The truly Idita-crazy are descending on Anchorage from all over the globe this week, and, no, these aren't sled-dog racers. Those folks hit the Iditarod Trail proper on March 2 with up to 16 canine friends, big sleds packed with survival gear, and a volunteer Iditarod Air Force watching over them in case of trouble.
The Iditarod Trail travelers arriving now are cyclists and runners who will hit the trail with little in the way of gear and not much support other than their own wits. They come from Italy, England, Czech Republic, Costa Rica, South Africa, and a slew of U.S. states.
Bill and Kathi Merchant, organizers of the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational, call the racers invitees, which is a polite way of saying they've been vetted, and the Merchants are of the belief they won't kill themselves traveling, often alone, in the Alaska wilderness.
Of the 50 invited, 18 are from states others than Alaska; 17 are from Alaska; and the other 15 are foreigners. No other Iditarod Trail race can boast a cast as international as this one.
23 headed to Nome
Most of the 50 are going 350 miles over the Alaska Range to McGrath this year. That's where the first stage of the Invitational ends. But 23 of the 50 plan to go all the way to Nome.
For some of them, the 1,000-mile trek through some of the wildest, most desolate country left in North America is old hat. Tim Hewitt, the 59-year-old Pennsylvania lawyer, seven times hiked the Iditarod Trail from near the doorstep of the late Joe Redington's home outside Knik to Nome.
In 2012, Hewitt paced the race into Rainy Pass in the heart of the range, beating even the fat-tired cyclists who usually dominate this competition.
Last year, he went all the way to Nome unsupported, something that had never before been attempted. Most Iditarod Trail travelers -- bikers, walkers, runners, mushers, snowmachine racers -- resupply at checkpoints along the trail so they don't have to haul a freight-load of gear north.
The slightly built Hewitt, however, decided to take off for Nome last year pulling a 100-pound sled. Just under 25 days after leaving Knik, the official race start, he crossed the race's finish line as the fourth of eight to go all the way -- and by far the skinniest.
By the time Hewitt got to Nome, however, hardly anyone was paying attention to the Invitational anymore, because the Iditarod dog race had started and Jay Petervary has sucked a lot of the attention out of the world of adventure sport with his earlier victory in the Invitational 350 in a record time of 2 days, 19 hours and 16 minutes.
By electing to go nearly three days without sleep in favor of grinding away on his fat-bike pedals, Petervary took 10 hours off the old record to the tiny, Kuskokwim River community of McGrath. His time would have put him in the middle of the pack of dog teams arriving at the McGrath checkpoint last year.
Fast but not lonely
But Petervary didn't run away with the Invitational. Tim Bernston from Anchorage and Jeff Oatley, a former champ from Fairbanks, were just minutes back. Petervary will be missing when Invitational competitors gather at the Knik start line on Sunday, but Bernston, Oatley and fourth-place finisher Kevin Breitenbach from Fairbanks, who finished less than an hour behind Petervary, will be there.
Six-time champ Peter Basinger is picking Bernston or Breitenbach as the likely winner, noting Oatley plans to go all the way to Nome this year and thus will likely ride a more conservative pace to McGrath. It is not a good idea to start a 1,000-mile race with three sleepless days.
Basinger -- who grew up in Anchorage but is now teaching school and settling down in Moab, Utah -- can never be counted out, either, though he insists he is not in good enough shape to contend. He was ninth last year, a good finish for anyone else but a little embarrassing for a six-time winner still in his prime at age 34.
"I'm in a lot better shape than last year,'' he said, but far from his best.
Training time has been limited by a full-time teaching job and a lot of hours spent after school and on weekends working on a fixer-upper house he just bought. On a soft-snow trail, where a lot of bike-pushing is required, or in bitter cold, where everyone suffers, Basinger thinks he can stay in the hunt.
But if the trail is packed hard, which some of it appears to be, "I don't think I can keep up with those other guys," he said. "I don't see myself winning by any means.''
What trail conditions will be come race day is anyone's guess. The National Weather Service is calling for a chance of snow in the Susitna Valley with temps climbing into the 30s on Sunday.
They were calling for a couple inches of snow in Anchorage just a day ago and six to 10 inches fell. The Mat-Su Borough got some of that snow, too -- about 4 inches at Yentna Station, the first Iditarod checkpoint, and about 6 inches at Skwentna, the second.
Course-record thoughts vanish
David Johnston, who paced runners into McGrath in 4 days, 19 hours in last year's Invitational, was thinking about a course record before the snow fell. A week ago, Johnston crushed the Susitna 100-mile course record in 18 hours, 22 minutes. That took more than three hours off the 2007 record time of Geoff Roes, who in 2007 set a record in one of the premier U.S. ultra-distance races, the Western States Endurance Run.
A self-effacing, 43-year-old Willow resident, Johnston credited his speedy Su 100 time to a hard, fast track. He was hoping for the same on the Iditarod, thinking Steve Reifenstuhl's course record for competitors on foot might be within reach. A Sitka fisheries biologist and brother of the late Rocky Reifenstuhl, an Alaska bike racing legend, Steve made it to McGrath in 4 days, 15 hours. In fact, only seven bikers (including his brother Rocky) were in front of him.
Many thought Steve Reifenstuhl's time untouchable, but Johnston got within about four hours last year. And given the conditions up until a day ago in strangely snow-short Alaska, he was thinking maybe, just maybe....
The snow put a damper on those thoughts.
"I'd love to complete the race in four and a half days,'' he said Thursday. "I'm excited, but I just don't know what my rest strategy is going to be."
Johnston is contemplating pushing 135 miles up the trail to the Winterlake Lodge at Finger Lake before taking a break. The busy Yentna checkpoint is too noisy to get much quality rest on the first night of the competition, he said, and he expects to hit the next checkpoint at Skwentna by midday Monday, which is a bad time to try to sleep.
All of which makes Finger Lake look attractive, but he knows that these plans hinge on the condition of the trial. If it's hard and fast underfoot, he can cover a lot of ground. If it is soft and squishy, the opposite is true. If the new snow is still light, fluffy and offers little resistance, he's in good shape. If it's wet, it will slow him down.
"At least I took advantage of the conditions on Saturday (in the Su 100),'' he said. "I knew I had the fastest course ever.''
Truth be told, that course might even have been too fast. So much of the trail was rock-hard snow or harder ice that it was like running 100 miles of pavement, which might have been fine in road-racing shoes. But Johnston was wearing stiff, less-cushioned trail shoes with spikes to maintain traction on ice.
"I damaged my feet pretty badly,'' he said. "The feet are a little bruised up.''
He's been nursing them all week. Nobody should really expect that to slow him down much. The always-smiling runner with the ponytail down his back seems to have an unusually high threshold for pain and suffering.
The same can be said for many of the Invitational competitors. They are a little different from most Americans.
Basinger, for instance, has been involved in development of the lastest in high-tech, ultralight lightweight, carbon-fiber, fat-tired bikes, and he owns one of those state-of-the art bikes. Yet he won't be riding it to McGrath. He'll be on a heavy, old, steel fatbike.
"Surly (a Minnesota-based manufacturer) gave me a bike last year,'' he said, "which was really generous of them.''
So in part, he's riding it to show appreciation to a past sponsor. But there's more to it than that.
"I've actually sold it now,'' Basinger added. "I sold it to a guy in McGrath.''
Thus he'll not only be riding the Invitational to McGrath. He'll be making a delivery. It's cheaper than using the U.S. Mail and, in Basinger's view, a whole lot more fun.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Steve Riefenstuhl set the foot record in 3 days, 21 hours and 30 minutes in 2005, en route to a third-place finish overall. Those numbers were associated with his brother Rocky. Steve's record was 4 days, 15 hours. The piece has been updated to reflect this.