About 20 days into the Iditarod Trail, I was 70 miles up the Yukon River and looking forward to exiting its 120-mile remote stretch. The winds down the river can be strong; combined with low temperatures, wind chill can overwhelm the best intentions and equipment. Sure enough, on the second day the wind rose as the long winter dusk threw an uncertain light over mounds of snow, an erased trail, and missing markers. I felt alone.
But I was not alone. I was out there as an expression of the wishes and support of others, at home and on the trail. We brought a collective dream into reality.
There is so much to share about the magic of the 1049 miles of Iditarod Trail this year. Wendy and I have both been recovering together and there are many stories to share. For now, I want to thank all of the people who had a hand in me completing the traditional southern route Iditarod Trail this year.
First and foremost, thank you Wendy, my life partner, who had to keep kicking me to focus on my preparations. She was also the voice of the adventure as I kept busy looking for a trail that kept disappearing in snow storms and big winds. I wanted to reach Nome early enough to be at her White Mountains 100 finish on March 26th. We succeeded.
The barn raising started well before the race. David at Northern Sled Works built a bespoke, light sled for me; Sam at Boulder Mountain Repair designed and sewed the sled bag, as he has done for each of my little romps. Beat and Jill shared their extensive experience and knowledge of the event to help me design and refine my equipment. Jill, Wendy, Beat, Scout and I trained quite a bit on the Continental Divide. Andrew reviewed my kit, allayed my concerns about vapor barriers, and provided a winning mental frame for the race. Renee and David’s circle of friends were instrumental in helping set the operating priorities that made it relatively easy to complete this challenge.
Billy at Eagle Quest Lodge – Photo Iditasport Race
Billy and Erica: you brought back the Iditasport with so much soul, accepting heavy organizational challenges and costs. Thank you for giving us all access to a fairy tale land. Billy and Tyler not only ran their own endurance event supporting us all, they even saved a participant from another race! The Iditarod sled dog race and the communities along the Trail generously shared their resources to support us and lavished us with their warmth, McGrath in particular. And thank you to the tight team of volunteers who helped put the race together led by Will Hartman; they carried tents and supplies to remote corners, and cheerfully greeted us at ungodly times of the night.
Jan, Scott, and I, the three gnomes going to Nome, had a great time jelling together on the trail. Thank you for sharing the Impossible with me. Fellow 350-mile travelers made the early part of the race very special: early on, wonderful ultra friends Joaquin – we ran YAU together and shared pole dreams (the cold kind, not the dancing kind) – Martha – we met at our first winter ultra – Shawn – met her when she was using a 100 miler as a warmup for her 1000 miler a week apart – Shaun, and Sean (I am not making this 3 name combo up) and Willy, Renzo, Juan Carlos, Laura (“chocolate!”), Roberto , and Joilson (“Javá!”). It was great to get lost with you all at night in the storm with no trails and no visible markers. And since we are talking weather, thank you Chris for delivering timely weather forecasts in pithy, compressed 160 character bursts that removed a lot of uncertainty from the Trail.
Shaun in awe
Once again, my winter Chief Ultrarunner Goddess Anne Ver Hoef and legendary bush pilot Michael Schoder showed up to feed us and encourage us along at Shell Lake. It is there that I got to share a bed with ultrarunning legend Tony, whom I also met at my first winter ultra. Our love was chaste; I think we stunk a bit already. Michael later buzzed us with his Super Cub, to Jan’s and my delight.
Billy and Tyler put up the most amazing checkpoint near Rohn, with a giant campfire and Apocalypse Now strands of lights, and even some spirits. It was rivaled only by the Baumgartners’ Tin Creek extravaganza: Christmas laser lights and… bigger bottles of spirits, thank you Gary and TR. Come to think of it, spirits kept showing up at every stop. We sure were a spirited bunch. On top of that, Tyler kept regaling us all along the trail with the bounty of his outdoor arts: moose burgers, moose sticks, moose steaks, fresh salmon, salmon sticks… thank you!
Partial view of Tin Creek Camp; Jan outside, many inside
We often sought refuge in schools along the way. In Nikolai, I and my fellow Iditasporters had a grand time being hosted by Tim, a fellow ultrarunner and Western States 100 graduate who not only fed us repeatedly but even wrote a poem in our honor.
Thank you Jennifer Baumgartner for sponsoring all three Impossible runners and hosting us in the wonderful Hotel McGrath. The Baumgartners worked with the Iditarod Air Force to have my food drop bag airlifted to the Iditarod ghost town checkpoint. Yes! Thank you to Ben and Betty Magnusson for hosting us at the Iditarod Trail Cafe & Bunkhouse, once again a great treat, and for the incredible neck gaiters. Thank you 350 finishers for eagerly offering to support me with your equipment out of McGrath – I put Joaquin’s goggles and Shaun’s matches to good use – but not at the same time. Thank you Fiona and Rhone for giving Jan, Scott, and I a farewell fire dance!
After our disappointment at finding the Takotna library – a classic rest point – closed, Jan, Scott, and I had the good fortune of running into Dan, a Denmark denizen who invited us to join his merry party of Norwegian traditional trapping students in the Takotna Community House.
I had the special pleasure to be hosted by three sled dog race checkpoint teams. Thank you Ophir for the homemade cookies! At the ghost town of Iditarod the checkpoint team regaled Jan and I with hamburgers, breakfast, a place to sleep, and I was able to purchase the extremely limited edition “Iditarod Population 0” t-shirt. It is here that Jan and I parted ways. Thank you Jan for creating so much brotherly love all the way to Iditarod in spite of our philosophical differences! Thank you for getting lost and finiding your way ahead of me repeatedly so I wouldn’t have to cover any extra distance! Ok, that was a mean thank you.
Tim has been to Nome ten times and is the living legend of the human-powered Iditarod Trail. I was surprised to discover he left me a bag of beef jerky on my sled while in Shageluk. I, of course, fully understood the jerky to have secret powers and I ate it only on key occasions. It is in Shageluk where I started running into dog teams. It was great fun to share the trail with them day and night. Thank you mushers and doggies for the hay “dog hotels” I got to bivy in. Apologies to the musher who asked for smokes and whose thirst for nicotine I was unable to satisfy.
Hay, four dogs on the Yukon River
I saw Scott for the last time in Grayling and I missed him everafter. Thank you Scott for emphasizing the importance of taking care of oneself – gentle strength from a Special Forces stud! Just like Tim in Nikolai, Doug in Grayling, George in Kaltag, Gary and Lynda in Shaktoolik, Mary in Koyuk, Frank in Elim, and Frank in Golovin – Principals and Teachers welcomed me into their schools even when I showed up at 2 or 3am.
Corinne and Clay, who were traveling the whole Iditarod Trail on snow machines for fun, became surprise trail angels in the middle of the Yukon River with rivets and a riveter to fix my broken snow shoe – without them my race was over. I reached Eagle Island shortly after, where Laurie offered me coffee and Lindt chocolate balls in that remote checkpoint decorated with perennial plastic flowers.
In Unalakleet, Bret slept on his couch waiting for me to show up and open his Pizzeria and Cafe, Peace on Earth. After I broke all the rules of good manners by arriving at 4am, he cooked breakfast at his home and we had a great time talking about his son Nick – Eskimo Ninja – and about his many businesses. After he left to see his son medal repeatedly at the Arctic Winter Games, Larry took care of me. Thank you Pete for the pepperoni pizza and the pep hug.
One shelter cabin after Unalakleet, I joined forces with Beat. Thank you Beat for providing companionship and deep knowledge of the Trail for the closing finale. It was fun to stumble helplessly on the sea sastrugi with you.
200 miles after the first snow shoe broke, the other one came undone too. I have Dan, teacher at Koyuk Malimiut School, and his family to thank for the nuts and bolts I used to fix it and for the moose stew he shared with me.
In Elim, Principal Frank gathered his students and Beat and I got to talk to them about the race.
On our way to Golovin, and without a contact number for their school, Beat and I happened to run into Don, the son of the school’s maintenance man, who was snow machining to pick up his girlfriend in Elim. He gave us his father’s phone number, and I reached him on my satellite phone. He was waiting for us at 2am and even opened the school’s store for us.
In White Mountains, Chief Iditarod Trail Angel Joanna regaled us with a giant, gorgeous meal going from the most tender moose to the most luscious blueberry pie a la mode. I ate four pies by myself. Beat ate 10. Pig. Actually, we devoured just one pie.
Sadly, Nome had already gone into post-Iditarod sled dog race hibernation by the time Beat and I made it to the finish line, but even so Nora and friends were there to celebrate our arrival. Thank you Troy and the ITI contingent for hosting me in their great Nome home, and for sharing copious beer and pizza courtesy of Troy and Pete, brought in with great panache on Pete’s Acapulka sled. Nora graciously took us to the airport the next day.
Back at the ranch, the Boulder Banditos, Tom, and Mandy and Andy jumped into the breach when sad and hard events started accumulating in my absence. My sincere condolences to Wendy and the Stafford family for the loss of the family matriarch, Ginny, and her oldest daughter, Arlene, Wendy’s mom. Scout got to take a vacation with Tom one week and the next week with his girlfriend Penny in Steamboat hosted by Andy and Mandy – thank you. The knowledge that many of my friends were checking on me via Wendy’s posts was motivating and reassuring – I felt your presence all along.