A look back - Winning the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational - Tim Berntson
February 13, 2017
Having never actually written a race report or training diary of any kind this is a first for me. It was a dark and stormy night…wait, let’s start over. The truth is I obsess over this race for a majority of the year. I had entered the ITI three times in the past. In 2012 I quit 12 miles short of Skewentna after pushing my bike literally 75 miles with Pete Basinger and Phil Hofstetter; in 2013 I came in second to Jay Petervary, and in 2014 another second place to Kevin Breitenbach. In 2015, much to my girlfriend’s dismay and premonition of super-fast conditions (I was sure they’d be slow) I insisted that we monitor the race online from the sunny shores of Hawaii. I made this decision only to miss out on record breaking times for the top racers, including my great friend, 2015 winner and all-time record holder John Lackey. Suffice it to say in 2016 I really wanted this win.
I felt great going into Christmas, took a two week break for a fun family vacation and came back ready to start where I left off. It took a few weeks to get going, but by the end of January I was getting the miles in and felt really good. The Susitna 100 on February 13 was my first real test of fitness in awhile. As the ITI was two weeks after the Susitna I was kind of hoping for a fast race. Had it been a 20 hr slog, I’m not sure I’d have been able to recover in time. I wasn’t disappointed. The course was fast, fun and a great test of fitness against great riders like Will Ross, Josh Chelf (just kidding!!!) and Carey Grumelot. I felt as fit as I could be, but it was clear I would have my work cut out for me in two weeks.
Over the next two weeks my obsession changed to forecasts for Deshka Landing, Willow, Skwentna, Puntilla, Nikolai and McGrath. I have a few lists of clothing put together for the ITI and I wanted to make sure I had what I needed based upon the projected forecasts. As the race approached with temperatures forecast to be in the mid-teens, I went a bit lighter on gear than I normally would. That said, I carried plenty of food, including a ham and cheese scone, a dozen chocolate chip cookies, no-bake cookies from Jeff Oatley and Heather Best, Fire Island Bakery peanut butter cookies, Moose Tooth pizza, trail mix, candy bars, a Mountain House, and some beef jerky.
At the start of the ITI “warm” was the name of the game. At forty-five degrees racers were thankful to have studs, or the equivalent on their shoes and those without were quickly trying to make adjustments. The race began at a reasonable pace on the Old Iditarod trail, which was a mixture of ice, puddles and a bit of mud, but once we hit Pt Mackenzie Road the slog turned into a bit of a road race. There was some chatting between racers, but as soon as you hit a hill everyone got quiet, focusing to hold their position and not breathe too hard. It stayed this way down the gas line and Flat Horn Lake with a brief respite as I led the group to a non-trail at the end of the Flat Horn and we all pushed our bikes a couple hundred yards back over to the main trail. Once there, Tyson took off and kept after it across the Dismal Swamp, at which time, Jeff Oatley, Charlie Tri, Jay Petervary, Tyson Flaherty and I traded pulls with no real let-up until we reached Skwentna at mile 90.
Once we hit Skwentna everyone took an actual break….everyone except Jay that is. Since the pace had been quick I briefly considered leaving immediately and in the end chili, cornbread and a Coca-Cola won out. Plus, Skwentna Roadhouse is such a warm and inviting place with great food and hospitable owner, Cindi Herman it was impossible to imagine leaving right away. After a short break, Charlie, Tyson and I left together, unsure how far ahead Jay might be.
From Skwentna the trail is flat and fast for about eight miles before climbing into the Shell hills. Once in the hills I slowly lost sight of Tyson and Charlie behind me over the next five miles and was told at Shell Lake that I was about five minutes back from Jay. There I downed an Ensure and headed out with a lone headlamp behind me at the far end of Shell Lake. After another five miles or so I had caught Jay and we rode together through soft snow until arriving at Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake. Although I had hoped Jay and I had put time on Tyson he showed up within a minute or two. I spent my two hours at Winterlake Lodge eating an epic burrito, going through my drops and assessing the guys around me. Although I briefly put my head on the table I realized I wasn’t overly tired and with Jay napping under the table and Tyson resting I got the hell out of there!
The snow leaving Winterlake Lodge proved soft, with an old corrugated snow machine trailer track making it difficult to ride. Plus within a couple of miles I ran into potholes from a lone moose. After a frustrating and lonely five miles I was actually happy when Tyson caught up with me; I was also happy to learn Jay and the others had been resting at Winterlake Lodge when Tyson hit the trail. Tyson and I continued on together for the next 30 miles to Puntilla Lake.
Although it seems Puntilla is the place where this race really begins, I had planned on taking a rest. After hanging up my wet clothes, downing some freeze-dried lasagna and savoring a couple glasses of hot Tang I laid down to “rest”. What that really means is I spent an hour and a half listening for the squeak of approaching tires, water dripping into the cabin (on Tyson’s pillow it turned out) and a fly buzzing. Clinton and Jay were next to arrive, which is when I decided it was definitely time to get the hell out of there so, I ate my second freeze-dried meal and headed back on the trail. Tyson apparently had similar thoughts and had left the cabin ten minutes earlier. I hoped his lead wouldn’t last long.
It’s a tough climb up to Rainy Pass and there is always a bit of motivation in a chase. Riding at the start of the climb proved better than I had expected and it took a bit of time before I caught up to Tyson. Fantasizing about the faster trails that were surely up ahead we spent the next seven hours riding and pushing to the top of the pass. With obligatory Rainy Pass photos taken at the top, we took off down the other side. Besides some wind-blown snow the riding was fast and fun we arrived in Rohn sometime around 9:00 pm on Monday evening.
While the spruce bough beds in Rohn are super comfortable, Rohn can be tough to sleep. The tent is a bit cramped for multiple people and the small stove may or may not be producing enough heat to dry gear. The volunteers in Rohn made up for it though and we had two bratwurst in our hands within fifteen minutes of our arrival. This is where we (McGrath riders) pick-up our second (and last) drop bag. After rummaging through my drop and filling my water bladder I laid down for twenty minutes to relax as best I could.
After a brief chat with Clinton Hodges, who was third to arrive in Rohn, I hit the trail. Tyson woke up at about the same time as me, but hit the trail some time later. The riding out of Rohn was primarily on ice and hard packed dirt, which made for really fast conditions; then came the climb up to the Farewell Burn. I can’t say that I had much of a strategy at this point but I definitely wanted to keep up a decent pace without blowing up and try to put some distance on Tyson. Then, somewhere during the climb I decided I felt pretty good. The riding was fast and I was in good spirits so I increased my pace to see how much distance I could get.
It was dark and I’d look back from time to time for the bounce of a light in the trees behind me. Within a mile of Post River Glacier I saw Tyson’s light in the distance, but it was still hard to judge how far back he was. This is when I committed to going as hard as I could without (hopefully) blowing up. The rest of the night was a blur. Although I felt like I was keeping a good pace the good riding I had experienced earlier on turned to hard-packed, bumpy and moose-holed snow, which kept me out of my seat. At this point arriving at the ice covered Farewell Lakes were awesome, fast and smooth!
The last thirty miles into Nikolai has been my nemesis during the last two races. In 2013 I was a wreck; cold, tired, disoriented and fighting a stiff headwind. In 2014, this is the section of trail where I found I didn’t have the legs to stay with Kevin B. Fortunately, in 2016, battling a stiff head wind I felt pretty damn good. I arrived in Nikolai at 7:45 am and while the idea of a quick pit stop was not appealing the fact that I was winning this race sure was!
Because riders coming in and out of Nikolai are visible to each other during the last mile before the village I was anxious to leave before Tyson saw me. After a quick pit stop I was out the door by 8:15 am. Once on the river and safely out of sight I stopped to add air to my tires and untangle ear buds for the music I saved for the last leg of this race.
For twenty miles things went smoothly, and then came the river, two trails and a serious decision to make. To my right…trail markers but no visible trail; to my left….no trail markers but a clearly visible trail. What did I do? I went left. After a mile and a half and some concern I started consulting my GPS, which showed my current track was paralleling the track I was supposed to be on. Assuming the GPS was just a bit off I continued another half mile until the GPS clearly showed me veering off course. I had time for a few expletives before turning around and heading back to the intersection fully expecting to see Tyson’s tire tracks heading in the right direction.
I can’t really put into words my relief at finding no tracks at that intersection. Seriously, I just can’t put it into words. So, now that I was headed in the right direction I continued on with a jolt of adrenaline and a prayer of finishing the race in under two days. The next 30 miles passed surprisingly quickly and although I was concerned Tyson might show up behind me I never caught sight of anyone and felt super confident riding the last 10 miles into McGrath. Peter met me at the door, gave me a hug, a beer, and a man cake and Tracy was there shortly after to do the same. Although I did want to celebrate and enjoy the moment, at that point I just wanted to call my wonderful girlfriend, Laura Eakes, take a shower and have another man cake!
This is an amazing race, but it does take a lot of time out of your life and I’ve received so much help and encouragement from family and friends. I’d like to thank Laura Eakes for allowing me the time, being super supportive and being the carrot awaiting me at the end of every ride and race. (Except this one, ironically as her plane had yet to arrive in McGrath). I’d also like to thank Greg Matyas @ Fatback Bikes/Speedway Cycles for making such awesome bikes, giving tons of encouragement and advice, and for being a great riding partner. Thanks to John Lackey, Jeff Oatley, Kevin Breitenbach and Brian Hartman for encouragement, riding partners and sounding boards for ideas on what to do, and what NOT to do (I still have Jeff’s gear list he gave me in 2011) and of course for providing the encouragement to keep me going. Thank-you to Eric Parsons and Dusty Eroh at Revelate Designs for the use of the best bike bags on the market, as well as David Egan of Ibex for helping with the only base layers I wore during the race. To my family and friends in MN, NV, and GA for there continued support. I’d also like to thank Ian, Tim, Mike and Scott and Speedway Cycles for all the help getting my bike ready anytime I needed. And lastly, thanks to Kathi and Bill Merchant. You and all the volunteers do an amazing job and you all make this race the awesome experience it is.
See you in 2017!