The north’s fastest Iditarod Trail race – the 2000-mile Iron Dog – was parked in the remote city of Nome on Wednesday celebrating its arrival at the outpost on the Bering Sea and preparing to turn back for Fairbanks in the vast Alaska Interior.
Alaska’s most popular Iditarod race – the 350-mile version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) – was gearing up for a Sunday launch from the long-deserted post of Knik at the very head of Cook Inlet 15 miles north of Anchorage.
Alaska’s most famous Iditarod race – the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – prepping for the biggest winter spectacle in Alaska’s largest city with its scheduled March 2 launch toward the Alaska Range and over and beyond to the Bering Coast 140 miles shy of the Arctic.
And a lot of people were pondering the weather.
Weather is a someday inconvenience and occasional problem to most of us living in the Western world today. To the men and women on the trail in Alaska, it can be much more – exhausting, disheartening, threatening, deadly and sometimes even accommodating.
Four years ago, the weather gods smiled on the ITI and John Lackey, a then 36-year-old cyclist living in Anchorage, pedaled a fat bike along a white highway for 350-miles from Knik to McGrath in 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes.
No mammalian animal – human or dog – had ever come close to that time before. It rivaled the McGrath times of the snowmachines in the early Iron Dogs when traveling the Iditarod Trail was sometimes as much a route-finding exercise as a race.
Given the hard-packed snow on the trail in 2015 and the fact storms held off, Lackey said, he knew the race was going to be fast, but confessed it “was faster than I imagined. I didn’t think it was going to be under two days.”
And it wasn’t just “under” two days. It was five and a half hours under two days, more than 14 hours faster than anyone had done the trail on a bike before, eight hours faster than the fastest dog teams at the time, and almost four days faster than Peter Basinger, a legendary ITI competitor, had finished only three years earlier.
It took Basinger 6 days and 15 hours to win his sixth ITI in 2011. That was more than twice as a long as it took him to win his fifth the year before.
The 2011 ITI was about racing. The 2012 ITI was about struggling.
Snow that started on race day turned the event into a push-a-thon by nightfall and the pushing went on for days. Runner Tim Hewitt, a then 57-year-old Pennsylvania attorney who’d already hiked the 1,000-mile Iditarod to Nome several times, led the race for more than halfway, pacing the bikers up and over Rainy Pass.
“WTF,” he said when interviewed just below the Pass that year.
For a while, it looked like he or Geoff Roes, a younger ultrarunner chasing not far behind Hewitt, might actually win the race, but the weather relented. The snow stopped. The trail hardened. And the bikers rolled.
Three of them made McGrath in front of Roes, who was only eight hours behind race winner Basinger. Hewitt was another four hours back. There was only one cyclist between him and Anchorage snowshoe phenom Anne Ver Hoef, who finished about 23 hours later at the front of a long line of snowshoers and hikers.
Most of the rest of the cyclists had given up. Of the 47 people who started the race, only 18 finished. The reason?
On the remote and lonely Iditarod Trail, it takes a toll on people, on machines and on dogs. The Iron Doggers hit problems early this year. The race started in a snowstorm in the Susitna Valley on the weekend, and snow problems continued all the way north over the Alaska Range.
A third of the 24, two-man teams (snowmachiners are required to race in pairs for safety) were out by the time the race started up the Bering Sea coast from Unalakleet.
Blinded by swirling snow just 20 miles outside of McGrath, the race’s Harriet Fenerty reported on the Iron Dog website, two-time Iron Dog winner Todd Minnick from Wasilla ran into 2016 champ Tyler Aklestad from Palmer.
Lost in the snow
As Fenerty recounted the accident, the 33-year-old Aklestad and teammate Tyson Johnson, 39 from Eagle River, had throttled back to save fuel while breaking trail through two-feet of fresh snow. Following on the broken trail, the 39-year-old Minnick and teammate Nick Olstad from Wasilla closed fast into a cloud of snow.
“With not even a split-second to maneuver,” Fenerty wrote, “Todd Minnick hit Tyler Akelstad’s sled. Todd flew over the handlebars. (Once) racers, machines, parts and pieces were all sorted out, one sled was left behind and all teams head to McGrath……a hard way to finish up day one.”
The crash knocked Minnick and Olstad out of the competition. Aklestad and Johnson were able to make repairs and continue. They reached Nome in fifth on Tuesday, but were only 22 minutes behind leaders Mike Morgan from Nome and Chris Olds from Eagle River.
The race was to resume this morning with teams heading south from Nome and then east along the big rivers of the Interior to Fairbanks. The National Weather Service had issued a winter storm warning for the Nome area through noon with freezing fog and light snow. Conditions looked to improve slightly as the race moves south, but more freezing fog and snow were in the forecast until well into the Interior.
Fenerty said via text message that the weather hit Iron Dog with something of a double whammy this year. The early winter was unusually warm. A lack of good snow coupled with dangerous riding conditions in place – there was a lot of open water – cut into both training time and equipment testing time for racers.
There is an old adage that applies to all racing: You can do what you trained to do. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes do a little better than you trained to do. Sometimes you will do worse.
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
The Iron Dog will know by the weekend who did the training and testing and maybe had a little luck on their side. It never hurts to be lucky. But the New England Patriots haven’t made it to nine Superbowls in the last 17 years and won six by just being lucky.
The Iron Dog, the ITI and the Iditarod all reward the people who put in the time when nobody is watching, and the ones who have the perseverance to push on when the weather beats back others.
The most famous wins in Iditarod history have come in weather that was at its worst. Libby Riddles, then from the remote community of Teller north of Nome, became world-famous in 1985 when she became the first woman to win the Iditarod by pushing through a storm that forced other mushers to hole up.
The race took her 18 days and 20 minutes. Idaho cyclist Jay Petervary made it to Nome more than a day faster last year to win the 1,000-mile version of the ITI. The big difference other than his lack of dogs?
Petervary had to push his bike along a lot of bad trail in the Interior of the state, but he didn’t get hit by the sort of weather that has been known to stall competitors in all three Iditarod races or force them to seek shelter.
The Iditarod races have yet to kill a human competitor, but there have been plenty of close calls. Legedary dog-race champ Rick Swenson confessed he had thoughts he might not make it through a coastal storm so bad he had to go to the front of his team to lead the dogs through the Topkok Hills outside of Nome to secure his fifth win.
Mountain Bike Hall of Fame member John Stamstad, a four-time winner of the Iditasport Extreme, the ITI’s predecessor, confessed to similar thoughts while caught in a storm in Rainy Pass. He and fellow racer Pat Norwil were pulled out of that storm by snowmachiners who thought the odds were good that Stamstad’s worry would be come a reality if he and Norwill tried to press on.
Fortunately for the ITI racers, the weather this year is looking cooperative. It is supposed to be sunny for the race start Sunday. After that forecasts get more speculative, but they are so far calling for sunny to party cloudy weather into the middle of next week with day time highs near 30 and night-time lows into the single digits.
The night-time temperatures should be cold enough to make all the new but by now snowmachine-packed snow set up, which should provide good trail conditions for fat-tired bikes.