It’s obvious that Alaska is the largest state in the Union. It also has other ‘largest’ characteristics. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is one of the largest pipeline systems in the world; it was a first for building structures on permafrost, conquering challenges of operating in the harsh, isolated arctic terrain. At over 2,000 miles through the brutal Alaskan wilderness between Big Lake and Fairbanks, the Iron Dog is the longest snowmobile race and arguably one of the toughest competitions in the world. February’s Fur Rondy has been around since the 1930s; it has grown in worldwide popularity to where in 2012 it was voted number one winter carnival by the National Geographic Traveler. Probably Alaska’s most famous large event, however, is the Iditarod, the longest dogsled race in the world, also known as the ‘Last Great Race on Earth,’ and it is definitely one of the toughest competitions in the world.
While not necessarily stated by the founders of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the competition has a close resemblance to the 1925 ‘Great Race of Mercy.’ It was a relay race against time, run by 20 mushers and their sled dog teams in an effort to save Nome’s population from a deadly diphtheria outbreak. Where today’s Iditarod Trail follows a historic winter trail used by mushers to haul freight from Seward to Nome, alternatively the Mercy Race began in Nenana, with the serum having been delivered from Seward by train. Once it arrived, mushers raced towards Nome through fierce, record-breaking winter cold. Planes could not fly in the blizzard conditions and hurricane force winds, but sled dogs could run through the storm. The mushers had an incredible sense of urgency as children fell victim and died from the disease; they completed the usually 25 day trek in just 5 ½ days, at the cost of some of their dogs lives and they themselves suffering severely frost bit faces, hands, and feet. Temperatures dropped as low as -70 below. Mushers had to drop down to frozen rivers because of too-deep snow drifts, risking falling through the ice; which one team did. Though initially all got out, at least two dogs died later from exposure. It is incredible that in white out conditions, when the musher could not see where they were going, his lead dog could still find the way. In the end, not one of the serum ampules were broken despite the frantic ride. Unbelievably, many of those same mushers made a second serum run through the unforgiving wilderness before ample supplies could be brought into Nome by air.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is the result of two people’s admiration for the role mushers and their sled dogs have played in Alaska’s history, as well as the desire to preserve the historic, once vital winter trail used for hauling freight between Seward and Nome. The foundation for the Race was laid through the tireless efforts of Alaskan history buff Dorothy Page and homesteader Joe Redington Sr in the 1970s. Though the National Historic Iditarod Trail runs from Seward to Nome, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race itself has a ceremonial start in Anchorage on the first Saturday in March and an actual start in Willow the next day. To limit outsider impact and yet allow participation of several small communities in the exceptional event, the mushers alternate a north and south route, with the south route going through the race’s namesake, the ghost town of Iditarod. Participating mushers come from all walks of life, from the expected outdoorsmen to an occasional doctor or lawyer. The sport also runs in families, such as the Redingtons, Seaveys and Mackeys. Mushers and dogs alike go through rigorous training for months, for years to become athletes capable of successfully surviving the unforgiving Alaskan outdoors.
In our personal lives one of the ‘largest’ characteristics is our spirituality; individual spiritual beliefs influence the way we each run the race of life. My faith in God is my life’s foundation; because of His Great Mercy run from heaven into earthly form manifested in Jesus Christ, he has provided a dependable, sincere, righteous path for me to follow. As in the Iditarod race, there are different weather challenges in the seasons of life that make following the path difficult. Staying the course takes faith and perseverance, sometimes in the face of seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. I Corinthians 9:24-25 says ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.’ Only one of the Iditarod competitors will win that race; my life’s race, however, is competing within myself to live a life pleasing to God. I need to be prepared through Bible study and prayer, dependent on God’s strength and wisdom to win against the storms of this life. When my way is tracking through white-out conditions, I have the Holy Spirit as my lead dog who knows the way. To successfully survive the pitfalls of this world, I have the Lord’s moral compass and eternal hope in his forgiving grace imprinted on my heart. So then, in the end, I can say with Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7 ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’