Written by: Carol Kauder
The rangers at Colorado’s Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area weren’t sure what to make of Catherine Shenk when she pulled up to the fee booth on a mountain bike recently. It was, after all, the dead of winter and the entire area was covered in snow.
“They weren’t sure if bikes were allowed,” Shenk says. After some deliberation they let her through. With tires built for the terrain, she followed packed snowmobile trails to the town of Minturn, about 20 miles away. Then she turned around and rode back up to the pass.
The rangers may have expressed disbelief, but those who know Shenk have come to expect the extraordinary. For the 50-year-old Boulder resident, it was just another training ride as she prepared for the Alaska Ultraport Iditarod Trail Invitational. Departing from Knit Lake, Alaska, on March 1, Shenk set out on a human-powered race 350 miles through the Alaska backcountry, following the route of the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race.
Shenk’s entry is a culmination of her experiences as a mountaineer and cyclist. She’s climbed Denali and several 20,000-foot peaks in Peru and Bolivia. She regularly skis 14ers in the winter. As a road cyclist, she has completed numerous long-distance rides, including the 1200K Paris-Brest-Paris brevet in France in 2007. In August she completed the Last Chance 1200K ride in Colorado in 63 hours, earning her a qualification to enter the Race Across America as a solo rider.
The RAAM qualification was the ticket she expected would catch they eye of Alaska Ultra Sport organizers Bill and Kathi Merchant, who screen athletes for their Iditarod Trail Invitational.
“It’s obvious from her (cycling) resume that she is a top athlete. Her mountaineering resume tells me that she will be safe,” says Bill Merchant, who lives in Chickaloon, Alaska. “That is the best of both worlds: to have the athletic ability and the skills to take care of yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised if she performs really well.”
“Iditabike,” a roughly 100-mile mountain bike event along the Iditarod Trail, started in the 1980s. Over the years the distance grew to 350 miles, from Knit Lake to McGrath, and organizers let racers pick their mode of travel: biking, skiing or running, changing the name to Iditarod Trail Invitational. Because of the uncertainty of the conditions, gear choice is something of a craps shoot. The bikers may find themselves pushing their bikes through a blizzard. Skiers may find themselves walking on dirt. Of the 50 competitors invited to participate each year, about 7 or 8 attempt the entire Iditarod Trail, 1100 miles to Nome.
Some racers travel in teams, but Shenk walked up to the start line alone; she is one of six women. She plans on taking two photos of herself at the start: one wearing the vest of the Title Nine Women’s Cycling Club and one with the vest of the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club. Her husband, Norm, came with her to Alaska for moral support.
“I’ll have to make some friends,” she said recently. But really she expected to be solo for most of the 4-to-5 day adventure, and did much of her training to prepare for that mental challenge.
“Once I got it in the back of my mind to do this, I’ve been doing things to build up my bravery coefficient,” she said.
That includes solo rides on dirt roads from Telluride to Moab, and Frisco to Boulder. She’s gone out in the middle of the night in her Boulder yard to practice changing a flat tire in the cold and wind. Anticipated temperatures for the race range from 0 F to -40 F.
“It takes forever to take a tire off with mittens. When it’s that cold you can’t touch any metal,” she said.
She pushed her bike nine miles through the snow from Breckenridge to the top of Boreas Pass.
“I just wanted to get the experience of that. I don’t want to have to do it again,” she said. She learned that it helps to take a pedal off, so it won’t hit her in the back of the calf.
Her personal trainer Chris Wall, of the Boulder Rock Club, set up a number of strengthening exercises that would mimic the kind of physical challenges she will face during the event.
It’s this kind of preparation that sets Shenk up to succeed at goals that seem unattainable to most, said her friend Deb Banks.
“She’s incredibly motivated and driven. She’s methodical in her training, thinking things through to the nth degree,” says Banks, who also completed the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris brevet.
Shenk tends to keep her goals and accomplishments to herself. She said that is because her reasons for taking on these kinds of challenges are internal. Fixating on beating other people can dilute her intentions; she has no desire to seek sponsorship or set any other form of external expectations.
“She is very soft spoken and really mellow, but incredibly focused and driven,” Wall said. “When you get to know her, it all makes sense.”
Some of Shenk’s coworkers at SRC, LLC, a geographic business intelligence company, may not even know why she is taking two weeks off in March. Her position in marketing communications is basically a 9 to 5 job, and she structures a 30-hour training schedule around a 40-hour work-week.
“I’ve done everything I believe I can do with the constraints of my life,” said Shenk on whether she feels prepared for riding her bike 350 miles on wild lands in sub-zero temperatures.
“I’m actually terrified,” she said in a whisper. But the fear, she said, will help keep her alive. Her specific concerns include frostbite, falling in a river and run-ins with moose, bears and wolves.
But Shenk was quick to shift to a positive view: “The thought of riding across the Alaska tundra in invigorating. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do that,” she said. “If I am able to finish, that will be a huge accomplishment.”
She said she gets all kinds of questions from people who think she is crazy for doing this:
What is she going to eat? Bacon, energy bars, energy gels and “mashed potato slurry.”
How long will it take her? Four to five days.
How will she stay warm? Oversized mitts that attach to her handlebars protect her hands. Super-insulated boots attach to her pedals via elastic straps. The rest is typical mountaineering gear: fleece and Gore-Tex, plus a sleeping bag and stove.
How much does her bike weigh with all that gear strapped to it? Sixty pounds.
She brushed off suggestions of craziness with an explanation that it’s a matter of scale.
“I’m always impressed when people do stuff for the first time,” she said. She said with every new challenge, she learns more about herself and accesses strength that helps her in all areas of her life.
“People might say Catherine is crazy extreme, doing this wild stuff. When you’ve known her long enough, and look at what she’s done, it’s not so crazy,” Banks said. “When you set that goal for yourself, and you really don’t know if you can do it, you are working through your own self perceptions.”
But even Shenk has limits on what she considers within the realm of reason. For example, the people who enter the Iditarod Trail Invitational on foot:
“They have to tow their gear in a sled,” Shenk says. “The runners are crazy.”
Follow the race at www.alaskaultrasport.com/results.html.