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Published in Macalester Today
BY MARLA HOLT PHOTOS BY MIKE RIEMER/SALSA CYCLES
Christopher Tassava ’95 took on the winter’s extreme cold, biking his way to seventh place in a frosty Minnesota race.
In the predawn hours of the coldest day of the year, Christopher Tassava ’95 sat next to a propane heater in a tent alongside the Arrowhead Trail in northern Minnesota. He had just biked to checkpoint Number 3 of the Arrowhead 135, a grueling Minnesota ultra-marathon for skiers, runners, and bikers that starts in International Falls and ends near Tower. He was 108 miles into the endurance event and had been riding his Salsa Mukluk fat-bike—nicknamed the Beast—for 23 hours over forest snowmobile trails in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees.
While he waited for his feet to thaw out, Tassava thought he’d post an update about his race progress, just in case “anyone cared,” as he puts it. Amazingly, he got a signal on his phone, and was stunned to find more than 200 encouraging comments on Facebook. It was a moment this winter-loving cyclist—his fat-bike-related posts are followed by hashtags like #crushsnow and #outdoorsisfree—likely won’t forget.
“Reading those messages was a huge boost, because I was at my physical and mental low point,” Tassava says. “It was 6 a.m., I’d been up all night, and my body just wanted to shut down.” The race volunteer in the tent told him, “Now you’ve got to finish.”
When Tassava, a grant writer for Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., applied to enter the Arrowhead, he hadn’t yet completed a 100-mile race on a mountain bike, so he sold himself in other ways: His ability to bike long distances (he has finished several century bicycle races on gravel) and his love of the cold, nurtured during a childhood in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He was drawn to the idea of spending hours alone deep in the woods and admits his desire to race the Arrowhead was “a bit of a macho thing."
Because “they took a chance on me,” says Tassava, he was determined to finish, no matter the challenges. “Once the race directors said yes to me, I said yes to doing a good job of it."
Tassava had to hold back his elation at the start, pushing down the impulse to “hoot and holler” in order to conserve the oxygen he needed to pedal. The beauty of his surroundings struck him as he watched other bikers stretched out before him in technicolor against the stark whiteness of the woods. “It was predawn with a bit of sky glow,” he says. “The opening trail was perfectly straight and I could see all the bikes in the distance with their little red blinking lights.”
Racing the Arrowhead 135 is a lonely endeavor, especially during the late night hours. Tassava occupied his mind by recalling lyrics to songs he hadn’t heard in decades, thinking about what his wife and two daughters were doing at home, and calculating how far he was from the next checkpoint.
He also constantly evaluated his body parts for feeling. His fogged-up goggles were useless, so he worried that his contacts might freeze to his eyeballs. They didn’t, but he ended up with a frostbitten nose and cheeks because his numb fingers couldn’t feel where he’d applied face-protecting cream. At some point, the ice hanging off his beard became so thick that Tassava couldn’t open his mouth to eat. He broke off some of the ice, taking a few whiskers along with it. Instead of being horrified by that, it became a point of pride. “How many people can say their faces froze shut?”
The last leg of the race was the toughest. Chafing and insufficient padding made sitting on his bike excruciatingly painful, so Tassava resorted to pedaling standing up. “It wasn’t easy, because my legs were dead,” he says. His mind was bit muddled, too, making it difficult for him to perform simple tasks like reading the map and adding up miles. “Everything got fuzzy,” he says. “You know you’re thinking really slowly, but you can’t figure out how to think faster.”
Toward the end, Tassava bargained with himself, trading 10 steps for a pause to take 10 breaths. He walked his bike up the hills. “I knew every step I took, no matter how short, no matter how weak my pedal stroke was, got me closer to the finish,” he says.
Twenty-nine hours and nine minutes after he started, Tassava tipped over in the snow just beyond the finish line, overcome by fatigue but aware he’d just completed one of the peak experiences of his life. He finished in seventh place, one of only 30 bikers (along with 16 runners and one skier out of 142 entrants) to complete the race. Tassava’s success made him eager to try other endurance events. And next winter will find him right back at Arrowhead, hoping to ride faster—and likely with even more friends cheering him on.
Tassava's blog: http://tassava.com/blowing-and-drifting