Race across Alaska
True to the spirit of the Last Frontier, Alaska’s most famous races tend to be committing overland affairs with few rules, wholly unsupported and staged in the perilous heart of winter.Take the Iditasport 130. The annual race from Knik to Finger Lake Lodge pits bikers, skiers and snowshoers against one another on a stretch of the Iditarod Trail in the Alaskan interior north of Anchorage. In the umpteenth running of the event this winter, competitors weren’t required to carry anything with them. Of course, when traversing this virtually uninhabited backcountry in mid-February – terrain that becomes unnavigable swamps by summer – there are some essentials racers need to carry to be self-reliant, a prerequisite of all the “Idita” races.”The rules got too complicated,” explained Aspen’s Rishi Grewal. “They used to have gear checklists with minimum weights for your packs, but then you’d have people who’d just toss a brick out of their packs once they started.”So now they say, ‘Here’s a list of what you should take,'” continued Grewal, “and they check you out to make sure you’ve got everything you started with at the finish. That’s the one rule.”Grewal, a former U.S. national champion in road racing and mountain biking who also has several 24-hour solo titles to his credit, opted to “go light” in his Iditasport 130 debut on Feb. 16.”Most people have a good sleeping bag and a good stove,” Grewal said. “I, on the other hand, had a bivvy sack that wouldn’t keep me warm in 70 degrees, but I had a good stove.”What I banked on for survival was making it to the aid stations, and in lieu of that, being able to start a fire,” he said.With all his gear in a pannier rigged to one side of his mountain bike, Grewal set out along with about 110 other starters from Knik at noon on Feb. 16.More than a day later, only 39 competitors would finish. In between, Grewal, 35, and a relentless skier, 19-year-old Dylan Kentch of Anchorage, waged a memorable battle – biker vs. skier in a modern-day, Jack London-esque Arctic epic – pushing each other at a course record-breaking pace.Soon after the start, Grewal realized the pannier had fallen off his bike, forcing him to backtrack to retrieve the essential survival gear. The ordeal cost him about a half-hour, but he gradually reeled in the leaders and settled into the harsh routine of the race.”The trail conditions were extremely brutal, because the same day we went out they had a snowmobile race, too – the Iron Dog. There were serious moguls on average six feet high and about six feet apart, and it made it a really technical race for a lot of it. I’d say 20 percent of it had bad moguls. If the whole thing was like that, I would’ve packed it in,” said Grewal.Compounding the difficulty of biking over chewed-up snowmobile track, new fallen snow softened the course to the point where Grewal had to push his bike for long stretches despite continued tinkering with the air pressure of his tires, the widest and most stable available.”Usually bikers can beat skiers if the course is right – set up and frozen with good cold temperatures,” Grewal said. “But we had a lot of fresh snow and it wasn’t too cold, so the course was tough. You really had to pick your line.”Upon reaching the Yentna River, at about mile 35, Grewal saw his 15-minute lead evaporate as the steadfast Kentch passed him up.”To get to the next checkpoint, you’re going along the river for 30 miles, and I must have walked for seven or eight miles out there in the middle of nowhere,” he said.”A few lights started approaching, catching me, and two guys showed up on bikes, which put the pressure on. I had to mess with air pressure more, and at that point, 10 or 11 o’clock at night, it was getting cold and windy.”Grewal managed to drop the two bikers upon arrival at the Yentna Station checkpoint (mile 66), but still trailed the leader, Kentch. The temperature dropped to 5 below zero when Grewal picked up the trail again along the Skwentna River as competitors raced on under the northern lights.”It was pretty desolate. Luckily, because of the wind and the marginally cold temperatures, the trail hardened up enough so you could ride – I say ride, with big, bulky tires with five to 10 PSI – so it’s really slow going, lazy and super power-robbing. It’s hard to get them to turn over.”And as soon as you’d start walking, your feet got cold, so you’d try to keep riding, but it was tough when you’d keep breaking through the snow.”It was getting colder, too. If it had gotten much colder, I would’ve been waiting it out at one of the checkpoints,” he said.Grewal caught a break when Kentch took a wrong turn along the Skwentna River.”He probably had a 45-minute lead, but he went the wrong way,” Grewal said. “I was a little worried about the guy – there’s nothing out there and then all of sudden his track disappeared. So I got to Skwentna Roadhouse (checkpoint mile 90) and we were all a little worried about him.”My stop was pretty long because I was starting to get frostbite on my left hand and left foot,” he said. The left foot was the one he touched down with most often, and the left hand was the one he used to push his bike through the unridable sections.”They weren’t black yet, but they were blue. It took me about 45 minutes to get out of there, and you’re ruined at that point. Out there for about 18 hours at that point, the exposure gets to you. Everybody was getting cold.”Kentch pulled into Skwentna Roadhouse just as Grewal was leaving, at about 5 o’clock in the morning.”That’s my favorite time in a long-distance race,” Grewal said. “And we go across a bunch more swamps, one called Dismal, about 14 miles across, and you’re trucking along at three or four miles an hour.”Grewal opened a 30-minute gap on Kentch before pulling into the last unofficial checkpoint at Shell Lake. After a hot cup of coffee and a chat with the lodge owner, a divorce who built the lodge with her children years ago, Grewal set out on the final 25-mile hump to the finish.”I had about a half-hour lead, and normally that’s not enough,” he said. “But I was taking it relatively leisurely, taking breaks now and again, mainly to look back when I got to the end of wide-open stretches. But I couldn’t see him for ages.”At about noon, 24 hours into the race, the trail softened up again to the point where Grewal was forced to walk/jog alongside his bike.”I was trying to ride, trying to find the hardest part of the trail,” he said. “If I hadn’t grown up in Aspen with the snow, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It almost came down to picking the color of snow – what’s harder, what’s fresher – then picking lines and your bike-handling skills.”Enter Kentch again. Despite Grewal’s efforts to maintain the gap, the conditions favored ski travel, and Kentch eventually caught his cycling rival.”I really put the hammer down for 45 minutes until he actually did catch me,” Grewal recalled. “We’d gone more than 24 hours when he caught me, and we’d talked several times already and he’s a nice kid. I really wanted to win the race, but at that point, I told him, ‘Good job.’ He was skate-skiing over these moguls and I was struggling in it and I thought, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ He said, ‘Good job. I’ll see you at the finish.'”But I still wanted that overall title. It was on the short list of events I wanted to win, and that’s what kept me going. I didn’t just want to win the bike division.”Like Popeye with his spinach, Grewal proceeded to gulp down an energy drink he’d been saving for a time like this and fought to keep a minute behind Kentch. “I was alternating riding and jogging and it was getting nasty,” Grewal said. “But that’s what I’m made for. Genetically, I’m pretty good like that.”With about six miles to go, the trail changed directions slightly, and combined with the setting sun the course began firming up.”I could ride my bike where the shadow was and that minute change made the difference,” Grewal said. “I ended up catching him, sitting behind him a bit, and then passing him.”The trail also started to narrow a bit, so [Kentch] had to go from skating to the standard kick and glide, and I basically attacked at that point,” he said. “I put on a concerted effort for an hour and a half after I passed him, put 20 minutes into him and knew I had the race.”But at that point, it was a matter of survival. I was running out of energy and it was starting to get cold again. When I made it to the finish, I could tell my hand and foot were hurting. Any longer and it could’ve been dangerous.”Grewal crossed the finish line at Finger Lake in 1 day, 5 hours and 20 minutes, a course record by a matter of hours. Kentch followed 20 minutes later. The next finisher, a biker, finished nearly four hours later, while stragglers trickled in over the next two days.”Most of the people behind me spent time in a sleeping bag, boiling water to stay warm,” he said. “And if I hadn’t hit the finish when I did, I would’ve been in the same situation.”The vastness of the effort leaves you kind of stunned at the end. I never saw anyone connected with the race the whole time, and that was eerie.”If you compare it to the 24 Hours of Moab” – an event in which Grewal owns the course record in the solo division – “you can stop every hour, get a soda or a popsicle, assess the situation and switch bikes if you’re having problems. This is totally different. You can’t do any of that. It’s really unique in that respect.”Though still experiencing numbness in his left hand and foot, Grewal expects a full recovery, perhaps for a return next winter. “Hopefully this will be completely erased from my memory by then,” he joked.As for Kentch, whose costly route-finding error may have cost him the race, Grewal reasoned with a chuckle: “He’ll know the trail next time. But I won’t lose my pannier either.”
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