He's Back!

Chris Kostman and National Geographic Television have returned from Iditasport Extreme, a 320 mile wilderness race by snowshoe and mountain bike on Alaska's Iditarod Trail.

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Freakish, totally unexpected conditions produced the softest, slushiest, wettest race trail in history, slowing all the entrant's progress and providing the slowest and most grueling Winter race in Alaska yet. Sections that were expected to be bike-able were often too punchy and slushy to ride - forcing racers to push their bikes at a slow, slippery, feet-abusing pace - while other presumably soft sections proved bike-able. The top ten racers of the 14 racer field, including Kostman, found themselves regrouped three different times, at the Little Susitna, Skwentna, and Rainy Pass remote checkpoints, waiting for the snow-laden trail to either "set" naturally or be "cut in" by snow machine. In effect, the race was restarted three times.

Pre-race predictions for finishing times were wide-ranging. Eventual winner John Stamstad, the undisputed king of ultra mountain bike racing, predicted a 40 hour race for himself, start to finish. He ended up taking 125 hours! Kostman was shooting for three to four days, and did end up racing for that long. Most of the field that did finish required over a week to complete the course.

Racers had to commit to a certain strategy in advance of the race in order to prepare their gear, clothing, food, and forms of transportation for small ski planes to drop at three different remote checkpoints. Thus, racers were committed to their strategy and had to stick to their plans, regardless of the actual conditions of the race. Kostman's plan was based on eight years experience with Alaskan wilderness racing, the input of top Alaskan adventurers, and the assumption that temps would drop soon before or during the race. Kostman planned to bike the first 125 miles of the race, then snowshoe the 65 miles up and over the Alaska Range, and then pick up a second bike for the remaining 130 miles to the finish. Any other year, when conditions have normally been 15 above to 30 below, this would have been the ideal plan.

But 1997 was no normal, ideal year. It was actually too warm, with temperatures almost always in the mid- to high-thirties, making the trail soft, slow, and abusive to the body. Kostman's expectation of zero to -30 degree temp's, and pre-committed racing plan, proved disastrous to his effort. Early on, while biking, he found himself pushing his bike and breaking through river overflow and getting his feet soaked on several occasions. Additionally, the combined sixty pound weight of his extreme conditions clothing and survival gear, provided by Atlas Snowshoe Company, Cascade Designs, Sierra Designs, Patagonia, All-Weather Sports of Fairbanks, TurboCat Lighting, and Endura/UNIPRO, and pulled behind him in a Mountainsmith Armadillo sled, proved to make it even slower going in the slushy snow and relative heat. This was no fault of Kostman or his gear, but rather the natural result of unseasonably warm temps and no new snowfall in the entire month before the race. Who would have thought that the racers would be racing across Alaskan wilderness in the dead of Winter begging for weather some 30 degrees colder?

But Kostman stuck it out for three and a half days, all the while being trailed by National Geographic Television's crew headed up by producer Jim Kreidler. Nat Geo captured it all on digital video: slogging the bike through slush, tip-toeing across dangerous river overflow, getting lost in a snowstorm, biking and snowshoeing over thousands of moguls and two mountain ranges, straining inch by inch to drag the 60 pound sled up and out of Happy Canyon, struggling to stay headed in the right direction on the Iditarod Trail, and more! The dramatic conclusion, with Kostman near the top of the Alaska Range with his feet, ankles, and Achilles tendons blown out and fearing permanent physical damage, will make for an insightful and unexpected ending to the Nat Geo program, slated to air June 29, 1997 at 8pm on TBS on "National Geographic Explorer."

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