For more than a decade — since she was 9 years old — Laura Neese has been imagining the ride of her life.
On March 6, she set out to take it.
Neese, 20, a native of Newark, was the youngest musher in the field of 72 when the 2017 Iditarod sled-dog race began.
Driven by 16 huskies, Neese lined up with the other competitors in Fairbanks, Alaska for the 45th running of the famed 1,000-mile event. (The route will end, as usual, in Nome, Alaska, but the start this year has been redirected from Willow to Fairbanks because of trail conditions — the third time in the history of the race that a such a move has been necessary.)
“Sledding along the coast is going to be pretty cool,” said Neese, who was in 37th place through March 8. “The last 300 miles are painfully windy, long miles. I’m excited to see that. It’s something you always hear about, and I get to see it now.”
Neese, who for the past three winters has been working with dogs and training at a kennel in McMillan, Michigan, said she is looking forward to just about every aspect of the long-awaited experience.
For her parents, Mark and Jeri — Newark residents who will be at the Iditarod start and finish — the event surely will be emotional.
“This is the ultimate dream for her,” Jeri Neese said of the youngest of four children. “When you look at all the steps that had to happen for this to be possible, it's mind-boggling.”
Laura Neese's passion is rooted in the Iditarod projects she did as a home-schooled girl growing up in central Ohio.
At 18, she moved to McMillan, Michigan, to lead tours for a kennel in the backwoods of the Upper Peninsula, and she quickly parlayed the work into a more ambitious pursuit: Iditarod training.
Ed Strielstra, a seven-time Iditarod finisher, and his wife, Tasha, invited Neese to train with them in exchange for her work at their business, Nature's Kennel.
"We've been doing this for 25 years, and she's a prodigy," Ed Strielstra said in 2015. "She has a gift."
Mark Neese said his daughter got some lucky breaks but that Laura took advantage of each opportunity.
"She’s a girl of great integrity and, honestly, is so passionate about it and a hard worker," he said. “Ed saw that early on and kept giving her responsibilities,” including turning over direction of his main team."
Starting last winter, Laura Neese ramped up her training. She awoke at 4 a.m. to feed the dogs, ran one team for 60 miles, grabbed some food and then took the next team out for a 50-mile ride.
“I’d get back with that team around midnight, feed the dogs and go to sleep,” Laura Neese said. “I'd get up and do it again the next day.
“It was so cool."
In February 2016, when it came time for her to run the Yukon Quest (1,000 miles from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon) the rigorous schedule she had kept eased the challenge. She finished in 11 days, seven hours and four minutes — 13th in the field of 24, good enough to be heralded as a “rookie sensation” by race organizers.
After spending August and September working on the behavior of her team during short runs, she began building the dogs’ mental toughness over longer distances. Most important, she worked to enhance the bond she has with the dogs she'll use in the Iditarod.
This year, she had planned to become the first American from the lower 48 states to complete both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod consecutively, but Neese had to withdraw from the 2017 Quest after 250 miles because her lead dogs developed sore wrists.
“I could’ve easily finished, but it wasn’t worth the risk to Iditarod,” Laura Neese said. “The goal this year is Iditarod.”
The goal hasn’t changed since she set it 11 years ago — ever since a young Laura followed her first Iditarod on a computer in her Newark home.
Although she could well be named Iditarod rookie of the year (among 16 expected rookies), finishing the race — with happy dogs — is tantamount, she said.
"This is awesome," Neese said.