Before airplanes and snowmachines, winter trails were critical for getting around Alaska’s remote wilderness. They trails connected ancient Alaska Native villages, and were later used by mushers to haul people, supplies, mail and gold. Known today as the Iditarod Historic National Trail, 1,500 miles of the trail are open to the public.
The most famous part of the trail – from just north of Anchorage to the Bering Sea coast at Nome – is where the world turns its attention in early March each year for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
But each February, a week before sled dogs and their owners begin that race, a select group of 50 hardy souls sets out from Knik Lake to test themselves against the elements – by mountain bike, ski, and on foot.
Athletes from across the globe apply to race in this grueling event, with qualifying rounds that must be finishing successfully to gain entry into a longer race in future years. With little to no support, racers are truly on their own in the Alaska wilderness – over mountain passes with frequent winter storms, over frozen swamps and rivers, and stark landscapes where temperatures can fall to -40. There are checkpoints along the way, but racers must be strategic about their gear, their route, when to rest and when they might need to scratch. (In 2012, the racers had to deal with more than three feet of snow in the first 24 hours, leading to an abnormally high number of scratches!)
130-mile race – From Knik Lake to Winter Lake Lodge in the foothills of the Alaska Range. Maximum 4 days. Qualifier for the 350-mile race.
350-mile race – From Knik Lake over the Alaska Range to McGrath. This race must be completed successfully to qualify for the race to Nome.
All the way to Nome – 1,150 miles through the Alaska wilderness in the dead of winter. It sounds extreme, and it is. Fewer than 75 people have ever accomplished it. Still, others compete in crazy-fast time. The on-foot record is under twenty days (that equates to running about two marathons per day for 19 days!), and the bike record is a smoking 10 days.
The Iditarod Invitational is not spectator-friendly, but you can show up at Knik Lake to see the start, and there’s a small bar with food and drink for the hearty fans. After that, you can follow it online as racers battle snow and winter conditions.