What do you get for being first across the finish line of the Fireweed 400, a grueling bicycle race that begins and ends at Sheep Mountain and has Valdez as the turn-around point?
“For participating you get a shirt and a water bottle and a few free goodies from the race sponsors. For winning you get a sore butt and applause from your crew and everybody around you,” said Martin Renner, 43, of Homer.
On Saturday, Renner was the first of 500 entrants to finish the race that began at Sheep Mountain at noon on Friday. He completed the course on Saturday with a time of 26 hours, 48 minutes. Lael Wilcox of Anchorage was the first woman to cross the finish line. Wilcox had a time of 27:01.
“We had hoped to get, like, some beer glass trophy or something, but you get unlimited bragging rights,” said Renner.
The event is a qualifier for Race Across America, an ultra-marathon bike race that, true to its name, begins on the West Coast and ends on the East Coast.
“We did qualify for that, but no way,” said Renner. “I’m not going to do that.”
The course of the Fireweed 400 follows the Glenn Highway to Glennallen, then turns south, continuing to Captain Joe’s Gas Station on Valdez’s Pioneer Drive. There, riders turn around and head right back to the start, traversing Thompson Pass each way, for a total elevation gain round trip of 28,000 feet.
Rules say no drafting is allowed by soloists or relay riders. Aid stations are available between the start and finish and may be used if they are open when cyclists arrive at that point. However, because racers’ times vary, there is no guarantee the stations will be open when they pass, so riders must prepare to be self-supported. That’s where Renner relied on his support team of Pat Irwin and Joe Martin. The three men are members of the Homer Cycling Club.
Renner had a pretty good idea what he was in for in the Fireweed 400, having competed the Fireweed 200, Sheep Mountain to Valdez, in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, as part of a four-person team that included Irwin, Martin and Malcolm Moore, Renner did the 400. The team came in third in their category.
“We were the team that had more fun than anybody else and all vowed we wouldn’t do that again, but somehow that fell through,” said Renner of taking on the course solo this year. “It was still very much a team effort. They made sure the wheels kept turning, saw that any kind of stop I had to make was as short as possible, handed me water bottles, picked spots where I wasn’t going too fast and could pick things up. They just really made it happen.”
Road construction and patches of loose gravel caused challenges to this year’s race, as did heavy rain in Valdez. Renner said he had begun to fade on the last stretch between Glennallen and Sheep Mountain. However, he snapped out of it and began applying race-winning speed after Irwin and Martin told him a female racer was moving faster than he was.
“That really scared me,” said Renner. “After I had thought we might actually get there first, then there was the thought that at the finish line she might pull ahead of me.”
Renner rides a recumbent bike. As the name suggests, it puts the cyclist in a reclining position. Asked if that was uncomfortable, Renner said, “After 24 hours in any position, anything is uncomfortable, but you know if you sit down and watch a movie, would you lean forwards or backwards? I think it’s a lot more comfortable.”
The reclining position eases the pressure on the wrists and neck and is, according to Renner, safer.
“If you crash into something, you’re going feet first instead of head first,” said Renner. “And it’s quite aerodynamic. You can go fast and still ride in a comfortable position.”
Back in Homer on Monday, Renner said he is looking forward to shorter, more relaxed rides closer to home.
In addition to thanking Irwin and Martin, Renner also expressed appreciation of his sponsor, Free Spirit Wear. Kathy Sarns, owner of Free Spirit Wear, posted Facebook updates of Renner’s progress throughout the race.
Looking even closer to home, Renner said, “And I’d like to thank my wife and family for making it all possible.”
For more about the Fireweed 400, visit fireweed400.com.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.