The northern lights dance across the sky near McGrath. Photo courtesy Kyle Durand, Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Every March, the world’s attention turns to the Iditarod, the annual sled dog race across Alaska. But while millions of people follow the race’s ceremonial start in Anchorage, few of them know that dozens of competitors are already ahead of the mushers on the same course, with only their physical and mental abilities to carry them through a largely uninhabited wilderness beset by some of the harshest environmental conditions on earth.
For two decades there has been an annual human-powered race to Nome along the famed Iditarod Trail, and shorter competitive sprints following parts of the same route date back even further. Since 2002, the event has operated under the name Iditarod Trail Invitational, and it has become the world’s premier winter endurance competition. Each year, a week before the Iditarod dogsled race starts, entrants gather at the starting line at Knik Lake on fat bikes, skis, or foot to travel either the full 1,000 miles to Nome, or a shorter 350-mile trip to the interior village of McGrath.
“I discovered the Iditarod Trail Invitational almost by accident when I was a new Alaska resident,” Jill Homer said. “I was completely floored that this was a thing that people actually did—ride bikes across Alaska, in the winter, in tougher conditions than I could imagine.”
Homer set the women’s record in 2016, completing the full course in 17 days, 3 hours, and 46 minutes. It’s an accomplishment she chronicled in her book Into the North Wind, which is rich with details of the physical, mental, and emotional toll the ITI takes on competitors, and the extensive preparations required just to reach the starting line. “I went through all of the motions,” Homer recalled, “from ‘that’s insane’ to ‘what an adventure’ to ‘why not me?’”
Winter cycling is hardly a new thing in the far north. Stampeders hauled bicycles over Chilkoot Pass during the Gold Rush and rode them year-round. And after sparkling metal was found on the beaches of western Alaska in 1898, a few intrepid prospectors rode from Dawson City to Nome via the frozen Yukon River.
There were always hearty individuals who rode through Alaska’s coldest months, but it was the growing popularity of mountain bikes in the 1980s that brought cyclists onto winter recreational trails. In March of 1987, a scruffy group of them held the first Iditabike race along 200 miles of the Iditarod Trail. In 1991, the race added skiing and running divisions, and the name was changed to Iditasport. Longer distances were added as options for endurance athletes. In 1989, a handful of riders braved the trail from Anchorage to Nome, but the full distance wasn’t a formal division for Iditasport contestants until 2000.
Two years later, following organizational disagreements with the Iditasport, Bill Merchant broke away and founded the Iditarod Trail Invitational (the Iditasport quickly folded, but has been revived in recent years).
Soon afterward, fat bikes, which handle remarkably well on trails packed into snow, appeared on the market. This launched a new era in winter cycling, and endurance athletes from around the world began making their way to Alaska for the ultimate winter race.
“I was constantly looking for opportunities to go out and experience adventure and the wilderness,” said Kyle Durand, the current ITI race director. A career Navy veteran who has competed in many endurance events, he made his first ITI appearance in 2015 in the 350-mile division. “At one point I came across this event, the ITI, attended the camp, and then did the race,” Durand continued. “I fell in love with it and became a very ardent supporter of the event and the values behind it. Self-sufficiency, adapting to adversity, it’s something that resonates strongly with me.”
Durand became a co-director of the ITI in 2017, and will be entirely in charge this year. Bill Merchant’s former wife, Kathi Merchant, was involved with the event for 18 years and was also a co-director for much of that time until her retirement after the 2020 race. She explained that potential racers must first finish two qualifying events before applying. These include winter races in North America and Europe, as well as a training camp hosted by the ITI. First-time entrants must also complete the 350 before being considered for the 1,000-mile competition.
It’s not just the physical endurance of athletes that race officials need to be assured of. They also want to be confident that those setting out can deal with every possibility the trail can throw at them.
“We’ve had standing water,” Merchant said. “We’ve had open water, we’ve had holes in the river, people have fallen into water, people have gotten wet at 25 below outside of Rohn.” From both a managerial and a participatory standpoint, she said, “The logistics are very much influenced by weather.”
Merchant knows firsthand the difficulties competitors can face. In 2008, she was the first woman in race history to go the full distance. But because of heavy snow, she said, “I pushed 300 miles to Nome. And I pushed 170 miles to McGrath. I’ve done a lot of bike pushing.”
Those conditions are why Durand said that for success in the ITI, “The biggest component is the mental resiliency. Being able to accept the situation as it is and to find ways to adapt.” He added, “I tell people, you’re not in a bike race, you’re in survival mode with a bicycle.”
Tyson Flaharty, who has completed the 350 three times, said that after a couple of fast finishes in previous years, he learned how hard it could be during the 2020 race. “We saw lots of crazy wind, heavy snow, and extreme cold weather (almost -50),” he explained. “I have gotten pretty close to screwing up,” he said. “In 2019, I got some frostbite that could have ended my winter riding. That has healed and I have had to figure out how to survive. I have started to figure out how long I can go without sleep. The last couple of years I have had big problems with getting too sleepy on the trail. On the third night of the 2020 race, I kept falling asleep on the bike and walking off the trail at -45 degrees. It was a pretty intense night at one to three miles per hour and pushing the bike for 12 hours.”
Tim Hewitt, who has completed the 1,000-mile race 10 times, mostly on foot, and whose exploits were recounted in another of Jill Homer’s books, 8,000 Miles Across Alaska, is well acquainted with the sort of conditions Flaharty encountered. He told me that state of mind is a key component to finishing.
“I really understand that if I take what the trail gives and don’t get too frustrated when the pace is slow that I will eventually get to Nome,” Hewitt said. “The trail is sometimes discouraging, but it’s the same for everyone, so it’s best just to make miles when you can and know when it is agonizingly slow that if you just put your head down and walk that it will eventually get better.”
At the other end of the spectrum, unusually good trail conditions can lead to remarkable feats. In 2014, Jeff Oatley smashed the previous record when he biked to Nome in 10 days, 2 hours, and 53 minutes. He credited a well-packed trail and optimal weather for setting a pace that was faster than it took 44 past Iditarod champions—including every winner prior to 1995—to travel the same distance by dogsled. It’s a record few expect to see topped anytime soon.
More than a Race
For participants and organizers alike, the ITI is more than a race. It’s a community built around a shared experience of overcoming physical and mental hurdles while experiencing vast stretches of the Alaskan wilderness, far from roads, and passing through a handful of tiny communities.
Reflecting on her rides along the Iditarod Trail, Homer said, “The landscape is otherworldly in its beauty. I experience all of the emotions out there. I gaze into the darkest shadows of my soul. The intensity and uniqueness of the experience is what brings many of us back, year after year.”
“All these people obviously are addicted to ultra-endurance,” said Merchant, who never quits marveling at the feats of endurance, wilderness skills, and athleticism she’s seen on the ITI.
Maintaining the special nature of the Iditarod Trail Invitational while bringing more attention to the race is one of Durand’s objectives as he leads the race into its third decade. He wants the world to know about the self-powered athletes who scramble through Alaska’s wilds every March.
“The things these people do out on the trail are amazing,” he said. “These people are amazing, and the feats that they accomplish are absolutely amazing. And very few people in the world know about this.”