One can just imagine wild-eyed intensity on Jay Petervary’s face as he pedaled out of Nikolai into the subzero darkness — stoic grimace, thousand-yard stare, and ice crusted to his headgear. Entering his third night without rest and facing fifty miles of uncertain trail conditions on the snaking Kuskokwim River, Petervary knew he had to hold a steady pace to stave off being caught by four other cyclists who arrived at the 300-mile checkpoint at the same time he did, just before 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Seasoned race veteran and former winner Jeff Oatley, along with rookies Kevin Breitenbach, Tim Bernston and John Lackey, opted to sleep a few hours before attempting the final push into McGrath. Petervary left less than an hour after they arrived, at 1:24 a.m. The rest didn’t leave until 3:45 and 3:50 a.m., hoping two hours of restless napping would give them the energy they needed to catch up to Petervary.
The Kuskokwim River can be a brutal place when the wind blows, but temperatures were mild that night relative to the region — around 10 below — and a northeast wind blew at their backs. In the end, the peloton didn’t catch Petervary, who arrived in McGrath just after 9 a.m. Wednesday for a new course record of 2 days, 19 hours, and 16 minutes, shattering the old course record of 3 days, 5 hours, and 40 minutes. The old record, set in 2007, belonged to longtime Iditarod cyclist Pete Basinger, who is also competing in the race this year. As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Basinger had not yet been reported into Nikolai.
Alaska cyclist Tim Bernston arrived in McGrath at 9:50 a.m. for a time of 2 days, 19 hours, and 50 minutes. He had made up time on Petervary after his nap, but not enough to bridge the gap.
Fairbanks riders Oatley and Breitenbach reached McGrath together at 10:07 a.m. for a third-place tie of 2 days, 20 hours, and 7 minutes. All are well under the three-day barrier that no one has come close to breaking before this year.
Also burning up the trail this year is Colorado cyclist Eszter Horanyi, one of two women competing in the bicycle division of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. For the duration of the race, the rookie has been holding a steady pace only a few hours behind the lead men, and is also poised to shatter the women’s record if she can hold her pace. The old record, set by California cyclist Lou Kobin in 2011, is 3 days, 22 hours, and 20 minutes. Horanyi must arrive in McGrath before noon Thursday to break the record. She is currently listed somewhere between Rohn and Nikolai.
In the foot division, Dave Johnston is also treading close to Steve Reifensthul’s splits in 2005, a record pace that many considered untouchable. Going on little sleep, he’s been averaging 3.5 mph on the move and short rests to maintain his pace. Johnston arrived at Puntilla Lake Lodge at 5:30 Tuesday evening and planned to set out over Rainy Pass in the early morning hours.
Anne Ver Hoef moved ahead of Pennsylvania runner Loreen Hewitt and is currently leading the women’s foot division out of Winterlake Lodge, the 135-mile checkpoint.
Beat Jegerlehner arrived at Winterlake Lodge around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday and said he planned to rest well before marching into the Alaska Range foothills toward Puntilla Lake. He’s been coping with tendinitis issues in his big toe, which have been causing him non-serious but disconcerting pain. He said the pain tends to flare up and then taper off again, and he hopes the problem will resolve itself. But in the meantime, he’s opting to take it easy at mile 130 of his 1,000-mile attempt. It’s still a long way to Nome.
For the latest updates in the ITI, check out the race organizers’ Facebook page.