Home, away from Nome: Keller reaches personal finish line after scratching from Iditarod 48

Published: Mar. 16, 2020 at 11:19 PM AKDT
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After scratching from the 48th running of the Iditarod late last week, musher Jeremy Keller has arrived at his personal finish line for this year's race: He pulled in at home instead of Nome on Monday, more than a week after the Willow restart and two days before anyone else will cross the finish line under the Burled Arch.

"It was just a roller coaster," Keller said Monday, "but I can tell you this: The trail is not designed to go in reverse. It's designed to go forward. The obstacles can be many."

Upon making the decision to scratch at the checkpoint on Thursday, Keller announced he was opting to mush his team back to the race start line, near his home in Knik, instead of taking any return flights. He's spent the last few days navigating the 263-plus miles back to his residence in the Valley after exiting the race at the Nikolai checkpoint.

"I kind of anticipated this," he said of the difficulties on the way back. "Like, I knew there would be some challenges, but I did not recognize how severe it would be until I got into it.

"But I felt on top of the world," he added, "and it was just wonderful having it be just me and my dogs. It was wonderful to be totally reliant on myself, and the time and training I've put in with my team, because we're a really close unit."

Keller said that for the first time, he was even able to get his dogs to slow down on command.

"I don't know why," he said, "and it's a good thing, because it was white-knuckle from Puntilla Lake to Finger Lake. It was just a roller coaster, and everything was way harder because of the direction it was built for.

"It's absolutely terrifying to go down what's essentially a bobsled run that wasn't designed for you to go down," he said, "and know that if you fail, you're broken, the sled is broken, your team is gone."

Keller left this year's edition of the Last Great Race on Earth primarily due to concerns over the new coronavirus. He sacrificed his third finish out of three attempts at the Iditarod - having run and completed the trail in 2007 and in 2019 - but said even with the adversity along his way back home, this is how it was meant to be.

"My gut told me in Nikolai, I was absolutely sure I was not going forward to McGrath," he said. "So I could either scratch, which is calling in an airplane and tucking in your tail and you go home; or, I could run home.

"This does not make sense in a normal race," he said. "It's weird. It would be borderline deranged. But that sounds like hell on Earth to be around a bunch of stressed-out mushers right now. These are harsh realities, and I was aware of them, and I said, 'The only thing that makes sense is to turn around right now.'"

His intention at the beginning, he said, was to be in last place and have another great experience on the Iditarod Trail, but when he saw what was going on outside of the race, he knew he had to go home.

And while he did somehow manage to get a long window of wonderful weather on the way back, Mother Nature wasn't going to totally let him off the hook.

"Most of it wasn't bad," he said, "but then ten miles outside of Skwentna, we got stomped by a moose. And even that was fascinating. I got out in front of it, I'm waving in the air, and pounding on my cooker top, and all it would do is stand there and look at me. And there were multiple times I thought about putting it down, but I didn't want to, because there was no way I'm going to gut an animal right there.

"I wanted to get home," he said, "so I started to pass it, but we get kind of wound up in it, but it's so weak it's like this Monty Python situation. I'm right next to this moose, the dogs are tangled, this moose is trying to stomp them and press on them, but we end up getting through it."

Now that he and his dogs are back home, safe and sound, Keller said there's a feeling of relief in some ways, but tension in others: He spent the last six weeks getting ready for what's developed over the last three days regarding the new coronavirus, he said, and he will self-quarantine, before reuniting with his family in a couple of weeks.

"I have a very simple philosophy," Keller said, "and I'm a black and white guy. I live, or I don't. When I'm out and about, I'm not worried - I'm all about living - but when it's time to hunker down, I hunker down."

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