Updated: February 22, 2021 09:15 PM
Created: February 22, 2021 05:11 PM
It takes grit to complete the Iditarod. But a musher from Duluth will have more than that to motivate him.
Gunnar Johnson is preparing for his third Iditarod. He's running a team of family friend Jim Lanier's dogs that he's been training in Alaska since September.
"You really track the seasons when you're out every day running a dog team through the woods," Johnson said.
Around 3,000 training miles will ensure he and his team are prepared for the trials of the Iditarod trail. But more than that, he has a mission.
Johnson will be carrying with him the names of people who have died by suicide.
"My cousin Benjamin died by suicide. He was 21 years old," he said. "I was struck by how devastating and traumatic that was to our family, the deep sense of loss and questioning that goes on with, what happened? Why did this occur?"
He said a decade later, that scar still runs deep. But when he ran the Iditarod in 2017, he carried some of Benjamin's things with him. It was healing for his family.
So he wants to offer that experience to others.
"Suicide to those left behind is so incredibly traumatic and difficult," Johnson said.
He's collecting names on his website, GunnarIditarodHope.com.
"They will accompany me on this 900-and-some mile journey over the Alaska Range, out to Iditarod and back," Johnson said.
When he finishes the race, he'll hold a ceremony to burn the list of names and release the ashes into Cook Inlet.
He doesn't expect to win. But he hopes the mission will carry him through.
"For me, there is power in those names, in those memories," he said. "And I hope that that power helps propel me along this very difficult trail."
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