The Iditarod Trail Invitational is a brutal ultramarathon for endurance runners, skiers, and fat-tire cyclists that follows the same route – 1,000 miles across Alaska, from Knik to Nome – as the world's most famous dogsled race. Each winter, a dozen or more athletes participate, starting off a week before the dogsled teams. This March, Jeff Oatley, a 44-year-old civil engineer from Fairbanks and an elite fat-tire competitor, finished the race in a little over 10 days, smashing the previous 15-day record set in 2000, and becoming the fastest human to finish the course under his own power.
Regarding his feat, which took him across rivers, lakes, frozen swamps, mountain passes, and featureless tundra, Oatley has one lingering regret. "I wish I had been out there longer," he says. "The race is about the experience, not the record."
Oatley has raced bikes on every imaginable terrain for 23 years. In 2007, he was the top American finisher in the 3,000-mile Race Across America. And for the past nine years, he's been a frontrunner in the shorter, 350-mile leg of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. To train for the full course this year, he logged some serious time on his mountain bike in the remote wilderness around his home in Fairbanks. "There are thousands of miles of trails in an area that's probably the size of Delaware," he says. "I just do two, four, five hours of trails every night."
Oatley also got a boost from an unusually warm season that saw 40-degree days and the normally waist-high snow trails laid bare and firm. He was prepared to spend three weeks on the course, and much of that time pushing his bike through 200 miles of drifts. "That's what usually kills people," says Oatley. "You are 'racing' at, like, two miles an hour, out in the middle of nowhere, and that can really shut you down." This year, he only had to push for a total of 50 miles.
He typically rode until 3 AM, 100 miles from the nearest village, with only a headlamp to light the trail, and listening to the Drive-By Truckers to keep him company. "I had these amazing nights on the Yukon River," he says, "the northern lights shimmering and shape-shifting and changing colors. It's kind of mind-blowing."
On his last day, the temperature had dropped below zero. "My knees were blown up and so was my back," Oatley recalls. "I had my headphones on, maybe the Ramones, and all of a sudden there was a wolverine on the trail, totally oblivious to me, 60 yards away. I've been up here 14 years and I've never seen more than a glimpse of one. I just stopped and watched him. And it was just – wow."