Dismal conditions make for hellish race
The first year the Iditarod start was moved to Fairbanks was 2003, arguably the warmest, wettest, crummiest winter in recent memory. Meteorologists and weather followers would disagree, but to me, the winter of 2003 felt like the worst for the slice of humble pie that it dealt me on my second Iditarod Trail Invitational, formerly known as the Alaska Ultrasport.
At the time the race started, Big Lake was under a foot of water from torrential rain that hit Southcentral. Race organizers relocated the start to Nenana as they felt that it was better than canceling the race altogether.
I was familiar with the original course from Knik to McGrath, having completed the race the year prior. The new course would be unknown territory for all competitors.
Lesson No. 1: Always know where you’re going, no matter how spontaneous the trip. Off I headed with a map, a new GPS, a cursory knowledge of how to use it, and only a vague idea of where I was headed – a wag of a finger on a map. All I really knew was that when the race started I was headed in the direction of Galena, the newly designated race finish. Fortunately the trail was roughed in by local snowmachine traffic from Nenana to Manley.
Lesson No. 2: Be very familiar with your equipment and don’t make any changes just before the race. I had purchased a new bike but didn’t have much time to ride it fully loaded with gear before the race started. Because of the way I arranged the load, the bike handled, shall I say, less than optimally. With every turn of the handlebar the bike shimmied like a salmon on a gravel bar.
To top it off, I’d just clipped a bunch of knobs off a new pair of tires. The goal was to reduce rolling resistance. Back then, there were no snowbike-specific tires being manufactured, so those of us early to the sport had to make do with what was on the market. Tires were designed for other purposes such as mountain biking on dirt. We sought the widest tires we could find.
Heavy snowfall made the trail ride like Crisco – soft and greasy. Riding on Crisco with minimal tread is like ice skating in slippers. Not fun! Yet somehow I managed to slip and slide 156 miles from Nenana to Tanana.
After a hot meal, I dried out my boots and had a good rest. At daybreak I ventured down the mighty Yukon River with Mike Madden of California, pushing my bike through heavy, unrideable snow. I would’ve given anything to be riding on Crisco, but instead I was moving like a homeless person with my worldly possessions loaded on a bike instead of a shopping cart.
Lesson No. 3: Assess your limitations and judge them against the task at hand. Had I been thinking clearly in Tanana and not hell bent to make it to Ruby, the checkpoint some 120 river miles away, I would have taken the next air taxi out.
After 45 miles and 28 straight hours of pushing my bike down the middle of the Yukon River, we stumbled upon a cabin where a few other guys were waiting for the storm to clear. ITI legend Peter Basinger, Californian Erik Warkentin and Roc Kovac from Slovenia had already rested and were launching into the blizzard when we arrived.
I hauled my carcass off the river and into the cabin. I passed out on a cot, thankful that I wouldn’t have to push my bike another step. I woke to the question of how I was going to get myself out of there. I was pretty confident that I didn’t want to push my bike another 75 miles to Ruby. Tanana was 45 miles back up river.
The snow gods took pity on me in my predicament, for later that evening a trapper from upriver snowmachined in to check on the idiots who left Tanana pushing their bikes into the brunt of a snowstorm. Grateful for the rescue, I sheepishly accepted a ride back up river to Tanana.
Lesson No. 4: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained. Do I wish I had followed the race leaders to Ruby? Absolutely not. It took them three days to mostly push their bikes the 75 mile distance. I grasped my limitations through a painful but self-realizing process.
Do I wish I had stayed home and saved myself the trouble? Again, absolutely not. I learned from my mistakes and fortunately lived to tell about it. While pushing my bike through the middle of the night down the Yukon River I saw the most breathtaking display of the aurora I have ever seen. You don’t get to experience that by sitting on the couch at home.
Always know where you’re going – study the maps scrupulously and look specifically for shelter or a way out if you need it.
Don’t make changes to your equipment at the last minute-plan ahead and spend a lot of time training with the gear you intend to use. Experiment with load placement and always store things in the same place. You become forgetful when you’re exhausted or sleep deprived.
Know your limits – don’t get sucked into peer pressure and making decisions outside your comfort zone. Learn to distinguish risk from stupidity.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Most times when you dare to venture, you are richly rewarded by amazing experiences. However, always refer to Lesson No. 3.