Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay 2016

It's been a while, too long really, since I've written a blog post. But I'm making up for it with this one. It's long, and about a really neat race that you won't get to read about in too many other places.

The Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay (KCIBR) is a race that goes from Haines Junction, Yukon, to Haines, Alaska. 240 or so kms in spectacular scenery, that can include snow and wild animals on the road (think bears), headwinds galore, and involves a border crossing (bring your passport!). It can be done in teams of 8, 4, or 2, or as a solo rider. We did it this year, and here’s our story.

Background: My dad lives up in Whitehorse, and when we visited last summer he planted the idea of coming up to do the race in my husband’s head. The idea percolated for months, and he (the husband) talked to a friend who’s really into biking (the two train together almost every weekend) about doing it together as two solo riders. He (the friend) seemed intrigued, and so he (the husband) kept thinking about it. He started reading everything he could on the web about the race, and eventually decided to do it, and somehow convinced the friend to (sort of) commit to it. We talked about driving up together and making a big 2 family trip of the whole thing (the friend’s family and ours). The husband stalked the website and registered on the first day it opened (it fills up pretty quickly). So we were set. Then the friend’s life got more complicated (good things at work for both he and his wife), and we noticed it was at the end of the school year, something our 7 year old didn’t really want to miss. So taking the time to drive up was looking too hard to do. So we booked flights for our family, and eventually the friend booked his, but just for him, as his wife and kids couldn’t come along (this time…).

The two guys had been training for this for months (one more so than the other, due to the previously mentioned work stuff), and in the days leading up to the trip I was feeling a little jealous of them to be honest. Excited for them, but wishing I could take part too. And in this I was kicking myself a little, as I had had a chance to join a relay team but had passed on it, not knowing whether I’d be up to the task and not willing to commit to something I didn’t know I could do. I hadn’t started my Intro to Fondo course yet, and didn’t know how it would go. Turns out, the class is great, and I felt like I could do it now, but too late. Then, 2 days before we were flying up north, I got a text from my dad asking if there was any way I could ride for a team as a last minute fill in. He had told the person probably not, but I looked at the legs they needed someone to ride (7 and 8, lots of downhill and flat, how hard could it be right?) and called my husband asking if he could source a bike box for me so that I could get my bike up there. If I was going to do this, I needed my bike: I wasn’t going to ride 65 km on a borrowed bike that didn’t fit me properly given my long standing issues with saddles (that were only partly resolved, more on that later). Husband found a box to rent, so I let my dad know I would do it. I was going to get to ride too! Luckily my dad has a truck (that the husband fell in love with which is OK by me - I love trucks), so there was room to transport 2 bike boxes plus our luggage pretty easily from the airport to his home. We flew up 2 days before the race (our friend the day before) and we met someone else flying up for the race checking in for our flight. He had done it numerous times, both as a solo and on a 2 man team. It was an annual tradition for him and his friend from up north. It was fun to chat with someone who had done the race before. And the reason that he kept heading back for the race year after year eventually became clear to us. We saw him briefly as we were putting all our stuff in the truck, and wished him luck. (I looked for him during the race, but didn’t manage to spot him again.)

Speaking of the truck, that’s (vehicles) where things got really complicated. I was also supposed to be driving the support vehicle for the guys. Oh, yeah, did I mention that the race is unsupported? Yep, that’s right, you have to have your own support, food, mechanical stuff, all of that. (It turns out there were two aid stops available only to solo riders, but more about that later.) And it’s a point to point race, so somehow you have to get back from Alaska, meaning, you need a vehicle at the end of the course. Anyway, it’s a long complicated story that I won’t bore you with, but my dad and his wife, being great community-minded-long time-all-sorts-of-running-race participants, signed up as race volunteers. Not a problem when I wasn’t in the race too, but suddenly I couldn’t do support the whole way so it led to some juggling of cars, our son, and support duties in order to have me at my start early and still have the guys supported for the last 65 kms. It was made more complicated by the fact that they were going to be passing by (notice I said passing by and not going through, again, more on that later) the checkpoint where I would start before my team would get there, so I was going to have to wait a while (little did we know how long).

They guys getting ready to start
The race: We got up before 5, after a bit of an unsettled night – pre-race nerves are bad enough, but the lack of darkness in the north (it was almost the longest day of the year, which was cool to experience) made it even harder to sleep. We left the house in Whitehorse by 5:30 and were in Haines Junction by 7, leaving plenty of time to make a bathroom stop, get the guys dropped of, set up and ready to ride. Then me, my dad's wife, and the kiddo headed up the road.

My guy before the race - hadn't met the wind yet
The guys were starting at 8:20 with the other solo riders and the first riders from the 2-person teams. The highway was closed to traffic for a few kms near the start to make the race-start safer for the riders. We drove around a bit looking for the rest of my team so I could introduce myself (they were said to be parked somewhere near where the road re-opened) but we didn’t find them, so we drove up a bit, found a good place by the side of the road to pull over and park to wait for the guys to go by. While we were waiting we heard some ravens calling to each other. One would call, then another would answer, back forth several times. It was so cool to hear.

Then we could see riders in the distance, and before long, a big, fast group whipped by. Our two riders weren’t there, but they were in the next group which went by about 30 secs later. We cheered, and quickly hopped back into the car, waited for a good sized break in riders on the road so we could get back on the go to leapfrog up the highway. We drove for about 5 minutes, found another good pullover spot, and got ready to ring the cowbell and cheer again. Then back in the car and up the road to wait again. This time I think we went a bit further as we waited longer. The difference between the front and second groups was staying pretty stable, although by now a few riders had been spit out the back of the front group, including one of the women who had gone out out front. I thought that left another women up front (it did as it turns out), but we lost track of the front riders pretty soon. We did that one more time I think before ‘supporting’ began.
Waiting at the side of the road - my bike on the roof

Part of the group - and someone's pre-race campsite in the background
One of the guys wanted a new water bottle, so I had to learn how to do a moving hand-off. I had figured a flat spot was good, downhill they’re going too fast, uphill and they might lost some rhythm and momentum. So now, not only did I have to find a place where I could pull over off as far off the road as possible (as in, off the shoulder too), but it had to be flat. Found it, did the hand off, it went OK, and was asked for a gel, but next time on a hill (guess I was wrong about the flat - I may be an old dog, but I can still learn new tricks). And so it went for the next few hours: gels, bananas, a sandwich, Nuun water, salt tablets (that was a fun one to figure out, they were loose…) other snacks. 

Waiting with the requested bottle

Practice makes perfect
They’d go by yell what they wanted, and we’d find the next good stopping point (now on an uphill), get the stuff ready for them and wait for them to go by, get what they wanted ready (if anything at that point), collect any bottles they chucked off, and they’d let us know about anything they wanted for the next pass by.
We quickly got to recognize some of the other support vehicles who were stopping at about the same increments as we were as well as others that we kept driving by as they were waiting. I had a lot of fun doing all of this, I felt really involved in the race and got to help keep the guys going. The 7 year old stayed in the car, watching videos and doing sticker books, and my dad’s wife helped get food and drink ready and took lots of photos. (She took all of these. Thanks PK!)
The kiddo - oblivious to the race
Other supporters waiting for their riders

The scenery really was spectacular - made the waiting stints enjoyable (if you ignored the wind)

There were two check points that had supplies available for the solo riders only (provided by one of the bike shops in Whiteshorse), and there had been some discussion of the guys stopping to top up at one or both of them. But watching the race so far, I had a feeling those stops were not going to happen – they were in a group and needed to stay with it to keep up their speed. Not to mention that it was super windy which made the group even more important. So we stopped at the first aid station, watch them fly by, and then went and asked if we could fill up their water bottles. We were allowed, since they were for two of the solo riders, so we topped up, jumped back into the car and off we went to find our next pull over spot.

J pulling again (he seemed to be up front a lot)
Still pulling - is he 'asking' for a spell-off in this one?
By this time the front group had pulled ahead enough that we were no longer pulling in front of them too, but they were still shedding riders, and we watched some of them form small groups. A few riders looked like they had extra bikes, but some of the extra bikes could have been the bikes of the second riders in the two-person teams. We did see a few riders with mechanical issues, reinforcing the need for a support vehicle (one of them was spotted getting help at the solo-rider aid station so there was at least a little neutral help). What had been the second group was managing to stay together pretty well from what we saw, although we heard later that they too lost a few riders. They just looked like they stayed together because they picked up a few riders who had been dropped by the front group and so had stayed the same size overall.
A bit farther down the road (mostly including these for some gratuitous scenery shots)

More scenery, and yes there is a woman in the group
The next stop was where my dad was doing his second volunteer shift (checkpoint 4), so we stopped to say hi, and I got changed into my bike kit so as to be ready for my own ride later. I made sure to wave goodbye to dad before we took off again, but unfortunately, he didn’t get a good look at what I was wearing. This would lead to some unnecessary worry later in the day.

We kept doing the support thing, and stocked up again on water and a few nutrition items for the guys at checkpoint 5, the other aid station. The women working it said pretty much none of the riders at the front were stopping, although they expected some of the slower solos to stop later. The groups were just too valuable for riders near the front to leave.

We did a bit more support stuff, including letting the guys know that I was leaving the car soon, and that my dad’s wife would be taking over the handoffs. She was being a great sport about the whole thing, but was not as comfortable as me standing there handing things off to people flying by on bikes. (The original plan hadn’t called for her doing any of the active assistance, but she had seen how dependent the guys were on our help and so realized that her support would be greatly appreciated after I left the car). We got them as stocked up as possible and sped off to checkpoint 6 where I was to start my ride at some point later in the day. I got all set, everyone used the loo, double checked passports, and then my kid and his grandma were off with the permission-to-cross-the-boarder-without-a-parent letter (lots of things to think about for this race!), as the guys had sped past the checkpoint towards the border, which was only a few kms away and so they needed to hit the road.

Waiting to do a handoff (salt tabs?)
This one's mostly for the scenery, but you can see the husband off to the side getting ready for the handoff.
And then I waited. And waited. And waited. The race started in waves - solos and doubles at 8:20, the first riders for the 4-person teams at 8:40, and then the first riders for the teams of 8 at 9. I was riding for a 4-woman team, but for various reasons the team started with the 8s. I knew this, so I knew that they were starting 40 mins after the guys. And I thought the guys would be somewhat faster, so I figured I’d be there about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. In the end I was waiting for almost 3 hours. Partly it was just that the two guys are actually pretty decent riders. But partly it was because they were in a group. This is a race where the solos actually have a big advantage, mostly because they all start at the same time and so can decide to stick together with people who are about the same speed/fitness level. The relay riders are a motley bunch, some pretty good, others not so much (this is part of the charm of the race) and so mostly end up riding alone by the second rider anyway. This slows you down a lot, and makes the whole enterprise harder, as you don’t get to benefit from any drafting.

Me all set with my bike (yes, I know the numbers are on in strange places, that's where they ask for them to be put)

But my time waiting was not wasted, in any way. I got to meet lots of other riders. Some from Alaska, like the man who was part of a relay team that beat the solo riders one year, not just in terms of total time, but actually crossed the finish line first. That was a great story, he had ridden it one year, and decided that the next he wanted to win, so he got together with some friends, they held try outs for the team, and put together multiple 4 person teams that would stick together. That way they had fresher legs and the benefit of riding with other people. It worked, and they won. Now he just rode it for fun with his family. Then there was the guy from North Van who had come up north on a temporary work gig and fallen in love with the place and was going to stay for a while longer than expected. His team was also slower than expected so we got to chat a lot. (And it turns out that his team was associated with another team that was the one I had originally had a chance to ride for but said no to.) I heard about the guy riding with rhubarb on his back (who showed up in a news story about the race) - everyone was talking about where they had passed him, and saw people getting lessons on how to ride with clipless peddles as the team chip was passed to them along with the team bike (no joke, this happened more than once). People were getting on bikes for the first time in years, and in one case, possibly ever. People were comparing notes on legs, which ones they were riding this year, which they had done in years past, asking whether mutual friends had been seen yet, etc.  And several people fell over at the finish. I figured it was just not enough time spent clipped in. The costumes were great, the atmosphere was pure fun and enjoyment (OK, maybe not pure fun and enjoyment – there were plenty of sore legs, bums, and other parts being moaned about too, but even the moaners seemed to be enjoying themselves). The view was incredible and the community spirit palpable. The local community really gets into the race, you can see it at every point in the race.

I think it was at that check point, waiting for hours, that I realized that I had fallen in love with the north. I know, it was summer, the bugs weren’t too bad, I was seeing it at it’s best, but I think people live there for it’s best, and endure the worst to get to the best. Vancouver’s like that too in some ways, you put up with the rain and the grey to make it to the summer, when it’s the best place on earth to live.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, the 8s are the crazies who often don’t ride much (and most of the costumes were worn by 8s), while the 4s are a little more serious. And I was under the impression that my team was serious enough. In some sense they had to be, as they so wanted to ride it (again) that they signed up someone they’d never met, who they were trusting to show up at a checkpoint and somehow identify themselves, to ride two legs at whatever pace she could (I warned them I’m not that good) just so that they could finish; it meant enough to them to do that.

The team’s second rider came to the checkpoint at some point and found me, as did the husband of the third rider, the woman I was waiting for. They were both very nice, and offered to be support for me, as I didn’t have a car since ours had left hours before to take care of the guys. It was a good thing rider 3’s husband was there, because they had missed our rider 3 when she went by the pre-checkpoint lookout (who was radioing in the relay team numbers so the next riders could be notified to get ready to take over) so I didn't know she was close. But her husband spotted her coming round the bend and jumped up and down pointing me out to her. I got ready in the chute, the timing thingy was passed along, and off I rode, down the hill. For a nice easy 65 kms, or so I thought. Clearly I hadn't been paying attention to the wind the whole way. Or at least, I hadn't thought about what it meant.

I had agreed to ride partly (maybe mostly) because of the nature of the legs I was being asked to fill in, legs 7 and 8. They are the last two legs, 7 being the leg where you cross the border. The boarder crossing was mostly fine. They tell you to please have your docs out. You cross on foot and the USBP has an extra officer or 2 on for the race to keep things moving. The person who rolled in just before me had to take off her backpack and go digging around for a bit. Eventually they waived me around her, but it turns out the extra few moments wasn’t going to make a damn bit of difference to my time.

If you look at the profile of my 2 legs, it’s mostly downhill and flat. It looked pretty easy. It would have been, if it hadn’t been for the wind. It was brutal! A relentless headwind that occasionally went a bit sideways too just to make you feel extra wobbly. There were a few moments where it died down and in those moments I felt like I was flying, I was going so fast with so little effort. But mostly it was a hard hard slog. And I was riding alone, absolutely alone. My team mates were leapfrogging me in the car to make sure I was OK, they were cheering and asking me if I needed anything, which was great and helped motivate me, but what I eally needed was something they couldn’t provide - a peleton. There were times I was going downhill on a slope of about 3-4%, so nothing big, but still, downhill, peddling super hard, just to go 21 kms an hour! My regular pace on my own on the flat is faster than that - I figured I’d be going about 25-27 km an hour. I was sooooo wrong. I struggled to keep it at 20 kms an hour on the flats. I had 2 gels with me which should have been enough for that distance, but given the workload, was not. But I had to keep going. I knew that eventually I’d make it. After 1.5 hours my butt hurt, as I knew it would (I was still having saddle issues, which thankfully I seem to have resolved in time for my fondo next weekend) and by 2 hours it was getting really bad. By 2.5 hours my butt was beginning to scream in pain. I kept changing position, standing for a bit, etc., to make it bearable for just a few more moments. But I persevered. I powered up the hills as best I could (thanks to my course I was riding hills better and stronger than before). I was passing 8s with much fresher legs (and costumes), and got passed by a few guys who were much younger than me (making it sting less). But all in all I was in the positive, passing more than getting passed. I spotted a couple of women ahead of me at one point at around 50 kms in who were riding together and looked like they knew what they were doing, so I pushed it to get to them, but they were going so much slower than me that it wasn’t worth staying with them, yes, I would conserve energy, but I would get to the finish line much later with them than without them, so I pushed on.
Finish area in the distance

After about 2.5 hours a friendly face appeared in my view: my husband had ridden back looking for me. He knew how bad the wind was, and saw all the relay riders coming in alone and figured I might like/need some help. I just about cried when I saw him. That was true love - after riding 240 kms at quite a clip, he had ridden some more to help me get in. He pulled me in the rest of the way. Mostly I was appreciative, as it did make the rest of the ride easier (although it didn’t fix my screaming sit bones), but I also felt a little cheated – I was thinking to myself "I was going to make it in just fine on my own thank you very much, and he took that away from me". Then I cam back around to being really really grateful. He took it away from me by giving me what he had had, help riding. Which was great. (I never for a moment thought about telling him to leave and let me do it myself. I might think toddler-like thoughts, but I’m old enough to know better than to express them. Well, let’s be honest, most of the time I know better.) He peeled off as I got closer to the finish line so I could have my moment. (He really is wonderful.)

My coming into the finish area waving to my dad, my wonderful husband in the background, and I have a big smile of relief on my face.

In this race, as a relay rider, you have to dismount before a dismount line, and run/walk your bike to an electronic timer thing that you stick your timing chip stick into to register your arrival at that station. Solos only do it at the end (meaning that times get a bit longer for people who are waiting to chip in), 2s at the mid point, 4s every 2nd checkpoint, etc. I am used to dismount lines from triathlon. But when I got to the line I found that my legs were not cooperative. They were quite happy to keep going around and around, but not to move in any other direction, to clip out for instance. I just about fell over and suddenly understood why I had seen so many people tipping when I was waiting to start.

Me headed toward the finish

At the finish with my team members. Husband is in the background. How can he be smiling after so much riding?!?

Then I got to hear about our guys’ races. Husband was farther back in the border line and got left behind by most of the group they'd been riding with. He hooked up with another rider from their group who was also near the back of the border line, and they hoofed it to catch up with their group. They made it to the group, and finished together. But because of the timing stick thingy, everyone gets different times. The husband thought that our friend was in the group he was trying to catch, as he had been near the front of the line at the border crossing. But the friend had a passport issue (needed a visa) and so lost a few minutes inside the station. So he got left behind by the husband (who didn't know he was inside). But luckily he found someone to ride with too, and so didn’t have to do the last 60 kms or so alone in the wind. (The guy he teamed up with lucked out too, as he was unsupported and out of anything to drink, so our friend shared some of his, and got topped up by our support vehicle later. So my dad's wife made a difference for 3 riders in the last bit of the course.) Anyway, the husband officially finished in 7:49:25 which was 14th solo overall, 13th solo man, and our friend was 3 spots behind in 17th solo/16th solo man. The guy who finished first is a local former pro mountain biker, the woman who finished in front of them (woo-hoo!) is a pro from VI (who they’ve raced against before in a local cyclocross race as it turns out). All in all, not a bad finish for two middle aged weekend warrior riders! I’m not telling much of their story as a) this is my blog and so it’s about my story, and b) the husband may at some point do his own write up, and I can’t do his story justice (for instance, I didn’t see a bear…). After all, I only had to ride 65 kms, he did 240, plus another 20 or so to get to me and then to pull me in.

The husband waiting for me anxiously by the finish line
Turns out my dad thought he had seen me riding when he was driving to the finish line to meet up with us hours before, and thought that I was taking a really really really long time to finish. But dad had seen someone else (didn’t know what I was wearing), and since no one knew how long I had waited at the checkpoint for my start (no way to communicate with anyone), they were worried about me. Note to anyone thinking about doing this, there is no cell service along the route, so there is no way to communicate with people. We had some complicated logistics going on, 2 solo riders, one relay rider, two volunteers, one of whom was at two stations, a kid, a dog, and two vehicles, so it's a miracle it went as smoothly as it did. The three riders and the kid stayed in Haines for the night, but my dad and his wife drove back to Whitehorse that evening. They were, understandably, anxious to get on the road to head back, but stayed and waited for me to cross the finish line, which I appreciated a great deal. The big congrats hug from my dad was worth battling the wind for.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we will head up there to do the race again sometime. Next time, maybe we will go as two families, and both women will ride too. I will never do the whole thing, but maybe we can do it as a 2 woman team. Unfortunately, my dad is moving back down south again soon, so he and his wife won’t be up there to drive support/help out/give me a big hug at the finish line (but we are very happy they will be closer soon, so it’s not really unfortunate). That will make it all more complicated – we had vehicles, a place to stay that was comfortable and homey, a place to put the bikes back together (their garage) and a friendly team dog there this time. But it is a race worth making the trek for. The website says next year's race is June 17th, 2017, and registration opens on March 15. Just in case you're thinking about it...
The dog
And in case you're not yet convinced, here's a link to a video someone made at the race this year.