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'On my bucket list': Why this musher is returning to the Iditarod 23 years after his last finish

Mar. 1—Some mushers might find it tough to be the last to leave the Iditarod starting line, waiting and watching as teams depart and racing begins. It's no big deal, though, for Nenana musher Wally Robinson, who is last on this year's start list.

When Robinson leaves the racing chute, it'll be 23 years since his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race appearance.

"I'm just happy to be on the trail again," Robinson said. "It's been on my bucket list to do again, and to have the opportunity, I'm super grateful."

A month ago, Robinson was offered a chance to substitute for musher Josh McNeal of Ester after McNeal injured his shoulder.

McNeal, who finished the Iditarod in 28th place in 2021, was injured racing the Kuskokwim 300 in January. "I just happened to hit a tussock right as we were cruising along, and just kind of jerked my shoulder," he said. "The next thing I knew, I couldn't lift up my arm."

The injury not only ended McNeal's Kuskokwim race, but also had the potential to slow the yearslong development of his dog team, which consists mostly of 3- to 5-year-olds. "By the time I got hurt, too, we'd already bought everything for Iditarod and the money had been spent," McNeal said. "So I was like, man, it'd be silly not to see them go."

McNeal turned to Robinson, 43, to take his place on the sled runners. The two, who live about 10 miles apart in the region between Fairbanks and Nenana, had gotten to know each other on a connecting trail system. McNeal said Robinson is one of just a couple mushers he could trust to take his dogs to Nome.

"It's a really nice group of dogs. I feel like I let them down this season," McNeal said. "But Wally said this is their chance to go do what they're born and bred to do, and what we've been working for the last four or five years."

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Robinson said it was an honor to be asked. Though he hasn't run the Iditarod since he was 20 years old, the thought comes to mind each winter. He has remained close to the sport since 2001 and has run shorter races more recently. Mushing is the reason he moved to Alaska from Michigan's Upper Peninsula at age 18. All told, he has run sled dogs for 30 years, he said, even as he built a career as an electrician and started a family.

Now, Robinson Racing Kennel is a household endeavor. Wally and Alissa Robinson's daughter Emily, 16, and his son Stanley, 12, are building resumes of their own. In February, Emily won her third straight Junior Iditarod championship. Before that, Emily and Stanley took first and second place in the Junior Willow 100.

In the run-up to this year's Iditarod, Robinson has taken a few pointers from his teen, who was repeatedly tapped for her autograph at an Iditarod meet-and-greet event Thursday. "Take your time and look at what's in front of you," Robinson said Emily advises.

Collaboration with McNeal has also been key. Robinson has run dogs from McNeal's kennel multiple times to get familiar with the team. On Friday, the two ran dogs together in Anchorage. McNeal said there have been a lot of late-night planning conversations by phone.

"Josh has made up a real detailed list for me with all the little quirks and things to know about the dogs," he said.

Though preparing to run the Iditarod often involves years of preparation, there's an upside to having only a month to get ready, Robinson said. "I like to overthink things and overanalyze, so just getting tossed in is probably the best way for me," he said on the eve of the Iditarod's ceremonial start. "Then I ain't got much time to think about it."

Robinson, who will include three of his kennel's dogs on the race team, said approaching the race felt familiar to the feeling he had long ago. The race has changed in small ways, he said, but it remains the same at its core. Finishing in the top 20 would be great, he said, but he plans to run conservatively in the early going. As a rookie in 2001, Robinson finished in 40th place.

He looks forward to being out in the woods, he said, and seeing Alaska again by dog team, something he called "the ultimate." But the experience is unlikely to inspire his return to the race in future years, he said. "If I'm going to put the effort into it, it's going to be so my kids can run it," he said.

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McNeal, who said he was in first grade when Robinson last ran the Iditarod, said he'll have mixed feelings as the race gets underway this weekend.

"It's going to be really bittersweet, because I wish I was the one that's going to be on the runners going to Nome," McNeal said. "But seeing the dogs get to go, that's going to be really awesome."