TAKOTNA — Here’s how Aniak musher Richie Diehl tells it:
He and his 14 sled dogs are 20 or 25 miles from Nikolai early Tuesday. It’s a perfect trail. He’s “cruising along, checking things out.” He has his head turned. It’s still dark out.
Then he looks forward and, bam, he runs into a tree. It’s positioned sort of at an angle over the trail. He could’ve ducked if he had noticed it, but he didn’t. He’s knocked off his sled. His dogs jet.
His memory of what happened next is patchy.
“I was doing an all-out sprint to chase the team down, and I dove and I caught the sled, and then all of a sudden I was standing in a ball of dogs,” he said. “There was blood all over my hands, and the dogs were all looking up at me like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Diehl, 33, lined his dog team back out. He grabbed toilet paper and wet wipes, and he put them in his pocket. He started mushing down the trail again as he shoved toilet paper in his nostrils to stop the bleeding and cleaned his skin with the wipes.
“My whole face was all blood,” he said.
Diehl recounted the saga Wednesday as he walked his 5-year-old sled dog named Griffey around the race checkpoint here, at mile 329 of the trail, during his mandatory 24-hour break. Butterfly bandages covered up bloody cuts under his right eye.
He has completed six Iditarods in the past and never had a tree run-in quite like this. He wasn’t too worried about it, though. He doesn’t think he’ll need stitches and he doesn’t think it’ll impact his race.
“There’s always somebody who has it worse,” he said, “so it’s just like, quit your bitching and keep moving.”