Think mushing to Nome is tough? Try pedaling it
Author(s): Craig Medred
Staff Date: April 13, 2008 Section: Outdoors
Kathi Hirzinger-Merchant didn't even warrant a mention on Sports Illustrated's silly list of the toughest athletes in sports, but she'd kick your butt any day.
Yeah, I can hear a bunch of you now mumbling, "Who the heck is Kathi Hirzinger-Merchant?"
Kathi -- it's pronounced Kay-tee; she's German -- is a wisp of a former farm girl who came to Alaska from Bavaria around the start of the new millennium, got hooked on adventure and never left.
Now 31, she became the first woman to complete an Iditarod Trail mountain bike race to Nome last month. Though the pitfalls of pedaling a fat-tired bike over 1,000 miles of snowy trail from Knik to the fabled city on the Bering Sea were many, her exploits barely warranted a mention in the popular press.
"Out of sight, out of mind'' is the term that comes to mind.
Kathi is not much of a self promoter. In this regard, she is like a lot of other Alaskans who do way more than they say.
Ask her what she did to train for the ride to Nome, and she'll tell you about a winter spent riding all over the frozen and uninhabited corners of the Susitna River basin and the Talkeetna Mountains where Tiger Woods would likely have frozen his putter off in the minus 40 to minus 50 degree temperatures.
Not to belittle Tiger, who SI declared the toughest athlete in sports. Mentally, golf is a supremely difficult game, no doubt.
Physically, though, it's a different matter.
Iditarod and Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey -- SI's No. 2 pick -- can certainly make a better claim to true, physical, tough-athlete status than Tiger, though there's no doubt that in any kind of human aerobic competition, Hirzinger-Merchant would hand Mackey his lunch.
Lance had his dogs to help him. Hirzinger-Merchant had only hubby, Bill, who, though he biked north with her, wasn't necessarily all that much help.
Bill and I go back a bit. I remember his first outing on the Iditarod.
An adventurer from the Wind River Range of Wyoming by way of Fairbanks, he skijored the Iditasport race of the 1990s up and over the Alaska Range to McGrath before better judgment kicked in and he realized bikes are easier to maintain than canines.
Bill's first Iditarod trip was notable for the left he took off the trail near Farewell Lake, where the trail starts into the desolate Farewell Burn. Richard Larson, who was providing snowmobile support for the Iditasport that year, found the ski and dog tracks heading off parallel to the spectacular north side of the Alaska Range on an old trail running toward the Federal Aviation Administration's long-abandoned Farewell Station.
There was a discussion about what to do about this. Larson decided he should follow the rest of the Iditaracers down the proper trail, while I tracked Bill.
He and the dogs led me and a snowmachine on a merry little romp for miles before Bill finally decided that the Iditarod Trail really shouldn't be running east and west at this point, it should be running north and south.
So Bill ordered his dogs to "gee'' and went bushwhacking across the Burn, past skeletons of charred trees and over willow brush before, sure enough, reconnecting with the Iditarod Trail
Bill's trail-finding skills have improved since then. Along with skijoring the Iditarod Trail, he has run it, mountain biked it and ridden it on a snowmobile in support of the Iditarod Invitational, heir to the Iditasport.
In fact, he and Kathi took over the organization of that event some years back when Kathi got seriously interested in winter mountain biking. She promptly set the Invitational's female record for mountain biking 300 miles over the Alaska Range to McGrath, with a time just under 5 days, 8 hours.
But that wasn't enough.
Having already driven a snowmobile from Knik to Nome, she decided this year she had to go by mountain bike, so she dragooned Bill into riding once again. Off they went.
It was not easy.
Here is a bit of what race director Dan McDonough posted to the race Web site:
On their approach to Nome, Bill and Kathi faced "immense winds and cold temperatures. At one point, when they were protected from the constant wind, Kathi looked at the temperature and saw minus 30 degrees ... Bill described pushing the bikes at a 45 degree angle to prevent the wind from blowing the bikes away.
"After 25 and a half days Bill was looking forward to having a beer upon his arrival. Instead, when they arrived at 2:58 a.m. they were greeted by one woman on the street who was heading to work.
The only place open for food or drink was a coke machine.
"They celebrated with dehydrated food in Styrofoam coffee cups."
And Sports Illustrated thinks Tiger Woods is tough?
I won't even go into how Alaska mountain-biking phenom Peter Basinger beat the Merchants to Nome in the process of pedaling to another Invitational win, despite battling illness much of the way.
Bill noted Basinger's "finish time was amazing in way less than ideal conditions. ... Pete's time from Shaktoolik to Nome was only 5 hours slower than Iditarod winner Lance Mackey's with his dog team."
As for Kathi's accomplishment, Bill could only observe that "she managed in spite of having to drag a worn-out, old senior citizen behind her."
Worn out? Not quite.
Old? Well, certainly beyond middle-age even by the measure of four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser's New Age declaration that "50 is the new 30.''
But still tough.
Tough as shoe leather.
Tough enough to trounce any Sports Illustrated writer putting together silly lists of the toughest athletes in sports.
That goes for both of the Merchants, and Basinger, and runner Tim Hewitt, and all the rest who managed to go 1,000 miles under their own power on that infernal trail this year.
Because everyone who has done time on the Iditarod agrees none of us could hold a candle to the toughness of the people who pioneered that route or to the aboriginal people -- arguably the toughest people anywhere ever -- who were traveling the route when history was recorded only in stories told by one generation to the next.
Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Find him online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.
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