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Iditarod Invitational: Alaska ultra-distance running legend Geoff Roes leads across Farewell Burn

Mike Campbell
We ride! After days of bike pushing, Englishman Steve Wilkinson finally got on his bike to ride on the Iditarod Trail to Shell Lake Wednesday. The competitor in the Iditarod Trail Invitational did about 100 yards before he decided the trail was still soft and the riding too much work. He jumped off and resumed pushing. The finish line remained more than 200 miles in north in McGrath on the other side of the Alaska Range. A veteran of the 2011 Invitational, Wilkinson was thinking of dropping out of this one. A couple dozen others had already given up.
Craig Medred photo
Fat-tire cyclist Pavel Richtr from the Czech Republic pushes past the Shell Hills in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on Wednesday. He was working his way toward the Alaska Range as a pair of snowshoers -- Pennsyvlanian Tim Hewitt and Alaskan Geoff Roes -- led the race toward Rainy Pass. The race is normally dominated by the cyclists, but heavy snow and soft trail had turned the table on them, and they were chasing a gang of snowshoers.
Craig Medred photo
The weather finally cut the Iditarod Trail Invitational a break late Wednesday. Fat-tire cyclist Dave Kelley pushes his bike across the big swamp north of Skwentna in the shadow of the Alaska Range. Trail conditions were so soft cyclists still weren't riding, but it was a much nicer day to push.
Craig Medred photo
Anchorage's Billy Koitzsch (http://www.arcticcycles.com/) leaves the Skwentna Roadhouse on Wednesday with his take-apart fat bike in a sled. The sled rolls up when not in use. Koitzsch, who plans to travel the entire 1,000 miles of the Iditarod Trail to Nome, plans to roll the sled up, tie it to the bike and start riding when the trails firm up. They were still better for his snowshoes on Wednesday. Three Iditarod Trail Invitational competitors remained in Skwentna when Koitzsch left, but they were all talking about scratching.
Craig Medred photo
Dave Kelley, an Anchorage bicycle technician, might have been running last in the Iditarod Trail Invitational on March 2, 2012, but he was all smiles as he strapped on his snowshoes to start the climb from the Happy River to Shirley Lake.
Craig Medred photo
Reached in a snowstorm near the headwaters of the Happy River high in the Alaska Range on March 1, the improbable leader of Iditarod Invitational had only three words to describe the situation, and they won't be repeated here.
Craig Medred photo
Geoff Roes on the march toward Rainy Pass March 1.
Craig Medred photo
Iditarod Invitational veteran Pete Basinger on the roll through the Alaska Range March 1.
Craig Medred photo
Phil Hofstetter and Pete Basinger chase the Iditarod Trail north in pursuit of Invitational leader Tim Hewitt on March 1. Tripods mark the trail across the barren, windswept gap in the Alaska Range leading up to Rainy Pass.
Craig Medred photo
Fat-tire bikers push along the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Craig Medred photo
Reached in a snowstorm near the headwaters of the Happy River high in the Alaska Range on March 1, the improbable leader of Iditarod Invitational had only three words to describe the situation, and they won't be repeated here.
Craig Medred photo
Robin MacAlpine and Pavel Richtr pause near the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers during the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
Iditarod Trail Invitational racers push their bikes through heavy snow near Flathorn Lake.
Craig Medred photo
Englishman Bill Dent gets on the satellite phone to call his wife from the deck of the snow-buried Yentna Station Roadhouse north of Anchorage on Tuesday as Sebastiano Favaro from Italy prepares his fat-tired bike for another push north in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo
Race, over, tired and beaten by the Iditarod Trail, Alberto Villaverde gets some help from Willow pilot Barry Stanley in loading his fat-tired bike for a long ride home to Italy.
Craig Medred photo
Peter Basinger, Tim Bernston, and Phil Hofstetter take a break near Lake Creek on the Yentna River about 75 miles into the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Craig Medred photo

The best ultra-long distance runner that Alaska has ever produced set out across the rugged Farewell Burn Friday morning with fading hopes to make history in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Geoff Roes of Juneau, the record-setting winner of the prestigious Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, began his 80-mile trek across the tussock-pocked Burn at 6:30 a.m. after a rest of more than five hours in the checkpoint of Rohn after a descent from the highest point of the race in the Alaska Range. Within two hours, bikers Peter Basinger of Oregon by way of Anchorage, and Phil Hofstetter of Nome gave chase.

Never before had an athlete on foot led this human-powered race down the Iditarod Trail for so long. But deep snows in the race’s early days changed everything.

For much of the 350-mile race to Nome – some competitors push on another 650 miles all the way to Nome – walkers Roes and Tim Hewitt, a 57-year-old Pennsylvania attorney, led the way.  Bogged down by snow, bikers pushed their bikes instead of riding. That was enough of a disadvantage to give the athletes on foot an edge.

For the moment, those days are over -- and Roes' lead may soon be history, too. The bikers are back to pedaling.

“The next stretch of trail has very little snow on it and is hard packed,” co-race director Kathi Merchant reported on the Invitational’s website. “Since Rohn is in the rain shadow of the Alaska Range, it receives very little precipitation and little snow most years. About 20-25 miles out of Rohn they will get back into more snow, since there's at least six feet here in McGrath.”

For Roes, Ultrarunning Magazine’s male ultrarunner of the year in 2008 and 2009, this is his third attempt to complete the trip to McGrath; he’s dropped out the first two times.

"I’ve attempted it twice and dropped out both times,” he told the website Competitor. “So I’m going to take another shot at doing a really long one.”

One-time race leader Hewitt was slowed by a sprained or twisted ankle.  On Friday night, he’d yet to arrive in Rohn.