Life Lessons from the Fat Pursuit

After roughly sixteen hours of biking the 200 km Fat Pursuit in the Rocky Mountain winter, when falling snow began to rapidly accumulate during the long, dark climb up Two Top Mountain, the going got rough soft. So soft, in fact, that “riding” might be too generous a term for what I was doing. It was actually more like plodding, weaving, wobbling, spinning…and crashing. And, I’d say I got quite good at it. Especially the crashing part.

My front wheel, tractionless due to the growing pile of powder, would slip out from underneath, and I would ignominiously be thrown to the ground, my progress abruptly slowing from near 0 mph to true 0 mph. Surely the local Yellowstone fauna peeping through the nighttime woods were having quite a laugh watching the comedy routine. As my Sisyphean struggle drew on, each crash became an opportunity to rest just a little longer. I would lie where I fell and stare up into the night sky, my headlamp reflecting the falling snow as if I were on a gentle warp speed journey across a galaxy far, far away. I would close my eyes and allow myself to drift. Then, as my heart rate slowed, the cold would begin to creep back through my layers. I would open my eyes behind snow-covered glasses and remember that I wasn’t on the bridge of the Enterprise or anywhere else. I was, in fact, right here–right where I wanted to be–lying on a snowy trail in the quiet woods, enjoying a restful moment in the middle of a world-class adventure. And I was grateful.

Hikers invariably carry two packs on traveling into wilderness. I can adjust the straps of the one easily enough, but releasing the other is beyond my skill. The work of the trail looses my grip on this inner load, reminding me how little control I have of anything out in the wilderness. - Belden Lane

The inability to will ourselves to be conscious and appreciative of the moment that we are in does seem to be a peculiar and pernicious human condition. Most of the time, whether we are behind the desk in the office, behind the wheel in the car, or behind the sink in the kitchen we tend to let our minds wander away, lured by dreams of what we could be doing rather than appreciating, and fully experiencing what we are doing. Western and Eastern spiritual traditions alike have insisted for generations that true peace can only be found in reality, in the present moment, which, when you think about it, is the only place reality can be. Tomorrow doesn’t exist except in our minds and on calendars, and neither does yesterday for that matter.

Just like becoming adept at any worthwhile skill–fat biking on snow included–learning to draw our attention to the present moment takes practice. For those of us whose sport of choice requires us to be outdoors on trails in the wilderness, our practice begins when we take the first step–or pedal the first stroke. “The work of the trail,” as Belden Lane terms it, can give us insights into ourselves that we are unlikely to discover elsewhere. The trail is a sage teacher of humility, heartbreak, love, loss, grace, and of reality. It can work on us in powerful ways, and so we come to respect and trust it.

Laying on the snow in the middle of the trail up Two Top Mountain, I got a precious glimpse of that elusive present moment, and it was peaceful. I wasn’t fretting about my standing in the Fat Pursuit race and what it might (or might not) be like to cross the finish line, nor was I imagining a hot shower and a bacon double cheeseburger. I wasn’t plagued by worries of things left undone back at home and, although I was a thousand miles away from my family, I didn’t feel alone. The work of the trail had brought me to a moment in which I was simply content to be. If the peace of the present moment is available to me in the middle of a dark snowstorm in frozen Montana, surely it is available everywhere.

The Fat Pursuit is not an overtly spiritual event, despite my personal experience of it. In fact, on the surface it is quite similar to any typical bike race. Participants register and get a bib number and swag bag. There are the usual resume-revealing conversations among riders, allowing everyone to create their own pre-race pecking order: rookies, veterans, pros, and posers (me?). There is a gear check and a safety speech. Sponsors have tires, frame bags, and bikes on display, prompting last minute feelings of gear inadequacy (should I have brought studded tires?). And there is palpable free floating anxiety in the air.

One of the factors that does set winter ultra fat biking apart from other biking events is the sheer amount of logistical complexity involved. It is really an amalgamation of three sports: mountain biking, backcountry hiking, and camping. Add the possibility of sub zero temperatures into the mix and you’ve got a lot to think about. For example, energy bars and water freeze in the cold–as does chamois cream. It’s not enough to simply bring these items along, you have to know how to keep them edible, drinkable, and usable too. Snow conditions and weather are also a huge factor. It takes patience and experience to know how to balance tire pressure with snow firmness, and to know when pushing is more economical than riding. If you decide to bivy out, how exactly do you do that in three feet of powder? If you get hot, where do you stash all of your outer layers on your already overly-laden bike? If your beard freezes, how do you pull your neck gaiter over your face without creating “beard melt,” which just ends up freezing your gaiter!? Mind boggling indeed.

One could build a career out of perfecting the logistical aspects of this sport and yet that would only address half of the challenge. Preparing for and managing what goes on in one’s mind during a winter ultra is an even more involved task. And that’s where rides like the Fat Pursuit tend to have a spiritual, or at least a philosophical component to them.

Husband and wife team Jay and Tracey Petervery host the Fat Pursuit, tirelessly shepherding participants from start to finish. They have a hand in everything from swag bag distribution, to volunteer coordination, to monitoring Trackleaders stats throughout the race. Accomplished riders themselves, the Peterverys are generous with their vast knowledge of the logistical dimensions of the sport, however, I would argue that those who return to ride the Fat Pursuit come for the Peterverys’ wealth of deeper wisdom.

During the pre-race dinner and meeting at the Ponds Lodge, riders connected with one another while carb-loading before the start the next morning. The Peterverys had ordered up a very digestible menu of salad, baked chicken ziti and garlic bread, and my dad and I shared a table with another rider, John, from Steamboat Springs, who was back for his third Fat Pursuit. The first time he completed the 200 km distance, the second time he was set back by a kidney stone (!) at the start of the 200 mile. This time he was aiming for some redemption, back for the 200 km distance. John said he loved his first Fat Pursuit experience so much that he and several other racers were inspired to organize and host their own winter century back home in Steamboat. Participants had the gear and plenty of road and mountain biking experience, he recalled, but the high number of DNFs was astounding. It turns out that road centuries and winter centuries really are different animals, the latter requiring riders to bring along another set of gear entirely, that of the intangible, internal variety. The Fat Pursuit is indeed a bike race, however, if you approach the event assuming you will be riding your bike the entire time, you are in for a rude awakening. There will be slipping, pushing, and crashing, and one must somehow learn to mentally endure this gauntlet of setbacks.

After Dad, John, and I had swapped a few tales, Jay Petervery (AKA JayP) stepped up to speak, quieting the room. In his characteristic laidback, unpolished style, he began by walking us through a digital map of the course projected on a screen behind him, noting a couple of last minute reroutes. We heard about gear essentials and safety (front and rear lights on at all times), how to prepare for the mandatory water boil test at the first checkpoint (8oz, rolling boil), and were also reminded of the origins of the Fat Pursuit. It was created as a safer, more contained way to learn about winter endurance riding than what one would find at the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, the ultimate race goal for many. The strong emphasis on preparation and safety aimed to fill in the sizable gap between dreaming about racing the ITI and actually doing it.

JayP fielded a few questions about logistics and then segued into the more delicate topic of mental preparation, moving beyond the comfort zone of the concrete. The tangibles are measurable and objective–you either have the physical gear or you don’t. The mental gear, on the other hand, is intangible, requiring serious self-refection to answer questions about whether or not one is properly equipped. This is not a typical topic for a pre-ride meeting. Of course, we all leaned in, desirous of new weapons with which to combat the personal demons we would all encounter tomorrow. This guy knew what he was talking about, after all, with more Iditarod rides under his belt than anyone.

After a thoughtful pause he pointed to a portion of the route about 50 miles in and warned us that it would likely be the most psychologically challenging part for us. We would be nearing the top of the second of three large climbs on the route, the afternoon sun will likely have softened the snow, and the daily snow machine traffic will have rutted the course pretty severely by that point in the day. “Take it from a rider,” he said, “you’re going to want to throw in the towel, but just promise yourself that you’ll make the difficult decisions once you get to the West Yellowstone checkpoint. It gets better from then on, trust me.” And that was it. But it was a lot.

Most riders tend to avoid discussion of doubts or fears and instead choose to barricade themselves behind walls of optimistic bravado, regardless of what’s actually going on in their heads. There is certainly value to the “fake it ‘till you make it” mentality, however, hearing the Iditarod champion simply acknowledge the reality of the mental struggle helps. None of the pros are from Krypton, after all. They know pain just like everyone else, but they have learned to manage their fear of it. It is okay to struggle–normal, in fact. It is also quite possible to keep the struggle from becoming paralyzing. Yet another skill to be learned and honed.

JayP quickly wrapped up his talk, clearly more comfortable publicly discussing outer-gear than inner-gear, and he left us with his own particular kind of wisdom: hashtag mantras. “You’ve done your work,” he said. “Ride forward.” In his Instagram and Facebook posts, JayP often ends with a series of hashtags. Some, per contractual necessity I’m sure, link back to his sponsors, while others are pocket-sized kernels of wisdom suitable for top caps and tattoos, all offering inner-gear advice: #alwayslearning. #alwaysharing. #doyourwork. #rideforward. #adventureforward. #payitforward. #onedayatatime. #rideyourownride. Whether JayP knows it or not, part of what makes the Fat Pursuit so appealing, attracting riders from all corners of the country no less, is that participants don’t simply learn about getting through the ride, they also learn about getting through life.

A few hours before my restful moment in the snow on the trail up Two Top Mountain, the demons and I were in the throws of a full scale battle. George R.R. Martin would have been proud. Winter had come indeed. JayP had predicted the location of my breakdown correctly and the second major climb of the day had literally brought me to my knees. I had summited the climb according to my GPS, however, the descent was rutted and soft, and despite the overall loss in elevation, it seemed like the climbs just kept coming. I gently rolled into a snow berm, melted off my bike, and sat down for a much-needed respite from the fight with the evil minions of my unconscious. Surprisingly, I had a cell signal and decided to “phone a friend,” a well known and often used, but dangerous, coping strategy. Dangerous because, depending on who you call, you are just as likely to be talked out of continuing as pushing on. Will the “friend” fight for the demons or for me? At this point in my riding career, my wife, Kate, knows the drill. She has come to expect a desperate call from the wilderness pretty much every time I set out for a big adventure, and she knows exactly how to respond.

“You’re doing so well, honey! You’re making great time,” she said. “We’re watching your dot and are so proud of you!” Then she graciously listened to my complaints of aches and pains and fielded the verbalization of my mental mess. She didn’t respond with advice or solutions to my problems, letting me off the hook, rather, she reinforced the encouragement she gave earlier. “Keep on going! You’re almost to the checkpoint, and just behind a couple of other riders. You’ve got this.” It helped immensely to have her as a sounding board, someone who would offer unflinching support but also allow me to make sense of my own thoughts as I spoke them out loud. The echo chamber between your ears can amplify self-defeating narratives, but those narratives often evaporate once they make their way out as harmless steamy breath in the cold night air. We said our goodbyes, and I promised I would push on to West Yellowstone, my “phone a friend” strategy having worked. She was right. I had this … didn’t I?

Steeling my will, I climbed back on my bike and prepared to continue the trek only to be startled back off again by a light flickering from around the bend in the trail behind me. It was Jim, a 200 miler I had passed a couple hours earlier. He had been on the trail since Noon the day before, when the 200 milers began–about nineteen hours longer than me. I decided a temporary companion would be nice (another coping strategy) and he seemed to think the same, so we settled into a complementary hike-a-bike pace and talked for awhile.

It is amazing how mutual exhaustion can break the ice in a fledgling relationship, stripping away inhibition and opening the door for easy connection. The trail, once again, was doing its work. Jim was quite the veteran of winter ultra events, it turned out. He had completed the 350 mile ITI journey from Anchorage to McGrath three times and was now on his third attempt at the 200 mile Fat Pursuit. His pace today, however, seemed glacial for someone with those credentials. Most, if not all, of the 200 milers were long gone. During the next couple miles we swapped riding stories, talked gear, and enjoyed the gift of one another’s company. And I began to see the bias in my early judgement of his pace. While I was struggling to repair an inner-gear mechanical, it seemed that Jim was … actually having a good time. He may have been slower than the rest but he was embodying one of the most difficult hashtag mantras of them all: #rideyourownride. I didn’t detect an ounce of self-pity or doubt in him. He had his own personal goals and was passionately moving towards them, heedless of my or anyone else’s judgements. Jim was exactly where he wanted to be. Something I’m not quite sure I could say for myself at that moment.

I eventually pulled ahead and struck out on my own again, feeling the need to mentally regroup with the help of a cup of hot soup as soon as possible. The last few miles to the West Yellowstone checkpoint seemed to take forever. I had developed a persistent case of nausea awhile back and was beginning to fear a replay of my Eagle Quest Lodge episode during last year’s Susitna 100 in Alaska, when I had a near-fainting spell after trying to get down a breakfast sandwich–a fate I had been desperately hoping to avoid this year.

After a final slippery descent in the dark, I reached the town of West Yellowstone and rolled up to the checkpoint. The Peterverys had rented an Airbnb apartment and turned it into a cosy oasis for beleaguered riders. The fat bikes haphazardly propped up among loosely hung Christmas lights signaled to me that I had indeed arrived. Upon entering, I was enthusiastically welcomed and was told to add my outerwear to the various piles of boots, jackets, and half-thawed neck gaiters strewn about. Tracey was the host, accompanied by several volunteers, all generously ready and willing to do a little trailside maintenance. Several hands pointed me to a place at the kitchen table whereupon I was presented with my long-dreamed-about cup of soup, along with a grilled-cheese waffle and a Coke–comfort and calorie delivery devices all. My nausea still wasn’t quite under control, so I chose to take it slowly and stick to the soup.

As my body began to warm and my sprits began to lift, I became more aware of the activity around me. Other riders with far away looks on their faces also stared into bowls of soup. There were some volunteers on the couch poring over mobile phones trying to decipher the Trackleaders data, and I heard someone say that Jim wasn’t too far behind. A 200-miler sitting across from me was claiming to be actively hallucinating. She had recently called it quits, claiming that this was the most difficult ride she had ever done. To her left, a fellow 200 km rider was contemplating making this the end of her journey as well. She hadn’t been able to get any food down for the entire ride and was worried that she was on the verge of bonking. I overheard her discussing her situation with Tracey who convinced her to head back out, take a nap in the woods, and then come back to the checkpoint if needed. It was obvious that Tracey had had this conversation before, instinctively diagnosing the rider’s physical and mental state and then prescribing just the right advice to help that rider achieve her goal, or, were she to decide to end her ride, to feel like she had given her all. This sounded like good advice for me too. If I could beat this nausea, refuel, and get back out there, I could really have a shot at this thing.

That was about the time Jim arrived. He found a spot next to me at the table and seemed just as high-spirited as he was when we parted company. Unlike the three zombies along side him, he gregariously shoveled down his grilled-cheese waffle and began to plot his next move on the trail, no hint of nausea problems or hallucinations. Man, this guy knew how to ride his own ride! His enthusiasm was contagious and it seemed to lift all of our spirits. We came out of our stupors and actually shared a few laughs, as if collectively remembering that this was supposed to be fun after all. I asked Jim and the other 200 miler for wisdom about camping in the snow and both had plenty of good advice. Seeing as how I had never bivvied out in these conditions before, I was anxious to get whatever tips I could. “First of all, pack down a large area of snow,” they said. “That way you can crawl into your sleeping bag without bringing a bunch of snow inside with you.” Jim advised putting boots and outerwear into the sleeping bag stuff sack and setting it outside. The other rider said she preferred to bring her clothing and boot liners inside her sleeping bag so they would thaw while she slept. Water, as well, needed to be brought into the sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. Great advice, but like everything else with this sport, it sounded like personal preference, born from experience, was a big part of the answer.

Mood bolstered by conversation and body refreshed from food, I felt the call of the trail again. However, during my rest the weather outside had been growing restless. Fat flakes were rapidly creating a blanket of powder on the ground. And, as I suited back up and headed out the door to begin the climb up Two Top, I recall hearing someone say that six to eight inches of accumulation was in the forecast. Sounded like a world-class adventure to me.

There I was, laying on the trail up Two Top, the snow coming down and betraying no hint of letting up. The prospect of making it much farther was looking slim. Fighting the snow was exhausting, and my reserves were once again nearing empty. Yet, unlike the last ascent a few hours ago, I could honestly say that this time I was right where I wanted to be. And I was grateful. I was grateful for my family’s faith in me–even when my own was lacking. I was grateful for Jay and Tracey’s invaluable hashtag wisdom. I was grateful for Jim and his inspiring example of self-reliance and perseverance. I was grateful for a body that could carry me out into the Yellowstone night. I was grateful for the steady hand of the trail, my teacher. And I was grateful for this divine wilderness, at once unforgiving and life-giving. What a gift it was to be on this path–a path not unlike the larger one we travel beyond the Fat Pursuit–journeying together, facing challenges, and sharing our strength with one another.

I pushed on a bit further and decided it was time to sleep. It was 2 a.m., nineteen hours into my ride. I still had roughly forty miles to go, having ridden eighty, and I figured I would reevaluate the conditions after a couple hours of shuteye. So, taking the advice I had been given, I found a break in the trees off the side of the trail, waded out in to the three-foot deep powder and did my best to flatten out a section to sleep on. Despite my best efforts, a little snow did find its way into my sleeping bag, but I was so tired that I didn’t really care. It was warm, I was horizontal, and I slept hard. The next thing I remember was squeaking brakes and someone saying, “hey, you ok?” After a couple a couple seconds of disorientation, I managed to unzip my bivy, only to be greeted with a layer of fresh snow falling onto my face. I told the rider that I was fine–just taking a break. The rider, having descended from Two Top, let me know that he was heading back to West Yellowstone. He reported that over a foot of snow had accumulated higher up making the trail virtually impassable. Two more riders followed, with similar accounts of of the conditions ahead. I thanked them, crawled back into my bag, and quickly decided that West Yellowstone would be my destination as well. Although I wouldn’t make it to the finish line, I felt like I had accomplished what I had travelled all this way for: I had discovered the peace of the present moment in the deepest, darkest woods–something I never found during my ride in Alaska last year–even though I had finished that ride.

I loaded up my bike and pushed it the eight miles back to West Yellowstone. It took four hours in the calf-deep snow. My dad, having deduced my decision by interpreting my SPOT data, met me at the checkpoint with a warm car and some coffee. And as we drove through the blizzard back to Island Park I knew that I was leaving inspired, not defeated, and with a wealth of experience I didn’t have a day earlier. I was right where I wanted to be. And I was grateful.

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