FAIRBANKS, Alaska — When Elliot Wilson decided to ride a unicycle in the White Mountains 100 endurance race, he knew it was an off-the-wall idea.
After all, most people wouldn’t think about riding 100 miles on snowmobile and dog-mushing trails in late March in Fairbanks on two wheels, much less one.
Wilson succeeded, much to the surprise of himself, as well as some of Fairbanks’ foremost two wheelers.
“That dude’s crazy,” is how Alaska’s winter riding king, Jeff Oatley, put it after Wilson finished the 100-mile bike, ski and footrace in the White Mountains National Recreation Area on March 30 in a more than respectable 18 1/2 hours.
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No, what’s crazy is that Wilson took up unicycling less than a year ago and did most of his training — and learning — in India, which is about as far away from winter in Alaska as you can get.
“What really blows my mind is it’s been less than a year,” Wilson said the day after finishing the race. “I think it’s so cool at the age of 30 that you can pick up something and explore the limits with it in a short amount of time.”
Explore the limits? Wilson did something that nobody in Alaska, or probably anywhere else in the world for that matter, has ever thought about doing. To say that he puts the uni in unique would be an understatement.
“It just seemed like something crazy enough that it might work,” Wilson said. “There’s something very fascinating in doing something that seems stupid.”
It worked out better than Wilson ever expected. Riding a unicycle with a 4-inch-wide tire — a fat uni, not a fat bike — he finished in 43rd place, ahead of 20 other racers, including a handful of two-wheeled cyclists, several skiers and all but one runner. His official time was 18 hours, 38 minutes. The winner, Josh Chelf, did it in just less than eight hours.
“It was much better than I originally thought,” Wilson said of his performance. “I had packed enough food for 30 hours.”
Race organizer Ed Plumb heard about Wilson’s plans to ride a unicycle and spoke to him before the race.
“I thought he would make it, but I was just going by his confidence,” Plumb said. “Some very hardcore cyclists were skeptical.”
Wilson benefited from ideal trail and weather conditions. With no snow in the past two weeks and lots of traffic during spring break, the trails were practically as hard as pavement. It was a beautiful, sunny day with no wind to speak of. All of that said, Wilson’s feat still is impressive, Oatley said.
“That doesn’t make riding 100 miles in the White Mountains on a unicycle with something like 7,000 feet of elevation gain trivial,” Oatley said of the biker-friendly conditions.
Wilson, a 30-year-old engineer for PDC Engineering in Fairbanks, took up unicycling in June. He decided to sign up for the White Mountains 100 last summer — a lottery is held in October to pick the 65 racers who get in the race — after his friend, Seth Adams, skied the race last year and told him how much fun it was. That was before he even really knew how to ride a unicycle.
“When I first signed up for it, I didn’t know if it was possible,” said Wilson, who figured he could ski it if he got a spot in the race and didn’t feel confident on a unicycle by that time.
In November, Wilson entered a five-mile mountain bike race on the snow to see what he was getting into. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning.
“I was horrible,” he said. “I could barely complete a five-mile race.”
That’s where his trip to India came in.
“I usually take a vacation in December, January and February because the engineering and design season is pretty slow,” Wilson said. “I’m very interested in philosophy, and I figured India would be a better place to learn how to unicycle than 40 below in Fairbanks.
“That’s where I got most of my practice in,” he said.
Wilson spent three months unicycling around India, which he said was a “very interesting experience.”
“Nobody there had ever seen a unicycle before,” he said. “I would stop for 30 seconds, and all of a sudden, I’d have 30 Indians around me grabbing my unicycle and asking questions. It was a little overwhelming.”
The key to riding a unicycle is learning to keep your balance without thinking about it, something he was able to do by riding almost every day for three months in India, Wilson said.
“I kind of have a personality for getting very focused on things,” he said.
When he returned to Alaska, Wilson swapped the all-terrain tire he was using in India for a fatter tire for riding in the snow and began commuting to work on the Tanana River from his home on Rosie Creek on the Tanana River. The farthest he had ridden at one time before the March 30 race was 50 miles, which he did two weeks earlier from Nenana to Fairbanks on the Tanana River.
“I wanted to get an idea of trail hardness and how stupid of an idea this really was,” is how Wilson put it.
The trip went well enough that Wilson was encouraged to give the White Mountains 100 a try. After talking with him at the start of the race, Oatley, who sat out this year’s race after riding to Nome a month ago, said he could tell Wilson knew what he was getting into.
“He knew what he was doing, or what he was going to try to do,” Oatley said.
As far as unicycles go, Wilson’s Nimbus Oregon is “fairly fancy.” It has only one gear, but it’s equipped with a disc brake, which Wilson controls with a lever under the seat. The brake made riding the White Mountains 100 course, which features some long, steep downhills, much more feasible because he could slow down, said Wilson, noting that the faster he goes, the faster his legs have to turn.
“You don’t get to coast, but at least, it takes little bit of pressure off your legs going downhill,” Wilson said of his brake. “If you start spinning too fast, it causes a lot of problems.”
Even with a brake, it’s not easy going downhill, he said.
“You always have to be applying pressure because that’s also how you maintain your balance,” said Wilson, whose 6-foot-6-inch, 190-pound frame makes for an imposing sight sitting three feet off the ground. “The brake will lock the wheel sometimes, so you’re still using your feet to brake. You’re sort of dancing back and forth with your legs and hands.”
It was going downhill when other racers, taking advantage of the ability to coast and glide, would pass him, Wilson said.
“The moment I started going downhill, I had all these skiers and bikers zipping past me,” he said. “It would have been really nice to be able to coast.”
At one point going down a hill on Cache Mountain Divide, Wilson said he got a little cocky and got going a little too fast, at which point his tire punched through several inches of soft snow and he was thrown out of the saddle. His unicycle flew over his head as he landed face first in the snow, but the only injury he suffered was a bruised ego.
“That kept me humbled,” said Wilson, who wore a backpack with food and extra clothing in it.
Other than that and one or two other face plants, Wilson said he managed to stay upright. He figures he rode about 80 percent of the course and walked 20 percent, most of which was in the last 30 miles when his right knee started hurting.
“At around mile 70, my right knee started going out, and it made it hard applying a whole lot of pressure,” he said. “I started using my left leg as the dominant one.”
Wilson said he had “tons of encouragement” from friends, race organizers and volunteers, and fellow racers. It was an awesome experience he said he will be tempted to repeat.
Having a unicyclist entered “added a little flair to the race,” Plumb said.
“It was cool to have him,” he said.
Now, though, Wilson said he is going to take a break to let his knee heal. On Monday, he said he could barely walk.
“I’m not going to unicycle for a little while,” Wilson said.