ITI 2009 - Knik Lake to Rainy Pass (Days 1 - 3)

The write up is a little rough and the memories are fading fast in my old head but at least if I get something down I can forget about it till next year. I'll work on the second part this week sometime. Amazingly, while I am trying to forget the ITI Tim, Tom and Marco are still making there way up to Nome. Some hardcore dudes, check them out at the ITI Website

Once again, Mike drove me to the start line of the Ultrasport Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) at Knik Lake, but this time my wife Sarah and daughter Hahnah are along to see me off. Another bright blue race day beginning with mild teen temperatures and lots of racers milling around. After a few photo ops the jitters began. I see a few folks from last year and say hello. Jay P wishes me luck as does Jeff O and my bike maker Mark Gronwald and bag maker Eric Parsons are there too. Eric actually made some last minute seat bag adjustments that helped keep the bag away from the rear tire. It’s hard to say which racers I will run into across the trail or will this be more of a lone venture. Traditionally, I feel more comfortable in the later case. This is an individual event without teams and reliance on anyone. I know all too well from last year if I get caught up in someone else’s race I will push myself too hard. The focus of this race is to assess my knees & swelling, get my bike fit correct and do my own race without going over the top. Above all else no injuries so I’m not laid up for three months like last year.

We lined up, I gave Sarah and Hahnah one last hug and kiss then we were off. Half the field went straight and a few of us went off to the left. The left is all I know so that’s what I did. It appeared Jeff, Billy K, Jay P and his wife Tracey did the same. We all rode together for a while and then by the time we hit the road I was undecided to take the Point Mac way to Flathorn or go the traditional way, I opted for the so called short cut (which is actually longer by 4 miles but usually firmer with less hills). Jay P and Tracey stopped so not sure which way they went and Jeff was already ahead a ways. Things were rolling smoothly till a ground storm with headwind blew in about 5 miles from Flathorn. I actually had a tough time in this section grinding through the drifts. I didn’t want to over do it so ended up running the bike through the sections. I felt like Flathorn was taking forever and wondering if the traditional way would have been better since the trail in the trees would not have wind or drifts. The sun was dipping and I knew this was already taking longer than last year. On Flathorn Lake it wasn’t much better and had to push the bike to the other side. Rode a little pushed a little. Dismal swamp was, well dismal then I dropped on the Susitna river, it was ride-able but slow going with a solid headwind, that changed to a tailwind and then a headwind depending on the river turn but still -20 and soft conditions. About 12 of us rolled into Yentna within 45 minutes of each other from 1:15 to 2 am except for Jeff who blasted in at 11pm. I was about 6 hrs behind last year’s time, a rough start. I decided to eat and rest a few hours as most were doing. I saw familiar faces as a few more folks entered the checkpoint and even Pete who was skiing this year. Right before I lay down for a little sleep I saw another racer, Jill Homer, walk in and said hello. It wasn’t until almost a week later I heard she had severe frostbite on her foot from overflow or punching through weak ice on Flathorn and eventually she had to scratch. I had no idea when I saw her that she was going through that battle.

I woke and left by 6 am, the morning light already peeking through. A beautiful cold morning probably around -15 to -20. It was a slow trip upriver for me and I had a tough time on this leg. My knee was giving me intermittent pain and I wasn’t sure how hard to push the riding. The river was granular and I couldn’t stand the monotony, the “slowness” and I kept reflecting back to last year when Carl H stopped on this section and said he hated this part. I can see why, I’d rather do this section at night. Jay P and Tracey passed me and overall I was not doing well with my knees. By the time I hit Skwentna my knee was in quite a bit of pain and soreness- I wasn’t sure about the race in general. This was definitely the low point of the whole race for me and I even inquired with the Skwentna owner about how much it would cost if I had to bail out there. I was talking with Jay P and Tracey and another racer too about the knees but eventually the warmth and atmosphere relaxed me. I decided to have a cheeseburger go upstairs and just rest for an hour. I ended up relaxing well and decided to motor on.

I wanted to be alone on the trail and do my own race so I waited till most of the lead bikers left. While I was loading up my bike I was adjusting the straps on my seat bag and inadvertently cinched it quite hard so the seat slid back on its rails as far back as it would go. When I checked out and started riding I noticed a difference in my comfort. All of a sudden my knee pain was reduced and riding was actually comfortable- a new feeling for me with the fatbike. I discovered the seat change, and tightened the clamps. Well that was a good discovery and amazing how a good fitting bike can change things. Now I’ve read probably every article on bike fit and had different racers help but the bottom line is every body and bike is different. I don’t have a large base for riding as other racers especially with platform pedals and a wide bottom bracket of the fatbike. In fact I doubt I did more than 50 miles on the fatbike since last years epic or more than 300 miles on a regular bike. Shhh don’t tell anyone. I actually added up my swim distance since June and the 400 km beats my riding amount since my injury last year prevented me from riding much; however, I would not recommend this as a training regiment. I didn’t find my riding legs till the last 25 miles into McGrath after being passed by single speeder John Ross with the ‘ginger’ beard—but I digress and am getting ahead of myself.

The trail out of Skwentna was great and I was at Shell Lake Lodge by 8 pm and stopped for 2 hrs to eat another cheeseburger. I loved this section it was a clear cold night and I was mostly alone.

I cruised into Fingerlake by 2 am. It was an 8 hr ride total plus 2 hrs at Shell Lake. I felt good and ate some beans and rice then crashed in the tent for about 4 hrs. Initially I slept on the floor which was soaking wet but James L told me to take his cot as he was leaving. I got a solid 2 hrs of rest and then took my time getting ready in the morning. I was on the trail by 9 am and had another awesome run to Puntilla and checked in by 4pm. At this point I felt I passed the “hump” in the race because I clearly remember feeling terrible during the last two sections last year. But now comes the crux of the race. Do I rest and sleep or do I go right through over Rainy Pass. Hells Gate was out of the question as news at Shell Lake said there was open water and one of the trail breakers fell through the ice. I decided to try and sleep but never did and ended up eating a lot and laying down till 6pm. I left by 6:30pm for the long haul over Rainy, hopeful the trail breakers would have a trail put in by the time I ascend the pass. The night was clear but gusting headwinds, the trail showed mostly walking with few riding spots.

I suddenly saw a fox in front of me and he/she followed me for a while before scampering away. Time seemed to drift away and before I knew it I was heading into the pass, with the snow deeper and deeper. I came across Bill Merchant’s stuck trail-breaking snow machine and thought that was not a good sign.

The steadier I climbed the deeper the snow and more stormy it became. At the top I followed a disappearing trail and suddenly it stopped altogether. A few sweeps with the headlamp barely able to cut through the swirling snow I saw what looked like a trail in another direction away from the pass. I followed it for a while until my headlamp came upon a mass of reflection. I couldn’t believe it, about 6 bikes leaning against this so-called cabin (with no roof). It was about 3 or 4 am. I couldn’t ask anyone since they were sleeping but assumed this was the stop spot and unloaded my sleeping bag and foam pad. Upstairs in the loft there was some room but there was also a pile of snow. I crawled in my bag and shivered for about 3 hrs straight. I forgot to eat so I think my body wasn’t producing heat. I was cold and got up around 7am. A little while later I think Louise and Eric made it up there and took my spot upstairs. I put on my puffy coat and pants and started pacing out front. I shoved some cliff bloks in and some other pieces of candy too. The calories began to work and I felt better. By this time Jeff, Jay P and Bill M all got up and I got the story. No trail over Rainy and Bill had a heck of a time with the snow machine eventually abandoning it to hike up to the cabin. It was already day 3 and this time last year I was almost in Nickolai. The ITI was just getting interesting.


Jill said…
Ooo, foreshadowing! Awesome race report so far!

I can't believe you did the ITI without training on a bike. And you're one of the fast people, too. You're a madman. I'm truly jealous.

When I saw you at Yentna, I was still in deep denial, so there wasn't much of a inner battle going on at that point. I sincerely thought I'd be joining you guys back out on the trail in four more hours. What a bummer. At least you weren't there when I almost broke into tears in front of Ed Plumb. He must think I'm pretty pathetic.

Anyway, reading your account of the race gets me all fired up to heal fast and go full-bore at future adventures, a sensation I'm sure you experienced with your knees last year. Can't want for more. Thanks again!
Phil said…
Jill- It was hard to come into this without cycling much but I didn’t have much choice. Recovery was brutal and it was definitely noticeable when I was riding up against cyclists. I simply didn’t have the legs and it took a lot of effort to stay within my boundaries without pushing it harder. Luckily I swam for training b/c that’s basically what we did over Rainy, swim- in snow.

I couldn’t think of a better person to breakdown in front of than Ed. I’m sure you’ll be back, the ITI seems to be like that and in Alaska it’s just a hop and a jump to the start line.
T-Race said…
Phil, YOU are an amazing, fun great person! I t was great to share such an amazing experince with you! Hope to do it again!

Best to you and your family always!