An Alaska endurance competition so hard that even Iditarod Trail dog mushers think the entrants a little nuts has been crowned the hardest race in the world by the country’s biggest running magazine.
“Since the inaugural year of 2000, only a few dozen individuals have finished the (Iditarod Trail Invitational) race to Nome,” said Runner’s World: “39 bikers, 15 runners, four skiers….In order to even attempt the 1,000-mile race, you’ll have to complete the 350-mile version of the event.”
The 350 is actually the real race if one sticks to the definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “a contest of speed.”
Runners, and even more so cyclists on fat-tire bikes, compete to win the 350. The 1,000-mile ITI to Nome is more a survival contest.
Some have tried to see how fast they could cover the distance over the historic Iditarod Trail in February and March, but even the fastest have bowed to the reality that speed is known to kill.
A hugely experienced wilderness traveler – Oatley has also ridden the route of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada – Oatley said he wasn’t so much racing as simply taking advantage of good weather and good trail to travel as fast as he could.
He was among those shocked to discover how much time he’d taken off the previous record. It wasn’t minutes. It wasn’t hours. It wasn’t even a day.
It was a week.
An ITI veteran who once went head-to-head with Oatley in the serious competition of the 350 and the former record holder for the ITI to Nome, professional long-distance cyclist Jay Petervary from Idaho, had a simpler, two-word reaction to Oatley’s time when he heard the news:
Oatley’s would have been fast enough to win the first 22 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races. Nobody was ever expected to finish the ITI at sled-dog speed.
Too risky. Too easy to court death by pushing to the limits of human endurance in the bitter cold and isolation of the 49th state north of the Alaska Range.
Race within a race
The true racers have historically limited themselves to the shorter version of the ITI, a 350-mile foray from the end of tidewater at Knik Arm up into the Alaska Range, through wind-blasted Rainy Pass out into the huge valley of the Kuskokwim River and on to McGrath, an old Athabascan meeting place that boomed during one of the many Alaska gold rushes of the early 1900s only to fade, then boom again during World War II when it became a refueling stop for Lend-Lease airplanes being shuttled to the Soviet Union from the U.S only to fade again.
Today, thanks to a 5,435-foot paved runway capable of landing large aircraft, the community labors on as a regional hub for a vast and little-populated area of Central Alaska, a support center for small mining activities and most notably as a checkpoint for various Iditarod races.
It shares with ITI competitors that “Just Do It” attitude the marketing gurus for Nike trademarked to sell sport and along with that athletic shoes and apparel to the tune $34.5 billion per year.
The slogan has done more for Nike than the attitude has done for Mcgrath or the ITI, but both battle on with colorful histories behind them.
ITI rose from the death-bed of the Iditasport, itself a combination of the even earlier Iditaski, Iditabike and Iditafoot which trace all the way back to the late Joe Redington, the founder of the dog race.
Dan Bull – an Anchorage businessman, amateur athlete, and true character now living under an assumed name in the state of Washington – latched onto the idea of ski, snowshoe, foot and later bike races along the frozen Iditarod Trail and ran with them.
Tim Kelley – an Alaska adventure skier, one-time Iditaski competitor and another true Alaska character – came up with the Iditasport idea to lump all the human-powered athletes under one umbrella, and an Iditarod institution was born.
Iditasport self-destructed in 2001 amid Bull’s personal problems, but former competitors Bill Merchant and Pat Irwin, then an Anchorage bike shop owner, formed Alaska Ultrasport to stage the same race under a new name – ITI.
Irwin later married well-known Alaska artist Kathy Sarns and moved to Homer leaving Merchant and partner Kathi Hirzinger, later wife, Kathi Merchant to run the race for 15 years. They amicably split in 2017 when Bill decided to move to a farm in Bullneck, Ga., after an adult life spent primarily in the land of ice and snow.
Kathi kept the ITI going with the help of new partners Kyle and Cynthia Durand. An old, Bushrat who’d come to think the increasingly traveled snowmachine trail from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley into the heart of the Alaska Range was becoming in some ways too “civilized,” Bill wrote in a retirement announcement that “the time has come for me to step away from the ITI and let the ideas and passion of a younger generation take over….I know Kathi and the new ITI team will continue the race in the same tradition as always doing an even better job of presenting all of you with the quality experience you have come for each year.”
Bill Merchant’s idea of “civilized” is somewhat different from that of most 21st Century denizens. He considered a well-marked trail a bit of overkill. He thought a little route-finding added some challenge to the ITI.
Most others, fearing the trouble a human can get into in ground blizzards and cold snaps down to 50 degrees below zero, favored a route marked well enough that they could plod on to the safety of a checkpoint if need be even when half delirious.
And this year as it turned out, even a well-traveled trail turned tricky for one exhasuted competitor.
Foot-race leader Michael Hoberg, a 39-year-old husband and father from Duluth, Minn., wandered off the trail between the village of Nikolai and McGrath on the last leg of the ITI-350 and was lost for a day.
Technology and ironman David Johnston from Willow, the holder of the record for the 350 by foot and a seven-time winner in that race, helped save him.
After passing Hoberg on the trail, Johnston and traveling companion Gavin Woody from Bellevue, Wash., arrived in McGrath to claim victory. Johnston went almost immediately to a computer to locate the satellite tracking device carried by Hoberg behind them on the trail.
“When I saw his tracker, he was wandering around like a caged elephant,” Johnson said. “I said somebody needs to go check on him.”
About that time, a cyclist who’d passed Hoberg’s gear abandoned on the trail arrived in McGrath with that scary news.
“What we heard made our stomachs sink,” Woody later wrote on his Facebook page. “He found Scott’s camelbak torn apart and his sled sitting in the middle of the trail, but no Scott. We could only assume the worst, given what had happened at the Yukon Artic Ultra in January: a racer became delirious from hypothermia, detached his sled (along with his Spot tracker), took off his shoes and gloves, and ran down the trail. He is now likely to lose both his feet and hands (https://www.outsideonline.com/…/yukon-arctic-ultra-claims-e…).”
A Hoberg rescue was quickly organized, and he was found shortly, cold but very much alive. The satellite trackers ITI racers are now required to carry were one of those civilized ideas on which Bill and a number of other traditionalists frowned, but they are now cemented in place as a race requirement.
Hoberg was thankful.
“I’m fortunate things worked out the way they did,” he said. “It all worked out OK. It could have been way worse. I could have lost fingers or toes….
“A lot of people thought maybe even the worst-case scenario.”
On the trail again
Hoberg is not entered in next year’s race, but more than 75 others are with at least 18 of them planning to keep on going past McGrath toward Nome.
Once the smallest of the Iditarod events, the ITI now boasts a bigger field than either the dog race or the 2,000-mile Iron Dog, the world’s toughest snowmobile race which goes to Nome, takes a break and then races another miles back to Fairbanks, the largest city in Central Alaska.
The ITI is becoming something of an iconic event for cyclists and foot adventurers from around the globe. About a third of the entrants this year are foreigners, and more than half the field for the ITI 150 – now a qualifer for the 350 – are from Canada, Europe, Asia or Australia.
Johnston again paces the runners.
The race starts Feb. 24 on the ice of Knik Lake.