The annual Iditarod is a world-famous dog sled race stretching 938 miles from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska. It’s an incredible distance to imagine dogs roaming the wilderness in sub-freezing conditions, but it might be even more incredible to consider that one of this year’s 58 mushers used to call Statesboro his home.
Georgia Southern alum Sean Underwood graduated with a degree in economics and a minor in Spanish, and it was the latter that led to him studying abroad in Costa Rica. The experience inspired him to return to the country following his graduation. After that came a trip to Chile to visit relatives and a moment of realization.
“After those experiences, it occurred to me that a suit-and-tie job after college wasn’t the only thing available to me,” Underwood said. “I wanted to see another amazing place.”
Underwood took inventory of his family in search of his next destination and ultimately found and aunt and uncle running a commercial fishing business in Anchorage. He spent two summers working off of Kodiak Island fishing sockeye salmon and fell in love with the lifestyle… enough to see what an Alaskan winter would bring.
Underwood’s relatives just happened to be friends with four-time Iditarod winner and dog sledding legend Jeff King. Acknowledging the work ethic Underwood had already shown in the fishing business, King took him on to help with his operation.
“I spent that first winter near Denali National Park,” Underwood said. “It was mostly starting from the bottom with tough work. It was basically scooping up poop. But got me started on learning to work with the dogs.”
Underwood slowly gained the trust of King and — more importantly — the Alaskan huskies bred to race in competitions. Over the last four years, Underwood made the transformation from poolside Statesboro summers, to South American expeditions, to heading up his own sled racing across Alaskan tundra.
The ultimate goal was the ultimate race — the storied Iditarod, which began Saturday.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome, entirely within Alaska. Mushers and a team of 14 dogs, of which at least 5 must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. The Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams but evolved into today's highly competitive race.
Underwood put in the work and was able to qualify this past winter via stellar showings in other events. Iditarod regulations state that mushers qualifying for the race in one winter must wait until the next, but fate intervened.
During preparations to race in what would have been his 30th Iditarod, King fell ill and had to undergo surgery and hospitalization. Unable to compete, he appealed to the race authorities that Underwood take his spot and a waiver was granted.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Underwood said of his inclusion in this year’s event. “I know that this isn’t because of my skill for riding a sled. There’s a lot that has to be considered as far as safety of mushers, given the demands of this event.
“I know that getting this opportunity is a result of showing that I know how to care for the dogs and the relationships I’ve built with this team over a very long time of training.”
If Underwood is concerned about anything, it’s himself. Given a very short window to prepare for what will be the longest race of his career by far, the last few days have been a whirlwind of switching out gear and charting a plan to race day and night through brutal conditions.
As for the dogs, there’s nothing but confidence and faith.
“Some people feel bad for the dogs, but this is what they love to do,” Underwood said. “I’ve had shorter races where I could barely check in at the finish because they wanted to keep running.
“There are 14 dogs ready to go, and it’s going to be an incredible ride.”