Sadler’s Alaska Challenge is a 267-mile race from Fairbanks to Anchorage that is considered to be the Tour de France of wheelchair and hand cycle events. It is called “The Longest and Toughest Hand Cycle Race in the World,” and attracts athletes who are some of the biggest names in the sport, including Paralympic medalists and Boston Marathon champions.
The race came from Don Brandon’s vision of a wheelchair endurance run between Fairbank sand Anchorage. Brandon dreamed up the Midnight Sun Wheelchair Marathon in 1984, and said that he chose the 365-mile route between the two cities, going over the long and grinding grades of the Tanana Hills and over Broad Pass in the Alaska Range, because he knew everyone would say it was impossible. That first year, 1984, Brandon could find only one other athlete willing to make the attempt with him. Both completed the grueling route in standard wheelchairs.
Over the years the race has evolved into a 267-mile event run in eight stages over six days. What began with participants in standard wheelchairs just trying to finish has progressed to experienced racers in streamlined chairs and is now dominated by hand cyclists. The first year hand cyclists were involved they participated as an exhibition, with racers driving homemade experimental machines. Today hand cyclists dominate the race and speeds have increased dramatically. It now runs every other year and offers $25,000 in prize money.
The race usually involves 30 to 35 participants from around the world. Alaska participants have become the minority, although Larry Coutermarsh from Fairbanks is approaching his 30th time taking part. They all come with compelling stories. Coutermarsh was an Army Ranger injured in 1983. He entered his first race in 1985 in a standard wheelchair. German Peer Bartels is a two-time winner and five-time finisher in the hand cycle division. He was injured in 1990 in a desert motorcycle race in Egypt. Jean Driscoll was born with spina bifida. They are now some of the fittest athletes in the world with upper bodies like stone.
As the event has turned into a stage race there have been some deviations from the original route that have created additional challenges, including big climbs and individual time trials,taking participants all over the state. One new stage is a 30-mile push from Sutton to Hatcher Pass that gains 3,500 feet in the last 15 miles. Hand cycles have gears like bikes, so for those participants the climbs in the Alaska race are much like the mountain stages of the Tour de France, but the wheelchair racers have no such advantage. Participant Tony Iniguez said “it would be like asking Lance Armstrong to climb in whatever gear he was using in the flats.”
Sadler’s Alaska Challenge is sponsored by Challenge Alaska, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities and helping them to “break down the barriers that may exist for them in many aspects of life.” They were established in 1980.
The race typically takes anywhere from 10 to 24 hours total riding time to complete. Wheelchair racers formerly took over 30 hours to travel the full 365-miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The new, shorter course has the top hand cyclists finishing in just under 11 hours. Those at the back of the pack may take over 24.
Tentative race dates for Alaska’s 2015 version of the Tour de France for hand cycles and wheelchairs is July 13-19. At this time the plan is for only 20 racers to be accepted.
By Beth A. Balen
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