• Wed December 24 2008
  • Posted Dec 23, 2008
SUSITNA FLATS STATE GAME REFUGE, Alaska From Mint Glacier to the Cook Inlet, an eight-inch frozen crust sealed the deep waters of the Little Susitna River. A snowstorm had buckled the ice with a foot of fresh powder, forcing plumes of frigid water up through the crevices to form layers of crisp slush. To the trained eye, such sinkholes appeared as shadows on the ice.
Joshua Borough for The New York Times
“You see those dark patches, and you avoid them,” said Bill Merchant, the man responsible for 1,100 miles of voluntary frozen torture known as the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The icy river was serving as a training ground for the contest, which is not the famous annual sled-dog mush, although it uses a similar route. Rather, in this competition the qualifiers, as determined by Merchant’s judgment, navigate the trail on their own power: no dogs or motors allowed. Some ski, some bicycle and others run. It is promoted as the longest, most remote winter ultrarace in the world, a slog across century-old marshland trails from the outpost of Knik over the Farewell Hills, up the Yukon River, through the ghost towns of the Kuskokwim Mountains and on to the Bering Sea. The race’s start date has been set for March 1, 2009, a week in advance of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. To train aspiring competitors, Merchant set up a camp here on the Susitna Flats, about 28 miles southwest of Wasilla. At a cost of $750, he promised five days of survival training designed to toughen the qualified and to break the rest. Merchant, 55, has taken to calling his race an invitational so he can refuse entry to the unfit. The participants will pay $900 to compete. First prize is free entry the next year. There is no second prize. Along the way the racers can expect little more than three 10-pound food drops. They are required to haul their own survival gear. VIDEO - Riders Through the Snow- Watch it! The invitational evolved from a collection of shorter skiing, hiking and biking contests promoted under names like the Iditasport and the Extreme. By eliminating overnight stops and tripling the distance, organizers of the invitational reimagined the race as a largely unattended free-for-all intended to restore a sense of adventure. “After I did it the first time it turned into almost an obsession, one of those things you think about year-round,” said Peter Basinger, 28, who won the Iditarod Trail Invitational last year with a time of 18 days 4 hours 33 minutes. Speaking by telephone from his home in Land O’ Lakes, Wis., Basinger added: “People need to come into it knowing that it’s unlike anything else, in that you really could get hurt out there. You really are on your own.” In nine years of racing, only 28 men and 2 women have completed the full route to Nome, including Tim Hewitt, a lawyer from Latrobe, Pa., who reached the finish on foot in 2001, 2004 and 2008. About 90 percent of the entrants have dropped out along the trail. Only seven racers have registered for the 2009 contest, including Hewitt and Basinger. Partly to generate future entries, the organizers have continued to operate a simultaneous 350-mile race ending in the village of McGrath, about a third of the way to the finish. For this shorter course, 43 men and women have entered under the flags of Britain, Japan, Spain, Australia, Italy, Germany, the United States and (separately) Alaska. For the early December training session, four racers arrived. There was Aidan Harding, 30, a mountain biker from Princes Risborough, England. Despite his lack of experience on snow, Harding was considered a serious racing prospect. There was George Azarias, a young Morgan Stanley banker from New York. A practiced hiker, Azarias had little cycling experience. And there were Jon and Denise Whyte, a married couple in their early 50s with five children from previous marriages. The Whytes, veteran distance racers, intended to ride a tandem bicycle of their own design. Though Merchant had sought to dispel them of that notion, he could not bring himself to refuse entry outright, largely on account of Jon Whyte’s reputation. Whyte, a successful veteran of Formula One auto racing crews, had left that sport to design a renowned line of full-suspension mountain bikes bearing his name. For the Iditarod trail, he had built a two-seated silver contraption with a single-wheeled trailer meant to bear the survival gear of a second rider without the additional drag of carving a second rut in the snow. As the late-November snowfall blanketed the strip malls of Wasilla, Merchant drove his charges in an unheated van to a remote parking lot. The racers piled rucksacks and bicycles into an eight-foot plastic bin hitched to the rear of a snowmobile. As the machine kicked up powder and exhaust, the racers made their way to a hilltop, where piles of snow had buried picnic tables. In warmer months this place would provide sanctuary for northern phalaropes, green-winged teal, sandhill cranes, godwits, whimbrels, snipe, dunlin and sandpipers. Its waters would yield hundreds upon hundreds of king salmon. But now the Matanuska-Susitna Valley was quiet. Moose and bard owls, hardy creatures, kept watch from a distance. Now and again a propeller plane flew overhead. The daytime temperatures failed to exceed zero. Merchant, a onetime cowboy and mechanic by trade, cut a blithe figure, seemingly oblivious to the icicles in his salt-and-pepper mustache. He deferred at times to his wife, Kathi Hirzinger-Merchant, a German immigrant more than two decades his junior and a fearless athlete who had cycled the course to Nome. Training camp opened with instructions on trail safety and etiquette. “The key to being safe if it’s really cold or the wind is blowing really bad,” Merchant said, “is having everything packed in a logical order, where you can find everything in the order you need it. It’s not just an inconvenience out here to not be able to find your stuff. It can cause you to lose fingers.” The racers practiced unpacking their bikes, melting snow for water and drying their clothes. They ate chocolate and pasta. At night they slept under the stars in thermal bags. On the third morning of camp Denise Whyte lost consciousness in her sleeping bag. Merchant carried her into the kitchen tent, where the racers assembled a makeshift convalescence bed of backpacks, sleeping bags and coats beside a portable wood stove. Jon Whyte bent over his wife. “Feel her cheek,” he said. Merchant did. “This one’s warm, but this one’s cold,” he said. “Strange.” Jon Whyte said, “She’s taking a long time to wake up.” Merchant said: “I’m not a doctor, but I’ve been a guide since 1979. Honestly, I believe what is wrong with her is nerves. Coming out here in the cold, and responding to it, out of her comfort zone.” The men touched her cheek again. No change. As a few hours of daylight backlighted the cloud cover, Hirzinger-Merchant led Harding and Azarias out for a 35-mile bike ride. The riders wore lamps on their foreheads like miners. Past a sign that read, “Do Not Enter,” they descended to a steep boat launch. Following the frozen river, the riders passed gnarled saplings that leaned inward from the banks. They turned uphill, over a narrow passage of chunky ice that narrowed again before opening to the whitewashed tundra. In the distance was a field of spindly pines. The grade of the trail rose, giving way to the grandeur of Mount Susitna. The riders stared down at the snow, pressed their gloves into the thermal bags attached to their handlebars and deposited their weight on their pedals. Back at the tent, Denise Whyte was stirring. Her husband offered a cup of melted snow. Together they decided to disassemble the tandem bicycle, catch a ride to Anchorage and fly home. “Well, this wasn’t quite the way we thought we’d be leaving this camp,” Jon Whyte said, packing his bags. “We’ve got five children. When I dragged you out of our bivy this morning, I thought, ‘What am I going to tell Doug?’ We can’t have that.” Denise Whyte took a long drink of the murky water. “We thought this would be the next challenge, so to speak,” she told her husband. “But it’s not, for me.” Outside the tent, Merchant was loading their tandem bicycle into the plastic bin hitched to his snowmobile.

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