The Alaska Challenge, the longest, toughest handcycle race in the world, turns 27 next week.
Palmer’s Andrew Kurka is only 23, but he is very familiar with one of the state’s most cherished sporting events. These guys are to handcycling what mushers are to the Iditarod, drivers to the Iron Dog and runners to Mount Marathon.
Kurka can’t wait to test himself against the best.
“It’s the longest, toughest race and there have been some long-standing records I hope to beat someday,” Kurka told me.
Don’t doubt him.
Kurka is a U.S. Paralympian downhill skier and winner of multiple medals at the world level. He’s also a veteran of the X Games.
But he’s never competed in an extreme event like the Alaska Challenge, a 362-mile, 8-stage race that makes stops in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Healy, Nenana, Talkeetna and Palmer.
“I’ve been cycling on and off for some time now,” Kurka said. “My summer just seemed a little too relaxed. I wanted something to keep me busy and this was a challenge I was willing to accept.”
The Alaska Challenge is comprised of eight stages ranging in distances from a quarter-mile time trial to a 58-mile road race.
Kurka is one of three Alaskans in the race.
“I definitely feel being an Alaskan coming into this is important, not only to represent my state but the race in general and Challenge Alaska, the foundation that has helped me make it to where I am.”
Challenge Alaska is a nonprofit organization founded in 1980 and dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities through sports, recreation and education.
Ten years ago Kurka got in a bad accident on his ATV and severely damaged three vertebrae in the middle of his spinal cord. He was 13 at the time.
Then he got involved with Challenge Alaska and it changed his life.
“Challenge Alaska has helped me leaps and bounds throughout my career and I am nothing but honored to be their representative,” Kurka said.
The Alaska Challenge handcycle race features competitors from Florida, Utah, Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York and California. There’s also a guy from Scotland.
The other Alaskans are Edwin Jones and Mike O’Neill.
Jones, 59, of Anchorage, started wheelchair racing in 1987 and competed in the inaugural race, then called the Midnight Sun Wheelchair Race.
He has participated in the race several other times over the years, placing as high as second and third.
Jones is married with three children and six grandchildren.
O’Neill, 65, is originally from Bristol Bay, where he was a commercial fisherman. He now lives in Anchorage.
He is a Vietnam veteran and told the Challenge Alaska website that “the support from the Alaska and Puget Sound VA Healthcare Systems and the VA Paralyzed Veterans Racing club is outstanding.”
O’Neill has competed in the Alaska Challenge races five times.