A slice of life on the Iditarod Trail

Get yourself comfy as Aidan Harding tells a story from the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. It’s a slice of his life while taking part in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It has two distances, 350 and 1000 miles; neither are for the faint hearted and the race is the stuff of endurance biking legend.

Finishers in the 1,000 mile race were:

1. Jay Petervay
2. Aidan Harding
3. Tracey Petervary
4. Tim Hewitt
5. Jerym Brunton

Billy Koitzch finished the route, but was not classified because he left and rejoined the race.

Here’s Aidan’s tale:

“My website is www.aidanharding.com, my sponsors are Singular Cycles and 9 Bar. Here’s a day in my life on the trail:

Locals told us that the snow on the river was soft and that the trail-breakers had only just set off. So I could either push my bike all day or just wait until the sun went down and hope that the cold temperatures would set up the trail. In the event, there was no decision: I was in 3rd place and the leaders had opted to go, I would follow.

This is day 13 of the Iditarod Trail Invitational and the pace is beginning to quicken. We ride from near Anchorage, Alaska to Nome on the Bering coast. The trail is 1000 miles of snow, frozen rivers and lakes, and even sea ice. We sleep when we need to, provide our own food by posting packages to villages along the route, and make sure that we can deal with whatever the remote trail can throw at us. Our race wouldn’t be possible without the Iditarod Sled Dog race – a highly prestigious competition between around 60 mushers and their dog teams.

Very alone.

The sled dog race set off a week after we did but they will catch us today. We had spent 3 days resting because we needed their organisation to break a rideable trail. I want to make a move on 1st place, and the next section of trail is 130 miles with no shelter or resupply.

So I push. I set my mind to patient, ignore my watch and measure time by the left to right sweep of my shadow as I head North. I refuse to measure progress: every mile is taking an eternity. Instead, I try to enjoy the sunshine and be thankful of where I am. The Yukon River is so wide that it appears as a lake. The occasional hill hints at rapids that may lurk in the summer. My only companions are lonely birds and the trail that vanishes to the horizon.

The shadows are getting long when I see the first snow mobile pass. A few more go by, and eventually one with the much-hated paddle tracks. The trail it leaves is so powdery that my feet slip underneath me and  my bike tips continually. I stagger, I try walking off-trail but the depth of the snow and the chance of falling through send me back. It seems unfair. How could they so carelessly ruin my trail? Maybe I shouldn’t be here… My knee hurts and I’m just getting further away from help. If there were a trap-door back to Anchorage right now, I think I’d take it. But there isn’t. There’s only the snow, the blue sky, and an unrideable trail that’s now almost unpushable.

I put on my down jacket, and eat. I always need to eat out here, and the trail won’t get any worse with the delay. As I stuff down tortilla chips and try to decide which chocolate bars I’m least bored with, a snow mobile comes over and stops. It’s a film crew for the dogs and mushers. They want to get some good shots in the golden hour and chatting with them raises my spirits. One of them lives in Silver City, a town I had passed through in the latter stages of the Tour Divide last year. Even thinking about the heat of New Mexico makes me smile about where a bike can lead you.

When I move on, the trail is easier to walk. Some shadows are crossing the hundred metres from the bank and just touching my toes. Soon, serious dog teams are passing me. “How far to the checkpoint?” “When did the team in front pass?” I’m trying to dislocate myself from distance and time so the questions are hard ones, my guesses are probably hopeless.

Eventually, the darkness comes. It brings cold and wind so I kit up: snow goggles and a neoprene mask covering my face. I start trying to ride. 10 metres here, 25 metres there, straight on and off again sometimes. At least it’s worth trying. Little by little, the distances I can pedal increase. Every time, the speed bewilders me. The dog teams have left hundreds of prints across the track. My goggles have turned them yellow, and they whizz into the small circle of my head-torch faster than anything I’ve seen in hours. I try to float over the detail but it makes my brain buzz.

As I pull off the trail for another dog team, this one stops. He has decided that it would be a good place to feed his dogs and have a chat. I’m pretty incoherent. Not very messed-up, but I haven’t talked to anyone in a while. I ask him his name and if he’s done the race before: He is Martin and this is his 28th race. Hours later, I realise that he was trail-legend Martin Buser. The dogs are happy, bright-eyed things. Nothing like the vicious animals portrayed in some stories, and Martin’s care for them is palpable. It is a privileged moment and I feel buoyed by the communion between those of us who travel this trail.

Back on the move, I decide that I’m going to make this a 24 hour session. I don’t have enough food for much more than 2 days on the river, and it’s time to show my hand a little in the race. I keep things sensible, swapping clothing as much as I need to keep from sweating or getting chilled. I eat and eat. Mostly, though, I pedal and appreciate that I’m not walking. I know Jay and Tracey Petervary are up there somewhere – I hope they’ll sleep before I do.

There’s a red light up ahead. Probably. I saw an old man dressed in white earlier, but he wasn’t really there. There really is a red light. It’s Jay’s bike. And Tracey’s – there they are, camped out on the river. I pedal past, smug, and filled with more speed.

20 hours since I slept, this is really becoming an ordeal. Keep moving forward, I tell myself. There’s a checkpoint for the dog mushers at about half way. If you keep moving forward, you’ll get there. Then you can sleep. I feel drunk, cold, rebellious against the will to ride. But I know that it doesn’t matter what I feel or tell myself as long as I keep turning the pedals. I up the eating, and up the pace. Sometimes, I’m looking at the moon instead of the trail. Probably for too long, but it doesn’t seem to do any harm.

I think I can see lights ahead. It could be the checkpoint. You can see for miles out here and the snow is getting softer. Whatever it is, it’ll be a while before I reach it. My tyres are already so low that they are wrinkling heavily under my weight, so I fight the softness with speed. The light doesn’t seem to get any closer but the tiny circles that my mind is going in only last for seconds now. It’s hard to connect events for any length of time, but I can only keep going.

Suddenly, there it is. The mushers’ checkpoint. With coloured lights and bearded checkers, I feel like I’ve walked into Santa’s grotto. They say that they like my face-mask, and I realise that there are icicles hanging from it with frost covering the whole front of my body. The area of the checkpoint is small and not really for our race, so I gratefully pick up some hot water and move back down to the river to camp.

It’s not hard at all to sleep. No sooner have I set up my sleeping bag and cuddled my hot water, than I’m asleep. I had planned to sleep all day and travel by night but my body had other ideas. After a dreamless 5 hours of sleep, I wake to bright sunshine and an urge to move on.

I rarely eat a fully breakfast in the cold of the morning, so I just grab a couple of 9 Bars while I pack up. Without having had to use my stove, it doesn’t take long before I’m back in the saddle. I figure that when things turn too soft to ride, that will be a good time to melt snow to replenish my water. The trail is still cold enough to ride and I follow the brown streaks and yellow spots of the dog teams, further north.

It’s warm, so I keep my clothing minimal and pedal like hell. The trail is firm, so I pump my tyres a bit to reduce the drag. I’m going to be walking again before dark and I want as many miles as possible before that happens. I snack more and the miles pass uneventfully until I spot a musher resting his dogs.

They don’t run well in this heat and so Sven Haltmann had stopped to feed them and let them sleep. As with Martin, it is easy to connect. We talk about our backgrounds and the prospects for the day. He gives me some of the water he has just boiled. I tell him about my plans to attempt the win, and eventually I leave feeling energised.

Not long after this, the heat takes its toll on the trail. I eat a proper hot meal before I start pushing. The river seems unchanging, but there’s no denying its beauty when you take the time to look at it. These moments have a perfect simplicity – I have everything I need right now, and I know what I need to do in the future. I pack up my kit from lunch and walk. I know conditions will be like they were yesterday and hope that I’ll make the village of Kaltag before I have to sleep again.

A plane buzzes me repeatedly. There is good media coverage for the dog teams but many of them are resting through the mid-day heat, so the journalists must be bored. I don’t think of much as I walk, I just try to look after myself. Some dog teams pass, and one of them is Sven. He tells me that Jay and Tracey are gaining – they’re riding while I’m walking.

I drop my tyre pressure, cursing myself for not doing it earlier. With the lower pressure and effort borne of competitiveness, I can ride about half the time. The visual cues start to pass more quickly and, every time I look over my shoulder, I don’t see bikes. Things are proceeding quite well now: I’m getting closer to the village and holding my race position.

And then another snow mobile comes along. This time with a sled that has a heavy load and runners on its underside. The effect is to put 5 ruts that are slightly narrower than my tyres along the whole trail. It is impossible to ride. It’s late afternoon with 30 miles to go and I’m walking. I won’t make Kaltag like this.

The wind starts and I am forced to switch from sunglasses to goggles. Then into my down jacket. But with just as little warning, the wind disappears. 25 miles to go and the sun is dropping. If the trail sets up and I don’t fall asleep, I can make it.

Some of my food is too frozen to chew and not frozen enough to splinter, but I keep trying to get it down. A musher passes, holding out her hand, “Want a cookie?”. I take it and shout thanks after her.

22 miles and it is beginning to get dark. My light goes on and my hopes for a rideable trail increase. But the trail isn’t getting much better. More snow mobiles go by stirring up the snow, and that’s it – no good trail for hours.

20 miles to go, no rideable trail. I feel bad. I feel the cold and it won’t quit. Sleep deprivation has quieted the furnace inside me. 19 miles to go and my brain finally sludges up a good idea. The trail has come up the bank, there are trees here and you won’t make Kaltag tonight, so sleep here. It feels a bit like a defeat, but the first priority is to stay safe so I make myself a nice bivvy by the side of the trail.

All night, I can hear things rustling past. I assume that two of these things are Jay and Tracey. I don’t care. If they can make Kaltag tonight, then they’re super-tough. If they can’t, they’re going to have to bivvy on the open river. Eventually, a passing noise wakes me to some daylight.

As usual, I set off in my down jacket until I warm up. But as soon as I leave the trees, the wind takes against me. I pull my hood closed and thank goodness for goggles again. I’m moving, but hardly. The sunrise is beautiful, bringing warmth and raising my mood. The ground is hazy with drifting snow. This could be a slow 19 miles, but at least I will definitely reach the village today.

I try to ride occasionally, but I get too hot and drifted snow pushes me around. I’m not ready to abandon the safety of my big jacket yet, though. I can rarely even see any other bike tracks. Fallen dog booties make their own tiny hills of snow-drift. The trail leads up to the river bank on a corner and the wind drops a little. Seizing my chance, I put away the down and try to stay warm with effort. I’m short on water, too stubborn to melt snow, but used to riding dehydrated.

It’s a countdown to Kaltag now. I know that I need food but I have little with me and less water. So I attach my GPS to the handle bars, measuring out the miles. I play mind-games: I won’t look at the GPS  until I’ve passed THAT headland. Maybe I’ll be a mile closer then. After 5 miles, I’ll take a drink. Anything to break up this last distance. Somewhere along the trail, I see a dent in the snow off-trail. That could easily be where Jay and Tracey slept, that would have been one windy night! (I found out later that I was right, they had slept there)

My hat comes off and gets swapped for a Buff over the ears. My goggles come off and get swapped for sunglasses. A mile or two ahead, I can see a rise up the riverbank, maybe buildings, could it be Kaltag? I am careful with my emotions, false hope can hurt. I keep going. If I have to, I can keep going longer. The dots resolve into more buildings, though. It is Kaltag!

As I approach, I hear applause from one of the locals. I push my bike up the steep bank, thinking I’ll sleep here for a while. I head for the school to pick up my food package and there they are: Jay and Tracey, still packing up. I won’t be sleeping, then. The race goes on…

Aidan Harding


Web: www.aidanharding.com
Twitter: @AidanHarding

A pleased Aidan

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