Surviving JP's 200k Backyard Fat Pursuit Part I
It was warm, maybe 20 degrees F.
You’d be surprised at just how warm 20 degrees can feel when you’re pumped full of adrenaline and pushing a fully loaded, 51 pound fatbike up a 8,100 ft. peak in greater West Yellowstone.
The wind picked up suddenly, ferociously, as we crested what I hoped was the last false summit of Mount Two Top. It was the sensation of a huge semi truck driving past on the interstate on a windy day. It’s eerily calm in the shadow of the mountain--white knuckled in anticipation of being battered around like a cat toy.
Suddenly, the snow whizzed by me, horizontal and glowing in the beam of my headlamp. White, everything was white.
It’s exhilarating, being surrounded by that much coldness. 100 feet ahead and slightly below me I could see the light beams from Joel and Matt, two lighthouses signaling to me that the groomed trail turns left just ahead. I zoomed in on my GPS, following the little blue line of my route as if on a balance beam. I wasn’t going to let myself get lost up there. Adding even just an extra mile to the total route seemed excruciating. A “non” option. Ten paces to the left was the edge of the groomed trail, and at least 3 feet of power to dig myself out of if I got off course. To the right was a path through thick, lodgepole pine. Nestled in the gap between thick trunks was a small, metal sign: “Continental Divide Trail”.
When I signed up for JayP’s 200k Backyard Fat Pursuit, a lot of friends warned me that I might be getting in over my head. They raised an eyebrow and asked, “Do you know what you are getting yourself into? Do you even know how far 124 miles on a fatbike is?” Their scrutiny (skepticism?) came from a good place. They didn’t want to see their friend get lost in a blizzard or lose her toes to frostbite. They wanted me to continue to enjoy riding my bike. It’s a normal reaction when a scrawny, 5 foot 3, barely-been-riding-two-years rider tells you she’s going to try a JayP event. “Maybe you should try the 60k instead?”
Fast forward 15 weeks to the pre-race dinner. My glances at the faces surrounding me seem to confirm my friend’s warnings and my doubts. Staring back at me are weathered faces, strong faces, bearded faces. The faces of a mix of men who look like they spend every night sleeping outside in the snow and hunting wild game with bows and arrows. Still others look like they exercise for hours on end every day, and survive on a diet of spinach and pain. Even more intimidating, by factors of 10, is the Red Bull sponsored athlete, Rebecca Rusch. Sitting in the corner of the room, munching on pasta with the rest of us, is one of the most celebrated female endurance athletes in the world.
Ah, shit. What am I doing here?
There are some riders who have their bikepacking setups dialed. They are carrying the exact right amount of lithium batteries for the ride and know exactly where their Chapstick is. They have every gram of food weighed and counted. Their setup is neat and tidy, the way I imagine the cockpit of a Fighter pilot would be, or the counter tops of suburban housewives.
Like I said, there are riders who have their setup dialed, and then there is me.
Despite having my bike packed for weeks (more like months), and despite my earnest attempt to be one of those dialed riders, everything that could go wrong the morning of the race, went wrong.
My Garmin froze and wouldn’t turn on. My Zippo handwarmers wouldn’t stay lit. I couldn’t find the map where I had carefully marked out the name of every road and intersection. I accidentally poured some white fuel into my pogies. Great, I’ll be smelling that for the next two days. Scrambling and disheveled, pants barely buckled and gaiters flapping in the wind, I grabbed the rest of my loose items (a few extra batteries, a cookie, a voice recorder to document the trip) and stuffed them into my already stuffed pogies, tossed a leg over my bike, nearly tripped on my gaiters, and raced to the start line.
7:04. Where is everyone?
It was like one of those nightmares you have the night before an exam in college. You find yourself sitting in a room of unfamiliar faces and realize that you switched the time around and are taking a final for Physics 101 instead of Modern American Literature. Same feeling of dread, except I wasn’t dreaming.
I think I’ve lived my entire life being at least five minutes late, and apparently nothing (including my nerves) could change that—not even the Fat Pursuit. I guess Jay and Tracey can’t even scare timeliness into my routine.
Joel, my best bud, riding partner, and boyfriend, was patiently waiting for me under the arch.
…he waited again when I needed to pump up my tires.
…and again when I needed to pump up my tires a second time.
Seriously, I just can’t help myself.
Jay turned a corner on his snowmobile and found me frantically pumping about .1 miles into the course. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was a look that every race director gets when they realize that a rider might not be ready for their event.
Why’d he have to check in on me NOW?
It took hours to get myself settled down. I was grumpy and on edge. It’s not like I’m a stranger to being late or anything, but I struggled to mentally accept that I was at least 10 minutes behind everyone and that it would take at least an hour to catch up.
Looking back, every little bit of wasted time compounded on me throughout the race. All the little stops to address tire pressure, to eat a snack, to record a bit of audio. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was wasting time I couldn’t afford to waste.
Early Bird Gets the Firm
Luck is like the weather—the only thing that’s certain is that it will change. That little quip is every bit as accurate as it is annoying.
The start of the race was a little rough, but the first 35 miles, from the Start to Checkpoint One, were fast. Like 10 mph fast. A decent pace on a fatbike, even without bags. Not only was the snow great, but the sun was shining and everyone was pedaling in a light baselayer. I remember feeling the sun on my face and thinking, “Wow, this is as good as it gets.” I didn’t mind that the warm weather would mean soft snow ahead and increased snowmobile traffic. I just didn’t care. In that moment I was happy as I could be. Joel and I cranked up a gear and soon caught up to the rest of the back of the pack. It felt good to have some company again. Besides, it’s mentally exhausting being dead last.
At the first Checkpoint we all had to stop and boil water. The water boil test is infamous among winter riders. It’s designed to make sure that riders don’t just carry gear, and that they actually know how to use it.
The mood was light as we all beamed at each other. I laid out my gear, soaked in a little sun, and soon had a rolling boil. I had been practicing. Because of the warmer temps I chose a JetBoil over an MSR WhisperLite. For me, that was a good choice. I like the simplicity, ease of use, and speed of a JetBoil. Of course, if conditions were colder, using a JetBoil would become complicated—the fuel doesn’t burn well below 0 degrees F (although I’ve heard of people having trouble with much warmer temps).
I rolled out of Checkpoint One calm, cool, and collected.
In hindsight, I wish I would have rolled out in a fever. If I really knew what was ahead of me, I would have. I would have pedaled like I was being chased.
But, that’s not where my mindset was. The Fat Pursuit is the longest race I’ve ever done (by over 24 hours), and so despite the fast conditions, at the time all I could think was, “Pace yourself, pace yourself.” It was a mantra.
The Fat Pursuit has convinced me that for ultra fatbikers, pacing is a luxury for fair-weather riders and roadies (I’m kidding! Roadies are tough as hell).
Water Boil, photos by JayP
Be Careful What You Wish For
Everything was going so well that I caught myself feeling a little disappointed. This can’t be the Fat Pursuit! With conditions like this, I’ll be done in 20 hours! I won’t even have to bivy out here!
The ride between Checkpoint One and Checkpoint Two, West Yellowstone, was breathtaking. The crisp, clean January air made the surrounding mountains look like paintings. Along the highpoint on the Black Canyon Loop trail, the stunted trees were completely covered in snow. Their little evergreen branches looked like depressed creatures hiding under snowy blankets. I think Dr. Seuss himself would be impressed by their cartoonish sadness.
We yo-yo’ed with a few other riders; Chyerl, Dave, Dennis, Matt, Kevin; and another couple, Bryon and Becky. It was fun to take the time to get to know the other riders. Bryon and Becky had ridden hundreds of miles through Alaska, pulling their baby on a sled. Chyerl was in her 50’s and traveled all the way from North Carolina to ride the Pursuit. This race brings people from all over the world together and gives them an opportunity to ride on common ground. I love the intimacy of a small group of riders on an intense course.
Four hours past the Water Boil and well on my way to Checkpoint Two, conditions started to change. The clouds rolled in and the trail became soft and choppy from the afternoon sun and snowmobile traffic. I knew it would come, and I didn’t mind it. Our tires further mashed the mashed potato snow as our pace slowed. I remember thinking, We have so many adjectives for snow! There’s wet, dry, heavy, powdery, sugary, and mashed potato snow. We have…like…six. I always think I’m being super clever whenever I get lost in my thoughts on long rides. In retrospect, I have the ordinary thoughts of someone who’s had their ass glued to a bicycle seat and has been staring at snow for 10 hours.
Check In, Not Out
I didn’t have much time to muse over all the words we have for snow.
It’s funny how people always say one of two things about endurance sports: “That must be so boring!” or “You must have a lot of time to think!” In truth, I was so busy regulating myself that I didn’t have much time to do either of those things. Every 15 minutes or so (sometimes much more often) I’d do a quick self-assessment.
Am I hungry?
Am I thirsty?
Am I tired?
Am I in any pain?
Am I cold?
Am I sweaty?
Can I make myself eat?
How much water do I have left?
When do I need to boil more water?
I think a lot of winter riders owe their success to checking in with themselves regularly.
Winter ultras are exhausting in this way. If you space out for too long, you’ll come back to reality only to realize you’ve run out of water or you’ve sweated out your only wool shirt. Obviously, there are some real consequences to mentally “checking out” in cold weather.
The Weather Report is Pretty Much Always Wrong
We made it 60+ miles to West Yellowstone by 7:20 p.m., over 12 hours into the race and just before the first snowflakes fell. This would be our second checkpoint in the race.
The checkpoint was in a home filled to the brim with volunteers cooking grilled cheese and keeping everyone motivated. The moment we opened the door we were greeted with cheers and big, heartfelt grins. Before having time to think, Tracey and the volunteers sat us on the couch, threw our wet clothes in the dryer, and put soup in front of our faces. I couldn’t believe that I had done something that warranted that much kindness! Or that much soup!
After a few bowls, I started listening in to the conversation between the volunteers and the rest of the riders at the Checkpoint.
“The snow is supposed to start around 8 p.m.”
“How much are we going to get?”
“It says between 4-8 inches—”
“What? This morning it said 1-2!”
“I know, and it could be more. You all need to get going if you’re going to cross Two Top tonight.” That was the first bit of good advice I got from Tracy—I was about to get some more.
Oh yeah. Two Top.
I had read horror stories from other riders from previous years about Mount Two Top. Initially, I had just sort of shrugged it off. It’s only a few thousand feet of climbing, it can’t be that bad. Hiking a bit might be nice by that time.
Now that I was actually about ready to climb it, I felt a lot less cavalier.
I was sick from all the food I stuffed down as we started the ascent. It was warm at the base of the mountain, at least 30 degrees F. Too warm. The snow was wet and heavy, but falling slowly. As we got further and further up the ascent, the snow became thicker and thicker.
High Elevation Blizzards Are Cool
Heh. Get it?
There are some experiences that will always be awesome. Not in the stoner from the ‘90s, my-bud-just-brought-me-back-some-fries awesome, but in the literary, sublime awesome of the Romantics. Experiences that inspire awe. Jaw dropping, eye-popping, full-blown adrenaline filled moments that make you tear up because you’re so happy to be alive. No matter my age, and regardless if I eventually adopt a “nothing-new-under-the-sun” attitude, there are some things that I am confident will always make me feel alive. So far, that list includes rollercoasters (I love a good rollercoaster), summertime road trips with the windows down, swimming in the surf of the ocean at sunset, drinking wine on a balcony in a foreign country, and watching a lightning storm roll in over the prairie. Recently, I’ve added crossing the top of Mount Two Top at midnight in a blizzard to my list.
It was dark and visibility was low. Every time I crested a hill I thought, This is it! Get ready for the descent! And each time I’d put on my warmest puffy coat, only to hop off my bike and push another 300 or 500 feet. By the time we reached the first summit we had found ourselves in a blizzard. Don’t worry, I thought, You’ll still make it to the Man Cave tonight, no problem. It’s only 20 miles, and 10 are downhill from the summit. That means you basically only have 10 more miles to get to the Man Cave.
In retrospect, lying to myself about time and distance was paramount to finishing. Sometimes, honesty really isn’t the best policy.
The wind piled the snow up in huge drifts along the track. Even though riders were just ahead of me, I couldn’t see their footprints or tire marks. It’s exhilarating, being alone like that. Once, I stepped off the packed snowmobile groom and fell into snow up to my thighs. It’s only going to get deeper, I noted.
Exhausted, my partner, Joel and I crossed the second summit around 2:00 a.m. with another rider, Matt. We were so excited to finally descend! Yet, as we crested, we noticed that the snow only seemed to get deeper and deeper. Shortly after, we couldn’t ride at all. Turns out, it had already snowed so much that a lot of the trail was deemed unrideable before we even made it there, even downhill. We pushed, pulled, slipped and slid down the trail for another 30 minutes. We huddled up and made a game plan.
“We’re not getting to the Man Cave tonight.”
“We could bivy here?”
“No, the wind is blowing too hard up here,” I said. “There is a shelter close by, let’s try to make it there!”
The further we went off Two Top the deeper the snow and the slower the pace. By 4:00 a.m. we were still miles from the shelter and cooked. Donzo.
“Let’s bivy here,” Joel said.
“Looks good to me.”
Bivy like a Boss
There are a lot of people in this world who impress me, and people who sleep comfortably outside in a blizzard are some of them. At least they were, until I realized that it’s really not a big deal.
Before the Pursuit I did a few winter overnighters, but we always ended up spending the night drinking beers next to a warm fire. I don’t regret that at all—drinking beers next to a warm fire is fun, and if you enjoyed fatpacking last weekend you’ll be more likely to try it again in the future.
However, I do wish that I would have biked to the park and tried out my setup in a snowdrift prior to racing the Pursuit. There would have been so much value in digging a pit, laying out all my gear (without getting snow inside of my sleeping bag), getting my boots off (again, without getting snow in my sleeping bag), and magically wiggling myself into my sleeping bag (still, without getting snow in the bag).
First, as a disclaimer, bivying isn’t fun. Not ‘drinking a beer next to a fire’ fun, at least. But, it’s not uncomfortable or difficult.
Here are a few things I learned about sleeping in the snow:
Make your snow pit large enough to move around without knocking snow into your sleeping bag.
Also, especially if you’re a woman, and if you’re bivying for a full night's rest, dig yourself a place to pee. The last thing you want to do is squat in some fluffy snow in the middle of the night.
Put your sleeping pad on the snow, not in your bivy.
The reason is simple: your sleeping pad likely won’t fit and you’ll waste a bunch of time trying to stuff it in your bivy.
Try to pack your sleep system together.
I packed my sleeping bag inside of my bivy. That way, when I pulled it out my sleeping bag was protected from the snow. Also, it was one less step for me. I couldn’t fit my sleeping pad on my handlebars with the rest of my sleep system, so I stored it in my seat bag.
Pull your wet clothes inside your sleeping bag to dry.
I know it sounds awful! Stuffing my damp Gore jacket and boot liners into my bag with me was really uncomfortable at first. However, when I woke up in the morning my jacket was completely dry and ready to wear!
Pull dry clothes (that you don’t want to become wet) between your sleeping bag and your bivy.
I stashed my warm puffy between the bivy and my sleeping bag. It wasn’t wet, so it didn’t need to come in the sleeping bag with me and I didn’t want to feel crowded. When I woke up, my puffy was conveniently located on top of me, safe from snow.
Figure out what to do with your boots.
Because it wasn’t too cold, I left the shell of my boot outside my bivy, under my legs. If it were colder, I would have brought them in with me so they didn’t become an immovable brick of ice.
I didn’t think that I slept, but at some point I time-traveled to 4 hours later than when we laid down to rest. It continued to snow the whole time, and my face was wet with snowflakes. Groggily, I opened my eyes, pulled myself together, packed up my gear, and tried to eat some breakfast. All I had was some damn salami. Yuck. Why did I bring so much freaking salami?
There’s Temptation Everywhere
I looked around. The groom was buried, but seemed much more rideable with some daylight on it and some fresh eyes.
A snowmobiler pulled up next to us.
“Want a Coke?”
We can’t take outside help, I thought. I looked closer at the man. It was a Pursuit volunteer. I can take a soda from you!
I obviously wasn’t thinking clearly. In my head it was fine, since the offer came from a volunteer. Obviously he thought it was fine, otherwise he wouldn’t have offered. It was such a nice gesture and he was so thoughtful to bring it. Who could say no when someone carried a Coke 10 miles by sled at 8 a.m., just so you and the other participants could have a little caffeine? Seriously! What a nice thing to do.
Over the last few weeks I’ve thought a lot about that Coke. It was technically against the rules. Or at least was a grey area. Luckily for me, Jay didn’t DQ me for it. He definitely could have. Maybe he chalked it up to ignorance (which it was) or maybe he didn’t want to take away a finish over a lousy Coke. I don’t even like soda. In the future, I’ll keep in mind that volunteers and race directors don’t always see a situation from the same point-of-view. Sometimes, volunteers just want to do something really thoughtful for the riders. It’s not their job to make sure we follow the rules—that’s up to racers. I won’t forget that.
He zoomed away to check on a 200 miler, Steve, who finished the entire course self-supported. He spent the night close to the summit of Two Top.
Most of the volunteers didn’t sleep at all on Friday or Saturday. Jay and Tracy didn’t sleep for 3 full days. The volunteers worked just as hard as we all did, and I am so grateful to them all.
We carried on, riding in the track he left for about a mile, until more snowmobilers came by and turned the single track into a highway.
I felt good. I felt like I could do anything. I just bivyed in a blizzard! While we were resting we were passed by a few other riders who made it to the warming hut. Over the next few hours we passed all of them. We must have gotten better sleep in the snow than they did in the hut—I bet it was crowded. Seeing their tired faces made me glad that we slept outside that night.
*Note on the Coke: this segment has gotten a bit more attention than I had intended. In the original post I mistook one volunteer for another one. There are a few things I can’t emphasize enough: 1.) In my mind it’s completely trivial, 2.) the Pursuit volunteers are some of the coolest, biggest hearted humans I’ve ever met, and the fact that they care enough to go above and beyond for the racers says as much about their character as it does about the intensity of the race, and 3.) I thought a lot about not including it at all, but decided to because I think other racers can learn from it.
Be Wary of Flat, Open Terrain
As we cruised onward at a decent clip I got excited. Eggs, bacon, coffee, and biscuits and gravy, I’m coming for you. I will eat you…soon. In that moment, finishing the race was as inevitable as me enjoying the food at Checkpoint 3, the Man Cave. I watched my little dot on my GPS inch closer and closer. I watched as the topographic lines spread further and further apart. Wonderful! It’s getting flat—it’ll be easy pedaling from here!
Deep down I had my suspicions. I remember hearing Jay talk about the ITI and how open spaces were the most challenging—wind would blow huge drifts over the trail and blow ice in your face. I buried that thought deep down, where I kept any doubt about finishing.
The sinking feeling in my gut was soon legitimized. As we pedaled into the open, flat terrain just before the Man Cave, we saw the highway and the snow drifts. I knew we’d travel at about .5 mph through the open flats. It would be hours before we reached the Man Cave.
Even though the drifts were never higher than my shins, pushing my bike through those drifts was really, really tiring. Later I told Tracey that I’d likely have nightmares about them in the days to come. She thought I was joking—I wasn’t, and I totally did.
The second storm system (that wasn’t predicted until 5 p.m.) came early, and had been snowing since 12:00 p.m. The wind gusts blew ice into my face and pushed my bike like a sail. My bike was so heavy it sunk into the crust. My legs and arms were sore from pushing for most of the night before. All of my optimism from the morning blew away in the storm.
Just a little further, just get to the highway.
We reached the highway.
Where the hell is it?
“A few miles ahead!”
A volunteer had come back on his snowmobile. I’ve heard that from you before… I thought, smiling to myself.
“Perry is there waiting for you!”
I couldn’t believe it. Our friend and riding partner, Perry Jewett had DNF’ed the 200 mile course the night before with an injury. He’d ridden 130 miles (6 more miles than what I was attempting) and I knew he must be exhausted.
I can’t believe he came to the Cave!
We pushed on and eventually made it to the Cave. I could see on Joel’s face that he would quit if I did. Saturday night I thought we’d be to the Man Cave by 2 a.m. At 8:00 a.m. that morning, I thought we’d be to the Man Cave by 12:00 p.m. It was 3:00 p.m. We were crawling, and it was demoralizing.
“Michelle, let’s do some math. It just took us 1.5 hours to go just over 2 miles…”
“Nope. Not out here.” I shook my head as I leaned my bike against the building. “We’re not deciding anything until we walk inside, eat some food, and talk to Perry.”
We both knew Perry wouldn’t let us quit.
He smiled back at me.
Be Mindful of When You Make Important Decisions
Joel didn’t know it, but “never making a decision on an empty stomach” was a rule I had made up during the race.
In my professional life, I’m a ghostwriter. I’m currently working on a piece on neuroscience.
I mention this because I’m starting to understand why it’s hard to think rationally when I’m cold, hungry, tired, or in pain.
In a grossly oversimplified nutshell, when we are stressed our brains are less likely to send information to our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for what neuroscientists call “executive function,” meaning any complex cognitive function like decision making, planning, and rationalizing.
When you’re stressed, a little structure in your brain called the amygdala is more likely to route information to your hindbrain (popularly referred to as the ancient brain or reptilian brain). You can think of your hindbrain as your reactive brain, or the part of your brain closely aligned with the flight, freeze, or fight reaction.
Stressors that increase the likelihood of the amygdala routing information to your hindbrain, instead of your prefrontal cortex, include just about every aspect of ultra endurance fatbiking. There are physical stressors, like exhaustion, pain, dehydration, hunger, and the cold; and then there are emotional stressors, like unpredictable snow conditions, route navigation, and the possibility of failure.
All of those stressors combine to seriously impede your ability to think rationally.
I owe a large part of my success in this race (success being defined here as survival) to never making a decision on an empty stomach. More accurately, by only making decisions when I was in a low-stress situation. Whenever I was struggling between Checkpoint 2 (West) and Checkpoint 3 (Man Cave), and I struggled a lot, I gently reminded myself that I was going to re-evaluate when I got to the Man Cave. Not before.
I think a lot of riders decided they weren’t going to finish when they were battling the winds on the open flat before the Man Cave. I can’t emphasize enough what a mistake that was. Actually, I don’t have to, another rider can—after the ride I had the opportunity to talk with Dennis over a well-earned breakfast. Although he gained a lot of knowledge and experience from the Pursuit, he said he regretted not following us out into the storm. He said he had more to give, and that he knew he could have finished the race. I have no doubt that he could have finished this year, and have no doubt he’ll finish next year.
Admittedly, after having some food I was still intimidated by the next 20-some miles to the finish line. I had prepared for this, too. Stuffed away in my arsenal of motivation was another mental tool to get me out the door and pedaling again.
I knew that when I reached this checkpoint I wouldn’t be thinking clearly. I knew that I would be exhausted and possibly uncomfortable—possibly in pain. I knew that if I let myself, I’d quit. Here’s what I asked myself at mile 95, 32 hours into the race:
I know you are uncomfortable. Are you in pain?
I have some knee pain, yeah.
Is the pain manageable?
Sure, I’ll be fine with some Ibuprofen.
Will continuing do any damage to your body?
No, that’s unlikely.
Don’t think about the entire distance left. Can you physically go another five miles?
Will you be able to justify the choice of not continuing, despite having more to give?
That internal dialogue got me so much farther than any training plan, piece of gear, or weird diet ever could. That conversation, paired with a pep talk from Tracy. She has been racing winter ultras for ten years, and has completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 5 times. 5 times!
“One time I pushed my bike 150 miles,” she said while filling up my hydration pack.
“You did not! Tell me about it!” I had just pushed mine for 5, and it was tough.
“A blizzard blew in during the ITI 350. I had to choose whether to keep going or to quit, so I just pushed my bike.”
It was that simple: success amounted to one, single choice. Do I decide to opt out for a hot shower, a good meal, and a beer? That sounds really good. Or, do I lace up my boots, open the door, and walk through a blizzard?
If Tracy could push her bike 150 miles, I could push mine 20.
Perry glanced over at me. “You going?”
“What do you guys need?” asked Perry. I can’t even explain how amazing it felt to have a good friend there to support us. A million thanks, Perry.
“I’ll see you guys under the arch,” he said.
“We’ll be there before midnight!”
“Ha! maybe for breakfast.”
A few 200 milers left the Man Cave at the same time as we did. None of the 125er’s left. It was a big moment, seeing the men who I was so intimidated by at the riders meeting decide to quit. That was a lesson in of itself.
“Be Present” was the advice Jay gave us during our rider meeting. He explained, “A big mistake is to spend your whole ride thinking about the finish line or next checkpoint. Remember, these checkpoints are thirty miles apart—that could be 12 hours. You better enjoy yourself while you’re out there.”
That was good advice. Whenever my mind would stray to the finish line I’d focus on the present. Often, it left me feeling really fortunate in one way or another. During the fast conditions on Saturday morning it left me grinning from ear to ear, enjoying the fun conditions and the feel of a hard packed groom under my tire. While pushing up Mount Two Top, staying present brought me back to the excitement and pure joy of summiting a mountain. While pushing my bike through the gusts of ice blowing off the highway after leaving the Man Cave, focusing on the moment left me so thankful that my gear was keeping me dry and warm. More often than not, just realizing that I was physically okay during the race was enough to keep me happy.
I’m warm, I’m moving, and I’m actually doing this!
Good Things Can Happen
We pushed for another 3 miles in the open terrain outside of the Man Cave before we dipped back into the trees, and into calmness. It took well over an hour, traveling at 1.8 mph.
We popped out on a plowed road. I’ve never felt so fast going 8 mph. After a mile or two we hopped back onto the snowmobile trail, and were relieved to find a solid track put in by other riders. We cruised along, stopping and walking when we needed to, until we saw the lights.
The lights of the groomer lit up the surrounding hills and the sound from the engine was deafening. I was so tired and disoriented I thought that this must be what an alien spaceship looks like.
We shuffled over into the deep snow along the trail and waved the operator by. Just like that, the chewed up trail turned into a sugary, smooth surface that pulled our tires into soft spots on the trail. Forty minutes later, it turned into hard packed groom.
I love the uncertainty of winter riding—you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Blizzards arrive early, temperatures drop dramatically, and conditions change by the hour. But, sometimes you’re surprised in a good way, like when a groomer rolls by, saves your butt and provides just enough stoke to keep morale up and pedals cranking.
That doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing to the finish line. Not even close. But, the groomer did allow us to get there an hour or two earlier than we would have without it. Those last few hours and the last 5 miles are always the most difficult for me.
At 5 miles from the finish line my mental concentration broke down. I didn’t have any self-control left. All I wanted was the finish line, and it was so close—yet at my pace I was still hours away. How am I supposed to stay present when all I can think about is eating pizza in bed? I was confident I was going to cross that finish line, even if I had to walk to it.
I zoomed in on my GPS—I wasn’t going to miss any turns. I had Joel clock the miles left to go.
“Let me know when a mile goes by.”
I was feeling woosy, something weird was happening. My heart was beating erratically—am I going to have a heart attack? I’m too young to get a heart attack. 25-year-olds don’t have heart attacks. But…what if? Maybe they do? I’m not a doctor. I could be the exception…you never really know…
I was shaky and was having trouble balancing.
“I dunno what’s going on, but if I pass out you need to use my phone and call someone. It’s in my pants pocket.”
Joel looked at me in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? We’re just a few miles away!”
I knew I needed to eat and drink something, but my stomach was in knots. I took a few sips and ate a piece of dried mango. Joel offered me a small square of chocolate—I spit it on the ground.
I could barely ride. I zigzagged all over the trail like a drunkard.
What’s going on with me?
“Just two more miles, Michelle!”
“Let me know every time we pass a quarter mile,” I responded. I was going downhill fast. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
I got back on my bike and pedaled a little, until -eeeerrrrrchhhhhhhhh- I slammed on my brakes and pulled the collar of my jacket to the side and—
“UGH! What the hell?!” Joel was laughing.
I looked at the trail, covered in puke.
“Oh, I feel better!” I said. I meant it, too. I grinned at Joel, hopped back on my bike and easily spun another half mile to the finish line. I’m not sure if I had food poisoning from a pogie snack or was just struggling with the intensity of the ride, but either way, it was relieving and hilarious to find out that all I need to do to feel better was throw up.
I could hear the hoots and hollers of everyone gathered under the arch before I saw them.
Oh, what a finish line. Throw up or no throw up, sick or healthy, nothing could ruin my sense of accomplishment and relief. A few other riders, a handful of volunteers, Jay, Tracy, and our friend Perry were all there, giving out hugs and stoke. It was such a cool experience to be surrounded by people who knew exactly what you had just been through, physically and mentally. I was acutely aware of how special it was to hear a “good job,” or “you should be proud of yourself” from athletes who intimately know what you’ve done, because they’ve just finished, too.
“Next year you’ll be in the 200 mile!” Shouted Jay.
“No way in hell,” I said.
Exhausted with puffy faces and nothing left to give, we finally got to sleep.
Shout out to JayP, Tracy, Travis, Derrick, and the other volunteers and riders that made our Pursuit one of the most incredible and challenging experiences of my life.