‘Fully confident’ is not a way I’d describe myself as I rolled out of Rohn a little before 6 pm. I could count the number of hours of sleep I’d gotten on one hand (and I’m not convinced the ‘sleep’ that I’d gotten at Finger Lake really counted as sleep), and the thought of entering the Farewell Burn, which was described as 40 miles of hallucinogenic burned spruce forest, sleep deprived and in the middle of the night was…worrisome. It’s also historically the coldest part of the course and has been known to break many souls.
My consternation was only increased after I ungracefully sent myself sprawling just inches from a giant tree within minutes of leaving Rohn. ‘Wakeupwakeupwakeup!’ I chanted to myself, ‘You’ve got to get yourself together!’ Soon I found myself out on the ice of the KooKooSwim (Kuskokwim) river and I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t slept in Rohn and I got to ride the ice in the daylight, both from a safety standpoint and a Awe-and-Wonder standpoint. My mental train alternated between terror, amazement, and wanting to stop and take pictures (I didn’t, but Scott did, and they turned out amazing) with amazing rapidity. ‘Stay straight. Stay calm. Stay balanced.’
As much of a novelty riding on ice was, I was pretty glad to be back on snow at the far side of the river. Brian passed me not minutes later, making good on his promise to sleep more and ride faster in the interim. ‘You’ve got to do everything you can to get this record!’ he told me as pushed up a steep hill.
‘I know. I’m doing everything I can.’
‘You have ice cleats, right?’ he asked me.
‘I have screws on the bottom of my boots.’
‘I guess we’ll see how bad the ice is up here.’
I thought back to Jill’s book and her description of the ice bulge. I’d failed to make note of which section of trail it was on and I quickly realized that while I’d convinced myself that the major ‘difficulties’ of the route were done (i.e. ice bridges, overflow), I still had some obstacles to navigate.
‘How far up the trail?’ I asked.
‘About 10 miles from here,’ Brian told me, getting on his bike at the top of the hill and pedaling off at a speed not indicative of being 200 miles into the Iditarod Trail.
I fretted for approximately 3 minutes as I pedaled along until I realized that Scott had the exact same ice-gripping set-up as I had on his shoes, so as long as I didn’t find him coming backwards on the trail, there would be a way up or around the famed ice bulge.
Darkness fell but the night remained warm and dark with the moon still firmly planted behind the mountains. I passed the sign for the Post River and rode along more ice, marveling at the appearance of the frozen water under my headlamp. Ice turned to snow, snow turned to dirt, and then dirt turned into a giant mess of ice. The famed ice bulge. I shined my headlamp around, thick ice and rock cliff to the right, steep sheet ice to the center, but to the left, snow and a firmly packed track to the top of the bulge. Bingo. I hauled myself and the bike up, grateful that this ‘crux’ seemed to be going smoothly. The ice continued on upwards but was interspersed with spots of snow that I was able to connect on foot. I stepped out onto the ice, just to test my ice screws only to find that they held no grip on the frozen waterfall. Good to know, I told myself and made my way up to the dirt at the top. I looked back, down the cascading ice and smiled, knowing I’d just gotten super-lucky. Thank you, Universe.
I honestly don’t remember much of the next section. Apparently there was a fast and long descent off of Egypt Mountain. I remember a downhill section of dirt that I was terrified of and walked down because I convinced myself that I didn’t know how to ride dirt, only snow. I remember the moon rising over the peaks and realizing that the night had been dark not because my light was dying but because the moon wasn’t up yet. I remember eventually ditching my clear lenses because I couldn’t keep them from fogging and being worried about my eyeballs freezing. I remember the moon lighting up the burnt spruce forest. I remember looking down at my thermometer and seeing it dip below zero for the first time. I remember looking down at my GPS and seeing the long straightaway approaching and scrolling the arrow from where I was to the turn to Nikolai and seeing ’40 mi’ pop up. I remember seeing the reflective sign in the tree declaring the Safety Cabin still 20 miles away. I pedaled on the order of three minutes past the sign, found a snowmobile track that had packed the snow down on the side of the trail, laid my bike down, and set up camp.
‘Ok Mike, you win this one.’ Bivying in the Farewell Burn. I’ve done dumber things in my life. I set up camp fairly quickly, pulled my water bladder into my sleeping bag with me, ate some peanut butter cups, set the alarm for three and a half hours later, and fell into the deepest sleep I’d had Anchorage.
I awoke to the alarm. Snooze button. The pesky thing went off again. Snooze button. Beep beep beep. I laid there awake, acknowledging that I desperately had to go to the bathroom, but at the same time, afraid of the cold that I knew awaited me outside the -20 degree bag. I moved my tongue around my mouth to find that the sores which were small and manageable when I’d lay down had grown and one had turned amazingly painful. Did I just frostbite my tongue? This is not going to end well. Eventually, as it always does, my bowels won and I desperately escaped the bag, pulled my boots on and scampered a few feet away from my camp. Squatting there, I heard voices, and then saw lights. Of course, Dan and Kevin had chosen exactly that time to find me in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.
‘Don’t mind me, guys.’ I told them as they pulled up. ‘Just going to the bathroom in this godforsaken cold.’ I may have added on a few more comments on the general temperature and ambience of the Burn and the apologized for being such a fine specimen of human right there and then. They continued on, telling me that they’d slept for a few hours in Rohn and told me they’d see me down the trail. ‘Unlikely,’ I thought as I watched their lights disappear into the night. I put my sleeping bag away, strapped the lopsided bag to my handlebars, reasoning that I’d fix it when it got warmer, added some water to my dehydrated meal and put it as close to my body as I could tolerate, took some Vitamin I to try to remedy the situation of my rapidly deteriorating underside, and started down the trail.
It wasn’t long before I ran into Billy, who was touring the Iron Dog route (Knik-McGrath-Nome-Fairbanks). He said that he’d ridden with the Curiak crew the night before and really wanted to make it to the cabin that night, but had gotten too tired. I asked him about the trail ahead as we pushed up a steep hill and he told me that there were about 200 of these steep pushes until bison camp and then it was flat and boring swamps for a long time. I told him that I’d take flat and boring and easy over these hills any day.
Even with his giant bike that he was pushing up any semblance of uphill, he was quickly out of sight as I struggled to wake up. Mornings on the trail are never pretty for me and this one, with the combination of the cold, dark, and scary infused with an inability to sit on the bike comfortably (complements of thinking I could do the entire race with one pair of shorts) and an inability to eat (complements of a mouth filled with sores), took the Ez-suffer-o-meter to a new level. To add to the slow forward movement, the sun was finally making an honest-to-goodness appearance, lighting up the Alaskan Range behind me (of which I took no pictures), and I used the top of every hill as an excuse to look back and admire the beauty that I was lucky enough to see, even if my overall mental state was sub-stellar.
Eventually, I crested the final hill to see a forest stretching to eternity and the straight and narrow trail cutting right down the middle. I bid farewell to the sunrise on the Alaskan Range and dropped down into the swamps of Bison Camp. ‘Go get Scott.’
As promised, the trail was straight, rideable, and gloriously mundane. Signs in the trees counted down the miles to the Bear Creek Cabin, 10, 5, 3, 2, and then, far down the trail I saw an unmistakable combination of colors. Bright yellow jacket, bright red pants. After three days of chasing, I’d finally caught up to Scott.
He looked as happy as I’d ever seen him, out riding and camping off his bike and I took the opportunity to pull out my partially rehydrated, and now partially frozen freeze dried meal and have a legitimate intake of calories. I fessed up to being tired. To being human. To being ready to be done. I told him I was dreaming of moving to Tucson. Of riding dirt. To most, it would have probably seemed that I was miserable and unhappy, but I love knowing that Scott gets it. That even in the lowest points, and I wasn’t feeling exceptionally high on life right there and then, it is still possible to love what I was doing.
Dehydrated meal finished, we parted with a giant hug. ‘I’ll see you in McGrath!’
The trail continued straight for another 20 miles to Fish camp, where I leapfrogged with Dan and Kevin a handful of times, before making a turn towards Nikolai for a final 15 mile push in across frozen swamps and rivers. It was truly spectacular out there with big views of the Alaskan Range, beautiful landscape, and a headwind that rivaled some of the breezes of the Front Range winter. Such is life, the good with the bad. I made slow progress towards Nikolai, each mile seeming like an eternity, but also appreciating that at least I was making progress with relatively little effort. And, I was in the middle of Alaska, on the Iditarod Trail!
The Petruska’s home, the Nikolai checkpoint, couldn’t come soon enough once I saw the town around the bend in the river. Stephanie came by on a snowmobile, told me there was pasta on the table, soda in the fridge, and to make myself at home, she had to go pick her grandparents up at the airstrip. I followed the small cardboard signs to the house that said Petruska on it, walked in, took my boots off, and immediately beelined it to the table where, indeed, and giant plate of pasta with meat sauce awaited. To a mouth that could take nothing sharp or abrasive and a stomach that couldn’t handle any more sweets, the meal was a godsend. I ate, ravenous, as Stephanie came back with her grandparents and a load of groceries from Anchorage, and I watched in awe as figures danced across a TV screen and Facebook was brought up on the computer screen. Life existed off the Trail.
Stephanie asked what my plan was. ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. ‘I’m really tired.’ My gut check was failing to ignite the motivator and knowing that it had taken the guys over seven hours to finish from here made the final miles seem daunting. ‘I think I’m going to lay down for just a little bit,’ I told her. ‘Then I’ll go.’
I ate a cookie, laid down on bunk bed in the back room, pulled my jacket over my head, and pondered the final 50 miles. Get it together. One more push. You can hold it together.