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After nasty frostbite last year, Canadian cyclist returns to Iditarod Invitational

Craig Medred
Scott Wilkinson of the U.K. pedals along open water on the Yentna River Monday during the Iditarod Trail Invitational. A snow drought in the early winter combined with a bitter cold snap froze the Yentna and Susitna rivers in ways never seen before. The Iditarod Trail north has to weave around a fair bit to avoid open leads and overflow.
Craig Medred
The burned out carcass of a snowmachine sits where it died along the Iditarod Trail north of Wasilla. Add fire to the danger a traveler can face on the 1,000-mile route from the city of Wasilla through a vast wilderness to the outpost of Nome on the Bering Sea.
Craig Medred
Foot racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational charge away from the start line outside the Knik Bar on Feb. 24, 2013, at the start of the 350-mile race up and over the Alaska Range.
Craig Medred photo
The 2013 Iditarod Trail Invitational kicks off Feb. 24, 2013, with bikers walking their bikes in the deep snow.
Craig Medred
Beneath a full moon, defending Iditarod Trail Invitational champ Peter Basinger pedals his bike up the Yentna River on Feb. 24, 2013.
Craig Medred
An Iditarod Trail Invitational runner leads a cyclist out of the birch forest of the Susitna lowlands north of Knik on Feb. 24, 2013.
Craig Medred
Cyclists head down the trail on the first night of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska.
Craig Medred photo
Lindsay Gauld comes up off the Tatitna River into the Rohn checkpoint. The tape on his nose is protection against frostbite. The 64-year-old Canadian almost froze his nose off last year in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Feb. 27, 2012
Craig Medred photo
The Iditarod Trail Invitational's checkpoint tent at Rohn is full of racers grabbing a few precious minutes of rest.
Craig Medred photo
Anchorage cyclist Kevin Easley tops out on Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range Tuesday during the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile wilderness race from Knik to McGrath.
Craig Medred photo

Editor's note: Mr. Gauld crossed the finish line of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Invitational in the early morning hours of March 1, with an official time of 4 days 14 hours and 45 minutes.

ROHN -- Sixty-four-year-old cyclist Lindsay Gauld arrived at this lone, long cabin along the Iditarod Trail in the heart of the Alaska Range on Wednesday pedaling toward redemption.

A year ago, the former Canadian Olympian ended his first Iditarod Trail Invitational -- a 350-mile, human-powered endurance race along the historic trail from Knik to the town of McGrath -- on an airplane bound for the hospital. Frostbite had so swollen his face he couldn't see out of his right eye.

His frozen nose had turned an ugly shade of purple. His knees were sore and swollen from days of a pushing a heavily laden bike through deep snow. And his frostbitten hands weren't working well.

"I actually lost a little corner of this finger," Gauld said as he talked while changing clothes in the wood-stove warmed wall tent that served as the Invitational checkpoint here, deep in the mountain of the Alaska Range. Outside the wind rustled the tops of trees in the thick spruce forest at the confluence of the Tatina and South Fork Kuskokwim rivers.

Nightmarish journey

Gauld did not notice as he recounted his nightmarish 2012 journey north along the 49th state's best known historic trail. 

"My nose," he said before pausing to rummage through some gear. Eventually, he pulled out a Blackberry and pulled up a picture of himself with a black nose and black spot the size of a teacup on his right cheek. The picture was taken after the swelling went down and his cold-killed skin turned black. "I have that as my screen saver to remind me to be careful," Gauld said.

His problems last year stemmed as much from inexperience, stubbornness and bad luck as carelessness. To start with, the 130-pound Gauld showed up with a fat-tired bike overloaded with gear. It weighed about 75 pounds. Even under ideal conditions, it would have been a load.

Reality wasn’t close to ideal. On the first day of last year’s race, it started snowing and didn't stop until the snow was three-feet deep. Cyclists who started the race at the now extinct port of Knik just north of Anchorage pushed their bikes 90 miles toward the village of Skwentna on the edge of the Alaska Range foothills. Beyond Skwentna, it didn't get much better. There were a few places they could ride, but most racers ended up pushing from Knik to Rainy Pass, a distance of about 165 miles. Gauld probably should have quit there.

"By Skwentna," he confessed, "I had a knee that was just throbbing."

Chugging Aleve

His solution was to buy a big bottle of Aleve at the Skwentna Roadhouse and keep going.

"I was taking an Aleve every half hour or so because I was not trained to push a bike.'' He kept pushing anyway. Gauld is not a quitter. In his youth, he recalled, he was in a bicycle race from Portland to Seattle which started off with his falling and breaking his collarbone. He got back on the bike and kept pedaling, eventually finishing third.

The Iditarod Trail, however, knew how to deal with his determination. "There was never a chance I was going to bail,'' Gauld said. So the race crushed him. He made page two of his hometown newspaper, the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free-Press, when it was revealed he was going to take another shot at the Invitational this year.

The story, which was headlined "Iditarod cyclist unfazed by near-fatal experience." A teaser said, "Lindsay Gauld almost died in Alaska last winter competing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational."

Only he didn't die. He lived to fight another day and came back stronger, better prepared and just as determined this year. There is a cycling group in Duluth he said called the "DBDs," the initials standing for "Death Before Dishonor.'' They worship Lawrence Oates, who in 1912 wandered away from an Antarctic expedition to die because his ill health was slowing companions and putting the health of the whole expedition in danger.

"They told me if I get through this I will be a pledge member," said Gauld, who slight size and boyish enthusiasm belie his age. In the Skwentna Roadhouse this year, he was darting around trying to find a Red Bull. His enthusiasm for life is infectious.

"He's very inspiring," said 52-year-old Charlie Farrow, a Minnesota cyclist who has been largely traveling with Gauld and arrived with him here just behind the always smiling David Johnston from Willow, the leading runner in a race open to any form of muscle-powered transportation.

"You've got fans out there," Johnston said from a mattress atop a bed of spruce boughs in the checkpoint tent. A lot of people were glad to see Gauld back after the disaster last year, he added.

"It's a great community," Gauld said.

"Yeah, a bunch of crazies," Johnston said. 

By the standards of the day, that observation is probably not that far off. Gauld cycles the way most in North America watch TV -- by the hour. He passed 1 million kilometers in combined biking miles -- both training and racing -- earlier this year. That is the equivalent of 25 laps around the globe. 

And though he is set to turn 65 in just a couple months, he's already talking about coming back to do the Invitational again.

"I don't know that I'll come back every year," he said, "but I'm toying with the idea of coming back when I'm 70. You've got 10 days to complete the course."

He's confident that with his new-found knowledge, his thinned down bike which lost 15 pounds of non-essential gear, he could make it from Knik to McGrath in under 10 days. There has never been a 70 year old who's gone the distance.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com