The Last Great Race on Earth

On the eighth night of the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, while teams battled along the fierce final stretch to Nome, Alaska, veteran musher Hugh Neff lay in his sled bag 70 miles to the south, where he believed he was going to die.

The former Yukon Quest champion was one of four mushers to set out from the checkpoint at Elim within a half-hour period, speeding along the jagged Bering Sea coast toward the village of Golovin.

The tiny settlement sits on a rocky promontory that juts into the sea, forming a bay on one side and a lagoon on the other. The Iditarod Trail descends from a saddle of mountain ridges onto the frozen bay and runs northwest along the ice. Once it makes land and passes through Golovin, it turns back out over the ice and shoots straight across the lagoon to White Mountain.

Most years, a covering of snow provides gentle traction for mushers as they make the 10-mile crossing from Golovin to White Mountain. Under an uncharacteristically late freeze and scant snowfall, however, the lagoon lay bare, a treacherous plain of endless glare ice.

As night fell, blistering headwinds ripped into the bay from the north and Neff’s dogs struggled to keep their footing on the glassy surface. It was not long before he lost track of the other teams altogether.

Mushers begin the Iditarod with 16 dogs, depositing tired or injured animals at checkpoints along the way. Neff was down to half that number as he fought against the wind. He attempted to lessen their strain by leading his dogs across the ice on foot, one quarter of a mile at a time.

“You went one step forward,” he later recounted, “and the wind was pushing you two steps back. It was pretty much a hopeless situation, and I knew it.”

Temperatures plummeted. Lost, soaked in sweat, and no longer able to stand, Neff turned his attention to surviving the night. He fed the last of the frozen fish to his dogs, tied two blinking headlamps to his handlebars, and crawled into his sled bag. He then sent an S.O.S. to race officials by pressing a button on his sled’s tracking device.

“I was stuck,” he said. “Nature had me in her grasp and she wasn’t going to let me go.”

One grueling hour rolled into the next, but nobody came. Every few minutes, Neff chewed on a cough drop or jelly bean to keep himself awake. Eventually, he could feel his body beginning to die.

“I just kept saying, ‘I want to live, I want to live,’ over and over,” he told local news station KTUU.

Ten whole hours passed, and still, no help arrived. What Neff did not know was that in his desperation to signal for help, he had actually deactivated his beacon. No one ever received the transmission.

It was not until 5 a.m., long after the musher should have checked in at White Mountain, that race officials decided to send someone out to look for him. When the search and rescue finally found him, he was clinging to consciousness; sleeping bag slouched around his knees and the cotton clothing beneath his parka frozen solid.

“It was like he was frozen down in a coffin,” said Dave Branholm, the White Mountain representative who located him.

Neff’s fight for his life on the windswept ice of Golovnin Bay may as well be par for the course in the Iditarod, which has been hailed as “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Stretching across 1,150 miles of dense woodlands, desolate tundra, and rugged mountain ranges, the event demands that competitors exhibit extraordinary resilience–both physical and mental–in the face of harrowing perils.

Mushers combat brutal trail conditions, storms and blizzards, hostile wild animals, and bitter wind chills capable of surpassing -90 degrees Fahrenheit. A single misstep could result in death.

Unlike most sporting events, which pit participants against each other, the root of the Iditarod’s struggle unfurls between man, wilderness, and of course, the sled dogs.

Michael Davis, a veterinarian and associate professor at Oklahoma State University, has dedicated his career to unlocking the biological secrets of these canine champions.

“With a human you may be looking at months and months of meticulous training to reach peak fitness,” said Davis. “Dogs can achieve a far greater level of fitness much more rapidly. It’s not just what they are capable of doing, but how fast they can bring that on line.”

On average, an Iditarod sled dog weighs in at 50 lbs and runs up to 12 hours a day, requiring 10,000 to 12,000 calories to maintain its stamina. To put that into perspective, a human would need to eat ten large pepperoni pizzas in a single day in order to consume the same number of calories.

When it comes to burning that intake efficiently, sled dogs again leave people in the dust. Endurance athletes, the human physical elite, use 70 to 80 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. Sled dogs use 110 to 120.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Madeleine Deaton.

“The dogs are just massively more capable than the best human athlete,” said Davis. “We’ve identified the weak link in the whole thing, and it’s the musher. The mushers need more rest than the dogs do.”

Regardless of the animals’ inherent physical qualifications and extensive training, organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) condemn the Iditarod for the threats it poses to the dogs’ wellbeing. According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, 147 dogs have died since the competition’s inception in 1973.

Only last March, four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey lost two of his dogs on the run from Elim to White Mountain, the very same stretch that nearly killed Hugh Neff.

“They are like your family members,” mourned musher Lou Packer, whose team buckled in a blizzard during the 2009 race. By the time the Iditarod Air Force found him, stranded in a mountain knoll, two of his dogs had frozen to death. “You feel like you’ve failed them. It’s like a bad dream, but it’s real.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the dangers and the tragedies endured, the climate and the backbreaking rigor of it all, mushers return year after year to continue their chronicles across the Alaskan wilderness.

“Something like this galvanizes you,” Packer said. “I feel this is something I want to do.”

The risk is simply a requisite for glory.

As Neff put it, “It’s Alaska–none of us is ever safe.”

Feature photo courtesy of Pixabay user skeeze.