Alaska News

Anchorage cardiologist's unlikely journey to Iditarod adventure

As an Anchorage cardiologist, Dr. Mark Selland has an impressive resume: medical school, internships, fellowships. But he also has an impressive resume when it comes to outdoor escapades.

He's skied over the Harding Ice Field from Seward to Homer, traversed the Brooks Range, floated through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and climbed an impressive number of peaks -- notching six of the Seven Summits (he's missing Australia's Mount Kosciusko), including Mount Everest and Denali.

But for Selland, running the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, as he plans to this year, isn't about checking another accomplishment off a list.

"This is not a bucket list," he said in an interview last week. "I don't have a bucket list of things I want to do."

For Selland, running the race is more of a chance to get back to a more traditional way of traveling in the Arctic -- via dog team.

"I'm not so interested in racing," Selland said. "I wanted the experience."

Part-time cardiologist

Of the 78 mushers signed up to start, Selland is one of 20 rookies. But the trip to the start line was an unexpected journey for Selland, who works at the Alaska Heart Institute. He cut back his work to part-time this year so he could focus on training dogs.

It's been a matter of the right things lining up at the right time for Selland -- similar to how he first climbed Everest in 1993, when a friend called somewhat out of the blue and asked him if he wanted to climb the world's highest peak.

VIDEO: Mark Selland talks about training and strategy for his upcoming rookie Iditarod race

Selland will run a team out of veteran musher Robert Bundtzen's kennel. Bundtzen, a 13-time finisher, decided not to race this year and instead handed his team to Selland, who's been a handler in his kennel the last three years.

Getting into the Iditarod is something Selland has worked at for a while. Dog mushing often requires years of dedicated training to simply qualify for the 1,000-mile race, and isn't something one can decide on a whim. Despite his outdoor background, Selland considers dog mushing more difficult than climbing Everest.

His wife, Kathy Faryniarz, summed it up best, recounting Selland's reaction after finishing his first 300-mile race.

"Climbing Everest, you just have worry about yourself," she recalled him saying. "This is like going to Everest with a bunch of kindergartners."

Race beginnings

Selland, 57, was born and raised in North Dakota. Growing up, dogs weren't a large part of his life beyond the pets his grandparents kept at their farm. He followed the race starting in the 1980s, when he first came to Alaska to work for the Alaska Native Medical Center.

But his wife, Faryniarz, grew up with dogs and was always interested in them. Faryniarz got seriously interested in sled-dog racing in the mid-1990s after taking a mushing class at the University of Alaska Anchorage. What started as a way to skijor with dogs morphed into eventually handling for Iditarod veteran and fellow doctor Bundtzen.

Faryniarz eventually did a few mid-distance races but said she wasn't suited to the sleep deprivation that comes with long-distance mushing and decided to stick to sprint racing and skijoring.

But her husband "caught the bug" after running the Sheep Mountain 200 in 2013, she said. Selland had been working with Bundtzen for about a year at that point when the Iditarod musher encouraged him to try a race.

The race was a challenge, Selland said, but it was "enough of a carrot" to keep him at the kennel. A year later, Selland signed up for the Copper Basin 300, one of the most difficult and competitive mid-distance races in the state. He was 18th out of 31 finishers, and finally ready to tackle the Iditarod.

Steep learning curve

So when Bundtzen, who finished 42nd in 2014, decided not to return this year, Selland signed up for the ultramarathon to Nome.

It's a big responsibility, but one he's taken seriously by continuing work at the kennel while training this season. Even with a wilderness background, the learning curve has been steep. Very little of Selland's training as a cardiologist applies to dog mushing.

"Dogs don't get heart disease," he said. "At least not these dogs."

But medicine has taught Selland problem-solving, and he uses that skill on the sled. A lot of mushing comes down to just watching the dogs. When something is off with them while running, that may indicate trouble.

Selland plans to take the Iditarod slowly, breaking his runs into small, 40-mile chunks. He'll see how the dogs look and go from there.

"It's a big goal, but to get there you're going to have to do it in small doable pieces," he said.

Bundtzen said that with Selland's outdoor experience, he'll be more than ready to tackle the race. Sleep deprivation may be his biggest challenge, Bundtzen suggested, but something Selland's training as a doctor will help him with.

"I've observed him, watched him and encouraged him to do it," Bundtzen said, "and he's going be good at it."

Bundtzen said it won't be hard for him to watch Selland go down the trail with dogs he knows so well. He's actually looking forward to watching.

"It'll be fun being the armchair musher, I guess," Bundtzen said.

And for Selland, it's the most adventurous way to see Alaska.

"I've lived in Alaska for 20 years," he said. "I can't think of a more amazing way to see this country."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.