I'm friends with the monster

I intended to write more pre-race thoughts, but this week slipped away from me and suddenly it's Saturday night in Anchorage. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is all set to begin at 2 p.m. Sunday in what looks to be generally favorable conditions for the forty cyclists and fourteen runners who are signed up this year. It's a great field this year. The bikers should fly; it wouldn't be too surprising to see last year's 67-hour McGrath record broken again. Twenty-three people are signed up to go the distance, a thousand miles to Nome. There are seven women in this year's event, and five of them are traveling on foot. A fairly large percentage of the field on foot are people I consider friends, so I'm really looking forward to spending some time out there with a quality group of crazies. Although there is still a healthy dose of nervousness and a dash of dread regarding the daunting task ahead, I now mostly feel excitement about the prospect of a week-plus of nothing but walking, shuffling, spreading out my bivy under a wash of stars, facing and conquering scary obstacles, and spending a few blissful minutes (not too many) in warm cabins with friendly faces.

My strategy for the race is to keep a steady pace but stay mostly within my comfort zone while moving, and try to limit stopped time to improve overall speed. Beat, for his own experimental purposes, is traveling fully self-supported for the first 350 miles — meaning he is hauling all of his food for that section and not planning on stopping inside of any cabins. My goal is to shadow Beat as best I can and possibly spend nights out with him, camping on the trail. I want to do this for both the wilderness experience, and as a race strategy. Cabin checkpoints are often loud, hot and crowded, and I rarely sleep well if at all inside of them. However, a simple shelter, someplace warm and surrounded by other humans, is such a huge comfort that I'm not sure I can resist the gravitational pull, even if I know for a fact I'll sleep better curled up in my bivy sack outdoors. We'll see. I'm announcing my intentions on my blog in hopes that some public accountability will hold me to it. I'd like to move in an out of checkpoints relatively quickly and grab most of my sleeps on the trail.

We've been in Anchorage since early Thursday morning, mainly doing unfun things — arranging our gear, shopping for food and last-minute supplies, rearranging our gear, obsessing about what we may have forgotten, trying to stuff butterfly stomachs with food, and rearranging gear again. We spent a couple of nights at the home of our friends Dan and Amy, and have enjoyed the calming effects of playing with their kitten, Olive.

Beat especially loves Olive. He carried her around the house in his coat, which she let him do for longer than you'd expect. I should probably check his sled to make sure he's not smuggling her for the trip to Nome.

Beat does have a friend for the journey, however — a toy husky named Bernie that he plans to prop on top of the sled. You know — the man pulling the husky rather than the other way around.

Bernie and Olive.

On Saturday morning, Beat put the Moots fat bike together, and I took it out for a short ride on the trails near Dan's house. I've obviously gone through a lot of back and forth about my decision to walk the Iditarod Trail this year, wondering if I'd regret not having a bicycle. And while I have to accept that there will inevitably be moments of longing, especially while pounding painful feet on a hard-packed trail for seemingly endless slow miles — I'm truly glad I chose to walk the Iditarod Trail this year. The slow pace will allow me to see and experience the landscape in a new way, and the longer span of time will facilitate the meditative mindset I crave. Not that I'm under any delusion that it will be a week of endless peace and quiet — there are bound to be long hours of boredom, pain, and occasional sheer terror. I think back to the last time I sought a similar experience — Petite Trotte a'Leon in France last August — and how badly that went for me. I met demons and monsters out there that I never want to meet again, and I'm almost certain I will. But that's part of the appeal and the challenge as well — facing the fear of the unknown, meeting the dark and loathsome sides of myself, and emerging wiser and more confident, in everything.

Saturday was a very good day that ended in a beautiful sunset. The last time I was here in Anchorage before an Iditarod attempt, in 2009, there was a big snowstorm, all these cars were off the road, and all I felt was doom. "I feel no doom this year; this is a good omen," I said to Beat.

"There are no such things as omens," he replied. Maybe not, but there is optimism, and that can go a long way by itself.

If you'd like to follow up with how the race is going, here are a few links. As a walker near the back of the pack, there won't be much about my progress, but the leaderboard should be updated once a day with the location of the last check-in. My best-case scenario is to finish sometime in the afternoon of Sunday, March 2. A more likely scenario is Monday or Tuesday, and the race officially ends on Wednesday, March 5.

 Race updates:
Iditarod Trail Invitational
Facebook updates
Message board

Recent media:
Rugged and crazed cyclists, runners ready for Iditarod Trail Invitational
Running Wild Alaska (TrailRunner interviewed Beat for this article)
Fairbanks fat bikers pumped for ITI 
Ultrarunner Johnston readies for Iditarod Invitational


  1. Good luck Jill, what an amazing opportunity. Enjoy both the silence and challenge...you are so very fortunate to have both.

  2. All the best as you begin another adventure. Optimism is a wonderful thing to have packed along with your gear. Lovely photos -- you make me homesick for my home state :-)

    I look forward to hearing all about it.

  3. Good luck, Jill! I can't wait to read your posts on the trek. Stay strong!

  4. Can't wait to follow you on your way through the wilderness. Enjoy every moment...even the cold ones!

  5. All the best and will be following you.

  6. Now that song is stuck in my head. Take pics, enjoy!

  7. You're already gone, but I'm sending you well wishes for an amazing journey!

  8. Olive is precious! Good luck to both of you! Looking forward to seeing pictures afterwards.

  9. Anonymous2:22 PM

    Here's a Fairbanks public radio story with interviews of the top bike finishers:



  10. Anonymous12:58 AM

    Best wishes and safe travels! I love Olive!

  11. Followed your and Beat's progress every day on the ITI website. Congratulations on your finish in McGrath! It's hard for me to imagine averaging around 50 miles/day on foot dragging a sled over that terrain. Can't wait to hear your account of the experience!

  12. Anonymous10:34 PM

    I check everyday for one of your stories - CONGRATULATIONS!

  13. Anonymous10:03 PM

    Here's a radio interview with the winning bike racer in Nome:




  14. Well organized and well captured photos. I like your album for its series of pictures that is telling the whole story itself.


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