.  Surely, the closer we got to civilization, the higher our chances of finding a rideable surface.

After about seven eternities, the Universe smiled, or maybe it was a smirk, and we found a snowmobile track.  A snowmobile track that was a day old, set up solidly, and almost completely rideable.  We followed it to civilization and snow covered roads.  We followed the snowcovered roads to paved roads. And we followed paved roads all the way back to the car.

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It wasn’t quite two hours.  Even my self-imposed Law of Cosines couldn’t explain away the length of the rides in terms of the training plan, but for someone who was looking for a little bit of adventure, a little bit of unknown, it was downright perfect.

Who knew going off a hand drawn map of an area I’d never explored could end up so well.  Embrace the unknown, and if you completely screw up the training plan, be sure to eat well, recover well, and chalk it up to experience.


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Keep on Flying

There are ultra planners in the world, and then there are people who fly by the seat of their pants.  I’d say that the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d put myself far more on the flying side of life execution.  Disadvantages to this life approach?  Nothing is terribly certain.  The advantages? When a long weekend trip to St. George gets cancelled due to weather, the adaptation to do something completely different is easy.    No long rides in the desert?  Let’s do some long rides in the snow.  No!  Even better, long rides in the snow, AND camping in the snow.

We looked at some maps.  We did some googling of snowmobile trails.  We sent out a couple of emails to check on snow conditions around the state.  We went to REI and bought a map 15 minutes before they closed.  And in the morning, we loaded the Monster Truck ponies into the car, waited for ski traffic to subside, and headed to Vail Pass.

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Our combined knowledge of the area was that it was a big snowmobile access point, the map looked promising, and really, what was the worst that could happen?  With a vast array of snowmobile trails and non-motorized trails, all conveniently marked with difficulty ratings, we pointed our ponies straight towards an ‘advanced non-motorized trail’.  Clearly a good way to test the waters.

After several dunkings in the snow, I waved the white flag.  Enough!  Plan A was clearly going to be a no-go, time for Plan B.  So we returned to the snowmobile trails and headed towards Ptarmigan Pass via Shrine Bowl.  It was slow.  My cross tires weren’t doing the trick in the soft, fresh, churned up snow.  Frustration levels were reaching simmering points, at least for me.  So I took pictures because sometimes I need a reminder that even if I’m taking my bike for a walk, and I’m suffering from the hangries, I’m still in an amazingly beautiful place.

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And then our trail dead-ended.  So we tried to take another way around, hiking our ponies through deep snow (you can see all sorts of good pictures of me swimming in snow and taking the pony for a walk over at Scott’s description of events), only to find ourselves back at the same dead end.  It was almost comical.  Blizzardy conditions, dusk falling, and headed back towards the car.

One of the stated ‘goals’ of the trip was to make it to Mango’s Mountain Grill in Redcliff at the far end of the loop.  At Shrine Pass, for the second time that day, we pondered the options.  Back to Vail Pass to give Wilder Gulch and Ptarmigan Pass a go from a different approach, or down Shriner, straight to Mango’s, and try to come back over Ptarmigan, or just as an out and back.

Might as well try Wilder we reasoned.  What’s the worst that could happen.  We stopped within spitting distance of the car to put lights on as the snow intensified and the light disappeared.

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And then we pedaled our ponies into one of the most magical nights I’ve experienced.  The snow continued as the full moon made a valiant effort to break through the clouds and freshly groomed corduroy, churned up by only two sleds. The fresh fluff crunched quietly under the tires.  For the first time all day, we were moving at a socially acceptable speed.  Through the snow.  Through the silence.  Through the Universe.

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As we approached Ptarmigan, we found a nice little hidey-hole of a tree well, mostly out of the snow, packed down the sugar snow the best we could, and set up a home for the night.  I curled up in the -20 degree bag, snacking on Reeces Peanut Butter Cups waiting for dinner, watching the snow fall, completely, totally content with life, with the world.  I thanked the Universe.  Profusely.

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It was still snowing when I woke up from what might have been the best night of bikepacking sleep I’ve ever had.  It was still dark, but with no reason to wait for the sun to warm our faces, we made a bowl of chai-oats, which is quickly becoming my favorite bikepacking breakfast, loaded the snow covered ponies, and headed up the pass.

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At 11,800 feet, we ran out of uphill to push/ride our bikes up and we were greeted with magic.  Groomed trail, no snowmobile tracks, and a long downhill.  There’s something special about coasting downhill on fresh snow. It’s completely silent, smooth…it’s as close to flying as I think I’m ever going to get.

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We reached the bottom earlier than expected and headed south towards Camp Hale and my favorite trail in the whole widest world.  Every time I get to see the Colorado Trail, it makes me happy.  The fact that I finally got to see the bunkers also made me happy.  How I’ve ridden the trail three times and never seen the giant cement structure less than ten feet off the trail is beyond me. No, it’s not.  I’ve missed moose walking across the trail in front of me because I’m too busy in my own little la-la land.

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And then on to Mango’s.

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What can I say.  We downed a 16-inch pizza and a chicken taco pretty easily and then Scott said something funny along the lines of ‘We have lots of sweets on the bikes, I guess we probably don’t need the ice cream sandwich.’  My jaw dropped.  Surely, you must be joking.  Either he was, or he quickly backpedaled and pretended he was, because soon enough, the most amazing food masterpiece I have ever had put in front of me was brought out.  It tasted as good as it looked.

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Stuffed silly, we headed back up Shrine Pass.  2,500 feet of climbing in a hair over nine miles.  I went into it expecting similar conditions to the day prior, fully prepared to hike the nine miles up,but the Universe was smiling.  She may have served up a hefty dose of humility the day before, but she was delivering nothing but magic and the climb was 95% rideable with my 3.8 inch cross tires.  The sun shined on us as we gained altitude, the trail well packed and firm from the sun’s intense rays.  Snowmobilers passed us either with grins of amazement, grins of confusion, or just stares of disbelief.

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We crested Shrine Pass at precisely the Golden Hour.  Long shadows, lit up peaks. We found that the single track that had sent me sprawled in the snow multiple times the morning before had set up to become a nearly perfect ribbon of packed trail through giant meadows and trees as we descended from Shrine Pass to Vail Pass.

We finished back at the car, smiling almost as broadly as the Universe must have been to bless us with such a day of riding bikes.

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Our plan of heading to the desert failed.  Our plan of Shrine Ridge failed.  Our plan of Shrine Bowl led to long walks in the woods with the ponies.  But in the end, flexibility combined with a fair bit of stubbornness prevailed, and we were rewarded.  I guess the old adage of bikepacking is true.  Never quit in the dark.  Never quit when it gets rough and is starting to seem hopeless.  The bad will pass, and those who keep at it will ultimately be rewarded.