A week before sled dog teams hit the trail for Alaska's famed Iditarod race, a hardy group of athletes tackles that same trail on foot, on bike or on skis.
The annual Iditarod Trail Invitational features races of 150 miles, 350 miles or the full thousand-mile route from near Anchorage to Nome — crossing mountain ranges, traversing frozen swamps and passing remote lodges and villages.
Minneapolis resident Rob Henderson, 35, not only completed the 350-mile run earlier this month in his first attempt at the race — he was the top men's finisher with a time of 5 days, 7 hours, 2 minutes.
Looking back on the race, Henderson recalled a favorite memory of traversing Rainy Pass, alone on the trail, with the northern lights in the night sky and then a "beyond beautiful" sunrise.
"It's just spectacular — words really can't describe, as a Midwestern kid going through a mountain pass ... it's awe-inspiring when you don't grow up around that. Everything just feels so big. I don't think I'll forget that anytime soon."
Henderson, who's a construction project manager, was competing in the ITI for the first time — though he's done similar races, including a 200-mile race he won last year in Finland, and the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota.
This year's ITI started Feb. 25; as of Sunday, several of the 1,000-mile competitors remained on the trail to Nome.
Henderson said he's open to trying the race again, with the aim of completing the 350-mile course in less than five days. He said he'd also consider the 1,000-mile race, if he was able to make that journey alongside a friend.
How did you get involved in the sport of long-distance running and the Iditarod Trail Invitational?
"I got my start about five years ago; I quit smoking and I decided I needed a hobby. So I started running and discovered ultrarunning and the whole tribe that is Minnesota ultrarunning. And it's amazing, once you get into ultrarunning in Minnesota, it all kind of gravitates I think toward the winter ultramarathons — that tends to be the highlight with a lot of these people. And it doesn't take long before you start getting sucked into the cold weather and the winter ultramarathons with the Minnesota folks."
What kind of gear do you carry for the race?
"You pull a sled, which weighs 40-50 pounds, full of gear — basically everything you need. Any extra layers that you might need, jacket, an extra pair of shoes, socks, sleeping bag, stove ... pretty much all your calories. There's a couple of drop points and you can buy food at some of the resorts that you pass by, but you do carry a lot of food."
What was your strategy to what you ate during the race?
"Mainly a lot of sweets. It would've been pretty funny for someone to see my sled; they would have thought I had a serious sugar addiction because it was a lot of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, white fudge-covered Oreos are actually a favorite of mine. But honestly as the race got longer, I actually started craving more "real food." I had a lot of trail mix and ended up eating a lot of that. And then kind of the nice thing during the race is when people go through the drop points where their drop bags are, if they don't use their food, they just dump it on the table and you can scavenge what other people have left. And so there was a biker ... who kept leaving these packs of hard salami, and that was beyond delicious."
What are some of the keys to not just finishing the race, but to be successful in doing so?
"I think to be successful, the No. 1 thing that you have to have is just a positive outlook. If you're someone who kind of gets in that negative downward spiral when you're thinking about things or looking at things and thinking you can't do it, or it's too far or I'll never be able to get there in time — it just makes things so much harder. If you can just put a smile on your face and not worry about things and enjoy where you're at. ...
"There were countless times when I would look around, and I would just kind of say, "I don't know if I'm ever going to see that again. I don't know if I'm ever going to see that sunset again. I don't know if I'm ever going to see that clump of trees over there again.' And just really try to soak it in and remember how short life is, and be thankful for the ability to do these things."
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