ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - An Alaskan tavern is likely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of one of the most intense races in Alaska.
"All these people are physically very fit," said Katharina Merchant, Iditarod Trail Invitational Co-Race Director. "They have been athletes for years and have been doing a lot of events."
And yet, the Knik Bar off Knik Lake marks the beginning of what competitors maintain is one of the toughest - but most rewarding - races out there.
"I talked to friends who have done it before," said Bergur Benediktsson, an Icelandic ITI rookie racing for the first time this year, "just kind of gather information, and figure it out for yourself."
While the ITI is along the famed Iditarod Trail, this race doesn't include any sled dogs, and instead requires athletes get from Knik to McGrath - 350 miles - or Knik to Nome - 1,000 miles - under their own power. Merchant said she believes 80 percent is mental and 20 percent is physical fitness.
Mathieu Bonneir, an ITI veteran who hails from France, returned this year after a 20-year hiatus.
"It's not nothing to cross Alaska," he said, "skiing, and unsupported. It's a big souvenir. I wanted to see Alaska again, and to see how it goes 20 years after - to see if the body is still able to do the race."
This year's 78 racers, who come from more than a dozen countries around the world, will spend anywhere between a few days to an entire month outdoors in Alaska's beautiful but brutal, snowy winter conditions.
"My goal is the same as hers: to finish," said ultra endurance pro athlete Rebecca Rusch, pointing to veteran Janice Tower, who was standing next to her, "safely, happily. Yeah, that's the goal."
For both veterans and rookies, that goal is a common one.
"Maybe there's some rookies that will surprise us this year," Merchant said. "I'm very curious to see how everyone does."
Troy Szczurkowski, an ITI veteran from Australia who brings a map from his daughter on his rides across the state, said there are multiple draws to the race.
"It's backcountry travel by bike, which I love," he said, "and it's camping out in a remote location, as well as the challenges of winter."
You can track the racers' progress by clicking here.
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