Reflections on Fat Pursuit 2024
This is a big year for me, and I have decided that I am going to make 2024 a growth year in my work, health and life. As I closed out 2023, I read the book Mindset, by Carol Dweck PhD, and in it she explains the concept of growth mindset versus fixed mindset. (For a quick summary, check out her article in HBR here) What she gets to in the end of her book, which I finished listening to during my drive to Idaho, is what I think revolutionized my perspective on last year and how to head into the Fat Pursuit. I struggled last year with several work-related and life-related stresses, and what they triggered was a fixed mindset response. I got through it (we all did), but it was extra challenging. I decided at the end of the year that I would make 2024 a year of growth. And what better way than to start out with the Fat Pursuit Workshop and then the Fat Pursuit 200 km Winter Ultra Race?
First: What is the Fat Pursuit? The Fat Pursuit is a winter ultra race (run, bike and ski) put on by Ultra athlete and legend, Jay Petervary, in Island Park, Idaho. Island Park is a must-visit place for people who love snowmobiling and the extensive trail system borders Yellowstone National Park and is amazing. On these trails we also race our Fat Tire Bikes. The race is epic not just because of the location, the scenery, the challenging course and conditions, but really because of the vibe and community of people who organize, volunteer, support and participate in the race. We all are pursuing our own goals and our own experience in the race, but together in the backcountry you also look out for one another, and you cheer each other on. We are all solo riders, but this is very much a group experience. It’s simply beautiful.
Fat Pursuit Workshop, Jan 8–10. This was my 2nd year attending the Fat Pursuit Workshop. Last year I attended and learned from Jay, Rebecca, Kevin, and Nan. I was a complete newb to winter bikepacking and embraced that workshop with a beginner’s mindset. To read about it you can read that blog here.
This year I returned to the Workshop, and although I still consider myself a newb, I was really eager to see what I would pick up on this 2nd time with our coaches and fellow students. This year the workshop was led by Jay, Perry, and Nan, with Jay’s wife, Traci supporting us with warm meals (and sharing her winter ultra experience too). I again embraced a beginner’s mindset, but this time I had specific skills I know I needed to hone as well. Skills like: I needed to dial in my stove for boiling water (when I was in Leadville the week before it kept going out — turns out I was not priming it properly (20–30 pumps are needed). And I needed again to listen to how to manage the cold (cold management is moisture management — you do what you can to stay dry by shedding layers when you need to and avoid sweating out your clothing). I needed to make sure my bike first aid kit was better dialed (didn’t need it in the race, and still need to add/remove items, but it was good). I needed a refresher on how to use tire pressure on different types of snow (You deflate your tires in softer/deeper conditions — if you’re not tracking in the front, let air out of the front. If you’re digging in in the back, let air out of the back. You may need a crinkle tire, but it will get you moving on a lot of softer, deeper snow.). I needed to practice my camping again in a safe place and workshop is perfect for this (setting up with a thermal pad on the bottom, bivvy sack on top of that, and -20F sleeping bag inside the bivvy sack, and everything except outer boots goes inside your sleeping bag to dry out and/or stay warm — it’s like a loaded bikepacking burrito with the human and gear). Most of all, I needed to learn again and absorb whatever I could from the experts — Jay, Perry, Nan, Traci and my fellow campers.
Key lessons that resonated this year included:
- Winter bikepacking is all about organization, systems, and processes. When you our out in extreme conditions, every micro decision you make can have repercussions. The first morning after our overnight camping I was doing a lot of quick work that needed dexterity with glove liner hands in and out of pockets. When I returned to the bunkhouse my fingers were frostnipped for sure. So you need to follow your systems. Have the bigger expedition gloves at the ready by making sure they’re with you in your sleeping bag bivvy burrito so they’re warm. Have the chemical handwarmers in your pockets going. And know where everything is to avoid downtime and exposure to cold (everything on your bike needs its own place). The second night I learned from the first, and no frostnip.
- Use mental checklists and plan your transitions. When riding long distances on training rides, sometimes you can zone out and think about other things, solve the world’s problems, as I call it. But in this setting, when you’re in extreme conditions, zoning out can lead to a costly mistake. So while riding/racing, check yourself: Are you eating enough? Are you drinking enough? Are you on the right course? How it your body? How is the bike? You have to go through your own questions regularly to keep on track and on course. Planning transitions is also key. You don’t want to roll up to a checkpoint or to where you are going to bivvy without a plan because time is warmth, and that can mean survival. So there needs to be a lot going on when you’re racing, even if you’re just moving at 3–5 miles per hour.
- If you get really cold, get off your bike and walk. It will especially warm up your feet. Also this time around because of the cold temps that were coming, I paid close attention and used the 2-bag vapor barrier system for my feet and 45NRTH boots: Liner sock (I use a winter 45NRTH merino wool sock) — turkey bag to trap in the warmth and moisture from your feet — boot liner — 2nd turkey bag to trap out the cold and wet from the outside — boot. This worked like a charm and will be part of my permanent process for winter riding.
- The trail will always change. When you hit a patch of rough trail that you have to walk, keep in mind that at the next junction it will change. Just keep going, and it will get better. Also know that if you’re riding super groomed trail, it will also change. You’ll hit rough patches. It’s okay. Expect it. You just ride forward, as Jay says.
- Stack up the W’s. Fellow camper and experienced winter expedition rider, Steve Cannon (finisher of the Fat Pursuit and Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 mile race), talked about the importance of.positive self talk. Like when you do something right, say it out loud to yourself. He said it may sound ridiculous, but when you acknowledge these little wins, you then get into a positive mindset. He gave the example “I fastened the strap on my boot perfectly, great f — -ing job, Steve.” Acknowledging the wins the moment they happen also keeps you in the present moment.
If you’re interested in doing the Fat Pursuit or any winter bikepacking, I cannot recommend highly enough to go to “Fat Camp” with Jay Petervary and team. You will take home lessons for bikepacking that translate off the bike as well.
Fat Pursuit 200 km. Last year I went in with a plan to do the 60km race, and I completed and loved it, and I left Idaho in 2023 knowin I would come back and do the ultra. I started focusing on it in November with my training, and got in solid early rides up in Leadville on my packed bike. I spent time packing and dialing my kit (all the stuff that you wear and put on the bike). I thought about nutrition. I thought a LOT about lights (a major anxiety trigger for me is my lights die during a night race so I’m continually fussing with lights). The day before the race I studied the course on RideWithGPS as Nan suggested. I used the snowmobile map and went through junction-by-junction what Jay had walked us through it at the end of camp. Being an ultra race, the course is not marked so you have to navigate on your own. I had my primary system with my Garmin 1040 Solar with the course loaded. I also had on my iPhone Photos screenshots of the mile markers with features of the course that I had written out (exposed, climb, descend, etc) as I went through the route, and I had a paper map in case all electronic sources failed.
Most of all I had a different mindset this year. I knew this race was going to be cold, but I didn’t fear it. I prepared and was eager to test myself. I didn’t want to set a mental limitation. I wanted to test my true limits. I felt ready, and more mentally ready than I have felt going into an event in awhile.
Race morning. I woke up after okayish pre-race sleep, got dressed and put on Face Tape on my nose and cheeks. This was CLUTCH gift from fellow racer/camper Jennifer Hanson at camp, which is like KT Tape that provides a barrier over your skin to prevent frostbite. I drove to the start, unloaded my bike right away to get the tires to chill to the current temperature, inflated them a little bit, and rolled to the start. We lined up before 7AM and after last minute checks with people and their Spot Trackers, we rolled out on a neutral lap around the Sawtelle Resort. One part of the Fat Pursuit 200km is you have to do a water boil test, and you don’t know where it will be. When we came back to the start line before heading out on course, the race people called out “Water Boil!” And everyone got off their bike, threw on a puffy coat, and took out our stoves and got to work. It took me longer than I anticipated because I could not get any of the 3 lighters (2 electric, one more traditional Bic) to work in the cold. Thankfully I had matches and got them to light and got it to work. Once I had the rolling boil (not just fish eyes), I poured the water back in my thermos, packed up my stove, removed my puffy and packed it and and rolled out. The first miles heading north into a headwind with drifted snow was cold and difficult. My immediate focus was just to get to the street crossing and into the trees, because I knew as Jay said, that the trail would change. I stopped several times to let air out of my tires to gain better traction. It took a few times to dial the tire pressure, but it worked. And once I got across the road and a little further into the trees, I felt protected from the wind and a sense of relief. Out of the harshest conditions, I started to eat and drink better. I put my Camelbak hose under my armpit to thaw it. And then we started climbing and warming up. It was something to soon be taking off layers in the below freezing temperatures. Outer Gortex shell: shed. Then my Panache Team PHenomenal Hope winter cycling jacket: shed. Outer 45NRTH Sturmfist 4 gloves: shed. I was literally riding in just my baselayer and vest and glove liners inside my FBJ camo pogies (the big mittens attached to the handlebars) on the climb up to Two Top. When it became more exposed, I put my Gortex shell over top of my baselayer and then just before getting to the top where we would descend I put my cycling jacket back on between the vest and Gortex while I was still warm. Anticipate and plan the transitions: check. Layer system: working well. “Great job, PG,” I told myself.
Due to bluebird day at the top of Two Top, the trails were pretty churned up by all the snow machine traffic (for the unaware, I learned last year that snow machines = snowmobiles — it’s basically what region you’re in as to what name you use for them). So with the trails not being packed, it was not that fast for me even on the descent, but more slippy/slidy for sure. You take what the trail gives you (as my hiker/writer friend Sarah says — you can check out her blog here), and that’s what I did. I had a blast. We rode over the Montana state line and back, and kept going to get to checkpoint 1 at Mile 28 on the course. The trail had improved a bit and I actually was cruising into the checkpoint/aid station, looking forward to the refuel stop, and felt really strong.
At the aid station they had hot water, food bags from our bag drop, noodles, fried PB&J sammies, salty and sweet treats and such. And they had a warming tent. I went in to warm up, get my neck gaiter dried out, and eat in the warmth. It felt good. I didn’t want to stay too long and get too comfortable, but was there for almost an hour. This was longer than I planned but I also knew that night would bring -30 F temps and I wanted to be warm and dry heading up the second major climb and into the night. Plus, I really hadn’t practiced an aid station transition in this race. Now I know to work on this better (focused visualization will help) and get more efficient for the next time.
At the checkpoint I met Amber in the tent. She had gotten in before me and said, “Oh yeah, another woman!” There were only 6 of us registered in the 200 km race out of 73 racers, so there is this instant camaraderie that you feel when you meet one another. Amber had come down from Alaska and although she had raced in winter races, this was her first time in Idaho. She finished her pre-night prep and rolled out and I rolled out soon after. As we headed up the mountain, we went back and forth a bit. I again shed layers down to my base layer for the climb (around 4PM and pre-dusk). Then just before nightfall I pulled over to change my Blenders sunglasses lenses to clear, eat, drink, and layer up.
When night hit it, and as expected, the temperature plummeted. At this point in the race we were also ascending 1500 feet or so and a rule of thumb is that with elevation, temperatures drop by 5 degrees for every 1000 feet you ascend. So it was getting cold. Because of the extreme cold, the trails did firm up a little, but also because of the extreme cold, the night grooming machines were not sent out that night. So the trails still were slow going. Also because of the cold, I walked a lot of even rideable sections just to stay warm. At one point I put on my puffy coat over top of everything just because it was getting down below -20 F as we approached midnight. Yeah, it was cold.
It was also beautiful. We had been going back and forth out of checkpoint 1, so I kept expecting to see Amber passing me from behind again, but soon I was on my own in the dark of night, embracing it. It was quiet. The trees were covered with snow and the stars were shining brightly. It was utterly clear and gorgeous. I could see the condensation from my breath in my headlights. In the extreme cold, I felt alive.
Back to the race… When it was so cold, my running checklist and focus was on staving off hypothermia and keeping my bike working. A few times my Garmin shut off. I got out the auxiliary battery pack and plugged it in and thankfully it came back on. I was miserly with — but overall used well — my flashlight and headlamp. Amazingly my iPhone 13 still worked below 0 F despite having a little frost on the surface. It was walk/pedal/walk/pedal for many miles. But I kept moving forward. Also even though you are supposed to eat and drink a lot in the extreme cold, I found I completely lost my appetite. I did not want to eat anything. For me this is strange because I can recreationally eat pretty much anytime like a boss. But in these cold conditions I lost my drive to eat. Also to keep your water from not freezing, you put your camelback underneath your layers against your body, including the hose. This means that when you have to drink you have to stop, unzip a little, and drink, and then blow back into the water bladder when you’re done, lock the hose. I did all this, but not frequently enough because I didn’t want to stop, unzip, and lose heat. And this is bad because eating food and drinking can actually help with thermogenesis and keep you warm. Anyway, I was not shivering, and I didn’t have any symptoms of hypothermia. So I was maintaining my body heat. I passed a few people bivvying on the side of the trail at this point in the race and seeing their blinking red tailights gave me a little jolt of energy as I had been by myself for several hours at that point. I just wanted to push up over the crest and down Baker Draw to lower elevation to try to gain whatever 5 degrees I could before camping before morning.
With the slow going trails and my second flashlight battery about to go out, I realized I needed to bivvy to safely change out batteries, rest and recharge, eat and prepare for the final shortclimb and then descent. I found a spot at the side of the trail in a side snowmobile track, and set up my camp. Now it was really cold, so I needed to move quickly and avoid cold exposure. Get out the pad, the sack, the sleeping bag, put all my gear, electronics, food, Camelback, and expedition gloves into the sleeping bag, get in, get off outer boots and put outside the sleeping bag and inside the bivvy sack, then take off damp clothing while zipped inside the sack and lay it alongside my body so it could dry. What I found out soon was that I had sweated more than I realized because I had been wearing the puffy coat, so my clothing was wetter than I had anticipated. Noted. Just work on it. I would change into dry stuff before I rolled out in not too long. But more than the clothes, what happened next changed the course of my race…
As soon as I laid flat and on my sides in the sleeping bag inside the bivvy and was dressing and working with gear I started feeling increased shortness of breath and my breathing pattern changed. It felt like fluid more than wheezing, and I realized this was the end of my race. I communicated via my Garmin InReach and help arrived and my breathing instantly improved by sitting upright in the warm side-by-side vehicle that took me off the trail. I got checked out by a doctor, the chest x-ray showed pulmonary vascular congestion, and after a dose of oral dexamethasone I felt much better. I am thankful for the race, the team that helped me, the entire experience, my health and now the time for recovery.
So with the Fat Pursuit 2024, although I didn’t finish (only 3 people finished out of the 73 who registered for the 200 km bike race), I rode the farthest I have ever ridden on a Fat Bike: 50.4 miles over the 16.5 hour period. I did a lot of things right to get that far. And I will say that even though the outcome was what it was, the biggest breakthrough for me that I kept going after Checkpoint 1. I felt driven to leave the warming tent, get on my bike, and get up the mountain. This was the unlock for me. I was determined to push my limits out of this internal drive (not any feeling of obligation or guilt, but of a true curiosity to see what I was capable of). I didn’t want to accept self-imposed imagined limitations. How do you know you can or can’t handle something unless you try? Especially with the amount of solid prep I did for this — 2 camps, thorough training, mindset training: I felt READY to do my work this race. So at the end of this race, I know I literally pushed up against my limits. AND I also learned what I need to work on to do this safely in the future. I need to be dialed — d-i-a-l-e-d — in order to take on -35 F temps if/when I should encounter them again. I’m already developing a plan and process for that. I’ve already ordered a special sports respirator for extreme cold sports. The one most recommended is the Cold Avenger mask, but since it is out of stock I ordered a Vapro Airtrim, as I may need it for the next race — Fat Bike Worlds — in 2 weeks). I also ordered more anti-freeze Face Tape to protect skin for the rest of winter racing.
Although I did not finish the Fat Pursuit this year, it blew way past my expectations. I raced and lived my 2024 growth mindset. I did my work. I know I can do better the next time. I know I can finish this. And remarkably, this whole experience will help me in my daily life. It is easy to get lost in the swirl of distractions and stressors in day-to-day living. But there is something about UltraRacing in an extreme environment that brings into hyperacute focus the present moment and that which is truly important right now.
Conclusion. If I use one word to sum up this entire experience it is gratitude. I am grateful for all of it. I’m grateful to be alive and to be living this life. I am grateful for the lessons learned through UltraCycling — which for me is ultra living. I’m grateful for my health and the ability to be able to do this. I’m grateful for my job and work colleagues that enable and encourage me to take time to do this. I’m grateful for this event and for Jay Petervary and the Fat Pursuit community and the kind Idahoans who helped me. I’m grateful for the caring and love from my family and friends. I’m grateful for Coach Jason of Team Wilpers, who helped me get through the challenges of last year and prepare for this race and the big year ahead. I’m grateful to Elevation Wheel Company who built me my Why Cycles Big Iron bike (aka “Big HOPE!”) and helped launch me on this hobby of winter expedition biking out of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. And I’m grateful to be able to ride for Team PHenomenal Hope with my Let Me Be Your Lungs partner, Kira, and race to make a difference in the lives of those living with pulmonary hypertension.