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Iditarod

Iditarod's 5 returning red lantern recipients hesitantly embrace the race's most notorious prize

Ellen Halverson has two red lanterns, but she definitely doesn't want a third.

The Wasilla musher is the only two-time collector of the trophy, the prize given to the last Iditarod racer under the burled arch in Nome. The award stems from the idea of keeping a light on until the last musher crosses the finish line.

But for Halverson, a full-time psychiatrist and single mom, she's tired of last-place finishes in the Iditarod (in 2007 and 2011) and other sled dog races.

"I just don't want to be last," she said in February. "I just want to do better."

That's a sentiment shared among the five returning red lantern recipients in the 2015 race. Joining Halverson on Fourth Avenue on Saturday for the ceremonial start are Tim Hunt of Marquette, Michigan (2009), Jan Steves of Edmonds, Washington (2012), Christine Roalofs of Anchorage (2013), and last year's winner, Marcelle Fressineau of Whitehorse, Yukon. It's the most-ever returning red lanterns in one race year.

It's worth noting that there are nearly as many red lantern winners as former first-place finishers running this year's Iditarod -- six former champions are scheduled to start the race, out of the 78 mushers registered.

But what makes it an oddity is that they're coming back at all. According to Alaska Dispatch News statistics, 63 percent of red lantern recipients never return to the race. Only nine mushers have gone on to complete another Iditarod after getting the lantern. Of the five returners, Halverson is the only one who has finished more than one Iditarod, though Roalofs, Hunt and Fressineau are returning for the first time since their last finish.

Some of that stems from the difficulty of collecting the prize in the first place. Brian O'Donoghue, a journalism professor at UAF and a former musher, collected both Yukon Quest and Iditarod red lanterns in 1998 and 1991, respectively. When he tells people he finished both races, he always feels compelled to note that he finished last. He said part of that is just to remind people that he was not the "rough, tough champion racer" and more a person who simply went the distance.

"It's the booby prize," O'Donoghue said in an interview last month. "And you can be the kind of person that can feel really burdened by that or be the person who it's not a distinction you sought, but hey, I'll live with it."

O'Donoghue said, next to his family, finishing the races is one of the things he's most proud of in his life. But he admitted getting to the end was a challenge. When he began passing people toward the end of the race, he felt like he carried "the kiss of death" with him, since it seemed every musher he passed went on to quit.

Plus there are physical handicaps. He said the trail can be worn and punchy after being traveled on by dozens of other teams. Trail markers might be changed or removed. Checkpoints can be in disarray. Creature comforts available to front-of-the-pack mushers, such as having hot water at a checkpoint, might not be available by the time the last racers come through.

"You feel a real black cloud chasing you," O'Donoghue said. "It's not an easy stroll."

So what brings them back? O'Donoghue, in looking at this year's field of returning red lantern winners, said he doesn't see any clear reason why so many are returning. He noted that last year's red lantern winner, Fressineau, had a finishing time that would have won seven Iditarods. Clearly, no red lantern will ever be as slow as John Schultz was in the inaugural Iditarod -- more than 32 days, 5 hours.

More striking to O'Donoghue, who reported on both races before he competed in them, is the haunted mushers who've never finished a race. He said for people training a team of dogs -- an expensive, time-consuming passion -- it makes sense to have a goal of finishing. He suspects that desire to finish for a second or third time drives the mushers.

And for many of them returning, that is indeed the case.

Getting back to racing

Hunt, the Dr. Tim of Dr. Tim's Pet Food Company, sponsors several mushers. He was going to launch a personal contest with the other red lantern recipients to see who can place highest in this year's race.

"We have to have our side contest here," he said. "There has to be dignity in the red lantern community."

Hunt, who will be racing with a team from Sterling musher Mitch Seavey's kennel this year, said, for him, finishing last and getting the red lantern was never the goal six years ago. As he moved down the trail, he found that mushers behind him scratched, and before long he was the last one left.

He said Seavey, a two-time race champion known for being a fierce competitor, insisted Hunt will not be last this year. If anything, Hunt hopes to be in the fight for the Most Improved Musher award.

"We have a good place to start from in finishing last, so the chance is there for the taking," Hunt said. "We'll just have to see how it all falls together."

When Roalofs collected her prize in 2013, it was unexpected. While she had been traveling in the back of the pack throughout the race, she hadn't spent much time in last place. But as a pack of five or six mushers behind her started scratching, she found herself last.

"Suddenly I was the last one going and I was like 'this sucks,' but I was still going," she said.

She said she wouldn't completely write off a second lantern if that was the only way she could finish, but it's definitely not a goal. She took a year off to see if she really wanted to race again. Surprisingly, the answer became clear when she stood at the finish line last year, watching mushers battered and emotionally beaten cross the finish line.

"I wanted to be out there facing those issues and get through like the people who finished did," Roalofs said.

Halverson, who scratched from the 2014 race, recognizes the target on her back as the owner of two red lanterns.

But this year she's focused on her race strategy, specifically not staying in checkpoints too long and not resting her dogs too long. It's something she's getting better at, noting that in her second finish she chopped two-and-a-half days off her initial run to Nome. It's a strategy she hopes will get her to the finish line this year, ideally in a more competitive position or at least in time for the finish banquet. But she admitted she never thought she'd be last in her previous races, either.

"I didn't think I was going to be last then," she said. "But some things you have control over and some things you don't."

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