Going into the Iditarod Trail Invitational, my primary focus was on savoring and embracing whatever experience the trail threw my way. My secondary focus was to do whatever it took to make it the full 350 miles to the finish in McGrath. In two previous attempts (‘ 08 and ‘09), I had dropped out, not having made it beyond mile 150. This time around I really wanted to start much slower, and speed up only if I was feeling good later in the race. Therefore, I was actually relieved the day before the race when looking at a weather forecast brought up statements like, “blizzard warning” and “10 to 15 inches of new snow.” I figured it couldn’t be that bad, and anything that helped me stick to my plan of starting slow would be a good thing.
Strangely though, on the morning of the start, there was very little new snow and the winds were calm. Had the storm bypassed us completely or was it just running late? We had no way to know, so all we could do at 2:00 pm when the race director said, “go,” was to begin our journey down the trail into the unknown.
I never really had an answer to the question, why am I doing this race? I guess in many ways I was as baffled by why I was doing it as other people were. I just knew that I really wanted to do it, and that this time I was going to do it “right.” But when we hit the first stretch of trail I wasn’t so sure anymore. The trail was softer than usual, and almost right away my hamstrings and hips were overworking to address the extra drag of pulling a sled through such soft snow. How the hell was I going to drag this thing for 350 miles if I was already feeling pretty worked over just a few miles down the trail?
As we moved West toward the Susitna River the snow became softer and deeper. Out of stubbornness, I had kept from putting on my snowshoes, but finally at about mile 12 I had no choice but to put them on. In hindsight, I probably should have put them on at the start. In good years this trail can be so firm that you don’t wear snowshoes at all, and here we were putting them on at mile 12.
I was travelling in close proximity to several runners, Tim Hewitt, Beat Jegerlehner, Anne Ver Hoef, Dave Johnston, Andrea Hambach, Frank Janssens, and Rick Freeman, and really struggling to find any kind of rhythm. Darkness had set in by the time we reached Flathorn Lake (mile 20), and I was not doing well. The soft snow was making forward progress really slow, and I was already wondering if this whole thing was just one big mistake. Was I ridiculously underprepared for this challenge? It’s funny now to think back to this part of the race because these first 20 miles were some of the best 20 miles of trail we would have the entire race. Yet at the time, I was certain I would not make it unless the trail got much better.
Instead of getting better though, the trail quickly got much worse. It began to snow quite hard as we travelled across Flathorn Lake, and the wind had kicked up enough that it was almost impossible to find the trail. We looked for a shortcut that would keep us off the lake, out of the wind, but gave up after wasting 20 or 30 minutes looking for it in waist-deep snow. On the lake things continued to deteriorate. We were breaking trail through 15 or 20 inches of new snow and visibility was so poor that with every half dozen steps we had to stop to make sure we were still heading in the correct direction. Somewhere in the midst of this we ran into a lone biker, Phil Hofstetter, who was making his way back toward the Eastern end of the lake. When we asked him where he was going, he said that he couldn’t go any other direction because the snow was too deep so he was headed in the only direction he could move, even though it was taking him directly back toward where we had started the race 6 hours earlier. With our snowshoes we were eventually able to break a trail across the lake and on into Dismal Swamp. Somewhere, in the midst of this chaos that was Flathorn Lake, I began to feel a lot better. My hips were finally loosening up and I began to let go of the stress of how slow the trail was.
We spent the remaining several hours of that night, until 4 am, covering perhaps 5 or 6 more miles – maybe less. Eventually our group of “runners” caught up to a group of about a dozen bikers, and we all pushed forward through Dismal Swamp at a pace that was slower than 1 mph. Eventually, the snow was so deep that I picked my sled up and carried it on my back for a few hours, a feature of my sled that I had hoped I wouldn’t have to use. When we finally stopped to bivy for a few hours before dawn, we had covered perhaps 35 miles in 15 hours, and unless some snowmachines came through in the night and broke a trail, things were likely to get worse before they got better.
The amazing thing about day two was that it was even slower than day one. We hit the trail around 7 am, dropped onto the Susitna River, pushed up river a few miles, and headed up the Yentna River. All the while breaking trail through 30+ inches of new snow that had fallen in the first 24 hours of the race! We took turns leading the way and continued on at a snail’s pace. At about 3 pm Tim and I made it to Luce’s Lodge (mile 50), meaning we had covered only 15 miles in 8 hours that day. I was trying to stay away from doing the math, but it didn’t take any actual math to have a very complete understanding of the fact that we were moving ridiculously slow.
After a burger, a sandwich, and some fries at Luce’s, I hit the trail and pushed up river to the first official checkpoint of the race at Yentna Station (mile 57). For a few miles in this stretch the trail was actually not too bad, but still all in snowshoes, and still all walking. In my two previous attempts at this race I had run about 80% of the trail to Yentna Station. This year I ran about 50 feet of this 57-mile section. Even though it was only 8 pm I decided that I needed to stop and get some sleep at the checkpoint. I had been racing for 30 hours and had only slept one. I also knew that if I slept for 4 or 5 hours that the trail might be in better shape when I got back at it. The temperature was dropping and the trail seemed like it might be on its way to setting up more firmly.
The amazing thing about day three though, was that the trail was even slower yet again! While I slept at Yentna Station, the winds had kicked up, and 30 inches of fresh snow instantly made any trail that had existed almost useless. Every now and then I could actually find the trail, but for the most part I was breaking trail all over again, and this time I was doing it solo. Tim had pushed ahead, without sleeping at Yentna, but everyone else was now behind me, resting up to hit the trail a few hours after me.
For some reason though as I plodded up the Yentna River I was in a really good mood. My body was slowly feeling better, and I began to find humor in the whole thing. We were nearing the 48th hour of the race, and all of the bikers, who often finish the 350 miles in just a bit over 72 hours, were less than 75 miles into the race. Those of us on foot were having a slightly easier time than the bikers, but not a whole lot. In 2008, I had covered 150 miles in the time that it had taken me to do 70 this year. I’m not sure why, but somehow I took a lot of solace in this miserably slow pace. I think part of me felt really excited knowing that I wasn’t going to get cheated; that if I actually made it to McGrath I was going to have to work my ass off to do it; and that it was probably going to require being out there for several days longer than I had anticipated. The idea being that the only thing better than spending 5 or 6 days trekking across the Alaskan wilderness, with all my survival gear in tow, is spending a few more days than that. Or at least this is what I told myself to help me emotionally get through these first few days.
And somehow this bizarre approach was working really well. I was in a great mood when I made it to Skwentna (checkpoint number 2, mile 90) sometime in the mid-afternoon of day three.
For me, leaving Skwentna is when the wildness of this route really begins to sink in. The trail leaves the Yentna River and begins to move through the Shell Hills, winding through beautiful forests and open meadows, with large mountains looming in the distance. Leaving Skwentna was also the point when I truly began to know that I was going to finish this race. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I felt all of my fear and apprehension slip away as I made my way up into the hills. I could feel myself becoming more and more connected to the trail with each step. Subsequently, this would be the first time that I would cry uncontrollably out on the trail, but far from the last.
I slept for a few hours that night at Shell Lake Lodge (mile 110), and then hit the trail at about 2 am, figuring I would cruise from there over to Finger Lake (checkpoint 3, mile 135) by a bit after day break. Once again the trail was nowhere near as good as I expected. It was very soft and punchy, and in many places wind drifted. Combined with this was the fact that I had not given myself enough sleep at Shell Lake. My hope was that I could push through the day on just a few hours of sleep, make my way up to Rainy Pass Lodge (mile 165) not too long after dark, and get 5 or 6 hours of sleep before hitting the trail over Rainy Pass the next day. That was the hope.
Back to reality: by 5 am I was falling asleep as I walked slowly down the trail. I told myself that if I could just make it until daybreak I would perk up. I passed Tim who had decided to bivy on the side of the trail. I knew that I needed to do the same, but I was being stubborn. Finally, it began to get light and instead of perking up I felt even more tired. I had no choice but to stop. I was stumbling sideways with very little forward momentum when I finally pulled out my bag and slept for an hour. When I packed up my stuff to hit the trail, the lone skier left in the race, Andreas, skied past me and into the overall race lead. Tim was still bivied about a mile back, and all the bikers had either dropped out or were several hours behind us pushing their bikes slowly along the trail.
When I finally rolled into the Finger Lake Checkpoint at noon, I was a mess. My ankles hurt, I needed rest, I was insanely hungry, and I was completely humbled. Just 15 hours earlier I had had this huge burst of emotion and confidence, feeling certain that I would finish this race, and now I was a total mess, unsure of everything. I walked into the checkpoint and sat down with my head on the table. I needed to cry, but I felt embarrassed to do it in front of other people (by the end of the race I stopped caring who I cried in front of). They brought me a giant plate of rice, beans, chicken, and tortillas that I ate within seconds and ordered another. While eating I emptied the trash from my jacket pockets and noticed a piece of notebook paper in the pile in the trashcan. I pulled it out and saw a drawing from Elle and a note from Corlé. The timing of this was amazing. I was having the toughest time I had had all race and just discovered a note my family had left in my pocket for me. Of course I cried again; and then I rested.
I couldn’t sleep (a common problem of mine in multi-day races), but I took a lot of time to tend to my feet (ankles needed taping), organize and dry all my gear, and mostly just get myself emotionally ready to head back out on the trail. It’s a shame to spend 5 hours at a checkpoint and not get any sleep, but in this case I needed every minute of this time just to build up the courage to take one more step down the trail. Finally, at about 5 pm I felt like I was ready. Not confident, but at least ready to give it a try. My revised plan was that I would push onward for a few hours and then bivy for 5 or 6 hours to try to catch up a bit on the sleep I hadn’t gotten in the previous 24 hours. This was one case in which I was able to stick to my plan perfectly. I went about 4 hours up the trail (which was still in pretty miserable shape with lots of drifted snow), and eventually passed Andreas and caught up to Tim, both of whom had left Finger Lake a bit before me. Andreas had stopped to bivy and was really struggling with a badly injured arm (he would later need to drop out at Rainy Pass Lodge), and when I caught Tim we decided to bivy there together. By this point of the race it was becoming really obvious that Tim and I were likely going to be around each other for most of the race. I was generally moving faster than him while we were on the move, but with the trail so rough in spots the difference was very small. Any time I could make up on him on the move, he would always make up on me by being much more efficient with his stopped time than I. He has likely traveled more human powered miles on the Iditarod Trail than anyone ever, so to say that he had things pretty dialed in and running smoothly would be a huge understatement. It was somewhere around this bivy at the end of the fourth day that I began to realize just how lucky I was to be traveling so much of this trail with Tim. I began to watch everything he did with a keen interest, as I slowly realized that everything he did had a purpose and a benefit in helping him get closer to the end.
And so it came as no surprise that when I woke up 5 hours later to hit the trail that Tim was already gone. I was very content with this though. I really needed the sleep and I knew I could catch up to him pretty easily on this hilly stretch of trail up toward Rainy Pass Lodge. Also, as I was packing up to hit the trail, Andreas and two foot racers (Anne and Rick) passed by me, and another foot racer (Frank) had done so in the night. It was really nice to hit the trail with other racers close by. After the previous morning of trying to stumble on my own to Finger Lake, it felt reassuring to have some company. Five hours of sleep is, however, a lot more than 2, and almost immediately I knew I wasn’t going to be doing any stumbling that morning. I was feeling great and within a few minutes I passed Anne, Rick, Frank (bivied), and eventually Andreas. Also somewhere in here I passed by the Happy River Steps, which is the furthest point I had ever been down the trail previously. I recognized the exact spot where I had turned around in 2008, and couldn’t help but cry once again as I passed it. I was further along the Iditarod Trail than I had ever been and I was feeling great. Sometime in the late morning I caught up to Tim, and Andreas caught back up to us around this time, as this was a really fast stretch for skiing. It was also better trail for foot travel than we had had all race. We were still wearing snowshoes, but you could actually get in a rhythm and click off 4+ mph.
Andreas, Tim, and I all arrived at Rainy Pass Lodge (checkpoint 4, mile 165) within 30 minutes of each other. There Tim and I readied ourselves for the trek over the pass. Andreas decided to stop here as he had fallen and injured his arm quite badly on Flathorn Lake, 145 miles earlier. This race draws some really tough individuals. Andreas had just skied with one arm for 4 days. And we’re not talking about a minor injury. I’m pretty sure it was broken.
As usual Tim left the checkpoint about an hour before me, but I felt like I needed that extra hour with my feet up to hopefully have the energy to make it up and over the pass, and down into Rohn before sleeping again. The trail out of the checkpoint was good for a while and then it became almost comical. The wind had done its thing here also, and left in its wake some amazingly hard sastrugi drifts. It wasn’t the surface that was the comical part though; it was the lighting that was so flat that I couldn’t see what I was walking on. Numerous times I would walk off 2-foot ledges without having any idea that they were there. At times I was crawling on all fours just so I could feel what was underneath me. It was so difficult and absurd that it was funny. And so I walked, crawled, and inched my way upward toward the pass.
Eventually, the trail got a little better and the lighting improved. And all the while I went up. I was still feeling good and so I pushed hard to try to get to the pass by dusk. Just as I made it to the top the clouds lifted and the moon came out. The air got really still and really dry and I felt like I had just walked into a new world. There were mountains everywhere, and they were really big mountains. The moonlight was so bright that I could travel without my headlamp on. I could see Tim’s light up ahead as I began to descend into the northern side of the Alaska Range. The moon lit up the mountains and reminded me of being in a canyon in southern Utah on a moonlit night. In short, this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been. And so I cried again. I caught up to Tim and he decided to stop to tend to some blisters, a broken trekking pole, and maybe sleep for a few hours. I decided to rally on down to Rohn.
The run down to Rohn was awesome. I actually ran most of this “run,” and was even able to take the snowshoes off for the last few miles! I arrived at the Rohn Checkpoint (mile 210) right at midnight and was super amped up. I was in one of the most beautiful places I had ever been; I was leading the entire race – something that no one on foot had ever done this far into the race; I was feeling really good; and I got to hangout with Bill and Rob at the checkpoint. Up until Rohn the checkpoints are all run by lodge owners out on the Iditarod Trail. They are all very generous and very helpful, but for the most part they have very little idea or interest in what you’re going through out on the trail. Bill and Rob, on the other hand, not only get it, but were anxious to hear what was happening in the race up to that point. I rambled on, telling them everything they wanted to know, and I loved every minute of it. That night in Rohn was one of the most satisfying evenings one could ever hope for. If only I could have found a way to make it last.
I hit the trail around 7 am, having only slept for 2 or 3 hours. You would think that in spending 7 hours at a checkpoint I could manage to get more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep, but not the case. It kept taking me forever to get my stuff organized, and when I would finally lie down to sleep, it would take me an hour or more to fall asleep. By this point I was moving on toward the 5-day mark of the race and I had only slept a total of 15 or 16 hours. This is more than many people try to sleep in this kind of event, but I think I do better if I focus on moving fast and resting longer – but the rest just isn’t as beneficial if I don’t actually sleep. Nonetheless, I felt good for the first several miles out of Rohn, but then I slowly began to realize that I was in desperate need of more rest. I was feeling the way I had felt two days earlier trying to make it to Finger Lake, and it was obvious that it was only going to get worse until I slept. So 3 hours after leaving the checkpoint where I had just stopped for 7 hours, I needed to stop and bivy at 10:00 in the morning. This was really frustrating to me at the time, so much so that when I did get in my bag I still couldn’t sleep because I was so frustrated by how much I needed sleep. I laid there for 3 hours, but probably got no more than 20 minutes of actual sleep. In this time Pete Basinger and Phil cruised past me on their bikes (Never thought Phil would be in this position when I saw him so deflated that first night on Flathorn Lake). I had known it was only a matter of time before the bikers would get some rideable trail and take over the race lead. Also, as I was packing up to hit the trail, Tim passed by. He, too, looked really tired, but in his usual way, just kept plugging along.
Upon leaving Rohn at 7 am I held this faint hope that if the trail was really good, maybe I could push on all the way to Nikolai (almost 90 miles past Rohn) in one shot. I knew it was kind of a longshot, but on good trail it would be possible. After a 3-hour bivy in which I didn’t really get any sleep, this was no longer an option. But at least the trail was good. Perhaps I could still make a decent day out of it? Nope. The trail didn’t stay good for very long. It got soft and slow. We were now over the Alaska Range where things are much drier and colder. The snow was like sand paper, and dragging my sled across the ground took way more effort than just a day earlier. Also, my ankles were bothering me quite a bit still. Somewhere around Farewell Lakes (mile 230), I discovered that when I ran my ankles actually loosened up and felt much better. The problem was that the surface was still not very conducive to running. I ran anyway. It was the slowest I have ever run, as anything faster would have used more than a sustainable amount of energy. Somewhere in here I caught up to Tim again, and passed him. A few hours later I was too tired to continue on any further so I stopped near a place called Buffalo Camp (mile 250) around midnight to bivy. Tim joined me after a bit, and we spent the night there together. This time I think he needed a bit more rest than usual so we decided to hit the trail together in 4 or 5 hours. I had only covered about half the mileage I had originally hoped to that day, but by that point I was having an easier time accepting these shortfalls. Almost everyday we got word from someone that the trail was really good up ahead, and every time they were wrong. It took me 6 days, but now I just didn’t really care how much ground I covered in a day. I simply moved down the trail until I was too tired to keep moving and then stopped for some rest. If the trail allowed for 75 miles or 25 miles it didn’t really make a difference to me anymore. Or so I thought.
And then came the 7th day, Buffalo Camp to Nikolai (mile 300). The trail seemed decent, but for some reason it was taking us forever to get anywhere. I thought it was only 30 miles from Buffalo Camp to Nikolai, but it’s actually closer to 45. Combine this with the slow trail and this became the hardest day of the race for me. I couldn’t tell if it was the trail or my body or something else, but I just couldn’t cover decent ground. It felt like we were moving pretty quickly, but we weren’t getting anywhere. Tim and I travelled together most of the day, as I couldn’t really move any faster than I was. In hindsight, I think that the snow was just so cold and dry that there was just too much drag to go any faster. When I tried pushing harder, within seconds I could feel that I was using too much energy, and I had to cut back. And so we plodded along. Sometime right around sunset we made it to the Nikolai Checkpoint. I was miserable most of that day, and decided that no matter how tempting it might be to take a quick stopover and get back on the trail to do the final 50 miles without sleep, I was going to sleep 5 hours in Nikolai, to increase my chances of finishing the race feeling something better than miserable.
After an hour at Nikolai, Tim decided that he was going to hit the trail and bivy along the way instead of sleeping at the checkpoint. Perhaps he headed out of there hoping that he had the energy to push through the whole night all the way to Mcgrath, but by this point I wasn’t thinking of this as too much of a race. Tim and I had travelled 300 miles together, each of us moving faster because of the influence of the other. We had made a great team, and if he had it in him to push all the way to the finish in one shot, I would have been nothing but super excited for him. And super impressed.
So I stuck to my plan. I slept for 5 hours and then hit the trail at about 2 am. The trail was good. I didn’t need snowshoes, and I was able to run. I felt like I was doing 5 or 6 mph, but it was so cold I knew my sled wasn’t likely letting me go that fast. When I left Nikolai it was 20 below zero, and I could feel it getting colder by the minute. I put on more clothes and I pressed on. There were 3 bikers and Tim ahead of me. I began to see signs of struggling travelers. Lots of stops; Body prints in the snow; Lots of footprints next to bikes in spots that should have been rideable; and eventually sleeping pad imprints just off the side of the trail. And then another one. Someone had bivied at least twice through here in the past 5 hours. And then I came across Tim bivied on the side of the trail. I woke him to try to get him to hit the trail with me, but he said he was too tired to move, but too cold to sleep. I looked at my thermometer; it was bottomed out at 35 below. I learned later that it hit 40 below that night in McGrath, which means it was probably closer to 50 below out on the rivers where we were. And there was Tim just lying on the side of the trail in his sleeping bag, seemingly unaware of the absurdity of this. I guess when you’ve done this hundreds of times maybe it ceases to be absurd. It was a special thing to witness just how comfortable and capable Tim is with such harsh conditions.
After I confirmed that he felt safe and didn’t need any help, I continued on. And I continued to run. My ankles stayed loose as long as I ran, even if I was running slower than 4 mph at times. As the sun came up the temperature seemed to dip even lower. I remember one spot in which it felt like it was significantly colder than anywhere else I had been, even though my thermometer had been bottomed out for 5 or 6 hours. Who knows maybe that spot was 55 or 60 below – nearly 100 degrees colder than day two of the race when temperatures pushed into the upper 30’s. The amazing thing was that I stayed totally warm. It’s hard to get in enough food and water when it’s that cold though, so I was trying my best to stay on top of that, aware that I was also moving closer and closer to running out of food and water.
Eventually the day warmed up to about 25 below, and I hit the ice road, which makes up the last 12 miles of the race. This was another one of those crying spots. Holy Shit. I had done it. I was going to make it. In my mind I had already made it. But then of course 12 miles of road, dragging a 35-pound sled is still really damn hard. To make it even worse the road had mile markers the entire length of it. I thought I was doing about a 10-minute mile. It was actually 12, and it was not sustainable. I ran out of food and water. My miles slowed to 15 minutes per mile. I was still running. I felt like I was running fast, but 15:00 per mile is nothing more than a steady walk on a road like this. With around 9 miles to go I decided I would run every other mile hard and then take a recovery mile. This worked for about two miles, but at mile 7 when I set out to run a hard mile, I had to stop after 30 seconds. I was completely bonking and I still had to go at least 100 more minutes. I guess it was only fitting that it would end really hard like this. It would have been kind of weird if it had ended any other way. Eventually I made it. I even ran the whole way, but by the end I doubt I was running much faster than 25 minutes per mile. It was pathetic and it was awesome. I cried a lot. And then I stumbled into the driveway of Peter and Tracey Schneiderheinze, the greatest finish line you could ever imagine. Words can’t do justice to describe how incredible Peter and Tracey are; you’ll just have to do the race to find out for yourself.
When it was said and done, I had finished in just under one full week, and I left nothing out there. I couldn’t have possibly gone on for another day. In the days since I finished, I have tried my best to reintegrate back into my “normal” life, but it takes awhile after doing something like this to feel like the world you previously knew is the same world that still exists. It will be some time down the line before I’m able to really put the whole experience into perspective, but this event is without a doubt even more epic than I had already imagined. The satisfaction in completing it is without question the greatest I have ever had from a physical endeavor, but then again the physical is such a small part of this endeavor. In winning the foot division of this race I have received a free entry into next year’s race. I have had several people ask if I’m planning to use that entry. Right now I have no idea. The thought of doing this race ever again seems completely terrifying to me, but the thought of not doing it again seems like such a wasted opportunity to experience something so huge and profound. The good thing is that I don’t have to decide anytime soon.