“Sometimes when you offer too much support you cheat the true adventurer out of a big part of why they are on the trail. They come to race, to confront and hopefully overcome whatever is thrown their way. To solve problems for them diminishes the experience.”
~Bill Merchant, Iditarod Trail Invitational Manager
(paraphrasing Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race legend Joe May)
The above quote helps to explain the philosophy underlying what has to be one of the most extreme winter multi-sport races in the world. Every year since 2002 up to 50 tough souls have pitted themselves not only against each other, but against Nature herself, to race either 350 miles or 1,000 miles across Alaska’s wilderness in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Racers choose to tackle the miles on bikes, skis or their own two feet.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational allows 50 entrants each year who are required to qualify by finishing in at least one of four other winter ultra-races: Susitna 100 (100 mile ultra-race by bike, foot, ski and 50 K race in Alaska), Arrowhead 135 (135 mile ultra-race by bike, foot and ski on the Arrowhead Trail in Northern Minnesota), White Mountains 100 (100 mile bike, foot, ski ultra-race in the White Mountains near Fairbanks, Alaska), or Sheep Mountain 150 (150 mile and 100 mile bike-only race at Sheep Mountain Lodge, Alaska). The racers compete for nothing more than a sense of personal accomplishment, great stories to tell, and, if they win their division, a free entry into the next year’s race.
The race starts at Knik Lake, about 60 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska and ends 350 miles later at the tiny village of McGrath on the Kuskokwim River. One the racers have left the start, no point along the trail is accessible by road. There are six checkpoints; the closest together are 35 miles apart. Those competitors who need more of an adventure can continue on past McGrath another 650 miles to Nome, the end of the Iditarod Trail.
Alaska is always a land of extremes, but no more so than in winter. The Invitational typically takes place in February when winter’s grasp on the land is strongest. Daylight hours are on the upswing, but in late February there will still only be about seven hours, including twilights. Temperatures can plummet to 40 degrees below zero and colder or may be above freezing during an unseasonable warm spell. Weather conditions can range from sublime calms to howling winds to blinding snow.
The potential extremes in weather and temperature make the phrase “variable trail conditions” an understatement. A bicycle racer might start out pedaling strong only to spend 20 miles at a stretch pushing her bike through soft snow drifts and being passed by racers on skis. Other years, the bicycle can reign supreme on a smooth, hard-packed trail. Unfortunately, one can’t know ahead of time what the conditions will be like. A competitor has to be prepared for any situation.
Speaking of being prepared, if you’re thinking of entering this race, you must be prepared to take everything with you to survive any situation. Although there are six checkpoints at which you can rest, drops of extra food, clothes, etc. are only allowed at two and each can only consist of 10 pounds of consumables (no gear, spare parts, etc.).
Intrigued? More information on the race and how to enter can be found on the website (www.alaskaultrasport.com). Bill and Kathi Merchant, the race organizers, also offer a winter camping and snow biking school on the Iditarod Trail to teach racers and non-racers about winter camping and backcountry travel in Alaska’s extreme weather. Bill is an eight time finisher of the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile race and finisher of the 1,000 mile race to Nome in 2008. Kathi is a three time winner of the 350 mile race and became the first female cyclist to finish the 1,000 mile race in 2008. These experts, as well as other ultra-sport competitors, are well suited to teaching these training classes.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational or one of the other winter ultra-races might be just what you need to push yourself to your limits. If so, go for it! None of us can ever know what we can achieve if we don’t try.
Ride safe and have fun!