After two runner-up finishes in one of Alaska's most grueling bike races, Anchorage fat bike racer Tim Berntson was willing to sweat for victory in the Iditarod Invitational 350-miler from Knik to McGrath.
And sweat he did. Not because he was pressed at the McGrath finish line Tuesday, but because it was so hot during his 1 day, 23 hours, 45 minutes of pedaling and pushing. Bernston finished at 1:56 p.m. Tuesday, becoming the fourth person to finish in less than two days.
The previous three came last year, when the race was run in ideal conditions that produced the record of 1 day, 18 hours, 32 minutes by John Lackey of Anchorage, who covered the distance quicker than the fastest Iditarod mushers. Two years ago, Iditarod leader Ally Zirkle took more than 2 days and 2 hours to reach McGrath.
Lackey did not enter this year's race.
"Just too hot," Berntson said by phone from McGrath. "It was at least 45 when we left Knik, probably warmer than that. My truck said 45, but out in the sun, I bet it was near 50. It never got below 20 the whole race."
As a result, Berntson was comfortable stripping down to a light base layer and thin jacket — whether he was pedaling or pushing. The latter was necessary near Shell Lake past the Skwentna checkpoint and in some spots around Finger Lake, about 130 miles into the race, where post-holing through deep snow awaited racers.
Patches of windblown snow contributed to more pushing in the Rainy Pass section, high in the Alaska Range. But that was the end of it.
"From the top of Rainy Pass down was fun," Berntson said. "It was kind of like a luge run, really fast much of the way, but you're constantly crossing over (Dalzell Creek) and that slows you down."
By the time the top riders reached Rohn, before starting across the Farewell Burn to Nikolai some 80 miles to the west, the lead pack had narrowed to Berntson, 43, and Fairbanks rider Tyson Flaherty, 30.
That's where Bernston, a home claims agent for State Farm Insurance, made his move. He got ready to leave quickly and spotted an opportunity.
"I didn't totally plan it that way, but then I realized he wasn't going with me," Bernston said. "It's hard to ride by yourself when you don't know what the other person behind you is doing."
In this case, Flaherty wasn't gaining, and the trail, snowless in sections, proved ideal for biking. Flaherty finished in 2 days, 1 hour, 30 minutes.
"I was really glad coming in to McGrath," Berntson said of his personal-record ride. "I knew I was capable of it."
That confidence began to grow after his debut in 2012, when a big snowstorm slowed the race to a crawl and he quit before reaching Skwentna. "I didn't see the need to push the whole course," he said.
Two runner-up finishes buoyed his confidence and Tuesday sealed it.
"I'm happy to have his one done after a few tries at it," he said.
Victory wasn't his only reward either. As he pedaled across the Farewell Burn Monday night, Berntson was treated to a spectacular northern lights display.
"It was pretty awesome," he said. "What a place to be."
Contact Mike Campbell at email@example.com