What an Adventure it Was! (Apologies for the delay in publishing!)
After much preparation and training we at last set off for Alaska to attempt the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I was to take part in the 350mile race to McGrath, while Mike, who had already completed the 350miles in 2015, was going to attempt the 1000miles to Nome.
There was still much to be done once we arrived in Anchorage, particularly for Mike who had to pack drop boxes of food to post to remote villages so he could pick them up on his way through. For me, there were just three drop boxes to pack and post in advance from the UK so that they could be flown to the checkpoints ready for our arrival.
As always, there were a few unexpected last minute things to sort as well – such as my watch battery running out the day after we arrived so I had to go and find a replacement. The shopping and packing of drop bags and sleds took a lot longer than planned – as is always the case. We opted to walk to one of the out of town supermarkets… probably not the best idea on the route that we took as there was no sidewalk and with deep snow, in places there was nowhere to walk except on the road which did not go down well with the motorists… and was quite scary too!
Mike introduced me to what became our daily breakfast location – Snow City Café, they produced some of the best breakfasts I’ve had and these were ideal race preparation. They even filled our flasks with fresh coffee on race day morning. We also found a regular evening meal spot at the Glacier Brew House, just over the road from the hotel.
Preparation days went quickly and it was soon time for the race briefing – this was kept short and mostly comprised of handing out of gear and going through the times to have sleds (and bikes where applicable) at the pick up point and to be ready for the coaches leaving for the start of the race. Unlike previous winter races I have taken part in, this race doesn’t start until 2.30pm – when I initially read this, I thought that was going to be really difficult, but actually it worked out well, giving time for a relaxed breakfast and checking out of the hotel before delivering the sled and waiting for the coach to take us to the start. It also gave the opportunity for a shorter first day and therefore a more gentle ‘breaking in’ to the race – we stopped for a few hours sleep at about midnight the first night.
While waiting for the coach Frank (a friend who I originally met in Whitehorse while participating in the YAU) introduced me to a friend of his who was doing the 130mile race on foot and asked if she could stay close to us for the first section as it is easy to go the wrong way on that part and, of course, Mike had been there before. Of course we said yes and so for the first 130miles we changed from team M&M to team M&M&M as Mary joined us for the majority of the route.
Mary fitted in to our little team well, and although we split after the first sleep out on the trail and headed off at different times, we soon met up again and continued on together, having a lot of fun and adventure along the way!
The race started from Knick Lake, the bikers (making up the majority of the competitors) using the faster route via the roads and the foot racers crossing the lake and heading off on the trail. The start was very warm and soon racers were stopping to shed layers of clothing. As we reached a split in the trail there was a short debate about which was the way to go, during this conversation there was mention of ‘seven mile hill’… that was the first I had heard of that, but I certainly knew when we got there – that was the first of many tests of my ability to haul my 26kg sled up steep hills without it pulling me back down.
Eventually we reached the ‘wall of death’ – the approach identified by a number of people sleeping at the side of the trail. We decided to also have a sleep and after searching for a suitable place we set up and climbed into our sleeping bags for a snooze. A few hours later we were up and off, deciding to get moving first and stop for breakfast a little later. Mary caught us as we were tucking in to our porridge and though she continued, we were soon back together and heading for Yentna – the first checkpoint. On arrival at Yentna, we were greeted by Steve, the checker for the race and we went inside, ordered food and set some of our gear to dry on the clothes line that had been set up for us. We made the most of the opportunity for a couple of hours rest there enjoying the food and drink and having one last cup of tea before we set off for Sindys (trail angel, not an official checkpoint) where we planned to sleep.
Soon after leaving Yentna a cold layered mist formed on the river and darkness fell, initially the mist was very cold, but soon the wind picked up… and picked up… and picked up, until we found ourselves on the river in a ferociously blustery wind which was hurling snow at us from all directions. We trudged on in to the night unable to easily hold a conversation in the conditions, I remember thinking I was tired, grumpy and ready for a rest just before we suddenly hit an area deep overflow and slush on the river. We all came to a stop – Mike had already put one foot in to the overflow and so was wet, fortunately he had then stepped back. We gathered together and had a conversations as best we could in the wind, shining out head torches out across the river it looked like the overflow was as far as we could see in all directions. By now we were wearing goggles as this was the only way to prevent the snow and wind from stinging the eyes and to give the best chance of seeing anything around us. Having seen some other trail markers and bike tracks earlier on we decided to re-trace our steps and see if there was an alternative way round. Eventually, on our third attempt, we found an iced up section and donned our Neos (waterproof over-boots) and set off across the precarious frozen layer. We made it across but decided to keep the Neos on as there continued to be patchy overflow.
Some hours later, I decided to remove my Neos as I was concerned about my studded shoes wearing through the soles and rendering them of little use for further overflow incidents. By the time we reached Sindy’s it was 2am and we spent a little time outside discussing if we were really there and how to get in… exhaustion and the mind playing tricks had already had us identifying non-existent neon signs and people sitting on the snow banks! While stumbling around assessing our position I discovered that there was another patch of overflow under the snow on the way to the cabin, hauling my now wet foot out and making my way to firmer ground in a moment of clarity, I could see the way to the cabin. The wind was still howling when we eventually got through the door to a very warm and friendly welcome, it was such a relief to be there that it didn’t matter when we were told that all the cabins and beds were full.
We enjoyed hot drinks and food in the cabin and while we were finishing that 2 racers who had been sleeping in the cabn got up to leave, meaning that the couch under the stairs and one bed upstairs were free so the three of us took the opportunity for a lie down, Mike and I squeezing on to share the couch and Mary heading up the stairs. During our rest people came in from the cabins and got themselves ready to leave, stoking up on food and drinks and getting their layers back on, we said hello and goodbye to some as they came and went and a few hours later we were again enjoying food and drink and getting ourselves ready to head out.
The wind continued to blow as we headed out along the river towards Skwentna, the trail was quite blown in with a lot of soft snow in parts. Our plan was not to stay long at Skwentna in order to make the most of the daylight, however, the welcome and food on offer was too good to miss and so we stayed and enjoyed a hot meal. While we were there we decided that we would push on to Shell Lake Lodge before our next rest stop, so we telephoned ahead to let Zoe at the lodge know we were on our way and intended to rest there when we arrived. The trail from Skwentna soon opened out in to long exposed sections of swamp, stopping was uncomfortable exposed to the wind so we kept pushing on until we eventually found a little shelter from trees to have a drink, something to eat and adjust layers.
The day became night and we continued to progress along the trail eventually making our way down towards the lake and seeing the lights of Shell Lake Lodge ahead. As is always the case, in these places the lights are seen from a long way out and therefore it takes a long time to finally reach them, but on our arrival at the lodge we were directed to a warm cabin and told that breakfast would be available at 9am. This meant staying a little longer than we planned, but we decided that it was worth it to have a good breakfast ready for the day ahead. The breakfast was fantastic and we enjoyed chatting with Zoe about all the times the race has passed through and some of the incidents and adventures over the years.
On leaving Shell Lake Lodge, our next target was Finger Lake where Mary would complete the 130mile race and we would be back to team M&M! The scenery from here began to change with spectacular looking mountains in the distance – all with snow visibly blowing from their peaks. Again, the trail was blown and it was sometimes hard to follow and often very soft and hard going. During the day, we chose sheltered spots to have food and drink stops and we swapped order so we all led for some sections. Finger Lake came up sooner than we expected and by the time we realised that this really was Finger Lake we could see the tent and some of Mary’s friends and her husband who had finished the race earlier on bikes, coming to greet us. Mary led us to the 130mile race finish where there was lots of hugs and congratulations and we made our way up to Winter Lake Lodge where there was a meal available to us.
The tent down on the lake was very busy with people who had finished the 130mile race and those that had scratched from the longer distances, but were unable to fly out due to the high winds which made it impossible for the planes to come in and land. We decided that it would be good to have some breakfast before we left in the morning, especially on hearing tales of the trail ahead from participants who had scratched. I walked back up to the lodge and spoke to the staff who were very friendly and helpful and agreed to provide breakfast early the next morning. Back in the tent Sylvia made us a space so we could sort our first drop bag and lie down and get some sleep. We were joined for breakfast by Moses, who was celebrating his birthday that day, when the staff heard they gave us each a cake so we could celebrate properly! Moses set off just ahead of us, but we soon met again as we saw him approaching us on the trail – it seems the snow blown lake had completely hidden the trail and we had all followed a local track which went in a loop straight back to the tent on the lake! We snow shoed across the lake and finally picked up the trail again and set off in the right direction.
This section of the trail was my favourite, the scenery continued to get better and better as we headed for Rainy Pass Lodge, the mountains approaching and the trail undulating more than previously. I had heard about the Happy River Steps and they lived up to their reputation – we had a good bit of fun getting down them to the river and a few good laughs! This was probably a good thing as getting up off the river was challenging to say the least with a near vertical wall of ice and snow to not only climb, but also pull 26kg of sled up without being pulled back off the ice. After a few attempts, I made it and joined Mike at the top ready for the long climb out of the valley.
All day we kept meeting Moses, sometimes we would travel together, sometimes not. Often we would stop for breaks together and we all stopped together to enjoy the birthday cakes we brought from the lodge.
It was a long 35miles as we continued in to the night, but eventually we arrived at Puntilla Lake and the lights at Rainy Pass Lodge came in to view. We hauled our sleds up to the ITI cabin and went in to the warmth. A short while later Moses arrived and we all made food and then shared crisps that Moses had brought with him as a birthday treat… and they certainly tasted good up there after a long day! The trail on from Rainy Pass Lodge was diverted as it was not possible to go over rainy pass itself, instead the route would go via Ptarmigan Valley and Hells Gate adding 35miles and giving a section of 70miles potentially without shelter and on an little-known route.
We decided to leave early next morning to make the most of the daylight even though this meant missing an opportunity of good food at the lodge. Moses and two mountain bikers set off ahead of us and we didn’t expect to see them again until Rohn. We set off with the wind still blowing around us but feeling comfortable, as we came off Puntilla and round on to a plateau, the wind became considerably stronger and was blasting us head on with freezing gusts. We had to make sure everything was covered with goggles surrounded by hats and neck gaiters with windproof outer layers and windproof over gloves. We moved along the trail like this for several hours, at one point the headwind was so strong that my sled felt like someone was hitching a ride and I even turned round to check that there wasn’t someone or something sitting on it! After a few hours one of the mountain bikers came back past in the other direction and after a brief conversation (anything else is impossible in those conditions) we established that he was heading back to the lodge and scratching as he was concerned about frostbite. We continued without any hesitation, though we were beginning to realise that eating and drinking in those winds and temperatures when so wrapped up was not at all easy – there was no shelter whatsoever and the wind had not eased or dropped the whole day. In order to eat and drink a gap had to be made in clothing to allow access to the mouth and getting everything back again without any gaps once the damp bits had frozen was nearly impossible and certainly didn’t encourage further sustenance stops!
Sometime later we were surprised to see Moses coming back along the trail towards us, we managed a short conversation and he passed on his concerns about frostbite and the lack of shelter on the next 40+ miles of the trail. We were surprised, but Moses is an experienced and respected winter athlete and so this certainly made us think about what lay ahead. It was too windy and cold to stand and debate so we decided to continue for half an hour while thinking it through and then have another conversation. The conclusion of that conversation was that much as we were good and not feeling cold at that point, night was coming, temperatures were due to fall further and there was no shelter, not even trees, rocks or bushes only our bivy bags. The risk of getting frost bite setting up the bivy was high, the chances of getting to Rohn without bivying low and all in all the risk to our health was too great. At this point we turned around and started the 4 hour trek back to Rainy Pass Lodge to officially scratch from the race. The decision to quit was really hard and I spent the first part of the trek back to the lodge in tears – another broken dream, and this time I had no blisters, no injuries and felt strong, it just didn’t seem right to be giving up and yet deep down I knew that it was the right decision. This was confirmed when we saw and heard about that section of trail from other racers who had continued to Rohn, some of who had suffered serious frostbite getting there.
Before this race and immediately after, I had decided that this would be my last winter race for the foreseeable future… but now three months after the race, well, I have to be honest and say, I am (in fact we are…) planning to put in an entry for the 2019 ITI race and have another go if we are accepted on to the roster. It will be an opportunity to put in to practice all that we learned this time and to have another go at acheiving my goal and my dream of racing in to McGrath, the 350mile finish, and I haven’t made it there… yet!
Training and Preparation
Training for the ITI kicked off in September for me when I took part in the Equinox race, challenging myself to run 100km. From then training has been a long session one day every weekend and where possible, such as the Christmas bank holidays, some back to back sessions. As Tahra, our dog can’t do more than about 5 or 6 hours without developing a limp, most of our training has been done separately – one training, one taking the dog for a shorter session. Other training has included some tyre pulling, doing laps of a 2km route up the hill and back and my usual early morning runs with Tahra in the week. This winter we have had very little ‘proper’ winter weather and a lot of wet, damp, grey and misty weather… I confess that I did eventually get fed-up with being out in the damp grey weather, ankle deep in mud – wet running shoes lost their appeal and it seemed a relief to put willies on and walk through it all with Tahra occasionally! However, we made it in to February having completed the planned training and with just a few sessions left to go before we head off to Alaska in a weeks time.
That’s the training, other preparations have also been underway for some time. Kit and clothing are key elements of the race as is food and all of these have been undergoing checks, tests, research etc since September. The new addition to the sled set-up this year is a sled cover – this has been made specifically to fit the sled and sled bag, and has been designed so that it can also offer some shelter, used with trekking poles/bushes/trees should I decide to sleep in my sled any time on the journey. Huge thanks to Penny for making these sled covers for us and also for the other changes and adaptations made to other kit for us. Once again shoes have been a big decision – every time we find a shoe that works they stop making it! This time my decision was a bit less difficult – the shoe I used in Finland last year had been comfortable, so I plan to stick with that. The decision of which shoe to have as a spare (I always have a spare pair on my sled since my experience with overflow in the Yukon two years ago) was more difficult – I thought I had the answer after trying a recommended shoe which was really comfortable, but then after only relatively low use I noticed each shoe had holes worn through the Goretex upper, so those were out. The boot seemed the most appropriate alternative, but it is heavier than the shoe – after a lot of weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, I’m still undecided and will probably take the Inov8 Roclite 282 (as used previously in Finland), the Inov8 Roclite 400 (boot) and the Inov8 Roclite 315 (old model that I have a decent pair of) and then decide when I get there.
Food is interesting for this race too – I have two drop bags to pack and post from home to the race organisers so they can deliver to the trail. Because of customs regulations the content of the bags is limited, The race organisers impose a small weight limit too, though I reduced this further as the cost of posting more than 2kg is prohibitive. So, it took some time and planning to get together the items for my drop bags each ending up with about 8,900 calories and weighing under 2kg. in addition to this we experimented with other food we will be able to buy once we are in Anchorage and also tried making energy balls that were manageable both thawed and frozen – I have now come up with a recipe which makes two bite size balls which contain over 90calories each. I will buy the ingredients and make batches of these once we are there – they are peanut butter based and include other ingredients such as rolled oats, dates, sultana and chai seeds.
Last weekend I reduced the training and spent the time getting all the kit and clothing together using the spreadsheet that I created to ensure I have everything I need and that my Anchorage shopping list is up to date and complete. Additional excitement to the weekend came in form of the news that there is to be a diversion of 35miles round Rainy Pass as conditions are such that we can’t go over the pass – my initial reaction was one of horror, especially when I read of the dangers and difficulties that we will face going through Ptarmigan Valley and Hells Gate. This diversion will mean a section of 75 miles with no checkpoint or shelter cabin and additional challenges in route finding and willow obstacles. Now I have time to read thoroughly and think through this extension to the challenge, it is just that and I will go along and put everything I can in to it. This is one of the characteristics of this kind of race – things can and will change, always expect the unexpected! And for Mike who is tackling the 1000 mile race, in addition to this change relatively early on, he also has to re-plan a large part of the route after they moved the dog-sled race start to Fairbanks and therefore changed from the southern to the Northern route to Nome!
Only 5 days now before we head out – I’m at work for three of those days, so the time will fly… for me that’s a good thing, with most of the preparations and training done, I just want to be on my way now.