1999 Iditasport 100

Iditasport logoSometimes you can learn too much on the Internet.

It’s a week before the 1999 Iditasport 100-mile race in Alaska and I’m surfing the Anchorage weather web sites. “Worse cold snap in 10 years!” Even the old-timers are having a hard time remembering such cold weather. A day later and I’m calling to confirm my motel reservation near the race start. “It’s only 45 today. It’s been 55 for the two weeks.” There’s no need say “below zero.” Welcome to a brutal Alaskan winter courtesy of La Nina.

The next day finds me stuck in airplanes, flying from Detroit to Seattle to Anchorage. Somewhere the lines of communication have broken down and the airlines don’t have a veggie meal with my name on it. I’m ravenous which neatly coincides with the book I’m reading, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. It’s the true story of a young man from the East Coast who tried living off the wild Alaskan land and died of starvation four months later.

Once in Anchorage, I meet up with my local friend, Dean. I met Dean by taking advantage of the Iditasport “stay-with-another-racer-for-a-hundred-bucks” program. We found my bike and duffel bag, scurried to the pick up my reserved rental car. The woman at the desk said, “I hope you’re not here to pick up a car.” My car is AWOL.

The next day, just two days before the race start, the weather finally started warming. The mercury finally found the motivation to top 0 degrees Fahrenheit as I built my bike.

My IditabikeMy e bikes uk was practically the same as the previous year with only a couple changes. First, I installed a super cool looking, extra-wide rack from Old Man Mountain Products. The extra 1.25″ width made my sleeping bag somewhat more stable. Second, I added a big frame bag that ran the length of my top-tube. One side had a small, long pocket where I kept my pump and tools. The other side was the “enormo-pocket.” This is where I kept 8 Clifshots, my NiteRider metal-hydride light battery, and a GRABBER 20-hour chemical warmer. The warmer kept both the Clifshots and battery from freezing.

And like my bike, my clothing was practically the same. I was sporting a new Wind-Stopper balaclava, which was awesome. My torso had a thin capilene layer, a poly-pro turtleneck, and a nylon jacket. I stuffed a few Balance bars in my one jacket pocket and wind-block glove covers and my asthma inhaler in the other.

Dean lives only a block from one of the Anchorage bike trails. My plan was to ride the trail and a few roads on my way to the airport to pick up my car. But after a couple minutes into my plan, I reach an impassable trail obstacle: a moose. He’s standing on the trail staring at me. As I’ve read in survival books, I started talking to him like a dog. I told him how cold I was getting and begged him to let me pass. He finally relinquished the right-of-way, moving slowly before stopping to dine on a small tree about 15 feet off the trail. I was on my way once again.

Later that night was the gear check and pre-race banquet at the classy downtown theatre. Everyone had to prove they had a minimum of 15 pounds of survival gear including a -20F sleeping bag, sleeping pad, bivy sack, stove, fuel, lights, 3,000 food calories and $150 cash in case you need to be evacuated. If you passed this test you were free to partake in the very tasty food spread. With our tummies full, the promoter began the pre-race meeting warning everyone of hypothermia and getting lost.

Unfortunately the meeting was cut short as the theatre fire alarms sounded, drowning out the promoters words, and forcing the crowd to reluctantly stroll outside into the bitter cold. The banquet was officially over when the fire department arrived.

It was now Friday and I was driving to my motel a little more than an hour north of Anchorage. I checked in then checked out the start of the course. The start is at the Big Lake Lodge situated at the end of Big Lake Lodge Road. When Big Lake freezes (up to 10 feet thick), the locals plow a road across the lake. The first 9 miles of the course is on this flat, icy road. I biked a few miles from where the road ends and the trail starts. Fortunately it didn’t feel too cold with the temperatures in the low teens and no wind.

Race day came early. I piled my bike and gear into my truck and headed to the race about an hour before the 9 AM mass start. The faithful Big Lake Lodge thermometer read 0 Fahrenheit, a few degrees warmer than last year’s race. I stuffed my chemical warmers in my handlebar covers and in my boots and was ready for the start.

Iditasport startThere were 104 racers this year. Most chose to bike the 100-mile course while the remainder strapped on cross-country skis or running shoes. As in past years, the packed and frozen trail across snow and ice favored the bikers and caused serious hurt for those who chose to snowshoe. Only two individuals wore the big shoes this year, one of who was sponsored by a snowshoe manufacturer and had limited options.

So, as the countdown ended, once again the bikers jammed their pedals to move to the front of the pack. Minnesota’s Mike Madden set a blistering 19-MPH pace across the ice road. Neatly tucked behind him and taking full advantage of the aerodynamics was Rocky Reifenstuhl from Fairbanks, the previous year’s winner. I was trying my best to hang with this group but my legs did not feel their best. What a difference a year makes. I felt great at the ’98 race.

As I struggled to stay in the pack, a rider pulled up next to me riding rather effortlessly. It was Dale Plant, a sales rep. for Kona bikes. He saw my cutesy bike license plate with the “TODD” and wanted to introduce himself since he had read my race saga from last year. I couldn’t talk. It was only a couple miles into the race and I was feeling super crummy. This was not a good year.

Rounding out our small 5-person group was Corey Borolien from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. We had exchanged email and he had also read my race story. He too was riding rather effortlessly. I thought to myself I really should stop riding these stories, or at least make them sound so incredibly scary that no one else dare give them a try.

As our group made the sharp turn onto the trail, Mike, Rocky, and Dale slowly pulled away and Corey dropped behind. I went to take another hit of water from my new Camelbak Zoid hydration pack but the water tube had frozen. I was doing my best this year drinking and blowing the water out of the tube, but I had overfilled it and the water creep back into the tube and froze solid. I snaked the tube under my layer of clothes, hoping the warm of my body would convince the ice to melt. It didn’t. If I had only filled it halfway and with warm water…

Another 15 miles rolled by before I pulled into the first rest stop and dunked the tube in hot water. It was not my only calamity as my jacket zipper decided to unzip on its own. I struggled with it but without any luck. I jokingly offered my $150 evacuation fee to the first person that could solve this madness, and like magic, a race volunteer restored my zip. I was back on the trail but many racers had passed me during my rest stop shenanigans.

The trail was really starting to get chewed up the further I was from the lead bikers. I didn’t realize how good I had it last year when only two other riders had left their tire marks on the trail in front of me. With nine sets of tracks, many parts of the course could no longer be ridden. Pushing 50 pounds of bike and gear through a loose half-foot of snow is not fun no matter how lovely the surroundings.

I passed Corey as he stopped somewhere along the trail in the woods. His bike was pointing in the opposite direction of the course. I jokingly asked if he was heading back.

  • It’s good that bears are hibernating during this race. It was explained to me that black bears will only kill you; brown bears will kill then eat you; and polar bears will hunt you

I finally reached the second rest stop after riding and pushing for 45 miles. I checked in and out and continued along the trail that was only getting looser. I saw one other racer through the trees now and then, but basically I was racing out on my own.

The miles came very slowly as I alternated between riding and walking. I swung my leg over my bike more times that day than I had ever done before and I could tell you exactly which muscles it required. Eventually the trail flattened and I could maintain a fairly steady 7-MPH pace. I kept looking back for Corey but I didn’t see him. I was thinking that if anyone was going to catch me on that wicked section, it would probably be a skier. Sure enough, last year’s top skier, Dave Norona glided past me. The trail conditions, while bad for cycling, were great for skiing. Now, Dave’s a nice guy but my biker pride was not going to let me get beat by a skier. I passed him as he took his time at the next rest stop.

The temperature had risen throughout the day to a comfortable 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It was now dusk and when the trail dropped steeply onto the Yentna River, the temperatures instantly dropped a good 10 or 15 degrees. The large number of snowmobiles on this section of the trail ensured a firmly packed snow, which was quite a relief in spite of the colder temperatures. My hand and feet were staying warm. I had replaced the two chemical warmers in my boots with four fresh ones at the previous stop. I was not interested in having my feet freeze like last year.

Speaking of last year, I had finished third despite a slew of rookie mistakes. I said I had to return to rid myself of the “shoulda, woulda, coulda’s.” Well, as I meandered along the course I was grumbling to myself “I shoulda stayed home, I woulda saved money, I coulda be resting on the couch.” It was costing me well over a grand to hurt real bad on a barren, frozen river. It didn’t make much sense.

Much of the Iditasport racecourse is on the Iditarod dog sled trail. There were more dog sleds on the trail this year as they were racing at the same time as us. The dogs and mushers are as friendly as they are determined. I swear one team came straight at me. They didn’t give an inch and I had to pull to the side of the trail and let them pass. The musher smiled and said, “I just taught them how to play ‘chicken.'”

Big Lake, AlaskaI continued along the course and continued to pass dog sleds. One sled caught my attention: it didn’t have a musher. The dogs were just contently pulling an empty sled along the Iditarod. Perhaps a half-mile later I saw their musher slowly walking. She asked if I’d seen her dogs and I acknowledged I had and that they were simply cruising along the trail.

It was getting dark now so I turned on my light. The course backtracks on itself from here to the finish. I was pedaling through a section of the course called the Dismal Swamp. It was an apt name. In a stupor that can only come from riding for nine continuous hours, I wondered why the word ‘dismal’ wasn’t used more often in these parts. The river was pretty dismal, as was the trail before it. I didn’t find it fair that this frozen swamp was singled out.

Eventually, I reached the next rest stop, home of the beloved zipper-fixers. I took on water and the hosts offered me food. I swear they had a big candy dish full of Tylenol capsules but I was wrong. They had some most excellent corn bread and I promptly shoved some in my mouth. That was a bad move. When you race in very cold temperatures for long periods of time, your saliva glands shutdown. It felt like I had a sponge in my mouth. The hosts asked me questions and I was reduced to shaking my head.

Checking out, I ran back to my bike and slogged onward. It was dark now and everyone had switched on their lights. I scanned the trail ahead of me and behind but there were no racers to be seen. The lack of visible competition along with the length of this race makes it really tough to be motivated. I was also starting to notice my asthma kicking in causing a slight shortness of breath. I reached for my inhaler medication only to find an open and empty pocket. It really didn’t matter much as the heaviness in my legs was determining my pace and not my lungs.

  • At mile 97.5 a reckless snowmobiler ran down Pierre Ostor and busted his rear wheel. Alaska State Troopers are searching for the driver.

And as the miles clicked past, the fire of the final rest stop came into view. My friends Jeff and Alison were volunteering, manning the fire, melting snow for drinking water, and keeping the two tents warm. I stopped and tried not to act too delirious. I briefly looked at the rider log and noticed that the next guy in front of me had quite a lead. All I could do now was maintain my position in tenth place.

I was back on the trail and getting within about 10 miles of the finish. I kept looking back for any signs of competition sneaking behind me and I saw a faintly bobbing light. “Darn.” This means I had to pick up the pace or fall back into eleventh. Worse yet, it could be a skier. I really cranked the next mile, pushing reasonably big gears and suffering. I was working hard keeping my head clear on the descents to avoid any last minute crashes. Finally I was back on the icy road and heading across the lakes. I kept looking back and there was no bobbing light.

The last stretch across the road is terribly dull and takes an eternity to complete. I really missed Mr. Madden pulling me across these lakes like at the start of the race. With two miles to go, my battery was drained and my light shut down. I hadn’t planned on riding this much in the dark and my spare battery was in the truck. I stopped and decided to move my red LED light to the front for some minor illumination but it was missing, another contribution to the trail.

With only a sliver of a moon, it was rather tough riding on the safe part of the ice road. In the middle, the road was Zamboni-slick. Towards the edges, the ice gave way to snow, a thin covering a first with a snow bank at the outside. Without lights, I found the secret was to listen to the sound of your tires. When it got to quiet I figured I was riding on ice; too crunchy and I was heading for a snow bank. Somewhere in the middle it was just right.

Iditasport uluI could see the lights of the Big Lake Lodge now and as I glanced back I saw the feared bobbing light within 100 feet. It was Corey and he was moving. I jumped it up a few gears and gave it everything I had and crossed the finish line a minute in front. As it turns, without my lights, he never knew I was there. Certainly I was disappointed with my results given my expectations, but I can’t complain too much. I finished a grueling race.

Will I return for the year 2000 race? Who knows.

1 Comment(s)

  1. Comment by Dale Plant on February 13, 2008 7:33 pm

    Ahh…the memories. Great to read about that fun ’99 Iditasport (now the Susitna 100). Thanks !

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