Monday, February 29, 2016



The bartender and the few folks still in the bar welcomed me with a mixture of "What the hell are you doing out there" and "Get those clothes off and get by the fire". I wasn't in that bad of shape but I can imagine someone walking into the bar with a frozen face, off of a bike, at 1 am in these conditions, is not what the clientele were expecting. I accepted their offers and did as instructed, for the most part. I wasn't sweaty so I actually added a layer, but I did head over towards the fire and allowed the barkeep to make me a pizza of my own. Leaving Ojibwa, I'd have bet you that by this time, the lights of Rice Lake would be in my view. How had the wheels come off so fast? At the time, I only knew I was struggling and food, drink and rest were necessary before taking on the last 15-16 miles. Sitting next to the fire, wrestling my face mask in order to get food and drink into my mouth must have been quite a sight.Thirty minutes later, an entire Pizza in my belly and two water bottles full of nearly boiling water, so as to make it to the finish without freezing, I left my Saturday night beer drinking buddies behind. I had been on the bike nearly 19 hours.

Well fed, well hydrated and properly dressed, spirits were still good. Every piece of gear I had was now on. Wool knickers were covered by insulated wind pants. The three layers that had served me so well all day, sometimes zipped, sometimes not were all fully zipped up and safely shielded by the non breathable, body heat enclosing rain jacket. My hood was up and fully zipped over a head beanie and my 45 North wool cap. There was not a single part of my body that was not covered by at least two if not three layers. The "CobraFists" (hand protection that mount onto the handlebars), each had a couple hand warmers in them to keep the digits protected. At the time there was no way of knowing exactly how cold it was, but it was COLD. Make a mistake and expose any body parts to this weather and the damage could be permanent. Others had already found this out or were about to.

Andrea Cohen and Bonnie Gagnon would finish one two in the Women's division. Andrea Cohen would end up with frostbite on two of her toes and would be unable to compete at Arrowhead two weeks later. Bonnie nearly froze her ear off..." I thought something was hanging out of my cap so I kept trying to rip it off, only to discover it was my earlobe". The pieces of skin in this photo are from her ear.

Mark Scotch would finish the race on his bike in just over 22 hours. Towards the end of the race he had to abandon his goggles due to icing.

Mark has a ton of experience (and as you see, a great attitude) in these conditions. He didn't do any permanent damage, but after finishing and getting inside, these were his comments..."The lights and sudden warmth hit me in a couple of minutes and my left eye felt like someone stabbed an ice pick in it. The pain was so intense it caused me to lose my balance and I had to lay down for awhile."

Mark McCulloch would not fare nearly as well. So intent on finishing and qualifying for Arrowhead he pushed through the numbing of his feet. His reward for battling Mother Nature for 25 hours on the bike?

Mark would end up in an emergency burn unit for three days and in bandages for 6 weeks. He just got the bandages off this week. They were able to save all his toes. It should be noted that Mark DID finish. It's a real possibility he'll never again be able to race in cold temperatures. I'm guessing there were more stories like these and I am certainly grateful to not have had to test myself in these conditions my first year.

I knew the remaining trail well from the year before. It would be a hilly 8 miles or so before the trail turned north and intersect with the spur into Rice Lake just 4 miles from the finish. This was the home stretch. The freezing temperatures had nearly reduced the bike to a single speed. A few of the hills, which had been ridable earlier in the day, now had to be walked. The walking actually felt good and allowed some time to reflect and enjoy the harsh beauty of my surroundings. This was the sharp end of the stick. It was so cold you could actually hear the trees crackling. It was as if mother nature's icy grip was attempting to squeeze the life right out of them. Certainly, it was obvious that the conditions were dangerous, but I had never felt so alive.

The hills began to subside and I knew the turn to the north had to be soon ahead, which would mean just 4 miles to the Rice Lake spur. My pace had slowed to what seemed like a crawl. Even the slightest incline required rising out of the seat and standing on the pedals to keep them turning. It felt like someone had attached a damn anvil to the back of the bike in comparison to how it had felt just 8 hours earlier.  That right hand bend in the trail had to be soon. There were mile markers on the trail, which I had ignored all day. I had no interest in counting up to 75 and back down to zero, but I couldn't resist nor could I believe my eyes when the marker read "2". In my fatigued mental and physical state I had not noticed that I had already made the turn to the north. The barn doors were swinging open. I was 6 miles from home!!

Had it not been for the trail crossing the highway, I'm not sure when I would have noticed. Crossing the pavement, the bike nearly slid out from under me. There was no ice. Getting off the bike, I couldn't believe it. "How freaking long had it been this way?!?!" I had figured it was the snow, or the length of time on the bike or a combination of the two. Thinking back, I remembered the bike pump outside the turnaround back at the gym in Park Falls. That fleeting thought to check my tire pressure, ignored, had cost me who knows how much time and anguish. The back tire was completely flat. Pushing the bike 6 more miles would mean 3 hours or more. That's a tough pill to swallow when you have already plugged in 30 - 45 minutes. I made the decision to stop and air up the tire. No big deal, I had a fat CO2 cartridge to get me started and hammering on that hand pump to fill the rest of the tire would keep me from getting too cold.

Working on a bike with big bulky gloves is not easy. Combine that with your mental state after 20 hours on the bike and it gets way tougher. The zippers on the Bike Bag Dude frame bag were nearly frozen shut. It wasn't that they had gotten wet or had any history of trouble. Far from it. These bags, hand made in Australia are the best. Nothing wanted to work in this cold.  The CO2 cartridge and I had a quick talk before attaching it to the tire. "We don't need any trouble here. You need to do your job now. This is why your here. Understood?" I wouldn't normally make a habit of chatting with a CO2 cartridge but this was not your average tire needing air situation. It turned out the cartridge was not a good listener. Slowly unscrewing the device to release the air, it puked it's contents right back at me."SH#T SH#T SH#T". Strike one. I tightened it back up in attempt to save what was left in the cartridge, checked the connection and gave it another go, each time taking off my gloves in an effort to make sure I didn't mess things up. The second attempt was no better. Strike two. Did anything work in these conditions?!?! Pumping up a Fat bike tire by hand is no treat. It takes forever. Time is not your friend in these conditions. Racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational have a saying when it's gets really cold. "Move or Die."  The hand pump would have to do.

"Why won't this damn thing go on?!?!?" I couldn't get the pump to attach to the valve stem. This made no sense. Had I lost my mind? Had it abandoned me to the point that the simplest of tasks could no longer be performed? Then I remembered back a month earlier using the pump on my girlfriend's bike. She had a different stem so I'd had to switch out the small pieces inside the pump to make it work. This was not a huge problem. If you were doing this on a summer evening back in Iowa it was not even a small problem. Here, the clock was ticking. Yes, I was dressed right and yes I had kept myself from sweating and these things saved me from being in real trouble, but eventually the cold would win if I didn't get this show moving. It was necessary to take off the gloves again in order to get the end of the hand pump off and switch the two small plastic pieces back. I focused as best I could, so as to not drop or misplace a part. It wasn't easy. Exposed to the cold for this many hours, trivial tasks like taking off a helmet can be difficult. It took only a couple minutes to make the switch didn't fit. "Ok, Dumbass, you gotta focus!" I must have taken the two pieces out and then put them back in the exact same way. Taking a deep breath and focusing with all my might, I removed the two pieces again, made sure to flip them correctly, placing them back into the pump and screwing it closed. Again, it would not fit. Removing it from the valve stem, I prayed that it was just cold. There was no way I could have messed this up. It would not go on. I snapped. "God DA#%, SONOFA#&@TH, WHAT THE #@%& IS GOING ON?!?!" I screamed into the dark, frigid air. There was more expletives in the barrage than I care for my mother to read here so use your imagination. This was the simplest of tasks, I thought, now nearly out of my mind. Remembering something I had read years before about Everest I did my best to calm myself. The quote was in reply to a question as to what killed most people on Everest and the reply was "panic". This was not the place to lose it. The problem was not the pump, it had no reason to fight me. My fingers remaining attached to my hands for the remainder of my life were of no concern to it. Focusing with the thought that "this is it, this is your last chance" I breathed deeply in an attempt to laser my focus. Mother natures ice cold tentacles were finding their way into me. Soon she would have me firmly in her grasp. Screwing the top of the hand pump back on I said a quick prayer before attempting to reattach it to the valve stem. If this failed, I'd have to start walking and was unsure if that would be enough to warm me. It's doubtful anyone has ever been forced into their sleeping bag 6 miles from the finish at Tuscobia. I hoped not to be the first.

It went on. I pumped for all I was worth, not so much in an effort to get back in the race as to warm up my nearly shivering body. Hand pumping a completely flat fat tire is no treat. I welcomed it. Switching hands when they grew tired, the activity was working not only to better the tire condition but I could feel my core warming. Optimism is a good thing. There was reason to believe the finish was once again near. The tire was not fully inflated but it was close enough to get me home I figured. The pump was stuck. I could not get it off the valve. Cursing ensued....loudly. If not careful, I could pull the valve stem completely out with the pump. When the pump finally disengaged, valve stem intact, I packed up, threw my leg over the saddle, and got the hell out of there. I was done with this place. It felt like a prison break. There was nothing to see looking back over my shoulder but it sure seemed like I was riding for my life.

It was clear within a couple of minutes that the bead on the tire had not sealed completely and I was losing air fast. If you have ever seen a tractor pull this was almost identical. With each stroke of the pedal it was as if the weight behind me got closer and closer. Eventually, standing on the pedals, pulling on the handlebars in an attempt to get every watt of power out of my legs, the bike just stopped. I was still 4 miles away. I could see the lights of Rice Lake, which only added to the cruelty.

I had turned the cell phone on, just in case this became a real emergency, which it was certainly close to. Text messages between those back home and Chuck (who was forced out of the run due to back problems) let me know that Chuck was waiting in the finish area, wondering where in the world I was and why I wasn't finished yet. Fortunately, with cell service, I was able to reach him and share with him what was going on. He was kind enough to share with the folks back home that I was all right. He'd had enough waiting and let me know he was on his way out. The 1965 western he was watching back at the finish couldn't compare with the real life drama taking place just a few miles down the road.

There would be no more chances taken. I  pumped that tire as full as possible, daring it to pop. Rage was my new found fuel. Desperation was the kindling. Less than 4 miles were left between me and the finish. The trail intersected the road 3 or 4 times in this last section. "3 one mile repeats", I told myself. I took off with all I had. Chuck raced ahead and I could see his headlights eventually turn in front of me. Blazing past him, tire still holding, I screamed like a schoolboy on his first carnival ride, his phone camera flashing in an attempt to capture the moment. 2 stops later, Chuck again waiting, I was convinced I had made it. Nearly falling off the bike, I realized I was not yet there.  "I can't do it bro, I can't go any further". Completely, physically and mentally bankrupt, the summit in my view seemed unattainable. Chuck offered encouragement and with one last deep breath I mounted the old horse for what I hoped would be the last time.

The blinky light at the end of the trail confused me at first. There was no way a bike could be in front of me. Had I miscalculated yet again? Would there be another mile, maybe two? My mind raced in desperation before realizing the red blinking light was not moving. The building lights just to the right confirmed my hopes. That small $2.99 red blinky light marked the end of the trail. I slowed as I neared it, Chuck howling that I had done it and laughed as I shakily came to a stop..."Dude, don't stop, not here, just across the street to the building!!"

Straddling the bike, I leaned over, hugging him. "You did it man..."Fu@#ing epic!!" He exclaimed. The building and the "official" finish could wait. Straddling the bike, hoping not to fall, I leaned over. "I love you bro. Thanks for being here. Let's go get warm."

This concludes "Losing My Mind 6 Miles From Home...The Tuscobia 158".

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Until next Blog,
Dream Big Dream
Steve Cannon
Author - "40 Days - Life, Love, Loss and a Historic Run Around One of the World's Largest Lakes"

1 comment:

  1. What? I spent good money on the Kindle version of your book and now it's on sale??? Next time I see you I'll demand reimbursement, but first a hug. Great writing, great honesty, great effort, and thanks for your sharing the realities of life.