For the last couple of years I have been thinking about doing a multi-day (something longer than a 100 miler) summer mountain bike race. Alas, summer multi-day races seem to be more of a lower 48 thing and out of my reach, so I was super happy to hear about the Kenai 250. After getting the ok from Nancy, I signed up! It is a bit of a drive, but it seemed like a great way to scratch the “long race” itch and explore some trails I had not been on before – Yay!
The race starts and ends in Hope, Alaska, a small town south of Anchorage. It seemed to hit most of the major trails in that area – Resurrection Pass trail, Devil’s Pass trail, Johnson’s Pass trail, Lost Lake trail, and a bit of random extras. On the downside, it included some pavement, but such is life.
The weeks leading up to the race I kept hashing over what I was going to take – trying to figure out if a sleeping bag & bivy were needed, how much food, how much clothing, how much rain gear, etc. In the end I decided to err on the side of safety, and brought lots of clothes (well, perhaps not lots, but a fair bit of extras, including a puffy jacket I never used), full rain gear (yay!), and way too much food.
I drove down from Fairbanks with my friend Tom, who was going to hike the Resurrection Pass trail while I was racing, and was going to meet up with me at Hope, post race. I dropped him off at Cooper Landing, then continued on to Hope, where I got settled in, got my bike mostly packed up, then took a short spin around town. On my short ride I saw two bikes decked out with bike packing gear, and chatted for a bit with two racers, Chuck D. and Tony A. As we were talking, two other racers arrived, and folks started talking about the trails the course is on, bears, beers, and all the other manner of pre-race randomness.
Eventually I dragged myself away to go get some sleep and obsess about packing my bike. In the morning I zipped over to beautiful downtown Hope, and enjoyed the small group of racers in various stages of readiness. A rough count showed a little over 10 racers – a small crowd, with a few familiar faces. After a short pre-race meeting, we were off. Things started off slow and steady, as folks zoomed up the dirt roads leading to the start of the Resurrection Pass Trail.
(Its easy to talk photos while biking on the road..)
Once we got off the road and onto the trail I jumped back and forth between Mark and Chuck, with the single speeding Jay from Vermont zooming ahead.
I chatted a bit with Chuck on the way up to Resurrection Pass, but alas, he was way less winded than I was, and could chat away going up the hills while I was left gasping – such is life. On one of the hills I screwed up a shift and my chain dropped between my rear cassette and my spokes, leaving me annoyed and futzing getting the chain out while the others zoomed away. After a bit of pulling and tugging I got the chain out (I really need to start taking bike maintenance more seriously!) and got moving again. This happened several more times during the race, but I was too worried about adjusting it in the wrong direction and didn’t mess with the limit screws. A bit more bike maintenance before the race would have made things a lot easier!
At the top of the pass, Jay was stopped taking photos of the fine view, and I stopped for a moment to say hi, then headed down to enjoy the fantastic downhill ride into Cooper Landing.
Mark and Chuck really kicked into high gear, and zoomed off. I didn’t see Chuck again until after the race, and wouldn’t see Mark again until Seward. This section is always a blast – fun and fast, and easy riding – yay! Near the big lakes (Juneau Lake?) I passed Tom as he was hiking towards Hope.
(Photo compliments of Tom)
Just before Cooper Landing I started running into hikers, and had to slow things down a bit as to not mow anyone down. Eventually it was out onto the road, and up into the Russian Lakes trail system. From this point on everything was new to me, and I was happy to be on new trails!
The first couple of miles of the Russian Lakes trail were a bit slow, as there were lots of hikers and a bit of brush. With all the pre-race talk of bears I was pretty paranoid, and keep up a nearly constant racket of “whoop, whoop”, “BooYah”, and “Hey, hey, hey!”. I am sure everyone I passed thought I was insane. At one point I surprised a pair of bow hunters all dressed up in camo. The idea of bow hunting (or any hunting at all) in such a crowded area seemed insane to me, as the idea of chasing a wounded black bear or moose down the busy trail would have given me pause, but each to their own. Once I got away from the trailhead the hikers thinned out a lot, and I enjoyed zooming over alpine meadows and stands of huge trees.
(Me, looking tired on Russian Lakes)
The grass and greenery were pretty thick in the meadows, and it was often impossible to see where my tires were – I eventually gave up worrying and trusted the trail builders not to have hidden huge rocks.
This worked fine except for a short section where I smashed my right foot into a rock at speed – ouch! Eventually it was back onto dirt road, then onto pavement, through Cooper Landing and onto the Seward Highway. Alas, with the road came rain, first sprinkles, then dumping. Not the end of the world, but thank goodness for full rain gear. As I changed into rain gear I noticed I no longer had a camera – apparently it fell out of my jersey pocket somewhere on Russian Lakes.
(Last photo from the race – one of the handful of Russian Lakes bridges.)
I debated going back, but quickly resigned myself to its loss. The camera had seen many adventures, but losing it meant no pictures from the race, which was not a happy thought. It was apparently picked up by Jay, and made its way back to me a month or so after the race. As I passed through Cooper Landing I made a quick stop at a drive-through coffee shop, getting a huge brownie and 16 oz latte to go, and made a quick stop at a random gas station for more snacks.
The section around Cooper Landing was pretty intense traffic-wise, but it was short, and there was a nice dirt road connector that skipped some of the madness before hitting the Seward Highway – yay! After the Seward Highway it was back onto trail and I spent a bit of time biking in circles looking for the right trail. The cue sheet said “Lost Lake” trail, but the only trail I could find was labeled “Primrose Trail”. With all the rain it had been easy to follow Mark and Chuck’s tracks on the soft trail, but everything here had gravel on it, making finding them impossible. I soon gave up and headed up the Primrose trail, and after a half mile started seeing Mark and Chuck’s tracks again – yay! It was a blast – lots of muddy biking though the forest. Eventually the trail climbed out of the trees into the alpine, and I enjoyed the views while zooming along. I had been warned that a few sections here were pretty tricky, but everything seemed ridable, except for a few steep sections of stairs that I walked. It looked like Mark and Chuck just hammered down them, but I keep worrying about some tricky section of doom right at the bottom of one of the steep sections, and kept things slow. The ride down was fantastic, and I never encountered anything particularly tricky – yay! I am a klutzy rider in anything tricky, so I was super happy not to run into anything hard. The rain was starting to let up, but as I made it back onto the Seward Highway, it started getting dark and I started thinking about places to sleep and how likely it was I could find a nice dry tree to bivy under. Everything looked wet and a bit miserable, so I was getting resigned for a long night of wet biking.
I zoomed into Seward, enjoying the ride on the bike path into town, to find Mark sitting under the carport of the Holiday Inn, looking a bit wet as he munched on a pile of snacks. I said hi, and we talked for a bit, and Mark mentioned that he had failed to find a hotel with any rooms free. Hmm – a hotel! A nice dry room – now that’s a thought. He also relayed the news that Chuck had bailed due to all the rain. Chuck lives in Seward, which was a major disadvantage in this case, as he had a nice warm, dry house calling him home. Mark said he was going to head off down the trail and bivy under a tree for a couple of hours, and I headed off to continue my loop though Seward, haunted by visions of a dry hotel room.
Seward at 12:30am on a rainy day is a funny place. The streets were mostly empty, except for the random people wandering around, most of whom appeared to be a bit drunk and staggering. It sort of felt like the start of a low budget zombie movie. The race route had us going though Seward twice and so I got a pretty nice tour of downtown Seward. After passing a few hotels I randomly picked one, dropped in, and checked to see if they had any rooms available – and I was in luck, though got a bit of sticker shock from the price I was quoted. I headed back out, got to the end of town, then headed back. On a whim I stopped at another hotel, and asked about rooms. I was told yes, they had a room available, and I was nearly floored by the price – damn! Apparently my expression was less than favorable, and the guy at the desk dropped the price twice before I could say anything. Since it was still more than the first place, I headed out, and on the way back though town stopped at the first hotel and enjoyed several hours of sleep in a warm, dry bed, though with a lighter wallet. I must have been quite a sight – completely soaked and muddy – but they didn’t kick me out, though the desk attendant thought I was insane when I showed up to check back out 4 hours later. I was in too big of a hurry to dry out, and left all my food on my bike, which I regretted when I was woken 2 hours later by hunger pangs. After a bit too long inside I packed up and headed out, stopping for a handful of snacks at Safeway before getting back going and heading out.
By this time the rain had stopped and it was overcast but dry, which made for much nicer biking. The next section of trail was on something signed the “Historical Iditarod Trail”, and was a blast – lots of narrowish trail winding though huge trees, with the occasional bridge. After crossing back over the Seward Highway, things got even more fun, with dryer trail and some long sections of raised bridging. While zipping across a small creek, I had my only flat when a sharp bit of slate slashed my front tire open, leaving an inch-long slash in the middle of the tire. Several minutes of fiddling with a tube and boot and I was back on the trail, though I took sections with sharp looking rocks a bit more slowly. Soon I was back out on the Seward Highway, with a brief detour on a wonderful single track loop, before hitting Johnson’s Pass trail.
Johnson’s Pass was fantastic fun, with pretty much no pushing to speak of and wonderful biking. Midway though Johnson’s I encountered two of the Forest Service’s trail crew, both on bikes with trailers of tools. I stopped and chatted for a bit, then pushed on. Soon I was back on pavement, heading towards Devil’s Pass Trailhead. For the first 8 miles or so there is a nice wide separated bike path, which I took advantage of, even though it is slightly longer. It was nice to be off the road and to enjoy spinning while listening to an audiobook (Cold Days by Jim Butcher, completely escapist trash, but just the thing 200 miles into a race.) Soon the path ended, and it was back on the road. I think I was honked at about 5 times in this section, which was surreal as I was riding right on the white line, and being very well behaved. Eventually I started getting close to the trailhead, and saw a biker parked outside a restaurant – it was Mark! I pulled over to say hi – and chatted for a bit.
Mark had stopped for a bit of food with his wife Darcy, and was mellowing out. I was tempted to stop and enjoy a burger, but the lure of the last ~30 miles of trail was calling, so I left Mark to his meal. Most of the race up to this point was all new to me, but I was about to be back on trail I had ridden before, and was really looking forward to the long downhill ride into Hope! The climb up to Devil’s pass was fun, but did involve a couple of brief sections of pushing, and several water crossings. Mark caught up to me just as I left the treeline, and we rode up over Devil’s Pass and over Resurrection Pass together.
(Devils Pass, 20 hours before I biked though it. Complements Tom.)
At this point in the race I really only had two gears that were working reliably – and that combined with the granny and middle ring were the only thing I had going at this point, and shifting between them was stiff and slow. I probably should have stopped and cleaned the mud off my chain and added some oil, but I was way too tired and lazy to deal with it.
I had my first and only crash of the race when I bounced off some rocks and turtled upside down on the side of the trail, right in front of Mark – awesome! Near the top of Resurrection Pass I started losing air from my rear tire, and had to stop and add more air, hoping the Stans would do its magic, but no such luck – for the last hours of the race I had to stop every half hour or so to add air. I probably should have just put a tube in at this point, but was not feeling motivated enough to deal with it. Mark pulled over just as we entered tree line to go bivy in a nice stand of spruce, as his light was not bright enough to ride though the trees with. I pushed on though, making tons of noise as I bounced and banged the last 10 miles into Hope. I finished a little after 2am, happy to be done and back at the truck. I was surprised to see folks still wandering around Hope at 2am, though the bar was closed. Tom had left a note saying he was camped at a nearby FS campground, but I soon gave up finding where he was camped and crashed in the back seat of the truck, happy to be in clean, dry clothing and to be munching on Tom’s big bag of Triscuits.
All and all I was quite happy with my performance in the race, though I made tons of small mistakes, and rode a fair bit slower than I should have. Such is life. This race is highly recommended, and a great way to see a lot of trails in South Central. I am super envious of all the fantastic riding in this area! The experience really made me interested in doing more of these.. now if there were only more of them in Alaska!
A big thanks to Sharon and Michael for organizing the event, Tom for accompanying me for the drive up and back, and of course Nancy and the Twins for letting me escape for several days. A huge thanks to Jay from VA and Michael for getting my camera back to me – hurrah!
Some post race notes, in semi random order:
Things that worked
- Bright light – I brought a fairly bright light, and didn’t regret it. Something brighter might have been worthwhile.
- Rain gear – I brought rain pants and a e-vent rain jacket, and it was worth the extra weight.
- “alt” handlebars and “paddle” grips – This was my first long race with some funky new style bars, and I loved them. Combined with ergon style paddle grips I didn’t have any hand numbness problems or any upper body stiffness or soreness, which was pretty nice. Sold on this setup, at least for long summer races.
- cue sheets – first time I have ever used/taken them -awesome.
- gps with tracklog- without I gps I would have been confused at several points or just plain got lost. It was 100% required for me, perhaps the locals wouldn’t need it.
- Relevate Designs seatbag I have never used these things in the rain before – it worked great, and after lots of rain everything in it appeared to be dry. Very impressed!
- extra layers – at 1am extended downhills in the rain take a lot out of me, it was worth the weight carrying extra layers. I brought extra socks, 1 pair (never used, but almost got them out at one point to use as mittens), extra polypro top (used), neopreme socks (never used), windproof vest (used, a lot), windproof top (used, a lot), light weight puffy (never used), rain mitts (used). Would take everything again. Long downhills in the rain are cold!
Things that did not work well
- too much food – as usual I packed way too much food.
- bike prep – I dropped my chain behind the cassette 10 miles into the race, which could have been avoided by taking the time pre-event to actually look over my bike and make sure everything was shifting properly.
- rigid bike – about half the racers were on full suspension bikes, which I think was a good call. 200+ miles of bumps was a bit much. It was ok, but I think I could have made better time on my FS bike. Next time!
- fragile tires – I punched a rock straight though my front tire, and put several slashes in the rear tire. The rear tire leaked constantly the last 10 miles, and I had to pump it up about 8 times, which was a huge waste of energy and time. I think running more durable tires would have been a good call. In the front I had a no longer made WTB Prowler SL, which while being a great front tire has a very thin casing. The rear tire, a S-WORKS FASTTRAK, was shredded with three or so slashes that showed a good deal of thread and had to be tossed after the race. Something in a similar vein, but with more cut resistance would be a good call. Also tubing a tire at the first sign of tubeless failure would have saved some time and frustration. I need to find a WTB Nanorapter like tire with a tougher casing!
- drive train maintenance – I could have been faster and it would have saved my knees some ware and tare if I had stopped to clean the mud off my chain and re-oil it occasionally.
- a whistle or some other non-bell noise maker – I spent a lot of time making “Hey Bear!”, “Whoop, Whoop!”, etc noises as I moved at a pretty good clip though some fairly dense greenery and trees. Making noise was pretty important not to mow down a bear, or another hiker, but some other scheme, perhaps a whistle or something similar would be better, as I was pretty sick of shouting after a while.
- disorganized shopping – when I hit stores (three times I think – cooper landing, moose pass, seward) I wandered around shell shocked, confused about what to get, and taking forever. I should get some sort of shopping snack plan before even walking in, so I don’t waste so much time dinking around!
- poor riding skills – I don’t get much time riding anything challenging in Fairbanks, and I regretted it several times in the race. I need to make a concerted effort to seek out more challenging riding, so don’t just fall over when going over rocks.
GPS tracklogs on Strava and Garmin Connect . Don’t look at those too closely, all it does is show how depressingly slowly I biked .
My total time was 42.5 hours.
I am already looking forward to next years race! I think someone fast (Like Chuck D!) could do a sub 30hr easily, or sub 24hr with some effort.
PS: I wrote this post in early October, 2013, but dated it July 6th, the day I finished the race.
PS#2: I would like to thank my wonderful wife Nancy for not minding me disappearing for several days to do this race, Jeff G. at Beaver Sports for some last minute bike maintenance (yay for working brakes), and the folks at Goldstream Sports for helping me out a bit with bike fit.