8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner's Journeys on the Iditarod Trail
By Jill Homer and Tim Hewitt; Arctic Glass Press; 200 pages; 2014; $16.95.
When Tim Hewitt and Tom Jarding staggered into Nome in March of 2001 at the end of their first Iditasport Impossible race, they did so as record setters. They had walked the entire Iditarod Trail in 26 days, 20 hours and 46 minutes.
Along the way they'd battled unbroken trail, blowing snow, frigid subzero temperatures, insufficient caloric intake, injuries ranging from blisters to Hewitt's fractured tibia, sleep deprivation, hallucinations and their own minds. Simply putting one foot in front of the other under such conditions had been an ordeal most people would never want to endure, much less voluntarily embark upon. Thus it was unsurprising that an exhausted and near-skeletal Hewitt told a reporter that he was happy to have done it and even happier to know he'd never have to do it again.
Then he changed his mind.
By 2004 the human-powered race across Alaska had undergone changes in management and name. At this point it was called the Iditarod Trail Invitational, attracting a hardy assortment of endurance athletes for ski, bike and foot races in two divisions: 350 miles to McGrath, or 1,000 miles to Nome. Hewitt was at the starting line again, planning on hoofing the full distance.
In the years since, Hewitt has become famous as the race's fiercest and most dominating competitor in the foot division. He's completed the route a stunning eight times, winning or tying for first place in six of those. Now nearly 60, he can outpace and outlast high-performance athletes young enough to be his grandkids. He is a singular force in what many believe to be the most difficult footrace in the world. So it's about time someone wrote a book about him.
Former Alaskan Jill Homer, herself a veteran of the human-powered version of the Iditarod, recounts Hewitt's multiple excursions in "8,000 Miles Across Alaska." It's a fine piece of sportswriting that provides a dramatic telling of what it's like out there for those of us who, through a combination of sloth and sanity, won't ever find ourselves alone in the wilds of Alaska trudging through headwinds at 50 below zero with nothing but our wits to get us to the next checkpoint.
The Hewitt we meet in this book was an unlikely candidate for endurance sports glory. An employment lawyer who lives in Pittsburgh, he didn't even run his first marathon until his early 30s. That's when his competitive nature kicked in and he was soon focused on winning marathons (he's lost count of how many he's finished), ultramarathons and extreme endurance races. While scrambling through Death Valley in a 135-mile summertime race, Hewitt decided he needed to try something cold. The Iditasport Impossible was a natural choice.
In a long series of chapters early in this book, Homer tells of Hewitt's first journey to Nome. For a variety of reasons he paired with a fellow Pennsylvanian, Tom Jarding, and the two pooled their skills to deal with conditions neither was fully familiar with. These chapters resemble nothing so much as some dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel where lone individuals make their way across a desolate, uninhabitable landscape fraught with unexpected dangers. It's compelling stuff, made all the better by Homer's familiarity with the terrain and Hewitt's contributions as co-author. While the book is written in the third person, we get plenty of insight into the battles he fought with his own mind in the process of reaching his goal.
The narrative is richly detailed with passages like this:
"They were death marching now, barely moving. Two in the morning came and went, and then 4 a.m., and then 6 a.m. There wasn't any tree shelter in this place, and still enough wind to make the thought of setting up camp more daunting than continuing to march toward the cabin. At 8 a.m., the men finally arrived at the base of a larger mountain, and just beneath it, a very small building. The dilapidated cabin had no door, broken walls, and had been badly ransacked."
Sound like fun? Later that day:
"Daylight seemed to slip away in a trance, and night arrived in a cloak of disorienting darkness over a landscape almost devoid of snow. As they marched, new depths of pain cut into Tim's broken leg ... The snowmobile track they were following veered off a small river, and the pain in Tim's leg had become so pronounced that he couldn't climb the short bank. Gingerly, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled."
Remember, this is nonfiction, and these guys paid an entry fee for the opportunity to do this.
Back this year
Hewitt won the race that year and again in 2004. He'd win it four more times as well, including 2013 when he chose to go unsupported. This meant no food drops, not accepting cooked meals at checkpoints, and not setting so much as a toe indoors anywhere along the route. He loaded his trustworthy sled named Cookie with everything he needed at the outset, deprived himself of sufficient sleep and calories, made critical judgment errors in his depleted condition, and still came in first at the age of 58.
This book is not just a fascinating story of one man. It has some of the best descriptions of the Iditarod Trail yet to see print. It's about an Alaska most Alaskans never see, and a Pennsylvanian who puts us all to shame. It's an instant classic in Alaska outdoors literature. Don't pass it up.
Tim Hewitt and his wife Loreen -- who holds the women's record on the 1,000-mile route -- are presently making another attempt at reaching Nome on foot this year beginning March 1. Follow their progress here.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.