During the wee hours of Jan. 26, in the deep woods of northern Minnesota a few miles from the Canadian border, Erwin Reitsma pedaled through the night.
Riding his fatbike along snowy trails in the dark, he passed a circle of bloody snow — sure sign of a recent wolf kill. Two bikers passed him coming the other direction, retreating to civilization. Tracks of cyclists ahead let him know he was still on the right trail.
A genetic lung disease limits Erwin’s breathing, and perhaps he should have been sucking from an oxygen bottle instead of breathing frigid winter air.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, he approached the 100-mile mark on his way to the finish line of the Arrowead 135, a race for bikers, skiers and runners. Alone in the dark among the wolves, Erwin was at peace.
Rising up to fight
Erwin grew up Laramie, graduating from Laramie High School. He described himself as an above-average athlete who ran and cycled from his youth.
He used to own a bike shop, and he met his wife, Linda, a fellow cyclist, during a bike race. Cycling to Fort Collins, Colorado, or riding to the summit of the Snowy Range several times in a row were normal parts of his active life. On most weekends, the Reitsmas took their son, Austin, and daughter, Audrey, and headed outdoors.
“That was always part of our lifestyle,” Linda said.
The athletic pursuits gave way to education, jobs and children, but Erwin remembers clearly the days about five years ago when his health took a sharp negative turn, which served to reignite his competitive fire.
He began to struggle to breathe, then started gasping for air while walking up hills. Cluster headaches left him moaning with pain through the night.
“The first time I recognized it as severe, I was snowshoeing and going up a little incline,” Erwin said. “I had to stop halfway up and get a breath.”
He was diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited disorder that affects the lungs. People with the disorder are defective in their production of alpha-1 antitrypsin, a molecule that protects lungs from respiratory complications. Many with the disorder develop emphysema despite never smoking.
Erwin tried inhalers and supplemental oxygen, but nothing helped his breathing as much as old-fashioned exercise. He started cycling again in earnest, even though the initial attempts were humbling for a man used to sprinting up mountains.
“I could ride for about five minutes,” he said. “It took quite a while to where I could ride like I am today.”
Linda said the diagnosis fired up her husband.
“He rose up and battled instead of laying down and giving up,” she said.
Erwin said if he stops exercising for a week or two, his lungs start to fill up with fluids.
“I start coughing up a lot more phlegm and junk,” he said.
He eats a healthy diet and makes sure to keep excess weight off the area around his diaphragm, which also limits his breathing. Some with the condition receive intravenous infusions of healthy alpha-1 antitrypsin, which is gleaned from donated human plasma, but Erwin said he doesn’t want to go that route.
“It’s a goal of mine to not do oxygen and not do the lung therapy,” he said.
Thirty-threehours in the saddle
A hundred different things can derail a person’s attempt to cover 135 miles through the wilderness during the winter, from mechanical problems to dehydration, frostbite and injury.
About half the people who start the Arrowhead 135 drop out. Among those attempting the race for the first time, less than 30 percent reach the finish line.
The temperature at the starting line this year was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit, but that relative comfort meant the course was soft and slushy.
“Snow like mashed potatoes is hard to ride in,” Erwin said.
He cruised through the first part of the race, spending just 10 minutes at the first checkpoint 35 miles in. After dark, though, he hit a snag when his derailleur cable broke, requiring a trailside repair.
He reached the second checkpoint, about 70 miles in, after a dozen hours of riding. With Linda there to meet him, he spent a few hours drinking, eating and drying his clothes. The next checkpoint was 41 miles away, and he would be riding through the night.
“That whole psychological thing of being out there all night long to me is really peaceful, but you have to get to where you’re comfortable with that,” he said.
The third checkpoint, a tent by the side of the trail, offered hot drinks for the 24-mile push to the finish line. Erwin said the last portion was mentally and physically difficult, as he followed a rail-straight trail beneath a gloomy winter sky.
Thirty-three hours after he started, covering an average of 4 miles an hour, he reached the finish line, finishing 32nd among 94 cyclists who started.
“I’m incredibly proud of him,” Linda said.
After his diagnosis, Erwin found he couldn’t continue his work building homes. He decided he wanted to help others with disabilities and now works as the lead mobility management specialist for Wyoming Independent Living, where he helps arrange transportation for people who aren’t able to drive.
He said many people he works with have conditions that become more difficult because of smoking, obesity or unhealthy diets. But he encourages people to set goals and find ways to improve their situations.
“I feel like a lot of times, people give up too easily and go the medical route, when they could make a lot of changes that would do better than medication,” he said.
Many people he works with want to exercise more, but that lofty notion starts with stepping outside before walking around the block.
“If you fight back just a little bit, I think a lot of people would be surprised at how they could improve their lives,” he said.
Erwin has goals of his own to motivate his training. On tap for coming years, he hopes to compete in the 200-mile division of the Fat Pursuit, a race near Yellowstone National Park. Two years from now, he has his sights set on the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska.
These days, he trains by riding four nights a week for up to four hours, either at Happy Jack or Chimney Park. He also fits in a longer weekend ride of up to eight hours.
As he circles the trails, usually alone and usually after dark, he often sees mountain lion or coyote prints crossing the tire tracks he laid down on a previous lap.
“It’s very peaceful,” he said.