Not that North, further.
So far North that the lakes and rivers are frozen hard. Where omnipresent snow has 100 different kinds of crunch under your feet. Where the nights are savagely, beautifully cold and accompanied by the dance of the aurora growling across the sky. Where wolves run and bears sleep. Where it can get so lonely that the wind is your only companion, leaning hard on your shoulders; chasing clouds on and off the stage.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational always looms large. It’s the race. The one I rode the Divide to train for. It haunts me, waiting for me to come back find out if I have learned anything since last time. There can be no better motivation for getting out in the wet Autumn weather than the fear of ending up on the desolate ice thinking, “If only I’d trained a bit harder”.
You will never appreciate a sunrise as much as the morning after pulling an all-nighter on the Iditarod Trail. When the temperature is so low that there is no way to breath without a face-mask. The moisture from your breath forms long icicles on the mask, and they poke your chest every time you look down. If you let the pace get too high and start to sweat, condensation forms on your goggles and freezes. You must balance clothing and effort against an ever-changing environment.
The night-time view through tinted goggles and a tiny head-torch is just a small patch of snow. Sometimes you can’t tell whether you are going up or down. There is no horizon to be seen. Your effort changes as the snow changes, and your fully-encased head is missing its normal cues about orientation.
So, as the invisible mountains become shadows, you want dawn to hurry along. Purple is drawn in vivid strokes, bringing hints of gold. But the shadows are still upon you. Sunlight is all around, but not a drop to warm your skin. And finally, it comes. A couple of degrees of heat. A boot to the black thoughts of the night. The gold seems to go on forever before the day becomes whole, and there seems to be no finer place in the world.
That is just part of the reason why.
The strategy of racing against people over days; the camaraderie with the other riders; the mushers and their dogs; the people who live in the remotest places with the warmest welcomes; the self reliance of bivying out on the ice with everything you need on the bike. So many reasons to go back.
The wherefore is coming together now. A different bike – A Singular Puffin with fun handling and 100mm rims. Different kit setup – just bikepacking bags (from Wildcat Gear), and no racks. A whole new level of experience with sleep deprivation (see the final day of the Highland Trail). The experience of having been to Nome once already. Lessons learned about how to take care of myself out there.
With a thousand things to do other than train for the race, choosing what to do is going to be crucial. My “plan” is long road rides to maximise time on the bike vs. travel time (although getting moved in to North Devon should solve that problem). Regular MTB, because it’s more fun and better for upper body strength. The MTB will be a mix of the Swift and the Puffin. It’s important to ride the bike with the wide BB plenty to acclimatise your knees – I suffered badly from knee pain in Iditarod 2011 because I hadn’t ridden the Pugsley enough. And regular running to make sure that joints and muscles are ready for spending time on my feet, dragging through snow.
There is a ton of work to do on my fitness before February, but fitness is never the whole story over 1000 miles. The certainty of my drive to finish, and to push hard is the most important thing. Alaska can through a so many things at you. Only the motivated and adaptable will flourish. So that’s what I’m aiming to be.