Alaska is one of the wildest. The Last Frontier. A land of 100,000 glaciers and 3.5 million lakes. Here, it’s hard not to lose yourself in evergreen forests and braided rivers.
Even in this expansive place (or perhaps because of it), tightknit communities thrive. Small towns tucked between jagged peaks welcome you with local BBQ moose ribs and Dall sheep steaks. Folks sit around the fire, strum guitars and sing about love. They share stories of past lives as flight attendants, mining claim investigators, theatre actors and antique collectors. Each has a tale of intrigue as to how they landed in the 49th state.
Kathi Merchant is part of this community. A native of Germany, it didn’t take long for Kathi to fall in love with Alaska. Its grandeur. Its solitude. After an eye-opening visit in the mid-90s, she waited 5 years to obtain a Green Card through the lottery system.
Captivated by the kind of wildness and open spaces that are rare in Europe—she didn’t know what she wanted to do, just where she wanted to be.
Kathi lives in an off-the-grid cabin in the Matanuska Valley. Surrounded by dense woods, nothing about cabin life is particularly easy. Drinking water has to be hauled in. A trip to the outhouse requires investigating if moose are nearby. A shower and laundry are 15 miles away.
But that’s the way Kathi likes it. She doesn’t take the easy route. Which is why when she met her former husband and was presented with the opportunity to co-direct the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI)—150, 350 or 1,000 miles on the famous dog sled route via fat bike, foot or skis—there wasn’t much hesitation.
Alaska is made up of giant marshlands with massive glaciers jutting out. In the summer, fast moving rivers, alpine lakes and wetlands create impassable conditions. But in the winter, all that water freezes. You can travel long distances by ground, which makes fat biking so appealing.
That passion for fat biking is what drew Kathi to help grow the ITI. Her ex-husband had just taken over the race and together they wanted to see it continue.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational is the world's longest winter ultra-marathon. It’s considered the pinnacle of winter racing. The entire journey never crosses a road. Nowhere else in the U.S. do you find a place this remote, this expansive, this raw.
The race begins at Knik Lake, about an hour’s drive from Anchorage. The course winds through the vast Alaska interior crossing the Alaska Range. It travels through native villages only accessible by plane, along the rugged coast and finishes in Nome. Those who opt for the 150-mile race stop at Rainy Pass and the 350-mile race ends at McGrath.
The ITI is a step back in time. It’s a throwback to what gold miners were doing at the turn of the 20th century: traveling across Alaska, propelled by your own power, lugging only the essentials.
Now, we have modern bikes, modern skis, modern sleeping bags, down parkas and Merino wool base layers, but the environment hasn’t changed. Racers experience the same challenges the miners did traversing this terrain. There are high winds, there are plummeting temperatures, and there are frozen rivers where you could fall through the ice.
The course has no mercy. No matter who you are, how much money you make, how good an athlete you are—Mother Nature does her thing.
Although it’s been intimidatingly called “One of the World’s Hardest Races”, the ITI can represent both an extreme challenge and a break from the stresses of modern life—from always being plugged in, from expectations at work or at home. Here, everything is stripped away. It’s just you and the elements with whatever gear, whatever knowledge, whatever fitness, and whatever mental strength you have to push through.
Depending on who you ask, Alaska is one of the birthplaces of fat biking. It’s where they revolutionized riding on snow. This makes the ITI the ultimate goal. It’s the event to test, or maybe to find, your limits.
The ITI first began as Iditabike (then transitioned to Iditasport before the current name). Joe Redington, the late founder of the Iditarod dog sled race, believed the trail needed to be multi-use to ensure its survival. More users bring more funding and better maintenance. He suggested a bike race. It was 1987 and back then mountain biking was just starting to take root. Everyone was riding on snow with skinny tires, having to push their bikes most of the way.
A few years later, some relief arrived. Long before today’s highly engineered fat bikes, local Alaskans discovered you could weld rims together—stacking two or three tires side by side to enable travel across deep snow.
“I’m a bigger guy and I’d always go out for rides with other people and they’d be cruising along and I’d be punching through the snow,” shares Mark Gronewald. “I needed some equalizer and I figured bigger wheels.”
Mark made room for oversized tires by adapting regular mountain bikes. He offset the frame to the drive side, so the rim is drilled off center. It was a way to use off the shelf parts, the only option available. His ingenuity allowed him to use a normal-sized mountain bike hub and bottom bracket. He could still get a full range of gears and the chain wouldn’t rub on the tires.
“I just modified stuff and made it work,” says Mark. “I can’t credit myself with some brilliant invention.”
Brilliant or not, Mark does humbly confess to coining the phrase “fat bike”. It’s become synonymous with the sport.
Winter is pretty sluggish for a bike shop in Alaska. Developing bikes that could ride on snow was a way to keep busy and maintain business in the winter.
Mark and a handful of pioneer manufacturers drove this fat biking movement in Alaska. The ITI is what brought these bikes from being a gimmick to a proven method of travel. Mark was supplying some of the racers with his custom fatties and those racers were doing very well. They were winning races. The demand generated from the ITI advanced the technology. It didn’t take long before all riders upgraded to wider tires for more efficient travel on snow.
Taking the evolution of fat biking further, Greg Matyas introduced 170mm rear spacing for a symmetrical drive train and with it created the modern fat bike. “It’s a little different geometry than the previous generation of bikes,” shares Greg. “We were going for stability and a longer front center with clearance for 4 inch tires and 100mm rims, the widest available for several years.”
Greg continues to be a leader in the industry. He developed the current standard, the 197mm rear hub, which fits all rim and tire combinations. Greg’s bikes have set ITI course records. His shop, Speedway Cycles in Anchorage, hosts a fat biking history museum. Showcasing nearly three decades of innovation, fat bikes have come quite a long way. They’re lighter, faster and more stable than ever—just what you need if you’re traveling 1,000 miles across frozen terrain during Alaska’s harsh winter.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it,” says Kathi as she shuffles through images from the race. Photographs depict checkpoints where snow climbs to the tops of buildings. Shards of ice stick to Kathi’s eyelashes as she peers out from her balaclava.
“I think women are really tough,” says Kathi. “I think we can take a lot of pain. We’re made to have babies. Typically, we’re not as strong and quick as the men, but we have a lot of endurance and are able to suffer a lot of discomfort.”
For Kathi, it wasn’t really about reaching Nome. It was about experiencing the immense Alaskan landscape in a way few ever have.
She had traveled the 1,000-mile course on snow machine in 2003 and finished the 350-mile race on fat bike in 2005. In 2006, she attempted to ride 1,000 miles to Nome. Conditions were rough. It was 40 below. After walking her bike most of the way to McGrath, she threw in the towel with 650 miles to go. She knew she was in over her head.
Kathi took a year off to focus on organizing and growing the race on an international level, but the desire to ride to Nome resurfaced in 2008. At this point, no woman had ever finished this distance and Kathi wanted to become that woman.
She had trained continuously for six years, riding all winter every winter. With her then husband, the two decided to undertake the journey to Nome. Riding with a partner would ease the mental challenge. Having someone to talk to in a never-ending landscape makes you feel a little less like a tiny pine needle somersaulting in the wind.
“I tell people I have a diesel engine, as long as I’m eating and drinking I can go forever on that bike,” Kathi says with a laugh. “I was in a good position living here. I could train, bivy, see the course, experience pushing my bike for long periods of time.”
And push her bike she did. Blizzards were brutal and frequent that year. She had to trudge through deep snow with her bike for more than 300 miles.
Iditarod trail breakers, who create the path for the sled dogs, passed. Even with their help, the snow just wouldn’t set up. The machines would push ahead and the snow was mashed potatoes, no matter how many went by.
Then the pair got to the coast. The wind started blowing hard and they found themselves walking again. A constant drift of snow, always moving and always shifting. There just wasn’t a surface you could confidently ride.
After hundreds of miles of hardship, the sea ice presented the greatest challenge. They were moving slow enough that markers had been placed for the mushers who departed a week after the ITI racers. Every 50 feet, a reflective Iditarod marker helps guide the way. But the wind was blowing so intensely, they couldn’t see from one marker to the next. They decided to bivy on the sea ice and wait a bit, hopeful conditions would improve. Otherwise they could quickly get off course and end up out to sea. It took 36 hours just to make that 30-mile crossing.
Twenty-five grueling days after leaving the starting line at Knik Lake, they arrived in Nome.
It was two in the morning. It was silent. It was still. The last musher had already finished the Iditarod. All the hoopla was gone. Everyone had packed up and left. No cheering crowds. The finish line chute, the arch—all put aside in the corner.
They found a room, but since nothing else was open, they had one last dehydrated meal in a Styrofoam cup.
For the first time, Kathi felt cold. After weeks of layering, boiling snow, keeping food in pockets and water bottles in sleeping bags—always making sure her system was dialed despite 50 below temperatures—her body was finished.
But there’s something special out there that entices people to come back. Some have returned 4, 5… 10 times to experience the journey. Perhaps it’s that elusive combination of wildness and community that Alaska does so well.
“It’s a very simple world,” says Kathi. “It’s about eating, sleeping and moving forward. And it’s about the friendship, the camaraderie, the people who live along the trail, the volunteers—they all make this race.”
On Sunday, February 24th, 95 racers will set out to ski, run or fat bike the historic Iditarod trail. Last year, we followed a couple of fat bikers as they trained and raced in the Fat Pursuit on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Serving as a qualifier for the ITI, that race helps physically and mentally prepare riders for the challenges they will face in Alaska.
In order to participate in the 1,000 miles to Nome, racers must complete the 350-mile race to McGrath. Steamboat Springs, CO local Graham Muir and childhood friend George Adams (who’s trading Australia's sandy beaches for Alaska’s snowy peaks) will pedal and push their way to McGrath.
Follow their journey taking on one of the toughest competitions in the world.
*Special thanks to the Iditarod Trail Invitational for providing many of the images featured.