photo by Gary Lee Chrisman, stolen from Fat Pursuit FB page
I get cold easy. I live in a ski town. I love snow. But I still get cold easy. Brrr. I guess that’s why I decided to do my first winter fat biking ultra. To test myself. See how I’d hold up mentally and physically while riding in conditions where survival can become a factor if you don’t have your shit together. Where taking your hand out of your pogie for an instant to slam a frozen peanut butter cup in your mouth, unzip your top layer, guide your hydration hose into mouth, gulp gulp, re-zip, and put hand back in pogie, can mean ten minutes of wiggling fingers to get them happy again.
After some research, I decided to test my grit at JayP’s Fat Pursuit in quaint Island Park, Idaho – population five hundred something. 2016 marks the third running of the race. What is so special about a 200k loop on groomed snowmobile trails through Idaho and Montana, going as far out as West Yellowstone and meandering around the Continental Divide? Exactly. Note – there is also a 200 mile version that Jay added this year for those that qualify by first completing the 200k. Hmmm… already thinking about next year🙂
Anyhoo… daydreaming about the massive, open beauty of the region and serenity of quietly pedaling through this winter wonderland stoked the fire for this adventure. I longed for the solitude – being alone, in my head, with my thoughts and my opaque breath and the sound of rubber crunching on hardened snow. Yes, I’d spend more hours in the car getting to and from, than actually on my bike (at least that’s what I was hoping). But this one is worth it. I could tell. This one was gonna be special.
Getting out there:
Bike loaded in the back of the truck – ready to roll!!
I met up with a bikepacking buddy Blake, who also happens to be one fast badass. He completed the 200k last year, but wasn’t stoked on his performance – so he was out for some redemption. Which he got, btw, along with a sweet custom belt buckle reserved for the podium peeps. Yahoo! So yeah, Blake lives in Truckee. We met in Reno. I left my truck in a hotel/casino parking lot, and we rolled in style with his brand new 4×4 Sprinter. Jay P told us about Island Park Cabins, and we reserved bedrooms for $25/night from Pam in a sweet 5 bedroom cabin. Only a couple others booked – Scott, doing the 200k and Bill doing the 200m, while his wife Mo held down the fort. The cabin was huge and we were all pretty stoked – even though we wouldn’t be spending much time there.
Our bikes, riding in comfort in the back of the Sprinter van.
Bike and Gear:
I’m adding links to some “gear lists” and race reports at the bottom. If you’re planning on giving this beast a shot – set yourself up for success. Read up. I used these to help my planning and try to wrap my head around the event. Neil, who won the 200 mile race this year with a blistering pace, also just posted his 2016 gear list – very helpful.
In terms of my bike, there’s not much to say. I own a Salsa Mukluk. Tried and true. And heavy. 30lbs, 6oz naked, and 48lbs 4oz loaded (without food or water). Ouch. Here’s a few specs:
- Panaracer Fat B Nimble 26×4 tires – pretty light, not too bad, but not enough side knobs – mostly around 6-7 psi, but lowered to 4-5 later in the race and never re-filled. Tubeless with orange seal regular and subzero mix. I would go with 5″ tires next time… not much heavier, but in variable and sloppy sections of the course, I definitely could’ve used the added float. Surly Holy Rolling Darryl rims are pretty heavy – if someone gives me some carbon hoops, I wouldn’t mind!!
- 1×9 drivetrain with 32T front ring, and 11-32T rear- if I do this again, will definitely go 1×11 – my knees were killing me half way into the race, trying to push that hard of a gear, and not being able to get out of the saddle was a killer (I’d just slip and slide) – People would pass me by spinning, while my legs were yelling at me. Yes, better than SS, but life would’ve been much better, I wouldn’t have worked as hard, and would’ve ridden faster with a “real” drivetrain.
- PDW Aether Demon red light mounted to seatstay, Princeton Tec EOS mounted to fork – those were my safety lights, worked perfect. I had a Exposure Joystick on my helmet and a Fenix LD22 light packed as a backup for night riding.
- Low end Avid Elixir 3 brakes worked flawlessly. Hydraulic, just fine. Cheap.
- Porcelain Rocket frame bag, Revelate Gas Tank, Jerry Can, Feed Bag, Viscacha, spocket, and Handlebar Harness. All worked great. Viscacha a little big, probably use a smaller/lighter seat bag next time, and could ditch the Jerry Can (tools were in there, but I had room in the frame bag).
- Flat pedals (stupid choice, more details below)
- Ergon GS-2 grips (on every bike I own)
- Revelate Pogies (only ones that I’ve found where I can still use my bar ends)
- Inverted canister stove – MSR whisperlite worked great. I tested it down to 0 degrees without inverting. So I knew that it would be fine, since inverting also gives you 10-20 more degrees. I kept the IsoButane fuel (make sure to get 80/20) in my jersey pocket as well, to keep it warm, just to be safe. My 8oz of water boiled in just a couple minutes at the mandatory check. Sweet! PS – don’t use an Esbit stove. Takes forever and everyone who uses one regrets it. Take the weight penalty and use a “real” stove.
- I brought a closed cell insulated foam pad. It’s super cheap, and super light, but it’s bulky. For $25 vs $100+ for an insulated inflatable, I went the cheap route. It also doesn’t need your lung power to use… so if crap hit the fan, it’s quick and easy… never had to use it (thankfully). Sure, I would’ve liked a gucci one, but this was just fine for me.
- Sleeping bag – a buddy let me borrow a mountain hardware 0 degree, which again, thankfully never had to use.
- Lezyne HV Micro Floor Pump – my favorite pump for fat bikes. Works great and fast when adding air as snow conditions firm up.
Ready to roll
Just after the mandatory gear check. It’s about to get real.
Cockpit – my old Garmin eTrex Vista HCX still does the job… pogies, feed bag, gas tank and my sleeping pad strapped to my sleeping bag
Viscacha seat bag, with spocket on top (holds Spot Tracker), and the camo jerry can with my tools
Once I showed up at Pond’s Lodge, I couldn’t believe how many $8k, super spendy carbon fat bikes with HED carbon wheels. Wow. This was legit. People were hardcore. I felt slightly out of place with my, dare I say it, aluminum bike. After checking out all the drivetrains, and setups – I got even more nervous. At the least, people were running 1×11’s with 28T front rings and 42T rears. My bike is normally set up singlespeed, but I was scared to do this race SS. If crap hit the fan, I did not want to be hiking for hours on end. I wanted the ability to soft pedal if cramping, and to regulate my body temp/how much I was sweating, etc. So I threw on a 9 speed cassette I had lying around the shop. I had a 32T front and 32T rear as my granny, which is a lot for a singlespeeder. Still a far cry from the spinning capabilities of my counterparts – but hey, I wasn’t going to pony up for a 1×11 just for this race.
Cheap gas – and a nice Fat Pursuit welcome sign at Ponds Lodge
- Hydration was spot on – 48oz camelbak under my thermal vest, and a 20oz insulated water bottle in my handlebar feed bag. I’d read in Andrew’s blog that putting your bottle upside down with a handwarmer in the bottom of the feedbag worked well. He was right. Never froze. Most riders, including Gabe (the 200k winner) seem to route the camelbak tube under the armpit… but I just routed it normally and it never froze. Blake’s did freeze… so next time, I’ll go under the armpit – but I also kept my hose near my belly so I could unzip on climbs without worry. I also drank often to keep water flowing. Zero issues with water freezing.
- Hot water was also key. At each checkpoint, I refilled with hot water. Not only did it keep the water from freezing, but it warmed my core when I drank, and the warm bladder felt good on my back.
My layering system worked pretty awesome. Granted most of the race was in the teens and single digits, so it never got too cold. Regardless, I was never too sweaty or cold. I stayed layered basically the same for most of the race, until I threw my shell on for a little more warmth at the end.
- Rab super thin next to skin short sleeve wicking baselayer
- Pearl Izumi Thermal Barrier long sleeve base layer – I love this piece, it’s got windstopper material in the front, but still breathes well everywhere else
- On top of that was an old Kenda long sleeve jersey that I picked up at a race for $20 a few years ago.
- On top of that was a thermal vest that I scored on eBay for $10 a while back – no, I’m not really on the Trek Subaru race team.
- In the seatbag was an ArcTeryx shell and my Rab puffy for peace of mind. Most people had lighter shells and much lighter puffies (patagucci down sweater, nano puff, etc) – I probably could’ve saved weight here, but I knew I’d never freeze!
- Gloves – I had two pair – Pearl Izumi Softshell Lite for most of the ride, switched to Pearl P.R.O. Barrier gloves at night – between these and my Revelate Pogies, I was pretty dialed for my hands. Except for a couple long descents, where my fingers were touching my metal brake levers (not to self, carbon levers next time or wrap them in electrical tape), my fingers stayed pretty cozy. After W. Yellowstone I put hand warmers in my gloves too… extra toasty!!
- I don’t own tights, so I just used a regular chamois and leg warmers for my bottom baselayer. I had some loose fitting Spyder long johns over that, and some Marmot nordic pants (that I borrowed from my wife) over that. Legs were perfect the whole race.
- Socks and shoes – I wore a thin liner sock with some Darn Tough merino wool socks on top. I was scared my Lake 303’s wouldn’t be warm enough, because they fit me pretty snug, and aren’t sized up… so I wore Merrell hiking boots that I know are warm for me, and have ample room in the toe box. I used adhesive toe warmers which I switched out mid race, and my feet stayed warm the whole time. I also carried a couple plastic grocery bags in case I needed to do a poor man’s vapor barrier – but it never got that cold. The downside? I switched to flat pedals because of the boot situation, and it was not comfy. I’m super used to clipless, and I didn’t like the feeling of my feet “floating” around on the pedals. Not sure if my knee pain was because of this or my gearing, probably a combo of both. Next time, I’d definitely buy some bigger sized Lakes or 45Nrth boots so I can ride clipless and have room to layer socks, vapor barriers, etc. I’d also consider an outer boot and/or gaitors depending on temps.
- I had sunglasses, but wore my prescription eyeglasses for much of the race. It was overcast and snowy for the most part. Switched to clear oakley motocross goggles at night. They keep my face warmer. I wound up losing my glasses… they must have fallen out of my gas tank somewhere near Two Top. Oh well. I was due for some new ones anyhow.
- I used Dermatone on my face, lips, and nose to protect my skin. Worked great.
- Pearl Izumi P.R.O. skull cap and an Icebreaker merino wool buff on my neck – also worked great… at night I switched out to a light balaclava and it was all I needed to keep my head and ears warm.
I knew there were 3 checkpoints stocked with warm food, so I brought snacks to get me through. Macademia nuts, trail mix, and peanut butter cups were in my gas tank. In my jersey pockets, I also had gu chomps, gu gels, and a pbj. This kept everything warm. I also ate a couple of bananas. I never bonked, granted I was riding very conservatively the whole time. But I feel my nutrition plan worked well. Forced myself to down calories and water every 45 minutes or when opportunities arose – like after an endo or during a hike a bike section.
Start line of the 200 mile race which started at 5pm the night before my race
Jay P, about to send off the 20 mile riders into the abyss!
Absolutely fantastic. Everything I was hoping for. I could only eat a few bites of my huge breakfast burrito. My stomach was churning like it always does. We made it to the start. Aaron’s GoPro drone buzzed overhead. Jay was on the phone with Matt Lee, ironing out the last minute Spot Tracker issues. 7am. We’re off. Into the dark abyss. Yes, all the prep, travel, worry, fear, anticipation, were over. I was riding a bike. In my happy place.
Me, at the first checkpoint, getting ready to boil water – photo stolen from Fat Pursuit FB page
Blake using a similar inverted canister stove to mine. ICE BEARDS RULE!!
Gabe (right), eventual race leader, and Blake hustling to get through the water boil test. – photo stolen from Fat Pursuit FB Page
The conditions were variable, of course. The first 30-40 miles were nice and firm and fast, and the climbs felt great. The middle 40 miles were soupy and slow, and the slog into W. Yellowstone was the most heavily trafficked snowmobile section – making the trails very energy consuming to get through. A couple guys flew by kicking up snow and debris in my face and mouth, but for the most part, all the snowmobilers were super friendly. On the last stretch into W. Yellowstone, Derek came up on me and it was nice to have company heading into town. I’d met him at dinner/pre-race meeting the night before, and his bubbly demeanor kept me from focusing on my own low point. Oh yea, Derek and I got cussed out by one dude riding his snowmobile 60mph down the street in W. Yellowstone. Apparently we missed a stop sign. Then we went into the gas station to get Derek some batteries, and I forgot to turn my headlamp off… oops, I blinded this nice young lady, and everyone looked at us like we’re aliens. Haha!! That was awesome!!!
Some of the awesome volunteers cooking up soup and grilled cheese sandwiches at the W. Yellowstone checkpoint
Night had fallen and I took a nice long break at Checkpoint 2 (Checkpoint 1 was a quick water boil, some saltines, water fill and I was out). This time, I took off a bunch of clothes, which a volunteer put in the dryer for me. Nice!! Put my socks and boots by the fireplace while I ate pickles, soup, grilled cheese, and a bunch of other crap. I burned 45 minutes easy before getting out of there. Back out, the night air was crisp and single digits. The snow was firming up. The stars came out as I was climbing Two Top (the last major climb of the route) and it was simply magical. Around every turn, shadows stretched and hallucinations kicked in… tree branches and rocks became ghosts and ghouls… I was in a Tim Burton movie!!! My legs came around and I was on top of the world – definite highlight!!! I passed a groomer and for a few miles had fresh tracks. Caught up with a cool cat named Chris from Seattle who did the ITI last year, and we rode a nice long section together. I waited as he had to put a tube in a flat tire… stoked that it wasn’t me, as he hustled to keep his digits from freezing!! Also stoked that I had zero mechanicals the whole race (except putting a little air in my rear tire). Then we came across Robert, a 200 miler, who was delirious. Luckily, TJ also came up and knew of a warming hut close by. We walked with Robert for a bit, and made sure he got into the warming hut for a nap… then kept on pedaling to Man Cave (checkpoint 3). Oh yeah… scarfed down bacon, potatoes, and pancakes…
Man Cave – checkpoint 3… I’d been riding for around 20 hours at this point and a little loopy for sure…
Moral was high, only 22 miles to go. I made this a short stop, and started out with a great pace. Caught up with Chris and Beth (female winner, she crushed it!!) and then realized I wasn’t gonna keep their pace for the next few hours. My knees were killing me, and I kinda wanted to be alone anyway… so I let them go, and rode the last 10 miles with a grin on my face. It was quiet, I was at peace. I was comfy, warm, confident. The elements did not defeat me. I embraced the ice on my beard and the tingling in my fingers. I was cleansed. This whole experience was magical, and I was enjoying every second of it. Sure I didn’t ride particularly fast, but it went by in a blink of an eye. Then I crossed the finish line. 10th place. 23 hours 41 minutes. Completed both of my goals. #1 Finish. #2 Finish in under 24 hours. Strava file here. Blake and Beth and Neil and Jay and Aaron and a handful of others, hanging out at the line. High fives and more memories. YES!!! With the confidence gained, and experience, I know I’d feel much more comfy riding harder, going faster, and pushing myself if I do something like this again (or should I say when I do it again).
Neil got this shot of me riding across the finish line… whoo hoo!!
A shower and a nap – sublime. Then a noon toast under the arch and a western burger at Ponds Lodge. War stories and beer… before I knew it, we were at Perkins in Pocatello for free pie Monday, and back at my truck in Reno. A blink of an eye later, back in the arms of my loving wife and daughters… with a green hoody and a sweet beanie for proof. It wasn’t a dream. I was there. I finished it. I got busy living at the Fat Pursuit.
Nothing but good times!! The traditional noon toast under the arch!!!