You may immediately think of the sled dog race, held each year across 1000 miles in the remote, cold wintry heart of Alaska. This story is about a human powered race that covers the same course.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) is rated as one of the top ten extreme, ultra-endurance races in the world. The ITI began in 2000 and the finishers list has around 65 names – some of the hardest, most stubborn and determined winter athletes in winter sport, and in 2016 I added my name to that list, making history as the first Aussie to complete this incredible race. More people climb Mt Everest EACH DAY than have finished the ITI!
The ITI is a race you need to qualify for via a select series of winter races, submit a resume of your experience to the race directors, endure and survive whatever Alaska will throw at you. There are three distances comprising 130, 350 and 1000 miles, with one of three disciplines to choose – bike, foot or ski. You must complete the 350 to qualify for an invitation for the 1000. There are two routes on the 1000 – the north route for even numbered years and the south route for odd years. The race starts around the end of February or early March in the midst of an unrelenting Alaskan winter. The ITI in its current format has been running since 2000, but racers have been competing since 1989 when the first bikers made it to Nome.
This is a tough, unique endurance race that requires specialist gear and knowledge, held in a remote, wild and unforgiving landscape. Competitors compete solo, totally self supported. These last 2 points really appealed to me in a world slowly being sanitised for mass consumption and weakest links, it was refreshing to have an event that put responsibility solely on the racer. Bill Merchant (race owner and director) is a hard man, having raced the ITI many times, and he sums it up well:
“Sometimes when you offer too much support you cheat the true adventurer out of a big part of why they are on the trail. They come to race, to confront and hopefully overcome whatever is thrown their way. To solve problems for them diminishes the experience.”
That right there appealed to me and is my type of fun.
I grew up in the outdoors, bike-packing with my folks from an early age and I’d disappear all day on country roads on my own. I raced road and track as a juvenile and junior during high school, and had mountain bikes for tearing around on local fire trails in the 80’s. My infatuation began with the race in 2010 when I first spoke to Dave, a buddy of mine from Tucson, while on a pro mechanics training course in the U.S.
In 2013 the opportunity came to get one of the first Muru Cycles titanium fat bike frames to use for my ITI training camp (in Alaska) and a top-to-bottom back country tour of Oregon in winter. The frame arrived a day before I flew to Alaska and I built the bike in a garage with a multi-tool and a leatherman. This was the dream bike that would carry me to McGrath in 2015 to complete the 350 mile ITI. That qualified me to enter the big one – the 1000-mile race to Nome in 2016…and that’s where this story begins.
I flew to Anchorage a week before the race to acclimatise, prepare my food cache drops (they need to be ready a week before the race start), build the bike and arrange my equipment. Race briefing is on Saturday afternoon and Sunday is race day. The bikes travel by truck and racers by bus out to Knik Lake for a 2pm start. At the lake you go over your bike, go through checklists in your mind, catch up with old mates, tell tall stories and use the rest room often – you’ve dosed up your hydration, your body is stressed and going through thermal diuresis as you adjust to the temperature change. You line up and you’re still talking it up with your buddies until the countdown and the handgun is fired. Yes, Alaska has open firearm carry rules.
It’s a low snow year, Knik Lake is wet and icy and rookies worry that they’ll crack though the ice. The hot shots surge forward, eager to get away from the bunch and make ground, as they’ll put away 130 miles before they stop to sleep around 9am the next morning after riding through the night. The trail meanders through mostly White Birch and Spruce pine forest, over snowy meadows, on frozen lakes and rivers. The trail surface varies from firm, compacted snow, to bottomless ‘sugar’ snow, glare ice, tussock, overflow and open water on certain rivers. The Iditarod trail only exists in the winter, as the frozen rivers and lakes are the only way to traverse.
The checkpoints are like an oasis in the desert providing basic food or a warm place to sleep for a few hours, to travellers and racers alike. There are also small shelter cabins should the weather turn truly hideous.
The first three nights I camped out as this gave me the best control of where and when I stopped. I found a suitable spot off the trail under a big spruce tree for cover, stomped down the snow and let it set for about 10 minutes, laid out my foam insulation pad and sleeping bag, ate in the bag then slept. I sleep in my riding clothes and I carry extra insulated pieces to boost the bag as needed. Nights were around -25C, average daytime temp was around -10C and a hot day was -2C. Even at these temperatures you sweat and you have to balance staying warm, dry and moving forward efficiently. I wore the same clothes for nearly three weeks with one swap of knicks and two sock changes – this is another aspect of body conditioning you won’t find in a training handbook…
At Rainy Pass, my fatigue had accumulated due to dehydration, loss of appetite and the exposure shock of camping out each night. I slept for eight hours to recover and virtually clawed my way up Rainy Pass under a cloud of exhaustion, but the positive side was an amazing sunset and an aurora show as I camped out on the Ptarmigan flats. The following day I crossed a segment of the Tatina River that had some nasty looking shelf ice. It was only a day later that a good mate of mine, Peter Ripmaster, an ultra-runner from North Carolina, fell through the ice and was totally submerged in the river and was only saved by his sled floating on the surface. In Rohn I had my one and only mechanical fault where my rear valve had gummed up with sealant and wouldn’t seal properly – strange things happen at -20C.
In McGrath (day 5) I’d planned a 24-hour rest to plan out the next phase of the journey and resupply from my posted food cache. Two racers had left the day before and I was eager to catch them, and with a day’s rest in my legs it was possible. It was a ‘no chain’ day on the climb out of Takotna and I could see their footprints in the snow as they walked up the climb. This spurred me on even more. At about 10pm I called it a day after 15 solid hours, ironically only half a mile short of reaching the two racers at a cabin! I rode with them the next two days, sharing the trail and enjoying the camaraderie, as ITI is like an extended family.
The 150-mile segment of the Yukon River is where I hammered down to breakaway from the other two racers. It’s a broad expanse of glare ice, exposed sand/gravel bars, open water, sugar snow and sastrugi. I had some prepatellar bursitis that caused me grief, but I was able to self treat with a clean A and B sample and breakaway solo down the Yukon.
I recall at one food drop, I was there with Tim Hewitt (the foot race winner), we were tearing into our bags like rats, stowing the food and rummaging through other racers’ discarded options, finding items we liked and feeling like hobos. We sure looked and smelt like hobos. I had stowed some chocolate bars in this cache, so it felt like Christmas dinner!
On the portage after Kaltag, the first of the lead sled dog teams slid silently by, yet all of a sudden my solitude was invaded by helicopters, private planes and snow machines all out to capture their moment of the race. I paused in Unalakleet to enjoy the best pizza on earth and lost about 70% of my lung capacity stuffing it in.
When the wind blows hard NE on the coast, it can concentrate in areas called ‘blow-holes’ and I encountered them head on during the 50-mile stretch overland and across the Bering Sea ice to Koyuk. Ride or walk – it didn’t matter – the speed was the same and no-one can hear you swear. I took shelter in the Iggugnak safety cabin for the night to prep my food packs and get a solid rest. I’d heard racers taking 14 hours to cross the ice the day before, so it was crucial to have an efficient strategy for the crossing – you don’t stop for long when it’s -25C with a 15-knot headwind! That night it was hard to relax as the 30-knot wind clawed at the tiny cabin and the wood stove struggled to heat the space. Meanwhile outside the temperature was -30C but the most incredible aurora show made it hard to stay inside and sleep. Planning and preparation paid off and I managed the 30-mile crossing over the sea ice in seven and a half hours.
At 8:59 pm, May 17, 2016 I crossed under the burled arch in Front St, Nome. I proudly became the first Australian to complete the 1000-mile race and it was an awesome feeling to raise the flag and represent Australia in one of the toughest races on the planet. Friends and family back home were able to celebrate via Iditarod webcams and my GPS tracker. It was Friday afternoon in Australia and from what I’ve heard, not much work was done after 2 pm with wine glasses clinked, a social media frenzy and a lot of chatter about the successful completion. I quietly celebrated with the last of my M&Ms.
This is such a unique race that requires physical endurance, an adaptable attitude, knowledge of your body and your bike (and how to fix them both), a solo mindset and confidence in remote, arctic environments. It won’t be the last time I race Iditarod as I’m heading back in 2017 to race the longer, tougher and more remote South route. If I complete it I’ll have achieved my planned trifecta of all three distances in consecutive years.
I will be detailing the race stories further on my blog, so drop in sometime and check it here: