The temperature was pretty mild when we started out at Knik lake, and the wind that had been so brutal the day before, had died down quite a bit. Unfortunately, my legs felt super tight and tired and my knees ached at the very beginning... Having done many long races before, and knowing that the body can do a complete turn-around, I tried to ignore how I felt....
Eric and I stopped a few times in the beginning playing with our tire pressure. Not having much experience with the snowbike, it was difficult to know how much pressure to run. We pedaled along at a conservative pace until we reached the first checkpoint at 9:30 pm. At Yentna station we stopped briefly to fill our water as well as eat some of the food we had brought. It is really hard to find good and tasty foods that are eatable in the cold as well as can tolerate being shipped 2 weeks in advance from California.
The next 33 miles to Skwentna Roadhouse took about 5 hrs and we were pretty happy to ride almost the entire way the first 90 miles and make it there in only 13 hrs. Off course the lead guys were long gone, but there were a couple of guys still sleeping. After some tasty lasagna and sourdough bread we slept in a real bed for 2.5 hrs. I had taken an ambien in order to get some sleep, and it hadn't worn off, so I was really groggy when I first got up., but after a cup of coffee and breakfast that seemed to resolve. We took off at the same time as Lance Andre just after 7 am.
Again, the trail was great and we were making good time. We passed Shell Lake lodge about halfway to Winterlake Lodge without stopping. At 1:55 pm we reached the 3rd checkpoint, Winterlake Lodge on Fingerlake. This is where we got our first dropbags. We stopped long enough to eat the fajita-plate they served there, as well as resupply our food, batteries, and hand/toe warmers. Since the weather had been so cooperative, we still had plenty of food on our bikes, and left most of our drop-food behind for other racers to pick through.
The distance from Winterlake lodge to Puntilla is only 35 miles, but this is where the trail gets tougher, with lots of ups and downs. Last year, we pushed our bikes the entire way, but this year we were riding a lot more, even though your are still on and off the bike a lot. This section is where you encounter the Happy Steps, which are a few hills coming on and off the river. They are so steep, you can only push your loaded bike a few steps at a time. You push a couple of steps, put your brakes on for a brief rest, and push again.... My legs were burning from the effort!!!
The final stretch toward Puntilla seems to take forever. The trail is very windy and the milage ticks of extremely slowly. We reached Rainy Pass Lodge just after 11:30 pm. The little log cabin used as a checkpoint was manned by Steve who is one of the 5 brothers of Alaska family Perrins. The Perrins own and operate the lodge, and there is actually a reality TV show about the family's day to day life called "Our 5 sons". After Steve checked us in, he handed us a can of ravioli and told us we could use any of the bunks in the cabin. He put some wood in the stove and then left to get some sleep. I woke up freezing as there was only a sheet on my bed, and I had stripped of all my cold weather clothes. Apparently the fire had gone out... Since I was up, I thought it would be a good idea to wake Eric up so we could take off together with Greg Matyas.
After some oatmeal and coffee, filling our water, and getting everything back on the bikes we left to go over Rainy Pass at 5:40 am. The northern lights were lighting up the Alaskan mountain range with a soft green glow. The first part toward the pass was nice and ridable. It was chilly, but once the sun rose it warmed up. After about 8 miles the trail gets steeper and we had to start pushing. I kept stopping to eat, fiddle with my jacket and goggles, and Greg was getting further away from us.
A safety cabin on the way up Rainy Pass
Close to the summit of Rainy Pass
As we got closer to the summit, the wind picked up, but it was still a beautiful sunny day and the views were spectacular. It only took us 8 hours to reach the top. In the past, the downhill has been completely unridable. We have post-holed, bushwhacked, and carefully negotiated water trying to avoid falling through the snow and getting soaked. This year was a completely different story. The trail was perfectly groomed by snowmobiles, and the landscape was like a winter wonderland. We had a really fun ride down the Dalezell Gorge and reached Rohn in a record 2.5 hrs from the summit.
Coming down the summit
Our favorite checker Rob was manning Rohn as usual! Only Greg was at the checkpoint getting ready to go to sleep in the walled tent. The tent in Rohn has the same distinct smell each year. It is a combination of burning pine, wet clothes, and smelly socks. My glove liners carried that smell the rest of the trip... Rob served up canned ravioli and then brought us our dropbags which were sitting in a big pile outside. After loading up our bikes with new food, changing batteries in headlamps, and grabbing more hand/toewarmers, we took a 4 hour nap. The combination of ambien and earplugs put me in to a coma. It was a great and I felt really rested when we woke up! I knew I was going to need the rest, because the next 90 mile section can be brutally long.
We left again with Greg at 10:15 pm. Lance Andre had come and gone without getting any sleep. I had forgotten how tough this part of the trail is. The snow was deep and it was really hard to ride many of the steep hills. Getting on and off the bike gets tiring after a few hours. While it was still dark, we reached the Post Glacier. It was hard to assess which way would be the best to get up and over it. Even with the screws in my boots, I felt like Bambi on the slick ice. It was almost impossible to get the boots to grip. We could see where someone had lost their footing and slid partway down the glacier. After carefully negotiating the steeply slanted ice we were able to drag our bikes up in the snow on the side of the glacier. Our next obstacle was some minor overflow we had to cross in the dark. It was probably not that big of a deal, just an inch or 2 of water on top of the ice, but I got nervous thinking of breaking through the ice or getting my feet wet. I think the darkness made it a bit more nerve-wracking for me.
It was nice when the sunrise finally came. It gives you a bit of a boost when you have been out on the trail for hours in the dark. About 35 miles from Rohn there has been a walled tent in the past. The tent was used by the Runkel family for bison hunting and was always stocked with wood, a white gas stove and other supplies such as soup and Top Ramen. We asked in Rohn if Bison Camp was still there, but rumors had it that the tent had been torn down by bears and no longer existed. A couple of hours away from the former Bison Camp we ran in to Lance on the trail. He was sitting on a log eating some trailmix, looking a bit dazed. When we rode by he asked if we thought it would be OK to shoot some Starbucks instant coffee and chase it with Tang. Sounded painful on the stomach to me!
At 10 am, after 12 hrs of riding we reached Bison Camp and were happily surprised to find that it was still standing, AND had a white gas stove in it! Jay P got there right behind us and Lance also turned up as we were heating up some water. We made some food before getting back on the trail. Lance decided he was going to sleep for a while but Jay said he was taking off right behind us.
After Bison camp the trail gets somewhat easier. After 18.5 hours on the trail we reached Nikolai at 6:45 pm, just before dark. Nick and Olene Petruska along with their grand daughter Stephanie open their home to the racers as a checkpoint every year. I had felt pretty good up until this point, but I was exhausted when we got to Nikolai. It was difficult to eat the spagetti and meat sauce as I was feeling bloated and swollen. Bill Flemming was sleeping when we got to the checkpoint, but got up and sat at the table and chatted with us. We found out that Pete Bassinger was in the lead, with Jeff Oatley just behind. They had not yet reached the finish in McGrath, so we assumed the last 50 miles must be a slow trail. Greg had blown in and out, spending only 10 minutes in Nikolai, apparently still chewing his spaghetti as he sprinted out the door. That is one long push with no rest!!!
I decided that if I was going to be able to make the last push to the finish, I was going to need some sleep. I set the alarm for 12:30 am and slept for 4 hours. Bill was about to leave when we got up, Lance and Jay were asleep on the 2 couches. After our "usual routine" of an oatmeal breakfast etc etc we took off at 1:50 am. It's amazing how long it takes to gather all of your things, make food, and get out the door.
It was a nice night out on the river, but quite cold. My thermometer didn't work, but Eric said it was below -20. We spotted footsteps right away, and shortly thereafter we saw the faint glow from the headlamp of Bill Flemming. We stopped briefly and Bill was clearly not feeling super energetic, but he still had a great attitude and said he was going to "walk it in". 50 miles is a long way to walk... I knew there was just a matter of time before I was running out of energy myself, but I was trying to prolong "the bonk" by eating cookies, a bite of salami, and some nuts. I guess I got lazy and didn't feel like stopping to eat "real food" so instead I tried some sugary brownies. To make a long story short; the last several hours consisted of several bad bonks and a frostbitten right thumb, but we finally made it to McGrath. It was quite emotional to see Bill Merchant on his snowmachine and to reach the finish where Jeff and Greg along with Peter Schniderheinze (Finish-line host along with wife Tracy) were waiting for us. Eric and I got there in 4th place and I was pretty excited to have set a new women's course record of 3 days, 22 hrs and 20 minutes. Pete took his 5th win with Jeff Oatley only 25 minutes behind. Greg (owner of Speedway Cycles) had ridden all the way from Rohn on no rest and took 3rd place!!
Me at the finish on my awesome FATBACK from Speedway Cycles
As always it was great to see our wonderful hosts Peter and Tracy! They are so generous to open their home to us, feed us, and take care of us when we arrive. Eric and I spent 2 nights at their house hanging out with other racers as they finished. It was great to hear everyone's stories about the adventures they encountered along the trail.