The Great Run Of Mercy

The Great Run of Mercy – Tale of sacrifice, trust, and the life-saving bond between dog and man


Imagine being the only doctor in a small Alaskan town, isolated from the rest of the world during a harsh polar winter. One day, you discover that all the antitoxin for a deadly illness has expired. You pray you won’t need it any time soon, but several days after the port has been closed, you start seeing worrisome symptoms in a couple of young children.

Truth is, one doesn’t have to imagine, since this bone-chilling situation has already happened. In the course of a single month, 6 kids died of diphtheria, an infectious disease that, without the antitoxin, threatened to kill up to 99.8% of Nome’s population. On January 22nd, 1925, doctor Curtis Welch requested desperate assistance from the Washington Public Health Service: An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here. I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin.

In every way imaginable, this was a true horror-scenario


The only hope


Nome, Alaska, lies by the coast close to the Arctic Circle. From November to July 1925, the entire population of 1.430 people was almost completely cut off from the rest of the mainland. The only link to the world during the icebound period was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 1.510 km across several mountain ranges and the cruel Alaska Interior.



A proposal was made to fly the serum by plane, but it was a relatively new technology and unreliable in the harsh winter, therefore, it was ultimately rejected. Instead, the town’s only hope would be 20 teams of dog-sled racers, called mushers, who would pass the serum between them over a total of 1.085 km. The trip normally took 30 days, but the serum would only last six under the brutal conditions of the trail.


No time to waste


The first relay musher was Bill Shannon, who left the train station in Nenana with his team of 9 inexperienced dogs. A temperature of -52॰C forced Shannon to jog alongside his sled to try and keep warm and he reached the town of Minto at 3 am, his face blackened from severe frostbite. After warming the serum, he set off again without 3 of his dogs, Cub, Jack, and Jet, who regrettably died shortly after. Still, he had managed to traverse 84 km in a single day.

Even if most of the other teams didn’t have to suffer such casualties, it was definite proof that the journey was going to be anything but merciful.

The next day, the serum passed through three different teams. The weather was so cold that one of the mushers, Edgar Kallands, had his hands frozen to the sled’s handlebar, which had to be thawed using boiling water.

By the 29th of January, two new cases of diphtheria were diagnosed, and on the 30th, another death occurred, the number of cases reaching 27. The urgency was palpable and campaigns proposing to fly the serum by plane were renewed. Because of the same reasons as before, they failed once again. „All hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers… Nome appears to be a deserted city.” The mushers were aware of the worsening condition in Nome and made tremendous efforts to speed up the relay as much as possible. They would set out at any hour of the day (or night), neglecting rest and driving head on into storms and blizzards.

Charlie Evans left at 5 am in a reported temperature of -52॰C. He relied solely on his dogs to guide him through the blinding ice-fog. Two of his mixed-breed dogs collapsed from frostbite and he had to take their place pulling the sled. Fortunately the next three mushers of the day, all Alaskan natives, made incredible progress, having run 177 km in 15 and a half hours. The serum was now less than halfway through the distance to Nome.


Fighting Fate – The Norton Sound Crossing


Leonhard Seppala was the most acclaimed and skilled musher of his time. As such, he was chosen for the most foreboding part of the entire trail: the infamous Norton Sound. It is an inlet of the Bering Sea, with ice in constant motion and no protection from the unforgiving winds. Small cracks in the ice could widen without warning, swallowing the team into the freezing water below, or the team could suddenly find themselves drifting out, stranded on the open sea. Because the crossing would mean saving an entire day of travel, Seppala took on the risk and put his entire faith in his 20 best dogs (and especially in his beloved lead dog, Togo).


Seppala, Togo on his far left


Seppala set out from Nome on January 28th. He still believed he had more than 160 km to the original relay point, as he was not informed that more mushers were added to hasten the job. After 3 days and 270 km, he came in sight of another team, Henry Ivanoff’s, but did not realize it. Ivanoff had to run after Seppala as he raced past, shouting, „The serum! The serum! I have it here!”

Seppala turned around with the serum but by the time he stopped at a checkpoint, it was already dark. Hearing the worsening news, himself having an only daughter at risk back in Nome, he decided to once again brave the Norton Sound. In the dark, his dogs exhausted and facing a wind chill of -65॰C, he relied on Togo to lead the team to safety. In one day, they had traveled 135 km, averaging 13 km/h. The team rested in a roadhouse for a few hours and departed at 2 am into the full power of a hurricane level storm.

While they slept, the wind blew out all the ice Seppala had just crossed to sea. Togo picked his way carefully on the perilous ground, avoiding the soft spots or sometimes outright open water only a couple meters away from the sled. Having braved Norton Sound, the team faced their final challenge: climbing a 13 km long ridge, with a total elevation of 1.500 meters. Miraculously, at 3 pm that same day, Seppala and his team arrived at Golovin and handed over the serum to Charlie Olsen.


One last push


A powerful blizzard blew Olsen off trail and he suffered severe frostbite on his hands while trying to put blankets on his dogs. He arrived on February 1st in poor condition and handed the serum over to Gunner Kaasen and his team of 13 huskies, borrowed from Seppala.

Like the other mushers, Kaasen relied on his lead dogs, Fox and Balto, to guide the sled through the storm and chest-deep snow. The team missed the village where they were supposed to wait out the blizzard and continued on the main trail. A strong gust of wind flipped over the sled, the serum quickly being covered by snow. Kaasen searched in the dark on his hands and knees, nearly avoiding a terrible catastrophe.

Over the course of the entire journey, the teams covered the 1,085 km in 1271⁄2 hours, done in extreme sub-zero temperatures and hurricane-force winds. Not a single vial of serum was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready to use by noon, February 1st.

A number of dogs died during the trip, and, while some names remain unknown, all of them are deserving of being called heroes.


Often, the going was rough — sometimes, my courage was greater than my team’s — several times, I was ready to quit, but was ashamed because of the great fighting heart of the Siberian Husky.

– Leonhard Seppala, The Cruelest Miles.