The Iditasport 2001

Jackson Griffith

Out The Frying Pan And Into The Fire

They came, they ate some pancakes, they stormed 130 miles across the Alaskan tundra. The rate of attrition was as high as the drama unfolding ...

Day 1

No-one's died in this race yet, but I won't deny it would be good for publicity if we lost one of you ...
Dan Bull, Director, Iditasport Race Series, in his 'faith inspiring' pre-race address

The start of the race took place near the town of Knik, 60miles north of Anchorage. Start time 3pm, Saturday 24th February. Conditions were magical that fateful day, fresh, cold and crisp. Sun was gleaming bright on the snowy plain that hosted the start line of the famous Iditarod trail. About 600 yards ahead, a deep forest lined up across the horizon, the snowy trail disappearing into the trees. It could not look more tempting, more enticing, more daunting.

As time came, 100 or so bikers, skiers and runners headed forward to start an awesome and humbling journey. With so few racers, the field soon spread out and it became a familiar, lonely toil. Like Arctic explorers, Team Kinetic were each towing a 40lb-50lb sled that contained essential kit such as sleeping bag, survival clothing, hydration equipment (that would soon freeze) and the odd snack or two (ever tried to eat a frozen Mars bar?).

The course on day one was 30 miles to an exposed base camp on the far end of the imposing Flathorn Lake. All racers would be forced to stop here and sleep outdoors overnight, a measure that would help organisers determine self-sufficiency levels for the main racing of 100miles to start the following morning. Most competitors would not arrive at Flathorn lake until late in the evening, as did all members of Team Kinetic, safe and sound.

What followed that night was memorable, daft, bordering on hallucinogenic . Over one hundred daring souls sleeping in the snow, at the start of what was to be a nasty blizzard that would severely disrupt the whole race and completely cover competitors as they slept. Water supplies laid on by the organisers froze solid, there was talk of missing competitors in the pitch black, moon-less night and some cases of frostbite and hypothermia were being reported already.

Day 2

Snowshoes? I wouldn't bother with them.
Dan Bull, Director, Iditasport Race Series.
Thankfully, his 'wise' words were not heeded by Team Kinetic.

From the overnight campout at Flathorn Lake, the Team would start the main 100mile leg of the race. The next checkpoint would be a distant 25miles up country at Yentna Station, a small, isolated lodge with minimal facilities. For the next 8-10 hours, the team slogged forward into a driving snowstorm and through rising powder levels.

Visibility was zero, snowfall was horizontal. Speed on foot was a measly, utterly pedestrian 3 mph. The course took us along the surface of several huge frozen lakes and rivers. With no maps or compass bearings handed out by the organisers, things were getting hairy. But Team Kinetic is a strong bunch, if a little stupid.

4 members of the Team (Christian, Mark, Jackson and John) reached the Yentna Station checkpoint at the 55mile mark within 30minutes of each other, but badly behind schedule. The other two members, Steve and Derek, somehow found a very enticing restaurant in the middle of the wilderness 5 miles back up the trail (we secretly reckon they had this one marked out well in advance!). With the blizzard continuing through the night, the Team sheltered from the storm at their respective hideouts until morning came in hope of better conditions.

Day 3

The weather conditions will make or break the event for the team.
Annoyingly accurate pre-race prediction from an earlier article.

What was intended to be a 130mile continuous race over 2-3 days was turning more or less into a stage race over 5-6 days as a result of the weather conditions forcing racers to hideout at regular intervals. More storms would come during the next two days.

As a result, the four team members holed up at Yentna Station were forced to withdraw from the race. It would take quite some time to get back to Anchorage from the wilderness and this, coupled with the amount of time left to complete the final 75miles in ever decreasing conditions, was deemed not enough for them to make flights back home. A sad and frustrating way to end the race.

Steve and Derek tore themselves away form their comfy restaurant hideaway and reached Yentna as the other four team members were packing up to leave. These two decided to boldly continue up the trail and chance their luck with time and nature.

What followed over the next 2-3 days for Steve and Derek is partially lost to personal memory. What is certain in the haze of the experience is that these two bold members of Team Kinetic finished the race and for that they remain our heroes of the hour.

From the Yentna River Station checkpoint, they slogged their way through the snowdrifts for another 30 miles to the checkpoint at the Skwentna Roadhouse. Exhausted by their efforts through the deep powder, they took a deserved power nap here, then made the relatively short dash 15 miles overland into the Shell Hills to the Shell Lake Lodge checkpoint.

From here, there was just 25 miles to go. The final stretch of 25 miles follows the Iditarod Trail to Finger Lake and the finish line at Winter Lake Lodge.

Our pre-race intentions were to hit the finish line here on Monday evening. Derek and Steve didn't hit the line until early on Thursday morning.

Neither our provisions nor our itinerary was prepared for such an extended race duration. Which only serves to show how the great the effort was to finish. Trail rations had long since disappeared by the time Derek and Steve approached the finish, a full 5 days after leaving the start line back at Knik, 130miles back down river across the Alaskan wilderness.

On the downside, Steve and Derek did sadly miss their flights home and another battle ensued just trying to find arrangements and personal funds to get out of the country and on a flight back to blighty. But that they did and the bold pair are now safe and sound in the UK.

A Good Cause

There are certain places that are rarely ever seen; and in those you will find a special sort of magic.
Nineteenth century Indian Missionary

As I often like to remind people, we are so fortunate to be fit and able, to exercise our freedom to roam in these most extreme ways. The support of children's charities in our efforts adds some much needed perspective, to remind ourselves of those who are less favoured with such physical freedom.

I am reminded of the words of Stephen Venables, from his novel 'A Slender Thread': But we cannot begin to imagine the despair and horror and sense of abandonment in the face of human evil, for landscape is not evil, however much we try to anthropomorphize ... a dangerous piece of geology on which we tread at our own peril.

The efforts of Team Kinetic in Alaska were officially there to support the noble work of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and in this we are well on course to succeed. The sponsorship funds raised by our brief foray with adventure and danger has so far accumulated the wonderful sum of over £20,000 and is still increasing. With luck, good willing and the generosity of friends, colleagues, countrymen, we will breach our ambitious pre-race target of £30,000.

What Next?

... for landscape is not evil ...
Stephen Venables, 'A Slender Thread'

Quite amazingly, team member Derek Jackman will be in the Sahara Desert just 3 weeks from now, searching for success among 130miles of endeavour that is Le Marathon des Sables; Mark Smyth will continue with his mountaineering and might just turn up to his barracks to partake of a little national duty; Jackson Griffith is talking of a 170km race across the desert plains of north-east Africa in November, namely the Jordan Desert Cup; at which time of year John Tyszkiewicz and Christian Cullinane will be braving the relative 'safety' of New York for a relaxing saunter around that particular big city marathon. Steve Mullan will be pondering which of the 13 craziest adventure races on his hit list to tackle next.

But while we return briefly to our individual exploits, the team will one day reconvene, once again gathering at some far-flung corner of the earth to tread where others fear wisely. The Team is bound by a collective desire for exposure to perform, by the desire for the emotions of isolation and adventure.

There is talk that the team could return for a 350mile race up the Alaskan Iditarod Trail already slated for this time next year ...

As we close this particular chapter in adventure racing history, I dedicate the final words to my fellow members of Team Kinetic and once more use the elegant words of Stephen Venables Esq.: For all the richness of 'normal' everyday life, it is good sometimes to trespass high in the sky with uncommon intensity ... in places who's beauty is inherently dangerous ... and in the process I see my dear companions, those strangely driven oddballs and misfits ... at their very best.

© Jackson Griffith, 2001