The Iditarod Invitational or Alaska Ultra SportÂ Race, formerly known as the Iditasport Extreme, begins in Knik, Alaska and follows the Iditarod sled dog trail to McGrath, 350 miles to the northwest across the Alaska Range. Race rules are simple: finish with the gear you start with, food excepted, sign in at checkpoints, no outside help, and no mandatory layovers. Also there is no mandatory gear requirement, but if you go light, know that rescue could be 24 hours away.
The Race Saturday, February 26 I am up at 4 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. flight from Sitka to Anchorage. The race starts at 2 p.m., which is harsh because I have already been up for ten hours and I know I will not sleep for another 40 hours after the gun goes off. My brother Rocky is racing on a bike and his wife Gail on skis so I try to divert my nervous energy visiting with them. As the time approaches noon I am more than ready to spend my anxious energy on forward motion rather than using my teeth like a mortal and pestle to transform adrenalin into pleasant conversation.
The race is limited to 50 racers for all categories, but only 43 show-up by start time. A race this long doesnĂ•t begin to separate the wheat from the chaff well into the event, perhaps at 100 or 200 miles, so it amazes me when even professional and experienced racers bolt off the start line as though they will see McGrath some time soon. The way I approach this race is to plan, plan and plan some more. I carefully consider exactly what I need, calculating the margin of error, and then list everything I will take and exactly where it will be carried Ă food for 24 hours inside main pocket of fanny pack, food for second 24 hours in green stuff sack inside sled; or wire, tape, & mole skins in small zip pocket on my camel back. I calculate how fast to walk, when to run and approximate arrival time at each checkpoint. I keep all my calculations and thoughts on a computer word document so I can modify as needed. During the final two weeks of preparation I pour over all the details so now at race time I can recite all the minutiae from memory.
As everyone charges off the start line I continue to repeat my mantras of correct pacing, perspiration regulation, hydration intervals and caloric intake. The main thing I need to be cognizant of is how many runners are in front of me, so I count. This way, if I am lucky, I can tick them off as I rein them in over the next 100 miles.
Daylight diminishes to dark near Flathorn Lake (25 miles) and I don my LED headlamp with 125-hour battery operating life. I check in at LuceĂ•s cabin at 1 a.m., just 11 hours into the race, I feel tried and have trouble eating much. I am pushing a little harder than planned because there is at least one-foot racer ahead and one just behind me with definite plans that donĂ•t reconcile with mine. At the checkpoints I get a fix on how far ahead the lead runner is, but the position of racers behind me remains a mystery. At Yentna Station (55mile) I decide to stop for a couple of Cokes to see if they will settle my stomach, it is 4 a.m., and I need to get my stomach under control or I will soon be in desperate trouble.
I see Martin Buser at the bar with an empty stool next to him and I ask if I may sit down. I acknowledge Martin, while the bartender makes some snide comments suggesting I am a pesky tourist from Hoboken, New Jersey. Martin, however, is quite interested in what I am doing so I chat with him longer than I should. When I answer Martin’s queries he just sits there saying “Wow”, and shaking his head. I offer that I am like his dogs, and he shoots back “that is for sure”. He continues to shake his head as I leave. As I harness myself to the sled I know Martin Buser is one person who truly understands what this race requires to win.
Daylight is a welcome relief after the long night, but I am still having some difficulty getting food and water down. I am working at a greater deficit than I should and it is going to catch up to me. I force down a handful of salty almonds, perhaps 150 calories, and chase it with some water from my Camelbak. At 10 a.m., ~80 miles, I think I can discern from the tracks a shortening stride of the racer in front of me. This makes me realize that I need to work harder at getting more food and drink down. By noon I am closing in on Skwentna (90 mile) and I spy Tom a _ mile off. As if a switch trips in my brain Ă the food, drink, and self-flagellation I have been imbibing finally takes hold. I increase my pace to catch Tom and as I pass he posits that he wasn’t able to keep anything down and has pushed too hard.
There is a fine line between one’s maximum sustainable effort and the abyss beyond, Tom crossed it and would drop out of the race. I continually listen to my internal feedback and sort the real warning signs from the constant background of pain, fatigue, need for sleep, and hunger. Experience helps, but is no guarantee for staying out of trouble. I have dropped out of one race and had to rest/sleep for 12 hours in another due to crossing that crippling threshold.
Right now though, as I enter Skwentna at 1 p.m., I am feeling a convergence of all the right feedback loops. I have been going for 23 hours, but spend only 2 minutes to transit the checkpoint; I am almost hovering as I depart for Shell Lake, 20 miles away. I am ahead of my game plan, feeling no need for sleep at the moment, and believe I can make it to Finger Lake, 40 miles and 13 hours away without rest. It is sunny, relatively warm and daylight – making it easier to navigate the knot of snow machine tracks radiating from Skwentna. In retrospect the next 10 hours are the most enjoyable of the race because the weather is ideal, the sun is in my face, sleep deprivation has not caught up with me, and I am eating and drinking adequately.
I figure there are at least two racers who have a chance of catching me as I head for the Alaska Range. The current record holder (2003) who I had edged out in 2001 was somewhere behind me but I will not learn where until two days later. I don’t want to get caught but I mostly concentrate on maintaining my pace and getting to Finger Lake for my first sleep of the race. As I near a checkpoint I review exactly what I need to accomplish and how much time I will allow for each task Ă foot repair, sleep, eating hot food Ă even though I am exhausted and it would be easy to slip into a dazed stupor.
It is a dark, starry night as I gain elevation into the foothills of the Alaska Range; traversing snow covered frozen muskegs and weaving in and out of dense spruce coppices. As I exit one of the numerous spruce thickets I am shocked to see a dense green band of light on the horizon far in the distance. The band is thick, and not shimmering like the northern lights, and also I see what I think is the curve of the earth as the band of green light bends away from me, far on the horizon. I have not been hallucinating, that will be tomorrow night, and immediately think Saturn is crashing into the earth. I know this can’t be true but it resembles Saturn more than any northern lights I have ever seen. I continue to walk hard, but can’t take my eyes off the collision of earth and space. Finally, after a couple of minutes the dense green band begins to shimmer and they take on the appearance of the Aurora. Still the affect of these lights low on the horizon rather than emanating from above is new to me. The northern light show that night and the next are outstanding. If I had a tripod and single-lens reflex camera I would give ten minutes of race time to photograph the scene; I don’t but fortunately it will be forever etched in my mind. Such penetrating scenes are a large part of the allure and fascination of this race
Trail conditions are punchy and uneven the final 10 miles into Finger Lake, and walking takes all my concentration to maintain a good pace. At 1:30 a.m. to my relief, I see the dim lights of the checkpoint cabin, so I give a final mental review to how I will use the next 3 hours. I wake up the race official so I can check in; losing these two minutes feels like a set-back but I shake it off and quickly doff my outer clothing, shoes, socks, and hang them up to dry. I fill a plate with beans, rice, chicken breast and garlic bread provided by the Winter Lake Lodge; the warm food is like a potent revitalizing elixir. I know it is imperative that I eat as much as possible while at the checkpoint. Although I am eating on the trail, the input is far below the calories I am expending which I estimate at 400/hour or about 16,000 calories since the start of the race. If lucky, I consume about a third of that amount on the trail, but it is more likely to be only 25%. Proper training allows me to get away with this; my body learns to utilize body fat efficiently. Each pound of fat yields 3,200 calories and by the end of the race I trade approximately 5 pounds of this high calorie energy store for 150 trail miles.
Thirty minutes of eating, drinking, drying and I lie down for two hours of sleep, but I am restless and the noise of bike racers wakes me even though I am exhausted. Two hours passes much too quickly and the wrist watch alarm goes off next to my ear where it is stuffed in my balaclava so there is no chance of oversleeping. I estimate I slept for only one hour of the allotted two, although horizontal rest counts for something. I get up quickly, dress, and eat another plate of food; last, I re-supply stores from my drop bag, one of two drops flown out ahead of time.
I sign out at 4:30 a.m. and begin to work out the stiffness and pain in my legs as I find my way up the trail that leads farther into the heart of the Alaska Range. The trail conditions are terrible; high ridges and narrow troughs laid down by a snow machine sled are frozen hard as rock due to below zero temperatures. These irregularities from the Iditarod Trail’s idea of a frozen bundt cake twist and pull at my ankles. Over the next 10 hours my feet get worked so hard that blisters erupt on the sides of my big toes, heels and sides of my feet.
At 2:40 in the afternoon I pull into Puntilla Lake checkpoint (165 mile), 3 hours sooner than I expected; the one-hour sleep back at Finger really helped. Based on the way I am feeling, time of day (4 more hours of light), and desire to not lose any of the precious time I have gained, I make efficient and quick use of the checkpoint. After 20 minutes I am headed for Rainy Pass, 20 miles away. Rohn is the next checkpoint at mile 210, forty miles away.
The trail to Rainy Pass is difficult to followÂ due to 30 mile per hour head and cross winds that blow snow and cover the snow machine markings. Worse, this large valley is a playground for local snow machine trails that look like the venation of a deciduous leaf. I study my map carefully and check my compass several times to assure myself I am on the correct route; a wrong turn now will be devastating. I will not only loose time but daylight. Added to this, exhaustion is creeping in at the fringes. Finally though, just before dark, the trail I am following arrives at the base of Rainy Pass and I stop worrying.
Hallucinations and sleep deprivation hammer me for the next several hours as I ascend Rainy Pass. One hour of sleep in 56 hours and180 miles of hard racing. I am falling asleep on my feet and my brain is begging me to stop. I have a dialogue with my brain, promising sleep if it will let me get to Rainy Pass first. My racing self loses, I cannot stay awake and I dig a snow hole, get in my insulated jacket, pants and scrunch down in my bivouac bag for two hours of non-sleep. It must have been rest because as I get going at 1 a.m. I tear up the mountain and down into Rohn by 5:30 a.m. I go through the same routine as the previous checkpoint but this time I sleep soundly for two hours. At 8:30 in the morning I am ripping up the trail; knowing I got some meaningful rest is a big psychological boost. It is 10 below zero as I head down a branch of the Kuskokwim River, and I am sensing that breaking the course record is not only feasible but also likely. My reality check is the 140 hard miles that still lie ahead.
The Farewell Burn unfolds for the next 50 miles and is a unique landscape north of the Alaska Range; Denali is visible from here and the massive feature creates a snow shadow, and I drag my sled for several miles across frozen ground without a trace of snow. In the 1950Ă•s, state officials trans-located bison to this area, and the bison have proliferated. Now hunters come from all over Alaska to get a prize animal. I strain to see one but find only their leavings Ă hundreds of grapefruit size, frozen scat. I visualize these dark-brown, dense turds being used for Arctic Bocce, an Italian form of bowling, and chuckle to myself.
Racing during the daylight with some warmth from the sun feels like a gift from God. Everything is easier, sleep deprivation isn’t constantly weighing on my eyelids, no headlamp bobbing on my head, and the trail is a cinch to navigate. Hallucinations however are just as bad, day or night. I have a constant conversation going on in my mind, sometimes it is Rocky, with whom I did this very route in 2001, sometimes it is with an unknown person, but in any case I suddenly realize I am conversing as if someone is actually here with me. I tell Rocky dozens of stories, then realize that I couldn’t have, but still in my mind it seems like I have. I find myself worrying that I will forget to tell Rocky the story later because my mind on some level believes that I have already told him. The circular thinking continued around and around. Often I see my shadow from the sun and I move left or right because I think I am crowding someone and being rude. Another hallucination that occurs several times is when I turn my head to look left or right and suddenly hear the sound of my sled trailing behind me. Simultaneously I turn further and jump with fright at the sight of it, completely forgetting it has been trailing me for over 200 miles.
Darkness comes too quickly today, day 3, and I need more sleep, so as I near Buffalo Camp (255 mile) at 11:00 p.m., I plan out my checkpoint strategy. I decide to sleep 3 hours and then not sleep again until the finish line. It is optimistic but doable. I think. Unfortunately I can’t sleep the full 3 hours but I get a solid two hours and leave a half-hour early at 2:30 a.m. I feel good leaving Buffalo Camp, it is 20 below and I wear my Patagonia puffball jacket to keep the cold at bay. After a half hour on the trail, I slip into a battle with sleep for four hours until daylight rescues me near the Sullivan Creek crossing.
I cruise into Nikolai at 2 in the afternoon and I am feeling good, but my feet are shot. I have blisters on top of blisters and they are spread across the bottoms of my feet. I take my shoes off to dry my socks and take a look at my feet. I don’t have any more moleskins of adequate size to put on the massive blisters. Putting my shoes back on makes me sick to my stomach. A stabbing pain rises from my feet and hurts my head, and then it descends back to my feet where it resides and intensifies. I want to scream but the checkpoint host, Nick, might report me as incapable of continuing.
I still have 50 miles to McGrath; the 14 hours it will take seems interminable, but the problem is my feet. The pain is so intense I can barely endure it. It takes me 20 minutes to get up to race pace before the pain synapses fail or maybe my mind just shuts off the torment of neuron referrals. This is a thankful threshold to arrive at and I promise myself I will not stop again, for anything, until I get to the finish line. I don’t want to experience this pain threshold again. I keep my promise and in fact increase the pace for the next 15 miles to 4 miles per hour, believing that the faster I get there the sooner I can stop.
As Nikolai disappears behind me I advance toward the abyss and the finish line at the same time; I just keep telling myself I can tell the difference. I eat only when my energy level plummets, a sure sign I need calories. The change is instantaneous when I shovel some cashews in my mouth. My body physiology has changed or at least my involuntary brain-function knows there is something terribly wrong. Even though I am taking in water, my body is miserly with expenditure to defend against dehydration – perspiration, urination, and salivary glands have just about shut down. In fact, it will be a week after the race before my body comes back into a normal water balance.
The edge with which I am dancing is whereÂ the mind can make the body perform beyond what is believed to be possible. It is spiritual, it is dreamlike, it penetrates to my core and when I come back from it, I know I was there, and it beckons for months afterward. My emotional state is raw and I know I will sob when I get to the finish line, but I will not let myself cross that threshold now, not until I know it is the absolute finish. Once I allow that emotional state in, it will consume me and I will not be able to get back to the “altered state”. At the finish line in McGrath, the physical and the emotional unite in a crescendo of emotion, pain, elation… and the “other” becomes a memory. This unique reality has been reached by the passage of miles, time, physical exertion, psychological strain, and sleep deprivation. It is so close to me, yet a world away.