Not many people can say they have completed the 1000-mile Iditarod race from Seward to Nome.
It’s a grueling, punishing race for man and animal through the interior of Alaska and some of the roughest terrain in the western hemisphere where winds can gust at 120 mph and temperatures can drop to -50 or below.
Even fewer, 11 to be exact, can say they traversed the distance on foot.
Inspired by Joe Redington Sr., the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), has evolved into an event for skiers, fat bikers and runners.
It starts a week before the mushers begin their race.
Runners with a sled full of provisions start their journey at Knik, Alaska, about a week before mushers.
The full race crosses the Alaska Range to Nome, a shorter version, 350 miles, stops at McGrath.
Bill and Kathi Merchant, the race directors, understand the event can quickly turn from a race into a struggle for survival. Weather and trail conditions change rapidly, requiring participants to undergo an application process. The Merchants meticulously screen applicants, including an actual interview.
Kathi Merchant encourages the racers to ask questions.
“I can tell by the kind of questions they [the applicants] ask what kind of experience they have,” Merchant said. “Anyone can have a race resume…but if they have a DNF [did not finish], I want to know why they DNF’d. If they have DNF multiple times, that’s a warning flag. You don’t have to be super-fast, but I like to see that people stick it out.”
The interviews determine if applicants have the grit to survive in the Alaska Range without assistance. When evaluating a racer’s experience, organizers only consider winter events and give priority to those experienced in winter camping, survival, self-sufficiency and navigation.
Unlike other races, competitors enjoy some freedom in choosing the safest routes as they traverse frozen swamps, vast, wind-swept open spaces, and mountains blocking their way, though they are required to make checkpoints.
One of the most anticipated checkpoints is the town of McGrath, 350 miles along the trail. The shorter race ends there. David Johnston of Willow, Alaska holds the course record of 4 days, 1 hour and 38 minutes. Johnston also runs the Susitna 100, a 100-mile race along the Susitna River, which takes place a week before the ITI.
The route to McGrath can be dangerous, as Johnston recalls one particular stretch when the race took a route through “Hell’s Gate”. With 40mph winds, the temperature dropped to -40 on a 70-mile stretch with no chance of being evacuated.
“A lot of people had to leave the race because they tried to sleep during that section and got frostbite,” Johnston recalled. “I knew that if I laid down to sleep there, I would freeze to death so I kept going for twenty-four hours without any sleep at all. You just really hope nothing breaks down like your headlight stops working and you’re too cold to change the battery.”
For Johnston, his highlight is finishing in McGrath, a town which he says is very hospitable, warm, with plenty of food and cold beer for everyone.
“If merchants [in McGrath] know that it’s me coming out,” Johnston said, “they’ll have some cans of Budweiser ready for me and then I start telling stories!”
Those continuing, like Beat Jegerlehner and Tim Hewitt, know they are in for difficult challenges after McGrath. Leaving the warmth and good company behind, they continue through the wilderness.
Jegerlehner writes software for Google but he loves few things more than shutting off his technology and running through the Alaska Range in February. He has completed the ITI three times and has extensive ultra-distance running experience in the U.S. and Europe.
Hewitt, a lawyer from Pennsylvania, holds the ITI’s 1000-mile record: 19 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes. Prior to the ITI, he left his mark on other daunting ultra-races like The Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race through Death Valley. The year he ran it temperatures soared to 126-degrees in the infamous desert.
What compelled Hewitt to run the ITI? After years of competing at an elite level across the country, the frozen arctic was the only remaining challenge for him.
“I had confidence from the other races I had completed like Death Valley,” Hewitt explained. “That confidence came from running the other races, running across Death Valley and having tested myself in bad situations. I felt like I could do it. I wasn’t overconfident because I didn’t know what was ahead, and that scared me, but I felt physically that I could do it.”
The first time he ran the full ITI, he recalls a particularly painful experience at Eagle Island Checkpoint, around mile 500. The checkpoint is a tent on a frozen river. At 2 AM, he was squinting at a tiny beam of light in the distance when he stepped into a moose track and almost completely fractured his right tibia.
Hewitt said, “I thought I snapped my knee. I really did and from that point on my leg was so swollen I couldn’t even take my shoe off. On the steep climbs, like on the little climb coming out of the river, I had to drop down on my hands and knees to take the pressure off that leg. At every village I was in, I stopped to buy more Tylenol.”
Hewitt ran 500 miles, while pulling a sled, to complete the race.
Far from being a one-time experience, he has completed the race seven times and returns with tales of the trail and near death encounters. These are survival stories where the margin of error is slim and seemingly small decisions can be the difference between life and death.
Navigating these obstacles is even more impressive considering many of the runners suffer hallucinations during the race.
Being on the trail for so many days, running non-stop through the night in the cold, eventually leads to hallucinations. Some people see moose charging through the trees, others see gnomes and trolls, while others spend hours trying to climb nonexistent fences.
David Johnston fondly remembers the first time his wife ran a 100-mile race with him and watching her hallucinate for the first time. It is just part of the experience for ultra-marathoners. Hewitt’s rule of thumb is that if you are not sleep-deprived, you are probably not running enough.
Hewitt, the analytical lawyer at heart, believes there are two types of hallucinations. One is when the brain is exhausted and tries to make sense of what it is enduring, and the other is when people fall asleep and continue moving while dreaming bizarre dreams. They make surviving that much more challenging.
“I’ve had maybe four times when I thought I might not make it out [of the race] alive because of weather issues,” Hewitt explained. All who complete the race have similar stories.
Jegerlehner remembers one dark night in 2015 when he crossed the Tatina River near Rohn Roadhouse with “rotten” ice, or ice not frozen solid. The water flowed over the ice and for a mile he slugged through ankle-deep water with the growing sense of danger as the sound of flowing, open water intensified.
“I was really, really frightened because the Tatina is a big river and if you fall and get swept under the ice you die a horrible death,” Jegerlehner admitted.
The racers encounter the deadliest parts near Nome.
They must traverse blowholes, geographic features in the mountains which create concentrated winds of 120 mph, and the winds coming off the Norton Sound and the Bering Sea.
Hewitt recalls crossing this dangerous stretch when the winds were so strong he couldn’t stick his poles into the ground because they blew them sideways. The freezing wind blasted through his shoes, freezing his feet. He could barely move.
Then, his headlamp went black.
Finally, the wind subsided and he discovered that the wind had whipped him around, facing him the opposite direction he needed to go.
“Another time in the Salomon Blowhole, it was daylight but I couldn’t keep my sled on the ground,” Hewitt recalled. “First it started flipping over and then it would fly into the air. I had a sled cover over it and the sled filled with snow under it, so it probably weighed about fifty to sixty pounds but it was still flying into the air and pulling me towards the sea because the trail ran along the sea. That really scared me.”
For those who brave the dangers, they witness spectacular scenery and northern light displays that very few people enjoy. The auroras, untainted by city lights, can be so vibrant that they are visible in the day, said Hewitt.
Remembering one night, he said, “I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing! The northern lights were cutting and braiding themselves into ropes across the sky. You had to have seen it because it was just awe-striking.”
Hewitt’s favorite part of the race is the Alaska wilderness itself and meeting the people who live in it.
“The locals are really, really cool,” he said. “It’s nice to see how receptive they are to us [racers]. It appeals to them to see someone pulling sleds. But, my favorite part is being alone out there, seeing shooting stars, seeing the northern lights, hearing wolves in the distance.”
One of Jegerlehner’s highlights from the ITI is seeing the Iditarod up close in a way very few people experience it. The ITI starts one week before the Iditarod and follows almost the same route to Nome. Inevitably the dog teams pass the runners, usually around Kaltag. Jegerlehner loves this moment because he feels like he is part of the Iditarod dog race.
“You are part of the Iditarod race as the mushers pass you,” he recalled. “One year Ellie Zirkle, she was in the lead, handed me a Ziploc bag full of bacon.”
Another year, Jegerlehner remembers meeting Lance Mackey as he bedded his dogs.
Even with meeting the mushers and knowing the end is near, the runners are far from safe.
One year Jegerlehner and his traveling companion, an Italian who spoke broken English, were exhausted when they reached Safety and had only 20 miles remaining to Nome. They stopped to eat in -35 degrees with no way to maintain warmth.
Jegerlehner’s body temperature dropped as he lay halfway in his sleeping bag, exhausted from running approximately 980 miles. Groggily, he recognized their danger of freezing to death. With shaking hands they donned all their clothing and sprinted as fast as they could along the Alaska coast to warm up. They barely avoided frostbite as they powered towards Nome.
Jegerlehner said, “It was a rooky mistake for not being prepared to stop.”
The finish for the ITI is typically anticlimactic. There might only be a doctor and a lone drunk to greet those who completed the world’s most challenging winter race.
Despite the danger, pain and exhaustion, most runners say after resting a few days that they will return next year.
Jegerlehner sums up the race when he said, “There are a million wonderful things about the Iditarod [Trail Invitational]. The remoteness, the nature, the interesting wildlife and overcoming severe obstacles. But, this experience of letting this become your sole purpose in life [for a month] is akin to meditation to me. The environment is so hostile that doing another long race is just not the same thing.”
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker