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The Iditarod Invitational 2007
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Thursday 15th March 2007


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The Iditarod Trail Invitational is open to anyone who cares to submit their sporting CV for race director Bill Merchant’s scrutiny. However, before you reach for your email you might just want to consider the following facts:

  • The race starts at 2pm on the last Saturday in February at Knik Lake in Alaska.
  • There are two race distances, 350 miles finishing in McGrath and 1,100 miles finishing in Nome.
  • You can bike, ski or travel on foot.
  • For the shorter race there are seven mandatory checkpoints where arrival and departure times are recorded.
  • You supply two drop bags weighing no more than 10lb each which are flown in to the 130 and 210 mile points. These contain your essential supplies. Other than that you carry everything you need.
  • There are no mandatory rest periods.
  • There are no minimal kit requirements

It looks so short on a map...

2007 was to be my third Iditarod. I’d completed the 2004 350 mile race by bike in six and a half days which included about 10 hours of sleep and over a hundred miles of pushing. In 2006 I raced the 350 on foot. After 130 miles my left foot swelled up so much I couldn’t get my shoe on for a couple of weeks. I scratched.

Preparation for the race starts several months in advance, fitness being the prime consideration but equipment choice a close second. Each additional kilo that is hauled slows you down a little and in the quest for lightweight travel there has to be a careful balance between safety and speed. My personal choice is to play it safe; I can’t compete with the fast boys so I err on the side of caution and plan to finish with nothing frozen. Each year there are a number of cases of frostbite making body parts more susceptible to future damage. Toes get cold on the bike as the feet are passive. I have a pair of winter boots that are rated to -50C, my friend Carl has the same boots and in 2006 he froze his big toe on the first night when the temperature dropped to -40C.

Carl's big toe!The 2007 start is without ceremony and this year there are blue skies, no wind and a temperature around -10C, about as perfect as you can get. Rumours abound that the trail is hard packed for at least a hundred miles bringing speculation that this might be record year. I have changed my packing strategy this year and have opted for two front panniers to carry all my kit apart from my sleeping bag and mat which sit on the rear rack and a bar bag that carries my trail food, camera and Garmin GPS programmed with a number of key waypoints, it is my insurance policy in event of whiteout or if I get lost.

A number of bikes and sleds are sparsely loaded. It is not uncommon for some racers to forego the luxury of a sleeping bag in favour of down trousers, jacket and lightweight bivi, the combination of which provides an hour or two of uncomfortably cold rest. Such racers hope they can make it to the next checkpoint where they can rest indoors out of the cold, it doesn’t always work out that way...

Almost as much clothing as you need on a ride back home! For some reason Pete B likes liquorice!
Almost as much clothing as you need on a ride back home! For some reason Pete B likes liquorice!

The early part of the race sees the bikers pull away from those on foot splitting the field in half. This is useful as the checkpoints are small affairs; a riverside lodge, small cabin or even someone’s house. After 50 miles and 6 hours I arrive in 10th place at Luce’s lodge on the Yentna river and stop briefly for some hot food drink and warmth. Jan Kopka from Czechoslovakia has ridden with me, he places his polypro socks too near the stove, and they melt.

A lightly loaded bike Someone was here before me!
My (fairly) lightly loaded bike. Note the extra fat tyres for snow use. Someone was here before me!

It’s now dark and temperatures drop to -25C or colder. I ride through the night up the wide frozen river and hit Skwentna just before 4am. I dry my clothes, briefly sleep, eat and go. The trail now climbs into the shell hills and I ride undulating singletrack which finally levels off and brings me to Finger Lake lodge and the foothills of the Alaska range in which Denali sits. I get my first drop bag, take extra batteries, some food for the trail, eat, rest and move on. The trail to Puntilla is arduous, steep icy hills and a 60lb bike to push. I arrive at Puntilla at 2:30pm with the intent of resting until the early hours when I will make the long ride over Rainy Pass. It’s spectacular here, small cabins nestled amongst the mountains. The checker informs me there is no trail over Rainy Pass and the best option is over Hells Gate further down the Ptarmigan valley, this adds an extra 30 miles to the next checkpoint. Nothing is guaranteed in this race other than adventure. I decide to leave immediately in order to keep to my schedule. I ride intermittently with Jan but he drops behind, I’m unaware he has put his foot through ice and frozen his boot. My feet get colder and I wiggle my toes until they bleed. Around 3am I decide to bivi and climb into my down bag for a couple of hours and warm my feet. Steve Reifenstuhl, one of the walkers, passes me and asks if I’m OK, we’re both off our maps.  I decide to make a move, repacking my bag is slow with gloves on. I eventually crest the summit and drop down into the Kuskokwim gorge where I briefly pause and look around in the pre-dawn moonlight. My head torch picks out two bright eyes staring at me from about 20 metres, I stare back, and we are locked like this for maybe 2 minutes when the eyes run off. It’s almost certainly a wolf and I later learn wolf tracks were seen in the vicinity. After 21 hours I arrive at Rohn having crossed the Alaska range. Rohn is simple and beautiful, a cabin and a couple of tents. I get my second drop bag and eat soup and crackers until my stomach can take no more. I take a big rest here, I’m in no hurry to leave the mountains.

Leaving Rohn Leaving Mount Egypt
Leaving Rohn Leaving Mount Egypt

 

I leave late morning after a large breakfast of soup and pancakes and begin the 90 miles to Nikolai. Half of this part of the trail winds through dense forest, the second half through a flat burned forest now stunted. It’s long and cold, around -25C in the sun. About 30 miles from Nikolai I puncture and stand there in disbelief, thankful there is no wind. It takes 15 minutes to change the tube, I’m careful not to shatter the pump whose moving parts have become frigid. The trail is hard and I can run my tyres at a high pressure, when the going is soft the pressure has to be reduced to allow the tyre to float on the crust. I’m probably averaging 10mph into Nikolai.

Flat trye and an iced up rim The welcome at Skwenta
Flat tyre and an iced up rim The welcome at Skwenta

At the penultimate checkpoint it’s always tempting to carry on straight for the finish 50 miles away but again I stop to dry my clothes, eat and rest, I want to enjoy the last section in daylight. I leave early next morning and ride on and off with Jan across frozen swamps, down huge rivers and over breathtaking meadows. The views are immense the silence absolute - we see nobody. It takes just under eight hours to get to McGrath and a feeling of elation and sadness that the journey has come to an end. In McGrath we are the guests of Peter Schneiderheinze and his wife Tracey who host the final checkpoint. They provide an abundance of warmth, food and hospitality beyond all expectation. I stay a couple of nights, as do other racers who are now friends with a shared experience, and we talk of epic events too numerous to recount here and whether we might return again.


Alan Tilling finished the 2007 Iditarod Trail Invitational in 12th place after 6 days 1 hr 50 mins. He’d like to thank Endura Cycle Clothing for their support (www.endura.co.uk) and Bill and Kathi Merchant for putting on the race (www.alaskaultrasport.com). He’s now safely back home but frequently wakes up in the middle of the night wondering where the hell he is.

Pete Basinger broke the course record finishing in 3 days 5 hrs 40 mins which included 13 hrs total time rested. He estimated an intake of somewhere between 7000 and 9000 calories each day.

Less than half the racers who started made it to McGrath.



 

 
Have Your Say
Re: The Iditarod Invitational 2007
Posted by jose's mom
Posted at 03:07:59 17th Mar 2007
Reply to this

Thanks for the great description & photos. As mother of Jose Dundee, still on his way to Nome, I'm thankful for all the racers & their cooperative spirit. And their photos!
 
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