In central Alaska no one really notices the temperature until Celsius and Fahrenheit meet – that’s 40 degrees below zero. According to the ‘old sourdoughs’ (gold prospectors ‘sour’ on Alaska with no ‘dough’ to get out) it’s not really cold until it’s minus 75 or thereabouts. Then they say, “you can spit and make it bounce” or, if you prefer, “piss and lean on it”. From there it just gets downright ridiculous when the added wind chill from a polar storm can plunge temperatures to an unimaginable 130 degrees below. This is the realm of mad dogs and mad dogs alone, any Englishmen having long since had the good sense to make themselves scarce. But there are some who are undeterred by such meteorological trivia, and voluntarily hurl themselves into the two toughest races known in Alaska: Iditabike and Iditarod.
One such mad dog, a stubborn frontier sportsman named Dan Bull, has for the last few years staged mountain bike races on the edge of the “world’s largest freezer” – through the frozen forests outside Anchorage. To many, Bull’s Iditabike, named after the famous Iditarod dog sled race that sees dog teams cross 1161 miles of Arctic wilderness straight after Iditabike, was simply a humorous sideshow to the Iditarod, the ‘world’s last great race’. However, this year Bull has largely silenced his critics and thrown down the gauntlet to extreme sportsmen and women around the world. Setting his course to follow the first 350 miles of the Iditarod trail from Knik to McGrath, Bull has opened the field to include cross country skiers, snow shoers and ski duras (a skier with one dog, both pulling a sled) as well as mountain bikers. In one fell swoop he turned a fun biking event into one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathon.
Largly unsupported, the field of twenty or more ‘mad dogs’ have to contend with everything the Iditarod dog mushes will face a week later, with the added hurdle of breaking the trail for much of the way after four months of winter snow. Starting in Knik, the course includes two of the Iditarod‘s greatest hurdles, the rugged and unforgiving Alaska mountain range and the Burn – a vast 90-mile wasteland of burnt forest where blizzards last for hours, sometimes days, and where visibility is zero. In these whiteouts, the competitors could emerge blindly from the lea of a mountain into ‘blow holes’ (150 mph ground blizzards) that can literally carry them away.