1993 Iditasport: 100 Miles on Snow-Shoes in the Alaskan Wilderness

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in the California Events Schedule, April 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." Having raced the 200 mile mountain bike race three times before, 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.

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. 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 first five miles were across the ice of 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, 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. While the others were pulling sleds with their required winter survival gear, I opted for a large butt pack stuffed with the lightest, smallest equipment possible. 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.

I caught Lyons at the first checkpoint, Big Susitna, after five hours and 38 minutes. I was five minutes ahead of his record pace 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. 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.

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. 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 mocassin-boots from the sawwing action on his feet cause by the bindings of his traditional snowshoes.

As I pressed on into the night, I alternately running, jogging, and walking on the flats and 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 I stopped to wring the water out of my Thor-Lo running socks. Eventually I caught a mountain biker and he gave me his spare socks. Wool and full length, no less!

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, 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. Soon I ran out of Optimizer and began to notice the six degree temp. Not running or drinking meant I wasn't generating too much heat. I stumbled along in the darkness, begging out loud to see the lights marking Rabbit Lake. Life was getting interesting.

Finally I arrived, quite sure that my race was over. After warming up in the checkpoint tent for 90 minutes, I decided to sleep. Standing up, I found that I could not even lift my legs a millimeter. I was dragged by a race volunteer to another tent where I sacked out for the night. After an eight hour sleep, I was stoked to find that I could walk again. I hit the trail again.

I knew Lyons had covered the remaining 30 miles in six hours the year before, so I hoped to make it in about eight. I didn't stop for anything and nursed my CamelBak carefully so as not to run out. I trudged for hour after hour after hour, feeling like the Energizer bunny. 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. I finished in 5th place in 32 hours even. Benjamin beat Lyons in a sprint, completing the distance in a new record of 18:20. Can't wait for next year!

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

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