Wow! What an event to remember. Forty-three hours and 49 minutes I will never forget. The Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 was the most epic ride I’ve ever done. I’ve participated in hundreds of races and accomplished crazy adventures like Everesting and other 24-hour events, but nothing stacked up to the anxiety I had for getting to the start line of my first attempt of the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400.
My experience is a story of how to persevere.
As I sat on the starting line at 4 a.m. with the other racers, I had so many anxious questions running through my head. Can I do this? Will I really be able to go non-stop and without sleep? When the founder of race, Norb DeKerchove, said “Go!” I was on my way. I survived the morning onslaught of the other riders and as the sun rose, I found myself out in front of the group and ahead of my self-prescribed schedule. I hit Sun Valley at 10.5 hours. Did I really just make it there that fast? No time to think about that now, I focused on my next goal of getting up and over Titus Lake and into the Stanley Valley before dark, which was approximately 200 miles into the ride.
Not long after I left Sun Valley, I hit my first real challenge. I wrecked on the Chocolate Gulch singletrack decent to the Harriman trail. Talk about a full-on yard sale! I had scratches and a decent-sized laceration on my side, not to mention the bruises that were surely going to show up. It took me nearly 30 minutes just to put myself back together. My bike was a mess as well. I had to realign my shifters and bend a rotor back into shape. Once I located my bike computer in a nearby bush, I started to pedal and hoped for the best. I didn’t know it until I was back in Boise, but that laceration needed a couple of stitches.
It wasn’t long before the dark and cold settled in around me, but I kept telling myself to just keep moving! Before I knew it, the night was giving way to the morning sun, and I realized I was approaching Deadwood Reservoir. Throughout the night, I rode singletrack through Fisher Creek, Redfish Lake, Stanley, and Elk Meadows without realizing the ground I was covering. I’d like to revisit these areas during the day to see how beautiful they are.
As I left the Deadwood area, I knew I had two major obstacles ahead: Scott Mountain and the dreaded Mordor climb. As I approached Scott Mountain, I prepared myself for the climb. When I reached the summit, I couldn’t believe how good I felt! I was ready for the descent and run-in to Garden Valley. I filtered some water at the turn off for Mordor and I knew I was on the final stretch. I’d heard many stories about Mordor and how everyone starts to contemplate why they decided to do this ride. As I was slowly ascending, it began to get really hot. The higher I climbed, the hotter it was, and guess what, I started questioning why I decided to do this ride. But I made it out of Mordor and as I slowly made my way into Placerville, I felt, for the first time, that it was only going to get harder from here on out.
I stopped to filter more water and as I was stopped I could actually feel the fatigue creeping in. I told myself to just keep moving. I begrudgingly got back on the bike and started my climb to the top of Bogus Basin. It was here where I hit my second challenge. Something was happening to me. Something I never expected or anticipated. Something I simply had not prepared for. I was 38 hours in and I found I was unable to keep my head up. My neck muscles had given out and I couldn’t hold my head up or even lift my eyes to see the trail in front of me. I could not figure out for the life of me why this was happening. I felt good. Mentally, I was fine. Physically, my legs felt great, but I couldn’t keep my head up. I was unable to see the trail in front of me, so I had to get off my bike, push and lift my head back up with my hands, get back on the bike, ride for 30 seconds until my head fell forward again, and then repeat the process. This is how I spent the last 10 miles of the race. With what should have been one hour left to go, I would ride until I couldn’t, hike-a-bike, ride until I couldn’t, and then hike-a-bike. My one hour turned into four arduous and painstaking hours to reach the finish line. It wasn’t until several days later that I learned that I had suffered from Shermer’s Neck.
When I rode the last few blocks down the street to the finish line, I was met by family, friends and Smoke ‘n’ Fire enthusiasts alike. People I didn’t even know had shown up and waited to watch and cheer for me as I crossed the finish line at nearly midnight. I had done it. It wasn’t easy, but I had done it. It was a great event, and I can’t wait to do it again!
Words by Norb DeKerchove (Event Organizer)
What a successful edition of the 2021 Smoke ‘n’ Fire! The route had its usual challenges, but the big news was there were no reroutes. This is always a win from a race director standpoint.
The energy at the start was part Mardi Gras and part family reunion. So many riders and so many race fans filled the block around 13th and Eastman. Smiles, laughter, hugs, and a real sense of camaraderie filled the streets. On the rollout, a skunk escorted us on the Greenbelt for a while, a couple of deer watched in awe, but everyone was safe and made it through town, and no one hit a bollard on the rollout. Another great start. Seeing 100 bikepackers riding through town at 4 a.m. and seeing the lights snake along the greenbelt for over a mile was something special.
The first two days saw temps in the 90s and an ample supply of smoke in the air to drive home the name of our race. Plus, a rainstorm on the evening of the third day drenched the trails and many riders found themselves in the middle of a rare Idaho rainstorm at night. There were many inspiring rides, and inspiring riders, who joined the SnF crew for the eighth year of our race. We had an unprecedented 19 women at the starting line, too. This was amazing and the enthusiasm and toughness each one of these women possessed was inspiring! I hope this trend continues and we see more and more women each year.
We had more finishers than scratches this year, with 40% of those who started not finishing. Mechanical, stomach, and breathing issues, along with knees blowing up and other assorted bikepacking afflictions contributed to the high attrition rate. This rate of attrition is consistent with previous years and speaks to the evolving difficulty of our race. Our first female to cross the finish line was Boisean Echo Sarlya, with a fast time of 3 days, 9 hours, and 3 minutes. Our first male finisher was Boise local Jeremy Ward, who had a brisk finish in 1 day, 19 hours, and 49 minutes. To those who did finish: congratulations! To those who didn’t make it to the finish, congrats on showing up and toeing the line. One of the many challenges in bikepacking is just getting to the starting line. Job well done to all that did just that!
A big thanks to all that were part of this year’s race. The incredible support from the small micro-stores along the route, the unexpected trail magic from JD, the top notch support from Trackleaders, and the folks behind the curtain helping to make it all happen. See you next September!
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