Chugiak dog driver Jim Lanier is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet on the Iditarod Trail, and he has a problem, a bunch of them actually.
One might be as simple as his lack of a Twitter feed and 100,000 followers. If he had that, he’d likely be running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race next year just like Blair Braverman did this year.
But the aging pathologist is not into social media, and Iditarod has banned him from next year’s race as unqualified for reasons that have not been made clear but appear to relate to supposed performance declines linked to age.
Iditarod last year embraced the marginally qualified Braverman for her media presence, her youth and her salesmanship. A writer by trade, Braverman was everywhere talking up Iditarod in the lead-in to her rookie race, and she made no effort to hide her inexperience.
“I’ve never run 1,000 miles with my dogs before,” she wrote in Vogue. “I don’t know what that looks like. I haven’t experienced the trail. I haven’t been sleep deprived for that long before. So I’m essentially launching into a huge unknown.”
Braverman’s idea of an Iditarod qualifying race was the 300-mile (formerly 400 mile) John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Northern Minnesota. The Beargrease is to the Iditarod what your local marathon is to the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a remote Alaska event that long required entrants to sign a waiver recognizing the race could prove deadly and which has suffered a fatality.
No one has ever died in Iditarod, though there have been close calls.
Lanier, a veteran of 20 Iditarods who has spent his life in Alaska and has been running dogs for decades, is far more experienced at Alaska survival and wilderness dog care than Braverman, a resident of Wisconsin. But he has also been on a run of bad Idit-a-luck, and he is old.
He has marked 78 years on the calendar. And though he does not look his age, he is equally and obviously a long way from the 30-something, Braverman-demographic the Iditarod would like to attract as fans.
Neither is there any denying that three of his last four Iditarods ended with his scratching due to injuries, and the fourth in 2018 resulted in the Bering Sea Coast rescue of Lanier and Anchorage’s “Mushing Mortician,” Scott Janssen.
Suffice to say, in the easy clarity of hindsight, if Janssen had pushed on to Safety and told Iditarod someone needed to go out on a snowmachine and help a stalled Lanier, the whole affair might have ended with little or no fanfare as is often the case in Iditarod.
Instead, as told by Janssen, it all ended up a near-death battle for survival though the bicyclists on fat tires who came upon the mushers hunkered down in a coastal blow didn’t think the weather particularly dangerous even as they worried about the two mushers they found huddling in the wind.
How great the real risk to Janssen and Lanier is debatable. Neither required medical treatment or hospitalization after their rescue, which would tend to indicate the situation wasn’t a bad as Janssen later portrayed it.
As for the easy-going Lanier, well, he wasn’t about to challenge a story a friend was telling and seemed to be enjoying even if it did make Lanier look like the cause of Janssen’s near death.
Afterward, Lanier just moved on.
He went north and this year finished 24th in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks. That race with long distances between checkpoints and a lack of village rest stops is generally considered a physically more challenging event than Iditarod.
In terms of Iditarod “qualifying” races, the Quest could be considered a super qualifier. It would be to the Beargrease what a marathon is to your average, neighborhood, 10K fun run. It would obviously appear to qualify Lanier to run the 2020 Iditarod.
Exactly why Lanier’s Iditarod 2020 entry was red-flagged and sent to a “qualifying review board” reported by various sources as staffed by Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman, Iditarod reporter Bruce Lee, and Iditarod race judge Karen Ramstead is unclear.
The Iditarod isn’t officially saying who was on the panel, but everyone in the Iditarod family thinks those are the three members. All are Iditarod veteran dog mushers and Ramstead is an expert on scratches, having dropped out of six of the 11 races she started.
The Associated Press reported Lanier was sacked because of “dog care concerns,” an accusation he has adamantly denied and which seems out of sync with his kennel. One of Lanier’s main dog handlers is Julie St. Louis, the co-founder of The August Foundation for Alaska’s Racing Dogs.
The Foundation, also known as the August Fund, finds homes for retired sled dogs, and St. Louis has for years been active in pushing for better care of sled dogs. St. Louis is no wall flower. Friends say they are confident that if there were any hint of inadequate dog care involving Lanier and his dogs, St. Louis would rip the old man a new one.
She said Monday that Laniers dogs looked great in Fairbanks after finishing the Quest last year.
The Iditarod, meanwhile, has long avoided the quagmire of dog-care concerns, arguing that its only responsibility comes during the race when veterinarians have the authority to take action if a problem arises.
Iditarod refused to get involved when accusations of dog abuse were leveled against former Iditarod champion John Baker from Kotzebue, and it did nothing when former four-time champ Lance Mackey revealed during the 2015 race that his fingers basically weren’t working.
It is hard to take care of racing sled dogs, whose feet often need booties and attention, if your fingers don’t work. Mackey’s brother, Jason, said he planned to follow along behind his brother on the trail and tend to the dogs.
Not that these sorts of issues are always overlooked. The legendary and late Norman Vaughan’s Iditaroding ended in 1992 after he was tossed out of the race by veterinarians angry that he didn’t take care of his team before hobnobbing in Skwenta, though that was never publicly reported.
Then 84 years old, Vaughan was more attuned to enjoying life than the experiencing more of the exhausting hardship of what is trademarked as The Last Great Race.
Why the Iditarod would reject Lanier’s 2020 entry instead of asking veterinarians to keep an especially close watch on the old guy’s dog care and boot him if any problems arose is another of those unknowns.
The decision and the lack of a full explanation has left Iditarod fans debating whether all of this is a good thing, a bad thing, the start of a mandatory retirement age, and/or a new precedent for dog care. The angriest of Lanier supports have posted a petition at Change.org to push for Lanier’s Iditarod reinstatement.
‘Jim’s reputation is that of a true professional who puts the health and well-being of his dogs above all, and he keeps himself fit and healthy. Indeed, most people are astonished when they learn his age, as his physical condition rivals that of men 20 years his junior,” it says.
“This year a small screening committee rejected Jim’s application to compete in the 2020 Iditarod, turning him down without so much as the opportunity to state his case or answer questions. Our petition is to implore Iditarod Officials and the Board of Directors to overrule the tiny committee’s decision and allow Jim Lanier and his team back on the trail for the 2020 Iditarod.”
As a reporter in Alaska for years, it would be remiss of me not to include some observations of Lanier in this story. As a dog driver, it is fair to say he is no equal to the late Susan Butcher or five-time champ Rick Swenson or Swenson’s old trail buddy Sonny Lindner or four-time champ Marin Buser or top-10 veteran Ramey Smyth or a long list of others.
Some people seem born to the trail. It is out there that they are in their element.
I remember snowmachining into a ground blizzard in the Happy River valley on the way to Rainy Pass in 1991 when Iditarod was worried about some of back-of-the-pack mushers then on the trail. Along Pass Creek below the climb to the Pass, an Anchorage Daily News photographer and I met a Brooks Range musher named Sepp Herman who’d parked his team.
It took about 30 seconds to assess that he was fine. His dogs were burrowing themselves beds in the snow out of the wind, and he was very efficiently setting up to bivouac. The dogs needed a rest before the climb, he said, so he was going to give them a couple hours.
The weather? It was pretty much irrelevant. Herman had seen worse and was comfortable in the conditions.
Lanier was never quite that guy. Born in Washington, D.C.; raised in Fargo, a medical doctor by training, Lainer has always been a little more urban than wilderness geek. There are city mice and country mice, and Lanier seemed always more the city mouse.
I can remember when he and his wife – Anna Bondarenko, the first Russian woman to complete the race – were rescued from Rainy Pass while scouting the Iditarod route in the late ’80s or early ’90s. At the time, it seemed somewhat predictable. But I was a lot younger then and a lot more full of myself.
I couldn’t imagine anyone calling for rescue unless they were on the verge of death or, at the very least, missing body parts. I still can’t, but that’s a ridiculously high standard to impose on others.
If I was judging who was and wasn’t “qualified” to run Iditarod based on my standards, the field might be reduced by half or more. I confess to being near the opposite of the late Joe Redington, the Iditarod founder who thought everyone should take a shot at the 1,000-mile adventure from Knik (now Willow) to Nome.
Lanier is of the everyone, and there have historically been far more Laniers in the Iditarod than race champions. If this case represents an attempt by Iditarod to raise the performance standards for all mushers, it might be a good thing.
But if it’s just singling out one musher because he’s old and someone has decided that spells incapable, the decision is nothing but age discrimination. Physiological performance declines with age. There is no doubt about that.
The problem is that it doesn’t decline at the same rate in all people, and everyone starts from a different peak. The late Canadian runner Ed Whitlock ran a 2:54:48 marathon at the age of 73 and was still running sub-four hour marathons at age 85.
The average finishing time for marathon runners in the U.S. is around four hours, 22 minutes for men and four hours, 48 minutes for women. Whitlock at age 85 was still close to half an hour faster at the distance than the average runner.
The point here is that performance can be objectively measured. If Iditarod thinks there are certain levels of physical and physiological performance necessary to be able to run the race and care for the dogs, it needs to come up with some sort of standards for what those performance levels and test the people it doesn’t think can get over the bar.
Because now, the race just looks like its discriminating against old folks, which would break the late Joe Redington’s heart. The race founder ran his last Iditarod in 1997 at age 80 – two years before his death from cancer – and finished a respectable 36th just 15 minutes behind much younger Dan Seavey, the patriarch of the Seavey clan.
Lanier would appear as fit now as Redington was at that time, but there is no denying the Iditarod is now a different race as well. It took Redington and Seavey 13 days, 4 hours in ’97 on a trail good enough for Buser to win in 9 days, 8 hours.
On a trail that good 20 years later, a musher has to run under 9 hours to win, and the back of the pack has to pick up the pace as well to avoid being disqualified as “noncompetitive.”
When Seavey ran again in 2012 at age 74, his finishing time was only 15 hours slower than in ’97, but he ended the race third from last. If Iditarod’s concern is that Lanier can no longer keep up, it might have a better case than suggesting his dog care is sub-par.
Correction: An early version of this story mischaracterized Braverman’s Beargrease race. She entered that race but did not finish it, which meant she could not use it as an official Iditarod qualifying race.