The Iditarod Trail Invitational 2015
A Rookie's Run to McGrath
My sled was heavy at the start. It had to be. I had not been able to send drop bags on ahead, because of my time away in a remote cabin in the Yukon, thereby missing the deadline to send in supplies. In the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), drop bags are for food only, rather than clothing. The result of this was that I had to carry more spare clothing than I would have liked, and had to leave out gear that might have otherwise gone into the drop bags (so many spare socks, for example). So, I was dragging 11 days of wet food and a bag of clothes, in addition to snowshoes, spikes, sleeping kit and survival equipment.
There were about 50 racers at the start, of whom 14 were runners and the remainder were cyclists. The race began at 2 p.m., on the afternoon of the 1st March. After the countdown the bikes went one way and the rest of us another. There was not a set trail the whole way, but rather a variety of trail options linking up the main Iditarod route. A Danish competitor and friend, Moses, was at the front with me, as we crossed the first lake towards the woods. I am used to faster starts, and was waiting for a race veteran to take the lead and show me the way. Peter and Jason soon took the front, with other race veterans, Beat and Steve, just behind us. Previous winner, David, soon ran past at a comfortable jog, full of smiles and dragging what appeared to be nothing more than a manbag behind him (there is no mandatory kit for the ITI).
The first day was spent along an icy trail through woodland, with a couple of sections across small lakes, ponds and rivers. By the second short climb I was feeling too hot and out of breath. My lack of fitness was shameful and my heavy sled was making me realise it all the more. I did not feel like myself at all. I should have been finding it a lot easier than I was. I did not merely feel like the race rookie that I was, but I felt like a chancer too. The trail felt harder-going than it should have done. On reflection, I think some of the struggle was due to a light covering of snow powder over the ice, which promoted drag. This was coupled with the weight of the sled and the ropes I was using in place of a fixed hauling shaft.
A fixed hauling shaft is extremely efficient, because the sled and athlete move the same distance together, whereas a rope gathers elastic energy on every bump, transferring additional strain through the harness and requiring additional work. The rope system is better over flat, well-groomed trails, where it is easier to run without any bouncing through the harness (as typically happens with a fixed hauling shaft when running).
I was spending trail time with or close to race veterans Steve and Beat, both aiming for Nome. By nightfall, although a little way behind them on an open section of trail, I ran to catch them up, having just spotted a celestial anomaly I had never seen to such an extent before. The effect is called a 'Moon Dog', and refers to a halo around the moon caused by ice crystals in the air. So, we had the bright full moon with a vast halo encircling it, and the scale was enormous - astonishingly so. The 3 of us took a good moment to gaze up and enjoy the spectacle before moving on.
I bivvied just after 11 p.m., at a site known as 'The Wall of Death', due to a steep descent onto a river. It was the last good bivi spot before the river, after which I would be fortunate to spot easy access to a riverbank to bivi on later. The slope itself was only a couple of metres downwards, and considering the descents later along the trail, it might be more appropriately renamed 'The Slope of Mediocre Peril' (accepting this is not so catchy).
I was soon alerted to the presence of fellow Brit, Mike Thomas, who bivvied just adjacent to me. I was thrilled when his alarm clock went off at 5 a.m., and he was somehow too preoccupied with other matters to cancel it for some time. I was due to wake at 5:30, so just built up my courage to exit my comfy sleeping bag. I would typically aim for 4 hours of nightly sleep, during a race such as this, but was treating myself due to being unusually tired during my first half-day's efforts.
* * * * * * *
The rest of the way to the first checkpoint was along about 20 miles of river trails. These were ice with a light dusting of snow, so far from easy for fast moving. By this point, my legs had stiffened up a bit from an ambitious start, and I felt compelled to take it easy. I also began getting into the habit of taking breaks when I wanted them - roughly every 2.5 hours - during which time I would sit on my sled and pack in as much food as I could, before being on the move again, approximately 15 minutes later. My strategy of eating 'wet' food, rather than food requiring rehydrating, saves me the weight of a stove and fuel, and the time to heat water (or melt snow). For me, I would only benefit from a stove if I needed to melt snow for water, and that has not happened in well over 1000 miles of racing. If I were desperate I would just get a fire going and use that instead.
I arrived at the first checkpoint around midday and bought myself an omelette, French toast and some tea. I also had the pleasure of catching up with Mike, so chatted until we were both ready to leave. He led the way throughout the remainder of the day. It was all river, and we reached the cabin of trail 'angels' Sindy and Andy, where we enjoyed some chicken and vegetable soup, cookies and more tea. We had met up with Loreen - a race veteran - along the way to the cabin, and Mike and Loreen opted to take advantage of a cabin to sleep in, along with Moses who had arrived some hours before. I headed back out onto the trail, finding a bivi site high up on a riverbank.
* * * * * **
I was disturbed in the early hours by the sound of racers going by along the river. The icy trail created a considerable amount of noise. I was on the move just after 5 a.m., and arrived at the second checkpoint a few hours later. I met Moses as he was leaving, with Loreen and then Mike leaving shortly after. Eggs, bacon and black coffee made for a great breakfast.
The trail led through woodland then out onto a lake (I think - it is hard to distinguish lakes, rivers and swamps when it is all just flat, white and with a perimeter of trees). Shortly after a break, I was met with the sight of Loreen, Mike and Moses, walking together towards me. I switched on the navigation function on my Suunto Ambit 3, and could see I was approximately 2 km off the ITI trail.
We had all followed the trail markers we had been advised to - the Iron Dog (snowmobile race) markers. Loreen and Moses continued past me, whilst Mike paused to ask me what I was thinking. This, I took to be Mike informing me he was open to suggestions besides back-tracking about 5 miles. This emboldened me to go for it: "I am thinking about 'freestyling' across the lake. What do you reckon? We did bring our snowshoes, after all, and it would be a shame not to use them". Mike agreed. I have no doubt he would have suggested it himself, if he had been fortunate enough to have the full route on his GPS (rather than only the key waypoints).
Neither of us had really taken to the beauty of this region of Alaska. The view from the trail had been the same for most of the way. In fact, from the start to the third checkpoint, almost all there was to see were flat lakes, rivers and swamps, with the occasional spot of woodland linking them up. The perimeter was always trees, and only rarely could we glimpse a distance mountain. An adventure across a lake was very much the sort of distraction from the monotony that was required.
A couple of hours later, Mike and I rejoined the main trail, a little fatigued from the enterprise, but comforted by the enjoyment of the experience. The route wound its way along the perimeter of the lake, then over bumpy trails to Shell Lake. We arrived late afternoon. Shell Lake Lodge is another popular stopping point for food. Light snowfall had turned to sleet and then to light rain. We headed inside.
What a visitor ought to know about Shell Lake Lodge is this; the owner likes to talk, but rarely gets the chance. Mike and I were sat down for fully 20 minutes before she managed to wrap-up a telephone conversation and take our orders. Our chicken burgers then went on to burn when Loreen and Moses arrived, and made the crucial error of sparking up conversation with her. It was an hour and 20 minutes before we were having those burgers, and I left about 10 minutes later. Mike, Moses and Loreen had opted to sleep at the Lodge, thus avoiding the rain. I had packed waterproofs, my kit was all in drybags in a waterproof sled bag, and I had no such issues.
The route was mostly flat, continuing along swamps and lakes. The third checkpoint was at Finger Lake Lodge, but I stopped at around midnight, just a few miles short of that CP. I preferred to bivi outside in nature. The winter wilderness in the Far North is astonishingly quiet, but for the animals and the sound of the wind in the trees. I slept more peacefully outdoors than I could have done with the noise and comings and goings of others in a cabin or lodge.
* * * * * * *
I arrived at the Finger Lake checkpoint in the morning, enjoyed a fantastic breakfast and some coffee, and made my way towards Rainy Pass, shortly after Moses and Loreen arrived. They had left Shell Lake shortly after midnight, where Mike had decided to stay and rest a little longer. It would later transpire than Mike's feet were bruised from wearing boots with studs in. They gave him better purchase on the ice, but his feet had taken a battering.
Rainy pass was where the race began for me. Everything until now had been mostly flat, albeit with a few bumps here and there. I had been holding back until now, around 10th place out of the foot racers. This was due to my efforts to prevent a leg injury, which had become a possibility due to my lack of training. I had spent November to January in India, on a trip which had included a few hundred miles of yomping with a heavy rucksack, which required recovery efforts I had not afforded myself. Instead of recovery, I had treated myself to a month in the Yukon Territory with friends, and had neglected to engage in a practical and applied approach to training for the ITI. I felt that I was certainly not doing myself proud out here as a result.
During the first few days of this race, I had been down because of my lack of fitness, and more than a little disappointed at the lack of changing scenery. At least in the Yukon there was the variety between rivers, lakes and woodlands, always with a stunning view of hills or mountains. Such views had been lacking here. My performance problems were more than just the lack of fitness and visual rewards though. I live for these races, and I own my training for them. I build up over 6 months of race-specific fitness, and I read everything I can find on the event. I eat, sleep, train, breathe and dream the race ahead. When I cross that start line I am getting through it, making progress, and realising all that I have built-up to.
Lacking all this, I felt like a chancer, a pretender, and even a charlatan of his own character. I felt wrong to be there, out of touch with the environment, my physical self and my mind. I missed my girlfriend. I had already been away more than a month, and my not enjoying the race in Alaska made me feel guilty for being there. Upon reflection, this was all due to my transition from full-time work to part-time adventuring. I needed to strike a balance between my PhD studies, adventures, races, and the necessary training and preparation for the latter. By committing too much time on adventures, I had neglected the necessary focus on training and racing. Had this realisation come too late?
Rainy Pass changed my attitude entirely. During the journey there I had mobilised my tiring and sore joints and muscles. I had improved how my muscles worked and how they generated power, consolidating this by blasting through the short climbs in the woodland sections. My legs felt ready now.
My work-rest approach from previous YAU races translated well to the ITI. I was rarely hungry, I was managing my temperature better, getting great quality sleep at night, and I was waking determined to push hard. Rainy Pass was where the real wilderness began. It was to be a 2-day journey through the Alaska mountain range, to the foothills beyond. The route would be challenging, dangerous, and susceptible to high winds, low temperatures and lost trails. When I left Finger Lake lodge, it was with a view to finish, with the wind on my back and an air of excitement in mind. For the first time in the race, I was feeling like myself again. About fecking time.
* * * * * * *
The journey into the pass was along a winding trail, bordered by grand majestic peaks. I was quite into the idea of a route up and over those, and as I moved along, so my eyes gazed up and sought the options. Option 1 would be to leave the sled at the base and wait for someone to helicopter it over, because after 3 days it still weighed close to its starting weight of a metric tonne. The actual route, however, was quite civilised, with short climbs building up until I reached 'The Steps'.
The Steps are 3 long, steep slides, not dissimilar in appearance to the sort one finds in water parks. I bid my sled farewell and sent it on ahead, which seemed the least perilous way of negotiating my way down. The last of the 3 steps was spectacularly steep. The sled flew down, bounced along the flat trail at the base, and eventually walloped into the snowbank by a tree. I attempted to walk down but it was far too steep and icy for that. I sat down, legs straight, and gave myself a push. 'Exhilarating' would be the mot juste. It was so exciting, in fact, I feared that the length, speed and ice friction of the slope might have burned a whole in the very seat of my Rab vapour-rise pants, but fortunately they remained intact. I also feared that any racers nearby would have been alerted to my presence by the unnaturally loud giggles that emanated from deep within.
I gathered myself and my sled, and proceeded out onto a river section, soon to face a climb back onto its periphery. Because the universe has a sense of humour, the first route up - created by snowmobiles - was near vertical. Just off to the right of that was a marginally less perilous route, which I naturally sought. The climb was only a few metres, but it took time. At first I pulled the ropes from the sled over my shoulders, and attempted to step up the trail. It was too steep and the sled pulled me back. I tried over the other shoulder, but that way would have led to my instantaneous demise had I fallen. I resorted to my original plan, kicked in some steps, and deposited the sled in a tree about a metre up the climb. With it there secured, I continued up and pulled the sled using the ropes, tug-of-war style. Whether this moment coincided with 2.5 hours since my last break, I am unable to say for sure. Nevertheless, I sat down and enjoyed a break and the general thrill of still being alive.
The route on was into 'The Gorge' (the name given away by a sign placed on a tree at the start of the section). This was not as terrifying as its name suggested, but was rather a series of steady and not overly unreasonable climbs, interspersed with flat sections and the occasional dip. Nevertheless, I felt I had to work hard to negotiate the heavy sled every step of the way. Whether due to the trail conditions or the gradients - or combinations of both - I have never had to work so hard to make progress along such a short section of trail. The route subsequently crossed open lakes with spectacular views of the range.
I had become aware of a hot spot under one of my feet, and resolved to take a peek when off the particular lake I was crossing at that time. I removed my shoe and socks to reveal what can best be described as immersion foot. My entire foot looked as though it had been kept in a bath for days. The wrinkles were across the whole foot, from heel to toes, and to a depth of a few millimetres of grimly white skin. I checked the other foot and saw the same sad story there. This was not cricket. A splendid and magnificent innings, comprised of England thrashing the Aussies with 6s and 4s, this was not. This, quite frankly, was less than optimal.
The sad state of affairs had begun, when the temperatures had risen the day before, and we had been treated to the rain. To reduce the heat load on my feet, I had removed my gaiters, thus promoting the circulation of cooling air. However, snow had gotten in. With the inside of my shoes soaking wet, the exterior of my Sealskinz likewise, there was nowhere for the vapour from my sweaty feet to evaporate to. Instead, my socks simply became wet. I had not paid attention to this when I went to sleep in my bivi the previous night, nor when I set off in the morning. This was the price.
I changed my socks, in the hope the dry material would soak up some of the fluid from within my feet, and work its way out of my shoes. That was the best I could do for now, but really I needed to dry out everything; my feet, my socks and my shoes.
Back on the trail, the journey continued with marginal climbs and plenty of land to cross. I reached the checkpoint on Puntilla Lake much sooner than I had expected, thanks to a newly discovered higher gear, and made myself at home. The lodge contained beds, but I was not interested in those. I prepared myself some food (which was on the wood stove waiting for me), some hot chocolate and a cold drink. I hung my socks and shoes up to dry by the stove, and filled up my water bladder, ready to leave. A chap came in to record my time, and I let him know I would be there for close to an hour and a half, so as to give everything a chance to dry out. I left at around 9:30 p.m., and a couple of hours later I made myself a bivi site, just adjacent to the trail.
* * * * * * *
The next day, I packed away my gear and continued along the trail. The route was over low, rolling hills, towards a climb at the end of the pass. This rolling landscape was intimidatingly open. All it would take is a fresh snowfall, warmer temperatures, or strong winds, and it might become impossible to find the trail. It has taken cyclists 2.5 days to travel this 35-ish-mile section to the next CP, purely because they were wading and hauling through deep snow here. It all reminded me of winters in the hills in the UK, where winds and snow can transform a 'safe' route into a scarily challenging one in no time.
I thought about the British Mountain Rescue Service, and I thought about travelling along here with no means of calling for help if it were needed. The conditions were good, I was making use of my snowshoes to ease my passage, but there were moments here where I felt more vulnerable than anywhere else on the trail. This highlighted a considerable difference between this and other races I have experienced. Here I was really 'out there', by myself, progressing along in a far more natural, raw way than in other events. There was no support crew within reach, no means of attracting attention or getting help, if needed. There was nobody to encourage me, to help with any injuries, or otherwise detract from the reality of my own passage over the land. This is what I mean when I write that it felt 'out there' and 'raw', and there are benefits and concerns of having this approach. I accepted the race as it was, and enjoyed the luxury of the isolation and not being babied along the route.
The landscape changed to flat ground through a sea of willow saplings, there to pull and claw at me and the sled. It was tough going, with the sled getting caught and having to be manhandled along. I met Bill (one of many Bills) from the support crew, who was doing a reverse sweep. We chatted for a bit and I went on my way, up and up. The climb was fairly formidable, perhaps more because I had naively thought the climbs were out of the way the day before. As a matter of fact, we had been informed that the section from Finger Lake to Puntilla was the most challenging, and from Puntilla to Rohn the most dangerous. I actually found the section from Puntilla to Rohn to be both the most challenging and the most dangerous.
Once descending, I had the pleasure of bumping into a few cyclists who were doing a reverse route, from McGrath to Anchorage. Thomas was first, then Tony, Becky and Eric. At least one of those names is almost certainly wrong. It was good to chat with others on the trail - I had not seen anyone at all the previous day, between leaving Finger Lake and arriving at Puntilla.
The route continued into willows again. In a fairly open section, a steep descent begged me to ride my sled along it. A bump lower down would give me the opportunity to check the next section before committing to it. Or rather, it would have done if my sled had stopped there as I had optimistically imagined it would. Instead, it simply bounced over the bump, revealing the sort of long, sharp drop, which I would almost certainly have negotiated some other way. Whilst, on the inside, I may have been in a panic to find the right expletives, so as to fully encapsulate and express my inner emotions at this point, what actually issued forth from my mouth was far less offensive.
One should, at this point, imagine the sled is simply sitting in the air, above a steep slide and drop of some 4 metres or so, before the slope runs out. It is whilst in mid-air, before the descent, that the words that might so easily have been my final words, were issued forth from my lips. I pride myself that, had these words been recorded at the time, they would have been fitting words for an epitaph. The words were simply these: "Oh no. This is ambitious."
The slide and the thump that landed me partly on the trail, partly in the snowbank, and partly in a tree, were met with a sense of considerable relief, a mocking laugh at Death himself, and my gathering whatever sense of composure I felt I could find before moving on. The trail continued. Lower down there were open water sections to cross, and plenty of unnervingly thin ice. Lower still, and a narrow river became the route to negotiate. I would cross from one side to the other, following tracks left by a snowmobile - where I could find them - and guessing my way when I could not. I paused to take photos of frozen waterfalls.
Some of the ice bridges I had to cross were sufficiently thin to cause concern, and so perilous I would have rather negotiated them with a buddy, such as Beat ahead or Moses behind. Gradients on some of the bridges were enough to pull my sled off them completely, into the gaping holes beneath. Many were frozen but others were open water, rushing away a metre or so below. This section was dangerous; no doubt about it. A wrong choice in one section had me pushing through the lower boughs of a spruce tree where it projected out of the ice. A step to the side to give myself space would have had me on ice an inch thick above open water. I looked back at that afterwards and gave myself a moment, enjoying relief at finding thicker ice, and at having negotiated that section safely.
The nature of the narrow river was such that, had I fallen in, I would almost certainly have been able to climb up again - the ice had frozen and thawed to create jumbled surrounds to the holes, and most were not too low down, relative to the top of the ice. Further, it was not a cold day, so frostbite would have been unlikely, even if wet (allowing plenty of time to change clothes or else to continue on to the checkpoint in Rohn). However, there was a strong current, and an escape from the water would have been a messy, time-consuming and energy-draining affair. Hours from help of any kind (Moses), I was glad to have made it through this section without incident.
I eventually found myself on a large river, with no signs of the trail. The snow had been blown away, and the ice was giving up few of her secrets. I headed along, arcing across the river to try to find trails as I went, and sometimes finding them, only to see them doubling-back from open water sections close by. It must have been half an hour of progress before I spotted a proper section of snowmobile trails, and followed them to markers on the riverbank. From there I soon found myself at Rob's Roadhouse, Rohn, where I was looked after by Adrian, Bill and OE.
At the roadhouse, I was given a couple of bratwursts, some hot chocolate and a cold drink, and set about drying feet and footwear. Other racers had left surplus food here, so I helped myself - I had enough food to get to the end, but by this stage I was craving variety. As I had no drop bag waiting for me here, I made use of what others had added to the pot. This was the way of things here - those at the front were making great progress, so had too much food at this stage, whereas some of us at the back were going slower than expected, and were running low. 2.5 hours later, at about 10 p.m., and shortly after Moses, Loreen and Steve arrived, I headed back out onto the trail.
It had been great to see Steve. He was a race veteran, and I had spent some time with him on the trail on the first day, along with his companion, Beat. Beat and Steve had gone their separate ways at Finger Lake Lodge. Steve had rested there for longer, so as to allow some limited recovery of chest and throat problems, which would plague his 1000-mile journey to Nome.
* * * * * * *
Leaving Rohn, the trail led me out across the river again. With darkness upon me, the route was harder to find, and a small island offered up some overflow to deal with. I dealt with it by my usual method of unqualified optimism, walking across slowly and hoping it was not deep. A sensible human being would have used their NEOS, or waders, when confronted with overflow, but my engaging in this race ought to confirm to readers that sensibleness is a trait I have not been encumbered with.
Back in the woods, on terra firma, and the trail led back up into the foothills. Beat was ahead of me by 4-5 hours, and between his passing here and mine, moose had made use of the trail. I was pleased to note their trail had been towards me, rather than away from me, meaning they had since left the trail and were not up ahead. Other moose could be up ahead, of course, but not these ones.
The trail had its challenges, with some short and sharp climbs here and there, but I was moving well and probably going the fastest I had managed all race. It was a cloudy night, but a thin cloud appeared to be glowing green with the northern lights above it. For a few minutes a shard of aurora pierced down through the sky, before being hidden once more by dark clouds. This was all I saw of the northern lights the entire trip.
Before long I passed a sign informing me it was 72 miles to Nikolai, and 42 to the shelter cabin at Bear Creek. I knew the cabin to be a mile from the trail, allowing for a 31-mile distance between the trailhead to the cabin and the remainder to Nikolai (the next checkpoint). This was useful information for calculating distances and estimating timings. About an hour after that sign I found a bivi spot for the night, off the trail and on a fairly flat area of woodland.
* * * * * * *
The trail the next day continued on in a similar fashion. The short rises eventually brought me out onto an open landscape, where I could take in a majestic view of the sun rise over the Alaska range. This was my spot for breakfast. As the sun continued to rise, so I enjoyed my second breakfast with a similar but differently lit view. The same was true for my late-morning snack, pre-lunch, lunch, second lunch, and all subsequent meals into the late afternoon.
The woodland had been subjected to various fires over the years, so at times the rich spruce woods were punctuated with areas of past burns, and at other times the areas of burns were punctuated with spots of thriving spruce. A rise brought me to a high point in the trail, where I could see the path through the woods for a mile or more ahead, and I received my last good view of the Alaska range, before its peaks would dwindle into a distant view. There was often only a dusting of snow on the trail, and as I passed the trailhead for the shelter cabin, the trail became dirt and grassy tussocks. I was amazed my sled made it through this section unscathed, because for miles it was being pulled and bashed about amongst those tussocks, and it seemed many hours before I was back on a firm and flat trail.
Back at Rohn, OE had told me to keep looking behind during the section out of the Alaska range. Ahead all was mostly flat, barely undulating land, whereas the majestic view of the range would be towering behind me, overseeing my exit. I assured OE that I looked behind constantly when on the trail, so no such view could possibly go unseen.
I got into the habit of checking my sled back in the Yukon, when I needed to confirm my SPOT device was still where it should be, flashing away and tracking correctly with good battery life. Out here in the ITI, it was more a force of habit. I told myself that I was checking the sled bag was still in the correct position, as I moved with constant paranoia that a bear might have hurled it down a cliff face somewhere, and I would turn to see the assailant just sitting there, looking nonchalant and enjoying a peaceful ride.
The wind picked up in the evening and snow began to fall. It was a strong wind that blew-in the trail, making it harder to see Beat's footprints and sled line. With all the burns and open stretches across lakes, swamps and ponds, punctuated sometimes with tussocks and sometimes with spruce, birch or willows, I camped early that night - around 11 p.m.
I had found a good campsite, where the wind barely penetrated, and chose to take that opportunity for a peaceful night, rather than to press on and potentially commit to hours of work for a mediocre bivi spot later on. Importantly, I needed to rest my feet. They had been sweating from the hard work across the tussocks, and with shoes still not dried out from my brief stop in Rohn, the vapour had been effectively locked in to my socks. The sore feet had been progressively slowing my progress - another good reason to bivi now, with the expectation of moving faster after a good rest. A look at my feet going into the sleeping bag confirmed what I already knew - the clear signs of immersion foot were hard to miss.
I would usually make use of a vapour barrier liner in my bag, but was now going without it, hoping the sleeping bag itself would absorb some of the moisture from my feet. The nights were relatively warm, and I had only 100 miles or so to the finish, so the bag would last well enough, even if the down did become a little moist. I treated myself to my longest rest here, about 8 hours of stoppage time in all, so as to both let the raging winds die down and to maximise the opportunity for my feet to dry.
* * * * * * *
I set off the next morning in calm conditions, but fairly positive that Moses must have passed me during the night. The winds had been blowing until about 6 a.m., and I was moving off just before 7, so any tracks were now lost beneath a dusting of snow. I soon passed a sign informing me it was 20 miles to Nikolai, and a few hours later another one that it was 10. I was moving well, but cautious of my tender feet, and my lack of fitness was still telling - I could move fast over short sections, but lacked the stamina for a consistently fast pace across a day. I hoped I would see Moses at Nikolai and that we could do the final section together. We were both rookies this year, and I had enjoyed my limited time in Moses' company.
Upon arriving in Nikolai, I discovered that Moses had not passed me. The checkpoint was a house, the occupants of which were helpful in providing me some food and allowing me to dry my socks and shoes a little bit, but I left after about an hour. The route doubled-back on itself, then took to a river. It would be 48 miles from the Nikolai checkpoint to the finish line in McGrath.
The snow on the river was soft, and I was soon in snowshoes, so as to permit swifter progress. Snowshoes are time-consuming to fit correctly, and uncomfortable to wear on hard snow, where the metal crampons do not sink in through the crust. Movement is less efficient over a hard surface, and the time to put them on and later remove them, is a deterrent to wearing them whenever the opportunity arises (accepting some makes and models are better than others). Along the river, then through the woodland and out over swamps, I found myself strapping them on, only to remove them half an hour later (or sooner), typically after some minutes of getting annoyed at harder snow not giving way to softer.
As I moved along a snowy trail, I would vary where I moved, trying to find the optimal trail conditions according to my footwear at the time. This would lead me to meander from side-to-side, the breadth of the trail, in an effort to optimise efficiency. This had been the case from the beginning of the race. Where the trail of others was visible, so I would use the depth of footprints to indicate the softness of trail in that line, and so decide whether to follow or avoid that path (softness of snow would also be altered by shifting temperatures).
The winds picked up again in the early evening. Out across the lakes and swamps, the wind would gather up the snow in clouds and waves, blowing it towards me and covering the trail to a depth of up to half a metre in places. This was mostly the effect where the flat swamps met with woodland sections.
The temperature was dropping now, too. I had not become sufficiently cold to warrant wearing my down jacket, but this was getting close. The strong winds encouraged me to wear my waterproof over-trousers and jacket, which, combined with goggles, hood, and a Buff folded up between my nose and the top of my mouth, offered the best protection from the weather. The winds howled and I felt grateful and confident that I had taken the opportunity to dress-up accordingly, as if in my own little protected bubble, moving unscathed through a harsh and dangerous land. Knowing I still had plenty of headgear and the big down jacket in my pulk, gave me that confidence that I still had options if the weather worsened.
It is interesting to me that the nature of this environment focusses the mind as it does. One cannot - or rather should not - attempt to do too many things in a single rest stop, before moving on to re-warm. Before I added the extra layers, I sorted out my headtorch, some food, and urinated. All of this was with my hands exposed - something I would not do if it were especially cold, but which I did at this point out of convenience. However, in the cold it became difficult to press open the clips of my drybag, meaning my fingers were exposed for longer than they should have been (I carry a knife on my belt for if the zip of my pulk bag, or the clips on a drybag, cannot be opened in an emergency). My waterproof jacket has a water-resistant zip, which is hard to manipulate at the best of times, and again it caused my hands to chill further.
By the time I came to pull on my over-trousers, I was cursing myself for not having unzipped the lengthwise leg zips before packing them, as my fingers struggled in the cold to do so now. It was a concerted effort, and, having pulled them on over my shoes, I left one leg partially open so that I could put my gloves back on and continue progressing along the trail. Doing so allowed my fingers to rewarm, and I adjusted all clothing and zips later on, but it is always disconcerting when one feels so at the mercy of the elements.
In a sense, the additional focus and prioritisation is what I enjoy about this environment. Nowhere else but in the extreme cold is it really a problem to take a break and sort out clothing. Here, some sort of forward-thinking, prioritisation, and even mental-rehearsal, can all be of benefit in promoting not just efficiency, but personal safety too.
I met with a local from Nikolai on his snowmobile, as I progressed along a lake in the dark. We chatted for a few minutes, and he advised me of where the trail met the river up ahead, and how I should aim to bivi before reaching it. I duly took his advice, camping at around 11 p.m. As was my nature, I moved off at around 5:30 the next morning, positive that Moses must have passed me by in the night. With the trail blown in from the wind and snow, it would take some hours before I became aware this was probably not the case.
This was a cold morning, with the temperature down below -20 Celsius, indicated to me by the length of icicles growing on my beard. For all previous days, the temperature had been greater and my beard had remained almost entirely ice- and frost-free. This morning, the colder temperatures were mixed with strong winds, and I found myself adjusting layers accordingly. I kept my goggles on, so as to protect my eyes and the skin around my nose and cheeks, with my Buff folded up and secured there for added protection.
The trail led from the main river to pass between the riverbank and a narrow island. To my left I heard a crashing sound, immediately identified as a large animal charging through the willows. I stopped and hoped it was not headed in my direction. The sound ceased. I moved off and the crashing began again. I looked up to the riverbank to see a large moose rushing away to the front through the trees, and felt instant relief that it was indeed going away from me. That was the only animal I had seen besides squirrels and birds.
The trail came back to the river, and would be a mix of woodland and river all the way to McGrath. A 10-mile marker had been put out on the river, a 7-mile marker further on, then a 5.5-mile, a 3.2-mile, 2-mile and 1-mile markers. The last few miles were all along the main road into McGrath.
I had the navigation open on my Ambit to confirm direction (particularly useful where Iron Dog markers took a different trail, and another series of markers led off the main road later on). I ran those last couple of miles, increasing speed and improving my running posture; running tall and stretching out as I went. This was not about getting a good finishing time, but simply enjoying running for the sake of running, and, in part at least, celebrating my arrival at the finish injury-free, moving well, and feeling good. I soon arrived at the finish line and was welcomed into the house, where I was given food and drink, and enjoyed talking with Kathi and the racers.
Beat was there, as well as Jason and Peter. Jason and Peter were second and third place, respectively, out of the foot racers. David had won and since left. Beat was preparing to leave to continue on to Nome. I was the first rookie across the finish line, and Moses arrived a few hours later. Peter was fantastic in celebrating my finish with me, and I could only wish I had had the fitness to spend more time with him on the trail. All the racers I met were the loveliest of people, warm and kind-hearted, helpful and generous.
The 2015 ITI was the most brutal racing experience of my life so far. It is difficult to compare it with La Ultra, back in 2012, which was previously the most brutal and toughest race I have encountered. I consider La Ultra the toughest race, in terms of putting one foot in front of the other, but within two days it was over. La Ultra is physiologically harder, mile-for-mile, than any other race I know of, but the ITI required hard work, consistently, for 7 days of sled-hauling.
During the ITI, I really felt that I was pulling that sled almost every step of the way, unlike in the YAU, where it glides so easily along behind as to often be unnoticeable. The trail conditions in the ITI are supremely harder than the YAU - and 2015 was really a good year compared with the 2 preceding years (my mind is boggled by this reality). There was dirt, grass, willows, tussocks, and icy trails with snow sufficient only to cause drag. My progress would have been faster and easier with a better sled set-up, better food and kit choices, and a more appropriate level of fitness, conducive to sled-hauling hundreds of miles along such a trail.
The result of all this is that I really consider that I earned that finishers badge. I worked for it every step of the way, from a tough beginning through challenging terrain and conditions later on. I had reminded myself of this fact as I progressed along the trail, and when the finish was in sight, so I believed this in my heart. The ITI is a brutal race. It combines demanding trail and terrain conditions with challenging weather, minimal support, a heavy sled, limited navigation markers, and a truly raw racing experience. It is without a doubt one of my proudest race finishes, and an event I hope to return to for the journey to Nome.