Wednesday, February 28, 2007

350 saga

It's cliche to say, but this really is the kind of thing you can't make up.

Nearly everyone, even the race officials, expected Pete to be into the last checkpoint of the race by midnight last night, and across the finish line before 2 p.m. today - probably well ahead of the three-day mark. When this morning came and went with no sign of the lead cyclist, speculation started to fly. Did he oversleep? Did he burn out? Did the chasers catch him?

When Pete finally rolled into Nikolai at 10 a.m., the truth started to emerge. The trail across the Farewell Burn was not hard and fast ground. It was a minefield of invisible tussocks and ice chunks buried in new snow. Pete fell over "at least 100 times." But he kept riding. And as he trudged over those 90 miles, temperatures dipped beneath 30 below. He wore every piece of clothing he had, and he still felt cold. Sometime in the early morning, he finally reached Buffalo Camp - a wall tent with a wood stove inside, stocked with firewood. He laid out his sleeping bag and crawled into a short nap on the frigid floor, declining to start a fire because "someone might need the wood more than he did."

He left mile 300 at 1:45 p.m., with only six hours remaining before the course record passed him by. Even the current course record holder didn't ride the last 50 miles that fast - and no one knew what the trail was really like. People had speculated it would be hard and fast ... but people have a way of being wrong about these things.

On the homefront, suspense was building. Would he do it? Could he do it? And the best question, the one that floated into the forefront with thoughts of him grinding out frozen miles somewhere west of the edge of nowhere ... did he even care?

8 p.m. came and went with no news. That was it. Gone was gone. Spectators reacted with deafening silence. Then came the blip on the computer screen - just a small blurb, red text on a black screen - "1 Peter Basinger 2/27 7:40pm. A new course record is set!"

With 20 minutes to spare ... almost the same amount of time he lost on Mike Curiak during the course-record-setting 2004 Great Divide Race.

No one knows what he said. No one knows what he saw. No one knows what really happened out on that trail, all alone in the subarctic night, with dozens of miles separating him from anything. That's the beauty of the Iditarod Invitational. There is no crowd waiting to congratulate you at the end, no podium, no trophy. There's no prize money and no sponsors lining up to greet you. There's only you, and an amazing saga that only you know about, an adventure only you experience. And I think that you always know that, and nothing can take that away - even a course record.