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Duluth's Gruhn fifth among women in Alaska bicycle race

Leah Gruhn rides her fat bike through the Alaska Range during the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational human-powered race. Photo courtesy Leah Gruhn1 / 2
Leah Gruhn of Duluth stands alongside her fat bike in McGrath, Alaska, after finishing the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race. Photo courtesy Leah Gruhn2 / 2

Duluth's Leah Gruhn took fifth place among seven women bicycling the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile race from near Anchorage to McGrath in Alaska.

Gruhn, a geologist with Barr Engineering Co., finished in three days, 11 hours and seven minutes. The race started on Feb. 28.

The race, which takes competitors up and over the Alaska Range, was won by former Duluth resident Tim Berntson of Anchorage, who finished in one day, 23 hours and 45 minutes. Berntson grew up in Duluth, attending Duluth Central High School and the College of St. Scholastica.

The ITI, as it's called, is run on the historic Iditarod Trail, where dogsledders are now making their way from Anchorage to Nome.

Sixty-two racers started the invitational race. Thirty-six finished the 350-mile race to McGrath, and 16 racers went 1,000 miles to Nome, according to race officials. Gruhn rode a Salsa Carbon Beargrease fat bike loaded with about 19 pounds of gear.

Gruhn, 36, said conditions this year were good, with little fresh snow to slow racers. Daytime temperatures were in the 30s and 40s, with lows of 20 above to 10 below zero, she said. Walkers, runners and skiers also take part in the race. One racer on foot broke through an ice bridge over a fast-flowing braided river over his head and was swept downstream for a distance, according to reports. He was able to walk to the race's next checkpoint, where he received aid and recovered.

This was Gruhn's first attempt at the ITI.

"I would love to do it again," she said. "One of the things that's a little bit heartbreaking is to be up there and traveling in the middle of the night. Later, you see pictures of what you missed."

She didn't miss seeing a wolverine along the edge of the trail one night, however. She watched the animal for some time in the beam of her headlamp.

The race, with no road access, is held on meandering rivers, snowmobile trails, frozen swamps and lakes. In that way, it's unlike Minnesota's Arrowhead 135, held on a snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower. Gruhn completed the Arrowhead 135 on her bike earlier this winter.

Gruhn's husband, Jere Mohr, competed in the ITI's 130-mile event, and the two rode together for that distance.

Gruhn, whose outdoor background is in canoe tripping, winter camping and cross-country skiing, competes in triathlons during the summer and long-distance bike races in the winter.

"It's an amazing and empowering feeling to be reminded that we set our own limits based on our hopes and dreams rather than negativity and fears," Gruhn said. "At this point for me, I'm finding the pursuit of my limits to be a bit addictive and intoxicating — identifying an adventure that seems impossible, but with enough planning, hard work, determination, and luck being able to succeed."

Gruhn will make a presentation about her experience in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on April 7 at 7 p.m. at Vikre Distillery in Duluth.