Monday, 1 December 2014

Me, myself and Iditarod...

I'm that red blinky light you saw riding at 4am, squeezing in a 100km before my day job; I'm that neighbour you hear lifting weights in his garage when you put the bins out; I'm that mate who never drinks or stays late at functions, choosing to get to bed early for training discipline; I'm a dedicated athlete; I'm also the everyman.

It may sound like I'm paraphrasing Fight Club, but the similarities of Jack and Tyler to an athletes' lifestyle are striking. As amateur athletes, we manage our double life as an athlete (training, racing, recovering) and as Joe Average (father, employee, husband, lawn mowing guy). In our mind we see the potential of our body and how we can shape it, to create our version of an Ubermensch, to achieve our goals and do something extraordinary. I'm an ordinary guy, that chooses to do extraordinary things.
I'm asked many questions when the subject of 'Iditarod' is brought up in conversation, it's hard to convey the full weight of it in a few minutes. I understand how many immediately think of the famous dogsled race in Alaska, but no, I'm not doing the dogsled race. This is an endeavour that is entirely human powered, traversing the frozen tundra and mountain passes, in the depths of an Alaskan winter on a bicycle. This article will detail what the event is, what my key motivators are and how I plan to achieve my objectives.


The event.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) has been listed for many years, as one of the top ten human powered, ultra-endurance races in an extreme environment. Alaska in the middle of winter can serve weather extremes from 20 deg C, to -60 deg C, rain, sleet, snow, ice, high wind, avalanches. There are no roads, just snowmachine trails over frozen lakes, along rivers through wild backcountry and over high mountain passes. Very few towns exist along the route and may only comprise of a lodge or a few houses. The landscape is remote and beautiful, but deadly. The start date for the 2015 ITI is 1st March, 2:00pm at Knik Lake, Alaska. The time cutoff for the 350 mile race is 10 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds.

To qualify and receive your invitation to enter, you must submit a resume of your experience in a sub-arctic environment, or successfully complete one of the organised ITI training camps, or qualify through completion of a few selected long distance winter races. The training camps are a way for race organisers to asses your skill, knowledge, competency and mental capacity for the race. Only 50 racers are selected to enter. Suffice to say, line entries are not possible. There is no prize money, completing the event is the achievement - more people have climbed Everest than completed the ITI.

To quote race organiser, Bill Merchant:

"...with the input of several veteran racers we all agreed support should be kept to a minimum. Winning or even finishing in the extremes of Alaskan winter weather depends on how comfortable the racers are with their abilities, level of experience and amount of risk they are willing to take... we allow racers to make these decisions for themselves about what to carry, when to rest and when it is safe to travel. There is no designated or marked route only mandatory checkpoints racers must pass through. We try to limit the amount of support to just what is necessary. Words from a story told by Joe May say it best and I am paraphrasing, "Some times when you offer too much support you cheat the true adventurer out of a big part of why they are on the trail. They come to race, to confront and hopefully overcome what ever is thrown their way. To solve problems for them diminishes the experience."

Full information on the event can be found on the website:

Everything you need for survival is carried on your bike. There is no support or sweep vehicle. Food, shelter, food prep kit, clothing, bike and gear spares - you carry it all in purpose made bags on the bike. These bags are designed to efficiently carry your gear, reduce overall weight and improve performance. You bivvy out under the stars, directly on the snow, with a thin foam mat to insulate your body and sleeping bag from the snow. For water you melt snow, store it in insulated bottles and (hopefully) consume it before it freezes. Calories must be consumed in the thousands, to keep up with metabolic demands of exercise, thermal and basal requirements. You must vent your clothing layers to keep perspiration minimised - wet clothes transfer more heat to the surrounding air - so you remain slightly cold to keep your layers dry.

Key motivators.

First up: a little history without being too introspective. I've always loved riding bikes. I've always loved camping. I've always loved mysterious and challenging weather, chosen solo ventures instead of team sports, strived to do things efficiently. I'm always searching for opportunities that allow me to combine these passions.

The ITI just clicks with me. It encompasses my passions and drills down to my core beliefs of self reliance, competency and draws upon my skills learnt and honed over decades of adventuring. Humans need to be challenged - our modern lives have made us forget about challenging ourselves, stepping outside of our comfort zone - our bodies and minds need stress to maintain an equilibrium, a balanced perspective. Also I'm about motivating others - I do this because I can and I'm able bodied. Too many people wait until a critical, life changing event wakes them up, shakes them by the shoulders and screams at them to do something with their physical and mental abilities as a human - but sometimes it's too late and their ship full of physical capacity has sailed a long time ago. I've not had a life changing event, I just want to maximise my potential and achieve as much as possible while I'm able bodied. I hope that those who watch me from the sidelines may be tempted to step into a game of their own and achieve their full potential too.

I'm no adrenaline junkie. This race will however force me to take calculated risks under very adverse conditions, in a cold, hungry, solo and sleep deprived state... and I will love every single second of it. This will be another level of challenge, exceeding the summits of days past - ultra-racing in New Zealand, solo bikepacking trips in foreign countries and parenting. Well, not quite parenting, but if you're a parent yourself you'll appreciate the pre-requisites of endurance, pain tolerance, patience, decision making and goal oriented focus. Our daughter is only 8, I hope she will aspire to dream big and achieve big in her life, find inspiration from my adventures, be a star pupil at my school of experience and grow confident in her abilities. My wife has been a constant sponsor in the background, even though she hasn't emerged from the same adventurous mould as myself, she has never questioned my motivations or equipment purchases. Sanity, yes, but never equipment purchases. These two chicks keep me going.
Tramping on a family trip, Mt Cook, New Zealand.

There is another vital motivator, that I discovered after I had committed to the race and payed my fees - NO Australian racer has EVER completed the full length of the event. That means when I finish under the burled arch in McGrath, Alaska, I will be the first Aussie to complete what many others have tried, but due to mechanical, bodily or mental failures, could not achieve. No pressure, of course...

Achieving big.

'Use only as directed'. This kind of adventure does not come with instructions on the box. Specialist equipment and knowledge are required for enjoyment, goal attainment, and most importantly - survival. It is outside the scope of this article to cover the equipment I'll use - that will be detailed in future blog articles. I choose my equipment and plan out my trips in meticulous detail, researching and field testing as much as possible, prior to trip.

My physical training comes in many forms. I have an intrinsic understanding of training my body to suit different athletic pursuits from decades of ultra-distance cycling, kayaking and gym training. Other sporadic pursuits such as rock climbing, trail running and adventure racing add variety to my regime. This event won't purely be riding a bike - there are too many variables with weather. Best case scenario - bluebird days and very little fresh snowfall = fast riding all day and into the night. Worst case scenario - heavy snowfalls = very little riding, breaking trail, pushing through or carrying the bike over deep snow, pushing the bike up mountain passes. To simulate the physical aspect of these conditions I have designed my own training schedule, with a focus on endurance and consistent gains in performance. Long training days on the bike to simulate the temperature aspect...hmm, well the shop next door does have a very large coldroom...

Being a lifetime athlete, I understand how my body works, how to train it and how to rebuild it during recovery. A lifetime of solo sports and adventures has refined my thinking to not relying on a safety net, instead making calculated decisions for success. As a seasoned outdoors person, my experience and honed skillset will allow me to utilise my equipment and knowledge to maximum potential. I am a fully qualified bicycle technician - and having built the bike I'll be using from the ground up - I know precisely how to repair and maintain a bike during this event. I feel these 4 strong key attributes will enable success in this event.

Equipment... briefly.

Sub arctic is the key premise here. Clothing layers are technical garments, complex in their design and fabric performance, from leading adventure brands such as The North Face, RAB, Outdoor Research, NEOS, Mountain Hardwear. Each garment has a unique performance characteristic, ranging from next to skin base layer (must create a comfortable, highly breathable micro-climate to wick moisture from the skin surface) to a soft shell, synthetic outer layer (must be tough, multiple pockets, key breathable sections like armpits and wind stopping performance in frontal regions, water repellent finish). When temps plummet and wind is up, the big guns come out with a true -40 polar jacket (down and synthetic insulation) and synthetic overpants. 

The bike I use is called a fatbike. These bikes have evolved for snow racing over many decades - most notably running 5" studded tyres for flotation and traction on the ice. I have built the bike from the ground up, with my own custom parts specification to suit this race. The frame and fork is from the Australian manufacturer Muru Cycles, made from titanium for its light weight and durable characteristics. I build my owns wheels, using lightweight carbon fibre rims and snow/cold temperature rated hubs. The bags I use to carry my equipment are from the Alaskan manufacturer Revelate Designs.

More detailed information on these topics will be covered in future blog articles as the event gets closer and my equipment list is further refined.  

So there you have it, hopefully this has provided an insight into the event, my motivations and equipment - but I'm sure you will still have many questions, which is great! I have piqued your curiosity, but you may still be questioning - why leave a perfectly warm, Australian summer, beach and surf culture - to ride a fatbike across frozen rivers, lakes, snow and mountain passes in the middle of an Alaskan winter?


  1. Awesome, Troy. I can't wait to

  2. Best.Post.Ever.

    Well said Troy. The beach is over rated anyway.

  3. Seriously good reading! Thanks for the inspiration!!!!!