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Across Alaska
Dispatch #1 from the 2005 Alaska Ultra
Anchorage, Alaska, February 26 2005

Elliot making his way to Nome
Photo courtesy of Elliot McAllister
Editorís Note: Elliot McAllister is one of 50 people currently competing in the 2005 Alaska Ultra, which follows the famed Iditarod route. Only instead of mushing dogs, contestants either ski, bike or run their way from Knick Lake (near Anchorage) to Nome, 1,100 miles of unadulterated hardship. Racing in his fourth Alaska Ultra, Elliot will ride his bike across the frozen tundra, chasing fellow biker Mike Curiak, who set the course record of 15 days, 1 hour, 15 minutes in 2000. He will be sending us updates of the race whenever he steps in from the cold - so read on and stay tuned.

***

Thursday, February 25, 2005: Day before Race Start

So here it is! The final week of prep before we head up the trail. Itís been a trying process to say the least. Not the least of which has been writing this first entry for MountainZone.com. I figured that since I had done so much research on it, and raced in it for four years, it would practically write itself. Unfortunately it hasnít been that easy. There have already been numerous accounts of the race, personal, journalistic and even documentaries. But, I guess thatís just it, the race is like the state, itís huge. And itís nearly impossible to wrap your head around. I get bombarded every year with so many questions - all of them reasonable and some just unanswerable - for the basics on the race, check out www.alaskaultrasport.com and about the trail and the history of it at www.iditarod.com.

THE START
The race always begins with racers from all eligible disciplines and both sexes decked to the nines in the latest outdoor gear, toeing up on the same line behind the Knick Bar and Grill. We make the dash across the small lake that doubles as a small-plane landing strip in the winter. The initial sprint for the steep and often unrideable embankment on the other side of the lake gets quite comical. The surface can get as smooth as an NHL hokey rink and competitors of all disciplines flop and flail across to the other side. Canít you just see it - skiers with poles, hikers with sleds and snowshoes, and cyclists, the one group that absolutely defies logic riding bikes on the snow, trying like mad to scramble across a greased runway! Finally we manage to get just enough speed and stay upright just long enough to pile it into the two foot "speed bump" at the end of the runway. (Note to new racers: do not get behind the skiers - theyíve got four large sticks which they flail about behind themselves wildly - two of the sticks have sharp-pointy-thingys on them).

(Hmmm...alcohol, frozen lake that doubles as a runway, bunch or crazy people dressed in super-hero outfits all on the same property...sounds like a National Lampoons movie doesnít it?)

At the top of the hill and just inside the trees await another unforeseen enemy - the myriad of trails that lead backwards to the Pub we started at. In the first 10 miles, snow machine traffic is still quite heavy. This is where many have gotten lost and even turned around on the trail thinking that they must have been heading in the wrong direction! This unfortunate happening just further confounds the other participants, who 10 seconds previous to the moment of being blinded by a headlamp thought they were heading in the right direction!

Map of race course
Photo courtesy of Elliot McAllister


WHY?
Well, actually most of us havenít figured that out yet! If we did, weíd probably be surfing in Australia, or choosing a more pedestrian mode of vacation, but thatís not why you are reading this article.

Maybe itís part of a test, self-administered, graded and peer reviewed. You passed once and want to see if you can do it again, do it better, push yourself to that new breaking point - maybe itís just trying to find yourself, or you lost touch since your first trip. Iíll tell you what it is. Itís different to everyone. Itís an adventure, itís a non-loop ride, itís mountain biking at itís purest form, itís you and the trail. And no matter how many times you do it; it changes every single time just like the Iditarod trail. No one knows what it was like the first year...no one knows what it will be like next. Itís what engineers call the Heidenberg Uncertainty Principle, the ultimate in Catch-22ís.

For me, I think part of it is seeing everyone again. The friends you meet on the trail are friends for life. (Thereís nothing like suffering to bring people closer together). Another part is the feeling of coming home, the welcoming of the mountains and the outside. I like to think of the journey, whether to McGrath or Nome, as a journey to get to know yourself better. The longer the trip, the more time you get to learn about yourself. Thereís no one who knows you better. For sure thereís some soul searching but more to point itís soul unleashing.

So youíd better like who you are otherwise itís gonna get rough, and someone is going to get hurt! Self deprecating humor is perhaps even more important than a warm sleeping bag up here!

WHAT:
1. Yes, we carry all our own gear! We leave no trace other than tracks in the snow. We must be self-sufficient. So, food, water, sleeping-gear, and any extra supplies are not given to us. (So that means racers should be prepared to sleep in -20 and lower temperatures).

2. We do not have a defined route, though there are designated checkpoints we need to stop at. (This is where the getting lost in the first 10 miles comes in!) We are allowed to take any trail we feel to get between checkpoints. Racers cannot accept outside help on the trail, but if we get injured we can be flown south, fixed up, and returned to continue on.

3. All competitors are considered in the same class, weíre all humans. So bike, ski, run - itís all the same, just our own power all the way!

4. Once the gun goes off, thereís no mandatory stopping. So rinse, ride, and repeat. Whether you go 18, 20 or 22+ hours, youíve got to rest, recover and refuel for the next day because the hallucinations donít stop until you finish. There are two choices - 350, or 1,100 miles. I am aware of nine or 10 individuals who have finished. Ever. Think about that number.

Around 10 people. Lonely at the top? Or maybe just fulfilled and content.

The race started on February 26, 2005. It is an adventure race to end all. Thereís no hotel at the end of the day, no one is waiting to feed us bottles out of a van or drive for six hours, stopping at every convenience store to find Ben & Jerryís Cherry Garcia. The Ultra is part orienteering and part connecting the dots. We go where the trail is or end up in four-plus feet of snow. At dusk, we just drop the goggles, pop a few pieces of SPAM-Delight, flip on the LEDís and follow the tunnel. Rinse, ride, repeat!

The preparations for the Ultra to Nome take nearly six months of the year. (Makes sense, right? I mean if you are going to be spending a month of the year in some of the most unforgiving climates on the planet, youíre going to do your homework). It is not something you just up and decide. Even sitting here now with everything packed and set for the past month, I find myself second guessing small items - but itís a relief to know that the major things are taken care of. After returning from it every year, Iím always surprised how quickly I start to think about gear changes, training ideas and just dreaming of being in that great wide open again.

With that, Iím off to race headquarters to find out what I forgot, what others brought and to have some good coffee!

Friday, February 26, 2005: Race Day!

Well, the gear is all packed, loaded and ready to go. We're going to be loading the trucks for the drive to Knick at 11AM, Anchorage time, and then we'll head out around 12. Looks to be an interesting year as there's been a lot of new snow in the past few weeks, and temps since I've been here have hovered around freezing even at night. There's liable to be a lot of punchy snow on the way to Flathorn Lake, and some overflow right when we start out.

Overflow is where water from a streambed seeps through a crack in the top layer of ice and spreads out over it. It can be ankle to thigh deep, and can happen at any temperature! Most of us have some kind of method or some way that we think we'll be able to get through it. So far I haven't had to use mine. I hope I don't have to find out if it works. If it doesn't, I'll be building a fire a bit early this year!

Most of the racers are planning (from overheard conversations), to keep going until Skwentana, a few checkpoints in. Makes sense especially for the bikers who need the good trail most of all.

On the technology side of the coin, the 29er's are the biggest sub-class here. The big-wheel bikes of a few years ago can ride in worse stuff than we can, but the difference is minimal.

Well gotta head out there....hammer down!

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