Alaska Guard Soldier Training For A New Kind Of Challenge

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With the wars simultaneously occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Troops, including our National Guardsmen are constantly training and preparing for deployments. Almost as soon as Troops return home from one deployment, they begin preparing for their next deployments. One Army National Guardsman in Alaska is currently preparing to face another kind of challenge.

Currently Guardsman SSG Harry Alexie is one step closer to competing in the famed Iditarod. The Idiarod is Alaska’s famous 1,150 mile sled dog race. The climate at this time of year in Alaska in grueling with temperatures reaching well below freezing. SSG Alexie just finished 9th with a time of 59 hours and 8 minutes in the Copper Basin 300 Dog Sled Race last week. In that race he was also named “Rookie of the Year.” The Copper Basin race is the 2nd qualifying race that he has competed in. The 300 mile race is considered to be the toughest mid-distance sled dog race in the world.

     

Alaska Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Harry Alexie runs 10 sled dogs on an 18-mile practice run near two-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey’s Comeback Kennel training facility in Fairbanks, Alaska, October 2008. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Paizley Ramsey

The National Guard is sponsoring SSG Alexis in the 2009 Iditarod, that is slated to be held in March. As a part of the sponsorship, Alexie has asked veteran musher Lance Mackey, who is a two time winner of the Iditarod, to be his trainer. He will also be using one of Mackey’s dog sled teams to run in the upcoming race.  SSG Alexis has been training since October at Mackey’s training facility in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“Up to his point, SSG Alexie has been doing quite well,” Army Sgt. Maj. Clinton Brown II of the Alaska Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention office said. “Given the experience that he has accumulated and the trainer that is preparing him, SSG Alexie has the ability to finish in the top 20 of the Iditarod.” Anything can happen on the trail, but SSG Alexie is determined to show that he has what it takes to compete in the ‘Last Great Race.’”

SSG Alexie has been mushing since 1990. He’s competed in quite a few races and in several sprint races as well. He first became interested in running in the Iditarod when he was contacted by the Alaska National Guard Recruiting. His goal is that by running in the race, to spread the world about the Army National Guard.

What exactly is the Iditarod you might ask and why is it such a big deal? I’ll explain a bit of it’s history. Known as the ‘Last Great Race on Earth’, the Iditarod cannot be compared to any other competitive event in the world. The race covers over 1150 miles of some of the roughest terrain that can be found in the world. On that 1150 miles journey, mushers are challenged with rugged mountains, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundras, along with miles of coastline swept by harsh winds. What makes it even more of a challenge is that mushers and their dog teams compete in this race when the temperatures dip dangerously below 0 degrees, with winds that can cause loss of visibility due to blowing snow. Many hazards await the mushers and their dog team, including overflow, long hours of darkness (remember Alaska doesn’t have the same night and day schedule we do) climbs up treacherous mountains and hills.

To give you an idea of the route and distance that mushers and their teams have to take, I’ve included a map that was on the Iditarod website.

As you can see, the mushers and their team cover a huge distance and they do so in 10-17 days. To give you another perspective on just how far that is, it would be like driving from Dallas, Texas to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Keep in mind that these folks aren’t driving in a car, but instead exposed to the elements on a sled being pulled by a team of 12-16 dogs. That’s a long way in a car, let alone on a sled being pulled by dogs, folks. Each of the mushers and their team typically cover that distance in 10 to 17 days. That’s a long time out in the elements. Especially in the type of weather they have to endure in Alaska in mid-March. I don’t think I could do it.

The trail that the Iditarod is run on is now considered a National Historic Trail. In the early days, it began as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to mining camps on the interior of Alaska, such as Flat, Ophir, Ruby and beyond. Mail and supplies went in to the interior of the state and gold was brought out. Everything was done via dog sled. In 1925, a portion of the trail also became a lifesaving highway for people in Nome who were stricken with a Diphtheria epidemic. Medication had to be brought in to the city, by dog sleds. The Iditarod is a commemoration of those days and one that Alaskans are very proud of.

Each year, the race route is alternated. On even years, the race goes North through Cripple, Ruby and Galena. On odd years, the route goes through Iditarod, Shageluk and Anvik. Once they reach the coast, the route remains the same. The race winds through large cities and small ones. Everywhere along the way it encourages a yearly increase of activity. Everyone gets involved in the event, from school age children to the old timers, who can tell stories of Iditarod’s of days gone past. Not only is the race a learning experience for the children, but it provides an economic boost to the communities it passes through.

As much as I hate the cold weather, I couldn’t even imagine the endurance and stamina it would take to participate in a race such as this. I’m amazed at each of the people who are competing in this race. My best goes out to all of them. Please join me in wishing SSG Alexie good luck on his endeavor.

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