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Pathologist, 71, Wins Halfway Milestone in 1,000 Mile Dog-Sled Race

Monday, April 16, 2012

At first glance, being a pathologist and running sled dogs competitively in Alaska would seem to be completely different pursuits. But Jim Lanier, MD, a retired pathologist and career-long member of the ASCP who was the first musher to reach the halfway point in this year’s Iditarod race, sees some parallels.

“At one point I realized that everyone else had taken their 24-hour break before the Cripple. I figured that if I just kept going, I could get there first. It was an opportunity, and I went for it.”
—Jim Lanier, MD
“For medicine in general, the training involves going without sleep—so it has that in common,” said Dr. Lanier, 71. “And my medical training and knowledge are useful when it comes to the veterinary care of the animals. I understand the physiology of dogs, and when I discuss things with vets during the race or at home, I speak their language.”

The March 2012 Iditarod, a 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, was the 15th for Dr. Lanier, who worked as a surgical pathologist at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for more than 30 years before retiring five years ago. This was the first time he won the GCI Dorothy Page Halfway Award for reaching the Cripple Checkpoint in the race before all the other mushers—in just four days. And it took some strategizing.

“At one point I realized that everyone else had taken their 24-hour break [required of all competitors] before the Cripple,” he said. “I figured that if I just kept going, I could get there first. It was an opportunity, and I went for it.”

Aside from gaining a sense of pride and accomplishment for surpassing the dozens of other mushers, many of whom are half his age, Dr. Lanier received a large trophy and $3,000 worth of gold nuggets. He went on to finish the race in just over 11 days.

Dr. Lanier became hooked on the sport in the 1970s, after buying a Siberian husky puppy for his children. Soon enough, it became his dog and started pulling him around on his bicycle. A friend who was a musher suggested Dr. Lanier try sled dog racing, and the rest is history.

For the retired pathologist, the sport has become a year-round enterprise, as he also owns Northern Whites Kennel near his home in Chugiak, Alaska, where he raises his distinctive all-white sled dogs. The dogs, which weigh about 50 pounds, are Alaskan huskies, a mixed breed that is ideally suited for withstanding the grueling long-distance race. From Labor Day until March, Dr. Lanier spends 12 hours a day or more running the dogs and camping with them to make sure they’re in proper shape. The regimen keeps him physically fit as well; he routinely loses 30 pounds each winter, he says.

The Iditarod, dubbed “The Last Great Race,” requires enormous amounts of stamina for musher and husky alike. Racers are allowed to start with up to 16 dogs and must finish with at least six. They use ski poles or pump their legs as they ride the sled on the flats, then jump off and run when they reach hills to allow the dogs to go faster. The team usually runs for six hours and rests for six hours, with the musher tending to the dogs during rest times and sleeping only about two hours per day. Dogs that become ill or injured along the way are left with veterinarians at checkpoints and flown home. If that doesn’t sound daunting enough, racers also must endure high winds and temperatures of 50 below zero.

So, what’s the appeal for a doctor who was equally at home rendering diagnoses in the laboratory and working with other physicians to determine the best treatment for patients? “I grew up reading Jack London and formed an attachment to the North,” Dr. Lanier said. “There’s a real romance that I have with the dogs and with the country, which is incredibly beautiful.”

He enjoys the camaraderie among the mushers, vets, race officials, and village folks, and the rivalry, as well. And if his wife, Anna Bondarenko, who completed the Iditarod in 2000 and 2004, has her way, he’ll face some stiff competition in 2016.

“My wife says that when our son Jimmy turns 18, all three of us are going to do it on three different teams,” Dr. Lanier said.