I am really excited about this year's Iditarod Trail Invitational, which kicks off Sunday at 2 p.m. I participated in this event in 2008 and 2009. I finished in 2008 and later that year wrote a book about it. I dropped out last year with frostbite on my right foot. Before I even started the 2009 race, I had already decided I wouldn't participate in 2010. I had plans to ride the Great Divide in summer 2009, and I knew I would spend a long summer entrenched in the planning and training for that undertaking. Preparing just to survive the 350 miles to McGrath can be even more arduous and all-consuming than the Divide (in my opinion), so I figured I'd need the winter off to take a physical and mental vacation from cycling. I did use my lax winter to try some new things - winter mountain trekking and to a lesser extent, skiing - but mostly I spent this winter wishing I was training for the ITI. It's such an intoxicating experience in ways I couldn't begin to explain. I've started having dreams about lining up with the group on Knik Lake. When I wake up and it's not true, I feel disappointed. So am I going back in 2011? This race fills up in like an hour these days, but you better believe I'm going to try.
I excited just to spectate this year's race. It's going to be an exciting one. There are a lot of strong cyclists to watch for — Pete Basinger, Jeff Oatley, Jay and Tracey Petervary, Rocky Reifenstuhl, Louise Kobin and rookie Chris Plesko. There are runners I'm cheering for too - Anne Ver Hoef, who developed painful frostbite on her face in 2008 and who I bonded with at the Hurt 100 in 2009, and Tim Hewitt, who has completed the walk to Nome and almost unthinkable four times, and who as far as I'm concerned is the patron saint of the Iditarod. He is the first person who was willing to look me in the eyes at Yentna Station last year and say, with a touching amount of empathy and understanding, "You know you can't go back out there."
There's also rookie Lorie Hutchinson, who wrote me an e-mail some months back and said "Your book is the reason I entered this year." She's a runner who is riding the Iditarod on a bike. This statement alone made writing and publishing that book worth it.
And there's so many other great people - Phil Hofstetter, the Nome resident who's quietly fast, and Sean Grady, the former New Jersey mountain biker who never said quit last year (even when the rough trail conditions kept him out there for 10 days.) There's Brij Potnis, the self-proclaimed (but undeniably speedy) "tourist" who toughed out minus-72-windchill at Puntilla Lake in 2007. They're all great. The community is half the reason to experience the Iditarod. I'm cheering for everyone. I'm hoping to see the strongest finish yet.
Trail conditions will likely make it interesting — there's everything from fresh snow at the race start to "sidewalk" hard trail on the Yentna River to bumpy horrible trail along the Skwentna River to no snow, open water and frozen tussocks in the Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Curn. I still think there's a good chance for a record this year, which right now belongs to Pete Basinger - 3 days, 5 hours in 2007.
I'm also tracking a similar and yet very different endeavor by Mike Curiak. Mike's human-powered experience on the Iditarod is nearly unmatched. He's come to Alaska nearly every February since 1997, including his first trip to Nome way back in 2000. His statement about that trip perfectly echoes my feelings about riding to McGrath in 2008: "That trip, and the lessons it taught about my own adaptability and capabilities, remains one of the brighter defining moments of this lifetime." Mike still holds the bicycle record to Nome, which has stood since 2001.
These days, Mike no longer races the Iditarod. He "tours" it — under self-imposed conditions that we "racers" can hardly even fathom. He travels under a strict self-support credo, which means for 1,100 miles of some of the harshest, most exposed conditions on Earth, he is completely self contained. He has no resupplies. He enters no buildings. He is completely, truly, in a way few modern experiences can even touch, on his own.
When he starts, he is carrying 24 days worth of food and fuel, and his bicycle weighs 145 pounds. If something goes wrong — and things always go wrong — he has to deal with it himself, with no outside help, out in the elements. Interestingly, the first time I ever met Mike Curiak was when things started to go wrong for him in 2008. His tent poles broke and his stove wasn't working. He made the hard decision to stop at a house in McGrath. I had just finished my own crazy, humbling - and not even comparable - experience when I first encountered Mike standing in the front room wearing only long johns. Because all male cyclists look the same to me, whether they are wearing spandex or Arctic gear, I had no idea who he was, at first. I mumbled a generic, "So are you headed back out there?" "The future is uncertain" he replied. Later, I realized who he was. I still kick myself over not chatting with him more within the context of that truly unique circumstance.
His goal is to ride all the way to Nome without breaking his self-support code. It really is quite unimaginable. But every year, I follow his SPOT tracker (his only form of communication; he carries no satellite phone), and I try to imagine what it would really be like. Which is why I was truly flattered when he contacted me this year and asked if I wanted to help Scott Morris provide color commentary for his blog. I'm really looking forward to it.
I'll probably also do plenty of sportscasting on my own blog for the ITI. You can track the results of the race here.