Over the river and through the woods — and over mountains and ice, through snow and dirt, amid wind and rain — to Nome, Alaska, Sweet Briar grad Alison Lifka traveled.
And it took her just two weeks to get there.
In the dark of night on March 16, after 13 days, 8 hours, 35 minutes and 29 seconds, the 28-year-old finally reached the promised land, the finish line of “The Last Great Race on Earth” — the Iditarod.
Years of preparation had finally paid off, and the dream became reality for Lifka. The musher and her team of sled dogs had traversed 1,000 miles of Alaskan terrain to become one of 39 teams to finish the 2019 Iditarod.
“It’s still a little surreal that I got to do it,” Lifka, a member of Sweet Briar’s Class of 2013, said in a recent interview, a few weeks removed from reaching Nome.
After completing her bachelor’s degree at Sweet Briar six years ago, Lifka, a native of North Carolina, moved to Alaska with adventure on her mind.
For years, she worked with Iditarod mushers and dogs before finally taking the first step toward participating in the race.
Her boss, Iditarod veteran Linwood Fiedler, planned to race again this year, but had dogs at his kennel that could make up another team. So in fall 2017, Lifka worked up the courage to ask Fiedler if she could complete the Iditarod with them.
“I was terrified he was gonna say no,” she said, “but also kind of zen in the moment.”
While she’d thought before about her future including the Iditarod, she didn’t think it would actually happen quickly.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do Iditarod someday, but that day isn’t gonna come anytime soon,’” she said. “That’s what I told people.”
That was until Fiedler said yes.
Lifka was thrilled, she said, before immediately realizing, “I better get my butt in gear and get ready.”
So for months, she trained the dogs. Got them used to running 40-plus miles at a time, to camping in unfamiliar places, to working together to pull a 200-pound sled and a musher.
And thanks to financial support from family, friends and Sweet Briar alumnae — more than $10,000 went into the race, Lifka estimated — Lifka gathered all the necessary supplies: hundreds of pounds of food, hundreds of booties for the dogs’ feet, gear for herself and other necessities.
Finally, she was at the start in Anchorage in early March.
“I was a nervous wreck,” she said during a lecture at Sweet Briar this week, before explaining her excitement for the days ahead. “I get to go explore, and I get to do it with 14 of my best friends.”
According to Lifka, the goal for her young group of dogs was simply to finish the Iditarod. She wasn’t worried so much about time or her finishing position.
“There was no added stress of performance,” she said. “All we had to do was keep each other happy and get to Nome.”
There were times, of course, when it didn’t seem like she’d get there.
Early on in the race, Lifka’s sled broke when the snow-free terrain caused her to lose control. The sled hit a stump, and a large piece broke off.
Lifka rigged a temporary patch that failed, and a second solution wouldn’t make the cut long-term either.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘Maybe I won’t finish,’” she said.
But thanks to a pair of fellow mushers donating their second sleds, Lifka got new life.
There were other times, too, when the task of finishing seemed daunting.
Sometimes the exhaustion set in. Singing old songs from Queen and The Who to her dogs in an attempt to stay awake didn’t always work, and she spent a little longer recovering at checkpoints than she would’ve liked.
Along the Yukon River, the terrain proved especially difficult, she said, and hard for both her and the dogs to get over.
She also had to “return” three of her 14 dogs along the trail, leaving them in the care of veterinarians because she wanted to ensure their safety after they showed signs they wouldn’t be able to continue. All of those dogs are completely healthy now, she added.
Amid the challenges, though, Lifka said she drew inspiration from the dogs. Like a Golden Retriever fetching a ball, she said, her dogs are excited to run miles on end, which she called “just super infectious.”
“It’s an amazing feeling to know that these dogs trust me so much that they get up and go when you say go, even after running 100 miles a day,” she said. “That gave me the strength to continue even when I just wanted to curl up and go back to sleep.”
While Lifka said she’s “still not recovered” from the race, she’s proud of finishing the journey, ranking it as one of the top accomplishments of her life.
The Sweet Briar community, too, has relished the chance to boast about one of its members.
Alumna DeDe Conley even organized a trip to Alaska for SBC grads, now spread out across the U.S., to support Lifka before, during and after the race.
“Alison is an amazing role model for Sweet Briar students, alumnae and more. She is a brilliant example of what we call the Sweet Briar effect, something extra Sweet Briar gives students to be so successful in so many diverse fields,” Conley said.
“It was a pleasure to get to know her. [She’s] modest, smart, strong, centered, determined, generous, pushing boundaries. … So in awe of her team, her dogs, their spirit. … Inspiring those around her.”
Lifka said another Iditarod may be far off, as she hopes to build her own kennel with her own race dogs — a goal that would take several years — but she still sees another 1,000-mile trek across Alaska in her future.
“It makes you question your sanity,” she said of her choice to participate in such a harsh event. “And I want to go back for more.”