An unassuming Fairbanks cyclist by the name of Jeff Oatley has done the impossible on the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome. He rode his fat-tired bicycle into the Bering Sea community of 3,800 on Wednesday afternoon to beat the canines of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to town by days.
No other competitor in the Iditarod Trail Invitational -- a 1,000-mile, human-powered, ultra-endurance race across the Alaska wilderness -- has ever come close to accomplishing this feat.
Oatley didn't just do it, however, he did it in spectacular fashion. His finishing time of 10 days, 2 hours, 53 minutes took him out of the realm of competitors in previous Invitationals and into the realm of the big dogs in the Iditarod dog race.
Oatley's time would have been good enough for 25th place in last year's Iditarod if he'd left the Willow start line with the dogs. He would have finished the race only about six hours behind four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks. Mind-boggling understates this ride.
Suddenly the old Iditasport Impossible isn't looking so impossible. Impossible was the name given the 1,000-mile bike race along the historic trail before the founder of the event staged his death and disappeared from the 49th state only to allow for a somewhat more stable organizer to take over and rename the race the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
By then, it was established that it was indeed possible to ride a fat-tired bike along the snow-covered trail that begins at tidewater in Seward, Alaska and ends on the Bering Sea Coast, but to beat the dogs running the same trail? Forget about it. In more than 20 years, this has happened only once before. Colorado's Mike Curiak, Arizona's John Kirschke, and Canada's Greg Blackwell, back in the Iditasport days, formed a bit of a mini-peloton along the Bering Sea Coast and drove each other to Nome just ahead of the dogs. The feat was never repeated.
No else one even came close in the years that followed, despite the fact the cyclists get a week-long head start up the trail.
Some thought that maybe someday a biker might again be in the mix with the much more famous dog teams as the race closed on Nome. A biker who could do the trail in 16 days, some noted, would be expected reach the finish at about the same time as the Iditarod's sled dog teams.
Someday. Maybe. If conditions were right. If the planets aligned. If someone got lucky.
Well, someday came and went in a blink. Oatley blew all of the old thinking to pieces. Despite being forced to battle a stiff, demoralizing headwind for about 225 miles north along the Bering Sea coast, he's in Nome and will have to stay about a week there if he wants to see the dogs.
A mind-boggling ride to Nome
What Oatley did, other bikers say, is hard to grasp. Here is a man on a bicycle riding across the snow packing all of the necessary Arctic survival gear with him against teams of 16 sled dogs born, bred and trained to run. Canine versus man. It isn't even supposed to be a contest.
Oatley made it one. The rider himself was still trying to get his head around it when reached by phone in Nome.
"I didn't know what the record was," he said. He was thinking 14 days. Told the Invitational record was 17, he wouldn't quite believe it and tried to downplay his achievement.
"It was obvious it could have come to a screeching halt anywhere along the coast," he said. Oatley got lost on the ice of Norton Bay at night, miles outside the village of Koyuk in wind and blowing snow. He wandered around trying to decide whether travel was better on the overflow water or the pressure ridges, decided on the former, then gave up on the trying to find the trail and just went in the direction where he knew he would find shore.
"It was intense," he said. "It was not a good deal. I had no idea of where land was."
But adventure, he confessed -- that thing that makes the hair stand up on the lower back -- is the reason people do races like the Invitational. Oatley pushed his bike ashore, found Koyuk in the early morning hours, got some rest and then rose to hit the trail again.
He had a simple goal: Get to the end of the Iditarod Trail.
"I made it to Nome," is how he summed up the ride. "I know it's fast."
Just how fast was still sinking in for him. But others well understood.
"Holy shit" was the reaction to Oatley's accomplishment from better-known endurance cyclist Jay Petervary of Idaho. Petervary set the Invitational record for the Iditarod's southern route in 2011, when he completed the race in 17 days, six hours. As with the Iditarod, the southern route is run in odd-numbered years, the northern route in even.
Fans of Iditarod cycling from around the globe -- the bike race attracts as much or more attention from Europeans as Americans -- thought Petervary had scorched the trail. No one even contemplated the idea that someone could take an entire week off the time set by Petervary and Colorado's Mike Curiak on the northern route.
Truth be told, no one ever expected to see a cyclist make it to Nome in two weeks, let alone 10 days.
Until Wednesday, it was simply accepted that the Invitational race to Nome was a two-and-half to three-week ride. Until Wednesday, the course record -- set on the northern route, which Oatley rode this year -- stood at 17 days, two hours and dated back more than decade. It was set in 2002 by Curiak, a winter endurance-biking legend, two years after his unprecedented and never repeated 15-day run in the 2000 Iditasport.
Some thought those records might stand forever. Along the trail a week ago, when all attention was focused on the Invitational 350-mile race from Knik over the Alaska Range to McGrath, Oatley was talking about maybe making it to Nome in 20 days or so.
The record set by Curiak was thought so bulletproof that the idea of breaking it never even came up in conversation despite the fact the snow-short winter of 2014 allowed the cyclist to smash the record time for the run to McGrath.
But if you'd asked anyone at the finish line in McGrath if they thought the racers continuing on from McGrath could be in Nome in a mere 10 days, they likely would have laughed at the question.
When Iditarod musher Lance Mackey scored back-to-back victories in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Races in 2007, Alaska media concluded he'd done the impossible. But the possibility of winning those races one after the other had at least been previously discussed.
A 10-day Invitational bike ride to Nome? It never came up in conversation anywhere. Never.
"I don't think anybody had any idea they could go this fast," said Heather Best, Oatley's wife. A cyclist of some renown herself, Best might have been one of the few people in the world not "super-surprised," as she described it, by Oatley's early arrival in Nome.
But that was only because she'd been tracking his progress daily and watching the ride unfold.
"He was planning to get four to five hours of sleep every night, and then he was going to go from there," she said. "We talked about five places along the trail. He seemed like normal Jeff -- in control, but a little bit loopy last night.
"We didn't talk much. He's kind of been in a rush."
A 6-day Iditarod?
A rush? By the time Oatley hit the coast at Unalakleet, he'd built a lead of 12 hours over Nome's Phil Hofstetter and pretty much left everyone else on the trail in his snow dust. Hofstetter, who'd won the race in 2010 in a time of 17 days, nine hours and 30 minutes, is also poised to smash the former course record.
When an athletic achievement is so improbable that no one even bothers to think about the possibility, how does one describe the feat once accomplished?
Consider this: For one of the dog racers now on the trail to achieve an Oatley-esque record, a musher would need to run an Iditarod in under six days, and that is simply not going to happen. Nobody has ever talked about that either.
Best credited Oatley's time to the snow-short trail this year, her husband's doggedness, and the hours and hours of training he put in when not at his job at the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Fairbanks.
"It is pretty incredible," she admitted. "I asked him (Tuesday night) if he was going to push through the night (from White Mountain) to take a bigger bite out of the record," but he was tired and went to sleep for a while instead.
Tired? Imagine that. He'd only covered 100 miles a day for nine days on the Iditarod Trail, which makes the fabled cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix race course look easy.
For a time, there was a thought that Oatley might finish in the nine-day range, which is equivalent to the time it takes for Iditarod winners to get from Willow to Nome these days.
Oatley's prize for his achievement? Not much. There were no crowds waiting in Nome to great him. No $50,000 check. No Dodge Ram truck.
But there was a deep sense of personal fulfillment. That's what one gets for winning the Invitational, and free entry to the race next year. And maybe a little extra from Speedway Cycles, an Anchorage bike shop.
Speedway owner Greg Matyas sponsors Oatley's Fatback fat-bike, and Matyas is usually good for a free beer or two. Oatley might even be required to drink a few toasts to an achievement about which he has only one regret.
"My only real disappointment was not seeing the dog teams go by," he said. Like most Alaskans, Oatley is an Iditarod fan.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on March 7, 2014 to reflect that Greg Blackwell and John Kirsche helped push Mike Curiak to a course record of just over 15 days in the 2000 Iditasport race to Nome. Blackwell and Kirshe also finished in under 16 days. The Iditasport race was the predecessor of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing