Many people have heard of the Iditarod, a 1,000 mile dog sled race that follows the Iditarod route from Knik to Nome. But maybe more unknown, especially to people outside of Alaska is the human powered event that travels the same distance. To winter ultra athletes around the world, this is the one on the top of the list. Not only is it popular for winter athletes, it has helped sculpt the sport of cycling and specifically fat biking and bikepacking as we know it. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is a big deal, and it starts today, February, 28th at 2:00pm. Kathi and Bill Merchant have worked tirelessly to organize the Iditarod Trail Invitational year after year, not only that, but their drive to maintain a grass roots race with minimal support leaving it up to the athletes has held true. This year 65 human powered athletes will start their journeys from Knik. While 49 will be destined to push 350 miles to McGrath, the other 16 will attempt the trip to Nome. In total, there are 49 bikers, 14 hikers and 2 skier with 11 countries being represented. The Iditarod is a race unlike any other. It is the toughest race of its kind and the preparation racers put forth is extremely important to not only prevent frostbite, but to survive the Alaskan winters. In order to qualify for the ride to McGrath, you must finish a qualifying race such as the Arrowhead Ultra, or Fat Pursuit. Then, you must apply and be selected to race. Another way to qualify is to attend the ITI training camp hosted by the Merchants every February. In order to race to Nome you must finish the ride to McGrath. While some years have been a slog trudging through feet of snow, last year and the year before were different. Last year was fast, and it showed in the 350 mile race with John Lackey, from Anckorage, AK finishing in 1 day 18 hours 32 minutes. This cut nearly 10 hours off Kevin Breitenbach’s 2014 record setting ride. Heather Best also broke the previous 350 record, coming in at 2 days, 8 hours and 9 minutes. Maybe the best story from last year was from the 1000 mile ride to Nome. After 15+ days, Jay Petervary and Jeff Oatley came into nome together, tying for the overall win. Both of these two have already had big years and continue to look for more success in this years 350 mile version. While records are great, Jeff Oatley said it best two years ago in our interview with him: “Records are always broken and always will be. That’s the point I think. These might last a decade and they might fall next year. I think that for both of us (Heather and Jeff), the records are nice, but they are secondary. When they get broken it won’t diminish the satisfaction that we took away from putting forth our best efforts in these races.” Maybe the most unique characteristics of this race are the people – the volunteers, trailbreakers, and athletes. Through all the pain and anguish, these participants continue to come back for more. It may just be a rare breed, or it maybe a magical trail that sucks you back in. Either way, its a special time of year. As we watch the Iditarod Trail Invitational unfold this next week, we may only understand a fraction of what each participant will be going through out there. The high moments will be taken over by the low moments, whether it’s from a gear malfunction, the weather, or conditions. Refreshed and rested legs and mental state will be replaced with exhaustion and at times feel like a crawl from checkpoint to checkpoint. The feeling to quit may not be in their vocabulary at the start, but will likely come up once on course.  Thats what it’s all about, the storylines of each racer will be different, the out outcomes too. But it is these athletes that endure everything for the feeling of accomplishment, be it first or last place.

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