Fat Pursuit 2023 – Part I – Getting Ready

Friend of the site and former Paceline co-host Patria Vandermark shares her experience of this year’s Fat Pursuit fat bike ultra-endurance race. All images by Rob Vandermark.

The Fat Pursuit is an ultra-endurance winter race in its 10th year. There are two routes: a 60k and 200km route. They run through a remote area that gets feet of snow in December every year. The promoters, renowned life-long ultra-endurance racers and advocates, Jay Petervary and Tracy Petervary, have created this event as a challenge and learning opportunity to all from those new to this world to the very best, most experienced ultra and winter athletes.

Fat Pursuit kindly helped me feel new to cycling again in a welcome way while absolutely terrifying me with its challenge.

I couldn’t believe just how much I had to learn and how many opportunities for optimization there are. Being fit is a small part of the “success” equation. Sure, the person who wins the race is very fit, but if that person brought the wrong gear, there’s no way they’re making it to the finish line.

As I got into researching the right gear to take, how to dress, how to bivy in the winter (sleeping in a sleeping bag contained in a bivy bag which is smaller than a tent), where to pack my stuff on the bike, etc. the more I got into it. I’ve never winter camped so there was a lot that was new for me. The research was fun! There’s no one right answer on almost any single topic. Each person gets to figure out the proper setup with no way to know what’s “right” until race day.

Preparation got progressively more fun as I learned more, and this made me more curious as to what other people would be using for their setups. I watched MANY YouTube videos on winter camping, winter bikepacking, and people’s previous Fat Pursuit and Iditarod experiences.

I am grateful to have been able to ask questions of a number of people who have done the race before and who are winter campers. They were very helpful with all kinds of recommendations such as which bike grips to use and how to expedite melting snow over the stove. Nan Pugh spent an hour and a half with me on the phone allowing me to pick her brain a couple of months in advance of Fat Pursuit. She didn’t know me from Adam prior to that call.

I have a huge Google spreadsheet full of notes of advice, with many tabs for all of the aspects: food, clothes, gear, bags, sleeping system, water boiling system, hydration, eye wear, bike setup, the list goes on and on. It’s still growing. I now have a “what to do differently next time” tab.

For example, there are numerous camp stoves out there. Some that work well in the summer won’t boil water in a sub-zero situation. Everything needs to be as lightweight as possible. Since there is so much gear, the grams add up fast. This is a good time to be a weight weenie on the small stuff, but don’t freak out when the scale tips at ~30-50 lbs of gear/water/food! I figured that when I was fully loaded, and if I did what I needed to do eating-wise going into the event, I totaled ~220-230 lbs of person, bike, water, and gear at the starting line.

One of the most stressful decisions I made in optimizing my gear was which puffy jacket to buy. Yes, stressful. I ended up with two puffy jackets: a thin one that I wore during the ride and a thicker one that stayed in reserve if I found myself in a very cold situation or that could be used for stops. Both were size XL so a hydration pack could fit under.

Upsizing everything, except for my chainring which I downsized, was critically important. I usually wear size 42 winter boots. The boots I ended up in are size 46 and that was a perfect choice. My feet literally stayed warm the entire 33.5 hours of the race when I was out there in the elements. My number one fear of getting cold feet was never realized! The only thing I don’t recommend about this: due to the small number of cold days we had in Boston, I didn’t realize I needed to go bigger on my boots until a week prior to traveling. So my first ride in the new boots was on the shakedown the day before the race. That’s a big no-no. Don’t test anything that close to the real event!

Getting to Park Island, Idaho

My husband Rob and I flew into Bozeman, Montana on the Tuesday prior to the Fat Pursuit scheduled to start 7am that Friday. I am thankful we gave ourselves 2.5 days prior to the event starting. Less time would have been stressful. There was a lot to do before Friday morning. Not many people flew in; most drove from nearby states. I shipped all my gear and bike to the lodge where we were staying a week in advance. I didn’t want to have to rely on our stuff being checked at the airport and making a connecting flight. Any one bag missing would be potentially race-threatening.

As I said, there was a lot to do to get ready for the race. We took advantage of the sweet, snow-filled town of West Yellowstone for their coffee shop, food shopping, finding white gas for the camp stove, and all of the little odds and ends we needed for the week and race. It took three grocery store visits to accumulate the food I’d need for the race, for the two drop bags we were allowed, and for the stuff I’d be starting with. West Yellowstone has more snowmobiles driving on the snow-covered streets than cars. Some businesses that were closed for the season had 11-foot snow drifts in front of their doors!

Shake Down Ride

Thursday morning was the first day I’d ridden my bike since a nice, shortish group ride on December 28. Between then and January 5th was a lot of preparing and my bike had shipped so I couldn’t worry about not riding it. I felt good at this point and quite well rested, too. I met up with a friend, Art O’Connor, who has been doing Fat Pursuit for at least 4 years.

I met Art at the Tour of the Gila back in 2006 – 16 years ago! Back then, he offered me a space at a host house he was staying in, having no idea who I was. The host family couldn’t have been more welcoming to their home. One of the best parts about racing is meeting people and host families. I am seeing this is true for people who tour on their bikes, too. I have heard so many incredible stories of people opening their doors to cyclists across the country. I include this story because the connections in this cycling world are incredible, and they are not to be taken for granted! I was new-ish to the cycling world back then, jumping head-first into road racing, and I am new to the ultra-cycling world now. There’s so much growth to be had in this sport and it’s all made possible by good, generous people.

Fast forward more than a decade, Ride Headquarters and I worked with Art to spec a new Seven Cycles Treeline SL for this Fat Pursuit. It was incredibly fulfilling to see Art take on Fat Pursuit on his new bike and see him all smiles after coming in Top Ten with a really fast time.

Gear Check and Pre-Ride Meeting

Thursday, the day before the race, there was an afternoon gear check for each racer and a pre-ride meeting for all that evening. The gear check was comprehensive and even educational. The friendly gear checker asked me where I had all of the required equipment and wanted to see most of it. When he saw my thermos, he suggested to me to be sure the liquid was warm in there and to watch out for the lid freezing. That advice came in handy during the race. A high-five from the gear checker, I’d passed that first test. Time to get my number plate and swag including a nice sweatshirt for showing up.

Mind Over Matter

One of the speakers at the pre-ride meeting said that everyone there could finish Fat Pursuit. Anyone is allowed to register for it, so this is somewhat of a bold statement. Likely thanks to the comprehensive event website, people seem to come to Island Park taking their preparation seriously. I feel like I couldn’t have picked a better event for my intro into this whole ultra-cycling community. It was like being enveloped in a microcosm of what is good in the cycling world.

I, too, believe everyone has the capacity and ability to finish this race. The more I learn about the people who take on ultra-distance events, the more I believe in the power of human will. I have spent a significant amount of energy telling people that they can do anything on a bike as long as they keep eating to fuel the ride. The resumes of many of the Fat Pursuit participants are deeply impressive, but there’s no need to get intimidated. No one there was flexing. Everyone was there for their own reasons (so many “I love riding on snow” comments).

I saw a lot of Iditarod Trail Invitational finisher coats on people. The Iditarod is as serious and hard as it gets, though I heard enough people say that the snow of Island Park is more challenging to ride than the snow of Alaska. The conditions in Alaska appear, to me, to be far scarier than Island Park, just based on what I heard from others. It was interesting listening in to numerous conversations about Iditarod experiences, who is headed there this year, all kinds of stuff about it. That’s a conversation that I never hear in New England. And this area is full of exceptional cyclists. Alaska and the Iditarod just doesn’t appear to me to be part of our world view yet.

I went into Fat Pursuit believing I would be a finisher, however, on my list of goals for this year, finishing was further down the list than you might guess. My goals were:

  • Ride through the night alone.
  • Boil water and make snow into water during the event.
  • Get the full Fat Pursuit experience (turns out this conflicted with the goal of finishing).
  • Get Chompy, the mascot a I carry with me, to the finish line with that silly grin still on his face.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II – The Race.

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