This is a bit of an unchecked brain dump. Apologies for any incoherence. And thanks to Emily, Gillian, Mum + Dad, and everyone else for your support. It’s great!

Well, I made it to McGrath in just under 5 days.

It’s been a much more steady effort than last time I was out here. I have been getting good sleep and trying to make sure I’ll be strong for Nome. Here’s a short blow-by-blow account:

Billy Koitzsch and I set off together and made great progress on day 1. We used a shortcut that we had found the previous weekend (you can take any route, as long as you visit all the checkpoints), so that saved loads of time. Riding up the river, the headwind was strong. But my new best friends, a snow-machine mask and some ski goggles kept me feeling good and the only way I could even tell it was windy was the snow being blown up all around me.

At Yetna Station, I managed to exchange boots with another racer who took my identical ones while I slept. So, I took his and made for Skwetna. It was more windy river riding, but the trail was still very rideable and I was making sure to get plenty of food in. Just after we had left Yetna, though, Billy stopped to take care of some business telling me to carry on. I didn’t see him again until Skwetna at which point he said he was leaving the race due to knee pain. I was really sad for him – there is so much effort to get here and such a shame for things to end so early. Even more, John Ross was also dropping out due to crash damage to his shoulder.

There was nothing I could do to help, so I said goodbye and headed for Shell Lake. As before, the hills were beautiful and it was another majestic Alaskan day. I went straight through Shell, aiming for Finger Lake by dark. The trail was rideable, but I was feeling the distance and hoping every corner would reveal the checkpoint. Eventually it did, and I got the same warm welcome as always from Wintersong Lodge. I’d only had 4 hours, so some proper sleep was necessary before moving on.

Next up was the crushing climb to Puntilla/Rainy Pass Lodge. 35 miles with some proper mountain biking over bumpy, twisty terrain. I rode it fast and hard. By the time I reached the checkpoint, I could easily take an hour to relax before heading up to Rainy Pass. The only fly in the ointment was knee pain. After riding so hard to Puntilla, my right knee was hurting badly. Right under the kneecap and bad enough that I would have bailed in a normal race.

But this is not a normal race and I rode the first section approaching Rainy. As usual, the trail became too soft to ride as I got close to the pass so I busted out “Horton”. A roll-up sled based on Billy’s ideas and fabricated by the pair of us. I took my bike apart, fitted it onto Horton and had a much easier walk than expected up the hills.

The snag came literally when my handlebars started to catch the edges of narrow trail. I waggled and persevered for a while, but instead of taking the bars off, I just decided to re-assemble the bike and push. Unfortunately, I had dropped my multi-tool when first making the sled and could not re-attach my wheels to the bike. So, with wheels only just on and one knee singing with pain, I carried on up to Rainy Pass.

Once again, I stayed in the cabin near the top of the pass. Partly to rest my knee and partly to get my head together. I couldn’t get my wheels in securely so I would have to push all the way to Rohn. I could only hope another bike would catch up and I could borrow their tool. The Pass itself was outstanding – clear skies and not too much wind gave me great views and I even noticed that there’s a sign up there. Something I had never seen before. I trudged down a rideable trail, sometimes scooting like a postie, sometimes just walking. I trudged along the gorge. I stopped to appreciate the silence and the snow gently falling around me. I trudged some more.

Minutes after I got to Rohn, 3 other bikers arrived. Including Janice Tower and Joe Pollack who had found and brought my multitool. I hugged them, and looked forward to riding again. Inside the checkpoint, Rob was as welcoming and awesome as ever but I didn’t stay too long. I had had a good night’s sleep already and could get some way to Nikolai before sleeping.

Moving up through the New Burn, lots of frozen lakes, and into the Farewell Burn, I was in a world alone. In the daytime, I saw Bison. After dark, through the yellow goggles and the faint light of my head-torch I couldn’t tell whether I was climbing or descending. I was plenty warm enough while I was moving, but my bottom bracket was beginning to freeze and my cranks would not spin smoothly. Eventually, I was done and very appreciative of my -40C sleeping bag for my bivvy.

Going down was easy (except getting my stove to light at that temperature), getting up was hard. I would do a quick bit of packing, then shove my hands back in my jacket until the feeling came back. I repeated until I was ready to go (with chemical warmers in my shoes and pogies), and hit the trail. It felt like another awesomely long road to Nikolai. At first straight and bumpy, then straight and gently climbing, then winding through swamps forever. The blue skies and rideable trails were just as good as normal but, for the last couple of hours, I just wanted to be there.

Nikolai was another fantastically welcoming checkpoint – even though they don’t “get” vegetarian food. They found 9 bars interesting to look at, but preferred chunks of meat for actual consumption. It was too early to sleep and I was a bit tired to go on, so I just hung around for a bit. It was really nice to see Bill Merchant come in there and to be able to catch up with him. But in the end, I had to get some miles to McGrath.

I set off, wanting to get there in one go, but knowing that a bivvy was a realistic possibility. I went out fast to achieve McGrath, but the temperature was too warm for fast. I sweated into my outer layer (I was only wearing merino base + a softshell) and as the night grew cold, the sweat froze into a husk. Now I was cold and tired. It was nearly midnight. Bivvy time again. A night of wacky dreams and a long ride in the morning ensued.

Right now, I’m happy to be in the company of Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze at the checkpoint. I’m eating, cleaning, and will later be sleeping. I’m feeling pretty good, much better than in 2009. I feel like I spent most of the race sleeping! Hopefully that will leave me strong for the continuing journey…

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