UPDATE, 4 March 2016 — David Johnson reached McGrath this morning to make it four wins in a row in the foot class of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
ON THE FROZEN TATINA RIVER — As the lead fat-bike cyclists in the Iditarod’s toughest race continued rolling into the tiny, Interior community of McGrath on Wednesday morning, wet-footed running man David Johnston was closing in on the checkpoint called Rohn.
He didn’t have long to chat as he stopped along this waterway at the entrance to the Interior with the predawn temperature in the heart of the Alaska Range near 10 degrees.
Standing on snow-covered ice in an alder thicket beneath the Terra Cota Mountains clawing against the dark sky, his wet feet were in the process of becoming iced feet. But being the down home sort of Budweiser-drinking guy Johnston is, he didn’t have the sense to just nod a hello and keep moving even when he likely should have done so.
After starting off as a bit of a disaster, this year’s race was going pretty good, the Iditarod Trail Invitational veteran said, except maybe for those wet feet.
About a half mile upriver where the Iditarod Trail follows river ice through a frozen canyon on its way toward the South Fork Kuskokwim River, an ice bridge had collapsed. Luckily for Johnson, the collapsing ice formed ramps down into and then out of the four-foot deep hole. So there were no sheer ice shelves to deal with there as elsewhere upstream.
Unluckily for Johnston, by the time he got to the collapsed bridge the river was running over the ice. He jogged through and started running even faster to keep his feet from freezing as he hustled downriver toward a heated wall tent three or four miles on. The only other choice was to stop, make a fire, and start drying out his socks and shoes.
That’s a time-consuming business, and Johnston was in a race along America’s wildest national trail where some folks travel without the aid of dogs or snowmachines. It’s not easy.
“I almost quit in Skwentna,” admitted the nationally recognized ultra-runner and holder of the foot division record for the 350-mile Invitational short, a race now dominated by fat-bike cyclists who travel faster than Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race huskies. The runners, be they four or two legged, just can’t keep up with the wheels.
Johnston covered the 350 miles from Knik to McGrath in just over 4 days in 2014. Last year, Anchorage cyclist John Lackey made the same trip by bike in 1 days, 18 hours and 32 minutes. Another Anchorage cyclist, 43-year-old Tim Berntson proved that was no fluke by pedaling his Fatback to McGrath in just under two days this year despite tough going on the middle section of trail.
Barring the mother of all blizzards, runners will probably never beat cyclists to the finish in Invitational short or the Invitational long, which goes a full 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome. But it is thought to be only a matter of time before the 4-day barrier for runners falls the way the two-day barrier for cyclists did.
It won’t happen this year.
Johnston blamed “stupid mistakes. I took a wrong turn. I got lost.”
Then the 45-year-old runner lost his spirit, which is the worst thing to lose along the Iditarod Trail. At Skwentna, he actually phoned for an airplane ride home. Then he called his wife, Andrea Hambach.
To hear Johnston tell it, she told him in no uncertain words to man-up and quit his whining, which doesn’t sound all that much like Hambach. She is a pleasant woman.
Whatever actually happened, Johnston kept going, and by Wednesday morning he was his usual happy-man self at the front of the foot race despite the wet feet.
Behind him were a lot of fat bikers in the Invitational more for the adventure than the competition. This is one of the few races in the world of which it can fairness be said that just finishing is a victory.
On the south side of the Alaska Range, Spaniard Antonio de la Rosa Suarez, 46; Englishman Bill Dent, 52; Australian Troy Szczurkowski, 43, and Scotsman Donald Kane, 54, (the Invitational attracts to Alaska a far more international crowd than any other race) and more were on the trail behind Johnston, while another racer was tending her feet at the Puntilla Lake checkpoint.
Five-time Invitational finisher Shawn McTaggart was hoping to break the women’s foot record of 6 days, 12 hours, 20 minutes to McGrath. Her red and swollen feet, sporting some nasty abrasions near the ankle where it appeared the tongues of her shoes had been rubbing, didn’t look like they wanted to cooperate.
But the experienced, 38-year-old competitor said “they only hurt for an hour or so.” Once she starts walking and/or running, the pain goes away, she said. Her enthusiasm was high.
“I’m a day ahead of when I got here last year,” she said. “The trail has been very runnable. The sled (full of survival gear) just sort of pushes you along.”
She was at this point in the conversation interrupted by 61-year-old Italian Luigi (Lew-We-Gee) Barilari, who had a question.
“Do you have any medicine for…,” he asked, obviously struggling to come up with the English for “upset stomach.”
He finally succumbed to making a vomiting motion with his hand.
“No,” McTaggart said, then added “How long?”
“You got what I saw on the trail?”
“Yes,” Barilari said, but he didn’t want to quit. He’d come a long way. He planned to hang in as long as he could. He wanted to know how far it was to the next checkpoint in Rohn.
“How many hours?” he asked.
When it was explained the time depended on how fast he could push his bike along bad trail, his face fell. When an answer of “10 or 12 hours” was offered as a guess, his face fell even farther.
Still by the next afternoon, the Invitational satellite tracker showed him back with his bike and closing on Rainy Pass. He was averaging about 2 mph on the long push up.
McTaggart was long gone. She’d already pass through the Rohn checkpoint and put 30 miles between herself and the older cyclist. The women’s record looked as if it might be within reach.
McTaggart appeared to be traveling with 61-year-old Tim Hewitt, an Invitational legend, on his own mission this year. His wife, Loreen, who is hiking the trail as far as McGrath, revealed that the Pennsylvania lawyer thinks he can shave at least 8 hours off his own record time to Nome, thus pushing the foot record to under 20 days.
A finishing time of less than 20 days to Nome would put Hewitt in the record books as faster than the winners of the first two Iditarod dog races. McTaggart and Hewitt were about 50 miles behind Johnston, and ahead of all the other runners and more than a few cyclists still on the trail on Thursday.
They stretched all the way back to 53-year-old Austrian Klaus Schweinberger, who was nearing Puntilla on his way to Nome. Schweinberger has been to Alaska more than once to challenge himself against the famous northern cold.
It has been anything but cold this year. Met just outside of the Finger Lake checkpoint on Wednesday with the temperature at 45 degrees and feeling warmer with a warm sun beating down and reflecting off the snow, Schweinberger had a complaint.
“This is like the desert,” he said. And it sort of was, but for the fact the melting snow all around made water readily available.