A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

ITI, part 3

Into the wild

Dusk along the Kuskoquim river

I called Jill on my way out (fortunately it was an easy trail since I wasn’t looking where I was going … tsk tsk) and beamed about how awesomely beautiful the area was and told her my bivy plans. Soon I was back on the Kuskoquim river going over more ice and some questionable terrain. After a mile or so of this the trail veered off to parallel the river for a while, then further down turn towards the farewell burn. In my mind, this part would be flat, eerie and possibly cold. I had totally forgotten about the ice falls and the general course notes I had read of the section. Initially the trail looked like it could be right in the neighborhood park in Anchorage, going straight and nicely packed through a spruce forest, but soon turned out to be very surprisingly rolling with very short but very steep climbs thrown in. Everytime I thought I got to the end of it, there was another, steeper, climb that made me curse and exclaim “those crazy dogsledders! What are they thinking?”. My sled was like a lead anchor behind me and occasionally I felt I could barely make it up there, and more concerningly I got quite hot and started to sweat a bit, which is absolutely not what I had planned for going into the frigid night. I kept my temperature in check with lots of venting, but still felt a bit wet … or was it just the biting cold? It was hard to tell the difference. My speed was significantly lower than I hoped for despite halfways good course conditions. Bare ground at times and lots of small moguls which are formed by tussocks made even flat sections a lot slower and more tedious than I expected. How long would that last? The forest was now partially burnt down and the whole section became a lot more desolate and apocalyptic looking, especially at dusk. Soon enough I arrived at the frozen waterfall – really more of an ice slope, at an easy angle but basically glare ice, which means without traction there’s a lot of tears and cursing. I was surprised since I’d totally forgotten about it and didn’t expect it this soon. I planned to simply put on my snowshoes and wander right up the thing, but I noticed I was standing in about an inch deep sloppy overflow which gave me pause – for one I wasn’t watching where I was going, and I wondered if there was a possibility to punch through. Since there was some open water, I put on my waders and the snowshoes and went up the fall. It was now dark and it was a pretty eerie, somewhat scary and cool experience to go up this strange structure. I wondered how the dog sleds go up here and thought again of Jill hauling her bike up this thing. I also noticed that snowshoes have limited traction on super cold slick ice, and I had to forcefully jam them into the ice to gain enough traction to not tumble and slide down the whole thing. Around Egypt Mountain I started to look for a bivy spot, quite a bit before my original plan, but I had made much slower progress than anticipated. I passed Frank and Rick and kept rejecting spots until I found a nice flat snowy area … until I tried to make a little trench and I realized it was a slab of solid ice.

Maybe don't go where the lath is ...

Bivying on ice is both cold and of uncertain stability, so I kept going until I simple went into some trees, having gone just past Egypt Mountain. I made a little trench, unrolled my bivy bundle (one of the few things that worked as well as I hoped – I just had to undo a few buckes and the bivy, pad and sleeping bag unrolled into a ready to use bivy setup …), flipped my sled for additional wind cover and crawled into my bivy. However, that was really the only thing that went well … bivying is a rather cramped affair, and additionally I needed to put my shoes, water and all my clothing into the sleeping bag which didn’t really add comfort. I put my shoes under my legs to lift them a little, something that makes sense for a runner but alas – not when it’s -40F. Generally you don’t want to do anything to reduce circulation in your extremities, and of course that’s just what I did … I felt warm but mighty uncomfortable in my cocoon and kept hyperventilating with the feeling of not getting enough air. Once I found an acceptable opening of my bivy zipper I calmed down … and had to pee. Trying to unzip the bivy zippers one got stuck (note to self: don’t use superlight gear when your life depends on it … unless you know it really works) but fortunately it was a double zip … After THAT I finally calmed down enough to fall asleep for a little while … When I woke up at maybe 6 panic struck me – my toes were really cold, and the toenail of my right big toe felt sort of numb and icy cold. I had a big blister underneath the toenail from snowshoeing and I wondered if that liquid actually might have frozen – it sure felt like it. I wiggled my toes like a madman and finally came to the conclusion everything was still working. The rest of my body was toasty warm … which isn’t a nice thing if you know you have to get up into the icy cold. I dozed a little longer, reluctant to get out because it seemed really cold outside … but finally got up. I was disconcertingly disorganized though my gigantic down jacket prevented any major panic attacks – that thing is seriously warm! Sadly I had to eventually take it off and put my shell jacket on … I felt ok for quite a while, it was cold but I was moving ok, passing the farewell lakes (which wouldn’t have made for an inviting bivy spot either). It turned out to be a very clear and beautiful sunny day, and I walked reasonably contently (despite my back again bothering me) along the trail that went through swamps and sparse spruce woods, every now and then catching a glimpse of the Alaska range behind me. The bareish tussocky trail gave way to a more reasonable snow level.

Pretty day in the burn

The terrain still was rolling, often crossing creeks and swamps which means you drop steeply on one side, flatten out for a dozen or so yards and then climb up a bit again – not much, but just enough you wouldn’t think it was easy. I decided it was a good time to call Jill and she told me about what was to come. Shortly after that, I decided it would be a good idea to take a picture of the Alaska range behind me … to find I had lost my camera!

Got my camera back!!!

I sort of panicked and unpacked my sled about two times to no avail. I left my sled and ran back on the trail for probably half a mile or maybe even a mile – but nope. I felt strangely strong and free without the anchor, and at the same time very naked. And surprised that, indeed, I could still run! Back at the sled I was overcome with sadness about not being able to share my adventure with Jill and called her, distraught. Resigned in my fate I carried on, when a group of snowmachiners – the only people I had seen all day so far – pulled up. The first guy asked me “Did you lose a camera?” – “Indeed I did” – “We found it about 7 miles back” and he gave it back to me! I thanked him profusely – what were the chances! There’s nothing like that to re-energize you, and I motored on, much happier.

Finally, after what seemed endless climbing into little creeks and over small ridges and hills I got to Bison Camp. Although it was supposed to be broken down, there were some people resupplying the camp there (presumably exactly the ones who gave me back my camera), which made the trail seem almost populated. Soon after I dropped down into the flat part of the burn, the trail cutting a straight line for many miles, as far as the eye could see. After not long, looking either forward or back the trail looked exactly the same – just an endless cut through the young trees. The combination of the straight manicured looking trail, perfect clear sky weather, trail markers and ribbons and a lot of young spruce trees gave me the eerie feeling of being just outside a big city, as if I was on an Anchorage ski trail or so. I expected to see a large group of people to come by anytime, but after the encounter with the snowmachiners I would not see anyone but racers for the rest of the trail to Nikolai. That unexpected loneliness and the menacing dead burnt old trees and bushes between the young spruce gave the burn a surreal but almost menacing feel – something seemed to be wrong. More than once I was reminded of The Shining and I half expected Jack Nicholson to jump out with an axe from behind one of the trees. However, I also was getting worn out and tired, my back pain had come back again to drive me insane and the target cabin just did not want to get closer. My energy seeped away hour by hour and by the time I was really getting tired I could see on the GPS it was about 6-7 more miles. Normally this would be reason to rejoice, but here, with these conditions, it meant 2-3 hours of slogging, all the while still having almost 100 miles left. The combination of difficult movement, very slow speeds in the face of those gigantic distances made the ITI mentally the most challenging race I had encountered yet – the mere thought of the next checkpoint, even the next intermediate goal, was demoralizing and attacked the very core of my ultra strategy, to break things down into achievable goals. In addition, I had no music with me and I started to get mentally too tired to even let my mind wander – something that, in the face of endless slogging, usually works, I distract myself by thinking about random things – but this had ceased to work. All my mind would do is think about the heavy sled, the drag, the mile I was on and why the distance to the cabin on my gps only moved by 0.1 miles since I checked it the last time. I was even too exhausted to throw a good temper tantrum.

That's ... long.

Finally I got to the cut-off to the shelter on the trail. I had previously toyed with the thought of bivying or going on to avoid the 1 mile detour (the closest place dry enough for the shelter to survive the summer) but it was very cold and I was desperate for some rest. The trail off the main trail was challenging since it had only been broken by a snowmachine a while back and a few racers, and I almost put my snowshoes on. The mile seemed to go on forever, and I even had to make a stop to rest, something very discouraging for such a short distance. Turn after turn I thought the cabin would be right there … but it wasn’t, until I finally got there. It was still light, maybe 6 or 7pm, and I planned on leaving by midnight or 1am again.

Not hungry enough for this.

Rick, Frank and Anne were in the cabin, and thankfully a fire was burning in the stove and it was toasty warm inside. I hung up my stuff and looked for a place to sleep, which turned out to be under the table since all the bunks were occupied. Fortunately there was enough snow to make water as well, something that’s not a given in the burn – however I was running much lower on food than I had thought, and basically only had a small sandwich that Anne had put as a treat in my drop bag to spare for the evening. The floor wasn’t exactly comfortable and I didn’t get much rest until Anne left and I took her bunk. I woke up when Bill Merchant entered the cabin and shook each racer’s hand – I was sleepy and barely conscious and later was bummed I didn’t get to talk to him on the trail, but it was somehow fitting all the while. Other racers arrived, two Italians and Dave and Andrea. Dave was visibly shaken by how cold it was outside – his thermometer had bottomed out somewhere around -20F. It was now just after midnight and I figured I better get myself ready. I felt pretty terrible without much food left for breakfast and a headache. I remembered it had been quite a while since my last coffee and made myself three mocha mixes I still had – to boot, the were each fairly caloric and that was most of my breakfast. I melted some more snow for my bladder, though I had used very little water the day before – yet I did not feel terribly dehydrated either and my morning pee did not reveal anything alarming. Just as I had everything ready I noticed I was missing two balaclavas and hat I intended to use. Feverishly I searched the cabin multiple time and unpacked my sled completely, but nothing. Fortunately I had more gear, but it was wet – so I had to dry it. This delayed my departure until maybe 2:30am. Finally, with my second choice of headgear, somewhat unsettled but satisfied that my overpacking habit had finally paid off, I was ready to go. Dave’s thermometer was solidly frozen somewhere below -20F, and it was brisk.

I think I saw Jack Nicholson with an axe behind one of those trees ... yikes!

The difficult trail to the main trail warmed me up a bit, and soon I was cruising under a perfect starlit sky. I kept looking around for northern lights, but it was too cold to turn off my headlamp and I ended up missing those – the only night when they were visible. Soon enough I got to Sullivan Creek – the creek had a nice bridge over it, yet again making it seem like it was right in a park in the middle of a city. Right after the bridge the trail crossed a side creek again, this time with some flimsy branches over the open water. Civilization my ass! I pondered the waders but went for it – without problems, but in hindsight in those temperatures a risky undertaking. After the creek the temperatures seemed to plummet drastically – it felt like I entered a deep freezer – and that coming from -20F! I started to get chilled and my hands got cold despite wearing my trusted RBH mitten shells (though only with the light liners). Moreover there was a lot of overflow on the trail now, glare ice that made me move deliberately and slowly in many places. I decided I needed to get some handwarmers and made a stop to grab them. Rushing, I tried to unzip my duffel which had become very stiff and inflexible. Suddenly I had the zipper pull in my hand – the metal piece had broken cleanly apart. I cursed and carefully managed to open the bag with the second zipper. It occurred to me that my knife and lots of emergency equipment were inside the duffel – where it wouldn’t do me any good if I couldn’t open the bag. Now I was not only physically but mentally chilled by the realization that in these temperatures – which reportedly dropped below -40F that night – things escalate very quickly, and small mistakes could become very big ones. I put my handwarmers in and started moving again, my hands painfully cold and almost useless. Suddenly I noticed I could not feel my nose anymore. More panicked, I grabbed a turtle fur bandanna which I had in my jacket and decided to just pull it over all my headgear, including the goggles. However, that was easier said than done as the bandanna was not quite big enough, and I ended up fighting for an endless minute or two in the most bizarre and comical way, dragging the bandanna over my head, straining with myself. Finally I had the thing over my nose but of course could barely breathe, but there was nothing I could do about it. I had to just move, and I stomped in the rigid cold, worried about my chilled feet and feeling as if a cold terror was trying to grab me with thousand fingers. Suddenly it did not feel civilized at all anymore. I was scared.

Preparing for the star wars audition.

I stomed on for an hour or two, through dawn which proved to be the coldest into a beautiful day. I passed Rick and Frank – they both had bivied because they had felt sick, as it later turned out a number of racers had picked up a bug in Rohn or the Bear Creek cabin. I also started to get more confused since my GPS track I had downloaded from some Irondog site now started to diverge quite significantly from where I was going. Instead of heading towards Nikolai we seemed to continue to go towards McGrath – away from Nikolai. Fortunately I had a topo map loaded as well, and the map showed the Iditarod trail veer off towards Nikolai significantly later than the GPS track. This added probably around 10 miles to the distance, which crushed my spirits significantly. 10 miles meant 3.5 to 4 hours.

Soon Frank overtook me again and Rick caught up. We chatted a little though the trail did not allow walking side by side really, and we slowly trudged towards Salmon Camp – the dilapidated cabin where Jill had once bivied without water in the freezing cold, unable to open the door which was shut solid by a snowdrift. There was no more door, and we passed it by quickly. I knew from here it was 12 – 13 miles to Nikolai – something I could wrap my head around. The miles passed slowly and Rick stopped frequently, exhausted from being ill. I was all too willing to stop with him as I did not have enough food to really eat enough and my weird back pain was yet again driving me nuts. The sun felt great, and although it was still probably -10F, it felt like a warm summer day after the frigid night. I finally pulled away from Rick and after endless passages of swamps, rivers and lakes finally caught sight of Nikolai!


I had no idea where to go, and Nikolai was more spread out than I imagined – especially if you’re extremely tired and hurting (though really it was probably less than a few hundred yards in each direction). I followed Frank’s footsteps but soon they were indistinguishable from regular foot traffic tracks and I had no idea where to go. Fortunately someone saw my confusion and set me in the right direction, and soon Nick, the owner of the house that was our aid station, showed up on a snowmachine and escorted me there. I finally reached the house at 3:20pm.

Once at Nick’s, I was treated to a plate of spaghetti with moose meat sauce – and oh was it ever so good. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of revenge at the busted trail to Shell Lake as I inhaled two plates of the spaghetti. Inbetween I stuffed myself with huge tasty homemade cookies. Afterwards I crawled onto a real bed in one of Nick’s rooms – the whole family made room for us racers. As I laid on the pillow I noticed a horrible body odor stench and thought they maybe should wash the sheets before I realized it was myself. Amazed at the prowess of my stink, I drifted to sleep …

I woke up around 11pm to find to my surprise that Anne was still there as well. She had gotten hypothermic in the burn and was shaken. “This stretch has tried to kill me twice now!” she exclaimed and asked if I minded us sticking together to McGrath. After the solitude of the burn I didn’t mind at all – we got slowly ready, had more spaghetti and I packed a few cookies to go. It was again around -20F and we expected a cold night as we left Nikoai. We put in a stiff pace, and I expected Anne to pull away soon, but the nearing finish gave me strength and resolve to push the pace. This last stretch was similar to the beginning – rivers, swamps, through stretches of woods and bush, endless and somewhat monotonous. Soon we got to a trail intersection where Nick had told us to not take the official iditarod trail (that had just been broken the day before) but take an alternate route leading to a haul road. All bike tracks went that way and the trail seemed much better so we obliged … We were now far from the GPS track that I downloaded but generally headed in a sensible direction. We made very good time, though I was hungry – fortunately Anne had food to spare for me.  A few miles before the supposed road it started to snow a bit and the trail deteriorated little by little. We became very concerned since this trail had very few markers if any, and a snowdump might make route finding very difficult. Most of the tracks of other people already had dissapeared. Finally Anne decided to put on her snowshoes (while I still held out, unwilling to put them back on) – just a few hundred yards before we emerged on the haul road! A road! With … trucks. Big trucks. Fast, big trucks. On a road that seemed paved but covered with packed snow and ice.

Anne and I are on a mission ... home stretch.

As it turns out the trucks had been warned and they were very courteous and friendy. The haul road was about 12 miles long – with maybe another mile to the finish. A little half marathon, on a road, at the end of a very remote 350 mile trek. It was surreal. To make things complete, someone had put up mile markers along the road. Terrible terrible mile markers, since they seemed to be an eternity apart. I convinced Anne we should try to run at least a little to loosen up our legs and we shuffled some downhills. This didn’t have any obvious impact on our speed but kept me a little occupied. The miles crept by tear-inducingly slow – we knew that this would take us 3-4 hours, which seemed almost unfair since we should be done, right?

Finally we left the road and entered town. It was strange to see cars there (they couldn’t really go far since McGrath had no roads leading to it, but the town was big enough for people to need transportation). At 4:20pm we got to the finish line and were greeted by Kathi and Peter – we were 7th overall and 3rd amongst the runners. Though Anne and I were beaming, it was somehwat anticlimactic, something I was familiar with from TDG – you’re so tired and exhausted that the happyness is muted, and lurking feelings of “hum, it’s really over?” do the rest.


Peter’s house, the McGrath finish line, is famous amongst ITI racers for its hospitality and abundance of food and I was not disappointed! As soon as I stepped in, Peter served me a big plate of freshly cooked food, followed up by more food and a beer. Though I felt dazed and confused I managed to clean up and crawl to bed. I woke up sometime at 2am again to get a drink just to find Peter cooking again or still. He shoved another plate of food (this time a fresh vegetable omelet) in front of me and grumbled “Here, eat!”. Who is to argue … Finally, the breakfast in the morning consisted of the famed MANCAKES – plate-sized thick pancakes. You’ve never had a real pancake until you had one of those.

Tim Hewitt was also there and pondered if he should go on to Nome. He was far behind schedule and his heels were raw from snowshoeing. I tried to coax him on and provided some Leukotape and Hydropel, but after checking the forecast and trail conditions Tim just didn’t feel like going on … and noone did. In this race, not only did we have a record low finisher rate, but from a record number of Nome signups noone went on. Before we headed to the airport a few of us chatted about the race. It somehow came up I had a physics degree and Tim astutely remarked: “If you’re so damn smart, how come your sled sucked so bad?” – very funny man, that Tim. I grumbled about being a theoretician and such, but of course even though he said it with a smirk, he was right. Still I was a little proud that I didn’t give up despite my anchor. Of course we also talked about Nome, and interesting things were said.

The godfather of the human-powered Iditarod, Tim, along with the boss, Kathi

When I checked in the sled at the airport, the weight – without food and with parts of the sled being left behind – came in at a whopping 43 lbs. I hadn’t actually weighed my whole kit before the race (presumably because I would have been scared by what I found). Within two days I ordered a tobaggin-style new sled and my gears are in motion to find ways to lighten my load. Jill keeps saying my old design worked quite well for her in the Susitna, but in the ITI the likelihood of finding abysmal trail conditions is quite high.


During the race, I not only firmly decided I would never do the full distance, but I even thought of quitting the race itself. Yet, looking at the 2013 entrants list, somehow my name is printed there with the Swiss flag, and the words “Foot 1000” next to it.


I caution anyone wanting to enter this race strongly. Ultrarunners have gotten quite confident in their belief that they can “do anything” or at least “try anything”. This race has little to do with ultrarunning. If you are not extremely well prepared, you will hurt yourself irreversibly. You need to know you react intelligently and promptly in the most adverse conditions. Very very small mistakes that wouldn’t even get you close to a DNF in even a rugged 200 mile race can cost you limbs and send you to the hospital. You are 100% responsible for yourself. If you decide to call it quits, you may have 50 miles of extreme cold in extremely difficult conditions ahead and behind you. Help may not be able to get to you for a long time, at which point you may be an icy meat popsicle. The Susitna 100 doesn’t prepare you for what’s out there, not more than a half marathon prepares you for a 100 miler. By being unprepared and messing up you don’t only endanger yourself, but the people who have to try to rescue you, which can be a dangerous undertaking for them. If you still want to enter it, find someone who has done it and take their advice.


1st place Peter Basinger,Bend Oregon,bike 6 days 15 hours 6th win for Pete B!

2nd place Phil Hofstetter,Nome Alaska,bike 6 days 18 hours 8 min

2nd place Pavel Richtr Czech Republic, bike 6 days 18 hours 8 min

4th place Geoff Roes, Juneau, Alaska runner 6 days 23 hours 25 min first runner!!

5th place Tim Hewitt, Pennsylvania, runner 7 days 3 hours 30 min

6th place Dario Valsesia, Italy, bike 7 days 7 hours 15 min

7th place Anne Ver Hoef, Anchorage, AK runner 8 days 2 hours 20 min first woman!

7th place Beat Jegerlehner, California, runner 8 days 2 hours 20 min

9th place Roberto Gazzoli, Italy, runner 8 days 10 hours 15 min

9th place Cesare Ornati, Italy, runner, 8 days 10 hours 15 min

11th place Rick Freeman, Pennsylvania USA 8 days 10 hours 55 minutes

12th place Andrea Hambach, Willow, Alaska, runner, 8 days 17 hours 47 min

12th place David Johnston, Willow,Alaska, runner 8 days 17 hours 47 min

14th place Ausilia Vistarini, Italy, bike 8 days 23 hours 19 minutes only female cyclist finish!!

14th place Sebastiano Favaro, Italy bike 8 days 23 hours 19 minutes

16th place Billy Koitzsch, Anchorage, AK, bike 9 days 5 hours 15 minutes

17th place Shawn McTaggert, Anchorage, AK, runner 9 days 7 hours, 45 minutes

18th place Dave Kelley, Anchorage, AK, bike 9 days 13 hours 45 minutes

 47 starters


Checkpoint Time_IN Time_OUT Rest-time Run-time Speed Commentary
Knik Lake 02-26 14:00 02-26 14:00 00:00:00
Yentna Station 02-27 22:00 02-28 03:40 05:40:00 32:00:00 1.78 Oh crap
Skwentna Roadhouse 02-28 18:20 02-29 00:03 05:43:00 14:40:00 2.25 It’s hard
Winter Lake Lodge 02-29 19:15 03-01 03:25 08:10:00 19:12:00 2.08 This sucks
Rainy Pass Lodge 03-01 17:00 03-01 23:08 06:08:00 13:35:00 2.58 I’m flying. Haha
Rohn 03-02 13:45 03-02 18:45 05:00:00 14:37:00 3.08 Wheeeee
Nikolai 03-04 15:18 03-05 01:10 09:52:00 44:33:00 2.02 Alaskan snow snails overtook me!
McGrath 03-05 16:20 15:10:00 3.30 Finally moving a little

1 comment to ITI, part 3

  • That was awesome. And no, my name will never “suddenly appear” on any of those entrants lists, even if deep inside I wonder if I could. More power to you. Amazing.