The Iditarod: My Sister, Jan Steves, Mushes with the Best Dog Racers in the World

Because my parents imported pianos from Germany, our family traveled there when I was a kid. They took me — the eldest son — to Europe first. The next year, it was my younger sister Jan’s turn. But she opted to go to music camp instead. So I got to go to Europe for the second time in a row. I ended up going overseas every year since, and Jan, who had other passions, never did much international travel.

I never realized just how adventurous Jan is until a couple of years ago, when we discovered that she was, on the sly (thinking no one would take her seriously), setting her sights on actually competing in one of the world’s ultimate races: the Iditarod. Over the last several winters, she’s spent countless long Arctic nights mushing through the Alaskan wilds in subzero weather, running her beloved dog team down trails lit only by the moon and her headlamp. Last year Jan completed the Iditarod getting the prestigious “Red Lantern” for finishing… but finishing last. And in about a week, Jan sets out again for what promises to be the race of her life.

Starting today at ricksteves.com (look for the “Jan Steves’ Iditarod” link on the right side of the page), we’ll be running her blog, sharing an intimate, insider’s account of her personal quest. (For the fascinating back story, you can also browse through several months’ worth of Jan’s blog entries.)

The Iditarod is a thousand-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, which begins the first Saturday in March. Teams of 12 to 16 dogs take 10 to 14 days to complete the race (the fastest time is 9 days). The Iditarod was inspired by the original “serum run” in 1925. In that year, a diphtheria epidemic was sweeping Alaska, and Eskimo children, who had no immunity to this “white man’s disease,” were at great risk. A heroic relay of dog teams rushed a vial of life-saving serum to Nome, rescuing the children.

Each year since 1973, dog teams and mushers have set out from Anchorage to re-enact that first run — braving brutal temperatures, white-outs, wild-animal attacks, and gale-force winds. Mushers sleep with their teams under the Arctic stars, while the moose, the dogs, and the wind all howl. Competing with well-funded, beautifully equipped professional teams, Jan and her team are, you could say, the ultimate underdogs.

Jan will be calling in reports nearly daily (mobile phone access permitting). These communiqués will be transcribed and posted on her blog. For Jan, just finishing this epic and grueling — not to mention dangerous — race will be a huge personal accomplishment. And to not get that Red Lantern…that will be even better.

If you’d like to follow along and root for Jan and her team, be sure to check in, as her blog will be featured at ricksteves.com for the next two weeks.

Go, Jan, go!

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