FAIRBANKS — When he decided to ride his bike 1,000 miles to Nome in this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational human-powered race, Jeff Oatley took three weeks off from his job as an engineer at the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Fairbanks. Oatley figured it might take him that long, or even longer, to make it to Nome.
“That was my plan, to take up to three weeks, and if I needed more time, I would have called (work) and gotten more time off and kept going,” Oatley said on Thursday, a day after he pedaled his fat-tired bike into Nome in the record time of 10 days, 2 hours, 53 minutes.
Needless to say, Oatley never had to call work, and he’ll be banking a week of unused vacation time.
Taking advantage of the best trail conditions in the 14-year history of the race, Oatley, 44, shattered the record for the fastest human-powered trip up the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail by almost five full days. The previous record for the race’s northern route was 15 days, 1 hour, 15 minutes by Mike Curiak, of Colorado, back in 2000 when the race was known as the Iditasport.
Oatley’s time was almost a full week faster than the previous Invitational record for the northern route, 17:02:00, also set by Curiak in 2002. He beat his closest pursuer, Aidan Harding, of the United Kingdom, by a full day.
“It was an amazing trip,” Oatley said by cellphone from the Anchorage airport, where he was waiting to board a plane back to Fairbanks. “I had a blast.”
Twenty-three competitors started the 1,000-mile race on Feb. 23, and there were still 15 racers — 10 cyclists and five runners — on the trail to Nome as of Thursday. Two racers scratched before reaching McGrath, three chose not to continue on to Nome from McGrath and one was disqualified.
It was the first time that Oatley, a former winner and perennial contender in the shorter 350-mile Invitational from Knik to McGrath, competed in the 1,000-mile version of the race. He averaged 100 miles per day on a hard, fast, icy and sometimes snow-sparse trail that has brutalized mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Indeed, Oatley’s time to Nome rivals those of the fastest Iditarod teams. His time would have placed him 25th in last year’s Iditarod race. In fact, the one bummer about his trip was that he went so fast he didn’t get passed by a single Iditarod dog team, Oatley said.
“I was looking forward to that,” he said.
Other than that, though, Oatley’s ride couldn’t have gone much better, he said. The trail was hard and fast most of the way. The most he had to get off his bike and walk was maybe a mile or two and that only happened a few times, Oatley said.
The weather couldn’t have been better. It didn’t snow, and the temperature barely dipped below zero degrees, though he did have to battle headwinds up a good portion of the coast.
He didn’t have a single mechanical problem, not even a flat tire, with his fat-tired bike.
The only complaint Oatley had at the finish was aching knees. His butt wasn’t even sore from sitting in the saddle 16 to 18 hours per day for 10 days.
“I had fun the whole time,” he said. “There might have been a few moments when things weren’t going great, but it wasn’t too bad.
“I’m pretty happy how I dealt with whatever I had to deal with,” Oatley said. “I feel pretty content I did what I set out to accomplish.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Oatley’s ride, though, is the fact that he went as fast as he did even though he wasn’t chasing anyone or being chased by anyone for the last 500 miles.
United Kingdom cyclist Aidan Harding, who was expected to finish in second place Thursday about a full day behind Oatley, pushed the pace after the cyclists left McGrath, but Oatley caught and passed him shortly after the riders reached the Yukon River at Ruby. From there, Oatley pulled away and was by himself.
It was on the Yukon River that Oatley realized he had a chance to clock a time that will be tough, if not impossible, to beat for years to come.
“At one point, I told myself, ‘You’ve got an opportunity to see what kind of time you can do it in,’” Oatley said. “That was the motivation for pushing hard and going fast. It became just a time trial.”
While he was impressed with Oatley’s ride, fellow Fairbanks fat biker and friend Kevin Breitenbach, who set a new record in winning the shorter 350-mile Invitational race to McGrath, said he wasn’t surprised.
“Nothing that he does surprises me,” Breitenbach said. “I betcha he’ll come back here and quietly give me seven reasons why he could have gone faster.”
Oatley has the perfect mentality for mega endurance events, he said.
“Jeff’s just kind of a grinder,” Breitenbach said. “Nothing gets him too high and nothing gets him too low. He doesn’t need somebody pushing him from behind or pulling him from ahead.”
Neither was his wife, Heather Best, who won the women’s 350-mile race in record time, surprised by Oatley’s performance.
“Once I saw he was sustaining that pace, I knew if the trail stayed good, he could stay on that pace,” Best said.
Even so, she had to admit it was impressive.
“Even if he was doing 100 miles on pavement every day for 10 days, that’s still a pretty good load, but doing it with all the crap on your bike on the Iditarod Trail is a lot harder,” she said.
The only real scary moment in the race for Oatley came Monday night as he was crossing the ice on Norton Sound between Shaktoolik and Koyuk on the Bering Sea coast. Villagers had warned him about a bad section of overflow ice and told him how to avoid it.
But Oatley had lost his GPS the day before and had to navigate the bay crossing using only a map a local resident had drawn for him and a borrowed GPS that had no map on it.
“We put a coordinate for Koyuk in there, so I had a reference point,” Oatley said.
At one point, Oatley lost the trail in an area the locals in Shaktoolik had warned him about. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, the temperature was around zero, it was snowing and the wind was blowing about 30 mph. It wasn’t a whiteout or ground blizzard, but it was unsettling, Oatley said, especially never having traveled on the coast before where everything looks the same and there are no landmarks.
“I’m out there at night, and I don’t know which direction I’m going,” Oatley said, describing the situation. “I was putting waypoints down in the GPS, so I could backtrack if I had to. I knew it was serious.”
When Oatley encountered some big ice pressure ridges that one of the locals in Shaktoolik had told him not to venture into, he ended up backtracking a little bit before deciding to head toward shore.
“I thought, if I’m to the pressure ridges, I should be past the overflow they told me about and I can go toward shore,” Oatley said.
The only problem was Oatley didn’t know how far from shore he was.
“I didn’t have a clue if I was 10 miles from shore or 100 yards from shore,” he said. “I ended up being less than a mile so it wasn’t a big deal. I got on shore and found the trail again.”
The trail had been flooded with overflow that then refroze and was “as smooth as glass,” Oatley said.
“There was not a scratch mark or anything on it,” he said. “It was intense.”
Even though the trail was better than it’s ever been for biking, co-race director Kathi Merchant said “it still takes a caliber athlete like Jeff to have the mindset and strength to keep going.”
Those characteristics were evident when he set out across the glare ice on Norton Sound alone at night in the wind, she said.
“It’s very intimidating to do that section of trail by yourself at night,” said Merchant, who has ridden to Nome. “For first-time racers, even seasoned racers like Jeff Oatley, it’s intimidating.”
Merchant said Oatley’s time will be “very tough” for anyone to beat.
“It’s going to be a long time before we get another year like this,” she said. “He picked a good year.”
For his record-setting effort, Oatley wins a free $1,000 entry in next year’s race. At this point, he isn’t sure if he’ll return for the 350- or 1,000-mile race. If he does the longer version, “it would be at a more leisurely pace, I think,” Oatley said.
Even though 24 hours hadn’t passed since he finished, Oatley was already thinking about it.
“It will be going the southern route and I have this chunk of vacation time I didn’t use if I can keep it,” he said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.