Racing across frozen Alaska

Reprinted by permission of the Ogden, UT, Standard-Examiner

Eric Johnson, PA-C’98, left, began the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational on Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. and finished on March 6 at 3:53 a.m.
Eric Johnson, PA-C’98, left, began the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational on Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. and finished on March 6 at 3:53 a.m.

If it looks cold, that’s because it is.
And if it looks crazy, that’s because it is.

This is Alaska, ensnarled in the crushing embrace of an Old Man Winter that’s about to lose his grip, but not without one last desperate grab. And there beyond the wind-whipped red and white sign that reads, “Alaska Ultra Sport,” is 350 miles of sketchily marked trail, over rivers, through forests, and up mountain passes.

This is the Iditarod Trail Invitational – 350 (or 1,100 if racers went on odd-numbered years) miles of the storied dogsled race done with bike, skis or feet. As far as ultras go it’s the mother of crazy.

One week before the dogs run, Ogden, UT, resident Eric Johnson, PA-C’98, hooks up his self-made sled (a duffle bag top riveted to a red child’s sled) and befriends crazy for a little less than a week as he solotreks the race. He befriends crazy, and tells her he’s got a handle on the situation. In fact, Eric Johnson puts crazy in a corner.

“Really, it’s insane,” said Johnson, who has finished the race five times, winning the foot portion of the race two years in a row. The divorced father of three kids ages 16, 14 and nine finished the race this year in six days, 13 hours and 54 minutes.

“I just enjoy doing it. The thing about this race is that if you can really get a solid, firm foundation and suffer through hard workouts, the race is actually really quite fun.”

For Johnson, a physician assistant at Ogden Clinic, the fun this year included traveling the first 90 miles sans sleep in 27 hours, with just an hour stop at the first checkpoint, at mile 60, for breakfast. After five hours of sleep, he was back out the door at 10 p.m. for another 40 miles. About 10 miles into it, Johnson started to sink into himself and some misery. It was then that he developed a mantra that helped him get through the race.

“‘Five is alive,’ I thought of that,” he said. “I wanted five finishes, one for each finger. There’s something special about five, not four; five. It really was motivating for me. It was born of the trenches, too.”

As the sun rose, both literally and emotionally, Johnson began to get into his hiking rhythm. Most of the race is hiking, hiking, slogging and more hiking, with maybe 10 percent running – which is still more miles than a marathon.

Johnson used the next checkpoint, at mile 140, to refuel.

“I pounded about 2,500 calories in five hours. I had four cans of Ensure and one huge dinner. I didn’t sleep any, it was just food, food,” he said. “There’s a saying on the trail that calories are king. You’re seriously burning through 8,000 calories a day.”

Eric Johnson is one of only three people in the world to have completed the ultra event on foot five times.
Eric Johnson is one of only three people in the world to have completed the ultra event on foot five times.

While Johnson carries 1,600 calories of concentrated fruit juice in the Camelbak and is constantly consuming snacks like bread slathered with butter, cookies and crushed-up bags of potato chips, his output during the race still exceeds his input.

“I’m five-foot-nine and I start the race at about 165 [pounds] and finish at 155. I’ve lost two belt loops. Usually I gain it back within a couple months. That’s pretty common,” said Johnson.

At the 140-mile checkpoint, the race enters the Alaskan range for the next 100 miles, and many racers consider this the crux of the race. It includes a checkpoint at the legendary Rainy Pass at 165 miles.

“It’s famous for really bad storms, but really good hospitality,” said Johnson. “It’s amazingly beautiful, and it also has some very difficult sections of trail. Those sections of the Iditarod Trail are famous for being very, very hard, with horrible weather and bad conditions. It’s built kind of a reputation.”

Johnson spent four and a half hours at the 165-mile checkpoint, leaving just 15 minutes behind Pennsylvanians Tim and Loreen Hewitt, a married couple on foot that was just managing to stay ahead of him. At the 210-mile checkpoint, Johnson was able to sleep four hours and left Friday morning, still behind the Hewitts.

Iditarod route

From there, Johnson trucked another 90 miles without sleep. Arriving Saturday morning at the 300- mile checkpoint, a small Native village called Nikolai, accessible only by snowmobile, boat or airplane (or by foot), he slept about four hours, ate breakfast and then broke for the finish line.

He caught Tim, who had gone on ahead of his wife by that time, at about mile 310.

“I said, ‘Hey, Tim, I’m not going to let you have all the fun alone.’ And he said, ‘Let’s go in together.'”

Johnson said the conditions were so nice this year, only -30 degrees Fahrenheit, that he didn’t ever break out his expedition parka, or extra hood and gloves. One of the Spartan rules of the race is that competitors must carry their survival gear from start to finish. They’re allowed two drop bags at miles 140 and 210, but those bags can only contain consumables, such as food and batteries.

Johnson carries just the essentials, keeping his sled as light as possible, around 30 pounds. That includes clothing, a two-pound sleeping bag that can double as a parka, a headlamp, duct tape and quick, light meals. He carries no stove or GPS. His only extravagance is an extra pair of shoes. He wears running shoes with snowmobile studs screwed in for traction.

“You have to be comfortable,” he says without a trace of irony. “I’m a minimalist. You have to travel relatively fast. If for some reason your feet get wet, and you have an extra pair of shoes, you can keep moving. But go light, go fast.”

No required gear-list hinders this race. Bill Marchant, the trail manager, is also a minimalist. The race philosophy, posted on the website, reads, “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.”

This philosophy gives racers the chance to walk the razor’s edge of adventure and adrenaline. The race is a puzzle that, if solved correctly, results in the only real triumph, man vs. the wild, but if miscalculated, could result in death.

Johnson, 45, has proven adept at solving the race’s puzzles, getting only minimal injuries (he’s had surgery on a toe on his right foot, and carpal tunnel surgery from the vibrations of the trekking poles). He’s super-modified his race gear (his layers of clothing are a patchwork of sewn-in and glued-in extra fleece, zippers, added fur and duct tape repairs). And only once has he called it quits (during the race in 2007, when he broke through the ice at a river crossing and was soaked).

“You take the good with the bad,” said Johnson. “The thing about the race is you get these crazy lows, these wicked bad lows. Those you just have to grind through, but overall it’s fun. The reason I do it is because I enjoy it, and it’s fun.”

He says this casually, as if racing 350 miles isn’t work. And for him it isn’t. In 2010, finishing with the second-fastest foot time in the history of the course (five days, 17 hours), he discovered an attribute of pain.

“Last year, the thing I walked away with was that physical pain has this ability to purify a person spiritually. I know that sounds crazy,” he said.

Johnson knows he’s a different breed from most people, concluding that races like these take an introvert, someone comfortable with being alone in difficult circumstances. And it takes someone who knows that racing this far in these circumstances is akin to Van Gogh creating a masterpiece.

“This year the take-home message is that it’s important to have a goal, but the person is not there to serve the goal. Really, the goal is there to serve the person. Goals serve the purpose of focusing our talents and ability, and they channel that into a focused effort, to accomplish a worthwhile activity.”

Johnson plans to do a few short races this summer and then run the Wasatch 100 in Utah for the 10th time.

After the Iditarod 350, running 100 miles through the Wasatch Range seems safe – and almost sane.

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