Teen who bested some of mushing’s big dogs tops junior field to earn spot at Iditarod ceremonial start

On Saturday morning, Emily Robinson will drive the first sled from the ceremonial starting line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It’s an honor she earned by winning the Junior Iditarod.

Robinson, from Nenana, has built an uncommon resume on her way to earning the job. Not only has she won the Junior Iditarod twice, but the 15-year-old has gone undefeated in five races this season — three of them competing against adults. In shorter races, Robinson has beaten several of the professional mushers who will soon head to Nome.

At the ceremonial start Saturday, her sled will carry a family member of Lance Mackey, this year’s honorary musher and a four-time champion who died last September. For Robinson, it’ll be one more memorable experience in a dream season, she said.

“It doesn’t really feel real,” said Robinson, reached by phone at her home in Nenana. “It’s just really amazing to watch my dog team grow and be successful at this.”

On Sunday, Robinson crossed the Junior Iditarod finish line on Knik Lake at 12:37 p.m. to win the 150-miler for mushers 14 to 17 years old. Prior to that, she won the Alpine Creek Excursion, the Willow 150, the Yukon Quest 80 and the Willow Junior 100 this winter.

Though young, she’s no beginner. “I’ve been running dogs ever since I was 3 years old,” she said.

Robinson’s father, Wally Robinson, ran the Iditarod in 2001. Since then, the family has mushed along the family’s trapline and recreationally. At age 11, Emily told her parents she wanted to race, she said.


“I want to see what the other side of the dog mushing world’s like, where it’s competing,” Robinson said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.”

Emily said her dad bolstered the family’s kennel with dogs from Iditarod veterans Peter Kaiser and Jessie Holmes. They now keep 40 dogs at their home in the hills between Nenana and Fairbanks. Emily dedicates much of her winters to training and racing them, she said. Wally sometimes races the B-team.

Her racing and training has meant she’s seen her friends only a couple times this winter, she said.

“When I go to these junior races, this is like my socialization time,” she said.

Because there are only two distance races at the junior level in Alaska, Robinson also signed up to race with some of the sport’s big dogs.

“I had to go run those adult races to be able to test myself and my team,” she said.

At the Alpine Creek Excursion in December, she finished at the top of a field that included several accomplished distance racers, including Paige Drobny, Matt Hall and last year’s Iditarod champ, Brent Sass. The mushing community has welcomed and encouraged her, she said. Some share advice.

“They’re all incredibly nice to me,” Robinson said.

[The reintroduction of Jason Mackey, veteran Iditarod musher and brother of Lance]

On Saturday, Robinson trotted in front of her lead dogs to the Junior Iditarod starting line at Knik, trying to redirect some of her nervousness into excitement. She was the first musher to reach the halfway mark at Yentna Station.

During her mandatory 10-hour rest there, she camped outside in minus-15 degrees. It was a reminder that not all mushing experiences are fun.

“You just have to get through those moments,” she said.

On Sunday, her team seemed to run in tune with her, she said, as they closed in on the finish. She got there 15 minutes ahead of second-place musher Morgan Martens, led by her two leaders, Linus, who she describes as a “cranky old man,” and Urchin, “a total girl boss.”

“Once you get to those moments where you’re crossing the finish line and your dogs all look great and you’ve had an awesome run, that’s when you’re having fun,” Robinson said.

Emily’s mom, Alissa Robinson, said Emily’s success makes her emotional. The family travels to each race together, she said.

“The whole family puts so much work in, and watching her have this ride has just been the best thing we could’ve hoped for,” she said.

Emily said it’s hard to say where her mushing career will lead. Someday she might consider running the 1,000-mile Iditarod, she said, but for now she’s thinking only about mushing until she ages out of the junior level.

“Right now I’m just focusing on running dogs till I’m 17,” she said. “After that, really I have to reevaluate and reassess what I’m doing.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at