Warroad man leaves his comfort zone to race Alaska's Iditarod Trail on a fat bike
NOME, Alaska — There were times, Chuck Lindner admits, when he had to dig deep to continue the 350-mile bicycle trek in which he'd immersed himself during the depths of the brutal Alaskan winter.
The fourth day was probably the roughest, he said. Walking and pushing his fat tire bike up a rugged mountain pass into a sustained headwind of 50 mph and a wind chill factor of 50 below zero, Lindner says he averaged about 1 mph.
There was no pedaling that day, and Lindner covered 19 miles in about 17 hours.
"It was just a straight wind," he said. "You put your head down and went into it."
Lindner, 45, of Warroad, Minn., recently completed the 350-mile "short race" portion of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a grueling winter ultramarathon open to competitors on fat bikes, foot or skis.
The race follows the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail, perhaps best known for the sled dog races from the village of Knik, Alaska, about 2 hours north of Anchorage, across the rugged Alaskan interior to Nome on western coast.
Lindner was one of only three Minnesotans to compete in this year's race.
Racers can participate in 130-, 350- and 1,000-mile categories, and Lindner qualified for the invitational based on his history with the Arrowhead 135, a 135-mile wintertime ultramarathon race on bike, foot or ski from International Falls to Tower, Minn.
Lindner has completed nine of the 10 Arrowhead's he's entered, making him one of the few to finish the race nine times. It was after an Arrowhead race a couple of years ago, Lindner says, that his wife, Bridget, suggested it might be time to get out of his comfort zone.
"That really resonated with me," Lindner said. "I have a sign saying, 'The greatest enemy to human potential is your comfort zone' hanging on my office wall. I had done the Arrowhead so many times safely, it became — not mundane, but it was good to push myself to the next step."
Biking across the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter seemed a logical next step.
Lindner checked his bike as baggage on the flight from Thief River Falls to Minneapolis to Anchorage, but had it shipped home after the trip. Confronting the perils of the Alaskan outback on a fat bike made for an off-trail riding experience like no other, Lindner said.
"There's the anticipation of being in that Alaskan back country; as soon as we left (Anchorage), we were off the grid," he said.
This year's race, which began the afternoon of Feb. 26, included 69 racers from 14 countries in the 350- and 1,000-mile categories, and more than half had dropped out by the 350-mile mark, Lindner said. He finished the course from Knik to the 350-mile checkpoint in McGrath, Alaska, at about 8:15 p.m. March 4.
"I had planned on finishing this in 3½ or four days and it took me just under 6½," Lindner said.
Rhythm of the trail
Years of racing and intense training in remote areas under extreme winter conditions had prepared Lindner well for the Iditarod race, and he established a trail rhythm the first couple of days pedaling terrain that was relatively flat. The course toughened as the trail climbed into the mountains, Lindner said, but the scenery was breathtaking.
"There was some calmness as far as the training and the hours that went into this," he said. "This is why I'm here. I chose to be here and pay to be here among some very elite athletes."
Then came the winds, and the grueling day that required mental as well as physical stamina.
There's no room for bad decisions under such harsh conditions.
"When you get into those situations, you really have to rely on your training and knowing how to use your gear and making very methodical decisions and movements so you don't make a mistake," Lindner said. "Those are moments you don't know you can do until you do it."
With daylight and energy waning, Lindner knew he wouldn't make it to the warmth and comfort of the next checkpoint. There was only one choice for Lindner and a fellow racer riding with him on the trail.
They'd have to spend the night on the mountain in the extreme conditions.
"We got up high, and it was starting to get dark, and I knew we didn't have a lot of energy," he said. "I said, 'We need to bivvy.'"
Lindner fired up his lightweight camp stove to get some warm food into his belly and ran a mile to heat up his body core before crawling into the bivvy sack, which he described as a "glorified body bag."
The wind diminished during the night, and the air temperature by morning had dropped to nearly 50 below zero, Lindner recalls.
"Throughout the night, I would get up and wiggle my toes," he said.
Dressed and geared for the extreme winter conditions, Lindner says he wore a high-tech outer shell vapor barrier, both on the trail and inside the bivvy sack, to keep from sweating through his clothing. He dressed in layers, carrying larger items that could be worn over the clothing closer to his skin.
But at 50 below, even the best gear has its limitations.
"The negative of that is your body moisture, just your breathing," Lindner said. "I wore a vapor barrier so I couldn't sweat out, but your breathing turns the sack into a little snow house."
The day after bivvying in the extreme cold didn't get any easier. The route took Lindner high on the mountain and eventually down the center of a frozen river, where racers encountered treacherous ice about 5 miles from the next checkpoint. Darkness long since had fallen when Lindner noticed open water on both sides and decided to backtrack to find a safer river crossing to the checkpoint.
"Other people didn't get that lucky, and at least two fell through," he said. They rolled in the snow to dry off, much like a polar bear would do, and resumed the trek.
"I don't know how I honestly would have reacted if I'd fallen through the ice," Lindner said. "That had me concerned, and when I got to the checkpoint, one of the guys who fell through dropped out. He was pretty wide-eyed."
Racers could carry GPS Spot Trace units so officials and spectators could monitor their trail progress online through Trackleaders.com, but more sophisticated units that send SOS signals weren't permitted, Lindner said.
Satellite phones were allowed.
Even during the coldest conditions, Lindner said he was able to avoid serious frostbite. Not everyone was so fortunate; Lindner says he knows of one competitor who will lose his nose and a couple of fingers after enduring the same harsh conditions Lindner withstood on that frigid, windblown mountain pass.
Some, experienced racers all of them, decided they'd had enough after that ordeal and turned back, Lindner says; a few looked as if they'd seen a ghost.
There were plenty of horror stories to go around, he said.
"I didn't fall through the river, and that could have happened," he said. "There's definitely some luck involved, but overall, my gear selection and how I used it was very effective, and I feel very proud about that."
Lindner attributes his ability to compete and withstand the Alaskan cold to geography, extensive winter riding and camping experience and the remoteness of Beltrami Island State Forest near his home.
"I live in Warroad," he said. "Beltrami forest is isolated, and there's not a lot of opportunities to get rescued if something happened. Certainly it's some of the coldest temperatures in the Lower 48."
Relishing the ride
Despite the grind of staying on course and enduring the elements, Lindner says he experienced highlights along the trail he'll never forget. Like the people living in a primitive trapper's cabin who fed him biscuits and quiche. Or the 22-year-old outdoorsman in a tent camp where Lindner sampled fried lynx and drank "cowboy coffee" with the texture of sludge.
"He'd been out there for two months in a canvas tent, and he had a sign welcoming us," Lindner said. "I made a point if I saw that to stop. It was 98 degrees in that tent and it smelled of a male being in there for two months."
The fish he was boiling as food for his dog team likely didn't help the aroma, but it might have tasted better than the lynx.
"The lynx was just fried to a crisp, so I can't really tell you what lynx tastes like," Lindner said.
Stopping to take photos, embrace the culture and enjoy the sights instead of spending all of his time focusing on the route by staring at a GPS helped make the rigors of the trail more enjoyable, Lindner says.
"That was one of my coping mechanisms," he said. "You're only in Alaska how many times in your life. Enjoy it, look around.
"The terrain was hard, but the scenery was breathtaking. It just took your mind off anything else."
As the end of the trail approached March 4, Lindner says he picked up the pace and was greeted at the finish by a small group that included a film crew from England making a documentary on the race.
Along the way, he'd endured the extremes of the Alaskan wilderness in winter, marveled at scenery few people ever will experience and completed a grueling race that took him far outside his comfort zone.
"It was almost surreal to finish this and all the training and thought process that had gone into this and certainly the adversity we experienced," Lindner said. "There were moments of doubt — could I actually do this?
"To get to that point, I just got shaky in my legs," he said. "There was so much to experience at once. It was wonderful, sad, euphoric, it was all of the above."
None of it, he said, would have been possible without the support of his wife and two children, daughter Grace, 13, and son Grant, 4.
Bridget Lindner, who flew to Alaska on March 1, spent many anxious hours back in Anchorage watching the blip online that represented her husband's whereabouts in the wilderness; she blogged about the fears and joys of being married to an adventurous spouse.
"Chuck is a better person for doing this insanely stupid, inspiring, courageous and harrowing race," Bridget wrote on her blogsite at sharingmoxie.com. "I am better for watching it unfold and meeting truly inspiring people along the way."
Now that he's checked the Iditarod off his list, Lindner says he's looking to perhaps "Ride the Divide," a 2,700-mile race that starts in British Columbia and follows the Rocky Mountains on a route that continues southward to the Mexican border.
Riding the full 1,000-mile leg of the Iditarod invitational to Nome also is a possibility, he said, but that's at least a couple of years down the road.
For now, enjoying the journey that ended with little fanfare on a March evening in a remote community in the Alaskan interior is good enough.
Competing in extreme races, besides providing a sense of accomplishment, is rejuvenating, Lindner says.
"There's a lot of clarity when I'm out there compared to running a business, which has a lot of moving components and employees," he said. "It forces you to take your mind off everything else but what you're doing."