stories • happenings • adventures

Kurt Refsnider
February 26, 2020

An Arizonan in Alaska – Kurt Refsnider’s unexpected route to the Iditarod Trail Invitational

Posted by

Before last winter, I never anticipated that I’d find myself on any sort of path leading toward the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I had, however, followed the race each winter for the past decade through Craig Medred’s captivating writing about the event for different news outlets. I’ve long admired the athletes who patiently work their way across the Alaskan landscape amid harsh conditions and a relative remoteness that I find very intimidating. But somehow, I, a desert dweller from Arizona, apparently am joining those athletes and racing the ITI350 to McGrath this year. How the heck did I end up here?

I grew up in Minnesota, a place that experiences legitimate winter (although that’s changing…), and I have spent some time outside in the snow over the years. I raced on skinny skis in a full spandex onesie for 10 years. I even did some winter riding and racing on frozen lakes and snowmobile trails with tires adorned in a sort of medieval fashion with hundreds of sheet metal screws. But I was rarely in the cold for more than a few hours at a time, and usually my hands and feet were damp from sweat and uncomfortably cold by the time I retreated back indoors. A few years later while living in Colorado, I found myself spending winters logging big miles on asphalt and dirt roads in preparation for the subsequent road racing season. My hands and feet still suffered in the cold, but fortunately for them, I started carrying a down jacket and mountaineering mitts when I got a first-generation Revelate Designs seat bag. Carrying extra layers was an absolute revelation (no pun intended) for this Nordic-ski-racer-turned-roadie! And imagine the elation my feet felt when I started wearing plastic bags over my liner socks and actually stayed warm – a concept I gleaned from following the Iditarod Trail Invitational race coverage in the late 2000s. But then I moved to the desert and became consumed by the delights of spring riding and racing on warm singletrack.

So how did I end up at this year’s ITI? And how did I manage to become adequately prepared (fingers crossed…) for such a foreign endeavor? I’m still asking myself the same things. Last winter, I unexpectedly ended up in Idaho at the end of December. My long-time friend and fellow Revelate ambassador Kait Boyle was in a bad car crash, and I headed up to help out. When I first visited her in the intensive care unit, she was just a few hours out of an emergency surgery and clearly was under the influence of pain medications based on the first thing she said to me.

“Are you going to stay for JayP’s race?” she questioned with a slightly delirious smile.

“Umm, no. When is it?” I replied, likely with a very baffled expression on my face.

Apparently the Fat Pursuit winter ultra that Jay and Tracey Petervary put on was just over a week away and just 90 minutes up the road in Island Park. I didn’t have a fat bike, any winter riding gear, nor had I ridden on snow in years. But the fine folks of the Teton Valley poked and prodded me all week until I agreed to race, loaned me all the equipment and clothing I needed, and gave me quite a bit of much-appreciated advice. With all that, I pedaled a giant and very snowy 200-mile loop, ate a lot of chocolate along the way, and then out-sprinted Neil Beltchenko for an unexpected win. And with that successful sprint (thanks to my roadie days!), for better or worse, I qualified for ITI, though I was in no way actually qualified for ITI in terms of winter experience.

All those years of following the ITI had provided enough inspiration that I decided to sign up for the ITI, so I’ll attribute actually registering to Craig Medred. By January, it was time to try to become actually qualified so that it didn’t feel irresponsible to head toward the interior of Alaska in winter on a bike. So I got my very own fat bike, a Pivot Les Fat! I got some giant boots from 45NRTH. Revelate outfitted me with pogies and the bags I’d need to haul all my winter gear. I replaced some of my decades-old winter clothing. I re-started the game of “is this edible when it’s frozen?” And then I packed up all the winter gear and went back up to Idaho to find some actual winter.

Over the course of a few weeks, I spent my time when I wasn’t tapping away on my computer for work testing out my clothing and equipment, experimenting, modifying things, and getting in some solid rides in relatively cold temperatures. I added Intuition liners to my 45NRTH boots, discovered a love for panniers, really missed having a dropper post, and regretted not having goggles each time I rode in snowstorms. I spent some beautiful winter nights camped outside, pedaled up high into blizzard conditions, and raced the 200-km distance at Fat Pursuit amid some very soft and slow conditions. I managed to win the race, but more importantly, I enjoyed almost the entirety of the ride and stayed comfortably warm (and ate more than just chocolate!).

Photo by Cort Miller

By the time I had to head back south to Arizona in late January, I had learned a lot about what doesn’t work for me. And I knew more about what systems seemed to work. I further refined my setup, but with warm, sunny days, I was out of chances to continue testing. So instead, I enjoyed chunky trails on my full-sus rig, raced at 24 Hours of the Old Pueblo, and soaked in all the sun I could.

So am I prepared for ITI? I suppose so? I’m certainly eager to pedal toward the Alaska Range and through its valleys before emerging on the Interior. I’m excited to spend a few days moving through winter in an unfamiliar landscape under my own power. I’m also sure I’ll learn a lot more during the experience.