2001 Iditasport Extreme 350: Pushing it to the Limit

The 170-year-old Assumption Grotto Church sits quietly on Detroit’s Northeast side. Behind the Church, nestled in the Parishioner’s Cemetery is the Lourdes Grotto, an outdoors Marian shrine. Since 1881 this Shrine has purportedly bestowed miracles. Since I’d soon be starting the toughest, longest mountain bike race of my life, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a miracle in my back pocket.

But my 20 mile pedaling pilgrimage ends at a disappointing sign — “Closed at Dusk.” I had assumed it never closed because you never know when you might need a miracle. Oh well. I was at least on the Grotto grounds and hopefully that that was good enough for a partial miracle.

The Alaskan Iditasport races start the week before the Iditarod dog sled races. Both use the same trail and checkpoints. However, Iditasport racers move under their own power, whether it’s by foot, bike, or skis. Racers also choose among three different distances: 130 miles, 350 miles, or the full 1,100 miles to Nome.
Iditasport Extreme 350 logo
I’ve done a 100-mile variant of this race for the past three years, with my 2000 race lasting 15 hours. After that bout with misery, I told the promoter to tear up any future race applications that I might send him. That certainly doesn’t explain how I got entered in this year’s 350-mile edition, a race with results measured in days instead of hours.

As it is every year, getting to the startling line in Anchorage is half the battle. This year is no different. After checking in my gear-laden bike box, I’m stuck spending a half-hour waiting for airport parking. The shuttle drops me off at the airport curb three minutes before my flight and I’ve pretty much given up on catching it. Nonetheless, I briskly jog to my remote gate and I’m surprised to find my plane’s still there. I toss the attendants my boarding pass and run down the Jetway. With the airplane door half-closed, another attendant turns, stiff-arms me, and tells me I can’t board. Fortunately the nearby flight crew overrides his veto and I squeeze onto the plane. I was hoping I hadn’t spent my half-miracle already.

Rainy Pass Lodge, AlaskaAt the start in Knik, the weather couldn’t be better: blue skies, sunny, little wind, and a temperature not too far below freezing. With little hesitation, the starter counts down the seconds and 125 racers hit the trail.

I know it’s a long race, but I can’t help taking the holeshot and leading the pack through the picture-snapping spectators. These are the only spectators we’ll see in the entire race so why not make the most of it?

I eventually return to a reasonable pace, ride with some friends, and make decent time on some wonderfully fun snow-packed trail. The trail has a few miles of loose sugary snow, which forces us to push the bikes, but it’s not enough to get concerned. Today’s an easy 30-mile day with a forced overnight camp stop.

This race has many unique features and one is you don’t have to follow the trail. If you know a faster way, you take it. It leads to interesting situations. At one point, a racer crosses the marked trail heading off in another direction. Further down, two Brits merge onto the trail and ask “Are we near the front or the back?” As I learned later, some local riders took 12 miles of paved roads to beat everyone to the campsite on the frozen shores of Flathorn Lake.

I finally arrive just after dusk joining the other racers huddled around a couple weak fires, warming toes, drying clothes, and eating. Eventually the lure of the warm fire fades. We remove our sleeping gear and climb up the steep, snowy banks of the lake to rest for the night.


Iditasport shadowWe awake in the morning to a strong wind, which gusts through the trees, sounding more like surf crashing on a beach. A storm is moving in. I frantically repack my camping gear as the race restarts at 8 AM in the order in which we came in. Unfortunately there is no water available so I start melting snow.

After a late start, I’m on my way, pushing my 40-pound bike through knee deep snow, well traveled by those who started before me. Fortunately the trail conditions change as they always do. I release some air from my tires and was more-or-less riding.

The winds increase as we work our way through the aptly named Dismal Swamp and onto the frozen Susitna and Yentna Rivers. As is typical when riding on marginal snow, half your brain concentrates on moving forward while the other half scans the trail for the best conditions. Sometimes it’s an advantage following others. You can study other racer’s tire and foot tracks to determine what parts of the trail might be most ride-able. It also helps to be light, so you won’t sink so deep in the snow.

The conditions continue to deteriorate and four of us have resigned to pushing our bikes together. The next checkpoint should be close. “It’s just around the bend,” says a local snowmobiler, but high-speed, gas-powered sleds distort their sense of proximity. At our pace, we’re lucky to cover 2 miles every hour.

At mile 60, the Yenta Station checkpoint is a welcomed sight. We park our bikes in the surrounding snowdrifts and head inside the cabin. The cabin is built around a large stove that is diligently working away, drying the wet clothing that hangs around it. As more racers trickle in, I order a bowl of tomato soup and grilled cheese. Then I order another, following my eat-what-you-can-when-you-can strategy. It’s quite comfortable sitting around the table, eating, and talking with others. It’s not what you’d expect in a race, but the conditions have made everyone a reluctant racer.

Realizing the weather is only going to get worse, we pull on our gear and resume our push up the Yentna.

It’s thirty miles to the next checkpoint and the snow is falling heavier now. The trail is becoming more difficult to follow as darkness falls. Our group is five strong. We push our bikes in a walking pace line, each person taking a turn breaking trail at the front.

At midnight we push past Dave from British Columbia, who’s bedding down alongside the trail. Dave is wearing a $999 oversized down-insulated body suit that substitutes for a sleeping bag. He tells us we’re crazy but we push on.

Moving further along, lights start coming toward us. It’s one of the runners. The trail we’re on is a dead end. We need to be on the other side of the wide river. We back track and search with our powerful headlamps, hoping to see trail reflectors that mark the proper path. We don’t risk making our own trail due to the impossibly deep snow and the chance of falling into open-water.

As we’d learn the next day, Mike Curiak from Colorado was at the front of the race when he inadvertently stepped into chest-deep water. During this time, he sprained his ankle, which led to his early withdrawal from the race.

For our weary group, it’s now 3 AM and I’ve had enough. The snowfall and wind has managed to hide much of the trail and we’re barely crawling along. Russ, an Ohio State student and I quickly unpack our gear and sleep along the trail, while the others trudge onward.

Mountains outside of Rohn, AlaskaIt’s the early side of 7 AM and I have to get up, get moving, and get warm. I purposely pack my gear and start pushing my bike with Russ in tow. Soon the sun begins to rise, as does my body temperature. We pause to remove our extra insulation and continue pushing to the next checkpoint some 15 miles ahead. It’s going to be a long day.

In the late afternoon, we push our bikes into the Skwentna checkpoint, a relatively large roadhouse located 90-miles from the start. After two orders of grilled cheese, I crawl into my sleeping bag and nap as nearby racers watch “Happy Gilmore” on the VCR. Surprisingly, the rest of our pace line from the previous night stumbles in. They only went a mile further than Russ and I before sleeping on the porch of a nearby river cabin.

I finally wake up and convince Russ we should continue on. The rumor is another storm is moving in. With the temperatures hovering above the freezing mark, it could likely rain. If we push ahead to the higher elevations, it’ll only snow, which is more manageable.

About a mile from the roadhouse, Russ and I discover something that leaves us giddy. We can actually ride our bikes. We make good time over across the river and flats. We push up through the Shell Hills and eventually on to Shell Lake. The only thing slowing me down is my pedals, which are now big blocks of ice. I pull out my knife and chip away as best I can.

At mile 105, the Shell Lake Lodge Checkpoint is an earthy, softly lit log structure with a nice bar and kitchen. I eat another order of grilled cheese and half a plate of spaghetti. Russ decides to rest awhile at these fine accommodations while I chose to continue up the trail in hopes of beating the snowstorm.

As I’ve come to learn, you rarely beat the snowstorms in Alaska and they often beat you. I rode and pushed until 4 AM through the heavy snow before camping under a large fir. It’s often difficult to know when to continue on and when to stop. After singing too many verses of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” out loud while trying to stay awake, my choice was evident.

A sketchy bridge on the Iditarod trail past RohnFollowing only a few hours of sleep, I get up and get moving. The snow is still falling and the trail is worse than ever. I methodically drink my water, eat my trail mix, and push solo for the next fifteen miles.

The Winter Lake Lodge checkpoint sits high on the frozen banks of Finger Lake. The beautiful lodge and out buildings are trapped under 18 feet of snowfall and are connected by a walking path which sits just below the roofline. The trick of getting into the buildings is to grab the roof and carefully walk down the steps carved into the snow.

I park my bike and stumble inside to find a bunch of racers sitting around a table waiting for food. Perfect timing. According to the promoter, we’d get a “gourmet” meal at every checkpoint and for once this might be accurate. The chef is world class, one of Alaska’s best. She serves fresh vegetables including some of the best asparagus I’ve ever had. As is typical, I order a second plateful. Desert is a scrumptious slice of pecan pie.

After eating, one of the lodge owners lets me use their radiotelephone to call my Mom in Florida. When she answers, I quickly tell her I’m okay and preemptively add “Mom, please don’t say anything embarrassing. I’m on a speaker phone with a lodge full of people.” She was quite excited that I was doing well, perhaps as high as 11th place at one point. I just reminded her that I had 220 miles to go.

As the storm continues outside, the reports are the trail to the next checkpoint is not conducive to foot travel, much less biking. Only three racers have left the lodge so far, including Rocky the lead cyclist and venerable race favorite from Fairbanks. Everyone else is waiting for the night’s cooler temperatures to firm up the trail surface, not to mention the excellent salmon dinner with another slice of pecan pie.

I buy a bag of cookies and three cans of Coke before hitting the trail at around 9 PM with some familiar faces. I’m traveling with the same three friends from the night before: Pat from Tennessee, Mike from Minnesota, and Eric from California. Together we push our loaded bikes past the lodge and back on the Iditarod trail.

It’s a still clear night with a crescent moon on a starry background. This section of trail is punctuated with steep climbs and descents through the tall trees. Some of the descents are unbelievably steep and are properly marked with the official Iditarod “Watch your ass” signs. A couple descents are so steep that you can’t see the entire trail in front of you until you start down the slope. With our brakes iced up, we resort to the Fred Flintstone braking method: one foot on a pedal and the other digging into the snow.

For every good descent, there are probably two good ascents, with the most famous just after we cross the Happy River. They’re called the Steps and for good reason. My method for getting up them is to push the bike forward a couple feet, lock both brakes, and then dig my toes into the trail to catch up. It’s painfully slow but they’re aren’t many options.

Once past the Steps, we start looking for the rumored cabin to crash for the night. It’s close to 4 AM and the four of us have had enough. Not finding the cabin, we resort to sleeping alongside the trail once again.

It’s a miserable night. My damp down sleeping bag isn’t working all that well and I can feel the cold snowy ground beneath me. With my boots still on to prevent them from freezing, I intermittently wiggle my toes to keep the blood flowing. After a few hours, I’ve had enough. It’s 10F out and I need to start moving. The others are still waking as I tell them my plan to walk slowly down the trail to warm up, letting them catch up easily.

Pat Irwin and I push out of the Rainy Pass Lodge with Pierre Ostor (behind the camera)The headwind is howling as the trail crosses yet another large lake. The sun is rising but I’m still cold. Pat rides past me and says, “C’mon, let’s ride” but I tell him I’m not ready. Within a half-mile, I’m off the lake and my internal furnace finally kicks in. I take off my extra insulation, put some extra air in my tires and start riding. The trail is perfect, mostly downhill, and contagiously fun as it winds through the mountainous valleys under pristine blue skies.

At mile 165, the Rainy Pass Lodge sits in a expansive valley about 15 miles east of the mountain pass. The gourmet meal here is a pot of beef stew sitting on a wood stove.

Pat’s here, along with many others who passed us during the night, including a team of British and Italian cyclists.

I quickly find my drop bag, empty it on the floor, and devour a can of Pringles. Pat’s drop bag never made it and he has no food. Luckily I’ve over-packed and give him 4,000 calories of Kar’s trail mix. Kar’s is one of my sponsors and they’ve provided plenty of trail mix and peanuts, which is keeping my engine properly fueled. I have trail mix in a water bottle attached to my handlebars. I can easily pour a mouthful while riding or walking without having to stop. It works great.

Not long after arriving, Pat wants to leave. He wants to get over the mountain pass before dusk and we’re told it’s all ride-able.

The temperatures will definitely be colder once over the pass, so I pull on extra clothes from my drop bag. I start with Patagonia’s lightweight capilene tights followed by bike shorts, wind proof briefs, and heavy windproof bike tights. I debate out loud whether the briefs are overkill until Rob from Fairbanks asks if I value that region in less general terms.

On top I’m wearing an open-mesh vest, a lightweight capilene top, and a light jacket. I carry my extra-warm Patagonia R1 pullover and wind shell just in case. I also have a Puffball insulated pullover to use when I stop, sleep, or when it’s just real cold.

Up Rainy Pass.  Pat is the black dot.  Pierre is the red dot.Pat leads us out of the cabin. Behind him is Pierre from Minnesota with me being the slow caboose. All ride-able? Not ride-able! It was a gradual climb to the pass at 3,160 feet. There are no trees and the headwind is a steady 30-MPH. The trail varies from a solid, wind-swept crust to knee-deep drifts, and when you break through the crust, you go waist-deep. It isn’t fun. Pat and Pierre are moving well, but I’m slowing down and losing the battle to stay warm. A lone snowmobiler stops to check on me and I ask if there are any trees in these parts to block the wind. “Not for 10 or 14 more miles.” Perhaps sensing my bad situation he mentions a safety cabin a mile or so up the trail.

Cresting another hill, I see the cabin and it looks very inviting. As I head uphill, my situation continues downhill, and after a brief bout with Tourette’s Syndrome, my survival instinct makes the call. It is time to head a quarter-mile off trail to the cabin.

The snow is knee deep and I stop pushing my bike halfway there, put my head down and trudge onwards. The cabin has a stove and is stocked with wood. I get a nice fire going, warm my toes, and quickly down 2,000 calories of trail mix.

In about an hour, I have a new attitude. I hike back to the bike, turn it around, and continue up the pass just as dusk as settles in.

The Iditarod trail just outside of Rohn, AlaskaI feel great physically, but my head is still tired from the general lack of sleep. However, things are looking up. Sometime after 11 PM I push past Pierre who is sleeping along the trail. He said he’s doing fine, so I continue. Within an hour I pass the British team sleeping in their tent. An hour later, I push past Greg Blackwell bivied just west of the pass. Strangely enough, most of the people I’ve passed in this race have been asleep.

The downside of the pass isn’t ride-able but at least the wind has stopped. I run my bike wildly down the open Dalzell Valley, eventually riding when the trail narrows between the trees. After quite a few miles the valley becomes a gorge divided in two by a swift flowing river. The trail continues to drop quickly, traversing the river on occasion over slick and creaky ice bridges.

I really want to get to the next checkpoint. Sleeping outside has definitely lost its allure. I try locating my position on my USGS maps but to no avail. It is 4 AM once again, I’m drunk with exhaustion, and not making very good progress. I decide a quick bivy might set me straight.

With the 'Mayor' of RohnI awake after only two hours. I’m still wearing my water pack and it’s starting to leak on me. It’s time to start moving again. I continue down the gorge, crossing a couple barely frozen creeks, and jumping over a half-broke ice bridge.

The Rohn Roadhouse at mile 210 is the most modest of the checkpoints. If it weren’t for the Iditarod events, Rohn would have a population of zero year-round. It’s a small cabin with a generous wood stove. Jasper is the self-proclaimed “Mayor” of Rohn, though he lives in Anchorage most of the time. Sadly enough, no one told Jasper the Iditasport crew was on the trail. He gives us what leftover food he can find, along with plenty of water and well wishes.

When I ask Jasper where the outhouse is he says he’ll show me because he has to use it, too. He is quite proud of the fact that it is one of the few “twofers” on the Iditarod trail, besides he’d just set it up with fresh Styrofoam seats. I am clearly uncomfortable with the thought of sharing such a private moment with the Mayor. Much to my relief, this is a divided twofer.

Back at the cabin, Pat is continuing on to Nikolai while I sleep for a few hours. Eventually arriving are the two Brits, Pierre, Greg, and another runner, Bill from Anchorage. Bill started this race on his bike, but while blasting down some hills he rode off into deep snow to avoid some skiers camping on the trail. Unfortunately, this crash broke the front fork of Bill’s bike. With 250 miles remaining, he decided to finish the race on foot.

Now up from my nap, it is time to head out. The two Brits have the same idea as we leave Rohn together.

It doesn’t look much like winter here. The trail follows the river on a mix of glare ice, gravel, and old, crusty snow. The occasional trail marker is propped up with rocks. Eventually the trail leaves the river and heads through the trees. The trail is more frozen dirt than snow. Large roots, logs, steep hills, and hummocks (large clumps of grass) dot the route. At 6 to 8 MPH, this is relatively fast and definitely fun. It feels great to ride again as I put a bunch of time on the Brits. The only slow downs are the roughly frozen rivers and the perfectly smooth lakes. Every fall on the ice is so frustrating. It’s a fitful exercise in balance trying to get you and bike upright again.

Where I broke through the ice outside of Rohn, AlaskaOn one lake, the ice was a little too fresh. I didn’t realize it until I had few options. My cautious footsteps turned to a full-speed dash towards shore as I started breaking through the ice and into a half-foot of cold water. Back on my bike I slowly felt the water soak through my oversized shoes and double layer of socks. I put some chemical heaters in my shoes and hoped for the best.

It’s snowing lightly once again, and after a few more stream and lake crossings, I’m at the Farewell burn, site of the Alaska’s largest forest fire back in 1978 (1.5 million acres.) The Iditarod trail cuts straight across this slowly recovering land for the next 40 miles. The diminutive trees provide little shelter from the wind, which blows the snow to reveal the grasses. The exposed grass supports the wild bison herds that roam this area, whose hoof prints occasionally mark the trail.

But there’s little wind this year and I’m flying through the burn, eventually passing the lead group of three runners. They are an eclectic group: a postal worker, a lawyer, and Roberto the tall Italian dairy farmer and cheese maker. While Roberto is only walking 350 miles, the others are going to three-times further to Nome in a planned 24 days.

Shortly after passing the runners, I hear the drone of snowmobiles. It’s the trail support and camera crew. They ride up ahead to get some action shots, but after days of watching us crawl by, they can’t help but misjudge my newfound speed. I see them stop ahead of me and get out their cameras, but I blow past them before they’re even close to being ready. Once again the drone resumes behind me, they pass and zoom ahead. And once again I see them quickly unpack their video and still cameras, but they’re too late again. This time, however, I stop on a hill just in front of them and yell:

“I’m assuming you’d like me to wait here until you’re ready!”
“Uh, yeah, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“No problem, tell me when you’re ready.”

With the media needs taken care of, it’s time to knock down some serious mileage. The sun has dropped off the horizon and the temperatures are dipping through the teens.

At this point, I seem to be holding off the British pair and there are only two racers in front of me: Rocky and Pat. Their tire tracks confirm my position.

On the winding Kuskokwin River, AlaskaThough the trail conditions are starting to soften, I can still ride. However, one of the tire tracks in front of me is weaving considerably more than expected. Suddenly the tire tracks straighten, matched with boot prints off to the left. After walking for days behind Pat, I can tell you every detail of his boot print and these are not his. Rocky must be faltering. I suspected this might happen when Jasper said Rocky had left Rohn with only a Zip-Loc bag of powdered mashed potatoes, rice, and water.

Two miles from the checkpoint and I spot what looks like a large banana bouncing down the trail in front of me. The banana turns its head and shines its lamp at me. It’s not a hallucination. It’s Rocky in his bright yellow custom-designed down sleeping bag with leg holes for walking. He’s all over the trail so I stop, start walking my bike and say “Hey there!” No response. “How’s it going?” Nothing.

I’ve had enough conversations with my self during the past few days, so I pass the banana and head into the native village of Nikolai two miles down the trail. Just outside of town, I meet Fred on a snowmobile. He tells me to follow the markers into town and I’ll find the checkpoint. In the meantime he was going to check on Rocky.

I follow the markers but once into town, they are everywhere and in every direction. Some lead to the village garage, while others are used to mark construction sites or stake young trees. Many line the main street with big letters. It was 4 AM and I am thoroughly confused and riding in circles until Fred returns to show me the way.

The checkpoint is at Gramp’s house, a modest dwelling just outside of town. Pat has already left for the final checkpoint, but Gramp’s whole family has stayed up all night waiting for me. They pull a healthy plate of spaghetti from the microwave, sit me at the table, and offer me fresh bread and brownies. I thank them for being so gracious to open their house to someone who hasn’t showered in six days.

Back on the trail Fred gives Rocky a soda, which provides him enough energy to ride into the checkpoint. With the host family and camera crew sitting around, he wonders if he might have pneumonia before abruptly stopping in mid-sentence to stare at me and ask, “Did you pass me?”

Answering in the affirmative, he begins a mumbled tirade on the ethics of passing others in distress. I was in disbelief, said “whatever”, finished my meal and begin my well-deserved nap on the couch under the steady gaze of the mounted buffalo head.

The British arrive at 6 AM looking well frosted and disheveled. I take solace in the fact that they haven’t rested for the past 110 miles — there’s no need for me to hurry off this comfy couch.

But an hour later, I’m up and back to the table eating bread with sinful amounts of butter and fruit spread. The temperature is -10F outside. I pack my gear as the British lightly snore while spread out and sleeping on the living room floor.

It doesn’t seem too cold then again I’m fully layered in clothes. When I hit the Kuskokwim River, the temperature drops another 5F degrees as the sun starts to rise low on the horizon

The day after at the finish line in McGrath, AlaskaIt’s 50 miles to the finish and most of that is flat on this madly snaking river. Now and then the trail cuts the bigger river oxbows. It’s dull riding alone on this stretch and the miles don’t pass quickly enough. In a moment of desperation I start singing out loud once again, but this wasn’t going to get me to the finish line. Two complete renditions of Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with you” equals only a half-mile.

The trail is well traveled by snowmobilers, most of who stop to talk, or at minimum give you the thumbs up. On one such stop, the guy asks how I am, tells me I’m 11 miles from the finish, and Rocky’s not too far back.

“Huh? How far? A mile?”
The kid on the back of the sled says “Not too far.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to get moving.”

I switch on my full-hustle mode, but the warm sun is making the trail soft. Compounding that are the snowmobiles with Paddle Tracks, which churn the snow into a sugary consistency. But the fear of being passed is in me and I am riding possessed, not wanting to give up second place. Despite not seeing a soul behind me, I keep up the hot pace all the way into the finishing town of McGrath. Thinking I’m lost, I ride a couple miles on the back streets before seeing an Iditasport banner alongside a house.

Kuskokwin River in front of DenaliAs I turn into the yard, Claudia tells me I’ve finished and ushers me inside for food. Pat’s just inside the door, showered and talking away on the phone explaining the finer points of his first place finish. What’s extra impressive is Pat won on a singlespeed bike. He couldn’t shift down when the conditions worsened or shift up when they improved. Then again, gears don’t add up to much when you’re stuck pushing a bike for 150 miles.

I eat, shower, nurse a Budweiser, and fall asleep in a real bed. In the morning, I stumble into the kitchen and begin eating everything I can. The coffee is still warm. The finishing list shows the British team of Alan and Andy almost five hours behind me in third and fourth spots, while Pierre is fifth. I eat rather continuously for the next couple hours, send postcards to friends, pack for the hour flight back to Anchorage, and think about the $2,800 purse for second place.

The outside thermometer reads -22F as the twin-engine prop plane lifts off the snow-covered runway. I can’t help but sit back, relax, and smile. What a week! As I follow the Kuskokwin River underneath, I certainly do not envy those racers still heading to McGrath. And with Denali peaking through the thin clouds off in the distance, I have a hunch I somehow ended up with a full miracle.

Todd Scott is a multi-sport racer from Royal Oak, Michigan and is sponsored by:
My Iditasport sponsors

1 Comment(s)

  1. Pingback by Iditasport: Bike Racing on the Iditarod | AllYearGear.com on April 1, 2009 9:03 pm

    […] I was very fortunate to have a good race on my last attempt when a professional video documentary was made. Popping the DVD in the player is […]

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