Andrew and I headed to Idaho intending to tour the Idaho Hot Springs Loop at a nice leisurely pace. We decided to spend a few days in Ketchum to get our bikes ready and check out the world class riding there. One night, I was scrolling through the events on bikepacking.com, and saw that the Idaho Smoke and Fire 400 was happening the next week. I was itching to push my body and spend some time with other bikepackers, but Andrew said he didn’t feel ready for a ride like that. I said okay, but it was all I could think about as we explored the singletrack around Ketchum the next day. We got to the top of a climb and Andrew was waiting for me. “I think we should do the Smoke n’ Fire. We’re already here and don’t know the next time we’ll be back. Being able to do this kind of last minute stuff is what being in the van is all about.” We both agreed we’d sign up once we got back into town.
After some route research and beta from our friend Alexandera, we both settled on what gear to run. Andrew was on 34×18 and I rode 32×17, just a tad easier than 2:1. Alexandera hooked us up with her friend, Russ who was racing too. Russ is one of the most genuine and funny guys you’ll meet and we are so grateful for his hospitality during our time in Boise.
This year, there was a staggered start from 2am to 7am with a limited number of riders in each time block. Andrew and I opted for the 5:30am time slot. That way we’d get an early start, but still get a good night’s sleep the night before. We rolled to the start line in Hyde Park where there were some other riders waiting. I spun my legs fast, hoping to hang with Andrew until the first big climb. We saw a surprising number of cheery runners on the Greenbelt before sunrise, “good morning!” We hopped off the trail 12 miles in, still in the dark and started heading up the Lydle Gulch double track. I watched Andrew’s blinky light get further away as he crushed the climb up to Bonneville Point. I just knew he would do well on this ride.
I was super motivated that first day. Every once in a while, I’d catch a rider from an earlier time slot and chasing all day was rewarding. The smoke from the nearby Grouse Fire was apparent as I rode past the Anderson Ranch Reservoir. Between my exercise induced asthma and the smoke, I’d been hitting the albuterol all day to manage my breathing. I got to highway 61, where we were required to reroute due to road closures from the fire. I crossed the bridge after Pine. Wait, did the reroute say I needed to cross the bridge or not cross the bridge? I stopped and looked at the email one more time and looked at my map. Whoops, I was headed the direction I just came from. I turned around and saw another rider headed down the gravel road on the original route. “Hey! We’re supposed to go this way!” I flagged him down and told him about the reroute. He was a 2am-er and was likely asleep before the email about the reroute went out. Well, even though I felt silly for going the wrong way, at least I was able to help another rider out.
I rode the reroute on Highway 61 to Featherville where they had premade breakfast burritos in ziplock bags. I ate one as I emptied my trash and refilled water and saved the other for dinner. I caught a few more riders climb to Dollarhide Summit before the long descent down Warm Springs Road into Ketchum. I coasted down, eating my second breakfast burrito for dinner.
I arrived in Ketchum at about 8:30pm. There were a few people on the street with cowbells cheering. At the gas station, I loaded up on snacks and chugged a coke before I headed toward the Adam’s Gulch singletrack section in the dark. I got to the trailhead, started pumping some tunes, and rode and walked as efficiently as I could. Dan, another singlespeeder caught me and asked about my gear- he was running a little easier gear than I was, 34×20, but he had to walk some of the singletrack too. As I hiked up a steep section, I saw eyes in the trail ahead of me, oh a fox. “Go on, fox” I rang my bell but it stood its ground. That’s strange, “go on, you’re on the trail.” Eventually it ran down the trail, but I saw it again a hundred yards later. “get off the trail fox, I’m trying to go this way.” After a few more times, the fox finally left the trail.
I rode until 2am, when I felt myself becoming inefficient and tired. I bivied on the side of the trail, attempting to get a couple hours of shut eye. I kept waking up coughing. Finally between the coughing and a very obnoxious owl in the tree above me, I decided it was time to keep moving. I rolled up my sleep system but didn’t get it tight enough to fit it back into my dry bag. I angrily tried 4 more times before I finally got it. I must’ve been half asleep still, because I’ve never had that problem before.
I finished off the Harriman Trail and began the hike to Titus Lake. One of the unfortunate side effects of using my inhaler is that it diminishes my appetite and at times makes me feel nauseous. I tried choking down some food during the night, but just couldn’t do it. Still unable to eat anything and having trouble breathing, I was pretty grumpy on the hike up. Just before the sun came up, I decided to lay down for a 15 minute nap. Maybe after that I’ll be able to eat again. The nap did the trick and I moved my legs a bit faster and ate a snack on my way up to Titus Lake for the sunrise. I kept my down jacket on for the fun descent with some technical sections.
Back on a gravel road, I had a view of the Sawtooth range for hours. I hopped on the highway for a couple miles to Fisher Creek. A double track climb through a burn area took us to the top of the next singletrack section. Another rider told me this is some of the best singletrack in the region. As I descended and climbed the thick sand and picked my bike up over downed trees, I wondered about that rider’s judgement of “best.” I was baking in the heat until I finally made it to the trees, descending the rest of the way down some primo singletrack- ah, this must be what the other rider was talking about. I stopped at a creek to refill water and let my feet air out for a minute.
After doubling back on the highway and a bit more gravel, the route sends you up a rocky climb and descent, forcing you to stay alert to choose a good line down to Redfish Lake. This was my favorite part of the route. Near Redfish Lake, I ran into Paul, who was racing the route in reverse (Fire n’ Smoke). He warned me about a section of trail coming up with several creek crossings and recommended taking off my socks and shoes to keep my feet warm and dry.
I made it to Stanley at about 6:30pm and stocked up on food to finish the rest of the route in case I arrived in Garden Valley outside of gas station hours. I had been warned that Stanley has the potential to get really cold at night- Stanley’s location in a valley traps cold air from the mountains, causing strong temperature inversions. As I climbed out of Stanley, I kept using my inhaler. I needed it more than I ever have and was starting to grow more concerned with my shortness of breath.
I started the Elk Meadow singletrack at sunset. The orange sun turned the dirt and rocks orange too. I was motivated to keep up the pace because Jeff, another racer had recently passed me and there were quite a few “bear in area” signs posted. At last light, I made it back to Highway 21 for a few paved miles before returning to gravel on Cape Horn Road. For the rest of the night, I would grind it out on gravel to Bear Valley Road. I was jamming to my music and progressively adding more clothing layers until I noticed my water nozzle was frozen. Hmm could be a good vault toilet night. I kept my eye out and found an unoccupied bathroom where I could set my 2 hour alarm. It was so cozy in that bathroom, especially knowing it was below freezing outside. At this point I was starting to get pretty paranoid about my breathing. I was wheezing and coughing constantly. My breaths didn’t sound like mine. It brought me back to when I worked in a nursing home. I sounded like a person with emphysema who didn’t have much time left. I laid down wondering, “how hard does breathing have to get before your body just stops?” I’m not trying to sound dramatic, these were the literal thoughts I was having. With these thoughts running through my head, it was difficult for me to relax enough to sleep. After a restless 2 hours, I packed up my stuff and headed back out to Bear Valley Road.
Jeff caught me again at sunrise, right before we started the Westside Trail, the one Paul warned me about. I was grateful I was able to navigate the “trail” during daylight hours. I followed tire tracks through meadows, across creeks, and over downed trees. My breathing was only getting worse. I kept using my inhaler until I noticed there were only 10 puffs left. Shit. I thought I would have plenty to get through the whole ride. I have no idea how accurate that gauge is. At that point I decided I needed to save what was left of my inhaler for emergencies only. That meant taking it really easy. Dan, the singlespeeder and Alan caught me. I tried to hold their pace and on any other day I would have been able to do it, but after 30 seconds of trying to hang, I was too out of breath. I paid for that stupid effort and it took 2 hours to recover. I was so frustrated because my legs felt great, but I had to walk up just about every incline that day to keep my breathing under control.
I finally got cell phone service and saw that Andrew was almost finished. He ended up in second place and I was so proud of him. I gave him a call to congratulate him and let him know what was happening with my breathing. I wasn’t sure I could keep going. Andrew encouraged me to get some more sleep and see how I felt in the morning. He said another rider was having the same issues, and after he slept for 4 hours, he was able to breathe again. I decided it was worth a shot.
For the rest of the night, I walked uphill and rode downhill. I got to Placerville around 10pm after Donna’s was closed, but was able to at least fill up water from the spigot. I contemplated camping there but it felt too early to stop so I kept riding. I started up a gravel climb and thought, “hmm I thought part of this climb was supposed to be paved.” I checked my map. Shit, I’m going the wrong way. I didn’t even look at my mileage to see how far off route I was. I knew it would only make me mad. I rode back down to Placerville and it took me way too long to figure out where I was supposed to go. I wondered if it was a sign that I should sleep in town but I didn’t want to stop yet. I eventually figured out the road I was supposed to take. I mostly walked the climb, coughing my way up. I started getting really sleepy. It’s not uncommon for dead trees to look like animals after dark, but eventually I saw a french bulldog with one of those cones around its neck and decided I better find a place to sleep before I start seeing anything more bizarre. Usually when I start seeing weird stuff, I can just focus on where my light is pointed and it goes away, but when you’re looking for a place to camp, you’re forced to look in the woods. The trees turned into aliens and saplings looked like little skeletons. I chose to laugh it off so it wouldn’t freak me out. I eventually came across a cooler of trail magic. I chugged a bottle of water and ate one of the protein bars in the cooler. I camped nearby thinking I could camel up on some more water in the morning and grab another snack for breakfast. I set up my bivy and set my alarm for a luxurious 4 hours…no, I’ll splurge and do 4 hours 15 minutes. On the way up I prayed I would be able to sleep and by some miracle I was with minimal coughing.
My alarm went off and I was ready to crush the last 40 miles to Boise. I checked trackleaders and there was another rider 8 miles behind me- I wasn’t going to let him catch me. I got into a rhythm and knocked out the rest of the forest road climb. Back to singletrack. Even though it sucked that I had to back off so much the day before, feeling fresh for that last singletrack was amazing. I made good time all the way back to Boise. As I finished the last of the singletrack and rode into a neighborhood, I smelled laundry- it was the best smell I’ve ever smelled in my life. I stunk so bad and the thought of laundry weirdly made my mouth water.
I spun as fast as my legs would take me- a woman and her children were on the side of the road with cowbells cheering “go Katie from Kansas!” only a couple miles to go. I got back to Hyde Park at 11:15am after 3 days, 5 hours, 44 minutes. Andrew was standing there with food and drinks and Jeff who finished the night before was there to see in riders too. The woman who owned the store on the corner noticed my sunglasses were scratched up and gave me another pair.
Later in the day, we went back to Hyde Park to see Russ, our host and new friend finish the race. He finished in style, wearing a lei. That evening and the next day, we were able to see more riders finish the route. I had an opportunity to chat with two of the other badass lady finishers- there were 4 women who started and we all finished. (That makes 100% finisher rate for women and 59% overall finisher rate). We’ve been so impressed by the kindness of the people in Idaho. We’re headed out of the state to get somewhere with better air quality for now, but I’m sure we’ll be back.