LEWISTON – Austin Hansen had never run more than 5 kilometers when he signed up for his first Iron Man race. Same with his first marathon.
But he took quickly to distance running. There was something compelling about overcoming discomfort and pain. There was a draw to the unending potential for improvement and how he could apply that to other aspects of his life.
“I was terrible at first, but I found a joy in it,” said the 26-year-old former resident of Clarkston who now lives in Florida with his wife where he is studying for medical school entrance exams.
Within a few months of returning in 2016 from a mission to the Philippines for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he had ticked off marathons in back-to-back weeks and completed that Iron Man.
“I was hooked,” he said.
Six months later, the 2013 Clarkston High School graduate and former football player was in Alaska, pulling a sled over snow-covered terrain while competing in the Susitna 100, an ultramarathon race set in the harshest of conditions.
That was 2017. On March 10, Hansen was crossing the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 after nine days, 21 hours and 44 minutes on a frozen route that covers some of the same ground at the same time as the famous sled dog race.
Hansen was both musher and sled dog, willing himself to pull a 50-pound sled loaded with food, water and cold weather camping gear. The 350-mile race is open to bikers, skiers and runners, but competitors have to secure an invitation to test themselves against the Alaska winter. To do that, they must first complete at least two winter 100-mile ultras.
Fast run down a long road
Hansen sprinted into the sport of long-distance running. While still a novice to the discipline, he was competing nearly monthly in marathons and seeking new challenges. That is when he learned about the ultra races – anything longer than 26.2 miles. But the grueling events were prohibitively expensive for a college student. Then someone told him about winter ultras.
“They are a lot cheaper and a crazy adventure,” Hansen said.
With no experience, he entered the Susitna 100, flew to Alaska and headed straight to Walmart to purchase items on a long list of mandatory survival gear.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said.
At the start line, he was decked out in cotton sweats, tennis shoes and pulling a 120-pound sled.
“Everyone is looking at me like, ‘Who is this amateur?’ ” he said.
He ticked off the first 40 miles without incident. Somewhere between mile 42 and 45 he hit a wall. It was the middle of the night and he was near collapse.
“I just pray I’m going to survive this race,” Hansen said. “Lucky the first-place guy comes busting up from behind.”
The pacesetter had gone off course and was moving fast to make up time. But he stopped to check on Hansen, gave him some water and assured him he was nearly at the first checkpoint.
Hansen pushed on, made it to the checkpoint, ate and was feeling good when he returned to the trail. But he pulled the plug at the final checkpoint, 63 miles in. Had he gone on, he would have missed his flight back home.
“I had only planned two days to complete the race, that is how much I didn’t know,” he said.
Failing to complete the race drove him. He returned the next year and finished in eighth place.
“I fell in love with these winter races,” Hansen said.
Soon he qualified for the ITI 350 and was back in Alaska. He planned to use a slow-and-steady strategy. If he covered about 4 miles per hour, he would have no problem finishing within the mandatory 10-day window.
“I was in no rush as a newbie, as a rookie. I was in the mindset of, ‘Keep moving and enjoy the experience.’ ”
For the most part, the conditions were great with clear skies and temperatures above zero. But one of the two days of bad weather hit hard and early. It was the second day, snowing heavily with fog and poor visibility. Even with snowshoes he sunk deep, post-holing with every step. He was tired and frustrated.
“How am I going to finish this race?” he thought at about 2 a.m. while on the frozen Susitna River.
He looked behind him and saw the light of another runner, an emergency room doctor from San Diego. The pair decided to camp together. The doc fell asleep, but Hansen forgot to unpack his sleeping mat and shivered in the shared tent. In the morning, the doc hit the trail early, but handed Hansen his pad. The thin layer of insulation provided enough comfort for him to nab an hourlong nap.
“After that, I was golden and it started clearing up and I was, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ ”
He went on to spend more time on the trail with the doctor and a former Navy man also from San Diego.
He enjoys the other competitors but also the time alone.
“It’s a really tight-knit community and I really enjoy that,” he said. “It’s more about enjoying nature and surviving and really pushing yourself to the limits.”
The roller coaster of emotions is also a draw.
“It’s high highs and low lows. You just have to find a way to push forward.”
That trail taught him a trick, a sort of life hack: Look for ways to make the monotonous interesting.
“Find a way to make it a game with your mind,” he said. “If you can do that – success.”
If invited, Hansen said, he will compete in the ITI 1000 next winter and hopes medical school in the fall of 2022 forces a hiatus on the “crazy adventure” of winter ultras.
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