SPEECH: Iditarod 2019
[As Prepared, Not Delivered]
Mr. President, I come to share a story of the Last Great Race on Earth.
In the middle of the night in Alaska at 3:39 AM on Wednesday, March 13th – it’s pitch dark, snow coming down, the wind blowing, cold enough to see your breath [temperatures in the teens]. Front Street in Nome was packed, lined with hundreds of people cheering. People – fans, family and friends – from all over the country and across Alaska flew into this remote coastal town of less than 4,000 people to witness this moment – the moment that Pete Kaiser, born and raised in Bethel, with eight dogs in harness, came down the street to cross the finish line and claim victory as the 2019 Iditarod Champion just twelve minutes ahead of defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway – among the closest Iditarod races in history. And Jessie Royer of Fairbanks coming in at third place. This incredible race, the “Last Great Race on Earth” actually, took Pete Kaiser nine days, twelve hours, thirty-eight minutes to complete.
Immediately after crossing the finish line, you could see Pete throw his fists up in the air in celebration, then hugging his family and wiping tears from his face. It’s a moment I trust he will remember forever. The feeling, reaching this moment, is hard to fathom. For Pete: someone who had grown up mushing in Western Alaska [as a kid!], someone who is often referred to as an ‘encyclopedia’ of racing knowledge, someone that is known in his community for his hard work and dedication; For someone who won the Kuskokwim300 four times in a row [a race qualifier for the Iditarod]; For his family and extended family: who had supported him and cheered him on along the way; For members of his community: who flew in a chartered plane [over 100] to get there in time to see him finish and celebrate this achievement. Achieving his first Iditarod victory is a truly incredible accomplishment and possibly the highlight of his career.
While nothing truly beats being in Nome to see the Finish, the end of this roughly 1,000 mile race, I was honored to be there at the start of the Iditarod, just nine days prior, to feel the excitement of the beginning of this incredible journey that Pete and the fifty-one other mushers were about to embark on. I had the privilege of getting a small glimpse of this one-of-a-kind experience – by riding on Jeff King’s tag sled from Anchorage to Campbell Creek, the first eleven miles of the race, and only a fraction of the overall journey. The journey that led these mushers through valleys and across mountain ranges –like the terrain, the weather was up and down from rain to below freezing temperatures, braving wind, snow, and ice. There is so much work that goes into coming under that burled arch, making it across that finish line. It’s a tremendous accomplishment no matter what position you come in.
A tremendous accomplishment with so many challenges and obstacles on the way.
Richie Diehl of Aniak ran into a tree, smacking his face on the trail near Nikolai. Richie remembers it as he’s “cruising along”, has his head turned, it’s still dark, but then he looks forward and “bam”, he runs into a tree. He could’ve ducked if he had noticed it but he didn’t. He said he was doing an all-out sprint to chase his team down and had to dive to catch his sled. Richie lined his dog team back out, grabbed toilet paper and wet wipes, and started mushing down the trail again as he shoved toilet paper in his nostrils to stop the bleeding and cleaned the blood off his skin with the wipes.
Anja Radano of Talkeetna fell in a large hole in the ice crossing the infamous Dalzell ice hole. While making her way across the frozen river, her sled slipped into the hole and she fell into knee-deep water. She injured her ribs and legs, and has had pain breathing ever since. She said she probably wouldn’t have been able to get out without the help of her dog team.
Then there’s Linwood Fiedler, who on his way to Nikolai, his entire dog team got separated from his sled when his biner broke. Luckily, his fellow musher Mats Pettersson showed up on the trail shortly afterwards and helped him find his team. He potentially saved the lives of these dogs.
The limited sleep and the effects of that take its toll on the mushers too. Mushers explain that they experience hallucinations – seeing and hearing things that aren’t there. Lance Mackey, four-time Iditarod champion discussed how he has been imagining things on the trail, thinking he’s hearing people yell “Go, Lance!” during the run between Rohn and Nikolai. To stay awake, he constantly moves while on the sled and eats and drinks nonstop.
The food some of these mushers eat while on the trail is no picnic, either. Many of the mushers eat their food from vacuumed sealed bags, taking into account food that thaws out really quick or doesn’t seem to freeze. Aliy Zirkle eats rolled oat bars made out of peanut butter, banana, sesame seeds, and other ingredients because she says they’re easy and don’t freeze solid.
It’s the checkpoints where the mushers get “wined and dined” or so to speak. When they arrive at a checkpoint they are greeted, welcomed, and able to get a warm meal – like stew, as do their team of dogs. In fact, when a musher arrives in a checkpoint, the first order of “life on the trail” is taking care of the dogs. Making sure they have a warm and comfortable place to rest, are fed, given water, and checked out by veterinarians.
And the mushers aren’t the only ones hard at work. Most people have no idea what goes on behind the scenes to pull off this race. Volunteers come from the U.S., Canada, and all over the world – local adults and children from villages along the trail; veterinarians, dog handlers, and vet techs from across the nation; pilots that fly to drop supplies, act as race judges, and aid in the event of an injury or a lost dog. The list goes on and on but ultimately this race would not be what it is without the volunteers that go the extra mile to make it happen.
Today celebrate and acknowledge the efforts of all the volunteers who pitched in to help, the fans who cheered on the teams throughout the race, the communities who served as hosts along the way, and all the mushers and their teams who put their heart and soul into this treacherous, tough, but incredible expedition.
And we congratulate Pete Kaiser on his win. The only musher from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta since the inaugural Iditarod back in 1973. The first Yup’ik Iditarod Champion in the history of the Iditarod race. An incredibly humble man, a role model, and an inspiration to his community.
After he won, Pete Kaiser said he hoped his victory would be celebrated, not just by Yup’ik people, but all rural native people in Western Alaska. Well Pete, I’m here to tell you, today Alaskans in the western part of the state and elsewhere, including as far away as right here in Washington, D.C. are celebrating.
And with that, Mr. President, I yield the floor.