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Eye-popping Iditarod Invitational record-setter covered 85 miles a day

Craig Medred
Ultra runner Dave Johnston of Wasilla, Alaska, takes advantage of good conditions to shatter the Iditarod Invitational race record by covering the 350 miles from Knik to McGrath in a little more than four days. Craig Medred photo

Lost in all the pre-race buzz surrounding the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race might be one of the greatest athletic feats in Alaska history.

Think about this: Willow's Dave Johnston just went from Knik to McGrath on foot in a little over four days towing a 30-pound sled of survival equipment along the snow-covered Iditarod Trail through the Alaska wilderness.

To cover the 350-mile distance, he had to average about 85 miles per day. Eighty-five miles breaks down into more than three marathons per day. And those marathons weren't run on a smooth surface.

Johnston was running, sometimes walking, across punchy snow, boulders, ice, tree roots and frozen, trip-you-in-a-minute tussocks. And he didn't just run three marathons a day.

He ran the equivalent of three marathons in a day, and then three marathons in a day, and then three marathons in a day, and finally three marathons in a day.

The pool of Americans who can do one marathon is small. According to Running USA, only 487,000 people were able to complete an official marathon in this country last year. That's a tiny, tiny, tiny number in a country home to more than 315 million people.

Long ride easier to envision

Not to minimize what Kevin Breitenbach did in winning the 350-mile Iditarod Trial Invitational race from Knik to McGrath on his fatbike in a record-destroying time of two days, four hours and 43 minutes. Or what fellow fat-tire cyclist Heather Best did in slashing 18 hours off the women's record in a time of two days, 14 hours, 13 minutes -- a time five hours faster than the overall race record set by Idahoan Jay Petervary just last year.

But armchair athletes can at least break down the cycling class of the Invitational and rationalize the accomplishments with thoughts like this:

"OK, let's see. I can ride a century. It's not all that tough to go 100 miles. So all I have to do is ride a century, take a rest night, and then repeat that for a little more than three days.

"OK, I can do that. I'm not quite going to keep up with the likes of Breitenbach and Best. But I can do that."

Man or woman, it is at least possible to get your head around an Invitational fatbike ride. An Invitational run like Johnston did is, on the other hand, simply mind-boggling.

Crow Pass tough, Iditarod Trail tougher

The biggest wilderness-style marathon event in the Anchorage area is the Crow Pass Crossing, a 24-mile romp through the Chugach Mountains. It is done in the summer on relatively good trail. The people who complete the race are celebrated as notably hardy Alaskans.

Dick Griffith, a legend in Alaska backcountry travel, became a subject of marvel because he used to hike the trail from Girdwood to Eagle River during the race and then hike back to Girdwood to sweep the trail for people in trouble and get his truck. Many wondered, "How can he do that?" The Alaska Trailhead website describes the Crow Pass Trail as "somewhat tough simply due to length ... Do consider whether you, and those you are with, are up to the challenge before considering this hike."

If the Crow Pass Trail is "somewhat tough," the Iditarod Trail -- which isn't really a trail so much as a snowmachine track from Point A to Point B -- would have to be classified as "nearly impossible."

But these are standards for normal people. Johnston is clearly not normal.

Forget the slight frame, the butt-length pony tale, the constant smile, the somewhat shuffling gait; this is a legitimate Alaska tough guy.

'Hard to comprehend'

Harlow Robinson, president of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame and a two-time winner of Crow Pass race in the early 2000s, was on Friday struggling to come to terms with what Johnston did.

"I run a lot of marathons, and I can't get my mind around it," Robinson said. "After more than about 30 miles, I just want to shut down. It's hard to comprehend."

Harlow noted Geoff Roes of Juneau, "obviously one of the most accomplished mountain runners in the world," needed more than six days to reach McGrath in the snow-slowed Invitational of 2012. Roes, a course-record holder in the fabled Western State ultramarathon, was among those who later concluded that the four-day, 15-hour Invitational record that Sitka's Steve Reifenstuhl set in 2005 might stand for a long, long time.

Johnston didn't just break that record. Johnston blew it away. His official time of four days, one hour, 38 minutes was more than half a day faster. Half a day.

Plenty of people knew Johnston could go the distance, Harlow said, but "no one knew that he would be that fast."

Long a decent distance runner, the 43-year-old Johnston has entered into a whole new realm since turning his attention to ultra-distance events. At an age when runners are normally on the downside of their careers, the ponytailed, Budweiser-loving father from the Susitna Valley north of Anchorage is on the upside.

That is not unusual, at least by Invitational standards. Tim Hewitt, a 50-something Pennsylvania lawyer, has long been a force in the Invitational. He won the foot division in 2009, tied for victory in 2011, and in 2012 led everyone over the Alaska Range before finally being overtaken by three bikers and Roes on the last leg of the race to McGrath.

It's all pretty amazing, Robinson said.

"The human body can do crazy stuff," he said. "It's about pushing through a wall and coming out the other side and doing it again. It's pretty cool, and in this case it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.