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'Just keep going forward': Winnipeg man conquers Alaskan ultra-marathon

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Three days, 20 hours and 59 minutes.

That’s how long it took Winnipeg’s Daniel Perry to bike 350 miles through Alaska last week.

“We were all following the tradition Iditarod Trail, which has been around for a very long time as a route for getting supplies and medication out from Anchorage to the west side of Alaska,” Perry told CTV News Sunday.

Perry was taking part in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, described as the “world’s longest running winter ultra-marathon.” Participants cycle, ski, or run across the frozen tundra in sub-zero temperatures. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is broken into two categories – the 350-mile trek, which Perry completed, and a 1,000-mile feat. He was one of 65 or so racers in the 350-mile event.

He was the only Manitoban competing and one of only a few Canadians entered.

Perry said he’s been cycling most of his life, though his time on two wheels scaled back after moving to Winnipeg a decade ago. He is originally from Indiana, but made the jump across the border when he joined the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO). He presently sits as assistant prinicipal bassist with the WSO.

“I had just been focusing on playing and working, but needed a hobby to get me back outside,” Perry said. “So, I got back into riding, and I was determined to just keep going through the winter.”

The plunge into winter riding led Perry to meet like-minded cyclists. Eventually, he competed in his first racing event – Manitoba’s own Actif Epica.

“They bussed us down to Emerson at the border, and we followed the Crow Wing Trail back to The Forks. It took me all of 24 hours to do it.”

Following that race, Perry was hooked and decided to buy a fat bike. The wide tires provide better grip and stability on snow and other challenging terrains. He started training on the snow-covered monkey trails in Whittier Park and other pathways around Winnipeg.

“It just kind of snowballed from there – pun intended.”

Last year, Perry finished first at the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in Wisconsin. The win earned him free entry into the Iditarod Trail Invitational. He said getting ready to compete in the 350-mile race required a lot of preparation.His research included learning how to sleep outside, how to manage cold and moisture, and how to stay nourished and hydrated.

“Things like how to keep your water from freezing, making sure you’re eating enough calories, and what kind of stuff is going to be edible when it’s cold out.”

Perry said figuring out the logistics ahead of time is half the battle, but well worth it.

“Then, to actually be in [the race], there’s such a singular purpose of just keep going forward,” he said. “Everything just kind of simplifies, and there’s something really meditative about doing that in such a beautiful environment and being surrounded by other people who are also in that mindset.”

The Iditarod Trail Invitational kicked off on Feb. 25 in Knik Lake, about an hour from Anchorage. The race moves northwest through Alaska ending in a small community called McGrath.

“Every day, I would just kind of assess what I was capable of and see how far I could go,” Perry explained. “From before sunrise to after sunset – trying to make it to the next checkpoint along the route.”

Each day, Perry pedalled and, at times, pushed his fat bike through the unforgiving landscape. And at every checkpoint, Perry slept in a tent or lodge before hitting the trail once again.

Heading into the final leg, Perry saw an opportunity to make up some ground.

“I was able to ride some sections where I could see the tracks of other people had to get off and push their bikes,” he explained.

He caught up to the pack of racers in front of him and saw the long stretch ahead to the finish line. But the relatively flat and cold landscape made him think of one thing – home.

“This is my usual riding environment back in Manitoba!”

Perry settled in for a quick nap before he headed back out at around 3:30 in the morning when temperatures were hovering around -45 C.

“But all in all, I had a really magical time in that last stretch.”

He described watching the sunrise over the Alaskan tundra as he pedalled beside wolf tracks along the river – nearing the end of this once-in-a-lifetime journey.

“I just started thinking about all the people who helped me get here,” Perry explained. “And all the collective effort and support that goes into it.”

When Daniel Perry crossed the finish line at just under the 93-hour mark, he learned he finished fourth overall in the 350-mile event.

“Leading up to this, I had no expectation for any sort of placement,” Perry explained. “I just wanted to be able to go through the route and just really enjoy it, meet people, and see the sights. You know, just have a really good experience and make it out in one piece.”

And aside from a frostbitten nose and numb fingertips, Perry came out of the race relatively unscathed.

Perry hopes to compete in the Iditarod Trail Invitational again, and maybe even tackle the 1,000-mile race. However, he said the time and financial commitment is immense, and credits a crowdsourcing fundraiser for helping get him to Alaska this time around.

“Now that I’ve gotten a little bit of a taste of Alaska, I would really love to say that I’ll back here, but we’ll just have to see.”

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