Iditarod Invitational March 2004

Silent Agony

Nikolai To McGrath (About 50 Miles)



Within a couple of miles of Nikolai Aidan dropped off the back, with narrower tyres he just wasn't able to ride the softer snow that we could just about manage. An hour or so later Andy pulled away from me, possibly due to me constantly stopping and snacking rather than being slower. I would be on my own all the way to McGrath.

The trail follows the Kuskokwim River all the way to McGrath. It must be an old river as it twists and turns in huge arcs, the direction would constantly change from West to North to South. Again the snow was too soft for long sections where I was reduced to pushing. The river was quite well used by snow machiners travelling between Nikolai and McGrath, nothing to do with the fact that Nikolai was a dry town! On a few occasions a snow machiner would stop to chat, telling me that my friend was a couple of miles ahead.

I had read previous Idita stories where people had got a kind of summit fever at Nikolai and headed for McGrath thinking that it was just around the corner, the reality was that this was probably the longest unbroken stretch. By 9pm I was feeling tired and convinced myself I should take a break. My camelbak was empty, I had no liquid left so I pulled over where the snow looked clean, set up the stove and began to make water. In Anchorage I had timed how long it took to melt two litres of snow, about 20 minutes, pretty slow if you were in a hurry. I ate the rest of the salmon strips I had been carrying and some noodles. One hour later I was on the move again, I thought Aidan might have caught up with me but there was no sign of any lights.

I carried on. I had been told about the radio tower at McGrath and how you could see the light on the top from miles and miles away. However no one had said what colour the light was. Through the thick cloud I could make out a bright white light in the distance and thought that this might be McGrath, but it didn't seem quite right. Another clue had been given that to cut off several miles of extra riding you had to pull off the river before McGrath by a cabin on the left bank, this would take you on a shortcut through the woods. Bill had said he would try and get Peter to mark the turn off, I hoped more than anything he had managed to do this.

With what I thought was still about 15 miles to go I started to feel unwell, I had the most violent stomach cramps that had me doubled over kneeling on the ground. It could have been the snow I melted so I stopped drinking any more, it could have been the salmon strips, either way it hurt. I tried to make myself sick but nothing came of it. I got up and pushed. I was now more tired than at any other point in the race, I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep and make the stomach pains go away. I got on the bike and rode intermittently. I would close my eyes and ride for tens of seconds safe in the knowledge there was nothing to crash in to. I got off the bike and slumped over the handlebar and fell asleep for one or two minutes. I didn't want to bivi, I wanted to finish, the thought of waking up and having to continue drove me on.

Finally there was a marker in the middle of the river, it read something like 'Alaska Ultrasport' with an arrow pointing off the river by a cabin. It was good and bad, the bad was that in small writing it said 9 miles to go, two or three hours, it was now around midnight.

I moved into the woods and continued the pattern of riding, walking and then sleeping for a minute or two. The stomach pains were as bad as ever, never had I wanted to just lie down and sleep more than now. I could now make out the red light of the radio tower, I guessed the white light I had seen earlier had just been a bright star or planet.

As I slowly progressed I passed more signs that Peter had put out until I finally emerged off the trail onto the road into McGrath and the final sign said 3 miles. I rode down the centre of the hard packed road and could pick out what must have been Andy Heading's tyres weaving from one side of the road to the other, at least I was riding in a straight line, he must have been in a bad way or just happy to be nearly finished and playing.

McGrath was sprawling like every other American town and it took a while to find where I wanted to be, Peters house, with a large Ultrasport banner outside, this was finally the end and a wave of relief flushed through my body. I walked towards the front door, left my bike propped up and pulled off my sleeping bag. I walked in to the kitchen and living area and saw the race log on the kitchen table, I looked at my watch, 2:30am, I signed in, 8th. I could make out a shape sleeping on the sofa, maybe this was Peter but it looked liked Roberto, it was dark.

I lay my sleeping bag on the hard floor, climbed in and put my head down knowing that I could sleep for as long as I wanted, I didn't have to get up and race, this was without doubt the hardest earned rest of my life. I felt completely at ease with myself as I drifted into a deep deep sleep.

The End

The End