Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What's in your kit?

Purple Pugsly  w/ full Nome kit in 08', I have learned and changed things a bit since then...
Every racer of the Ultra Sport, no matter the mode of transportation, is carrying some sort of "kit". The "kit" is the equipment, gear, and clothing that one will carry throughout the event, from start to finish. This can vary greatly depending on an individuals comforts, goals and strategies. There is no mandatory list of equipment for the Ultra Sport, although some things are very obvious and all will be carrying but others not so. What works for you may not work for me. Another big concern when building your kit is weight, so managing a balance to figure out what you need vs. what you think you need will have an impact on your efficiency when on the trail.

Emergency moment - after waking moving down trail and freezing cold we needed to stop for hot liquids and food...
What are your comforts? I know personally I do not carry a stove to McGrath, along with a lot of others. A stove can be a main source of getting water if you decide to carry one. As "racers" we gamble on leaving it behind  and rely on carrying enough water and getting places fast enough to refill at the checkpoints. And we don't care about hot food on the trail. Yes, we have all at one time been out of water for longer then we wanted cause the trail was bad and the usual half day took 2, like the first section this year. I will say I still don't carry a stove but I have increased my comfort level by carrying a thermos. This allows for a quick hot coffee, coco, oatmeal, or instant potato mid-way through checkpoints. What a treat when you been in 20 below all day. I also carry a 200oz hydration bladder. For me, I can go a solid 24 hours doing hard work and stay fully hydrated so I can milk this out for 36 before I start to become dehydrated. Don't forget there is overflow, lakes, and rivers you might come across so in addition to the thermos I carry a Montbell Titanium mug to scoop and drink water with.

We stopped carrying mattresses last year...a bit bulky...
Sleeping systems is another thing one might gamble on, I don't suggest it but people do.. You can save some wieght as well as bulk by moving to a 3 season rated bag vs. a winter bag and even ditch all the weight by not carrying one. I will not criticize someone for doing this cause I know you can have a clothing system, carry an emergency bivy, and build a fire to get a few hours of sleep if necessary.  I personally carry a Montbell -20 degree bag, a Montbell Gore Tex bivy, and hot water heater reflective bubble insulation cut appropriately as my sleeping pad.

Clothing is another big area where people will over carry as well as another area to save on bulk and weight. This can become a big discussion in itself but here a few things to think about. Carrying an extra sock system for when you get trench foot or step in overflow. I have in the past but no longer carry an extra base layer. Something that might help with your decisions is asking the question are you going to do whatever it takes to get from shelter to shelter without stopping to dry out or do you plan on bivying in the bush? Sometimes you don't have the choice, but are you willing and do you have the know how to survive a couple of nights without the extra layers. Let's get back to clothing in another post.

Overflow comes in all shapes and deepths, sometimes it will surprise  you under snow and ice...
Are you wearing/carrying anything to get you through ankle deep overflow, how about knee deep, and then waist deep? Maybe waiters, plastic bags, rain pants, gaiters, waterproof shoes, something homemade...I'll let you figure it out.

Looking a little desperate...we are...

 You better have matches in your kit. I suggest you store them on your body and become a pro fire builder and don't be afraid to do so. This is not just for emergency reasons, when you become comfortable and efficient with building fires you will make more and it becomes more of just another typical thing to do to dry out, get warm, and melt snow.

Where does all this kit go? Packing gear is another discipline to become effiecient in. Being super organized and knowing where every little piece of gear is all the time will help tremendously. Try different things. Keep the frequent used things close by. Keep the things that should not freeze on your body. FYI - Chemical warmers work better and faster when they are not frozen.

Drying out, repacking, reorganizing becomes a regular thing.
A well thought out tested kit will make for a happy confident racer!
I am not giving a piece by piece spreadsheet
document of what I use and carry, cause again, figure out what works for you! The best way to aquire your kit is by testing, fiddling, modifying, trying other things, thinking outside the box, packing, re-packing, going camping, learning from others and doing some more testing. This is a lot of fun and when you get your kit perfect you start to feel like nothing can get in your way and that much more comfortable on the trail.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Push, Push


Barley 24 hours into the Alaska Ultra Sport race and a lot is/has happened, I can guarantee that. It is, has been snowing lots where the racers are currently at on the trail, I can only imagine for the bikers that they have assumed the position. Off to the side of the bike, head down, trying to keep the snow from poking there eyes, hands on the bars and pushing. This has to be an accepted discipline as a rider to not only help with your mental status but there is a technique to it and to get those muscles familiar with pushing before hand will only help with your experience.
Even in the best of years you will do some sort of pushing. It may be on and off the bike trying to get through drifts, or it may be snow that is border line riding and you are on and off, or it may be of the few inches to waist deep type. The real deep pushing is very taxing as you have to haul, pick-up, and push the front end of your bike through, basically trenching out a path. This type of work also increases sweating, so there is a good chance you will be soaking wet from the inside out and if it is snowing you are also getting wet from the outside in. This makes moisture management pretty tough. Sounds like fun, eh.
I can remember pushing with a group of bout 7 down Rainy Pass in waist deep snow at a half mile an hour. Rotating the front guy like a pace line, we did this for some 17 hours to get about 7 miles. I can also remember on the way to Nome one year pushing every single day, all day, for 6 days straight telling ourselves it was going to get better tomorrow, it never did.

A few things on pushing a bike:
Mental - I am not saying you must like it but you better accept it and not fight it or bitch and complain, you will not make it otherwise. Pushing with another person will help with your attitude and you can share the work. I prefer fun folks, folks that like to talk a lot, you know the chatty Cathy type (Boutet is a great person for this). This is going to break folks early this year, pushing out of the gate is no easy thing to accept. If you get the word "quit" in your head early you are going to have an even harder time. For me I do the best I can to not accept negative words in my vocabulary, I do not accept them, period! As a side note if one is thinking about quiting I will say it is much cheaper and easier to bail now then it is as you get deeper into the bush. One must think clearly and be reasonable with themselves. Use others to turn your negative to a positive

Physical - It is very, very taxing pushing a bike for hours on end and it is not uncommon to push for days on end. A slow push is a half mile an hour, a fast push could be 3-4 miles an hour. Pushing takes a fair bit of upper body strength, arms and core, which most cyclist lack. It can be brutal on your feet too, think blisters.

Suggestions - Let somebody a bit more anxious break the trail or team up and share the work. If you know your going to be pushing for an extended period of time you might take the peddle off your bike the side you push on. Stay consistent, don't keep stopping every 10 minutes to rest, keep a pace and maintain it. There is nothing wrong with waiting, a day or even 2. Patience is key in these situations. Remember the time and money invested...

Did I mention how slow it can be and taxing? Think calories and water, you are now burning and drinking more. The section you thought was going to take 24 hours now is going to take 48. Hope you brought enough calories, I have often fell short on calories when leaving a checkpoint thinking I was going to ride the whole way and 10 miles out am pushing. Trail conditions change often and frequently. The guys in front have different trail and weather then the guys in back.

Another thought when it is snowing like is is and you are pushing on the river and through the swamps. You now can not read what is underneath, I am talking about open water and overflow. This is probably one of the biggest fears and potential problems. Do you have a waterproof shoe system? Do you have a plan for when you do get wet feet? This does happen and it is probably the number 1 thing to frostbit feet.

As a competitive racer times like this can get strategic too, but it will take some discipline. It is very possible and has happened where the front folks push there way up trail and you slept in and are now some 12-24 hours back but left the checkpoint riding. You have now gained lots of sleep, did no pushing, and are riding the same trail that the others have pushed on getting no sleep and exhausting themselves. I won the Ultra Sport in 08' with a fair amount of sleep.

While I sit here and think of these guys I will say it does not sound like a great time but when they get through it they will not forget it and to me it is better then work. It's all part of the experience...

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Today is the start of the Alaska Ultra Sport and for the past 5 years I have been lined up with varying goals, on my bike. First year to McGrath, second year I made it bout 600 miles trying to get to Nome, third year I traveled with Tracey to McGrath, fourth year to Nome with Tracey and the fifth year to Nome.This year I am not lined up, so to help with my jealousy of not being there, the depression that will set in, and just flat out missing such a great adventure I will reminisce here often till the first rider reaches Nome. Sharing my experiences, offering tips to get through such terrain, talking a bit about gear and give a sideline/inside view of what is currently taking place on the trail. This will help me cope with such withdraw, till next year.
We have heard "the hardest part is getting to the starting line" and when it comes to an event like this and it's location the saying is not more fitting. A few things come to mind in making it to the start. Remember this is coming from a bikers view and experiences.

Time - The time commitment is huge. The event alone, depending on if your doing 350 to McGrath or 1100 miles to Nome will take all your vacation time. At an average of 5 racing days to get to McGrath (can easily be 7) and 20 days to get to Nome (can easily be 25) throw in some travel prep days before hand as well as a few on the back end and your pretty much talking about your typical 2 week American vacation and you will need to plan at least a month off of work to get to Nome. This is only the actual race. What about the training and prep time it takes to make sure one is ready to travel in -30* temperatures day in and day out while being self-contained in some very remote terrain? Are you ready to take care of yourself in case of an emergency, like falling waist deep into overflow? Some have been preparing for years! All the late nights fiddling with gear, researching on the web, traveling to ride on snow or to a cold environment, testing each and every piece of gear in similar conditions, the list goes on and on. Even as a veteran who thinks he has it figured out, I will spend all winter leading up to this day with the event on my mind daily, still doing the things I did the first year when I knew nothing. This takes away from all other life focus's , family, work and friends. Don't forget about the post race pleasure's. My first year I came home and was in a daze, hands and feet numb for weeks, literally. I have personally felt a bit more at ease this year and have reaped some of the other take away's that I have repeatedly put off cause of my addiction for such an adventure. Warning: It becomes infectious.

$$ - Yes, this can become a fairly expensive journey, especially for the first timer who does not already live in a cold/snowy place. There is a fair amount of gear one must have and then to know how to use it. An inexpensive fat bike is 2 grand, a -20* sleeping bag is $600, the clothing/jackets, the bags/racks to attach the gear to your bike, GPS, stove, and the list can can go on and on depending on your comfort and experience. Depending on where you live, getting to AK can be a costly expense. There are several lodges and villages along the trail one will pass through or stop at where food/services are available but at a high cost. The hotel and food costs before and after the event. The flight back to Anchorage when and if you do make it to one of the finishes. We won't even go into what it can cost if you have to quit early or got in a bad situation. The race entry itself, is very expensive, and I will keep the rest of this opinion to myself...The time away from work is money lost, I know for me if I am not working I am not getting paid. Even as a budget minded individual it is not cheap.

Commitment - After committing to the time and money there is the real commitment of what it is going to take to finish. This is not an event you can go to half ready or decide it is not for you 2 days into a week long expedition. This means your preperation, training, and mental fortitude have to all be there 100%, this is the commitment!
It helps greatly if you are truly passionate  about such an endeavor and are not doing it just to do it, or to say "yea, me too". The most successful people I see out there truly do love it and are smiling (most every picture of Tracey shows nothing but teeth). Yes, we have tough challenging times but we do enjoy it and I understand to some that it may not seem that way. With that I will say, the worst day on the Iditarod Trail is better then any day at work.

Those are just 3 things that I see very important to make it to this day, the start, and also reasons I have opted out this year even with having a free entry!

Here are a few pics getting to the start and the first ~90 miles to Skwentna Roadhouse. 

preparing mail drops for the villages on the way to Nome, as you are on your own when you  continue the  journey  from  McGrath
Knik Bar, the start of the race. A smoke filled, missing teeth type of place that takes care of us with plenty of fries, burgers and pops before we hit the trail. 
Making way on the frozen swamps before the Susitna River and then onto the Yentna River where  the first 2 checkpoints are.

Yentna Station, first checkpoint, ~60 miles. Most front runners  will  make this  a quick in-n-out.

Some of the best sunsets and sunrises will be had.

I look forward to the days ahead, reminiscing...