It’s 10 p.m. and the temperature is nearing zero degrees. Snowflakes lightly fall, disguising layers of ice, pavement and dirt underneath. While most people are winding down for the night, Kellie Nelson and Graham Muir are pulling on their baselayers and loading up their fat bikes. They pedal for several hours on snowy roads and trails before setting up camp. A short beam of light holds steady in front of their oversized tires, guiding them through the expansive darkness of the Rocky Mountains.
Kellie and Graham, close friends from Steamboat Springs, CO, are training to ride the 200-mile Jay P’s Backyard Fat Pursuit. The course will take them through a remote forested network of snowmobile trails along the border of Yellowstone National Park. It’s an adventure not for the faint of heart. Temperatures hovering around -30 are common. So are snowstorms delivering 2 or 3 feet.
Here, Mother Nature can be unforgiving—as Graham and Kellie discovered last year when competing in the 200-mile and 120-mile races, respectively.
The Perfect Storm
“We knew it was forecasted; we didn’t know the extent of the storm headed our way,” shares Kellie. Midway through the race, Kellie and Graham’s paths crossed on the course and they headed to the next checkpoint together. But as the pair pushed their bikes through nearly 8 inches of fresh powder, things started to slow down.
“I’m thinking let’s just get there, let’s just get there,” says Kellie.
At this point, Graham had been up for 48 hours and needed some time on the ground. “I’m thinking if I don’t sleep, this will take 12 hours instead of 6,” says Graham. They quickly set up their bivvies in an effort to get a couple hours of shut eye. They were buried in snow, but it wasn’t enough to call it quits.
When they arrived at the checkpoint, cold and exhausted riders huddled around a fire with hands and feet soaking in buckets of water tending to their frostbite. This was the end of the line for many as the extreme temperatures had taken their toll. While Kellie and Graham were several hours behind checkpoint cutoffs, they decided to keep going.
“We literally pushed our bikes 50-something miles, and in not one of those miles did we say, ‘this sucks,’” Kellie pauses, “okay, well maybe we said that a couple times,” she laughs.
They had no idea they were only two of four riders left on the course; that everyone else had removed themselves from the elements. Snowfall was so intense, any trace of tracks quickly disappeared.
Graham had been on course for 53 hours, Kellie for 41, and they still had nearly 26 miles to go through the storm. Sights of a finish line grew more distant.
Due to safety concerns, race organizers made the difficult decision to close it down. Conditions were just too nasty. One lone rider crossed the finish line, but only after 47 hours. To put it in prospective, the previous year’s 200-mile winner completed the race in 27 hours.
Gearing Up for This Year
This year, the duo are hoping to finish what they started. For Graham and Kellie, the level of camaraderie the Fat Pursuit carries sets it apart from other races.
“Given the small field and huge course, you don’t tend to see people very often,” shares Kellie. “When you do encounter another participant, the energy and atmosphere are so friendly and genuine the exchange is all heart and a whole lot of soul. You see people on the trail whom you’ve never met before and you become fast friends. The encounter mirrors that of best friends who haven’t seen one another in far too long and are reuniting over snow, cold and a fair amount of suffering.”
Kellie and Graham have been preparing for the Fat Pursuit for several months. Being strong cyclists, much of the fitness was already established, it just needed to be maintained. Training became more about getting their heads in the game and getting their gear dialed.
“Riding in the dark is very different than riding in the day,” shares Kellie. “The training has shifted from ticking off miles to figuring out how to layer, how to ride at night, and knowing exactly where everything is stowed on the bike and the most efficient way to access it. For me, riding at night is really challenging. Graham can’t stay awake, but I’m totally in my head and wide awake.”
They formulated a training plan that included long rides every weekend and an overnight ride every other weekend, clocking about 100 miles a week. The two stay motivated by training together.
They balance longer rides with strength conditioning at Manic Training (a local Steamboat Springs gym that Graham owns). These full-body sessions utilize weights, medicine balls, sandbags, Airdyne bikes, rowers, and ropes, among other equipment.
They also hit the indoor bike trainer with high-intensity interval workouts on the fondly named Sufferfest cycling app in Graham’s backyard shed turned exercise space.
With El Niño bringing a warmer and drier winter to the west, Kellie and Graham have faced major temperature swings while training. It could be 5 degrees in the morning, but by the afternoon, it’s 50 degrees. Every 10-degree increment feels very different.
Comfort is all about layering. At any given time, they’ll be wearing up to four different baselayers. Graham opts for Merino wool tops with zippers, in order to regulate his temperature no matter what the thermometer reads. Add a neck gaiter, liner sock, ski sock, down jacket, rainshell, and rain pants and they’re halfway there.
The bikes fully loaded—with apparel, sleeping systems, batteries, stove, cooking pot, fuel, water, food, and several other required items—tip the scale at 50 or more pounds.
When it comes to food on the course, Kellie and Graham are consuming as many calories as possible. Devouring trail mix, protein bars, candy, potato chips, chocolate, almonds, peanut butter sandwiches, cookies—they chop up food into small pieces so it’s easier to eat in case it freezes (and you can bet it will).
Graham sets a timer on his bike that alerts him every 15 minutes that he needs to eat. As long as he keeps fueling his body, he won’t crash.
The Mental Challenge
The biggest obstacle of the Fat Pursuit is not the physical challenge, it’s the mental challenge. For Graham and Kellie, it’s not about being fast or even really racing. It’s about supporting each other to keep moving.
“Last year, I learned a tremendous amount about myself,” shares Kellie. “I remember feeling strong and unafraid of anything. I don’t feel like that now. It’s almost here and I’m in a ‘holy sh*t’ place. A year is a long time and you leave the little takeaways in places here and there. I need to gather up those takeaways and bring them back.”
Graham feels ready. He was born for this kind of stuff. Athletics, training, coaching—these things have been a major part of his life since he was young. He’s got a remarkable knack for swatting fear away like a pesky fly.
“Last year, I did go through some issues that I wasn’t really ready for,” admits Graham. “Negative 40 gets pretty gnarly. I’d never been in that cold before.” At one point, the two even found themselves 3 miles off course.
While Graham wasn’t anticipating those kind of conditions, now having experienced them, he feels more prepared to deal with whatever nature lays down this year.
Limits are really being tested when it’s 3 a.m., 40 below, and dumping snow. That towel is always within reach. It can be very tempting to decide to throw it in.
“It’s a strange thing, but as a society we often avoid pushing our own boundaries,” says Kellie. “There is always a reason not to do something, ‘can’t’ feels much easier than ‘can.’ We allow ourselves to have a breaking point, we give it to ourselves. So why not say ‘I don’t have a breaking point, this will not break me?’”
The magic of an event like Jay P’s Backyard Fat Pursuit is the transformation that occurs along the way. “It’s everything that happens between start and finish,” shares Kellie. “That surprised me, I wasn’t expecting that. You’re so exposed and vulnerable. Conditions are tough, and when you’re in it and you stay in it, you become something different than when you started. This race is about this,” says Kellie pointing to her heart.
Graham and Kellie’s Go-To Gear
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Layering for cold weather is the key to staying comfortable. To maximize the benefits of Merino wool, start with a base layer and then add a SmartLoft vest or jacket for additional warmth. Graduated compression socks like the PhD® Outdoor Mountaineer provide comfort and performance, and also help post-activity recovery. Last but not least, Merino wool gloves are warm, soft, and can be worn alone or as a liner.