Alaska Firefighter-EMT conquers the elements to win extreme race
Jaclyn Arndt of the Homer Volunteer Fire Department pushed herself to compete in “one of the most challenging experiences on the planet”
Born and raised in Homer, Alaska, Jaclyn Arndt began volunteering as a firefighter and EMT for the Homer Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) in 2013.
She was hired full time in 2016 and enjoys serving her hometown community.
“I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter …,” Jaclyn says. “When I moved back to Homer, I went into the station when the ‘Recruiting Volunteers’ sign was up.” She was concerned that she’d have to have the proper certifications in advance, but that wasn’t the case. HVFD does the majority of their training in house.
This fall will mark the 31-year-old’s ninth year with HVFD, a combination department with eight full-time staff and more than 35 volunteers, running approximately 700 calls a year. Jaclyn is one of four full-time staff members who work on a 24-hour shift schedule. Her favorite part of the job is public education and the opportunity to educate people of all ages.
“I love what I do and I’m thankful I can do just that,” she says.
But beyond the thrills of fighting fire and the pride in serving her community, Jaclyn sought to push herself to conquer new challenges.
From IRONMAN to ITI 350
Jaclyn’s venture into triathlons and ultra-racing began with a goal she set in high school to complete an IRONMAN by the time she was 30. In 2019, with her 30th birthday on the horizon, Jaclyn registered for the 2020 IRONMAN Wisconsin. Due to COVID-19, the race was pushed from September 2020 to September 2021, and her one year of training turned into two.
Jaclyn was new to long-distance racing and had never run more than 6 miles prior to beginning her IRONMAN training. Yet, despite her lack of experience, she completed the triathlon and finished an impressive 33rd in her age group and placing 747th out of 1,748 athletes.
Soon after competing in her first triathlon, Jaclyn registered for her second endurance race – the 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) 350. A friend had sent her the 2019 documentary “Safety to Nome” about the world’s longest-running winter ultra-marathon, the Iditarod Trail Invitational, thinking it would interest her. And it did – she was “instantly hooked.”
Jaclyn knew she needed to ramp up her workout to compete in the grueling ultra-marathon, so she began to train outside. She often walked the 2 miles from her house to HVFD in snowshoes, carrying a 40-pound backpack as she traversed the town’s unplowed sidewalks. She also incorporated strength training into her regimen and spent time in the wilderness to test her gear and build endurance.
Jaclyn notes that her time as a firefighter and EMT definitely helped her to train for and complete the ITI 350. “Being quick on my feet and being able to adapt to my environment” were job skills she found useful on the course, adding, “you can train all you want, but when you are out there, nothing is straight out of the book …you have to be flexible.”
Knots were another job skill that came in handy on the trail, particularly when Jaclyn had to tie her skis onto her sled. “I had not even thought about having to do that during training,” she says.
While Jaclyn felt prepared for injuries due to her EMT training, she still found the extreme cold and remoteness of the course to be daunting. She admits she was always thinking of where she would set up an emergency shelter if necessary due to weather or injury. But she also knew that the racers have each other’s backs.
“It’s not cut throat,” Jaclyn recounts. “Two racers going to Nome stayed put for over a day making sure a fellow racer with severe frostbite on his hands got a ride out for medical treatment.”
No race for wimps
The ITI – labeled “one of the most challenging experiences on the planet” – is not a race for the faint of heart. Participants receive minimal support and, for the large part, must carry their own supplies and gear.
The race – which can be completed on bike, on foot or on skis – follows the historic Iditarod National Historic Trail, the location of the famed long-distance sled dog race held every March. The ITI 350 gives participants a maximum of 10 days and nights to finish the 350-mile journey from Knik Lake to McGrath, Alaska (see map).
The race passes through some of the most remote backcountry wilderness in North America, so participants must be willing to face extreme physical, mental and environmental challenges, like temperature changes ranging from -50 degrees F to 35 degrees F, gale force winds, rain, blizzards, waist-deep snow, mud, glare ice, and bright sunny skies – all in one day.
The ITI also features a 1,000-mile option, the ITI 1000, only attempted by the most experienced, rugged and intrepid competitors. This option extends the race beyond McGrath to Nome, Alaska, and is considered the world’s longest and toughest winter race.
Bike, foot or skis?
Before registering for the ITI, Jaclyn had to decide whether she would compete on bike, on foot (running) or on skis. Approximately 70% of participants bike the course, but she didn’t have any of the gear and the $4,000 cost of a low-end fat tire bike was not in her budget. Running the race didn’t appeal to her either – it was just too far! In the end, despite skiing being the least popular choice among participants, she felt most comfortable going that route because she had both the equipment and the experience.
Not many blogs or information existed about prior skiers’ experiences with the ITI 350, so Jaclyn tracked the skiers who participated in the 2021 ITI on the race’s app. Sunny Stroeer was the only female skier to race again this year, so Jaclyn reached out to her with questions. Although Sunny is a newer skier, she is an experienced mountaineer, so Jaclyn appreciated her fellow competitor sharing her knowledge and experience.
Keeping the load light
Racers have to pull their supplies and gear on a sled, so weight is obviously a critical factor. With this in mind, Jaclyn began the race carrying only 2 liters of water. Fortunately, the checkpoints had more water from melted snow than she expected, so she only had to find a creek twice to refill her supply.
Jaclyn packed approximately 4,500 calories for 9 days for an average of 2 pounds of food per day. To minimize her load, she took enough dehydrated meals to eat one per day, but she only ate one. She was so tired by day’s end that she didn’t want to wait for water to boil and sit for 10 minutes until her meal was ready. She says, “Time is precious out there.”
The gear Jaclyn is most grateful for packing includes a GPS, socks and a Shewee (a clever device that allows one to use the bathroom without exposure to the elements). The GPS and a pair of Sealskinz (waterproof socks) were last-minute purchases that ended up saving her during the race.
Jaclyn regrets that she did not send a bottle of lotion to the finish line because her face was extremely dry and chapped by the end of the race. She also wishes she would’ve had a stronger headlight because it was terrifying to ski downhill in the dark, especially at high speeds, without being able to see much of what was ahead of her.
Something Jaclyn could’ve brought less of is clothing. She admits to pretty much wearing the same layers for the entire race because the cold temperatures made it difficult to change clothes in the wilderness.
And they’re off …
Jaclyn recalls that once the race began, the participants quickly dispersed. She initially planned to travel with two other Homer residents with whom she had trained, but great ski conditions allowed her to push ahead. Jaclyn ended up being alone for about 90% of the race.
Each ITI participant receives a tracker, which is not a GPS but rather a way for race officials and family and friends to track each racer’s progress. In an emergency, Jaclyn could activate an SOS signal on the tracker or GPS, but race officials stress that racers are responsible for rescuing themselves.
#MapAs mentioned, Jaclyn only decided to purchase a GPS 24 hours before the start of the race and admits it was a lifesaver. She found crossing rivers to be disorienting because of the wind, and trail intersections were often a jumble of snowmachine tracks going in all directions.
Checkpoints, sleeping arrangements – and moose
The ITI 350 features six checkpoints, each approximately 25 to 100 miles apart, so racers are truly out there on their own. Most of the checkpoints are staffed by an ITI volunteer who stays there throughout the event. Two of the checkpoints are at lodges with local staff. The lodges usually have food for purchase, and racers can pay $20 to sleep in a bed for a few hours.
Sleeping was tricky and took Jaclyn a while to figure out. She admits, “I am a person [who] needs quite a bit of sleep, which is surprising considering my career choice.” On her first night, Jaclyn set a goal to stop at midnight and sleep for a bit. When she could not get to sleep, she continued to ski until she was physically exhausted, barely got her sleeping bag set up before passing out.
Jaclyn did not build a fire at all during the evenings and only used her stove for minimal cooking. Luckily, her gear – a -40 degree F sleeping bag and a pad – kept her comfortably warm each night. It helped that Jaclyn was also able to manage moisture throughout the day. She dressed in layers that she could add to or remove as temperatures changed and wore clothes that were breathable and moisture wicking. This allowed her to climb into her sleeping bag with her clothes on.
“I found that if I was comfortably cold, I was generally safe,” Jaclyn says. “I shouldn’t ever feel warm when moving … if you start sweating out there, it’s not good.”
In contrast to Jaclyn’s evenings, mornings were a bit rough. She found it difficult to emerge from her sleeping bag in the cold. Overall, though, it was a warm year in Alaska, so temperatures stayed in the single digits during the race. There were even some days that were warm enough that Jaclyn could travel in a T-shirt for a few hours.
Despite the milder weather, Alaska had a very heavy snowfall in early 2022, which can make moose quite aggressive. This can become a big problem on the trail because moose also use it to move to different food sources. This gave a whole new meaning to the oft-heard phrase “share the trail!”
Fortunately, Jaclyn only ran into one unhappy moose during the night of day two. She did not carry a gun or bear spray with her, so noticing some headlamps about one-quarter mile behind her, she waited to pass the moose with others.
Mishaps and misadventures
Jaclyn encountered more than one mishap during the race. Within the first few days, she broke both shoelaces on her ski boots and lost an insole. In true MacGyver fashion, she made shoelaces out of paracord and an insole out of toilet paper. Still, her feet did not come away unscathed. “My big toes are still partially numb due to being in my ski boots for so long,” she says.
While coming down off Rainy Pass, Jaclyn’s ski bindings froze. The trails were narrow, quite icy, and covered in moguls from the 2022 IRON DOG race the preceding week. As Jaclyn rounded a corner, her sled took a wide turn and got snagged on a tree stump, whipping her backward. Her sled then started sliding down a steep bank, and she was thrown off the trail onto her back.
Jaclyn couldn’t remove her harness for fear of losing her sled into the deep gorge, and the deep snow prevented her from getting any leverage with her poles. With her skis barely on the trail, she laid there for about 45 minutes, waiting in vain for help.
When it began to get dark, Jaclyn knew she had to figure something out. She was eventually able to maneuver her body back onto the trail, but she still had a problem – the trail was too narrow to snowplow, and she knew she would injure herself if she stayed on her skis.
Jaclyn took off her boots, which were frozen to her skis, and put on all four pairs of socks she brought with her and topped them with the Sealskinz. She then walked 3 to 4 miles to where the trail leveled out. Although no one passed her during those hours, “I felt ridiculous hauling my sled with my boots attached to my skis on top and walking in socks,” she recalls.
The other event that threw her off guard occurred early in the morning as Jaclyn was approaching Farewell Burn. The snow suddenly disappeared, so she had to walk more than 10 miles in her ski boots across frozen ground.
That same morning, things really turned entertaining on the glare ice over the lakes. With a tailwind of 30 mph, Jaclyn was blown across the ice at crazy speeds while she struggled to stay upright. Her sled got going so fast at times that it would swing around beside her and almost turn her around. Jaclyn’s watch clocked her speed at up to 14 mph.
Facing down adversity to cross the finish line
As one might suspect, Jaclyn confirmed the mental challenges were the most difficult part of the race. Waking up and traveling for 19 hours a day in all weather conditions was tough, as was traveling alone and not being 100% sure where the checkpoints were located.
Jaclyn recounts: “One night I was traveling, and I was sure I should have been at the checkpoint. I was so disheartened and irritated that I laid in the middle of the trail on the snow for 10 minutes. I finally got up and looked at my GPS, and I was literally 60 feet away from the lake where the checkpoint was.”
The athlete never considered quitting but admits there were times when she “just wanted to sleep for hours and not get up.” She originally thought the race would take her the full 10 days, but at the halfway point she got competitive and picked up her pace.
Jaclyn’s GPS died about a mile before the finish line as she was traversing a river. Because the bends in the river were disorienting, she could not find the exit to McGrath. At one point, she was convinced she was headed to Nome.
To avoid getting further off track, Jaclyn waited for an hour to see if anyone would come by, but no one did. Then she heard an airplane overhead. Knowing McGrath had an airstrip, she followed the plane, but ended up on the wrong side of town and had to ask for directions to the finish line.
“There was nothing easy about this race,” Jaclyn says. “I had my expectations for it to be difficult, and it exceeded that in every way.”
For Jaclyn, crossing the finish line was exhilarating. Despite having to carry her skis and drag her sled behind her, she was the first female skier to complete the race. Her time was 7 days, 20 hours and 45 minutes, making her the 2022 Women’s Ski Champion.
Jaclyn has already signed up for the 2023 ITI 350. “[The race] has a way of sucking you in,” she says.
Her goal for next year is to break the women’s ski record of 7 days and 1 hour. This means Jaclyn has to drop about 20 hours, but she’s optimistic. She now knows more about what to expect and plans to change up some of her gear.
“I’m sure it will be an entirely different race in many aspects,” she notes.
The fledging ultra-racer would also like to run a marathon next year and complete another IRONMAN in the next few years.
The ITI 1000 has never seen a male or female skier make it the 1,000 miles to Nome. And, admittedly, Jaclyn thrives on setting goals for herself and training to achieve them. Might this firefighter-EMT and ITI 350 Women’s Ski Champion be the first female skier to traverse the 1,000 miles of raw Alaskan wilderness?
“It’s an entirely different race,” she says. “You are hundreds of miles between towns, and the weather gets exponentially worse.” But, she adds: “We will see. I would love to do it.”
If past performance is an indicator of future success, Jaclyn just may be up for the challenge.
For now, though, she is back on the job at HVFD and loving every minute.
“She is overflowing with positivity and is every fire chief’s dream when it comes to ‘commitment to duty,’” shares HVFD Fire Chief Mark Kirko. “I wish I had 10 more just like her and encourage new members to emulate her if they can keep up.”
Jaclyn finds that her past two years of training have benefitted her position in terms of both fitness and health. And she definitely feels empowered after training for and finishing the IRONMAN and ITI, especially since she started out as an average athlete.
“People state all the time how I’m part superhuman, but I share that your body is capable of incredible things and a large percentage is mental toughness and knowing how to push your body to [its] limits,” Jaclyn says.