A 36-year-old Anchorage cyclist has absolutely shattered the record for the time it takes man or beast to cover the 350 miles of Iditarod Trail up and over the Alaska Range from the headwaters of Cook Inlet to the Interior community of McGrath.
Oh, what a difference the weather makes in Alaska.
Even first-time Iditarod Trail Invitational champ John Lackey sounded shocked Tuesday upon his arrival in McGrath in 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes. Lackey took 10 hours and 11 minutes off a cycling record set last year, which was itself a record by more than 14 hours.
More than that, he was about eight hours under the fastest time ever posted by the superdogs of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on the first stretch of Alaska's most famous trail.
"I thought it was going to be a fast year,'' a raspy-voiced Lackey said by telephone from the riverside village of 350 after finishing. "But I didn't think it was going to be that fast. That was faster than I imagined. I didn't think it was going to be under two days.''
It wasn't. Lackey's time was way under two days.
Not good for sled dogs
The Anchorage electrical engineer credited the weather for much of an achievement many expect to stand for a long, long time. The lack of snow that forced the sled dog race to move its restart north to Fairbanks on Monday left the Iditarod Trail a frozen ribbon of brown and white north from the old gold-mining port of Knik into the heart of 49th state.
"How long does it take to ride a 300-mile sidewalk?'' joked five-time Invitational champ Peter Basinger, who was sitting out this race at home in Moab, Utah, after back surgery.
"I don't think there was much of anything on the trail that could have been better,'' said Lackey, a former road racer on the collegiate team at Montana State University.
There is no underestimating the difference the superb trail conditions made.
When the snows fell heavy from Cook Inlet north into the Alaska Range only three years ago, it took the cyclists four days just to make Rainy Pass, and even then they were led up and over by a 57-year-old runner and hiker.
This year was a polar-vortex opposite that drove unusually warm weather deep into the heart of Alaska while leaving residents of the U.S. East Coast shivering.
The resulting Alaska weather was nothing but bad news for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which dealt with a snow-short trail last year and has now been forced to relocate to the north of Anchorage for all but a ceremonial start for show Saturday in the state's largest city.
But the weather was a bonanza for the Invitational and organizers Bill and Kathi Merchant, who've struggled for years to put their race on the sports map. This might do it. Cyclists besting sled dogs in a race along the historic Iditarod Trail seems certain to attract global attention.
"Crazy fast'' was all Kathi had to say in a text from McGrath early Tuesday. She was there working as race checker. Bill was still out on the trail tending to racers.
Where the Iditarod dog race is a million-dollar event, the Invitational is run on a shoestring by the Merchants.
The race offers no prize money. There is little in the way of checkpoint support. Often the "trail'' isn't much more than a hard-to-follow snowmachine track through the wilderness. And the racers who come to compete seem to love it.
An Invitational veteran, Lackey's only complaint about the trail this year was that some of it was almost too fast. That's a complaint not often heard in the Invitational, but perhaps a valid one given that a satellite tracker Lackey carried showed him hitting speeds in excess of 20 mph on the sheer ice of the Tatina River just north of the Alaska Range.
"At that point, I had a tailwind,'' Lackey said. 'I wasn't even pedaling. I think I might even have had my brakes on there.''
Lackey found himself in a similar situation on the Farewell Lakes north of Rohn, where the icy trail was so treacherous he worried the swirling winds might tip him off the bike.
Slowing for safety
Aware of the unique conditions of the trail this year, all of the leaders in the Invitational rode on heavily studded fat tires measuring about 4 inches wide. But even on studded tires, glare ice can be a little scary.
Especially if it's slippery shelf ice along Dalzell Creek that goes bad.
"There was one section I almost fell into the water because the trail almost caved in,'' Lackey said. He concluded he was probably riding too fast and better slow down and think about safety rather than racing.
The Dalzell was thought to be impassable this year because of low snow, but Invitational co-organizer and chief trailbreaker Bill managed to punch his way from Rainy Pass down the Pass Fork to the top of the Dalzell Gorge, and then find enough natural ice bridges and bridge-building willows with which to fashion a trail for the cyclists to follow down.
It wasn't perfect, but it was passable.
"It was sketchy,'' Lackey said. "There were a lot of willow stubs sticking out.''
Not to mention all the ice bridges the trail crosses back and forth over the creek as it winds down a gorge that often has only 5 or 10 feet of stream bank on one side or the other.
Andrew Kulmatiski, a 42-year-old professor from Utah State University who used to teach at UAA, led the race through the Dalzell on Monday night and looked like he might be running away with the event.
However, fatigue caught up with him on the long push north of Rohn across the Post River and into the scrublands of what was once the site of a huge forest fire later dubbed the Farewell Burn. Lackey said he caught the leader near Sullivan Creek, a well-known landmark about two-thirds of the way along the Burn between Rohn and the village of Nikolai.
"There were a bunch of tussocks out there there were just beating the heck out of both of us,'' said Lackey, who could see then that Kulmatiski had gone too far too fast and was burning himself out.
"He was looking OK but not great,'' Lackey said. "He was starting to push on some uphills he wouldn't normally be pushing on.
"I'd been a bit worried when he flew out of Rohn. I was wondering, 'Can he hold it? Maybe he can.' I left Kevin (Breitenbach) at Rohn. We talked. Kevin is a pretty good friend of mine.''
Breitenbach also happened to be the defending champ, but he said, as Lackey remembered, "I need some sleep.'' Lackey was in no mood to sleep. He had a plan hatched in cooperation with 2014 Invitational runner-up Tim Bernston from Anchorage, and now it was time to hatch it.
"I'd kind of been thinking about this for two years,'' said Lackey, who reached Nikolai with a big gang of riders in 2013 only to end up finishing fifth. He planned to change that, putting a lot of time and effort into long weekend rides to get ready for the Invitational.
"I'd do anywhere between six and 12 hour rides on the weekends,'' he said. Fortunately, he's married to an avid cyclist. She'd regularly join him on those rides all over the Susitna Valley.
Bernston offered Lackey a simple strategy: Hang as close to the race leader as possible on the long climb from tidewater to Rainy Pass at about 3,000 feet, coast on down to Rohn, and then go full bore for McGrath.
Go Lackey did.
'Like riding on a road'
When he left Rohn, he put his head down and went as hard as he could until he caught Kulmatiski about 30 miles out, hung with him for a time through tussock hell, and then emerged onto the smooth, frozen swamps and rivers north of Sullivan Creek.
"It was ice,'' Lackey said. "It was just like riding on a road.''
Lackey quickly opened a gap on Kulmatiski and began pulling away. By the time he hit McGrath, the margin was a couple of hours and Kulmatiski was also reeled in by Breitenbach.
The Fairbanks rider came second in 1 day, 21 hours and 30 minutes. Not far behind him were Kulmatiski and possibly as many as three other riders poised to break the two-day mark that up until this year seemed an impossibility.
"I can't imagine anyone getting any faster than this,'' Lackey said. "It feels pretty darn good.''
He planned to celebrate with a program of eat-sleep-eat. Online in social media he was already beginning to accept the prize for winning the Invitational -- accolades form other cyclists and other ultra-endurance athletes.
That is the prize for an Invitational winner. The honor of a job masterfully done.
Contact Craig Medred at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alaska Dispatch Publishing