Iditarod Trail Invitational – a rookie´s story

IMG_2412This is the story of a wilderness-race across frozen Alaska in the middle of winter and an experience of a lifetime. Iditarod Trail Invitational is a human-powered race. Which means most participants roll on a giant fat-bike equiped with 4-6 inch tires. You can also go on skis or by the slowest and most primal form of transportation – on foot, which is what I chose. The first time you participate as a “rookie” on the 350 miles distance to McGrath, while the veterans (who have completed ITI before) also have the option to go on for 1,100 mile to Nome, at the Bering Sea a few hundred miles from Russia.10553607_10153146025880489_7216772024257847138_nYou start at a bar just outside of Anchorage and the finishline is when you knock on the door at the home of Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze in McGrath some 560 km away. The rules are simple. You take care of yourself regardless of the conditions and You can pick any route You like as long as you pass the 6 mandatory checkpoints along the way. Kathi and Bill who is hosting the event is really old-school and it is a big part of the charm. Although the course is the longest winter wilderness race in the world, they do not try to brand it as the longest, the coldest, the hardest – whatever. Not many people have even heard of the race unlike the famous dog sled race.IMG_2188The start was the most casual and laid back you can imagine. We stood and chatted away until someone yelled “GO” and the approximately 20 spectators started cheering us on. Following some weeks with a mid-winter heatwave in Alaska, with temps above freezing the temperature had finally slipped below freezing again. That made the ground hard as concrete and slippery like a skating rink. I was hiking of in a very good mood. Happy to finally be underway. Months of preparation was over and I had arrived healthy on the startingline, which was my first goal for the race. After a few miles Dave Johnston (who has the track record and had won the previous two years) came running by me. We gave each other a hug and wished the other a good run, after which Dave jogged on.IMG_2198I could feel my microspikes through the shoes and it hurt right away. My idea of allways trying something new on raceday was clearly working against me. After about an hour I tried without the spikes under the shoes, but they came right back on. I would rather destroy my feet that fall over on the ice. The leading runners disappeared out of sight and I was by myself. I remembered the mantra “easy does it” from the “From Russia with love” team I met during the PTL last year and thought of my friend Ravn Hambergs advice about not going too hard out straight from the gun. Got into my own rhythm and trudged on. Usually the ITI follows the same route as the world’s largest dogsled race “the last great race” Iditarod Dogsled Race. But due to lack of snow that race had chosen to reroute due to safety and start in Fairbanks. Bill and Kathi had obviously stuck to the original route on the historic Iditarod Trail. The ITI does not mark the route, nor supply maps or GPS files to the participants. There is certainly plenty markers left over from other races. It’s just not all of them one should follow. I saw old markers from both Susitna 100 and Iditasport (which took 2 and 3 weeks prior) as well as the snowmobile race “Irondog”.IMG_2206In the afternoon I caught up to three runners at a railway bridge and it turned out that I had taken a slight (1 mile) detour. “No big deal” – I kept my cool head and continued on. It keeps going up and down constantly and despite the spikes under my shoes I skated more than I really liked. The view over the shoulder towards the mountains around Anchorage was absolutely fantastic.IMG_2212IMG_2214IMG_2218IMG_2219Shortly after sunset I reached the legendary “1049 miles to None” sign. I began to feel an nagging pull in the left knee. The first 40 miles are notorious for the difficult route finding. As I approached Flat Horn Lake (mile 30) and could see a couple of headlight behind me. So I waited a few minutes for them to catch up to me. It was Beat Jegerlehner and Steve Ansell from California who were both on their way to Nome. They knew a good short cut instead of following bikers who was going a somewhat longer but flatter path around the lake. It was a relief to just disconnect the brain and follow them for a while.IMG_2221Day 2

At midnight we bivied just before the “Wall of Death” where You come on to the Susitna River. It’s cold and more exposed on the river, so this is the last opportunity to take a rest before the first checkpoint. Before I knew it the two veterans was sound asleep in their bags while British Mark Hines (whom I met at the Spine Race) came shortly after and found a place to sleep next to me a little off the track (You don´t want to be run over by a snowmobile in the middle of the night). The leg was getting worse and the left calf was felt hard as a rock.IMG_2222After 2 hours we were on the move again. It was a chilly night on the river and I was happy to just hang on the wheels. Both Steve and Beat has been to the PTL and Tor the Geants as well, so there was plenty to talk about. I took the opportunity to learn as much as I could from them and get all the little tips and tricks this game is full of. Beat is a physicist. Originally from Switzerland but he now lives in California where he works at Google. A bit of a engineer/inventer type guy with his own ideas ideas. He had built his own pulk, sewn his poggies (mittens), made the titanium reinforced carbon fiber drag system and had a teddy bear mounted next to another homemade gizmo that measured and kept a record of the temperature.IMG_2173After 18 hours, we reached the first checkpoint at Yentna Station (mile 57) early in the morning. It is he local “watering hole” where traveling snowmobilers on the Yentna River can refuel on the way. The host was not particularly welcoming. We bought ourselfes a cheese omelet and french toast and I attended to a few blisters in the usual places.IMG_2227We continued up the river in good weather. Beat slowly pulled away while Steve’s and my pace was quite in sync. I was planning to save battery in the iPods for later. But I had to have something to distract yourself from my sore feet and painful legs. Despite the music I had to slow in the afternoon and just go in my own pace, while Steve and Beat went ahead.IMG_2246IMG_2236Fortunately the sign for Cindie’s house (mile 77) quickly approached which felt like such a relief. Cindie is a “Trail Angel” who invites participants into her home for a bite to eat and some well deserved rest. When I arrived, Steve and Beat was already seated in the kitchen with their heads into a giant bowl of chicken soup each. We were the first guests since bikers and the three leading runners had hurried past. My legs were a complete mess after all the little jerking and twisting on the ice.IMG_2259IMG_2275After listening to my complaints the guys suggested that I should try to rest and recover. Cindie immediately offered that I could borrow their guest-cabin. I took the offer and told them I would try to sleep until dawn. But first I had to take care of a nice piece of cake being put in front of me. Then I remembered it was actually my birthday:-) “Well – it’s birthdaycake then” smiled Cindie.IMG_2279Day 3

I lay down to sleep in the cold cabin (which was perfectly fine in my -46 Exped bag) but woke up an hour or so later being boiling hot. In the meanwhile Cindie’s husband had fired up the stove and it was hot as a sauna inside. With the heat and the pain in my legs I could not sleep. After rotating aound for a few more hours I stumpled out into the darkness and reached the next checkpoint on Skwetna Station (mile 90) 4 hours later without further problems.IMG_2285The hostess served scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. The cabin-owner looked very tired after having been up all night to serve racers. As we all sat around the table he offered us his advise on the trip ahead and suggested a more direct way to the Shell Lake. The course changes from year to year depending on the conditions and I thought that it is useful information I got there. Mike Thomas from the UK and race veteran Loreen Hewitt also sat at the table and get the same explanation. On the way out I meet Mark Hines who is coming in. Mark is a rookie like me but has previously finished Yukon Arctic Ultra 430 miles 3 times. After 90 miles on the ice rink it was finally time to ditch the microspikes and my feet felt like they were born again.IMG_2291IMG_2293When I reached the junction I chose the way the guy at Skwentna had suggested as the most direct. Nicely marked trail with Irondog markers – what could possibly go wrong. 2 hours later the markings disappeared on a lake where the snowmobile tracks went out in all directions. Hmmm. I saw a plane parked on the other side of the lake and walked over to ask for directions. A German lady who lives there informs me that I have made it to Hewitt Lake and that the only thing to do is to go back to junction 5 miles away. I thank the lady for info, refuses her offer of a ride on the back of her snowmobile and walkes back across the lake in a very bad mood. Here I meet Loreen who despite Hewitt being her last name (just as the lake) really does not appreciate the funny coincident. “I shouldnt have the know-better” she repeats and tells me about her husband Tim who made the same mistake on his first of so far 8 trips to Nome. This is Loreens 6. th. participation in ITI (4 times to McGrath and one to Nome) and she is the most experienced participant on foot. Tim had decided to bike to Nome this year. Soon we picked Mike up and shortly after Mark as well.IMG_2300The two brits decide to try their luck with a shortcut wearing snowshoes in the deep snow across the frozen swamp. Loreen and I agree that in 99% of cases it will not pay off to try a stunt like that. IMG_2302After a few good hours without problems the pain is back again and soon Loreen overtakes me and slowly disappear out of sight in front of me. I have no energy and for the first time on the trip down I sit down on the sled to take a break. The frustration hits me like a slap in the face. While I chewing on a  Rawbite bar, tears starts rolling down my cheeks. It turns out to be my absolute low point of the race. After a few minutes, the pressure relief valve has bursted. I feel better and I hear myself saying “this is what I do” (the mantra would follow me through the rest of the race). I put some music in my ears and continues. An hour or two hours later I catch back up to Loreen in the rolling hills going towards Shell Lake and we agree to share a cabin for there for the night. Loreen is 58 years old, mother of four and carries pictures of her grandchildren. She is delighted to share pearls of wisdom from her vast experience.IMG_2303IMG_2307Shell Lake Lodge (mile 108) is not an official checkpoint but a welcome stop on the way.The owner Zoe is a sweet 70 year old lady who has built the cabin herself from the ground with her children back in 1975. The Brits have had a lucky day and arrives 20 minutes earlier. While Zoe is chatting away like we were the first guests of the year Mark comes over and whispers; “Stop asking her questions – I want my food so I can get out of here”. The rumors are right – Zoe makes the best burgers. IMG_2308Since we have not made a reservation – we can not have a cabin for the night. Loreen ague our case and finally Zoe lets us sleep on the floor for 15$.  I lie down by the door – hoping for a slightly lower temperature. I can not calm down and sleep. The legs hurt like crazy and there is too much commotion going on in the cabin. The Spanish runners come in and Russell, is a US Goastguard helicopter pilot pass by briefely. After 2 hours Loreen gets up and ask if I want to continue. She can not sleep either. So we pack up and leave Shell Lake Lodge at 11:30 pm.IMG_2310Day 4

The trail towards the third checkpoint at Finger Lake was fortunately flatter and easier for the legs. It was great to be under way again slogging through the night. The body immediately felt so much better in the cold air outside. At one point we pass a stretch of dense vegetation while Loreen is in the lead and suddenly there are objects flying towards us through the dark. My heart stops until I realize it is just Russell that has ambushed us with a bunch of snowballs. Scary and still so funny at the same time.IMG_2317Just before sunrise, we arrived at Winter Lake Lodge on Finger Lake (mile 135). Mark was heading back out after biviing on the trail and a brief stop at the checkpoint. While I was wolfing down a big dirty breakfast burrito with black rice and beans, I was trying to sort out the first of our two drop back. As you can not send animal products and lithium batteries into the United States, I had ordered everything at REI and got my wife’s cousin Jenni in Virginia to be pack it and send it to Alaska. We filled up the camelbaks and made ready to hit the trail. Suddenly Steve appears from a cabin having spent the night there. Apparently he got sick the day before and thought his race was over. His companion Beat is long gone but Steve feels better and prepares to hit the trail with us.IMG_2342IMG_2345IMG_2366So the three of us soldiered on towards Puntilla with the target of arriving there the same evening. So we would be able to cross the Alaska Range through Rainy Pass the following day. But first we are entertained with the infamous Happy River Steps. A series of short but super-steep hills up and down. I slide on my butt down of the steepest hills and try to imagine what it would be like flying down these slopes attached to 20 eager huskies running for their life. We make a brief stop on the sled every 3 hours. The trail is a constant challenge. The hundreds of snowmobiles which had passed here during Irondag had made the trail into a mogul inferno. Towards evening I had a little more energy and went on ahead. But it was still a long way to go. One rolling hill was replaced by another. I was so tired at the end that I nearly bivied. I could not find any suitable spots, so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. After 23 hours on the road, I reached the checkpoint in Puntilla at Rainy Pass Lodge (mile 165). I was completely exhausted and I had clearly gone over that thin line in pushing myself. I was so out of it which felt rather scary.IMG_237410476662_10200490549504423_769134862737167075_oPhoto: Petr Ineman

The checkpoint was inside a small log cabin with a wood stove and a pair of bunk beds. There was noone around so I noted my arrivaltime on checkin list and sat down in a chair unable to move. The food was a choise of lukewarm cans of Heinz products sitting on the stove. I knew I should properly eat something but the only thing I could manage was to roll over in the bed. I slept the second my head hit the pillow and I slept like a baby for 5 hours. That turned out to be the only proper sleep I got all race.IMG_2377Day 5

The alarm clock rang at 5 and an hour later we were on the move. A batch of freeze-dried eggs and bacon was sitting good in the stomach. Shortly we were above the tree line and the landscape opened up in front of us. It reminded me of the wide open landscape of Hardangervidda in Norway. We were lucky with the weather for our trip across Rainy Pass. Visibilty was not as good as I had hoped but it was a calm day with temperatures just below freezing. It took us 10 hours to reach the pass where we stopped for the mandatory images.IMG_2385IMG_2386IMG_2408Just after the pass it started snowing and the weather worsened minute by minute. We hurried down the other side. Although we were going down, it was certainly not going any easier. The snow was so soft we eventually had to use the snowshoes. Soon bushes and rocks where everywhere making progress challenging. Further down You head into the notorius Dalzell Gorge. A narrow gorge covered with ice and creek running beneath it. Without any extra effort I had suddenly pulled ahead. It was a bit of a minefield navigating a safe route through it. In addition to the taxi ride to the airport this was here probably the most dangerous moment of the trip. There were large and small holes in the ice with flowing water underneath and the fresh snow hidding the cracks in the ice. In a strange way I felt incredibly comfortable in the situation. IMG_2417IMG_2429IMG_2434After a long trek through the canyon, I came out on a great river. The wind had picked up and the breeze felt hard and cold on my back. I was lucky to be able follow Mark Hines footprints in the dark all the way to Rob’s Roadhouse in Rohn (mile 200). Rohn is really just a place on the map that contains a small dirt runway and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) shelter-cabin. Since the hut is usually occupied by checkers and vets from the dog sled race the ITI checkpoint is located in a tent close by. Kathi and Bill’s neighbor  from Chickaloon Adrian came out of the tent with that huge smile and offered me brads from the grill. Best hotdog I have ever had. Unlike the previous checkpoint hosted by commercial enterprises this one is ITI´s own. Manned with fantastic people who live and breathe the ITI.  Within an hour came Loreen and Steve rolled in.IMG_2435IMG_2437IMG_2441Day 6

The checkpoint is named after the former aidstation captain Rob Kehrer who drowned in a packraft accident last summer in Alaska Winderness Classic. His widow Tamra was part of the crew this year. One of Rob’s rules that still applies: “No Facebook’ing in Rohn – Wilderness Race in progress”. Something aboat a little too eager racer from the Midwest and a sat phone:-) After a few hours of poor and interrupted sleep I woke up after my worst nightmare ever. I sat there for a while. Phew – my children were not dead anyway and suddenly 150 miles through Interior Alaska in mid winter seamed pretty trivial.IMG_2452IMG_2453IMG_2462Loreen being the veteran were calling the the shots when to get back out on track. I get shoveled a bowl of oatmeal down and left Rohn with Loreen and Steve. The legs were still completely shot but I felt a tiny bit better. Suddenly the two others disappeared from sight behind me. The long stretch of 60 miles without snow I had feared was now covered by the thin layer of powder, thanks to the snowfall the night before. This caused the pulk to glide considerably better than I had anticipated. The view back towards the mountains were magnificent and breathtaking. I felt tiny in this huge landscape, but also being safe and comfortable in way I have never experienced in the mountains before. I started daydreaming about finishing the race in under seven days and as a bonus, maybe catch up to Mark Hines and battle him for the Rookie of the Year title. I hiked hard most of the day, just to explode completely and have the wheels come off in the evening.IMG_2474The stretch between 90 mile stretch Rohn and Nikolai was a big mouthful, but I had my eyes set on a BLM Safety Cabin 45 miles out of Rohn. As I approached the trail got harder and harder. The huge tussocks made progress slow and tiring. The objectives from the morning was long gone and I just dreamed of reaching the cabin and lying down.IMG_2480IMG_2481The Bear Creek Cabin is located a mile off  trail (at the only dry spot in the summer) and I figured the trip would take 20 minutes. The tussocks were so bad I ended up carrying my sled most of the way taking me 45 minutes. After 18 hours on your feet I finally arrived. There first watersource between Rohn and Nikolai were still 10 miles further ahead. So I had to make it with what I had left. Someone had been kind enough to leave some of water in a pot on the stove (kind of stupid if it freezes). But when I put it in my Jetboil stove soap bubbles were everywhere. Dammit… Instead I melted about 300-400 ml. of water from the snow I could scrape together in front of the hut. The soap-water I drank through my Lifestraw (water filter). The Bear Creek Inn served the world’s best dinner menu imaginable consisting of chicken and rice with a sideorder of Buffalo jerky and hot Starbucks cacao and “astronaut icecream” (freeze-dried ice cream) for desert. All eaten while sitting comfortable in my sleepingbag. Just as I was falling asleep Loreen came in cursing the bad trail just like me an hour earlier.IMG_2485Day 7

We left the hut together a few hours later but soon Loreen had sort something out with her boots and I went ahead. Once again I ended up carrying all my equipment back to the main trail. Suddenly a dark wall came tumbling towards me and a few minutes later I found myself in a snowstorm. I just managed to get balaclava pulled up over the nose and getting the goggles out of the sled. Shortly before Sullivan Creek where I could get water I saw Mark’s fresh footprints after he had been biviing for the night. The fire inside was back and I figured it would still be possible to complete the 350 miles just under a full week and probably to catch Mark as well. However, like the previous day all strengh and motivation evaporated during the day.IMG_2486IMG_2492Shortly before Nikolai a snowmobile come out to meet me on the river. It was the Petrushka family, hosting the checkpoint, who just wanted to make sure I could find their house in the village. I knew that I was forced to rest before the final push to the finish in McGrath, some 50 miles away.IMG_2517IMG_2506IMG_2526IMG_2529Day 8

While the whole family sat in the couch in front of the telly, I hung clothes to dry over the stove. I got a portion of spaghetti before I got to bed. After having rolled around in bed a few hours with a badly swollen ankle and very sore legs I gave up.  I left Nikolai with Loreen in the middle of the night. We hiked together until noon when I pushed ahead to finish the job. I did not have to save my legs for the next 600 or 700 miles from McGrath to None like her. The wind was blowing hard but fortunately it was a tailwind.IMG_2531IMG_2542IMG_2558The snow got really soft and punchy and I finally gave up and put on the snowshoes. Part of me just wanted this over with as soon as possible, while another part of wanted to continue the adventure a little longer. Towards evening the temperature dropped to minus 20 making passage without snowshoes possible. A few snowmobile came screaming by in the dark. I had been warned of drunk snowmobiles. Since Nikolai is dry village the young men go to McGrath to buy booze and have a few sips on the way back. Finally I came to a cardboard sign out with the Kuskokwim River which indicated that there were 10 miles to the finish. It seemed “this is what I do” no longer worked. With my speed of 2.5 miles/hour it would take another 4 hours. A thought that was completely unbearable. I was so ready to be done but I decided to try to enjoy the last hours and appreciate how challenging the event actually was throughout. IMG_2562IMG_2559Those tactics worked well until a new cardboard sign indicated 5.5 miles to the end. I could not contemplate spending another 2 hours underway. Two snowmobiles came up behind me and I stepped right out into the deep snow beside the trail. I was Bill and Adrian heading back from Rohn. We exchanged a few words before they disappeared in a smelly cloud of exhaust and gasoline. Then I started to run out of sheer frustration. The 2 scooters with sleds towing behind them left the snow ridiculous soft to run in. But it did not matter anymore, because I just wanted to be done. With a few miles to go I hit a snowcovered road leading all the way to McGrath. It was an indescribable great feeling to turn right at the large ITI banner at the roadside and take the final steps toward the front door of the Schneiderheize´s house. No doubt that this was the place the party was going down with sleds, snowmachines and fat-bikes parked everywhere.IMG_2566IMG_2569The time stopped at 177.5 hours or 7 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes, a few hours after “Rookie of the Year” Mark Hines. 5 runners had beat me to McGrath. Among them Beat who was on his way out of the door to continue the journey to Nome. To come into Tracy and Peter livingroom was the best finishline you can imagine. A warm stove, beer and all the food you can eat. It was like going to heaven. Only the winner Dave Johnston had left. The rest of “runners” were still here. It was super nice to shake hands and tell the tales from the trails. A few hours later, Steve and Loreen came into their pitstop. Mike Thomas from the UK came a day later after spending the last night out in minus 40 conditions.1966291_10200490561664727_2011689230425836203_oPhoto: Petr Ineman11077013_10200490563384770_3210767109384784056_oPhoto: Petr InemanIMG_2574IMG_6107IMG_2582

Beat and Steve is still on their way to None in extremely difficult conditions with deep snow and temperatures below minus 40 degrees. Loreen and her husbond Tim unfortunatly had to abandon there attempt to reach Nome this year. I need to gather some more experience, vacationtime and money before I’m ready for the long trip. So I will be back next Year for another funrun to McGrath 🙂IMG_2578Thanks to Rawbite, CEP Denmark, Bjergkæden, Ryders Denmark, Knut Korczak, Ravn Hamberg and Sailors Drydock for their help with the equipment.IMG_2311

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