Iditarod Trail Invitational – a ‘whats it like to…’ guide
The Iditarod Trail Invitational is one of the most extreme adventure races out there. A 350 or 1000 mile race across Alaska on foot, bike or ski in the middle of winter. Entrants need to be self sufficient and able to cope with temperatures as low as -40 degrees F as they find their way between checkpoints. Only once you have completed the 350 mile race are you able to enter the 1000 miler. In the first of our series of ‘How-to’ guides, Kathi from Alaska Ultra Sport (LINK – http://www.muchbetteradventures.com/profile/alaska_ultra_sport), both the organiser and past competitor, tells us about the Alaska Iditarod Trail Invitational.
1. Who are you (name, job, age, where you are from)?
My name is Kathi Merchant, I am 35 and established myself as a wilderness guide and Iditarod Trail Invitational race organizer in Alaska when I met my husband longtime wilderness guide, racer and race organizer Bill Merchant 10 years ago in Alaska on a vacation.
2. What was the event or challenge and when did you do it?
I became involved organizing the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2003 for the first time and expressed interest on participating in the event as well. In 2004 I was checker at one of our checkpoints in Puntilla/Rainy Pass Lodge 165 miles on the race course. In 2005 I was entered in the 350 mile race to McGrath by bike and finished in 10th place overall and first woman that year in 5 days 7 hours 48 min.
I did the iditarod Trail Invitational again in 2006 and walked my bike 170 miles to McGrath, that year 50% of the field dropped out, it was a bad year on the trail.
In 2008 I was the first woman to ride a bike to Nome, 1000 miles across Alaska on a winter trail. It was not an ideal year, I walked my bike about 300 miles and was able to ride about 700 miles.
3. How fit and/or experienced do I need to be?
You need to have winter camping and winter survival skills, camping out at -40 F, using a stove to melt snow to make water, be able to be self sufficient for several days, you make your own decision when to stop and rest. There are no support crews on the trail! No one will make any of those decisions for you. You should be able to move continuously for at least 12 hours. The fastest racers even move for up to 20 hours without stopping. The winner of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, in just over 3 days, hardly sleeps in 3 days and moves continuously. Anyone entering this event should start training a year in advance and practice winter camping with all the necessary gear. It is important to test the gear you plan to use in similar conditions. You should have a background in winter camping, high altitude mountaineering and endurance sports. The combination of endurance sports like ultra running or multi day bike races combined with winter camping skills would be important for potential competitors.
For desert ultra runners or people in general with no winter camping experience we offer winter training camps in Alaska. Those camps are designed to learn the skills necessary to camp out and make water, how to efficiently pack your gear, test your gear, learn what gear you might need and what clothing combinations works for certain people.
Those camps are not physical training camps. Participants also learn to ride a bike on snow and adjust the tire pressure accordingly. It’s all about the FLOAT in the snow and being light.
I don’t like to train on the same trails over and over so Bill and I rode 2500 miles on the Great Divide Route from border to border, Canada to Mexico, to get our base miles and base fitness for the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational.
4. What training methods would you recommend?
Longer training sessions twice a week. This works for me, some racers train different. Pack all your gear on your bike or sled (depending whether you are running, skiing or biking the event) and go out on overnight trips carrying all your gear and testing your clothing and equipment, use your stove, sleeping bag, parka etc.
Biking with all the gear on the bike on soft trails is also very different than riding an empty bike. There is so much more resistence.
Being able to move for many hours at a steady pace is key and knowing where your limits are, when you need to rest, not getting out of your comfort zone at -40 is critical. No one is there to pick you up during the race.
5. What kit would you recommend?
The clothing and gear you need to be comfortable to -40. That is different for everyone. We all have very different metabolisms. It also depends on your experience. If you are more experienced and know you can move for 20 hours without stopping you may carry less gear. For new racers, they may need more clothing and a bigger sleeping bag to be comfortable and safe.
At -40 there is no room for errors, not time to look for a headlight or where the batteries are or where the mittens or face mask is. Everything needs to be packed in a logical order. That is part of the training camp, packing things in a logical order.
Many racers carry a down parka, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a stove to make water, GPS, some carry a Sat Phone. But in this race there is no mandatory gear list. Racers are screened (interviewed by e-mail or phone) for their cold weather experience and only very experienced people get in this race.
6. What were the highs and lows for you during the event?
There are always highs and lows in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. They are often related to sugar lows. But when you come out of the lows, when the sun comes up or you reach a checkpoint or the warmth of a cabin, you see the Northern Lights, it is all better. The pain is gone, the demons are gone and it is another day on the trail.
7. All in, how much would it cost me to do the Iditarod Trail Invitational?
The entry fee for the Iditarod Trail Invitational is $1000.00 that includes transportation to the starting line, meals and lodging at 5 checkpoints, 2 drop bags one at mile 130 and one at mile 200 that are taken in by bush plane a week ahead and a Jersey for every racer.
Racers progress is published daily on a website, Facebook, Twitter.
Additional cost is the gear and clothing you need, flighst from McGrath to Anchorage from the finish line, about $200.00 and lodging prior to the race in Anchorage, flights to Alaska.
Snow bikes are between $2000.00- $6000.00.
8. The acid test: Are you keeping the health and fitness up, and do you plan to do anything like this again?!
I would love to bike the Southern Route in an odd numbered year, I went the North Route in 2008. About 200 miles in the middle of the Iditarod Trail varies every year, depending on whether it is an odd or even year. I heard the Southern Route is prettier than that stretch of trail on the Northern Route.
I could cycle the Great Didvide again, amazing out there on the course so much to see!
I would like to enter the 460 mile Kanu and Kajak race on the Yukon River in Canada some time. I am an avid paddler as well.
There is many places all over the world I would like to do biking and kayaking adventures, never enough time.
I would like to ride a 2000 km route across the Alps East to West leaving from my parents house in Germany one day.
MBA – So, there we have it, the Iditarod Trail Invitational sounds pretty epic! Follow this link to the Iditarod Trail Invitational homepage (LINK http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/alaska_ultra_home_page.html), and if you would like to take a holiday in Alaska, why not check out Alaska Ultra Sport (LINK /profile/alaska_ultra_sport)

The Iditarod Trail Invitational is one of the most extreme adventure races out there. A 350 or 1000 mile race across Alaska on foot, bike or ski in the middle of winter. Entrants need to be self sufficient and able to cope with temperatures as low as -40 degrees F as they find their way between checkpoints. Only once you have completed the 350 mile race are you able to enter the 1000 miler. In the first of our series of ‘How-to’ guides, Kathi from Alaska Ultra Sport, both the organiser and past competitor, tells us about the Alaska Iditarod Trail Invitational.1. Who are you (name, job, age, where you are from)?My name is Kathi Merchant, I am 35 and established myself as a wilderness guide and Iditarod Trail Invitational race organizer in Alaska when I met my husband longtime wilderness guide, racer and race organizer Bill Merchant 10 years ago in Alaska on a vacation.

2. What was the event or challenge and when did you do it?I became involved organizing the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2003 for the first time and expressed interest on participating in the event as well. In 2004 I was checker at one of our checkpoints in Puntilla/Rainy Pass Lodge 165 miles on the race course. In 2005 I was entered in the 350 mile race to McGrath by bike and finished in 10th place overall and first woman that year in 5 days 7 hours 48 min.

I did the iditarod Trail Invitational again in 2006 and walked my bike 170 miles to McGrath, that year 50% of the field dropped out, it was a bad year on the trail.In 2008 I was the first woman to ride a bike to Nome, 1000 miles across Alaska on a winter trail. It was not an ideal year, I walked my bike about 300 miles and was able to ride about 700 miles.3. How fit and/or experienced do I need to be?You need to have winter camping and winter survival skills, camping out at -40 F, using a stove to melt snow to make water, be able to be self sufficient for several days, you make your own decision when to stop and rest. There are no support crews on the trail! No one will make any of those decisions for you. You should be able to move continuously for at least 12 hours. The fastest racers even move for up to 20 hours without stopping. The winner of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, in just over 3 days, hardly sleeps in 3 days and moves continuously. Anyone entering this event should start training a year in advance and practice winter camping with all the necessary gear. It is important to test the gear you plan to use in similar conditions. You should have a background in winter camping, high altitude mountaineering and endurance sports. The combination of endurance sports like ultra running or multi day bike races combined with winter camping skills would be important for potential competitors.

For desert ultra runners or people in general with no winter camping experience we offer winter training camps in Alaska. Those camps are designed to learn the skills necessary to camp out and make water, how to efficiently pack your gear, test your gear, learn what gear you might need and what clothing combinations works for certain people.Those camps are not physical training camps. Participants also learn to ride a bike on snow and adjust the tire pressure accordingly. It’s all about the FLOAT in the snow and being light.

I don’t like to train on the same trails over and over so Bill and I rode 2500 miles on the Great Divide Route from border to border, Canada to Mexico, to get our base miles and base fitness for the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational.4. What training methods would you recommend?

Longer training sessions twice a week. This works for me, some racers train different. Pack all your gear on your bike or sled (depending whether you are running, skiing or biking the event) and go out on overnight trips carrying all your gear and testing your clothing and equipment, use your stove, sleeping bag, parka etc.

Biking with all the gear on the bike on soft trails is also very different than riding an empty bike. There is so much more resistence.Being able to move for many hours at a steady pace is key and knowing where your limits are, when you need to rest, not getting out of your comfort zone at -40 is critical. No one is there to pick you up during the race.5. What kit would you recommend?

The clothing and gear you need to be comfortable to -40. That is different for everyone. We all have very different metabolisms. It also depends on your experience. If you are more experienced and know you can move for 20 hours without stopping you may carry less gear. For new racers, they may need more clothing and a bigger sleeping bag to be comfortable and safe.

At -40 there is no room for errors, not time to look for a headlight or where the batteries are or where the mittens or face mask is. Everything needs to be packed in a logical order. That is part of the training camp, packing things in a logical order.

Many racers carry a down parka, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a stove to make water, GPS, some carry a Sat Phone. But in this race there is no mandatory gear list. Racers are screened (interviewed by e-mail or phone) for their cold weather experience and only very experienced people get in this race.6. What were the highs and lows for you during the event?

There are always highs and lows in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. They are often related to sugar lows. But when you come out of the lows, when the sun comes up or you reach a checkpoint or the warmth of a cabin, you see the Northern Lights, it is all better. The pain is gone, the demons are gone and it is another day on the trail.7. All in, how much would it cost me to do the Iditarod Trail Invitational?

The entry fee for the Iditarod Trail Invitational is $1000.00 that includes transportation to the starting line, meals and lodging at 5 checkpoints, 2 drop bags one at mile 130 and one at mile 200 that are taken in by bush plane a week ahead and a Jersey for every racer.

Additional cost is the gear and clothing you need, flighst from McGrath to Anchorage from the finish line, about $200.00 and lodging prior to the race in Anchorage, flights to Alaska.Snow bikes are between $2000.00- $6000.00.8. The acid test: Are you keeping the health and fitness up, and do you plan to do anything like this again?!

I would love to bike the Southern Route in an odd numbered year, I went the North Route in 2008. About 200 miles in the middle of the Iditarod Trail varies every year, depending on whether it is an odd or even year. I heard the Southern Route is prettier than that stretch of trail on the Northern Route.

I could cycle the Great Didvide again, amazing out there on the course so much to see!I would like to enter the 460 mile Kanu and Kajak race on the Yukon River in Canada some time. I am an avid paddler as well.

There is many places all over the world I would like to do biking and kayaking adventures, never enough time.

I would like to ride a 2000 km route across the Alps East to West leaving from my parents house in Germany one day.

So, there we have it, the Iditarod Trail Invitational sounds pretty epic! Follow this link to the Iditarod Trail
Invitational homepage
, and if you would like to take a holiday in Alaska, why not check out Alaska Ultra Sport.

Following on from this, we will be posting an article from Jerym Brutnon who has completed the 1000 mile race on foot, pulling a sledge. Look out for it shortly!

All photos – authors own