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A Thousand Miles of Snow


John Logar competing in Iditarod Trail Invitational

A Thousand Miles of Snow

Written by Benyamin Cohen
Photographs provided by John Logar

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To get from Tucker County, W.Va., to Nome, Alaska, you’ll need a plane ticket and lots of time. First, there’s a drive to Pittsburgh, then a flight to Chicago, then Anchorage and on to Kotzebue, “the gateway to the Arctic.” Finally, you’ll hop into a small propeller plane for the last leg to Nome, one of the northwesternmost places in the U.S.

And that’s the easy way. You could, like John Logar, decide to ride your bike the final 1,000 miles of that journey.

Forty-four-year-old Logar, MD ’01, spent 19 days during the winter of 2019 riding his Salsa Mukluk titanium bicycle from Anchorage to Nome in single-digit weather, through wet and treacherous snow. “Every condition imaginable,” he explains. “Soft, hard, frozen, fluffy. It's everything.”

He was competing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the bicycle version of the famous dog-sled race, a path forged more than a century ago by miners searching for gold. The dog-mushers of yesteryear made the trail legendary during a blizzard in 1925 when they carried a life-saving serum to stop a diphtheria outbreak in Nome. Which makes it fitting that Logar, an emergency room doctor in Elkins, W.Va., would follow their path.

“One goes out into the wilderness … to be off the map of one’s daily life, to a place where one is nobody, one is nowhere, and where one has the feeling of being most alive.” – Tim Sultan, “Sunny’s Nights”

This journey is familiar to Logar. He had been to the Iditarod Trail Invitational before in 2014 and placed first, traveling the 1,000 miles on foot for nearly 24 days.

What leads a man to travel across the hemisphere and ride a bicycle in Nome’s frigid winter, where the average high in January is 13 degrees? Like Alaskan trekkers before him, it might be the existential search for solitude. Whether in the frozen wastes or the digital frontier, Logar – he has virtually no online presence – is a very private person. It could be a sense of accomplishment. Or the age-old man vs. nature challenge. “I’m riding a thousand miles across Alaska,” he says. “I’m mission driven.”

Logar’s next revelation is unexpected: “I do not have a training plan, or a regimen,” he says. “I’m active, but I don’t train.” Sometimes, back home in the mountains of Appalachia, he goes for a half hour run, or a quick bike ride. “Depends,” he says, nonchalantly.

John Logar competing in Iditarod Trail Invitational
Logar points to Nome

During the grueling race, he rides most of the 20-hour day, only getting three to four hours of rest each night. He sleeps on the ground, staring up at the incandescent Northern Lights above.

Twice a week, he arrives in another tiny village, like the mythical yeti emerging from nature. He stocks up on 10,000 calories of food – trail mix, beef jerky and anything instant – and straps the supplies to his bike.

In Alaska, caribou outnumber people, and Logar could go days without seeing another person, which is just fine with him. He cuts himself off from all technology during the entire three weeks of riding seeking to avoid any distraction.

Logar may not have a Facebook profile, but word of his journey spread quickly on social media through the tight-knit community of WVU alumni. When Kylea Goff received a text on her phone, the 2010 graduate of WVU’s School of Pharmacy was at work at a hospital in Nome. A former professor was messaging her about Logar, who was about to complete the race in downtown Nome.

“I ran home, I got the WVU flag and then ran down to the finish line,” Goff says of that March evening.

After 19 days, 3 hours and 56 minutes, Logar and fellow rider Petr Ineman crossed the finish line ahead of the eight other people – including two on foot – who completed the trip within 30 days.

And Goff scurried up to both of them. “The first words out of my mouth are, ‘Do you guys need a place to stay?’” she recalls. “Nome is a very welcoming community. I've never met them before, but he’s from West Virginia. It’s what we do here.”

Logar was shocked. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I looked at the guy I was riding with and it was like, ‘A lot more people are going to know about this now.’”

Logar is happy that his journey is a point of pride for the Mountain State. “I am continuously humbled by the support I get from the people in the community,” he says. “Because in my mind, it's not that big of a deal, but I get it. I know that it's not normal. And it's pretty damn cool.”

Logar says he will skip the race in 2020, looking to try again the following year. Asked what the toughest part of the whole ordeal is, he is quick with an answer. “Leaving to go do it.” He pauses. “But once I go, I go.”