Note: I carried a camera. I failed to use said camera much. Epic fail, especially on the last day. On the plus side, Scott carried a camera and took lots of good pictures of the trail, so go look here for eye candy.
I had a master plan for how I was going to race the ITI. Luckily, I’m a planner who has the ability to fly by the seat of her pants if need be as this race proved to unfold as anything but according to plan. By looking at the forecast for my series of weather stations (Knik, Skwentna, Nikolai, McGrath) obsessively for the week leading up to the race, I had deemed the weather to be ‘near perfect’ for a fast run through the course and was starting to believe that aiming at Lou Kobin’s record wasn’t a complete fairy tale. Possibly too warm for the first half, but no threats of -40 on the back side of the Alaska Range. And minimal threats of snow, which in my mind was the key to speed. I jettisoned my down pants at the last minute and wrote down Lou’s splits from her record breaking run in 2011, ignoring her splits for her prior races on slower years.
Mike had said that I had no business even thinking about the record on my rookie run. He also said that there was no way I’d make it through without having to bivy outside. I was determined to prove him wrong on both counts.
Ponies loaded up for transport to the Knik Bar from Anchorage.
Leading up to the race, people would ask what my goal finishing time was. I always said that I’d love to go under 3 days and 22 hours, but really, it was up to the trail. A whole lot of things had to go right in order to be able to go that fast, including a whole host of things that were completely and totally out of my control. As for the things within my control, I just had to keep the ratio of good decisions to bad decisions as high as possible, and remain lucid enough that if disaster struck, I’d be able to stay alive. I’ve become pretty comfortable pushing sleep deprivation in race situations, but there’s something different with pushing it in an environment like Alaska compared to, let’s say, SoCal during the Stagecoach 400. I was more than slightly scared.
Sunday afternoon finally arrived after much puttering around Anchorage and I lined up with 47 other crazies outside the Knik bar with the intention of following tire tracks to see if the top guys were going to take the ‘shortcut’ or not, trying not to push sleep deprivation until the end, and hoping for fast trail. There was a moment of hesitation when Kathi said go until Moobs finally took the initiative and led a gaggle of bikers onto the trail. I expected the guys to take off at mach 7 like they tend to do, and was beyond pleasantly surprised when they didn’t. It was a downright civil pace for the first several hours as probably close to 15 of us stayed together on our way to the powerline road. And then we hit snow. Soft, squishy, warm, fresh snow and I discovered how much slower I really was at pushing my bike than the boys, and how much I really wished I had 100mm rims and 4.8 tires. I struggled as the gap to the boys slowly opened up on the marginally rideable snow. The group ride was fun while it lasted.
Knik Bar. Apparently they didn’t know we were coming and the poor bartender/waitress/cook was completely overwhelmed.
After what seemed to be a short amount of time, I found myself down on Flathorn Lake, the first chance for me to experience the dreaded overflow. I could see the boys walking across the lake, two groups separated by a couple hundred yards, huddled down and gray under the increasingly strong snow that I was coming down. Dismal. I walked confidently until I started seeing water at the bottom of the post holes that the boys had put in, at which point I started walking less confidently, trying to step between their steps where hopefully I could pack down enough snow that I wouldn’t break down into the overflow. Terror (mostly of the unknown of having never dealt with overflow before) wouldn’t begin to describe what I was feeling as I slowly made my way across the lake. Eventually, the footprints disappeared as the boys started riding, but my attempt at pedaling ended with a foot down, going straight through into water. Walking it was until the opposite shoreline.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be on dry land.
Walkers. Bikers. A whole bundle of nervous energy.
Night fell while traversing the Dismal Swamp. The name mirrored my mood as the snow continued to fall and the sky went from gray to black. Forward progress seemed marginal as the tracks in front of me told stories of rideable conditions deteriorating as a single track would turn into a dozen tracks searching for firm snow which would eventually turn into a dozen set of footprints re-converging on a center track. I always fell off as soon as the tracks started to diverge.
The dance of tire tracks continued onto the Susitna River and then onto the Yentna where conditions improved marginally. Finally, after a corrected wrong turn (Big Lake? I don’t want to go to Big Lake! That’s where the Scott/Mike/Brian crew came from!) the river became rideable. Not fast, but ridable and I relished the ability to pedal for long stretches. As the snow stopped the the sky started to clear, the magic set in. Quiet, still, the legs said ‘Go’ and I was happy to oblige. I may suck at pushing, but I can pedal.
Boys on the road. I finally got to put faces to famous names such as Phil from Nome, Oatley, and Moobs.
It felt strange, to be riding up the Yentna River, in the middle of Alaska, in the middle of the night, and to be perfectly comfortable. I knew that I was confident in my cold weather abilities, but to actually be out there, to be doing what I had prepared to do, was pretty surreal. A deep set fear of what I was trying to do still lingered, but slowly the fears which had plagued me leading up to the race became mere stories, figments of my imagination. They were still there, but now residing in the back of my brain rather than the forefront.
It wasn’t long before the lights of Yentna Station, the first check point, appeared around a bend in the river, an oasis of light in an otherwise dark world, illuminated only by the struggling moon behind the clouds. My plan was to check in and check out, to keep the wheels rolling, but when the offer of chicken soup was put on the table, I couldn’t resist. I slurped it down, the stomach happy for the salt and warmth, and looked at the clock. Midnight. I thought back to my projected splits, the ones I had told my mom as a best case scenario, Phil had said Skwnetna, the next checkpoint was doable by midnight if the trail was fast, Lou had been there by two on her fast year, I cursed the long hike along Flathorn as I went back out into the cold and kept pedaling. I hoped my mom wasn’t worrying…to badly.
The temperature dropped as the sky continued to clear and the trail felt fast, contouring the Alaskan landscape along the river. I pondered my sleeping options as the miles passed. I could sleep at Skwnetna, but really, even if I got there at 6am, I’d only been pedaling for 16 hours (I know, how absurd does that sound?). I could try to make it to Shell Lake a few hours past Skwentna, but if I slept there I’d be burning daylight, or I could try to stick to my original plan of making it to Finger Lake Lodge, which would hopefully be a 20-ish hour push from the start, sleep a few hours, and go from there. Sleeping at Skwentna sounded the most promising until I got there at 4:15 in the morning, well behind my original planned split, but far ahead of what I had hoped for leaving Yentna. I figured I’d solve the sleep dilemma after I ate.
Starting a few days prior, Scott had finagled email access at Skwentna and sent me a message that I needed to try the pizza and the pumpkin cream cheese rolls while I was there, that I would be in heaven, both at the lodge and out on the trail. I pondered the pizza but opted for the chile instead and then indulged in a giant slice of the pumpkin cream cheese roll. The owner, who’d connected me to Scott, told me of the boys buying one roll to share, sharing it, and then buying another, to ‘share’. She told me they seemed to be having the time of their lives out on the trail and the thought of the three of them goofing around down the trail lifted my energy. They were out there, I just needed to chase them down. While it didn’t seem like it, I apparently spent a solid two hours there eating, talking, and drying out all my outer layers that had been soaked in the snow storm.
The owners told me that all of the riders were running late this year and I made a quick mental calculation of being four hours behind Lou’s pace. I didn’t have high hopes of the trail becoming any faster but was no where near ready to throw in the towel for chasing the 3 days and 22 hour record.
Never say die, I reminded myself leaving the lodge, the sanctuary in the Alaskan wilderness, did a mini gut check and headed back out in the dark. Something was going to happen, and all I could hope for was fast, ridable trail.