STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Those who race the Iditarod are undoubtedly brave athletes, relying on dogs for the power to carry them nearly 1,000 miles over the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome.
A week before the mushers are sent off, an even braver, perhaps crazier group of racers take to the course. Starting in the 1980s, competitors have traveled the Iditarod course on foot, skis or bikes, ditching the dogs to see just how far they can push themselves.
Steamboat Springs resident Graham Muir, 49, completed 70% of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, or ITI, on his fat bike when he was forced to stop in Unalakleet, a small town on the west coast of Alaska. The next part of the course stretched over Norton Bay, which was covered by sea ice. At least, it was covered until a storm broke up the ice and put water over what remained intact.
Muir and a few other competitors waited in town for a few days, but the sea ice didn’t return to a state that allowed them to ride over it. Usually, there is an alternate trail along the shore, but due to COVID-19, it was never built. With just three finishers in the 1,000-mile race, the directors decided they had to call it. So Muir, along with about a half dozen others, came up short of the finish line at no fault of their own.
“It was a huge bummer,” Muir said. “It had taken us 18 days to get there.”
Muir rode alongside a few other fat bikers, getting close with a few. Getting to know them so well over the short period of time made not finishing the race, or seeing them finish the race, all the more heartbreaking.
To qualify, all riders must compete in the 350-mile ITI course. Muir did so just last year in four and a half days, but one Italian man he met completed the 350-mile ride 22 years ago. Finally, he was taking a crack at the big one.
Muir started biking regularly when he moved to Steamboat 11 years ago and his first major race was a 50-mile race in Leadville about six years ago. He’s been upping the distance ever since.
Next, he’s hoping to compete in the Leadboat, the combination of the Leadville 100 and the SBT GRVL race, which are on back-to-back days in August, totaling 250 challenging miles on trails and gravel.
While the 2020 race was Muir’s first shot at the ITI, it might be the only one he takes.
“It’s just so hard taking a month off,” he said. “This was going to be my attempt at it. I’m not going to say no, but it’s such a scary race. It’s so challenging.”
Moose, storms and knee pain
Over the 700 miles that Muir did complete, there was no shortage of challenges, the greatest of which hit right away.
Upon leaving Anchorage, the ITI competitors were faced with heavy snow, which not only reduced visibility, but accumulated quickly.
“I started having some knee issues from two days of post-holing through deep snow and pushing my bike,” Muir said. “You can train to ride a bike, but it’s really hard to train to push your bike in deep snow with a heavy bike.”
The storm set him back days. In 2019, Muir spent 14 hours getting to the first checkpoint, including a two-hour break. This year, to go the same distance, it took him 48 hours.
Days of pushing and carrying his bike put stress on his body, particularly one of his knees. On day three, he was having trouble just putting weight on it. He said battling that was frustrating and exhausting, as he had to spend so much of his mental energy to keep moving forward.
Muir saw 10 moose along the course, and heard that two people had suffered a stomping from a moose and a few bikes had been busted by the large animals. Thankfully, Muir’s encounters weren’t as dramatic.
“We had one standoff, but it wasn’t too bad,” he said. “He eventually moved off the trail for us.”
Along the course, there are open shelters available to competitors, as well as villages that typically welcome Iditarod athletes to stop in, get warm, dry out equipment and sleep. With the concerns around COVID-19, only the shelters were available, making for fewer covered spots to stop along the course.
Of course, like every endurance challenge, most of the struggle is mental, not physical. Muir said he hit a wall multiple times, but on each occasion, was able to push past it.
“It’s definitely a lot of alone time in your head,” he said. “You ask yourself questions. Are you drinking enough? Are you eating enough? How are you dealing with your body, how’s your body holding up? How is the trail? There’s so many variables going on out there. Trying to figure out a game plan, when to sleep.”
In the past couple weeks, some countries have closed borders and enforced post-travel quarantines, making Muir’s trip home an adventure within itself.
Once he was told the race was no more, he hopped on a plane back to Anchorage. From there, he quickly packed his bags and bike and flew back to Colorado.
“I didn’t have my passport with me, I just had my driver’s license,” said Muir. “If anything had been shut down, they wouldn’t have let me across Canada.”
Thankfully, his flight was mostly empty and the journey home went smoothly.
Muir, who lives on Emerald Mountain, is already itching to get back on the bike for his usual early-morning ride, but since he’s been traveling, he thinks it’s best to stay out of commission for a while longer.