Friday, August 15, 2008
As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the North Country. From watching Sgt Preston, to reading Robert Service and Jack London, stories of Alaska and the Yukon have gripped my very soul. As an adolescent, I read every book in the library that even mentioned Alaska or the Yukon. My whole life has been spent trying to go “just a little further north”, and loving every second I spent there.
I also have an insatiable curiosity about how the universe works at its most fundamental level. The job market for Physicists seemed to hold a brighter future than for “bush rat” or “dog bum”, so (after a short interruption for service in SouthEast Asia) I got a Ph. D. in Elementary Particle Theory (it was either that or General Relativity). The job market was not as strong as I thought, and I wound up doing exploration geophysics for Shell Oil in Houston Texas in 1980. It was a great job, but living in Houston was all it took to remind me my passion lies further north. During the industry downturn, Shell finally offered me a package. Marti and I prayed for guidance and decided to trade a great job and salary for a great place to live, moving to Anchorage in 1992.
I’d been following the Iditarod for years, so volunteering for the race was a natural. Meeting the other volunteers was like meeting family from far away. Then I met the dogs and all hope was lost. I had to be part of this. I took my Chesapeake Bay Retriever and a pair of skis and started down the Iditarod trail. The same trails that Leonard Seppala, Scotty Allen, and Ironman Johnson had run 100 years earlier. The same trail that Rick Swenson and Susan Butcher had raced on. Their presence was almost palpable. I quickly graduated to a sled and started making plans to run the race.
Life did its usual thing for the next 10 years, but the kids grew up and moved out, finances stabilized, and when opportunity knocked, I ran my first 300 mile race (an Iditarod qualifier) in 2002. What a mess. I not only didn’t know the answers, I didn’t even know the questions. I didn’t finish that one (pulled because I was too slow), but I came back two months later and finished my second 300 mile race (also a qualifier) in 4 ½ days. You don’t give up on a dream just because you failed the first time. A friend offered to help me train and in 2004 I finished 2 two hundred mile qualifiers. In 2005 I finished a 300 mile qualifier. I was officially qualified to run the 2006 Iditarod.
A week after I signed up for the 2006 race I unexpectedly lost my job. After all those years of scheming, planning, working, and learning you don’t just walk away from a dream. Marti and I prayed and decided to run the race on our savings. I was the oldest rookie in the 2006 race and it was everything I expected and more. I got beat up pretty good and caught a nasty bug but I did it, finishing 68th out of 71 finishers and 83 starters. I knew I could do better and couldn’t wait until next year. We financed that one from our 401 (k).
Two thousand seven was a tough year. Twenty-Four of the 82 starters failed to finish, including 4 time champion Doug Swingley (broken ribs) and favorite Dee Dee Jonrowe (broken finger). I made it through the early hazards, but badly wrenched my shoulder when I slammed it into a block of ice leaving McGrath. Then between Ophir and Iditarod I frostbit my toe, hit a frozen tussock wrong and broke my leg (proximal fibula so I could still walk) and one runner on my sled. Well it takes more than a subtle message like that to stop me. I patched the runner, thawed the toe, and continued. Eight miles later I hit another tussock, twisted the same leg, broke the patched runner and broke the remaining good runner. At this point the sled is not usable and I don’t have materials to patch it again. It is 50 miles to the next checkpoint over the same conditions I’ve just traveled. If I continued I could easily get hurt bad enough I couldn’t care for my dogs, and I couldn’t put them at risk. I retreated 3 miles to Don’s Cabin (it took 2 hours to get there) and waited for the trail sweeps to come help get me and the dogs safely off the trail.
I knew I could do better, so we refinanced our house to get the money for the 2008 race. It was a dream come true. I joined the over 60 club and finished 68th (again) out of 78 finishers and 96 starters, with a strong happy dog team, feeling great about the whole experience. I’m finally getting the idea. Two weeks later the dogs and I ran the Taiga 300, finishing with a 110 mile run to take second place and the vet’s choice award for excellence in dog care. This is what life is all about. Living your dreams and following you passions. I just need to find a way to pay for it!