The race took him across nearly 1,609 kilometres (1,000 miles) of barren tundra and dense spruce forests, down dizzying gorges and up snow-capped mountains.
But on Tuesday, Alaska Native Ryan Redington emerged as the winner of the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the most prestigious dog sledding tournament in the United States.
This year’s win, however, has special significance for Redington who led a six-dog pack to victory in Nome, Alaska. The 40-year-old is the grandson of Joe Redington Sr, nicknamed the “Father of the Iditarod”.
The elder Redington, who died in 1999, was a seasoned dog musher who helped champion sled dog racing at a time when the tradition was threatened by the increasing use of snowmobiles.
He and businesswoman Dorothy Page launched the first Iditarod race in 1973.
Tuesday’s winner is expected to bring home an estimated $50,000 purse, out of a total of $500,000 in prize money for the entire tournament.
The top three finishers in this year’s race were all Alaska Natives. In the final sprint, Dena’ina Athabascan sledder Richie Diehl and 2019’s winner Pete Kaiser, who is Yup’ik, joined Redington at the front of the lineup. Redington himself is Inupiat.
He becomes only the sixth Alaska Native to win the race.
The competitors faced some unexpected hurdles, however, in preparing for their dash from Anchorage to Nome. Most years average a total of 63 racers in the tournament, but this year only 33 dog mushers registered, a record low.
Some competitors cited rising inflation as a cause, with dog sledding already an expensive pastime.
And on the trail itself, competitors encountered unseasonably warm temperatures, with some Alaska communities reporting record heat. “There’s almost no places that were below freezing along the route,” Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the National Weather Service, told the Associated Press last week.
Not only did the toasty temperatures raise the prospect of sledding along mud and slush, but it also was taxing to the dogs, who could overheat.
But at 12:15pm Alaska time (20:00 GMT), Redington sailed across the finish line, fulfilling a childhood dream. It was his 16th attempt at the race.
“It took a lot work, took a lot of patience,” he said. “And we failed quite a few times, you know? But we kept our head up high and stuck with the dream.”