|The morning after a 45-below night in the Farewell Burn. Photos by Beat Jegerlehner|
Sean Grady, a cyclist who rode as far as Shell Lake in this year's ITI, laid out the race weather report well:
Day 1 - Blizzard dumps three feet of snow around the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna.
Day 2 - High winds.
Day 3 - More winds followed by another snow event.
Day 4 - Snow falling.
Day 5 - Negative 45 degree temps.
Day 6 - Negative 45 degree temps.
Day 7 and 8 - Eight inches to one foot of new snow fell on the final section of the course.
Just a few hours after the race began at 2 p.m. Sunday, a blizzard buried the course in more than 30 inches of snow. Where snow had drifted in on Flathorn Lake, some of the frontrunners found it impossible to make forward progress of any sort. Runners actually encountered the first cyclist moving backward on the trail, claiming that was the only direction he could physically go. Only by cooperative effort did the group manage to plow through Flathorn Lake and the Dismal Swamp, covering something in the range of six miles in seven or eight hours. A handful of cyclists turned around and scratched, not even making it to the first checkpoint.
When Beat called me early Monday afternoon to tell me he was still slogging along the Susitna River, I knew things were bad. This meant he had traveled less than 35 miles in 24 hours. The same distance on virtually the same course had taken me ten hours to knock out on foot, just one week earlier. And step for step, Beat was working considerably harder than I ever did during the Susitna 100. In all likelihood, his exertion level and energy burn for those 35 miles were on par with my entire Susitna 100 effort combined. Not only that, but I could only imagine how demoralized he must have felt, to be so exhausted before even leaving the old-hat Su100 course.
But the blissful moments wouldn't last. Shortly after leaving Rohn, Beat would encounter the deep-space cold of the Farewell Burn. This section of trail crosses 90 miles of absolutely nothing. It's hard to truly fathom until you see it, but there is really nothing out there. Covering this distance on foot takes two full days of self-sufficiency. You might happen to see a person on a snowmobile out there if you get into trouble, but in all likelihood, you won't. When I crossed the Burn over two days in 2008, I saw exactly three people, and they were all other cyclists. During the time Beat was out there, other racers recorded temperatures of minus 40 to minus 45, and it's likely that some cold sinks saw temperatures in the negative 50s. When it's this cold, a body enters survival mode. Nothing else matters. Beat later described the last half of this race as a something of a tug-of-war between mind-numbing tedium and terror. There was little in between.
I'm also happy for Geoff, who finished first in the foot race in his third try on the course. His race report is published on iRunfar. I think Geoff's report does a good job of portraying just how far the Iditarod goes beyond the typical conception of an ultra-endurance race. The ITI is a full expedition, with the added layer of racing against a clock and others, and it's as exciting as a race can be at 2 mph. What Geoff managed to do out there is, in my opinion, a more exceptional performance than his 2010 Western States win. The ITI was a full week of high-level exertion and mental stamina without the benefit of support, or the satisfaction of moving fast. But of course most people prefer fast, because most people can relate to fast. Because of this, most ultrarunning fans will soon forget about Geoff's 2012 ITI and remember him for Western States. My (admittedly unique) opinion is that most people just don't understand.
But Beat finished the ITI without even the benefit of sponsors, and he finished as the top rookie runner in the race (as well as tied for third runner and tied for seventh overall.) He's awesome — at least that much I understand.