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Concerns regarding the COVID-19 virus compelled Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race organizers to postpone post-race events and residents in some villages to move checkpoints away from populated areas, but the 2020 race continued on with some impressive finishes.

In the end, there was a new champion, Thomas Waerner of Norway.

Ryan Redington, Inupiat, became the first Inupiat musher to finish in the top 10 since John Baker won the 2011 Iditarod. Redington and his team arrived in Nome at 10:40 a.m. March 18, finishing the race in 9 days 20 hours 40 minutes 58 seconds.

Defending champion Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod, placed a respectable 14th, arriving in Nome at 12:56 a.m. March 18. He finished the race in 9 days 22 hours 56 minutes 19 seconds.

Pete Kaiser in Ruby

Mushers and dogs in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race reap the rewards of breathtaking scenery, challenging yet impressive terrain and weather, and a lauded crossing of the finish line in Nome. But this year’s snow and wind-swept Iditarod Trail, where village populations range from 2 to 692 — was filled with challenges on both personal and global levels.

When the race started on March 7, the Iditarod was still feeling the loss of a beloved figure, William “Middy” Johnson, who died three months earlier. The Yup’ik/Inupiat community leader and Iditarod veteran annually made sourdough pancakes for mushers in Unalakleet, where he once served as mayor. Johnson competed in the 2010 Iditarod while he was mayor, placing 33rd and winning the Herbie Nayokpuk Award, presented to the musher who most emulates Herbie “The Shishmaref Cannonball" Nayokpuk in his or her attitude on the trail.

COVID-19 effects on the Iditarod

Concerns about the COVID-19 virus compelled race organizers to postpone the post-race awards banquet, reduce event staff to essential personnel, and discourage out-of-staters from traveling to Nome to watch the race’s finish.

Iditarod veteran Jeremy Keller pulled out of the race after 263 miles, “to be home with his friends and family during this stressful time,” the Iditarod announced,

Iditarod veteran-turned-reporter Blair Braverman, writing for the Anchorage Daily News, reported March 14 that residents of Shaktoolik moved the checkpoint to an uninhabited house outside the village. “People donated hot plates, a generator, lights and a wood stove,” Braverman reported. “They drilled a hole in the river for water, chopped firewood so that mushers would have a ready supply, and hung up a banner to welcome them.” But the checkpoint would be unstaffed.

Iditarod veterans and twin sisters Anna and Kristy Berington scratched 714 miles into the race when they were notified of a death in the family.

Seventeen mushers and teams would pull out of the race for various reasons, most of them out of the best interest of their dogs, between March 9 and 17. One of those mushers, Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, had at one point been in second place and for almost 600 miles had been in the top 10. By mile 714, his team dropped to 27th and Diehl – a veteran of seven Iditarods with a career-best of sixth place — scratched “in the best interest of his race team,” the Iditarod race committee reported. Robert Redington, Ryan’s brother, looking to finish his second Iditarod, scratched 123 miles from the finish line, also in the best interest of his dogs.

In light of coronavirus concerns, some mushers were offered supplies, but oftentimes these supplies were available on the outskirts of villages, which also meant no place to sleep for the night.

As reported in Alaska Public Media, Iditarod race judge Karen Ramstead had to alert mushers that the town of Shaktoolik was being shut down in the interest of public health. She had to create a makeshift cardboard sign alerting racers that supplies would be available just outside of the coastal town.

Another town’s checkpoint in Nulato was also moved to the outskirts, where mushers had access to supplies and a staff of veterinarians, but there would be no access to any places to sleep and no access to the village.

The Bering Strait School District had also closed facilities to visitors, including Iditarod racers.

The series of closures and reallocated checkpoints had an effect on racers across the board.

Yet the race, like life, continued on.

The 2020 Iditarod champion

The 2020 champion, Thomas Waerner of Norway, took control of the race at Kaltag (mile 629.) He crossed the finish line in Nome at 12:37 a.m. March 18. Waerner’s team was well-energized, with four-hour rests at most checkpoints in addition to the race-mandated eight and 24-hour layover. He and his team finished the race in nine days 10 hours 37 minutes 47 seconds.

Kaiser, last year’s champ, and his team led for the first 150 miles of the race but fell out of the top 10 by mile 352. He told Iditarod Insider that his dogs were distracted and having a hard time staying focused. Still, he was taking it in stride.

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“So far to here, it’s not been exactly what we planned or hoped for,” Kaiser said. “Just throwing some curveballs. It’s pretty normal, really, for Iditarod to be dealing with stuff you weren’t planning for. That’s kind of how it works — whoever can adjust and deal with it the best. It comes down to dealing with adversity and what difficulties are thrown at you.”

Kaiser’s team soon found their groove, were eating and resting well and were the fourth team to arrive in Kaltag. Kaiser gave his team a longer rest here and they were the 16th team to leave before heading out to the Norton Sound coast. But his team was slowed by trail conditions made sloggy by warmer daytime temperatures – several mushers said it was like mushing through mashed potatoes. While trail conditions later improved, Kaiser couldn’t make up for the lost time and remained just outside the top 10 for the rest of the race.

Feeling the love in Unalakleet

To Ryan Redington, the race held special significance beyond his eighth-place finish.

When he stopped at the checkpoint in his mother’s home village of Unalakleet, 754 miles into the race, he found snacks that children had sent for him and his team and villagers took photos as he talked with Iditarod Insider, the Iditarod’s video report. There was the welcoming smell of sourdough pancakes, prepared by volunteers continuing the work of the late Middy Johnson, the Mushing Mayor.

“I’ve got my camera, Ryan. Say hi to Momma,” a villager called out as Redington changed the batteries in his headlamp.

Ryan Redington in Unalakleet

“This race is very special,” Redington told Iditarod Insider. “One of the most special reasons is the people. We go through the villages, it’s really remarkable. It’s what I treasure — running this race and visiting with the people.”

He acknowledged the support he received in Unalakleet and said, “I’m very honored to be here. I’m trying to do you guys proud.”

Redington’s team was well rested and prepared for changing trail conditions. They took three- to five-hour rests at each checkpoint – in addition to their required eight and 24-hour rests — blowing through three of the shorter-distance checkpoints. From Unalakleet on, Redington and his team maintained a pace of six to seven mph and slowly grew some distance from the rest of the field.

Vet checks Redington dog in Unalakleet

“We’re taking it smart, one move at a time and doing right by the dogs, and things will pay off by doing that,” Redington told Iditarod Insider. “If we finish in the top 10, that’ll be pretty special to me. I’ve never done that before.”

Which Redington did. “I’m pretty proud of these dogs,” he said when he crossed the finish line to applause from the sparse crowd in Nome. “We’ve got good dogs. I feel very good about how we ended up. I think we ran a smart race, a conservative race … I’m anxious to come back and see what we can do.”

2020 Iditarod at a Glance

The race began on March 7 in Anchorage. with a field of 57 mushers. 

Photo by Melissa Shelby

Among them:

Four Alaska Natives (defending champ Pete Kaiser, Yup'ik; Richie Diehl, Dena'ina Athabaskan; and brothers Robert and Ryan Redington, Inupiat).

  • 47 Americans, five Canadians, three Norwegians, one Dane, and one Italian.
  • Six past Iditarod champions (including Kaiser).
  • Twin sisters (Iditarod veterans Anna and Kristy Berington of Seeing Double Dog Racing).
  • Two medical doctors (Robert Bundtzen and Jim Lanier).
  • A trauma surgeon (Tom Knolmayer).
  • A pediatric dentist (Kelly Maixner).
  • A veterinarian (Jessica Klejka).
  • A newspaper and magazine publisher (Nils Hahn).
  • A TV personality (Jessie Holmes, "Life below Zero").
  • A former professional hockey player (Jason Campeau).
  • A former fashion and runway model (Zoya DeNure).

Of Alaska Native mushers in the race, Kaiser won his fifth Kuskokwim 300 in January; and Ryan Redington won his second John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the longest sled dog race in the lower 48, also in January.

The winner of the 2020 Iditarod will receive $50,000 and a new truck. Prize money is awarded to the top 20 finishers. The remaining finishers each receive $1,049 – representing the race’s 1,000 miles and Alaska’s status as the 49th U.S. state.

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, reports for Indian Country Today from Anacortes, Washington.