Riding a fully loaded fat bike over the course of 125 snowy miles in the backcountry of the Great Yellowstone ecosystem…..how hard can it be, right? Well, it is an entirely different beast. It is indeed hard. There was no doubt going in that I had to respect the race, the terrain, the environment, and the other competitors. While it seems like I have been endurance racing forever, racing an ultra distance on snow in conditions that typically have most curled up by a fire had me anxious, nervous, and slightly scared.
At 5 PM Friday night, I watched the 200-milers toe their start line and head out into the backcountry. I went to bed that night thinking I’d wake up and see a pretty certain race flow happening on Trackleaders.com. I was very wrong. The alarm went off at 4:30 AM for my 7 AM start. First thing I did was flip open the computer and start making breakfast. After loading Trackleaders.com, I would see many experienced and top winter ultra racers had scratched form the race. I could only wonder why. Upon arriving to the start line at the Pond’s Lodge I would learn it was from the extreme cold. Temps dipped to -40ºF and colder with the addition of a wind chill. Most racers, including me, were not prepared for that. It had me nervous for my feet more than anything. Sitting in the warm Pond’s Lodge prior to start, I started picking the brains of the Peterverys….which between the 2 of them have more winter riding experience than any one else on this planet. It spurred some last minute gear additions and alterations; an extra down jacket, an extra pair of down mitts, a water resistant wind jacket, and altering the location of the chemical warmers on my feet as well as on my bike.
Photo © Matt Riemer / Salsa Cycles
Start to Aid 1 - 31 miles - 3 hours and 25 minutes
Before we all knew it, 7 AM was here. Temps were sitting right at -20ºF. Personally, I felt good. I was warm. But would I be warm in 1, 2, 3, 4 hours down the trail? Event host, Jay Petervery, gave a 3, 2, 1, GO count down and we were on our way. I immediately went to the front to stay out of trouble and rode my pace. It wasn’t long and I was solo. I looked back and could not see any other lights from the other competitors. Cruising along I was conscious to move my toes in my LAKE boots and stay on top of food and water. The only part of my body that was cold was some exposed skin on my forehead, right between my BUFF and Limar sunglasses. The trail was in immaculate condition, groomed within the last 12 hours, hard as a rock, and no sign of snow machine traffic. I passed by Aid 1 at mile 7 where we would do a large climb and descent prior to coming back to Aid 1 and the required water boil.
Photo © Matt Riemer / Salsa Cycles
The climb went well and I felt good. The descent and ride across the top was another story. After generating heat on the climb, the speeds of the descent had my feet in a hurtful situation. I had to get off and run to warm them up. For roughly the next 45-minutes I alternated between running and riding to get the blood flowing in my feet. In my hurried state, I even managed to stack it twice, going over the bars because I put my front tire in soft unpacked snow on the edge of the groomed trail. My feet were in a bad situation, so I stopped and changed out chemical warmers on my toes. This was a good call as it made it “manageable” to get to Aid 1. At Aid 1 I was directed to pull out my stove and boil water. With the cold temps, I carried my gas canister in my back pocket with 2 toe warmers stuck to it. Prior to training for this event, I had no idea extreme cold temperatures effected gas canisters. It took me about 10 minutes to pull out the stove and get water boiling. The temps definitely slowed down the effectiveness of the gas canister. I actually had to hold the JetBoil MiniMo stove in hand by the gas canister to keep the fuel flowing. Once the water was boiling, I yelled “Boiling!” and the Aid 1 volunteer confirmed. I immediately went to the Aid 1 warming tent and took off my boots and stuck my feet to the propane heater. 200-mile racers were also in the tent, drying clothes and removing ice from facial hair that accumulated from their nearly 70 mile trip to Aid 1. While that was going on, the volunteers filled my hydration pack from the journey to Aid 2 in West Yellowstone.
Photo © Matt Riemer / Salsa Cycles
Aid 1 to Aid 2 - 35 miles - 4 hours and 53 minutes
Aid 1 to Aid 2 in West Yellowstone, MT was an unknown for me. The previous parts of the course I had seen in the 60k a month prior. Leaving Aid 1 I was once again warm and cruising along at 4-6 mph…..which is fast for ultra fat biking. Nearly 5 hours on course to get through this section and it was very uneventful. It was smoothing sailing other than the choppy snow from the heavy snow machine use. It was not until this section did I start to run into snow machine traffic. These trail users were in good spirits and gave ample room for passing and a motivating thumbs up as they passed. This section of course had some amazing views, riding through what looked to be a burn area from years ago (see above image). Eventually I rolled into West Yellowstone, Montana. I made my way across town to Aid 2 which was in a house. A nice warm house, I might add! I went inside and shock the staff on hand with my arrival, as my tracker was not reading on my way into West Yellowstone so they had no idea when I would arrive. Once inside, I stripped off all my wet clothes and they put them in a dryer. My boots went to the basement next to a gas fireplace. Me, I stayed upstairs and ate a bowl of hot soup and a freshly made grilled cheese sandwich. When it came time to refill my hydration pack, I was told the pipes were froze in the house from the -40ºF air temps the night prior. Lucky for me, I was wanting hot water, which they had plenty of. I refilled by bladder, my Topeak feed bags on the bike, and quickly went on my way. Gabe, an experienced winter racer, a 200-mile racer who had dropped out from the cold temps the night prior and last years 200k winner, was on hand and offered words of advice for the next part of the race, no doubt the hardest section of the entire course going up and over the iconic Two Top climb. I rolled out of West Yellowstone with high spirits and feeling great!
Aid 2 to Aid 3 - 35 miles - 7 hours
As I left West Yellowstone, I was met with a barrage of inbound snow machine traffic. These were tours that were out for the day and now heading back to town for the night. Needless to say, this made the snow pretty crappy and soft. About 3 miles out of town I had to drop my air pressure to around 2-3 PSI just to maintain some traction and float. As expected, the climbing started and just kept going. To further add to the toughness, the snow began to fall. There was 2-5 inches forecasted and I wanted to get over Two Top before the brunt of this fell. Sure enough just as the sun set and the course pitched upwards, the snow started. The further I went up the heavier it got. Blowing snow hindered vision and I could only see about a bike length in front of me. I was at the mercy of the GPS track and the reflective indicators on the route for navigation. The course was steep enough in spots that pushing was a must. One foot in front of the other for about 90 minutes until I reached the top. On the way down, the wind stopped blowing as I got back into treeline, but with no wind blowing the snow was stacking up. The trail which was freshly groomed prior to the snow, had about 3-4 inches of fresh snow on it. It wasn’t super fast, but considering the time of day and hour into the event I was very happy to be on these trails instead of chewed-up snow machine trail. Eventually after hours and hours of riding and pushing, the lights from cars on Hwy 20 were off in the distance. I knew I was getting close to Aid 3, the Man Cave. The last miles to the Man Cave were not easy. Do you see a theme here? I was riding along a fence line that had no wind block….so the snow was blasting into my face and across the trail. Without a doubt, this was the hardest area to navigate. I did find myself off trail a few times and post-holing in thigh deep snow. You know, as if conditions were hard enough already! It was close to 11 PMwhen 2 snowmobilers approached me walking my bike in the ditch along Hwy 20. I though I was on course, but the snowmobilers, pointing, said otherwise, “The course is about 80 yards that way.” I post holed my way over in blowing snow and with in 15 minutes made my way to Aid 3, the Man Cave.
The Man Cave is exactly as it sounds, a large garage that had all the “toys” a man could want. Inside was also a kitchen and entertainment center. It would be easy to get sucked in here. I took off my wet clothes and put the on the drying tree. I than sat down and struggled to get in any food. My digestive system was starting to shut down. I snacked on some scrambled eggs, pancakes, Coke, water, and hot chocolate. I should have ate more, but simply could not. Honestly at this point I was ready to be done. I didn’t stick around long. I got dressed and headed out the door for the remaining 21 miles.
Photo © Matt Riemer / Salsa Cycles
Aid 3 to Finish - 21 miles - 3 hours 49 minutes
As I pulled out of the Man Cave I was greeted by freshly groomed trail. My first thought, “YES!” I got lucky. The nightly grooming run was about 1/2 a mile in front of me. I set off, wanting to get the last 21 miles done as soon as possible. The rolling terrain was chewing away at me. Just when I thought I was heading towards the finish line, the course would make a turn sending me in the opposite direction. Aarrrgh! Eventually, the groomer took a left when I needed to go right. Trail conditions were still descent; 2-3 inches of fresh snow over groomed trail. Just enough snow to be annoying at times though. For the next 3.5 hours I just turned my brain off. Pedaled. Waited for the glowing lights of the Pond’s Lodge and the finish line to appear. Roughly 19 hours after I started, I saw those lights. I would roll into the finish at the Pond’s Lodge at 2 AM. I was stoked to be in for the win, but also to simply be done pedaling. 5 people were at the finish line to greet me. It felt like 1,000 after being on trail nearly solo the entire time. As quickly as I crossed the line, I was in Jim’s truck heading home for bed and real food.
Even though this was my first Fat Pursuit 200 weekend, it appears to be one that will go down in the history books. Only 5 racers finished between the 2 distances. 1 racer in the 200-miler and 4 racers in the 200k. Whoa!
To-date this goes down as one of the more fulfilling bike races/adventures I have ever completed. A huge thank you to Sponsors, my wife, Jim Ishman, Mike Riemer, The Peterverys, and others who supported this adventure from the day it popped into my head. Now, to let this all digest and to think…..Do I toe the line for the 200-miler in 2018? How about the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational?
Lastly, a HUGE tip of my ice encrusted BUFF to Aaron Gardner for being the one and only to finish the 200-miler. He was out there for nearly 48 hours! That was a lifetime performance and one for the history books!! Extremely inspiring!
Strava race file can be seen here.
Equipment list was made in an earlier blog post here.
Learn about and sign up for the Fat Pursuit.