With dope-fiend cyclist Lance Armstrong gone from the Michelob Ultra advertising campaign that once seemed unavoidable if you watched any sports on television in this country, maybe it's time for iconic American brewer Anheuser-Busch to ink a new deal with a real ultra man.
Say hello to David Johnston of Willow, whom Runner's World.com has described simply as an "Alaskan badass." But what should interest Anheuser-Bush here is that he's not just an Alaskan badass; he's a smiling, attractive, personable, beer-swilling Alaskan badass. Runner's World recognized the 42-year-old Johnston for winning the foot division in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the 350-mile human-powered race along the remote and wild Iditarod Trail from Knik, an old gold-mining port now a suburb of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla, over the Alaska Range mountains to the community of McGrath, population 341, on the bank of the Kuskokwim River.
There are more wolves than people living in that corner of Alaska these days. Johnston didn't let that bother him as me marched ever north, usually alone, in front of a sled full of 36 pounds of survival gear thinking about what awaited at the few checkpoints along the route: Budweiser.
Think of it as the Gatorade of the near arctic.
No diet beer for Johnston
OK, so it isn't Michelob Ultra. It is Ultra's older, better known and cheaper cousin. Budweiser has been around since 1876. Michelob is almost as old, but didn't really become a national brand until 1961, when Anheuser-Busch produced a pasteurized version, legalizing shipment across state lines. And Michelob Ultra was a real late comer, appearing first in 2002 amidst a U.S. diet-beer craze.
Johnston doesn't really need diet beer. He spent most of his winter averaging 70 miles per week fast walking and jogging in front of a heavy sled attached to his back side by a pair of tow poles. Seventy miles towing is the equivalent of more than 100 miles towless.
Needless to say, Johnston doesn't have a lot of body fat. His ribs show plainly when he takes his shirt off. He's a beer drinker who glows with good health, not one suffering the dreaded beer belly.
Still, he likes his Budweiser: Tastes good, goes down easy, provides some calories, and helps him rehydrate. And he's admitted that he would be willing to switch to Michelob Ultra if he got a sponsorship deal.
Truth be told, the Ultra would probably serve the Ultra Man's purposes better. The way beer becomes "diet" beer is by lowering the content of alcohol, which has a lot of calories. Budweiser is 5.3 percent alcohol and 148 calories; Michelob Light, 4.3 percent and 113 calories; and Ultra a paltry 4.1 percent alcohol and only 95 calories.
An ultra-endurance athlete can always use the calories, but doesn't want to overdo the alcohol. It can impair judgment if you imbibe too much. Other than that, though, it's not so far out of the box to think of beer as a sports drink in ultra-distance events. As Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has noted exactly that. Because of the way beer is metabolized, excess carbohydrates are quickly stored as fat.
Whipping the pros
In a nearly five-day race, where you never stop running, that's not a bad thing. You're body can't store enough glycogen to begin to power you for that long. You have to burn fat. So the more of it you can store up the better. It worked pretty well for Johnston, an employee of the Geneva Woods Pharmacy in Wasilla, where he lives. He handily beat a couple of professional ultra runners with sponsors.
"It was really neat,'' he said in his down-to-earth way. "The neatest thing was to whup them by a day and half."
The 2012 Invitational champ and former course record holder for the prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run -- the grandaddy of all ultras -- is Geoff Roes of Juneau. He didn't enter the Invitational this year because of injury, but monitored what happened – and he was impressed.
Johnston, he observed, "made the first-ever serious threat to Steve Reifenstuhl's race record of 4 days, 15 hours. In the end Johnston came up about four hours short, but his run could have changed some things for the way this event is approached by runners in the future. Until this year, I think most people (myself included) thought Reifenstuhl was essentially a maniac, and that no one would ever make a serious attempt at doing this race faster than he did on foot. I can put together the pieces in my mind to see how you could do this race in about the time that Steve did, but this would be absolutely best-case scenario. As soon as one thing goes wrong, that sets you back two or three hours you are not going to make it. My thought has always been that over the course of 350 miles something will have to go wrong. For this reason I have always thought of Steve's record here as the most impressive performance I am aware of in endurance athletics."
Sitka's Reifenstuhl was a maniac. So too is his brother Rocky, a former Invitational bike winner, from Fairbanks. The latter, who was notorious for carrying as little as possible on the trail, once "bonked," as they say in endurance-sport circles, in the infamous Dalzell Gorge at 40 or 50 degrees below zero and had to burn his water bottles to fuel the fire that saved his life. Johnston, who thinks he can get Steve Reifenstuhl's record next year, understands why Rocky always traveled with so little.
The 36-pound sled he pulled this year, by his estimation, cost him at least an hour per day in travel time. The sled will be lighter next year. It got heavy this year mainly because "I have an 11-year-old (son) and an expectant wife wanting me back,'' he said.
"I want that record,'' he added. "I can get it. I just need to lighten up.''
Plenty of risks
In the Invitational, it should be noted, there is a risk with risks. Thankfully, no one has ever died, but that is a possibility. If something goes wrong on the trail, help is a long way off, and there are certain objective dangers to face: Temperatures that can drop to 50 degrees below zero; blizzards that can blow up; ice that can give way on creeks and rivers to dump someone into open water; irate moose or bison looking to stomp someone, or even the possibility of a grizzly bear encounter. Grizzlies rarely emerge from their dens during the winter in the Interior of Alaska, but when they do it's usually a bad sign.
A grizzly that emerged from its den after being disturbed by nearby activity on the Kenai Peninsula in February 1998 promptly bit a man in the head and killed him. This is Alaska.
Johnston, who started running at age eight but didn't get the ultra bug until relatively recently, is well aware of where he lives. And he thinks its a significant advantage in the Invitational. He's comfortable in-country and in the conditions of the race. The same things can be a little intimidating to Outsiders. It's a big empty out there where it is easy to get to wondering about the simple dangers of simply being far beyond nowhere. It's not a place where one would want to push himself until, as runners say, "you hit the wall.''
"When you hit that fine line,'' Johnston said, "you've got to be very, very careful.''
We'll toast a Budweiser to that.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com