NOME, Alaska -- As Jessie Royer crossed the finish line in this year's Iditarod race, she had one group to thank: the ones that pulled her from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska -- her sled dogs.
“It’s all about the dogs. If you don’t take care of those dogs you are not going to make it to (the finish line in) Nome. It's not about who is the best musher, it is about dog care. You will not make it 1,000 miles if you do not take care of your dogs," said Royer. "They’re the athletes, not me. They are the amazing, incredible athletes."
The Iditarod brings the best teams of mushers to compete each year. Out of the 57 riders in 2020, Royer, a longtime Ennis resident, finished tied for a career-best third place. The race took her nine days, 17 hours, 47 minutes and 16 seconds, but she couldn’t do it without her teammates, who, although a different species, are as close to family as you can get.
"Every single dog on my team I’ve raised from a puppy. They are my family. I’ve got a lot of dogs, but they are all my family," Royer said. "Every musher I know out there, their dogs are their life. We're not doing this because we make money. Usually most of us are broke and everything we make goes to feed our dogs. We do this because we love the dogs and we love the outdoors."
When Royer and her pack of dogs hit the course, what they call "The Last Great Race" is not so much of a competition to her. It's exactly the opposite.
"By the time I get to the starting line, I feel like I'm on vacation. Yeah, it's a tough race, but all I have to worry about are the 14 dogs in front of me," said Royer.
Royer listened to music and audio books during the long trek through Alaska. Once she finishes in Nome and packs up her gear, she takes a true vacation with her family.
"After the Iditarod some people go to the beach, which I'm not a beach person. I take my dogs and go on the north shore and go caribou hunting with my dog team," said Royer.
Royer says she has around 60 dogs at her home, some in training, some racing, and some retired which lounge around the house. So the work doesn't stop once she gets home.
Royer has now raced in 18 Iditarods, placing in the top 10 eight times, but this time around was different. The Iditarod was one of the only sporting events still happening in the world last week after so many events were canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Royer understood a little bit of what was going on while on the trails, but she was happy to give people an escape from the hectic world around them.
"I had so many people that messaged me that said, ‘We enjoyed watching you so much. It was the first thing I looked at when I got up in the morning and the last thing I looked at when I went to bed at night,'" said Royer. "It was something positive that (they) could cheer for in this world of craziness right now."