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Invitational becomes Idita-ordeal for Fairbanks competitors

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Posted: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 11:43 pm | Updated: 1:44 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — After pushing his fat-tired bike 80 miles through 2 feet of snow, tearing his feet to shreds and quitting 100 miles into the race, Jay Cable of Fairbanks can’t wait to do the Iditarod Trail Invitational again.

“Yes, definitely I want to do it again,” Cable said Tuesday, less than a week after scratching from the epic 350-mile human-powered race on the Iditarod Trail between Knik and McGrath. “I think if I had my footwear sorted out better I wouldn’t have scratched.”

But with his feet resembling hamburger, Cable said he had no choice but to pull the plug at the race’s first checkpoint in Skwentna, 100 miles into the race.

“By the time I reached Skwentna my feet were pretty tore up,” Cable said. “My feet were not going to hold up.”

By Tuesday, the blisters had pretty much healed, though Cable suspected he would lose a toenail in the near future.

Cable was one of 31 racers who scratched from this year’s Invitational, including fellow Fairbanksans Jeff Oatley, a past champion and perennial contender, and his wife, Heather Best.

All three Fairbanks cyclists bailed out of the race in Skwentna after a blizzard buried the trail in 2 feet of snow and reduced pedalers to pushers. It took them nearly three days to cover a distance that on a good trail takes about 12 hours.

“I anticipated pushing but I didn’t anticipate pushing non-stop,” said Cable, an Invitational rookie. “It would have been more fun to ride the bike. There wasn’t much riding of the bicycle, it was just pushing.”

It got so bad that Oatley and Best took the pedals off their bikes to make for easier pushing, since they knew riding was futile.

“They bang you in the legs if you’re pushing,” Oatley said. “If there’s no chance of riding you just take the pedals off.”

Best’s right shin was still black and blue Tuesday from getting hit by her pedal while she was pushing the first day of the race.

“It’s still discolored,” Best said.

More than epic

Thanks to the blizzard, this year’s Invitational was more epic than usual. Only 18 of the 49 athletes who started the race on Feb. 26 made it to the finish line, the highest attrition rate in the 11-year history of the Invitational.

Not surprisingly, Pete Basinger was the first to reach McGrath, winning his sixth Invitational title. But it took Basinger, the course record holder, six days and 15 hours to get there, the longest he’s ever spent on the trail and more than twice as long as his record of 3:05:40.

For a while, it looked like the walkers might beat the cyclists, which has never come close to happening. Walkers led the first half of the race before the cyclists overtook them about 100 miles from the finish. Juneau ultra runner Geoff Roes ended up finishing eight hours behind Basinger in fourth place.

Oatley, who finished second behind Basinger the previous two years, said he made the decision not to abandon his wife in favor of pursuing his rival when the blizzard hit the first day.

“The first night it was a full on blizzard,” Oatley said. “It seemed like a bad idea to ride off on my own and leave her.”

Instead, he hung with Best and friend Tim Stern from Colorado.

“I just tried to stick with them and let them decide how much rest to take and when to leave checkpoints,” Oatley said. “It really wasn’t a race to me.”

Mashed potatoes

Bikers were able to ride the first 10 miles out of Knik because it was on a road but once they hit the trail they were reduced to pushing.

“The first day was pretty bad,” Cable said. “The trails were completely erased. By the time we reached Flathorn Lake (about 25 miles into the race) everything was pretty much gone. The trail was annihilated.”

Cable managed to hang with Basinger and the other lead bikers and walkers for the first 50 miles of the race but his feet suffered for it. He ended up hooking up with Oatley, Best and Stern at Yentna Station, about 60 miles into the race, and traveled with them to Skwentna.

“After the first day it wasn’t pushing through snow as much as it was pushing through a churned up mess,” he said.

After the blizzard subsided on the second day of the race, the weather was pretty good, Oatley said. The problem was that it was too warm for the trail to set up.

“There were snowmachines going by but the trails wouldn’t set up so we just kept walking,” he said. “It just wasn’t cold enough for anything to set up. We were still sinking up to our ankles because it was mashed potatoes.”

While the constant pushing took a toll on Cable’s feet, it was Best’s hip that gave her problems. Her hip started hurting after two days of pushing.

“At some point my left hip got unhappy with that,” she said.

Interesting experience

When they finally made it to Skwentna, the racers had a decision to make: Keep going or bail out.

After hearing 5 more inches of snow had fallen on the 40-mile stretch of trail between Skwentna and Winter Lake Lodge, and Basinger and Hofstetter had yet to make it to Shell Lake Lodge, which is 15 miles from Skwentna, after leaving 10 hours earlier, Oatley and Best made the decision to scratch, as did Cable and Stern.

With her hip hurting, the prospect of two more days of pushing didn’t appeal to Best, who was worried about doing long-term damage; Cable’s feet were in no shape to continue; Stern had to catch a plane to the Lower 48 on Monday and there was no way he was going to do that if he kept going; and Oatley had a hard time mustering the motivation to continue on his own.

In the end, Cable called the race “an interesting experience.” Best, whose hip was still bothering her a week after scratching, said she wouldn’t necessarily call the experience fun but there was a certain camaraderie shared by racers that made it seem tolerable.

“There was something about the energy of everybody else doing it, like I can’t be totally stupid if all these other people are doing it,” she said.

Best was disappointed she didn’t make it over the Alaska Range.

“I spent the whole time walking across a big swamp and walking on big rivers,” she said. “I never got a chance to see the Alaska Range, which is the part of the trail I really wanted to see.

“I’m going to have to do it again to do that,” Best said.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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