The wind was getting stronger, and I was getting closer to the summit of Rainy Pass. I was in full-fight mode, as my body tried to shutdown itself because of sleep deprivation. Suddenly I heard voices behind me. It was Jay Cable and Pavel Richtr! Jay said that we were not far away from the summit. And just like that, my sleepiness went away.
As we finally reached the summit, we took some photos of each other:
Onto the descent. Wind had blown snow on the trail so it wasn’t rideable all the way down. Closer to the bottom we encountered a number of sketchy spots:
At the bottom there was barely any snow and the wind was blowing very hard.
Now we were on the rivers that had some really bad overflows just before the race. Thanks to colder temperatures, they were now mostly frozen, but the place was just insane! There was ice all over the place, in all kind of formations, even with level changes. I have never seen something like that before. I managed to take only this one photo which doesn’t do justice at all what we witnessed down there.
On the open areas, the wind was just crazy. Studded tires played a major role to just stay upright. There were some craters of open water, and in some places on the river ice there were cracking sounds. Creepy stuff indeed! At this point it was clear that this is not only the toughest winter race. It is, to a certain extent, very dangerous one too.
It was a relief when we finally arrived in Rohn. I ate lots and decided to sleep outside of the crowded tent. It was warm outside, probably +2°C.
I slept for about four hours, and sleeping outdoors was good decision, because I slept fairly well and I was feeling like a new man.
The legend himself, Bill Merchant, was there too:
After some much needed coffee and food, I was leaving the checkpoint with Cable.
After this photo I found myself alone again.
At the same time, I noticed that everything wasn’t ok with my bike. The transmission was a bit noisy. After a couple of stops trying to figure out what was wrong, I noticed that the cassette lockring was slightly loosen! The trail was pretty rough in the night before Rohn, and I rode mercilessly. Fortunately this didn’t affect my riding much and I just started to ride harder because the tailwind was crazy strong.
As reported before the race, the section from Rohn to near Nikolai was without snow. It is called Farewell Burn. In short, the Burn.
The temperature was +5°C and I started to overheat. I reduced my layers to bare merino wool t-shirt and rode bareheaded. But it was still way too hot.
This area felt so unreal! The sound of hard wind against the burned trees was something that I have never, ever heard before. It was incredible! It was like the trees were shouting to me: “ride or die! ride or die!” (ride or die became a motto later in McGrath by Charly Tri and co.).
The Burn had a bit of tough climbing too, but otherwise the trail was very fast.
‘Overflow’. Looks bad, but there was fortunately a detour:
Ice. All over the place:
And even more of the barren view:
On the lakes, the wind was so hard that I hardly needed to pedal:
The view I left behind:
Between the lakes there was now more and more tussocks, those little and not so little nasty bumps that made riding pure hell.
Not just flat out:
A touch of snow:
Alaska wilderness is HUGE. The trail had been wild already, but this section was definitely the wildest and most remote. I wasn’t really afraid, but the feeling was kind of overwhelming. This is a place where is very little room for error.
I was about halfway point between Rohn and Nikolai, and I was running out of water. About 0.9 mile from the trail there is a shelter cabin, but no water. I was going to check it anyway, but at the same time Joe Stiller came behind. He gave me some of his hydro.
Joe had seemingly a good day and rode hard. Shortly after this, I met Eric Parsons group, which were touring from McGrath to Anchorage. They told me that I would soon find a creek where I can get more drinking water.
Now I noticed that the bottom bracket of my bike had lots of sideplay. Everything worked still fine so I decided to ignore it and just ride hard.
I refilled my hydration pack.
The sun was setting and the temperature was finally getting down. A relief after all the heat.
And the ‘Tussock Hell’ was finally over.
The last miles before Nikolai checkpoint felt a bit longish.
At Nikolai, Jay Cable, Pavel Richtr and Joe Stiller were there. As I entered the house, Joe asked ‘how did I feel’. I answered that ‘I don’t know’. Joe then replied that right answer is ‘trashed’. Yeah, I was trashed, but there was still 50 miles to go to McGrath. I planned to just eat and continue, and I joked that I want to suffer to the end. Jay had already had a bit sleep and was ready to go. Joe and Pavel were going to sleep. After some contemplating I decided to take a nap. I figured out that I would certainly suffer to the end without sleep, but I could actually be even slower than with a nap.
It was a right decision, but I would suffer. As I was getting myself ready, about 02.30AM in the night, Tracey Petervary arrived. As I continued to ride, it hurt, and my body was constantly telling me the opposite: no more, no more riding. Enter the mind game! I started to give orders: ‘you have no excuses, you had a rest, now it’s time to crush it’. It hurt, it really did, but it worked too. And the trail was super fast.
I had prepared a freeze-dried meal into my thermos bottle, because I just needed something else than my trail mix that I had eaten for the past 60+ hours. After every stop I really had to grit my teeth in pain. When I was back in the saddle, it was better. I rode hard. I rode as hard as I could. Every time I felt some sleepiness, I standed on pedals and just rode even harder. This mind game would continue to the finish.
Finally, the morning:
Near the end there was still one tricky intersection on the trail, where the other track leaded to the Iron Dog snowmobile race course. Like some others, I went there too, but headed back when I saw that the tire tracks ended fairly soon.
In the finish, the winner John Lackey, Kevin Breitenbach and John Logar (or someone else) congratulated me. I DID IT! 2 days 18 hours 34 minutes, 8th place among the men in the 350 mile race.
As I entered the house, I just wanted to lay on the floor. I said to race director Kathi Merchant: ‘Everything I have done before this race is child’s play. This race is so tough and so demanding. It’s hard to believe what I did out there’.
It took several hours before I could eat anything. But when I ate, it was really good. The legendary Mancakes made by Peter Schneiderheinze:
Throughout the entire race there was only one person that I wanted to win. Myself. And I did it.
There will be part 4, The Aftermath, where I will analyse my preparation, training and expectations and what I feel after this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will go deep inside of me, so it will take some time. But I think it will be worth it…