Marathon vs. Iditarod

Running has been a part of my life since I was eight years old.  I started running cross country in 3rd grade, and since then I have finished 8 marathons (which is more than Michael if you are counting).  For me running is my passion, a time for me to catch up with friends, and my ultimate stress reliever.  The comradery of the runners and the joy of crossing that finish line are two things that keep me coming to my running group week after week.

As I’ve listened to stories about the Iditarod all week long, I discovered many similarities between marathoning and running the Iditarod.  While I know the mushers and dogs go 1,022.8 more miles than I do, it is the dedication and perseverance of the athletes where the similarities lie.

When training for the marathon I must run 4-5 times a week, including a long run on Saturday mornings.  I must stay healthy, and make sure I have the proper gear—shoes, shorts, t-shirt, etc.  And then there is race week!  The big pasta dinners, visiting the expo, and the lack of sleep the night before the race—it is all so exciting!  Finally, it’s race day!  Walking up to the start line, and running through the streets— the joy is just overwhelming.  But then you get to mile 22 or 23, and the head games start and exhaustion sets in, but you push through it.  Then you reach Mt. Roosevelt, as us Chicagoans call it, at the end of the Chicago Marathon.  As you turn the corner the finish is in sight, and as you cross that line the joy, excitement, and sense of accomplishment come rushing back.  It is emotional and amazing.  It is why I continue to push my body to its limits and run marathon after marathon.

I have to think that the marathon experience is much like the Iditarod.  For months the mushers train and condition the dogs, and they must run the dogs for miles and miles to make sure they are ready for the race.  Mushers must be sure to have all the required and proper gear to be out in the Alaskan wilderness for nearly two weeks.  They have to attend meetings and dinners the week before the race. And then, finally, it’s race day.  The musher and their 16 dogs set out on the trail, and spirits are usually high the first few hundred miles.  However, just like in marathon running, the fatigue and frustration set in later in the race.  It is a head game, and the lack of sleep can really mess with the mushers mind.  But then, the mushers reach Safety and they know the end is in sight.  As they run up Front St. in Nome and cross under the burrowed arch, I can only imagine that they are emotional and overwhelmed with excitement, just as a marathoner is.

While I see many similarities, I think the biggest one I have yet to mention.  VOLUNTEERS!  The Chicago Marathon (or any marathon) and the Iditarod would not exist if it were not for the volunteers.  I learned the value and importance of volunteering as child at mile 21 of the Chicago Marathon.  We would stand at the aid station and hand out water and Gatorade for hours, while cheering on the runners and our cross country coach.  Little did I know that decades later I would run through that very aid station as an athlete 4 times.

The volunteers for the Iditarod are amazing people.  They come back year after year and give a day, a week, or sometimes a month of their time and talent to this great race.  The jobs range from dog handler to Iditarod Air Force pilot and everywhere in between.  Today I had the opportunity to sit in on the dog handler class and the communication training session, where I learned how much these volunteers really do!  Some volunteers have been giving of their time since the beginning of the race, while others are volunteering for the first time this year.

I had the opportunity to talk to two volunteers today—Lucy Dorman and Stacey Cardy.  Lucy is in Alaska for the first time, and has been volunteering for the last few weeks.  She has been working with sled dogs in Canada and New Zealand for a few years and decided to come check out the Last Great Race this year, as this is the highlight of the mushing calendar.  She is having an amazing time, and Lucy has even earned a spot out on the trail, which is very rare for a rookie volunteer.  Stacey Cardy, however, has been volunteering for Iditarod for the last seven years.  Stacey helps with communications and will be heading out along the trail this year.  Besides comms, Stacey also volunteers her time to work the Teacher Summer Camp and the Teacher Winter Conference, where she welcomes all the teachers with her inviting Alaskan personality.

It is the volunteers that make the race happen, and I hope I will be back in future years to take part as a volunteer!

I’ll try to post again tomorrow after the official start.

All the best–


And now for some pictures…


Racing down 4th St. in downtown Anchorage


Dump trucks bringing in the snow for the start


Holding one of the centerpieces my kiddos made for the musher banquet


Musher banquet– nearly 2,000 people attended!


3-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey!  Jealous Colleen?


Chicago native, Hugh Neff!  Hugh is a Loyola Academy grad!


Doggies getting ready to race!



UD Magazine at the start line of the 2016 Iditarod!


Matt Failor racing down 4th St. in downtown Anchorage



Racing down 4th St. in downtown Anchorage

Alaska in Pictures!

Good Morning Family & Friends!

Sorry I have not been great at blogging while I’m gone, but it’s been go, go, go since I got here.  I will get a formal post up tonight, but here are some pictures from the trip thus far…

And if you are interested in reading my TOTT Finalist blog, read here…

All the best–


Fur Rondy– kids adding snow back to the route.


Outhouse races!


Willow firemen at the outhouse races!


Windy afternoon at Earthquake Park!


I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the finish of the Jr. Iditarod!  It was amazing!


Just Buddy (the Bowtie wearing Bison) and I at the finish of the Jr. Iditarod out in Willow, AK.


One of the teens finishing!


Jon Van Zyle– 2 time Iditarod finisher and official artist for the race.


Kathy and I at the Van Zyle’s kennel.


Beautiful Alaska!


Sunset in Alaska!  Just LOVE this place!


All the Feelings!

This morning someone asked me how I’m feeling.  I thought about it for a moment and then replied, “Well, I’m excited.  I’m nervous.  I’m happy.  I’m scared.  I’m pumped.  I’m sad.  I’m kinda just all the feelings”

This week has definitely been one of emotions.  From the stress of finishing up report cards before I left to the joy of seeing “The Great Alone” Iditarod documentary again, I have definitely had my highs and lows this week.  However, the best feeling I had was in my classroom around 9:45AM.  This morning one of my room moms brought me a basket of cards, candy, magazines, etc. from my students.  While my kids were at gym class I sat in my classroom library and read every single card—from current students, past students, future students, and many parents.  I sat on that library carpet on the second floor of Saint Andrew School and cried.  The only emotion I felt at that moment was love.

The cards included many heartfelt notes, warnings about moose attacks, and a few, “I’M SOOOO JEALOUS OF YOU…”.  The one that made me laugh the most stated, “Well let’ be honest, Ms. Kelley, you are gonna have way more fun in Alaska than teaching us here, but please come back.”  But it’s the one I got from a parents that really got me.  I have known Alli & Mike Duffy since their daughter Grace started Irish dancing five years ago.  Now, Grace is in 4th grade and in my homeroom.  Alli is a mother of 4, and certainly has better things to do then write her daughter’s teacher a note.  However, that note is what I needed this morning to rid myself of the stress, nervous, and sadness that I was feeling.  Alli’s note reads,

“Dear Ms. Kelley,

Our thoughts and prayers are with you on this exciting adventure.
Very proud of what a great role model you are to our children.  Such a wonderful example of working hard and following chasing your dreams.

Best of Luck!
Alli & Mike Duffy”

A simple message, but that card reminded me of why I am doing this in the first place.  Yes, I am chasing I dream that I never thought I would have.  But, I am doing this because of my love of teaching.  I knew from about the age of five that I wanted to be a teacher, and I was able to pursue that dream at the University of Dayton.  And now I get to teach about my faith, along with math, language arts, and social studies at the grade school both my grandpa Bud and mom graduated from.  I love my job.  I love my kids.  I love my co-workers.  And most importantly I am so thankful to have the opportunity to represent the Saint Andrew community up in Alaska.

So with that, I want to finish by thanking everyone who has reached out to me over the last week or so with well wishes.  Your cards, texts, phone calls, and text messages have meant the world to me.  So as I sit here in the Portland Airport I am no longer scared, sad, or nervous… I am overwhelmed with LOVE and excitement!  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you!

Now onward to Alaska,

And a special shout out to Grams Kelley for making me nut free bongo’s!  They’ve been a great treat on the long flights!

The pile of cards and little dog from my students!

The Trip of a Lifetime (Winter Edition)

Two weeks from right now I’ll probably be blogging again, but from the Portland, OR airport.  I will be halfway to Alaska by then, and overwhelmed with excited of the 10 days to come!

I can remember sitting at the Hammans’ house a few years ago checking out the Iditarod website and discovering the Teacher on the Trail program.  I had not been teaching long enough at that point to apply, but I still started the application that day anyway.  I knew that I wanted to be a part of that program, and I continued to work on the application for years after.  Then, after my summer in Alaska, I finally decided that it was time to apply.

I spent three months gathering lesson plans, letters of recommendations, pictures, blogs, and more to compile my 105 page application.  I had many great editors (mostly Bri and Michael), and COUNTLESS people who listened to me talk about my application for hours on end, and for all of you I am thankful (and not sorry for talking your ear off).

And now I’m off to Alaska for the trip of a lifetime (winter edition).  I will spend my time in interviews, presenting to teachers, creating lesson plans, meeting with mushers, visiting artists, attending the musher banquet (where my students’ centerpieces will be on display), and the highlight of it all… attending to ceremonial start in Anchorage and re-start in Willow, AK.

Never did I think 8 years ago, that one lesson in LA class during student teaching would lead me to the start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, AK.  It has been one amazing journey, and I cannot wait to see what’s to come!

Onward to Alaska.

photo 2 (5) This is the lake where the race starts in Willow, AK.  When I was there this summer it was beautiful and calm, but on March 6 it will be frozen and full of mushers, dogs, spectators, and ME!

The Best of the Best!

I’ve been back in the “real world” for almost 48 hours now, and it’s been a bit strange.  I saw the sun set for the first time in 32 days, I got to sleep in my own bed, and I was able to hold my nephew, Lincoln!  After having a few days to reflect back on the trip I thought I would highlight a few of my favorite parts of the trip!

Gee and Haw
For years I have been teaching my 4th graders about gee and haw—to dog sleds gee is right and haw means left, but to actually see it firsthand was amazing.  I went on many cart rides while in Alaska, but my first one was my favorite.  Vern took us on a few mile ride with the dogs, and it was incredible to see how the dogs responded to Vern’s directions.  Despite going on many card rides, I was in awe every time!

Mary Helwig!
I know I already wrote about Mary a few weeks ago, but her story is one that I have continually told throughout my time in Alaska.  Despite Mary losing nearly everything in the Sockeye fire, she has continued to say positive through it all and even signed up for her first Iditarod!  Mary and the others in Willow have begun to rebuild their lives, and it has been inspiring to see the entire mushing community (and beyond) come to help them.  I look forward to following Mary throughout her rookie year!  Also, here is a great article about Mary from the Alaska Dispatch.
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Hostel Living
I cannot say enough good things about the two hostels I stayed at while in Alaska.  The Mountain Morning Hostel in Denali was a neat place with bunkrooms, cabins, and tents.  But the Spenard Hostel in Anchorage takes the cake!  I was there three separate times, and every time I felt at home… and most times I was greeted with a giant hug!  The people there were so kind, and I loved hearing the stories of all the other guests who were staying there.  I met people from around the globe and spent many hours swapping stories with them.  So if you ever find yourself in Anchorage or Denali, these are two kickass places to stay at!
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The Bridges of Denali
For some strange reason I LOVED the bridges they had in Denali.  They all offered spectacular views and they each lead to another incredible trail.  By one I even found tons of ice, which I thought was pretty unique because it’s the middle of July, and the bridge was at pretty low elevation.  A strange love to have, but such is life!

Mt. Blackburn!
Being able to see (and camp near) the 12th highest peak in North America was not only one of the highlights of the trip, but one of the neatest things I have done in life.  The second day we saw the entire mountain (no clouds!), which was just awesome.  Despite the cold and ice, I would do the backpacking trip again in a second (and I would want the same crew with me!)… it was totally worth it!
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And the biggest thing I learned from this trip is that no one should be afraid to travel and see the world.  Despite living in the third largest city in the world, there is so much more out there to see, and you’re not promised a tomorrow.

As many of you reading this already know, the world lost Grace Oliver yesterday.  For the last 3 years Grace fought her brain cancer with tenacity and courage.  She traveled the world during those three years and spent time with the ones she loved most.  She volunteered at our grade school this past year, with the world’s greatest first grade teacher, Mrs. Presslak.  In one of Grace’s blog posts she talked about her desire to be a teacher and the inspiration Mrs. Presslak gave her, even as a young child.  Grace would have been an incredible teacher, but God needed her more.  Last year I taped a note on my classroom desk and podium that both say “Teach with Grace” to remind me that I am lucky to be doing what I’m doing each day and that I shouldn’t take life for granted.  Whenever I’m having a bad day or get frustrated with a student, I look at that note and my mindset instantly changes.  I will continue to keep that note on my desk for as long as I teach, and I encourage other teachers that knew Grace to do the same.  Rest easy, Grace, and say hi to Mrs. Banas for me.

Don’t think about it… DO IT!

Until next time,

Glaciers for Days!

I am back from my backpacking trip in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and it was amazing!  Each night I wrote a little bit about the day, so I’m going to share that with all of you.

Alaska Backpacking Trip
July 13-17, 2015
Wrangell-St. Elias NP

Day 1- July 13
Today we were flown out by bush place—I got to sit shotgun—it was such an awesome experience.  The ride was short, but had some awesome views.  We saw three moose playing in the water of Hidden Lake (or I think that’s the name).  Once we all arrived (it took 5 flights to get all eight of us out there) we started our hike.  We only hiked about 2.5 miles today and most of it was on rocks, which was difficult at times.  Once we arrived as a grassy tundra area we set up camp a little after noon and ate some lunch.  After lunch we went on a hike, which had some awesome views.

Day 2—July 14
Today was a long day of hiking!  We hiked for about 6 hours over the Kennecott Glacier and moraine.  It was tough at times because there was so much up and down.  We crossed over little streams and crevasses, which was a little scary at times.  By the end of the day we were able to see Mt. Blackburn (12 highest peak in the world).  It was incredible!  After dinner we explored the LaChapelle ice falls which was really neat to see.  We also saw a beautiful glacier pool near the ice falls.

Day 3—July 15
Today was another really long day! We didn’t get moving until nearly 11AM, which was pretty late.  It was some tough terrain today—lots of ups and downs on the ice and even a few river/stream crossings.  At one of the crossings our guide, Chris, gave most of us a piggyback ride across the river—it was quite entertaining.  The strain of the trip is starting to get to everyone—we are getting both mentally and physically tired.  My legs are holding up well though… pretty sure my running muscles are carrying me through.  We hiked about 6 miles today (as the bird flies, not including all our ups and downs).  This morning we also had a lesson on how to use our map and compass—lots more to learn than I thought!  Tonight we had pasta for dinner… I was overjoyed!

Day 4—July 16
Today was by far the toughest day.  We left camp around 11AM, so a little later again.  We hiked for 9 hours today!  First we crossed the Gates Glacier which was pretty easy.  Then we crossed a lot of moraine—lots of ups and downs and a few stream crossings.  After lunch (which we ate at 4PM), we made our way to the Donoho basin.  We passed both the upper and lower lakes, which were both beautiful.  In order to get around both though we had to do LOTS of bush whacking (or bush bashing, as Maddy would say).  We were also in bear territory here, so there was a constant chant of “Hey, bear.  G’day, bear.”  By 8PM we finally reached our camp… it was raining, but we were happy!  We got all the tents up in record time and relaxed in our tents until Chris and Melissa said it was dinner time—Thanksgiving dinner for everyone!

This entry would not be complete without talking about my mental block today.  After lunch I was really quiet and Maddy turned to me and asked if I was alright (she knew I was not usually this quiet).  I told her I was just reaching a mental block, but would be okay.  The only other times I have reached this type of mental block is during marathons.  So what did I do… I asked myself, “What would Coach Brendan tell me?” (Brendan is my running coach for those of you who don’t know) First he would tell me, good form will carry you through.  So I readjusted my backpack and took some of the strain off my back (which was starting to bother me).  Then I thought about getting through the next 4 hours… if I was running a marathon I would change to run 5 minutes, walk 1 minute (usually from Brendan’s suggestion).  But since backpacking doesn’t include running, instead I told myself to put in full effort for 5 minutes and then slow it down for a minute.  I did this for about an hour, and it completely changed my attitude.  So, thanks Coach Brendan, for helping me through the toughest day of backpacking!

Day 5—July 17
We did it!  We made it back to Kennecott!  Today was the easiest day, but some of the toughest glacier hiking.  It rained last night, so the top layer of ice was slick, which made for not so fun conditions.  We first hiked across the Root Glacier and then hiked along a trail back to the town of Kennecott.  I also was able to jump into a blue pool on the glacier… it was FREEZING cold, but totally worth it.  Tonight we are having a celebratory dinner at the only bar in McCarthy… should be a good time!  Can’t believe it’s over, but I am excited for a shower!

So that’s my trip in a nutshell!  It was amazing and challenging!  I had an outstanding group to be out there with for the week, and our guides were top notch!  I went out there we St. Elias Alpine Guides, and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who wants a true Alaskan backpacking experience.  I loved it so much, I’m already trying to plan my next adventure with them… hoping for next summer!

Well, now it’s time for some dinner before my 1:25AM flight back home! And as awesome as Alaska has been, I’m ready for some deep dish pizza and 312 beer!


PS.  I also totally conquered the whole, nature is your bathroom thing!

These are in no particular order… too tired to do that!
Crossing the ice falls!
Some of the girls… Lora, me, Maddy, and Yara.
Just hanging out on top of a giant crevasse.
Just backpacking away… I’m the one with the green pack.
Putting on my crampons… we used these to walk on the ice.
Saying goodbye to my kickass guides, Chris and Melissa!
This is the tiny plane I took out to the start of our trip.
Our first campsite… this was so comfy compared to the next two nights.
Blue pool!
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Pretty sunset by our second campsite.
River crossing on Chris’s back!

The map of our travels… I have one now and can tell you everywhere we went!
Our last campsite… this was an established site, so it was warmer than sleeping on ice (which we did for 2 nights)
addy and me on our last hike!

I made it on the wall… blue pool jump 2015!
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e made it!  This is the whole group… what an amazing group of humans!

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addy and Kelly go bush whacking!

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eeling like I’m on top of the world!  Mt .Blackburn is behind me… it was awesome!

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t. Blackburn!

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Ice falls!
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Just a pretty lake!
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Mt. Blackburn all clear… this was the only time in 5 days that we saw the top.
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Some cool glacier formations.
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View from my tent… not too shabby!
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iew of my tent on the second night… Mt. Blackburn is in the background.

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y hair on the morning of our last day… thank goodness for hats!

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‘m in the blue pool!  Hell yeah!

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he “I just backpacked in the Alaskan backcountry for 5 days” selfie!

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here was a packrafting race in McCarthy the day after we got back.  It was fun to see some of the finishers come in!

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nd can’t go anywhere without knowing someone… Haley is living in McCarthy for the summer… we grew up together!  It was so fun to catch up with her!

Running up a Glacier

Today is just going to be a bunch of pictures.  I have to be up in seven hours for a five day backpacking trip, so I don’t have much time.

Today was hand down the BEST day in Alaska thus far!  I spent the day ice climbing with St. Elias Guides in Kennecott, AK.

y groups for the day!

My selfie at while down in the moulin!

That’s what was below me…
Making the climb back up!



his was definitely the most scary part of the entire day!

his is what was holding us the the ice as we climbed!

ade it to the top of the wall.





oot Glacier!

Alright it’s time to start the backpacking part of this trip!  Have a great week… I’ll be back on Friday!