WHITEHORSE, Yukon — For years, Jim Lanier has been known as an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher. The Chugiak resident has appeared in the Iditarod 20 times — finishing 16 — since making his debut in the 1979 race to Nome.
However, the Iditarod has given Lanier trouble in recent years. He scratched from the race three straight years from 2014-16, skipped 2017 altogether and scratched again last year.
Now, at 78, Lanier is ready to try a new challenge. He’ll be the oldest musher in this year’s Yukon Quest field — and perhaps the oldest to ever reach the start line — when the race to Fairbanks begins at 10 a.m. AKST today at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, Yukon.
“I’ve had trouble with the Iditarod,” Lanier said Wednesday night at the Meet the Mushers event in Whitehorse. “I’ve been injured, I’ve been sick, I got lost. So, I decided it was too tough for me and I could try an easier race.”
It’s clear that having a sense of humor is important to Lanier, who is 17 years older than the next-oldest competitors — veterans Dave Dalton and Allen Moore, who are both 61. The seasoned rookie was wearing rainbow suspenders at Meet the Mushers, and his youthful smile doesn’t give the impression that he’s tired after 40 years of standing on a sled.
Lanier said that making his Quest debut has always been on his bucket list. His wife, Anna Bondarenko, who in 2000 became the first Russian woman to start and finish the Iditarod, also told him he’s forbidden from doing the Iditarod again. The combination of his idea and his wife’s declaration made this year’s Quest seem like a viable option.
“I thought it was finally time do this one before it’s too late,” Lanier said with a wink. “Another reason I’m here is because my wife said, ‘No more Iditarod.’ So, I said, ‘How about the Quest?’ and she said, ‘I haven’t thought about that, go ahead and do it.’”
He’ll be wearing bib No. 13 and will be the 13th musher to leave Whitehorse this morning. Some aspects of his team’s appearance will look similar to his past Iditarod races, most notably his dogs.
“My dogs are tougher than I am,” he said, “and, as usual, they’re all white.”
Running a team of white Alaskan Huskies has been Lanier’s signature. He decided long ago that he’d selectively breed white dogs, a decision he continues to do today.
“It’s a recessive trait,” he explained. “So, by definition, a white dog has no color genes to pass on. If you breed two white dogs, you’re going to get all white puppies.”
While his dogs will look the same as they have for the past few decades, Lanier might appear a little bulkier on his sled during the Quest. That’s because he has decided to wear some extra protection, one of the few differences he said he’s made in recent years.
“I’ll probably wear hockey gear and a helmet,” he said. “At least shoulders, knees and a helmet.”
Although Lanier continued to joke about his willingness to enter the Yukon Quest — which is widely regarded as the toughest sled dog race in the world — during Thursday night’s Start and Draw Banquet, he also acknowledged that there are many differences between the Iditarod and the Quest.
Those differences are often enough to scare some of the most well respected veteran mushers from participating in the Quest. But for Lanier, those unknown variables are what brought him to Whitehorse.
He’s heard the stories about what it’s like on the Quest trail. Now, he’s eager to experience it for himself.
“I’ve heard a lot about it and want to find out for myself what it is,” Lanier said. “It’s a different breed of cat — longer runs between checkpoints, often colder and a little darker. Then there’s four big hills to go over instead of just one.”
Although he stepped away from medicine about five years ago after working as a pathologist at Providence Alaska Medicine Center in Anchorage for 33 years, Lanier is still eager to stand behind a team of dogs.
It may have taken him 40 years of mushing to finally make it to the Quest, but the brief speech he gave after drawing his bib number at Thursday’s banquet proved to the capacity crowd that he’s excited to be in Whitehorse.
“I want to thank the good Lord for giving me health long enough to even consider doing this race,” he said from the stage. “I hope at the age of 78, which I am, to not only enter this race but to finish it. I think, and I want people to refute this if I’m incorrect, but I think at 78 I’m the oldest musher to enter this race. Hopefully I’ll be the oldest to finish it.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him for updates from the Yukon Quest trail on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.