Getting out of West was actually fairly difficult. After getting the slow-roll lookover by a policeman in his patrol car and stopping at two different hotels for directions to the westbound snowmachine trails, I finally found the trail network that would lead me up, up, up to the Continental Divide. At the time, I chalked up my bad way-finding to a lack of signage, but in retrospect I can tell that all my problems stemmed from fatigue.
This only became more evident a few hours outside of West when I misread my map and took a wrong turn that sent me onto a screaming fast downhill. I barely made it, and stopped at the bottom to psych myself up for the inevitable hike-a-bike up the hill on the other side. Before I started that trudge, I checked my phone, and found a text from JayP telling me I'd gone off course. WTF? I wasn't off course! What was he talking about!?! Oh…yes, I was off course. I hiked back up the hill I had just descended to find a giant animal on the trail. Cow? No. Clydesdale? No. Moose! The animal smelled me and lumbered into the woods, vanishing magically into the trees. I noted its massive hoofprints as I remounted and got back on course.
By now I was well into the long, broken-up climb to the Continental Divide at about 8,100 feet – about 1,500 feet higher than West.
The trees began thinning a little, and overhead I could see bigger expanses of sky. I was slowly riding long stretches of the trail, but my walks were getting more frequent again, and I was also stopping often to let long snowmachine groups pass me. The riders looked warm and happy…and fast. Shortly after one big group raced by, heading up Two Top Loop Trail, one of the riders came back down to me. “Are you just riding up the hill so you can ride back down?” he asked. I laughed. “No, I'm in a race.” His eyebrows went up. “Why, exactly?” I shrugged. “I like riding bikes.” He snapped a couple pictures. “How long is the race?” I told him. “How far do you have to go?” I guessed that I'd be riding all day and asked, “Could you send me those pictures?” He took down my email address, wished me luck, and roared back up the trail.
About forty-five minutes later, I rode up an unremarkable little stretch of trail to a tiny sign that marked the Divide. I stopped to take a picture of the Beast there.
In every way, this moment – 10:22 AM, after more than twenty-seven hours of racing – was the high point of my Fat Pursuit experience. I had never been so high in the sky, and what's more, I had (mostly) ridden my bike there. The view was amazing, just as it should have been. Deep breath, Red Bull, trail mix, and then I got back onto the Beast for what I hoped would be some serious downhill riding.
It was, and then some. Two Top Loop Trail is apparently notorious for bad weather, and I saw just about every kind of winter condition over the next hour or two, even though I never did see the Two Tops. I encountered light snow flurries, a heavy snow squall, rain, sleet, a few sunbursts, and even some thick, cold fog, which materialized around me as I descended a particularly fast section of the trail across some wide meadows. I was barely in control of my bike, but I pedaled whenever I could, feeling like every bit of effort was making up for all that overnight hiking. I would aim the Beast's front tire for a spot between the next pair of trail-boundary poles, rip over that spot, frantically scan the fog for the next set of poles, and correct my course to pass through them. Repeat again and again, and again. I even passed some snowmachiners who were riding more cautiously down the trail. Two wheels good!
In a matter of minutes, I must have lost almost all of the elevation that I had earned over the previous hours. They were exhilarating, untaxing minutes, but just the same, this downhilling didn't seem to be quite as big a deal as the uphilling had been. Coming off Two Top and into the forest again around noon, I reached the trails that would lead me south and west, to the third checkpoint, a gussied-up garage called the Man Cave.
JayP had said that he was going to lead a toast to all the racers at noon on Sunday, so I made a point of stopping then to enjoy another Red Bull and post my regards on the race's Facebook page. I don't believe in the supernatural, but I definitely felt stronger and better after taking this moment to commune with the rest of the racers. I also realized that I had now been racing for longer than I had needed to finish the Arrowhead 135, giving rise to some dark thoughts. Was I the last person on course? Was I taking too long? Did I need to quit?
I tried and mostly succeeded in chasing these thoughts away by pedaling. Off the Divide, the trails were flatter, or even gently downhill, so I could do quite a bit of real riding. But the Sunday snowmachiners were now out in force, and I had to stop frequently to let the sleds squeeze past. Each group tore up the trail a little more. I aired down once, and then again, and slowly figured out that certain lines were better than others. I think I liked the edges of the tread tracks, but now, I can't remember. Whatever part of my brain figured that out on a Sunday afternoon apparently soon died from lack of oxygen.
Fatigue also led to some situations that were funny even at the time. I spent what felt like an hour kneeling in the snow at one trail junction, trying to get my course map to correlate with the map on the junction post so that I could figure out if I needed to go straight or turn right or left. Finally, I decided that I needed to go straight, and walked by bike over to that trail. Only it wasn't a trail – just a gap in the trees. Even I could tell that this wasn't the right way to go, and with one possibility eliminated, I managed to choose the right option – which took me right past a warming hut just as a half-dozen snowmachiners stumbled out, holding beers and cigarettes, and lining up to piss in the snow. I waved. They waved. I pedaled on.
I didn't know it at that moment, but I was nearing the end of my race. This Meadow Creek Trail was a beautiful rolling track, not too badly ripped up by snowmachines, that first traversed a woody hillside and then turned out onto some of the first open flats I had seen in two days, or more. The winds picked up here, and some drifts even reached out from the untouched snowpack on either side of the trail. Except when I had to make way for sleds, I could ride pretty consistently, feeling oddly comfortable fighting a wind that was at its worst a mere breeze compared to the gales we get in Minnesota.
From the map, I could tell that I was less than ten miles from the Man Cave. Unfortunately, the 3PM cutoff for that checkpoint had long passed, even then. I didn't know what that meant. If the check was closed, was I automatically disqualified? If it were still open, would someone there stop me? Should I stop at the checkpoint and call my friend Ben for a ride back to the start? If nobody was there, should I keep going?
I thought about all this as I rode and occasionally hiked the weirdest stretch of trail in the whole race – a narrow track that apparently ran through what would be a township in the Midwest; scattered houses, farmsteads, fences in various states of disrepair, and powerlines. I passed several enclosures marked with no-hunting signs, a couple incongruously luxurious cabins sealed up for the winter, a restaurant doing booming business with snowmachiners, a Frisbee golf course, and a Christian retreat center. The forest thinned and finally retreated up the hills to one side of the trail, leaving me at the edge of a wide plain that looked something like central Minnesota, except for the foggy mountains looming in the distance. I followed the trail along a fenceline, took a turn, and saw, far away, a highway that I knew had to be the road to the Man Cave.
Some adrenaline trickled into my bloodstream. I even stood up to ride harder toward the road, BMX-ing over some humped drifts, and then counting down the electric poles to the highway. 7…6…5…6…no, 4…3…2…1… I reached the highway just as JayP's van pulled up at the trail crossing. I rode over to the van. He popped out. “Hey, man. How are you feeling?” I knew what was coming. “I feel good, Jay. Tired, though. I'm not going very fast.” He nodded the nod of a guy who knows fast. “You look strong, man, but it's late. Almost five. There's some weather coming in, some weird moisture. Maybe rain, maybe snow, and it might get cold. All the volunteers are done. It's just me. I think I need you to stop.”
I nodded. “Honorary finish?” He smiled. “Yeah, honorary finish,” and shook my hand. I started crying from relief and fatigue and hunger and feeling like I had just done something unforgettable – 102.66 miles (including my wrong turn!) and almost exactly 34 hours of hard racing. I let Jay load the Beast into the van, and then we drove over to the Man Cave, where he tidied up and I helped myself to three Cokes, two regular-sized bags of chips, a few bananas, and a sleeve of Oreos. On the ride back to the finish area, Jay talked about his semi-diabolical plans for next year's race while I stuffed my face.
At the finish, a bunch of us stood in the thin mountain air and waited for the last two finishers, cheering them over the line around 6PM. Kid Reimer was there, taking pictures and saying the right things. By the time I unloaded the Beast and went back to my cabin for a shower, I was feeling less sad and more accomplished. I hadn't quit, right? Jay had made me stop! I don't know if that's a distinction without a difference, but it has wound up being my definition for my Fat Pursuit experience. By the time a bigger group of us sat down to eat dinner a couple hours later, I had already decided I would be back for the next edition, to finish for real.
About The Guest Blogger
Christopher Tassava lives in a small college town in southern Minnesota with his wife and two daughters. He caught the gravel riding bug in 2009, and fell hard for fatbiking in 2012. In addition to riding year round to get to and from work and training as much as his schedule allows, he has completed several of Minnesota's great gravel grinder races. Racing his fatbike seemed like the logical next step. You can find him online via his blog Blowing & Drifting, @tassava (Twitter), https://snowandgravel.tumblr.com/ (Tumblr), and on Facebook, where he has happily gotten in touch with lots of cool bikers from all over the world.