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Fully Loaded: Racing the Fat Pursuit

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After more than 27 hours of racing through the snow, the 200-mile Fat Pursuit was going to come down to a sprint. As the finish arch came into view, my exhausted legs put out a burst of power that was enough get the jump on ultra-racing veteran Neil Beltchenko. It was a short sprint, so short that my legs didn't even register the effort. Or perhaps my brain was simply too weary to interpret the signals coming from my legs. But those legs held off Beltchenko, and I breathed an exhausted sign of relief at simply completing 200 miles on snow and my first-ever winter ultra. This style of racing honestly had never really captured my interest. I relish technical, rocky singletrack and racing through the long days and warm nights of summer. But unexpectedly, I ended up toeing the line at January's Fat Pursuit. The experience was one that taught me an inordinate amount in a short time, and more importantly, opened my eyes to why the small-but-growing winter fat-bike ultra scene is brimming with folks who keep coming back for more.

Kurt Refsnider's race-winning Pivot LES Fat (loaned by the kind folks at Fitzgerald's Bicycles in Victor), packed with overnight gear, 10,000 calories of food and extra clothing suitable for temperatures down to a bit below 0 °F.

The unlikely series of events that led to my first winter racing experience began on Christmas Eve with the type of phone call you never want to receive. One of my closest friends and fellow ultra racer Kaitlyn Boyle had just been in a severe car accident in Idaho. She was taken from one hospital to another, and news about her condition was sparse. I hastily tossed some winter clothing into my truck and headed north through the night to be able to support her. Roads were deserted, and Santa's sleigh was nowhere to be seen above Utah's high plateau country. After 800 blurry miles, I took the elevator up to the ICU and found Boyle's room. She was awake and looked over with a drowsy smile amid a dense tangle of tubes and wires.

"I rode groomed singletrack yesterday," she said with a grin. "It was so much fun. I want to try racing winter ultras now." She had already undergone emergency surgery on her bladder, and another operation to stabilize her shattered pelvis and sacrum would follow a few days later. Despite that, she was already dreaming about racing again.

"You should stay and race the Fat Pursuit," she continued. The Fat Pursuit, put on by Jay and Tracey Petervary, meanders around the vast network of groomed snow-machine trails outside Yellowstone National Park. "It's next weekend." Boyle was clearly on a heavy drip of painkillers, but she sure was excited.

"Uh, I don't have a fat bike. Or any winter gear. And I haven't ridden on snow in years." I had plenty of excuses for why racing was a bad idea, but if I was in the neighborhood, why not give it a whirl?

A few days later, I drove over to the Teton Valley to deal with Boyle's frighteningly mangled truck, then met up with the Petervarys for a ride. They were thrilled that I was considering their event and offered to loan me any gear I might need. Pieces began to fall into place. Before long, I had all the clothing and equipment that I'd need, and with a few more snowy rides, I decided that I was out of excuses to not race. I also realized that after having been racing bikes for more than 20 years, the opportunity to try an entirely new style of racing is a rare treat that deserves to be embraced.

Riders lined up and eager to roll at the start of the 200-mile race.

The 200-mile version of the Fat Pursuit (there's also a 200-kilometer option) sends riders on a massive loop through the plateaus, canyons and mountains along the Idaho-Montana border. The route boasts more than 11,000 feet of climbing, and temperatures routinely dip well below 0 °F. Three checkpoints along the way offer warm food and water, but aside from those, riders must be entirely self-supported.

In the week leading up to the event, I was fortunate enough to find myself surrounded by other winter cycling enthusiasts that shared with me all their best advice: Don't let yourself sweat, at all. Put chicken roasting bags over your liner socks to keep your insulating socks from getting sweaty. Mini-pump o-rings fail if you try to use them in very cold temperatures. Two psi in your tires might be too much. The list went on, and I was so appreciative.

At the crack of noon on Friday afternoon, a couple dozen intrepid riders stood smiling and joking at the start line. Bikes were loaded down with mandatory winter camping gear: 0 °F sleeping bag, shelter, insulating sleeping pad, stove, etc. Some riders would get a few hours of sleep or more, and others would attempt to push through the entire 200 miles without napping. I fell in the latter category, confident in my ability to do so if I could keep my body warm. I also started with enough food for nearly 30 hours (10,000 calories), a mix of chocolate, nut butter bars, peanut butter cups, and Bobo's Oat Bars diced up into bite-sized pieces.

All reservations about the magnitude of the undertaking were immediately forgotten amid the winter wonderland into which I pedaled. We found ourselves on firm groomed trail moving quickly (which on snow is 10 miles-per-hour) among widely scattered spruce trees and frozen wetlands and flanked by a tall ridgeline cloaked in bright white snow. Swans drifted on the open water, and bald eagles perched on snags above. I grinned widely—how had I never experienced something like this before? Up ahead, Beltchenko and Mike Barklow were cruising, far less distracted. Beltchenko is an experienced winter ultra veteran now living in Minnesota, and Mike lives just an hour to the south and had already raced this event multiple times.

The small bits of gear carried by Refsnider for 30 hours of winter racing.

Not more than a few hours after we started pedaling, the sun was already sinking toward the horizon, and I found myself on a wide, solid snow-machine trail aimed toward the jagged peaks of the distant Teton Mountains. I steered my bike along one lone set of fat-tire tracks laid down by Beltchenko. I could see his red jacket out in front on long straightaways, but just a couple dozen miles into the race, I felt no urgency to chase him down. So I enjoyed the slightly faster riding in his tracks and focused on my bags of snacks. Behind me, Barklow had settled into his own pace.

Late evening arrived, and I was pleased that I was still eating steadily, that my water remained unfrozen, and that I could still see Beltchenko's blinking red taillight occasionally. We were in the midst of a 20-mile climb, moving briskly under a black and moonless sky. I paused to put on a wind vest and was immediately enveloped by the silence that is so unique to the snow-covered realm. Bulbous, almost cartoon-like pillows on the spruce bows linking both sides of the trail glowed vividly in my headlight.

My delight was tempered by muscles in my legs already feeling concerningly fatigued, and I was still not even quite a quarter of the way through the race. Muscles that don't normally tire so quickly revealed the stress of absolutely continuous, slow pedaling on an unfamiliar bike. I looked down at the GPS on my handlebars. Some small text in the corner of the screen read, "12 hours 36 minutes until sunrise." Winter nights stretch on for so dang long! Briefly, I questioned whether or not I should have signed up for a 200-mile snow race, but my mind, speaking from experience, immediately quashed those concerns with a convincing argument that my legs would feel better soon. Fortunately, that's exactly what happened, and I caught Beltchenko firing up his stove for the required water boil test at the first checkpoint at mile 80. We joked with the volunteers, drank hot chocolate and broth, and set off up the next long climb together.

Mike Barklow, the first rider to ever finish the Fat Pursuit in completely self-supported fashion, adjusting his tire pressure to laughably low.

Beltchenko and I chatted intermittently as we each drifted back and forth across the trail, struggling to find any firm snow. Most of the trail had been churned up by snow-machine traffic, but in places, the edges of the trail still harbored a few inches of pristine corduroy left by the groomer. Beltchenko gradually pulled away as I metered my exertion carefully. Near midnight, I crested the climb, and I was struck by the deep chill in the air; the temperature had dropped to close to 0 °F. But the dead-of-night travel through the snow was absolutely enthralling. At that moment, I felt a powerful sense of survival, of self-sufficiency, of needing to take care of myself and trust myself at all costs.

As my mind returned to race mentality, I realized that I hadn't seen Beltchenko's lights in quite a while. It turned out he had put in a concerted effort to open a gap over the top of the climb, and it took me cranking up my own pace for an hour before I saw his faint red light blinking a few switchbacks below. It wasn't long before I caught up, and we negotiated the treacherous frozen snow-machine tracks down to Checkpoint 2 in West Yellowstone. The air was cold enough that it burned a bit in the depths of my lungs, and my toes had gotten quite chilled in my boots. At the checkpoint, I made a quick change into a dry sock system and enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich and some soup graciously served up the two bleary-eyed volunteers at nearly 2:30 a.m.

Leaving town with Beltchenko, our tires hit the next snow-machine trail and rolled across the freshly groomed surface with nary a hint of resistance. We howled at our good fortune, and I was excited and feeling renewed strength. In those early-morning hours, I was in my element and felt completely at ease despite my wintry surroundings. I took it as a sign that I should perhaps try to distance myself from Beltchenko. He was lagging just a bit at times, so I put in a few digs on the short climbs. It took considerable effort to increase my speed much at all, and Beltchenko clearly wasn't going to let me go anywhere without giving chase.

We continued more or less together, ascending slowly on another churned-up trail toward treeline. A sense of relief flowed over me with the first signs of the approaching dawn over the eastern horizon. At the high point on the course, the landscape glowed pastel—pink snow, a touch of bluish on the few spruce bows that protruded beyond their cloaks of snow, and a vividly orange sky. Although we were still racing, this was a moment we both recognized as worthy of a pause.

An hour later, we flew across the valley far below freshly packed snow toward the final checkpoint. Icy fog hung over the lowest terrain, stubbornly resisting the sun's warmth. My body was also beginning to stubbornly resist the effort—my legs felt heavy and sluggish, my hands ached from the rough trails and my eyes felt the pressure of so many hours of being awake. Beltchenko seemed to be feeling similarly, and as we reached the last checkpoint, we went inside a warm garage and sank into chairs for a few minutes. I pulled my boots off, refilled my water bladder, and the amazing owner delivered a plate of pancakes and bacon. With 30 slow miles to go, a bit of extra fuel was certainly going to help.

After more than 14 hours of darkness, dawn was a very welcome sight.

"I hate it when races end up in this situation," Beltchenkosaid."Yeah, how are you two going to finish this off?" the owner asked with intrigue. "Will you roll into the finish together or fight for the win?" My sleep-deprived head was a bit slow to process the various scenarios, and the absolutely delicious breakfast had me distracted.

"We could race the last 10 miles," I eventually suggested.

"That sounds really hard," Beltchenko replied. Or maybe that was actually what I was thinking to myself. My memory of the conversation isn't particularly clear.

"How about we race the last mile?" Beltchenko asked. "Or we could just sprint from the edge of the parking lot to the finish arch." I liked that idea. For whatever reason, my legs can lay down a pretty decent sprint for an endurance racer. So I agreed to that.

The final hours of the race were warm, soft, and the most challenging of the event for me. My focus wandered—laborious travel at 5 miles-per-hour was not inspiring in the moment. And in those final hours, I felt a bit like I was dreaming that I was actually going to finish this race. And then the edge of the lodge parking lot where the race finished abruptly came into view.

"Should we go at the sign?" Beltchenko asked.

I looked around to make sure the parking lot was clear. "Let's go!" My barely inflated tires bulged and bounced beneath me, but I held off Beltchenko. And with that, my ride was complete.

Refsnider and Beltchenko at the finish line after the race came down to a final sprint (photo courtesy of Jay Petervary).

Jay Petervary and a couple fans congratulated us on our respective rides, and I stood over my bike in complete and proud exhaustion. It had been quite a few years since I had lined up for a race with as much uncertainty about my own abilities as I did before this one, but simply focusing on what I was confident in and following so much advice shared with me before the event got me through without any problems. I felt so much gratitude for all that, for all the gear and the bike loaned to me, and for all the folks that encouraged me and believed in me. Even for veteran racers, such support can be so valuable.

Just a few hours later, a storm rolled in, bringing 6+ inches of new snow overnight. Chris Lowry was the third rider to finish, and Barklow finished the following morning, both hiking far more than they were able to pedal in the soft closing miles. Barklow was the first rider to ever finish the event completely self-supported, boiling all his own water and not venturing into any of the checkpoints. And the final riders would finish the following night after additional snow fell on the course, completing what were undoubtedly the most impressive displays of perseverance and fortitude of the weekend.

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