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Alaska - the Last Frontier

01 June 2005

by Dave Inwood

February last year had me arriving at Anchorage airport amidst snow storms and sub zero temperatures . Hardly your standard summer vacation, but I couldn't wait to don my thermals and snow boots so I could get out and pound the snow. With less than a week to prepare for the Iditasport race I had plenty to learn about the Alaskan wilderness... and the local culture. Within 24 hours of landing I found myself the target of a police raid. I was a suspected prowler in my host family's house while they were at work! Being thrown against the wall and having three Magnums pointed at me (and I'm not talking ice creams here buddy) was a chilling introduction to American culture. It took forever to resolve that I was merely a crazy kiwi here to go biking in the snow. Discussion of fanny packs and bum bags really got them going and nearly resulted in me being smashed to the ground "as I reached for my bum bag" to show them my passport.

I was in Alaska for the "Iditasport Human Powered Ultramarathon", which is a derivation of the eponymous dog sled race. The course traverses frozen river flats, moguls, larch forests and the "Dismal Swamp" (how foreboding). You can choose from a number of energy sapping disciplines: mountain biking, snow shoeing, running or skiing. My fellow competitors included many locals - most of which fitted the description of "mature kids over 40". A time limit of 48 hours to complete the 160km loop lured me into believing that the objective was easily attainable - just pedal, walk, ingest tons of food (which must be carried against your body to prevent it freezing) and endure the extreme cold as the mercury plummets to -25°C.

The rules specify the minimum survival gear to be lugged around the course. This posed no problem as I had expended considerable effort getting myself set up prior to my departure - but it did all weigh in at 7Kg. Like most other cyclists I had scored a pair of "snocat" rims which enabled me to maintain traction on the snow covered trails with only 10 - 20psi in the tyres. One of the more innovative local riders had constructed a four wheeler bike that helped him "float" on the snow pack.

It was a bracing -12°C on the start line. Nerves were overpowered by anxiety as I wondered whether both the bike and myself were up to the task ahead. The inactivity made me cold but after only a few hours on the trail I warmed to the occasion and found myself peeling off layers of clothing. I smugly cruised past others who had stopped to conduct running repairs on ill-prepared bikes.

I reached the halfway mark in good form and high spirits. My only contact had been with a few other cyclists, some skidoos, a dog sled team and a moose. Wolves came out later in the evening but posed no threat to a lean Kiwi. Nightfall brought with it colder temperatures and obvious visibility challenges. This demanded a good feel for the conditions and made you focus on those competitors immediately around you. My target became Dan (coincidently the Race Director). We were moving at a similar pace, and I figured he knew the course well. Unfortunately I misread his aim "to give the Kiwi a hard time" and wasted over 15 minutes at a checkpoint not realising he had done an artful dodger trick on me.

The darkness plays tricks on your numbing body, and any glimmer of light in the distance was motivation to keep the cranks turning over. I was mindful of warnings during the race briefing about the potential danger of falling asleep during the section of frozen river flat. I managed to avoid sudden slumber and traversed the most dangerous crossings without incident. Things went horribly wrong though some time around midnight. Along with seven others I found myself lost after encountering the "luge run" (a nasty ice chute which I traversed uphill!). I somehow managed to maintain forward momentum and only lost about 4 hours on this narrow "Iron Dog Trail", but tacked an extra 50km on to my journey.

At about 3:30am, a rest stop was required to refuel the body and refocus the brain. A couple of hours later I was back on the trail and as the sun broke through in the early hours of the morning I crossed the finish line at Big Lake, 25 hours and 29 minutes after the start - finishing 28th out of 82 competitors . Not bad for a kiwi rookie. It took its toll though. I lost muscular control in my right hand for over a week, and the continual rubbing of wet polypro against my body tore a vast area of skin off my backside - nothing a decent antiseptic couldn't deal to. Boffins from the local University monitored each competitor's food and fluid intake during the event. I had consumed less than one third the recommended quantities... and lost 12lbs in 24 hours. Beat that Jenny Craig!

It sounds like masochism but I had a great time. It's a novel break from the usual diet of multi-sport races back home... and I just know I can do better next time. Yes, I'm hooked. So as you read this, think of me back in the freezing Alaskan wilderness - only this time having a go at the 540km Iditasport Extremiste (last year's effort was merely the "qualifier").

Nitty Gritty

  • Iditasport organisation is good and competitors may be housed with local families at a very reasonable rate. 
  • Return airfares to Anchorage cost about NZ$2600. 
  • The Race Entry Fee is US$200 plus a refundable Evacuation Deposit of US$100. 
  • The Post Race banquet is incredible with great food, stories, ice sculptures and new rivals. 
  • Race details are available at http://iditasportalaska.com or e.mail isport@alaska.net