Duluthians finish 350-mile winter bike race in AlaskaAt times along the trail, Duluth’s Jason Buffington couldn’t make himself get back on his bike. He was too sleep-deprived to pedal.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
At times along the trail, Duluth’s Jason Buffington couldn’t make himself get back on his bike. He was too sleep-deprived to pedal.
“A lot of times I should have been riding,” Buffington said, “but your body won’t let you, and you sleepwalk down the trail. … I never fell over, but you could see places on the trail where people fell over and just slept there.”
Buffington, 43, was describing portions of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. No, not the dogsled race. This is the 350-mile, human-powered race through the Alaskan wilderness. Buffington and Duluth’s Charlie Farrow, 53, finished the grueling race riding fat-tire bicycles designed for winter travel.
Buffington, a family practice physician, finished seventh among 48 racers in a little over 3 days and 5 hours. Farrow, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Esko, finished 18th in just under 4 days, 15 hours. Buffington and all six racers ahead of him broke the previous course record.
Trail conditions were relatively good, Buffington said.
“There were no stretches of knee-deep snow or pushing the bikes for eight or 12 hours,” he said. “The lead Alaskan guys didn’t sleep. They slept maybe two or three hours total. I probably slept seven hours.”
The race, which began Feb. 24, ran from Knik to McGrath along a portion of the route that mushers in the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race use. Because the race is an invitational, racers must have completed a previous winter long-distance race, such as Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135, and still must apply and be chosen.
Racers follow ungroomed snowmobile trails, swamps and frozen rivers, riding or running around the clock. Farrow, a former Alaska resident, had summited Mount McKinley and once skied 250 miles from Koyuk to Nome on the Iditarod Trail.
Sleep deprivation was the hardest part of this race, Farrow said.
“I was like a zombie at the end,” he said. “(Fellow racer) Lindsay Gauld (of Canada) and I launched a plan the last 75 miles or so. We’d ride for 45 minutes then walk for 15. Otherwise, we were literally nodding off and falling off the bike. You’d just kind of pitch over.”
Farrow said he slept about 20 hours during the four-plus days he was on the course.
The length of the race also made it challenging, Buffington said.
“You go a day and a half, two days, and you haven’t slept,” he said. “You’re so tired and you know you’re not halfway done. You get to (a checkpoint), and you think, ‘I’m good.’ And you realize the next one is 90 miles away and it’ll take you 15 to 20 hours.”
The obvious question is what leads an athlete to do a race like this.
“I guess it’s just something the body wants to do,” Buffington said. “It starts 10 years ago when you run a marathon, then a trail marathon. Then you’re riding a bike, and that leads to the Arrowhead (135)… Halfway through, you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But as soon as you’re smelling the finish line, all those thoughts go away.”
Farrow said he ate mostly peanuts, other nuts and buffalo jerky during the race. He carried two Thermos jugs of water and two more water bottles inside his cycling jersey.
Buffington had finished sixth overall riding his bike in the Arrowhead 135 this year after winning the runner’s category in 2012. Buffington also won December’s Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon 150-mile bike race between Park Falls and Rice Lake, Wis.
Already qualified, he plans to compete in the Iditarod Trail Invitational again next year, but he’s looking for more challenge.
“I might ski it,” he said.