Saturday, March 21, 2009

Interview With Jeff Oatley

I know I said a couple posts back that it would be my last post about this year's ITI. I lied. This post won't have anything to do with my entirely disastrous race experience though. Instead a look inside Jeff Oatley's (this year's winner in the race to McGrath) much more successful race experience. Jeff is one of a handful of racers who has come to define the ITI. He has amazing physical strength and endurance, but even more importantly he has unbelievable mental strength and endurance. In short he is one of the most bad ass ultra endurance cyclists out there. He has completed RAAM (fastest American finisher the year he did it), the ITI 5 years in a row now, and he holds the race record for both the 200 and 400 mile versions of The Fireweed 400.

Here are a few questions he was kind enough to answer that give a good look into his race this year. Even though he won the race to McGrath this year this was his slowest finishing time ever. This gives a pretty good indication of just how bad conditions were out there this year. His accounts below paint the picture much clearer though:

Q: In your mind did you approach the race any differently this year than previous years? With Pete on skis, Rocky not racing, and Jay riding with Tracey you had a pretty clear cut edge in experience and previous ITI accomplishments over the other bikers heading out onto the trail this time around. Did you go into the race looking to be the one riding out in front of the pack or is that just the way it ended up playing out?

A: I definitely didn’t approach the race any differently. I just try to get myself mentally prepared for this race and to get my bike and gear dialed. And honestly I did a multi-day trip with Pete and Ed on ski’s (and myself on a bike), and I talked to Pete a few times about his skiing before the race and I figured there was a 50% chance he’d be on a bike at the start line. I’ve been at or near the front of the race every time I’ve done it except for last year when it was more of a tour for me and my friend, Tim. So it wasn’t new to be in front. But it was unusual to get such a large gap.

Q: I was shocked when I got to Yentna at 4:20 AM to see that everyone except you was still there. Even more shocked to discover that you had left Yentna before the next racer got there. From there until Puntilla your lead kept growing steadily and you continued to leave each checkpoint well before the next racers got there. If my math is correct you probably went 150+ miles without seeing another racer. Is this correct? If so, what was your mindset leaving Puntilla without having seen another racer since presumably an hour or two into the race?

A: I went from Seven Mile Lake to Rainy Pass Lake without seeing another racer. I think that’s about 170 miles. The race started pretty slowly with a group of 6 or 8 bikers tooling along. That was fine with me. I gave myself an hour to get warmed up and then put a little bit of an effort in to see who would come along because I was okay riding with a couple people, but I didn’t want to be in a pack. I was shocked when I was able to walk almost all the way across Flathorn Lake and still never see another racer behind me. At Finger Lake they told me that I had a 6 hour lead (as of Skwentna). I’d taken an hour and a half nap at Skwentna and really felt great leaving Finger so I was riding hard, the trail was good, and I felt like I had a good rhythm going. But I’ve been through Rainy Pass enough to know that nothing really matters until you get to Rohn.

Q: Any details you want to share about the stretch between Puntilla and Rohn would be interesting. How long were you holed up with Bill? (and how many times did you think about slitting his throat? :) Did you attempt heading out over the pass on your own or only once other racers got up there? Did you have any food left when you got down to Rohn? etc, etc.?

A: I got to the Rainy Pass Lake cabin at about 11:30am. I’d passed Bill’s snowmachine and followed his snowshoe tracks until the wind and snow washed them away, so I was expecting the worse at the top. But I was hopeful the trailbreakers would be there from the north side. When I got there my first thought was that I would continue on breaking trial by myself and hoping that I met the trailbreakers before too long. But I quickly discounted that option as being too risky. I knew that if need be there was no way I could break the ~10 miles of trail to the Tatina River by myself. So with no information as to what the status of the trailbreakers was it would have been reckless to try that. I pretty quickly realized that my best option was to get some good sleep and be ready to go whenever the trailbreakers got there or we had enough bikes to attempt to break trail. It ended up being the later. I had been there for about 12 hours (I think) when the next bikers showed up, and 21 hours when our group left the cabin. I think Phil, Jay & Tracey P and I left together, and we were quickly joined by Chris Wrobel, James Leavesly, and Alec Petro. Not sure this is completely the correct order, but before long this was the group. It was a terrific group of people to do this with. Very positive energy and very good humor…which became pretty key as the trip just got more and more absurd. I never had any doubts that we would make it. But I couldn’t even guess how long it might take. I suppose I really imagined us meeting the trailbreakers, or finding their trail, much sooner than we ultimately did. Obviously, after the fact, this was the highlight of the trip for me. The amount of work it took to get to the Gorge (where we finally hit the snowmachine trail) was absurd. We were just wallowing in snow, struggling through willows and alders, and constantly breaking through the ice on the creek…sometimes into water and sometimes not. At one time or another I think each of us hit our limits mentally, but the group spirits stayed high and a joke or funny comment always came at just the right time. Everybody in the group brought something to the table. It was a pretty unbelievable group effort. Cory caught and passed us I’d say within two or three miles of leaving Rainy Pass Lake. I thought we’d never see him again. He looked like he was really moving. But many hours later we ran into his tracks and could tell he was bogged down too. It was so funny when Ed Plumb passed us. We were in deep snow…probably more than waist deep so we were really low. Ed was more or less on top of the snow so he looked like he was about 10 feet above us and he just had this look on his face that was a mixture of bewilderment, pity, and something like contempt. He said something like “That…that looks…horrible…”. Ed is a good friend of mine from Fairbanks and I was really happy to see him and see that he was doing really well with the situation. But we didn’t really get a chance to talk much and he skied on and left us. I’d have given anything for a video of that interaction. But like Cory, Ed soon got bogged down too and we all sort of ended up in the same situation at almost the same location After about 17 hours of pretty steady and somewhat intense effort we bivy’d. It was not the most comfortable bivy because we were all somewhere between damp and soaked. It had been about 50 hours since I left Puntilla Lake and my food supply was low so I ate one piece of bacon before I went to sleep and had a couple more for when I woke up. When I got up I gave Jay some bacon and he gave me some Pringles and I think some chocolate. The previous day I’d given Alec some crackers and I think Chris (it may have been Phil) hade given me some candy bars. It was the type of cooperative effort that probably only happens in like…shipwrecks and the ITI. I really hope I never have to do that exact thing again. But at the same time that is the sort of thing that really makes this race special. I’ve done this race five times and in several of those trips there have been times when the conditions just dictated that we put the race on the backburner and focus on dealing with the conditions together.

Q: How much frustration did you ever have about being forced to squander such a large lead? Obviously you couldn't dwell on this for too long but there must have been some period of time that you had some frustration about it.

A: Honestly I don’t think I was frustrated by the situation at the top of the pass at all. There was plenty of frustration with the trailbreaking that followed. This race is about these types of situations…although they aren’t usually quite as large as this one. I think I made the right decisions at Rainy Pass. I know I would not have made it to the Tatina on my own. I got a lot of good rest and was able to make a pretty big push from there to the end. After the bivy above the Dalzell Gorge I made it to McGrath on one 90-minute bivy with probably less than half of that time sleeping. Plus, the re-grouping made it a pretty good race…at least in my head. At Nikolai I knew (from a snowmachiner) that I was about 2-3 hours ahead of Cory and the trails were absolute shit so I was in full-on race mode. Believing that I was being chased by a world-class skier on a mostly unrideable trail from Bison Camp to McGrath led to a pretty epic last 24 hours for me. I would never have pushed myself that hard if I had reached Rohn with a 12+ hour lead. Yeah, it turns out that Cory took a break in Nikolai so the chase was sort of broken off, but I didn’t know that. I remember that by about 6am on the morning I reached McGrath I was toast. I was so tired I could hardly walk. I’d mostly stopped eating and drinking and I was having a hard time keeping warm. I’d turned my headlamp off because the little circular spot was making it even harder to stay awake. I was basically asleep on my feet. But I was still checking behind me at the end of every straightaway and every time I didn’t see a light back there I tried to push a little harder to hold on. It felt epic to me. That’s what I’m after in this race. Its really funny to me now because if I wouldn’t have thought that Cory was behind me I probably would have done something like imagined a world-class skier was chasing me to try and motivate myself through those hours before daylight…which is really what I was doing anyways. If that makes any sense…that’s the sort of thing I do sometimes. I’m not saying it makes sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to push a bike through a blizzard for 2 days either.

Q: Did you have any notable physical lowpoints during the race? Mental?

A: Well, by the time I got to McGrath my physical condition was not exactly optimum. I mean, I knew I was on a course that was not maintainable for too long. My lower legs and feet were really taking a beating from all the pushing through deep snow. And I was having trouble with my feet because I had been in overflow quite a bit on the Kuskokwim. I’d say my physical condition bottomed out about the time I hit the hardpack road into McGrath…maybe a couple miles before that.

Mentally I had a bit of a low trying to get across the Farewell Burn in a pretty good ground blizzard. It was tough because the trails had finally gotten rideable about 15-20 miles before, but this storm came up and the winds kept getting stronger and stronger and visibility intermittently got pretty bad. About 6 miles beyond Bison Camp the trails were gone…I was in the middle of the Burn and a crosswind was just abusing me. I kind of had to lift the bike to the top of the snowdrifts and the wind was strong enough that it was catching the bike and trying to pull it out of my hands. I fell over the bike about a 100 times during this period. The footing was bad, I was awake, but physically very tired, it was ridiculous.

In these conditions I probably would have stopped sooner but I had a very weird encounter with a lynx on the trail that energized me a little bit me and kept me going for a bit longer. Visibility was very low and all of a sudden I saw eyes glowing real close to me. At about the same time the wind died a bit and a lynx was standing right in front of me, probably 25 or 30 feet away…very close. It quickly bounded out of sight. It was really cool and sort of woke me up for an hour or two. But at about 6:30am I finally just gave up and had to bivy, but there was very little cover around there and I was moving so slow that I knew it was pointless to try and get to cover so I just kicked out a hole in the snow and curled up in my bag for 90 minutes. It was totally mental. I just didn’t want to be out there in that anymore. The wind is weird in that it can really turn your head inside out. Cold by itself doesn’t really have that effect on me. When I got up I was still mentally pretty whipped until I got to Sullivan Creek, got out of the wind for a few minutes, refilled my camelback and ate some food. Then I picked it up again.

Q: How many times have you now finished the ITI (in how many attempts)?

A: I’ve finished the ITI five times in five tries and the Iditasport once in one try before that.

Q: Does arriving in McGrath become any less sweet now that you've done it several times?

A: Rolling down the road into McGrath is always sweet. The first time I made it to McGrath I had tears in my eyes as I soft-pedaled down the road. It’s that kind of trip. If I get jaded to that feeling I hope I have the sense to quite doing the race. This thing is hard. It’s hard for the people at the front and it’s hard for the people at the back. Getting to McGrath is an accomplishment for anybody that sets out to do it.

When you combine that sense of accomplishment with how unbelievable Peter and Tracy are to everybody that shows up at there house, its pretty tough to think of a race that has a better ending. Hanging out in McGrath, sharing trail stories with other racers is a HUGE part of the experience.


MC said...

Just awesome--thanks to both of you for making this available to the rest of us mere mortals.

Super impressive Jeff. Really psyched for you.


Vik said...

Great interview - thanks...=-)

Kid Riemer said...

Thanks much for the posting. It is really nice to read more of the details of the race, and to see what the fast guys do in those situations. Congrats on your fine finish Jeff.

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