Imagine you’re an athlete competing to be at the pinnacle of your sport. Perhaps you’re a swimmer, a sprinter, a pitcher, or a quarterback.
You dedicate yourself to honing your craft. You learn the skills you’ll need to succeed. You spend time mentoring underneath one of the legends of your sport. You work hard – you know that it isn’t your time yet, but it’s just around the corner. Maybe in a year or two.
And then, you get the shock of your life – it turns out that just around the corner isn’t next year. It isn’t the year after. In fact, just around the corner is actually four days away. Four days. You have four days to prepare for the biggest event of your career. You have to mentally and physically prepare yourself to take on a gruelling marathon in less than one hundred hours. How will you handle the challenge?
This might sound like the elaborate plot of a Hollywood movie, but in the 2020 Iditarod, this is exactly the fate that befell Sean Underwood, a twenty-nine year old musher who was born in Atlanta.
Underwood was mentoring under Jeff King, an Iditarod Hall of Famer and four-time winner of the event (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006). When King had to undergo emergency surgery in the week leading up to the 2020 Iditarod, he nominated Underwood to take his place in the race.
What followed was a remarkable story, as this rookie musher entered his first Iditarod with just a few days to prepare. In this episode of A Life of Dogs, we speak to Underwood about his first experience running in the Iditarod.
Underwood’s introduction to mushing
Born in Atlanta, GA, Underwood moved to Alaska in 2015 after graduating college. He spent time living with his aunt, uncle and cousin, working with them to fish commercially for sockeye salmon on Kodiak Island. His aunt and uncle were friends with Jeff King – a legend in the mushing world. Underwood started working at King’s Husky Homestead, where tours are offered and visitors can witness sled dog training in action.
After spending time working at Husky Homestead doing a variety of tasks, Underwood gained experience and learned how to control the sled and the team of dogs. Then, when King suffered a back injury just a week before a 200 mile sled dog race, he asked Underwood to step in. That wouldn’t be the last time Underwood would take King’s place in a sled dog race at short notice.
The 2020 Iditarod
After King’s unexpected surgery just a week before the Iditarod, Underwood discusses how he found out he would be competing and prepared for the race with just a few days’ notice. He explains the emotions he experienced in that period – from those few days before the Iditarod, to how he felt during the ceremonial start in Anchorage.
Being a rookie in a race like the Iditarod is daunting enough, let alone with just a few days to prepare. It is a sled dog race unlike any other, both in terms of distance and duration. Underwood talks about the conditions he encountered on the trail – and how it was actually a pleasant surprise compared to what he expected.
In addition to the physical exertions of the race, the Iditarod is also a race of strategy. As a musher, you have to strategically manage the pace of your dogs, plus decide in advance which items to send to specific checkpoints. Underwood describes how King’s experience of the Iditarod (remember, as King was intending to run the race himself, he had been the one to decide which resources were going to be needed and when) helped him during the race.
Underwood’s incredible rookie story doesn’t end in this episode. As Underwood and his dog team reached the coast and approached the finish line, there was one final twist awaiting him in the Last Great Race On Earth. We’ll bring you the conclusion of this thrilling story in one of our upcoming episodes.
A special thanks to Sean Underwood for participating in this interview. All photos on this page are credit to Sean Underwood and used with permission.
We would like to thank our episode sponsors. Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support. Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.
Highland Canine Training, LLC
Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.
A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Six (S2, E6)
Episode Name: Short Notice
October 26, 2021
Sean: What I was kind of the verbal agreement between Jeff and I was that he would pencil me around the 2021 Iditarod. And so I got back from that race and I was like, alright, I can kind of just close through the rest of the winter. You know, I’ll just help Jeff get ready for the Iditarod and then when he leaves, it’s fun to work with the puppies and explore our little area here in Denali.
Jason: It was Sunday March 8th. A seasoned team of sled dogs danced in anticipation. The crisp snow crunching under their paws as they await the signal to begin. It’s the 48th annual Iditarod, and they know that just around the corner, an epic journey awaits. Standing on the sled directly behind them is Shawn Underwood, a first time Iditarod musher as he awaits nervously for the last great race to begin. Just four days ago, this young man from Atlanta, Georgia, learned that he’d be running this pack of dogs over 1000 miles across the frigid Alaskan wilderness. But sometimes, you don’t choose your fate, fate chooses you. From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Ferguson and this is Short Notice.
Narrator: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin visit them on the web at royalcanin.com and by Highland Canine Training the industry leader in professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Highland Canine Training offers turnkey solutions for everyone, from pet owners to law enforcement and military organizations. Learn more at highlandcanine.com.
Sean: My uncle on my dad’s side live up here and they’ve been here for 40 years. And most of that time have been commercial fishing up here. And I, at that point in my life in 2015, I recently graduated college and had some wanderlust and wanted to see some new places. And I like seeing places where I might have some kind of connection. And they can show me maybe the more authentic version of the place that they live. And so I thought about Alaska, and my aunt and uncle who I was really not close with, because, you know, you’re just so far away and such different lifestyles. So I called them up and asked about their life and what they’re doing. And my dad had suggested that they probably, he didn’t know much, but he said they might need some help fishing. You know they’re getting up there in age and even though you’re not experienced, it would be might be helpful for you to learn something from them this summer. And so I called them and they got me a job. And I spent the next two summers up on Kodiak Island, set net fishing for Sockeye Salmon commercially, with my aunt and uncle and cousin. And it was like the most eye opening experience for me. I mean, it was the most wild adventure. And for them, it was just like a pretty slow summer. But for me, it was like living off the grid. You’re drinking water out of a creek catching your own food and no cell service, no roads, the only way to get to this cabin was on a float plane. And that closest village was across the bay and there was one person in that high school in the village. It was 50 people living there, it just was the craziest, most amazing summer and it kind of began my love story with Alaska. And they happen to know Jeff King, he is the guy I’ve been working for it for last few years. Because their daughters worked here with Jeff’s tourism business. And the more time I spent up in Alaska, the more questions I asked about winter because I knew that summer, it was pretty challenging living here in the summer on Kodiak specifically. And I liked the challenge of the winter even though I’ve never even experienced more than an inch of snow for the six hours that it stays on the ground in Atlanta once every five years. So I started asking about winter and they brought up their friend Jeff and how he ran the Iditarod and won the Iditarod and they have a couple of his dogs and so I got in touch with him and he hired me to kind of help around the property and I got paid a minimum wage. And then once training the dogs started it was kind of downgraded to give me a place to live and a little bit of cash for groceries and that’s kind of the standard for your barrier to entry into the mushing world is you just got to be okay with not really getting much money, but they let you in by giving you a place to stay and showing you the ropes. And it kind of just snowballed from there. Just finding yourself at the right place at the right time.
Jason: This is Sean Underwood, one of last year’s rookie Iditarod mushers. In this episode, we will learn about his unique story. Unlike many Iditarod mushers Sean did not spend years preparing to run this race.
So when did you start with Jeff?
Sean: 2016 August, and I ran my first race about six months later. And that would be a pretty quick trajectory for most people in the mushing world. Some people will just pay big money and run their first race in the same amount of time. But I was really just planning on being there to help out. Scooping the dog poop and harnessing the dogs and taking them on some easier runs where there would be as little complications as possible. And then I started showing, I guess, a little bit of competence in the guy — me and my co-worker were working for Jeff, he tweaked his back, he was going to run a race but couldn’t go and then I just took his place. And I ran a 200 mile sled dog race. And it was kind of a similar fashion to how I ran the Iditarod. I found out I was going to run the race, like one week before I ran it. And Jeff gave me his best team and just said, don’t get caught up in the race, just pretend like it’s a training run. You know how to run the dogs, you know how to feed the dogs, don’t run them too fast and you’ll be fine. And that’s what we did. And they did awesome. And it was a really hilly race and I got to get my first Iditarod qualifier. I didn’t even really think about the Iditarod, I was just thinking, well, this is going to be cool race. And then I got to the races office and they said, hey, this is an Iditarod qualifier. Do you want us to write your name down and send this information to the Iditarod? And I was like, I mean, I don’t really think I’m planning on running it. And they’re like, well, if there’s even like a .01% chance that you would think you would run it, you should just do it anyways. And I did. And then ever since then I kind of had that seed planted in the back of my mind, like how can I get to run this 1000 mile race that I probably have no idea what I’ll be getting into.
Jason: The Iditarod isn’t an event for the faint of heart. And in order to qualify, it is necessary to demonstrate that a musher and their team has run enough races throughout the year where it will be safe for them to partake. So you obviously had to have a few more qualifiers. You got to get what 750 total, I think it is or something like that. So how did you end up with those races? And how did they come about?
Sean: Well, the first winter, like I said, I got the Tustumena 200 which I don’t even know if that race is happening anymore. I got to see the Iditarod start and watch Jeff be that big time celebrity that he is in Anchorage. And then the summertime we do tourism, tell stories about the winter, show off the puppies. Next winter I came back. And this time, part of the contract for me being around was that he would pay for me to run the race in exchange for me training the dogs. And I signed up for this time with a little bit more planning. I signed up for the Copper Basin 300 and it’s known as the toughest 300 miles in Alaska. I really wish I would have read that part of the website. Man it was really — it started my birthday weekend January 14. That’s like three weeks after the winter solstice. It’s the dead of winter, it’s dark. And this race was kind of similar to the weather of the Iditarod in a lot of ways, which kind of helped me prepare for it a little bit better. But it was like really warm 20-30 degrees most of the race and snowing the whole entire time, every single yard. And it was just so slow. And it felt eternal; it was just made the 200 mile race look like a little blip. It was a really challenging terrain, super hilly, really long, long runs. Most of them were over 65 miles long. Usually I wanted to be somewhere around 50 to 55 and then take your rest and do it again. Anyways, half the teams in the race scratched because of the [inaudible 10:51] conditions and we finished like 20 something out of 50 teams that started and it was just a really fun experience where I really felt like, that’s the first time I understood how incredibly talented the dogs are. When you think that they’re probably getting a little bit tired — when that thought first gets into my mind, they’re not even close to getting tired. They’re just getting a little bored more than anything. And then it’s your job to take care of that for them and take care of them. And they did an incredible job. And it was young, there were young dogs, they’re like all 2; and the first time I went they were all the veterans. So that was another element where it made it a little bit more challenging when you have a bunch of dogs that have never raced before. Anyways, that was my second winter. And then this year was my third winter in Alaska. I took a one year between those two winters. And I worked with another musher down in Central Oregon, who also ran the Iditarod but I didn’t get to race that winter. And I came back here and I got to do my final qualifier in February. And the Copper Basin I knew was a really hard race. There’s a few 300 races around here and I wanted to take the most challenging one just to be a little bit more prepared for whenever I do get to run the Iditarod. And to me it was the quest 300 that always sounded challenging. The Quest 1000 is often referred to as the other 1000 mile race. And it’s not as popular. This path has many mushers in it. But it’s a tough race, it’s got half as many checkpoints in the same distance. And it’s a month earlier in the winter. So probability wise, it’s going to be colder, and it’s definitely going to be darker. And the 300 is just the first 300 miles of the 1000 essentially. So that race happened in February. There wasn’t too many entrants in it, we finished I think, like, seventh or something I thought of like 20. And that race was my first experience in a race dealing with the extreme cold, it was an -40 at the coldest, and maybe we get up to zero in the heat of the day, and everything in between. But the dogs did so much better with that cold than they did with the 30 degrees in those previous races. And our speed was the fastest I’ve ever travelled with that distance. And they just did an awesome job. And I just felt like I really, at that point, walked away from that race feeling like I kind of know what I’m doing when it comes to the 300-mile races. I don’t know how to win them, but I know how to get to the finish line efficiently and that kind of made me feel like alright, next year I’ll be ready for the Iditarod and that was kind of the verbal agreement between Jeff and I was that he would pencil me and around 2021.
Jason: Sean had been planning to remain at the kennel while Jeff mushed in the race. A turn of events right before the race however, rapidly changed everything.
Sean: He got a life-threatening illness with his intestines and so he had to go to the hospital to get an emergency surgery. Typically you’re not allowed to let somebody replace you in the Iditarod with that little notice, but if it’s a health scare or unexpected circumstances, they kind of make a judgment call on it. And he had a list of two or three people, I was one of them that he wanted to take his place. And the reason he picked me is because I’ve just been working with the dogs, I knew them all already. And I knew most of the dogs since they were less than a year old, the other two candidates didn’t but they had ran the Iditarod before. So, it was kind of an interesting decision and he was confident he made the right one and I still think he did. So does he. And four days before the race started, he called me from the hospital bed and said, hey, man, I had a really rough night and I’m not going to be able to run the Iditarod anymore and I want you to take my place. And I was like, just right now I’m getting the chills thinking about that moment. I was in disbelief. I thought maybe he was maybe still under the feeling the effects of anesthesia. And maybe it was — should I really take this with a grain of salt maybe. And I heard from the race committee that night, that it was official. I spent the whole day kind of questioning it. And then I got a call from the head Iditarod guy. He confirmed it and then I started frantically getting all my things together. But it really was just me being a little bit stressed out. It really was just simple as grabbing my parka, my mitts, my boots and I’m pretty much ready to go. Because Jeff had already packed up all of the gear that’s sent out to all the checkpoints. I mean, I helped him with that but that Job was already done. All we needed was a body on the sled that knew what they were doing and I just needed to get my human gear that I needed in the sled and ready, which was really only a few hours. And then I got down to Anchorage. Now you got microphones in your face and cameras in your face and it was a little bit new to me. But I’ve always been kind of someone that likes to talk. This has already been a pretty one-way conversation but the race start was incredible. And it was a really emotional weekend for me. Especially before, you know they have the two starts the ceremonial and the official restart as they call it. And the morning of the restart, we were driving from Anchorage to Willow and I was just crying like overwhelmed. And I don’t know, I knew I could do it, I just was like, holy, holy crap, I’m about to run the Iditarod. There’s nothing in between — that’s it, we’re doing it in a couple of hours. And off we went and once you left that start line it was just the most relief I could have felt, because those four days were just really overwhelming. And then you get out on the trail and a calm and quiet kind of takes over. And it’s just you and your dog team and things get a little simpler.
Jason: So it seems like you’re you didn’t really even have time to sort of process this whole thing until — so when did it really set in I’m running the Iditarod.
Sean: It was the morning of the restart. I mean it set in a little bit like those four days but I just don’t think it did 100% set in. I was like okay, alright, running the Iditarod. And you know I said the words and I guess I accepted it to a degree but it was that morning drive on Sunday that I was just overwhelmed with emotion and I couldn’t believe it was happening and I don’t know, it just really hit me hard and was a very exciting morning. I got there to this parking lot and the Iditarod analysts, just like watching a basketball game on ESPN you got your journalist and you got your former NBA player telling you about what to expect from tonight’s basketball game. Well, same thing for the Iditarod. They got a couple of guys that are kind of talking about what’s going on in the race and he came up to me immediately and he had run the race before and he saw just like tears rolling down my face. And he was like, this is the part of the Iditarod that no one really knows about it because you don’t get to see that. You know, and I got it myself did a quick interview and then I started packing and unpacking my sled like five times, just to try to figure out what the best way to do it was. Libby Riddles came up to me, she’s the first woman to win the Iditarod and she was there. She saw my sled and it was just super bulky and I could barely close to zippers. She was like, wow, you’re packing the kitchen sink there. And I was like, I don’t know, I just figured I’d bring more and then I don’t need it I can always just send it home. But yeah, it was a crazy morning and it was dumping. I mean, it was just huge snowflakes and it’s snowed several inches that morning. So yeah, I was very excited.
Jason: After the ceremonies are over, and the excitement of starting wears off it’s just a musher and their dog team. Along with their thoughts, their next job is to run through the Alaskan Arctic more than 1000 miles to the finish line. Although weather during the Iditarod has been milder in recent years, the conditions of the 2020 race proved to be as wild as the events that follow. Stay with us as we continue to tell Sean’s story.
Narrator: Royal Canin delivers precise nutritional solutions so your dog can perform at their very best level. The individual health of every dog is as unique as they are. However, these health needs are often characteristic of their size, breed or lifestyle. Each individual recipe is formulated to deliver the exact level of natural antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, prebiotics, and minerals that are essential to your pets unique health needs. Discover how Royal Canin products can help every pet enjoy its best health possible. To achieve a perfect balance of nutrients for each dog they rely on an extensive network of canine experts across the globe, including veterinarians, universities, dog professionals, and their own research and development center in France. Royal Canin helps your dogs train and perform at their full potential. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com. Highland Canine Training offers affordable and proven dog training solutions to resolve even the most difficult of dog problems. Founded in 2006, Highland Canine Training also offers quality working dogs to meet the increasingly demanding requirements of today’s military and law enforcement agencies. In addition, they offer first-class canine education programs at their school for dog trainers. So far, they’ve hosted students from over 30 different countries. The school for dog trainers offers affordable financing and accepts GI Bill and VA benefits. The Service Dog Training Division at Highland Canine Training develops and trained some of the best service dogs in the industry and offers worldwide delivery. Their commitment to customer service and support continues to set them apart from the competition and makes them a leader in the industry. Visit highlandcanine.com or call 866-200-2207 to learn more and see the difference.
Sean: Yeah, it was the best winter that race has had in a while. To my understanding there was a lot of concern among the mushers and the race committee, I mean, there are people out there snowmobiling down the trail, making sure it’s safe and also at the same time packing down the snow to make the trail just that much better and quicker. And they said that it’s as wide as the snowmobile, there’s no room on either side, and it’s just four foot plus walls of snow on either side of the trail, and that there wouldn’t be any places to pull over and park your team if you’re planning on camping out; because you can camp out anywhere you want whether it’s on a checkpoint or not. And so people were going to start using their snowshoes to pack down the snow and that used to be kind of a regular thing you did in the early Iditarod days but nowadays no one uses their snowshoes. Really at all, it’s almost completely unheard of. And that was part of the panic attack that I was having was like, what am I going to do a part of my team. There’s going to be nowhere to pull over and what is everybody else doing and I was kind of asking around and it was all, just another reason to get worked up. You get out there and the trail was like, the first 40 miles were pretty soft and bumpy and a lot of snow. And, you know, it was almost kind of I thought it was perfect timing. If you’re going to give me a snowstorm, make it be on day one, because the dogs have rested for three or four or five days with very little exercise, and they’re just screaming to go. And it’s too much power, but the reason that you have that many dogs is because you got to plan on sending some home, so you have to kind of bring the bench with you. Which means early on, when those dogs are pumped up, man, you’re standing on the brake, because it’s just not in their best interest to be going 15 miles an hour down the first 100 miles. You’re going to just blow them up and they’re going to go home before you get halfway through the race. So the snow kind of slowed the team down, it slowed the trail down and I didn’t have to stay on the brake as hard at least. And by the time we get to mile 50, the trail was pretty hard-packed. And I was in the middle of the pack, there’s a bunch of mushers in front of me, they packed down the trail, there’s snow machiners out there, it’s a big party, the Iditarod start and people travel down the trail and set up tailgates or trail gates. And passing your hamburgers and beers, serve sodas or whatever and there’s a lot of traffic. And by the time we got to the sections of trail that we were concerned about, they were as good of a trail as you could possibly ask for. It’s a ton of snow to set your hook in and there was places you definitely could not park your team, for sure, but there was as many places where you could. And it was I mean, I think I got lucky. I’m thinking next time I run this thing the trail is no way going to be as good as it was because we were going through these sections of trail that are the notorious Dalzell Gorge, and the happy river steps that you hear so many crazy stories about people having gnarly crashes. And it was like, it was just fun mushing, there was no real danger that I ever felt in there. I mean, I was like alert level 100 knowing that this is the section this is where you really got to pay attention. But you know, it ended up being just a really, really fun 20 miles, but it wasn’t like I came out of it bruised and battered. And that was because there was a bunch of snow. So yeah, it ended up being really good conditions those first 400 miles — So those first 400 were fantastic and this trail was fast.
Jason: So in that early part, you end up having to go — through the race you go over two different mountain ranges. In the early part, you got to go over the first one. What’s that like for you? What’s it like for the team having to climb up and down to mountain ranges two get to Nome?
Sean: The mountain ranges, I mean, I’m thinking Alaska Range is the mountain range. You know, that is the one that we live in here in Denali, and it’s got some gnarly mountains. You’re thinking, oh, man, this is going to be insane. And then it ended up being maybe not as challenging as the rest of the hills that the race brought you. But it’s early on. And I think that the change in terrain — to me the dogs for me and my team, they just never got tired. I was running a very conservative schedule, being a rookie, even though I had a team that is capable of winning, I didn’t feel comfortable running that kind of schedule. So they were like never — I mean, I remember getting the checkpoints and there’d be a couple of dogs on my team. If you’re running the race competitively, they get to the checkpoint and they go to sleep like instantly because they’re ready to take a nap. I got dogs that come to the checkpoint and they’re playing with each other and wrestling and I’m like, well you should be conserving your energy for something besides wrestling with one another. And one of the competitors looked over at my dog team while they’re resting and was like dude, what are you even doing here? You should be going to the next checkpoint, that team is not tired. Anyways, the point is, what I end up fighting more than the tiredness of the dogs, that’s not really happening at all. What’s happening is when you run on a river for 50 miles, and there’s nothing besides just a river that pretty much stays the same. They are like just moving and they like kind of zone out and they get a little bored, and maybe a little lethargic. But when you’re going through that Alaska Range, they are not lethargic, that’s part of the danger of it is they get so excited that go going through the mountains and up and down the hills, that the more technical the trail gets, it seems, the harder they pull, because they’re excited to go around to turn. I mean, you’ll see their ears perk up whenever they see a bunch of markers that signal that there’s a turn. They’re like, oh, a turn, maybe we can knock coach off the sled. And the Alaska Range was just such a blast. It was like that moment in the race where I felt like, I was actually like an athlete because you really had to steer the sled around. And then you get out of the range, and you got a bunch of river miles ahead of you and you kind of get a break from that technical riding, and then it’s a completely different challenge, which is just totally mental for you and for the dogs. And we got on to the Yukon River and it was just like, there’s this snowstorm that really slowed down. I mean, it was basically the storm that 20 plus teams dropped out of the race, because the storm just made the conditions really, really slow. And people were going like five miles an hour because there’s just a bunch of wet heavy snow. And you’re going on Yukon River man, I swear, I know it’s a river but sometimes it felt like it was uphill. And it’s just a mental, like, it’s a dark place for some reason. I don’t know — that’s why we train the way that we train with our dogs. We take them out on the frozen rivers around here, or to the Denali Highway and the trail is really not that exciting. So the dogs have practiced the monotonous trail, and they know to be ready for it. So they did great. But you know, the hills to me, were the when the dogs performed the best because they get excited, it’s almost like they’re saying, finally a challenge. And then they really, really excel and perform for that challenge. And then when we go on the boring parts of a trail, that’s when they kind of take a break mentally, maybe even a little bit physically and they’re just kind of like running. And you can just tell they’re like checked out. And that’s almost kind of something that you want them to do because they’re getting a little bit of rest while still moving. Just mentally they don’t really need to like be on high alert.
Jason: They say that a journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. Well what is traveling this distance actually, like when you have no human company or entertainment?
Sean: You know, you get to a point where you’re so tired that — I actually like went for a hike last night or two nights ago. And it was like we went on a midnight hike and we got back at 3am and I was just like kind of a shell of myself for the rest of the day, even though I really wasn’t that crazy of sleep deprivation. But just not as good of a conversationalist. Because just like my brains just got this little square to operate in when I don’t get my six plus hours. And when you’re out there you’re getting maybe three hours a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less. And your brain just doesn’t have the energy to like be doing anything more than concentrating on the trail and on the dogs and everything else is just off. And the only time I’d be in my head is when I’d look at a dog and see some minor marginal change in either their body language or the way that they’re running. And be thinking, okay, what’s going on with that dog. Let’s look at the stare at this dog for the next hour, or 30 minutes or whatever, and decide, should I give this dog a break and ride with me in the sled or just looks fine, he just kind of look bored and needs to get to the next checkpoint. And those are the kinds of things where I play head games. Because I had one instance where I was at a checkpoint and one of my dogs didn’t eat, which isn’t terribly uncommon. And usually 95% of the time, I just bring the food with me. Well 100% of the time I bring the food with me and 95% of the time, they just eat the food an hour later, and they just needed to get up and move around. It’s kind of like when you wake up from a night asleep, you don’t really want to stuff your face full of food five minutes after you woke up. You want to go get a cup of coffee and read the paper and then maybe get some food in you. But this dog didn’t eat and then I started moving and he wasn’t pulling. And to me, he’s the best dog on my team. He’s not a good lead dog but I mean, the energy that he brings is better than being a lead dog. And he wasn’t pulling. And I’ve never ever, ever seen him not pull. And that’s when you get in your head, you’re wondering, alright, what’s going on here? Is this just me, like getting a little bit too neurotic about the dog, or is this actually like warranted that I am worried about this dog. And I just went ahead and turned around and sent the dog home. And you know, a lot of times, you think you see something and you don’t. And other times you were like, I don’t think I’ve seen anything and there was something. And those are the kinds of things that you’re getting in your head because it’s not obvious. And that’s why it’s so important to have somebody that’s really experienced on the sled or somebody that’s really experienced with those dogs in front of the sled. And that’s the head games for me, it’s figuring out what the dogs need. Even just like the timing of feeding them, and then what you’re feeding them and how you’re feeding it to them, those little things can make or break the next 100 miles or 50 miles or whatever. If I don’t feed them in this 15-minute window, then they’re not going to eat for the next three hours. And how are you going to prep the food in only 15 minutes? Maybe I should just give them a snack and feed them later. So those are the things that get in my head is how can I best care for these dogs and everything else you don’t have the energy to be thinking about anything else but you and your team.
Jason: You talked about the plan and I know you said the drop bags that already been sent out and you’d helped with that part of the process, but seems like a lot of the mushers to some degree, send certain things to certain checkpoints because they to some degree have a little bit of a plan in their head of you know, I’m probably going to take my 24 here, I’m probably going to take my 8 there, I’m probably going to do this, I’m thinking we’ll be expecting this here. So I’m going to pack this way and drop this and you know [inaudible 39:01] I’m going to put this at the cot, I’m going to put this here, I’m going to put this there. You didn’t really have as much control over that, because basically we’re prepping for Jeff to run the race. So how much of an impact did that have on you?
Sean: You know, the good thing is that Jeff had — I mean, he’s always been an individual thinker. And that’s why he’s won this race is because he likes to think outside the box. And I think one of the things that I’m not really sure what every other musher is doing, but he told me that he sent the exact same thing as far as dog food goes to every single checkpoint except for two. And those two checkpoints were the two places that he was considering taking his 24 at. So as far as the dog food went it was pretty much I knew what I was getting and was it huge? And then I think some of the human food that was always a surprise, you know because he ended up getting some of the local restaurants to make some to go meals and then we — what are those things — when you put them in the plastic and you suck the oxygen out? What am I thinking of?
Jason: Like vacuum sealed?
Sean: There we go. So yeah, all those vacuum-sealed meals and they were like so good. There was like enchiladas that were just like the size of my head. Then a big thing of chilli and he had Rubin’s set out and vacuum sealed. I was eating like royalty out there. And, and then he had a bunch of snacks. What I found awesome was the, like sleeves of KitKats that were eight little to two-fingered KitKats. At one point I had like, like four sleeves of KitKats in my sled and I was like, what am I going to do with all these KitKats? I got to give them to someone, so I was just like handing out KitKats to mushers and they were oooh, I love KitKat. It wasn’t problematic but there was like certain things, little tiny comfort things that were put in there that are not essential that were huge. Like he put a hand towel in a lot of the checkpoints so that when I was messing with all that raw dog food, I could just kind of wipe my hands off, he had plastic gloves also for going with the fat that you’re putting in these meals, it gets stuck everywhere and you can’t wipe that off very easily. And my buddy he gave me a pair of insulated slippers. And I was like dude, insulated slippers. Are you kidding me? He was like, dude, you just put your boots in front of the fire, let them dry out. And you can wear the slippers out if you need to go check on the dog team in between your nap time or your time you’re feeding yourself. That was like one of the most amazing things, being able to take your boots off for like six hours. And then walking around in these slippers, I was like — everybody else is walking around their boots and I was just like, man, if they only knew how comfortable my feet are right now. So some of those little things that you don’t really need, but they help you kind of just enjoy a little extra comfort out there. But yeah, it ended up being not a huge deal. But, you know, it was definitely a little bit of surprise and kind of like opening up a Christmas present at each checkpoint, wondering what’s going to be in there, but it was pretty consistent.
Jason: 58 teams ran in the 2020 Iditarod. With so many contestants following the same trail, it is difficult to imagine that a musher could find themselves completely alone for hours at a time. But how often do they really find themselves running alongside other teams?
Sean: I was talking about this with my brother the other day. He was like dude, when I was following your tracker it looked like you were just like buddy buddy with musher A and musher B. You guys were always just as close to each other. Are you guys like traveling together, like you see each other? He asked me the other day. 92% of time I did not see anybody but there was occasional times where I remember like on the way to Old Woman’s Cabin and Unanlakleet, me and Riley were within sight of each other for a while. And then at night, especially on the Yukon River where you can see for like 15 miles ahead and behind you, you can see those headlamps, but they’re just like these distant lights. And some people don’t even travel with headlamps especially if it’s a full moon, you can really see pretty well with all the white snow everywhere and I remember Martin Boozer passed me early in the race, I was like drifting off to sleep. The first two nights are like the worst nights for sleep deprivation. Because you’re like, just kind of getting into this weird rhythm. At least I was, some mushers just live that schedule. It’s pretty extreme, but some mushers just live the mushing schedule so they’re used to it by the time the race starts, but I wasn’t doing that. And so I was drifting off to sleep and then I like wake up because my dog team was like about to pull the sled from underneath me, because the dog team was right next to them and Boozer just passed me without a headlamp in the dead of night I was like, huh, pretty cool. Anyways… What was the question, I kind of got side-tracked?
Jason: Yeah, talking about how often you saw other mushers, ow often you were on your own.
Sean: Generally they weren’t within sight, but at nights you see the headlamps. And every now and again I was kind of close with a musher. Riley and I were, that’s to me that one moment, I remember where we were going through this section of trail that was so frustrating. The dogs were ready to run fast, but the trail was like, really mobily. You couldn’t really get that momentum going, because it’s one of those things where you get the, you can get up to nine miles an hour once it’s up there, the dogs just kind of got to run in front of the sled to keep it going. But when you’re going up like this and it’s flat, but it’s just the way that the snow machines pack it down and drive on the trail, it just creates this undulating Lushness Monster humps on the trail, or whatever. And it just was like, we were so stoked leaving that checkpoint, because our teams were finally fast after that snowstorm. And then we get to this section of trail, and so Riley’s right behind me, and he’s like dude, I don’t think I’m going to pass you. And I’m like, you sure you don’t want to pass me, you’re kind of on my ass here. And he’s like, no I think it’s not a good idea. And so we travel for an hour, and he’s still on my butt. He’s like, you know what man, I think I’m going to pass you and it was really narrow trail, he passes me. It’s kind of a little bit of a kerfuffle and then off he goes. Like 20 minutes later, he turns around, and he’s like dude I shouldn’t have passed you. And I’m on his butt now and he’s like — so now I’m behind him, and I’m on my break. So basically, it’s like always, the team that’s behind the other team is the one that’s going faster, and then you get out in front of the team. And now they don’t have anything to chase. And the team behind you is now faster than team — so it’s kind of we were switching back and forth all the time. And there was no right answer to it, you know, but yeah, you see them out there for sure.
Jason: How much night-time traveling did you do? What’s that like?
Sean: I mean, 50:50 night-time and daytime. I was aiming to travel at night, more than during the day because of how warm it was. The daytime, the sun is devastating to the trail, not dogs, but it’s just like you going for a run in North Carolina at 4 pm in July. It’s just not the best idea. You can do it, but your runtime is not going to be as fast and you’re going to be a lot more tired running two miles at 4 pm than you would at 8 am. And same with the dogs. If you leave a checkpoint at 11 and you run until 6pm that is just not the best-case scenario. You can do it. But if you can avoid it, your team is better off. So I spent a lot of time running at night. I actually kind of like it. I don’t know, there’s just a — especially when the moon was out man. When we went through the Alaska Range. The moon was like full moon, I did not need a headlamp. It was blowing hard, but it was clear. And I tried to take a picture of it, my crappy phone didn’t pick up the little light that there was but man it was just like you could see all the details of the mountains and it was gorgeous. I like traveling at night and then you get to the checkpoint and the sun is rising, and you feed the dogs and now the sun’s up. Or now the dogs are out there taking a nap in the heat of the day, sunbathing and you can just see it, they just look like this is like the most like deep deep sleep that they’re in and I too am ready to take a long nap as well. But yeah, it’s not that bad. You have your headlamp on and you can keep it on low and if you see something off in the distance that looks like it could be a moose, you turn it on high, it ends up being just a bush. But the Yukon River definitely was pretty rough. Like monotony wise and again, you ask any musher if monogamy is your biggest problem, you’re doing great. But it was just like impossible to stay awake. There was some sections of trail where I just sat down, and I buckled myself in and was like, I’m just going to sleep. And the dogs don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not like there’s like a Spaghetti Junction of trails out there, it’s just the one trail for the most part. That’s what we did and I liked it at night.
Jason: Alaska is the largest state in the US, covering a landmass of approximately 663,300 square miles. Alaska’s size, combined with its low population means that much of its natural land remains untouched. The Iditarod trail cuts straight through the center of it. And this 1000 mile trail enables mushers to see a significant amount of Alaska’s incredible natural beauty. So what is the scenery actually like? You sort of mentioned scenery a bit going through the Alaskan range, I think the trails portion of Alaska that not a lot of people have seen nor ever will see, what’s it like taking in the scenery from the beginning to end there, day and night
Sean: Yeah, it’s awesome man. I mean, because it just changes so much, a lot of the races are like out and back, so you’re kind of doing the same thing twice. This one’s just A to B. And so you’re always seeing something new. Going through that Dalzell Gorge, I remember, like you’re really in the mountains but you’re like in the valleys. And you like turn a corner around a mountain and you’re looking ahead, and there’s just this massive mount wall of mountain in front of you, massive walls on either side and I’m looking like, where the hell is this trail going to take us? There’s nowhere to go. And you just keep going and going. And then there’s just this little valley that’s like, 10 feet wide, and the trails in the middle of it, or your side hilling on the side of a mountain and you’re just like, who was the guy that was thinking this is probably the path of least resistance? I mean, how do they even have the guts to attempt to make it through this section? I mean, I went into this race and I didn’t even really know the order of the checkpoints. I’d get to one checkpoint and I would be like what’s the next one again? And then you get to the next checkpoint, you’re like, okay, so the next two are the Cripple and Ruby? Okay, cool. And so I was like, learning the trail. Even the names of it and the distances, I didn’t know. I remember going in the race and I was like Jeff, dude, what’s the move here? I mean, what’s that do between Cripple and Ruby, when it’s 75 miles? Should I just push through, or split it into two runs and camp in the middle. And he’s like, dude, by the time you get to mile 500, you’re going to be an expert. So don’t worry about that. Just get through that first few days. And it was true. It’s just like, you just get so in tune with everything. But yeah, it was just gorgeous. And it’s crazy to think that there are these people living in these villages that are just insanely remote. And the lifestyle is just totally unique to anything I could ever dream of and I think one of the most beautiful sceneries I saw was leaving and entering into 54:31 New Otto and you’re just like on I’m not sure which river but the river was poorly covered in snow. So you’re just like are on ice on top of a river sliding around, and a little bit out of control, but somewhat in control. And there’s just like the sunlight was out, and it was hitting the mountains like early in the morning. And it was just the last run before you leave the Alaska Range. And it’s just this big moment, kind of where you’ve conquered this incredible rugged terrain. And it was just something that I don’t even have any like proof that I did. I just didn’t bother taking out my camera, because I can barely keep it charged and then it gets cold on. I have a crappy little droid and it just — so I just soaked it all in and it was just such a beautiful place and at night you can’t exactly see everything but you know what the stars are out it’s pretty spectacular and again those full moon nights, those first four nights of the race, the ones that were clear it was just is awesome. I would go hours without putting my headlamp on during those nights. It was pretty special.
Jason: Yeah, I’ve been to Alaska a few times. And I find it difficult to articulate, pretty hard to describe.
Sean: It’s the scale man it’s like, so massive and so fast and such an abyss of land.
Jason: Even people who have visited Alaska multiple times continue to be astounded by its beauty. Names such as North to the Future, Land of the Midnight Sun, and America’s Last Frontier, have been part of Alaska’s identity for years, lending to its reputation as being something wholly unique. This lush, Arctic paradise, of indescribable splendor is home to one of the greatest sled dog races that the world has ever known. It was the final section of the race and they were closing in on the finish line. But something changed as Sean and his dog team reached the coast. In a wilderness as wild and unexpected as Alaska is, it can be easier to get into trouble than out of it.
Sean: I mean, the Coast alone, you know that right there I could write a book about it. You think the coast you think flat, windy. And one of those is right, it’s windy, but it certainly is not flat. I don’t know what you’re referring to as like the second mountain range, but there’s just like several mountains throughout the coast. And I didn’t really get the memo on that. So I was very surprised at the challenges that that Coast brought, were different than I expected. The wind was relentless. And fortunately it was warm. So it wasn’t like I was cold necessarily. But the sleds getting blown off the trail and the dogs are pointed back on the trail. And it’s just a little bit more physical for the musher and the dogs.
Jason: Sometimes you just end up in the right place at the wrong time. As one group of 2020 Iditarod mushers learned the hard way. Sean, unfortunately, was one of those motors. Stay tuned to learn what happened by the coast in one of our upcoming episodes.
I want to thank you for joining us today. In hearing rookie Iditarod musher Sean Underwood’s unique story. Although Seann’s unexpected entrance into the Iditarod world may have transpired on short notice, his mushing legacy still has a long way to go. Be sure to stay tuned to our next episode for another amazing story of adversity from veteran musher Matthew Failor.
Matthew: But his tightness in his muscle wasn’t going to heal in that short timeframe. So I sent him home in the third checkpoint. So quickly down on dogs within the first day and a half, from 14 to 12. And that was the writing on the wall, just small little nicks and dings and…
Jason: Be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss any of our upcoming episodes. And be sure to check out our great stories from season one. For even more content, visit our website atalifeofdogs.com. If you enjoy our stories, be sure to give us a five-star rating and share our podcast with your friends. This episode produced by Jason Ferguson. Story, Stasha Dempson.
We leave you with this episode with a bit of sad news. Earlier this month, Alaskan legend a music icon Hobo Jim Vossos passed away after a battle with cancer. As a tribute, we leave you with his song Where Legends are Born.