A 54-year-old mother of four from Pennsylvania took on the Alaska wilderness for a week in March to set a new women's record for travel by foot on the Iditarod Trail.
Loreen Hewitt from Westmoreland, a small town east of Pittsburgh, went 350 miles through temperatures dipping to 30 degrees below zero to win the women's foot competition in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a race like few others in the country.
Invitational competitors are dispatched into North America's last great wilderness along a marginal trail with little support. They basically have to fend for themselves. They need to carry enough gear with them to survive. Hewitt, who was traveling with husband, Tim -- a veteran Iditarod Trail hiker -- pulled a sled packed with an arctic sleeping bag, a pad, a shelter, food and extra clothing. Despite that burden, she averaged better than 50 miles per day on a trail of soft snow that climbs thousands of feet into the Alaska Range before dropping into uninhabited, seldom-visited country with more wolves, moose and bison than people on the north side of the mountains.
Imagine doing this in a day and age when most people in America think it an achievement to run the 26.3 miles of a marathon on pavement. Hewitt basically did two marathons a day across bad ground for two weeks. In places it was particularly hard because her feet punched through the snowy trail up to knee deep.
Below Rainy Pass at 4,875-feet, she ran out of gas and had to bivvy, which is the Alaska term for digging a hole in the snow to get out of the wind, crawling in it with your sleeping bag, and trying to get enough rest to let your body recover so you can push on.
Luckily Loreen did recover because rescuing someone from Rainy Pass is difficult. She made it over, Tim said, but was still so tired the couple had to camp just below the summit in the thin brush on the other side as the temperatures dropped past 20 degrees below zero in the night.
They got up the next morning and pushed on. By the Tatina River below the pass, less than 10 miles from one of the few Inivitational checkpoints, Loreen was barely running on fumes. She couldn't even stop to talk. In the extreme cold, she had to keep going to maintain the body heat necessary for survival, and she knew she needed to get into the heated tent at Rohn to warm up if she was to recover.
The tent is about as primitive an accommodation as a modern American could imagine. It is a throwback to the way miners lived along the Iditarod 100 years ago. But it was warm enough to help Loreen bounce back. She warmed up. She ate. She pumped her body full of fluids. And then she pushed on for another 100 miles to McGrath, completing the Invitational in 6 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes. Afterward, she flew home. Tim kept going. He is on his way to Nome in front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race now heading up the trail. It is another 550 cold miles from McGrath to Nome for him.
The Invitational was won by cyclist Peter Basinger, a McGrath school teacher, in a time of about three and a half days. The race is open to all muscle-powered sports enthusiasts, and on the frozen snowmachine trail that is the Iditarod, cyclists on fat-tired bikes are dominant. Most of the 50 entrants in the 2011 Invitational were so equipped.
Almost 30 of them have now reached McGrath, and more than a half-dozen are pushing on for Nome. The race is limited to 50 competitors, but has been steadily growing in popularity. There was a waiting list of more than 20 racers this year.
Some consider the Invitational the ultimate North American ultra-endurance race.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.