Thursday, March 12, 2009

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2009 - Final Episode

The Alaska Mountain Range we crossed

Before leaving the Rohn checkpoint we stopped by the main cabin to say hello to Jasper, the cook, and the other Iditarod checkers.  It was nice to see the people who nursed me back to life after my hypothermia experience a couple of years ago.  Again we were able to take off in the morning light. After a few hours we hit the Post River glacier which is a field of slick ice on a hillside.  We had to get off the bikes and hike in the snow on the side of the ice.  Even though we were wearing  boots with screws on the bottom,  it was difficult to make it up without slipping and falling on the ice.  Apparently the dog-teams end up going around this section.

View from the Glacier

 Hiking up the Post River Ice Glacier

The trail was really soft and mushy and it was difficult to ride without sinking in with our "skinny" tires.  Eric weighing a bit more than me was sinking through even more and ended up having to push his bike through long sections.  I figured it probably wasn't so fun being forced to push your bike with someone else riding in front of you, so I took off by myself over the frozen lakes.  It was really windy on the lakes and it was hard to keep from slipping on the ice where the snow was gone. I had to pedal very gingerly to keep the bike from sliding out underneath me.  It also felt a little scary knowing you were riding on ice with water underneath, even if the ice was very thick.  Looking down, you could see big cracks deep in the thick ice.  

After a while I passed Billy and Aidan who had stopped to make water and have lunch in the sunshine.   The last few miles to Bison camp was on rolling hard-packed fun trail and I felt like I was flying down the hills, and I could even stand up on some of the uphills.  I was actually sweating when I finally reached the walled tent known as Bison Camp.  Bison Camp is a bit of paradise in the snow.  Even though is is a simple tent with a wood stove, it provides a warm cozy place to rest on the straw covering the floor.  There is no checker at this check-point, but luckily Tim and Tom had been there for a while and the tent was warm from the fire in the wood stove. There was a pot of water on the stove and no shortage of snow to make more if needed.   I hung up all my wet clothes on the lines above the stove and just when Tim and Tom were leaving Eric showed up.  We found a couple of "cup-of-noodles" in the tent and had a delicious meal with lots of sodium.  

We (I) decided that there was no reason to stay too long at Buffalo camp, but thought it would be a great idea to press on to Nikolai which is 45 miles away.   When Aidan and Billy showed up we were packing up our gear and getting dressed.  It was dark when we took off for Nikolai and the temperature had dropped to around zero.  There is a steep up-hill where you have to push your bike leaving Bison camp and then a fun downhill.  You are not exactly flying on your bike with all the gear, narrow trail with thick Alder bushes on one side and deep snow on the other, but it's fun to go a little faster than 6 mph.  It hadn't been more than 5 or 10 minutes when all of the sudden my cranks locked up.  I stopped as soon as I could to try to avoid any major damage, but it was already too late.  My rear derailleur had been pulled into my spokes.  Eric noticed that I had stopped and turned around.  He immediately diagnosed my problem:  I had a broken chain link which had gotten caught in the derailleur which was sucked into my wheel.   Even in the zero degree weather in the dark, Eric was able to quickly fix my chain , but the derailleur was a different story.  It's hard enough to work on a bike when your fingers are stiff and cold and we were on a really narrow trail with snow built up on one side and Alder bushes on the other side so we had no choice but to push our bikes back to Bison camp.  I felt terrible for rushing us out of the checkpoint, and then MY bike was causing problems.    
I am sure Billy and Aidan didn't exactly appreciate us waking them up when we got back to the tent-cabin, but they were offering tools and advice.  After Eric got my bike somewhat straightened out we weren't exactly in the mood to go back out in the dark and cold, so we decided to sleep for a while.  

After a few hours of sleep we got up and made a second attempt for Nikolai.  It was cold, which was good because the trail was hard.  The sun must have melted the snow during the day, because there was a thick layer of ice on top of the snow and it looked surreal in the moonlight.  It almost looked like a white mirror with dark trees sticking up here and there. I was glad the moon was out, because my headlamp had broken earlier and I was stuck with my flashlight mounted on my handle bars.  It is easier to see the trail when you can turn your head and point your light where ever you want to.  

At Sullivan bridge we hit some open water going over the creek, but it was really obvious and we were able to get off our bikes, jump over the creek and pass our bikes across a couple of times.  We went through some of the most beautiful sections on the way to Nikolai with Aspen trees on both sides of the trail.  Getting closer to Nikolai we were on and off the river.  The temperature dropped, and that's when I realized I had left my down jacket at Bison Camp.  At first I was trying to stay warm by constant eating, but as Eric was still having to push his bike in the soft spots, I continued to get colder since we weren't moving very fast.  Every once in a while I would drop my bike and run up and down the river to stay warm.  I am sure I was being pretty annoying with my shivering, running around, and refusing to stop, because after a while Eric offered me his puffy jacket. At 10:30 am we finally reached the small town.  Nick and Olene, the couple who host this checkpoint live a little bit outside the town and I am not sure how new racers find their house.  They always know ahead of time when racers are showing up because it seems the whole town (50 people) are in constant communication via CB-radios and they are frequently getting updates from neighbors.  I guess when you live in a town of 50, a race like the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and CERTAINLY the Iditarod sled dog race coming through your town is a huge event.  
The Town of Nikolai

Tim and Tom were already sleeping at Nick and Olene's.  We planned to get a good meal, take a short nap on their couch and be on our way.  I had 3 bowls of beef-stew and a couple of giant chocolate chip cookies and then laid on the couch and watched the start of the Iditarod on television.   The temperature continued to drop outside, and we were a bit worried about continuing the last 50 miles without me having an extra jacket.  (or actually Eric, since he would definitely make me wear his)  50 miles doesn't sound like a lot, but if you have to push your bike the whole way, it can take a long time.  Also, the majority of this stretch is on an open river and it can be extremely cold and windy.  

When Billy showed up in Nikolai I jokingly asked if he had an extra jacket he "would like me to carry" to McGrath, and he said he actually did have a spare coat I could use.  His soft shell jacket was completely soaked though, and it took several hours to dry it out above the furnace in Nick and Olene's living room.  After taking my first shower in about 6 days, we took over one of the bedrooms and slept while the jacket dried.  We had planned on leaving Nikolai with Aidan, but since we had to wait for the jacket to dry, he left alone around 2 in the afternoon. Billy also left sometime in the evening.    Eric and I packed up our stuff and left at midnight.  It wasn't quite as cold as we thought it was going to be, but cold enough that the trail was hard.  After a couple of hours we ran into Aidan on the side of the trail.  He said that the trail was so soft during the middle of the day that he had been unable to ride.  At 7 pm he had decided to sleep until the trail hardened up so he could ride again.  What a bummer, he had left 10 hrs in front of us!!  That's the funny thing about racing in Alaska, it's all about the trail conditions.  

50 miles have never seemed so long.  The river was so boring, and mind numbing.   At some point during the middle of the night Eric was falling asleep on his bike and said he wished he had some coffee (I have been trying to get him to drink coffee with me for a long time).  I had some chocolate covered coffee beans, but he claimed they didn't do the trick.  Soon thereafter I started feeling the same way.  It was so hard to stay awake, and a couple of times I laid down on top of Billy's jacket in the middle of the trail to rest for a minute or two.  One memorable thing about this section was all the moose tracks on the snow machine trail.  Off course the local moose appreciated the snow machine tracks left in the deep snow, since this makes walking around and finding food a lot easier for them.  It looked like a herd of mouse had used the trail, miles and miles of it was covered with tracks which made it really bumpy and slow to ride.  Eric spotted a "message" on the side of the trail.  Someone had used a stick to write in the snow, it said: "F*%$#K MOOSE".  Someone (we guessed Billy) must have been REALLY tired.    

The river went on and on and on,  I felt a little better when the sun came up, but the miles were ticking by in slow motion.  The only thing that kept me going was thinking about Peter's mancakes.  I was constantly calculating what time we should be at the finish to try to figure out if it was still "breakfast time" so I could have Peter's famous "mancakes".  (The thickest, most delicious pancakes you can imagine, covered in whipped cream and syrup)  There was a sign that stated that we had 13 miles left to Peter's house, but Eric was convinced it must be wrong.  Surely it couldn't still be that far.  With 3 miles left to go, we finally hit a ROAD, the first one we had seen for about 350 miles.  Even though we only had such a short distance to go and I knew food was within reach, I had to keep eating my trail food (at this point peanut m & m's).  I was afraid I was going to bonk and not make it up the stairs to Peter and Tracy's house, or start eating off someone else's plate when I got there.  

13.5 hours after leaving Nikolai we finally reached McGrath.  Peter and Tracy's living room and kitchen was filled with racers.  I barely had time to take my clothes off before Tracy offered me coffee and asking what I wanted to eat.  It was so nice to finally get there, and it was great to see everyone else and hear their stories from the race. Jeff Oatley not surprisingly won the race this year, and he was followed by Jay and Tracy Petervary.  Peter Basinger who had decided to ski this year "for something different"  was first on skis, and off course Tim and Tom were the first walkers (beating me and Eric).  Kathi Merchant was also at the house, she was busy updating the web-site, talking to reporters and racer's family members, and was mostly seen working on her lap-top with a phone to one ear while listening to our stories with the other ear.  
 Tracy and Peter are so generous and friendly and they provided world class service for the tired racers in their home.  Tracy was instantly doing every one's laundry, and Peter was constantly adding new food and delicious dishes to the kitchen table.  I couldn't stop eating, I was amazed at the quantities of pancakes, omelets, sausages, cookies, and coffee I was putting away.  After a short nap, we were back at the kitchen table again for more food and stories.  
We had such a great time during the race this year, and finishing at Peter and Tracy's house in McGrath really "makes the race".  It is the perfect way to end the Iditarod adventure.  


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2009 - Part 2

                                                   Snowbikes at Cabin on Rainy Pass

Eric and I hung out with Bill in the cabin for a few hours and then we decided that it was time to try to make it over the pass and down Dalzel Gorge to Rohn, the 5th checkpoint.   By now, the wind and snow had really picked up and our bikes were covered in snow.  So were the tracks made by the racers in front of us...  We took off from the cabin, and couldn't even figure out how to get to where we had come from.  There was just waist deep soft snow everywhere, the wind was blowing really hard, and we barely made any progress.  After about half an hour we decided it was pointless; there was no way we could make it all the way to Rohn (about 18 miles) by ourselves, so we turned around to go back.  Our tracks had already been blown over.  It was so frustrating, overwhelming, and kind of scary that I had a little melt down.  

Bill was there to great us when we returned.   I got my sleeping bag out and curled up with all of my clothes on, but I was still freezing.  As soon as I went for more than 30 minutes without eating, my body totally shut down, and I couldn't keep warm and I had no energy at all.  I ate a muffin and some cookie dough that Eric had brought and instantly felt better.  Then Bill offered us some freeze dried chicken and rice.  It was so good to eat something hot.   After dinner Bill produced a bottle of Rumplemint schnapps and I had a shot in some hot cocoa.  It was quite a meal we had up at the Rainy Pass Hilton. Thanks Bill!!  

In the afternoon 2 other racers joined us, Billy Koitzsch and Aidan Harding.  They too decided to try to make it over the pass, but came back after a few minutes.  2 skiers, Peter Basinger and Ed Plumb stopped by briefly, they weren't having too much trouble with the snow and pressed on after only a few minutes of rest.  While hanging out in the cabin, Eric took it upon himself to find a tarp and hang it with some giant nails from the ceiling to block some of the wind.  It also kept more snow from drifting into the cabin.  At least we were a bit more sheltered in our temporary home. 

Since there wasn't much to do in the cabin, it was too cold to be out of the bag, and it got dark around 7:30, I continued to lay in my sleeping bag until the next morning.  Eric filled me a bottle with hot water and that made my sleeping bag so hot, I ended up peeling off a few layers of clothes.  Because of my size I could crawl to the bottom of my sleeping bag and have my entire head inside.  With my feet wrapped in my down jacket I was pretty cozy.  At 10 pm we were joined by Tim and Tom, the studly walkers from Pennsylvania who were 2 of the racers going all the way to Nome.  

We made some oatmeal in the morning and Bill was busy making water for the 6 of us before taking off.  There were discussions about what types of food provided the most amount of calories.  Billy was eating split-pea soup laced with a stick of butter from a zip-lock bag.  He claimed in contained 1400 kcal.  Bill told us that he had found dehydrated butter that he adds to his freeze-dried food, and Tim was eating a whole summer sausage.  I stuck to the oatmeal and some chocolate.

Breaking Trail on Rainy Pass with Billy and Aidan

The 4 bikers took off first.  It was quite a bit of work breaking trail, and all of us kept punching through and falling into waist deep snow.  The guys took turns breaking trail, I wasn't really doing much with my little bike.  It was hard work and it didn't take long before Tim and Tom easily passed us with their snow shoes.  They looked like they were flying!  During the stay in the cabin I learned that Tom is a mailman in PA.  He has a 12 mile route that he walks every day, rain or shine.  Sometimes he runs to and from work (6 miles each way), but most of the time he just does a 10 mile training run after work. Tom has been to Nome 4 times.  Tim is a studly ultra-marathoner, whose wife has the fastest female time to McGrath.  Tim's daughter was competing at the high school indoor track nationals as he was making his way to McGrath. Tim has also walked to Nome before.   Did I mention they are both in their mid 50s??  We were amongst such impressive athletes.  

Tim and Tom

Top of Rainy Pass

After several hours we finally reached the top of Rainy pass.  And while it was all down hill from there, it was a downhill with 3 feet of snow, alder bushes and willow trees covering the unmarked trail, as well as a small ice and snow covered river running  through the gorge.  We were hoping to be able to follow Tim and Tom's tracks or see some signs from the riders in front of us, but it was too windy and all tracks were covered by  snow. We slowly fought our way down the gorge, getting our bikes caught on the willow branches and lifting the bikes over trees and bushes. At 5 pm, 8 hours after leaving the cabin, Eric was in the front when he suddenly saw a snow machine coming from the other direction. What a sight!!  It was Terry, one of the iditarod checkers, making his way through the bushes using a machete.  I was so happy to see him, I dropped my bike and ran up to give him a hug.

Terry making his way through the willows with a machete.

After a couple of minutes,  2 other snow machiners came up behind Terry.  The 3 guys decided they were going to continue on to see if they could get to the cabin to help Bill out.  They told us we had 7-8 more miles to reach Rohn.  We still had to walk down the gorge, but at least we had a trail to follow. Just a couple of hours later the Rohn checkers came back.  They said it was too difficult and dangerous to make it up the mountain, so they had decided to turn around.  

We crossed 3 ice bridges on the way down.  The ice bridges are made for the sled-dog teams to cross the river.  They are made out of willow trees and branches and covered with snow and ice.  With 3 miles to go we finally hit a river so we could ride again.  Eric and I reached Rohn at 11:45 pm that night. 

The checkpoint in Rohn consists of a walled tent with a wood stove. Tim and Tom were sleeping on the ground, as well as Alec and John Ross. They had planned on leaving at 2 am, but since we woke them up, they all decided to take off a little early. Rob, the checker, was great. He had canned ravioli and clam chowder heated up for us. I checked the food labels, I just consumed 3600 mg of sodium after eating one can of each. WOW!! Sleeping was not easy with other racers arriving, hanging up their clothes to dry, and trying to get fed. I was glad I had brought my earplugs and some ambien!

I had 3 packages of instant oatmeal, some chocolate covered pretzels, 2 servings of hot cocoa, and a cup of coffee in the morning. I was actually full for a couple of hours after leaving Rohn.

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2009 - Part 1

Eric and I are back from Alaska with all our fingers and toes intact  (although Eric did frost-bite his earlobes) We are both healthy,  just a little sleep-deprived. After the race it feels a little weird to be back in civilization, but it's nice to sleep in a bed and eat real food. Thanks to everyone who followed our progress along the Iditarod trail. Thanks for all the messages and thoughts along the way.

The race this time couldn't have been more different than last time. I was healthy at the start, for one, which made a huge difference on how I felt during the entire race.

We started at 2 pm on Knik lake. The 46 skiers, cyclists, walkers, and snowshoers scattered across the lake in different directions. It had snowed a ton in Anchorage the day before, so we were a little nervous the trail wasn't going to be ridable, but luckily the trail was fairly hard and we were able to ride. We were right behind a group of riders with snow bikes, and it was easy to follow in their wide tire tracks. Eric and I were the only 2 riders who were still riding snow-cats (the skinnier wheels). It's hard to justify buying a snow bike when you only ride in the snow once a year.

The weather was perfect and the temperature comfortable. I was riding without my jacket and we cruised the first part which was on rolling trails in the trees without wind. After the rolling hills we got onto a lake and river system where the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped considerably. At night time time it was around -20 and several people got frost-bit toes during this section. A couple of people stepped in overflow and had to drop out unfortunately.   The first check-point was Yentna station,  57 miles from the start, which we reached at 1:50 am. Yentna station is a simple "lodge" on the river and it was really nice to be able to get inside and to get some real food. The owner made us grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup which tasted wonderful! We were able to share a room with 3 other riders. There was a king-sized bed, a small couch, and floor-space in the small room. Eric found an old foam mattress in a closet which put on the floor for us to sleep on . We "went to bed" around 3 and slept on and off until 7 in the morning. It seems to take a long time to get dressed in all your layers, fill up camel-baks and thermoses, put toe-warmers in your boots, and get out the door each time you stop, but we were finally of at 7:50 am.

From Yentna Station we continued riding the the Yentna river until we reached Skwentna roadhouse at mile 90 at 1:50 pm. Mileage is a whole different story in Alaska. If you are riding at 6 mph, you feel like you are making pretty good time. Worst case scenario, you are pushing your bike at 2 mph. Actually, there were some points when we were breaking trail at 1/2 mph... and that was going downhill...

At Skwentna we stopped only briefly to refill our water and have a bite to eat. I had a couple of frozen roast beef and cheese sandwiches which I put on top on the wood stove to defrost. They made a great lunch.   We took off with another rider, Alec Petro , but he was soon pulling away from us with his speedy snow bike.  Some time before dark we reached Shell lake lodge where we passed up Alec who had decided to stop for a bite to eat. This lodge is not a check point, so we decided to skip it, as inviting as it did look, in order to reach our next stop as soon as possible. It didn't take long for Alec to pass us back up again, he looked so effortless on his bike.

We reached Finger Lake and the Winter Lake Lodge by 11 pm. There is a walled tent set up for the riders to sleep and dry out clothes. With several racers sharing such a small space and every ones sweaty clothes hanging up to dry it was quite a smell going on in the tent. We went inside to the lodge and were served a great meal of rice, beans, chicken, cheese, and a tortilla. After eating junk food the whole day it tasted extra yummy. We found a spot on the floor in the tent, but it was difficult to sleep with other racers coming and going during the middle of the night. At some point a bed came open, and I was able to get a couple of hours sleep in a more comfortable spot. In the morning, we found our drop-bag, which had been flown out ahead of time by the race organizers and refilled our food and battery supplies, as well as restocked toe and hand warmers. I ate some of the granola I had sent and had some hot cocoa before we took off at 7:30.

From Winterlake Lodge we continued on to Puntilla Lake. The most memorable moment on this section was having to go up a hill so steep it was difficult to just climb up, even more so while trying to drag, push, lift the loaded bikes. We came down the "happy steps" onto a river, and then climbed up the riverbank on the other side. I would love to see the dog mushers getting the teams through this part. We rode this whole section in the daylight and reached Puntilla around 2 in the afternoon. That check point is run by a really nice family with 5 sons. They own a lodge where people come to hunt and fish, and they also have 10 smaller hunting cabins around the area (one of these cabins came in handy later in the race).

At first we planned on just a short rest at Puntilla, but as the trail was really soft and mushy we decided to get some sleep and leave at night when the trail would harden up in the cold. After eating a can of ravioli I slept on one of the beds in the back of the cabin using my down coat for a blanket. I had some instant oatmeal before we took off to go over the infamous Rainy Pass which is 3600 feet at the top. We were trying to get some trail and weather information before we left, but the only thing we knew for sure was that Bill Merchant was trying to make his way across the pass on a snow machine to make us a trail. The Iditarod checkers at Rohn (the next check point) were supposed to make it over the pass from the other direction, but one of the snow machines had gone down through the ice and the driver had to be rescued.

This was my first time over Rainy Pass. Last time there was no trail made, so in 2007 we opted for the 30 mile detour over Hell's gate, taking a longer but less steep way across the mountain range. We left a little after 10 pm and we were able to ride for a short time until we reached the steeper areas when we had to push our bikes. The night was perfectly still with the moon and stars out, it was really beautiful. Eric had told me horror stories about how cold and windy this section can be, how it could take 24 hrs to get across, and how he had to bivy above tree line because of how exhausted he had been. I was singing Swedish Christmas songs to myself as we hiked along in the dark of the night, thinking about how EASY it was and what great time we were making. I couldn't wait to make it to the top of the pass by dawn!! At one point we passed a broken down snow machine along the trail.

Around 6 am, after 8 hours of pushing, the trail just came to an end. The foot prints from other racers all of the sudden were going the opposite direction. Tracker Eric decided we should follow the foot prints back to were he had seen a split in the trail. It was only about a half a mile and in the morning light we could see a small shed looking building in the distance. As the snow was deep we left the bikes to check out the building. We found 7 bikes and a sled leaning up against it and when we opened the door we saw 8 mummy bags on the cots, and on the floor. Every single person in front of us, including Bill Merchant, had also had to stop and seek shelter in the small cabin. After laughing at the situation we realized the roof was blown off the building, and snow drifts were covering the wood stove and part of the loft. We found a broom and cleared a spot big enough for our sleeping bags upstairs.

The Blown-Off Roof of our shelter cabin

Our Sleeping Spot Upstairs

It was impossible to sleep and after a couple of hours we heard all the racers downstairs moving around, making water and packing up. It was a really funny situation, and we were cracking jokes yelling to the others below us. We weren't in the mood to leave the cozy cabin after only 2 hours of rest in the bad weather, so we moved our sleeping bags to the cots down stairs and were hanging out with Bill and listening to his stories. At this point it was 10 below 0 outside as well as inside. Bill had somehow managed to carry an espresso maker up the mountain with him and as we were stranded in a snow storm in the wilderness I had the best cup of espresso i have ever had. It was worth ever step!!

Drinking espresso on Rainy Pass with Bill