Human-powered athletes warn of soft snow ahead for Iditarod dog teams

Photo courtesy Kyle Durand
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MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) — As 52 mushers and their dog teams head toward Nome along the Iditarod Trail, another group of human-powered racers are heading in the same direction.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational sees athletes start near Knik and travel by bike, ski or foot over three distances: 150 miles, 350 miles or 1,000 miles to Nome.

82 racers are participating in the 18th running of the race, with around half running the 350 mile distance.

Asbjørn Skjøth Bruun from Denmark arrived into McGrath — the finish line for the 350 mile race — early Monday morning. Later in the day, Erick Basset from France and Pierre Couteau, also originally from France, arrived into McGrath on foot Monday afternoon.

Couteau said it was his first time running the Iditarod Trail Invitational and spoke about how amazing it was to travel alone across the Alaskan wilderness. Bruun said he only needed to take his skis off and walk two or three times, once heading down a notoriously steep section of trail known as the Happy River Steps from Finger Lake.

"We pride ourselves on being a minimal support race," said race director Kyle Durand.

Racers carry their own supplies and only pick up bags of food, batteries and hand warmers at a handful of checkpoints.

Between McGrath and Nome — a distance of more than 650 miles — there is only one supply drop at the abandoned mining town of Iditarod.

Eric Johnson, who is competing for the eighth time and making his second trip to Nome, was planning to leave McGrath Monday evening. In 2018, Johnson made the 19-mile trip to Takotna in time for a potluck in which he gladly took part.

Unlikely to make it by dinner time Monday, Johnson instead planned to make the 40-mile push to Ophir.

For mushers about to travel from Nikolai to McGrath, Johnson said he hit long patches of soft snow. The 49-mile stretch of trail “kind of felt like walking through mash potatoes,” Johnson said.

Further north, Durand has heard of worrying trail conditions between Ophir and Iditarod. Deep snow has made the 80-mile stretch slow and almost impassable in places.

Troy Szczurkowski was the race leader, a day ahead of the nearest competitor before he ran into unbroken trail. After that, Durand said Szczurkowski was only able to travel four miles in 12 hours.

In 2018, Durand rode a fat-tire bicycle for his 1,000 mile journey to Nome and and was forced to carry his bicycle one step at a time in stretches after running into similar trail conditions. Racers often traveled in groups and would take the lead for three paces before switching out.

On Monday evening, trail breakers on snowmachines headed from McGrath to Ophir across a roughly 40-mile stretch of trail. The trail breakers will use their snowmachines to pack down the trail for the incoming dog teams.

But there are limits to how much trail that trail breakers can break.

2018 Iditarod champion Joar Leifesth Ulsom ran into soft trail during his championship run between Ophir and Iditarod.

“I've been standing on one runner, kicking the whole freaking way. You know, it's a lot of pressure on one foot and it's like three million squats," Ulsom said at the time after reaching the ghost town Iditarod.

The Norwegian musher broke ahead of the pack but feared that stretch of trail may have cost of him the race. Nicolas Petit eventually lost the trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, allowing Ulsom to leapfrog Petit and claim his first Iditarod championship.

For the athletes running on human power, the question of why someone would want to race hundreds of miles is easy to ask, but harder to answer. Many said it was about testing themselves and the personal achievement.

"When they cross the finish line, there’s a glow about them that they’ve overcome something they thought was insurmountable, and they’ve learned a lot about themselves and what they’re capable of,” Durand said.

Johnson said finishing a 1,000 mile race walking across Alaska is incredible.

“If you could bottle it up and sell it, you'd be a gazillionaire.”

Photo courtesy Kyle Durand