Who chooses to run the Iditarod? Where do they come from and what does it take to get to the starting line? Dr. Larry Daugherty has been asking himself those same questions. He was working in a Mayo Clinic residency program in Florida as a cancer radiation oncologist. Daugherty had dreamed for years of coming to Alaska and running the Iditarod. This past mushing season he took his first steps toward that goal.
The Iditarod is not just any race, and not just anyone can compete at its level. More individuals have summited Everest than have finished the Iditarod. Like pieces of a puzzle, it takes a lot of components to get there, and to run The Last Great Race.
“The intent of these rules is to ensure fair competition and the humane care of sled dogs.” – Excerpt, Official Rules for the 2015 Iditarod
All the rules for entering the Iditarod are set by a rules committee and outlined on their website. Basically, a musher must have at least 750 racing miles completed by running qualifiers – races sanctioned by Iditarod as meeting certain criteria. Iditarod hopefuls are required to participate in at least two 300-mile races, or have completed the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest (which has its own set of criteria), along with other sanctioned races to achieve the required minimum 750 miles. Daily training miles can only take a musher so far, and don’t count toward that 750 miles. These qualifying races hope to meet a specific goal: help mushers and their teams prepare for what they might encounter on the remote Iditarod Trail.
Tasks such as putting booties on a team of dogs when your hands are frozen, using a portable cooker to fix the dogs’ meals out on the trail, and making sure the canine athletes are well cared for are just a few of the challenges faced when racing. Doing these things running on little sleep and using a headlamp in an arctic environment can take its toll on a person. During qualifiers, racers also receive report cards from race officials, including veterinarians. These reports are reviewed by an Iditarod Qualifying Review Board to determine if a musher meets the standards to enter.
Dreams of snow and dogs
Dr. Larry Daugherty’s grandparents were fascinated with Alaska and he grew up hearing all about the last frontier. He first started dreaming of running the Iditarod at age ten when he studied the race in school. Those were the days of Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson, when the Iditarod was starting to get a lot of attention outside Alaska. When Daugherty met his wife sixteen years ago, he told her he would some day run the Iditarod. Many mushers start out this way, growing up somewhere far from Alaska and hearing about the race, dreaming of running it, and then working toward that dream.
Daugherty talked about one of the catalysts that brought him to Alaska and explained how, “Two years ago I was flying to Europe and read an article in a magazine about a contest.” The winner would receive an all-expense-paid trip to Norway and Sweden, which included a mushing adventure. In order to enter, Daugherty had to put together a video explaining why he should be chosen. He states jokingly, “I won the contest – and it ruined my life.” He had a dream job in Florida, a loving wife and family, but when he came home from his winning trip, he knew what he had to do—whatever it took to become a musher and run the Iditarod.
Working in a high profile position at the Mayo Clinic, he often received job offers from all over the United States. Just as he was entertaining the notion of riding the runners of a dog sled, he received a card from a cancer center in Alaska with pictures of mountains, float planes – and a dog team. It seemed prophetic. After much discussion with his not-so-enthusiastic wife, and an exploratory trip to Alaska, he was hooked. The job offer was too good not to accept and even his wife agreed, this was not an opportunity to be missed.
Daugherty came to Alaska knowing he wanted to race, but with the question, where to start? He reached out to anyone he thought might be able to help. He had messaged Nicolas Petit, an experienced musher who trained early in his career with Dr. Jim Lanier, a retired clinical pathologist and many-year-veteran of The Last Great Race. Daugherty and Lanier had much in common and Lanier agreed to start working with this new Alaskan.
Daugherty started in September of 2014 training with Lanier three days a week, learning how to harness and booty, getting comfortable on the runners, dealing with loose dogs and tangles, and encouraging and bonding with his team of athletes.
Daugherty’s first race this season was the Gin Gin 200. This race starts at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse in Interior Alaska and heads north, following the Denali Highway for a time, then heading back to Meier’s Lake for the finish. Daugherty was excited at the start of the race, waving enthusiastically as he headed off into the wilderness, finishing two days later. This race provided the first taste of cold weather for a lot of mushers and canines in an unseasonably warm start to winter in Alaska. Temperatures of minus 25 below zero can be more challenging for the humans in these races than the dogs, who prefer the colder temps. Beautiful aurora, clear crisp nights, and hospitality at the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse and Alpine Creek Lodge (the only official trail checkpoint), rounded out a positive experience.
Next was the challenging Copper Basin 300, or CB300 as most call it. Billed as “The toughest 300 miles,” it often lives up to its moniker with difficult weather and trail conditions. More checkpoints, longer distances, and more teams all present more challenges. The CB300 is one of the more popular races in Alaska for fans and mushers alike. The opportunities to navigate such obstacles as Alaska Highway traffic, media, and photographers are certainly not intended challenges, but definitely skills you need to learn when preparing for the Iditarod. Finishing this race is a feather in anyone’s cap, and Daugherty succeeded along with a large field of mushers.
With the CB300 finish, he still needed one more 300-mile qualifier. He chose to run the Northern Lights 300 in January 2015, another very popular race which follows part of the Iditarod Trail. Again, Daugherty was able to navigate the challenges. Each race has its own feel, its own set of requirements, rules and meetings. Working with the various organizations and individuals who put on these races helps one face the unique environment that is Iditarod. Finishing the Northern Lights 300 with “frozen tears of joy” and his wife at his side, Daugherty feels better prepared to take that next step.
Alaska is unique in many ways – its environment, its people, and its dog mushing. A successful Iditarod allows those passionate about mushing to carry forward a time honored tradition in this state. The many qualifying races, inside and outside Alaska, ensure that legacy and the continuation of its success. It affords the opportunity for mushers around the world, and fans alike, to experience something which is truly unique.
Now that he has run all his qualifiers, Daugherty plans to continue to train, race, and then run the Iditarod in 2016. When asked if there were any surprises, he stated he felt he’d had good preparation, but also said, “You think you know your dogs, but running a race is different from back-to-back training runs. You learn so much more about them.” And that is definitely the goal of the Iditarod qualifiers.