Bob Baker hitched up the icy straps of his sled's hip belt and buckled on his skis. He departed Riversong Lodge at dusk and headed down the frozen Yentna River toward his next checkpoint, 18 miles distant. In 31 hours he had completed 140 miles of Alaska's Iditaski, the world's longest cross-country ski race, and he still had 70 miles of wilderness to go. Baker, who was seeking an unprecedented third victory in a row in this grueling event, is accustomed to the Iditaski's usual conditions of deep snow and zero-to-40-below F. temperatures. This February, however, snow barely covered some portions of the race route, and ice turned to slushy overflow along almost 60 miles of river trail. On the second day of the race, wet, heavy snowflakes turned to rain.
Last year when Baker won the race for the second time, he did so in an incredible 47 hours, 10 minutes -- an average pace of 4 m.p.h., including all stops for food and rest. But this year as the 28-year-old Fairbanks resident slogged ankle deep down the Yentna, he trailed John Ferri, the front-runner and three-time third-place finisher, by several hours.
Earlier in the race, Baker and the pack-carrying Ferri had played tag. Near the 105-mile midpoint on the historic Iditarod trail, a path once blazed from the gold-rush town of Iditarod, Baker began to fade and ``just couldn't catch Ferri'' anymore. When he arrived at the halfway station in Skwentna, he discovered a hole in the bottom of his sled. Snow had been scooping into the conveyance, adding 40 to 50 pounds of compacted snow and ice to his survival gear, more than doubling his load. The hole could not be repaired.
Then Baker lost a basket off a ski pole, and shortly after he left Riversong, the other basket bit the ice. On the soggy river trail to Yentna Station, his headlamp went out and he had to cover the distance in the dark. He arrived at the Yentna Station checkpoint at 11:15 p.m., totally spent and hardly caring whether he even finished the race.
Baker wasn't alone in his problems. Some of the 43 skiers (36 men and 7 women) competing in this mega-endurance test had similar troubles. Vince O'Connell, a young triathlete from Massachusetts, was competing in his first Iditaski. He had predicted a swift run over the course. But the ice and the rain and the slush were forces to be dealt with, and 60 miles into the course, arriving at a check station dripping wet, O'Connell opined that ``this isn't my idea of fun.'' Running in third place later in the race, he made a wrong turn and was reported missing when he didn't arrive at a checkpoint. When O'Connell realized his mistake, he returned to the trail and made up enough time to finish fifth.
Doug Schwiesow reported that ``I just spent the wettest night of my life'' after bivouacking in an area covered with six to eight inches of new snow and ``whiteout everywhere but where the trees are.'' Schwiesow said he dragged three pounds of snow on the end of each ski pole en route to his eventual seventh-place finish.
Diane Munson broke a ski and had to walk 12 miles to the next checkpoint, where an extra ski was cached.
Seattle skier Tom Petramalo said the race was different than he had expected: ``I never skied on ice before.''
The pack of competitors, mostly Alaskans, represented a wide range of age groups, topped by 65-year-old Nils Braastad, a transplanted Norwegian who lives in Fairbanks. Braastad scratched in his first two Iditaski attempts. This year he walked the last four miles and crossed the finish line afoot after 108 hours on the trail, a day ahead of the Iditaski six-day finishing requirement. Braastad was greeted by well-wishers at an on-site midnight celebration.
The one female and nine male snowshoers, most of them competition runners, also found the course to be rough sledding, so to speak. Jon Dirks of Elk Mound, Wis., had a sizable lead and bivouacked for an hour's nap 10 miles from the finish. He was still sleeping three hours later when Shawn Lyons awakened him. Dirks packed his gear and ran down the trail but couldn't catch Lyons, an Anchorage classical guitarist, who went on to win the 105-mile ``Iditashoe.''
Frank Bozanich of Seattle,is a six-time national champion in 50-mile and 100-kilometer running events. He had predicted he would complete the Iditashoe in 30 hours. Bozanich and Buster Whitmer of Apple Valley, Minn., arrived at the Skwentna finish one night at 7:30, 56 hours after departing the start line at Knik Lake. Soaking his feet in snow water at the conclusion of the ultra event, Bozanich commented, ``I never hit the wall so many times in one race.''
There were rewards, too. Wenatchee, Wash., skier Robbie Scott had hoped to see the northern lights when he came to Alaska for the competition. Though stormy weather plagued most of the race, there was a clear, starry period for several hours one night. Scott, still thrilled after one of the north's more spectacular displays, said the next day, ``I saw them last night.''
At the front of the pack, Baker went on to catch up with his competition. He passed all but Ferri, of Palmer, Alaska, who set a new, mind-boggling record of 44 hours, 50 minutes, 5 hours ahead of Baker. Ferri, who won the 1985 trophy for sportsmanship, had no sleep during the ultimate test. Yet when he finished the 210-mile race 7:50 in the morning, he appeared strong, and nothing was out of control except his grin.
Ferri's girlfriend, Dianne Dabrowski, with whom he trained, set a new women's record of 56 hours, 13 minutes, placing ninth overall.