Dave Allen is a man of many trades.
The Midwest native is a two-time all-American NCAA Division I wrestler, an Alaska high school softball state champion coach and an Iditarod musher.
The longtime Kodiak resident stopped by KMXT’s “The Derek Clarkston Show” on Saturday to talk about his venture into dog mushing.
It all started when Allen and his wife, Jolene, took teaching jobs in Teller — a village 72 miles northwest of Nome — in 1981, shortly after graduating from Iowa State University. Allen wrestled there at 177 pounds and was an all-American in 1979 (third) and 1980 (runner-up). He was destined for another all-American finish in 1981, but failed to make weight the second day of the NCAA Championships. That’s another story; this one is about the Iditarod.
Teller was the home of mushing greats Joe Garnie and Libby Riddles. Garnie was the runner-up in the 1986 Iditarod, while Riddles was the first woman to win the 1,000-mile race in 1985.
Allen knew nothing about mushing dogs when he arrived to Teller, but it didn’t take long for a passion to spark. He spent Saturday mornings drinking cowboy coffee, eating sourdough pancakes and listening to Garnie’s and Riddles' expeditions on the trails.
“I just got sucked in and I didn’t have a chance,” Allen said.
The pastor of the Lutheran church gave Allen his first mushing dog as a Christmas present. Growing up, Allen’s family always had dogs, even though the four-legged friends triggered his asthma.
He started making harnesses, building sleds and learning from Garnie and Riddle.
One winter evening in Teller, while checking traps, he decided it was time to get serious about the sport.
“There was a full moon on one side of the sky and these brilliant, really loud Northern Lights and I was in a trance,” he said. “The sled runners would just hiss and you could hear the dog making contact with the trail. I wanted to be a musher and I just got it bad, the bug to run dogs.”
Years later the Allens took a break from teaching and relocated to Trapper Creek — just south of the Denali State Park — to concentrate on mushing. Allen spent his time training dogs — dry land in the fall and on snow in the winter — and Jolene secured race sponsorships. She landed Godfather’s Pizza as a sponsor and the business supplied Allen with pizza for the trek from Willow to Nome.
“Before the race Jolene and a friend cut up pizzas and put them in vacuum packed bags, so when I was boiling my dog water I would throw a piece of pizza in the water,” he said. “It was just like right out of the oven.”
As a rookie musher, Allen was required to compete in one 200-mile race — the qualifying standards have increased to two 300 milers and one 150 miler — before competing in the Iditarod.
He broke ground in the Knik 200, and won it.
“That was the worst thing I could have done. I was too cocky. I thought my team was better than it was. I was just lucky,” Allen said.
A few months later, Allen and his team of 20 dogs — the limit is 16 now — were on the starting line for the 1991 Iditarod in Anchorage.
At his first checkpoint, he realized what he was in for — one of the biggest challenges of his life.
“Things weren’t going really well. You could tell I should have practiced this, but I didn’t practice camping with the dogs,” Allen said. “I saw dog teams come and go, and I rested the dogs and picked up.”
Allen was running in the top 20 when his dogs got sick. He had to drop a dog in Nikolai, just 263 miles out of Anchorage.
The rest of the trip Allen encountered 50-below temperatures and whiteout conditions, which included waiting out a blizzard in brush.
“The remainder of the trail I made an agreement with my dogs that they would not pull me up any hills because they were sick — I ran up a lot of hills,” he said.
Jolene met her husband in Unalakleet — 261 miles from the finish in Nome — and gave him a radio. He was listening to the radio when Rick Swenson crossed the finish line first in 12 days, an eternity compared to Mitch Seavey’s record time from this year’s race of 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, 13 seconds.
Allen finished four days after Swenson; he was the 30th musher to cross the line in Nome and he did it with his 20-month-old daughter, Tianna, who joined him on the sled for the last mile of the race.
“I think she was the first infant to finish the Iditarod,” he said.
Allen never raced in the Iditarod again. He didn’t have the financial support like other mushers and it was time to focus on his family. The Allens eventually found their way to Kodiak and in 2008 he coached the Kodiak High School softball team to its only small-school state title. Tianna was the pitcher. Allen retired in 2010 with a 77-56 record in seven seasons.
With everything that Allen has accomplished, nothing compares to his time as a dog musher.
“In all of my life, I got up every morning just pumped, because I was a player and a coach. I had that team and I had to take care of that team,” he said. “I loved playing with the dogs. It was incredible.”