Never too old

Lindsay Gauld on the Iditarod Trail outside of Rohn/Craig Medred photo

Former Olympic cyclist Lindsey Gauld from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada was near 90 miles north on the Iditarod Trail at Skwentna today trying to set a record to be admired in these days when Covid-19 has claimed so many of the elderly saddled with comorbidities tied to the sedentary lifestyle.

Gauld – like Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race founder Joe Redington who helped put an old Gold Rush trail back on the map as the Iditarod National Historic Trail some 44 years ago – was never the type to waste much time on sedentary endeavors.

Gauld already holds the record as the oldest fat-tired cyclist to complete the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational Race from Knik to McGrath. He set it nine years ago.

Now, 73 years old, he’s back to underline his belief that age doesn’t have to mean retirement from life but instead can mean more time to train. Gauld has been busy putting in the miles this winter.

He was fit enough at the end of January to finish 25th out of 64 competitors in the Arrowhead 135, a 135-mile race through the backwoods roads and trails of northern Minnesota.

“I’m quite happy with that given that I was somewhat easily the most elderly person in the race,” he wrote afterward on his Facebook page, where he indicated the biggest problem he faced was dealing with Covid-19 testing rules for getting out of and back into Canada.

On to Iditarod

Well into his senior years, there is no way Gauld is going to chase down the likes of past ITI champs Tyson Flaharty, 36, or now 43-year-old John Lackey from Bellingham, Wash., who set the course record for the ITI 350-miler in 2015 and astonished everyone by doing so in 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes, or even now-49-year-old Tim Berntson, one of a tiny handful of men to make it to McGrath in under two days.

A day after the Sunday start of the race at the old port of Knik at the head of the Cook Inlet arm that ebbs and flows north past Alaska’s largest city, Gauld was already 40 miles behind Berntson, who was in his own way chasing Gauld.

Now past middle age, Berntson, who abandoned Anchorage for bike crazy Bend, Ore., somehow remains a force with which other racers must reckon. He was running fifth as this was written, about a dozen miles behind Fairbank’s Flaharty, in what had become a pushathon of a half-dozen competitors slogging through soft snow in the beaver swamps north of the Iditarod’s Finger Lake checkpoint.

Gauld, meanwhile, was back in the middle of the pack with some riders nearly half his age and many young enough to be his children. The ITI, because of the costs involved and because it favors endurance over speed, tends to attract mainly middle-aged riders.

Twenty-nine-year-old Miron Golfman from Anchorage was the youngest among the leaders with the rest of the front pack made up of those in their mid-30s to 40s with some like Berntson approaching 50 or already there.

Gauld wasn’t the only cyclist on the trail seriously gray in the beard either. Sixty-six-year-old George Hollerbach from Newton, Penn., wasn’t far ahead of Gauld, and chasing Hollerbach was 60-year-old Janice Tower from Anchorage, one of the city’s best-known cyclists for decades.

Redington, who died in 1999 at the age of 82 and actively encouraged the first Idit-a-bike which morphed into the Iditasport Race and became the Iditarod Trail Invitational about the time the fat-bike craze took over, would be proud.

Like Gauld, Redington was a competitor almost up until the day cancer claimed his life. Redington was 72 years old when he recorded his best of 15 Iditarod dog race finishes by reaching Nome in fifth in 1988, and he was 80 when he ran his last race.

The trail for the Iditarod dog race in the 1980s, it must be noted, was little like the snowmachine-packed race track the dog mushers now enjoy. Better trail largely explains why a race that once took 10 days or more to complete can now be done in seven or eight.

And why the ITI bike and foot race has become what it is.

On a near-perfect trail in 2014, Fairbanks’ Jeff Oatley managed to make it from Knik to Nome to win the 1,000-mile version of the event in 10 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes. His human-powered performance bested that of every Iditarod dog team prior to 1995.

Faster than dogs

Some at the time thought Oatley’s finish a record that might stand forever, but Phil Hofstetter challenged it only two years later before breaking a crank on the Yukon River. After making repairs, he still went on to finish in a time of a little over 11 days, 5 hours. 

In a steadily warming, human-friendlier Alaska, most think Oatley’s record is destined to fall. Warmer weather is a lot more accomodating than the fabled cold of the place once called “Seward’s Icebox.”

Bike tires roll slowly in extreme cold both because rubber stiffens and because the coefficient of friction for the trail surface increases. Meanwhile,  human performance follows the downward falling mercury in the thermometer while the risks of cold injuries increase.

Gauld knows a little too much about the latter.

His first ITI in 2012 did not end well for a man the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 inducted as a “multi-sport athlete” of note. Gauld has known his greatest sports successes as a cyclist, but he is also an accomplished performer in two other cold-weather sports: cross-country skiing and speed skating.

A lifelong resident of Manitoba, he is also familiar with the dangers of the cold but temperatures dropping to 40 degrees below zero in the Alaska Range in 2012 caught him out.

Gauld that year reached the remote, Rohn checkpoint –  a one-room log cabin in the shadows of the Terra Cotta and Teocalli mountains near the confluence of the Tatina and South Fork Kuskokwim River deep in the heart of the Alaska Range – with his face so swollen by frostbite he couldn’t see out of his right eye.

His nose was an ugly shade of purple. His frost-nipped fingers were barely working. Part of one was frozen solid and would later be lost to frostbite. Gauld wanted to push on to finish the race anyway but bowed to the judgment of those who told him that would be nuts and dropped out.

The experience might have left more of an impression on Gauld’s wife than on Gauld.

“I am sure I am good to go at 73, but my wife Lynne is happy that I have Phil (Roadley) along as my senior-sitter,” Gauld confessed on his Facebook page as he was leaving for the race start. 

Thankfully, the weather gods appear ready to be friendlier to him this year. The temperature at Puntilla Lake just south of the portal through Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range had climbed to 23 degrees by midday today, and the National Weather Service forecast an overnight drop to only 8 degrees.

Some light snow is in the forecast, but no serious wind for the south side of the range. And on the north side, the conditions look almost ideal for fat-bike racing through the week with the temperatures never warming enough to soften the trail and never getting cold enough to prove uncomfortable or increase the effort required on the pedals.

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