Craig Medred

A tale of two mushers

Brennan Norden in happy days with an Idit-a-rider at the 2011 Iditarod start/photo courtesy Brennan Norden

UPDATED April 30, 2016

Brennan Norden is the outlawed Iditarod musher nobody knows.

Four years before Alaskans started worrying about the treatment of Travis Beals, who the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday banned until completion of treatment aimed at ending his abuse of his fiancée, Norden was unceremoniously booted from The Last Great Race for being a difficult man with whom to deal.

Nobody noticed his banishment.

Norden tried to make a stink about what he thought unfair treatment. He contacted a few reporters.

Some listened. Not one reported anything.

Norden went and talked to some lawyers. They told him he had a case, but he didn’t have the money.

Nothing happened.

Norden eventually went back to being a fishing guide on the Kenai Peninsula and never again tried to run Iditarod. Now retired from long-distance mushing, he sits in his Kasilof home and tries to ignore the chaos swirling around Beals, who pleaded guilty to a domestic-violence related charge in the summer of 2015 only to find himself under arrest again just before Christmas of that year after breaking into a Willow cabin to get at his fiancée and then dragging her out of the building in a headlock.

Iditarod officials — the same Iditarod officials involved in imposing what amounted to a mushing death sentence on Norden — did nothing. Executive director Stan Hooley and trail manager Mark Nordman admitted to knowing of Beals’ pending trial on the December assault charge, but said they thought they should let the legal process takes its course.

Norden was given no such courtesy. Though he had completed the qualifying events necessary to enter the race, run past halfway in his first try at Iditarod in 2011, and paid his entry fee for 2012, he got a letter written on the official letterhead of the Iditarod Trail Committe notifying him that would not be running the Iditarod. It would take him months to get his money back from the entry fee.

“The Iditarod Qualification Review Board met today and after much deliberation has denied your application to participate in the 2012 Iditarod,” the letter said.

It went on to say that “race volunteers have witnessed and documented that you had loud, extended and angry disagreements with Iditarod veterinarians about dog care while still in the race. The act of working against the veterinary staff is paramount to animal abused and will not be tolerated.”

One of the arguments came in Unalakleet where Norden, who speaks loudly even when he is speaking normally, pitched a fit about the dog lot. He thought it was dangerous for his dogs. He might have been right.

A year after Norden received the 2012 letter booting him from the race, a dog smothered after being buried in snow in the Unalakleet dog lot. The Iditarod later added dog shelters at the checkpoint.

NO SAINT

Brennan doesn’t soft pedal his role in getting kicked out of Iditarod.

The 54th and last musher into the tiny, remote, Interior village of Shageluk in 2011, his race ended there against his wishes. Four hours behind the 53rd place musher, the then 37-year-old musher got the dreaded news that he wasn’t being “competitive.”

He wanted to go on anyway. He was stopped. Things went from bad to worse.

“Here’s a guy who’s just a dick and tells some people off and they take me out,” he said. “They should have fined me. But no fine. No suspension. I just spoke my mind…and they punished me. If they don’t like a personality, they can just take you out.”

Norden never even got a hearing.

“They don’t give a f–k,” he said. “They just didn’t want some f–king hippy from Kasilof running the race.”

Iditarod, like all organizations, has its inside politics. Beals was a seemingly clean cut kid from Seward, who told the Peninsula Clarion that he and Iditarod champ “Dallas Seavey have been a ‘friendly rivalry,’as the Willow musher (Seavey) with Peninsula roots ‘has always been a tad step older’ and ‘a tad step better at everything.'” Mitch Seavey, Dallas’s father, said Beals once worked for the family but was fired, and afterward the family wanted nothing to do with him.

But Beals traded on his Alaska-grown image and a connection to an Iditarod dynasty.

Norden was an Outsider was moved up from the Lower 48, and his support in 2012 was weak, former Iditarod contender Tim Osmar from Clam Gulch, one of the more notorious stoners in Iditarod history, and four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, another who enjoys a good toke now and then.

Mackey has a colorful history with the Iditarod. A legitimate Alaska character, a cancer survivor, and a Willy Nelson-style outlaw, he was loved by the organization for the attention he brought and dreaded for what problems he might bring. He got busted for possession of marijuana. He and his wife tussled in public.  He was in and out of court.

The button-down athletes in the Iditarod didn’t particularly like him. When Mackey was in the middle of his Iditarod winning streak, they  pushed to have marijuana banned as a performance enhancing drug. It was. Mushers were tested.

In the entire history of the race, the only drug cheats ever caught — human or canine — were some back-of-the-pack dope smokers who weren’t identified, and Matt Giblin, 38th place finisher in 2012. None of the real athletes in the race, the dogs, have ever been caught with illegal drugs in their systems, or at least if they have the tests have never been publicly reported.

Giblins marijuana use wasn’t reported until months after the 2o12 race at which time Iditarod announced his finish would be nullified, and he would be forced to pay back $1,049 in prize money.

Norden confessed he was on a lot of drugs during the 2011 race, but they were all legal. When he submitted the list before his first race, he said the Iditarod pretty much freaked out. Nordman showed up at Norden’s home in Kasilof to basically try to talk the musher out of  running the race.

As a young man — Norden was 37 when he did the Iditarod in 2011 — Norden had been diagnosed as bi-polar and put on medications. When he thought about bringing suit against Iditarod, it was under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He believes Iditarod was so upset about having a “crazy” person on the trail that it set him up to fail.

Easy to empathize

This gives Norden more than a little cause to empathize with Beals, whose fiancée and family have suggested suffers from mental illness. An Alaska court has ordered Beals into a diversionary, mental health program designed to treat men who abuse women.

Norden admits he has tried to ignore the Beals story because “it just brings back a bunch of shit.”  But it is clear he finds himself drawn to it. A smart and articulate guy, Norden can see why the aging Iditarod hierarchy would be drawn to Beals, a good-looking, 24-year-old Alaskan born and reared.

“Without all these charges, he’s showing a young kid can do this,” Norden said, “an attractive, white boy.”

This is the way Norden talks. It is clearly not meant to disparage Beals. The now-retired musher is every bit as blunt about himself.

“I’ve been through some mental issues myself,” he said. “I’m honest about it. I went and got treated in my 20s. It’s mental health. It’s an illness.

“I have to feel for the kid. If he goes into treatment, that might even push in his favor. Now , they’re (Iditarod) going to have to look at this as a health issue.”

Norden thinks that could make things difficult for the race. He can’t help chuckling over the phone line on which the interview is being conducted from Anchorage about 100 miles north of his home.

Norden has no love for Hooley or Nordman. He admits he’d like to see them fired. He freely confesses he is biased. Others take an opposite view, contending the two men along with Joanne Potts are the glue holding the race together.

Behind the scenes

What looks to be a slick, multi-million operation is, behind the scenes, a leaky boat patched with duct tape. By the time the Iditarod race purse is paid to mushers, there isn’t much money left to put in the winter-only trail, placate villages that would like to get something out of the multi-million dollar event visiting their communities, and provide a little money for marketing to help sell the race in order to raise money to survive another year.

Supporters of Hooley and Nordman say they somehow paste things together to keep the race going. Detractors, Norden among them, loathe the duo. It is understandable.

For most of those who decide to train hard in preparation for taking a dog team 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome, Iditarod becomes an obsession. To be booted out for going too slow as a rookie is devastating. To be told not to come back is overwhelming.

And Norden was given no real opening to return. The letter he received ended this way:

“The Iditarod Qualification Review Board does not want to end your mushing career; instead we want to point you in a direction that will bring you personal success in the sport. Be a sportsman and treat other people and your dogs in accordance with the spirit, principles and rules of the Iditarod. Demonstrate that you can conduct yourself according to these principles, and you will have a better experience with your dogs.”

Norden could never figure out how to do that. How is one supposed to demonstrate anything when banned from the event where one demonstrates things, he asked.

“It doesn’t say when I can return,” he said. “It doesn’t say how. Iditarod is very sneaky about whom they want. It’s more like an Invitational than an open competition. They squeeze out people they don’t want.

“They don’t follow their protocols. They’re part of the story, too. Their policy has been to make up rules as they go along. Iditarod puts a lot of pressure on us. Travis took a lot of stress on himself.”

Norden knows what stress does. He took up mushing, training a lot of dogs for Mackey during his streak of Iditarod domination, to escape into the wilderness and unwind. When he decided to train for Iditarod in 2011, he confesses, his stress levels started rocketing upward.

“It was too much stress, too much on my plate,” he said. He doesn’t try to downplay the bad behavior on the trail that followed. He put a lot of pressure on himself just to finish, and when Iditarod officials killed his dream, he reacted badly.

He hopes things work out better for Beals and his fiancée, another Iditarod musher. Both have big dreams of one day challenging for Iditarod victory. That is a high bar few ever get over. Norden knows how difficult it can be when Iditarod dreams die.

“I’ve had to remove myself from it,” he said. “It’s too hard. I can’t say I’ll never race again,” but if he does it won’t be for a long time yet. It takes a long time to heal.

CORRECTION: This story was updated on April 30, 2016 to reflect that in the entire history of the Iditarod only one competitor, human or canine, has been identified as using drugs. That was Matt Giblin in 2012. The original story indicated the Iditarod had never identified a drug user.