Iditabike '88, An Alaskan Adventure

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in PBAA Journal, Winter 1988

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I was somewhere in Utah, crossing the States as fast as possible by bicycle in the 1987 Race Across America... "Hey, Chris! Did you know there was a 200 mountain bike race in Alaska this past March?" queries my mechanic Chris Mundwiler over my support van's loud speaker. "No kidding", I answer, "that sounds like something I should do next year." Mundwiler then proceeds to read me an article about it from some magazine which he picked up en route. I get intrigued, and as the hours roll by, I begin planning a trip to Alaska. I have no idea what I'm getting myself into...

It's called the "Iditabike", named after the famous Iditarod Trail on which it takes place. It's the fourth in a succession of races on this unlikely course. First came the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the self-proclaimed "last great race on earth", which annually treks the full length of the trail from Anchorage to Nome, 1,100 miles away. Next came "Iditaski", a two hundred mile cross country ski race on the trail, then "Iditashoe", a one hundred mile snow shoe race on the trail. In 1987, "Iditabike" was born with 26 competitors and only 13 finishing. The Mountain Bikers of Alaska proved it could be done, but did anyone really care? Was this a real race? Would anyone show up in 1988 to do it again? The overwhelming answer to all these questions: "You bet!"

After placing ninth in the Race Across America, I began researching the Iditabike to find out what it's all about. Reading various articles about it, I discover that the competitors supposedly pushed their bikes for 65 of the 200 miles. "Sure", I say to myself, "I believe that." "Those guys obviously can't ride a bike or exaggerate something fierce" I conclude.

Next I begin publicly announcing my intention of racing in '88 and soon discover that my friend and racing buddy Gary "Mountain Man" Meyer intends to do the same. Gary and I decide that riding in sand is probably the best Southern California equivalent for snow riding and plan a trip to Glamis with some other ultra-marathoners. During our sand excursion we convince our mutual friend Curt Eury to join us on our trip to Alaska. Between the three of us, we have tens of thousands of competitive ultra-marthon racing miles and we all agree that a measely 200 snow miles on an ATB will be a piece of cake.

The next months are spent organizing sponsorships and all of the required equipment. It seems that the race organizers feel a sleeping bag, tent, stove, flares, and other "survival gear" is mandatory equipment. Curt, Gary, and I openly wonder "Who needs this stuff? We're going up to race, not camp! This must be for the freds who can't hang." At any rate, we all made numerous trips to REI to collect the required gear.

At the Long Beach trade show I make the aquaintance of the '87's women's winner, Team Salsa rider Martha Kennedy. She suggests that a little snow experience wouldn't hurt and invites me to Tahoe with her. I soon find out just a few important things: We need to wear real insulated hiking boots with these things called gaitors over them to seal them from water. Also, standard long-fingered gloves won't cut it; we need real snow mittens. Details, details. I soon find myself organizing a trip that's beginning to seem as complex as the Race Across America. "All this just for 200 miles?" I wonder.

March 6 is fast approaching and I find out that flying to Egypt and back is cheaper than flying to Anchorage and back. Oh well, I guess I have sponsors for a reason. I get to Anchorage several days early and the Mountain Bikers of Alaska put me up with fellow Iditabikers Scott Nissonsin and Roger Haertal. It's snowing practically continously, but it doesn't seem that bad from their indoor jacuzzi. While out training with Roger, we encouter a moose and wait for it to wander off of our path before continuing. They are unbelievably big and some of the non-local competitors have brought sidearms for protection during the race. The locals find this quite amusing and point out that a sidearm could never drop a moose in its tracks in a million years. The locals openly kid the naive "Outsiders" and suggest that the gun is so they can kill themselves on the first shot if they encounter a hostile moose.

Next comes the free pasta party at Anchorage bar Chilkoot Charlie's, then a mandatory racers' meeting where the dangers of hypothermia, frostbite, exposure, dehydration, and vicious moose are vividly detailed by race director Dan Bull. I'm still thinking to myself "Who are they kidding? This is only two hundred miles..."

March 6, 7:00AM at Knik Lake Bar, the actual start of the Iditarod Trail, where 53 hyper-active sled dog teams passed through just a few hours earlier: All racers have to prove they're carrying at least twenty pounds of gear including the mandatory "survival gear". Rumours abound that at least one rider weighed in with five pounds of rocks which he's going to jettison right after the start.

At 9:08 AM we head off with a field sprint across Knik Lake to the start of the trail. 51 ambitious riders are in this group, five of them women. At 10:00 AM a group of 11 riders head out on the 120 mile "short" race. Whichever race we're in, it's the same: crashes everywhere as riders sink their front wheels into soft snow and go over the bars. For me, disaster strikes, although it's not yet apparent.

I'm losing air from my back tyre, and as we race over miles of little whoop-dee-doos, I'm beginning to feel my back tyre bottoming out against the rim. Disgusted, I stop and add air to what I assume is a punctured tube. While doing so, a swarm of riders pass, including Gary, Martha, and other members of what is becoming a second pack. With my tyre reinflated, I head onward and catch this second pack as they struggle to drag their heavy bikes over a massive, steep hill (read: cliff). Coming down the other side, I sit on the bike and sort of slide down the snow chute with my feet skiing the snow banks to try to hold me up. This is all new to me! A few miles later I stop again to add air, then realizing that I don't have a puncture, but a sticking valve. I finally get it corrected and set out chasing with a once again reinflated rear tyre. I figure that this time lost won't be a problem since most of the riders are obviously going to burn out as a matter of course and then I'll move up the ranks. In any other race, this would have been the case, but not in Alaska. No way. No how.

I roll into the first checkpoint at Big Su (mile 42) just as Gary, Martha, and their group are heading out. I stop just long enough to mix some more Carboplex, then take off in "hot" pursuit. The trail heads up the Yentna River, then cuts across and heads up the bank. I cross the river, drag my Nishiki Pinnacle up the bank, and hop on to chase. I find myself sinking in and unable to ride. Then I remember that this is where last year's racers began their 65 mile "Idita-push". I begin to wonder if maybe if they didn't make that story up after all. I start jog-walking my bike for a while and Fairbanks rider Eric Breitenberger trots by at an unbelievable walking pace. I figure that it's no big deal since I'll catch him soon when I can start riding again.

Hours pass and I'm still walking. No, not walking, but trudging. Every once in a while I'm able to ride for ten or twenty yards, but reality is definitely starting to set in. Last year's racers didn't exaggerate and they probably could ride an ATB o.k., too! This trail is simply unrideable. To further frustrate me, I can tell by studying the tracks that some ahead of me were able to ride (the leaders, since the trail wasn't yet messed up) and therefore their lead was increasing significantly. "I'm doomed", I think to myself. I settle into a routine of brisk walking for four minutes, then jogging for one minute and then repeating the pattern over and over and over and... After some nine hours of trudging, I arrive at checkpoint two, Rabbit Lake at mile 72. I haven't seen or heard another person since Eric passed me eight and a half hours earlier. It's the middle of the night, below freezing, and I've just pushed, dragged, and shoved my bike across the Alaskan wilderness for nine hours. I can't believe it myself, but this is really happening!

As I mix up more Carboplex, which I'm rationing now since this race is taking just a little bit longer than I'd planned, local rider Mike Jackson arrives and I decide to wait for him for some company. Mike and I head out together with about thirty miles to go to the halfway point. Our only hope now is that we'll be able to actually ride the return leg on the frozen Yentna River. As the hours pass, we amuse ourselves by collecting sled dog booties and singing "When Push Comes to Shove" by the Grateful Dead. Nine hours later, we arrive at checkpoint three, Skwentna, at mile 100. We've been traveling now for some twenty-two hours straight, but we're comforted with the knowledge that we have six hours to rest, as race rules dictate. I use my time to shower, get a massage, reorganize the gear in my Lone Peak panniers, eat real food, and mix up more liquid food for the next hundred miles. All anybody talks about is how we'll be able to really move on down the frozen river for the next sixty miles. I can't wait, but I'm not holding my breath.

Six hours later, I'm heading out onto the river bed in 18th place. I'm looking forward to really cranking it out, but first I must contend with two stretches of slushy river overflow where my bike and I repeatedly sink up to my knees in water. This over with, I start pedaling at the first decent rate since the race started. Jamming down the river at a seemingly astronomical twelve miles per hour, I definitely don't slow down to photograph the two moose I encounter. Arriving at Riversong Lodge after some eighteen miles, I find I've moved up two places as local rider Les Matz has dropped out with knee trouble and race leader Dave Zink has also dropped out with severe dehydration. Pressing onward, the sun sets and I keep on cranking down my "Arctic Highway". Another eighteen miles later, I arrive at Yentna Station and discover three riders just about to depart. I also get a cheery "Hello!" from my friend Bindy Beck, who flew up to help officiate the race. One of the threesome includes Mike Jackson and he and I once again work together to put time on the others. Now we're really racing and I start to think that maybe this isn't so bad afterall. Mike and I take turns setting the pace and roll back into the first checkpoint, Big Su, at mile 160, in two quick hours. Here we find two riders asleep and so we head on out quickly and quietly before they might awaken and decide to chase us.

From Big Su we follow the Iditarod Trail in reverse and basically trace our steps back to Knik Lake. By this point we're possessed with finishing the race and also very stoked to find ourselves sitting in 11th and 12th place. We stop just once to put on wind breakers and admire the northern lights, then keep cranking. We find ourselves pedaling up some very steep hills because we don't ever want to walk our bikes again. For the second time during the race, we also have to use our ingenuity to get across open water because of snow bridges being broken down from the front riders passing over them.
This last section of the race proves to be the most confusing as the markings are all intended for the sled dog teams which head only in the opposite direction. Mike and I pay careful attention to where we're headed, though, and manage to stay headed for Knik Lake. Five miles out, my CycleOps light battery finally dies (The Arctic nights are longer here than down in SoCal.) and I use a mini flashlight to follow the trail. With about two miles to go, Mike sprints for it and I'm unable to hold his wheel without sufficient light. I give it all it's worth, though, in these pre-dawn hours, and cross the line less than a minute behind Mike. The sun rises as we have our picture taken together under the Iditabike Finish banner in the middle of Knik Lake.

It turns out that Mike placed 10th and I placed 11 with finishing times of 45:53 and 45:54, respectively, including the six hour mandatory break. Gary Meyer, who should have placed 10th, several hours ahead of us, had yet to come in and race organizers were considering organizing search parties to look for him. It seems Gary's light died with twenty miles to go, which caused him to get lost for many hours, and also caused him to run out of water. He was forced to stop, set up camp, and use his stove to melt snow to drink! (So that's why we had to bring that stuff!) Gary eventually made it in, after losing some 8 hours, placing 13th with a time of 49:45.

Our friend Curt, at 6' 2" and 204 pounds, a self-proclaimed "Clydesdale in a Thoroughbred world" nearly dropped out at the Skwentna halfway point but decided he'd "rather take his chances on the trail than fly in one of those little planes" used to evacuate 'Iditaquitters'." He had an even rougher go of things because of his size and also found the snow and climate "quite an experience for a beach boy". As Curt put it, "I spent more time lost and sleeping than I did racing, but that's o.k. because I acomplished my dream of emulating 'Sgt. Preston of the Yukon', which I watched every week on tv as a kid!" Curt brought up the back of the pack, placing 27th with a time of 74:15, just 45 minutes before the course closed.

So, as it turns out, we ultra-marathoners did not sweep the top place awards, but we did take home some very unbelievable memories and experiences. And actually, we all did collect awards from the ever-generous Mountain Bikers of Alaska. I received the "Laddie Shaw Award" (Laddie coined the phrase "Cowards won't show and the weak will die" last year, then was the first to drop out) for coming out of the race with the most humility, Gary received the "Lostest Award", and Curt took home the "Red Lantern Award" for obvious reasons.

Now we all believe what we read about bike races in the magazines, especially the articles about mountain bike races in Alaska.

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