The Masochists Who Race the Iditarod Without Dogs
The documentary 'Safety to Nome' follows 26 competitors racing 1,000 miles across the Alaskan tundra on foot, bike, or skis
“More people summit Everest in an afternoon than have made it from Anchorage to Nome on a bicycle,” says the summary of Safety to Nome, a documentary that follows participants of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) in Alaska. The ITI is the human-powered equivalent of the Iditarod, in which participants travel the legendary 1,000-mile course via fat bike, foot, or skis instead of a dogsled. And the filmmakers do not for a second let you forget just how difficult this is—which makes Safety to Nome, available on streaming platforms as of February 25, both incredibly fun to watch and an excellent meditation on why outdoorspeople like to do nearly impossible things.
Presiding over the event is ITI founder and past competitor Bill Merchant, who probably knows better than anyone how dangerous the race can be. He reminded me of “the Dude” in a giant parka and frequently says things like, “My responsibility is to sit here and sweat blood and hope that I made the right decision when I told them, ‘Yes, you can come do this.’ What I’m saying to that person is, ‘OK, you’ve convinced me that you’re not gonna hurt yourself or die on me out there.’”
The ITI, an annual event that will be held for the 20th time on March 1, generally takes people two weeks to a month to complete, and though many of the featured racers have done it before, the documentary makes it clear that experience and bravery can only get them so far. Temperatures consistently approach the negative teens. There are storms. There is snow. There is something called overflow that involves navigating a frozen lake to avoid falling into “crotch-deep slushie,” as Merchant describes it.
The race begins with 26 competitors, but that number quickly drops as people succumb to exhaustion, chest infections, and frostbite. There is so much frostbite. At one point, a man in a beanie reports that just that morning, a piece of his ear came off with his hat—and yet, he’s not sure if he should drop out!
The documentary makes audiences really feel the slog at times, but as the remaining racers push on, it becomes a no-nonsense examination of the attitudes that made them sign up for such an insane and Herculean task in the first place. The participants are mostly local men whose views of racing the ITI are similar; they often, for example, frame the race as a form of escapism from their daily lives. “This is still all easier than taking care of a two-year-old,” says Kevin Breitenbach, who holds the lead for part of the race before having to drop out. “I haven’t had anyone hitting me, yelling at me.” Another racer relishes that he doesn’t have to answer his phone or reply to email while competing. And it’s a way to shake out of being a “naturally fearful person,” as the sole female racer interviewed in the film puts it. It’s also simply a choice of what to do with your free time, several interviewees point out.
Basically, people do the ITI for the same reasons that others dedicate themselves to mountaineering, ultrarunning, or any other sufferfest. But the character traits (stubbornness, fortitude, and pride, among them) that lead a person to sign up for grueling outdoor challenges are on much fuller display as Safety to Nome’s racers make their way through the desolate, icy Alaskan wilderness. Perhaps the filmmakers’ wisest choice was spending a lot of airtime emphasizing that each person is making a moment-by-moment decision to be out there: these racers are technically able to bail before something really bad happens or to ask for help when they need it.
The racers, however, are not always eager to call for help. In one memorable scene, Merchant debates whether to check on a competitor, Tim Hewitt, who is in his early sixties. Hewitt previously completed the race nine times on foot, but this time around, he’s trying his luck on a bike and is struggling. Hewitt gets stuck between checkpoints for multiple days with limited supplies, so Merchant sends a messenger out with PB&Js and Coke, with instructions to make it seem like a snack is being offered to every racer the messenger meets. Secretly, Merchant is trying to suss out whether Hewitt needs help. (He does.)
While Safety to Nome doesn’t offer revolutionary insights into the adventurer’s psyche, it’s extremely compelling when it comes to the complicated emotions that people have while attempting gargantuan feats.
“They were the little kids that wore the right shoe on the left foot. Because their parents figured it was a fight, they didn’t want to take it there,” Merchant says of the racers. “Those are the little kids that grow up to be the people who come out here to do it theirself. And in Alaska, we’re given that opportunity.”