It’s a Friday evening of July 2000, I am sitting in front of the television after school, switching between the channels, while my mother is ironing the clothes on the side. Soon she leaves home for some work, I am alone and end up on some channel telecasting a BBC documentary about dogs running wildly in snow dragging a man on a sled. And there are many such teams. I find that interesting and get hooked. It is Iditarod – The Last Great Race on Earth. I don’t know how to pronounce its name or spell it, or have access to computers or the internet so I can search more. I start browsing libraries, but find nothing more.
It was then I dreamed about being on that trail one day, traverse those snowy landscapes with dogs and win “the greatest race on this planet”. But, I was not a musher. No one in my entire family lineage had ever been a musher. To make matter worse, I was living in Delhi where people were dying when temperatures dipped below 4 degrees. I could never be a musher! I remember, when I got my hands on a computer with internet for the first time in my life, in 2005, the first thing I searched on Yahoo search engine was “Where is Iditarod”. A year later, I ran my first half marathon. Further two years later, I ran my first marathon. When I was standing on the start line, I overheard people talking about their recent race where they had runa mammoth 100 Km in the city of Bangalore. “Wait, one can run that far?”, I mumbled to myself. Now, I didn’t want to be dragged by the dogs, I wanted to be the dog and scale that trail, on my own, one day! How? I didn’t know. I didn’t know if anything other than the dog sled race even existed. Then I came across 6633 Ultra, then Yukon Arctic Ultra, and then one night, while speaking to a friend, I learned in Alaska, there existed a race called “Iditarod Trail Invitational”.
Invitational, hmm! How does one get an invite?
(Image and video embedded from Iditarod Trail Invitational’s Facebook page/ Photo by Mark Smith)
The Iditarod Trail Invitational finds its origins in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a.k.a. The Iditarod Race, an annual long-distance sled dog race that takes place in Alaska, United States. The race is considered to be one of the toughest endurance races in the world, covering a distance of approximately 1000 miles (1600 km) from Anchorage to Nome, steeped in history and tradition. It takes its name from the ghost town of Iditarod, which was once a thriving gold rush town in western Alaska. The trail was originally used by native Alaskans for trade and transportation, and later by gold prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s. The trail runs through some of the most remote and rugged terrain in Alaska, crossing mountains, rivers, and tundra.
The idea for the Iditarod Race came from Joe Redington, a longtime Alaskan musher who had been involved in dog sledding since the 1940s. In the early 1970s, Redington became concerned about the decline of the sled dog culture in Alaska, and he believed that a long-distance sled dog race could help to revive interest in the sport. Redington envisioned a race that would cover the entire length of the Iditarod Trail, from Anchorage to Nome, and would be a test of both the musher’s and the dogs’ endurance.
Redington’s dream became a reality in 1973, when the first Iditarod Race was held. The race started in Anchorage on March 3, and 34 teams set out on the grueling journey to Nome. The winner of the inaugural race was Dick Wilmarth, who completed the course in just over 20 days. Wilmarth’s victory helped to establish the Iditarod Race as one of the most challenging and prestigious sled dog races in the world. Over the years, the Iditarod Race has grown in popularity, with mushers from around the world coming to Alaska to participate. The race is now held annually, usually starting on the first Saturday in March, and is broadcast live on television and the internet. In 1975, the race was officially recognized by the state of Alaska, and it was designated as the official state sport in 1979.
The race has also undergone many changes over the years. In 1974, the trail was rerouted to include a section along the coast, which was added to the course to provide better snow and less exposure to the wind. In 1975, the race was lengthened to its current distance of approximately 1000 miles. In 1984, the race was changed to a staggered start, with teams leaving in two-minute intervals to reduce congestion on the trail. Today, the Iditarod Race is one of the most prestigious sled dog races in the world, attracting mushers and dogs from around the globe.
In the early 2000s, a group of endurance athletes began to explore the possibility of using the same trail for a human-powered race. The idea was to create a self-supported endurance race that would test the limits of human endurance in one of the harshest environments on earth. The first Iditarod Trail Invitational was held in 2000, with just a handful of participants. The race was an immediate success, and has since grown in size and popularity, attracting athletes from around the world.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational 101
The Iditarod Trail Invitational is a self-supported race, which means that participants must carry all of their own equipment, food, and supplies for the entire duration of the race. The race is known for its many challenges, including extreme weather, treacherous terrain, and the physical and mental demands placed on the participants. Temperatures on the trail generally drop to as low as -50°F or -45°C (record being -130°F in 1973), and blizzards and high winds are common. The trail itself is often covered in deep snow, and includes steep climbs and descents, frozen rivers, and other hazards. While the race is self-supported, participants are allowed to ship their food drop bags to and purchase supplies at designated checkpoints along the way, or the villages beyond 350 miles, but must carry everything else with them.
There are two different distances that participants can choose from: the full 1000-mile course from Anchorage to Nome, and the 350-mile course from Anchorage to McGrath. After the village of Ophir, the trail diverges into northern and southern routes before rejoining in Kaltag. Generally, in even-numbered years, the northern route is followed, and in odd-numbered years, the southern route is taken.
One of the biggest challenges of the race is navigation. The route is not marked. In fact, there is no fixed route. That is to say, you are free to take any path until you are passing through all checkpoints and required towns/villages. So, participants use GPS device to navigate their way in the wilderness of Alaskan mountains. The organizers advise anyone who is not comfortable navigating in harsh winter conditions over potentially dangerous terrain in the wilderness should not participate in this race. They are also responsible for their own safety, and must be prepared for extreme weather conditions and other hazards on the trail.
The race is divided into three categories: the bike division, the foot division and the ski division. Participants in the bike division use fat-tire bikes, which are designed to handle the deep snow and rugged terrain of the Iditarod Trail. Participants in the foot division, on the other hand, must walk, run, or snowshoe the entire course. Participants in ski division your cross country skis.
The race can last for several weeks, and participants are often alone on the trail for long periods of time exposed to all elements and the wildlife. They must remain focused and motivated, even when faced with extreme fatigue and harsh conditions. The deep snow and rugged terrain can be exhausting, and participants must be prepared to push themselves to their limits for days on end.
The race website clearly writes, “The ITI 1000 draws the true adventurers who don’t want to be cheated out of a profound experience by excess support from the race staff. Only a minimal amount of assistance is provided to competitors in the ITI 1000. Participants must carry all survival gear with them and traverse the final 500 miles of the Iditarod Trail without support, relying only on the supplies they carry with them and those they send to remote villages prior to the race. “
There are no free lunches. Similarly, there are no free invitations. In fact, there are no invitations. Or there are? I’ll explain. The road to ITI 1000 mile race is fairly simple. You send an application to the race like everyone else during the registration period. If the Race Director feels you meet the qualifications, you are sent an invite to accept the spot in the race and confirm your participation. What makes an athlete qualify is both subjective and objective. In order to be considered for 1000 mile race, you must have finished 350 mile ITI race one or more times, comfortably. Even then a spot is not guaranteed if there are more qualified participants than you.
How does one make it to 350 mile race then? To be considered for 350 mile race, you must have significant cold weather outdoor experience and must have finished at least two of the qualifying races listed below. Right now, all the qualifying races are in the North America, i.e., either United States or Canada. So, how can someone living elsewhere qualify? Well, fly to any of the following races, finish and meet the requirements.
The quickest way to earn the qualification, given you already have significant winter experience, is to fly to Alaska, participate in 5-day ITI Winter Camp and then finish Susitna 100, both of them near Anchorage, in a span of 10 days. While this may sound appealing, remember, success in winter races in never guaranteed despite your best of preparations. A lot depends on trail conditions, the weather and decisions you make on the trail. Your world’s best gear is only as good as you, and you are only as good as your overall trail experience. However, one of the pros of this approach is you will get to understand race requirements from the best in the business before you head to Susitna, which may actually work in your favour given you will have some time to still tweak your preparations. I do not endorse this approach, but it is one of the available options to meet qualification requirements in somewhat affordable yet safe way. Also, merely earning a qualification is not enough to get accepted.
If you are actually interested, read Iditarod Trail Invitational’s website thoroughly, read the race reports of past participants, watch 1000 miles to Nome documentary. Nothing else can beat the actual experience, so spend time outdoors in winter on your own, and run the winter races.
- Stuart Banks
- Sean Brown
- Brian Burns
- Derek Bynagle
- Joe Davis
- Dean Denter
- Carla Gabrielson
- Jeff Goldstein
- Austin Hansen
- Daniel Héon
- Carole Holley
- Sarah Hurkett
- Todd Robertson
- Eric Thomason
- Sonja Tinucci
- Herman Watson
- Shaun Barnes
- Thierry Corbarieu
- Jason Davis
- Keith Eckert
- Beat Jegerlehner
- Eric Johnson
- Donald Kane
- Takao Kitada
- Shawn McTaggert
- Magdalena Paschke
- Klaus Schweinberger
- Robert Youngren
Iditarod Trail Invitational - Foot Records
What about my dream?
I dreamt of racing that trail one day. When I was little, I didn’t how? But, now, I know the path. When I moved to Canada a few years ago, I ran Beast of Burden 100 and Actif Epica 120 to test my baseline, earn some experience, maybe make my share of mistakes and learn from them. Then in 2019, I took the first step and ran Tuscobia Winter Ultra 160 miler, one of the qualifiers for ITI. However, I fell short. Really short. I couldn’t continue beyond 45 miles as my body gave up. Why? I didn’t know then why I stopped, so I never wrote a race report. Years later, now I do and I’m making the amends. As a second step, I did want to run Rovaniemi this year to test those mends, but the race was cancelled and now ceases to exist.
So, I’m far behind where I should have been in this chase of lifelong dream, however, I also know there is only one life. I am taking it easy, one step at a time, making fresh efforts so I can be ready when it’s time to be the best version of me.