Ryan Wanless saw the light.
He had completed roughly 33% of his scheduled 350-mile journey through the Alaskan Wilderness. Snow was falling by the foot and blowing in a frenzy that had windchills dipping well below 0 degrees.
Wanless did not want his potential once-in-a-lifetime experience to be over. But the approaching light of a snowmobile felt ominous.
“I had probably been up 20-some (straight) hours, and it was a ground blizzard, and I literally thought a snowmobile was coming up to tell us they had paused the race or put it on hold and they were coming to take us to shelter,” Wanless said. “It was probably 0 degrees and blowing 60 miles an hour.
“But it was just a guy on a snowmobile hauling supplies, and he just went right by us. It was kind of a surreal moment.”
Surreal like falling asleep in a bivy sack to the sounds of howling wolves.
Surreal like soldiering on despite hearing tales of other competitors being attacked by moose.
Surreal like persevering through it all to complete the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350, on foot, pulling a 40-pound sled, in less than eight days.
Wanless, a 1996 Edgerton graduate who now resides in South Dakota, did all of that early last month. It was his latest foray into ultrarunning--though this year’s conditions did not allow for all that much running.
A different Iditarod
Most folks know about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in which mushers normally take 8-15 days to traverse more than 900 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational was officially formed in 2002, though other variants of the race existed in the years leading up to that, according to the event’s web page. In the ITI, competitors can take on challenges of either 350 or 1,000 miles and compete on foot, skis or bike.
“You talk to the people (leading up to the ITI) that have done it, and the biggest thing I took away from that is their excitement for how wild it was going to be,” Wanless said. “They were excited for you. It made me feel good and that if they can do it, I can do it.”
And, at least initially, completing the 350-mile course was Wanless’ chief goal. As he learned more about the pitfalls along the way, he said finishing became goal No. 3--behind making sure he kept all others and himself safe and enjoyed the experience, however long it lasted.
After all, he had already completed so much just to qualify for the right to apply to race in the ITI. Just 53 racers were listed on the ITI 350 roster on the event’s page, and of them only 18 were competing on foot, pulling behind them a small sled along the way.
Getting into racing
Wanless grew up in Edgerton watching his father, Mark, run. Ryan was a pole vaulter, he said.
But he was an avid outdoorsman and met his wife, Emily, when they were hikers and campers in Montana. Eventually they moved to Georgia, and Ryan took up running.
“I was like, I’m going to do a marathon. Then I did a couple, and she got bored of going and sitting for four-plus hours while I ran,” he said. “She signed up for the half marathon in Birmingham. She ran that and got hooked, so we started doing it together.”
Their love of running only grew once they moved to South Dakota. One weekend, Emily, who is now a professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, went on a work trip to Salt Lake City.
Ryan’s cure for what appeared to be a weekend of boredom was to sign up for the Black Hills 50 Miler.
“I showed up and I’m sitting on the bus getting a ride to the start line, and all these people have all this gear and strategy and all this stuff. I’m sitting there with a Gatorade and a couple CLIF bars,” Ryan said. “I really had no clue but wanted to do something. I think I only made it to Mile 40 and dropped out of that race. I was just wrecked.
“But it got my fire burning. The next day I woke up and thought, ‘I can’t believe I couldn’t gut out 10 more miles.’”
Now both Ryan and Emily are experienced ultrarunners.
Emily was the top female finisher in the 100-kilometer race at last year’s Kettle Moraine Endurance Races in LaGrange.
Just to be eligible to apply for the ITI, Ryan had to have completed at least two of 12 specific qualifying events around the world that span at least 100 miles each. His resume of races of at least 100 miles runs deep on ultrasignup.com.The Iditarod race, however, was a whole new experience.
“A lot of races you have a little backpack on and you’re running 12- to 14-minute miles and cruising along,” Wanless said. “In this, if you could put out 20-minute miles you were doing good. But there were a lot of times it was 25-minute miles. And you were just trying to hike as fast as you can while pulling 40 pounds of gear behind you on a sled and not sink up to your waist in snow or get lost.”
Wanless had in-depth discussions with many former ITI competitors as he attempted to figure out just what he was in for.
But none of them could have fully prepared him for this year’s conditions.
“I was with a guy who had finished the 1,000 miles five different times,” Wanless said. “And he said this was by far the worst conditions in the first 300-plus miles.”
Nearly all of the competitors who signed up for the 1,000-mile event this year were pulled off the course early due to conditions.
Wanless said he was anticipating using his snowshoes for a few hours here and there but wound up wearing them for about 80% of the race.
“There were times you couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you. The trail, if someone went through an hour ahead of you, there were no markings,” he said. “So you’re pulling out your GPS, checking that. You’re pulling your sled behind you, and you’d have your trekking poles just stabbing the ground—if you stabbed and it didn’t go all the way down, you were on the trail, and if you a few feet right or left, your pole would go all the way up to the handle.”
Even so, Wanless did not lose sight of his goals--especially that of enjoying the wildness of the experience as much as possible.
At one point, he pulled out his bivy sack--a small, lightweight tent structure designed to keep adventurers dry--and slept alongside the trail, waiting perhaps for another competitor to catch up to him.
“There was a pack of wolves howling it sounded about 200-300 yards off the trail,” Wanless said. “I don’t know how far away they actually were, but it sounded close. I remember thinking I might never get to fall asleep listening to wolves howl again the rest of my life.”
One of the competitors’ biggest dangers in the race is getting into a confrontation with a moose. Wanless said he saw 30 or so along his trek.
“A couple bikers encountered some and the moose smashed their bicycles up. And a cross country skier had one come over the bank and attack him and stomp on him,” Wanless said. “Luckily enough for him, it was deep snow off the trail, and when the moose kept stomping on him, it just stomped him further into the deep snow.”
“The bikers had to drop because their bikes were wrecked, but the skier kept going and finished I think on Day 9.”
It did not take long, Wanless said, to put the thought of simply finishing the race to the back of his mind.
“Day 2 or Day 3, when it’s blowing 60 miles an hour and you’re coming up to 3-4 foot drifts of snow, the finish is the last thing on your mind,” he said. “You just go day-by-day. You say, if the weather continues and this is the end of my journey, I’m OK with it because I had a great time.”
But that snowmobile that passed him as he approached the third of six checkpoints along his route did not bring with it any news of the race being suspended.
And so Wanless continued trudging along.
And Emily--who was in Alaska waiting for her husband back near the start line--and a host of other friends and family monitored Ryan’s progress via GPS on an ITI tracking site.
At some checkpoints, Ryan was able to connect to wireless internet to get a message out to Emily.
“You’d come up to some of the checkpoints and there’d be an old trappers’ cabin or a tent or one of the places was a rec center in a town,” Ryan said. “Maybe get something to eat and catch a nap, and then as you were leaving, people five hours behind you might be coming in. So it was kind of a game of telephone going out on the trail—what conditions were like, what people encountered and who was still going.
“The physical part wasn’t bad, because I was in good shape. Mentally, it was just exhausting the whole time. Check your GPS. What’s the weather going to be like?
“I never felt like I had any cushion, because in theory I could’ve gotten 20 miles from the finish line and if a storm came in, you could be laying in your sleeping bag for two days.”
He heard of more and more competitors dropping out along the way.
“There was a very high drop rate this year,” Wanless said. “Normally they don’t have that high of a drop rate, because you have to do so much to get in that everyone is pretty well qualified to be in the race. You’re not looking at any amateurs.”
To Wanless, giving up never felt like an option. Finding a flight out of a remote town in Alaska near one of the checkpoints would have cost him more than $1,000.
And so he kept moving along.
And on March 9, after seven days, 23 hours and 45 minutes, Wanless reached the finish in McGrath, Alaska, 350 miles from the start in Anchorage.
“I accomplished all my goals and more,” he said. “It’s as much about the journey as it is the finish line.”
Per usual, Ryan and Emily had a busy summer of races scheduled, but many of them have already been canceled and all are in a state of flux due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ryan said he will find a way to ultrarun in competitive fashion, likely running long stretches of trail to attempt to beat FKTs--Fastest Known Times.
“We have the whole length of the Centennial Trail out here that’s about 114 miles,” said Wanless, who is a general contractor by trade. “I’ll probably try and take a stab at trying to break the record for the fastest known time on that in the next month or so, once all the snow’s gone.”
While races are mostly at a standstill at this point, he encourages anyone with any sort of inkling about running any distance to simply reach out to those who are already competing.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people are not superhuman athletes,” Ryan said. “They’re just everyday people that have found something they like, have a drive and are just out there doing it.”
While many will likely think running 350 miles in the Iditarod Trail Invitational is greatest accomplishment yet for Wanless, he said he is still proudest of his ultrarunning resume.
“A lot of people do one and they’re done,” he said. “I really love not only the racing part but the training and preparation and the friendships.
“(Under normal circumstances), if we’re not running or biking or camping with friends, we’re probably at a happy hour talking about running or biking or camping with friends.”