People dogsled the Iditarod Trail, right? They also bike, run, and ski it. In the middle of the winter. In Alaska. Unsupported. For 1100 miles, 350 or 130, take your pick. This is not a joke. In our house it’s been on the bucket list of racing adventures for the last 20 years, within reach for 10 years, actively planned for one year, and completed in 6 days.
The Iditabike was started in 1987 as a 200-mile course on the Iditarod Trail. Racers didn’t know what to expect, but showed up anyway with their little mountain bikes and a hodgepodge of clothing and gear. Once a mountain is climbed, new feats must be sought and the Iditasport Extreme, a 350 mile event, was created and later expanded to the full 1100 mile race to Nome. The Iditarod Trail Invitational was created by a former Iditasport racer, Bill Merchant, a race for racers, unsupported, no purse, no mandatory gear, with no marked route.
Fatbiking has grown exponentially over the last decade and the mountain gear has been refined. The fact remains, biking, skiing or running on the Iditarod Trail, in the middle of an Alaskan winter, is going to be very hard. Some years are harder than others and 2017 was a doozy. Read below for my personal interview with a 350-mile ITI 2017 finisher.
- What first interested you in the ITI? There was a mountain bike book I saw in the 90’s of the most extreme races in the world. Most people didn’t finish it.
- Why did you sign up this year? I’d had multiple years of good finishes in the Arrowhead Ultra (an 135 mile event in Minnesota) and my wife told me it was time to get out of my comfort zone. The greatest enemy to human potential is your comfort zone. I have that in my office and I figured I should follow my own advice.
3. What preparation for the ITI do you think helped the most? Beyond the riding, extensive training, it was the winter camping trips. It’s one thing to have gear, you need to know how to use it. I slept outside a lot this past winter in Minnesota. You need to be comfortable with going to sleep outside in dangerous temps. Mental preparedness. I obsessed over this race from the gear to potential equipment failures.
4. It’s been said that going out on the trail changes you. Did it? Yes. I’m not sure of all of the ramifications yet. From a riding standpoint, it pushed me beyond what I thought was possible. For my family, hopefully, I’m a role model to my kids. Not everything was within my control. It scared me. We were caught in a snowstorm and the temps were -50 on the trail. Because of the extreme weather, there was so much clarity. It was basic: hydrate, eat, and move forward, but all of it was an enormous challenge in the weather. Being in a 50 mile an hour headwind through a mountain pass gaining elevation at -20 to -40 below temps, it’s relentless. It’s scary seeing people turning around like they had seen a ghost while you’re trying to decide if you should continue on or not. Bivvying outside those nights, I knew there wasn’t a margin of error. None of my gear had been tested for that.
5. Highlights? Best moments? Finishing. Most didn’t. Really though, being immersed in the Alaskan interior, it’s beautiful. Stopping at camps and being welcomed into some of the culture and living in the moment.
There was a 22-year-old guy camping by the river all winter. He invited me in for lynx and coffee. The lynx was burnt, the fish was being boiled for his dogs, and the skinned beaver was a little alarming when you biked up, but the kid was so friendly and welcoming.
6. What advice would you have for others considering this? Overprepare. If you don’t live in extreme conditions, find them and train in them. Learn how to push your bike for hours. There was one entire day that I had to push my bike, because the trail was unrideable.
7. How would you characterize yourself as an endurance athlete? I’m good, but not the best. I have a high dose of experience in extreme conditions and a lot of tolerance.
8. What’s next for you? I don’t think there’s anything that can compare to the ITI when the conditions are extreme, like they were this year. The hardest part of the trail, with the most elevation change, is in the first 350 miles, but riding to Nome would be a great experience. Some have done the ride to Nome ten times. You get addicted.
9. Final thoughts? Standing in a swamp looking up at Mountain cliffs makes Alaska what it is. The people of Alaska in the backcountry are amazing, self-reliant, but helpful. They aren’t looking for handouts or attention, they just want to be outside in Alaska. I get it now.
Riding the Iditarod Trail for 350 or 1100 miles isn’t my dream. It may not be yours either, but you have to respect those that are pushing the limits of their experience and ability to endure. Keep sharing moxie.
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