Thursday, March 20, 2014

Iditarod Race Report

 A 1,000 mile race will inevitably have 1,000 stories to tell as every mile along the trail seemed to provide a new challenge, vista, or story.  This particular race proved to be no different.  Due to the lack of snow and coastal wind storms long time Iditarod mushers believe the 2014 race  to be the most difficult and challenging Iditarod in the history of the race.  As a rookie, my perspective in this race might be characterized as somewhat naïve.  Without the knowledge of what a good trail is supposed to be like I could only take each section of trail with a nonjudgmental openness.  I was determined from the beginning of this race to thoroughly enjoy every trail and every checkpoint.  I wanted to cherish this grand adventure of crossing Alaska with only myself, my sled, and my dogs.  This was an ideal which proved to be definitely easier said than done.

The 2014 routing was the Northern Route.

My dog team consisted of a wide variety of age and experience.  Four of the dogs (Summit, Rambo, Huffy, and Speckle) are older, between 6-9 years, and were on John Bakers’s record breaking Champion team.  The seven other dogs from our kennel are between 2-4 years old (Ears, Neo, Joy, Ghoulie, Ringo, Blaze, and Spook).  We decided that it would be best for me to leave with a smaller team of 14 dogs considering the difficult trail conditions this year.  I am certainly glad we did that.  Due to injuries in the week leading up to the race I was in need of a few more dogs to fill out the team.  Two dogs (Heineken and Lightening) came from Aaron Burmeister’s kennel and one dog (Papa) came from Pete Kaiser’s kennel.  My main leaders would be Ears and Summit.  Substitute leaders would be Ghoulie, Joy, and Heineken.  Although in my need to find fresh leaders even Papa and Lightening, both two year olds, got a chance to be in lead.

The Ceremonial Start in Anchorage was a total blast.  My Idita-rider was from a software company in Chicago which recently became a ‘Lead-Dog’ Sponsor of Iditarod.  Alex Westlake rode the second sled.  The most hilarious highlight was when we attempted to pass a hotdog from our first sled to the second sled using a very surprised spectator!  This is where the reality of what we are about to take on begins to sink in.
Ceremonial Start in Anchorage

The restart begins in Willow the following day at 2pm.  This is a more serious event because it is the last opportunity to bring critical gear and have everything just right.  I was so fortunate to have a great crew of family and friends to get me to the start line.  The first 50 miles of the race is such a party.  Every ½ mile is a new bonfire with people cheering you on and calling out your name.  

Willow Restart (Summit and Ears in lead)
The spectators make an effort to match your bib number up with your name and make things very personalized.  It is such a great feeling.  People are handing out cans of beer, RockStar drinks, hotdogs, and cookies. 
Willow Restart

The first few checkpoints are fairly full of teams but a surprising number of them are camped outside of the checkpoints.  My strategy for the first couple days of the race was to be very conservative running the dogs on something close to an even run/rest schedule.  The trail up to Finger Lake is relatively flat and smooth.  At Finger Lake the trail beings to climb up into the Alaska Range to the Rainy Lake checkpoint.
Finger Lake Checkpoint
It is between these checkpoints that the famous ‘Steps’ are.  Being a rookie, I wasn’t even sure where the ‘Steps’ were and when we actually passed through them.  While the switchbacks were steep and technical-it was clear that the Iditarod Trail committee had worked hard to make this section safe.  Our team had no problems in this section.   Other teams certainly did.  One musher, Jake Berkowitz, broke his gang line, and had the front 14 dogs go down the Steps by themselves followed shortly thereafter by himself with 2 dogs!  It is an unfortunate situation but it was caught on video which is rather hysterical to watch. 

Photo:  Ralph Johannessen, from Dagali, Norway, rolls his sled as he comes down the steps onto the Happy River between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, March 3, 2014. BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News

Upon arrival at the Rainy Pass checkpoint it was clear that the trail ahead to Rohn was dangerous and highly technical.  The first mushers that have gone through the trail have gotten injured or severely damaged their sleds.  The checkpoint officials were recommending that we proceed with caution and consider even staying.  In order to get through this section with the greatest degree of safety I choose to alter my race strategy by cutting the team’s rest so that they weren’t so strong going through risky sections.  In addition, leaving early would allow me to navigate the toughest sections during the daylight.  This was ultimately a good decision.   The trail leaving Rainy Pass climbs high into the mountain pass until it arrives at the Dalzell Gorge which has required days and days of work of the Iditarod Trail Committee in order to make the trail as safe as possible. 

The descent lived up to its reputation for being a thrilling ride!  Without there being any snow the trail was frozen dirt, ice, tree stumps, and rocks.  Having little to no stopping power the dogs were able to fly furiously down the trail.  Every second of the trail required 150% of the musher’s focus in order to balance on the sled appropriately in order to avoid tipping over and colliding with a tree.  I actually enjoyed the challenge of this trail as it demanded every ounce of strength and concentration that I had.  I was very thankful for my hours of strength training and endurance efforts because this helped to keep me fresh, alert, and physically able to maneuver down the endless chutes of frozen dirt, ice, and rocks.  The best video by far is that of Jeff King’s Go Pro-which can be found online. 

Being a rookie, I wasn’t ever even sure that the difficult part of the Dalzell Gorge was actually over or whether a more scary section was yet to come.  I was so happy to see the Rohn checkpoint arrive thinking that the worst was over.  Rohn is beautiful place with tall pines surrounding the checkpoint.  This was the first night that I slept in my sleeping bag next to my dogs on a pile of straw.  I learned on arriving in Rohn that the next run to Nikolai was just as challenging as the run to Rohn.  I therefore decided again that I should not leave Rohn with fresh dogs and so left after a 4 hour break. 

By that point, we had reports of over a dozen scratches.  Mushers had broken ankles, broken legs, broken sleds.  It was a nightmarish run for many mushers.  People getting thrown into trees and being unaware of where they were.

Photo:  Musher Hans Gatt has dried blood around his eyes after coming off the Farewell Burn and into the Nikolai checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Gatt hit a tree on the Burn just outside of Rohn. BOB HALLINEN — Anc Daily News

The trail through the ‘Burn’ again had no snow.  I made it through the first five miles before totally crashing my sled.  The brush brow was already cracked from the trip through the Dalzell Gorge.  After smashing into a couple trees, one finally smashed through the brush brow and the tree made it between my sled runners breaking the base of my sled.  I couldn’t get it separate from the tree, until fellow musher Jake Berkowitz, helped pull the sled apart from the tree.  I wasn’t sure what repairs I could possibly make that would allow me to make another 50 miles.  The sled was surely going to fall to pieces the next time I hit a tree.  To make matters worse the plastic sled runners (which are removable to allow for smooth gliding over the snow) had completely been worn down going through the Gorge.  So not only did I have a busted up sled but I had no runner plastic and was running on aluminum runners.  The Farewell Burn had endless numbers of steep hills which, this year, was completely bare with sand on the uphill side and ironically with snow on the downhill side.   I tied the sled up as best I could but couldn’t avoid having a piece of plastic from the sled bottom constantly rubbing into the dirt.  I had to stop numerous times to piece together the sled but eventually we did make it into Nikolai.  I wasn’t sure that the sled would make it but I had many contingency plans in place in case the sled fell apart.  I had creative plans of skijoring or simply walking the entire way nursing the sled into Nikolai. 

Obviously, I needed to find a new sled.  After frantically searching and calling around, Martin Buser came along and offered the use of his sled.  After switching all of my gear over from the old sled to Martin’s new sled I was ready to depart Nikolai without any sleep.  The next stop was Takotna where I was planning to take my 24 hour rest.  Therefore, despite the need for my dogs to rest after the shortened rest schedule, I decided to continue to Takotna thinking that once there the dogs would have the chance to fully recuperate.  This seemed like a good decision at the time, but in hindsight I believe this was a key error for my dogs.  I wanted to have a fully rested team at the beginning of the race but, in needing to cut the rest short to make it through the technical trail sections, this didn’t really happen.  Ideally, I should have rested 8 hours in Nikolai, instead of 4 hours, and then made the run to Takotna where I would rest for another 24 hours.  

The trail into Takotna is surprisingly hilly and the trail follows a road into town.  The 24 hour rest is very much needed at that point. Sleep for the musher and food for the dogs after the stressful trail would hopefully allow for the race to be ‘reset’.  I enjoyed my 24 and learned a lot by watching other mushers about how to walk the dogs to evaluate stiffness and for the stretching of muscles, how to feed and snack the team regularly while allowing for musher sleep.  Both John and I choose to cook the dog’s meals at every stop.  This means adding four bottles of heet to the cooker, starting the heet on fire, and then adding water (or snow) to the dog pot along with chipped fish.  Our dogs LOVE cooked Sheefish which we catch and prepare up in Kotzebue.  To the cooked fish we add additional chipped beef and commercial dog food.  This soup takes about twenty minutes to prepare but it is worth the wait.  The dogs all eat well and get their needed water from the broth.   During the 24 hour rest the dogs ate three such meals along with ‘snacks’ in between of turkey skins (fat) and meat snacks.

The trail from Takotna to Ophir was fast after the fresh break.  Most teams will go through Ophir, being only 3 hours away from Takotna, and make their way on the long run to Cripple (77 miles).  This makes the combined run 96 miles.  Most teams will rest half way between Ophir and Cripple for about four hours.  I planned on resting 3-4 hours as well but somehow decided to only rest 2 hours.  The team was already slowing down after we left Ophir.  The ongoing long runs had appeared to have worn the team out despite the 24 hour rest.  As a rookie musher, at this distance, I wasn’t that comfortable camping between checkpoints.  My preference had been to run checkpoint to checkpoint.  This is also because our dogs had been training to run 70-90 miles and have been very strong at that distance.  I expected that our team could make the run to Cripple without negative consequence.  

The run to Cripple was extremely long and slow.  I rested for 6 hours in Cripple before tackling the run to Ruby.  Here again, I planned to make the run all the way through.  Surprisingly, the run from Cripple to Ruby is not flat however.   I did not bring straw to camp between the checkpoints thinking that we would rest for 8 hours in Ruby and therefore shouldn’t waste time resting between.  If I had brought straw, I would have definitely rested the team for 3-4 hours.  So I continued on and pushed to Ruby in order to take advantage of the amenities offered at the checkpoints.  These runs took a lot out of my team and I feel this was a second error on my part. 
Katherine arrives at the Cripple Checkpoint

The Ruby checkpoint marks a big change in the trail as the mushers drop down onto the Yukon River and make their way downriver to Kaltag before crossing land again over to the Bering Sea Coast at Unalakleet.  I took my mandatory 8 hour rest in Ruby hoping that the long rest would invigorate my team.  Unfortunately, the next run from Ruby to Galena proved to be the longest yet.  It was a cold night, -35F, and my level of fatigue was very high.  I kept falling asleep no matter how many 5 hour energies I took.  This was endlessly frustrating and the team was literally walking!  I couldn’t do anything to speed them up.  I switched out every leader I had until I found a pair that seemed to work well together-Summit and Joy.  In addition, my fatigue caused me to miss the fact that a cable neckline was dangling from Ringo’s neck.  The dangling neckline had bounced up and hit Ringo’s eye causing it to get cut.  RIngo had to be dropped at the next checkpoint to receive veterinary attention.  This was the lowest point in the race for me.  My fatigue and pure exhaustion led to a great dog getting hurt.  I was so proud of Ringo up to this point for doing so well and had really looked forward to him making it to Nome.

I was a bit of a mess in Galena, crying about Ringo, and worried about my dogs.  I realized I had to drastically change my schedule to allow for an equal run/rest schedule with the hopes of getting to the coast with a team that could race.  So our team rested for 6 hours in Galena, 6 hours in Nulato, and 6 hours in Kaltag.  This enhanced rest did appear to be working as the team started eating better and picked up their speed.  The trip from Kaltag to Unalakeet was intimidating for me.  This was a long run when I was really working to take short runs with frequent rests.  I planned taking a 6 hour rest at the Old Woman shelter cabin which lies about halfway between checkpoints. 

My rest at the Old Woman shelter cabin was by far my favorite stop!  I loved camping out with the dogs.  This really changed my view of camping between checkpoints.  It was so quiet and peaceful providing me with a great opportunity to care for and connect with the dogs. 

After traveling over miles of glare ice I finally arrived at Unalakleet with a great sense of relief.  Jack Smith, Andy Baker, Andy Angstman, Midi Johnson, and others were there to welcome me there at 1:00 am.  This was a pivotal point for us because it meant the arrival to the coast where I hoped the dogs would feel really at home.  I rested in Unalakleet for 8 hours before making my way over to Shaktoolik.   I was warned in Unalakleet that a winter storm warning had been issued and that we would be facing high winds.  There is really no choice but to move forward and start the trek over the bare Blueberry Hills to the glare ice and high winds in Shaktoolik.   The north winds were head on at 40 mph and were going to be increasing over the night.  The team did well crossing the glare ice despite being pushed around. 

Photo:  Iditarod musher Jessie Royer, from Darby, MT, mushes over bare tundra on the Blueberry Hills out of the Unalakleet checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 9, 2014. BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News

When getting to Shaktoolik I was faced with a choice of whether to proceed into the 40 mph headwind or wait the storm out in Shaktoolik for the next couple days with over a dozen other teams.  Another musher, Paige Dronby, was anxious like myself to leave Shaktoolik.  The dogs would not be able to rest well at this checkpoint due to the lack of wind protection.  Paige and I believed that if we left soon we would be able to beat the storm and make it to Koyuk which had better shelter to rest the dogs.  I left with 2 hours of rest on the dogs.  I almost immediately regretted leaving as the glare ice leaving Shaktoolik had both of us walking in front of our teams leading them across glare ice that neither human or dog could get much traction on.  I was very thankful for the ice cleats that John had given to me prior to leaving Anchorage.    That run out of Shaktoolik had me walking in front of the dogs as often as I was on the sled.

Photo:  An Iditarod musher crosses a frozen pond between the Shaktoolik and Koyuk checkpoints during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 9, 2014. BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News

It took a long time to get away from Shaktoolik and once we did there was still a long way to go and the winds were increasing at a harder and faster rate than was expected.  15 miles out of Shaktoolik there was a sharp turn in the trail which was poorly marked that my team, along with many others, didn’t quite get.  The dogs had to go into a cross wind for a mile across glare ice.  The situation soon became very serious when the wind gusts, now over 60 mph, began blowing myself and the entire team sideways along the ice in a situation that I had little to no control over.  My leaders had become scared and were no longer able to steer the team.  In fact, they couldn’t even hear my commands over the howling wind.  After two hours of attempting to get on the trail, I had to re-evaluate my decision to proceed to Koyuk and make a new plan which allowed me to have the greatest number of options which would get myself and my team through the night safely.  This was now a life threatening situation not just about the race anymore.   I was wet from sweat, working to get the dogs walking in the right direction, and there was no help coming.  A shelter cabin was nearby which would offer protection from the wind.  So we inched our way to the shelter cabin thinking that this would leave us the greatest number of options.  I could stay at the cabin, I could go back to Shaktoolik, or I could continue on to Koyuk.  Staying at the cabin was limited in time because of the finite amount of food I had for the dogs and myself. 

The shelter cabin had no wood and I was needing to be on guard to stay warm and keep the dogs warm.  The cabin offered little shelter for the dogs so I decided to take my females, and main leader Summit, inside the cabin.  I was going to need them to get us through the storm into Koyuk the next day and they needed all the rest they could get.  The wind shook the shelter cabin all night finally letting up about 10 am the next morning.  Unfortunately, the visibility also dropped to ¼ mile or less.  Regardless, we needed to keep moving so I hooked up the dogs are we slowly made our way to Koyuk.  The wind was still relentless and the glare ice made travel difficult and slow.  I switched out the leaders every hour to keep them fresh.  The storm had brought in large snow drifts which really took a toll on the team.   Eventually we made it to Koyuk and rested there for 6 hours before moving onto Elim.   I kept thinking to myself that all I had to do was make it to the next stake.  Find the next stake, go after the next stake, make it to the next stake, and search for the next one.   This went on for 35 miles.  I finally arrived at Koyuk a bit shaken up but was surrounded by school kids asking questions and wanting my autograph.  One little girl eagerly helped to put out straw for the dogs.  They really cheered me up and helped me to realize that I just had to suck it up and keep my head in the game.  There was still a race going on.  Besides, the dogs were looking and feeling great.  The storm was harder on me than the dogs.  They were eating great.

The trail to Elim was beautiful-hard and fast most of the way-with the exception of the new snow drifts.  We left at night which is the dog’s favorite time to run.  My team was first out of Elim and took the burden on of breaking out the trail.  After 10 miles the faster teams behind me caught up and broke out the remaining trail.  I was thankful when they passed us.

The trail from Elim to White Mountain was notoriously difficult.  Not only for the large amount of hill climbing but also for the glare ice between Golovin and White Mountain.  The climbing was pretty intense but the views were very rewarding.  There was also no wind the day that I crossed Golovin Bay so the glare ice posed no real issue as it did for so many teams ahead of us that scratched.  Another challenge for many teams is getting through the town of Golovin itself.  The trail goes into the town and straight down the main road with kids running alongside the team.  At this point the dogs are tired and looking for an excuse to take a break.  Meaning that distractions are tempting for all of us.  Luckily our team kept focused and moved through Golovin without too much difficulty. 

At White Mountain everyone is required to take an 8 hour rest prior to tackling the remaining 77 miles of trail to Nome.  The trail to Safety consists of yet more climbing.  The highest point is actually called ‘Little McKinley’.  After this summit the trail drops down for 2 miles to the coast.  There was little snow on this descent again and my sled brake finally gave out on me.  This made things quite exciting for a while.  Careening down steep rocky slopes with an excited dog team and no good way to slow them down.   I managed to stop a couple times to wire the brake together-knowing that after this hill I would have little use for the brake for the rest of the trip.  The weather was reasonable during the climbing but once dropping down to the coast we started moving north through what is nicknamed the ‘Blow Hole’.  Conditions deteriorated quickly into 10 feet of visibility with wind blowing 30-40 mph.  The dogs were needing to cross glare ice with sand and then snow drifts.  The wind would blow the sled sideways into tripods and tree stumps and anything else in between.  I despairingly realized we still had a LONG way to go to make it to the finish line.  The dogs were doing the best they could to keep the pace up but we were moving pretty slow.  The fresh snow that had fallen caused significant drag on my sled making progress seemingly painstaking. 

The checkpoint of Safety is 22 miles outside of Nome and is also a scary point for mushers.  I needed to drop a dog, Heineken, and the remaining dogs were thinking this was a great place to hang out for a while to escape the storm.  After numerous attempts of the dogs to stay near the straw we finally left the checkpoint.  After about 300 feet the dogs decided that instead of their usual 7.5 mph pace they wanted to go 4.5 mph.  They were wanting to quit-if only they knew we were less than three hours from the end...  I had to stop the team and evaluate the situation. This consisted of me snacking the dogs then sitting on my sled crying out loud for a good 10 minutes.  I was just imagining everyone in Nome waiting for me to finish but the finish seemed farther away from me than ever.  After my little pity party was over, I calmly switched around the dogs and put in new leaders.  I made the decision that even if I was going to push the sled the whole way-even if we went 4.5 mph the whole way-it was better than sitting on the sled crying in the middle of a snow storm.    So 4.5 mph was what we did all the way to Nome.  With me kicking, running, and poling with everything I had.   After a few hours we got closer to Nome and I began to feel like the team just might make it to the finish line.  I still didn’t put on my bib until I was about 3 miles out of Nome!

Arriving in Nome
People began driving out on the roads and cheering the team on and the dogs and I began to feel pretty excited.  At long last we dropped down onto the ice in front of Nome and I could hear the siren, which is blown to indicate the arrival of a dog team, welcoming us to Nome.  The trail goes up a small hill onto the front street of Nome where all the people are saying ‘Good Job’ and ‘Congratulations’!  Even though I came in as the 32nd team I felt like a Champion!   The short jaunt down Front Street won’t be forgotten.   The Burled Arch beckons us in where a crowd awaits.  Amelia was there waiting to ride on the sled with me to the finish line!  I wasn’t sure the dogs would pull both her and me so I grabbed her arm and she ran with me into the finish chute.  Mom was there and she was crying with relief for us getting there.  I told her not to cry because this is a total celebration-we made it!  Mostly it was because I didn’t want to cry!  It is so easy for me to get carried away with exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment for all the struggles we had along the trail.  I was determined to focus on the sheer feeling of accomplishment and joy that we actually made it 1049 miles to Nome!
Finish Line in Nome

After checking in and going through the interviews and mandatory sled checklist the team was taken away down to the dog lot.  It almost felt like a piece of me was being taken away as I watched them go knowing that our great adventure together was at an end.  That didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to see our handler Nick on his way to care for them and feed them instead of me!   Eight out of fourteen dogs finished the entire race.  The finishing team was Summit, Ears, Joy, Neo, Huffy, Ghoulie, Papa, and Lightening.  Summit and Ears led together for 90% of the race.  They did an incredible job keeping us all safe and on the trail.  Ghoulie and Heineken shared some of the leading responsibility when I wanted to give Summit or Ears a break.  Even Papa and Lightening were given a chance to run up front and they did a great job for their first time in lead.  All dogs gave 110% the entire way. 

Post Race Fatigue

Knowing the dogs were being cared for I went to our hotel room, took a long hot shower, ate a super great meal, and enjoyed the company of all my family and friends that I had missed out on for the past couple weeks.  Now that a few days have gone by and my body is feeling rested I notice a bit of restlessness.  I look outside at this clear sunny day and recall those gorgeous days climbing through the Alaska Range or when I first dropped down to Unalakleet and saw the ocean coast, and I start dreaming about the next adventure…

Arriving into Nome


  1. What a fantastic accomplishment! Thank you for telling your story.

  2. Thank you for sharing this in the way you did. I am grateful you talked about the separation of the dogs at the end of the race. The connection you all must have had from birth through training and the race with all the decisions you had to make sounds like the most connected relationship possible. I loved how you shared the failures as well as the good decisions. It helped me feel part of the experience because I could more greatly understnd the humanity of it all. You and everyone connected (including the dogs) is part of history of our planet. Respecting nature and the power it has with the humility a race like this pulls from a mushers soul is to be admired. I admire you and the others (including Mom's and daughters on the sidelines) for doing the work which includes telling the stories. Love you Much/Mush...I am mush right now and the closest I will ever be to mushing except to be connected to you and your loving family!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your story! When it comes from the heart the story becomes real. We were all worried about the mushers, especially from White Mountain to Safety. I was hoping they would stop everyone at Safety and was very concerned when Jeff King stopped just before Safety. So glad you all made it through. As you said you are all winners!