Susitna 100: Death of a Dream, or When Quitting is a Good Idea

Growing up in Alaska I always loved Hobo Jim’s iconic song I Did the Iditarod Trail.  I’m not a dog handler, so I always figured that mushing 1,049 miles to Nome was not in the cards for me.  In 2007 we flew to Nome to see the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and when I was there I met a guy who had skied the trail all the way to Nome, which took him about a month.  I bought him a beer and listened to his adventurous tale.  I thought he was a total badass, and told him he could sing Hobo Jim’s song without sounding like a poser.  A few years later I went to a lecture given by Roger Cowles about his ride to Nome on what he called a six pack bicycle, which is a mountain bike that had been modified to have three tires on the front and back, on three wheels that were welded together and had spokes that laced them all together.  His lecture was really inspirational to me and I felt like I would like to do something like that someday.  Then fat bikes came along, and I finally bit the bullet and got one in 2015, selling my fancy summer bike to help fund the purchase.  I told my wife about my plan to ride to Nome and she suggested I do it in an organized race with safety precautions, check points, and supply drops.  The race to Nome is called the ITI 1000 Iditarod Trail Invitational.  It starts in Knik and follows the Iditarod trail all the way to Nome.  It takes people about 30 days to complete and costs a small fortune.  You can’t just sign up for the ITI 1000,  you have to qualify by completing shorter races.  First you have to do two 100-mile winter endurance races, then you can sign up for the ITI 350, which ends in McGrath.  After that you can sign up for the bike race to Nome.  People also walk and ski this event. 

This year I entered the Susitna 100 with the intent of starting the process of qualifying for the ITI 1000.  I learned a lot about the race in advance: there would be tasty food all the way at the checkpoints, that a jar of peanut butter qualified for the 3000-calorie food requirement, and that 100 miles is a long way in the winter wilderness.  I started the race just fine.  Riding the first 22 miles to the first checkpoint at Point McKenzie was easy — I’d been riding a lot and 22 miles was about the length of my average long ride.  I should mention that it started snowing as the race began, and that there was already new snow on the trail from a previous snowfall.  The 12 miler trip up the swamp to Flathorn Lake was grueling and many people started to walk their bikes.  I arrived shaken and feeling a little sick to my stomach, but the spaghetti put me back into a pretty good feeling and I headed back out into the snowstorm.  The next 14 miles were worse, and I walked a good deal of the way, arriving at dark to mile 49 at the Five Star Tent checkpoint, which was just a tent.  After a nice rest and holding back my urges to puke, I stumbled out back onto the trail.  I was able to ride at a nice 5 mph pace, and in four more hours I arrived to Eagle Quest Lodge at mile 63.  I was feeling the BONK at this point.  I had fallen off the bike a few times from sheer fatigue.  When I arrived it was still snowing, and dark around 10pm.  I felt terrible — my knees were feeling pretty used up, and my legs were rubber.  I ate a delicious bacon and egg sandwich for dinner, which helped my stomach feel a bit better, before resting inside a heated cabin for a few hours.  I made several trips to the outhouse with an upset stomach, and kept my sandwich down, but I was feeling pretty weak.  It kept snowing and I could hardly walk after resting for a few hours.  At 2am I was thinking, “Do I want to do this for 30 days straight if I bike to Nome?”  That’s when it occurred to me that I surely didn’t. 

There were 37 miles remaining in the race and the weather report was for a ton more snow (approximately 12-18 inches).   I looked at my bike and saw that it was buried in new snow.  Fat bikes are good for winter biking, but when it’s snowing that much snowshoes and skis are really a better option (or a dog sled), as pushing a fully loaded bike through new snow is hard work at any distance.  I knew that when I was pushing my bike I was hitting 2 mph.  At that pace it would take me about 20 hours to complete the race.  It was right then that I decided to scratch the race.  My stomach was protesting, my knees and legs were done, and I didn’t even want to ride to Nome any more.  I called Maria, and she drove to get me on Sunday morning.  I officially scratched, my dream of riding to Nome was dead.  I later learned that 59 other racers also scratched, and only 39 hardy souls finished the race. 

I’m glad I learned this lesson so early in this endeavor.  I spent a lot of money just for the 100 mile race.  I had to buy new boots, new bags for my bike, a bivy sack, a ton more gear, and the entry fee was cheap at only $250.  The longer races are much more expensive.  The ITI 150 is $750, and I don’t even know how much the ITI 350 costs, as it isn’t even listed on the website.  I figured when all was said and done I would have spent $25,000 riding to Nome.  That’s a lot of money to do something that no one has really heard about, but the bragging rights would have been nice.  The price isn’t even the biggest problem.  The biggest expense is the sheer pain and discomfort that the trip would entail, not to mention possible loss of fingers, toes and/or other medical problems that this type of behavior brings about. 

I won’t be able to sing Hobo Jim’s song with the same gusto ever again.  Yet, I am so thankful I learned this lesson this weekend.  I have way more respect for adventure sports athletes than I did before.  The people who finished are athletes of a different caliber than this city-boy-artist.  I will never never never plan to ride more than 37 miles in winter, and I’ll skip the blizzards, thank you very much.  The death of a dream is a good thing when completing the goal is a bad idea.  Sometimes you gotta know when to quit and I am so glad I didn’t waste any more time with an idea that was poison.  Had the conditions been great and I finished the race easily, I may have made worse decisions that could have ended badly.  And hey, for $25,000, I could buy a snow-machine and ride it to Nome, or at least have a pretty good time doing something really fun instead!  I won’t quit fat biking, because I love doing that, but seriously, endurance racing is out!  Much respect to the finishers — may your recovery go smoothly!


1 thought on “Susitna 100: Death of a Dream, or When Quitting is a Good Idea

  1. Pingback: Trio Fatbike World Championships 2019 | Real Art Is Better!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s