Alaska's Big Chill: The Traumatic
Transformation of an Extreme Athlete

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Triathlete, January 1998 and ULTRA Cycling, Vol.6, No.1, May 1997

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It's ten PM. Pitch black. My breath like frosty steam from a train. Snow's been falling heavily for hours. It's quite warm for Alaska in February, mid-twenties above, but I'm shivering because I'm soaking wet from head to toe and the wind is blowing. All that dang snow keeps melting on me, plus I'm sweating from the workload of pedaling a mountain bike through slushy snow with a growing layer of powder on top. The sled I'm pulling with my bike weighs sixty pounds and carries all my survival gear, clothing, and food. It's been hours and hours since I've seen my National Geographic TV crew. There's just snow everywhere, sometimes punctured with fresh moose prints. I wonder when I'll see a moose or wolves. The trail's not marked, either; I just follow what seems like the freshest and most logical snowmobile tracks. Eventually I spy a light way off to my right. Is that the checkpoint, or the cabin of some trapper? My trail is diverging further away from the light and I don't know what to do.

Suddenly the trail forks in three directions and the snowmobile tracks I've been following all day abruptly make a U-turn. Ahead is a trail, but clearly nobody's been on it in a day. What the hell?

I squint through the blanket of night and the heavy, swirling snow towards that light. I'm cold, very wet, and am quickly losing my mind. I've been slogging my bike up the Iditarod Trail for two and half days, the subject of a documentary being shot by the aforementioned Nat Geo TV crew, a participant in a crazy, first-time-ever winter wilderness race called Iditasport Extreme. The goal is to traverse 320 miles of the famous, snow-laden Iditarod Trail from Knik Lake to McGrath by human power (no sled dogs allowed). We can bike, snowshoe, or ski, depending on the conditions, as we head northwest, halfway across Alaska's frozen lakes, rivers, swamps, rolling hills, and mountains. Extreme races don't scare me; I've done the Race Across America (twice), Canadian Ironman (twice), and France's Triple Ironman. But more importantly, I've been out here before, six times, in various Iditabike and Iditashoe races over the years, and seen it all, I'd thought. But not this.

I flash my Turbocat headlight at the light in the distance. No response. I scream at the top of my lungs, over and over. No response. Now I alternately cover and uncover my light, flashing a Morse code SOS towards that light. Is it three shorts or three longs first? I try both. No response. Now I'm really cold, starting to shiver, my gloves so wet I can make a fist and squeeze a quarter cup of water from each of them. My mind is going. I don't want to turn around and look for where I went wrong. I just want to get to the checkpoint. But is that light the checkpoint, or just some trapper's cabin? I get desperate.

I pull out a rocket flare and blast it into the sky. That will get the attention of those clueless jerks at the checkpoint who've been ignoring my flashing lights and screams, and who so poorly marked the trail leading into their stupid lodge. Don't they know that in the Alaskan bush it's common practice to properly sign the trail leading to a remote lodge? Morons! My anger warms me momentarily.

I stand there watching my pretty red rocket blast upwards, then float back down to rest aglowing on the fresh, deep snow covering the huge lake which lies between me and the light. Surely they'll see my flare and come out on a snowmobile to see what's going on!

No response. And now I'm so cold I don't want to fumble for new clothes from my sled. Hell, I've got enough Sierra Designs, Cascade Designs, and Patagonia stuff to outfit an army, but it's in the sled and I'm too cold and wet to bother. I don't care if the light is the checkpoint or just some cabin. I'm scared and I just want to be there, in that light, in that warmth, and out of the frigid, snowy, dark night. So I decide to go for it. I dismantle my Moots mountain bike, lash it to the top of my Mountainsmith sled, strap on my Atlas snowshoes, and drag it all behind as I head on foot towards the light.

There is no trail across the lake. No base. No support. Just deep, fresh snow over a supposedly frozen body of water. Broken ice, or at least water overflow above the ice, is entirely possible, actually probable. My sled will drag me fast like an anchor to the bottom of the lake if I do break through the ice, so I pull it with my hand instead of strapping it around my waist. I trudge through the snow, wondering to myself, out loud, "will this be my last step?"

The light stays far away for a long time, hard to make out through the driving snow. My body is freezing up, quickly going hypothermic, and I'm taking a big risk. I assume that the light will be a shelter that I can enter and use to warm up and regroup, but what if it's not? I try not to think. I just trudge. And trudge.

The light gets closer; I can make out a lodge. This must be it! Suddenly, even more light and it's the Nat Geo guys, all bundled up and warm, with floodlights and digital video cameras shooting my arrival at the checkpoint. Just shoot me for real, I think. I tromp through the snow, mumble answers to their probing questions, drop the tether to my sled, and head inside.

Warmth. Food. Other racers. Laughing. Beds. An oasis called Winter Lake Lodge.

My paranoia and fear slowly melt away and I begin to survey my body. It's not good. My Achilles tendons are shot, my ankles are shot, and the soles of my feet are really starting to blister. It dawns on me that my body's never been so shot in my entire career, not even when I did the Triple Ironman with no training. I can't believe it! I'm bummed. I'm pissed. I look inside myself and the questions start flying.

Do I need to do this kind of event anymore? Do I need to inflict pain and punishment on my body any longer? Do I need to do the Race Across America again this summer, just because I first did it ten years ago? Is there a point when this lifestyle is so masochistic that it's stupidly abusive?

With these questions in mind, I head into the snowy white wilderness again after a much needed night's rest.

Time passes. I snowshoe 32 miles today, through so-called Happy Canyon and up into the Alaska Range. But I'm not the same me anymore, the endurance-at-all costs extremist. I realize that I'm not here for the distance, or even the finish line. I've done that for 15 years. I remind myself that I'm "racing" while wearing my other hat, that of an explorer archaeologist. My research specialty is travel in the ancient world and snowshoes have been travel tools for over 6,000 years. With Nat Geo in tow, I aim to turn millions on to the wisdom of ancient people, and hopefully give a little insight into why humans, then and now, have traveled and voyaged and explored and forever ventured to further horizons. The motto of my institute, Archaeoscience International, is "what's past is present." By flogging myself across the Alaskan outback with my bike and snowshoes, that ancient tradition stays alive and well and very present, finish line be damned.

Kostman and the race leaders regrouped at the next checkpoint, Rainy Pass Lodge, for a full day while the trail was being prepared. The eventual winner, John Stamstad, pushed on for 39 hours non-stop after that, completing the 320 mile race in five days, five hours, and thirty minutes.

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