Biking in Paradise

By Troy Henkels

At 3am, in the Alaskan bush, under a full moon, I began to wonder exactly where I was. I had been pedaling my bike for 18 hours straight and knew that I should be at the finish line of the 100 mile endurance race that I found myself in. This race, called the Iditasport, because of its course around the famous Iditarod trail, was fashioned much like the dog race, only for a much shorter distance. A simple idea really, a 100 mile endurance race, human powered with the racer getting to pick his or her mode of travel. The choices are easy, considering the race takes place in the Alaskan bush in the middle of winter. That aspect alone narrows the field to skiers, runners, snowshoers, and bikers. The other factor is weather. Being in the dead of winter makes things a bit more interesting, for if there happens to be several feet of fresh snow, the snowshoers have the advantage. If it is a dry winter and the trail has been hard packed by snowmachiners, then the bikers have the easy going. Oddly, it changes every year, and often times changes during the race and any one discipline can have the advantage at any point in the race.

For weeks I had put off deciding if I would compete or not. I did not want to have to push my bike for 100 miles nor endure –40 degree temperatures, just for the fun of it. I wanted perfect weather, hard trail, and easy pedaling. What I failed to realize at the time was nothing is ever perfect. Two days before the race I made my decision and paid my $300 entry fee and began to figure out how I was to fit the required 15 pounds of survival gear and food on my bike. Being in shape wasn’t a real issue as I had done some serious 6 mile training rides, and how much worse could 100 miles be than 6? I reasoned it was all in a days ride.

Before I knew it, I found myself shivering at the race start with a 126 other, semi-sane competitors, eager and anxious to tackle a long day in the Alaskan bush. Temperatures were in the high 20s and getting warmer as the sun began to rise. Rain and snow were in the forecast, NOT perfect conditions, as being wet is the biggest enemy in outdoor winter recreation. Nonetheless, the first 8 miles of the course, traverse a series of lakes that found me more than once sliding across the ice on my back with my bike out ahead of me. Being of the old school I had not outfitted my bike with expensive wide studded tires. After the fourth time hitting the ice I decided to slow my pace a bit until I found less slick terrain.

The next 25 miles were well traveled all winter by snow machines and were truly a treat to ride. Hard pack trail suited a mountain bike very well. Traveling through a part of Alaska that I hadn’t experienced was spectacular. It may seem odd to some, but traveling under your own power, in the middle of Alaska, in the middle of winter is quite an experience. The only thing I can liken it to is exploring the back roads of Dubuque County in the years of my misspent youth. In those days, I never dreamed of Alaska or extreme races, getting over the next hill was enough. Yet, now, all I could think about that would keep me pedaling the next 60 some odd miles, were summers of my youth. It sure is funny how time has a way of making that work.

Before long it began to snow. Big wet snowflakes that cake up on bike rims and brakes, and weigh a lot. It was extremely warm out and dressed in the lightest long underwear I had, I was nearly overheating. These temperatures made for miserable traveling for about 20 miles of the trail. The snow was so slushy that I could not bike it. By letting air out of my tires until they were almost flat, allowed some floatation, but often, not enough. The work began, and I pushed the bike, headed for hopefully better trail. Every 20 or 30 miles there was a checkpoint and I would fill up water bottles and eat as much food as I could get down in less than ten minutes. Although I had no hopes of finishing in the top 10, my competitive spirit urged me on to finish in the best standing that I could.

By the halfway point I felt pretty good, and swore I would never do such a race ever again. To my amazement there were skiers still ahead of me, and I made it my goal to catch them. In the end I caught all but 3, which is amazing to me that anyone could ski 100 miles faster than I could bike it. Even of greater amazement is the number of runners entering the race. Who in their right mind would try to run 100 miles????

After the halfway checkpoint I spent some quality time going over the handlebars on some very exciting downhill sections of the trail. Because of the warm weather and poorly packed trail during this part of the course, conveniently, bike tires would sink right into the seemingly packed snow, and immediately stop the front tire, and violently throw the rider over the front of the handlebars. This excitement only lasted a short time before I realized the eminent danger in getting injured this far into the Alaskan wilderness and I began walking my bike down the hills, rather than riding them at breakneck speed.

By sunset I was right on my set schedule as I descended onto the Yetna River and temperatures started to drop. Soon, there were no trail makers anywhere to be found. Out of nowhere there were 8 other bikers, equally as lost on the ever- widening river. Everyone had a theory of where the trail might be and the one that made the most sense was that we had missed the trail and now were on the east shore of the river and should have been on the west side. Mutually everyone decided that going downstream was the best bet and eventually we would connect back up with the trail. In the end, this turned out to be true, but not after I spent 2 hours and numerous extra miles pushing my bike, often through knee deep snow.

Getting back on the trail was uplifting and I began riding the last part of the course at a faster pace than the first half. I was headed for the Little Susitna River and the last checkpoint 12 miles from the finish. I would be finished by 3 am and in good standing. I was keeping mostly warm, yet found it difficult to ride fast as I could only see the trail as far as my headlamp would shine. I kept riding and riding. Up hills, down hills, and up more hills. By 3am, I still had yet to reach the last checkpoint. My odometer was nearing 100 miles and I knew I must be close. This urged me on and I continued to follow the green trail markers that the race official had said numerous times to follow, that this race was the only ones to use that color. I pedaled on.

At about mile 98 I heard an owl high in the trees and wondered how much more alive a person could feel, alone in the middle of the night in the middle of Alaska. Out of nowhere I heard a snow machine behind me and pulled off the trail to let them pass. Oddly, they stopped and I immediately asked them if they knew where the checkpoint was?? In low tones, they broke the news to me…..a dog sled race happen to be using the same trail markers and I had made a wrong turn and was nearly back to civilization, but 10 miles off course. 10 miles doesn’t seem like much, but in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere……it is a LONG way. I was beyond myself at the prospect of riding the 10 miles back, and then another 12 to the finish.. I was physically exhausted and mentally drained from concentrating on the trail for the previous 18 hours. They said it was within rules to give me a ride on the snowmachine back to where the wrong turn was made and I could continue from there. Lucky for me, someone apparently saw me take the wrong turn and informed officials. I must have been riding hard, it took them almost 2 hours to find me. I was lost and didn’t even know it.

The half hour snowmachine ride back to the trail was more frightening than all other events of the race, and much colder. Soon, I was back on the bike with 12 miles to the finish. I was exhausted and any incline was difficult work. I had been going since 9am, and it was now almost 3:30am. I pedaled on and took in the wilderness, and the experience, and firmly convinced that I would never do this race again, ever! My drive to compete was long gone and so were any close competitors. By 6am I crossed the finish line, hobbled inside to let race officials know I was in, and ordered a cheeseburger for the ride home. It was possibly the best burger I’ve ever had.

In the end, I finished in 21 hours and 18 minutes; I was the 27th biker out of 61 bikers, and placed 30th overall, out of 122 racers. 3 skiers finished ahead of me, to my amazement. The winner finished on a bike in 11 hours and 45 minutes. For the most part, I think it was a pretty fair finish for getting lost twice, and it costing me several hours and an extra ten miles.

Much like getting through life, I learned some valuable lessons getting through this race: 1) Never take wrong turns. 2) Always hope someone finds you when you are lost and don’t know it. 3) And never convince yourself that you’ll never do something again, because usually in the end you will. I’m still convinced I’ll never do this race again….……….until maybe next winter.

Copyright 2001 Troy Henkels

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, IA. July 22, 2001.