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Monday, June 9, 2008

Alaska UltraSport Entry 1: Knik Lake - Fingerlake

It has taken me a few weeks to get up the energy to actually write a post. I was recently on a village trip in Unalakleet so I had a little time to kill in the evening. I get a lot of questions on my latest (mis)adventure, the Alaska Ultrasport 1000 mile bike race, this past winter. When I returned in such sad shape I could hardly move and the ulnar nerves in my hands were compressed so badly I wasn’t even able to pick up my newborn baby. A depressing time, particularly since I had to bail at Ruby after my knees couldn’t bend and supposed kidney failure gave me enough swelling that I couldn’t get my boots back on. I was horizontal for 2 weeks and not able to do much so I wrote up a little version of events at the time. I broke it up into two parts, the first is the race to McGrath 350 miles and the second from McGrath to Ruby.
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PART I Day 1 (0 – 24 hours)KNIK – FINGERLAKE, 130 miles


The day of the race. I'll have to think back it feels so long ago. I had a cheeseburger in my pocket from McDonalds where Mike, Eric and I went for lunch. I was not able to eat the meal-deal, my nerves were winding up and thought I would save the burger for later as it may be golden calories in the middle of the night. My friends Mike and Eric drove me to Knik Lake and see me off on “another one of my trips”. They were both there when I departed on my kayak trip from Nome a few years ago too. I’m fairly certain they think I have a few nuts loose.

I had no idea what to expect. I had been training, researching and planning over a year for this event. My platform is the same as the previous two times; raise awareness and funds for the LLS in lieu of my friend- Nora Nagaruk- who was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2004 and a survivor. Her story is remarkable as well as her strength- she is currently leukemia free and a physician at the regional Nome hospital. It was our hope to finish the last mile into Nome together. I'll have to add my kayak story at some point for anyone reading this to have a clearer image of our parallel journeys.

The racers where from all over, Wyoming , UK , Italy , Norway , Alaska . I had the jitters and my nerves were tripping out on the realization I would be starting in Anchorage (Knik Lake) and riding a bike home instead of flying. The intent of this race was actually a compromise- satisfy my extreme urge for physically enduring challenges yet tame it down from my previous ventures. I told my wife, Sarah, that an organized event on an established trail with actual checkpoints is a good tradeoff from my last 60 day 1000 mile kayak epic on arctic oceans. I talked myself into believing that nothing could be worse than the daily mental and physical battle against the brutal exposed headwinds and the cold open ocean of that trip. While for the most part this is true I was unprepared for one thing- competition. The atmosphere had an electrifying “competitive race” feel and the same excitement I felt in a former life as a swimmer crept under my skin. Except it wasn’t the 200 meter, 500 meter or 1500 meter swim it was a freaking 1000 mile race on a bike to Nome.

It was not just my first snow bike race but actually my first race on a bike ever, that didn't involve a triathlon. Adding to that burden of negation was a minimal amount of training time on the fat tire bike. Custom building, whether kayak or bike, one always runs the risk of delay. I placed the order a year in advance and it was barely enough time for its finish a month before the race. The seat, stem length, platform pedals, bar extensions and overall fit were an unknown. I could not use parts from the training bike as they were of poor quality and quite literally fell apart over the past year. I certainly did not have enough years of endurance saddle time or experience required to be able to dial in a fresh bike.

I did manage a training ride a few weeks ago while in Anchorage. I went with Pete Basinger and Greg Matias on the brand new fat bike. It was like driving a corvette after training on a flatbed 1 ton pickup. However, I noticed achy knees after the 60 mile ride out to Flathorn and back. My gear was solid, thanks to www.moosejaw.com and Pete's advice, though I felt it was about 10 lbs too heavy, busting the scales at around 60 pounds without water but including the bike. It was hard to trim since I was new to this particular race and as with anything in Alaska the conditions can change rapidly.

The start of the race came too fast and the bikers were lined up first then we were off. I saw Pete B take off across the lake to the left and most others followed. The first thirty miles felt long but I finally made it to Flathorn Lake and went across to drop down onto the Susitna river. The temps seemed to drop close to zero but it felt good and weather / trail was excellent. The sun was setting and I could see Denali in the distance. I cruised to Yenta checkpoint, 60+ miles by 8:30pm. I was surprised to see folks just hanging out eating so I also ate some checkpoint food with a soda then took off into the night for Skwentna. The stars and northern lights were incredibly bright. I have seen the northern lights a million times but the clarity of these stars and these lights were so intense and mesmerizing. After an hour or so I caught up with Carl Hutchings from the UK who was struggling a little bit with this section. He introduced himself and I liked him immediately, he was very funny and I actually had no idea he held the Southern Route record for this race to Nome. We chatted a few minutes than took off. I led for a while then he passed me and led into Skwentna around midnight. It felt fast and I was not really tired.

The checkpoint was so hospitable and welcoming with an offering to stay in a room and provide food. I saw Pete who had busted a pedal and unfortunately had to wait till tomorrow to get one shipped. Since the rooms were available I tried to sleep but it was slow to come and only snoozed for 2 hours, gathered my stuff and left at 3:30 am. The trail was a little confusing as it led away from the river. Temperature was comfortably around zero, maybe colder. About 20 minutes down the trail I ran into Jay Petervary who was frustratingly trying to get a moose off the trail. We yelled whistled etc to get him off the trail but the moose would not budge, the snow was very deep everywhere and the only way to travel was on the trail. Rocky Riefenstuhl came next and he had all of us yell and push the moose, it turned and charged. I didn't see it only heard the grunt and pounding hoofs. We all jumped in the bushes in deep snow. Glad the moose was out of the way we hopped on our bikes and were off. It was a nice ride and the fresh moose tracks leading into the shell hills kept me awake and alert till daybreak. Rocky and Jay were up ahead and I’m not sure how many others. It was a pretty good run and I arrived at Shell Lake lodge around 7am. The place was cozy and I dried out a little and had hot chocolate to warm up a bit.


The next checkpoint Fingerlake, still another 25 miles. I wasn’t sure how many of the racers were planning on going to Nome but it seemed everyone was in racing mode. It was easy to get caught up in the competition when I kept bumping into the leaders. I knew my biking experience was limited compared to the racers around me and there was the constant hovering knee issue. I should have backed off and allowed more rest for my body but it was impossible. I left shortly out of Shell Lake and rode hard up hill (stupid) and there it was, the thing I feared most. My knees started getting a little sore. Uh-oh and 10 miles later I was overtaken by Rocky and Jacques Boutet. It really irritated me to be passed but I was hurting towards the end of the Fingerlake run and couldn't wait to see the place. Finally! After 50 miles the checkpoint was in the distance, wind was beginning to blow and drifted the trail in at some places so I had to walk the bike a little for the first time. That’s when I noticed my knee pain grew exponentially when walking. I couldn't even lift my leg up over the seat without wincing in pain. It was a disappointing and tired feeling when I limped into the checkpoint lodge around noon-ish.

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