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Blowing and Drifting - Christopher Tassava
Updated: 1 hour 27 min ago
Last weekend’s Backyard Fat Pursuit bike race in Idaho was far harder, more fun, and more amazing than I expected. The race ended for me at five on Sunday afternoon, when the race director intercepted me on the course and asked me to stop, as I was hours off any decent pace.
I am still struggling to think coherently about the race – partly because my body and mind were shattered by the effort and partly because I just have not had enough time to think the event through. If I were not trying to project an image of myself as a hardened ultraendurance athlete, I might admit that I’ve cried every day since I stopped riding, 102.66 miles and 33:59 after the starting gun.
Suffice to say the whole thing – the road trip out there with my new friend (and super fast guy) Ben Doom, our prep and recovery in Idaho, and of course the race itself – was even more challenging and satisfying than the Arrowhead 135, which was itself a peak experience in my life. I tip my sweat-soaked cycling cap to Jay Petervary, the race director and a great guy, and his army of volunteers and sponsors. They staged a race that pushed me much further than I expected.
So while I figure out exactly what to say about the race itself and about the rest of the experience (preview: bike racing is hard, Ben is awesome, the Yellowstone area is impossibly beautiful, I can go a lot harder and longer than I thought, I need to do this race again), let me tell you about how I gave myself a second-degree burn during a fatbike race in the snow.
Like the Arrowhead, the Fat Pursuit requires every racer to carry a certain amount of gear. Those of us who were taking on the 200km race had to ride with various lights and spare batteries, a GPS tracker, a cold-weather sleeping kit, and survival cooking gear – a stove, pot, fuel, fire starter. No problem: I had all this stuff from the Arrowhead.
Unlike the Arrowhead’s organizers, who were satisfied to check that you had all the gear and who assumed you knew how to use it, JayP wanted to be sure that we could use our gear, especially the most crucial gear – the stove. On the race website and then again at the race orientation meeting on Friday night, Jay P said that all of the long-distance racers would need to prove that they could boil eight ounces of water. Where would they need to do this? He wouldn’t say. What would happen to a racer who could not get the water boiling? They would be disqualified from the race.
With that promise slash threat hanging over the 19 of us who had registered for the full distance, we hit the trail at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Our race started by sending us out onto a big loop that would be the same course ridden by the 60k racers, who would start two hours later. The first checkpoint was located about 50km into the race, at a corner where the long course turned west and toward 150 more kilometers of racing while the short course turned east for the 10km run back to the finish.
Getting to Checkpoint 1 was tough. The trails were amazingly hilly even there, and I spent a fair amount of time pushing my bike up unridable hills, over flats covered in unridable snow, or through unridable snow on unridable hills. I was enormously relieved to finally come on the first checkpoint, six hours into the race. I expected to be able to sit down, to eat, to drink, and to rest. First, though, JayP came up and said I needed to boil that water.
Surprised by not shocked, I dug my stove, fuel, and firestarter out of the most accessible part of my bike’s saddle bag, where I had had the forethought to stash them. Having boiled water on this stove at home, I knew I could do it. But boiling some tap water in the back yard, two feet and a patio door from my living room, is a far different thing than boiling icy slush poured from my bike bottle into an aluminum cup balanced precariously on a tiny stove resting on the ground on a snowy, windy trail in a remote Idaho forest.
This was of course Jay P’s point.
As I dug out my stuff, another racer – a nice guy and a great rider with whom I was sharing a cabin at the race start – told me that he had not been able to get his stove lit, and so had been disqualified. He admitted that he was feeling much worse than he had expected, so dropping out was the right thing to do. Since he had been far ahead of me on the trail, this rattled me a little bit. I wished him well, though, and squatted down in the snow. I unfolded the little stove, popped a fuel cube out of its package, set the cube in the center of the stove, and tried my lighter, leaning close to the fuel so that the flame would catch right away.
Except the lighter didn’t catch and provide even a spark, much less a flame. JayP was standing nearby, watching but saying nothing. Seeing me struggle, my new friend Kid, who was on course shooting photos for the race sponsor, Salsa Cycles, advised me to warm up the lighter and try again in a few minutes. I stuck the lighter in my armpit and went over to the shelter to stuff my face with cookies. Jay told me to put on my puffer jacket to stay warm. I put on my puffer jacket. Kid hovered nearby, taking photos of me and of others at the checkpoint.
A few minutes later, I tried again. I was working barehanded, and my hands started to shake so violently that I couldn’t really hold the lighter, much less flick my thumb down on the spark wheel. I put the lighter back under my arm and tried instead with the strike-anywhere matches I had brought as a backup.
You know where strike-anywhere matches don’t strike? On a frigid, windy snowmobile trail in the Idaho mountains, that’s where. Watching from the far end of my arm as the matches refused to light, I realized I was in trouble. I often laugh when I’m nervous, and I must have sounded like a lunatic now. But my hands were completely numb, and my options were foreclosing. Kid and a race volunteer tried to help me by forming a semicircle to try and block the wind, which was coming down the hill toward the checkpoint, then whipping into a spirit-killing swirl.
At several points, thanks to Kid and the volunteer, I managed to light some of the matches with the lighter, but the flames always went out before igniting the fuel cube. The two dozen matches I had counted out at home – plenty, right? who would even need more than 24 matches in a bike race? -dwindled to just five. Trying the lighter again and again and one match after another, I could see my whole race going up in nonexistent flames.
Kid and the volunteer could not help me in any direct way, but Kid – an experienced rider and outdoors guy – started offering advice. Break another fuel cube in half and grind the halves together to sprinkle powder over the big tablet. Set the cubes on the matches that had burned without lighting the main cube. Lean down further. Hold the lighter against my chest as I struck the spark wheel. As I tried this, my frozen hands sabotaged me, dropping the lighter top-down into the snow. Though I tried to knock the snow out, I could see there was more in there, and that the nozzle was probably plugged.
JayP’s point about being ready for real survival situations was being driven home like an icicle falling into a snowbank. Just as I was about to give up, JayP himself came over from where he’d been watching other 200km racers light their fires and rooting on 60km racers. I hated those guys as they sped right through the checkpoint on their loathsome rigs, which weren’t weighed down with sleeping bags, a gallon of water, or stupid fucking stoves.
"Try in the shelter." I had forgotten about the little black enclosed shelter next to the snack table. I moved my useless pile of junk from the snow to the shelter. Immediately a little warmer, and out of the wind, I calmed down and tried a few more times, alternating fire starting with face stuffing. I managed to get a couple small flames going, but the main fuel cube refused to light. Then, a miracle: someone stuck his arm through the zipper door of the shelter. "Trade you?" Whoever it was – the volunteer who’d been helping me before? JayP? Another racer? – was handing me a tiny green lighter. I took it and passed back my useless orange one.
I crouched on the snow in front of the bench where I had put the stove. Picked up one intact match with my deadened left hand. Held the match head to the new lighter. Flicked the spark wheel with my dead right hand. A flame jumped up and lit the match in what seemed like a goddamn supernova. Trying to stay calm, I tilted forward and set the burning match on top of the big tablet. Immediately, the fuel powder caught fire. That flame lit the two ground-down parts of the second tablet, and then they lit the main tablet. Chain reaction!
I put my aluminum cup full of water – which had turned from slush to solid ice in the time I had been demonstrating my shitty outdoors skills – on top of the stove. I couldn’t quite believe that the fire was going, but somehow it was. I waited for a few minutes, watching the flames grow until they were lapping up the outside of the cup. The ice melted. The water simmered. The water boiled.
Elated, I popped out of the shelter as if I had just invented fire. Stupidly, I beat my chest and yelled, "Fire!" JayP came over, ducked his head into the shelter, and verified that the water was in fact boiling. "Good," he said, and went over to the race roster to note that I had passed the test, presumably by ticking the box marked "Idiot who somehow did it."
I let the water boil for a little longer, then swung the handles of the cup out and picked it up. The fucking thing was hot, and burned my thumb badly enough that the skin instantaneously blistered. I couldn’t feel a thing, whether from the cold or the adrenaline. I went over to the snack table with my hot water and dumped about a cup of cocoa mix into the cup. In any other situation, the drink would have been disgusting, but I drank every drop and then scraped up the chocolate goo with a spoon.
Mission accomplished, I ate more food – cookies, pretzels, potato chips, a couple energy bars, the only remaining cup of beef ramen – while waiting for my hard-won fire to die down. When only embers remained, I dumped the ashes into the snow and packed everything back up. JayP came over. "Take some paper with you, and make sure it’s in a Ziploc." I dutifully stuffed a few sheets of paper towel into the bag with my fuel tablets, my last few precious matches, and the heaven-sent lighter and put all that and the stove into my flame-marked, cocoa-goo’ed cup. I stripped off my puffer jacket and wadded it back into my saddlebag, then put in the stove kit, where I could get them back out in five seconds if or when I needed them again.
"I’m heading out," I told the volunteer with the roster. "Number 17." He wrote my check-out time on the roster. I picked up the Beast and pointed myself up the trail. The second checkpoint, in West Yellowstone, Montana, was 36 mostly-uphill miles away. I hoped to get there around midnight.
In about seven hours, I’ll roll out of this bed at Pond’s Lodge in Island Park, Idaho, to start what promises to be a long, hard, exhilarating day of racing bikes in a new ultradistance fatbike race, Jay P’s Fat Pursuit.
The event has two distances, a 60 kilometer short course (about 37 miles) and a 200 kilometer long course (about 124 miles). I am doing the 200km, which will probably take me about 24 hours to finish. Unlike the Arrowhead 135, which basically parallels a highway for its entire distance, the Fat Pursuit crosses areas that are as wild (even given the snowmobile trails we will be riding) as any place in the Lower 48.
The 200km course is a giant loop running from Island Park east to and north along the edge of Yellowstone National Park, turning back west at the little snowbound town of West Yellowstone, and then meandering west and south back to Island Park. The first half includes most of the climbing, though the high point of the course takes us over the Continental Divide soon after the checkpoint at "West."
Before the Arrowhead, I didn’t know enough to get very nervous. Thanks to that experience and to a very intense race orientation here tonight, I am insanely wired now. The weather is going to be crazily variable, and will – as they said at the race orientation – include just about everything possible in late winter in the mountains: heavy snow, ground blizzards, high winds, bright sun, thick fog, even sleet and rain. Temperatures should stay in a range from about zero up to 30. I guess I’m ready for all that. After the Arrowhead, I have some confidence that I can handle bad conditions. The predicted high temps here will be about fifty or sixty degrees warmer than the low temps I survived at the Arrowhead!
What I’m most nervous about is the elevation: the course includes something like 7,000 feet of climbing, all of it between 6,500 feet (where Island Park sits) and about 8,100 feet – the Continental Divide. The thin air at these relatively high elevations is going to be a major challenge, at least as much as the total amount of uphill riding, and more even than the distance. And then there are all the interesting animals we might see or even encounter: moose, coyotes (like those we saw on Thursday!), wolves, even buffalo or wolverines, and possibly early-waking bears.
The race organizers are providing two ways to track the racers: a continually-updated results webpage with separate spreadsheets for each race distance and a GPS tracker map for the whole field (click on my name to see my progress and position).
I’m anxious, excited, and ready to get the hell after it!
Monday’s afternoon commute was interesting, in the Minnesotan sense of that word. I ended the workday with a meeting at St. Olaf, so my ride back home was about twice as long as usual, and – thanks to the terrible roads – at least four times as entertaining.
First, as I inched down St. Olaf Avenue toward the busy highway that I dread crossing, I sensed a car was creeping up behind me. I tried to move as far to the right as possible, but the Siberian condition of the roadway kept me more or less in the middle of my lane. The oncoming lane had no traffic in it, so the car could have gone around me, but no. The driver instead tailgated me for a very long time (maybe ten seconds) as I picked my way along the street until he finally got frustrated enough to make his move, zooming around. The passenger shouted something at me – only the second or third time that’s happened in more than 8 years of bike commuting. (I know; I’m a hothouse flower.) I couldn’t take whatever they shouted very seriously, since it was both unintelligible and launched from a Prius. Not the most intimidating car around.
After negotiating the horrible, terrible, no-good highway intersection and then riding the ruts through downtown (where everyone has forgotten how to park in either diagonal or parallel spots), I rejoined my usual commuting route. As I approached an intersection where I often see bad driver behavior, I noted a car approaching on the street to my right. Seeing me, the driver actually accelerated, rolling through his stop sign and hanging a hard right turn so that he was in my lane on the far side of the intersection – at which point he hit a big patch of ice and spun his wheels for exactly long enough that I could pause at my own stop sign, get going again, and roll almost right up to his bumper. Which I didn’t do, because obviously anyone this hurried and stupid was nobody I wanted to provoke. Car model? Prius.
After we went our different ways at the next stop sign, I realized that I had been whistling Radiohead’s "Airbag" for quite a while. Clearly, this was a joke my subconscious was playing on me: "In a fast German car/I’m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life."
The two questions people have asked most about the Arrowhead have been "Will you do it again?" and "Have you recovered?"
The answer to the first question is an emphatic "yes." The answer to the second question is "maybe."
I have definitely "recovered" psychologically. The race was a high point in my life, and the five weeks since finishing have been great. The interest of so many people – near and far – in my race has been unexpected and wonderful. And while I am very thankful for every bit of that interest, I think I would have just the same sense of accomplishment had none of it occurred. Finishing that race in those conditions has given me a very durable – and maybe permanent – feeling that I can do stuff. Not that I couldn’t before (college, grad school, marriage, children, career), but the Arrowhead was such a distinct thing to have done that I now have a very different sense of what I can make myself do – if I need or want to. This is not at all an aura of invincibility. In fact, it’s more like the opposite: with enough preparation, care, and determination, I can do some really hard things, and enjoy them.
As that clumsy paragraph suggests, I have had difficulty thinking and writing about the psychological effects of finishing the race. The physical effects are both easier and crazier to describe.
The main effect of the race was of course physical depletion. I never did crash and sleep for 12 hours or whatever (or, worse, get horribly sick), but for at least a couple weeks my body felt very emptied-out – my legs especially so. I still went to the gym, but the workouts were quite a bit more difficult. I still commuted on my bike, but the pedals seemed much harder to push. Over the five weeks since the race, I’ve steadily felt better and better, and I would say now that I’m probably 85% of the way back to how I felt physically just before the race.
A huge part of my recovery from the bodily depletion has been simply eating everything I can – like the six servings of cheesy mashed potatoes (a thousand kcal, give or take) that I’m eating as I write this. Even now, five weeks to the day after I finished the race, I am floored every two or three hours by a wave of hunger that’s as strong as what I used to experience at 4:30 in the afternoon if I’d worked out at noon, had a decent lunch at 1, and then skipped a snack. It’s like being 16 again, only with better facial hair.
I thought at first that this ravenous appetite would naturally wane as I filled the calorie hole dug during the race, but now I think that the stress of that long effort kicked my metabolism (which has always been high) into overdrive. Possible proof of this: my gluttony hasn’t led to any weight gain. After some initial fluctuations while I replaced the water lost during the race, my weight has settled at a point about 2 or 3 pounds lower than where I had been before the race. Except for the cost of all the food I’m eating, I don’t feel too bad about being such a pig. And what’s money, anyhow? Just a way to get pizza and Coke! And then more pizza.
Unlike my raging appetite, other physical effects have mostly disappeared. My frostbitten nose healed disgustingly but rapidly, and is now back to normal in both appearance and function. That is, it’s still "very big" (according to the girls) but doesn’t get especially chilled when I am out in the cold. I am sorry that anyone had to see my nose repairing itself. The process was pretty gross.
My fingers and toes also got mildly frostbitten. The fingers are fine now, but my toes continue to feel somewhat numb, as if they’re perpetually waking up after "falling asleep." I debate whether this numbness is due more to the extreme cold or to the fact that I wore the same boots for something like 30 hours, but either way, I am still dealing with it. I think that the numbness is gradually diminishing. I sure hope it is.
One somewhat odd effect, or perhaps side effect, of the race is how comfortable I feel on my bike right now. I’ve always felt good on the Beast, but my riding position – long, deep pedal strokes; a slightly hunched back; hands wide on the bars – is now familiar and pleasing, as well as comfortable. Some of this comfort is physical, but some of it is also psychological: this is how my body survived those hours and hours in the middle of the night…
Two final and certainly weird physical effects of the race have been that my hair has changed texture, getting much more coarse and stiff (perhaps from being basically frozen for 30 hours), and that I lose a bunch of eyelashes every day. I can’t quite understand how I have any left, given how many fall out every time I wash my face! Truly, the body is a wonderful machine – which is now demanding more food and drink.
I’ve kept my Lego lust in check for decades now, but I could not resist the lure of the amazing Curiosity rover model.
In rationalizing my order, I figured that I could keep it in my office as a nice conversation piece slash distraction and that the girls would enjoy assembling the kit with me.
The model was challenging enough that we had to spread out the work over several hour-long sessions, but the girls did almost all of the assembly on their own, and the result was great.
After an initial mission to map the northeastern corner of the dining room table, Curiosity is now in my office, attempting to find water or signs of intelligence. (So far, it’s only detected coffee and me.)
The Arrowhead experience is just going on and on, in the most amazing ways.
At the race, I got to talk briefly with the two winners, Jay and Tracey Petervary, who were inviting everyone to come out for a new race they’re staging in Idaho – Jay P’s Fat Pursuit. I immediately wrote it off as a "someday" event, but somehow several things fell into place perfectly: Shannon was willing to solo-parent again if I went out there, another racer (a seriously fast guy) was willing to let me drive out there with him, cheap lodging was available… And so I am heading out there on Wednesday to do the 200-kilometer (124-mile) long main event.
Jay P’s Fat Pursuit Start
I am extremely excited. Not only do I want to see if I am actually good at these unsupported fatbike marathons (and didn’t just luck out at the AH), but I’ve never been to the mountains, much less raced in them. The course starts in a little town near the Idaho-Montana border, then winds in a huge counterclockwise loop through the mountains all the way to Yellowstone National Park and back. Along the way, we’ll stop at one checkpoint where we can make s’mores and another called the "Man Cave."
All in all, the race should be spectacular, with about 7,000 feet of climbing (all between 6,200 feet and 8,200 feet: quite a bit higher than Northfield’s 900-foot elevation!) – hard in the best way. The Beast is ready. I hope my legs and lungs are ready, too!
Minnesota got a good old-fashioned blizzard yesterday and into the night, the kind that’s equally beautiful and incapacitating. The streets I took to campus were very bad, and – amazingly – the sidewalks on campus were in less than their usual impeccable shape. It’s a huge storm that the college’s grounds crew can’t handle.
A few shots from the morning commute:
The Beast in front of a snowbank on our street that was about three feet lower yesterday before the snow hit.
Looking east down Fourth Street. Not visible: the insane wind gusts.
Carleton’s Sn-Olin Hall…
Vivi started learning about idioms in school the other day. Being Vivi, she decided not only to use every idiom she learned, but to coin a few of her own. The best one, by far, was "a sloth doing a good job," which she used when literally crawling to her bed. Not bad.
A couple weeks ago, the girls starting taking guitar lessons. I can’t believe how pleasing it is to sit and listen to them.
On Saturday, the Beast and I raced in the Fatbike Frozen Forty, an event held on the amazing singletrack trails at Elm Creek Park in Champlin, on the northwest side of the Cities. I did this race last year and had a blast, even though tight, technical trails like those at Elm Creek – which people who know say has some of the best fatbiking in the country – are by no means my strength as a rider. (My strength as a rider is, of course, eating.) Last year, I finished the full forty-mile race in 5:36 – way down the field, and more than two hours behind the winner. It was a hard day on the bike, but a satisfying one.
This year was quite a bit different, and the race turned into probably my worst-ever bike race – which is to say, a marvelous day outside. In fact, I ended up dropping out because I was riding so freaking slowly, crashing so freaking often, and aiming to get back home for the big Arrowhead party in Northfield. Most of this debacle was due to my poor skills at riding singletrack. At least for an inexperienced singletrack rider like me, simply staying on the trail requires a colossal amount of concentration, and any lapse is immediately punished with at least a bobble and at most a crash. Literally every time I thought, "Hey, I’m doing okay!" or noticed another rider on a different part of the twisty-turny trail, I crashed. I went off the bike in every which way: falling off the back, tipping off to the right and to the left, going headlong over the bars.
Luckily, all that soft snow is both effective at stopping all forward momentum and at keeping flying morons from hurting themselves. My only "injuries" afterwards were scraped-up shins that had hit my pedals hundreds of times, sore knees that had banged off my handlebars scores of times, and a sprained right hand that had gotten caught in my rear tire after one especially acrobatic dump. I did get so much snow in my right boot that it first melted and then froze in some weird way that fused the boot to my foot.
My phenomenal bike-handling inabilities were further challenged by the deterioration of the trail as 400 fat tires pulverized what had been relatively firm. On the first lap, I had to walk or run over maybe a half-dozen short sections that I couldn’t ride. On the second lap, the number of unrideable sections had doubled and gotten considerably longer. On the third lap, I spent many minutes trudging through shin-deep snow the consistency and color (but not the taste: I checked) of mashed potatoes. During these marches, I did take time to eat trail mix and snap a photo or two.
At the end of the third lap, I called it a day – my first-ever DNF. My time for the day – three ten-mile laps plus a long "prologue" – was something like 5:20. Though it was a tough day on the bike, I talked with the Beast on the drive home and we decided that we would do the race again next year – after getting every centimeter of singletrack riding we can, and possibly as part of a team, so we can share the suffering with some other racers!
Thanks to amazing friends and family, Saturday night was as good a Saturday night as I’ve ever had: I spent most of the evening at a party thrown for me and the Beast to celebrate our ride at the Arrowhead 135. The organizers – Myrna and Trish – went all out. I mean, lookit!
I enjoyed free beer, tons of excellent cake, and wonderful conversations with friends. Apart from the intrinsic (and unexpected, at least for this introvert) pleasure of being the center of attention, I also had the pleasure of hearing from a number of people that my ride in the woods had inspired them to do fun stuff – going outside more, visiting the gym, buying a bike, even entering a race. I ended the evening feeling pretty good (and not just from the free beer.)
Thank you everyone who helped organize the event or who came out! I really appreciate your time, energy, curiosity, and love.
My three valentines from my three valentines. (Yes, both girls inexplicably wrote "135" – as in "Arrowhead 135" – on their cards.) I love the cards and the card makers!
Last weekend, the girls and I played that drawing game where we draw X out of totally unrelated Y. Here’s Vivi’s rendition of a bicycle made out of food:
My dear father in law is a huge coffee junkie. I’m sure it’s because he’s 100% Norwegian and 110% Lutheran, but I’m still astounded by how much coffee he can drink in a day – morning, noon, or night. When he and my mother in law visited last weekend, he finished multiple pots of coffee each day. At one point, he was looking around the kitchen for more java, and instead of brewing a whole new pot, I asked if he’d like the rest of the coffee I’d just made in my french press.
He accepted, so I poured him a cup, which he then enjoyed with a few cookies. (The man cannot drink coffee without eating something sweet at the same time.) After he finished the cup, he looked over at me. "Can you bring me a spoon, please?" I looked back quizzically. He tipped his mug toward me to show me all the ground coffee on the bottom. "I have to scoop up the rest of this coffee. It got thick."
I may not make him any coffee in the future.
Today, Shannon was doing early-morning stuff in the kitchen when she was surprised by Vivi, who came rushing downstairs, exclaiming, “I have a poem!” This is what she wrote down even before giving S a kiss and a hug, much less eating breakfast.
Winter by Genevieve Tassava
All bundled up
all snug and furry
everything seems so blurry
with the winter winds a-blowing
it’s a Winter Wonderland!
Who needs breakfast when you are creating art?