Winning the Iditarod with a Broken Ankle: Thoughts from Jay Petervary

This past February, Jay Petervary crushed the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile fat bike endurance saga that takes place within Alaska’s brutal and frozen terrain. He did so on a broken ankle and zero sleep. This month’s issue of Switchback Magazine features a behind-the-scenes look at his journey. Here we caught up with Petervary for the finer points of his personal brand of endurance racing.

I went into that event knowing I wasn’t going to sleep. That was something I decided beforehand. I felt my fitness was slightly back from the rest of the clan. These are chess games to me. Certainly it’s a ride, but it becomes a game and the moves you make are going to affect your outcome.

I’ve had my moments of falling asleep and falling over. But to me that’s not broken; that’s just getting through some hard times. I’ve pushed myself before to exhaustion to where I’ve felt like my heart’s coming out of my chest, and that happened once, and hopefully I’ll never do it again. I learned a lot from that.

I definitely had two phases of falling asleep on my bike and trying to figure out how to shake it off. Sometimes that happens and it feels like it’s lasting for hours, but you never really remember to look at your watch. A lot of times it’s only ten minutes. It’s just a really hard time. You’re weaving back and forth on your bike. You find yourself pushing your bike, and then you’re like, “Well, wait a minute. What am I doing? I should be riding.”

That’s the question: Is there a trail over Rainy Pass? It’s the crux of the race in front of you. At this point, is it a resting point or do you tackle the next section? You want to do it all in one go, you don’t want to get stuck on Rainy Pass and try and bivouac. It’s mountain weather, could be super windy, snowy and so forth. Typically you’re not going to get away from that thing in less than 15 hours. And I’ve been out there for as long as 30 hours. This time was eight hours – the fastest, craziest riding of that section I’ve ever had.

And then the sleep monster catches me. I’m weaving, going into pushing mode with a super firm trail. I’m in that state of mind…I tripped as a kid, I took drugs, I know what that shit is like, and sometimes that’s what sleep deprivation feels like. It’s an unreality reality. You’re not sure how to catch up with it, you’re not sure of time. Then all of sudden, boom: “Jay! What the hell are you doing? Realize where you’re at: only 50 miles from the finish! You’ve been out here for this long. How bad do you want it?”

I’m 40 years old. I’ve been doing this stuff for 18 years. It’s more of a mental game. I’m super curious about that. How can I be more efficient? How can I move along faster? How can I make myself feel better?

It’s a clear sky. The trail is beautiful. One of those nights where you don’t need a headlamp: ambient light with snow reflecting from the moon. It was just sick. The nights I love out there. And you can see forever out there because it’s a big open meandering river.

I broke my ankle on February 1st. The event started on February 28th. I broke it skiing. I knew it. I heard it snap… I go home, take the air cast off and wrap it up myself and continue to ride my bike, like I do. I immediately started doing electrotherapy on it one to two times a day, took a bunch of supplements.

When someone says, “No you can’t do that, you have a broken ankle.” I ignore that.

I tend not to use the words “pain” or “hurt”. Just – some things are uncomfortable.

Interview by Bryan Schatz