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Running Wild Alaska

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Endurance racers prepare for a wintery trail ultra across the Last Frontier

Jill Homer training in Alaska. Courtesy: Jill Homer

With the first real cold snap of the season upon us, it finally feels like winter. Feeling like you need a little motivation to kick you out of the warm house for your daily run? Here’s something to consider before your next jog: this February, eight absurdly tough runners will set off on a 1,000-mile footrace from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, and six more will complete the 350-mile route to McGrath. The route is unmarked, and there’s no prize money and hardly any media coverage.

Welcome to the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It follows the Iditarod Trail dog sled route, a 1,000-mile path through frozen tundra, swamps, lakes, rivers, mountain passes and roadless Alaskan wilderness.

People have been racing mountain bikes on sections of the trail since 1973 and skiing it since 1983. But foot traffic was low until 1992 when the organizer of the Iditabike cycling race created a division for athletes who didn’t want to wear snowshoes. He called it Iditasport. Soon the course extended from 210 miles to a grueling 350 miles. In 2000, it became the Iditasport Impossible, the 1,000-mile biking, skiing or running race to Nome.

After a conflict with the Iditasport organizer, racer Bill Merchant formed a new body, the Iditarod Trial Invitational (ITI). The race would have two options: a 350-mile route, and a 1,000 mile. It would be a ”no frills, nonprofit race put on by racers for racers.” There was no required gear, no mandatory checkpoints and no cash prize at the end.

That rugged ethos remains today. True to its name, the ITI is an invite-only event. Only the most serious adventurers are allowed to even attempt the race. To keep people from falling back on a false safety net (it could take days for a pilot to find you in the Alaskan wilderness), GPS devices are allowed for navigation, but SPOT beacons are not allowed. In case of emergency, racers either have to push on to the nearest checkpoint or hunker down and wait for help to arrive. They’re also not allowed to accept outside assistance, even from pacers or support crews, and they must carry all their gear from start to finish—no sending gear or clothing ahead.

“This race is not for everyone,” Merchant disclaims on the ITI’s website. “A mistake at the wrong time and place in the Alaskan winter wilderness could cost you fingers and toes or even your life. At times the only possible rescue will be self rescue.”

Intimately familiar with those risks is ultra-endurance athlete Jill Homer, who finished the 350-mile race on a bike in 2008. On her second ITI mountain bike race in 2009, Homer’s foot crunched through a thin layer of ice on Flathorn Lake within the first 25 miles of the course. She wound up with a nasty case of frostbite that forced her to scratch from the race. Even so, she’s preparing herself to race this February, on foot.

“In attempting the 350-mile race on foot,” she explains, “I hope to seek a similar level of intensity, newness and discovery that I experienced at my first ITI by using a more difficult mode of travel. There’s a purity to foot travel—there’s no mechanical aid, no wheels to coast along. It’s just me, and only me.”

But for some the lack of support is part of the allure that draws them to the ITI in the first place.

“I’m free to decide what to take, and how I travel,” says Rick Freeman, 55 from Peters Township, Pennsylvania. He believes the risk is worth it for the chance to be able to enjoy the beautiful Alaskan scenery. “I’ve watched the Northern Lights illuminating the clear night sky in the heart of the Alaska Range. It’s like a private I-Max theater show. Racing on foot gives me time to clear my mind, with the only worry being how to stay safe in the wilderness.”

Since 2000, only 11 people have finished the 1,000-mile footrace, which you have to first qualify for by completing the 350-mile race to McGrath. This year eight runners will toe the line for the full 1,000-mile ITI, and six will attempt the 350-mile race.

Two of those 1,000-mile racers will be Tim Hewitt, the unmitigated king of the ITI, and his wife Loreen (see page 3). Tim has run the 1,000-mile course seven times so far—that’s four more than anyone else racing on wheels, skis or by foot—and holds the overall speed record for the run (20 days, seven hours, 17 minutes, set in 2011). In 2013 he did it totally unsupported, dragging his gear along behind him on a sled and sleeping outside under the stars without a tent or a bivy sack.

“I believe it was the longest unsupported foot trek ever,” says Hewitt, an unassuming lawyer from Pennsylvania in his late 50’s. “But this year I’ll go the more traditional (easier) way”—by allowing himself to stop and rest indoors.

“After the ITI, most other races don’t have the same allure,” he continues. “The excitement of the unknown challenge separates the ITI from other events.”

Read on to find out how two hardcore adventurers are prepping for their run across Alaska.

Beat Jergerlehner (right) and another participant almost in Nome. Photo: Jill Homer

Beat Jergerlehner, 44, Los Altos, California (born in Bern, Switzerland)

What’s your day job?
In my daily life I’m a software engineer for Google. It’s pretty much one of the best jobs out there, if you like writing software.

Why are you running the ITI?
Until I was 25, I was totally un-athletic. I had a small bout of triathlon training then and finished a few Olympic distance triathlons mostly instigated by a bet with my uncle and too much tequila. Then I moved to the U.S. and fell back into couch potat-ism. I ended up weighing about 240 pounds at six feet tall

When I was 32, I finally started training again because my brother was going to do an Ironman. I did an Ironman, stumbled into trail running and never looked back. I ran my first 100-miler in 2005, but I never thought cold would appeal to me until I met Jill Homer, who’d done the ITI before. I tried to impress her and signed up for the Susitna 100 (apparently it worked—we’re together now!).

I discovered that I loved the Alaskan winter, which is alien, hostile and demanding but incredibly pristine and beautiful at the same time. I decided to sign up for the 350-mile ITI the following year. At the time, the 1,000-mile race seemed unattainable and frankly entirely undesirable, but at the end, Tim Hewitt basically talked me into trying the 1,000-mile version this year.

I’ve done lots of races that have aspects of the ITI (multi-day ultras in cold weather like the Tor des Géants). But really, there’s little like the ITI. It’s more of an expedition and requires ten times the planning and preparation compared to any other trail race. You basically always have to worry about dying or getting frostbite. Small mistakes can have very dire consequences.

How have you been training up to this point?
I often joke I’m the laziest ultrarunner there is. I despise organized training plans and like to pretty much only do fun stuff. However, I do like to race a lot. Whereas other people may value speed, I value the ability to race as many hard events as possible.

For example, before the 2013 ITI, I did the The Petite Trotte à Léon (easily the most difficult mountain race I know of due to its extreme steepness, very sparse support and highly difficult trails) followed by one week of rest, followed by the Tor des Géants. All in all it was about 390 miles with almost 16,000 feet of ascent. My general training mileage on the other hand is fairly low, sometimes 30 miles or less, although I try to add as many 50K races as I can. In the Bay Area there’s one almost every weekend.

As for snow-specific preparation, we only do a training trip to Alaska for about 10 days mostly to test gear, and a few weekends in Yosemite. It seems that steep hills work well enough to prepare for pulling a 40-50 pound sled. I also spend countless hours designing and making my own gear (sled, windproof clothing, a bivy system, etc.). That stuff occasionally even works!

What supplies will you carry?
Generally I carry 35-40 pounds of survival gear. I tend to bring a little more than others, but on the other hand I find it unacceptable to drop out of a race due to insufficient gearl—and in the ITI, dropping out can be a horrible affair. I’ll bring a -60 degree sleeping bag, a bivy, stove, repair supplies, various layers, lots of gloves and socks and balaclavas and hats, hiking poles, batteries, lights, medical kit, survival saw, satellite phone and SARSAT beacon, a multitool, GPS, thermos, waders (for water crossings), snowshoes, overboots, goggles and a few more things.

In addition, one needs between 5-10 pounds of food on the way to Nome, depending on where you’re at. Distances between checkpoints can be up to 160 miles (though there’s a resupply drop in the middle, limited to 10 lbs).

Most of the supplies go in a sled that I made from a light, cold-resistant plastic that glides extremely well. I’m also wearing a pack that doubles as my sled-pulling harness, which will contain some stuff I want to get to quickly.

What’s your favorite food to eat to keep you going in the intense cold?
There’s always a tradeoff between calorie density and quick energy. Sugar (gummi bears, for example) work well to give you a quick burst and keep you warm, whereas peanut butter and nuts have better more calories for their weight. I used to use “sports” foods of in the beginning of my running career, but have long abandoned them because they didn’t taste good, and you don’t get any benefits unless you’re following a really strict nutritional system. I’m not willing to eat bad tasting stuff all the time. What’s the point?

I use a mix of “real” food (either purchased at local stores or in the form of dried meals), candy bars, cheese, some meats (with low water content) and peanut butter—the cheap kind is the best because it usually has more sugar.

What is your emergency plan in case of bad weather or an accident?
I have two emergency transmitters, but in bad weather it can still take half a day or longer for help to arrive. So in bad weather there are two choices—keep going or hunker down. My sleeping bag will keep me warm inside my bivy. It’s important to actually get inside. In the extreme cold, your core temp might drop slowly throughout the day, and if you take too long getting inside your bivy, you can end up a frozen popsicle quite quickly.

In extremely bad weather one might try to build a snow cave (however this is not possible along much of the coast where you’re on the frozen sea, or on such windswept areas that you can’t really dig) or build a fire.

For accidents, the plan is the same. Get in the sleeping bag as quickly as possible. If you get wet, roll around in snow to dry out if it’s really cold, and take off your stuff quickly.

Tim and Loreen Hewitt on the trail. Photo: Tim Hewitt

Loreen Hewitt, 57, Greensburg, PA

What’s your day job?
I am a speech/language pathologist, but I have not worked at that since our oldest were born almost 28 years ago. I guess I am a stay-at-home mom without children at home! I do babysit for our 22-month-old grandson on Wednesdays, though.

Why are you running the ITI?
I grew up in Michigan and spent a lot of time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I feel that parts of Alaska remind me of that. I’ve always loved winter and snow, and I view the ITI as an adventure, not a race. It’s simple, in a way, compared to daily life. You have most of what you need with you, right behind you on a sled. You alone are responsible for your food and shelter and your progress. The people in the race, the race directors, and the people in Alaska are great.

How have you been training up to this point?
Training until this point has been my usual running—I run six days per week. Since I’ve gotten older, my mileage has decreased a lot, and now I run 40 to 45 miles a week. Soon I’ll start pulling my sled on the snowmobile trails on Laurel Mountain (in southwestern Pennsylvania) once a week for three to five hours at a time.

What supplies will you carry?
I carry a -60 degree sleeping bag, ground pad, a stove that uses white gas, a cooking pot, a Thermos, a Nalgene bottle, clothing, snowshoes, a headlight, batteries and food on my sled. I will also have a GPS device with some waypoints to give me an idea of direction. But since the trail changes from year to year, I can’t get the exact route on the device.

What’s your favorite food to eat to keep you going in the intense cold?
You need to eat food with lots of fat and protein. I’ll aim for 4,000 calories a day. I use freeze-dried meals, nuts, candy, Shot Bloks and peanut butter. Unfortunately, eating is my biggest problem in the ITI—I can’t seem to eat enough or drink enough on the trail, but I’m fine when we have an opportunity to eat real food at some of the checkpoints. I’m still searching for the solution to getting in enough calories. This year I’m taking a thermos to keep water somewhat hot. Hopefully it helps me drink more.

How do your kids feel about you and your husband running 1,000 miles through Alaska in the middle of winter?
Our kids feel that it’s normal for us, but they do worry about it sometimes. Still, they accept it because it makes us happy.