ANCHORAGE — Freezing temperatures, and even frostbite, couldn’t stop a local doctor on an Alaskan trail. But a foot injury did.
Dr. Jan Kriska set out Feb. 19 to travel the Iditarod Trail, which spans about 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome, on foot, pulling everything he needed to survive behind him on a sled. Two and a half weeks later, he was forced to withdraw with an ulcer on his foot.
He ended up making it to Ruby, a distance of about 600 miles with some re-routing of the course which had to be done. He grudgingly conceded on March 8.
Kriska isn’t new to long races on foot in arctic conditions. He has been running in similar, though not quite as lengthy, races since 2009, and he shattered the course record when he won a 300-mile race in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 2016.
“Some years its just not going to happen,” said Kriska. “The weather has been kinder the past five or six years, but we got the full Alaska winter (this year).”
He explained many circumstances, including some nasty conditions, played into his coming up short. The Iditarod dog race was supposed to travel the route those on foot traveled. However, the dog race was shifted to the race’s northern route, which travels from Fairbanks to Nome.
Instead, a snowmobile race had run Kriska’s route, but had done more bad than good to the surface, according to the doctor.
“The trail was not prepped,” said Kriska, explaining that months of preparation such as building snow bridges goes into prepping the dog sled course. Additionally, the dog sleds pack the snow, making the trail easier to tackle on foot.
He said what began with plans of navigating the course in record time became a “survival trip.” As time passed, he ended up without a way to light matches and without his hiking stove. At one point he hunkered down in a remote cabin and accidentally touched his cold fingers to the stove, worsening his frostbite.
He had walked 26 hours without a break to make it to those cabins.
The doctor had no way to dry out his boots on a daily basis, and he said he believes the pressure from the straps on his snow shoes contributed to the ulcer on his foot.
He started out traversing up to 50 miles each day, but — between the deep, soft snow and the sore foot — he said one day he walked for 16 hours and only managed to make it 15 miles.
In one effort that he called “a last resort,” Kriska took a day to push the last 45 miles to Ruby. Once there, he would have linked into the trail the dog sleds had used and could have hopped on the “highway” to Nome.
“I looked at the damage I had done, and I came to the sobering decision it was time to call it quits,” explained Kriska.
Kriska said it may not have been the year to complete the course, but he’s proud of what he did. Of the field against which he competed, only he and one other competitor made it to Ruby, where they both called it quits. A race which started two weeks later had a field of 65 competitors. Not a single one was able to make it beyond Ruby.
Kriska actually won the 350-mile version of the race.
It may not be the doctor’s last attempt at tackling the Iditarod Trail, however. Another year with better conditions could make for a different outcome.
“I’m the kind of person who it would eat alive if I didn’t try it again,” said Kriska.
Kriska headed to the trail with a purpose, hoping to raise awareness for Women Orthopaedist Global Outreach, a group with which he has done work in the past.
Kriska said about $3,000 had been raised as a result of his expedition, and he hopes to do some speaking events to raise some additional funds for the group, which travels around the world performing orthopedic operations such as knee replacements in countries without the level of care available in the United States.