The Iditasport 2002

Jackson Griffith

Being the exploits of Team Páramo, challengers to & conquerors of the Iditasport 130 mile footrace, Knik, Alaska, 17th February 2002.

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

After undergoing 3 days of systematic pre-race carbo loading on a local Alaskan diet of greasy potato and pancakes, Team Páramo waddled out to the now familiar start line in the village of Knik, 60miles north of Anchorage. We stick fast to our strategy of supreme fitness, meticulous planning, and a healthy collection of duct tape (if all else fails ... use duct tape).

The day was bright, clear, and cold. Very cold. Similar conditions to when the team convened on this spot 12 months earlier. The mercury was resting at -10°C in the midday sun. There was a quiet calm confidence in the air. 365 days of hurt was stored safely away for motivation and it would be needed. What would the next 3 days hold in store? Looking forward from the start line lay bare 130 miles of the toughest, roughest landscape and conditions Alaska had to offer, the infamous Iditarod trail. For a number of reasons, the field of competitors was greatly reduced from previous years. Just 50 souls stood on the line, a minority of which would travel in the foot division of the race with Team Páramo, the remainder motoring on skis and bikes. One thing was for sure, this was going to be a lonely race.

Once underway, the team made no commitment to stay as one. Each competitor commits to compete at their own pace and under their own strategy. The team unity provides vital moral support, but little else is practical in such an environment. The usual throng of TV and radio crews swarmed around the competitors for sound bites and snippets. Why are you here? What on earth drives you to do this? Where are your dogs? What, you mean you are the dogs?!

The chime of high noon strikes and the race is promptly underway. One step over the start line and the team is now self sufficient until they reach the finish line, over 200 kilometers into the yonder. All they have to do now is to find it. And that, in itself, would prove to be quite a task.

Much of what followed over the first 10 hours of the race seemed to fly by with abandon. The course was familiar to the team having been here 12 months previously. But that familiarity was to work against them 25 miles into the race. Just 5 miles from the safety of the first 30-mile checkpoint, four of the five team members convened as one by coincidence having spent most of the race apart. They then naturally followed a recognizable junction in the course, only to find themselves lost shortly afterwards. Mild panic and frustration set in, realisation that the course had obviously changed from last year. It was now dark, a dim moonlight shone down and they stood on an immense frozen lake with the dark shadows of the far tree-lined bank just visible 2 miles away. Eventually, the route was recovered, yet when the team arrived at the first checkpoint they found themselves almost at the rear of the field despite their strong early pace. They had lost 2 hours stumbling around off route! Fuelled by appointment and resolve, they stayed just 1 hour at the checkpoint to concoct a hurried hot snack and dry their wet clothes on an open fire. The next target was a further 25 miles up the trail, the Yentna Station checkpoint - scene of the team's demise last year. The omens were not good.

By the time the team had left the first checkpoint on Flathorn Lake at the 30-mile mark, the early strength and confidence had been sapped by the 2 hour detour. It was now 3 am and the 4 members of the team that had left Flathorn Lake together were starting to break up again. Dancing-Moose had boogied up the trail ahead having not succumbed to the wrong turn, now Danger-Moose and Frozen-Moose were starting to feel the compounding effects of jet lag and sleep deprivation. Having fallen asleep while moving and woken with a thud when hitting the ground, Frozen-Moose was getting just a bit tired. With patches of overflow (slush/surface water on the ice) on either side of the trail at times, it was perhaps a little foolish to adopt this 'go until you drop' attitude! With several hours on the trail still forecast and the temperature dropping rapidly, he and Danger-Moose decided to dig a snow hole and try to steal some vital sleep. Yankee-Moose and Speedy-Moose ploughed on into the darkness.

Some hours later, Danger and Frozen had woken from their snow pits and were trudging through early morning still air temperatures of -27°C to find early pace setter Dancing-Moose doing what looked like the Harlem Shuffle. In reality, serious injury had struck, he could hardly walk and was in big trouble. Still hours from the safety of the 55-mile checkpoint, the intense stress of man-hauling a 50lb sled through this relentless terrain had flared an old ballet injury. There was no disguising that his race was over. No time for sentiment or attitude. One drop of fortune did fall at this time, we were within dancing distance of Luce's, a renowned restaurant miles from civilisation yet proudly standing here on the Iditarod trail. Here he would seek refuge until help and evacuation could be summoned. The team was now four.

Day 2

Some hours later, at Yentna Station, the 2nd official race checkpoint, the remaining four members again convened, slept for an hour, fed, watered, and moved on. The next stage was awesome, 35 miles along the frozen surface of a river, the same river, the whole way. It was clear this was designed to break the resolve of all but the very toughest competitor. For Team Páramo however leaving Yentna Station was a poignant moment. The last time we had left here was by plane, being ferried back to Anchorage having fallen foul of the severity of the race and its conditions. This time, we left on foot and heading due north-west towards the finish. For us, the race psychologically started here. Despite early disappointments our tails were now up and we were more determined than ever. What problems we had at this stage were nothing more than a minor irritant.

As night fell on the 2nd day, the temperature once again fell dramatically and with it came wind, bone chilling wind. Estimates were of a wind chill the wrong side of -45°C. The team had soon broken up again on leaving Yentna but once again met by chance halfway between checkpoints but this time in a state of concern and confusion. It was approaching midnight, delirium was rife. We were now 75 miles into the race and the combined effects of exhaustion and lack of sleep were hitting home. There were concerns that we had taken the wrong course. The team ground to a halt and searched for a handle on the moment.

After 2 hours of distressed searching of soul and trail, the team had traversed back on themselves several times, to no avail. The irony was that this stage was the easiest to navigate. "Just stay on the river for 35 miles" we were told. That such simple instructions can cause problems are a vivid example of the debilitating effects of the Iditasport 130-mile footrace. The team had been fed a snippet of bad information from a competitor en route, he himself back-tracking in blind panic, and like confused sheep we also panicked, this despite our considerable experience. Inevitably, after spending 2 hours of going back and forth over a 1 mile stretch of river in the very early hours of the morning, we found the simple courage to keep going forward. In this move, we found our route-markings once again. We grappled for discipline, but this race was getting the better of us. We trudged on, safe in the fragile knowledge that we were on track. Irritated by the fact that we always had been!

The team forged on, this was the longest stage. The full force of the race was at us now. 85 miles gone, yet the mind-numbing prospect of 45 miles still ahead of us. The weather was deteriorating fast. The four team members stumbled into the beautiful, oh so beautiful Skwentna Roadhouse checkpoint at 90miles within 20 minutes of each other. We were exhausted in the extreme, talking to the cameras waiting at Skwentna we were emotional and exaggerated. This was the race we had come for. This was the test we had sought. We fed quickly, clumsily and slept for 2 hours.

Day 3

As the morning of the third day wore on, the team prepared to leave Skwentna at the 90-mile mark for the final 40mile push to the finish. Our bodies and our minds were by now in an equal state of disrepair. Yankee-Moose and Speedy-Moose had picked up lower leg injuries severe enough to considerably limit their movement, but with the finish so relatively close, that would not stop their resolve now. They limped ahead 15 miles over the swamps and moguls of the Shell Hills to Shell Lake lodge, a quaint unofficial stop off point for the race competitors, positioned at the 105-mile mark. Danger-Moose and Frozen-Moose followed close after. This point in the race was torture ; picture the scene, you sit by a log-fired burner in a cosy lodge, your limbs ache through abrasions and injury, your mind is numb through insomnia, clear and logical thought seems impossible. The race clock is ticking yet your common sense tells you to sleep in this tranquil, overheated haven. Outside darkness has fallen and the temperature again has sunk to the lowest depths. What's more, the only toilet is an outdoor affair with a frozen seat ! How on earth we ever got ourselves out from this place will forever escape me. We could so easily have stayed and emptied the bar! But move onwards into the Arctic night we did.

25 miles now separates the team from mercy. As we trudge through the night, the pace has slowed. Our wretchedness is relieved temporarily by a stunning show of the northern lights, glimmering green and yellow on the horizon. It doesn't last. Soon the clouds and the fierce winds draw in. Batteries start to die in the cold, rescued only by stuffing them in the one of the very few warm places still left on our sad, pathetic frames. The trail is lost to whiteout conditions. Spindrift blows across the trail as we traverse frozen lake after frozen lake. The liquid on our eyelashes freezes with the effect that blinking causes eyes to weld shut. We try to estimate just how much of this torture remains. Surely, just 2 more hours, no more. But it lingers and lingers and lingers. We lose all sense of time and motion, fearing we've gone too far. Frozen-Moose and Danger-Moose wander forward, straying off the now hidden trail into waist deep powder, wasting scant energy and time by desperately crawling from the fluff like drowning sailors lost at sea.

They see a sign, scrawled child-like in red paint on a wooden board. It's half-covered by fresh snow. Wiping it clear they see a sign pointing them to the unfamiliar name of a lodge up ahead. We're off track, we're lost, it's the only logical conclusion. Do we re-trace our steps for a 3rd time during this race? No. We've been moving now for nearly 3 days solid with only 5 hours' broken sleep. We are beaten men and refuge, albeit the wrong one, lies close by, according to this amateur sign in front of us. We trudge forward, Frozen-Moose now limping with an achilles strain. Once more he steps off the trail into waist high powder and finds himself crawling on hands on knees, sled still attached, heading towards a single shining light on the horizon. It draws nearer and we see our sanctuary closing in. We estimate that we're 10 miles off course and blurt apologies to the stranger we meet as approach the lodge.

Inexplicably, they offer congratulations and take record of our names. "You've done it, you're safe", a lone voice echos. Done what? Where are we? "The finish line of the Iditasport 130."

Time and energy just enough to prop each other up for a photo opportunity, then we collapse into the cabin that is the race finish HQ. Danger-Moose and Frozen-Moose sit opposite each other in silent amazement. Did we just do that? Is that really it? Instead of adrenalin- fuelled celebration we sit in quiet contemplation. 2 days and 19 hours after leaving Knik we've emerged from one of the toughest ordeals we've known in one piece. 2 hours later, we're joined by Yankee-Moose and Speedy-Moose, struggling with injury but also now safely home. As we eat and drink to recover, our bodies gradually start to remind us what we've just put them through. Sitting at a table, heads fall to rest and eyes close to sleep, our 'gourmet' breakfast untouched.

Closure

It's a cheesy way to conclude, but it's the nearest way to describe the quiet sense of achievement felt by the team. A few hours after finishing the race the weather abated and we were flown back to civilisation. We finished somewhere in the middle of the field, which, considering our untimely detours during the race, is quite satisfying. The beauty of this race however is that it's quite often not about first past the post, but soon becomes nothing more than pure survival. To fight exposure & emaciation, to strive for safety with danger all around. The rate of attrition was high. Some 25% of this year's competitors were forced to abandon their hope of finishing the race - most due to injury caused by the stress of man-hauling a 50lb sled over this awful terrain and some others due to the effects of exposure to the elements.

Dare we think of what next for this merry band of hardy fools? Well, having conquered extreme heat in the depths of the Sahara desert, the most freezing cold in the Alaskan outback, don't be surprised to find us turning up in the middle of some jungle jaunt one day complete with leeches & suffocating humidity. What else!? But for the immediate future, simple, just a little rest.

Our supporters

They come from far and wide. This publication alone touches several thousand readers. We thank you all. The funds we have raised for Macmillan Cancer Relief should run into five figures sterling. But dearest to our hearts are the close friends and families that suffer in our absence from home and cheer our every step. Also a huge thanks to all messages of support from around the globe on the message board on our home page at www.tent64.com. You make the race possible for us to go forth, inspire and do further good deeds.

A particular mention should also go to Páramo Directional Clothing Systems. When the elements were at their very worst, the clothing and equipment you supplied us with did not fail. We put the very safety of our lives in your hands and we couldn't have been more secure. We're proud to have you as Team Sponsor.

Closing words

It's been a marvellous and incredibly arduous adventure. The scars are plentiful but will heal, the pride will last forever.

For all the richness of 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. - Stephen Venables, Esq.

© Jackson Griffith, 2002