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Iditarod Invitational bikers shatter records on hard, fast trail

Craig Medred

HAPPY RIVER -- As Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 winner Kevin Breitenbach from Fairbanks was rolling his fat-bike into McGrath at record-setting speed that would shame the dog team of 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Mitch Seavey, a man on foot back high in the Alaska Range was hard on the trail of another record.

Nearing halfway in his own journey along the fabled Iditarod Trail, runner Dave Johnston from Willow was ahead of pace to beat a record many thought might stand forever. In 2004, Steve Reifenstuhl, a fisheries biologist from Sitka, covered the 350-miles of trail between Knik in 4 days, 15 hours.

On a trail so primitive it is a stretch to call it a "trail'' in places, Reifenstuhl covered almost 80 miles per day. He finished the race less than 18 hours behind his brother Rocky, a legendary Alaska cyclist who died just this year, and only 33 hours behind 350 winner Mike Curiak, a Colorado wheelman and pioneer of fat-tired bike racing.

The fastest runners usually finish at least two days behind the fastest cyclists. First in the Invitational foot race last year in a time of 4 days, 19 hours and 13 minutes, Johnston was about 48 hours behind winning cyclist Jay Petervary from Idaho. Johnston is this year benefiting from the same assist that aided Breitenbach -- a trail of dirt, rocks, roots, ice and not much snow.

As Johnston shuffled toward Rainy Pass Tuesday afternoon in a style somewhere between speed-walking and running, his footprints only occasionally dented the white surface of the trail. When he paused momentarily to chat, he said softer snow had slowed him a little on the climb up out of the timber surrounding Puntilla Lake to a high, barren moraine that points the way north across the Happy River Valley toward a 3,160-foot pass through the tallest mountain range in the Far North.

But he was still on record pace.

Johnston did not talk long. Though the skies were blue, and the sun warm and welcoming, the wind blew a nasty breeze of 10-degree air along the trail. Lightly dressed to minimize sweating, but with his head and face fully covered to protect against the wind, Johnston pulled a sled with his survival gear and fluids.

Invitational competitors are on their own along the little-traveled wilderness trail. They carry or pull along with them whatever they think they will need to survive. How much or how little varies greatly by individual.

"You pack your insecurities,'' Roman Dial, a wilderness training professor at Alaska Pacific University once observed.

Some of the best Invitational competitors seem to have few insecurities. It is usually the opposite for rookies. Alec Petro, the third-place finisher this year, said that when he first tried the Invitational in 2009 his bike and gear combined weighed 70 pounds. The bike itself was heavy, but a lot of the weight was equipment.

Petro was back this year with a lot less gear and a new, high-tech much lighter bike. Total weight of bike and gear? 45 pounds.

The 43-year-old Johnston -- semi-famous in the Alaska running community for his waist-length ponytail and his special checkpoint treat, Budweiser beer -- usually runs with about 35 pounds of gear in tow in a cheap plastic sled. It seems to slide as easily over dirt, rocks and frozen ground as snow, he said.

All of which is a good thing, given the dirt, rocks, tree roots and frozen ground he is soon to encounter as the Iditarod Trail drops from Rainy Pass into the Dalzell Gorge on the way to the isolated checkpoint of Rohn.

No one can quite remember a February like this in any recent year past. From the crest of the Alaska Range south down the Tatina River to the East Fork Kuskokwim and past the Post River out into the old Farewell Burn, barely a skiff of snow covers the ground.

It made the Invitational a biker's dream. Breitenbach's time from Knik to McGrath was 2 days, 4 hours and 43 minutes. He took more than 14 hours off a record set by Petervary just last year.

Tim Berntson of Anchorage, who paced the race to the halfway point, was about 15 minutes behind Breitenbach and also well under the old record. Alec Petro took third in 2 days, 7 hours, 10 minutes and Todd McFadden was less than four hours behind behind Petro. Fairbanks racer Jeff Oatley was the first racer who intends to race all the way to Nome to reach McGrath, clocking 2 days, 19 hours and 30 minutes.

Both Breitenback and Bernston were significantly faster than the lead teams in last year's Iditarod dog race. Seavey, the winner of that race, made McGrath in 2 days, 4 hours and 25 minutes, but only because he was given a 17-mile head start.

The Iditarod dog race now starts in Willow and runs 42 miles to Yentna Station. The Invitational starts in Knik, once a port on the historic trail, and runs 59 miles to Yentna. Add to Seavey's time the extra hour and a half or more it would have taken his dog team to go the extra distance 17 miles, and he would be at least an hour behind Breitenbach in McGrath, and behind Berntson as well.

Humans roll. Dogs, like Johnston, run.

Lacking a mechanical assist, Johnston has no hope of ever outrunning the canines. But then they have four legs, and he has only two.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com