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Homer athlete overcomes challenges to win Ski Ultramarathon

Jaclyn Arndt poses at Rainy Pass, about 107 miles from the race's start at Knik Lake.
Christof Teuscher
Jaclyn Arndt
Jaclyn Arndt poses at Rainy Pass, about 107 miles from the race's start at Knik Lake.

Jaclyn Arndt is 31 years old and works for the Homer Fire Department as a firefighter and EMT. But her new passion is ultra-marathon racing. Earlier this month, she became the first female skier to finish the Iditarod Trail Invitational (or ITI), a 350-mile course from Knik Lake to McGrath. It’s pretty impressive considering she just started marathon racing within the last two years.

“Before I never ran more than six miles,” she said. “But I did my first marathon in the triathlon last year.”

The triathlon she referenced was the Iron Man triathlon, which is widely considered one of the most challenging sporting events in the world. Iron Man athletes swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon.

For Arndt’s most recent race, the ITI, participants choose to run, bike, or ski. It's a winter course— the same one used for the Iron Dog snowmobile race and the Iditarod sled dog race. ITI participants can also opt to travel the full 1000 miles to Nome, although no skiers have completed that course to date. Of the approximately 100 participants about 10 percent will scratch. This year there were only 6 skiers in the race to McGrath. Most people (about 70 percent) ride fat bikes.

Arndt was surprised at how few skiers compete.

“Everyone's like, ‘skiing for some reasons is really hard,’ which I thought was odd, because it's a winter race,” she said. “But the conditions just aren't very friendly to skiers.”

Temperatures during the race can fluctuate widely. In recent years, temperatures during the race have ranged from above freezing to dipping just below minus 40-degree Fahrenheit. Each racer is responsible for their food and equipment. They are only required to pack two items: a face mask to wear at checkpoints, and a tracking device, which they must wear at all times. As a rookie, Arndt thinks she over-packed.

“The quote is, 'I packed my fears' because I think my sled was about 60-65 pounds, which for most of the rookies was definitely on the heavier side,” she said. “But I had about 16 pounds of food. And then I had a bunch of cold weather gear that I had acquired. You know, I had a stove. Most people don't pack a tent just because it's heavier. And usually with the condensation, it can freeze and it takes time to set up. So I just had a 40 below sleeping bag that I slept in, just on a pad.”

Arndt said one of the hardest parts of the trail was skiing on frozen rivers, but her “fish scale” (waxless) metal-edged skis helped traverse the glare ice. She had other challenges as well. On the second day of the race she lost a boot insole and used toilet paper for makeshift padding. At one point the bindings on her skis froze. Then she also almost lost her gear on a steep ravine.

“I went around a corner, my sled just took a wide turn and caught a stump and kind of threw me backwards. And it was kind of by a ravine,” she said.

“So my sled went kind of over. And then I also kind of got flung over and then I couldn't get up no matter how I was trying and I couldn't take off my skis. So I laid there for like, it was like a half hour 45 minutes waiting for someone and no one came and it started getting darker.”

And her solution was to take off her skis and trudge through the snow in her socks, for about 3 miles.

“I took my boots off and my skis because they wouldn't disconnect and put them in my sled and just walked in all my layers of socks that I had,” said Arndt.

Arndt went on to complete the 350 mile course. It took her 7 days and twenty hours. The all-time course record for skiing is a little over 7 days. As a rookie, she believes next year she can finish in less time- and she has her sights on breaking the record.

Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, Desiree has called Alaska ‘home’ for almost two decades. Her involvement in radio began over 10 years, first as a volunteer DJ at KBBI, later as a host and producer, and now in her current role as a reporter. Her passions include stories relating to agriculture, food systems and rural issues. In her spare time, she can often be found riding her bicycle, creating art from handmade paper, or working in the garden.