The same low snowpack and warm days that turned the 2014 Iditarod dogsled race into a harrowing event of attrition created record-shattering conditions for bike racers and runners at this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational.
In the 350-mile “short” course from Knik to McGrath, Kevin Breitenbach set a new record of two days, four hours, and 43 minutes. That’s over 14 hours quicker than the previous fast ride by Jay Petervary, which was considered a remarkable time when he set it in 2013.
This year, nine riders finished faster than Petervary’s previous high mark. That includes first place female finisher Heather Best, whose time of two days, 14 hours, and 13 minutes was over 26 hours faster than the previous women’s record set in 2013 by Eszter Horanyi.
“I'm not sure it's fair to compare my time with Jay's from last year. The conditions in a race like this have an enormous affect on the times posted any given year,” Kevin Breitenbach said post race. “I don’t think that Jay's performance was any more or any less impressive than what Pete Bassinger did to win in 2012, when it took him six-plus days to cover the same distance. Context is the biggest part of the story.”
In the running category—in which racers drag a sledge with their gear and safety provisions behind them—Alaska native Dave Johnston also set a new record of four days, one hour, and 38 minutes. This bested the previous course record, set in 2005, by 13 hours and 22 minutes.
And while those margins are big, the times on the full 1,000-mile course from Knik to Nome are so fast they’re almost incomprehensible. The race alternates from year to year on one of two routes—a northern passage on even years and a southern passage on odd years. Up until this year, endurance legend Mike Curiak had the course record of 15 days, one hour, and 15 minutes on the northern course—a time that’s held since 2000. Jay Petervary’s 2011 record of 17 days and six hours on the southern course still stands.
A few days ago, Fairbanks cyclist Jeff Oatley scalped the northern course record, finishing in Nome in 10 days, 2 hours, and 53 minutes. That’s nearly five days—or a full 30 percent—quicker than Curiak’s previous time. In addition to Oatley, four other riders bested the old record.
Oatley also did what no one thought was previously possible—he beat the dogsled teams to the finish. (Granted, he didn’t beat the dog teams outright, as they start several days after the cyclists.) Dallas Seavey finished first in the dog race, also with a new record time of eight days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, and 19 seconds.
After the race, a modest Oatley credited part of his success and speed to the conditions. “I don’t know what the conditions were like for Mike or for Jay when they did their rides, but nobody is going to go out there on the same courses that took them 15 or 17 days and do it in 10 days,” he insisted. He said that warm temperatures early in the winter had metamorphosed the snow on the course this year and set it up as hard as concrete. One passage that’s normally snowless was rideable this year. “I think the section from McGrath to Ruby, which is about 220 miles, can normally have a lot of walking sections,” he said as another example. “This year we were riding 100 percent of it.”
It wasn’t all high-speed, easy going though. “The trails were great on the coast, but the winds were horrible,” Oatley said. “I had a 35 mile-per-hour headwind for the first 80 miles, then 35 to 40 mile-per-hour crosswind for the next 50 miles.” He slept for only about four to five hours each night, a pace that had taken its toll by the finish. “You’re running a 60-pound bike setup hard for days on end, and your body starts to need more rest,” he said. “By the end I was getting pretty bad low back pain, lots of joint pain. I was definitely glad to finish.”
Oatley never considered racing for a record time before the start. “I didn’t even know what the record was when I left McGrath,” he said. “But when I hit the Yukon River in five days, I started to realize that I could be in for a pretty fast time.”
So will Oatley return next year to try and notch the record on the southern course? “You can’t think like that. The majority of it is about trail conditions,” he said. “But yeah, I had a great time out there. It’s hard to take three weeks off of work, but if I ever got the chance again, I’d do the southern course. I’d love to see something new.”
Breitenbach, who won this year’s 300-mile race, underscored the point. “Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you have fast trails. Sometimes you have great friends. Sometimes you have great gear. Sometimes you have nice weather. Sometimes you have all of those things, so sometimes you break records. Other times you don’t get any of them,” he said. “I'm pretty convinced that there is no real ‘record’ for the ITI. Each winner simply owns the record for their respective year.”