Eric Johnson’s idea of a good time is no walk in the park. It’s a 1,000- mile slog that he does on foot with Old Man Winter up wind-whipped mountain passes, over rivers, across desolate tundras and through dense forests in Alaska. In March, he became only the sixth person ever to have completed the northern and southern routes of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) on foot in less than 30 days.
A physician assistant in family practice with Ogden Clinic in Ogden, UT, since he graduated from DMU in 1998, Johnson is a veteran of cross-country ultramarathons. In 2014, for example, he achieved his goal of finishing the Utah Extreme Seven Series, the seven 100-mile ultra endurance runs in the state, within the year; he even added an eighth race, the Grand Canyon 100-mile, just over the Utah border. But the ITI holds a special place in his heart as well as his soles.
“I love, really love, Arctic ultramarathons, but the Iditarod Trail Invitational hosts, to me, the greatest of events.”
The historic Iditarod Trail, widely known for its annual sled dog race, spans approximately 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome, which sits on the coast of the Bering Sea. While people have tackled the trail on foot, bicycles and skis for decades, the ITI was officially founded in 2002 and offers both 350- and 1,000- mile options. Each year the race accepts 75 athletes who have qualified by completing the 350-mile event. It alternates southern and northern routes.
“Both routes are approximately 1,000 miles, give or take a few depending on how the winter freeze has affected the various rivers, especially the Yukon,” Johnson says. “The Yukon is almost as wide in places as the Mississippi, so it is big, bad and always very dangerous.”
Unlike in other Arctic ultramarathons, ITI racers are allowed to make their own gear choices and to decide when to rest and when to travel. It has no designated or marked route, only mandatory checkpoints participants must pass through. Johnson hauls all his gear in a duffel bag attached to a sled. Racers are allowed to mail themselves food and other expendables via post offices along the trail.
“I love that I’m allowed to make my own gear choices,” he says. “But that’s also a major source of stress, since you’re trying to anticipate what you might need while being keenly aware of your sled’s weight. When you get to decide on everything and you can’t pick up any extra survival gear along the way, the burden weighs much heavier, which is what I prefer anyway.”
It stands to reason that Johnson would prefer the heavier burden, the tougher trail and the longer event.
“In 2016, I did the [ITI’s] northern route in 25 days, then returned for another suffer-fest on the southern route this year. Honestly, those are some of the most cherished of days! I love the trail, I love the grind – the fight, the mental struggle, the gear – all of it! Secretly, I want to go back and do the southern route again.”