Spoiler alert: I didn’t win. But I didn’t get last place either.
Don’t trust the weather report. I’ve been monitoring the weather in Island Park for the past week. Most all the reports call for high twenties and low thirties with some snow. I’m expecting warm slushy conditions. I’m staying with a friend in Rexburg, ID, about 53 miles from the start at Pond’s Lodge in Island Park. As my sister and I drove into town, an electronic sign in town warns of a severe snow storm to arrive that night. Not unusual for around there. It’s certainly not very cold. As we leave the Thai restaurant where we ate dinner it begins to rain softly. It’s drizzling as I go to sleep in a little boy’s room at my friend’s house.
We plan to get an early start to allow plenty of time to get to the race and get things ready and relax. I hate to be rushed. I have a duffel bag full of various clothing combinations. I get up around 5:45 am, and it’s snowing outside, and it has been for awhile. There’s about six inches of new snow on the ground. Not looking too good. By the time we scrape the car off and get going, it’s already 6:45 or so. We need to hurry. I’m wearing windproof tights over regular Pearl Izumi padded shorts. On top I have a lightweight long-sleeved wicking shirt with an Outdoor Research lightweight soft shell pullover over that. On my feet I have a pair of mid-weight merino wool socks and a pair of Lowa all leather, Gore-tex lined, light hiking boots. My standard set up for riding this winter.
Thirty miles later we arrive at the small town of Ashton to see an electronic sign saying, “Highway 20 closed from Ashton to Montana.” Uh oh. We pull into a gas station and I ask the guy working there if it’s really true. He says when it’s snowing and blowing like this the highway is frequently closed. Doomed. I won’t even be able to get to the start line. I’m thinking we should have stayed at the lodge last night. I decide to drive along the highway to see if the road is actually blocked or what. On the outside of town a road crew has a pick-up blocking the road. I pull up and roll down the window. “I’m only trying to get to Pond’s Lodge.” “Okay, you can go through but that’s as far as you can go. The highway is closed past that. It’s blowing hard up there, only one or two feet of visibility.” That was close. We drive on cautiously into the storm. The roads don’t seem too bad, though they are covered with snow and the wind is blowing the snow sideways. After a few miles we catch up to a snowplow. He’s kicking up so much more snow that we can’t see anything and are forced to trail far behind him going 30 mph. At this rate we won’t make it to the 9:00 am start, or the 8:15 pre-race meeting. Luckily, after a few more miles, he pulls off and we surge ahead. We arrive at Pond’s Lodge at about 8:00 am. It’s really cold. The wind is howling out of the north.
I unload my bike, grab a few things and dash inside to register. The place is filling up with racers. They all look more warmly dressed than I am. Most have hardshell jackets and pants. Maybe I should change. I decide to take off the lightweight shirt I am wearing and change into a mid-weight shirt, a Patagonia Capilene Zip-T. I also add a Montbell Thermawrap vest (lightly insulated and wind proof) over my soft shell. I tend to overheat easily when I am working and don’t want to get too hot and sweat too much. It’s really cold outside. I decide to put the Revelate Designs handlebar pocket on my bike so I have easier access to extra gloves, hat, food, etc. I also decide to throw in a hooded wind shirt, just in case. After only a few minutes outside getting my bike ready, my hands are freezing. I thought it was supposed to be in the high twenties, mild, like everywhere else around south of here.
JayP goes over a few things about safety. He emphasizes that if we get lost, its our own fault not his. He says there are maps and GPS waypoints on the website. He then concedes that the trail is marked. The forest service made him mark the junctions. “But I wouldn’t have marked anything if I didn’t have to.” I guess I better bring a map. I shove one into my handlebar pocket.
We finally make our way over to the start, just down the road at the Forest Service building. I’m wearing my light weight puffy jacket (Patagonia Nano-puff) over everything else. I decide to start the race with my mid-weight wind proof fleece gloves. On my head I’m wearing a Montbell soft shell beanie with a fleece band around the ears. I also have a Buff around my neck and up over my mouth and nose. It’s -1 degree, with a -28 degree wind chill factor. Really cold. I’ve never ridden in cold like this before. Everyone is bundled up with layers of coats and balaclavas and goggles.
We mill around waiting for the start. A few guys haven’t showed up. JayP says they were coming from Montana and probably weren’t able to get through with the storm. My sister is there to see me off, as are a few other people. There are about 32 or 33 racers at the start. A few minutes past 9 am and we are finally off. It’s cold and the wind continues to howl.
Within minutes my glasses are badly fogged. I do my best to look below them. The first half mile or so the trail is soft, deep, loose snow. People are struggling to stay on their bikes. Tires are washing out. Several of us are already walking. But we soon hit the main trail which is packed and firm. Within two miles or so I have to stop and take off my puffy jacket. I’m too warm with it. When I take it off, the cold hits me, but as I continue to ride I warm back up. Actually not warm, but cool. I hate to overheat, and muscles are more efficient when they are cool. So that is my strategy, to dress just enough so I am not cold. My upper body is fine, but my hips and butt are really cold, and it’s very painful. My tights have windproof panels all down the front and up the back of the legs to the knee. But the backs of my thighs and butt are just fleece and I’m really feeling it. The wind cuts right through and the deep cold is painful. When we are in the trees the wind is not too bad. Then we leave the trees and ride out across an opening, a meadow I suppose, and the wind lashes us blowing snow across the trail. At least the trail is packed and the riding is pretty good. Within 3-4 miles we’re all spread out and I’m alone with my thoughts. My glasses seem to be okay as long as I am moving. I pass a guy sitting in the snow fixing a flat tire. Then I pass a girl who is fiddling with something on her bike.
The terrain is rolling. Gentle ups and downs, nothing major. As I begin a short climb I turn a corner and there is a guy taking photos. And then there is the aid station at mile 7. I’m surprised. It didn’t feel like I had ridden that far. But it’s a welcome site. It consists of a pop-up tent beside the trail with a small table with some snacks on it. There is also a large propane burner with a large pot of water on it. I pull up and climb stiffly climb off my bike. I feel pretty good, but it’s still very cold. The thermometer on my bike says 0 degrees. The guys at the aid station look cold and are really bundled up. My hips and butt have finally warmed up a bit, at least they aren’t painful anymore. I have two Polar bike bottles on my bike and both of them are nearly frozen solid. I also have a one liter Nalgene bottle in an insulated holder on the fork. This bottle is fine. The aid station guy suggests I drop my two bike bottles into the pot of hot water to thaw them, so that’s what I do. Once I stop moving, the cold seeps in. I fish out the bottles with a large ladle, refill them with the warm water and put them back on my bike. I suck down some energy gel, and prepare to leave. My fleece gloves are now wet from handling the wet bottles and they begin to freeze getting stiff and hard, and my fingers are really cold. So I stuff the gloves into my frame bag and put on my lobster mitts. They have a water-proof breathable shell and a thick wool knit liner. When we started the race nearly everyone had pogies. I only saw one other rider with gloves on like me. I’m hoping the lobster mitts will be adequate. I want to take photos, but I don’t want to expose my bare hands more than I really have to.
As I ride out of the aid station, my hands are really cold, especially my index fingers and thumbs. If they don’t warm up soon, I’ll really be in trouble. I’m a little worried, but ride on. The trail begins to get softer. Often there is just a 6-8 inch wide beaten path from the other riders, which makes for okay riding. But it you get too close to the edge, or veer off the path, you wash out in 6-8 inches of new snow. I guess that’s one advantage to riding in the back of the pack. I catch up with a guy named Dan, an attorney from Spokane. He seems to be struggling a bit staying on the trail, as I am. We walk along together for awhile. We are joined by Tim, a physician from Minneapolis. Our trio alternately ride, wash out, ride some more, wash out again, walk a bit, ride some more, and so on. After nine miles or so we begin climbing. Not terribly steep, but steady winding up and up. We spread out again and I’m alone again. With the climbing it’s harder to stay on the narrow path the bikes ahead have made. Often it is just a tire’s width. The snow is soft and mushy. I alternate between riding and walking. The weather seems to have warmed a bit and the wind has died down as well. My thermometer is not that accurate, but it says it’s somewhere between 10 and 20 degrees. I’ve been alternating keeping my Buff pulled up over my face, then pulling it down until my face is freezing again, then pulling it up over my mouth and nose to thaw them out again.
After what seems like a long time, I seem to have topped out. The views are quite impressive with forest all around and what appear to be lakes dotted below, at least they are white expanses. I pull out my camera to snap some photos. I get three shots before the battery is dead, because of the cold. No more photos.
I’m really tired, much too tired for this early in the race. Actually, I don’t really know how far I’ve come. I don’t even want to uncover my watch to see how long I’ve been out, nor do I want to dig out the map. It’s too cold for that. My flashing headlight crapped out after about an hour in this cold. New batteries too; I guess I should have used lithium batteries. My bike bottles are also frozen, not completely though. To get water, I have to stop, bang the cap against the handlebar to break the frozen seal, then drink what water is not completely frozen. Probably 2/3 of the water is frozen to the sides of the bottle and the rest is an icy slush. Even the water in my insulated Nalgene bottle is slushy, though fortunately mostly unfrozen. It’s a long 23 or so mile loop before we get back to the one and only aid station. I tried to eat an energy bar. Of course it was frozen solid. I had to bend it forcefully over the handlebar to break off a piece small enough to fit into my mouth. I put the rest in my vest pocket and eat little bites until it is gone. Too much work in this cold. I stuff a few energy gel packets into the chest pocket of my soft shell pullover, under the vest. This keeps them from getting too cold and stiff.
After topping out, the trail follows a ridge with gentle ups and downs. Tim and I are now riding together again. Far behind I see a rider gaining on us. It turns out to be Rebecca Rusch. The 200K riders took off at 7:00 am and did the same loop we are riding, then back around to a turn off. She catches up with us at the turn off for the 200K race. She is cheerful and looks very strong and is riding in the lead. The 200K riders are required to ride with full survival gear, including a 0 degree sleeping bag, tent or bivy bag, stove and fuel, and food.
The riding along the ridge is brutal. The snow has not been groomed up here and it is soft and deep. Occasionally we are able to follow the tracks of the previous riders, but they are often obliterated by passing snow machines. It is very difficult riding. We are constantly washing out, and it is too strenuous trying to stay on the bike. Dan catches up with us and we are walking more than riding. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, I’m not is a big hurry. My goal is just to finish. It is my first time doing something like this, on a bike at least.
It’s along this tough ridge section that the winds pick up and it starts snowing again. It will continue to snow for the rest of the day. With the moisture in the air, and the blowing snow, I’m having a real problem with my glasses. They are completely icing over and I have to stop every 10 or 15 minutes to get the ice off them. It becomes so frustrating that I end up taking them off and riding without them. Though I can’t see that well without them, it’s better than riding with them all iced up. Goggles. I need goggles. With my constant stopping Tim has pulled ahead, along with a girl and another guy and I can no longer see them. Dan also catches up to me along here as well. We ride together and I enjoy the company. Every now and then I will eat a packet of energy gel and wash it down with water. My lobster gloves are doing okay keeping my hands warm. The problem is that when I stop to eat or drink, I have to take off my gloves to do anything leaving me barehanded and my fingers get really cold. It takes 30-40 minutes to warm them back up after putting my mitts back on and riding. I need pogies. That would solve the problem. After what seems like a very long time, we finally start descending off the ridge. Dan and I take turns breaking trail. Which is what is required much of the time. Occasionally there is a packed line, but more often than not, we are breaking trail. My sister said she overheard the second place woman finisher say that she has never fallen off her bike more during the race than she has in the past 50 years. The combination of cold, wind, and lots of new snow made for very challenging conditions. The descent seems to go on forever. Then there are small climbs, up and down, up and down. I’m getting tired again. I know I’m not eating and drinking enough but it’s so cold doing anything other than riding. I hardly ever got off my bike, except to pee. Otherwise I just stop and straddling my bike to get food and water. Dan and I continue riding together for miles. At one point I tell Dan that I thought we would have hit the junction that goes back to the aid station already. He says he doesn’t think there is another junction. A mile or two later, he’s ahead and rides right through a junction. I stop and pull over to try and read the sign and sure enough it indicates that we turn left here. I yell at Dan and he turns around and comes back, surprised that he missed the junction. He mumbles something about having to ride 20 extra feet. It’s snowing pretty steadily and visibility is poor. I’m glad I noticed the sign, even without my glasses on, but I was looking for a junction.
We turn off and have a nice, but short downhill section, before the trail begins climbing again. More ups and downs, all over again. The trail is seldom flat; it’s all ups and downs. This is really wearing on me, especially with the condition of the snow. I suck down another energy gel and some water. This revives me a bit and I just put my head down and ride. Try to get into a groove. It’s late afternoon now, which means we have been out for 7 hours or so. I finally round a corner and there is the aid station. Dan arrived just a few minutes ahead of me. I stagger off my bike. My two bike bottles were frozen solid. No sense trying to thaw them now with only 7 miles to go. My Nalgene bottle was almost empty. I filled it with hot water and drink. It’s delicious and the hot water feels so good pouring into me. I also down a Salted Caramel Gu, which tastes amazing. I really needed this bit of fuel and water. I top off my bottle and prepare to ride the final few miles. Getting to the aid station gives me a psychological boost as now we are back on familiar territory and this part of the course has the smoothest and most packed trail. Before we take off, Dan and I pump up our tires a bit. They have been at 3-4 psi for most of the race. It is cold and painful kneeling in the snow pumping up my tires. Screwing the pump nozzle to the skinny valve takes several tries in the cold. I finally get it attached and give each tire about 30 or 40 pumps, back up to around 7-8 psi.
I leave the aid station feeling much better than when I arrived. After a short downhill, the trail begins a short climb. Dan is walking, but I fell strong and ride to the top and continue. In a short time, I began to feel revived. I shift into a higher gear and begin churning away. There have been times in long trail runs where I have felt strong in the final few miles. I’m feeling that way now. I even push the pace riding all the uphills. It’s now getting dark and up ahead I could see a rider. I finally catch up to him. It’s Tim walking. He’s not feeling well. He has some enthusiastic words of encouragement for me. I push on knowing I only have 3-4 miles to go. I know there’s a sharp right turn ahead and from there it’s only maybe two miles to the finish. Because it’s getting dark and I can’t see well anyway without my glasses, my eyes kept playing tricks on me. I think I see the turn only to arrive and there is nothing but straight trail ahead. I finally arrive at the turn and keep riding. Behind me I can see Dan’s blinking light. With about a mile to go, I start running out of gas. I can feel my body getting slower and weaker. I continue riding knowing that the suffering will end sooner if I keep up the pace. Dan catches me where the course veers off the groomed trail into soft snow. We ride the last few hundred yards to the finish. Dan arrives just seconds in front of me though they give us both the same finishing time, 9:53. That’s a long time to be out slogging in the snow. I place 28th, with 33 starters, four of which dropped out.
It feels really good to finish and I’m really happy. I even had a little gas left in the tank. I get off my bike and walk a bit, then hop back on and ride the1/4 mile or so of highway, back to the lodge. I pull up at the lodge, lean my bike against the wall and walk into the bright warmth of the lodge. JayP and many other riders are there to greet and congratulate me. My sister is there as well. She says my brothers have been texting her asking if there is any sign of me.
I sit down, pull off my helmet and head gear, and my vest. I’m really thirsty and down a half glass of water siting on the table. I’m not even sure who it belongs to. My sister brings me a Poweraid. I’m pretty shaky but it feels so good to sit and finally relax. It was a pretty tough ride.
How hard was it?
Compared to a 50 mile trail run, it was much easier physically. But because of the cold, this was more difficult psychologically.
I’ve never done a long mountain bike ride, but I have done some long miles on a road bike. I’ve had a couple 100+ mile days on a road bike, one fully loaded for touring, and this was much more difficult.