It is the evening before the start of JayP’s “Fat Pursuit” 60k race. The tribe is trickling into the pub at the Pond’s Lodge in Island Park, Idaho. Many of us know each other from the greater fat community and/or previous events, and as we crush pizzas and pints, a reunion of sorts is taking place. Around 7pm, Derrick Nobman, owner of Fitzgerald’s Cycles, stumbles in, looking like he’ll eat the table out from under us if someone doesn’t put a slice of pizza in front of him asap. He and Fitzgerald’s Team Captain, Jeremy Larsen, have been out grooming the course all afternoon and into the evening. We immediately ply him with questions about course conditions. As we eventually break up to take care of last minute prep and get some sleep, the last part of his response continues to stick in many of our heads – “…it’s rideable right now, but if it snows tonight, it’s going to be a different story.”
…It snowed that night.
Let’s back up and place the above in context by describing how the Fat Pursuit may differ from a number of other fat bike races that take place in the Lower 48. For one, it’s remote. As in, you’re closer to being in Yellowstone National Park than anything resembling civilization for a good portion of the route. Second, you should probably let go of any notions of an idyllic, corduroy-groomed, wide and firmly-packed nordic track – despite the best efforts to get the route in shape beforehand, events seem to often conspire otherwise. This route takes you deep into the backcountry on multi-use trails largely used by snowmobiles, and it’s entirely possible that a dozen sledheads might get there before you do, churning things up, taking you quickly from D4 into Bud/Lou territory. Then there’s the unpredictable weather which, at 7000’ on the Idaho/Montana/Yellowstone border, is fair bit more dynamic than most places. None of this is to dissuade from taking part in this event. In fact, just the opposite – it is exactly these factors, along with the right mindset, and an amazing amount of organization and volunteer support staff, that make this event so unique and awesome.
With that, we wake up in pre-dawn, pre-coffee haze to a couple inches of fresh snow on the porch and ponder the ramifications. It means that on the highest parts of today’s planned route, there could be 6” of dry, sugary, fairly unrideable fluff. We all go into this event expecting the likelihood of walking our bikes at some point, given the nature of the beast, but this could mean a lot of walking. Such is the inevitable possibility of doing a winter event in this part of the country. Jay and T-Race are zipping around, attending to last minute logistics. Questions and hesitations about the conditions hang in the air, getting expressed in muttered comments as the racer’s meeting assembles. Jay jumps on the podium, welcomes everyone and explains that last year’s 60k, which included -20ºF temps, significant hike-a-bike for many participants, and a number of people needing to be evacuated from the course on snowmobiles in the dark, simply put too much of a strain on support staff, and today’s conditions looked like they could end up being a similar experience, for somewhat different reasons. As the saying goes, “We make plans, God laughs.” Given the conditions, the decision has been made to alter the course this year to two 15-mile, out-and-back laps on the most rideable section of the route. No one seems too bummed by this, and there may have even been a collective sigh of relief. Everyone is supportive of the decision as unanimous applause arises after Jay’s announcement.
So it begins and sixty-three fat bikes take off into the woods, on loose, sloppy, un-groomed snow that dictates the leaders are breaking trail and most everyone behind them is swerving, dabbing, falling, getting up again, riding and repeating for the first mile or so before a 5” wide track begins to develop and things start to somewhat self-organize. Even with a narrow track slowly being set, the riding continues to be challenging. Let your attention waver for a minute from the narrow gutter in front of you and receive immediate feedback. Get up again and keep going. Try to pass someone and you may end up wallowing. Stop at the aid station, slam a Coke and half a Kate’s Bar, and get out of there again before the lap of luxury sucks you into stasis.
I see the serious racers flying along, levitating above the conditions, somehow immune to the gravity affecting most. I see many people like myself, middle of the pack folks, laughing and encouraging each other. I get passed by Rebecca Rusch at one point, who seems to be chuckling at the absurdity of it all. I see a boy who is 10 years old with his dad riding behind him, proud as can be. I see a guy who, at the age of 65, has only recently taken up biking, much less riding fat bikes on snow, and is all smiles despite the obvious challenges. And it is this spectrum of accomplishments that makes it what it is. Indeed, this is why Jay has deliberately named these events “Pursuits” rather than “races” – because he realizes there may be as many different agendas and goals as the number of people who enter.
In the end, there was one rider who finished in 3 hours and fifteen minutes (which I’m still trying to wrap my brain around…), another who finished in 11 hours and nineteen minutes, and a bunch of people in between. I think it’s safe to say that everyone of us finished with a sense of hard-won accomplishment and the cool feeling one gets from taking part in the great communal vibe that the “Pursuit” events are becoming known for. Every Pursuit is unique – if you’ve been thinking about, just do it.