Spending two weeks crossing Alaska in below-freezing temperatures with only dogs for company might not be everyone's idea of fun, but clearlyisn't just anyone. From his past experience as a running back in a professional football farm league, to his work as wrangler on a Colorado ranch, to his idea of a relaxing weekend—competing in the Australian horseback-riding sport of polocrosse—it's plain that Lachlan loves a good challenge. He also loves to pray. In fact, Lachlan says, turning to God for guidance and support is an integral part of the sporting activities that play such a big role in his life.
Prayer has been especially useful in his latest passion: dog-sled racing. Lachlan and his equally athletic wife, Linda, first discovered the sport at a dog-sled dude ranch in 2001, and the couple immediately took to it. Soon they'd put their own team of dogs together and had begun to train for their first race. Before long, the Clarkes were prepping for that most famous dog-sled competition of all—the Iditarod, a 1,150-mile race of attrition that runs from Anchorage, in south-central Alaska, to Nome, on Alaska's western coast at the Bering Sea.
Since only one musher can accompany the dogs on the race, that job falls to Lachlan. But he and Linda share the preparations equally, each training a team of 12 dogs, out of whom they choose 16 to participate in the competition. Lachlan and the team successfully completed their first Iditarod in 2003, and they're planning to run again in this year's race, which begins on March 5.A correction was made in the May 2005 Journal: "The article, "Call of the Wild," in the March issue, should have noted that while Lachlan Clarke competed in the Iditarod in 2003, he did not complete that race. The Journal regrets the error."
The couple talked withabout their experiences—and the role that prayer has played in them.
How does prayer factor into your approach to competitive sports, and to dog sled racing in particular?
Linda: It's really huge for both of us, both as part of our day-to-day training and when we face challenges during a race. We'll pray before we run the dogs. We'll read the weekly Bible Lesson Found in the Christian Science Quarterly. before we run the dogs. And I always find that it makes a big difference. One idea I think about a lot is that we're all one with God. Mary Baker Eddy talked about all of God's creatures moving in harmony, See Science and Health, p. 514 . and that's something I like to think about. Also, knowing that God is in control, no matter what.
You know, a 12-dog team is really, really powerful. And I'm not a big person. So sometimes just in my training—going out on a dog run at night on a trail that I don't really know—I'll start to get anxious, start to wonder "what if?" But then I begin to pray and I realize, I'm not alone out here with these dogs. God is with us the whole time. I can feel it, and I know they can feel it. And it's just amazing. Because I become incredibly peaceful, and so do the dogs.
Animals are so receptive to prayer. Actually, I wouldn't even say receptive. They're there already—they already feel God's power and presence. We're the ones who have to work on it.
The Iditarod was basically a prayer-fest for me. It was more than just a journey through Alaska. It was a spiritual journey through Alaska with God.
It sounds like just training your dogs offers plenty of opportunity for prayer. Have you had any experiences along that line that really stand out to you?
Lachlan: We had a pretty amazing experience about three weeks before our first Iditarod. I was training in unfamiliar woods and the hook—or brake—gave out, and 12 dogs dashed away. That is a very helpless feeling. Without a musher, dogs get tangled. The gangline can wrap around their legs and necks. They can fight and even kill each other.
I had to hike seven miles back to the road and hitch a ride to the friend's house where Linda was staying. We both prayed really intently—both for the safety of the dogs, and for a solution—while we tried to free our host's snowmobile from a blanket of ice. I thought a lot about the fact that there was only one Mind, or God, controlling the whole universe, and that included those 12 dogs. It wasn't easy, I had to keep coming back to it again and again. But I just kept reminding myself that the safety of those dogs wasn't dependent on 12 little minds, but on the one infinite, all-knowing Mind. That God was governing everything in the world, and that meant He was governing them.
Then, out of the blue, a neighbor who was passing by stopped and asked if he could help. He actually worked at a rental shop and happened to have snowmobiles loaded on a trailer. He took us to the trail head where I had first started out with the dogs. No more than half a mile up the trail, the headlights of our snowmobile caught a pack of beady eyes and steamy line of bodies heading right for us. It was my team, who had been out for over three and a half hours.
What I saw when they got closer seemed absolutely impossible. Somehow the dogs had managed not only to turn themselves around, but they had remained untangled and were running in line. Not one dog was hurt. In fact, before they'd gotten loose, I'd removed one of the dogs from the harness and placed him in a bag inside my sled because of an injured foot. He had been velcroed and zipped in, but apparently he'd managed to pop out. Because within a few moments, even he showed up, panting and puffing, and there was no sign of any injury at all.
To me, the only possible explanation for the dogs's great condition, the only way they could have come out of this unharmed, was God. His divine guidance kept them safe and led them back to where they needed to be.
What about the Iditarod itself? I know it's considered to be a particularly grueling experience, with all kinds of issues related to weather and terrain. And then you've got 15 athletes to consider—your dogs. How does prayer fit into a race like that?
Lachlan: The Iditarod is particularly challenging because it doesn't just last for a few hours, or for a weekend. You're working around the clock for two weeks straight. So the need for prayer is constant. In fact, there was hardly a moment when I wasn't praying about something. And I really got to see, like Mrs. Eddy said, that Christian Science is both therapeutic and prophylactic, or preventative. See Ibid., p. 369: . Because prayer both protected us during this race and brought healing when we needed it.
The first opportunity to do some serious praying came early in the race, when almost my whole team of dogs came down with diarrhea. Some of them weren't eating, and they seemed pretty unenthusiastic. The Iditarod has veterinarians posted at each checkpoint, and they look over your team very carefully and note anything that could be a problem: dehydration, split pads, even a dog's mental stress. I was told that six of my dogs would be pulled if they weren't better by the next checkpoint. That can be disastrous. A team may drop six dogs over the entire course, but losing that many dogs at once, your race would be over. I wanted to be able to continue the race, but more than that, of course, I care about my dogs. And I wanted them to be well.
So what did you do?
Lachlan: Well, it was 50 miles to the next checkpoint. I couldn't stop for more than the usual rest, so I hitched up the team and called Linda on a radio telephone. She contacted a Christian Science practitioner to pray with us.
Some of the ideas that Linda relayed back to me from the practitioner were that I didn't have to sit down and read something to get inspiration to pray for the dogs. I already knew everything I needed to know in order to support this team. That really helped, because reading inspirational ideas wasn't an option. This was healing on the fly. We also talked about the fact that God maintains all of His creation and supports their proper functions. And that included the dogs.
I was also feeling a lot of pressure about resolving the situation before our next checkup with the vets. In fact, I was kind of dreading the scrutiny. But I realized that the vets and I weren't at odds. We both wanted the same thing: the health and safety of these animals. And when I realized that, the anxiety just dropped away.
At the next checkpoint, the vets were waiting for us. But when we stopped, the dogs' tails were wagging and they started to eat immediately. The vets confirmed that the dogs were perfectly well. And, actually, the whole feeling of scrutiny just lifted. A couple of stations later, the vets said they didn't even need to check my team, because they knew they were doing fine.
How about the aspect of danger? Did you have to deal with that?
Lachlan: Yes. About 700 miles into the race, a terrible storm blew in on a lonely 150-mile stretch. We were near a wide river, totally exposed. I don't know how strong the winds were where I was, but back in Anchorage, they were some of the highest ever recorded, reaching 80 miles per hour. It was probably 0 to 10 below, and with wind chill, the temperature was off the charts. There was no place to hide. I had to camp out in my sled and just weather it all night.
The movie Titanic had been popular a few years before, and I'd read a reprint of a 1912 Journal testimony—an incredible account by someone who'd actually been on the Titanic, a Lt. C. H. Lightoller. He'd survived for over four hours in the middle of the icy Atlantic with absolutely no side effects. To me, hunkering down in my sled that night was a little like his experience. You can't necessarily pray for the storm or icy ocean to disappear, but you can pray for the guidance to get you through and overcome the fear.
I thought a lot about some of my favorite hymns, including one that says:
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid;
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed? Christian Science Hymnal, No. 148 .
There were definitely times I could have been pretty dismayed, but I just tried to stick to that idea—that God was there with me, and that I could trust in His guidance and protection.
It was definitely the hardest night of my life—bar none. And I didn't get much sleep, because I was praying the whole time. But we came through it without a single bit of frostbite on me or the dogs. And that was really phenomenal.
What were you doing at this point, Linda? Did you know what was happening with Lachlan?
Linda: No. I was in Nome, at the finish. All I knew was that Lachlan was in between checkpoints for a very long time. And I couldn't be sure that he hadn't made it to the checkpoint yet, because sometimes they make mistakes and don't check people in. But I spent a lot of time praying, working with the idea that God is All-in-all. To me, that means everything. It encompasses everything and everyone, including Lachlan and the dogs. So I just knew that they were with God, and that meant they had to be well, whatever was going on.
Some people might find these kinds of challenges a bit daunting. They might wonder why you would you sign up for something like this.
Lachlan: Well, I really love competitive sports. And I enjoy working with animals. In dog sled racing, you have something very much like a coach and player relationship, where you get to know the dogs' personalities and strengths. A working relationship with an animal is much deeper than a pet. You're asking animals to do something very special. And if you respect them, they'll give their all for you.
Plus, the way I see it, everybody faces challenges in their life. The point is not to try to be spared those challenges, but to see them, like Mrs. Eddy says, as "proofs of God's care." Science and Health, p. 66. Sometimes you would never be able to appreciate the extent of that care unless you had the trial to show it to you. So for me, the trick is not be so concerned with being taken out of the storm, but seeing that, even through the storm, God is right there taking care of me.
In a lot of ways, the Iditarod was basically a prayer-fest for me. It was more than just a journey through Alaska. It was a spiritual journey through Alaska with God. What I found, though, is what I've found through all of my experiences—I just keep trusting in God's care and protection, His wisdom and guidance. And it's never failed. When I've appealed to it correctly, Christian Science has never failed to see me through.