Our Neighbor: Esko teacher goes on the ride of a lifetime
In the middle of nowhere, with a swollen face and astride a bicycle, Esko schoolteacher Charlie Farrow wasn't worried about his physical condition.
In fact, he was in his element.
Farrow, 53, recently completed the 354-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race -- which is held every year on the trail used by the Iditarod Trail sled dog race.
Conditions aside, there was no place Farrow would rather have been.
"I used to live up there," Farrow said. "I lived in a little village in Alaska called Koyuk where I taught school in the 1990s. Every year the [Iditarod] race would come through there and I thought I would want to try it."
Eventually, Farrow did. He just didn't use a dogsled.
Forty-one intrepid bicycle riders set out on the course with only one caveat: To complete the race, they had to navigate the snow-covered trail in 10 days.
"They give you 10 days to finish [the race]," Farrow said. "But most can finish in five."
Farrow did, though some parts of the race proved more challenging than others.
"The conditions were perfect," Farrow said. "The trail was snow-packed. Last year they got 37 inches of snow during the race and this year they didn't get any."
In fact, the conditions were so bad last year that for a time the race leaders were two snowshoers who could move more quickly along the trail than those riders who had to walk their bikes.
This year's race wasn't so bad.
"It's the actual Iditarod Trail," Farrow said. "It was wide enough to accommodate a snowmobile and very narrow. It was also incredibly beautiful."
As the time and race miles passed, Farrow would pause for rest and to update his blog (http://cpfarrow.blogspot.com), which provided an entertaining way to update on progress as well as update those following from home.
One blog follower was Farrow's longtime friend and current Cloquet High School cross country coach Mike Bushey.
"His blog is very entertaining to me," Bushey said. "He doesn't take himself too seriously and whenever I ask a kid from Esko if they have Mr. Farrow in class they just roar. They adore the guy."
Swollen face and all.
* * * * *
Farrow graduated from Rochester John Marshall High School and attended Gustavus Adolphus where he earned a degree in political science, eventually earning an MBA from the University of Colorado.
Along his educational path he took up bicycle racing, and that love has stayed with him ever since.
"I was raised in Rochester, which has an active cycling community, and our cross country and track coach was an avid cyclist, so he had us do it as part of training," he said. "For me it was a natural progression to go from the track to [bicycle] racing in the summer. I've never been good at it, but I liked it."
Farrow's love of the sport, coupled with his love for the outdoors, eventually led him to try one of cycling's most unique challenges in Alaska, earning him the respect of friends and peers alike.
"He's been really into this whole idea of adventure and seeing what he's capable of doing," Bushey said. "He's got endless great stories."
Some of those stories are related on his blog, including some dealing with more ... um ... functional matters, while on the Iditarod Trail.
"I always have fun with the blog," said Farrow, who has previously written about his travels for cycling trade publications. "I try not to take it too seriously."
During the race, Farrow traveled with 1972 Olympian and Canadian cycling legend Lindsay Gauld.
"He has been a Canadian national champ for years and also a national speed skating champ," Farrow said. "He is in his early 60s but he has been doing this forever. It was fun to ride almost the whole race with him."
And despite the lack of snow, the race was difficult, especially to observers.
"It's not like I'm going to ride my bike to Hinckley," Bushey said of his friend. "The [Ultra racers] are in the wilderness and the Alaskan range to the interior. It's not unheard of for it to be minus 40."
"A guy like Charlie says 'you've got to do it,'" Bushey added. "It's not about the distance. My thing is that when it becomes really dangerous, I don't have the confidence to get myself out of trouble. For him it's part of the adventure."
"I like my fingers and toes," Bushey added with a laugh. "Charlie's not as concerned about his."
For his part, Farrow downplayed the danger.
"The word 'extreme' is overused," he said. "No one is dying or anything."
But a rider is still in the Alaskan wilderness and, beautiful though it is, appropriate care needs to be taken.
By the end of the race, Farrow's face was badly swollen, partially closing his eyes. On his blog, Farrow wrote that Gauld told him that was the normal way to finish the race.
"Lindsay assured me that he had seen such swelling in braver men than me on such long endeavors," Farrow wrote. "He said in a comforting voice, 'Lotz (sic) of guyz (sic) swell up like that just before the end'."
Prior to all that swelling, Farrow enjoyed the scenic beauty of the course.
"I was really impressed with the beauty of it," he said. "It was rolling country, heavily forested and you climb through mountain passes."
And Farrow had one other challenge to overcome. He only had one week off from work to complete the race.
"I had to be back for work," he laughed, "so I had a really tight timeline. Now that I look back, I was super naïve to think I could do it in the time I had and I completely lucked out because the conditions were perfect."
In fact, the top seven finishers in the 41-member field all broke the course record. And as long as the race was, it could have been even longer.
"There are two races," he said. "If you finish the first race of 354 miles, you qualify for the full race, which is 1,000 miles long. Only seven people did that race, because it takes a 30-day commitment. I was only gone for a week."
And when he got back, he put his experience to good use.
* * * * *
Farrow teaches government and history at Esko, and uses pictures from his travels to help him teach geography to his students.
"I incorporate it when I can," he said. "I also teach a sociology course and we work this into how to incorporate goals and logistics."
It's part of a day's work for a popular teacher and person.
"Any time you are around him, you're inspired," Bushey said. "I don't ride or hang out as much as I want to with him, but I consider myself lucky to be around him. He's got a family and the other things he likes to do but people like him. Nobody has ever said anything bad about Charlie Farrow."
Not surprisingly, Farrow's reaction is modest.
"Bushey always beats me [in races]," Farrow laughed. "He's a better bike racer than I am."
But even at age 53, Farrow sees himself in the saddle for many years to come.
"Biking is a lifelong thing for me," he said. "But I laugh when people think of me as an extreme athlete because I'm not. Anybody who is relatively fit, took their time and planned their journey could do what I did in Alaska."
But at 40 below zero? Maybe we could,