After nearly dying last year, Atlanta man returns to mush in iconic Iditarod race

It’s the most demanding and dangerous annual dog sled race in the world.

“It’s a thousand-mile sled dog race that starts in Anchorage, Alaska and goes north and west across the state to Nome, Alaska.”

It’s the Iditarod, and Atlanta’s Sean Underwood will lead a pack of 14 dogs for the second year in a row.

“There are 22 check points along the way where you can send materials, dog good, human food and gear, and it takes about nine or 10 days for the winning team to get across the finish line and the last place team will come across five days later,” Underwood told Channel 2 sports director Zach Klein.

Underwood got his start working for four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King four years ago.

“It starts with the daily grunt work. Jeff has been doing it for 40-years. He’s earned the right to not have to spend an hour a day scooping dog poop,” he said.

TRENDING STORIES

Thousands of hours later with the dogs, it’s no longer grunt work. It’s training and preparing the dogs for the ultimate test.

Underwood would qualify for the 2020 race and was prepared to watch King go for a fifth title, but then a phone call four days before the race changed everything.

King needed emergency surgery and Underwood took his spot in the race.

“We had already sent out 1,500 pounds of food and gear to the trail and all the preparations were there and he just couldn’t go. And so I was the next choice,” Underwood said.

It is the calm before the storm. Our bags might have been sent to the checkpoints, but there is still much to do. Including, but not limited to, holding Blue for 3 hours a day.

Posted by Sean Underwood on Tuesday, February 23, 2021

He led the dogs for 970 miles and was just 30 miles from the finish line when the unthinkable happened.

A winter storm in the middle of the night caused a surge along the Bering Sea. Standing in frigid, knee high water, Underwood was able to lead the dogs to safety, but he was becoming hypothermic and ultimately had to hit the emergency beacon and request help.

“It was the same feeling I had when I watched the Falcons blow a 28-3 lead,” he said. “It would have been a Cinderella story, but I’m excited to get to that finish line.”

This year, he’ll get another chance. He’s on a new team, working with new dogs. Underwood believes this squad will get him to his ultimate goal.

“The biggest goal is finish the damn thing. The next goal is to be as competitive as you can be without jeopardizing finishing,” he said.

The race begins on Saturday. You can follow Underwood’s journey on his website and the Iditarod race website.

[SIGN UP: WSB-TV Daily Headlines Newsletter]