Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400: Race Strategy

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Planning is a critical key to any major endeavor. Whenever I decide to take myself to another level physically, mentally, spiritually, or financially my first step is to set the overall goal. My goal for the Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 was to complete the entire 420 mile course. The next step was to separate the goal of finishing the race into three classifications: moderate, challenging, and aggressive. I did this to push myself beyond coasting and just finishing.Each level would allow me to continually push myself throughout the race.

The Three Classifications

  1.   Moderate– 4 days and 15 Hours- To be done by 10:00 PM Sunday which was dictated by  business travel plans for Monday morning.
  2.   Challenging– Finish in 4 days, be done by 7:00 AM Sunday
  3.   Aggressive– 3 1/2 days to be done by 7:00 PM Saturday

With the above goals set, I prepared by scouting the course. I used training rides to practice parts of the course and driving the rest of it, I developed feel for the magnitude of the race. To successfully complete the course I needed a good plan. I used the concept of “chunking down,” which is breaking big pieces into small manageable pieces. This allowed me to think of the race as 5 manageable pieces instead of one overwhelming event. The cue sheets provided on the web site broke the race into five sections:

  1. 89 Miles from Boise to Featherville
  2. 70 Miles from Featherville to Ketchum
  3. 97 Miles from Ketchum to Stanley
  4. 112 Miles from Stanley to Garden Valley
  5. 49 Mile from Garden Valley to Boise

To complete the course and have a day to recover, I decided that the best option was to reduce the number of sections from 5 to 4. Based on the mileage and difficulty I decided to split the 70 mile in section 2 and add 35 miles to sections 1 and 3. Doing so changed the course from the original 5 sections to the following four sections:

1. 124 Miles from Boise to the base of Dollarhide Summit

2. 127 Miles from the base of Dollarhide Summit to Stanley

3. 112 Miles from Stanley to Garden Valley

4. 49 Miles from Garden Valley to Boise

The last section in both cases seemed relatively short compared to the others, but it was a hard 49 miles. In addition, if I was behind, schedule miles could be added to the last day.

During the training rides I was averaging about 9 miles per hour throughout the day, which included the food and water rest stops. For the race I calculated my estimated times based on an 8 mile per hour average. Using the route sheets, I worked the estimated times and formed a couple of different angles on each section.

  1. Section 1 was dictated by the race start time of 7:00 am. Doing 130 miles at 8 mph I would finish the day around 11:00pm and have to ride about 2 1/2 hours in the dark,
  2. Section 2 was dictated by wanting to complete the Fisher Creek Loop single track portion before it got dark at 8:30. Working backwards from the end of the Loop I determined the starting time for day 2 would have to be 6:00am and I would be riding until approximately 10:00 pm.
  3. Section 3 was a little shorter but had the grueling Scott Mountain climb. Starting at 7:00am would allow me to end the day at 8:30 just as it would be getting dark.
  4. Section 4 to be started at 8:00am and then finish in Hyde Park at 2:00pm on Saturday.

The final step of my race planning was to review all the places that food and water would be available. I plotted out where and how much food to buy. Also, exactly how many bottles of water I would need between each water location varied from 1 to 5 bottles. Water is heavy, so it is an important balancing act to not run out and not carry too much.

I decided it was a great plan, but executing it would definitely be hard.

To read more about the Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 check out the blogs below:

Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4


Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400: Day 4

Make sure you read Day 1, Day 2, & Day 3 before you read Day 4!

Anxious to get an early start on what I hoped to be the final day of the race I started dressing as soon as I woke up at 5:00AM. The first point of awareness that morning was that the temperature was very comfortable. It was the first morning that the temptation to hide in my warm sleeping bag didn’t slow down morning preparations. Breakfast was a ½ package of beef jerky, 1/3 block of mild cheddar cheese, and a bag of corn nuts. I was on the bike rolling at 5:40 a.m. The warmth didn’t last long as I had a fast 1.6 mile descent from the ridge I camped on, to the bottom of the ravine. The cold air had settled in the bottom along the creek, but wasn’t a concern because the road immediately started climbing again. Giving up all that elevation was a mental blow as I had to regain it on the next climb. My notes showed I had 6.1 miles of steep climbing to reach the summit. Walking the really steep sections was part of my pre-race strategy that I used on the steepest sections of the Scott Mountain climb. It didn’t take long to figure out that the last day was going to be the toughest mentally and physically.

2014-09-12 13.03.04Heavy legs and negative thoughts dominated the grind up Scott Mountain. Normally reaching a summit is exhilarating and rewarded with coasting on the downhill. The steep eleven mile descent from the Scott Mountain summit ending at the highway between Garden Valley and Lowman was not fun. The road was littered with rocks, had multiple fissures from water erosion, and the temperature dropped dramatically as I descended through the temperature inversion. Alternating between standing and sitting and using the brakes for the entire descent was tiring. I wondered if my disc brakes were getting hot enough to turn red. The sigh of relief on reaching the highway was short lived. Rolling along on the smooth asphalt I could feel the wobbling of my rear tire caused by the wheel being out of round as a result of the broken spoke. I stopped at the Hot Springs Campground to refill my water bladder and bottles. The route took us along the highway for 9 miles where the course turned onto the Alder Creek road. Physical and mental exhaustion had become a constant and I needed a break before starting the seven climb to the Alder Creek Summit. I found a sunny spot under a tree, ate more jerky and cheese, and took a fifteen minute nap. It was on the Alder Creek climb that every thought and feeling were about quitting. Seeing the clean ring on the left side of my rear tire revealed that the tire was now out of balance enough that it was rubbing on the frame. Too finally break the drag of the negative mental thoughts I forced myself to start thinking about the final descent and how it was going to feel to ride across the finish line.

I walked and pushed the bike up the steepest last half mile of the summit. The descent form the summit towards Placerville provided a bonus when a cow and calf elk walked across the road ahead of me. At this stage of the race all the aches and pains are increasing. Both my Achilles tendons were on fire and throbbing, my lower back was aching, my neck was hurting and stiff, It was hard to turn my head to either side, my right shoulder had pain shooting down my arm, and both hands had fingers that were numb, tingly, or not working correctly due to compression of the nerves for so many hours leaning on the handlebars. Last but not least was that there was no longer any position I could sit on the bike saddle that wasn’t painful. Focusing on pedal cadence, power, and imaging the finish line was the best way to redirect the mind away from the discomfort and pain. Another rider passed me stating that he was glad that the Harris Creek Summit ahead was our last hard climb. I don’t think he believed me when I told him that the steepest climbs and worst part of the course were on the Boise Ridge Road after Harris Creek Summit. Reaching Placerville allowed for another break, food, and refilling of water. Mentally, it helped as I knew I was now starting what I considered the final leg and push to finish. Leaving Placerville the road had a couple gentle down hills that revealed that the rear tire rubbing was sucking speed and energy. The bike felt like it had flat tires or that the brakes were on.

img_2697-1280x960Starting the Harris Creek climb I checked the rear wheel to find two more broken spokes bring the total to four. No wonder the wheel is wobbling and rubbing. I was hoping to nurse the bike a long and gut it out to the finish. Reaching the turning the summit and turning onto the Boise Ridge Road brought a mix of feelings. Concern about the number and steepness of the climbs and a building excitement that getting past the Ridge Road would mean the final 16 mile descent into Boise wasn’t far off. At this point in the race it was sheer determination that was pushing me past the pain and through the exhaustion. I checked off each climb as I coasted down the other side. Just as the excitement was starting to edge out the despair the wobble in my back wheel got so bad it was shaking the whole bike when I picked up speed on the descents. I checked the wheel again and discovered it now had five broken spokes. As I wrapped the broken spoke around a remaining one, I realized the wheel wasn’t going to take very much stress. Thinking I could nurse the bike along I quickly changed my strategy. I walked and pushed the bike any time that would require heavy pedal pressure that would stress the wheel. I also rode my brakes to keep the speed very slow on the descents to avoid hard impacts on rocks and washouts. I ended up walking approximately 10 miles of the ridge road.

My spirits soared when I crested a rise to see the ski runs running down the north side of Shafer Butte. Then they crashed when I remembered that the course would soon leave the Ridge Road on Trail 198; a single track trail around the back side of Mores Mountain. I was at mile 400 of 424 knowing the last 16 miles were a fast downhill run on the Hard Guy trail. Though close, my body and mind hadn’t given out yet, but my equipment had, my bike was broken. I contemplated remaining on course to finish, but the reality of the situation was that in the best case scenario, I was going to have to walk and push the bike for several miles. In the worst case scenario the rear wheel would collapse at the wrong time, causing a crash with injuries. In between the best and worst outcomes was the highest probability that the wheel would be so out of round that it wouldn’t rotate anymore and I would have to carry the bike. Sometimes the best and hardest decisions are to suspend the quest to reach the goal you are striving for. I determined that this was one of those times. It was really hard to call the race at this point. I had suffered through the past day and a half resisting the temptation to quit. Willing myself to continue through every pedal stroke when my mind was screaming stop pedaling and stop the pain. With the finish in sight in the valley below, I was forced to quit due to a mechanical malfunction. I wanted to scream. In fact, I did scream. Then I turned on my phone and called my son asking him to drive up and pick me up. 10580755_10204435162460602_1604436790605421638_o

With a broken bike and broken spirit it was a long drive down the hill to Boise. To be so close and not be able to finish was a crushing disappointment. Then I forced myself to RESET my thoughts and think about the positive side of the event. I had ridden 400 miles on a mountain bike in less than 3 ½ days. It was the hardest physical challenge and accomplishment of my life. I chose then and continue to think of my back country adventure as a great personal success. Now, don’t ask if I am going to ride the race again next year… I am still too close to the pain of this year to give an honest answer.


Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400: Day 3

10610844_10100337456566583_5912175441628969102_nDid you miss out on Day 1 and Day 2? Catch up before you read Day 3!

On day three I woke up to chilly temperatures. I wondered to myself, how can it feel like the Arctic in mid-September? It was cold enough that I got very little sleep and definitely wasn’t rested for the day ahead. I wanted to get an early start to make up the miles I shorted on my plan the day before. I stalled as long as I could but knew it would be hours before the temperature warmed up. For me to get back on schedule, I would have to do 137 miles on day 3. I stalled as long as I could and finally willed myself into action. It is very cold, luckily I had the right clothing and started to warm up as I pedaled. Things were going well, until I realized that both of my water bottles had frozen solid by mile 12. This was a problem because I needed water to keep the muscles firing and I was getting most of my calories through my INFINIT Sports drink powder mixed in with the water. The frozen bottles meant no food or water until I could reach Red Fish Lodge. Riding in the dark I found my bike was wobbling back and forth up the short steep climb when my front wheel hit a rock. I couldn’t get my left foot unclipped before toppling over in the dirt. Fortunately, there was no major damage or witnesses…. By the time I reached Red Fish Lodge the cold had seeped through every layer of clothing I was wearing, leaving me frozen.

Due to very slow service my breakfast at the Lodge took way longer than I wanted. It was only 6 more miles to Stanley where I used the shower in Doug and Ken’s room. After the shower I laid down on the bed for a 15 minute nap. The next stop was the grocery store for food. There wasn’t going to be a chance to buy food for the next 112 miles. Loaded up with food I rode the 5 miles on Highway 21 before turning up Stanley Lake Road. At the lake we left the asphalt for dirt and it later turned into a single track on the Elk Meadows Loop. The loop was some of the best and the worst riding of the trip. The road had an extremely rough and rocky section that I ended up hiking the bike over. The next several miles were a mix of asphalt on Highway 21, gravel, and more asphalt until we turned off Highway 21 to start the climb to Cape Horn Summit. Not making it to Stanley the night before put me out of synch with the other riders and I would end up riding all of day three alone. That was okay because there wasn’t anyone around to hear my whining and whimpering. My right Achilles had started hurting and there are no words to describe the level of discomfort from sitting on the bike saddle for hours and hours. The ride was no longer fun and had become a matter of will to keep pedaling.

roadThe third day turned into a period of fluctuating energy and attitude resulting in my speed varying throughout the day. The Bear Valley to Deadwood section is very scenic and should have been an easy ride. If it wasn’t due to a major complication and the ongoing aggravation of washboard bumpy roads! As annoying as washboard roads are in a car they are much worse on a bicycle. The bumps suck speed, energy and pound the body, especially the sitting bones… Reaching Deadwood Reservoir lifted my spirits and I optimistically began preparing mentally for the Scott Mountain climb ahead. This didn’t last long. On short steep uphill beside the reservoir I shifted into my lowest gear. I shifted and my pedals locked up. I was upset because it meant I would have to get off and manually put the chain back on. My minor irritation turned to major concern when I bent over the rear wheel to fix the chain. It was jammed between the ring and the spokes. To make things worse, I saw that it had also broken a spoke. I was at about mile 99 for the day, tired, frustrated, and discouraged. It took twenty minutes to get the chain loose and back on the rear cassette. The hard core, experienced, bike packers carry extra spokes. I wasn’t experienced nor was I carrying no any extra spokes. I seriously considered throwing in the towel, but couldn’t accept defeat and the idea of quitting. I went with the next best option; I wrapped the broken spoke around the spoke next to it. Once I start riding again, I start analyzing my motivation for doing something as ludicrous as the ride. Being alone in the middle of nowhere I couldn’t share my annoyances with anyone about my current situation. I made a solemn vow to myself that I would scratch the Tour the Divide off my LEAP List as soon as I got home. What an idiot thing to want to do were my thoughts. When I stopped feeling sorry for myself, my thoughts turned back to the climb ahead.

The sun was setting and I decided I wanted to try and get over Scott Mountain in the dark if I could. After a steep climb up the road crosses the end of the Deadwood Airstrip at the south end of the reservoir and you get a great view of the reservoir’ dam and mountain range. Once I crossed the airstrip the road pitched down for a fast downhill coast to the base of the dam where I crossed the Deadwood River. Ten minutes earlier I had been looking down at the dam and now it was towering above me. Normally a sight to admire only provided discouragement because I knew I had to re-climb all the vertical feet I had just given up. The light was fading fast so I took a couple of minutes to rig the light on my helmet and the red light on the back of my seat post for riding in the dark. During my race preparation I had driven the Scott Mountain section and made a scouting report. I printed the notes and had them with me providing a description of every grade change on the climb. The changes ranged from 2/10 of a mile to 1.6 miles followed by descriptions, like steep, easy, down, very steep, and WALK. There were sections of 0.4 miles and 0.7 miles that I knew I would walk to conserve energy. Sometimes on a steep climb my speed was slow enough that balance deteriorated and the bike and I wobbled around instead of riding in a straight line. I found the balance thing to be compounded when it was pitch black and I didn’t have any peripheral visual references. It was 10:00pm when I had pedaled 9.1 of the 15.2 climb. The long days and miles caught up with me again. Mentally, I wanted to keep going, but I didn’t have the physical energy to continue. In addition, my notes indicated that I was about to start a 1.6 mile steep downhill section. Previous nights had shown that the temperatures were much lower at the bottom of the valleys than higher on the ridges. So I called it a night and found a relatively flat spot just above the road to pitch my tent. I have spent many nights camping, but I don’t think I had ever spent one that seemed as dark, quiet, and lonely as that night. The bright side of things was that I was half way up Scott Mountain, the air temperature was almost warm, and best of all I had my dinner to eat. It was a gourmet meal of beef jerky, mild cheddar cheese, and corn nuts. Not something I would invite company to dinner for but pretty good for the side of a mountain. My last thought before I fell asleep was, I hope the bears don’t like corn nuts.