2016 ITI, or a Mid-winter Bikepacking Traverse of the Alaska Range, Part III: A Look Back and Advice

Part III

By Guest Blogger Leah Gruhn

Editor's note: The conclusion of guest blogger Leah Gruhn’s fatbiking adventure along the Iditarod Trail Invitational route in Alaska. Read part I here and part II here.

Many have asked this guest blogger what the 10 months of preparation and planning for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) consisted of. Here are her FAQs and answers, gear tips and humble pieces of advice.

What kind of bike and gear did you use?

How is the ITI different from Midwest winter fatbike races?

  • It’s exceptionally remote, with no road access. Historically, the ITI has a very high finisher rate, largely because there is no cheap or easy way to bail out when things get tough.
  • If you got in the race, you should know what you are doing. You have to be self-sufficient and won’t get a ride out if things go south (and see above—no road access means no easy way to bail). 
  • No required route; just hit the checkpoints.
  • The Alaska Range Mountains. The mountains not only create beautiful scenery, but they also affect snowfall amounts. Higher elevations have lots of snow. There is a rain shadow on the north side of the range, however, in an area that has received forest fires in the past couple of decades. In the burn area, the lack of undergrowth vegetation allows the snow that does fall to blow off of the trail.
  • Open water stream crossings with water up to shin-deep require lightweight waders or taking socks and boots off altogether. Do not get the drivetrain of the bike wet during frozen conditions or it will freeze up.
  • Riding on wide, meandering rivers for miles and miles. The exact trail route varies from year to year and is set each year after freeze-up, depending on how the river ice forms.
  • Dalzell Gorge. The gorge comes after a downhill gravity park with fun drops and curves. In the gorge there are natural ice bridges over the river, and the trail jumps across from one bank to the other many times. In other places, where there is no natural ice bridge, Iditarod trail crews have put in bridges using logs and snow. A misstep off of the bridge could send a person into the rushing river below. The bridges felt solid when I crossed, but warm temperatures throughout the subsequent days caused some of the bridges to deteriorate.
  • Checkpoint in small Inuit (American Indian) community.
  • Arctic wildlife—ptarmigan in white winter plumage, wolverine at night, wolf howl and tracks, lynx tracks, moose tracks. The moose typically prefer to get around on the firm trail rather than post-holing in the deep snow off of the trail. One moose was shooed down the trail by racers twice during the race. As a result, there were very deep divots for about a 5 mile section of the trail near the Happy Steps.
  • Because the race is longer in distance and duration, it’s necessary to travel slower, sleep each night, and stay on top of nutrition and hydration.

What did you learn?

  • Look around—otherwise I would have missed out on incredible views of mountains, as well as a brilliant display of northern lights and stars on the night that I reached the finish.
  • Test everything under race conditions, no matter how insignificant it seems. If you're bringing it on a race like this, it's not minor. I couldn't charge my iPod shuffle, and I tried charging it with an external battery—first against my skin in a Ziploc bag and after that in a pogie. However, plugging it in for a few minutes at the Nikolai checkpoint worked.
  • Appreciate your skills and your background. My relevant background is camping (winter camping and cross-country skiing, 40-day arctic canoe expeditions in the summer, and high-elevation trekking in Nepal). Most of the other racers in the ITI come from a bike racing background. The easy part for me is taking care of myself in the winter, eating and drinking frequently, preventing frostbite or hypothermia, bivying outside, taking it at a (slower) all-day pace. The hard part is riding fast and hard, so that’s where I focus my training and prep efforts.
  • Have a plan for pacing and timing, but be flexible. Ride when you feel good, and sleep when you feel tired.
  • Cheese and bacon will keep in drop bags without spoiling for weeks.
  • Keep learning at races and during training; take notes on what works and what doesn’t.  Record what gear to carry, clothes to wear for conditions and intensity, food and water consumed, and how to dial in the bike. Read and talk to others about what works for them, and test to figure out what works for you. Keep notes because this detailed information is nearly impossible to remember throughout the summer.


About the Guest Blogger—Leah Gruhn

Leah Gruhn grew up in Rhode Island and developed a love of wilderness adventure in the far north as a teenager on summer canoe trips in northern Minnesota and the Canadian Arctic. After moving to Duluth, Minnesota, she became an avid cross-country skier and winter camper, and later competed in northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135 on cross-country skis. The following year, Leah raced the Arrowhead on fatbike and quickly got hooked on long fatbike races. In total she has competed in six Arrowhead 135s, the ITI, Tuscobia Ultra, and Actif Epica.

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JC | March 31st, 2016

Actually, Nikolai is an Athabascan village, which are neither Inuit are not American Indians :) . 

I have enjoyed your posts on the ITI, it sounds like you had a fantastic race!

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Pat Irwin | April 8th, 2016

Great writeup. Congrats on your fine finish…welcome to the club !!

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Salsa | May 3rd, 2016

Yeah..! Great Adventure.
There’s no better way to see the world than from the saddle of a bike. From city to mountains to desert.

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