Homer couple strives to live life to the fullest
Active, athletic and community-minded, Pat Irwin and Kathy Sarns-Irwin are determined to live their lives to the fullest, and with gratitude.
Sarns-Irwin excelled at cross-country running and track and field in high school. At the University of Maine, she was recruited to the school's cross-country ski team even though she had never skied before.
"They needed women skiers and taught me to ski," she said. "I came in last in nearly every race, but I stuck to it because I had fun teammates and a coach who encouraged me."
In addition to athletics, she was a natural artist from the time she held a pencil.
"I grew up in a hard-driving, hard-working family, but drawing was one thing I could do that didn't feel like work and that my parents approved of," she said. "They told me I should use my talent and that instilled in me a confidence and work ethic."
In college, she took art classes. Unsure she could make a living as an artist, she also studied physical education and nursing. When she was a senior, she decided to commit to her art and received a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in commercial art and advertising and a minor in physical education.
In 1982, she and a friend drove to Homer. They spent the summer camped in a tent. She worked as a server at the newly opened Don Jose's Mexican Restaurant.
She left Homer that fall to complete her degree in France, then returned to Alaska.
"I liked how people didn't think you were crazy if you lived in a tent all summer, jumped in the ocean or started a new business on a shoestring," she said.
She worked as a graphic designer in Anchorage, creating interpretive panels, posters, brochures and presentations for the U.S. Forest Service. Her 1989 "Leave No Trace" cartoon posters can still be seen at Forest Service trailheads and outhouses.
In 1996, she built a printmaking studio, participated in First Friday art shows and consigned her etchings in local galleries. She created the Gold Rush Centennial license plate for the state, which won best plate in a countrywide competition.
All the while, she continued athletics, winning the Anchorage Cup Nordic ski races. Wilderness legend Dick Griffith became a lifelong friend and mentor. She recently shared stories about Griffith during an interview with PBS, for a documentary.
With his encouragement, she and friend Diane Catsam were the first women to complete the 1984 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a 150-mile race from Hope to Homer.
"We carried everything we needed, had the crappiest equipment and clothes and barely enough food, and there were no checkpoints. But we were young and determined," she said.
They arrived at Lands End to cheers and an interview by Outdoor Magazine. She said completing that race — which she ran in honor of a boyfriend who died in an accident — shifted her perspective on life.
"I realized that I could do anything I set my mind to, " said Sarns-Irwin.
She raced mountains and trails in summers and Nordic skied in winters. She completed two more Alaska Wilderness Classic races, was the first-place woman in the 1987 214-mile Iditaski and competed in the National Masters Nordic Championships and the 2011 Nordic Ski World Masters.
Between 1985 and 2008, she coached the Anchorage Junior Nordic program, helping grow the program from 20 to more than 700. One of her students was Kikken Randall.
"I remember her dad was always late to practice and he'd push her out of the car with her skis on and she'd ski across the parking lot to our little group," she said.
Over the years, she has coached hundreds of youth.
"I love teaching people how to ski and seeing the light in their eyes when they begin to enjoy skiing with less effort," she said.
In 1992, her then husband, Bruce Hickok, died in an avalanche. She began to slow down and think more about life's meaning.
"Now, I hike, ski, run and paddle, but at a slower pace and for different reasons, mostly to enjoy friends and to be grateful for another day on Earth," she said.
In 2000, she met ultra distance cyclist Pat Irwin, who traveled from Tennessee to Alaska to compete in the Iditasport, a 350-mile race from Knik to McGrath along the Iditarod Trail. Irwin had been racing all over the United States, and was eager to participate in what he considered to be the biggest cycling challenge.
"I had never been to Alaska and it was a challenge to train for this in Tennessee," he said. "This was before fat bikes, so we just had regular mountain bikes. Riding up and over the Alaska Range was like nothing I had ever experienced before."
He placed fourth and celebrated with friends and Sarns, who was housing racers in her home. He was impressed with her accomplishments and she thought he was cute.
Irwin traveled back to Alaska the following year, winning the race. The couple married and opened a bike shop/art gallery. With Irwin's encouragement, Sarns-Irwin created a bike jersey with her Alaska Gold Rush license plate design. Within a few months, the jerseys were selling faster than the bikes or art, featured in Bicycling Magazine and sold at REI. Their cycling jersey business, Free Spirit Bike Jerseys, was born.
Irwin grew up cycling in Tennessee and spent time in the Marine Corps, stationed in Camp LaJeune in North Carolina. He started bike racing in the 1980s. In 1992, he earned his master's degree in sports physiology. When friends asked advice about healthy eating, he wrote a small book on nutrition, "The Idiots Guide to Nutrition."
He worked with professional cyclists, including Greg LeMond and the U.S. national team. In 1995, missing racing, he returned to ultra distance cycling 200 miles or more, specializing in 24-hour mountain bike races. For six years, he rode professionally on a single speed bike, sponsored by Surly and Airborne, and competing all over the U.S.
In 2003, he participated in Alaska's first Fireweed Bicycle Race, a 400-mile race from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez and back, which is a qualifier for the Race Across America.
"When I got to Valdez, it was spectacularly beautiful, and I asked Kathy, who was crewing for me, 'Do you want to turn around and go back, staring at my butt for another 12 hours, or do you want to take the ferry back to Whittier?'"
They took the ferry and that decision created a new race — the 200-miler, also jokingly known as the Quitter 200 or Q2.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, Irwin created the two-day 200-mile ride option with an overnight stop so he could continue to participate. While MS has prevented him from riding this event for the past few years, he crews for friends and is proud of helping with a race that brings non-racers, including families, together. Today, the Fireweed 200 is the biggest bicycle race in Alaska.
After his diagnosis, the couple set out to do their own unique bike trips around the state. In 2005, they fat biked between Hope and Homer along the beach, the first people to do so, on bikes with extra-fat tires that were prototypes Surly sent them to try out. They rode for six days and ended at the Salty Dawg, posting their adventure on their website, which went viral.
Impressed by the interest in their story, Surly decided to invest and sell the tires the couple had tested. Today, fat tires are popular around the world.
The couple has ridden bikes from Tok to Eagle, and one year set out to ride from Kotzebue to Nome. During their second day, they noticed a man standing on his snowmachine, pointing his rifle at them.
"We turned our bikes sideways, turned our lights on and waved our arms," Irwin said. "He approached us and told us he thought we were moose. He could not believe we were on bikes."
After three days, and riding 100 miles, in temperatures that fell to 70 degrees below zero, they arrived into the community of Buckland. They ended up spending four days helping to teach 200 local youth to ski. They still hope to make it to Nome one day.
In 2008, the couple moved to Homer, where they volunteer for the local ski club, bike club, running club and Kachemak Bay State Park, and help to rescue stranded seals and sea otters through the Seward Sealife Center's program.
Irwin's MS continues to progress, but he is determined to do as much as he can, every day. He said he was surprised when he was diagnosed because his body felt fine.
"The only symptom I had of anything being wrong was a sudden vision problem," he said. "The neurologist said he expected a cure within the next 10 years, but my mom said that was what they were told 30 years ago when my dad was diagnosed."
Eventually, he started having trouble riding his bike and walking.
"It's been a slow progression and it's been difficult to let go of some of the longer distance rides, but I'm grateful for how active I was able to be during the first years of my diagnosis," he said. "I can choose to suffer or I can choose to make the most of it and find the gift in it. I'm grateful I can ride my bike every day, even if it's just a mile some days."
Last summer, he competed in two bike races, a 10-miler along the beach and the Jakalof Bay 10-miler to Seldovia.
"It's kind of humbling because I used to be able to ride 200 miles in a day and now 10 miles is a hard day's ride for me," he said.
Together, they have expanded Free Spirit Bike Jerseys to include designs representing 31 states and plan to have jerseys for all 50 states available soon. Their business and adventures can be viewed at FreeSpiritWear.com.