I’ve completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 (ITI).

It was the hardest challenge I’ve ever undertaken, and I’m incredibly proud of pushing through so much pain and adversity, including a torn rotator cuff and bicep tendon, severe saddle sores caused by Velocio’s poor quality control, and significant dehydration due to a catastrophic water bladder failure.

I’m also the first Brazilian ever to complete this race!

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Here’s some background on how someone from a tropical country decides to tackle the world’s toughest race:

I’ve dreamt of doing the Iditarod Trail Invitational by bike since I started racing winter ultras four years ago. After completing the Su100 race, I saw the course map at Happy Trails Kennel and promised myself, “One day, you’ll do this.”

To many winter ultra enthusiasts, the ITI represents the pinnacle of endurance events. With weather that can shift from sunny to a whiteout blizzard in hours, temperatures that drop from 15°F to -40°F, and winds reaching 70 mph, the Iditarod is unforgiving: if you’re not an experienced winter expeditioner, your chances of survival aren’t in your favor.

I spent three years participating in qualifying races, acquiring knowledge, skills, and gear. Throughout these years, many doubted my ability to tackle this race. Having first encountered snow at 19, “winter wonderland” was not a familiar environment for me, and I had to adapt and learn far more than those who grew up in cold or snowy places.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Fast forward to May 2023, I received my acceptance letter for ITI350, and the dream became reality. I spent the next nine months going through the most intense planning phases I’ve ever experienced for a race.

There are a lot of logistics for an event like this: Where will things go on the bike? Can I easily access everything with big mitts on? Do you have contingency plans for unpredictable mechanicals at -40°F? What type of stove will you take? Will you be able to set up a bivy if you have frostbitten fingers?

I lost many nights of sleep going through all sorts of scenarios and making mental adjustments. When winter came and I started training with the bike fully loaded, I went through another phase of constantly tweaking things, and 783 modifications later, I was finally happy with my setup.

Note to self: It still wasn’t perfect. I had some major gear failures that I’ll talk about in the following pages.

In January, at Fat Pursuit, I was hit by a snowmobile and initially thought it only caused some minor shoulder pain. It turns out it left me with a partially torn rotator cuff and bicep tendon, as well as significant bursitis. Ten days before leaving for Alaska, knowing I’d be pushing the bike for long stretches, I got a cortisone shot hoping it’d help alleviate the pain. ITI has been a dream, and I was committed to finishing it no matter how much it hurt.

The week leading into the race I studied maps like I was applying for a PhD in cartography. Being a rookie and not knowing the trail, I wanted to be as prepared as possible when it came to the terrain. I kept an eye on Trackleaders to see what routes Iron Dog teams were taking (the snowmobile race), and did a couple of weekend rides around Big Lake to assess the conditions of the initial 25 miles.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

The day before the race was spent cutting all the food into bite sizes (you can’t bite into a frozen candy bar and have a pleasant experience), assigning pockets for spare batteries, inhaler, toilet paper, chamois cream, eye drops, and everything that needs to be kept close to your body so it won’t freeze solid, and keeping an eye on the forecast.

I also took the bike to Speedway Cycles to get arctic grade grease on all moving parts because a lot of things stop working at -20°F, let alone at -40°F.

Race day comes, and I’d typically be a pile of nerves. But this required so much logistics and forethought that I was eager to finally ride my bike!

It’s 2 pm in Knik, Alaska, and the literal gun goes off (they like to keep it old school here).

One hundred and two of us make our way north. Some on bikes, some on skis, some on foot. Sixty-four en route to McGrath, doing 350 miles, and thirty-eight pushing to Nome, hoping to complete the entire 1,000 mile journey.

Day 1: Knik Lake to CP 2 Bentalit Lodge (mile 80)

Miles ridden: 84

Miles pushed: 0

Wrong turns: 5

Total hours of sleep: 1 

Total hours on the trail: 18 

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

It’s 2 pm, the literal gun goes off. Spirits are high with a bluebird sky and temperatures hovering around 15°F, a perfect start to a journey that would soon unravel into gruesome conditions.

The initial 25 miles to Butterfly Lake went by fast. On the way, the first Iron Dog racers zoomed by us at 90 mph on their snowmobiles, as well as teen mushers competing in the Jr Iditarod—14- to 17-year-old kids, mushing their own dog teams.

The ice road at Big Lake was in perfect condition and in less than four hours I was at the first checkpoint, with the biggest smile on my face, high on life and almost in disbelief I was actually racing the Iditarod. My dream of so many years was turning into reality.

Everyone is in high spirits and volunteers are doing an amazing job at keeping us fed and warm. I have my first cup of the famous hot Tang—a staple on any ITI athlete’s diet—smash a couple of burritos and adjust my layers. We’d soon be riding on the river, which is often 20 degrees colder, and nighttime was upon us. I put my shell pants on, dig the headlamp out of the frame bag, and insert myself into a group of four riders: Jenny, Benji, Chuck and Stafford.

Together, we navigated the maze of snowmobile trails out of Butterfly and into the Susitna River. Nighttime came bringing an enormous orange full moon that illuminated everything around us. Our group of four suddenly became a group of ten—we were caravanning and collecting people along the way like a freight train!

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Once on the Yentna River, my pace was a bit faster than the group’s, so I rode away and arrived at Yentna Station (unofficial checkpoint, mile 55) at midnight. There, you can pay $22 for a bunk bed, feast on warm food and pet all the dogs roaming around the house.

I stripped off the wet layers and hung them above the wood stove while deleting three cans of Coke, two bowls of tomato bisque, and two open-face “sandwiches”. Someone calls in and pays for a round of 15 beers for the racers—ah, the generosity of Alaskans!

After a while, Jenny, Benji, Chuck and Stafford roll in, and they all pay for a sleeping spot. I took too long to make up my mind, and only after having paid the $22, I realized there were no more beds available. Couch it is. An hour later, I wake up and decide to keep going, leaving Yentna solo.

It dropped to -35°F, and I rode the next 30 miles alone. For the entirety of the race—the whole seven days I was out—I didn’t listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts once. Having to faff around with earbuds in the cold seemed like a lot of effort, so I opted to listen to the calls of nature and the voices in my head (after a while you go a little crazy).

Riding with a group is great because you always have someone keeping the pace up, and you also have the distraction of chatting with others. But riding solo also brings me a lot of joy. I left Yentna around 3:30 am and rode through the night and early morning without seeing a single person—just the tire marks of those who were ahead of me.

The approach to Bentalit Lodge was riddled with very fresh moose tracks. Alaskan moose have a reputation for standing their ground and not caring about anything else (nihilists!).

Around 7:45 am, after three wrong turns, I arrive at checkpoint (CP) 2, 84 miles in.

There are only two bikes outside—Cameron and another guy I can’t remember—who are on their way out.

With the lodge to myself, I order a double-double batch of pancakes, two cups of coffee, and another can of soda. They also let me use their dryer, which made my stop much quicker than anticipated.

Missy rolls in, and as I’m getting ready to leave, someone calls the lodge asking if the next rider could bring Cameron’s phone to Skwentna Roadhouse, 10 miles ahead. He left it charging two minutes after being reminded by his companion that his phone was still plugged in! I volunteer to do so, and by 10 am I’m out the door, still solo, and holding fourth place among women.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race


Day 2: CP2 Bentalit to CP3 Finger Lake (mile 125)

Miles ridden: 42

Miles pushed: 10

Wrong turns: 4

Total hours of sleep: 7

Total hours on the trail: 43

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

I pack Cameron’s phone in the “electronics” pocket of my vest and say goodbye to Missy and her riding companion—who had just arrived.

At some point during the temperature plummet of the night before, my back brake turned into a chunk of ice and quit working. I wouldn’t really need brakes until Rainy Pass, so the plan was to fix it at Finger Lake.

Cameron was waiting for me at Skwentna Roadhouse, 10 miles further. My naive self thought I’d be there with his cellphone in an hour, but that proved itself wrong when I had to push the bike over a foot of fresh snow for a good amount of miles. Here I was, facing the first contact with the harsh reality of walking a 65 lbs bike.

I arrived at Skwentna and found not only Cameron but also Missy! “How are you here? You had just gotten to Bentalit when I left, and no one passed me!” I had a serious case of the bamboozle.

Missy, a seasoned ITI veteran, then tells me there are two ways of getting to Skwentna, “the fast route, and the slow one.” I clearly chose the latter.

Alas, phone delivery is complete. I take advantage of the roadhouse setting and order hot food, the usual soda, and load up on a bag of homemade cookies.

On my way out, my heavyweight buff that was drying above the wood stove is nowhere to be found. There’s a suspicion raised by the owner herself that one of the dogs may have taken it. Well, at least that was my interpretation when she said, “There’s no way one of the dogs took it, they don’t do that!” Kindly enough, she gifted me a thick fleece buff made for Iron Dog racers that later would come to be the best buff I ever had for the conditions I was in.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Before leaving, I asked for directions out of there, and was told to “go back the way you came.” What they didn’t realize is that I took the river route, and everyone else was coming via “the fast way,” so sending me the way I came was making me backtrack. And backtrack I did. Three times, back and forth, trying to find the way to the trail and wasting a full hour, looking like a fool on Trackleaders. It wasn’t until I met with another group of riders, while riding in the wrong direction, that I was told the trail is “right by the roadhouse.”

So much frustration!

I follow Art and another guy, but lose their sight as soon as we enter the plains at Kentuhdilk’el Kena. Amidst a whiteout blizzard, you could see as far as 100 ft ahead of you.

Before starting ITI, my biggest fear was finding myself in the middle of a storm where I couldn’t see the tracks of other racers, therefore not knowing where to go. And for the first time, I found myself in that situation: alone in a blizzard. At least there were laths to follow, so I had a general idea of the direction, but little did I know, two days later I’d be in a situation 100x worse.

I’d see trees at a distance and play the game, “Is it Art or is it a tree?” They were all trees, despite swearing seeing some of them move. With only 1 hour of sleep and 26 hours of ride time, the hallucinations had begun.

At one point I stopped to check the GPS and looked behind me: there are two trees coming towards my direction. The trees caught up: it was Brian and George. They have done ITI multiple times together, and asked if I wanted to ride with them. After so many hours of a solo endeavor, being part of a group was a nice break.

We go from miles of eye-straining conditions in the plains to the sheltered woods of the Shell hills. The price paid for the change in scenery was that with all the fresh snow, many of the climbs turned into hike-a-bike—and so we pushed up.

Initially, my goal was getting to CP3 and resting there. But fatigue was setting in, and the thought of a cozy shelter cabin sounded much better than the canvas tent flapping in the endless winds of Finger Lake.

Shell Lake Lodge is a trail angel (much like Yentna Station and Skwentna Roadhouse), and usually has food for purchase. However, a week before the race started last year, the majority of the property was lost to a fire. Despite having only a handful of cabins remaining, the owners still let us use two of them as refuge.

Around 8 pm, Brian, George and I arrive. Missy is there, Art, Perry, and a couple of other people are as well. The groundskeeper didn’t get the notice about ITI racers coming, so the cabins were an icebox and snowed in. But being the first ones there meant we could pick and choose our bunks.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

We got the wood stove going and I made my first monumental mistake of the race: with a tired mind and craving a dehydrated meal, I put my nice Zojirushi thermos on top of the stove to boil water. I was too tired to go outside and dig for my titanium mug, and convinced myself that “it’s a stainless steel bottle, it’ll be fine.”

Five minutes after setting it on top of the stove, once we saw smoke come from the bottom of the bottle, both Brian and I had the same reaction: “the vacuum seal!” It was too late—the heat destroyed the seal and now my thermos was as good as a plastic bottle.

I had to come to terms with my stupidity and had to adapt to the situation I brought myself into. From Shell Lake on, I’d have to ride with the thermos wrapped in a wool glove, inside a 900-fill puffy, upside down, inside the pannier. Which isn’t the most practical way of having quick access to liquids, but at least it’d buy myself freezing time.

Around 11 pm, Leah and Tiziano arrive, looking like human depictions of defeat. They took the alternate cat track route to Shell, proven to be the wrong choice, adding more miles, more climbing, and more soft snow. I believe Leah stayed in the adjacent cabin, with Mark, Kinsey, and Missy, while Tiziano stayed with us.

We chatted a bit, I ate an entire bag of Skittles, and went back to sleep. A slumber that lasted 6 hours, but it felt like 12. Since there were only four of us, I brought the bike inside hoping the brake would thaw while we got ready.

After an hour in a warm cabin—and withstanding an almost second Shell Lake Lodge burndown caused by a malfunction on Tiziano’s stove—the brakes were released from their frosted captivity. At the cost of the pads shifting out of place and constantly rubbing against the rotor for the remainder of the race (238 miles of extra friction and a constant squeaky noise).

The four of us rolled out at 5 am and immediately hit a hike-a-bike section caused by a mix of drifted snow and post holes left by the riders who opted to push through the storm. An hour or so later, temperatures dropped from 5°F to -15°F, which was a welcome change as it helped firm up the trail quite nicely.

The steady climb to Finger Lake was a breeze on a fast-rolling mining road. At this point, Dennis had joined us, and at the top of the climb, we were rewarded with the first view of the Alaskan range. And what a view it was! Towering peaks taken by a mix of deep blues cast by the full moon still high up, and warm pastel colors brought by the sunrise—it was one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve seen. Speechless, we all stopped to soak in that moment and appreciate the beauty we were immersed in. I felt incredibly grateful to be alive.

The final stretch came with another hike-a-bike section, but with the checkpoint in sight, none of us cared much about the knee-deep snow sections. At about 9 am, our group arrived at Finger Lake.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Day 2, pt II: CP3 Finger Lake to CP4 Puntilla (mile 150)

Miles ridden: 16

Miles pushed: 15

Wrong turns: 0

Total hours of sleep: 10

Total time on the trail: 2d 16h

Arriving at Finger Lake gave us a boost of energy. Here, our first drop bags waited for us, and we could also feast on the drop bags of scratched racers. We were welcomed by outstanding volunteers, including fellow Brazilian Caio, who opened a huge smile when I gave him my extra bag of paçoquinha (Brazilian crack). We stayed there for about 2 hours—time enough to stuff our faces, dry out wet layers, and reload the bikes with food.

I was still hanging onto 4th place, and despite having a glorious morning, full of gratitude and beauty, here is where my downfall began.

Before leaving, I asked Caio if he had heard anything about trail conditions. His reply was “the first stretch is bad, there’s not much of a trail. The stretch after…”, he took a long pause and I said “the stretch after is worse!” My attempt at a joke revealed to be the harshest reality.


This 30-mile stretch is usually rideable, fast, and fun—with the exception of the Happy Steps, which I’ll get to in a second.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

By 11 am, dream team Brian, George, and I leave Finger Lake and start pushing our bikes right out of the checkpoint tent. It was a bluebird morning with the sun warming the little bit of skin we have exposed. “It could always be worse! At least it’s a beautiful day!” Brian said, minutes before dropping into Red Lake, where constant headwinds of 25 mph punished us, erasing any sign of a trail and forcing us to forge our own path through shin-deep snow. We were traveling at a whopping speed of 1.2 mph, and our plan of making it to Puntilla by 9 pm was reevaluated a dozen times.

The partially torn tendons are on the right shoulder, which happens to be the one I lean on when pushing the bike. In an attempt to not put too much weight and pressure on it, I was overcompensating by using more of my legs. But having to trudge through soft snow, while battling headwinds, left me with a sharp pain on my left knee.

Getting out of Red Lake, Brian spots fresh lynx tracks. We take a break, hoping to catch a glimpse of it, without any luck. I took a moment to put a lidocaine patch and KT tape on my knee, since any forward flexion with the minimal amount of weight caused a very sharp pain to the point of locking up the knee.

Soon after, Jessie Gladish catches up. Holy crap that woman is a powerhouse! While we had a group of 3 people taking turns breaking trail, she was doing it solo. And she was so efficient when pushing her bike that Brian and George thought we’d slow her down, and oftentimes they asked if she wanted to go ahead so she wouldn’t be held back by us.

After alternating stretches of pushing and riding, we approach the infamous Happy Steps, a very narrow section that zigzags downhill toward the Happy River. Spoiler alert: there’s nothing happy about this section. In fact, I firmly believe that whoever named it the Happy Steps never experienced happiness in their life. Here is a good description, from the 2008 Iditarod documentary:

After a mile or so of dropping down toward the valley and zigzagging through the forest, you’ll plunge down a short but very steep hill; directly in front of you will be one of the warning signs and the trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill. Of course, you will be standing on your brake for all you’re worth.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

The first “step” is a narrow ramp turning sharply to the left as you go over the lip and plunging diagonally down the face of a very steep slope. At the bottom of the first ramp (maybe 50 yards), the trail will double back on a small level area. There is a 50-foot cliff dropping off your left side in the turn; don’t look.

The second step is as long as the first, cutting diagonally down the hill in the opposite direction. There is a short level stretch as you turn to the right into the third step, which can be the scariest of all. If you reach the bottom of the third step in one piece, you will drop immediately onto the Happy River.

Sounds terrifying, eh? It is not as bad on a bike as it is on a dog sled, since we have the option of dismounting and gliding downhill. The worst, however, comes on the other side of the river, when you have to hoist a bike up equally steep slopes (I’m talking 45-degree angle).

With my knee in shambles and shoulder starting to ache, I was incredibly thankful to go through that section with other people, so we could help one another. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took me more than 30 minutes to get to the top of the second hill—working against gravity, where the bike would roll back if you weren’t pressing on the brakes, my knee screamed with every push.

After that, we hit a couple of sections of really fun, flowy downhill, but it wasn’t long until we were caught pushing bikes again. These 30 miles are mostly uphill, weaving between forest, lakes, and swamps. Lake crossings are very exposed, and with the windstorm that rolled in, we had to be strategic about our stops—once you’re out on the flat lands, you can’t stop until you reach tree cover again. This can be anywhere from a few yards to a few miles, and at 1.5 mph, it means you may not have respite from the wind for over an hour.

Here I also started having issues with my water bladder. Despite being under all of my layers and me always blowing back after sipping, the constant blast of very cold winds partially froze a section of the hose where the insulation sleeve shifted up. The water in the bladder kept its liquid state, but that meant I no longer had quick access to it. If I wanted to drink anything, I was obligated to stop and get the thermos (remember that my thermos—a second option for quick access—was moved to inside a pannier due to my stupidity at Shell Lake). This means that for those long stretches of exposed hike-a-bike, where you can’t stop because the winds are too strong, I simply couldn’t drink anything.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

The inability to keep up with hydration slowed me down significantly. Jessie was determined to get to Puntilla that night, while Brian and George were debating on bivvying. “How are you feeling?”, Brian asked me. “I’m exhausted”. At this point, I was clocking 54 hours of race time, and only 7 hours of sleep. “This looks like a great spot to bivy”, and he pointed to a tree well on the side of the trail, beneath some branches and protected from the wind. “We’re still 10 miles out, and it doesn’t get any easier from here. There will be a lot of exposed areas”. I thought about fourth place now becoming fifth, but in these types of events, race mentality can get you in big trouble.

“Yeah, I’ll stop here. I’ll catch you guys in Puntilla”.

They kept going. I jumped into the tree well and sank to my knees. Stomping out a spot to bivouac can be challenging in soft, deep snow. I managed to make the hole big enough for my MSR tent, and threw myself inside along with the sleeping pad and bag.

I didn’t do the best job flattening it out, in fact, I was all sorts of curved. But I was also so tired I didn’t care. I slept for about 3 hours, and woke up around midnight with the sounds of 3 racers pushing their bikes.

Couldn’t go back to sleep, so I packed up and began pushing again. I had slept with the camelbak still on me, which proved effective in thawing the frozen hose and giving me about 2 hours of easily accessible sipping time until it froze again.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Here I also started to feel the saddle sores get increasingly painful. And smelly. Something isn’t right.

I don’t have much of a memory of these last 10 miles to Puntilla, aside from the fact that I was absolutely exhausted and in pain, and just wanted to get there. I kept saying to myself “You wanted this, you chose to do this. This is your dream, you knew it was going to be tough. Trust your struggle”.

Around 6 am, I arrived at Puntilla and joined 16 other racers, all taking shelter from the massive wind storm that hit us.

I ate two bowls of oatmeal, climbed on a bunk bed and passed out for 3 hours.

Next up: Puntilla to Rohn (the crux of the race, and the times I accepted death)

Day 3-4: CP4 Puntilla to CP5 Rohn (mile 200)

Miles ridden: 5

Miles pushed: 30

Wrong turns: 4

Total hours of sleep: 22

Total time on the trail: 4d 14h

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Rainy Pass is the crux of the race. The pass itself is often quite windy, but the climb is gradual and after the summit you’re rewarded with what bikers claim to be “the most fun you’ll ever have on a fatbike”. As a fan of big, nasty climbs, I was actually looking forward to this day.

That was until the forecast showed 70 mph winds, with a high of -20°F for the next three days, basically leaving us stranded in Puntilla.

A group of eight racers decided to push anyway—Jessie and Missy were two of them. The rest of us opted to wait for the wind to die down, and try again the following morning. Missy and two others turned around after 3 or so miles—breaking trail in those conditions was extremely demanding. Jessie kept going (telling you, she’s a machine!).

With 24 hours to “chill”, I would hopefully be able to give my body the downtime it needed. First and foremost, I needed to assess the conditions of the saddle sores. Pardon the grossness, but have you ever had open wounds that produce a smell of, well, open wounds? You know, your body doing its job saying “hey, there’s something wrong here that is getting infected, you should probably do something before it gets worse?”. Yep, that’s what I was dealing with.

When I took the bibs off (first time in 4 days), I saw the chamois stitching came undone, moving the padding back and forth, explaining the extreme chafing I had. This was no longer a case of bad saddle sores, instead it had graduated to a case of the entire contour of the chamois rubbing against my sit bones, digging the skin raw, imprinting itself on my ass (sorry, the frustration is so great I can’t keep it classy).

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Mind you, those are $300 bibs from Velocio but seems like quality control is a word they may not know (it’s not the first time I have issues with their bibs and,

 yes, despite knowing better I wanted to give it a third chance because they are very warm and easy to manage during pit stops). I borrowed a sewing kit from Leah and fixed what I could, but at this point, the damage was very much done (Spoiler alert: with two thirds of the race yet to come). I also noticed she had an extra camelbak bite valve in her repair kit, and immediately told myself “that is very smart, yet something you never bring with you.

Puntilla is home to Rainy Pass Lodge, where for the bargain of $500 cash you can get a room of your own! Want to share with someone else? Neat, that will be $400 per person!

For those not staying at the private lodge, they offer dinner for $100, lunch for $50 and breakfast for $40. Considering all items need to be flown in, don’t expect these to be any fancy. 

I paid for the $50 lunch, mostly so I could use a real toilet (also 4 days since the last time I saw one) and hop on the wifi for an hour to check Trackleaders: the 5 racers that didn’t turn around are doing 0.5 mph. We knew we’d be doomed the following day.

Seeing that there was a group of 14 en route to Puntilla, and having a strict first-in, first-out policy at the cabin, 9 of us decided to make an attempt and leave at 5 am. The more people to help take turns breaking trail, the better.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

The wild foxes at Puntilla have learned that all those bikes have food in them, so if you don’t want your bags torn to shreds and all your edible items gone, you better bring it all inside. Because of that, it took me a little more time to pack up, and the group left without me.

I never felt so alone.

I left at 5:15 am. The group was only 15 minutes ahead and I had hopes of maybe catching up, but the wind was so strong it immediately erased any sign of anything that was ahead. Remember my fear of finding myself in a whiteout blizzard and not being able to see a trail? It was happening. But this time there were no laths and I had to push the bike through shin-deep snow against a 50 mph wind. And I was still 4 hours away from the first rays of sunshine—this was going to be tough. 

In the distance, I saw a beam of light. It was Brian heading back. He was having issues with his face mask, and in those conditions of extreme headwinds and temperatures hovering at -15°F, no skin should be exposed. He made the right call. “I’ll try again tomorrow, with the other group”.

I’d later find out he indeed tried again, but opted for scratching after turning around a third time. Brian was immensely helpful to me on the Happy River day, and an outstanding riding companion. I wish I was there to help him dig deeper and keep going.

Breaking trail on my own was painful. Oftentimes I’d sink to my knees, and when I’d pick the bike up, the wind would flip it horizontally, as if it was weightless. 

Asbjørn passes me on skis, “this is tough on a bike, huh”.

Yea, do you want to trade?”. He laughed, got concerned thinking the white dot tattoos under my eyes were frostbite, and went his merry way. In less than 30 seconds he disappeared in the blizzard. I completely lost track of the trail and found myself constantly sinking into knee-deep snow (the international sign of “you’re off the trail”).

As the sun rose over the Alaskan Range, beautiful, warm colors brought an invigorating glimmer of hope and a reprieve from the suffocating cold of night. The winds, however, persisted. 

After taking a wrong turn and heading towards Hell’s Gate (something you absolutely do not want to do), I pass by Kinsey and Mark taking a break under a tree and “enjoying the nice weather,” as Kinsey put. They were part of the group that left the night before, but ended up bivvying 5 miles down the trail.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

My camelbak hose was frozen again and I had spent the last 5 hours without being able to drink anything. And the conditions I was in didn’t allow me to stop and dig for my thermos. When I finally did so, Mark and Kinsey passed. Time and again I saw them trying to ride—they’d go 100 yards, hit a deep snow drift, dismount, walk.

It seemed like the effort of attempting to ride wasn’t worth the energy, so I kept pushing.

At 2 pm, after 9 hours of pushing against fierce headwinds and not being able to drink, I realized I had to stop.

I was nowhere near Ptarmigan Pass, where my chances of finding a spot protected from the wind were higher, and with no trees in sight, I decided to stop and set up a bivy right next to a bush. But there’s a fundamental problem with tents, poles, and windstorms, and you can guess what happened: the poles snapped. The tent flipped sideways, and I couldn’t care less—crawled in anyway. Got my pad, got my bag, and… not a single second of sleep. I mean, who would be able to do so when you have 40 mph winds ripping through?

Missy and her riding companion pass by: “Is everything ok?”.

In my head I say, “I’m laying in my tent sideways next to a bush. I can’t sleep and now I have to pack all this crap in this wind. Nothing is ok!”, but my reply was a sheepish “yep, I’m good!”.

I decided to keep going—with 2 people ahead of me, maybe I’d be able to see the trail. Except for the fact that it took me a considerable amount of time to pack up because of, you know, high winds. By the time I got moving, their tracks were gone.

I get to Ptarmigan Pass as the sun is going down, it is the only photo of “Rainy Pass” that I took. It was about to get dark, colder, windier, with even less visibility. I lost track of the trail numerous times. I couldn’t drink water and was greatly suffering from my Shell Lake mistake.

Every time I looked at the GPS thinking “maybe you only have a mile left”, my soul was crushed, realizing there were at least 4 more to get to the top. After sunset, I lost track of the trail and kept pinballing from one side of the pass to another. Given the descent is into a gorge, you definitely want to be on the correct side.

For the first time, the low got really low. 

A squall hit and I couldn’t see anything. Oddly enough, I never felt scared. We often fear the unknown, but at that moment, I realized there was no unknown. I knew I had to keep moving because stopping could mean death—and I had made peace with that. So I pushed, oftentimes reminding myself to trust my struggle, thinking of my family, and pleading to have the strength to keep pushing. I thought a lot about Jessie doing this on her own the night before, under most likely similar conditions, and all the people who go through adversity no matter how hard the hard gets.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

Around 8 pm, believing to be completely lost, I lifted my head up and the headlamp reflected something shiny about a quarter of a mile to my left. I make my way toward it and let out a sigh of relief: it’s the famous “Rainy Pass” sign. The rite of passage, where everyone proudly takes a photo, displaying their strength for conquering that mountain. All I wanted was a downhill and a break from the push, so I didn’t stop for a photo (I also believe my phone was dead from the cold anyway).

As I make my way toward the Dalzell Gorge, another squall hit, blowing away my removable (faux) fur ruff and my down hood (which is a modular part of my sleep system). I dropped the bike and ran after them, but you can’t compete against 60 mph.

Not having a ruff meant not having a microclimate around my face. From now on, I’d need to be very careful to not get frostbite (spoiler: I still got frostnip).

The “most fun on a fatbike at Dalzell” never came to me—there was still a considerable amount of wind ripping through the gorge, the trail was incredibly soft and being dehydrated took a lot of my energy away. I pushed the bike until midnight (17 hours of pushing), and set another bivy, mostly so I could lay on my back and thaw the camelbak hose.

Stephanie and Becca passed and both asked if I was ok. The camaraderie on the trail is truly exceptional. I didn’t stay long—maybe an hour. I couldn’t warm up and the thought of being just 10 miles away from Rohn made me get up and go. My nose was perpetually cold, so I stuck a toe warmer to it (spoiler alert: it was frostnip creeping on the spots that weren’t taped)

I would love to have seen (and ridden) the gorge in daylight. Ice bridges galore, swoopy, flowy single track between two towering rock walls. From the little I could see, it seemed epic. I was able to ride for about 3 miles until dropping into the Tatina River.

Nat Hab's Mayella Krause Bikes the Iditarod: Tackling the World's Toughest Race

One piece of advice I got a little too late was that you don’t want to be on the Tatina at night. Especially alone, like I did. While many river sections are covered with snow and you can tell you’re traveling on a river only because a map says so, the Tatina was glare ice. It was also thin ice. And, like most river riding, it was exposed with winds ripping through—this is under normal circumstances. Remember, we were in the midst of a windstorm that lasted three days and brought frequent squalls.

The moment I got on the ice, another squall hit. I could barely see anything ahead of me and struggled to stay upright. My tires were studded, and I used the bike as a way to get traction and move forward. There wasn’t a trail, and once again, I found myself bouncing like a pinball from one side of the river to another, blindly searching for any signs of a path—scratches on the ice, marks from snowmobiles, anything that could remotely indicate that I was standing on relatively safe ground.

My headlamp started dimming, which meant the batteries were dying. I heard the ice crack beneath me, and once again, I made peace with the fact I might die. While slowly tracking back, hoping for the ice not to fully break, I started expressing how thankful I was for the life I had so far, sent a lot of love to my family, and thanked all of our ancestors who paved the way for us to be there. And I kept moving slowly. The only way out was through.

This nightmare lasted two hours (I checked Trackleaders), when I finally saw reflectors on the trees and a way out of the river, onto land. I missed a turn and stayed on the Tatina much longer than I should have, approaching the checkpoint through its exit.

I arrived at Rohn at 4 am, 23 hours after leaving Puntilla, 21 hours of pushing the bike. Dehydrated, exhausted and born again.

How will Maya’s journey end? Part 2 coming soon!