Well, it's been a long time. A long time since I've posted here, and a long time since I've checked an item of my never-ending to-do list. But thanks to having done the latter, I'm now going to do the former.
In keeping with my place of employment, I've lately been pursuing endurance sports. And just yesterday, July 12, I pursued a doozie. I participated in the Fireweed, the trans-Alaska bicycle race. The Fireweed begins at Sheep Mountain Lodge, a rustic outpost on the Glenn Highway, about a hundred miles northeast of Anchorage, and runs 200 miles (well, 194 if you must know) to the coastal city of Valdez, essentially circumnavigating the eastern half of the Chugach Mountains in the process. The course features withering climbs both subtle and extended, and short and crippling. Throw in some cold rain and beautiful sunshine, giggle-inducing descents and some of the most beautiful scenery you'll find on the planet, and you get an event that's been on my radar for some time. I've been registered for the past two Fireweeds but due to circumstances beyond my control, I hadn't been able to make it to the starting line. Not this year. Needing some AK Time, and thinking myself in sufficient condition to survive the race, I went for it.
I spent Friday evening in tent pitched beside a grass runway just off the Glenn Highway about a mile from Sheep Mountain Lodge. When the first raindrops started falling around 11 p.m., I had a hunch I was in for something the next morning. I awoke to low clouds and fog, and sporadic rainfall. With echoes of the mocking I'd done of soft Southern Californians, with their jackets and wool hats and long pants and sleeves, ringing in my ear, I ached for a hat and something warmer (and dryer) than the leggings and sleeves I pulled on before exiting the tent. I'd contemplated buying a pair of full-fingered gloves, just in case, but hadn't pulled the trigger. Whoops. Oh well, what could I do? Whine about the weather...and then ride? Or just ride? I chose the latter.
My mantra heading into the Fireweed had been clear: just ride from aid station to aid station, don't race, don't get caught up in the emotion and the competition. That lasted all of a hundred yards. When the 7:15 a.m. starting gun went off, I began pedaling solidly but in control. I looked around and saw one peloton moving ahead slightly faster than me and another riding slightly slower than my pace. I latched on to the faster group. Whoops No. 2. By the top of the initial hill that forms the start, this group was motoring and I was laboring to hang on to the tail, thinking that I could just draft my way to a good start. That's when the rain began again. Hard. And cold. Observation: being at the end of a pace line in the rain isn't much fun. But I held on. Up a few hills, down a couple, I held on. Even took a couple of pulls of my own. But it wasn't sustainable. After about 10 miles I realized this was insane and dropped off the back. And since the slower group was nowhere to be seen, I rode by myself for a bit wondering just what the **** I'd gotten myself into.
Fortunately, that lead group splintered further and I was able to reconnect with the slower half. We made great time and after about 20 miles, the rain had let up. Observation No. 2: being in a pace line in nice conditions is exhilarating. So exhilarating that I blew right by the first aid station. Oh well, I still had plenty of Gu packets and Shot Blocks and Twizzlers, and some Gatorade and water. I'd be fine, right? I held on, in fact, to the second aid station, at about 47 miles when I needed to refill my water bottle. My *** was killing me (a sign of things to come) but by and large, I felt all right. I was even harboring visions (not hallucinating, that would come later) of finishing in 10 hours, given the pace we'd been keeping. I even noticed a guy from the faster group in the aid station, just a bit ahead of me...maybe I could even reconnect with some of those fast dudes. When I finished chowing a couple of bananas, he was gone--and I never saw him again. I rode the next 30 miles, miles that would have been perfect for a pace line (mostly flat, nothing major, a good opportunity to go fast with little individual effort) solo.
In fact, I rode most of the rest of the race solo. I connected with another guy from that slower half of the first group for a stretch, and there was a pace line that appeared out of nowhere around mile 125 and made it possible for me to get to the fourth aid station that was nothing short of a gift from God. But other than that, I rode alone. Observation No. 3: given the choice between a pace line and a solo ride, take the pace line. That pace line would have been a big help on the 50-mile climb to Thompson Pass, just north of Valdez. On top of an excruciating, never-ending ascent, with several steep, mile-long sections thrown in just for good measure, in this year's Fireweed we got to enjoy a 20- to 25-knot headwind coming down from the peaks. Speeds at times were in the 2- to 3-mph range. I'm not kidding. And hey, that wind blew out all the clouds so the scenery was simply stunning.
And remember: what goes up must come down. The descent toward Valdez from Thompson Pass was hair-raising...fast, yes, but that headwind was still going. No matter...once you've made it that far, another 10 or 15 miles of flat into town and the finish line are no big deal. You just do 'em.
Well, the bottom line is: I made it. I survived. I don't have the official time yet but by my clock it was an elapsed time of about 11 hours, 35 minutes. Time in the saddle actually pedaling was 10:35...I stopped five times: that second, third and fourth aid stations, and one other time to fix my shoe. Total rest time: one hour or so. So I'm pretty stoked about my performance. I not too fond of sitting down right now (and I'm about to get on an eight-hour redeye flight back to SoCal...pray for me), and I'm not getting on my bicycle anytime soon, but I'm glad I did the race. And I think the next time I go anywhere in Alaska, I'm taking a Cessna.
Update: Results are in. I finished in 11:35:46, in 14th place out of 25 in the 200 road race. I'll take it. And here's a photo for proof...
For you shaved-leg freaks out there, I'd recommend looking into the Fireweed. There are several versions of the race, including 50- and 100-mile races, and the monster of them all, a 400-mile to Valdez and back to Sheep Mountain. Those races are all out-and-back, and how the 400-race riders descend into Valdez and then turn right around and climb Thompson Pass from sea level, I'll never know. There are also relay divisions (if I do this race again, that might be how I go), tandem divisions and no-drafting decisions. But I'd recommend the 200-miler...then get a room in Valdez on Saturday night and take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry across Prince William Sound (the most beautiful place on Earth) to Whittier and back to Anchorage, thereby making it a truly special weekend. Again, you get wilderness scenery the likes of which you'll find in no other bike race, you get a well-run and safe race, and you get the experience of doing something out of the ordinary, even by bike-racing standards (which, you gotta admit, can be pretty out there). But don't race out of Alaska just yet: stick around another day for the post-race party and awards at the Bear Tooth Theater in Anchorage. Trust me on this one.