Fifty-three racers are taking on Alaska’s vast wilderness under their own power as part of the the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The race follows the historic Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome. It’s billed as the world’s longest ultra marathon by bike, foot, or ski.
While most of the 53 competitors are headed the 350 miles to McGrath, a group of about a dozen are on the 1000 mile trek to Nome following the southern Iditarod route.
The race functions as an invitational for good reason. Competitors are vetted by race officials based on their abilities to be self-sufficient in extreme conditions. Many qualify based on other ultra races, and some get their first green light to McGrath by attending 5-day training camps held by the race organizers in the Mat-Su Valley.
“We offer very little support, and we wanna keep it that way. It’s an adventure and these people have to be prepared,” race director Kathi Merchant said. “But also they’re very much on their own and they do enjoy that solitude and the experience of the wilderness of Alaska. They don’t want an aid station every 10 miles and people everywhere.”
While completing either the 350- or 1000-mile trails can be an end in itself, in recent years several racers have upped the ante. Ultrarunner David Johnston last year smashed the 350-mile foot record, reaching McGrath in just over four days. That same year, Fairbanks fatbiker Kevin Breitenbach blazed hard-packed trails to McGrath in 2 days, 4 hours and 43 minutes, clocking times significantly faster than lead Iditarod sled dog teams.
For Breitenbach, sleep is a luxury.
“With trails as hard as they are I think you can kind of hammer yourself, and then take a bit of time to relax and get some rest,” Breitenbach said. “But last year I slept a total of an hour and plan on something about the same this year.
“I think no matter how often you do this race, you never feel prepared for it, and I feel that same way right now. If you don’t have nerves, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
The ITI allows racers traveling to Nome 30 days for an official finish. With bike and foot records of just over 10 and 20 days and far fewer finishers, just completing the long-form ITI is the goal for many. Frank Janssens, from Belgium, is hoping to complete his first trip to bike by Nome after having to turn back in 2014.
“I done it last year, but I had to scratch after Galena, so I turned back in Galena, so this is kind of a revenge for me this year trying to go to Nome. I try to show that I’m calm, but inside I’m not calm,” Janssens said.
This year, more than half the racers are from outside Alaska. Pittsburgh attorney Tim Hewitt holds several foot records and has found the challenges of the ITI irresistible. He’s completed the course to Nome nine times on foot. This year, he’s going by bike.
“People say, are you nuts, why do you keep going back? But every time, it really is a different experience, every time you get to Nome, you think I’m never doing this again, it’s ridiculous, and within a month or two there’s a magnetism about just being out there in the wilderness,” Hewitt said.
“It’s a wonderful experience. If you can get back here, I think most everybody would.”
No cash prizes await the champions, but something keeps them coming back for more.