Written by Kathi Merchant, Race Director, Iditarod Trail Invitational
The Iditarod Trail Invitational race, the qualifiers to get into this by invitation only race and the annual ITI winter training camps in Alaska.
When I moved to Alaska in 2002 from Germany I did not know that a decade later fat biking as well as riding and racing bikes on snow and being race director of the world’s longest fat bike race would be in my future. This year will be the 14th annual Iditarod Trail Invitational (also known as the ITI) race formerly known as Iditabike and Iditasport. My husband and past competitor continued this race under the name Iditarod Trail Invitational which is now well established and well known in winter ultra endurance circles.
I started fat biking on the Iditarod Trail in 2003. I completed the 350 mile race on the Iditarod Trail to McGrath in 2005 and 2006 and then all the way to Nome 1000 miles in 2008. In 2005 I purchased one of Mark Gronewald’s Wildfire fat bikes. I still own it and ride it today. This year I have been lucky enough to become a member of Borealis Team Coreco based in Costa Rica thanks to one of our competitors Will Muecke who introduced Fat La Ruta-a fat bike category in the La Ruta race. I have also been teaching winter camping and winter biking at our annual 5 day ITI training camps with my husband Bill Merchant who got me started in winter fat bike riding in 2003.
During the 5 days we prepare participants to sleep out on the snow in just a sleeping bag, melt snow for water with a camp stove and learn to ride a bike on snow, fixing a flat tire or broken chain in the cold. It is important that they learn the skills to be safe on the Iditarod Trail in extreme cold conditions and be self-sufficient on a remote trail that is completely off the road system. The Iditarod Trail starts at Knik Lake and follows a river and lake system until it climbs over the Alaska Range at Rainy Pass at an elevation of 3300 feet, above tree line and then moves through the cold and often barren and -40 F temperatures of the Interior along the Kuskokwim River until the 350 mile race finishes in the small community of McGrath. The 1000 mile racers continue across Alaskan tundra and along the Yukon River and 250 miles along the Bering Sea coast overland and over sea ice to the coastal Bering Sea town Nome.
With the recent explosion and interest in fat biking, we had 10 participants from 6 different countries in our annual 5 day training camp this year at Flathorn Lake on the Iditarod Trail. After a warm winter with hardly any snow in Southcentral Alaska we got lucky and it turned winter with cold and snow on the ground just a week before our training camp. With sunny days, cold nights and rides under a full moon, our participants slept outside in their sleeping bag four nights in a row with temperatures as cold as -10F. Two of them rode 60 miles to Knik Bar (the start of the race) one day and 60 miles roundtrip to the first check point Yentna Station on the Yentna River and back to camp out in the Dismal Swamp one last night. The last night participants have to sleep out alone away from the base camp in a place called the Dismal Swamp. All 10 came back to our base camp on Flathorn Lake with big smiles the last day.
The temperature that night was -10F.
It is always fun to see the light come on for them when they realize they can manage to sleep outside in well below freezing temperatures and manage whatever comes along their way on the Iditarod Trail. One participant told me that with these new skills learned during the 5 days this opened up a whole new world of exploration for him. All 10 participants have an invitation into next year’s 350 race and will be on the race roster that will be published this coming April.
Another way to gain entry into the ITI is to finish one or more of the qualifiers that have emerged in the Lower 48 and in Finland in the last few years, winter ultras are growing as much as fat biking is at this time. I participated in Jay Petervary’s 200 Kilometer Fat Pursuit in Idaho in January. It is a well organized race, beautiful course with awesome volunteers. Other qualifiers are the Susitna 100 and White Mountains 100 in Alaska, the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, Tuscobia 150 in Wisconsin and the Rovaniemi 150 and Roavve 300 in Finland.
We start taking applications from race veterans April 1 of this year and April 8 from Rookies for the 2016 event. The ITI roster fills up very quickly and 55 racers have been on the roster since May 2014. The Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile and 1000 mile winter ultra marathon starts at Knik Lake at 2:00 PM Sunday March 1.
For the first time ever Trackleaders.com is offering live tracing for friends, fans and family to follow the Original of all winter fat biking endurance events.
Follow the ITI online at www.iditarodtrailinvitational.com and look for more reports and an upcoming fat-bike radio interview with Kathi!