Oregon doctor chases dream

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2008

FINGER LAKE - Cliff Roberson straggled into this tent checkpoint early Monday afternoon, exhausted and running 70th in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

Roberson, a Corvallis, Ore., neurosurgeon, was trailing far behind the early front-runners, including Norway's Kjetil Backen, who was the first to leave the checkpoint at Rainy Pass 30 miles up the trail.

One day after the start of the 1,100-mile race, Roberson was already being slammed. His dogs had run him ragged, racing in all directions and forcing him to ride the brake for 50 miles.

"They're so full of beans. They're like a runaway train," Roberson said, smothering salve on his dogs' feet while rising winds stirred up the deep snow. He would have to drop a female dog, Vinnette, because of a sore shoulder.

Temporarily miserable, maybe, but the 60-year-old Roberson is just happy to be making a trek to Nome on Alaska's western coast. It's been 13 years since he finished his third Iditarod. Something is driving him to relive an unforgettable experience before he gets too old.

"I feel there's enough fire in the belly for one more," he said just before Sunday's start in Willow.

He's running what he says is his final race. The venture is a reluctant gift from his wife, Suzanne Roberson.

"It's so, so expensive and so frivolous," she said, standing on the frozen Willow Lake to see her husband off. "But he works hard and he needs this."

"It's a disease," Cliff Roberson said, laughing.

Roberson acknowledges it's hard for some to understand the whys of running the Iditarod: why someone would spend thousands of dollars preparing for the race, why someone would want to sleep on frozen ground, at minus-60. Then there's all that time training in Alaska since October with retired Iditarod racer Vern Halter and the Willow musher's dogs.

"You don't actually want to be at 60-below. You want to do the event and hope it's not 60-below," he said. "It's just unbelievably exciting to travel across Alaska with a dog team."

The Iditarod was launched in 1973 to commemorate a 1925 run by sled dogs to deliver lifesaving serum to Nome.

The modern trail covers two mountain ranges, the vast frozen Yukon River and treacherous ice. Challenges include blinding blizzards, long stretches of frigid overflow, the numbing cold. It's an extremely difficult journey with tremendous emotional ups and downs, said Roberson, who last ran the Iditarod in 1995.

For him, the mystique of the race runs the whole course, from bonding with the dogs to basking under the dancing northern lights. There are jagged mountains and dense woods, the wind-scrubbed Bering coast before the final stretch to the finish line under Nome's burled arch.

"To really see Alaska, this is the only way to do it," Roberson said.

A couple of years before he turned 60, Suzanne Roberson asked her husband what he wanted for the milestone birthday.

He took months to figure it out. Conventional gifts like a new car or exotic vacation didn't do it for him. Slowly it dawned on him that only the Iditarod felt right. He took a while to tell his wife what he really wanted.

Auke Bay musher Deborah Bicknell sits in 68th position as of 8:12 p.m. Monday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Bicknell, 62, and her crew of 14 dogs checked out of the Finger Lake checkpoint at 6:30 p.m. Monday after a six-hour rest. Up next for Bicknell will be a 48-mile trek to the Rohn checkpoint. Following Rohn is a 75-mile stretch to Nikolai.

Norwegian musher Kjetil Backen currently leads the race after checking into Rohn at 5:41 p.m. Backen leads second place Paul Gebhardt by 2 hours, 9 minutes.

Backen, Gebhardt and Gerry Willomitzer were the only three to reach Rohn as of 8:12 p.m. Monday.

Defending champion Lance Mackey sits in sixth position after leaving the Rainy Pass checkpoint at 3:48 p.m. Monday.

Keep with the mushers at the Iditarod's official Web site, www.iditarod.com.

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