Alaska Calling - Three Perspectives On The Iditarod Trail Invitational

Another running of the Iditarod Trail Invitational is set to begin February 25th. The world’s longest winter ultra-marathon is not for everyone, and the racers who line up have goals that are little different than most people’s. The physical and mental skills required not only to compete but to thrive and survive in that environment can only come from putting oneself in it, and an unwavering desire to see, feel, and learn what happens has to remain intact from start to finish. Three of our sponsored riders - Jill Martindale, Neil Beltchenko, and Jay Petervary, are cyclists fueled by that uncommon curiosity, and they’re all heading north in a few weeks to see what the legendary trail has in store this year.

Jill Martindale, Rookie

What does lining up for such a storied race mean to you? Are the pre-race jitters the same as they’d be for any ultra you enter, or is this different?

I am so incredibly excited to have found myself on the roster for the 350-mile ITI! Growing up, I always loved reading about Alaska, and I found myself envious of the sled-dog mushers because of the epic adventures and conditions they came up against. I’ve always loved winter more than summer! I am excited to be lost in winter and traversing across part of a place I’ve never been before. Racing on the Iditarod Trail on my fat bike is an opportunity I am very fortunate to find myself in, and I feel honored to have my name listed with so many endurance athletes who I’ve admired since getting into this whole crazy winter ultra-world. ITI has been on my mind for the last few years and finally qualifying for it, and finally having plans to get out there, and finally making it happen are pretty surreal! The pre-race jitters are a lot different than other races, but I’m strangely comfortable with them. There are a whole lot of details to figure out - airplane tickets, who’s going to cover at work for me while I’m in Alaska, shipping my drop bags out, getting my bike to Alaska, making sure I have enough miles under the saddle, making sure I feel comfortable hike-a-biking, figuring out how to follow the route, renting a car for Dan to noodle around in while I’m out riding up there, worrying about water, what nutrition will work, what is the weather like, how to be prepared in case I have a mechanical, in case my water freezes, in case I run out of food, in case there’s a moose, in case there’s overflow and I get wet, in case I have to build a fire… and I’ve found this whole year, increasingly as we come up to my first ITI, that all of these worries can wad up and feel very overwhelming. I just keep breathing and mentally telling myself that I’m ready - or as ready as I can be. I have some training left before traveling out to Alaska, but other than physically preparing and learning about my gear, the race is ultimately out of my hands. It all depends on the weather! Luckily, I have ridden in a variety of temperatures and conditions, and although Michigan doesn’t get quite as cold as Alaska, I feel like I’ve done the best that I can considering I work full-time at the shop and we don’t have quite as many snowmobile trails around my house.

How does doing ITI affect your racing bucket list?

The weirdest thing I’ve found about doing winter ultras is that you have to qualify for them. At least it was weird when I realized that’s what I needed to do. In retrospect, it means you have to put in the work and the practice to be as safe as possible! When I first lined up to the start of Tuscobia, my first winter ultra, doing the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational seemed like the be-all/end-all. At that point, I had already decided I wanted to get to Alaska and I was banking on enjoying Tuscobia! (If I didn’t, I had my work cut out for me! I’m stubborn and didn’t want to back down from setting the goal to do the ITI!) I chatted with race organizers for a moment to talk about the other multi-day trips I had been on for them to feel comfortable with me skipping the shorter race and going straight for the biggie! The Tuscobia 150 hurt. I was definitely dazed after crossing the finish line. It was long and straight and snowy and the longest I had ridden in the cold! Finishing Tuscobia qualified me for the Arrowhead 135 and finishing the Arrowhead 135 helped get me into Fat Pursuit! I didn’t finish at my first Fat Pursuit, but I did finish my second Arrowhead 135 (and I set a new women’s course record doing it!) By the time I had finished three winter ultras, I finally qualified for the 350-mile ITI! Heading out to Alaska this winter is theoretically one of the last steps towards the 1,000-mile race. All I have to do is finish, and I can qualify for the full distance! It’s no longer my be-all/end-all thing - I’m hooked on winter ultras and want to do them all! - now, ITI is something that is going to help shape how my bucket list looks after I complete the 1,000th mile!

You’ve acquired a wealth of experience racing winter ultras already. What gives you the most confidence heading into your first ITI? And what knowledge are you looking most forward to gaining?

The amount of ITI veterans I have met through other winter ultras has been pretty amazing! Chatting and talking with a lot of ITI finishers, or even multi-finishers has been the most confidence-inspiring thing I could have done beforehand! The groups of folks who I have met are top notch, and it’s a really special community in which everyone wants to see others succeed. Reading about other experiences out there, asking questions and learning from the folks who have been successful before, and staying optimistic about the whole thing have probably been some of the best preparations I could have done to get out there. I’m looking forward to learning more about patience, making some mistakes, and just seeing all the cool stuff out in Alaska!

Of all the stories you’ve read and heard, what part of ITI are you most excited to experience for yourself?

Other than the views, I hear the checkpoints along the way are awesome! I hear there is great food, hospitable people, and cozy places! Ha! Seriously though, I have never been to Alaska before and something about being out there and racing my bike… it makes me so excited! Everyone seems to have amazing stories associated with ITI, and I’m looking forward to getting out there and to earning my own.

What is it about winter ultras that appeal to you?

Each year, no matter what, you’re guaranteed a different race. The snow will always be different, the temperatures will always be different, and there will be new challenges depending on how the trail holds up with all of the changing variables! Figuring out how to give myself the best chance possible with so many different scenarios is exciting and fun - the strategy behind winter ultras is addicting! It also makes me really happy to be out in the cold on my bicycle because I know that there aren’t a whole lot of others out there doing the same thing and that somehow makes the experience just a little more magical.

Getting into them, what have been the biggest fears to overcome?

I think frostbite is a very real fear. I saw someone get hypothermia at my first winter ultra, and that was scary too. With the right gear, staying on top of hydration, snacking regularly, and avoiding fatigue, frostbite or hypothermia can be avoided. That’s a lot of stuff to make sure you’re doing right out in the cold on top of worrying about riding and not getting lost! I love the cold, I love riding in the dark, and I love both riding with others and riding by myself. There’s still some concern going into any winter ultra that I could get careless and wind up with black toes or letting my core get too cold, but the risks are worth the feeling of accomplishment once you’ve carried yourself across the finish line. It’s a good feeling to conquer your fears. I imagine it’s a good feeling to survive them, too.

What bike will carry you on this journey, and what’s in your kit both tried-and-true and new?

I’ll be taking my Salsa Mukluk out to Alaska to carry me the 350 miles to McGrath. I’ve had a rack-less set up in the past, and this year having a rear rack to strap stuff to has been pretty great. The rack also gives me another spot to grab my bike when I’m wrestling it up a steep incline or something like that, and I’m digging it! I think I’ll be choosing the 45NRTH studded Dillinger 5 tires, but I’ll most likely wait a little closer to the start of the race to decide for sure. Regarding warm gear, I’ll be bringing my 45NRTH Wolfgar boots to wear no matter what temperatures will be, because they’re worn in and comfy. My feet also get colder if I’m not staying on top of hydration or as I fatigue, so I think they’ll be the warmest option for a multi-day trip. After the Arrowhead this year, I did place an order for a pair of Mountain Tools over boots to place over my cycling boots when temperatures fall below -25 degrees to help eliminate some of the risks of frostbite. I will be using the 45NRTH Cobrafist pogies paired with hand warmers and several pairs of my 45NRTH gloves. Again, the final days before the race will determine what combination of gloves I’ll be sporting, but it’s nice to feel prepared by having so many options! The 45NRTH Naughtvind knickers and pants are both solid, and depending on what temps we’ll see out there, I can wear them together or paired with a lighter chamois and base-layer options. I have the NiteRider Mako 250 battery operated headlight to use in all the hours of darkness on the trail, but I typically pack a super bright 1100-lumen USB rechargeable light, the Lumina, for the darkest of the dark or for when I fatigue at night and just need a little something to help keep me alert - the odds of recharging that light during the race is pretty slim, but I like having a super-duper bright light if morale gets a little low. I’ve used the Esbit stove and fuel tabs successfully at other winter ultras, and I’m a little concerned that I could be using a better stove option, but I’m hesitant to change what I know when it comes to melting snow so close to the race start. The fuel cubes are relatively easy to use, and although they’re stinky, they’ve worked for me every time. I do have an Arctic Innovations Hydro Heater to help to keep water from freezing, and I’m glad I’ve had so much time to practice using that hydration system. I can get lazy when drinking my water with the Hydro Heater because the hose is a little shorter and the mouthpiece is a little difficult to get to when it’s very cold, and it’s tucked under several layers, but it’s reliable, and that’s important when heading out into the unknown. This question has turned into such a ramble of a response - but I am confident that a lot of my gear will provide the best opportunity to finish. Seriously though, I am so happy to have the Mukluk as my mode of transportation; big tires, racks and mounts, and a comfortable ride will make things easier to endure out there!

What words of encouragement do you have for other participants?

The Iditarod Trail Invitational only allows a limited number of participants for all of the distances and in all of the different modes of transportation. Holy cow, somehow, I get to be one of the lucky few participants!? We all get to be lucky, and we all get to race together this year?! I’m still in awe of qualifying! Regardless of how everyone’s race goes, just getting out to Alaska for the event is a huge privilege. I look forward to the bonds we’ll make out on the trail. We all just have to keep pedaling forward, and we have to watch out for each other. We frickin’ got this!!

Neil Beltchenko, Second-timer

What about the Iditarod drew you back?

Ever since I sat down in my seat on the flight from Anchorage back to Seattle last year, I have been thinking about this race. I’ve done a number of ultras, and a handful of winter ultras and the atmosphere, vibe, challenge, and reward is unparalleled to any of those other races. So, it only made sense to head back again for another try at the 350-mile version. While I have had a few years of winter ultras under my belt, The ITI is different. It’s more remote, more out there, simply more difficult for a variety of factors and for that reason, I think it has drawn me back.

After you returned from your first ITI, how long did it take you to know what you were going to do differently for the next time? What will you be doing differently? Or is that the sort of thing you’ll still be thinking about up until the race starts?

I knew after a good night’s sleep in Anchorage what I could improve on. A lot of the ITI is condition dependent. It shows in the results over the years, but there is quite a bit that can be done by the racer to make for a better overall experience. That being said, I learned more in my failed attempt on the Fat Pursuit in 2017 than I did during the ITI last year - at least as far as taking care of my body and dealing with extremely cold conditions. For this year, I’m currently playing with different ways to carry gear. I’m always searching to find the best and most efficient way because every second counts. Rethinking where my sleeping bag goes, batteries for lights, layers, and such. Last year I was scrambling to figure out what to bring. Now that I know, I have the time to tinker with where it lives. Of course, there will be a few last-minute changes - there always are, but the finish last year gave me a lot of confidence in what I know I need. 

How present is the past when you’re on the ITI course? Is there a history you can feel? Did it match your expectations on your first trip?

The ITI has a rich history and I’ve been reading about it for a long while. I have deep respect for the folks that made due before an actual fat bike was around. I think the biggest take away and intrigue I get from the ITI is the problem solving before, during, and after the race. The thing is, it’s not just you problem solving, it’s every single person who has ever lined up. The pioneers of the sport and fat bike racing in Alaska did more problem solving than we currently do. That’s why times are now faster, gear is lighter, and strategies are smarter. I owe a lot to the folks laying down the tracks years before me, and I’m humbled and blessed to be a part of such a storied history. My first trip last year was incredibly rewarding. I had no expectations of going as fast as I did, I just knew I had one goal, and that was to finish. I did that and performed far better than I would have anticipated.

What is it about winter ultras that appeal to you?

There is something to be said about traveling by bike with everything you need for days on end. There is a sense of comfort in the summer. You typically know what you are going to expect, and even if you are unsure of the route and weather, things tend to be a bit more consistent than in winter. I think that’s the main draw - the unknown, the slower pace, the cold, the wind, the blowing snow. There are so many outside factors that can change the equation; these unknowns are what keep bringing me back. I have only done four years of winter ultras, but they are more mentally draining and exhausting on the body than some 500-plus mile races. In my attempts to become better at winter ultras, I need to experience the unknowns and exhaustion. It’s challenging, rewarding, and fun!

Getting into them, what have been the biggest fears to overcome?

The initial fear for me was cold, and it still is today. My first winter ultra was back in 2014 at Arrowhead. I think the start was something like -20. I was so nervous, but once I got going, it felt like 30-plus degrees. So, while I have a fear of cold, the gear and the way I protect my skin typically does not change until -25/-30 and beyond. In Alaska, that’s normal! So, overcoming that fear is tough, especially when I only get a handful of days - mostly evenings and mornings - here in Colorado in those temps. Another fear is water freezing. It’s a fear but something that is totally avoidable and can be fixed in the field. It’s a lot of trial and some error. 

What bike will carry you on this journey, and what’s in your kit both tried-and-true and new?

Not much will change from last year. The Salsa Mukluk is the workhorse in my bike fleet, and that will again be the bike I fly with to Alaska. I have never loaded a bike down so much as the Muk, and when I do, it’s such a joy to ride. It’s stable, yet snappy especially with the Alternator Dropouts moved forward which is great for shorter rides and races. The Muk can fit the 100mm rims with 5” tires, so that too is a huge benefit, not only in Alaska but here in Colorado where we typically see very low-density snow. I’ll again be running 45NRTH Dillinger 5 studded tires, because, as I found out last year, Alaska is just a frozen swamp, with frozen rivers and mountains. Those tires will be mounted to some Whisky carbon fat bike hoops with my trusty blue Industry 9 fat bike hubs. I will also be rolling a SRAM Eagle Drivetrain, with either a 30 or 32 tooth chainring. Adidas Terrex apparel are the technical layers I use to not only keep me warm but also cool and dry.

I briefly contemplated going with a rack because the Mukluk has that versatility, but I’m not sure I’ll have the time to get around to testing that system out. I would like to move my bulky sleeping bag to the rear of my bike for better light illumination and vision. The other thing I’m currently working on is hand positions inside the pogies. Pogies are great for a variety of reasons and essential for the ITI, but I have found that they inhibit multiple hand positions. So, I am currently testing out some togs, and if those don’t work, I’ll be adding some short bar ends to the inside of my grip to give me another position.

What words of encouragement do you have for other participants?

I have always said that the human body is an incredible thing, and it’s even more incredible that it is capable of pedaling across snow and ice in Alaska. My #1 goal is always to finish, and while there is a fine line between finishing and survival, more times than not, you will be able to endure anything in front of you. Be positive, enjoy the route, enjoy the culture, be kind to all the businesses and volunteers, and remember that you signed up for this! Make the most of it. Sure, it’s a race, but it’s a competition against yourself. Push yourself to the limits, be bold, and give’r hell.

Enjoy that ride through the night.

Jay Petervary, 10th Iditarod Trail Invitational

This will be my 10th year Anniversary of the ITI. So, why wouldn’t I try for Nome this year? It’s a celebration! Out of the nine ITI’s I have done, I have three successful trips reaching Nome, two of them traveling with my wife, Tracey. Three wins on the 350, and two wins to Nome.

Finish this sentence - “Seems like every time I prepare for another run at ITI, I find myself…”

...tinkering, modifying gear, and packing my bike for endless amounts of time”. It’s kind of crazy as I can have great success with a certain system, but then I just have to change it up for the sake of changing it up. In the end, the more you pay attention to the small details of your gear and bike, the smoother things will be on the trail. It also seems like every setup I have ever rolled down the trail with has been different. Some of it stems from past experiences and some from just wanting to try new things. The Iditarod Trail is like a school that has no graduation. No matter how much time you spend on it, it will forever teach you things.

Considering your history and success with ITI, do you feel like you’ve got a greater amount of wiggle room with preparation and experimentation than other racers, or are the course and environment always in charge?

I certainly have a lot of experience and confidence, enough that I don’t need to experiment as much as I use to, but it doesn’t prevent me from preparing to the highest level of my ability. I hold a lot of respect for the Iditarod Trail and what the weather can dish out. It can be relentless, and it does not care at all about you. Each year is so unique, and it will be absolutely nothing like what you may think it is going to be. Watching the weather and getting ‘trail reports’ will only make you worry and distract you from preparing for anything and taking it as it comes. The reality is that the environment that one can encounter on the trail can easily put you in a dangerous situation very quickly if you don’t prepare properly. The biggest advantage I have is I don’t lose sleep and worry as I used to during the months of lead up time. It will be what it will be, and I am okay with whatever that is.

Think back to your early experiences with ITI. What drew you to it, and how did you gather intel for this relatively new endeavor back then? Who did you talk to about it? What were your hopes and dreams?

The early days seemed a bit more raw, and that true rawness has disappeared some through all the available knowledge on the internet today. There was not a lot of public information at the time when I started, and the ones that were doing it at the time kept that info to themselves. That was the draw for me. The unknown. I’ve always been one to figure things out on my own, through my own experiences and doing my research. I like to develop my own opinion on things and think outside the box. Sometimes the less you know, the better, or ignorance can be bliss. I didn’t reach out to anybody. In these early years of adventuring it was known as earned knowledge, and now the more modern ITI participant almost expects to be able to get certain information.

My hopes early on were to finish and have the most challenging adventure ever. I got that my first year and almost every year since. My dream is now, ten years later, I’m still out there doing it.

Is there anything you miss from those early years? How has it changed?

Absolutely. The field was made up of more hardcore winter adventurers. The mode of transportation was just chosen as a tool that helped move them forward. Now, especially with the growth of fat bikes, we have more athletes, or bike riders, wanting to become winter adventurers. There is nothing wrong with this, but it seems like things got reversed. As said earlier, it just seemed more raw in the early years. It also seemed more snow used to fall! Tell me there isn’t global warming but looking back on my ten years at ITI I would have to argue. Four to six days finish time was kind of the norm on the 350-mile event; now it seems two to three is. People had to be much more creative back then as well with making and creating gear to use. This brings out a different person. Now you can buy your way into a fully functional kit to get down the trail.

Interesting note: Over my years I can count on one hand how many people have scratched and been flown out of the Rohn checkpoint. This is the most challenging and most expensive place to scratch. Last year’s number of scratches in Rohn exceeded all the years added together.

What about ITI made it stick with you and become a regular part of your life?

The ITI adventure cannot be replicated, and it is guaranteed to be very different each year. The journey is life changing. In the past ten years, I missed one, and I was very depressed about it. It’s hard to explain, but it fills this void of adventure that I crave. I look to be on the edge, the ability to push and challenge myself at a very high level, and the ITI is the only thing I have found so far to take me to that level. I also love to compete and having that lingering pressure helps me push the limits.

What (and who) do you look forward to seeing most on each return to Alaska?

The silence, the views, the northern lights, the real-life school lessons and the new unknown experience I get to walk away with has a priceless value to me and fills a big part of my life with personal growth. At this point, I definitely look forward to seeing the friends I have made on and along the trail. Whether it be a villager that I have watched grow from a child to an adult, an Iditarod dog race trail breaker, a dog musher, a business owner, or a fellow competitor, they are all very special. The Iditarod Trail family is something amazing, and this yearly meet up means just as much or maybe even more to me than some yearly holidays.

What bike will carry you on this journey, and what’s in your kit both tried-and-true and new?

Curiosity is what creates discoveries. It can sometimes just dead-end an idea, or it can sometimes get me into trouble, but ​I received a new Blackborow this winter. I asked for this bike because I started to see beyond what is possible with a traditional bike. I didn’t have any immediate goals, but I love to tinker and think outside the box. I need these types of projects in my life. I love to prove ideas and concepts beyond traditional thinking. The more I played with the Blackborow, the more curious I was getting. I did one very particular ride where the light bulb was shining bright, and I could not steer away from the question “Why are you not taking the Blackborow to AK?”. At first, I had to remove my “competitive” mindset, and then I became so obsessed with the idea that if I didn’t take it, I would be kicking myself and curious forever. So, over the past couple weeks, I have been pimping out my Blackborow and will be using it as my travel companion to Nome. I hope to be riding it more than pushing it, and I honestly think in the right conditions I will be riding it even more, with more control, than a traditional fat bike. For my 10th year Anniversary on the trail, this project could not have me more stoked!

The tried-and-true: 45NRTH Wolfgars, Dillinger 5 studded tires, Princeton Tec lights (Apex, Fuel, and Swerve), HED BFD rims on Industry 9 hubs, and rag wool socks

The new: Well, I got a new MSR Whisperlite stove because my old one had one too many hiccups.

What words of encouragement do you have for other participants?

Embrace the journey. Live in the moment. Step back and understand how lucky you are and let that feeling overwhelm and drive you. Know you have everything you need. Slow down and think about the ‘work’ you need to do. Do your “work.” You can do more than you think you can. When times get tough, remember all the time, money, and sacrifices you made to get there. When the trail is at its worst, it only can only get better. Time changes everything. The lows only last so long. The crap trail sections only last so long. The feeling of finishing can only be felt by finishing. Pushing is part of the journey. If you think about quitting, you will immediately regret it and the next year will be the longest year ever while waiting to do it again. Have fun. Love what you do. And GOOD LUCK to ALL!


Safety to Nome - COMING 2018!

Safety to Nome - Trailer from Asymetriq Productions Inc. on Vimeo.

This post filed under topics: Beargrease Bikepacking Blackborow Bucksaw Fatbike Jay Petervary Mukluk Neil Beltchenko Snow Biking Sponsored Riders Ultra Racing

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Mark Sirek

Mark Sirek

I had to live on both coasts a couple of times to realize that maybe being born in the Midwest wasn’t just arbitrary. I’m drawn to the terrain here, and if you catch me with one of this region’s supreme IPAs in hand, I’ll talk your ear off about my favorite spots. I’ll always take every opportunity though to explore every nook and cranny anywhere I can on a bike, because that’s what makes me feel most alive.


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