Iditasport Snow Shoe Race: An Ultra Marathon Reality Check on Alaska's Iditarod Trail

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Spring 1993

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Each February before the annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the entirely snow-laden Iditarod Trail is home to a human-powered ultra-marathon race known as the Iditasport. Bike, ski, snowshoe, foot, and combined events are offered under the heading "Cowards won't show and the weak will die." I raced the 200 mile mountain bike race three times before (in 88, 89, and 91), so this year I opted for the 100 mile snowshoe race. I was looking forward to "traversing land more home to moose than man" with a simpler approach than in the past. Plus after having pushed and lugged my ATB anywhere from 15 to 60 miles of the 200 mile bike loop in previous years, due to snow too soft or rutted to support a bicycle tyre, I was looking forward to using equipment more logical and appropriate for trekking through the Alaskan wilderness in wintertime. Having become a major enthusiast and proponent of snowshoeing (My goal is to become the Jim Fixx of snowshoeing, minus the heart attack, of course.), I also wanted to give it a go in the sport's toughest and most revered event. Plus I truly feel a part of something historic when on snowshoes (snowshoes date back 6,000 years, and are making a major resurgence in the Nineties) and 100 miles on shoes promised to put me in touch with something ancient, even primordial. The shoes didn't let me down...

Immediately prior to race start, all entrants had to show their required survival gear and demonstrate that their stoves actually could melt snow to produce water. I flabbergasted the organizers and the other entrants by displaying a mere eight pounds of gear, including:

  • A 1.5 pound The North Face Lightrider sleeping bag that is rated to 45 above.
  • A Thermarest Ultralite insulated ground pad.
  • A mylar bivvy sack.
  • An alcohol-burning stove made in Finland that fits in the palm of my hand and was given to me by Dick Griffith, an Alaskan outdoorsman revered throughout the state. I had the good fortune to meet Dick while in Alaska the previous month to crew for Mary Burns in "The World's Coldest Bicycle Race."
  • Fuel, pot, and matches.
  • A day's supply of food, meaning UNIPRO Performance Nutrition's complete meal replacement drink, Endura Optimizer. I had a CamelBak full of it totaling 1,200 calories.
  • The only "extra" stuff that I wasn't actually wearing or using at the starting line was a Swiss Army Knife, Gore-Tex OR gloves with liners, chemical hand warmers, a polypro balaclava ski mask and polypro undershirt from PACE, and a The North Face windbreaker.

(The others pulled sleds with their required winter survival gear, but I opted for a butt pack stuffed with the lightest, smallest equipment possible. So while the others pulled 20 to 40 pounds of gear, I lugged eight. My gear met the rules in a technical sense, but possibly didn't match the intent of the rules—to insure survival in the case of blizzard or injury. But I knew what I was getting into and was willing and competent to take the risk.)

On my body was the following:

  • Atlas Model 1022 High Performance Snowshoes. San Francisco-made snowshoes that leave all others behind in technology and craftsmanship. Weighing less than three pounds per pair, they are the only shoes available with a rear cleat, providing maximum traction.
  • Hi-Tec Badwater 146 running shoes. These are no longer in production (I bought the last four pair in my size last year.) and were designed for the 146 mile race that Hi-Tec sponsors between Badwater (the bottom of Death Valley) and Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the Lower 48). So while I was wearing shoes designed for running in 125 degree temps, at least they were comfortable and designed to go the distance.
  • PACE Sportswear polypro tights and lycra tights.
  • The North Face Gore-Tex gaiters to keep my ankles dry and warm and to keep snow out of my shoes.
  • PACE Sportswear polypro shirt and polypro cycling vest.
  • Thin polypro gloves, a Pace bandanna around my head, suspenders, Thor-Lo running socks, and Scott USA shades.
  • A CamelBak full of UNIPRO Endura Optimizer.
  • A Lone Peak buttpack carrying all of my required gear and to which I attached a shoulder strap in order to spread out the load-carrying points.

The race got underway at 10:20am on February 20 under clear skies and with a temperature of six degrees. The trail was harder than ever before as the trail had melted and then refrozen in the previous days. Setting off into the unknown were 56 athletes: 27 cyclists, 13 X-C skiers, 10 snowshoers, 4 runners, and 2 snow triathletes from the U.S., Canada, Holland, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, France, and Australia.

The race began by crossing the ice of appropriately named Big Lake. I joined seven time winner Shawn Lyons and rookie entrant Allen Benjamin, an Athabascan Native American from Northern Yukon Territory, in setting the pace. Leaving the frozen lake behind after five miles, we set off into the wilderness. Two quick stops to tend to my feet put Lyons and Benjamin ahead. The 40 miles to the first of only three checkpoints was rolling terrain with lots of snowmachine-induced whoopdedoos or moguls. Combined with the pavement-hard trail, this made the going tough on feet and ankles.

I caught Lyons at the first checkpoint, Big Susitna, after five hours and 38 minutes and 40 miles of running. I was five minutes ahead of his record pace upon arrival and left the checkpoint as soon as I filled a new bladder for my CamelBak. Each bladder contained 1200 calories of Endura Optimizer and I planned to do the whole race on three bladders. (By quickly scrounging through my air drop bag for my UNIPRO replenishment and blitzing through the checkpoint, I put myself 54 minutes ahead of Lyons' course record pace.) But my run in second place was short-lived as I soon had to stop to install Moleskin on my heels. Lyons hunkered past while I sat barefoot in the snow tending to my feet.

Now we were on the Iditarod proper and the terrain became hillier. My Atlas snowshoes provided fantastic traction on the up and downhill parts of the trail, but were otherwise unnecessary due to the firmness of the trail. However, since I had declared snowshoes as my "weapon" for the race, I couldn't remove them and run in just my running shoes instead. But that was o.k., for I was here for the ultimate snowshoe experience. A 40 minute detour around open water at a creek crossing cut into Lyons' and my time. Benjamin, the native winter person that he is, just plowed through the icy water to double the 40 minute lead that he already had over Lyons and me. The guy's tough. I would later see blood on the trail, seeping through his caribou skin mukluk moccasin-boots from the sawing action on his feet cause by the bindings of his traditional snowshoes. Unreal. Unearthly.

As I pressed on into the night, I alternately running, jogging, and walking on the flats, but ran all the downhills. Between the snow and my sweat, my feet were constantly wet in the running shoes to which my snowshoes were strapped, so twice I stopped to wring the water out of my Thor-Lo running socks. (I was really getting tired of the ice water pooling around my toes on the downhills!) Eventually I caught a mountain biker and he gave me his spare socks. Wool and full length, no less! Thank you, Scott Jahns!

With half the race behind me and still ahead of the record pace, I began to feel the miles of pounding. Having never run further than a marathon (and that in the Canadian Ironman a year and a half before - my only "long" training run for this race was a 12 miler on pavement), I was venturing into terra incognita. I started to lose it, big time. The next half dozen miles into Rabbit Lake, the checkpoint at mile 70, were the most painful of my life. My feet and ankles began to swell and each step evoked a moan, a groan, or a whimper. Words don't describe how much pain I was undergoing, and I do not exaggerate. In cycling there's always the opportunity to coast, but in foot races one has to earn every inch of ground that one covers. This was pain of the highest degree. Complicating things even more, I soon ran out of Optimizer and began to really notice the six degree temp. Not running or drinking anymore meant I wasn't generating or circulating too much heat, so I started to get cold. I stumbled along in the darkness, begging, even screaming, out loud to see the lights marking the Rabbit Lake checkpoint. Life was getting interesting.

Finally I arrived, still in third place, but quite sure that my race was over. So after warming up in the checkpoint tent for 90 minutes, I decided to sleep. (Fortunately another tent was available for me to sleep in, for my "survival gear" outlined above wouldn't have done me any good!) Standing up, I found that I could not even lift my legs a millimeter. Again, this is no exaggeration. I felt like my feet were super glued to the tent floor, so I was dragged by the two race volunteers to the other tent where I sacked out for the night.


  1. Allen Benjamin, 18:01:00
  2. Shawn Lyons, 18:01:01
  3. Sally Edwards, 24:01
  4. Michael Nee, 28:30
  5. Chris Kostman, 32:00
  6. Dennis Rogers, 34:24
  7. Andrew Holland, 34:24
  8. Jim Brader, 34:24
  9. Patrick Cunningham, 48:45


  • UMCA standout John Stamstad of Team Bridgestone blitzed the hard-packed 200 mile bike race in a new record time of 15:17, beating two time winner and course record holder Rocky Reifunstuhl in the process.
  • The fastest runner, Robert DeVelice, covered the same 100 miles as us snowshoers in 14:53.
  • Two 13 year old boys, Fred Bull and Chris Seamen, skied the 100-mile course in 33:22.
  • Only six athletes dropped out of this year's Iditasport.

After an eight hour sleep, I was told that I could be flown out within an hour. However I soon learned that I could kind of hobble again, almost walk. It wasn't easy, and was far from pain-free, but I was feeling giddy after my eight hour nap, so I decided to push on. I figured that I'd loosen up some after I hoofed it for ten miles or so.

Amazingly, only two shoers (Western States 100 winner Sally Edwards, the sole woman entrant, and Michael Nee) had passed me during my ten hour layover - the others behind were hoofing it slow or had bivvied out on the trail behind me for the night. I hit the trail hoping to hold onto fifth place. I knew Lyons had covered the remaining 30 miles in six hours and eighteen minutes the year before, so I hoped to make it in about eight. I'm no distance runner, so in theory I picked my target time out of thin air, but in reality I have an almost uncanny ability to predict my athletic performances.

Hitting the trail again, I thought only about the present moment. I thought of each breath, each step, each piece of trail covered, and never did I think of the finish line until I actually saw it. I stopped for nothing and nursed my CamelBak carefully so as not to run out of Optimizer. (Stretching 1,200 calories out over eight hours was really living on the edge, to say the least.) I trudged for hour after hour after hour, feeling like the Energizer bunny: I just kept going and going and going. It was truly amazing to walk as far as the horizon, look to the new horizon, walk to that horizon, and repeat that process over and over and over again. It was also a treat to see this part of the trail in daylight, for it previous years I'd always ridden or lugged my bike through in the dark. The Iditarod Trail and its environs are stunningly beautiful! Further distinguishing this experience from previous years was the fact that I was totally alone this time. This put a whole new and exhilarating twist on the race. Fully on my own, in the wilderness, doing something as simple as mindfully walking, was an almost surreal experience. Eventually I numbed out to the pain. Life was bliss.

About eight hours after leaving Rabbit Lake, the finish in Skwentna came into view. I couldn't, and didn't want to, choke down my emotions. I was exhausted but exuberant as a few sobs of happiness burbled up my throat as I ran down to the finish line. I finished in 5th place in 32 hours even. Fourteen hours earlier, Benjamin had beat Lyons in a sprint, completing the distance in a new record time of 18:01. What a race!

Thanks to Atlas Snow-Shoe Company, UNIPRO, PACE Sportswear, and The North Face for their support!

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