Local racer tackles backcountry of Alaska | AspenTimes.com

Local racer tackles backcountry of Alaska

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Overshadowed by the daily drama unfolding in Salt Lake City was an athletic triumph of a different sort.

But that’s fine with Erika Van Meter, the unassuming valley resident who struck out on a grueling, 100-mile race across the Alaskan backcountry on the very day Olympic competition was getting under way in Utah.

Van Meter, 29, could only grin and roll her eyes when co-workers at Aspen Valley Hospital brought her feat to the attention of the local media. Her accomplishments in the Iditasport 100 Classic need no mention, as far as she’s concerned.

The challenge was personal; no headlines required. And the only cheering fans to greet Van Meter were in her head – the hallucinations of a lone skier pressing through the frigid darkness by the light of a dimming headlamp.

A cousin to the well-publicized Iditarod dog-sled race, the Iditasport attracts endurance athletes of various disciplines. This year, 24 racers – seven women and 17 men – struck out on a brand new, tougher course on Feb. 9. Eight men and one woman – Van Meter – finished the race.

The El Jebel resident and pharmacy technician at AVH finished the race in 58 hours and 40 minutes, coming in ninth in a field of racers that included mountain bikers, runners and backcountry skiers. All of the top six racers took to the course on skis; two men traveling on foot finished ahead of Van Meter, who skied. None of the bikers finished.

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AVH sponsored Van Meter, covering her $250 entrance fee. The Aspen Skiing Co. donated a pile of hand warmers, and Dr. Glenn Kotz provided a combination of coaching and sports medicine expertise.

But in the end, it was up to Van Meter. Completing the race in the allotted 60 hours was her only goal. It meant pushing hard for the last nine miles to finish before race officials began picking up stragglers by snowmobile.

“I went as fast as I could the whole nine miles. I just booked it,” she said. “I knew there was steak waiting.”

Actually, she ended up wolfing down quesadillas after collapsing on the floor of the Sheep Mountain Lodge for a well-earned rest. The race began and ended at the lodge, about a two-hour drive east of Anchorage.

Logging long miles in the wilderness is nothing new for Van Meter, a veteran of several Iron Man-style events and other backcountry races. She competed in the Leadville 100 last summer, but was forced to pull out of the foot race after 71 miles due to a sprained ankle.

“I had to finish [the Iditasport] because of Leadville,” Van Meter said. “That’s what I went up there to do – just to finish.”

Traveling on backcountry skis with skins, Van Meter pulled 40 pounds of gear in a sled behind her. The other skiers chose backpacks and waxed their skis, which turned out to be an advantage, given some of the climbing required on the new course for the event. Racers faced nearly 15,000 feet of elevation gain in all.

Her gear included a stove and sleeping bag and other basics for sleeping outside, just in case, but sleeping wasn’t part of the itinerary. She stopped for one 15-minute nap and once for 30 minutes of slumber during the race.

“At night, it’s really tough to be by yourself. You end up finding somebody who’s skiing at about your speed and you ski together,” she said. “None of us really slept.”

Van Meter linked up with an Anchorage resident who was racing on foot until he gave up and bunked down for six hours. She was on her own for a nighttime stretch after her powerful halogen headlamp had burned out, the wind had swept the course free of tracks to follow and the reflective trail markers were invisible by the light of a dimming, standard headlamp.

“I was by myself. I couldn’t see any tracks. I couldn’t see any reflectors,” said Van Meter, who stayed on course nonetheless.

What she did see were some memorable figments of her sleep-starved imagination.

“The first night was OK, but the second and third nights, you really start to hallucinate. Oh, it was weird,” she said. “I would see caribou grazing, polar bears. Then I’d get up to them and there’d be nothing there.”

There were also onlookers cheering and waving from the bushes, and on a frozen lake, Van Meter could swear she spied airport lights. She also saw a parking garage, complete with vehicles she could identify by make and model.

“It’s not real. You know it’s not real. It’s rather amazing, actually,” she said.

Some of the sights were real though, like spectacular northern lights and frolicking moose.

“The country was just beautiful,” she added.

The race, and Van Meter’s mountaineering exploits in general, are about reaching an inner place.

“It’s a self-betterment thing,” she explained. “Actually, I wanted to go and suffer. I hadn’t been there in a long time.”

“There” is a point of mental and physical exhaustion when Van Meter has had enough, but keeps on going. “It’s elation – almost enlightenment,” she said. It’s a place she did not reach on the Iditasport trail.

Van Meter will have other opportunities to test herself, though, and reach that place. She has already signed up for this year’s Leadville 100, and she’ll do the Grand Traverse from Crested Butte to Aspen with partner Amy Hamalak next month. She also plans to participate in an Iron Man competition – swimming, biking and running – in June and is considering a 500-mile bike race in October.

“I always ask myself, am I suffering?” she said. “I always answer, no, I’m having too much fun.”