Stars Come Out and it Feels Like Home
Cycling with Chris Schotz,
You never know when you just don’t know any better.
Where is the breaking point, and who is that guy walking a bike in the snow? I’d met Jason Buffington before, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I got to know him better. Nineteen hours later, I think he knew himself a little better too.
Veterans of long summertime rides, we both entered the inaugural Tuscobia Ultra winter race between Rice Lake and Park Falls, Wis., on our fair-weather mountain bikes loaded down with a list of required survival gear. Knowing that the first few Arrowhead 135 races had been won on 2” tires, we were confident in our rides. Some wondered if we would speed away from all the clown bikes that were unloaded at dawn.
That was my first sight of a fat bike, and I was still a bit cocky. That is until I tested my skinny wheels on the freshly groomed path that stretched for 75 miles. The advantages of fat bikes were immediately apparent, as Buffington and I shinnied across the path seeking solid purchase, frustrated that the crust would crumble before us and resist our forward progress. Our ride through the powder and sticks alongside the trail ended in a graceless dismount followed by an arduous trudge. That Buffington sure can motor on foot. He stretched out his long legs further than my awkward trot could manage. By Mile 10, he had disappeared. By Mile 15, I was caught by hikers pulling sleds.
My best effort had averaged three miles an hour to the point where several fat bikers were calling it quits, too.
I’d already driven home before Buffington reached the halfway point. There he called his wife to let her know that he’d be a bit late. His understanding spouse would be more upset if he’d quit after putting all that time and effort into the endeavor. He would keep going. Twenty miles from the finish the trail finally solidified enough to allow sustained riding. Buffington completed the race in the dark more than nine hours behind the Arrowhead 135 record holder Dave Pramann, who had recently discovered fat bikes himself. Buffington had endured what is still his longest hike-a-bike, pushing most of 50 miles, but he was yet to find that 75 miles of snow was only the beginning of what the Duluth adventure crew was capable of. The next year he would have his own fat bike, and Tuscobia would double to 150 miles. Buffington won that event in almost eighteen hours.
There are things you might think are impossible, but then there are things far more outlandish that you might never think of in the first place. That may be true unless you live in Duluth. Buffington had finished admirable marathons and endurance mountain bike races before, and his medical residency may have had something to do with his knack for thriving for long hours without rest. Before full indoctrination, he would train for a reasonable three or four hours, and was probably unaware that beyond “within reason” there are exploits some might say are without reason. That would be the realm of Duluth educator and alpineer turned single speeder and fat biker, Charlie Farrow, who spreads a contagious love of adventure to those who have forgotten that bold endeavors still exist today. He’s the guy who would ride the North Shore Trail in all seasons or circumnavigate Lake Nipigon by bike because it had never been done before.
Farrow is the Quixote who would get Kershaw and Buffington out on training rides that pushed things well beyond reason into eight- and 12-hour explorations of less traveled Minnesota. They rode all winter when it was still considered crazy, and Buffington learned that 5 a.m. is the bonus time to start a ride or a run. Now he’ll ride a fully loaded bike for weeks prior to a winter race, or start skiing with a pack if that’s his chosen mode. If he is to finish a winter event on foot, he will train with a sled in tow or run on an inclined trainer. As races approach, his training gets specific, but over the course of a year he does switch disciplines for the sake of variety and the dictates of trail conditions.
In 2011, Buffington followed Farrow up to International Falls for the Arrowhead 135, a race that has earned a brutal reputation for harsh hills and steep temperatures below -20 F. He finished second on the bike in under 17 hours, but decided to hoof it the next year and won the foot category in a record 37 hours. By last year, Buffington was ready to go for the hat trick: to finish the Arrowhead on skis. Tuscobia had taught him that skiing would be the most tenuous of the three disciplines.
Previously, he had entered the 2014 Tuscobia 150 already owning records in the bike and the run (45:55!), thinking the 150-mile ski was in his reach. The plan was to stride along on classic skis pulling a sled, but skiing a snowmobile trail with no set track eventually took its toll on his hip flexors and thighs. He made it a solid 70 miles before one of his rare surrenders, but he’d learned that skating with a backpack is the way to make progress on skis. At last year’s Arrowhead, he used that technique to finally conquer a ski ultra. He was able to join Kershaw among the illustrious ranks of the Arrowhead a ‘Trois, when he finished the 135 by that third devious discipline in 32 hours.
One might think that riding all day through the nation’s icebox is where this story ends, but there are latitudes north of Minnesota and there is an event for which the Tuscobia and Arrowhead are mere qualifiers. No Minnesotan had finished the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational for ten years, but that didn’t stop Buffington from leading a half dozen north stars in a face off with the Alaskans on their home terrain. That’s not to give the impression that this is a race full of drafting and rider against rider competition. The Iditarod is fundamentally a person taking on the elements, which suited our local hero just fine. Buffington is used to spending 80% of his time alone with the wilderness, but he did try to keep the locals in sight for the sake of navigation if nothing else. He knew that competitors did get lost on course, and he knew that weather could obliterate a trail and place a person in the face of a headwind push for hours.
Luckily, 2013 was an agreeable year that only saw him push the bike across a lake for half an hour total. A good trudge does wonders for freezing toes anyway, and Buffington was careful to get off the bike to hike a bit whenever he lost feeling. His $80 pair of Red Wing hunting boots and flat pedals got him safely through five years of winter racing with only minor frostbite, and no purple toes. When the stars came out, he was alone with his headlamp, and it felt like home. Buffington managed to self-navigate, finishing three days and fifteen hours later, behind just six Alaskans.
The Midwest sent a deeper contingent back to Alaska the next year, with Buffington facing the 350 miles on foot.
Imagine a hike from Minneapolis to Milwaukee in winter, surviving on what you can tow. The Iditarod provides minimum support beyond what would keep desperate racers from resorting to cannibalism and thievery, so Buffington had to make wise choices. This race does not mark a designated route or list mandatory survival gear, so racers who make it to the starting line are responsible for their own decisions and sometimes even their own rescue. They set forth cognizant of the amount of risk they are accepting. It’s an Alaskan waiver of responsibility they sign with themselves.
Buffington left behind the stove and bivy sack that were required at qualifying events. He travelled with a 100-ounce hydration pack and has nothing against eating snow as long as his engine is warm. A bivy would get sweaty after one night, so he chose instead to lay his sleeping bag on a pad on the snow. Those naps were seldom, as he often just went without sleep before catching a few hours at a checkpoint. With no sleep at all on the first and last night, he was able to finish in McGrath after five days, eight hours, for third place in the foot category, not too far behind Parker Rios, of Wisconsin. Todd McFadden and Charli Tri made the Minnesota presence known with top-five finishes on the bike. Henceforth, the Alaskans will travel to Minnesota to see how winter is foiled.
Buffington sought to complete the Iditarod hat trick with a 350-mile ski in 2015, but the climate changed in time to defrost the course into a trail of dirt. Undeterred, he set off to do whatever it took to reach McGrath on foot in under five days. This meant starting at 2 p.m., but not sleeping until 7 p.m. the next night, then waking up just after midnight for another 29-hour haul. Buffington slept eleven hours over five days, which included a final night with no sleep. After 30 hours with no sleep, he found his mind checking out and hallucinations beginning, but he was taking himself deeper than that limit. Time was twisted beyond recognition as he walked along a frozen river with only his watch to keep him grounded. Sometimes, five minutes felt like two hours. Other times, three hours would pass in an instant, leaving Buffington with no memory of the ordeal as if he’d been sleep walking across the tundra. A final 37-hour push with no sleep brought him to McGrath in under five days and behind only one incomprehensible Alaskan.
Two years later, Buffington has not fully recovered from that effort, and he once believed his days of all-nighters were over until he forgot and entered the Superior Trail Race. He made it 100 miles over the Sawtooth Mountains in under 30 hours, but was reminded that recovery can be problematic at age 47. He had a stellar summer of trail running starting with the Curnow Marathon, followed by the Voyageur 50 Mile, two weeks later. Five weeks off brought him to the 100-miler and finally the Wild Duluth 100K five weeks after that.
His saving grace was the fact that his constant state of recovery meant he hardly had to train between those events. Dr. Buffington has also studied the science of recovery and four years ago switched to a mainly plant-based diet, with hardly any meat or processed food. He sticks to whole foods like potatoes, rice and beans, and he thrives on the anti-inflammatory properties of colorful vegetables.
It’s hard to say where age 48 will take him. He’s still having fun, and although it may seem that he’s done it all, there is no shortage of beautiful events to challenge and inspire. Perhaps I’ll tempt him down my way in August for a hundred down in the Underdown on his bike, followed by a 50-mile trail run a week later. That just might be serious enough to pique his interest.