Sunday, January 15, 2017

Pursuing the Fat Pursuit

Start of the 200 mile Fat Pursuit

Fat Pursuit didn’t exactly go the way that I had planned. I don’t think it necessarily went the way that anyone had planned. I think a lot of people signed up for the 200 mile Fat Pursuit expecting to endure on through to the finish.

Only one person, Aaron Gardner, was able to cross the finish line. His family had come out to surprise him at the finish, and one of his young kiddos ran excitedly with him for the last few yards. It was incredibly emotional! I get teary eyed recounting the event. I am unbelievably glad that I was able to witness that moment.

Truthfully, I’m also really glad that the Fat Pursuit wasn’t at all what I expected. I knew going in to it that it was going to be difficult. I knew it was going to be cold and I knew it would push my limits. I think that’s almost the best thing about the whole epic adventure. It tossed me out of the known and hurled me at so much unknown that I came out feeling stronger and more accomplished than I knew was possible (so much more than I thought I could feel after a DNF, too!)

Bright eyed and bushy tailed after the rider's meeting

The funny thing is that as I sat shivering in my sleeping bag in -40 degree weather in the midst of a seemingly relentless climb; I was happy. Just over 12 hours after the start of the race, I had successfully done so many things! I was able to make it out to Idaho, I was riding bikes with my friend Leah Gruhn, and I had warm boots and gloves and I felt like I was winning against the cold. I was able to meet and to hang out with cyclists that I’ve admired from afar for many years, and I was inspiring friends back home. Despite a few set-backs, I was happy with myself for making smart choices and for getting out of my comfort zone. Survival mode made me feel alive and very thankful for the opportunity to get out there and to give it a shot.

After Sunday's toast - myself, Leah Gruhn, Tracey Petervary, Rippin' & Chillin'

Before I had signed up for Fat Pursuit, I had a conversation with Christopher Tassava about the race. I was weighing my options because I wanted to do my best to prepare for a future goal of mine: the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Fat Pursuit was intimidating not only because of the course’s difficulty and the unpredictable weather, but because of the financial investment it would take to get out there. I worried that pushing myself with it and the Arrowhead 135 in the same month would be too much. I worried I wouldn’t be able to afford the travel and logistics for both races… but Christopher got me really excited for the race by dangling the promise of a fun party cabin at the Pond’s Lodge with some really great winter ultra goofballs! How could I stay away? ;)

Every person on this list is a rock star

The people staying in cabin #25 at the Pond’s Lodge were all amazing. I wanted to add up all of the miles everyone had collectively traveled during the winter at events like Fat Pursuit, but with all of the excitement of gear check, a pre-ride, getting ready, the racer’s meeting, and eating good food, I got incredibly distracted. I’ll shoot for collecting data next year! Anyways, hanging out with such a friendly and knowledgeable group of people and talking bikes and winter gear was well worth the travel in itself. I picked up a lot of good tips and tricks that make me really excited for the Arrowhead 135 – and Fat Pursuit next year!

pre-riding before the start

The race for the 200 milers started at 5pm on Friday night. (7pm Michigan time!) I tried to take a nap after the racer’s meeting, but I failed pretty miserably at dozing off. I opted for a hot pot of coffee and had planned to fill my thermos and to take it with me, sipping warm coffee in the middle of the night sounded like such a delicious treat! It wasn’t until the first 5 miles of the race that I remembered my thermos was sitting back at the cabin next to the coffee pot. Doh! Regardless, I felt pretty good. I had a lot of food on me, I had plenty of fuel, and in a pocket next to my heart I held a few packages of instant coffee. I’d be fine!

The first several miles of the race were on a snowmobile trail. I was feeling eager and excited and I had an eye on the lead group of folks riding not too far ahead of me. I looked down at my Garmin and saw that the cold had zapped what would normally have been a 7 hour battery life….down to less than half of that. Whoops. Christopher Tassava had saved me earlier in the day by giving me a spare tips sheet he had made with approximate mileage between turns. My plan became to charge my Garmin once the battery died in my coat pocket and to save a borrowed Garmin as a last-resort option once snow covered the tire tracks of those ahead of me. Between two Garmins, a compass, the map, and my tips sheet, I felt confident I’d be okay. I saw flickering red lights ahead of me turn off to the right and I was excited to ride groomed single track through the woods! Despite being dark, it was still very beautiful! I’m really happy that I began Fat Pursuit with my 950 Lumina NiteRider light mounted to my helmet, because I was able to glance out in to the woods in search of critters! With negative temps, it didn’t seem like many creatures were outside… but there was evidence in the form of foot prints!

Pre-riding with Leah after the racer's meeting

The climbs didn’t seem like anything too steep and yet I was beginning to huff and puff up them. Beat, a new friend who inspired me pre-race with stories of completing the Iditarod on foot, rode up behind me and began talking about how crazy we were for being outside in such negative temperatures. Truthfully, at the start I was cold so I began by wearing my insulated puffy jacket, but at this point I was overheating! I pulled aside and let Beat continue on ahead of me, he said he was going to go find Jill Homer and that he’d ride with her. After a while, I rolled out of the single track and came upon a glowing beacon in the dark. There was a heated bathroom and it looked like a few cyclists were taking refuge inside of it. It looked like a good spot to refill on water: my camelbak’s hose was going through spurts of freezing despite being inside of my jacket and I wanted to refill the insulated bottle I had been drinking out of. As I hopped off of my bike and rolled to prop it up against the fence… I noticed a weird, knobby/dragging noise coming from the back of my bike. “Brraaaaaaaaabbbble!” I looked at my rear wheel and saw that it was completely flat! What perfect timing finding a well-lit bathroom to change my flat in! I was pretty bummed that I would have to use my spare tube so early in the night, but I was really glad that I had found a place to fix it that was so convenient!

There were three men inside of the bathroom. Two were debating how far they wanted to ride, and the third was waiting for Rebecca to come and meet him. My ears immediately perked up at the mention of Rebecca. The only Rebecca I knew of that was in the race was Rebecca Rusch! Part of me wanted to hang out in the bathroom to meet her, but I knew I needed to keep moving forward. The flat had set me back a little further than I wanted and I knew it was in my best interest to keep going. I said my goodbyes to the folks in the bathroom and stepped out in to the dark. Immediately I couldn’t remember if the bathroom had been on my right or on my left when I approached it. I looked at my tips sheet and considered turning the Garmin on, but I swear Greg’s bike had been on my right approaching the bathroom so I took off in that direction.

It wasn’t too long before I saw a light ahead of me. At first I thought it was someone heading back towards the comfort of the bathroom… and then I recognized the rider: it was Leah! She was walking with her bike and I stupidly asked her if I was going the wrong direction. I was. Leah’s rear tire had also gone flat and I was so excited to tell her that there was a warm spot to fix it just up the way!

Leah had made sure her valve stem was tightened suuuper tightly so that none of her air leaked out of her tubeless set up. It’s a great precaution to take to make sure your tire doesn’t slowly loose air, but it sucked with cold hands, wet sealant, and during the Fat Pursuit! Between Greg, myself, and Leah scrambling to find the correct tool in the bathroom, none of us had a pair of pliers to loosen her valve stem! How would we remove it to put the tube in? Leah was about ready to call it quits, but I was able to grab some paper towel from the bathroom and use it to get a good grip on the rubber bushing on the inside of her rim. Roaring applause from the inside of the bathroom, we were back in business!! We tossed a tube in, Greg helped fill it, and we began to pack our things quickly. Lucky for us, Rebecca Rusch made it to the bathroom before we were ready to take off! It was so great meeting her! She was cheery and had frost collected on her face like big, white, costume eyelashes. We joked around with the two of them for a minute before slipping back out in to the night.

Teamwork makes the dream work!

Lucky for me, Leah had a Garmin eTrex. I made a mental note to save up to buy myself one of these battery operated Garmins as soon as I was able to. (Worrying about the life of a USB rechargeable Garmin out in negative temperatures is one stress I am happy to leave behind before my next Fat Pursuit!) Leah and I made plans to finish the race together. Our best chance was to keep each other awake, to keep each other accountable, and to help one another to make good choices. With sub-arctic weather falling well below zero, it’s easy to forget to drink or to forget to eat. It’s easy to zone out and to keep pedaling without noticing if a body part is going numb from exposure to the cold. Neither of us wanted frost bite and both of us wanted to cross that finish line more than anything, and our best chance was to help each other out. I was really happy to have company and riding with Leah made the cold so much more tolerable! Plus, Leah began riding in the correct direction after we left the bathroom, and that was really, really important. ;)

We began making jokes and started making some great time. We saw a light headed towards us, Missy Schwarz, one of the other women in the 200 mile, was turning around and heading back to the start. Her lashes were covered in frost just as Rebecca’s were and she asked if we needed anything before parting ways. Leah and I were both down one spare tube, but Leah had one left and we were optimistic that we would be fine. (In retrospect, if any other racer ever asks me if I need anything during a winter ultra ever again, I will always ask if they have another spare tube!) Immediately after Missy’s light disappeared behind us, I had the exciting and sinking feeling that we were heading out on our own. Being trapped beneath the night sky, a rolling sea of snow illuminated by the moon, and seeing that my thermometer had stopped working because it was a colder temperature than it was rated to… I was excited because we were still making our way and despite two flats between us we were still pedaling forward and we were still in this adventure! It felt a little eerie, knowing that at this time the riders would be stretched out with vast distances between them and knowing that we had so many miles left to just the first aid station/water boil.
My first moose sighting!
En route to the grocery store to buy all of the food after getting back to the cabin.

There were a lot of moments during Fat Pursuit where I began laughing at how absurd a hill or something about the course was. It happened a lot at a lot of hills! I was having a blast and although it was incredibly cold, we were out on an adventure and I loved it! Well before the first aid station/water boil, there was an out and back where we needed to grab a mysterious piece of candy. Leah and I spent a lot of time speculating what type of candy we thought it might be. Truthfully, I was expecting something like a Payday bar - which I LOVE on long bike rides - that would test our abilities to not eat it while out on the course. We needed to bring the candy – although I’m sure the wrapper would have sufficed – to the end of the race (or to the water boil, I can’t remember which…) There was a long descent, which made us cheer as we rode down it. Foot prints on the opposite side of the road meant we’d be walking back up, so we enjoyed it while we could! Once we got to the bottom of the road, it looked like there was a packed down foot path leading to an overlook. We laughed some more, made fun of the glowsticks which had long stopped glowing, like a party we showed up to 5 hours too late, and bounced down the path to find out which elusive candy Jay Petervary loved the most. The view was spectacular, even in the dark. Jay’s candy was surprising, but it made us laugh for the rest of the weekend…

A bag of these candies hung dutifully at the end of the dead glow stick pathway.

We theorized that there probably weren’t many riders behind us and that Rebecca, Missy, and Greg had headed back too early to retrieve their candy, so we each took two pieces!

We walked/rode back up to the top and kept rolling. The course took us through some rollers, through some parks and across bridges, and then to Warm River. Once we started climbing in Warm River, we just kept climbing. There was a combination of walking and riding as we kept climbing, as we tried to stay warm and to keep the blood moving in both our feet and in our hands. At this point, we were excitedly talking about bivying up for the night, preferably once we got to the top of the climb. I started breathing very heavily and it seemed like no matter how long I walked or how easy I pedaled I wasn’t able to catch my breath. I hypothesized that I was feeling sluggish because of the elevation and the extreme cold. I got off my bike to walk and as I pushed it up the neverending hill, I heard the all too familiar noise that I heard back by the heaven-sent warm bathroom, “Braaaaabbbbbbble brabble brabble.” Ugh. That might explain the heavy breathing!

My front tire was flat. Oof. There was no heated space safe from the bitter cold this time around. I immediately kicked myself in the butt for not taking the opportunity to put a tube in the front when both mine and Leah’s rear tires went flat. I also kicked myself in the butt for not asking Missy for a spare tube. I was out of spares and Leah only had one left – what if she was going to need it!? A little over 12 hours after the start of the race, I couldn’t catch my breath, I was miles away from a road and even more away from the start of the race, and I was out of spare tubes.

I’m pretty sure Leah Gruhn saved my life out there. ;)

She selflessly offered me her second spare tube. I was hesitant because I knew that her front tire was also set up tubeless. The frigid cold air caused the sealant to freeze and for the seal to weaken, causing the tires to leak air. I’m pretty sure Leah played the role that I play often when I’m on a trip and things are heading south: tell lies to someone to help them calm down and to keep them moving forward. I’m not sure how much Leah actually believed that she really wasn’t going to lose the seal on her front tire, but she made me believe it! It’s very possible that her logic was spot on - theorizing that my HED rims lost the seal because they were metal and they got colder than hers, which were carbon - but it’s also very possible that she was trying to keep me from doing something stupid, like trying to walk back down the hill in the dark with a flat tire after being up all night. She wasn’t going to let me split up from her at that point and for that I feel really grateful!

I would have given anything to have saved some chinese food from Jackson Hole to eat out on the trail.

We fixed my flat tire with her second (and last) spare tube in stages: I pushed my bike up the hill and she got the spare tube and pumped it up with some air. I prepped my bike so that we could pop the tube in as quickly as possible as soon as Leah got up to me. Leah rode up to me with the spare tube around her neck. I really am quite proud of us! We had great technique and once we got the tube in and started pumping it up I felt so victorious!! That is, until the tire wouldn’t seat on the rim. We pumped the tube up so high that it felt rock solid and started bouncing it on the ground and kicking it with our boots. We were starting to get cold so I put the wheel on the bike and we commenced walking uphill to stay warm. Every once in a while I’d give the wheel a bounce and kick it a bunch of times, trying to get the rubber from the tire to slide over to get a good seal. It wasn’t budging, it was too cold. Despite anything I’ve ever told any customer about not riding their bike if the tire wouldn’t seat… I hopped on my bike and starting riding it. “Friggin’ A,” I muttered to myself, frustrated that I didn’t foresee it being too cold for a tubeless set up.

Shortly after fixing my flat, we decided to bivy for the remainder of the night. If we were going to tackle the incoming snow near West Yellowstone on this adventure, we would need as much energy as possible and that meant saving some now. Stomping down a spot to rest and unloading some gear in -40 degrees sounded more ideal than trying to re-pack snowy gear caught in a snowstorm! (most fun game of “would you rather” ever!?) We also theorized that it would be warmer when we woke up, and the thought of temperatures getting to 0 – or even above?! – was awesome! We crawled into our bags wearing all of our gear and I tried to focus on steadying my breathing. Leah can sleep anywhere - which I later found out at cabin #25 when she told me she took several trailside naps after we parted ways - but I was having problems falling asleep. I got all twisted like an uncomfortable cork screw in my sleeping bag and no matter how I tried to catch my breath I still felt like I couldn't. Occasionally, Leah would ask if I was alright and I would tell her that I was, but in my mind I was worried. I’m sure the stress of not being able to catch my breath just caused the inability to breathe even more! I forced myself to drink and to eat snacks and hoped that it would help like Leah said it would. Eventually, the sun came up, and Leah asked if I was ready to keep moving. Although I wanted to lay in that bag until my breath returned to normal, I wanted to get moving, too. I couldn’t wait to get to the aid station with the grilled cheese sandwiches!

We began packing our things, and as I reached to put my 45nrth Wolfgars back on, I noticed there was a ton of frost inside of them. They felt really, really stiff. I went to put my foot in them - planning on throwing them on and then darting around frantically until my feet warmed up - but they wouldn’t budge! A lot of swear words, attempting to hold them over an open flame on my Esbit stove, and a lot of shoving my foot in the boot that I had since brought in to my sleeping bag to help warm up, finally got my foot in one of the boots. I recreated that recipe for the second Wolfgar boot and we were ready to pack up and to get to that water boil!!

I lifted my bike to attach my sleeping bag to the handlebars, and I heard that sickening noise again. “Brabbbb.” Damnit! Not again! The cold had prevented my tire from seating, and all I could imagine was that the cold had also caused something to puncture my tube. As we fought the tire with a hand pump, we saw a snowmobile come our way.

It was a race volunteer on a snowmobile checking on people still out on the course. Chatting with him about the weather, I sadly decided to head back to the start. If Leah had any chance of finishing the Fat Pursuit she’d have to continue on without me. I tore the tips sheet from Christopher Tassava off of the cockpit of my bike and handed it to Leah. I wanted so badly to have more stuff to send her off with for good luck – even more to have another spare tube to send her with! We hugged good bye and we took off on our separate ways.

I am now a champ at melting snow

We were able to fill my front tire with air before splitting up, so I was able to ride for a bit downhill before having to stop and to put more air in my tire. The funny thing is that the night before it seemed like we were endlessly climbing. On the way back down, the terrain seemed to have shifted and there were a few spots where I had to climb again! All of my water had frozen while I was focusing on getting my boots back on, so I stopped to melt snow a few times to get something to drink. It was absolutely beautiful out. Everything we had ridden through the night before was stunning. When I got to Warm River, I stopped to take photos of the scenery. Although I would have a DNF in my first attempt at Fat Pursuit, I was still really glad that I had given it my all. Like I said, I learned a lot, and it’s only going to prepare me better for next year!

Our friend Ann drove to Warm River to pick me up. She did a lot of driving over the weekend, helping folks in cabin #25 where she could. It was really nice of her, and I am so thankful I didn’t have to ride all the way back to the start on my wonky wheel! Thanks, Ann!

Enjoying the views in Warm River

Leah made it to the water boil before she rode back to the campground. Unfortunately, the weather was getting pretty sketchy and with all of the hang ups we had early on she was running behind schedule. She spent the most amount of time out on the course out of any of the women racing the 200 mile, and she’s pretty much reached super hero status in my mind.

Dogs and beer making DNF-ing better! ;)

Christopher Tassava made it the furthest of any of the riders in cabin #25! He had an amazing attitude and won the well-deserved perseverance award from Fitzgerald’s bicycles. I’m not sure if that award existed before this year’s crazy weather, but I really hope that it continues onwards from here because it was a very meaningful gesture. Christopher is basically the poster child for a winter ultra; he’s got a great attitude, he’s willing to help, he perseveres through conspicuous weather, and then he drinks a beer with his breakfast! ;)

Waiting for Christopher to finish persevering...

Everyone who attempted to finish Fat Pursuit inspired me greatly; it was a huge honor to have my name on the roster next to theirs. I’m really looking forward to Arrowhead 135 after this event, and even more so to Fat Pursuit 2018.

My first snow mobile ride!! 

AND I'm looking forward to more snow mobile rides!!!
Thanks for taking me on a joy ride, Mike Riemer!


  1. Great ride report, Jill. I hope to see you at the ITI some year, soon.