Running Wild Alaska
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.”