"I don't think I've ever been first in anything," says Ellen Halverson, 53, who is to trail sled dog racing what the fat lady singing is to opera.
Halverson's self-assessment is not entirely accurate. She has twice finished last in the Iditarod, Alaska's annual 1,049-mile trail sled dog race, which is a first. No one else has ever finished last - emphasis on the word finished - more than once since the trek's inception in 1973. Only Halverson, who finished last each of the last two times she entered, in 2007 and 2011, has done so. She has paid the $3,000 entry fee for this year's Iditarod, which began on March 2, and this time the last place Halverson wants to finish is last place. "It's time for someone else to bask in the glory of the Red Lantern," says Halverson, a resident of Big Lake, Alaska. "I really don't want to be last."
For those few souls unfamiliar with the customs of trail sled dog racing, it is a tradition to bequeath a red lantern to the last musher who finishes a race. This totem, this dubious trophy, is an homage to an era in which dogsleds were the 18-wheelers of The Last Frontier. In those days, when Seward's Folly was not yet an ironic term, a lit lantern in a window served two purposes: It meant that a sled was still out on the trail, and it also served as a beacon to guide a musher through darkness or a blizzard. At the Iditarod and other such races, the awarding of the red lantern signifies the race's completion.
"I have several red lanterns," admits Halverson, who is unable to name a precise figure. "My first came in the Beargrease (a 100-miler that winds along the northern coast of Lake Superior in Minnesota) back in the mid-1990s. The Klondike 300 in 2001...the Don Bowers 300 miler in 2007...the 2011 Willow-to-Tug...the 2012 Northern Lights 300...and the two Iditarods. There may have been more, but this is what I remember."
It wasn't always this way. In Halverson's first two attempts at the Iditarod, in 2002 and 2003, she was forced to withdraw. On her maiden trek she had to quit after her dogs staged a sit-down strike. She broke routine, giving her huskies a shorter-than-normal respite in hopes of reaching the next checkpoint before sundown, but of course the dogs did not know that. So they all sat on the trail. For 20 hours. Until a race official persuaded Halverson to withdraw. "They quit on me, but it was my fault," says Halverson. "I failed in dog psychology."
The following year, 2003, the circumstances changed, but the outcome was the same. "I began to think, I should have my head examined," says Halverson, which is funny since she is a psychiatrist.
"After I failed the Iditarod in 2003, I adopted my son [Peter]," says Halverson, who is single, "because I could see the handwriting on the wall. If I was going to spend all my money on something, better it be raising a child than the Iditarod."
Billed as The Last Great Race, the Iditarod extends westward from Willow (there is a ceremonial start one day earlier in Anchorage) to Nome, which sits on the coast of Norton Sound. In terms that we in the Lower 48 might appreciate, imagine driving a dogsled from San Diego to Portland. Now just add subzero temperatures, hundreds of miles without seeing a paved road (much less lights that are not Northern), and the odd chance of a wolf or polar bear encounter. No human has ever perished racing the Iditarod, but there are times out in the midst of the course where some may have welcomed it.
Tough sledding is a popular metaphor for a reason.
You should know this about Halverson: Before attending medical school in her native North Dakota, she was a janitor at a hospital. She was never going to be satisfied until she completed an Iditarod. "One of the reasons I keep doing this is because I need to finish so that I can feel competent," she says.
Which brings us to 2007, Halverson's third attempt. It was about 2 a.m. when her team pulled into Nome, where the race finishes on Front Street, right along the coast. There you will find a burled timber arch, the finish line, on which the words "End of Iditarod Sled Dog Race" are inscribed. Halverson was in the midst of her 13th day - every other one of the 82 teams that had started out in Willow had either already quit or crossed beneath the burled arch. Halverson was elated. Then, confused. The burled arch, she noticed, was growing distant.
"We took a wrong turn," she says, "and I realized that we were out on the sea ice."
Halverson and her team were sledding atop Norton Sound. Next stop, Bering Sea. Next stop, Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, she righted the ship before it became exactly that and claimed her first Iditarod Red Lantern with a time of 16 days, 11 hours, 56 minutes and 20 seconds. Four years later she finished 47th - last - in 13 days, 19 hours, 45 minutes and 45 seconds.
"I don't take finishing for granted at all," says Halverson, "but I don't want to be in last place. At this point, it's embarrassing."
Is it, though? In Halverson's first Red Lantern year, 24 of the 82 mushers had to withdraw or were disqualified. In her second last-place campaign, 15 of the 62 teams that began never crossed under the burled arch. For them it was Mushin' Impossible. Halverson not only finished both years, but her 2011 time would have won 10 of the first 13 Iditarods in the years from 1973 to 1985.
The Seavey family may claim most of the glory - father Mitch and son Dallas have won the past two Iditarods, becoming, respectively, the race's oldest and youngest - but not all of it. The Red Lantern has a sponsor now (Wells Fargo). There is a Red Lantern banquet, which takes place a few days after the finishers' banquet (at which is served the leftovers from said finishers' banquet).
Why shouldn't Halverson, or whoever wrests the prize from her, be feted? After all, winning the Iditarod is not as difficult as being exposed to its harsh conditions, to spending more time on the trail, than anyone else. The Red Lantern is not only a beacon, it is a testament to endurance.
Anyone can quit. Ellen Halverson, however, is built to last. Which may be why she is built for last.