After what seemed like a fair amount of time to look back at my experience on the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) this year and reflect on my rookie run on the route, I am continuing to have a hard time digesting it all. It took me a while to dissect the memories and experiences I have gained. I’m also more beat up than normal for a race of this distance. I can finally type on a computer fluently, so that’s a good sign.

Maybe the amnesia is why I decided almost immediately after finishing that I want to relive this amazing experience again. In an attempt to help jog my memory, I have put together a report of the race. I hope you can get a good understanding of this special event by reading my story.

THE START
Rewinding a bit to February 26th at 1:00pm AK time, I started to gather my belongings, get dressed and patiently await the gunfire that starts the pedals churning for roughly 58 bikers and an additional 22 hikers and skiers.


Most bikepacking races I participate in are slow to develop. What I mean by this is that the starts are very casual, and that was indeed the case for the ITI. I would even venture to say it was the most casual start I had ever participated in. Racers stoping left and right to adjust something with no regard for losing their position, meanwhile I’m all worried that one of the leaders was going to gun it, luckily, that never happened.

As we pedaled out I got to chat up with a lot of people I had been looking forward to seeing. Legends of the trail like Kevin Breitenbach, Tim Berntson and John Lackey were all people I had heard of or spoken to, but had never met in person. It was an honor to meet and chat with all of them. Alaskans are extremely kind, and my race experience reflected this.
Pedaling with Kevin early on.
Pedaling with Kevin early on.

LEARNING AND NEW EXPERIENCES
After the first 30 or so miles I felt great. I told myself this is not really any different than Colorado riding, but then we started to cross Flat Horn Lake. I remember Tim Berntson saying “let’s hope there is no overflow,” two maybe three pedal strokes later he said, “whelp, I spoke too soon” as we rode over ice and eventually sunk into some sloppy snow soup. It was my first experience with overflow and it would not be my last. We experienced plenty, and I was luckily prepared with a waterproof boot system that consisted of Outdoor Research gaiters, 45Nrth Wolfgars and a vapor barrier to top it off. It was a small victory, but one that reminded me that I was prepared and ready for this race.

Not 10 miles later I decided to take a pull for the leaders, when I found myself all by myself at a fork in the trail, my gps track told me to go left so I did, after the turn off I stopped to see if the rest of the leaders were following me, but they decided to take a right. I figured both trails would merge, but that was not the case. It basically went in a different direction. Lucky for me I saw the leaders once I reached the Sustina River. After post-holing in knee-deep snow to get back to the “main” trail, I told myself to be smart, I’m new to this environment. I finally caught back with the leaders after a hefty push, but that was a wake up call that would shape the rest of the race for me.

As the sun set, racers started to fall off the front, before we knew it, the lead pack consisted of John, Tim, Jay and myself. This would be the core group I would ride with for the first 24 hours or so. All of these dudes have previously won the race so I certainly felt like the outcast, not to mention not having one single clue what to expect ahead. It was a strange feeling, but if I kept up with those three, I felt like I would be in good shape. 
Iditarod Trail Report
Tim, Jay, John, and myself seen here on the left. We rode together for the majority of the first 24 hours. (Trackleaders.com)

YETNIA – MILE 55
We made it to the first checkpoint which was roughly 40 miles in. It felt good to stop pedaling, but honestly, the start of the race was very casual, so I still felt rather fresh. We entered the roadhouse and had to take our shoes off because of the studs on our boots, another learning experience. I was not sure how long those guys planned on staying, but figured it would be quick considering the early stage of the race. That was indeed the case, not 10 minutes later we were off, apple in mouth and a Coke in hand, I again focused on keeping up with the veterans.

The early evening riding that first night was enjoyable, it was warm and rather firm with a little bit of overflow, after all, the majority of the races route travels atop rivers or swamp land. As we rode we had a few conversations amongst us all, not much but enough to pass the time, and for me, to learn a bit about the trail and to hear how fast everything was last year compared to this year. 

The next checkpoint was Skwentna, we all arrived together, but this was certainly a more casual stop. Again, I followed the lead. Everyone started to shed layers to dry off by the wood burning stove, a novel idea considering most of our layers were drenched in sweat.

SKWENTNA – MILE 85
I devoured a big plate of lasagna, plenty of snacks, and hydrated up. I used the bathroom, rested my legs and even got some shut eye on Cindi’s recliner, which I got an ear full for (sorry Cindi). This was so strange to me, relaxing and taking our time at a checkpoint this early in the race, but I observed what the others were doing and realized they knew best. In the end I was there for an hour and 20 minutes. We all took off at separate times, Tim first, then me, John and finally Jay. 

While it was not super important to always be up front, I didn’t want to miss out on the “move” someone would make. Catching up to Tim was a priority so I did, and before we knew it, John joined us. 

After you leave Skwentna the climbing starts. A steady climb up with a handful of power climbs, but in reality, it was never that bad, at least until after Finger Lake where things got serious. As we continued to pedal, I felt my body weakening. Tim, John and myself would trade off taking pulls. Tim’s pulls were rough, he was obviously feeling good and every time he took one, I would fall off the back, John’s pulls were more tame, but I was still struggling. Mine? Well mine were nice and mellow. It gave me a chance to rest my legs and get ready for a pull from Tim again. My goal in that moment was to get to the 3rd checkpoint, Finger Lake lodge, with them. I succeeded in that goal.

WINTER LAKE – MILE 122
We had pedaled 122 miles in 15 and a half hours, that’s an average of roughly 8 miles an hour. To put things in perspective, in 2016 Tim and the crew pedaled 122 miles in less than 12 hours. While it may not seem like a big difference, it was. Especially that early in the race and that was not even the slow part of the trail.
Breakfast at Finger Lake.
Breakfast at Finger Lake.

I think Jay, Tim and myself all left with full bellies from the generous Dixon family kitchen around the same time. Climb after climb, moose post hole after moose post hole, I truly struggled to keep up. I told myself at this point, I was fine with them creating a gap on me. I was racing the unknown, and while keeping up with them was my goal, if I physically can’t do it any longer, well, then, I just can’t do it.

I was toast, tired, beat, fatigued. These bikes are not light. Even if you have firm conditions, they don’t go that fast, not to mention the terrain after the Winter Lake checkpoint gets real. It did not matter if I had a 26 tooth chainring (I used a 30 tooth), it was like climbing a wall with your bike. I would have been better suited with a harness and rope. I had no knowledge of this section, I had just heard stories. Bottom line, the Happy River area made me not so happy.Bikepacking Summit-2

The sun rose, and I was hoping that would help me through this tough period of the race for me. While difficult, oh my, was it beautiful. We had reached the Alaska Range, and the mountains towered above me like giants, from the valley floor to the blue bird sky. It was my first view of the range, and I was taken back by the beauty of the snow blanketed mountains and river valleys.Bikepacking Summit-3

Hike-a-bike after hike-a-bike, I kept doing what I could, pedal and eat, pedal and eat. At one point between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake, I couldn’t see Tim or Jay. But to my surprise, one of them or both would always slow down and/or stop. It was a gift, and one I would kindly take. I finally came around and started to retain my form. My body started to feel good, and my mind too. We eventually hit the flats and pedaled into Puntilla Lake together.

PUNTILLA LAKE – MILE 150 – JUST SHY OF HALFWAY
I heard planes overhead. It was windy and it looked ominous to the north where we were headed. I remember asking Tim or Jay how people got around, they said they either fly or snowmobile. I was kind of surprised, but it’s true. Locals either fly or boat to get from A to B. It’s a strange concept, but one that made me feel even more isolated and small. The Iditarod is the real deal, and it made me feel sort of badass. Until I thought of the folks racing to Nome, and thought to myself how small my achievements were thus far.

The small rundown cabin checkpoint was a self-serve checkpoint. Up until this point each checkpoint had meals ready for us, which was convenient and frankly pretty awesome. This checkpoint had cans of soup sitting in a large pot filled with hot water. Also available were some crackers, water and tang. I started to worry about food and if I had brought enough from my drop bag back in Finger Lake. 

Again, I shed my layers and boots and set them by the wood burning stove to dry off. I ate some soup, and put my legs up for a little bit while thinking about how good it felt not to be pedaling a bike. I was getting used to these checkpoints, and looking forward to them more and more as the race went on. The boys were in no hurry to take off, which had me thinking about the trail ahead and what I could expect going into the mountains. Was it going to be cold, windy, tough climbing? I had no clue, but I knew it was going to be extremely remote.Bikepacking Summit-3-2
The 2017 race took a detour that added an additional 35 miles or so. Instead of going over Rainy Pass, riders would head southwest and continue down the Ptarmigan Valley and eventually through Hellsgate, a small valley that would bring us to South Fork of the Kuskokwim River and to the west side of the beautiful Teocalli Mountains. Word got out that this stretch could be rugged, with soft snow and overgrown willows.

The Detour
The Detour

I left the Puntilla checkpoint and was ready to pound out miles. Unfortunately, the trail had different plans as the wind was whipping, leading to some off again, on again pedaling. Needless to say it was slow moving, and once we finally got to the start of the detour, it was more of the same. The wind was whipping, the temperatures were cold, and the sun was setting. It made me slightly uneasy, and then to top it off we lost the trail.

Jay, Tim and myself were lost. We couldn’t find the packed surface of trail. While there were plenty of trail markers on the Iditarod route, once we turned off the well marked Iditarod, it was more difficult to navigate. We were on a trail that likely had not been used in a day, and with the ridiculous wind transporting snow, it would have been impossible to see tracks from those people. The only reference of trail was from the Iron Dog Race, as they had stakes every so often, but for the life of us we couldn’t find those stakes.

A little lost...
A little lost…

All we could find was knee deep snow and frustration. I took out all of my layers for the first time in the race as it was getting cold. Tim and Jay went in opposite directions to find some semblance of packed surface. Eventually, both of them found a hard surface, and Tim spotted an Iron Dog marker. We were back, but not after 20 minutes of frustration.

As nightfall hit, we all rode together. We also did plenty of hiking together. Darkness around me, I had no idea of my surroundings, but I knew it was in the middle of nowhere. I also started to get tired, same with Jay, and Tim. I avoided saying how tired I was until someone else spoke up. Tim eventually did, but we knew we all felt the same. He mentioned he was going to bivy, and I thought that sounded good. Did I want to bivy outside in the elements? No. Did I understand that I would likely have to in this race? Yes.

I never got around to testing out my bivy system at home prior to the race, so this would be my first experience and not my last. I was proud of my ability to conformably sleep in snow, and now understand that this would have been the best bet for me during this years failed Fat Pursuit attempt. I ended up sleeping roughly 4 hours, something I actually had not planned on doing, but up to this point, I also had no idea the race would be so demanding and exhausting.

As Jay and myself got going the following morning, Tim, who had bivvied out a bit earlier in the evening, caught us. We pedaled the morning away as the sun continued to make its way around the earth. We would all take turns up front, then we would stop, eat and someone else would take over. It all just seemed like a friendly ride at a rather quick pace, something I am no stranger to. Eventually we started heading north again on the other side of the Teocalli Mountains as the sun finally rose.

As we made it closer to the Rohn checkpoint, conditions got increasingly worse. 20mph gusts turned into 50mph gusts, with a consistent 20mph wind. The trail was completely covered in windblown snow making it extremely difficult to navigate. The river crossings were not that fun either, as we dealt with a lot of open water and thin ice. It was important to navigate properly, something that the two veterans were very comfortable doing. Me? Not so much. But I observed their tactics, and put them in the memory bank.

I can’t stress enough how difficult this stretch was. I stopped to eat and my hands would instantly freeze from the combination of cold temps and wind. It was one of the most trying times, but all of us were struggling, and we all had to ride the same bit, so there was nothing we could do but move forward. 

Conditions were insane and got extremely cold from this point on. 
Conditions were insane outside of Rohn.

ROHN! MILE 213
This was a big milestone for me mentally. After being outside in the elements for 24 hours, it felt amazing to be in a rather civilized area, which may sound funny because Rohn consists of a Forest Service cabin and runway. Either way people were there, food was there, fire, and my last drop bag, which I needed badly. Just before Rohn, I had ran out of water and was nearly out of food.

I got to meet Bill Merchant for the first time, and his energy and spirit made me so happy to be out on the trail. The little tent that housed racers was still a bit chilly as we arrived, but the brats were cooking and soup was on the stove. I truly cannot thank the volunteers of this race enough. They go above and beyond and they truly want to help you. It’s a welcoming sight which made me feel right at home. 

Adrian manned the tent and catered in every way, filling up our water, feeding us, topping off our water again, and manning the stove. It was great. I felt like I could have been there forever, but I knew if I didn’t get back on the trail I would get sucked and that’s not what I wanted. 

So I slowly started to get my things packed to my bike, including the food from my drop bag. I used the bathroom there, which was a chilly pit toilet experience, and got moving, just a few minutes after Tim and Jay remained at the checkpoint to sleep.

EXPECT ICE, PREPARE FOR ICE
Before the race, I kept seeing people posting social media photos regarding putting studs in their tires. I was confused. Did I need to do this? I asked around. To put it simply, it was an overwhelming yes. So I put 200+ studs in each tire by hand before the race and was I very happy I did.

Back before Puintilla, there was a pretty sketchy ice spot with an even sketchier fall line. The other really nasty spot was the climb out of Rohn. I remember saying to Tim, “man, this route is filled with ice”, he replied “yep, and this is not even that bad.” Apparently the ice the past few years had been much worse.

As we finally got off the ice and back on what I considered relatively flat riding, Jay caught up with us. At roughly the same time, Tim started to deal with significant tires issues. He was losing pressure, and to make matters worse, the temperatures were cold. By cold, I mean it had reached negative double digits. I had to stop and fill up my pressure as the cold sucked it out, lucky for me, mine held.

As night crept in for the 3rd time of the race I was absolutely in a bikepackers daze. The stars were incredible. The crest of the moon crept in and out of the mountains on the horizon, and even the northern lights made a significant appearance. It was the first time I had seen them with this significance. “Wow” was said many times in my head and aloud.

As the night moved along, I started to have difficulties with my lights. My head lamp lights were starting to die, and for some reason my bar lights basically did die. Maybe because of the cold? Not sure, but I pretty much wrote the bar lights off for the night. As my headlight faded enough to where I could no longer ride safely, I stopped to replace the 4AAA batteries, which I typically did at the checkpoints, but forgot in Rohn. Things like these happen in races, and being able to mentally stay with it and adapt is important.

THE RACE STARTS AFTER ROHN
That’s what everyone was telling me, but it seemed like it didn’t really start until I had difficulties with lights and was alone. While Tim was still behind us dealing with his tire I ended up replaced my batteries, and Jay continued to pedal. I could get a sense of his urgency. He was really cooking and not stopping.

We then entered what I considered to be the wall of trees, which is basically a straight stretch of road that started with a few ups and downs and continued with what can only be described as flat Alaskan terrain. This was the first moment I listened to music, and it was refreshing and needed. I ended up catching back up to Jay, before falling back again to eat a snack.

The upside of this section was the rather fast pedaling, the downside was boredom. At this point of the race it was the middle of the night, I was alone, and by 5am I was struggling to keep it together. I didn’t carry a thermometer, but it must have been -20 or so considering how cold my fingers got when I took them out of my pogies.

So I did what I thought was necessary, I slept.

I hopped in my bivy as fast as I could with all my layers on including boots. I set my alarm for 60 minutes, and shut my eyes. I work up feeling like a million bucks but it came with a cost, as I packed up my bike, Tim caught back up with me. Not the end of the world as I figured I would see both Jay and Tim again. Anyways, it’s more fun to have company on the trail, especially in that desolate flat and rather straight section. Tim mentioned he also slept but it was short, and restless. 

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 8.24.34 PM
the legal long cut.

As I worked in my extremely sore butt, Tim and I continued on to Nikolai. Not sure why, but things just started to hurt. I can’t remember my body parts hurting after 200-300 miles into a race like this, but there was no hiding it. My left IT band was giving me serious fits, my butt was raw on one side, my feet were blistered from all the walking, and the mental fatigue was real.

It’s always difficult to think about mileage on route. That’s why when I do these races, my GPS shows one thing, the track. No mileage, no current speed, no heading indicator and no time of day. It’s just me and the track. It helps me keep pedaling and prevents me from doing dysfunctional math in my head. Sometimes it’s good because towns somehow creep up on you, but the opposite also happens, especially in this circumstance, when it seemed like the path to Nikolai was never ending.

NIKOLAI MILE 285
I did finally make it to Nikolai and was relieved. Relieved that this was my last checkpoint, last resupply, last quality meal, and last day on route, hopefully. I showed up about 30 minutes before Tim. I was confused how I picked up that much time on him, but again, Tim was dealing with tire troubles that slowed him down. Stephney Petruska and Nick & Olene Petruska greeted me, fed me, and were nothing but awesome. They didn’t share any info on Jay’s location, and that’s the way it should be.

Tim showed up and told me he was done, his tire was giving him fits, and while I was eating and getting ready for the 50 or so miles to McGrath, he started planning flights to McGrath to meet up with his fiancee. I told him to figure out his tire here and get back on the trail, but he was adamant on bailing. While it sucked that he was bailing, I felt a sense of freedom. If I just rode the best I could, I would finish 2nd, and maybe I could catch up to Jay as he likely had no sleep the previous night. I was not sure how far behind the others were, but I felt confident I had a rather decent gap on them considering I didn’t see them come into Rohn.IMG_4814

As I said goodbye to Tim, Stephney, Nick and Olene, I started on the last stretch down the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. Early on, I had a bit of a side wind, which at times lead to a headwind and tailwind depending on the direction the meandering river would point me. Eventually I cut off the river and traveled through the frozen swamp land. 

The sun was out which felt really nice, but the wind that was whipping from side to side transported plenty of snow. At times, the riding was tough, with plenty of snow piling up, but other stretches, the wind had removed all the new snow, and presented firm packed conditions. Variable is the word the comes to mind.IMG_4815

Eventually, I made it back to the Kuskokwim River, at the same time that my left IT band didn’t want anything to do with pedaling. At this point I was on an Ibuprofen regiment that was no longer working for me. I started talking to my knee, even petting it, trying anything in my power to ease this pretty painful, but mostly annoying ailment. There was nothing that was going to stop me from finishing at this point. If I had to walk the rest of the way, I would. But knowing it would take a very long time, I soft pedaled when I could.

Mile after mile conditions got worse, traveling on the winding river was horrendous, there was no protection which aided in the snow transport. At times, I couldn’t see the trail, other times I tried to make out tracks left by another cyclist. At first I thought it was Jay’s footprints, but then I noticed the boots (he had 45 Nrth Wolfgars), and these were no Wolfgars. So I thought that Jay had passed some folks who were touring the route, or apart of another race that started a week before us, and I figured I would run into them eventually.

Not until I finished the race did it come to my attention that there was an alternative route that Jay took. It started just as the route re-entered the Kuskokwim River. It may be a bit longer, but when I was walking my bike, he was was riding his, which must have been really nice. In that time, Jay put a huge gap on me, and there was no way I could have reeled him in. In all likelihood after I bivvied out the previous night, there was no real chance that I could have caught up to him anyways. Being a veteran on this trail gives you plenty of advantage, and rightfully so. 

The trail was fooling me with every passing mile, at times I thought I could ride it, but then I found myself falling off my bike in frustration. I stopped trying and just continued to walk. At least there was a firm trail underneath the transported snow, which allowed me to walk rather quickly and not post hole, but it was still frustrating.IMG_4814

Even more frustrating was the moment when I saw another head light from behind. The sun had finally set, I was on autopilot, the slowest setting. All I wanted was to finish, but I figured I still had 15 or so miles with my poor math calculations. I saw the bright light and was thinking John or Clinton had finally caught up to me. It was demoralizing, and I was pretty upset with myself. When the light finally caught me, to my surprise it was Tim. He had decided to re-enter the race after fixing his tire with some gorilla tape in Nikolai. 

You could tell he was on a mission, and I could do nothing about it, my knee killing me, I just couldn’t ride what Tim was riding, not to mention his hiking pace was just that much faster. While the moment of being passed with 13 miles to go hurt, the silver lining was vivid. The Northern Lights made another strong presence that evening and I found myself gazing up in awe. 

While there were still miles to go, it was a time of reflection of the race. No other race I had ever participated in gave me so much appreciation. Alaska is the read deal, and the Iditarod Trail Invitational is a journey that I still can’t quite grasp. The weather, terrain, people, emotions, and dedicated riders is what truly makes this an unbelievable experience, one that is engrained in my mind forever.

As I finally made it to some civilization I knew I had done it. Relieved on all fronts, Kathi Merchant greeted me outside of Peter & Tracy Schneiderheinze’s house with a hug and congratulations. I had completed the ITI in 3 days 11 hours and 50 minutes. I was the fastest rookie, but an extremely tired human. It happened be be a balmy -25 degrees that night at the finish, I was ready to be warm, ready to be out of the elements and ready to be off my Mukluk for the season.

Still 7 weeks after the race, I’m mentally drained and beat up, but ready for the 2018 ITI. See you next year Alaska. IMG_3743 2

7 Comments

  1. NIce job Neil! Congrats.

  2. Congrats on a great race, I enjoyed reading your writeup! See you next year.

  3. glen evans

    wow!

  4. Holly cow, you did great Neil!
    BTW – i’ve read at least dozen reports from this years ITI, and yours stand out because … you mentioned the INFAMOUS ALASKAN COLD only… once! 😉 maybe twice, anyway the other reports are basically all about how fricking cold it was this year.

    And you? You just pushed through this enjoying the aurora, landscapes and the comradery among participants and that’s why im always looking forward to read pieces like this. 😉

  5. mikeetheviking

    Awesome man!!!!

  6. mikeetheviking

    Very cool! Good job man!

  7. Great writeup Neil. Sounds like you accomplished a lot more than you give yourself credit for.

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