As is usually the case, the remote Yentna Station Roadhouse just off the Alaska road system was warm and inviting on Sunday night. Out on the frozen river, however, the temperature was dropping past 20 degrees below zero, and some of the less experienced competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) would soon be dealing with frostbite.
Inside, Tyson Flaharty – the man who’d eventually win this year’s ITI 350 to McGrath – confessed he was thinking about a warm room upstairs for the night and a big meal. For the 33-year-old, one-time, world-class, Nordic skier, the lead-in to the 2019 ITI had started bad with sick kids at home in Fairbanks.
Once on the Iditarod Trail north of Anchorage, things only seemed to get worse. Flaharty wondered if he might be paying the price for the lousy pre-race training.
“The last weeks, my kids have been really sick,” he said by telephone from McGrath on Tuesday. “I hardly did anything the last two weeks.”
As it turned out, the unintended break might have been the perfect taper from heavy training going into a big event, but Flaharty didn’t know that at the time.
All he knew was that he didn’t much feel like hammering away on a bike for another 300 miles through ever wilder country into the Alaska Range and then on into absolute, overwhelming wildness like nothing else in the U.S. on the north side of the range on the route to McGrath.
His problems, he said, started as soon as the race left Alaska’s scant road system only 10 or 15 miles from the ITI starting line at Knik, a long-deserted port at the head of Cook Inlet.
Once the race left the roads and some-well used trails on the way to the locally know “dismal swamp” between Flathorn Lake and the Susitna River, “the trail just blew up,” Flaharty said.
What had started out as a fun ride became a grind. Flaharty felt it and wondered if maybe he was coming down with the bug that had hit his children.
“I felt like dropping out,” he confessed. “This was not the way I wanted to start this race.
“I almost called my wife. I didn’t think I could finish.”
But he didn’t call. By then, he was in deep enough that it wasn’t any harder to keep going to Yentna than to turn around and go back. So he toughed it out to that first checkpoint 60 miles into the race.
While Flaharty was contemplating should-I-stay or should-I-go, three-time ITI champ Jay Petervary from Victor, Idaho was facing no such struggle. The 46-year-old veteran of more than a decade on the Iditarod Trail was out of Yentna almost as soon as he was in.
Reflexively. like a dog on the scent of game, Flaharty gave chase. Part of him said stay, he admitted. Another part said it was just as easy to quit in Skwentna, a checkpoint near a big airstrip with regular flights to Alaska’s largest city.
So Flaharty started spinning the pedals again. It was another 40 miles to Skwentna and most of the journey up the frozen, snow-covered Yentna was as bad as the ride to Yentna Station until it wasn’t.
Flaharty himself doesn’t know what happened. There is sometimes no understanding the power the mind exerts over athletic performance.
“A few minutes before we hit Skwentna, something turned on,” he said. “I felt good, and suddenly I felt invincible.
“Something was certainly clicking.”
Had Petervary dallied but a few more minutes in Yentna everything might have turned out differently. Flaharty, the way he was feeling, might well have thrown in the towel and gone to bed, and Petervary might have ridden into McGrath on Tuesday afternoon to claim his fourth victory.
Instead, he sucked Flaharty out of the Yentna checkpoint and in the process relegated himself to second. It was all over in Skwentna, only a third of the way into the race But, of course, nobody really knew it then.
Petervary pulled into Skwentna at about 11:40 Sunday and stayed several hours at the Skwenta Roadhouse. Flaharty led the race back onto the trail out of Skwentna, and that would be the last other competitors would see of him.
At that point, the 2019 ITI was still looking like the just under three-day race Petervary anticipated given the conditions. He figured a heavy snow a week earlier would slow things down, and it did.
Only not enough.
Benefit of inexperience?
Running only his second ITI, Flaharty was less sure of what to expect.
“I just compared times to the last time I did it,” he said.
That was in 2016 when Flaharty finished second in 2 days, 1 hour, 25 minutes. An older, wiser Anchorage racer – Tim Berntson – won that year in a time of 1 days, 23 hours, 45 minutes.
Berntson was on the limit much of the race in an effort to become only the fourth cyclist to crack two days – the four-minute mile of this competition – in the ITI 350. Flaharty joined that select group with his 1 day, 23 hour, 54 minute finish this year, but there was no plan to break two days.
At Skwentna, he said, he noted he was four hours behind his 2016 pace. As he pushed north, however, the gap narrowed. By Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake on the edge of the Happy River valley with Rainy Pass waiting on the horizon, Flaharty was within an hour of that 2016 time.
By the top of Rainy Pass, he knew he was significantly ahead of 2016. He was surprised at how much of the Happy Valley he was only able to ride even though in places the trail was drifted in.
He had to push-a-bike a little on the steepest parts of the climb to the 3,160-foot Pass, but that wasn’t as irritating as the deep postholes he discovered some tourers hiking the Iditarod Trail left going down the north side.
This is usually an urban headache, not a wilderness problem, but Flaharty banged downhill toward the Dalzell Gorge smashing from hole to hole.
Luckily, “the snow had firmed up to where we could kind ride over their tracks,” he said, It was a rough ride, but he rolled into Rohn well ahead of his 2016 schedule.
He didn’t linger long in Rohn either.
Once he got the lead, he said, his strategy was simple: Get out of the checkpoint before anyone else got there to avoid any chance for chitchat that might delay departure.
The push-hard, rest-little strategy worked great until within about 30 miles of Nikolai, a village of fewer than 100 people far up the Kuskowkwim River.
“The last 30 miles were the worst,” Flaharty said. “I couldn’t stay awake. Everything was cold. My body was shutting down.”
The time had come again to lock out all thought and just grind out the miles.
By 4 a.m. Tuesday, Flaharty was in Nikolai, and “I was cooked,” he said. “I was pretty much at the end of what I had. I buried myself a little too much on the push from Rohn.”
But food, some rest, and a nap of 45 minutes to an hour solved the problem.
“When I woke up, I felt really good,” Flaharty said, and there were then but 50 miles to the finish. Unfortunately, he rolled out of Nikolai to find a lot of slow, snowmachine-churned trail. Any thought of a record time quickly evaporated.
But Flaharty kept plugging. By the time he rolled onto the road into McGrath, he knew a sub-two day race might be within reach.
“A little ways out,” he said, “I realized I not better not slack off.”
And he didn’t. He crossed the finish line to become only the fifth member of the Under Two Day Club.
Afterward, asked how he felt, his answers were simple:
“I feel tired,” he said. “(But) I’m feeling better than I should be feeling. I’m pretty happy with the whole race.”