Iditasport 95: Snowshoeing through Alaska's Toughest with an Alaskan Legend

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 3, July 1995

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Since it began in 1987, Alaska's Iditasport has been known universally as the world's toughest mountain bike race. For even longer, the snowshoe and cross-country ski divisions have been known to be their sport's toughest competitions as well. And in America's largest state, home of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the local champions of these endurance challenges have become celebrated cultural heros. When non-Alaskans, or Outsiders as they are called, win these races, it is not a good thing in the eyes, hearts, and minds of the residents of America's last frontier. And so it was that this year, in an attempt to bridge that cultural and geographical gap, I would team up to enter the Iditasport Snowshoe Race with Alaska's foremost wilderness adventurer, Roman Dial.

Roman is Alaska's ideal Renaissance man. He earned his BA and MS at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, then his Ph.D. from Stanford. Now he's a Professor of Biology at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. Over the last twenty years he's climbed Alaska's peaks, rafted Alaska's rivers, and biked and walked innumerable trail-less Alaskan traverses to a degree that none has matched. His adventures and explorations have been celebrated in text and photos in most every outdoor magazine and equipment catalog there is, and Roman has become a sought-out speaker, lecturer, photographer, and wilderness guide. His expeditions are not about guiding or even necessarily being first (although he holds many first ascents, descents, and traverses), but are living, moving, three-dimensional "art," he says. One of his favorite tactics is to intentionally take only half as much food as he and his comrades think they'll need during their expedition. They just count on finding food out there in the wilderness when they need it! Married to Peggy Dial and father to Cody and Jazz, Roman's life is a full one, and he's only 35.

I've gotten to know Roman a bit over the years from my trips to Alaska to compete in the Iditasport, where I've done the 200 mile mountain bike race three times (88, 89, and 91) and the 100 mile snowshoe race in 93. Roman took 4th in the bike race in 88 and 2nd in 89, and became legendary for developing "innovative" ways of interpreting and following the rules regulating survival gear requirements. One year the rules dictated that the always requisite sleeping bag, bivvy sack or tent, stove, pot, fuel, food, and other items must weight at least 20 pounds at the starting line and at least 15 pounds at the finish line, allowing for the drop in weight due to eating the food during the race. Roman met these rules by starting with exactly 20 pounds, then immediately jettisoning a five pound bag of rocks after the start. The is the real life lore of the Iditasport!

These days, I'm no so much of the lone ranger as I used to be, and I really enjoy teaming up with others for races and expeditions in order to share and learn from one another, and to enjoy the process of both planning and racing together. Always a fan of Roman's, I decided to see if he'd like to race the Iditasport snowshoe race with me. Much to my surprise, he quickly agreed, and honestly seemed as excited about sharing the adventure with me and I was about doing it with him. It was the kind of egoless exchange that I don't think either of us could have done just a few years ago. Atlas Snowshoe Company immediately signed on to sponsor our efforts, plus Cascade Designs, UNIPRO Performance Nutrition, and CamelBak provided technical support. Roman organized equipment plans and sleds in which to pull our gear, while I handled nutrition, strategy, and sponsorships. It was a team effort that brought everything together quickly and easily.

Soon enough, I was winging my way to Alaska and spreading out gear in the Dials' living room. Besides snowshoes and survival gear, I'd also brought my bike (wtih new Ritchey-made, Ringle hub-equipped, double wide Snowcat rims for riding on snow) because Roman and I planned to become the first snowshoe racers to mountain bike back from the wilderness finish line of the snowshoe race. (Snowshoers and runners finish at the far point of the big loop, while bikers and skiers do the whole loop. Snowshoers are then flown out in little ski planes from the remote finish line. Roman and I had our bikes flown to the snowshoe finish line, and planned to ride them back from there instead of flying out, thus establishing the Iditasport Duathlon Division Record. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men...)

The race got underway at 10:15 AM on February 18 at the bar / restaurant at Big Lake, an hour's drive outside of Anchorage. As the bikers and skiers took off into the distance, and even most all of the snowshoers and runners pulled away, Roman and I settled into a comfortable pace that allowed plenty of extra air for chit-chat. Another year, another Idistasport, yes, but this race was different. It was colder than normal, yet the trail wasn't as hard packed and "set" as I expected. Also, I was pulling a gear sled for the first time. Two years ago, the rules were lax enough and the conditions "safe" enough that I got away with a CamelBak and eight pounds of gear in a big buttpack. This year the rules were more stringent, I wasn't feeling as daring, it was colder, and I was pulling a sled with some 25 pounds of gear. Roman did the same, and since we were entering together, we did something new to the race: I pulled his gear and he pulled mine. That way when I wanted something, he could just stop in front of me to allow me access to my gear in his sled, and vice-versa. It was a great system, and indicative of our commitment to work together.

We alternated running, walking, and power walking over the undulating miles of snow-laden Iditarod Trail all day. It was often windy, and always cold. Our liquids (Endura Optimizer would be just about my only nutritional source for the whole race) kept freezing up and needing defrosting against our warm bodies. The trail was often punchy and soft. There were many stretches where snowshoes, based on the tracks in front of us, were definitely the best and fastest way to make progress on the trail. Besides, it only makes sense to snowshoe through the Alaskan winter wilderness!

We arrived at the first of just three checkpoints, Big Susitna, at 5:55 PM. We'd been snowshoeing non-stop for close to eight hours, and we were a third of the way to the finish. The exact distances of the Iditasport are hard to measure and vary every year. Like the variable strictness of the rules, the organizers seem to waver year to year as to what they're claiming the distances are. It used to be that the bike and ski race was deemed to be 200 miles, with snowshoers doing 100 miles to the halfway mark of the whole loop. Now, the organizers say the whole loop is 155 miles and that the snowshoers do 75 miles. None of the above is really accurate, nor does it really matter. In reality, I'd say the snowshoers do 85 miles and the current full loop is about 175 miles. Anyway, our arrival at Big Susitna meant we'd gone somewhere between 27 and 35 miles and that we could replenish our food needs with stuff we'd had flown out in advance. The checkpoint is nothing more than a few tents set up in the wilderness, staffed by volunteers and ham radio operators who came in by snowmobile (or snowmachine, as they say in Alaska). Besides our own flown-in gear bags, the staff can only provide hot water. Other checkpoints only provide water, and no gear bags, except at the finish line in Skwentna.

Roman and I mixed up more Endura Optimizer, grabbed our TurboCat lights and spare shoes, then hit the trail just before sunset. Things were going well, the Atlas Snowshoes were a real blessing in the soft snow, and we were having a great time shooting the breeze. But from here on the race would become colder, darker, and much more challenging. We trudged on into the night, passing through hilly forests and dropping down onto frozen lake after frozen lake. There was as much as a 20 to 30 degree temperature difference between the high spots on the trail and the low spots on frozen lakes, where cold air puddles like water does. So the temp's ranged from around ten above to twenty below, sometimes colder. Still, we were comfortable in our Patagonia long underwear, vests, and jackets, plus insulated tights, gaiters over our ankles, and other items of clothing. For footwear, I wore Brooks running shoes, the same ones I road race in during the summer. Between the snowshoes and gaiters, they didn't get too wet, and as long as I never stopped for more than a few minutes, my feet wouldn't freeze up. Roman wore Hi-Tec hiking shoes the whole distance, and I carried a spare pair of Hi-Tec boots in my sled, just in case.

It was supposedly 15 miles to the next checkpoint, the Eagle Song Lodge at Trail Lake, but it was definitely further. This stretch was where my lack of training began to show, as my stride shortened and my legs began to really tighten up. In just a few miles I went from feeling fine and making good time, to a real crawl. Roman was having no problems, though. We finally limped into Eagle Song, a new checkpoint that is unique in being actually permanent buildings, rather than tents, at 11:22 PM. After six hours on the trail since Big Susitna, I was a mess and incapable of continuing. I was freezing cold, totally stiffened up, and sure that my race was over. Wanting nothing more than something hot and substantial to eat, I ate the only hot and substantial food available: chile with hamburger in it. As a vegetarian, this would be my first meat in five years, but I wanted and needed it, so I ate it.

Roman did the same, and I told him to forget about me and keep going if he wanted. Still clinging to his belief that he could do the snowshoe race and then bike back to Big Lake in time for a morning meeting with his university's president on Monday, he decided to continue. Although we'd made a pact to stay together, I didn't mind his continuing without me; I was almost positive I'd have to scratch and be flown out the next morning, anyway. I gave Roman the rest of the Endura Optimizer powder, figuring I wouldn't need it. Then Roman hit the trail and I hit the sack.

Nine hours later I woke up to a new day, feeling fine. Roman had been gone for over seven hours, and I decided to continue, after all. It's amazing how a good night's sleep can rejuvenate the body! (RAAMers never get to experience this...) I chased down some other snowshoers and runners and made good time all day. This is the most beautiful part of the course and I enjoyed it immensely. Several stretches were very punchy and I was glad again to be on snowshoes. I kept my mind busy remembering the trail and scenery from previous races, and counting the rolling hills that I went up and over, up and over. Along the way, I passed the abandoned bicycles of bikers who had quit during the night and been picked up by snowmachines patrolling the course. Their bikes were retrieved later, and I resisted the urge to hop on one of them and ride it into the finish line for them.

The real challenge to this day was the lack of food. I'd given Roman the rest of the Endura Optimizer, and had just 2/3 of a CamelBak left (about 800 calories) for the remainder of the race (33 miles, supposedly), plus half of a StokerBar covered with fuzz from my hat. Arriving at the third and final checkpoint, Rabbit Lake, I scrounged a half-eaten peanut and butter sandwich, some yogurt raisins, and a few cookies that someone ahead of me had left in the trash pile. I also drank several bottles of super strong hot chocolate, trying to get as may calories as I could from the volunteers without violating the "no assistance" rules. Then I hit the trail for the last leg of the race.

I was glad I knew the trail pretty well, and that I know my limits, too. I had to coserve my Endura Optimizer, taking small sips just often enough to keep my blood sugar up and to keep my CamelBak from freezing, but not too much as to run out before the finish line at Skwentna. Eight and a half hours after leaving Rabbit Lake, I finished the race. It was a little before nine PM and had been a long, hard evening. I had kept my spirits up by singing and even talking to myself, plus just staying focused on the trail and my surroundings. Iditasport is fun, even when you're cold, low on food, and all alone in the wilderness. It's the only race I do almost every year, and will keep returning to for a long time. I just love it up there.

As for Roman, he arrived at the finish a little over five hours ahead of me. He'd had a cold, rough night on the trail by himself, but pressed on past Skwentna on his mountain bike as we'd originally planned. Soon after, he succumbed to the need to sleep and bivvied out next to the frozen Yentna River that is the return route to Big Lake. His Cascade Designs sleeping bag performed admirably as he enjoyed a cozy night. He also gave up on his plan to make it back to Anchorage by Monday morning, and decided to just cruise back to Big Lake in tourist mode. It was quite a departure for the man known as such a formidable, sometimes antisocial and anarchist, competitor.

Me, I slept indoors at Skwentna all night, foregoing any intentions of riding back to Big Lake. For one thing, Roman had the pump, tools, and tubes that we were sharing, and for another, my feet were so swollen up that they would have had a hard time gettng into my shoes and toe clips. When I got up from my sleep, I learned that all of us snowshoers and runners were "stranded" in Skwentna for at least a day because it was snowing and planes couldn't come out to get us. With a dire need to be on my plane back to LA the next day, this wouldn't cut it for me, so I went out and hired a local to snowmachine me and my bike and gear all the way back to Big Lake.

Skwentna resident Steve Childs signed on for the job - it cost me $140 - and my Iditasport became a 75 (85? 100?) mile snowshoe race and 85 mile snowmachine ride duathlon. Unfortunately the organizers only recognize human-powered efforts, so only Roman could claim a Iditasport Duathlon Division Record. He'd snowshoed to Skwentna in 29:29 for third place, then competed the whole loop in 60:06 total. I managed 4th in 34:38, and did the unofficial snowshoe-snowmachine record in about 55 hours. It was another great Alaskan adventure.

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