Iditarod Red Lantern is proof of perseverance, drive in Bethel's Victoria Hardwick
In the case of the Last Great Race, you don't have to be a champion to get into the record books and take home a title. So it is for Bethel's Victoria Hardwick, a Rural Alaska dentist by day and a dog trainer by night, and whenever else she can make it work.
Along with the winners who make the list - such as fellow Bethel musher and 2019 champion Peter Kaiser - so too do the Humanitarian Award recipients, the Rookies of the Year, the teams with the fastest times from Safety to Nome. The list of honors also includes the Red Lantern Award, a title that this year belongs to Hardwick.
"I asked all the questions to get ready for the race," Hardwick said this past week in Bethel, "and to start the race and to have all the stuff I needed to have shipped out during the race.
"But the actual race?" she laughed. "I, like, got to the starting line and realized I hadn't asked the right questions. It was kind of learning it on the spot."
Indeed, the Red Lantern award, which is a bright, red-colored lantern, is bestowed upon the last musher to finish the 1,049-mile race each year.
"The one they gave us, it had a real torch inside," she said, showing off her award at her dog yard in Bethel, where she lives and works. "So the one they handed me was on fire. And this one - it's got the little medal inside."
Hardwick and her dog team spent 14 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes and 9 seconds making their way from Willow to Nome. Still, they had the second-fastest time from Safety to the Burled Arch in Nome.
"I had no clue what we were going to be seeing or what we were going to be doing," Hardwick said of some sections of the race. She was familiar with parts of the trail up through Skwentna. After that, it was mostly new - and challenging - territory.
"At the very end, it wasn't like there was another person who would come up along the way to help you out," she said.
The longest race time for a Red Lantern winner was 32 days, 15 hours, 9 minutes and 1 second by John Schultz in 1973, while the fastest time came from Cindy Abbott in 2017, when she finished in 12 days, 2 hours, 57 minutes and 31 seconds. That's a faster time than the first 19 winning Iditarod times.
In the Last Great Race, though, no losers; only finishers, and a few winners, however long it takes for them to get there.
"I'm trying to, like, hold this lantern and not light myself," Hardwick giggled. "Yeah. It was an experience."
Hardwick, a Washington native who ran for the first time this year, said she may race in the Iditarod again, particularly since she wants to experience the Northern Route.