With the 2021 Iditarod Sled Dog race conquered, Josh McNeal is ready for 2022.
“It was the best experience of my life,” said the 2013 La Center High School graduate. “I can’t wait to start to get ready for next year.”
On March 17, McNeal completed this year’s abbreviated Iditarod in 28th place out of 36 finishers and second among eight rookie finishers. Ten mushers withdrew from the race.
McNeal and his team were out on the trail nine days, 16 hours and seven minutes, and it provided McNeal with a lifetime of memories.
“I’d say the big highlights, other than coming across the finish line, were when we were coming back towards Ophir from Iditarod,” McNeal said. “Those runs out there at night were just brutally cold. It was 55 below zero. But those nights, the Northern Lights were just incredible, some of the best I’ve ever seen. So that made it a little more bearable.”
McNeal also noted the views of the Alaska Range he got while coming through Rainy Pass.
“The mountains are just absolutely incredible,” he said. “That was definitely a special time, not only for the sights but just conquering the Alaska Range for a second time with a smaller team and a more tired dog team than when we went over it the first time.”
Instead of the usual 1,000-mile trek to Nome, COVID-19 restrictions limited the route to an 832-mile out-and-back trail to Iditarod and back.
McNeal started with 14 dogs in his team, but finished with nine – a typical number for finishers, he said.
“The dogs that I returned were all for super minor stuff,” he said. “Like one had a sore wrist and another dog with a sore Achilles tendon. I actually dropped one dog because she was in heat, and she was playing with my boys’ heads.”
McNeal went into his first Iditarod with hopes of capturing rookie-of-the-year honors. But by the time he reached the turnaround at Iditarod, he knew he wasn’t going to catch fellow rookie Chad Stoddard and his more experienced team of dogs.
“His team was looking really good,” McNeal said. “So I told him at the halfway point ‘Go win Rookie of the Year. I’m not going to bother to try to chase you.’ ”
From there, the goal was simply to finish. And that goal was put in doubt during a particularly tough stretch on the return from Nikolai headed to Rohn.
“I actually considered turning around and going back to Nikolai and scratching,” he said. “I was having a lot of leader issues. I got about halfway and decided to camp. I don’t know if you’re spiritual, but I am. I was feeling pretty down, and one of the locals was out bison hunting. He stopped and chatted with me. And it totally turned my mood around.”
McNeal decided to continue to push on toward Rohn. But the issues with his lead dog continued, wearing away at his already exhausted psyche.
But then his team encountered a moose on the trail. When the moose spotted McNeal’s team, it turned and ran down the trail of them.
“It kind of perked the dogs up, and I decided I was just going to let it happen,” McNeal said. “So we got into Rohn, I fed the dogs and decided to take a long extended nap. It kind of reset myself mentally and my leaders. That made all the difference and helped get us to the finish line. But that was definitely a moment when I went ‘whoa I don’t know about this.'”
McNeal ended up spending almost 12 hours in Rohn on March 15 before pushing on. Less than two days later, he arrived at the finish line at Deshka Landing around 7 a.m. Alaska time on March 17.
“Everyone finished super happy and healthy,” McNeal said of his team. “We got to the finishing line and everyone got a New York steak. They were bouncing in their harnesses, ready to keep running.”
McNeal learned a lot from his Iditarod. He learned about his own limits, going nearly 10 days with little more than an hour or two of sleep most nights. And he also learned a lot about his team.
“Eight of the nine dogs I finished with had never done a 1,000-mile race before,” he said. “So that was pretty awesome that they have now faced a 1,000-mile race, and they are all dogs that will return with me for my future races.”
McNeal said he appreciated all the words of encouragement he received from friends and followers in his native Washington state.
And he’s eager to hit the trails with his dogs next winter, including the 2022 Iditarod.
“Hopefully in a couple of years, you can write an article about me winning it,” he said.