The best ultra-long distance runner that Alaska has ever produced set out across the rugged Farewell Burn Friday morning with fading hopes to make history in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Geoff Roes of Juneau, the record-setting winner of the prestigious Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, began his 80-mile trek across the tussock-pocked Burn at 6:30 a.m. after a rest of more than five hours in the checkpoint of Rohn after a descent from the highest point of the race in the Alaska Range. Within two hours, bikers Peter Basinger of Oregon by way of Anchorage, and Phil Hofstetter of Nome gave chase.
Never before had an athlete on foot led this human-powered race down the Iditarod Trail for so long. But deep snows in the race's early days changed everything.
For much of the 350-mile race to Nome – some competitors push on another 650 miles all the way to Nome – walkers Roes and Tim Hewitt, a 57-year-old Pennsylvania attorney, led the way. Bogged down by snow, bikers pushed their bikes instead of riding. That was enough of a disadvantage to give the athletes on foot an edge.
For the moment, those days are over -- and Roes' lead may soon be history, too. The bikers are back to pedaling.
"The next stretch of trail has very little snow on it and is hard packed," co-race director Kathi Merchant reported on the Invitational's website. "Since Rohn is in the rain shadow of the Alaska Range, it receives very little precipitation and little snow most years. About 20-25 miles out of Rohn they will get back into more snow, since there's at least six feet here in McGrath."
For Roes, Ultrarunning Magazine's male ultrarunner of the year in 2008 and 2009, this is his third attempt to complete the trip to McGrath; he's dropped out the first two times.
"I've attempted it twice and dropped out both times," he told the website Competitor. "So I'm going to take another shot at doing a really long one."
One-time race leader Hewitt was slowed by a sprained or twisted ankle. On Friday night, he'd yet to arrive in Rohn.