As I was getting ready to leave Finger Lake, I’d pulled out my cheat sheet and read Craig my description of the following section: Hardest section, steep climbs and drops, Happy Steps, ‘The Push’. I commented that I should write myself more motivational notes instead of gloom and doom. I didn’t hold out a whole lot of hope for the riding past Finger Lake given what I had experienced the day prior but having Craig tell me that I looked in better shape than most, and knowing that the boys weren’t putting a huge amount of time on me was enough to keep me moving past the sleep cabin and down onto the lake.
The trail was immediately ridable, and fueled by oatmeal, a Mountain House meal that I’d swiped from the Discarded Drop Bag bin, and coffee over-saturated by vanilla creamer, my diesel engine roared to life. Moobs passed me 15 minutes from the lodge, asking if I knew the whereabout of anyone and proceeded to drill it up the next hill after I told him that Brian had left Finger Lake just a few minutes ahead of me. I followed suit, riding hill after hill that I had no business riding. The bike climbed effortlessly on the firm, sticky trail and I found myself in a state of complete and total bliss. I started stealing glances into the woods, looking for unicorns.
The trail rocked and rolled, contoured, climbed, and descended, and eventually spit me out on a giant alpine lake. The full moon illuminated the giant peaks like it was daylight and I found myself stopped in the middle of expanse, completely breathless. Not real, there was no way this could be real.
Eventually I started moving again, down the Happy Steps to the Happy River, up the other side, finding the unmistakeable prints of Scott, pushing his bike from the right in his clown boots, as I pushed my pony up ‘The Push’, from the left.
After what seemed like two hours, I dropped onto yet another lake, this time with the lights of Puntilla at the far end. ‘Zoom-diggety!’ I exclaimed as I saw a lone headlamp dancing at the far end of the lake, ‘I’m coming in for landing!’
I pulled up to the cabin and found half a dozen bikes outside. Boys! I pushed the door open to find Moobs napping, shoes still on and hanging off the bed, Brian passed out and snoring, and Phil putting clothes on getting ready to leave. It was 4:30 in the morning, 8 hours had just passed like nothing. We exchanged a few words and I wished him a good ride, half wanting to sign-in and sign-out and keep riding. By the time I’d chosen a can of chile off of the stove, grabbed a little pile of pilot bread, and made myself a cup of hot chocolate, boys in minimal clothing had emerged from the back room, stumbling around and gathering gear. I so badly wanted to keep riding with them, but the rational side of me feared tackling Rainy Pass in the dark and on minimal sleep. Instead, I took my boots off, pulled my jacket over my head, and immediately fell deeply asleep.
When I awoke to the alarm two hours later, Moobs had left, Brian was still snoring away, and the fire was starting to lose its luster. Kathi had told us at the racer meeting that rookies probably didn’t want to tackle Rainy Pass in the dark, and leaving Puntilla around 4 am would allow for a daylight passage. It was already 6:15, so I hurriedly ate another can of chile with pilot bread, chugged a giant cup of hot cocoa, and went back out into the Alaskan night a hair before 7 am.
The ride up to Rainy consists of a fairly gradual climb for many miles and then a short, slightly steeper climb up to Rainy Lake and then the pass. It didn’t take long for the Alaskan sun to start to illuminate the surrounding peaks and it was all I could do to not stop and take pictures every 15 seconds. Dead-calm, warm, BIG, beautiful, magical. The home of unicorns. The riding was challenging with flat light and even staring at the ground gave no indication of where the track was. It was the definition of riding by feel with the slight tap of tire sidewalls on the snow lining the track being the only indication of the correct direction. Challenging, mentally draining, amazing that it was rideable.
I was at the mouth of the pass quickly and after some hiking, pedaling, and hiking again, there I was: At the top of Rainy Pass, the high point of the route. I took a look at the overcast sky and told no one in particular: You see Alaska, this is not considered partly cloudy, this is considered fully cloudy with some lame attempts from the sun to shine.’ I was starting to miss my Colorado sunshine. I was also starting to suffer from the effects of sleep deprivation.
I did a quick gut check as I got on my pony at the top as the ice bridges of the Dalzell Gorge held quite a reputation. I had waders on board, but I really dreaded the thought of having to carry by bike across open water. The initial descent was…partially rideable. Moobs, armed with his giant tires, had cut a clear track through others who had walked and I was able to ride more than expected by staying in his track.
The gorge was nothing short of spectacular. The afternoon sun had softened the snow enough to be slow and slick and I found myself dumped unceremoniously on the side of the trail several times and my tires lost any semblance of grip on some of the tight corners. ‘This is dumb,’ I convinced myself as I pulled myself out of yet another snow hole. ‘I’m hours behind Lou’s pace, there are no other women in this race, I’m taking a nice long sleep in Rohn, I don’t care if any other boys catch me.’ I did my best to take in and appreciate the view, but my pace and lack of sleep was starting to wear on me.
The trail eventually dumped out on the Tatina River and I marveled at the scenery in the afternoon light and reveled in the easy pedaling. Rohn was just around the corner! I rode in next to the airstrip and immediately found the famed canvas wall tent. The inside was pure luxury, a stove roaring, a raised bed made of snow and pine boughs, and I soon made myself at home as Rob made me a can of clam chowder and a cup of hot cocoa.
‘What time did you leave Puntilla?’ he asked.
‘A little before 7.’
‘You made really good time over the pass!’ he exclaimed, ‘You might be able to get the record, the trail is fast from here.’
‘No way,’ I told him. ‘Even if I didn’t sleep from here to the finish, I couldn’t get it.’
He looked at me skeptically as I pulled my splits sheet out. ‘Wait,’ I said, ‘What day are we on?’ We spent some time figuring out what the race clock was at and he confirmed to my fog-encompassed brain that if Lou had left Rohn at 10 pm on Day 3, then I was five hours ahead of her pace. ‘Well shit,’ I exclaimed, ‘There goes my 6 hour nap.’
I poked through the discarded food from the drop bags of the boys ahead of me and picked up some string cheese and smoked salmon and ate a couple of packs of oatmeal. ‘I think I’m going to take a quick nap and let the trail firm up,’ I told Rob, hoping that a frozen trail would lead to few snow angels on my part. I also needed a little longer to perform my check-point gut check before embarking on the next section which included famed Farewell Burn.
Of course, within minutes of pulling my jacket over my head, I heard the unmistakeable voices of Brian, Kevin and Dan outside the tent. I pretended they weren’t there for as long as I could, but soon they were all in the tent, Brian cracked out of his brains with energy after a long sleep at Puntilla. ‘If you’ve got the record in sight, you’ve got to GO Eszter!’ he told me.
‘I know, I know,’ I stretched out on the pine boughs. ‘I should go.’ I stayed horizontal.
‘I’m going to try to make it to the Bear Creek Cabin,’ Brian told me. ‘It’s 45 miles from here.’
‘Me too, hopefully I’ll see you there.’
‘That’s where the Curiak crew was probably going,’ Rob chimed in. ‘They only left about two hours ago.’
The Curiak Crew! I shook the sleep from my head. ‘Go get Scott,’ I told myself. I rolled off the air mattress, shoved the final couple of mini-beef sticks that I’d been eating into my mouth and unzipped the front door of the tent. I bid Rob and Rohn good-bye, told the boys that I’d see them on the trail, and headed out into the evening light. ‘Go get Scott.’