SKWENTNA -- Somewhere beyond this U.S. "census-designated-place" along the banks of a frozen glacial river 70 miles north of Alaska's largest city, a 57-year-old attorney from Pennsylvania was almost floating atop the snow-covered Iditarod Trail on his way toward the Alaska Range at the front of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Though barrister Tim Hewitt, an accomplished ultra-distance runner, has six times hiked the length of the 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome, nobody-but-nobody ever expected him to be leading the competition a third of the way toward a hotly contested, midway finish-line in the small, isolated, Interior city of McGrath on the Kuskokwim River.
Back in the day, the race to McGrath -- where most Iditarod Invitational competitors finish -- was called the "The Iditasport Extreme." The longer race to Nome was coined the "The Iditasport Impossible."
These days, they are both lumped together under the Invitational banner, but they both remain extreme and, if not impossible, damn near so.
Over the past decade, only 35 Invitational competitors have made it to Nome. Nearly twice that many make it up the trail each year, aided by canine teammates, in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Some think the latter event extreme. They're clueless.
Last year, Hewitt was on the march himself for 20 days, 7 hours, 17 minutes through blizzards and cold snaps that pushed temperatures to minus 20 Fahrenheit. He set a course record. He won no prize and almost no recognition. He credited the weather, in part, for speeding his journey along the trail. There were neither life-threatening storms nor brutal cold as when he hiked the trail the year before.
For close to a week in 2010, Interior Alaska temperatures fell to 50 degrees below zero and stayed near there. Travel on the trail in such conditions is considered risky. Hewitt charged on. Hiking along the frozen Unalakleet River toward the Bering Coast that winter, he confessed the Invitational was his own private escape from the insanity of the modern, workaday world.
An ultra, ultra-race this year
Think of the Iditarod as the Appalachian Trail transported to a remote, uninhabited planet and you'll get the idea. The AT is now the great escape for tens of thousands. On the Iditarod, there are Hewitt and a handful of others, and most of the rest of the people are on bikes. Since fat-tired bikes rolled onto the scene in a big way a decade ago, thanks to the hard-work of some innovative Alaska-connected inventors, half a dozen people or so have been riding bikes up the trail to Nome almost every year.
In 2010, Nome resident Phil Hofstetter pedaled home from Knik in 17 days, 9 hours and 30 minutes, which was less time than it took the winning team to reach Nome in the very first Iditarod for dogs. Hofstetter that year shaved about a day off the time of Peter Basinger, who led a small gang of cyclists into Nome in 2008. He was that year almost six days in front of Hewitt.
So far, this year, things are a little different. Hofstetter and Basinger, who aren't quite half Hewitt's age but close to that, are again back on the trail with Hewitt, but in a most unexpected place.
On Tuesday, as Hewitt sped through this checkpoint, Basinger -- the defending champ in the race to McGrath and a five-time winner of that event -- was hours back down the Yentna River sitting in sun-softened snow with Hofstetter and Tim Berntson, another accomplished Anchorage cyclist.
They were all wondering just what the hell was going on. So, too, was Hewitt, though in reality they all knew exactly what was going on. Mother Nature this year has flipped the Invitational on its head. In a quote-unquote "normal" year -- if there is such a thing in Alaska -- with the snow of the Iditarod Trail packed into an icy bike path, the fat bikers -- the tanks of the Invitational -- would be rolling out of here about the time Hewitt and the first of the foot soldiers reached the previous checkpoint in Yentna.
When Basinger finally rolled in here, the hour of day wasn't far off from his arrival time last year, but the days were seriously out of sync. It was about 9 p.m. Tuesday. He'd expected to arrive about the same time Sunday -- two days ago.
Clearly this is no normal year. The description "epic" is heard a lot. The race started Sunday on the frozen surface of Knik Lake in a snowstorm that turned into a blizzard and just kept getting worse as the race moved north. Basinger, Hofstetter and a few other cyclists tried to outrun it. They pushed on 24 hours straight, without rest, into ever-deepening snows before finally stalling out near the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna rivers, about 35 miles from the start.
Skirts and snowshoes outgun fat bikers
The hikers, having morphed into snowshoers out of necessity, caught them there, passed them and never looked back. By the second day of the race, there was a gang of them at the front, led by Hewitt and Geoff Roes, a well-known name in Alaska running circles. They weren't alone.
With them were an Italian skier, a surprising oddity in an event that has been so dominated by bikers in recent years that top-level skiers simply gave up on the competition; a Swiss mountain runner, a Canadian snowshoer, another Pennsylvania runner and a lady in a skirt. The latter was Alaskan Anne Ver Hoef, a speech pathologist who splits her time between Anchorage and a home near Shell Lake along the Iditarod Trail.
The race left here on a route that would go right past that home. Her husband was there waiting. Ver Hoef was running fourth out of Skwentna at 4:55 p.m. There wasn't a bicyclist in sight. She smiled and shook her head in disbelief that she was in front of the top competitors in one of the toughest endurance races in the world.
Way in front, too. Four hours after she left here, there wasn't a cyclist in sight. Basinger, Hofstetter and Berntson, who beat themselves up badly in the storm at the start, seemed dejected. Bernston had to lance blisters that had grown almost as big as thumbs on both of his big toes.
Regular contender Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks appeared preoccupied trying to explain to his wife, who'd also entered the race, that really, truly, "Believe me honey," the Invitational is normally a nice, fat-tired cycling race and not a murderous push. And it was a murderous push.
Lindsay Gauld, a former member of the Canadian Olympic cycling team, but now 63 years old and doing the Invitational mainly for fun, said he'd never trained for anything at all like this. A mere wisp of a man at 128 pounds, he seemed ideally suited to the Iditarod Invitational, given that lightly-loaded bikes float over snow much better than heavily-loaded ones.
But this year, it didn't matter. Nothing floats in 30 inches of snow. Not bikes, not snowmachines with huge tracks designed purely to gain flotation, not snowshoes -- despite the myths about how one can use them to walk atop snow. Old snow packed by wind and weather, yes. Fresh fluff, no. Gauld said his shoulders ached from pushing.
Ver Hoef was a little better off. She was on a big pair of lightweight snowshoes. They were great for hiking down the track left by a snowmachine. Off that sort of trail she wallowed like everyone else though she probably weighs even less than Gauld. Everyone got to hear her description of the trail when she called her husband from The Luce's, a lodge along the lower Yentna, to report trail conditions.
"Horrible, horrible," she said. "We're at Luce's, but from the amount of energy it feels like I've expended, I should be in Shell Lake," about 70 miles away. Still, by Tuesday afternoon, as she tromped smartly up the Yentna toward this checkpoint beneath a baby blue sky with the Shell Hills glowing white and rugged on the horizon just ahead, she was all smiles.
Upset of the century
Trail conditions weren't great, but on snowshoes they weren't bad. And she, like a bunch of others, were kicking some biker butt -- something that just doesn't happen in this race. It got the competitive juices flowing even for people who claimed not to be all "that competitive."
Why, a person on foot couldn't ever be expected to beat a cyclist, could they? That sort of thing has just never happened. Hewitt admitted he was personally expecting to be caught and passed at any moment, but he was pushing on hard like a man who thought he had a chance to pull off the upset of the century in a race so tough it intimidates normal mortals.
Urged on by California friend Billy Blair, who clearly wanted to quit at Yentna, Anchorage cyclist Sven Berglund gave in Tuesday afternoon. "I can't push anymore," he said. "I can ..."' Blair claimed, but then suggested they investigate the cost of getting flown out of the remote roadhouse checkpoint. When an Anchorage air charter said it could get both of them and their bikes at Yentna and fly them to Lake Hood, the deal was done in a heartbeat.
"My house is four minutes from the airport," Berglund said. "I can't believe it's this easy."
The only problem Berglund had left was what to tell his students. He's a teacher at West High School in Anchorage, and he worked his bike race into lesson plans. He thought maybe the end result of this race could be turned into an economics problem:
"If Mr. Berglund spent a $1,000 entry fee on a medium-size Iditarod Trail Invitational T-shirt ... What kind of value did Mr. Berglund get?''
It might depend on the definition of value. Berglund got some great stories to tell about the race that wasn't, about the great Flathorn Lake blizzard of 2012, about the trudge through the Dismal Swamp, about snow so deep a man -- even an Alaska man -- couldn't hardly believe it could snow like that.
But it could. And it did. And for the Invitational, it changed everything. At least for a few days.
This is Craig Medred's third year in a row covering the Iditarod Trail Invitational for Alaska Dispatch. Contact Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com