There are a couple of things that are guaranteed when you sign up for the Iditarod Trail Invitational: You can count on the trail conditions to be absolutely nothing like you expected, no matter how much you know about the trail and have watched the weather on the lead up, and if you have done the event before, you can also be guaranteed that each year will result in a very different journey than your previous time(s) on the trail. These are two big reasons I continue to go back: 2016 was my eighth year on the trail, and both the trail conditions and journey were nowhere close to what I envisioned.
Leaving the start line in 30 degrees across the glare ice lake began a theme that would fulfill many of those 300 miles. Even though the event states “350” miles, the most I have seen is about 330, and this year I logged 306. There were parts of the course that were suffering from snow, and a fair amount for about 100 miles from Skwentna and over Rainy Pass. Onward to Rohn, it became grim again, with a long stretch of dirt thrown in for good measure.
From the start, the trail got a bit worse before it got better, with some standing water and slush that splashed feet and gear. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to wear gaiters from the start, but it was also pretty warm, and they would've only made me hotter. I also felt pretty confident in my waterproof 45N Wolfgars that proved themselves multiple times along the trail.
When we hit the river some 40 miles later, the lead group had shaken out to only a handful of us. I was feeling pretty good. I wasn't setting the pace the whole time, but I was encouraging it when I was leading. The river riding was going very well on the good firm snow surface, but there was drizzle, mist, and rain that hit us long enough to wet the outer surface of everything. Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve been really into the ultra lightweight wind shells that Montbell makes. I carried an XL anorak that packs up smaller than a fist, and kept it handy to quickly slip it on/off in these quickly changing conditions.
After covering 60 miles, we reached Checkpoint 1. It was still pretty much the same handful of us hammering right along, and it was also still light out! We were definitely moving. I checked in and immediately checked out. A lot of people stop for a soda or refill of water. I chugged the Red Bull I brought with me and carried on.
After more good-and-fast river-riding, we covered 30 more miles to reach Checkpoint 2. It was finally dark, and we navigated by headlamp. Skwentna Lodge is one of the last outposts along the river before going deeper into the bush. They have great food, and can provide a bed and take care of us with whatever we need. I walked in, filled my water bladder, filled my thermos with boiling water, bought two pops, chugged one, and packed the other on my bike. And for whatever reason, I didn’t order any hot food. I didn't have a huge appetite then, but the boiling water would allow me to make something trail side with the food I had on my bike if I wanted. With the warm temperatures and higher pace, I also didn't want a lump of food in my stomach that was going to be hard to digest. I felt fine consuming the GU gels and Roctane liquid calories, so I just hit the trail. (I also like to try and do things that shakes the other riders as they all ordered food and sat down; this was great as I prefer to ride by myself. It just seems to keep the pressure off, and I can concentrate better on my own game. If I can lead by myself, I will, and if I have to hang back a bit to separate myself, I will do that, too.)
I had a great ride through the Shell Hills that follow Skwentna. It’s a great break from the flat river-riding. Besides riding solo in the dark and feeling free, conditions allowed riding all of the hills we usually just push. When I dumped down onto Shell Lake at mile 110, a snow machine was quickly approaching from across the lake. I soon recognized Schoder, whom I’d met during previous years. He lives on the lake and maintains the trail above and below it. If there were a mayor of Shell Lake, it’d be Schoder. He said he’d groomed the trail that morning, and it should be set up. He also alerted me about some overflow about 2 miles ahead. I shook his hand, thanked him, and carried on.
The following 20 miles to Checkpoint 3 were equally as good as the previous ones, and there was indeed some overflow. In the past, this is where the trail conditions can change, because the snow typically gets deeper and the trail is exposed to the wind. I was glad to be doing this swampy section at night. Passing through one swamp after another has become pretty dismal in the past. I laughed at times, because the trail next to the one Schroder groomed was sometimes better. The trails and snow can be funny like that out there. I find the term “groomed” is relative. In these areas, they build a “drag,” which is just a long steel platform with cross members. It’s meant to cut down the leftover bumps from the snowmobiles with each pass. What you think is going to be good isn't, and what you think will be bad ends up good. Some of my chosen paths were soft and resulted in pushing over to the other trail, which then led to breaking through the surface and into the overflow.
Somewhere along the way, Tim had caught me in these wandering swamps, and we rode into the Finger Lake Checkpoint together. This was 10 hours into the race. Unbelievable. It was the fastest time to this checkpoint ever. Now the drag race was on! This is also where we pick up the first of two food drops that management transports for us before the race start. There is also a meal included at this lodge. Once again, I wasn't all that hungry, but I did take in a bunch of various hot and cold fluids and stomached down some rice and beans and a tortilla with eggs. Within the half hour we were there, a couple of other riders had come in.
I didn't want to lead out this next section. It can be a demanding push as it gains a bit of elevation and meanders up the Happy River valley. I was also feeling slightly foggy, so I ended up lying down under the table in the lodge kitchen wanting to rest, but not wanting to go down to the racer tent and sleep. I listened and heard the others leave. I rested some more amongst the ruckus of others coming in. I finally gathered myself back together, sorted my drop bag, packed my bike—while also blowing out the frame bag zipper—and did my final dressing inside. I put my shoes on and chased the three others that left.
As I headed down the hill from the lodge, I had trouble clipping into my pedals. I was kicking and scraping the cleat on the pedal assuming it had iced up. About 2 miles later after crossing a few small ponds, I decided to stop and clean my cleat out, but there was no ice build up. The problem was a different cleat than the ones my pedals use! Doh—wrong shoes! I cursed myself and sprinted back to the lodge. As I climbed back up the hill to the lodge another racer, Dan, was just leaving. I asked if anybody was chatting about missing some shoes. He said he was wearing them. He did a little process of elimination at the checkpoint, and they knew I had left with the wrong ones. We changed them right there, and we headed back down the trail.
We didn't ride that long together, and I was back in my element, ticking away the miles by myself. This is where the famous “Steps” are. They were fast and grippy, which was good for braking instead of a death slide down each pitch. Even the push back up the other side wasn't all that bad with the grippy snow. What was bad, however, was the 10-plus miles where a moose used the trail. The hoof prints left me feeling like I was holding on to the end of a jack hammer. My butt and hands were all good until this section. I could have sworn the moose got in between me and the other rider, and I was the only one riding this mess, but it turns out he was up and down the trail for everyone. I actually caught up to him and saw him on one of the lakes. I thought for sure he was going to stay off the trail, but he turned back onto it and continued for another few miles. It was a welcome relief to finally hit the lake where he did leave, but the damage was done.
Reaching the Rainy Pass Lodge checkpoint late morning with the other three racers meant it was still an equal game. They were resting and puttering around in the cabin. With my rest at the checkpoint prior and their rest here, we were all probably on somewhat even terms, but in reality, it wasn’t what I’d call “rest.” I still didn't have a huge appetite, but I knew I needed to get some food and fluids in the body. I wasn't eating a whole lot on the trail either, but still, I felt fine—not great, but definitely not bad. I popped a can of hot soup out of the pot of boiling water that was on the wood stove, but only really drank some of the broth. The hot and cold tang was more appetizing than any of the food. I tried choking down a few crackers, but that wasn't working either.
This next section of trail going up and over Rainy Pass is always a wild card, and it has taken me anywhere from 10 hours to two days to get to the next checkpoint in Rohn. We got some trail knowledge from Craig Medred, a reporter that was on the trail. He said we’d probably push our way to the top of the pass, but the descent down the other side through the Dalzell Gorge was in the best shape ever.
I actually welcomed the knowledge and was looking forward to pushing, but I was not in any rush to get out the door. We had been gifted with the trail thus far, and I am over drag racing to McGrath like we have in the past couple of years. We are in Alaska riding the Iditarod Trail! It is supposed to be epic, with a bigger challenge beyond what it takes to ride a bike in 20-30 degree temperatures on firm trails with no precipitation or wind. I miss being pushed out of my comfort zone, using my equipment and extreme winter skills, and testing my tenacity for trying situations!
Anyway, Tyson and Tim left the checkpoint, and I followed behind close to two hours later. I meant to follow about an hour later, but I had dozed off sitting upright while the clothes were drying in what was a way-too-hot cabin. In a race of this size and where we were at on the course—about halfway with two checkpoints remaining—two hours is not all that big of a deal.
Leaving the lodge, I was able to ride for a few miles out into the valley on the way to the pass, but I was pushing soon after for the next 12 miles. It was a beautiful day in the wide open, wind-scoured small growth valley. I was feeling lucky once again with no real weather challenges. You feel very small in this massive landscape surrounded by mountains. I kept letting air out of my tires as I tried to ride in the questionable snow. Soon enough, the pressure was so low that I broke the bead on my tubeless setup. You try to ignore these things, but ultimately it needed to be taken care of. At a low spot in the trail, I put a jacket on so I wouldn’t cool off too quickly and fixed it with a tube. While I was doing that, another racer, Clinton, caught up. I told him to go in front of me for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I finished the repair and headed to the mouth of the pass where you have to cross Pass Creek. It usually has a snow bridge of sorts, but this year it was wide open and varying in depth to about calf-deep and maybe 10 to 12 feet wide. I trust my boots, but I put on my gaiters just in case and quickly took three or four long strides to get through it. Luckily no seepage and no wet socks.
It was turning to dusk at the mouth of the pass, and the ascent was done by headlamp. I noticed Clinton riding on and off while also pushing. If one rider pushed, it made it that much more difficult for the next rider to ride. I also noticed I was starting to fall off of his pace. It occurred to me that I hadn’t really eaten a whole lot in the past day and a half. I was trying to get some food down the hatch while ascending, but nothing was appetizing. I am familiar with the “job” of eating, as that is what you have to do to keep going, and I am generally pretty good at it. I would put food in my mouth, mix it with water to dissolve it, then would swallow, but it wasn't working that well. I started to get gag reflex, and twice I ended up puking more stomach bile than actual. That taste certainly didn't encourage more eating. I knew that if I didn't get some good calories down, I was in for a massive bonk. If you have ever bonked hard before, you know how much fun it is, and doing it midway on the trail only makes you feel like you are going in reverse.
I crested the top of the pass and held on for the ride down the other side. At this point, there would still be a couple of hours of riding to the checkpoint, even on the good trail that we had. Soon the trail leads into the narrow Dalzell Gorge. It’s a spectacular part of the trail to see during daylight, with its rock walls and multiple crossings of the rushing river. It wasn't daylight, but it was still spectacular. This year the ice bridges were like no other. Big, safe, and grippy with good mountain bike flow. Amazing!
When the gorge dumps you out onto the Tatina River, you have fewer than 5 miles to the Rohn checkpoint and your second food drop. The river was broken up with re-frozen ice and no real clear path amid the feeling of sketchy ice surrounding. Nothing like I remembered it.
Arriving in Rohn is always so welcoming, with familiar faces and the knowledge that the most challenging part of the trail is now behind you. The reality was, I wasn't feeling well and was slightly dizzy. I really hadn’t eaten much over the past 200 miles. As I think back, it's a wonder I didn't bonk, crash, and burn, many miles before this checkpoint. It’s really the first time I can remember over my racing career that his has happened to me. I am typically like a garbage can and tend to eat a lot with zero stomach issues. This was not the case this time around.
I sat down in the heated wall tent. Clinton was the only racer there, and the checkers asked me what I needed. I knew I needed to take care of myself and mentioned I wasn't feeling well. I rotated drinking a lot of cold and warm Tang. Bratwursts were offered, and I stomached down two of them with bread I really liked! The two leaders had left about 45 minutes before I arrived. I knew I needed to take a couple of hours to get refueled and rested to make the final 120-mile push to the finish. I had second thoughts on being able to catch the others, and thought to myself that maybe instead of finishing in whatever place, I’d just wait around for Tracey and enjoy the rest of the ride with her. That sounded very appealing. This allowed me a full night's sleep and more grazing to get my calories back up. I enjoyed a great night's sleep as I laid on the spruce bow bed with other racers coming and going throughout the evening.
This was a very different thought process for me. I am typically very hungry to compete, but I just lost that drive somewhere. I question this decision today. I will think upon it, evaluate, and learn. I don’t have any regrets, and I will not tell any stories that start with “would’ve, could’ve, or should’ve.” I do know I was looking for an epic journey, and it kind of was, dealing with my body and all, but I am also beyond satisfied with my end decision and how it finished.
I never really did feel great nutritionally, but I did feel rested. Tracey had finally arrived in the morning, and I let her do her work and dictate the ride from there on out. She ended up bivvying on the trail, so she was pretty short in her stop in Rohn before we carried on.
It was a beautiful day, and we even had a tailwind. It felt great to ride with Tracey again. We haven't traveled together in quite awhile, and it was great to revisit that. The trail to Nikolai had plenty of variety—lots of bare dirt, frozen swamps, glare ice, crunchy ice, and then finally back to snow.
We arrived in the small village of Nikolai at a decent time. The checkpoint is at the Petruski family's house, and we have become friends with them through the years. The daughter has taken over the responsibility of the checkpoint, and Tracey chats with her throughout the year. There was spaghetti to be had, cookies, and pops. Seemed like gourmet at the time! Tracey wanted to sleep a couple of hours before riding the last 50 river miles to McGrath. It can get a bit redundant on the river, but since we left at 3 a.m. we had a good split of time between darkness, watching the sun rise, and the day light up. It was another calm and beautiful day. This was the only time I wore gloves, as it dropped to maybe 15 degrees. (Wow! What a moderate year it was.)
There is something special about sharing a journey with your partner. I know how few of us get to actually do this type of thing together, and I feel very lucky when we do. As we rolled down the final miles to the finish, we looked at each other with big smiles congratulating each other and commenting that we finished another one.
As I think and look back at my race, I am happy, but I am also a bit disappointed in myself. I am curious if I could have done anything different to prevent myself from getting sick. (I got more sick after the event and ended up on antibiotics.) I don't want to blame my performance on being sick. I felt like I had a really strong run for the first 200 miles. I am left wondering if my body is changing, and I need to pay attention to my nutrition in a different way. I put a lot into this event each year, and I love to compete, I love to be out there, and I love the journey. It's also fun to win, but above all, I love to learn. I wouldn't change things one bit, though, because traveling with Tracey was a great reward.