Winter Adventure and the Warmth of Community

A Fat Pursuit – 10-Year Anniversary Edition Recap by Racer Turned Volunteer

By Betsy Williford

The 2023 Fat Pursuit Volunteer crew. Photo by Rob Vandermark

I first met Jay Petervary, ultra-endurance cyclist, ambassador of sport, and the founder of Fat Pursuit back in 2017, at a winter workshop hosted by Pedal of Littleton in Colorado. Captivated by his passion, knowledge and experience with fat biking in events like Arrowhead 135 and Iditarod Trail Invitational I was inspired to dream bigger with my own brand new obsession of fat bikes and human-powered travel in winter. I was curious and he was, and always will be, eager to teach. 

Jay teaching all two of us at Whitefish Bike Retreat in February 2018.
Jay racing me down a stretch of trail in February 2018. His passion for the sport is contagious.
My 2018 60k finish photo. 

After a year of preparing, training and dreaming of becoming a winter ultra athlete my very first Fat Pursuit was in December 2018. I was catapulted into this journey after a very special weekend spent at Whitefish Bike Retreat with Jay and his wife, Tracey, and only one other participant for a fat bike workshop 10 months prior. The selfless act of Jay and Tracey traveling hours from home to teach just two ordinary people, both rookies, all about fat biking and racing in winter for a full weekend has never been lost on me. That December, I started with the 60k distance and successfully finished my race in under seven hours. Yes, I was not, and still am not, fast. In 2020, I was invited by Jay to attend his Fat Pursuit workshop before attempting the 200k for my first winter ultra distance. It was a brutal year with warm-ish temperatures and a constant barrage of snow dumping in FEET, not inches, on us all weekend long and I fell short of finishing by about 30 miles. But the memories and the lessons I gleaned from that experience have changed me and stuck with me ever since. 

I attended the 2020 Fat Pursuit Workshop before race weekend to dial in my kit. “Do the work” has always been Jay’s mantra for himself  personally and all the athletes he’s worked with.
Photo by Tracey Petervary
The snowiest Fat Pursuit on record, 2020, me slogging it out in unbearably soft conditions. Photo by my friend, fellow competitor and subsequent 2020 Winner of the Women’s Fat Pursuit 200k, Jamye Chrisman.

Then COVID hit, so in 2021 I attempted the Covid Edition of the Fat Pursuit Do-It-Yourself 200k Challenge in my near backyard of Leadville, Colorado. Joined by friends, the Colorado crew of Fat Pursuers and I tried to make a 200k course connecting all of Leadville’s groomed trails, including the singletrack near the college, the groomed road around Turquoise Lake and the Mineral Belt / East Side Mining district groomed highways. Trying to ride 200k in the winter all above 10,000 feet was quite the ambitious goal and I think only one of us successfully pulled off the full distance. I managed one loop hitting every trail possible for 75 miles, 5,700 feet of elevation gain over 12 hours of riding. Unfortunately, the do-it-yourself challenge just wasn’t as motivating as I had hoped. I missed the Fat Pursuit environment and community of like-minded athletes.

A five rider crew of Colorado Fat Pursuers rendezvous in Leadville for the 2021 Do-It-Yourself Covid Edition of Fat Pursuit.

Still looking to scratch the itch and accomplish my goal of completing my first winter ultra distance fat bike event, I signed up for the Fat Pursuit 200k for 2022. I trained hard all year while juggling family life with two kids. Then, when it came time to leave for the race, I got shut down by winter storms making travel to Island Park, Idaho from Denver, Colorado impossible. I was devastated. All that hard work suddenly felt futile and for the rest of 2022 I left my fat bike in the garage, only getting it out on occasion. I was giving up on my dream, at least for the time being.

As the 2023 Fat Pursuit 10-year Anniversary Edition began to draw near, I wrestled intensely with my inner demons of not wanting to miss out but knowing I could never pull off a 60k, let alone a 200k, distance off the couch. In the months leading up to January 2023 I tried to shove the desire to return to Island Park to the deepest, darkest, farthest away corner of my mind. But like a moth drawn to flame, I kept searching for a way, or an excuse, to join. 

After the Thanksgiving holiday, curiosity and the drive to return to Idaho had peaked and overwhelmed me, so I texted a few of my friends asking if they planned to be there, which quickly evolved to a realization that I could come back as a volunteer. The idea solidified into reality when Jay asked if I would be up for a very specific role that he thought fit me well. Fat Pursuit 2023 here I come! Instead of racing, I would fill the role of volunteer and my assigned work would be a social media takeover for the event. I. Was. Stoked.

My first self imposed  task as the social media takeover person for this year’s Fat Pursuit was to get a Rigs of Fat Pursuit out there for everyone to enjoy. It turned out great! Thanks to Jay, his website coordinator and willing participants for helping spread the stoke!

What is it about Fat Pursuit that keeps me, and many others, coming back year after year? Jay and Tracey have really created something special for a fat bike event to make it to its 10-year anniversary. The words adventure, family, community, accessibility and inclusivity come to mind when I reflect back on my own journey. Jay believes all athletes should be given the chance to gain experience and learn about backcountry winter travel. He works tirelessly and enthusiastically to build relationships with every competitor. He provides opportunities for workshops and camps to come learn from him and other highly knowledgeable athletes in the winter ultra scene and practice those newly gained skills in real time. The Fat Pursuit is a perfect trial-by-fire opportunity to test one’s physical and mental limits while backed by an incredible community of authentic encouragers, supporters and cheerleaders. I did not want to miss the 2023 event because this community has become family. 

Photo by Mike Barklow
The Fat Pursuit would not be without this dynamic duo, Jay and Tracey Petervary. Photo by Jay Petervary

Let’s also not forget about the location itself. Fat Pursuit is set in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with hundreds of miles of groomed snowmachine trails that allow winter enthusiasts of all kinds to get out and explore the beauty of the winter backcountry. While Fat Pursuit started as a fat bike-only event 10 years ago, it has since grown into a multi-sport winter pursuit where skiers and runners now have the same opportunity to test themselves. Participating in the event as a competitor can kind of be like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get, which is why it is such a great ADVENTURE. There have been record snowfalls, record low temperatures (minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit one year!), fast conditions and horribly slow conditions. I could even maybe argue that the act of just getting to Island Park itself can be one of the hardest challenges, not the race itself. But as the saying goes in the endurance cycling community, it is the hardest things we do that later become the best, most treasured memories. 

Riders heading back out from Aid Station 1.
The beauty of this place in winter is just surreal at times. I have enjoyed exploring many of the trails in the area as well as the 60k and 200k courses over the few years I’ve been a part of the Fat Pursuit family!

Did I miss racing this year? Surprisingly, not really. I was FULLY enveloped in all the racing excitement without the personal stress of racing and taking care of myself for 124 grueling miles in the winter backcountry of Idaho. I got to catch up with and cheer on many friends who were competing and meet many more new, inspiring faces. Riding to Aid Station 1 while giving a live social media update was one way I looked to satiate my desire to ride but not race. It’s hard to explain to anyone who has not yet had the privilege to ride in this area. It is absolutely gorgeous and feels so remote at times. It can be so peaceful or it can be harsh and feel inhabitable. It has even been described to have an Alaska-like feel to it in some areas by myself and a few others who have been able to spend time in the wild, winter backcountry setting of Alaska. In the few years I have spent exploring the winter trails here by fat bike, I have grown to love it. 

From documenting the starting line atmosphere for both the 60k and 200k races to the rowdy fun at Aid Station 1 and the nighttime ambience of Aid Station 2, from hearing all of the firsthand accounts of each racer I talked to about their pursuit, I lived vicariously through them.

Photo by Graham Muir
The crew of Why Cycles/Revel Bikes contributed to some rowdy fun at Aid Station 1. Rider Garick Ploog had even packed his own libations for the trail.  

How could I miss racing? I heard, saw and experienced more as a volunteer than I could possibly experience as a back-of-the-pack racer. Even staying up cheering on finishers every few hours throughout the night and into the wee hours of the morning were incredibly special moments for me, my favorite being the short ride backtracking on the course from the finish line to intercept my friend Beat Jegerlehner as he walked his finishing mile through a cold, crisp but stunningly beautiful morning. The image of him coming down the trail, a single illuminated headlamp backdropped with the snowy peaks basking in warm sunrise color is forever imprinted on my heart. It was an endurance event even for me as a volunteer but it was incredibly soul filling. 

One of my favorite magical moments of my weekend as a volunteer. I rode out to meet my friend Beat Jegelehner who was making his way to the finish line. 

It’s nice to be able to finally give back to an event, to a friend, who has invested SO much into my own personal journey with fat biking, racing and pursuing. Just saying thank you to Jay, Tracey and the rest of the amazing volunteers who have given so much of themselves to this event and to the competitors who show up, feels awkwardly insufficient. In my own personal experience, I have gained far more than I could ever properly repay. 

If you love winter, love a good adventure, if you seek community or just are curious what the fuss is all about, come up and see for yourself in 2024. Come join the family of like-minded pursuers, come see what you are made of or toss yourself deep into the rewarding role as a volunteer. 

Thankful for Jay as both a friend and mentor! Photo by Eddie Clark
Signs of a great weekend, passed out in the sun utterly content as the event wraps up following the traditional Fat Pursuit toast on Sunday afternoon. Photo by Kevin Emery

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2 responses to “Winter Adventure and the Warmth of Community”

  1. this made me get on my fatbike today, thank you for the inspiration and sharing the community experience from both sides of the tape

  2. Great recap, Betsy. I’ve done a few stints as a volunteer (and many as a crewmember) of ultramarathons. It’s often more exhausting than racing! I’m glad you had a great time.

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