Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 Mile March 2021
Be warned. Since this race was so long, the report is long as well. You get a finisher’s buckle if you read the entire post. There are also some nasty photos.
“No frickin way’! This can’t be happening,” I told myself as I sunk down to my waist in snow for the umpteenth time. Even with snowshoes, I fell through the snow to the point where I felt like I was swimming in white stuff. My snowshoes were being ripped off my feet as I lifted them out of the white quicksand.
This ordeal occurred on only the second day of the Iditarod Trail Invitational a 350-mile winter ultramarathon outside Anchorage Alaska. Knowing this was a ridiculously hard race, I would later find it to be much harder than even expected.
I had trained as well as possible. I was physically, logistically, and most of all, mentally as prepared as possible. I HAD TO FINISH THIS RACE, having not finished the 300-mile Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra the last two years. I had to get this monkey off my back! Winter ultras are the hardest and three DNF’s in a row in them would be crushing to me.
I arrived in Anchorage a few days early. I took some silly selfie pictures at the airport with the wildlife in the display cases.
Then while waiting for the shuttle to the Hyatt Place Hotel, out walked a guy with a sled. I said, “Hey man, you doing the race?” Turned out that it was Keith Eckler, a 30-year-old Naval Academy grad now living in Oceanside, CA, just up the road from me. He had finished the race last year and was back for another go. By the end of this year’s race, we would be the best of friends. Lots more on him later.
At the hotel, though several days from the race, there was a beehive of activity with people and their bikes, sleds and assorted gear milling about the lobby.
I saw Jovica Spajic, an elite Serbian ultra-runner who clearly was the front runner to win the race. He looked incredibly fit and ready to go. I had met him after Moab 240 a few years ago when he told me how brutal these winter ultras were.
Keith and I had dinner and a beer at a sushi restaurant down the road. I listened attentively as he told me about his experience in the race last year. I nervously laughed as he told me about how he and his buddy nearly froze to death just a few hours from the finish last year. He and I would have dinner every night at a sushi restaurant down the road before the race. The second and third nights we were joined by Jovica. I really enjoyed getting to know them better. Jovica said this was almost positively his last winter ultra. He was going to throttle back for a while having just gotten married three months ago. I was like a sponge listening to all his tips in that he is a wealth of extremely useful information.
After breakfast on Saturday, a friend and I went out for a test run/walk with our sleds. I set up my sleeping pad and bag under a tree, lit my stove and melted some snow. Everything checked out great. My buddy’s rope on his sled broke. Upset initially, he was glad it happened before the race and not during.
The next day, we all checked in at our allotted times where we underwent Covid testing. I bought a race jacket, which gave me another reason to finish. You can’t wear race stuff from a race you didn’t finish! Not cool.
Sunday Feb. 28th. Come race day, we loaded up our sleds then climbed on the bus for the hour-long ride to the start at Knik Lake. I sat next to Sarah, an angel of a girl from Alaska who found one of my dropped gloves at Susitna 100, my first winter race three years ago.
We arrived at the start nearly two hours before gun time. We couldn’t go inside the bar/restaurant and most of us were freezing our asses off and we hadn’t even started the dang race. Many ate a burger and tried to find a place out of the wind.
After some last-minute photos, we took off promptly at 2 pm. I cruised the 25 miles into the first checkpoint at Buttterfly Lake. So far, everything was going well. I felt so relieved to finally be back in the game after having trained so hard and waited so long to get back in the game.
I had trained by pulling my sled (with a 50 lb. dumbbell) through the soft sand at the beach in San Diego. I had put in tons of miles, many while wearing my weighted vest. I did lots of high intensity strength training and lots of hot yoga. I focused on stretching and flexibility. I ran to work and back eleven miles each way numerous times. I wore five-pound ankle weights at work every shift. Most importantly, I really worked on mental toughness and resilience. The physical stuff is easy compared to the mind control. Basically, except for my gimpy right ankle, I didn’t have any weaknesses and was ready for battle! I had made the decision to forego surgery on my calcaneal heel spur until after the race. I knew it would hurt… a lot. I would just have to block out the pain.
At the first CP, like all others, I would consume much needed calories, dry out my socks and gloves and load up my bladder with water and electrolyte powder.
Upon hitting the Susitna River, I met up with Austin, a medic living in Florida with his medical student wife. He’s originally from a town where I coincidentally have worked part time on the WA/ID border, and I had met his orthopedic surgeon Dad before. One of four brothers, Austin is applying to med school also. We would end up having lots in common, including sharing a lot of suffering together.
We couldn’t find any established trail here. We followed a narrow snowmobile track but in doing so we would sink down to our waist in snow then our snowshoes would get ripped off when lifting our feet back up with each step. It was like swimming in snow made out of quicksand. We would see a track off to our side, thinking it was more packed down but to get there we had swim through the thick snow again. Also, our sleds were wider than the track we were following forcing us to basically snowplow down the path. Things really couldn’t get much worse at this point.
After an hour of this futile game our morale and energy were shot. Neither of us had slept to this point. Austin was dead here, so we decided to set up his two-person tent and get a little shut eye. We stomped down a six foot by six-foot square of snow to bed down for a bit. After undressing down to his base layer and getting in his cozy sleeping bag, Austin realized he forgot to set up his sleeping mat. An extremely uncomfortable hassle to get out of the bag and the tent and find the mat in his sled bag, he tried to sleep anyway on the cold snow without the mat. Impossible. After a few hours he said he had not gotten any sleep because he was so cold. I had made the mistake before in a previous race, so I felt horrible for him. I popped a few Seattle Gummy Company Energon Qube Power Up caffeinated gummies and decided to forge on. Before I left him, I retrieved his sleeping mat and he tried to salvage some sleep out of the ordeal. Those gummies work wonders. I call them “Crack in a Pack.”
For the next hour or so, I plowed to the finally arriving at an established track. What a freaking relief! Here I was only in the second day and I was cursing this race already.
Eventually I made it to the second checkpoint, Yentna Station. I love this place right on the Yenta River. It was a MASH unit of racers warming up, pounding down some food and sleeping on the second-floor bunks. The hosts here were incredibly accommodating and helpful. I enjoyed navigating the sea of big German shepherds and a cat who all seemed to rule the place.
It was way too warm upstairs making it almost impossible for me to sleep again. After a few hours I decided to head back out joining up with my friend Keith. Austin would join us also, but he was really suffering. Keith and I quietly worried about Austin’s fate, thinking he probably would end up dropping. All three of us were having foot issues like almost everybody else. My first aid kit would be very valuable to everyone. I shared it liberally. I had a ton of Ibuprofen which was a hot commodity on the ITI market. My calcaneus/Achilles was already making lots of noise. I tried to block it out but anytime I had to climb uphill, the pain was extremely painful. The steeper the climb, the greater the pain.
We made surprisingly good progress to the next checkpoint, Skwentna. This was a tough slog, but my spirits were solid. I had a huge, delicious plate of spaghetti, some bread and cookies and believe it or not, a beer. In an upstairs bunk, I probably slept about an hour out of a three-hour period. It’s hard to fall asleep when others are constantly coming in and out of the room, people are snoring and when one is overtired and sleeping in such a strange environment.
Austin stayed behind to try to get some much-needed sleep while Keith and I decided to head back out. Relatively energized, we bundled up and made real good time during the early miles of this 30-mile segment. After about an hour, I mentioned to Keith that I thought the temperature had risen about 20°. About 20 minutes later I then mentioned that I felt the temperature had dropped about 30°. I had made the ridiculous rookie mistake of over dressing and getting all sweaty. My perspiration ended up making me dangerously hypothermic. No matter what I did, I couldn’t warm up. Keith told me to strip down and get into my -60° rated sleeping bag to warm up. After about an hour of sleep on the trail, I felt much better. This time I would only wear one base layer and a puffy jacket. Disaster averted. Keith absolutely saved my ass. Had I been alone out here in these remote Alaskan wilderness conditions…
(Throughout the race, I would really enjoy getting to know the other participants, especially Keith and Austin. They are both salt-of-the-earth guys. Keith now works for a humanitarian rescue organization funded by an NGO (Nongovernmental organization.) They always seemed positive despite the conditions. Keith even gave his hiking poles to another racer whose poles had snapped. I couldn’t believe his generosity. He also was doing the race to raise money for a charity called Guardian Revival, Inc. which supports first responders, the armed forces, and our veteran communities. https://guardianrevival.org/ Please consider donating.)
The last five miles before the next checkpoint, Finger Lake, absolutely sucked! I led our three-man caravan into a fierce snowy headwind that seem to be steadily uphill but actually was flat. The checkpoint seemed like it would never arrive. Like in my life, I had no choice but to put my head down and charge forward. There was simply no alternative. As Keith said previously, “They’re not going to bring the checkpoint to you.”
Every time I stopped, I noticed that the back of my sled was taking on snow through cracks in the corners because of a design flaw. The molded plastic scraped the ground allowing the snow to sneak into the sled. Over time the snow would compress into chunks of ice. Unbelievably, I would end up dragging an extra 10 pounds of dead weight. I played the continuous game of removing the extra burden every time I stopped. I was furious that this was happening, cursing the sled maker. I was so excited about having a new supposedly lighter and faster buggy, but it ended up being the opposite.
Like the previous checkpoint, Finger Lake CP was another MASH unit with bodies strewn about the floor trying to get some rest. It was a wall tent that was not hospitable at all. It was dimly lit, and the food was so-so. To make matters worse, I simply could not fall asleep- my most important need. Here I was, not even halfway to the halfway point and I had become physically and emotionally destroyed. I was at an all-time low. Instead of sticking with my initial strategy of just getting checkpoint to checkpoint, I fell into the trap of thinking of how much longer had to go in the race. I told myself it was futile. I got into a negative mindset and convinced myself I was not tough enough for the sport. I was done. I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag wallowing in self-pity. While changing sleep locations to get away from a loud snorer, I told the checkpoint captain that I was dropping. I had made up my mind. I was in a really bad way. In a somewhat altered state, I said “F$#K it all” to everything. The captain said a plane would be arriving at 10 AM and I could get a ride back to town. What a relief to this madness I told myself.
When morning came, others including Keith started packing up to head out. After a little bit of sleep, my mind was in a better place. I was thinking more clearly. More logical and less emotional, I pulled my sorry ass up and decided to head to the next checkpoint then reassess from there. I was encouraged by Sarah and Keith and others. I really appreciate their not giving up on me. I did get a kick out of others asking if they could take some of my food and gear when they thought I was going to drop. Opportunistic vultures!
Keith ended up pulling away from me in this section. When I arrived at Puntilla Lake CP he was already fed and in bed. I charged up my electronics, dodging rat poop on the floor, hung up my clothes by the heater, ate a crappy burrito, some Ramen noodles and some hot chocolate then climbed into a bunk. I was able to get about two hours of decent sleep.
I noticed that Jovica was sleeping in a neighboring bunk which meant he was 60 miles ahead of me already. He had been 30 miles up to the turnaround and back. What a beast. I was so proud of him.
While dozing off, I thought about the 30 mile push up over Rainy Pass then down into Rohn which was the turnaround point. I knew it would be a huge emotional lift for me to get to Rohn. When I got to that point, I would reverse course and head for the barn! It would be” all downhill from there”. Not really!
Friday, March 5. Riding the emotional roller coaster, I was feeling strong. I noticed I was actually and surprisingly becoming more confident as I got deeper into the race. I even felt a little giddy as I noted the sun peeking through the hazy, snowy clouds over my left shoulder. I even belted out in song. (Make sure to check out my race video. It’s pretty embarrassing.) At the famed Rainy Pass, I treated myself to some chocolate pudding camp food which was delicious. I then charged down into Rohn and arrived in the wee hours of the night. Again, the last few miles, over a lake and a river seemed to go on forever.
At the checkpoint, I had some tasty bratwurst and soup and completed my usual routine. I was able to get two delicious hours of sleep, lying next to Keith who was deep in a slumber. When I awoke, he and Austin were gone. Austin had risen from the ashes. I thought he’d be out of the race by now, but he was crushing it. I left around 5 AM and as daylight came, I began the push back up to Rainy Pass. I had some nice moments talking with the Iditarod dog sled race trail crew as well as with a group of six snowmobilers heading out for a bison hunt. They offered me food and caffeine which I virtually never pass up.
I was proud of my effort getting up to Rainy Pass. I was making good time. I pushed hard trying to catch up to a racer ahead of me. I had been alone for many miles and really desired some company. In a wide-open exposed area with a strong wind, I had a little accident which came out of nowhere. TMI I’m sure but I was forced to wash my hands with snow which would later be the cause of frostbite on my right hand. Many miles back, I found out that the Puntilla Lake CP was not available to us on the return trip. I was crushed. Fortunately, the Rainy Pass Lodge was open, and I was able to clean up a little bit. Thank God.
I was again able to charge pretty hard back to the Finger Lake CP. Along the way, I encountered two awesome Alaska State troopers. We took some photos and shared some Diet Cokes. I also was treated to some amazing Alaskan hospitality by locals bringing me out a fantastic grilled cheese and turkey sandwich fresh off the stove and later some more bratwurst by another couple. This section was really enjoyable. I would also meet up with a group of people at a huge bonfire. They offered me snacks which I gobbled up voraciously. They were there as spectators for the Iditarod. During the night, I slept twice on the trail under a fallen tree to get out of the wind. I built a little campfire and had some nice moments as I watched the Iditarod dog musher’s come through the opposite direction. The well-known Aliy Zirkle took some time to chat with me while she was tending to her team of dogs and she offered me some positive words of encouragement. I was awestruck. I loved seeing up to 20 sets of eyes coming towards me in virtual silence. The soft snow absorbed both the dog’s footsteps and the sound of the dogsled peacefully gliding across the tundra. During these wee hours of the night with no wind, light or sound, everything seemed right in the world.
A short time later, I met up with the Berington twins who also were tending to their dogs. They gave me some caffeinated chewing gum which worked wonders. I couldn’t believe they were taking time out from their race to help some goofball out on the course that was meant for dogs. I’m now their biggest fans.
Later this day I was able to get some cell phone reception. I talked to my family and ended up getting very emotional. These extreme ultras elicit pretty wide mood swings in me. Because we are without question pushed to (and beyond) our limits, it seems to happen to everyone. The highs are really high, and the lows are indescribably low.
There is a section of the trail called Happy Steps which is a complete misnomer. The steepness of the five climbs is comical. Even with my snowshoes digging in and with me pushing my hiking poles forcefully backward, I could barely take one-foot steps with my sled tugging me backwards. This forced unbelievable loads on my right Achilles which was on fire at this point. I could easily handle the cardio component of the climb but mechanically I was really hurting. I even considered the fact that my Achilles could rupture in this situation.
I forgot to mention that on the way out going down these “Happy Steps,” I had sat on my sled to catch a ride downhill to save some energy. I ended up going so fast that I lost control. I crashed over an embankment and down a steep slope. It took me 20 minutes to climb back up through waist deep snow pulling my sled behind me to get back on the trail. I couldn’t believe I let this happen.
Around nightfall, I was able to catch up to Amber who was doing the race on skis and making great progress. It was such a relief to move along with someone else. I would arrive at the Yentna checkpoint a little bit before her. Words cannot describe how relieved I was to make it to this point. These last sections were tough slogs. Now after some warm food and a good bit of rest, I would” only” have 40 miles to go on the last day for the push into the coveted finish. Again, I probably only got two solid hours but awoke feeling adequately but not ideally rested. Keith, Austin and I saddled up and headed out together.
We went about 15 miles on the Yentna and Susitna Rivers. At the same point previously that I dealt with on the way out, we had to swim through waist deep snow again. Here my snowshoes would get ripped off repeatedly as I lifted my back foot forward for the next step, until we got off the river. Working the frozen buckles of the snowshoe with gloves and mittens on was exceedingly frustrating and tedious. I couldn’t use my bare hands for fear of re-exposing my frostbitten hand to the cold again.
It would snow the entire day and at times very heavily. This covered up other racers’ tracks making it difficult to know which way to go. At this point we had to navigate using our GPX apps. At several points I thought we were utterly lost though Austin and Keith remained steadfast that we were going in the right direction. I begrudgingly trusted them. At twice their age, I felt like a cranky old man which contrasted with their youthful and confident enthusiasm.
After a couple harrowing hours, we realized that we finally were sure of the course and that we ultimately would finish if we just kept plodding forward. What a freaking relief. We estimated this day to take 20 hours, but it would end up taking me almost 30. It had been constantly snowing, forcing us to trudge through about eight inches of snow at this point. Probably flat, it seemed to me like we were climbing the last 15 miles. Only seven miles from the finish, I was so beat down that I could barely even stand up let alone move forward while pulling a 60-pound sled through snow. I had been begging for us to stop and take a sleep. Keith encouraged us to keep forging forward. He wanted to get the race over so badly and was bound and determined to do so. Finally like a gift from heaven, Austin suggested that he and I set up the tent and rest for a few hours. Even he had reached his breaking point. I was so relieved! Damn I love that guy. We slept for three hours and I noted that I had not changed my position once during that time. My tank was completely and utterly on E.
With a bottom zipper on my sleeping bag, I slept with my boots sticking out of the bottom, risking frostbite. The hassle of removing boots and socks for sleeping was not worth it considering the circumstances. I took my chances. I knew that my warmed-up body would pump heated blood down to my feet. Many days ago, I had developed nasty trench foot in addition to some painful, multi-layered heel blisters.
When we awoke, daybreak had come. We packed up, shaking a couple inches of snow off our sled bags. I had burned through my Seattle Gummy Company Energon Qube Power Up gummies so Austin and I swallowed several scoopfuls of caffeinated electrolyte drink powder, 100 mg per scoop so we could charge to the finish. It kicked in within about 15 minutes. My spirits were now sky high again. Soon we would hear some dogs barking then later a bulldozer which meant we were reentering civilization. After a super steep climb that put the final stake in the destruction of my Achilles, I saw a power line and I knew we had arrived at the Big Lake community. I now knew the finish was only about four miles away.
We reached a plowed road and I saw another human being walking! We were back in the big city! Hallelujah. Glory be to God. Soon we would see the race director and photographer sitting on snowmobiles. I greeted him with a not so proper two-handed salute to let him know how I felt about the difficulty of course. It was cathartic. I immediately felt guilty for having done so but I must admit it felt so good to do it.
Austin and I turned onto Big Lake for the three-mile homestretch to the finish. Euphoria crept in. We ran on a smooth, hardpacked and fast surface. My pace accelerated. What I had desired for so long had finally arrived. Cynthia, the race director’s wife came out on her mountain bike to escort us in. I experienced so many emotions: satisfaction, relief, joy, vindication.
As soon as I crossed under the finish banner, I got down on one knee and thanked God for all my blessings. Most of all I thanked Him for giving me tremendous discipline, patience and persistence for allowing me to accomplish my goals. Finishing this race was many years in the making. Though it sounds dramatic, I had now achieved the pinnacle athletic achievement of my career. I don’t do these ultramarathons to prove anything to anybody. They are a deeply personal challenge. People always ask me why I do these races? My simple answer: challenging oneself maximally and by enduring tremendous suffering provides the optimal path towards self-realization and maximal growth in all aspects of my life. There’s certainly lots more to it…but that is the main reason. I don’t ask for others to try to understand…because they probably never will.
Thank you for reading. Now go get it!