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Pushothon?

pushathon

A pushothon grinds its way across the Dismal Swamp in a past ITI/Craig Medred photo

As 78 stalwart souls prepare to head north along the historic Iditarod Trail today, Mother Nature looks to be organizing a truly Alaska welcome.

The frigid cold that had worried some rookie competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational(ITI) had warmed into the teens by Saturday night, but heavy snows were falling.

Four inches of snow was already reported on the trail near the Knik start, and the National Weather Service was forecasting another five to nine inches by Sunday night.

The 46 fat-tired cyclists in the 350-mile race over the Alaska Range to the outpost community of McGrath appeared destined to find themselves clumped up in a pushathon as they struggled to roll heavily laden bikes north atop what had been a white sidewalk of snowmachine-packed snow.

The 27-competitors on foot trudging north in front of gear-filled sleds would enjoy somewhat easier going, whether they chose to put on snowshoes or punch their way through the fresh snow.

But the weather is sure to slow them as it will the five Nordic skiers who represent the gear-type which once dominated the Iditasport, the ITI’s predecessor. The skiers have since fallen victim to the wheel and the track, the latter being probably the most significant.

Progress

As snowmachines have steadily improved in the 21st Century, snowmachine travel along the Iditarod has grown greatly. The tracks of thousands of the sleds now pound the snow into white pavement, and on white pavement – even slick white pavement – the wheel encounters less friction than the skid.

Fat-tired cyclists now dominate a competition that began with the Iditaski and the Iditafoot. They were joined by Iditabike, and eventually all were rolled into the Iditasport. It was on its deathbed due to financial problems when the ITI moved in to take over the organization of the race.

A lot has changed over the years, but it is the trail that has changed the most. It is now hard and fast with some regularity, and when that is the case the cyclists can pedal the 350-miles through the wilderness faster than the dogs of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race can make the run to McGrath.

Thirty-four-year-old Tyson Flaharty from Fairbanks, a former competitive skier at the University of Alaska, won the race in under two days last year.Conditions being what they are, the winner is expected to take considerable more time this year.

Flaharty is back this year along with Clinton Hodges III, 38, from Anchorage, the third-place finisher from 2019 who has been in the hunt for a win for several years now but has yet win. They’ll be joined by 39-year-old Peter Basinger, who grew in Anchorage, but now teaches school in Colorado.

Almost famous

Basinger is something of an Iditarod Trail legend. Once the man to beat, he won the race six times and probably could have won it at least once more if he hadn’t slowed to help another struggling competitor.

After his last victory in 2012, he suffered a back injury, struggled for years, had surgery and has, in recent years appeared on the path back to his old form. He was fourth last year.

Joining him and the other men on the trail is Rebecca Rusch, 51, something of a mountainbike celebrity Outside. She pedaled to a top-10 overall finish while leading the women into McGrath last year. 

There are 14 women in the field this year, but only three of them Alaskans. Of the entire field, about two thirds are from out-of-state with Europeans well represented. The ITI has become far and away the most international of the Iditarod races.

Of the 78 in the field, 24 intrepid souls are planning to make the 1,000-mile push from Knik all the way to the end of the trail at Nome. They are led by 42-year-old Petr Ineman from Downers Grove, Ill., and 46-year-old Jay Cable from Fairbanks. Both have led the 1,000-mile racers into Nome before.

Correction: McGrath was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.

17 replies »

  1. “The 46 fat-tired cyclists in the 350-mile race over the Alaska Range to the outpost community of Nome” — the 350 is to McGrath.

  2. An interesting note is the Iditarod trail committee/ trail breakers for Iditarod trail sled dog race just got done putting in the trail for everyone to enjoy . Connected all the unused spots from nome to skwentna . Building snow bridges, pulling groomers , repairing moguls made by iron dog teams , cutting brush ,down trees and generally weeks of laborious winter labor to benefit everyone in Alaska. At no cost to I T I or the locals . Iditarod trail breakers do this every year . A nice trail is mans second best friend. Long before snow machines there was a trail all the way from Seward to nome . Put in and maintained by dogteams , foot traffic, skiers and bikers without the need for snow machines that pollute the air , tear up the trail and wreak general havoc for travelers. People traveled 1000s of miles in winter conditions without snow mobiles and created a better more solid based trail than we see today from machine traffic. Tough men of eras past . My hat is off to the heroes of the Iditarod trail invitational race . Men and women of old .

    • There was a different pace & rhythm to life then, and there’s a lot to say for it today, when it can be had.

      Micki & Julie have talked about this many times, and there are still a few answering the call, best can be.

      George W. Bush, no less, famously goes out and clears brush, fixes his dirt roads & trails, works on the fence.

      I understand there’s quite a culture, with the Iditarod trail crews, and small surprise that. Good on ’em.

    • Great point Ramey. Thanks for bringing it up; that’s a period of time and place that I truly think I should have been born into. Maybe you, too, I think.

      As an aside: Harm and I always watch you and root for you to win in the Iditarod, so best of luck this year and be safe and happy, ok? Hugs to all the Smyth’s:)

    • I’m not sure it was “better.” A properly built and maintained snowmachine trail is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, there are snowmachine operators who’ve never been involved in building or maintaining such trails who can rip the shit out of them thinking they are simply “having fun,” and in the process leave a mess behind for everyone, including most especially others on snowmachines.

      • And then too, balancing-off today’s inconsiderate snowmachine rider, were the many mushers of yore who’s normal technique would pop that wonderful-old-times bubble, right now.

  3. I personally get a kick out of the guys who fly up here thousands of miles to get “schooled” by AK.
    I enjoy non-motorized travel whenever it is a smart option, but also understand that a modern fuel efficient snowmachine is the smartest option for unsupported travel on the frozen rivers in winter.
    Fat bikes, dog sledders and foot travel enthusiasts would not have their “trails” established without the help of us throttle junkies and freight haulers who make “trail breaking” possible on the Yentna.
    When the machine breaks or falls through the ice, your next best bet to get to safety is with a large pair of snowshoes…everything else is mearly for “play”.

    • Yep, machine bearing hominin R Us.

      Enough manually to keep the body able, skilled & healthy … beyond that, break out the engines. I can chop wood … but the axes, mauls & wedges get dusty between recreational swinging-sessions … since I got the 27 ton hydraulic splitter.

      The snowmachine is the way to do winter alright.

      • Ted,
        It all comes back to that “a time & a place” old adage of life.
        With the advanced technology at work in today’s clean burning “e-tec” motors there is literally no smoke and very minimal oil consumption when running a modern snowmachine.
        Add in that many newer models get between 20 and 30 miles per gallon and you have the ultimate winter “tool” for moving around the bush in AK.
        I was out on the Yentna yesterday and during my half hour break the only travelers to pass by were locals on snowmachines who were towing small sleds on their way into town for supplies.
        Very practical and hard to beat for the amount of work you can accomplish…fun too when it snows this much!

      • No sweat, Steve. She’ll have to come get you, and all tourists suffer ADS Alaska Derangement Syndrome, just thinking about The Last Best Place. In her impaired state she will have forgotten to bring her dad and that dude from India, so she won’t know what to say. Or anything.

        Normally, this is when Euro-Germanic-Nordic vegan pacifist Bloomberg voter types inexplicably head downtown for an AR-15 and 2,000 rounds of ammo (ADS) … and out for the nearest caribou herd. No sweat, since your ol’ Skandic runs ’em back out of range before she ever sees droppings.

        All in a day on The Last Frontier.

  4. It does sound cool alright, that it’s different types of competitors, and that it’s people from different parts of the country & world.

    All the positive attention to ‘winter’ that can be drummed up, is to the good. More wintry visitation, more people getting into snowy & icy pursuits, would be a big help for Alaska.

  5. The race is in my blood…..I wish the racers good moving forward and magic connections into their soul. I am with you all the way . Allow the process to enrich you ALL. Margriet van Laake ….now in the Netherlands.

  6. Truly an epic admirable event. I wish them all savy decisions and stoic hearts . May the cold not touch them to harshly. This trail may challenge them like never before.

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