The Washington Post:
Having completed the Iditarod, Army veteran prepares for Everest quest
March 23rd, 2015
Around 9 o’clock Saturday night, nearly two weeks after Steve Watkins and his pack of dogs set out to tackle the Alaskan wilderness, the Army veteran crossed the Iditarod finish line in Nome, joining a small group of mushers who’ve successfully completed the grueling dog sled race. That’s also about the same time Watkins realized he’s just halfway to his goal: He now plans to scale Mount Everest, which would make him the first known person to accomplish both feats in the same year.
Watkins, a 38-year-old Kansas native, was a rookie in this year’s Iditarod field. He was the 58th competitor to cross the finish line, navigating his dogs and sled across nearly 1,000 of Alaskan terrain in 12 days, 10 hours and 57 minutes.
“I ran the race I wanted to run,” Watkins said Saturday, “which was just very conservative. I wanted the dogs to have adequate resting time. I knew I’d be a back-of-the-packer.”
This year’s race was won by 28-year old Dallas Seavey, who reached Nome in 8 days, 18 hours and 4 minutes. The Iditarod title was Seavey’s third, and second in as many years. His father, Mitch Seavey, who won the race in 2013, finished second, crossing the finish line less than four hours after his son.
This year marked the 43rd running of the Iditarod, which calls itself the “last great race on Earth." Fewer than 750 mushers have successfully completed the race. Watkins, an Army veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, was profiled earlier this month in The Washington Post as he prepared for the race.
“The experience really is triumphant. It’s more than the sum of its parts,” Watkins said. “The weather, the dogs, the natives in their villages, the volunteers. It all is just magnificent. It’s hard for me to articulate.”
Early in the race, overnight temperatures often fell to 40 degrees below zero — or colder. Watkins remembered one point near the race’s midpoint when he and his dogs got lost in the middle of the night. One dog was pulling especially hard and the sled drifted off the race trail. Watkins said it was around 30-below and white-out conditions at the time.
“I tried doubling back on the trail that I had created and then got even more lost,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t see anything.”
He stopped the sled and watched the stars move across the sky for about an hour until he got a bearing on his directions. He knew roughly which dog pulled the pack astray and slowly started hunting for the trail.
“I chose a path hoping I wasn’t taking us out in the Bering Sea,” he said. “So we crept along.”
When he found a hint of the race trail, he parked the sled and walked on foot for a couple of miles before retrieving his dogs and resuming the race. He called it a “harrowing three hours.”
Several days later his sled pulled into Nome. He had 11 dogs with him, five fewer than he had when he left Fairbanks on March 9. He sent the others home at different points in the race when they appeared to be too tired or their shoulders too sore to continue.
After catching up on sleep and food, Watkins said he planned to resume his Everest training Monday with a cardio workout.
“I’ve had great football coaches who allow guys to celebrate for 24 hours. That’s what I’m doing,” he said Saturday. “I’m giving myself a day, and then it’s onto the next thing.”
On Tuesday he’ll return to Wasilla to tie up loose ends, and next Monday he’ll board a plane for Kathmandu, Nepal. If all goes as planned, he hopes to reach the summit of Everest around May 20.