The 13th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1985 was particularly grueling—"jinxed from the start by bad weather, bad trail and bad luck," according to Associated Press reports. Temperatures plunged to -50 degrees Farenheit and storms twice forced race officials to halt the competition, for a total of eighty-seven hours, and fly in emergency rations of dog food. So it looked like more of the same when, after two weeks of racing, an oncoming blizzard compelled dogsledders to hunker down on a Sunday night in Shaktoolik, an Eskimo village on the coast of northwest Alaska.
It wasn't more of the same for 28-year-old Libby Riddles, however. For Riddles, it was an opportunity to rise up and write a new page in Iditarod history.
Into the Storm
With her competition pinned down in Shaktoolik, Riddles and her thirteen dogs plunged boldly into the storm and onto the sea ice of Norton Sound. The daring move soon looked like a colossal miscalculation. After three hours running against the forty-knot winds, Riddles' team was exhausted. For the next twelve hours, the dogs slept on the snow and Riddles huddled in her sleeping bag. The blinding storm was still raging as the dogs awoke, but the team was rested and ready to run. They never relinquished the lead and, three days later, Riddles rode into Nome and across the finish line—the first woman to win the Iditarod. She covered the 1,135-mile trail in eighteen days, twenty minutes, and seventeen seconds—three hours faster than the second-place finisher. "When I started out across the Sound, it just really looked pathetic because you couldn't even tell one marker from another," Riddles said after the race. "But I figured if it does pan out, it might help me win the race. So I'm going to try it even if it's crazy…. I thought I had the team to do it. I didn't know if I could keep up my end of it."
Riddles had not distinguished herself in two previous Iditarod runs, finishing 18th and 20th. Unable to attract
sponsors for the 1985 race, she covered her costs by sewing and selling fur hats and giving sled dog exhibitions for tourists. Once the race began, her team ran away with her sled, she broke a sled brake, and some of her dogs succumbed to an energy-draining virus. Tough competition cemented Riddles' role as the quintessential underdog. Favorites to win the race included Rick Swenson, a four-time champion, and Susan Butcher , who had twice placed second and was widely expected to become the first woman to win the Iditarod. Butcher had to drop out of the race, however, when a moose killed two of her dogs and injured several others, and Swenson was pinned down in Shaktoolik with the rest of the field when Riddles drove into the blizzard on Norton Sound.
Riddles was born April 1, 1956, in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. An animal lover as a child, she dreamed of a life as a cowgirl or farmer. After graduating from high school, she followed a boyfriend, Dewey Halverson, to a homesteader's life in Alaska. The young couple lived in a cabin near Anchorage and Riddles helped Halverson train sled dogs. "I learned real quick it's not much fun to help somebody else drive dogs," Riddles told Women's Sports & Fitness. "I wanted to do it myself."
She entered the Iditarod in 1980, finishing in 20th place. The following year, she finished 18th—and met dogsledder Joe Garnie. Riddles soon joined Garnie in Teller, a remote Alaskan village with a population of 250. They lived in a trailer without plumbing, fished and hunted for food, and bred and trained sled dogs. Riddles continued racing. In 1982, she placed 7th in the Kusko 300 Sled-Dog Race. She followed up with a 5th place finish in 1984.
In addition to winning the Iditarod in 1985, Riddles won the Humanitarian Award given to the Iditarod musher who takes the best care of his or her dogs. Riddles treated her team with equal parts discipline and tender loving care. "I feel like I'm a real expert at keeping my dogs happy," she said. "If I had to treat (them) like soldiers, it would just take the fun out of it. But when things get serious, they listen to me, too. You've got to be strict with them… . When I'm out there racing, I'm racing as much as anybody to win. But I'm also out there because I enjoy being with my dogs and I love what I'm doing."
Riddles, whose victory earned her $50,000, has never come close to winning the Iditarod again. She was scratched from the field in 1987, placed 16th in 1989, and finished 32nd in 1995. Susan Butcher, meanwhile, became the second woman to win the Iditarod in 1986, the year after Riddles' winning run. Butcher covered the course in record time—eleven days, fifteen hours, six minutes. The old record, set by Swenson in 1981, was twelve days, eight hours, forty-five minutes, and two seconds.
Riddles' dramatic victory in 1985 generated an unprecedented level of press coverage and brought Riddles—and the Iditarod—instant fame. "Being the first woman to win, and winning in such bold fashion, caught people's attention," reported the Anchorage Daily News. "She was a phenomenon, sparking a nationwide burst of Libbymania.… President Ronald Reagan sent her a telegram of congratulation. Vogue ran her picture. The Women's Sports Foundation made her its Professional Sportswoman of the Year." In addition, March 21, 1985 was proclaimed Libby Riddles Day in Alaska. "Her win and her grace afterwards led to a tremendous increase in nationwide and worldwide publicity for the race," said race official Tim Jones.
Riddles lives near Anchorage, Alaska, where she continues to raise and train sled dogs. In 2002, Sasquatch Books celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Iditarod by publishing a revised edition of Riddles' book, Storm Run: The Story of the First Woman to Win the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The book, written for children, recounts Riddles' winning ride. "We moved into the blackest of nights," she writes. "I couldn't make out any runner tracks. In fact, I could barely see the trail. I was either lost—or in first place."
Address: P.O. Box 872901, Wasilla, AK, 99687-2901.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY RIDDLES:
(With Tim Jones) Race Across Alaska: First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story, Stackpole Books, 1988.
(With Shelley Gill, and illustrator Shannon Cartwright) Danger: The Dog Yard Cat, Paws IV Publishing, 1995.
(With Shannon Cartwright) Storm Run, Paws IV Publishing, 1996.
|1956||Born April 1 in Madison, Wisconsin|
|1980||Finishes 18th in Iditarod Trail Sled-Dog Race|
|1981||Finishes 20th in Iditarod|
|1982||Finished 7th in Kusko 300 Sled-Dog Race|
|1984||Finishes 5th in Kusko 300|
|1985||Becomes first woman to win Iditarod|
|1989||Finishes 16th in Iditarod|
|1995||Finishes 32nd in Iditarod|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1985||First woman to win Iditarod Sled-Dog Race|
|1985||Leonard Seppala Humanitarian Award|
|1985||Victor Award for Excellence in Sports|
|1985||March 21, 1985 is proclaimed Libby Riddles Day in Alaska|
|1985||Women's Sports Foundation Professional Sportswoman of the Year|
(With Shannon Cartwright) Storm Run: The Story of the First Woman to Win the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Sasquatch Books, 2002.
"Alaskan Sled Dog Race Won Again by a Woman." Chicago Tribune (March 14, 1986).
Esser, Doug. "The Last Great Race on Earth." Associated Press Wire Service (March 2, 2002).
"Facts and Figures of the Race." USA Today (March 3, 1995).
Foster, David. "Woman Wins Dog Sled Race." Associated Press Wire Service (March 20, 1985).
"Libby Riddles, 1997 Iditarod." Anchorage Daily News (February 23, 1997).
Livadas, Greg. "Champion Libby Riddles Promotes Faith in Oneself." Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (October 11, 2002).
Upicksoun, Martha J. "Woman Takes Iditarod by Crossing Sea Ice in Blizzard." Associated Press Wire Service (March 21, 1985).
Wergeland, Kari. "Nonfiction Evolves into Truly Creative New Works, From Everest to Iditarod." Seattle Times (May 4, 2002).
"Woman, for First Time, Wins Alaska Sled Race." New York Times (March 21, 1985).
Sketch by David Wilkins