B.S. Aviation Technology ’08
Hometown: Aniak, Alaska
Fun Fact: Finished the 2014 Iditarod in 14th place.
Three weeks ago, Richie Diehl and his sled dogs were enjoying some well-deserved rest in Nome. When most of our alarm clocks were going off in the early hours of Wednesday, March 12, the athletes of Real Diehl Racing were running the last leg of their 9-day-16-hour Iditarod race. They passed under the burled arch with a top-15 finish in their second Iditarod ever, a showing that earned Richie the Horizon Lines Most Improved Musher award. (Bonus fun fact: Richie now shares an accolade with this year’s Iditarod champion, Dallas Seavey, who won the most-improved musher award in 2009.)
“It was the craziest race I’ve ever been part of,” said Richie, who has been racing competitively since graduating from UAA’s aviation program in 2008.
“It was such a competitive field,” he said. He was on pace to break the race record when he pulled into Kaltag, about two-thirds of the way to Nome. His dogs—many of which share genetics with four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King’s dogs—were running an awesome race, yet he was still sitting back in 20th place.
The problem? Every team had the same advantage. Navigating ice and bare, frozen ground, this year’s dog teams were able to really dig in and rocket their mushers through some sections of the trail.
Despite this year’s field full of broken sleds, broken mushers and runaway dogs, though, Richie’s Iditarod went off without a major hitch. His sled survived a tree collision and he never lost his brakes, but that doesn’t mean he never lost his footing. He remembers getting dragged behind his sled, including up and over a boulder.
“I really work with my dogs and when I tell them ‘whoa,’ they usually all look back and stop,” he said with a laugh, “But for some reason, they felt they had all this traction and thought, ‘let’s go harder.’”
Now, musher and dogs are catching up on sleep and settling back into daily routines in their western Alaska home of Aniak, a rural community about 90 miles upriver from Bethel along the Kuskokwim.
Flying planes or running dogs
Aviation was on Richie’s radar from the time he was a kid.
“It’s something you grow up around out here, flying. All my parents’ friends were pilots,” he said.
When it came time for college, UAA offered the right kind of scholarships and the right kind of aviation program to draw him to Anchorage. A good student in high school, Richie qualified for the UA Scholars Program.
“That right there made it an easy decision. I was one flight away from home and my tuition was paid for,” he said.
“I really liked the aviation program,” he said. “To me, the instructors in the program are real and I can really understand and relate to the things they explained to us. Whereas in a physics class I would get totally lost, I took an aviation physics class and I think I understood it more just because of how it was related to aviation. Things seemed more real to me.”
In his last year of college, he’d started thinking more and more about heading home and running dogs competitively.
“My dad has had dogs all my life. He’s done the Kuskokwim 300 a couple times,” Richie said. “It was something I grew up around and something I always wanted to try. Right before I graduated my dad mentioned something to me about it.”
The Kuskokwim 300, a mid-distance race, beckoned to him.
“I thought maybe I’d do it one time and see how it went,” he said. “I did it one time and there was no turning back after that.”
Real Diehl Racing athletes
Three dogs shared the lead for Real Diehl Racing during the Iditarod: Vandal, Treason (Vandal’s sister) and Troy, each bringing their own special heat.
Treason is the fastest of the three, and Troy has never met a headwind he can’t beat. But Vandal takes top honors for his leader qualities, said Richie.
“When I dropped into Golovin Bay,” he said, referring to the section of the Iditarod Trail that claimed race leader Jeff King and scared veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, “It was just glare ice and windy. I put Vandal in single lead and I could just drive him like a car across the ice. He listens to me, and his attitude, he’s always happy and ready to go. He’s just an honest, hardworking, do-everything-for-me dog.”
Next up on the race calendar for Richie is the Kobuk 440. Maybe. He’s keeping a careful eye on snow conditions. There’s been so little in Western Alaska this year that he and his team went to train in Nenana in the months before the Iditarod. While Nenana may have been good training for Richie’s dogs, it was rough on his hired help.
“I had a young man working for me who I brought to Nenana. He left after four days,” Richie said. “I took him out on a run at 40 below and then that night he said his friends were coming from Fairbanks to pick him up. I said, ‘Okay, see you later.’”
Tired? Make like a musher and take a one-minute nap
Not everyone is cut out for the life of a dog musher. Richie’s days run from about 8 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night, feeding, caring for and running his team. Ultra-marathon racing requires grit. And some advanced napping technique.
“In a long race, you end up falling asleep any way you look at it. You chew something—food, fish strips, candy—that helps. Listening to music,” Richie said. “For me, if it’s a nice flat stretch, I just end up sitting down on my cooler and you do about 10 or 12 of these little one-minute naps and then you’re good to go. I think the best thing to do is just get it done and then you feel so refreshed after that.”
Of course, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get dumped off the sled during naptime at some point during your career, he said. It’s a good idea to anticipate bumps in the trail and have a plan, even if it’s just “Get up and run like heck.”
Richie’s plan right now is to grow his operation and find help that doesn’t shy away from hard work and cold runs. He sees his UAA degree as insurance and he’s glad he seized the opportunity to go to college. A degree in aviation gives him options in Aniak, he said.
“There are so many jobs in that field out here. I don’t ever count it out. It’s always a backup if I need it.”
Expect to see Richie’s feet firmly on the runners for Iditarod 2015, though. That is, unless he’s wedged himself in for a quick snooze. Then, shhhhh…Do not disturb; he’s power-napping his way to the front of the pack.
Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement.