Posts Tagged ‘ITI’

Iditarod Trail, 2018 part 3

Friday, September 21st, 2018
Topkok.. Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

Phil H. was stopped in the middle of the trail.  We were two miles past the Topkok shelter cabin, in the notorious “blowhole”, a windy section of trail near the coast, 30 miles or so outside of Nome.   It was several hours before sunrise, and a bit windy, with blowing snow across the trail. As I rode up to him, he asked me “Where is the musher?” We had been passed a while back by a musher who was having trouble finding the trail, and I was confused about who Phil was talking about.  

Phil then pointed to a dog sled, sitting on the side of the trail.  Soon after I noticed it, I realized there was a whole team stretched out there in the snow, the dogs curled up in little balls to protect themselves from the wind.

But no musher.

Uh-oh.


This is the third and final part of my write up on the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI).  The first part can be found here.

Kevin and I arrived at Shageluk at 10 am, and after we’d wandered around town a bit, someone directed us to the Lee’s house, where we had sent drop bags and might be spending the night.  We arrived in town happy to be back in civilization, and the first thing I did was use a flush toilet — hurrah! Shageluk is a small town of around 100 people situated with a range of hills on one side and vast open lowland on the other side.  Our plan was to resupply then head on to Anvik, but alas, a light dusting of snow made the trail nearly impossible to find in the flats outside Shageluk.

ITI 2018

The trail leaves Shageluk, follows the Innoko river briefly, then heads out across a series of open swamps before dropping back onto the Innoko, before crossing a few more wide open swamps, then though some mixed swamps and forest before crossing the Yukon and heading into Anvik.  

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Alas, the dusting of snow and the very flat light made the swamps really hard to navigate, especially since we didn’t know where we were going.

ITI 2018
Markers in the fog..

I had a tracklog from 2013, but that was 5 years ago. I had no idea of the trail had changed or not. Three times we left Shageluk only to be turned back in the swamps. On the upside, we were well rested and enjoyed some of Lee’s great cooking, and were able to do our laundry and take showers.   Eventually a party that was supposed to be heading to Anvik passed though, and we followed their tracks out of town, only to have them take a wrong turn and head to Grayling instead.

We pressed on, and got a bit stuck near the halfway point, where we just hunkered down for the Iditarod Trail Breakers.  We had been told they would be by that evening, but we bivied in a nice grove of trees for 18 hours, and there was still no sign of them.  The bivy was cozy, but slightly wet. We had picked up blue tarps at the store in Shageluk, and were very happy to have them, as it was near freezing and lightly snowing — almost raining.   When I got hungry I was too lazy to find real food, and just grabbed whatever was in the top of my bike bag, which turned out to be a one pound block of cheddar, which I nibbled on for a few hours, slowly eating the entire thing.  It was delicious, but hours later I woke up with “cheese sweats” – all those calories were making their way through my system. At one point I woke up Kevin by loudly complaining I was bored – which I truly was. After 12 hours it became pretty clear that even I could get sick of sleeping.  Eventually we gave up and pressed on, making it a few more miles before the trail breakers passed us.

ITI 2018

Kevin and I were very happy to see them – finally a trail! The lead trail breaker stopped and chatted with us a bit. He remembered Kevin from last year when he stayed with them in Kaltag, and seemed honestly pretty excited to have us out there.   Not as excited as we were, though. Finally we would have a trail again!

The rest of the ride into Anvik was much faster and pretty fun, though the trail on the Yukon was very punchy.

ITI 2018

Just outside Anvik a snowmachiner came up and introduced himself — it was Jay from Anvik!   

ITI 2018

Jay is apparently dating a coworker of my wife, Nancy: Malinda. Alaska at times is a very small place. Jay told us we would be welcome to warm up at the tribal hall, which was also going to be the Iditarod checkpoint, and pointed us to the two stores in town.  One shopping trip later Kevin and I were busy munching away on heated-up frozen burritos, and in my case chugging down a half gallon of chocolate milk in the comfort of the tribal hall’s kitchen. Then it was off to ride on to Grayling.

The ride into Grayling was flat and very fast.  The trail was firmest we had seen in a while and looked like it got lots of traffic, and by the evening we were wandering around Grayling looking for Shirley’s.  Shirley runs a beautiful bed and breakfast in Grayling. Kevin had called her from Anvik, and she had mentioned over the phone she was going to put on steak. When we finally found her house (Grayling turned out to be much larger than I expected; Kevin and I got the scenic tour), we found her cooking away, making huge steaks, homemade french fries, and carrot cake with carrots from her garden.  It was truly awesome! Her home is a work of art, constructed of all kinds of random odds and ends, with musk ox pelts and a mammoth tusk taking center stage. One shower later I was tucked into bed, getting the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long while.

In the morning we were treated again to a wonderful breakfast, and packed up our bikes for the long, long trudge up the Yukon to Kaltag.   Judging from the slow progress Phil was making, the trail was pretty bad, and we expected we might have to walk most of the way, so loaded up with extra food. As we were leaving, Shirley got a phone call from the Iditasport, wondering if Jan Kriska was there.  We hadn’t seen him, but on the way out of town we stopped by the Iditarod checkpoint, and lo and behold his sled was there! We ducked inside, and found Jan dozing on the floor, but he popped up right when we came in and said hi. It was great to see Jan, and to see him in such good spirits.  He had a really hard race last year, and it ended for him in Ruby with damaged hands. This year he was having a great race, and was making good time.

The trip up the Yukon was a mix of good riding and slow walking.  I had been told the wind blows down the Yukon, but it seemed like it was mostly crosswinds that would blow in the trail.  Whenever the wind wasn’t blowing across the trail it was generally very rideable. In a few sections it was even fast riding.    The first night on the Yukon, Kevin and I bivied off the edge of the trail, and a few hours later I was woken up by the crunching and whirring of dog feet and runners on snow as the leaders passed us in the dark.  In the morning we woke up to a nicer trail, and quicky rode to Eagle Island, the iditarod checkpoint.

ITI 2018

Eagle Island had a reputation of being very unwelcoming to the ITI racers, but since the trail went up into the checkpoint, and there wasn’t a good way around we headed up into the checkpoint.  Fortunately they were pretty friendly and offered us hot water and we chatted a bit, then it was back on the trail.

Alas, the Yukon dragged on, and on, with a bit of walking, and lots of slow riding.

ITI 2018

A few fast sections gave me hope that the trail would firm up, only to be dashed by more soft and windy trail.   

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In a few of these faster sections Kevin rode really strongly, and I just about gave up on keeping up with him, but the trail turned soft again and my slightly bigger tires allowed me to keep up.  

ITI 2018
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the eventual winner of teh 2018 Iditarod
ITI 2018
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Motivational lath..

As we neared Kaltag, the main body of the mushing field caught up with us, and mushers were passing us regularly, as well as the occasionally snowmachine. We also started seeing our first signs of the riders ahead of us since just outside Ophir, with the occasional tire track showing up.  

We arrived at Kaltag early in the morning, and headed to the school, where we unpacked our stuff, dried out, and chatted with other travelers.  In the smaller communities along the Iditarod trail the schools let travels stay in them for a small fee, as there are no other options. The Kaltag school was packed – there was a big group traveling by snowmachine, and a film crew making a documentary on Lars Monsen , a Norwegen dog musher.  When they introduced themselves I was confused, as there was another Norwegen musher, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who was in the lead, and I didn’t know who Lars Monsen was.  Apparently he is very famous in Norway, and one of the film crew tried to correct my ignorance, filling me in with the details of his life. It was a bit of a shock to go from just Kevin and I, to lots of chatty people, though they soon left us alone, and I ended up just talking with the two guides accompanying them.  One of them operates a lodge on the Ivishak River in the Brooks Range, and we chatted a bit about summer adventures, which seemed a world away.   

Eventually we packed up our bikes and headed out, hoping to make it to Unalakleet.  

ITI 2018

The trail from Kaltag to Unalakleet is beautiful, but it tends to be slow. We were hitting it late morning, and there was a lot of snowmachine and mushing traffic, making it soft and a bit of a slog.   

ITI 2018
ITI 2018
ITI 2018

Kevin and I yo-yoed back and forth, each going at our own pace as the trail conditions changed. We stopped for dinner at the first shelter cabin, Tripod flats, where we were joined by some locals on their way back from Unalakleet.  We spent an hour or so talking, then headed on to Old Woman Cabin.

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The trail was firming up at this point, and I was able to ride pretty fast, and was soon tailgating Hugh Neff. I was pretty hesitant to pass him, as I had passed him two years before when he was finishing the Yukon Quest and his dogs went from going six miles an hour to nearly eight, and I had to pedal like mad to stay ahead of them.  I didn’t want to repeat that, and ended up just riding slower, and staying a couple hundred feet behind him. Eventually we both pulled into Old Woman Cabin, which was warm and welcoming. I apologised for tailgating him, and he waved it off and started feeding his dogs, while I headed into the cabin to make dinner. Then he joined Kevin and I , and we talked for a hour or so. That hour was one of the highlights of the race for me: listening to Hugh Neff tell stories had me pretty spellbound.  

After the hour was up he headed out to press on to Unalakleet and we went to sleep for a few hours.  In the early morning hours Kevin and I headed out, and I was ever so happy to find the trail had set up and was really fast.  Kevin soon disappeared, riding like lightning, and I rode the 30 or so miles into town by myself, enjoying the near calm and misty night sky.  The sun was coming up just as I arrived in town, and I was disappointed to find Peace On Earth closed — no pizza!! Fortunately Kevin had arrived a good twenty minutes earlier than I and  spent that time wisely, tracking down the owner and he was going to fire up the oven and make us some pizza.

We ended up spending way too much time at Peace on Earth, eating and socializing, and soon were joined by Julian Schroder  and a few other Fairbanks folks who were in town.  I called Nancy and said hi, and then noticed that the ITI’s race tracker said Phil was still in town.  Hmm.. I was a bit worried Phil had scratched, but was distracted by pizza and people. Eventually Kevin and I pried ourselves away from the food and company, and after restocking our bikes with food headed out of town.   

Alas, the trail out of town that the Iditarod used was very punchy, and nearly unrideable.  The trail leaving town heads across a bunch of small ponds, and these ponds had soft crunchy snow covering them, with a bit of salt water overflow to top it off.   Kevin and I debated taking the road but ended up staying on the marked trail, which was a mistake, as it took forever to cross the ponds. When we finally hit the road that we should have taken, we found Phil waiting for us.   

ITI 2018

He’d had a pretty rough time on the Yukon, and by the time he had arrived in Unalakleet he was pretty wiped out. Jay P was just arriving at Nome at this point, and there was zero chance of catching him, so Phil decided to wait, rest up, and ride the rest of the way to Nome with Kevin and me.  It was great to see him, and I was glad he hadn’t scratched. Our plan was to make it to Shaktoolik, and that seemed pretty reasonable until we reached the Blueberry Hills shelter cabin and called ahead only to find out it was blowing really hard, with dog teams getting turned around, and other chaos.   Deciding it was better to wait and hope the wind died down, we crashed in the cabin, then headed out, as usual in the early a.m. hours to ride to Shaktoolik and hopefully Koyuk.


Shaktoolik is a small town on a little spit of land that juts out into Norton Bay and the wide open wetlands that surround it.    The trail into town drops about a thousand feet down to the wetlands on the inland side of a narrow strip of land, and is normally icy and windy.  I was a bit worried I was going to be in trouble, as I didn’t have studded tires, but while there were a few patches of ice, it was mostly snow covered, and pretty windy.   It seemed like it took forever to get from the base of the hill to the town, but after lots of slow riding and walking we pulled into town, and headed to the school. The wind was howling, and much to my disappointment, it was blowing from Koyok.  We were going to have a big headwind all the way to Koyuk..

ITI 2018
ITI 2018
Morning pizza outside Shaktoolik

Shaktoolik is in “civilization” and I had 4g cell reception, and checking the weather report quickly confirmed that it was blowing pretty hard.  The news reports had mushers getting lost going across the bay to Koyuk.. But on the upside, the forecast was that by midnight the wind was supposed to die down.  A few mushers were taking an extra eight hour layover in Shaktoolik to avoid the wind, and after a quick discussion, we told the folks at the school we were going to stay there for the day, and made ourselves comfortable.   There is a small village store right across the street from the school, so I headed over and picked up breakfast, lunch, and dinner: two boxes of pudding packs, some Ensure, cream cheese, a bag of bagels, two microwave burritos, and a two quarts of chocolate milk — heaven!

At midnight we headed across, and hurrah, the wind had died down, and we had a bit of a tailwind!  The ride from Shaktoolik to Koyok is always a bit stressful, as the trail goes out across a shallow bay and lots of little swamps, with minimal cover.   

ITI 2018

At night you can see Koyok from a long way before you arrive, as it is on a hillside, taunting you as it never seems to get much closer, Fortunately we arrived in daylight, but it still taunted us as we could see the town in all its glory hours before we arrived.   Just outside of Koyuk, Andy Pohl, a biking acquaintance, and Kristy Berington passed with their dogs, mushing into Kokuk. At the start weeks ago (it seemed like a year ago), Andy had joked that we would meet up at Old Woman Cabin, and I had said I would be happy if it was at Eagle Island.  Koyuk was inconceivable.

We arrived in the early morning, got a bit of sleep in the school, then headed out again.  Just as we were leaving town, Andy and Kristy passed us, zooming up the hills with all that dog power.  

ITI 2018

Speaking of hills, this year the trail from Koyok was routed overland, which meant a lot of extra hills and soft trail.

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Up, down, up, down.. Eventually we made it to the main trail, and it got faster again, and we arrived in Elim in the middle of the night, a bit too late to find anyone to let us into the school unfortunately.   Peeking in the window I could see a bike in the library, and bike tracks outside the school, so I was pretty sure someone was in there sleeping, but they didn’t wake up to let us in. Eventually someone, perhaps a bit tipsy, noticed our plight and let us into the school after finding the janitor, and we crashed in the cafeteria, then headed out in the morning.  I never met the group staying in the library, but Kevin bumped into one of them while using the bathroom.

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Phil, enjoying a heathy breakfast..

The ride from Elim to White Mountain was awesome as always, scenic, but oh so hilly.

ITI 2018

This year the trail stayed overland when leaving Ellim, and went up and down, and up and down..

ITI 2018
ITI 2018

When I’d passed though Golovin the year before I’d noticed a coffee shop with an open sign that I almost stopped at, but I didn’t. I’d spent the next few hours sad that I hadn’t got some coffee, so this time I was pumped to check it out.  Alas, it was closed when we passed through, with a note saying the owners were on vacation. Poor timing — I should have gotten that coffee last year!

ITI 2018

The rest of the ride into White Mountain was fast, and we arrived at Jack and Joanne’s, where we were greeted by their sons Liam and Cha, and soon Jack. Joanne was away attending her mother’s wake in Pilot Station. Jack and Joanne are wonderful people, and I am always excited to arrive at their house.  White Mountain is also a bit milestone, as Nome is only 70 (ish) miles away. After a bit of sleep, I ate a big plate of eggs: the second pile of scrambled eggs I have had in the last 20 years. While I refuse to admit it to my daughters, eggs are not nearly as bad as I remembered. We headed out, Nome-bound at about midnight.

On the way into Golovin we had been passed by several dog teams, including one where the musher was sitting down smoking while making pretty good time up the hills, and another with a jacket saying the “Mushing Mortician”.   Leaving White Mountain I noticed there were several dog teams staked out at the Iditarod checkpoint, but it didn’t look like any were about to leave. The trail out of White Mountain starts flat, then after a dozen miles or so starts going up and down. On the hills were we passed by several mushers, all of whom were making much better time that we were.  Those hills are steep! We arrived at Topkok, which is at the bottom of a big hill and marks the start of the long, flat, and generally pretty windy ride to Safety.

As was to be expected, it was pretty windy, but there is a fairly big shelter cabin, and we ducked inside to get all ready for the push across the windy flats.  This area has the “blowhole”, an area where the wind is funneled into a channel, and it can be amazingly windy. I had never been through this area when it was truly windy, just windy, but we had Phil along with us, and he lives in Nome and was very used to the wind, and is very familiar with this area.   Supposedly the blowhole is pretty narrow, and if you just keep going you will come out on the other side. Tim Hewitt had told me a story of walking through the blow hole, and it was blowing so hard his sled was flying in the wind off the ground flapping around with all his gear on it. He said when he came out the other side he looked for something in his pocket and freaked out to discover there was a human hand in his pocket!  A hand that turned out to be his glove, blown full of snow.

Phil thought it would be windy, but didn’t think it would be a big deal.  At about 5:30 am we left Topkok. Almost immediately we were passed by a musher, then ran into him (or her — it was dark and windy) again, as he was zig-zagging back and forth across the trail.

ITI 2018

 Phil talked to him, and apparently he wanted to know how to find the trail. I could see Phill stomping his foot on the ground trying to convince him to look down, follow the snowmachine tracks, and stay on the hard pack.  Perhaps it is harder for mushers as maybe all the dog bodies block the view of the trail, but on a bike it is very obvious, even in the blowing snow and wind we had. While the trail is well marked with lots of reflectors, you can just look down and follow the skid and scrape marks from all the snowmachine traffic.   The musher must have gotten the gist, as he zoomed off and we didn’t see him again.

ITI 2018 – blowhole from JayC on Vimeo.

It was very windy, but we could still ride our bikes for the most part, though the trail had lots of little drifts in it and some of those were too big to ride though.  A few miles from Topkok Phil stopped suddenly in front of me and asked me “Where is the musher?” I was pretty confused — what musher was he talking about, the one that passed us a while back?  Phil pointed to something, which I quickly made out was a sled. Panic set in when we realized there was a dog team attached to it. We dropped our bikes and started looking around. Almost immediately we found another sled and dog team, and behind it huddling in the lee of it were two figures, both bundled up.  One had a facemask on, and it was impossible to see if he was conscious, but he wasn’t moving. The other was talking. Phil, Kevin, and I converged around them and tried to figure out what was going on.

The one who was talking told us that “Jim” had gotten his dog team stuck, and ran into trouble, and was now too tired to move, and he wasn’t going to leave him.  We asked him what we could do, and he said to get help, his hands were too cold, we needed to find Jim’s SPOT beacon and activate the SOS. We looked over the two sleds, and eventually located one SPOT beacon, and after triple checking with the musher who was talking (we later learned he was Scott Jansen) that he really wanted us to activate it, pushed the SOS button.  

The red lights started blinking, and it looked like it was working, so we put it aside, and asked how else we could help.  Scott asked us to find his satellite phone, which he said was in his pocket, so he could call and confirm someone was going to come out to rescue him.  He was dressed in some sort of snowmachine suit, with lots of pockets, and figuring the sat phone had to be pretty big I somewhat awkwardly patted him down.  There was no phone to be found. Kevin, Phil, and I then set out to find it, figuring it had to be someplace. Phil ended up finding it in his sled bag, and Phil placed a call for him to his wife, who much to my confusion seemed to be arguing with him about something.  At that point hopefully help was going to arrive, and we asked if there was anything we could do. Kevin was at this point pretty cold, and he needed to move, so Phil and I told him to head to the next shelter cabin, while we tried to see if there was anything we could do.  Scott seemed to be ok, just had cold hands, but he turned down my offers of hand warmers.

At that point it seemed like we had done all we could do.  Phil and I discussed getting out a sleeping bag, but those things are big, and we figured they would just blow away or immediately fill full of snow.  We checked with Scott, and it sounded like we had helped him as much as we could, so we set off to catch up with Kevin, and hopefully use my Inreach to contact Phil’s wife in Nome to call the troopers and confirm a rescue was in progress.  

Phil and I then headed out to catch up with Kevin.

Craig Medrid has a really good breakdown of the timeline on his website.

We arrived at the shelter cabin to find it the entry full of snow and nearly impossible to get into.  I was intent on texting Phil’s wife though, so I dove though a little hole in the snow drift blocking the door, and smashed down into some chairs as I slid down the other side of it into the first room of the cabin.   From there I text-ed Phil’s wife Sarah to call the troopers and please let us know if there was a rescue in progress, and if not, get one going! Sarah, being the awesome person she is, immediately texted me back letting me know that she got it, and was calling.  I climbed back out the little hole I had slid down, and fell out back into the wind, and we continued trudging towards Nome. I was feeling like a huge failure at this point, worried Jim was dead, and that we hadn’t done enough for them. So many second thoughts, so much thinking about what I could have done that would have made a difference.

Ten minutes later or so Sarah texted me back saying a rescue was in progress, the troopers were aware they needed to be rescued and help was on the way.  That was huge load off my mind, but we were a pretty sad group as we slowly trudge towards Safety. At some point a big wide track machine came very slowly up to us, and Phil talked to the driver, who was apparently out to check on the two mushers.  Later we were to learn she was Jessie Royer, a musher who had finished, then snow machined to Safety to see a friend pass though, and headed out to check on the mushers when it looked like they might be stuck. Phil told her where they were, and we continued on, only to see another group of snowmachines, this time big racing sleds come zooming up.  Phil talked to them and they zoomed off. After they were gone Phil explained they were with Nome search and rescue, heading out to find the mushers and bring them back to the Safety. A while later they came zooming back by, this time with the two mushers on the back of the sled. One of them, Jim I guess, was flopping around like a rag doll, and they stopped right in front of us as he had nearly fell off the back of the sled.   I was feeling a bit better now , as now they were at least alive and on their way to help. Hours later we pulled into Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish in Nome, and learned that both mushers were ok, which was a huge weight off my mind. Apparently after warming up in the Safety Roadhouse they were fine, and were flown to Nome.

After a few Cokes, at least one microwave “burger”, and a bit of chatting with the checkpoint volunteers, we headed out.   Everyone talks about the burgers at Safety, and the first time I was disappointed to find it was a microwave frozen burger-like thing.  Food, but not awesome food. They have Coke though, and that is like heaven.

Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

The last twenty miles into Nome were a bit of a slog, with slow trail chewed up by lots of snowmachine traffic, but eventually we hit the road, and zoomed into town.  I could barely keep up with Kevin and Phil, but they took pity on me and slowed down so I could keep up. There was a big group of folks waiting for us at the finish — I guess finishing with a Nome local has its perks!   Sue and Glenn, some (former) Fairbanks friends meet us at the finish, as well as Steve Cannon , and Kathi, the organizer of the ITI.  

Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

A few days of hanging out in Nome with Sue, Glen, and their dogs, and I headed home.

After an event like this I have a huge list of folks to thank.

First, I need to thank my family: Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy.  Thanks for your understanding and support; it means the world to me.  

Second, I need to thank everyone who helped me on the trail.  It is a huge list: the Petruskas, Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze in McGrath, the folks in Iditarod, Lee in Shageluk, Jay in Anvik, Shirley in Grayling, the schools in Shaktoolik, Koyok, Ellim, and Kaltag, Joanna, Jack and their family in White Mountain..  Thanks ever so much!

I would also like to thank everyone I traveled with on the way to Nome this year: Nina, on the way to McGrath, and Kevin and Phil on the way to Nome.  Thanks for putting up with me, and for your company on the trail!


Finally, I really need to thank Sue and Glenn in Nome.  You guys have hosted me for the last three years in Nome, and I really look forward to the welcome.  Thanks ever so much for your hospitality!

I also would like to congratulate Jay Petervary on setting a new record and having a great race – congratulations!  Jay was so fast I think he was back home in Idaho playing with his dogs after several days of sleep when we finished.  

I will put up a follow up post with some details on the route, gear, what worked and what didn’t, etc.

Iditarod Trail, 2018 part 1

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018
Photo compliments of Gary Baumgartner

The evening was getting on – it was getting dark, a bit of snow was falling, and the wind was picking up, blowing snow around.     Nina G and I were pushing up a little hill just before Low Lake around 20 miles from Rohn and 50 miles from Nicolia. It was the middle of nowhere, probably the remotest section of the Iditarod Trail before McGrath.  As I pushed up the hill, I noticed some new looking boot tracks, that looked a lot like bunny boots. “Thats odd.” , I thought to myself, who could that be? As I reached the top of the hill, someone popped out of the woods and said “Hi Jay, would you like some coffee?!” .    It took me a few moments to realize it was Gary Baumgartner, a Fairbanks area biker. I think Nina thought we were crazy – in the middle of nowhere someone pops out of the woods and knows who I am, and offers us coffee. Alas, we were in too big of a hurry, and passed on the coffee.   I still regret not stopping longer to chat and enjoy that coffee..

First, some background..  The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) is a race on the Iditarod trail from Knik (a small town, if one can even call it that outside Wasilla), to McGrath and Nome.  The “Short” race ends at McGrath, and the “Long” race ends in Nome.   The race starts a week before the Iditarod dog race starts, and while it is on the same basic course as the dog race, it isn’t affiliated with the dog race in any way.  

I went into this year’s ITI with very mixed thoughts.   The race had a few major shakeups. Bill Merchant is no longer involved with race, and there seemed to be more than the normal level of friction with some of the stops along the way, including not staying at the Petruska’s in Nikolai.  To top it off, I was having a hard time getting excited about the first 300 miles to McGrath. There are lots of people, and the “fun” parts from Puntilla Lake to the Farewell Burn are book-ended by trail that is a bit ho-hum.

I drove down to Anchorage with a Fairbanks local, Lindsey, whom I met at last year’s Wilderness Classic.  I was a bit stressed out by the race, and I think talked her to death on the way down, but it was neat to hear her talk about the race, and see the race again from the perspective of someone new.  

Race day came, and my brother dropped me off at the race start (thanks John!), where I bounced around talking to people.  It was great seeing Bill Fleming — one of the original minds behind 9zero7 bikes — who towed me into the finish during my first ride to Nome!  I chatted with a few other people, including Andy P who had switched from his bike to mushing. Andy and I joked that we would run into each other on the trail.  Andy said Old Woman Cabin, and I said Grayling. It turned out neither of us were right..

Soon the race started, and everyone channeled their energy into pedalling (or walking if you are crazy, or skiing in the case of Lindsey). As usual, the fast group hit the road, and I didn’t see them again, zooming away at high speed, while I chugged along at a slower pace.  Eventually I hit the gas line, then Flat Horn Lake, and it felt like things were starting. The trail conditions were not awesome, but not that bad either. Eventually Yentna Station arrived, where I got the standard grilled cheese and soup, then headed out again for Skwentna.   The trail was now fast, and I zoomed along, going perhaps a bit harder than I needed to. I arrived at Skwentna a bit after Kevin B, Kyle D, and Phil H, and well after Jay P, the other Nome-bound racers ahead of me. This was the start of the pattern to McGrath: I would arrive someplace a little after Kevin and Phil, and they would leave a bit before me.  The McGrath-bound racers in the fast pack were all long gone. (Calling the race to McGrath “the “shorter race” has gotten me in trouble before.)

Skwentna is one of the few places I have found that I can get a good night sleep, besides Puntilla Lake, sometimes Rohn, and the Petruska’s in Nikoli, so I always try to get a nap there.  I have found I need at least 4 hours of sleep a day to keep things together and to stay motivated. I can do less, but for the 20 or so days it could take me to get to Nome, I have found that it is hard to stay motivated and functional if I get less. Cindy, the owner of Skwentna, is always friendly, and the last few years seems to get me confused with Tim Stern, from 2012, which amuses me to no end.   I got dinner, and headed up to find a bunk, only to find the room I was supposed to be in had a bleary looking Jay P in it, just waking up from a nap. Jay headed out, and I tucked myself in, and tried to get 4 or so hours of sleep.

In the morning I got a bit more to eat, and headed out, hoping to possibly grab lunch or breakfast at Shell Lake as I passed by.  The Shell hills are always slow for me, as I just suck at biking uphill, but I eventually arrived at Shell Lake. Nearing the lodge, I was surprised to see a bunch of signs announcing that the lodge wasn’t an ITI checkpoint, and that ITI racers were not welcome.  Yikes! The trail goes right by the lodge, so with a bit of trepidation I approached, and as I neared the lodge someone saw me, and invited me for breakfast. I sat down, enjoyed some pancakes, bacon, and a few cokes, and talked a bit with the folks helping out Zoe, the owner.  It was a pretty interesting conversation, a short summary being that fat bikers were once a novelty, but now are commonplace, and folks are getting sick of the ITI racers. Apparently the racers have become a pain, and the business they bring isn’t offsetting the nuisance they are becoming: waking the owners up at odd hours, leaving messes, breaking into their buildings, sleeping in random places, etc.  This made me pretty sad. I was left with the impression that a chunk of the ITI racers are not doing a good job of balancing their competitive drive with the need to be decent human beings on the trail. This doesn’t bode well for the long term, and I hope this changes.

The ITI isn’t a traditional race, with checkpoints staffed by the event and a closed course.  Only Rohn is staffed by the ITI; the rest are private businesses, or people’s homes. The trail is shared by lots of other users, all of whom have just as much right ot be there as we do.


Eventually I headed out, and enjoyed a nice ride to Finger Lake, and then on to Puntilla.  It was a bit windy, and some of the lakes before Puntilla were windy enough I had to walk sections, adding a bit to the experience.   Eventually Puntilla arrived, and I hit the sack, enjoying a few hours of sleep before heading over the pass with Nina G. It was a bit slow up to the pass, with a bit of riding, and lots of walking, but we hit the top at around noon, and were soon zooming down to Rohn.   

ITI 2018

It looked like someone had taken the Iron Dog route, rather than turning and heading up into Rainy Pass. Later I was to learn that Jussi Karjalainen had taken the Iron Dog route when in 4th place, and had slowly made his way across the pass until a plane dropped a note saying he was off course.  That must have been crushing.

ITI 2018


It was midday, but I lay down for a bit of a nap after eating a brat and chatting a bit with Adrian.  Kevin, Phil, and Aaron Gardner were also there, and headed out a bit before my nap finished.

After my nap, Nina and I headed out.  I had hopes of making it to Nikolai by early morning, but alas that turned out to be a bit optimistic.  The trail leaving Rohn was in great shape, and we made good time, but as we passed through the “new burn” the snow got deeper, and the riding got slower.  Near Farewell Lakes there are a bunch of rollers, where the trail goes up and down as it passes over a bunch of little lakes. On one of these hills I noticed what looked like bunny boot prints, and soon after that someone came out of the woods and said hi.  It took a few minutes for me to recognize Gary Baumgartner, a Fairbanks area biker. He offered us coffee and said hi. I passed on the coffee, and soon moved on. I was kicking myself later for not staying and hanging out with Gary a bit longer — sorry Gary!  He looked like he was in a comfortable spot, tucked away with an Arctic Oven and his Supercub on a little lake.

The trail soon degraded.  It was rideable in the treed areas, but in the open areas it was blown in, requiring a lot of pushing.   Eventually, in the early a.m., Nina and I made it to Bear Creek cabin, where we soon had a fire going, and hit the sack.   In the morning we headed out, just as Kevin arrived to warm up and dry out. The trail was much nicer from the turnoff to the cabin to Nikolai, and we made fairly good time.   The Nikolai checkpoint had moved from the Petruska’s house to the village community center, which was a bit sad for me, since the Petruskas had always been a very welcoming place to me. And it was sad to know that Nick wouldn’t be there with a warm welcome. Alas…   


The community center was easy to find, and Stephanie Petruska was there along with two ITI volunteers whose names I don’t remember.  After a burger I crashed under a table to sleep for a few more hours. There was a bit of a group there: Kevin B., Arron G., Nina, and briefly Phil H., who left soon after arriving.   In the early a.m., Nina, Arron, and I set out. It was a bit cold, slightly below zero, but the trail was fast and we made good time to the Big River junction, where the only trail in was the “overland” route.    Billy Koitzsch’s race, the Iditasport, had an Arctic Oven set up near the junction, and there was a bike and several sleds pulled out outside it. I was tempted to say hi, but I expect Billy would not have been happy to get woken up.

Last year  the miners in Ophir told me to take the “overland” route at Big River, as that is what all the locals use.  Other folks had told me it was hit or miss — sometimes it was in only half way, leading folks to spend a lot of time wandering around in deep snow trying to find a trail.  I was excited to get to try out the new route! Fortunately, the trail was in, and in great shape. At this point Kevin had caught up with us, and was zooming. Unfortunately, he zoomed ahead and took several wrong turns.  I think Billy had put in some big loops to turn around his snowmachine and Kevin explored several of them, only to come out near where he started. Soon the trail was back in woods and lakes, the side trails disappeared, and Nina and I slowly made our way into McGrath.   We arrived in McGrath in mid-morning, to a full house at the Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze house.   It was great to sit down, eat, talk, and take a brief break from the trail.   Leaving McGrath is always hard, but there wasn’t a big hurry this year. The southern route doesn’t get much traffic (or so says common wisdom), so I wasn’t expecting a trail until the Iditarod trail-breakers came though.

I had been dreading the ride to McGrath.  I have done it five other times now, and it is sort of old hat.  The trail feels mostly the same from year to year, and I am always in a rush to stay ahead of the crowd.   This year was a bit different though, and I got to see some new faces. I was pretty impressed by Aaron Gardner in particular; he had a very good race as a “rookie”, and I loved following his “line” — that is, the tracks of his tires from Bear Creek Cabin to Nikolai.  He seemed to be always riding a fast line, and it wasn’t always the obvious one. He also bivied solo on the edge of one of the Farewell Lakes in windy, snowy conditions, which is not something a lot of rookies do.  It was also great riding with Nina Gaessler, and meeting some of the other new faces like Neil Beltchenko.

I am sorry for the high word to picture content.  I didn’t take a lot of photos, and this write-up grew longer than I expected it would be.

Next the southern route!

ITI – 2013,Puntila to McGrath

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

This is part II of my writeup of my 2013 ” Iditarod Trail Invitational race”:http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/alaska_ultra_home_page.html or the ITI as folks call it – part one can be found “here”:http://yak.spruceboy.net/2013/03/iti-2013-knik-to-puntila.html .

We left off last time at Checkpoint number four at Puntila Lake and “Rainy Pass Lodge”http://www.theperrinsrainypasslodge.com/ . Eric and I left Rainy Pass at about 6pm after getting a hour or two of sleep.

The cabin at Puntila we stayed at had a lot of character. I was particularly amused by the heads mounted on the walls just over the beds.

I was a bit worried about going over the pass at night, what with the long pre-race lecture we were given, telling us to leave at 1am so we would arrive at the pass in daylight, but Eric was unconcerned. It turned out to be not a big deal. Amazingly, the ride up to the pass was fantastic, and it was ridable almost the entire way.

Perfect weather, mostly calm, clear, and a full moon – it couldn’t get better than that.

Before I knew it we were at the pass and topped out. Rainy Pass has a semi-legendary reputation, at least in my mind. I have heard various stories of deep snow, winds, and bitter cold, so I was floored by how fast we arrived at the top of the pass. I stopped for a some photos, and had to get one of the marker on the pass, the iconic Rainy Pass sign.

The ride down the Denzel Gorge to the Kuskokwim River was fantastic – zooming downhill though the moonlight night.

I let Eric take the lead, and let him rip down the hills, assuming he knew what he was doing, and that he would slow down if there were any cliffs to fly off of or other hazards. Flying down the pass in the dark was one of the highlights of the race – zooming downhill in the dark, flying along a narrow trail crossing back and forth over a little creek. In a surprisingly short time we were on the Kuskokwim River and riding down river on hard frozen ice. I was very surprised to suddenly see some Endomorph tire prints – a type of fat bike tire I had not seen since the start of the race. When I am racing on a snow bike, I spend most of my time looking at the ground feeling for the fastest “line” or path, so the riding is as effortless as possible. One side effect of this is that I spend a lot of time looking at folks’ tire tracks, and when a random new tread print shows up it makes a bit of an impression, making me worried someone had passed us while we were sleeping at Puntila. When we arrived at Rohn, all became clear when I noticed that one of the checkers – “O.E.” – had a snow bike parked outside the wall tent. Rohn was a pretty neat place – there were two small planes parked on a packed strip, with a small hewn log cabin the Iditarod Trail crew stays in, with the ITI folks staying in a large wall tent. We ducked inside and were soon sitting down to enjoy cans of soup with pilot bread. After hammering down several pilot bread crackers, I started to feel a bit guilty, and when the other checker, Rob, told me to have at it, gleefully had several more. Unlimited Pilot bread – sometimes happiness is so simple!

We crashed for several hours, then refilled our water, reloaded from our drop bags, and headed out. As I was searching around for my drop bag I nearly stepped on Craig, who was sleeping outside next to the wall tent. We left a little before dawn, following the Kuskokwim river downstream.

The trail moved on and off the river, which was blown free of snow for the most part. It was a bit nerve-racking to zoom along on glare ice, but I managed not to crash.

The next section from Rohn to Bison Camp, an abandoned tent camp, was pretty scenic, with wonderful views as I biked away from the mountains and toward the flats.

Once off the ice of the Kuskokwim the trail passed though several burns, going up and down countless small, short hills as I moved slowly towards Egypt Mountain and onto the flats beyond the Alaska range.

Before the race there was lots of talk of overflow, so I was fairly worried about large tracks of wet mushy ice, however everything was frozen rock hard.

The post river glacer, a large bulge of ice where the Post River comes out onto the Kuskokwim, also seems to have lots of stories surrounding it, with tales of having to climb a huge slippery ice face. This year it was all mellow though, barely larger than the overflow bulges we get on the trails in White Mountains near Fairbanks, and nothing to be worked up about.

The trail was beautiful in this section, winding though burns and grassy fields covered by only a little snow. The snow cover was amazingly shallow, only a couple of inches deep.

There were also tons of bison footprints and droppings. I spent lots of time scanning the hills in hopes of seeing a bison, but alas, no such luck. Eventually we made it past Egypt Mountain and onto Fairwell Lakes.

The lakes had a tiny bit of snow on them, and it was a bit mind-warping to bike across them. The long, flat lakes sort of warped my perspective a bit, making it seem like I was not actually moving.

It was very, very beautiful though. At this point I was a bit sleep deprived, and Eric and I were swapping who was leading.

I am afraid at one point I think Eric found me talking to myself all crazy-like, which was quite embarrassing. However, a bit more fat and sugar and I was back in sane-person land. As we pulled farther away from the Alaska Range, the more the trail started feeling Fairbanks-like.

Eventually we passed Bison Camp, a sad looking collection of wall tents, and soon after that, the turnoff for Bear Creek cabin. The cabin had been visible occasionally as a gray dot on a hill, but is way off the trail, and we zoomed by. It looked from the tracks as if several racers had pulled into the cabin for some rest. Alas, we zoomed by, and continued towards Nikolai. For the most part, the trail once out of Rohn had been in great shape, but now as the trail headed through open areas it started to have large drifts in it, which were a bit too soft to ride.

I messed a bit with my tire pressure, and got things ridable for the most part. The drifts continued for a fair distance, but were not too big of a deal – there was some pushing but only in very short sections. Eventually evening came, and with it some huge wind-blown swamps. The swamps were mostly fast riding, as the trail was fairly hard and scoured free of soft snow by the wind.

The swamps were a bit creepy, as they were huge and it was often not possible to see the far side of the swamp. I was happy to be riding though, as Eric mentioned that he had pushed all the way from Rohn to Nikolai at least once. In the early a.m. we reached Nikolai, and I followed Eric to the checkpoint, the home of Nick and Olene Petruska. It was a bit hard to find, and without Eric I think I might have wandered around for some time. They were excited to see us, getting up to welcome us even though it was around 1am. They gave us some wonderful lasagna that was nothing short of heavenly. I talked a bit to a young man who was helping them out, though alas I have forgotten his name (Steve perhaps?), then headed into a back room for two hours or so of sleeping. The two hours went by fast, and before I knew it Eric and I were setting off. I had carried two 5-hour energy bottles with me since the start, and with 50 miles to go, I decided it was time to use them. Before leaving the Petruska’s I gulped down one of them, grimaced at the intensely awful aftertaste, then stuffed the other one into my pocket for later. I had quizzed Steve about the trail conditions and potential traffic on the river, and it sounded like we might have it to ourselves, which would be fantastic, as it would mean potentially fast riding. The trail was wonderfully firm as we left Nikolai, and stayed pretty nice all the way to McGrath. I had a bit of a tough time in the early morning hours, as my metabolism was not really churning out the power or the heat, and had to put my light jacket on, slowing things down a bit. Eric was patient though, and didn’t smack me for wasting time. The ride to McGrath was a bit of a blur, traveling on and off several large rivers, including one called “Big River” that was pretty wide, a handful of wide open swamps, and more of the Kuskokwim. Eventually it warmed up a bit or I just woke up and I was able to take my jacket off and get moving. It never was really all that cold, perhaps minus 10f at the coldest, so not too big of a deal. At one point we passed three bikers, Scott M, Brian B, and Mike C, all snuggled up in a trail side bivy. They were touring the trail and I had been seeing their tracks on and off for most of the race. I was very tempted to leave candy on their seats as good morning wakeup snacks but couldn’t muster the energy.. alas. Eventually we reached the outskirts of McGrath, and zoomed through the town, arriving at the finish line happy to be done. Bill Merchant was outside and getting ready to head back up the trail, and was pretty excited to see us, congratulated us and sent us inside to the warmth and food of Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze’s. I stumbled inside, zombie-like, and spent the next four hours or so eating and lolling, wanting to sleep but also wanting to see the next racers coming in, and not wanting to miss any of the excitement. I must have looked out of it, as Jeff O told me to go sleep several times. The Schneiderheinze’s was heaven – a hot shower, clean clothes, and endless food. Eventually, after tons of eating, I stumbled upstairs, found a quiet corner in a room, and crashed. In the morning, arrangements were made to fly back to Anchorage, and before I knew it I was off heading back to Anchorage. Alas, my bike didn’t make it and ended up in McGrath for two more days. It was looking like I was going to have to either tell Nancy I had to hang out in Anchorage for several more days or do some more flying back and forth, but the Speedway Cycles owner Greg offered to pick my bike up at the airport for me when it arrived, then ship it to me via a local transport company. This was fantastic, as it allowed me to drive home and see my family – hurray! It was very nice to be back at home and see Nancy and the twins.

I should point out at this point that I finished almost 24 hours after the leaders, who were absolutely flying. The top packs performance with nothing short of amazing – doing the whole race on essentially no sleep. It was very fun to watch the leader’s race by looking at their in and out times as I arrived at checkpoints, and it was great to see two of the local guys, Kevin and Jeff, have such a wonderful race. Congratulations to everyone who finished!

h3. A couple of thanks –

* I would like to thank Eric for riding with me, and sharing his knowledge of the trail and generally providing a cool and calming influence for most of the race – it was fantastic riding with him, and one of the highlights of the race.
* A huge thanks to Greg at Speedway and Jeff Gilmore at Beaver Sports for setting me up with a hub and a rebuilt wheel after I destroyed a freehub a few weeks before the race, and for helping get my bike back to me post race – you guys are fantastic! I am getting a reputation for breaking things just before the ITI, hopefully this will not continue.. My bike was a bit delayed going out of Mcgrath, and Greg at Speedway was nice enough to offer to pick it when it arrived and ship it up to me, making my life so much simpler – thanks!
* A big thank you to my ever-understanding wife Nancy and the twins – thanks ever so much for putting up with my biking obsession and letting me put in all those long training rides. I am very lucky to have such a supportive family – thanks!
* A huge thanks to everyone who offered me advice both this year and last, in particular Ned Rozell and Jeff Oatley were super helpful about what to expect. “Sean Grady’s blog”:http://seansalach.blogspot.com/ posts on his ITI experiences were also very helpful. Sean – your blog misses you!

h3. Gear Notes

I carried a lot less stuff with me this year, making for a lighter bike. Some the major changes were taking fewer clothes, a -20f sleeping bag rather than a -40f bag, less food, and I didn’t bring a stove. This mostly worked quite well, though I didn’t sleep outside at all, and it was pretty warm for the entire race. I think the coldest I saw was around -10f, which is not really all that cold. I might have missed some of the clothing if it had been sub -30f.

I brought my vapor barrier shirt, which I didn’t use. I think if the forecast is good I would leave this at home, as it is really only useful (for me anyway) in sub -15f weather.

For footwear this year I used “Lobbens”:http://www.piasweaters.com/product-p/lb-trd-a.htm inside the basic, uninsulated Neos. This seemed to work great, providing good walking, heavy duty waterproofing, and was fairly light. It was more than warm enough for this years race, though I probably could have run my lake winter boots given the nice weather we had. I wore thin neoprene liner socks as vapor barriers with wool socks over them, and this seemed to work great. The neos didn’t accumulate moisture, and my feet didn’t mind the neoprene socks. My feet were a bit sore the last day, only because I didn’t take the time to dry out the vapor barrior socks at Nicolai.

For food I took a fairly random selection of candy bars, a lot of reese’s peanut butter cups, with a handful of GUs, lots of gummies of various types, chocolate, and a lot of pepperoni. This seemed to work fine, though I think a bit more pure sugar might have been preferable. I put several of those bear claws that you find in vending machine in each drop bag for breakfast, and they are definitely a bit short on flavor. Eric packed oatmeal, and gave me some at Finger Lake, which was pretty fantastic. That was definitely the trick, and in the future I will put oatmeal in the drop bags for breakfast at the checkpoints. Eric also had a thermos that he left the checkpoints with filled with oatmeal which he would snack on several hours after leaving the checkpoints, which looked really pretty delicious. I am definitely going to bring a large mouth thermos if I do the ITI again.

Bike wise, I am still using a Fatback with a fairly standard setup as sold to me by Speedway Cycles. I replaced the handle bar with a “Carver Pry bar”:http://www.carverbikes.com/comp/prybar , a nice wide flat bar with a bit of a sweep and replaced the seat post with a cheap “Niner carbon post”:http://www.ninerbikes.com/carbonseatpost (much more comfortable!). I am now running 90mm UMAs, with BFL tires. The fit on the back is really tight, and I had to trim the side knobs a fair bit so there is no rubbing. The trail conditions were pretty nice, but I was still very happy I had the big tires – the added weight and rolling resistance is worth the extra float those tires give me. More float means more riding.. one hopes anyway. If I could fit it I would like to run the wider knobbier Lou and Buds, but alas they are way too big. That is the one thing I would change if I had the choice, otherwise I was super happy with this setup. I have been super happy with my snowbike, from a “Fatback”:http://www.fatbackbikes.com/ from “Speedway Cycles”:http://speedwaycyclesak.com/ . I have had such wonderful adventures on that bike…

It might be bad form but the details of my ITI race as recorded by my GPS can be seen on “strava”:http://app.strava.com/activities/48381783 and “garmin connect”:http://connect.garmin.com/activity/296656263 if folks want to see exactly how slow this sort of race is. I think my moving average was something like 5.2 mph!

90 out of 350..

Monday, April 9th, 2012

As folks who know me are already well aware I ended up scratching out of the ITI fairly early in the event, at about mile 90. It was pretty sad, as I had spent most of the winter thinking, planning, and training for this race, but it was a good call. Hopefully I will get another chance at the race next year, as I really want to finish this one!

I am afraid this write-up is a bit wordy, so here is a short summary: I scratched, pushing a bike in Neos sucks, and my feet hurt. Next year’s to-dos – don’t scratch, practice pushing, try some less crappy footwear, and bring less stuff.

Moving on…

The race starts on the edge of a small lake near the old town of Knik, at a small bar known as Knik Bar. I arrived early enough to get all my stuff arranged and ready to go on the bike, then spent a bit of time checking out other folks’ setups and buzzing on last minute pre-race stress.

Eventually everyone lined up, and we were off. I grabbed the wheel of someone who looked like he knew what he was doing, Sean Grady and tagged along though a series of trails that eventually lead to Point Mackenzie Road.

Sean knew where to go, and soon were zooming down the road in little posse of obese bikes with too much stuff in tow.

After 10 minutes or so on the road the “fast” guys passed us in a tight pack.

I expected I would never see them again until after the race..
Eventually the road riding ended and there was an abrupt transition from biking to walking.

The snow kept coming down and as the traffic died off as evening arrived the snow piled up deeper and deeper.

We passed several groups of snowmachines either on their way home or stopped on the side of the trail to mess with their machines. One group asked us where we were going, and upon hearing “McGrath”, stared at us blankly. One of them, as if addressing someone simpleminded, started telling us that McGrath was a long way away… as if it was not abundantly clear to someone 20 miles into a 350 mile event, pushing a bike at a little more than 2 miles an hour, that this was going to take a very long time. We trudged along on the long straight trail leading to Flathorn Lake. At this point the crowd had thinned out and I was now in the company of Sven, a teacher from Anchorage, and Sean, though we could occasionally see flashes from the headlights of racers behind us. At about 8pm we passed Jeff Oatley leaning on his bike as he waited for a couple of folks right behind us to catch up, and he let us know that the leaders were about 15 minutes ahead of us. At this point it was pretty clear that this was not going to be a “normal” event, as the fast people are normally much, much faster than I am, and my only sign of them is their in and out times in the log books at the checkpoints. We arrived at the edge of Flathorn Lake and were greeted by Craig Medrid of the Alaska Dispatch sitting on a snowmachine texting (tweeting I believe he said) on a sat phone.

He had apparently gone across the lake, was not able to find where the trail exited the lake, was soon stuck, and had a hard time extracting himself. He was strongly discouraging folks from heading out across the lake due to poor visibility from the blowing snow, though the two lead bikers had headed across. I took a peek out onto the lake, and all signs of any trail besides Craig’s snowmachine tracks were completely wiped clean by the wind and fresh snow. Sean and Sven decided to bivy and wait for morning. I decided to hang out for a couple of minutes, waiting for more folks to arrive, as it was only a little after 8pm, and I was way too excited to sleep anytime soon. In ten minutes or so Jeff, Heather Best, and Tim Stern arrived, and undetered by Craig’s statements of doom, headed out with me tagging along.

We soon caught up with the lead bikers, Pete Basinger and Tim Berntson, and begin a long, slow slog across the rest of Flathorn and Dismal Swamp. Soon more bikers and eventually walkers started catching up with us sharing in the trail breaking. This section of trail is very wide and it was fairly hard to locate the firm trail under two feet of fresh snow. When we got off the main trail we would start postholing up to our waists, making for really fun bike pushing. At this point I was starting to get pretty whooped, and was having a hard time lifting the front of my bike to push it though the fresh snow. Fortunately the “fast” guys were happy to charge away though the snow, and I just pushed along in their wake. The walkers were having a bit easier time and soon were a ways ahead of us, but their headlights were still visible flashing back and forth as they searched for the trail under the snow. Gradually the pack was thinning out, with bikers dropping off here and there to bivy under welcoming trees. Eventually we reached the bank of the Susitna River, which locals call the “Wall of Death” named for the 10 foot or so drop from the top of the bank to the river. All the walkers apparently responding to some sort of hidden signal peeled off to bivy under trees.

The lead bikers started building a fire to melt water, and since it looked like no one was going to be leaving anytime soon, I set up my bivy and went to sleep. I woke up a little before dawn as a walker, Tim Hewit, passed by. The leaders had left while I was sleeping, and were now long gone, probably off enjoying a long hard slog through the deep snow. I packed up and started pushing my bike down the trail, and after several minutes was surprised to see him again heading back towards me. Apparently this trail led to the cabin near the river, and not to the main trail. The lead bikers had apparently headed out this way, wandered around for a while, and gave up, headed back and found the right trail about 10 feet from where I bivied. Tim was very cheerful, and surprisingly bubbly as we chatted for a moment as I got off the trail to let him by, and then I followed him back up the trail to the turnoff for the main trail onto the river.

The Susitna river was covered in fresh snow, with a single “push” track the bikers and walkers had broken winding up the river.

This was quite a contrast to the last time I was on this section of river, when the trail was rock hard and about 100 feet wide.

I continued pushing my bike up river, mostly by myself at this point, occasionally getting passed by a walker or passing a biker. At about noon Craig zipped by on his snowmachine. I was hoping that the motorized traffic would pick up a bit when I reached the confluence with the Yenta River, which is the main route for most of the traffic. Alas, Craig was to be the only motorized traffic I was to encounter until late in the afternoon.

Eventually I was passed by several walkers and two skiers as I slowly made my way to Luce’s, a lodge on the Yentna River.

Just before Luce’s several snow machines passed by hauling sleds and waved as they zoomed by. I reached the lodge, where two walkers and the lead bikers were enjoying burgers, fries, and snacks. I ordered food, several pops, and booked a room, as I was pretty wiped. As I was enjoying my burger Jeff, Heather, Tim, and several more bikers arrived. It is hard to describe how surreal it was to be with the lead bikers at this point. I am not a fast biker, and normally I never see the fast guys more more than a minute or two once the race starts. Seeing the lead guys snarfing burgers while talking about how wiped they were really drove home this race was going to be a long slow slog. Two of the bikers left after eating and headed out for the official checkpoint, Yenta Station, which is 6 miles or so up river. Most of the rest of the bikers decided to get some sleep and head out in the morning at various versions of ungodly early.

In the not tremendously early a.m. I headed out with Jeff, Heather, and Tim. The trail firmed up a bit overnight, but not enough to be consistently rideable. It was rideable in short stretches, but not for any significant distance. It did appear the Tim, Phil, and Pete who left earlier than us road a fair bit more than we did. We arrived at Yenta Station, had some breakfast, and headed out again.

The trail upstream of Yenta Station was quite a bit softer, and it was back to pushing. Not show-stopping by any means, but I was starting to get worried about how much pushing I could actually pull off.

The temperatures remained much too warm for the trail to harden up, so the pushing continued for the rest of the day.

By this time my feet were starting to take a bit of a beating as the footwear I was using, Neos overboots with sorel liners and superfeet insoles, did not provide the sort of support and protection that my feet apparently need for this amount of pushing.

I was starting to get blisters on the ends of most of my toes, and was getting periodic sharp pains in the arch of my left foot, probably due to the soft soles of the Neos.

We ended up pushing all the way to Cindy Abbot’s place, also known as Slims. Cindy apparently enjoys the company of the racers enough to open her house to them, and lets folks crash on the floor of her guest cabins. By the time we reached it was a very welcome sight. After having some wonderful soup I spent a couple of hours sleeping on the floor of one of her guest cabins, then took off in the late evening for Skwentna. I will be forever grateful to Cindy and her husband-to-be Andy’s hospitality.

The trail had hardened up a bit and was semi rideable now. Jeff zoomed off, floating away, and was soon followed by Tim and Heather. They had a much easier time due to either their elite snow riding skills, or some other magic I have yet to posses. I ended up riding a bit, but there was still a lot of pushing. I arrived at Skwentna a bit beat, and a half hour behind them.

Upon arriving I learned that the lead bikers had left for Shell Lake 5 hours before. There was some talk that the trail might firm up, so I grabbed a bunk and snoozed until the morning.

In the morning the owner of Skwentna Roadhouse called the next place up the trail that folks would stop at, Shell Lake to how long it had taken Pete and Phil, and learned that they had yet to arrive. This was bad news, as it means they had taken about 12 hours to travel the 15 miles, meaning lots of slow pushing. At this point my feet where starting to show the mileage, and I was not sure that I could handle another 100 miles of pushing. I was to later learn the winner of the race, Pete Basinger, figured he rode about 40% of the 300-350 miles to McGrath.

After some talking with the other racers, and being told that from that point onward getting flown out was going to be increasing difficult, getting more expensive and possibly involving a fairly long wait, I decided to scratch and hopped on a plane to Anchorage. It was pretty sad, as it was clear I could have gone onward, and my feet might have held up for the rest of the pushing, but probably a good call. It definitely would have been a long, long slog, and I was not tremendously excited by the prospect of pushing my bike for another 5 or 6 days (or longer!). I ended up taking a flight out with Lue and Eric.

And so ended my attempt at the ITI. I learned a fair bit, and really want to come back next year and make another go at it, hopefully this time making it the full way.

Lessons Learned:

  • My footwear needs to be up for extended pushing. I had tested my setup by going for 6 mile walks and it worked great for that length of time, and had done overnight bike-packing trips with a fair bit of intermittent pushing, but it just was not up to extended bike pushing. The soles were a little too soft and all the pushing in the soft snow put some unusual stress on my feet causing some of the connective tissue on the bottom of my feet to start to hurt (perhaps hurt is an understatement – sharp stabbing pains would be a more apt description – yeah, yeah, HTFU). The other problem was the fit was too loose allowing my feet to move about a bit too much, giving me blisters. When I got back home I ended up spending a fair bit of time treating my blisters, leading my daughters to start playing blister treatment games. They even made a song in honor of one of the less happy toes, called “Pus-y Toe” – the meaning of which should be fairly obvious. I need to work on a footwear system that is good to -40f, and that I can push the bike in for extended periods.. It took about a two weeks before my feet were back to normal, without random pains when putting pressure on the arches of my feet. Next year I think will go on some overnight bike trips were I take the chain off my bike and just push it the whole way..
  • I need to pack a lot less stuff. A lighter bike would have been much easier to push through the soft snow. At several points my upper body was completely trashed from lifting my bike through deep snow and drifts. I never opened my stuff sack of extra clothing, so I think I could have pared it down a fair bit, though it was fairly warm. My bike looked obese when compared to some of the other setups at the race start.
  • I packed way too much food. I figured that I would need 4 days of food with me between drop bags worst case, and packed accordingly with 4k calories per day, plus some extra food. This turns out to be way too much even at my glacial pace, as there were ample places to resupply. When I scratched at Skwentna I still had two days or more of food. Eventually folks started to make fun of me for still having so much food..
  • I suck at soft snow riding. I just don’t get enough time practicing riding in soft snow with the hard trails we have here in Fairbanks, apparently.

A big thanks to Sean for leading me through the maze of trails in first 10 miles, and for Jeff, Heather, and Tim for letting me tag along in their wake, and the wonderful people at the checkpoints. A huge thank you to the folks who organize the race – Bill and Kathi Merchant. While I didn’t make it all that far, this event is nothing like anything I have ever done before, and is truly unique. I can see why folks seem to get addicted to it – a big thank you to Bill and Kathi for putting it on. And of course a big thanks to the twins and Nancy for being so supportive.

One final thank you to the wonderful folks at Speedway Cycles – they replaced my bike frame due to a cracked seat tube two days before the race, and were very tolerant of my last minute panicking. Amazing folks.. I can’t say how nice it was of them to make time for me durring all the pre-ITI hubbub.

Hopefully next year the weather will be more cooperative. Hmmm, next year..

A few more photos can be found here.