The first week of the new year is typically accompanied by a fat bike race for me. The annual trip up to Idaho has been an awesome learning experience over the last three years, and it is the closest winter ultra to my house. I keep coming back because of that reason and it is typically a rewarding experience for me. This year proved to be a bit more difficult. It was just as rewarding, but for different reasons.

As most people can relate to, training for a 200 mile or even 200K race is no easy task around the holidays. I continued to make excuses for myself, but I also made sure to put in some time on the bike leading up to the race, even if it was not my normal training regiment.

A week out from the race, I had looked at the weather to get a feel for temperature trends. If anyone knows weather in the west, it can be about as unpredictable as winning the lottery. So taking any of the weather and precipitation forecasts to heart is never a good idea. After a few days of trends flip flopping, the weather basically landed on COLD, and for the first part of the race, Friday night, the forecast was for -11 at Island Park, and -20 in West Yellowstone. The cherry on top? Temperatures would shift drastically on Saturday, hitting the teens with snow forecasted. So it was going to be interesting to see what it would actually do.

Beth Shaner on the left and her husband during the gear check on Friday. It was cold, and it would only get colder.
Beth Shaner on the left and her husband during the gear check on Friday. It was cold, and it would only get colder.

As race day hit, I basically stopped looking at the weather. I knew it would be cold but I underestimated just how much the mercury would drop. I dressed the best I could with what I had brought up to Island Park, which wasn’t enough. Here is a brief account of my ride on the 200 mile Fat Pursuit. I was underprepared for the event, which ended in me bailing after 75 miles because of safety concerns.

The Race
The race start at 5:00pm came all to soon. I seriously felt so vulnerable right off the bat, and I’m not even sure why. I had done the 200 mile route in 27 hours the previous year, and much of the course twice, but I still felt uncertain. Luckily that feeling faded quickly, until I went to sip on my water…

Water
For the past three years I have used an older Cambelbak Octaine Lumbar hydration pack to hold the majority of my water. I would always put it under my a fleece jersey or fleece layer and a cycling vest. I have had very good luck in cold temperatures before, so I decided to use this system again. I was also carrying a bottle on my down tube. I knew this would freeze but I put it there to drink right away, like within the first 5 miles. The bottle ended up freezing before the five miles were up, so I put it in my pogie to see if I could thaw it out. I went to unzip my layers to access my hydration hose. I chomped on the bite valve but nothing came out. Right then and there I knew I was screwed. Not being able to have water for 70+ miles would not work. I would either have to go to a river and fill or boil water, two options I did not want to stop and do. I tucked the hose away and forgot about it. I waited until I needed to eat some food before attempting to pull water from my bladder. So again, I un-zipped my fleece and vest layers and went to bite the valve again. Water started flowing like a raging river during peak run off. It was a huge mental hurdle. My body temperature obviously warmed the hose over time. My bottle never thawed in my pogies.

As the race unfolded, Ben Doom, Gabe Klamer and myself took pulls creating a gap on the remaining field. I didn’t see anyone else until we climbed out of Mesa Falls after the brief out and back checkpoint. We had created a similar gap, maybe even bigger, than what Andrew and I created during last years race.

Body and glasses
The stretch out of Harman State Park to Mesa Falls was really cold and foggy, but I had a pretty good setup as far as layering. I was even sweating too much at times. I was over heating on my head a bit which caused some horrible fogging on my glasses followed by freeze, which actually made things a bit easier to deal with, but I had to scratch off the frost every 10 minutes or so. If I took the time to remove a head layer, I think I would have avoided the fogging, but I need more time to test this system out. As I rode in and out of cold pockets of air, my face got extremely cold. I knew if I left it exposed I would be in trouble, so I kept a folded buff around the back of my head and chin. When I needed it I would pull it up and over my nose. When I warmed up, I would place it over my chin again. This seemed to work out very well for me and I had zero face issues.

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At the start.

One part of my body that would not stay consistently warm was my forearms. I continued to whip my arms out of my pogies and punch my fists in the air like I was at a concert. It was a way to get the blood flow moving, but Gabe and Ben must have thought I was at a hallucinating or something. I was refusing to put on my wind layer until I absolutely had to so I wouldn’t over heat. I eventually put it on and it helped, but I need to figure out a way to keep that area warm without putting another layer on my core. This happened last year too. 

As we got to Warm River and started the long climb up Fish Creek Road, Ben slowly faded due to being “dizzy and woozy.” As we started to climb, Gabe asked me how my feet were. I told him “good”, and they were, but his were not. He got off his bike and started running. I took that opportunity to power it and maybe lose him. I did that until things got bad for me. As I approached the top of the climb, I started to have trouble keeping my feet warm.


Feet
I was rocking a pair of newer 45NRTH Wolvhammer Boots, a double layer sock system and some toe warmers. My feet were feeling really good for the majority of my ride until I felt a big wind gust on Fish Creek Road. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to let the cold air into my boots, and I knew that the descent down Baker Draw Trail would only make them colder. I started to run with my bike on top of the ridge to warm them up before the descent, but the numbness was taking over. I knew my toes were there, but I couldn’t actually feel them. There were reports of -40 temperatures in that region, and while my body may have been warm, my extremities were losing life fast. I was starting to get scared, and the dreaded DNF thought popped into my mind, but I was trying to ignore it. 

I kept looking back to see if Gabe was near, but I could not see a light. I knew he was close, but not seeing his light was a boost. I just wish I was motivated. All I could think about was how cold my feet and hands were, and how cold this descent was going to be. My legs were feeling good, so it was time to power down and and give the descent a go. 

Pogies
I was using a nice new pair of Jefe’s Hot Hands made by Jefe Branham in Gunnison, Colorado. I used some Jones H-Bar specific ones he made for me last year, and they worked well, so he made me some nice ones for my flat bars. The pogies have a ton of neat features and are warm when it’s -15. Unfortunatley it was not -15, it was much colder, and the biggest mistake I made was not having an extra pair of warm gloves or mittens to use along with the pogies. I started the race with a pair of Pearl Izumi fall riding gloves. My hands were boiling at the start, and I had no reason to think these pogies would not be up to par for what I had to endure. I feel like no pogies could have kept my hands warm for the ~20mph Baker Draw descent at that low of temperature.  

My hands went numb instantly. I was still scraping off frost from my glasses, and I had to use both hands to do that – outside of my pogies of course. I would re-enter my hands and try to warm them up by squeezing my ESI Grips. What made things worse was the cold brake lever that I had to trigger to ensure my speed was under control. I seriously could not feel my hands. The cold made it seem like I was holding on to air, and not my handlebars. This was not good and I was scared. I kept getting off my bike and running up hill to warm everything. I shook out my hands as hard as I could to get them some warm blood. It worked, but only temporarily. Temporarily was not good enough. 

Somewhere in the descent Gabe creeped up on me while I was stopped. He said he was really nervous about his digits and was pretty sure he was going to bail. I too said the same thing and was right there with him. This was the moment that I accepted I was underprepared for the elements, something I try and avoid in all races. It was a defeating moment, but I flipped the switch to survival mode. I still had plenty of descending to do.

Feeding
In the waining moments of my race, I was struggling to put down calories. I didn’t want to get my hydration hose out becasue my hands were not working properly, and the food I had required water to wash it down. I actually found it really difficult to eat in general for the majority of the race with the cold temperatures. What I found that worked for me was cutting up some BOBO bars and throwing them in a Ziploc bag with a hand warmer. The bar remained soft enough, and proved to be a good source of energy. However, as I became more frozen and fatigued, I quit eating consistently. My energy was so low that I couldn’t get going at a fast enough click to remain warm. A vicious cycle. It dawned on me that everything needs to be working properly in -40 degrees, and if it doesn’t everything falls apart.

Gabe and I finally reached Warm River Trail, a flat section of trail before the Chick Creek Trail, which I knew was the way to Island Park. I didn’t think of the time, or if anyone would be there, I just needed to get into some warmth. Gabe and I didn’t talk much, we just knew what we had to do. Bivying came to mind, but I thought that if I stopped moving it’d be worse. Even the act of taking out my bivvy and bag and setting it up was intimidating. Also, I knew if I got comfortable, I would want to stay there until it warmed up in the morning, which would have been 10am – roughly 6 hours. I thought about all options, and bailing was the only option that made sense at that time. I certainly still had my head on straight, and as my body parts were not coming back to life, I took a left at the Chick Creek Trail instead of a right. My race was over.

So what does all of this mean?
 
It’s never easy to not finish a race, but there comes a time where you understand the circumstances and know what you need to do. It was not until I got into the warmth did I understand this would be a valuable lesson for me, especially with the ITI coming up in 6 weeks.

So, what did I learn:
  • I learned I need a better and warmer boot system
  • I learned I need to bring warmer gloves or mittens for backup
  • I learned that any exposed water bottle is simply dumb (what was I thinking?)
  • I learned that consistency is key for temperature regulation
  • I learned that I know I can handle -40 temperatures with the right equipment
  • I learned that I surprisingly had the smarts to put together my options and pick the best one…bail

In the end, many people did not finish the race, in fact only 5 racers out of 42 finished (including both 200 mile and 200k racers). Not many had the guts to get through it, but those that did, I have serious respect for especially Aaron Gardner, the only 200 mile finisher.

10 Comments

  1. I’m curious if you were running clip less pedals or flats?

  2. Congratulations on accomplishing what you did. 200 miles is a very long way in those temperatures!

    A couple of years ago a friend of mine raced the Yukon Arctic Ultra and detailed his tactics and equipment systems over at Pinkbike http://www.pinkbike.com/u/derekcrowe/blog/yukon-winter-epic.html. There’s some good tips in there for extreme cold-weather fat biking.

  3. I would think for your forearms the classical arm warmer would be helpful to insulate your forearms without adding insulation to your core – I would think that contributed to your cold hands despite them being in the pogies.

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Hey Doug, I should have mentioned that I was wearing arm warmers under my fleece and Under Armor layer. Not sure, maybe I could oversized arm warmers to put over all my layers for extra warmth… I just need to get back to testing things out again.
      Best,
      Neil

  4. Blake Terzini

    From my cold weather commuting experiences, I carry a bottle between my insulating layers so I always have a bottle availablethat is liquid. It really only works if your outer layer has a drawstring or elastic, or you’re wearing a bag with a waist strap.

  5. A very nice write-up on the challenges of cold weather. No matter how far one makes it, just to show up is pretty awesome.

  6. You could have a look at separate sleeves. Ready made ones could be found in the form of hand warmers in hunting stores. Swedish brand Fjällräven makes one for example: http://www.fjallraven.com/varmland-hand-warmer. Now, this is meant to be used in front of your body to put both hands in to keep them warm. Using them for your forearms, you would need 2 of them.
    I can imagine a drawstring could inhibit blood flow at these temperatures. Therefore I would suggest an A-string, like gloves/mitts for infants (sometimes) use. (See http://www.njfamily.com/How-to-Keep-Kids-From-Losing-Mittens-Gloves/ under A String to see what I mean.) Perhaps with a cordlock in the neck to be able to adjust the height of the top of the arm warmers.

    These ready-made arm warmers are quite expensive. I can imagine that if you’re handy (or know someone who is), you could make some yourself. For example Extremtextil from Germany sells 34 different fleece fabrics: http://www.extremtextil.de/catalog/Fabrics/Fleece:::21_65.html, including a 300-weight version: http://www.extremtextil.de/catalog/300series-Fleece-MM-SPECIAL-PRICE::3149.html. I’m quite sure you could find the same in the US of A. 😉

  7. La fringale

    Lots of respect for you racing guys. I occasionally ride at -30/-40 C in my neck of the woods for 2 to 3 hours max, and it is enough! Can’t even imagine doing 200 clicks, or worse something like the ITI, with a loaded bike! You guys and ladies rock.

    • Yeah, me neither. I’m the same as you – three hours in those temperatures is more than enough – so to ride 200 miles sounds rather nightmarish, er “challenging”.

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