Im sitting in Banff, hoping to get my garmin all properly set up at the library. I likely won’t be ...
I’ve always wanted to see Alaska, so years ago when I ran across the Fireweed 400 in a list of RAAM qualifiers, I put it on the list of races to do.
3 Weeks before race
I raced well at the National 24 hour Challenge. My plan called for a couple of longish rides than easy going to store some energy for the race and hopefully shake a few nagging aches and pains. I also began checking the weather in Alaska. Every day the the forecast looked worse: 50% chance of thunderstorms, 50 degrees, 60% chance of showers, lows in the 40s. I pictured a cycling version of “To Build a Fire”.
I bought some new leg warmers to feel somewhat more prepared for cold. Its really difficult to buy leg warmers in Chicago in July. I tried to buy some warm gloves, as I keep losing mine, none to be found. Had to borrow some. I remind myself I raced through the Alps in sleet and rain last year. I’ve ridden Wolf Creek Pass in a heavy snowfall(complete with flat change). I’ve ridden all winter. I’m from North Dakota.
The crew came together when my friend Joe in Fairbanks put me in touch with Ken, a local who has raced and crewed the fireweed. Ken mentioned in our first phone call that many people drop out at night due to being unprepared for the the cold. “wind off the glacier” was the phrase i recall. My training ride was in 90 degree temps that day.
Each race I find one detail to become overly concerned about in my last minute preparations. This time it was staying warm. All those Jack London stories as a kid had an effect. I dont see the Iditabike or riding with Ken in my future anytime soon.
2 Days before race
I watched from the plane as the baggage handlers drove away with my bike still on the cart. Disconcerted, I wondered if I’d be able to borrow a bike in Alaska. Luckily, the the bike arrived 10 hours after I did.
I also experienced my first earthquake while sitting in the hotel in Anchorage.
1 Day before race:
Rider checkin and vehicle inspection in Anchorage was an easy going affair compared with some events. I saw a moose as we drove back to town. I’m told this is the Alaska equivalent of seeing a deer in Wisconsin. We bought supplies for the race and drove to the start, 100 miles down the Glennallen Highway. I spent a daylight lit evening before the race sitting out by a fire looking at the Chugach mountains.
A very civilized morning and very sunny. Not a rain cloud in sight and warm. The race didn’t start till noon. I woke early and had a real breakfast 4 hours before the start. I typically skip breakfast on race day and immediately start on Infinit Nutrition for my first meal. I down a few bottles before the starting gun. I couldnt turn down pancakes. I paid for it later. We had plenty of time to load the vehicle, sit in the sun and talk.
The race profile shows a general trend downward to the coast for the first 200 miles, so I hoped for a high average speed over the first half. I had set a goal of a low 20s finish, but really had hoped to get in under 20 hours. As the race calmly started, I found myself in front and built a bit of a lead over the first climbs. I was trying to start more conservatively this time. Stay at 200 watts ideally and “Never go Anaerobic” minimally. I felt I reined myself in well. A strong headwind was having an effect, but I was feeling great.
A sunny and warm day racing through beautiful scenery. It is really easy to forget its a race when you are traveling along this course. A different look to the mountains here. Everything seems wide.
I felt fine through Glennallen, the one turn on the course. Shortly after that I had some stomach issues. I suspect I was a bit dehydrated or possibly the pancakes and bacon. While I had been concerned with cold, the first day was very warm. For a time I felt like I was barely moving and figured I would have another racer overtake at any moment. Michael McClintock rode a strong race preparing for RAAM in 2011. I often saw his vehicle close behind and that would push me to pick up the pace.
I managed to stay in the lead and as the sun moved closer to the horizon, I felt much better. By the time I reached the turnaround in Valdez, I was starting to get some strength back. My lead on the chasing racers was not large, so I had some work to do.
Every so often Ken and Carmichael would pull along side and say, “Are you seeing this?”. Extraordinary scenery. The sun rising behind a mountain after a very short 2-3 hour night was a sight I’ll always remember.
When I started randonneuring, I got in the habit of breaking rides into smaller parts in my mind. Rather than dwell on the 200, 500, or 2000 miles yet to ride, I would focus on the next turn. With the Fireweed, I had it in my mind that once I reached Glennallen, I was nearly home and could break out the Champagne or maybe the beer since it was Alaska. In reality I had 70 miles to go and a significant amount of climbing. Luckily the the 200,100 and 50 races had started that morning. I pushed on through those last miles and was greeted by cheers from the racers and crews.
I finished in 22:29:02 for 1st overall.
I spent the following week eating everything I could find and seeing a small part of Alaska. Hope I can make it back soon.