Words and photos by Brady Callahan
I’ve had the idea that the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 would be a grand old time for a couple years now, but the timing never lined up until this year. So I borrowed a bunch of gear from friends, family, and teammates (thanks for everything!) and started packing. I knew going into it that I was not trying to place. The course looked too brutal for that, and with other fast people racing I was happy to focus on just finishing.
Here’s what I brought along…
- Way too much candy
- 3L of water capacity
- Water filter
- Lightweight sleeping pad, Tyvek sheet, and sleeping bag
- A camera + extra lens (why did I do this to myself?)
- Lots of Aleve and Ibuprofen
- Bike tools and spare tubes
- Extra tire
- Winter gear
- Rain shell, puffy coat
- Three lights and a headlamp
- More food
I didn’t really sleep the two nights before, so I came into the race feeling very, very fresh, and ready for a 150+ mile day. It was awesome to see so many people doing the race at the grand depart! I made sure to grab one of the free beers being handed out on the greenbelt; I don’t know why no one else was stopping. Weird. I wasted a bit of time fighting with my SPOT tracker as it was showing me that it was tracking, but all the texts and complaints from friends and family suggested otherwise. Finally, I got it working in Prairie while eating a burger. The guy who arrived at the restaurant with me managed to explode a mustard bottle everywhere: ceiling, floor, walls, tchotchkes and memorabilia. The kind of mess toddlers dream of making.
I didn’t seem to be feeling the elevation too badly coming over Dollarhide pass, but my knees were starting to ache. So that wasn’t great, but better than the deer who lost its head near the top. I made it into Ketchum by about 10:00 p.m. and decided to keep going after running into some strange people sitting quietly in the dark on a park bench. Perfectly normal. I made it another hour and a half before I was yawning almost continuously, and my eyes were so dry I could barely see. Called it a day but didn’t sleep well.
Unlike some of the faster folks, I didn’t rip through the singletrack the next day. I was feeling the ride from yesterday and didn’t move very fast for the first part of the day. I ended up riding with Laura Heiner through the Harriman Trail. She’s awesome! Finally, I made it to Galena Lodge and ate a very late “breakfast.” Wasted more time there than I should have, but I needed to dry my sleeping gear out. I had a rough time getting over Titus Lake, I could feel the elevation now and it didn’t help that my body was still processing lunch. I finally found some legs after dropping into the valley and cruised through to Fisher Creek. That singletrack was a blast, totally worth the out and back loop. I caught up to fellow racers Rick Mcquet and Sharon Birkle there, and then rode alongside them for most of the rest of the day. We made it to Redfish Lodge with an hour to spare for dinner. I decided to push on a little further and met up with Quinn Stevenson, we made it through some more hike-a-bike and again decided it was better to sleep on the ridge where the temperatures weren’t too bad instead of dropping into Stanley where it was sure to be frigid.
I finally slept well, but by then my knees and butt were generally angry, so while my legs felt good, finding a position to put down solid power was difficult and I spent most of the day in a pseudo-aero position to cut down the headwind that was slowly crushing my spirit. I caught several people who got a faster morning start than me, but the burrito to go and pancake breakfast were totally worth it. I ran out of water just shy of Deadwood and got passed by Laura again while filtering more water. We both stopped at the Deadwood boat launch for more water and a snack where Quinn caught up. I rode with them more or less the rest of the way up to Scott’s Mountain. That climb is unrelenting, but the other direction would be so much worse, holy crap. I started fading on the highway into Garden Valley but made it in time to grab some food from the gas station before close, finish off my breakfast burrito, and pound a coke, while those of us who made it sat around for bit letting our bodies catch a break and each deciding our course of action.
Quinn and I chose to press on, slowly grinding up toward to fabled Mordor section. Mordor was brutal, constant steep kicks and descents where you feel like you’re just climbing one ridge only to drop right back down and do it all again a few minutes later. My legs were shot at this point and I hiked more of that section than I’d like to remember. We finally dropped in to Placerville at 5:00 a.m., where I stopped to choke down some more food and water, while Quinn rode through. I left shortly after because I was starting to freeze and needed to get out of the valley. I made it a quarter of the way up Ridge Road before I started to fall asleep on my bike, so I got off and slept on the road embankment at for an hour or so around 7:00 a.m. The rest of the ride was a struggle to keep my legs moving and trying to find any bit of energy to push over the endless false summits of Ridge Road.
On Bogus, several people kindly reminded me that once I was on Ridge Road again. “It’s all downhill from here!” I don’t know why they would lie to me like that. I was the angriest, filthy-mouthed cyclist on each of the little uphill sections. Luckily no children were around. After dropping down Hard Guy, I survived the crazy Hyde Park Street Fair traffic to reach the loving embrace of the finish line, with friends, family, fellow racers, and a burger.
I made many silly mistakes, and easily could have cut multiple hours off my time with a little better execution and less futzing around at stops. But I was able to finish out the race like I hoped, and about the time frame I expected, despite my best efforts to waste time.
Bikepacking events all over are continuing to grow in popularity, including the Idaho-based Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400, which saw nearly 80 participants at this year’s grand depart in Boise. The route follows forest service roads, singletrack, and some pavement through some of Idaho’s most diverse landscapes. The route is around 400 miles in length, and features nearly 41,000 feet of climbing—see the full route guide here.
Michael Tobin, a Smoke ‘n’ Fire first timer, crushed the challenging route in just 1 day, 14 hours, and 45 minutes, finishing late Friday night. Although the route does change year after year, and event records don’t totally hold up, Michael has unofficially set a new record, besting the previous fastest known time by three hours. Nate Ginzton took a close second at 1 day, 17 hours, 39 minutes, and Tim Root placed third at 2 days, 1 hour, 5 minutes. Congrats to all of the participants of this year’s event! To learn more about the route itself, head over to our route page.
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