McGrath - Galena
In McGrath I immediately began getting ready for the run to Ruby by drying out gear, prepping food and chipping ice off my bike. Yes, the temps were so warm that the ice buildup from Nikolai was impressive and…. odd. I think I chipped off pounds of ice from my rims, drive train and under my OMM rack. I have never seen ice buildup that prevented me from clipping in to my pedals.
Inside I ate generously and enjoyed the wonderful atmosphere. I heard JP already moved on to Takotna, an excellent strategy for the Nome race. It’s impressive to get in and out of McGrath. My drop had arrived, thank goodness, as opposed to last year; however, Jeff’s didn’t and he had to scrounge up a drop- like I did last year. We also found out that, because of weather, the Wolf Kill drop was not in yet. Flying apparently was less than favorable…. I thought, "this will be interesting."
I slept till about 4 or 5 am followed by another eating binge before departing to Nome. At the breakfast table we were chatting with Jay C who came in recently. He was celebrating a finish with an impressive coffee mug full of whiskey. Celebrations for those at their race end certainly makes it more difficult to depart. I was anxious to leave. JP had a significant lead on us already. Jeff and I left McGrath and for the first time in four races to Nome I left McGrath feeling…. well, decent. No saddle soreness. Rested. I had food. Did I mention, no saddle sores?
We plugged along and as Jeff had adjusted his bike I led on and was kind of zoning when I dropped down on the Takotna river. It was fast and I was cruising but also was not paying attention and took a wrong turn and went up the river instead of going straight. I realized my mistake after a good mile and turned around. Eventually, I caught back up to Jeff where we had a good laugh about it. Takotna came and went. The weather was weird. It was raining.
After Takotna we began to see JP’s tracks and guessed, using rain/snow as a guide, how much of a lead he had. The trail was soft in spots- some pushing, some grinding, some falling- but overall not a bad run. The ghost town of Ophir, also, came and went. This was the first time I passed through Ophir in the day light and fascinating how different it appears. The first Innoko River crossing was half overflow. Every river and creek crossing had some deep water that while ok to ride was unnerving. The warm weather was disconcerting. The next 20 miles of trail deteriorated dramatically and the little base there was melted rapidly into slush and bare tundra. The Carlson crossing cabin at mile 27 'post Ophir' was a quick stop to melt snow and make food. It was dark by then and the following miles were mind-numbing with falling snow and bare tundra. Jeff zoned out to tunes and I just zoned out. It was technical, challenging. Riding with falling snow made it hard to focus. The snow kept coming down harder and filled the ground quickly. As we made our way closer to the second Innoko cabin we almost passed the drop… it was in the wrong place and the snow had a covered it up pretty good. It should have been at Wolf Kill Slough about 10 miles after the 2nd cabin but we guessed the weather had forced the plane to land. While it was too soon for a resupply we counted our blessings the drop was there. The snow coverage and location made the drop hard to see and we found existing reflective lathe to mark it so other racers would be able to see it. We rode on and bivied directly on the trail, a decent haul from McGrath despite conditions. The warm weather made things messy and wet but we were confident the snow would let up. Neither of us were aware of the weather forecast.
|Leaving Ophir heading into the Innoko|
The trail was slow going and quite the grind. Poorman passed in the dark. We made the beginning of the Sulatna Crossing. I kept thinking the trail would get better but the snow just kept coming down. Our pace was steady and we pushed to make ground on JP. The trail was what I call, 'the law of common endurance'. This is where the conditions force racing together only because conditions can't dictate a break away. This year, different than the last-- well every year is different- but it was slower due to weather and trail. Later in the race Jeff's break away attempts, in my opinion, were legendary. If I dare speak for him he got completely hammered by inhuman conditions... but I am foreshadowing.
The beginning of the “road” to Ruby has some nice pine trees that make a good bivy spot. It was 2 or 3 am but, overall, we were still banking good sleep—running about 17 hrs a day with 4-5 hrs sleep. The temps continued to be warm and the snow would not let up. I made a nice nest of pine boughs (see below) and was looking forward to a meal of Mountain House stroganoff.
|"My Nest" Photo taken by Pavel R|
|Snowstorm -- this was taken by Pavel in the same storm. It's an excellent depiction.|
We were focused on making Ruby and the snow was coming down in buckets. The closer to the Yukon we rode the greater the intensity of the storm. When we hit the downhill the pavement felt freeing! By the time we reached the runway the snow was a total white-out and the deep drifts pulled my wheel for one more fantastic wipe out. I was glad to hit town at an early still 8pm. Again we made good time considering the conditions and lengthy rests. When we got to our contact in Ruby, Scotty.
We were ramped up to hit the Yukon right away. We heard JP arrived just 2-3 hrs earlier. Jeff’s drop was at Scotty’s but mine wasn’t…. uh-oh. Again, I say "uh-oh" now, but I actually wasn’t worried during the race, it happens to me all the time. I can make it to Galena and stock up at a store or pick up my drop there. I scrounged some left over drop from Jeff and felt fine with the amount. Retrospectively…. that hole just became bigger. I was focused more on getting a jump on JP.
Jeff and I debated going on the river but the problem was there was a big storm. We would definitely be bivying on the river in 3-4 hrs instead of making it in one shot. Thinking back on this part I wonder if we should have just left. Could we have edged ahead of the storm or would the bivy itself been more taxing (ie., time-suck) experience. As it turned out we slept wonderfully till about 4am, a little too long, and were out on the river by (a late) 5-ish. The trail was hard to find after the first bend and we noticed a light behind us. JP was catching up. We were out first! Yay. But the soft trail and…well… no trail.... a wrong turn... and it wasn’t long before we were all together. The trail was hard going for me and I believe I was more focused on maintaining than eating.
Now, I am with two super fast racers and it's that much harder to keep up. I don't have the power these guys have and any inefficiency, stop, pee break, etc... becomes an exponential exertion to catch-up. The snow was still coming down and the headwind was steady. Then, 10 miles from Galena I got a flat.
|Me (fluorescent) and JP on the Yukon. Jeff's weaving tracks in foreground|