Fat Pursuit Dreams
By Betsy Williford
You know you might be fat sh!t crazy when you start dreaming about tackling a winter ultra. An especially unique series, Jay Petervary’s Backyard Series Races located in Island Park, Idaho is set to the background of some of the most beautiful and remote wilderness areas, including West Yellowstone. Jay P’s Fat Pursuit winter endurance races, a 60 km in December and a 200km/200 mile in January, are legendary for extreme conditions and for almost never going as planned. From minus 40 degrees to above freezing temperatures, from calm weather to dumping snowstorms, from fast packed to soft and deteriorating course conditions, from last second decisions to re-route courses for various safety reasons and anything or everything imaginable in between!
It sounds awesome doesn’t it?! I know, we fatty’s are a different breed. This year, Colorado’s own “Resident Bad Ass” Chris Plesko returned to tame the beast and be the first to finish the 200 mile course on a single speed fatty. An absolutely grueling task and amazing accomplishment!
As I’m staring down 2018 and setting new goals for this year, one of my goals is to go for Jay P’s Fat Pursuit 60 km race in December. Watching and learning from other Fat Pursuit racers experiences is very eye opening thing for me as I consider whether I am even sane for setting this goal. I’ve never done any kind of endurance race let alone one in the dead cold of winter, in the middle of nowhere! During this year’s Fat Pursuit 200km/200 mile race I feverishly watched the spot tracker cheering on Chris and also excitedly watching three female racers, Jill Martindale, Kellie Nelson (a Steamboat Springs native) and Missy Schwartz who were all vying to be the first woman ever to complete Jay P’s 200 mile race. It proved to be an exciting race with lots of firsts! The first place finisher, Jeff Kerkove, finished in sub 24-hours which is also the fastest finish. Chris dug deep and successfully finished as the first ever to do so on a single speed and Jill Martindale indeed became the first female ever to finish the Fat Pursuit 200 mile race.
A few days after the race was over, I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer. I reached out to Chris and asked if he’d share his race experience with me. Chris being the awesome guy he is, was happy to oblige.
Chris! WOW! First of all a huge congratulations. What a race for you! First ever finisher of the Fat Pursuit 200 mile on a single speed fatty. I can only imagine the relief you had at crossing the finish line after a grueling 37 hours and 15 minutes! How does it feel to come back this year and successfully finish what you set out to do at a previous year’s Fat Pursuit?
Coming back and finishing the 200 mile Fat Pursuit was a great feeling. I first attempted the 200k distance back in 2014, the first year of the event. I was coming back from a long break from riding and had won an entry after being one of only 4 people to finish that season’s Tuscobia 150. I was on a tight timeline to travel up and back to Island Park from Colorado due to work. Conditions on the course were very slow with extensive walking from aid station 1 to West Yellowstone. I didn’t have time to continue at that pace to the finish and dropped out in West Yellowstone. This year my winter break from teaching aligned just well enough for me to finally return. I enjoyed banner conditions on the front side of the course before things slowed down by aid station 1 but I managed to finish, get a quick nap, and make the 10 hour return drive to Colorado in time for work on Monday morning.
I’ve heard that it can get pretty extreme up there. Especially last year when the weather and course conditions were so bad that the race had to be called off and only one person had finished. How was it this year? What was the weather like? How were the conditions on the course?
Course conditions were definitely favorable this year, at least on Friday. Temperatures were warm, maybe 20 degrees or even warmer for much of the day. Trail conditions to Harriman Park and beyond were pretty firm and fast. The lead group of Jeff, Bailey, Andrew, and myself was averaging over 11mph to the falls out and back. The trail wasn’t rock hard but it was plenty firm and rolled well. With warm temperatures and increasing snowmobile traffic throughout the race the trail slowly got worse. From Saturday morning onward I spent a lot more time with tire pressures at 2-4psi to make forward progress in mushy snow. Heading over Two Top at 8,300 ft elevation mid-morning on Saturday was definitely the crux of the trail and weather. The wind picked up and it was snowing continually resulting in white out conditions at times. I walked for several hours up and down Two Top before finally being able to get back pedaling. From there to the man cave checkpoint and then to the finish the trail generally firmed back up somewhat until the final 5 miles where fresh grooming put me back on unrideable terrain! 200 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain later I returned to the lodge and stumbled into bed.
Tell us about your bike set up for this race and how you decided what gear set up to have, tires, etc. What kind of training or preparation did you do for this race?
My bike is a Pivot LES FAT setup singlespeed with a 30x20 gear ratio. I ran 85mm HED BFD rims with Surly Bud and Lou for tires. Tire pressure was between 1.5psi and 6psi for the duration of the event. I managed to fit a Stages power meter as well which I use both training and racing along with a Garmin 520. I chose the 4.8” Bud and Lou because for an event like this, conditions are quite variable and I appreciate the traction to ride in poor snow more than minimum weight or rolling resistance.
For bags and pogies I run Revelate Designs gear including a framebag, feedbag, mag tank, expedition pogies, seatbag, and harness. I also carried a MSR whisperlite stove in case I had to melt snow for water in extremely cold temperatures and also for the mandatory water boil at checkpoint 1. My bedroll consists of a Western Mountaineering Super Pump MF (-25) sleeping bag, Montbell Breeze Dry-Tec Bivy, and ThermaRest Ridgerest pad carried in my front harness. My framebag contains tools, stove, and food while my seatbag contains spare clothing and my SPOT tracker. My magtank and feedbag contain food and batteries for my lights and GPS. Lighting duty is handled by a pair of 300 lumen AA and AAA powered headlamps, one on my head and the other mounted to my bedroll.
Training and preparation for this race is fairly similar to other ultras I compete in. Weekends are a variety of long rides on a loaded bike and on similar course conditions i.e. snow, whenever possible. Midweek I maintain volume by commuting to work and often an interval session on Wednesday nights. My weekly hours vary quite a bit in response to other work and life commitments but they typically range between 10-20 hours a week.
What were your biggest challenges during this race and how did you push to overcome them? What was your biggest motivator?
My biggest challenge during the race was getting up and over Two Top after the West Yellowstone checkpoint. For a while I took to calling the mountain “No Top” since I never seemed to be making significant progress. Continuous snowfall and lots of snow machine traffic made the trail unrideable for most of the climb and some of the descent. Slogging uphill and then downhill for hours wasn’t easy at all. Pushing through the low points was helped along by my wife and kids. They had written me a handful of notes prior to the race cheering me on and I saved them for the hard times. My biggest motivator as my wife would say was that I didn’t have much choice. Whether I wanted to push over Two Top or not, I was committed and by the time I was back near any sort of civilization I certainly wasn’t going to quit. I think my other big motivator was simply that I do love being out there. The course was beautiful and I was highly successful in pushing myself extremely hard to just keep moving and not even take so much as a nap for the entire 37 hours.
When you first decided to go after the Fat Pursuit, did you ever think for a second you might be crazy? Did anyone else? It does seem like one has to be a little crazy to subject themselves to that kind of sufferfest!
I definitely don’t think doing the Fat Pursuit is crazy. It’s a beautiful course and the training, gear, and knowledge necessary to complete it are all attainable with some effort. Of course I’ve spent over a decade now racing ultra events and so I’ll admit my perspective is skewed. I’ve had big successes and huge failures and all of them have been learning experiences. JP doesn’t particularly like describing these events as suffering, seeing as how we choose and pay to participate in them. There are times of deep discomfort but with the right perspective they’re also incredible demonstrations of human capacity and unique experiences in nature. One of the highlights of the race for me was walking over the summits of Two Top in the blowing white out. I had all the gear I needed. I was warm and safe in an extreme environment. I was standing in a place that very few ever experience powered by nothing other than myself and a bike. Now, a few people consider the singlespeed to be crazy but these days I don’t know anything else. I ride almost what everyone else rides and when I can’t, I just walk.
What drew you to the Fat Pursuit in the first place? What is your favorite memory about your experience? What parting words of wisdom would you give to someone who has never done a winter endurance race and may be looking to do one in the future?
I think the fact that the Fat Pursuit is long and difficult was a big part of the draw. I wanted to return and erase my previous DNF and I wanted to see if I could complete the entire course without sleep. Beyond finally summiting Two Top, my other favorite memory was sharing some miles with other racers. Ultra events can often be lonely pursuits and so I value those miles spent chatting or just riding silently with others who understand and cherish those memories as much as I do.
My advice to aspiring winter racers would be to learn how to stay warm and dry in all conditions. Once you have that then just embrace the highly variable conditions. I’ve had races that rolled fast from start to finish and then others where I’ve walked for hours or even days enroute to the finish. Know why you are there and embrace the journey.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about your race experience. Its super exciting to hear about your experience and I certainly enjoyed watching you on the spot tracker and following along as your wife would post updates as much as she could. The name you’ve been given, “Resident Bad Ass”, is certainly the most fitting! Are there any plans for another winter ultra?
You’re welcome, I love the cycling and ultra communities. I’m thankful for my sponsors (Pivot Cycles, 92fifty, Elevated Legs, CarboRocket, Revelate Designs, K-Lite, Elevation Wheel Works) that allows me to balance racing with teaching and having a family. This year I’m headed next to The Bear, a 105 mile fat bike event in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. After that I’ll be hitting up as many other local-ish fat bike events as I can fit in my schedule such as the Leadville Winter series races. I’ve previously completed via singlespeed both the Arrowhead 135 and the Iditarod Trail Invitational (350). I would love to return to both but my teaching schedule makes that extremely difficult. Someday I will find a way to race the ITI again for the full 1000 miles to Nome.
Well best of luck to you in your next wild single speed adventures! Keep us posted!