Sometimes, from a sport where the most impressive athletes in the world walk on four legs and slobber, an unlikely hero emerges.
Even though I am a dog fanatic, I have not truly, honestly, faithfully followed the annual running of the Iditarod, Alaska's antiquated homage to moving stuff with a lot of dogs a very long distance. It's not that I don't get the whole 1,150-miles-in-two-weeks thing, because I do; I like following marathon-like sporting events such as the Tour de France, the Olympic Games and the Mariners trying to play a half-inning of defense. And if there's an actual marathon on television? Hand me the remote because I'm set for the next three hours.
But for some reason, I haven't really connected with the race before. Maybe because I'm one of the few Americans who refuses to recognize Alaska as a state (it's Canada with normal-looking money), or maybe it's because Topps hasn't created a decent line of Iditarod champion trading cards (as of this printing).
This year was a little different.
A good friend of mine by the name of Laura Daugereau became the first woman from the state of Washington to run in - and finish! - the historical race, crossing the finish line on March 15, just 13 days, two hours and 13 seconds after she started.
Laura's journey, like every other musher's, starts way before she toed the line in Willow. As a youth, she lived with her family and survived frigid winters and uncomfortably hot summers in Leavenworth. At 10 years old, Laura's mushing career was born not out of seeing the Iditarod on TV or reading of it in books but from playfully sledding with her dogs and seeing if they would pull her up the snowy Cascade foothills.
Laura already was a hard-core dog devotee by the time I met her in the mid-1990s at Faith Fellowship Church in Silverdale. I have to admit many of her friends, myself included, didn't quite understand or share her affection for dog-sledding, but I recall her passion for the sport (and the devotion it takes to running a team) was inspiring then, and even more so now.
None of it would have been possible without her family, as she's one to quickly confide. A
homeschool student who graduated with a 4.0 grade-point-average despite severe dyslexia, Laura joined the family construction business and built her own small cadre of dogs. She paid for it by dry walling and power-spraying and all sorts of other elbow grease-building activities while her peers were stuck in study hall. Living in a small, converted farmhouse near Poulsbo with her family, she retrofitted an old chicken coop to house dogs and, with her father, Bill, ran ATVs and old sleds up in the hills of the Olympics whenever she could, following her dream.
I lost track of Laura after I moved away to college but heard things here and there about how she found an Iditarod veteran to shadow, that she moved to Montana to train, that she'd completed the junior Yukon Quest (the second-biggest dog-sledding race to the Iditarod) in 2000 and various other races in Washington, Montana and Alaska.
This spring, after years of preparation, Laura got to live the dream. For two weeks, she ran with the best mushers in the world, following some of the same trails where her hero, Susan Butcher (a four-time Iditarod champion), led her dog teams.
She got to take her father, perhaps her biggest supporter, on the ceremonial 11-mile ride to open the Iditarod.
She finished 64th, 17th-best among rookies. Best of all, she finished the 1,150-mile trek, a feat 18 other mushers (13 of them veterans) failed to do. Not bad for 25 years old. Not bad for any years old.
Her trip was documented by several newspapers and photographers, and since returning Laura has been making the rounds at more than 40 schools, libraries or meeting rooms in Western Washington and beyond. In part, she's raising awareness and money for another shot at next year's Iditarod, but mostly she's there to inspire young girls and boys. When I reunited with my old buddy in Port Hadlock this May, though, her presentation drew more "oohs" and aahs" from the retired demographic than any other.
And while all of this is impressive - the $25,000-plus she raised just to run the Iditarod, the lack of sleep she endures on the course, the unparalleled care and attention she gives to her dogs, the well-deserved attention she now receives - one thing stands out in my mind: Her story can be our story.
Laura wasn't born into a family of privilege. She wasn't coddled or groomed to become Washington state's first female Iditarod racer. She simply dreamed the dream and ran with it and got lots of help - four-legged and otherwise - along the way.
She still lives simply, in a tree house on her parents' property in Port Gamble half the year and the other half prepping dogs in Montana. That's where she's headed this August for another six months of Iditarod training.
People can't seem to get enough of her story. If you're a dreamer, it's a story worth following.
As for the dogs, I applaud them for pulling her all those miles faithfully and loyally. I have to applaud her too. It's not every day you realize that, with enough faith and persistence, dreams still come true.