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Ogden man finds running Iditarod a unique, rewarding challenge

OGDEN — Eric Johnson can’t really put into words what compelled him to run a thousand miles of the Iditarod course in Alaska last month.

“Why do I want to do a race like this? It’s a very difficult question to answer because it’s very difficult to explain why someone would want to do it,” said the Ogden father of three. “I mean, it’s 37 miles a day, pulling a 50-pound sled. I still don’t have all the feeling back in my toes.”

The Iditarod is an annual long-distance sled dog race from Settler’s Bay to Nome each March. This year’s record-breaking time of eight days, 11 hours and 20 minutes was set by 29-year-old Dallas Seavey. But a week before the mushers take to the historic trail, runners, bikers and skiers can try their hand at navigating the route through the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Born in Virginia, Johnson, a physician’s assistant at Ogden Clinic, moved to Utah when he was 12. He ran in junior high and high school, but it was running the Wasatch 100 that began his journey into finding events that were far more than just a test of one’s running ability.

“It was a really super small group of people,” he said. “It was jump in — sink or swim. It was really painful.”

It took him 35 hours so he decided to try it again to see if he could go a little faster.

“I’ve done it 10 more times,” he laughed. He’s run 56 100-mile races, and in 2014 he ran all of the 100-mile races in Utah (seven of them).

“It was just amazing,” he said. “It was magic.” But after running the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, he found a new aspect of the ultra experience that paved the way for his adventures in Alaska.

“My true love is arctic running,” he said. “There are no distractions. It’s for me, just a little bit more pure experience. I don’t want pacers; I don’t want a crew. I won the Arrowhead in 2009 and I was the first person in and there was nobody there. They were all in the hotel staying warm.”

He said it’s the unplanned challenges that intrigue him most.

“It’s a little different style,” he said. “Much different from the norm. Most people want to have someone to talk to on the trail. I want to be inside my own head.”

One of the options offered by the Iditarod Trail Invitational is to run the first 350 miles, ending at McGrath, village on the Kuskokwim River with a population of about 400 people.

“We finished at some guy’s house,” he said. “When I finished the 350, this will sound crazy, but I thought, I’m not really that tired, not really that sore. I’m fine.”

So he signed up for the entire Iditarod course. This year there were six people who signed up to do it, and remarkably, five of them finished — the last on March 29.

The runners take a sled full of survival gear, and the race organizers offer very little guidance as to what equipment one might need because, well, that’s part of the experience.

“Sometimes when you offer too much support, you cheat the true adventurer out of a big part of why they are on the trail,” wrote Bill Merchant in paraphrasing Joe May on the event’s website. “They come to race, to confront and hopefully overcome whatever is thrown in their way. To solve problems for them diminishes the experience.” That is exactly the race philosophy that intrigued Johnson, who spent 500 of the 1,000 miles alone.

He said meeting the villagers and interacting with the mushers is part of the experience that makes it so magical.

He described the wet and frigid temperatures, as well as how he found focusing on that task for 26 days a welcome challenge.

“It’s just very difficult,” he said. “(The weather) creates obstacles that are difficult to anticipate. If it’s warm or a little colder, it doesn’t matter. Either way, there are going to be obstacles that come up that you have to figure out and overcome.”

While there are endless physical and mental challenges, there are also the rewards of the race — the solitude, the beauty, the experiences, and of course, the friendships.

“To me, the trail is all about the amazing people,” he said. And when he ponders a little more on that question, he said he still can’t quite put into words what it draws him to cold-weather ultra running.

“You just do it because you want to,” he said laughing a little. “Ultimately that’s the reason anybody does anything.”


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