By Airman 1st Class Patrick Sullivan
Frozen air whips by, sinking its teeth into any inch of exposed skin it can find. Snow pushes in from all sides, trying to force its way through waterproofed layers and soak everything beneath. Dozens of pounds of gear are pulling and dragging and begging to stop as they are carried ever deeper into the Alaska wilderness.
This is one moment, of one day, of U.S. Air Force Maj. Joshua Brown’s nearly monthlong journey as the first active-duty service member to compete in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 1,000-mile ultramarathon spanning the state’s backcountry.
“The ITI is a throwback to earlier days when explorers ventured into the unknown without all of the safety measures we enjoy in society today,” explained Kyle Durand, ITI race director and retired U.S. Navy commander. “There is no designated path, there are no equipment requirements and there is no rescue crew. Participants must figure out how to safely travel to each checkpoint under their own power while hauling all of their survival gear with them. The decisions on where to go and what precautions to take in the extreme conditions are theirs alone - as are the consequences of those decisions.”
From sustained sub-zero temperatures and dangerous river crossings, to managing sparse food and survival supplies, approximately 30 competitors faced a seemingly never-ending series of potentially life-threatening challenges.
“What’s unique about this race is the amount of responsibility that is placed on each racer to be able to take care of themselves,” said Brown, the 673d Surgical Operations Squadron Surgical Services flight commander. “This race is different in that there is little-to-no outside support should things go wrong. You are responsible for your own navigation, determining logistical support, and knowing how and when to use the gear that you bring.”
On Sunday, Feb. 27, at precisely 2 p.m., a gunshot rang out at the edge of a frozen lake just outside of Anchorage, signaling the start of the race. Brown, with a lean build and sandy brown hair, immediately launched onto the ice as one of 13 competing on foot. He waved goodbye to his wife and broke into a jog, quickly disappearing into the treeline across the ice, wearing a confident, excited smile.
Brown, 42, had spent much of his life immersed in the wilderness and had faith in his abilities to handle the conditions ahead. An avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman, he has been regularly exposed to the types of conditions expected to be faced on the trail.
“I grew up in the outdoors learning to hunt and fish at a very early age, [and] being in the outdoors has always been a respite and a way for me to recenter myself when life gets crazy,” said Brown. “I spend much of my free time in the Alaska backcountry… Adversity always comes [there], and through exposure is how you can best prepare yourself.”
Brown’s career in the military has also prepared him for adversity. Initially enlisting in the Army Reserves as a medic, he spent his first four years of service on active duty after the 9/11 tragedy occured. He went on to receive his commission from the Reserves as a registered nurse before transitioning to active-duty Air Force, gathering a handful of mobilizations and deployments along the way.
His time in the field provided him with a wealth of real-world survival and field medicine experience, providing him a powerful skillset to aid him through the race.
Confident in his physical preparedness, Brown recognized maintaining mental strength as one of the largest concerns during the monthlong race. He knew from his previous ultramarathons that the harsh, ever-changing conditions could turn a single poor choice into a run-ending disaster, and even the most experienced racers could fall into traps along the way.
Those closest to him, however, had little doubt in his abilities.
“What’s unique about him is his grit; his grit and ability to suffer is beyond what I’ve seen in others,” described U.S. Air Force Maj. Jordan Fried, long-time friend, colleague, and hiking partner of Brown. “He doesn’t always have the best gear, maybe his preparation — just because our jobs are so busy — is not as much as others may have put in, but he can suffer more than anyone.”
About halfway through the trail, Brown faced his biggest challenge of the race. He had been holding a blistering pace, quickly taking the lead over the other runners. By sleeping in short bursts, often only two-to-three hours at a time, he was able to grow his lead each day. While sacrificing his sleep and recovery allowed him to put mile after mile behind him, averaging nearly 50 miles a day, he put an incredible strain on his mind and body.
After maintaining this routine for two weeks, Brown found himself on edge of collapse. He described that his body was running on base instinct, just putting one foot in front of the other, and that his mind was fighting to stay lucid while fending off exhaustion and hallucinations as a result of sleep deprivation. After making an overnight push to the village of Galena, covering 50 miles in -30-degree temperatures, Brown’s body finally revolted.
After only a couple of hours asleep, Brown awoke to severe stomach issues and was unable to take in food or fluid to replace what was being lost.
Only allowing himself eight hours of rest, Brown pushed on to the next village, struggling for two days while still ill. While on the trail, he took his packed antibiotics, and upon arrival immediately contacted his Primary Care Manager, who prescribed a clear liquid diet and lots of rest.
“I rested an entire day in Kaltag and was so close to quitting out of concern for my health. After following my PCM’s advice, I began to feel a little bit better,” said Brown. “I followed up with him one more time, and he recommended that I no longer continue in the race, but that ultimately it was my decision. I decided to continue on. Knowing I had 85 miles to reach the next village and possible help, I promised to give him an update via satellite text once I reached a remote survival shelter about 45 miles from the next village.”
During this push to the shelter, Brown’s condition steadily improved, and after allowing himself more time to rest, he made a full recovery and resumed his trek in earnest.
On the morning of Thursday, March 24, Brown took a picture of the final sunrise he would see on the trail. He was 20 miles away from completing his pilgrimage. Setting off for the day, it wasn’t long until the finish was in sight.
His lips were badly blistered, and sores had opened on his cheeks. His earlobes were bloody and cracked from their fight with frostbite. The weekend stubble Brown wore at the race’s start had grown into a scruffy beard. His already lean frame had sunken in on itself, giving up nearly 25 pounds over the course of the month. His smile, though, was still as big as the day he had left.
As he got closer to Nome, the city that marked the race’s conclusion, he was greeted by locals who had come to show their support. Despite the race clock still ticking away he took the time to stop and talk about his experience, sharing stories from the trail. Eventually he pulled his sled off the snow, stepped onto asphalt, and hiked the final mile down to the heart of the city.
Twenty-four days, 21 hours, and 51 minutes after his first steps of the race, with 1,000 miles behind him, Brown took one final stride across the finish line.
Despite losing two days of the race due to his illness and nearly dropping out, Brown finished third place amongst the runners.
“The experience was one of personal growth. It reinforced the importance of resilience and commitment to a goal,” spoke Brown, reflecting on his time on the trail. “It also helped me to see the good in humanity. Along the entire trail, I experienced kindness and generosity from villagers and racers like I have never seen. I also feel so blessed in getting the chance to see the ‘real’ Alaska — the mountains, the frozen coast, the countless forests, the Yukon, and so much more. I will carry the memories from this adventure with me for the rest of my life.”
Returning from the race, Brown brought back more than just the personal accomplishment of completing his journey.
As a member of the Air Force’s Below Zero Medicine program, Brown is better equipped to pair his survival and medical experience to provide valuable insights for the growing program. He is currently a member of a working group that is in the process of developing an Arctic Medical Training Platform and establishing an extreme cold weather Injury Center.
In a testament to his character Brown returned to work the following Monday, four days after finishing the race. When asked why he didn’t take more time to recover from his ordeal, he shrugged and mentioned an upcoming inspection for his unit. After 1,000 miles, a brutal physical and mental toll, and a month away from friends and family, Brown didn’t hesitate for a second.
“My team needs me,” Brown explained. “So I’m going to be there for them.”
The ITI follows the same path as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and only allows for self-supported travel, and segments competitors into three categories: bike, ski, or foot. Due to the extreme demands of the ITI, hopeful competitors must submit an application to prove their abilities. One of only 13 runners selected to compete, Brown raced alongside some of the most experienced ultramarathoners from around the world.
Not only did Brown compete for himself, he also partnered with the Air Force Recruiting Service and stopped at native Alaska tribal villages throughout his journey. Brown had patches on each shoulder representing the Air Force, and partnered with the We Are All Recruiters program to speak on the benefits of the Air Force with local schools.