Eric’s Polar Roll Winter Adventure

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In the competitive sporting world, the term DNF is one you never want to see next to your name in the race results. While it’s very rare that I end on a podium when racing my bike, one of the things that I’m pretty proud of over my years of cycling is I rarely have ever had the “dreaded” DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name. That changed in Ishpeming this past February.

Headed to da U.P.

Jeff, a fellow teammate and long-time friend, and I loaded up in the Armada and headed north just after noon on Friday. After about 45 minutes on the road we were met with constant “zero visibility” snow squalls until we got to the bridge. We even saw one vehicle totally upside down. We started to wonder if we were even going to make it over the due to the weather. We heard M-28, connecting Munising with Marquette was shut down, causing us to alter our route to Marquette, so Mother Nature was already starting to have fun with the racers (and it wasn’t even race day yet). Maybe she was trying to tell me something? I wasn’t listening. I had a race to get to…

Morning fuel!

We got into town and Jason, another buddy who came up from Chicago, was there waiting for us. I’ve not seen so much snow in years, with the sidewalk trenched out, just so we could get to the front door. Yup, things were starting to set in… This was going to be epic (one way or another). A nice pasta dinner with more friends, stories of Jeff’s crazy motorcycle adventures, a few craft beers, and then off to bed for the big day.

At packet pickup Friday night the woman who handed me my bag of goodies had three very important things to say. First, mandatory 3 psi in your tires due to all the snow that had fallen the days leading up to the race. Second, mandatory eyewear due to all the down trees and branches thanks to the ice. And third, if you want to quit, there’s aid stations at the 12 and 23 mile points. Tire pressure, check. Eyewear, check. Quit… not me (ha).

Race Day

The 5 am alarm went off, but I was already awake, thinking about what my day was going to be like. Chatter between all of us (along with watching the Polar Roll Facebook page and talking to some of the locals the night before) painted the picture that my day on the trail was going to be a challenge. Snow on the trail was reportedly the consistency of sugar (insert uncomfortable “yae” here), making it hard to pack down for riding despite the herculean efforts of countless volunteers doing all they could to get the course in shape for the race. These rock stars spent days bushwhacking deadfall trees from the ice storm and grooming the trail the best they could.

Once Jeff and I settled on clothing choices (base layers, shells, gloves, etc…), we rolled up to the starting line with 300 other crazies prepared to roll out for 30 miles of challenging, yet amazing fat biking. The first .73 miles were on (icy) roads, feeling my tires slip and slide beneath me as I rolled over patches of ice on my way to the trail with the rest of the riders. However, I was at least pedaling my bike.

Little did I know how much I’d miss that feeling for the next four and a half hours.

You may be wondering how I know it was .73 miles of pavement? It was at that distance everyone got off our bikes and proceeded to wait and watch “riders” before getting off their bikes and hoofing it up the first (of MANY) hills. And so began my 12-mile hike in the woods pushing my bike. Yup, you heard that right.

For the first 3-5 miles of the race I had delusions of “pushing on” and making the full 30. As with last year, I wore my Mike Seaman jersey again, thinking of him and how he’d give anything to be trudging along with the rest of us. However, at about the 8-mile point, I knew getting to mile 30 was not in the cards for me. My focus shifted to just getting to the 12-mile aid station in one piece.

I’d hike up the hills, find a flat spot and try to hop on and ride (more like coast down a hill), only to have my front wheel wash out and kick me off the trail. While landing in soft power snow was kinda cool the first few times (it was pretty fluffy), it got real old very quick. You see, while the trail was not very rideable, it was at least packed snow. Get off the trail and you drop into 4-feet of powder. Do it on your side while still connected to your bike and that’s a whole other game of “cycling twister” trying to unclip your feet from the pedals and push off from something to get back to vertical.

It was pretty much this same activity for most of my four+ hours in the woods. When I was not thinking of the growing blister on my left ankle from my cycling boot (I don’t think cycling boots were made for 12-mile hikes) or digging myself out of a “hot tub” (that’s what they call it when you go overboard on your bike), I was able to take a look around and appreciate where I was. The day was not too cold, the ice on the branches sparkled like diamonds when the sun came out and it really was a beautiful day on the trail. I just wish I could have pedaled more and actually rode it!

Eventually I got to the 12-mile aid station. I opted to skip the bacon and sausage (yes, they were grilling), and simply asked for the shortest way to the road to get me back to the high school. I was not sure if Jeff would be there, or if he kept on. I, however, was going to the truck to get some warm clothes on and lick my wounds. Turning the corner to the school, however, Jeff had already beat me to it and was already in jeans and a sweatshirt waiting for me.

Another Definition of DNF

After my weekend in the U.P., I’m going to change the definition of DNF to relate to the conditions of this year’s Polar Roll. While it still means Did Not Finish, with all the white stuff that dumped on the U.P. the days leading up to the event, DNF now also stands for “Deep-N-Fluffy”… snow, that is. As you may suspect, it’s not exactly the best conditions for a fat bike. Downhill skiing, yes. Snowshoeing, yes. Snowmobiling, yes. Cycling, nope.

Headed Home

We got back to the house to say goodbye to Jason and warm up with a hot shower. During the drive home one of us would just start laughing and say “do you believe we pushed our bikes for 12 miles in the woods today?” Bet we said that to each other a dozen times on the five-hour drive home. But, we’ve got some great stories to tell… and that makes it all worth it (at least, that’s how I’m going to think of it).

There’s a good chance I’ll be back again in 2020, although Jeff said when I call him about the race next year he may not pick up. We’ll see about that. All I know is I’ve got some unfinished business up in the U.P. and hopefully next year will be able to redeem my 2019 Polar Roll (a.k.a. Stroll) DNF.