As afternoon slowly slipped into night, Kyle Amstadter pedaled and pushed his fat-tire bike across the vast, frozen expanse of Norton Bay, on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. He was making about 3.5 miles an hour against a stiff headwind. From Seattle, I watched his progress, unfolding in real time as a trail of blue squares appearing on a map, each point providing his speed and location—and an assurance that he was still plodding along, still alive—as he raced in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational.
The last time I tracked Amstadter, my cousin, on a long-distance endurance race was in 2007 when he ran the Cascade Crest 100 in the mountains east of Seattle. That required nighttime drives along logging roads from checkpoint to checkpoint, and ultimately, running with him for the last quarter of the race. (The only way I could hope to keep up was by joining him after he had already put in 75 miles.)
Now, thanks to a company called Trackleaders and a GPS tracking device called SPOT—a satellite personal tracker—I could follow him virtually for a harrowing journey over snow and ice from Knik Bar (just outside of Anchorage) to Nome, the same route as the famous sled dog race.
Scott Morris and Matthew Lee created Trackleaders from their passion for backpacking and camping—bikepacking—and specifically Lee’s participation in the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile, self-supported mountain bike race down the spine of North America from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Lee, based in Chapel Hill, NC, won the race in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
“The idea of tracking was all born out of that,” Morris says. “There was no way to spectate or promote or generate excitement for that type of racing because it’s out in the middle of nowhere. You can drop your family member or friend off at the start and then that’s it. There’s no way to follow it.”
Around that time, the first generation SPOT trackers, which boast satellite coverage nearly around the globe, were coming on the market. SPOT markets its devices as lifelines for athletes and others working and playing far from a cellphone tower, but their ability to leave a trail of GPS coordinates made them ideal for providing a live view of remote endurance races.
“We were able to get SPOT interested in tracking the  Tour Divide race and it grew from there, but we were definitely participants first,” Morris says.
Morris and Lee began by helping people use the trackers for free, in keeping with the spirit of their sport. Over time, interest grew and it became a significant project. They founded the company in 2009 and today it’s a full-time gig for both of them. They’ve since tracked nearly 7.2 million miles of racing and distant journeys.
Trackleaders now tracks two or three races each week, from sailing regattas to motorsports events like the Baja 1000, which attract large online audiences. Lee and Morris have continually evolved their software to meet the needs of different types of racing. Under the hood, Trackleaders relies on Google Maps APIs and software Morris developed called TopoFusion. Trackleaders processes location data from multiple SPOT trackers and presents it to race spectators on the Web, allowing them to see leaderboards, speed and elevation plots, and a host of other data, and to cheer for riders on social media.
Amstadter rented a SPOT from Trackleaders for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which began Feb. 28, for $75. He also could have bought one from device manufacturer SPOT, a subsidiary of satellite voice and data services company Globalstar (NYSE: GSAT), or other retailers, for about $120, and paid additional subscription and registration fees. Trackleaders keeps SPOT demonstration units and has direct access to the company’s technical support, it says on its website.
He zip-tied the SPOT to the stem of his bike, making sure it had a clear line of sight to the sky and the satellites orbiting above. The unit he used in the ITI has no lights to indicate it’s working. “For the most part, you don’t even realize it’s there,” Amstadter says.
In addition to turning races that unfold over many days in remote places into viable spectator sports for people anywhere in the world, Trackleaders provides a number of benefits to the racers themselves.
Many of these races take place in areas with limited or no cellphone or Internet connections—a major reason why some participants carry SPOT trackers in the first place—but racers can sometimes still call home at checkpoints to talk to a friend or family member following the race online. They can collect competitive intelligence on who’s ahead and behind, how fast competitors are going, and what that might mean for conditions on the stretch of trail they’re about to face.
“It does definitely affect race strategy,” Morris says. “That was one of the controversies of introducing this at first, especially to our bikepacking world, where the whole ethos is self-supported. There were some issues of are you really doing this on your own if you’re checking the tracking software, or even carrying a tracker? We wrestled with some of those issues in our community.”
Now, he says, it’s widely accepted.
In areas along the race course where locals have Internet access, they can use Trackleaders to monitor the race as it comes near their town, which tends to benefit racers. Amstadter recalls being greeted by a pair of ITI fans riding toward them on the trail outside of Unalakleet, a small town about 50 miles before the Norton Bay sea ice crossing. “They were like, ‘Hey, we’re your greeting committee.’ They knew our names. They knew where we’d slept. They’d been following the race and were super-excited about it,” he says.
In Nome, an organized group cheered Amstadter and fellow racers across the finish line, even though it was 10:40 at night. That’s not something most participants expect in a race like this, he says. “This is only the second year they’ve used Trackleaders,” he says. “In the past, you’d finish alone in the dark. It’s kind of anti-climactic.”
(For the record, Amstadter, riding in his first full ITI, was part of a group of three racers who stuck together through much of the journey, claiming a collective second behind Phil Hofstetter. Amstadter says he was “much less destroyed” by the 1,000-mile bike ride than by the high-impact, high-intensity 100-mile run 10 years ago.)
After the race, Amstadter used Trackleaders’ replay feature to compress the race—which took him 12 days, 8 hours—into something approaching the Kentucky Derby. “I know what the final standings were, but I didn’t know how the jockeying went back and forth,” he says.
Then there’s the issue of safety. For many events, SPOT and Trackleaders are used primarily as safety devices—racers who are hurt or lost can call for help; those who fail to make checkpoints can be accounted for—with the live tracking of the race an afterthought.
The ITI, however, is run by purists who are leery of the devices, and only allowed use of a SPOT model intended for tracking assets like boats and cars, which does not have the SOS feature. The only way to know someone with one of these is in trouble is if the device stops moving, but even that’s not so reliable. It might have simply fallen off the bike or been misplaced during a rest stop.
The organizers of the ITI have their reasons. The race is difficult just to qualify for—only 16 people attempted the full 1,000 miles; another 50 individuals took on distances of 130 or 350 miles. It was envisioned as true test of grit and self-reliance, a real adventure that harkens back to an earlier time. That’s increasingly hard to find in a world encircled by satellites and blanketed with cell sites, offering a lifeline in what used to be hopelessly remote locations.
“This race is not for everyone,” writes ITI trail manager Bill Merchant on the event’s website. “A mistake at the wrong time and place in the Alaskan winter wilderness could cost you fingers and toes or even your life. At times the only possible rescue will be self rescue.”
Organizers of another extreme event, the Marathon Des Sables—a 250 kilometer footrace in the Sahara Desert (going on now)—have a three-year deal with SPOT, outfitting each competitor with a SPOT Gen3, which features an SOS button. According to SPOT, 18 people were rescued during the 2015 race after activating the SOS button on their SPOTs.