By Rebecca Rusch
Photos courtesy of Salsa Cycles
Why does riding and pushing a heavily laden fat bike up and over the Continental Divide in February through the dead of night appeal to anyone at all? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I went searching for it when I lined up for Jay Petervary’s inaugural Backyard Fat Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho.
I got more than I bargained for. I went all in and came away with a pulmonary edema and a DNF.
Jay is a fellow Idahoan and a super ultra endurance guy but I have never been attracted to the kind of races where Jay really excels: events like the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 and 1,000 that he’s raced six times (setting records along the way) or the Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico that he’s raced four times and just keeps obliterating his own record. The Backyard Fat Pursuit is his brainchild and a way to share the kind of riding in the place he loves with the cycling community.
I had been a little intrigued by bike packing. The planning, gear selection, route finding and commitment reminded me of my adventure racing days. I knew I had some bigger bike packing adventures in my future, but it never occurred to me that my first one would be in the winter because I struggle in the cold. My physiology forces me to fight with the deadly combination of poor circulation and excessive sweating. But, I also figured with my 10 years of adventure racing experience, if I couldn’t do this event, then who the hell could?
Trying to whittle it down to the essentials, but not leave myself at risk of hypothermia, getting lost or being hungry was a painful exercise. Take too much and the bike is too heavy to move and you stay out in the cold longer. Take too little and you might be faster, but could really get into trouble if things don’t go as planned. I did as much planning and troubleshooting as I could in a short amount of time, but I admit that I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been.
The longest fat bike ride I had done was two hours and the only time I rode my bike fully loaded with all of the mandatory gear was a short 20 minute ride around my neighborhood two days before the event. I was relying heavily on past experience and my ability to keep going in tough conditions. After all, the race was 125 miles and aid stations were 40 miles apart. Based on results from past fat bike ultra events and information from Jay himself, I prepared mentally and strategically for this to take around 24 hours. That meant I just had to average about five miles an hour.
Sitting at the pre-race meeting the night before, chatter was buzzing about previous bike packing events and it was clear, I was one of the least experienced of the 20 hearty souls who signed up for this endurance challenge. As we rolled out in the breaking dawn at 7 a.m., I took my place behind several other riders, including Andrew Kulmatiski—race leader for most of the event and the eventual winner—and just tried to watch and learn. For the first hour we were a conga line trading spots breaking trail in pretty rideable snow. I was studying everyone’s clothing, bike set-up, tire width and apparent tire pressure. I noted who seemed to be staying on top of the snow and who wasn’t.
By the time I reached the first checkpoint I was having a blast and rolled in just as the first and second place riders were leaving. Jay had a trailside test for us to pull out our mandatory stove and boil water before leaving. It was a fun challenge and he wanted us all to be safe out there so we had to prove we could use our gear before continuing. I brought a 10-year-old pellet stove that I had leftover from adventure racing. I’d practiced at home to be sure the ancient tablets actually still lit up.
Turns out it works like a charm. The water boiled and I quickly re-packed the gear on my bike and huddled with some other riders while downing warm Cup O’ Soup. It was amazing how fast body temperature drops when you stop moving. It was a sobering reminder that if something did go wrong out there as we headed into the great wild, we could be in serious danger in minutes.
We also all had the required SPOT satellite GPS tracker so Jay and his crew knew where we were out there, but it was still extremely remote and even at just 40 miles in, racers were already hours apart. There were great safety mechanisms in place, but it was really up to us to be self-sufficient and get ourselves to safety if needed. By mile 55 I caught up to Kulmatiski and we spent a good part of the afternoon and evening riding together, swapping leads and breaking trail.
As we made a turn, my mood dropped a little because the track we turned onto was far less traveled than the one we were leaving. It went uphill and was thick with fresh snow. We had to start walking immediately. This marked the start of nearly seven hours of climbing as snow continued to fall.
I did know this was excruciatingly slow and all that fresh snow was probably really blowing my five mph average out the window. When I wasn’t walking my bike in six inches of fresh powder, I was slowly balancing and delicately, but forcefully trying to stay afloat. A few snowmobilers passed by and stopped to gawk. I had hoped their tracks would provide a more solid surface to ride on, but they really just churned up the fresh snow and left a wake of more soft snow.
We worked silently in unison as we inched closer to West Yellowstone and a warming hut at mile 80. Misery loves company and I was happy to have some. Due to the slow pace, we were out of food and water. The aid station was a beacon and a great milestone to finally reach at 7:30 p.m.
I was completely focused on the task ahead and in my element. I was happy as Andrew and I rolled out together. Normally, hot food, dry socks and some social interaction is a big boost and I left the aid station with Andrew at 8:30 p.m. feeling ready to bring it home. Then slowly my lungs just stopped working right. It was subtle at first. Andrew was slowly riding away from me and I couldn’t hang.
Then, I’d notice I was walking in places where he was riding. It was increasingly difficult to take a full breath. My chest felt tight like an anaconda was wrapped around my upper body. I focused deliberately on my breathing and nothing else for hours and hours on the Two Top trail. This was the last really big climb, taking me up to the Continental Divide on the Idaho/Wyoming border. Just get up there and the profile relaxed and the riding had to get easier. I honestly felt in my heart like the most difficult part was already past and that if I could just conservatively reach the top of this hill, even if I walked most of it, I could still finish the race with a solid performance. Eat, drink, stay warm, don’t get lost, use your inhaler and just BREATHE!
In my weakened, feeble state, I was relieved to reach the top, still seeing Andrew’s flickering light ahead on the skyline. By now the rhythm of my breathing was disconcerting. I had never experienced breathing issues like this. I have asthma, but this was different. While I could exhale a full belly breath, I could only inhale air back into about one quarter of my lungs, as if a one-way valve was allowing air out, but not back in. No oxygen meant no strength in the muscles. The smallest incline forced me off my bike.
Now the frustration set in. I was just a few miles from the final aid station, but absolutely crawling and clawing just to move on the flats. The snowdrifts sucked the life out of me. I was warm enough, had food/water, my bike and gear were all working great. But my lungs were betraying me—just get to the Man Cave, the last aid station at mile 105 and get some warm food. Jay walked outside in the dark pre-dawn hours to meet me. I could see the concern on his face. He knows that empty look in an endurance athlete’s eyes and the slump of defeat in their shoulders. I had not quit, but wanted to at this point.
Andrew was still in the Cave—he’d arrived at 4 a.m. and it was now 5:05 a.m. He’d been there an hour and was getting ready to continue. Over the course of the previous eight hours, he’d pulled far ahead. I was happy to see him but reminded all too well of the pace I should be traveling, but just could not. I spent at least 90 minutes in the Man Cave forcing food, dozing off, and trying to muster just a little more strength to finish the last 20 miles.
And then the coughing began. Minutes of full body retching and near choking on thick green and yellow phlegm. Inhaling produced a moist, audible rumble from the depths of my lungs. From my adventure racing and 24 hour racing, I know that races can be won or lost in transition zones. I’ve always been known for getting and out quickly. Not this time. It was uncharacteristic and I knew I was in bad shape. The riding had to get easier right? At this point, it had been snowing for hours and hours. The powder was deep and riding was impossible.
I geared back up and walked like a zombie out of that checkpoint, mostly because one of my heroes, Jay P., was sitting there not giving me an out. The profile from here on out was almost dead flat. Surely we must hit a groomed trail with fast riding soon.
I could pedal on the flats. Slowly, but I could do it. Just please don’t let there be any more hills because this coughing and breathing issue was now way out of hand and I was scared. The trail delivered very thick new snow, deep snowmobile ruts and a gentle incline. I had to walk everything as I hunched over my bike and coughed uncontrollably every few minutes. In between coughing I focused only on my breath and putting one foot in front of the other.
Multiple racers now passed me and they all asked about my condition and expressed concern. After more than 24 hours on course, each of them was in their own tunnel vision cave of suffering, but they were all still rolling past me as I trudged. I don’t DNF. It’s just not in my DNA. I’ve kept going trough vomit, tears, dislocated fingers, asthma attacks, mechanicals, empty water bottles and unplanned detours. This time was different.
I pulled out my cell phone. I was in a very bad way. The green phlegm had turned to blood and I was leaving a path of red spots on the trail for the riders behind me. The lack of oxygen had slowed my pace to one mph. The tightness in my chest had morphed into pain. I knew I had to get out of there. I was on the Stamp Meadows trail that was eight miles long and no shortcut to bail. It was shorter for me to go forward to the safety of the road than to return back to the Man Cave.
I had given up on finishing the event, but still had to keep my survival wits about me in order to get myself to safety. From the Man Cave, I walked six hours and covered around 10 miles. When I finally reached the road, I was a zombie. I was glad to be out of the woods; I packed up my bike and was driven away with little fanfare feeling exhausted, beaten down and just sort of numb. The coughing continued for days until a round of antibiotics and steroids killed the demons in my lungs.
As for my bike packing future, the adventures have only just begun. Jay P.’s Backyard Fat Pursuit was just the kind of sample that can lead to addiction. And now I’m pissed I have to wait a whole year to go back and do it again.