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Iditarod Invitational, king of Alaska adventure races, kicks off Sunday

Craig Medred
Craig Medred photo

A budding legend of Alaska sport heads north on the Iditarod Trail again Sunday, but unless you're a serious fan of Sleep Monsters, an esoteric website for serious adventure racers, you're likely clueless as to his identity. Even a fair number of Sleep Monsters fans are likely to read the name "Peter Basinger,'' and go, "Peter who?"

Almost nobody becomes famous adventure racing in Alaska. Alaska is the land of the far-off cold, dark, desolation -- and more cold.

Most adventure races takes place in the warm. The Raid Gauloises, or The Raid as many simply call it now, kick started the sport to life in New Zealand in 1989 and moved to Costa Rica the next year. One-time Raid racer Mark Burnett stole the adventure-race idea and morphed it into the Eco-Challenge in 1995 before moving onto fame as producer of the TV show "The Apprentice."  The first Eco-Challenge took off across the Utah desert. The farthest north the race ever got was British Columbia, Canada, in 1996 -- and then only in the comfort of summer.

Alaska? In February? Nobody in their right mind was going adventure racing there. A man or woman could die racing in the cold, and they nearly did. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race came close to claiming the late Bob Ernisse from Anchorage as its first victim. He almost froze to death in the bag of his dog sled while trapped in a ground blizzard outside of Nome in 1992. He suffered serious frostbite, but was saved by fellow musher Bob Hickel, the son of the former Alaska governor and U.S. Interior Secretary.

Redington idea

Seven years later, Iditasport racers John Stamstad and Pat Norwil had to be pulled out of a life-threatening storm in Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range. And if the blizzard in which they found themselves wasn't enough, on the way back to the Rainy Pass Lodge on the back of a snowmachine fleeing before the storm, Stamstad took a ride downhill atop a sliding avalanche. It would not detour him from his Alaska adventures, however.

Seattle-resident Stamstad would eventually win the Iditasport, a 350-mile race from Knik to McGrath, four times, and end up in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, making Stamstad something of an oddity. He became slightly famous adventure racing in Alaska in a race that began really began before there was such a thing as "adventure sports.'' Joe Redington, the founder of the dog race, had the idea for an 100-mile Iditaski race along the trail he loved in 1983. A snowshoe division was added to the competition the next year. Winter cyclists said they wanted in on the action three years after that.

By 1991, as the adventure-racing craze was just beginning, the ski, snowshoe and bike competitions had come together under the banner of  "Iditasport.'' For a time, there was even a "tri-division,'' which required biking, snowshoeing and skiing. Under the leadership of an Anchorage mover named Dan Bull, who envisioned himself the Redington of human-muscle-powered sports on the Iditarod Trail, the race grew steadily. By 1997, the "Iditasport Extreme'' was going 320 miles from Knik over the Alaska Range to McGrath. Three years later, it was joined by the "Iditasport Impossible,'' which stopped in McGrath to jettison the less hardy competitors in the field, and then pushed on another 750 miles to the end of the Iditarod Trail in Nome.

All of this reached its zenith in 2001 when promoter Dan Bull linked up with the now-famous energy drink Red Bull to stage the biggest Iditasport Extreme/Impossible ever, complete with prize money for the first racer to Finger Lake, 100 miles in, the first racer to McGrath, and the first racer to Nome. The Iditasport then looked on its way to becoming another Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. A total of 165 competitors showed up, far more than had ever entered the dog race. It was a hell of a show until the wheels fell off.

Financial troubles caught up with Bull not long after the 2001 race, and he made himself disappear. He was thought for a time to have gone missing in Chugach State Park, but investigators later determined that he'd only staged things to make it look that way before leaving the state. The last anyone heard of him, he was riding a bike across America. His whereabouts today are unknown, but his legacy survives.

Woman won't ever win

Out of the ashes of  the Iditasport rose something called "Alaska Ultra Sport.'' Founders, cyclist Pat Irwin and one-time skijorer Bill Merchant, had visions of future Alaska races not only along the Iditarod, but also along the route of the Yukon Quest International Trail Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. The all-too-predictable 40- to 60-degree-below-zero cold of the Interior Yukon River eventually killed the latter idea, but the former flourished as the Iditarod Trail Invitational under the guidance of Merchant and his Austrian wife, Kathi.

Basinger first won that race in 2004 as an unknown. His reputation growing among the handful in the know, he repeated in 2006 in 2007 when he set the still-standing course record to McGrath -- 3 days, 5 hours and 40 minutes. It used to take the dog teams that long to reach the Interior city on the banks of the Kuskokwim River. Basinger the next year went for Nome. He made it first in 18 days, 4 hours and 33 minutes -- only about four hours less than it took Libby Riddles to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1985.

Riddles was a young, attractive, blonde woman whose victory over all the men in the Iditarod put the dog race on an international stage. That's never going to happen to the Invitational. No woman has ever come close to winning the latter, and no one expects a woman ever will. It takes a strong dog team, smarts and sometimes a little courage to win the dog race. Women have proven themselves every bit the match for men in the latter two categories. Riddles won by braving a Bering Sea coastal storm during which other drivers hunkered down. Susan Butcher followed up on Riddles' success by winning the Iditarod the next year and three more after that, putting together a string of first-rate dog teams and outsmarting her male competitors on the trail.

Unfortunately for women, neither smarts nor dogs can overcome the physiological disadvantages they face when going up against men in races like the Invitational. As long as any of several top men show up, the women are doomed to finish back in the pack. Californian Louise Kobin, a determined and decorated adventure racer, holds the women's record for the Invitational: 3 days, 22 hours 20 minutes. She was more than half a day behind Basinger when he notched his fifth win last year in a time of 3 days, 6 hours, 30 minutes. Only 25 minutes behind him was Jeff Oatley, a 41-year-old engineer from Fairbanks. Most racers are considered past their prime by age 40.

Behind Oatley was 44-year-old Greg Matyas, the owner of an Anchorage bike shop and a man with a bad back. He finished exactly 10 hours in front of Kobin. There is little reason to believe a woman will ever put the Invitational in the spotlight as Riddles did for the Iditarod. Nor is it likely a sometimes-dreamed-of competition between world-class bikers and Nordic skiers will do that either.

Forget skiers, too

Basinger is a pretty good skier as well as cyclist. He tried in 2008 to become the first to win the race on both a bike and skis. It was a disastrous failure. Like most skiers who've entered, he found the wheels trumped the ski a long time ago. Basinger finished fifth, but he was still more than 10 hours behind Oatley in a year that couldn't have favored a skier more. The race was bombarded by heavy snows. Cyclists had to push for much of the way. The snow in the Alaska Range eventually got so deep they couldn't push; racers had to toss their bikes ahead and then drag themselves through waist-deep fluff to get to them.

The peloton that started the race only to morph into a pushoton eventually became a tossoton. And yet, Oatley is back this year. So is Basinger. They are sure to be duking it out again for another victory with Kobin hoping to hang as close as she can.

Another competitor to watch is famed Juneau ultrarunner Geoff Roes, the 2009-2010 Ultrarunner Of The Year. 

"I'm in a great spot both physically and mentally," Roes wrote on his blog. "Does this mean I will definitively have a 'successful' race? Most certainly not. But to me this uncertainty is one of the greatest appeals to this event.

"This race is without question the hardest race I have ever done in terms of the physical strength, persistence and capability to finish it -- but it's the mental and emotional opportunity for self exploration, self questioning, and self confirmation that comes with this kind of challenge that is so exciting and alluring to me."

That same sentiment may be shared by the other 44 competitors (the field is limited to 50 for logistical reasons and two have already dropped out). For most, the goal will be to finish.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

2012 Iditasport Field

 Headed to McGrath -- 350 Miles

1) Jeff Kelley, bike; 2) Dave Kelley, bike; 3) Peter Basinger, bike; 4) Steve Wilkinson, bike; 5) Robert Leavesley, ski; 6) Heather Best, bike; 7) Ausilia Vistarini, bike; 8) Michael Odenwald, foot; 9) Walter Hoesch, foot; 10) Eric Warkentin, bike; 11) Louise Kobin, bike; 12) Daniele Modolo, bike; 13) Tim Stern, bike; 14) Eric Johnson, foot; 15) Anne Ver Hoef, foot; 16) Phil Hofsetter, bike; 17) Alberto Villaverde, bike; 18) Cesare Ornati, foot; 19) Leslie Gauld, bike; 20) Geoff Roes, foot; 21) Beat Jegerlehner, foot; 22) Tim Berntson, bike; 23) Russell Worthington, bike; 23) Jay Cable, bike; 24) Tom McDonald, bike; 25) Andrea Hambach, foot; 26) Dave Johnston, foot; 27) Robin McAlpine, bike; 28) Brian Blair, bike; 29) Frank Janssens, foot; 30) Sven Berglund, bike; 31) James Keck, bike; 32) Pavel Richtr, bike; 33) Clay Halley, foot. 

Headed to Nome -- 1,000 Miles

1) Bill Dent, bike; 2) Sabastiano Favaro, bike; 3) Donald Kane, bike; 4) Tim Hewitt, foot; 5) Shawn McTaggart, foot;  5) Billy Koitzsch, bike; 6) Sean Grady, bike; 7) Rick Freeman, foot; 8) Brij Potnis, bike; 9) Rajko Podgornik, foot; 10) Andrea Cavagnet, foot; 11) Dario Valsesia, bike; 12) Roberto Gazzoli, foot; 13) Eris Zama, foot.