Endurance running is a sport built on a foundation of persistence, but if there were a President of Persistence Lifetime Award for ultrarunners, I would nominate Tim Hewitt.
Who is Tim Hewitt? He’s a 57-year-old employment lawyer who resides near a quiet lake in southwestern Pennsylvania. He’s 5 foot 9 and 150 pounds, with a dapper kind of appearance, cropped silver hair, and a sly grin. If one were to meet Tim on the street in Pittsburgh, they’d never suspect this trim and unassuming man of being one of the toughest ultra-endurance athletes of our time. But I believed this, wholeheartedly, when I first met Tim face-to-face in a small cabin tucked away on the shoreline of the frozen Yentna River.
I was leaning against a frosty window and holding my foot in the meager morning sunlight to get a better look at my frostbitten toes. It was February 2009, and I was participating in my second Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350- and 1,000-mile human-powered winter race on Alaska’s Iditarod Trail. I was attempting the “short” event on a bicycle, and just a few hours after the start of the race the previous day, I’d punched my leg through the ice on Flathorn Lake. My boot filled with water, which froze to a block of ice over the course of seven hours of pedaling and pushing along the river in temperatures that dropped to 30 below zero. By the time I reached the Yentna Station checkpoint, half of my foot was frozen white.
As I examined my sickly gray toes, already throbbing with excruciating pain as purple blisters started appearing on the tips, the frustrated expression on my face betrayed my secret thoughts. “Is this really so bad that I can’t continue the race? As long as I can pedal more than walk, it might not even hurt too bad. But will I lose my toes? I’ve worked so hard for this. Do I really have to stop now?” Tim Hewitt, who had arrived about an hour earlier and was still wearing his balaclava, walked up to me and gently shook his head. “You know you can’t go on,” he said.
Those words broke my heart, but they were final. If Tim Hewitt knew it, then it was absolutely true. Because if anyone understood the emotional stake I had in traveling the Iditarod Trail, it was Tim. And if anyone knew the crucial stopping point in a race of persistence, it was Tim. At the time, he had successfully trekked to Nome three times and was beginning his fourth attempt. On his first try, in 2001, he reached Nome after breaking his leg in a fall nearly five hundred miles from the finish. He’s encountered hurricane-force windstorms and blizzards, charging moose, blinding “blowholes” through which he could scarcely move forward, many days without seeing another human being, bitter cold, and even visceral terror from fireballs in the sky.
And in the small but impressive history of human-powered travel on the Iditarod Trail, no one has been more successful than Tim. He’s now reached Nome six times and holds the overall foot record of twenty days, seven hours, and seventeen minutes, which he completed on the Southern Route in 2011. (The Iditarod Trail includes two routes, a Northern and a Southern, which the race alternates every other year.) That’s nearly fifty miles a day, on foot, dragging forty pounds of supplies in a sled, in all degrees of horrific weather and difficult trail conditions.
For the 2013 race, which begins Feb. 24, Tim plans to attempt the challenge completely unsupported. Instead of collecting drop bags and resupplies in villages along the way, Tim will start the race with a 110-pound sled that includes more than seventy pounds of food and eight pounds of fuel. He will not walk inside a checkpoint for any reason, won’t utilize safety cabins, won’t accept any assistance or food, and will approach the trail as though there were no outposts of civilization along the way. If he’s successful, it will be his seventh trek to Nome, and quite possibly the longest unsupported effort attempted by a person on foot in the modern era. Tim expects the thousand-mile trek will take 22 to 23 days. He is carrying enough food for 24 days. If the trip takes longer than that, he said, he’ll be hungry.
“Going unsupported adds another layer of challenge,” he said. “I would not ever call the Iditarod trail easy, but the challenge of doing it unsupported is enticing to me. I would love to use the experience of going unsupported to Nome to engage in a larger expedition, but I do not know whether that will occur. I would love to be the first person to make a trans-Antarctic crossing through the South Pole on foot, solo and unsupported, but that is not why I am going to Nome unsupported. I am doing it because I feel I am capable of completing it.”
And after hearing his variation of the “Because It’s There” explanation, it’s impossible not to wonder how he found his way to this extreme outer edge of adventure sports. Who is Tim Hewitt?
“I never ran in high school,” he said. “I went to college at North Michigan on an athletic/gymnastic scholarship and went straight to law school at Stetson University in Florida. While at Stetson, I started running casually with friends and continued running off and on over the years until I was nearly forty years old, when I became more competitive in running. I love trail running and have won several different ultraraces and until last year, had the fifty-to-sixty-year age group record at JFK (a fifty-mile run held in Maryland that is regarded as North America’s largest and oldest ultramarathon.) I had broken the prior record by twelve minutes and was surprised when my record was lowered by a few seconds. I have won local marathons, like Johnstown and Erie, and just enjoy running. My wife runs, and three of my four children run; two of them were state champions. Running is an important part of my life and that of my family.”
Tim first found his way into Alaska ultra-racing in 2000, when he competed and set a course record in the hundred-mile distance at the Iditasport, a precursor to the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which began in 2002. After running the hundred-mile course, Tim he became intrigued by the thousand-mile race to Nome, at the time called the “Iditasport Impossible.” He mulled it over the following summer while he competed in Badwater ultramarathon, a 135-mile run across Death Valley. “When it was so stinking hot (127 degrees), all I could think about was snow in Alaska,” he said. “During the Badwater race, I realized that I could finish (the Impossible) and went home and signed up.”
For much of the 2001 Iditasport Impossible, Tim traveled with another Pennsylvania runner, Tom Jarding. At the time, there was prize money available for the first finisher in Nome (prize money and even awards are no longer part of the event.) Tim and Tom were both vying for the win, but also sought camaraderie when traveling through the Alaska wilderness for the first time. Then, while traveling on the Yukon River, Tim met a major mishap.
“My eyes were fixed on a tiny sparkle in the distance,” he said. “I was trying to decide whether it was a light or not when I stepped into a hole; it may have been a moose track. Anyway, pain shot to my toes and my knee and I immediately knew I had a fairly serious injury. The light turned out to be the checkpoint at Eagle Island. I had a tibial stress fracture that was about three-quarters of the way through the bone. It was very painful and I had to move very slowly every time I would start walking. On the steep uphills, I would drop to my hands and knees to take the pressure off the tibia. I had so much invested in the race at that point that there was no way that I was not going to finish. When I got to Nome, I literally could not walk.”
Despite his broken leg, Tim kept pace with Tom and the two finished together in 26 days, 20 hours, and 46 minutes. The aftermath of the 2001 race was a slow recovery for Tim, who said he didn’t run a step until the Pittsburgh Marathon during the first week of May. And even then, he was running to preserve a streak as one of the few people who have competed in every Pittsburgh Marathon. He said it took nine or ten months to return to fitness he had before the Iditasport race. But the experience was worth it — one of the most memorable moments of his life.
“I was halfway between Cape Nome and Nome, when I realized the rock formation I thought I was looking at was the City of Nome,” he said. “Tears welled up in my eyes; it was an emotional moment that really is difficult to describe. While I knew that I would make it to Nome, seeing the village for the first time created such a sense of fulfillment that it clearly qualifies as my favorite moment. That said, I have had many moments that were amazing, both dealing with the villagers and the beauty of Alaska.”
Of course, he also has experienced many difficult and terrifying moments in his subsequent walks to Nome, as well the 2012 race where he stopped in McGrath because progress through soft snow had been so slow and the trail leading out of McGrath had not been broken. And, in the true nature of adventure racing, some of the worst moments were those he never expected.
“I actually thought that I was going to be hit with a meteor between Kaltag and Unalakleet,” he said. “I was near Tripod Flats when a fireball came streaking out of the sky and I actually screamed out loud, thinking how bad it would be to make it all this way only to be hit with a meteor. It was the middle of the night and I was half asleep, but it absolutely terrified me. I have had a number of other instances where I have been caught in blowholes and unable to move due to the strong winds, or when I have lost feeling in my hands or feet, that have been very scary moments. But I think that the thought of being taken out by a meteor was my worse moment.”
I asked Tim what it really took to travel an average of fifty miles a day on the Iditarod Trail. He is known for moving consistently and stopping for only short naps in his sleeping bag alongside the trail. He said he often moves slower at the beginning of the race and gradually increases his speed and daily distance toward the end — “Part because I believe you get stronger on the trail, and part of it is smelling the finish line,” he said. He also said the last 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail contain frightening challenges such as blowholes — white curtains of strong wind and snow that form in the atmospheric barriers between the cold air of the Interior and warm air of the Bering Sea. The threat of blowholes and other challenges prompt him to move faster so he can put those miles behind him.
“I really don’t spend much time stopped,” he said. “A day in the life on the Iditarod Trail usually involves sleeping from about midnight until three or four in the morning and getting up and going. The hard part, of course, is getting out of the sleeping bag, but I try not to focus on traditional stopping points. While a destination may be a safety cabin or village, I found that I am probably a lot more efficient and get better sleep if I just stay on the trail and sleep as needed when I am ready to pass out. In the Interior where there are not villages, I usually stop once per day to melt water and have a freeze-dried meal. Other than that, I would not have any stops for more than two or three minutes on a regular day on the trail. When I am able to, I will alternate running and walking. Normally, I will also have to take care of my feet at some point. That will either be done when I stop to cook or, if necessary, at other times. I have not figured out how to do this race without getting significant blistering to my feet.”
Still, Tim said he goes back year after year because he is always looking for ways he can better his performance. As impressive as his twenty-day course record on the Southern Route is, Tim believes he can go under nineteen days on the Northern Route in a good year.
“I have become much more comfortable with the challenges on the trail with each successful year,” he said. “I have never really felt that the trail is that difficult; it is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. The trail is definitely much more mentally than physically challenging, and with experience comes mental comfort.”
Tim’s wife, Loreen, is also planning to walk to Nome this year. It will be her first attempt at the thousand-mile distance, although she holds the women’s foot record in the 350-mile distance.
“Loreen’s preparations are going fine,” Tim said. “She is mentally sound and I believe that it the most important component. I expect that we will travel together. I am not in any real hurry to make it to Nome, other than to make it in 24 days. Loreen has competed the 350-mile race to McGrath in just under seven days so I think she is fully capable of meeting that timeframe. I do not expect to be able to keep up with the pack for the first several days of the race and will not attempt to do so. I think after the race course flattens out after Bison Camp and as my sled gets marginally lighter, I will most likely catch up to Loreen and anybody else on foot.”
During his unsupported trek, Tim plans to eat a pound of peanut butter per day. He will supplement his calorie-dense diet with some energy bars, jerky, freeze-dried meals, dried fruit, nuts and “lots of chocolate bars.” He said besides extra food and fuel, we will not use any more supplies than he would during a traditional trek, with the exception of taking an additional fuel pump and fuel bottle in case of failure. Tim needs his stove to melt snow for drinking water, and it’s the most important resource he has to stave off dehydration and hypothermia.
Over the years, Tim has become a rare expert on endurance trekking in the Alaskan backcountry. As a McGrath racer I took his advice to heart, so I asked him what he would offer racers who are attempting their first trek to Nome.
“The best piece of advice I could offer any rookie or person attempting their first trip to Nome is to stay within their own limitations,” he said. “I think that being successful in this race requires a certain degree of stubbornness and unwillingness to give in, but it also requires a component of flexibility to take what the trail will give. That formula of being both stubborn and flexible are at odds with each other, so it is my opinion just to remember to stay within your limits, take what the trail will give, but in no circumstances be willing to accept bad weather or aches and pains as self-justification for stopping.”
He expects to savor his seventh trek to Nome as much as his first, and said he looks forward to the experience all year.
“I love Alaska and the challenge,” he said. “As you know from your adventure racing, the challenges change every time you do an event and you really don’t know what you will encounter or how you will be dealing with it. In any event, I am comfortable in the Alaskan backcountry and enjoy the solitude. Bill Merchant (the race director) says you do this race to find cracks in your personality and go back to see whether you have repaired them. That is probably a part of it, but it is impossible for me not to think about this trail.”