A crowd of onlookers gathered to welcome Jay Petervary and Jeff Oatley to Nome on Monday night, after more than two weeks on the frozen Iditarod Trail.
Petervary, of Victor, Idaho, and Oatley, of Fairbanks, were indeed racing the wintery route — but not in the event you might think.
Once called the “Iditasport Impossible,” the re-branded Iditarod Trail Invitational mirrors the 1000 mile sled dog race of the same name — with one major difference: These racers aren’t mushing a team of dogs; they’re running, skiing or cycling across the finish line.
And, in some ways, man-power appears to have bested dog-power on the trail. The lack of snow and icy trail conditions that made the Southern race route impassable for dog teams this year actually benefitted those tackling the trail on wheels.
Cyclist John Lackey, of Anchorage, reached the halfway point in McGrath just 1 day, 18 hours, and 32 minutes into the race — a time four hours faster than the leading dog team on record.
Oatley himself holds the current cycling record for the full course — an astonishing 10 days, 2 hours, and 53 minutes set in 2014. For comparison, if he’d been mushing a team of dogs, Oatley would have placed 21st in last year’s “Last Great Race.”
“I just got lucky with that,” Oatley says. “That’s what it takes to do that kind of time…I didn’t want to do a time trial to Nome last year. I wanted to go out and ride the Iditarod trail. And this year we got that. I was a little bummed for the first 300 miles. I was like, ‘This used to be a winter race.’ But then I lived to regret saying that out loud.”
Indeed, Oatley and Petervary ran into more than their share of winter after the halfway point. Petervary says the real weather kicked in just as the pair was leaving Tokotna.
“The trail just deteriorated from there, and speeds were slowing, and then it just dropped to negative 40 for about 6 nights straight. And this is about the warmest day we’ve had since then,” he says.
After a grueling 15 days, 6 hours, and 29 minutes on the trail, Oatley and Petervary pedaled under the burled arches just seconds apart — so perfectly in sync that even their fans couldn’t spot the winner.
When pressed about who won “officially,” Oatley points to his friend and competitor.
“Nah,” counters Petervary. “Everyone who comes underneath this arch actually wins in the end.”
He adds that, much like with the 1000 mile sled dog race, arrival in Nome is never guaranteed. Since the Invitational started in 2000, only 52 individuals have ever made it across the finish line (34 of them on bikes).
Sharing a celebratory hug — and a toast of crisp Alaskan beer — over their two-wheeled sleds, the cyclists have little difficulty pin-pointing their favorite moment on the trail.
“This one,” says Oatley.
“This was pretty cool,” agrees Petervary. “Last year I rode in and…my wife was here. And that was it. Like, ‘Here’s a coke.’ And that was great. I really wanted a coke. But this is better.”
Oatley recalls his thoughts upon reaching Front Street this year.
“We kind of rolled up and you can see the lights and it’s like, ‘Oh they’ve got the Christmas lights for us. That’s cool.’ And then it’s like, ‘Holy crap. There’s people here. What’s going on? There must be something going on in Nome today,'” he says.
Enthusiasm for the human-powered racers certainly seems to be growing; another crowd gathered on Tuesday afternoon to welcome third-place finisher and Nome local, Phil Hofstetter, under the burled arch.