Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A perfect Pursuit

The first full week of 2021 tamped down any delusions that the new year might improve on its predecessor. In a news cycle that's happening at 16x speed, you might remember that January 4 was the day it was revealed that Trump attempted to shake down Georgia's secretary of state and a new Congress was sworn in with that "amen and awoman" prayer. Ah, those were quaint times. I had a full day of errands planned but stole a few hours of the morning to ride my fat bike around the singletrack surrounding Brainard Lake and Peaceful Valley. 

Trail conditions were challenging. These trails are difficult in the best of scenarios — packed by foot and ski, they're razor-thin. You can't throw a foot down without plunging into deep powder. This season's snowpack is still extremely low, so there are miles of exposed boulders and tree roots. The previous weekend blasted the region with wind, partially filling in the trail with spindrift, a sugary sort of snow that is both slippery and impossible to consolidate. And no one had been through since the overnight winds, so the packed surface was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding snow. 

I had a 20-mile loop ride planned and stubbornly stuck with it despite the beating these trails doled out. The bike washed out on a hidden patch of ice and I slammed down hard on my right shoulder. Ouch. I became tangled in the frame twice when I lost the trail and toppled into crusty snow, bruising knees and thighs. At lower altitudes, the trails rode similar to summer conditions but worse — a rock garden covered in two inches of snow, just enough to hide some of the most insidious obstacles. Ugh. I'd like to say fun was had, but I limped through the rest of the day and woke up so sore the following morning that I struggled to get out of bed. 

"I'm still too old for mountain biking," was a thought that I had. 

You might remember that Tuesday, January 5, ended on a positive note with the Georgia election, but then came Wednesday. Like most Americans, I watched in horror as the insurrection that everyone predicted would happen actually happened, and burst into tears when I saw the photo of a Colorado congressman comforting a terrified colleague as they took cover, because it illustrated just how close this came to becoming an unthinkable tragedy. Seriously, what have we become? Still stiff with a sore shoulder and fresh bruises blooming on both legs, I slumped onto the trainer and pedaled through a fit of rage up a virtual 3,000-foot mountain. At one point, Beat came downstairs to ask me if I was going to break the exercise bike. The physical pain was a welcome — if temporary — relief to the anguish that was coursing through my veins. This felt like a sharp turning point in history — like Sept. 11, but worse even, because the call was coming from inside the house. 

The Leadville gang at the start: Cheryl, Betsy, my fat bike "Erik," Erika, and Jim

Then came Friday, January 8 — the day of the Fat Pursuit 200K. Like most of the other winter races this season, the original race in Idaho was canceled due to COVID concerns and moved to a "virtual" event. Admittedly, I never signed up for the virtual race. I already completed my Wild Winter Way 160-miler three weeks earlier and got a good endurance fix there. I also buried myself in the process and was just coming around to feeling recovered when a plan with four friends to stage a similar event in Leadville gained momentum. It's difficult to connect 125 miles of rideable snow trails anywhere in Colorado, but Leadville has an enticing system of groomed multiuse paths, singletrack, and snowmobile trails in a stunningly scenic location. We put together a 41-mile figure-eight loop that I figured we could ride three times. A single lap had 4,000 feet of climbing, rolling between 10,000 and 11,500 feet. The stats pointed to something that was probably going to be even harder than the original Fat Pursuit, although laps did mean we could resupply often. 

I'm not sure any of us had our heads and hearts fully invested in the 200K. My headspace was particularly toxic for motivation, leaping over the usual qualms about pain and boredom to "why does any of this matter?" "what does it all mean?" and "maybe it's time to invest in that cabin deep in the Alaska wilderness and live out my days chopping firewood and wandering through the woods and waiting for the climate change wildfires to consume me." Yes, catastrophic thinking is a specialty of my hyperactive brain. My most effective method for tamping down anxiety is, of course, a long and physically demanding effort. Despite not signing up for the race and not caring whether I finished even if I did sign up, I remained motivated to seek that flow state and its foggy tranquility. The desire for escapism held tight even though my shoulder and knees were still tender following the Monday bike crashes and my quads were disconcertingly sore because I rode the exercise bike into the floor on Wednesday. 

We planned our virtual event to start at noon Friday, the time and day that the real Fat Pursuit 200K would have taken place. The late start also gave all of us time to drive from our various corners of the state, as I again planned to conduct this somewhat remote travel without venturing indoors. A larger group of 20 or so riders and several runners were starting a self-supported 200K on the original course in Idaho at the same time, which offered a fun feeling of solidarity. We enjoyed an auspicious start: bluebird skies, sunshine, and warmth. According to my car thermometer, it was 25 degrees. When the breeze died down, under direct sunlight at 10,000 feet, this felt like 70 degrees. Most of us were drenched in sweat before we'd ridden a mile. 

We made an effort to stick together for the first lap, but it's always difficult to manage a group ride in the winter. All of us predictably needed to stop at intervals to remove layers and adjust tire pressures. I stuck to my usual mistake of keeping all of my layers and became so sweaty that even a two-minute stop to wait for my friends left me wracked with shivering. When we got going again, I was out on the front like an impatient husky on an Iditarod dog team. That's how I felt, at least. Between the shivering and sprinting to warm up again, I burned up a lot of energy that I knew wasn't sustainable. But I was having fun. 

Jim riding the Mineral Belt Trail one switchback below. 

The Mineral Belt Trail forms a 12-mile loop around the town of Leadville, winding through several historic mining sites along the way. There were lots of plaques and I admit I didn't stop to read any of them, but it is intriguing to see relics of a time when tens of thousands of humans resided at the windblown cusp of treeline, gasping through long winters at 10,000 or even 12,000 feet while they scraped silver and gold from the barren mountainsides. Spotting the remnants of a cabin collapsed on an exposed ridge while shivering in a fierce midday wind really brings to light what a strange species we are — the miners with their futile gold fever, and me with my futile pursuit of The Truth. 

We turned onto snowmobile trails baking in the sunshine to climb and climb. Trail conditions were difficult, with most machines running mountain-worthy, deep-lugged tracks that tear up the surface. In warm temperatures, this stirred-up chunder resembles mashed potatoes, a common descriptor used by winter cyclists. Mashed potato snow will drain the strength from legs more quickly than the steepest climb, and these were steep climbs on their own. I reduced my tire pressure to 3 psi. It would stay there for the rest of the ride, adding resistance to the rare hardpacked-snow surfaces, but necessary to ride at all in soft snow. My point is — this type of riding is strenuous. It is why a seven-mile fat bike ride in Colorado is considered a long ride. Targeting 200K is a little ridiculous.

It was incredibly scenic above 11,000 feet in the East Mining District. Every time we stopped for layering and photos and snacks, the first words out of my mouth were, "What a day!" 

We crested the climb at "Ibex City," where I assumed there must be stone foundations of a ghost town underneath the snow. I was so cold here. And I knew a 1,500-foot descent into the west wind was not going to boost my core temperature. 

Descending on mashed potatoes is tricky — a squirrelly, swerving maneuver that often incorporates "boot skiing" to ensure the rubber side stays down. It's fun, though. It's okay to crash because often the worst consequence is a creating a bike-shaped snow angel, although one must be mindful of tree wells. I was a bit miserable because I was really cold. I just wanted to get back to base camp and change out of sweaty layers and put on the fuzzy wind-resistant fleece that I didn't think I'd even use on this ride, but brought anyway. Cheryl and I waited for about five minutes at the Mineral Belt Trail intersection, but then I couldn't take it anymore and we both took off. Notes to self for future winter group rides: Bring the big puffy. Don't sweat. 

I made a quick turnover at base camp, adding about the same number of layers that I wore when it was -45 outside McGrath last March and gulping down a peanut butter sandwich. Even with puffies and calories, it still took most of five miles before I felt warm enough to relax. The last hints of direct sunlight slipped behind the Mosquito Range skyline as I made my way around the dam. The loop around Turquoise Lake covers 16 miles of road that is groomed for winter use and typically sees heavy snowmobile traffic. As the temperature dipped, the trail began to harden. Typically this would be a good thing for wheels, but warm daytime temperatures followed by a rapid freeze create tiny frost crystals on an uneven and deeply corrugated surface. The effect is fittingly called "Velcro snow." Like mashed potatoes, Velcro snow will suck the strength out of legs faster than the steepest hills. 

I was grinding up one comparatively tiny hill when a snowmobile came puttering up from behind. Perhaps they were a novice driver ... they seemed reluctant to pass me on the wide trail. Finally, I pulled as far to the right as I could and put a foot down. Still, they seemed to be just idling in place. I turned to the helmeted driver and said, "You should pass. I'm pretty sure you have more horsepower than me." I'm not sure they heard, but they waved and continued puttering up the trail. Usually, fresh snowmobile tracks are softer and slower than a more set-up trail, but Slow-mo Snow-mo created a smooth, almost groomed surface that was a relief to ride. I followed them for a while, at a blistering 3 or 4 mph, until their lights disappeared around a corner and out of sight. 

I wouldn't see another person on a trail until daylight — 14 hours later. Sunset turned the thin cloud cover into a wash of pink and violet. I felt the same vague feeling of dread that I always feel when I'm outside and alone as night descends. With darkness my senses invert — as vision narrows, even the smallest sounds are amplified to an alarming degree. The crunch of snow — moose? The rustle of tree branches — lion? The distant whine of the lone snowmobile — is Slow-mo Snow-mo a murderous stalker? This only lasts a few minutes before then my senses adjust. Snow crystals sparkle in the faint glow of my headlight. The sky opens to a patchwork of stars. A mouse scurries across the trail. The vapor of my breath swirls in mesmerizing waves. This is just the world. Don't be afraid. 

Nighttime is my favorite time to be outside. I'm not out here often, because I am a lazy soul who also values sleep and warmth and varied scenery. But when I make the investment in a night ride, I'm always amazed by the expansiveness and silence of my surroundings. Even familiar places become mysterious. I relish in the unbroken solitude. I finished my first of three full laps and briefly chatted with Erika's partner, Cullen, who was heading out to meet the rest of the group at a campsite near the edge of the lake. Since I was still wearing most of my clothing I just left my layers on and set out on the northern portion of the Mineral Belt Trail, which circles the edge of town. It was freshly groomed, but the base was still soft, so I made painfully slow progress beside houses and their warm lights in the late evening.

I was grateful to leave the bike path and commence the steep climb toward the East Mining District. A harsh wind pressed through the trees and I could feel my legs losing steam. What I had easily pedaled up eight hours earlier suddenly sent cramps through my calves. My sore shoulder began to complain more loudly, until I adjusted my hydration pack straps to hang most of the water weight off my left side. As the grade steepened, I stepped off my bike to push. Despite the slow conditions I hadn't had to push my bike yet, and my whole body seemed to balk at the prospect. My overboot-clad feet slipped on the loose snow and my sore shoulders slumped in defiance. I really didn't want to push my bike. Funny how that works. 

I hopped back on and mashed the pedals, knowing I was spending more energy than I should. I didn't want to end up like I had during my 160-miler, at the end of my rope with nothing left to give. For a half mile, there was a section of trail that was badly torn up by a truck that was stuck earlier in the day. I had to lift my bike over some deep trenches, which was annoying, and by the end of the wrestling match I truly couldn't ride the bike up the hill. So I marched, and in marching almost instantly drifted into a deep flow state. I slipped away from a sense of place and time. I was back in Alaska, on the Yukon River, so it must be 2016. I looked up at the sky — wisps of clouds, patches of stars, a glint of orange light. I blinked with a startle of familiarity. Why do I always return to this place? What does it mean? It doesn't mean anything, of course. It's just a mechanism of the memory, a vacuum between waking and sleep where the mind fills the empty space with images. Mine is often the same. I recognize the place, but I don't understand its significance. It frightens me. 

This is just the world. Don't be afraid.   

I became more lost in these waking dreams during the descent, enough so that I ended up back at base camp mostly unsure of how I got there. I was feeling more energized, but I resolved to eat a big meal and take a short nap because that would set me up for a stronger second half. Erika was snoozing in her car and came out to say hello as I heated up a Mountain House meal and coffee for "morning." It was 1 a.m. and 4 degrees. I texted Beat. "It took me 13 hours to go 60 miles." My mind was too foggy to determine whether that was good or pathetic. I'd forgotten to bring a spoon so I attempted to fashion one out of the stove's windscreen, but ended up just gulping the meal directly out of the bag. Then I crawled into my fluffy sleeping bag and pulled the hood around my face, feeling a wash of gratification, as though I'd never been cozier in my life. Homer Simpson's voice popped into my head: "I'm just a big toasty cinnamon bun and I never want to leave this bed."

My alarm went off four hours later, at 5:30 a.m. Surprisingly, I didn't feel too reluctant about getting out of bed. Actually, I felt pretty good. I slept well — uncharacteristic for me after a long effort, especially one that had already resulted in muscle cramps. I put my boots on, drank a few sips of still-hot coffee, stuffed the thermos in my frame bag, and began pedaling toward the yellow glow of a nearby car wash. A tiny sliver of the crescent moon rose over the Mosquito Range. It was 3 below zero. I still felt like a big toasty cinnamon bun. I felt great! 

Next came another lap around Turquoise Lake. I decided to ride this round counter-clockwise, as descending in the opposite direction seemed long and gradual compared to the steep climb on the other side. (The road winds around the lake but there are three hills along the way, the longest of which ascends more than 800 feet.) The northern half of the loop had been freshly groomed, which did prove less "Velcroy" and reaffirmed my decision to climb in this direction. Dawn brought intensifying snow flurries until there was about an inch of fresh powder on the ground.  

I started to see people again — first, two skiers who offered me whisky even though it was 7 a.m., then recognized my bike and gushed about it because it's a custom titanium frame from Steamboat Springs. The sky cleared up and then clouded again. Snow flurries fell and faded. Time was running in a strange counter-clockwise direction as well. Even though I'd slept well for almost four hours, the rest wasn't enough to remove the strain of depleted glycogen and empty muscles. My mind continued compensating with waking dreams. I found myself singing quietly to the Iditarod Trail, as I sometimes do on the Iditarod Trail, even though I wasn't on the Iditarod Trail. A favorite from 2016, by Lord Huron: 

"I am not the only traveler.
Who has not repaid his debt.
I've been searching for a trail to follow ... again.
Take me back to the night we met."

I decided to make a third lap around Turquoise Lake rather than return to base camp, reasoning that it would be good to finish up this section while it was still somewhat early and traffic hadn't completely torn up the newly groomed segment. Truthfully, I was loving being "out in the wild" and couldn't stomach the thought of grinding out ten extra miles of road, even though the road offered what was more or less free miles compared to the snowy grind. Either way, I had to do the 200K. Of course, I didn't have to do the 200K. But by now I saw no reason not to complete the ride. It would be silly to quit when I felt fine and was having fun, mostly ignoring my audiobook and instead trying to remember all of my favorite songs from Iditarod 2016. "Think I'm Sick" by Icon for Hire:

"The night knows me by name.
It's a shadow trained to dull the pain.
All the black begins to blur.
Resist at first and then immerse."

I returned to 2021 in an abrupt arrival back at base camp, my mile 99, sometime around 1 p.m. Betsy was there preparing to head home. She'd ridden 70-something miles and was happy with that. I planned to complete one more lap around Mineral Basin, tacking on a bunch of groomed CMC singletrack at the end to make up for my missed road miles. I trundled up the trail as fresh cyclists zoomed past me. I made a turn on the road I thought led to the East Mining District, but I'd turned about three miles early. I ascended nearly 500 feet to a reservoir that I definitely did not remember before I realized my mistake. 

By the time I reached the correct climb, it was snowing heavily. Fresh powder masked the tire ruts, and I started washing out and crashing. I toppled into soft snow at least twice before I finally hit something hard with my sore shoulder and cried out in pain. I sat up, prepared to have a temper tantrum about the injustice of riding a bike poorly in a world where snow sometimes falls from the sky — and then I thought of it in that way, and broke out laughing. After everything that's happened during the first full week of 2021, why in the world would I cry about bicycling? I reflected back to the crash that hurt my shoulder, which was Monday ... only five days ago? It felt like a year. One of the reasons I love endurance cycling is the way it stretches out time, moves it forward and backward until you feel like you've endured a lifetime in the span of a day. Given the events of recent days, it seems that 2021 will do a pretty good job of that on its own. 

After that third or fourth crash, and with the steepest section of the climb still looming above me, I realized there was no reason I *had* to loop around the mining district. I could just return around Mineral Belt for the same number of miles and ride a whole bunch of singletrack without burying myself. Sore shoulder and fluctuating awareness of time aside, it was amazing how great I still felt after a century-plus of snowy grind. Still, my heart rate pegged with even the smallest climbs, and it was clear I wouldn't have much left without another long rest. 

Sunlight faded behind the overcast sky, shifting almost imperceptibly into night. I descended Mineral Belt to a point about two miles from base camp when I reached the singletrack intersection. My watch read 118 miles and I thought there's no way a trail system could fill that much extra space without out-and-backs, but it would be fun to try. I took Betsy's advice and turned left, wending through the dark woods around tight switchbacks and swooping curves. The trails were in perfect condition, with just enough new snow over the groomed surface to add traction. Fat bikers call this "Hero snow." I turned left and left again, and soon I was hopelessly lost. I couldn't have found my way out if I tried (note: there were trail maps at most intersections and I had a GPS, but I was in no capacity to interpret either.) All I could do was turn left, lean into the sharp hairpins, gaze up at the snow-covered pines and down at pillows of snow in this wintry gumdrop forest, and sing - loudly now.

I'd long since ditched the audiobook and was listening to music, an old playlist that I'd pulled up from dregs long enough abandoned to sound new again. The random song on my ancient iPod Shuffle could not have been more perfect. "Help I'm Alive" by Metric:

If we're still alive 
My regrets are few 
If my life is mine 
What shouldn't I do? 
I get wherever I'm going 
I get whatever I need 
While my blood's still flowing and my heart's still beating 
Beating like a hammer.

 I turned left and laid harder into the pedals. The narrow trail undulated up and down, cranking and coasting, leaning and breathing, ragged breaths and empty legs that in reality still had so much to give. I pedaled harder. My heart was pounding and I had no idea where was or where I might end up. Each turn seemed to push me deeper into the forest. The darkness intensified. The snow glistened. Hot blood coursed through my arteries, feeding a zeal that I could no longer contain. It seemed plausible to just turn left forever. Maybe I'd just ride in circles until the sun came up. I mean, I was nearly out of food and water, but why not? 

Finally, a trail spit me out onto Mineral Belt and I almost reluctantly pedaled back to my car, which was now alone in an empty parking lot. Everyone else had gone home. This was a little disappointing, I admit, as I'd hoped to hang out with the group and maybe recruit Cheryl into camping one more night. My watch read 124.5 miles on the mark, which is close to exactly 200 kilometers, but I rode another half-mile in circles around the parking lot for good measure. It was getting cold again — already just 8 degrees at 6:30 p.m., and accumulating snow portended a difficult drive back to Boulder. 

I made note of the time — 6:27 p.m. 30 hours and 8 minutes elapsed. 22 hours and 8 minutes of moving time. 125.01 miles with 11,693 feet of climbing. Too bad I never signed up for the reorganized Fat Pursuit, so it didn't actually count for everything. "This was too fun to be a Fat Pursuit," was a thought that I had. I've raced the real version four times and every time it's crushed me in different ways. To not venture close enough to an edge hard enough to be crushed is not really "pursuing" ...

Or is it? 


  1. That's a truly amazing ride. My 115 miles or so took me something close to 36 hours of moving time. Also I love Slow-Mo Slow-Mo.

  2. Mineral Belt, Tennessee Pass...I have to drag myself out of the gloom and terror of what was on CNN this past week to bikejor, or ski or just ride my fatbike in the snow. I always feel better when I do ... and lately, my much smaller adventures in these 2 fabulous venues, transport me back to Alaska and to the sled dogs. Your article also does the trick .... thank you

    1. Wow... Google...that’s an old abandoned handle. Cheers Jill....

  3. I'm in for the Alaska cabin. No death by wildfire though.

  4. May I ask what thermos you use to keep your beverage hot at 4 Degrees after 4 hours?

    1. I'm sorry I didn't respond to this earlier. It's a Zojirushi travel mug. Purchased for drinking coffee in the car, but as it turns out they insulate quite well when locked out. I have had a beverage stay reasonably warm in near-freezing temperatures for as long as 8 hours.

  5. Tho not a cure, an escape to brutal physical pursuits helps tamp down Trumps Presidency Circus. He's fast running out of "friends," and insured a soap opera legacy that hopefully will wake up how close this country came to going down in flames.
    What a great way to combat stress, too, to ride your ass off in cold and snow with friends.


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