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My Journey to Iditarod 2016 by Larry Daugherty

Why enter a 1,000 mile race across Alaska with a team of Iditarod dogs? Why subject your body to extreme cold, fatigue, dehydration, hallucinations and some of the most punishing weather on the planet? Why you ask?

Well, if you are asking why, honestly, you may not understand the answer even if I try to explain it. But I will try!

My own journey is I think best explained through this video that I made in 2012. As you watch, keep in mind that at this point in time, I was living in Florida and the Iditarod was an idea, a far off dream. Very real to me in my mind. But as far as any sort of a plan to make it happen - nonexistent. All of that changed when I was fortunate, through this video, to win a spot in the Fjällräven Polar - a 200 mile dogsled adventure in northern Scandinavia, north of the arctic circle.

So I went to Scandinavia. participated in the Fjällräven Polar, and my life was changed. I came back more determined than ever to turn my Iditarod dream into a reality.

Less than 800 people have ever completed the Iditarod. To put that in perspective - in 2012, 658 people summited Mt Everest - in a single year. So each year nearly as many people reach the top of the world as have completed the Iditarod over in a 43-year span.

When I returned to Florida, it just so happened that a postcard from Alaska arrived announcing a job for an oncologist in Anchorage. That opened the door to moving to Alaska and perhaps actually really finding a way to do the Iditarod.

Long story short, I did take the job and relocate my family to Alaska - an entire book unto itself. After arriving here, I had no idea how I would actually begin the process of getting into the mushing scene. So I just started cold calling. I reached out to every musher I could find - anyone who would listen to me. I learned quickly that Iditarod mushers get a lot of calls from guys like me. That my story was not really as unique as I felt it was. Many had read Jack London as a child, dreamed of the Iditarod their entire lives, entered a midlife crisis, so to speak, and picked up the phone to call the big names in mushing. I found, understandably so, that many of these mushers were highly suspect of new people coming onto the scene because so many rookies flat out quit even just a month or two into their journey. Mushing is a TON of work. The glamour shots of the musher traveling through the winter wonderlands with a beautiful team of dogs come at an enormous cost. Many, many hours of menial tasks like scooping poop, cutting up meat, trimming toenails, fixing gear, scooping more poop and on and on. It is an all-consuming lifestyle that new people just do not understand. Also poorly understood is that to qualify and run the Iditarod is at minimum a 2-year commitment. You cannot qualify for and run the race in the same years. A rookie must complete at least 800 miles of mid-distance races to be considered for a spot in the Iditarod.

I did not give up. I continued to email and make calls. This is another book unto itself - how I met Jim Lanier at Walgreens through really a chance meeting and ended up with a spot as his handler for a year in exchange for the opportunity to learn from him and use his dogs for my qualifying races. 

As a rookie trying to qualify for the Iditarod - the most important aspects of the qualifying races are to: 1) take good care of your dogs - not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because this is the one thing that can easily disqualify you on your rookie report card - most Race Marshall's make this very clear at the start of the race. 2) Finish the race. Make an effort to compete somewhat - but most importantly, finish the dang race. Don't take any un-necessary risks that could mean injury to yourself or your dogs, don't tire out your team to the point that they will not be able to finish the race.

So for most rookies, these turn out honestly to be more like very difficult training runs than truly "races." This is pretty much how I treated my first two races - I didn't want to do anything stupid, I just wanted to finish and qualify. Don't get me wrong, these were extremely challenging races and just getting to the finish line of a 300-miler is in my mind no small achievement. But looking back, by shaving a half hour of rest here or there, I could have done more to "compete," if you get my drift.

Sometime in the week or two leading up to the Northern Lights 300 I decided that I was going to compete this time. Yes, I still needed to qualify, to take excellent care of my dogs, to finish the race, etc - but this time, I wanted to treat it as much like an actual race as possible. I set a goal for myself to finish in the top 10. 

My strategy was to run hard and long then rest long at checkpoints. I saw this work effectively for some of the big guns (like Allen Moore at Copper Basin for instance). My pre-race game plan looked like this:

- Run straight start to Yentna (52 miles): rest for 5 hours
- Run straight Yentna to Finger Lake (75ish miles): rest for 6 hours
- Run straight Finger Lake to Yentna (75ish again): rest for 4 hours
- Run to the finish line (52 miles)  

To the scrutinizing eye, the key omissions from this plan for a rookie would be: 1) considering resting/camping for 2 hours or so in the middle of the 75 mile runs and 2) not stopping at Talvista - a hospitality stop that was available between Yentna and Finger Lake on the outbound leg..however, rest at Talvista would not count toward the mandatory 15 hours..and my goal, in trying to be competitive, was to take only the minimum rest of 15 hours so that I could try to stay with the front of the pack.

I ended up finishing 14th. Part of this was due to trail conditions being worse than I had imagined they would be, resulting in me really needing to take slightly more than the minimum rest for the good of my dogs (I took an extra 90 minutes and also had to take an un-planned camping stop to rest for about 1 hour..I'll explain below). Part of this was due to a hallucination which added 3 hours and at least 10 miles to an already long run (also explained below). And part of this was due to a very difficult final 10 miles with my team - I had asked perhaps too much of them and they were done. It took a couple of hours to move probably 1 mile - all the while switching out lead dogs and swing dogs and trying to find a dog that had something left in the tank to lead my team to the finish line. So grateful to my unlikely leaders of Daffy and French Fry for stepping it up at this moment!

Knowing what I know now - I definitely would have modified my race schedule and not run my dogs so fast for so long. The team "crashing on me" the last 10 miles, was undoubtedly due to my rookie inexperience. I have learned from this and during the Iditarod will race much more conservatively - likely from the back of the pack and at a comfortable pace for my dogs (probably 8-9 MPH) with runs no longer than 50 miles.

ON HALLUCINATIONS AND SLEEP DEPRIVATION

I first experienced hallucinations during the Copper Basin 300 race - seeing mice and a NASCAR- style race track on the mountainside.

I have spent decades of my life working night shifts, on call at all hours of the night either in an ambulance, or at a hospital, or helping addicts in the middle of the night get through symptoms of withdrawal. I'd like to think I know a thing or two about sleep deprivation. However, I learned from my races this month that I don't know jack! I had thought that 30-36 hours of no sleep as I had done routinely as a medical student or intern was pretty good torture. Nope. Try 48 or even 60 - coupled with dehydration - and it's a completely different ball game. You start to go a little bit mad. I mean crazy. You alternate between misery and just wanting to cry and odd euphoria type feelings. Then the hallucinations come. Most mushers I talked to hear barking dogs pretty commonly. I definitely had my share of that. I could hear people talking to me. I would hear sounds behind me on the trail that I still don't know if they were real or imagined - but the kind of sounds that startle you and jolt you back into consciousness.

I had thought that 30-36 hours of no sleep as I had done routinely as a medical student or intern was pretty good torture. Nope. Try 48 or even 60 - coupled with dehydration - and it's a completely different ball game. You start to go a little bit mad. I mean crazy.

My race-altering hallucination came on Saturday night - the second night of no sleep. It's one thing to have no sleep and be in a warm hospital with the lights on and maybe some food available somewhere and the rush rush of working to keep you awake. It's another thing to be in utter dark wilderness and standing mostly completely still hanging onto a sled on flat terrain - like a treadmill of repetitive scenery going past you as the hours and hours go on and on..so hard to stay awake in this situation!

I had stuck to my plan of running straight from Yentna to Finger..blowing through Talvista with a quick stop for breakfast. This had me arriving to Finger in 7th place. My dogs were looking great and running fast. I stuck to my plan of 5 hours of rest after that long 75 mile run without any rest.

Then 3am comes and I'm in the midst of a colossal struggle to stay awake and something really confusing happens. I see headlamps approaching me. At first, I think these are snow machines headed my way..but as they get closer I realize these are MUSHERS. Now why on earth would mushers be approaching me head on? The only people ahead of me (5 at this point..I had passed one team that was camping) are headed to Yentna. All other mushers are behind me - most still resting at Finger Lake, but the closest musher I knew was probably at least an hour behind me. WHY ARE THERE MUSHERS COMING AT ME? Then I see them as they pass. I see their faces plain as day - It's Anna and Kristy Berington! (Sidenote - Kristy Berington won the race and Anna took second - super happy for these two!). I knew that Anna and Kristy were ahead of me..and they should be headed to Yentna - why oh why would they be headed now TOWARD me and going the wrong direction?! (Spoiler alert - it's not them! I'm hallucinating!! These are just two random mushers not participating in the race and out doing a training run! But I swear to you I saw these girls faces plain as day..and the two mushers weren't even women, they were guys!!). I try to yell at them as we pass and ask "which way is Yentna?!" but I have too many layers of clothing covering my face in the -20 to -30 temps. They can't hear me. 

So I stop my team and assess the situation. I start to question if I am going the right way. I tell myself that the Berington's have done the Iditarod several times and are seasoned mushers..if they turned their teams around, they must have good reason! I remember Jim telling me before the race that there was one spot where I could take a wrong turn and start heading to Skwentna rather than Yentna - and I ask myself if this is what has happened..and did the Berington's figure out that they were going the wrong way and now they have turned around? Yes! Yes, that's it! Oh hallelujah I have been saved by the Berington twins and probably would have gone at least 10 miles the wrong direction. Further reinforcement of this erroneous conclusion was the blue trail markers..the correct trail was to be marked in ORANGE trail markers and I realize that for awhile I had only been seeing BLUE. So now I am certain that I am making the correct decision and I turn the team around..

Yes! Yes, that's it! Oh hallelujah I have been saved by the Berington twins and probably would have gone at least 10 miles the wrong direction.

Not 1 mile later I see something rather confusing - an orange trail marker that had obviously been blown over by the storm and was now in the middle of the trail. "How did that get there?" I reason that the storm must have been so severe that it blew all the way onto this incorrect trail. Then maybe a half mile later I see something even more confusing - ORANGE trail markers that are correctly placed on the side of the trail. I then begin to see trail that I clearly recognized from my first outbound run to Finger Lake - particularly one unforgettable little creek crossing where the ice was slanted toward some open water and it took some maneuving to keep the sled on the trail. I know somewhere in the recesses of my brain that I have drawn the wrong conclusion..I was on the correct trail the entire time and now I am headed the wrong way! I should not have turned my team around.

Then the sleep deprivation, the confusion, the darkness, the non-Berington Berington's all converge into one even more maddening question: did I ever really turn my team around to begin with? Or did I dream that? Where am I now? Which way am I going? I start to panic. If I head the wrong way on the wrong trail, I may not run into anyone for days..how will I even know if I'm on the wrong trail? I decide that because I can orange markers..even though I'm pretty sure I'm going backwards toward Finger rather than toward Yentna..more dominant in my mind is that I have this SURE KNOWLEDGE that I had seen the Berington's and that they must've and a reason for going the opposite way..so I decide to continue the way I am going until I run into another musher and then hopefully we can sort it out together.

45 minutes later I run into non other than Noah Pereira - yup, the same musher who had helped me rescue my loose dog Feb only 5 miles into the Copper Basin 300 and gave me a ride to find my loose team. Now I meet Noah and I'm headed the wrong way on the right trail. I had passed Noah while he was camping a couple of hours previously. Noah comes upon me with a rather confused look..I wave my arms to stop him and flash my headlamp. "Noah, we're saved! The Berington's have shown us the way! I passed them and we're going the wrong way!" Uhh..dude, no we're not! That wasn't the Berington's! The pieces start coming together as Noah brings out his GPS (oh how I'm regretting not bringing one at this point!). Noah proceeds with confidence on the correctly marked, well-traveled, obviously orange trail..(and after two experiences like this with me must think I'm quite a doof, lol!).

I attempt to now turn my team around for the second time..and I don't blame them here..but they very obviously give me expressions of "you IIIIIDDDDDIIIIOOOOTTTT!!! You just turned an already very difficult 75 mile push into an 85-90 run!" I now have trouble motivating my team to run. They lay down. They tell me very clearly that they are resting before they listen to one more command from their wayward driver. I listen to the dogs for the first time..I mean really listen and understand what they need right then. I deviate from my plan..we camp for an hour before proceeding to Yentna. Many teams pass. My top ten goal is now quite unlikely.

ON WEATHER

There was much talk about the possibly sketchy trail conditions leading up to this race. As you probably know, this has been a record low snowfall year in Alaska and if you would have asked me several weeks ago, I was pretty sure the Northern Lights 300 was going to be canceled. Then we got an email stating that the race would be held, that the trail was a bit icy in spots, but that it was do-able. However, the race committee decided to decrease the maximum size of dog teams to 12 and even highly recommended considering downsizing to 10. Too much power on an icy trail is a recipe for hitting a tree as you scream around a sharp turn, or losing your team as you careen down a steep slope, etc.

Enduring harsh weather leads to great rewards and incredible vistas! Besides, there is no such thing as bad weather - only bad clothing! With the right gear, winter is amazing!!!

I waffled back and forth between the 12 and 10 decision..but in the end went with 12 on Jim's recommendation and advice that it is a long race and much can happen in 300 miles..I was likely to need to drop a dog or two at some point, etc. Well, I'm super glad I took his advice.

We all prayed maybe a bit too hard for snow. At the start of the race there were a few inches of fresh powder and it was snowing pretty hard. By the time we reached the first checkpoint, there was up to 15-18" of fresh snow on parts of the trail and enough snow to REALLY slow down all of the teams. By this point I'm sure we were all wishing that we had 14 dogs! I felt bad for the teams that had downsized to 10.

Each of my races has been challenging for different reasons. The GinGin was the extreme cold of up to -42 below and the monotonous terrain which made it very difficult to stay awake. The Copper Basin was very technical and vertical terrain..very strenuous on both the musher and the dogs. The Northern Lights for me was difficult because of this fresh snow, the wind and the resultant poorly marked trail in spots. Many of the trail markers were blown away - in particular on the section from Talvista to Finger Lake. More seasoned mushers probably were not freaked out by this leg of the race, but I sure was! We had been told over and over again to stay on the marked trail on this leg because much of it was on the river, which was not completely frozen..there were open sections that we needed to avoid by following the trail. Since I did not rest at Talvista (most teams did) I was near the front of the pack - I think 6th or 7th headed up to Finger Lake - but it was as if no other team had gone over the trail. The wind was howling and in sections the snow had drifted to completely cover the trail on the river. The trail markers were almost nonexistent. So it was a little freaky. In the end, I just trusted my dogs and they navigated the way just fine. But as we traveled over the many miles of river the terrain reminded me of crossing a glacier more than a river. There were huge chunks of ice where buckling had occurred which gave the appearance of gaping crevasses. The fresh snow covering these areas made it impossible to know if the ice below was completely frozen and safe, or perhaps even open water. As I said, grateful to my dogs for getting me safely through this section!

ON MUSIC

It may surprise many of my friends that it took me this long to discover the value of music in the middle of the night. However, one of the first things you learn when moving to Alaska is that when you are in the back country it is unwise to travel around with your sense of hearing blunted. There are stories published each year of bear maulings and the scrutinizing Alaskan will instantly ask whether they had an iPod blaring when they were attacked and whether they were carrying a gun or bear spray to protect themselves. Well, it seems that this does not hold true in mushing. Many mushers listen to music. For one, bears should be hibernating so that risk is quite minimal. The main wildlife risk is moose. However, I have learned that the dogs will recognize/smell a moose much, much sooner than I will ever see it. You get this instant indication when they smell something as they perk up and just about pull the sled out of your hands as the entire team speeds up.

Anyway, after several close calls falling asleep and waking up realizing that a fall while asleep would have resulted in injury or worse, I decided that the risks of blunting my sense of hearing was not outweighed by the benefit of music keeping me awake. I also realized that my sense of hearing is kind of meaningless since I'm often bundled up with so many layers around my head that I can't hear a dang thing anyway!

So after a very long night from Yentna to Talvista - I got a nice hot breakfast quickly, then jumped back on the sled and started the team with no rest. One saving grace was that the sun was out and, besides the wind, it was a beautifully clear day. However, I was thoroughly exhausted. I put in the earbuds and turned on a little MJ (Wanna Be Startin' Somethin). Wow. Did. That. HELP!!! Misery turned to joy. Ski pole turned to microphone. Sled runners turned to dance floor. Trees turned to audience. Dogs to background singers. I did not care if anyone could hear me - I was bolting it out right along with Michael and loving every minute of it! The dogs seemed to enjoy me singing as well as I could feel their pace intensify a bit and they seemed able to maintain speed as long as I was singing to them. I dunno, maybe I imagined that part along with the beat..but man, music made such a huge difference! It also made the monotonous parts of the run more interesting. Try listening to Enya's "Amid the Falling Snow" while the snow is actually falling! Or U2's "Vertigo" while you are kind of actually experiencing Vertigo and hallucinating, etc. Music has a way of enriching most any experience and I am glad that I finally discovered the joy it can bring while on the back of the sled =).

ON MISERY 

Truth be told, mushing involves a lot of misery. I mean, really A LOT of it. My mountaineering friends will understand this to some degree as a 300 mile race is akin to a really long summit day where you endure hours and hours of mind-numbing and body-aching up, up, up all to go after that glorious summit.

I fully understand and do not fault others for wondering why on earth people engage in these activities that involve so much misery. It really is difficult to explain, but I will try a bit more than "because it is there" although, that's a pretty darn good reason too.

Over the past few weeks and 800 miles of races I have been the coldest I have ever been in my life. I have been the most fatigued I have ever been in my life. I have at times been the most alone and isolated I have ever been in my life. I have been sometimes the most utterly wasted, tired and even depressed that I have been in my entire life. That's a lot of "entire life's" in such a short amount of time..but each is sincerely true. So I have been through all this misery, monotony and cold - for what?

Well, contrast that with these moments of just spectacular splendor. For instance, seeing the most incredible northern lights display I think possible..in the middle of the night all by yourself, just you and the dogs enjoying the most amazing and beautiful spectacle nature can offer. Or to look up at the night's sky and see the countless stars and realize that there must be a God up there governing the universe. To travel to remote areas that are not accessible by road. We stayed at these lodges on the Northern Lights 300 race that you would have to fly into or arrive by snow machine or dogsled..that is the only way to get to a place like Yentna, Talvista or Finger Lake. To see the Alaska range up close and personal. To overcome enormous challenges and see your team cross the finish line. That is what is all about - that is what you remember at the end of the experience. The misery is there constantly with you during the race..but when the race is over, ironically, the misery fades and you are left only with the rich experiences - which retrospectively may even include the misery - and you are a changed person as a result. You can do hard things. You know you can. You have done them. You can accomplish something amazing. You can accomplish your goals. You can do anything!

ON GRATITUDE 

About 10 miles from the finish line, my team just quit on me. I mean laid down and quit. Not running anymore. It was as if those 10 extra miles I added on by going the right way but thinking it was the wrong way were coming back to haunt me. My lead dog Alpha was evidently done. I tried to cheer him on, but he found himself a nice snow bank and just sat down and seemed to say "we're resting here boss."

I had several other lead dog alternates, which I tried, but with essentially the same result. My team was done. I tried and tried to re-organize, to give the team a pep talk (that must be an interesting sight to watch as mushers try to rally their team..as they take the dog's head in their hands and look into their eyes and just plead with them that they're only a few miles from the truck, and straw, and food!). I tried all I could but literally began to think I may not finish this race. Or I may be out here camping tonight, or.. Then I tried something unconventional..I put that one dog in lead. The one who you think can't lead, but you have no other option so what do you have to lose? This dog for me was French Fry. Oh blessed little French Fry! That wonderful, tiny little dog put her head down and pulled the team another few miles. It was just the shot of adrenaline we needed. Follow that with another unlikely leader - Daffy - and my team somehow made it to the finish line.

As we approached re-entry to the civilized world, the race folks had hung up a sign saying "5-miles," meaning that's how close we were to the finish line. It's hard to describe what a small little sign like that can do to your moral when after you have traveled so far, don't know exactly how close you are to the finish line, etc. Then a short time later there was a sign saying "you rock." If you've ever run a marathon and felt the rush of energy that comes with just a few spectators cheering for you, then you know what this sign did for me in that moment.

As we approached re-entry to the civilized world, the race folks had hung up a sign saying "5-miles," meaning that's how close we were to the finish line. It's hard to describe what a small little sign like that can do to your moral when after you have traveled so far, don't know exactly how close you are to the finish line, etc.

Then all these thoughts start racing through my head. I realize that I am just a few miles away from being truly on the brink now of fulfilling a lifelong dream - of qualifying for the Iditarod. I think of all of the friends and family who have supported me in so many ways. I think of how lucky I was to meet Jim and fall into the huge pot of honey with the ideal mentor and a guy who has taught me so much and provided a path for me to fulfill this dream. I think of my wife and my kids and all they have sacrificed to come to Alaska and to support me on this path. I think of my Grandma - how she inspired me as a young boy and how she made me feel special somehow like I really could accomplish anything I wanted in life. As I'm thinking and reminiscing and realizing that I'm about to really qualify for the Iditarod, well the tears just start to flow, and flow and flow. To the point that I have frozen bits of tear ice on my eyelashes at the finish line. To the point that I can hardly communicate with the checker at the finish line or sign my name because I am sobbing. I feel like such a baby. But I also don't care. I'm now an Iditarod-bound musher!

Prairie is there at the finish line which just means the world to me. I can't in that moment fully describe the depth of my feeling of gratitude to her, but I try. I see Jim and Joel there, who mercifully help make quick business of removing booties and harnesses and squaring away my team..while I try to compose myself. They notice the tears (hard to miss them) and I think due to my difficult run, which they were aware of, think I am overcome with having made it after the difficulty with my leaders and team, etc. It would be hard to fully explain in that moment my true emotions, so I don't really try. I am wishing so much that my Grandma could be there to see me cross the finish line..to be Iditarod bound. I think she would think it is pretty incredible.

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