At the end of the Iditarod Trail in Nome late Friday night, there was no money, no fame, no real glory for 61-year-old Tim Hewitt, only the personal satisfaction in doing what was once unthinkable.
It was in this way the Energizer Bunny of the Iditarod ended a 1,000-mile journey on foot across snow, ice and frozen dirt. In the cold and dark in the largely deserted downtown of a small but fabled city along the Bering Sea, he became first to push the foot record for the Iditarod Trail Invitational under 20 days.
It used to take fat-tired cyclists that long to reach the finish line in a race so tough most are afraid to compete. It still takes some cyclists a long time, though Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks redefined what cyclists could do in 2014 when he pedaled to the finish at dog-team speed in 10 days 2 hours 53 minutes.
The Invitational was born of a race called Iditasport begun by an offbeat former preacher named Dan Bull possessed of more than a bit of the conman. He borrowed the Iditasport title from a cross-country skier named Tim Kelley who once raced some cyclists to Nome in a strange competition that took to the ultimate the idea embodied in the Iditaski, the Iditabike and the Iditafoot — races spun off the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Bull pulled all means of human-powered competition together in the Iditasport and for years ran an Iditasport race for 350 miles up and over the Alaska Range mountains from Knik to the tiny community of McGrath on the Kuskokwim River. He called it the Iditasport Extreme.
When Bull decided to take the race all the way to Nome, he named that version the Iditasport Impossible. It was an apt name.
Bull eventually fled the state a wanted man and is now reported to be living Outside under an assumed name. The Iditasport was saved by Bill Merchant from Chickaloon, Pat Irwin from Homer and a small group of helpers, and reborn as the Invitational.
Dozens of cyclists, runners and the rare skier now complete the Invitational short to McGrath every March. Cyclist Tim Berntson paced them there this year in under two days.
A handful go on for Nome. Over the past 15 years, only 60 people have managed to make it to the end.
In most single years, an equal number of people or more finish the Iditarod dog race, the so-called “Last Great Race” which it has been many times pointed out is harder than reaching the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.
In the 2002 Invitational, Roberto Ghidoni, an oversize European nicknamed “The Italian Moose,” hiked the Iditarod to Nome in 22 days. It was considered a sizable achievement given that Kelley and Bob Baker, two of the state’s top endurance skiers, had taken 23 days, 5 hours and 4 minutes to get there in 1990.
Questions were later raised about whether Ghidoni might have gotten a little unpermitted help along the trail, and his record was generally discredited. And then along came Hewitt, a Pennsylvania attorney, who in 2011 hoofed his way to Nome in 20 days 7 hours 17 minutes.
To do so, he had to cover about 50 miles — or more than two marathons — per day, and sleep regularly in quickly constructed camps along the trail in temperatures down to 40- or 50-degrees below zero. There are no aide stations along the Iditarod, and there are several places where the villages and checkpoints are more than 50 miles apart.
Hewitt’s 2011 race record was thought a phenomenal performance. Hardly anyone other than Hewitt, who has now done nine Invitational hikes all or part way to Nome (he had to be pulled out of a life-threatening blizzard last year) thought it could be lowered much.
He, however, had this dream of going sub-20 days. The dream came true Friday. Official times were not available, but Hewitt appeared to have not only gone under the 20-day barrier, but smashed his old record by almost a day. His unofficial times was 19 days, 9 hours and 49 minutes.
This is a developing story. More is to come.