Technology triumphed on the Iditarod Trail Saturday. Granted, it was new, old technology, but it was technology none the less. The fat-tired cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational finally reeled in the hikers, who'd pulled on snowshoes and outrun them for almost a week since the race started at Knik.
Amazing as it seemed, Pennsylvania's Tim Hewitt led the race up and over Rainy Pass.
The 57-year-old veteran of six treks along the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail to Nome finally said "enough" a couple hundred miles into a 350-mile race to McGrath and forfeited the lead to Geoff Roes, a noted ultrarunner from Juneau. Roes holds the course record for the Western States 100 Endurance Race, possibly the most famous ultra-distance marathon in the world.
He charged down the Dalzell Gorge as Hewitt, who prefers sleeping out to snoozing in checkpoints, rolled out his sleeping bag, took off his snowshoes and crawled into the warm cocoon for a well-deserved rest. Roes, somewhat amazingly, led the race into Rohn, a lone-log cabin deep in the Alaska Range.
No one on foot, whether in running shoes or snowshoes (the former being way faster than the latter) had ever led the race so far.
But, then again, no one on foot had ever led the race to the checkpoints at Finger Lake on the south slope of the Alaska Range, or Puntilla Lake just below the entrance to Rainy Pass, or over the Pass
What Hewitt did, with Roes close behind, was unheard of, unthinkable, almost unimaginable. Roes credited a "perfect storm" of weather events for flipping the cyclist-dominated Invitational on its head.
First there was the big snow. Almost three feet of it fell on racers over the first two days. And then there was the wind that drifted the snow to fill the trail as surely as if it had snowed again. And then, after the snow and the wind, there was weather so warm the new snow never set up into a firm surface. No one with a cycle could ride, or if they could it was so inefficient it exhausted or frustrated them. Most dropped out.
Bikes will win again
Five-time and defending champ Peter Basinger from Bend, Ore., by way of a youth in Anchorage, and sidekick Phil Hofstetter from Nome pushed and pushed and pushed on with Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic always stalking. Somewhere, they knew, they would find firm trail, and when they did, they'd roll. The wheel was one of man's earliest inventions for a reason. It enabled humans to move themselves and their supplies from point A to point B faster than dragging a sled.
Roes had a sled. He had snowshoes. He had fast feet. And he had a determined spirit. He led the race out of Rohn at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The 90 miles of trail north to the Alaska Native village of Nikolai was reported to be pretty firm. It would be faster for him than the trek from Puntilla over the Pass. He would be able to put the snowshoes, which slow a hiker significantly at those times when they're not helping to make any forward progress possible, in the sled.
Unfortunately, the firm trail would also help the cyclists.
Basinger and Hofstetter were already smiling Friday when they started pedaling across Rainy Pass. They could smell blood. They found their quarry a day later on the trail across what once was the Farewell Burn. They rolled up Roes. Basinger and Hofstetter were first into Nikolai at 4:58 p.m. Saturday. The plucky Richtr arrived 25 minutes later.
The Invitational's Cathi Merchant reported from McGrath that evening that a runner had also apparently, finally arrived in Nikolai. It was thought be Roes. It was unclear how far behind he was, but nobody was expecting he'd catch up now. The 50 miles of trail to McGrath was reported firm.
The wheels were expected to roll into town Sunday. The bikes will win again.
A noble display
But for a few glorious moments -- people with one of the oldest of human tools, snowshoes, lashed to their feet -- put on a noble display of the indomitability of the human spirit.
Roes and Hewitt knew as well as anyone they were eventually doomed in a race against bikes, even on the Iditarod Trail. And yet they pushed the fight until they could push no more.
And they came so close to victory. So very, very close to victory.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.