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Iditarod Trail Invitational: An endurance race away from civilization

Craig Medred
Reached in a snowstorm near the headwaters of the Happy River high in the Alaska Range on March 1, the improbable leader of Iditarod Invitational had only three words to describe the situation, and they won't be repeated here.
Craig Medred photo
Robin MacAlpine and Pavel Richtr pause near the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers during the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
Iditarod Trail Invitational racers push their bikes through heavy snow near Flathorn Lake.
Craig Medred photo
Englishman Bill Dent gets on the satellite phone to call his wife from the deck of the snow-buried Yentna Station Roadhouse north of Anchorage on Tuesday as Sebastiano Favaro from Italy prepares his fat-tired bike for another push north in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
Race, over, tired and beaten by the Iditarod Trail, Alberto Villaverde gets some help from Willow pilot Barry Stanley in loading his fat-tired bike for a long ride home to Italy.
Craig Medred photo
Peter Basinger, Tim Bernston, and Phil Hofstetter take a break near Lake Creek on the Yentna River about 75 miles into the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
We ride! After days of bike pushing, Englishman Steve Wilkinson finally got on his bike to ride on the Iditarod Trail to Shell Lake Wednesday. The competitor in the Iditarod Trail Invitational did about 100 yards before he decided the trail was still soft and the riding too much work. He jumped off and resumed pushing. The finish line remained more than 200 miles in north in McGrath on the other side of the Alaska Range. A veteran of the 2011 Invitational, Wilkinson was thinking of dropping out of this one. A couple dozen others had already given up.
Craig Medred photo
Fat-tire cyclist Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic pushes past the Shell Hills in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on Wednesday. He was working his way toward the Alaska Range as a pair of snowshoers -- Pennsyvlanian Tim Hewitt and Alaskan Geoff Roes -- led the race toward Rainy Pass. The race is normally dominated by the cyclists, but heavy snow and soft trail had turned the table on them, and they were chasing a gang of snowshoers.
Craig Medred photo
The weather finally cut the Iditarod Trail Invitational a break late Wednesday. Fat-tire cyclist Dave Kelley pushes his bike across the big swamp north of Skwentna in the shadow of the Alaska Range. Trail conditions were so soft cyclists still weren't riding, but it was a much nicer day to push.
Craig Medred photo
Anchorage's Billy Koitzsch (http://www.arcticcycles.com/) leaves the Skwentna Roadhouse on Wednesday with his take-apart fat bike in a sled. The sled rolls up when not in use. Koitzsch, who plans to travel the entire 1,000 miles of the Iditarod Trail to Nome, plans to roll the sled up, tie it to the bike and start riding when the trails firm up. They were still better for his snowshoes on Wednesday. Three Iditarod Trail Invitational competitors remained in Skwentna when Koitzsch left, but they were all talking about scratching.
Craig Medred photo
Dave Kelley, an Anchorage bicycle technician, might have been running last in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on March 2, 2012, but he was all smiles as he strapped on his snowshoes to start the climb from the Happy River to Shirley Lake.
Craig Medred photo
Reached in a snowstorm near the headwaters of the Happy River high in the Alaska Range on March 1, the improbable leader of Iditarod Invitational had only three words to describe the situation, and they won't be repeated here.
Craig Medred photo
Geoff Roes on the march toward Rainy Pass March 1.
Craig Medred photo
Iditarod Invitational veteran Pete Basinger on the roll through the Alaska Range March 1.
Craig Medred photo
Phil Hofstetter and Pete Basinger chase the Iditarod Trail north in pursuit of Invitational leader Tim Hewitt on March 1. Tripods mark the trail across the barren, windswept gap in the Alaska Range leading up to Rainy Pass.
Craig Medred photo
Fat-tire bikers push along the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Craig Medred photo

While the world speeds ahead into the digital information age, two Alaskas have come to exist in the far north. One is the Alaska of long, cold, dark, depressing winters and short, wonderful, midnight-sunned-blessed summers. This is the Alaska known to most of its residents, who for eight or nine months of the year struggle between their homes and offices in the modern world, with a stop at Starbucks to properly caffeinate in the morning and a pause at Wal-Mart or Safeway to resupply the kitchen with groceries in the evening.

The other Alaska is the land of year-round myth and mystery, the land of the great escape, the Great Land, the Last Frontier. This is the Alaska that is what the rest of the globe was -- until man conquered so much.

Some 50 people on foot, on bicycles or on skis set off to challenge this Alaska Sunday. The bulk of them are from Europe or the Lower 48. A handful of them harbor thoughts of winning a competition called the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which boasts neither trophies nor prize money: Most of them will be competing solely with themselves.

Once, humankind considered the wilderness home. We were part of it. Now it is considered a challenge to our very survival.

Race away from evolution

The Iditarod Invitational runs 350 to 900 miles along the Iditarod Trail from the abandoned port of Knik to McGrath and then Nome. Most people opt for the 350-mile version of the trip. A few, however, do keep going. Less than four dozen have made it all the way to Nome at the north end of the trail in the past decade. More people annually complete the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

The Iditarod, "The Last Great Race," is considered one of the world's toughest sporting competitions. It is extremely difficult because of a musher's dependence on the dogs.

The Invitational is extremely difficult for another reason -- simple, human frailty. A journey of even 350 miles along the Iditarod is an easy adventure to abandon. There are so many convenient excuses to quit. Some are ordinary: blisters, twisted ankles, aching joints, a little frostbite. Others are extraordinary: A couple years ago, competitors had to wade through waist-deep snow for tens of miles through the Alaska Range. The bikers in the race carried their bikes for much of that way. Sometimes, though, they couldn't carry them.

They had to pitch them onto the snow ahead, drag themselves to them, and then pitch them forward again.

A few years before the great snow slog, the problem was different. Temperatures plunged to a life-threatening 50 degrees below zero on the north side of the range. Of those temperatures, turn-of-the-century Alaskan Hudson Stuck, the author of "Ten Thousands Miles with a Dog Sled," observed, "the old-timers in Alaska have a saying that 'traveling at 50 degrees below is all right as long as it's all right.'''

(Stuck's book is an Alaska classic and a must-read for those in Alaska or intrigued by the Alaska mystique. And you can now find it free online.)

At 50 degrees below, things can go badly wrong and quickly. At 50 degrees below, it can quickly become difficult to survive.

Suffice to say, there are sensible reasons to avoid travel on the Iditarod Trail in February and March. But most people avoid this journey simply because it is in large part everything modern day America is not. Modern day America is easy and comfortable. The Iditarod is about difficulty -- and no matter how one travels -- becomes at times a little uncomfortable.

"Tomorrow I head out on the Iditarod Trail,'' Invitational organizer Bill Merchant posted on the race website Wednesday. "Whether on skis, foot, bike or breaking trail with a machine it is the trail and culture that comes alive this time of year that has pulled me back out there for the past 13 years. In all that time the trail has never been the same twice."

Invitation to return to the tribe

The "culture'' to which Merchant refers is little more than people pulling together to survive because it sometimes becomes necessary and because there is, and always has been, a certain comfort in the tribe. The trail brings out the best in people.

Nobody, be it in the Invitational or the Iditarod or the Iron Dog, passes someone in trouble on the trail. There is a code, and everyone lives by the code: You help your fellow travelers, because there is no telling when you might need them to help you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published on the eve of Craig Medred's departure for the Iditarod Trail Invitational in February 2011 and is abbreviated. Read Medred's full "Invite to the Invitational" here.