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A race for survival

DAVE ORSMAN

Imagine waking up at 5 a.m. on a frozen lake in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. It’s cold out, minus 30. But you already know that because your bivy bag and sleeping bag seemed pitifully insubstantial in the conditions.

The wind is whipping loose snow about, buffeting you as you pack your equipment and find an energy bar to chew. It’s hard to swallow. You realize that you’ve slept three hours, your body is trying to break down and it’s only your mind that will get you out of here and to the next aid station, 20 hours away. Three Italian men wait for you to get moving, because they’re relying on you to get them there. You don’t know for certain that you’ll make it.

Truckee multi-sport athlete Patty Struve knows about survival. A month ago she returned from Alaska, where she competed in one the world’s toughest endurance races, the 350-mile Iditasport Extreme.

The Extreme begins in Knik and finishes in McGrath. Along the way, competitors on mountain bikes, snow shoes and skis have to cross the Alaskan range, navigate their way up frozen rivers and cope with snow-laden tundra.

Although it was only the second time the Extreme had been staged, Struve said the conditions were much worse than those competitors faced in the inaugural event.

Greater than expected snowfall made the trail unridable for a quarter of its distance. Avalanche risk and extreme cold challenged competitors’ spirits and bodies. The winning time was two days slower than the previous year’s.

Almost half the field quit, compared to only two drop-outs last year. The race statistics don’t matter that much to Struve. She was the only woman to finish the event (the other woman pulled out less than half way through). She was 10th overall out of 14 finishers (15 others quit before or during the race). She pushed and pedaled her mountain bike 370 miles, the extra 20 miles the result of getting lost, in seven days, three and a half hours.

“It was quite the epic journey,” she said, laughing. Two weeks after she had returned home, Struve admitted that the race still consumed her.

Physically, she felt soreness in her shoulder and legs, and the swelling in her feet was only just beginning to go down.

Emotionally, she felt down, too.

“I think this is the most unexhilirated I have ever been after a major race,” she said. “I had different expectations going into it.”

Struve didn’t expect the emphasis of the event to be so much on survival. When she arrived in Knik, she was surprised to see more experienced racers testing global positioning satellite systems. Struve said the race director hadn’t told her she would be responsible for her own navigation. She also found some of the more competitive racers less than cooperative when it came to helping others.

“There was this atmosphere among the serious racers that they had their secrets and they wouldn’t share information with anyone,” she said.

The experience has shaken her.

“I haven’t slept so well,” she said. “I wake up thinking I’m still there.”

But she also sees a positive side.

“I saw a part of Alaska that is really beautiful and I found that I can go beyond limits I didn’t know I had.”

Struve is keen to put the Extreme behind her and move on to new things. She might enter a 24-hour mountain bike race in Monterey and she has similar race options in Canada and Wisconsin. She says she would love to enter a race in Australia in August.

“There was some good riding , but I was so concerned with pushing my bike that I couldn’t enjoy the riding. I still dream about pushing.”


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