UNALAKLEET — The leaders are long gone, but the race is still on for many mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. We caught up with some of the personalities in the middle of the race field on a crisp, clear morning on the Norton Sound coast.
The lengths a rookie will go
From this point on, Hanna Lyrek is setting new personal records every time she pulls her snowhook.
“We’ve never, never ever, ran this far before,” said Lyrek, an Iditarod rookie from Alta, Norway.
Lyrek, 22, booted her team as sunlight peeked over the horizon. She’s a veteran distance racer back home, but her longest has been the 700-mile Finnmark.
“We don’t have any longer ones in Norway,” she said.
In fact, none of the dogs on her team have 1,000-mile race experience either. She said the four dogs who rotate leading duties — Keen, Denali, Koren and Sammy 3 have impressed her.
“They just seem ready to go whenever it’s time to go, and after traveling this far, that’s not always the deal,” said Lyrek. “It’s been really fun to watch them.”
[Technical difficulties, pizza deliveries and life lessons: Scenes from the Iditarod in Unalakleet]
Lyrek is one of four mushers on the Qrill Pet Mushing Team, which the company describes as “the world’s first professional long-distance dog sled team.” The team also includes Iditarod champs Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Thomas Waerner.
She left Unalakleet with 10 dogs wearing bright orange coats and looking ready to run.
As of Monday morning, Lyrek was positioned well for Iditarod Rookie of the Year honors, but there’s a long way to go, she said.
“It definitely would be fun, but finishing is still the main goal,” Lyrek said.
Meet a vet
Growing up in Anchorage, Rhyannon Moore-Foster was so excited about Iditarod that she once wanted to be a musher. She and her family watched the ceremonial start in Anchorage every year.
“Seeing these amazing athletes, both the people and the dogs, is really inspiring,” she said.
She hasn’t assembled a team yet, but she figures Iditarod did play a role in her career path: She became a veterinarian. Now, Moore-Foster is a professor at Colorado State University with a focus on livestock.
A couple years ago, she responded to a Facebook post seeking applicants to become Iditarod veterinarians and thought, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to try that. Why not.”
Today, she’s powering through long days as mushers flow in and out of Unalakleet.
“You kind of start adjusting to running on three or four hours of sleep,” she said. “But it’s only a week or so, and it’s only once a year.”
[Brent Sass, resting in White Mountain, is poised for his first Iditarod victory]
This is Moore-Foster’s second Iditarod. She’s part of a team of dozens of race veterinarians that staff each checkpoint. She said ideally, there are four to six veterinarians rotating through shifts at each checkpoint, examining dogs, advising mushers and caring for dogs dropped from the competition who are bound for McGrath or Anchorage.
“We try to get some ears and eyes on each dog the best we can,” she said.
“I love it,” she said. “I love getting to know the people and getting to see the dogs.”
What about her childhood hopes of becoming a musher? Moore-Foster laughed.
“Maybe as a retirement plan,” she said.
A balancing act
Tending to her team after a long rest in Unalakleet, Paige Drobny weighed in her mind how she’d like to proceed up the coast.
Drobny, a seven-time Iditarod veteran who placed seventh in both 2019 and 2020, is no longer vying for a top spot this year. Earlier in the race, she took her dogs on some long runs that did not pay off. It was a “management error” on her part, she said.
“I had to just rein back to try to let them have a little bit more recovery time,” she said.
“I wish I had done some things differently for sure. I’m down to eight dogs, so I’m just trying to be super conservative now,” she said.
Drobny entered the race with a last-minute shakeup in her starting lineup.
“I had a couple of main leaders that couldn’t go, and so I hadn’t really run this team as a team before the race,” she said. “A couple of them have been here before, but just not in charge.”
Drobny spent eight hours in Unalakleet. “When I was on the way here, I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll just do another 24,’ ” she said.
Moving forward, Drobny said her goal is to give her dogs a good experience the rest of the way. Still, her competitive instincts are awake. It’s hard to tune out her finishing position entirely, she said.
“It’s really hard to do,” she said. “There is still opportunity for racing, so that’s still in my head sadly. Can’t turn it off.”