Air Force doctor finishes Iditarod with flourish

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown
  • 3rd Communications Squadron

After finishing last year’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Maj. (Dr) Thomas Knolmayer said it would be his one and only running of the 1,150 mile race across Alaska’s wilderness. But, anyone who knows the 38-year-old surgeon stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, knew better.

After getting the blessing from his wife, Tina, the major threw his name in the hat to compete in the 2006 race.

“I still had all the dogs and they can’t just sit around doing nothing,” he said, referring to his kennel of 21 Alaskan Huskies.

After a good training season of running the sled dogs for three to four hours, four to five nights a week, Doctor Knolmayer felt good about the team this year.

“The dogs are running strong and I have a lot more experience going into this year’s race,” Doctor Knolmayer said. He was also fortunate to have a co-worker, Lt. Col. Michelle Prevost, running half his team with him after work, cutting his training time in half.

Having one of his strongest dogs healthy this year also helped. Last year, Tomahawk, a 7-year-old lead dog, was injured two weeks before the Iditarod and had to sit out, but this year he was raring to go.

With an upcoming assignment and having to leave Alaska, Doctor Knolmayer said he knew this would be his last Iditarod. That made this year’s race just that much more special.

That wasn’t the only thing that made it special. This year he ran with a bigger purpose -- a 10-year-old girl with cancer was cheering him on.

Katie Powell, the daughter of Senior Master Sgt Chris Powell, a KC-10 Extender boom operator at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., has Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer. Through the generosity of several units at Travis, she fulfilled her dream of meeting an Iditarod musher and riding on the sled. She was also the major’s personal guest at the start of this year’s Iditarod after riding with him during his last training run.

“The sled ride was great,” Katie said. “It lasted a long time, but seemed like it was only a few minutes.”

Since she had to head home the Monday after the start, she planned on using the Internet to track the major’s progress.

“I’ll keep track of him on the computer,” she said.

The race is a mental and physical challenge. The mushers face sleep deprivation and have to spend a large amount of time caring for the dogs.

“When I stop at a checkpoint for several hours, I may get 45 minutes of sleep after spending several hours taking care of the dogs” Doctor Knolmayer said. “If we stop twice a day that ends up being two 45-minute naps.”

Besides the lack of sleep, extreme weather also takes its toll when the teams face temperatures as warm as 40 degrees and as cold as 45 below zero. The warmer temperatures are hard on the dogs and can reduce a dog’s ability to pull long distances, to sitting during daylight hours waiting for the cooler temperatures of the dark Alaska night.

Alaskan Huskies have the almost unbelievable ability to withstand temperatures of 45 degrees below zero for days on end with little affect. Doctor Knolmayer was also thrilled when the temperatures were well below zero.

“It’s much easier on the team. They feel great and just want to keep going,” he said.

Trail hazards also make the race a challenge. Stumps in the trail and sharp turns can send a musher into the trees; being on ice in high winds is also a risk.

“At one point, the wind was sending the sled and the dogs sideways across the ice. All I could do was crawl on my hands and knees trying to get control of the sled and team,” the doctor said.

Even with all the challenges of the Iditarod trail, Doctor Knolmayer set his goals high and found a way to succeed. After finishing the race last year with a respectable time of 13 days and 22 hours, he knew he could lead his team to a better finish this year.

So, as usual, Doctor Knolmayer set what seemed to be a goal impossible to meet: finish the race in less than 12 days. Waiting in Nome, his wife and the rest of his supporters tracked his progress online and estimated a Friday finish around 4 p.m., a finish that would be two hours short of his goal.

Doctor Knolmayer crossed the finish line at 1:10 pm., meeting his goal of a finish under 12 days by just one hour. It was a finish that was 47 hours better than last year.

After all the pomp and circumstance of the race, greeting his wife and 15-month-old son, Zane, and getting the dogs bedded down, the major finished one last task. He posed under the arches at the finish line with a poster that said, “We did it for you, Katie Powell!”