The Iditarod Trail on Bike

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.

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  1. 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.
  2. 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. riding

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.

 

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When your spokes are frozen, you know it’s cold.

 

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.

 

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Climbing Hell’s Gate

 

 

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Pulling out every piece of gear. The final balaclava.

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. gorgepushing

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.

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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.

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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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Iditarod Musher’s Ball

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The convention center was packed with $1,000 tables, the dress casual, as all Alaskan events seem to be, and the mushers mingled in the crowds. My favorite part of the night? The clear fact that the mushers would rather be on the trails than mingling, the times their faces really grew animated was when talking about their dogs.

I am here in Anchorage this week by happenstance, others because being a part of the Iditarod is on their bucket list. The Musher’s banquet was filled with the founders, memories of them, and racing legends. The Iditarod has groupies like you would expect at a rock concert. People lined up to have their favorite mushers sign their shirts and take pictures (see picture below of an acquaintance pictured with two identical twin mushers). I saw a book of trading cards even. As with every sport, there is a culture, and the Iditarod is no different.

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The Iditarod Sled Dog Race was co-founded by Joe Redington who wanted the Iditarod trail listed as a National Trail, much like Lewis & Clark. He became friends with Dorothy Page who wanted to save the sport of dog mushing. The combination of their two interests became one and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was born. It’s the 45th running of the Iditarod this year and Joe’s three grandsons are entered in the 2017 race carrying on the family tradition and his crooked grin.

Sled dogs used to be the major mode of transportation here in Alaska. It was the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy, a transport of diphtheria antitoxin serum by dog sled relay across the U.S. territory of Alaska by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs 674 miles (1,085 km) in five and a half days that put dog mushing back on the world’s stage briefly before airplanes changed the face of travel completely. The Serum Run saved the small town of Nome and the surrounding communities from an incipient epidemic and the lead dog, Balto, became a legend. By the 1950’s and early 60’s families weren’t passing down methods of dog mushing to the younger generation and it was beginning to die out. The Iditarod Trail race has become the iconic symbol of this state and frontier life. It accomplished both Dorothy and Joe’s goals, to bring life to the Iditarod trail and renewed interest in dogsledding.

Iditarod 2016

It isn’t called the “The Last Great Race” for nothing. In a world where constant communication is normalized, mechanization is prized, and comfort is sought above all, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is a uniquely special event. The mushers have to train their dogs all year, yet elements of the race can’t be controlled now, just as they couldn’t in 1925, racing to Nome. Weather can be harsh, dogs can struggle, yet the mushers continue on.

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For me, I started the week not caring a fig newton about this race, and now I’m fangirling. Susan Butcher, the late female racing legend of the Iditarod, named her firstborn after her lead dog, Teckla, that made the first dog-sled ascent of Denali. The Iditarod has strong women, strong men, all heart, and a crazy love of nature and animals. We could use more of this in the world. Iditarod, welcome to your newest fan.

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