FAIRBANKS — Everybody who met him, even those who never had the “pleasure” of competing against him, has a Rocky story. That’s the kind of guy Rocky Reifenstuhl was.
One way or another, he made an impression.
He was brash, obnoxious, and sometimes hard to take. He was confident to the point of being cocky. He was so competitive it’s hard to put into words. Of course, that’s what we all loved about Rocky. He didn’t do things half-assed.
That competitive spirit is, of course, what drove Reifenstuhl to do the things he did, whether it was pushing the pace in hard-core, endurance races like the Iditarod Trail Invitational, Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic and Fireweed 400 or riding his bike to work every day for 30 years, regardless of the temperature or weather conditions.
Even when he was in his mid-50s, Rocky was beating cyclists half his age, daring them to keep up, at which point he would shift it into another gear and go even harder.
“If he thought he had a chance to win, oh my God, he’d pull out all the stops,” said Jim Lokken, another Fairbanks endurance monster and mountain bike rival of Rocky’s back in the 1980s and ’90s,. “People that say they go 110 percent in a race ... nobody knows what that means until they raced against Rocky. He redefined the definition of that.”
This was a guy who more than once ran a sub-3 1/2-hour Equinox Marathon on Saturday, even though he wasn’t really a runner, and came back on Sunday to race the course on a mountain bike.
This was a guy who hiked 100 miles across the Brooks Range in two or three days with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few Power Bars and then showed up to win the Death Ride after driving all night to get back to town for the race.
This was a guy who won more bike races and rode more miles, on the road, on the dirt and on the snow, than anyone in Alaska ever has or ever will.
This was a guy whose idea of fun was to push himself to his absolute physical limit and see how much farther he could go.
“It’s hard to describe to people who don’t or can’t do it, or think it’s crazy,” Reifenstuhl once said about the things he did. “It takes you places you’ve never been before and can’t go without living through the lack of sleep and the physical exhaustion.
“You go into a completely different state of mind,” he said. “I love to see what my body can achieve.”
So when I first heard the news that Rocky died a week ago in Utah at the age of 61 while awaiting a heart transplant, I couldn’t believe it. Even though I knew Rocky’s health was failing and he had been battling heart problems the last few years, the idea that Rocky could actually die was incomprehensible.
“I think we all thought that,” said Jeff Oatley, one of Rocky’s best friends and biggest rivals. “I knew he needed a heart transplant and I still thought, ‘It’s Rocky; he’ll get a heart transplant and he’ll be riding a bike again.”
Sadly, Rocky finally met something he couldn’t beat — a bad heart.
News of Rocky’s death spread quickly through the Alaska cycling and extreme sports communities. His rivals remembered him for what he was, a relentless competitor, while his friends, many of whom were those same rivals, remembered him as a kind, generous guy who would give you the shirt off his back.
“He was a real special man, an all-around great person,” said Jay Petervary, who competed against Reifenstuhl in the Iditarod Invitational several times. “I don’t care how competitive he was, he was a really great guy.”
In 2008, the one and only year that Rocky tried to ride all the way to Nome, he and Petervary ended up pushing their bikes more than 200 miles through knee-deep snow between McGrath and Galena. It took them six or seven days, the last three of which he and Reifenstuhl were traveling alone together, Petervary said.
It was a bad situation. Nerve problems in his back had Reifenstuhl in constant pain, barely able to walk, while Petervary was sicker than a dog, with puke coming out one end and diarrhea out the other. They were forced to share a bivvy sack and “spoon” together at night to stay warm. Through it all, Reifenstuhl never wavered, Petervary said.
“He never flinched given the situation,” Petervary said by phone from Idaho, where he lives. “We were doing what we needed to do, sharing resources, making it happen.
“We were both in a bad way but for some reason we sort of had a good time together,” Petervary added.
Tired of pushing their bikes through the deep snow and physically falling apart, they both ended up quitting when they finally reached the Yukon River, marking the first time Rocky had ever scratched from a race.
Petervary ended up flying back to Fairbanks a day before Rocky and arranged for Oatley to pick him up at the airport. As Oatley was driving Petervary to the airport the next day to fly home, they saw someone pedaling a mountain bike down the Parks Highway. Oatley immediately knew who it was.
“That’s Rocky,” Oatley told Petervary. “He’s riding home from the airport.”
Petervary couldn’t believe it.
“Jay just looked at me and said, ‘No effin’ way,’” Oatley said.
Later when Oatley saw Reifenstuhl, he chastised him for not calling for a ride home. They were next-door neighbors and friends, after all.
“He said, ‘No, I had my bike,’” Oatley recalled.
It was classic Rocky.
It was Reifenstuhl who took Oatley under his wing when Oatley moved to Fairbanks 15 or so years ago and took up winter cycling. They became neighbors and good friends, riding on weekends and taking trips in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. When Oatley started competing in the Iditarod Invitational, it was Reifenstuhl who showed him the ropes.
“I taught him how to sleep on a bike,” is how Reifenstuhl put it.
The thing that impressed Oatley most about Reifenstuhl was his toughness and resiliency. Oatley recalled racing the 2006 Iditarod Invitational with Reifenstuhl and Pete Basinger, who would go on to win the Invitational a record six times but only had one win under his belt at the time.
The trail was particularly bad that year, forcing racers to walk most of the last 200 miles of the 350-mile race in 30 to 40 below temperatures. Oatley and Reifenstuhl followed Basinger into the Rohn checkpoint, about 150 miles from the finish, and could tell looking at his tracks that Basinger was struggling just as much as they were. They made an agreement they wouldn’t leave Rohn until Basinger did.
“We were all shattered,” Oatley said.
But when they reached the checkpoint, Reifenstuhl stayed only 20 minutes before heading out across the Farewell Burn, a notoriously rough 90-mile stretch of trail.
“Pete and I were in shock he was leaving but we followed him,” Oatley said.
That led to two more epic nights of pushing their bikes across The Burn in 30 and 40 below temperatures before they reached Nikolai, which was 50 miles from the finish.
“I could hardly push my bike,” Oatley said.
Reifenstuhl was in the same kind of shape, but he stayed for only 30 minutes before leaving for the finish line in McGrath.
“Pete and I were looking at each other like, we can’t do this, and laid down and slept for two hours,” Oatley said. “I knew at that point I couldn’t push myself as far as he was willing to push himself.”
Basinger would go on to catch Reifenstuhl and they finished in a tie for first place with Oatley 10 hours behind, but the epic battle typified Reifenstuhl’s attitude on the race trail.
“He saw a chance to see how bad Pete wanted to go,” said Oatley, who would go on to win the Invitational three years later. “He loved to race and was a fierce competitor. When he was out there he was in his element.”
Chances are he was also probably puking. The biggest challenge Reifenstuhl faced in races was keeping food down, Oatley said. He didn’t have the stomach for ultra racing and fellow racers could follow his progress on the trail by what he left on the side of it. But his stomach problems “didn’t slow him down a bit,” which made what he did all the more impressive, Oatley said.
Another one of Reifenstuhl’s biggest rivals was Alaska wilderness racer Roman Dial. The two squared off in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a 150- to 250-mile point-to-point, summer wilderness races, several times. At the time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dial was the premier wilderness racer in Alaska, having won the Classic title several times in the early and mid 1980s.
Then Rocky and his brother, Steve, decided to give the Classic a try. They won it three times — the Donnelly to McKinley Village route in 1996 and the Nabesna to McCarthy race in 2000 and 2001. It was their victory in 2000, in fact, that brought Dial out of retirement.
“I said, ‘If Rocky’s going to do it I’m going to do it,’” Dial recalled.
The Reifenstuhls beat Dial in the 2001 race but Dial came back to beat them in 2002. Dial, 52, recalled a moment in that race that sums up Rocky’s intensity.
A July snowstorm dumped a foot of snow during the race and the three racers found themselves traveling together, battling hypothermia and deep snow. Dial was following behind Rocky at one point, trying to follow his footprints in the snow. He was on edge of hypothermia and had stuck his foam sleeping pad down his shirt in an attempt to stay warm, Dial said.
“All of a sudden he turned around and said, ‘Hey, would you walk some place else? I want to spend some free time with my brother,’” Dial said, laughing at the memory.
It was classic Rocky.
“He was my favorite rival,” Dial said. “He pushed it to a whole new level. Of all the competitors I ever competed with, he was the one who drove me to perform the hardest. It felt really good to beat Rocky.”
Iditarod Trail Invitational organizer Bill Merchant came to know Rocky well over the years. His favorite Rocky story was the year he almost froze to death and resorted to burning his plastic water bottle to get a fire started to try and stay warm. He showed up at the Rohn checkpoint wearing a yellow sleeping bag that had holes for his arms and legs that he carried for extreme situations.
“He was shaking like a leaf, about half frozen to death, and he goes over to Jasper, the checker, and holds up a piece of rock and says, ‘This is a piece of the oldest exposed rock in North America,’” Merchant said.
Of course, that makes perfect sense considering that Reifenstuhl was a geologist who spent 30 years working for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, though that’s not where the name Rocky came from.
That was pure coincidence, his wife, Gail Koepf, said. His father, who was a big boxing fan, actually named him after two of his favorite boxers at the time he was born, Rocky Marciano and Rocky Graziano.
But it turned out to be the perfect name for a guy who was as tough and hardheaded as Rocky.
For all his intensity and racing bravado, though, there was a softer side to Rocky that many people didn’t see. He was a mentor and a teacher and a friend who was willing to share his knowledge about bikes and training and fitness and race strategy, as well as life in general, to anyone who was willing to listen.
He was a loving husband and father, Koepf said, who taught his two daughters, Alexis and Kirsten, to ask themselves each day, “What did you do today to make the world a better place?”
He was a well-respected geologist and scientist, whose data gathering and mapping expeditions in the Brooks Range were legendary among the geological community. He covered so much ground so quickly that his colleagues joked about how many people it would take to fill Rocky’s shoes when he retired, fellow geologist Dolores van der Kolk said.
Most of the time, instead of flying out like the other geologists did when their work was done, Reifenstuhl would arrange to hike out to the Dalton Highway with Koepf or his brother, a trip that usually involved hiking about 100 miles and swimming across two or three rivers.
He was a talented photographer and writer. He was a musician who played the drums almost every day.
And even though he was a bona fide hammerhead, he could also be a regular guy.
“He definitely reveled in the Rocky legend but he’d still go out on Sunday rides and ride with people who just wanted to be out for an hour and a half in January,” Oatley said. “As awesome as the race stories are, it’s the time we spent in the shop talking about bikes or going on weekend rides talking about families and other stuff that I’ll remember.”
Good friend Andy Sterns, another Fairbanks endurance diehard and Iditarod Invitational racer, came to know that side of Rocky, too, in large part because he didn’t pose a competitive threat. He always finished well behind Reifenstuhl.
Sterns recalled the year he and Reifenstuhl were the only ones to show up for a 100-mile mountain bike race from Fox to Circle Hot Springs. They rode the whole way together, talking and laughing about all sorts of things.
Reifenstuhl often passed down expensive, high-tech clothing and gear to Sterns, who is notoriously frugal when it comes to buying gear.
“Sometimes I’m dressed in head to toe with stuff Rocky gave me,” Sterns said. “There’s never a day I’m not wearing something of Rocky’s.”
Not to be forgotten in all of this, either, is Koepf, his wife of more than 30 years who stuck by him to the very end. An accomplished cyclist herself, Koepf competed in most of the same races Reifenstuhl did, usually winning the women’s division. She joined him on training rides and trips in the White Mountains. In recent years, they took trips to do extensive bike tours in places like Argentina, Chile, Cuba and New Zealand. After riding side by side for so many years, moving forward without Rocky won’t be easy, Koepf said.
During the last few years, Sterns and others said Rocky had a hard time coming to grips with slowing down as a result of his health problems. He wanted to compete but his body wouldn’t let him.
Merchant recalled the last mountain bike ride he went on with Reifenstuhl in Utah last summer. He and Koepf had just bought a place near where Merchant and his wife, Kathi, guide mountain bike trips in the summer.
“He didn’t want to ride with me because he had to ride slow,” Merchant recalled. “He didn’t like that. He liked watching other peoples’ eyes pop out of their heads chasing him.”
Who knows, maybe Rocky wore his heart out. Maybe all that exercise and pushing his physical limits is what killed him. In the end, doctors never really figured out what was wrong, only that his heart was failing and he needed a transplant, Koepf said.
It’s ironic that the very thing he squeezed so much life out of is what failed him in the end. It just doesn’t seem fair.
Rest in peace, Rocky.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.