FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks cyclist Jeff Oatley is going to try something new in the Iditarod Trail Invitational this year — he’s actually going to try to get some sleep.

After competing in the 350-mile version of the bike/foot/ski human-powered race on the Iditarod Trail for the past nine years, Oatley is planning to pedal all the way to Nome this year, a distance of 1,000 miles. Going that far will require more sleep than he usually gets in the shorter Invitational.

“I’d like to get at least four hours of sleep a night before McGrath,” Oatley said.

While that might not sound like much to your ordinary eight-hour-a-nighter, it’s more sleep than Oatley typically got during the entire 350-mile race because there was always somebody, often times himself, who was willing to push the pace, Oatley said.

“The thing I dread about going to McGrath is the pace and lack of sleep is so hard,” Oatley said. “I just dreaded the first two days of that.

“This is going to be different,” he said. “I’m going to be sleeping.”

At least that’s the plan. Whether the ultra competitive Oatley, who won the 350-mile race in 2009 and has been a perennial contender every year since he started competing in the race in 2005, can actually ease off the pedals and resist the temptation to race to McGrath remains to be seen.

When he thought the Knik Bar was still going to be open, Oatley said he planned to go in and order lunch 15 minutes before the race started so it would force him to miss the start so he would not be tempted to chase his usual rivals in the shorter race. But with the bar closed, Oatley said he will just have to bite his lip instead of a cheeseburger.

“I think it’ll be OK,” Oatley said of his plan to hold back and not push too hard to save himself for the long haul to Nome. “It’s going to be different.”

Long haul

Oatley, 44, is one of four Fairbanksans, all riding fat-tired bikes, entered in this year’s Invitational and the only one signed up to go to Nome. The three other locals signed up for the shorter Invitational are Oatley’s wife, Heather Best; Kevin Breitenbach; and Jay Cable.

The short Invitational course follows the first 350 miles of the original Iditarod Trail from Knik Lake to McGrath while the longer course follows the Iditarod Trail all the way to Nome on the northern route.

There are 54 racers signed up for this year’s Invitational — 31 in the 350-mile race and a record 23 in the 1,000-mile race.

His decision to finally try the 1,000-mile version of the Invitational this year didn’t have anything to do with a mid-life crisis, Oatley said. He’s always wanted to do it but couldn’t get that much time off work, he said.

“This year I happened to have enough leave to do it,” Oatley said.

He’s allotting three weeks to travel the 1,000 miles to Nome, which translates to roughly 50 miles per day.

“I’m not worried about being super fast,” Oatley said.

Oatley spent the last week organizing food and other supplies to be mailed to checkpoints beyond McGrath. The race is pretty much unsupported beyond that point, and racers are responsible for sending out their own supplies, he said. Sorting all his food and gear to last him three weeks instead of three days made Oatley realize what he was getting into.

“I could be ready to do the McGrath race in a day,” he said. “This is totally different. This has been an eye opener the last few days.”

Of course, how fast he and other racers go will depend on the weather and what kind of shape the trail is in.

Up until this week, trail conditions were reported to be sketchy at best. Lack of snow and a January thaw in Southcentral Alaska turned trails into icy concrete. In the Alaska Range, there was more dirt than snow and ice. Organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race considered moving the start of the race to Fairbanks because of the sparse snow conditions but announced Monday they would follow the traditional route to Nome.

On Wednesday, however, 5 to 7 inches of snow fell across most of Southcentral Alaska, and there was more snow in the forecast. Race director Bill Merchant said the new snow will probably slow things down a little bit but it will also fill in ruts and cover glare ice, making for a smoother, safer trail.

High hopes

The snow was good news to Breitenbach, who finished third last year as a rookie, less than an hour behind winner Jay Petervary, and should be a contender to win this year’s shorter race.

Last year, the trail was so hard and fast the 350-mile race turned into a 21/2-day “hammer fest,” he said.

“I don’t feel like I learned that much from last year,” Breitenbach said. “I learned you keep moving and I can do that.”

Breitenbach said he is hoping for a few more challenges along the way this year in the form of snow, wind, extreme cold or rough trail conditions.

“I wouldn’t be against a tough race,” Breitenbach, a 31-year-old bike shop manager at Beaver Sports, said. “I’ve always heard the trails are so different every year. I think it would be interesting with something to contend with. Last year, I didn’t even take my sleeping bag off my bike.”

As a rookie, he just followed Oatley’s lead and stuck with him the whole race. Oatley won’t be there this year, at least theoretically, and Breitenbach will be on his own in sizing up the competition and making strategic decisions.

“Last year, I think there was a little bit of fear of getting left behind and trying to keep up with everybody else,” Breitenbach said. “It was a race but a lot of it for me was the adventure. The excitement of going over that land and seeing what was around the next corner.

“Now that I know the trail a little bit more, it will be interesting to see what the motivation is this year,” he said. “I want to be up front and forced to learn some new things.”

To win, Breitenbach will have to beat the likes of six-time champ Pete Basinger, who is hoping to bounce back from a ninth-place finish last year, and Tim Bernston, of Anchorage, who finished in a second-place tie with Oatley last year, 17 minutes ahead of Breitenbach.

Seeking redemption

For the 36-year-old Best, the Invitational is a matter of redemption. She started the race in 2012 with Oatley and Cable, but all three racers ended up scratching 100 miles in after it snowed three feet the night before and the day of the race. Best said she had to come back.

“It was kind of out there taunting me,” she said of not finishing two years ago.

Best is one of the top 100-mile racers in the state for both men and women. She has dominated the women’s winter race circuit for the last several years and usually beats most men she competes against. She was the first woman finisher and seventh overall finisher in last weekend’s Susitna 100.

Earlier this week, Best said she still wasn’t sure how hard she was going to push it. That will depend on the trail, she said.

“I’m going to see how it develops on the trail,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of 100-mile races but I’ve never done a lot of races where sleep deprivation enters the equation.”

 Her training this winter has been excellent because of the warm conditions and hard-packed trails.

“We’ve been doing some huge rides,” Best said of she, Oatley and Breitenbach. “Every weekend, we’ve done a 60- or 80- or 100-mile one-day ride. As far as mileage goes, I’m in great shape.”

Realistic goal

Cable also scratched from the race in 2012 but exorcised his demons by returning last year to finish a respectable 13th place. He had so much fun he decided to do it again.

“It’s a different sort of fun,” said Cable, a 40-year-old research programmer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

His strategy for this year’s Invitational is the same as it was last year, Cable said. He’s not worried about how fast or slow he goes because that’s pretty much dictated by trail conditions and he doesn’t have any control over those. Instead, Cable focuses on what he can control.

“My hope is not to scratch, not to hurt myself and not to make a complete idiot of myself,” Cable said.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.



Courses: 350 miles from Knik to McGrath or 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome.

Field:  54 racers — 40 bikers and 14 walkers — from 10 countries.There are 31 racers signed up for the 350 mile race and a record 23 signed up to go all the way to Nome.

Fairbanks entrants: Jeff Oatley is doing the 1,000-mile race and Heather Best, Kevin Breitenbach and Jay Cable are doing the 350-mile race.