FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The battle wounds incurred over nearly two weeks in the Arctic wilderness were on display as Jim Lanier sat down for breakfast with his wife at a downtown hotel.
He hardly made a move on his bacon and eggs. His fingers were stiff from frostbite.
“They’re still really sore,” Lanier said as he eased his grip on his fork. “It’s hard to tie my shoelaces — they’re so sore.”
His ribs ached, and a thin gash trickled down his right cheek. The cut was scabbed over, like the frostbite that blossomed on the tip of his nose.
Still, Lanier could smile. He is a 78-year-old rookie who began what is often billed as the world’s toughest sled dog race Feb. 2. He finished in 24th place Feb. 14, three days before meeting for breakfast. And even his injuries had the benefit of giving Lanier cover from having to explain the real story behind the new gap in his teeth.
“The truth is I broke my tooth biting on a frozen cookie,” he said with a laugh.
Lots of folks told Lanier he was crazy when he signed up for the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race. The father of four and grandfather of five from Chugiak, Alaska, outside Anchorage, is hardly a greenhorn. He made his debut at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1979 and completed that more famous event 16 times.
But the Quest’s identity is grounded in being even tougher, more selective and less attention-seeking than the Iditarod.
The Quest was created in 1984 by a musher and a historian who wanted a race so rugged that only purists would participate. It follows a trail through hellish terrain between Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon territory, and Fairbanks, the hub of Alaska’s interior.
Mushers can use only one sled, while those in the Iditarod may use up to three. The Iditarod, which is run entirely in Alaska from Anchorage northeast to Nome, has 22 checkpoints for mushers and their dogs to rest in relative comfort. The Quest has nine checkpoints along a course of roughly similar length, which means mushers pack their sleds for longer runs and endure more campouts in bush country.
Because the Quest embraced a grass-roots approach, it has less corporate presence and a smaller financial reward. Quest mushers pay a $2,000 entry fee and vie for a piece of the $115,000 purse, which is disbursed among the top 15 finishers. The Iditarod has a $4,000 entry fee and a $500,000 purse, and every musher who finishes goes home with a paycheck.
Another significant difference between the races is the weather. The Quest takes place a month earlier, which leads to colder days and longer, darker nights. With considerably fewer mushers participating and fewer checkpoints to stop at, Quest mushers can travel hundreds of miles before encountering another team on the trail.
All those were factors in why Lanier had not competed in the Quest. In addition, various bouts with frostbite on the Iditarod trail had forced the amputation of two of his fingertips and one of his big toes.
“I was a bit intimidated,” Lanier admitted. “I figured, if it was going to be 50 below or colder for days and days and days, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that because my fingers and toes are so compromised by previous frostbite.”
But he views those surgeries as trivial costs of his mushing habit. And ultimately, his itch to take part in the Quest outweighed his trepidation.
“You lose those things, and then you realize that’s not the end of life,” said Lanier, who retired from his day job as a pathologist 15 years ago. “I’m still kickin’. I’m still functioning, more or less.”
Despite his at-all-costs outlook, the cold that pinched the Yukon at the start of this year’s Quest was a hurdle. Lanier said that camping in temperatures of 45 below zero the first night — after he and his team of nine dogs began their 90-mile run from the start line to Braeburn, the first checkpoint on the Canada side — accelerated his understanding of the situation he put himself in.
“That handicapped me right off the bat,” he said, “but then it started to warm up.”
Temperatures began to climb as Lanier and the 29 other teams that started the race in Whitehorse traveled northwest up the Yukon River, but that didn’t simplify the trail for him. After leaving Carmacks, the second checkpoint on the Canada side, he took a spill on jumble ice — jagged, hazardous conditions that can occur when ice forms atop flowing water. That accident caused the aches and pains that hung around after Lanier finished with a total run time of 12 days, 5 hours and 44 minutes.
“I hurt a rib — I thought I broke it, but I didn’t — and I got some cuts on my face,” Lanier said, adding that the timing of his fall gave him the perfect excuse for his missing tooth when he reached a group of concerned onlookers waiting for him at the next checkpoint, Pelly Crossing.
As much as the Canada side of the trail confirmed his concerns about the Quest, the second half of the race — the Alaska side of the trail — made the rookie wonder whether finishing his dream run was an obtainable goal.
The toughest test was a climb over Eagle Summit, a 3,624-foot peak about 115 miles from the finish line. Blizzard conditions forced the 78-year-old and six other mushers to hunker down at Central, the last checkpoint before teams begin their climb. When the group — which came to be known as the Central Seven — began ascending the summit, they were met with whiteout conditions caused by vicious winds.
Visibility became an issue for the eldest musher in the field.
“The top of my eyes started freezing shut, and then I really couldn’t see a thing,” Lanier said. “I had to tell the teams in front and behind of me: ‘Please! Please! Stop! Stop! I can’t see you guys!’”
Lanier, who ran with his signature all-white team of Alaskan huskies, relied on his 8-year-old leader, Almond, in addition to a 1-year-old puppy named Jesus, whom he described as his “inspirational dog.”
“It was like he was resurrected on every run,” he said about Jesus.
Even after Lanier and his team cleared the summit, they still weren’t out of harm’s way.
“I realized if something went wrong and the dogs went off the trail and down into the valley, I might not make it,” he said. “I might not have been able to get back up again if that happened.”
The final 93 miles were a breeze for Lanier, who was 17 years older than the next-oldest competitors and 57 years older than the musher who won the title of Quest Rookie of the Year.
Lanier, who will turn 79 in October, vowed he will race again, though he wasn’t sure which races he would enter.
“I’m always looking at the future, appreciating the present but looking ahead,” he said.
One of the few standing ovations at the finish and awards banquet, held Feb. 16 in Fairbanks, came when Lanier took the stage.
“Some people say I’m an inspiration,” he told the crowd. “I don’t know to what extent that is true, but don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old. Especially don’t let yourself tell yourself you’re too old."
Many in attendance knew Lanier’s reputation from Iditarod banquets of singing a song depicting his time on the trail. They wondered whether he would offer an encore performance after his first Quest.
Lanier didn’t disappoint. He belted out “The Impossible Dream.”