The second checkpoint, in West, was thirty-some miles away over trails that rolled through some of the densest, most beautiful forest I had ever seen.
I rode fairly well until dusk, roughly twelve hours into the race, but still spent a lot of time pushing my Mukluk.
Following my wife’s advice, I did my best to stay in touch with family back home, even sending along a mandatory ice-beard selfie around dinner time.
I had hoped that the trails would set up when the sun and the temperature went down, but they didn't. In fact, the increasingly remote trails turned out to have been chewed up pretty well by snowmachines, which made the trail unrideable for me and for at least two of the racers in front of me…poor bastards…who were making two sets of footprints and a single, steady, straight line of tire track. Most of the time, I did what they did: walking where they walked, and riding where they rode. The temperatures were moderate, even comfortable, and when the sun set, the day's overcast sky melted away, revealing a huge dome of stars in a black sky. Apart from what light my headlamp could cast on the trail and the trees, there was apparently nothing else in the world. It was a thrilling, scary feeling.
I was now walking almost all the time, pushing my bike, eating and drinking regularly, stopping when I needed to, and periodically pulling out my phone to check the race tracker website, take a photo, or sip from the stream of messages on Facebook. The virtual company was nice, but more than anything I longed to actually ride the Beast. Alas, my riding skills weren't up to the task on the soft, torn-up trail. I reminded myself over and over that next year, I needed to prepare for the race by doing a lot of riding on the crappiest, softest trails I can find.
I also realized, as my lungs burned from any effort harder than a steady walking pace, my body was suffering hugely from the altitude. The elevation had been the biggest wild card in the race for me, and it was turning out to be a joker. I knew that I would feel effects from being literally a mile high, or even higher, but I didn't know what those effects would be. Turned out, they were totally prosaic; feeling all the time like I was at about 75% of maximum power.
In the darkness, I tried to remind myself that moving was the only way I would get to the second checkpoint, but that eating and drinking were mandatory, and that resting was okay. Kneeling next to the Beast, I fell asleep at least once, waking up with a start and a hallucination of a CNN-style news crawl creeping across my pogies. I made a habit, whenever I stopped, of wiping the snow crust off my blinky taillights. Having them clear seemed important.
Around 11pm, about sixteen hours into the race, I noticed some bright lights on the far side of a massive bowl. I didn't know what the lights were from, but I convinced myself that the brightest set of lights belonged to the trail groomer that JayP had promised would be working all night, paying special attention to the racecourse. A half hour later, I trudged up to a trail junction where the shredded snow I had been walking for hours abruptly changed to immaculately groomed snow.
I literally fell to my knees in relief. Rideable snow! Somehow, my brain reminded me that harder snow would let me run harder tires, so I dug out my pump and aired up. Have you ever noticed how using a mini-pump requires you to kneel as if in prayer? It does, and like an answered prayer, I found that I could actually pedal again. I managed to keep up that blessed activity for most of the next many hours, as I rode the trail north toward West. I still had to hike some of the hills, and I took a couple excellent crashes, but just pedaling and going faster raised my spirits. At one point, one set of footprints and tire treads reappeared on the groomed trail, and then disappeared again. I couldn't figure that out, so I concentrated on “staying constant” and feeling like I was racing. I imagined that the Beast was happy to be rolling fast again.
Though I couldn't read the course map with perfect certainty, by 3am I could tell I was getting close to West Yellowstone. Whenever the endless trees opened up a little bit, I could see a yellow glow at the edge of the black sky. Suddenly I saw the blinking red lights of a radio tower among the trees. I thought back to the radio tower I had seen late in the Arrowhead, a landmark that I thought meant I was getting close to the finish but actually meant nothing except that I was seeing a radio tower.
This time the blinking red lights on the tower did mean I was getting close to West. Between easier terrain, the grooming, and the adrenaline rush of knowing I was approaching the checkpoint – warmth, food, rest, light, other people – I felt like I was making good time. The glow of town grew stronger and larger. On one long downhill, I watched, detached from myself, as I rode past a trail sign that seemed to bounce and swing on its post. I was focused enough on getting to West that I didn't really care that I was seeing a dancing trail sign in the middle of the night at the Montana border.
Then suddenly, the glow resolved into the individual lights of buildings, streetlamps, and cars! The snowmobile trail dumped me out onto a street, and I followed a series of pink-painted posts and flamingos to Checkpoint Two. I leaned the Beast, happy for the break, up against the fence out front, took one moment to enjoy the fire pit raging a few feet away, and another to admire the two fatbikes that were also resting there, and then headed inside. Pushing or riding, I had been mostly on the move for about twenty hours…and I was only at the halfway point.
My time at the checkpoint flew by. I ate some chili, chatted with the exhausted-looking volunteer, drank water and Coke, and talked briefly with one of the racers that had dropped out. I wanted to talk more, but I needed a nap. Forty minutes of sleep felt great, and I actually felt charged up when I climbed back on the Beast, laden with four bottles full of hot water, just before the cutoff time of 6am.
—————————TO BE CONTINUED…
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.