Garbage Bags Might or Might Not Save You From Open Water

Racing the Iditasport on Big Lake Alaska

This originally appeared in 1994, after riding the Iditasport in February, 1993.  I’m posting it now to honor the event, set to take place this weekend, but was cancelled due to the pandemic.  It’s expected to return in January, 2022.  The wheels, btw, sported custom-made double-wide rims; two rims welded together and 2.2″ clinchers glued on one side to the rim.


Just as I tell myself to cross the street, I told myself to race in the Iditasport, the human-powered sister event to the Iditarod.

Iditasport is one of the biggest testicle events in the bicycle world. Cyclists have a long tradition of one-upmanship regarding suffering. Irrespective of age, stage, or sex, cyclists can always be found sharing stories of their toughest ride, their worst crash, the gnarliest descent they ever survived. And cyclists often turn easy jaunts with pals into hammerfests, where each person vies to be the first to a town line, over a hill, through a tricky turn. Those are testicle rides and nearly every cyclist is guilty of participation in them.

Races and racers often get rated on a testicular basis. The toughest are always spoken of in a combination of awe and dismissal. While Iditasport is held in a remote part of the country and attracts few participants, it has been reported in the cycling press ever since the race director first shot his pistol over the frozen north.

I race bicycles often. It’s a year ’round hobby: road racing from March through October, mountainbike racing September through December, cyclocross November and December, and roller racing January and February. And usually, no one in my family takes any special notice. But, when every member of my family makes a point of calling the night before a race, I worry. After hanging up on my last family member, I complained to my host that, “It’s not as if I’m going to die out there.” The icy stare that was returned emphatically confirmed that they had a right to worry.

What’s the big deal? It’s only a 200-mile bicycle race in Alaska in February. And people have done it before, so the race is not an impossible task.

No big deal, indeed. Signing away my life on a release form is standard for bike racing. So standard that virtually every event I enter uses the same form. Iditasport’s release was much more ominous than any release I’ve read:

“No rescue can be anticipated. The appropriate

knowledge of snow camping, frozen river travel,

animal confrontations, illness, injury, gear

failure or loss, self-rescue, bad weather,

hypothermia, frostbite, and the like must have

been acquired before entering Iditasport…This

prevents you, or your next of kin, should the

worst happen to you, including death,…from

suing…Any decision you make is your own and

you are responsible for it.”

And it is the only release form I’ve ever had to have notarized. This is probably the reason for Iditasport’s bumper sticker that reads, “Cowards Won’t Show and The Weak Will Die.”

When I told Alaskans why I was visiting their state for the first time, I found myself chuckling. I was a little nervous about the race. Many folks in Anchorage couldn’t believe the reason I had come to Alaska, because they themselves didn’t do those sorts of winter activities. “Wow, that must be something. I never go out there in the winter,” some told me. Though it surprised me, I guess it shouldn’t have: even folks in Alaska don’t have to like the winter.

I like the winter. After I get over the hassle of dressing properly, I enjoy getting out on cold days. The air always seems cleaner, the skies (when they are clear) seem a more intense shade of blue, the midday sun seems to burn brighter, and nature seems calm, peaceful, empty. I always feel like an adventurer when I ride my bike and winter heightens that sense of experience.

Still, I was nervous; I had never been “out there,” either. I thought I could do it. I didn’t see why I couldn’t do it. After all, I had ridden my road bike when the temperature was in the low teens and there were gusting winds. Yet, I had doubts.

One former participant, a writer, told me that a man who climbed Mount McKinley alone tried the race once. The climber dropped out, claiming the race was too difficult.

That writer claimed he nearly died his first time in Iditasport and that he was on “the edge” for much of the second time he raced it. He finished, but he never wanted to go back.  He suggested bringing a gun, not for bear, but for moose.

Then again, fifty people enter the race each year, and no one has died yet. The organizers told me it was do-able and the unofficial race mechanic told me that the location for the race, “isn’t that cold.”

He meant by Alaska standards. It isn’t as cold as Fairbanks or Nome, but it can get as low as -60F. And temperatures in the -20sF aren’t that uncommon. Racers have experienced -40F in past years. And these people don’t figure in wind chill. The mechanic also told me that riding when the temperature was around 0 F was, “just about perfect.”

Zero Fahrenheit seems a bit cold to me, but I had never been to Alaska. Before leaving, I gathered up all my winter clothing as well as extra jackets and fleece from friends and brought it with me because living the Boy Scout Motto seemed like a good idea. I expected the worst, and worried about it.

When the race day dawned, I didn’t worry about what was going to happen; I worried about getting to the race on time. I overslept by fifteen minutes, and I usually under sleep when I’m nervous. When I got to the starting line, I busied myself with the last-minute race preparations. The bike I didn’t worry about: it was a dinosaur, my dinosaur–a 1987 Fisher HooKooEKoo mountainbike outfitted with extra-wide wheels (to “float” on the snow), extra-low gears (to ride at the slower speeds created by snow-riding), a touring rack over the rear wheel, saddlebags, and “Pogies” (nylon shells that cover one’s hands from the wind) over my handlebars. Last-minute preparations included getting the gear on the bike, putting on the right clothes, and firing up my stove and melting snow for the promoter (a mandatory test because one had to carry, among other survival items, a stove and pot).

The promoter handed me two garbage bags and told me, “Put these over your feet if you have to cross open water.”

I hadn’t thought about that possibility because the temperature was hovering around 12 F. As I stood on the line, looking out over frozen Big Lake, I realized that I had no idea what the other side of the lake would be like.

The great thing about starting any event or test is that the preparation is over. You have to make do with your knowledge and ability, regardless of the circumstances. Admittedly, my preparation wasn’t the best. Fitness wasn’t a concern because I was in good shape, but cold weather survival was. I didn’t have the opportunity to practice in Arctic conditions at home, so I engaged in my favorite substitute: intense reading. I read a number of books on cold-weather camping, survival, and wild-animal confrontations. The most vivid memory from my reading was the cross-country skier who allowed severe frostbite to develop. The resulting nerve damage caused most of his toes to fall off. While my preparation might not qualify me for guide work in the Himalayas, it would be sufficient to recognize and treat most problems, or so I hoped.

I took the lead from the start of the ice run at Big Lake. A pack of dawdling, gear-laden cyclists on rutted ice made me nervous because an unloaded bicycle is hard enough to control when riding over ice. Leading the group gave me peace of mind as well as clear vision of the course ahead. I lead onto the snow, onto the Iditarod Trail, where the racers with lighter rigs passed me. The racers in front rode out of sight as I distanced myself from those behind. I was left on my own. Fear of the cold seemed unfounded because I wasn’t cold at all; in fact I was so hot I had to remove a layer of clothing.

Watching nine people pass me and fade off in the distance was frustrating. I knew I was as strong as they, but I had only realized my disadvantage at the starting line: The people ahead of me were carrying some twenty pounds less gear than I was. I probably could survive if the weather suddenly went bad (fast-moving fronts were not unusual in this region of Alaska); they probably couldn’t. My sleeping bag (rated to -40 F) weighed over six pounds, which was already more weight than any of the cyclists ahead of me were carrying. And that was just the start of my provisions.

Well, I settled in to enjoy the ride. The sun came out, bathing distant Mount Susitna, and I was pleasantly alone. Nothing but trees and snow in every direction.   What race? I was just another cyclist touring through the middle of nowhere. That it happened to be winter and Alaska made it even better.

The day seemed so pleasant that I almost forgot the central question of this experience, a question that only comes up when activities like Iditasport turn ugly: why would I put myself through it (if I didn’t have to)?

I guess it could be because the idea is totally stupid, completely ridiculous. Racing in Iditasport is acceptance of the absurd. Sir George Mallory said of his desire to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He died on that mountain. All the same, mastering nature is what civilization is all about and my attempt at racing in Alaska is, I guess, my proving my power over the natural world. Even though I thought I was doing something “different,” I guess I’m more like other people than I’d like to admit. Hopefully, I’ll never be taken as boring.

I was due for something different as my adventure/routine ratio had taken a nosedive. Routine had become everything and adventure seemed to be minuscule. Boredom was an important motivating factor. I needed a new goal, new boundaries; an event of this magnitude gave me focus.

A change in circumstance can alter perspective faster than a crane-mounted camera, but an endless walk though the night can arouse doubt through the strongest resolve. I started to wonder about my purpose for racing Iditasport, other than to finish, on my seven-hour walk from Rabbit Lake to the halfway point. After six-and-a-half hours of daytime, I had reached the 70-mile checkpoint at Rabbit Lake. The lake couldn’t be seen because I was on top of it; Rabbit Lake was covered by ice and many feet of snow. I had walked the mile previous to this checkpoint because the snow had deteriorated to loose powder, “snow-sugar,” unrideable conditions. Fifty-five pounds of bike, even with the special extra-wide tires and rims I was riding, was too much for this snow. Pedaling was impossible because the bike wouldn’t drive forward; it would lurch to the side.

The people at the Rabbit Lake checkpoint looked like a gang in the midst of a tailgate party without a tailgate. They had arrived by plane; no roads out here. They engaged me in the pleasant banalities of greeting a visitor. For them it was more than passing time; it was an easy way to test whether or not I was coherent enough to continue. One person told me that as the temperature dropped over the course of the evening, the trail would harden up and become faster, more rideable.

She was wrong. Though the temperature dropped through the teens (F), the course remained snow-sugar, broken apart by the cyclists who passed ahead of me. And you won’t break through the snow and hit dirt anytime soon–the earth was many feet below the snow as the postholes that moose legs made in the snow could attest. Riding was still impossible.

After about four hours of walking, I started to worry. There were no lights, no noise, no signs of human life; nothing. I could be lost and not know it. When mountainbiking at home, I don’t worry about getting lost because I know that I’ll eventually come to a telephone pole, a power line, or a road that will eventually lead me home. This trick doesn’t play in Alaska; those things don’t exist in the bush. Periodically, I’d stop, sit astride my bike, munch down some food, and consider. The isolation was awesome. There was no moon in the sky, and though the Northern Lights were on, my trail beaten, colorblind eyes could barely notice it. My water was running low, I was finishing my food supplies. What if I ran out? My headlamp died; luckily I brought a second battery. I could probably walk through the night, but my second battery couldn’t last that long. What I would do after the battery died, I had no idea.

I was told that I would know I was approaching Skwentna, the halfway point, because I would see the lights from the nearby airfield. I saw nothing and there was nothing I could do but continue; and I stumbled into Skwentna around 12:30 a.m., 30 miles covered by foot.

I forgot about my fears when I stepped inside the cabin at the checkpoint. It was warm and there was an indoor bathroom and there was plenty of food to eat. I also forgot about the promise I made to my family and friends. They worried about my venturing into an arena about which I knew little and they didn’t want me to lose limb or life out in the Alaskan bush. I worried, too, though not as much. My lack of worry had disturbed me, so I promised them and myself that I wasn’t out to win, or even finish, at all costs. “I’m not a fool,” I told them, “if things get really dangerous, I’ll either wait it out or drop out, but I won’t continue if it’s really bad. I won’t push myself over the edge.” But now all I thought about was eating two meals within an hour, changing into dry clothes, packing new supplies, and heading south along the Skwentna river. I was planning to ride through the night.

Part of my excitement was my desire to exceed my expectations, part of it was due to the promise of the Skwentna. “The Skwentna is fast riding,” the folks at the checkpoint told me. At first it was fast, but navigating a frozen river at night is difficult. The river curves, and the trail down the river, marked by sticks placed in the snow a few hundred yards apart, meanders across the river, seeking the thickest ice. At night, the one-inch square pieces of reflective tape are all one can see of the stick, if one can spot it at all. Seeing in three dimensions was extremely difficult. My mind was starting to go to sleep, my body was shutting down. I had pushed myself too far. I was reduced to stumbling down the river with my bike as my crutch. The last thing I wanted to do was stop and sleep, even though I had the gear to do it.

My delirium was jolted by a massive silhouette just 50 feet away. A bull moose had been studying my progress. I was now awake, but very frightened. It was one large, dark mass. I read that they can weigh up to a ton, and while I disputed such a figure at home, I didn’t doubt it now. Moose are disposed to stomping what threatens them–no small deal when moose weigh a ton. Fear pumped adrenaline through my body and after I gingerly distanced myself from the moose, I was able to ride again. The threat had spurred my mind and body to go farther.

I was in trouble, but there was nothing I could do. This is both the beauty and the danger of such an episode. I knew the adrenaline would run out, but I was hoping the juice would take me to the next checkpoint.

It didn’t, and I stumbled into a second and third moose standing together. A sow and her calf were standing by open water on the river. They weren’t going to move, not without a fight. She started snorting and stomping her hoof to voice her displeasure.  Luckily, an experienced skiier caught me, and he suggested getting off the trail and climbing the river bank. I suppose I could’ve made a run for it; but the trail would have taken me within a foot of the moose, and a moose can run faster than I can ride on snow. My life felt precariously perched as I carried my bike to the edge of the river and walked along the bank until I was well past the moose.

I’ll concede that I had lost all rationality. So, when I arrived at the next checkpoint, I seriously considered going out for more, even though the woman there told me they were about to send a party to look for me. I had taken almost four hours to cover twenty miles. She was trying to tell me that I had pushed myself too far. Somehow, reason won out, and I decided to sleep. She probably would have forced me to stay if I decided otherwise.

Something inside me told me that I had passed the critical moment, that finishing the race was now a formality. I woke from a cold sleep slightly before sunrise and continued heading south on the river. All I wanted now was to finish before sunset. And I did it, rolling into the lodge at Big Lake 30 hours and 52 minutes after I left it. Muscle soreness and danger were forgotten as I got out of the cold and into some dry clothes.

The reasons for racing Iditasport faded in the glow of finishing. And now, looking back, I have some trouble believing I did it and wonder why I was willing to do such a crazy thing. I’m not sure if I could convince others to try the race. There are so many reasons not to do Iditasport. Those arguments are the best reasons to try it.

Before the race even started, Simon, a bicycle mechanic from Fairbanks, asked me, “Are your going to do it again? Because you should. It’s a great race, y’know.”

I didn’t know then, but I know now.

Maybe I will.

Share your thoughts.