Iditasport 1991: Alaska's UnDog Race

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in California Bicyclist, May 1991

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Alaska's Iditarod Trail is home to some of the toughest athletic events known to man and dog. The 1,100 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race, billed as "The Last Great Race On Earth", has seen a string of human-powered gruelathon knock-offs, such as the eight year old 200 mile Iditaski, five year old 100 mile Iditashoe, and the four year old 200 mile Iditabike. All are billed as the toughest that their respective sports have to offer and the bike version even has the audacity to proclaim that "the cowards won't show and the weak will die." The next step in the UnDog race tradition would seem obvious to many: an Iditatriathlon, but it would take the handiwork of Iditabike founder Dan Bull to pit this plus the other three groups of UnDog racers together in a head to head battle under the commandment "choose your weapon". On February 16, 1991, the Iditasport was born and I was one of 52 there to answer the call of the wild.

After competing in the Iditabike in `88 and `89, I had decided to enter the snowshoe version of the new event and even was signed to the leading snowshoe racing team, Team Winter Wings of Leadville, CO. My bike sponsor, Moots, was hip to the cross-training opportunity and so was taking the opportunity to put a rasta' paint job on my Zerkel. Having never snowshoed in my life, I was chomping at the bit to head north and "teach the snowshoe racers a thing or two." Then, two days before departure the bike bug bit and after a quick call to Ritchey, had a Team Comp boxed up and ready to head north with me.

After arriving in Anchorage, I spent my time wavering back and forth as to which weapon to use. Then Dan Bull suggested a third option: do the tri', then I could snowshoe and bike! Only problem was that I didn't know how to ski... So, my host Cliff Hyatt spent two days teaching me to skate and diagonal ski. I was doing o.k. at it, but the 60 mile ski leg of the tri' was starting to look a bit serious. I always hate having to make decisions like that, so finally Dan made it for me at the pre-race meeting: "Right now we have the hardest packed trail in the history of the event." That settled it: I was put on the planet to bike and I couldn't pass up that kind of an opportunity!

At the 9 AM roll call, the 52 racers declared their weapons: 29 bikers, 11 skiers, 8 snowshoers, and 4 would tri' the combined event. Moments later, the race was on. Bob Baker, the four time Iditaski champ and record holder, double pole sprinted off the line to take the lead for a few moments, then we bikers quickly took charge as expected. After a fast eight mile section to Knik Lake, the actual start of the Iditarod proper, we had put more than ten minutes on Baker and had all but forgotten about him. With the field spread out, we left behind the last indications of civilization and headed into the great unknown of the Alaskan wilderness.

The 41 mile section from Knik to Big Susitna cuts through frozen swamps, rivers, and lakes, interspersed with forests and steep, short hills. The trail was fairly well packed, though worn to an ice slick on the uphills and a bit punchy in the open areas. Still, we pressed on over the miles of moguls at high speeds, usually in the big chainring and out of the saddle. Keeping my weight forward and literally shoving the front end down over each mogul, I was able to maintain traction and momentum. I reached Big Susitna in 3:11 in fourth place, 15 to 25 minutes behind the Iditabike's Big Three: Bob Fourney, 2nd in `90 and 5th in `89, Rocky Reifunstuhl, third three times in a row, and Dave Ford, 1st in `90. All were gunning to set a new course record, collect a chunk of the 6.6 pounds of gold purse, and to prove their weapon's snow-worthiness once and for all. In company such as this, I was more than pleased with my position. Plus, that skier dude was now another 45 minutes back.

Leaving Big Susitna, the trail crosses the frozen river which would later be our route home and heads overland for another 53 miles to the turnaround. In previous races I was a middle of the packer and was doomed to walk all or most of this section because the leaders had torn up the fragile trail surface. But in `91 I was fit, light, and fast, and was now one of the leaders myself. Actually riding, rather than slogging and shoving my bike, I was ecstatic to say the least. Though the trail was just barely rideable, by keeping an eye on the tyre tracks of the Big Three and carefully avoiding moose prints, I was able to pick my line carefully and make good time. Soon, though, the temp began to rise and the trail became even softer. I stopped to drop my tyre psi to about six to provide a wider footprint and better flotation over the snow. Still just barely able to ride, I pressed on, smug with the knowledge that no more than one or two other riders would be able to ride this section, thus we had the top positions already locked up.

Just ten miles out of Big Susitna the temp rose to 34, in other words, above freezing, which means that snow melts and trails become unbikeable. Bummed, I dismounted and started hoofing it as fast as I could. Soon, Eric Breitenburger of Fairbanks passed me, riding a customized bike with two front rims and three rear rims, but with just one tyre on each set up. The extra rims helped to spread out the tyres really wide, plus the tyres were glued on one side to keep them from slipping at a low psi. A trick setup, I noted, as Eric rode into the distance and I kept plodding. At least the ten miles overland that we did ride would put us far ahead of the rest of the field, I rationalized to myself as I pondered the 43 miles of hoofing it that I now faced. Top five looked great to me, but it was not to be.

Soon, "that skier dude" overtook me at some seven miles per hour. So much for "the hardest packed trail in the history of the event", not to mention the big lead we had built over Baker and the other non-bike-equipped racers. My thoughts next turned to the frozen Yentna, the Arctic highway which would return us to Big Susitna on the return leg at 15 mph or better. Even with a good lead, we'd catch Baker, no problem.

Yeah, sure. Within 20 miles, at the Rabbit Lake checkpoint, Baker had taken the lead overall and led my new hiking buddy Steve Mitchell (just like in `88 and `89- deja vu!) and I by 2:32. Beginning to get worried about proving our bikes' snow domination, we covered the 23 miles to the turnaround at Skwentna in 8:03, only to find that Baker now led us by 7:22 and the lead biker, Rocky Reifunstuhl, by 2:18. In the meantime, three other skiers had caught and passed us in spite of our best efforts in the dark and creepy Alaskan night. O.K., O.K., so maybe skis are a little more intelligent form of human-powered travel on snow...

At Skwentna we learned that Rocky was making under six mph down the river (so much for the always fast "Arctic highway") and I knew that the bikes were doomed. I hadn't pedalled a foot of the previous 43 miles and did not relish the thought of constant dismounts and remounts coupled with miles and hours of hoofing it for another 57 miles down the Yentna and Susitna rivers. Heck, if I had really wanted to go on foot for 100 miles, I should have stuck to my original game plan of snowshoeing it! At any rate, I headed down the river to give it a try, but turned around after two miles and checked back in at Skwentna. With the sun about to rise, I knew the trail would only get softer, so I found some empty floor space to sack out on. I slept 11 hours, then got up, had some meals, changed my clothes, and watched Baker cruise into victory on the TV. Somehow Rocky managed to hang onto 2nd overall, just 55 minutes back, followed by Fourney another 21 minutes later.

Eventually, I knew, I'd have to hit the trail again, so when the temp magically dropped to 22, I resumed the adventure in the company of Mary Burns, the fourth woman and a RAAM hopeful. (As her coach and sponsor, I had to set a good example.) With the temp low enough to make the trail mostly rideable, we headed down the river. At least we were pedalling, though we had to practically kill ourselves for 8 mph. After a total layover of 19 hours at Skwentna, it was now dark again and the temp would keep dropping, eventually to zero. We made it to Riversong Lodge in good form, then pressed on towards Yentna Station. This stretch would prove trying for my Floridian partner, who had also not had the benefit of a 19 hour break. I finally dragged my hypothermic friends into the check point, where she got some sleep and a meal. I organized our gear and defrosted our frozen drivetrains. Committed to making things a bit easier for Mary, I loaded most all of her gear onto my Ritchey.

After nearly four hours, we hit the trail again and continued towards Big Susitna. The break did wonders for Mary, plus the low temp had really set the trail, so we really hammered: up to 12 mph! At Big Susitna we retrieved more UNIPRO drink mix from our airdrops, then headed onto the last leg of the race. Just 25 miles to go and we'd be done! We motored for a few hours, then the trail became hillier and snow began to fall. Soon it was snowing hard, obscuring the trail and making traction slippery, but we pressed on. Finally, we headed onto Big Lake, home of the start and finish line. The lake is aptly named, however, and it seemed like an eternity before the lights of the Big Lake Lodge would mark our final destination in the eerie twilight.

With the snow now really pouring down, we crossed the line together. With a total time of 58:36, we were almost exactly 30 hours behind Baker, but another 25 hours would pass before the last racer would finish the course. In all, 15 would drop out. Baker took home a half pound of gold for his efforts, and set a new ski record by more than four hours to boot. Because of the conditions, Rocky was ten hours off of the bike record, but he still took home seven ounces of gold. As for Mary and me, she took fourth in the women's race and I was the 10th men's biker, and we tied for 21st overall. Not a bad way to spend a weekend, all in all. Sign me up for `92!

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