It was Emily Robinson’s longest sled dog race yet. Last Saturday, as she prepared to pull the snow hook and cover 200 miles in roughly a day’s time, she harbored only the modest goals of finishing strong and picking up pointers from some of the sport’s distinguished all-stars.
“It’s such a stacked field of racers that I was mentally preparing myself to be in like 15th,” said Robinson, a 16-year-old who lives with her family in a home midway between Nenana and Fairbanks. “And I would have been so happy with that.”
Instead, she found herself in a sprint to the finish.
On her heels was last year’s Iditarod winner, Ryan Redington, whose grandfather is the namesake of the race: the Knik 200 Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race. Somewhere ahead of her, among the frozen swamps and birch stands, was Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion Brent Sass, whom she was trying to catch, but was clueless about how big of a lead he had as they approached the race’s home stretch.
“I was kicking up the hills and running,” Robinson said over the phone Wednesday. “Honestly, it was the hardest I’ve ever worked in a race.”
The Knik 200, an official qualifier for the sport’s elite long-distance races, is an out-and-back course from Knik Lake to Deshka Landing. Though there’s a mandatory six-hour rest midway through, mushers basically blaze through back-to-back, hundred-mile runs over a stretch of trail teams cross multiple times. So, as Robinson sped through the boggy woods toward the finish line on Knik Lake, she knew there was just a mile or so left and she’d all but run out of rope.
“I wasn’t giving up, but I was like, ‘Aw, I don’t see Brent,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Where is Brent!?’”
Then, as she crested a small hill and began barreling down at full speed, she thought she spied Sass’s white parka just beyond a curve in the trail.
“’Is this real? Is that actually him?’” Robinson thought to herself.
In a moment captured on a spectator’s cellphone, as Sass methodically paddled his ski pole across a short straightaway, he cranked his head around and glimpsed Robinson’s powerful dog team charging toward his.
“Son of a b----,” Sass spat out under his breath, immediately jumping off his runners into a full-speed up-hill trot, calling out for his lead dog Ace to pick up the pace.
“Good dogs, good dogs,” Robinson cooly called out to her team as she kicked her leg back and forth like a clock pendulum, steadily closing the distance between her and Sass.
Just before the wide-open expanse of no-man’s land on the way to the finish line, Sass could see the writing on the wall and pulled his team over to the side of the trail for Robinson to pass.
“I handed nothing to Emily,” Sass said Wednesday from his homestead in Eureka. “Her team was rolling. There was a moment of ‘Oh my God, this is gonna happen.’”
Throughout the race, he said, he’d been impressed with Robinson’s animals and dog-handling skills.
“It was the happiest I’ve ever been to get second place,” Sass said. “She beat me. I was trying. I gave her nothing ... she had a faster team.”
Robinson ended up finishing 65 seconds before Sass, with Redington pulling in third 40 minutes later.
Robinson, who describes herself as “home-schooled with a minor in mushing,” is hardly an unknown quantity in Alaska’s competitive sled dog scene. Twice already she has won the 150-mile Junior Iditarod, along with a handful of other races that serve as a feeder program for up-and-coming talent.
But this year’s Knik 200 was yet another step up for the teen athlete.
Robinson grew up mushing from a young age, trap-lining with her family’s dogs.
“I don’t have enough time for that anymore,” she said, though her father and brother still run a few traps for marten and hare near their home. “I’m too busy.”
Over the years, the family has transitioned over fully to racing animals, with dogs from Pete Kaiser and Jessie Holmes’s kennels incorporated into their breeding program, among others. Robinson didn’t attribute her win to any one single factor. Her team kept a steady pace in the first half of the race and ticked up to a competitive speed in the second stage. Though she had to drop a dog toward the end, there were otherwise no major hiccups that cost her much time. Her training and preparation are geared more toward 100- and 150-mile races, and Robinson said that might have worked to her advantage among so many competitors accustomed to longer mid-distance contests like the Copper Basin and Kuskokwim 300s, which involve lengthier rest breaks to split up the runs as part of a winning strategy.
Robinson was the second youngest musher on the Knik 200 starting line on Saturday (the youngest was Isaac Redington, 15, who placed 12th). She would not have even been eligible if not for a rule change this year allowing minors to compete only if they could “provide proof of racing experience that includes the completion of two Jr. Iditarod races or equivalent.”
The initial Knik 200 field of 39 teams included several top mushers like Nic Petit, Michelle Phillips and Wade Marrs. Sharing the trail with so many experienced racers, Robinson said, was valuable in its own right.
“To be given advice by the best is worth a million bucks, to be (in) that group of people,” she said.
For her victory, Robinson earned $5,000 and a pair of handmade beaver mitts.
She’s been asked more than once about her plans for running in the Iditarod after she turns 18. She’d like to someday, she said, at least once. But she is still figuring out what place mushing with hold in her future life.
“I’m taking it one season at a time. One race at a time,” she said. “I have yet to know what I want to do. I want to explore different areas, different things.”
For now, she’s preparing for more upcoming races, including this year’s Junior Iditarod, where she has no plans of relaxing or resting on her laurels.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Robinson was the race’s youngest musher.)