As more athletes test their limits in extreme conditions, Iditarod Trail Invitational grows in popularity

Asbjorn Bruun stopped in Shaktoolik, staring dubiously out across Norton Bay.

For more than 800 miles, through nearly impassable stretches of snowy trail and frigid weather, he had met every physical challenge.

Now Bruun encountered his first major mental challenge. Skiing that same stretch of trail two years earlier, he’d experienced similar conditions — a stout headwind and windchill temperatures reaching 45 degrees below zero. That forced him to drop out of the 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational and cost him a portion of his right index finger, a frostbite casualty.

A former Danish special ops soldier who patrolled a gigantic barren swath of northeast Greenland on dog sled, Bruun knew how to operate in arctic conditions. He also understood his capabilities. Bruun waited for the wind to subside slightly before heading out on the sea ice.

A few days later on March 20, a weary but elated Bruun crossed the finish line in Nome after more than 24 days on the race trail, making him the first skier to officially complete the entire 1,000 miles of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. He completed the final 90 miles in a single push, spending about 32 straight hours on his feet.

“The sea ice was a mental challenge,” he said. “The others were physical challenges and you can work your way through that.”

“The physical pain will disappear quickly, but the joy of finishing, that will never disappear.”


Although his trek was a mostly solitary pursuit, Bruun is far from alone in attempting to conquer the endurance challenge. As more athletes seek to test themselves in extreme conditions, the ultra adventure race has continued to increase in popularity.

This year, 38 people attempted the 1,000-mile trail from Knik Lake to Nome on foot, bicycle and skis. That’s the same number of sled dog teams that started the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

In total, more than 100 racers started the 2024 ITI, with a majority opting for the still arduous 350-mile course that ends in McGrath.

The ITI field has doubled since race director Kyle Durand took over in 2018, adding about 10 racers a year until it reached 100. He said he’s tried to grow the race as sensibly and sustainably as possible. Entry is contingent on eligibility factors to ensure competence and safety. Still, that doesn’t guarantee success.

“We’ve had world-class athletes who have come out here and completely fail,” Durand said. “A big part of this event and why we have people coming from all over the world is because of the adventure in Alaska. This is a way to experience it that no one else really does.”

The first individuals to cross the finish line at Nome were men’s bicycle co-champions Miron Golfman and Tyson Flaharty. The journey to the finish line was no less punishing for the duo.

In 2023, Anchorage’s Golfman broke the record for the fastest time recorded on the south route. There would be no speed records in 2024, although Golfman called the ride ”an incredible, epic to the fullest proportion experience.”

“We had to take on about as much adversity as I think this trail can offer between relentlessly cold, cold temperatures and just so much snow out there,” he said. ”Five out of six days in a row, we were in whiteout snowstorms, and the trail just never got better.”

Journeying together made it more manageable for Golfman and Flaharty, who lives in Fairbanks. The duo found that their compatibility would become a major asset when times got tough.

“We complement each other really well where it almost always works out that if one of us is suffering, the other one is able to kind of carry the load,” Golfman said.

Kinsey Loan was this year’s women’s bicycle champion, finishing in third place overall alongside her partner Mark Moeller in 21 days. The couple finished the 350 last year and came away feeling drained but determined.

“We were exhausted,” said Loan, who is from Eagle River. “But both of us were like, ‘Absolutely, I would absolutely love to keep going.’ So we sat down right away and went through our gear and how the 350 went and already had a list, while it’s fresh, of what we wanted to do and ideas for the 1,000.”

Loan and Moeller also described difficult trail conditions that left them zapped at the end of each day. But the duo wasn’t racing the clock and took a more measured approach, taking time to soak up their surroundings and the experiences in villages along the way.

“With the 350 racers, it’s so easy to watch them pull long, long days and go really late in to the night or start really early and to be influenced by that,” Loan said. “But we wanted to sleep at night and ride during the day. So we wanted to get into McGrath and not feel the faintest hint of wanting to drop out there. We wanted to be excited to move on, and I think that we did a really good job of doing that.”

Ryan Fox, the winner of the foot race, was one of those 350 competitors who pushed the limits this year. A schoolteacher in Nome, Fox moved to Alaska from the East Coast less than three years ago.

“Two years ago, I saw some of the finishers of this race coming in and I didn’t even know the race existed,” he said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s this race?’ You know, people coming in on bikes and on foot, and so I got really interested at that point.”

‘A really cool way to push yourself’

The common denominator among competitors is an urge to discover their limits and oftentimes redefine those limits. Loan has competed in dozens of races in Alaska and is a champion biker and triathlete.


“I think it’s a progression,” she said. “Once people start getting into a little bit of racing, a little bit of adventuring, what’s the next thing to push themselves? These types of adventure races are where it’s at. You could do this every single year and it would never be the same. This is a really cool way to push yourself.”

Flaharty won the 2023 ITI 350, dueling with Golfman for much of the first stretch last year. After watching Golfman continue on toward Nome, Flaharty was motivated to try to complete the full distance this year.

“I really wanted to see more of the trail,” he said. “It’s just a super awesome, big mega ride. You can see so much of the state. ... You really get to experience so many different areas and landscapes. Everything changes so much as you progress and you just watch the world go by.”

Part of Fox’s mission in competing this year was to raise money for the fledgling Nome track and field team, which is in its first year. Fox’s preparation included a 70-mile midwinter run around Nome in whipping winds.

“I think that it just makes my skin thicker,” he said. “I get extreme satisfaction in human-powered things, and it doesn’t have to be running, it could be biking or anything. The satisfaction of knowing that I went from point A to point B on my own engine, there’s nothing like it.”

At 27, Fox is significantly younger than most of the racers. Not only is the ITI a significant financial obligation, it’s also major time commitment, with nearly a month straight on the course for some racers.

Golfman, 30, is a professional ultra-endurance cyclist and Flaharty, 34, manages Fairbanks’ Goldstream Sports.

“These big massive adventures are unfortunately also cost-prohibitive,” Flaharty said. “A lot of people can’t participate because of money, which is hard. We’re fortunate we can be here.”


Race director Durand, a retired combat veteran of nearly 30 years, found in the endurance community a similar camaraderie he experienced in the military. He raced the 350 twice on bike and once on foot before tackling the full 1,000-mile race in 2018 “to understand what everybody goes through and qualify myself to lead this event.”

Fox exemplified the camaraderie that Durand felt within the ultra community. Before class started, he drove a few miles outside Nome to congratulate 1,000-mile footrace winner Gavan Hennigan and hand the Irishman a couple of congratulatory burritos.

He continued the practice as the race continued, meeting other finishers, including adventurer Mark Hines and skier Sunny Stroeer, the first woman to complete the full 1,000 miles on skis.

Of the 38 starters in the ITI 1000, 15 were international athletes mostly hailing from northern Europe. Durand said the race has traditionally had a robust international draw.

“It’s not necessarily the athletic or endurance aspect of it that draws most people,” he said. “It’s the adventure.”

[Short naps propelled this Alaska scientist to a seemingly unreachable destination in the ITI]

Part of the adventure of the race is that it also provides opportunity for interaction with competitors in the Iditarod sled dog race, which is run simultaneously. Durand said there’s a lot of communication between the two race organizations leading up to their respective starts as trail breakers are passing back updates on conditions.

Golfman and Flaharty went back and forth passing 2024 champion Dallas Seavey through Koyuk, Elim and White Mountain in the final days of their journey.

“About 10 miles outside of White Mountain, he passed us back and we had a nice moment getting to congratulate each other,” Golfman said.

This year’s race saw unprecedented participation and success with skiers finishing in both the men’s and women’s race for the first time ever. For other participants, the race ended earlier than they’d hoped: Fifteen racers were forced to scratch in the 1,000-mile edition. Still, the emphasis for many is on the pursuit of the goal.

“It’s OK to fail,” Fox said. “I mean, 40 people this year scratched between the 350 and 1000. That’s 40% of the race. That’s the reality of things and most of those people will be back.”

Now that they’ve conquered the 1,000 miles, Loan and Moeller’s next winter adventure might also be Iditarod-themed.


“We started kicking around the idea of biking the Iditarod qualifiers,” Moeller said. “It’s a little backwards but there are so many of these races the mushers do, it would be so fun to go and do those same trails and see the stuff they’re seeing.”

Bruun’s journey to the finish line has taken nearly a decade in total, including planning, preparation and previous attempts. He hadn’t decided what would be next for him, but it may be tough to top the challenge of ITI.

“It’s because you’re on your own,” he said. “You are your only option. ... It’s this simple thing. You just go out and go as far as you can.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.