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Duluth city attorney tapped to run Iditarod

Duluth city attorney Gunnar Johnson talks about the details and hardships of running the Iditarod during an interview at his office Thursday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Jim Lanier, a 76-year-old veteran musher who was scheduled to compete in his 20th Iditarod this year, has dropped out of the race due to a bum knee. At Lanier's request, Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson will take his place. Johnson ran his first and only Iditarod until now in 1991. Photo by Devin Kelly / Alaska Dispatch News2 / 3
Gunnar Johnson still has his musher card showing him at the finish line when he ran the 1991 Iditarod race. Courtesy of Gunnar Johnson3 / 3

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson will trade in his suit and tie for an anorak and a pair of heavy Trans-Alaska boots next week, as he journeys north to prepare for an unexpected entrance in the grueling 1,000-plus-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Johnson, 48, has been tapped to take the place of his friend and veteran mushing mentor, Jim Lanier, who recently announced he would be unable to compete in what would have been his 20th Iditarod due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. Lanier, a 76-year-old retired Alaskan pathologist, grew up in Fargo and became fast friends with Johnson's late father, Ken Johnson, who was also a physician.

"I've known Gunnar since he was in diapers, because his father was my best friend," Lanier said Thursday afternoon, as a vet ran his sled dogs through a raft of medical tests.

Not just anyone can enter the Iditarod. Rookie mushers must compete in and finish at least three races with a combined length of no less than 750 miles in the year leading up to the Iditarod in order to qualify.

Although he completed the Northern Lights 300 behind some of Lanier's dogs a couple weeks ago, Johnson hasn't logged 750 race miles in the past year. Nevertheless, Johnson qualifies by having successfully finished the 1991 Iditarod.

Johnson completed that race after only a few months under Lanier's tutelage in Alaska. When it was done, Johnson enrolled in law school. Following his graduation, Johnson returned to Alaska to run a 200-mile race in 2004.

Upon returning to his home in Duluth, Johnson continued to be involved with the sport. He has been active with the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, serving in a number of capacities, including race judge, marshal and board member.

Johnson also maintained a small team and participated in regional six-dog races of 20 to 70 miles in length over the next several years, finally dispensing with his team when he and his wife, Ingrid, became parents about 14 years ago.

Nevertheless, Johnson has continued to make annual trips to Alaska to train for at least a week with Lanier and his dogs. He also has tripped into the wilderness with dog teams.

For his part, Lanier expressed confidence in Johnson's ability to compete in the Iditarod.

"It's not like I haven't run dogs in the past 26 years, but this is a big step," Johnson acknowledged.

"I'm kind of a born-again rookie, in some ways," he joked

Johnson said he's not out to win the Iditarod by any means. Instead, he dryly listed four simple goals: "1) Finish the race; 2) Keep all my fingers and toes; 3) Keep my job; and 4) Keep my marriage."

But Lanier has loftier goals than a back-of-the-pack finish for Johnson.

"He's got to do better than that," said Lanier with a chuckle, adding that he looks for Johnson to represent his operation, Northern Whites Kennel, respectably in the race.

Johnson said he knows it was tough for Lanier to step away from the Iditarod.

"You spend a whole year getting your team ready for a race like this. Then you buy an entry for $4,000, and you're ready to go. You've got your food drops ready. Everything's ready, and then on Monday, Jim decided that he physically was not able to do it. So at that point, you can either just scratch and walk away or you can try to find somebody to take your spot," Johnson said, describing what led up to the call he received from Lanier at the beginning of this week.

Lanier has been nursing a bum knee but had been trying to take it easy on it in hopes of making the race.

"My knee is feeling a little better, but not good enough," Lanier said. "I probably could have done it, but I'd have been miserable."

Johnson expressed his gratitude for having a family and an employer willing to grant him leave on relatively short notice to take Lanier's place in the Iditarod.

He expects to fly into Anchorage on Feb. 23 and spend the next several days or so working with Lanier's team to gain a better understanding of each dog's strengths and weaknesses. He said a good musher also needs to earn the trust of his dogs, and Johnson has until the March 4 start of the race to build that rapport.

Johnson said the team Lanier has put together for the race is fairly strong, but it's a little light in front. He explained that one of Lanier's lead dogs, Diesel, will not be able to run in the Iditarod, after getting stomped by a startled moose in a recent race.

Accompanying Johnson on his flight to Anchorage will be Sherpa, a dog that Colleen and Ward Wallin generously agreed to lend him for the race.

"I've never run Sherpa, but I'm told she's a good leader, and she's hopefully going to be part of my team and help replace Diesel in leading the team to Nome," Johnson said.

Johnson said he will be just part of a larger contingent of Northland mushers competing in the Iditarod this year. Three-time and 2017 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion Ryan Anderson of Ray will be running his first Iditarod. And four-time Beargrease champion Nathan Schroeder of Warba will be competing for the fourth year in a row. Another 2017 Beargrease musher, Ryan Redington of Wasilla, Alaska, also is in the Iditarod field this year.

Twins Kristy and Anna Berington — who grew up in Port Wing and graduated from South Shore High School in 2002, and who now live in Alaska — also are competing again this year.