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Running where sled dogs sometimes falter

Posted: March 15, 2012 - 12:05am
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Geoff Roes on the last morning of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, halfway between Nikolai and Mcgrath and five hours before his finish. Temperatures were -40 when he took this photo.
Geoff Roes on the last morning of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, halfway between Nikolai and Mcgrath and five hours before his finish. Temperatures were -40 when he took this photo.

Geoff Roes was in his element.

At 30 below and nearly waist deep in snow, the former Juneau resident and world-ranked extreme runner, was in the biggest competition of his life.

Not the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile race of bike riders, skiers and foot powered athletes he was a part of; not the minus wind chill and snow that nature was surrounding him in; and not the nagging physical aches and pains of multiple days with minimum sleep and maximum exertion.

“I needed to accept how much patience is involved,” Roes said of the race’s biggest challenge. “There are going to be dozens and dozens of things in this race you don’t expect, from weather to the way your body feels, to changing conditions. There is no possible way ahead of time to know about this. You need patience to accept that sometimes you might be trudging through three feet of snow and sometimes you might be doing that for an entire day.”

The Iditarod Trail Invitational is an invitation-only, human-powered endurance race. Formally known as the Iditasport, a 180-mile course from Big Lake to Skwentna, the event evolved into the ITI 350-mile route from Knik to McGrath in 1997, following a third of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and then added a 1000-mile Knik to Nome race in 2000.

Due to the harsh conditions involved participants, limited to 55, are screened via pre-qualifying races and interviews. Racers must be self-sufficient in the race, carrying all essentials with them. The cutoff time of the race to McGrath is 10 days and to Nome 30 days are allowed.

Roes first attempted the ITI, a route from Knik to McGrath, in 2008 and then again in 2009. His first attempt ended after 150 miles with knee and ankle problems, the second start lasted 70 miles as a chest cold forced him to stop and led to six weeks of pneumonia.

Roes took two years away from that event, knowing that he needed a mental break.

“I felt like if I tried it three years in a row I would be a little too stubborn,” Roes said. “That maybe I needed a little time away from it to go after it with a better approach. Those first attempts I thought it was something I could conquer and I could be in really good shape and use my physical ability and get through it. In reality it is something you need to be prepared for mentally more than physically and a couple years off gave me time to have that perspective.”

Roes was hit with the mental struggle on Feb. 26, five miles into this year’s race. Although the trail wasn’t bad and he felt physically okay the immensity of how long remained, 345 miles, seemed to burrow onto his gear sled; seemingly attaching itself on the ride like a tired sled dog.

“I kind of struggled with that for a few hours,” Roes said. “I had a hard time getting into the rhythm of the race, everything was feeling long and hard and my hips were tight.”

His longest sled-dragging training sessions had been 5-6 hours a day. Now he was starting 18-20 hour sojourns in bitter temperatures. His sled, two cross-country skis with a pack attached, was weighted with 40 pounds of food, water, extra clothes, repair gear (for body and equipment), and other essentials.

All his clothing was wearable in -40 degrees, as was the sleeping bag he crawled into for rest breaks. An insulated bottle holder kept water from freezing, a small cook stove was available to melt more, and a 70 ounce bladder was warn under his clothing to keep his drinkable water available. Extra pockets were sewn inside various layers so he could easily get at the roughly 5,000 calories needed daily. Fifteen pairs of glove inserts were tested before he found one that enabled him to access zippers and clothing without his hands becoming useless tools in his roughly 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. gauntlet of wilderness traversing.

Forty-nine racers started on day one; two skiers, 16 runners and 31 bikers. The Knik Lake push off was greeted with one of the larger storms of the year and one that had freight-hauling snowmobile businesses turning around. At mile 20 on Flathorn Lake the trail disappeared under fresh snow. The normal 30-minute jaunt around the Flathorn for walkers and 15 minutes for bikers turned into a joint effort of about two hours to cross. It became worse at Dismal Swamp.

Roes, in snowshoes, took his turn among half bikers and half runners breaking trail. At 4 a.m., after 15 hours and 30 miles and the first checkpoint at mile 57 still far away, the group bivied up until day break.

“It was a pretty tough first day,” Roes said. “The second day wasn’t any better and we were still breaking trail.”

About halfway through the day a snowmobile passed. One snowmobile on top of 30 inches of fresh snow was better than nothing. Roes pushed on to the Susitna River and then the Yentna River and by the end of day two was at the Yentna checkpoint, the first of the race, nearly 24 hours later than he expected.

“I was still pretty positive thru most of that,” Roes said. “I was taking it for what it was. I was coming to terms with the fact this race was probably going to take longer than I anticipated.”

Roes knew everyone was dealing with the same conditions.

“For me the race itself has this almost mythical journey appeal to it,” Roes said. “It almost feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. I feel like it is a collective thing: me, racers, trail are all part of one big thing. Throughout this whole journey I definitely felt like we were all on the same journey, trying to complete the same journey. I never felt like I was competing.”

Roes stated he had four good hours of sleep and headed out at 2 a.m. into day three’s strong wind. The wind had covered more snow machine tracks with snow and breaking trail became the norm. Roes had been the fourth racer to leave the checkpoint and passed three others. Ahead of him, his tracks blown away by wind, was Pennsylvania lawyer Tim Hewitt, a six-time finisher of the Nome route.

“Tim and I were within a few hours of each other and crossed paths numerous times each day,” Roes said. “It was awesome because he has probably been out on the Iditarod Trail more than anybody on human power. It was a really good learning experience and a good safety net.”

Roes and Hewitt would lead the bikers most of the race, at least up to 210-miles. At the end Roes would finish first for runners and fourth overall, just seven hours behind five-time winning biker Pete Basinger. The days between, however, tested his resolve.

The day three pace averaged 1-2 miles an hour up the frozen and snow covered Yentna River. Twenty racers dropped out at the 90-100 mile point because of the conditions. They included past bike winner Jeff Oatley, his wife Heather Best, favored to win the women’s title, and Louise Kobin, who holds the course record for women.

The mile-90 checkpoint at Skwentna was reached at roughly 3 p.m. and after an hour break Roes pushed on for 20 miles to Shell Lake.

“The beauty of the race starts after Skwentna,” Roes said. “You move into the foothills of the Alaska Range and all that beauty is around you.”

Those miles produce the best trail of the race. It was still soft, pillowy snow but a lot of snowmobiles had been on it. Roes ran for stretches at this point and reached the lake at 9 p.m. and slept for three hours. Roes only built a small fire one night. Usually the physical exhaustion was so great he would just plop down along the trail, crawl into a heavy down jacket and pants and slide into a -50 sleeping bag. A small tent was in his gear but used just one time.

“The last night was close to 50 below,” Roes said. “Basically you have to have the ability to cover every square inch of skin. So you got goggles and a full thick facemask. You are basically bundled up like an astronaut when it is that cold.”

A thermostat in his gear remained bottomed out at -35 for most of the race. And going to the bathroom in those conditions?

“You just kind of figure out a way to unzip all the layers and get in there and go real quick,” Roes said. “I kind of got in this balance where I was using everything that was going in and there wasn’t a lot going out.”

The call of nature was also used as an alarm clock, and prevented Roes from over sleeping at any stop. Intentionally leaving the sleeping bag open was another method to prevent prolonged lapses of fatigue.

Day four began at 2 a.m., five hours before dawn. The plan was to push a good solid day and get most of the way to Rainy Pass Lodge at mile-165, about 55 miles. The wind, however, had blown in another two inches of snow.

“I was just exhausted,” Roes said. “I hadn’t slept enough. I thought I would perk up with some caffeinated gels but around 8 a.m. I had to sleep on the side of the trail.”

On hour nap gave energy to make Finger Lake at mile-130 by noon but he arrived struggling.

“That was tough because I had been going 10 hours and only covered 20 miles,” Roes said. “I had been really optimistic the trail would be good that day and it wasn’t.”

At Finger Lake Roes spent five hours eating, drying out clothes and regrouping. Hewitt and Italian Andrea Cavagnet, the only skier participating, drug into the cabin. Hewitt would set out almost immediately.

Roes hit the trail again at 5 p.m. and after four hours caught Hewitt. They both were ‘out of it’ and slept along the trail until 3 a.m. at the 145-mile point. Some racers passed them in slumber.

“I felt great when I hit the trail again,” Roes said of day five. “It was a complete night and day difference from before. Everyone was moving and doing well. It was exciting to know others were making their way along the trail. It was very much a collective experience, we were all helping each other.”

The route was still mostly a snowshoe hike. Roes was averaging 4.5-5 miles an hour and would catch those who passed him, spend 20-30 minutes with them, and move on. At noon he hit Puntilla Lake’s Rainy Pass Lodge at mile 165. Hewitt and Cavagnet arrived at the same time. Cavagnet would drop from the race here with a shoulder injury. After an hour of rest Roes began an uphill climb on Rainy Pass, headed over the Alaska Range and into the Interior.

At 7 p.m. he was at the mile 185.

“It was fun,” Roes said. “It was rough, slow trail in spots but I enjoyed that I was going uphill.”

The clouds lifted and the moonlight illuminated the mountain peaks and Roes turned off his headlamp to hike in nature’s glory in Dalzell Gorge. For 25 miles he ran a gradual downhill to reach the Rohn checkpoint at mile 210 just after midnight.

“This was a case where I actually was able to do what I was hoping to do,” Roes said.

Before the race started Roes had left a drop bag at Rohn and spent longer than he would have liked reorganizing for the final push and dealing with foot issues and swollen ankles. At 3 a.m. Roes slept until 5:30 when bikers Basinger and Phil Hofsetter arrived.

The participants chatted a while and Roes set out on day six hoping to travel far on the burnt out forest and numbing snow on the Farwell Burn.

“I was feeling super optimistic and excited about everything,” Roes said. “It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and I felt rested.”

Yet exhaustion set in once again and at 10 a.m. Roes was sleeping along the trail. The bikers passed and Hewitt ambled by looking ‘wasted and pretty worked over.’

Roes packed up and traveled the rest of the day with him.

The only signs of life during the race were tracks; wolves, moose, lynx and racers. And only the racers would occasionally appear. Except when exhaustion produced hallucinations.

“Yeah you get some of that,” Roes said.

Bison Camp, an old hunting camp, was locked up when the two arrived so they bivied up on the trail at 11 p.m. at mile 250. Five hours of sleep at 20 below was a welcome relief.

The seventh day started at 4 a.m. amid optimism of cruising to the Nikolai checkpoint at mile 300.

“It was the hardest day,” Roes said. “The trail was flat and smooth but for some reason we weren’t moving. It was maybe 2.5 miles an hour; it felt like we were hauling rocks behind us. I was glad I was with Tim in the middle of this remoteness because I probably would have given up. It was really slow and depressing.”

The power of sunflower seeds, chocolate and gels had become sickening. Both wanted substantial food and at one point stopped to melt water and cook a freeze-dried meal of chicken and rice.

Said Roes, “It was phenomenal.”

Czech Republic biker Pavel Richtr passed, putting the pair in fourth position. At 7:30 p.m. they reached Nikolai. Although ‘just’ 50 miles remained, Roes decided to sleep after a good meal, reorganizing and maintenance. Hewitt didn’t like rest points and preferred the trail, telling Roes to wake him up in the morning.

“Part of me wanted to go with him,” Roes said. “It wasn’t competitive, it was that I enjoyed traveling with him.”

Roes slept until 2 a.m. and started day seven on the best trail of the race. Running at five miles an hour and a 12-minute pace with his headlamp illuminating the stillness of 40 below, Roes was truly in his element.

At 7 a.m. he came across Hewitt sleeping. The Pennsylvanian was in a mode of traveling an hour and sleeping an hour. After brief conversation and making sure Hewitt was capable to continue Roes ran on. Twenty miles remained.

“Then it got light out and I was getting a lot of emotional energy,” Roes said. “I looked back for Tim and couldn’t see him. Part of me wanted to finish with him, part of me just wanted it to be over.”

On Mar. 4, with 10 miles left Roes was on an ice road that truckers use to reach a quarry. Mind games would come into play as each mile now had road markers.

“My first thought was ‘sweet,” Roes said. “I could probably do this in under two hours. For about an hour that was the case. I was feeling good, really cruising, and did the first mile in 10 minutes.”

Roes then ran out of water. Rather than stop to melt snow he pushed on. With seven miles remaining he ran out of food. At mile 5 Roes was in ‘the absolute slowest run imaginable.’

“I knew I desperately needed food and water but I also knew my body and knew I was under five miles from McGrath,” Roes said. “In hindsight it was almost kind of fun to finish that way. It was just a tough race, a challenging race. It would have been kind of weird to finish any way but completely wasted.”

The ITI ends at the home of Tracy and Peter Scneiderheinze who have hosted the finish for years. They offer couches, drinks and food and welcoming sayings such as ‘take your shoes off, stay a while.’

A sausage and four-egg omelet topped with sour cream, cheese and butter; giant pancakes, chili, and coffee appeared before him.

“They brought a bottle of whipped cream in a spray can and I was just spraying it into my mouth,” Roes said. “I can’t even remember what all I ate.”

It has been roughly two weeks since Roes finished his seven-day ITI adventure.

“My expectation is I will fully recover by the end of the month,” Roes said. “I am definitely not close yet. I am physically and emotionally exhausted.”

At times he pictures himself walking down the race trail. On the drive home from the airport in Denver after the race he kept thinking he was on a snow-covered trail instead of the road.

A lot of people ask Roes why he attempts this event.

“It’s funny because I don’t know that I really have a specific answer to it,” Roes said. “It is really appealing to me for some reason but I haven’t yet, in four years, been able to pinpoint why. I think whatever I could conceive of attempting next would be hard to top this one. This thing is so much more epic and challenging and profound than any other race I have ever done.”

In May, Roes next takes on the 51-mile Transvulcania on La Palma in the Canary Islands, and in July the Hardrock 100-miler in Colorado. As the top Iditarod Trail Invitational foot finisher Roes has an automatic invite to next year’s race.

“I need some time to think about that,” Roes said. “I am going to be pretty tempted.”

To read Geoff Roes’ personal accounts of this race and others go to his blog at www.akrunning.blogspot.com.

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