Seven days, six nights: Struve told, ‘it’s up to you’
The first section was misleading – the competitors started out on a groomed trail in warm conditions. Struve completed the 30-mile section in five hours.
Day Two – February 28
The reality of the Iditasport hit Struve hard from the outset of the second day. She found the trail difficult to follow.
“I was supposed to go up a frozen river, but I went the wrong way. I had to backtrack and by then I had lost everybody.” Then her lamp burned out. “It was really scary. I had no clue where I was, except somewhere up a huge frozen river.”
Struve camped the rest of that night alone and aware that she was under-prepared for the survival elements of the race.
Day Three – March 1
Conditions got worse for the competitors. Struve started the morning pushing her bike five miles in a blizzard, through shin-deep snow. The temperature had dropped to ten degrees. Because she had got lost the day before, Struve had fallen 12 hours behind the only other female competitor, Canadian Chloe Lanthier. She wondered if she could make up the distance and put up with any more pushing.
“The pushing was intimidating. I wanted to ride my bike. At this point, three of the top guys dropped out because they didn’t want to push.”
Struve was also wondering if she had enough strength to go on. The race wasn’t half-through and the hard part was yet to come.
She asked other competitors what she should do. “They said ‘it’s up to you.'”
As she considered what to do, Struve met Italians Willy Mulonia, Juan Carlos Najaro and Doro Maurizio. Mulonia convinced Struve to go with them. They would head out at midnight to take advantage of hard-packed snow.
Day Four – March 3
So much for hard-packed snow. Out of the 40 miles, the four pushed for 35.
Struve found herself forced into the role of surrogate mother and rescuer. After 10 miles, the Italians showed signs of panic.
“Willy was drafting me and mumbling ‘Patty, I’m worried” over and over.”
Struve found a campsite in the snow and the four hunkered down and slept for three hours. It took a further 17 hours for the group to reach the lodge at Rohn. As Struve arrived, Lanthier departed on the next stage. But Struve had made two hours up on the Canadian.
Three hours later they were cycling on hard-packed snow. “It was the best stretch. We biked over huge rolling slopes.”
Nine-and-a-half hours later, Struve rolled in, as Lanthier departed. But Struve had made up another three hours on Lanthier.
‘I felt like I was reeling her in.” As Struve prepared for the next stage, to Rainy Pass, Lantheir and her companions returned, demoralized.
“They said they saw an avalanche crack in the hill above the trail, and they thought the whole trail might be affected by avalanches.” Lanthier quit and according to Struve, she tried to take the only other female competitor with her.
Struve said Lanthier tried to talk her out of going any further. “I felt I had something to prove, I needed to do this.” Although Struve admits she didn’t have the wilderness knowledge to assess the risk, she felt that because six racers had already passed that part of the trail, she would too.
Day Five – March 4
At midnight, Struve and the Italians were underway. As they set out they were greeted by nature’s fireworks display, the Northern lights.
“They were real pretty, green and purple and shimmery.”
They passed the slide zone safely, and headed straight into the section Struve described as “never-ending.”
“I wondered if we would die.”
The trail took them up on to the tundra and into the teeth of a 60 m.p.h. wind. For over six hours the four battled on, pushing their bikes up and over mounds of deep snow.
“The temperature was minus 30, we didn’t ever see the trail and we couldn’t eat or drink, it was so cold. We didn’t know where we were. It was like being in a movie, ‘this can’t be happening to me.'”
The cold struck Struve. “My legs were really cold, so were the tops of my hands.”
She kept going, holding on to a glimmer of hope that she would be able to ride down the other side of the pass. The four struggled through three-feet of snow and finally turned the top of the pass as the sun rose behind then.
The down slope was covered in powder and unridable.
Struve lost it.
“I was hysterical, crying. I said I can’t go on, I hate pushing. Plus, I couldn’t speak to these guys. It was frustrating, not being able to communicate.”
Finally, Struve got to ride and her resolve returned. She sped down a canyon past creeks and stunted trees. Towards the end of the section she noticed Najaro was in distress and helped him keep moving. Moose spaghetti awaited the group at their cabin.
Day Six – March 5
Struve and the Italians left at midnight and immediately Struve found herself shepherding the three men across a swampy section of river.
“They were wimps. They wanted the girl to go first.”
Later, after enjoying some solitary time pedaling rather than pushing, Struve again helped the men, this time climbing a steep ice slope.
“I had little crampons on my feet, which they didn’t have,” she said. One by one she helped them up, then she retrieved their bicycles.
The trail stretched 40 miles ahead. Struve alternately cycled and ran, to keep her feet from freezing. Her Italian friends began to lag, then lost it.
“They wouldn’t go on, though we were lost. I had to show them the reflectors on the trail markers and the tracks of other competitors. It was scary for me. I had to get these guys in, and I was feeling pretty bad myself.”
Struve spelt it out to her friends loudly and clearly. “If you stop now we’ll freeze to death.” They kept going until the lights of Nikolai appeared through the gloom. The Italians and Struve were ecstatic.
By then, all thoughts of competition had left Struve’s mind.
“This was not about winning, it was about survival.”
Day Seven – March 6
9 a.m. With Struve’s bike about to fall apart (no brakes, two gears), the four set out for McGrath.
Struve didn’t have any romantic thoughts going into her last day. “I was hoping I could go fast and get it over with.”
Nine hours later she rolled into McGrath. The Italians had left her earlier, preferring an all-male finish to their race.
“I didn’t know where I was supposed to be going,” said Struve. “I didn’t know where the finish line was.”
After a week in the Alaskan wilderness, Struve’s race was over.
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