ITI 2009 Rohn - McGrath (Days 4 - 6)

This is it, finally can put the ITI out of my mind till next year. It was a grand experience but it sure is dwarfed in comparison to Tim and Marco who are still grunting their way to Nome. I have been doing my best to advertise to all the folks I know down the coast to cheer them on. The wind has been brutal. Check this website to see the infamous Topkok weather station (click on Johnson's Camp) and it will give you an idea of the wind in all the blowholes up the coast. 40 - 50 mph are the current gusts which is only amplified by the density of cold air..... strong enough to pick ice chunks, debris and pelt you with sandblasting snow. Earlier today it was calm, shows how rapid and for no reason can change. In any case if I can catch them I will post pics. I had a welcome wagon in Unalakleet that they completely by-passed since Tim came in early in the a.m. and already left!


Generally I forget to take pictures and have to force myself to pull the camera out. This is unfortunate because I always regret it later and wish I took more photos. The best shots are when things are the most difficult but it is definitely not first on my mind. Even while in Rohn for 7 hours nary a picture except for Master Pete leaving Rohn.

Pete, in my opinion, is the icon of this race; race record aside, he is generous and always helps people out even in the most precarious of situations. His track record speaks for itself. I remember I happened to be watching the Today Show last year and saw Pete being interviewed when he helped save the biker who was mauled by a grizzly last summer. However, my favorite was hearing about the epic race in 2006 where he helped fellow racer Rocky into McGrath. Pete, I believe, is the only person who has done every single McGrath 350 ITI since its inaugural year in 1997 and he’s not even 30 yet!! I digress (yet again) but simply amazing and comforting to see him on the trail.

The swelling in my legs had ebbed and with relief I knew I could continue on soon. The lead group already gone I actually felt calmer and more relaxed. This next section was virtually snow free last year and very fast. I was hopeful the buffalo tunnels would be a breeze. No such luck. It was a soft trail with new snow and mostly a bike push. Not much excitement on this section just plodding along until the Post River glacier about 11 miles after Rohn. The glacier is a section of trail that goes uphill and is probably a small trickle in the summer but becomes a hilly ice rink that takes up the width of the trail for about a hundred or more yards. If you fall I can see not stopping till the bottom, which may be fun (though there may be some breaking potential) if you’re into redoing a hill climb but this part is why crampons or screws are needed. I actually had a brainstorm this year since I didn’t want to bring anything extra. I did bring an extra pair of wellgo pedals (after seeing Pete bust his last year) then used them as crampons. It worked pretty well though I wouldn’t recommend ice climbing with them.

The trail changed to an ice crust and it soon became obvious I wouldn’t be able to make the Buffalo Camp pushing the bike in one shot.

The wind picked up as I edged closer to the burn and it was already 3 or 4 am when I passed the Petervary’s bivied & sleeping soundly. It looked so comfortable that instead of a motivation boost to make up time, it made me sleepy. I also thought it might be good to sleep a couple of hours before the burn (there’s not a great deal of tree coverage in the burn). Only a mile or so later I bivied in the trees. My swelling returned and I built a wooden foot rest where my legs were raised while I slept two hours. I woke, put a dry pair of socks on and was back on the trail by 8am and noticed that JayP and Tracey were already on the move via their tracks. I felt a little rushed and wanted to get a move on. About 1/2 mile after the bivy I crossed a creek and found a snowmachine trail that was hard packed and I could ride. The wind was really picking up the closer I got to the farewell lakes and at the edge of the first lake is a small downhill that I completely wiped out on. It was a fantastic spill. This is where I kick myself for not spending time to get photos or a video with my camera. It was a Kodak hour crossing the series of ice lakes; there was a small patch of snow on the trail you could walk with traction but everywhere else was glare ice. The wind blasted it away and was so strong it was picking my bike up and a few gusts I was a little concerned would push me over on the ice for a wild ride. It was ironic (i.e. frustrating) because the trail was hard packed but I wasn’t able to ride in the wind. If I were a little more lackadaisical about the race I would loved to see how fast the wind could have pushed me across the ice. Once I was passed the lakes the burn was a nice riding trail. Finally after days of walking I could ride without getting off the bike. The burn wreaked havoc on my knees last year because of the steep uphills but I was feeling great this time. I stopped in the Buffalo camp (~ mile 35-40) by 1 pm and saw Dan, one of the caretakers there. He mentioned that Tracey and Jay P left a little while ago but he didn’t see anyone else. That was a little odd since Jeff, James, Chris, Cory, Ed and Pete were all supposed to be in front of me. Did they all really bivy and move on or just go straight through. There was already a fire on and I took my time to eat and rest my legs. I melted some snow ate a bunch and sat there for 2 hrs. Just as I was about to leave John Ross and Alec Petro stopped in. They said the trail was good for them and they left late last night and went all the way through after a good sleep in Rohn. I was glad to see Alec with John and in good spirits after looking so low in Rohn.

This next section (~40 miles) to Nickolai was epic for me last year and seemed ungodly long with intense hallucinations and dejavu. Fortunately, I did not hallucinate and with the exception of the last few miles, most of it I could ride. I entered Nickolai by 11pm-ish though I rode around town for about 45 minutes trying to find the place.

In Nickolai I saw everyone who left in front of me except for James and Chris’s signed in and Jeff was already out. I figured I would sleep till 3 am and leave by 4. The snow had been granular and I was hoping the cold (which settled back in to below zero) would set up the trail. I scarfed down some sodas and food, hung up clothes / boots to dry and lay down for a snooze with my swollen legs raised. My 4 am leave time turned into a 6am wake up. Aside from Jeff no one left Nickolai yet but Jay P and Tracey were out the door by 6:30 am and I left by 7. I was anxious to get going but my boots were completely soaked. I wore them anyway and as soon as I stepped outside the outer part froze solid. As I left town onto the trail I noticed some spots where someone stepped through the ice into overflow and even though I was careful my boot came out wet twice. I quickly put my overboots on and started riding. I cruised at a good clip the first 12 miles, till the third snow machine passed to churn up the trail at 11 am. I simply couldn’t grind it out and was frustrated. Pete skied past me around noon-ish and then Cory passed me a few hours later. This was another low point for me and the only word I can think of was clamboring on the trail. Nick Petruska stopped on snow machine on the way back to Nickolai from McGrath. I should know better but I asked "How far to McGrath?" He didn't seem to want to answer and said "Almost half way." Then wished me luck and drove off. I was crushed, well into the afternoon and was not even half way. How could that be? I must be going 2-3 mph?? The only time I took my GPS out this whole race was a few hours earlier when I was able to ride just to see my speed which read 4 mph before the screen went blank.

I was trying various air pressures to get riding until I saw John Ross catch me. He was going incredibly fast for the conditions and a single speed no less. He stopped to chat a little bit and I kept laughing (to myself) when I stared at his beard. In Rohn, James asked if anyone knew where John Ross was and he described him as British with the “ginger” beard. Everyone kind of looked at him and said “ginger?” What the hell is a ginger beard? It’s one of those things that was hilarious at the time and stuck in my head the rest of the trip. And here he was staring at me, kicking my ass riding but that ginger beard got me laughing. Watching him ride really shocked me out of my low. I hopped on my bike and after an hour of riding/falling/grinding I finally found my legs. I ended up riding the rest of the ~ 25 miles to McGrath as hard as I could by choosing distant points on the trail and racing like hell to get there, stopped for a few second rest and repeat again and again. My legs finally felt strong. John must have had the fastest time from Nickolai to McGrath (a little under 10 hrs) and it was much too late in the trail to catch anyone but I’m glad I ponied up and somehow got my legs, thanks to him. This is where the difference between a cyclist and non-cyclist was readily apparent (me being the non-cyclist). However, I know I made up some time and I was really feeling no pain as I inched closer McGrath. Suddenly I was on a road and tried not to think that it was another couple of miles. When I turned into the driveway of Peter and Tracy’s house at 9:45 pm, the feeling was intense to have finished in 6 days 7 hrs; 2 days longer than last year. Even though I ended up 7th, drudged over 14 hrs from Nickolai, and felt deflated on being passed throughout the day, I felt good about the finish especially in light that my knees had no issues the last 250 miles. If I can figure out the swelling I may actually think about going to Nome next year.

As I opened the door to Peter and Tracey’s house the first people I saw were James and Chris and I simply thought my brain was misfiring but then they said to sit down and relax, did they have a story for me…. I simply cannot retell their grand adventure of wolves, river-running or bikes strapped to plane wings; but let's just say things didn’t quite turn out the way they planned.

McGrath at Peters and Tracy’s was great fun hearing all the stories and seeing racers coming in to finish. I must have been really loopy because I can’t remember when I laughed as much as I did those two days. Most of us spent extra time in McGrath since no planes flew to Anchorage on Sunday.


Jim said…
Great writing Phil - it is an easy read and fun. Glad you took the time to share - it gives me a glimpse into the race and your experience.

cheers, Jim
Phil said…
Thanks Jim, good to hear! It's such a time consuming process for my slow brain that I frequently wonder if it's even worth writing.
T-Race said…
Heck yeah! Saw your name on the ITI 2010 roster going to Nome!