There would be no Alaskan Border Race.
As I mentioned in my Yukon entry, Dan had mentioned a few days before the Alaskan Border that he and Paul wouldn’t be racing. He’d apparently told a few more people and they thought it would be a good idea. News spread by word-of-mouth that there wouldn’t be a race at all, and by the day of the race, most people had accepted the idea (whether they liked it or not).
I wasn’t too happy with the lack of an Alaskan Border Race. That’s probably in part my competitive side coming out. I thought it would be great if just for one day, in fact, just for a quarter of a day, we could have half the team (or better yet, the whole team) trying as hard as they could and really putting everything they had into the bike. The idea is to give your all for something you believe in, which to me was the whole point of the Texas 4,000 in the first place. What’s more, the Alaskan Border Race was a time-honored (OK, two-year-old) tradition started by the founders of the organization. I’d been hearing great stories about it from lots of former riders and had been looking forward to it for over half a year. After all that, only a couple days before, a few people decided for the rest of us that it wouldn’t happen. Big disappointment.
With no race to participate in, it was now pointless for Lily to take my place in driving duties for the first 20 miles, so I did my drive day like normal. With the Alaskan border 19 miles from our starting point, we set up the first aid station there. The team was taking a while to show up. A long while. Long enough for me to get the idea to unload the entire trailer, drag out my bike, re-attach the front wheel, re-load the trailer, lock it up, and bike back to meet the team so I could roll across the border with them together. No way was I going to miss out on crossing the Alaskan border with my team if I had the chance to.
As we rolled across, Ky was just walking up, so he ran the last few feet alongside us. As soon as we had crossed, several of us hopped off our bikes and ran right for the sign, jumping on the poles and clinging to them. It wasn’t until the first person had gotten on top of the sign that I realized what they were doing: racing for the glory spot in the photograph. As soon as I’d figured that out, I ran for the sign, but it was too late. I was relegated to a spot on the ground.
After a 30-minute photo session, the aid station began, meaning it would be at least an equal amount of time before anyone hit the road. The ride that day was only 70 miles, but it wound up taking a long time, even by Texas 4,000 standards, due to the slow pace of the first 19 and the photo session in the middle. Since I wasn’t riding, I don’t have much to say about the day. Our lodging arrangements for the night were another campground in Northway Junction, what seemed to be the most mosquito-infested location we would have all summer. Clouds were rolling in by the end of the day, so as a few of us were gathering stuff to make dinner, some of the Rockies hastily constructed a makeshift rain shelter using a tarp, some rope, two trees, and a bike stand. It wasn’t perfect, but they finished just in time and it kept our food dry.
The entire night, whenever it wasn’t raining, we were being eaten alive by mosquitos. That being the case, we kept our rain gear on all night since neither rain nor mosquitos could penetrate it. Athan gave up on both and stayed in his tent all night.
I tried cooking pasta for the Sierras, but I’m used to cooking pasta for four, not 20. My eyeballing skills weren’t the best and I wound up making it extra pepper-y. The Rockies had chili with rice, and I made a mental note to learn how to make chili before I moved into my apartment in the fall. Alex helped me cook and was as helpful as a person with no cooking skills or experience could be. He readily admitted that he didn’t know a thing about cooking and wanted to help out and hopefully learn a thing or two. After dinner, he asked if we could cook anything else just for some more practice. Noticing we had about six boxes of pancake batter in the trailer, and that the boxes could make 80 pancakes each, we stayed up until midnight making pancakes for the team to eat the next day.
While it was raining overnight, the mosquitos spent the entire time planning all new ways to attack us without remorse in the morning. Mosquitos can bite through biking shorts, so we were all being bit in the worst places. It was bad enough that we hiked up a short hill and into a convenience store to have dedications indoors. Mosquitos and rain would turn out to be two of Alaska’s most noticeable characteristics, or at least while you’re on a bike. The third would come later.
We were headed to Tok, our northernmost point the entire summer. The ride there was mostly uneventful, though scenically it would be telling of what was to come for the rest of the state. Lots of hills, though we weren’t in the thick of them. Lots of clouds. Lots of green. Lots of fireweed, a particularly bright pink flower that lined the highway for miles. Lots of sandy banks on the side of the road, with lots of white rocks in them, and lots of messages spelled out using the white rocks. A few of us pulled over to leave a message in the sand for next year’s team. I hope it’s still there next summer. As we pulled into town, we noticed the shoulder of the highway was spray painted with messages for us a number of times. Pretty cool that the years before us had the same idea as us for leaving something for those to follow.
Tok would not only be the farthest north we would be for the rest of the summer, but would also be the biggest city we would see before Anchorage. With that in mind, I decided to pull out my cell phone and give it a try. IT WORKED! For the first time since Washington, I was able to use a cell phone! I sat on a bench at our campsite and spent probably well over an hour calling folks back home and telling them all about everything that had happened in the last three weeks. Felt good to hear from some familiar voices.
We were camping again, but since we were in city limits, the mosquitos were hardly there at all. But the best part about Tok was that we were being treated to a free dinner at Fast Eddy’s. Athan and I nailed down the milkshake requirement for Alaska, giving Athan a milkshake in every state and myself one in most of them (all since I started trying). Wasn’t a bad milkshake either!
Tok was also the last time we would make a turn until we got into Anchorage. We had heard that the highway we were turning onto was under construction and may be closed entirely. Then we had heard that it was open, but entirely made of softball-sized rocks and we would have to sag the first 15 miles or so. Then we had heard that it might barely be rideable, but maybe not. In any case, we had come up with an alternate route that would send us even farther north, adding over 150 miles to the last four days, and giving us three consecutive centuries, one of which would run about 160 miles in a single day. I was pumped! For a while, it looked like we would have to sag, but if a small group wanted to break off and do the detour instead of sagging, that would be OK. Oh man, I was in!
The morning we set to leave Tok, we heard that the highway was rideable. Darn. By “rideable,” that basically meant we were riding through rock-infested mud for 15 miles. Our back wheels were flinging mud all over the place, giving everyone on the team a huge brown streak up their backs. Our entire bikes were completely caked in mud, and our faces were several shades darker. We rode through it together in case anyone had any problems, and had to stop several times to wait for pilot cars and other construction-related obstacles.
After slogging through filth for over an hour, we were back on the road, but not out of the construction, the third major characteristic of Alaska. If you ever go to Alaska, bring a good rain jacket, a gallon of Deet, and an ATV. We had to wait for pilot cars and get through construction areas a few more times that day, making an already long day longer. Always frustrates me. The hills weren’t too bad though, and like the day before, the scenery was incredible. Could’ve been even better if it had been a clear day. It seemed like it rained every day in Alaska, but somehow always waited until we were off the bike.
Somehow, the team managed to eat all the pancakes Alex and I had made.
Towards the end of the day, I was feeling a little bottled up since I’d been having to wait on construction all day, so I decided to open in up over the last 20 miles. There was a steady headwind that frustrated me at first, but I started taking it as a challenge and enjoyed fighting it by the end.
Chistochina was our destination for the day, and for the first time in about a week, we weren’t camping. We were able to cram all 42 of us into a Native American Rec Center, which was a single room about the size of a starter home. Fortunately, it had a full-sized kitchen, but only a hose outside for a shower. After almost a week with no showers at all, I used it. After the muddy start to the day, the entire team cleaned their bikes that night.
By now, I was regretting not having a book to read anymore. That meant I basically had nothing to do once I arrived at our destination for the night. I was also starting to get a little impatient about the end of the ride. I was still enjoying every minute (or at least every minute I spent on Invictus), but I was ready to knock this thing out and finish it. So maybe I’m impatient. Maybe I’m goal-oriented. Maybe I’m both. But I could feel the finish line getting closer and I wanted it.
We were headed to not a city, but merely a roadside convenience store for our destination the following day. More clouds. More hills. More green. More construction. We would find out that day that the reason there was so much construction was that there had been a series of earthquakes in the area within the last year, and summer is the only time of year that the roads are ice-free consistently enough to work on them. I was slowly starting to accept the existence of construction, but was still a long way from patient.
Towards the end of the day though, we were able to get a look at an impressive mountain range, though largely obscured by the heavy clouds that day. Apparently the mountains were about twice as tall as what we could see. The clouds didn’t spoil it entirely though; I bet most people don’t get to see a rainbow in front of the mountain when they drive past it.
I pulled in to the Grizzly Country Store and greeted the owner, who was a punctual and friendly guy. Most of his dogs were also friendly, but I wish I could say the same for all of them. Athan followed closely behind, hungry and sweet-toothed as usual. He came up with the idea of getting some ice cream from the store, and we wound up splitting a half gallon.
A place nearby with showers was letting us shower for free, so we took turns getting shuttled back and forth. Inside it looked like a classic log cabin, complete with a low ceiling and a fireplace. I felt right at home in a small, warm building. We chatted with the likeable owners, who had nothing but good things to say about the 2005 team. They’d apparently signed a dollar bill and stuck in on a wall that had hundreds more on it. We scanned the wall carefully to find it, but in vain.
Keat (the CEO of Sense Corp) and his 13-year-old son would be joining us for the last two days of our ride. Once again, it was dreary and gray. After I hopped on my bike to take off that morning, I quickly noticed a clicking sort of sound coming from my front tire. I stopped for a second in the shoulder, not bothering to get off my bike. I figured it was the magnet on my spoke hitting the sensor for the computer, so I moved the sensor just a little bit. I started pedaling again, but heard the same sound, so I stopped for a second time, again straddling my bike and leaning forward to reach my front tire.
WHAM!! Before I realized what was going on, I was on the ground and in pain. I slowly raised myself to my knees as I listened to Travis apologize about twenty times. Travis had seen me stop, then start again, so he figured I was moving. Then he didn’t see me stop the second time and rear-ended me, hard. Both of us and both our bikes were OK, though I was a little shaken up from the sudden adrenaline rush. I took five and got back on the bike. Travis felt bad that he’d hit me, and was bummed that he was two days away from making it to Anchorage without a wipeout.
Anchorage is pretty much at sea level, so we knew that the last few days should be more downhill than up. Megan’s altimeter was still reading well into the thousands with two days to go, so we figured to have a nice, easy last two days without hardly any climbing at all.
Our second-to-last day turned out to have some wicked climbing in the middle of it, which surprised me and had me worn by the time it was over. At one point though, we looked to our left and saw a magnificent glacier snaking its way in between two mountains. It looked like a frozen river. I’d never seen a glacier before. I was impressed.
The highway was under construction again, and most of us even wound up having to get sagged for a mile or two at some point. Travis was completely adamant about not sagging, so he waited everywhere until he was given clearance to bike through. At one of the aid stations towards the end of the day, the construction workers set up a no-drive zone right around the turnout where we’d put our aid station, meaning everyone would be sagged past it. The drivers did a good job of relocating the aid station on the fly so everyone got one. It also meant I had to leave it right away, putting me and a few others far ahead of the rest of the pack.
Sutton was our destination for the day and we were staying in a church for the first time since Whitehorse. Paul’s dad was there, standing outside of the church to flag us down on the highway. The church was very kind to us, particularly a Harley-Davidson kinda guy who turned out to be the pastor. Pastor Dan and his congregation fed us an outstanding potluck dinner, including plenty of Alaskan meats that none of us had ever tried (like moose!). Afterward, we were treated to plenty of dessert, and when the ice cream ran out, Pastor Dan went out and got us some more.
The church had no shower, but did have a glacier-fed hose if we wanted that. I decided to wait one more day for my shower. The Sierras had an impromptu meeting downstairs where we all spilled our touchy-feely emotions we had after being teammates all summer. The girls thanked us for not treating them like girls. The Schofields (that includes Nick) warned us not to use the Chamois Butt’r the next morning. I told everyone that if they wanted to get into marathons, I’d help them train in the fall (update: apparently no one wanted to get into marathons). Then we went back upstairs.
Much to my delight, Tony was playing the piano. I sat and leaned against it for a while, enjoying the pleasure of listening to someone that talented. Pastor Dan hung around for a long while and just talked to us. According to him, Sutton is the kind of place that people go to if they want to disappear. Overall he was a pretty cool guy, and didn’t even mind when some of us decided to celebrate the end of the ride by shooting off fireworks in front of his church.
Dedications the next morning were expectedly long, since it was our very last day. Just about everyone had saved one for Anchorage. Foreseeing the situation, I hadn’t. Thirty minutes and several sobs later, Jeff led us in one last very loud haka. It succeeded in getting me PUMPED.
It was raining.
Just before I pedaled away from a town for the last time, a few particularly vocal Rockies walked out onto the front steps of the church and loudly demanded to know who put Icy Hot in the Chamois Butt’r. I just started laughing. I knew who it was, but I wasn’t about to rat out my fellow Sierras.
Jason launched into a passionate speech:
“All-a y’all know, in that equipment trailer, I have a five gallon container of moose manure! I will put it in your sleeping bags! I will put it in your shoes! I will-” about that time, Tony hopped out of the church, both hands on his crotch. “C’mon, man, Tony’s balls are on fire!”
After listening to Jason’s fiery pledge of revenge, I headed out in the cold, cold rain. It was probably even worse than the rain we dealt with on the way to Prince George, but the lack of hills meant less downhills to cause a huge stinging wind in your face, and of course, this time I had a waterproof jacket.
After a while, I noticed something wrong with Invictus, and discovered that I had my first flat tire since California. Frustrated, I pulled out my spare tube and started pumping. Keat came by and let me use his frame pump, but it didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. As it turned out, my spare tube had a hole in it. Luckily, Jeffrey came buy with another tube and a CO2 cartridge. It got me to the next aid station, where I found my dad waiting for me.
I hadn’t expected to see him there; I figured he’d be at the finish line. In any case, I gave him a hug, grabbed some food, deflated and re-pumped my tire, then warmed up in his rental car. After the feeling came back in my fingers, I figured I was good enough to head out again.
Apparently just about everyone was getting flats that day. My best explanation was that the cold was making the rubber tires brittle, and the fact that we were near a city for the first time in weeks meant there was more debris in the road. Apparently rain also helps force tiny debris out from small holes in the pavement (the same way it does oil), and that tiny debris can include things like shards of glass. In any case, we had a lot of flats.
Our next (and final) aid station was to be held by the Anchorage chapter of the Texas Exes, who were leading us into town and also driving our vans, so every team member could ride across the finish line. I was eager to get to this aid station since our only other experience with Texas Exes, in Lubbock, was a very good one. I kept on pedaling through the cold and rain, dealing with all kinds of discomfort for one last time. After a while, it seemed like I should’ve seen the aid station. I just kept going though, not letting myself slow down for any reason. I wanted to test my limits one last time.
My back tire got another flat, so I wouldn’t be able to. With no tube to replace it, I did my best to manage. It wasn’t the worst flat; it was something of a slow leak. Slow enough that I could use my frame pump, bike about a half mile, then pump it up again. I figured I’d keep doing that until someone caught up to me at my now incredibly slow rate, and hopefully they’d have a tube.
Eventually, someone did catch up to me. It was my dad. I’d overshot the aid station by eight miles. Apparently we were supposed to take a particular exit off the highway to find the aid station. No one had told me. The Texas Exes had attached a sign to the highway exit sign, but the rain and wind had crumpled it and blown it off. I took my Invictus’s front wheel off and crammed him in the back of my dad’s rental car, and he drove me back to the aid station. I would’ve ridden back if the team wasn’t about to take off without me (according to my dad). I wasn’t sure about that; it’s not like our team did much of anything quickly.
Upon arriving at the aid station, I shoved a Subway sandwich in my mouth and started searching for a new tube so I could fix Invictus before we left, all the while amused at the fact that Jason was holding a blow torch. I hoped he wasn’t still mad about the Icy Hot that morning. As soon as I’d replaced the tube, we started lining up to head out. The Texas Exes led us on some cool bike trails, completely off the road and away from traffic. There must’ve been less debris on the trails, because we didn’t have nearly as many flats from there on out. It slowly stopped raining and warmed up, turning into an overcast but pleasant day.
Nearing our destination, I noticed a small but substantial hill ahead. A Texas Ex next to me mentioned that this would be my last hill of the summer. Seeing Athan a little ahead on it, I stood on my pedals and set out to finally beat him up a hill. Just barely before the top, I passed him. One more goal for the summer knocked down! Less than a mile after that, Athan asked if his back tire was OK. It was flat, his first since Arizona. He wasn’t happy about that, but a Texas Ex quickly passed him a tube and he had it changed in no time.
Despite the fact that we were all following the same people, somehow we got spread out. Probably a good thing, because riding in one large group forces everyone to move at a glacial pace. We met up outside a hospital and waited for the rest of the team to arrive so we could all ride across the finish line together. Pastor Dan’s son was there and we tossed our rain jackets into his truck, not needing them anymore, and also wanting to show our jerseys as we rolled across the finish line. Jason took off his helmet in favor of a cowboy hat. Soon enough, we headed out to ride the last mile.
I hadn’t realized that there would be a finish line made up. Not once all summer had that happened; every day ended quietly in some church’s parking lot. After all that had transpired this summer, the finish line was a sight to behold. The Texas Exes had signs and banners professionally made and had strung a few above the street for us to ride under. Seeing the banners, I think, was the first time I fully started to appreciate that today was different, and the finality of it.
Lots of parents were there, lots of cheering was heard, lots of pictures were taken. I pedaled through with a grin on my face, got off Invictus, and started cheering with my teammates. Lots of us raised our bikes over our heads and started doing our best to high-five with the tires. I hugged my teammates and my dad. Champagne was popped. Some cried. More pictures were taken.
After a photo session that rivaled the one at the Alaskan Border, we headed over to a tent where the Texas Exes were cooking a kick-ass Texan-Alaskan barbecue for us. Most of us left our bikes lying down on the grass. An idea came to mind and I took one last Invictus photo under the finish line banner. I walked him back to the grass and set him down next to the rest of them, and that’s when I started to realize that we wouldn’t be picking them back up the next morning. We were done. We weren’t riding tomorrow. I didn’t get to fight any more head winds, climb any more hills, or lose any more border races. That was it. My Texas 4,000 experience was over.
from Texas 4,000