On Sunday March 1, 2020, I lined up for my sixth start at the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 300-mile human powered race on the Iditarod Trail via foot, bike, or ski. In my five prior starts I had finished twice on a bicycle, and once on foot. I also had two DNFs. This year I chose to compete on skis, and if successful, I would be the first racer to finish the race in all three disciplines.
The race can be divided into roughly three sections--100 miles of relatively flat terrain at the start, 100 often-windy miles through the Alaska Range, and 100 miles of flat, normally very cold, terrain to the finish at McGrath.
If you are interested in more background, here are some related links that I have put together:
- My gear list can be found here;
- A write-up of my prior unsuccessful ski attempt can be found here;
- Here is a link to a .GPX file with the route I took (note, the file also includes some of the main alternative route segments that may be applicable depending on conditions); and
- I have a bit of history on ITI ski finishes here.
The race starts at Knik Lake just behind the Knik bar.
This convenient location makes it easy for the racers to ensure that all of their hydration needs are satisfied prior to the start.
Its also where racers can compare equipment, conduct final checks, and encourage each other.
Sunday--the Ski to the Susitna
The race starts at 2:00pm which means that most racers will go to at least mid-night as they seek to make a good start of things. It was warm, in the low 20*F range with a good foot or two of fresh snow. The first 10 miles of the race crosses a few rural roads before passing Burma Road and entering the backcountry. Cyclists actually travel on a few roads until just past Burma where they too head into the backcountry, but initially on a slightly different path from the runners and skiers. After Burma Road, the next several miles include a fair number of small rolling hills that can be a bit difficult on skis--too steep to ski up easily but too narrow to herringbone either. I probably had to remove my skis and walk up at least 10 of these hills--a surprisingly tiring effort. Of course I was grateful not to be on foot or bike this year. Those folks were having an extremely difficult time in the soft snow.
As darkness approached, I had done about 18 miles. At that point, a sign proclaims "Nome 1049 miles" and the trail forks. Going left takes you to Flathorn Lake, through the Dismal Swamp, and to the Susitna River. That route takes about 18 miles to get the to confluence with the Yentna River. Going right takes you on a short 2.5 mile trail that then joins the Willow trail system, trail 11. This way gets you to the confluence with the Yentna in about 15 miles--a significant shortcut. But the trail to the left seemed a bit firmer. With the conditions that day, firmness was no small thing. About half of the racers were going in each directions. I chose to go right, since the skis made me a bit less concerned about soft conditions. It turned out to be the right choice as Trail 11 proved to be reasonably firm.
The ski on trail 11 to the Susitna River proved uneventful. Once on the Susitna, at around mid-night, I was overtaken by Rob Henderson and Gavan Hannigan, both on foot but moving strongly. Rob was moving almost effortlessly and while we chatted, I was impressed with his positivity and enthusiasm. Eventually, Rob pulled ahead and I had some time to talk to Gavan. Gavan and I had done a few training runs and I was not at all surprised that he would go on to be the foot winner when Rob dropped out later due to an Achilles issue.
Monday--To Yentna Station and Andy's Cabin
Since I was feeling reasonably strong, I decided to push on through the night and into Monday to the first checkpoint at Yentna Station. I had a nice brunch at Yentna as I watched exhausted racers arrive and decide that energy levels or time would not allow them to complete the race. By the end of the day, 15 or so of the 75 or so starters had already scratched. The energy at the checkpoint wasn't positive so I headed out of Yentna early in the afternoon and was surprised to do so as the first ski racer! The trail conditions were good and by 9pm or so Beat Jegerlehner, a foot racer going to Nome, and I arrived at Andy's cabin which is about 20 miles passed Yentna Station, but about 12 miles short of the second checkpoint. Andy's and his wife, Cindy, who had recently passed away, had long hosted racers at their small but comfortable cabins. Despite his recent loss, Andy was a great host and let Beat and I stay at his spare cabin which was comfortable and good protection from the wind that had started at the end of the day. Other racers stayed at McDougal's Lodge on the other side of the river a few miles short of Andy's cabin. Reports on that lodge were very favorable, but I was glad I had gotten to stay at Andy's place.
The next morning, the conditions to Skwentna were beautiful--little wind, reasonably warm, and good glide on the skis.
I was out of Skwentna by late afternoon. But the conditions had changed dramatically. The wind had picked up and the trail was largely blown in.
But the skis again proved their benefit and allowed me to make it to the shelter of the Shell Hills and their surrounding woods in reasonable time. The climb up the hills and to Shell Lake was beautiful and among the nicest of the whole race. I arrived at Shell a bit after dark, but still feeling strong and energized. After dinner, I decided to head out towards Finger Lake with a plan on camping after 10 miles or so. After passing another skier at Shell, I was again in first place in my division--it wouldn't last.
The temperature quickly began dropping (I later learned down to -27*F) and the wind picked up. After an hour or two on the trail I found a bit of shelter and hunkered down for the night.
Wednesday--To Finger Lake
The winds didn't abate any while I slept and in fact increased in intensity. Ultimately, they were the strongest I had encountered on the trail. It looked as though a river of snow was being blown over the sastrugi that had formed the night before. I made it about 17 miles in those conditions and was done for the day when I arrived at Finger late--the third checkpoint and the first one with a time limit: 2pm on Thursday. I made it comfortably under the limit, but my energy was declining and I still had some tough skiing ahead.
Thursday--To the Happy Steps and Puntilla Lake
After a comfortable night's sleep in the heated tent, I was ready for the first real day of climbing. Thursday would prove to be another beautiful day with clear skis and good wind shelter along the trail. I was relieved that the year's high snow cover made the descend down the final Happy River step a much easier effort than in prior years when I'd had a real tough time with this segment.
It's about 30 miles from Finger Lake to the fourth Checkpoint in Puntilla. It's a day of up and down rolling hills and there were 2-3 miles where the climbing and descent were just a bit too hard for me in the skis and I wound up walking. Even so, it was a wonderful day, perhaps my best ever on skis.
Friday was difficult. The trip from Puntilla Lake to Rainy Pass proper is about 17 miles with another 17 miles from there to Rohn. Normally, this is a gentle climb with beautiful views through the pass. The Pass didn't disappoint visually, but frost had coated the ground and deprived me of any significant glide for most of the morning. This made the climb extremely physically taxing.
The last few miles into Rohn on the Titina River can be extremely sketchy with thin ice and frequent overflow. Mark and I navigated some overflow together and managed to avoid any significant foot drenching. I was glad he was there with me.
We arrived at Rohn a few hours after dark and enjoyed the site's great hospitality and famous bratwursts (veggie, in my case)!
The private property signs, however, I could do without.
Once you get past the foot hills the trail becomes very flat and straight. I made good time past the Bear Cabin and saw a fair number of other racer's bivy sites.
We arrived in Nikolai several hours after dark and enjoyed great hospitality from George and Nick including hamburgers (veggieburgers for me), snacks, coffee, and a quite warm place to sleep. It was a slice of heaven. We even got a warm breakfast on the way out the next morning.
Monday--the final night, the wheels come off
The 47.5 miles from Nikolai to McGrath is something I had in the past been able to do in a single push but the difficulty of the prior days and the conditions I encountered on the trail on the way to McGrath made that impossible for me this time. As the sun set, the wind began to really pick up. As I crossed a large swamp (or Lake) the wind completely blew in the trail. I was reduced to probing the snow with my poles to stay on the trail. The blown in snow was so soft that my skis had no float or glide and I needed to walk in them--they had become useless wooden planks strapped to my feet. Then the temperature dropped--likely into the -30 TO -40*f range. My feet started to get cold. This had never happened to me before. I needed to stop and warm them up. After a while I found a spot with some break from the wind and I set up a camp. I was able to get my feet warmed up, but in the process I got a bit of frost nip on my fingers. Ouch!
Tuesday--the final push to McGrath!
After a few hours in camp, I got up and started my final push to McGrath--the wind had stopped and the temperature warmed substantially. By midday I was on the final road to McGrath and I made it to the finish at Peter and Tracy's house by dinner time!
It was an awesome and happy conclusion to a rough 9 days!
I owe my success to the support of my family (Dawn, Zoe, Jack, Olivia, and Davee), my fellow racers, and my coworkers (who covered for me while I was gone). I'd also like to thank the race direcors (Kathi and Kyle) for a running a great event and letting me participate year after year and Erik and Galen with the APU ski team who offered some invaluable coaching during their Eagle Glacier masters' camp.
If you'd like some other perspectives on the 2020 ITI, here are some links to race reports and podcasts from some of the other racers. It's amazing to me how much each race's perspective differs:
1. Clinton Hodges (Cyclist, 300)
2. Mathieu Bonnier (Skier, 300)
3. Gavan John Paul Hennigan (Runner, 300)--podcast
4. Ryan Wanless (Runner, 3000)--podcast
(and here is Ryan (and Emily's) "before" podcast)
5. Jill Homer (Runner, 1,000 attempt, stopped in McGrath)
6. Robert Youngren (Runner, 300)
7. Kari Anne Gibbons (Runner, 300)
8. Casey Fagerquist (Cyclist, 1,000)
9. Jill Martindale (Cyclist, 1,0000) interview
(and here is a podcast with Jill)
10. Troy Nyree Szczurkowski (Cyclist, 1000, finished in Unalakleet)
11. Toni Lund (Cyclist, 1000, stopped in McGrath)
12. Kurt Refsnider (Cyclist 300)
If you liked (or disliked) this report or have any questions, please leave me a comment below.