Despite unique challenges, one 7-time Iditarod participant can’t seem to quit the grueling sled dog race

Illinois-based musher Charley Bejna is not letting his Type 1 diabetes stop him from competing in one of Alaska's toughest long-distance races

Coming into Rainy Pass. | Photo: Charley Bejna

The Iditarod is a grueling 1,000-mile sled dog race through Alaska, where temperatures can dip to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Charley Bejna has run the race seven times since 2013—through blinding snowstorms and 80-mph winds—and finished five times. 

Twenty years ago, Bejna was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He spent the first five years struggling with his diagnosis until he realized that it was just “a part of my life that I have to deal with.” While he hesitates to call himself a role model, Bejna didn’t have anyone to look up to and worked to stay as healthy as possible. He says he believes “people need to see somebody that does have [diabetes] and is living life to the fullest.”

For Bejna, that includes dog sledding.

Selfie with Sled
Selfie with sled. | Photo courtesy of Charley Bejna
60 Miles to the finish line.
Sixty miles to the finish line. | Photo courtesy of Charley Bejna

1,000 miles

Founded in 1973, the Iditarod commemorates a historic trade route and the history of dogs in Alaska. Starting in early March, mushers travel with a team of dogs for eight days up to several weeks from Anchorage to Nome in western Alaska. The race is not over until the last team finishes or drops out. 

Mushers have to care for and feed their team of dogs while navigating the trail, using only what is on their sled and in their bags at each of the 25 checkpoints. Accepting external help can result in disqualification. During the race, mushers are often sleep deprived, never getting more than a few hours of sleep on any given night, and they may be dealing with injuries and sled issues. The Iditarod has been called “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

On top of regular race duties, Bejna has to keep his blood sugar in a safe range while keeping his insulin and medical devices from freezing. In 2019, he used a continuous glucose monitor to help him keep track of his blood sugar, and he always has a handful of jelly beans nearby. Bejna explains that it’s a matter of watching “your body and knowing what your body is capable of.” He also says that you need “a strong mind to push yourself.”

Charley Bejna and his dog sled team
Charley Bejna and his dog sled team. | Photo courtesy of Charley Bejna

While some naysayers complain about the dangers of the race, Bejna says, “This is my life. And I’m not going to put my dogs in harm. Not everybody is perfect. Everybody is different and that makes each and everyone of us special. I like dog mushing. We all have our special things that make us shine for that reason.”

All smiles

Bejna lives in Addison, Illinois, where he was born and raised. Many mushers live in Alaska or throughout Canada, but Bejna splits his time between Alaska, where he has a kennel, and Addison, where he runs a landscaping business. Five months every year, he trains with his dogs in Alaska while still managing his business back home. 

Bejna fell in love with Alaska during trips he took there with his father. In the early 1990s, they drove up to Alaska, went on dog sledding excursions, and toured kennels. But it wasn’t until 2006 that Bejna went to his first Iditarod. He says, “I didn’t expect it to be so big with so many fans.” He watched the mushers and handlers work with the dogs. “It was all smiles,” he says.

While at the Iditarod, mushers offered Bejna the opportunity to help out with the care and training of their dogs. Bejna wasn’t sure if he wanted to be away from his family for so long, but he made a quick decision to stay. “It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had,” he says. 

Resting at McGrath
Resting at McGrath. | Photo courtesy of Charley Bejna

While Bejna was working as a handler and a tag sled driver for musher G.B. Jones, he ran some shorter races—less than 300 miles—and started thinking about running the Iditarod himself. He initially dismissed the idea because of his diabetes, but then thought better of it. “I’m thinking everybody started from somewhere, they didn’t start as a professional musher,” Bejna says. He realized that if he ran one more 300-mile race, he’d qualify for the Iditarod.  

Bejna ran his first Iditarod in 2013. He says he “learned what not to do, made a lot of mistakes,” and he ended up dropping out. But he’s been back six more times. What keeps him coming back? “The love for the dogs, seeing all that Alaska has to offer, and the people at the checkpoints,” Bejna says. 

Happy and healthy dogs

Above all else, it’s the dogs that make it all possible. Starting in October or November, Bejna begins training. He hooks 12 dogs to an ATV and races them around the subdivision of his property. Then he’ll take another 12 out and do the same thing. When there’s snow, he can hook them up to the sled, and when the lakes and rivers freeze over, he can go even further. 

As the season progresses, he’ll take them out for longer runs of 30 to 40 miles, mimicking the distances between the checkpoints in the Iditarod. He’ll go out with one team one day and another the next. If he doesn’t take them out to train—like recently, when there was no snow and freezing rain—he says the dogs seem disappointed.

Spend any time with a musher’s dogs and you’ll realize one thing: These dogs want to run. At the start of any race, the dogs are the ones going wild. “That’s what they live for, to run and compete, just be happy and do it,” Bejna says.  

Charley's leaders Black and Brown at the Finish Line
Charley’s leaders Black and Brown at the finish line. | Photo courtesy of Charley Bejna

Bejna and his dogs have a great relationship. On the trail, they communicate to him when they’re tired or hungry. In the kennel, all he has to do is say, “Hi, guys” for the dogs to perk up. 

The race has its critics, but dog care is a crucial part of dogsledding. During the races, veterinarians check the dogs at every checkpoint. Mushers are always watching out for their dogs in order to keep them healthy and happy.

In November, Bejna decided he was not going to race in the 2020 Iditarod because he’s worn out from running it consecutively for the past seven years. He’s tired of fighting the weather—there hasn’t been enough snow in recent years—and dealing with the financial expenditures required for the race. He’s still planning on running some of the 200- to 300-mile races in other states closer to home. 

But his Iditarod days aren’t over yet—the 50th anniversary is in three years and Bejna is expecting to be ready to jump on his sled again by then.

If you go

The next Iditarod starts on March 7, 2020. Leading up to the start of the race is the weeklong annual Fur Rendezvous winter festival in downtown Anchorage. For those unable to make it to Alaska, the actual race is live streamed on the Iditarod website.

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