Perseverance. That’s what is running through Graham Muir’s mind as he and good friend, Kellie Nelson, line up at the start of Jay P’s Backyard Fat Pursuit. Perseverance will carry them 200 miles on fat bikes through steep climbs, freezing temperatures, poor visibility, soft snow, heavy fatigue, and when self-doubt rears its ugly head.
At noon on Friday, January 5th, Graham and Kellie begin their monumental journey, reminding themselves to tackle small issues before they become race-ending disasters. They have the gear, food, skills and fitness. They know slow and steady will bring them across the coveted finish line—a feeling they yearn for after last year’s epic conditions prevented them from reaching that goal.
Race organizers, Jay and Tracey Petervary (accomplished cyclists in their own right), created a fat bike event to share their Idaho backyard with those passionate about the sport. Racers are looking for a challenge and get to experience a unique, remote, dramatic, beautiful part of the world. Riding along the edge of Yellowstone National Park entices new riders and draws veteran riders back.
While it isn’t as brutally cold, snowy or windy as last year, challenges aren’t lacking. The two years are just apples and oranges.
“I can’t remember anything about the first 80 miles last year, because I was just trying to stay warm,” says Graham between spoonfuls of chicken and rice soup and bites of a grilled cheese sandwich, all prepared by generous volunteers. Fourteen volunteers dedicate their weekend to the race, cooking and caring for riders along the way.
Kellie and Graham have arrived at checkpoint two in West Yellowstone, 27 hours and 120 miles in. “When we got to that very first big hill, I’m like, man, this thing climbs forever,” says Graham. “I didn’t notice it last year, I didn’t know how far the climb was because I was off and on the bike, walking, jumping up and down. The terrain was irrelevant, I was just in survival mode.”
Snow is finicky and conditions are constantly changing. As racers take off from Ponds Lodge in Island Park, ID, the sun is shining and the temperature is a balmy 33 degrees. The snow is soft and it’s slow moving for the first 8 miles. Further along at Harriman State Park, Kellie and Graham are all smiles as they pedal across the bridge on firmer snow. In several more miles at Mesa Falls, riders are greeted with ice cream sandwiches, but it’s so warm outside, the frozen treats aren’t staying frozen. Snowmobiles come and go, churning up the snow and altering the path. Later, it starts snowing and the riding surface changes again.
“It’s a really interesting aspect of the winter ultra race, you just really are at the mercy of the environment the entire time,” shares Kellie. “It could shift on you and work toward your advantage or your disadvantage. That’s a piece of this sort of event that’s different than any other. In a road bike race, you’re all on the same road. In a mountain bike race, the terrain doesn’t change. It is what it is. Here, that number one finisher and the back of the pack are on a very different course.”
Right before they reached the West Yellowstone checkpoint, as Kellie and Graham approached the Montana border, flakes began to fall and a couple inches accumulate. It’s the same place where it started to snow last year. The dread that this could be a repeat of having to trudge through powder pushing heavy bikes for hours creeps in.
To Sleep or Not to Sleep
Now at West Yellowstone, Graham wants to quickly move on to get over the crux of the Fat Pursuit, the infamous Two Top. It’s a sharp 8-mile climb that reaches an exposed summit over 8,100 feet. You can typically count on near whiteout conditions. He doesn’t want to sleep until he’s over it.
Kellie, on the other hand, feels there is value in taking advantage of a warm house with several beds. Many of their layers are still tumbling in the laundry room dryer. It’s a delicate balance of resting while not getting sucked into a place with a cozy couch and hot food.
“The hardest part of this for me is the time and the distance don’t match,” shares Kellie. “We look and see that there are 17 miles or whatever to the next checkpoint. In your head, 17 miles can go swiftly. You think you know what that feels like and it doesn’t feel anything like that, that’s when I struggle with my headspace for sure.”
They linger for a couple hours in West Yellowstone, sharing stories and analyzing what lies ahead with other weary riders. Neither are actually able to sleep. As the sun sets, they gear up to head back out. The Trail Gods grace them with a snow groomer leading the way for several miles. They can cruise behind that for a smooth, firm ride.
The Final Push
While slow, they make it over Two Top. That’s when sleep deprivation catches up with Graham. “Once I was over Two Top, I was cooked,” shares Graham. “I needed to sleep.” They setup a bivy for about an hour of slumber. Then it’s onward to checkpoint three, the Man Cave. It’s a large garage with equipment, cushy recliners, pancakes, eggs and bacon. The best part—it’s 28 miles from the finish.
“We got the golden ticket riding to Man Cave,” shares Graham. “Conditions were prime.” They rolled in late morning with clumps of ice clinging to their hair, clothes and bikes. Morale was high. It was the last chance to warm up, eat a “home cooked meal”, and reboot. Three days and two nights in and they were so close to completing the race.
“Wanting that finish line became an obsession after Man Cave,” shares Kellie. “Part of it is because 28 miles isn’t far, but it still takes so long! We stopped a lot in the last 4 miles. My body was just so tired and we weren’t there yet. You look down the trail and all you see is more trail.”
Several riders and a few volunteers gather at the finish line as Graham and Kellie’s GPS trackers indicate they are getting close. It’s 6 p.m. and 54 hours since their race began. In the darkness, distant bike lights bobble through the trees. Then, two riders pop out—exhausted and smiling ear-to-ear.
Kellie and Graham are giving their bodies a couple days off, then it’s back on the bikes for Winter Camp. They’ll spend five more days in Island Park, ID, furthering their knowledge on winter bikepacking and survival, learning more about the proper gear and sleeping under snowy skies. The camp is a qualifier for the Iditarod Trail Invitational fat bike race in Alaska, following the same route as the iconic dog sled race. Read more in part 3 of the adventure, New year, New goals.
Want to Know More?
Read part 1 of Graham and Kellie's Fat Pursuit adventure: Unfinished Business. In this story, they share the epic conditions and emotions of the 2017 pursuit, along with details on the training and prep work that led them to the finish line in 2018.
A special thank you to photographers Jamye Chrisman and Mike Riemer for many of the photos featured above.