A solar-powered cabin five miles off the electrical grid in Chickaloon is the home of Bill and Kathi Merchant. It is also the headquarters for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), a human-powered adventure race that follows the Iditarod Trail.
Iditarod Trail Invitational: The real Last Great Race? 030712 OUTDOORS 2 Capital City Weekly A solar-powered cabin five miles off the electrical grid in Chickaloon is the home of Bill and Kathi Merchant. It is also the headquarters for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), a human-powered adventure race that follows the Iditarod Trail.

Craig Medred / Alaska Dispatch

Juneau runner Geoff Roes is pictured on March 1 near Rainy Pass participating in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Photo by Craig Medred / Alaska Dispatch

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Story last updated at 3/8/2012 - 11:00 am

Iditarod Trail Invitational: The real Last Great Race?

A solar-powered cabin five miles off the electrical grid in Chickaloon is the home of Bill and Kathi Merchant. It is also the headquarters for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), a human-powered adventure race that follows the Iditarod Trail.

Racers use three main types of locomotion: Bikes, skis or feet. The race has two categories; both begin in Knik, approximately 90 miles north of Anchorage. The 350-mile race division ends in McGrath, which is approximately the first third of the Iditarod Trail. The 1,000-mile race division travels the entire Iditarod trail to Nome, alternating between two routes every other year.

The ITI did not start as an organized event. Throughout the 1980s, people snowshoed and cross-country skied various distances along the trail. Eventually specific competitive categories were created, such as the Iditaski, Iditashoe and the Idiabike. The first Iditaski event was coordinated in 1983 by Joe Reddington Sr., the Godfather of the Iditarod sled dog race. Reddington was also behind the first Iditabike event in 1987. In 1989, four Alaskan bikers followed the entire length of the historic Iditarod Trail to Nome. For fun.

In 1991, the races were lumped into one event, the Iditasport, which followed a 180-mile course from Big Lake to Skwentna and back. The Iditasport adopted the Knik to McGrath trail in 1997, and the Knik to Nome race division was added in 2000.

In 2002, Bill Merchant took over as the race director, and officially changed the race title. He also removed an existing rule requiring racers to take one overnight rest. Bill now shares organizational duties with his wife, Kathi, who won a green card in a lottery in her home country Germany in 2002, allowing her to move to Alaska, and meet and marry Bill.

Though the Merchants are too busy organizing the race to participate, Bill has made the trip to McGrath eight times and to Nome once. After meeting Bill, Kathi, who had always been an outdoor enthusiast, expanded her adventure resume and began competing in the ITI. She held the women's record in the 350-mile division between 2005 and 2010, and was the first female cyclist to complete the 1,000-mile race to Nome. Bill acts as the trail manager, coordinating equipment drops in the seven mandatory checkpoints between Knik and McGrath, and breaking the trail for the racers via snow machine.

"I actually get to go out and beat myself up, perhaps more than the times that I've raced," said Bill.

In fact, the only time Bill didn't finish the course, was in 2009, when he was attempting to break trail over a notoriously challenging part of the course called Rainy Pass with an inadequately matched machine for the job.

"Let's just say I took a big freight hauling machine, that as soon as you got it off the trail, it became a submarine."

Bill had to spend five days in a roofless cabin that year, waiting for the weather to clear, but "it could have been the Hilton," he said.

Kathi acts as the race manager, organizing the administrative components of the race as well as being present at the McGrath finish line.

Fifty-five racers are allowed entry to the ITI each year. There is no cap on which division or mode of transportation each racer chooses. The only rule is that they have to finish with what they start with. With the growing popularity of fat-tired bikes, the race has seen a surge of interest with most competitors racing by bike. But the trail conditions and weather patterns vary year to year, minute to minute, and mile to mile, making travel selection a variable science. Sometimes bikers have to crawl through feet of new snow for days.

According to Bill, the ITI is "the least-supported winter ultra marathon in the world." Extremely harsh and variable winter weather coupled with the sheer distance of the race divisions require that the Merchants utilize pre-qualifying races and conduct interviews of prospective racers prior to their acceptance.

Hence the race name Iditarod Trail "Invitational." Primarily, the proof of qualification is to ensure safety. Racers are required to carry everything they need except for expendables like food, fuel and batteries, along the entire course. Picking up extra clothing, survival gear, a new sleeping bag - out of the question.

The Merchants require Nome division racers to deposit $750, only refunded if they complete the race without asking for help along the way.

The top female and male racer in each division is given a free entry into the next year's race. This year, the top male and female foot racers will also be given free entry as the award typically always went to a cyclist. The real prize, as the Merchants see it, is the emotional and physical journey and the self-empowerment and satisfaction racers experience.

"They actually learn what the philosophy is all about," said Bill. "They realize what's to be gained by not being babysat out there on the trail. There's somethin' to be said about going out there, confronting and overcoming any of the obstacles you might face."

The cut-off time for the 350-mile ITI division race is 10 days, an average of 35 miles per day. Since 2002, when the overnight rest stop rule was removed, the current 350-mile course record was set in 2007 by Alaskan Pete Basinger, who finished the course by bike in three days, five hours and 40 minutes.

The cut-off time duration for the race to Nome is 30 days. The overall Nome course record is held by Mike Curiak of Colorado, who completed the course by bike in 15 days one hour and 15 minutes in 2000.

Only two other women besides Kathi have completed the race to Nome. The first woman to cross the Nome finish line did so on foot in 2000. It took her just shy of 42 days. According to Bill, she did it with her husband for the couple's honeymoon.

"It either cemented their relationship for life, or they got a divorce when they got home. I haven't heard from them since."

Registration for the 2012 ITI opened April 1 for veteran racers. The remaining slots were open to freshmen racers the following week. Following the interviews of the interested rookies, the most qualified were admitted and the remaining slots were filled using a lottery system.

Geoff Roes, a Juneau resident and nationally recognized ultra running legend, competed in the 2012 ITI 350-mile race. Roes attempted the race twice before, both times on foot. According to Roes, there's no advantage to racing by foot; the trail is most conducive to bike travel. But Roes is a runner, and the ITI was a personal challenge for him. The first time he competed he suffered a knee and ankle problem, and dropped out after 150 miles. The second year Roes attempted the ITI he started the race with a nasty chest cold, made it 70 miles, dropped out and suffered pneumonia for six weeks.

The fastest racer to complete the 350-mile division by foot did so in just under five days.

"The trail surface is the key factor of trail difficulty compared to other races," said Roes before the start of this year's race. "Trail surface can change race times by three or four days. It's not just about training to be physically fit, but training for variables."

More important than physical training, he said, was spending time on his clothing and gear. Roes worked on dialing-out his sled, essentially comprised of a 28-35 pound backpack on small skis, attached to a harness around his waist. While training, the main thing propelling Roes was visualizing how "aesthetically pleasing" the course is.

"It's something eerily beautiful."

A notoriously horrendous and dangerous section of the historic trail called Happy Steps was re-routed for the dogsled racers this year. Not so for the ITI racers.

The 2012 ITI began at 2 p.m. on Feb. 26, about one week before the traditional dogsled race began. Since the kind of people who enter this style of race are typically prone to adventurous and risky behavior, the full suite of 55 entrants rarely appears at the start. According to Roes, the race "draws an eclectic, eccentric and odd bunch of folks."

In a Feb. 24 posting by Roes on his blog, just two days before the start of the ITI, he wrote, "I didn't run as much this winter as I would have originally planned to, but I feel like I'm in a great spot both physically and mentally. Does this mean I will definitively have a 'successful' race? Most certainly not. But to me this uncertainty is one of the greatest appeals to this event."

Forty-seven racers representing 11 countries arrived at this year's starting line, including 12 participants slated for the race to Nome. The starting racers included two skiers, 15 runners and 30 bikers. The racers were faced with an unprecedented challenge: a huge magnitude of snow. The snow accumulation this winter was so significant that the bikers were at a disadvantage - at least for the first half of the race. In a posting on the ITI's website on Feb. 27, Kathi wrote, "This year is sure a game changer. Mother nature threw a curveball in the race early making travel difficult. It has been 11 years since runners took the lead in this race on this early part of the course. 39 racers are left in the race, 8 racers scratched only 33 hours into this race. Runners are in the lead."

At the time of the posting, runner Tim Hewitt, a 57-year old attorney from Pennsylvania was in the lead.

Hewitt continued his lead past the halfway point of the Puntilla/Rainy Pass Lodge into McGrath. Roes left the lodge just one hour behind him. Only nine cyclists remained in the race.

"Roes set a precedent as the first foot-powered athlete to lead the way into Rohn," wrote Craig Medred of the Alaska Dispatch. (Rohn is the race checkpoint after the descent of the highest point of the race in the Alaska Range.) According to Medred, "No one on foot, whether in running shoes or snowshoes (the former being way faster than the latter) had ever led the race so far."

Roes arrived at the Rohn checkpoint at 1 a.m. on March 2. However, an 80-mile stretch after the Rohn checkpoint has a notoriously mild snowpack, a place where bikers can make up lost time. Hewitt suffered an ankle injury, though he was still in the race. The two lead bikers, Pete Basinger of Oregon and Phil Hofstetter of Nome, left Rohn three hours after Roes.

"Roes' lead may soon be history," wrote Medred.

By the evening of March 2, 21 racers of the original 47 remained in the race.

On March 3, at the checkpoint of Nikolai - 90 miles from Rohn and 48 miles from McGrath - Basinger and Hofstetter had passed Hewitt and Roes. They arrived in Nikolai around 5 p.m. Hewitt left Nikolai four hours and 15 minutes ahead of Roes on the evening of March 3.

Basinger was the first racer into McGrath at 5 a.m. on March 4. Hofstetter and another cyclist, Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic, tied for second place at 8:08 a.m.

Within the 48 miles from Nikolai to McGrath, Roes put a four-hour lead on Hewitt.

"Geoff Roes wins the foot division this afternoon in 6 days 23 hours and 25 minutes. Congratulations Geoff!!" wrote Kathi on a March 4 posting at 8:16 p.m.

At press time, on the afternoon of March 5, Anchorage runner Anne Ver Hoef was expected to be the first female McGrath finisher. Twenty-nine racers scratched. The last racer arrived in Nikolai on March 5.

Groups continued to make their way towards McGrath and temperatures were reported to be around negative 40 degrees.

Roes left McGrath the morning of March 5, one day after his finish, with a free entry to next year's race. Hofstetter is back to work in Nome. Life goes on. But, according to Kathi, an important component of the race is to debrief.

"No one back home understands," she said by phone on March 5, explaining how exchanging stories at the finish line may be the one time racers get to celebrate and commiserate with those who have genuinely shared their experiences.

As of press time, it was unclear how many of the other Nome racers were still in the race, and would continue to Nome.

What is clear is that this year's ITI has been one of the most challenging of the "least-supported winter ultra marathon in the world."

For more details on the ITI and the Merchant's guiding company, visit www.alaskaultrasport.com.

Amanda Compton is a staff writer for The Capital City Weekly.  You can reach this amazing person via email at amanda.compton@capweek.com.