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Iditarod Trail Invitational: Why would anybody race it?

Craig Medred
Beneath a full moon, defending Iditarod Trail Invitational champ Peter Basinger pedals his bike up the Yentna River, in the 2013 race.

FINGER LAKE -- Knee-deep in snow on Flathorn Lake pushing a bike through the dark, because going on is the only choice but to curl up in a ball and die of hypothermia, gets a man to thinking about the meaning of life, Jim Barkeley, a cyclist in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, observed Monday. Philosophers, he said, should be required to spend time out there on the Iditarod Trail in the night getting in touch with their inner-selves.

Welcome to the Iditarod Trail School of Philosophy.

Why would anyone attend? you ask. Who are these people who decide to bike and push-a-bike, or simply walk, across 350 miles of frozen, white Alaska wilderness to McGrath or, God forbid, on to Nome at mile-1,000? Why? “Because it is there,” mountaineer George Mallory’s statement, is the now classic and trite answer.

Only that’s not the best answer.

Eszter Horanyi, a physics instructor at the University of Colorado, might have come closer when she waxed eloquent around the kitchen table in the comfortable Winterlake Lodge at Finger Lake on Monday. Horanyi is a thoughtful, 30-something woman from Crested Butte.

“This is a puzzle,” she said.”How do you survive in Alaska with only the equipment on your bike?”

For the brainiacs that dominate this adventure race, that is what the Invitational is about: Confronting a now complicated challenge that for most of human existence was a simple challenge. It is hard to avoid the temptation to answer Horanyi’s question with a comment as simple as Mallory’s.

“How do you survive in Alaska with only the equipment on your bike?”

“Become a Neanderthal.”

But these are people who have evolved far beyond that to fill the ecological niches of modern society. On the whole, the entrants in the Invitational are, like Horanyi, extremely well-educated people -- college professors, physicians, lawyers, orthodontists, pharmacists, economists, intellectual achievers.

A racer in the Iron Dog snowmachine race would never ponder how to survive in Alaska in the winter. The Iron Dog roared up the Iditarod Trail a week before the Invitational. Everyone in the race knew how to survive in the 49th state, squeeze the throttle; hang on; stop in the next community to warm up and rest.

The Iron Dog is a different sort of challenge than the Invitational.

It is in most ways a more modern challenge. Everything happens so fast racers can’t afford to think; they must react or crash out. The race is a reflection of our time.

The Invitational is almost the opposite. Though it is considered a race, there is a lot of time for thinking, as Horanyi conceded in an assessment of her Monday on the trail from Skwentna.

In the midst of pushing her bike through snow with the consistency of mashed potatoes on the way to the Finger Lake checkpoint, she admitted her thoughts strayed to pondering, “What part of this was a good idea?”

And yet by evening she was laughing and smiling at the kitchen table, happy and full of life and glad to be on the trail.

This is the essence of the Invitational. It is an idea so bad it is good. It is a physical challenge wrapped in mental mire trapped in an enigma.

Why do some people yearn for adventure? Why does society make of an adventure today that which a century ago was ordinary?

Nearer 1913 than 2013, it was not uncommon for people to walk 500 miles from tidewater at Seward along this trail to the Iditarod gold country and then walk back again. The Iditarod is today famous thanks to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an invention of the late Joe Redington and others.

But the reality is most people moved along the trail on foot, not behind dogs. They were people more like Loreen Hewitt, Shawn McTaggert and Ann VerHoef than the late Susan Butcher, the four-time Iditarod champ who along with fellow champ Libby Riddles and two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe helped the Iditarod become world famous.

And who are Hewitt, McTaggart and VerHoef? Simply three ordinary and extraordinary women this year planning to walk the full 1,000 miles of the Iditarod to Nome. Nobody expects them to be the first to arrive at the finish line. Even if they do, they will win nothing and can expect little fanfare for the achievement.

But then this isn’t about a chase for fame or money. This is about a search tor self.

Barkeley would ask only that you think about it.

For the fourth year in a row, Craig Medred is following the racers on the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com