Yearly ultrarace challenges even the toughest of athletes
Every year about this time I experience a nearly overwhelming compulsion, a compelling urge to head over the Alaska Range under my own power in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), a 350-mile walk, bike or ski race from Knik to McGrath.
This same sense of adventure captured a 43-year-old Anchorage attorney named Joe Pollock in 2011, the last year that I went over the mountains on the Iditarod Trail.
Pollock is a seasoned ultra-distance bike racer, having competed in the Susitna 100 and the Fireweed 400 multiple times. It seemed a logical goal for Pollock, to set his sights on riding his snow bike to McGrath in the dead of winter.
“There was something appealing about going from point to point in the Alaska Range that I just had to try,” Pollock reminisces. “Knowing and seeing other people and hearing their stories about their adventures on the trail made you want to go yourself. For me it was a natural progression.”
Whether it is really natural to want to ride or push your bike over the Iditarod Trail to McGrath is debatable. If you’re an experienced adventurer it could make perfect sense.
“The remoteness of the event is probably the number one reason why the event is so special,” Pollock relates. “Even though there is a support network (at checkpoints) along the trail, to a large degree you are on your own. The risks are such that if you make a mistake you are probably going to pay the price. The margins get pretty thin. If you make a mistake, go through overflow or have mechanical problems, failure could be significant.”
Indeed, the Iditarod Trail Invitational is not an event to take lightly. Competitors are expected to manage themselves on the trail under risky conditions when rescue could be days away. There have been no deaths on the trail in this event but the possibility is real.
“One of the neat parts of the ITI was that all the competitors were watching out for each other,” Pollock says. “Even though they were competing, there was a heightened sense that you were looking out for other people and they were looking out for you.”
I had the fortune of traveling with Pollock for much of the race. After we descended the Dalzell Gorge, we took a rest with a half dozen other racers in the Rohn Checkpoint wall tent. At some point in the dark of night, Pollock removed a carefully folded piece of paper from his gear bag and read a passage attributed to Maj. Richard “Dick” Winters whose soldiers were his Band of Brothers: If you can, find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass onto others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down.
“I look to Dick Winters’ example of taking care of his men,” Pollock explains. “I saw that as an example that I wanted to emulate and have respect for.”
Indeed, Pollock made the tense moments easier to handle – like when my valve stem bent precariously at a 30-degree angle threatening to break off at 20 below. And when we left Rohn in the dark at 40 below when not much mechanical seemed to work very well.
We encountered Harald Schiff of Germany who had fallen through the ice in a section called The Glacier, and he was trying to dry himself. He had a flat tire, a frozen free hub body, his gloves were off, and he had mild frostbite. We sought shelter in a BLM safety cabin in the middle of the Farewell Burn.
“I asked Harald, ‘How cold was it out there when you were working on your bike?’ Harald answered, minus 40 degrees!’ Was that Fahrenheit or Celsius? ‘Fahrenheit or Celsius, it is all the same!’ Harald always had a great attitude. He was having a good time.”
Pollock says that he would definitely do the ITI again and he would spend a lot of time preparing for the mental and physical challenges, and the tangible possibility of coming into harm’s way.
“There was the high of the event and the intensity of the experience and how awesome it was to see Alaska in that vein. The relationship aspect with all the competitors was really unique. I was proud to be an Alaskan and to see all those places on the Iditarod Trail.”
The Iditarod Invitational begins Feb. 23. Pollock might not be on the start line this year, but sometime in the near future I fully expect him to be heading over those mountains again.