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.